Tag Archives: Creve Coeur

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 Nagspeake.com 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.

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Annabelle the MMA Goddess and the Mystery of the Missing Pots

Annabelle Bechamel and I have been friends since basically the day I arrived in Nagspeake. I have been a regular at Magothy Treats, the eponymous confectionery shop on Bay Byway, if not every day then at least every third day. Annabelle has heard every gripe I’ve had for the last two years, and I’ve listened to plenty of hers. You share enough of Annabelle’s liquors with somebody and you get to be friends or you start worrying about blackmail; Annabelle and I became friends, something we’d probably have done even without the drinks, and I can’t imagine this city or my life in it without her. But something happened a couple of weeks ago that drove a bit of a pike into our friendship. Actually it was two things: 1) my husband a care package to Nagspeake, and 2) Annabelle and I joined Twitter.

Before I explain how these things caused the rift they’ve caused, let me explain that Nathan mailed the package to me in care of Magothy Treats because my apartment in Creve Coeur is notorious for “losing” mail. Creve Coeur is one of the slightly less-squalid neighborhoods of Shantytown, but it’s still Shantytown, and it’s just better–safer–if you keep a post office box someplace else. Annabelle offered her shop as my post office box, which was wonderful of her until this particular mailing. I’m sure she had no intention to steal anything, but suddenly a flurry of tweets from Annabelle’s account demonstrated a sudden fascination with mixed martial arts, which suggested to me that she just might have gotten into my mail. My husband, you see, is a mixed martial arts geek, and was concerned that I might have been missing our domestic evenings at home with a few beers and the complete history of the UFC, which we were working our way through. So he mailed me every single one, including a bunch of other promotions he particularly likes. I suspect that if Annabelle has been plowing through them as fast as her growing obsession would indicate she’s almost done with them, at which point Nathan’s care package will miraculously appear and make its way to me. That’s fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. Annabelle of course denies that she intercepted my mail, although she has more or less admitted to the crime on her website. Whatever. I’m willing to accept her apology along with the DVDs whenever she’s done with them. But someone out there who was reading our tweets back and forth, which anyone would be forgiven for reading as evidence of animosity between the two of us, then called me anonymously claiming to have Annabelle’s long-missing collection of antique copper pots in case I wanted them.

Now, if you’re not in Nagspeake or if you are and somehow have missed the fact that Magothy Treats hasn’t sold caramels since last winter, here is the quick background. Annabelle has always been justifiably famous for her seasonal caramels. In the spring she makes Bouquet Caramels, flavored with things like rosewater and orange flower, hibiscus and lavender and plenty more exotic blossoms. In the summer she does some amazing thing she calls Saltwater Caramels, which are like a weird hybrid of taffy, caramel, and summer honey. In the fall and winter they get warmer, flavored with spicy liqueurs and things like clove and ginger and cardamom and whatever more interesting spices she happens to have on hand. I was heartbroken that she didn’t make them this year, because they were going to be my Christmas presents to just about everybody. And the reason Magothy Treats has been without caramels (and plenty of other things it usually stocks) is the disappearance of Annabelle’s heirloom copper pots and pans.

You will have to get her to tell you the story of where they were made and how they came to her. I have suggested over and over that she write it down somewhere. The tale involves romance, smuggling, ciphers hammered into the surface of a turbotiere that lead to the negotiation of a very secret treaty by codes based on flavored candies made in the same pots Annabelle now uses to make her confections. In honor of her collection of pots, Annabelle had plans this year to introduce a gift box of Treaty Caramels, reproducing as faithfully as she could the candied correspondence that enabled the Magothy Concord and set Nagspeake on the path to becoming the great city it sort of is. But everything went to hell when she took a nap at the counter one day and woke up to find her kitchen pillaged.

Annabelle claims she knows who did it. If she does, she’s never named names, probably because it’s a little unnerving to have somebody waltz past you and steal a truckload of metal without making so much as a sound. She also claims she knows how they did it, and you have to know Annabelle to understand why this would be a logical conjecture on her part, but she says the thieves must’ve used a Hand of Glory to do their dirty work.

A Hand of Glory. Where to start? Well, like any good sinister bit of old European weirdness with any kind of history to it, there are plenty of variations. Some say you use the left hand of a hanged man. Some say you want the hand of a murderer, and it should be the one that committed the slaying. It’s used for home invasion, basically; either the hand is lit like a candle, or it’s made to hold a candle that can only be put out by very specific means. As long as the candle’s lit, whoever you rob will sleep, enabling you to abscond with her copper pots without having to worry about noise. Whatever variation you make your Hand of Glory according to, though, there are other tricky ingredients to source before the Hand will work. You need, for instance, a substance often translated as Lapland Sesame. There is supposed to be no such thing. Annabelle, being obsessed with weird spices, actually went looking for Lapland Sesame not too long ago. She hadn’t found it, but she thinks somewhere along the way in the course of her search she must’ve talked to someone who not only knew what she was talking about, but knew what it actually is and what it was used for. She clearly also thinks she knows who that person is.

