"Sorry, no, I haven’t seen anyone by that description."
"Well, if you do, can I count on you to notify me via this number?"
"Sure thing, lad. Hope ya find him."
"Thank you, me too. Bye."
Julian walked out of the eleventh shop that day, the motion detector chiming his departure as he passed through the double doors. He’d been to a drycleaner, a bakery, a game shop, a toy store, and at lest five grocers, all without a trace of his younger brother.
It was midday; the shadows of the tallest buildings no longer towered over the populace. The rays of sun that came through directly now made the pavement sparkle and brought a bit more warmth to the lowest levels of Solace, low in this case denoting nothing more than a purely lateral distinction. The lower levels were very different near the Core than they were closer to the Fringe. The central lower levels tended to mostly contain entertainment centers: restaurants, theaters and citywide celebrations, as well as the city’s brothels and burlesques.
It had to do with zoning mostly; those living on the upper level didn’t want the crowds and noise most fun activities attracted. The effects could be seen for miles stretching outwards from the Core. High or low, the Core meant travel. Travel meant thousands of people coming and going during all hours of the day and the presence of people meant profit. As a result most middle class housing existed in the ring that wrapped around the Core, where commerce wasn’t booming and school children could play in most alleys. A person could theoretically live his whole life and never venture outside his own sector of the city, and many people did: those who were happy to remain within the status quo.
Outside of this middle class band, there were the outer-most areas where the less economically prosperous of Solace’s citizens lived and worked. It was there that the factories and plants were located, the noise and smells of production kept far away from those who could afford to distance themselves. As the widest part of Solace, the distance between tram stations was greater, and it was an estimated five hour trip from rim to rim of the city. No one, especially not the necessary officials, wanted to ride a tram for several hours to visit a place with nothing to offer. The residents in outlying areas were necessarily cut off from the Core, and this allowed both local crime and centrally organized crime syndicates such as Maxwell’s to flourish.
Phineas was a smart kid. He would know the dangers of the Fringe and so he would know to avoid them. He would also know that his best bet of flying under his father’s radar would be to remain in an area in well populated areas where the government’s infrastructure was sound.
However, publicity had to be taken into account. People on the upper levels and in the Core would know who Phineas was as soon as they saw him or heard his description. The story of the missing prince of the Maxwell Empire would filter out and downward until the entire city knew about it. Julian knew that and Phineas would have too, so they both knew to avoid the gossipmongers of those areas with a story of that magnitude. And while that kind of publicity would help Phineas to be found more quickly, his disappearance could develop into exactly the sort of scandal Maxwell had been trying to avoid when he’d hired Julian, not to mention that it might endanger Phineas if anyone like Robert Harkins and his friends found the teenager first.
The middleclass ring between the Core and the Fringe was full of people who were less worried about politicians than about their policies and who had just enough trouble of their own that they were generally disinterested in the troubles of people in other parts of the city. They wouldn’t leak anything to the press because most of them either wouldn’t know or wouldn’t care that they had anything worth leaking. Julian doubted that Phineas had taken that into consideration when picking a place to run to, but enough factors worked in both their favors that it was the best place to start.
Still, this was the third tram stop from the Core and not so much as a single lead. He couldn’t let himself get discouraged, even though he was looking for one person in a city that accommodated millions now that all his connections had proven fruitless. The point was that he was still looking and Phineas was still out there to be found. It was just a game of hide and seek on a very large scale. The hardest part was searching based on a bull’s eye pattern: a city that revolved around a central point. He might be looking within the right demographic but Phineas could still be on the opposite side of the city from him.
If he were Phineas and were running away, the most obvious places to run to would be immediately ruled out. He hadn’t been sure where Phineas’s mother lived, at first; it had been a bit of a surprise to Julian to see that her address was only an hour away from his own. So, logically, Phineas wouldn’t take the tram that would put him down closest to them. He’d go in the opposite direction. But Phineas was smart--he’d know that most people would expect him to go in the opposite direction, so perhaps he’d taken the tram towards his mother’s anyway. But Phineas would know Maxwell was also no fool and would know he was smart enough to think that through as well and would know he would counter the idea that...
No. It was too circular to follow. Julian had decided to go in the direction of his own home from Maxwell’s estate based purely on the fact that it would be convenient when he wanted to quit working for the day. It wasn’t that he was lazy as much as that he could search longer if he spent less time traveling.
