The Monster on Mandrake Street
(A Pestworld Story)
by Colin P. Davies
section 1 of 2
Sunlight would not enter Mandrake Street. The shops huddled in the shadow of the debtors’ prison. Many said it was the darkest and coldest street in Plateau. This was not a good place for a man of wealth — let alone the leader of a world. Yet here was Parvo, accompanied by his six-armed brinkman bodyguard, stepping along the snow-dusted cobbles under a leaden twilight sky, marveling at the lack of echo from the creature’s steel-toed shoes. It seemed the open doorways of the shadow-filled shops sucked away the sound. Other than Parvo, the street was deserted.
Would he find the answer he needed, or was the old spacer having fun with him?
In the last week he’d lost two of the palace kitchen staff and one guard; their bodies torn to shreds and dumped in the Plateau reservoir. In each case there had been a break-in at the house of a family member followed by a somehow convincing video call from the home phone which sent the victim rushing away on a matter of life and death — or just death, as it turned out.
Replacing the staff was not the problem; pay was good and demand high. But nothing could happen quickly. There were background checks, DNA matching, family research, retinal scans, the whole panoply of security that allowed Parvo to sleep easily at night.
Walking down the notorious Mandrake Street was way out of his comfort zone.
The problem was that he didn’t like mysteries, but he also didn’t trust his own police force to solve a case of breaking wind, let alone breaking and entering. Yet he had to be seen to be doing something... he was Parvo, High Lord Pestmeister of Pestworld. His staff, his subjects, expected it. Murder shouldn’t happen... Murder had happened. In the hush of the street, his head roared.
He proceeded cautiously, peering into deep shadows, fearing the flash of eyes, but finding only childhood memories.
Just moments ago, before he’d turned down Mandrake Street, the city had been colored with the sounds of commerce. Traders sold everything from home-produced live-ware and recycled machine parts to stolen high-tech nanonics from the uptown ghetto. Freaks purchased masks from whittlers. Stickmen bartered with nocturnals for alcohol and axes. Simonswood sprites slipped purses from pockets, or whistled through their fluted noses for spare change and a crispy noodle. The city was huge and cosmopolitan — and loud.
Shivering in spite of his heavy fur-lined trench-coat, warm trousers and leather boots, Parvo pulled his woolen hat lower and continued down the street past dull signs for Sorcery Supplies and Magic Talismans and snow-decked windows with their dark and dusty displays. The entire street was unlit except for one shop where a lantern flickered beside the open doorway. As he approached the light, Parvo became aware of a buzzing.
An insect circled the hanging lantern. Not a candle-fly as he’d expected, but something with the shape of an hourglass and golden — clearly mechanical. The wings moved too fast to see. The drone must have become aware of him, for it darted through the doorway of the shop.
His brown-furred bodyguard twitched its neck-less head and clenched all six of its huge fists. Its small blue eyes peered from below a brow ridge of hard, sharp bone. It wanted action. Parvo reached up to slip a sugar cube into the permanently scowling mouth.
Now he noticed a light deep within the shop and a faded sign that announced Monster Museum. The narrow front window suggested that ‘monster’ did not refer to the size of the premises.
Parvo had been told that he would find what he needed in Mandrake Street, but he was not happy to be here. His heart thudded and icy sweat soaked the collar of his shirt. He was reliving the recurring nightmare of his childhood that had bequeathed him an overwhelming fear of magic: the house in the forest and his disobedient legs which carried him within; the witch with the walk-in oven and no face; the freshly-baked biscuit in which he had bitten upon a human tooth...
Nanny Naples was to blame. For two years she’d regaled the boys of his dormitory with bedtime stories as grim and dark as any child’s fears. She told the children the terrifying tales were character-building, then tucked them in and wished them “Sweet dreams”; but far from building character, the stories had the more immediate effect of disturbed sleep and an unusually high demand for fresh bed linen.
The boys had fought back, using Nanny’s irrational fear of merriweather rats. They slipped paper effigies of the flat creatures into her romance novels and laughed at the screams.
And so, her tales grew still darker.
Parvo had eventually solved that problem — with a little help from a hidden camera and a live link to the local trivee station — and he would also solve this one now.
He had to go into the shop. If he pulled back now, if he ran in fear from this black cave of magicians, he would be a failure. He could lose this world he had fought so hard to gain.
And he would never be able to eat another biscuit.
He kicked the snow from his boots, instructed the bodyguard to follow, and went inside.
