Synfonica

Synfonica is Chad “Chadstract” Hemmert’s latest novel. The first three chapters are available to read here at ChadstractsBeat! Make sure to leave a comment below or contact Chadstract using the form at the bottom of this page:

Synfonica

 

©2011, By Chadstract



PROLOGUE: THE CRIME SCENE

 

The early morning rain casts a drizzly gloom in the boreal forest surrounding the town of Chateaux Reverie. The grey haze of first light reveals traveling mist rolling through the dense trees and their tangle of branches and pine needles. The mist curls and caresses its way through the looming, brooding trees until it meets and mates with a brook, which in turn, merges with a larger stream, which eventually empties into the Rives en Reves, the River Reverie.

Along the path of this series of tributaries lies a covered bridge. It is so old and overgrown that one could easily overlook it as being part of the forest. There are no sounds except the soft cadence of raindrops wetting the sleepy forest and it is a peaceful Saturday morning. But that is about to change.

It starts with one pair of headlights off in the distance cutting through the fog and drizzle, then another pair. Now the sound of ATV motors breaks the tranquility with their tinny sputtering. Next comes the unmistakable flashing of blue and red lights that can only herald the coming of law enforcement or emergency vehicles, or both, winding their way towards the covered bridge. But there is no siren wail to accompany the dizzying strobes. No need for sirens when the victim is already dead.

At the tail end of this procession of emergency vehicles is Detective James Baxter, a veteran of the River County Sheriff’s Department. He is tall, with a stocky build, widow’s peak from the slow but steady recession of hair, and is slightly overweight from years of increasing inaction that comes from time on the force. He is accompanied by his partner, Junior Detective Alexis Warner, young, petite, short red hair, and possessing pixie-ish good looks that have made more than a few co-workers’ heads turn.

She is driving them to their destination, as she has often done of late. Alex, as Baxter affectionately calls her, is soon to become a full-fledged Detective under his careful guidance. It has become their routine to have Alex take the lead under most circumstances, and she has been a good protégé. With a sharp wit, and a sharp tongue to match, Bax, as she affectionately refers to him, has found his best student, and in many ways he is loathed to see her go, but understands that even the most exceptional birds cannot be caged.

“Now when we get there, remember to disturb—”

“I know, I know, ‘disturb the crime scene as little as possible,’” she interrupts, rolling her eyes. “Rule number 11 in James Baxter’s ‘Golden Rulebook.’ How could I forget? What—you nervous about me?”

Baxter gives her a surprised look. “Of course not. You should know by now that I have complete faith in you.”

“Well, you’ve got a strange way of showing it sometimes,” Alexis grumbles, but not unkindly.

Baxter barks a mirthless laugh. “Yeah, I must. I know I’ve been hard on you, but it’s important to know the basics. When you’re out on your own, you’ll be responsible for your own casework, and you can run them however you want.” He cocks a sideways glance at her. “Maybe even throw out the ol’ Golden Rulebook? I’m just trying to show you the ropes how I’ve learned them.”

“Yeah, I know you’re just trying to help…and you’ve been the best,” she says, now turning serious.

“And you’ve been a good student. Lots of great stuff there,” he replies, turning his head back towards the passenger window, a little taken aback by the compliment. “So tell me what you know about the case so far.”

Alexis resumes her concentration towards driving, reciting the points of the case. “Young white female found near old abandoned bridge, apparently drowned. A local fisherman discovered the girl…”

“Do we have a positive I.D. on her yet?” He asks, turning the volume all the way down on the radio. It is a familiar song, a catchy tune, but right now, Baxter wants to concentrate on the case.

“Not yet, but we already have samples out to the lab,” she replies.

“Alright then,” he says as Alex parks the jeep on the shoulder of the rough dirt road behind the other emergency vehicles.

“You’re running point on this one.”

“As usual,” Alex replies as she unbuckles her seatbelt.

 

 

As Alex takes down notes from the fisherman who discovered the body, Baxter looks around the crime scene, avoiding the various local police officers who shuffle through the muddy terrain carrying coffee cups and clipboards.

Something catches Baxter’s eye, glinting in the morning’s dim haze. He pulls one of the straggling Officers over to him. “Those footprints—” he points at the spot of ground directly in front of him, indicating a patchwork of shoeprints in the mud.

“Yeah, Detective?” the officer speaks up, wearing a baseball cap displaying the Chateaux Reverie Police Department badge. “The name’s Sheridan, Pete Sheridan. Pleased to meet you.” He offers his hand to Baxter who isn’t paying attention. The Officer, ruffled at Baxter’s lack of formality, squints his eyes at the spot where Baxter is pointing. “I don’t see anything.”

“Were you the first to arrive?”

“Well, yeah, but since then—I mean…” He sweeps his arm around the crime scene. “You see all the cars.” He hitches his belt up with his coffee cup-free hand. “Best response this side of the Chateaux. I don’t see why they had to send a couple of Big City Detectives from Green Mills out to our little neck of the woods.”

“Look. I don’t want another soul past the tape, get it?” Baxter responds, raising his voice. Alexis looks up from her note-taking at the difference in inflection by her partner.

“Detective, with all due respect, this looks like a pretty cut-and-dry case here. I think we’ve got it covered.”

Baxter raises an eyebrow. “If you’re right, then I guess I won’t find anything. Until then, no one comes across.”

The cop smirks. “We’ve already looked around. There’s nothing here but a dead girl.”

Baxter takes a few steps forward, crouching down at the place he had pointed. He reaches into his pocket producing a worn-looking pocket knife. He digs into the damp earth, finally unearthing a shiny object which had been trampled beneath a large boot print.

Baxter holds it up to the officer.

“I—I—” Sheridan stammers, trying to explain himself.

“Not a soul,” Baxter repeats.

 

 

PART I: THE MEDALLION

 

 

CHAPTER I: THE SHOPKEEPER

 

 

PERSONAL NOTES OF DET. JAMES BAXTER

 

I have been through this case over and over again and the evidence compels me to conclude that that this is a pretty standard drowning.

VICTIM: Jane Doe, estimated to be between 16 and 20 years old, yet to be identified, discovered by local fisherman, Ben Yarmouth, early A.M. near old disused foot bridge.

Body was found washed up on river embankment.

CAUSE OF DEATH: Drowning, most likely caused by strong spring runoff. Lab results returned inconclusive data. DNA samples are negative.

No signs of apparent struggle or violence. Nothing consistent with strangulation or suppression of windpipe. Mass of fluid found in lungs consistent with drowning.

Fiber analysis revealed clothing consistent with vintage era, a costume perhaps.

No suicide note found, no next of kin to claim body. No signs of rape or abuse.

No other remarkable evidence found except antique necklace, buried at the scene. Victim perhaps had in possession, then dropped.

I am about to close this case after I follow up on the necklace, to which I have contacted a specialist.

