A THORNY SITUATION
Lyfantod stepped out into the empty lobby, the bottoms of his boots clicking loudly on the black-and-white checkered tiles. They had been polished, but not recently. "Hello?" he called tentatively. His voice echoed back to him off, the smooth, aging walls. They were tiled to look like green brick. No one answered him. Typical.
"Feels like I've wandered onto the set for the Wizard of Oz," Lyfantod murmured to himself. "Hail Marcher, the All Powerful." Indeed, the room did have a certain mood of mysticism about it. Mysticism wrapped in early twentieth-century design aesthetics. Ornate brass lamps were spaced evenly along the walls, providing light enough to see but not to read by. The ceiling, high above, was nearly lost to darkness. At the far end of the room though, behind the empty receptionist's desk, the entire wall gave off a soft yellow-white glow that cast faint, green-tinted shadows toward the doors.
Lyfantod, lacking options due to straightforward nature of the place, approached the desk. Up close, he was finally able to read the triangle-folded placard that sat atop it. It said, "Out to Lunch." From one top corner to the surface of the desk ran a frail spider's web. It too looked to have been long abandoned.
Frowning, Lyfantod leaned an elbow upon the black, veined marble desktop--dusty--and tapped his fingers against it thoughtfully. Unbidden and unobserved, the tapping worked its way into the intimation of a jig. Lyfantod's eyes wandered. The place seemed to be thoroughly deserted. For how long was hard to say. "Long lunch," he muttered. And then his eyes happened to chance upon a small door, hardly visible where it was, set back in a recess at the corner of the glowing back wall and the non-glowing green one. He wandered over to it.
Jiggling the knob, he quickly determined that the door was locked, but he didn't think there'd be anything inside of interest anyway. He was almost certain that it was a broom closet. This due to the fact that, in the middle of the door, in gold letters, was written the word, "Brooms."
"Fine," he said, narrating as he moved, "I'll just have to go back to the lift and take it up, stopping at every floor until I find someone. He did not observe, when he pressed the call button, gaze absently roving about the faded luxury of the lobby, that the little lights above the door indicated that the lift was already moving. That was all right. He would realize it soon enough.
The bell dinged, the doors opened, and Lyfantod casually stepped into the empty lift to find that it was not empty at all. In fact, it was so far from being empty as to have a person in it--a person upon whom Lyfantod very nearly tread. It was not wholly Lyfantod's fault. This person was shockingly, one might say unacceptably small.
His voice, however, was plenty loud. "Hey, now! Watch where ye're goin!"
"Oh!" said Lyfantod, backpedalling gracelessly into the doors which had at that very moment closed behind him. "I'm terribly sorry, er--"
"Yes," growled the minuscule man, several octaves too high for growling, "I'm sure you are. You humans. Never watch where your feet are going. Tell me, what's so bloody interesting up there in the clouds that you can't be bothered to look down?"
Lyfantod was entirely too startled to form a coherent reply. He was also too startled to notice when the lift began to move. All he managed was a wide-eyed, half-stuttered, "Y-you... you're--"
"In a hurry," replied the little fellow sourly, and fell silent. The top of his fuzzy, white-haired head came to the middle of Lyfantod's thigh. He wore bluish, slate-colored coveralls, a thick leather tool belt wrapped around his narrow waist, and he carried a long spanner in one wrinkled hand. He was covered head to toe in black smudges and stains. Grease, or ink, or both. Unlike the rest of him, his ears and nose were altogether too large to be proportional--being, as they were, considerably more considerable than Lyfantod's own. Despite his unusual size, however, and his undoubtedly less-than-human lineage, there was no arguing what he was: a surly old man.
The lift stopped, the bell dinged, and the doors came sliding open. This too came as a surprise to Lyfantod, because he had quite forgotten where he was. The chime alerted him, and he stepped aside as the mechanic--the gnomish mechanic?--pushed past him into the noise-filled room beyond. He did not have to go far, however. He had gone no more than a number of feet beyond the lift doors when he stopped, and a familiar voice, filled now with an emotion that sounded like it would land somewhere between exasperation and panic, said, "Moil, have you got--"
"No," replied the gnome--Moil. Emphatically. "I came up here to tell you that Alter is caught in the brambles again, and I need help getting him out."
Marcher cursed. "Addle!" he shouted. This was not as jarring as it might have been, because the room was already in a state of chaos. A gangly, awkward young man in a white button-up and green wool tweed necktie came hurrying over breathlessly, an overflowing manila folder tucked precariously on the inside of his elbow.
"Boss?" he huffed, looking at Marcher anxiously.
