“Now, mister, why would you bother yourself with questions like those?”
Quinn put down the brass cup he was drinking from and closed the open journal in front of him. “It’s unfortunately my job, ma’am.”
“And it’s a terrible job indeed, for such a handsome fellow,” the waitress mused. She tilted her pitcher of wine over his cup, and while the man was sure he’d had enough, he didn’t protest. “It’s such a gruesome thing for you to busy yourself with.”
“Someone’s got to be so busy.” He smirked, reaching into his pocket for a handful of coins and placing them in the waitress’s free hand. “Thank you for your assistance.”
The woman blushed at his touch, bowing as she stepped away. Quinn sipped from the now brimming cup of alcohol as he turned his attention back to his notes, the ones he had taken in his mind carefully as she spoke. This would be the eleventh body so far. He hadn’t seen it yet, but it was still fresh, and nearby—in an alley beside the rented homes at the docks, barely minutes of walking from the tavern he sat in. If the city’s own guards hadn’t moved it—and he was confident they wouldn’t, not until daylight had burned away most of their fear—then tonight was a good chance to get a look of his own.
The grim crime occurred near Augustana’s thriving docks, and Quinn knew which alley the victim lay in when the smell of rum and saltwater gave way to the overpowering stench of death as he approached. He held a torch above his head as he stepped into the dark toward the body. The corpse itself was as all the others, at least at first blush. It was dressed in the robes of the Skinsaw Cult, laying spread-eagle at the center of the scene. They had been exsanguinated, one clean deep cut to the neck letting all of their precious lifeblood out into a receptacle that was no longer at the scene, but left its round red ring of blood on the cobblestones as evidence.
Quinn assesses the scene of the crime in this illustration by Ksenia Kozhevnikova. Take your own investigators on adventures of murder and mystery with the Pathfinder Advanced Player’s Guide, available everywhere July 30.
The one difference between this scene and the others had been the first thing that Quinn saw, but he wanted to save his assessment of it for last. On the wall behind the body lay concentric painted circles of blood making a crude clock, skeletal arms pointing at the twelve and thirteen numerals. It was peculiar in ways that ultimately felt distracting. These cultists loved their gaudy death imagery—the skulls and bones and blood and exquisitely mannequined carcasses—all meant to elicit terror and leave those who witnessed their handiwork unable to shake the thought of the gruesome scene. As a rule, however, there was always something more meaningful beneath the theater, some misstep of a lazy mind, a revelation to be uncovered by the quick-witted.
Quinn stared at the macabre clock, waiting for it to reveal something deeper the its obvious message of intimidation and horror. It went up to thirteen hours—that would have been simple enough to dismiss as over-relying on superstition, but then why point at twelve? There were also the bones themselves. The body did have its arms split lengthwise, the skeleton severed at the joints for the bones to slip out as much as possible without disturbing the muscle beyond them. The arms nailed to the wall, however, did not belong to this victim. It took barely a moment of Quinn’s forensic acumen to tell. For one thing, there was a short hand, as all clocks were wont to have, but both limbs were still longer than the corpse’s. Each of these arms, then, must be another victim’s injury.
He paused to consider if that would be a useful hunch. That was where they pointed: to the twelfth and thirteenth bodies, somewhere waiting to be found among the ports of the Inner Sea. But why hint at them now? The murderer had so far never left any clues to a further kill. Perhaps he had learned that he was being followed, and the thrill had changed from the lust for blood to the game of not being caught. Quinn winced. “Please, don’t be one of the clever ones,” he muttered.
Quinn knelt and turned over the opened arms of the corpse with the tip of his cane, to check the rest of the man’s skin. The corpse’s nails were clean and manicured, and there were the clear tan lines of a bracelet and a ring around the wrist and fourth finger of the right hand. Nothing else about the person bore the kind of dazed, hungry demeanor of a cultist of the Skinsaw Man. Quinn sized up the man’s muscular build, sun-worn skin, and the pair of ornate anchor tattoos on each bicep—one in the Taldan or Andoren style he would expect of a citizen of Augustana, the other similar but with flourishes that appeared more Garundi, possibly Rahadoumi. This man must have been a sailor. This expanded his investigation quite a bit, and he sighed at the notion.
He endeavored to ask his questions in the morning, then. Sailors tend to be their most volatile at night.
