Bad Fayre Day
They had managed to cover most of the fairgrounds, perambulating at an unhurried pace. There was nothing either of them felt like doing, and the shady paths around the edge of the Fayre were preferable to the hot, dusty plain below.
They stopped for a snack, not because they were hungry, but because it was something to do. Alex treated them to Renaissance cotton candy, after which they shopped at a row of booth run by jewelers. The handcrafted silver and semi-precious gems were interesting; the jewelers seem to specialize mainly in what they assumed was modern pagan symbolism, nothing either of them felt like sporting. But the work was interesting and often creative.
After an hour or so had passed, the two had relaxed considerably from their early adventures and were ready to once again join the crowds. A long high, extremely flat, horn note sounded, followed by the cry of "The Joust! The Joust!" which was taken up by all the actors and traveled quickly through the grounds. The crowd began to mill in the general direction of the jousting lawn, Alex and Bret among them.
"This is the first joust," Alex explained. "Its the result of the challenge from the Living Chess Game. Therell be a big fight and a new challenge, which will be the later jousts premise."
"And they do the same thing every time?" Bret thought it sounded dire.
"Every week," Alex paused, "well, the story might change slightly, because its live, but the jousts are always the same people."
They had hit a long, meandering line of people, funneling slowly through the fence to seats in bleachers that surrounded the lawn. Bret looked around her and decided that theyd get nowhere near the lawn from this spot anyway.
"Im going to run off to the loo," Bret told Alex. "Ill join you later. Well," she amended, "Ill watch the joust, I mean. Theres pretty much no chance of me finding you in this crowd. We can meet back," she swung her head back and forth, looking for a likely spot. "Well meet over there," she pointed her arm towards the sword booth, where she could just about make out Heathers red-gold curls in the distance.
Alex grinned. "Ill go slow," he promised, and blew her a kiss as she walked off in the direction of the porta-potties.
Bret had had a notion that, as the joust was to begin soon, the line for the temporary toilets would somehow be shorter. When she arrived and found the lines more than a dozen people deep, she realized just how wrong she had been. Resignedly, she joined a likely line and prepared to wait.
To kill time, she eavesdropped on her neighbors, but tuned out when there was nothing scandalous or even vaguely interesting to note. She really didnt care about the difference between motorcycle carburetors (courtesy of the three bikers on her left) or of Janies reaction to the fire-eater (mother and friend behind her) or of the differences in micro brewed ales (assorted people in the general vicinity.)
She turned her back on the porta-potties and watched the crowd pass by. From time to time, she caught a glimpse of chestnut hair moving around at the sword booth. Bret smiled to herself at the memory of Heathers eyes boring into her own. Was it worth pursuing in real life, she wondered, or was this destined to be a pleasant memory? She was surprised at how fervently she hoped that it was the former.
Shuffling back a few steps, as the crowd moved forward, Bret caught sight of the red hair again. Heather slipped out of the booth and hurried off towards the toilets. Bret assumed that the joust was a good time for the vendors to snatch a much-needed break. Heathers hair flashed in the sun and disappeared behind a row of booths. Bret watched for her to reappear, but she did not. After a moment or two, Bret turned back to face the head of the line. She could hear the roar of the cheering for the joust. There were still six people ahead of her. At this rate, she thought, shed miss the whole thing. She felt no particular regret the stage fighting techniques they used here were fine on a stage, but suffered from proximity. It was all so palpably fake; it set her teeth on edge.
Five people to go. She admitted, reluctantly even to herself, that the highlight of the Fayre for her were the entertainers. They, at least, couldnt fake it. You either caught the juggling pin, or you didnt, you either played mandolin or you didnt. She reminded herself to go and watch the glass blowing demonstration. Nothing fake about fire and molten silica, either.
By the time Bret reached the toilet, she could tell that the joust had begun. She did her business rapidly, not wanting to stay in this delightful contraption for a second longer than needed. She was pleased to find that the Fayre offered antibacterial sanitizer and liberally applied it. It would take a few minutes of fresh air to wipe the smell out of her nose.
The sounds from the joust lawn were still loud, but tapering off. Then they built towards another crescendo. Bret glanced towards the lawn, the crowd many dozens of people deep, visible even from this distance, then back towards the LHomme Arme' booth. Heather wasnt visible, but neither was Gene. Bret could make out the tall blond man she had originally spoken with. She glanced quickly back at the lawn, made her decision, and headed off to the swordmakers booth. Maybe she could do a little detective work before Heather returned.
The blond man seemed to remember her that, or he faked it beautifully. Bret smiled brightly up at him, asking him to show her the knives Heather had shown her earlier. To her surprise only one of the three was still available.
"Its been a good crowd," he grinned down at her. The one remaining knife was the one with the aventurine in the hilt. Bret wondered out loud what she could possibly do with it.
