Chapter 16: Better Nate than Lever.

“Did you know about this?” I asked, as we drove. Jack sat in the back with the Atlantean girl, the only one at the temple who I was able to get a hold of. Alfred sat in the passenger seat, checking his phone occasionally for the directions we had been given by Inanna. “I mean, the whole family thing.”

“Not a clue,” said Alfred, shaking his head. “You think you know a man… I mean, of course I knew he’d frequently disappear over weekends, but he’s one of the undead. They’re not usually extroverts, Li aside. Add to that his status as a wizard. Unless a corpse shows up in the local river, it’s usually safe to assume he’s simply doing research or meditating or something similar. Obsessiveness is amplified when you don’t need to eat, drink, or sleep. He never mentioned them, never asked us to meet them, never had any pictures of them around his office. Hell, never invited us to the birthdays.”

“He was paranoid,” I said, shrugging.

“Paranoid is one thing. This is ‘other life’ territory. It’s…” Alfred looked down at the phone. “It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine Morton as the kind of man with a wife, children, grandchildren. The kind of people he sent Christmas presents to. He always seemed so joyless, so grim and calculating in everything he did. I mean, can you imagine him at a christening?”

“Bursting into flame, maybe,” I said, and then felt bad about it. “God. We made so many jokes when he died. Everyone did. It seemed like nobody really cared about him, and all along…”

“This Dean Morton… He is the one who you believe transferred his soul?” said the Atlantean girl. Her name was- of all things- Momi. Her whiskers drooped a bit. The heat had apparently been rather rough on the Atlanteans, almost as much so as the winter soon would be. They weren’t exactly in a position to dress down, and she had insisted on bringing a huge jug of water, from which she sipped occasionally, sitting on a towel I’d placed on the car seat. I’d considered whether doing so was racist, but frankly, I wasn’t in the mood for playing that game. She certainly didn’t seem to mind.

“Maybe. He was researching a method of transferring a living soul to an object. I asked you about that, I know.”

“It’s… forbidden. Deeply- Taboo, I suppose, would be the word.”

“So you can’t help us?”

“Well… We cannot share anything about it. Largely because we do not carry any records of it. These things you tell me about- Corpses that walk like living beings, stories that infect people, animals that octopus humans…”

“Octopus?”

“Ah. An issue of idioms, ah… Monkey humans?”

“Animals that ape humans?”

“Yes. That is it.” She shivered. “Godhood is something that is meant to be bestowed on a being without preconceptions. To do it elsewise is unholy, prone only to disaster and heartbreak.” She coughed. “Not to offend.”

“No, I’m willing to agree with you there,” I said, giving Alfred a wry look that he missed entirely, focused on the phone.

“So… It is better to make a god from scratch. Without the confusion of an individual, the uncertainty, the inner conflict, warring with who they are as a god. They are a tool, and it is best if they are made with purpose, rather than by accident.”

“Huh.” I looked out the window. “I guess we humans don’t really do that. Making a child with a distinct purpose in mind is always looked on as a bit… evil. I guess.”

“Ah. Yes.” She smiled. “Free will, the right to choose. Such strange notions.”

“Can’t have been that strange, if you decided to settle in Binghamton.”

“Strange, and intriguing. I was born to a farming family. My purpose was chosen from birth; I was to tend to the food. It was a deeply prestigious career, one on which all of Atlantis depended. And here, well…”

“Land of opportunity. You can work the front desk at a temple, instead. Do you miss farming?”

“Oh, occasionally. I keep the algae groves in our temple. I like my job, though, and it is important and prestigious work as well, even if it was not what I was meant for.”

“Yeah… Well, I suppose…” I pondered something, as I let my mouth wander. “I suppose that it’s different for tools, than for children. If you have kids for a purpose, well… What if they decide they don’t like that purpose? What if they’re not suited to it? I always figured… Your job wasn’t to tell your kids what to do, it was to help them find out what they’d love to do. Tools are different…” I looked up into the mirror, at Jack. “At least, until they become Tsukumogami. Then, they’re just another kind of person, aren’t they?”

“I saw you holding back tears when you threw away a couch, Atina,” said Jack, pointedly. “You clearly anthropomorphize every object in your household.”

“And you still have all of your old textbooks,” said Alfred. “You’re never going to read them again, but you keep them around.”

