Four Corners Vignette #6 (2019)

“A lot of people want to believe in an afterlife because they’re looking for something better than this world,” Jacob Ellwood said, as he set the translucent figures between his hands rotating.  “I say, there’s no guarantee of an afterlife, or that if there is one it’ll be like you think.  This world’s the only sure thing, so take what joy you can from this world and this life.  Some take joy in getting stuff, others in seeing the world.”

He nodded toward the illusory scene formed, floating, between his palms.  Subtle changes affected the figures.

“I take joy in practicing, creating, and perfecting ephemeral art,” Jacob said, then nodded across the manicured park.  “I’ve been coming out here off and on for seven years now.  Every day, Winston has been here, rain or shine, caring for the trees and shrubs.  It’s what he enjoys.  Does that answer your question?”

He sat in silence for a few minutes.  Both Jacob and his companion outwardly focused on the older man, Winston Tykma, moving amongst the trees of West Park.  A couple local kids, no older than eight or nine, trailed along behind him.  The breeze, funneled by the buildings around them, set branches swaying.

It was, Jacob reflected, nice to get out of the apartment studio occasionally.  Even if it meant being accosted by people from time to time.

“Mr. Woodbine?”

His companion, introduced as Esmond Woodbine, shook himself.

“It is certainly something to consider, Mr. Ellwood.  But, it doesn’t answer my question about how what you do relates to the entity Aedolan.”

“Yes.  Caught that, did you?  Well, that’s a whole other day’s talk.”

Ashford Vignette #13 (2019)

“Mornin’, English!”

Verner Thornton looked up from the pile of papers on his desk.  Seeing the translucent speaker, once a pale brunette, he sighed and plastered on a smile.

“What can I do for you, Maeri?”

Maeri Read had died seven centuries earlier.  He had never learned how, or why she was bound to Ashford.  Usually, she stuck to the libraries, unless Evelyn Lake, the head librarian, sent her with messages.

“Madam Lake says she needs the item from number nine.  And that you would know what she means.”

He nodded, “I do, Maeri.  I will bring it to the main library this afternoon.  It will take some time to get out.”

“She says the first floor library.”

“In that case, the first floor.  Please tell her to expect me around two.”

He sat for a few minutes after the ghost left, his eyes focused on the blank wall.

The room was deliberately devoid of decoration or adornment, part of its security.  Only one desk and a door in each of the four walls.  It was also the only room of the vault’s nine that remained stationary.  Room nine was the most secure and difficult to navigate.

Finally, Verner decided he had best get it over with.

He rose smoothly to his feet, locking the outer door with a gesture, and looked at each inner door in turn.  Choosing the correct door would help retrieve the librarian’s artifact.  In fact, navigating the vault’s shifting room was one part experience, one part intuition, and several parts luck, since there was no pattern to its movements.

Satisfied, the middle-aged witch decided on the door directly behind his desk.  It felt like the shortest route to room nine.

Four Corners Vignette #5 (2019)

Nica turned down the proper street and found the door she’d been informed of.  It looked plain and simple, no different than any other door on the street.  But, that was the point.  With a moment’s thought, she tapped the lintel stones in the pattern she’d been told.

As the door closed behind her, Nica found herself not in a building, but on a wide pedestrian street.

Looking as she walked, she decided the Four Corners was quaint.  It had a certain Old World feel, reminiscent of the nicer parts of 18th century London, she thought.  But rather cleaner.  Better sanitation.  The whole place couldn’t have been more than two centuries old, though.

Nica consulted her mental map, as she took in the cacophony of sounds and scents while weaving along the crowded street.  The place could give the City of London a run for its money in terms of foot traffic.

After a short distance, she spotted the street.  First right.  Twycross.

Nica scanned storefronts as she walked the less congested avenue.  Most appeared to be printers and writers, professional researchers and private tutors.

But, there, nestled between an antique dealer and a scryer, was the place she sought.

House Ross’s office.

