THE RUDE MECHANICALS

Chapter 8.
Skiptrain

Crag began his day in the usual way: Inserting his heart-key into the slot at the center of his chest and winding it clockwise ninety-nine times. As early sunbeams poked through the window of his garret, Beatifics all across the city were doing the exact same thing. The unspoken ritual of sunrise in the Urbille.

Clatterpox didn’t need keys to keep their heart-furnaces burning. They simply dropped in the next chunk of coal when the old one started burning low. They spent their lives working in the foundries and factories of the Rusted Zone to keep their coal rations coming. The coal itself came from distant mines manned by more Clatterpox, who worked to the dictates of Beatific supervisors. Knowing those mines existed reminded Crag that there were plenty of jobs worse than his. Although today he didn’t need the reminder.

Today was the first step in getting Caroline out. The first step to getting her back.

He watched the smokes of the Urbille rise from its jagged skyline. The streets were full of Clatterpox on their way to morning shifts and the pubs were full of night-workers ready to blow off some literal steam. A few Beatific carriages crawled slowly through the lanes drawn by clockwork horses. The sky was a bruised melange of purple and orange.

The cabinet above his head was lined with red velvet, a collection of faces hanging inside. Four of the masks were Crag’s faces, the other six belonged to Caroline. He’d kept her faces in perfect shape. He looked at them every morning before going to work. They never made him feel any less alone. Today was different though. Caroline’s faces smiled at him with porcelain lips and empty optical sockets. They made silent promises to him.

She’ll wear us again soon. Once you’ve done your job.

Crag’s choices were bronze, silver, or a pair of porcelain visages crafted in the prevailing style of twenty years ago. He wore the bronze face when he expected trouble or needed to lean on a contact. The silver face was an award from the department for 150 years of dedicated service. He’d never worn it. Lots of people to interview today, so a porcelain face was the obvious choice. Most Beatifics wore porcelain every day, swapping them for more exotic masks whenever they wanted to impress, protest, or express a specific emotion.

A porcelain face was the least threatening, the most sociable, the least objectionable. Crag could ask questions and get answers with a porcelain face. The bronze reminded everybody that he was with the Ministere de Justice. An enforcer of the existing power structure, a tool of the Potentates.

He picked up a porcelain face and slid it carefully over his naked silver skull, watching himself in an oval mirror. It snapped into place and he wiped the dust from its cheeks with a kerchief. His amber opticals stared back at him from the glass. The face bore a painted goatee and curling mustache. Caroline called it his “handsome face,” as opposed to the second porcelain mask, which she referred to as his “thinking face.”

He checked his side-arm, securing it in the shoulder holster, and chose a grey overcoat. Grey was good for moving unnoticed through the crowds of colorfully-dressed Beatifics. The black top hat completed his illusion of a perfectly normal Beatific, and he hit the streets, hailing a private coach driven by a wheezing Clatterpox.

First stop, the Minstere de Science, to see what Dr. Aimon Wail’s former colleagues had to say about his breakdown of twelve years ago. The institute stood at the inner edge of the Rusted Zone like a larger version of the Ministere de Justice: a towering parabola of glass and steel grown from a foundation of ancient granite. Inside was a maze of antiseptic corridors hung with pastel art prints and displays of antique medical relics from the Organic Age. The Tribune’s people had notified the Ministere de Science that Crag would be paying them a visit, so they made him welcome. The place either had nothing to hide, or they were very good at hiding it.

He went directly to the new Supervisor, a man named Pairey. The only thing Pairey could tell Crag was that he replaced Supervisor Guillaume a week after Dr. Wail had murdered him. Pairey hadn’t witnessed the attack or the breakdown, having been stationed on another level of the Ministere when Wail lost it. A useless lead. Crag took the personnel files Pairey offered him and moved on to the Surgeons who had worked with Wail.

