Episode 4: Detectors and Detectives | Scryer's Gulch
Most of you took spellcoding in school, but I bet you don’t remember a lick of it. You haven’t the faintest real idea what goes into your spellphone, or your EV set. How many of us become etheric enginers, after all--well, besides me. At least in the US--hell, most of our stuff is forged and encoded in China these days. Even if you remember your spellcoding, you couldn’t read the encoding in your phone. And don’t get me started on technical support.
In those days, we still made stuff. Oh, we’re still mining hermetauxite, a little of it still in Scryer’s Gulch--the “BB” is closed, but the Li’l Levy and the Madcap are still in production, have been for nearly 130 years. But it all gets shipped overseas now. Along with the jobs. Why, here in my own home town, the Chinese, or the Indians, or someone, bought a whole mill, took it apart and numbered the pieces, shipped the whole thing back to wherever it was and rebuilt it there. Took 1500 jobs with it.
But I digress.
In those days, we still made stuff, and that was the problem: some of the stuff we were making was coming out wrong, dangerously wrong, and Annabelle Duniway’s job was to find out why.
While Annabelle waited a day for the schoolhouse repairs, the best use of her time would be to visit her students in their homes, get a sense of them. That’s what a real schoolteacher would do, she decided the next morning, and it gave her a chance to scan for the anomalies she’d been sent to investigate without raising suspicion.
“What exactly are we looking for, anyway?” said Misi from a perch atop the wardrobe. “You might have said,” he added sulkily.
Annabelle looked up at the demon cat as she buttoned up her bodice. “Daniel asked me to wait as long as possible before telling anyone anything, including you.”
Annabelle colored slightly. “Chief Howman. Remember? My boss?” She fastened a cufflike bracelet to her left wrist, then shook it in Misi’s direction. “Like it?”
“Present from Daniel?”
“Stop it. It’s a detector.”
“What’s it detecting?”
“Hermetauxite encoded with a certain pattern.”
Misi flicked his tail contemptuously. “All hermetauxite is encoded, unless it’s unrefined. Are you looking for a particular smelter’s mark or what?”
“If that’s all it was, we would have sent a squad of agents here, arrested the smelter and been done with it. This is subtle, and dangerous. Do you think you can control yourself enough to look inside the detector?”
Misi jumped down from the wardrobe onto the bed, and sniffed at the bracelet. “Gold?”
“Just a coating over the top. Hermetauxite against the skin.”
“You don’t have to tell me where the hermetauxite is.” He sniffed again. “I think I can handle it.” He lay down on the bed, tucking his four legs beneath him, and sent his inborn skill into the hermetauxite. Oh, so delicious! No, no, can’t eat, must concentrate. He wove in and out of the metal’s webby spirit substance--smelter’s mark, forger’s mark--when he came to the coder’s mark, he paused. Here would be the purpose of the detector. “If hermetauxite, then look inside”--standard, don’t want to bother looking inside tin, but where’s the security-breaking pattern--ah, there...if security overcome, then find marks...discard smelter and forger marks...boy, this pattern is really digging deep...if one of remaining marks matches this specific pattern at this specific depth-- “Pollution!” he spat, recoiling from the bracelet. “Oh, Mother of the Dark One, I won’t be able to get that taste out of me for a lifetime! Who would encode such a thing! How can you wear such a thing! Get it away from me!”
“It’s inactive inside the detector. I can’t taste it the way you can, and I never was much of an encoder,” she said, slipping her gloves on. “When I look inside, it’s just a tangled mess to me. But no one can say I’m not the best wielder in the Department, least of all you, eh?”
Misi thrashed his tail. “You take perverse delight lately in reminding me of my state.”
“Sorry, kitty,” she soothed. “This is the first case we’ve been on like this--so magically oriented--and I guess it reminds me of old times.”
“Me too,” he said sourly. “I have to say, though, I’ve never seen an encoding like it. Few other than a demon would be able to see exactly what’s going on--the pattern you’re looking for is subtle, and it’s really buried deep in the matrix. I have to admire the skill of the encoder who wrote it, even if it’s disgusting.”
“Whoever he is, he’s wildly talented, possibly beyond his own safety, and he shows a disregard for the safety of others unlike anything we’ve seen. Thanks be that Treasury has an encoder even better.”
“I don’t like it,” shuddered the cat. “This is dangerous, Annie.”
Annabelle tied the ribbons of her bonnet. “This is the job I signed up for. Besides, if I die, you go free--it’s hardly dangerous for you! And on that cheerful note, let’s be about the people’s business.” Misi grimaced, the expression overly large for his pointed muzzle, but when Annabelle opened the window, he slipped outside without further comment and went patrolling across the rooftops.
Annabelle surveyed herself quickly in the mirror: a dove gray poplin with thin white stripes, modestly bustled, but very becoming. Her straw bonnet made a simple, perfect frame for her face, and she allowed one or two little tendrils of golden hair to escape on her forehead and at her nape. She was supposed to be a teacher, but Annabelle never could resist a bit of dash.
Meanwhile, down at the Sheriff’s office, John Runnels was in conference with his brother. “Naw, I got a week,” said Rabbit. “I’ll be all right.”
“Oh, I don’t doubt it, Rab,” said John. “I’m just sorry to put you on a ridiculous assignment.”
