The sky was a violent amalgam of red and purple-gray by the time Julian was back in familiar territory. The hiss of the bus as it pulled away blew his strands of his bound hair about haphazardly and sent a warm breeze up his pant legs.
Julian walked along the sidewalk next to shop window displays where mannequins would soon be dressed in mute-toned scarves and jackets. The start of autumn meant the end of the school summer break and marked a deadline for finding the missing Maxwell. Even though Phineas no longer attended school, local officials were sure to notice him running around by himself and bring him in on truancy charges. Then they’d know who he was, contact Maxwell himself, and, depending on how much information was exchanged, open up a whole new set of problems for Julian’s father and, consequently, for his brother as well. Not to mention that Julian could forget getting the rest of his payment for the job.
His stomach gave a slight grumble of discontent. Julian frowned at that, thinking over what the last thing he had eaten had been and when, and the only thing that came to mind was the meager breakfast he had snagged that morning on his way out of his apartment. For that matter, he couldn’t quite recall what he had waiting in his kitchen that would satisfy his hunger once he got home. With the aroma of fresh food coming from the restaurants along the skyway and the double incentive of not having to prepare anything himself or having to wait too much longer to eat it, Julian decided to eat out rather than plug away at his work for another few hours.
He chose a small bistro where the tables were only far enough apart for a person to walk between them. Clean white linen on the tables, white cloth napkin folded by hand, and complimentary water served in a stemmed glass contributed to a charming atmosphere that Julian appreciated.
He waited for only a moment inside the doorway before the hostess smiled up at him, her teeth the same bright white as the table linens. “Just you tonight?”
Julian nodded, his hands in his pockets. “Afraid so.”
“A handsome guy like you? What is the world coming to?”
Julian laughed a little at her polite manner of small talk as she led him back to an empty table located nearly at the center of the room. It was perfect for eavesdropping on the people sitting around him, which suited him just fine. At the next table over were a man and his son; as Julian sat down, he caught a glimpse of the boy’s face and saw a piercing shining in his eyebrow.
A nine-year-old with an eyebrow piercing? Julian took a longer glance in his direction, pretending to notice the door that led to the kitchen beyond him. He had short black hair and large golden eyes set in an angular face without any trace of youthful roundness. He wasn’t a child at all but a very small man making a disgruntled face at the tabletop, which came to mid-chest. He wasn’t a midget: his arms and legs were in perfect proportion to his body. He was a pint-sized beauty.
Julian turned his attention to his taller companion, a blond in busy clothing, who he’d first assumed to be the other man’s father. He was certainly too young to be--neither of them could have been older than their early twenties at most.
“’Koyo’s late,” the blond said with his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand.
“You knew he wouldn’t come.” The shorter man’s voice was monotone, the words coming out with the hint of an accent. He was probably from Xifeng.
The blond’s smile seemed both genuine and practiced. “Someday he’s going to come and you’re going to feel really silly.”
“Hn.” The small man turned his head slightly and before Julian had time to avert his gaze, their eyes locked. Despite having been caught staring, Julian held his gaze. Though he’d never seen him before in his life, he couldn’t shake the sudden sense of déjŕ vu he felt. The man put his hand to his chest, before turning back to his friend at the table without a word or other gesture.
Julian had felt strangely naked with those golden eyes on him, and felt even more exposed now that they had turned away. It was uncomfortable and intrusive, like his soul was being dissected. He turned his attention to the electronic menu in front of him but couldn’t block out his neighbors’ voices.
“Who were you looking at?” the blond asked, voice tinged in amusement, and Julian couldn’t help thinking with some indignation that it had been obvious.
“No one I know.”
“Doesn’t look that way.”
Julian glanced out of the corners of his eyes toward the pair without turning this face from the menu. The smaller of the two men was swirling his drink with his straw, eyes closed and face serene.
“Regardless of how it looks,” he said, and left it at that.
The blond began to speak again but Julian was distracted by the approach of a server. It was hard not to be distracted by him; his pretty face notwithstanding, the server’s spiked blonde hair was riddled with eye-catching blue stripes. His appearance, compounded with the stains covering his apron, made it very obvious that he was probably filling in for someone and was more comfortable cleaning up after patrons rather than waiting on them. He certainly lacked the cheerful disposition of a man living on tips, keeping his eyes on his datapad as he spoke.
