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A Special Case [1/2]
Tracy: wings
wafflestories

Tracy stands quite still, letting the human world wash over him, a slick of fleurocarbons and poisoned air. He’s fairly used to it, and in a little while he’ll adjust, but the first minute is always unpleasant, a struggle to hang on to lunch.

He has a summons burning a hole in his pocket, and this one is interesting. His instructions were specific- the dream-killer cannot be informed of his sentence by any means other than a face-to-face summons. This is not how Fairy does things, these days, but even Fairy has to make allowances for a human like this- even a dream-killer. For some reason the Powers that Be have even chosen to forgo the old summons-under-the-pillow trick that usually works so well to get the old belief pumping. And the case itself-

He has Crossed to a convenient place in the human world- a harsh-lit, anonymous stairwell inside the case’s apartment building. The mingling blur of some two hundred humans’ perception of home has allowed him this far, although it needles faintly at him, like a pebble in the shoe. Boundaries are important- invites, too.


Tracy, that needs-must veteran of stairs, climbs quickly to the tenth floor, pausing to grin approvingly at some graffiti that states, with great conviction and awful spelling, that DI LUVS CHEZ. It’s one of the most basic magics there is- write something down, make it more true- and it makes him feel more at ease.

And he needs it, because as he walks down the tenth-floor hallway, past numbered doors studded with glassy spyholes, another feeling is growing stronger. There is a smell of bad belief in this place, soured expectations, dreams well past their sell-by. As he stops in front of 1013, Tracy’s thumbs start to prickle a bone-deep warning.

He swallows. He no longer feels interested in this case, never mind how special as it is. He feels, truth be told, more than a bit sick.

Get a hold on yourself, Tracy. You’ve had a grim week, and you’re running on empty- the sooner you get this over with, the sooner you can get back home.


The thought of going home, of Crossing back to the cleansing magic-rich air of his own world, perks Tracy up to a remarkable degree. The queasy feeling recedes, and he lifts one of his prickly elongated thumbs and presses it so hard against the bell that the first joint bends at a bloodless near-right-angle.

It buzzes somewhere inside, flat and guttural like an angry mechanical wasp. There’s a long silence. Tracy waits, a good step back, head cocked slightly to one side to ensure that the first thing the human sees is not an eyeless disembodied grin- this, he’s learned, never helps. After a while, he presses the doorbell again.

He has to press it a third time before there's any response. Bolts slide, chains clatter, and the door half-opens. Tracy’s smile widens.

“Uh, Mr. Blake? Mr. Martin Blake?”

“Yes,” says Martin Blake, looking up at Tracy. He has a lined, tired face and a mop of wavy hair like a cartoon pianist, turning grey and wiry. “Who’re you?”

As if by magic, the stiff shiny laminate appears between Tracy’s fingers. It’s not magic- he’s quick with his hands, always has been, and he never wastes magic on showmanship if he can avoid it- but the summons speaks for itself, big and ostentatious and glowing a faint, charged blue in the long shadow he casts across the doorway. As always, glamour is what Fairy does best.

“I’m required to serve you with this. Just a formality- can I come in?”

“May,” says Blake.

“Sorry?”

“May. ‘May I come in.’ Not ‘can.’ You’re asking permission, not questioning your ability to perform the action.”

“Right, sorry, may. May I come in?”

“No,” says Blake, and shuts the door in his face.

Tracy’s patient caseworker’s grin stays put, but the rest of his face sort of sets around it. He leans over and presses the doorbell for a fourth time.

“I mean, I don’t want to seem rude or anything,” says Blake, opening the door, as if there has been no interruption in their conversation whatsoever, “It’s just that if I’m going to be harassed, I’d rather it was grammatical.”

“Does… that mean I can come in?”

“Try to sense the pattern emerging here,” says Blake, and slams the door again. This time however, it doesn’t shut, because Tracy’s foot is in it.

“Right, that hurt,” says Tracy, summoning his voice from the upper register it has temporarily fled to, “and I’m teetering on the verge of losing my patience. Not a good start, you don’t want me to lose my patience, and I’m not just saying that.”

“No, you’re right, I bet it’s terrifying,” says Blake, deadpan. He looks at Tracy and the summons with- Tracy is quite sure- the single dullest, least impressed expression anyone has ever used to regard a supernatural being standing on their doorstep holding a magical contract.

“I’m in the middle of something,” he says, “but whatever. Come in.”

*


Martin Blake's flat is spacious, modern- but curiously blank. With the exception of a low-lit lamp by a leather recliner, most of the light comes from the fading, rain-streaked day outside. Whatever he's in the middle of, it evidently doesn't require much of a party atmosphere- or even company.