Twenty-eight Surgeons staffed the Ministere, some of them on rotating assignments, but fourteen had worked Conversions during the same thirty-year period as Wail. Of those fourteen, twelve Surgeons were still here, while the other two were unavailable on “special projects.” Even Crag’s clout as an Inspector wouldn’t get him anywhere near those two. He questioned the twelve resident Surgeons and began to build a picture of what happened to Dr. Wail:

Wail had filed a Special Permit for Early Conversion on behalf of his son Alain. The boy’s original Conversion date was only a few hours away, so filing such a permit seemed insane on its surface. The permit was signed by Supervisor Guillaume and included in the files Pairey provided. A read of the document revealed in Wail’s spidery script that Alain had acquired a necrotic disease on his trip home from a Beatific prep school. He was turning sixteen and, like most kids raised by Beatifics, he looked forward to Conversion on his birthday. Wail arrived with Alain some eleven hours before the Conversion was scheduled, filing his Special Permit without waiting for it to be signed or approved.

A few Surgeons saw the boy before he entered the Conversion Room. Apparently, his body had experienced a sort of rapid decay unprecedented in medical science. Alain was half-dead when they laid him on the operating table. Wails’ stated goal–his only hope–was to perform Conversion before the disease reached his son’s brain. Only the brain was necessary for Conversion, as the center of neural activity and psychological identity. Alain’s brain, like that of any Beatific, would be transplanted into a silver skull attached to a new Beatific body. The miracle of the process was the preservation of the living brain indefinitely while the rest of the Organic body was discarded. This was how the Urbille distributed immortality.

Wail, insisting on performing the operation himself, began the process of removing his son’s brain from its bony casement. The procedure was monitored by two resident Surgeons. Both of them told Crag the surgery initially went off without a hitch, but Wail was too late. The black death that consumed Alain’s flesh had already reached his brain. There was nothing left of the organ but a shriveled lump of dead tissue, dark as a clot of soft coal.

Realizing his son was gone, Wail lost his mind. Attendants dragged him from the Conversion Room in a violent fit of screaming. Alain’s remains were incinerated to avoid the spread of contagion among the city’s Organic youth. Wail got a leave of absence, but he didn’t take it easy. He started digging around, looking into Supervisor Guillaume and the “special projects” division of the Ministere de Science. Did he suspect they had something to do with Alain’s death?

That evening, according to official reports, Wail confronted Guillaume at his residence in the Good Hills and stabbed him through the optical with a scalpel. Guillaume’s brain was punctured by the weapon, and Wail fled into the night. Gendarmes sent to the Wail residence discovered the manor-house in flames and the charred remains of his wife Kalmea.

Crag read that last part again. Something didn’t make sense. The man went mad over losing his son. Why kill his wife? Was she involved in Alain’s death? An affair with Guillaume, maybe? One of the Surgeons implied as much, but others denied it. Apparently Wail loved his wife and was a perfect husband. Crag wondered if it was really Wail who burned down his own house and killed Kalmea. If the gendarmes had done it in retaliation for Guillaume’s death, would their captains admit it? Write it into their reports? Crag knew better.

The question wasn’t “Why did Wail go mad?” It was “Why did Wail become a highwayman?” And where did he go when he left the Urbille? Was he on some kind of crusade? He stole Organic youths and babies from the Urbille or on their way to it. Why? Was he trying to save them from the Potentates, or was he killing them himself? Liberating them from this wretched life like the child-killer? The killer had taken his victims alive too. The bastard liked to watch them suffer. How deep did Wail’s madness go, and what was he doing with all these young Organics? Crag wouldn’t find these answers at the Ministere de Science.

A Beatific family came through the main doors as he was leaving, mother and father with smiling porcelain faces trying to soothe their nervous daughter. She was a pale, frightened thing in a peaches-and-cream dress with lacy ruffles. They guided her toward the Conversion Department and the girl wept tears of apprehensive joy.

“It’ll be over before you know it,” the mother told her daughter.

“At last you’ll be a true Beatific,” said the father.

Crag tipped his hat as he passed. He recalled the day of his own Conversion two centuries ago ago. A thrilling mix of fear and excitement. Kind of like falling in love.

