Sun and Moon (part 10)

“There’s something odd going on with Julia and Umbry,” Clay said. He had known for a while that he and Francesca would need to have this conversation, although he hadn’t been quite sure what he would say. Now that the words were finally coming out, it was easier.

“Yes, so I have noticed,” she replied, and then paused to think, moving her chair back a bit and taking her eyes off the puzzle in front of her. “There is trauma there — or rather, there has been. Certain aspects of their situation have not added up in my mind to a consistent whole. I believe, Clayton, that there is evidence we may be dealing with matters of the unconscious mind.”

Clay nodded. “Glad I’m not the only one to notice it. I was starting to think it was me. I’ve mostly been getting a general feeling, a sense of something lying just below the surface. It’s been very hard to pin down, exactly. I suspect that they themselves may not even be aware of it. Francesca, have you spotted any specific anomaly, something we could work with to try to understand better what they are going through?”

Francesca nodded slowly, the logical part of her mind approaching this puzzle much as she would approach any other. “You mentioned Frederick to them during your very first encounter, is this not correct?”

“Yes,” nodded Clay, “to Julia.”

“And what was her response?”

Clay thought back. “Yes … right. I showed her some photos, and asked her whether Freddie looked familiar. I believe her exact response was ‘He rings a bell, but I can’t say.’”

“You see, my dear Clayton,” Francesca exclaimed, “There it is. Frederick spoke often of his two saviors, those intrepid young detectives. Against the views of entire legal establishment and received opinion of the constablry, they insisted that he was innocent of any crime. Correctly as it turned out. It was quite the impressive feat of sleuthing to achieve any age, and I believe they were still in their teenage years at the time.”

“So how is it possible,” Clay mused aloud, “that Julia would have difficulty recognizing him?”

“Clearly it is not possible, my dear. Their paths would certainly have crossed on multiple occasions. That is why I suspect a repression of memory. There has clearly been some occurrence so overwhelming or abhorrent in its effect upon their psyches that the entire memory has simply been placed safely out of reach by the minds of these two young women.”

Clay nodded. “I don’t need convincing. The problem now is how to pull them out of it, to bring them back to their full abilities, before the enemy makes his move.”

Francesca smiled. “Why Clayton, you of all individuals should know something of the path one must walk in such situations. Take your own sad case as an example. I remember the first time, I believe it was in Cagne-sur-Mer, when you first introduced me to…”

“We don’t need to speak of her,” Clay cut her off, with a savage curtness that surprised even himself.

“No, my dear, we do not,” Francesca replied gently. “I am sorry if I have spoken out of turn. Besides, we have, as you would say, other fish to fly.”

There was a pause. “Fry,” said Clay.

“Fry?” Francesca looked confused. “Fry what?”

“Other fish to fry. That’s how we say it. Although I like your version better.” He smiled apologetically, and she returned his smile. They were still standing there, simply looking at one another, when Julia came in, her eyes bloodshot.

“My dear,” Francesca exclaimed, “Have you been crying?”

“No, don’t be silly,” Julia lied. “Everything is fine.”

“I am so glad to hear it,” Francesca said quickly. “Silly me. Would you be a dear and prepare one of those delightful espressos for me?”

Julia beamed at her two friends, her usual sunny expression somewhat restored. “Yes, that’d be great. I might even make two.”

Sun and Moon (part 9)

Umbry closed the door behind her and held the doorknob, silently locking it.

“Don’t turn on the light,” came a small voice from the other end of the room.

“I won’t.” Umbry’s response was soft and reassuring. She slid down the door until she was sitting against it.

They sat like that for a long time while Umbry’s eyes adjusted to the light, which was practically nil. The only window was tiny and had a thick black curtain covering it, so it was almost impossible to see. After a few minutes of sitting in the dark, she could just barely make out the shape of her partner across the room. Julia was sitting against the opposite wall, holding her knees to her chest. Umbry couldn’t even really see her face – in the dark of the room it looked more like a mask. Julia’s expression was usually easy to read, almost transparent for Umbry – but under this mask of darkness, it was like trying to read a book written in a dead language. Umbry picked herself up and crawled, slowly, across the room, waving one hand in front of her so as to avoid any obstacles. She crawled under the desk and didn’t stop until she was next to Julia, and then she collapsed into her arms. Julia rested her head on Umbry’s shoulder and they sat together in the dark for another long time.

“You know, Umbry,” Julia whispered, “we’re not twelve anymore. I’m not afraid of the dark.”

“I know, Julia,” Umbry whispered back. “But did you ever think that maybe I–”

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of it now.”

“…Yeah.” Umbry looked a bit sheepish, glad in a way that they couldn’t see each other. She leaned back and started running her hands through Julia’s hair, careful to avoid the eye covered by her partner’s beautiful locks. “It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”

“Let’s not talk about our past, okay?” Julia said, pressing a warm hand against Umbry’s cheek. Softly, she lifted the long black hair and kissed it, careful not to let the darkness touch that precious covered eye. “We have Francesca now, and Clay too,” she whispered, running her fingers through Umbry’s straight black hair.

Francesca. The reaction that name induced in her was… confusing. Still, she nodded to Julia and their visible eyes met, and Julia smiled at her the way she smiled to brighten things up when there was a bad mood going around. Umbry knew that smile well, and it had been used on her effectively countless times in the past, but just this once it didn’t stop her heart from sinking. So she rested her head on Julia’s shoulder and closed her eyes, and in the mask of darkness even her beloved partner couldn’t deduce her feelings.


“Look, if you’re not happy with those boxes, you should have done it yourself. I spent three months doing the most boring desk job ever and I am not going back there.”

Lindsay leaned against the edge of the sofa, slightly out of breath from all the travelling he’d just done. He figured he sounded pretty badass just then, but he still kept his line of sight strictly on the ground, not even casting a glance upwards at his boss. In fact, he realized as he heard the squeaking of a computer chair that his hands were shaking, just slightly.

