The Phenomenals: A Tangle of TraitorsF. E. Higgins
To Violée and Flammando
Chapter 1 The Hunter
Chapter 2 The Thief
Chapter 3 The Apprentice
Chapter 4 The First Gift
Chapter 5 The Second Gift
Chapter 6 The Dark Heart
Chapter 7 Revelation
Chapter 8 A Lucky Find
Chapter 9 Problems and Solutions
Chapter 10 The White Hair
Chapter 11 A Loss
Chapter 12 Betrayed!
Chapter 13 Triskaidekaphobia
Chapter 14 Rabbit Stew
Chapter 15 A Likely Story
Chapter 16 On the Trail
Chapter 17 The Lantern Bearers
Chapter 18 Body of Evidence
Chapter 19 The Reluctant Burglar
Chapter 20 This Evening’s Entertainment
Chapter 21 A Close Shave
Chapter 22 The Lurid’s Kiss
Chapter 23 A Turn-Up for the Books
Chapter 24 Cold Storage
Chapter 25 The Third Man
Chapter 26 Blood Is Thicker than Water
Chapter 27 Whose Side Are You On?
Chapter 28 Pick a Card
Chapter 29 Roast Dinner
Chapter 30 Domna!
Chapter 31 Dum Spiro, Spero
Chapter 32 Loose Ends
Chapter 33 From the Degringolade Daily
/`loo-rid/ n. Supermundane entity. Lurids are the restless shades of executed convicted criminals, often found where the bodies are discarded after death
/fuh-`nom-uh-nal/ n. Supermundane entity. Generally malevolent in nature, requiring expert handling to banish, destroy or neutralize. Phenomenals are particularly vile and are characterized by their tendency to gather in small groups and their ability to come and go unnoticed
See also Lemures, Vapids, Noctivagrantes, et al.
The lucent moon cast her benign light across the glittering roofs of the northern city, and in that gentle light the frosted verges of the Great West Road gleamed eerily. An echoing chime announced the impending arrival of 12 Nox. And marking each chime, like a macabre pendulum, a decaying skeletal form swung to and fro on the ancient gibbet at Quadrivium Crossroads. Thus justice had been served.
Approaching this strangely affecting sight was a girl in a black leather paletot coat. Without hesitation she climbed the seven steps up to the platform and went straight to the body. She steadied it with her hand and looked up at the face. The features were unrecognizable; the local corvids had picked the flesh down to the bone.
‘Domna,’ she murmured, wrinkling her nose at the smell. ‘It’s not just the birds that have been at you.’ She lifted the sleeve of his left arm. His hand was gone, severed neatly at the wrist. From the way his trousers flapped, she could tell that his left leg was also missing. ‘Silvan beluae?’ she wondered, and looked over her shoulder at the dark forest some miles distant from the city. ‘But they rarely leave the woods.’
She jumped down from the platform, her thick-soled boots leaving a deep impression in the dirt, and was walking away when she saw two men come shuffling up to the gibbet. They were pushing a long, narrow handcart. They too climbed the steps and, as one sawed through the thick rope, the other stood ready to catch the body. It rattled as it fell and its skull snapped off and rolled on to the platform.
‘What was his crime?’ she asked.
Both men started at the sound of her voice. ‘Thievery and murder,’ said the man with the knife, peering down from the platform at what he took for a blond youth. ‘Robbed a perfumer’s and killed an Urban Guardsman.’
‘Could do with some perfume now,’ joked the second man.
Together they took the body and dumped it unceremoniously on to the handcart. The girl flinched. Even a criminal deserved a little more respect than that. She caught up with them as they started to wheel the cart away.
‘Where will you take him?’
‘To the Tar Pit. That’s where they all go. Best place for ’is kind. Nany graveyard’ll have ’im.’
The men hurried off one way and the girl watched them for a while before going in another. Her manuslantern swung back and forth at her side, casting an orange glow. She walked quickly, purposefully, the city lights twinkling behind her. The road was rutted, and the verges lined with ragged bushes and trees.