“Okay, so I’m crazy. Still.” I shrugged. “Demons, faeries, undead. They’re unholy for Atlanteans. Makes sense. Lot of personal power, and potential instabilities. Not good for a very small population, you’ve got enough trouble making ends meet without internecine conflict. So, you don’t use phylacteries?”

“Such a concept is… foreign to us. We already live extended lives because of our connections with our gods. To take a nascent Tsukumogami… hollow it, core it of its personality, and then insert your own soul into it… It would be unnecessary, and… deeply disturbing.” She looked up, and coughed. “Of course, our ways are not your ways, and I would certainly never deign to judge someone because of the choices they make in the necessary course of survival!”

“Of course.” I frowned. “Hmm. You’re big on your algae. Have you ever considered opening up an Atlantean restaurant?”

“Ah.” Momi paused. “We do not have… cuisine, precisely. I’m sure nothing that would be appealing to land-dwellers. We did not have enough abundance in order to support a variety of foods or elaborate preparation methods.”

“Atlantean fusion, then,” said Alfred. “All the rage nowadays. You would be amazed what people could be intrigued by, and new food styles can always be appealing. Not to mention, well… Concerns abound everywhere about sustainability. A low-cost sustaining food might prove to be very popular, especially if dressed up. And there is nothing quite like food to bring people together.”

“Hmmm,” said Momi. “I will give the idea some thought.” She smiled.

“It’s the people with no food who make the best cuisine. Gotta get creative with spices, cooking styles. Nothing like a famine to inspire soul food.”

It was a beautiful evening. The sky was clearing up magnificently, and the temperature had already dropped ten degrees, into the high sixties, beginning to feel something akin to reasonable. The black sky above was dotted with stars this far from Binghamton. I was following Interstate 81 south from Binghamton. The road was even less travelled than I-95, and I-95 was dead as vaudeville even at the best of times. The trees were still obnoxiously green, but there was the slightest taste of winter in the air, refreshing and clean. The route on Alfred’s phone took us down through Conklin, and up into the hills, among the forest. We were perhaps ten minutes brisk walk from the Pennsylvania border when the phone finally sent us up one of the countless barely lit driveways. It emerged into an extremely attractive three story house, hidden here among the forest and the trees. Two cars sat in the driveway.

You can tell a lot about a person by their spaces. Their possessions show their hobbies, their passions. The things they think about, and the things they want to be reminded of. Even if the space is bare, that tells you a lot. Hell, that probably tells you everything you need to know. Dean Morton’s office had spoken of a man who had no life save for power. It had been bereft of all but a few minor trinkets and knick-knacks from work. No photographs, countless books lining the walls. It was the room of a man who wanted power.

It struck me, as I entered this house, that a space was like a face. It could tell you a lot about a person. Sometimes it told you everything they wanted you to believe about them.

Certainly, some of the touches had to be because of his family. I would be very surprised if Dean Morton was quite so fond of the art of Lisa Frank. But the knick-knacks… Even I could tell that this place contained the remains of a lifetime of trading for gewgaws and knickknacks of great historical power. Here, a small set of stones, each immaculately polished into a sphere, with a needle-thin hole driven through them. One granite, one marble, slate, and other rocks I couldn’t recognize from my fifth-grade geology education. There, a set of fine glass statuary that, I realized to my surprise, depicted several of the senior Undead of the city. There was Edwin Albert Link, Lady Ann Willing, Dean Morton himself, and a number of the others I recognized from their voting blocs in the Night Court. A pair of immaculately made silver swords- useless in a fight, obviously, but beautiful- hung over the mantle of an impressive fireplace.

“Good god,” said Alfred, staring down at a chessboard. “I recognize this.”

“Oh,” said Inanna, laughing softly. “Grandpa loved that. He always said it was fun for the whole family. He had it made when I was about 8 years old. The last time we played it was a few weeks before Grandma died.” She shook her head softly, rather sadly.

The chessboard was an unusual variant. It was, in most respects, a normal chess board, save that it was 14 by 14 squares. The four squares in the center were missing, replaced with a green marble disk that reminded me of a drink coaster, of all things. In each of the four corners was a five-by-five block of chess pieces. I couldn’t begin to guess at the function of most of them, but I recognized a few of them. “That’s… King Baynson, Queen Lifsdottir… King Kuk, King Sidney… Good lord. Is that the Half-Faced Man?”

