It was a quiet day at Beyond Investigations. The pile of cases on Roland’s desk was empty as a church on Friday night. His office was still, save for the flickering of the lantern that hung just a bit too low in the center. Indeed, Roland was anticipating a slow day today, and that was just fine; you didn’t get a lot of days off as a set designer who moonlights as a private detective and sells baked goods on the side. It’s a hard life, but someone’s gotta do it.
Just as Roland gets up to call it quits for the day, in walks a dame whose every feature is like the night sky – dark, mysterious, but radiant all the same. Roland knows the look of trouble when he sees it, and sits right back down in his seat, ready to hear what she has to say, ready to accept whatever curveball she threw his way.
“Oh, hey Roland. Didn’t know this was your place.”
Hello, Karessa. The voice did not come from a mouth – being a Far One, Roland did not possess a mouth, nor any facial features at all – but rather it tickled the back of her mind, a mere imitation of what Roland’s voice might sound like had he had one. This is my home. Or, if you prefer, it is the office from which I run Beyond Investigations. Or, perhaps, the kitchen from which I run my bakery. “Place” is also a fine term.
“Okay,” Karessa said. “You must be doing well for yourself. I heard great things about this place on ShoutSquare. Didn’t imagine it’d be your thing. No offense.”
“It’s uh. It’s this street over by Agatha’s Aglets. You know where they sell the little things that go on the end of your shoelaces? Did you know they’re called Aglets and that’s why they call it that? My cousin told me it was dwarvish for ‘weirdly specific store’ and you know how you believe everything when you’re a kid. Anyway, it’s this place over by Agatha’s Aglets where people just gather around and shout their opinions about local businesses. I’m the marketing director at Odd & Ends so sometimes I head over there and pay people to shout good opinions about us. While I was doing that this morning I heard like, ten people say they couldn’t recommend this place enough. One person said you found his dog that’s been missing for like ten years!”
Roland nodded along to all of this. Alph, the small, interdimensional traveler who was stranded on Skymoore because of a botched exploration mission, nodded along. He had been the real brains behind Beyond Investigations, and in fact founding it had been his idea, but he spent most of his time hiding in Roland’s hat. If there were two things Skymoore did not take kindly to, it was outsiders and new things. The Minitoa, who traveled across the multiverse in search of similarly sized allies in the foretold Forever Wars, were a new kind of outsider, and they just would not have that at all.
Karessa jumped at a sudden banging beneath Roland’s desk. There were other Minitoa living with him as well. This tale, however, concerns only Alph.
So you have a case then? Roland possessed limited mind reading as a result of his telepathy, so he knew that she did, but he was not one to be impolite. Not that you require a reason to visit me.
Karessa fidgeted. “Uh, yeah. I have a case.”
Roland leaned forward in his chair. Alph nearly tumbled over. Sorry, Roland projected only to Alph. Go on, he projected to not only Alph and Karessa, but also the other Minitoa who are inessential to this story.
Karessa hesitated for a moment and Roland felt her grow colder, just a bit. “Do you promise you won’t judge me?”
Of course. It’s not my job nor my inclination to judge clients, Karessa. Nor friends.
Karessa took a deep breath. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. Roland knew it was a lie. Or, more specifically, that Karessa thought it was a lie. “It was a tough situation, it – okay, a long time ago I used to be involved with some rough people out in the Mish Mash. Katsu Deranora. Leek Offman. The Claw.
“But there was this one guy, Tac Rithma. Lanky kawatora fellow. He was into some weird eldritch stuff, which made being around him uncomfortable. Like, there was this old statue that apparently allowed you to control another person’s mind and he was obsessed which is like, horrible. But he was always good for figuring out when some merchant from the surface had sold some alchemical ingredient that’s super rare around here. So we swiped that stuff and sold it for cash in the Alleys.
“Then there was this one time, we came to owe some money to The Furnace so we um. Am I allowed to directly admit to really big crimes in here?”
I would advise that you do not.
“We got the money, and the day before it’s due Tac goes and spends it all on some expedition to go find his creepy statue! So we have one day to get the money now and I do something very stupid in order to get it. There’s this necklace that my dad gave my mother a long time ago, before I was born. It’s been passed down through the Plunderton family for a long time – just this weird chain with links shaped like daggers and an amethyst in the middle.
“Tac said amethysts were used in a lot of artifcery so it would sell to one of his creepy contacts. You don’t wanna get on the Furnace’s bad side so…”
It hurt Roland to experience Karessa’s guilt. He tapped his long fingers thoughtfully. You wish to reacquire this necklace? He knew her answer just a moment before she nodded. Take a seat, Karessa, and we’ll get started. Who did you sell it to?
Karessa thought that she remembered very little, but with some pressing from Roland, coached by Alph, she found that she actually knew more than she gave herself credit for. Yes, she couldn’t see the man’s face, but she remembered that the hood he used to conceal it was quite long, and that he was very tall even by a halfling’s standards. Skymoore is too eclectic to really nail down a species, but it seemed to Alph that it was probably a dragonkin or a minotaur.