There’s no sense of blurring in here- this is one human’s space, and theirs alone. The sickly feeling Tracy sensed out in the hallway, that putrid sense of disbelief, intensifies once he crosses the threshold. If he hadn’t been invited, he’s pretty sure that it would be downright unbearable by now.


Tracy wanders over to the bookshelf. Thin paperback spines crowd one long row, striped with bright streaks of primary colours- energised, eye-grabbing, completely out of place in the dull room. The shelf directly above is lined with awards- a gold coin in a plush case, an engraved plaque, a heavy wood-and-metal trophy in the shape of a growing tree.

“Martin Blake,” he says, with a touch of reverence. “The Martin Blake. You know, we were all surprised when your name came up. Last person I’d expect.”

Blake makes a noncommital noise and sits down heavily in the armchair. There's an empty tumbler, dark amber at the very bottom, on the glass-topped table by his hand, and the woodsy, mellow scent of very good whiskey hangs cloying in the air.

“Big fan, if you don't mind me saying,” continues Tracy. He picks one of the brightly-coloured books at random, teases it from the shelf. “Great stuff. Read 'em all.”

“They're for children,” says Blake, staring murkily at him. Tracy stops flipping through the book and looks up over his glasses, eyebrows raised, patently puzzled.

“So?”

Blake shrugs.

“Martin Blake,” says Tracy, again, to the book in his hand. He ambles towards the window, turning pages as if lost in the narrative. “Author of twenty-seven best-selling books for the under-tens, thirteen young adult novels, and one seminal pre-school primer entitled Careless Fox and the Mysterious Box. Best-known, obviously, for the former- the multiple Carnegie Award-winning Harriet Skull series- set, of course, in your own highly imaginative spin on Fairyland. Recognised worldswide as possibly the best children's book author alive today. Which is why you could forgive us for thinking you were on the side of the angels- well, alright, fairies, not exactly angels, roughly the same physiology but generally speaking a higher sense of entitlement.”

He shuts the book with a snap, looks up. In the watery, full-length glass he can see a ghostly reflection of most of the room, including his case, who is in the process of pouring himself another generous drink.

“So we're all pretty baffled, Mr. Blake, as to why it was that today, at precisely ten-forty-two AM GMT, you thought it necessary to announce- in front of a crowd of sixty-three small children and their parents- that the entire premise of Harriet Skull was, I quote, 'bollocks,' and nobody with half a brain in their head should believe a word of it. Just a little confused as to your motivations, there.”

Blake swirls his glass, drinks half of the contents in a rough, gritted-teeth gulp. “Never had a bad day?”

“Ohoh, I'm having one,” grins Tracy, too brightly. He turns. “It started around about the time you rocked up in Waterstones South Swindon and told an entire room full of little kids that dreams never get you anywhere and, altogether now, that there are no such things as fairies. You can say it, by the way, I'm not going to drop dead- although repeated exposure could give me a nasty stomach ulcer, so I'd appreciate it if you don't say it all that often.”

Carefully, Blake puts down his drink. It seems to take him a deal of concentration, glass meeting glass at a clumsy angle, ka-klack. “You're not from my publisher, are you?”


“Do I look like I'm from your publisher?”

“No,” admits Blake, after a deliberating glance. “You look like an accountant that really pissed off his tailor.”

“See, that's original, that's original, because people usually go for one of two things, and you didn't pick either of 'em.”

Blake smiles, and for a moment Tracy sees how it might once have been a charming, warming smile. It gives him a sad, icy shiver, a faint flicker of instinctive dread. In his experience dream-killers are usually arrogant, angry, alive, aggressive preachers of their own bad faith, but- his spectacular explosion this morning aside- Blake just seems weary. Burned-out. Used-up. Sucked dry, is the phrase that suddenly occurs to Tracy. It's in his flat shut-off eyes, his face, his body language, the way he sits in the chair- as if he's just an extra throw-rug that happens to have been chucked there, sinking into the folds.

“Originality was my job.”

“Is your job,” says Tracy, flourishing Harriet Skull #17 at him like a tract. “And let me tell you, after this little stunt, the next one better be a cracker.”

Blake drops his head and reaches for his glass again. He manages to pick it up on the second go.

“There's not going to be a next one.”

Tracy's eyes bug, outraged. “What? You can't stop now! Certainly not after the end of number twenty-seven, a cliffhanger like that, we're all waiting on tenterhooks here to see how you're gonna get 'em out! You can't just go, ooh, sorry, no, that's it, everyone out of the pool, I give up!”

“Why not?”

“Because- you can't just leave Harriet and her mates embroiled in a hopeless situation, alright, I mean, what's that going to do to all the little kids sitting round with bated breath waiting for the next one to come out? Or all those weirdos who queue up on release night to get their hands on it the second it hits the shelves? They'll be devastated!”

