Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Hespira’
I was wrapping up the final steps in a case that hardly deserved to be called a discrimination; it involved a simple transaction that could have been handled just as well by a confidential courier. But the client, Irslan Chonder, occupied a place of such high standing among the second-tier social elite of Olkney that I had overcome my initial inclination to decline the assignment. I was also persuaded, I will admit, by the fact that, when he sensed my reluctance, he immediately doubled the already considerable fee he had first offered. A discriminator must make a living, after all.
Chonder’s need for my services arose from his passion for collecting “soul boxes.” These were relics of a Nineteenth-Aeon spiritual movement that had flourished in the Ar River country before the collapse of the Hurran hegemony. Adherents of the Retrospectance cult believed, not unreasonably, that the meaning of a life could only be understood in hindsight. But, as was all too common among those who opted to throw their lives under some passing philosophical system, a simple, logical analysis of the kinks and currents that marked out the course of one’s passage from cradle to crypt would not satisfy.
Retrospectants took a more complex view, believing that life offered each of us a series of “intimations.” These took the form of seemingly random objects, perhaps a peculiar pebble or someone’s lost button, a fallen sparrow or an interesting twig, that came by chance to the believer’s notice. The items were scooped up and placed in a dedicated container known as a repository that occupied a place of reverence in the Retrospectant’s residence. The wealthier the believer, the more sublime the container — when the cult was at its acme in the Ar River country, the high and mighty of the region competed with each other to commission renowned artists from up and down The Spray to shape and ornament what were colloquially called their soul boxes. Even the simpler repositories of the poor and humble, worked on over the lifetime of a member of the congregation, could become striking examples of naive artistry.
The end of life rarely took a Retrospectant unawares. A date was set, refreshments ordered, and all of the candidate’s friends and family were invited. The repository was brought out to be admired, then its contents were arranged in a particular pattern that the soon-to-be deceased had deduced from contemplating the points in his life at which they had been found, and the events that had followed each finding.
The devotee would then explain the hidden meaning and structure of his existence, as revealed by the seemingly random milestones collected in his soul box. His fellow Retrospectants would utter appropriate gasps and “well-I-nevers” as the subtle architecture of existence was revealed. After the ultimate revelation, the adherent would then be quickly killed and cremated. His intimations were returned to their repository, to which were also added his still-warm ashes. Amid cheers and songs of enthusiasm, the whole congregation would form a procession and carry the container off to its final resting place: a continually expanding catacomb hollowed out in the hills that overlooked the Ar River.
Of course, the finality of any resting place was always subject to amendment by subsequent generations. The Retrospectant catacombs were rediscovered a decade or so ago by some boys looking for a quiet corner where they could escape parental supervision, and a vogue began for collecting and displaying soul boxes. Aficionados studied the relics and wrote appreciations of them. The finest specimens commanded high prices, and some truly spectacular collections were assembled. Irslan Chonder’s was one of the best.
Thus when some of his most prized pieces were lifted, despite his house’s grievously expensive security apparatus, one would have thought that he would have gone straightaway to the Archonate Bureau of Scrutiny, to lay a complaint and await the outcome of the law’s impartial machinations. Unhappily for Chonder, however, bringing in the scroots was not an option; the theft of his best pieces did not constitute the first time the items had been purloined. Put bluntly, he had acquired them that way in the first place. Indeed, it was quite possible that the thief who had originally stolen them for Chonder was responsible for this subsequent laying of the lift, as the expression went. In one sense, however, my client was in luck: the thief had not restolen the goods in order to pass them on to a new — or even the previous — owner; he was quite willing to return them to Chonder for a “recovery fee.”
Chonder had weighed his desire to recoup the soul boxes against the cost of the ransom, which was bearable to one of his wealth, and against the humiliation of being played for a noddy, which was a dryer swallow for a man who so cherished his own dignity. In the end, desire overcame chagrin, and he agreed to pay the thief’s demand. But rather than place the matter in the hands of a courier firm — there were several in Olkney that were well experienced in such transactions — he brought it to me.
