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The Echoes of Absence

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 29, 2008 4:59 am    Post subject: The Echoes of Absence Reply with quote

Java Hell, 2:33 PM

The coffeehouse was quiet, almost deserted; pretty typical for this hour of the afternoon. The lunch rush had died down, the dinner rush had hours before it started, and the less solvent residents of the West End – the junkies, working girls, homeless, and less-than honest under worlders – weren't likely to show until after dark, when they'd try to make a single cup of coffee last all night. It was a source of wonder to many that Alexis managed to stay in business with her laissez faire approach to her trade; sell cheaply to many might be good business practice, but all too often she seemed to give away more than she sold, and a coffeehouse in the West End hardly seemed like a sure-fire commercial enterprise.

Still, the place was holding its own, and Alexis was fond of telling people that she was living her dream. Java Hell was a bohemian coffeehouse of the old school, a place where people could come for comfort and caffeine, a respite from a vicious world outside, a sanctuary for those in need. Other than one attempted robbery, when she first opened, the vicious West End had respected her establishment and left it alone. Maybe it was because even the West End needed a few quiet spots, neutral zones where the rival factions could be trusted to have some peace; maybe it was because her first major purchase, after that attempted robbery, had been some seriously hardcore protection.

It was difficult to run a business in the West End, where magic and technology didn't always feel like playing nice and following the usual rules of engagement. It was possible to work around this, with time and dedication, and Alexis Montague had both in spades. A slim, pretty, dark-skinned woman in her early thirties, she didn't talk about why she'd emigrated to Rhydin, or what made the West End – rather than, say, the Marketplace, or Old Town – seem the place to set up her dream cafe. Most folks knew better than to ask. The past was forbidden country, in the West End. Everyone had something they were hiding from, after all, and the West End was the best place to do that in.

People often wondered when she slept, seeing how Java Hell was open twenty-four hours, and she hadn't hired much in the way of help – a street urchin who kept the tables bussed and washed dishes in exchange for a room in the back, and a former prostitute now apprenticing as a barista (not that either of them ever used the term). Alexis had a soft spot for hard luck cases, evidently. She'd never really needed much sleep, even when she was younger, and the older she grew the less she needed. She caught quick cat naps, often on her feet, when business was slow. With dappled sunbeams trickling through the smog over the district and a warm summer day outside, this seemed like the perfect time for one; there was only one customer, a young fellow with the harried, slightly out of focus look of an overworked grad student, crashed out on the battered couch with a novel. There was a notepad on the coffee table next to him; he'd started out scribbling frantically as he flipped through the book, but had pretty soon trailed off. Both the pad and his espresso had been sitting there, ignored, for about an hour now.

Just as Alexis had made up her mind to close her eyes – just for a moment, mind – the door tinkled gently, announcing a new arrival. She heaved a sigh and straightened up, then managed a warmer smile when she saw who it was. Remmie – Remington Abigail Lee, but gods help the person foolish enough to call her “Abby” - waved back, taking off her leather helmet. A Guard Sergeant with the West End precinct house, Remmie was a great bear of a woman, six foot six and heavily muscled. Her voice was a gravelly bark when she spoke, and she'd recently taken up smoking thick, black cigars – as much because it pissed off her coworkers as any other reason. Alexis, at a foot shorter and almost half the Guardsman's burly breadth, had almost nothing in common with her – which was probably why they'd been such fast friends.

“Morning, 'Lexy,” Remmie growled, taking her unlit stogy out of her mouth and tucking it into the cap of her helmet. Her voice noticeably startled the college student on the sofa, who did a comic double-take at the sight of her and almost knocked his coffee over. Alexis had to stifle a giggle.

“Afternoon, Rem,” she corrected, grabbing a mug from behind the counter. “Your usual?”