I think I know who that person is, too. There just aren’t that many people in Nagspeake who both wish Annabelle ill and seem likely people to know about the arcane history of strange spices. I can think of two off the top of my head: John Pinnard, owner of Nagspice, Bayside’s premier spice shop; and Salvie Edmondson, owner of Cryptic Messages, a psychic parlor a few mileposts down the Byway from Magothy Treats. Neither sound precisely like the strange voice that called me a week ago offering the pots up for sale, but then both of them could safely assume I’d recognize their voices if they weren’t disguised. Of course, there could be an unknown dark horse out there whose grudge against Annabelle or her landmark candy shop I don’t know about. I presume, though, that whoever it is has read our Twitter conversations but not my Expat archives, or they’d have understood our spat for a spat rather than any kind of real animosity. My money’s on Salvie because although Pinnard’s a pretentious bastard, I don’t think he’s got a shred of real evil-spiritedness to him. Salvie, on the other hand, is a real bitch. She also happens to have recently been divorced by Annabelle’s brother Ted. We’ll see. I’ve arranged a hand-off meeting to buy the pots this evening. I have an itemized list from Annabelle to make sure I get the whole lot, and in my correspondence with the anonymous caller I’ve hinted strongly that if he/she is willing to sell the secret to stealing a heap of metal without waking a sleeping confectioner, I will pay extra. We shall see what it all turns up. More to follow!

(From 14 January, 2009)

What you didn’t know was weird about Old Iron

There’s a wrought iron balcony outside the apartment I rent in Shantytown. It took me two weeks to grasp the fact that the iron was moving. When I finally noticed it I thought I was drunk.

I assume Nagspeake is not the only place in the world where iron flows. I learned as a child about the liquid-like nature of glass and how really old panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because the glass is flowing, obeying gravity in its slow, viscid way. I thought that was mind-bendingly weird at the time, so I’m trying to keep an open mind about the unique properties of iron in Nagspeake.

It’s very difficult for me.

smaller-close-iron-for-web

Nagspeakers have grown up with their balletic, hive-brained iron “animalcules,” so I wonder if my readers can imagine what it’s like to be an out-of-towner discovering the motive capability of Nagspeake iron for the first time.  I know, I know, I’m not the first person to freak out and have to have things explained in a series of small, simple words delivered in a comforting tone accompanied by either a stiff drink or a cup of tea. However, I might be the only one with a website, so I’d like to take you through the series of encounters that have made up my tenuous understanding of what Nagspeakers call “Old Iron.”

Encounter #1:
My solicitous landlord warns me as he hands me the keys for the apartment I’ve just rented not to fall asleep on the balcony. I ask why (forgetting entirely for the moment that I don’t make it a habit to sleep on balconies) and he says, “Because it’s old iron, honey.” I assume he means it’s rusting and unstable or something. It doesn’t quite explain his precise exhortation per se, but I preferred it at the time to my first interpretation of his caveat, which was more along the lines of “There are bad people in the world, missy, and did you happen to notice you rented a flat in Shantytown, for Christ’s sake?”  Old iron I could handle.

Encounter #2:
Drunk on some kind of intoxicating tea ordered from one of the endless mail order catalogues that have begun showing up at my door, I stare for hours at a flourish at one corner of the balcony and watch it bloom, curlicues and whorls moving like fast-growing ivy as they take possession of a railing…then the phone rings.  I look at my watch, having expected a phone call from a particular friend what seems like hours ago, and discover only five minutes have elapsed since I drank the tea. Out on the balcony the flourish is still twisting slowly. I watch it, convinced the tea is behind this prank. The iron reconfigures itself, but it’s as if it’s obeying a fractal pattern or some kind of weird choreography. It never fully takes another shape; it stays confined to roughly the same 9″x12″ space and it moves only slightly faster than a plant does when its leaves turn on their stems to lean into the light. Fast enough to be seen, slowly enough to go unremarked just as easily.

I record observations throughout what I don’t yet know to call “the grey hours,” and yet the whole time I’m still convinced I’m drunk and hallucinating and recording the effects of the tea. In retrospect I could’ve saved myself the cost of the herbs and just watched the balcony in the first place.

Encounter #3:
I’m invited to a party in the Printer’s Quarter and sometime in the night overhear someone lamenting the total lack of effect she experienced from an herbal tea that was supposed to have intoxicating properties.  Recognizing this as my perfect entree to the conversation, I jump in and comment that she must’ve gotten the dosage wrong because I’d spent a good three hours watching iron move on my balcony after a cup of the same stuff. I assume the resultant laughter is because I’ve just admitted to being a total junkie and slink away to stuff my face with canape-size crab cakes.

