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HFTH - Episode 146 - Hours



Content warnings for this episode include: Animal cruelty (mention of Beagle in hunting trap), Kidnapping and abduction, Death + Injury, Blood, Body Horror, Threats of violence, Body horror, Smoking, Puppets


The Interrogation - Built for Judgement

Nikignik

But you have never lived. Never had to make an impossible choice. Life is full of them, but what do you know of life? There is such complexity in this universe, where good and evil is a miasma that cannot be traversed…


The Auditor

There is fire and there is darkness. There is cold and there is heat. There is lie and there is truth. These are opposites. Black and white. We know where the lines are drawn. Your verdict will be impartial. It will be pure, devoid of such interpretive interferences.


Nikignik

We are sometimes forced to make decisions we will regret, you know. Sometimes there is no right choice.


The Auditor

For you. Not for me.



Story 1 - Hey Look, a Human Femur

Vincent sat with his sharp elbows on his sharp knees, hands crossed beneath his chin, staring at the skull on the stone table. That jagged clef was etched into the bone of its forehead, although he could not yet receive the song it commenced.


“You all good there Vincent?” said Voltaire. The puppet sat jealously in one of the side chairs, having fallen over a little so that his wooden head leaned on the chair arm. “I’m beginning to feel like I’m third wheeling. Alas, poor Yorick.”


“Someone was this close, Voltaire,” said Vincent, and raised his hand to just a few inches from the skull, poised as if holding a pen. “This close to Abraham Walker. They held a cutting implement, and…”


Here he dragged his hand through the air in several slow strokes.


“With a certain amount of practice, and strength enough to carve bone, scarred the man’s head.”


Voltaire did not blink.


“If only we knew who it was on the other side of that knife, just days ago, as close as I am now to these remains. Like a ghost, I see the afterimage, and it is just as spookily obscured.”


“You beginning to worry it was you?” said Voltaire.


Vincent sat up, brows furrowed. “Well, to be honest it hadn’t occurred to me. Why would it be me? It wouldn’t be me.”


“Just wondering,” said Voltaire, a wooden shoe dangling off the edge of the chair. “No need to get all defensive about it.”


“I’m not being defensive. You don’t ‘just wonder’ about something so obscene,” said Vincent, and he rolled from his chair to kneel next to Voltaire’s, eye to eye with the painted wooden face. “What’s gotten into you?”



“Nothing’s gotten into me,” said Voltaire, smiling back with fixed white teeth. “The question is, what’s getting into you, Vincent?”


“Now see here, you insidious muppet,” Vincent began, and then realized that the door was open, and the silent-as-the-grave Shelby Allen was standing with a bundle of burlap under one arm and no expression on her face. Vincent bounced to his feet and dusted off his jacket.


“Pardon me,” Vincent said. “I was… in the middle of something.”


“This is why everyone thinks you’re crazy, Vincent,” said Voltaire.


“Shut up,” said Vincent. “They do not.”


“I talk to cat,” Shelby said. She still had not moved from the door, which she occupied squarely.


“What?” said Vincent, adjusting his tie.


“We have a cat. I talk to it sometimes. It doesn’t understand, because it’s a cat. But I like to pretend.”


“Ah,” said Vincent, and smiled weakly, and glanced to Voltaire. “Yes. I suppose we develop our own illusions of companionship. Was there something I could assist you with, miss Allen?”


“That’s the skull of Abraham Walker?” Shelby said, taking a step in. Vincent realized the skull was still sitting on the morgue table.


“Ah. Yes. I was… searching for any more clues,” said Vincent, stepping back around the other side. Shelby came to rest in front of it, studying the carved symbol as if looking for the following notes. She unfolded her bundle, then, and placed a large piece of bone onto the table.


“Hey look, a human femur,” said Voltaire.


“I know what it is,” muttered Vincent, and then spoke up a bit for the watching Shelby. “Whose is this? What have you brought me?”


“It’s all we have left of a murder scene north of Big Mikey’s house,” Shelby said. “That and the head of a Scoutpost javelin, which is with Sheriff Virgil.”


“Are these bite marks?” said Vincent.


“Big Mikey was using it as a toothpick, unfortunately,” Shelby said.


“Is Big Mikey the murder suspect?” said Vincent.


“Sure, blame the big kid,” said Voltaire.


“He found the bodies later,” said Shelby. “I saw who did this. My parents were killed, on the way here to Scout City. So was Abe. So were these people.”


“Your parents died a number of years ago,” said Vincent. “You think the killer is the same?”