Shortly she came to two imposing granite pillars, once a magnificent gateway but now showing signs of dereliction. The stone arch that had spanned the gap between them lay nearby broken in two. The girl passed between the pillars and veered off to the left. The landscape changed, stretching away from her darkly, and the ground underfoot was no longer firm. Pools of water reflected the shining moon, and above a myriad blue lights flitted around, tempting her to follow them. But she maintained her path.
‘You won’t catch me out,’ she said, laughing. ‘Nany Puca will get me tonight!’
She continued, trying to ignore the constant howling that filled the air, to a set of iron railings. She followed them round to a pair of gates, rusted off their hinges, and as she passed between them she read the words wrought into the iron:
In the adumbral komaterion the air of abandonment was tangible. Mossy headstones and statues were barely visible above the tall grass. The girl walked on, stumbling occasionally, until she came upon a small dark building almost completely hidden in the undergrowth and covered in thick ivy. Its wide door was flanked by two columns which supported a pediment in the classical style. This was a kryptos, a building within which lay the bodies of the dead.
The girl took a large key from her pocket, unlocked the door and entered the musty tomb.
‘Well, Folly,’ she said to herself, ‘home, sweet home. At least for now.’
‘Spletivus!’ oathed Vincent, with justifiable feeling, as he watched the triangular piece of stone fall to the ground some fifty feet below him. It shattered. Only moments earlier his entire body weight had been supported by those fragments.
He laughed lightly at the near miss; it was not the first in his young life. As he continued to inch along the crumbling narrow ledge that ran across the front of the house he exhaled slowly and deliberately. He was not a stranger to precarity, but his current position was more precarious than most. He was four floors up; if he fell he too would shatter like that stone and be dead for sure. He wondered how many seconds it would take before he hit the ground.
But he had no intention of falling. There was a balcony to his left by which he planned to make good his escape through the house. Then the unmistakable sound of a sash window being thrown up caused him to reconsider. Out of the corner of his eye he could see a man craning his neck through the window. He groaned. ‘Constable Weed.’
‘We’ve got you this time, lad,’ crowed the uniformed man triumphantly. ‘You might as well give up now.’
Vincent looked to his left. Now there was another constable on the balcony. He stood at the railing with his arms crossed over his chest. ‘It’s the end of the line for you, sonny,’ he said. ‘The Pilfering Picklock will be no more.’
Vincent grinned. ‘If you want me you’ll have to come and get me.’
Both men frowned. ‘You’ve got nowhere to go,’ said Constable Weed. ‘Don’t be a fool. Come back.’
Vincent laughed. ‘To face the hangman’s noose? Not a chance, gentlemen.’
He took a small grappling hook on a rope from under his long cloak and tossed it expertly on to the balcony, causing the constable
to step back rapidly. He yanked sharply on it, pulling it back and securing it to the balusters. Then, before the disbelieving eyes of Constable Weed and his gape-mouthed companion, Vincent jumped out from the ledge to swing back into the house through the window below the balcony. He landed in a shower of glass but, cat-like, on his two feet. He brushed down his cloak and looked around.
He was in a large bedroom. The occupant of the four-poster bed in the centre of the room, around which were pulled heavy curtains to keep out the winter’s cold, had been snoring loudly. Not any more. A fat nightcapped head appeared from behind the drapes.
‘Evening, my good fellow,’ said Vincent.
‘What the . . . ?’ spluttered the man, but Vincent dazzled him with a beam of light from a device he had concealed in his hand. Then he raced to the door, opened it as wide as it would go and promptly hid behind it. The two constables came running in at the same time as the man emerged from his bed.
‘We’re after the Pilfering Picklock,’ shouted Weed. ‘He came into your room.’
‘Good Lord! Then I think he just ran out again,’ said the man, still blinded by the flash of light and the fact that he had drunk rather more port than was good for him that evening.