“The Faerie Courts of Binghamton,” said Alfred. “Four-player chess?”

“It’s called Quatrochess,” said Inanna, smiling. “Grandad loved it. He said that any game that had you focusing on a single opponent was designed to get you killed. There are the sixteen normal pieces, you can see, and then there are the nine fairy pieces. The Chancellor is a Rook and a Knight, the Mann is like a Chess King, it can move one step in any direction…”

“Sounds like the kind of joke he’d enjoy. You know it, Alfred?”

“I should. It was the winning argument in a case in the Spring Court some ten years back. The board is marble; The pieces are ruby, onyx, emerald, and diamond. It was presented only once, but the fineness of its craftsmanship made it a spectacularly powerful bauble.” He looked around, frowning. “I recognize several of these items from the Spring Court. I hadn’t heard about any of them being traded, and several of them would have immensely valuable.”

“Bauble?” said Momi, her head tilted.

“A fairy thing,” I said. “Objects charged, sort of, with mortal emotional energy. Used as a source of power by the fae, a kind of supercharged meal.”

“Oh. Oh.” Momi looked rather sick. “Infantile Tsukumogami. Filled with belief, but no… direction. Like, ah… Rather like an unborn child. Not yet a person, but… a person in potential.”

That was another thing I’d heard about the Atlanteans. They were very much against birth control, as a religious prohibition. In their case, they freely acknowledged that it was a pragmatic choice, rather than a sin. Their fertility was low, and viable children were painfully rare. ‘Not being ready for a child’ wasn’t really a cultural thing for them. And the tsukumogami…

“Oh,” I said, coughing. “Uh. Are these…?”

“Empty,” said Momi, rather stiffly. She crouched down, and rested her fingers on the chessboard, looking rather disquieted. “I can feel it. Hollowed out, empty.”

“Perhaps someone used the power and then traded the board to Dean Morton in exchange for a favor?” said Alfred, an eyebrow raised. “He did enjoy trophies.”

“He liked to bring things home,” said Inanna, looking a bit confused by the whole discussion. I caught Jack’s eye, and nodded my head towards the door. She nodded, and followed after me.

The two of us stepped out onto the deck. It had been hand-made. As Inanna had been eager to tell me, Dean Morton had made it with his own two hands. The very idea of the Dean sweating under the sun- Well, no, probably neither of those things, but nonetheless, the idea of him assembling the deck with his own two hands just didn’t fit.

“Lot of pictures in there,” said Jack.

“Yeah.”

“Lot of really happy pictures. Disney Land, vacation pictures… He really loved his family.”

“Yes he did.”

“Everyone around him thought he was a selfish asshole. That he was a bastard, that he didn’t care about anything, that he hired hookers all the time and used them. And every weekend he’d go home and love his wife and daughter and granddaughter.”

“Not so weird. People are complicated like that. You wind up wearing a lot of different masks.”

“So which one was real? The cold manipulative bastard, or the loving family man.”

“Who knows? Either. Both. Maybe neither. That’s the thing about masks, it’s hard to tell who anyone really is. Especially when you start looking at the sum total of their actions.” I sighed.

“I’m sorry about what you saw in there,” said Jack, softly, resting a hand on my back.

“You? I’m the one who should be sorry. Those were Tsukumogami.”

“Oh.” Jack shrugged. “I… don’t really feel anything about them. It’s hard enough to care about people who are here, who are living. There’s enough trouble from that, alone. Caring about all the people who could be… How are you supposed to do that?”

“I guess.” I sighed. “Look at me. I’m not vegan, so how much room do I really have to whine about suffering in the world?”

“Yes.” Jack shivered a little bit. “It’s getting chilly.” She rubbed her shoulders, dressed in the loose t-shirt I had bought her, and the pair of jeans. I blinked, and nodded. My breath was beginning to fog the air.

“Thank god,” I said, and smiled. “A bit of chill, eh? I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get a fall this year.”

“Mmm. Yeah.” She shivered. “Mind if we go back inside? I don’t really like the cold.”

“Sure.” I opened the door, and took one last breath of the cool night air, appreciating the brisk sensation as it ran down my spine. It felt fantastic.

“It’s… somewhere here. Let me see, ah…”

A couple of large cardboard boxes had been placed on the table. Inanna was elbow-deep in them.

