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Inspector Klay and the Nico

by Anthony Lukas

part 1

The inn was warm and loud. I sat, shoveling in some very tasty venison and washing it down with a very satisfactory ale. Royal Inspector Klay sat opposite me, eating methodically as he always did, chewing slowly and carefully, taking his time as he did in just about everything he did.

I slowed my chewing, one of many things I had learned to do after being assigned as deputy constable to this inspector just a few months ago. I had gotten tired of finishing a meal far ahead him, ill at ease having to sit and do nothing as the Inspector finished his food.

I alternatively looked out the window and the chill night outside, at the other travelers and locals filling the inn and, surreptitiously, at the Inspector. He was a puzzle: tall, slim, bright blue eyes that, I had learned, seemed to notice everything while not appearing to look at anything. Generally pretty quiet, but not adverse to conversing about things, except about himself.

“Something, Deputy Steward?”

“What?” I said, startled by the Inspector’s question.

“You were looking at me. Is there something wrong?”

Damn those eyes. “No, no not at all. Just wondering if you were enjoying the dinner.”

“Yes, it’s very good. I enjoy country cooking, and the cook here seems very skilled.” He took a sip of his ale. “I’ve noticed that you have slowed your pace of eating recently. That’s kind of you, but not necessary on my account. I realize I am somewhat methodical.”

Now that’s an understatement, I thought.

The Inspector went on to comment on the ale and favorably compare it to some of the other ales he had had, including “That ale at the inn in the Black Valley. Remember that one? Blackberry flavored, I believe it was.”

I remembered the inn, all right, and remembered a lot more clearly the sight of the Inspector in the Black Forest standing firm and calm, rifle pointed at that thing rushing toward him and the crack of the gun and the thing stumbling, falling and rolling to stop practically at the Inspector’s feet and he calmly putting another round into the beast’s head. “Just to be sure,” he had smiled — smiled! — as if he had ice water running through his veins. I shivered at the memory.

“Cold?” asked the Inspector.

“No, no, I’m fine,” and forked another mouthful of venison, chewing slowly to give me some time to think. I could not remember what planet in the Kingdom Inspector Klay had said he was from. No, that wasn’t right. He had evaded the question, referring vaguely to one of the core systems.

Not that I cared about where he had come from, or about things off my own world for that matter. I would never see anything off my own planet anyway, not on the wages of a deputy constable. And that was just fine with me. Plenty to see on this world.

My contact with Kingdom citizens was largely confined to the Royal Inspectors that came here, like the one chewing thoughtfully across the table from me. They would be assigned here for a time and then move on. I gathered from the comments and attitude of the other inspectors I had worked with that this planet was not considered to be a plum assignment.

But not Klay. He seemed to delight in everything. A new view was greeted with a “Now, isn’t that lovely,” a new food with a “Delicious, never had anything like it.” No snobby remarks, no thinly veiled complaints about backward planets.

Amiable enough, quietly smiled a lot. Still, there was something detached about him.

“Well, that was very good. Quite filling. Still, call me crazy, I could go for a little sweet. Do you think they have any of that dessert we had the other day, the pudding? What did it have in it?”

“Whipped sweet potato, sweet cream, nuts and honey. I’m sure they do.” And they did. After a bowl of pudding and a mug of strong tea, the Inspector stood and said, “Fancy a bit of a walk?”

We left the inn, pulling our cloaks tightly around ourselves against the chill and wandered the lanes lighted by gas lights. A number of shops were still open, and Klay took his time window-shopping. We passed other people doing the same to whom the Inspector always nodded and said, “Good evening.”

We stopped at the town’s main street, Klay standing at a corner as though waiting. I was about to suggest moving on when a large carriage rounded the corner and rolled past us, its doors emblazoned with a gold seal. The Inspector stared after it, even after it had rounded another corner. Then: “Well, it’s getting a bit chilly. Perhaps we had better get back to our lodgings. We will begin our investigations tomorrow, and I expect a busy day.”

* * *

The next day, after a warming breakfast, we drove out of the village to a small farm at the end of a lane off the main road. We were greeted by a large woman and two small children who hid behind her and peeked up at the Inspector as he introduced us.

She nodded and said that we had best talk to her husband. She pointed out into the field where we could see a man driving a team pulling a plow.

Inspector Klay thanked her, and we walked out into a tidy barnyard, past a well-kept barn and out along the side of the field. The farmer kept plowing until he pulled parallel to us, then halted the team and walked toward us. He was broad-shouldered, wearing sturdy clothes and had the ruddy face of a man who spent his life outdoors.

