Murder in the Magic Kingdom
Murder in the Magic Kingdom
He awoke with a start, his half-sleeping brain searching to identify whatever had roused him. Then, the banging came again.
"Lang! Lang, wake up! Lee!"
Lee Lang glanced over at the still shuttered window of the single room shack, and noting the lack of light peaking through, resisted the urge to shout to be left in peace. If he was being summoned at this hour, there could only be one reason. Someone had been croaked.
Lee had acquired something of a reputation since arriving in the Magic Kingdom. One night he had just appeared. No one was sure from which portal he had emerged, or what side he had popped to, if any. That he preferred to live on his own, rather than taking up residence in the Finder's Keep like most Findamancers did only added to his mystery. But fact was that he was capable, Qualified, and the very best when it came to tracking down those that were wanted for questioning.
Lee swung himself out of bed and stumbled to the door, neglecting to illuminate the bedside powerball as he did so. He had slept in his clothes again, and was busy retucking his shirt beneath his waistcoat when he pulled the door open. He was greeted by the sight of a very agitated Healomancer. Lee addressed him without preamble.
"Who's the victim?"
"I'm not sure."
"Has the body been claimed?"
Lee glanced at the sky.
"Then we had better hurry. I'll need to examine the body before it depops."
Motioning for the Healomancer to lead the way, Lee paused long enough only to cram a rumpled looking fedora onto his head before following him. He quickly caught up with the shorter caster. The Healomancer glanced at him anxiously before averting his gaze.
They traveled in silence, the taller caster seeming to ignore the shorter. As they passed through Portal Park, Lee removed a stick of charcoal and a small pad of paper from his pocket. Flipping the pad open, he squinted at it in the low light provided by the magical gateways. Still seeming to have his attention away from the Healomancer, he none-the-less grunted, "Tell me the story."
The Healomancer looked sideways at him as he nervously wrung his hands. "I was just coming back from a job when this caster runs up to me screaming. He says his friend is close to croaking, and I need to come quick. The sun had just set, so I've got no juice. We've got to go all the way to my place so I can get at my stash of healing scrolls. He's yelling at me the entire time. "We've got to hurry! Come on! Come on!" I'm already gasping by the time we get to my home, but as soon as I've got my things, he's off like a shot towards the Thinkamancer sector. I keep up as best I can, but by the time I get there, we're too late. She's already croaked. And when I look up from her body, the caster who brought me to her has vanished without a trace."
Lee's face was unreadable as he made a few notes on his pad. Suddenly, he looked up and starred very intently into the Healomancer's face. The diminutive caster seemed to shrink into himself even more under the scrutiny. After another moment, the Findamancer spoke.
"Why do you suspect a breach in neutrality? And why come to me, instead of calling for an enforcement council?"
The healer sighed, his shoulders slumping, the picture of defeat.
"When the other caster vanished, that left me as the only witness. I'd be the first put under suspicion. And with the body being on Thinkamancer ground, they'd be the first to respond to the call. You know the sort of things they would do in their investigation. With you, at least I don't have to worry about my every thought being picked through."
There might have been sympathy Lee's eyes as he closed his pad and wiped the charcoal from his fingers onto his pants. They were rapidly approaching the Thinkamancer Temple, and already a small crowd could be seen gathered around something on the ground. Lee pulled up short as he turned back to the other caster.
"I believe I can make my way from here." The Findamancer's manner had abruptly changed, and it had clearly taken the healer by surprise. Gone was the business like interrogative tone. In its place was a casual air, almost as if he was bidding someone goodbye after a pleasant conversation.
"I only have one more question. Did you recognize the caster that came to fetch you, and would you be able to recognize him again?"
A visibly relieved look on his face, the caster shrugged. "I think I may have seen him around before, but I don't know his name, or his discipline. But he's very distinctive looking. Green clothes, smooth face, and he had pointed ears like a vampire, but no fangs."
Lee retrieved his notebook from his pocket and marked that down as well. "I'll see if I can't track him down, after I take a look at the body. I'll find you if I have any further questions. Mr....?"
"Johnson. Watt Johnson."
"I'll be in touch, Mr. Johnson."
The Findamancer left the unimposing Healomancer's side and made his way towards the small crowd of people. Lee's day hadn't even started, and it already felt long. As the whispering gawkers noticed him and scurried to get out of his way, he wondered what he was getting himself into this time. But then he saw the body, and he knew. He was getting himself into trouble.
He shouldn't have been surprised. Finding trouble was what he was best at.
Lee knelt before the body and began examining it as best the dim light of the sky would allow. He mentally kicked himself. He really should have grabbed the powerball before heading out. He wasn't about to ask any of the gawkers for assistance, and time was of the essence. He would have to make do.
The thing that had grabbed his attention immediately, even more than the multitude of stab wounds that peppered her torso, was that she was only wearing one shoe. Looking as much by touch as by sight, he found her bare heel and legs to be scraped and dirty. So. She had been dragged here. Lee couldn't tell if she was already croaked at the time that she was moved, but he could guess that saving this woman's life was not the mystery caster's top priority when he brought Johnson to the scene. Either she was already dead, and there was never anything Johnson could have done, or the caster had wasted valuable time that could have spelled the difference. Either scenario would tell him something. But were they trying to send a message, or trying to cover something up?
Lee shielded his eyes as a sudden light flared into being. He looked up to see that all the onlookers had retreated to a respectful distance, and standing over him was a dark skinned man of heavy build, wearing a black robe. A powerball floated just over his shoulder.
"What do you think you are doing?"
Lee ignored him and took advantage of the new illumination, taking in the details that the darkness had masked. The woman was beautiful, but it was clear that life had not always been kind to her. And the various wounds afflicting her body were not the only clue to that fact. The signamancy of link trauma was apparent, her skin an ashy gray. Now able to clearly see her wounds, Lee noted the faint bruising appearing on either side of each. Rolling her, he saw that none of the wounds had run her through. The murder weapon was a knife, with a pronounced hand guard. Not enough to cast on, but if he found the blade, it might be enough to tie it to the killer. It was when Lee began to probe the wounds with his finger that the robed man raised his voice.
