When Ants Tell A Story
A line of marching ants leads a young watchman to a sordid scene, a crime to be sorted out.
Iric watched the swarm of ants as they marched down the cracked cobblestone road, along the edges where weeds had begun to reassert their dominance. The little red army marched in double file, around a corner, into a smaller alley that seemed more jungle than street. If the weeds on the main road were just regaining their confidence, those in the alley were already proud conquerors.
Iric wondered what had seized the attention of the insects as to draw them out is such numbers. The young watchman stepped around the corner to investigate.
The first thing he noticed, stepping into the overgrown backstreet, was the rotten smell. It was a stench that managed to be both sweet and sour at the same time. Iric glanced ahead, but couldn’t see anything in the forest of green. Grassy stalks stood above his knees and vines covered the walls of the buildings, lining the short alley, which was barely more than a man’s height in width. The space extended only about triple that in length. The confined area only seemed to amplify the odor. Iric covered his nose with a hand.
He followed the ants as they weaved their way through the overgrowth. His foot abruptly struck something hidden in the grass. His foot had struck another foot. Iric jumped back in shock.
Hidden under the thick vegetation was a person, lying on the ground. A man by the look of him, by what Iric could see of him. The ants continued with their march, bypassing and largely ignoring the body.
“Excuse me…sir?” Iric asked.
“Sir?” He tried again.
“Hello!” He shouted, giving the uncovered foot another good kicking. It did not respond.
As his surprise faded, Iric could tell the smell was coming from the body. Or mostly from the body. At least the sour part of the odor. This is not good.
He pushed his way through the weeds and grass until he found the man’s head, or what was left of it. The skull had been smashed. It rested in a thick pool of blood, which grass blades clung to like hairs to a sweaty brow.
There was no mistaking murder.
A wooden plank, stained an equally red tint, lay on the ground a few feet away. On the opposite side of the body, the formation of ants reached their destination: a spilled sack of sugar.
A man killed over some white powder? It actually wasn’t that hard to imagine. Sugar was a rare, and expensive trade good from the south. But that didn’t explain why the goods were still on the ground for the ants to pillage.Why hadn’t the killer taken the bag?
Iric regretted not bringing Hunter along on his patrol today. The dog would have been able to track down his murderer without any trouble. It seemed he would have to try it the old-fashioned way, by thinking the crime through.
What was it that Sergeant Vott always told him? “Every object could be a clue. You have to decide which are evidence and which are worthless. Once you have your evidence, try to figure out how they connect into a story.”
Iric examined the cloth bag that contained the sugar. It had a brand burned onto the side: Kestrel Trading. He knew that place, a warehouse on the docks that exported copper and iron ores to the south, and brought back goods from that region. How did this man get his hands on it? His hands…
He reached over and grasped one of the lifeless arms, turning it over so he could see the palm. It was rough and calloused, like those of someone who labored hard every day. Appropriate for a dockworker. Iric fumbled through the man’s pockets and found a promissory note for ten copper pieces, with the name Espen Helgason written at the top, signed by Anson Briggs, taskmaster for Kestrel Trading.
Iric stepped over and picked up the murder weapon. The board was about two inches square in diameter and two feet long. It looked to be some sort of bracing beam and was made of good quality wood.
Deciding that he had learned as much from scene as he could by himself, he headed off back to the watchhouse to get Hunter and some more muscle, still holding the bloody board in his hand.
* * *
The three watchmen—Pyri, Byorki, and Iric in the lead—marched through the open gate that led to Kestrel Trading’s massive warehouse and dock. Near the gate, Iric noticed a space that looked like it was being built into a new room. The open roof was braced with two-foot-long beams. A pile of extras lay nearby. They were the same color and shape as the murder weapon.
He was shaken from his stare by the shadow of movement in the corner of his view. A man in ragged work clothes was coming over to meet them.
“Can I help you,” he said.
“I’m looking for Anson Briggs,” Iric said.
“Of course. One moment.” The man turned and put a hand to his mouth. “Hey, Orvar! Get Anson, will ya?” He turned back to the watchmen. “What is this about?”
“Did you know Espen Helgason?”
“Sure. He works here. Haven’t seen him in a couple days.”
“He’s been murdered.”
“What? No…” The man appeared more nervous than sorrowful.
“Tell me,” Iric said, trying to focus his trail of thought. “You ship sugar here, right?”
“Yes. It’s one of our most valuable trade items.”
“How much would, say, a bag this size,” Iric gestured with his hands, “bring in?”
The man’s eyes widened for a brief moment, then he regained his composure. “Too much. No one person would buy that much at one time. It would cost more than a year’s worth of food. Good food even. And it would go bad before you could eat it all…now that you mention it, we did have a sack that size go missing a few days ago.”
“When Espen disappeared?”
“Yeah, just about.”
“And that wasn’t suspicious?”
Again, the man seemed shaken by the question. He glanced around before speaking again, quietly. “Anson said not to worry about it. He said it must have simply been replaced and that he would look into to it, to make sure it never happened again.”
“That was all? After such a significant loss?”
“Yeah, it was strange. But you quickly learn here not to argue with Anson Briggs.”
As if on cue, the man named Orvar returned, following in the wake of a larger and more confident man. When the newcomer caught sight of the watchmen in their armor, he stopped. Hunter started to growl. The big man turned to run and the hound was after him. The three armored watchmen clanked along as best they could.
Anson dashed into the warehouse, knocking over tables and tossing crates to deter the advancing dog. It didn’t help. Even with a limp, Hunter was faster than him. She leapt over the obstacles, diving into the attack. Anson tried to pull the animal’s teeth from his leg, but failed.
“Alright, I did it! Just get this damn dog off me!”
“Down, girl!” Iric commanded. The hound relented but continued to growl at Anson threateningly.
“Why would you kill your own worker?” Iric asked.
“Cause he stole that sugar and was going to run off with it. I had to make an example. Had to ensure it didn’t happen again.”
“So do we,” Iric said, turning the larger man on his stomach and binding his hands. The dockworkers watched in silence as Anson Briggs was dragged away.