Archive for May, 2010

May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IV

by Mallard

Traveling with a cop can have certain perks. They can use the station vehicles, many of which are fast and sturdy, and have loud, clanging brass bells to warn others out of the way and bright rotating lights. On the other hand, you could travel with Scott. He took out a four-legged spider walker from the station’s garage, a tall gangly thing that towered over me even, with two bucket seats and a boiler at the back like a giant tumor. Serah would have had fits at its construction. Too tall and unbalanced, she’d say, and four legs limits it to a speedy pace or stationary; anything in between and the ridiculous thing would tip over and spill its occupants onto the hard cobblestones. I was glad it wasn’t raining; there wasn’t even a canopy. The contraption was minimalism to its extreme, and smelled strongly of oil, to boot.

“I said,” shouting over the clanking of its many-jointed limbs as the walker lurched out of the garage and down the street. “Why did you choose this junker?”

“It’s fast, and no one cares if we break it,” he shouted back. A fly zipped past and I ducked out of the way before it smacked into my face.

“What, are you worried we’ll run into some rough business?” I almost wished we would; this piece of garbage had no business being on the streets, let alone in one piece. It’d look a whole lot better dismantled and stored in Serah’s enormous and varied scrap piles in her back room. It would at least be less hazardous then.

“Are you kidding?” Scott called, and I swear he was suppressing a laugh. “I’ve seen you around machines, Victor. You look at the buggers cross-eyed and they break. Where’s your autobike, by the way?”

“…You know? I think this thing is too loud for conversation,” I shouted and sat back. Kristopher gave a little musical tinkle that was almost certainly a snigger. I glared at him.

I’ll give Scott one thing: rude though he might be, he was right about the walker’s speed. It wasn’t so much that it could move any faster than an automobile or standard eight-legged spider, but being so narrow and tall, it could squeeze through small gaps in traffic, or just step over a car or person. Scott was a skillful driver, and no one had to jump out of the way of the walker’s thin limbs as they stabbed back down into the road.

Our route took us past Candlepark Station, the largest transport hub in the city. The station spans a space the size of a city block: a confused mess of buildings, rail tracks, and airship mooring spires. The station was once a railway station on the corner of Candlepark Avenue and Twenty-Second Street. It had grown as more and more rail lines crisscrossed above the hub, expanding out and up, so that it became a convenient airship docking station as well. The park had once occupied much of the rest of the block, but had been swallowed up as the station expanded like a virulent moss, growing over grass and trees, replacing them with steel girders, enormous gas and steam pipes, boilers the size of houses and maintenance hangers that could swallow the gigantic cargo walkers like they were flies.

The streets around the station were perpetually congested, and the walker slowed down as we passed by. Conversation became truly impossible as trains roared overhead constantly, a dozen of them arriving, departing, switching, and just barely avoiding collision. The station also handled much of the intercity traffic, and we could see a number of the much wider-gage tracks that spanned the spaces between cities, carrying enormous worms of steel that could–and sometimes did–carry seaships manufactured further inland to the port city of Kestral for their maiden launches.

As we wove slowly through the crowd, Scott working furiously to keep the walker from tipping over at the slow pace, I recognized a tall, domed shape in the distance: KAMA. The school was easy to spot, taking up more space even than Candlepark Station. It lay between Annabella’s and our destination near Emelia’s home, and occupied its own university district in the city, a sort of mini-town within Kestral proper. I couldn’t see any at the moment, but I knew that the tall spike atop the main dome of the university also doubled as yet another airship spire, reserved though for university traffic.

It was past five when we reached Emelia Withers’s neighborhood, though I admit that had we taken a larger walker or automobile, it would have taken us much longer to bypass the station. So score one for Scott, I suppose. The clouds still covered the sky above the city, but an orange glow was beginning to shine to the west. To the east I could see a light fog beginning to move in, melding with steam clouds that rose from a thousand points in the city, from walkers to autos to small businesses and most homes. The largest clouds hovered above Candlepark Station and KAMA, sending cloud signals into the sky that shouted Here Be Activity. Within a few hours, the sun would be gone and the city would be blanketed in a bed of nighttime fog, and these markers would vanish.

“They live on that street,” Scott called out suddenly, pointing down a narrow lane lined with identical single-story homes. This was a much more residential district than where I lived, and lacked the plethora of independently-run businesses and the ever-present street vendors. It was much less crowded as well, to the point of being a little disconcerting. I’ve never lived in such a neighborhood, at least not since I first came to Kestral. The flat I’d shared while attending KAMA had been only a few blocks from Annabella’s, and when I’d been stationed south during the war, I’d been either on the move or living in the districts the army had effectively claimed as their own. And one thing the armed forces was not, was quiet.

Scott kept the walker going another block or so, to a five-way intersection where the narrow streets opened up by necessity into a pentagonal region, currently devoid of all but the occasional foot traffic. The walker lurched to a halt, and tilted alarmingly before its internal gyros compensated and it settled in place, its many-jointed limbs slowly folding in on each other until the main body of the spider rested on the ground. Collapsed like that, the blasted thing didn’t look nearly so rickety, but I wasn’t looking forward to climbing back aboard later.