 

“We’ve covered all the main points Bax. It looks like an apparent suicide. No external prints found around the premises. No signs of violence or struggle. Post-mortem autopsy revealed no traces of poisoning or coercion. No bruising or abrasions consistent with a violent death. No tire tracks leading to the site, unless you count the mishandling of the crime scene by the locals. No signs of human presence other than the dead girl. Bax, are you even listening to me?”

“Looks like you’ve covered it all,” Baxter agrees, distracted.

“I learned from the best,” Alexis comments, nosing her way into the phone book Baxter has his head buried in. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Just following up on a loose end,” Baxter replies.

“What—?”

He holds up the necklace he had found at the crime scene for her to see.

“What is it, some kind of coin?” She asks, examining the wafer-thin pendant.

“I’m not sure. I almost missed it. The lab guys haven’t found anything. That’s why I’ve been looking in here.” He gestures at a place in the yellow pages with a number of scribbles and circled entries.

Looking over it, Alexis comments, “’Specializing in rare collectibles…’”

“Yeah, I found this shop, not very well known. I was going to stop by this afternoon.”

“By yourself?” Alex asks, arching an eyebrow.

“Come on, don’t give me that look. It’s routine. Plus, I need you to keep Abner off my back. He wants this thing finished.”

“All right,” she resigns. “Call me later, O.K.?”

 

 

Baxter enters the antique store, the inside so immense that he cannot fully see the dimensions of the building. To him, the place looks like an indoor junkyard full of old furniture, trinkets, and heirlooms. He makes his way through the ceiling-high aisles of the antique shop to an ornately-carved wooden desk somewhere in the center of the hangar-sized building. Baxter waits at this desk before realizing that a dwarf-sized man, bearded and balding, is perched in a high corner of one of the aisles, rearranging one of the teetering stacks of antiques, observing Baxter out of the corner of his eye.

Baxter flinches back in surprise. He is not often caught off-guard, and the discovery of the old shopkeeper rearranging the stacks and piles unsettles him a bit. Then, he realizes why he hadn’t seen the shopkeeper at first; the diminutive man, with his shabby clothes and stealthy moves, has a way of blending in with the stacks like a chameleon.

“Can I help you?” the shopkeeper asks, not looking up from his busywork.

“Do you own all this stuff?” Baxter asks, trying to seem undaunted, revolving on the spot to take in the enormity of his surroundings.

“Are you in the habit of answering one question with another?” the squat man asks.

“I’m naturally curious. Occupational hazard I’m afraid.”

“Naturally…” the shopkeeper is now sitting behind the ancient desk, veiled in a cloud of cigar smoke, having moved in an unnaturally agile fashion. He puffs impatiently at Baxter as if expecting some sort of inquiry.

“That was fast! I didn’t even see you sit down! Do you mind?” Baxter takes a seat across the desk from the old man, producing a weathered pack of cigarettes.

The shopkeeper grins, striking a match. Baxter leans over the desk, puffing his sag of a cigarette on the tiny flame. “Just keep clear of the items, Detective.”

“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I think we spoke on the phone, how did you—?”

“Many have wandered through these doors, and I have had the dubious pleasure of witnessing many personalities. You, Detective, have the unmistakable aire of a Law Enforcement Professional.”

“You seem like an observant man,” Baxter remarks, a little wary.

“My line of business requires me to be very…detail driven.”

Baxter takes note of how carefully this man chooses his words, how evasive he seems. “So this is your store; your possessions?”

“Only a caretaker, I’m afraid,” the man says, stamping out his nub of a cigar into an enormous ornate ashtray.

“Well, can I speak to the owner then?”

“There is no owner I’m afraid,” the shopkeeper replies, stifling a laugh, as if privy to some sort of inside joke.

Baxter hears a clanging from somewhere behind him. He turns on the spot to see the shopkeeper high up on his ladder, resuming his re-organization of the massive piles of junk. Baxter turns back to the desk to see nothing but a thick cloud of smoke hovering at the spot where the shopkeeper had sat just a moment ago.

“That’s some trick,” Baxter comments, a little annoyed. “Look, I came here for information, not to play silly games.”

“No games Detective,” the shopkeeper replies in that same frustrating, bemused, about to laugh expression. “G’head, ask your questions. I’m listening.”

“The first thing I’ll have is your name,” Baxter says, pulling out a small well-worn notepad from his back pocket. He takes a pen from behind his ear and dots the tip with his tongue.

“Names…there is so much contained within a name. I have been called many things, but Marlowe will do I think…” Baxter is struck by the shopkeeper’s accent. Not anything local or recognizable. It sounds to Baxter more like a mixture of different accents pieced together.

He pulls the silver medallion from his jacket pocket, holding it in the air. “I have it on good faith that your shop specializes in exotic antiques?”

“We have many things here in this place, many treasures…” Marlowe disrupts his busywork and looks greedily at the medallion glinting in the low light.

“And you—you just work here?”

“I told you I just keep up the place,” Marlowe snaps, but then says in a slightly more pleasant tone, “May I see it?”

Baxter is put-off, but hands over the medallion to Marlowe.

“Yesss…I see…” Marlowe mutters, examining it.

Baxter, eager to know something, anything, asks, “Can you tell me anything about this medallion?”

Marlowe doesn’t respond. He seems too mesmerized by the allure of this trinket.

“Well…?”

“Where did you get this?” Marlowe asks, now sounding accusatory.

“That’s police business. Can you tell me how old it is?”

Marlowe doesn’t respond at first. He simply continues to examine the pendant as if Baxter were invisible. Baxter is about to ask again then Marlowe replies, “Very old. How old? I can’t be quite sure. Perhaps if you left it with me, I could—”

“This is a piece of evidence in an ongoing investigation.” Baxter turns rigid, but then, hoping to capitalize on Marlowe’s obvious lust for the object says, “I can’t leave it with you, but I can let you hold onto it while you tell me more about it.”

Marlowe, not wanting to try his luck further, pulls out a jeweler’s eyepiece to better scrutinize the medallion. “It comes from the Olde World, or at least a time when this place was considered the New World. It was made from a Gypsy’s coin, see here—” Marlowe ushers Baxter closer so he can see the medallion magnified. “See this scroll work on the silver? Very exquisite…”

Baxter marvels at the immense detail brought out by the jeweler’s eyepiece. Elegant lattices encircle the faint remnants of a woman’s body, most likely rubbed to almost nothing by the effects of time and the myriad hands this object must have passed through over untold years. Beneath the woman are what first appear as scribbles to Baxter, then he realizes that they are words of some sort, from a language unknown to him. “This writing—do you know what it says?”

Marlowe merely makes a non-committal grunt to indicate that he doesn’t know. Or doesn’t want to tell, Baxter thinks. He frowns. “Is that all you can tell me?”

“More details may come to light if I only knew the source of such a treasure…”

Baxter hesitates, then reluctantly offers, “It was found locally. Up in the Boreal Forest, near a bridge—“

“A bridge you say? What did it look like?”