“Nothing too ridiculous about someone threatening the new teacher, right, Jamie?” Rabbit ruffled his nephew’s hair, but the boy ducked his head. “Aw, I know you don’t wanna go to school, but you gotta, kiddo! How’re you gonna learn your figures, and history, and letters and such?”
“Already know my letters,” grumbled Jamie. “I wanna stay with you and Pa here in the jail.”
“Have to own he’s a powerful help, Sheriff,” called a voice from the corner cell.
“Aloysius, I don’t need your assistance,” said John. “Go back to sleep.”
“But I am a help, Pa!” cried the little boy. “I help feed everyone--”
“‘Everyone’ is two or three men most days, Jamie,” retorted his uncle.
“--And I help you and Uncle Rabbit patrol! I’ve told you all kinds of things going on!”
“True, but I think we can manage without you, son. It’ll be hard, but we’ll struggle through. Besides, you can patrol just as easily in the schoolyard. We’ll go down to Prakes and buy your slate and pencil later today.”
“I can go get it myself,” mumbled Jamie.
“Naw, you’ll tuck yourself into Mr Parson’s hayloft and then say you can’t go to school on account of not having a slate and pencil,” said Rabbit, just as the door opened and Miss Duniway came in. The men all stood up; Jamie shuffled his feet and tried to hide behind his father.
“Good morning, gentlemen--Jamie,” she said.
My, she looked pretty this morning, thought John. Stunning: in fact, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He knew enough about feminine style to know that hers was completely modest and appropriate. And yet she wore it so well that he couldn’t help imagining what was underneath, and how that luxurious, golden hair might look spilling down her bare back. He shook himself inwardly. Her beauty was almost enough to distract him from that overly observant look deep in her cornflower blue eyes...her bright, entrancing eyes-- It had been too long since he’d been with a woman, clearly. He smiled briefly, and said, “Good morning, Miss Duniway. Let me introduce my brother, Deputy Robert Runnels.”
“Everyone calls me Rabbit, miss,” said the deputy, rather awestruck. He took her offered hand and shook it.
“Very well then, Deputy Rabbit,” she smiled. “I couldn’t help but overhear when I came in. Do you not have a slate, Jamie?”
“Oh, he’ll have a slate, in time for school next week,” declared his father. Jamie himself hung back. “What can we do for you, Miss Duniway?”
“I came to see Jamie, actually. Since I have a little more time than I thought I would, I’m visiting all of my new students at home.” Jamie shook his head at her, scowling, and Annabelle knelt down to look at his face. “You seem a little shy. I was shy when I was a little girl,” she coaxed.
“Not shy. I just don’t like you,” said the boy.
“Jamie,” warned his father.
“‘M sorry,” he grimaced.
“No, you’re not,” said Miss Duniway gently.
All three Runnels stared.
“You don’t like me at all,” she continued. “You don’t want to go to school, and I’m the schoolteacher. Of course you don’t like me. I wouldn’t like me, either, if I were you.”
“Mm-mm.” Annabelle straightened up. “It’s all right, Jamie. I hope that when you get to know me a little better, you’ll decide maybe I’m all right for a girl.” She smiled round the room. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to your business. Goodbye, Jamie! Sheriff, Deputy.”
The men said their goodbyes and watched her out the door. When she was gone, Rabbit gave his brother a sideways look and let out a soft whistle. “I’ll say she’s all right fer a girl!” said the voice in the corner cell.
“Be quiet, Aloysius,” said Jamie. “Can I go find Georgie?”
“Go on, son,” replied his father, still gazing in absent concentration at the door. Jamie ran out, and John sat down at his desk, tumblers in his mind trying and failing to fall into place and unlock a thought.
Rabbit gave him a sharp look. “Lookin’ kinda ponderous, Johnny,” said Rabbit. “What’s on your mind?”
“She’d be on anyone’s mind, I’d think.”
“No, no, Rab, something’s not right with her. She’s up to something. I can just smell it.”
Rabbit snorted. “Can you, now. Well, then, if you’re sniffing around her, I’ll be sure to stay out of the way of your nose.”
John turned to his brother, brows drawn tight. “It’s not what you’re thinking.”
“Oh, isn’t it!” said Rabbit. He opened the door. “I’d best go down to the schoolhouse, oughtn’t I?”
Left alone, John put his feet up on the desk. What could Miss Duniway be doing here? To marry money? A woman that fine could do that back east and have a much more comfortable life to boot. Was she a Brinkerton? Why would anyone hire an undercover detective instead of coming to him? And what was her angle? However and whyever she’d come, he didn’t want her here. He had enough trouble with respect for the law as it was without Brinkertons moving in.
“She got ya by the short hairs already, Sheriff?” came the voice from the corner cell.
“Will you shut up, Aloysius? Go haunt somewhere else for a while!”
“Cain’t,” answered the voice in pragmatic tones. “I’m fair stuck to the spot, I’m a-feared.”
John sighed, rubbing his forehead. “Then hold your peace or I’ll send for Parson Bill.” Apparently cowed by that threat, the voice fell silent. No wonder the Indians never lived in these parts, he thought for the tenth time that day. Hermetauxite encouraged the wrong sort of energy.