Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Teaser Tuesday :: The Mummer's Masque

An early glimpse at the beginning of The Mummer's Masque, my current work in progess, a mystery/suspense novel I've been working on in the background of working on the Howard Carter novel.

I usually have more than one story going at a time. It's still a bit rough, but I wanted to share...





It was October and it was raining, which was right and proper for Seattle.  AJ MacLeod was wearing handcuffs and riding in the back of a police car, which was not.  He was also apparently dead -- at least as far as the Seattle press was concerned -- but that was easily remedied by demonstrating to the nearest doctor that he had a pulse.
The handcuffs might be a bit trickier.
Twenty minutes ago, he was in a school library interviewing a potential student for the MacLeod Academy, where he was headmaster, when the vice principal busted in and accused him of being an imposter.  MacLeod had a bad habit of losing his wallet and keys anyway, so he had very little to proof to counter a news anchor that insisted he was dead in the street on Queen Anne.
Anger. Shouting. Handcuffs. Cops.
It was probably just as well he had chosen to be an academic instead of going into the family business. He would have made a lousy smuggler and a worse embezzler.
As they waited their turn on the entrance ramp for Interstate 5, a man standing on the corner smiled at him and waved.  The man held a sign that simply said “Calm Down” and people were stopping to hand him money even though the sign didn’t ask for any.  MacLeod thought the advice was probably worth a couple of bucks too, but he doubted the detectives would allow him to roll the window down.
He didn’t have any cash on him anyway.
“So, aside from looking for new ways to make my life miserable, why is the Seattle press so sure that I’m dead?” 

