The Witch-Doctor: Episode Six
Written by Equanimous Rex
Edited by James Curcio
Logo by Amun Disalvatron
“Sorry to have bothered you, ma’am.” The door slammed. Artemis looked down at the tiny wylrose colored shoe in her hand.
Am I going nuts? she worried, but no, the coloration was unmistakable. Granted, the material the shoe was made of seemed odd. Its style was perplexing. But there was no doubt in her mind it was a local product. Wylroses wilted and died within a day of being plucked, no matter what anyone did to preserve them. Nowell was one of the only places you’d ever see them used in any way. Each of the nearby resettlements, Stawford and Exeter, had been abandoned a few years now, hadn’t persisted like Nowell. For endless miles, there was nothing but forest, wilting or vibrant depending on which side of the river you stood. Wylroses did not grow south of the river, were sporadic with their growth, and rare. But occasionally, Artemis knew, they were brought in by one of the local scavvers. Dye made from their crushed, rapidly putrefying petals was widely sought after by locals.
She spent the better part of the day running around, trying to find all the parents she could, trying to put a name to the shoe. Nobody seemed that interested, always suggesting some other family, some other child. Artemis could feel their hostility. Probably the so-and-so’s from down the street. Weren’t they always yelling at their kids? Some people weren’t meant to be parents… Artemis could almost hear them tut-tutting her in their absence. “Gone crazy out in the Wilder,” One would say.
“It is known to happen,” says another.
She couldn’t bring herself to visit the families of the lost children, knowing full well she ought to have, but she remembered their haunted eyes, the first time she went round. She didn’t want to look at those eyes again. Not again. But now…
Stupid, she scolded herself, you should have gone to see them first. First! Part of her had hoped she’d find a surprised but grateful family. That she might even get thanked, in that cold Nowell way, for the return of the shoe. Well-made shoes did not simply go missing, not in these parts. But nobody had claimed it.
She had hoped that the clue would lead nowhere. She felt guilty for it, but it was true all the same. Nothing would be solved, nothing that mattered. The wounds of Kal and Corey’s disappearance were fresh. The entire town felt poised to be struck by lightning, shattered by earthquake.
The Smiths had become virtual hermits, save for the father’s visits to the Ratskeller. To all reports he sat silently, drinking all the free beer he could get his hands on.
Abram’ll soon have competition, Artemis thought, can’t drink Nowell dry on his own. She thought about her own, not insignificant, collection of vodka jugs.
Robert Smith, one time scavver, now cancer-ridden. A grieving father. Artemis studied him for some time before his daughter’s disappearance. The Smith’s didn’t live in Sunny Side, but Robert was a Benton man all the same. If not by blood, then by actions.
It was an open secret, that old Benton had a hand in the illicit goods market. Most folks assumed he had bootlegger connections.
It wasn’t that Artemis gave a shit about old books and the like, but the Devout sure did. Everyone knew the First Proclamation. Thou-Shalt Not-Gaze-Upon-Unorthodox-Medias. Punishable by death. Though, these days, you were more likely to be chain-ganged south, to the work camps.
Not wanting to draw the ire of the Domus, she kept tabs on the man. Hadn’t found anything conclusive, so she figured, if it was being kept that low-key, she didn’t have to worry about it. Didn’t have to worry about dags popping in, or worrying that they’d turn the town over for blackmarket goods.
The wife was a different story. Annalise. Fervent teetotaler, it was no wonder Robert had hit the alcohol hard after the tumor ruined his leg. She was as religious as one could be, this far from the Domus. Still not a lot going on with her, as far as Artemis could tell. Made cloth, sewed clothes. Traded or sold the surplus. Exciting stuff.
After Kal went missing, most folks assumed she’d run off. No tracks. No signs of forced entry. No doors hanging ajar, no bloody fingerprints, nothing. It was the lack of evidence that lulled most folks into the idea she’d grown bored and decided to leave. Wouldn’t be the first time some kid thought warnings were hogwash. Opted to know better, then got themselves killed.
But it had rained.
When Artemis first inspected around the Smith household, the sky had wept as though in sympathy with the parents. If there were tracks, they were gone.
It had been easier to shrug, and get on with her life.