“Mr. Pulliam?” At the farmer’s nod, the Inspector said, “I am Inspector Klay and this is deputy constable Steward. Do you have a few moments to talk to us?” At another nod, the Inspector said, “I understand that you had a bit of an unusual occurrence in your fields not too long ago?” Pulliam stood silent for just a moment, then he nodded again.

The pace of this conversation is just dizzying, I thought, but the Inspector seemed satisfied with our progress. He said, “Could you tell us what first happened?”

Pulliam just stood for a moment. I was expecting another nod. He said, “Let’s go sit in the barn and I’ll tell you about it. Just let me unhitch the team.” He turned and began doing just that. To my surprise the Inspector walked over and helped. “A fine pair,” he said to the farmer, slipping the traces from the plow.

“Aye,” Pulliam said, “they’re hard workers.” Then we were following him into the barn where he stalled the team and tended to them for a bit, again with the Inspector’s help. I felt the fool just standing there; I grabbed a brush and began brushing one of the horses. The Inspector and Pulliam chatted about nothing in particular.

When we were done, Pulliam walked to a storeroom and emerged with a jug and some cups. “A bit of warmth?” he asked, and I now wondered if his ruddy face was due more to “a bit of warmth” than the sun. We hadn’t had lunch yet but Klay said, “Delighted! Your own?”

“Aye,” he said and poured a bit in each cup.

The Inspector sniffed and sipped. “Well, now, isn’t that fine.” And took another sip. “Double distilling?”

Pulliam nodded. “Triple.”

I sniffed at the homemade; it actually smelled pretty good and tasted even better.

After some discussion of distilling techniques and more sipping, the Inspector said, “Now Mr. Pulliam, please tell us what you saw.”

The farmer’s face became somber. “Last month I was sitting on the back porch. The moons were full that night, and I like to sit out with a bit of the warmth and look at the land under the moonlight. It is quite beautiful.”

I nodded, understanding. Our planet under the full moons’ light was a sight to behold. I had sat out many a night myself.

“I was looking at our goats in the far paddock there. They often come out at full moons and graze. People think the light confuses them, but I think they appreciate the beauty.”

I glanced at the Inspector at this bit of romanticism but saw no reaction, just that small smile and interested gaze he always had when listening to people.

“Anyway, I was looking there and thought I saw a shadow come from the field to the paddock fence. At first I wasn’t even sure it was there. It seemed so”

“Insubstantial?” asked the Inspector.

The farmer looked blank. I asked, “Ghost-like?”

“Right, exactly,” vigorously nodding his head. “I even fancied for a moment it was just a shadow of a cloud crossing in front of a moon. But it stopped just outside the fence, a few feet from one of the goats.”

“Did the goat do anything?” asked the Inspector.

I looked at the Inspector to see if he was serious, but the farmer pondered it a moment. “Well, now that you mention it, it did seem to look up and stare for just a moment, but then just went back to the grass.”

“Ah,” said Klay, nodding, “and then...?”

Pulliam took another sip. “Nothing happened for a moment, and then it seemed to just flow over the fence and onto the goat. I heard Gloria cry out—”

“Gloria?” I asked.

“The goat, of course,” the Inspector said.

“I shouted and went indoors, got my rifle and ran to the paddock. I saw the shadow on Gloria. She was lying on the ground, and....” He choked; tears came to his eyes. “And there was blood. I shouted again and took aim and then, and then...” And Pulliam looked at the Inspector, shaking his head. “It was as if I forgot what I was going to do.” His voice was a mystified whisper. “I meant to shoot it, but I just seemed to forget what I was there for.”

“What was ‘it’?” I asked after a moment.

Pulliam now looked at me with a puzzled expression. “I...I can’t remember.”

“Can’t remember?”

“I can’t remember what it was, or what it looked like or anything about it. That night, I took aim at it, but then it was like it wasn’t there, and I could only see poor Gloria and then I could see it and I’d aim and then it wasn’t there again....” He trailed off, taking a bit more warmth, shaking his head and wiping away a tear.

“Gentlemen,” said a voice behind us. It was Mrs. Pulliam, standing at the barn door. “I’ve come to invite you for lunch, but I see you’ve already started.”

Mr. Pulliam stood, wiped at his face and said, “Gentlemen, it would be our pleasure if you would take lunch with us. My wife makes an outstanding farmer’s pie.”

“Delighted,” the Inspector said, and we followed Pulliam. I had expected Mrs. Pulliam to say something to the farmer, but instead she gently put her arm through his and walked with him into the farmhouse.