“He’s huge,” Shelby said. “Wears the head of a pig. And an outfit like some kind of circus man. What I’m missing is how he’s connected to the Instrumentalist. Why he would do this.”


She raised a calloused finger to the skull.


“I’ve been doing some research on the Instrumentalist,” said Vincent, studying both bones. “To try and unveil anything about our resident murderer. He believed—and it seems to have been verified well, although it was before my time—that human spirits could be harnessed, and that the greater the pain that the spirit endured prior to its passing, the stronger it would be. These creative methods of torture, were an art of the craft as much as a punishment for sin. But there was a process, involving a cabinet. A door. A ritual to bind the spirits released to their instruments. What sin are we being punished for, I wonder?”


“Let’s find out,” said Shelby. “Can you tell me who this is?”


She gestured to the femur.


“You expect me to identify someone based on a single bone, mangled by a giant?” Vincent said, and shuddered as he began to open his fungal eye. “Well. Let’s see if we can’t at least sort out some demographics.”



Story 2 - Bad Assistant

Clem had not slept. It probably wasn’t helping where her health was concerned, but then again, going without sleep bothered her less than it seemed to bother Shelby, who slept fourteen hours a day if she had the chance. It was just spending from the reserves, was all, and right now the reserves were the last thing on her mind. She’d tossed and turned for a bit, recorded some more of her thoughts on the little yellow tape recorder she’d been given by Laurence, and then it was back to the case.


It began by putting the thoughts onto paper—crumpled shop receipts, old scoutchecks, pages from long dissolved books, anything you could scrawl legibly on was at risk of becoming part of the process.

Instrumentalist. Solomon Reed. Walter Pensive. Solomon’s house. Abraham Walker. Russell McGowan. Big Mikey. Abraham’s cabin. Puck. The carved skull. Murder. Javelin. Murder. Dog in bear trap. Murder.

A brief moment away to stop said dog from using its three working legs to reach the bread on the countertop.


The logfall. The pig man. Shelby Allen. Mulder Allen. Murder. The cleaver.


Another stop; wrestling her good pipe out of the beagle’s mouth. The dog went to flop down by the fireplace, and sneezed at her. She sneezed back. She rubbed at the tooth marks with her thumb, where the wood had been scraped.


“The femur,” she muttered, and added that to the growing pile of notes, and sat there for a long moment contemplating the spread of words, until the beagle bounded up to her, scattering them across the office floor.


“You’re a bad assistant,” Clem said, and led it out of the apartment, and as it turned around on the landing, shut the door in its face. She returned to sit on the office floor, and gathered her notes again. She found that two had ended up under the sofa together. Skull. Femur.


She rearranged the notes again and again—alphabetically, by size, by chronological relevance. When she had gotten as much as she was going to, it was time for the next stage. Out came the scissors, the yarn, the pins. Virgil had taught her how to make these, once, in a bygone time when she was aspiring to step into his cowboy boots. They’d both been different, then—he’d been the man the whole Scoutpost looked to for security, and she’d been bright-eyed enough to believe that anyone could carry that responsibility honestly. Now he was a jaded old masthead, and she was jaded too, and shorn of all those precious badges in the process.


The unbroken threads represented links—thematic, causal or otherwise. Walter Pensive connected to Instrumentalist’s house by site of murder, and by murder to Instrumentalist. She pinned a question mark on one thread in particular—the link between pig man and Instrumentalist. At least three years between the death of Solomon and the first sighting of the pig. There were likely more that he had killed in the interim that had just never reached the Scoutpost to tell about it, or been attributed to the wildlife. And yet, fishers don’t inscribe their victims with music. Butchers don’t make their meat an elegy.


“Why now,” she said, facing the expanding web of information tacked to the walls of her office. “Why this?”


She touched the illustration of the skull and the mark it held. And then she tried to forget about it for a while, and picked up her saxphone from by the window, and put some of her numbered breaths into something low and contemplative and soulful. The music meandered with her thoughts, at times frantic and rising in ascendant climes, and at others a deep melancholy.


Cleaver. Skull. Femur. Murder, murder, murder. Thoughts of Shelby, young and small and terrified. Blood droplets suspended in the air alongside the rain. A mask of a pig. The head of a pig. A man screaming as a sharp edge illuminated his forehead like sacred manuscript. Her fingers flickered on the keys. Body after body vanishing into the woods, boots running, the tear of ruptured skin while the beagle in the trap watched. And her music came abruptly to an end.


