And so, Beth thought as she spun the steering wheel of her airship, having thwarted the plans of the impertinent Baron Von Spotnick, it was onward towards their next adventure! He had put up a challenge, but with the help of her loyal crew and the dark and brooding masked rogue she knew only as Starling, she had triumphed.
One of her crew hurried up to her, pausing only to preen her whiskers and munch on a stalk of celery. "Wheep?" she asked Beth.
"Where are we going, Snootles?" Beth told the guinea pig. "Wherever the wind and sky take us!"
"Captain..." A slender masked young rogue dressed all in black strode up to her, his dark hair drifting dramatically in the breeze, guinea pigs swooning in his wake. "You had mentioned a reward?"
Beth felt her heart race as Starling spoke. "I may not have much to give," she whispered, "but there is one thing I would gladly offer you, you dark and brooding rogue." She pressed close to him and looked up into his dark and brooding eyes, which were all she could see through his bird-like mask.
"My dearest Beth..." Starling reached down and stroked her cheek. "I am not who I seem to be."
"Not dark and brooding?"
"Not that." He pulled the mask off and cast it aside. Beth was surprised to see who it really was underneath, and astonished that she still closed her eyes, eagerly awaiting the kiss—
* * *
"Good morning!" Michiko said cheerfully as she shook Beth awake.
Beth sat up in bed and held her head in her hands. "Great timing, Michiko," she grumbled. "I was having another airship dream." And she woke me up right in the middle of that kiss, she added to herself, trying not to blush.
"You've been having a lot of those lately." Michiko took Beth's glasses from the bedside table and handed them to her roommate.
"Thanks." Beth put her glasses on, blinking in the bedroom light. "You know I've always loved airships. I can't stop thinking about them, especially since you went to Faerie last month."
"Were the guinea pigs there?"
"How about Starling? Did he finally take his mask off this time?" Michiko grinned.
I have got to stop telling her about my dreams, Beth thought. "Never mind that," she said. "What time is it?"
"Do I want to know why you're waking me up so early?"
"The hobgoblins called," Michiko said with a sigh. "There's another problem in their warehouse."
"And they had to get us out of bed to help, huh?"
"You're still in bed."
"Details." Beth threw the covers aside and scooted out of her bed. "Is there coffee?"
"I just started a fresh pot."
"Thanks." Beth smiled as she walked over to the door to her private bathroom. "Give me ten minutes to get ready." She stopped in the doorway and looked back at Michiko. "By the way..."
"Yes?" Michiko said.
"It's your turn to wake up Gregor."
Beth closed the bathroom door, but she could still hear Michiko's anguished shout, "Nooo!"
* * *
Tuesday mornings at the Wonderland Diner and Tavern, the preferred choice for hungry and thirsty Emigres, were very much not like weekends. Those, especially Sunday mornings, were as crazy as it got in every conceivable way. Tuesdays, on the other hand, were pretty much quiet, which made it a good day to give an inexperienced waitress her first solo shift.
Bianca's feet and legs were starting to hurt two hours in, but the faerie didn't let it show as she refilled coffee for the dwarves and cleared Sam's table. She did pause to catch her breath and adjust her apron, glancing over as the front door opened. Her eyes widened as the Monkey Queen walked in. "Good morning, everybody!" Michiko said.
Beth came in behind her, smiling and nodding at the regulars. She glanced around and saw the waitress. "Bianca?" she said.
Bianca hurried over. "Michiko! Beth!" she said to them. "Good morning! You're here on a Tuesday?"
"Surprise!" Michiko said with a grin.
"Let's get you seated." Bianca led Michiko and Beth to their usual table in the center of the diner. "Did you need to see the menu?"
"Nah," Beth said as she sat down, setting her backpack on the floor next to her chair. "Just the usual for us."
"All right," Bianca said as she pulled out a smartphone and checked the screen. "That's...a big stack of pancakes with fresh fruit on the side for Michiko?"
"Yep!" Michiko said.
"And for Beth, ham and cheese omelet with a sourdough English muffin, and then a short stack of pancakes?"
Beth nodded. "Mandy wrote that up for you, didn't she?"
"She did. It's been very helpful." Bianca put the phone away. "Coffee, right?"
"Please!" Beth grinned.
