Crime of Passion

a Dragon Precinct story

by Keith R.A. DeCandido

"Be careful—the blood's everywhere."

Lieutenant Danthres Tresyllione of the Cliff's End Castle Guard saw that the young guard spoke true. Blood spattered the walls, windows, and even the ceiling of the small house. Rivulets of blood flowed across the unevenly laid wooden floor, pooling in odd places. Both she and her parnter, Lieutenant Torin ban Wyvald, had to lift their brown cloaks of rank to make sure they weren't stained. As it was, their boots were going to need a good cleaning, and Danthres wondered if she could talk Captain Osric into requisitioning a Laundry Spell—it was the only way to get the stains completely out.

All of those pools led back to the three bodies sprawled in the middle of the room: One female adult and two male children.

Danthres turned to the guard. Like Danthres and Torin, he wore the black leather armor of the Guard; unlike the lieutenants, he did not wear a cloak, since he was only a footsoldier. His armor was adorned with the symbol of Dragon Precinct, the location of this house—the middle-class section of Cliff's End. "What've we got?"

"Woman's named Tybet Nerban, the boys are her two sons, Leestan and Bykir. She's married to Cebru Nerban—he's the boys' father, and the one who called this in. Says he came home from his morning run and found them like this. I've got him back in the pantry. There's no sign of forced entry, and nothing's been stolen."

While the guard spoke, Danthres took a closer look at the bodies. All three of them had been ripped to pieces—the woman's throat was almost entirely gone, and one of the boys' heads was caved in, which right there accounted for most of the blood. Nothing bleeds so spectacularly as throat and head wounds, she thought. The woman's arms were positioned in such a way that it looked like she tried to defend herself—there were some kind of claw marks on her forearms that looked like defensive wounds. Of course, why anyone would think a forearm would be of any use against something that can rip out your throat is another story.

Then again, Danthres had been investigating crimes in Cliff's End for a decade. She had yet to find a murder that made sense, especially when children were involved.

"Who d'you think was killed first?" the guard, whose name was Kellan, asked.

Danthres shot the young man a look. "Hoping to get some tips on crime-solving?" she said nastily. She had very little patience with grunts who had delusions of intelligence.

"No, ma'am," Kellan said, uncharacteristically unintimidated by Danthres's tone. He must be new, she thought. "I was just curious."

"Not that it matters much, but I'd guess the mother was killed first, since the children are on top. The children were mauled and dropped on her."

The guard winced. "I wonder what's worse—watching your kids die or watching your mother die."

Torin finally spoke. "Hope you never find out, Kellan. I believe you said the father is in the pantry?"

"Yes, sir."

"And the M.E.'s on his way?"

"He sent a mage-bird that said he'd be here in a quarter of an hour." Kellan frowned. "That was about a quarter of an hour ago, actually, and—"

"What is all this blood doing here?"

Danthres turned to see Boneen, the magical examiner, standing in the doorway, an even more peevish than normal expression on his wrinkled face.

Torin grinned as the elderly wizard entered. "Apologies, Boneen, but it seems the owners of the blood sprung a leak."

Glowering at Torin, Boneen said, "Stick with police work, ban Wyvald—you're ill suited to the role of wit." Boneen was on loan from the Brotherhood of Wizards to provide magical services for the Guard. The loan was at Lord Albin's insistence; that it was Boneen was at the Brotherhood's. Danthres was of the considered opinion that he got the job so the other members of the Brotherhood didn't have to listen to him complain.

However, he did his job of magical examiner well. His primary duty was to perform a "peel-back" spell that read the psychic resonances on inanimate objects. Generally, this meant he could reconstruct the crime, thus simplifying Danthres's job immensely.

"Let him get to work," Torin said to Kellan. "Canvas the area, see if anyone saw anything." Since this was Dragon, there was at least a chance that one of the neighbors might be civic-minded enough to report if they had witnessed something useful. If this were in the lower-class Goblin Precinct or the docklands of Mermaid Precinct, the chances of finding a cooperative witness were all but nonexistent. "We'll be in the pantry, questioning Nerban."

Danthres started toward the pantry door. "I doubt this'll take long. This looks like a straightforward crime of passion—no forced entry, no sign of any mayhem in the house except the bodies, nothing stolen. I'm willing to bet the knife he used to slice them to ribbons is still in the kitchen."

"Uh, ma'am?" Kellan said. "I don't think he did it. He doesn't really strike me as the type."

Stopping in her tracks and whirling on the guard, Danthres said, "And on the very off-chance that some day you wear a brown cloak, I will consider your opinion relevant. In the meantime, get out there and canvas, or I'll put you on the detail that has to clean this house by yourself, am I understood, Guard?"