“You know it.” Remmie set her helmet down at the usual table. Tucked away in one of the corners, it offered a good view of both the room and the street outside, without being too visible to anyone looking in. “Better get your frou-frou machine working, too, Carver's on his way. You know he'll want one of those silly things with extra sugary substances in it.” Alexis nodded and set Remmie's filled mug on a tray, the coffee within black and oily. Possibly because it was the only way she could taste it after one of those foul cigars, Remington drank her coffee as thick and strong as the porcelain mug could stand. Detective Carver, on the other hand – whom Alexis could see making his approach from up the street, walrus mustache bristling as though he were following a scent trail – favored milder drinks, liberally seasoned with cream, and as Remmie had so disdainfully indicated, often with flavored syrups as well. It wasn't Java Hell's usual stock in trade, and Alexis usually preferred to send people ordering such drinks on their way with a blistering tirade. She had a soft spot for John Carver, though, and tolerated his tastes – although she'd never stoop so low as to put one on the menu, or even try a sip.

“How's business?” Alexis asked, tinkering with the ancient espresso maker. With a long, weary sigh, it finally deigned to work properly, gurgling and muttering grumpily to itself as it brewed.

“Rough,” Remmie shook her head. “They've had us running ragged, chasing down all these phantasms. Some egghead down at Central thinks they've got a handle on what's causing this mess, though, so it'll hopefully be over soon. We'll see, anyway... if it's not one thing on these streets, it's another. I just pulled fourteen hours, and they've got me back on at midnight for another twelve.” She laughed, walking over to the counter and taking her mug directly. “You need a hand carrying those things?”

“No, I'm good,” Alexis said, somewhat tartly. “You should take a load off, since they're working you so hard.” Remmie just laughed, and walked back to her table.

“Guess I will, at that. You're late again, Carver.” She added as that notable walked in. Carver snorted, taking off his derby hat and hanging it on the rack next to the door, and shrugging out of his overcoat. Even though the weather had warmed significantly over the last few weeks, he still wore his heavy cashmere topcoat, and showed no signs of discomfort; once it was removed, it was easy to see why. Underneath he wore a leather harness with various tools, gadgets, and weapons hanging from it, and the heavy coat was necessary to keep the edge of surprise – and to keep people from looking at him like a crazy man, which probably wouldn't be too far mistaken. A devoted inventor, mechanic, and tinkerer, Carver often referred to his work for the City Watch as moonlighting, something to pay the bills until the world recognized his genius and beat down his door in demand of his wonderful toys. Despite that, he still managed to clear a high number of cases, and was well regarded by his peers as a methodical, dedicated investigator.

“I am never late,” he said with an air of wounded dignity. “I always arrive exactly when I mean to.”

“Which is late,” Alexis said, teasing. He started to reply, then immediately hushed as he saw her setting down a cappuccino. He knew better than to irritate the woman who provided the coffee, after all.

“Well, despite my 'lateness',” he said instead. “I notice that I have still managed to arrive before young Colby. Where is the filthy little urchin, anyway?” Despite the harsh words, his tone was warm. All of the group held a soft spot for Alexis' young helper. The lad was – well, earnest would probably be the best description for him, eager to help without stepping over into toadying or obsequiousness, hardworking and bluntly honest.

“Running his errands.” Alexis glanced at the clock on the wall. “He should be here soon, though, you know he never misses one of these meet-ups.” The four had been gathering every few days for the past two months; they didn't talk about it as though they were an organized group, didn't have minutes or club rules. It was just four friends, meeting together for coffee and conversation.

Of course, they hadn't been so close three months ago, when Paladin was still around.

Colby came in at a half-run, the bell over the door tinkling madly. Alexis shot him a look, and he had the good grace to look abashed, even as he unslung his red duffel bag and tossed it behind the counter. Short and slim, with close cropped dark hair, he looked much younger than the thirteen years he claimed, but his eyes were old and knowing. Growing up on the streets made kids older than their years, as they dealt daily with horrors and hardships that would break most people. The streets of the West End, even in the fairly civilized areas around Our Lady of Perpetual Misery, could be even worse; gangs and monsters fed off the populace and battled for territory, drugs were an omnipresent plague, disease and hunger were rampant. Such a brutal tree bore bitter fruit, with only the strong, the fast, and lucky surviving – or escaping. They all carried scars, visible and not, the marks of their vicious upbringing. Colby refused to let his shape him.

