Posts tagged ‘Scott Casterly’

June 13, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter VI

by Mallard

When he needs to, Scott moves fast. Before the footsteps had traversed the half dozen or so strides to our hiding place, he had moved to one side of the door, shuttered lamp held in one hand, his police truncheon in the other. I moved to the other side and drew my pistol from inside my coat.

The muzzle of a rifle poked into the room cautiously, followed by a short-haired woman in overalls, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She turned and caught a glimpse of Scott crouching against the wall. She shouted and brought the rifle to bear, but didn’t have a chance to use it as Scott leapt forward, batting the muzzle aside with one hand and smashing his truncheon into her skull with the other. The rifle went off with a deafening roar in the tiny room, and I had to fight not to pull my own trigger in wild response.

The movement outside in the hall stopped abruptly at the sound of the rifle, and that was all Scott needed.

“Come on!” he shouted, and jumped over the prone woman and through the door. I followed, hunched over behind him, and our appearance was just sudden and startling enough that no one shot at us for about half a breath too long.

“Eyes,” Scott called curtly, and I turned quickly and squeezed my eyes shut, just as he pulled out the plate that separated the magnesium flash from the oil flame.

Light filled the hall like he had summoned the sun, and the kidnappers cried out in shock and pain. Even though I had prepared for it, I could still see dark spots dance in my vision after the flash faded.

The kidnappers recovered remarkably quickly and brought their weapons to bear, but we were up and running. Scott threw the heavy lantern behind him and I heard a grunt as it struck one of our pursuers. A shot went off, chipping the wall too near my head, and then we were out and into the sewers, racing alongside the river of sludge.

Though the lamps on the walls were dark, our pursuers had their own lights, and beams shone around us, reflecting crazily off random pipes and the surface of the water. Another shot broke a rusted pipe from the wall, but nothing spilled out.

We passed several dark openings, but without knowing where they went, it was too much risk to take them, as the sewer was likely riddled with dead ends. Though it was also too much risk to keep going, we realized as a motor coughed to life behind us. I didn’t know exactly how far it was to the ladder we had descended, but there was no chance we would make it on foot.

We rounded a corner, and I nearly ran into Scott as he skidded to a stop. “Not gonna make it at this rate,” he said, putting voice to my own thoughts. He grimaced. “Follow me,” and then he was running the wrong way, toward the center of the tunnel, and jumping foot first into…whatever was flowing in that water.

“Are you insane?” I hissed at him, aghast.

“Are you?” he retorted, and the motor sputtered louder as if to punctuate his remark. With a contorted expression of disgust, Scott held his nose and sank out of sight.

It wasn’t a bad idea, to be honest. It was hard to see him if you didn’t know to look, and as long as he stayed motionless, he could hide for a good long while. But he was moving, crawling along beneath the shallow river, and the ripples that caused might draw attention.

It was too late to call out to him to stop, and it was too late to jump in myself. And I was too tall, besides. And who knows what horrid diseases might be festering in that moving cesspool, diseases that might be harmless to Scott but lethal to mages, or to soldiers, or to men in long coats.

This is perhaps a good time to mention that I have some problems with water. And this wasn’t even water; water would be bad enough, but this was about as worse than water as was possible, and clearly there was a better course than me jumping in.

My phobias aside, there are also very legitimate reasons to be nervous in the sewers. Everything drains into them. Everything. From the usual waste products, to expired chemicals or excess ink, to even corpses and baby lizards that had grown too large to keep. Some of those lizards survive and grow enormous, feeding on the rats and the garbage that gets flushed down into the sewers. I’ve actually ran into one such, and I can tell you: it doesn’t matter how heavily armed one is; a lizard the size of a man, with armor-like scales and needle-sharp teeth, is not something to be sneezed at.

And they aren’t the worst. Out here in the residential neighborhood, the sewers were fairly tame. But in the more industrial areas, and especially around the university, strange things can be found. There have been numerous unconfirmed reports throughout the years of great beasts that stalk the sewers under the school, of the giant rats that congregate beneath Candlepark Station, or the enormous boar so large it is confined to the biggest of the sewer lines, with a hide like boiled leather, covered in scars and weeping wounds from a thousand failed attempts to slay it. Whether these creatures get so large naturally, or because they feed on some strange alchemy or magic leaking from the city proper, I don’t know. But given my choice, I’ll never be near enough another one to hazard a guess.

