AN UNLIKELY GATHERING
After his fateful encounter with the Strawmen in the graveyard, Lyfantod didn't go straight home. Though his body was bone tired, his mind was alive with possibilities. It was after midnight when they parted ways, and he was shivering despite his burns. There was water in his boots from melted snow, and the backs of his trousers were soaked through. His lungs stung with nonexistent heat even as his extremities tingled with cold. In spite of all that, he walked--and he wandered, his mind wandered with him. He thought about the case of course, but also about other things. About what Barrows School might be like. About music. And blue-white fire. The mystery of Aminus Bones. The missing Reginald Mus. Death. And Life. And Resurrection. When he finally got home it was after three in the morning. He took another hot shower--his second of the day--and went to bed.
When he woke it was still early. He was a bit stiff and still tired, but he found himself incapable of sleeping any longer. He was restless. Eager to start the day. And there was a great deal to do. A willing slave to ritual, he began as he always did with breakfast and the paper. There was nothing new relevant to the case, which left him with a tinge of disappointment, but nonetheless he read the Oracle from cover to cover, though it took him the better part of an hour. Except for an intriguing ad for a Zombie Repellent called Reluctant Revenant on sale at the Adder's Fork Apothecary, the rare articles he thought he could believe seemed trivial in the face of his new, exciting case. Zombies. Necromancers!
It wasn't that Lyfantod was uninitiated to the supernatural--far from it. It was just that there was so much to learn, so much to see. He had never encountered one of the Undead until now, if you didn't count ghosts, and with good reason. From what he could gather--reliable information on the occult being about as common as jellyfish bones--there had been a concerted effort a little over a hundred years ago to wipe the knowledge of how to raise the dead from the face of the Earth. Or at least Western Civilization. That might explain why the first Necromancer he'd met was Russian, not English.
It seemed that no matter how many times he discovered something new, it was always just as thrilling. It reaffirmed, over and over again, his sense that the world, the Universe even, was more vast, more mysterious than he could ever know in a single lifetime. He wasn't sure that he believed in God--at least not any one God--but perhaps there was something like salvation. That gave him hope. And his quest for the unknown, that gave him purpose. As long as he continued to be surprised, as long as there were still mysteries to pursue and knots to unravel, no matter how close the darkness inside him came bubbling up toward the surface, he believed he could carry on. The past would stay the past, and even if there were things that could never be changed, well... he could stand to live with that. And with himself.
Lyfantod subscribed to the conventional newspaper as well—a locally headquartered and far less interesting publication called The Scotsman. He often wondered if the delivery boys for The Scotsman and The Oracle ever crossed paths in the early morning hours, and if they did, what they thought of it. Much of the news in the former was national, and all of it mundane, but what little local news there was had started to reflect a vague public understanding of what Lyfantod already knew all too well. Bad things were going on in the city.
Public drunkenness and "the marijuana" were being blamed for the recent spate of broken windows and smashed windshields around Newington—though no one could explain the melted pavement. Someone had found a severed, tattoo-covered hand lying in the snow in Holyrood Park. It was being kept on ice, the article reported. Police were saying if the owner came forward in a timely fashion, they might still able to reattach it.
Several paragraphs were given over to speculation about the numerous reported glimpses of strange, dangerous looking folk. A Mr. Ralphies of Craigentinny described the group of men who'd trashed his pub thusly: “Bunch of rowdies who watched Braveheart one too many times and can't hold their liquor. Covered head to toe in Celtic ink and animal skins, with face-paint to boot. In this cold, I can’t for the life of me figure out how their [omitted] didn’t shrivel up and fall off, but I can assure you they aren't bloody welcome at the Rusty Pipe.”
There was a description of a cellphone video, available for viewing on the paper’s website—and which ended abruptly when the camera was hit violently and unexpectedly from the side—of two gangs of feral children having a very heated row in the middle of the street. Things escalated when one of the boys, dressed like a Newsie from the turn of the century, threw what appeared to be a live snake through the air at the other group, and no one could figure out where it had come from. The screen capture printed with the article was grainy at best.
All in all, there was nothing concrete enough that it couldn’t be written off or explained away--two things which people were excellent at doing in the face of things that didn't fit their world view--but the truth was clearly bubbling closer to the surface than ever. The Guild must have been beside themselves.