Outside the wind picked up and rustled the hem of his longcoat. Electricity danced between the street lamps in pale blue sparks. A rabidity was on its way. Crag stood back from the road, leaning against one of the two great pillars framing the door of the Ministere de Science. Loose trash and paper debris began flying along the street, and the shuffling crowds of Clatterpox paused. The ones who drove coaches for sheltered Beatifics called their mechanical steeds to a halt. The rabidity rose among them like an invisible storm, the air pressure making Crag’s gaskets squeak and gears grind.

A fissure opened above the square and a torrent of lightnings fell through, dispersing in a dozen directions. The bolts crackled and bounced off the walls and streets. Some of them converged and ripped holes in the fabric of space-time. The landscapes of other worlds, parallel dimensions, gleamed bright as day or dark as midnight on the other sides of the fissures. These vacuities hung in mid-air, shimmering and seething with a strange gravity, pulling at anyone nearby, drawing them into itself. Alien worlds seeking to gobble up the fine citizens of the Urbille. The rabidities were common weather events here, and the city had learned to live with them.

The Clatterpox were lucky: The weight of their iron bodies gave them a hold on the ground below their slab-like feet. Some of them sat on the ground to ensure they didn’t tip over and stumble into a vacuity on their own. Beatific pedestrians had to be more careful. They held onto lamp poles, brick facades, leaned against the sides of buildings, or locked arms in hunched crowds. Inside their coaches the Beatific riders were safe; most vacuities weren’t large enough to swallow a carriage.

A pair of Clatterpox held a small child by his hands while the gravity of a nearby vacuity pulled his tiny feet into the air. The child laughed as his parents hissed and fumed and kept the boy from falling into another world. Crag peered through the singularity and saw a molten sea flowing beneath a range of volcanoes. Giants lumbered across the steaming landscape, marching to war or perhaps hunting some primal fire-beast. Another vacuity revealed a green forest with trees like white towers, villages of singing fungi spread about their roots.

Crag took a perverse pleasure in staring through vacuities. The random fissures never opened to worlds along the Nexus. These worlds weren’t Affinities, they were wild dimensions that you couldn’t even reach by taking the Thoroughfares. If you fell through one of these breaches, you were stuck in that off-grid world forever. Vacuties never opened to the same world twice.

Crag once read a book theorizing that rabidities were a symptom of the Nexus itself decaying, unaligned worlds seeping through cracks between the conglomerated Affinities. The space/time fissures usually manifested from young and savage worlds rocked by chaos. Or so the prevailing theory had it. Six years ago Crag had seen a Beatific commit suicide by diving head-first into a vacuity. There was no predicting or preventing them.

Now the vacuities snapped shut, all of them at once. The wind died down along with the gravity. The street resumed its normal pace of travel, chatter, and commerce. Crag adjusted his top hat and hailed a carriage.

The Good Hills always made him miss the downtown precincts. It was too quiet among the expansive lawns of crushed glass and the carefully pruned rows of ancient trees. The mansions of Beatific families were built of stone, smothered in ivy, decorated with the work of sculptors, artisans, and landscape architects. Cast-iron fences marked the territory of each family, and the avenues between were lit by gas lamps molded into fantastic shapes. One such lamp sat on every corner and was lit every evening by Clatterpox servants.

The Palace of the Potentates rose from a hilltop at the center of the Good Hills, a massive shadow against the sky. A dark woodland surrounded the citadel of ancient stone, separating it entirely from the estates of the Beatifics. The citadel was large enough to contain a second city within itself, and according to rumors it did. Only two kinds of people ever saw what went on behind those monolithic walls: those who served the Potentates at the highest levels, and those condemned to the labyrinth beneath the palace. Somewhere beneath that geometrical mountain of mossy stone, Caroline lay in a dank cell waiting to see the sunlight again. Crag forced himself not to think about her. Not when he was so close to getting her out. It would only ruin his concentration.

The estate houses were impressive, architectural works of art handed down for centuries, some for millennia. One could earn his way into the Good Hills through service to the Potentates. If Caroline hadn’t been sent inside, Crag might have earned her one of these houses by now. It would be the first thing he asked for when they gave her back to him. A reward long overdue. They knew he wouldn’t accept an estate while Caroline was incarcerated, even though he deserved it. So they didn’t bother to offer, and Crag waited. In his line of work it paid to be patient.

