“And that,” Nestor Pinkly said, “is why friendship and joy are the most valuable resources even in a capitalist economy.”
“I think you misunderstood,” the golem replied. “I said gold is the most important thing to me because my body is actually made of it.”
“That was a lovely speech, though,” the golem’s boyfriend added. “Even if it did last a quarter of an hour. So, thank you for that.”
“My pleasure!” Nestor said, saluting the pair. “I hope you two have a wonderful day.”
“Can we get to the bank now, Nestor?” Karessa Plunderton asked. “People are staring.”
Indeed, the gnome had suddenly led the halfling into a crowded restaurant when he’d heard the golem suggest that gold was the most important thing in the world. His sermon had attracted the ire of many a diner whose breakfast had been disturbed.
“Oh,” Nestor said, tapping his cane nervously. “Yes, of course. Apologies, everyone! I was just trying to help what I thought was a very confused person, but it seems as though he’s perfectly fine. Resume your mornings in peace!”
“Do you always do stuff like that?” Karessa asked, back on the road to the bank. Autumn was waning, and the morning was cold. “I know you like to help people, but some people might find that kind of…rude.”
“How can helping someone be rude?”
“Maybe they won’t see it as helpful.”
“Never been a problem before,” he said. “All it takes is an hour or two with good ol’ Nestor Pinkly and even the sourest grape will be smiling like the Grinning Gristlegoats of Gantmarkiva.”
“Do you just make these places up?” Nestor looked offended by the suggestion. “So there’s never been anyone whose mood you haven’t been able to brighten? Maybe you just avoid the chronically sad.”
“But those are the folks in most need of cheer!” Nestor said. “I would never avoid them. But, to tell the complete truth, there are two people whose hearts are beyond repair.” Karessa nodded with interest. “One, I must keep secret, out of respect for their privacy, but the other – actually, how much have I told you about my days on the surface?”
“Not a lot. You were part of some kind of circus troupe?”
“Oh, I wish! Not that I didn’t like the family I got, I’ve just always loved the circus so much. Especially the cotton candy and the giant lizards.
“No, we were performers of all spots and stripes. My mother and father were dancers, but there were musicians, actors, contortionists, shapeshifters – everything you could want, really! I myself was a magician; the kind that doesn’t use real magic.”
“This sounds a lot like a circus,” Karessa said.
Nestor tilted his head. “But there was no tent. Or cotton candy. Or giant lizards. Well, whatever we were, we were wonderful! Growing all the time, and bringing joy to the people of Penscarop wherever they needed it. I still remember the name and face of everyone who ever traveled with us, and though I haven’t seen them in years, I consider them my dear friends.
“Except, there was one person, a fellow gnome named– wowzer!”
“Wowzer? That’s an interesting name.”
“No, no, Karessa, look!”
Just outside the gate protecting the extensive, well-tended garden of the bank was a wheeled cart with a gently cycling tube built into its center, tossing about a pink, blue, and green concoction of what was certainly cotton candy.
“It’s a miracle!”
“Wow, people don’t usually get so excited,” said Tabitha Darklhom, the half-dryad cart attendant. “What can I get you?”
Nestor pondered the rhetorical question for a moment (rhetorical because the cart sold precisely one thing). “Do you have the stuff with actual cotton in it?”
Tabitha laughed uncertainly. She was unfamiliar with gnome eating habits, which could sometimes be a tad unconventional. “Yep, we got it,” she said. “Color preference?”
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to have three tubes?” Karessa asked as Tabitha meticulously separated the pink candy from the rest.
“Jerun Pollin is a…frugal individual,” Tabitha explained. “Here you are, Nestor.”
“So you actually work for the bank?”
“Oh, yes,” Tabitha said. “Al’s Chemy didn’t really plan out due to a disagreement regarding what is meant by ‘poor attendance.’ And besides, have you ever heard the word of Rohypnar, Eternal Lord of the Stars, the Sky, the Sea, the Earth, and All That Ever Was or Will Be?”
“Sounds like more than one word,” Karessa muttered under her breath.
“No, can’t say I have.”
“Well she’s so fascinating, and Jerun was telling me all about her. If you have a moment –”
“We should probably get going, actually,” Karessa said. “We’re in a hurry, right, Nestor?”
“Mmph,” Nestor agreed, heartily consuming the candy. “Strange, I don’t really taste the cotton,” he added as the pair entered the impressive, oversized doors of the bank. “Must be a different recipe than I’m accustomed to.”
The First Bank of Skymoore, Also Called the Last Bank of Seamoore, Formerly Called the Second Bank of Seamoore was a massive marble structure, larger than any other building in town – on the outside. Its interior, built centuries prior, was modest in comparison.
The main room contained a long counter with booths for a half dozen tellers, structured lines for each booth, and benches equipped with magazines for those waiting. There were, however, no visitors and no tellers, save for the cube of jelly who owned the place.