‘Search every niche, every nook and every cranny in the house,’ ordered the other constable.
So all three – the woozy sleeper and the two constables – hurried from the room to join other members of the household, which included a number of servants whose irritation at being disturbed from their sleep was tempered rather nicely by the fact that their rich and less-than-generous employer had become the latest victim of the notorious thief.
The Pilfering Picklock himself waited until the syncopated footsteps faded, before pushing the door shut. With a practised eye he glanced around the spacious room. On the nightstand there was a crystal glass with a good two inches of red wine in it. He helped himself, of course, to the diamond cufflinks that sat next to the glass and slipped them into one of his many pockets. There was a gilded dressing mirror in a corner of the room and Vincent caught sight of himself. He pushed back his hood, smoothed down his cloak, bulging as it was with spoils, and ran his hand through his thick dark hair. He smiled his winning smile.
‘Vincent, you are a handsome fellow, no doubt!’
Then, aware that time was of the essence, he poked his head out into the corridor. A solitary gaslight glowed gently further down the hall. He could hear a medley of excited voices, but they were safely distant. He crept along the hall and skipped lightly down the stairs, three flights in all, sliding down the final banister (oh, they knew how to polish treen, these servants) and hurried to the front door. It was chained and bolted and locked and the key was gone.
‘Ha,’ laughed Vincent softly. ‘No doubt in my honour.’
He took from his belt what looked like a pair of long black pins. Seconds later the lock was picked and he was out on the street. He glanced up at the hook and rope with regret. He hated to lose any of the tools of his trade, but sacrifices had to be made. He walked quickly away from the house and, when a large barrel-laden wagon passed by, stepped into the road and hailed it. The driver looked him up and down.
‘Any chance of a ride?’ asked Vincent, and flashed his smile. ‘I can pay.’
The driver, a ruddy-faced fellow with big hands, mumbled something which Vincent took as a yes.
‘Splendid,’ he said cheerfully, and climbed up. As he settled into his seat he saw a copy of the local newspaper. And there in black and white on the front page was a head and shoulders portrait of a boy hardly recognizable as himself. The artist had had no choice but to draw him with his black hood up and his eye-mask. He smiled at the headline:
Constables Yet to Capture the Pilfering Picklock
‘Definitely time to move on,’ decided Vincent. When the local newspaper had gone so far as to bestow a name on you, it was a sure sign that you had outstayed your welcome. And he knew he had been lucky tonight. Weed had been just a little too close for comfort. He turned to the driver.
‘Where are you off to?’
‘Eastwards,’ he replied vaguely.
‘The further the better,’ said Vincent.
Vincent sighed deeply. The further the better had turned out to be significantly further than he had thought. For six days and nights now they had been travelling. The temperature had dropped considerably, the landscape was barren and the driver had proved to be a rather dull conversationalist who spent most of his time snoozing at the reins. So, when Vincent saw a city in the distance, he poked the driver and halted the horse.
‘Where are we?’
‘On the border of Antithica province,’ replied the driver. ‘But I ain’t crossing it. That city yonder, that’s Degringolade – the City of Superstition they call it. Won’t take you more’n a day or so, walkin’.’
Vincent looked again at the distant city. The sun was rising behind it and it sparkled with light, as if it had been sprinkled with glitter. He had heard of Antithica province but knew little about it. As far as he was concerned, any place where he wasn’t known held new opportunities.
‘I want to go into Antithica,’ he said decisively.
The driver shrugged. ‘I ain’t stopping you. But I’m warning you, it’s like a foreign country; they do things different there. It’s all card-spreaders and charms and who-knows-what.’
‘Thanks,’ said Vincent, and tossed a small paper packet to the driver, who opened it and smiled broadly at the pair of pearl earrings sitting in the fold. He looked up to thank Vincent, but he was already striding off down the road.
