A Bandit Accountant
Chapter Full Hand
Scene One: Arrested Developments
“The captain told us not to arrest the card players,” said the guard behind the front desk. He picked his nose and wiped his finger on his pants. His sandy hair hung like a damp, dirty mop from the brim of his domed helmet. “You're going to get in trouble.”
“Aha,” said the one who had arrested Denario. He leaned close and chuckled in a conspiratorial way. “But that's where I've got it beat, Willi. I didn't arrest this one for playing cards. I arrested him for not playing.”
“I don't think you can arrest them for not playing.” Willi shifted in his chair. He glowered at Denario like it was all his fault for getting caught. “That's not against a law.”
Denario stood with his wrists tied behind his back by a loop of rope. Until now, he'd assumed he'd been arrested for murder. Apparently, that wasn't the case. Maybe things weren't so bad.
The front office of the guard house was frigid even in the middle of the day. Nevertheless, the police in their chain mail didn't seem to notice. They took their dank surroundings for granted. The walls were built of stone that was so ugly, someone had invited in a plasterer to hide the worst of it. Unfortunately, as Denario could see at at glance through the back office door, no one had covered the walls of the rooms or the cells beyond. Prisoners couldn't expect such pleasantries.
“There has to be a charge, Douglas,” insisted Willi.
“A charge. A reason to keep him in jail.”
“The reason you're to keep him is because I done brought him in.” Douglas was a huge, fat man, the kind that scared Denario by being in the vicinity. He hadn't shaved in days and he had a fresh scar on his left cheek like he'd almost killed himself trying to look nice for his job. He sweated even in the cool air. A drip of perspiration hung at the end of his double chin. It wobbled as he spoke.
Douglas the police officer smelled like a cheese going bad. Denario coughed as he tried not to breath in the stench.
“Yes, you brought him.” Behind the desk, Willi nodded. “I'll keep him. But Douglas, we're supposed to write down a charge in the log book. Remember? The captain explained it last week.”
Will leaned his arms on the front desk, which was a tiny slab of ash wood, yellowed with lacquer and age. Its legs didn't match and it wasn't big enough to provide comfort for the officer on desk duty. He had to hunker around the desk as he scribbled, boots to either side and hands tucked close together to steady the parchment.
The quill looked old and tatty, too, as if it had been pulled from a goose ten years ago. Denario sneaked an upside-down look at the top parchment. He saw large, childish letters readable amongst the ink spatters.
“It was just last week,” Willi continued. He leaned closer, hands clasped tight, teeth gritted, and whispered, “And he explained it the week before that, too, when he got us the parchment. And the month before that, just after he arrived and we had to write for him on birch paper.”
Douglas let his truncheon droop to his right shoulder as he struggled, probably, to differentiate the captain from all the other shouting figures in his life. He breathed through his mouth, which was probably his deep-in-thought expression. Denario felt he was coming to understand the Hogs-Poliez.
“Oh, yah.” A light flickered in Douglas's eyes. “The captain. The new man. Yah, right. The charge. Got to be one of them in the books now.”
“Hogsburg's got to keep up with the times, Douglas.”
“Right. Hey, yah, Willi. Put him down for same as yesterday.”
“What, this entry?” The desk man's suddenly nimble fingers flipped over the top parchment. “On your docket, someone wrote 'Resenting arrest.' I'm not sure, Douglas. The captain never mentioned that one.”
“Did the captain say we couldn't use it?”
“Nah. He hasn't looked in the scrolls since Monday.”
“That should do, then.” Douglas tapped the side of his nose. The wobbly drop of sweat fell off his chin. “See, it'll all come out close enough to right. Put him down for resenting arrest. Good charge. Everyone does it.”
At that point, the ceiling above the front office creaked. Both men looked up.
“Is he in his office again?” gasped Douglas.
“Came through the back door about half an hour ago,” said Willi. “He was all mad because Cookie Brueger tried to slip him a couple pies.”
“What's wrong with that? The baker always gives us a bit of something. That's why we keeps such a close watch on his place.”
“Well, the captain is angry that we've been taking pies.”
“Is it as bad as the free drinks? He demoted Oleg for that.”
Willi tilted his head as he considered.
“Maybe not so bad. But Fritz from the east gate just came in the back way, too. He marched straight upstairs to see the captain. Said it was important. You'd better get your prisoner in a cell and leg it back out on patrol.”
Above them, a door slammed.
“Start writing, Willi,” Douglas hissed.
Willi hunkered down. His nib scritched across the parchment. At the same time, he fumbled with something tied to his waist. He pulled up an iron ring. It held five keys on it. While trying to write, he handed it to his partner. They were going to be too late, though. Denario heard the footsteps. They creaked over to the top of the stairs.
It might not be bad luck to meet the captain of the Hogs-Poleiz, Denario thought. After all, the man had apparently arrived from somewhere else not long ago. Was it Ziegeburg? Denario hoped not. But at least the captain was a man who had clearly imposed his sense of order on the guard house. You could look at the new ledger and feel the force of his presence in those painstaking forms.