“So this is where they were playing?” I asked. Scott nodded, and pulled a lamp from a tiny cargo box under the front seat of the walker. The lamp was a small enclosed metal box with a compartment for oil and a number of mirrors that directed the light through a focusing lens, producing a bright light that could be shuttered or allowed to shine full strength. A second compartment at the top held magnesium shavings, which could be dropped into the flames to create an incredibly bright flash, suitable for temporarily blinding or at least startling a suspect. Scott pulled out a flint striker, but Kristopher beat him to it, darting into the lamp and emerging a second later, the wick alight with a gentle yellow glow.

“Thanks, spook,” Scott said, pocketed the flint and lifting the lamp by its handle.

“What’s the light for?” I asked, a little miffed. If it’s light he wanted, I don’t see why he needed a lamp. I specialize in illusion, after all, which is just applied light magic.

“To see things in the dark,” Scott said, frowning. Then he blinked in understanding. “Oh, I see. Habit, then. Not everyone makes light of out nothing, Victor. And this way you can concentrate on what I’m showing you, not on your hoodoo.”

I could have told him that just making a general light takes next to no concentration, but I didn’t bother. Let him do things his way, and I’ll do things my way. It’s the differences in our approaches that make us work well together, not conforming to each others’ expectations and preferences.

Scott led me away from the walker and down one of the five streets that led off the intersection. Street lamps were starting to come on around us, as the gas began to flow more copiously to the pilot lights in their glass bulbs. By their light, and the much more directed beam of Scott’s lamp, we examined the steel garbage bin Robert had hidden in. It was half full of rubbish and smelt like rotten fruit, but there was nothing about it that gave any clue as to where a little boy could have vanished to. The automobile Robert had hidden under had since gone, and left behind no clues. There was a storm drain grill set into the cobblestones near there, but without tools, Robert couldn’t have gone through. And I doubt many kids in this neighborhood walked around with spanners and crowbars. The railway support truss was the third and final place Robert had hidden, and though we found some footprints in the dirt within the truss, we had no way of knowing if they were Robert’s or not.

“And you’re sure he didn’t hide anywhere else?” I asked Scott as we returned to the square. Well, the pentagon.

“Well, no, I’m sure he did hide somewhere else,” Scott returned. “But where? I can’t tell you. Which is the problem.”

I sighed. I didn’t know what I had been expecting to find, really. But finding absolutely nothing was still a let-down. We were left with no more than we ‘d started with.

Scott glanced at his pocket watch. It was past six. “What’re you thinking, Victor?” he asked, shuttering the lamp so that we stood in a pool of semi-darkness in the middle of the intersection.

Before I could answer, Kristopher drifted from my side and floated toward the center of the intersection, circling around as if sniffing for something.

“What is it, spook?” Scott called. He unshuttered the lamp and cast a beam of light in the salamander’s direction.

The cobbled surface of the intersection sloped down slightly toward the center, ending in another grill like the storm drain, but a round one that was not bolted down. A maintenance access cover, then.

“Did you–” I asked, and Scott answered before I finished.

“Of course we checked. Robert ran right over it a couple times, but he never went down. No one’s gone near that thing in weeks, from what we could tell. Nice try though.” He shut off the light and began to turn away.

I frowned. Kristopher never had hunches; if he thought there was something worth looking at with the manhole cover, then there was something worth looking at. “Hold on,” I called after Scott and walked closer to Kristopher. Scott followed me, letting the beam loose again.

“I thought you said spook here couldn’t sense anything any better than we can,” Scott said, though he sounded slightly hopeful.

(Someone suffered here,) Kristopher sang, and I shivered. Salamanders are attracted to suffering and trauma, in the same way that will-o’-the-wisps are attracted to the lost, and puddle jumpers are to innocence and joy. It’s what brought him to me in the fire swamps in the first place, curious and hungry to see who or what was feeling such pain so near his nest.

“You’re sure nothing has disturbed the cover?” I asked Scott in a hush. I don’t know why I was whispering. There wasn’t anyone else nearby to hear. Somehow it felt appropriate.

“Certain,” he replied, his frown heavily shadowed behind the lamp he held. “The dogs didn’t smell anything nearby, and we even went into the tunnels a bit. No scent trails anywhere.”

“Well, Kristopher says something happened here recently,” I said. I didn’t even think to question Kristopher. A salamander is as infallible in matters of suffering as a dolphin is in matters of the sea. It wasn’t a question of if he was right, only whether the pain he detected was related to the missing boy.

“How recently?” Scott asked.

I shook my head. “Salamanders don’t do time the same way we do. A day doesn’t really mean anything to Kristopher any more than a minute does.”

(Recently,) Kristopher sang. (It’s still strong.)

Which still didn’t mean much to us humans. It could have been a pricked finger a minute ago, or a mass slaughter a year previous, and it’d feel the same to him. Though, the time and location fit the case of the missing Robert Withers a little too well for me to believe either of those scenarios.

“Well,” I said, turning to the cop. “How do you feel about an evening stroll through the sewers?”

He grimaced. “Lydia will kill me when I get home.”

I grinned. “I’m sure she’ll understand. Just bring her some roses to balance out the smell.”

Scott snorted and set the lamp on the ground to roll his pant legs up. “Clearly, Victor, you are a man who knows women.”

The cover was lighter than it appeared, enough for a boy to pull it up and out of the way if he was determined enough. The ladder was cleaner than I expected, spotted with rust but relatively free of grime. Scott couldn’t turn the lamp on its side to shine down into the tunnel, so I called up a soft blue flame to light his way while he climbed. He’d insisted on going first, and since these would be my last clean breaths for some time, I was all too willing to let him.

