Skymoore’s government district was a maze of false fronts, twisting corridors, and shady organizations. Navigating it and finding something as simple as the post office’s administration department could be a weeklong affair, unless you were willing to pay the price. A few scales here, a piece of your soul there.
The powers that be realized, of course that this could be a problem for public relations. So, they created the government subdistrict, a gated community in the fancy part of Skymoore, where the aristocrats hid from the poor and any signs of those who suffered for their comfort. Roland had never been an especially political soul, but he knew when something was unfair. That the aristocrats could live in mansions while the Mish Mash could exist in squalor, ignored by all, well that would be a crime if the perpetrators weren’t the ones making the rules.
And that is to say nothing of the Shelter for the Unusually Homed. “Unusually homed” is what the powers that be called those who slept on the street, under bridges, and in old warehouses where the leftover Majicite dust caused irreparable damage to eyesight and structural integrity of all your favorite body parts. It was a terrible misnomer. The Minitoa who lived under Roland’s desk while they searched for a way back to their homeworlds were “unusually homed.” The former categories were victims of a societal illness upon which the government was content to place a band-aid.
The Shelter was where Roland found himself a few hours after his case began, following the lead from Susie’s intel. It was a nice, frequently painted blue building among a number of other colorful establishments. The sign was written in the kind of bulbous letters meant to attract and excite children. Roland only had the effort to consider so much contradiction and hypocrisy, so he went inside without paying much attention to the edifice.
Within, things were perkier than he expected. It was lunch hour, and he entered among a small hoard of people there for free soup and sandwiches. Friends called out to each other to organize tables, the servers had a good rapport with the served, and there was a general liveliness to the whole thing. Roland supposed that people had a way of making a home out of the worst circumstances.
“Back home, homeless people could either die on the streets or volunteer for the Forever War,” Alph murmured sadly from within Roland’s hat. “Or sometimes you just got drafted for no reason, like me.”
At least it took you away from that awful place, Roland said in his best attempt at comforting.
“I suppose. I am happier to be here than there. Shouldn’t have to come to that, though. Home should be comfortable, not scary.”
Agreed. But even comfort can be miserable. Do you see that man, over there? The one with the night cap? He’s smiling, but he wonders if he’ll ever see his son again. His son was in the Mish Mash when it got locked off, and he doesn’t know if his son is okay. He can’t get a job because his prospective employers don’t consider this shelter a valid address, and neither is his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in the Mish Mash, because of the current situation.
“What are you trying to say?” Alph asked.
I’m unsure. I myself am wondering what it means to have a home. Some say the Far Ones went home, but I do not think home can be a place you’ve never been, not until you’re there. Likewise, I do not think the place you are from is home, either.
“So what is home?”
Perhaps the mysteries would best be left to you, detective.
“Well, that’s a face I haven’t seen in some time. Or ever. Do you really have a face?” one of the soup servers asked Roland as she stirred a new pot of kraken noodle. “Sorry, my therapist told me I should say what comes to mind but I’m already dangerous enough with a filter. Soup?”
It was Tabitha Darkholm, the half-dryad girl with foliage for hair. She looked more…humble, than usual with her apron and hairnet.
No thank you, Tabitha. My kind eat by absorbing nutrients through the skin. Both the process and the non-valuable food material left as waste can be considered…unpleasant by many.
Tabitha shrugged. “No judgement here, man. I get a quarter of my calories from the sun.”
That’s kind of you, Tabitha, but no thank you. I wouldn’t want to take food away from those who need it.
“What brings you here, then?”
I’m told that there is a pawn shop here. Would you happen to know anything about that?
She flushed and beckoned Roland closer to her. “Who all heard that, man?” she whispered. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”
Just you, Tabitha. Discretion is one of the most valuable tools in a detectives’ kit. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the well-being of these people. Perhaps I could volunteer my baking ability here one day, as recompense for you leading me to this shop.