We’ll live in one of these houses soon.

Then we’ll be ready to start a family.

Crag stopped the carriage at the ruins of the Wail estate. Not much to see here: a burnt-out structure, caved-in wine cellar, several acres of land marked with dried-up marble fountains. Dozens of trees grown wild from lack of pruning. Weeds and moss crawled up from the tree roots, bursting unhurriedly through the layers of crushed glass. Crag kicked a few stones around. The mansions of seven other estates were visible from the Wail grounds, obscured somewhat by rolling hills and leafy trees.

The Tribune had provided a list of families who were recent victims of the highwayman. There were forty-four houses on the list, and half of them had been hit more than once. Merchants liked to travel crossworld in trains of comfortable coaches, and they often brought their families along to learn the trade. Even now, when the threat of the highwayman was a well-established fact, merchant lords still insisted on following tradition. Every merchant son was supposed to take over the family business someday. Most of them eventually did, decades after Conversion, when their fathers decided to retire. Others, like Crag, fell out with their families and found another way to make a living. Beatifics in general didn’t take kindly to children who pursued individuality.

Crag’s parents had been severely disappointed when he decided to work for the Ministere de Justice. They had moved across the Nexus to an estate in Neopolis, leaving him nothing here but Caroline. Crag didn’t hold a grudge, since she was all he’d ever wanted anyway. Crag’s father told him that one day he would regret his decision to work for the Potentates. That day had come right after Caroline was jailed. But Crag had kept on working anyway. There was nothing to do but work and wait. It always came back to patience.

Crag started the Beatific interviews at House Corvais, then moved on to House Pierre, House Quatrain, House Lecuyer, and finally House Beauvais. By midday he’d patched together a story that varied hardly at all from merchant to merchant:

The highwayman accosts a caravan on the open Thoroughfare, on its way from the Urbille or back to it. The attacks are spread almost evenly between incoming and outgoing caravans. Often there is some sense of atmospheric upheaval to mark his coming, like the onset of a rabidity. He appears in a clatter of hooves, riding on a steed of black metal, demanding the surrender of various goods including any children in the caravan. The money and jewels are secondary to the highwayman’s true goal–the acquisition of young Organics for unknown purposes.

The Beatifics tried hiring bodyguards, but the Surgeon cuts down or shoots down anyone who tries to stop him. The stories varied in color and detail, but the common denominator was violence. The Surgeon knows Beatific bodies intimately since he used to construct them. He takes them apart in seconds with bullet or blade, displaying the skills of a master. All the tellers agreed on one aspect of his magic: He speaks to the young Organics in a voice calm and reassuring. He enspells them with dreams, lies, and magic. In every case they end up following him from the caravan voluntarily. He doesn’t drag them away like true captives. Finally, he promises a swift death to any who try to follow him, and several times he has delivered on that promise.

None of the interviewees could remember what Wail said to the children. Another reason to believe that it was some kind of supernatural effect, although it could be some kind of gas or poison that steals their will. Such a substance wouldn’t work on Beatifics, only on air-breathing Organics. Whether it was mystical or scientific, Dr. Wail had the power to make people follow him gladly.

Crag considered the implications. Was there a cause being served here? Something beyond insanity and murder? Was he abducting Organics or recruiting them? If so, recruiting them for what? Crag spoke to three more merchant lords that evening and decided there was nothing more to learn from them.

The carriage took him into the Rusted Zone, where he started canvasing a list of Clatterpox whose children were stolen from the streets of the Urbille. They told him stories of their losses, although many of them were now raising replacement children. Their stories matched the merchants’ tales of the highwayman’s activities, except that he didn’t ride a mechanical horse in the Urbille. It might have attracted too much attention. Wail simply walked out of the shadows, spoke a few words to the Clatterpox children who played in vacant lots or trash heaps, and led them down an alley to nowhere.

But he had to be taking them somewhere.