“Well, it’s pretty old, overgrown…a covered bridge with lots of writing, you know—graffiti.”

“I may know a little something of the medallion’s origins. I have seen pieces like this come through here before but very rare indeed,” Marlow simpers, recoiling a bit, still fixed on the pendant. Baxter can tell that he is stalling and doesn’t appreciate the coyness.

“Well if you know something, then tell me and stop wasting my time!” Baxter tosses the necklace onto the ancient wooden desk, stirring a cloud of dust.

Marlowe, still looking disgruntled but pleased to be allowed to handle the necklace a little longer replies, “We all have things to do Detective. I only know a little, so this will be quick.” He takes the necklace from the desk, cradling it.

Baxter readies his pen and notebook while his cigarette turns to ash. Marlowe’s face glows red with the cherry of his own acrid tobacco nub, making his face look as ancient as the desk he sits behind.

“The story of the medallion as I know,” Marlowe begins, “starts with a chase and an auspicious meeting…”

“Do you have it?” asks the girl, 12, long blonde hair reaching her waist. There is a mixture of wide-eyed excitement and stern expectation on her face as she confronts the other girl bounding from the dense thicket of woods. This girl, 10, blonde hair reaching mid-back, is pink-faced and out of breath.

“I’m not—going to show you—until were back home, Chandra,” she replies between gasps for breath.

“But Sylvia…I want to see it now,” demands a third voice coming from yet another girl, 8, also blonde. Her hair barely reaches her shoulders. The three girls, sisters, are wearing matching, shabby dresses homespun from the nearby settlement.

“I told you she wouldn’t do it Fiona,” Chandra snickers.

“Yeah, the old woman would’ve turned her into an ugly lizard,” Fiona chimes, giggling.

“With warts!” Chandra agrees. They both laugh at Sylvia, slapping knees and pointing fingers.

“Stop it, both of you!” Sylvia adjusts a silver chain around her neck and takes the arms of her two sisters tugging them away from the darkening canopy of the forest. “Come on, we need to get out of here!”

The three sisters run hand-in-hand, stumbling over roots, running into trees, splashing across black crystal streams. Fiona looks over her shoulder, slowing to a stop. “I think she’s gone.”

Sylvia and Chandra exchange a knowing look. They each grab one of Fiona’s hands and jerk her back into their flight. They could feel a growing, bleeding presence searching for them. The farther they seem to run, the more labyrinthine and elusive the pathway out becomes.

“We’ve been here before—I know it!” Chandra despairs.

Sylvia panting, “We have to stop! Find our way out!”

The forest darkens, carrying raincloud omens, whispering voices on the very boughs above.

MEDDLING PIXIES! YOU ARE IN MY FOREST NOW! SEE IF YOU CAN FIND YOUR WAY OUT!” It is the voice of an ancient woman. Her timber is both wizened and menacing. The old woman’s cackle is the sound of coming thunder and of snapping bones. Her shrieks echo from every corner of the wicked forest.

The frightened girls continue to flee, twisting through ever-thickening sinuous paths. They merge into a small clearing where they slide, muddied and exhausted, to a stop.

“Can’t run—” Fiona, gulping air.

“We must!” Chandra and Sylvia, nearly dragging their younger sister.

“No!” Sylvia points across the clearing. A huddled figure emerges from the trees opposite of the sisters.

“YOU HAVE PLAYED INTO MY HANDS! NO ONE STEALS FROM ME, ESPECIALLY A MOTE OF TRICKSEY PIXIES!” The old woman’s words infiltrate them, saturating the air. Her voice has the flavour and flair of the Olde World, and her accent is tinged with magic from a place these girls had only dreamt of.

 

“YOU…” The old woman, draped in exotic shrouds raises a crooked finger at Sylvia. “YOU WILL BRING IT TO ME…”

As if tranced, Sylvia begins shuffling towards the woman. The other sisters unfazed by the woman’s trance turn to go back into the maze of the forest. Fiona looks back at Sylvia, hesitating.

“Leave her!” Chandra cries, yanking Fiona along.

“But she’s our sister!” Fiona protests, tears trailing them.

Sylvia, continues her sleepwalk towards the hypnotic pull of the Gypsy-witch’s voice. A flash of silver rises beneath the neckline of her frayed dress.

“It’s either her or us. Leave her!” Chandra takes off running and Fiona scrambles to catch up.

The Gypsy woman’s shrieks continue on after them. “CURSED PIXIES! YOU MAY HAVE ESCAPED ME, BUT YOU WILL BE CURSED FOR THE REST OF YOUR DAYS!” 

The trance is momentarily broken. Sylvia takes her chance and sprints to escape the clearing.

“NONE SHALL BE AS CURSED AS YOU MIDDLE-CHILD…” The Gypsy’s voice croons like a sage wind. “THAT IS THE PRICE FOR CROSSING ME…”

Sylvia scrambles through the maze of trees, scratching through fingers of branches, tumbling down a steep ravine into a swiftly moving river. The silver medallion around her neck gets caught between two rocks pinning her head under water. She struggles to free herself but it is useless. She counts down the seconds in horror as the last of her breath escapes her. They left me…Sylvia thinks. They left me to her, left me to die…So this is how I’m going to die…This is—

Two strong hands grasp her shoulders and yank her out of the water. The old woman! Sylvia thinks with terror. She finally has me! But when she is hoisted up she looks in disbelief into the face of a handsome, dark-skinned boy.

“Come with me. The Gypsy-witch abides in this forest.”

“Who are you?” she spatters.

The boy grins at her. “My name is Mortimer. Now we must run! I know a place where we can hide.”

The children wade through the river heading upstream as they flee the witch, Sylvia coughing out water and winded from her ordeal. Up ahead the water rises in a beautiful waterfall and the two children desperately struggle against the current. The witch’s spirit possesses the water and transforms into a whirlpool shaped like a beast’s mouth. The water surges and threatens to overtake the children, threatens to close over them with its cold, piercing fangs.

Sylvia, still holding onto Mortimer’s hand, reaches to clasp the medallion with her other hand.  Mortimer, in the lead, drags Sylvia through the protective barrier of the water wall, and they vanish, emerging in a place far from the Gypsy’s reach. The witch senses this and shrieks with rage at losing her prey, vowing revenge. Her final sight of Sylvia is the silver charm that the girl stole from her, gleaming around her neck like a malicious smile.

“After they escaped the Gypsy-witch, Mortimer and Sylvia became the best of friends,” Marlowe continues. “He fancied himself as her protector and though he was considered a bit of an outcast, she became his only family. But their friendship flourished mostly in secret. Mortimer was orphaned and very poor and this did not fare well with the sisters, who in their own ways were touched by magic that day.”

“What happened to them?” Baxter asks.