There was a long, drawn out sigh, and then, finally, words.

“They’re empty.”

“What?” Lindsay thought back, and realized what must have happened. He punched the arm of the sofa in frustration. “That bitch! I knew it was too easy…”

“Well, I forgive you. You’ll get their contents back. I sure of it.”

“And how do you expect me to do that?” Even then, he couldn’t look up, even when he felt a searing pain. Curiousity killed the cat, some people like to say. But maybe now curiousity would have saved it.

Lindsay looked down and felt warm blood on his stomach. He held his hands to the wound and collapsed on the floor in shock.

A crowd of men flooded into the room, hearing the thud, but saw only a figure as it sat at the computer chair.
“What do you want us to do, sir?”

“Take him out. I want to see what they do when they find him like this.” A smirk.

They obeyed without question, like the good men they were…

The two little bronze boxes sat, closed, on the table. Their engraved symbols glittered in the harsh light of the computer screen. Long fingers reached out and placed a third box next to them, and together the three boxes sat, once again after too many years. The insignia on the third box didn’t glitter in the light, but seemed to absorb it – a perfect spiral, culminating in one dark spot in the very middle.

A black hole. Fingertips just grazed the edge of the boxes one by one, and came to rest on this dark spot, lingering there for a sweet second before returning to their home on their owner’s lap.

“It’s been a long time, girls, but don’t you worry. I’ll be seeing you soon.”

Sun and Moon (part 8)

Francesca was quite aware on some level that there were others in the room, but that part of her mind was no longer engaged. When she was working, the entire universe consisted of the problem before her – in this case a deceptively simple set of letters, printed on black and white paper.

At first it had seemed hopeless – how does one assemble meaning from disconnected letters? But at some point she noticed telltale patterns in the way the pieces were cut. She now knew that the original message had been entirely contained on two sheets of paper – one white printed on black, the other black printed on white. The same scissors had been used to cut each of these two messages into its component letters. Slight irregularities in the angles of the cuts had already told her something of which letters went alongside which others.

She could also tell from the frequency of occurrence of the letters that each of the two original messages was incomplete – solving its meaning would require assembling its sister message. For example, the white on black message did not contain a single occurrence of the letter ‘e’ – a statistical near impossibility. The other message contained no occurrences of the letter ‘t’, which was equally unlikely.

Cryptological analysis was second nature to Francesca – a subject second nature to her since she had been a girl growing up in the Lombardia countryside. She could recite the descending sequence of letter frequency in many languages with greater facility than the alphabet itself. For English, this sequence was, more or less:

e t a o n r i s h d l f c m u g y p w b v k x j q z

with ‘e’ being the most commonly occurring letter in the written language, and ‘z’ being the rarest. Depending upon which book one analyzed there were slight variations in this order. For example Mickey Spillane would not produce exactly the same ordering as, say, Jane Austin – although they would be close.

She had already deduced that the creator of this puzzle had a particular order in mind, and had separated out the even and odd letters – placing only the one set on the message from the sun and moon box, and the complementary set in the message from the earth box. The two messages, if separately assembled, would each remain fairly incomprehensible. But when properly interwoven those two messages would reveal their secrets.

She was still engaged in the first phase of the process – the arduous task of physically matching the scissor cuts to find the adjoining fragments of each message. Slowly but surely the two sheets of paper were each becoming whole again. Now it was only a matter of time.

She took a moment to look up at Clay, and they shared a worried glance. They both realized full well that their opponent would soon discover how to open the boxes now in his possession, and would then find that they were empty. Once that happened, the lives of everyone in this room would be in danger. It was essential that the puzzle be solved before then…

Sun and Moon (part 7)

“You know, he might be an idiot, Julia, but in some ways he’s a really smart idiot.”

Umbry sighed. She had tried every trick she knew to get through Lindsay’s added security locks, but it was no use. The computer was shut tight, with all their files inside. The only thing that would display on the monitor was an endless slideshow of cats – cute cats, cats doing stupid tricks, cats in funny costumes, fluffy cats, furless cats, cats with big eyes and small eyes. After staring at the screen for 15 minutes, Umbry swore she’d vomit if she saw another cuddly cat scene. The worst of it was, some of the pictures were starting to look familiar. Maybe it was a big loop and she was seeing the same slide show over and over. By this point, her eyeballs were too numb to be able to tell.

She heard a soft purring noise and looked up to see that the cat had nestled up next to the monitor and was beginning to fall asleep. Ordinarily she would have found this cute, but right now petting a cat was the last thing she wanted to do.

Julia emerged from her office. “The computers in our offices aren’t working either,” she said to no one in particular, stretching out. She shuddered away from the cat, who looked longingly after her, and instead decided to look over what Francesca was doing.

“Want another espresso?”

“I am quite fine. Thank you, dear. The five espressos you’ve already provided were absolutely delicious, and now I am feeling very, ah, energized.”

If there was a note of irony in this response, Julia didn’t notice, as she was already absorbed in looking over the contents of the envelopes, now strewn across the table in no particular order. Each piece of thin paper had a letter on it, and there were a great many of them. The pieces from the sun-and-moon box were white on black paper, while the pieces from the earth box were black on white paper, but they were the same font and the same size. Occasionally Francesca would carefully reach out, delicately pick a letter up with her fingertips and place it next to another. In her eyes was a look of intense concentration.

Julia was never one for anagram puzzles, so she relaxed and settled for watching Francesca working.

Clay also looked on. He too had been working on the puzzle for the last few hours, and now his head hurt. He glanced at the cat, who looked slightly dejected, but before the feline could entice him to come over and pet it a disheveled Umbry emerged from behind the computer screen. She was leaning against the desk, looking completely exhausted and somewhat pale, and Clay went to say something encouraging. But when he’d arrived at her side, she had already straightened herself up. “Are you okay?” He asked, although the answer seemed obvious.

