Orson Gregory knew two things about his current situation.
First, he was chasing men. They weren’t monsters, spirits, specters, demons, or any other colloquial name for such creatures. They moved and fought like humans. They acted predictably. They brawled with flash and emotion. Few of the nonhumans, part humans, or other beings Orson had met ever acted like that.
Orson’s suspicions were also confirmed when he saw one of the two thieves draw a small device, likely a radio, from beneath his robes. The men were too far ahead for Orson’s audio magnification to eavesdrop, but he saw both speak into the radio.
The men’s humanity made these people no less dangerous.
These men wielded magic. That was the second truth Orson knew. These men had made iron appear from nowhere. They either formed it in the air, in their hands, arranged it into weapons, molecule-by-molecule, or they transported it from somewhere else. Orson had heard of both and both concerned him.
If he were right, and these men were relatively new to their odd abilities, they could still become very dangerous when desperate.
Orson knew his best chance of learning whether these men had stolen further items from Enoa Cloud was catching them by surprise and intimidating them mentally, well before they thought about using their iron conjuring. He needed a fast confrontation, quick and done.
So Orson dropped from a rooftop right in front of the two men.
They hadn’t heard his running. They hadn’t seen him. They’d clearly assumed they’d gotten away, to the point where they’d stripped out of their heavy robes and used small wet wipes to clean some of the war paint from their faces.
Both tripped backward when the masked, billowing shape fell from the sky and landed on one metal boot in front of them. The Wayfarer’s masked eyes glowed a cold blue. His hand was on the hilt of the sword at his back.
“You have something that doesn’t belong to you.” Orson was proud of his cool entrance. Hopefully, it would be enough to intimidate the men. He’d wasted time and energy executing it.
To accomplish his striking arrival, Orson had scaled a broken fire escape, tailed the men with his mask’s zoom feature, and run across the rooftops of at least two-dozen buildings. He’d lost count. Twice he’d had to jump over narrow alleys to stay ahead of them.
Not for the first time, he thanked his lucky stars he’d managed to assemble his weird arsenal of souvenirs. Without the mask and bandana – a handy little thing fitted with a small air filtration system – he surely would not have been nearly so ominous.
One of the two attackers drew a pistol, previously hidden at his belt. Orson let his mask’s Heads-Up-Display predict where the assailant would hit him, if he chose to shoot. The bullet would likely take Orson right in the left breast, right above his heart, right in the coat.
“Go ahead,” Orson said. “See what good it does you.”
The man obliged. He fired once.
The bullet tore toward Orson, hit his coat, hit the metal inside his coat, and ricocheted down harmlessly onto the ground.
“See?” Orson stalked forward, letting his metal boot’s full weight fall onto the darkened sidewalk, as he approached the men. The great steps echoed out far in the oncoming night. “You’ve left me a good deal of sewing to do with this nice old coat, but I won’t hold a grudge if you return what you stole.”
Neither man spoke, but one of them placed his hands a foot apart. The air around them all got suddenly hot.
Before he could manage a summoning, Orson acted.
Orson grabbed his sword’s hilt in his right hand. The sheath extended well over his head, far enough from his shoulders and hair to protect him from the blade’s heat. He raised the sword from the sheath, just an inch, a half of an inch, just enough for the barest bit of the blade to peek out into the night air.
For that instant, blue flickering light illuminated the faces of the men. They’d done a poor job wiping away the war paint. The Sight-Stealer who had fallen still had blood smeared on his chin. They were both still painted purple. The conjuring man gave up on his magic and the air around him cooled, just as fast.
Then Orson sheathed the blade. The flashing sapphire light went out.
“Fine.” The second man drew a small bundle from his belt. It was no more than six inches across.
“Good.” Orson kept his right hand on the sword’s hilt. With his free hand, he reached out and took the parcel from the man. “Now…”
A siren sounded, far down the street. It wailed on for a second, then two, then three.
As if they’d been waiting for the noise, the two men jumped into motion. The two thieves darted aside, racing down a small alley, across the street, before fading into darkness.
“If you took more than this little thing.” Orson shouted after them. “You’d better believe I’ll find you again.”
But they were already gone, and Orson had more pressing business at hand than scaling buildings just to deliver his warning.
Orson quickly let his mask scan the parcel for potassium or sulfur or any of the things that often go ‘boom’. Satisfied, he stowed the package in a great deep pocket in his coat. The siren wailed on, all the while.
Orson next let his mask’s view magnify down the street. He had a nasty feeling and looked back the way he came, down the hill, down the street to the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea.
Multiple vehicles, ten or so, were situated around the little shop. Now the calling vehicle, the source of the siren, a huge Humvee, had arrived. It was outfitted with police lights, blinking blue and red. The Humvee parked directly outside Enoa’s shop.