About twenty rungs down, the shaft opened into a wide tunnel ten feet in diameter, with two narrow walkways lining the sides. The center of the tunnel was a wide river of water and filth, only a foot or so below the cobbled walkway. A mass of rusted pipes of varying sizes ran along the top of the tunnel, carrying water, gas, oil, and any of a dozen other substances around the city. Some of the pipes had clearly been patched numerous times, and it looked like a minor earthquake would rattle them apart, spilling their contents into the sludge below to flow out to the bay.

The state of the pipes and the build-up of sludge near the edge of the walkway made it clear that no maintenance workers had been down there for some time. I opened a valve on the wall, but heard no hiss of gas, and the lamps that lined the wall remained dark.

Scott shone his lamp first one way, then the other, illuminating the dank tunnel, a sight that really should have remained in darkness.

“You’re sure something happened here?” he asked, doubt creeping in his voice. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been down here in ages.”

I frowned. I was a little less confident myself. Could it be that Kristopher had just sensed some old but powerful hurt that had happened here, completely unrelated to the current case?

But the salamander took no notice of our doubts, and after circling in place for a few moments, he began to drift along the northward span of the tunnel. I looked at Scott and shrugged, then followed Kristopher. Behind me, Scott sighed and swung the lamp around to light our way.

(Here,) Kristopher said suddenly, stopping at a section of wall that looked like any other.

“Here, what?” I asked. I tapped on the wall, but it sounded as solid as the rest of the concrete that lined the pipe.

(The first pain was here,) the salamander clarified. I frowned. First?

Kristopher kept drifting along, moving slower as he savored the taste of whatever he sensed. It was a little disturbing, to be honest. Salamanders aren’t evil or sadistic, despite the stories you hear about them. They’re simply attracted to pain in the same way a buzzard is drawn to a corpse, or we’re attracted to the smell of a really good rump roast.

The sudden sound of voices stopped us cold, and Scott’s light snapped off instantly. We stood frozen in the darkness, the only light the red glow of Kristopher making figure-eights in the air. I couldn’t tell what the voices were saying, but I had no doubt that they belong to no-one we wanted to see us. Who hangs about in a sewer at dusk, but maintenance workers and shady folk?

I was convinced we’d found what we were looking for. That they had nothing to do with Robert’s disappearance seemed unlikely, given Kristopher’s senses and the timing. The only question remaining was just who had we found, and in what way were they related to the missing boy?

* * * * * * * *
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May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter III

by Mallard

There were still three or four hours of sunlight left when Emelia took her leave. Plenty of time to at least get started with Scott.

“Coming?” I asked in the general direction of the fireplace. Kristopher popped out of the flames and floated over to hover above my shoulder, a tiny glowing spark that was never quite still, dancing in the air like his cousins the will-o’-the-wisps of the swamps and forests.

The police have a number of small stations located throughout Kestral, with four headquarters in each of the cardinal directions. These are where the big cases get sent, and where criminals are kept for long-term internment. I could usually find Scott at the eastern HQ, too far from my flat to walk and my autobike is, as usual, holed up in Serah’s shop for repairs.

Rail or cab? If this was an army job, I’d probably just take a taxi and let the city pick up the tab. But this wasn’t official by any means, and I hadn’t had the heart to mention payment to Emelia. So I didn’t know how much of this was going to come out of my own pocket, which meant I’d better take the trains. At least it was still early; you can meet some strange characters on the trains after dark.

The nearest rail stop is only a few minutes’ walk from my flat. It occupies its own little delta where three roads intersect sloppily, leaving a space large enough for a three-story building and some change. The lower floors are mostly just support structure, ticket sales, and waiting areas. The third is the station proper, a great hanger where two of the steel monorail tracks cross, one soaring above the other so you have to take a rickety lift to board the upper train.

Some of the southern cities I lived in had subways: trains that run beneath the city through a complex network of tunnels. Kestral tried to introduce subways a few times in the past, but the city was built on unstable marshlands and before proper foundations were laid, parts of the city actually sank beneath the surface of the ground. A subway was never practical, and since the city couldn’t build down, they went up.

On a clear day, the rails make for an impressive sight. In more populous areas, you might see half a dozen tracks soaring overhead, supported on steel trusses, or skating across the roofs of tall buildings, crisscrossing, interchanging, and passing so close to one another that it feels like only a matter of time before two trains collide midair and rain debris on the streets below. Like much of Kestral, the rails grew organically, sprouting from immediate need rather than careful planning. The rail lines twist and turn as they please, forming loops over some sections of city, or simply doubling back on themselves so they get briefly lost in their own steam clouds. The tracks are supported off whatever structures are convenient, so that some buildings look to be sprouting some strange steel growth that protrudes at an odd angle, shaking violently whenever the train rumbles through.

Because of this, it took me three trains and over half an hour to get to the police HQ. The rail station is kitty-corner to the police station, connected both by the intersection above and a concrete tunnel below the street. This makes it easy for the police to get anywhere in the city quickly, but with the trains constantly rattling and rumbling overhead, I haven’t yet figured out if it’s more convenience or annoyance.

