Archerd blinked in confusion. “Worse than having your head chopped off? What could be worse than that?”
His father gave him a grim smile. “Oh, it can be worse indeed. Terrible as it is, having your head cut off is a quick way to go, but we’re getting ahead of the story — if you’ll pardon the phrase again.
“See the problem is that while we know what and who ended poor Jeck’s life, we’ve never been entirely sure what happened to him after that.”
“After? What do you mean after? Is Jeck — I mean — is he … Is it his spirit that people say they hear?” Archerd could feel himself going pale, though whether from dread or excitement, he couldn’t say. The two were very mixed up together inside him.
“There are many who believe exactly that. There is, however, no conclusive evidence to support the idea, while there is much circumstantial evidence.
“Did you know I found most of that evidence?”
Archerd blinked. “No. I knew you were involved, but not more than that. Was mom there too?”
Altman chuckled. “Your mom was in no fit state to be involved, though she nearly had fits that she couldn’t be part of it. No, she was far too big, carrying you around as she was! I had only myself to rely on, I’m afraid. The investigation was a tough one. I had to work alone. Nobody else wanted anything to do with it; they were too spooked by the circumstances of Jeck’s death and the strange events afterward.
“As I said, Jeck had owed money to a bad character. A new community in unsettled, un-policed land holds a certain appeal to those with a, shall we say, checkered past, and this place, as nice as it can be, was and is no exception.
“They had gotten into a fight … a disagreement over the results of a bet. Colum Heely was the worst of a bad lot of thugs in these parts back then. I see the name doesn’t mean much to you, and it’s just as well; his sort is best forgotten. I’m sad to say that I won’t forget it any time soon though. What happened to that man … that should never happen to anyone, and that’s a fact.
“I don’t know the specific details; I can’t imagine anybody does. Those were between Jeck and Colum, and they’re not talking. What I do know is that just over a week after Jeck died, Colum turned up dead too, and there were things about it … sorry, son.” He cleared his throat, and his face had gone gray, eyes hollow.
“It was straight out of a book of mystery fiction, a classic locked-room puzzle. He was in a housing dormitory, a tiny shack the workmen used. It was a single room, locked and latched from the inside, without a window or other exit. There was a chimney for the fire, but it was too narrow for even a child to descend.
“Colum was inside. His nearest neighbors, 3 of them, all independently claimed they heard Colum arguing loudly with someone else. He sounded terribly afraid, they said, and that was something in itself, for Colum was a big man, the sort nobody wanted to trifle with, and not much given to fear.
“As to the identity of the other, every one of them swore the voice was Jeck’s! I tried to reason with them, one had even seen the body himself, but they were all certain it was him, though none could make out any of the words either had been saying.
“They all agreed on the particulars of the exchange, as well. It went on for no more than 5 minutes, and ended with Colum shouting, and finally a loud, terrible scream.” He stopped there and drank again; his color was still all wrong, and his knuckles were white such that Archerd feared for a moment his father might crush the glass in his hand.
“I arrived within a quarter of an hour, by which time Colum’s room had long gone silent. I had this pocket watch even then,” he pulled a familiar, beautiful brass watch out by a chain, “so I was able to verify the time.” He popped the watch open and gazed at the face for a moment. “Half past ten. Just as it was that night.” The firelight danced across his face with the shadows, giving him an almost otherworldly air, and he closed the watch with a metallic snap, dropping it back into a pocket.
“It took some time for us to get into Colum’s room. As I said, it was locked from the inside like a sealed room mystery, and that is indeed exactly what we faced. Once we did get in … I am afraid, my son, the sight nearly unmanned me completely. Jeck … he’d lost his head. Colum lost a lot more than that. The remains were …” The gray of his pallor started to take on a distinctly greenish tint. “It took us another quarter-hour to account for every piece of him. When Jeck lost his head, it was clear he’d been met with a blade, but Colum, he had been … torn. Even chewed in places.” He stared blankly at the fire; Archerd could almost have thought his father had forgotten he was there.
“There was blood everywhere, and worse. The thing that stood out through all that though was a black mark on the wall above the stove. The wall was charring … not charred, but still charring. There was a lump of metal on the stove right by the wall. It looked like it had been flung and landed on the cast-iron. Close enough to the wall to scorch, but not to burn.
“We found more like it in the room, smaller bits that charred the wood they landed on without causing flame. I must confess that after I escaped that foul abattoir, I was sick. Not just physically sick, but sick to the spirit, as well. I found myself entertaining thoughts that were wholly unscientific, but that molten metal had also given me a valuable starting place, illogical as the entire scene had been; Jeck had worked at the ironworks, of course. And at that time, there was only one place you could have expected to find metal in that condition.”