At first light, Quinn awoke and took a moment to consider what he knew so far about the victims. The Skinsaw Cult garb was a ruse—but whose? Did a cultist find enough forethought to hide their latest body in their own robes? It was doubtful compared to the alternative: someone attempted to infiltrate the cult. It was highly unlikely that they were on the same path that he himself was. Still, what the poor soul may have found might be relevant, he thought. He hoped that the man may have shared some part of his plan with a crewmate.
Yes, he knew that would mean forcing the answers out of a sailor, the bulk of whom Quinn’s experience told him would be loyal to their oaths of secrecy, even those sworn to the dead. It’d be hard going, but at least there would be someone with answers.
Quinn spent the morning combing the Fleet District, listening and watching for any indication of what ship last night’s victim may have served on. If his theory were correct, if the victim truly was tracking the cult across the northern coast of the Inner Sea, then it’d be a ship recently arrived from Almas, after having put in at both Oppara and Cassomir, though not in that order. That narrowed the possible number of vessels to four.
It was early afternoon before he’d further winnowed the possibilities to a single ship, Oasis, which employed a Taldan crew but called Azir, Rahadoum’s so-called Port Godless, her home port. Oasis had arrived just two nights hence, and its crew were holed up in one of the sailor’s flophouses not far from the scene of the crime. When he found the home, Quinn lifted the head of his cane and rapped on the door three times with rhythmic precision, with the force of conviction but not malice. Just as he drew breath to call out his name and intention, the door slowly creaked open, and the stern face of a blond man in his forties glared at him. “What can I do for you, friend?”
“I may have a bit more to offer,” Quinn replied, smiling. “But first, do you know a tan-skinned man, around your height and build, maybe a bit younger, darker of hair, with twin anchor tattoos on the arms, of a kind but likely done by different needles in ports far from one another?”
“Er… I mean, I know lots of guys,” the man started, his eyes darting quickly from Quinn’s face to the head of his cane and back. “Why?” Quinn noticed that the man didn’t inhale at the end of the inquiry, nervously, subconsciously holding his breath.
Surely you heard tell of the murder last night, the ritual killing? I have reason to believe someone who’d been bunking here with the other members of his crew was involved.” Quinn drew his journal from a coat pocket now, making a show of checking it for the ship’s name. “Yes, the victim was most assuredly a sailor on the Oasis—strange name for a ship, no? You know it?”
“Victim?” the man said somberly, releasing his held breath and letting the door swing open wide enough for Quinn to enter. “Jassa, one of my mates…” His eyes opened wide, as if he were searching the floor between them both for something to make sense of his sudden grief. “I’m bosun of Oasis. I can’t imagine why Jassa’d be a target of a slaying that brutal. If what I heard is true, course.” When he finally found himself, he put his hand out to greet the detective. “Randall. Thank you for letting me know.”
Quinn shook the man’s hand firmly. There was the formality Quinn expected, the apprehension against opening up to anyone—especially non-sailors—who seemed to know more about a given situation. Experience told him that he just had to push a few buttons first. “Why would a man serving on a ship out of Azir be involved with religious zealots, cultists?”
“Cultists? You think one of those flesh-peeling Skinsaws did that to him?” Randall’s eyes flared with rage, but he caught himself suddenly.
There it was. Quinn had him now. “He told you something.”
“Like what, sir?”
“You didn’t even hesitate. Jumped straight from ‘cultist’ to ‘Skinsaws’. Your man Jassa was looking into something, and he let you know what. So now you’re going to tell me.” He walked past the man and toward the corner of the room that served as a kitchen and continued. “So, how do you like your tea?”
“… tea? What are you on about, man?”
Quinn peered into a kettle to ensure its cleanliness and began filling it with water, then turned to Randall and smirked. “When someone’s about to tell me a long story, I like to have something to drink.”
About the Author
Brandon O’Brien is a writer, performance poet, teaching artist and game designer from Trinidad and Tobago. His work has been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions, and is published in Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, and New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, among others. He is also the poetry editor of FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.
About Iconic Encounters
Iconic Encounters is a series of web-based flash fiction set in the worlds of Pathfinder and Starfinder. Each short story provides a glimpse into the life and personality of one of the games’ iconic characters, showing the myriad stories of adventure and excitement players can tell with the Pathfinder and Starfinder roleplaying games.