Murder In The Monastery

I wouldn't necessarily say that Brother Algernon's body was the last thing I expected to find hanging in the antechamber of the chapel. Quite frankly, I hadn't expected there to be anything hanging there, so it would be hard to rank them all in likelihood of expectation. But it certainly wouldn't be among the top fifty either.

It was hanging from straps nailed into the soffit of the arch, just above eye level. I might not have noticed it right away had one of the more precariously-balanced oranges not slid out of the bowl I was carrying in to Brother Eustace. He fancied himself suffering from scurvy, and none of us could muster the persuasion to correct him, so we spent a large part of our collection on citrus fruits for him.

As I bent to retrieve the fruit, carefully balancing the bowl in my other hand, I noticed a distinct odour, a rather unpleasant mixture of blood and feces. It was coming from a spot on the carpet just a few inches in front of my nose, and as I bent over, the orange momentarily forgotten, I saw another drop of blood descend noiselessly from above. Looking up, I had just enough time to register Brother Algernon's inverted features before I tilted the bowl too far and oranges, lemons, and grapefruits spilled out all over the carpet, luckily behind me and not in the pool of noisome fluid previously more-or-less safely esconced in Brother Algernon's body.

Brother Eustace demanded in a querulous voice, "Where's my fruit? I feel my teeth loosening!"

"Just a minor mishap," I said quickly. Brother Eustace's reaction on seeing Brother Algernon's body would be utterly unpredictable, and he was bad enough at the best of times. "Perhaps if Brother Gaylord were to come assist me..."

Brother Gaylord's initial annoyance at having to help me at the simple task of bearing fruit, when he had already taken his turn hours earlier, turned to shock when he saw our archway's new adornment. He had the wit to turn his horror-struck gasp into a coughing fit, and I privately thought he might want to spare an orange or two for himself. Between the two of us we speedily gathered up the bowl's contents and took them in to Brother Eustace. I sliced and peeled, taking care not to slice my thumb since the sight of my own blood might have pushed me over the edge. Brother Gaylord managed to conceal his agitation, but his eyes spoke volumes of questions which my eyes were unfortunately not eloquent enough to answer, had I even known the answers to most of them. After I had pulled our usual trick of a little poppy juice in one of the slices, I took him out to examine the situation more thoroughly.

Between the two of us we concluded rapidly that Brother Algernon had died in the same position we found him, since the blood and other signs of death were there and nowhere else. His throat was cut, which we quickly agreed could have been done by neither of us without artificial aids. The strap around his hips was nailed into the soffit of the arch, and would probably have worked itself loose under Brother Algernon's weight in just a few hours more. The blood was also issuing from numerous other cuts; the throat seemed to have been cut as much to keep Brother Algernon quiet as to kill him.

"We should call in the Caesar's guards," Brother Gaylord suggested early on.

"That would be playing into his hands," I pointed out. "There's nothing he would like better than to tie us with some scandal or other. It's hard enough now to keep the matter of Brother Eustace quiet; how would we fare with something more serious? Now how would we fare with guards to spread it over the entire province?"

"Well then, Brother Sylvester," he said, "I wish you luck with your investigation." With that his face was split with a great yawn and he stumbled off to the cots. I watched him go with some annoyance. He was a Nocturnal, as had been Brother Algernon. As I was a Diurnal, we rarely crossed paths, most of our encounters even more abbreviated than this one. If I wanted more information about the Nocturnals, I would have to involve others, like Brother Humbert, one of the few Marginals, outside either camp. That would make this that much harder to keep quiet. I would need his help, anyway, to remove Brother Algernon's body and remove that patch of carpet.

Luckily, Brother Humbert was in his office, and I didn't have to leave the body unattended for more than a few minutes while I fetched him, explaining the situation on the way. He didn't have any good news for me.

"Brother Algernon was not well-liked among the Nocturnals," he said. "They've all had their doctrinal disagreements, of course, but if they could unite against anybody it would be Brother Algernon."

"Do you know if anyone had quarreled with him recently?" I asked.

His brow furrowed. "I'm not entirely sure. Or--wait. I did hear something from Brother Bartholomew. Apparently Brother Gaylord had been advocating the necessity of reaching some kind of accommodation with the Caesar, while Brother Algernon was adamantly in favour of increasing our degree of isolation, to the extent of becoming entirely self-sufficient, and barricading ourselves from the outside world."

I raised an eyebrow at this. "And what would happen to us in fifty years, when all of us will likely be dead?"

"That's what Brother Gaylord asked, and apparently Brother Algernon said something about bringing in women. This, unfortunately, was something that several of the younger Brothers were in favour of--quite unusual, for one of Brother Algernon's notions. Brother Gaylord lost his composure completely, and shouted something about Brother Algernon being a blasphemer and a heretic. He seemed on the point of physical violence, in fact."

As he helped me lower the body, I pondered this information. Brother Gaylord could easily have pretended surprise at the sight of Brother Algernon's body. But had he had the opportunity to kill Brother Algernon and hang his body up? He had been on duty watching Brother Eustace, and fetching citrus, during the night. Or had he? Perhaps he risked leaving during one of Brother Eustace's catnaps. Or, more disquietingly, perhaps he had accomplices. First question first. I would have to ask Brother Eustace. I went to fetch another bowl of oranges, while Brother Humbert dealt with the carpet stain.

It was Brother Mortimer's turn at "citrus duty", as some of the younger Brothers called it, but Brother Eustace was sleeping and Brother Mortimer was only too happy to let me take over for a few minutes. I didn't have to wait too long for Brother Eustace to awaken. He immediately fixed me with a hard stare. "What are you doing here?" he asked bluntly. "You were just here three days ago. I know how you trade off this duty; you probably don't need to be back for another week."

I decided to be equally blunt. "I need to know if Brother Gaylord was here all night last night," I asked. "Did anyone come in to give him a break? Did you wake up and find him not here? Did you have any particularly long naps?"

Brother Eustace gave me a long, speculating look. "What's this about?" he asked at length, his voice slightly different in tone, as if he knew or suspected the answer.

I'd learned long since that lying or even evading the truth was of little use with Brother Eustace. "Brother Algernon is dead, and Brother Gaylord is among the most likely suspects. It happened last night."

He nodded and coughed. I quickly sliced up an orange for him, cutting my finger in my haste. The blade was sharper than usual, and cleaner, too. Suddenly things fell into place, and I looked up at Brother Eustace with a question forming on my lips.

"Listen," Brother Eustace said, forestalling me, an unexpected authority in his voice. "You've disposed of the body, right? With whose help?"

"Brother Humbert," I said.

"Good. I think he can be persuaded to keep his silence. So can Brother Gaylord, and obviously the executioner too. So all we have to do is spread a story that Brother Algernon left rather than expose a secret shame that would have him thrown out anyway. Better to leave it to their imaginations--half of them already suspect him of something anyway."

I opened my mouth to protest, then closed it again. The message was clear- -it could be my body up there next.

The murder had probably happened without Brother Eustace's direct approval, but he obviously wasn't saddened by Brother Algernon's death--he called it an "execution", so he obviously thought justice had been done. Perhaps it was just reward for Brother Algernon's plan of bringing women into the monastery. I hoped that the murderer--Brother Gaylord, or whoever else it might have been, perhaps several or all of the Nocturnals--would be dealt with, at the very least for the conspicuous nature of the act. Hanging him from the soffits was really a bit much.

[Dwiff gave me the words:

Diurnal. Citrus. Soffit. Caesar.]

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The Den of Ubiquity/ Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com