I didn’t bother with the tunnel, and strode across the busy intersection. I took a moment to check my appearance in the tinted glass windows that fronted the station, then burst through the door, shouting “Fetch me Officer Casterly!”

I think I made a rather dramatic sight, if I say so myself: standing in the doorway, coat flapping in a light breeze, Kristopher glowing like an ember above my head. I kind of wished I’d had a hat I could doff, just to finish off the image.

“I, um, I’ll get him. Right away,” the receptionist stammered, as everyone in the busy lobby turned and stared. The station isn’t any less active on weekends, and people crisscrossed the lobby in all directions, lodging petty complaints, propelling handcuffed perps before them, carrying stacks of paperwork from one office to another. I felt a little bad for startling the receptionist, who already looked overworked. She must have been new; most of the old hands were used to ignoring me by now.

“Thanks,” I said, smiling, and sat in a vacant chair to wait. She smiled back hesitantly and scurried through a door to the station proper.

My first indication that Scott was coming was a loud, echoing voice that sounded even through the heavy steel door. “Tall, ponytail, long brown coat? It’d bet my wife’s mother it’s that damned Vict–”

Scott shoved through the door and glanced quickly around the room before his eyes settled on me and narrowed. “It’s that damned Victor,” he sighed, and dismissed the receptionist. Scott strode over and stood in front of me, hands in his coat pockets. For the moment, he towered over me. He was already a good deal stockier, but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. I’ve never seen the man touch a pastry, and I knew he ran regularly to keep in shape.

“Victor,” he said by way of greeting. “Kristopher.”

“Scott,” I returned, standing and stretching.

“So, Emelia Withers must have come to see you, I take it?” he said, the sternness fading from his posture. I nodded. “Thanks for coming, Victor. I know you didn’t have to.”

I snorted. “I wasn’t required to, maybe, but come on Scott. A little kid’s missing. Of course I had to.”

Scott cracked a smile. “I knew there was a reason I sent her to you. What do you know so far?” He turned and led me back through the lobby toward the steel door behind the receptionist’s desk. I nodded cordially to her as we passed, and she smiled back just a little more warmly this time.

“His mother said Robert has been missing since Wednesday afternoon. Went out to play with friends and never came home. She said you’ve been looking for him, but haven’t found him yet, and sent her to me.”

Scott grimaced. “It’s not that I think this is Peace Worker stuff, Victor,” he started, leading me into an empty break room. He pulled the door shut behind us and punched a button on the coffee maker on the counter. Pipes rattled on the wall behind the machine, and a pressure gauge began to creep slowly upward as valves opened to the main boiler in the basement. A section on top began to spin, grinding coffee beans to powder.

“But,” Scott continued, pulling a pair of stained mugs from a cupboard. “There’s something fishy about this case, and you seem to specialize in fishy.”

I sighed. “I kind of figured as much. So what can you tell me?” It was a dual-meaning question. There was what he knew, and then there was what he was officially allowed to share with someone like me, who was technically a civilian in this case.

Scott shrugged. “It’s not a high-profile case. I trust you, and whatever the rules say, no one here is going to enforce them. This is a little boy we’re trying to find, not another murderer.”

“Good. So, what’ve we got then?”

“Not as much as we need. I spoke with all the boys who were playing with Robert on Wednesday. They all agree that, yes, Robert Withers came out and played with them, and no, they don’t know where he went. Everyone just assumed he’d gone home early.”

I frowned. “Are these really his friends we’re talking about? He went to play with a group of kids, and not a single one cared enough to wonder where he went?”

Scott shook his head. “It’s not that they didn’t care. They were playing hide-and-go-seek. When someone hides and doesn’t reappear, everyone just assumes he had to go home for dinner. Of course, that didn’t happen, so–”

“So what if Robert hid somewhere he couldn’t get out of?” I finished. Scott nodded.

“It’s a reasonable guess. There are plenty of hiding places where they were playing, most of them are safe enough during the day. But we can’t find him. Took the dogs out, searched the entire damned neighborhood. Nothing.”

I frowned. “So, maybe he went somewhere the dogs couldn’t follow? Climbed a roof, maybe?”

“And what? Flew like a bird to the building in the first place? The kid had to leave a scent trail, and we followed every damned one we found. Robert hid himself in a garbage bin, under a parked automobile, behind a railway truss, and just ran around a lot. But he didn’t climb any roofs, or pull any other tricks. At least, not that we found. For all I know he had a jug of ammonia with him and soaked his tracks, and is at the moment holed up in an abandoned house with a group of homeless bums, smoking rats over a trash fire.”

I blinked at the image of a tiny nine-year-old dressed in rags, sharing stories around a hobo fire. “Would that work?” I asked. “The ammonia, I mean.”

A bell atop the coffee machine clanged, and Scott rose to pour two mugs. He shrugged and spoke over his shoulder. “Maybe, maybe not. The whole area is confused enough with the kids running everywhere, so it might’ve. Doesn’t matter; the point is we have no idea where this kid went. All we know is he left home, played tag, and vanished without a trace.” He sat back down, handing me a steaming mug of black bitterness. I took a sip and made a face, then rose to rummage in the cupboards for sugar and milk. Scott just drank the stuff straight. “Wuss.”

“Yep,” I agreed. “So, vanished without a trace?” I found the sugar cubes and took a handful back to the table. I unwrapped a pair and dropped them in.