It wasn’t as if the townsfolk were clamoring to have her investigate, anyway. She wasn’t born here in Nowell, and wasn’t resettled, either. She would always be a foreigner. Part of her resented their… commonality. Their common-sense, common way of thinking, and deference to commonly-accepted truisms. The Territories demanded simplicity, if a constant struggle to survive could be called simple. But Artemis always thought it made the resettlers a bit simple themselves..
No, that’s not it, she thought. People in general. People in general love their simple stories, don’t they? How many times had she seen one of them shrug off some tragedy with a fairy-tale? A story written into existence at the dawn of time. Words about the Lord Father reaping what He sowed. Empty noises. Nobody wanted complexity, mystery. It scared them. But it didn’t scare Artemis. She knew that the world was far from simple.
For three months she had searched the Wilder for signs, for any signs at all of those children. All of her efforts came to naught. She grasped at thin air, trying to man-handle some clue out of the Wilder. All she’d gotten was phantoms and spider-silk.
Seemed easier to let it go.
Then Corey went missing. Carl Benton had not been easy to work with. Artemis hadn’t seen him since his youngest had gone missing. Former youngest. He refused all of her requests to inspect the premises, and assured her that his men were more than capable.
His men. The confident prick.
The shoe had to belong to someone. She looked at it, as she walked away from yet another house. The sun was starting to fall behind the trees, casting light that turned their leaves an unnatural shade of pink. Artemis didn’t think she’d get anywhere with Carl Benton. She headed over to the Smith’s residence instead.
The conversation had been short, though far from sweet. They never left the front steps of the house. Not mincing her words, Annalise said the shoe didn’t belong to her daughter, and furthermore, they didn’t want company. Robert yelled something incomprehensible from within the house, and Mrs. Smith had closed the door. Her slight smile as the door shut lingered in the sheriff’s mind.
Artemis touched a hand to the space on her hat the badge had been for years.
Sheriffs do not exist,everyone knows that. The Devout protect us now.
She spat on the ground, and walked down Main street toward the Ratskeller.
The shoe still lacked an owner.
The Ratskeller was nearly empty, when Artemis arrived. A few regulars sat at the bar, scavvers and drunks nursing drinks. Abram curled on the floor in one corner, head bobbing, snores rumbling.
She spotted the vendor the Administrator had bribed—the same one who’d accused Abram of trying to cheat him out of his liquor—drinking with several other convoymen at a table. They laughed and joked boisterously, oblivious to her approach. Artemis saw one of them sporting her badge on his chest.
‘Finders keepers,’ that’s what he said to me.
She saw no dagger-men in the Ratskeller, which surprised her somewhat. She figured it had to do with the robed man. Maybe they were being audited. Maybe their ‘tax’ haul had come up short lately, so the Domus had sent someone to babysit them. Either way, Artemis was glad they were making themselves scarce.
Taking off her campaign hat, she set it on the bar, next to one of the elderly drinkers, a man she knew only as “Red”.
“Watch that for me, will you?” she said, not looking at him as she passed.
“You,” Artemis pointed at the trader who wore her badge, the unlikely shoe salesman. All at once, the table’s occupants turned to look at her, grins still plastered over their sweaty faces. Her quarries’ eyes were glazed, and it took a moment for him to realize who she was without the hat.
“Oh! You! Ha!” he pointed to the badge, “guess I’m the sheriff round these here parts now, eh?”
The other traders laughed at this, one spilling his beer on the floor. Artemis walked around the table, getting in close.
The man shrunk back somewhat, and then puffed up his chest in response, when he realized how this might look to his friends.
“I don’t want no trouble. Fair’s fair. Solid square. We traded.”
Artemis smiled at him, and raised her hands. “I’m not here to complain. Nothing like that.”
She slowly dragged a chair over from an unoccupied table, it screamed the entire way. They watched silently. Finally, she sat down next to him. “It just gets so boring in this ratshit town. I was hoping you fellas knew how to treat a lady.” She grabbed one of the cups of beer from the table. The convoymen were too sluggish to stop her. She threw it back in a few gulps, slamming the cup against the table. The men cheered.
When she walked out the back door with the vendor, she almost felt bad. She let him touch her, knowing to feign just the right amount of resistance. The sun had set, the twilight fading fast, moon already bright above them. He mumbled and swayed, and seemed as happy to grab her arm as her breasts. She scanned the alley, and saw that they were alone.
It took one solid punch to send him tumbling to the ground. Artemis dropped with him, mounted him and wrapped her incredibly strong legs around him in a crushing grip. When he went to scream she threw a handful of dirt into his mouth. The man gagged, and she closed her hand around his throat. Just hard enough.
