Exactly 24 hours after Farrodan Mellick’s death, the first blow landed on Gali Alitzyn’s forearm.
The detectives had visited her in jail – a middle-aged woman and an older man. “We can get your charges dropped,” the woman had told her, “if you’re willing to help us.”
Gali had smiled at them. “By pleading guilty? I’ve got news for you: not everyone who gets arrested is an idiot.”
“Nothing like that,” the man had said. “There was a murder last night.”
“Not taking the rap for that, either. I was in jail, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Just hear me out, if you will. “The victim’s name is Farrodan Mellick. He was – “
“Never heard of him.”
“Right. He was shot in the back last night with an antique-style firearm, apparently while walking home from the Ancient Order’s history museum. We’ve talked to the museum staff and we think they’re hiding something. But that’s as far as we can go because we’ll never get a warrant to enter the premises.”
“No,” Gali had agreed. “There’s no way you’d get a judge to sign it. And I can’t blame them, either. You raid the Ancient Order, there’ll be riots. You want me to break through the fence so you can sneak in, don’t you?”
“We can’t go in,” the woman had said. “We’ll give you the specs for the gun you’re looking for. And, basically, you’re looking for anything that would give the Order a reason to kill this guy.”
“What if I get caught?”
“Then they’ll call us and we’ll take you back to jail and forget the incident ever happened. But you’ll still have to stand trial for your current charges unless you’re able to bring us anything we can use. So try not to get caught.”
It hadn’t taken Gali long to figure out where the gaps between the security cameras were and climb over the 300-year-old rock wall. It hadn’t taken Ancient Order security long to catch her, either.
“Stupid answers get you hurt,” the security officer said, lifting his bamboo rod for another blow. “Nobody breaks in to the Ancient Order community just to prove they can do it. Anybody dumb enough to get themselves in that much trouble wouldn ‘t be able to figure out how to do it. So, once again, I’ll ask you: What are you doing here?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. You don’t have to tie me up and hit me.”
The officer swung the rod again, and Gali’s elbow exploded with pain. She jumped and yelled.
“That’s for telling me what to do. Now, speak!”
“I heard you had gold here,” Gali spat out between gasps. The pain from her elbow buzzed through her whole body.
“Gold,” said the officer. He tried to twirl the rod, but dropped it. “Go on.”
“I wanted to get it.”
“You broke in here to steal gold?” The officer swung the rod an inch from Gali’s face. It made a loud swish and she felt the wind from it. “Is that the best you can do?”
“If it wasn’t true about the gold, it’s definitely true about the historical artifacts. Some of them would be easy to carry and worth a lot of money in ransom.”
The rod came at her face again, but this time it made contact.
The beating went on for days, or at least that’s how it felt to Gali. Her eyes grew so swollen she could no longer see, and it was hard to tell where the ringing in her ears stopped and the roaring pain began. At one point she thought she sensed a second person in the room, and a minute later someone gave her an injection and she fell asleep.
When she awoke, the first thing she saw was a vaulted wooden ceiling supported by grey stone arches. She was still in the Ancient Order community, then. She lay on her back with both arms splinted and bandages all over the place. Her head felt ready to explode, and it hurt to move.
“Oh, you’re awake,” said a voice, and a middle-aged man came over. “How do you feel?”
“Terrible. How long was I out for?”
“Just a few hours. I gave you a sedative.”
“I thought that guy was going to kill me.”
“I thought he might have, for a bit, there. But you’ll be alright. Might need a new elbow. For now, I can give you a shot for the pain.”
The man walked away, and Gali closed her aching eyes. She still hadn’t found the murder weapon, or anything else the detectives could use. So she’d be going straight back to jail as soon as she got out of the hospital. She’d gotten her hopes up for nothing, and with broken bones added to the bargain, just because of some dead guy. What was his name? Farrodan Mellick.
“You know him?” the man asked. Gali opened her eyes and saw him standing over her with a syringe in one hand. He was looking straight at her face with his eyes open wide.
“Know who?” she replied.
