Saturday, May 12, 2012

Forgotten (Part 1 of 4)

You can find the (most excellent) Dutch translation here.

Other people had ordinary talents, like playing the piano or finding prime numbers. Nigel West's talent was finding things. Lost keys, dried cobras, puzzling particles: if it existed, he'd find it, and bring it to you, wrapped neatly in brown paper and professionally tied with twine. Or not—some things, like memories and cats, were never truly lost and would come back on their own or not at all, he'd explain, and offer a tissue for the invariable sniffles that followed.

That was the premise he worked under, he'd explain at dinner parties, thrown by grateful clients for whom he'd recovered a lost diamond, a painting—once there had been a Rolls Royce. The owner sent him a bottle of champagne every year, to mark the anniversary of that particular triumph, though for Nigel it hadn't been particularly hard to find: the car was confused and couldn't make heads or tails of where it was. Lost things, he'd tell an astounded crowd, want to be found. You just had to know how to hear them.

He had reasonable fees: a few quid for keys, textbooks. Lost dogs were a bit more—dogs almost always wanted to be found—and lost cars (stolen cars, really, but the cars themselves didn't make that distinction) were a few hundred. For people it depended on the family—he was not entirely without scruples and wouldn't dream of charging for finding a missing child, but if they wanted to give him a monetary reward, he wasn't above accepting compensation. And travel expenses, of course: the Tube wasn't that costly but it was a risk for such a frail old man to go it alone, especially what with the hooligans running amok these days.

Every now and then he'd get someone from the theaters ringing the bell to his tidy little home in south London, desperate for some prop that they didn't have or couldn't make. He relished these assignments—could he find them a bezoar of goat? Thirteen differently-colored saddle shoes? Dessicated chickens? He didn't disappoint. Word got around. Payment upon delivery.

The man that approached his drive today looked to be the theater-prop-searching kind of client. He wore a cap, pulled down over his eyes, and a full face of long black beard. Nigel stood behind the relative safety of his lace curtains, watching this bear of a man—for he was very tall, and dressed in a long black overcoat and heavy coal-boots, blackened with soot—make his way up his drive. Apprehension crept up on his stomach like a cat, padding at his belly before settling in for good. The scuff marks would take days to polish out of his hardwood floors.

The bell rang. It seemed louder than usual, and Nigel fairly jumped out of his skin. He didn't realize just how much he dreaded this man entering his home until he had to let the man in. There wasn't much point in pretending not to be in, though—his bicycle was leaning against the rosebush. The man grunted a greeting and Nigel, struggling to hoist his coat onto the coat rack, pointed towards the chairs, hoping that their spindly legs could cope with such a massive man. The furniture creaked, but held. Nigel breathed a sigh of relief as he set up the tea tray. The tea cups were so fragile. He hoped they wouldn't be crushed in the man's hands.

“Tea, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you,” the man said. He had curiously gray eyes. Nigel poured out two cups, and set a small butter cookie on the saucers. They each took a polite sip.

“Atrocious weather, isn't it?” Nigel said. The man had arrived during a gap in the showers, when the sky merely threatened to pour.

“It's not so bad,” the man replied. “Peter. Peter Gatsby.”

“And what can I find for you, Peter?” Nigel asked. There was no need to introduce himself. He had a plaque below the lamp outside that read, “N. West, Finder and Purveyor of All Things.” Furthermore, most of his new clients were referred to him by his old ones.

“I need a skull,” Peter said.

“Surely some theater must have some thing some where,” Nigel said.

“It's not just any skull, “ Peter said. “My, ah, client is particular about it.”

The apprehension moved from Nigel's stomach to his chest. He couldn't quite place what it was about Peter or the request that made him so uneasy about it. He'd found skulls (and stomachs, and even a splayed uterus, floating in formaldehyde, an egg of tissue surrounding a wrinkled alien) for stranger, more menacing characters before, but at the word “particular” all of the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. “Well, are you going to give me any details as to what it looks like?” he asked, finally.

“You'll know it when you find it,” the man said. He leaned forward, to reach behind him. “I was also told you give you this,” he said, extricating a large-bore revolver from the back of his belt.

“Is it that dangerous a job?” Nigel gasped. He didn't like guns. Never did—loud, crude things, rough, killing with a spatter of lead. Messy. He much preferred knives, himself.

“It's just a precaution,” Peter said. “We wouldn't want anything to happen to you prematurely.”

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