“Right. Which is where the fishy part comes in,” Scott said. “If the kid just went missing by accident, there should be a trail we can follow. Unless he’s trying not to be found, or worse, unless someone else doesn’t want him found, we should be able to find something.”

“But you didn’t,” I said, and dropped a few more sugar cubes in. Who drinks this garbage? “So there goes any hope that it’s an accident.”

“Not any hope,” Scott cautioned. “But yeah, it’s looking less likely.”

“Dammit. You have anything else?”

Scott nodded, and raised an eyebrow as I dissolved yet another cube into my coffee. “I went to his school and had a chat with his teachers, and some students in his class. Didn’t find anything though. It doesn’t sound like he had any enemies, but–”

“Whoa, hold on a moment there.” I stared at him, incredulous. “Enemies? This kid is nine years old, Scott.”

The cop rolled his eyes. “Schoolyard bullies, antagonistic teachers. Enemies to a grade school student, Victor. Obviously I’m not talking pirates or gangs here. But regardless, Robert seems like a safe kid. No enemies, a few close friends. Your average everyday quiet type.”

“So, you’re saying there was no one who would want to hurt him, no dangerous places he could have gotten lost in, and no traces of him after a certain point.” A though struck me. “Do you know when he vanished?”

Scott shook his head and took another sip of coffee. “He left home at four, and his mother contacted the police at nine. He was supposed to be home by six-thirty. He hid in three places, so that’s three games, and with the number of kids playing that could easily have taken an hour or so. So our best guess is he vanished some time after five, but before six.”

I glanced at my pocket watch. Just after four. Robert vanished in about an hour, four days ago. Call me superstitious, but. . . “Well if you have nothing else right now, are you game to come look the site over one more time?”

In answer, Scott drained the last of his coffee and stood. “I was planning to take you there anyway. Not that that we haven’t scoured the place half a dozen times already, but even we can miss things.” He glanced at Kristopher, darting to and fro over the surface of my coffee, and added, “Maybe your spook can find something we missed.”

Kristopher stopped dancing and stared at Scott. Well, I say stared, but he has no face. I just got the impression he was focusing on Scott. “Kristopher’s hardly ‘my’ spook,” I said, rolling my eyes.

(And I can’t sense humans any better than you two can,) Kristopher added. I relayed this to Scott, who shrugged.

“Say what you want, spook. I think you’re full of it. I doubt Victor’s half smart enough to solve some of the cases we’ve come across on his own.”

“Hey!” I said. They both ignored me. Typical.

“You coming or what?” Scott asked, and I stood and looked down my nose at him. I’m a good two inches taller than Scott, and used this to my full advantage. He didn’t seem impressed.

“Fine,” I said, and followed him out, leaving my coffee undrunk on the table. I made sure to pocket the remaining sugar cubes, though. “Let’s do this.”

* * * * * * * *

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May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter II

by Mallard

I’m twenty-nine years old. I can’t be considered old or wise by any means, but I’ve been around long enough to have seen some of the world and experienced many joys and pains. Joy in my parents as I read aloud my acceptance letter from the Kestral Academy of the Magical Arts; sorrow as my aunt fought and lost against a terrible wasting disease. The little joys and pains that all students encounter, culminating in the great day of graduation, and the sinking realization that my old hobby of typesetting was my most immediately marketable skill.

But nothing has ever taught me how to deal with a woman’s tears. It is, I suspect, one of those things I’ll never learn. And frankly, I don’t want to experience it often enough to form any habits of response. So when Emelia Withers began to sob, I could only sit helplessly, wondering what I should say, what I could say.

(Offer her tea.)

Emelia looked up at the sudden burst of music–meaningless to her–from my fireplace, where Kristopher had settled when we arrived at my flat. I thanked the salamander silently and rose to fill the kettle at the bathroom sink.

“Please, take your time,” I said as I set the kettle on the stove. “I’ll make some tea and you can tell me the details at your leisure.”

“Th-thank you,” Emelia managed. I pulled a pair of mugs from the cupboard above the stove and rummaged through what tea I had.

“Black or green?” Where had I gotten green tea? It must have been a gift because I never drink the stuff.

“Black, please,” Emelia murmured. She waited in silence as the kettle boiled, and seemed to calm slightly as we went through the ancient ritual of cream or sugar, one lump or two? I handed her the mug and she held it in both hands, as if still cold despite her proximity to the flames.

She didn’t say anything at first, and I let her sit in silence, blowing across the surface of her tea, relaxing into the cushions of the high-backed chair.

“Robert has been missing for four days,” she began at last. “He came home from school on Wednesday and went out again to play with his friends. He was not to stray far before dinnertime, and he promised he would stay near. They were just going to play tag in the street, he said. He’s always been an obedient boy.”

“How old is Robert?” I asked, jotting down notes of what she had said.

“Nine, just this summer,” she said and took another sip from her mug.

“And he didn’t return after going out on Wednesday afternoon?”

She nodded. “He left at four and-and didn’t come back.” Emelia was gripping her mug tightly in both hands, so that I worried she might break it and hurt herself.

“Do you know where they were playing? Was it near your house? Where do you live?” I added this last as an afterthought. Kestral is not the largest city in Cest-Weldersheen, but it is very dense. It’s easy to wander just a little too far and end up in one of the more unpleasant parts of town, facing anything from simply getting lost, to autobike gangs, or mindless automats that would run a person over without pausing. A young and active kid could climb up a rail support truss and fall off or be hit by the train, or he could just be run over by a careless taxi or picked up by a deranged scientist with questionable morals. The stuff of scary stories, mostly, but it happens.

