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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4 Responses to “Illusion 1, Chapter III”

  1. At Scott’s introduction, he comes in saying, “It’d bet my wife’s mother it’s that damned Vict-” and I think that you meant I’d rather than It’d. And the paragraph starting with “In answer” on that same line you have the word ‘that’ repeated twice when it was only meant to be there once. Just a little friendly looking over. Anyhow, I took longer than I thought I would but nevertheless I’m glad to be swept up and away by your prose again. The story is progressing well, not too fast and not too slow, and it’s good to see the quirks of Victor coming out through his actions. When I get more time I’ll once again have to visit, but for now, good work and keep it up!

  2. Whoops, thanks for the catches, JokiLoki! Fixed now.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying reading, especially as I’m having a lot of fun writing this story. And no worries on the time. I need to get over and read your most recent entry in more detail. Until next time!

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