Shifting Sands at the Chip-n-Putt Emporium

As I type this, I’m sitting at Magothy Treats, drinking homemade gin that Annabelle persists in garnishing with cranberries so that I won’t feel like I’m taking shots to dull my fear, so I apologize if my syntax isn’t perfect.

Last week I posted a piece on the NBTC website at about the Funicular Railway in the Slope. In it I basically accused four men a century or so ago of plotting murder to cover up something that happened at one of the city’s most exclusive, mostly-annual events, the Shutter Club’s Sepia Ball. The four men were a former mayor of Nagspeake, a railroad magnate, the son of the man who developed the district known as the Slope, and the visible half of the mail-order principality known as Deacon and Morvengarde. It’s not the first time I’ve posted about something toeing the “iffy” line around here, but it is the first time it’s brought a knock on my door at home rather than at the NBTC offices. Or rather, a death-rattle from my doorbell. So I put on an insulated glove that I keep by the intercom buzzer for just this purpose (the wiring in my building is, shall we say, intermittently deadly), and shouted “hello” into the resulting static.

Somebody at the other end of the intercom said something back that sounded a lot like Balthazar Morton–but given the static and the dim possibility that the person on the other end was being electrocuted even as he or she attempted to identify him/herself, I was pretty sure I had misheard the name and my visitor probably wasn’t actually the current Mayor of the city. Still, I shouted a warning to step away from the intercom and buzzed the visitor into the building, hoping he was wearing gloves to dull the shock that’s pretty much a guarantee any time anybody touches the front doorknob. Then I waited for my visitor to hike up the stairs to my seventh-floor flat. I waited a really long time, and I admit that I waited most of that time with my eye glued to the peephole. It isn’t that I think the Mayor’s a bad guy, but you can’t live in this town without becoming something of a conspiracy theorist. Plus, Morton’s got a family link to Deacon and Morvengarde, and I think if I ever turn up on their radar, it’s not going to be as a fan. And I live in probably the easiest part of town for making people disappear. So I was just being, you know, a little careful.

After what seemed like enough time for anybody to get to my floor, even with frequent breaks for hydration, I cracked the door open and peered onto my landing. Nobody. I listened; you can always hear people before they get to this landing, thanks to some miracle of accoustics and the fact that usually they’re breathing pretty hard by the time they get a couple flights up. I couldn’t hear a thing. Then I noticed an envelope sitting neatly on the doormat. Deep plum-colored paper embossed with the seal of the city of Nagspeake: a lantern surrounded by a tendril of iron. I kicked the envelope inside, slammed the door, and locked it, half-expecting to hear the thudding of, I don’t know, arrows, or a hail of bullets, raining against it. I don’t know why. Too many spy thrillers on tv this week or something. Not to keep you in suspense, inside the envelope was a single sheet of paper, with a question and a location printed on it. The location was SEPIA SANDS, SUNSET. The question was: How much do you want to know?

I’m not making this up. I guess if you’re going to run a city like this, you have to have an overblown sense of the dramatic.

Sepia Sands Park

Sepia Sands Park

This is Sepia Sands. It’s a park and wildlife preserve at the north end of Bayside, the district made up mostly of vacationers renting beach homes on the Magothy Bay, and it’s made up of basically a single gargantuan, shifting dune that’s constantly trying to creep across Bay Byway to re-unite itself with the beach frontage. Sepia Sands is a popular tourist destination, particularly at sunset, when everybody hikes up to the summit to get a glimpse of the sun setting over the westward-curling arm of the Spitegash River. I hear sometimes the right sunset turns the whole length of the river red as blood all the way to where it meets the Magothy, but I’ve never seen it happen. What I did figure I could count on, it being a beautiful, clear and unseasonably warmish November day, is that there would be about a million people on the dunes at sunset. Whatever my mysterious correspondent was up to, he or she had chosen a very public place at a time when I was guaranteed a crowd to blend into if I wanted. So I went.

castle2There’s another weird feature of Sepia Sands, beyond the supposed occasional view of a river running red with blood. Being the beachy-vacation place it is, Bayside has about fifteen mini-golf courses scattered along the length of its main thoroughfare, and at one point some maniac built one on the dune side of Bay Byway, in the proverbial shadow of Sepia Sands. It was a fairy-tale themed course called the Sepia Sands Chip-n-Putt Emporium, and from what I can put together it lasted about ten years before the owners gave up trying to hold back the inexorable creep of the dune.  All that’s left these days is the top of what looks like a castle, and more or less of it is visible year by year depending on what the dunes themselves are up to. I like a good sunset, but I like a creepy, half-buried castle even more; plus basically anybody who’s going up to watch the sunset has to walk past the Castle, so I figured it would be a perfect place to wait. When I got to the castle, though, somebody was already there and looking a lot like he was waiting for someone, too.