The farmer’s pie was indeed outstanding, the children well-behaved, the house small but tidy. We all talked, me telling Mr. Pulliam of the town I was from, the Inspector listening seriously as the children told him stories.

After a bit we stood and thanked them and headed to the door. At the door, one of the children pulled at the Inspector’s coat. He bent to her and she whispered in his ear. He nodded and said, “I promise I will,” straightened and we were in our cart and driving off.

“A delightful family,” said Klay.

I nodded. “What did the little girl whisper to you?”

“She said could I please find the person who hurt Gloria, because her daddy was very sad about that and maybe it would make him feel better if I caught the person.”

I admit I was touched by a young daughter’s concern for her father. I glanced at the Inspector’s face, but saw nothing there but his usual small smile and thoughtful expression.

We interviewed several more people that day and the next. Some told of animals found with throats slashed open, two described seeing something attacking their dog or sheep, but, like Pulliam, could not remember what the attacker looked like.

“Shock?’ I asked.

“No, they remember too many of the details of the attack for it to be shock. Like Pulliam, they just can’t recall the attacker, even though they had a clear view. Something has affected their minds somehow, either their ability to perceive or to recall.”

He sat for a time, apparently thinking. “It is getting toward dinner time; you must be getting hungry. Head back to town, but take this road,” pointing to a lane that headed off the main road. After a bit, he said, “Stop here.”

We were at a drive that meandered down a glen, ending at a large house in the distance, its lights glowing in the dusk. He stared for some time, saying, “The Nico. Relative newcomers to your world but a clan well-known to me.” And after a last look: “Let’s go.”

At the inn, I was going to order goat, but then I remembered Pulliam and Gloria and had the fish instead. I asked the Inspector about the Nico.

“You know of course, your world was recently rediscovered,” he began.

I did indeed. The great migration from Old Earth had been several centuries ago. People streaming out into the immenseness of the galaxy to find and settle new worlds. It had been a chaotic exodus, from what I had read. Hundreds of nations, organizations, groups and individuals headed for the stars, many fleeing whatever they didn’t like of Earth’s culture, all fleeing a warming planet and the catastrophic results. And then the Second Dark Ages had descended, and the settlements had been left to their own devices, some alone, some staying in sporadic contact with other colonies.

Centuries later, Earth again reached out and sought the old colonies, but so much time had elapsed that where people had gone had been lost, if it had ever been known. For the last several decades, ships had been ‘rediscovering’ colonies. We had been found less than twenty years ago.

Our lore said we had been settled by several small groups who managed to eke out a living and actually do fairly well. But vast areas of the planet had remained unexplored until the new folks started to arrive and pushed into the wilderness. And found all manner of previously unknowns, like that thing the Inspector had shot.

“Those centuries, under pretty harsh conditions, some mutations had come about in humans and animals. Strangely, some appeared much like beings from Earth’s mythology. No one has been able to explain that, but obviously genetic manipulation had been practiced by someone.”

“There had been some space travel during the Dark Ages,” the Inspector said. “The Nico were a clan that apparently did still travel the stars. We do not know where they originally settled, nor where their colony world is. Some unknown source of wealth, very secretive. Sinister, to some.”

The Inspector paused and looked at me, as if taking my measure. “They are blood drinkers, for reasons no one knows and they are not telling. Usually harmless. Purchase animals and use them. Sometimes, however, they turn from benign to deadly, often when a patriarch of a family dies, or perhaps is overthrown. We really don’t know. Sometimes though, some are just evil, some...” and trailed off as there was a stir by the bar.

A man had entered and was showing a picture to the patrons. I recognized him as one of the local constables and waited for him to work his way around the room to our table. “Deputy Steward, good to see you.”

“Constable Watson,” I said and introduced the Inspector.

“Well, this is fortunate,” said Watson. “I’ve got a local girl gone missing,” showing us a picture of a blonde girl, perhaps early teens, pleasant face. “Disappeared yesterday.” He went on to give details. The Inspector focused intensely on Watson as he gave his report, did not move or interrupt, scarcely seemed to blink.

When Watson finished, Klay said, “So, gone perhaps two days. We must hurry.”

We were in Watson’s cart, the Inspector giving directions and telling Watson what he had told me of the Nico. “But, Steward, this effect described by the victims, this clouding of minds, so to speak, has never been reported before. Somehow, this group of Nico can interfere with the brain’s ability to interpret what the eyes are seeing, rendering the Nico effectively invisible.” The Inspector shook his head. “Most interesting and troubling.”

We rattled on in the chill night.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2014 by Anthony Lukas

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