The Price of Demand (Fifth Draft)

THE PRICE OF DEMAND

 by Gordon S. McLeod

 

“Oi, Sias, here we are!”

The tower rose to an imposing fifteen meters. Workmen climbed up and down a solid interior staircase or being raised on crude lifts hoisted by the power of their fellows at the top.

The grizzled foreman stood at the base of the tower, huge hands wrenching a gear that wound a rope, raising several of the men in his team higher to the unfinished portion of the tower’s top level. Youngish eyes, prematurely hardened, kept a hawkish watch over the site.

Waldon Sias turned to the younger workman who’d called out. “I want that southern wall built up by mid-day. You’ll double-time it today, and if I catch you sluggards lazing around you’ll wish you were in the army, I’ll come down on you so hard!”

“Good morning, Sias. Your men are making good progress.” The young man was no woodsman or tracker moving about silently, but was lightly built and tread softly. Maybe twenty one years of age at most, he had come into some money in the recent past and had been eager to put it to use.

“Altman Dolet, a good morning t’yeh as well, sir. Aye. They’ll ‘ave the rest of ‘er up by sunset, you can be sure of that.”

Altman nodded to the older man, and pulled a pair of large leather and brass goggles down over his eyes. He stood still and silent, head canted up to inspect the work.

“I’m glad to hear of it. I’ll need you to begin working on the foundry in three days’ time, and we still have the market—”

Waldon’s eyes snapped from him to the tower’s top, where a too-tall stack of stone blocks were teetering. As the two men below watched, stunned, a workman taking several of the blocks stumbled and fell into the stack. Down, down they all came, landing in a mangled heap not three meters from where they stood. Altman stood stock still, a stricken look on his pale face.

Waldon’s bellow rang out, “Oh— Medic! Man down, north-east tower! MEDIC!”

Uneasy murmuring broke out as workmen rushed to the scene. The fallen man lay in a broken pile, but his chest rose and fell. His arm pumped blood from not one, but three compound fractures.

The foreman stepped back to clear the way for the arriving medics, men and women in long, soft leather robes. The lead medic took one look at him and gestured her assistants forward with a stretcher, then stepped in to help them clear stone blocks from the man. Waldon’s face grew ashen as they worked to free him, and a hand dipped into his pocket.

Waldon pulled a four-leafed clover from his pocket and slowly walked to the blood-spattered pile of bricks. He glanced at Altman; he knew the young scientist didn’t care for silly superstitions, but they’d served Sias well. He carefully placed the clover on the spot and backed away. “Of all the rotten, stinkin’ luck …”

Altman visibly shook himself back into action. “The medics will be here in moments, Sias. I’ll look into the accident if you could assist them when they arrive?”

“As sure as rain I will, Mr. Dolet. A’right men, back to it! And don’t let me catch any ‘o you bein’ as careless as Claver there! If he thinks a rest in the medics’ tent’s gonna save his sorry hide for long, he’s got a long, hard lesson ahead! You, get tha’ …”

 

<>

 

Altman sat at his desk, head in his hands, poring over village development details. He had only just returned from a discouraging trip to Holdswaine when the accident occurred, and the double-blow had him on edge.

“Ridiculous! The whole concept of luck is superstitious nonsense.”

“Now dearest, who said anythin’ about luck?” His wife Kaylene, unnoticed in her entry, sat on the beautiful overstuffed armchair that he kept in the writing room for guests.

He smiled wanly. “The men are afraid something sinister is afoot. Even Waldon is starting to lose his nerve. After the trip to Holdswaine, I could almost start wondering, myself. I got the funds we need, but it cost me more of the electrite samples than I’d have preferred, I’m afraid. And what’s worse, the story of that first accident was the talk of the city.”

“Surely you can’t mean—Mr. Mitchell wouldn’t—”

“Deny us workers because one of the men was kicked by a horse? No, but if you’d seen his face when I talked to him … He’s never liked me, or our founding of this village.”