"Now just what do you think you are doing?!"
Lee barely flicked his attention upwards as he responded, "Judging by the angle of the wounds, she was attacked from behind. The killer grabbed her across the chest, and then stabbed her repeatedly in the abdomen." Lee stood and wiped his finger on his pants, a red smear joining the black of the charcoal. "A concerned citizen of the Magic Kingdom brought this situation to my attention, and I've decided to investigate. And before you ask, I'll tell you that they wish to remain anonymous. Is there anything you can tell me about the victim?"
The robed man had been staring intently at Lee, his brow furrowed as if frustrated. He blinked at the question. He seemed to be about to refuse to answer, until he exhaled and crossed his arms disapprovingly.
"Her name was Belle Bette, and she was a barbarian Thinkamancer. Still a novice, she was sharp, and showed great potential. She would have made a valuable addition to the Great Minds that Think Alike, were that time to have eventually come."
Lee's pad and charcoal were out again. As he jotted this down, he asked, "Any idea what lead to her death?"
The robed man shook his head. "Belle had a tendency to get bored. Most Thinkamancers can make their upkeep with short term thinkagram contracts. But that didn't satisfy her. Said she wanted "more." She preferred to be hired for links. And while certainly that can be dangerous, it's obvious she wasn't killed by the backlash of a broken link!"
And then, it was day. Warm fingers of sunlight raced across the ground, chasing away dark shadows. There was a soft whooshing sound as air rushed to fill the space previously occupied by the body of Belle Bette. Lee's clothing, only moments ago wrinkled and stained, were now crisp and clean. It immediately made him look more intimidating. He met the robed man's eye for the first time, his stare unflinching.
"Not in the traditional sense, no. But I'm not ruling anything out. I have a description of the last person to see the victim alive. I'll be casting a finding as soon as we've finished here."
The robed man's brow was furrowed again, harder than before. He appeared to be about to develop a headache. Lee only smiled without humor and tugged the brim of his fedora a little lower over his eyes. The robed man gave an exasperated expression, and then inquired, "Green clothes? Pointed ears?" Lee's eyebrows shot up, the closest he had come to emoting since rolling out of bed.
"Your spells won't do you much good, I'm afraid. I don't know his name, but that's the Foolamancer that Belle had been spending a great deal of time with of late. If he doesn't want to be found, you'll find it a difficult thing to accomplish. You're out of your league."
Lee bent and retrieved the cardboard cup and foil wrapped package that had appeared by his ankle moments ago. Sipping on the steaming liquid, Lee looked unconcerned.
"I've got my methods. Now, if you'll excuse me. You've been very helpful."
The robed man snatched the now unneeded powerball out of the air and extinguished it. He called after the now retreating Findmancer, "We have far more resources than you do! This is our issue, and we'll be the ones to handle it!"
The only response he received was an empty cup being tossed onto the ground before the Thinkamancer's Temple.
Lee had only been to the Fool Hall one other time. He had been hired to track down a Shockmancer accused of arson, and thought it might be safer to use a veil to get close. Being too impatient to make a posting for a Foolamancer and wait, Lee had decided to go to the source, and he had regretted the decision nearly immediately.
Findamancy and Foolamancy differed in many ways, but at the principle level it boiled down to one thing. A Findamancer seeks to reveal truth, while a Foolamancer seeks to hide it. As a Findamancer, Lee was used to habitually seeking out the details of every little thing around him. When he visited the Fool Hall, he found the ever shifting scenery to be so unsettling that he hadn't even been able to focus on making his inquiry. He'd left empty handed, and never looked into Foolamancy again. He nearly croaked going after that Shockmancer, but that was just a part of the job.
And so was this.
Lee stood before a metal archway. It wasn't attached to any building that Lee could see, nor did the doors within the arch appear to have any handles. Yet when he raised his hand to knock, the doors slid aside to admit him into the Hall.
Black tiles with yellow borders covered every surface of the room, which seemed to stretch up at least three stories. Lee scanned the area in every direction, with no luck. While the Hall appeared to be empty, this was not the case. More than just the living quarters and place of business of the Foolamancers, the Fool Hall was an escape for anyone with the Rands to pay for it. Casters looking for diversion would come to play out scenarios made to their own specifications. The Hall was actually filled with people, each in their own little world. The barren room that Lee currently stood in was displayed to every visitor until a Foolamancer was assigned to customize their experience. Try though he might, Lee wouldn't find anyone until they were ready for him.
He didn't have to wait for long, as a woman in a corset melted into being in front of him. Her chalk white skin was a stark contrast to her hair, which was drawn up into pigtails, one the color red, the other black. She grinned broadly at him as he approached.
"Good day, sir! How can I help you today?"
"I'm looking for a Foolamancer."
Her grin somehow managed to get wider.
"Then, well done! You've found one! Your dangerous quest is at last at an end!"
The room behind her swirled, and suddenly they were standing on a vast grassy field. Dwagons soared overhead, roaring and blasting each other with bursts of flame and lightning. Lee set his jaw in annoyance.
"I'm looking for a Foolamancer who wears green clothes, has pointed ears, and a smooth face."
And of course, no sooner had he spoken than the woman before him matched that description to a T. She flirtatiously ran a finger over her newly pointed ear, while looking down and admiring her new pixie boots.
Lee was reaching the end of his patience. Bluntly, he stated "The Foolamancer was the last person to see Belle Bette alive."
And just like that, the illusion dropped. They were back in the room with the tiles, and the woman before him looked like a regular woman. Blonde hair and flannel pajamas had replaced the outrageous outfit from before. Her expression was one of shock.
Lee nodded, and watched with curiosity as the woman appeared to fall in on herself. He kept his expression neutral. Although he sympathized with the woman, part of him was satisfied to finally be seeing something real in this place. Then the woman composed herself and met his gaze.
