They were children once. He’s not sure exactly how long ago.
Time has become slippery lately, memories are difficult to grasp. The town has shrunk to almost nothing and its residents are not who they once were. He looks at his receipts to remember their names. Using his meticulous notes, he can picture a leg of this length or a torso so wide around. He composites these measurements— professional, detached, and mentally sketches what each body would look like. But the faces of his customers remain stubbornly out of focus. They’re long-forgotten, smudges of chalk on a bolt of fabric he will never actually cut.
But he’s known James Bargarran all his life. Of that much he’s still certain.
They were kids together. Friends. At least in the way that boys in a small town must inevitably be whether they like each other or not. Fellow explorers sneaking off into the woods, pockets loaded with stolen sweets and heads rattling with nothing in particular, only dreams and misconceptions. Little boys with sticks for swords . . . or had they graduated to imaginary guns? He can’t remember. Doesn’t even know which war they would have been pretending to fight, only that in their games it never really ended.
He can still picture the day Bargarran found the dead grouse. Not so strange out in nature maybe. But the bird was a perfect specimen, her breast unbroken by gunshot or the teeth of a farmer’s dog. They hadn’t had a bag, and Bargarran carried the corpse home in his hands.
He’d already taken up taxidermy at that point. Fulton can’t remember anyone remarking that from the very beginning Bargarran was never disturbed by the idea of handling a body. It was the sort of morbid hobby growing boys could dabble in with impunity.
James Fulton was younger and more squeamish, but he had helped with the project.
He remembers the careful process of stripping the skin, the strange texture of the flesh was a little to rotten for either of their mothers to want it. He hadn’t minded the meat so much but refused to touch the bones once they were boiled. He’d helped build the manikin instead, proud the way his nimble fingers could form a convincing wire shape, padding it with whatever they could find. Never worried that he was creating a false beast to live in an abandoned body.
But pleased as they both were with that first mount, Bargarran seemed unable to let go of the bones. They went everywhere with him. Fulton would catch his eye sometimes, shiver at the sight of Bargarran’s fingers busy in his pockets, toying with little pieces of death.
Fulton’s mother had a foolish prized possession— a large salt box she had carried into their home before allowing his father to touch a single stick of furniture. She swore it had kept them safe for as long as her boy had been alive. The precious contents had been hoarded for years. Sometimes just a pinch would be abstracted and thrown over her shoulder in times of trouble.
At some point Fulton ceased to doubt and began to listen. He began to fill his jacket pockets with the stuff. Counterbalancing the dead thing that traveled through town.
All the boys of Gallow Green have stopped going into the woods to play. Perhaps there are no children here at all these days. Or families, or friends.
Everyone wears many hats in a small community anyway. You practice a kind of forced economy; your veterinarian plays the doctor in an emergency, or your pastor sells the best produce from his orchard at market just like anybody else.
The only exceptions are the men from the local Manor, strange transplants that they are. Why should a hamlet like this need a detective, let alone an office to hold them? No one asks. They have money to rent the space, and that’s enough.
When the coroner leaves town— reasons unknown and undiscussed —it seems only right that Fulton should step in. He has a skill, placing the most invisible stitches. Then there's his private inclinations towards charms and folklore, along with a much more proper and openly discussed respect for reading the Good Book.
He’s older now, and not so squeamish. He’s already been assisting the surgeon who visits from the next town over with sewing up the living. And so he agrees, with only a sketch of the cross above his heart to ward off the dangers of the job, that he may as well do the same for the dead when it’s needed.
No one suggests that Bargarran might have been an even more natural choice. By then, it’s not just Fulton who feels that the word natural does not seem to apply.
Years later, the woods renders up another kind of corpse.
By chance or fate, he’s traveling with Bargarran again. Better to walk in twos if you must leave town, even if you don't fully trust your companion. It’s almost night when they stumble across her, and the evening sun has disappeared into an angry orange twilight that casts long shadows and makes the trees look dark and rotten.
But for the woman, any time of day would be much too late. Her hair and her long, unnaturally dark lashes are rimed with frost. Her wide eyes are filmy and Fulton knows, with creeping dread, that no one alive could hold an expression of shock for such a long time. Then he realizes with a painful jolt that he recognizes her. As a person, and not just a vision of horror.
Her name is Grace Naismith, one of the nurses at King James’ sanatorium just north of town. More than that, the woman who inherited the only cheerful house in town. His next door neighbor. Such a recent addition— so why is her living, laughing face so clear in his mind?
Fulton has spent enough time in his coroner’s coat that the sight of a familiar body cannot immediately wreck him, but the scene is unsettling. He’s far away from his close safe room, his preservatives and paints, his holy water and secret ash, all the mundane rituals that make death presentable and safe. He digs a hand deep into his breast pocket and tries to take comfort from the bible stowed over his heart while he works to squeeze a few words from his frozen lungs. “We should go find someone,” he manages. “Get Reid or Mac Crinain before we move her.”
Bargarran doesn’t answer, doesn’t look at him. The man’s silence prompts him to continue, giving voice to his apprehensions. “It must be murder.”
Though there’s not a mark on her, and there is another word for what might have happened hovering at the back of his throat.
After a long moment, Bargarran nods as well. “Yes. Yes, it must have been.” His words carry a heavy finality that Fulton could not manage. There is no hope left in this frozen scene.
Fulton doesn’t continue the conversation or try to divine whether the other man can think of darker words too, though Bargarran, lost in his thoughts, looks as though he might have his own answers. It’s almost imperceptible, the way the man’s fingers still shift under the thick fabric of his winter coat. Is it just reflexive habit now?
Fulton realizes later that he didn’t ask because he doesn’t want to hear any denials.
He didn't want to see whatever gruesome trophy was hidden in Bargarran's pocket.