Orson adjusted his coat and his sword. He ran again.
Enoa and Sheriff Webster had only just entered the shop’s office when a siren went off.
Enoa had made herself relax. Sheriff Kelly Webster had grown up locally and still lived four houses down the street from Enoa’s shop. She’d been a family friend for decades. Enoa was no fan of causing conflicts of interest in law enforcement, but she had also genuinely done nothing wrong and would take any help she could get.
“The knife wasn’t up his sleeve.” Enoa retrieved a wooden rocking chair from her larger storage room, so Webster could sit on the opposite side of her desk. “I’m telling you, it appeared out of nowhere, like thin air nowhere. One second it wasn’t there, the next second it was.”
The siren had then sounded, before either woman could say more. Enoa jumped to her feet. What now? Since the old man had called her name through town square, she hadn’t had more than a few minutes of calm.
“This has to be the Liberty Corps Captain.” Sheriff Webster stood, as well. “I knew we weren’t lucky enough to get through today without running into him.”
“The private security.” Webster pointed back toward the shop’s front door. “The blue and red folks. They’re one of those militias that have been roaming around lately. They’ve been pushing security work. They’re probably trying to come across as legitimate.”
The siren went quiet. Then there came a knock on Enoa’s front door. It was a loud knock, louder than it needed to be, since the men outside knew that Webster had already met with Enoa. The knock was delivered with enough force to rattle the glass in the door’s window.
“Stay here.” Webster walked out of the office and around the checkout desk. Enoa heard her shop door open. “I told your people I’m handling it.”
“My command has been deputized by the Nimauk Council.” A male voice spoke. Footsteps. The man, the Liberty Corps Captain, forced his way right past the Sheriff, and he soon stood on the customer side of the checkout desk, facing Enoa.
“Hello, Miss Cloud. I am Captain Maros, of the Liberty Corps.” Maros was a tall man and very young. He couldn’t have been much older than Enoa, early twenties, probably – extremely young for his command, even after the destabilization. He had an intensity in his eyes, fierce, something Enoa had never seen before, not in a person of any age. His dark hair was tied back in a tight knot.
Maros wore armor of the same design as the other Liberty Corps members, but white. One of his hands was a prosthetic, an extremely high quality prosthetic, partially translucent with some visible wiring. This hand gripped his uniform’s wide belt buckle.
“You have no authority to come in here.” Sheriff Webster reappeared behind the Captain. “None. Private security cannot enter a person’s property without permission, and the County Sheriff can refuse access to private security at any time. I appreciate your enthusiasm, Captain, but I will send for you if, and only if, I find some real way for you to help.”
“Normally.” Maros turned back to the Sheriff. “You’d be correct.” He drew a small paper from his pocket. “A message from Town Council. I am acting as their representative. I expect Councilman Tucker will arrive here as soon as he is able.” Webster took the paper, and Maros looked back toward Enoa.
“My apologies for entering without warning.” He inclined his head. “But the sooner we have a few answers the better it will be for everyone.”
“Are you accusing me of something?” Enoa walked out into the store proper. She had no intention of being cornered in her office. “I think I’d like to see that message too.”
“A man we so far can’t identify used his last breath to say your name.” Maros did not move, but his eyes never strayed from her. “You don’t think it’s worth talking to us? You might know more than you realize.”
“Wow!” There came a shout from outside, and Enoa didn’t get a chance to respond. She turned in time to see Orson walking through the middle of the Liberty Corps lineup. The security forces were all facing toward the antique store and started as he passed them.
“I’ve never seen this big a response for a robbery case.” Orson found the entryway into the antique shop barred by four men, tall, red-armored, holding spears.
“State your identity and your purpose,” one of the Liberty Corps spearmen commanded.
“My name is Orson Gregory.” He pulled the mask from his eyes and slid the bandana down onto his chest. Other than his hair and clothes, he looked truly average. With a different haircut and without his odd garments, Enoa could have passed him on the street and never recognized him. “I am here to provide my eye witness testimony to the robbery and attempted assault that happened here.”
Orson stood on tiptoe to look between the heads of two of the guards. “I’m also gonna browse this interesting shop, assuming Ms. Cloud’s open for business.” Before the guard could say anything, Orson found her with his eyes and offered a small wave. “Are you intending to stay open once these dedicated gentlemen – and ladies – are on their way?” He directed the short aside to Sheriff Webster. She’d glanced up from the Council’s note, looking just as bewildered as the Liberty Corps.
“Uh.” Enoa didn’t know what to say. She wanted nothing more than to send all of them on their way, Orson included, so she could steal a few hours to calm down and figure things out. “I guess?”