"You're looking for Peter Puck. But my shift just started, and I haven't seen him since yesterday. He's supposed to work this afternoon, if you want to wait. I'm sure we could find someone to keep you occupied..."
She trailed off as Lee shook his head. "That won't be necessary. I'll return this afternoon. But I have to ask, did you know the deceased well?"
The blonde held herself uncomfortably and indicated the negative. "Not as well as Peter did. Hardly a day went by recently that they weren't seen together. But she had started to branch out. The two of them had some ideas of how to improve the illusions of the Hall, and had started shopping them around. It was unusual, because normally Hall jobs are kept strictly in house. Nobody who doesn't live here gets hired for a Hall job. It's the only way to ensure discretion. So obviously people were hesitant to let an outsider into the inner circle. But the results spoke for themselves."
The woman fidgeted and shifted from foot to foot.
"The Hall has some shortcomings that previously couldn't be helped. We can manipulate what someone experiences. What they see, feel, touch, and smell. But there were some things that we couldn't manage. Some internal senses we couldn't fool. We couldn't make a level 1 caster feel like a level 9 warlord. We couldn't trick someone into thinking they had leveled. We get casters coming in all the time with war fantasies. They want adventure, but their sides see them as too dangerous to risk in the field. We could let them slay a dwagon, but we couldn't make them believe it. Until Belle. By linking with Belle, we could make anyone forget who they were."
The notepad was back, and Lee's fingers were once again covered in smudges. He looked up when he finished.
"Any idea who would want Belle croaked?"
She only shrugged. "I honestly don't. Yeah, it was unconventional to let an outsider work with us, but everyone stood to benefit from the arrangement. All it would have taken is a little bit of extra contracting to protect the identities of clients, and we would all have been raking in the Rands. With Belle croaked, who knows if other Thinkamancers will be willing to risk signing on?"
Lee re-pocketed the pad, wiped his fingers upon his pants, and extended his hand to shake. "Like I said, I'll be back this afternoon. If you think of anything else that would be helpful before then, I can be reached by hat."
The blonde woman daintily wrapped her fingers around his. "And if you have any more questions, you can find me here. Ask for Arleen."
"I'll do that." With that, Lee turned and exited through the metal arch.
His second trip to the Hall had gone much smoother than his first. He was so busy marveling at this fact that he didn't immediately notice that something was wrong. His whole body tensed when he realized. He had left through the same arch that he had entered, but the surrounding area around the entrance of the Hall was gone. And so was the light. And everything else. Looking behind himself, Lee saw that even the doors he had just come through had vanished. Lee was standing in blackness, and for all that he could tell, he was the only single thing in existence.
Lee's breathing was short and controlled. He tried to keep calm as he examined his lack of surroundings. Lee stood in a puddle of light with no clear origin, and everything else was dark. For all appearances, it looked as though he had been pulled into Thinkspace. But that shouldn't have been possible. Lee removed his fedora and checked it for damage just to be sure. While it was battered as ever, as best he could tell it was still in working condition. He patted the scroll he kept for emergencies deeper into the hat before placing it back upon his head.
So. Not Thinkamancy. It didn't feel like Thinkamancy anyway. There hadn't been the usual head rush that accompanied a Thinkagram, and whatever was happening, Lee felt positive he was still very much in the physical world. And that made him feel extremely vulnerable. He was about to try a casting when a voice emerged from the darkness.
"I didn't croak Belle."
The voice seemed to come from all directions at once. It was soft, almost musical, and it held a distraught tone. Another puddle of light appeared, revealing a short man in a green shirt sewn to resemble leaves. He kept his face downcast, but Lee could see pointed ears on either side of a shock of orange hair.
"Peter Puck, I presume?"
The short caster nodded and looked up. He wasn't weeping now, but his cheeks were streaked, and there was a tremble in his voice when he spoke.
"Did you come to take me?"
Lee kept his face neutral.
"I just want to ask you some questions."
Peter swallowed hard as he grimaced. His shoulders shook as they seemed to unclench, and he went back to staring at his feet with a sigh. He indicated Lee should continue. Lee began to reach for his notebook, but not being entirely sure what was real at the moment, decided to leave off. He composed himself, and then stated simply "Tell me what happened."
Peter looked up again, his eyes bright, and his expression hard.
"It was Crabbe, and that Carny, Oscar. They murdered Belle, and tried to croak me.
Lee resisted the urge to fidget. He wanted to be writing. Instead, he just said "Start from the beginning."
Peter cleared his throat, and then vanished. In his place, an entire scene came into being. Lee now stood in a small room before a bed, upon which sat the facsimile of a lovely looking Belle, and a much more cheerful Peter. The scene played out in silence as Peter's voice narrated from all around.
"Belle was the most wonderful person I have ever met. She had great ideas and plans, and was never satisfied to stop. She would come to me with questions; thoughts on new things to try, and most of the time the process of investigating them ended up being just as rewarding as the final result. We had already been working together for a few dozen turns when she came to me with another of her questions. "What do you know about love?" she asked. I don't remember what I said to her. I just remember that she kissed me in response. I knew a lot more about love after that, I'll tell you that much."
Lee's surroundings whirled again, and he ignored the wave of nausea that accompanied the shift. He may not like Foolamancy, but this was all still very interesting. Peter and Belle now sat holding hands. Their eyes seemed to be locked together, but also somehow glowing and sightless.
"We began to experiment. We would link, and then make nookie. Often we would stay linked all night, sharing our dreams. Belle wanted to see if we could replicate the experience of being in love. People would spend entire fortunes for something like that. Imagine if you could experience your unrequited crush confessing their long held secret desire? Love is the most requested scenario of the Fool Hall, and anytime anyone has attempted to provide it, it's been a failure.
Belle and I came up against failure of a different kind. We fell in love for real. And that was a problem. We couldn't tell what was the effect of our spells, and what was occurring naturally. And that's why Belle started approaching other Foolamancers.
