Like an impatient bear, Sergeant Kaighn wouldn’t let up until his demands were answered. Travis threw open the door and looked up at the sergeant’s broad face. “What can I help you with, Sir?” he said.
The sergeant grinned. “You take care of that crazy wag?” he said.
Travis grimaced. He spun around and pulled the papers away from the spreading pool of ink. “Just a moment,” he said, fumbling for his pen. He dipped it into the spill and signed his name on the report. “Yes, Sir,” he said. “Mr. Loupinacci has paid the fine, and I advised Mrs. Weatherington against buying any more yappy dogs as long as she has a werewolf for a neighbor. She insisted that-”
The sergeant snatched the papers from him. “Good, good,” he said. “Got a real treat for ya. Dispute between a couple’a graveyard dogs. I sent em’ around back so they wouldn’t stink up the place, told em’ you’d let em’ in through your window. Good luck.”
The sergeant tossed a piece of cloth at Travis and he caught it. It was a handkerchief with a few drops of scented oil in the center. Travis looked up to ask what it was for, but his boss was already gone.
Baffled, Travis laid the handkerchief on a clean section of desk and hurried to open the window. Icy wind blew in, but it was thankfully not accompanied by snow. He set his waste bin on its side and swept shards of inky glass in with a piece of scrap paper.
A soft snuffling sound startled him as he moved to put the waste bin back in place. He spun toward the window and saw a vaguely doglike head poking in. The creature’s long yellow claws dug into the windowsill. Its large eyes focused on him and it leaned forward, sniffing. “Are you the one who judges?” it said in a low, rough voice.
“Uh, yes,” Travis said. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
He put the waste bin down and looked for anything that would do a suitable job of soaking up the ink spill. He debated going to the other officers to ask for some rags, but decided he would rather not risk leaving the creature alone in his office. With a silent apology to his wife Ellie, he removed his hand-knitted blue scarf and wiped up the ink.
The creature leapt through the window, froze with indecision for a few moments, and then investigated one of the two visitor chairs with a few sniffs. It perched on the edge of the chair, legs bent and rear end not quite touching the seat, and crossed its arms over its knees. Layers of dirty clothing hid every part of it from view except for its hands and pointed face. Its skin was a dark gray-brown, and hairless. It yawned, revealing long tusk-like upper fangs, and licked its wet nose.
A second creature jumped in, turned back to the window, and helped a third through. They were carrying a limp bundle wrapped in rags. It took Travis a few moments to realize it was another of the creatures. He dropped the scarf and hurried toward them.
Eyes wide with panic, they dropped the still figure and flattened against the wall. They trembled and licked their noses.
Travis stopped and held up his hands. “Sorry!” he said. “I just wanted to see if he needs help.”
The taller of the two creatures (though Travis estimated it must be at least a head shorter than Ellie) pressed its hands together and bowed. “I thank you,” it said, “but he is beyond help. He is dead.”
Travis returned to his seat behind his desk, hoping the barrier would put them at ease. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Have you come to file a complaint related to his death?”
The creatures placed their dead comrade between the visitor’s chairs and the desk. They crouched on the floor, ignoring the remaining chair. “Yes,” the taller one said. “By right he belongs to me and my mate, but our neighbor claims he can take ownership because he died on his territory. He says that in the city, The People do not fight to settle disputes, that they seek human judges instead. Is this true?”
Travis considered his response for a few moments. “Well, yes and no,” he said. “Officially we don’t get involved in nonhuman arguments unless they cause problems for humans, or if we’re asked to serve as mediators. As head of the Nonhuman Complaints Department, I would like to see disputes settled with as little violence as possible. I know we humans aren’t the perfect poster boys for peace, but I believe all races have the chance to achieve harmony someday, you know?”
The creatures stared with blank expressions and wide eyes. They were amber colored and narrowed to slits in the candle light, like cat’s eyes. None of them looked at him directly; each seemed to have found some interesting feature in the office to focus on that kept their heads at a slight downward tilt.
Travis retrieved paper and a new inkwell from his desk. He spoke in slow, gentle tones. “I’m just going to get up and close the window,” he said. “Then before we begin, I would like to examine the deceased. Is that all right?”
They nodded their heads. He could sense them following his movements when his back was turned. It sent a chill down his spine.
He knelt beside the corpse and pulled the ragged clothing back. The smell coming off it was a mixture of rotten flesh, spoiled food, and other unknown scents he couldn’t even begin to identify. He choked back a gag, not wanting to appear rude. At first he thought it might have had a few days to decompose, but the smear of bright, drying blood around the mouth suggested otherwise. The sergeant’s offering made sense now, callous though it may be. A sentient race did not deserve any less respect for failing to smell pleasant by human standards. He found blood stains in the clothing and identified the cause of death; the broken shaft of an arrow protruded from the back.
Travis returned to his desk and took notes. He pointed at the creature crouching on the chair. “Would you please tell me your species, name, and relation to the deceased?”
The creature made a guttural sound that ended in a whine. “That is our name,” it said. “In your language it means, The People. Your people call us ghouls. I am Verg. I do not know the dead one.”
