Chapter 12: That Damn Spade
In Week Two I usually realise I'm not writing the story I thought I was - No Plot? No Problem!
The door opened out into a dull night, blanketing a city of forbidding, tall buildings and hidden cellars. Street lights illuminated a pavement slick with rain from a clouded sky with no moon or stars. Random's first thought, as she felt drizzle cling to her hair and weigh it down, was that she had been here before, and immediately she recalled Foreshadow City's dark, rain washed streets.
Any plot had been here had long since gone. But it left behind a sensation in the air, as if the weather itself was waiting for something to happen.
"The same," said Pilcrowe.
"Was it always like this?" said Random. Feels like something's just about to happen."
"It does." Pilcrowe's hands were in her pockets again, but this time it was the pocket of her voluminous tan coat, which was pulled tight around her with the collar turned up. "We were at forty five thousand words. Thought for sure we were going to win. I knew everything that was going to happen. We waited. Thought the story wanted to come back when it had more time. Maybe it wanted to do a better good job. Cedilla... she was around then too, not the same as she is now, and we'd never met, but she was there... she said that was a bad idea, to pick up a story and think you could only do it justice when you had more time. But I waited anyway. Then one day I realised nothing was going to happen. Whole place was as dead as some metaphor. That's when I walked out of that door. Never turned back. Started my agency, met Cedilla... had a good life, since. Could have been worse. Could have still seen this thing finished. All for the sake of five thousand words."
"I'm sorry," said Random.
"Don't need to be," said Pilcrowe. "I've been sorry enough. Almost does me good to see nothing's changed around there. Used to wonder if it'd ever get picked back up again, without me."
"You were the main character."
"Yes. But that's gone now. I've got my agency. I've got Cedilla. Not a bad life."
Is it? thought Random. It wasn't her space to pry, but she didn't doubt anything Pilcrowe said about Tildeworth. Whatever else happened, that was firm. But the rest, that was less certain. It didn't excuse the anger at her, but Pilcrowe wasn't okay, not by a long margin.
And neither are you, she thought. She'd needed that good, long cry, and not just because of what Pilcrowe had said. She really had spent these past few days thinking this was a grand adventure. They'd tracked down the Shovel, but they were still no closer to finding what it had done with Neo, or all the other missing characters, and if the contents of Tildeworth's show (which might as well have been dubbed the Tildeworth Mail Sorting Hour lately) were anything to go by, that was a lot more than two characters alone could investigate.
But you couldn't stand around when there was work to be done, she she hunched over the detector to protect it from the rain and checked the screen. "Okay, it still does shovels," she said. "Do we go looking now? What would it be doing here, anyway? There's nobody to kill. There's no plot."
"Good hiding place?" said Pilcrowe. "What better place to hide than somewhere nothing ever happens? We'll do what we always do, and ask questions."
"There are people here?"
Random said nothing. She knew stories didn't always finish themselves. The win rate had never been that high, and even a win didn't mean a completed story. Obviously they had to stop somewhere.
But she'd never once asked herself what happened to the novels that didn't get finished. Neo never talked about it. She'd never heard anyone discuss the possibility of it over dinner at Bob's House of Free Shrimp Dinners. Even Tildeworth had little to say about it. Nobody ever wanted to think that they might lose.
Her drizzle scattered hair and lab coat clung to her body as they walked, and she held the shovel detector tighter to her chest.
"Look," Pilcrowe said. "Over there. It's still open..."
Random rounded a corner, and saw a light in the dark. A broad window opened up into a bar, its frosted visage blotting out all but the warm light that spilled out onto the street. Music too, faint against the rain but still audible, emanated from the doors. It was a haven in the dark and the damp, a tiny beacon against the empty night.
"The other characters?" said Random
"They didn't want to leave."
"Look," said Random, "if you don't want to go in there, we don't have to. We can trail the shovel from here, I'm sure." She didn't know what, if anything, had happened between Pilcrowe and her co-stars, but the last thing she wanted to do was make a bad situation worse.
"Thought you didn't forgive me."