“Hello, sir, welcome to Tulio’s. Our specials today are tomato basil manicotti and the chicken parmesan. Would you like a list of the wine specials tonight?” He sounded as disinterested as he looked.
“That won’t be necessary.” Julian set his menu close to the edge of the table for the man to pick up. “I’d like the braised beef and tortellini with a glass of rubizzo sangiovese.”
The server nodded, made a few strokes on his datapad’s screen with a stylus and reached to collect the menu. As he withdrew, Julian closed his hand around the man’s wrist to stop him. The server went rigid under his grip, but Julian ignored it and slipped the picture of his brother he carried with him out onto the table.
“You haven’t by any chance seen this kid around, have you?” he asked, releasing his grip when the man stopped moving.
The server looked at the image for a moment, his eyes betraying neither curiosity nor concern. “Is he missing?”
“Yes. I was just hoping someone could give me a clue as to where to find him.” Julian watched the server looked the picture over again then shook his head. “Well, thank you for your time.”
The man nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. Julian watched him go. When he had disappeared through the door to the kitchen, Julian’s eyes fell naturally on the two men at the table between himself and the kitchen’s entrance and his attention turned back to their conversation on its own.
“--guess we should talk about what we came here to talk about,” the blond was saying.
Julian casually swept his eyes around the restaurant so that he wouldn’t be caught staring again, but allowed himself to listen in for the moment.
“Based on what you’ve mentioned to me,” the blond continued, “I can’t help but think that it’s really too bad that your father got involved. I didn’t even know he was here in the city, and I would never have guessed he was playing at being an office assistant.”
The small man growled in his throat. “He knows what he’s doing.”
“When doesn’t he?” his companion asked, amusement audible in his voice.
Julian found himself automatically imagining that they were referring to his own father, or a very similar man; if that were the case, he could understand the smaller man’s frustration very well. His eyes finished their sweep of the restaurant, and, finding nothing of much interest, returned to the picture of Phineas he had left on his table. He looked back at his brother’s smiling face for only a moment before pocketing it; the image was becoming an eyesore to him.
It was from a photo shoot that had been held with for the specific purpose of providing Maxwell with an appropriate photo of Phineas to pass out to the press if necessary--one in which he wasn’t giving the camera a weird look, closing his eyes, or mid-stride out of frame because he had found something more interesting to do. These weren’t uncommon occurrences with Phineas and Maxwell had seen no reason why his political agenda should take second place to his younger son’s antics in the news feeds.
It occurred to Julian that he hadn’t bothered asking Maxwell why Phineas had run off. It had seemed like the most natural thing for a teenager to do--he’d plotted and dreamed about it enough when he’d lived with his family. Phineas wasn’t much like he had been at his age, though; his relationship with their father was more amicable, though the man did expect a lot from him. Had Phineas wanted something the family image wouldn’t allow, and been driven away by that desire?
Julian felt disappointed in himself. His own distaste for Maxwell had made him ignore the man as an avenue for investigation. He would be able to detail any conversations he and Phineas had had, any reasons Phineas might have had to leave, and that information could instantly narrow Julian’s search if it hid any clues. Maxwell was sharp, though. If there were anything that he had missed during his own initial investigations, it would have to be because of bias or the fact he hadn’t been a child in decades. Julian would have to put his faith in that and hope that there was a clue hidden in his father’s memory.
His dinner came, and he was able to enjoy it without his attention wandering to his neighbors again. Despite his less than enthusiastic service, Julian left a decent tip for his waiter along with a business card.
“Thank you, come back and see us real soon!” the hostess said with a smile as he walked past her.
“You bet. Thanks.” He grabbed a mint from the container on the podium where the hostess was stationed and walked back out onto the streets, intending to walk off his filling meal before retiring for the night. It was much cooler now that the sunlight had vanished completely.
It didn’t take him long at all to reach home and he was surprised by how close he had been without knowing it. Inside his apartment, he only took the time to change his clothes and down a quick nightcap before settling into bed and a dreamless sleep.