I walked up and tried to look like I was just interested in the castle while I attempted to study the fellow unobtrusively. I don’t care how often people in novels claim to do this. It’s bloody difficult. I got an impression of tall and gaunt, but that’s kind of my default sinister impression.

“This used to be the ticket booth of the Chip-n-Putt Emporium,” the stranger said. Which gave me the excuse to look at him, and damned if it wasn’t the Mayor of Nagspeake. Oh, he’d tried to disguise himself with a big pair of horn glasses and a novelty-shop mustache and eyebrows, but it was Balthazar Morton himself, all right. “When I was about ten I came here for a birthday party,” he added.

“That’s nice,” I said, and stuck my hand out with the envelope in it. “Did the invitations look like this, at all?”

Morton smiled and nodded toward the top of the dune. “Let’s go. We’ll miss the sunset.”

So up we hiked, Morton with a dusty trenchcoat billowing out behind him and the fake mustache threatening to blow away at any time, and me trying to keep an eye out for any evidence that this was some kind of set-up.  At the top of the first of the hills that made up the giant dune, the Mayor stopped and nodded back in the direction we’d come. “It never gets old, this view.”

“What are we doing here, Your Honor?”

“Call me Julius. You’re the one who wrote about the Funicular?”

“Um. Yes?”

“And who threatened to call D&M on Augie Flyre?”

“Hang on, I didn’t threaten anybody–”

“And who wrote that thing about the punk in the Bazaar?”

“Well, yeah, but–”

“And something trying to link the hanged man at St. Horace Rye to the Shutter Club?”

I probably should’ve been flattered that he’d read any of my stuff, but then, this was the highest-ranking officer in the city, so he’d probably just delegated it to some intern and asked for bullet points. “Why are we here, sir?”

Morton sighed and took off the glasses to clean them. I took the opportunity for another quick look around, half-expecting to see the tweedy guards that police the Shutter Club grounds appearing from behind the nearest clump of scrubby, windblown bushes. “We’re here so I can tell you a few things,” the Mayor said at last. “You can decide what to do with them.” He put his glasses back on and looked at something off to our right. It could’ve been the Funicular, the Shutter Club Mansion, the cupola of St. Horace Rye, the smoking chimneys of Slaughterhouse Row, or the distant gleam at the top of Whilforber Hill that I knew marked the terminus of the railroad.  From where we stood, we could see all of them. “Tomorrow I’m leaving the city,” he added. “It won’t matter to me anymore.”

Knock me over with a feather. The Mayor was skipping town. Holy shit.

I waited as patiently as I could while Balthazar Morton made up his mind to go through with whatever he was proposing to go through with. “You know about the castle,” he said at length. “Do you know what else is left under there?”

I looked at the sift of sand around the remains of the castle. It seemed to me now that there were rises and depressions I hadn’t noticed, but then those same features might or might not be there in a week. “I can’t tell if what I’m looking at is something below, or just the dune,” I said.

Morton grinned behind the fake mustache. “It’s both. The whole golf course is still under there, you know.” He pointed a short distance from the half-buried castle. “That’s where the shoe was…you know, there was an old woman who lived in a shoe? More of a boot, really…and there, that was the tuffet, and the owners always had some girl hired to sit there and eat a bowl of something until this big mechanical spider came up and scared her off. Par four, if I recall,” he said thoughtfully. “The spider was a little unpredictable.”  Sensing me about to ask again what the hell was going on, he gave me another weird mustachioed smile and pointed up the dune to a batch of scrub about a quarter mile away. “And right under there’s the Little Red Riding Hood House. In fact, that tree’s growing right out of the chimney. Go look yourself, sometime. Know where the fairy tale displays came from? They were the scale models for the big ones at FantasyTowne.” FantasyTowne being a fairy tale-themed amusement park that closed years before I moved here. The elders at the NBTC talk about it in tones of  hushed wonder. I’ve actually considered breaking in–respectfully–and taking some pictures, but I haven’t gotten around to it.