“Any news?” He asked Carver, direct as always. He grabbed a bottle of water from the ice box, and rang it up on the antique cash register. Alexis sighed; she'd told the boy, more than once, that drinks and food – within reason – were part of his salary. He just nodded, and continued paying for things anyway, despite the meagerness of the wage that was all she could afford to pay him. Carver huffed a breath through his mustache and took a sip from his drink, foam dotting the bristly hairs as he set the cup back down.

“Hello, young master Colby. Why yes, it's lovely to see you, too. The weather certainly is lovely these days, but I think we might have rain soon, don't you?”

Colby rolled his eyes as Alexis and Remmie snickered, but nodded an apology. “You're looking lovely, Detective Carver. Is that a new invention up your sleeve I espy?”

Carver opened his mouth to respond, but Remmie jumped in, almost spilling her coffee. “Don't get him started, we'll be here all bloody night! Answer the lad's question, John, have you heard anything new lately?”

Carver looked at her sidelong over the rim of his cup as he took another sip, and dotted his mouth primly with a handkerchief. “Maybe we should start with you, Guard Sergeant. Anything of interest in the West End?”

“Broad enough topic for you?” Remmie snickered, setting her coffee cup aside as Colby and Alexis both pulled up chairs at the table. All four of them leaned in, for a moment resembling conspirators in a plot rather than friends having a chat. But it was a fairly common sight, in Rhydin and especially in the West End, and so drew no notice.

“Anything of interest? Well, we've got fires and murders and miracles and horrors. Every night we've got just about every kind of crime that can be committed, and a few things that ought to be illegal, but aren't because nobody – not even a politician – is filthy, disgusting, and degraded enough to think them up. Except here in the West End, of course. We've got everything in the West End.

“So, yeah, there's plenty of interest. As far as 'of interest and pertaining to the discussion at hand', well, pickings there are a little slimmer. If anyone's seen hide nor hair of Paladin since April, they're not talking. The last thing I heard from dark and moody was that he was going to do a little independent investigation on the Lynne case, see what really happened to the Bevers and those other folks down on the Dockside – he didn't trust the official line, suspected someone of trying to pull a hustle and frame the crime on the nearest patsy who would lie down for it. Guess they picked wrong when they grabbed that mercenary woman, if Paladin was interested in standing up for her – but that's where everything went wrong, of course.

“Paladin gets all mysterious, stops checking in with the Guard house, stops going to his usual places, stops talking to anyone. People start turning up around the Docks, not dead – which would be normal – but they might as well be. Gunshot wounds, chunks carved off of them, and in every group, at least one guy with a size thirteen boot print stamped across his face. Messy, messy. Nobody talking, of course, which makes most of the Watch think it's internal politics, maybe inter-gang rivalries, and who gives a crap about that, right? Let the fetchers kill each other off, and leave everyone else well out of it.

“And then, nothing – for about a week.”

“We've heard all this,” Carver said with a slight groan. Alexis shook her head, but Colby spoke up softly.

“It might help, to hear it all again. Just in case we missed something. Besides, Detective, you're the one who asked Sergeant Lee to speak. You should let her do so.”

Remmie nodded majestically. “Thank you, Colby. Like I said, the Docks got all quiet for about a week, back at the beginning of May. Then they exploded – or at least, one warehouse did. Left a hell of a crater, about half a dozen bodies – and no Guard report, no newspaper articles, hardly even a word on the street. Seems a little odd, doesn't it? Something like that, could be almost anything... but a cover up of that magnitude, well, that seems more like something. Anyway, that was over a month ago, and still no word about Paladin... but we've stopped seeing gangbangers showing up in the emergency room, battered and raving about madmen singing.”