It took some work, but I eventually figured things out and then went in search of a physicist willing to sit down over a string of beers and explain the dynamics of Old Iron and its constituent animalcules in terms I could understand. Sort of. To me, to someone for whom iron had always been inert, Nagspeake iron still seems something like a cross between a clockwork interpretation of a plant responding to light and a sentient, serpentine kind of hive. An elemental Borg.
Maybe he didn’t get it as clear in my head as I thought.
That was Encounter #4.

After that I went through several phases of realization and denial, most notably laboring for a while under the conviction that the entire city was having one over on me and then the conviction that I was mad, which precipitated a near-month of panicked fear; I knew I had gone off the deep end and that someone was eventually going to notice it and I had talked to way too many people about “the iron” already–I was seeing it move all the time now, forcing myself to stay awake through the grey hours every night (the time when the iron cools fastest, the animalcules, as I understand it, performing a quantum-level, half-organized sort of elemental yoga), lying on the balcony watching the belly-dancing flourishes, feeling the floor of the balcony itself move under my back…after a while the sensation is like floating on water in continuous but gentle motion. I wondered if I disobeyed my landlord’s injunction and fell asleep on this iron sea, would I wake up somewhere else? Would it bear me away to another place?

No, I never fell asleep out there. I did, however, stop leaving my apartment. I was so afraid someone, some well-meaning citizen, would find out about my madness and  have me committed to St. Whit’s, where I would grow old and die without ever coming out of my mania. Plus I couldn’t stand to stop watching my balcony. I went at least one two-day stretch without eating because of it, and let me tell you, I will never, never run out of Ramen noodles again. You can eat that stuff dry, straight out of the wrapper if you have to.

I got tired of being mad after a while and went back to work, but it was a distracted existence because although I had sort of decided I wasn’t crazy, I was still trying with pathological single-mindedness to figure out what was really going on. I had stumbled onto something for sure, the physicist had probably been speaking in code and now it was up to me to figure it all out.

What I learned:
I’m not crazy. The properties of Nagspeake iron have been documented by thousands of people over the years. The physics is still a little beyond my understanding, but what really interest me these days are the competing theories on the origins of the stuff: depending on which hypothesis you ascribe to, the “Old Iron” found all over the place was either brought to Nagspeake back in the days when the city sheltered pirates year-round, or pre-dates the city altogether.

Theory “A” adherents say there was a particularly devastating hurricane one year followed almost immediately by a citywide fire.  A fleet of pirate ships intent on doing a good deed for their adopted town went out and burned another city down the coast clear to the ground and salvaged the iron infrastructure, which they then brought into Nagspeake the way they always came to town: via the Quayside Harbors on the inlet side of the hill separating the Magothy frontage portion of the city from Shantytown. At the time, it took considerable work to move anything big overland from Shantytown to Nagspeake proper, so most of the iron stayed where it landed. This is why, despite the fact that most of Shantytown is the same ragtag collection of dives and flophouses and dubious warehouses that it was back in the golden age of Magothy piracy and smuggling, the largest transported structures and most beautiful ornamental iron is to be found there.  My apartment, for instance, has that balcony, which you really have to see to believe. There are doors, the great gates of the destroyed city’s cathedrals and churches, giant bells. New Orleans has NOTHING on Shantytown.

Theory “B” is weirder and cooler. It states that the iron underpinnings of the city, all the crazy structural stuff and the ornamental bits and the huge lanterns and grates and the wrought stairs and so on and so forth–all of it–was here first, a skeleton that the inhabitants of what would become Nagspeake used as a foundation. Some people have tried to link this theory with speculations about the Ferrous Sanctus Monastery on the western slopes of the hill, an institution of equally foggy origins–and why not; the monks don’t speak so its anybody’s guess. I think this theory has infinite niftiness over the other one–except in my paranoid moments when I think the iron is going to rise up and destroy the city the way it (possibly?) destroyed the last one, tearing it delicately and gracefully to pieces until only it remains, the gaunt blueprint of a city that once was, left for another people to build upon. If any remain. The monks of Ferrous Sanctus, protected by their devotions, will look down from the hill with bleak resignation, having, sadly, seen this kind of thing happen before.

I still sit up some nights, through the grey hours and into the dawn, watching the iron. More and more it symbolizes this little harbor city to me: rooted but mobile, it expands and contracts and spills over the bones of its basic shapes as it heats in the day and cools in the night.  Its inhabitants and its ships come and go, but the city remains, shifting and sighing, imitating the distortions of the shadows it casts on the ground, dancing in place. When all the people are dead and all the wood rotted away and plaster and brick eroded into the sands of another beachfront a thousand years from now, the iron will remain, older but unchanged, still waving at the sea from its place on the shore. Perhaps (I think sometimes) Nagspeake, the city, is alive in ways that other cities are not.

Or perhaps there’s a room in the asylum being made up for me this very minute.

(From 27 May, 2007)