"Alter's gotten stuck again. Go down to the press room and help Moil cut him out." Addle nodded timorously while the gnome muttered under his breath that Marcher might lend him someone with a bit more meat on his bones. Marcher ignored his complaints and made for the lift. "Come on," he said impatiently. I was just going down there to look things over. I'll--"
It was that moment that Marcher, as oblivious as Lyfantod had been moments before, came nose to nose with the detective standing awkwardly in the lift, realizing for the first time that he was there. They blinked at one another through the fogging lenses of Marcher's polished browline glasses. "Lyfantod," Marcher hissed. "What the devil--?"
Lyfantod gave a little wave. "Hi Marcher."
"Who--how--?" While Marcher was sputtering, the four of them crammed into the lift and Moil, who looked like he didn't give a damn about any of them, mashed the button for the basement. Marcher, professionally dressed in a checked suit and striped tie, had turned a funny color. His drooping belly strained lightly on the buttons of his pressed white shirt, visible beneath his jacket; and his trousers, nicely tailored, still looked like they might burst if he bent over too far or too quickly. Lyfantod, who could not help himself, surreptitiously checked his fingers for orange powder. He could find none.
Marcher held up a thick, quivering finger, directly before Lyfantod's face, close enough that the detective's eyes had to go a little crossed to follow it, and hissed, "I--do not have time for you right now." Lyfantod blinked, and they arrived at the basement, upon which Marcher turned and stomped out of the lift into an entirely different sort of chaos.
Moil the gnome hurried after him, followed by Addle, looking highly uncomfortable, and finally Lyfantod, who was considering allowing his eyes to jump out of his head.
The room he found himself was tall, dark, and cavernous, with walls of crumbling red brick and a utilitarian ground concrete floor, and it was occupied by two equally large, equally impressive things, which vied for his undivided attention. The first was a printing press. It was a towering, tumbling complication of steel rollers and toothy cogs; of beams, and supports; of belts, and trays; of lights, and buttons--covered in black stains, and held together, in places, by medical tape. It looked to have been in full swing--for there was a long stream of uncut broadsheet trailing out of it onto the floor.
The second object, which under any other circumstances would have easily taken the prize for Most Interesting Thing in the Room, was a frighteningly large tangle of very sharp, very thick-looking brambles. And caught up in them, some two or three meters off the ground, was a harassed-looking, stained coverall-wearing, grey-haired man with wrinkled, coffee-colored skin.
Marcher stopped beneath him and craned his neck upwards. "Jesus Alter," he said.
"It grew." Alter replied.
"I can see that." Marcher rubbed his forehead. Addle looked pale. Moil looked angry. Lyfantod went to stand next to them, gazing up at the unfortunate mechanic.
"What happened?" Lyfantod asked.
Marcher ground his teeth and didn't look at him, but eventually did answer. "The Thorne," he said shortly. "Or more specifically, Barmecide bloody Coombs."
"What did you do to make him so angry?"
Marcher shot him a look. "Our jobs."
"Meaning," interrupted Moil, "that one of his little flies on the wall got caught skulking around a private party."
"It wasn't a party," said Marcher. "It was a secret ritual devoted to Aar the Erne--"
"Wait, what's an Erne?" said Lyfantod.
"It's a sea eagle," answered Marcher irately, "But this one is really, really big, and possibly a God of some sort. In any case, we were found out, through no fault of our own--"
"Because," replied Marcher, obviously unhappy with the constant interruption, "the party--that is, the secret ritual--was crashed by a horde of fucking zombies."
"Language," called Alter from his unwilling perch, speaking for the first time since they'd arrived.
"Right," muttered Marcher, to Lyfantod's surprise, glancing back at the elder man, "sorry." he continued. "The zombies started to attack the Thorne, and our reporter had the sorry luck to wind up right next to old man Coombs himself. The nutty old bag of bones caught on pretty quickly that he wasn't one of his acolytes, and it was only thanks to the raving mob of undead that he got out of there at all."
"Dropped 'is bloody press badge, though," explained Moil, his tone bitter.
Marcher sighed and nodded agreement. "Coombs brought it back," he said. "And while he was in the neighborhood, he decided to teach us a lesson about prying into Thorne business."
"Hence," concluded Alter, "our current predicament."
"I still don't know how he found the place," said Marcher, shaking his head. "Which reminds me. Lyfantod, how in the bloody hell did you get in here?"
"Language!" reminded Alter. Marcher, who had his back to the man, rolled his eyes.
Lyfantod shrugged. "I just took the lift."
"You t--" Marcher closed his eyes. He appeared to be counting to ten. "You could see that?"
