Stepney left the den as carefully as he had entered it. The outside world rushed into him, filled with smells, sounds, sights beyond number. He smiled in spite of himself. Somehow the case seemed less frightening having been shared with another.
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The city of Celestis was as beautiful as its name demanded. Before him, buildings spiralled into the clouds above, their tips barely visible. The streets were clean, the people healthy. Giant screens beamed out the news of the day, the latest progress, the beautiful people. He began to make his way back to his office, strolling softly.
As he walked, his mind returned to the case with the discomfort of one waking to the cold and forced into activity. Girls, young women. Adolescents. Disappearing without a trace, without cause, without warning. Without explanation.
Not so fast. His mind interrupted him, waving its judging finger at him like a parent scolding a child. Not quite without explanation, is it now, Stepney?
Were it not for the note these girls could be dismissed as simple rebels, furious at their parents and determined to make their way in the world alone. It was not unknown, even in this of all worlds. Yet the note, always the same, pointed to something more. He could not know what, did not want to, yet knew he must. He replayed it in his mind for what seemed like the millionth time.
I must leave you. There is much to be done. Do not seek to find me. Do not contact me. Our time has come to an end.
My time is only beginning.
So brief, tantalising. He could not understand it, nor begin to guess. Perhaps Harlow would be able to help. Perhaps someone would.
Stepney arrived at his office and unlocked the door, straightening the sign before entering. Finder. That was what they called him, anyway. A Finder. One who finds things. Information. Objects. People.
He entered his office and closed the door, hanging his coat on a hook. He turned to continue before pausing and removing a small flask from the jacket. He eyed it with a smile. We all have our vices.
Taking a small sip from the flask, he continued into the office and took a seat, closing his eyes as the screen before him played back the days messages. Requests from parents, worried, anxious, checking for any updates. Or so they claimed. Stepney knew better – the calls came not from a desire for information, but from a desire to do something, anything. A need to feel less helpless, a need to alleviate guilt of their own inaction as their child was off in some unknown place. He would call them back, speak to them, do his best to reassure. But not yet.
He skipped through the messages, recognising the face of each caller and saving it for later viewing. He paused at the last. It was not the face of the parent of yet another child, but that of a friend, an old friend. Her name was Calvin. They had been through a lot together. Stepney smiled, instructed the message to proceed.
“Stepney. This is Calvin.” She paused for a moment, frowned, aware a moment too late of the redundancy of the introduction. A slip unexpected from her. “I have been reading about your latest case. It is most troubling. We must talk. Please contact me when you get this message.”
Stepney took another sip from the flask, closed his eyes. He would call her soon. For now he had to think.
Her voice cut into him suddenly; the message had not ended. She had simply been pausing, as if unsure for words. It was a rare sight and one which unsettled Stepney on the handful of times he had witnessed it.
“I am told you have contacted Harlow. Perhaps that is where you are now. I understand your interest. He is a charming man – they all are – and no doubt understands much of what he says. But do not forget who he is. Do not forget what he is. He is a Neurophant. And he is not to be trusted.
“Please contact me soon.”