“Thanks for all your help, Jackie, but the last thing we need is you getting hurt in the line of ... well the line of our duty.” Pearson shrugged and squinted in the afternoon light.
Jackie raised her hands in mock surrender. “I get it. I’ll stay out of the way. But you don’t have to use my own lines on me, Pearson.”
“Keep an eye on the hovers and any goings on back here. If anything suspicious happens, com in,” the chief said, double checking the safety on his stun weapon.
“Sure thing Pearson. I’ll keep an eye on the backside.” She gave a wry smile. Pearson shook his head at her.
Around the corner and out of sight of the police hovers, his team of ten officers skirted the row of monstrous metal buildings in the industrial district of midtown. Steel edifices with rusting rooves stood like giant gravestones around them, monuments to an earlier time, a younger, less tech-savvy Newburg.
The corrugated metal and busted windows in Ginny’s drawings had led them to this section of town. Pearson had sent a few plain clothes officers to surveille this area along with Jackie Thurgood. Thermal imaging revealed human heat signatures coming from one building only.
Broken window panes littered the empty streets and crunched softly under the officers’ boots until they were within a stone’s throw of the dilapidated candy factory.
As ordered, Sergeant Marcus readied the sonic battering ram, concentrated at the door’s massive lock. Pearson tensed. They were walking a fine line here. Ginny’s drawing suggested there might be a bomb or at least the makings of one inside this building. There were also innocent children in elderly bodies within. He didn’t want to tip his hand to the people running this operation, so knocking was out of the question. But he didn’t want to provoke an emotional reaction and risk the people inside setting off the bomb or holding the children hostage.
At a nod from him, the team activated their com-ring shields. Sgt. Marcus pressed a button on the side of the tubular device, and a high-pitched noise blasted from one end, obliterating the door lock’s mechanics. Two other officers opened the doors wide. Pearson was surprised to find an empty warehouse until he spied the metal staircase flanking the left wall. He made a hand motion, and two officers moved up the stairs, shields held at the ready and emitting eerie blue light around the darkened warehouse. Pearson followed up after them trailed by the rest of the team.
“Newburg Police,” he announced in a clear, booming voice. “We have a warrant to search the premises.”
The team reached a plain wood door at the top of the stairs with a light on above it. One officer reached for the handle, but before he touched it, the door opened swiftly. A sparkly-eyed woman with a lilting voice beamed at them.
“Well, hi there!”
Dusty rose lipstick and bouffant mousy hair painted a picture of an overly charming sales representative.
“Police. We have a warrant.” The drop in Pearson’s tone suggested the woman move out of their way.
“Yes, I thought that’s what I heard. I just couldn’t believe it! Please go right ahead officers!” With a look of concern she opened the door wider to a small office with outdated wood paneling on its walls and worn orange carpeting. A metal desk protruded from one wall with a dying plant in the corner behind it similar to Ginny’s pencil drawing.
The woman waved them toward another door at the back of the office which opened into a large warehouse just like the one downstairs. However, this one was brightly lit and full of activity. Pearson was struck with the smell of sickly sweet sugar which clung to the back of his throat and reminded him of that nauseating feeling he would get the morning after Halloween. His team fanned out along the edges of the large room.
Eight workers trundled around the room like sleepy bumble bees, pouring glossy warm chocolate into star shaped molds or mixing fruity liquids in large glass jars. Others injected the liquid into the centers of spherical candies. A few more hovered with hand tools around conveyor belts that were evidently in disrepair, but required to expedite the chocolate pouring process.
Pearson recognized the window on the wall to his right from Ginny’s drawing. Through it he saw the buildings she depicted. More or less. As much as an untrained artist could. As he continued his perusal of the warehouse, he saw no diagram of a bomb displayed on any wall like the one she drew.
Workers shuffled across the concrete floor in white papery suits with rubber gloves. They wore masks over their noses and mouths and nets over their grey hair, if any hair remained that is. The exposed area above the masks revealed wrinkled eyes with distant expressions. One worker wore slacks and a button down in lieu of a paper suit and topped the watercooler off with a fresh jug before staring down the police with his hands on his hips.
Finding no reason for alarm, Pearson gave a signal and his team of ten closed their com-ring shields. He moved back into the office. The woman who greeted them was peering anxiously out the door with her eyebrows raised in a prolonged question.
“What happened officer… oh Chief Pearson?” she asked, reading his name tag. “Did someone escape from prison or something?”
“No. But I do want to know what’s going on. What’s this place about, Ms?”
“Kathryn. Kathryn Murphy.” She gave him a firmer handshake than usual for a woman and flashed a straight-teethed smile. Kathryn directed him to one of two rickety guest chairs opposite the desk, but he declined, preferring to stand while his team continued to scour the warehouse. Kathryn remained standing also and clasped her hands together, seemingly eager to deliver her message.