Still, with plenty of daylight to make use of, he boarded a bus and headed further west towards the rim. As he rested his head against the window, the city seemed to morph on the other side of the glass. Suddenly what had been bustling and gay was dingy and dark. For a moment, Julian stared in confusion; this sort of atmosphere was misplaced in the middle band of the city. The bus stopped at a light just far enough back that Julian could still see the sign for the darker area they’d passed. His eyebrows rose in curiosity as he read the sign. 666 was crossed out on the city-issued sign and a new sign fashioned from scraps had been hung from the bottom of it. It read The Hallow.
“Lord, I hate getting caught at this light. Hope they don’t let any of those freaks on this bus.”
Julian keyed in to the conversation going on in the seat behind him as the bus started off again.
“I don’t know why they let these people run those sort of businesses. Back in my day, there’d be a good protest and they’d have been run out,” spoke an elderly voice, tender but strained by years.
“Oh, it’s terrible. My granddaughter said she went down there once. Nothing but a bunch of tricks and lies--people snatching the credits from your pockets. Young people are always taken in by stuff like that, and letting these people stick around is just asking for trouble when the next generation grows up. We don’t need people like that disrupting order in our city. “
Julian pulled the cord and the bus came to a stop, wheels screeching a bit as the steel frame lurched. He flashed a smile at the old women who had been talking, who watched him disembark and hear back toward 666 in clueless silence.
They were right: magic tricks and mysterious things of unknown origin were tailored to entice and intrigue a younger, more gullible generation. Perhaps Phineas had been curious as to what such a place could offer, and Julian was more than willing to take the detour to find out.
He hadn’t missed the street by much. As he walked he noticed that the shops all along the main road conformed to a theme of spiritualism and occultism, offering magnetic cures and stones with special properties. The closer he got to the street with the handmade sign, the more interesting the window displays became. At the end of a brisk ten-minute walk, he was standing at the entrance of what must have been the heart of the area. Window displays featuring gothic dress and advertising spell books for revenge and love became assortments of fantastic weaponry and signs promised wolfsbane and dragon’s blood at half price. He stepped carefully down the dimly lit street, looking in amazement at the array of shops around him. There weren’t many others around, and most of the people who were present moved about furtively.
Though the street was relatively short, it took a while for Julian to walk from one end to the other. Every display caught his eye and set his mind whirling with the possibilities. One shop caught his attention more than any of the others, though. It had no window display at all, just drawn black curtains. The only thing that signaled that it were open for business was the sign on the door that said so. The place had a powerful pull on his curiosity. Julian’s hand was on the door handle before he even realized the strange persuasion embedded in the mysterious shop. He pulled the door open and peeked inside, still not one hundred percent sure the place was open.
It was like opening a door to someone’s attic. There were shelves and tables everywhere; the shop was filled to the brim with objects large and small. It was cluttered and disorganized, but there was no dust on a single shelf and all the lights were on, making some of the more fantastic items glisten. There was a small, old-fashioned bell attached to the top of the door that tinkled as it opened and closed, but there did not seem to be anyone around to hear it.
“Hello?” he called out, looking around and half expecting a shadowy figure in a cloak.
There was a small crash behind the counter. The cloth hanging that separated the back room from the register area flapped a bit as more strange noises filtered out. After a moment, a tall young man fell out of the back room, leaning heavily against the counter as though he’d tripped and flailed his way there. He smiled with an alarmingly wide grin and waved away the awkwardness of his arrival.
“Welcome. Well, well, I wasn’t expecting...well, anyway, welcome, welcome.” He stood straighter, one hand mussing his already haphazard hair. “I’m Alan Keys, and this is my wondrous store of ancient relics and lost mystic arts. What can I sell you today? An amulet to give you luck? A potion for prosperity? If you’re here to complain about the baldness cure, I must remind you that the warning was printed quite visibly and I am not responsible for any misuse.”
Julian blinked at the interesting man, putting a hand to his long hair at the last remark. “No, I’m not really interested in purchasing anything. I was just looking for my brother. I was hoping you could answer a few questions for me?”
Alan seemed to deflate on the spot. “I should have known.” He sighed and rested his chin on his fist, looking up at Julian with a scowl through his black-rimmed glasses. “Well, ask away.”