“Well of course he doesn’t like you. You studied with the Conclave, and then turned your back on ‘em to come out here. You can bet a good part of Mr. Mitchell’s pay comes out of their coffers. Controllin’ information and learning is what the Conclave does; it’s as sure as the sun’ll rise tomorrow that they won’t have forgotten, or forgiven, you.” She paused, indignation clouding her features. “There’s people there need work, Altman, he can’t be denyin’ ‘em that.”

Altman sighed, gaze fixed upon the desk top in front of him. “He can, if he can declare the area unsafe, and he doesn’t seem to need much provocation to do it. I expected problems with Mr. Mitchell. It’s the electrite that truly bothers me, though. I sold too much of it. I’ll have to cut down for some months, lest someone begin to wonder where I get it from in such quantities.”

Kaylene smiled at him. “That’ll work out fine. If you sold a bit extra, I’d think we must ‘ave enough to build the road out to the Holdswaine highway?”

Altman nodded with more enthusiasm in his face. “Yes, the road and the market both. If there’s one silver lining to the spreading of the news about this place, it’s that people know there are men working the area, and merchants of all sorts will know that means there’s profit to be had here.”

Her face grew thoughtful. “If we get a crew in to build the road now, the travel and trade it brings in’ll certainly help to lift the men’s spirits, but what if someone spots the electrite deposits? Sellin’ too openly isn’t the only way someone could learn ‘o them, ‘specially with all the people ‘ere now.”

“I know, my love. But that’s where electrite’s scarcity aids us. To the uneducated eye, the signs of its presence are all but invisible, especially with our precautions. It’s a difficult position, but we must work with what we have; if we bring men in to build the village, we risk discovery, but we need the protection of numbers to let us hide in plain sight. We have no choice; we must bring men in to work.”

Kaylene nodded. “And we’ll ‘ave to hope that buildin’ the village is truly what they’re here to do.”

Altman’s expression was grave. “Yes. Yes indeed.” He returned his attention to the papers in front of him, resolve in his eyes as he sought an answer to their problems. Kaylene watched for a time, half lost in her own thoughts. Her brow creased as a thought struck her.

“Why d’you think Mitchell has it in for us? We pay dear enough for ‘is union’s services. You’d think the man’d be the least bit grateful.”

Altman continued writing while his wife’s question sunk in. He paused, finger held still above the paper he’d been reading, holding his place. He stared off into the distance for a moment before speaking. “Unless he has some personal stake in hindering us.”

Kaylene’s eyes narrowed. “The Conclave?”

He nodded slowly. “Perhaps. They certainly haven’t been happy with me since I settled here instead of working for them.” He’d done his studies at the Conclave’s Academy with the expectation that he, a top student of his year, would move on to work at the organization’s laboratories. That had been his original plan until life offered him another path.

Kaylene’s heart-shaped face hardened into a frown. “And if the Conclave finds out about the electrite we’re hidin’ here, they’ll waste no time tryin’ to take it out right from under us.”

“Chances are that they’ll learn of it eventually, but we can delay that for a very long time, if we play this right.” He set the papers back down on the desk and met her gaze. “For now, we’ve done all we can on our own to protect it; the deposits we know of are all well-disguised with run down, ‘abandoned’ buildings. The work crews don’t get too close to them. Nobody should so much as spare the area a glance.”

Her mouth quirked in a sardonic smile. “With the luck we’ve had here lately, it’s just a matter of time before someone finds it.”

Altman slumped his shoulders and rolled his eyes. “Not you too!” The tired smile playing at his lips kept the words from seeming harsh.

The smile vanished from Kaylene’s face. “You may not believe in luck, husband,” she said with a serious tone, “but you can bet the men do, an’ I wish you’d learn to understand that. If luck is playin’ a part in our lives, it’s bound to run out at some point. An’ even if it’s not involved, they’ll go an’ get spooked about the place if accidents like this keep happenin’.”

