Al and Anla had changed quickly into appropriate clothing, he into trousers and a nicer shirt and Anla into a high-collared, white blouse and long skirt, all courtesy of the duke. Then they walked to the end of the hallway and out into the court. It was open air with dozens of long benches that curved slightly to face a raised dais. The ground was grassed, though paths in between the benches and areas where people’s feet were when they sat were ground to dirt. Only a few people were sitting. Most were holding conversations, including several key people they needed to interview.
“What would you like me to do?” Anla asked.
“You’ll take notes,” he said. “Normally you’d just assist me that way, but I want you to speak up whenever you have a question. Don’t undermine my authority; ask for clarifications or repeat something I should speak more about with the witnesses. Our main adversary will be Akort. If you can think of anything to throw him off without making me look bad, please do.”
Akort was leaning against the wall below the dais. He wasn’t what many would call well-kempt, but he was clean and freshly shaven. His dark blond hair had the tangled look of a man who had won the final battle against a barber when he was ten. His clothes were simple, like the way most of the country folk in attendance were dressed. He wore brown trousers that reached past his ankles, patched and stitched several times. His boots were also brown with mismatched laces. His white shirt, at least, looked very presentable and without a stain on it.
“Well, if it isn’t the fancy lawyer from up north,” he said, grinning as they approached.
Alpine shook his hand and remembered to give his fake name and introduced Anladet as his wife and his impromptu secretary. Akort looked her up and down slowly, then grinned at Al. “I’m speaking with certain people to get a feel for the possibilities with this case. You have the most information out of anyone here. I was wondering if you’d like to answer a few questions?”
“And what happens if I say ‘no’?” he asked, still giving a very toothy grin.
Al took a deep breath. “I get less information and my case may depend on it.” Akort held his smile until Al said, “Of course, it reflects poorly upon you. Since there is no prosecutor in this case, it’s up to the judge to make a fair ruling. And you know how these judges get sometimes when procedures don’t go as smoothly as they’d like.”
Akort soured. “There’s not much else I can tell ya.”
“Well, first off, why were you meeting with the mayor so early in the morning?”
“None of yer…” he started, then took a deep breath and gave a feral smile. “The mayor and I were planning to talk about hunting rights around town. When we could hunt certain animals, where we could hunt.”
“And when you say ‘we’ you mean…?”
“Me and ma boys. My two sons, Syke and Forca, and a few of my buddies. Really, though, I mean all the townsfolk who need to hunt to live. We actually went huntin’ last night, all night, and called it early this morning so that I could come back and have the meeting with the mayor.”
“What were you hunting?”
“Some of the critters are getting’ out of hand. We’ve had problems with wolves, coyotes, and paw-paws. We bagged us two coyotes, a cougar, and a deer. Oh, and some catfish. We went fishin’ before we went huntin’ so that we didn’t have to bring a bunch o’ food with us.”
“Then you came back at, what, dawn? You then headed over to the mayor’s house where you found him dead. Can you tell me what you saw?”
His plastered smile faltered. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Start with his house. Was the front door open, unlocked, or locked? The back door? Were any windows broken?”
“Uh,” Akort said, scratching his head, “the front door was closed, so was the back. I didn’t see any broken windows.”
I’m going to tuck that away for later, Alpine thought. “And the scene of the horrific act? Which room did you find the mayor? Where was he stabbed on his person? How many times?”
“Sir, the man is dead. I find it distasteful to talk about the mayor with such disrespect.”
Akort spoke with such vehemence that it not only took Al by surprise, but caused him to lose his composure. He was swayed for a moment, forgetting his faux professionalism, wanting this man to like him for some reason. Then, he remembered he was fighting for someone else. “I understand. I expect the mayor was a beloved man in Wiyok. But he is dead and his killer is still loose.”
“His killer,” he spat, “is in jail, where he should be until he is hung.”
“Hanged,” Alpine corrected. “Animals are hung, men are hanged.”
“I got it right the first time,” he said.
Akort was being especially difficult with this question. Alpine was unsure why. Was he really that fond of the mayor? Maybe he had a weak constitution and didn’t want to conjure up the memory of the scene. Al guessed that someone who went hunting regularly would have a stronger stomach and dismissed the excuse.
No, it was more likely that, as Al was beginning to suspect, this was their man and he hadn’t been expecting so many questions. Kill the mayor, blame it on someone defenseless, and get everything he wanted from the situation. Al was going to have to be subtle with this man.
He watched as Akort gave a very pleasant smile to Anla. She returned it by biting her lip and looking away, hugging the clipboard and paper close to her chest.
Al cleared his throat. “You said it was a tall man who stabbed Mayor Layock. I’d expect to see any wound on the upper party of the mayor’s body. Is this true?”
Akort thought for a moment. “Yes, many wounds on his shoulders. He was lying face down, all of his blood already spilled.”
“And he was cold to the touch?”
“Yes,” the man answered, shifting his weight.
“And which room was this and it’s relation to the front door?”
“His drawing room, I gather. It was the first room to the left, off the hallway.”
“So, you entered the drawing room, saw the mayor face down on the floor, and checked to see if he was alive. Then what?”
“I left the room, then saw that straw man leaving out the back door.”
“You can see clearly from the front to the back door?”
Akort answered ‘yes’, but he looked doubtful. Al understood he was both a man who never admitted he was wrong and had a strong need to prove his own case.
