Having freed the mining town of Omoko from destruction by the Manihiki Ferro Navy, the group returned to Seattle. Ish-Ma-El experienced a small part of the multiverse, realising that a world could have seas and lakes of water, and millions of people can live in one of thousands of glittering city. The wake celebrated, Ish-ma-El returned to the sands of Railsea as Bruce returned home to New Orleans with his Father.
The old wooden flyscreen rattled in its frame as a heavy hand knocked at Yvette front door. The day was unseasonable hot, and Yvette had welcomed the moisture-laden breeze off the Mississippi down the hallway to the kitchen where she sat. The knock startled her, and she looked at the starburst clock on the wall. Where had the time gone? She’d taken a break from her chores at ten, and it was almost twelve. She swirled the remains of her now cold, chicory coffee and tried to remember what had startled her.
“Oh! Who could that be?” She said aloud to herself and then to the stranger at the door, “Coming!”
She emptied the remains of her coffee down the sink, washed the cup, placed it on the sideboard to dry, and then looked around the kitchen. Spotless as ever.
“It’s me, Ma,” Came her Bruce’s voice from the front door, “I’ve got a present for ya.”
“Bruce?” What a surprise! His job in Seattle kept him busy, but he did try to sneak down to see her when he could. But why was he standing at the door? “Come in, boy, no need to stand on ceremony at your own door.”
She walked out the kitchen into the hallway, the breeze gently flipping her hair away from her face as it used to when she was a girl. Bruce (was that boy still growing?) stood in the door looking…expectant? Concerned? She couldn’t tell. As she gestured for him to step inside, he instead leaned to the left, revealing the gravel path and front lawn behind him.
Yvette’s breath caught as her heart leapt into her throat. She reached out for the wall beside her, sure she’d soon run, faint or be sick. It was the very last thing she expected to see, and like seeing a ghost, she found it hard to make sense of what her eyes were telling her.
Standing in a patch of sunlight, enjoying the same breeze she had only a moment before, was Jimmy. Jimmy, her sweetheart, her love, her husband and the malignant shadow over her life. He was older. The hair was greying at the temples in that way, they say, gives men more gravitas. He was also thinner, unhealthily so. But as he turned away from the breeze and fixed his steel-blue eyes on her, she knew.
“Now, Ma…Ma?” Bruce said from the other side of the screen door. She felt her slippered feet shuffle back towards the safety of the kitchen, her refuge (outside of church, that was). Behind her, a murmur of low voices and the screen door hinges squealed .
“No…no Bruce, no..” She said as her hand moved from the wall to the vinyl backed kitchen chair, “Please, we’ve had enough ghosts in this household.”
“Ma…it’s not how you think. It’s not how any of us thought…”
“When that…” She could taste the foul words on her lips and denied their expression. Instead, she licked her lips, their saltiness adding a sting to her thoughts, “When he left that last time, I knew it was for good. I shut that part of my life down. He was dead to me…and so was I. All that mattered was you and Johnny. “
She could feel the tears welling in her eyes and knew they weren’t for the her wayward man, “Even then, I saw how the loss of him affected you both. John went wild, just like his daddy and you…oh, Bruce, I thought I’d lost you too when poor Chris died. Such a big boy, you shrunk into yourself and almost disappeared, do you remember?”
He winced, and he nodded, able to say nothing.
“And when you came back, you were…different. There was no more talk of college or the future, just making sure that John and me were alright.”
Bruce stood silent, head bowed.
“But that was never your job. That was…his!” She pointed a finger down the hall, past the flyscreen into the sunlight with a bitterness she never knew she had inside her,” He never saw his boy torn apart and have to put himself back together, never saw the sacrifices he made. He never felt…” The words stuck in her throat. She leaned into her son’s broad chest and cried.
They stood there in the cool of the kitchen as the clock ticked away the time.
“Ma,” Bruce whispered after her sobbing ceased, and they stood in the easy comfort they had learned to share over the years, “He was taken away by some bad people, to a place he…he never hoped of escaping…”
“He chose that life, the one that had those people. He chose! For what he did to you boys… I will never forgive him.”
“Maybe so. But for your boy’s sake, will you give him a hearing? He has a strange story. Trapped in a strange place. My group went there, found him, brought him home. He’s done strange and wonderful things, things you’d be proud of if you heard them,” He placed his large hand on either side of his mother’s face and lifted it until she was looking him in the eyes, “I am.”
