Finder’s Keeper – Part Eight
by D. G. Speirs
Copyright (c) 2017
The crowd of Scadians moved as one happy movable feast as soon as word spread of the Boss’s pending match with Lady Argana. Seamus and I threaded our way through the throng as it flowed around the back of Clara House. He gave me a quick rundown of the layout. “The Stocks are where we hold our archery trials.”
“So, what, it’s a target range? A bunch of hay bales and the sort?”
“Nae. It’s set back against the bog itself. That way, if a shaft goes astray, we don’t need a stop for it. They just sail away into the distance.” He did a warbled whistle as he arced his hand over.
We crested the hill and looked down onto the scene. The sun had just set, gray clouds giving way to an impressive display of gold and pink that was fading into the west. Torches had been rapidly set up around the edges of a shooting range about a football field wide. I looked at the targets further downfield and leaned over to Seamus.
“With the sun going down, I’ll bet most of those arrows will be off into the dark. How far away are those targets?”
Seamus paused, thinking hard. “I want to say ten paces apart, starting at twenty.”
I gulped. Forty paces would be about thirty-five meters – a fair shot with a pistol. With a longbow and wooden arrows? Boss better have some sweet tricks up his sleeve.
“Right. Thanks for the info. You better get down there and catch up with the Boss.”
I grimaced at the slip. “I meant Baron Tomas. Give him my best.”
“I shall, my friend.” Seamus clapped me once on the shoulder and headed for a tent to one side of the range.
Free of my escort, I went back on recon. I tapped my Bluetooth. “Vee, still back there?”
“Always, Louis. Is he really going through this trial by combat?”
“You know the Boss. Never backs down from a challenge. Especially one he set up himself. Besides, what he offered her in exchange was classic – although how he found that-”
“Louis, you even need to ask? For that matter, do I want to know?”
I considered that a moment. “Let’s just say it adds to my suspicions, but you know me.”
“Sadly, I do. But I do have a list of suitable replacements on file.”
“Vee of my dreams, you cut me to the quick.”
“Go pay attention to the crowds.”
I looked around. Packed house. Various members of the Scadian royal court had made their way down to the range, filling royal boxes on both sides. There was spirited wagering going on, the odds running four-to-one on the Lady Argana to win by at least a dozen points. I slipped the bookie a tenner and made my way into a gallery on one side to watch.
An amazingly round guy in a blue velvet waistcoat and pantaloons wandered out to the center of the range and gestured for silence. The crowd settled down to a low murmur.
“Oyez! Oyez! On this blessed eve, we come together to witness two great warriors locked in combat-”
“Oh, bloody hell! Just get on with it!” yelled someone from the crowd.
Pantaloon Guy whirled around toward the voice. “Be still you, before I have thee set upon and-”
There was a discreet cough behind him. All eyes turned to see. Seated on the raised dais at the edge of the field were a man and woman dressed in resplendent robes and wearing crowns of gold. The crowd to a man immediately saluted and bowed to the pair. Three guesses as to who’s this year’s Prom King and Queen.
Prom King made a hand wave, and the rest of the crowd stood. Pantaloon Guy stayed prostrate before him. “Your Majesties, I had no idea-”
“That’s obvious. But now that we are here, perhaps you just skip the formalities and get to the part where they show us how good they are?”
Pantaloon Guy must have had a superb speech planned because I saw him for a moment actually consider defying his king. The moment passed as he stood up straight. “As you desire, your Majesty.” He waved, and from tents on opposite sides of the range, the combatants entered, Tomas was on the side closest, accompanied by Seamus. My new friend looked as if he had mainlined a lot of double espressos in the hour since he’d taken the job. Not a single wobble on his way onto the field. On her side, Warrior Princess Argana was trailed by a woman dressed in a simple light blue shift with long sleeves. A headdress and scarf obscured her second’s face, with only her eyes visible.
Pantaloon Guy’s voice carried above the crowd. “This is a contest to settle a debt of honor, the terms of which remain private. You are both agreed to this? Lady Argana?”
Ariana looked at the Boss, her expression flat. She nodded once, her eyes never leaving his.
The Boss quirked up one side of his mouth in a half smile. “Agreed.”
Pantaloon Guy turned to the dais. “If your Majesties please, this contest will consist of three rounds. First, a speed round at twenty paces, followed by target rounds of six arrows apiece at thirty and forty paces. If need be, we shall have a tiebreaker, of your Majesty’s pleasure.”
Prom Queen patted the Prom King with her hand and rose. She had one of the thickest Cockney’s this side of a bad production of My Fair Lady. “’Tis pleasing indeed. May the best archer win.”
Tomas held out a hand to Ariana. She looked down and sneered before pivoting on her heel and walking away. A murmur ran through the crowd at that. I couldn’t gauge if they were impressed by her gamesmanship or appalled by her lack of sportsmanship.
First up was the speed round. The goal was to fire as many arrows as possible at a target twenty paces away in a given period – “however long the sands ran in an hourglass.” As near as I could figure, about thirty seconds. They didn’t have to hit the target, just nock the arrow and let it fly before time ran out. I’m told ten to fifteen arrows was good. Twenty is outstanding.