Tabitha chewed on the inside of her cheek for a moment. “You do make good snickerdoodles…but I need to sweeten the deal a little. You can read minds, can’t you?” Roland nodded. “Okay, I won’t ask you to do anything cruel…but there’s this librarian. He works in the library.”
Following you so far.
“He won’t let me check out this book called ‘The New Sacraments.’ Said it’s only for a certain sect of clientele. But I’ve heard that there’s a ritual in that book that can turn wood into silver. If I could do that, I could get out of this endless cycle of minimum wage jobs. Just ask him about the ritual, and read his thoughts. I’ll share the details with you if you share the details with me. I know your word is good, and I just told you I’m into questionable magic which scares most people, so all you have to do is agree and I’ll show you what you want to see.”
Roland was quiet for a time. He stepped away as Tabitha served a few more people. “Come on,” Alph whispered to the Far One. “Think about this rationally. I know you don’t like using your powers like this, but if we don’t do what she says we’ll be out to sea without a floatie, kid. The spell sounds harmless enough, and it’s not like she told you to steal the book.” Roland remained quiet. “Come on, fella. Do it for your little girlfriend. Well, she’s giant to me. But she’s smaller than you. You feel me.”
Roland’s shoulders rose and fell in a soundless imitation of a sigh. Very well.
The pawn shop was exactly what you picture when someone invites you to a secret pawn shop in the back of a homeless shelter. It was discreet, dusty, and dim as all get out. The colors on the dartboard had faded and worn from excessive use, and the sign behind the counter that read “Big Things and Small Packages” was missing many of its letters. Cobwebs lined, well, most of the ceiling. Which made sense, given that the guys running the joint were a trio of three of the sharpest spiders you’ve ever shaken a shoe at.
Yes, the pawn shop was located in an unused cupboard in the shelter’s kitchen, where the spiders rented out space for a reasonable fee. On the shelves of their shop were tiny animal bones carved into ornaments, tiny pieces of jewelry, furniture that seemed to belong in a child’s toy house, and the centerpiece of it all: a ball of thread that appeared to be made of diamond. The file warned that the amethyst had ended up in the hands of peculiar individuals, but Roland had not expected this.
“What’s the matter?” Tabitha asked. “Not interested in shaking down a couple of spiders for clues? I bet it’ll be real easy.”
Hello, sirs, Roland projected into the minds of the three spiders.
“I’m a lady,” one of them replied in perfect Human. “And we don’t do business with clients of your size, mister. Can’t trust ‘em. Besides, they’re always trying to give us things like human-sized shoes or halfling-sized gloves. What’s our clientele gonna do with a couple of enormous gloves? Move in? Wait. That’s actually not a bad idea. Got any gloves, kid?”
Another of the spiders cleared its throat. “We won’t be doing that, Lauriette. We have a reputation to uphold. Perhaps that’s a venture for another day. And anyway, we told you to get lost. We’re venomous, pally, and not afraid to prove it.”
Tabitha, could you excuse us a minute? Roland asked.
Tabitha raised an eyebrow. “What’cha doin’, Roland? Shaking down the spiders for real? I can’t have you squishing our tenants.”
Roland shook his head. Only protecting a client’s privacy, ma’am.
She pondered this a moment and said, “well alright, but if these people end up dead, it’s going to be a real open and shut case, Roland.”
When the coast was clear, Roland took Alph from beneath his hat, and placed him in the cupboard.
“Hello gentlemen,” Alph said, before nodding to Lauriette. “Lady.”
“Now this is a man I can do business with,” said Lauriette. She was a woman someone from his world would have delighted to see. Six times the legs on only four times the limbs, if you catch the meaning, and a thorax that’d drive any sensible man or woman wild. And her eyes…as beautiful as they were numerous. “How ya doin, handsome?”
Alph tipped his hat to her. It was a trilby, same as Roland’s. They had initially bonded over the supremely unlikely coincidence that detective garb was identical in both their worlds. “I’m doing just fine, ma’am, but I’m afraid this meeting is to be strictly professional.” In his line of work, you had to get used to leaving potential partners in the cold, no matter how long it had been since you’d seen your boyfriend, or how unlikely it was you’d see him again.