The next morning’s ride to the upper levels was just as simple and uneventful. The trams were packed with busy men and women standing still and silent on their way to work. That was fine by him. A quiet tram ride would be beneficial; he had a lot of questions to organize and not much longer before he’d be there.
The upper levels were refreshing after days of canvassing the lower levels. Architecturally more diverse, there was more open space between the upper stories of the metal giants all around, so the parks here were more sprawling and diverse looking and less utilitarian and crowded than parks lower down.
The Maxwell estate wasn’t too far away from the Core; the closer to commerce Maxwell could be, the more people there were in the area and the more people, the less likely it was that his own people would be noticed. It also gave him the appearance of a man with nothing to hide. While most physically distanced themselves from the buildings where their work was done, Maxwell embraced them. The noise, the annoying solicitors, the little girls selling cookies door to door to fund their extracurricular activities, it was all the perfect façade of a man of the people.
Julian hastened past the cafes and shops until he reached the estate of one of the city’s richest and most powerful men. It was a very tall building, not unlike several others in the surrounding area. On the entrance floor though, rather than retail establishments, there was a large and spectacularly furnished lobby. The lacquered walls were lined with framed screens displaying classical artwork and the waiting area was furnished with couches and chairs upholstered in a bold red. It was a ritzy example of the high-class lifestyles of the building’s denizens.
The stuffy man behind the chest high counter eyed Julian and a fake smile spread across his face. “Can I help you?”
Julian approached the counter, reading the nameplate resting on it: Doug. “Yes, thank you. Could you page Ashe Torim and have someone bring down the elevator for me?” Julian held out his civilian indent card as a part of the building's routine security clearance. The fact that he was aware of unwritten entrance protocol usually dropped the attendant’s suspicions. “I’m here on business.”
Doug took the card, his eyes scrutinizing it longer than necessary. “Mr. Vaughn is it?” He looked up from the card to give Julian a confused stare. “Is this some kind of test?”
Julian scowled. Perhaps he should have tried one of the back ways. “No. Just page Ashe, please.”
Doug nodded and picked up the phone, dialing to the main office. There was hardly a pause. No matter how busy he was, Ashe always answered promptly as though he was expecting every interruption. “Ah, yes sir. I have a Mr. Julian Vaughn here to see you...yes...yes, sir, right away.” He hung up and handed the card back to Julian. “The elevator will be sent down immediately. Door seven.”
“Thank you, Doug.” Julian pocketed his card and walked over to the elevator doors.
There were ten elevators in all, each set of five programmed for different functions. Doors one through five were basic elevators with push buttons for all publicly accessible floors. The other five elevators were additionally equipped with a key system for the private floors, and could be sent to the lobby to collect authorized visitors for trips directly to a single floor. Maxwell officially owned six floors of the building: floors sixty-four through sixty-eight contained his political offices and floors sixty-nine and seventy were his private residence.
The moment Julian approached the correct elevator, the doors opened for him. He got on board and leaned against the handrail as the doors closed behind him, waiting to begin his assent. His eyes lingered on the buttons for a moment as the elevator began to move then he looked at the display and watched the floor numbers cycle up. He allowed himself a slight smirk. Officially Maxwell owned six floors of the building: floors sixty-four through sixty-eight contained his political offices and floors sixty-nine and seventy, which crowned the building, were his private residence. What very few people knew was that there were actually seventy-one floors.
The extra floor was between Maxwell’s offices and his residence. It had originally been one of the building’s many buffer floors--story-high, super-reinforced spaces meant to help Solaces giants remain standing under their own weight. To Maxwell, such a floor at the top of the building was just a waste. He’d had the maintenance elevator that granted access to the buffer floor rewired so that it moved only between that floor and Maxwell’s residence, and could only be operated by a small set of closely guarded key cards. With the floor accessible only to him and whomever he chose to admit, Maxwell had been able to renovate it to his specifications, and in that way he had acquired a secret floor.
Not that it was a place of much interest. The secret floor was completely soundproof, representing a buffer between his residential and political worlds in its location above the sixty-eighth floor. Inside was the hub of a cutting edge surveillance system that extended both below into the offices and above into the residence. There were archives of all his surveillance as well as all the necessities for running his underground operations in large computer banks. Both he and Ashe had offices there and all business matters could be discussed and dealt with safely and freely within the secret womb they had created. There was also the white room, though. That was reason enough not to wander.