* * *
Parvo had met the old spacer the morning after the third disappearance from his palace.
He had been taking a bicycle ride down to the river in the forest, and Anyar had insisted on joining him. He hadn’t argued too much; she was the daughter of his security chief and he found her sprightly and funny, and surprisingly wise for her eighteen years.
With their slowbeef-leather gloves, heavy coats fastened tight and trousers held with bicycle clips, the pair sped merrily into the icy wind, Parvo in the lead. The brinkman bodyguard cycled awkwardly behind, its furry legs tucked safely into crimson leg warmers. The air was sweet with winter fungi; the hazy sun a comfort on Parvo’s face.
“Your brother always was the excitable sort,” said Parvo, as he ducked under a thorntree branch. The tree nearly took his white woolen hat.
“He’s entitled to be.” Being shorter, Anyar did not need to duck. “He’s never completed a house before. Not by himself. The guild is producing a nameplate for him.”
The bodyguard was struck in the face by the sharp thorns, but appeared not to notice.
“I’ll be sure to congratulate him. Maybe I’ll send a card.” Parvo had no interest in house-building. He was a pestmeister, a High Lord, and imagined he always would be.
“You’ve changed in the last few days,” said Anyar. “Are the killings troubling you?”
“I’m sure it’s just a staff thing.”
Parvo examined her face, but the spark in her eyes told him little. “How is your mother’s illness?”
“It’s nothing that getting a grandchild won’t fix.”
“So whose will it be? Yours or Nacho’s?”
“My brother’s passions lie in less fruitful locations.”
They rode their bikes down the bumpy forest path towards the river.
Anyar was the first to see the stranger. She tugged at Parvo’s arm, nearly pulling him from his bike.
The elderly woman was fishing on the grassy bank — a normal-enough activity. The rod had been fashioned from a yew tree branch and the basket at her feet was of wicker-weave. Her clothes, however, were not of the forest. She wore the black uniform, now aged and grubby, of a spacer.
Parvo dismounted. The woman looked up, revealing an ugly hooked nose.
“Caught anything?” he asked.
“What business is it of yours?”
Interpreting the woman’s tone as inappropriate, the bodyguard stepped forward, but Parvo put up his hand and waved the creature back.
He kept his gaze on the woman. “Everything is my business.”
She watched him nervously. Her drawn face and thin grey hair suggested frailty, but her hand hovered near a holstered baton. “So far I’ve caught nothing... and I have nothing of value.”
Parvo noticed Anyar’s hand resting subtly on the dagger she kept strapped to her lower leg, hidden by her trousers; a compromise agreed with her father to allow her greater freedom.
“Relax, Madam... My name is Parvo. Pestmeister extraordinaire. If I’d wanted your money, you would not have heard me coming.”
“Perhaps.... Either way you would have been disappointed.”
Parvo walked across the grass towards the stranger. The icy crust crackled beneath his feet. “Garamond glitterfish will fetch five hundred lira in the city’s medical-market. But you need to fish in shade. They avoid full sun as they’re dazzled by their own reflection.”
“Look who’s talking...” said Anyar quietly, though not quietly enough.
Parvo scowled at her until she smiled.
“Thanks for your advice,” said the woman. “But I don’t need money. I’m not going anywhere. I’ve been everywhere a woman could hope to go.”
Anyar waited on her bike, her clouded breath hiding her round face and small upturned nose. “Sigmund...can we move on?” She pulled back the shoulder-length black hair that insisted in draping across her eyes. “We have a ride to finish... and Mama is expecting me for brunch.”
Parvo kept his gaze on the spacer. “A moment, Anyar.”
The spacer glanced at the girl.
“Tell me about space,” said Parvo quietly.
“Space is all around us.”
“Don’t play with me. I’m not an Old Fool — not yet. Weren’t you frightened?” Parvo pulled off his hat and ran a hand over his smooth scalp.
“Why do you ask?”
“Weren’t you worried that you’d bump into the broadheads?”
“You clearly have no concept of exactly how big space is.” She stared at Parvo. “Did you say you were a pestmeister.”
“The pestmeister.” Parvo kept his voice low so that Anyar could not hear his bragging. “I own this world, this forest, and those glitterfish you’re trying to catch.”
Anyar snapped, “Sigmund! Hurry, please!” She turned her bike, preparing to leave.
The spacer grabbed Parvo’s arm. The brinkman bristled, but did not move. The grip was like a carpenter’s vice. “I know about your problems,” she said.