Bianca smiled back and headed into the kitchen. "He's working today?" Michiko asked.
"He usually takes Mondays and Thursdays off," Beth said, "and it's Tuesday, so any second now..."
The kitchen doors swung open, and a tall male who, with his bat-like wings, fiery red eyes and purple skin, could have been mistaken for a demonic monster were he not wearing a chef's hat and apron strode into the dining room. "You two!" he said in his deep voice as he hurried over to Michiko and Beth's table.
"Good morning, Aloysius!" Michiko jumped up and hugged the chef.
"Told you." Beth grinned as she hugged Aloysius in turn. "Good morning, big guy."
"Good morning to both of you!" he said. "Is it Sunday already?"
"Still Tuesday!" Michiko said as she and Beth sat back down.
"We just needed a sanity break," Beth said.
"Rough day already?" Aloysius asked.
"We've had to clear up problems at the hobgoblin warehouse four times in the last five days." Michiko grimaced. "And the last one was at two this morning."
"And," Beth said, "my TAs seem to be competing with each other to see who can treat me worse."
"And Gregor," Michiko said.
"And Gregor." Beth sighed.
"Is he being difficult again?"
Beth glanced over and saw a tall blonde faerie dressed in black walking up to their table. "Good morning, Scylla!" Michiko said.
"Hey," Beth said with a smile. "We had to wake him up at 2:00 AM, and he's still mad about it."
"He does like his sleep," Scylla said.
"How the heck do you get along so well with him anyway?"
"Maybe it's because they have something in common," Michiko said.
"Misanthropy?" Scylla smiled.
"You said it," Beth said as Bianca set coffee cups in front of her and Michiko. "I didn't."
Bianca glanced at Aloysius. "I thought you were supposed to be in the kitchen," she said. "You should go back to work."
"That's our Bianca!" Aloysius said. "Even when she has to tell me off, she's so sweet about it."
"She's doing great so far!" Michiko said with a big smile.
"And not a mean bone in her body! We're going to miss her when she goes back to Faerie to open her pizza place!"
Bianca blushed. "Thank you," she said.
"But she needs to know how to get tough," Beth said. "Let me show you." She pointed at Aloysius. "Get back in your kitchen, you!"
The chef rolled his eyes. "Meanie," he muttered as he walked away. Michiko giggled.
* * *
"What are you looking at?" Beth asked, taking another bite of pancake.
Michiko glanced up from her smartphone. "Grandmother Fox just sent the latest list of Thanksgiving invites."
"I'm still on there, right?"
"Just as long as you don't decide to spend the day with your parents instead!"
"Oh, please." Beth frowned. "Even if I wanted to, the airfare is way too much."
"You don't want to be with your parents for the holiday?" Michiko asked.
"No," Beth said firmly. "Their idea of celebrating Thanksgiving is to argue about where to get the precooked turkey. My senior year in high school, they took too long to decide, and we wound up having to eat tofurkey."
"I like tofurkey!" Michiko said.
"You would." Beth grinned and took the last bite of her pancakes.
Beth and Michiko looked over at the front door. Mec was standing in the doorway, glancing around desperately. "Is she here?" the gremlin asked.
Bianca hurried up to him. "Mec?" she said.
"Bianca! Where's Mandy?"
"I haven't seen her. I've been here all morning."
"She has to be here!" Mec waved his hands. "I've looked everywhere! She has to—"
He turned and saw the Monkey Queen, standing and looking at him. "Michiko?" he said, startled.
"It's me," she said, her voice calm and firm and compassionate. "Come over here. Sit with us."
Mec walked slowly to Michiko's table and pulled out a chair. As he did, Beth caught Bianca's eye and whispered, "We've got this." The waitress nodded.
"What happened, Mec?" Michiko asked.
"She's gone," the gremlin said as he slumped down in his chair.
Mec nodded. "I was working late in my lab, and I fell asleep at my workbench. I went straight home when I woke up, but she wasn't there. And she didn't leave a note or send a text."
"Did you try calling her?"
"She didn't answer. I checked some of her favorite places, but no sign. I knew it was her day off, but this...this was the last..."
"Why were you at your lab?" Michiko asked. Mec stared at the table, saying nothing.
"Mec?" Beth asked. "Were you two fighting?"
