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A heinous murder in a small village reveals a terrible truth. Sorcery, once thought dead in Enhover, is not. Evidence of an occult ritual and human sacrifice proves that dark power has been called upon again. Twisting threads of clues lead across the known world to the end of a vast empire, and then, the trail returns home.
Duke Oliver Wellesley, son of the king, cartographer, and adventurer, has better things to do than investigate a murder in a sleepy fishing hamlet. For Crown and Company, though, he goes where he’s told. As the investigation leads to deeper and darker places, he’ll be forced to confront the horrific spectres rising from the shadows of his past. When faced with the truth, will he sacrifice what is necessary to survive?
Samantha serves a Church that claims to no longer need her skills. She’s apprenticed to a priest-assassin that no one knows. Driven by a mad prophecy, her mentor has prepared her for a battle with ultimate darkness, except, sorcery is dead. When all is at stake, can she call upon an arcane craft the rest of the world has forgotten?
AC Cobble, the author of the fan-favorite Benjamin Ashwood series, crafts worlds of stunning-depth and breath-taking adventure. In Quill: The Cartographer Book 1, a pair of unlikely investigators walk a deadly path into the past, uncovering secrets best left alone. For fans of Benjamin Ashwood, be warned this series is both darker and sexier than Ben's tale.
The fate of empire is to crumble from within. Do not ask when, ask who.
Release date: June 1, 2019
Publisher: Cobble Publishing LLC
Print pages: 512
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The Inspector I
A heavy thumping woke him, followed a moment later by a sharp metallic clanging. His jaw cracked and he let his head fall to the side. He groaned and snuck a fist from under the sheets to rub the sleep from his eyes. He glanced at the curtain-covered window and saw it let in only a faint glimmer of light. It was night still, late at night. Muttering, he struggled out from under the heavy blankets and winced as his feet landed on the cold stone floor.
“Damnit, McCready,” mumbled a voice beside him. “Didn’t you tell them bastards to stop using the knocker after sunset?”
The metallic clanging continued. He cursed to himself as he shuffled his feet along the floor, trying to find his trousers in the dark room.
“They keep hittin’ that knocker, McCready, and you’re gonna be sleeping at the station,” warned his wife.
He sighed and looked back at her. The light bleeding through the window curtain illuminated the silhouette of her bare shoulder. She was still naked underneath the blankets. He smiled, remembering a different kind of ruckus that had been going on earlier in the night, but the knocker kept clanging, drawing his mind back to other matters.
Finally, he located his woolen trousers and tugged them on. He found his shirt as well and pulled it over his head. He could finish dressing after he answered the door and quieted the night watchman’s racket.
“I love you, hun,” he whispered, stooping to kiss his wife’s tousled hair.
“Tell them bastards people are sleeping,” she said, not turning to meet his kiss.
Grimacing, Inspector Patrick McCready hurried out of his bedchamber, only years of practice at waking in the middle of the night saving his toes from crunching against the wooden frame of the doorjamb. As he moved through his narrow house, he grabbed his boots and pulled on his overcoat, his hat, and his gloves. A heavy truncheon was last, and he was still gripping it when he yanked open his front door.
Standing outside, face half-lit by the lamp at the end of the street, was a clean-shaven man wearing a thick, dark wool overcoat that hung down to his knees. A hat was perched on his head, pushed back, allowing McCready to see him. Or perhaps it was late, and the fellow was being sloppy.
The man eyed McCready’s truncheon and backed up, hands held in front of him, showing his palms to the inspector. “Whoa there, Pat, whoa there. They told me ya was on call tonight.”
Inspector McCready hung the truncheon on his belt and opened his mouth to apologize, but then he saw the curtain across the street twitch, and he knew the hateful widow who lived there would fill his wife’s head all day with complaints.
“You’re not supposed to use the damn knocker after dark, Jonas,” complained McCready. “It wakes the whole damn neighborhood. Damn, man, I know I’ve said it before.”
“Sorry, sir,” acknowledged the night watchmen, giving the inspector an apologetic nod.
“Well, I’m up now. What do we have?”
Thick, tacky blood puddled around the corpse. The familiar copper scent of the sanguine fluid permeated the air. It appeared liters of the stuff had drained from the mutilated woman, leaving her skin milk-white. She was young, perhaps, or maybe a bit older and well taken care of.
The inspector knelt and he let his gaze drift slowly over the body, from toes to head, forcing himself to take his time, to not rush the observation.
Most obviously, she was naked. Her bare legs were spread wide, but the pale skin was unbruised. No sign of forced assault there. Her torso was unmarred as well, and he saw her stomach was flat. He suspected it would stay that way even if she was upright. Her breasts sagged with the force of gravity, though, and he amended his earlier assumption. Middle-aged, he decided, though it would take further study to be certain. He drew a deep breath and forced himself to look further, to her face, or where it had been.