"Yes, ma'am," Kellan said with a nod, and calmly walked out the door.

Boneen chuckled. "You must be losing your touch, Tresyllione. They used to tremble at your every utterance."

Danthres bit back a retort. It wouldn't do to kill Boneen—there'd be paperwork.

The two detectives entered the pantry, leaving the magical examiner to perform the peel-back.

The room was unbearably hot. Danthres saw that the stove in the center of the room was still warm, the door open to reveal cooling wood. From the looks of it, the stove had been in use only a few hours before. The remnants of the morning meal were on the table, probably the result of the stove's use. The only foodstuff still intact were two biscuits, which smelled heavenly even hours after they'd been cooked.

Standing at the cupboard next to the table was a pale middle-aged man with a wispy moustache. His skinny arms and pudgy belly indicated someone who did not perform physical labor. He seemed to be arranging the items in the cupboard so they would be neater. At Danthres and Torin's entrance, he turned to face them.

"Mr. Nerban, I'm Lieutenant Tresyllione, and this is my partner Lieutenant ban Wyvald." Torin waved and smiled. "We're investigating the death of your wife and sons."

"Of course." Nerban straightened his purple tunic carefully, and sat down in one of the chairs next to the table. "The guard said you would be by. I am happy to help in whatever way I can." Cebru Nerban spoke in a monotone and was careful to enunciate every word.

"What do you do for a living, Mr. Nerban?"

"I work at the bank as a clerk. I came home from my morning run—I run every morning now, I have been doing it for seven weeks, since I do not like how fat I am getting—and when I arrived home I saw that Tybet and the boys were lying dead on the floor. I immediately summoned a guard. He told me to sit out here in the pantry and I have remained here ever since then waiting for you to come and question me."

Danthres has to shake her head to keep herself awake, and was starting to understand why Kellan didn't think Nerban was capable of the crime. Not that I'm going to tell him that at any point.

"When did you go for your run?"

"Right at sunrise. I always go for my run right at sunrise." He started to arrange the plates on the table so that they were all in a line.

"So you had breakfast before that?"

Nerban shook his head. "I did not, no. I stopped eating breakfast when I started running."

She pointed at the table, with its newly organized settings. "So all this was for Tybet and the boys?"

"Yes."

"What about the extra biscuits?" Torin asked.

At that, Nerban shrugged, an action which put his tunic out of place. He straightened it as he spoke. "I would assume that Tybet made more than she and the boys could eat. She did that sometimes. I always thought it was wasteful, but Tybet never listened to me whenever food was involved."

"So you came back from your run," Torin said, "opened the door—"

"No, the door was open. On nice days like today, Tybet usually left the door open to ventilate the house because it got so hot inside."

"That's safe?"

"Oh yes, this is a very safe neighborhood. This is a very good part of town, Lieutenant. Bad things never happen here."

"Until today," Danthres said.

"Well, yes, obviously, until today."

Danthres asked a few more questions, told Nerban that they'd send someone to take the bodies and clean the house, and then went outside via the back door to avoid disturbing Boneen. Kellan met up with them and reported that nobody saw anyone enter or leave the house—including Nerban himself—and that the door was, in fact, open.

"Two different neighbors mentioned that, actually," Kellan said. "One said that it was great that they left the door open because you could smell the food from the kitchen. The other one complained for the same reason—I got the idea that his wife isn't a very good cook," he added with a smile.

Danthres did not return the smile. "Save the commentary, Guard."

At last, Kellan looked intimidated. "Er, yes, ma'am. In any case, one person heard screaming, but she couldn't make it out, and nobody else heard anything unusual. They all said that the family was very quiet, never got into any arguments, except the children when they got to being raucous the way boys are, and that the Nerbans were nice people. Oh, and that Nerban always went out of his way never to hurt anyone or anything—he wouldn't even kill the vermin in his house."

Sighing, Danthres said, "All right, when Boneen's done, get some guards in here, do a sweep, see if you can find a murder weapon. And don't let Nerban out of your sight."

Torin made a noise like a bursting pipe. "Danthres, that's crazy. Nerban didn't kill them."

Looking at her partner like he had grown a second head, Danthres said, "Of course he killed them. There was no forced entry, nothing stolen, no other damage to the house or anything around it. It had to be him."

"A nonviolent bank clerk is your murderer?" Torin asked dubiously. "That man in there isn't capable of killing anyone."

"I agree with the lieutenant, ma'am—" Kellan started.

Danthres turned on the guard. "At what point did you attempt to grow a brain? Just do what you're told, Guard, understood? Now get that detail together!"