Yvette stood and searched her son’s face for signs of falsehood or dissembling. She could always read him like a book and was surprised to find none. All she saw was the kind of peace she knew from church—the peace of forgiveness.
“You’re proud? You forgive him?”
“For my part,” Bruce nodded and gave a weak smile, ”I can’t hold him accountable for all the terrible things that happened to us after he left. For John or Chris. And for the terrible things he did before…yeah, I forgive him. Not to say I didn’t give him a hard time about it.”
Yvette snorted a laugh, imagining that first encounter between father and grown son, “I bet you did.”
“Ma, you have to at least listen to him. I think…I think he’s now the man you saw in him. I hope so…”
Yvette lifted her chin defiantly and pushed her son away. She crossed the kitchen to sink. After a few splashes of water, Yvette felt better equipped to deal with whatever happened next. She turned back to her son, who looked like he was holding his breath.
“Alright. But out on the porch, I won’t have him in the house.”
“You’ll listen and believe what he says?”
“I won’t promise to believe anything that comes out his mouth,” She retorted, a spark of her former self returning, “I will listen as is my duty…I don’t promise anything else.”
Bruce held out his strong hand, and his mother placed her worn one in it. Together they walked down the hall to the screen door.
He was still standing in the sun as they came out of the dark of the house. His eyes closed, a small smile on his lips. As the door creaked open, he turned once more to face them, the look of contentment melting under Yvette’s glare.
“I never thought I’d miss the smell of the Mississippi,” Were his first words, “But there was never a day I didn’t miss you, Evie.”
Yvette’s sniffed at the sloppy compliment, and she let go of Bruce’s hand. She walked up to Jimmy and looked him square in the face.
“You look well,” She said cooly as he raised his left hand to touch her face. She pulled away and glanced at a gold band that still wrapped his finger. She shoved her own left hand quickly into the pocket of her apron and walked around him. Gripping his arm she felt the hard muscle like that of Bruce, brought on by physical labour. She allowed her hands to slip across his back, broader than she remembered and felt a roughness to the skin under the thin homespun shirt. She traced lines crossing and recrossing his back as he turned his head to look at her,
“They’re lash scars,”
She pulled her hand away as if burnt, “Lashes?”
“Ah, so that’s what I did wrong, didn’t beat the sense into you.”
Jimmy turned away, and she could hear his voice was strained, “It was never anything you did or did not do, love.”
Yvette placed her hand gently on her husband’s back, “Bruce, could you please fetch the pitcher of lemonade from the fridge and two glasses?”
“Right, Ma,” And Bruce was gone. He could certainly move when it called for.
“I hear you have a story to tell?” She walked around to face Jimmy as he brushed away a revelaing tear falling down his face. It was more telling than anything he had to say.
“It better be a good one.”
Later that evening, as Bruce waited for his flight back to Seattle, he received a call from his mother.
“Ma, how are you?”
“What do you mean, how am I? What am I supposed to think?” Over the phone, he could hear her strength, her practical level-headedness had reinstated itself, “He comes back after twenty years, and the best you two can come up with was this story of kidnap and high adventure? Who do you think I am? Robert Louis Stevenson?”
He smiled. ”Does it make a difference if I say I was there? I saw what those people were capable of and fought the same fight.”
“And this is the Seattle job? You said that was security. I asked John about it, and he went and found excuses to be somewhere else.”
Bruce grimaced. He never told her about the work. He’d said he worked for the Estate, a well known philanthropic institution, as a member of their security department. When talk of work came up, he always mentioned the personalities, Algernon the wunderkind, Peggy, the nutty professor and…Tobias. Rain. Never their exploits.
“It is security, Ma. We’re like police, keeping the world safe,” He finally admitted.
“And here I thought you were the one person I could trust to tell me the truth,” She said heavily like the idea was almost too much for her to carry, “What a fool am I.”
“You’re never a fool, Ma. I couldn’t tell you. These things are secret for a reason.”
After a long pause, she sighed, “Yeah, I get that, I suppose,” And Bruce knew that somehow his dad had got through.
“So, you catch the people who do things like what happened to your dad?”
“Yeah, we do.” He confirmed and was pleased to be finally honest with her, “So, does this mean you’ve given Dad another chance?”