“Welcome,” droned Jerun Pollin, an act which took about five seconds too long, “to The First Bank of Skymoore, Also Called the Last Bank of Seamoore, Formerly Called the Second Bank of Seamoore.” Once, under the effects of an enchantment that allowed her to speak to food, Karessa had literally spoken to molasses more urgent than Jerun Pollin. “Early as usual, Nestor.”
“Gotta beat the crowds!” Nestor said. Karessa couldn’t recall ever seeing another person at this bank. Especially odd, considering that to her knowledge this was the only bank in Skymoore. “Time is money, and I don’t want to spend any money at the bank, no offense. In fact, we’re here to make a withdrawal!”
Jerun Pollin gurgled. “Oh yes, I had something which I was supposed to tell you regarding that. Could you please approach my desk and ring this bell? I would do it myself if I had appendages with which to do things such as ringing bells.” In truth, Jerun very much doubted that they would.
Seconds after the bell chimed, a breathless Tabitha Darkholm burst into the bank. “Yes, Mr. Pollin?”
“Thank you for making your entrance both promptly and dutifully, Miss Darkholm. Would you be so kind as to enter the room behind me, search for and obtain the letter addressed to one Donovan Allman and Nestor Pinkly, and return here so that you might pass said letter onto Mr. Pinkly, so that he might read its contents?”
Tabitha, walking at a leisurely pace, was back before he finished his request.
The frilly envelope was closed by a fancy wax seal depicting a mountain of treasure. Within was a letter composed upon pressed gold, using a pen dipped in liquid obsidian. It read:
To the unscrupulous owners of Odd & Ends,
I have just returned from a decade abroad, exploring the nameless forests of the Dol Elves, the Cerulean Forest of the O’grofkala Mountains, and the Pinimag forest of the Isle of Origin. I’m a big fan of forests, you see. Imagine my surprise upon returning home and finding that some vile surfacer and an infuriatingly perky gnome had infringed upon my rights as a citizen of Skymoore, and as a living being in Solkin.
Your despicable purveyor of unnecessary trinkets and charms is on property belonging to yours truly. The office buildings next door are both my property, and the first three feet of your building on both the left and right side are infringing upon my land. I have taken the standard legal action by freezing all access to business-related funds until you speak with my lawyer.
Correct this transgression immediately or be met with a lawsuit and the destruction of your shop. My lawyer, Scalby Lawson, can be reached at the offices of Lawson, Lawdad, & Lawmom, which changes locations regularly. Participate in our weekly lottery held at the Lost & Found for a chance at learning where they are located this week.
“What?” Donovan Allman asked when Nestor finished reading the letter. They were in the tiny office, hardly big enough for three people, where they held their meetings in Odd & Ends. “Surely he can’t do that. Starve of us of funds because of an unproven zoning issue?”
“It’s not like that everywhere?” Nestor asked.
“No,” Donovan said. “It isn’t.”
“This city is the worst,” Karessa said.
“Karessa!” Nestor replied. “I’m surprised at you! There’s no better place to live than Skymoore! I should know, I went everywhere back in my magician days. Which reminds me, I never finished my story from earlier. So, there was this one person we traveled with-”
Donovan hit his hand on the desk. “We need to focus, Nestor. We can’t afford to make this shop any smaller. Linda has trouble as it is. We also can’t afford to pay bills if we can’t withdraw money, so calling his bluff isn’t really an option, either.
“My estranged uncle Drebin is a lawyer,” Karessa said. “He stopped talking to my dad when my family enrolled me in Pulldrid’s because he thinks education is the government’s way of turning children into sleeper agents that will one day be used to squash a revolutionary movement before it can begin. Then, just as they were getting on better terms, Drebin got mad again when my dad let me go into theater because Drebin’s late wife was killed in a terrible popcorn fire.
“But I mean, that’s an option.”
“A lawyer is a good place to start. We can’t really pay him, but I’m sure we could strike some kind of deal with him. Favor for a favor.”
Nestor stroked his beard. “As much as I love a good, friendly quest, I think I have a better solution. Why not just have a word with mister or missus Richman? I’m sure this is a simple misunderstanding, and nothing an afternoon tea can’t solve.”
“I wish I had your optimism, Nestor,” Donovan said.
Donovan opened his mouth to respond when there was a knock at the door.
“I don’t mean to be, you know, rude,” came a voice from without, “but I’ve been waiting for a long time now.”
Standing in the shop, growing mildly impatient, was Boundless Imagination, a dwarf and frequent customer of Odd & Ends.
“Wasn’t Dovetail helping you?” Donovan asked.
Boundless Imagination shrugged. “Well, you know, he was, and then we got to talking, and I was asking questions about the something-or-other, and then he got me talking about the whosawhatsit – or was it the thingabobber? – and then I started ranting about this thingamajigger, you know how I get, and then I mentioned how badly I could use some precious opal for this whatchamacallit and next thing you know, Dovetail says he’ll be right back and walks out the door.
“That was about twenty minutes ago and I don’t actually, you know, need the opal. I just came here for these socks.”
“Terribly sorry about that,” Donovan said. “Karessa, could you give her a hand?”