She didn't broach the topic right away, and certainly not in the direct method that she did with me. We were still linking each night. We had no secrets. But slowly she started spreading around what we intended to attempt. That's when Crabbe entered the picture."
The scene shifted once more, this time showing Belle speaking to a tall man wearing a maroon suit and matching balaclava. Lee's eyes drank in every detail about the man that they could.
"Crabbe was another Foolamancer. He liked to pretend he was a gentleman, but he never strayed too far from the Carnyvale. He worked with a Carny named Oscar, who runs a..."
Peter seemed to search for a word.
"... theater. His employees have a certain reputation..."
"He was a pimp," Lee interrupted bluntly.
The scene froze and Peter reappeared as he explained.
"Yes. Crabbe had tried to install some of the utility of the Fool Hall at Oscar's place, to enhance the experience. He also prettied up the dancers from time to time when the clients got too rough. Crabbe wanted Belle to work with him and Oscar to improve their "establishment." If they could trick their clients into thinking the girls were in love, they'd spend every last Rand they had to come back. But Belle refused. Crabbe is known to be a major sleaze, and the way he proposed they go about making the improvements were... Well, let's just say he wanted to link with her, and not in the traditional sense."
Peters expression now changed, for the first time showing something other than grief. His eyes burned hot as he clenched his jaw.
"I'm not a violent man. In truth, when my side's capitol was attacked, I fled to the Magic Kingdom and turned barbarian rather than get involved. But when Belle told me what he said to her, I wanted to go find him and hit him as hard as I could. The only reason I didn't was because Belle talked me into letting it go."
Peter disappeared again and the scene unfroze. It now showed the masked man gesturing wildly as he seemed to yell at the smaller woman.
"When Belle turned Crabbe down, he swore he'd make her sorry. Belle thought he was making empty threats about Oscar's place eclipsing the Fool Hall, which seems so stupid now. We just couldn't conceive of someone going to such lengths over something like this. I guess he and Oscar saw us as a threat to their business."
Lee went over everything in his mind and attempted to commit it to memory. He planned on adding it all to his notes at the first available opportunity. When he was sure he had everything, he spoke to the open air.
"Tell me about the attack."
The small bedroom was back, with Belle and Peter once again sitting upon the bed.
"I didn't actually see who it was. I only saw the knife. But only another Foolamancer would have been able to navigate the Hall well enough to find us."
A shadowy, person-shaped void appeared behind Belle upon the bed. It was holding a knife with a large guard curving out towards the blade. The non-person grabbed Belle and repeatedly plunged the blade into her belly.
"I think he meant for the shock to kill me, because the link broke almost instantly. But Belle was stronger that he thought. She was able to protect me by taking all the backlash for herself. I played dead."
Lee watched as the void roughly tossed Belle to the floor, and as Peter fell limp, X's upon his eyes.
"I lay there until the footsteps left, and then I rushed to Belle. She was still alive, but losing consciousness. She needed healing, but she wouldn't let me go for a Healomancer. She said that if anyone heard a caster working with the Fools had been attacked, people would be afraid to come back to the Hall, and then everything we had worked for would be ruined. I said I didn't care, but she was adamant. It was late in the day. Not many people were left in the Hall. Even dragging Belle, it was easy to sneak by. I took her back to Thinkamancer territory, and than ran to get a healer. But by the time we got back, it was too late. Belle was gone. So I honored her last wishes, and got out of there."
Lee considered everything as the image of Wat Johnson kneeling over Belle's corpse faded from view. He rubbed his hand over his chin as he thought, before saying, "Show me the knife again."
Peter raised his hands, and a replica of the knife floated there. Lee approached, and after motioning for permission, retrieved the copy out of the air. He turned it over in his hands.
"Whoever has this knife in their possession is likely the culprit, presuming they haven't dumped it. So finding it is the next step. In the mean time, I suggest you keep yourself scarce. The Great Minds are also searching for the murderer, and I suspect their interrogations will not be gentle."
Peter waved his hands and banished the knife, then looked up and made eye contact.
"What will you do if you find them?"
His eyes were wide, almost pleading. Lee met Peter's gaze with a shake of his head and a furrowed brow.
"That depends entirely upon them."
Peter melted away, leaving Lee once more in a sea of blackness. His voice emanated forth one final time.
"I hope you hurt them. Like they hurt Belle."
The world returned with startling swiftness. One moment Lee was the sole resident of a private abyss, and the next he stood on solid ground. Grass was under his feet, the arch of the Fool Hall at his back, and the sun beaming down upon his face. He could see it was just after noon. He had lost track of time in the Hall, and his meeting with Peter hadn't helped that. Lee devoured the details of the scenery around him, taking comfort in the realness of it all. It had been time well spent, but his time with the Fools was enough to make him hope he never had to do something like this again.
A part of Lee wanted to throw himself onto the ground and soak in the sun for a while, but he knew he didn't have time. The longer he waited, the more time the culprit would have to dispose of the weapon, or go into hiding. Lee drew a big breath, and blew it out slowly. He summoned an image of the knife into his mind's eye, and prepared to cast. With luck, his time would be his own to waste again sometime soon.
As Lee incanted, he started to feel like himself again. All the Foolery of that morning had shaken Lee more than he would care to admit, but casting within his discipline had always brought a sense of calm. You couldn't Find anything without first knowing where you were. And now, the core of Lee's being was telling him "You are here." It honestly didn't matter where "here" was. Just knowing his place in the world was soothing.
But the casting brought information more important than just where he was. It also showed him the location of the knife. It wasn't specific, but Lee could feel it pulling at him, like a non-resident caster being drawn towards portal park.
Lee set out, updating his notes as he went. He didn't bother looking where he was going. It wasn't necessary. Now that his feet were on the path, he couldn't get lost if he tried. There was a slight risk that he could bump into someone, but in such a wide open area, anyone who managed that would be just as much to blame as Lee was.
