1 Chapter 1

Blackwhit, Edmoor, February 1864

14th February

Looking at Thomas Barry from Tomlehlen, Brennon thought he was kicked out of the seminary for facial expressions. Small eyes ran continuously, tongue licked thin lips, Adam's apple twitched, fingers crawled on the table, knees trembled, as if each part of his body lived its own life. And his look was so apologetic and muddy that Nathan wanted to check his pockets for petty theft. The priest, after all, should arouse respect and awe among the parishioners, and not pity and suspicions of theft.

"Listen," Barry repeated plaintively, "I don't want to!.. Lord, I cannot stand trial!"

"Why? What is stopping you?"

"I... I don't know anything! Neither about Moore, nor about Grace, nor about, God forgive me, these children! I just corresponded with Grace, and he told me nothing of the kind..."

"He would not," the Commissar said dryly. "Being a very reasonable person, he would hardly begin to paint in colors how he lured, strangled and buried children in his church."

Barry twitched with his small body.

"But I did not know! And Moore..."

"And Moore, when he drank your tea on Sundays, also did not say a word. Understand."

"Listen!" the pen pal howled. "I can't deny the door to my wife's brother, whoever he is... brother-in-law? Forgot... only because... because... Oh, my God!"

He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face. Regan monotonously read an excerpt from the dossier:

"You studied at the same seminary with Father Adam Grace and were in correspondence with him until his death. You have been married to Jason Moore's sister Alice for nine years. Jason Moore visited you regularly and met Father Grace at your home."

"But that does not mean!.. Listen, I... I..." Barry licked his lips, "I will give you money, just forget..."

"How much will you give?" The commissar asked boredly. Barry convulsively crumpled his handkerchief.

"Well, within reason..."

"Five years," Nathan said thoughtfully. "And given the gravity of offence and my rank, all eight. Regan, did he propose you bribes?"

"Yes, sir. Unfortunately, I have no witnesses..."

"But I have. Tell me, were you expelled from seminary for hopeless stupidity?"

Barry blinked miserably. Nathan got up.

"You offered me a bribe during an interrogation on record, with three witnesses. And if we consider that your friends were Moore and Grace, then in your place I would spend money on lawyers, and not on bribery."

"But it's not my fault!" the witness cried foul.

"Regan, finish it."

"Yes, sir. So, Mister Barry, do you confirm the words of Father Andrew Laclow that you were expelled from the seminary for an extremely unseemly act?"

Nathan left the interview room, but instead of going up to his office, he stayed at the door with Dwyer, watching the young detective.

"Act?" Barry bleated.

"We'll find that girl," Regan said. "Despite limitation of the case, we are fully capable of finding your victim."

The faint hiss escaped Barry:

"I can't! As you do not understand! I can't talk about this in court!"

"Tell us about something else. Moore knew about this?"

"Nnn-mmfff..."

"Did he know or not?"

"I told him," Barry muttered dutifully.

"Why?"

"I don't know why... I once had a migraine, and he poured something into my cup. Said it's cure. And then... then he looked into my eyes for so long, and I kept telling and telling, and could not stop," Barry swallowed. "He never mentioned it again, and I decided that I just dreamed. You still won't believe me," he said in a fallen voice. "No one will believe me! God, God, if my father-in-law finds out... if he only finds out! He will drive me out of the office!"

"Why did you cover Grace? There were two of you," Regan rustled with papers. "Nevertheless, the punishment for," he took the letter on the form of the seminary, "the unworthy case with the girl, as your rector writes, was borne only by you."

"This is Laclow!" Barry shouted with a hysterical shriek. "He was vice-rector, he did everything to shield his godson! Son of his best friend, pah!"

"Blackmail," Dwyer chuckled. "Not bad for an accountant, sir."

"And reliable," Brennon agreed. "Moore couldn't keep Grace on a sorcerer's leash around the clock. When Regan finishes with small details - pack everything and take to court."

"Sir," Dwyer, with all respect, stepped in his path, "resolve the question? Moore didn't just burn himself up like that, right? He didn't set the Grace's church on fire with matches, did he? And in general, they did kill children not out of a whim?"

"Moore has gone mad on religious grounds," Brennon said through set teeth. "He believed that he could cause the devil."

"But we saw," Dwyer stared at him intently. "We saw all, sir. And you too. This damn circle on the bridge!"

"But the judge did not see. And nobody in court saw."