Breakfast accomplished, Lyfantod left his flat made his way to New Register House, where they kept the National Records, to look for birth certificates. The building itself was a work of art, built over a hundred and fifty years ago in the Italianate style, dominated by an enormous book-lined dome. Lyfantod sought out a docent, and found a bored looking twenty-something with peach fuzz whose name tag announced that his name was Carlton. When Lyfantod asked his help with the computer system, it garnered him a raised eyebrow. He was young enough and not-homeless-looking enough that he was expected to be capable of using computers on their own. But Lyfantod had a thing about technology.
With Lyfantod peering at the dated screen from five or six feet away--just to be safe--Carlton, provided with a name and a date, quickly found what he was looking for: a birth certificate for Reginald Mus, dated December 24, 1975. The search results also offered up something that he did not expect. Reginald Mus had had an older sister, born almost two years earlier in 1974. On January 13th. The same day that Reginald was to die, seventeen years later.
And now, on the anniversary of her birth and his death, Aminus Bones had disappeared as well. The events began to form a web wrought with portentous significance, though what it meant Lyfantod hadn’t the faintest idea. Perhaps, he could not help but think, a surprise birthday party gone terribly awry?
When Carlton returned with the paper copies that Lyfantod had requested, he was carrying other documents as well. He was, Lyfantod thought, unexpectedly helpful, considering the fact that his quietly pained demeanor screamed, “I would rather be anywhere but here. If you would please shoot me, just to break up the day a little, that would be fantastic.”
According to the additional records, in 1981 both children had become wards of the state. Reginald would have been five, his sister Cornelia seven. There was no indication of what had happened to their mother, Constance Odelia, who was the only parent listed on either birth certificate. It seemed they had been sent to separate orphanages. Reginald to a place called Borey Parrish. Cornelia to Ophelia’s Home for Girls.
It seemed that with rare good fortune, though they were living separately, they had been enrolled together at Broomhouse Primary School in the city—until they reached the age of twelve. There was no record of either of them after that. They seemed to vanish, one after the other--at the same age, despite the two year difference. Lyfantod couldn't fathom the reason. If someone had come for them, their missing father for example, or some distant relative, they would have moved together. But this...? Deeply puzzled and just as intrigued, Lyfantod searched for over an hour, but found nothing further. He couldn't even find a death certificate for Reginald, though he'd seen the boy's grave with his own two eyes.
Worried about wasting too much daylight before completing all of his necessary tasks, he eventually gave up on the national records and he went to check the City Archives, held a few blocks away in a building on High Street. It was there that he would find evidence of enrollment in organizations, clubs, business licenses; exciting things like that. Nosing around the Archives had afforded him valuable information on more than one occasion in the past. His search for Reginald came up empty. There was no record of him at all. His sister however, had filed for business and liquor licenses a few years after his death. She had made herself into the sole proprietress of a nightclub, it seemed—and as the licenses had all been kept up to date, it was reasonable to assume that she was still in the city. The name of the place was Eroteme, a word which Lyfantod, in all of his many years had never before encountered. He wondered what on earth it meant.
It was around two in the afternoon when he fell upon this fortunate little nugget, and he had agreed to meet Flint and Monroe at five, which meant he had time to kill. His stomach grumbling in complaint, he decided against stopping for lunch, and grabbed a peanut butter-flavored protein bar--not bad, a bit chalky--from the nearest corner store, and made use of the time to pay a visit to Cornelia Mus. In the life of a detective, taste and nutritional thoroughness are often the casualties of getting things done.
He hailed a cab and gave the driver the address of the club. The automatic door closing behind him, he sank into his seat and watched the city go by through the warmth-fogged glass of the window. The cabby stopped the car in an unfamiliar, and, for the moment at least, entirely deserted part of town. Lyfantod paid, and levered himself out of his warm seat and onto the sidewalk litter-strewn. The driver, a wrinkled old Scot with a particularly hairy mole above his right eyebrow, gave him a wink and brisk nod and zoomed off to find his next fare. As his only obvious means of escape disappeared around a corner, Lyfantod realized with a sinking feeling in his stomach that there was no sign of a club anywhere. The feeling did not get on well with the peanut butter.
Has it been closed after all? he wondered. The address he’d given was right. It matched up with those on the buildings around him, but he could find no sign of Eroteme written anywhere. He stood there, confounded and cold, for several minutes before his gaze rose and fell upon a large and unlit neon question mark. It hanging over a big corrugated iron shutter, covered with its fair share of graffiti. Aha, thought Lyfantod, mentally beating himself. The thing about nightclubs is, during the day, they turn back into frogs. Hm. That might have been a mixed metaphor. Nonetheless.