Altman held her gaze but said nothing; she was right, and he knew it.

 

<>

 

Altman and Kaylene entered the medical wing of their house. It was in fact a set of bedrooms, but it was the only place suited for the care of the injured and sick in the small place, so they’d lent the space to the medics they’d brought in.

“Medic Cranford. How’s Claver doing?” Kaylene’s voice was concerned, but betrayed no anxiousness.

The stern, matronly figure looked up from her notes, grey eyes assuringly alert. “He’s in rough shape, but he’ll live. That arm, though … I’ve got the bones set, but that was a right nasty piece of work. Muscles are all torn up. If I can keep infection at bay, he’ll keep the arm. Whether it’ll work right again after, well it’s just too early to say.”

“Can we see him?” Altman’s voice was a bit gruff; he couldn’t help feeling a guilty pang. It’d been many hours since the accident and his only thoughts of it so far had been of how it impacted him and his plans. When had he become so cold?

“Only for a few moments. I ‘ave him on the poppiate. He’ll be out till afternoon tomorrow, if not later. I’ll let ‘im know you came by though; I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

They stopped by Claver’s bedside. He was pale, but his chest rose and fell evenly and deeply. They sat a few minutes. As they left the wing, Altman cast his wife a significant glance. “I hope our luck turns soon.”

She smiled in return and put a hand on his arm. “Apparently, husband, anything can happen.”

 

<>

 

Altman knelt on one knee amid the scattered stones at the scene of the accident, casting a critical eye at where each had ended up through the same pair of goggles he’d used before the accident. He’d adjusted the complex system of levers that switched out lenses to magnify what he saw. He sighed. “I wish we had a proper inspector here to investigate this.”

Waldon Sias snorted from behind him. “There’s lots of things it’d be nice t’have, but for now we just ‘ave to make do.”

“I suppose you’re right. There’s only so much I can do though. I studied the geosciences, not criminal investi— … Interesting.” He leaned in closer for a better look, flicking levers to bring the rock that had caught his attention into better focus.

“What’s interesting?” Sias sounded anything but interested; his voice carried the forced patience of a man who had a thousand other things that needed doing, but who needed answers more.

“These stone bricks. They bear the characteristic marks of stone cutting, just as one would expect, as well as the signs of the fall off the tower, but … Some of these are scratched up on one side, and look here at the pitting on this one.”

Waldon scratched his stubbled cheek. “Sounds t’me like you’re ‘xactly the sort ‘o investigator we need ‘ere. No police Inspector ever caught detail like that that I ever ‘eard of.”

Altman smiled under the goggles, but his face remained serious. “These bricks were pushed; their fall was no accident.”

“Could Claver ‘ave brought ‘em down with him when ‘e fell?”

Altman shook his head. “No, I was here at the time and saw him fall. He didn’t bring them down upon himself. Of that I’m certain.”

“Well ‘hoever did this is obviously keepin’ it quiet, or they’d have confronted us in public. What we need to do is find out what they’re up to, what they want from us. They must want SOMETHING.”

Altman nodded. “Yes. Yes indeed.” He frowned and turned his attention back to the tower before them. It should have been a reassuring sight, a beacon of safety and protection. In his mind’s eye, a shadow had fallen over it, darkened by the spectre of the oddly-marked bricks. No matter how he looked at them, they made him think sabotage, but he knew he was no trained inspector. “I’m jumping to conclusions. I should know better. I’m a little unsettled, that’s all,” he muttered to himself under his breath.

Waldon grunted. “Yer not the first I’ve heard muttering to himself today, y’aren’t. Nobody’s feelin’ right after yesterday. But the tower’s up, and on schedule.”

Altman turned to face the man again; there was little more he could learn from these bricks. “And a fine job, Sias. The men have been quick on their feet; the scaffolding’s all down already? Everything packed up and moved to the new market project site?”