She clacked her jaw disappointedly. “Such a shame.”
He browsed up and down the aisles and endcaps of the little pawn shop, stopping wherever he saw necklaces or rings. The owners had impressive business acumen for spiders, but their organization was lacking.
“Can we help you?” one of the male spiders asked.
Alph snorted. “Can you help the greatest detective in all of Skymoore find his prize?” he asked, taking something off the torso of a plump dwarven doll. He held up The Cutthroat’s Promise for all to see. “If I can’t find it, it’s nowhere to be found.”
All three spiders exchanged a quick, almost imperceptible, look of suspicion. Nothing escaped Alph’s notice. “And what do you want with that, sugar?” asked Lauriette. “I don’t think that’s your color, and despite the tough talk, you’re too soft for a knife.”
“You can keep the necklace,” Alph said, rubbing the rock between his fingers. After a moment he stuck his fingers in mouth, and rubbed harder. He came away holding up a slightly purple index finger, “I just want to know where you got this replica, and why.”
“My my,” cooed another spider, “your instincts are as good as your eyes, detective. But I’m sure you get that all the time. What can you offer us, sir? Our inventory is getting…a little low.”
Alph smirked. “Pawn shops are as predictable as they are filthy.” He took his trilby off his head. “Maybe you can offer this to a mouse looking to play detective.”
Lauriette clicked her jaw thrice. “You’re going to have to impress us more than that,” she said. Alph looked behind him to see that one of the male spiders had blocked his exit. “We can get a hat like that from any toy store in town. Impress me.”
With some notable apprehension, the Minitoan reached into the breast of his coat.
“Whoa!” said one of the males, “don’t make any moves you might regret.”
“Just grabbing my bargaining chip,” he assured them. Alph withdrew a badge made from shiny purple and green metals. They materials foreign to this world, notable for their cheapness back home; here, they were probably priceless. The badge marked him as a licensed investigator on the planet of Ernadam. The spiders whistled. “Will this do?”
Lauriette and the other two inched toward him. “Oh, that’ll do nicely.” Lauriette lunged, jaw wide and wet with venom, when a glass cup was placed over her. She bumped directly into the container, and she may have broken something unimportant, but she was otherwise okay. The other three spiders backed up in fear.
I have more cups where that came from, projected Roland.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Alph said, “the ol’ good cop, bad cop. Now, friends. This badge could still be yours if you just play nicely.” Roland could feel his attachment to the badge, and it made both of them sad. But Alph didn’t let it show.
“Fine,” one of the spiders hissed. “But your source stays confidential, okay?” Both detectives nodded. “There’s a dragonfly who sometimes does business with us. Goes by the name Leek Offman. He paid us an extravagant fee to keep our mouths shut, on implied threat of injury should we fail. He wanted to…well he wanted to keep people like you from finding the real thing, I suppose.”
“Leek Offman…” Alph murmured. He tossed the badge to one of the spiders, who caught it in their mouth.
Hm? asked Roland.
Alph pulled a notepad from his pocket and flipped through. “Ah ha! The client mentioned a Leek Offman when she was talking about her old friends. Didn’t mention he was a dragonfly, though.”
Roland was glad one of them took notes. Likely a druid, he said, helping Alph back into his hat. They can turn into animals.
“Well then that’s where we can pick up. Tomorrow, we’ll find your girlfriend, and we’ll find Mr. Offman. And more’n likely we’ll find whatever it is the dame’s hiding.”
Roland did not particularly enjoy the sound of that. Thank you, spiders. Your secret is safe with us. Then, only to Alph, he projected Thank you as well, Alph. I know that your badge must have meant a lot to you.
“Nah, I don’t have any jurisdiction here,” he said.
You know what I mean. It’s a remnant of home.