“Have you seen a red-haired boy, around fifteen years o--”
“No. Is that all?”
Julian blinked at him, awed by his rudeness. “I guess so. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“Well, at least you understand what a nuisance you’re being. There’s hope for you yet, in that case.” Alan stood back up and walked back to the curtain. He paused though, then seemed to suddenly reappear at the counter, grabbing Julian’s arm as he began to walk out the door. “Wait! You said you were looking for someone?”
Julian tried to shake the strange man’s hand off. “Yes, I did.”
“So I take it you’ve no idea where to look for him. That’s great!”
“How is that great?”
Alan’s smile was once again wide and charming. He pulled Julian closer by the wrist. “Have you ever heard of Quinn, the demon gypsy?”
“No....” Julian quirked his brow. “What does that have to do with finding Phineas?”
“Quinn is well trained in the reading arts. Tarot, palms, crystal balls--he is a master of them all. His unique demonic aura lets him delve deep into the human soul and lay bare on the table all one’s desires and fears.” Alan’s voice was lowered to a husky whisper. “He is the most accurate at his trade of anyone you will ever find in the Hallow or the world. If you want to find your brother, he can point you in the right direction.”
“A demonic gypsy?”
“I found him on a trip a long time ago across the great wastelands in east of Triumph," Alan said with a flourish of gestures and exaggerated expressions, as though he were telling a story to a child. “They said he was an abomination found in the wilderness, a human mutation. I knew better, though: he is a demon forged from the tragedy of the Cataclysm, and born from the suffering of this planet.”
Julian blinked in disbelief, not quite sure what to make of the interesting tale. “So you have a demon slave who tells fortunes?”
“No, I have a demonic son who is a master of the reading arts. Do you want to find your brother or not?” Alan held on to his wrist, waiting for him to answer.
“How much?” Julian asked at length.
Alan smiled at his victory and pulled Julian’s arm across the counter, feeling along the pale skin inside his elbow with his free hand. “From you...a vial of blood.”
“Blood?” Julian made a face. “Since when are bodily fluids exchangeable as currency?”
“I don’t care which one you are, the significance is the same,” was Alan’s explanation, which made no sense whatsoever. “Just one vial. You won’t find a better deal for the services Quinn can offer.”
If Julian had been ignoring the strange sense of wrongness about the man in front of him from the beginning, he certainly couldn’t now. Julian looked into the store owner’s cool blue eyes, waiting and watching for some sign of malice. There was none. He was eager, yes, but honest. And in a way, it was a sort of further incentive to see what his fortuneteller could offer. No matter how useless the information the “demonic gypsy” gave, he wouldn’t lose a single cred.
“...Alright. How big is a vial?”
Alan smiled again and let go of his arm, running to the back room through the curtain. Julian could here muffled voices before Alan returned with a strangely decorated black flask, a white cloth and a small dagger. “It will take Quinn a few minutes to prepare. In the meantime, I need your arm again.”
With slight trepidation, Julian extended it towards him. Alan held it firmly and took the dagger to the crook of his elbow, digging the point of the blade into his skin. Instantly a thin trickle of blood slid down his arm, dripping into the flask. It was going to take forever, Julian thought. The little thread of blood grew though, becoming a river and streaming off his elbow quickly.
“It’s an enchanted blade,” Alan explained. “It was cursed so that whoever was struck with it, no matter how minor the cut, they would bleed out and die. Nasty things, wars. Don’t worry, though, I have the counter-curse implemented on the bandage. Much faster this way though, yes?”
Julian nodded dumbly, watching with fascination as the small prick from the dagger continued to bleed him faster and faster. The flask was full in a moment and blood dripped down the sides as Alan pulled his arm away and wrapped it quickly in the white cloth.
“There we go. All better. Not that you were worried.”
Julian looked down at his arm and frowned a bit. Perhaps most people would have been worried; he was usually better at remembering to react like most people should. Obviously he needed to work on displaying fear despite curiosity.
“Come this way. Quinn is waiting.”
Julian looked up to see Alan holding the curtain to the back room open. He stepped around the counter and followed him through. Beyond was what looked like a storage room lined with shelves stocked full of vials and jars. One unit of shelves, set apart from the others, was lined with bottles, each with a small amount of liquid in the bottom and a pendulum hanging down inside. The pendulums moved on their own, but made no noise as they struck the sides of the bottles. There was a stairway that led up to a second floor against the back wall.