“Things were never the same between the sisters after Chandra and Fiona had abandoned Sylvia. This was a rift that would inevitably drive the sisters in different directions. As for Mortimer and Sylvia, they had many adventures as children and the beginnings of magic could be seen and felt when they were together. Sylvia naturally grew to become a beautiful young lady. Some aspire this to the luck of the medallion. Out of the three, only her hair remained blonde. Chandra’s became prematurely gray, and Fiona’s turned a vivid scarlet. Sylvia’s sisters were naturally jealous of her beauty and her bond with the handsome young Mortimer.

Baxter, growing weary of these details asks, “So this medallion belonged to an old hag who lived in the forest, huh?”

“No one is certain of the medallion’s true origin, but it was in the care of the Gypsy-witch Sonja before it passed into the hands of the child Sylvia.”

“Witches, curses, and magic medallions…that’s quite a fairytale.” Baxter smirks, shaking his head. “What I want to know is how it found its way into my crime scene.”

“This land is rich with history and legend. Sometimes the two overlap. Perhaps you should be asking yourself why this object was there instead of how it got there.”

“I’m going to have the guys at the lab take another look.” Baxter puts his hand out again to take the pendant. Marlowe, who had been turning it around over-and-over in his hands, reluctantly passes it back to Baxter, who slips it into his jacket pocket and stands up to leave.

Marlowe, twitching behind his beard asks, “Do you ever wonder why you get up in the morning, put on your Detective’s clothes, drive around the same scenes, the same dead bodies, time after time?”

Baxter shudders for a moment, and then looks over his shoulder at the shopkeeper. “It’s what I do. In the meantime, if I ever want to be entertained with any more tales of local folklore I’ll be sure to visit! Bye now!”

Baxter emerges from the dim and musty warehouse to the brightness of mid-afternoon. After his eyes adjust, he notices a car parked across the street with a man sitting behind the wheel looking at him. Before Baxter can make out the man’s features the tinted window rolls up, obscuring him.  Baxter begins running towards the car.  It speeds off, leaving Baxter in a cloud of dust. He pulls out his notepad and jots down the license plate number before the car disappears from sight.

“Hey, Alexis, I need you to run a plate for me,” Baxter says after he returns to the station.

“Does this have something to do with the case?”

“Probably some schmuck reporter nosing around but I want to know who we’re dealing with all the same.”

“Did you find anything at the antique dealer?”

“Oh, just a bunch of superstitious bedtime stories, but the dealer—Marlowe is his name—seems to know something about them. Silly little man…Do me a favor and look him up in the database, see what you can find?”

Alexis rolls her eyes and leans into the door frame. “Hey Bax…a bunch of us are getting together for happy hour after work…wanna come?”

“Maybe next time,” he says, distant and distracted.

“You always say that.  Come on it’ll be good for you to blow off some steam. You can’t always work all the time Baxter. You have to live a little. That’s from my rule book.”

Baxter pulls a smoke, “Can’t. I’ve got to get up early and so do you.”  He takes a long drag from the cigarette.

“Why, what’s up?”

“There’s this place we have to check out but I don’t want to draw any attention from the higher-ups.” He puts on his jacket and heads for the door.

Alex’s eyebrows narrow. “How early are we talking, boss?”

“Early,” he replies, giving her a stern look as he brushes by her out of the door. “So don’t stay out too late.  I know how much of a morning person you can be.”

“Ha, ha, you big jerk,” she calls after him.

 

CHAPTER II: WATERFALL CAVE

 

 

“Now keep in mind this case is officially closed,” Baxter explains to his partner as they drive to the crime scene.

“I know you already told me,” Alex grumbles. “Disturb the scene as little as possible and don’t leave a trace—I know, I know. God, Baxter, my eyes aren’t even open yet.”

“Good,” Baxter replies, not listening. Baxter cuts the headlights before turning off the car.  He steers the car along the shoulder and parks. They make their way along the muddy, rough path with flashlights, towards the river.

“Let’s get some pictures of the bridge. Maybe there’s something there we’re not seeing.”

Alex takes a few close-up shots of the bridge, the stark flash in the darkness stealing away her night vision. “Didn’t they already take pictures of this stuff when they found the girl?”

“Sometimes taking pictures at night can give you a different perspective than what you’d normally see.”

“S’that from the rule book?” She asks, annoyed.

“Something like that,” he responds. “Now we can’t spend too much time here. I just can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else I’m missing.” He stoops, then sits near the riverbank, working on a pair of fisherman’s river waders.

Alex works on a pair of her own. “Are you worried about me Bax?”

He looks at her appraisingly. “No…of course not—I mean, you know how much trouble we could get into.”  He walks to the water’s edge. “This is just to satisfy my own curiosity.  I don’t trust these local boys. Now we start at the bridge and work upstream. Watch the current; it can be strong in places.”

Alex, thinking of the drowned girl, gladly complies.

They enter the river. They wade through the icy water, as the surrounding woods sleep in the predawn hours.

“Remind me again why we have to be in the water, why we can’t just walk along the river bank?”  Alexis complains.

“According to Marlowe’s story this is how they did it.”

“I thought you didn’t buy into his story,” Alex murmurs.

“Most of it’s probably nonsense, but I did some checking of the terrain around here and there are all kinds of hanging waterfalls along this stretch of river.  I want to make sure we run into it, if it exists.”

“I just wish I had some coffee is all,” she says shivering.

“We’ll be all right, plus this is real detective work; nothing like getting your hands dirty.  Oh yeah, watch your step, some of these river rocks can be slippery.”

“Thanks,” she’s mumbles after slipping.

After a seemingly long time of slow trekking against the current, they hear the faint rumbling of a small waterfall ahead.  As they approach it, the riverbed becomes deeper and they tread through the waist-high water to the base of the waterfall.

“How about a little light?”  Baxter shouts over the rushing water.

“Whatever you say,” Alexis responds, turning on the flashlight she had been holding above the water line.  Baxter takes the light and examines the waterfall and its surroundings.  Without a word, he walks through the water wall, both he and the flashlight beam disappearing.

“Let the games begin,” Alexis says to herself before following Baxter.

She emerges into a small cave and finds Baxter perched on a ledge above the water scanning the cave walls.  She lifts herself out of the water onto the dry, rocky embankment.

“Gloves!”  Baxter instructs as Alexis joins him on the ledge.

“I’m on it,” Alexis says, slipping on a pair of evidence gloves.

“You know…“ Baxter contemplates.  “This cave would make a good hiding place if you were running from somebody who didn’t know about it, but those kids supposedly escaped through here. Do you see any other way out of here?”

“Looks like a dead end to me boss,” Alexis replies, shining a flashlight beam all around the inside of the small enclosure. Baxter pours over the cave feeling his way along the damp walls, his hands pouring over every inch.  He works like a blind man desperately trying to read a message in Braille.

Alexis is getting bored after thoroughly examining her area and is ready to leave. “Bax…I haven’t found anything—nothing at all. We’re going around in circles.  Maybe it’s time we get out of here?”

“Hold on…Just a little longer…” Baxter responds, somewhere else.

“It’s getting light out. We need to go.”