“Do you remember when the scientists of Newburg and dental association made sugar the villain? Wizard Wilfred’s Candy Company went under taking its delicious truffles with it. Now, Cora’s Confectionary is the only place in town to get sweets. And they just don’t make truffles the way this place did.
“Cora’s is delicious, don’t get me wrong,” she said, coming to perch on the edge of the desk. “Their candies are scientifically designed to stimulate the taste buds. Sweet, sour, buttery,” she gave a thumbs up, “they’ve got it. But they’re missing something magical, and what’s life without a little magic?”
Chief Pearson hadn’t been in Newburg long enough to have tasted Wizard Wilfred’s truffles, but he felt he knew what she was talking about. Cora’s couldn’t compete with the candy store he grew up with on his Earth with its Protonic Firebombs and Jawcrackers. His teeth were beginning to ache along with the memory.
“Were Wizard Wilfred’s truffles made with a sage potion?” Pearson asked, rubbing a hand reflectively along his jawline.
“Of course they were! How else could you really put love in what you make?” Kathryn wrinkled her nose with a chuckle.
“Not a love potion, I’m sure.”
“Of course not,” she laughed and waved away the absurd notion. “We’re not here to break the law. This is a passion project funded purely out of our own pockets. We only want the best products available for Newburg.” She reached for a white basket on the office desk full of candies wrapped in a rainbow of shiny foil. Holding the basket toward him, she asked, “Would you like to try a sample?” Her brows lifted in excited expectation.
Pearson ran his tongue over his recently brushed teeth and tried unsuccessfully to swallow away the sticky sweetness still clutching the back of his throat. He shook his head politely. “I’ll pass for now.”
Kathryn gave him a squinty-eyed smile as she replaced the basket. He had the feeling that if she’d offered him the candy somewhere away from the warehouse’s overly sugared ether, he wouldn’t have hesitated to say yes. “Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?”
Pearson nodded. “Yes, actually. I’d like to speak with your workers.”
“Sure thing!” Kathryn said cheerfully. Her bright smile then softened into pity. “Though some of our workers aren’t so talkative. They do understand some things.” Pearson followed Kathryn out the warehouse door as she explained, “We hired these people right off the street. They came around at just the right time. None of them seem to have any family to speak of. Lonely souls in need of work, poor things. When I asked if they wanted a job, they all agreed just like that!” She snapped her fingers and grinned. “We took them in for fear of them living on the streets, alone, forgotten, miserable.” Kathryn gave a little frown as they approached one of the white-suited workers at the conveyor belts.
“Excuse me,” said Chief Pearson a little louder than normal in case the older individual had a hearing impairment. The person—a man with leathery dark skin and yellowing eyes—turned to face him with a wrench in his hand. “How are you today?”
The man didn’t reply, but merely stared at Pearson.
“This is Monty,” Kathryn said, the glint of the lights on her dusty rose lipstick making her mouth look plastic.
“He wouldn’t tell us his name, but when we asked if he wanted to be called Monty, he said yes.”
Pearson shifted his eyes back to the man who continued to stare. He retrieved an Alga-tex glove and a small container out of his tactical vest. “Is it okay if I apply some cream to your face, Monty? It might help you remember things better.”
Kathryn frowned in confusion. Monty looked to the floor, but his eyes wandered back to Pearson’s. He nodded slowly. Pearson dipped a gloved thumb into the antidote cream Dr. Amas had created and rubbed it into the older man’s forehead and droopy cheeks.
For a moment, nothing changed. Monty continued to stare at him.
“What’s going on?” Kathryn asked softly. But Monty dropped his wrench on the cement floor. The clang reverberated through the room and drowned out Kathryn’s question. The old man’s white, wiry eyebrows thinned and darkened along with the rest of his hair. The whites of his eyes lost their sickly coloration, and his skin stretched and smoothed. Finally his bone structure shifted and he collapsed in a heap of a white suit to the ground. Kathryn hopped back in alarm. “Oh my word! What are you doing to him?” she gasped.
Pearson knelt beside the shrunken figure propping him up to a sit. A young boy gaped up at him with startled brown eyes. Pearson opened a picture on his com-ring comparing its image to the boy peeking out of the white suit next to him.
“Gregory Matisse?” The boy nodded. “Dr. Shaw is going to be so happy to see you.” He offered a warm smile to the boy who managed an uncertain grin before he glanced around the warehouse trying to place himself.