Scott raised a filth-covered hand and made an urgent “come here” gesture, but I moved in the other direction, pulling myself close to the wall. I didn’t have time to get a good view of what it looked like, but I knew in general what image to use. It was just concrete, after all, like the rest of the tunnels. I pulled an illusion of the wall over myself like a blanket, and did the same for Scott beneath the water, smudging and smoothing his features out so that no one could tell at a glance that anything was there.

The vehicle rounded the corner only seconds after these preparations, sudden light from its headlamp flooding the tunnel. It was a autobike, older even than my antique, coughing and sputtering like it was on its last legs. The rider took no notice of either Scott or I and blew past, ruffling my coat in the wind of his passing but leaving us otherwise undisturbed.

I breathed a sigh of relief. We would still have to wait out the ones who would follow on foot, but–

The bike skidded to a stop further down the tunnel and the rider stepped off. He wore no helmet, but had a scarf wrapped around his face. It wasn’t the leader, I could see, or anyone who had been in the room before. I wondered if the scarf was to filter the smell, or to hide some hideous disfigurement that seemed to be a mark of membership in their little band.

He paid no attention to the water, for which I was thankful, but scanned the walls as he walked, as if looking for something he had spotted in his passing.

Which could only be me. Which meant I had messed up.

It was about then that I realized I was leaning not against concrete, but brick.

Through my own illusion, I could see Scott raise his hand out of the water, a six-shot pistol held aimed toward the man’s side. The criminal might not be able to see the cop, but a shot would bring the others racing down the tunnel, and our already thin cover would be blown. Maybe we could fight our way out, or run fast enough to escape. But maybes are thin hooks to hang the lives of your friends upon.

“Winter take it all,” I muttered, and stepped out from the wall.

The biker must have known I was there, but he jumped back in surprise all the same. To his eyes, a section of concrete wall had suddenly turned into a person, standing with his arms in the air as if in surrender. The gesture was both so he wouldn’t shoot me on sight, and to keep his attention fully on me and away from the water. I kept my eyes on the man’s face, while behind his back I wrote in glowing violet letters the word, “GO.”

Scott didn’t look happy. But he went, moving slowly through the water away from us and toward the ladder we had used to enter the sewers. I kept the illusion on him as long as I could and thanked him silently. After all, he had really done the hard part.

And that just about did it for me. I was made to stand against the wall, hands on my head, while the man searched me and took my pistol from its pocket inside my coat. Then we waited, until his companions caught up and I found myself staring down the barrels of half a dozen guns.

* * * * * * * *

Maybe this is strange, but it hadn’t occurred to me until then that they might actually shoot me. I mean, I knew they all carried guns, and they had no qualms about kidnapping little kids, but…

Well, maybe that was just it. They had kidnapped Robert, but they hadn’t killed him. Even though it would have been far easier than trying to keep him alive and captive as long as they had. Men and woman of questionable morals though they might be, they weren’t cold-blooded killers.

In any case, no one shot me, though they kept their guns trained on me for the long and slow trek back to their hideout. Robert was sitting in much the same position as when Scott and I had spied him earlier. His wrists were chafed red by the manacles, and a spit-dampened gag was shoved into his mouth. I felt a stab of anger at the sight. Or maybe it was regret. Regret that, rather than rescue him and return him to his waiting mother, I had instead let myself be captured alongside him. Some hero.

The kidnappers sat me roughly next to the boy and bolted a pair of crude steel manacles about my wrists and ankles. A rag went around my eyes, another in my mouth. Neither were clean, and I tried not to gag at the taste of oil and dirt and sweat.

I suppose I should count it as a small blessing that Kristopher had managed to vanish. He may be a member of a mystical and poorly-understood species, but he’s still fairly vulnerable. A glass of water might not kill him, but it can come damn close. I didn’t know where he had gone to, but it was a small comfort to hold on to that he had gone.

It was only after I was properly secured that the leader of the band spoke to me. I couldn’t see him through the blindfold, but I recognized the voice well enough from before. “I don’t know who you are, copper,” he began in a bored tone. “And I don’t care. Your buddy may have gotten away, but we’ll be long gone by the time he brings your squad down. Whoever tipped you off was too late, so it truly does not matter.” I think he actually yawned at this point. “So you just sit tight and don’t make noise, and we won’t shoot you yet. Sound good?” He waited a moment and seemed to took my silence as a yes. “Good.”