“Oh honey, we’re very different people now,” She cooed in a manner he was very used to and realised she was trying to let him down gently, “We don’t fit those moulds anymore.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“People change,” She said casually enough before,” He is taking me out to Old Town tomorrow night.”
“You know, I don’t remember the last time I went out, just for fun.”
“Good for you, Ma.” Bruce beamed. The sign for his flight flicked to “boarding”, and the announcements began. He ignored it all, “You deserve a little happiness.”
“If you call scouring my wardrobe for something decent to wear happy, I’m delirious!” She chirped, and he laughed out loud in the near-empty gate, “Did I hear your flight called? You better go.”
“Yeah, love you, Ma.”
“Keep safe out there.”
Tobias left the Estate early that morning, saying he had to go shopping. It wasn’t until early afternoon when he finally went hunting for Algernon in the library. Now free of the fear the tabooed subjects forced on him, Algernon was now spending his time researching information on an individual, entity or organisation called, Nakarand. He was not having a lot of luck. Even with a whole day’s work on the subject, he found himself covering ground that Rain had covered months before. As he pulled over another report with the ubiquitous R.B. initials last on the check-out slip, something yellow caught his eye.
He glanced up and saw nothing amiss but felt the weight of eyes on him. He lowered his head, paying no attention to the words in front of him. Instead, he focused all his thought on sound, smell and peripheral vision. A faint smell of the gunk Rain put in his hair each morning wafted through. Algernon found it a regular feature for people in this society and disregarded it. He could hear someone walking behind the shelving beside him. The Librarians were omnipresent as always, it could be one of them? A splash of colour caught his eye, but peripheral vision is blurry, and when he tilted his head to look, the colour was gone.
He had no weapon with him and felt exposed. Spotting a pair of scissors last used by the librarian who opened the files for him. He covered the scissors with his arm with a simple stretch and pulled them back into his lap. Algernon had just swapped it to his main hand when a soft voice whispered over his shoulder.
“Studying on such a lovely day?”
“If you want to sneak up on people, you should refrain from wearing yellow,” Algernon said without lifting his head from his reading.
“Why? I snuck up on you, didn’t I?” The voice said as Algernon tapped the tip of the very sharp scissors against the fine yellow material of the new suit trousers.
“Ah. I’ll remind you I was born Muslim and am circumcised,” Tobias gingerly moved around the scissor point and took a seat beside his friend, “A new look for the new me, like it?”
Algernon now raised his head and took in his friend’s new clothes. A finely cut three-piece suit in egg-yolk yellow, a white-collar shirt and a dark blue tie spangled with stars.
“Not good for infiltration missions. You’d stand out too much,” Was Algernon’s honest assessment.
“Standing out is what I do best,” Tobias sifted through the physical reports on the table between them, “I’ve read these… when looking up Nakarand.”
“Yes, I have been woefully remiss in my research of our enemies,” Algernon admitted, and Tobias’ eyes grew wide in realisation.
“No more verboten topics! How is it to have a mind of your own?”
Algernon had to stop and think. In one way, there had been no change. The relationship between his senses and his body was as usual. He had no memory difficulties or issues with cognitive abilities.
“About the same,” He finally said, and Tobias shook his head.
“I noticed differences. You don’t seem so afraid. When did you last ask,’ was it safe?’”
Algernon frowned. Fear had kept him alive all his short life. To not fear couldn’t be a change for the better, could it?
“I don’t know if I like that,” He admitted, and Tobias laughed low so as not to attract the librarians’ attention.
“There are other things. The first time we were in Railsea, you tore apart a giant rat with your bare hands and a knife in a sort of frenzy,” Tobias started looking at little green at the thought of Algernon covered in the creature’s blood and shook it off, “This time, you were cool and calm. Sabotaging trains, taking long-range shots from on top of moving carriages and sailing into combat, a serene force of nature.”
Not used to such effusive compliments, even from Tobias, Algernon blushed, embarrassed.
“And now….Crow Hollow,” Tobias said expectantly, watching for Algernon’s response.
“I’m scared of planetovores,” He admitted, and to this, Tobias nodded his head.
“And for good reason. They eat planets. How do you reason with them? How do you fight them?” He agreed, flicking absently through the files in front of him, “ Fear is not a bad thing, but we can’t live a life of fear anymore.”