Wail could have an ally or co-conspirator inside the Urbille. That would account for his rapid disappearances and make it easier to smuggle children out of the city. Crag decided it wasn’t just a possibility, it was a certainty. Somebody in the Urbille knew what Wail had become, and this person or persons helped him commit these crimes.

Which pointed again to some kind of cause or crusade.

Out on the street again Crag dismissed the carriage and walked through clouds of red dust. Fizzleshades appeared on the nearest corner, weeping phantoms who blinked in and out of existence. The shades of men and women who had lived in the Urbille during the Organic Age thousands of years ago. Scientists dismissed them as spiritual residue brought to a semblance of life by stray psychic currents. Most people knew them as harmless ghosts, although they could be disturbing and unsettling to anyone not familiar with the Urbille.

“Please help me,” a ragged phantom cried. “A crust of bread…”

Crag ignored the ghost. It had no substance. It couldn’t eat bread if he decided to give it a whole loaf. The fizzleshades played out the tragedies of their lives over and over again. Most of the time this included the circumstances of their deaths. Obviously this one had died of starvation millennia ago. It would fade back into nothing in a matter of seconds.

Once Crag had spotted an entire family of fizzleshades weeping in the middle of the street, begging for change from passers-by. They held shape and form for three solid hours; he had stopped to watch them from concealment. They begged in weaker and weaker voices until one by one they lay still in the rust, as if going to sleep. A mother, a father, and six children, thin as skeletons and starving to death. But it was only their images–their spiritual residue–that lived on. There was no true hunger, just as there were no living beings about to die in the street. People walked around the fading specters as if skirting the edges of a murky puddle.

Crag had watched until the last of them disappeared, then donated money to a charity for underfed Clatterpox children. The poor kids had it rough most of the time. If you were lucky enough to be a Beatific child, you hit the jackpot. Of all the children raised in the Urbille, imported from the Outer Affinities where they would have little chance of survival, the only ones that ever died before reaching Conversion Day were those raised by Clatterpox. There was a movement among the Beatifics to outlaw the raising of children by Clatterpox, but it never got any traction with the Potentates. Caroline had supported one of those movements, and it set her on a bad path. She knew the truth and she acted on it. Truth was always a dangerous thing in the Urbille.

Crag considered the typical life of a Clatterpox child. If I was given to these hunks of junk and told I would be one of them someday, I might follow a handsome stranger into an alley and never come back myself.

The Outland Zone was full of aliens humanoid and inhuman. Most of them were visitors from the Inner Affinities. They came to the Urbille for trade, entertainment, legal business, and to pay a yearly tribute to the Potentates. Crag headed for the Theatre d’ Ames Rire. There was one more name on his list of witnesses worth checking out.

The amphitheatre was built of ancient marble, massive blocks of it sculpted into monolithic perfection. Crowds of Beatifics entered through the main gate beneath an archway alive with flowering vines and blossoms. Clatterpox patrons entered through a side gate along with non-citizens. The evening performance was about to begin, and the vast semi-circle of spectator benches was filling up fast.

Crag noticed an unusually high number of goblins in the audience. The gnarled little gremlins had been moving to the Urbille in record numbers for about fifteen years now. The worst goblins were prone to forming street-gangs and rumbling with their Clatterpox counterparts, but the gendarmes put gangs down on a regular basis. Apparently goblinkind was doing so well in the city that they could afford tickets to see the Rude Mechanicals. But he wasn’t here to track down goblins. The majority of the seats were filled by smartly dressed Beatifics wearing exquisite porcelain faces.

The sun sank behind the tangled skyline of the Rusted Zone, and Clatterpox attendants rushed about the amphitheater lighting gaslamps. The great red curtain remained closed in front of the stage, and a live Beatific orchestra played below the footlights.

Someone asked Crag for a ticket, but he flashed his badge instead. The banner above the concession gallery read THE RUDE MECHANICALS present THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR. FINAL SHOW OF THE SEASON! Crag took a seat near the back with a direct view of the stage.