And that was all the attention given me. Once the leader was no longer speaking to me, his voice took on a livelier tone. He spoke quickly, barking out orders in rapid bursts that sent the rest of his team–five besides himself–scurrying around the room like nervous rats before a fire.

 * * * * * * * *

To their credit, the group was fast. When they took my blindfold half an hour later, the room was stripped bare. The wooden boxes that had been stacked against the wall and covered with a tarpaulin were now stacked on a sled behind the automat, still covered by the tarp so that I could not read any label that might have been printed on their sides. The tools lying haphazard around the room had been packed away in one of several large metal chests.

Most impressive though, was that the room–to my eyes at least–looked untouched. The floor had been swept clean and scrubbed of oil, and from outside wafted the abrasive smell of ammonia, no doubt used to destroy their scent trails in the sewer tunnels.

Which meant that, beyond this point, Scott would have no way to track the group, to find me and Robert once we were taken away.

Somehow, my hastily executed plan of surrender no longer seemed like a good idea.

Robert’s and my leg manacles were partially undone, to allow us to walk at least somewhat normally. The men strung chains between us, and when I followed them with my eyes I found that the chains were welded to the body of the automat.

“Where are we going?” I tried to ask, and of course all that came out was a garbled mess, and I got a fresh tongueful of grease.

The leader seemed to understand me though, or at least he anticipated what someone might ask in my situation. “You don’t need to know,” he said curtly, and gestured with his head to two of his men. They moved behind us, the one with the boils and the single woman of the group, each holding a rifle with the Kestral insignia upon it leveled at Robert and I.

Which seemed unfair. I could understand them wanting to shoot me. I’m a big man–or tall, at least–who had been armed and had spied on the group with obvious ill intent toward them. Robert, on the other hand, was a kid. The worst weapon he had ever handled was probably a slingshot, and he’d only been trying to hide for a game, not for purposes of spying. They could probably have left him alone until he ran back topside, and they would have never been found out, would never even be in this predicament of having to move to escape police scrutiny.

Oddly enough, that thought comforted me a little. They could have ignored him, and they hadn’t. Which meant these people were either sadists of the worst order–unlikely, as Robert appeared largely unharmed–or they had made a stupid mistake. And if they could do it once, they could do it again. If I knew Scott, he would find us, and he would watch and wait for just such a mistake. It would only take one. And in any case, it wasn’t as if I was entirely helpless, either.

Though, shuffling behind the grossly built automat through dark hallways under the city, a rifle leveled at my back, I couldn’t help but feel a little helpless.

It was a small distraction to watch the automat move. It was every bit as awkward as I had expected, but there was a certain grace to it. No, I take that back; grace isn’t the right word at all. It was about as graceful as a diseased bear in a dance hall. But it worked, which was surprising enough to make me rethink my opinion of these men.

The legs all moved in different rhythms, so that the machine did not have a gait so much as a drunken stumble. Yet the rates of movement were all synchronized, such that the machine never actually stumbled, though it looked like it might at any moment. The head bobbed around wildly, up and down, left and right, but the machine was designed such that the weirdly placed drill stayed perfectly level, its tip moving only an inch or two laterally as it walked forward. Viewing it from behind, I saw what looked like a collapsed truss apparatus behind the drill, which might extend the bit forward and past the automat’s head, such that it could actually tunnel further than I had originally assumed.

Steam came in uneven spurts from the various vents, seeming to match up with no external movement. It dripped oil behind it, and creaked in alarming fashions, but it moved, and that was all it needed to do. Perhaps its construction wasn’t a function so much of inexperience and madness, but simply an unavailability of standardized components. For such a cobbled-together monster, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

I would have been rather more charmed by it, however, if I hadn’t been welded to the beast.

Our path took us away from the sewers, through another hallway of the sunken house, and then through what had once been a picture window and into another building. We progressed in this fashion through several disused sections of the undercity before we emerged into a wide open concrete tunnel. For a moment I thought we had intersected another branch of the sewer, until I realized that it was not water that ran along the center, but two parallel rails of rusted iron.

We had entered part of the abandoned subway system. The tunnel was in surprisingly good condition, though it had clearly been cannibalized over the years to remove iron from the tracks, or to take pieces from the unfinished switching boxes and other mechanics of the underground rail system. We passed several skeletons of early cars, and I realized that much of the spider automat had probably been salvaged from these wrecks, picking and choosing the functioning parts from each to piece together something that had never been intended.