Tobias caught Algernon’s eye at this point. It was always a topic they had in common, even if their response to fear was different.
“And how about you, Rain?”
Tobias’s usual gentle companionable smile faltered, and his eyes darted away and down as if checking behind him.
“Ah, seriously? About the same. You studied psychology for a while, didn’t you, ever heard of closure?”
“It was neurology, but I’ve seen it mentioned in the documentaries.”
“It’s overrated. I guess you’re meant to walk away with a little peace, a little wisdom,” He raked a hand through his hair nervously and sighed, “Well, at least Tobias is a good guy. It will be good to be him again.” He said, talking about himself as another person. It would have sounded odd to anyone else, but Algernon was well used to his friend’s idiosyncrasies. In fact, without them, Algernon would have thought him strange.
They spend the rest of the libraries open hours in research. Algernon, continuing to find out what he could about Narkarand, Tobias on their next destination, Crow Hollow, its social structure and culture.
…Though one of the more established recursions, Crow Hollow is not a large place, really only encompassing the Great tree (30 miles in diameter) that holds the Glittering Market, residence and industry of Crow Hollow.
The people call themselves Cro and are sentient crow-humanoids. Though flying is almost impossible at their size, gliding is available to all Cro and can be very effective with the help of thermals.
The Cro industry is “acquiring” items from other recursions for sale at the Glittering Market. The Glittering Market is the centre of Cro life and culture.
There is no seeming governing body. Instead, a set of families all related and allied to each other in a complicated web keep control of the Glittering market and therefore Cro society. Two families are most prominent, the Drood family led by Don Wyclef and the Cornaro family, led by Dona Ilsa Conaro. Most other families are either directly linked to one of the two ruling families or stay independent and pay protection money….
At the same time, Peggy was busy putting the knowledge she gained from their last trip to Railsea to practical use. Seeing into the Angel’s mind had been a revelation. Though the Angels’ energy system eluded her, she was able to created a prototype of their propulsion system. Still only small scale (a disc the size of a large plate), with more research, she was sure one could make one to carry a vehicle through the air.
At Bruce’s return to The Estate, they all gathered, as usual, to translate out from Peggy’s lab. From her desk drawer, she pulled out a coin with a crow’s head on it. It reminded Tobias of the small chest of such coins taken from Eldin Lightfeather in Celephais, but this one was a key, a direct route to Crow Hollow.
“Who is leading the translation?” She asked, holding it out. No one replied.
“Fine,” She replied tiredly.
“I just assumed you or Algernon would,” Tobias said, “I can. I did with the triplets.”
“We all can. They just do it better,” Bruce added, looking back at Peggy, who rolled her eyes.
“It’s fine. I’ll do it” They all stood in their accustomed places in the circle, holding hands, and she concentrated on the coin. Minutes past, and nothing. Finally, Peggy gave up and handed the coin to Algernon.
“I’ve just got my floating disc working, and all I can think about is that,” She sighed as Algernon flipped the coin over in his hand before closing his fist over it.
“You can do it. Just breath and focus,” Tobias said as a shot of the Strange tingled Algernon’s hand.
“Oh,” He complained good-naturedly, “I wanted to do it myself,” Tobias just shrugged.
This time the translation went through, and the group were once more sailing through the Strange. Once more, Tobias’ sped them through the inky blackness only punctuated by the fractal starscape. Once more, Bruce’s ability lessened the shock of impact of translation into their new selves.
And new selves they were. All four were now Cro. Algernon was gangly and thin but otherwise unremarkable in his black feathers and wings. Peggy also looked herself , with her lab coat over the scruffy dark feathers. She had appeared with a book under her wing and was now beak deep in its pages. Bruce looked most like himself, a huge Cro covered in a thick layer of black with his crowbar now in heavy wood, strapped between his wings. Initially, Tobias looked much you’d expect, a small Cro with a yellow suit, the slick metal Ruk wings folded behind his back. Warmth from the pocket he kept the puzzle box made him examine the item. It looked the same as it ever did, but he felt a strong connection to it, a binding of sorts as if he himself were protected within its wooden mechanics.
“Ah, now that’s interesting,” He said, more to himself than anyone, ”I’ll have to keep this close, it seems.”
