The air in the backroom was thick with smell of cinnamon. The body of Anthony Willow was lain on a table with a veil draped over its head. A censer burned to mask the cloying scent of death.
Theodore stiffened as Ashby pulled the veil away. The face was frozen, gaping, eyes wide in horror. He knew a man was dead, but the reality did not hit him until that moment. Anthony died in terror.
“Theo. Hey, psst,” Oboe said, startling him. “Does something bother you about that woman?”
“What?” Theodore collected himself. “You mean Gisselle?”
Oboe kept her voice low. “Yeah. You think maybe she killed this guy?”
“What are you talking about?” He furrowed his brow.
“She was real eager to find someone to blame,” she said. “Maybe she’s trying to hide that she did it?”
The thought had not occurred to him. “That’s absurd,” he said. “Oboe, she was married to him! A wife wouldn’t do something like that.” Marriage certificates provided very specific guidelines about proper care of the licensed spouse. There was no room in the legal language to allow for homicide.
“Are you sure?” She said. “If I were a human, I would’ve killed and eaten dozens of husbands by now.”
“What?!” Theodore did a double take. “Why would you do that?!”
Oboe looked confused. “Wait. Not humans. What am I thinking of? Don’t tell me.” She thought very hard for a moment. “…Oh! Spiders!” Oboe started laughing. “I’m sorry! I was thinking of spiders!”
Theodore glowered at her. “Oboe, a man is dead. That woman is grieving because she lost someone she cared about. I think some misplaced anger is to be expected.”
Oboe shrank back. “Sorry.”
“If you would come closer.” There was a note of impatience in Ashby’s voice.
Theodore stepped forward to examine the body. The Alderman followed behind, eyeing the ghoul warily.
“As you can see by the wrinkling of the skin, the body is waterlogged.” Ashby gestured. “Though it is slight enough that it is unlikely the victim was left floating for an entire day. I wondered at first if this man merely drowned and this talk of a killer is hasty…”
“Yeah!” Oboe said. “I bet he fell in the river and forgot how to swim!”
“…I regret to say the villagers are right. If you look here…” Ashby moved the cadaver’s neck with two fingers. “Discoloration around the throat. Gray and black, with lesions. This is a sign of violent ghast-based magic. The victim was strangled to death before he had a chance to drown.”
“Oh.” Oboe said.
The Alderman scoffed. “There’s your proof. A ghast, just like I said.”
Theodore took notes. The killer being a ghast was not much to go on. “Are there any other clues as to who the perpetrator might be?”
“Before we dressed him for burial, his clothes were torn to tatters with claw marks,” Pearce said.
“Odd, considering those are no lacerations on the body.” Ashby wiped his hands with a sanitized handkerchief. “There is nothing else I can tell you. I suggest you investigate the crime scene to learn more.
“Good idea,” Theodore said.
“I’ll have my fiancé show you where she found the body,” Pearce said. “I’ve other duties to see to.”
Wendy was called to escort them. Giselle insisted on following to make sure the murder was investigated properly. Once they were far outside the village, Ashby parted ways with them.
“I hope you find the culprit soon, Deputy,” Ashby said. “It is not good for a wicked ghast to go unpunished. Your people begin to suspect the rest of us, and that puts us all at risk.”
Theodore noticed how Giselle glared. The villagers were volatile. It was clear if Theodore failed to catch the criminal that it was only a matter of time until they acted out of anger. All he could do is hope there was something left at the crime scene to point him in the right direction.