Stark white bone, bright red muscle, and pits where her eyes once sat. The grisly hollows in her face stared back at him. From the bottom of her jaw to her hairline, the skin had been carefully peeled from her face. Blood surrounded the woman, but the bone of her skull was clean, as if someone had wiped it away or carefully dabbed up the liquid with a towel.
She was alive when it happened, judging by the volume of blood that was spilled on the floor. Her heart had pumped the blood out while someone was doing this to her. If she’d been dead, McCready would have expected to see a fraction of the stuff. He looked at her hands, at her manicured fingernails, and saw no sign of struggle. No defensive cuts or scratches, not even a broken nail. She wasn’t just a well-kept woman, he realized by looking at those hands. This was a woman who could afford pampering, one who didn’t work and likely never had.
“Not good, is it, Inspector?” queried the night watchman.
“No, Jonas,” responded McCready, looking over his shoulder at the man. “It is not good.”
Jonas knuckled his bushy mustaches, his eyes darting quickly from the woman, her missing face, the apparatus in the room, and then back to her.
“Why don’t you check around outside, see if you can spot any clues?” suggested McCready. “Look for footprints or carriage tracks, perhaps. Whoever did this arrived some way or another.”
The night watchman ducked out the door, and McCready turned back to the gruesome scene in front of him. A dead, faceless woman sprawled immodestly on the stone floor of an apothecary. This crime — this murder, he amended — had taken time.
McCready shuffled around to the other side of the woman and bent closer to the body, taking care to avoid dipping the hem of his overcoat in the blood spread around the corpse.
He paused. The blood had pooled in razor-straight lines that ended in black lumps of wax. In the low light of the room, it wasn’t obvious, but as he looked more carefully, he saw the blood couldn’t have followed a cleaner edge if it had been drawn along a carpenter’s plumb line. He frowned, a finger hovering half a yard in the air, tracing the lines and the pattern they made. He sat back on his haunches and took a moment to think.
Shivering, he stood and looked around the room, already knowing he’d need more light and more men. Before they arrived, though, he needed to walk through the rest of the building and take inventory of the room. He needed to sketch the scene and understand it before the clumsy boots of more watchmen damaged whatever evidence had been left.
McCready pulled out a notebook from his overcoat. Its cover was worn, salt water stained leather. Half the pages inside were filled with his cramped notes, and he’d replaced those pages a dozen times over the years. Complaints against rival whaling captains, minor assaults in the tavern, a few domestic incidents — that was the bulk of it. Nothing like this. No, nothing like this.
He flipped through the pages until he got a blank one and then he turned, pondering the scene. He grimaced. “Jonas, get back in here! Stand in the corner and don’t touch anything!”
The sun was coming up, bathing the top of the sea and bottom of the clouds in iridescent shades of yellow and orange. The light sparkled on the water, a million jewels scattered at the feet of humble Harwick. Riches fit for a queen, but Harwick was undeserving of such grandeur.
The little hamlet was comprised of squat buildings of thick granite topped with moss-covered wooden shingles. The low granite and mossy humps crept up from the small harbor toward towering cliffs that protected and stifled the place. The buildings were like embarrassed relatives, knocking at the door of the holiday feast with only half a loaf and a bottle that could have been described as vinegar just as easily as wine. That was Harwick.
It sat on the fringe of Enhover, just like one of those embarrassed relatives. Invited to be a part of the family but placed in the corner of the room, far from the table. Harwick was a small, dreary place, nowhere near the king’s seat of power in Southundon or even the provincial capital in Eastundon. It was a miserable place to reside for an ambitious professional, unless such professional happened to be a whaler.
Harwick suited Inspector Patrick McCready just fine, though. With a military background, he’d quickly made inspector in the quiet village, partially due to lack of sober competition. The assumption around town was that he’d be promoted to senior inspector just as soon as the current one managed to squirm his way out of the village and into some nobleman’s good graces. Pat McCready was in no hurry, but for most in town, his supervisor, Senior Inspector Joff Gallen, couldn’t be gone soon enough.
“You observed the body?” drawled the senior inspector, spitting a viscous stream of brown liquid against the gray granite wall of the apothecary.
McCready tore his eyes from the sparkling waters of the sea and nodded to his supervisor. “I did.”
“And we’ve got a problem,” remarked McCready.
Senior Inspector Gallen’s eyebrows peaked and his fists found resting spots on his hips, “Frozen hell, Pat. I assigned you this case because—”
McCready held up a hand. “You should follow me inside.”
He led the senior inspector into the apothecary and stepped out of the way so the man could see the mutilated woman.
“A prostitute, most likely,” muttered Gallen, his eyes darting around the room, finding the stairwell in the back, viewing the scene but not seeing it. “Some out-of-town grifter could have found her down by the docks.”
“I don’t think so,” remarked McCready. He drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I believe this was a ritual killing. Dark magic, sir.”
Senior Inspector Gallen gaped at him. “Dark magic? You mean sorcery? Have you gone mad, Pat? It’s been nigh on twenty years since anyone… since anyone did that sort of thing. The king stamped it out when he pushed the raiders back from Northundon and marched on the Coldlands. Not even the Church talks about that… that stuff, anymore. Why would you even consider such a thing!”
McCready met his supervisor’s gaze patiently, waiting for the man to calm down.
“Who have you told about this, Pat?” questioned Senior Inspector Gallen. “If word gets out in town, you know how the rumors fly around this place. Or worse, can you even imagine the circus if the papers down in Eastundon got wind of it? Pat, you’re the best man I’ve got, but we’ve got to be sensible here. Sorcery is history, you know it.”
The inspector ignored his superior’s remonstration. Gallen hadn’t been involved in the Coldlands War like Pat McCready had. History was something written down in books. It wasn’t something you’d seen. It wasn’t something you touched and that you still dreamt about. Night terrors, his wife called them, his imagination getting the best of him. She hadn’t seen what he’d seen either. She didn’t know that the world contained worse than his imagination ever would. His body trembled, and he forced himself to still. Instead of thinking, he began to talk.
“Here, sir, beneath the woman’s arms, legs, and head, are triangles drawn in a dark chalk or ash,” explained McCready. “Look. You can see where the blood stopped a finger-width from the lines. This floor is sloped, sir. Like most of the buildings in this district, it’s built to allow water to drain down toward the harbor. See the way the blood is pooled? That is not natural. Can you see? And then there is the obvious mutilation of the woman’s face. It was done carefully, sir, with a razor-sharp blade. There are no hesitation marks and no signs of struggle. Just clean wounds. It
asn’t the first time for whoever did this. The woman herself, ah, I’ll need the physician to confirm, but I believe she was engaged sexually prior to her death. It does not appear it was forced.”
“A prostitute like I thought!” snapped Gallen. “We’ve seen it before. Some sailor who’s been at sea too long, gets odd ideas. You’ve caught as many of the bastards as I have, Pat.”
“Behind you, sir,” continued McCready.
Gallen frowned at his inspector and then turned.
With the light of the newly risen sun spilling across Harwick, the windows of the apothecary let in a glow that illuminated dancing motes of dust. In the sparkling morning light, the two men could see strange symbols drawn onto the window. A bird, an eye, and a skull along with several geometric shapes. In the center of the configuration, a five-pointed star was drawn within a circle.
“A common symbol of the occult,” grumbled Senior Inspector Gallen, turning from the window. “Any thug knows how to draw a pentagram. It was likely done by the killer to throw us off the scent.”
“There and there as well,” advised McCready, turning to point at the back walls of the room.
“Sir,” interrupted McCready, “this building is fashioned as a wedge, three-sides. There can’t be more than half a dozen buildings in Harwick with similar dimensions. I’m sure you know the triangle is rumored to be a powerful sorcerous binding symbol. A trinity, as it’s called.”
“Coincidence,” responded Gallen, the certainty faded from his voice.
“Look beneath her body, sir,” suggested McCready.
The senior inspector hesitated then inhaled sharply when he finally looked. The chalk below the woman was fashioned into another pentagram, this one perfectly filled with her blood.
Gallen swallowed uncomfortably. “What if you’re right, McCready? If there’s some… some sorcerer running around Harwick, what does it mean? Will there be more murders, do you think?”
“I don’t believe so, sir,” replied McCready.
“Why not?” wondered the senior inspector.
“I believe whoever did this is already gone,” claimed McCready.
His supervisor crossed his arms over his chest, waiting on an explanation.
“Upstairs, in the proprietor’s quarters,” said McCready, leading the senior inspector through a curtained alcove in the back of the room and then up a creaking set of stairs.
At the top, they found the apothecary. The man was sitting at a small table he evidently used for measuring and mixing his potions and tinctures. The tools of his trade were there — a handful of sealed jars, a small bowl, a pestle, measuring spoons, and an herb knife that was stuck to the hilt in the man’s chest.
The apothecary’s eyes and mouth were open wide, as if he’d been in the midst of asking his assailant whether he’d like a pinch of fennel in his preparation. There was no fear on the man’s face, only shock.
“Edwin Holmes… Well, that’s one possible suspect accounted for,” remarked Senior Inspector Gallen darkly, rubbing a hand vigorously over his face. “The same killer, you think, or was Holmes involved in the scene below? And what about this makes you think the killer has fled? I wonder if perhaps a rival struck and staged the scene?”
