Posts tagged ‘Annabella’

July 4, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter IX

by Mallard

The dean brought himself up short when he saw me, slumped against the far wall. He blinked in surprise and looked around the room for anyone else. When he saw no one, he sighed and relaxed out of his ramrod-straight posture to his more usual slouch.

“Victor,” he said by way of greeting, shoving his hands in his pockets and glaring at me. Jedediah is a short and stocky man, half as wide as he is tall, and nearly bald but for a few stray hairs combed carefully across his pate. He wore slacks and a plaid waistcoat, and had an unlit pipe hanging out of his mouth. He sighed. “What have you done to my university, Victor?”

I snorted. “I saved it, you great lout. Fine show of thanks you give me, too.”

Millston made a great show of turning over his shoulder and examining the misty, damaged storeroom. “Mm, yes. You’ll forgive me if I delay the award ceremony. What did you say you saved it from? The monotony of a quiet and event-less evening?”

That seemed a little rich. “What, are you blind, man? Surely you don’t think I had–”

Millston waved a hand, dismissing my retort. “Of course not.” He started across the room in his usual hasty stalk, always as if in the greatest hurry to get where he is going. He stopped in front of me, staring down at where I was sitting, before dropping to a comfortable squat.

“All right then. Explain. Why did every alarm in the building go off in a gods-awful clatter a few minutes ago, and why did I come down to find one of my storages destroyed, and a machine that looks like the idiot offspring of an army tank and a particularly ugly insect? And how are you involved?” He shook his head. “I wish I could say I am surprised to see you, Victor. But I’m really not.”

Robert stirred next to me, partly roused by Jedediah’s rough voice. The dean glanced over at the child. “And what brain-dead fool entrusted you with a child?”

“That all, then?” I asked, a little frustrated. I wanted to shout at him, but I consoled myself by merely raising an eyebrow. He had every right to be on edge, after all.

“It’ll do for now. So talk.”

I sighed, and talked. I started from the beginning, giving him an abbreviated account of Emelia Withers’s predicament and her request, of my conversation and search with Scott, and of our descent into the sewers. Millston listened quietly for the most part, but when I started describing the kidnappers, he interrupted me several times, making me go back and repeat portions, asking me specific questions about their appearances and attitudes.

“Look, you want to tell this story?” I asked finally. “I’ve told you all I can remember about these people.”

“‘All’ hasn’t been very much. Where’s that famed illusionist memory, Victor?”

“I had a few other things on my mind at the time, beyond what the buggers looked like,” I blew out, exasperated.

Robert stirred again, and Jedediah’s frustrated frown eased slightly. “I guess you did,” he said, and motioned for me to continue.

The rest of the story went fairly quickly. The dean snorted when I described shooting the wrong pipe, then shrugged. “It’ll be hell to fix, but probably better over all. There’s no way that thing will be getting up and walking again any time soon after a shower like that. Couldn’t you have stopped it before it entered my storeroom, though?”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

Jedediah nodded. “Fair enough.” He fell silent for a moment, frowning in thought. “You know who those men were, do you?”

I shook my head. “Who they were? Just malcontents, as far as I could tell. Obviously war vets, hurt by magic and full of wrath against it.”

He nodded again. “Malcontents, yes, but not ‘just.'” He was silent for a few moments, staring of into space. Robert settled back into a deeper doze. “They started during the wars, after the Patchwork Folk were driven back, and our armies were turned on the Republic. The second war lasted less than a year, but the Republic were fierce fighters, and much more willing and able to employ the arcane arts in battle. More and more of our soldiers were harmed or permanently transfigured by magic. Some of them formed a sort of support group. They called themselves the People for the Abolition of Weaponized Magic.” Jedediah shrugged irritably, his face lined with frown lines as he recalled the events, less than three years previous.

“The group started out tame enough, but their purpose changed over time from peaceful protest to actively opposing magic users. I don’t recognize the descriptions you gave me, but judging by their actions and the rifles, they were likely members of this organization. I thought it had mostly died out after the wars, but it appears I was wrong.”

I didn’t say anything. What would I say? I hadn’t known such a group had ever existed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this group I had encountered were the bulk of the remaining members, or if they were only one small branch of a cancer we could not entirely see.

At the moment though, it didn’t matter.