The sight of the hard, leather boots on the stairway made the two guards stand to attention. Even Denario responded. He recognized riding boots. That marked a man as nobility or close to it.
The captain's face appeared in the gap between stair rail and ceiling. Denario revised his opinion of the man's lineage. His face wasn't unpleasant but it had seen a lot of sun. There was a bristly mustache and a dark head of hair with a few strands of grey. The captain looked to be a well-weathered thirty. The youthful energy of his body kept Denario from guessing any older. His sinewy forearms were covered with scars. There were no marks on his face. Whatever fighting he'd seen, he'd come out well on top.
His gaze was altogether too keen.
For a moment, he didn't speak. A smaller man trailed after him on the stairs and it wasn't until they'd reached the ground floor that the captain made a decision. He stepped between the desk and Denario. His hands went to his hips.
“Is this one of them, Fritz?” he asked as he stared straight at Denario.
The rusty, short fellow behind him had to bounce on his toes to see over the captain's shoulder.
“Yep,” he answered on the second bounce. “That's one.”
“Okay, lock him up.”
“Hey!” Denario's sense of outrage overcame his sense of fear. He'd thought the captain would be a better man than his employees.
“What was he doing, Willi?” The captain leaned down to the table while, at the same time, giving Denario the evil eye.
“Card game,” said Willi.
“What? Who did that?” The captain's gaze flickered between the desk and the guard at the door, Douglas.
The fat man had gone so still as to almost become invisible but he couldn't quite pull it off. It wouldn't have helped anyway. The captain might be new in town but he understood his men well enough.
“By all the gods, Douglas,” he cried. “I told you all never to break up the card game! That's the one good rule your old captain had. We get more information out of that game than any stakeout we run.”
“But I didn't!” The guard looked around wildly. He noticed Denario between him and his boss. He pointed. “It was him!”
“Him?” The captain look said that he didn't consider Denario capable of doing anything. It almost made Denario want to jump up and confess to murder just to prove him wrong. Of course, the captain may have been planning on something like that.
“He making funny pictures in the dirt. Highly suspicious. The men stopped playing, even Dolph and Jarl. They were chanting.”
“I was teaching math lessons,” Denario volunteered. “They were memorizing.”
“Math lessons? Are you a teacher?”
“A licensed teacher?” said the man who knew how to find illegality when he needed to for arrest purposes.
“I'm not with the local guild, if that's what you mean.” Denario sighed. “But in Oggli, that's not illegal. And I didn't take any money for the lessons, if it comes to that.”
“Not even during the gambling?”
“Not during the lessons. As to the gambling, you know all about that.”
The captain turned to the desk officer.
“Did this man have any math books on him?”
“He had a pack with some tools and a book, yes,” admitted Willi. “I looked into it but you said to put it in the evidence box without touching the stuff. So I did. I can tell you, though, the cover looked like it was written in code. It's sneaky.”
Denario rolled his eyes. He couldn't help himself. But the captain understood his men well enough. His mouth flattened into a grimace of doubt. Against all odds, he might have an innocent in jail. Not that the captain would really believe that anyone was innocent.
“I'm pretty sure that's legal,” said Denario. “Captain, could you let me go?”
For a moment, the captain considered it. But an idea crossed his mind and Denario could almost see the door to his release slam closed through the man's expressions.
“You said he came through the east gate this morning, Fritz?” He turned to the guard that Denario had paid a half-pence.
“Yes, Captain Eberhardt.”
“Right then. It's off to a jail cell for you, math teacher.” He turned to his constables. “No one gets out tonight, either. Understand? Not any of the drunks, not even if their wives or mothers come to pay. No one leaves. Double up on the cell mates if you need to make them fit. Understand?”
“What's it all about, captain?” Willi relaxed. His boss wasn't angry with him so he seemed to feel that any reason for it had to be good news.
“Something funny is going on by the looks of the gate dockets. And it's not just this math teacher. Although that is pretty suspicious now that I think about it. Teaching lessons to Dolph and Jarl? Hard to believe. Casing the jail to make a break out seems more likely. I've been expecting that. But I think there's worse going on.”
“Another group of bandits?” Willi's voice dropped to a whisper.
“From two different clans, I'd swear.”
“They had different tattoos,” Fritz added.
“Those damn Raduar again!” Willi grumbled.
“I thought it was the Mundredi who caused problems.” The captain stepped back. His train of thought had been derailed by his surprise at Willi's line of reasoning. “That's what Sir Mekli told me. That's what the mayor keeps saying. It's what my informants say.”
“No, sir.” The young officer backed up a step. He twiddled his fingers nervously. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the Mundredi have been around here for hundreds of years. You only need to hike over Mount Ephart to enter their territory.”
“What they consider theirs, anyway. Baron Ankster says different.”
“Yes, sir. That's not for the likes of me to argue. But it's different over there. I've heard you call us 'bandit lands' but we're not. We have written laws and we pay our taxes. Over there, it's bandits for real. Barely any laws, none of them written, most of them dictated by their gods. I was on the other side of Ephart once as a child, sir, and believe me, all of the Mundredi tribesmen are looking for a fight. They don't have any paper or parchment, either.”