After a time, Lee began to notice the scenery changing around him. He was soon required to pick his path more carefully, dodging tents and trailers that sprang into his way. He was unsurprised to find himself in the Carnyvale. He reached his destination not much later.
He stood before a run-down building that looked nearly abandoned. The windows were boarded up, and the paint was peeling in strips. Only the telltale vibrations of booming music betrayed that the structure was inhabited. As Lee approached the door, he was nearly bowled over by a grinning man in a top hat chasing after a giggling woman in stockings. They paid Lee no attention as they headed in the direction of the various dwellings.
Swinging open the flimsy door, Lee stepped inside and paused as he let his eyes adjust to the different lighting. A number of powerballs floated in the air, sending shifting beams of red and purple across the walls and ceiling of the room. The room itself was dominated by a stage that thrust itself from the left wall out into the center of the room, while a bar offering various concoctions lined the right. On the stage itself was a half-dressed woman who gyrated, supposedly to the beat of the music, while wearing an expression that didn't reach her eyes. The music itself seemed to emanate from all around, though calling it music would have been generous.
There were very few patrons in attendance, so Lee picked one at random. Nearly shouting to make himself heard, Lee addressed a sleazy looking Dirtamancer with a mullet.
"I'm looking for Oscar!"
The Dirtamancer gestured vaguely to the back corner of the room without taking his eyes off of the girl on stage. Looking in that direction, Lee saw that the back wall was covered with several doors. While to the left were doors labeled "private rooms," to the far right was a door that Lee suspected lead to an office. Attempting to tune out the other intrusions, Lee could still feel the knife pulling to him from behind the door. Ignoring the Dirtamancer as much as he himself had been ignored, Lee crossed the room and pounded upon the door with his fist.
The door didn't open right away, but when it did, Lee was greeted by a puff of smoke in his face. A mustached man peered at him through thin glasses, perched under thick eyebrows. He pulled the door open all the way and leaned against the door frame, while taking another draw upon his cigar. He blew it out slowly before asking "So? What do you want?"
"Are you Oscar?"
"I'm Lee Lang. I'm investigating the murder of Belle Bette."
The man flicked his cigar ash onto the already filthy floor, practically dripping disdain.
"I don't know who that is. She wasn't one of my girls."
"So, you are Oscar?"
Oscar straightened slightly, heaving himself off the door frame, though he remained partially slouched. He glared up at the taller Findmancer.
"I asked you what you wanted."
The Carnymancer looked more petulant than threatening, and his shifty behavior indicated he was hiding something. Lee felt like he was close to getting to the bottom of things.
"I have a witness who states that you had grievances with the deceased. I also have reason to believe that the murder weapon resides within that room. So how about you move aside and let me poke around?"
"How about you poke around your own keister? Who do you think you are, coming into my place, accusing me, and disturbing all my customers?"
Lee looked back at the stage and noted with amusement that none of the patrons had so much as glanced in their direction. He suspected that they couldn't even hear themselves think while sitting that close to the stage, much less what he and Oscar were saying. Lee was about to say as much when the door to one of the private rooms opened. Out of it came a woman reapplying her lipstick, followed by a short mustached man in glasses. He headed back towards the office, busily tucking his shirt back into his pants. He was so intent upon what he was doing he didn't see the casters standing in his way until he had nearly crashed into them. Oscar started when he noticed Lee, but became outraged when he saw himself standing in the doorway.
"Just what the heck is going on here?!"
The Oscar in the doorway sighed.
"If you had taken a couple more minutes to finish, I would have thrown this punk out, and we would have been fine. Now you've got to help me take care of him."
The Oscar in the doorway faded, and in his place was a tall man in a maroon suit and mask. A cigarette dangled out of his mouth, and in his hand was a very familiar knife. Crabbe raised the knife menacingly, the blade reflecting purple and red.
"Try not to ruin his hat. I want to keep that hat."
Lee reflexively pulled the fedora more snuggly upon his head. Things had turned ugly fast.
Lee was outnumbered, and outleveled. Oscar matched Lee's own 5, and Crabbe was showing a 6. That wasn't even addressing all the other casters in the room. It was unknown if they would get involved, how powerful they were, and what disciplines they had at their disposal. Lee once again found himself under prepared and in danger. He could only hope that the Titans wouldn't mind him continuing to push the envelope.
Lee acted fast, not allowing the pair time to stack. Left arm still raised, Lee jerked sideways, driving his elbow into Oscar's face. Oscar stumbled and fell, landing with a thud upon his backside. He clutched at himself, his nose and glasses both broken. Oscar's low moans of pain barely registered with Lee as he leaped backwards into the room. Having more space to maneuver, Lee now turned his full attention to the Foolamancer. He took aim, and fired.
The attack passed harmlessly through the Foolamancer's chest and struck the half-open door behind him, blasting it off it's hinges. Crabbe smiled.
Crap. Of course he was veiled.
The fake Crabbe almost skipped as it slowly followed Lee into the room, a predatory glint in his eye.
"Oh dear, you've made quite a mess! I'd say better luck next time, but I'm afraid that would be overly optimistic."
Lee was being played with, and he knew it. The fake Crabbe, the trash talk, it was all being done to distract him. Lee did his best to tune it out. He needed to focus. The knife was still calling to him, and if he concentrated, he could sense where it was.
Lee breathed in deeply and closed his eyes, trying to block out everything except for what he was searching for. An instant later Lee's eyes snapped open again and he hurled himself to his right. He fell heavily into the bar with a deep cut in his shoulder. Lee kicked out blindly, and received only mocking laughter from the fake Crabbe in response. Lee struggled to pull himself upright. His heart was pounding in his ears, and it only increased in volume when he saw that Oscar was also finding his feet.
Lee faked a misstep, and grasped at the bar to steady himself. His hand groped for something that he could use. The decoy was almost upon him again when his fingers closed upon a bottle of some sort of recreational potion. Lacking a better plan, Lee swung in a wide arc at the decoy, and once more failed to make contact with anything. The decoy tsked at him.