“Grandfather liked to leave his books here. Journals, that kind of thing.”

“Journals. Nothing like ‘That bastard is going to kill me, I just know it,’ I don’t suppose?” I asked. Inanna gave me a look.

“Does that often happen?”

“He was the one who raised the spirits of the dead.” I sighed. “Would’ve been awful handy if anyone else could do the same with the competence he had.”

“He had some gifts,” said Alfred, nodding slowly. “So, if we all divide up… the… books…”

Momi had reached forward, opening one of the three boxes. She dug into it, and pulled one of them out from the bottom, nodding. It was a slim leather-bound journal. There was no title, but as she opened it up, the first page had been scrawled with My Thoughts on Phylacteries.

“That’s it,” said Inanna, smiling.

“How did you figure it out?” I asked, trying not to scream or leap or do something absurd, because I didn’t want to shatter the moment. I didn’t want to have it all fall apart around me.

“Well. It is fairly glowing with energy. A Tsukumogami on the verge of awakening.” She frowned, looking around the room. “Fed on the energy of the others. Such techniques are… not encouraged, but known. Feeding the strong on the remnants of the weak.”

“So… Good god. What, he collected Baubles for decades on the possibility that he’d be able to use them to come back from the dead?” I shook my head. “No, what am I saying, that sounds exactly like the kind of thing I’d expect someone to do. I could learn a thing or two from the man.” I looked over at Momi. “Is it him?”

“I can see belief. That is a distinct thing from souls. This is a nearly prepared Tsukumogami. It looks- Well, much like Jack,” she said, waving at Jack. “A skilled godwhisperer who had known the man could give you a more definite answer, tell you whether it is the same kind of person, perhaps. All I can tell you for certain is that the Tsukumogami has more personality than a recently written book should have. There is plenty of power there, but more importantly, there is texture; shape. If it is not him, it must have been greatly influenced by him.”

“How long?”

“I suspect it would take us at least a couple of months to gather a proper ritual and help him to emerge, if we are lucky. Maybe more.”

I sagged. It was like a rod of ice had been shoved up my spine for the last ten months, and it was only now, finally, beginning to melt, allowing me to sit down calmly, sinking into the couch.

“Too late,” said Jack, solemnly, a distraught expression on her face. “That’d be after the Winter Solstice.”

“No. Hell no. With this, tomorrow, I can tell everyone that we have an actual lead. That the Dean might not be dead. That’s at least enough to buy a reprieve, long enough to do what we can. Oh, god.” I held my hands up to my face, and I felt the tears running down my cheeks. “God. I can’t believe it. Fuck, life isn’t as cruel as I was afraid.” I felt the tears running down my cheeks. It was embarrassing as all hell, but I didn’t give a good god damn right now.

“It’s hardly the end of it,” said Alfred, ruefully. “There are still so many things to deal with. If Dean Morton even remembers who killed him, if it is Dean Morton, if he can be trusted, if the two courts won’t just go to war over something else…”

“Give me a damn moment, Alfred, I swear,” I said, shaking my head. “The most important part here is that this undoes the crime. If the Dean never died- Well, maybe it’s assault, maybe it’s attempted murder, but it’s not a capital crime, and you being here can help prove that you weren’t responsible. If our big worries are something nebulous like ‘oh, what will the newspapers say’, we’re laughing.” I rubbed my eyes. “I can’t believe it. Just dumb fucking luck. If you hadn’t come to the wake, Inanna…”

“Well. I wasn’t planning it at first. Vinny said I should.”

“Vinny?” said Alfred, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah. Grandad’s accountant. He came by a couple of days ago, saw the invitation, and told me I should attend. I wasn’t planning on it, but he said that it’d be the right thing to do. He was the one who told us that Grandad died.”

I blinked a couple of times. “Vinny?”

“Yes. Pale guy, runs an accountant office in Binghamton. He always did Grandad’s taxes. Did them for mom, too. Oh, mom!”

The door to the kitchen opened. The smell of chocolate chip cookies filled the air, rich and warm. Irnini Fieldsboro bustled into the room. Even at the age of 45, in a pink cardigan sweater, she demonstrated that whatever kind of person Dean Morton fell in love with, she’d been stunning. She smiled as she stepped into the room. “Vinny? Oh, such a lovely man. Knew my father for all my life. Doesn’t come by to visit so often nowadays, but he was my godfather, you know.”