Simultaneously, he was aware of a voice speaking to him as if from a long way off.
Are you a magic user, a soul sorcerer? Said the female voice. It echoed as if they were a long way off, but he could almost feel a gentle breath against his ear. He turned to look around them, but though the place was full of Cro, no one paid them any attention.
“I imagine you could say that. Who are you?” He asked out loud.
Avel, I’ve been so long for this chance. I know soul sorcerers can shelter ones like me. In return, I can do things for you.
“O-kay,” He replied, more as an acknowledgement of what Avel had said than anything. It seemed she took it as a sign of acceptance as there was a rushing of wind and burning heat on his chest. Quickly pulling back his new tie and unbuttoning the collared shirt, Tobias revealed the feathers down his keel bone marked in a white pattern, like a tattoo.
“What is that?” Bruce asked as Tobias quickly redressed.
“More she than it,” He clacked, surprised to find smiling difficult with a solid beak, “I have a new friend, and her name is Avel.”
“And she’s a tattoo,” Bruce asked doubtfully.
“She manifests as such,” Tobias acknowledged with a shrug, “ I think I’m going to have fun in Crow Hollow.”
“Cool!” Algernon nodded as together they turned and took in their surroundings for the first time.
They stood, as much of this place did, in the shade of a massive tree. The lowest branches swept the ground, making a path that climbed up the tree and through the canopy. The higher branches were lost to leaves, but occasional rooftops or chimney stacks could be seen poking out. The whole tree swarmed with black bodies, either Cro, walking on two legs and wearing clothing or actual crows, flying in small groups through the branches. Beyond the shadow created by the tree, a thick cloud obscured everything. Peggy could feel the Strange’s electrical buzz beyond those clouds and surmised that if one were to fly through them, they would end up floating physically in the Strange.
Cro glided from higher branches down to lower ones, and both Bruce and Tobias started testing their wings, jumping and letting the air drift them back down to the ground. It was a revelation, and they acted like naughty schoolboys with a new toy. Algernon casually scanned the crowds around them. They’re antics were getting looks from the locals.
“You’re drawing attention to us,” Using his levitate he picked up
Bruce just as he leaped into the air to attempt a glide. Bruce complained as he watched Tobias swoop around effortlessly, but had to admit they were making a scene. With a shrug to Algernon’s carefulness, Bruce dragged Tobias back himself.
“We’re at the market, we’re going to want these,” Tobias remembered the chest of coins and started sharing them out. Though fifty crow coins sounded a lot at the time, it came to only twelve each with a couple of remainders, but it was better than having to use your resources to dabble in the market.
“It’s the magic of this place. You can buy whatever you like. However, once you run out the payment in crow coins is made from your lifeforce,” Tobias explained, “Keep your purchases to these twelve, and you should be fine. After that, I don’t know how it will affect you.”
“Okay. We’re here, and we have money. Where are we going, and who do we kill?” Algernon asked, his crossbow sleeky hidden under ruffled black wing feathers.
“No one, just yet, I hope. I’d like to set up an interview with Dona Ilsa, we owe her an interview, and I feel she may be the most amenable of the two Beak Mafia bosses,” Rain suggested looking to others for ideas.
“ We don’t even know where their place of business is. Why don’t we walk through the markets and get a feel for the place first,” Said Bruce, and it was decided, at least until their coins ran, that they’d check out the markets.
The legend of the Glittering Market did not convey its scope. Taking up most of the thirty-mile-wide tree, the Glittering market held anything that would fit on a stall and many things that didn’t. Peggy eyed a stall full of handguns and lamented her steampunked pistol from 1890s London. Then, on the stall was what she was looking for sitting amongst other odds and ends.
“Fifteen crow coins, “ The Cro owning the stall said to her enquiries, far more than she had on hand.
“I do have this Beretta M9. Can I use this for trade?” She asked, and the Cro’s eyes flicked between his stock and the offered gun.
“Deal, “ The feathered hand extended over the stall. As Peggy reached out and completed the handshake, two crow coins and the flintlock pistol left the stall owner, and the Beretta replaced it on the stall, “Thank you for your patronage.” Peggy was now slightly richer than she had been at the start of the markets.
