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WORD COUNT: 50,665
SUMMARY: A madman finds himself working for an unusual one-eyed private inquiry agent and discovers that hiding from his seemingly well-meaning relatives is the least of his troubles.
The madman made his escape from Drumchapel House approximately ten minutes after tea time by throwing a rope made of knotted bedsheets out a window. The caretakers of Drumchapel House were having scones, cucumber sandwiches, and Earl Grey in the parlor in the opposite side of the house and would not be checking in on their latest inmate until dinner. The madman figured that this would give him at least two hours, three hours at most, to put as much distance as he could between the asylum and himself.
Late afternoon sunlight filtered through the denuded branches of the birch trees surrounding Drumchapel like fingers of gold. But the warmth was fleeting in the cool autumn air. It was already past the height of the season and the roiling gray clouds trickling across the sky was a promise of colder weather to come.
As the madman dropped to the ground in a crouch, he could almost imagine his breath coming out in visible puffs of air. Back in India, the air would have been humid and moist, making his skin slick with sweat. He would have been languid yet energized. The Other within yearned for the heat. This cool clime merely made it nervous. But the madman still retained his intelligence and his brain told him he had to leave. The Other found no fault with that.
He hurried into the thicket of the dead birch and ran, nimbly avoiding the hidden roots jutting out of the ground, ready to trip unwary travelers yet hidden under the leaf litter. In his mind, he saw the layout of the land—the thicket ran for a mile east until it came to the hill that gave the asylum its name. And the river. He could lose his tracks in the river.
He had little opinion about the caretakers at the asylum. They were just doing their job. They had not been the ones who had forced him into the place. But once they discovered him gone, they would do everything in their power to get him back. Including summoning the Magistrate.
The madman knew that the Magistrate had his suspicions about him. And he knew that trying to outrun the Magistrate would possibly be a futile endeavor if he did not reach the river in time.
The monochromatic forest of birch finally gave way to a short clearing composed of dirt and dry grass. A few paces further on, the dirt and grass gave way to a rocky bank and then a fast running stream. On the opposite side of the water was a steep incline of the hill.
He paused for a moment to take in a breath. As the sun waned, the air chilled, but from his exertion, the cool atmosphere felt good on his skin.
The river ran from west to east, coming down from the mountains in the deep country to empty out into the North Bay. His instincts told him to go away from any human settlement, out to where the wild things were free. That meant away from the bay where a large seaport lay. But his mind knew that practically, he could not do that.
The Other told him that the time was nearing when they would discover that he had escaped. If they found him this time, there may not be another opportunity to flee again.
At the river, he would disappear, he decided. The Other was amused and suggested a cunning plan, although in not so many words, in the back of his head. The madman stripped away his clothes and bundled them up. With a long length of linen that had been serving as a makeshift cravat, he tied the bundle together and set it on the ground. In a crouch, he allowed the Other to take over.
The first time that the Other had taken a hold of him, it had been painful, agonizing. He thought that he was going to die. But every time the change came, the fear, even the pain, became less and less as his body and psyche became accustomed to it. At some point, a part of him even began to relish it. Maybe it was that that truly made him mad.
The change itself was a quick, vicious thing. Skin, sinew, tendon, muscle, broke and reformed until he was an entirely different creature, a creature that these northern climes had never seen before. This creature could see and sense a multitude of times better than his human self and while before, when he had run through the forests that seemed as dead as bone, the forest now came alive with his new senses. Birds chittered overhead and insects scrabbled below. He could scent the frightened spoor of small mammals which had suddenly realized that they could be hunted down.
The Other, which was now at the forefront of his mind, wanted to yowl its pleasure. But he silenced it, telling it that there were better opportunities ahead. The Other acquiesced.
It was not always so. When the Other first came upon him, he had tried to fight it. His reasoning was that it had been unnatural, a curse. And as a result, it was something to be subdued and cured. Sometimes, he still fought with the Other, but no practicality won. He compromised and sometimes gave into the Other as if it was merely another part of himself.
He took the clothes bundle in his mouth and slipped into the river. In his naked human skin, he would have been chilled, even frozen after a length of time. But to the Other, it was nothing more than a trickle running through his fur.
After several miles downstream, the Other picked out a human settlement by scent. The village was not far from the river's bank. In fact, the village's mill was situated on the bank of the river, although from his vantage point, he did not see anyone about. The workers, he sensed, were inside the mill working, not looking out into the water.
He was tempted to go on land and obtain transportation to the port city of North Bay. But the Other made him turn away and continue downstream. The village was too close, it would be the first place they would look.
He wasn't quite sure how much time had passed, but the river soon ran out of the forest and into bush country. The light was dipping toward the horizon. He continued to swim even as his stomach cramped. Tea time was definitely over. And dinner time was most assuredly halfway through.
Just as the last rays of light disappeared behind horizon and cloud, his eyes made out the outlines of the city that crawled over the edges of the widening river mouth in sharp man-made angles. Large shadows started looming out of the river a few miles away—the boats.
He chose part of the bank where a small kink in the river was hidden by the shade of a willow tree. He came out of the river there, shaking himself dry before changing again, this time, the Other retreating to a place inside himself, waiting until the next time it could break free.