“Why me?” I asked, when he stood in my workroom and explained his need. “Surespeed can handle it for you. Or All Burdens Borne.”
“Because I want to know who has done this to me,” he said, his leonine head jutting from his shoulders and the muscles of his heavy jaw bunching at the hinges. He turned steel-gray eyes my way and said, “I do not take kindly to being flipped and fleeced. I am not some rustic rube gawping at his first sight of Endless Square while his pockets are picked.”
I let my surprise show. “You do not know who sold you the pieces in the first place?”
“It was all done through intermediaries — I believe they’re called shims and cut-outs in the underworld.”
“And now you know why it is done that way,” I said. “My professional advice is to get your goods back and revisit your defensive arrangements. I can consult with you on that score.”
“I will have retribution,” he said, and in the silence that followed I could actually hear his teeth grinding. Then he looked at me sideways. “Are you telling me that you can’t penetrate some thief’s camouflage?”
I let the implied insult pass. “I am telling you,” I said, “that launching a vendetta against a ranking member of Olkney’s criminal substrata is always ill advised.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I never thought that Henghis Hapthorn would fear retaliation from riffraff.”
“It is not I who would become the target of vengeance. My neutrality is accepted.”
Irslan Chonder harrumphed. Usually when one described a a harrumph, a certain degree of literary license came into play, the word representing only an approximation of the sound actually produced. But, in Chonder’s case, and on this occasion, the literary and the literal met on common ground.The man harrumphed and offered to double the fee.
“As you like,” I said. I told him to leave the matter with me. When he had stamped down the stairs and disappeared into the afternoon throngs on Shiplien Way, I said to my integrator, “We will require a list of senior-ranked thieves specializing in collectible artworks and rarities.”
“Bzwan Topp, Luff Imbry, and Li Untariam are the three most likely prospects,” it said.
“Agreed. Also Massim Shar. He’s been rising through the ranks. See what you can find out about their recent activities.”
The search took moments. “Topp has taken his spouse on a vacation cruise. They are visiting several of the Foundational Worlds down The Spray.”
“Not him, then.”
“Untariam is said to be heavily involved in forging antique picture hats and hasn’t left his workshop all week.”
“And the other two?”
“No one is quite sure what Imbry is up to. There are odd rumors of his being seen in black and green.” Those were the colors of a Bureau of Scrutiny uniform.
The scroots were known sometimes to impress particularly able criminals into their own ranks, the alternative being a lengthy period of residence in an Archonate contemplarium. But first they would had to corner Imbry. “Hard to credit,” I said. “What of Shar?”
“He wore a new pair of boots in the public room at Bolly’s Snug last night. Trimmed with rare stuffs. And he made sure that everyone noticed because he spent most of the evening with them up on the table.”
“Hmm,” I said. The Snug was frequented by the most notorious figures in Olkney’s criminal half-world, and the setting of heels on the table was a bid for recognition of rank. “And no one knocked his boots back onto the floorboards?”
It meant that Massim Shar was vying to see his status rise, and his ploy was winning acceptance from his peers. That could only mean that he had pulled off some felonious coup with daring and panache. “He looks good for it, then,” I said, and turned my thoughts to measures and tactics. After a moment, I continued. “I think a bee swarm, don’t you?”
My assistant concurred. Together we instructed a few dozen of the tiny reconnaissance instruments then launched then from a workroom window. They rose into the afternoon air and spread out across the city, where they would spend their time tirelessly peeking through windows and down into streets and courtyards. Eventually, one of them would spot Massim Shar; it would report the find, then either all of the swarm would converge on the finder’s coordinates and begin a comprehensive surveillance, or the one that had made the discovery would contrive to attach itself unobtrusively to the target.
In the meantime, I studied again the instructions Irslan Chonder had received regarding the time and coordinates for the delivery of the recovery fee. The thief had built in several safeguards intended to allow his runners — for, again, he would certainly use cut-outs — to come and go without being apprehended or followed. I would do nothing to interfere with those precautions; instead, my plan was to confirm the identity of the ransom’s eventual recipient by having him already under surveillance when final delivery took place.