Blake blinks slowly at him. “Wait... if you're not from my publisher... who are you, again?”

Tracy sits on an impulse to roll his eyes. “I'm Tracy,” he says. “I'm your caseworker. You've been indicted for reckless dissemination of disbelief- technically, they could have you for sixty-three counts of first-degree murder of fantasy, but under the circumstances-”

He stops, because Blake doesn't seem to be listening. He's examining his now-empty glass, blinking at it with muddy eyes as if half-expecting to find some fundamental truth lurking at the bottom. Tracy wonders if he started drinking before the Waterstones incident, or if he hit the sauce after the fact and has been working hard to make up for lost time.

“Mr. Blake? Hello? Yeah- you might want to pay attention to this bit, it is fairly important. I can help you make this as painless as possible, but you have to play by the Rules. As I was saying, Fairy is prepared to be lenient-”

“Fairy,” mumbles Blake. He's still staring into his glass. “'Fairy' has impressive reaction time, I'll give it that.”

Tracy rocks slightly on his heels, fiddling with the bottom of his waistcoat, smoothing down the neat trim. “Ah, well, we work quickly. Got a lot of catchment systems in place, something of the magnitude of what you did this morning, pings up right away. Red alert, alarms, the works, and then before you can say Robin Goodfellow, thump, it lands on my desk and I have to come over here and sort you out.”

Blake half-laughs, then sniffs, knuckling his sternum absently with the back of his fist. “Lord, what fools these mortals be. That one was always my favourite, you know. Always dreamed of writing for the stage.” He shakes his head. “Funny, right? Hilarious. Set out to give Shakespeare a run for his money, ended up churning out cut-price fairytales for a bunch of snotty little kids.”


“Shakespeare fan?” asks Tracy, trying a new tack. He usually tries to keep an open mind and not think too badly of cases right off the bat, never mind what they've done, but this is different. The impersonal disappointment he felt when he first heard about the Waterstones incident this morning is fading beneath a couple of new realisations. One, that he is genuinely starting to like Martin Blake- or, at least, the person Martin Blake could be, divorced from his strange deadened sadness- and two, that his celebrity case's problem might run just a little bit deeper than throwing a spur-of-the-moment wobbly in a crowded bookstore.

His grin stretches wider- knowing, conspiritorial. “Bit of a tale behind that one, actually. We really did have a Queen back then- a proper one- and her and old William... haha, well, there's a story you couldn't put in a kid's book, that's for sure. Pretty racy stuff.”

He looks down at the book in his hand. “And don't put yourself down. Anyone can write for children, but you- no, you have a gift. Kids read what you write, and they believe. Bottom line, Martin- we need people like you on our side- now more than ever. People like you,” and he emphasises each word with a earnest, pointing finger, “are pretty much the only reason Fairy still has a fighting chance.”

“You're very persuasive,” says Blake. “I'm touched, really. One tiny problem- you're not a fairy.”

“Ha, well, see, that's where you're wrong, 'cause I am.”

“You don't have wings.”

“No. Well-observed.”

“Or a wand.”

“Not standard equipment for caseworkers.”

“And fairies don't exist.”

“Ouch- actually think I felt that one. Sort of gets you here- this area, here, right below the solar plexus.”

Blake snorts, walks his fingers towards the half-empty bottle standing by the leg of his chair.

“Look,” says Tracy, reasonably, “never mind all that. You've got nothing to worry about- you've just got to work with me a bit here. Let me help you, to help yourself. Like I said, they're willing to be lenient- just think of it as time off for services rendered. Weigh it all up, and what you did today is minor, really, a minor slip-up compared to the good stuff- call it first-offence D.O.D- dreamslaughter, maximum. If we play our cards right, all you'll have to do is a little thaumic reparation- sow a couple of toadstool rings, grant an easy wish or two, it'll be over before you know it. I'd go for the rings, if I were you- packet of spores and a trowel, find a nice park, half an hour on the outside and that's it, done. Point is, all you've really got to do is show 'em you believe, and that should be child's play, a human like you-”

“A human like me,” says Blake, and then he starts laughing. It's not a good sound. Tracy's shoulderblades crawl and his thumbs- fairly quiet up until this point- give a barrage of sudden vicious twinges, as if someone is stabbing none-too-kindly at them both with a blunt knitting needle. It's all he can do not to flinch.

“Alright, I'll play.” Blake fills his glass again, leaving the bottle half a finger from empty. He's moving slower, now, his hand slipping on the heavy crystal tumbler as if friction and gravity are both working unfairly against him. Whiskey splashes across the tabletop. “One more fairytale, just for old times' sake. So you're some kind of magical being, just like in my stories...”