He watched the entire play. It wasn’t bad. He’d seen it before, decades ago, with Caroline at his side. Some early date of theirs, or maybe it was an early anniversary. A twinge of shame bubbled in the coils of his stomach because he couldn’t remember. He did recall that the troupe was somewhat different in those days. It had a different leader then, which was one of the reasons he came here today. Sala North, the famous founder of the Rude Mechanicals, had been killed by the Surgeon ten years ago on the Lesser Thoroughfare.

The actor who now directed the troupe also played the role of Marc Antony. The costuming and masks were excellent in their recreation of a lost Organic world. A few times during the performance Crag forgot he wasn’t actually here to enjoy it. When the tragedy was finally over, Caesar’s ghost had delivered its prophecy, the scheming Brutus lay dead by his own blade, and the entire troupe came forward to take their final bows.

The cheering crowed tossed roses, brilliants, and other tokens of appreciation onto the stage. The applause was deafening until the crowds dispersed toward the various exits. The orchestra played them out with an upbeat tune.

Crag’s badge got him back-stage access. He went to congratulate the director, who stood in a crowd of Beatific admirers, still wearing the porcelain face of Marc Antony. Crag waited for his moment as the actor/director took his compliments. He approached Marc Antony with badge extended.

“Mr. Skiptrain,” Crag said. “My name is Inspector Crag. I’d like to ask you a few questions.”

Skiptrain lowered his head in a show of respect. His green opticals examined Crag’s badge, something most people never bothered to do. The actor/director nodded and seemed to shrug. The rest of his players and staff rushed around the place removing scenery, adjusting curtains, stuffing props and costumes into rolling cases. A few members of the Rude Mechanicals stood off to the side watching Skiptrain talk to Crag, still wearing mock Roman armor and short swords. Their porcelain faces were inscrutable, but Crag knew they didn’t trust him. Showfolk were a strange breed, even in a strange place like the Urbille.

“What can I do for you?” Skiptrain asked. He offered a hand and Crag shook it. “An autograph for your wife, perhaps?”

“No thanks,” Crag said. “Quite a show you put on. I’ve seen it before. You do it better.”

Skiptrain nodded. “If you will allow me to remove my costume and put on a more presentable face, I’ll dine with you this evening at the AORTA. Do you know the place? It’s right down the street.”

“This won’t take that long,” Crag said. Skiptrain folded his arms, looking more like an imperious Roman than he had during the play.

“Ten years ago your predecessor, Sala North, was murdered by the highwayman known as the Surgeon.”

“You need not remind me, sir.” Skiptrain said. “It was one of the saddest days of my life.” He looked away, meeting the gaze of an actress. She slipped behind some curtains, perhaps sent on some prearranged errand by that look.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” Crag said. “North was a legend, even to someone as clueless about the Arts as me.”

“Sala was a hero to us all,” said Skiptrain. His hands spread out to indicate the rest of his troupe.

“What do you remember about the day she died? I’d be especially interested in anything you can tell me about the Surgeon. I understand he abducted four Organic apprentices that day as well.”

Skiptrain nodded and set himself down on a packing crate. The gears in his neck sighed with a venting of pressure. “We were on the Lesser Thoroughfare,” Skiptrain said. “For two years we’d been travelling the Affinities, playing to crowds that rarely get to see us. It is our custom twice a year to tour in such a manner, although the tours are not as extensive as they used to be. With Sala as our leader, we played everything from great arenas like this one to ramshackle hovels. No crowd was too small. We even played a series of shows at a great necropolis, where the dead and undead laughed at our tragedies and wept at our comedies. Those were exciting days.”

Skiptrain paused, lost in his thoughts for a moment. Crag did not interrupt. Let people tell their story and know how to listen. It was one of his greatest skills, perhaps the only one worth anything in the Urbille.

“Sala had high hopes for our apprentices. They were the first Organics to join our group in fifty years. After a two-year apprenticeship roaming the Affinities with us, all four of them earned the right to call themselves Rude Mechanicals, which comes with the right to Beatific status. We were headed back to the Urbille for the Conversion ceremonies when he found us.”

“Excuse me,” Crag said. “Why were you on the Lesser Thoroughfare? Isn’t the Greater Thoroughfare safer?”