Waldon straightened up a bit at the comment. “It is, aye. They didn’t want to linger by the tower more’n they had to. Can’t say as I blame ‘em. Work’s likely to progress faster now, but not for the reasons I’m lookin’ for.”

Altman grimaced wryly. “If they start getting careless, they’ll only make all this ridiculous talk of so-called ‘bad luck’ worse.”

Waldon’s face darkened a touch, and Altman belatedly remembered the clover. “Aye. Let’s be off then. I’ll show you what we’ve got for the market. The ground should be cleared for the levelin’, an’ the first temporary barracks is finished.”

 

<>

 

The next morning, Altman was barely out of the house when a shout tinged with panic stopped him in his tracks. “Mr. Dolet! Come quick, an’ bring the medics! There’s been another accident, sir!” A short distance down the path from the front entrance of the house, a lanky fellow in workman’s dress was sprinting in his direction.

Altman spun on his heel, calling back into the house. “Ms. Cranford! Bring your assistants!” Turning back to the just-arriving man, he exclaimed “Quick man, what happened?”

Medic Cranford burst out the door as the workman began. “He was workin’ on the roof, finishin’ it off when down he came, I saw it clear as day! He landed bad, shoulder’s broke, an’ his leg … like I said, it’s bad.”

Cranford scowled, though whether at the news or at her assistants, who were just leaving the house, Altman couldn’t say. “He’s lucky t’weren’t his skull. No time to waste, let’s move.”

They made haste over the rough paths to the work site. There was no big crowd gathered this time; the men continued to work, though there was a certain reluctance to them that Altman could feel over the entire area.

Waldon wasted no time when they arrived on the scene. “Medic Cranford, ‘e’s over ‘ere.”

Cranford strode forward with purpose, shooing a few onlookers away. “Let’s get ‘im looked at first, then we get ‘im back to the wing if it’s safe. Mr. Dolet, if you could stay out of the way?”

Altman nodded, though she couldn’t see it. “Of course. I need to inspect the area, and the roof he fell from.” And I need to do something, he thought, insides seething at the helpless feeling that threatened to overtake him. But despite the helpless feeling, something prickled the back of his neck as he surveyed the scene. The man had fallen while framing the roof of a new building. He’d almost finished when a large tree branch had fallen on him and knocked him off.

Waldon caught his eye. He looked like he felt as helpless as Altman did. “Somethin’ the matter? Aside from th’ obvious, I mean.”

Altman paced the area. “Yes, but I couldn’t say what precisely it is. This accident … itstrikes me as similar to the last.”

Waldon grunted skeptically. “Huh. You see more’n I do then. I spose they did both fall, though, I’ll give ya that much. You do what you need to. I’ll get the rest o’ these louts back on th’ job. You men! This ain’t no time for dawdlin’! The rest ‘o you can get back to it, and do it like I told you this time! I’ll ‘ave no more careless accidents on my watch or there’ll be hell to pay.”

Altman stared after Waldon as the other man stalked back to his duties. “See more. Yes, I think that’s what I need to do.”

Altman spent several hours at the scene of the accident, going over every stone and brick he could get his hands on, even climbing up to the almost-finished rooftop to see what the stones there might tell him. As close as he looked though, even with the greatest magnification his adjustable goggles afforded him, nothing shed any new light on the circumstances.

It was after his fruitless climb that he turned his attention to the wayward branch that had felled the latest victim. “Blast, if only I’d thought to look sooner!” The broken end of the branch was only half-broken. The other half was clearly rough-cut, probably by one of the hand saws that were in plentiful supply around the work sites.

He spent the next hour carefully inspecting the tree that the branch had been cut from even climbing that in order to inspect both sides carefully. It had been cut from the top down, and looked like it had been chosen for the unobstructed path it would have down to the roof below.

A short time later, Altman tracked Waldon down. Before he could get a word out, the other man spoke. “Dolet, I need t’talk to you. The men, they’re growin’ fearful. It’s gettin’ hard t’get ‘em workin’.”