“Wait—” Baxter’s gloved hand falls on a piece of loose rock wedged inconspicuously in the back of the wall.  “Shine it over here!”  Baxter pulls out his pocket knife and begins to pry the stone out.  The blade breaks and he says, “So much for preserving the integrity of the scene.  Give me a hand!”  With Alexis’s help, they are able to wrest the stone from its place in the wall.  Baxter carefully reaches into the cavity where the rock was.

“What is it?”  Alexis asks.

“I think we have a tail,” Baxter grunts, looking in the rearview mirror. “Look carefully, do you see it? Yellow sedan about four car-lengths back? You know those plates I had you run? That’s the guy…”

“I don’t know Bax…this early in the morning? Are you sure?” She turns to look behind them.

“No—don’t turn around, just look forward. I’m going to try and get behind him.”

The sedan slightly closes the distance, and Baxter takes advantage of a traffic light turning red, running through the intersection, pulling further ahead from their would-be follower. Baxter speeds them along a road flanked by towering factories and block-sized warehouses. He swerves them into the nearest alleyway. Baxter and Alexis watch in the mirror as the yellow sedan passes by the alley entrance. Baxter quickly reverses and pulls out of the alley, back onto the road to follow the car, but it isn’t there.

“He must’ve turned in over here!” Baxter exclaims, steering them into another crevice of alley, flicking on the switch to his dashboard police strobe.

“Be careful Bax!” Alex warns.

Baxter speeds them through the alleyway, industrial buildings blurring past them as they try to catch up to the sedan.

“Just around the corner—” Baxter skids the car along another alleyway.

“He’s not there,” Alex says, sounding almost pleading.

“Can’t be far!” Baxter, ignoring his partner as sweat dews on his forehead.

“Are you sure he was following us?”

Baxter slams on the brakes after bringing them to a dead end. “Of course I’m sure!” He jams the shifting lever in reverse, reaching his arm behind Alex’s seat as he looks over his shoulder. To Alex, her partner has the look of a maniac, a hunter who is driven to madness by the very elusiveness of his prey. He steps on the gas and they are propelled backwards through the alleyway, rearing up on another dead end.

“I think we lost him,” Alex breathes, hoping that this little adventure was over.

Suddenly, a flash of yellow in the mirror.

“There he is!” Baxter shouts as he slams the car into reverse again, making a three-point turn to continue the pursuit. The yellow sedan makes a hard left into another alleyway.

“Oh, now we’ve got him!” Baxter proclaims, turning into the same alley.

“Baxter, stop!” Alex thrusts her arm out protectively, and they both strain forward against the seatbelts as the car comes to an instant stop.

Ahead of them, where the sedan would have continued its evasive run through the alleyway was a blunt dead end. No car, just a dead end.

“What? Where did—?”

“He’s gone,” Alexis replies between breaths.

“But he turned in here! You saw it too, right?”

Alexis gives Baxter a skeptical look. “I saw something Bax, but there are lots of alleys here. Are you sure it was this one?”

“I know it was here!” He replies, growing frustrated.

“This isn’t right. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“I think you’re right, I just have to find the main road,” Baxter agrees, reversing the car again.


 

“Where were you? I’ve been trying to reach you for two days!” A voice bellows from a closed office.

 

“That’s impossible!” Baxter says, sounding unusually apologetic. “We only left this morning, following a lead

 

“A lead? Waitdo you have something for me?”

 

“Well, nothing I would call ‘concrete.’”

 

“Then this case is closed! I already have you tasked on other assignments! I don’t have time for another one of your ‘hunches,’ Baxter. Do you understand me? Case closed!”

 

“O.k! O.k!”

 

“And another thing! Don’t drag Lieutenant Warner into your ways. You’re a good Detective Baxter; good instincts, but you get too involved! Show her the ropes, but ‘by the book,’ understand?”

 

“I understand, Abner. I get it.”

 

Baxter emerges from the office, closing the door behind him softly. An unlit cigarette droops from the corner of his mouth.

 

“Are you o.k?” Alex whispers, meeting him outside the door. Baxter ushers them over to his desk and Alex sits down across from him.

 

“I’m all right,” Baxter replies, struggling to light his cigarette. After finally succeeding, he says, “Abner’s just doing what he thinks is best. Don’t worry; I made sure he knew it was all my decision—that you had nothing to do with—”

 

“I don’t care about that,” she interrupts. “I just want to make sure you’re o.k.”

 

Baxter looks thoughtful. “There’s something going on here. Our discovery at the cave proves it, but I still don’t want to go to Abner with it yet. You heard him in there…no, we need something more substantial.”

 

“Bax—what about the warehouse district? You told him about the guy we were chasing, right? How long it took us to finally find our way out of there. I mean—it was like the alleyways kept moving around on us…”

 

Baxter rubs his eyes. “I don’t even think I understand what just took place in the last 24 hours, let alone trying to explain it to Abner. Let’s just keep it between us, o.k.?”

 

Alex nods her head and asks, “So what now?”

 

“I need to go back to that antique store,” he answers, looking around his desk for something.

 

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Remember what Abner said—“

 

“I’ll go by myself again—on my own time. You won’t be involved. In fact—the less you know, the better.” Baxter finally unearths the object he had been looking for, a calendar, and tears off two pages revealing today’s date. “Abner said that we were missing for two days…but you and I know that we weren’t gone for even an entire day.”

 

“What happened to us, Baxter?” Alex moans.

 

“That’s what I’m going to find out. Just keep Abner out of my hair long enough to get some answers from that shopkeeper.”

 

“I don’t know…you can get into serious trouble if Abner finds out.”

 

“That’s why he’s not going to find out anything, right?” He gives her a shameless smile.

 

Alexis sighs, giving in. “All right, but I won’t be able to hold him off for long.”

 

“You’re the best!” Baxter gives her a quick smooch on the cheek before running off.

 

Alex, taken aback, only stares after him.

 

 

Baxter sits slumped on his couch in the wee hours of the morning. Strewn across his coffee table, lit by only a single lamp, is an array of the collected evidence from the case. He pours over the crime scene photos, maps, evidence bags, and other clues, shaking his head. He grabs a wad of cellophane from the table thinking he has one cigarette left. He shakes the crumple, and a spoonful of tobacco dust falls to the floor. He lets out a deep sigh and sifts through the photos again, coming to rest on a picture of the victim.

 

She lay with her arms and legs bent at crooked angles. Her once fancy dress is a mud-stained rag, torn in places; her golden hair, now matted and caked with river scum. Her skin, once blemishless, is pale and waxy, rigid like the rest of her body. She could have been a life-sized marionette, a human doll, dangling on strings until her master finally cut her loose. Baxter, not for the first time, stares into the picture, at the face of the girl. In a way, he is searching the lifelessness for glimpses of her soul. Who was she? Where did she come from? Who is missing this girl, right now? Her family; friends; a lover?