The House was younger than her, but it paid to follow the niceties and rituals.  Kept shtriga from killing each other.  Mostly.

She opened the royal blue door set in a whitewashed frame.

Inside, a young man sat behind a heavy mahogany desk.

He smiled brightly when she walked in.

“Welcome to House Ross.  I am Lucien del Rio.  How may we help you?”

Nica nodded.

“Nica Radcliffe.  I’ll be visiting for a good week.  Just paying my respects to . . . Harrison Ross.”

“Excellent!  There is, of course, no need to see Lord Ross directly.  Just sign this book here, with your expected purpose of visit and anticipated length of stay.”

As Nica wrote, he continued.

“House Ross has no feuds, and is completely neutral, politically speaking.  As such, violence against shtriga and non-shtriga alike is forbidden, except in clear cases of self-defense.  Have you seen the brochure?”

He handed Nica a tri-fold pamphlet.

“Panel two has all the places where shtriga are allowed to feed.  Do you have lodging?  No?  No matter.  Panel three lists some places that are shtriga friendly.  The back lists the office’s open hours as well as business and after-hours contact information, should you have any trouble or questions.”

Nica simply stared in silence.

In nearly five centuries of life on two continents, traveling to hundreds of House territories, she had never been through an introduction so . . . business-like.  It felt like a chamber of commerce greeting, not that of a House of blood drinking immortals.

The Lucien’s suit and the décor hit her.

Camouflage.

Blend in and set the mortals at ease.

“Any questions?  Or anything we ca do to help?”

Nica shook her head, both clearing cobwebs and answering.

“No.  I think that will do.  Thank you, Lucien.  Oh.  Does Lord Ross meet visitors anywhere?  A little old fashioned, I know, but . . .” she shrugged depreciatingly.

“Not at all, Lady Radcliffe . . . Nica.  He does spend time at the first restaurant on the list on Tuesdays, usually one to four in the afternoon.”

“Thank you,” Nica said, before turning to escape.

Ashford Vignette #12 (2019)

One moment, Mary Bennett had been in the basement of a closed bar that had seen better days.  Only the fact that she had a letter of instructions and a dozen other people her age were with her got her in the building.

The next moment, a step through a doorway, she found herself in a tall, sprawling ballroom of gothic stone and Georgian mirrors.  Mary didn’t get a good look at first, because a young Middle Eastern woman in a hijab nudged her.  She and Radia al-Am, who was from Michigan, had only met an hour before, in the bar, while waiting for others.

As they moved aside to let others through, Mary noticed a second door to her left.  Most of the men and women around it were pale and dark haired or of clear Indian-Pakistani descent.  They all stage whispered enough that she caught a bit of a brogue.

For her part, Mary stood with Radia, both looking around the room and pointing out details.

After a couple minutes, a hush fell over the assembled newcomers.  A young woman, probably in her mid-30s, stood on a small riser.

She talked for a bit, warnings at first, then:

“Black robes are students.  Brown robes are staff.  Any other color are faculty.”

Mary looked around, spotting a dozen figures in brown robes.  They looked like hooded monks, she decided.

Then Radia was nudging her again.

“C’mon.  Maybe we’ll be in the same dorm!”

Mary followed along in the wake of Radia’s pale rose headscarf.

She arrived in time to hear a male voice saying, “Al-Am, 3-B.  Bennett, M., 3-B.  With Mr. Zane, over there.”  He pointed to a figure three over clockwise.

Nodding, both women shoved through the crowd back to their bags and toward their guide.

Four Corners Vignette #4 (2019)

Juniper Smythe looked across the main room of Murphy’s.

The lunch crowd wasn’t quite in, but it was starting.  The couple dozen already seated around the room represented all corners of the continent.

And not a local among them, aside from the rest of the staff.

Even so, she found a familiar face coming in the door.

“Stan!  Irina!”

Two familiar faces.

Juniper met the couple halfway across the room.  She was instantly enfolded in a three-way hug.