"Do you ask that when you go to buy a painting?" the blond laughed. "Its a work of art a work of art that can cut a can open."
Cut a can? Her expression must have spoken for her, because he turned around and grabbed something off the counter behind him. With a quick thrust, he jammed a knife from his bandolier into an aluminum can top. In a few moments, the can was open and the knife, remarkably, was unscathed. Bret examined the blades edge, but could see no nicks and only the barest scratches.
"Wow." She knew it wasnt very intelligent, but it was sincere.
"Yeah," the blond laughed. "Wow. Im Jamie, by the way." He held out a hand, which Bret took. Her own disappeared into it immediately.
"I know." He grinned mightily at her. "Heather mentioned your name."
She had no idea what to say to that, so she chose to change the subject. Retrieving her hand from his grip, she pointed at the knife of the counter. "How much is it?"
Jamie picked it up, examined it minutely and laid it back down, closer to her, the hilt only centimeters from her hand. "Six ninety-five. How will you be paying for that?"
"Six " Brets voice caught in her throat. "You mean, six *hundred*?!"
Jamie nodded. "Its hand forged steel. Hand tooled. The wood is finished by hand and the etching is free-hand."
"And it opens cans," Bret laughed nervously, shifting away from the gorgeous, but exceptionally high-priced knife. "I I dont make that much."
"We have a lay-away plan, "Jamie assured her. "No interest for up to a year."
"I, uh, Ill have to think about it." Brets eyes wandered, wondering if she could still catch the joust. The crowd noise said that it was still going on. "Um, where is Heather?"
There was no change in the smile on Jamies face as he answered her. He must be quite used to the reaction of prospective customers when faced with such high prices. "She went on break, but she should be back any moment. Why not wait for her?" He edged the beautiful knife over towards her hand. "Get to know it."
Her hands curled into defiant fists, Bret was about to pull away completely, when the very person she had been looking for ran up to the booth, practically vaulted over the rope and behind the counter.
"Sorry Im late!" Heather panted, as she rooted around beneath one of the booth counters for something.
"Someones here to see you, Heath," Jamie said, with a broad wink at Bret.
Heathers voice came up from the floor, muffled by the wood slats. "Who? Is it that guy with the eyepatch again? You take him Jai." She stood up, plopping a first aid kit down on the countertop.
Bret could see that her hand was bleeding and that she was still breathing heavily. Her face was flushed and there was sweat visible on her forehead. Heather looked at the blond, who gestured with his chin. Heathers gaze shifted. When she saw Bret, a happy smile appeared on her face.
"Bret! Did you come to get the knife?" Heathers eyes took in the blade on the countertop in front of Bret.
Shaking her head, Bret shifted away from the knife and towards Heather. "Uh, Id love to, but it's way out of my price range. Youre hurt." Bret could see a long, shallow cut on the palm of Heathers hand.
"Weve got a great layaway plan. No interest for up to a year." The words seemed to come involuntarily. Heather saw where Bret was looking and shrugged. "Its just a scratch. Caught my hand on a nail." She poured some peroxide over the wound, which instantly foamed pink. Bret felt quite nauseous looking at the blood and peroxide mixing, but Heather seemed to barely notice. "Wouldnt you know it, though? I work with super-sharp things all day and a nail gets me." Heather grabbed a handful of gauze and patted the wound dry. Bret could see that the cut was even and smooth, bleeding lightly from along the entire length. Heather wound the gauze around the cut, laid large several large gauze pads over it, and surrounded the whole with waterproof tape. It was all done quickly and neatly so quickly and neatly, in fact, that Bret had to assume shed done it before.
Heather slipped the first aid kit back under the counter. "Last year one of the axes got me. I went through six rolls of gauze that day. But you know, Genes stuff is so sharp, that it healed cleanly not even a scar." She held up the back of her hand so that Bret could see. There was no visible scar. Bret nodded to show that she understood.
"So," Heather said, her newly bandaged hand at her side. "You going to buy it? Its guaranteed to go up in value." Her grin took the edge off the comment.
Bret bit back an annoyed retort, but shook her head. "Id love to but " she shook her head again.
"I understand," Heathers undamaged hand took the knife off the counter and placed it in one of the glass display cases with lined the booth. "I mean I really understand. Most of us are here working off pieces. Its an expensive habit." She laughed bitterly. "Some of us are working off pieces we bought years ago and never seem to manage to pay off completely." Her bandaged hand rose to touch the purple-tinted wooden handle of a long straight knife, or maybe a short sword, that swung at her hip. She looked as if she was remembering something something unpleasant.
"Is that why youre here? I mean, theyre beautiful, but Genes so nasty " Bret wasnt quite sure if she really wanted to know.
"Yep," Heathers fake accent was completely gone, her voice low, as she leaned over the glass case so she could be heard. "But this is my last year. And as much as I love working here at the Fayre, and selling the blades...." she shuddered. "This is it. Im done. One way or another." Heather looked quickly over each shoulder, then leaned forward a little more, her tone even softer.
"It's not just that the man is a letch. It's the whole atmosphere here." She shifted slightly, gesturing with her shoulder at the back of the booth. "That's his wife. She's a royal..." her voice cut out, as Bret looked over her shoulder at the young and shapely bottle blonde in the corner. Bret watched the woman pull a sword from the rack and hand it to someone she couldn't see. The sword was thin and lithe, with a dark handle. "Trophy wife," Heather all but mouthed. "She's sure we're all trying to get in his pants," at which she looked like the thought made her gag. "And she acts like we're all stealing the money from her pocket."
Bret opened her mouth to ask another question, but the sound of her name being called from a distance made her stiffen. Bret turned to see Alex waving and gesticulating wildly, calling her name at the top of her lungs. His way of interrupting politely, she guessed. With an exhausted smile, she waved and gestured him over. As he approached, she shot him a "behave, or Ill skin you" glare.
For whatever reason, probably not because of the glare, he was on his most courtly behavior, graciously accepting and returning Heathers "Its a pleasure to meet you."
"Darlin," he began, "for all the time youve spent here, I hope you at least bought something to make it worth their while."
Bret colored. "I found something, but its much too expensive."
"Brettony " Alex threatened. "Youre doing it again." With a roll of the eyes, he confided his private pain to an amused Heather. "She always does this she falls in love with something, usually something very expensive, and then denies herself the pleasure of owning it, which turns her sulky." He shook his head sadly. "Just. Buy. It."
"Let it go, Alex," Bret said through a clenched jaw. She suddenly wanted to leave - now. She didnt need her personality flaws aired out in front of a stranger. Especially an attractive stranger. She took his arm, tugging him away from the counter, but stopped when she saw the look on Heathers face.
"Um, sorry to have wasted all your time, really." Bret began. "I, uh it was nice meeting you." Alex leaned over, his eyes bright with something nasty.
"Number?" he whispered loudly enough for Heather to hear. Bret set her jaw again.
"I hope Im not being rude." Heathers expression had cleared, but there was something in her tone that made her sound as if she expected rejection. "But, here. Call me?" She pulled a business card off a stand, jotted a number down on the back and pushed it across the glass case, much as Jamie had done with the knife.
Bret hesitated. She looked at Heather, wanting desperately to stay and talk some more and annoyed with herself for being so wishy-washy. She looked at the card, heard Alex sigh. Shed be damned if she let Alex take the card which he looked as if he might do any second. Reaching out quickly, Bret nabbed the card and gripped it tightly.
"Call me?" Heather repeated.
Bret nodded. "Id like that." And she smiled. Heather instantly returned the smile, stepping back from the counter in order to let Bret go gracefully. Bret walked away quickly before she could change her mind, an unusually silent Alex in tow.
"What?" Bret asked after they had moved out of sight of the booth.
"Nothing," Alex lied.
Bret spun to face her friend. "Spit it."
Alex put his hands on her shoulders, looking down into his best friends face seriously. "I am very, very glad," he said firmly, "that you took that card."
Looking back up at her dearest friend, Bret smiled with relief. "Me too."
They had decided to separate for a little while. The Shakespeare skits were due to be repeated in about forty minutes, and since they had missed the morning performance, they would meet there. In the meantime, Bret hastened across the grounds to catch the exhibition of glass blowing. Alex was not at all interested in crafts he decided to scout out a few more of the performers and see if he could track down "Troy" from the chess game. Bret wished him well, relieved that she wasnt following him as he tomcatted around the Fayre. The glass vases she saw at the booth were not to her taste, but the creation process fascinated her. There was something positively magical about the way the bulb of molten glass became a colorful, artistically rendered yet useful item.
The days heat had built to an almost intolerable intensity, her skirts dragged heavily around her ankles. Glass, then Shakespeare, she decided, then she was going home. Her air conditioning was missing her, she was sure. She stepped up her pace, past the last few booths, most of which sold incense and related smelly items. Holding her breath, Bret could see the glassmakers firepit directly ahead.
Just as she passed the last booth in the row, a figure lurched forward, slamming into her heavily. She cried out, turning to address the person sharply, but pulled back with a gasp. Her hands, which had been outstretched to steady the large man who had bumped her, were red. With a small shriek, she could see that the man was bleeding copiously down the front of his costume. The cause was obvious jutting out from between his ribs was a sword.
The man gurgled in pain, blood bubbled from his lips and he fell to the ground dead, his eyes protruding. Bret screamed, more loudly now, jumping back from the body.
She screamed again, this time with recognition. The man who lay dead at her feet had a bristly ill-kept moustache and in life, his eyes had been piggish and narrow. The sword that stuck out angrily from his chest was set with bloodstone and was intricately carved and etched.
Gene, the loathsome swordsmith of "LHomme Arme', had been killed with one of his own swords.
"Drink this," the policeman couldnt have been eighteen, Bret thought, taking the paper cup shakily into her hands, but putting it down untouched next to her on the bench, when she saw that she was leaving bloody smudges on the white cup.
Feeling the nausea rise up once more in her throat, she closed her eyes and focused on the ice pack against her neck.
"This has, without fail, been the worst day of my entire life." She muttered out loud, not caring that anyone heard her.
Alex snorted unsympathetically. "As bad as yours was, his was infinitely worse, sweetie." He gestured to the stretcher upon which the sheet covered body was laid out.
"Thank you, I needed to be reminded of that," she said, allowing all the bitterness she felt into her voice. "I might have forgotten for a second."
"Sorry," Alex responded contritely. He sat down, took Brets hand, curled it around itself and held it in his own. Bret closed her eyes and leaned her head on his arm, trying to not cry, or panic.
A man had died in front of her. There was no more awful thing she could imagine, unless it was someone she cared about. She wondered about the dead man was there someone he cared about?
He had a wife, she remembered. Two, maybe. Bret thought back on the cold, haughty blonde at the back of the booth, and the agonized shriek of the woman who had chased the swordmaker across the lawn. His employees hated and feared him. No, this was not a man who left people feeling good about themselves. Or him. But killed with his own sword....
"I'll kill you with your own sword," Bret muttered. Where had she heard that before? Her eyes wandered off after a butterfly that flittered past her and down to the creek that ran past the first aid booth. Was it from a book, maybe?
With a feeling of shock, Bret remembered where she had heard the line. Not a book - Jaime had spit it out this very morning. "I'll kill you with your own sword." And Heather's, "Do that again or I'll kill you." Then another shock as she remembered the clean, thin cut on Heather's hand. She had said it was a nail, but it was much too neat, surely? A sickening feeling came over Bret as she thought of the timing. Heather was away from the booth for a long time, and when she had come back, she had a cut on her palm. A cut from an extremely sharp blade. Bret felt like she was going to throw up.
"Darlin'?" Alex's voice interrupted her reverie. "What's the matter? Are you going to pass out? You look gray." He lifted a hand to call a medic, when she gripped his hand so tightly that it hurt and pulled it back.
"No!" she whispered fiercely. "I have to get out of here."
"But the police said...."
"Now. I have...to...." her head swiveled back and forth wildly.
"Are you all right?" A deep male voice asked, and a large body cast a shadow over her. She tried to stand, but was gently pressed back onto the bench. "Would you like to lie down?"
"No," Bret mumbled. "No, I have to...." but it was all too much effort, as shock began to take its toll. In the dusty heat of the afternoon, she began to shiver. Quickly Alex called for a blanket and made her drink from the cup she had abandoned. She closed her eyes, but the image of a black handle sticking out of Gene's chest forced her eyes back open.
She looked around, trying to find something to focus on. On the other side of the first-aid tent clearing, she could see policemen in uniforms. Each appeared to be speaking to one of the employees from "L' Homme Arme'." She could make out Jaime and his wife, clinging to one another. The cold blonde, Gene's wife, she remembered, dabbed at her tearless eyes. There was no sign of Heather.
The sword came to mind again. Bret could see it clearly. Bloodstone handle - hilt, she corrected herself. Dark wood fittings. Blood-stained blade. Bret frowned. Killed with his own sword. Weren't all the swords in his booth Gene's? There was something she wasn't remembering. She looked up towards the sky, trying to reclaim the memory she couldn't quite place, when a noise of someone crying broke into her thoughts.
Two policemen walked by, with Heather between them. She wasn't handcuffed, but her bowed head spoke volumes. They were taking her away for questioning. Heather was a suspect in the murder. She could see the police escorting the booth employees away. Craning her neck, she followed Heather as long as she could see her, until the redhead disappeared from sight.
A plainclothes officer approached her, asking if she would come down to the station to make a statement. Mutely, she nodded her acquiescence. Something about the sword. There was something about the sword that was all wrong. Killed with his own sword....
Alex and she rode in silence. The driver, a serious young woman, made no small talk, which was fine by Bret. Alex confined himself to holding Bret's hand and offering the occasional comforting banality.
"Alex," she muttered, trying to not draw the policewoman's attention. "There's something totally wrong here. Help me figure it out."
"What do you mean?" Alex stage whispered. "Figure what out?"
Bret rolled her eyes, trying to communicate that he should keep it down. "What was the guy wearing?"