Kellan moved off to do that.

"And as for you, I should think that after ten years, you'd trust my judgment a bit."

"Sorry," Torin said, "but I'm too busy trusting mine. That man didn't kill anyone."

Before Danthres could respond, Boneen interrupted, exiting the house into the sunny fall day. Danthres noted with annoyance that there was no evidence of bloodstains on the M.E.'s person, though his hands were stained black with the residue from the peel-back.

"Of course that man didn't," the old wizard said. "It was a hrancit demon."

"It can't be a hrancit demon," Danthres said.

"Of course it can," Boneen said. "Probably some idiot teenager conjured one and let it run around loose. This entire mess fits with a hrancit demon. They have claws that match the wounds on all three bodies, and they tend toward random unfocused violence."

Danthres shook her head. "No."

Torin sighed. "Danthres, stop it."

"Stop what?"

"I know that look on your face. This is going to be another of your crusades."

Danthres's face contorted into a look of fury. "It's not a crusade, Torin! Boneen, you said that hrancit demons tend toward unfocused violence."

The magical examiner nodded.

"This was not unfocused! There was no damage to the doorframe, the furniture, the rest of the house, nothing!"

"Two witnesses said the door was left open, Danthres," Torin said slowly. "The demon could have just run in and killed them. You're letting the fact that children were murdered cloud your judgment."

That got Danthres's blood boiling. "This has nothing to do with the fact that children are involved! It has to do with ten years' of instincts telling me that this wasn't a hrancit demon."

Sharply, Boneen said, "I'll see your ten years and raise you several centuries of magicking. My peel-back showed a hrancit demon. Therefore, it was a hrancit demon. I am now going to go back to the castle and cast a spell that should track this particular hrancit demon down. Once I do, you can fetch it and put it down, the case will be closed, and Captain Osric can praise you both for a job well done after I've done all the actual work."

Before Danthres had the chance to weigh whether or not it would be worth the paperwork to kill the M.E., Boneen then disappeared in a burst of light, which he only did when he felt like having the last word, since the Teleportation Spell generally took a lot out of him.

Danthres blinked the spots out of her eyes, cursing her sensitive eyesight. The elven half of her heritage had blessed her with better-than-normal eyesight, but it also meant that magical lightshows had a more profound impact on her ability to see.

"Come on," Danthres said, starting her walk toward the castle. "It'll be hours before Boneen casts that spell."

Torin nodded. "Of course. He'll need a good nap after the Teleport Spell. And you'll need the time to calm down."

"I'm perfectly calm!"

That earned her a dubious look from Torin.

She sighed. "Look, I know what you're thinking."

"I'm sure you do. I'm thinking about that accused child murderer you almost beat to a pulp two years ago—the one who turned out to be innocent." His voice softened when he added, "And I also am thinking about that elf you killed in Bronnwick."

Danthres continued walking, refusing to dignify Torin's diatribe with a response. She had encountered a mass grave of infants who, like Danthres, were born of a human and an elf but who, unlike Danthres, were not permitted to live beyond one month thanks to the snobbery of full-blooded elves in general and one high-born elf in particular who took it upon himself to keep the elven bloodlines pure.

Maybe I do take it a little personally when children are killed, she thought, but refused to say out loud, not wanting to give her partner the satisfaction. But Nerban killed his wife and kids, and it's not because I'm still trying to take revenge for all those slaughtered children. No matter what the peel-back said, this is not the work of a hrancit demon.

* * *

A day later, a storm front had moved in, blanketing Cliff's End in rain. Boneen had yet to find the hrancit demon. Torin and Danthres were spending their morning in the squadroom of Guard Headquarters, located in the eastern wing of the Lord and Lady's castle. Torin had acquired a stuffed-up nose thanks to the inclement weather, and was partaking of a mug of tea, while Danthres—whose sterner constitution allowed her to stave off the cold—chewed on one of the pastries that Sergeant Jonas's wife always made, which was soggier than usual thanks to the weather. Torin expressed surprise at the M.E.'s inability to track the demon, which prompted Danthres to fly off on a rant.

"It's not as if we're dealing with a subtle beast, here. A hrancit demon habitally runs amok, ripping anything to pieces that happens to get in its way or look at it funny. It usually leaves dozens of bodies in its wake. I remember hearing about one in Treemark—it killed over fifty people before a local wizard managed to banish the thing. Yet somehow this hrancit demon has only targeted one woman and two children and nobody and nothing else in all of Cliff's End. I'm telling you, we should be questioning the husband."

"Boneen said it was a hrancit demon." Torin followed his statement with a sniffle.

