A massive wagon had crashed into a building across the street from the south end of the Morrisant Bridge. Several of the eighteen mules that had been pulling it now lay beneath its crushing weight. The whole lot, mules, brick, rubble, and cargo, lay in a shattered wall of window bays. Some of the mules were dead. Others lay, legs broken, covered in coal, their bodies lacerated by sharp shards of plate glass. Pinned by the brick of the wall and the cargo of coal, the poor creatures lay braying their poor hearts out as they bled. Still others had broken free of their chains, running in every direction.
The "back action," a smaller wagon hitched behind the main wagon with a massive, tree-sized tongue had snapped like a twig and disconnected from the main wagon. It now lay overturned on the bridge, its cargo of coal sprayed out like a fan, blocking the streets in all directions.
A crowd gathered despite the danger presented by the spooked mules, and their exclamations of surprise and alarm added to an already chaotic scene. Frigid steam wafted up from the warm bodies, thick with the stench of blood and bile, so it seemed a good idea to move away from the destroyed store front, in part to see if I could find a blue jacket.
There were also human casualties, I noticed, and some of the bystanders tended to them. Others corralled mules, while opportunists gathered up free coal to take home. Most people just seemed to be milling around, and very much in the way. At the edges, a few poked into the wreckage, a sure sign that things were about to get out of hand.
Where were the blue jackets? I glanced about, but there weren't any around, so I kept walking away from the crash site until I finally found one. He was a half a block over, leading a mule back toward the bridge.
"What are you doing?" It was all I could do to contain my incredulity.
"Getting these animals off the street before they hurt anybody, ma'am," the blue jacket replied. "Now if you'll just step back…"
"No, I won't just step back. I'm a student at the academy," I said, exaggerating a little, because I really wasn't. Not yet, anyway. "And while you're busy chasing animals, you're also letting chaos reign rather than securing what might well be a crime scene!"
"Thank you, ma'am," the blue-bottle sneered. "I suggest you get on to your classes and leave the police work to those of us who have finished school."
Oh! I was dealing with Office Arrogant. The steam from his breath hadn't even left the air before he'd dismissed me from his thoughts and continued on up the street with his catch.
I just shook my head and walked away. If he wasn't going to secure the wreckage, I was going to examine it, because it seemed to me that something was obviously wrong. The overturned wagon and its spilled cargo had completely blocked the Morrisant Bridge. That was to be expected. Less expected was that the team had somehow lost control as they descended the southern bridge slope, and that made no sense!
These huge mule teams were every bit as much a part of the lifeblood of the city as the Caspian itself. Everything from the tons of coal it took to heat the city every day to the food we consumed at our tables, for some part of its journey, it had been part of a muleskinner's cargo. Over fifty meters long, when in train, the fully loaded wagons weighed in excess of thirty-three tons. Town was not their native environment. Their journeys typically started in remote areas, where the teams had to be driven over poorly maintained, muddy roads, and frozen mountain tracks. And to keep the food on our tables and the coal in our stoves, they had to do it in all kinds of weather, nearly every day of the year.
So, with all that experience, and with hundreds of these mule teams on the road criss-crossing the kingdom every day, how in the name of gentle Valïa did one crash on a paved bridge in the middle of Fernwall? That, it seemed to me, required an explanation.
While Officer Arrogant occupied himself with chasing down mules that the public corralled much more efficiently, I crawled over the pile of coal till I reached the overturned wagon. Then I made my way rather gingerly along the bridge rail to the back, where I could see the axles and wheels. Not surprisingly, there was another blue jacket there, wrapped up in his blue winter overcoat. What was surprising was that I knew him—sort of.
"Cole?" he exclaimed, as I walked up. He was a tall, messy haired stick of a fellow. His name was Brock Jakeman. I'd seen him in the library a few times. "What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"I was headed to Brent Clay to put in an order for my parents," I explained. "Dad's got himself a shiny new contract. But this is way more interesting." I looked over the upturned wagon with eager interest and immediately spotted the problem. The only thing that remained of the left front wheel was the mangled hub. "See?" I pointed to a hole in the paving stone where the hub and axle had made impact, and the gouge some ten centimeters long where it had slid on the stones until it hit the gap where the bridge met the abutment.