"The guy? The dead guy?" Alex closed his eyes thoughtfully. "Brown leather pants and boots. Gold shirt, um, tunic. Brown leather vest. Gold hat." He opened his eyes. "I think that was it."
She thought about it for a second, about when the vile man had put his arm around her waist and pressed himself into her. "No, he had a belt. With a sword."
Alex nodded, then closed his eyes again. "Knife on one side, sword on the other."
"And the sword?"
"Big honking cutlass-looking thing. Knocked into my knees. Had a big black handle."
Bret's head came up in a second. That was it. His sword.
She knew that it wasn't his sword that he had been killed with. But whose was it?
Now she closed her eyes, and inventoried everything she could remember about the shop. The morning sun, the blades gleaming brightly. She had been fascinated by the gems. Jamie, giving her the sword set with amber. He had taken it away and set it - that was it! He had set it in the rack next to a sword with a bloodstone hilt!
Now she wracked her brain, trying to remember if the sword had been there when she had returned to look at the knife during the joust.
It was hard to place, she had approached from a different angle of the booth, and they had been on the opposite side of the rack.
Heather hadn't been the murderer. She was sure of it.
Bret laid her head on the table. It was late, she was exhausted. She had given her statement to the police, then again. Then they had left her alone, and when they returned, had requested it one more time.
Every time they had been polite, of course. When she asked for a phone call, they had told her that she would be at leisure to do that shortly, but that "leisure" hadn't yet come.
"Don't I at least get a lawyer or something?" she had whined, and had been politely reminded that she wasn't under arrest.
So, she had played it their way and told them about the disgusting Gene - his last name turned out to be Morgan - and the things she had seen during the day. How he sexually harassed his female employees, and held all of his employees in a virtual indentured servitude. About the bloodstone handled sword - and about whose it was.
"Why do you think that?" the mild-mannered, avuncular detective asked for the fourth time, and for the fourth time, she explained why. Then she wrote it all down.
At last, ground down within an inch of tears and pleading for her release, they let her go with nary a thanks.
She came out into the station lobby to find Alex dozing uncomfortably on a chair.
"Brettony!" when he saw her, he leapt out of the chair and threw his arms around her in a warm hug. "I asked and asked and all they would say was that you were 'cooperating'. Are you okay?"
"I..." Bret nodded, but the tears welled up and over as she sobbed, "I want to go home."
There were no more words, as Alex lead the two of them out of the station and over to the train back to the city.
Weeks had passed.
The papers had reported the death as a small two-paragraph article on the inside of the Metro section. A bizarre coincidence. People were being questioned. Then it dropped away and she heard no more. Twice she had been called back to give a deposition. Once a detective came to talk to her at home. No one gave away anything.
For a week or two Bret had tried to find out what had happened, if anyone had been arrested - the investigation was still ongoing was all she was told. So she stopped trying. It was early autumn, the students were coming back to the university, and she was busy with work. She had more important things to worry about.
Bret had never returned the rented outfit, but didn't know where to send it. She should have gone back to the Fayre, but she couldn't bring herself to go back there. Not even to get the clothes she had worn to the Fayre that morning back.
It wasn't that she wanted to steal the dress. In fact, she really wanted to get rid of it, so she could put the whole thing behind her.
She stared down at the hateful dress that lay across her bed. Maybe a label? She reached down and lifted the thing, looking for a maker's mark, or some information she could use to get it back to the proper owner. She scanned the inner seams for some kind of identification, when her hand felt something stiff in one of the pockets. She reached in and pulled out a business card.
The dress dropped back down on her bed as she stared at the card with fear and desire. Heather's number. Heather Maney, it said. And a phone number. Should she call? What if she...what if she had been arrested? What if she answered? Torn between two options that terrified her, Bret was paralyzed.
She walked over to the table where her phone sat. She picked up the receiver and pressed a number into the keys. The phone rang twice and a male voice answered.
"Tommy, it's Bret. Can I speak to Alex? It's urgent." She rushed all the words together.
"Sure," came Tommy's calm baritone. "Al?" she could hear him say away from the phone. "It's your wife."
Bret made a face at the receiver, but was serious again a second later when Alex's voice came on the line.
"I need you to yell at me."
There was a long pause. "What?"
"Alex - I just found Heather's card and I'm scared to death to call her. Come over here and dial for me or something!" Bret's voice sounded shrill even to herself. She took a deep breath. "Help?"
"What are you scared of, darlin'?" Alex's voice was gentle and amused - and just this side of condescending. "That you might have to speak to another human being for a change?"
"Yes, dammit. Yes." She took another deep breath. "What if they arrested her?"
"They haven't. She's sitting on the other end of the line waiting for you to call. Day and Night." Now the condescension was palpable and it pissed Bret off.