“It is. But maybe you’re right. Maybe home shouldn’t be a place you can’t stand. Maybe places you can’t stand are best left in the rearview mirror, you know?” Roland did not know what a rearview mirror was, but he could ascertain. “I know what I said earlier, but I ain’t so sure now. If this place has tiny furniture, it’s home enough for me.”
Alph was being facetious, of course, but Roland could feel his words were genuine. It was a concept he had been wrestling with for some time, and maybe it was one he would always wrestle with, but he was a little more certain today than he was yesterday.
To Roland’s surprise, he wouldn’t have to wait until the next day to find Karessa. It was getting late, and the moons were both in the diminutive parts of their cycles, leaving her dark features illuminated only by the faint glow of a flickering lantern. Even from a distance, he knew that wasn’t sweat glistening on her cheeks. Karessa Plunderton did her best to appear tough, because she was tough. You didn’t grow up in the Mish Mash without being tough. But Roland didn’t have to see pain in her eyes to feel it in her heartbeat. In her body temperature.
Hello, Karessa, Roland greeted kindly. Are you waiting here for me?
She crossed her arms and tilted her head. “Oh no, just waiting around for tomorrow’s ice cream man,” she said with forced sarcasm.
Well I hope it wasn’t long, he said.
“It wasn’t,” she lied. “I just came here to say you don’t need to waste your time on this case.”
Roland got the sense she was adamant. He shifted uncomfortably. What’s this about? We’ve got some valuable leads.
“I’m sorry, Roland. I’ll still pay you for your time.” Her voice cracked; “I just, I really don’t need the necklace. There’s so much going on right now with the Mish Mash, and then Odd & Ends got destroyed for a second, and mom has just got back to normal but nothing is ever normal, and I just think drudging up the past is the last thing either of us needs by now.” By the time Karessa was done talking, her chest was heaving. “I’m just so tired of all this, Roland.”
He made a step toward the halfling, but she backed away. “No, please. This is embarrassing enough. I’m sorry I came, I could have written…” she turned away. “I’m sorry I even hired you! I need to learn to live with my own mistakes. You’d think I’d be an expert after making so many.”
Karessa, Roland projected, do you mind if I attempt to calm you down? It is going to require a telepathic bond.
Still not facing him, Karessa nodded shakily. “Please,” she murmured. “I need to think straight.”
Forming a telepathic bond was more intense than it sounded. Or maybe it was exactly as intense as it sounded. If regular telepathy was like a friendly conversation, a telepathic bond was like becoming roommates. Barriers of privacy and space dampened, and more raw emotion was let inside; a truer expression of the self.
Everything went white for the both of them. They were weightless, lying on their backs, like in a pool of water. Karessa and Roland faced each other.
“Whoa,” Karessa said. “This is neat.”
As the bond took hold, their emotions poured in. Splashes of paint against the canvas in which they floated. Roland looked like a starless sky, and Karessa like a stormy sea, meeting each other somewhere on the horizon. They melded together a moment, Karessa taking on some of Roland’s calm concern, and Roland taking on some of Karessa’s sadness and anger. It didn’t allow for the nuances of emotions at this shallow level, only the broad strokes.
As Karessa and Roland stared at each other a time, the intimacy was palpable. Roland may not have had eyes, but the two could still gaze into each other’s souls. They saw a shared loneliness, and a shared desire to be wanted, and to do good. Letting your walls down in here wasn’t a thing that you chose to do, it was a thing that happened gradually, like a sunset.
A door appeared in the space between them, suddenly. It was wooden, and had an oven mitt hanging on the doorknob. The name Alice was stitched in. Thoughtlessly, like hair toward a shower drain, they spiraled toward the door.
When Roland opened it, he saw a quiet bedroom at night. The Pale Moon was full in the window, letting in plenty of light through the tattered curtains. In the bed, a middle-aged halfling woman’s eyes opened wearily as Karessa drifted through the door, becoming a younger version of herself. Her hair was tied back into a bun, and her face was doughier.