A lightbulb flashed. “Don’t tell me. Black hair, pale face?”

“Oh! You know him?”

“I suspect so.” I sighed. “Doesn’t matter. This is what I was looking for. This is what I needed.” I rested my face against my hand, letting out a shuddering breath. “I could absolutely murder a cookie.”

“Well,” said Irnini, smiling, as she sat back in her comfortable wooden chair, leaning into it with a smile. “Father always was a bit of a rogue. He told us stories about what he got up to. Making deals, trading power. Of course, he always insisted strongly that we not tell anyone. He didn’t want us to get caught up in things. I always thought it was bunk, just him being silly and overprotective, until…” her voice dropped, as she looked down at the table. “You really think…?”

“I can’t promise anything,” I said, switching into lawyer mode. “It’d be irresponsible to say for certain one way or another. All I can really be sure of is that it might help.”

“Oh,” said Irnini, her expression falling a bit.

“She’s really excited because she’s sure that this is going to work,” said Jack.

“Oh! Well. Whatever you can do,” Irnini said, smiling as I glared at Jack. “I am glad you were looking into this. I know that… I’m aware he was not popular among his peers. He could be that way. He always tweaked noses, and he didn’t have many friends.” She smiled. “I’m glad he had at least a few who would do so much for him.”

I tactfully did not mention the favors. It was a lovely moment, and reality could only spoil it.

I did think about them, though. If we hadn’t been bound… Would we have just laughed off Morton’s death? We didn’t like him. He had been a downright pain, more than once.

But would we have just said ‘well, that’s difficult, but there’s nothing we can do about it’?

Alfred definitely wouldn’t. I couldn’t imagine him not caring about the death of a peer, and stopping at nothing to find their killer. Jenny would have surely been by his side, and I would have helped him. Who knows, we might have found out the truth faster without being torn between the trials for Alfred’s survival and the question of who killed him. Maybe this whole thing would have been wrapped up by Easter.

I always hated stories where the protagonists had to be blackmailed or threatened or intimidated into helping. Even recognizing that I was probably no better, I still wanted to be better. To be like Alfred, to leap to the aid of others whenever I could. If I could actually be any use, well, that’d be even better…

I took out my pad as Irnini shared a story about Dean Morton, something involving a high school boyfriend who had dumped her, and a ghostly vengeance. I wrote the names down again. Jenny Nishi, Lady Ann Willing, Edwin Link, Wen, The Half-Faced Man, and Tadodaho. I stared at them.

I got a name wrong…

“Mmm. We should get going, shouldn’t we, Atina?” said Jack, frowning.

“Oh? You can stay if you like, we’ve got a couple of guest rooms,” said Irnini, hopefully. She didn’t seem like she got a lot of company. It was getting a bit later. Nearly eleven thirty. I was amazed by how the time had flown.

“Atina, please? We really should get back-“ Jack turned her head sharply towards the door, her shoulders raised up almost around her ears. She was almost vibrating with tension.

“What?”

She stared for another long few seconds, then shook her head. “It’s nothing. Sorry. I’m just feeling nervous. We finally got this. I’m just… I’m worried something’s going to happen.”

“What?” I raised my eyebrows. “Do you think that it’s…” I looked out the window. I remembered last year, when I’d finally cracked the case. When I’d been prepared to smoke out whoever was behind it, when I had the crucial evidence and I’d laid the trap. It had been a calm, quiet day, celebrating with friends. And then Chaac had walked in the door, and left Polly paralyzed on the floor, and explained, very calmly, very peacefully, that she was going to drink me dead, use me to find Jenny, and murder her too.

Silence filled the air as I stared at the glass door onto the patio, to the point that I nearly flung my cookie into the air when a shrill chirping filled the air. It was my phone.

“Sorry. God.” I looked down, and frowned. It wasn’t a familiar number. “I’ll be just a second.” I stood up, swiping left as I stepped out onto the patio. “Hello?”

The line was staticy. I recognized that particular static. It was the kind of haze you got when a supernatural creature, a particularly powerful one, tried to use a phone. Li, largely, could get away with it with no more than a slightly tinny quality. The Half-Faced Man and Lady Ann Willing were lucky to make a connection at all. This one was somewhere between the two, but I recognized the voice.

“The Hunt rides,” said Earlen Wen.

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