Danthres pointed her pastry at Torin as if it were a dagger. "Don't you dare throw that old fool into my face, Torin, or it'll be more than your nose that's stuffed up. Boneen is a cranky old idiot who hates being forced into this job."

"Who still takes pride in his work," Torin added. "He's never given us reason to doubt his peel-backs in the past. But," he said quickly before Danthres could give him a sharp reply, "let's allow for a second that you're right, that it is a crime of passion." He sneezed, then took a sip of his tea. "You really think the husband did it?"

"Let's get him in the interview room. I promise that inside of an hour, he'll tell us precisely how he did it."

"In a dull monotone, no doubt. Honestly, Danthres, you talked to him—he's a bank clerk. In order to commit a crime of passion, you have to have some. Furthermore, even if he did kill them, he wouldn't have slashed at random parts of their bodies, and he wouldn't have left the corpses just lying haphazardly in the middle of the floor. The entire time we were there, he was neatening things, putting them in order. That is not someone who carves up three people like he was hacking his way through the jungle."

Danthres stood fuming for several seconds, covering the action by chewing the rest of her pastry—which, owing to its sogginess, took longer than usual. After swallowing it, she said in a low voice, "I hate it when you're right."

"No wonder you're always in a bad mood. I'm usually right." Torin grinned broadly, his teeth showing through his thick red beard. Then the grin fell. "Of course, that doesn't explain why Boneen saw a hrancit demon in the peel-back—or why he can't find it now." He took another bite of pastry. "One thing we haven't considered—that someone conjured the hrancit demon for the express purpose of killing the Nerbans and then banished it."

Shaking her head, Danthres said, "I don't like that—only a particularly powerful wizard could accomplish that, and if that's the case, we're going to have the Brotherhood all over this case. That's not the sort of thing that improves my mood."

"Or Osric's," Torin added, then pulled a handkerchief out of a pocket in his belt. Any time magic was involved, the Brotherhood of Wizards tended to interfere in the Castle Guard's investigation, usually to the detriment of the investigation's efficiency. Captain Osric didn't share Danthres's disdain for the practice of magic, but he had a severe hatred for the bureaucracy that administrated it. Torin blew his nose, then said, "Even so it seems to me that our obvious next step is to question Mr. Nerban and see if he might know anything about a wizard with a grudge against him or his family."

For the first time since they got the call to the Nerban house, Danthres smiled. "I knew I kept you around for a reason."

* * *

Danthres had one of the guards bring Nerban in, with particular instructions not to take his cloak, assuming he had one to protect against the rain. He did, and the guard dutifully left it on as he brought the bank clerk into the featureless room with a single lantern hanging from the center of the ceiling.

"Thank you for coming in, Mr. Nerban," Torin said in his most pleasant voice. "Let me take your cloak."

As he removed the sodden cloak from Nerban's person, the pudgy man said, "Thank you. You seem ill today, Lieutenant."

Torin dropped the cloak rather unceremoniously on the table even as Nerban sat in one of the chairs provided. "Yes, I'm afraid this weather has me a bit under it, so to speak."

Nerban immediately moved to fold the cloak neatly. "I am surprised you did not call in sick to work. Today would be a good day to not go into work. I almost wish I hadn't."

"You were at work?" Torin asked as Nerban finished folding the cloak and sat back.

"Yes," he said. "The bank would have let me take another day off to grieve, but I find that the work helps to distract me. Besides, the longer I stay out, the more difficult it will be when I get back."

Torin nodded sagely, taking a sip from his third mug of tea of the day. "Oh yes, I know exactly what you mean. I must admit, that's one of the things that made me reluctant to call in today." Torin then sat directly on the folded cloak. "It would take me longer to get out of the hole being gone for a day would cause than it would for me to be out sick—I mean, you have the existing work, plus the old work. It just piles up." Nerban did not answer, as he was staring dolefully at the cloak that Torin's rump was now disturbing the neat folds of.

Danthres then spoke up from the corner of the room. "We had a few more questions for you, Mr. Nerban. Did you or your wife know any wizards?"

Her presence startled Nerban, who apparently hadn't known she was there. He looked up from his stricken examination of Torin disturbing his cloak. "Excuse me? Er, no. No, we did not know any wizards. I do not see how that is possible. Wizards do not consort with the likes of us."

"But they use banks," Torin said, sliding off the table, which caused the cloak to fall to the floor in a heap. "Are you sure you didn't help one out with his account?"

Nerban got up from the chair, then bent over to pick the cloak up. "Believe me, Lieutenant, they would not let someone as low in the hierarchy as me work on an account with a wizard. Only the senior officials at the bank deal with those." He neatly folded the cloak and put it back on the table.