“They rob caravans that aren't armed. If you look at someone wrong and you're not part of their little group, you're a dead man. They're never heard of the counts or dukes. Most of them don't know about Baron Ankster, if it comes to that.”
“What's this Raduar stuff, then? Are they part of the Mundredi?”
“No, they're another group of bandits. They live in the valleys farther north and east of here, folks say. Never heard of them until a few years ago. Now the Raduar come around and get into fights with the Mundredi.”
“Well, we're not having a gang war here.”
“Yes, sir,” said Willi in the tone of voice that underlings have always used for superiors who are driving a cart off of a cliff while telling everyone not to panic. “How many did you say came in?”
“Only my stomach doesn't feel well, see?” The young man held his hands over his belly and suddenly he did look ill. Denario didn't doubt that fear was the cause but from Willi's color, he wasn't faking.
“How old are you, Willi?”
“Mam says seventeen, sir.”
“Oh!” The sound escaped Denario's mouth and he wanted to cover it. He ended up further tangled in the cord that the first guard had used to bind his wrists. Fortunately, everyone ignored him.
“How old were you when visited the other side of Ephart?”
“That's just the right age for the Mundredi to look bigger and scarier than they are. You were a child then, Willi. You're a man now. Look at this one.” The captain jerked his thumb at Denario. “He came in with them. He don't look so tough.”
“Ha ha,” chuckled Willi. He smiled with relief as he took Denario's measure. “That's right.”
“Now, Douglas and me are going to escort this one back to the cells. Then we're going to go for a walk together.” There was a slight undertone to his voice that made Denario glad he wasn't Douglas, at least for the moment. “You take a load off until I get back, Fritz.”
The small guard sighed with relief about the same time that Douglas groaned.
Back in the cell area, which was only four doors long, Denario was dismayed by the thickness of the walls. The place was built to withstand a siege. The cell doors were hewn, raw oak with high windows and low, narrow slots cut in them by an axe. There were iron bars in the windows so the jailers could look in. Nothing larger than a human hand could get out. The doors were hung on iron hinges. Although the iron, in places, showed rust spots, Denario's overall impression was that someone had spent money to keep the place up and the bars at full strength.
In fact, he was surprised to see that the locks had been recently installed on the cell doors. Denario had hoped they'd be as broken down as the fittings in the office. But they weren't and they were a new type, too, made in Oggli. They used both a combination dial and a key. You had to have both working in the right sequence to open the cell.
These locks had been all the rage in the counting houses of Oggli. They were said to be more secure than any of the previous constructions. Glumly, Denario suspected they were right.
The dials were part iron and part brass. They looked very professional and, in their special way, rather pretty. The handles and keyplates were both parts cast entirely in brass. Installed on the old doors, they looked a bit out of place. But a professional had done the job. There were no gaps or loose parts to fiddle at through the bars even if there was a way to reach far enough.
“Oh, I almost forgot. Douglas, take off his cord.” Captain Eberhardt covered the dial as he spun it.
Denario watched the captain as he was being untied. Eberhardt moved the dial counter-clockwise, clockwise, counter-clockwise. Denario had seen the starting position, too. That made the combination roughly 15 - 25 - 0. Odd, he thought, because that was a default combination.
They wouldn't have left the defaults on these locks, would they? Denario bit his tongue as he thought of it. Maybe he knew all of the combinations for the cells. It probably didn't make any difference. He didn't want break out. He wanted let out, which would be better. Besides, the combinations wouldn't help because he didn't have the keys.
“Okay, stranger, don't wake up Mori and Ben. They're sleeping it off.” Eberhardt swung open the door to reveal two piles of rags on the floor. Under the clothing must have been people, of course.
“Yes, sir.” Denario rubbed his wrists.
“Oh, another thing.” The captain took Denario's left arm, not too roughly, and pushed up the sleeve nearly to the shoulder. He grunted. Then he did the same to Denario's right arm.
“Can I put my sleeves back?” Denario asked.
“No tattoos.” Eberhardt shook his head. “Yes. Put the sleeves back. Maybe it was your bad luck to come in with those folks. In that case, you'll get let out tomorrow with the other poor bastards.”
“Thank you for that. Oh, my geometer tools,” Denario remembered. “And my math book. Will they be all right?”
Eberhardt growled. “My men are honest!”
Then he remembered his new situation, apparently, because he turned to Douglas with a questioning look in his eye.
“Willi's fine, sir,” Douglas pointed out. “Yah, but we just left Fritz in the same room as the evidence. That's not good.”
“Damn it!” He snarled. He gave Denario a shove into the cell and swung the door closed. “I'm going to have another talk with him, too.”
In a few more steps, they slammed closed the door to the cell row. The echo woke one of Denario's room mates for a moment. The pile of rags shifted. Then it started to snore.
Chapter Five, Scene Two