“I’m fine,” she said, sounding very unconvincing. “Just too many darned cats.”

“Wait here.” Clay ran to the kitchen and poured a glass of cold water from the fridge, and thankfully Umbry was still there when he returned with it. An entire glass in three gulps later, the colour returned to her face.

“You’re a brave young woman,” Clay said, “Being able to look at all those cat pictures in one sitting.”

Umbry chuckled. “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.” She took a pause to attempt – futilely – to get a last drop of water out of her glass. “Actually,” she continued, “I didn’t think Lindsay would have it in him to actually betray us. From his actions it was obvious he wanted to, but Lindsay was never good with following through on things…”

“Well, people will always surprise you. Just look at the people in this room.”

Umbry looked at each of them in turn, and ended up pointing at Clay himself, a look of amusement on her face. “You sir, look like an intelligent, well-kempt and organized man, and as far as I know that’s what you are.” He blushed and looked away, trying to find a graceful way to shift the conversation. In the nick of time Julia arrived and did it for him.

“Clay, don’t you think it impolite to have fetched only one glass of water? Francesca is hard at work over there. Do you want her to dehydrate before she has a chance to solve the puzzle?” Before Clay could even begin to respond, she was already pulling him toward the kitchen. “Come on, you big lug, let’s do it properly. One tray, four glasses, a pitcher with ice. Be a dear and help me.”

“Umbry,” she said while heading for the kitchen, “maybe you should help Francesca out with the puzzles. I’m not that good, and I think the computer is a lost cause for now.” With a bemused Clay in tow, she headed toward the kitchen. She avoided the cat on her way out.

Umbry, happy to be away from computers with virtual cats, took a seat next to Francesca, who had completely switched around the order of the letters – they still didn’t form anything coherent, but it seemed like she was getting somewhere.

“They’re just a barrel of laughs, aren’t they?” She said as she adjusted herself, glancing at the older woman next to her.

“Hm.” That was the only answer she’d get. Umbry looked away, sorry she’d opened her mouth, and instead turned to the puzzle in front of them. She took a deep breath and let everything fall away, and suddenly the room went quiet as the both of them became completely absorbed in rearranging the little pieces of paper.

Julia and Clay worked silently for a while, gathering all the components of a proper tray of ice water. Clay had amassed a list of questions in his head about the two young detectives, and he decided this was a good moment to ask some of them.

“You two are very, uh, close, aren’t you? You and Umbry, I mean.”

She turned towards him. “It’s difficult for you to talk about these things, isn’t it, Clay?” She smiled. “Yes, we’re close.”

“How long have you known each other?”

She stared at him, confused. “What are you talking about? We’ve always known each other.”

“Oh.” He scowled, trying to imagine it, but couldn’t. “You… aren’t related, are you?”

Julia giggled. “Of course not!” She thought for a moment.

“Everyone asks that,” she continued. “but personally I can’t really see it. We’re so different, down to the way we walk and write, and in our tastes for food, and…” Clay tried to recall their handwriting, and found that he couldn’t really differentiate one from the other in the few documents he’d seen lying around. Going on to thinking about how they walked, he could maybe see a bit of a difference, but it was hardly significant, and they made their coffee the exact same way…

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Julia said, “I do go on about her, don’t I?” She turned away, embarrassed. Clay realized she’d been talking this whole time. He tried to think of something to say, but found himself unable to interrupt the mysterious look she had at the moment. They finished preparing the tray in silence.

By the time they got back to the office the atmosphere between them had become so peculiar that it seemed to jolt even the cat as they entered. Francesca was completely absorbed in her puzzle solving, but Umbry, seeing Julia’s expression, gave her a quizzical look. Julia mumbled something incoherent about the water, and then lay the tray down on the table. She barely looked at Umbry as she swept into her office, and Umbry watched after her as she walked in, not bothering to turn on the light, and closed the door behind her.

Sun and Moon (part 6)

The table was bare but for four empty espresso cups and two small bronze music boxes. “How remarkable!” exclaimed Francesca.

“What’s remarkable?” Umbry asked.

“That one can find such an excellent espresso in this part of the globe. My compliments to Lindsay.”

“Lindsay doesn’t do coffee,” snorted Umbry, nodding her head toward her partner. “Julia here is our barrista.”

Francesca quickly turned to Julia, a contrite look on her face. “My dear, I’m so terribly sorry for my faux pas. That was by far the finest espresso I have had in quite some time. Can you ever forgive my stupidity?”

Julia was blushing, completely charmed, and very much enjoying the compliment. She was extremely proud of her skill with an espresso machine, a skill that was far too rarely acknowledged. “Francesca,” she replied, “It would be my honor to prepare espresso for you any time. If that means we’ll get to see more of you, then we are the lucky ones.”

Clay watched the smile of mutual appreciation between Francesca and Julia, as well as the much more more difficult to read expression that had now formed upon Umbry’s face. Instinctively he sensed that this would be an excellent time to shift gears.

“We were here for a purpose, ladies,” he said.

The three women just looked at him in silence, a silence that seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time.

It was Francesca who finally spoke.

“They are so remarkably alike.”

Clay was surprised. He too had noticed the uncanny resemblance between the two young detectives, but this was not a statement he had expected from Francesca. It was very unlike her to comment upon the appearance of others. He glanced at Julia and Umbry to see whether they had taken offense, and found that both of them were merely watching the older woman with rapt attention.

Only then did Clay realize that Francesca had not been speaking about SunMoon at all. In fact, following his lead, she had picked up the two little bronze music boxes off the table and was now examining them, studying both carefully, turning over first one then the other, all the while placing them together in various ways with her long elegant fingers.