“And I guess that's where I come in,” Carver said, setting his cup next to Remmie's and reaching into one of the myriad pouches strewn, apparently at random, around his harness. “I managed to get ahold of the autopsy reports from that warehouse fire – all on the hush hush, of course. Officially, there were no bodies, so how could there be an autopsy? But someone wanted to take a look at these, and I managed to snag some copies for our perusal, too.” Colby reached to take the folder out of Carver's hand, but the detective jerked it away from him. “Don't, lad.” His voice was stern, but concerned. “You really don't want to see these pictures. Hell, I didn't really want to look at them.”

“Was... was any of the bodies his?” Colby asked quietly, setting his hand on the table. Remmie and Carver both shook their heads.

“No, they were unrecognizable – burned to a crisp.”

“But-” Colby started to reply, stopped, blinked at them both. “If they were unrecognizable...”

Carver and Remmie shared a look. Remmie spoke first. “Paladin... didn't burn. Ever. At all. I watched him walk into a house fire with nothing protecting him but that stupid coat of his, and walk back out unsinged, barely even touched with soot. He said... he had a kinship with the flames, that they understood each other. To tell you the truth, I didn't really think too much of it – it's just one in a great long list of freaky things about that man.”

Alexis looked disturbed. “That... you're right, he was very strange, but that just isn't natural. It doesn't seem human.”

Remmie started to snap back, caught her temper with an effort. “Paladin is probably the most human person I know,” she said instead. “And honestly, given that we live in a city where angels and demons frolic in the street, is a man with a kinship to fire really all that strange?”

Alexis still looked a little disturbed, but she shook her head. “No, when you put it that way, it doesn't. And you're right, he was one of the warmest, kindest people I've met.”

“Is,” Colby said, his voice still quiet. If the revelation that Paladin was something other than a typical man surprised or shocked him, he didn't show it. “So what do your autopsy photos show, Detective, if none of them are Paladin?”

Carver rested a hand on his folder. “Well, for starters, none of them burned to death. As far as the medical examiners could tell, none of them were killed by the explosion, either. The fire inspector wasn't allowed to examine the wreckage to determine cause – and yes, that's against established procedure, too, if a little more common. There's all sorts of reasons why they might not examine a burn site. If there were too many fires at once, or if the cause was known, for example. But you'd think the landowner's insurance would demand an investigation, at the very least and there wasn't one.”

“I had a talk with some of the Guards who first responded to the blaze,” Remmie said drummng her fingers on the table. “One of them said there looked to be some sort of drums, like the type that hold chemicals or petrol, over in one corner. It's possible that the fire spread to them and caused the explosion.”

“Autopsies,” Alexis reminded. Carver pushed the folder over to her, but she simply pushed it back. “I've seen enough dead bodies for one lifetime, John. Just the highlights, if you please, since you're obviously building up to a point. If they didn't burn to death, and they weren't killed in the fire – then what killed those six men, none of whom was Paladin?”

“Violence,” he said simply. “Someone with very, very bloody hands. Four of the six were killed with a blade – giant, nasty, sweeping wounds, one per man, across the torso or throat. Consistent with a slashing sword, like a sabre or katana, in the M.E.'s opinion. The last two – well, they were beaten to death, as far as the autopsy could tell. Lots of broken bones, one guy had his ribcage shattered like a glass bottle – it's pretty ugly, let me tell you. They couldn't tell what kind of blunt object had been used, but the force must have been incredible.

“All of which points me to one conclusion; Paladin was there. For whatever reason, he killed these men, viciously, and then...”

“He disappeared again,” Colby said softly. None of the four showed any dismay or surprise at the thought of Paladin butchering the men; none of them had any illusions about Paladin's innocence, or for that matter, about the city they lived in. The wanderer was a man with a bloody past, living in a bloody present, and – although Alexis was still unused to Rhydin City, or its somewhat callous attitude towards bloodshed – none of them had any doubts as to Paladin's justification.

