Most people know me through my work on Vampire: The Masquerade or White Wolf/Onyx Path RPG books in general. Not many know that I also do a lot of work in fiction and on other RPGs, covering a range of topics. This “A Taste Of” series features samples of my work from areas most people might not know about, along with places you can buy the book to read more!
A few years ago, Gareth Michael-Skarka asked me to write a short story for his wuxia-western fantasy world called Far West. He mentioned that the idea came from a discussion on how the cowboy and the samurai have a lot of tropes in common. I noticed that the American detective tradition also had a lot in common with them (the outsider who brings order to a disordered society), and from there I wrote “In The Name Of The Empire.” It’s a detective story that is less about the mystery and more about the detective herself.
Detective Salia Madweather looked at the man sitting in the cell and shook her head. “I have to admit, it isn’t often that I’m asked to clear the sheriff of a murder charge.”
The sheriff’s office was cramped, only big enough to hold a few cells and a couple of scarred desks with mismatched chairs. The whole place stank of old sweat and booze. In one of the cells sat Sheriff Alaric Norna, a tall man with the kind of thick muscle that comes from hard work instead of vanity. His long black hair fell into his eyes as he stared at the ground in front of him. His deputy, Charda Freeder, was much thinner, his hands fidgeting over the straps of his gun belt as he stared at Salia with wide eyes.
She waited for a moment. When she didn’t get a comment from either of the lawmen, she opened a heavy leather bag with the Twin Eagle emblem on the side and pulled out a chunky pair of goggles with a large light affixed to the top, like a miner’s helmet. “Well, if I’m going to take your case, I’ll need to start collecting evidence,” she said as she settled the goggles over her eyes.
“What’s that?” Freeder said, his hands still dancing. Salia sincerely hoped he didn’t end up shooting himself before the interview was over. “Some kind of fancy device from back East to detect lies or somethin’?”
Salia turned to face the deputy, her eyes hidden by the dark lenses. “Don’t be daft. There isn’t some kind of magical device that allows you to tell if someone’s lying just by looking at them.”
“Oh,” he said. Salia could tell that he was somehow disappointed.
She turned back to the sheriff. “It’s a device to take photographs of people just by looking at them. Smile, Sheriff.”
The man in the cell didn’t move as the flash powder fell to the floor with a brief whiff of sweetness, like burning sugar.
“So how’d you get put in jail?” she asked as she took the goggles back off.
For the first time, Norna looked up at her. “The Magistrate was murdered. His agent claims I did it.” He went back to looking at the floor.
Salia turned to the deputy and stuck her thumb at the sheriff. “He’s a real talker, isn’t he?”
Freeder finally stopped fidgeting. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am, but he ain’t exactly hired for his speakin’ skills.”
“True enough. However, I would appreciate an explanation for how an agent to the Magistrate has the authority to put the sheriff of a town outside the Periphery in prison as a murder suspect.”
“Oh, Agent Jarl didn’t put him in that cell, ma’am. The sheriff did that himself.”
She stared at Freeder for a moment. “Now why would he do something like that?”
Norna spoke up. “Honor,” he said.
“That’s not an answer. What in the Many Hells does honor have to do with it?”
Freeder stepped between her and the cell, his voice low. “Sheriff Alaric feels that he is all of the justice left here in Pardifall. If the Magistrate’s dead and he’s accused of murder, it ain’t right for him to ignore that charge and go walkin’ around. It looks bad on the town, you see.”
Salia sighed and opened her bag again, this time pulling out a small notebook and a pencil that had seen better days. “Perhaps you gentlemen had best start at the beginning.”
The deputy looked to Norna, who simply nodded. Freeder then cleared his throat and looked back at the detective. “It happened last night, ma’am….”
“‘Detective,’ please. Or ‘Salia,’ if you don’t feel the need to follow the customs.”
“What? Oh, right. Sorry, Detective. Anyhow, last night Sheriff Norna went to the Imperial Magistrate’s office. Seems Magistrate Taliwar had something important to tell the sheriff. But when he got in, he found the Magistrate dead at his desk.”
“Dead how, exactly? Be precise, please.”
“Shot in the head,” Norna said.
She glanced at the sheriff. “That would do it. You gave up your guns, of course.”
Norna nodded. Freeder reached over to his desk, picking up the two gun belts lying on top of a well-maintained sword and scabbard. “All the bullets present and accounted for, ma’a… Detective.”
She pulled a pair of thin silk gloves out of her pocket and slid them onto her hands. She then carefully took the belts and put them into her bag before returning to her notebook. “If you obviously didn’t fire the bullet, why do you need to be here?”
Freeder started pacing back and forth, answering for the sheriff. “Once Alaric found the body and called for folks to come get me, the Magistrate’s agent came in and started yellin’ and screamin’.”
“And this is Agent Jarl?”
“Yes, Detective. Sorsen Jarl. He works for the Magistrate, doin’ leg work, research, askin’ questions, and what have you.” He stopped pacing, and went back to fidgeting. “Anyhow, Jarl came in and said that the Magistrate told him that if anythin’ were to happen to him, Jarl was to make sure that no one covered up the deed. Jarl said the sheriff was the only one that evenin’ with an appointment with the Magistrate, so he must of shot the man himself. Sheriff Norna said he didn’t do nothin’ of the kind, but Jarl called for a Marshall to investigate regardless.”
Salia tapped her notebook with the pencil, thinking. “And so in order that the Empire didn’t end up holding the whole town responsible for the Magistrate’s death, the Sheriff here agrees to put himself in custody for the immediate future.”
“And you called Twin Eagle Security to clear the good sheriff’s name before the Marshall gets here.”
“Any idea how long that will be, Deputy Freeder?”
“Tomorrow. Maybe the day after.”
“Maiden’s Tits.” Salia snapped the notebook shut. “Well, that doesn’t give me much time, then, does it? The rate’s thirty talons a day, plus expenses. Where’s the corpse?”
“Doc has him. I’ll take you there.” Freeder walked over to the door and started to open it for her, but caught her gaze. He seemed to change his mind, and walked ahead of her through the door.
The main street of Pardifall was just hard-packed dirt littered with horse droppings and wheel tracks. The buildings on either side were low and sturdy, but only the occasional sign or splash of paint made it possible to distinguish between them. As Salia walked out of the door, a light wind kicked up a cloud of dust, and it took a moment before she saw the crowd of men standing menacingly around the Sheriff’s office.
“There she is!” A strong voice bellowed from the back of the crowd, coming from a tall, stout man. Salia glanced over the quality of his hat, the fashionable cut of his jacket, and the crisp look of his tie. A rich man, she thought.
Freeder put his hands up towards the crowd. “That’s enough of that, Tobas. This lady’s just here to help.”
“That’s a damned lie! She’s here to help the Empire take our town away from us!” The crowd murmured, sympathetic to the man’s arguments.
Salia put her hat on her head, and spoke to Freeder as she casually changed her stance to a defensive one. “Who’s this Tobas?”
Freeder kept his eyes on the crowd, talking out of the side of his mouth to Salia. “Tobas Laers.”
“Laers? As in Osten Laers, the grocer baron?”
“Tobas ain’t no grocer, Detective. But he’s influential in this town, that’s for…”
A bottle exploded as it hit the wall behind Salia’s head. Freeder suddenly had his pistol in his hand and waved it at the crowd. “The man who threw that better step up, or there’ll be trouble.”
Another bottle flew. Salia heard a sickening crack, and Freeder slumped to the ground.