"I noticed that. Obvious guild sabotage," Jakeman nodded sagely. "See the name?" He jabbed a finger in the direction of the back of the wagon.
I went over to take a look. Luridly colored large block letters had been painted onto a sign board that had then been screwed to the wagon's gate. The sign said "Gastrell Transportation. Bexler, Auberon".
"Gastrell is one of the biggest haulers out of the northwestern frontier," Jakeman explained. "These muleskinners get paid a lot more than the drivers here in town. It's a feud that's been going on for years now."
"For years," I mumbled distractedly, following the brake cables as they ran along underneath the wagon. That's where I found the problem.
"For years?" I repeated, standing up to arch an eyebrow at Officer Jakeman. Then I connected a few dots. This was the guy the students derisively called "Officer Detective" because, around them, he was always putting on airs. According to him, he was an expert on all the teachers, could tell you anything you wanted to know about any class you could name, and was the best undiscovered detective that ever was. All he needed, he swore, was to "do the academy thing and get it out of the way"—if he could only find the time! His skills were in such demand, you understand! Class after class of cadets had heard his asseverations. Unfortunately, nobody could ever remember him working on a case, or actually doing the work necessary to become a police inspector.
So of course he was on the scene. Of course.
"What's going on here?"
The question startled me badly, and I jumped. A svelte man in a gray overcoat and bowler hat was headed in our direction with a purpose. The hair below his hat was turning gray, and his angular, unshaven face accentuated his bright, piercing eyes.
I had no idea who it was, but Officer Jakeman immediately snapped to attention, army style.
"Commissioner Roland!" Jakeman stammered. "Wha… What are you doing here?"
"I was having coffee on the River Walk. Who in the nine hells are you?" He glared at me. "No civilians allowed on scene."
"I'm sorry Commissioner, we were just discuss…"
"Cole, Commissioner. Barbara Cole," I said, cutting Jakeman off. I didn't come to attention like he did, but the presence of the famous Hal Roland had certainly improved my posture.
"Cole?" The Commissioner's bushy, gray eyebrow shot up and, for a second, I thought I was in serious trouble. "Didn't you sit for the academy exams last week?"
"I did, yes."
"Well, congratulations, Cole, you're now a cadet. You passed!"
Suddenly the whole world went blurry. I reached up and grabbed one of the wagon's thick wheel spokes to steady myself. My other hand went over my mouth. Tears welled up in my eyes before I could even think to stop myself. I didn't want to break down. Not right there in the street, on a crime scene, for pity's sake! And most certainly not right in front of the most powerful man in the police world. But tears blurred my vision anyway. I was stunned! I had no idea! No official announcements had been made, no lists published, and none were supposed to be for another two weeks! Besides, my main reason for sitting the exams in the first place was practice. I never expected to actually pass. Not really. Not on my first try.
I blinked the tears out of my eyes and looked at Commission Roland. "I… I p-passed?" I stammered. "You're being serious, Commissioner?"
Roland just smiled and nodded. "Jakeman, get your butt back to your post," he said suddenly, jerking his head back up the bridge span.
As he marched off, Officer Jakeman somehow managed to look crushed, relieved, and envious, all at the same time. Commissioner Roland didn't even wait for Jakeman to get out of earshot. "Alright, Cadet, tell me what you've found."
"Me, Commissioner?" I blinked. Surprise and relief were replaced with abject terror in the space of two heartbeats. I hadn't even started school and I was supposed to debrief the fucking police commissioner? "Commissioner, I haven't even…"
"Just tell me what you've found, and what you see, Cadet," Roland repeated patiently.
"Umm… Okay." I took a deep breath. "Well, the left front wheel has obviously come apart, and I think this is why." I pointed to the brake cables. "The cables connecting to three of the four wheel brakes have been deliberately cut. They're not frayed out or rusty like they would be if they had broken naturally. The only uncut cable is the one going to the left front brake. That's the wheel that came apart when the brake was applied for the descent."