“If you yell, I’m going to put my thumbs through your eyes. Do you understand?” she asked, actually having to repeat herself several times before the man nodded.
He spat the soil out of his mouth. Positioned as he was, it came back on his own face, and dripped like mud down one cheek.
“Where did you get the shoe?” she glared at him, and he shrunk into himself underneath her.
“It’s not mine. I don’t know! I swear on the Messiah’s-”
She raised a fist, and he flinched. “Try again.”
“I swear! I don’t kno-” He was getting loud again so Artemis tossed more dirt in his face. From behind her back she pulled a skinning knife, held it gleaming in the moonlight for the man to see. He started to squeal, so she bared her teeth at him, a mad glint in her eye, and he froze.
“Are you involved in the disappearance of two children from this town?” she asked, trying another avenue. “Why do you have a child’s shoe? Just one? Why?”
The man’s eyes widened. “What!? No! What? What are you talking about?” Artemis rolled to sitting on his chest, and contemplated the skinning knife. .
“Hey. Hey no, don’t you dare k—”
Before he could finish, she casually struck him twice on the temple with the butt of the knife, and sheathed it. He groaned, and lie still.
Artemis bent over, ripped the badge from his shirt, and pocketed it.
“Finders keepers,” she said, and then walked into the night.
Red better not lose my hat.
When Artemis finally arrived home, she found Chet sitting outside. He wore his scavving pack, and his rifle sat on the ground next to him. It looked like he’d been there a while, like he never went home, and when he finally looked up at her, Artemis felt uneasy.
“Hello,” she greeted him suspiciously, “Chet.”
“Why are you sitting outside my tent?”
“Oh?” he looked around, as though he’d forgotten where he was. He took a long breath. Even in the darkness she could see the years and their burdens across his face.
“Well?” she asked, impatiently. Eventually, that vendor would get his shit together and snitch her out.
“Well,” Chet started again, stopping, swallowing. “I think I heard something out in the woods.”
Artemis relaxed. “A mutie? Something dangerous? I can—”
He interrupted her. “It sounded like a person.”
“A person.” She was paying attention now.
“Well, sorta like a person.” He struck a match, and lit a rolled cigarette between his lips.
“Chet what the hell are you on about? Was it a person or not?”
He took a drag. “I don’t know. I didn’t check it out.”
“Okay. And? You know how things are out there.”
“So why are you telling me?”
“Because I think… I think it might have been a person. Now. I didn’t then. But it keeps playing back in my head.” Chet took another long drag on his smoke.
“You been smoking mothsbane?” she asked him, her nostrils wrinkling at the smell. “God dammit Chet, you know better.”
“It don’t matter. I think I heard someone out there. But I can’t bring myself to go back. I heard it, and I never even went to look. Not even with all the… stuff that’s been happening. I never thought to go check it out.” He looked up at her, the moon reflecting in his haunted eyes. “It coulda been… The kids? Mutants? Anything at all. I’ll never know. I ran.”
Artemis felt her stomach tighten. “Were you smoking that shit up at the ruins?”
“Yeah.” Hesitancy in his voice. “But I’m telling you, I’ve been replaying it and replaying it in my head. I think I left a person out there. I just couldn’t bring myself to go back out. Not at night. I have the girls…” He trailed off.
“Chester Vilkenson I swear to god if you make me go out there for some pipe dream…”
“No pipe dream, sheriff. I heard someone out there.”
“Well, shit.” She sighed, already decided. It’s not like leaving town a little wasn’t already a good idea.
It didn’t take long to gather her gear. Convincing Chet to come along burned up a few precious minutes, but she was persistent.
People were already starting to settle into their bedtime routines. The streets would be mostly empty. Her ears perked at every raised voice around every corner. However, no alarm was raised, no call to locate the trader’s assailant.
Maybe I killed him, she thought suddenly. Stupid Artie. Stupid fucking Artie. It would be just like her to have killed him.
Chet warned Artemis, as if the whole thing had been his idea, “keep to the wall, and be quiet about it. We don’t need the dags finding out about this, ‘cuz this ain’t dag business anyway. We don’t need those sons of bitches getting involved,”
Tacit agreement was almost telepathically communicated as they disappeared into the brush. They needed to do this on their own.