“Karessa?” her mother asked groggily. “What are you doing here? What time is it?” She glanced to the empty bed beside her. “Where’s your father?”
“Dad’s out shopping,” Karessa murmured. “You know how he likes to get the good deals.”
“But what are you doing here? Don’t you have school in the morning?”
I DON’T GO TO SCHOOL, Karessa projected to Roland only. “Sorry, I think I was sleepwalking,” she lied to her mother. “Do you mind if I get some gum from your drawer? It helps me think.”
“Don’t come crying to me when you rot your teeth,” her mother said, before lying back down and burying her face in her pillow.
Karessa crept across the room to her mother’s bedside table, and opened the drawer. As Roland suspected, it was not a piece of gum that she took, but a necklace with an amethyst on the chain.
“Stop!” Karessa cried, pulling them both out of the bond and making Roland’s world spin. “I could feel you judging me! I thought you would understand, but you’re just like everyone else.” She shoved Roland and ran off down the street before he could collect himself.
Before he knew what he was doing or why, Roland pursued her. She deserved her space, but she was worried about what she might do in her current state. He wanted to talk her down, and help her.
Karessa’s practiced athleticism was a boon, but so was Roland’s lack of a traditional respiratory system which allowed him to run long distances with minimal need for breaks. While Roland was not able to catch up to Karessa, nor was he losing any ground as he pursued her through the city streets. As Roland suspected, Karessa was taking him toward the Mish Mash. This was perfect, as she would need to stop at one of the entry checkpoints in order to get inside, giving Roland the opportunity to close the gap.
Or she would have if she was anybody other than Karessa Plunderton. That dame didn’t play by anybody’s rules, least of all the law’s. Roland was disappointed but hardly surprised when she made a sharp turn into an abandoned tattoo parlor the sign of which had fallen down to obscure the door. Slipping through was no problem for someone of her stature, but for Roland it was a delay, as he moved and squeezed past the sign. She was nowhere to be seen by the time he entered; Karessa’s plan had worked.
Or it would have, if he had been anyone other than Roland. That dick may not have had an eye for detail, but he had a mind to make up for it. With his short-range telepathy, he could pick up the presence of Karessa’s mind in the southeast corner of the store just before she slipped out of range. She’d left one of several false floorboards open in her haste, revealing access to a stone tunnel beneath the shop. He picked her up again distantly, like a conversation you can hear but not make out. It was enough to keep the trail, and not fall down any of the tunnel’s winding rabbit holes.
The passage ended in a ladder, which opened up into the changing room of a clothing store that was closed for the evening. Roland was in the Mish Mash now, where the buildings were stacked like cakes where the additional layers were a hasty afterthought. Here in her neighborhood, Roland was hopelessly outmatched. She took to the rooftops and bridges like familiar streets, scaling them by muscle memory alone. He was grasping at straws trying to find her, constantly pursuing that distant echo, filtering out her presence in the evening noise.
Karessa! he called out to her. If she heard him, she gave no indication. I’m sorry that I judged you. It’s not my place. I know you had your reasons for what you did, if we could only speak.
Roland was paying much more attention to the city’s mindscape than its landscape, and he only realized he had wandered into a dead-end alleyway when he came to face-to-face with a brick wall. Karessa must have been on some rooftop elsewhere, out of his reach. As he went to leave the way he came, Roland found that a broad minotaur now blocked the alleyway. He made no move as Roland approached.
Good evening, sir, projected Roland. Excuse me, sir.
The minotaur did not move until Roland was only a few feet away, and by then he had no chance to defend himself. He blacked out before he even realized he was in danger.
The Plunderton household had never been much to look at, if Karessa was being honest, but at least it had been home. When Karessa last saw the dingy apartment, it had been falling apart; now thanks to gravity, fire, and probably looters, it had finished falling. If looters truly had ransacked the place, they would have been sorely disappointed. Only décor of sentimental value remained, like eight-year-old Kafaressa’s drawing of her father on a fishing boat. Anything of monetary value had been sold by the Karessa of the recent past, as she took both care and advantage of her addled mother.