He knocked and waited. Nothing. He pounded on the door with the back of his fist. He was met with only silence. He took out his truncheon and whapped the thing with it, shouting, "Cornelia Mus!" but no one came. He left a dent. It was clear enough what had happened here. There was no one home. Lyfantod kicked the door, sending a thin metallic echo ringing out across the empty block, and then, feeling a little ashamed of himself, took a surreptitious glance to see if anyone had noticed.
It is a nightclub, he admonished. Perhaps if I came back at night. It was also a Monday. I hope I don't have to wait around till bloody Friday to get ahold of her, he thought. Who knows how many brains will've been devoured by then?
He turned away from the club and stood glumly at the edge of the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, staring at nothing. He was beginning to regret letting that cabby go. Poor planning, that. He considered searching out a payphone to summon another, but in the end his light pocketbook and his impatience convinced him to walk to the Mammoth House instead, despite the fact that it was the better part of seven kilometers away. Perhaps he would have some revelation by the time it was time to meet the Flint and Monroe.
He walked slowly, and his trip took longer than expected. His thoughts drifted and colored grey like the cold Scottish sky. Things were not going according to plan. Without this lead, the Strawmen were going to think he didn't know anything. Which, if he was being perfectly honest with himself, was rather close to the truth. Sure, he knew about Vodorov--but he couldn't tell the Strawmen about him, and it wouldn't do him any good if he did. Having all of your leads come looking for you doesn't make you appear very competent as a detective. It makes you look lucky. Lucky is good if you're a poker player. Or a raccoon, that finds someone forgot to do the latch on the chicken coop. Left the lid off the garbage can. As a P.I.? Nobody respects a lucky P.I. Especially not the cops.
The thing is, he was sure that this Mus thing was a lead. The dead kid's name had been written in Bones' schedule for god sake! The fact that Lyfantod had found him without knowing that--that had to count for something. Nobody knew that he'd been told to follow the bodies, and nobody had to either. Now, whether the sister was involved or not, that was another question entirely. There were a lot of years and a lot of life between Reginald and Cornelia--and a fair amount of death to boot. It was possible that they hadn't seen or heard from one another since she was twelve. But he would never know unless he got the chance to bloody ask her. Bugger.
It was nearly five by the time he arrived at the cafe, and he was in a right foul mood when he did. Previous experience told him that it was probably his empty stomach as much as his circumstances that were making him testy, so he did the adult thing and ordered a sandwich along with his cup of coffee and sat down to wait. The Strawmen would forgive him a sandwich. Or they wouldn't. Bugger them if they didn't.
It was busy. The place was passing popular with locals, but in recent years it was the tourists who flocked there in droves that kept the doors open. Some writer had penned her fiction there, twenty years ago. Lyfantod liked the place, but he wished he didn't so often have trouble finding a seat.
At five fifteen, when there was no sign of Flint or Monroe, he started to worry. At five thirty, his plate was long picked clean, and his third cup of coffee sat, half-drunk and luke warm on the table before him. They haven't stood me up. He attempted to read, telling himself they would show eventually. He always carried a book with him. Just for this sort of occasion. This time it was a collection of short stories about a fictional detective much like himself, though a bit less grounded in reality.
At precisely six o’clock—he’d been staring at the second hand on his watch—having waited for more than an hour, he gave up. Something has gone wrong, he decided. It was either that or believe that they'd played him. By the time he was out of his chair he already knew where he was going. Consequences be damned.
This time when he entered the long and winding tunnel that led to the Straw House’s front door, it wasn't dark, which saved him a great deal of time and effort muddling around with his fingers bumping into things. Nor was it empty. Lyfantod had to flatten himself against the wall as a trio of sword-wielding Guildsmen ran past him through the torch-lit hallway without a word. The expressions on their faces were grim, and not a one of them spared him even a glance. Before long he was approaching the entryway. He could hear the familiar voice of O’Hoolihan shouting crossly through the timber. The door burst open before him and four more Strawmen bustled out—assuming, he supposed, that if he was there, he was meant to be. They paid him no heed either.
Lyfantod managed to catch the handle before the door closed, and once inside found the old desk sergeant sitting at his post looking supremely uncomfortable. As if someone had placed a porcupine on his stool and forbidden him removing it. His expression darkened even further when he saw Lyfantod, if such a thing was possible. “Lyfantod. You could not possibly have worse tim—”
He was interrupted as the far doors came banging open to admit a crowd impressive--and entirely mismatched--looking men. “…you agree, Small. We all get our time with Bones,” one was saying. An older man with slick black hair, greying at the temples. Handsome in an immaculate charcoal grey suit. He had a faint Italian accent, and Lyfantod recognized him immediately from pictures he’d seen in the Oracle. Buccio Di Marco.