“When you see the two of them one alongside the other,” she continued, “they become quite fascinating, don’t you think? Both were clearly the work of the same highly skilled craftsman. Identical in every way but for the insigniae engraved into their lids. I found the one box to be merely amusing, but for the unfortunate circumstance of its sudden appearance in my life. But the two together are something else entirely. I am quite certain that they were designed to convey a message.

Clay looked toward the two young women. “We won’t be disturbed, will we?”

Julia shook her head. “Lindsay is under strict instructions. Absolutely no interruptions until I give the all clear. If Armageddon were to break out sometime in the next forty minutes, he has my permission to knock, as long as he does it quietly.”

Clay nodded. “Good. I don’t want Francesca disturbed while she is working.”

The girls looked at him quizzically. He chuckled. “I’m sure you’ve checked up on her, knowing how thorough you two are, but what you won’t find in your files is the rather remarkable true history of our elegant friend here. Let’s just say that there was a time, before Freddie came into her life, when Francesca was the top forensic cryptologist in the antifascist movement — she had a lot to do with bringing down the National Front.”

“Really?” Julia and Umbry exclaimed in unison, a look of genuine delight on their faces.

Francesca, for her part, was ignoring the entire conversation. Clayton had already told her that these rather unusual young women could be trusted, and his word was quite sufficient for her. The ethic she had learned in the Movement had never really changed. From the world at large Francesca kept her secrets, but every individual within the circle of trust was a Comrade.

“Now, my darlings,” she explained, “There are etched lines upon the Earth symbol that adorns this box, the one formerly in the possession of poor Freddie. The lines have worn away with time, yet may still be faintly discerned. One can see that they indicate a planet in partial eclipse.” She pointed delicately to various places on the box lid, while the others looked on, fascinated.

“The meaning of the etching is clear – the light is meant to come from this direction, whereas this other nearby direction is meant to cast a shadow.” She picked up the other box, turning it at an odd angle. “Illuminated by sun, yet eclipsed by moon. Yes, I see now. There seems to be a slight groove along these two lids… If one slides one groove along the other, just so…”

There was an audible click, as both boxes simultaneously sprung open. The others gasped.

“Most ingenious,” Francesca continued in a matter-of-fact tone. “We found no key because each box is itself a key – the key that unlocks its sister box.”

At that moment Lindsay burst in. “Lindsay!” said Julia. “I told you not to disturb us unless Armageddon had arrived!”

“I’m afraid that Armageddon came early this year,” he smirked. For the first time they noticed the Lorcin L 380 in his hand. He gestured with the gun toward the boxes in Francesca’s hands. “I’ll be taking those, thank you.”

“Don’t give them to him,” shouted Julia.

“Hey wait, you don’t get to say that. I’m the one holding the gun,” Lindsay tried to look menacing.

“Gimme a break, Lindsay.” Julia rolled her eyes. “You come in here waving a lousy Saturday Night Special, and suddenly we’re supposed to respect you or something? If you’re as good at being a bad guy as you were at being a good guy, I’m rooting for our team.”

Umbry decided she’d better do something before her partner got carried away – literally. “Julia, I’m afraid we have little choice, we need to do as the man says.” There was another click, and then Umbry was holding the now closed boxes out to Lindsay.

Lindsay glared at her. “I didn’t say to close them!”

Clay spoke up. “You didn’t tell her not to. Although I suspect your client will be quite satisfied just to know that they can be opened. If I know him the way I think I do, I’m pretty sure he will be able to work out the rest on his own very soon.”

“I hope you’re right Terransky – for your sake!” Lindsay slowly backed out of the room, clutching the two music boxes with one hand and waving the gun around with the other. He shot one last glance at Umbry. “Don’t even think about following me.”

And then he was gone.


“So Lindsay was a double agent,” Julia said. “That would certainly explain his lousy secretarial skills. Clay, how did you know who he was working for?”

Clay shrugged. “There are very few players in this game. I did some research when Francesca first showed me the box. There are records of these things, if you know where to look. Two bronze music boxes — a paired set — surfaced on the antiquities market twenty three years ago. One of them was a match for Frederick’s box, the one engraved with an image of the Earth. The other was described as having a moon and sun engraved into its lid. Not so surprising, since Freddie’s note specifically directed me to you two. Although I didn’t realize at first that you actually had the other box.”

“And now Lindsay — or rather, his employer — has taken possession of both boxes,” Francesca spoke up for the first time since Lindsay’s appearance. “It is fortunate that the young man is so stupid.”

“Why is that?” Julia asked.

“Because, my dear, it would have been extremely easy for him to have reopened the box. He could simply have shot the three of you, one at a time, until I had agreed to open them again. I suspect I would have acceeded to his wish after the very first death.”

“Oh,” said Julia, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“But Clay did,” Umbry chimed in. She was smiling up at Clay. “That’s why he did the whole routine about Lindsay’s client knowing how to open the box – to create a distraction — a distraction that probably saved our lives.”

“I do what I can,” Clay smiled sheepishly, feeling suddenly shy under Umbry’s admiring gaze.

“I don’t think Lindsay had it in him,” Julia said doubtfully. Just then the cat wandered in. Absently she started to pet it. “Damn, we were so close,” she said. “Well, at least the idiot didn’t run off with our cat.” The cat started to purr as Julia scratched between its ears. “Look guys, I’m glad we’re still alive and everything, but where do we go from here? We don’t even know what was in the two boxes!”

“Oh yes we do,” Umbry said. “I’m quicker than I look.” She held open her hand. In her palm were two tiny sealed envelopes.

Julia beamed. “That’s my girl.”

