Episode 3: Near-Revelations | Scryer's Gulch
Have you ever gotten an ethergram? I’m betting the last person in your family to get one was your great-grandma, your grandma maybe if you’re closer to my age. It was exciting in those days, a big event when the ethergram delivery boy would bicycle to your house and come up the steps in his sharp blue uniform. Of course, now everyone just carries a spellphone. Not me. I don’t care to be that available, thank you very much.
Come to think on it, I suppose you’re wondering who I am at this point. I’m just the person telling the story. I’m not in the story per se; I didn’t know any of the people I’m talking about. Hell, they were all dead before I was born, weren’t they? I’m old, but I’m not that old. I’m only guessing at what they thought and felt. What they did--well, that’s historic record, if you care to look it up. Not many do. Did you ever hear the name of Annabelle Duniway in school? If you did, you’re a graduate level American History student. I’m just a Western buff. I learned all this for fun, believe it or not. Everyone needs a hobby.
There was that one flicker, but they got it all wrong, and it was so long ago they don’t even show it on the classic flicker channel. Black and white, and old, but not a classic.
Is it fair that I tell you what they thought and felt, when there’s no way to be sure? Of course it isn’t. I’m a writer. We trade in unfairness and inequity; we know everything about the story, or we make things up so we think we know, and then we tell you what we want to tell you when we want to tell you, or don’t tell you at all.
But I digress.
I was talking about the ethergraph system. In Scyer’s Gulch there was only one ethergraph receiver, and it belonged to Simon Prake. He had his own little office a few storefronts down from Prakes Hardware. A talented man, one of the best ethergraph operators of his day, for that was back when the technology was new, and the operator had to have some serious natural ability. Simon had plenty, and the education to go with it. When he decided to leave his ethergraph engineering job in Jackson, the partners tried to keep him. Even offered him a full partnership. No one understood why he left.
Agent Duniway was not one to swoon when confronted with a shock, but Annabelle decided Schoolteacher Duniway should feel a little faint at the sight of the vandalized schoolhouse. She staggered gently into Mr Prake, who caught her elbow with a concerned murmur. “There now! Do you carry smelling salts in your reticule?”
She never needed them, and so, unlike most respectable women, she didn’t even own any. “Oh dear...left them at the Hotel, sir!” she faltered. She made an immediate plan to find a vial somewhere, even if she had to order Misi to steal one.
“Never mind, dear,” he said. “Let’s get you sitting down. A cup of tea, perhaps. Come now, Mrs Prake will see to you.” He guided her down the block to Jackson Street and his comfortable-looking house, the town’s second-largest, sitting back from the street behind a brave little garden.
There working among the hollyhocks and young rose bushes were Mary Prake and her daughter Amelia, who came running up to open the gate. “Mama, look! It’s Papa and Miss Duniway!”
“Goodness, Miss Duniway, are you unwell?” said Mrs Prake, hurrying up behind Amelia.
“She’s had a bit of a fright, Mary,” said Mr Prake. He steered the unresisting Annabelle through the front door into the parlor, explaining to his wife as they went.
“Go tell Cook to put the kettle on, Amelia. Georgie!” Mrs Prake called as they entered the house, “Georgie! Go fetch the sheriff.” Georgie skidded into the room, took one look at Miss Duniway, and cocked an eyebrow at his sister, who glared back. Georgie gave an exasperated shrug and took off running.
Tea was served and Annabelle let the color return to her cheeks just in time for Sheriff Runnels to arrive. Annabelle kept her eyes down after a brief glance showed he was observing her closely without looking directly at her. “Who could have done such a thing?” Mrs Prake asked him.
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he answered. “But I’m putting Rabbit out to watch the schoolhouse tonight.”
“It’s not...?” said Prake.
“No, not for another week,” said the sheriff, with a warning look.
The mayor thinned his lips. “Well. I suppose the best thing to do now is get a crew to put the fences back up and repaint the place. It’s time for me to go down to the store, anyway, and there are always a few men dangling for work near there.”
“I did tell you not to put the school so far back from the street,” fretted Mrs Prake. “Oh, now, don’t you both run off, who’s going to escort Miss Duniway back to Hopewell’s?”
Annabelle objected with a show of feebleness, but in the end, she took Sheriff Runnels’ arm and let him walk her back to the hotel. “I heard you speak of a Rabbit, Sheriff,” she said with a smile. “I cannot imagine you keeping a pet.”
Runnels’ face broke from its usual hardness into an affectionate grin aimed down the street. “Rabbit’s my brother. He’s my deputy. He’s got good night vision--most of the time...” The smile disappeared.
At the door of the hotel, she slipped her arm from his. “Is there cause for me to be concerned, sir? Should I leave town? I’m most inclined to stay, I confess, but if you think there’s really a danger--”
“Nothing you can’t handle, I would guess, Miss Duniway. Good day, now.”
She gave him her reserved gratitude, and hurried up the stairs to her rooms. Nothing I can’t handle...? Once behind closed doors, she opened the window and whispered, “Misi!”
Across the rooftops, the demon cat’s ears pricked up. He was still prowling around Mamzelle’s Palace, trying to find a prudent vantage point into the building, to no avail. Their magical safeguards were crap, but the actual edifice was hard to spy upon. His hearing was excellent, even for a demon, but so far all he’d made out was a great deal of groaning, and that the high C on the piano was a shade flat. And try as he might, he couldn’t pinpoint the demon that had to be below him. It had to have sensed me, though, he said to himself. “Misi!” Annabelle whispered again. “Come here right now!” He gave a small sneeze, rubbed his cheek once against the shingles, and bounded lightly along to Annabelle’s open window.