The elevator stopped and as the mirrored doors parted, the sparkling world of a high-class politician unfolded like a memory. Everything was richly furnished, with windows displaying the spectacular view from the top of the Central Office buildings, and imitation carved mahogany banisters curving up to the second floor along the enormous double stairwell. It smelled like berries, though the smell wasn’t overwhelming, and there was soft music that he registered but could hardly hear. And there, standing to the side in his usual rumpled state, was Ashe, hooded sweatshirt poking out from under his blazer and trainers peeking out below the cuffs of his slacks.
“Young Mister Maxwell, I hope everything is going well with your search.” His voice was even but pleasant, his business-like tone tinged with amusement. He was a man of many talents, most of which he channeled into every aspect of James Maxwell’s work, and his voice faultlessly reflected the manner of a public representative.
Julian smiled at him, though he shook his head in displeasure. “It’s Julian now. You know that.”
“Old habit,” Ashe explained. “Your father is busy at the moment. Would you care to join me in the study until he is available?”
“What makes you think I didn’t come here to see you?”
Ashe smiled at him, the smile that always made Julian wonder about the extent of his knowledge, and gestured towards the study.
Julian followed him, though he needed no help finding it. He’d grown up here. “I’m sorry I haven’t visited you. It’s not you or Phineas I’m upset with, but I’ve ignored you both just the same. And now I’ve gone and lost one of you.”
Ashe’s smile offered some degree of comfort. “That’s a little premature. I’m sure Phineas is perfectly all right. When he decides to come home and hears all the commotion that’s been made over him, I think he’ll feel his intelligence has been insulted.” He opened the heavy doors to the study and let Julian precede him.
Inside were tall bookcases along most walls holding a number of bound volumes that had cost Maxwell a fortune. The favorite of his collection was by far the thinnest and least impressive: Fahrenheit 451.
Having downloaded and read the book himself, Julian could never quite tell what exactly fascinated his father so much about it. It was a part of their pre-Cataclysmic existence, though, an old world relic from a time when resources were viewed as inexhaustible enough that useful things like trees could be cut down and processed just to spread a bit of fiction to anyone willing to buy it. No Solacian in his right mind would try something like that. Organic life was so limited that the dead were used as fertilizer. Every tree and plant was a part of the city itself and a treasure not to be thrown away casually.
There were still books, of course, in the same way that pre-programmed vid-screens were windows. Electronic media was available to download from most store terminals, over the CommNet, or viewable from a library with the correct authorization. Most people had a datapad of some sort on their person most of the time, ready to access information through the CommNet. Even in Maxwell’s study there was a terminal poised and ready to be accessed. It was limited and monitored, but could be accessed remotely.
Julian sat down close to it in his favorite spot, a red loveseat across from the liquor cabinet. “So, you think Phineas didn’t run away for good?”
Ashe shook his head, opening a bottle of whiskey and pouring it into a glass for his young friend. He handed it to him then took a seat across from him. “Phineas is not as rebellious as you were at his age. And Mr. Maxwell hasn’t asked for anything from him other than that he sit still and shut up on occasion.”
Julian sighed and downed his glass quickly. Ashe refilled it for him. Sober and at home were not high on Julian’s list of things to be, especially not at the same time. “I don’t know that I’d call Phineas the type to just leave for no reason, though. Even the crazy things he did when we were kids he did for a reason. Like the time he tied that pink ribbon on Mrs. Norris’s cat’s tail and managed to calculate her reaction time while the rest of us just thought it was cute.”
“That’s because it was cute. As was the toy he made for her that would always react faster than her to give her a challenge.” Ashe continued to smile knowingly. “I’m sure Phineas has his reasons and, just like then, you’ve simply missed them.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here, to see what I might have missed. And even if I only get your help, that’s more than enough. Everyone knows you’re the brains of the operation anyway.” Which was hardly an understatement.