The rendezvous was set for that evening in Ambledown Way, on the edge of the Shamblings district, a part of Olkney given over to fashionable townhouses and the kinds of commercial establishments that catered to those who could afford to rank fashion above all else when choosing a residence. It was a neighborhood of wide boulevards that met in public squares, and lately I had heard of something happening there that had piqued my interest.
“Ambledown Way connects to The Old Circular, does it not?” I asked my assistant.
“It does.” A screen appeared in the air, showing a map of the area, with the street and square highlighted. The rendezvous was to take place on the west side of the plaza.
“And did I not hear,” I continued, “that Master Jho-su has opened new premises in The Old Circular?”
“You did. Right here.” A small red rectangle appeared on the eastern edge of The Old Circular. “It is called ‘The Pot of Fire.'”
I examined the map, then said, “Contact The Pot of Fire’s integrator and ask for a table for this evening, an hour and a half before I am to make contact with the thief’s shim.”
The response was immediate. “They are fully booked for the next four months.”
I scratched my nose and said, “Say that I am engaged in a discrimination involving elements of the halfworld.”
Again, an instant response: “It wants to know if there is any possibility of violence.”
I considered my reply, then said, “Say that there is always a possibility, but that I judge as negligible the likelihood of any harm coming to Master Jho-su’s patrons. Add that, for me personally, peril is my constant companion, but that I do not count the risk when I am on the trail of malefactors.”
“They can give you a table on the outer terrace.”
That would put me right on the edge of the public square, where my well-known countenance would draw the attention of persons of fashion. Also, if anything untoward occurred, there was less chance of the other diners’ being wounded or otherwise inconvenienced.
“Make the booking,” I said, “and say that I am not averse to the maitre d’s letting it be known that I am on a case involving the theft of precious artworks, though I can share no details.”
It would not have mattered if I had been diametrically opposed to the leaking of such information. The only reason there would be a seat for me at The Pot of Fire tonight was so that my presence and its purpose might titillate the restaurant’s jaded patrons, for whom a discriminator on a case was a figure of passing interest. But then, I had my own reasons for wanting to be seen there, beyond the culinary wizardry for which Master Jho-su was justly famous: this Irslan Chonder business was my first major fee in some weeks, and I needed to keep my face visible among those who might, next week or next year, have occasion to call upon my services.
The bees on their way and the booking made, I paused to consider whether there was something more I should be doing. My analysis of who had likely committed the theft was solid, as were the measures I had taken to confirm my conclusion. Up until quite recently, though, I would not have left off my mental efforts at this stage; I would have consulted my intuition, an act I used to refer to as “applying insight.” Throughout my career, indeed throughout my entire life, my ability to combine rigorous logic with grand leaps of inspiration had been the twin engines of my prodigious intellect. Now I recognized that I was running on half-power.
The faculty I had called my insight had, through the workings of sympathetic association — or, to be coarse about it, magic — first become a separate entity named Osk Rievor who for a time had existed beside me in my own head. Then Rievor had gone even further, managing to acquire, under circumstances too tedious to relate, an untenanted body of his own. He now dwelt in a rented cottage on a country estate some distance from Olkney. We had not seen each other for some time now, he being busy at pursuing his researches into sympathetic association in order to prepare for the new epoch — soon to arrive — when magic would replace rationalism as the fundamental underpinnings of our universe.
I, for my part, detested the very notion, and though I had been forced by painful experience to accept it as unalterable truth, I was still resolved to do my best to ignore it for as long as I could.
All of which meant that I must go through my days, and practice my difficult and sometimes hazardous profession, without the benefit of intuition. So far, nothing had gone amiss. To compensate for my missing insight, I piled on even more ratiocination, but even as I did so I could not be unaware that more of the one could not always substitute for the absence of the other.
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