“I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.”

Irina shrugged her shapely shoulders.

“That was the plan, but Stan’s schedule opened up.”

“Let me get you guys a table,” Juniper glanced around.  “Over there, best we have available, right by the bar.”

As she led them over, Stan looked at the tables.

“How’ve things been?  Looks like the place is working out.”

“Sort of a niche market, but a big one.  And a loyal one.  The reputation and word of mouth from shoppers and tourists has been great.  How about you two?  It’s been a while.”

Irina smiled as she sat.

“Hunting hasn’t been great, lately.  But, Greywood headhunted Stan, and may have a field position for me in a couple months, so not too bad.”

“Greywood Institute?  Are you sure?”

Stan shrugged, “Well, the non-disclosure agreement is a bit . . . strict, but the pay and resources are . . .”

“. . . something we can’t discuss,” Irina finished.

Juniper waved over a waiter.

“”Sorry, guys.  The lunch rust is starting.  Maybe this evening?”  Then, to the waiter, “Take good care of them, they’re old friends.”

Ashford Vignette #11 (2019)

Lloyd leaned back on the bench, soaking up the sunshine.  For his first couple weeks at Ashford, it had felt odd, being on the second floor of an enclosed structure and having a courtyard with sunlight and trees.  But, time and familiarity allowed him to let go of basic physics and geography.  Neither applied to the school.

“Why would you want to be a Guardian?” the voice of his friend, Natalie Harker, interrupted his reverie.  “They’re a bunch of old, washed up has-beens living in past glories.”

Lloyd shrugged.

He’d been raised on stories of the gallant Wardens—peacekeepers, warriors, diplomats—as they all had, but that wasn’t a good enough reason.

“Now, the Wraiths, I could see.  They’re cool . . . international spies and assassins, ok not so cool on that last part.”

“They at least try to make the world a better place,” Lloyd countered.  “Even if they aren’t able to do what they used to.”

“There’re better, more effective and useful, ways to make the world better, Lloyd.  Better than sitting around listening to fossils telling old war stories their grandparents told them.”

Lloyd shrugged again, enjoying the breeze against his face.  Even the low murmur of other voices as their fellow students chatted and studied around the courtyard-park was soothing in its own way.

“It was only a thought.  An option.  I’m not settled on it or locked in.”

Natalie nodded.

“Good.  You’re a great thinker and talker, but, let’s face it, Charlie’s a better fighter . . . and he’s held the record for self-inflicted injuries four years running.”

Lloyd couldn’t help but return her grin at the thought.

Four Corners Vignette #3 (2019)

“Hernán, where are we on the Tierney contract?”

Hernán Wilcox, half of the founding members of Howey & Wilcox, looked up from his desk.  He scratched his greying beard.

“Kyrah took the down payment just this morning, I think.”

His partner, Theodora Howey, nodded to herself and made a note on the pad before her.  Her bushy tail, that marked her as a jager, swayed as she thought.

“Given the job and subject matter,” she said, “I think I’ll see if Katrina’s available to consult.”

Hernán paused a moment, his eyes unfocused in thought.

“Rathmell?  Yes, yes, she would be a good asset.  Haven’t’ seen her around in a while either.  Be good to talk with her again, always has some interesting new find.”

“I’ll confirm payment with Kyrah and drop by her office in a bit then.”

These days, Theodora reflected, most of the research was kept in house, now that the firm had grown enough to employ a fair variety of people.  But, in the early days, they had outsourced a number of jobs to people in her extensive network of expert specialists.  Of course, Hernán had done a considerable amount on the magical side of things, as she had done on the more mundane research side.  They had agreed early on, though, that they would bring in experts as necessary for things they did not feel as qualified to be gathering data on.

The Tierney contract certainly counted.

Getting the current information it called for was right up her alley.  But, the client was looking for a couple centuries worth of information, and Katrina Rathmell, with her knowledge of spirits, was the best historian they had on call for consults.