"So we can bring there and show! The bridge is intact, sir! How is this possible if Moore burned himself on it?!"

"I know, Dwyer," the Commissar said. "I know. Broyd knows. And maybe someday we can convince others of this."

The detective sighed heavily; his mighty shoulders drooped.

"Yes, sir... But I'd like to see it soon."

"And me," Brennon said, "and me, Dwyer."

He was already heading for the stairs when the detective called to him again:

"What was Moore doing there - is it real? Is it possible? Is it really possible?"

The commissar turned around. Dwyer nervously tapped the wall with his massive great fist.

"Yes," said Brennon, "anything is possible."

***

"So," Broyd put Regan's report in the folder, "our work is done. The court will conduct the trial, but in the absence of a living criminal this is a pure formality."

"Yeah, sir," Brennon said grimly, rolling a glass of whiskey in his palm. The police chief took out a cigar, grabbed the tip with a guillotine and lit it.

"Dissatisfied?"

"Yeah, sir."

"Me too. I would have preferred to see him hanged properly, and, to be honest, I would have looked at it with great pleasure," Broyd poured himself a whiskey. "This case has killed Tony Connor. Let him rest in peace now."

"Let him rest," Brennon emptied his glass. The previous Commissar of the department of extremely serious crimes left a good memory for lot of people both as a boss and as a friend. But the Strangler was beyond his power, and if they had a consultant then - who knows how everything would turn out...

"Have you got at least a scrap of evidence leading to this, as you say, pyromaniac?"

"We have only the scrap," Brennon muttered. "The remains of his torn clothes. He stole everything else while we..."

"We work shitty if every first pyromaniac comes to us as if to a tavern."

"Yeah, sir. I did ask Longsdale to come up with something, and he sort of figured it out. I'll check in today."

"Good," Broyd threw a thick cloud of smoke at the ceiling. "Find him, Nathan."

"The consultant?"

"Pyromaniac, damn it! We are only lack of mob justice for complete happiness! Who is he and why the hell did he do all this?"

"I'd like to know, sir. And I'll know. Personally beat out."

"It might not be Margaret," Broyd gave Nathan a careful look. "Maybe some witch... Your niece, after all, is a tender, fragile young lady. A nervous breakdown is the least that would happen to her from one smell of a burning human. And she, it seems to me, is in good health, and nightmares do not torment her at night."

"Yes, sir," Brennon sighed. "But the pyromaniac gave the spell exactly her to mark Moore."

"Have you questioned Miss Sheridan?"

"Only as part of the Strangler case, sir. I'm afraid to frighten off the pyromaniac, because I'm sure that he is still spinning around her."

"Why? He got what he wanted. He could leave long ago and even clean her memory. After all, Longsdale said that it was possible."

"No," Brennon said grimly, "he protected her from ifrit. He risked himself. She is not just a bait for him."

"Did you tell the family?"

"Not yet."

Broyde chewed a cigar.

"Nathan, do you understand that in the worst case, she can get pregnant from him?"

"For God's sake!"

The commissar rose sharply and circled around the room.

"And then it will be too late to speak with the family," said Broyd.

"She is beneficial to him as a virgin. Blood, hair, saliva, what else do they use there in their magic rubbish."

"Do you think this will keep him for long?"

Brennon frowned silently, staring out the dark window. Interestingly, Longsdale will be able to make some kind of tracking amulet? But how to attach it to a headstrong girl?

"Listen, Nathan, you worked a lot on this case, as we all do, and if you need a vacation to resolve family problems..."

A fist thumped at the study door.

"What the heck?!" Broyd snapped.

"A corpse, sir," Dwyer buzzed through the door. "In Freedom Park."

"Well, take care of it!"

"So the appearance of the body is already painfully unsightly. Maybe this girl is..."

"Life is in full swing," Brennon concluded philosophically. "I'll go, sir. Only five more, I hope, will turn around in the evening."

"Good," the chief grumbled. "Our steadfast people continue to kill and rob, despite the Stranglers and black magic. It just inspires faith in the unbending spirit of the nation."

"Well then," Nathan chuckled. After the Stranglers, pyromaniacs and ifrits, he finally wanted to tackle the simple, unskilled murder. And so that no otherworldly creatures!

***

"Mother of God!" The commissar hissed.