“There was one other thing not in the autopsy report, but in the case file I managed to snag with it. The one thing in the warehouse that wasn't burned almost to the brink of being completely ash was a metal chair – with chains wrapped around the legs and arms. Someone was being held prisoner there.”

“Paladin?” Alexis asked.

“Or someone he was trying to rescue, probably.” Remmie rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “It would explain why he disappeared around then, but why would he still be gone? Could he have been wounded in the fighting, and gone to ground?”

“Or killed,” Carver said with a sigh. “If he was injured in the fight, he might have had just enough strength to drag himself away... or he might have been captured by the gangers... or there might have been seven men in that room, rather than just six...”

“No,” Colby said abruptly. “He's still alive, I know he is. Something has happened, to take him away from the city, but he's still out there.” The three adults looked at him silently, none of them wanting to take away the boy's obvious hope. He looked back at them resolutely, then raised his water bottle and finished its contents with a couple of gulps. “I know you think I'm crazy, but I just know, okay? Did you ever sit down and talk to him about the crap he's been through? He doesn't like talking about it much, but he won't lie, either. If he doesn't tell you to go to hell straight off, then eventually, when he's comfortable, he'll talk. It took him a while before I was just some street kid who maybe needed help to him, but once he started talking, I listened. Some bunch of Dockboyz or Makos or River Rats aren't enough to take him down, not what he's been through. He's alive, and he's out there. He's just... lost again.”

Remmie nodded, almost reluctantly. “It could be,” she said. “If anyone could survive those kinds of odds, it would be Paladin.” She shook her head and sighed. “I don't know... I've got to get moving, though.” She looked pointedly at the clock, and Alexis was startled to see that more than two hours had passed while they sat and talked. It hadn't seemed so long. “Back on at midnight and everything, don't you know. Thanks for the coffee, 'Lex.” She rose and donned her leather helmet. Carver and Colby rose as well.

“I guess that's my cue, as well.” Carver stepped to the door and held it open for Remmie, snagging his coat as he did so. Remmie snorted at the chivalric gesture and made it a point to trod on his foot as she walked out. She waved her shoulder before stepping into the crowd; the streets of the West End in the late afternoon were a sea of people as factory workers teemed home from their jobs. They cleared a path for the imposing Guardsman, but even so, she was quickly lost in the crowd. Carver slipped into his overcoat, buttoning it close; the leather harness under the coat gave him a distinguished, chubby look, like an old British gentleman. It was emphasized, no doubt intentionally, by the walrus mustache and derby hat. He donned the latter, tipped his brim to Colby and Alexis, and stepped out, the door chiming lightly as it closed.

“I should get started with my duties,” Colby said quietly. “Ma'am.” He nodded to Alexis and walked into the back, getting started on the dishes that had piled up over the day. She knew, from experience, that he would have them done before nightfall – even with new customers flowing in, as they were sure to do now that the day shift was done at the factory, and the swing shift going to work. But for now, the store was closed – even the college student had left, leaving his notes behind. She shook her head and shifted the sign to 'closed'.

“I'm going out, Colby,” she said, and stepped out. She needed to walk the streets for a while, listen to the rhythm of the city, its heartbeat. It gave her a touchstone, something to ground her when she could feel the earth slipping away beneath her feet, when she felt out of touch with this strange land she found herself in.


Alexis walks the streets of the city, her mood bleak. Despite the violence of the West End, the bloodshed and heartbreak that seems second nature to its embittered, embattled inhabitants, she walks alone and untroubled, her mind troubled. She has done this every night for the last month, and if her dreams come to her – as dreams often do, in these troubled times – she doesn't speak of it to others when she returns to Java Hell, seemingly as cheerful as ever. Of the four, she sometimes felt like she knew Paladin the least - and yet, she sometimes felt she missed him the most. The energetic young man with the quick grin and the lightning reflexes, his long coat wrapped around him, a sword on his hip and a song in his heart; he had been one of her first customers, knocking out an armed robber and ordering a drink in the same swift bound. He had been a constant sight since then, popping in for a drink on his rounds, night and day, constantly running about the city. She had mused aloud, once, just when he found time to sleep; it was Colby who had quietly speculated that the wanderer didn't sleep, much. She wonders, sometimes, if he has the same nightmares that she does.