"We..." Mec took a breath. "Both of us have been under a lot of stress lately. I got mad about Cog and took it out on her. She hid in the bedroom, and I walked out, and now..." He covered his face with his hands.
"Oh, Mec," Beth said. She laid a hand on his shoulder, trying to comfort him.
"Mec?" Michiko asked. "Was anything missing?"
He looked up. "Her favorite acoustic guitar was gone," he said. "And its case."
Michiko nodded. "That could mean a lot of things, but I don't think waiting around to figure out what they are is a good idea right now. Beth? Are you finished?"
Beth gulped down the last of her coffee. "Now I am," she said.
"Mec? Do you mind if we search your apartment?"
Mec raised an eyebrow. "Everything's where it should be there, except for the guitar."
"Maybe," Michiko said as she stood up, "but I'd rather be sure."
"Michiko?" Scylla set down the old book she'd been reading. "Could you use an extra pair of eyes for your search?"
"You bet!" Michiko grinned.
"Some misanthrope," Beth said as she reached for her backpack.
Scylla smiled. "I'm out of practice."
* * *
The old apartment building had been slated for demolition at one point, and to all eyes, it had been; there was nothing there but a vacant lot behind a tall, imposing brick fence topped with barbed wire. However, those who knew the trick knew where to slip past the complex seemings and what path to take to get inside the renovated building that housed pixie and gremlin Emigres.
The search went quickly, and Michiko shook her head as she and Scylla finished up. "I couldn't find anything," she said. "Did you notice anything missing besides her guitar?"
"No," Mec said. "Everything else was there."
"And you're certain that she didn't leave a note or anything?"
"Positive. No texts, either. I've been checking my phone every few minutes."
"Okay. Let's try another approach. Beth?"
Beth nodded and began to look around the living room, not in the same way Michiko had, but looking past the surface, checking for any illusion spells that might be disguising a clue. Seeing through seemings was Beth's rare talent, what they called "second sight", and it was what had led to her first meeting with Michiko and their subsequent partnership.
Her search came up clean until she glanced at the front door. She blinked once, twice. "Michiko?" she said. "There's something going on here."
"With the door?" Michiko asked.
"Yeah. There's some sort of seeming in place, but I can't see past it or dispel it."
Michiko scowled. "How does that happen?"
"I've heard," Scylla said, "that there could be devices crafted by gremlins that could have that effect. They regenerate the seeming the instant it's dispelled."
Michiko examined the door. "Beth, are you sure?"
"Positive." Beth stared and blinked. "I can barely see something, maybe for a fraction of a second, before it goes away."
"But we've already searched the apartment," Scylla said.
"Not all of it." Michiko opened the door and stepped into the hall, followed by Beth. She looked up and said, "I think I found it."
"Where?" Beth asked.
"There's something at the top of the door frame." Michiko squinted. "I can't quite see it."
"Try knocking it down with your staff."
"I would, but breaking it could be a bad idea." Michiko grinned. "You can get it down."
"With a boost. Stand over here."
Beth moved close to the door; Michiko stood behind her and took hold of Beth's hips. "Careful with those hands!" Beth said with a smile.
Michiko giggled as she lifted her partner up. "See anything?" she said.
Beth spotted the flat gray metal casing right away. "Yeah, there's something here," she said. "And it's not dusty, so it hasn't been here long."
"Can you get it down?"
"The catch is doing it safely." Beth shook her arm, and the sleeve of her jacket slid over her right hand. She touched the casing gingerly with the cuff, her left hand hovering near the top button of the pocket on her right arm, ready to activate her emergency force field. Nothing happened. She gently took the device in her jacket-covered hand and said, "Got it."
Michiko carefully lowered Beth back down. "No traps?" she asked.
"Not yet." Beth held out the device as Scylla and Mec joined them in the hall. "Looks harmless enough."
Michiko looked at the device. "Mec? Scylla? Thoughts?"
"There is some magic about it," Scylla said. "Not sure what, though."
Beth flipped the device over. "What's that symbol?" she asked. It was a small engraving on one corner on the back, an ornate "G" set in the middle of a gear.
Mec looked at the symbol. His eyes narrowed. "Lord Gimcrack's mark," he said.
"One of the greatest of all gremlin craftsmen. This isn't his usual style, but I'd know that mark anywhere."