Now that he knew what they were, Travis was shocked that they had come to see him. Ghouls were one of the most secretive races to live alongside humans. They lived underground and only came out at night. He had received a few complaints about their tendency to dig through garbage, disturb graveyards, and fight noisily among themselves, but had never managed to see the culprits. People who wanted to take care of the problem themselves were allowed to use poison, traps, and other unsavory solutions.
Travis pointed at the other two. “Your names and relation to the deceased?” he said.
“I am Yerv, and my mate is Zai,” the larger one said. “The dead one is Roul. He is my cousin. He has no mate or children. I am the only family he has here.”
Since Zai was smaller and lighter colored than the other two, Travis decided this must be the female and the other two were males. There was no other way of guessing with the heavy, nondescript clothing they all wore. “My condolences,” he said. “Do you know who killed him?”
Yerv licked his nose. “We know our place in your eyes,” he said. “We did not come to make trouble. My complaint is with my neighbor only.”
“I understand,” Travis said. “Still, it wouldn’t hurt to make a note of it. Laws can change. Someday you may have the option to make this man answer for what he did.”
Yerv flared his nostrils and shook his head. “I know nothing,” he said.
Travis didn’t want to push him any further. He considered asking them why they were fighting over a corpse, but then wondered if it was really important. As much as he liked to satisfy his curiosity, a trial was not the time to investigate the strange habits of other races. He returned his attention to Verg. “Can you please explain to me why you believe you have a claim to the deceased?” he said.
Verg met Yerv’s eyes and grinned at him. Yerv and Zai stared back and wrinkled their noses, pulling their lips away from their sharp teeth. “I was born in human lands,” Verg said. “This one comes from the homelands. He follows old ways. In human lands, The People can make new ways. He who finds keeps. The dead one died by my den. That makes him mine. You said yourself that violence is detestable. The one from the homelands would have ripped me with his fangs to take what he thinks is his. I was lucky to convince him that is not how we do things here. I know how humans think. I know you will agree.”
Yerv clicked his teeth and growled.
“Settle down,” Travis said. “Yerv, what do you have to say?”
Yerv bowed his head. “My neighbor’s attitude brings me great sadness,” he said. “He disrespects our ancestors by discarding their ways. When we die, is it not our greatest wish to be with family? With a mate, or child, or parent? Roul has no one but me. When he knew he was dying, he tried to reach my den. I was already following his blood trail, but the disrespectful one found him first. It is customary to settle a disagreement of this importance with a duel. If you will not permit this in your homeland, I will respect your decision. I beg you; let me give my cousin rest according to the traditions of our ancestors.”
His head drooped even lower. Zai took one of his hands in hers and squeezed it.
“Do you have anything to add, Miss?” Travis said.
“As the mate of the dead one’s relative I may also put him to rest,” Zai said. “It is not customary for me to participate in the duel, though it is tempting when dealing with one such as this. I was also born in human lands. We do not all discard the ancestor’s ways like gnawed-on bones.”
“An old dry bone feeds no one,” Verg said. “Tradition does not fill bellies. Only the foolish think the dead care who puts them to rest.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Travis said. “As I understand it, tradition is the closest thing your people have to a set of laws. This land operates by law, not whatever decision someone finds convenient. I’m giving the deceased over to Yerv and Zai.”
Verg tossed his head and snorted. He leapt over the back of his chair, opened the window, and jumped out into the night.
Zai leaned against Yerv and he returned the gesture with a lick across her muzzle. They pressed their hands together, bowed their heads, and said, “May a thousand blessings return your generosity.”
“You’re welcome,” Travis said.
He smiled, and they smiled back. It was one of the strangest moments in his life, and he was grateful for the chance to experience it. He wished Ellie could be here to see this. She was every bit as fascinated with other races as he was.
They took the body, carried it gently through the window, and disappeared.
Travis yawned. He attacked the ink stains again, but found them too sticky to come out. They could claim victory for now. He was too tired to care at the moment. While he finished his paperwork and prepared to go home he wondered what the ghoul’s nightly life was like. The city must look so different to them. He hoped they would be safe. He didn’t expect to see them again.
The next night found Travis sorting through more paperwork on a stained but smooth desk. Ellie hadn’t known how to get all the ink out, but with her advice he could at least prevent it from becoming a gummy mess. The scarf was recovering from its new dye job at home. Ellie joked that maybe it had wanted to be black all along.
A scratching sound drew his attention to the window. He unlatched it and Yerv jumped in, looking quite pleased with himself.
Yerv handed him a dirty box with a stained bow tied around it. “Is this right?” he said. “This is how humans give things to each other?”
“Sure,” Travis said. “Sometimes. But you didn’t need to get me anything. I was just doing my job.”
“I understand,” Yerv said, “but I know Roul would want you to have it. He is at peace now, thanks to you.”
Travis opened the box. It took all his strength not to scream and hurl it across the room. “It… its very nice,” he said. “Thank you.”
Yerv cocked his head. “Have you taken ill?” he said. “You are paler than I have ever seen a human.”
“I’m fine,” Travis said.
The heart was covered in dry blood. It appeared to have been chewed out of its owner’s chest. Travis slowly replaced the lid and tied the bow tight.
Yerv smiled, bowed his head, and leapt out the window.
Travis went home early, buried the box deep in his backyard, and went to bed without his usual late night snack.