At another stall, Algernon and Bruce were going through the assortment of odd products of offer. A sachet of powered pet, “…just add water!” A third arm that grafts directly into its owner’s body. A globe of glowing winged humanoids that was as bright as a torch. Bruce watched as the little fairies tapped on the glass, begging to be let out. As they walked away, he sidled up to Algernon and whispered so the stall owner couldn’t hear, “Hey kid, levitate the globe and knock it off the stall.”
“Why?” Algernon asked, perplexed that Bruce would be a party to vandalism.
“I want it to break and let the fairies out,” He replied as they joined the other two at the next stall.
“Then how will they pay off their debt?”
“Debt? How do you know they have a debt?”
“They were obviously captured during some criminal activity and are now serving time. What you’re asking is to aid in the escape of criminals. That’s very unlawful of you, Bruce.”
“That’s why I’m asking you to do it?” Bruce replied with a grim smile on his face.
“Oh, in that case,” Algernon looked back at the globe. With a flick of his fingers, the globe rolled off the stall, bounced off the branch, down through the canopy of the tree and disappeared. Bruce leaned over to watch as the globe shattered on the ground, fairies flying away in all directions.
The stallkeeper rounded on a customer who happened to be the closest at the time. A fight broke out, and the group quietly just left the area.
Further up the tree, Algernon saw something that made him stop in his tracks. Besides a stall was a low-riding red motorcycle. Decorated in various company logos, the swept-back style was unique and unmistakable as the Akira bike.
“How much is it?” He asked the stall owner without preamble.
“Five hundred crow coins,” The stall owner replied cooly. It was more crow coin than all the party combined were likely ever to see. Even pooling all their resources, they would have been lucky to make more than two hundred crow coins. On top of that, there was the issue of getting the bike back to Earth without it translating into a standard Earth road bike.
“Five hundred,” Algernon scoffed at the man, “Does it even work?”
The stall owner turned the key in the ignition. The thing purred like it had found its master.
“Sure, it turns over, but does it actually work? I could take it for a test drive. Check it out?” He tried for nonchalant and failed. The Cro stall owner turned off the bike and pocketed the keys.
Slipping into the Cro’s mind, Algernon asked, “Where did it come from?”
“Bought it off another traveller,” He replied. The image of another Cro with spikey head feathers in a red leather jacket suspiciously like the one Algernon had back in Seattle appeared. The bike was genuine and out of their league.
“What get’s me is, if that’s the actual Akira bike, what’s the one at Ni-Challan’s?” Tobias asked as they began to walk away. A bright something flitted through his view, and he turned to watch a group of fairies flitting around the stall owner.
“We should ask him-” Algernon started before Tobias dragged him across to a nearby stall.
“Let’s look what this one has,” He said aloud before commenting in a much quieter tone, “Don’t look now, but there’s a group of those fairies you help escape flitting around the bike owner.”
Algernon made a casual glance back at the bike stall but didn’t see the fairies.
“You think they may want to help?” He asked, turning to the new stall’s wares.
“Possibly, you did free them. I just wanted to see what they’d do.”
Algernon pulled out a few items from the new stall that looked Strangely interesting: a repellent for spore worms, a speed boost and a cloak that made you look ten years old. Tobias was interested in the speed boost, but at ten crow, coins balked at spending all his coins on one purchase. All thoughts of fairies disappeared as the old con-man awoke and made his play.
“It’s a one-use item, too rich for me. I could be interested in purchasing the cloak and the speed boost for five crow coins.”
Tobias and the merchant haggled for a moment or two, and in the end, he walked away with all three items for the ten coins. The speed boost went to Bruce and the repellent to Peggy, who thought it would make a good stink bomb. That left the cloak with Tobias.
“Why do you want to look ten years old?” Peggy asked suspiciously.
“I don’t, but it could be a good disguise, or maybe we can just resell it. Buying and selling it seems the way this place works.”
Peggy rummaged around in her bag with the suggestion of reselling and pulled out a well-worn but intact packet of hygiene pads.
“Here, see what you can do with these?”
Tobias laughed as he gratefully took the packet. It was the exact same one Algernon had purchased for Peggy while investigating the Spiral Dust trail in Seattle more than a year before. At the time Algernon had, had no idea what he’d bought, only knowing it was for Peggy. Now Tobias looked at it with the critical eye of a seller.
“Hmmm, original packaging, good but not mint condition. An intact, complete set of multi-use, high absorbent adhesive pads.”