We followed the tunnels for some time, moving at a crawl. The automat could not move quickly, and the sounds it made as it walked echoed wildly from the concrete ceiling, so that the group glanced nervously around throughout the entire walk. My muscles refused to untense at the thought of a nervous finger pulling a hair trigger and sending a bullet into my back. The leader might berate the man, but I doubted he’d care.

Worse, they might shoot the boy.

The tunnel ended abruptly, in a wall of stone and dirt that had once been attacked by great digging machines. Most likely, the drill on the automat had come from one of these machines, several wrecks of which I saw lying around the end of the tunnel. The walls were damp here, and much of the wooden support structure was wet through and well-rotted.

A low and narrow tunnel, scaffolded by more rotted supports, led us from the rails and to yet another concrete tunnel. The sewers, I knew at once from the smell.

It wasn’t the usual smell you’d expect from the sewers, though. It was a heavy, almost perfumey stench, thick in the air like fog. The water was black in the dim lamplight and moved oddly, heavy and slow like mud in some places, at others flowing far quicker than it should have. Occasional colors gleamed from the surface, like oil slicks or concentrated dyes. It was obvious the gas lamps lining the walls had not worked for years, but still a dim light was provided by the damp mold that coated the walkway and crawled up the concrete walls. It pulsed gently.

The tunnels were huge here, much wider than the one Scott and I had first ventured down. It was easily large enough for the Boar to come upon us, or any of the dozens of other horror stories lurking down there. The pipes overhead rattled and shook at random intervals, occasionally raining a fine dusting of rust onto the surface of the liquid. Something swam upstream, disturbing the surface but remaining unseen, and further down the tunnel, the surface of the water glowed a gentle blue for half a minute before fading.

There was only one place in the city that looked like this, only one place the kidnappers could have led us. We had entered one of the most dangerous locations in all the undercity: the sewers beneath the academy of magic.

* * * * * * * *
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June 6, 2010

Illusion 1, Chapter V

by Mallard

Scott and I had a disagreement at this point.

“We need to go and get backup,” Scott hissed at me from the darkness to my right.

“We need to find out who these people are, first,” I returned. “We don’t know anything–”

“Yes, exactly! We don’t know their numbers or capabilities. We’re just two men, Victor–” Kristopher whistled softly. “Fine,” Scott said. “Two men and a singing firefly. We need the police down here to back us up.”

“I thought you were the police,” I returned, and moved a few steps further down the tunnel. The voices were still going while Scott and I held our whispered argument, but they could stop at any moment. And once they did, it’d be near impossible to find them. Though we had been following one of the main concourses of the sewer, smaller tunnels branched off at random intervals, snaking under the city in a wild and unmapped mess. Unmapped to me, at least–it was a fair bet that whoever was down here probably visited more often than Scott or I, and it’d take only a marginally better knowledge of the sewers to leave us, well, up shit creek.

Not even Kristopher would be able to follow. At least, not quickly. He could probably track Robert, if indeed these people were holding the kid, but it would be uncertain at best.

“I’m serious, Victor. We can’t charge in there without knowing what we’re getting into.”

“I know,” I said, nodding though he couldn’t see me. “And that’s why I’m going to go see what we’re getting into. This is–was–my job, if you’ll recall.” Scott didn’t say anything to that. He didn’t know me when I worked for the Republic, but I had told him the barest details when we’d first met, after he had seen and recoiled from the blue-and-green armband I wore.

Scott sighed. “Fine,” he said after a moment. “But looking only; don’t touch.”

I grinned. “Come on, Scott, you know me.”

“You’re damned right I do,” he grumbled, but followed behind as I continued down the tunnel.

Kristopher glows, but his tiny light doesn’t do much to illuminate things around him. I summoned a dim red light that floated like a mist around my ankles, the better to see where I was stepping. The sewer walkways were mostly clear of things that would make much noise, but all I needed was step on a discarded tool, or slip on a patch of mud, and any sound I made would echo down the tunnel to warn our quarry. They hadn’t heard us so far, which was a good sign, but there was no sense in taking any chances.

The sudden light that burst out from my left was shockingly bright after the darkness, and I was sure someone had flashed a lamp at us and was about to start shooting. I leapt backward and crashed into Scott, who grunted but managed not to curse aloud. Which saved us, as I realized a moment later what I had seen.