"Doesn't Mandy have some...history with him?" Michiko said.
"That's the polite way to put it." Mec gritted his teeth.
"Why is that?" Beth asked.
"Five years ago, he met Mandy by chance and was smitten on the spot. He made some rather creepy moves on her." The gremlin grimaced.
"How old was Mandy?"
Beth shuddered. "Yeah, that ranks pretty high on the creepy scale."
"She rebuffed him quite thoroughly, and Gimcrack didn't take it well. Her family had to emigrate here for her safety."
"I never knew that," Scylla said.
"She doesn't like to talk about it much," Mec said. "I think she's still a bit worried about him finding her here."
"He may have." Michiko took the device from Beth. "Scylla? Should I just smash this?"
"Please don't," the faerie said. "Gimcrack does enjoy his traps."
"Got it." Michiko set the device on the ground and backed away. Beth and Scylla moved next to her. Mec knelt by the device; Scylla gestured, and a protective shield went up around him. The gremlin took a screwdriver from his tool belt, popped the casing open, and went to work.
A few minutes later, the device was in pieces, the power crystal had been safely tucked away, and Mec was putting away his tools. "No traps?" he said. "Gimcrack's getting soft in his old age."
"Or he didn't have time to build one in," Scylla said as the shield vanished.
"But the door still looks the same," Michiko said.
Beth faced the door, looked below the surface, and blinked. "Not any more," she said as the seeming vanished. The doorknob had clearly been broken out of the door and clumsily repaired, with wood that didn't match.
"Would Gimcrack have stayed on Earth?" Michiko asked.
"No," Mec said. "He hates being here. He's probably back in Faerie by now." He gathered the pieces of Gimcrack's device and stood up.
Michiko nodded. "No time to waste, then."
"So when do we leave?" Mec asked.
"Mec..." Michiko looked sadly at the gremlin. "It's probably best if you stayed here."
"What?" Mec's jaw dropped.
"We need someone to let us know if we've gotten things wrong and Mandy comes home. If anyone can come up with a way to do that, it's you."
"You're saying I'm not good enough?" Mec shouted. "You're saying I can't handle this?" There was a gleam in the gremlin's eye.
"That's what Cog would say! He's wrong, and you're wrong! I'm not going to let you—"
"Mec." Michiko stared calmly at the gremlin. "Stop and listen to yourself for a moment."
The hallway fell silent. Finally, Mec nodded. "I understand," he said. "I just don't like being told I can't help when Mandy's in trouble."
Michiko laid a hand on his shoulder. "It's for the best."
"If she's not back soon—"
"I know," Michiko said. "But we'll do everything we can to get Mandy home. I promise."
Mec exhaled. "I know you will. Thanks." He went back into his apartment, softly closing the door behind him.
"Let's go," Michiko whispered. She moved quickly down the hall, the other women following.
* * *
"Wow," Beth said as they left the apartment building. "I've never seen him so upset."
"Me neither." Michiko sighed.
"Are you two familiar with 'gremlin madness'?" Scylla asked.
"I've heard of it," Michiko said, "but I've never seen it."
"I think we just have." Scylla glanced around as they passed through the hidden door in the fence, whispering to activate her human seeming before she continued. "Sometimes, when gremlins are stressed or working on a difficult project, or both, a certain anger-fueled obsession takes over. You did a good job of diffusing it, Michiko, but I worry about it affecting Mec again."
"I just hope he doesn't do anything rash."
"So what's next?" Beth asked.
"We need to go back to our apartment," Michiko said. "Scylla? Can you watch Gregor for a few days?"
"My pleasure." The faerie smiled. "I just downloaded a few smartphone apps that will hopefully keep him from complaining too much."
"Wait," Beth asked. "Aren't you going with Michiko?"
"Too risky," Michiko said.
Scylla nodded. "If either of you get caught, at least you might be able to escape before they collect the bounty. But Wrexham's standing orders are to kill me on sight."
"Wait a minute. 'Either of you...'?" Beth stopped, her eyes slowly widening.
"She finally figured it out," Scylla said with a smile.
"Yep!" Michiko grinned. "Beth, you're coming with me to Faerie."
Beth nearly sprained an ankle jumping for joy.
* * *
© 2015 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those granted by "fair use" laws in your region.
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