Sun and Moon (part 5)

Julia sat at her desk, absently drawing a doodle of a happy child in happier times. She had long ago given up on trying to concentrate – the room was littered with half-read books and unfinished doodles, the trash overflowing with crumpled drawings. She glared at the unfinished picture, and sighed in defeat. Crumpling up the paper, she added it to the growing heap.

There was a knock at the door and she straightened herself up, not bothering even to try to tidy up the mess. “Come in.”

Umbry swept into the room, her long black hair flowing behind her, her arms full with old case files. She used both elbows to shove papers off the table, then carefully laid the pile of case files down in their place. Julia watched with a sort of absent half-interest, her head leaning on her hand. The silence became thick with something awful.

At last Umbry broke the silence. “I want to see if we can find anything out about Mr. Whi–”

“I know.”

Silence again.

“It’s been a long time since someone’s–”

“I know.”

And silence.

“Then you should know I’m not good at comforting people,” Umbry snapped, glaring at her partner.

Julia almost smiled at that. “That is true. I consider it to be one of your finer qualities.” She turned to face her partner. “It gets to you, you know? This is like, what, the third person close to us in three years?”

Umbry perched herself on the edge of the table. “According to the FBI, three murders with the same criteria designates a pattern.” She was smiling a little as she said it, but it was just the ghost of a smile.

Julia could tell she was serious. “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” she said gravely. “This can’t be a coincidence. It doesn’t feel right.” Then she grinned. “Hey, look at the bright side. At least now we know where the other box is.”

She hesitated for just a second and then stood up. Umbry followed her to the back of the room to an old filing cabinet, and together they opened the very bottom drawer. Reaching way into the back, Julia’s fingers touched a small bronze box. She took it out and placed it on the table.

It was a music box. On the top, lovingly engraved, was a tiny insignia of the sun eclipsed by the moon. The two of them stared at it, each of them remembering. They were still standing there, like pensive statues, when Lindsay charged into the room.

“Yo,” he called out, “you wanted some files about that Italian woman, right? Franchinella or something?”

Umbry glared at him. “Francesca.”

“Right, that.” He stopped and took a better look at his two bosses. How symmetrical they looked – they always seemed like twins when they were thinking deeply about something. They had exactly the same thinking face, he noticed. “Um, am I interrupting something?”

“What?” They both asked at the same moment, turning to look at him in unison.

Lindsay shook his head, at a loss for words. Julia was the first to move into action, half-skipping past him toward his computer. “No problem — I’ll check out those files on Francesca, thanks. You interrupted us with something relevant, so it’s okay,” she said, smiling as she passed him, but her smile seemed rushed and perhaps a little contrived. Lindsay sighed, realizing that whatever was going on he was out of his depth. He retreated to the living room to pet the cat while Julia worked on his computer, leaving her partner alone with the music box.

Umbry sighed, pulling at the top of the box, trying one more time to tease it open. As always, though, it wouldn’t budge. She ran her fingers gently over the hand-engraved symbol, and then reluctantly put the box back in its place in the bottom filing cabinet drawer. She straightened herself, turned off the light in her partner’s room and silently closed the door behind her.

Sun and Moon (part 4)

“Clayton, darling, it is Francesca.”

For a moment Clay felt only astonishment. Then a big grin came over his face. “Francesca! How wonderful to hear from you.”

“Yes, my darling, it has been ages, and I have missed you. We will meet for coffee.” He understood that this was not a request. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Coffee with Francesca was very much something he looked forward to.

It was one of those charming little European style cafés, tucked away in a narrow side street, a place known only to locals. One sad day it would be discovered by tourists — betrayed, perhaps, by some well-meaning writer of guidebooks — and the thronging hordes would quickly suck the magic right out of it. And then, as if guided by some immutable law of cities, another café would spring up somewhere to take its place. But for now it was safe — you had to know somebody to find it, or at least know somebody who knew somebody.

Francesca knew everybody. Looking across at her beautiful aristocratic face, he could see even in this dim light that she was, at fifty six, far lovelier than any twenty four year old could ever hope to be. Francesca was like a fine italian wine – maturity only deepened her appeal, added new flavors and mysteries. Right now she was filling him in, her elegant phrases framed by a lilting Milanese accent that Carlo Porta himself would have envied.

“…Not that Frederick and I were happy toward the end, precisely. Dear Freddie was such a lost little boy, in so many ways. I suppose that was an essential part of the appeal, you see, at least during the early years. Summers in the south of France, that little cottage we kept in Majorca, the parties and the party people, it was all delightful, and I regret none of it. I stood by him through those ridiculous accusations, of course. But over time I came to accept that he was more boy than man. A boy I loved with all my heart, but alas not quite the yang to my yin, if you see what I mean.”

Clay nodded, letting her ramble on. We each deal with grief in our own way, he mused to himself. If Francesca needed to reframe her relationship with her departed lover, to create some distance in her mind, who was he to judge? We all get by, and many of us wage our battles with Thanatos by turning his own dark weapons against him. Some of us drink.

His reverie was interrupted by something she said. “Wait,” he said, “Go over that last part again.”

Francesca laughed, shaking her head. “Oh Clayton, you were always the dreamer – drifting off somewhere. Wherever does your mind go in such moments?” She regarded him with a fond look, and continued. “I was just speaking of the music box. The strange little box of bronze I found upon Freddie’s desk the day after his suicide, quite pretty actually, one of those silly little dual-purpose things in which you can place your small treasures and what-nots. It plays the most adorable tune, but this tune I cannot place. The melody is strangely familiar, as though one has encountered it before, perhaps as one remembers a tune last heard in childhood.” She looked thoughtful, a faintest crease of worry appearing upon her forehead. Then she leaned forward, gazing into Clay’s eyes with an intensity that was almost mesmerizing. “What I cannot understand — the puzzle, if you will — is how my Frederick could have been in possession of such an object without my ever having seen it. Was it a gift, perhaps, from another? Was I not woman enough for him?”