A side tunnel had opened to our left, a smaller offshoot of the sewer. And off of that tunnel, hidden until we had passed the corner, was yet another opening. Not a sewer, but some sort of underground walkway that ended in a rusted-open steel door at the side of the sewer tunnel. The light shone through that door, wan lamplight that wasn’t nearly as strong as it had first seemed.

When no one appeared in the light to challenge us, we crept closer and saw that the tunnel was barely larger than the dimensions of the door that fronted it, a narrow corridor of concrete with pipes jostling each other for space at the top, so that I felt I’d have to duck if I walked under them.

Some distance down, yet another opening led to the right, and it was through this that the gentle glow of a gas lamp spilt. The light that had so startled me in the tunnel had been twice reflected, and would been nigh invisible in daylight.

I let my eyes fully adjust to the light and started through the door from the sewer, only to have Scott grab my arm. “Wait,” he hissed.

I turned, frowning. Were we going to have this argument again? Then, as I opened my mouth to respond, I realized that we were close enough to make out the occasional words the group was speaking. I closed my eyes and strained my ears, not for the first time wishing I knew any sound magic, or at least had one of those brass horns for the elderly.

“–told you, we’re not gonna do anything of the sort,” a voice said in an weary tone.

A lower and softer voice responded, ending in a slightly higher pitch as if asking a question.

“We’ve had this discussion, Rod. It’s over. Don’t bring it up again.”

Well, winter blast it all. Why couldn’t they repeat that conversation now that Scott and I were in a position to hear it?

Rod grumbled a reply, but must have complied because the other voice–the leader, I assumed–made no more comments. There came the sound of metal clanging on metal, a lot of scuffling of feet, or maybe the moving of heavy boxes, and the occasional garbled phrase. I couldn’t tell how many people were in the room. Two at a minimum, but from the noises they were making, it was either a very active two, or a group of at least four or five.

I itched to get closer. I hated being so near, but still knowing nothing. I was certain that we had found the people responsible for Robert’s disappearance, but for all I knew it was just a bunch of guys having some beers and banging on pipes with spanners. Admittedly, the location was a little strange, but . . . well, you hear of odder things in my profession.

I stepped through the doorway from the sewers, ignoring Scott’s hissed protest. There was another, dark opening leading off to the left a few yards down that I could duck into, as long as no one decided to pop out of the lit doorway while I was moving. From there, I figured I might be able to see a little into the other doorway, or at least hear more clearly.

Scott followed me a second later, and we made a beeline for the door, ducking into the darkness and the relative safety it provided. It wouldn’t help us if someone decided to look into the room, but I was banking on them expecting no visitors.

Once we were sure no one had heard us, I took a quick look around, and though I couldn’t make out many details I realized at once that we weren’t in the sewers at all anymore.

“This is part of the undercity,” I whispered to Scott in surprise.

“Obviously,” he returned, focusing intently on the room across the narrow hallway. Which was, I had just realized, exactly that: an old hallway in the ground floor of a building some decades in Kestral’s past.

Remember how I said that, in the early days of the city, parts of it sank below the surface of the marshlands? Many of those sections sank whole and solid, though horribly water-damaged and sometimes tilted at crazy angles. Now that I recognized where we were, I realized that the floor sloped slightly downhill, away from the sewer lines, though no doubt it had been built level.

No one used the undercity for anything anymore. Or I should say, no one used the undercity for official, legitimate purposes. There were still plenty of access points, from buildings stacked on top of the sunken floors, to doors like the one we’d found. The sewers had been built much more recently in Kestral’s past, and whenever the walkways intersected the sunken basements of the undercity, they just opened up into them. No doubt the city planners had thought it might be useful to someone, but you usually only hear of criminals, the homeless, and madmen using the undercity. I think the only legitimate use I’ve heard of was when the city tried to install subways. They’d planned to use some of the larger sunken rooms that were still in decent condition as subway stations, since it saved having to mine out a whole new space. But that project had been abandoned like so many others, and now the undercity was home to rats and those who didn’t fit in the city proper.

