The tiny offices of The Oracle lay at the top of an unremarkable six-story, stone-faced building in Tollcross. It was not quite dinner time when Lyfantod arrived. The first floor was a kebab shop, owned by a man from the Philippines who apparently still remembered Lyfantod since the last time he’d visited. Either that, or he recognized someone who was not looking for kebabs. In either case, he waved from behind the counter with a long, two-pronged meat fork as Lyfantod skirted the customers' tables, heading for the cramped staircase that led up to the rest of the building.
As he had the last time, Lyfantod thought the place must have been designed, in the local vernacular, by a bit of a numpty. Forcing everyone to walk through the first floor shop to get upstairs? Idiotic! On the other hand, perhaps it had been designed by an enterprising first-floor shopkeep...
A dark-skinned older fellow with drooping mustaches, sipping daintily from a comically-small white ceramic coffee cup, narrowed his eyes when Lyfantod passed inconsiderately between him and the telly hung up in the corner. Somewhere in the world--somewhere where every inch of the ground was not covered in two feet of intractable snow--there was a game on.
The building had no lift. This was a source of constant grief for Marcher, who was opposed exercise on ethical grounds. The offices being on the sixth floor as they were, even the fitter detective would be breathing heavily by the time he reached them. It was impressive, really, Lyfantod reflected, that Marcher managed to stay as plump as he did, having to climb those flights every day.
The walls of the staircase were scraped and dirty, plastered with old flyers and other postings; for missing cats and what appeared to be a mongoose; the sale of unwanted love seats and the desire to purchase same. The typical sort of thing you'd find in an apartment building with lax management and no designated bulletin board. Much of it was written in languages that Lyfantod could neither read nor identify, and he was fine with that.
When Lyfantod reached the sixth floor he found it, like all of the others he'd briefly glimpsed, silent and empty. The headquarters of the newspaper were in a converted flat halfway down the hall, the entrance identical to every other door in the building, with no sign to indicate what lay inside. Only a slightly crooked brass number 9, a mail slot, an old curry stain on the carpet in front of the door, and a peep hole which had been rather thoroughly taped over.
Lyfantod had never seen inside, save for a glimpse past Marcher's head as they conversed briefly through a crack in the door, years ago. The quirky, paranoid editor hadn't even bothered to unhook the chain. On that occasion, as on this one, Lyfantod had thought it odd--unlikely even--that such a substantial publication could be produced in offices likely as small as his own. He was very, very curious to see inside.
Out of courtesy, he first tried knocking. He rapped his knuckles lightly against the door. There was no answer. He knocked again, more loudly this time, and called out, "Anyone in there? Marcher? It's Lyfantod!" A few flats down the hall, one half of a wrinkled, candy-floss-pink-haired head peeked out to regard him through one lens of a shockingly thick pair of coke bottle glasses. She vanished like a spotted prairie dog the moment he observed her scrutiny. From inside the offices of The Oracle, there was only silence.
Lyfantod tried the knob, but of course it was locked. He tried peering in the mail slot, but inside found only darkness. He considered his options. He could go home--try to find another angle from which to approach the case. He had no real indication that the missing copy of The Oracle was even connected to the trouble in the rest of the city. Just a hunch and a lack of any other ideas. He could go looking for Reginald Mus--prepared this time--and see if the zombie, odd as it was even as he thought it, might be convinced to lead him to whoever had raised him from the dead. He could search for Aminus Bones. If the man was really behind all this, it made sense to approach him directly. Except Lyfantod had only one solid idea of how to find Bones, and Moira McMorran was not interested in letting him do it.
And here he was, standing right at the doorstep of an ominously quiet Oracle. If his hunch was right, whatever lay behind this door might tell him everything he needed to know. At the very least, he thought guiltily, it would be enlightening. All it required of him was a little breaking and entering. So he took, as he chose to see it, the only useful path left open to him.
“I’m sure no one will mind…” he murmured, as he slid a lock pick and torsion wrench quietly into the key hole, peering around to make sure he was alone. To make sure that no little old ladies were peering out of quietly opened doors. That no footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs. That the little indicator lights above the out-of-service lift at the far end of the hall remained unlit. Thirty blessedly uneventful seconds later the door was open, and he was standing in a silent room drenched in shadow. He shut the door behind him and fumbled for the light switch. The office was empty. It was also a mess.
"So this is where the magic happens," Lyfantod said, looking around. It wasn't much to look at. In fact, he was a little disappointed. The room was about the same size as his office--which was to say small. But it felt a great deal smaller because there were five desks occupying it instead of one, each sporting a blocky grey computer monitor that his inexpert eye told him was probably about twenty years old; a food-stained keyboard; and an assortment of dirty coffee cups, dog-eared books, and stack upon messy stack of printed, annotated paper. There were five uncomfortable-looking swivel chairs, five waste bins, each filled to the brim with paper-wads and empty crisp bags, and the floors—where they weren’t covered in stacks of newsprint—were strewn with bits of trash, spent staples, and lost paperclips. He was almost certain he saw a cockroach skitter under one of the desks when he'd turned on the light "Clearly vacuuming isn't high on the list of priorities here."