“I wish I could blame them. I wanted to talk to you too, out of earshot of the men. Waldon, there’s no luck involved here, bad or otherwise. The branch that came down earlier was cut. Someone’s causing this intentionally.”

Waldon grunted, surprise flickering across his eyes. “Cut? Yer sure about that?”

“As certain as can be. It was cut from the top, deep enough that it was bound to fall.”

“Clumsy way to arrange an accident if y’ask me. How’d ‘e know there’d be anyone ‘round for it t’land on?”

“That had crossed my mind too,” and it had. He’d been thinking about it the whole time he’d sought Waldon out. “It could be he had somehow set it up to fall when he wanted it to. I didn’t see any sign of a line on the fallen branch, but it could have been removed.”

Waldon grimaced. “I don’ like the smell of any ‘o this, Mr. Dolet. Sabotage or no, the men’re gettin’ to be a problem. Catch ‘im quick. Y’may not buy inta th’ superstitious side o’ things but they surely do.”

They were nearing the work site again; the number of people around them increasing by the minute. “It’ll ha—”

Before he could finish, a splintering sound from above alerted him.

“Mr. Dolet!”

He whirled to see it just as Waldon crashed into him, knocking him clear of a cascade of collapsing wooden scaffold and stone brick.

Altman gagged on a thick cloud of dirt and dust raised by the crash. “I … I’m okay, it … it missed me. What in the … Where did that come from!”

“Didn’ miss by much. Damn near flattened yeh.” Waldon’s face was locked in a scowl; he turned his attention to the wreckage after ensuring Altman was alright. “Scaffolding collapsed.”

“I don’t suppose this could have been simple shoddy work?”

“Neh, all the new men’re workin’ the market site. I put some ‘o this scaffoldin’ up myself jus’ yesterday. She was solid, I’d bet m’life on it. ‘Ad ‘er tied off tight at the roof.”

Altman poked about the rubble until he came upon some of the fastenings in the jumble of broken wood and stone. “Fastened with these?” He gestured at several thick leather straps. They looked plenty secure, or would have, had they not clearly been nearly sliced through and left to break.

Waldon’s face darkened with anger “Wha’? Blast … Well I’ll be. Heads’re gonna roll over this! When I find out who—”

“No, wait. Say nothing to anyone just yet. I have an idea … Would you round up two of your most trustworthy men and meet me out where the rocks run red with iron? I think I may just be able to get to the bottom of this.”

 

<>

 

Altman set down a hammer and chisel and wiped dust the color of dried from his hands with a handkerchief and sighed in satisfaction. “That ought to about do it.” He hefted a small bag which contained more of the red powder. Waldon finished filling several more of the bags while a couple of his men pounded broken bits of red rock with sledge hammers to produce more. “We’ve enough for now I think, thank you!”

“Altman!” He turned at his name; Kaylene approached. “I ‘ave the small sacks you asked for. What are you up to? What happened t’ your hands? Is that blood?”

“Iron oxide, love. Simple rust to catch our troublemaker, if all goes well.”

She tossed him the small bags. “Whate’er you think it’s for, you’d best be washin’ it off before you touch any of my good linens or it’ll be me droppin’ stones on someone’s head, and you won’t like it one bit. And you’ve got some on your trousers, it’ll be murder to get out!”

Her words were harsh, but there was a glint in her eye. He grinned at her; she smacked him upside the head, but answered with a smile of her own.

“Ow! Yes, I’m afraid it will be hard to get out, but that’s exactly why I needed it. I’ll take care of the cleaning later myself. I have some ideas on how the iron’s magnetic properties may allow it to be removed more easily. For now, let me just go get cleaned up. I’ll be retiring early tonight to track down whoever’s behind the assaults tomorrow.”

Kaylene shook her head slowly, a look of amused wonder on her face. “Solves crimes and cleans his own clothes … no wonder I agreed to stay here with you.”