Now that we were closer, I could understand more of what the group was saying to each other. Much of it was along the lines of “hand me that drill,” or “careful, you dolt!” There was also the occasional, “this is gonna be great, boss,” a sentiment often met with boisterous approval. I didn’t know what they were planning, but I couldn’t help feeling it would be rather less than great from my side of things. That feeling intensified when, during a more prolonged period of silence, a muffled nasal sound pierced through the occasional grunt. At first it was unfamiliar to me, but then Kristopher did an agitated figure-eight in the air and I recognized the sound as about the only noise a gagged child could make.

Scott started next to me, and I knew he recognized the sound as well. There was a sloshing sound as the oil in his lamp shook, and he put it down quickly. I couldn’t blame him; the man has a wife and a daughter. The latter of whom, I realized suddenly, was nine years old, the same as Robert. No wonder he was a little shaky.

I wasn’t feeling too steady myself, but for different reasons. While Scott found the sound frightening because he was imagining his little Kelley in Robert’s place, I was remembering.

It wasn’t little boys or girls that I had bound and gagged and stowed away in some dark bunker. But some of the soldiers I had captured hadn’t been much more than kids, many of them younger even than I at the time. I had been an . . . “information specialist” for the Republic. My job was to gather intelligence, and I did so. Using any and all means at my disposal.

Like I said earlier, I’m not proud of my part in recent history. No, that’s not right. “Not proud” is a passive state, a sort of “ho hum, I could have done better.” I was ashamed. Angry. Sickened. I hadn’t killed, at least not outside of battle. But I had been responsible for many deaths all the same. For many pains, for–

Kristopher whistled sharply, and I jerked my head up in surprise.

“Shh!” I hissed at him automatically, and with that my mind snapped back to the present. “. . . Thank you,” I added after a moment. I didn’t look at Scott, but I could feel him staring at me.

When he spoke however, he was all business. “I think it’s time we left, Victor.” It was just not the business I had been expecting.

I blinked. “What?”

“We need to get more help. We don’t know if these men are armed, and I don’t trust the two of us to take them on.”

“Exactly,” I said, frowning. “We don’t know anything yet. The only thing we’ve learned is that they have Robert, and I thought we’d already come to that conclusion. There’s no point in going back up until we know what we need backup against.”

“And how do you propose we find out? Just waltz in and look?”

“Um,” I said, with my usual eloquence and forethought. Scott waited patiently. “Well, maybe if one of them comes out, and if we can knock him out without alerting the others, and if I can pass myself off as him . . .” I stopped when I realized I was spouting nonsense.

My memory is very good. It has to be, to make an illusion with any sort of realism. I need to hold every aspect of the image in my head, in three dimensions, concentrating constantly to make an illusion that’s both consistent and realistic. There’s no way that, just briefly glancing at an unconscious man, I could mimic his appearance well enough to fool his companions for more than a few minutes at the outside.

(Can’t you see around corners?) Kristopher sang softly, making lazy circles in the air.

I blinked in surprise, then groaned and pinched the bridge of my nose. “I’m kind of an idiot,” I said to Scott.

“Certainly,” he agreed amicably. “But why this time?”

If there’s one problem I have, it’s that I sometimes make things more complicated than they need to be. It’s not that I can’t make myself look like someone else temporarily. I used to do it on a fairly regular basis, after all. It’s hard, but it’s a remarkably effective way to get information, as long as you can keep up the facade. Just, it’s not always the simplest approach.

Illusion is, as I mentioned, just applied light magic. And light magic is all about creating and manipulating light. Making it brighter, changing colors, focusing or dispersing it, and bending it. The periscope effect is one of the earliest skills a light mage masters, and for a while it’s the greatest new toy. You can peer around corners before you reach them, or cheat at cards, or follow the intricacies of a gopher hole or anthill, or peep through a girl’s bedroom window while she’s changing.

Er, that last of which, of course, I never did. Never. Not at all.

Well, maybe once.

It was a simple trick to reach out and grab on to the light pouring out of the room, and to pull a section of it toward me, bending it such that, instead of impacting on the far wall like it should have, it curved in a wide arc and opened to a small circle floating in front of our faces. Scott whistled approvingly, and together we peered through the opening in the air.

The room rippled slightly as if we were watching a reflection in a bowl, but it was plenty clear for all that. It was as if the door had been shut and we had somehow cut open an eight-inch hole without being detected.