"Don't be smug. I'm really...."
"Just dial the number and call me later and tell me how you were to afraid to leave a message on the answering machine." When he wanted to be Alex could be a real jerk. Not that she didn't deserve it.
"Fine." Bret was seeing red now, not only from Alex's brilliant assessment of her personality, but because she was embarrassed. "Fine. I'll call you in a month and let you know how it went." She slammed the receiver down and lifted it up immediately again, punching in the numbers on the card before she had a chance to think too hard about it. She would leave a message on the inevitable machine and there, it would be done. She would....
"Hello?" A woman's voice, sleepy, distorted, answered. Immediately Bret was too flustered to speak.
"If you're press, we're not giving interviews," the sleepy voice commented.
Before the woman could disconnect, Bret shouted out, "I'm a friend of Heather's!"
"Oh? And which "friend" are you?" The voice was less sleepy now, and getting sharper.
"My name is Bret. Heather and I met..." she didn't want to say "at the Fayre" but she couldnt think of anything less contrived.
"Mom? Who is it?" A voice came distantly from the other line.
"Please! Just tell her that Bret wants to talk to her?" Bret knew that she sounded as desperate as she felt.
"It's someone named Bret. Prolly just more media."
"Bret?!" the voice was closer now. "Let me have the phone."
There was a muffled sound as the phone was transferred. "Bret?"
"Heather?" Now, as the rush of tension left her body, Bret had no idea what to say. "I'm sorry, I..."
Heather's voice was soft, and exhausted. "It's okay. You couldn't have reached me sooner anyway. They just cleared me completely yesterday."
Bret sucked in a breath at that. "I'm so sorry."
"No," the other woman said, "I was going to call you yesterday. I think you saved me."
"You were the only one to give me an alibi. And I think," Heather laughed dryly, "they didn't say it this way - but I think you cracked the case. They said that the sword used in the murder wasn't made for a man's hand. At first, they used that against me, because of the wound on my hand." There was a sound of movement and a door opening and closing. Then the sound of traffic in the background.
"But you said that I was with you when the sword was still at the booth. That helped. Jaime and Melanie and I all corroborated that. Everyone knew who it belonged to. "
"It belonged to his ex-wife, didn't it?"
"How on earth did you know that?" Heather's voice torn between amazement and sharp suspicion.
"I just knew. I saw her yelling at him earlier in the day - she was saying "give it back. And then I saw his wife hand it to someone - I couldn't see who, but it was a woman's hand. Alex and remembered that he carried a big, bulky sword for himself - and I remember that his hand was twice the size of mine. That little handle...hilt would have been way too small for his hand. And it all just made sense. But the police acted like I was crazy. I didn't think they believed me at all."
"We all knew about the divorce - and about the sword. He used to tell anyone who would listen. And when he got drunk, which was like every day, he'd tell anyone who wouldn't listen. He had made it for Eleanor when they got married, but he took it with him when they divorced. He gave her everything she demanded as a settlement, except that. And because he gave her so much, the judge wouldn't let her have the sword, because it was the only thing he insisted on keeping. She came by every year to demand it back." Heather's voice tapered off. "But you said that you saw Caroline give it to Eleanor?"
"Yes, when you were trying to sell the knife to me." She thought about the redhead gazing into her eyes, and suddenly realized that she was a complete idiot for thinking that it had been anything but a sales tactic. "That's what you were doing, right, selling?"
"I was trying to sell it to you, yes. And yes, I laid the flirt on pretty heavily. We work by commission and I was only about $600 off the amount I needed."
There was an awkward silence as Bret assimilated the fact that she had been played by the redhead.
"Wow - that sounded way colder coming out of my mouth than it did in my head." This was followed by a heavy sigh. "Sorry."
Bret forced herself to say something - after all, the other woman had been through a lot in the past few weeks. And she had given Bret her number. That wasn't part of a ploy, right? "It's all right. I mean, I kind of knew it all along."
Silence again and something that sounded suspiciously like a sniffle.
"What's going to happen to the," Bret searched for a word, "the business. Does it all go to the wife or what?"
"I guess," Heather's voice was thick with tears, but she managed to regain her composure as she spoke. "I guess so."
The phone beeped. Another call coming in. Bret thought about taking it, but she was afraid that she'd lose what tentative hold on Heather she had. Not that she'd done such a good job for a first phone call. She ignored the beep and tried again.
"What about the money you owe?" Nice tactful question there, Brettony. But hey, Heather had brought it up first, she snapped back at herself. The phone beeped again.
"Gene never kept written records on the employee purchases. That was how he strung us along. Hopefully, Caroline's too busy to worry about us peons. She can't prove anything, anyway."