Contrary to what many believed, being a detective wasn’t about being a genius. It wasn’t even about being smart. Sure, esoteric knowledge and observational prowess come in handy, but in Alph’s experience it was really about having and finding the right resources, asking the right questions, and being in the right place at the right time.
Alph started with resources. Skymoore being a very self-absorbed city meant that to them, the most fascinating bits of history from places other than Skymoore was boring at best and insulting at worst, but the most minute and esoteric moments of history from the city itself was worthy of fascination and documentation. Fortunately, Roland was old friends with Susie Longmire, the twelve-legged intern of the Traveling League of Historians, who had set up camp in an abandoned amusement park for the time being.
“You been okay recently?” Susie asked, lifting the security tape with two of her many legs. “Digg says you’ve been falling asleep in class.”
Oh, I’m just busy, Roland projected, ducking underneath. Alph hit the deck of Roland’s hat, both to hide and avoid losing his head. Detective work, accompanied by school, by the theater, and by my baking…it keeps me occupied.
“Sheesh,” Susie said. “And I thought I had it rough patrolling this place.”
All jobs are admirable, Susie. Roland looked down at the ground for a moment. Except assassin. And debt collector.
“Well I was just about to go about killing people who owe money,” Susie said, “but I don’t want to lose your respect.”
The historians had made their camp using the amusement park’s preexisting tents and booths. The milk bottle game had been reinvented as an observation station, complete with binoculars, notepads, and Still Frames – magic spheres that can briefly capture the image of a moment they are pointed at, trapping it like a snow globe. Inside the acrobats’ tent, a sort of barracks had been set up. Susie waved at and introduced Roland to several historians, but Roland was distracted by a team further into the park, who were marking an area with tape and drawing something beside it.
“They’re documenting the Skymoorian’s footsteps,” Susie explained, noticing his interest. Sure enough, a pair of khaki-wearing researchers were tracing around a wide, semi-circular footprint with seven digits; the tape next to it was labeled “step #104,4109.”
The Skymoorian? Susie had said it like a name.
“We’d ask them for a more proper title if we could communicate. Come on, it’s down by the roller coaster.”
Prospector’s Peril, Solkin’s first and only known roller coaster, was precariously placed along the rim of Skymoore, with its sharpest and most daring turn taking the minecart briefly over the city’s edge. It was immediately clear to Roland what Susie wanted to show him. Among the metal and wood supports for the tall and dangerous track, there was a creature unlike anything Roland had seen before. Not to say it was particularly strange, because Roland sometimes saw creatures unlike anything he’d ever seen before at the local clothes washing station, only that it was unique. They had a round, asymmetrical face with a veiny blue eye in the center, a small square mouth, and a thin neck/torso/leg that ended in a foot matching the footprint from before. At the time Roland saw the Skymoorian, their body appeared to be mid hop, suspended motionlessly a few inches above the ground.
“This is the first ever Skymoore native,” Susie explained, “by which I mean it is the first creature to come into existence in the city limits after Severance Day. It’s an eldritch bioconstruct mistakenly created by a necromancer who tried to make a contact with the spirits of the dead by harnessing the power of an Aftermaj storm. The necromancer didn’t survive, and the spirit he bound to the Skymoorian is still trapped somewhere between the Eldritch Everything and our realm. As a result, it moves through our time and space incredibly slowly, detached from our physical laws. We set up camp around it where the law allows and document its journey. It seems to be going somewhere in a hurry, from its perspective.”
Roland felt a familiar longing coming from the Skymoorian, and believed that Susie’s understanding of the creature was correct. One day, nearly every Far One in Skymoore simply vanished, leaving a handful of them behind. Like Roland, the Skymoorian wondered if there was anyone in this town who would understand them, and if home was something you had, or something you found. Roland hoped that one or both of them found the answer.
About my questions, projected Roland after some prodding from Alph.
Susie gave him a look just then that Roland had seen and felt all too many times. That look in a person’s eye when they wanted to tell you something, but couldn’t. Whether their own loyalties or the coercion of an exterior force, something was telling this woman that the truth could come at too high a price. She bit her lower lip and tapped eight of her twelve feet in dire contemplation. She owed Roland a favor, but what did she owe herself? Whether it was her better nature or her own need for excitement after weeks of watching a one-eyed monster play the world’s slowest game of hopscotch, something finally drove her to lean forward and whisper something to Roland. She promised that young man the ride of his life.
Independently, with fifteen minutes between boarding, Roland and Susie got on the Ferris Wheel, Mooreland’s only functional attraction, powered by a once-trapped Air Essence who decided he rather liked the view from up here. Roland liked the view, too. His tastes had matured into more dangerous desires, but he’d once had a crush on Susie. Maybe that’s why he always let her cheat off his math homework. Maybe he was just a nice guy. The soul was a boundless sea of complexity and mystery, as unknowable as the night sky, and as dark.
Either way, the two rode in silence as the rickety ride rotated its way to the very top in slow, shaky spurts. Their basket was wide, but not quite wide enough to safely accommodate the woman’s limbs leading Roland to hold on for dear life as politely as he could. Susie looked out over the Frostlands, taking in the infinite blanket of white, and spoke at last.
“You want to know about something from the classified files, is that right, Roland?”
