Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 14: At the Burning Dog
When Jeremiah Farnsworth ran out of the store to go to his sister’s assistance, Abigail Lane confronted the dilemma of her role. She was Rebecca’s partner, and felt she should go to her assistance as well. Yet that would expose her identity, and ruin any hopes of having their adversary (if there was just one) reveal himself unwittingly to Abigail.
However, a partnership isn’t very useful if one of the partners gets killed. Abigail ran out of the store behind Jeremiah. She watched the proceedings in front of the parsonage until the parson and Rebecca headed into the church. And then she went back to work, and hoped she could cover up her absence.
The Office of Occult Affairs had an ethical code which magicians were required to accept before they could serve. Abigail took great pride in that code. She had helped draw it up. One of its rules was that Office magicians would use magic on innocent people only as a last resort.
Hence it hurt Abigail’s professional honor when she had to use magic to make two of her colleagues forget that she had gone off after Jeremiah and been away from her job. She had been able to talk three other clerks into thinking she had been elsewhere in the store, but those two colleagues had seen her leave, and Abigail knew they would talk about it. She could not have people looking into her actions. Feeling guilty, she used her magical powers on them.
Abigail’s feelings of guilt lessened as she left work and headed to the Burning Dog Lodging House for her dinner and bed. She had quickly learned to hate the Burning Dog, and regarded her residence there as a burden to which she had agreed, but to which she was not reconciled.
The Burning Dog was a great ramshackle structure of wood and brick in a depressingly poor neighborhood of town. It was five stories tall and in need of a paint job and some repairs. Inside it had thin walls between rooms, ceilings and floors that did not muffle sounds from adjacent floors, and narrow staircases that forced an intimate acquaintance on people passing in opposite directions.
Dinner was served when the mill shift ended. The workers were standing twelve-hour shifts, hence the meals were served at quarter after seven, both in the morning and evening. Abigail got out of work at six, so she had an hour to sit in her fourth floor room and update her journal. Her roommate, Libby Shaney, worked in the mill and would head straight to the dining hall when she got off work.
Abigail finished writing up her notes, and put away the journal. The Burning Dog provided a personal dresser for each guest in a room. Abigail suspected that the staff rifled the dresser drawers, and used magic to seal her top drawer where she kept her journal, despite misgivings about revealing her identity. She did not want anyone reading her journal, as it revealed even more about her. That done, she headed downstairs to dinner.
Dinner at the Burning Dog was a dismal affair. Abigail had paid the price for the “better” board, so got meat with her meal. What kind of meat it was, she could not say. Given its charred appearance and taste, she wondered if the lodging house had been named after it. The residents sat by their status, old mill hands at the eastern tables, transients and prostitutes at the western tables, and the small group of clerks and other more reputable people, including Abigail, wedged in-between. Her fellow clerks kept up a stream of gossip about town affairs, to which Abigail listened assiduously, and prideful reflections on how they were both better off and better than the mill hands, which Abigail did her best to ignore.
Abigail wanted to like her fellow clerks, but she could not. Their pride annoyed her. Here they were barely making a living themselves, but because they spent more of their money on clothes than drink, they held themselves out as so superior to the mill hands.
The thought made her glance over to the old mill hands. Now Abigail had very little pity in her nature. She had been on the receiving end of so much bad pity, pity meant to demean its object, that she had long ago barricaded her nature against the emotion. Yet she looked over at the mill workers and felt pity. They looked so worn and tired. Twelve hours of deadening, repetitive labor for starvation wages, and their natures were becoming as dead as their work. Abigail knew that alcoholism and addiction to opium and laudanum were rife among them. Her roommate, Libby, took a large dose of laudanum every evening after dinner. Between poor food and the lack of appetite caused by the drug, Libby was getting thinner and hollow-eyed. And, Abigail could see, so were some of the mill hands.
At least, Abigail thought to herself, I have got used to the smell. Abigail was used to living among civilized people, people who bathed at least once a week. There were no bathtubs in the Burning Dog. If its denizens wanted to bathe, they could walk over to the river. Naturally, few women would bathe in such a public place. But the men clearly felt no need to do so either. Washing their faces in a basin seemed to be the limit to their cleanliness, and that limit was not always reached.
To top off her discomforts, she had a roommate. Abigail would have vastly preferred to have a room to herself. But when the desk clerk quoted the price of a single room to her, she realized it would be out of reach to any clerk, let alone a mill worker. So she had settled for a vacant bed in a two-person room already occupied by Libby. It was not until she had gone wandering about the place in the middle of night back on Monday that she had realized just what the “single rooms” really were: cribs for prostitutes.
All in all, her stay at the Burning Dog was not proving to be very useful in tracking down the postmaster’s killer, or what had happened to the missing mill workers. No one at the Burning Dog was a magician, nor under a magician’s spell. Abigail’s attempts to steer conversation toward the missing mill workers produced little more than acknowledgments that quite a few more than usual had disappeared without notice, invariably followed by the observation that mill workers were always leaving. Abigail knew from experience that this was true, and was increasingly inclined to believe there was no connection between the missing mill hands and the death of the postmaster.