Suddenly she broke down and started to sob. Awkwardly Clay offered her his napkin. He wished he could say something that would comfort her, but there really were no words. Even Francesca’s formidable armor of European insoucience was no match for such an unexpected death.

He let her weep for a few minutes, waiting until he thought she was ready. He had already decided he would simply say it straight out, unadorned. “Francesca, Frederick’s death was not a suicide.”

She looked at him, startled. He could tell this revelation had caught her completely off-guard. “But the note he left, the method he chose to die — so much like his own writings — the way he had cut himself off from everyone those last months, how even I could not reach him…” Clay waited quietly until her protests had run their course.

“He sent me another note, quite a different one,” Clay continued, handing her the letter he had received. “We have established that this letter is real — and the suicide note a forgery. Your Freddie was murdered, I’m afraid.”

He could see that she had already regained possession of herself — the murder of her lover, horrific as it may have been, was easier for her to accept than the possibility of suicide. Francesca had a formidable mind, and now it was fully engaged. “Enemies?” she pondered. “Who would be an enemy to poor Freddie? He was more than enough of a danger to himself, without any need for outside assistance.” Absently she started to take a sip from her espresso, realized the little cup was empty, and placed it gently back down into its saucer. “What on earth are we dealing with here, my dear?”

“The music box,” Clay replied. “I have a hunch there is a connection. Have you looked inside the box?”

She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “I confess that was the very first thought I had upon finding the cursed thing. I was seeking a clue for his suicide, although I was a bit fearful of what I might find. Perhaps only that after all this time I had lost his heart to another. I do not know whether I could have withstood the second loss, on top of the first.”

“And what did you find?”

Francesca shrugged. “Nothing, nothing at all. The little bronze box is quite securely locked. I searched through all the drawers of his desk, somewhat frantically I’m afraid, but the key has turned up nowhere.”

Sun and Moon (part 3)

“A private eye…?” Umbry stared at Clay suspiciously. She didn’t like it. Why would a gumshoe go around cold calling, just to share a case?

“A PI?” Julia stared at him as well, tilting her head in thought. He seemed nice, like he was on top of things. And he was obviously determined – she could tell, from his expression. Maybe a little tired, judging from the circles under his eyes, but he seemed okay.

Umbry looked over at Julia hesitantly, but Julia smiled and that was good enough for her.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Clayton. My name is Umbry Stykes, and this is Julia Strype. I believe you’ve come to the right place.”

Clay relaxed a little, and watched as the girls began to fix the place up, moving around the room in an ordered whirl, like one person with two bodies. Umbry set up the tables while Julia closed the curtains, carefully avoiding the cat and managing to give it a pet as well. Clay took a seat closest to the window and they took the other side, sitting next to each other in what seemed to be symmetrical poses. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope.

“I received this recent letter from a friend, recommending you two,” he began, opening his briefcase. He took out a copy of the letter and a collection of photos, which Julia began to peruse.

The first picture was of a man, smiling, with beautifully snowy mountains in the background. The man seemed to be perhaps in his 50s or early 60s, but he’d certainly aged well, and he looked happy. There were several more pictures of him similar to these, next to friends or in large groups, always smiling. In one he was standing next to Clay. His smile looked slightly sadder in this picture.

“Does he look familiar?” Clay asked, watching them. “He’d been a client of mine, Mr. White.”

“He rings a bell, but I can’t say,” Julia finally said, biting her lip.

Umbry scowled at Clay. “You mean to say he’s dead?”

He nodded. “You’re quite observant, Umbry. The letter I received from him was dated just prior to his death, and I received it only afterward.” Clay held out two pieces of paper and an envelope, which Umbry promptly took and smoothed out in front of her. Meanwhile Julia flipped to the last picture in the collection, which was obviously a crime-scene photo. Mr. White was hanging by a rope from the ceiling. He wasn’t smiling at all.

Umbry read the letters. The first was addressed to Clayton Adam Terransky. Judging from the envelope, it had apparently gone to several places before reaching its destination. “Dear Clay,” it read.

“If you are reading this letter, then I am already dead. My instructions to my solicitor were to keep this note securely locked in my safety deposit vault in Zurich until such time as I ceased to be. You, my dear Clayton, are the only one I can trust. Here is the address of a certain detective agency – two charming if rather eccentric young women. Go to them – they will help…” The signature was scribbled, but Umbry read it as Frederick White.

The second was a suicide note. Julia leaned over Umbry’s side and read it aloud.

“For me, the world just isn’t enough anymore. Those close to me have all died, and there is no longer anyone I can trust. I will take my leave now. Tell the world that I was once Frederick White, and let me die in peace.”

The note was also signed, and the signatures appeared to match. Julia looked back at the picture of the smiling man and the cloudy mountains and sighed. “Poor man…”

“It wasn’t a suicide, Julia,” Umbry said. “This note was forged.” Julia wrinkled her nose at Umbry, surprised, while Umbry continued, “But you know that already, don’t you, Mr. Terransky?”

“Yes, I do. The forger was skilled and could almost reproduce Fred’s handwriting, but he used contractions. Fred hated those. In every piece of writing I have from him, he has never used a contraction.”

“So you knew him as more than a client. He was your friend.” Julia was still staring at the pictures, which she’d now spread out in front of her.

“Yes, he was. And that’s why I’ve followed his instructions here.”

“But why here? We aren’t exactly famous. We are so definitely not famous.”

“He knew you. In fact, you were very important to him,” Clayton said. He took out another case file from his briefcase, this one seemingly a little older. But the girls knew exactly what it was as soon as they saw it.”This is…” Julia began, staring at it as she plucked the memories from her head.