"You see? You still haven't learned."
Lee found himself backing away, his eyes locked on what he knew was a fake. He could feel himself being herded. Crabbe was forcing him back towards the office. If Lee could only get his back to a wall, he'd know he wasn't about to be attacked from behind. But Crabbe could be anywhere, including between himself and any wall that Lee might pick. He could be playing right into the Foolamancer's hands, and every moment that Lee wasted was a moment closer to Oscar rejoining the fight.
Lee did the only thing that he could think to do, and smashed the bottle at his feet. He flinched as glass shrapnel sprayed outwards.
Lee had hoped that whatever spell Crabbe was using wouldn't immediately be able to compensate for new elements in his surroundings. Lee listened as hard as he could, straining to hear the sound of crunching glass over the cacophony. Try as he might, he couldn't hear anything. Nor did he see any footprints in the amber liquid that was now sloshed across the floor. Taking a gamble, Lee spun around and raised his hands in a desperate defensive gesture.
He was rewarded by the sensation of hot fire exploding across his right palm. Without looking, Lee knew that he was missing his smallest finger. Not a big loss, all things considered. The rest of his fingers on that hand weren't working either. It had to be nerve damage, and that meant that any further Hobokens were out of the question. Lee's arms were quickly becoming heavier, but he raised them anyway, and managed to make contact with something as a body bulled into him.
A woman's scream cut through the nearly deafening bass. Apparently the dancer "performing" had decided it was no longer worth trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. From the stage, she would have seen everything going on in the back of the room, but must have attempted to keep the patrons from noticing. Now that they had, they were rising from their chairs and muttering to each other. Oscar did his best to mitigate disaster, shouting in a voice made nasally by his broken nose.
"Alright, out! Everybody out of here! You too, Sugar! Go on! Scram!"
Audience members and half-naked women alike, Oscar ushered everyone out the front door. Meanwhile, Lee continued to struggle for his life.
When the two collided, Crabbe had given up on trickery, and started trying to best Lee by strength alone. Lee was now pinned up against the bar, with Crabbe bearing down upon him. Lee no longer had to focus to locate the knife, as despite his left hand locked around Crabbe's wrist, the blade was inching closer and closer to his chest. His right hand still useless, Lee made a feeble attempt at a headbutt, but only succeeded in knocking his own hat off. Crabbe grinned, and made good use of his superior height. The knife point dipped lower, and then finally made contact. Despite Lee's continued resistance, the blade sank slowly into his breast.
Lee's breath slid out of his lungs in something between a moan and a whimper. His face tensed with pain, then slackened. Crabbe released him, and his legs gave out, dropping him to the floor. There he sat, back propped up against the bar, and watched as his opponent took one last draw of his cigarette. Crabbe derisively flicked the butt at the fallen Findamancer, then turned and strode away.
As soon as the Foolamancer's back was turned, Lee's eyes opened slightly wider. The knife had skewered his notebook before entering his chest. Every breath hurt, but he wasn't in immediate danger. From the knife anyway.
Lee watched as Crabbe conversed with Oscar. Oscar was saying something that Lee couldn't quite make out over the din, but judging by the way he was motioning around the room, it probably had something to do with the mess that the struggle had made. Crabbe responded, apparently unconcerned, and then jerked his thumb over his shoulder in Lee's direction.
Lee went back to playing possum as Oscar squinted at him. The Carnymancer was apparently having difficulty seeing without his glasses. But he didn't seem to be looking at Lee. Instead, he was scanning the area around where the fight had taken place. What was he...?
Crabbe had told him to find it, and soon Oscar would come searching for it, and bad sight or no, he'd discover Lee was not as injured as he appeared. Lee looked up, and saw the brim of the fedora just barely peeking over the edge of the bar. And of course, the hat was on his right, the same side as his injured hand. Lee reached up, and winced as the knife shifted, then winced again as his hand throbbed in protest at being waved about. It took him several tries, but he managed to bat the fedora further out so that he could hook it with his thumb and pull it into his lap.
His actions had not gone unnoticed. At Oscar's outcry, Crabbe turned, a Hoboken crackling between his hands, ready to be released. But Lee was ready. He had retrieved the scroll from its hiding place inside the hat, and now brilliant letters of light shown brightly in front of his eyes as he read the scroll aloud.
An enormous jet of flame blossomed out of the back of the scroll and streaked across the room. It enveloped Crabbe completely, his screams of pain and terror somehow eclipsing the music in their intensity. He fell writhing to the floor, screaming still, while Oscar used this time to run for the front door as fast as his legs would carry him.
Abruptly, the screams and the music both stopped. The obnoxiously colored powerballs fell from the air with a clatter and slowly rolled across the floor. The only illumination left in the room was that which was being given off by Crabbe's burning corpse. By Crabbe's corpse, and by the stage.
Lee hadn't just hit the Foolamancer with his attack, but the stage behind him as well. It was now well on its way to being fully ablaze, throwing yellow and orange light upon the walls where once there was red and purple. Lee coughed at the rising smoke, and shuddered as the knife cut him further. He had definitely overstayed his welcome. Favoring his right hand, Lee attempted to pull himself to his feet.
Only to find that his feet would not cooperate. No matter how he tried, his legs would only jerk and flop. They would not hold him.
He had known he was incapacitated before he had tried, of course, but he hadn't wanted to believe it. It didn't matter if it was because he had taken more damage by moving around, or because of the smoke that was rapidly filling the room. What mattered was that Lee was inside of a burning building, he couldn't move, and half an inch of steel protruding into his lung prevented him from calling out for help. That left him with one option, and one option only. And that one option sucked.
With a steadily weakening grasp, Lee took hold of the knife with his left hand and pulled. He drew breath to cry out in pain, but only ended up choking on smoke again. Blinking tears from his eyes, Lee fumbled for what remained of his notebook, and managed to tear part of a page free.
The charcoal stick almost crumbled away to nothing as his trembling fingers scrawled out the message.