She lingered after dinner to chat with her fellow clerks, as had become her habit. They were full of gossip on the arrival of the town’s witch and the crowd that had tried to kill her. Abigail had a private laugh to herself when one of the clerks asserted that Jeremiah Farnsworth had to be a witch, too, because “look how wealthy he is!” She would have to mention that to him tomorrow. He would no doubt find it amusing.
In a barely cheerful mood, Abigail headed upstairs to her room. She hadn’t seen Libby at dinner, but that was not unusual. No doubt the girl was taking another dose of her favorite patent medicine before settling down to repair her clothing.
To Abigail’s surprise, the room was in darkness when she went in. Libby clearly had not returned. Abigail left the door opened as she walked over to the bureau to light a candle.
She heard footsteps behind her. Something with a bit of magic entered the room. Then the door closed. The room became completely dark.
Abigail was a professional. Without a moment’s hesitation, she bent her knees, shifted left, and turned to face whoever was in the room. It saved her life. There was a swish, and Abigail felt a sharp pain in her shoulder. Whoever was in the room with her had a knife, and was willing to use it. Abigail drew on her weapon: magic. “Stop!” she yelled.
Once she was certain the other person had stopped, Abigail groped her way over to the bureau, found a match, and lit a candle. The first thing she did was look at her shoulder. The fabric of her blouse had been torn and her shoulder had been cut and was bleeding freely, but it was a shallow cut. Whoever her assailant was, he had slashed at her, not stabbed her. Abigail had suffered worse. She paid it no further attention for the moment, but picked up the candle and turned to confront her antagonist.
It was a strange sight that greeted her. Standing like a statue, poised to take another swing with the knife, was her roommate, Libby Shaney. Abigail had expected to see an expression of rage or determination on the face of her assailant, but Libby’s face was completely blank, as if she had no feelings about what she was doing.
There was something not quite right about how still and lifeless Libby looked. Abigail stared at her, and then went over and felt her pulse. She had none. Libby Shaney was dead.
Abigail had felt magic when Libby had entered the room and closed the door. It was therefore probable that Libby had been spelled to attack Abigail. And apparently the spell had been designed to kill her if she failed, so she could not be interrogated. Which meant in all likelihood that the murderous magician knew who Abigail was, and had decided to eliminate her. Abigail had to leave the Burning Dog, lest it become a death trap for her.
All this Abigail realized in an instant. She quickly collected her meager possessions, dodging around Libby’s dead but standing body. Pausing only for an instant to make sure there was no one just outside her room, she opened the door and stepped into the deserted hallway.
Which way to go? There was a manned desk at the front, and the other ground floor entrances were either watched or locked at this hour. (So many of the mill hands owed money to local businesses that several bill collectors were always hanging around just inside the entrances, looking for their debtors.) Abigail considered going to the roof, and casting a spell to let her fly away, but decided that would take too much time. There was a window at the end of the hallway and it was open. She walked down to it and looked out. It opened up to the street, so it was wide open. Bad if she wanted to escape undetected, good if she didn’t want to be ambushed. Safety won. Abigail climbed into the window, tried to arrange a spell to cushion her fall, and jumped from the fourth floor.
She landed harder than she expected, though not so hard as the law of gravity would have dictated, and fell down onto her hands and knees. When she tried to get up, she found she had hurt her left knee and right wrist. She got up, fell over again when she tried to pick up her bag, and finally managed to get up again with her bag tucked under her right arm. One step, and she realized she wasn’t going to be running away, or even walking steadily. She began limping away from the Burning Dog.
It wasn’t until she was three blocks away and around a corner, certain no one was following her, that she allowed herself to lean up against the side of a building and catch her breath. Her shoulder stung and ached where it had been cut, her wrist felt as if it had been burned, her knee was giving her a sharp pain with every step, and she was covered in sweat. Then a thought occurred to her, and caused her to burst out laughing. “If only I had Rebecca’s walking stick!” she said to herself.
She heard a cry. “Murder! Murder!” It was coming from the direction of the Burning Dog. Abigail bestirred herself, and started walking again. Somebody must have found Libby, she thought to herself. And they’ll wonder why she’s still standing, and where her roommate is, and there will be a hunt for Fanny O’Rourke. Abigail was an expert in self-reproach, and would have castigated herself unmercifully for leaving behind such a mess, but she hadn’t the time. She had to find a safe place to hide until she could cease to be Fanny O’Rourke and become Abigail Lane again.
She had only traveled another two blocks, keeping to the shadows as people ran by heading to the cry of “murder,” when she felt some magic nearby. Someone was coming from the direction of the Burning Dog, someone with some magic, and whoever he was, he was catching up to her quickly. Abigail could barely walk on her hurt knee, but she must have set a land speed record for someone limping as she raced toward the next cross street. If she could only reach the corner, she could turn and surprise her pursuer. She pushed herself as hard as she could.
And then a hand fell on her hurt shoulder. The pain caused Abigail to misstep and lose her balance. With a cry she fell and slammed into the sidewalk.
End of chapter fourteen