“And I trust you know of the ironworks incident? You wouldn’t remember it, of course. It was before your time, if only barely.”
“Of course. People still talk about it, especially at school. Several of my friends … they have to walk past that place every day. Sometimes at night!” He shivered; the ironworks was a local legend in Dolesham. One of the first large industrial buildings completed in town, before the town even had a name, it had had a proud but very short-lived history serving the fledgling community by smelting the ores that the early miners of the community brought out of their tunnels.
What most residents of the town didn’t know, and what Archerd was sworn never to talk about, was that the ironworks had had a secret purpose. Altman had used it as a cover to process electrite, the rare mineral to which the town owed its very existence. The electrite facility had been very small, tucked away in the basement of the large structure, accessed by only a very few trusted inpiduals, but it was there that the trouble had begun.
“Is it true what they say, Father?”
Altman’s face was grave. “They say a great many things, Archerd. Some of those things are true, others are exaggerations, still more are either entirely in error, or are outright lies.”
“They say the ironworks is …” he gulped, face serious. “They say it’s haunted. They say if you go there late at night there are the sounds of people still working there, and unearthly lights that move.”
“I have heard these stories too.”
“You don’t believe them?”
Altman settled back in his chair and shivered despite the heat from the now cheerful blaze. “It certainly is the right sort of night for a tale such as this one. You would hear it?”
“Yes!” Archerd sat forward eagerly, shivering a little himself.
“Well then, I suppose you’re old enough to hear it. But not a word to your sisters, not until they’re older.
“Fifteen years or so ago, it was a cold autumn, much as this one is. It was darker though. We had storms that year like you’ve never seen, and people to care for. The town wasn’t so much a town back then, but we had miners and construction men, and traders and farmers and medics. The farmers we didn’t have to worry about so much. They mostly lived off in their own homes by their fields.
“The miners though, and construction laborers, they were another matter. Most of them were in temporary shelters, good enough in the summer, or the milder days of autumn. But those storms, and that cold! We put as many of them up in our home as we could fit, but word was getting out even then that we were prosperous and there was good mining to be done. People were arriving and bringing families. We couldn’t house and feed everyone.”
“The head of the construction teams — you know old Waldon Sias, I believe—” and Archerd nodded, “he did his best to accommodate everyone. His crews worked all day every day and into the nights to make sure everyone had some place warm to escape the coming cold and to sleep. And they were able to do it. Every family, every crewman, every miner, every fortune-seeker, every woman and child had a place to stay, if not call their own.”
Altman frowned and rose to his feet with a mild grunt of exertion. “I’m sorry son, I need to wet my throat if I’m to tell this tale.” He left and returned shortly with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“Not a word to your mother, now. Not that she’d mind, you understand, but … I do have stern and responsible reputation to uphold.” He poured himself a generous glass and Archerd a half-glass.
Archerd sipped the red, sweet light liquid and managed not to cough as it hit his throat. “Careful son, most wine isn’t so strong, but the vintners here can produce some powerful stuff. Take it slow.”
“Now then, that’s better,” he said with a sigh. “Yes, old Waldon was able to house everyone we couldn’t take in. But nothing comes without a price — and don’t you ever believe anyone who tells you otherwise. Waldon’s teams were too busy working on housing, a task of the highest importance and most dire necessity, but that meant they couldn’t spend their time on finishing other things. Things such as the ironworks.”
“But I thought the ironworks was complete?” Archerd felt a pleasant warmth from the wine, and found himself being drawn into the story.
“The initial construction was, yes, but that was just the most critical parts to get the foundry functional since we had started attracting so many miners. Suffice to say the ironworks grew, but through no fault of Waldon’s, it was perhaps a bit more rushed than it should have been.
“That had been in the spring of that year, and it operated well all through the summer. As autumn’s chill crept into the air, all that began to change. The men who labored at the ironworks soon began to complain of strange sounds, much as you described.
“At first nobody paid it any mind. But one day …” The elder Dolet paused and drank from his glass, eyes lingering in the depths of the ruby wine. “It became a bigger matter the day they found Jeck.” He drank again, eyes faintly haunted.
“Jeck was one of the foundry men, and indeed one of the first who had claimed to hear the unearthly noises, as he called them. They found him that day still at his station, first thing when the ironworks was opened up, as if he’d never left. Only thing was, they found him missing his head.”
Archerd’s eyes widened and his breath caught mid-sip. He’d heard of Jeck, everyone had, but the stories were so muddled it was all rumor and legend.
“Of course this was terrible, the more so as back then we had no constabulary to turn to, no inspectors to investigate, no guardsmen to call. All of that was to soon change, but for the moment, we’d had only ourselves. We sent messengers to summon the inspector and guards from Holdswaine but they’d be at least two weeks to call away for such an isolated incident in a fly-speck of a … You couldn’t even call it a town back then, not really. It was still more of a camp.”
“So there was Jeck, headless, and they couldn’t make heads nor tails of it, if you’ll pardon the expression, son.” Archerd blanched and gulped.
“I heard about it quickly, within the hour if I recall correctly. News traveled fast around town in those days, and Waldon made sure to get the word to me. We’d been in a spot of trouble before, he and I; I’m sure I’ve told you the tale already.
“They brought me in to make of it what I could, but for all my education, I am now and was then a man of science, not an inspector. I like to think I made a fair attempt, as the fundamentals of an investigation are remarkably similar, be they in a lab or a crime scene, but a true inspector is trained in many ways to know what sorts of things to look for, and I lack such training to this day.”
“I will spare you the worst details, but he was found in the middle of the floor, in a large clear area with no obvious equipment that might have moved or shifted and caused him injury. Of his head there was no sign, and indeed to this day we have never located it.
“What was located was the murder weapon — for yes, we did later learn it was an ugly circumstance of money owed that had done him in — and the circumstances of that discovery were worse even than that of Jeck himself.”