Of course, I hoped it was just a case of a kid with poor direction–or common–sense. But four days?

Emelia spoke for the span of another mug of tea, and I dutifully wrote down what she said, hoping that somewhere in there was an answer. And I didn’t say it, but I was also fervently hoping that we were still searching for a warm, living nine-year-old boy, and not a small and sad corpse in some back alley.

To some extent though, and to my relief, all this was academic to me. I’m not a private investigator, and while I’ve worked with the police on several occasions through my missions with the Peace Workers, I’m not a member of that organization either. So why, then, had Emelia come to me? I’d put off asking, since I wanted to be of what help I could, but really, she should have been talking to the police.

“I have,” she said when I mentioned this at last. “I went to them when Robert did not come home that night.” She sounded a little indignant, and I apologized. “They promised me they would find him,” she continued, mollified somewhat. “That he could not have gotten into too much trouble.” Which I agreed with, based on what she’d said. She lived within walking distance of a prominent grade school, and from there a brisk jog to KAMA, the Kestral Academy of the Magical arts, and my alma mater. And while there are a number of shady places and dark alleys near the university, the neighborhood where Emelia and her son lived was, to my knowledge, a fairly safe and crime-free area. There weren’t any big abandoned buildings or hazardous factories near there. It should be fairly difficult for a young boy to get into serious trouble on a Wednesday afternoon, surrounded by friends in a neighborhood with a high population of students and schoolteachers.

The fact that Robert had managed anyway disturbed me quite a bit.

“So, forgive me for asking,” I said after a pause. “But if you’ve already been to the police, and if they are looking, why come to me? I’m no detective, and I apologize if I’ve led you to believe any differently.”

She shook her head. “It was one of the police who said I should come to see you. He said he has worked with you before, that you would be able to help.”

“Oh?” I said, and blinked. There was only one man I could think of who would send a case like this to me. “Was it a man by the name of Scott Casterly, by any chance?”

Emelia nodded. “Yes, Casterly. He says he has worked on missing persons cases with you before.”

I winced. Technically true. But Scott also has a habit of telling only part of the truth. I only work with the police when one of the tasks given me by the Peace Workers overlaps with a police case. Since one of the the purposes of the Peace Workers is to clean up remnants of the Mage Wars, this usually involves dangerous characters, and the missing persons we seek are often no longer alive when we find them. I hoped that Scott sending this case my way didn’t mean he thought something like this was involved.

On the bright side at least, Scott and I knew each other and worked well together. Knowing he was working the case made me more optimistic that we’d find something, at least. And having had three full days to work, he’d probably already have examined the scene and conducted all the logical interviews. With luck, all he needed was another pair of eyes looking at evidence he already had.

Of course, it’s never that simple, but I can always hope, can’t I?

* * * * * * * *

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May 30, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter I

by Mallard

Hanging above the door to the building where I live, on the corner of Second Street and Lowering Way, and near enough to the eastern airship tower to hear the clacking of enormous rotors as the ships set sail in the night, is a wooden sign that flaps in the breeze. This sign is painted in dark forest green on white, and reads: Annabella’s Fine Corner Bakery and Cafe.

This is not me.

Annabella is a short, middle-aged woman with a smile on her face, usually found wearing a flour-dusted and coffee-stained apron. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen her otherwise. She has owned and run that bakery for as long as I can remember, which isn’t saying terribly much, as I first came to Kestral eleven years ago, and I lived further south for nearly half of those in the meantime. But even when I was a young lad first attending university, Annabella’s bakery was already a well-known landmark, a convenient place to grab a quick breakfast on the way to class, or a mug of strong coffee before final exams.

The inside of the cafe tends to be hot and noisy, what with the soft hissing of the gas ovens that run from dawn to dusk, the periodic clacking and whistling of the ceiling-height, steam-powered coffee machines, the hum and crackle of the roaster spinning in the background. And of course Annabella herself, who greets everyone who comes in the door with a hearty welcome and, for friends, a hug that raises a cloud of flour and crushes your breath away.

If you were to walk inside the bakery, weave past the haphazard arrangement of little wooden tables, sneak by the ovens and avoid the rattling and anxious pipes that feed the coffee makers, and finally pass through the tiny wooden door shoved in a corner behind the counter, you would find yourself at the base of a narrow and poorly-lit–but much quieter–flight of stairs. Climb this, past the creaky step and the dusty window that looks out into an alley choked with pipes and weeds, and through the door at the top which sticks in winter, and you’d find my flat, and in most evenings, me.

That is, me: Victor C. Haas. Peace worker with the Kestral Armed Forces, humble master of illusion, and friend to cops, dogs, children, and other strange creatures. And, though I’m not proud of this part I played in recent history, ex-soldier and spy for the fledgling Republic, which of course no longer exists.

I first moved into the flat above Annabella’s Fine Corner Bakery and Cafe when I returned to Kestral, two years ago. I got lucky. Immediately after the wars–commonly and inaccurately referred to as the Mage Wars–there was no housing to be found for a magic user, let alone one who had served the Republic for much of the war. Not many would deny me outright to my face, for fear of some arcane retaliation, but everywhere I went I found closed doors and barred windows. Though, honestly, what was I going to do to them? The scariest illusion I can summon goes away the moment I stop concentrating. Illusion magic is only frightening if you don’t know it is happening.