Waldon wiped his hands on his trousers and shook his head, eyeing the small pouches of red dust. “You gonna tell me what this’s all about, or do I gotta sit ‘n wonder?”

Altman looked around; the other workmen weren’t far, but were out of hearing range. “All of the ‘accidents’ so far have been types that are simple to arrange; things or people falling off of roofs or high places. I’m going to scatter this dust over all the roofs in town—thankfully we don’t have many yet. Tomorrow, if anyone else has been climbing around, they should stand out if we catch them quickly.”

He took his leave and, dust in hand, retired home to await the cover of night.

 

<>

 

Altman picked his way carefully through the darkness back to his home. He had to navigate by the light of the sliver of the moon and the stars; he’d supped and slept a while upon returning home, then rose during the small hours to set about the business of marking the high places of the new village.

His inability to see clearly forced him to move very slowly, picking his way through roughed-in roads and around worksites to the gates and front walk of the house.

The sounds of the night played tricks on his imagination. A sharp *CRACK* was definitely not his imagination though; he looked about, seeing nothing, then jerked his head up just in time to see a silhouette against the night sky above him in the branches of the tree in the front yard. Its hands were upraised, something held within. The hands and the object came down and then—

Exploding pain. He felt like his head was on fire, or melting, or both at once. For an indeterminate length of time, that was all he was aware of. Gradually a sound entered his awareness. After another while, it began to sound like a voice.

“… his head. He’ll be fine now, though it was a nasty hit and he’ll be feelin’ it for some weeks I ‘magine.”

Some innate sense of self-preservation told him that now wasn’t the time to open his eyes, but he managed to speak, haltingly. “How … how long?”

“You’ve been out fer four hours.” The voice belonged to … Medic Cranford, he thought. That sounded right “That was a nasty crack on the head. Found you myself, lyin’ sprawled out on the steps right by the door, bleedin’ something fierce an’ a big stone fallen right from the roof beside you. Turns out the cut was worse than it looked, lucky fer you. Yer head ain’t broke, but you’ll be feelin’ like it is for a while.”

Altman fought the fuzzy mass of pain-filled clouds that seemed to be his mind. “I … I have to—I set up the trail—” He couldn’t seem to work his mouth correctly, but he thought maybe the words were understandable.

“Never you mind that, you’re not t’leave this bed till I give the say-so. Whatever you think you gotta do can wait.”

Another voice spoke up then, a familiar voice that soothed his head for just a moment. “It’s a good thing you’re so hard-headed, Altman. Never thought I’d have to admit to it bein’ a good thing! We’ll have you out of here in no time.” Kaylene was there, at least.

He opened his eyes a crack, then shut them again against the most brilliantly blinding light he’d ever seen. “No! There’s no time. I was setting up to catch the man responsible for all this, and if I delay, all the evidence will wash away! I have to get after him, there’s no time to waste!” He seemed to have gotten his mouth under better control.

There was a long pause. “You can go now if you must, though I’d rather you stayed. You ain’t gonna do that though, are you.” Cranford sounded 1 part resigned, 2 parts exasperated.

He finally got his eyes open; the blinding glare subsided after a few seconds. It was still morning, thankfully, the early sun pouring through a window by his bed. “No, I’m afraid I won’t. Dearest, with your help …? I must examine whatever it was that hit me, first. Is it still where it landed?”

Kaylene came into view to stand next to Cranford. “The stone? Yes, it’s still there. What of it? I told you when we moved in that the roof was in need of repair.”

“I didn’t get a look at whoever it was that dropped the stone on me, but that shouldn’t be of any concern.”

Kaylene frowned. “But if y’didn’t see who did it, why are we rushin’ to find ‘im? How’ll you know who to look for? You should be restin’!”

“I spent some time last night spreading iron dust over all the roofs in town; I’ve never been so thankful there are so few of those! Whoever did it will be wearing the evidence on his skin and clothing for the rest of the day, and with luck, we may even catch traces of it on the ground to help narrow the search. We’ll Waldon Sias’ help, after we’ve confirmed it wasn’t Sias himself.”