"Someone beat her with a stone until completely destroyed her face," Kennedy sat on a small folding stool and studied what was left. The victim lay in the crimson snow, outstretching arms and blowing dark brown hair. The hat went astray; hairpins stuck out of wet hair. "Judging by her physique, arms, and neck, she was between seventeen and twenty. Maybe a little more. More precisely I will determine at autopsy."

"The cause of death is... is this?"

"There are no other wounds on the body. Death occurred about a day ago, but since it is quite cold here, it's probably even a little earlier. As soon as I can take the body away..."

"Who found her?"

"The park keeper," Byrne reported. "The old man goes around his site every day from four to six."

"But yesterday there was no body. So, someone left her here less than a day ago."

"I looked around here, sir. They trampled around, of course, pretty much, but, nevertheless, there were no traces of blood and other things around. Only here," Byrne circled the crime scene with a pencil. The deceased was lying under a birch, in a pool of blood, there were dried streaks, bits of brain and bone fragments on the bark.

"He worked her by stone here. Found a murder weapon?"

Byrne shook his head.

"No. But in general, to find here a stone of a suitable size is not difficult. A little further, the fence of the park is being repaired, there are carts of the stones."

"But it's still a little hard to carry."

"Only to the pond, sir. It's half a dozen yards down that path. I've already ordered it cordoned off and searched."

"Where is the park keeper?"

"Haze led him back to his gatehouse. The old man is not up to his mind," Byrne quickly copied several lines to a blank page, tore out of a notebook and handed the Commissar: "Everything that we managed to get out of him. Maybe," the detective coughed, "he will tell you more."

Nathan grunted and put the paper in his pocket. Detective Byrne for many years got the hang of interrogating particularly nervous witnesses, without turning with his left side of his face, but in the field he did not always succeed. It is unlikely that the park keeper, having survived such a shock in old age, will have fun chatting with a man whose half face consists of a scar from hair to chin.

Brennon looked around the clearing once more. The place is very secluded, so the corpse could lie here for a week, if not for the bypass of the park keeper. The path of pinkish tuff was curved in an arc, and at the bend was a bench with a high back, which covered several birches and dense bushes of hazel where the body was found. There was a small passage between the two bushes, and the Commissar noted the broken and bare branches. There were a few colored threads left on them.

"Why did the keeper climb here?"

"He noticed footprints in the snow that led to the bushes. The superiors told the park keepers to chase the couples, so he popped in."

"Did he see anything but the body?"

"He didn't say that. He only had the courage to scream and rush out of here - fortunately, towards the district police officer, who was on duty at the eastern gate of the park. He heard cries and, thank God, managed to disperse all onlookers. He called for help from his site and cordoned off the clearing."

"Good. She's got nothing on her, I take it?"

"Not a handbag, not a basket, nothing. Although judging by the clothes and hands, I would say that this is a maid from a decent house. But maybe we will find some marks on the laundry."

"Robbery?" Brennon muttered. "Anyway. Where is the keeper's gatehouse?"

"Over there, sir, closer to the east gate."

Brennon walked along the path, wondering how many witnesses could be found — one or two? The case was completely rotten: the poor girl was most likely killed by a random, half-crazed without booze drunk in an attempt to get some money for a bottle. Is it possible to establish the identity of the victim?

But not some otherworldly filth, Brennon thought sourly As if it will be comforting the girl's parents...

***

Miss Thay froze in front of the shop window with the gingerbread. Margaret carefully walked around the chaperone in a circle. It is not good, of course, to experiment on a poor woman, but how else to find out if "freeze and see" will work or not? Such spell does not work with animals, kitty Patch was more to be pitied... more than the chaperone.

While Miss Tay gazed at the honey cake, Margaret slowly stepped back into the alley. She already felt like a prisoner under round-the-clock surveillance - her mother has created an unprecedented terror, and miss Sheridan suspected that her uncle had said something about her going out alone.

"It's their own fault," Margaret decided, quickly turning onto a nearby street. She can't even go to the pharmacy without a convoy! And Miss Tay will not approve of everything that Margaret was going to buy there, and snitched to the mother. Miss Sheridan pulled a list from the muff and checked the ingredients for the simplest potion. Really, she had no idea how and where she would boil it, but... in the end, it was necessary to deal with difficulties as they arrived. The main thing is to show Angela a bottle with a potion for the manifestation of traces by Sunday (at the same time, she finally finds out which of the brothers is dragging candy from her vase).