“We’d heard rumors of the highwayman,” said Skiptrain. “The Terror of the Road Between the Worlds, they called him. He struck only on the Greater Thoroughfare, or so we thought. But he found us as crossing through some backwater Affinity, a haunted swamp. The dead came to us first, the spirits of those who had died in the muck. These were not fizzleshades, Inspector, they were specters of fear and pain. The Surgeon seemed to have some kind of control over them.

“First the specters waylaid us, then the highwayman rode out of the rain on his black steed. He demanded that we give him the apprentices. Sala defied him. She struck at him with her staff of green flame. I would have followed her lead, but the Surgeon made a sign and the dead spirits swarmed Sala, ripping her body apart. In seconds the only thing left of her was a pile of broken gears and coils. And her beautiful skull with its gorgeous mask. The Surgeon took the mask to wear himself. Perhaps he still wears it. After he killed Sala, the rest of us knew we had no choice.”

“Did he say anything about why he wanted the children? Where he intended to take them?”

“No,” said Skiptrain. “He only led them into the swamp, and we never saw them again. I took Sala’s role because it’s what she would have wanted. But our young apprentices were lost.”

“Into the swamp?” Crag said. “He took them away from the Thoroughfare?”

“Yes,” said Skiptrain. “This is how I remember it. You can ask any of my troupe and they’ll tell you the same thing.”

Crag was sure they would. Nobody could lie or stick to a story better than actors.

“I need you to think very hard about that day, Skiptrain,” Crag said. “Can you remember any other details that might explain why the Surgeon wanted your apprentices, or where he may have taken them?”

Skiptrain replied immediately, a sure sign that he was lying.

“I have no idea whatsoever.”

“Did you ever see the Surgeon again?”

Skiptrain shook his head and removed the Marc Antony wig, exposing the back of his silver skull. “If I had seen him, I would surely have tried to kill him. For Sala.”

“Since that time have you traveled with any more Organics?”

“No,” said Skiptrain. “Organics are too…fragile…for the rigors of stage life. And I didn’t want to be responsible for losing any more of them.”

Crag thanked the troupe leader for his time and gave him a card.

“Please contact me if you remember anything else. Anything at all.”

“Very well, Inspector. Thank you for attending our performance this evening.”
Crag started to walk away while Skiptrain stood there, hairless and watching.

“I see this was your last show here,” Crag said. “What’s next for the Rude Mechanicals?”

“We’re hitting the road,” Skiptrain said. “We have an engagement in Neopolis. A new Summer Tour will follow.”

“Interesting way to make a living,” said Crag. “When do you leave?”

“In three days,” said Skiptrain. “Which explains all of this mess and chaos you see backstage. It is a time of transition for us. The open road calls.”

“Oh, one more thing,” Crag leaned in close, lowered his voice. “I need the names of your lost apprentices for my official report.” He pulled out a small pad and a fountain pen.

“Ah, well, let’s see…” Skiptrain rubbed his porcelain chin. “There was Brix, Chancey, Dorian, and Harmona. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Inspector…”

“Of course,” Crag said. “Good luck on your travels.”

Skiptrain disappeared into the bowels of the backstage complex.

Crag wrote down the four names, along with a notation: Skiptrain — Did not ask if his apprentices might still be alive. Unwilling to theorize or even guess at the Surgeon’s motives. Showed very little interest in the case, especially for someone so affected by it.

One more notation, just below the first: What’s he hiding?

Here was the hot lead. Crag’s instinct told him Skiptrain was the key to finding Wail. He didn’t know what the connection might be, but it had something to do with the four missing apprentices. If the Surgeon were fueling some kind of cause, then Skiptrain might know all about it. He could have handed over the apprentices to the highwayman and murdered Sala North himself. One way to get ahead in the world. Yet the man seemed to genuinely miss his dead mentor. Crag hated dealing with actors. You never could be sure if they were displaying real emotions or faking it.

Either way Skiptrain would lead him to the truth. Crag would make sure of it.

Even if he had to follow the Rude Mechanicals all the way to Neopolis.

 

NEXT: “A Midsummer’s Night”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —