Contact: Book 1: Chapter 3
In the morning, Higginbottom hummed a ditty while she packed a basket with fried chicken she had cooked last night and a green salad.
The only sounds besides her humming came from an occasional bird song and from the Skensfirth River gurgling a hundred feet away. Wide and sluggish, the river had a number of islands, both large and small, in the middle. Many could be reached by wading and offered great places to hold a picnic or to go fishing.
While she put in the cutlery, she looked out the window of the small house she had grown up in. The early morning promised a glorious summer day. She put on her constabulary cap, adjusted it to a jaunty angle, strapped on a belt with her sword and her baton, picked up the basket and left the house. High Street was a five minute walk up a slight rise.
She had looked forward to the scouting expedition with MacDrakin ever since he proposed it yesterday. He was so different from the other dwarfs in town. The locals were only interested in her because she had a job and earned fifty silver pennies a year. Most of them earned a few copper pennies a day working as farm laborers or odd construction jobs. Most of what they earned they immediately spent on ale.
MacDarkin, on the other hand, had property, an education, military experience and was descended from the most famous dwarf hero in history. And if that wasn’t enough, he was pleasant, good-looking and well-mannered. She pegged his age as a few years older than her thirty-five years, the prime of life for a dwarf. So far, she’d never had a serious male friend. A few casual acquaintances was all. It was hard to get serious with a male in Skensfirth when you knew he wouldn’t be in town very long or would end up with a menial job and a drinking problem.
She had known MacDrakin’s father, MacFergus, a crusty old dwarf who became friendly with her own father. MacFergus had come to dinner several times and always acted properly towards her. The dwarf had died the month after she took up her position in Ashton. From what she had heard, by the time MacDrakin resigned from the military and reached his land, a dozen squatters worked the gem mines. MacDrakin drove them off and settled in.
Halfway up the rise, she paused as a strange sensation coursed over her body. A tingling started at her head and traveled down to her feet. A bright, golden light enveloped her. She gasped for air. Her feet stopped tingling. She glanced down. They were dissolving! She clutched the basket to her chest as panic fought the tingling for control of her mind. Her calves dissolved next. Whatever had gotten hold of her was working its way up her body. She tried to scream for help but couldn’t get enough air to let out more than a modest squeal. Her peripheral vision narrowed, as if she looked through a tube. Dizziness overwhelmed her and everything went black.
# # #
Benoit Boudreau ignored the budget problem sitting on his desk. Instead, the half-pint treasurer examined a new scroll. He had bought it yesterday from a dealer, but hadn’t looked closely at it until now. It contained a history of the reign of King Alsam the Ghastly, a petty ruler in southern Gundarland three centuries ago. Boudreau collected history scrolls and books and studied them zealously. The objective of these studies was to gain a better perspective on what made governments tick.
The scroll was in poor condition and he hesitated to open it until he had the time to give to the delicate work of unrolling it.
His office, in the vaults of a former bank, held his history collection. The rarest and most delicate scrolls and books were stored in glass cases while others lay on every horizontal surface available. He put the new one on a shelf temporarily, sat at his desk and sighed. Another day of dealing with never-ending demands for money. Cash in Gundarland was like water in a desert; there was never enough of it to satisfy everyone’s thirst.
Boudreau chewed on a nib of a pen while analyzing a column of figures. A metallic clunk interrupted him, a knock on the vault door. “Come in.”
With a sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, the heavy vault door slowly creaked open. A clerk, puffing from the exertion of pushing open the door, stood outside the office waving two envelopes. “Marked most urgent,” the clerk gasped, “and addressed to you.”
“Bring them here.” Boudreau waved a hand inviting the clerk to step over the lip of the vault door.
The clerk delivered the letters and Boudreau grinned as he saw they were from the Minister of Defense and the Secretary of Interior. Boudreau never got messages from either one that didn’t make his day more amusing and more interesting. He opened the one from Crumlish and read it. The silly dwarf demanded that Interior transfer to his ministry all the border police along with their funding. According to Crumlish, this move simplified the country’s overall command structure.
Sfiore’s message insisted that Defense fork over a half-million silver pennies so that she could increase the defensive capabilities of the local constabularies through more training and by equipping them with heavier batons.
Boudreau looked at the clerk who stood awaiting replies. “Were these messages logged in?”
“Well, since they were marked urgent, no one wanted to be accused of slowing down their delivery, so no, they weren’t logged in. I’ll do that after I leave your office.”
Boudreau held one letter by a corner and mumbled a spell. The document burst into flames and turned into a small pile of ashes on the desktop. He did the same with the second message. “No need to log anything in since we never received either message. No doubt they were lost somehow.”
The clerk, clearly troubled by the disappearance of two official messages, knuckled his head and left.
Boudreau chuckled to himself. Nothing was as much fun as screwing up the plans of his idiotic and self-serving colleagues.
# # #
When she recovered, Higginbottom found herself in a windowless room with metal walls. One wall bulged outward and another one had the largest door she had ever seen. The room smelled like dead fish had been stored in it and the air was cold. She put down the basket and rubbed her arms to warm them up. A bright column of light appeared in a corner. To her amazement, the dazzling air coalesced into a figure. A female half-pint stood in the room, blinking and gasping. While the two of them recovered their wits, a sound from the door startled them. A small window opened near the top and Higginbottom knew someone, or something, inspected them.
She got a grip on her emotions, took a few deep breaths and said to the half-pint, “Hi. My name is Leslie Higginbottom. I’m the constable in Skensfirth. Do you know what happened to us?”
The half-pint continued to examine the room while identifying herself. “Alix Cyr.” She sounded angry. “I’m from Dun Hythe.” Alix had a dumpy figure with brown hair and eyes. She wore long pants and a sweater. Her bare feet had elegantly curled toe hairs. “I was food shoppin’,” Alix continued. “Where are we? If you’re a constable,” she pointed to Higginbottom’s sword and baton, “you should know.”
“I wish I did, but I know as much or as little as you do.”
“Whoever did this won’t get away with it.” Alix stood with her fists on her ample hips. “When I get back to Dun Hythe, I’ll tell everyone what happened to me. Includin’ the police. What’s in the basket?”
“Lunch.” Higginbottom sniffed and fought to hold back tears. “I was going on picnic with someone. I wonder if he’ll get mad when I don’t show up.”
“If he gets mad, tell him to take a hike,” Alix said. “He ain’t worth it in that case. Let’s eat. I didn’t finish shoppin’.” Alix scratched her head. “Whoever did this don’t know who they’re dealing with. I’m the Treasurer of the Furniture Workers of Dun Hythe Labor Movement. I have a lotta clout in Dun Hythe.”
Higginbottom gave Alix a chicken leg. Between bites, the half-pint said, “I guess you ain’t married since you were going courtin’. I’m married. I have two kids. A male who’s seven and a female who’s nine.” She paused to swallow. “I don’t know who’ll take care of them while I’m here. My husband is pretty useless. All he ever does is sit in cafes and guzzle ale while tellin’ everyone how unfair life is because he wasn’t born rich.” Alix sighed. “He is a handsome rogue though.”
“Do you collect stuff?” Higginbottom’s curiosity about this half-pint activity overcame her fears.
“Sure. I collect empty flower pots. I must have close to a hundred of them.
“Why do half-pints collect things like that?” Higginbottom smiled at Alix. “Our mayor collects pebbles.”
“I don’t know.” Alix shrugged. “Maybe it’s in our blood. My husband collects ale mugs. Mostly he steals them. My kids collect —“
The door crashed open and a huge, slimy, creature entered. The horrifying figure towered over them and resembled a squid Higginbottom had once seen in the fish market in Ashton. The creature’s eye stalks moved to inspect each one in turn. The only article the creature wore was a silver medallion hanging on a silver chain. Higginbottom pinched her nose because of the creature’s stench and struggled not to gag.
Alix threw up.
After a moment or two, Higginbottom overcame her fear and horror and said, “Whoa! You are an ugly sucker.” Higginbottom talked without taking her fingers away from her nose.
The creature looked at her and she got the impression it was pleased.
Higginbottom pumped up her nerve some more and said, “If you ever show up in Skensfirth, I’m arresting you for kidnapping.” Her father had always stressed the need to pay back anyone who did her an evil turn. She hoped someday to be able to get even with the revolting creature.
“Hey, slimeball!” Alix wiped her lips with the back of one hand then shook a fist at the creature. “You’ll regret snatchin’ me. I can promise you that.”
The hideous creature left. A minute later, a machine came into the room and cleaned up Alix’s mess. The machine astonished Higginbottom. No one operated it. It moved by itself. Was it magic? Who were these creatures? What kind of powers did they have? What did they plan to do with her?
# # #
MacDrakin rode to the town hall, dismounted and tied his pony to a hitching rail. He leaned against the rail and looked around for Higginbottom. The early morning sun cast long shadows of trees and buildings along the dirt streets. He whistled an old dwarfish tune and smiled at the Skensfirth folks who passed by.
An hour later, MacDrakin stomped back and forth in front of the building. He had checked the constabulary office a while back, but it was empty. He didn’t like to be kept waiting; it made him feel foolish. He was about to go back to the mines but decided to delay a while longer in case guy had overslept. MacDrakin had suggested today’s ride to help out Higginbottom. The least he could do was to show up on time.
An occasional caterwaul came from inside the town hall and MacDrakin wondered what that was about. He paced some more and almost collided with the mayor, Luc Jehan, as he exited the building. “Hrrmmph!” Jehan looked furious. “MacDrakin! Have you seen the constable?”
“No. I haven’t.”
“Hrmmph! She locked up five drunks last night and now they’re awake and want out. They’re making so much noise my clerks can’t get any work done.” He looked up and down High Street. “Don’t just stand there.” Jehan made shooing motions with his hands. “Go find the blasted female.”
MacDrakin gawked at the mayor in consternation. “The constable’s . . . a female?”
“Of course she is. What are you an idiot? Or are you one of those . . . deviants?”
MacDrakin gave the mayor a hard stare and raised an eyebrow. He was slightly taller than the half-pint, but twice as wide. The battle ax on his back made him look even more formidable.
Jehan turned red-faced and stammered, “I . . . I didn’t mean anything insulting.”
MacDrakin ignored the mayor and walked away, his mind in turmoil. Dwarf romance was fraught with peril because both males and females grew beards. Unless the females wore a dress or had a female first name it was difficult to tell males from females. In Higginbottom’s case, the name Leslie could indicate male or female. The constabulary uniform included pants, so another vital indicator, a dress, was missing. Whenever a male dwarf mistook another male for a female, it always resulted in a ferocious fist fight. He had seen enough of those. He had also been in two of them. He triggered one of them after having too many ales. In the other case, some dwarf had put the moves on him thinking he was female.
Knowing Higginbottom was female raised interesting possibilities. She was attractive and she wouldn’t be a constable if she wasn’t also smart and educated. Who would have thought he would find an eligible and desirable female in Skensfirth?
MacDrakin walked up High Street to the general store. He entered and called to Geno Aterrano. “Have you seen Constable Higginbottom?”
Geno shook his head. “And that’s strange. By now, she’s usually patrolling up and down High Street.”
MacDrakin had an ominous feeling. “Where does she live?”
“Her house is the one closest to the water.” Geno pointed towards the river.
“I’ll see if she’s home. Maybe she doesn’t feel good.” MacDrakin left the store and walked towards the river, trying not to look like he was hurrying. He found the house and knocked on the door. When no one answered, he tried it second time. After a third knock, he tried the latch. The door opened. He loosened his ax and went inside. The house was empty and showed no sighs that anything was amiss.
He went back outside and bit his lip while looking around at her herb garden. Something bad had happened. He could sense it.
# # #
Luc Jehan walked back into the town hall which his family had controlled for generations. He considered the office of mayor as his personal fiefdom. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all been mayor in their time. In Skensfirth, politics meant the Jehans. When a Jehan ran for mayor, he ran unopposed most of the time.
Over many years, the family had bought up property in town and were now the largest land owners in Skensfirth. They owned most of the property and buildings on High Street including Kate’s Inn and the general store.
He was disgusted with Higginbottom. She was forever acting against his wishes, as if she didn’t have to listen to the mayor. How many times had he explained he didn’t like to see drunks in the cells when he came to work in the morning. He ordered her to wake them up and kick them out of the jail cell before he got there. Did she do that? No. And now she was nowhere to be found so he had to listen to a mob of dwarfs moaning about their headaches.
He walked to his office in the rear of the building. Along the way, he chatted with the clerks and minor officials. Everyone who worked in the town hall was a close relative of his except Higginbottom. The big problem was that the constable didn’t report to him. She reported to the regional constable in Ashton and ultimately to an official in Dun Hythe. Consequently, Higginbottom looked on his commands as suggestions. He had tried to pull strings in Dun Hythe when the last constable died. He wanted his brother-in-law to get the position. His brother-in-law was not very well endowed in the brain department and would do whatever Luc told him to do. That made him an ideal constabulary candidate to Luc’s way of thinking. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain and he was stuck with Higginbottom and her independent ways.
Maybe he could bribe some folks in Dun Hythe to have her replaced.