Blood dropped to the floor, ran down the tarnished gold side of her instrument. She looked down to find that her pinky was missing its nail, which lay on the ground, and blood welled in the nail bed. She stuck the finger in her mouth, and cursed, and set her saxophone down in a hurry. She fetched her patchless coat, and slid down the banister, and found the beagle napping down in the little lobby before the front door. She realized she had no leash, so she picked it up beneath an arm and set out grimly into the late morning.

This was going to suck.



The Tapes - Care Enough to Look

You also can’t be out here to prove a point. The world is stronger than you. You’re not a cop. You can’t try and make them fear you. You’ve got no stick to beat them with. The world has the stick and the gun, and if you’re going to beat it, you’re going to have to outsmart them. I know that might not be your strong suit. Didn’t think it was mine either. But sometimes all it takes is someone who cares enough to look. And you’re good at that.



Story 2, Continued - Bad Assistant

“We’re going to have to get you a name at some point,” Clem said. The beagle squirmed occasionally, but had largely settled into being carried like a child through the meandering crowds of Scout City. “Spot. Beagly. Bugle. Hm.”


The beagle, with one good eye and three functional paws, did not seem to like any of these, and it snorted at her. The sky was too bright here in the upper stretches of Scout City, high above the titanic treeline of the forest. Remember, she thought, this is bigger than you and your past and your grudges. This is about trying to save a life. This is about trying to beat him to the punch. Even so, she thought about turning around and going back to the Stumps. Facing danger and bloodshed was one thing. Where she was bound, there were greater terrors to be found.


She persisted all the way up to Nightingale District, where some of the massive branches were home to arrays of small offices. She found herself on a long lane which terminated in a balcony that overlooked the surrounding woods for miles, but the place she was bound was a fancy glass door set into the wood, windows that let in no light. She tucked the dog under her arm with one hand and with the other licked her palm and pushed her hair back with it, and then walked in.


There was a receptionist sitting in a comfy waiting room, colorful furniture and warm lighting meant to evoke safety. Everyone in the city had a goddamn receptionist.


“I’m afraid sessions are by appointment only,” said the receptionist. Saidy, said the name tag. Young, sharp, butch, said the aesthetic. You really have a type, Clem thought.


“Tell her it’s Clem,” she said.


“There is a schedule,” said the receptionist, trying not to be too visibly smug. “You’re not on it, Clem.”


“Listen,” Clem said, and went to lean on the desk with one hand, put her limited amount of physique to full bear. “I understand you’ve got your little book of numbers and days and hours and stuff. But you know who I am. You probably know who I am to her. And you know that I would only step foot in this fancy schmancy office if someone’s life was on the line. You let me in so I can ask a few questions of the utmost importance, or so help me I will have to put my dog down and bust your head on this nice desk and let myself in.”


The receptionist folded; a mumbled apology, an inexplicable blush, and an open door. Clem shook her head, and hauled her beagle down the hall. There were dark chambers hidden by heavy curtains, and an office at the end which Clem burst into.


She was there, acting as if she’d been expecting Clem, which of course she hadn’t. She was puffing on a cigarette holder, a bob of auburn hair and dark lipstick and captivating eyes that caught the glinting sun like neon lights. She had abandoned her chair for the Rosenbrace, today, and the supporting vines of the bionic plant ran in spirals across her legs and disappeared under her dress.


“Danielle,” said Clem.


“How am I supposed to stop seeing you if you keep barging into my office?” Danielle said, and breathed out a pink mist from whatever she was smoking. It smelled like strawberry, and made Clementine a little drowsy. “Do I dare ask what you’ve come to bother me about today?”


“Yeah,” said Clem, and held out the dog with both hands, and it whimpered. “Do dogs dream?”



Story 3 - Deputy Briefing

“Attendance,” said Virgil, glancing to his board and list, looking to meet the gaze of his deputies. “Deputy Cole Kane, Lower Trunk.”


“Here,” said his son, arms crossed, maybe a little too much attitude for the gravity of the hour.


“Deputy Oswin Scance,” Virgil said. “Upper Trunk.”


The overseer of the Upper Trunk wore a shroud of sheer white fabric that hung from the brim of their hat like a beekeeper’s net; for protection from the sunlight, although it also made Virgil less queasy to his stomach.


“Here,” said Oswin, gloved hands clasped together solemnly.


“Deputy Ignatius Thorpe, Stumps,” said Virgil. Ignatius had slick dark hair that burst into upturned flickers at the back of his head, and always had seemed too posh to get his hands dirty, but then again, posh was everyone that had come in after the Downing Hill fire.