“Let him enter.” Captain Maros addresed his guardsmen. They looked to him, but made no opening for Orson to pass. “Yes, let him through. We’ll hear what he has to say.” The red spearmen had parted for less than a second before Orson squeezed his way between them and into the Treasures from the Clouds to the Sea.
“At ease soldier.” Orson clapped one of the red armored guards on the shoulder as he passed. “Thanks for your help.” He looked at Enoa. “Nice to finally meet you, face to face.” Then he offered his hand to Captain Maros and Sheriff Webster. “Orson Gregory.” Both shook his gloved hand. “I had the unfortunate honor of helping out our host, earlier this evening.”
“She told me about you.” Webster nodded. “She said you defended her against her strange assailants.”
“That’s right.” Orson tapped at his coat. “I also recovered a small package stolen from this place.”
“What is it?” Enoa asked. “It can’t be anything too…”
“We’ll take a look at that.” Captain Maros extended his hand, his left one, flesh and blood. He interrupted, before anyone else had a chance to speak. “It may explain Miss Cloud’s connections to the derailment.”
“You’re not confiscating my inventory.” Enoa stepped between Orson and the Captain. “I’ve done nothing wrong, nothing other than being a lifelong resident of this town, unlike you. I don’t know who that old man was, and I have no idea why he said my name.”
“That’s immaterial.” The Captain looked at Orson. “Whatever you recovered is necessary for the ongoing investigation.”
“Who’s Man Bun over there?” Orson leaned to Enoa and spoke in an affected whisper, loud enough for Maros to hear him.
“Mr. Gregory.” Maros drew his hand back. “I’m not sure what you plan to accomplish with your childish antics, but it will not deter me from taking the evidence you have in your possession.”
“Captain Gregory, actually.” Orson straightened his shoulders and looked around the room. He didn’t look at Maros. “And seeing as we’re both Captains, I think I’ll just return the stolen goods back to Enoa.”
“Captain?” Maros laughed. “Captain of what?”
“I’m a ship’s captain.” Orson smiled. “I might not get a color-coded workforce, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“Councilman Tucker’s here.” Webster nodded toward the doorway.
The Liberty Corps door guards cleared the entryway. They marched aside with little formation, a gesture that appeared more haphazard than formal. The guards made an opening for Councilman Tucker, now wearing an unzipped winter coat, with a buttoned shirt and snowflake patterned tie, to enter the shop.
“Good evening. Hello.” Councilman Tucker gave them all a small smile. The bizarre gathering greeted him, in turn. “Are we all ready for the trip to my office?”
“If we need to talk,” Enoa said. “Let’s talk things out here. I don’t know anything useful so let’s be done with this. I have a lot of work to do for the rest of the festival.”
“If we don’t figure out what happened to that train…” Tucker shook his head. “You’re our best lead, Enoa. If you want there to be a festival, you need to help us, and we can’t be sure of your safety here. But all of us will be entirely safe with Captain Maros and his men, back at the town offices.” Tucker faced the Captain. “Isn’t that right?”
“More Sight-Stealers were here, sir,” Maros said. “They robbed Miss Cloud and showed further nefarious intent. There is an undeniable connection between her and the developing situation in town.”
“Councilman, sir.” Sheriff Webster edged her way between Enoa and the town official. “We have no reason to believe Enoa is being anything less than truthful. This is…”
“Kelly.” Tucker held up his hand. “Let me be very clear. I am not asking. I have the full support of the rest of the council.”
“This makes no sense,” Webster said. “There has never been a festival problem that the Sheriff’s Department didn’t solve. I don’t know how Captain Maros convinced you to hire this militia, but I don’t understand it. They are already overstepping. This is just like I warned you. We don’t know these people, and the things you hear about some of the mercenaries operating now…”
“We rightly predicted that greater security was needed,” Tucker said. “Enoa, you aren’t under arrest, but we are recruiting your help and your answers. You will be safer with us. Imagine the danger you would be in with these Sight-Stealers after you. Imagine what would happen if a firefight broke out in the middle of High Street.”
“I’m not going with you. I can’t.” Enoa placed her hand on a pile of boxes, already packed for their journey to the festival. They’d been waiting beside the counter all day. “I need to work the festival. Without Aunt Su’s Nimauk Culture Talks, I’ll need Festival money. The holiday season used to be a big help, but after the New Year’s snowstorm…” She shook her head. “You know how tricky it’s been.”
“If we don’t solve this by tomorrow, there won’t be a festival!” Tucker furrowed his brow. “Listen to yourself. Do you think sales matter if the Sight-Stealers kill all of us?”
“If I may,” Orson said. “I think I have a solution that will make everybody happy.”
