The smallest of the four farms surrounding the village Naomi had taken to calling Fort Clarion, after the Commonwealth Army base in Dr. Petersen’s painting, belonged to the Brubaker family. The sun dipped behind the Allegheny peaks, and a premature dusk descended upon the village as she passed the front gate and proceeded along a path fenced off from the pastures. A few straggling cows continued to chew their cuds as she passed them. She heard a soft, ‘mrrr? mrrow?’ behind her, and found a large grey tomcat with notched ears and deep green eyes winding about her calves to claim her for his own. She reached down to scratch behind the tom’s ears, which he tolerated before springing towards the farmhouse.
The wind shifted, giving Naomi a hint of fresh excrement from the pens in which the Brubakers raised chickens, turkeys, and fat white geese. One of the latter reared up and began fanning her wings while quacking, as if to warn everybody of a stranger’s approach. The pens seemed all but spotless, the fowl within seemed clean and healthy, and each had a domed dwelling lit from many windows in which to shelter at night. Fresh blood slicked a tree stump in the chicken pen, leaving her to assume the Brubakers took a bird for dinner.
The farmhouse itself seemed newly erected. Unlike the buildings along Fort Clarion’s main street, which appeared to be pre-Nationfall architecture rebuilt to modern standards, the Brubaker farmhouse appeared similar to the barns and shelters provided the livestock. A large garden divided by thirds into plots for vegetables, herbs, and flowers surrounded a cluster of domes joined to a larger dome at the center. Round windows and skylights covered by padlocked shutters pierced the domes to admit sunlight and fresh air. Naomi stopped short as she realized sod from which live grass grew covered the farmhouse, which lent the appearance of a hobbit hole complete with a round door painted a cheery shade of red.
She raised her hand to knock, and the door opened to reveal a double-barreled shotgun leveled at her. “So, you finally came for me, like you did for Jim and Harald.”
Nonplussed by this greeting, Naomi stepped back, put down her saddlebags, and raised her empty hands to show she meant no harm. “Excuse me, but I’m Naomi Bradleigh, a sworn Adversary sent by the New York chapter of the Phoenix Society. When you called the police in Pittsburgh for help, they passed the case to New York. Are you Michael Brubaker? Or did I perchance disturb Mr. Bilbo Baggins?”
“You can’t be him. He never talked, let alone cracked hobbit jokes.” The farmhouse’s occupant laid aside the shotgun, turned on the foyer light, and opened the other door. He was a slight man with chestnut hair, of an age with the dead men Naomi had seen earlier, but a bit shorter. “I can’t believe my father bought into the monolithic dome crap, and then insisted on covering the house with sod. Everybody in town calls our house the hobbit hole. How are people supposed to take me seriously, anyway?”
An impish smile curved Naomi’s lips, and she felt unable to hold back what seemed an obvious response. “Simply walk into Mordor?”
“Well played.” To her surprise, Brubaker laughed and held out his hand. “I’m Michael Brubaker. Thanks for coming out here, Adversary Bradleigh.”
“You’re welcome. Considering the shutters and the shotgun, I assume you expected a different guest.”
“Yeah. The rest of my family’s in Pittsburgh.” Brubaker’s face fell, and his voice went quiet. “I think they blame me for Jim and Harald, and I can’t say they’re wrong.”
Naomi nodded, unsure of what to say in response. After an awkward moment, she glanced about the living room, seeking the kitchen. “You seem unsure of what to tell me, and how to go about explaining what happened. Did you eat yet?”
“No. I slaughtered and plucked a chicken today, but I should to warn you about my cooking.” Brubaker led Naomi through a doorway to a kitchen in which everything seemed to be built into brick. Even the countertops were brick and mortar.
Naomi recognized the kitchen as the sort her foster mother always wanted, and used her implant to save images to share later. Though they were not close, she always appreciated hearing from Naomi when she was doing well. A kitchen this nice ought to be well-stocked. Such was Naomi’s reasoning as she checked the cabinets, and found everything she needed. Somebody, no doubt Mrs. Brubaker, even left a cookbook on a stand open to a recipe for chicken marsala. She shot a smile over her shoulder at Brubaker. “Were you going to try this recipe?”