Why Annabella was not only willing to let me live above her shop, but even helped me move in and defended me with her sharp tongue and blunt rolling pin, I still don’t know. Maybe she remembered me as one of many gangly youths who bought a bun and a coffee nearly every morning, downing both in a tongue-burning rush before calling a quick thanks and rushing off to class. Or maybe she’s just not the judgmental sort. I’ve never asked; seems a little ungrateful to question someone’s good will. I just help her where I can and try not to think about the debt I would owe her if she wasn’t half so kind as she is.

As for my flat itself, it’s a single room deal with a tiny attached bathroom, but spacious for all that. The door opens from the south wall, so the first thing you’d see upon entering would be my desk, underneath the window that faces north across Second Street. Another window opens east over Lowering Way, with a sill wide enough to sit on and watch the traffic pass by, of which there’s always plenty. Lowering is a busy street, which makes for some loud nights when the cargo transport walkers come out, too large to easily travel in the day.

My bed is on the west wall, a fold-down sort that I can push up and out of the way during the day. I don’t really need the extra space, but I do it to make the place look nicer for guests, and on the rare occasion that my superiors drop in. Near the foot of the bed is a dual-burner gas range, though if I want an oven, I have to go downstairs.

I placed my mother’s grandfather clock in the corner, which tolls the time for all the square to hear, and a small fireplace takes up another corner, with a fire crackling at almost all times. It’s nice in winter, but stifling in summer, even with the windows open. I keep the flames lit though, as a favor to Kristopher.

Ah, but you don’t know who Kristopher is, do you? You barely know who I am. My name, as I mentioned before, is Victor Haas. I’m with the Peace Workers, which is part of the post-war reconstruction and reconciliation effort. It really serves two purposes: to showcase the enemy troops working to better the community, and to investigate and clean up remnants of the wars. It’s this second one that makes the job interesting, but I can get into that later.

As for Kristopher, he–at least, I consider Kristopher a he–is the salamander to whom I owe my life and my sanity. He found me in the fireswamps to the southwest near the end of the wars, and he’s stayed with me the two years since. I figure the least I can do is keep a fire burning for him to nest in while we’re at home.

* * * * * * * *

The Peace Workers keep me busy, but in spurts. Occasionally, I’ll have a few days off between jobs, and I spend a lot of that time wandering the city. Though I guess I never really stop working, since I always wear the green and blue armband that marks me as a member of the organization. And since most Peace Workers are, like me, former members of the Republic, it doesn’t take much of a leap for most people I meet to recognize me as such. It’s been two years, and most folk are at least accepting of my presence now, especially those who live near Annabella’s.

I like wandering around the city. I live in an older part of town, well overgrown with independent businesses and practices. The rails run overhead, the frequent trains crushing any hopes of conversation until they pass. Airships are constantly docking and departing from the tower, one of the the tallest structures in all of Kestral. The streets are always crowded with pedestrians like myself, the occasional privately owned automobile or walker, a plethora of bicycles, autobikes, monowheels, and some wilder contraptions that look hacked together in some garage. There are also the taxis, which are a whole class unto themselves. Anything that moves can become a taxi, from horse-drawn carriages to autos to spider-like automats that convey a single rider, who’s forced to sit cross-legged atop the machine to avoid its many legs. And there are the golems, rare though they are. Clockwork automats that, honestly, make me a little uncomfortable. Anything that’s not alive but can think for itself–or has a spirit thinking for it–is something to be wary of.

And of course, there are the people. Everyone in my neighborhood knows me by now, and most of them are friendly. There’s the grocer who refuses to sell me anything but his finest produce, and speaks with an accent so thick I can only understand one word in three. I think he assumes I make a lot of money since the army cuts my checks. I can assure you this is a mistaken assumption. Then there’s the clockmaker, never without a pair of multi-lens goggles, an array of tiny screwdrivers, and an insult on the tip of his tongue. He calls me that winter-blasted untrustworthy mage, I call him that cranky old bastard. We get along all right.

There are always the street vendors, too, who come out before sunrise and often stay out until late into the night, hawking food and jewelry, crafts and drinks. A couple of booths are run by handymen who’ll work minor repairs on small automats and golems for less time and money than it takes to go to a proper shop. Though you always have to worry about getting what you’ve paid for. Most of these guys are friendly, and half of them are drunk by nightfall. The street markets are always a party it seems; it’s a wonder they manage to make a living.

And of course, there’s Serah, who is one reason I never take my autobike to those street handymen. Or any other garage. I don’t think Serah’s jealous of other women I talk to, but she’d smack me good with a wrench if she found I went anywhere else for repairs. Women. I’ve learned a lot since I met Kristopher, but women–or rather, Serah–I still don’t understand. What sort of woman couldn’t care less for a bouquet of sweet-smelling flowers, but will gush with pleasure over a new monkey wrench or set of well-oiled planetary gears? Though, perhaps that’s why I like her so much.

* * * * * * * *

It was a Saturday, and a cloudy one. It didn’t look like rain, but it was a sunless and chilly day, weather for coats and scarves. I own several of the former, but my favorite of the lot is a knee-length frock coat, light brown rather than black. I also wore a thick grey scarf to keep my neck warm. It wasn’t really cold enough to warrant both, but one thing about living with a salamander: you get used to warmth.