Ariana put a quiver on her back and adjusted it to make sure she could pull arrows unencumbered. She stopped and glanced in curiosity at Tomas. The boss was walking along the edge of the guide line, planting arrow after arrow into the ground like stalks of wheat. He licked his fingers and smoothed the fletching on the final shaft before he nocked it. Tomas grinned and winked at Ariana.
Ariana’s eyes narrowed as she nocked her own arrow and turned to face the target.
Pantaloon Guy raised an arm. “Archers ready?”
Ariana and Tomas nodded as they faced their targets.
“Aye.” Seamus looked nervous but held his ground.
“Oui.” That turned my head. Ariana’s second is French as well?
“Seconds, maintain the count.”
“Go!” yelled the Prom Queen, cutting off Pantaloon Guy as she dropped her handkerchief as a signal. Pantaloon Guy scrambled and started a stopwatch. I guess they forgot to bring an actual hourglass.
I put my thoughts regarding Ariana’s second on hold as the field turned into a blur. Ariana was practically a machine, arrow after arrow whistling off her bow as quickly as the previous one had left. I’d rarely seen anyone use a weapon that efficiently.
But she was nothing compared to the Boss. There are times I will willingly swear he channels something unworldly. He walked down that row, arrows flying into the night in succession. The cheers of the crowd rose in pitch to match the intensity of the duel.
“Time! Archers, bows down.” Pantaloon Guy held up both arms. The crowd roared its approval as Ariana and Tomas lowered their weapons.
Ariana smiled as she pulled the three remaining arrows from her quiver and handed them to her second. The two spoke in a low tone for a moment as Ariana turned to claim her victory. She froze and her smile faded.
Tomas’ row of arrows was gone, save for a lone survivor. Seamus reached and plucked it from the ground, then handed it to the Boss. Tomas considered it for a moment, then bowed deeply toward Ariana. As he did, the arm holding the arrow swept out, pointing down range. There was a gasp from the crowd. I looked to see what caused the reaction.
I joined in.
All of Tomas’ arrows were clustered in the center of the 20-meter target. None of his shafts had missed. It looked like a pincushion.
Pantaloon Guy held up a hand. “By a score of 29 to 27, the first round goes to Baron Tomas.” A cheer went up from about a third of the crowd, a boo from an equal number. Probably ones who’d lost their bets. I grinned. I knew better than to ever go against the Boss. If he lost, it was for strategic reasons. Lady Argana did not react visibly to the result as Pantaloon Guy announced, “Next round, thirty paces, six shots apiece. Seconds, clear the range.”
Seamus handed the Boss a new quiver, then headed toward the twenty-pace target to start pulling out the arrows. He would be a while. As Seamus worked, I moved across the field, ostensibly to collect my winnings from the bookie.
There was a beep in my ear. I reached up discreetly to tap the earpiece. “Thou hath attained the brain of Louis Bricke—”
“Doubtful, this space is usually vacant,” snapped Vee.
“Really, you buzzed me to insult me?”
“No. I think we’ve got an issue.”
I dropped the banter. “Go.”
“Mr. Miller and Mr. Mansour are both proving to be elusive.”
“I knew you were working on Miller, but Manny?”
“Sorry, getting ahead of myself. How elusive?”
“As in they left Long Beach together by private jet two hours after you did. The flight plan was supposed to take them to New York, then on to London – Gatwick. However, their plane never arrived at their final.”
Something inside went alert. “The plane went down somewhere over the North Atlantic?”
“I don’t think so. For one, no distress call. For two, a Cessna Citation jet made an unscheduled landing in Dublin.”
Dominos started to line up in my brain. “Did anybody else get on that jet?”
“The surveillance video from Long Beach showed a half dozen security types.”
I sighed. “Probably the same clown car squad Miller brought with him to the Water Tower.”
“Louis, you might want to take this a bit more serious.”
“Oh, trust me, Vee, I’m taking this way more seriously than you know. But something still doesn’t add up. Find out what assets Miller has.”
“On it.” She cut off the connection. Me, I moved over into the gallery on Ariana’s side. I wanted a better look at her second.
Sitting in the Beer tent had been a strategic move. I’d seen a lot of Scadians come and go in the time there. None had worn a blue shift. This was a new player. If I couldn’t get any clues from watching her, maybe I could ask one of my new drinking buddies.
Strange, Ariana herself had gone downrange to retrieve the arrows. Her second was checking the bow and loading the quiver for the next round. I moved around the crowd and watched the second as she began to pack arrows into the quiver.
It was the second arrow when it happened. The sleeve of the second’s dress slid back and revealed a tattoo just above her wrist. A flash of recognition and I knew I was in trouble. I had to get out of the gallery before the double spotted me. I tried to back into the crowd but the woman turned, and our eyes met for a moment. Her eyes widened as she realized who I was.
Oh, crap. We have this case all wrong. As the second turned away, the tattoo became fully visible, confirming what I’d seen. It was a jungle cat at repose, its front paws surrounding a flower.
A Tiger Lily.