Posts tagged ‘Emelia Withers’

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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