Bret's cell phone beeped. She glanced at the screen - a text message. As Heather conjectured about what would happen in the future, Bret took a look at the message. It was from Alex. Reluctantly, she pressed "Read."
**TV CHNL 7 NOW!** it said.
Shrugging, Bret snapped on the TV and muted the sound. She brought up the right channel.
"Oh my god," she said, as the remote fell from her hand. "Heather - Heather," she interrupted the other woman. "Are you near a TV? Go turn it on, right now!"
There was a sound like the phone being dropped, then another noise, the door, and the sound of voices. Heather's breathless voice came on. "What am I looking fo.... Oh."
In tandem, they watched as the wife and ex-wife of Renaissance Fayre vendor Gene Morgan were arrested and carted off by the police.
"Conspiracy to murder?" Bret repeated unbelieving, after the announcer spoke the words.
"Thanks for coming out to meet me." Bret mumbled sheepishly.
"It's okay. I mean, I'm really glad you called." Heather stepped forward, her hand extended. Bret took it and squeezed it briefly. She shifted the bag she carried onto her shoulder and they walked together to the bus waiting in the station parking lot that read "Fayre Ferry."
The bus ride was hot and smelly, but Bret didn't mind. There was nothing outside the bus of interest, as the "Ferry" made its way along enormous parking lots surrounded by flat rush-filled land.
"So, I bought that knife for my friend," Heather was saying. Girlfriend, Bret amended mentally. "And then bought a better one for myself." The redhead grinned. "Then I came back the next year and upgraded to a bigger knife. And the next to the small sword you saw me wearing last week. It's an Excelsior grade sword, the kind made hand-forged steel. It's set with smoky quartz." Heather looked at Bret, embarrassment coloring her face. "Am I rambling?"
"Not at all. I was wondering how you came to be there."
"So Gene made me a deal, that I could work off the cost of the sword, but I think the cost went up every year." She sighed. "Not that it matters now."
Bret opened her mouth, then closed it. "I...I've been meaning to ask, but its probably none of my business, but...."
Heather looked at her, head cocked. "What?"
Before she could overthink it, Bret blurted out, "The cut on your hand. How did you get it? You've been trained to work with sharp things and it didn't look like a nail." The redhead's head shot back like she'd been slapped by the words. At Heather's reaction, Bret snapped her mouth closed, then grated out, "Forget it."
"Ah, heh. Uh, no, it's okay." Heather recovered quickly, her face almost as red as her hair. "I'd been to see a friend over in the fortune-telling area." At Bret's uncomprehending gaze, she continued. "We did a sort of...ritual?" Heather's face grew even redder.
"A ritual?" Bret repeated. "Like a love spell?"
"No!" Heather leapt forward, grabbing Bret's arms. "No, nothing like that. Look, its a long story, but it was for protection...oh, god this sounds dumb now." She pulled back, laughing at herself. "No, I don't care...look, it was a spell of protection from Gene. And...I've been thinking about it." Her head lifted and her eyes blazed. "I think it worked. Not only was Gene killed, but I was protected from being arrested as the murderer. So, I think it worked. Okay?"
Bret nodded, stunned into silence. The "spell" might have cost her her freedom, but she *was* saved from being blamed for the crime. So, did it work, or not? Bret didn't know. She didn't understand anything about spells, or why people chose to believe in such things. Why would a protection spell need blood, anyway? Bret shut that internal conversation down brutally and stared out the window until they arrived at the Fayre's main gates. Heather seemingly relieved to have left that conversation behind, sat in silence, as well.
They shuffled off the bus, following the long line of people heading towards the Fayre gates. But before they could line up for the ticket booth, Heather tugged on Bret's arm and walked over to the pre-sales booth. Bret watched as Heather received two tickets, then handed one to Bret.
"What do I owe you?"
"Nothing," Heather waved the question away. "I'm pretty sure I owe you."
And so they entered the Fayre and were wished "good day my lady" by a number of actors and actresses.
"It feels really weird to come her without garb." Heather looked around them as they walked. "It feels unreal to me. I almost feel like it looks completely different than usual."
"It feels unreal to me too, but probably not for the same reason." Bret squinted against the sun and tried to not frown at the vendors and their impractical wares.
They headed for the costume rental booth where, after some explanations and apologies, Bret was able to return her borrowed clothes and retrieve her own. It was with relief that she left the small house-shaped booth.
Heather hesitated. "Do you mind, I'd like to...." she paused. "I just want to walk by. It's probably all boarded up anyway."
Bret nodded, understanding. "Sure. Let's go." And so the two women headed towards the booth where L'Homme Arme' had stood.
But as they approached, it was immediately apparent that instead of an empty husk, they booth was alive as ever with activity. Blades gleamed in the sun, as they always had. Confused, they walked up to the booth.
"Heath!" A cry went up from behind the booth. "Where's your garb? We need help!"
