The man in the street, walking awkwardly in his wrinkled slacks and dress shirt buttoned all the way to his neck at midnight, seemed out of place. It was very quiet in the neighborhood and the man’s black shoes made slow, deliberate clumping sounds, like the hooves of a lame horse, on the asphalt. It was very dark, the moon like a thin cut in the curtain of the fabric of the starry night sky.
The man stopped beneath a large tree in front of one of the houses, indistinguishable from those to either side of it, and smiled. He leaned against the tree, watching the silent house. He produced an elongated pipe from the insides of his suit coat and it lit with a faint cloud of sparks as he put it to his mouth. Thick smoke ran like snakes from the man’s nostrils and then curled about his face.
The man looked up into the tree. “They’re always late,” the man said, shaking his head.
“I’m here.” The voice was muffled, as if speaking through a thick gurgle of phlegm.
“Yes. You are.”
One of the branches shivered above the man’s head. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do? I’ve been watching these...people. All day...” There was clear disgust in the voice.
“She’ll be safe here. They’ll be watching me. I’m not ready. It’s best they think she’s dead.”
Silence, for a moment. “She was dead.”
“No. No, she never was. Only her parents.”
“She could be famous, you know. If we took her to...”
“That can’t be allowed to happen.”
The branches shook, more loudly this time. “She should be brought before the Council. She should be raised amongst...”
“Quite! Here comes Wrigley.”
There were faint scratching sounds as the voice receded up the tree. “Whatever you say.”
A rusty squeaking sound began to grow louder. A flickering disc of light approached the man beneath the tree, seeming to float several feet above the ground. Then the figure came into view, laboriously peddling a bicycle several sizes too small for him up the sidewalk, his knees knocking the handlebars, swaying from side to side. Upon his head sat the disc, a large hat with a flattened brim, and upon its brim sat several wax candles with tiny orange flames. Melting wax filled the brim of the hat and was beginning to drip in globular stalactites before his shadowed face. Behind this man, secured by a thin cord to the bicycle, a child’s wagon was being drawn, and in this wagon sat a woman in a frilly white dress. The woman was hairless, her skin so white it seemed to glow even in the dim lighting, the moon glinting on her bald head of perfect smooth skin.
“He brought the Denotic?” came the voice from the tree.
“Of course. She’s to be witness.”
A strange gurgling sound came down from the tree above: laughter. “Some help she’ll be to you...should it come to that.”
The bike screeched to a halt; the man in the hat slumped against the handlebars. “This could have been so much easier...” he said to no one in particular. Then, he seemed to collect himself and looked up from beneath the brim of his glowing hat at the man standing a few feet away in the shadows of the tree.
“Hello, magus,” Wrigley said.
The man made a face. “I’ve told you not to call me that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Science is not magic; there is a difference.”
“Of course. Of course.”
“Nevermind.” The man stepped forward. “Did you bring her?”
Wrigley chuckled. “What? You don’t see her?”
The Denotic sat unmoving; her dress filled the wagon, spilled over the sides.
“I don’t have time for your pranks, Wrigley. I’m surprised you didn’t wake the neighborhood with that rusty bike of yours.” The man leaned closer to Wrigley. “Where is the girl?”
Wax dripped from Wrigley’s hat, struck the sidewalk with a hiss. In the darkness his eyes were the color of the moon. “Why, she must be here somewhere...” He began to pat his coat like a man feigning the loss of his wallet. He pulled at one of his pockets, peered inside; the candles jiggled precariously and a molten spill of wax dropped from his hat as he leaned forward, leaving solidified splatters across the front of his bike. Then, he looked up, smiled thinly. “Oh, here she is,” he said, reaching into the folds of his coat. With one hand he produced something wrapped in a white blanket, as if from nowhere, a bundle that he held across his arm.
The man reached forward and snatched the bundle, cradled it to his chest.
“Don’t practice your art here!” hissed the voice from the tree. “Someone might see!”
Wrigley jumped, looking from side to side. “I thought it smelled bad around here. Where are you, you filthy little monkey?”
“You’re a fool, Wrigley,” said the voice from the tree.
Wrigley looked up. “In a tree. I should have known.”
“Your art will be the death of you.”
“Then we’re all of us doomed, aren’t we? Gately uses it to light his fucking pipe...”
“Science in not art; nor is it magic; it is rational and can be explained and proven mathematically,” Gately said, looking down at the face of the infant he’d uncovered, floating in her swaddling.
Wrigley let out a snort. “Whatever you say, Gately, sir. Why do you care so much where it comes from? How we define it matters little. What counts is what we can do with it.”
Gately, sighed heavily. “Understanding brings knowledge; knowledge brings power and ability.”
“We have power and ability, more than most believe possible.”
“You don’t see the whole picture, Wrigley,” Gately said, shaking his head.
“Idiot,” said the voice from the tree.
Wrigley bristled. “And you think this girl can help you in some way? You think hiding her is a good idea? You don’t think your plot will be discovered? Your arrogance will be the death of you, Gately.”
“And your ignorance will be yours,” Gately said.
“We’ll see.” Wrigley’s eyes were slits.
Gately sighed again. He stepped past Wrigley, the infant in his arms, and began up through the front yard towards the nondescript house. Wrigley, and his hat of candles--the Denotic silent in the wagon--waited on the sidewalk.
Gately lurched up the porch steps, out of earshot of the others.
“The magus doesn’t belong with us,” Wrigley mumbled.
A branch shifted in the tree. “He’s all we have left.”
“What about her?”
The voice in the tree was silent.
Wrigley watched. Gately returned through the yard, having left the baby abandoned silently on the porch before the door. He walked stiffly, each step making his shadowed form bob and sway. It was a confident walk, despite the potbelly and receding hairline.
The Denotic sniffed at the cool night air and tree branches shuddered and a knowing smile slid across Wrigley’s face.