"I didn't," said Random. "Just trying to keep going."
She held back when Pilcrowe opened the door, and followed at a respectful distance.
People sat around a bar, lit by warm lamps shaded in orange and yellow glass. An old radio, just like the one in Pilcrowe's office, piped out crackling music. Everyone looked up as the pair stepped inside.
In accordance with ancient narrative laws, the music stopped.
"Pilcrowe?" said a thin man seated at the bar. "Is that you or did I drink too much again?"
Random, trying not to look conspicuous, stood in the doorway and looked down at the detector. It was picking up something, almost unbidden. The thing was still here, somewhere in the dark city.
"Rob!" Pilcrowe took a few shaky steps forward. "Been a while. Random." She looked back. "This is Rob. Rob the Rat. He did it."
"Name like that, you can't be much else than the murderer," said Rob. "Who's this? Not from around here, are you?"
"Er, no," said Random. "I kind of hired your er... friend here? Just dropping by, you know?"
"Oh well, you and your gadget there are welcome here!" said Rob. "Come on, sit down." He held out a slim hand, and Random extended hers for him to shake. Pilcrowe, meanwhile, had already taken a seat, so Random supposed she may as well be polite and join her. She took a well worn stool at the bar.
"We thought you weren't coming back," said another character, a woman in an elegant dress. "It's been years."
"Didn't think I was."
"Please tell me you'll be staying for drinks?" said Rob.
"None for me, thanks," said Random. "Too much to do."
Pilcrowe, meanwhile, was still talking. Well, that was understandable. Talking about her agency, about Tildeworth... well, that was understandable too. She didn't want to be jealous, or anything. These people were old friends, not just random protagonists she needed to interview. Everything made sense.
The shovel detector, resting on the bar top, scrolled on through the program. A tiny radar screen in the upper corner flashed at her, and spun.
Pilcrowe had a drink in her hand now. She was gazing into it, and smiling with such a genuine expression Random wouldn't have believed it, if only she hadn't seen it before, whenever Tildeworth called. "Hey... Sue? Don't want to interrupt the party, but I'm getting a reading..."
Pilcrowe stared on.
"I think... I think you're doing the thing. The thing you told me not to do, or you couldn't come with me? Yeah, that thing. I kind of... really need you to not do that right now..."
"Am I? Oh. I see."
"Sue..." Random nudged her bar stool a little closer. "I think I'm getting a reading."
"Oh, so you are." Pilcrowe was looking at the screen now, which was to say her eyes were pointed in a random direction, and that just so happened to be where it was.
"Yeah so... I kind of think we ought to be looking at it here?"
"Are you even listening to a word I'm saying?"
But Pilcrowe was engrossed in the chatter of her colleagues again, and Random remembered, not for the first time, that this was not her scene, and these were not her people. Pilcrowe had been thrust back into the stage, was meeting people she'd known a long time ago and didn't have any idea she'd even meet again. What if this wasn't what had affected her, but plain and simple connections? Random was out of her social depth here, and as much as she was sure nobody wanted to be rude, these things did happen. Well, she was sure Pilcrowe would take any chance to be rude, but she was usually a lot more direct than this.
The screen whirred on, like a cat wanting to be fed at three am.
"I... I'm just slipping out, okay? I need to get some data, at least. I need good data. Good data's what science is all about, right?"
"Yeah, I will." Random slid down from her bar stool, and hefted the shovel detector over her shoulders. Pilcrowe didn't say anything about it. "Be back soon, okay?" She stepped back out into the perpetual drizzle, shielding the equipment with one hand.
"At least one of us is doing something useful," she said, as she set off after the trail.
This... this was good, Pilcrowe thought. Random had gone, but she was off doing science, and science always made her feel happy, so she'd be happy for her, then. That way everyone could be happy. People ought to be happy.
The plot was long gone. Yet some of its remnants still tugged at her, as if her presence had caused them to return as the ghosts of ideas.
"Don't know why I ever left," she said, gazing down into her drink. There'd been reasons. There'd been people, later, lots of people. But this was right. This wasn't the Nexus. No feeling like she didn't belong here. If she could spend her time here, in this bar, forever, then that... that would be nice.
