Content warning: mentions of violence and murder
The old woman’s house was little more than a hut cobbled together from broken boards with a rusty tin chimney peeking out from the roof. A haze of cheap perfume, so thick Genevieve was certain she could almost see it, enveloped the entire premises; she pressed her face into her sleeve, breathing deeply of her own familiar scent, as she reached forward to knock on the door.
There was a clattering of footsteps and a hesitant pause before the door swung open. Standing behind it was a woman of only forty or fifty years, hardly the hag evoked by the Mayor’s tirade. Her hair was greying but still had thick streaks of chestnut throughout, and though her cheek and breast were puckered with burn scars and her forehead was lined with care, her eyes were as clear and bright as a summer’s afternoon.
“I was told I could find a woman named Annette here?” Genevieve inquired. The woman nodded her head but did not relinquish her silence. “I am Hunter Gregoire, and this is my assistant Hunter Furst. The Mayor sent to the College for us. Might we have a word?”
The woman snorted and choked; it took Genevieve a moment to realize that this was the way that Annette laughed.
“Mayor Valis send for you?” Her voice whined and rasped all at once, like steel against stone, “He would never send for a Hunter.”
“And yet we are here,” Genevieve pointed out.
Another burst of sickening laughter. “Only because I sent for you.”
“You?” Genevieve asked, grasping for the confidence that had suddenly abandoned her, “Surely you couldn’t afford… the College answers to local government… why would you…”
“Because no one else was doing anything,” Annette replied, as if the answer were obvious even to a child. “And I happened to know someone in the College.”
Genevieve closed her eyes and inhaled, doing her best not to choke on the perfume-ladened air.
“Of course,” she said through a forced smile. The Mayor had welcomed them and acknowledged their presence as if he had invited them himself, but once they had arrived what other option was open to him? Any other response would have only drawn their suspicion. It irked Genevieve that she hadn’t realized this on her own.
“As for payment,” Annette continued, leaning against the bent door frame and crossing her arms, “I have something much more valuable than Francs.”
This drew Genevieve out of her self-absorbed reverie, curiosity hard at the reins. It wasn’t that the College was greedy, but they valued the coin to pursue their research and expand their reach. This woman either had very lofty connections, or a very valuable payment. Or both. Genevieve had an inkling as to Annette’s mysterious connection, but what this poor lady had to offer she hadn’t the faintest. “What is the payment?”
“To be delivered on completion of your mission,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Speaking of which,” Genevieve said, wrenching the conversation back into familiar territory, “We could use your insight.”
Genevieve held her face taut, forcing herself not to cringe at the laugh.
“Never had anyone want to use me for that before,” Annette said, “Welcome change. I’d invite you in for tea but I don’t think you’d fit.”
It was true, the girth of Genevieve’s chair was much too wide for the narrow doorway. Rather than dwell on the matter, Annette plumped herself onto the floor and stretched her legs out into the chilly Autumn air.
“What do you need?”
“Names,” Genevieve said, “Suspicions even. We’d rather not miss anyone.”
“And what if I’m wrong? Got enough on my conscience without innocent lives weighing it down too.”
“We’ll know.” It was Darnell who spoke, and Annette’s attention snapped to him as if she were only now aware of his presence. Her gaze slid from his carefully combed hair down to the sharp angles of his jaw, down to his narrow shoulders, down, down, until she reached his well-polished shoes. She raised an eyebrow before continuing to ignore him once more.
“There’s usually a system of power,” Genevieve explained, as she had countless times before to men and women not so different from Annette. Outsiders – overlooked and ostracized – tended to see the workings of society that everyone else had blinded themselves to. She continued, “A hierarchy, with someone calling the shots and choosing who gets to join the ranks of the Beasts. Membership is often seen as a reward, but it can also be used as extortion. Anything you have to tell us about corruption, crime, abuse… it all helps.”
“Yeah,” Annette said, kicking at a loose rock with her shabby boot, “Still humans after all, aren’t they?”
“Some,” Genevieve said, causing Annette to look at her with something akin to contemplation, or even respect.
“Yes. I know them all, or close at least. They don’t worry about me; half the town thinks I’m one of them, or something worse… they can’t kill me or they won’t have anyone to pester anymore and then someone might find out who’s really been killing their children,” she sighed, “Old whore like me, I know everything that happens. That’s why they hate me. Single woman at my age, no children, to them I’m less natural than the Beasts.”
“Well, I suppose we have that in common,” Genevieve smiled, leaning down to meet the woman’s eyes, staring at the cracked end of her boot.
Annette smiled too. “It’s the Governor that’s leading them. Though that should come as no surprise to you.”
“No,” Genevieve answered, her smile fading with the last of the sunlight, “But I had to be sure.”
“Couple followers – I can give you their names. Mostly he just lets them run wild, unless some other young lad or lass catches his fancy, then he kills one to turn them. They’re afraid of him you see. Ever since his wife left and he killed his son for trying to usurp him… he’s gotten reckless. People turn a blind eye in case their children go missing, or worse, end up like Mayor Valis’ daughter.”
“So, you know about her already?” The older woman seemed mildly impressed.
“Like Darnell said, we have ways.” Genevieve thought back to what the Mayor had said once his daughter had been taken care of, “According to Mayor Valis, Governor L’Amie changed his daughter when he suspected that the town might turn against him. He would let her live, teach her to control her changes, only if the Mayor behaved accordingly.”
“Bastard,” Annette spit, “She’s not the only one either.”
“Names,” Genevieve said, “As many as you can give.”
Annette recited a list, providing any detail she thought might aid them in their endeavour.
