Bergil was drumming his fingers on his desk as I walked into his office. Because I was late.
The only other person there was the Inspector of Corpses. Bergil sat at his desk and the Inspector of Corpses stood towering over him, like a withered old tree which had lost its bark. There came a rattling sound behind me as the guards barred the door.
“We waited for you,” said Bergil, “because I want the Inspector to say what he has to say but once. Thereafter he is on oath to reveal to nobody what has passed here between the three of us.”
The Inspector cleared his throat. Belying his appearance, his voice was full and throbbing. I imagined his buttons drumming on his ribs as he spoke.
“I examined the body personally. It was of a young man, one scarcely out of boyhood, seemingly. Yet by virtue of his kinship he may have been as much as fifty years of age. Prior to death his state of health was excellent. His muscles were small and his limbs delicate—no warrior this, but a scholar maybe, even a courtier. I am of the opinion however that in life he was far stronger than he looked.”
He paused, staring at me keenly, intending that the full import of those words should sink in.
“Therefore, in view of the hideous and painful death he underwent, I found it surprising that there was no evidence that he had put up a struggle. No scratches, no bruises or abrasions, no skin or hair from his assailant (or assailants) under his fingernails.”
“How—?” I stopped and cleared my throat, resuming in my quietest voice, “how came he to die?”
“The head had been severed from the body by a single blow from a sword. It is deeply to be lamented that when the body was delivered to me, the head did not accompany it. I might have discovered much from it. The expression on the victim’s face. The last image ingrained upon his eyeballs. The very last thoughts in his brain. All these could have been distilled from the flesh and would have told us much.”
“And is that how he died, by being beheaded?”
The Inspector looked me up and down with withering scorn.
“No, Master Goswedriol, that is not how he died. The body was decapitated as late as eight-and-three-quarter hours after death. Whoever found the body, or left it to be delivered to me, was of a mind to prevent me from recognising the victim. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that it was assumed that I personally might have been able to identify him.”
The Inspector’s eyes were boring into me. Mustering deep reserves of willpower I prevented myself from shifting uncomfortably from one foot to another. But it is impossible to address all bodily signs of discomfort at one and the same time, so I harboured no illusion that I was fooling the Inspector one little bit with my affectation of nonchalance. It was on the tip of my tongue to propose that the Inspector and I change places, he clearly being a detective himself of remarkable talent. But an inner voice warned me that the range of ripostes available to him were ones I might not care to hear.
I spoke again in my quiet monotone. “How then did he die?”
“He died through the agency of an instrument, neither sharp nor blunt, heated to white heat and thrust deep into his anal orifice. Which was then vigorously dragged round and round. Sufficient, if I may quote the common speech of my young halfling assistant, to make kebabs of his guts.”
I permitted my mask to slip, raising my eyebrows and emitting a long low whistle. By his expression the Inspector made it clear that he was as little impressed by my show of surprise as he had been by my studied coolness.
“It is egregious,” he said, “to mimic here the sound this would have made.”
I lowered my head and mumbled apologies. The Inspector sniffed and resumed his narrative.
“His screams would have been both agonised and deafening, assuming he had not been gagged, which is of course a possibility, which the absence of the head leaves open.”
The Inspector turned to gaze unseeing beneath hooded eyelids over Bergil’s head. “A supposition which the worthy Captain might wish to bear in mind when he comes to making inquiries in the City. Assuming of course that the body was found in the City.”
It didn’t escape me that the Inspector was careful not to ask where the body actually was found. He knew Bergil as well as I did. The answer would have come back pat: “We are asking the questions, not you.”
Ignoring the Inspectors’ gimlet eyes I resumed my professional monotone. “And what sort of murder weapon are we looking for?”
“Not a sword, nor a dagger, nor any weapon of war, but a humble fireside poker. Though not so humble that pokers of a similar type are not to be found in the apartments of the King’s retinue.” He stressed the word “retinue”.
“The instrument will be discovered to be made of steel, of square cross section behind a substantial tip, of a shape somewhat resembling a carrot. It will be of sufficient length to have seared the heart, ruptured the liver and scored the diaphragm, in addition to the extensive damage it inflicted on all abdominal organs.”
Bergil took a deep breath. “Is there anything else you want to ask the Inspector, Master Goswedriol?” He was trying to copy my flat monotone, which was a voice he never used.
I cast my eyes down. “No, not for the present.”
“Since I have already sworn the Inspector to secrecy, I must warn you that there will be no second chance to confer with him on the matter.”
“There’ll be no…?” I blurted out. Then I recalled it would be no use protesting. Bergil owed his position not to any great capacity for imagination, but to his ability to implement with zeal the most pettifogging ordinances of the Ancient Realm of Gondor.
Bergil rose to his feet. “Then, Master Inspector, that will be all. This matter will not be spoken of again, till you die, or are released from your oath, or the world ends.” He inclined his head.
The Inspector returned the courtesy. Then, turning on his heel, he strode to the door beside which I stood, never letting go my gaze the whole time.
“Guards!” boomed Bergil. “The Inspector of Corpses comes forth!”
The rattling sound was heard again and the door opened. Two helmeted guards, facing each other and looking at nothing, held up both hands in the raised-palm Gondorian salute.
I nodded to Bergil. “I fear that I too must rush away. I left my horse in charge of the ostler with little ceremony. He appeared to me to be a man without initiative and I wish to ensure my horse has been adequately cared for.”
“Is there nothing you would say to me about what you have just heard?”
“Oh yes. Lots. But not this instant.”
What Bergil intended as a shrewd look passed across his brow. “If you’re hoping to catch the Inspector up and have further words with him I must warn you that it will be no use. The men of Minas Tirith are punctilious over matters of duty. They keep their vows.”
Without a word I turned and strode past the guards and through the door.
…to be continued.