Kaylene’s eyes widened. “You suspect ‘im?”

Altman shook his head; the wash of painful dizziness made him regret it immediately. “In … in all honesty, no, but we must be thorough. And we do have to talk to him regardless, if we want his to help identifying the real culprit.”

The morning was young enough for a touch of night’s chill to remain in the air as Altman, leaning on Kaylene’s arm, stepped out the gate in front of the house. “Good mornin’ Mrs. Dolet. I—by my—what’d you do to yer head, Altman!”

Altman grimaced and swayed a little on his feet. Kaylene caught his arm up more securely to steady him. “Good mornin’ Mr. Sias. My husband was feeling entirely too clever today and got himself hurt.”

Altman cleared his throat. “As though it were my own fault. I was today’s victim, Waldon. Luckily the injury’s not bad. Quickly … have you seen anyone on your crews this morning with reddish stains on hands, legs, clothing … anything? Red-brown, like rust.”

Waldon stared at the pair incredulously. “Um, Mrs. Dolet, are y’sure yer husband’s okay?”

“’E won’t be if he isn’t careful. If the culprit doesn’t get him, I may kill ‘im myself for not listenin’ to sound medical advice when ‘e’s given it. But for now we really must know, have you seen someone covered in rust?”

“Aye, I’ll take yer word for it, Mrs. Dolet. Can’t say’s I have, not today. This’d be what y’needed all that powdered iron for, then?”

Altman forced himself not to nod in affirmation. “It does; all of the ‘accidents’ have involved heavy objects falling from high places. I spent time dusting the roofs of those few buildings that have them with rust, and a good number of accessible, lower tree branches too.”

Waldon nodded slowly. “An’ then ‘oped whoever’s behind it didn’t wouldn’ ‘ave the time or inclination to wash up after.”

“A risk I had to take, and hence the rush.”

The three set off for the work grounds, the normally quick walk slowed by Altman’s pace. He kept an arm around Kaylene’s shoulder as they went; she held him with her left arm, the right sporting a short, thick-hafted staff.

As the work site came into view, Altman counted the working men off. “About a dozen I’d say. That would be about half, Waldon?”

The other man spat on the ground and nodded, eyes intent on the scene before them. “It would, yeah. Don’t see any who ought not t’be there, don’ look like none’re missin’ either.”

Altman cast his gaze over each man in turn, but it was difficult for him to focus. “I don’t see—” just then a man with stood straight, distinctive red marks covering his side where he’d wiped his hands. “Wait, there, that’s him. See the rust on the clothes?”

Kaylene shifted his weight a bit on her shoulder, readying her staff. She was getting ready to fight, he realized. “Kaylene You don’t have to strain your—”

“Shut yer mouth right there, husband. You aren’t as strong as you let on, an’ you’re dizzy on your feet. You need me when you catch this man, ‘specially if it comes to fightin’.”

“But—”

Kaylene cut him off curtly. “No buts!”

Waldon cast him a sharp look. “She’s right, Mr. Dolet. Yer in no shape t’take on a child, let alone anyone on my teams. You’d best let us ‘andle it.”

The smart thing would have been to approach him calmly, but Altman’s head was throbbing something fierce. Before he realized what he was doing, he found himself shouting to the man. “Stop!”

The man whipped around, and seeing the group headed his way and the dark looks of their faces, immediately bolted. The men around him looked on in confusion, but seeing Waldon present, decided they were best off getting back to work until told otherwise.

Kaylene bellowed in a strident tone, “Get ‘im!” This had no effect at all on the men working around them, but Waldon took off after the man. By the time he added his own shouts to the commotion, the fleeing man was almost clear of the rest of the workers.

“You men, stop ‘im!” Waldon bellowed, charging after him. Altman forced himself into as quick a run as he could manage, and was quite surprised when he managed a brisk jog that only made him a little nauseous.