“Because someone killed you,” one of the detectives answered. “Looks like it was an accident, if that makes you feel any better.”  It had been the redhead whose name he hadn’t caught in the kerfuffle at the school. The unnamed detective’s eyes were watching him in the mirror. 
“Come again?”
“You’re dead, MacLeod.” His partner answered. Detective Liu -- a head shorter than his partner, nattily dressed, delivering orders with a faint lingering accent of Hong Kong, Chinese tinged with British English. “A man coming out of an alley in lower Queen Anne was struck by a car this morning around dawn. Had a whole pack of your business cards in his coat and no other ID on him. Had your pocket watch too.”
“Pocket watch.”
“Has your name engraved in it,” the detective nodded. “Heavy, expensive. Probably an antique.”
That made no sense whatsoever, but he’d get to that in time. His main concern wasn’t a vagrant with a bunch of fake business cards.
“And how exactly does that lead to this matched-set of bracelets?”
“We keep them chained together so you don’t lose one of them,” the redhead quipped. “Wouldn’t want to break up the set.”
Liu snorted at his partner’s tone. “If I hadn’t handcuffed you, I would still be standing there arguing with that principal.”
MacLeod knew he was right. The woman had been insistent that MacLeod must have come to her school for some deviant purpose. She’d only quieted when Liu had slapped cuffs on his miscreant wrists and led him away.
The sky had begun to spit on them as they entered Seattle.  It was just enough to turn on the wipers but not enough to give them a good glide across the glass. 
The squeak was beginning to aggravate MacLeod’s headache.
 “I’m afraid that’s not possible, detective.”
“Which part?”
“The cards, the watch… all of it.”
“I assure you, it most certainly is,” Liu said.  “I saw the body and the watch, we’re headed there now.”
“I’m not saying he can’t have business cards, just that they can’t be mine,” MacLeod explained.  “I don’t have a business card -- if I want to give someone contact information, I just use the school brochure. And I haven’t owned a watch in decades.”
“What about your cell phone?” Liu asked.  “Don’t they all have clocks on them?”
“It’s still not a watch.” MacLeod said. “Anyway, what difference does it make?  I don’t have a gold cell phone with my name engraved on it, and neither has any watch I’ve ever owned.”
“I’d have thought a school principal would need a good watch to keep track of the class times and suchlike,” the redhead mused.
“Headmaster,” MacLeod muttered. “Anyway, we have people to keep track of that kind of thing.”
The conversation subsided as the brake lights of every car in front of them flashed.  Almost without slowing, the red-haired detective cut across three lanes of slowing traffic and hit the James Street offramp at speed, drawing protests from the wet asphalt and the drivers they cut off.  Moments after they turned off the exit ramp onto James, the radio lit up with aid calls.  There was a multi-car accident at the Yesler exit that was backing up traffic in every direction.  Seattle’s aging freeway system was gridlocked in every direction.
“Lucky,” Liu grunted.
“Instinct,” the redhead countered.
The detective piloted the unmarked Crown Vic through the surface streets of the International District as the viaducts overhead turned into parking lots.  MacLeod watched the business signs pass written in an array of every imaginable oriental alphabet. Seattle’s answer to Chinatown, the ID was a multicultural bazaar, where a variety of civilizations met, blended, and occasionally clashed.
They turned when they reached Fourth Avenue and continued North under the shadow of the stadiums and the cluster of parking lots, home-renovation and architectural salvage warehouses that clustered around them.
Local legend had it that Seattle had been built on seven hills, like Rome.  Though there were actually numerous hills in the city, only seven bore names which extended to the neighborhoods on their slopes and one had actually been taken down in an early feat of cityscaping.  Queen Anne was the tallest of the original seven, a steep promontory in the midst of an ambitious metropolis. The hill had - before the dawn of the skyscraper - held a commanding view of all the land around about from Lake Union to the Northeast to Elliot Bay to the Southwest and the Ballard Locks that connected them.
Timber barons, mining tycoons, industrialists and the owners of the vast ‘mosquito’ fleets that plied the waters of Puget Sound had littered the hill with magnificent homes.  MacLeod’s nefarious ancestors had been among them. He watched the houses pass, indifferent to their age and magnificence.  Across the Sound and culturally light-years away from his present location, the headmaster’s house on the grounds of the school his grandfather had founded was far grander than these, impressive though they were by Seattle standards.
The car paused at the base of Queen Anne Avenue where a uniformed patrolwoman jotted their names for her clipboard.  A few reporters were loitering nearby and the cameras snapped to attention when one of the television anchors spotted MacLeod in the backseat.  The two detectives gave names and badge numbers and the woman stared at MacLeod through the back window as she made due note of their passengers.
MacLeod grimaced and wondered which cop had leaked the story of the death of the last scion of the area’s most infamous family. Whoever it was he dearly wanted to have a quiet word with them somewhere away from the cameras.
The Crown Vic’s aging engine whined as they climbed the steep hill, leaving the media behind at the barrier.  Liu pointed toward the curb and his partner parked the massive car at a 45 degree angle between a Seattle PD cruiser and a Medical Examiner’s van.  MacLeod sat and fumed as they waited for Liu’s partner to come around and open the door.
The detectives gave them a moment to stretch and orient themselves while Liu conversed in low tones with someone in a King County coroner’s jumpsuit.  Halfway up the hill, an ambulance sat in the middle of the street with its doors open, waiting for the Medical Examiner to tell them they could haul the body away.
Liu finished his conversation and gathered them into a huddle by the grill of the Crown Vic before leading them over to the accident scene.
“You ready for this?” Liu asked.  “You know you can make the ID down at the morgue on a closed-circuit video screen if you want to.”
“If you didn’t want me to ID the body, why did you drag me all the way over here?” 
“So they could see you.” Liu nodded toward the covey of reporters now gathered in the middle of the road, held back by the policewoman’s barricade. “We could issue press releases all day telling them you were alive and well, but it won’t make more than a passing mention on the news tonight unless you show up on the scene.”
“Your chief’s okay with that?” MacLeod raised an eyebrow at the detectives.  “Introducing civilians to your crime scene?”
“You’re an expert witness, a consultant… hell, with your background I could come up with any number of reasons to drag you out here.” Liu said.  “At any rate, we’re about to wrap here.  The ME only stuck around because I asked her to.”
MacLeod shrugged.  The prospect of meeting his doppelganger posthumously didn’t excite him, but it didn’t bother him that much either. He had done a stint in medical school and if anything could make a corpse boring, it was dissecting one every day for a year.
The redhead walked around the car and helped him out. MacLeod resisted the urge to rub his wrists as the cuffs came off.  They hadn't really been that tight.
“What’s the story?” he asked.
Liu nodded to his partner, who flipped open a notebook and took the question.
“Near as we can figure, the dude broke into that house up there.”  The red head nodded in the direction of one of the old homes nearby. “Neighbors tell us the owners are in Hawaii, but we haven’t been able to reach them yet. The place looked ransacked but nothing looks stolen except some food out of the fridge.”
“That house?”
“Yeah, why?”  Liu nodded, frowning at the tone of MacLeod’s voice.
“It’s strange is all,” MacLeod frowned up at the Victorian edifice.  “I know the place.”
“My great granddad owned it once upon a time,” MacLeod stared at the house for a moment, lost in thought.  “His dad built it with money he bilked out of honest miners up in the Yukon.  It was left it to me, but I sold it before I left for college.”
“Riiiight,” Liu glanced at his partner.  MacLeod’s nonchalance about his family’s sordid history seemed to put him off-kilter. “There any other Ashleigh MacLeods in your family besides you?”
“My granddad was my namesake, and he’s gone,” MacLeod said.  “The next closest male cousin’s name is Edgar.”
“No, I was wondering if maybe the watch was found in the house,” the detective persisted.  “Like that television show where they lay out all the crap they find in the walls and stuffed under the floorboards of old houses.”
MacLeod shrugged, he didn’t watch television.
“Ah,” MacLeod nodded.  “Let’s get this over with.”
They led him across the road to where the ambulance was parked, blocking the cameras from seeing the dead body, which had been bagged and moved to a gurney.  At a signal from Liu, one of the people in the Medical Examiner’s jumpsuit unzipped the body bag and pulled back the flap.
The dead man was a good twenty years older than him, which surprised him. Who could possibly… MacLeod’s brain froze as he studied the man‘s profile for a moment.  There were brown flakes of dried blood in the deep creases of his face.  He could just see the edges of some sort of heavy scarring. 
In the back of his mind, a long-dormant horror began to stir.
Even with the distortion of the damage and post-mortem lividity combined with the new array of scars that hadn‘t been there the last time they’d met. It had been twenty-five years, but MacLeod knew that face.
“Can I… can I see that watch?”
“You know this guy, MacLeod?” Liu’s voice was sharp.  MacLeod couldn’t look away from the corpse.  His hands were shaking.
“The watch.  Please.”
He knew what it was before the plastic evidence bag was thrust into his hand.  He didn’t even need to take it out to identify it.  It was a plain gold gentleman’s watch, the weight alone should be enough to tell anyone the case was solid gold.  He pressed the button that released the watchcase and manipulated the evidence bag so that there was room for the cover to spring open.  Under the roman twelve, the face of the antique watch bore the signature A.W.W. Co, Waltham, Mass in block letters.  There was no chain or fob to go with it.  His fingers pressed the plastic flat against the inner wall of the case to better make out the inscription.