Colby walks the streets of the West End, haunting the district around Our Lady of Perpetual Misery. The street kids know him, trust him – hell, they grew up with him. They don't ask where he gets the food, clothing, and medication from; they figure he's got his sources, and since he's not charging for them, they know better than to ask. He carries it all in a red duffel bag a man once gave him, and continues the obligation he took that day. He hadn't known that was what the bag was, when he took it; but when it had been emptied of warm clothes, and there were still kids going cold and hungry in the streets, he recognized it. He had looked for the man who had given it to him, and asked that it be refilled. Paladin, impressed, had done so. They made a good team, the two of them, and he missed that.

Remmie is also at Perp Miz, kneeling in one of the pews. She lights a vigil candle everyday before she goes home, and says a prayer for the lost, the missing, the Guardsmen dying in the streets and the people they're dying to protect. Most people who knew her would be surprised at her faith, but all the Lees were deeply religious. It came from putting your neck on the line, time after time, for little pay and little respect. Oftentimes it seemed that you had to have a higher purpose, to serve in the Guard.

John Carver enters a Dockside bar later that night. The people here don't know him by that name, don't know him as a Guardsman at all; without his overcoat, harness of gadgets, bowler hat and flamboyant walrus mustache, very few people would recognize John Carver in the slim, slightly rough looking young man. He talks with a Docks gutter accent, and walks with the rolling gait of a seaman. This is what he does; he's the best at it, working entirely by natural talent and a few choice items of makeup. When criminals peer at him through true-seeing charms, or mutter the words to illusion-dispelling cantrips, they continue to see only who he wants them to see. It's kept him alive, all these years. He plays a dangerous game, but he always has. It's the only way he'd have it. He asks questions, dangerous questions, but slowly, surely, he works his way to an answer.

They're all asking the same question, and they aren't alone in the city.

Where is Paladin?
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Kacilla Lynne
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PostPosted: Tue Jul 01, 2008 12:51 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Where is Paladin?

It was a question that looked more and more like it had no answer. Still, some twisted gleam made up of hope and self-destruction kept Kacey returning to the center of the West End Bridge for day after day. Since the first week of April she had shown up at noon and waited for one hour, every day. She had never discussed the matter with Davarin, never said where she was going or why; just closed up the shop and gone.

She didn’t want to have to explain that she was waiting for a dead man. It had been almost three months now, and Kacey was sure that if he was alive, he would have come here. If only to tell her that there was nothing else he could do – even if he had changed his mind and decided to arrest her, he would do it in person. But she couldn’t help returning to the bridge, day after day.

Even with her own shop and home destroyed, in the same way the Dockside fires had been set and by the same people, Kacey took the hour and stood on the bridge, watching the water ripple beneath. It was more than habit, it was ritual. She kept faith with a man she thought was probably dead; if anyone had asked her why, her answer would have been simple. “He gave me hope when I needed it.”

Word travelled so quickly in some ways, and in the West End, people got to know each other quickly, by face if not by name. Kacey knew that the owner of Java Hell still had one of the “Missing” posters hanging prominently up in her shop. She knew that the street rats, the children with no homes or families, could still be seen clinging to coats and sweaters in weather much too hot for such garments. Everywhere were small things that pointed to a void, an absence where no absence should be, still waiting to be filled. A stranger wouldn’t recognize those small things; Kacey was no stranger.

Hope. It was a powerful thing, a strange thing. Because despite the logic that said Paladin must be dead, there was still a small voice that whispered hope. His body hadn’t been found, after all. Each day that he failed to appear sliced at that whisper of hope, but could not silence it. So each day Kacey stood on the bridge, an island of silence against the rails in the middle of loud-flowing crowds, and waited for the church bells to toll the hour before she turned back for the depths of the West End.
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