There were four men in all, three dressed in dark shirts and pants, one in overalls. The clothing of all four was covered in grime and grease stains, so that it was hard to tell the original colors. The reason for the mess was fairly obvious: taking up much of the cramped space was an automat, but unlike any I had seen before. It was insect-like, standing easily as tall as a man, with six legs that each seemed to have been pulled from a different source. Some were thick hydraulics with many joints, others barely more than hollow pipes with a single elbow, and all were different lengths, so that it was a wonder the machine stood level. I couldn’t imagine how it might walk.

Plates of various metals, from copper to steel to what might have been brass, covered most of the machine, with steam vents rising from random and unlikely spots. The boiler, it appeared, was entirely internal, shielded by these armor plates which were riveted and welded crudely together.

Though the construction of the machine would have made Serah–or any legitimate mechanic–cry out in anguish, at least one of its functions was obvious. Supported by struts, and by the two forwardmost legs on its left side, the automat sported a great drill that looked salvaged from a disused mining vehicle. Clearly, whatever this group planned, it involved making large holes in something. Though, the construction of the machine would make it horribly inefficient to use the drill for any length of time, or to drill anything very deep. Given the haphazard build of the rest of the thing, I almost wondered if it wasn’t ornamentation. Maybe these people were just mad but harmless gearheads, cobbling together mechanical nonsense in this disused portion of the undercity.

Except that, seated against the wall and half hidden by one of the spider’s mismatched limbs, arms and legs clamped in steel manacles and a blindfold and gag covering much of his face, was a boy who could only be Robert Withers. He wriggled and shivered, and occasionally let out quiet whimpers that seemed more audible now that we could see him.

We watched for several minutes, as the men bustled around the enormous machine. A pair were working underneath, calling out tool requests to the one other man who was doing any work. The fourth just leaned against the wall, supervising, and I felt certain that this was the man who had told Rod that their discussion was over. He said little now, watching the progress and keeping what almost looked like a nervous eye on both the boy and on a stack of wooden crates against the far wall, mostly covered by a large canvas tarpaulin thrown casually over.

As my surprise at the sight of the automat lessened, I looked more closely at the men and began to realize that there was something very off about them. One of the men under the machine had only one functioning leg, the other transitioning at the knee into a perfect stone facsimile. The other appeared to have two hands on at least one of his arms, both sprouting from the same wrist, both scarred and burnt horribly, though all ten fingers seemed functional. The man in overalls, standing and handing the other two tools, had horrible red boils across half his face, and he gripped the tools with hands that were little more than clubs, several fingers on each hand melted together like wax. He limped when he walked, and blinked constantly though the room was not overly bright.

The leader looked fairly normal, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he, too, harbored some terrible disfigurement. I felt sick at the sight; those wounds and mutations had not been caused by ordinary weapons. They were almost certainly caused by magic, which meant . . .

I looked closer and saw that both the leader and the man with the boils had pistols strapped to their sides. A pair of rifles leaned up against the wall, and though they were covered in mud and filth, it was not hard to make out the insignia of the Kestral Armed Forces emblazoned on the stocks. Which, given the nature of their injuries, meant that these men had almost certainly served in the Mage Wars, on the opposite side as I.

Before I could fully wrap my mind around the implications of this, the leader of the group turned his wandering gaze toward the door, and I remembered all too late the reason I didn’t use the periscope technique anymore.

When I bend light, it’s not a one-way effect. Let’s assume–hypothetically, of course–that I had once peeped at a girl changing in her bedroom. I would have thought myself oh-so-clever, since I could sit at the base of the wall and look straight forward, and find myself peering into a room on the second story. But if that girl were to look at the window, she’d see, just as clearly, an image of my lecherous face peering at her from somewhere amid the window panes. She might think it a ghost, and she might recognize the magic for what it was, but either way, she would know she had been seen, and she might throw her shoe at the face, shattering her window and causing shards of glass to rain down around me.

It was the same in this case, sans shoe. The man would have seen my and Scott’s faces, clearly illuminated by his room light, peering at him from a patch of stone wall. I released the magic, shrinking back into the dark room Scott and I had hidden ourselves in, and at once our faces were no longer poking out of the wall. But the damage had been done.

“A spy!” the leader roared, and was answered in an instant by the shouts of the other three members. No, by five shouts at least. From the far end of the hallway, a door banged open as what must have been two more kidnappers burst in.

The sound of pounding feet and angry yells filled the small space, and I saw that our clever, sneaky hiding place was now little more than a cramped barrel, with Scott and I the fishes to be shot.

* * * * * * * *
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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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