 

He stares and stares, eyes drying out. He rubs them furiously, still seeing her image floating in his mind. He opens his eyes, fixing them on the scrap of parchment he and Alex had found behind the waterfall. He opens the evidence bag and removes the page. The page feels like an autumn leaf, delicate, smelling of earth and water. He examines the faded assortment of arcane symbols and mystery letters, all finely calligraphed by some unknown player in this series of bizarre events. Baxter feels the pull of this other, reaching across decades and centuries to give him this message. And although the message had not originally been intended for Baxter, he still feels that this belongs to him somehow, a greater message perhaps, a larger meaning. Looking at the page makes his head hurt along with his eyes. Codes were never my thing, he thinks, placing the parchment back inside the evidence bag. He rests his head in his hands, tired and brain-dead.

 

His eyes drift over to his jacket, hanging on the coat rack. Do I have an extra pack in there? he wonders, noticing a small bulge in one of the pockets. He stands up, bones cracking, and walks over to the jacket, reaching into the pocket. Instead of a pack of smokes, his hand closes in on the unexpected shape and weight of the gypsy-coin amulet.

 

He takes it with him into the bathroom. He stands in front of the sink, looking at his reflection in the mirror above. The years on the force had taken most of his good looks and youth. The man looking back at Baxter through the mirror is a representation of a place and time he never thought he would reach. And now that he had, he felt unprepared.

 

“The best things get better with age,” he mutters to himself, cracking a toothy smile that gets him to chuckle in spite of himself. Then he does something he had never done before in the 25-or-so years he had worked in law enforcement.

 

Baxter opens the fine silver chain, bringing it over his head and around his neck. The pendant comes to a rest just above his heart. The silver is cold against his skin and goosebumps erupt across his shoulders and arms. He stands in front of the mirror, gazing at himself, trying to simultaneously see and feel what the victim might have felt as she wore it. The weight of it, and the sense that it had passed through countless hands is more acute than ever. He closes his eyes and imagines a time when magic and superstition were as real as science and reason. This other world, the one filled with magic and intrigue, seems to scoff at his very existence, the very lifeblood he had based his career on.

 

He opens his eyes and lifts the pendant to the mirror in order to examine it more closely. To Baxter’s alarm, he can feel a barely discernable vibration, emanating from the coin pendant. He brings it up to his ear, and can hear what sounds like tiny mechanical gears coming to life. He takes the necklace off and shakes the pendant, putting it up to his ear again. Nothing. He taps it with his index finger, hoping to jar it to life again, but it remains silent.

 

Baxter, not sure of what just happened, dismisses the phenomena as the result of him needing sleep. He takes the amulet to put back into his jacket, but hesitates. Upon second-thought, he lifts the amulet over his head, placing it around his neck again. To Baxter, it has an oddly comforting feel, and as he lies down to go to bed and drifts off to sleep, the amulet rests with him like a coiled snake.

 

CHAPTER III: PARTING OF THE WAYS

 

 

“Marlowe!” Baxter calls out amid the walls of junk scattered throughout the enormous building. He is standing at the shopkeeper’s desk after having let himself into the antique store. He notices that the towering walls of collected and arranged antiques look slightly different from the last time he was here; shifted, somehow. He searches around the desk, which is buried in layers of old parchment documents, trinkets, and seemingly gaudy artifacts. He leans over the desk to examine some of the more interesting items on the desk, when an arm appears holding a lit lighter.

 

Baxter flinches again in surprise, “That gets me every time.”

 

“I know how you like your cigarettes, Detective,” Marlowe offers.

 

Baxter pulls his crumpled pack from a pocket. “Thanks,” he grunts, lighting the cigarette with Marlowe’s flame.

 

“Here you are, at my doorstep once more, Detective,” Marlowe purrs.

 

“Yeah, well…this time I’m here unofficially.” He looks around the cavernous room. “I can see you’ve been busy. Must’ve taken you a long time to re-arrange all this stuff. Unless you’ve got help—”

 

“So, you’re continuing the investigation?” Marlowe asks, ignoring Baxter.

 

“How is it that you know so much about my case?” Baxter responds, firing up.

 

Marlowe plants his boots up on the desk. Their rough leather styling reminds Baxter of a movie he had seen once, something medieval. Robin Hood, perhaps. “My place is a crossroads of sorts. You must realize that during the course of my work here, much information is exchanged. Some knowledge comes directly to me, and still more I discover through the objects that pass through here. Take the item you presented to me, for instance—”

 

Baxter sits up straight. “You have information? You know more about the case? Why didn’t you call me?”

 

“Gently Detective. You only just arrived. I have come across a few things that we might discuss,” Marlowe continues in his nearly mocking tone.

 

Baxter reaches across the desk to ash his cigarette in Marlowe’s ancient basin. “Now tell me what you’ve learned.”

 

“I am afraid I cannot tell you more about the medallion itself, but only what it reveals.”

 

“What good are you to me, if you can’t tell me?”

 

Marlowe’s face darkens. “I prefer to keep my involvement at minimum, Detective. That would be better for the both of us, I think.”

 

Baxter raises his voice. “Well, it’s too late for that now; you’re already involved, aren’t you?”

 

“I think we are finished here, Detective,” Marlowe decides, abruptly getting up from his seat.

 

Baxter puts out a hand. “No—wait. I can keep you out of this—for now. Just please—help me! No one else I’ve talked to seems to know anything about the medallion. You seem to be the only one who recognizes it.”

 

Marlowe hesitates for a moment. “I will tell you what I know, but I want you to tell me something about you first.”

 

Baxter’s forehead furrows. “What—what is it?”

 

Marlowe takes his seat again. “Why do you care so much about this particular case? Why is it so important to you?”

 

Baxter looks directly into Marlowe’s eyes. “Because I have to know what happened to the dead girl. I owe her that much.”

 

“What if she really did just drown? What if it were that simple?”

 

Baxter shakes his head, deliberating. “I know there’s more. Things have been happening—strange things I can’t explain. I can’t just walk away without getting to the bottom of it all.”

 

“Of course,” Marlowe sighs, looking weary. He lights his pipe, something that could have been crafted a thousand years ago. Baxter would’ve guessed the shopkeeper’s age to be somewhere in his fifties or sixties, but in this light, Marlowe looks positively ancient. Wrinkles and leylines criss-cross the cheeks of leather brown skin beneath his sparkling eyes; eyes that seem to know more than they should. “No Detective, you cannot help your nature. I can see you will not be dissuaded, so I will tell you what I have learned.”

 

Baxter leans forward, drawing forth his trusty pen and notepad.

 

“Both Mortimer and Sylvia came from extremely poor backgrounds, so usually their dreaming was grand. Mortimer came from an especially poor childhood, and his troubles were made worse by the racial divides in the settlement. He was known as a skraeling, which was a slang expression for the natives of the area. They were scorned by the settlers and Sylvia was looked down upon for befriending Mortimer.