Now the spiel was established, he found another stall and started chatting to the seller. Building a rapport was easy. Tobias had picked the Cro because he looked bored and ready to chat with a stranger to past the time.
“The names Paco Derois,” He replied to Tobias’ query.
“Derois, so not of one of the great families?” Tobias noted, “But you would be in with either the Conaro or the Drood?”
“We’re independent mostly, though I do pay protection to Dona Ilsa. You can’t run a business in Crow Hollow without protection.”
As he chatted, Tobias wove his spinner’s ideal into the conversation, making the merchant feel at ease.
Tobias is trustworthy.
The hygiene pads were presented for sale, and the price of ten crow coins suggested. They were something new and unexpected, and Paco accepted the deal without question. A small silent cheer filled Tobias’ soul as he and Algernon turned to follow a murmur of upset voices coming through the crowd.
Pushing their way through the throng were four large well-dressed Cro, all in black suits making a beeline for Paco’s stall. As they cleared the crowd, each of the four pulled out automatic weapons and fired.
At the sight and sound of guns, Tobias leapt the trestle table that made up the stall and dragged Paco down to the branch. Algernon took the opportunity to slip into the crowd behind the four goons unseen by anyone. In comparison, Peggy lifted her head from the book she’d been reading and spoke a word that held more power than the force she gave it. From the word, a human-like creature made of smoke and shadow rose and formed from the branch’s dark places. Sensing its mistresses intented it launched itself at the first of the goons. Flying feathers turned into coin shreds as the umber wolf torn at the Cro. The crowds watching in horror now turned and flocked in to pick them up. Two of the goon’s companions came to his rescue as the third stepped forward to finish what they started.
Bullet flew over Tobias’ head, and he knew nothing but flight, literally. Dragging Paco with him, he fell off the branch and down through the canopy of the tree. Stretching our their wings, they glided out away from the tree and away from cover. The goon taking his chance, shot after the fleeing merchant and Tobias. He could hear the sizzle of bullets as they flew passed and he could feel his panic rising. Pulling his wings back, he dove to the ground, outflying the bullets and Paco still carefully gliding away. With a flip practised over the sand of Railsea, Tobias used his diving momentum to curve back up towards the tree and catch up with Paco. He grabbed paco and sent them both diving into the markets lower levels around the trunk of the tree from the machine gun goon.
Algernon watched the goon shot at the disappearing Tobias. From the anonymity of the crowd, he gave a small gesture, a sudden hard thrust forward, and the third goon was sent flailing off the branch. Three goons left, and one wasn’t doing so well. Peggy checked her book and found a page that gave details about the umber wolf she’s summoned. Realising the strength and ferocity of the beast, she closed her book and, like Algernon, disappeared into the crowd.
Bruce alone was taken by surprise by the goons. Watching from the edge of the crowd, he could see Peggy’s handiwork and her curly feathered head slipping away. Algernon was nowhere to be seen, as was Tobias and the merchant. There seemed little reason to get involved in the squabble with the mobsters and the shadow monster. He too stood back and watched the two goons struggle to keep the umber wolf off their friend.
Below, Tobias pulled Paco into the relative cover of a sunshade. With the sounds and smells of gunfire still ringing in his head, Tobias was finding it hard not to curl up into a ball. But, he needed to focus if he was going to make something out of this mess. He was alone with a complete stranger. His friends left with four gun-wielding thugs.
Suddenly he was less alone than he imagined as the voice of Avel piped up, insisting she could help.
I can manifest for a short while and use my scream, She suggested, Or if you prefer, I can take control and make you strong…?
No, right now, I…I just need you to be quiet. I need to t…think.
I’m sorry, He could feel her agtitation and a desire to be of help to him.
No, it’s fine. He sucked in a shuddering breath and found the distraction of Avel’s conversation soothing. You’ve already been a help. We’ll need to have a chat very soon, I promise.
He turned to Paco, a shaking hand checking for injuries.
“Are you okay? Did they hit you at all?” He asked Paco, who checked himself and shook his large beaked head.
“No, I’m fine,”
“Ah, what was that about?”
“I don’t know, looked like Drood’s boys.”
“But they attacked your stall. Why come down so heavy on you?”
Paco turned away, seemingly to check the crowd around them. Tobias got the feeling he was stalling.