“Then what did you do afterwards?”
“I ran out to his nearest neighbor, the Franlis, and we walked into town. Dr. Abina made his way back to the mayor’s house to check on him.”
Alpine was at the end of his questions. He waited until Anladet finished writing the conversation and handed it over to Akort. “Please sign at the bottom if you feel the conversation is accurate.”
He shoved it back into Al’s hand. “I’m not signin’ nothin’ unless I…”
“Oh,” Anladet said softly, causing him to pause as he looked at her, “I did all that for nothing? I thought you said it was going to help.”
“Well, since we didn’t get much, dear, I don’t see how any of that will help us.”
Anla stepped closer to Akort. “I mean, since it’s not going to help things, it wouldn’t hurt to sign it. Just right here.”
Akort stepped closer to Anla so that they were touching shoulders. “Sign where?” he asked, reaching over her arm to grab the pen from her right hand. After scribbling his name at the bottom of the page, he returned the pen to her hand. Before stepping away, he brushed her hair off her shoulder and said, “You are far too pretty to be his wife.”
Al grabbed Anla’s arm and led her away while Akort chuckled. “I said not to undermine my authority,” he hissed. “You just made me look like a fool.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking off his arm. “He was flirting with me. I used it to get him to sign the form. I’m sorry your pride was injured.”
He pretended to look around for other witnesses, taking deep breaths all the while. “I should point out that his testimony is littered with lies,” she said. “The house information especially. I think the only truly honest thing he said was his sons’ names.”
“At least we’re on the right track,” he muttered, letting his anger go. He took her notepad and flipped it to the last page, jotting down several notes. “Nothing we can do about it. We’ll need to prove it without any sort of magic. We’ll need to check-up on a few things that might be inconsistent. Let’s see if we can find Dr. Abina, the Franlis, and at least one of Akort’s ‘boys’, as he calls them.”
Dr. Abina, paunch, aged, and looking like he could use a stiff drink, did little more than confirm what Akort said. The mayor had been stabbed in the shoulders, though more correctly in between the shoulder blades. One of the wounds had likely punctured his heart or an artery. He had bled out quickly and hadn’t fought against his assailant. The doctor had noted the body was at room temperature and was stiff.
The Franlis could only agree with Akort’s testimony. “We saw him arrive early in the morning,” Mr. Franli said. “I guess he was having a meeting with the mayor.”
“Odd time of day for that,” Mrs. Franli said. “Magen owns a tavern in town. He’s rarely up before late morning.”
“So, you’re saying it’s unlikely he would have made a meeting for a time when he wouldn’t be up?” Al asked.
“I’m surprised he made a meeting with Akort at all. Those two have been fighting for years.”
“Oh? About what?” he asked as Mr. Franli tried shushing her.
“Everything. Layock has been mayor since Akort was born and Akort is a bad seed. Always getting into trouble, fighting with the other boys, pulling pranks. It only got worse as he got older, only instead of throwing rotten fruit at the mayor’s house, he’d threaten him. Him and his gang have caused all sorts of mayhem over the years: starting a fire in the mayor’s tavern, getting’ into fights with merchants, chasing bards and troubadours out of town with their words.”
“I see,” Al said, “thank you kindly for your help.”
“It seems like the past is painting something fairly interesting,” Anladet said to him when they were out of earshot.
“Indeed. Let’s see if the recent past holds up.”
They walked over to a group of men that Alpine was sure were Akort’s boys by the glares they were shooting him. They were grimy and dirt stained, their boots covered in mud. Each of them intermittently scratched at a number of bites on their arms.
“You’re the reason we’re not home right now,” one of them said.
Al ignored him. “I’ve already spoken with Akort about giving an accurate testimony. He agreed and even signed this,” he said, pointing to the pages Anladet held up. “If you don’t cooperate, it will look badly for your boss.”
“What do you want to know?” one of them asked.
“Akort’s alibi was he was with you guys last night and this morning up until his meeting. Is this true?”
“Yes,” said the man to the left. “We were out hunting and fishing.”
“What did you guys get?”
“A cougar, a deer, and two coyotes,” he said smoothly.
Al tried not to show his disappointment at the confirmation. He had hoped to find an inconsistency, since he didn’t feel Akort had actually been out hunting. “What time did you leave yesterday and what time did you arrive this morning?”
“We met by Akort’s house with our fishing poles, bows and arrows, and knives.”
“Knives?” Alpine asked.
“Yeah, how else are you going to finish a cougar? You sneak up on them when they’re down and slice their throats.”
“All right. And what time did you arrive this morning?”
“Must have been early, after dawn, but before most of the businesses opened. We all went right to the mayor’s house after we came out of the woods.”
Al couldn’t think of anything more to ask at the moment, so he had the man who answered his questions sign the testimony and walked away with Anladet. He sat down at a bench specifically for the defense lawyer and began moving his ankle over his other knee.
“This is going to be tricky,” he said to Anladet.
“How? Akort’s side is flimsy. There’s no real proof, other than his word, that Telbarisk killed the mayor.”
“You know the saying ‘a copper always lands on a side’? It’s the same with Uvarnic law. The goddess is extremely fair, parting things right down the middle for as long as She can, but in the end there has to be a guilty party. Since our grivven friend stands accused, if I can’t prove that someone else did it, he goes to the gallows. And I’m not quite sure I can pull this off.”