“Well, yeah, fairy caseworker, actually, not exactly like in your stories, but close enough for jazz, got the whole 'magical being' thing down in any case, yes- um, Martin- not trying to change the subject, but... don't you think maybe you've had enough?”

“Yes,” says Blake. “Oh, yes. I
have had enough. That's the whole point, Mr. Fairy Caseworker-”


“Please, just call me Tracy-”

“-I've had enough. I've had enough of telling a load of rubbish to kids to keep them happy, I've had enough of coughing up a new book every eight months to keep my agent off my back, I've had enough of sitting in bookshops signing thirty lumps of dead tree a minute and wondering what happened to my life.”

He sniffs again. “I mean, why shouldn't I tell kids the truth? I've been lying to them for twenty years, don't I owe them a little honesty?”

“It's not the truth, though, is it?” says Tracy, who is getting annoyed- and progressively more worried. It's not Blake himself, it's the feeling he projects, a bone-deep paralysing faithlessness that he can't seem to penetrate. He's good, good at his job, good with people- he always finds a way in, even with the most difficult cases- but this time he can tell that he's not getting through. It's as if Blake is somehow shielded by his own misery, wrapped in it like some kind of primitive, double-edged ward. The lively wit and humour that shines from his books has turned in on itself, warped into a black, sawtoothed cynicism that lets nothing in or out.

“Just to re-iterate, me? Fairy? In your flat, reminding you of your responsibilities? Glow-in-the-dark bit of paper? Is none of this uncanny enough for you, or do I have to put a girdle round the flipping earth?”

“It'd be a start.” Blake drains his drink, inhales the fumes, props the empty glass on his stomach. His other hand hunts clumsily through his hair, performs that funny knuckling action again, grinding against his sternum. “I mean, I know what I am, I know how much it's all worth. To adults, I'm some kind of guilty pleasure, something to read on the train- kids, they'll grow up and forget they ever read my books.”

“That's not true,” says Tracy, quietly.

“You know, I used to write to make a world that wasn't anything like the real one. Where things were
fair at least half the time. I used to think if I wrote it all down, if I got through to enough people, I might even make it true.”

He snorts. “Twenty years- nothing. If I was so
important, you could have given me a little proof.”

“Oh, come on,” says Tracy. “Oldest argument in the book. We can't just go around
proving things, that totally defeats the point, doesn't it? I mean, how much is belief worth, if you have to buy it?”


“No idea.” Blake looks up. His dead, dilated gaze nails Tracy to the spot. “How much is it worth when you can't give it away?”

“Um-”

“My kid's nearly seven now. I hardly see her. When I do, she calls me Martin.” He laughs again. “My daughter. You lot didn't feel like helping out on that one, I suppose? Since I'm so vital to you?”

“That's not how it works. There's Rules- we're not supposed to interfere-”

“You're interfering now.” Blake is still looking at him, his stare both chillingly apathetic and far, far too lucid. Tracy finds himself fighting the instinct to back away. Humans usually spend the greater part of their adult lives walking around in a protective blanket of half-truths, and this can sometimes be frustrating as all hell to deal with- but stripping it away from them is neither kind or
safe, for anyone concerned-

Hang on.

Thinking fast, Tracy gives in to the urge to put some distance between Blake and himself. He moves casually, almost sauntering, keeping his smug, knowing smirk intact. His hand brushes across the tabletop as he passes with a picky sort of nonchalance, as if checking for dust.

“Oh, you think
this is interfering- give me a chance, I only just got here. I've been told it's my speciality, actually, interfering, sticking my nose in where it's not wanted... Speaking of, this is a lovely place you have here, by the way, lovely, very spacious, I bet on a clear day this window here just lights right up-”


It's all but dark outside, and the big window has become an inky, floor-length mirror, speckled with a bright neon blanket of flecks from the buildings across the street. With his thumb, now wet with very expensive single-malt Scotch whiskey, Tracy draws a single sweeping symbol across the glass.

It's a crude sort of magic- blood would have been better, but alcohol, that age-old friend of heightened senses and unorthodox sights, does the job well enough. The symbol starts to glow, burning with a distilled amber light. The reflection of the room, of Blake and Tracy, shivers, the edges of objects blurring and shifting as the mirror spell explores their true shape. A moment passes- then the glow fades and everything is back to normal.

Almost everything.

Pressed against the mirror-Blake's chest, curled there like a hideous parody of a comfort-seeking child as he sits slumped in the chair, something grey and amorphous and terrible boils slowly in place like dry-ice smoke. Tracy stiffens, eyes stretching panic-wide behind his glasses.

“Oh, you are joking-”

Blake looks hazily past him, sees the thing on his chest in the charmed reflection, and screams.


[click for part 2]