“Forgive Dovetail,” Nestor said. “Sometimes he just gets a bit confused. I’m sure he just saw something interesting outside, like a gerbil!”
Later that afternoon, Donovan left Odd & Ends in Nestor’s hands as he went in search of Drebin Plunderton. He told Nestor that under no circumstances should he make direct contact with Avery Richman.
“Not even if it’s important?” Donovan shook his head. “Not even if their home is burning down, and I’m the only person who can save him?”
“Okay, yes, if it’s life-or-death you can talk to Avery Richman. See you later, Nestor. Karessa.”
As soon as Donovan had gone, Nestor pulled out a thick yellow tome from beneath the counter in the back of the store.
“What are you doing?” Karessa asked him.
“Finding out where Avery Richman lives!”
“You lied to Donovan?”
“Of course not! This is life-or-death for Odd & Ends!” Karessa shot the gnome a look that said, ‘that’s a loophole and you know it,’ and Nestor smiled. “For the greater good, even I am capable of a little mischief, Karessa.”
The Directory of Addresses and Locations was a weekly-updated tome which contained the address of all peoples in Skymoore. It also provided peoples’ present locations, when such information differed from legal address (such as those in hiding, staying with a relative, or abducted by the massive, malicious moles which dwell beneath select factories). It is not legal to wonder how exactly this information is obtained.
After the Not Quite Privacy Act of 1576, the DAL was imbued with a psychic link to the minds of everyone in Skymoore. The book would then probe an individual’s mind, discovering who they were close to, who they were merely acquaintances with, and who they were likely to murder in the dead of night. Using this information, everyone obtained a specially-augmented version of the DAL which only offered the addresses of those who were comfortable with being found. For a fee, you could be taken off the list entirely.
But there was a compromise. The DAL was written in a complex code, and the psychic link merely unscrambled certain names and addresses. By figuring out the weekly cipher, anyone could access any information within the DAL. This provision was lobbied for by the Skymoore PTA, who wished to encourage teenagers to sharpen their minds while stalking the objects of their affection.
Today’s code came in the form of a crossword. That alone was simple enough, with clues like “the favorite snack of your least favorite neighbor” and “how many spacial dimensions can birds see,” and “on moonless night, only a single star hangs in the sky; you stare up at it without thinking, and find yourself mesmerized. You only remember looking up at a single star on a moonless night once before, on a night you will never forget. Summarize that evening in one word.” The answers to these are, of course: fresh lint, three, and Farnsworth.
With the crossword solved, it was only a manner of realizing that every intersection contained the letter “r,” and then subtracting every occurrence of the letter throughout the book, replacing it instead with the first letter of every clue in ascending order (ascending because the “down” clues were on bottom this week).
Within about an hour and a half, Nestor knew where Avery Richman lived. Assuming that Dovetail would be back any minute, they left the store unlocked and in his care, despite Karessa’s repeated insistence that this was a truly terrible idea, but not so terrible as to dissuade her from getting the rest of the day off.
Their destination was nestled within an upscale suburban neighborhood residing in the shadow of Skymoore’s factories. Most every house was identical to its neighbors in every manner but size, which varied almost imperceptibly between homes so that their owners might feel superior about their marginally higher income.
152 Contentment Court was larger than most, but its white picket fence and modest garden were nothing at all like Karessa and Nestor imagined. The former was picturing some illustrious mansion, whereas the latter expected something with a moat of lava and ominous spires (for who but a villain could threaten Odd & Ends?).
“Welcome friends!” read the pink and yellow welcome mat. Its presence set Nestor’s mind at ease. He knocked on the door rhythmically, now entirely certain that this was all a misunderstanding.
“Guess no one’s home,” Karessa said after moments of silence.
Then the welcome mat disappeared beneath their feet, and the two plunged into darkness.
They hit a cold metal slide almost instantly, and tumbled together in a jumble of grunts and limbs. Many uncomfortable seconds later, they hit a considerately-placed foam pad with a simultaneous oomf!
The slide retracted into the rock wall behind them. It was too dark to ascertain much, but they appeared to be in a lazily-dug chamber beneath the house.
Nestor drew a small candle from his pocket. “Elum,” he whispered. Instead of the candle flickering to life as he expected, a dozen sconces lining the walls sparked alight, illuminating a peculiar and disturbing scene.
Strewn across the floor were the battered bodies of cloth dummies with mutilated crayon faces. Heads were separated from torsos. Straw innards littered the floor.
At the back of the room was a stage, whereupon a more composed straw dummy stood, looking menacingly over the crowd. It had a familiar goatee drawn on its face, and adhered to its hands were a top hat and cane. A colorfully painted sign hung above, dubbing the individual “Nestor the Incomparable.”
“Nestor?” Karessa asked. The gnome’s face had gone white.
“You…you know that person I was trying to tell you about earlier? The one whose heart I could not change?” Karessa nodded. She had never seen the gnome so grave. “His name is Farnsworth Greenly. And we seem to have found ourselves in his basement.”