Jaime came around to the side they were on, and leaned forward to give the redhead a hug.
"I thought that it'd be...I mean...Gene's..."
"But the booth had a commitment for one more week. We had the blades, and I'm always running the booth when Gene's not here, so...here we are. One day more and I send Martin back with whatever's left and wash my hands of it all." He didn't sound all that pleased.
"Martin's the apprentice," Heather supplied for Bret's benefit. "He's kinda..." she made the universal sign for "loopy." "I'm sorry, Jai. I think I'd better stay on this side of the counter." This last to an interim manager that looked less and less happy with his morning.
"I'm sorry to hear it. But I understand." He huge hand reached out to squeeze Heather's shoulder in a warm gesture. "So," he continued, moving his attention towards Bret. "Can I interest you in a bargain?"
"No tha..." she began, then stopped. What if her knife was still here, after all? She flushed at the thought of "her" knife, when there was no reason to call it that,
"Ah...I wonder, do you still have that knife? The one I was looking at?" She moved her gaze back and forth between the two. Jaime face was blank, but Heather understood the reference.
"The one with the aventurine in the grip, right?" Scanning the contents of the case quickly, Heather moved off to one side, then the other, until she stopped, waving them over to a case on the corner of the counter. "This one," she pointed it out to the blond, who moved over to pull the item out from under the glass. He laid the knife down, sliding it across the glass, hilt first.
Tentatively, Bret reached for the knife, her hand curling gently around the carved handle. It fit comfortably, as if it had been made for her. The aventurine gleamed dully in the sunshine. She lifted the knife, holding it closer to see the etching in the blade.
"The Dagda's Cauldron," Jaime said. "An endless supply of food, constant good fortune and inspiration. For only six ninety-five."
Bret looked up at him, disappointment obvious on her face. "Still? I mean, I hoped...when you said a bargain..."
"Yep," Jaime looked a little bored. "Six dollars and ninety-five cents. Just like it says on the tag." Bret turned the knife over to see a conspicuously new decimal point in between the worn "6" and the "95."
Bret protested. "I can't do that. It's too little." But Jaime put out a huge hand, covering hers and stopping the flow of the words.
"Didn't I say we had to liquidate? None of it's worth anything to Caroline and the lawyers only accept cash, not blades, as payment." He grabbed her by the wrist and leaned forward. "This will all go to auction where investors will make a killing. I don't want to see that happen to this piece." He shifted his eyes slightly. "Let's just say that most of the people here right now are good friends."
Heather nodded. "These are folks who love their blades. They come back every year, sell their friends on pieces. Gene was the lowest sort of scuzzball but these," she gestured at the knives and swords, "these are alive. You want these kids being sold on the block? Or given to people who will love them?"
"When you put it like that, I feel guilty not having built a special room in my apartment for it." Bret looked down at the knife. "I won't buy it for so low a price, though. I can't." She looked at the two, trying to make them understand. "You're trying to sell me a Rembrandt for $19.95, because the museum is going out of business."
"Good point," Jaime nodded. "Name your price then."
So Bret did. And for the first time in her life, she found herself bargaining to pay more for an object than the salesperson would take. Eventually they agreed on a price still slightly short of what she felt it was worth, but Bret was inclined to be generous, because it was a beautiful thing. While she paid for it, Jaime's wife found her a hand-tooled sheath, and polished and oiled all the metal fittings for her. When she handed over the credit card receipt, Bret exchanged it for a gleaming knife. Even as she admired it, she flushed. What a totally useless purchase. She smiled. Alex would die when he found out.
"So," Bret looked up from her treasure, into the eyes of the other shiny thing she had found at the Fayre. "You want to go watch the Joust?'
Heather shook her head, smiling. "No thanks, the good guys always win." She reached out to tuck Bret's arm in her own. "I was thinking, why don't you come over to my place and see the etchings on my blades?" She laughed at herself.
"Points for such a creative use of a terrible cliché." Bret put the knife in her bag. "Okay then, let's go see your etchings."
With a wave for the salespeople behind the counter of "L'Homme Arme'," the two women left behind the Renaissance Fayre, while Heather sang the words to the song from which the booth took its name.
L'homme, l'homme, l'homme arme',
L'homme arme' doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.
On a fait partout crier,
Que chascun se viengne armer
D'un haubregon de fer.
Smith, O Smith, come blow the fire,
Till its flames leap to the sky.
Drag the iron from the earth,
Forge it to its second birth
And raise the sword on high.
L'homme arme' comp., anonymous, English lyrics by Susan Cooper, copyright 1979, Christmas Revels.
Thanks to everyone at Angel Sword, for being exactly who they truly are, but especially Dan for answering, when I asked him how he wanted me to kill him in this story, "With my own sword."
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