The girl put the list down in the muff and looked around. The pharmacy should be around here; it's only five more, and it's probably open. The street was deserted - on the one hand there were rows of houses, on the other - shops, alternating with some barns, sheds and warehouses, which are fenced with slit fences. Not the most respectable area, but a pharmacist in their quarter can also tell her mother...

Margaret didn't know exactly how long the spell would last, and when she finally saw the sign "Pharmacy", she joyfully hurried towards shopping.

"Hey!" hoarsely rang out behind, and someone grabbed the girl by the hand. Miss Sheridan screamed indignantly, broke free, and turned. In front of her, a certain man stood drunkenly swaying - tall, dirty, overgrown with red stubble to the very eyes.

"Lady," he said nasally, and grinned. "Ah, here is the lady!"

His eyes wandered, and Margaret cautiously backed up, hoping to whisk to the pharmacy. The drunkard followed.

"Oh, lady? Lady, huh?"

The girl's lips were already moving for "freeze and see," when suddenly she was firmly raked across the waist, someone put a smelly rough hand over her mouth and dragged to an unknown place. Miss Sheridan kicked, scratched, and, finally, forgetting disgust, bite her teeth into the kidnapper's palm. He gasped, stumbled, and threw her like a kitten into the depths of a dark alley. Margaret hit her shoulder against the wall, screamed and, slipping in a nasty mess of snow and mud, fell to her knees.

There were already three of them: a red-haired drunkard, a man with a bitten palm, and another with a lantern. They surrounded Margaret in a semicircle, and she pressed herself against the wall. Her shoulder hurt, but the fur coat softened the blow and nothing seemed to be broken.

"Who you are?" Margaret asked in a trembling voice. "What you need? Money?" She put her hand into the pocket in the muff. What a pity to give away the accumulated money to buy ingredients! "Take it!"

A shopping list, coins and a couple of banknotes flew into the mud. A man with a lantern lifted it higher, illuminating the faces of his accomplice.

"Lady," he lisped, grinning stupidly. "Here's the lady."

"Lady," repeated the other, with a bitten palm. "Yeah, lady."

The redhead, not ceasing to smile blissfully, took a folding knife from his pocket and snapped out the blade.

"Lady," he said. "Good lady."

"Stet adhuc et videre!" Margaret squealed. The redhead froze for a moment, shook his head, lowered the knife and stared at the wall above the girl's head. The rest also froze. Missing breathlessly, Miss Sheridan somehow got up and crawled along the wall past these three. Suddenly, the one she bitten blinked a couple of times slowly, startled, and grabbed the girl by the elbow. Margaret screamed shrilly as he knocked her to the ground and pinned with his knee. A man with a lantern directed light at the girl, the redhead grabbed her by the hair and held the knife over her face.

"Stet adhuc et videre!" Margaret shrieked, pushing the knife away. "Stet adhuc et videre!"

The redhead cut her hand and froze again, stupidly looking nowhere; just enough so that a huge shaggy hound crashed into him with its whole body, knocked him down and clutched his wrist. The jaws closed like a trap; blood gushed out and the thug screamed. The hound shook its head, without unclenching its teeth, the scream turned into a desperate screech, and it opened its fangs. The red-haired man's hand hung on a patch of skin. Margaret felt sick; and the hound, baring its bloody mouth, roared so that the ground shook.

The two thugs screamed away from Miss Sheridan. The girl pressed herself into the mud, barely remembering herself from the horror that this roar inspired her. A mighty red mountain grew above her, exuding hot heat. Margaret, shivering, cringed into a ball and hardly opened her eyes. The hound fell silent and stared at the humans, grinning fangs. Blood was dripping from its face into the snow.

"My goodness..." Miss Sheridan stammered out. The redhead crawled away on all fours, clutching an almost severed hand to his chest, whimpering and sobbing. A red trail followed him. The other two backed away until at the exit of the impasse they came upon a tall, big gentleman. Margaret's heart frozen: she recognized Mr. Longsdale by the flickering blue eyes in the darkness.

The kidnapper, whom she bit, yelled heartbrokenly and tried to punch the consultant in the face. Longsdale caught his fist in his hand, squeezed, and blood, scraps of skin, fragments of bones splattered between his fingers. The thug let out such a scream that Margaret's hair stirred. Longsdale let go of what was left of his fist and raked into the armful of the third creep. The girl hidden her face in the mane of the hound, buried in thick fur and heard only a desperate gasping cry. The hound touched her cheek with a wet nose and patted his shoulder very humanly.

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