Pearson handed the antidote container to another officer, and his team began to apply the cream to the elderly personnel around the warehouse. He commed in the rest of his team waiting where he had left Jackie. Uniformed officers arrived with blankets and warm cocoa to comfort the young again children, some bewildered and in shock, a few crying.
As they began escorting the first few children outside into the waiting hovers, the chief found Kathryn again, huddled in a corner with a disconcerted look on her face.
“These are the children who have been missing for two months. They were the unfortunate victims of a curse.”
“I had no idea. I had no idea! I thought I was helping some old folks find some kind of purpose. Those poor children.”
“What are you trying to do to me? Who are these people?!!?” The older gentleman at the watercooler growled at an officer who was trying to smear his cheeks with cream.
“Oh no, no! That’s Al! I’ve known him for years. He’s like a dad to me,” Kathryn said, her voice pleading. Pearson made a slicing motion at his throat urging his officer to call off her cosmetic assault on the man. She apologized profusely, and the man yanked a towel from her hand to wipe the cream from his aging face.
One little girl was being ushered into the warehouse instead of out of it on the arm of a friendly looking female officer. Pearson guided Kathryn toward the young girl who gazed up at her, a hint of recollection in her blue eyes.
“This is Kathryn Murphy,” Pearson said to the girl. “Do you remember her?”
“Remember me?” Kathryn asked Pearson even as she offered a hand in greeting to the girl.
The girl hesitantly shook Kathryn’s proffered hand. “I used to work here,” she said.
“You must have been Margaret?” Kathryn asked in awe.
“My name is really Ginny.”
“Oh my word. I didn’t know!” Kathryn said shaking her head and putting a hand to her pink plastic mouth in disbelief.
“So this is the place you worked, Ginny, correct?” Pearson asked the girl.
“Yes.” She said as she began to step slowly through the room and glance around. Her brow furrowed. “And no.”
“What do you mean?” asked Pearson.
Ginny looked up at the corners of the room, to the window, and to the large blank walls. “Things aren’t exactly the way I remember them in my dreams, but I guess dreams are like that. Not everything is like real life.”
From a rooftop two streets away, Jackie Thurgood watched through her binoculars as all the children exited the candy factory. She would have loved to see them reunited in the arms of their parents, but her work here was officially done; there were other matters that required her attention. She tilted her hat lower over her eyes and began to walk into the orange glow of a Newburg sunset. Before she took her second step, a box materialized at her feet. Marked with the seal of the Distribution Center and addressed to Jaquelin Thurgood. She frowned suspiciously at the mid-sized cardboard box and crouched down beside it. When she spotted the return address from the parliamentarian’s office, she relaxed a little.
Jackie made quick work of the biodegradable adhesive holding the cardboard flaps together. Her breath caught at the first glimpse of the box’s contents: two stacks of ornately covered books. Her hands dove for the top two, Beauty and the Beast and Robin Hood. She crushed these to her chest with one arm while the other rifled through the rest of the box’s contents. Her heart beat faster as she scanned the titles. The Wren in the Wicker Castle, Alice through the Looking Glass, The Mongrel and the Fae, and so on. Some of the stories she hadn’t thought of in ages. Jackie felt like a kid again as the familiar titles nestled into place in her mind. The books were all in her parents’ native language, and all with gilded edges.
There was no note in the box, but she didn’t need one. She appreciated that Mz. Bliss wasn’t one for soppy sentimentality. A quick check with her com-ring to her bank account revealed a recent and sizeable deposit. Jackie had found the kids and Mz. Bliss had kept her word about payment and then some.
She carefully restacked the books, folding the flaps back down and cradling the box. The books’ heft was less burdensome than comforting. She turned into the sunset once more, this time barely suppressing a lively whistled tune. (If you’re happy and you know it)
Kathryn gave a wistful smile and wave from the upstairs warehouse window as Ginny Barnes was belted safely into the back seat of a police hover with her mom. The hover pulled away and Kathryn’s plastic smile melted into a scowl.
“I told you we shouldn’t have let her go,” she said, her chipper voice replaced by something brooding and dark.
“She was useless in the end!” Al growled back at her.
“I say she was a loose end. And now we’ve lost our entire work force!”
“How were we to know they were cursed children? No wonder they were drawn to the old candy factory.” Al shrugged and then ran a hand over his bald, liver-spotted head.
“Thank goodness that building inspector came by earlier. If not, we wouldn’t have had things rearranged when the police arrived,” she said, eyeing Pearson with hawkish disapproval.
“It’s a good thing they came before we continued operations.”
“You know this means we’ll have to clear out.” She curled her dusty rose lip watching the last of the police hovers zoom away. Then she took a deep inhale and lifted her chin in defiance. “But there’s no reason why this little hiccup has to ruin our plans.” A grin smeared across her face.