Lee's vision was starting to blur and go dark by the time he dropped the message into the hat. He could barely remember the sending word, much less say it, and yet he croaked it out. The telltale sparkle of the message vanishing was the last thing Lee saw before dizziness took him, and everything slipped away.
Lee's eyes opened, his vision slowly coming into a focus. A worried face peered down at him. Blurry though the face was, Lee was sure it looked familiar.
"Easy now. You're out of immediate danger, but the smoke did some damage to your lungs. You'll want to stay out of trouble until tomorrow."
As the Healomancer helped Lee sit up, he could feel the truth of those words. He was wheezing slightly with every breath he took, and it was making him a bit unsteady and lightheaded. But otherwise, he was free of pain. Lee rubbed at his bleary eyes, and discovered that his hand was working again, his pinky finger back where it belonged. Looking around, Lee saw that they were still in the club. The fire had been extinguished, but the stage was a wreck, and the floor and walls were blackened by smoke.
The bar was still intact though, and Lee took the opportunity to lean back against it as he questioned Watt.
"What did I miss?"
The Healomancer was still watching Lee closely.
"When I got your message, I headed towards the Carnyvale. Locating you wasn't a problem. Smoke had started to fill the sky, and a crowd was gathering. There was already a Dirtamancer putting out the fire when I arrived. Weird, sleazy looking guy. When he finished, the assembled mob was practically tripping over each other as they rushed in to loot the place. I barely managed to keep one of them from taking your hat."
Watt passed the fedora to Lee, who accepted it gratefully.
"Anyway, things calmed down when the Thinkamancers arrived. They seemed intent upon questioning anyone and everyone who was here when everything went down. Miraculously, it seems you, Oscar, and Crabbe were completely alone when spells started to fly. The dancers must have been on break."
Watt smiled, and his eyes showed amusement. Lee merely snorted. Watt continued.
"I was already patching you up when the Thinkamancers started taking control, but I slowed down and exaggerated the extent of your injuries. They seemed very interested in having a word with you. They're waiting outside."
Lee made a small sigh of relief, and gave Watt a look of gratitude. Waking up to a friendly face was much preferable to being surrounded by interrogators with an unprotected mind. Then a thought struck him.
"You mentioned Oscar? He got away in the chaos. Do you know what happened to him?"
Watt's face fell.
"The Thinkamancers got him."
Lee grimaced and placed his fedora determinedly upon his head before making his way to his feet.
"Then I suppose I have some things to answer for. I owe you a debt, Watt. And not just for the healing. I'm afraid I don't have a way to repay you at the moment. Normally on a job like this, where I haven't officially been hired, I take my fee from the possessions of the person I'm taking in. This place looks pretty picked over, but take what you want. If it isn't enough, we'll sort something out. And if I don't come back from my chat with the big heads out there, you can have first claim to the stuff in my shack."
Watt Johnson just shook his head.
"It's because of me that you got mixed up in this mess in the first place. You don't owe me anything. But, your line of work is a dangerous one. It seems to me you could use a contact to provide you with Healomancy scrolls. Maybe we could find a situation that works out for the both of us?"
Lee smiled and extended his hand.
"I think I can probably do more than that, but it sounds like a good place to start. I need to get out there, but there is one more thing I need to ask of you. At the Fool Hall, there is a caster by the name of Peter Puck. Would you find him and let him know that the culprits in Belle Bette's murder have been brought to justice?"
The short Healomancer said that he would, and shook Lee's hand vigorously before heading into the back room. Lee made his way to the front door, but stopped short to collect his thoughts.
Lighting fires in the Magic Kingdom was strictly forbidden. They could easily become uncontrolled, a lesson Lee had witnessed first hand when he and an enforcement council paid a visit to a firebug Shockmancer. The Shock Jockey had been experimenting with fire spells. They had only intended to tell him to knock it off, but the caster had panicked. Several members of the council nearly croaked keeping the blaze from going inferno, and the Shockmancer got away. It was then that Lee investigated Foolamancy, before ultimately finding the firebug on his own and taking him down. It was from that caster that Lee had taken the scroll.
Citizens of the Magic Kingdom took uncontrolled fires very seriously. It likely wouldn't matter that he had only cast the spell in desperation, though he might be helped that no bystanders had been injured. Still, he was looking at losing his qualified status at least, if not a more severe punishment. And since the Thinkamancers had Oscar, they'd be able to pull the entire incident right out of his head. Lee would be lucky if he got to speak up in his own defense.
It would be cruel irony indeed if the thing that had saved his life was also the thing that ruined it. He could try running, but even if he got past the Thinkamancers outside, he'd have to leave the Magic Kingdom. Lee didn't think much of that idea. He was in the Magic Kingdom for reason, and that reason was still valid. He had a job to do. Barring any better option, Lee strode out the front door.
Lee raised his hand and squinted against the light. To his left, a half-dozen or so Thinkamancers stood in a semi-circle, and in the middle of them knelt Oscar. Oscar's expression was glazed, and his jaw hung slack. Lee even thought he saw some drool dribbling from the corner of his mouth. Whatever it was that the Thinkamancers were doing to him, it was clear that they were not being gentle. But as all their attention was being given to the Carnymancer at the moment, Lee thought he might have a chance to slip away. He took a ginger step in the opposite direction of the Thinkamancers, and then another. Before he could take a third, a voice called out.
"Stop where you are!"
The dark skinned Thinkamancer in the black robe was striding towards Lee, brow furrowed and fists clenched, a thunderous expression upon his face.
"Where in Hellabad do you think you are going?!"
Lee turned fully around, wearing a tired and lopsided smile.
"To bed. I've had a long day. This is the second time in recent memory I've almost been burned alive, and I could use the rest."
The robed man pointed an accusing finger at the Findmancer.
"You have no one to blame but yourself! Lighting fires in the Magic Kingdom is strictly forbidden, and punishment -"
"Has been dispensed."