"Yeah," said Lyfantod. "That unusual?"
"It shouldn't be possible," said Marcher. "Something to do with Coombs maybe... some residual magic." He tugged at his hair. "I don't have the faintest idea how to fix that..."
"If it's any consolation," Lyfantod said, "your neighbor didn't seem to be able to see it. She thought I was on drugs. She called the police."
"That's something," he muttered sourly. Marcher groaned, an animal sound of frustration. "There are too many things on my plate right now. I don't have time for all of this! Where do I start? Wh--"
"Might I suggest," said Alter, "that you start with getting me down from here? This mess has grown a good five centimeters since you all got here. I'd rather not end up on the ceiling."
Marcher nodded. "Right. Addle! Okay, you over there... Moil, we need sharp things. Or heavy things. One, two, three, four of them..."
It took some doing, and all of them got scratches--and they had to stop to untangle Addle when he got himself caught in the thorns--but eventually, with a great deal of hacking and smashing, the four of them managed to return poor Alter to the ground. The old mechanic dusted himself off and turned to stare up at the press. He shook his head slowly and a low whistle escaped from his lips. "Don't know how we're going to fix this," he said. "Not in time for next edition, anyhow."
"Barmecide Coombs is a real--" Marcher began, with heat. Alter leveled at him a single raised eyebrow. "Right," grumbled the weary editor. "Language."
"Question," called Lyfantod, who had wandered over to the accumulation of uncut newsprint on the floor and picked it up to read. It was not every day that one got the chance to see the news before everybody else did. "Why do Zombies Hate Fun?"
"What?" said Marcher irritably, too overwrought to properly follow along.
"Oh," said Addle. "That's because they keep attacking at parties. We thought that it would be an eye-catching headline; or really--"
"Parties?" repeated Lyfantod, turning toward the young reporter. "What do you mean?"
"Not parties," corrected Marcher sternly. "Gatherings."
"The difference being..."
"Do parties usually involve the summoning of giant eagle Gods?"
Lyfantod considered this, which angered Marcher even further.
"Look," said Marcher, holding up his tightly clenched fist, thumb out for counting. "You know about the Thorne, right? That's just the first--after that there was the pub in Cramond--"
"Cramond," interrupted Lyfantod, "what were they doing all the way out there?"
"It's a favorite hangout of the Mountain Men," said Marcher. "From what I gather, it happened at around two in the morning and all of them were completely pished. It was a blood bath."
"Christ," Lyfantod breathed.
"Then there was the business luncheon at the Hilton, and--"
"They attacked a business lunch?" spurted Lyfantod. "How did I not--I thought they were only attacking, you know... not-normal people!"
"It was a lunch hosted by the Nightshade Gang," explained Marcher, "or as they refer to themselves in public," he added ironically, "the Solanum Corporation."
"Was anyone killed?"
"Oh plenty," nodded Marcher. "Still deciding how I feel about it."
"I have to say," said Lyfantod, "a business luncheon at the Hilton doesn't scream fun to me."
Marcher scowled. "You try writing a bloody headline. Anyway, it gets the point across. Whoever is controlling these zombies is attacking large gatherings, which means--"
"Which means," Lyfantod rode over him excitedly, "that we can predict where he's going to strike next!"
"Yeah," said Marcher. "We've already figured it out. I've got a reporter and a photographer on the scene already. Undercover of course."
"What!" shouted Lyfantod. "This is exactly the break in the case I needed! Marcher, where? When?" Lyfantod had to restrain himself from grabbing the portly editor by his perfectly pressed collar and shaking him.
"I'm not sure that I should--"
"People are dying out there, man! The Guild hasn't been able to stop it and I--"
"You?" asked Marcher incredulously. "If the Guild can't stop this, what makes you think that you can do anything to help?"
"Because I know something the Strawmen don't."
Marcher's eyes glinted dangerously. "Oh?"
"No." Lyfantod shook his head emphatically, "I can't. Not now, anyway."
"Come now, Lyfantod," Marcher wheedled. "Fair's fair."
"Client confidentiality. But listen, when this is all over, and--"
"When it's all over?" cried Marcher. "What good will it do me then?
"What good will it do you now?" asked Lyfantod, looking pointedly toward the disaster that was The Oracle's printing press.
If steam had come out Marcher's ears at that moment, no one would have been surprised.
"If you help me," said Lyfantod, "you'll be able to say you were in on it. Real active journalism. Could be big publicity. Reporting from the Oracle saves City! How's that for a headline?"