Citrine Capodel went to the French windows and pulled back the flocculent blue and gold curtains that covered them. She opened the doors and stepped out on to the balcony. It was still Prax but already dark and the cold was invigorating. She propped her elbows on the stone balustrade and gazed up at the early moon, catching its light on her hair.
‘I do believe it really does look smaller,’ she mused. ‘Another few days and it will be as far away as it ever gets.’
Normally she loved to stand out here, but this evening she felt more alone than usual. It was almost a year to the day that she had stood in this same spot and watched her father ride off through the gate. She had waved at him but he had not seen her. Later she found his silver timepiece on the hall table and had taken it and counted the hours all night waiting for him to come back. But he had not returned, and that was the last time she had seen him. Maybe the last time she ever would.
A gust of wind carried the sound of howling to her ears and Citrine grimaced; the Lurids were loud tonight. Father loved this time of year, especially the winter Festival of the Lurids. For as long as she could remember, they had dressed up – she, Father and Edgar – and masked and gowned they had joined the procession down to the Tar Pit, where the Ritual of Appeasement, the culmination of the five-day festival, took place. How the Lurids howled then!
Lowering her gaze to the frosty rooftops of Degringolade, Citrine’s eye was drawn to the gleaming Kronometer in Mercator Square. The Kronometer, the tallest building in the city, stood in the centre of the marketplace, persistently measuring the passing of time. The procession started at its foot. This year the lunar apogee was at 5 Lux, so the procession would start even earlier to reach the Tar Pit in time. Citrine set her mouth in a firm line. She had not thought to spend a second Ritual without her father.
Beyond the square, towards the sea, she could see the top of the lighthouse. This, the second tower of note in the city, stood on a rock in the centre of the broad Flumen River, just where its muddy waters mingled with the Turbid Sea. Its intermittent beam guided ships in and out of the harbour.
Citrine shivered, suddenly aware of the biting cold of the night, and went back inside. She walked about the large room distractedly, picking up ornaments and jewellery and items of clothing only to put them down again. She had known luxury all her life. The
Capodels were immensely wealthy, but Citrine knew that possessions were no guarantee of satisfaction. She considered it no more than a stroke of luck that she had been born into wealth; Cousin Edgar, on the other hand, seemed to think that he deserved it. Citrine could not be persuaded of that.
With a soft exhalation she sat at her dressing table and looked at herself in the triple mirror. She pulled a face and shook her wavy russet hair back from her face, revealing the glittering brow pin over her right eye. She had taken to wearing the onyx pin these days, to banish negative thoughts. She wasn’t sure that it was working.
She opened the left-hand drawer of the table and took out a stiff envelope. Pulling on the black ribbon that held it together, she shook out some of its contents: newspaper articles, some letters, sketches and depictions. She flattened out one particular newspaper cutting, dated a year ago and read it for the hundredth time. The headline made her stomach flip; it always did.
Hubert Capodel – Kidnap or Murder?
Chief Guardsman Mayhew Fessup of the Degringolade Urban Guard states that he and his men are mystified by the recent disappearance of local businessman Hubert Capodel. Mr Capodel owns Capodel Chemicals and employs many Degringoladians at his manufactory here in Degringolade. The Capodel family is the wealthiest in the province and the DUG are working on the assumption that Mr Capodel has been kidnapped. CG Fessup has admitted that although there has not been a ransom demand they haven’t given up hope of finding Mr Capodel alive.
Edgar Capodel, Hubert Capodel’s nephew, has taken over the running of the Manufactory. He told the Degringolade Daily he was confident his uncle would be found, and that he felt it was his duty to continue with business as usual despite the difficult circumstances. Prominent city businessman Leucer d’Avidus, who is currently running for Governor of Degringolade, has promised to do all in his power to find Mr Capodel and return him to his family. Mr Capodel was last sighted on the night of the Ritual of Appeasement and the DUG are appealing to anyone who might have seen him to come forward.