In another corner, was a section cut off from the rest of the room with draped black silk and bells. Despite the shambled appearance of everything else, it was elegant and mysterious looking, and the only thing in the room that seemed to be there on purpose.
“Go straight on in there. He’s waiting,” Alan instructed, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you and come running out here screaming. I don’t like people screaming in my store, and I like it less when they’re screaming because they’re looking at my boy. Demon or not, he’s civilized, more so than a lot of people I know.”
The graceful tent of linens suddenly seemed ominous. “Right...thank you.” Julian stepped forward and parted the cloth to enter. Candles lit the interior in dim, flickering light and the smoky scent of incense greeted him as he went inside. The curtain fell back behind him.
Sitting behind a round table was a somewhat tall individual, who must have been Quinn.
“Please, have a seat.” The man gestured towards the backless chair on Julian’s side of the table, his arm and hand mostly covered by gossamer cloth. He must have been painted from head to toe, because the skin that peeked out was a dark shade of bluish-gray. As Julian sat, he looked up at the so-called demon gypsy’s veiled face. The skin all around his black eyes was the same flawless gray color except for a group of lighter gray swirls above and around his left eye. If it wasn’t paint, perhaps as a career gypsy he’d gotten himself tattooed for the part. Julian had no idea tattoos could come in the silvery color of the lighter swirling marks though.
Then Julian noticed his ears. They were the ears of elves from storybooks, long and pointed. As he sat down, Julian could see the ears twitch and adjust to the sound. The whole costume was masterful and all that same blue-gray.
Quinn smiled a little, his pointed teeth showing behind the veil. “We can wait until you are done staring, I guess.”
“Oh, sorry.” Julian bit his lip, not sure why he felt embarrassed. “I was just admiring the work that’s gone into your costume.”
“I made it myself. The hardest part was getting Da to part with his precious coins and gems. I’m sure you’re more interested in your future than in my sewing abilities, though.”
Julian nodded, scooting his chair forward. “I’m looking for my brother.”
“You don’t have to tell me anything. The cards will tell me everything I need to know.” Quinn picked up a deck of cards and laid them on the table. “Take these and shuffle them. Think about your question as you do, framing the sentence in your mind, and when you think you’re done shuffling, hand them back to me.”
Julian obeyed, picking up the thick deck. He’d never held a tarot deck before. He wasn’t sure how many still existed even. Most things that would have been made with paper many years ago were now available only in formats you could download, like newspapers or magazines. He was sure tarot also came in an electronic form.
This was like holding something ancient in his hands as the weight and feel of each card jumbling around in his grip. For whatever reason, it made it feel more mystical and real to be holding the possibilities of the reading in the palm of his hand. A skeptic would say no matter what cards were chosen or where they landed, the person reading them could bend their meaning to apply to the situation. Julian liked to think himself a little more open-minded than that. Still, it was sort of impossible to imagine the odds of a reading being completely accurate based solely on how he bothered to shuffle a deck.
He thought of Phineas as he fumbled with the cards, asking them to give him some insight that would help him find his brother. He parted the cards, ready to shuffle the front to the back, then stopped and put the cards back the way they were. He was done. He passed the deck back over to Quinn, noticing the black fingernails as he placed the deck to his right.
“Are you ready then?”
Julian gave a slow nod. The ghost of a smile made itself present under the veil again as Quinn began. Fingers at the bottom of the top card, he flipped it over and laid it down so that it faced himself. Even upside down, Julian could read the print on the card: The Fool.
“You are on a journey. Searching for someone.” Quinn’s voice was light and amused. “Nothing we didn’t already know. But it’s nice to see you managed to concentrate on the cards.” He flipped the next card down on top of the first one, crossing over it. “Ah, the Tower. Never a good card. Right now, it tells of what is in your way, barring you from this journey. It means a long, dangerous path. It is likely you will suffer personal loss if things continue in the way they are currently.”
“What way are things?”
“Not yet. Be patient,” Quinn scolded him lightly.
Julian watched as the next card fell facing him: the picture of a young man standing between pain and fortune.
“In your past there is a cunning man who is treacherously sly. Impulsive and impudent, he is blinded by ambition. He is domineering and cruel to others. His influence over you is strong, reaching from the base of your existence and continuing to manipulate your actions. Do you know of such a man?”