I took a stroll through my usual neighborhood, thinking maybe I’d stop by and see Serah. The streets were just as crowded as ever, and several times I had to squeeze to one side to let a bicycle or autobike by. I snuck past the grocer’s, intent on avoiding being forced to buy yet another basket of fine prunes. Because, honestly, regardless of how fine they are, who ever has a need for a basket of prunes? Let alone one of the blasted things?

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas!” A shrill voice called above the murmur of the crowd, and I sighed.

“Hi, Rudolph,” I said, turning. The boy beamed and skidded to a halt in front of me, cheeks red from the cold and exertion. A girl about his own age lagged behind and came to a stop a moment later.

“This is Hester,” Rudolph said proudly, and the little girl waved shyly. Then she turned and smacked Rudolph on the arm.

“I told you to wait up!”

The kid had the grace to at least look abashed, for a second. “Sorry. But I wanted you to meet Mr. Haas!” He turned and looked up at me. “Do a trick, Mr. Haas!”

I sighed. “Come on, Rudolph. You know my rules.” I flicked my hand and held forth a white card that hadn’t been there a moment before.

Well, let’s be clear: it wasn’t there, period. And though Rudolph “took” it from me and “handed” it to his little girlfriend, neither of them felt a thing, though Hester could shake the little card and watch it bend. I went through a lot of real cards before I had the motions and images memorized well enough to mimic them through illusion.

Neither of them read the card, sadly. I’d clearly printed on it in block letters:

Victor C. Haas, Illusionist

No Parties, No Entertaining, No Tricks

This Means YOU, Rudy

“Can I keep it?” Rudolph asked, as he does every time.

“It’s not real, stupid,” Hester said, and the card obligingly vanished as I let go of my concentration. “See?”

“Aww.” Rudy scuffed the ground with his foot, more because the girl he wanted to impress had called him stupid than because he couldn’t keep the card.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. Rudy’s a good kid. Sometimes, those are worth breaking a few principles for. It had been a long while since I had last sat in a clearing in the forest and just watched nature pass by, so it took me a moment to find the right memories.

The cobblestones around the two children vanished beneath a thin layer of mossy green fuzz, which rapidly grew forth into a small field of grass. I heard a gasp, and couldn’t help smiling. Next came flowers, tiny buds creeping upward, then unfolding all at once into a rainbow of yellows and whites, blues and purples, reds and oranges. The grass continued to grow until it ran waist high and the flowers towering over the childrens’ heads, filtering the wan light from the clouds into pastel colors.

“Wow,” Hester breathed, and I opened my eyes to see her standing very close to Rudolph, gripping his arm tightly enough to hurt, but he was beaming at me. I winked and held the illusion a moment longer before letting it fade away.

“See?” he said to Hester once the world had returned to gray clouds and dusty cobblestones. “I told you he was the world’s best mage!”

“That…was okay,” she forced out finally. I rolled my eyes. Never try to get praise from a kid.

“Thanks, Mr. Haas!” Rudy called as they ran off toward the next big thing he wanted to share with her.

(Heads up,) Kristopher said, in the musical language of the salamanders. I can’t actually understand what he says, so much as get a general impression of his meaning. It’s a side effect of the bond between us, a bond I don’t understand and Kristopher has never bothered to explain.

“Mr. Haas?” another voice called tentatively from behind me. An older voice this time, a woman, and one I didn’t recognize.

“Yes?” I said, turning. I blinked.

She wore a long yellow dress, though it was the beginning of autumn and she looked chilly in the cool breeze. Her dress was clean but rumpled and unkempt, as if she had not changed in days, and her eyes were stained with lack of sleep and tears.

“You are Victor Haas, yes?” she asked, and there was a quaver to her voice that might have been from the chill, and might have been from something else entirely. Somehow I suspected the latter. “That illusion…you surely must be Victor Haas?”

“I am,” I said gently. “How can I help you, ma’am?” I almost added “aren’t you freezing in that?” but managed to restrain myself. Let it be known I do have some class, despite what Jedediah Millston will have you think.

The woman glanced around at the crowd passing us by, and a few idlers snapped their gaze back to their path, as if they hadn’t been eavesdropping. “Is there somewhere…” she started, and I nodded.

“My office isn’t far from here,” I assured her. “We can talk there. Please, come with me.” I offered her my arm, which she clung to with more force than strictly necessary, and I led her briskly back to Annabella’s. My “office,” of course, is just my flat. But it sounded much better to say “my office” than “my bedroom.” And with the bed folded up against the wall, a welcoming fire in the hearth, and a stack of meaningful-looking papers sitting neatly in a corner on my desk, the place looks professional enough.

I seated the woman–whose name was Emelia Withers–in the easy chair I keep for visitors by the fireplace and sat myself at my desk, readying a quill to take notes.

“What can I help you with, Ms. Withers?” I asked when she had settled in. She had started to looked a little better by the fire, color returning to her cheeks as she warmed up. But when I asked her that, her face fell and she looked down, clasping her hands tightly in her lap.

“I, um. My son,” she said, and stopped as if upset by the sound of her own voice. She coughed and started again. “My son, he is missing.” And then she began to weep.

* * * * * * * *

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