Lyfantod traversed the turmoil to wander down the narrow hallway to the bedroom, the tiny bathroom, and the kitchen. The former was stuffed wall to wall with aging stacks of newsprint; the latter with snacks and a single sad six-pack of Irn Bru, minus one. That, and an industrial-sized bin of instant coffee. The bathroom was dirty, but given the state of the rest of the place, that was hardly telling. No clues, no Marcher, and nothing even remotely interesting. Lyfantod wandered back into the main room, frowning, hands on his hips.
He stood there for a moment, taking in everything in the hopes that something would jump out at him. Preferably figuratively. Nothing did. He sat down at the nearest desk, the chair creaking ominously beneath his weight. It was covered in story notes--many of which he recognized from previous articles--as well as a substantial layer of dust.
His nose twitched, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Lyfantod had allergies. The treacherous little particles he'd disturbed in his search wafted through the air around him. He scowled. He hated dust. And mold. Pollen was fine. But dust and mold ought to be outlawed. There must be a spell for it, he thought. He might have even come across one, once, in the housekeeping section of the paper. As he recalled, he could never get it to work.
"How do they work like this?" he muttered, pinching his handkerchief over his face and scouring one-handed through the pile of sloppy sheets. "And why are none of these stories less than... three years old?" He hadn't noticed it until that moment, but it was true. He had seen these articles before. He had seen all of them. There wasn't a single bit of information here he didn't recognize, if he thought about it. "Not a single new article? Don't tell me they moved and forgot to clean up."
But the age of the articles wasn't the only unusual thing about them. They were all of them stories which he had suspected to have a dubious relationship with the truth. An unlikely exposé about a trio of violent mermaid cults. An article detailing the benefits of sleeping with tourmaline in your ears. One of them was about the bloody Tooth Fairy, for god's sake. Nothing about the Guild, or City Council. Nothing on the Coven, or any of the numerous gangs who made the city their unfortunate home. "This isn't right..."
Lyfantod rose and took a few short steps to the next desk, and rifled through the papers there. More of the same. "Dust and fluff." The next two desks revealed nothing different. So he turned to the desk that he assumed must be Marcher's. It was larger than the others, and covered with a significantly larger pile of debris. It was also, he noted, marginally less dusty, particularly the seat of the chair--less dusty, but far more thoroughly powdered with suspicious orange crumbs. However, Lyfantod had but to examine two or three of the finger-print-covered sheets of paper amassed there to know that there was nothing to see.
The desk contained three drawers. A long, shallow one about the top, and two narrower, increasingly deep ones approaching the floor by Lyfantod's right knee. The top drawer was entirely empty, save for one thing: a worn brass letter opener, inlaid with scrimshaw or something like it. It depicted a hunter, with rifle and retriever, wading through shallow water and high grass in some idyllic place. Ordinary enough, though well used. Seeing it drew Lyfantod's attention to the wastebasket beside the desk. It was filled to overflowing with envelopes: stamped, sealed, torn open at one end, and discarded. Lyfantod picked three at random and scanned the names of the senders.
Gemma Wayne, Jemaine Dogwood, and Wendan Rime. Interesting. All three were writers for the paper with whom Lyfantod associated patent nonsense. Wayne was a traveling correspondent, a self-proclaimed expert in Christian symbology Abrahamic myth, and Arthurian legend--on a hunt for the Holy Grail which had now been going on for seventeen years and counting. Her envelope was postmarked, mystifyingly, from Perth, Australia. Dogwood wrote a column called World Mysteriology, though he was primarily interested in the Middle East and North Africa. He was a firm believer--a zealot really--in the teachings of Zecharia Sitchin, and most of his writing had to do with the Anunnaki and the lost planet Nibiru. Entertaining, but hardly credible. Lyfantod enjoyed his articles. Having the chance to study the ravings of a well-read madman, comforted by the knowledge that he could still recognize them as such, made him feel a little less guilty about some of his own more outlandish theories. And Wendan Rime called himself the Dragon Hunter. That alone was enough for Lyfantod to discount him entirely. Calder jokingly referred to him as Dragon Dundee. He was, as one might rightly guess, a creature hunter. His column detailed his exploits scouring the globe for the uncanny, the beastly, and the lost. Lyfantod had met him once, at Maggie's pub. He had a Bigfoot tattoo on his left bicep.