"I remember," Rob said. "You thought nothing was going to happen"
"Mmm," said Pilcrowe. Big fight about it, wasn't there? You all wanting to stick about in case something happened and me saying no, no, nothing will?"
"Sorry I yelled at you," he said. "It was... not the best of days."
"Not your fault."
"Not yours either."
"Mmm," Pilcrowe mused. "Lots of regrets, out there. But it's okay, here. Okay now. Just like old times, yes?"
"Yes, I think so too," said Rob.
Something brushed up against Pilcrowe's hair. She heard a click, dangerously close to her ear.
The gun did the work of several espresso shots in a fraction of the time. "Rob? What?" She hardly dared to move her head, but she could see the others watching, out of the corner of her eyes. Not a single one of them made a move. Frozen with fear... no, they were all too relaxed. Even her blurred side vision could see that. They were all in on it.
A detective notices things. That is what being a detective is all about. But not when she is blinded.
"Because I waited," said Rob. "That's all. Waited. Waited while you ran off to your fancy new life. Walked off, and moved on."
"Didn't move on," Pilcrowe said. Keep him talking, that was the trick. Keep him talking until he let something vital slip. What was he going to do, fire the thing?
What happened if you died in a novel that had been abandoned?
"You didn't think it though, did you? Ever stopped to think of what happens to those of us who got left behind?"
"Nothing. That's why I left." Keep talking, and the messy feelings can wait...
"And did anyone there stop to think about what happened?"
"No." What else could she say? She was many things, but not a liar. "No, they did not. But... Rob..."
She could feet the gun barrel moving when he spoke, feel it brush against individual hairs. "There's still no need for this. I know you were the villain, I know you did all those murders, but none of them were real. We were all just stories."
"They were. We are. And I'm the one with the gun to your head." She felt him move as he leaned closer, to whisper in her ear. "Just like old times."
Fuzzy halos of light encircled street lamps in the misty air. Drizzle blurred the road ahead, and specks of water marred the detector's screen. Random tried to shelter them as best she could.
The signal was so strong here, and the detector bolstered by her latest round of improvements, that she could trace it to within metres. As far as she could tell, it hadn't moved. The screen displayed a glowing blue map of the surrounding streets, contrasting sharply with the diffuse orange lamps reflected in its glare.
Random walked on, turning and orienteering herself at every corner, until she stood by a tall office building. Broad stairs led into a stone archway, providing a little shelter from the rain. She stopped in its shadows, rubbing the screen dry with her sleeve, and looked up. A pair of double doors, twice as tall as herself, led inside. The detector, still showing its street map, flashed a red dot over the exact same building she stood outside now.
The door swung open with ease. The red dot blinked, over and over, in the same space.
Inside she found a lobby area, lit only by street lamps outside. She paced up and down in the dim light, training the detector over desks and chairs. She saw typewriters and stacks of paper, old phones and desk lamps set with the same warm coloured glass as the bar, but there was no stronger trace. She lifted it higher, and the dot grew more intense, blinking a little faster.
"Getting warmer, am I?" she said, out loud. The sound of a voice, even if only her own, was better than silence wrapped in the scarcely audible, yet incessant drumming of the rain outside.
She found a lift door, and pressed the button to summon it. A fan shaped ticker over the doors showed its procession. The hand, like a clock, spun slowly over the numbers and reached 1 with a tiny chime. When Random stepped inside, she was bathed in nothing but blue light that cast an eerie glow over her white coat, accented by a single splash of red.
Without any idea where she was going, she pressed the top floor, and watched the screen. The ride was a smooth one but Random didn't notice the motion. She kept her eyes on the floor display and the flashing red light. Faster and faster it went, brighter and brighter, leaving a crimson splash over her chest like the beating of a fast paced heart. By the time she reached the top floor, she saw faint afterimages every time she blinked.
The doors slid open, and now there was no sound at all, only the background hum of an empty room that remains when everything else is gone.