Another Thinkamancer had disengaged himself from the other huddled casters and made his way over. The newcomer's unlined face and calm demeanor stood in stark contrast to his colleague's stormy disposition. He tugged at the sleeve of his brown jacket before continuing.
"Oscar's attempt to aid his partner in crime against Mr. Lang resulted in the destruction of his place of business. Oscar and Crabbe were both complicit in the untimely croaking of our fellow Thinkamancer, Belle Bette. Due to Oscar's unsuccessful attempts at ending Mr. Lang with uncontrolled Shockmancy, Crabbe is no more, and Oscar himself is in no position to harm anyone ever again. So it seems to me that we owe Mr. Lang our thanks. Don't you agree, Headmaster Roger?"
Roger turned and glared at the shorter Great Mind, whose own expression was one of feigned casualness. They appeared to confer without words for a moment, though whether they truly entered thinkspace was difficult to say. Eventually, Roger rolled his eyes with exasperation and returned to his fellows. The newcomer smiled and extended his hand to Lee.
“Mr. Lang, I am Headmaster Isaac.”
Lee took the proffered hand and nodded a greeting.
“Lee. Thanks for stepping in.”
Isaac’s eyes twinkled.
“Of course. Your secret is safe. Headmaster Roger may be forceful at times, but he can be counted on to think alike. And in this instance, the others will follow my lead. Though I’d suggest that you avoid trifling with uncontrolled Shockmancy in the future. It’s unlikely that your luck will continue.”
Lee took note of the implied warning in Isaac’s words. He had the Thinkamancer’s gratitude for bringing Belle’s murderers to justice, but this gift of amnesty was a one-time thing. If he stepped outside the law again, he’d be dealt with. Lee glanced over at Oscar again and was reminded of just how the Thinkamancers dealt with violations of Magic Kingdom law. Lee’s jaw involuntarily clenched.
“I’m glad to hear it. Now, I’m sure with all your day’s excitement, you’ll be wanting to get your rest. I’ll allow you to take your leave.”
Acknowledging Lee with an inclination of his head, Isaac also turned and rejoined the huddled Thinkamancers. Lee watched him go for a moment, before shaking himself and setting off. He ignored the faint pull of Portal Park, and traveled in the direction of his shack. He could really use a drink.
As Lee made his way, he took inventory on the events of his day. It seemed unlikely that he'd be able to find an ally among the Great Minds, but at the very least, it seemed that not all of them counted him as their enemy. A less experienced Thinkamancer might be more willing to cooperate. Despite never having met her, Lee regretted the loss of Belle Bette. Excited by new ideas, and friendly to work with, she seemed like just the sort he was meant to keep an eye out for. Peter Puck might know of another Thinkamancer Lee could inquire of, but he supposed he should wait a while before asking. Peter too might be of some use someday. Though it was not for Peter that Lee had taken the job, Peter may feel a debt of gratitude that Lee would not hesitate to take advantage of. And if not, Lee could always hire Arleen, though he wouldn't want to be the one to go to the Fool Hall to fetch her.
But the most fruitful part of the day had been meeting Watt Johnson. First thing in the morning, Lee would seek him out and put together an arrangement that would be highly profitable for both of them. Lee would get the required schmuckers tonight.
The sun was beginning to set as Lee's shack came into view. He sighed and fished the door's key out of his pocket. It was good to be home, as much as this shack could be called his home. Opening the door, he closed it behind himself and leaned heavily against it, dropping his guard for the first time since he'd been woken by the knocking that morning. He removed his hat and tossed it onto the bed. He'd place a new scroll into it soon, but he had a letter to send first.
He retrieved the powerball from the bedside table, and let it hover, glimmering, above the small desk in the corner. From within one of the drawers of the desk, Lee dug a half empty bottle of bourbon. Not bothering with a glass, Lee took a healthy pull, and sighed again as a soothing warmth spread its way across his chest. He took another sip before placing the bottle on the desk and getting down to business.
From the top drawer, Lee removed a new notebook to replace his ruined one, and a fresh charcoal stick. These, he placed in his vest. Next, Lee fetched an ink well and a piece of parchment. Official reports warranted more than slightly smudged scratchings upon a torn out page. And besides, the recipient of the report was a stickler for neat penmanship. Summoning up his best handwriting, Lee began.
As Father has no doubt made you aware by now, I reached my sixth level today. The events leading to this occasion nearly cost me my life, but potentially vital contacts were made..."
Writing even a condensed version of the day's events took longer than expected. Lee included in the letter a request for schmuckers to pay Johnson with, before concluding.
"Give my love to Father, and keep some for yourself. I hope that circumstances will allow me to see you both soon."
He signed his name with a flourish that reached almost sarcastic levels, folded the missive, and sent it. Lee took one last swig before undoing the buttons on his vest and letting it fall to the floor. His shirt soon joined it. Lee stretched, causing the tattoos that splayed across his skin to distort slightly. Great beasts did battle upon his arms, while the majority of his back was covered by a giant black clover, his father's sigil. He was lucky that he had fallen asleep in his clothes the previous night. As much as Lee thought Watt was a potential ally, he didn't want the man to start asking questions. It would only risk his cover.
He didn't want to explain why the heir of Acme had taken up permanent residence in the Magic Kingdom.
Lee grabbed the powerball from out of the air and threw it in the general direction of the bedside table. He heard it bounce off the wall and start rolling across the floor, but decided that that was a problem for tomorrow. Groping in the dark for the bed, he found the covers and slid beneath them. As he felt sleep taking him, the Findamancer smiled. Dangerous though it was, Lee Lang lived an interesting life. There wasn't any other way he'd want it.
NOTE: Lipkin (the author) received 150 Shmuckers for this story. ElvenAvariel (the illustrator) received 25 Shmuckers - Rob
I'm working on the next one, but it's going to be some time before it comes out. I want to get a backlog before I release stuff so I don't fall behind schedule like I did this one. But the next story will be all about the city (and side) of Acme.
Anyway, thank you for the tips, and for the kind words!