Marcher scowled at him. "Don't think I buy that for one minute," he said. "But fine. I'll do the, the--the right thing. Because that's what kind of person I am." He paused. "But don't get used to it."
Lyfantod grinned. This seemed to be almost too much for Marcher. He turned and stared up at the distressing snarl of steel and briar that was his livelihood. "The Moon Boys," he said.
"The Moon Boys?" Lyfantod blinked, and somewhere in his stomach, something sank.
"Yeah. They have a meeting tonight, at 7:30. At a coffee shop in, in--blast, where was it?"
"The Moon Boys?" Lyfantod repeated a second time, testing the sound of it. "Are you... entirely sure?"
"That's right," said Marcher, turning back to face him. "It makes sense. Gathering of supernaturals, in a public place. It all fits."
Lyfantod frowned. "But... they aren't violent."
"They're werewolves, Lyfantod!"
"Of course they are. But from what I hear, they're also very..." Lyfantod struggled for the word. "Reasonable."
"How do you mean?" asked Marcher, and Lyfantod had the sense the man was being deliberately obtuse.
"I mean. They're not really a gang..."
"Oh? Then what are they?"
"More of a--err. Support group?"
"They're violent criminals," Marcher declared, "and they're meeting tonight, at 7:30, at a coffee shop in... in..."
"Oh bugger! Come on! The information is written down in my office. The sooner I get you out of my hair and into theirs the better." Marcher marched toward the lift, and it was plain that Lyfantod could either follow him or go to hell. Lyfantod chose to follow. As the lift doors closed around them, Marcher shouted at the remaining trio: "You lot, get this mess taken care of! Tonight!"
Scowling, Marcher led Lyfantod, whose eyes were wide and shining, through the tumultuous newsroom. Like the Red Sea before Moses, frightened writers parted before the ire of their stocky employer, and given the state of his mood, Lyfantod would not have found it odd if the desks had made way for him as well.
The room was wide and low-ceilinged, and it looked exactly as Lyfantod might have imagined it. Desks everywhere. Swivel chairs. Masses of paper, all a-jumble. Men and women dressed in pressed shirts and formal suits hurried to and fro, pencils tucked behind their ears next to cigarettes, engaging in hurried conversations or dodging out of each others' way without acknowledgment. It was wonderful.
Lyfantod didn't have long to gawk, however. Marcher quickly led him into a small, shadowy room occupied by a single desk, messier than all the others, three chairs, and a frightening number of filing cabinets. Remarkably, Marcher swept a hand through the disarray and in a single deft move retrieved a little black notebook not dissimilar to Lyfantod's own. He flipped through the pages at rapid-fire pace until he came upon what he was looking for. "There you are, you little bastard," he growled. He shoved the note under Lyfantod's nose. "There," he said. "Here's your lead."
The hastily scrawled note read: "M. Boys. 7:30. Tycho's. Pilton."
"There you have it," Marcher said. "Bloody Pilton."
But Lyfantod wasn't listening. He was staring past Marcher's outstretched hand, toward something he'd half-uncovered in extricating his notebook from his desk. It was black, blue, white, and red, and it said "One Night Only."
"What's this?" Lyfantod said, reaching out to grasp the oversized print. He held it up. Three young, attractive women sat or leaned atop what appeared to be a severed giant's head. Its blood ran down a flight of steps to spell out the words "The Rose Buds."
"Oh that?" said Marcher. "It's some event flier for a punk group... Lot of noise if you ask me."
"The Weird Sisters," Lyfantod read. The girls were posing before a shadowy building in the Greek Revival style. That was the name inscribed at the top, below a triangular frieze depicting three warrior women holding spears and round shields. "Tonight. But there's no date. Is tonight tonight? Where is this place?" Lyfantod didn't know why, but something about this poster called out to him.
Marcher growled. "I don't know why you're bothering with that." He shook the notepad. "This is where they're going to be. And it's already after 7:00. You haven't got time to be fooling around. If you don't get over to Pilton--"
"This," insisted Lyfantod, holding up the flier, "I want to know about this."
"Fine!" Marcher snapped. He tore the flier from Lyfantod's outstretched hand and stomped over to his office door. "Hey!" he shouted at the office in general, engendering turned heads across the spacious room. "Who can tell me about this poster?"
"That's for a benefit show over at the Weird Sisters," said a woman in a grey skirt. "It's for a vegan charity. It's being hosted by the Daughters of Hecate."
"When the hell is it?"
"Tonight, actually. I was going to head over... It starts at eight."
Marcher slowly turned to look at Lyfantod. They were both of them thinking the same thing. "I've got to go," Lyfantod said. "This is it. This is it!"