Even with the screen held right to her chest, she could see the light bleeding across her coat, pulsating in time with her heart. She wanted to speak. She wanted to hear a voice again, even if it was just her own, but he throat was frozen.
She urged herself on, stalking the corridors until she was sure, from the fast beating light, that she had the right door. If Pilcrowe was to be stirred from her reminiscing, she'd need a reason to come here. And then, it wouldn't be so bad, with two.
If she hadn't known better, she would have thought she'd walked into Pilcrowe's office again. Rain slid in little streams down a window part obscured by half open blinds, and the light from a street lamp right outside spilled into the room and traced slatted markings across the floor and desk. She took a step forward and froze again as the floorboards squeaked underfoot.
Nothing happened. She made a run for the desk, fumbling at the lamp and looking for a switch.
Warm light flooded the office. Random leaned over the desk, letting the detector rest upon its surface to take the weight off her back. Deep breaths now, that was the thing. Everything was okay. She was just an idiot who hadn't thought to turn on the lights before now, that was all.
"Must be why she's the detective and not me," she said, to the air. There, that was better. Everything was normal now. She shrugged the shovel detector off her shoulders, and rubbed at where the straps had dug into her skin.
Something black caught the corner of her eye.
She looked over her shoulder and saw it, sitting in a corner.
Immediately she turned back to the detector, checking the readout scrolling behind the map. She looked again. It hadn't moved.
The Travelling Shovel of Death looked... normal, if the word could be used to describe the practice of leaving gardening equipment lying around in old fashioned offices. It stood propped up on its blade in a corner, its metal surface tarnished to a deep matte black by years of use. Certainly it looked deadly enough with a good swing or throw as Random could attest to, but all in all, it looked like a rather stupid thing to be afraid of. It was like being afraid of clowns, with the exception of the fact that clowns were genuinely frightening.
Indeed, in any other situation, this would have been an honour. She might as well have been standing next to Mr Ian Woon, for all this meant.
"Now what?" she said.
The Shovel didn't say anything. Shovels didn't talk. Random was a scientist, and quite sure of that fact
She could go back for Pilcrowe now, but that would be leaving the thing here, and who knew if it would oblige to stay behind? She unslotted the phone from the detector, wondering Pilcrowe might pick up hers, but gave up on that idea when she noticed it was displaying the no signal message. Of course, the only phones around here were the big two piece things like the ones from the lobby. The only way she'd get a signal out here would be if Tildeworth were around, and Random had no idea how she managed her impossible phone calls. She'd asked a few times, because being a scientist she couldn't not investigate such a thing, but nothing Tildeworth said made any sense. All Random could piece together was that it had... something... to do with specific applications of radio waves, but despite knowing the electromagnetic spectrum forwards, backwards, upside down and in various dimensions incomprehensible to most minds, it didn't click. It had served only to leave Random feeling stupid and Tildeworth looking very puzzled at the idea that she couldn't grasp it, because it was so simple. Broadcaster powers, Random had decided.
Perhaps she could simply pick the thing up and take it away?
No, not so fast. That was going to require prior testing. There was a stack of papers beside her, impaled on a desk spike and scrawled with names and addresses. Whoever they belonged to, they probably wouldn't miss them too much. She ripped off the top one, screwed it into a ball, and hurled it at the Shovel with all the force of a frustrated writer.
The paper ball bounced off the Shovel, and rolled away onto the floor.
"Hmm," said Random. But every good experiment must be able to be replicated, so she tried a few more. None of the balls exploded into flames, or seeped blood, or were sucked away into a black, pulsating void. They simply formed a loose array of scrunched paper all over the floor, like the fallout from the world's most inept wastebasket aim.
She pulled off her lab coat and bundled it into a ball. Holding it out in front of her, she nudged the Shovel with the mass of cloth. It rocked a little at her touch, but, yet again, nothing happened.
Still, she could stand to be cautious, so she wrapped part of the coat around her hand, and with that, reached out to touch the Shovel.
Her fingers clasped around cold metal. Her breath catching in her throat, she lifted.
And darkness engulfed her.