“…It’s our breakout case. The Fitzgerald case, with the millionaire,” Umbry continued. “Everyone thought the motive was burglary, but the theft was just smoke and mirrors. And there was a Mr. White — your Mr. White it appears. He was the prime suspect until our sleuthing cleared him. We never actually met the man, but I knew I remembered that face. Wow. This guy gets his fair share of cases, doesn’t he?” Julia continued to stare at the photo, finally laying it back down and piling it with the others. “This time the case is his own death.” She shivered.

“But he isn’t just hiring one gumshoe,” Umbry mused, still deep in thought. “If he’d just wanted SunMoon on the case, he could’ve easily sent that letter to us directly. No, he wanted you in on it too, which means either that he wanted us all to work together or that you’re involved. Perhaps both.”

Clay stared at her. The sorts of implications she was making… “Do you suspect me of anything? I have a clear alibi. The police already interviewed me and didn’t find me suspicious–”

“We’re not suspecting you, Clayton.” Julia was smiling, slightly bemused. “Umbry can be like that sometimes, which is why I’m the one who deals with the witness reports. Now the fact is, Mr. White knew that in order to solve his case you would need to join forces with Umbry and myself, and I know that the two of us feel horribly that he died, especially after all that’s happened to him in the past. He knew that coming to us would yield good results for you, and it will. So if you’ll trust us, I’m sure we’ll have this case solved in no time, no matter what it takes. Sound good?”

Clay found himself touched by this speech. He had expected eccentricity, but he hadn’t expected charm. He found himself shaking Julia’s hand, then Umbry’s, and promising to keep them in the loop. He felt oddly elated all the way back home. He thought to himself that it had been a successful first meeting, and he figured he might sit down and have a glass to celebrate. Only the one glass. Just then the phone rang. He managed to pick it up just before the answering machine kicked in, sounding slightly out of breath when he answered.


Sun and Moon (part 2)

He was running fast – as fast as he’d ever remembered running. Sweat was pouring down into his eyes, making everything before him smear into a blur. Darting into one narrow alleyway and out of another, he thought a few times he’d given it the slip – the Beast – but then he’d hear its heavy footfalls behind him again. Where was he? The signs were all in Japanese – Tokyo, maybe. Asakusa district. But the streets were deserted, which was impossible. No time to think about that now. He didn’t look back – that would just slow him down, the hideous thing would catch up with him and that would be the end. Wait – did he even know what the Beast looked like? Had he ever looked back? Something about that last thought seemed wrong. “This has happened before,” he heard himself saying aloud, although he could swear he hadn’t moved his lips. That was the last thought he had before he felt a claw attach itself to his left ankle. He tried to shake free but the claw dug in and pulled savagely backward, drawing his snared foot with it. Needles of pain shot up his leg. He began screaming even before he started to fall…

Clay woke up covered in sweat.

So the dreams were coming back. He hadn’t had one of those since the first months after she… He stopped the thought before it had time to fully form, with a discipline born of long practice. He tried sitting up, and promptly realized he had a raging hangover. Slowly, deliberately, he swung his legs to the floor and managed to get his weight under him, to stand up. It took all his concentration to make it to the bathroom, to get his head under the shower, one hand pressed against the cool tile for support, the other hand turning on the cold water tap.

It felt good. Icy cold, damned good. Brain function began to return, clarity restored, a clarity he’d obviously been trying his darnedest to avoid the night before. He didn’t remember the exact sequence, but it seemed that at some point last night he’d given up trying to keep the memories out, had poured himself a drink, only the one, just to take the edge off. But of course it was never only the one, was it?

He dried off his hair, and with a purposeful air walked back into the bedroom. One of the two whiskey bottles was empty, but the other was only half finished – good thing he’d passed out when he had or he’d be feeling a lot worse right about now. He looked at the labels, impressed. Both bottles were Macallan thirty year old single malt – pure liquid gold. How the hell had he come into possession of such riches? Most likely the misplaced gratitude of a wealthy former client. Back in the day, when he’d still had wealthy clients. Before…

He could feel the thought stop cold in his head as he walked over to the sink, ran the tap, and carefully poured out the remaining whiskey. How odd to be pouring over four hundred dollars worth of liquor down the drain – more money than he had left in the bank, last time he’d checked. But now he had something better than money – something he hadn’t had in a long time – an interesting case.

It took him only twenty minutes to shower the rest of his body, shave badly, pull on his old suit and head out the door. Another twenty to get to his destination. When he arrived he looked dubiously at the dilapidated old store front. The rotten smell emanating from the grocery store next door was definitely not helping his lingering hangover. He couldn’t figure out which looked more out of place here, the ancient doorbell beneath the faded sign on the glass door, or the fluffy white cat sleeping in the window. He declared it a tie. Trying to look as dignified as possible, he rang the bell.

The front half of the doorbell promptly fell off the door. It hit the ground with a loud ringing thud that seemed to go right through his aching head. He stared down balefully, wondering if this had been a good idea after all. Just then the door opened and a young brown haired man opened the door.

“Welcome to SunMoon detective services. We solve your cases, night or day. How may I help you?” The young man smiled helpfully. “Please don’t mind the doorbell – it does that.”

Clay remembered the importance of first impressions. He thought of various ways of expressing regret over the doorbell incident, decided in the end to pretend it had never happened. Squaring his shoulders, he looked the young man in the eye and was about to speak, when suddenly he realized he was seeing double. Well, almost double. Two young women had just appeared. They looked almost identical, except that one had bright orange curls and the other possessed the blackest head of straight hair he’d ever seen. Both women had one eye hidden by her hair, so that between them they had only two eyes visible. For a moment he had the oddest sensation that he was looking into the eyes of a single person.

“Oh my,” he said to himself, “One person, two heads.” His own head started to ache with renewed vigour. Then he got a hold of himself, and started again.

“My name is Clayton Adam Terransky, private investigator, and I have an interesting case for you.”