A pattern had emerged, solidifying in Lyfantod's mind and telling him, if not precisely what he needed to know, enough to know that he would not find it here. Nothing current. Nothing true. Nothing useful. This office must be a... decoy, or a blind. Wherever the real offices were, this was the address that Marcher would give anyone who he didn't like. Or didn't take seriously.
Lyfantod scowled. It didn't help that he'd simply found the address, printed on the back of every copy of the paper he'd ever received. It didn't help that, when he thought about it, considering the kind of things that The Oracle published on a regular basis, it made absolute sense for them to hide their true location. Haranguing attacks on mobsters. Tell-all exposés revealing shady goings-on at City Hall. Supposedly, the proprietary recipe of Eleanor's Extra Ominous Earl Grey--the most popular drink by far at The Twisted Birch Tea Room. It was supposed to be twice as effective as Bigelow for divination. Any one of them could get a person killed. Or worse. Put together, it really was a bit of a mystery that the place hadn't been razed to the ground at least once in its 200-plus year history. Then again, perhaps it had.
That wasn't the point. Lyfantod--Lyfantod was a loyal reader. He was an insider. A source! He paid £5 a week, God damnit! But apparently that didn't matter. When Lyfantod had asked Marcher to meet--offered him a scoop, even!--the man had sent him here. "Didn't even unlock the bloody chain," Lyfantod muttered, leaning back in the chair in a huff, arms crossed.
He sat that way, fuming, for some moments, before he realized that he still hadn't tried the other two drawers. The top one, he found, contained a half-finished bag of cheese snacks. Naturally. The bottom one was locked. "Oh," said Lyfantod, some of his anger fading. A locked drawer in a locked room? Alway a sign that something good must be inside.
He slid out of the chair into a crouch, fumbling for his lock picks. He had it open in less time than it had taken to do the door. The drawer slid open and Lyfantod found himself sorely disappointed--but not entirely surprised. He sighed. The contents of the locked drawer consisted of another six pack of Irn-Bru; a grey, checked fedora; and four unused throw-away mobile phones with prepaid minutes. He lifted up the embarrassing hat to see if anything was hidden underneath and jumped when something brown and furry fell out.
“Jesus Christ,” he growled, reaching down to pick up the false mustache: a thick handlebar that looked like a caterpillar. “What the hell, Marcher?” He stood and kicked the drawer shut. He didn't bother re-locking it. Let Marcher wonder. He shook his head. This place was a bust. It was rapidly approaching evening and he was not a whit closer to finding out who the hell had stolen Vodorov's ring.
It was time to go. He took one last, pointless look around the office from the doorway, and then stepped out into the hall, locking the door from the inside and letting it close behind him. He hadn't a bloody idea where to go next. He made for the stairs.
Too soon for a beer, he thought grimly. He was still feeling the effects of Calder's restorative whisky. That was the trouble of having your dessert before dinner. You didn't get to have it after. The kebab shop was doing brisk business now. It was dinner time, and the tables were full of tightly bundled folk of all backgrounds, enjoying a brief respite from the frigid air outside.
The bell tinkled as Lyfantod let himself out. Night had fallen and it was, of course, snowing. Perhaps that was what did it. The cold. It must have cleared his head. He stopped in his tracks and stood, mouth open, as snowflakes drifted onto his head and shoulders and pooled around his feet. He--No. "There couldn't possibly..." Could there?
Slowly Lyfantod turned. He walked back to the kebab shop. The bell tinkled as he let himself in, holding the door as it closed softly behind him. This time the man at the register was too preoccupied to notice. It might have been a different man entirely. Lyfantod was too distracted to care. A light-skinned man in a beanie glowered as Lyfantod walked between him and the screen in the corner. There was a game on. Lyfantod had no idea of either.
Lyfantod muttered to himself as he took the stairs, step by plodding step, back to the sixth floor. Things like, "...my imagination," and "obviously... losing my marbles." There was no doubt in his mind, as he climbed the final flight, what he would find at the top. A long, empty hallway, doors running down either side at intervals. A curry stain. And a blank, featureless wall at the other end. And yet. And yet...
Standing at the other end of the hall, as natural as could be, hung with a dainty, gold-foiled Out of Service sign from a delicate strand of pale twine, was a pair of lift doors. "I don't--" Lyfantod stared. He scrunched his eyes shut and opened them again. Sped back to peer down the staircase. This was the right building, wasn't it? "How can--"
Lyfantod jumped. Where--?
"Who..? I--" Oh. It was the little old lady from before, standing in her doorway, glaring at him, her hair still bound up in curlers.
"You don't live here," she said. It was an accusation.
"No," said Lyfantod, taking a few steps down the hall toward her. She eyed him warily, ready to pop back inside, lock the door, and call the police no doubt. He gestured toward number 9 with his thumb, "I'm looking for a friend, but he's not--" he shook his head, "--has that always been here?"