“You don’t get to speak until you hand over the evidence you recovered.” Maros stared at Orson, unblinking. “If you aren’t here to help this investigation, why are you in this room?”
“I’m here to help Enoa.” Orson smiled at the Captain. “Mr. Councilman and Captain Man Bun want to talk to Enoa, perfectly reasonable given everything going on.”
“Reasonable?” Enoa yelled. “No. There is absolutely nothing reasonable…”
“Enoa!” Orson made an expression she couldn’t read. “You want to sell your antiques. I want to buy a souvenir from this weird night I’ve had. Give me fifteen minutes to browse, and I’ll buy something at a major markup. Consider that a little goodwill donation from a friendly traveler. Some of these items look pretty pricey.” He waved his arms toward the far wall, covered in hanging artwork, paintings by local artists.
“I don’t like it.” Maros spoke the instant Orson closed his mouth. “Sir, there is something very unusual about this man. Who is he to delay our investigation, even by fifteen minutes?”
“I’m just trying to help and support your local economy.” Orson raised both hands, palms outward. Everyone looked at Councilman Tucker. The official was slow to speak, and Sheriff Webster got there first.
The Sheriff eyed Orson. He met her gaze. “I’ll stay here and make sure he behaves himself. I don’t mind the idea, if he’s really willing to pay.”
“I’m not willing to be detained.” Enoa hadn’t looked away from Tucker since his arrival. “I’m not going to be taken like a criminal, just because some weird stranger said my name.” Orson stared at her. He made the unusual expression again, with a clenched jaw and wide eyes. He wanted her attention, but she didn’t look at him.
“I’ll pay you any markup you want, even 200%,” Orson said. “That’s three times asking price, right? I’ve never worked retail. I meant three times the price.”
Enoa turned. He smiled at her. What did he want? He didn’t know what he wanted to buy, that’s what he’d said. Was there any item he could buy where three times the price would make up for losing the entire festival? What in the world could he want to buy this badly?
“I don’t like it.” Maros said again. He pointed at Orson. “Trust my advice, sir. This is why you hired us.”
“Enough, Captain.” Tucker sighed again. “This looks like the best solution we’ve got, so long as Enoa agrees.”
“We should be taking Captain Gregory into custody.” Maros wouldn’t let anyone speak. “He’s been fighting. He’s clearly armed. He’s refusing to provide evidence. What more…”
“I think Captain Gregory could be of help to us.” Tucker interrupted Maros, for the second time. “It’s very convenient he arrived here tonight, oddly convenient.”
“I’m not sure I’d say convenient.” Orson shrugged, a gesture that made his sword’s hilt rise even higher above his head. “I was hoping for a night at the festival, take in a little music, enjoy some of that local caramead you make.”
“Well then.” Tucker smiled at Orson. “If you want a nice festival experience, I’ll expect to see you in my office later, as well, to help us.” He pointed to Orson’s chest. “With the evidence you gathered. For your troubles, I can certainly supply the caramead.”
“Sounds good. Yeah, I’m involved in this now.” Orson returned the smile. “Whatever this all is. You’ll definitely be seeing me after I’ve gotten my souvenir, assuming Ms. Cloud agrees.”
“Fine.” Enoa hoped Maros was right. She liked to think that Orson had something else planned, but either way, she also knew she couldn’t resist the Liberty Corps if they would choose to drag her away. Such stories were never in short supply, especially now. She also couldn’t resist the law of Nimauk, the only home she’d ever known. If the best deal she could get was a big antique sale, so be it. “If that’s what it has to be, we’ll talk down at your office. Then you’ll see how little I know.”
“Thank you.” Tucker relaxed his shoulders, clearly relieved. “I promise we’ll make it as painless as possible. All of our council appreciate your help and I thank you again, personally.” He offered Enoa and Chief Webster another smile. “Kelly, I appreciate your support, as well.”
“Of course.” Webster nodded.
“Happy shopping.” Tucker laughed, as he passed Orson. Then he walked back to the shop’s door. “Captain, I trust you’ll be pleasant with Ms. Cloud when you personally escort her to her meeting.”
“Certainly, sir.” Maros followed his employer. He shot Orson a quick glance, but then he and the Councilman both exited through the doorway and into darkness, the front door closing behind them.
Orson looked through the storefront window until the two men had walked several feet down the street. Both women watched him.
“Alright, we haven’t got much time.” Orson turned back to Enoa. “I’m gonna assume the Sheriff is trustworthy.”
“Trustworthy with your shopping?” Webster raised an eyebrow.
“With the truth.” Orson walked closer. He lowered his voice. “Trustworthy with the fact that those ‘Sight-Stealer’ people are members of the Liberty Corps. I’d bet they’re partially behind the train derailment too.”