Ashe Torim had met James Maxwell in college some thirty years prior, the latter being charismatic but somewhat single-minded and the former apparently looking for someone to stand firmly behind. The story went that Ashe had nominated James for presidency over the student body at their university and then proceeded to run a successful campaign for him before Maxwell even know he was a candidate. Maxwell had won by a landslide without raising a finger. It marked the beginning of a profitable friendship, and since then Maxwell had won every campaign while maintaining his pet crime syndicate on the side. Behind it all was Ashe, in charge of everything down to shopping for Maxwell‘s clothes; in a very literal sense, he was single-handedly holding up everything Maxwell had and was.
The story was a little unbelievable, if only because it placed Ashe at nearly fifty years old. Though his partner in crime was graying, Ashe did not look a day over twenty-five. His black curls did not have a single hint of gray and there were wrinkles forming around his eyes. Whether he had a great deal of work done to keep up his appearance or just aged slowly and well wasn’t apparent, though he certainly had the money for the former.
Ashe had changed more than his fair share of dirty diapers in his life, though, and in some ways had been more of a father to Julian than his actual father had ever managed to be. Ashe was the one who made sure nightlights were on and bubble bath was always stocked. There was no denying his age, even if it didn’t show; there was an odd sort of comfort in that. There were too many things in life that changed as it was--at least Julian’s pseudo-father was as immortal in person as in memory.
Ashe gestured towards the terminal with a long, delicate finger. “Everything there is to know, you can find through there. Phineas does little to cover his tracks. I’ve looked through the user logs myself. He frequented several places talking about lower level rim areas.”
Julian balked. “And no one bothered to give me a hint like that?”
“Mister Maxwell thought it too obvious a clue. If Phineas was going to just up and leave, he said, then he certainly wasn’t also foolish enough to leave a straight trail to his destination.”
“But then Phineas might have thought he’d think that and would have gone there anyway, since it would now be the last place Maxwell would look for him. But then I guess Maxwell might have thought that through too....” Julian shook his head. “Forget it, I can’t deal with the way those two think.”
“It can be a little counter-productive, yes.”
“Is he not worried about Phineas at all?” Julian asked.
Ashe frowned a little. “Of course he is. He just has a very unusual way of demonstrating his affection sometimes. By not calling the police, he saves Phineas from any public interest that may come with his return. It benefits him as well, yes, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that it is in Phineas’s best interest.”
“In the best interest of his heir you mean.”
“Your bitterness colors your world. I wouldn’t put that much confidence in such convictions.” Ashe’s tone had stopped being amused and was rather dry now. “You hold on to wounds like trophies. You should try throwing them out, sometime.”
Julian looked at him for a moment then set his glass on the table and stood. “You know, sometimes I think you take it a little too personally when I mention how much of a fucked up asshole Maxwell is.”
“And you’re very quick to assume that just because I find your outlook damaging to you I’m siding with him. You’ll never be happy if you continue to define yourself by the pain you feel.”
“I don’t feel pain, remember?” Julian was annoyed by the bitterness that leaked into his voice. Ashe wasn‘t his enemy. “Sorry. Just...look, the last thing I want is some psych test when I come here, especially not from you. You‘re supposed to the nice one.”
“That doesn’t mean I am limited to only saying what you want to hear. Not even your father has the privilege of my self-censorship, so don’t think you’ve got it.” Ashe rose and moved toward the door. “Given the circumstances, though, I think it’s best if you see Mr. Maxwell another time. There is nothing he can tell you that I have not, anyway, and I’d rather not have to observe another shouting match if I can avoid it.”
Julian hung his head slightly, coming to stand next to Ashe. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get pissy.”
Ashe patted his head gently. “I’m not upset with you. But it’s a bad idea for you to stay if you’ve wound yourself up already.”
Julian nodded, feeling like a chastised child. He walked with Ashe back towards the elevators, holding on to his sleeve by pinching the material between his knuckles. Ashe gave his hand a pat and he released him.
“When you’ve found Phineas, we’ll have another nice talk. Maybe then both you and your father won’t feel so stretched and we can have a pleasant evening together.”
Julian nodded. “That might be nice. Either way, I promise I'll try and keep in touch more.”
“That would be nice. I’ll see you again soon.” The doors of the elevator opened behind him and Ashe gestured toward it like a good host.
Julian nodded, getting back onboard, and watched his former life disappear behind the sliding doors once more.