“Guess that’s one more thing to keep an eye out for, then,” I said and yawned and stretched. I shook Robert lightly, and his eyes fluttered sleepily open. “Come on, kid,” I said, and stood, pulling the boy to his feet. “Time to go.”

I turned to Jedediah. He was standing as well, and now I was the one looking down at him. “I should get the kid back to his mom. You think cleanup can wait until morning?”

Millston snorted. “Of course not. But I hardly need you here. Go home, get out of my university. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you and not had some trouble right before or shortly after.”

“Hey now, that’s not fair,” I started to protest, then thought better of it. I shrugged. “Okay, so maybe it is. I’m sure I’ll see you soon, anyway. Old grouch.”

“Just don’t make it too soon,” he grumbled, and led the way back across the room, through the still-icy grave of the automat, and to the elevator that would take us back to the surface.

 * * * * * * * *

Sergeant Major Hattie Morrison frowned at me for several long moments from the business end of her spartan oak desk. She had a good frown. A deep, commanding frown that took over her face, wrinkling her brow, thinning her eyes, turning her mouth into an upside-down U. Had she worn glasses, she would have been the spitting image of every school-child’s worst nightmare. “What are you playing at, Victor?” she asked at last.

I said nothing.

“Victor,” she sighed. “I can’t authorize payment for this. It’s good work, but we didn’t assign it to you.”

“True,” I said, slowly. I was standing on the other side of the desk, to one side of the proffered chair. I kept my coat close around me, as a sort of barrier between myself and the sergeant major’s discontent. “You would have though, if you’d known about it.”

The sergeant major waved that away. “We don’t deal in ifs here, Victor. You know that. When we assign you a job, we pay you. When we don’t, we don’t.” She picked up the typed list I had handed her a few minutes previous, and scanned through the items. “And what is some of this, anyway? Expenses for a train ride, dry cleaning charges, a single replacement bullet? A single bullet, Victor? Is this a joke to you?”

I fought not to smile. “Not at all, ma’am.”

Hattie put the list on the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Gods I hate working with you, sometimes. What are you playing at? I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, because you’re a good worker. You’re probably one of our best, to be honest. So if this is some big joke, then laugh laugh, well played, and get going. But if you have any legitimate reason for this farce, out with it.”

I grimaced. “All right, I’ll level with you. But you’ll hear me out?”

“I just said I would, didn’t I?”

“Okay. You’re right: the Peace Workers didn’t assign this job to me. I did it on my own time, and my own dime, and I’m not strapped for money.”

“You make a compelling case for why we should pay you,” Hattie interjected, sardonically. She was tapping the list with a thick forefinger, a sign of her impatience.

I ignored her. “Have you ever dealt with kidnap victims? Especially ones as young as Robert Withers?”

Hattie frowned at the seeming non-sequitur, and her tapping finger paused. She nodded, slowly. “A few, yes.”

I swallowed, remembering my own experiences. “Well, they aren’t happy kids. Something like that happens to you when you’re nine? It sticks with you for life. With proper care, you can get over it, work around it. But that kind of care costs money. Quite a bit of it. And, well, I don’t think the boy’s mother is hurting, but she shouldn’t have to pay for her son’s therapy, shouldn’t have to worry and struggle to make sure she can manage that and make a living.”

Hattie spoke slowly. “So, this bill…”

I nodded. “I did some checking around. That’ll cover a good chunk of the initial expenses. She doesn’t need to know who it came from. But I think she needs it to come.”

The sergeant major said nothing for a while. I could almost see it in her head: the battle between what her job told her to do, and what her heart said.

“Nine years old, Hattie,” I said quietly.

“You’re a bastard, Victor,” she said. “And you know I’m going to do it.” She tapped the paper with a finger in idle thought. “Officially, this is an advance payment on your next job. You used all your funds on drink and drugs. I’ll make sure the paperwork gets lost somewhere, so you’ll get your next paycheck in full, when the time for that comes.” She suddenly turned the full force of her frown on me again. “This happens only once, Victor. This isn’t going to become a normal thing.”

I nodded, and turned to leave. “I sure hope it isn’t,” I said agreeably. “Thanks, Hattie. I owe you one.”

“You’re damned right you do,” she muttered, but made no more protest as I showed myself out.