Meanwhile the Mayor was looking at me as if it should mean something to me that the displays at the Chip-n-Putt were prototypes for FantasyTowne. “If there’s a significance, I’m ashamed to say I don’t follow.”

He gave me a slightly disappointed look. “You know, you can order a custom mini-golf course from Deacon and Morvengarde,” he said casually. “Just like you can order an Alice in Wonderland teacup ride, or a railway station, or a stained glass window. The days are long gone, when you could get yourself into trouble if you didn’t get those things from D&M, but some would say that’s only because Julius Honorius Deacon insisted on diversifying his company’s business.”

A horrible thought crossed my mind. “Why’d you say to call you Julius before?”

The Mayor laughed grimly. “Because I thought in this getup I looked a little like Groucho Marx. Settle down. Look, here’s the point: there’s a body in the Red Riding Hood House. It was put there the week the owner of the Chip-n-Putt gave up the course for lost.”

“Who is it?” I was trying like mad to figure who might’ve gone missing at the same time the Chip-n-Putt went kaput, but the stupid impossibility of putting together chronologies when you can only guess at when they happened kept me from making any immediate connections.

“It’s one of three people; more than that, your guess is as good as mine,” Morton said, fiddling with his left eyebrow, which had begun to peel away in the wind. “Depending on who it is, though, you have three different potential versions of the exposee of your career.”

I’m not a reporter. I’m not a reporter! When are people going to–nevermind.

“When did Lowell Skellansen go missing?” I asked, thinking hard. Skellansen was the artist who rendered the Shutter Club’s stained glass, and who I speculated might’ve been the man who was hung out in front of St. Horace Rye.

“It might be Lowell Skellansen,” the Mayor agreed with a little smile, as if proud of my wild guessing. “Or it might be Julius Honorius Deacon.”

Deacon? Why on earth would–” But Morton was giving me a grin that conveyed something like, if you think that’s crazy…  “Skellansen, Deacon…or…?”

Balthazar Morton held his grin for what I can only describe as a dramatic pause, then said, “Owen Ilford.”

“Bullshit,” I said reflexively. “Bullshit!”

“May I die right here,” Morton said, “if I’m lying. Of course, it’s only a 33.33 percent chance…but it could be.”

“Ilford had to have died like fifty years ago!” If he ever existed. I chose not to add that part.

“Exactly. Or just a little less than fifty years.”

Damn Nagspeake chronologies. “So what you’re saying is–”

“I’m not saying anything. I’m telling you, if you really want to know the truth behind all these wild accusations you hint at in your writing, you’ll find out who’s wearing Granny’s nightgown. The key to the city’s there.” Morton straightened his trenchcoat and brushed some sand from the front. Our interview was at an end. “But you didn’t get it from me. Or if you did, you got it from me three days from now. I ought to be halfway to Bell Hill by then.”

I nodded. He stuck out a hand, and I shook it. With a quirk of one fake eyebrow, the Mayor of Nagspeake started down the dune toward Bay Byway. I waited, the last threads of red sun casting attenuated shadows of deep dark. When the gunshot sounded, I flung myself down out of instinct and wound up tumbling down the sandy slope directly into one of those pockets of black shadow that held the fallen body of Balthazar Morton, ravaged beyond repair by what looked like a blast of buckshot.

By then the entire dune was a sandstorm of fleeing bodies. It was too late to do anything for the Mayor. I made sure I had his letter safe in my pocket, then I got up and I ran. I reached Bay Byway and managed to shove my way onto one of the Byway shuttle buses. Through the green-tinted window I thought I spotted the silhouette of a tweed-suited figure in a bowler hat stalking down the dune toward the fallen man.

What I can’t figure out is this: why did the Mayor’s assassin wait until we had finished our meeting before shooting? Something tells me it doesn’t take the Shutter Club guards that long to find their targets, which means I was meant to see the Mayor die, and meant to understand that I was, for some reason, spared. Annabelle is refreshing my gin-and-more-gin cocktail, and I’m tired of speculating. Somewhere under a mountain of sand is a body that will point me on my way to answers–at least, according to another dead man of my acquaintance. I will just have to see what that body has to tell me, and take it from there.


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