Darnell recorded them while Genevieve considered the best way to approach the situation. If Annette’s information was accurate, the Governor’s underlings would be young and easily handled; since his son’s betrayal it was rare for him to trust anyone for too long. It was Governor L’Amie himself she worried about; he had undergone the change over two decades ago. Rumour suggested he had grown reckless, but even with Darnell at her side she feared he would be a considerable opponent.
It would be best to isolate him, if possible. And, as much as it betrayed her own sensibilities, it would be wisest to avoid having to fight him at all. Was that even possible, with a Beast of his age?
“Annette?” Genevieve asked suddenly, “Have you ever seen him?”
“Who? Marcus Dupont?” The woman answered, crinkling her already well-lined forehead in confusion.
“The grocer. L’Amie brought him over some time last month, far as I can tell. Guaranteeing his food supply I suppose, given that no one wants to stay and cook…”
Genevieve realized that the conversation in her head did not align with the names and gossip her companions had been reviewing.
“No, no — Governor L’Amie. Have you ever seen him when he’s a Beast?”
Annette’s lips quivered, her eyes distant, as if reliving some blood-tinged memory. She shook her head. “No. No not him. I’ve seen others, though not up close. The woods are just behind my house and at night sometimes… well sometimes I see the silhouettes in the distance. Glimpses of fur and claws and horns through the trees.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing them as though just finally recalling the lateness of the season.
“Have to guess at the amount then,” Genevieve muttered.
“You have a plan,” Darnell stated.
Genevieve nodded. “It’s a risk though. If he’s smaller than I’m expecting, it’s possible I could kill him.”
“Isn’t that the point?” Annette asked.
Genevieve smiled at her, then looked to Darnell for his opinion.
“A few extra dead bodies might convince the College to approve that sabbatical you keep talking about,” he mused.
“Maybe I should up the dosage on purpose then,” she said, enjoying the rare smile with which she was rewarded. She hoped Darnell would not take it too hard when she resigned after the mission.
The sun was hardly over the horizon now, its light dancing through the scant foliage of the trees stretching away in the distance behind Annette’s shack. They should prepare, Genevieve thought. It wouldn’t be long before they were attacked, and the last thing she wanted was to drag Annette into the fray.
“Thank you for all of your assistance,” she said to Annette, whose mouth was still twisted in confusion over their brief exchange. “Stay indoors tonight, and don’t open to anyone.”
“As if I would,” the woman scoffed, pushing herself back to her feet. As she leaned over, Genevieve accidentally glimpsed an expanse of skin previously concealed beneath her bodice – a deep purple stain leaking out from the wrinkled scars above it.
“Would it be completely inappropriate of me to inquire about your scars?” She asked so suddenly that even Darnell looked at her in surprise.
To her relief, Annette smiled kindly, though the resignation in her voice weighed heavily on Genevieve’s conscience. “Used to be that the people of Ste Ygrette had a local Witch.”
“A Witch?” Darnell asked with incredulity. Like any good College member, he knew the difference between science and folklore.
“Just an outsider woman. Her father was a doctor and he taught her his trade when the schools wouldn’t have her. She travelled about, teaching other girls like herself and helping women have their babies. Settled here by herself,” Annette squinted at Genevieve, “You know this story.”
Genevieve nodded; she knew it by heart, and countless others like it.
“When she settled here, people were happy at first. Until there came a sickness. People grew ill and then they died, and of course who else was there to blame? Clearly she was a Witch – see the way she lives alone with no want of a husband? See how she spreads lies to the women and tries to corrupt them? See how her skin is of a different shade? Her very existence condemned her.”
“What happened?” Darnell asked, and Genevieve watched the curious twinkle in his eye with a wave of nostalgia.
“They hurt her. Burned her house. Ostracized her. Starved her. She lived out here, in this hut, scarred, hungry, and alone.” Annette stroked the warped doorframe, smiling faintly as if to an old friend. “Eventually people started going missing. Beggars and prostitutes at first. Easy to turn a blind eye to. Then others. Victims torn to shreds — poor and wealthy alike. The people looked to the Mayor at that time for help, and he looked to Governor L’Amie. The Governor sent two men to deal with the obvious source of the bloodshed…”
There was a pause, and Genevieve watched Darnell’s face – the deepening furrow of his brow, the click of his jaw as he bit down in frustration or perhaps despair.
“All anyone found afterward was a shack dripping with blood, the poor woman’s arm, and scraps of flesh and cloth. No one knew what had happened, but they did learn one thing: the killings didn’t stop. There’d be days, weeks, even months where it seemed as though the terror had ceased, but it would always continue again. Word started to come from other towns and villages about the Beasts and the College that Hunted them. But help never came for Sainte Ygrette.”
“They called it a curse,” she continued, “The Witch had cursed them for falsely accusing her, and so the most logical thing was to do it all over again. They found a woman, an old prostitute with no family and an ugly birthmark and said it was her. Here, see the mark of blood upon her chest, they cried, and they burned it from her flesh.”
“And yet the killings continue.” Genevieve shook her head.
Annette smirked, “It seems we are cursed.”
“So’s the whole damned world,” Genevieve said, turning to leave.
“Good luck, Hunter,” Annette called out, her laugh grating against Genevieve’s bones as it chased her over the uneven path back to the main thoroughfare.
Audio will be up in a day or two. There’s been a few… toddler-sized bumps in the road with regards to my recording schedule. Episodes will release as usual, but audio may occasionally lag a little behind. Thanks for checking out the series, and I hope you’re enjoying it so far! Don’t forget to leave a like or comment to let me know what you think. ❤