 

After their encounter with the Gypsy-witch, Mortimer and Sylvia would secretly meet at an old cemetery. There, they would talk about their dreams for the future. Sylvia wanted to travel and marry a young adventurer. For Mortimer, there was only one dream: Sylvia. Though he kept the strongest of his feelings locked away in the far-reaches of his heart, it was difficult not to let his affection for her show. He secretly knew that if he were to ever provide the lifestyle that Sylvia would want, he would have to escape the conditions of poverty that had so inevitably defined his childhood. So the time finally came for Mortimer to leave the settlement, to leave Sylvia and seek his fortune.

 

 

“We’re almost there,” Mortimer says to Sylvia, while stepping over a fallen log. They are holding hands. Mortimer, carrying a small bundle on his back, is leading them along moonlit paths that wind in-and-out of looming trees.

 

“Good. I don’t like walking in the forest at night. I always feel like someone is watching me,” she replies, stepping gracefully between puddles of damp leaves.

 

They emerge into a quiet cemetery containing a pond surrounded by fragrant grasses. Most of the gravesites are nothing more than unmarked stones placed in the ground to memorialize the dead. The cemetery was not used anymore, which makes it ideal for Mortimer and Sylvia’s purposes.

 

“Oh, Mortimer, do you really have to leave?” Sylvia asks, struck by the sudden immanence of the moment. As her bronze eyes start to water, Mortimer is especially razed by her beauty. He pulls her into his arms.

 

“I do not want to leave you, but I must go to find my way in the world.” He pulls away from her to look her in the face. He has grown tall in his late adolescence and his boyish good looks have only become more chiseled and refined. “Just remember tonight. This night is special for us. That is why I brought you here of all places. We will make this night last as long as we can.”

 

Sylvia gathers wood from around the cemetery, while Mortimer builds a fire. He pulls three distinct greenish logs from the bundle he had brought and places them next to the growing pile of firewood. The two sit watching the dance of the flames, as if hypnotized.

 

Sylvia breaks the silence by asking, “Are you ready?”

 

Mortimer, looking anxious replies, “I brought the knife—are you sure you want it?”

 

“Let me hold it…”

 

Mortimer pulls out a large hunting knife, razor sharp, and carefully hands it over to Sylvia. She appears as mesmerized by the blade as she had been at looking at the fire. Mortimer sees a look of dangerous intrigue come over Sylvia’s face. Seeing her caress the knife both troubles and excites him. It is this very edge to her personality that he is attracted to. But it also shakes him on a deeper level, something elusive about her; something that he could never identify with; a type of ability to take pleasure from pain.

 

“Give me your hand,” she drones, almost in another voice.

 

Mortimer hesitates, then reaches his hand out to her. She presses the blade to her own palm first, moaning as the tip pierces her soft flesh. Mortimer breathes in as Sylvia cuts into his flesh, spilling vital blood. She releases the knife to the ground and takes his hand into hers. He can feel the pulse of her heart pushing her life’s blood out of the wound. It wrestles and mixes with the pulse of his own heart, feeling it channel through his own angry wound.

 

“Now we are blood-bound,” Sylvia continues. “Even though you will be long away, a part of you will always be with me. We will always be friends.”

 

“Always with you, always with me,” Mortimer whispers. He lifts their clasped hands, now becoming sticky with their mixing, drying blood, and gently kisses the back of Sylvia’s hand.

 

Rain begins to fall on them. It is not unpleasant, but rather like a soft, warm shower. They both get to their feet to receive it. Raindrops collect in their hair, in their faces, and hands, washing their blood away. Without conspiring to do so, they look into each others’ eyes, and smiling, begin to kiss. The warm drops of rain fall into their mouths and they drink of it and of each other. Mortimer runs his hands through her dampening hair as he moans in pleasure. Sylvia, eyes closed, breathes in his breath, sighing her own pleasure, enjoying the taste of his lips, his mouth, the gentle rain.

 

The fire crackles, breaking the mood. “The fire!” Mortimer barks, half-laughing. He stumbles over to the firewood. The only remaining pieces of wood are the three green logs he had brought. He thinks about it, then decides to throw the logs into the dying fire.

 

“What were those for?” Sylvia asks, nervous.

 

“A little trick I heard about. I managed to pilfer these logs from a tree in the forest—”

 

“You mean, her forest,” Sylvia, sounding afraid. “Mortimer, you stole enchanted wood?”

 

“Don’t worry; I used my skills of stealth to procure them. I was told that if you burn them at night, you will see fireworks—”

 

A loud explosion bursts from the fire. Sylvia gasps and holds onto Mortimer. The flames, once orange, now turn green.

 

Sylvia looks down at the silver medallion hanging from her neck. “She knows we are here!”

 

“How is that possible?” Mortimer cries.

 

“I don’t—”

 

“YOU…” a familiar voice breezes through the cemetery clearing. A shrouded figure emerges from within the flames, which roar and spit before Mortimer and Sylvia, who are left with nothing to do but clutch onto each other.

 

The Gyspy-witch, wreathed in unnatural green flames speaks to them. “PURPOSE…THIS IS WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE…THERE IS A GREAT MAGIC BETWEEN THE TWO OF YOU AS LONG AS YOU REMAIN TRUE…THIS IS HOW YOU ESCAPED ME THOSE YEARS AGO…AND BECAUSE YOU ESCAPED ME, I MUST GRANT YOU A GLIMPSE OF WHAT IS TO COME…THE AMULET YOU STOLE FROM ME IS SPECIAL INDEED…IT HAS BROUGHT THE TWO OF YOU TOGETHER AND HAS BOUND ITSELF TO YOUR MAGIC…YOU ARE NOW THE BEARER OF THE AMULET AND WILL BEAR IT UNTIL IT BETRAYS YOU AS IT DID TO ME…”

 

Now speaking to Mortimer: “IT WILL BRING YOU LUCK, AS YOU, SKRAELING, GO TO SEEK YOUR FORTUNE. THERE ARE GREAT THINGS IN YOUR FUTURE, AND YOU WILL WITNESS MANY WONDERS…BUT, SUCH AS THESE MATTERS GO, YOUR PURSUITS WILL COME WITH A PRICE…BEWARE WHAT YOU MIGHT HOPE FOR, SKRAELING BOY…THE TREASURE YOU SEEK MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK IT IS…

 

The Gypsy turns to face Sylvia. “AND YOU, PEASANT GIRL…YOU WILL BE ADORED AND ADMIRED BY MANY…YOU WILL NOT ALWAYS DWELL IN SQUALOR, NOR IN THE SHADOWS OF YOUR SISTERS…THEIR TREACHERY WILL CEASE TO HOLD SWAY OVER YOU SOON ENOUGH…IT IS TRUE THAT YOU DREAM OF FARAWAY PLACES, PLACES OF LEGEND, BUT BE WARNED: THE CLOSER YOU THINK YOU ARE TO VISITING THESE PLACES, THE FURTHER YOU WILL ACTUALLY BE…DO NOT FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM, GIRL…HUMILITY IS THE BEST GARNMENT WORN BY A TRUE LADY…”