Her eyes, blown up to three times their actual size by the magnification of her lenses, narrowed. "Has what?"
Lyfantod nodded toward the end of the hall. "The lift."
"The--" she peered around her door to where he'd indicated. When she turned back, she was outright scowling. "There isn't any lift in this building," she said scathingly. "I should know. I have to traverse these accursed stairs every time I want to go outside--and again when I come back in! You've no idea the the havoc it wreaks on my poor back. You--you're taking drugs, aren't you?"
"What? No! Listen, wait a minute. You're telling me--you can't see it?" He took an involuntary step toward her.
"Don't come near me!" she shrieked, recoiling. "I'm calling the police!" She slammed the door shut and he heard the deadbolt slide home, then the chain. She shouted at him through the door. "If you're not gone by the time they get here, they'll lock you up for mischief! Go on now! Get! I'm going! Miscreant..." Her voice faded as she spoke, presumably going after the phone as promised.
Lyfantod considered knocking on her door, but she'd inevitably tell the police he was trying to break it down. He sighed, and grumbled. "It's not my fault lift are appearing out of bloody nowhere." Giving her door one last glance, he shuffled down the hall to give the offending object a closer look.
The lift was, plainly speaking, out of place. It didn't belong here. The style was, if Lyfantod had to guess, art deco. Each tall, shining brass door was graven with a ten-pointed shooting star, trailing rays of golden light above a stylized cityscape. Above the doors lay a semicircle of nine penny-sized white indicator lights. At the moment none of them were lit. Beside them, two small buttons in a rectangular setting. Up, and down.
Lyfantod reached out and touched the string from with the sign was hanging. It was real. He stretched past it to slide his fingertips across the doors themselves. They were smooth and cool to the touch. He bent down to peer up at the crack between the doors and their frame. A dark, thin line that told him nothing. He heard a noise behind him: the sound of a door opening, and a voice, mid-sentence. "--officer, he's still here. And he's--he's staring at a wall. I believe he's hallucinating. He might be daaiiyeee--!" Lyfantod turned to look back at her over his shoulder and quick as lightning she was back in the safety of her flat. He didn't have much time.
"Up or down?" he wondered aloud. If it even works. He pushed up. The little arrow lit, and for a moment nothing else happened. "It does say Out of Service," Lyfantod reasoned. "Probably--" Somewhere out of sight, a tiny bell dinged, and behind the string, the doors slid open. Giving the empty hallway one last pensive glance, Lyfantod ducked under the string, batted the placard out of the way, and stepped inside. The doors shut quietly behind him.
Inside, with the doors closed, Lyfantod was encased in silence--a silence that felt profound and somehow deeper than it ought to be. The sounds of the city in the background had vanished: the hum of engines and car horns; the buzz of distant music and heavy machinery that never quite registers on your conscious mind, but whose absence is as unsettling as a faraway scream.
The inside of the lift was worn, but plush. A threadbare red carpet, strewn with cigarette burns. Wood-paneled walls, and brass fixtures. Warm light diffused the small space from a bulbous white globe set into the ceiling, and ten small buttons in columns of five sat waiting in a panel beside the doors. Starting at the bottom left and going upwards, they began at B2 and ran to 7F. The last one was labeled Call. Their heads were polished to a sheen with use, save for the last two.
Lyfantod was, quite simply, confounded. Ignore, for a moment, the fact that the building was not supposed to have a lift, much less one that looked to have been made in the nineteen-twenties. A lift that apparently no one else could see. This building did not have seven floors. He was sure of it. Wasn't he?
He wondered in that moment if he'd made the wisest of decisions in climbing inside. But he had not gotten where he was in life by making safe choices. No. He'd become a destitute, alcoholic detective by following his gut, his instincts, and most dangerously, his curiosity. In the name of which, he reached out and experimentally pressed the button for the first floor. The lift lurched into motion and Lyfantod stumbled, catching himself against the wall with an outstretched hand. The oddest thing was, he could not for the life of him tell where he was going up or down.
The lift stop, and the light flickered. The doors slid open and Lyfantod... Lyfantod had not the faintest idea of where he was. Ever so slowly, ever so cautiously, he stepped forward and, looking left, then right, craned his neck to peer out into an empty room. It was a far cry from the place he'd been less than a minute ago. He could not decide whether it was an improvement.
On either side of him, inactive lifts that were almost certainly identical to his own. He crossed the small lobby to find a long hallway. A pair of ornate double-doors near to his left, a deserted reception desk far off to his right. Upon the desk sat a small folded sign that was too far away for him to read. The geometric type worked out in metal and affixed to the wall behind was plenty big, however. It read The Oracle.
"Well I'll be damned," Lyfantod said, and he stepped out into the cavernous lobby of a building which until this very moment he had had no idea even existed.