5] The Witch Of The Tower
Ant Detective: Case of the Partially Missing Barber
Kowalski and Kowalski’s bowels were long time bitter enemies. The trenches were drawn just past his lower intestine, a stone’s throw from the gateway to embarrassment. Gas attacks were an unfortunate daily occurrence, a tragedy brought on by Kowalski’s unwillingness to come to the table and agree on a reasonable definition of food. With no end in sight, both sides looked fondly back on a short-lived truce a few years back when Kowalski had been at the whim of a hospital menu after putting down a rebellion in his appendix.
For once, however, they put aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. His bowels were interested in freedom only in the figurative sense, the kind that came with the right to vote and maybe an import/export tax. At the prospect of actual emancipation, possibly into a cold metal bowl by the vision of horror that was the coroner and her bloody cleaver, they stood shoulder to colon with a trembling Kowalski.
Which is a classy, if long winded, way to say he didn’t immediately soil his nice new trousers.
It occurred to Kowalski that he’d been a while without answering and, though the ability to move his legs might be in question, the ability to move his lips had never once escaped him. “Oh, Grenda, you know I’d love to stay.” He didn’t. “But I’ve got to get back to the precinct. What if I come back tomorrow?” He wouldn’t. “I’m just so busy. You know me, big important detective.” He wasn’t.
With what could only be described as a violent narrowing of her eyes, Grenda said, “Now now, dear, you only just got here. The Captain can spare you for a short while. Or longer, perhaps. Him and I go way back you see, I used to change his diapers. And spank his bottom raw - he was an unruly little ant. Yes, he will not even notice you missing.” She took a lurching step into the room, which he would have loved to mirror had he been able to move a muscle in his body.
He thought back to his training, so many years ago. A dashing young Kowalski sitting to attention in class, as crotchety old Sergeant Hill drilled them over and over again on the rules for dealing with a hostage situation. Number one; keep them talking. “You said you wanted stories. What kind of stories?”
She considered for a moment, her cleaver dripping a steady pool at her feet. “How about the one where the sneaky little boy explains to the big bad witch why he was scuttling around in her pantry?” Gulp. Or he would have gulped had his mouth not been full of sand. So much for keeping her talking, he thought, as he racked his brains for rule number two. He almost had it…
What was rule number three again?
He forced the words into his mouth, all the while imagining the cold dark drawer into which Herbert had been stuffed away. Maybe they could share a bunk? “Err, umm, well,” was the best he could do. She took another step forward.
“Let me finish it for you, then. The witch took the little boy and boiled him for dinner. The end. Short and sweet and so dreadfully predictable, like the rest of the stories around here. What else have you got?” Another creaking step towards him, close enough now that he could make out the liver spots where her freckles had been.
Wait, were those tears?
And suddenly everything clicked into place. Kowalski was only afraid of Grenda because he thought she was in Spelter’s pocket. But what if she wasn’t? She’d always been a strange ant, for as long as Kowalski had been a cop at least. Strange enough to scare away most of her staff, true, but she’d never actually hurt any of them. So what if the answer was something much more… predictable?
The words came easily now. For a rare moment in Kowalski’s circus of a life, he was serious. “How about the story of the mean old witch of the tower? It’s a good one. It begins with a young witch moving to a village for work. She’s a little scary and a little mean, but the villagers need a witch so they stick her in a tower and stay away unless they need her magic. She has no friends so she grows up alone, which only makes her meaner and scarier.
“Before long the villagers stop visiting altogether, so she sits in her lonely tower and becomes as mean and scary as one young witch can become. Until one day she decides to leave the tower and visit them. But by now it’s too late, she’s become too mean and too scary and worse - she’s now the eldest in the village. The villagers realise they no longer have a witch; the witch has a village.
“So the villagers begin to leave. A few at a time, then some more, and then one day the witch is all alone in both the tower and the village. All alone except for a talking rock and a fridge full of corpses. And now a handsome prince.” Well, he was mostly serious.
Grenda dropped the cleaver with a loud clang. She took another step, but not towards Kowalski this time. Her shoulders slumped and for a moment she looked like the frail old ant that she really was. “It’s just… It gets lonely here, sometimes, Kowalski. My patients are all so very selfish, they only want to talk about themselves. And dear Ick is not much of a conversationalist.” That must be the mountainous coroner’s assistant.
Then in the whisper of someone asking a question they already knew the answer to, she added, “Were you avoiding me too?”
Kowalski nodded. “I was.” A hurt squint took her eyes. “But not because I wanted to.” And he told her. Everything. About Spelter, about Herbert, about thinking she was dirty and how happy he was to be wrong. About doing his job and solving the case. He even showed off his fancy new trousers. She didn’t interrupt, she just listened patiently and when he was done she went over to Herbert’s drawer and pulled it open.
“The autopsy will take a couple of hours. Be a dear and help me get him on a trolley,” she said, and when he just stood there with his mouth dangling open she added, “Quickly now.” He jumped like a school boy caught picking his nose in class, or drawing boobs, or doing really anything a school boy did, and together they shifted Herbert onto a low cart. By the time they’d wheeled him into an autopsy room, Kowalski’s brain had finally rebooted.
“You can’t do this, Spelter will find out. He’s got ears everywhere.” He whispered the last part conspiratorially, as if even Herbert’s toe tag wasn’t above suspicion.
Grenda scoffed and carefully placed the kidney, which she’d insisted on bringing with them, into a zip-lock bag for safe keeping. “Come now, dear. Paranoia is very unbecoming on you, and you are hardly getting any younger. Now that you bring it up though, are you seeing anyone?” She slipped on her splash mask and looked innocently up at Kowalski.
“This is serious, Grenda. I don’t want you involved. I have a plan.”
Kowalski may as well have asked the sun to bugger off, he’d have had as much luck. “And leave you children to work things out? Hardly. I knew Spelter when he started in kindergarten. He crowned himself king of the monkey bars and would push any kid off that tried to climb them. Pardon my language, but he was an arse then and he is an arse now. And that arse is in need of a good spanking.”
With that said, she shifted her focus to Herbert’s present half and the gaping hole in his side. She poked and prodded for a bit, before reaching for a scalpel. Then she said, “Spelter is not my first bad cop, Kowalski. And I daresay he will not be my last. Now make yourself useful and start my music, and leave me to my work. Mother provides.” She pointed to a silver tape deck by the door.
He found his feet moving on their own accord. It was sometimes like that when talking to Grenda, who was so used to giving orders that the orders themselves couldn’t comprehend being disobeyed. He let them carry him over to the tape deck while he formulated an argument, which was replaced with a question when he realised there was something missing from her story.
She had known Spelter and the Captain as children, but to Kowalski there was someone even more important.
“What was I like as a kid?”
She paused for a moment, as if searching for the right word. It didn’t take her long to find it.
title: The Witch of the Tower Kowalski and Kowalski's bowels were long time bitter enemies. The trenches were drawn just past his lower intestine, a stones throw from the gateway to embarrassment. Gas attacks were an unfortunate daily occurrence, a tragedy brought on by Kowalski's unwillingness to come to the table and agree on a reasonable definition of food. With no end in sight, both sides looked fondly back on a short-lived truce a few years back when Kowalski had been at the whim of a hospital menu after putting down a rebellion in his appendix.