 * * * * * * * *

There was an enormous tarpaulin-covered bundle in front of the bakery when I got back. It sat on a wooden pallet easily eight feet to a side, and blocked much of Lowering Way. I could see traffic backed up a good bit as autos and walkers crept by in single file, many directing disgusted looks and rude gestures at the enormous package.

A boy stood on the corner of Lowering and Second, directing customers to Annabella’s bakery around the bundle, as it sat entirely in front of the door, leaving only a narrow alley through which customers could enter and exit.

I saw no labels on the bundle, but there was little doubt in my mind who it was for. I walked up to the bakery a little apprehensively, running through the list of possible culprits, and coming up blank. Who would leave such a large gift–if gift it was–at Annabella’s? Should I be worried about bombs or other dangers?

The boy, I saw as I neared, was none other than Rudolph, who gave me an enthusiastic wave when he spotted me coming through traffic.

“Mr. Haas! Mr. Haas! Package for you!”

I snorted at his childlike understatement. “Thanks, Rudy,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Mind telling me where it came from?”

Rudolph shrugged. “I don’t know! A bunch of men came and dropped it off not half an hour ago. It came on a great big sled pulled by a truck. You going to open it?”

“Yes, please do,” another voice chimed in. I winced as Annabella herself came around the corner, arms folded across a floury, aproned chest, a look of half amusement and half exasperation across her face. “You’ve caused ruckus enough in this neighborhood, Victor, gods know. But I believe this is the first time your mail has made me problems.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “No idea who it’s from, then?” I asked her.

She nodded. “Oh, I know exactly who it’s from. Came with a letter and everything.” She fished around under her apron and pulled out a folded piece of heavy card stock, embossed with an all-too-familiar crest of a tree, sun, and moon.

My laughter died out as I took the card. “Victor,” it started. “This is rightfully yours. Or maybe it isn’t, but I surely don’t need it cluttering my storage room. So have a pleasant birthday, or autumnal equinox, or whichever bloody holiday is near enough to justify a gift. Sincerely, Jedediah Millston.” A series of titles and honorifics followed, only half of which I recognized.

I looked at the bundled automat–for that was what it no doubt was–and silently cursed Millston. What was I going to do with this great big useless machine? I’d have to hire someone just to haul it away, which wouldn’t come cheaply.

“Oh, and Serah sent a message with Rudy here,” Annabella added, as an afterthought. She patted Rudolph on the back. “Go on, son, tell him.”

Rudy beamed at me. “She said your bike is ready, and you owe her dinner.”

I blinked. Then I began to smile. And laugh.

“Oh dear,” Annabella said, and turned with a sigh to return to her shop. “I know that look well enough. Nothing good ever comes of that look.”

 * * * * * * * *

“You have,” Serah Villifree said, staring at the automat. “Very possibly discovered the ugliest machine ever built by mortals or gods.”

“I know,” I said, grinning. “Do you like it?” We were standing in her warehouse, the back room of her shop where she stores spare parts and works on her own projects. The space isn’t very large, and the destroyed automat took up much of the clear floorspace remaining.

It hadn’t been cheap to get it to her shop, but it had been worth the look on her face when I arrived on a great cargo walker in the late afternoon, dragging behind the enormous and ugly shell of the beetle-like automat. Millston had, fortunately, stripped off all the explosives before sending it my way.

“Like it?” she said, walking around the automat. “It’s ugly as sin, and built on the most chaotic school of mechanical engineering I have ever seen. The legs are all wrong, the boiler is far too small, and none of the gear teeth inside mesh properly at all. There is absolutely nothing mechanically or logically sound about this monstrosity. And you say it actually functioned?” I nodded, and she smiled. “I love it.”

I laughed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“But,” she said, turning away abruptly. The windows to the warehouse were beginning to glow orange, as the late afternoon sun began to slant across the floor. “This can wait. You, I believe, owe me dinner.”

“Well,” I said, and offered her my arm. “I can’t have an outstanding debt on my record, can I?” Serah laughed and hooked her arm through mine as if we were at a fancy ball, though I was dressed in my old and worn coat, and she in oil-stained overalls and heavy leather work boots.

I led my lady out into the waning sunlight, away from the broken shell of the automat, away from the madness and danger of the last day, and back to some small semblance of a normal life.

At least for an evening.

* * * * * * * *
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