“Um..I…I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink,” He said, and the shaking of his feathered hand set off sympathetic shivers to the rest of his body, “Do you know a place we can hold up for a bit?”
Paco nodded and led the way to a copula open on four sides with a bar in the middle. Buying them both drinks, Tobias directed Paco to a table at the far end, facing the entrance.
Above their heads, the umber wolf ripped the last few feathers off its victim and disappeared in a puff of black smoke. Algernon, Bruce and Peggy watched the goons help their companion back to his feet. They looked around the crowd menacingly before starting the walk back down the branch to the lower reaches of the market. In the crowd picking up the last coins, Algernon pocketed what he had and turned to watch the goons leave. Recognised him through the thining crowd Peggy joined him. Soon Bruce made three, following Peggy’s lead.
“Well, come on, we have to go find Tobias,” Bruce said and started for the edge of the branch.
“You go on, I’ve got something I want to follow up on,” Algernon said, not taking his eyes off the disappearing goons. Without another word, he moved off through the crowd in pursuit and was soon lost to them.
Peggy tapped Bruce on the shoulder, creating a link.
He’ll be right. Let’s find Rain. She thought and leapt off the branch into the clear air. Bruce silently followed.
It wasn’t hard to find Tobias in the end. As soon as they landed on the lower level, Bruce started asking the local stallholders, “You see a wannabe peacock in a yellow suit?” Spreading out they covered more territory. Peggy found him first and directed Bruce via their link to the pub where Tobias and Paco were talking over their drinks. As soon as Tobias spotted his companions, he introduced Paco formally and ordered drinks for the table.
“I was terrified, Paco. We must do something about this! I won’t rest easy knowing you’ll be facing those goons again sometime soon,” Tobias cajoled Paco, one time leaning on their new friendship, another moment making the most of his still shaken state. As Tobias kept pushing the subject of why the Drood’s would be after him, he could see the Ideal at work and Paco seemed to accept his desire to help.
“I did help Dona Ilsa store a shipment of blue powdery stuff for a discount on protection this month,” Paco confessed after a few drinks.
“This month, as recent as that?” Tobias looked at the other two, who had already made the connection. Don Ilsa was still trading in Spiral Dust, “Well, that must be it. Please, let me talk to her. Let me sort this out. You shouldn’t be a target for any of her schemes.”
Paco hung his head, a forlorn look on a Cro whose large beak nearly reached his lap, “I’m not important enough to get an interview with the Dona, but I can tell you where she lives, and I’ll ask if she’ll see you.”
“Well, you tell her what happened here, and you tell her that Tobias Cudo wishes a word with her.” Tobias took Paco hand companionably.
“Why? Why are you doing all this? For me?”
Tobias snorted, an unusual sound through a beak,” Of course, we’re friends now, and like pads, we stick together!”
It was all Paco needed to hear. His shoulders sagged in relief, “Okay, I’ll see if I can set up an interview with the Dona.”
Tobias sighed and smiled inwardly, knowing they were on the next step of this mission.
Now Avel, you were saying?
Algernon walked a few metres behind the three goon, completely unremarked and unnoticed. The goons followed the path through the markets down to where they saw Tobias and the store holder go. Along the way, the fallen one rejoined his friends with a clatter of feather. Taking advantage of the momentary disturbance, Algernon moved in closer to pick up their conversation.
“What happened to you?” Asked the umber wolf savaged one.
“I was pushed! “ Replied the clumsy one, affronted.
“Yeah, right…” A third spoke up.
“I was. You must have seen them…”
“There was no one near you!” The first grumbled, dabbing at his wounds.
“Yeah, stop making excuses for being clumsy.”
He followed them down to the lower market where Tobias and the merchant were sitting in an open pub with Peggy and Bruce. Algernon saw them first, and stepping aside, he took a knee and pulled out a crossbow bolt. He wrote two words on the shaft before carefully loadin the bolt into his crossbow. The asked a stall owner and were directed to the copula and the group sitting together. As a wedge, they cleaved their way through the crowd. Algernon brought the crossbow up and aimed through the sights at Tobias. Squeezing the trigger, the limbs jumped and threw the bolt forward, past the goons across the pub and into a wooden beam by Tobias’ head.
At the table, all eyes focused on the bolt quivering in front of them until the two words resolved themselves into one clear message.