Theodore made it a rule not to write reports while angry. It led to errors and poor penmanship. He broke the rule now because he needed the distraction. Oboe’s words hung heavy in the pit of his stomach long after she left. The only relief he found was devoting his mind to the simple joy of paperwork.
“Where am I?” The Tall Man said.
Theodore froze. His quill hovered over the report. He turned in his seat to see the Tall Man where he left him: dangling off the bulletin board beside a reminder to buy laundry detergent. The ghast lifted his head to look back at Theodore.
“I can’t move,” he said. His body was still limp at the end of the magic thread but his eyes were open. He was awake.
Theodore tried to stay calm. Was the enchantment on the knife failing? What would he do if the Tall Man got loose? He set his quill down in the inkwell.
“You are at the Ranger Deputy’s station,” he said, hands clenched together. “You will remain here until I can transfer you into the custody of the city watch. Then you will await your trial.”
“Trial…” The Tall man muttered. “Tell me, Deputy. Would it do any good to tell you that I am innocent? That this is a misunderstanding?”
“It’d do more good to tell it to the jury,” Theodore said.
“I see.” The ghast appeared to ponder this. “Deputy, do you know how often creatures leave the human court without a conviction?”
Theodore said nothing. The court was rarely kind to non-humans. It was something he preferred not to think about.
The Tall Man sighed. “Then my fate is sealed. One more victim of the system. I wonder what the Saint would think if he were with us today.”
Theodore blinked. “Who?”
“Forgive me.” There was a note of sarcasm in the Tall Man’s voice. “I forget the capital does not take pains to teach Ghast history. I am referring to Saint Skelelord. He was the ghast responsible for brokering the peace between our peoples.”
The name jogged Theodore’s memory of a textbook footnote. “He was a Lieutenant in the Devil King’s army.”
“One that sympathized with the humans,” the Tall Man said. “He convinced scores of ghasts to revolt and side with the human and fairy coalition. He taught a philosophy of tolerance and cooperation and was instrumental to organizing the peace treaties we operate under today.”
Theodore felt himself drawn into the conversation. He needed to stay on guard, this could be an attempt to manipulate him, but he also wanted to hear more.
“It sounds like you revere him,” Theodore said.
“Most do,” The Tall Man said. “Others feel he allowed your people to subjugate us.”
Theodore leaned closer. “And what do you think?”
“That… is a difficult question,” he said. “I want to believe what the Saint asserted. His vision for us all to live as one people is as beautiful as it is naïve. The reality is plain to see. The Hollows does everything it can to please your people and you repay us with suspicion.”
“You’re saying our alliance is pointless,” Theodore said.
“No.” His voice was pointed. “Let me be clear. Ghasts are born to frighten and you hate us for it. That is natural. But magic creatures cannot survive without humans. The Saint taught that if we must find a way to co-exist in order to advance as a society. That is something I need to believe, even now while I wait to die.”
Doubt welled inside Theodore. The more he listened the harder it was to believe the Tall Man was the killer. He ran a finger over the ring on his finger. “You said before you were friends with the murder victim.”
“Yes.” The Tall Man let his head droop. “Anthony was dear to me. …I remember, when he was a boy he wanted to set sail and see the world. Plans changed when he fell in love. He took my suggestion and proposed to the girl in the Fey Orchard on Harvest’s Eve. For the colors. He was always so excited about the future. …But now…”
Theodore felt shaky as the Tall Man fell silent.
“Officer,” The Tall Man said. “I have a favor to ask. I’m in no position to make demands, but humor me. Lie to me, if you must. I’d like peace of mind.”
Was this a trick? “What is it?”
“Edwin, the boy you saw when you captured me. Tell him I said goodbye, and I’m sorry I will not be back. He should be brave enough now without my help, enough to stand up to his school mates. He’ll argue, I know, but he’ll believe it when it counts.”
Theodore exhaled. He pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes. He wondered where Oboe was and how much more work was left to be done.
The front door rattled and burst open. Alderman Pearce stepped inside and threw Theodore’s letter down on the desk.
“Here for the killer,” the Alderman said with a grunt.
The Ranger Deputy got to his feet. “The suspect is in custody. There’s no reason for you to get involved. I’ll handle things from here. That’s what we agreed on.”
Pearce clasped a large palm around Theodore’s shoulder. “What I recall is you talking a lot and me telling you how it would be.” His eyes were wild. “We’re taking him.”
Theodore tried to stand taller and felt the Alderman’s hand squeeze tighter.
“You are overstepping your authority, Pearce!” Theodore said. “This is King’s Law! If you throw that away, I’ll make sure you lose your position!”
Pearce leaned closer. “You want my title? Go on. Take it. Anthony was like a brother to me. I’m not going to let some city judge settle this by sticking the devil in a cage. We’re getting proper pay back whether you like it or not.”
“I won’t let you do that!” Theodore said.
“Oh ho?” Pearce threw Theodore to the floor and rang his world like a bell. He stepped over him and seized the knife.
“This is the devil?” He said, examining the Tall Man. “The witch was right. The creatures are next to nothing in the hands of good magic.” He rattled the Tall Man’s limp body. “We’re going to make you pay, monster! What do you say to that? Eh?”
The Tall Man sighed. “What is one death in place of another?”
Theodore tried to stand up and was pushed back to the floor by Pearce. The Alderman stuck the knife back in wall and pulled Theodore into a chokehold.
“Let’s make this easy, Deputy.” He said.
“Stop!” Theodore said, gagging through the Alderman’s grip. He struggled to break free, to breathe, and felt his strength slipping away. The world went dark and Theodore slumped unconscious onto the floor.