The man he was addressing was Garrick Small, who cut an imposing figure himself. Older than Di Marco, his short cropped hair had all gone to silver. A sliver hung down his forehead above steely grey eyes. He was tall at over six-two, had a square jaw that could cut stone, and despite his age, his broad frame strained at the shoulders of his long dark Guildsman's coat. There was a claymore at his hip, unadorned but effective.
Two other men stood out in the already unusual bunch. One wore a long robe the color of fresh pine needles, embellished with arcane symbols in silver and gold thread, and a tall pointed hat which screamed Sorcerer in the most stereotypical way. He had long white hair and was built like a scarecrow. The other dwarfed everyone else in the room, half a head taller than even Small. His too-wide shoulders were draped with what appeared to be a bear skin, which covered him almost to the tips of his brown leather boots. He had long, wavy brown hair that framed a bloodless face painted with savage blue markings. Lyfantod didn't know these two by sight, but he could guess who they were by reputation. The Sorcerer was Barmecide Coombs, the leader of the Thorne; and the giant was Angus, chief of the Mountain Men.
Each man had brought his own henchmen to the meeting that was clearly just ending. A trio of Shades stood behind Di Marco, faces impassive in their pressed Italian suits. Angus was flanked by two of his own bearded, painted barbarian-punks—perhaps the same that had trashed Mr. Ralphies’ pub—and another green-robe stuck to Coombs, his lower rank evident in his youth and its relative simplicity. Several tense-looking Strawmen trailed Small, hands never far from their weapons, but never exactly reaching for them either. They were doing their best to project an aura of authority and nonchalance, but they were failing. All of them looked jumpy, as if they were afraid that violence could erupt at any moment. Lyfantod couldn't blame them. They were probably right. The leaders of three of the most dangerous gangs in the city, all of them blood-sworn enemies, gathered here in their stronghold.
Something caught Lyfantod’s eye. A tiny spark of lightning played between the fingers of the lesser Thorne, a black-haired, middle-aged fellow, nearly as ugly as his master, who was eying the Guildsmen with malice. Lyfantod didn't know how the elder man sensed it, but even as he watched, Coombs’s wrinkled eyes narrowed and his hand shot out, clapping his flunky on the ear with a loud smack that nearly doubled him over. “Don’t embarrass me!” he shrieked, his voice shrill and crow-like. The lightning vanished.
Angus’s mighty frame rose and fell a few times before Lyfantod realized that he was laughing--a deep sound that reverberated throughout the suddenly claustrophobic room. “Haven’ trouble keepin’ yer boys en line, ey Barmy?” he said smiling, in a heavy Highland lilt.
“Mind your manners, Angus, before I teach them to you!” snapped Coombs.
The Mountain Men reached for the hand-axes at their hips, but Angus raised a plate-sized hand and they relaxed. He continued to smile.
Garrick Small cleared his throat loudly. “I have your word, gentlemen, that you will stop this public violence until the man responsible is caught. None of us wants the attention it draws.” His hand was resting on the hilt of his sword, though he made no move to draw it.
“I’ll keep my men in line, Small, as long as you keep your part of the bargain,” Di Marco said. “We get our time with Bones as soon as you’ve got him in hand. If we find him first? Well…”
“If you find him first, you’ll share,” rasped Coombs. “We all get a turn.”
“D’nae worry, Barmy. We’ll save ya a piece.”
“Until then, try to keep from killing each other,” said Small.
“The Mount’n Men promise nae t’draw first blood,” said Angus in his booming voice. “Ef we’re offered violence we’ll respond in kind.”
“That won’t be an issue.” Small let his piercing gaze rest on each of the men there in turn. Not a one of them flinched.
“Then we’re done here,” said Coombs impatiently. “There’s no need to waste any more of each other’s time. Or continue to endure the smell.” He wrinkled his beak-like nose.
Di Marco nodded. “Let’s go,” he nodded to his men, and as a group they started for the door. Lyfantod stepped aside to let them pass, and they ignored him to a man, paying him no more mind than a piece of furniture.
The Strawmen stood silent with their hands on their weapons until the door swung shut behind the last of them. At which point Small finally noticed Lyfantod standing next to it. His face, already dark, turned two shades closer to purple. “…Lyfantod,” he rumbled. “What in the bloody hell are you doing in my Hall?”
Lyfantod forced his most charming smile. “Hello there Small,” he said brightly. “You know me too well to ask that. I’m here to help!”