 

The Gypsy addresses both of them. “ONE FINAL WORD. I SEE MUCH AND WHAT I SEE IS AS CLEAR TO ME AS TIME’S DECAY, BUT REMEMBER: WE ARE ONLY BOUND BY WHAT WE BIND OURSELVES TO…THE FUTURE IS DETERMINED BY THE CHOICES WE MAKE IN THE PRESENT…I HAVE SHOWN YOU THESE THINGS AS A REWARD FOR BESTING ME…IT IS AN EXCHANGE THAT IS REQUIRED…BUT BE WARNED: KNOWING ONE’S FUTURE CAN BE BOTH A BLESSING AND A CURSE…AND MAKE NO MISTAKE…YOU ARE BOTH CURSED…YOU ARE AT THE PARTING OF THE WAYS AND THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME ONCE YOU LEAVE THIS PLACE OF THE DEAD

 

The remainder of the enchanted logs explode in a shower of green sparks, breaking Mortimer and Sylvia from their trance. He shields them from the stinging sparks, and they are left in the afterglow of the old woman’s prophecy. The rain seems to depart with the witch, leaving only a chilly wind.

 

“I—I’m going to get some more wood,” Mortimer mumbles, awkward and distracted from the Gypsy’s message.

 

“Alright,” Sylvia replies, just as distracted.

 

After a bit more wood-gathering, they sit down, eating a silent picnic near the fire, lost in their own thoughts.

 

Sylvia yawns. “I’m so tired. Maybe we could just take a nap…” She curls up next to Mortimer, who, in his quest to draw time out, is resolved to stay awake.

 

“Go ahead. I want to feel every moment that I have left with you…” He replies, but she is fast asleep. He watches her sleep, the rhythmic motion of her body as she breathes. He listens to her murmur in her troubled dreams, and falls asleep himself. They sleep there beside the fading embers, amid the forgotten gravestones, and when they wake, it is still dark.

 

Mortimer senses that it is time for him to depart. He gathers his few scattered possessions, everything he would be taking with him on his journey, all that he owns, trying not to show his heartbreak. He ties everything up in his small sack and throws it over one shoulder.

 

Sylvia, staring across the pond asks, “Did we sleep so long that we slept through the day as well?”

 

Mortimer, joining her replies, “No, it has to do with what is here, between us. There is a timeless quality in the moments we share.”

 

“But the Moon and the stars have not moved at all, and I feel like I have slept for ages.”

 

“Perhaps this is a part of the magic that the witch was talking about. Maybe it has something to do with the amulet…”

 

“The amulet…” Sylvia reaches around her neck and lifts the silver chain over her head. “This is my promise to you,” she says, standing on her tip-toes to place the amulet around Mortimer’s neck. They share one last kiss in that timeless place, before Mortimer sets off.

 

 

“So the young lovers parted ways,” Marlowe continues, “Mortimer to seek his fortune with the hope of returning to Sylvia, skilled and wealthy enough so they could marry. As he left, he promised to return the amulet to her someday.”

 

“Where did he go?” Baxter asks.

 

“Apparently, his brief brushes with magic really stirred an interest in Mortimer. He travelled across many lands, learning whatever he could about sorcery. He became quite an accomplished magician and eventually joined the Guild.”

 

“The Guild?”

 

“Ah…wait here,” Marlowe grins. He disappears down a narrow aisle, reappearing at a teetering shelf on the other side of the store, scaling it like a ladder. He hastily pulls a small jewelry box from a high shelf and jumps to the ground. Baxter watches all of this with amazement, but before he knows it, the shopkeeper is back at the desk, puffing on his pipe, clearly not out of breath.

 

“Maybe you should slow down, old man,” he jokes.

 

Marlowe gives Baxter a dismissive glance. “Speak for yourself. I move with the urgency of having things that need to be done. Now let’s get to it, shall we?”

 

“Yeah, why don’t we?” Baxter agrees, lighting another cigarette.

 

Marlowe opens the box and inside is a man’s gold ring, perched in a green velvet grip. Set into the ring are seven ruby stones, arranged to look like a turtle shell. To Baxter, it looks like a fraternity ring, though older and better-crafted.

 

“This ring belonged to a Guild member, years ago,” Marlowe continues. “The rubies represent the mark of the Guild, a turtle’s shell, see?” Marlowe points his stubby, tobacco-stained finger at the ring.

 

“Wait a minute—” Baxter reaches into his jacket. Marlowe recoils, snapping the jewelry box closed again, unsure of what the Detective might do.

 

Baxter produces a goldenrod envelope from an inside pocket. “We found this halfway buried in a waterfall cave, several miles from Chateaux Reverie.” He opens the envelope to reveal the tattered scrap of parchment. Now apparent to Baxter, he recognizes the same unmistakable turtle shell symbol embedded in the writing.

 

Marlowe’s eyes grow wide. “Oooo…can I see?” He reaches for the page, but Baxter pulls back.

 

“Not so fast. Tell me what you know about this.”

 

“The Guild?” Marlowe grumbles, not able to hide his disappointment. Instead, he opens the ring box again. “This is the mark of the Guild of Mercurius.”

 

“This—Guild. What were they?”

 

“Mostly entertainers. There was little protection for performers, even skilled performers back then, so many banded together to form various troupes or guilds, as they were known. I suggest you look them up at the town library.”

 

“Yeah, o.k,” Baxter frowns, putting the envelope down on the desk in front of Marlowe. “What about the rest of this writing? Any of it look familiar?”

 

Marlowe glances at the page, a non-committal look on his face. “I may have a few books that would help decipher the writing, but I will have to locate them and as you can see—” he gestures to the stacks of junk around them. Baxter looks around at the enormous indoor junkyard, but when he turns to face Marlowe again, the shopkeeper is gone.

 

“I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the page with me if you want me to work on it,” comes Marlowe’s muffled voice from somewhere behind Baxter. He wheels around to find the little man tinkering with another pile of antiques in the distance.

 

“I hate it when you do that!” Baxter complains. “How can you move so fast? It’s like you disappear or something!”

 

Marlowe simply smiles his Cheshire grin and calls, “House secret.”

 

Baxter takes the folder from the desk, then after a moment, puts it back down. Well Marlowe, you can be sure that I’ll be more on my toes with you, Baxter thinks. I wouldn’t want you pulling a fast one on me. Aloud, he says, “I’ll be back for this, mind you.”

 

“Do your digging, Detective,” Marlowe says, ignoring him.  “Mortimer’s story is a sad one. Don’t expect to find a happy ending.”

 

“The facts don’t lie,” Baxter calls out as he leaves. “All I am interested in is the truth so I can find out what happened to my Jane Doe.”

 

As the shop door closes, Marlowe shakes his head as if he knows better.

 

 

 

Synfonica, a new novel by Chadstract, coming soon! Please feel free to leave constructive feedback using the form below:

For more information, visit: www.chadstract.com

 

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