“Which problems would these be?” Parvo asked calmly. “My frequent bouts of indigestion? The way I occasionally whistle my words through my teeth? Or maybe the fact that I’m a closet singer?”
The woman shook her head. “You’re having difficulty holding onto staff.”
Parvo snatched his arm from her grip. “It’s been in the news for days.”
“I don’t watch the news.”
“Me neither... it’s so depressing.”
“Visit Mandrake Street. Go quietly. Respectfully. And you’ll find your answers there.”
Parvo stood hands on hips and examined the intriguing stranger. “I could force you to tell me how you found out. I’ve been known to torture pests, and I do find you a little irritating.”
“Go ahead. I get little enough excitement at my age.”
“I’ll have to disappoint you then. I was only half truthful. I don’t torture pests.” Parvo picked up his bike. “Do you have a name?”
Parvo waited, but the woman turned to face the river. “Please enjoy fishing in my business,” he told her.
She cast out her line. “I will... believe me. I will.”
* * *
The shopkeeper was young, female and bald — a small figure sitting at a huge table.
When Parvo walked in, she was prodding a spike inside the head of a lazenby literary rat. She glanced up suddenly and pressed down the flap of fur on the rat’s head. The rodent rose up on its back legs and examined Parvo, then picked up a tiny leather-bound book and scuttled off the table into the shadows.
Parvo removed his hat. “The door was open.”
“No need to apologize. This is a business, even when business is slow.”
“I wasn’t actually apologizing...”
Parvo saw shelves of jars and books and wigs and strange tools, the nature of which baffled him. On the wall behind the girl a trivee screen was tuned to the Musical channel. The flamboyant aria from A Feast of Fangers was playing quietly and reminded Parvo of his one-time ambition to take the lead in a show. “I’m not sure whether you sell what I need.”
Parvo stood before the table. The girl wore a black silk gown with a gaping neckline that swept down to reveal a shoulder as smooth as cream. Her build was slight, but her brown eyes were confident. She watched his face so intently that he became restless and leaned a slim but knottily-muscled arm on the table. The wood creaked. “I met an old woman — a spacer.” He realized that he might appear threatening, but she seemed unperturbed.
Parvo straightened up. “I thought this was a museum.”
“It is. I’m the curator.”
“Where are the monsters?”
“In the shadows just around the next corner. Hiding in the dark spaces of the attic. Lurking in the cold blackness at the bottom of the basement stairs.”
“Have you actually got any monsters?”
She glanced at his bodyguard which stood close to his rear. “The best monsters are the ones we create ourselves.”
“Yes... all very riddleish.” He leaned in again. “Show me a real monster... and if you dare to pass me a mirror, I’ll have this place closed down and you prosecuted for unrepentant smart-assedness.”
“You have a way with words. An unusual way.” She reached down to her side. “I have something to show you.” From a drawer she took a scythe-shaped bone and placed it with a thud onto the table. The object was the length of her forearm and rounded. Parvo could see now that it was not a bone. One end was a point and the other ended in a fracture. At intervals down its length were studs of darker material.
“What is it?” said Parvo.
“I’m not surprised you don’t recognize it. This is the tooth of a broadhead.”
Parvo’s breathing was tight. The broadheads had attacked Earth and driven the exodus to the stars. This world had been settled by Earthkind — Parvo knew that much, even though his own heritage was somewhat more rodenty. Examination of Benoletti’s papers had revealed that Parvo was at least 50% human. But which 50%? He assumed it was the half of him that at this very moment was petitioning for a bathroom break. “How did you get it?”
She smiled, as though pleased with his reaction. “The broadheads are not gods.”
Parvo peered more closely at the tooth.
“You can touch it,” she said. “This broadhead has been dead a long time. In fact, it would be best if you took the tooth with you.”
“Does it have magical properties.”
“No... but it has meaning. This is from Earth. It was a trophy from the war — before the war was lost.”
“Is this your only monster?”
“Mine? Yes.” She held out the tooth towards him. After a moment’s hesitation, he took it. “But, right now, you have a monster killing your staff.”
Parvo backed away. “So you know who I am. Do you also know the spacer?”
“She brought me the tooth... and it seems that was not all she brought home from her final voyage. Unwittingly, she also brought the monster.”
“And why is this monster killing my staff?”
“It’s trying to find a way into your palace. Because it learned that this world’s greatest wealth belongs to you.”
“Hah! Just another bandit, a vagabond...”
“Not at all.” The girl shook her head. “It’s searching for the tooth.”
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Colin P. Davies