That’s correct, Susie. My associate believes that the residential archives are likely the best place to look. After all, if the statue entered Skymoore illegally, your findings will be the only document of its existence.
“May I meet this associate?”
Alph was suddenly nervous there in Roland’s hat. He told the Far One that he would be willing to talk to clients when the situation called for it, but historians like these would want to know everything about the Minitoa. He couldn’t jeopardize his friends’ safety over a necklace.
And I wouldn’t ask you to, Roland projected only to him, having read his surface feelings. Now Susie, I think it’s only fair that I’m allowed some confidentiality as well, don’t you think? I won’t tell a soul who gave me this information if you don’t tell a soul who asked for it.
Susie flushed a bit, and nodded. “I am well-versed in the residential files. I’ve made a point to memorize as much of the information as I could. I take special interest in peculiar artifacts and family heirlooms. What is it you’re wondering about?”
Roland was counting on this. Susie was always a bit of a nosy student back in school, always asking the lineage of people’s belongings, always wanting to know what in their history made a person the way they are. It’s a statue. I believe it looks like a stout gargoyle, with an empty slot where its nose should be. According to a tertiary source, it might possess the ability to alter a person’s mind. Sound familiar?
Susie stroked her chin with one of her twelve feet and furrowed her brow. “Sorry, Roland. I can’t say that it does. I think something like that would stand out to me. More than likely whatever it was originated on the surface, and hasn’t been in Skymoore long enough to be of historical note. I wish I had more to offer you than that.”
No apology necessary, Susie. He found that most humanoids apologized too much. As he stared out over the Frostlands, Roland found the view a little disorienting. It was beautiful, of course, and rare that the sky could be so clear as to make out the O’grofkala Mountains and the massive icy walls of Proudheim, but it also offered a distinct feeling that he could not place. He’d read about seasickness in a book before, spawned from an inability to see any land. Perhaps it was snowsickness. It felt a lot like loneliness. Discreetly, Alph took a peek out over the edge of Skymoore as well. It was terrifying, and he quickly darted back in.
“Wow!” Alph whispered. “I wasn’t ready for that. You know where I come from, they don’t even have hills? I didn’t know I was afraid of heights until I got here, because I’d never even seen a height before. It feels foolish, considering I’m in a whole new world and anyone could step on me at any moment, but the most scared I’ve ever been is up in the rafters of Odd & Ends.”
It’s very easy to be afraid of the unknown, Roland empathized. Whether you’re afraid how someone might react, or afraid of a stranger, or a new altitude. Do not feel bad.
Alph didn’t want to talk about his feelings. It was bad enough that Roland could always read them. “Ask her about the necklace,” he whispered.
“Knives for links, you say? Yeah, I think I know about that. It originated outside of Skymoore, as most things do, but it was in the city limits when it rose. Ran in the Plunderton family for quite some time before falling out of their possession a few years back. Does that sound like the one?” Roland affirmed. “Yeah, we’ve kept an eye on it. Anything belonging to one of the original families of Skymoore is of especial interest; it’s not even classified.” She laughed. “We did all this covert stuff for nothing.” She sounded almost disappointed.
It’s a lovely view, Roland observed.
“Reminds me of you,” Susie said without elaboration.
On the way down, they reminisced about high school a bit. Susie was considering telling Roland that she knew nothing about why the Far Ones disappeared, but she’d been looking into it. She didn’t, but the thought that people smarter than him were researching was comforting. When they got back to the ground, she dug through a filing cabinet in what was once a popcorn machine. She handed him a vanilla envelope (which is like a manila envelope, only it could be recycled as a milkshake when you were done with it) labeled “The Plunderton Amethyst, a.k.a. The Cutthroat’s Promise.”
“We have copies of everything back at the main HQ, just get it back to me when you’re finished. This should document the necklace’s movements,” she told him. “But whatever you do, watch out for the girl who sold it.”
Roland would have raised an eyebrow if he had them. How do you mean?
Susie shrugged six times at once. “I’ve got family in the Mish Mash. Everyone out there hates the girl. Say she’d sell you down the river for a pack of gum, then toss out the gum. Like the Mish Mash doesn’t have enough problems without people like that running around.”
I see. I appreciate the heads up, Susie. And I appreciate everything you’ve done today, in fact.
Roland wandered back into Skymoore proper, reading the file but failing to absorb any of its contents. He stopped in at Closets, a café where every booth was closed off like an office cubicle, and let Alph read through its contents. Roland was too distracted by what Susie had to say. He’d been in theater with Karessa for two years, and read her emotions often; usually incidentally, sometimes inappropriately, he was ashamed to admit. He knew a bad person when he felt one, and Karessa Plunderton never struck him as a bad person. He felt aspiration, sadness, joy, faith, cunning, and perhaps most of all, guilt. Ruthless betrayers never felt guilt.
Roland had never come close to finding out what that guilt was all about, and he never tried to. He couldn’t help but read minds and emotions, but he let the details of a person’s life be their own. But he’d been on enough cases now to know a key detail when he heard one, and Roland had a strong feeling that in order to find that necklace, Karessa’s skeletons were going to have to come out of the closet.