Four Eyes had gone to the safehouse as quickly as he could after receiving the message. It was a gut feeling, but if the other side wanted to undermine him, to potentially destroy him, it was there, he thought, that they could do the most harm. It was where Nascine would go looking for him if she suspected anything.
Six Coins had told him “there’s a hole dug up in Murleg’s Bog.” Murleg’s Bog. He had never wanted to think about Murleg’s Bog again.
Chris Thatch was thirty-two, a rather talented young Rookery Thief who had spent much of his short career at the Oakshurst field office and spoke fluent Hesaian. Though recruited out of the Royal Marines, he didn’t have a soldier’s roughness, and was instead a fairly quiet and empathetic person. He was employed primarily as an analyst in his time at the Rookery, reading Hesaian newspapers all day while he was down there, and somehow conjured the desire to read novels in his free time. Like Four Eyes, he wore spectacles. Indeed, the two of them had similar physiques and coloring – tall, with chestnut hair and lantern jaws. They would be described in the same way, though they would not be confused for one another by sight.
The House did things in its habitual way. Four Eyes found his instructions in a plastic bag at the bottom of a stream in Kiterine Park. There was a duplicate key to Thatch’s house under a loose brick in a back-alley in Canwick, and a knife hidden in a window-side planter one block away.
It was the habitual House way, and so Four Eyes did not ever touch the key or the knife. Another Agent would do that. But because he was most personally invested in seeing Thatch taken care of, he was instructed to be present at the disposal.
He drove there separately through a dense blanket of fog, using the unlocked car, its key in the ignition, which had been left outside of the coffee shop where he was told to wait. They were miles outside of Ravenfort when he came to Murleg’s Bog, the vast watery pit.
The man driving the lorry was bundled up in a thick jacket, scarf, and cap. It wasn’t terribly cold. He had wiry grey hair poking out from under the cap and a big red nose that spoke of alcohol and possibly skin cancer.
Four Eyes walked over to the lorry driver. “Is this where they get the peat moss for the whiskey?” he asked.
“Nay, peat bogs be a track or two up north, by Calico-on-Whaye. This here’s Murleg’s Bog.”
Satisfied, Four Eyes nodded and moved to the back of the lorry. The driver made no move to follow. “You stay back there. I’ll tell you when I’m done,” said Four Eyes, as if the driver needed to be reminded.
The driver would not know what was in the box. Thatch’s body had been put in an ice chest, per instruction. They had waited three days, per instruction. And he was now being put in Murleg’s Bog, per instruction.
Four Eyes looked around. They were far enough from the road that no passing motorist would see. The air was thick with fog, and the bog might have stretched on forever.
Four Eyes raised the door to the back of the trailer. The ice chest was a pale blue-green with slightly rusted chrome handles. There was no ramp or even dolly. So he climbed up in the back of the trailer and heaved at the ice chest.
It was far lighter than he expected it to be. The chest slid easily across the trailer’s floor and tumbled out of the back of the lorry.
It hit the gravel road with a sickening crack, and the door fell open, propping the chest up, with Thatch’s body spilling out underneath it.
Four Eyes swore and then jumped down from the trailer. “Don’t suppose you could help me?” he called back to the driver.
“Can’t, mate. Instructions, you know how it is.”
Four Eyes rolled the chest back so that its opening would point up again, but it was very difficult to do so without Thatch’s body tumbling out of it. He found that he did not want to touch the body. He wanted to somehow avoid it, only placing his hands on the rectangular shape of the ice chest, but he could not coax the body to fall into place as it should.
Even when he had finally managed to right the ice chest, Thatch’s arms and one of his legs were poking up. Four Eyes groaned, averting his gaze as best he could.
The man did look a bit like him. But death and freezing had done odd things to his face. Blood oozed out of his opened throat, still carrying crystals of ice, but returning to liquid with each passing moment.
Gingerly, Four Eyes took Thatch’s leg by the trousers and attempted to push it back in. He did not have such a luxury with the arms, on which the sleeves had been rolled up. After a deep breath, he picked up one of the frigid, stiff arms and folded it over Thatch’s chest before doing the same with the other.
He pressed down on the door. It would not latch shut.
He opened it again, hot frustration replacing his chilly disgust. He pushed down on Thatch’s foot, which he decided had been why the door was not shutting. Yet when he tried again, it would still not close all the way.
He tried again, but the chill of the fog and a growing anxiety that the lorry driver would abandon him began to gnaw at him.
This part should be over. He thought. They should have planned this correctly!
By all rights, he should not have even been there, doing this. His job was to impersonate Thatch and find Jaroka. What purpose did this exercise serve?
After four more attempts, he slammed the door down. There was a crunching sound. It was unlike anything he would have expected to hear from a body. He looked into the chest. Thatch’s skull had been visibly cracked.
Four Eyes’ stomach churned, but he realized that this was, likely, the best solution. He slammed the door down again, and again, and again. Bones began to break, and he could hear and smell the dead flesh getting torn and pulverized as he brought the heavy ice chest door down on the body of Chris Thatch.
The door finally closed completely. Four Eyes collapsed over it, only now registering how fast his heart was beating and how loud the pulse of blood was thundering in his ears.
He heaved and shoved and very gradually moved the Ice Chest to the edge of the bog. It hit the surface with a clap, but as the fluid around it began to bubble up, the chest slowly sank. Within ten minutes, there was nothing but muddy black.
As if the driver had somehow known when it would sink, at that exact moment, the lorry pulled away, leaving Four Eyes with just his own car.
In the basement of the Exbrooke safehouse, Four Eyes looked down at the ice chest, still black from the foul ooze of Murleg’s Bog. The latch had been torn off, which felt almost like a personal insult. The body was still in there, preserved, frozen, one bloodshot, accusatory eye looking up at him through shattered spectacle lenses.
They had known. Had it been the lorry driver? Was he working for the other side? Or perhaps that thick fog had done more to disguise their observers than it had for him. They knew.
Four Eyes realized he had become the protagonist of one of the gothic horror stories that this dead man before him had been known to read.
He attempted to think in practicalities. The body would have to be removed, but this would prove trickier in a place as dense as Exbrooke. He would need some sort of vehicle to transport it. Alternatively, he could walk away and await further instructions from Six Coins.
Yet the curtness of Six Coins’ warning had suggested a state of panic and disarray. He was on his own. He would be forced to improvise.
Only then did it occur to him that perhaps it had not been Six Coins who had given him the message. Perhaps this was a trap.
And right on queue, above him, he heard the back door open - the one with the smashed lock. Someone was coming. Four Eyes stepped away from the body of Chris Thatch and stepped back into the shadows, drawing his knife.
The stage was set, and cruel eyes in an old man’s head – a head rimmed with wiry gray hair – watched the house where Four Eyes held his knife to Gilbert Tartin’s throat. The young Agent and the middle-aged Thief both waiting breathlessly as Emily Nascine, the third and final player in this performance, made her way down into the basement of the Exbrooke safehouse.
The man with the wiry hair sat on a park bench, sipping from a cup of coffee – foul stuff, but not as foul as the “coffee” his superior had given him the week before. He no longer looked like a lorry driver. He was in a business suit, his wiry hair tamed backward. He had the Ravenfort Ledger folded over his knee and he made a token effort to appear engrossed in the financial section.
And behind him, standing by a pond, sprinkling breadcrumbs for the ducks, there was a man, or rather something very old in the shape of a man. He wore a slender iron crown and a black cloak as dark as night. No one saw the man in the crown.
(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2015)