Ashleigh James MacLeod, MD
Dum Licet Utere

His vision darkened at the edges, constrained until all he could see was the Latin epigram engraved below the name. 
Dum Licet Utere
His brain unraveled the neat, orderly Latin into untidy, evocative, English without his conscious consent.  A voice echoed from his furthest memories, a whisper as old as time spoke the words.  His heartbeat pounded in his ears as his eyes floated back to the scarred and bloated face of the dead man, drowning out whatever Liu was saying to him.  The Medical Examiner grabbed his shoulder. MacLeod could see his mouth move, but couldn’t hear the words.
While time is given… MacLeod staggered to his feet… use it…  He shrugged off the hands that grabbed at his jacket as he lunged for the nearest curb.
His hearing and vision returned after what felt like an hour of floating in a gray fog.  The acrid stench of bile and coffee assailed his nose, combining oddly with the scent of fresh-mown grass.  He always skipped breakfast on the morning of a school visit.  All he’d had in his stomach was coffee. 
Strong hands rolled him over onto his back.  Wet blades of grass tickled the back of his neck as rubbery fingers pried his eyelids open and a shaft of white light stabbed into his cornea.  MacLeod muttered something he hoped came off as gratitude and pushed the paramedic away from him as he sat up.
Liu, his partner, a paramedic, and the man from the ME’s office stood in a semicircle, blocking his view of… of the body.  He refused to touch that thought yet.
The paramedic was talking.
“…just different seeing them in situ,” her voice sounded smug.  “We get doctors in all the time who think they’ve seen it all.  Half of them still blow their cookies.”
“Sir, you passed out, you should lie down until you feel better.” The guy in the ME’s jumpsuit laid a latex-gloved hand on his shoulder.
“It was just a vaso-vagal reaction,” he raised his finger where the man had clipped a pulse-oxygen monitor over his fingernail.  The red numbers were slowly climbing back into the normal range.  “See?  I’m fine.” 
He was lying. 
The monitor couldn’t measure how far from fine he actually was.
“You okay there, MacLeod?” Liu called.  He held the bagged watch in his hand, staring down at it.  MacLeod averted his eyes before the detective could look up, catch him staring.
“The vagus nerve gets tripped by stress and causes all sorts of problems.  Low blood pressure, nausea, vomiting and fainting,” MacLeod spoke to the ME and the paramedic, not ready to deal with the detective yet.  “Vagus is from Latin, it literally means wanderer, because it wanders all over your body from crotch to cocked hat, as my granddad used to say.”  The Paramedic caught the pulse-ox clip MacLeod tossed at her. 
“Should you be doing…” The redheaded detective trailed off at his impatient wave.  In the gap between the detectives he could see the body bag.  The thready voice from his memory still whispered Latin poems in his ears.
“What is it?” Liu looked annoyed and it took MacLeod a moment to realize his rank of onlookers was also shielding him from the cameras at the bottom of the hill.
“Weak stomach,” the paramedic enthused, but Liu shook his head.
“Not this guy, he’s seen more dead bodies in situ than you have,” Liu hooked a thumb at MacLeod.  “He’s not telling us something.”
Dum licet utere.” MacLeod didn’t offer a translation.  “The inscription was my great-granddad’s motto.  He had it engraved on the watch he gave his son - my granddad - when he graduated medical school.  Doctor Ashleigh James MacLeod Senior, but since the watch was engraved before I was born no one had appended that designate to his name yet.”
“So how did this guy get it?” Liu glanced up at the house, thinking about what his partner had said earlier.  “Did he find it in there?”
“No,” MacLeod covered his face with his hands.  “His father gave it to him when he got his MBA.”
It took Liu only a moment to connect the dots.
“Jeez, MacLeod,” he turned and looked at the body for a long moment, noting the facial features, the similarities.  He looked up, horror on his face.  “That’s your old man, isn‘t it?”

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).