Danthres started to move toward the table. "And you've never encountered any wizards anywhere else? There wasn't one tutoring one of your sons, say?" Now Danthres sat down on the cloak. Her armor protected her from the garment's wetness, for which she was grateful.

"I do not believe so. Why are you asking these questions?" Again, Nerban started looking at the cloak with an apprehensive expression. "I never met any wizards until that strange little old man who came with you two. In fact, I thought he said that it was a hrancit demon that killed Tybet and the boys. Can't you just find the demon?"

"Well, that's the problem, Mr. Nerban," Torin said, "we can't seem to locate it. The only way that's possible is if the demon was conjured by a wizard and then banished again. So we thought that perhaps you or your family might have had congress with one."

"Would you like a pastry, Mr. Nerban?" Danthres got up from the table, knocking the cloak askew, though it did not fall to the floor this time. "Sergeant Jonas's wife makes some excellent pastries for us every morning."

Nerban leaned forward and again folded the cloak neatly. "No, thank you. I do not eat in the morning."

"Right, you told us that yesterday. Yet, there were two biscuits left."

Torin added, "The biscuits looked quite good."

"Yes, Tybet was an excellent cook," Nerban said, still in the monotone, though Danthres noticed that his moustache was now twitching. "She saved them for me, but I did not eat them. I told her that I did not eat breakfast anymore. She chose to ignore this, even though I explained why to her."

Torin walked across the room, passing close to Danthres. "I suppose that—" His arm collided lightly with Danthres, but it was the one in which he held his tea. The beverage spilled over onto the cloak.

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Torin said. "That was clumsy of me.

Danthres reached for the cloak. "That's terrible, we didn't mean to do that."

"That is all right," Nerban said, also reaching for the cloak. "I am sure I can get it cleaned."

Danthres gripped the cloak. "No, we can do that. After all, we're the ones who stained it."

"No, no," Nerban said, also gripping the cloak, "really, I will just fold it, and—"

"I insist, Mr. Nerban."

"Please," Nerban said, tugging harder on the cloak, "if you will just let go if it, I can—"

Danthres, in turn, tugged even harder on it. "We have a cleaning service that did a wonderful job of getting your wife and boys' blood off my boots, I'm sure they can do the same for—"

"Please, just let go of the damn cloak before I—arrrrrrRRRRRGGGGGHHH!"

Danthres dropped the cloak and had her sword out of its scabbard in one fluid motion. Next to her, Torin did likewise.

Cebru Nerban reared his head back and screamed to the ceiling, even as his skin rippled and changed color to an unfortunate shade of green, his form expanded, tearing through his clothing, and his hair seemed to disappear.

He had transformed into a hrancit demon.

A second later, the demon seemed to be bound by strings of bright light. Magic, Danthres thought with a sigh. Boneen had long ago warded the castle so that any unauthorized magical creature was immediately bound upon its entry or appearance. So unsheathing the sword had been wholly unnecessary, though that didn't stop Danthres from keeping it out, just in case.

"Well," Torin said after a second. "That was interesting."

Blowing out a breath, Danthres said, "I was hoping that disturbing his neatness routine might get a good response, but this was rather beyond expectations."

The door to the interrogation room slammed open to reveal two guards and Boneen. "What happened? My wards are going off like—" He stared at the former Mr. Nerban. "What in the name of Temisa's left toe is that?"

Torin grinned. "That, Boneen, is Cebru Nerban. Normally calm enough to lull any sane person to sleep, when he is angered—say by his wife preparing breakfast for him even though he no longer eats breakfast—he changes into a hrancit demon."

"He was cursed." Boneen pointed at the strings of light. "See the orange tinge around the restraints?"

Following Boneen's finger, Danthres did indeed see a slight orange cast to the light.

"That indicates that this is a demon cursed to share its existence with a mortal. My guess is that it was the demon that committed some transgression."

"Makes sense," Torin said with a wide smile. "What worse fate for a demon that indulges in chaos than to be trapped within a human who is the epitome of order?"

Boneen nodded. "And what better punishment than to let it come out every once in a while, to get a taste of reality before being banished back inside Nebran here?" He shook his head. "I shudder to think how this will fall out jurisdictionally. Are they both responsible for the crime?"

Torin shrugged. "That's the magistrate's headache, not ours."

"It seems," Danthres said to the M.E. with great reluctance, "that we were both right, Boneen."

Boneen harrumphed. "Well, of course I was right. The remarkable thing is that you managed the feat."

Snarling, Danthres briefly held up her sword, then thought better of it. Paperwork, she reminded herself.