Sun and Moon (part 1)

This is the first part (of thirty parts) of a Nanowrimo story that my collaborator and I will be writing, as one post every day, throughout the month of November.

It really didn’t seem like that amazing a place when you first saw it. The sign on the glass door was old (but could have been older), its text faded (but still legible). To the left of the street entrance was an old grocery store whose food was nearly all rotten or infested with some sort of bug — to the right, a restaurant that never got any customers. A fluffy white cat was sleeping in the window. From the outside, the agency looked more like a dentist’s office. The only clue to its true nature was the small, badly-drawn symbol on the aforementioned old, faded sign — the sun, eclipsed by the moon, and a simple phrase in plain text: SunMoon detective services.

Of course it was a run-down place, but that was probably a good thing. Those girls, the SunMoon detectives, were so smart that a place any nicer would have flooded them with customers and undoubtedly burnt them out within a month and a half. They liked it here. Or rather, they didn’t particularly dislike it. None of their neighbours talked to them much, and they had to do the occasional odd job to pay the rent, but when they got their cases, they solved every one. Whether it was lost cat or a murderer on the lam, they could find it for you.

The self-proclaimed ‘Sun’ half of their service was exceedingly bored at the moment. Her office was littered with bad drawings of smiling faces and rainbows. On her desk, in place of the customary picture of a loved one, she had a newspaper clipping from the last time they’d solved a really big case a few years ago. Her computer ran a screensaver of a bustling city during the day, but it was of no interest to her at the moment. Right now she was wrapped up in one of her doodles, trying desperately to draw a lion basking in the sun purely from memory. Or at least that was the picture in her head. To anyone else the drawing looked a lot more like an anorexic cat right after being run over.

But that wasn’t the kind of thought she would have. She was the sun, and the Sun should be bright, productive and cheery. Oh! Productive! That’s right, she was supposed to be doing something worthwhile. She straightened herself up, pushing orange curls off of her right eye, and wrote in large letters on the top of her doodle-filled page: NOTES. Smiling and having accomplished her goal, she slouched again and continued drawing her lion. Julia Strype, after all, wouldn’t be caught dead doing something non-productive.

Speaking of non-productive, in an adjacent office, one door down from Julia the ‘Sun’, sat the ‘Moon’, although this title was not exactly self-proclaimed. She couldn’t remember exactly how she had gotten to be the ‘Moon’, but suffice to say it was not her idea. Her room was far less cheery than that of her partner. On the wall were miscellaneous prints of waterfalls and mountainous landscapes, neither of which particularly ignited her interest, and on her desk was a faded newspaper clipping from when they were still Genius Teen Detectives. On the back wall there was a colourful dartboard, festooned at the moment with about a dozen magnet darts, none of which were even vaguely close to the center of the board.

She glanced over quickly at her computer’s screensaver, which displayed a number of tropical fish swimming across the screen, back and forth, back and forth. Quite mesmerizing, she thought, if you stared at it long enough. Right now it was the angelfish. Sighing, she pushed her straight black hair out of her left eye and threw another dart, missing the dartboard completely. Maybe it was her lack of depth perception… why did they have these stupid haircuts, anyway? Concealing one eye each from the rest of the world only debilitated them, didn’t it? Anyway, all things considered it probably hadn’t been her idea. She decided to throw her next dart straight up into the air and catch it, but it ended up hitting the door behind her and landing, broken, on the ground. She sighed again, frustrated.

It had been months since their last case, and their last case had been way too easy. They needed something big. Umbry Stykes, the ‘Moon’ detective, really hated being bored. A whole world full of crime, and yet it seemed there weren’t any interesting cases they could get their hands on. Friggin’ FBI and the police and all the other acronyms got all the good ones. Maybe the days of the PI were really over. Maybe they should shorten their name. S and M? Oh wait, that didn’t sound too good at all. She wrinkled her nose, stretched and stood up, walking out into the lobby. She was greeted by an apathetic college guy and a sleeping cat. She patted it (the sleeping cat, that is, NOT the college guy) on the head and it purred. The college guy, on the other hand, didn’t even acknowledge her presence.

“Any calls, Lindsay?” She asked, trying to act as if she hadn’t come out here for the express purpose of knowing if there were any calls.

“What do you think?”

Umbry sighed. “Good point.” She gave the fluffy cat one last scratch behind the ears and left. The cat turned lazily to gaze up at Lindsay. He smiled back at it before going back to looking at funny pictures of other cats. Oh, how he loved cats.

A few minutes later Julia emerged from her office. She scratched the white cat’s ear and rubbed its belly, and the cat purred loudly in contentment. She smiled.

“Any calls, Lindsay?”

“What do you think?”

“…Oh.” Somewhat disappointed, she gave the cat one last belly rub and left for her office, closing the door behind her.

Lindsay rolled his eyes. “What weirdos. I swear, as soon as I get a better job than this…” He leaned back in his chair and yawned, pushing shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. The cat stared at him for a second through half-open eyes and then curled back up in a ball to continue sleeping, apparently having had enough excitement for one day. He grinned in appreciation at the feline’s economy of expression, and was about to continue perusing his catalogue of comical cats when the front doorbell rang. Startled by the unexpected sound, he jumped out of the chair, quickly scooping up the mess of doodles, darts and candy wrappers and sweeping them into the desk drawer. If he’d been able to get to the door faster, he could have told his customer that their bell was very old. Now he could only watch as half of the bell detached itself from the glass door, making a very depressing muffled ringing as it hit the ground. Bashfully, he massaged his temples, and proceeded to flip his long bangs away from his face. He put on an obviously fake ghost of a smile. The cat, now awake again, watched this unexpected bustle of activity with clinical interest.

“Welcome to SunMoon detective services. We solve your cases, night or day. How may I help you?”