“Might be a bit advanced for me. Can I help, or should I just watch from a safe distance?”
At least he’s well-trained, and isn’t just going to sit and let a woman do everything. ”I’m sure I can use an extra pair of hands.”
Brubaker proved useful, having steamed the vegetables they had with their chicken to perfection. Naomi only nibbled at hers, having learned at an early age that people with congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder were obligate carnivores. To her, vegetables were only good for roughage; her body derived no nutrition from them. The chicken was delicious, however, and Naomi devoured hers with predatory relish before taking a second helping while her host was halfway through his first.
“Damn, you’re hungry. I like a woman with an appetite.”
Eating with him instead of waiting to eat at The Lonely Mountain was a mistake. I got the poor boy’s hopes up. ”I rode a long way, and I last ate at breakfast. I was famished, and I had thought we might talk about your difficulties over dinner. I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression.”
Brubaker nodded, and cleared his plate before speaking again. “I’m sorry. My family are all in Pittsburgh for the agricultural convention, along with the Cards, the Grimmursens, and the Calders. I called them after I called the police. When I heard an Adversary was coming, I didn’t expect somebody like you. I stopped thinking for a bit.”
She nodded, and smiled at Brubaker. He’s well-built, and he’s got the sort of mouth I like trailing kisses down my spine. Give him a few years and an address in the city, and I might invite him out to coffee. Unfortunately, he seems to be looking to marry, not to enjoy an affair. ”No harm done. Do you want to wait a bit before we begin? We can make coffee first, if you’d like.”
“No, that’s fine. I guess you examined what was left of Jim and Harald. Doc Petersen blames an animal, but won’t say what kind.”
She ate a bit of her chicken. “He didn’t want to think that somebody in this village had turned killer, and the person responsible did make a point of savaging your friends’ throats to give the appearance of an animal attack. How well did you know them?”
Brubaker shrugged. “We pretty much grew up together the last seven years. We were all the youngest sons. We weren’t expected to help out much with the work, because we only claimed a small homestead to start, and my parents thought the youngest of us might leave.”
“You helped anyway.”
“Anybody who wants land around here just has to stake a claim and start working. The problem is that for as long as we’ve been here, we’ve had animals go missing. A turkey goes missing every Winter Solstice. Between the Fourth of July and Bastille Day we tend to lose a cow, a hog, and some chickens.”
“Did anybody investigate these thefts?” Naomi thought she understood the killer better. He was probably a man who had lived in solitude in these woods, and survived by hunting wild game. When the settlers came, he might have remembered the holidays he used to celebrate, and meals one shared with friends and family while celebrating the Winter Solstice and the Days of Revolution. Brubaker and his friends must have caught him. Fearing discovery and exposure, he resorted to murder. But why leave the bodies after savaging them as he did? Now everybody in Fort Clarion knows a killer is loose, when he might have preserved his solitude by hiding the bodies.
The howling of wolves and coyotes in the mountains startled Naomi, earning a laugh from Brubaker. “Never heard that before, eh? We haven’t had a problem with them yet, but they tend to stay away from people and livestock unless the winter’s bad and game is scarce.”
“Have you had a harsh winter here, yet?”
“We live in the mountains. The winter tends to be cold, but as long as we don’t get too much snow, we’re fine.”
That seemed a shame to Naomi. Though children used to mock her as ‘snow girl’, she loved the way the world looked blanketed in winter white. “What about the missing livestock. Did anybody ever investigate?”
“I forgot about that. Just a minute.” Brubaker left the table, and returned a few minutes later with a Montecristo cigar box half full of coin and banknotes. “Jim and Harald’s parents have boxes just like this. So do the Calders. None of them really gave a shit about the thefts, because it’s hard to think of them as thefts. Whoever this guy is, he leaves this old money whenever he takes some of our livestock.”
“He pays for what he takes?” Naomi took a banknote from the box. She did not recognize its design at first; while the cash she normally handled often bore the eye in the pyramid, and she recognized the Latin phrase novus ordo seclorum from the Phoenix Society’s seal, the rest of the banknote’s iconography was foreign to her. “These are Commonwealth dollars.”