As her stomach churned with guilt and her lungs heaved with fatigue, Karessa heard footsteps coming from the kitchen. They were faint steps, like someone trying to mask their sound, but there was the unmistakable crunch of gravel or ash crumbling underfoot. Composing herself as best she could, Karessa made her way into the kitchen, which was covered with a thin layer of various detritus from the floor above.
“Don’t even think about it – buster?” Karessa saw nobody in the room. She even looked over the counter and saw nobody. “Hello?” Silence. “No kidding, Karessa,” she whispered to herself. “Even if someone were here, they wouldn’t respond if they’re trying to sneak. But of course, nobody is here, are they? You’re really falling apart today, girl.” She choked on a sudden sob as she muttered the last sentence, and leaned against the ashen countertop.
The weight of lying to Roland, of him thinking ill of her, of having stolen from her mom, of having lost her home, it all caught up to her in a sudden rush. Her chest heaved once more, this time in the broken rhythm of despair and misery as she let the feelings wash over her and coat her like the ash that had claimed her former home. “You’ve really cracked now, haven’t you?” she asked herself through sniffs. “Imagining intruders where there are none. Who would even want this place? It’s…it’s not even a home anymore. It’s a crime scene.”
“You haven’t cracked,” came a small voice from somewhere by Karessa’s feet. She gasped and squeaked and recoiled all at once. “No, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you! I was trying to be comforting and I’m afraid I’m no good at that, ma’am.”
“Where are you?” Karessa demanded manically.
“Look down,” instructed the voice. “Lower.”
Standing on the ground, brushing ash off of his shoes, was a tiny humanoid man wearing a trench coat and trilby. “That’s the ticket,” Alph said, putting his hands in his pocket and giving an encouraging nod. “I didn’t mean to give you a fright, truly. I wasn’t sure how to announce my presence. I’m Alph, by the way. I work with Roland. You could say I’m the brains of the operation.”
Karessa eyed him warily, her fingers finding a jagged piece of plate on the counter. “How did you find me? I lost Roland a way’s back.”
“But you still went the long way, it seems,” Alph said. “I headed straight here, figuring that you wouldn’t be returning to your new home. You’re too clever for that. Furthermore, your guilt over taking your mother’s necklace was likely to draw you back to the scene of the crime, consciously or not. Not to mention I have a photographic memory, and I memorized this address when Roland sent you a letter inquiring about your well-being some weeks ago. It was rudimentary, my dear.”
“Then where is he?”
“Well that’s actually why I’m here, miss. The boy got lost in his hunt for you and found himself cornered by a pack of ne’er-do-wells. He was attacked and summarily kidnapped.”
Karessa dropped the improvised weapon and her face fell with it. “Because of me? Great Bear beneath, I can’t do anything right.”
Alph furrowed his face and crossed his arms. “Your self-flagellation will get us nowhere, young lady, but your extensive criminal history just might.” With his consent, Karessa lifted him up onto the counter, and leaned on her elbows as he spoke. “Roland was taken by a large horned individual. A minotaur, if I’m not mistaken. Now why would they want the lad? I can only assume it’s related to a piece of information we received from some loose-lipped spiders, that the necklace is still in the possession of your old friend Leek Offman, who must be in cahoots with Tac Rithma.”
“It really was all my fault,” Karessa moped. “He wouldn’t be in trouble if I hadn’t hired him to fix my mistakes.”
The Minitoan snapped his fingers in Karessa’s face. “This thinking isn’t helping anyone, Plunderton. I understand your sorrow, but we have to focus not on what we could have done different, but what we should be doing now. You’re resourceful, I’m perceptive, and together we are going to save Roland. Are we in agreement?”
Karessa looked down at her ashen countertop for a long moment before meeting Alph’s gaze. “We are.”