McCready studied his supervisor, wondering what the man was getting at. There were only two apothecaries in Harwick, and Gallen was a frequent client and sometimes friend of both. With his peculiar interests and midnight practices, he’d know more about the apothecaries and their rivalries than anyone.
“You know them both better than I do,” mentioned McCready. “You think Fielding killed Holmes? Would that have happened before or after the woman below?”
Senior Inspector Gallen shrugged uncomfortably. “That man Fielding has always struck me as strange. The symbols downstairs… We should keep him in mind, that is all. I’m-I’m not thinking right, Pat.”
“He’s an apothecary. They’re all strange,” declared McCready. He glanced at the body of Edwin Holmes. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“It could be a common thief,” offered Gallen, pointing to the side of the room, turning from the body of his friend. “Look at that.”
A wardrobe was hanging open, out of sorts with the neatness that pervaded the rest of the building. A polished teak box was open on the floor next to it.
“Velvet lining,” murmured Senior Inspector
Gallen, walking over to peer down into the box. “Could be his silver was in here or some valuable family heirloom. I’m comfortable reporting this as a robbery that ended in bloodshed. Pat, what do you think? Continue to investigate as you see fit, I trust your judgement, but I don’t want any wild theories making it into the public, you understand? We need to manage what information goes to Eastundon on this one. A robbery fits.”
“I understand your concern, sir. I do believe you are right and some items were taken,” allowed McCready. “I think that box held a knife. Look closely. You can see the impression in the velvet. You know Holmes better than I, sir. Do you recognize that box? Did the man own a knife or a dagger fine enough to be kept in a box such as this? I wonder if it was his or if it was brought here.”
“Brought here?” wondered Gallen, looking up at McCready. “Why would a thief bring an empty box?”
“I don’t believe a robbery explains all of these circumstances,” replied the inspector. “Look over here.”
McCready showed his supervisor a cabinet across the room where several drawers had been slid open. Gaps showed in the jars and containers where items appeared to be missing. On a shelf below the apothecary’s supplies was a fine silk dress, neatly folded, two delicate slippers, undergarments, and a pile of sparkling jewelry beside the dress. The jewelry was silver, studded with rubies. It was the attire of a wealthy merchant’s wife or even a member of the peerage, a noblewoman’s baubles.
McCready gently separated the pile of items so Gallen could see. “This dress is tailored. I’m not familiar with the mark, but it’s fine work. Maybe even from Southundon? Any quality tailor should be able to identify the stitching or at least the region it came from. Then, we can try to trace it to a client. The slippers, just as fine. Look at the bottoms. There is no wear on them. The woman arrived by carriage, I suspect. This jewelry must be worth several years of my salary, if not considerably more. If the killer had been acting for economic reasons, if this was a simple robbery, then certainly they would have taken it.”
“You think the killer left Harwick, Pat?” croaked Gallen, his forehead creased with furrows. “Why?”
McCready turned and eyed his supervisor, noting the man’s gaze was fixed on the jewelry. Even Gallen wouldn’t be willing to write it off as a simple robbery and bury the case with such wealth lying in the open. Whoever the woman was, she was no prostitute. Someone was going to miss her.
“If it’s not something darker like I mentioned below, then another theory is that this could have been a paid assassination. I don’t know of any paid assassins lurking amongst our citizens, or any… any people associated with dark magic, for that matter. It could be either one, I suppose, and I’ll leave it up to you how you think it’s best to report to Eastundon. Whichever it is, though, my assumption holds. I believe it’s likely the killer left by sea or on the rail early this morning.”
Senior Inspector Gallen did not respond. His eyes were locked on the pile of silver and rubies. His breathing was quick, and McCready noted the man’s fists were clenched at his side.
McCready glanced back at the jewelry. “What is it, sir?”
Gallen shook himself and then stepped forward. With his pointer finger, he pushed one item out from the sparkling pile.
“A necklace, sir?” queried McCready. “Do you recognize it?”
“A pair of ewes,” whispered Gallen. “This is the symbol for House Dalyrimple.”
“Dalyrimple,” murmured McCready. “The name sounds familiar. Is that the family down in Derbycross?”
Gallen swallowed. “It is.”
“Derbycross,” said McCready, slapping his notebook against his open palm, lost in thought. “Sheep down there, which I suppose explains the family crest? Baron Daly… no, Earl, is it?”
“Earl Dalyrimple,” confirmed Gallen, “though he spends little time in Derbycross now. Sebastian Dalyrimple is the governor of the Company’s Archtan Atoll colony.”
“Archtan Atoll?” asked McCready. “Why, that’s the most—”
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