“Present, obviously,” said Ignatius, with eyebrows that questioned the waste of time.


“Heather McGowan, Outwoods,” said Virgil.


The McGowan girl’s hat hid an explosion of wiry red hair, deep in color as autumn leaves. Despite her fair complexion, she was anything but; she was almost as burly as Cole and at least as strong.


“Here,” she groaned. Virgil thought momentarily about how the group might have looked if Clementine had grown to be a part of it—but the line in the sand had been drawn, and deepened day after day into their present divide. The Camocept whirred and flickered as the fungal apparatus dreamed up an image of a silver javelin head sitting on the desk.


“Deputies, we are entering a period of high alert for all districts of Scout City,” he began. “Early this morning, a scoutpost javelin was recovered from the scene of a many… a multiple…”


Multiple homicide,” said Ignatius.


“That’s the word for it,” said Virgil. “People are dead, is the point. This was a group of a few folks—exactly how many died, and who they were, is currently under investigation.”


“We should be the ones investigating it,” said Cole, arms crossed.


“We will,” said Virgil, waving a hand. “We are. That’s the subject of this meeting.”


“Clementine beat us to the lead again, did she?” hummed Oswin.


“It’s becoming a habit,” Cole grunted. “We’re authorized. She’s not. I don’t understand why she’s even allowed to interfere with these cases.”


Before Virgil could speak up, the McGowan girl did. “So, what did they find? Do we know who did this?”


“The bodies were reportedly dismembered, which sounds awful familiar to what happened to Mister Walker,” Virgil said, and gulped. “And the same way that Mr. and Mrs. Allen were.”


“Mister and missus?” said Ignatius.


“Shelby’s parents,” said Heather.


“That’s interesting,” said Oswin.


“It’s stupid,” said Cole.


“Cole,” said Virgil.


“Sorry. It’s unlikely,” said Cole. “If we’re taking Shelby Allen’s word for it, she believes a pig man killed her parents. Only she ever claims to have seen it. Were there any witnesses this time around?”


“She says she saw it,” Virgil said, deflated.


“No one else?” said Cole, although it wasn’t a question.


“No,” said Virgil, grimly. “Supposedly he got away into the northern logfall, before Clementine could catch up.”


“Great,” said Cole. “So we’re chasing ghosts.”


“The northern logfall is very scary!” said Puck, from the police pen in the back.


“Quiet back there,” said Cole.


“I’m not saying what I believe right now, just that it’s our job to investigate this with the utmost seriousness, starting right now,” said Virgil; he realized he and his son were bickering now while Oswin and Ignatius and Heather looked on. He took off his hat, wiped his brow, and circled back to his desk.


“Cole, Heather, you were kids when this began. Oswin, Ignatius, this was before you joined us. We’ve seen all this before. It was Walter Pensive, our first groundskeeper, who saw the warning signs. People going missing on the outskirts, people who the Instrumentalist thought wouldn’t be missed. It won’t stay that way. Whoever this is, they’re going to cut closer and closer to us. See how much pain we can take. Now I think the Instrumentalist is dead and buried, but some hooligan—pig face or otherwise—is hiding behind old masks.


"The threat is real. So we have to keep our heads. Keep Scout City from exploding into a panic, because if people scatter, we won’t know who goes missing after that. Out there is a predator waiting for its next opening. So we are going on double patrols. We are going to follow up the scene of every murder and disappearance. And we will catch whoever this is before they strike again.”


“In the Instrumentalist days,” said Heather, unusually thoughtful, “there was a lockdown. A curfew and all that. Do you think that would be a good idea?”


Virgil sighed.


“If it comes to it, I’ll ask Mayor Val,” he said. “But the day a public measure like that hits the news, the panic begins. I’m confident in our team to catch this guy before it’s too late.”


“Right,” Cole said, and adjusted his belt, his jacket. “Well. Let’s go on the hunt.”



The Conversation - Where We Left Off

Marolmar

You’ve really been shaken up by this, haven’t you?


Nikignik

What did you expect? The great love of my soul was murdered. Or so he let me believe.


Marolmar

I didn’t mean to hurt you with this.


Nikignik

That’s what worries me. You should have known better.


What did you have in mind for us?


Marolmar

Well, much the same as the rest. We pick up where we left off.




The bonus story that goes with this episode is called 'File 14: Rosenbrace', and is available on Patreon.com/hallowoods. Because Hello From The Hallowoods is created without advertising or sponsors, we rely on patronage to make this show possible!




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