“What’s the lay of the land?” she said, scratching under his chin as he stood on the sill. She gathered him into her arms, closed the window, and sat down, running her hand down his glossy back.
Dammit, I’m purring, he thought. “Unexpected,” he said aloud. “Can I change, please?”
“No. Tell me.”
“...I didn’t get very far.”
Annabelle stopped petting him. “Misi, you should have been able to cover most of Main street at the least--it isn’t that long! How far did you get?”
“Only to the big whorehouse a few doors up the street,” he squirmed, then let out a squeak as she dumped him off her lap.
“What kept you riveted to the whorehouse roof, might I ask?” she said in a cold voice.
She crossed her arms, and the cat winced as if he’d been caught sleeping in her underwear drawer. “Misi, I order you to tell me.”
“There’s a demon in there!” he blurted. “Another demon. Has to be a captive--you know we don’t come round a find this big on our own!”
Annabelle gaped, then put one hand to her mouth in thought. “Any chance it could be the source of the contamination?”
“None,” declared Misi. “We can’t control ourselves around it enough to do any kind of working of that magnitude.”
“Why is it here, then? What would a demon want with a whorehouse?”
“What would its owner want, you mean,” sniffed the cat. “I dunno. We make good bouncers. My grandfather was a bouncer at a whorehouse in Prague for the better part of the 17th century, and that was back before you lot figured out how to catch us. Good job, he always said... Accountancy? We’re surprisingly good with numbers.”
Annabelle sat back down in the chair and put her feet up on the footstool. “C’mere, kitty, I need to think.” Misi jumped into her lap. “We need to get you into Mamzelle’s.”
“Why can’t you go?” said Misi, flopping onto his back in her lap.
She ruffled the fur on his belly. “I’m the schoolmarm! I can’t go into a fancy house, nitwit.”
“You have before.”
He lay purring as she gently rubbed his tummy. “Speaking of which, can you pet me just a little lower?”
Down the street next to Prakes Hardware, Simon Prake sat in the ethergraph office, focused on a small ingot of hermetauxite. Notes on foolscap, and a stack of reference books, covered his desk; a thick tome lay open to one side. As the ethergraph operator for Scryer’s Gulch, he was often busy sending messages back and forth, but in his interstitial time, he fooled with ideas for improvements to the ethergraph network. As an up-and-coming ethergraph engineer in Jackson, he’d inscribed several spells of such grace they approached art more than technology, and though he’d never told his family, the patents on his work had made him more comfortable than anyone could have guessed.
Now, he felt he was on the verge of a great discovery, something that might revolutionize the way the ethergraph system worked--might change it into something else entirely. If he was right, every home might have its own sort of ethergraph device, a way to send messages back and forth without the individual services of an ethergraph operator; the new breed of operators could each handle dozens of calls an hour, and would no longer be required to have their own personal ethergraph equipment, or the kinds of education and raw talent operators did now. Those who did--skilled professionals like himself--would then be freed to improve the system, to be pure engineers. He’d never told the other engineers at Feargal and Feargal; after all, his work might transform ethergraphy or destroy it completely. Hard to say how things would play out, but he didn’t want them trying to stop him.
He consulted the open reference book one last time, then held his hand over the ingot and let his skill flow into the hermetauxite. Its internal structure flared into his consciousness, blotting out the rest of the world. He wove himself in and out of the ingot’s matrix. If I can just twist this part here, then--
“Simon!” came an insistent voice for what must have been the third or fourth time. The hermetauxite’s inner map vanished as a small hand tugged at his sleeve. He opened his eyes, and stared down at his little brother.
“What now, Georgie, I’m busy!”
“Someone’s done and torn up the schoolyard!”
Georgie nodded emphatically. “Yeah, and painted a message on the side of the schoolhouse in black paint, it said ‘Teacher go home!’ Messed up all the work everyone did!”
“Don’t say ‘yeah,’ Georgie, say ‘yes,’ like a gentleman. You’re a Prake, not a barbarian.” He gave the boy the eye. “What do you know about this, young man? Do you have idea who did it?”
“Why would I know anything about it!” protested his brother. He put his hands behind his back, but not before Simon saw a telltale smudge of black paint on his cuff.
“Just a thought,” said Simon.
Further up Main Street, Mamzelle paced her upstairs parlour, an opulent affair done up in gilt and red velvet. Thick carpets brought all the way from far Araby muffled her agitated footfalls, and her satin skirts twisted and bunched as she marched fretfully around the room. “Écoutez-moi, dere’s another demon here!”
Jed Bonham reclined on the settee, stretching out his legs and crossing them at the ankles. “Mamzelle, what would a demon be doing here? You say yourself it’s reckless at best, suicidal at worst. I mean, look at you.” Jed gazed at her through hooded eyes. “And I do like looking at you.”
Mamzelle stopped pacing and retorted, “Eef you don’t believe me, order me to tell you the truth!”
“All right then, I order you to tell me the truth.”
“Dere’s another demon here, and when I am free I will slaughter you like ze pig!”
Jed laughed. “Well, I did ask you for the truth. I intend to die of old age, in my own bed, surrounded by my loving family.” At her derisive hoot, he added, “All right then, by my avaricious family. I never intend to free you, sweetheart, even after I die. I’ll just hand you over to Tony. Don’t give me that look. If you’re a bad girl, I’ll hand you over to Nathan instead. He’s the eldest anyway. See how you like that!”
“I wouldn’t like eet at all!”
“Well, then,” he purred. “Come over here, and be a good girl.”