He cleaned a spot on her arm and gave her the shot. “Farrodan Mellick. You just said his name a second ago. How do you know him?”
“What? I can’t believe I said that out loud.”
“I just saw him at the museum last night, talking to security. And now I find security beating you up, and you mumbling his name. He a friend of yours?”
Gali decided to tell the truth and see what happened. She had nothing left to lose, anyway. “He’s dead,” she shrugged, and groaned from the pain.
“He’s...no, I just saw him last night. He’s fine.”
“Shot in the back on his way home after he left here,” she said. “I’m sorry. Were you close friends?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t even know him. But he was.... Wow! This could change everything.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do the police know they killed Farrodan?”
“Who killed Farrodan? You know who killed him?”
“Same thugs that almost killed you.”
“Ancient Order security? Are you sure?”
“Totally. Can’t prove it, but I’m sure. Do the police know he’s dead?”
“Yeah, they know. He was shot right on the street, I guess. But what did you mean when you said this changes everything?”
“Five years ago, we had a change in leadership here at the Order.”
“When Doyen Kella died. I’m not _that_ young.”
“The new leadership is an insult to everything this Order has stood for, for the past 300 years. We know they’re playing with the books, diverting money from Order accounts to buy luxury items for themselves. Artifacts keep going missing. We’re told they’re being cleaned or they’re in storage, but there are rumors that the leadership is actually selling them.”
“Selling them! Isn’t that completely opposite to –“
The man finished Gali’s sentence. “To our vows? To everything this Order stands for? I see you’re beginning to get the point. But that’s not the worst of it. Anyone who starts digging too deep, asking too many questions, gets beat up by security.”
“You’re kidding. So I’m not the first one.”
“No, I’m getting pretty good at playing doctor. But it’s never been someone from the outside before, always a member of the Order. I guess you snuck in here looking for answers after they shot poor Farrodan. The police can’t search the community; they wouldn’t be able to get a warrant. Anyway, I haven’t told you the scary part, yet.”
“What could be scarier than getting shot to death on your way home, or tied up and beaten with a bamboo stick?”
“The really scary part is why they killed him. I heard him talking to security last night. Farrodan works at the – I mean, he worked at the Ordnance Supply Accounting Office. He came here because someone from the Order has been buying huge quantities of explosives. He said it was enough to blow up half the city, and I don’t think he was exaggerating. Those accounting types are meticulous, and he was using exact figures, nothing rounded off. He wanted to warn security that somebody at the Order might have criminal plans. What he didn’t realize is that the criminals are the Doyen and her senior staff, and security is in on...” The man’s words trailed off and he grew very pale.
“What’s wrong?” Gali asked. “Are you feeling sick?”
“There have been rumors,” he said in a half-whisper, “that the new Doyen isn’t content with being just the Doyen of the Ancient Order, that she’s actually plotting a coup and wants to have herself crowned Queen. I never took those rumors seriously, but why else would she be ordering all those explosives?”
“We’ve got to do something!” Gali forgot about her splints and tried to use her arms to push herself up off the bed.
“Lie still,” said the man. “But I think we have what we need now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been reading our charter. Suspicion of murder, or of conspiracy to commit murder, is one of the conditions under which the Order can vote to place the leadership on administrative leave. There has to be ‘significant circumstantial evidence,’ but I think we just got our evidence.”
“Wow! Maybe Farrodan didn’t die for nothing, then, after all. I’m supposed to find the murder weapon. Are you guys missing any early muskets?”
“Come to think of it, I did notice an empty spot in the rack last night, but it was back to normal this morning.”
“Do you think you could get it to the police, so they can match it up with the bullet that killed Farrodan?”
“After we put these bozos on administrative leave, the police can match up anything they want. But I’m sure they’re not going to go without a fight, no matter what the charter says.”
“Can’t you get a court order? I mean, once you show a judge the charter...”
“You don’t understand,” the man said. “The courts, the police – they’re all outside these walls. We have to find a way to get at least one of us out of here alive.”