Julian felt the color drain from his face. “My father....”
Quinn nodded, knowingly. “He has a lot power over you. You make a habit of doing what he says even though you know it is in your best interest to keep your distance. This is a reoccurring problem. You can never escape his control if you continue to allow yourself to be made his pawn.”
Julian clenched his hands at his side, his skepticism fading faster. The next card fell in his direction again.
“More recently, you have made some bad decisions--perhaps you have had something stolen. Your fears to repeat this and the effects that still linger inhibit you from putting all your effort into your search.” Quinn laid down a fifth card. “But you are drained, in need of a break. There are many problems that lie just beneath the surface and soon you will need to choose a new direction that will cause you to either abandon or solve these issues.”
The sixth card to fall brought another small smile to Quinn’s shrouded face. “Don’t worry, though. The Page of Wands brings reason to celebrate in your near future. He is also an icon of adolescence. I believe you will find your brother unharmed.”
“So, is that it?” Julian asked, looking the cards over in front of them. How such simple things could tell him all that was a mystery to him. But it wasn’t anything that could help him locate his brother.
“Not yet. There are four more cards.” With that, Quinn flipped the seventh. “This card represents you. “
Julian leaned forward a bit, reading the card upside down. “The Emperor? Is that good?”
“It’s neither good nor bad. Rather, it’s both. Tarot, like life, is not black and white. However, it does say you are strong and influential. You accomplish what you set your mind to, which makes me believe even more firmly that you will find him well.” His tone became lighter and slightly mocking. “It also means you are a very sexual being and have the ability to be irresistible to others.”
Julian blushed deeply. “What does that have to do with finding Phineas?”
“Not a thing. This card is simply about you, though perhaps it could mean you easily fall prey to lust and may lose sight of what is at hand.” Quinn placed another card on the table. “Well, that much is certain now. You are vain and sexually promiscuous, unable to focus on the problem.”
“What the hell? Give me a break, this is completely unrelated to what I asked you."
“I just say it like I read it,” Quinn said, unruffled by Julian’s protest. If anything, he seemed amused. “These are the outside influences that surround you. Your primary focus is on yourself, not on finding your brother.”
“That’s not true. I’m here, aren’t I? I’ve been looking for him all week.”
“As I said, I say it like I read it. That is the meaning of that card, and I cannot change that.” Quinn pressed on, apparently not wishing to debate the issue further. “You fear things from the past. Your father perhaps. Someone narrow-minded and extremist who will implement change in your life. You can’t let yourself get swallowed by these fears, though. Moving past them will help bring you to the end.” He laid down the last card. “And that end is one of victory. It will take a great deal of courage and small gain comes with great effort, but if you stay true to the course, you will find him.”
Julian stared at the ten cards, still bewildered. “Do they tell you where I can find him, though?”
“Nothing so concrete. But when the fool went on his journey, eventually he returned wiser for the experience and with a greater level of understanding. Rather than signifying your journey, perhaps the card itself is your brother and it will be him who finds you.” With that, Quinn began packing up his cards.
“Then what about all the rest of it? The parts about working hard and gaining little?”
“Well, if the card was right about your inability to focus on the problem at hand, perhaps you were inquiring about more than one problem.”
Julian made a face and looked away, embarrassed and outraged, though he couldn’t really blame a card for being insulting. “Yeah...thank you very much for your time.”
Quinn nodded to him as Julian rose and left the silk tent and the scent of incense behind him. He showed himself back out to the front of the store where Alan stood, a broad smile across his face.
“So, how did it go?”
“Well, it was worth a flask of blood anyway,” Julian noted, moving around to the other side of the counter. “Thank you, again, for your help.”
“Sure. Just one second though. Come here.” Alan motioned for him to approach the counter again. Julian did so and watched as the storeowner took his arm again and untied the white cloth that he had put against the small wound in the crook of his elbow. “Can’t have you walking out with my counter-curse, now can I.” Alan looked at his patron’s skin and his smile became dark, his eyes flashing up to Julian’s with a morbid sort of amusement in them. “Thing is, though, the counter-curse only stops the bleeding. Yet somehow, the wound is completely gone--not a single mark left behind. Like it was never there.”
Julian ripped his arm away from the man and backed away quickly out the door, leaving the shop behind him as fast as he could.