Which tells you what?" Roland pressed.
"What's going on here?" A sharp looking woman in a smartly cut overcoat demanded as she marched up. Her wavy black hair spilled out of the expensive looking cowl she was wearing to ward against the freezing cold. "Boss," she nodded to Commissioner Roland.
"Inspector Bradley," Roland rumbled. "Cadet Cole here was about to explain this mess to us."
Great! I needed more experienced detectives around to hear me make a fool of myself.
"Cole, eh?" Bradley smiled. She was about my mother's age, I noticed. The way she seemed to be able to look right through me, missing nothing, reminded me very much of Mistress Alder. "Okay. Off you go, then."
I didn't dare glare at the commissioner, but I wanted to oh so badly! It felt like he was using the timely arrival of Inspector Bradley and his knowledge of my test results to mock me, and I didn't appreciate it. Not one bit. "Right!" I exhaled forcefully, creating a cloud of steam in the cold air.
"Relax, Cole," Roland advised in that same patient tone. "This isn't a test, its an investigation."
I wasn't expecting that, but I didn't know what to think of it either. Was he investigating me or the accident? "Okay!" I started again. "Well, for starters, Officer Jakeman thinks this is all part of the Teamsters Guild's little internal war."
"What do you think?" Bradley asked immediately, shoving her gloved hands deep into the pockets of her coat.
"I don't know, Inspector. Maybe. Maybe the wheelers just rode off because, and maybe the braker just jumped off and ran away on a whim…"
"But?" Roland sensed that I was uncomfortable with the line of reasoning I was presenting.
I shrugged my shoulders. "Well, I'm certainly no expert in transport, but how would the wheelers and braker get away unscathed on a bridge span if they didn't know their brake cables had been cut? I mean, the braker might have been able to jump off and run back over the bridge," I gestured back the way both Roland and Bradley had come, "but the driver and mount should either be among the injured, here in the wreckage, or over there piled up in that building with the main wagon. And if the other wheeler was at their station in the train, then the same for that horse and rider, wouldn't you say?"
Roland looked impressed. Bradley frowned. "How do you know there aren't any bodies under the coal, or the big wagon in the building wreckage?"
"I don't," I replied immediately. "And if there are, taking a more serious look at the guild feud idea might be in order."
Bradley sauntered over to look at the upturned wagon for herself. She picked up one of the cut brake cables carefully, with a gloved hand, and examined it minutely. Then she took in the broken wagon tongue. "She has a point, Commissioner. This might not be either murder or sabotage. It might be something else entirely."
"Good." Roland huffed. "Well done both of you. Cole, come by my office today. I'm swearing you in as a regular officer so you can work with Bradley until your classes start."
Bradley and I stared first at each other, then at Roland.
"Your classes don't start until after SpringFest," Roland explained. "In the meantime, you'll work with Bradley on this case. To do that, you need a badge, which means you'll also be paid beat-cop wages."
"Commissioner." Bradley jammed her hands back into her pockets and faced Roland. "I don't need the help of a pre-first year student with no experience."
"Of course you don't!" Roland said, his temper snapping. "She's not going with you to be your partner, Inspector. She's going with you to learn. You've been a teacher, so teach."
Then he turned to me. "I'll expect you in my office no later than six bells this afternoon," he said, somewhat more mildly. He nodded to us both, mumbled "carry on," and headed back across the bridge.
We both stared at his retreating back for a few long seconds, then I turned to Inspector Bradley.
"Umm… Sorry about that." I didn't know why I was apologizing, but it somehow seemed appropriate.
"Don't be," Bradley drawled. She had a quirky grin on her face. "That's… That's just Roland. Jenny Bradley. Jen will do." She held out a hand.
"Barbara Cole." Cautiously, I took her hand and shook it. "Your new apprentice, I guess."
"Oh, relax. You're fine! I did a stint teaching military police in Gloredil, during the war. That's probably why Roland decided to stick you with me. Come on. Let's see how you are at interviewing witnesses."