“Exactly. It’s Monopoly money issued by a dead government, but I don’t think he knows that yet.” Brubaker looked about him before leaning close to Naomi. If his eyes were not darting to and fro, she might have expected him to try stealing a kiss. “When we saw the guy, he was wearing some kind of military uniform, and had a rifle strapped to his back. I don’t think this guy knows Nationfall happened.”
“It’s 2096. Nationfall happened in 2048. How old is this person?”
“Older than he looks. He has red eyes like you, and pale hair, and looked your age. He was almost as pretty as you.” Brubaker drew back a bit, blushing. “That’s why I had the shotgun.”
As Naomi helped Brubaker clean up after dinner, she chewed over his words in her mind. Her hands worked autonomously, drying each dish and utensil the young man passed her and placing it aside. Once they were done, and had put away the dishes, she had a few minutes to sit by herself and think while he made coffee. There were gaps in what he had told her. I’m not asking the right questions. He said ‘we’ when he spoke of seeing the person stealing the livestock. If they had caught him in the act, they would surely have raised some kind of alarm.
Brubaker bore a tray from the kitchen, upon which Naomi found a cup of coffee for each of them. He gave her the mug of black coffee and kept the other for himself. “I wasn’t sure how you liked your coffee, Adversary, so I brought out cream and honey.” He reddened a bit as he continued. “My mother would go nuts if I used her cane sugar.”
“Thank you.” She considered the honey after adding a dollop of cream and tasting her coffee; she had had it in tea, but never coffee. A little balanced the coffee’s bitterness, which was strong enough for her to imagine she tasted the caffeine which already worked against her body’s natural urge to find somewhere safe and comfortable to curl up and sleep for the night. “This is just what I needed. Is there more in the kitchen?”
“No, but I can make more. How come?”
“I may need it, since I will remain here with you tonight.” She caught herself as his face flamed, realizing he was probably thinking with his balls again. Focus, Nims. He can’t be older than sixteen, anyway. The five year age difference alone makes this dodgy, and let’s not forget he’s a witness under your protection. ”I think you’re in danger, and so I mean to protect you. That’s all.”
“Not that I mind the company, but what good will you being here do?”
“Your friends were killed while alone, weren’t they?”
His eyes widened as he understood. “Oh, shit. Holy fucking shit. That guy’s been waiting this whole time.”
This whole time? Bloody hell. ”I can’t help you if you keep me ignorant.” Naomi stood, and leaned over the youth as he shrank back into his armchair. She grasped his wrist, not tightly, but enough to let him feel the claws her CPMD gave her instead of fingernails pricking his skin. She narrowed her eyes to glare at him in a solo version of the good cop/bad cop routine. “Start talking. You said ‘we’ when you talked about seeing the livestock thief. That means you and the victims, does it not?”
“Yes, ma’am. Doc Petersen told us there was an old underground military base nearby, so we went looking for it. When we found it, we got inside. Everything was still working down there. We found him sleeping, and left him a note saying his Commonwealth money was worthless now, and that he should stop stealing our livestock. That was two weeks ago, ma’am.”
Naomi sighed as she released the youth. She reddened as he checked his forearm and found the pinpricks her claws had dug into his skin. “Sorry. I was harsher than I should have been.”
Brubaker shifted in his seat. “I must be some kind of freak, but I kind of liked it.”
Oh, dear. ”I have another question. Has Doctor Petersen ever said anything to you which might explain how he knew about the Fort Clarion installation?”
He frowned as he thought, and the expression lent maturity to his face which age and experience had not yet provided. “I honestly can’t recall him ever talking much about his past.”
“All right.” Naomi knelt beside her saddlebags and opened one to retrieve her laptop. She checked the battery, and saw that it was down to single digit percentages. “Is it all right if I draw power? I need to do some research, and my portable must have run down while I rode.”
Brubaker waved towards an armchair near the hearth. “There’s an unused tesla point over there. Will you be OK out here by yourself while I take a shower?”
Naomi placed her sword to ensure easy retrieval should she need it, and settled back to lift the lid and get to work. “I’ll be fine. I was going to ask for a bit of privacy, but I didn’t want to just shut myself up in a room away from you.” Please don’t take this the wrong way. ”Don’t lock yourself in there.”