“Kaylene, your staff—” The words were barely out of his mouth when Kaylene, supporting him in the jog, gripped the staff.

“We’ll stop ‘im, catch us up when you can. An’ try not to make yerself sick, runnin’ too hard!” And with that she was off.

With grim determination Altman pressed on; thankfully he didn’t have far to go. After a minute of dizzying exertion he came upon the struggling man. Waldon and one of his men had the suspect pinned to the ground, Kaylene’s staff held down across his shoulders, keeping him from moving. He smiled grimly and caught his breath. “We’ve got you! What are you playing at, causing all these accidents?”

The man struggled and thrashed. He couldn’t move; he was a rather slight man in comparison to the other workers. “What? I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

Kaylene growled, “You’re a filthy, red-handed liar!”

“That’s ridi—”

“You’ve got the evidence all over you,” Altman cut in. “I spread red iron oxide over all the roofs and high places in this town; there’s nowhere else you’d have gotten covered in it.”

He stopped struggling and turned his face to the side out of the dirt. “Look, I swear I didn’ come here jus’ to cause trouble, I was put up to it! E’s the one you want.” There was a wheedling note of desperation in his voice.

Altman frowned. “And who is ‘he?’”

The man gave one final effort to push up against the staff pinning him down and gave up. “’E’s some Mitchell bloke back in ‘ol Holdswaine, a high-up rich type with plenty ‘o influence. ‘Ad his thugs visit me after I ‘ad some … troubles … payin’ a debt. Them’s the ones set me up with this job an gave me the … er … extra instructions.”

Altman felt a sour feeling in the pit of his stomach at Mitchell’s name, and he was sure it had nothing to do with the blow to his head. With the reputation of the town ruined, Mitchell would have no problem denying them the manpower to build. The workers themselves might demand that they not be sent to help. That would make Mitchell’s Conclave friends very happy. “That’s a tough position you found yourself in,” he said finally.

The man was shrewd enough to sense the change in Altman’s attitude towards him. “You’re tellin’ me! I carried th’ bruises for days after that, an’ I didn’t even give ‘em any trouble. Them’s bad sorts.”

“What’s your name, fellow?”

“Moyle, sir. Ewen Moyle.” His voice was calmer, but he definitely sounded nervous.

“Did you leave family behind in Holdswaine, Ewen Moyle? Friends?”

“Nah, just me mates at the waterin’ ‘ole, but thems that ain’t ‘ere won’t care. Uh … what’re you plannin’ on doin with me?”

Kaylene took the staff back, passing it to Altman, who leaned on it gratefully. She eyed Moyle, a considering look in her eyes. “They’ll kill ‘im, or make ‘im wish they had if we send ‘im back.”

“It’d be no better’n a death sentence,” Waldon agreed. It wasn’t clear to Altman whether Waldon thought this was a good thing or bad. He and the other workman dragged Moyle to his feet none too gently.

“You can’t send me back there! It’s like she said, I’m as good as dead if I show my face in Holdswaine!” He looked on the verge of trying to fight free again.

“No, you can’t go back to Holdswaine.” Altman paused in thought a moment. “But we can’t keep you here, either. Mitchell has too much influence over the union men. You haven’t exactly won yourself any friends here, either.”

“One o’ the northern cities?” Kaylene asked.

“The bigger the better, I think. Big enough to have its own unions, where Mitchell has no power.”

“You’ll let me go? Oh thank you sir! I won’t forget this, see if I don’t!”

“Yes … But this isn’t a free pass, Moyle. Before we escort you out, I’d be appreciative of anything you can tell me about Mitchell or his union work gangs. If he’s sent you to cause problems, he can and will send more, and I think you can help us be ready for it.”

They retreated back to the house for a long talk while Waldon spread the word about the source of the ‘bad luck.’ The story spread like wildfire; it wasn’t long before a sense of relief replaced the growing dread around the work sites.

 

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