There’s either one or two more chapters to go on this East of Nowhere story – depends how well Chris and my nameless narrator behave themselves – and new people keep moving into the houses on Main Street, so my side project may yet someday become my main project. One can always hope.
The study in the Hollow house was no less weird than either the fact of a laboratory in the house, or the scale of the laboratory in the house. That all the walls were covered in bookcases and filled with books was only the start of it. New paperbacks, battered paperbacks with the spines falling off, leather-bound ones with gold embossed foil wearing off, hardback ones with dustcovers, hardback ones without dustcovers, stapled piles of paper, occasional runs of DVD and VCR cases, and occasional half-empty shelves with peculiar gadgets lined up between a couple stacks of books. That about half the books, at least on a cursory survey, weren’t in English, and that there was a double row of brightly-colored Venetian domino masks hung above the door we had come in by, only added to the picture. Sylvia curled herself up in one of the bulky leather armchairs in a corner of the room, and picked up a little tablet computer gadget from a pile of books on the floor and settled down, tapping away quietly at some project of her own. Helen brought a pot of strong black coffee and a handful of mugs from the kitchen, and Curnow extracted a tin of macarons from under a pile of papers, so overall it was a well catered, if rather peculiar, discussion.
Curnow described his job as an organizer of events that don’t officially require organization. “Just the spare ones. The ones it’s easier to control early than try and clean up later. I’m very localized since I retired, I’m just working along this coast now. The sea fogs are enough to keep me occupied, and Misty here is very sweet, always keeps me in the loop with the new developments on the flooding liquid.” I hadn’t realized, growing up in town all my life, how old Curnow was, but that day I guess he must have been at least eighty. He didn’t come up to the town too often, but I remembered the few times that he came to talk to Rickard at Hart’s Corner, outside of school hours. Curnow, who for some reason no one, including the intensely polite Ben Vaughan-that-was (he went by Carey since his mother Shaniah’s murder), called ‘Mister’ anything, always seemed like just a lovely guy, quiet and private, nothing special.
That day, though, in his own study, surrounded by his books and a comfortable clutter, there was something different about him.
“Oh, that’s just the aura,” Curnow said softly, sounding pleased I’d noticed. “I’m told it comes with the job, though Helen still tries to think it’s all science. Helen’s adorably skeptical like that. The alternate point of view is rather the advantage, all the same. Ever since she and Tony… ah, never mind Tony now… ever since Helen came up here, the quality of the work up and down this coast has just been getting better with every incident. Because Helen makes sure we’re always being very deliberate about improving on the last job, rather than settling for good enough.”
“What… exactly is this job?” I asked.
“I think the job title was made up someplace where English isn’t spoken all that often – though in English it’s a lovely pun, and I’m quite fond of it. They call me the Mister – you see? One who causes or creates or controls mist. It’s diversified over the years, into fog, flooding, occasional snow, hail, dust storm, hurricane and the like… I had a sand storm once, out in Mongolia when I wasn’t much more than a kid, starting out on the job. That was fun.”
“Opi, you’re getting off the subject again,” Sylvia said calmly. “Focus. Talk about the job.”
“I don’t… I don’t mind…” I ventured.
“Easier if I show you,” sighed Curnow. “Hmm… it’s all downstairs. Helen likes the sea view, says it’s inspirational. I find it distracting, so all my works are in the basement. Misty, sweetheart, would you go and fetch… oh, about a drachm of the new powder for the rising mist in the graveyard in Nowhere.”
“Drachm,” snorted Helen.
Sylvia returned a few minutes later, carrying a tiny glass vial with a glittering pale-orange powder just covering the base of the vial, stoppered with a twist of paper. “This one?”
“Is it the new one? With the extra motion in the middle layer and the clear foot line?” Curnow took the vial from Sylvia and shook the powder out into his palm. He passed the other hand over it, moves like a Jedi mind trick in the films, and smiled slyly at me. “That part’s just for looks, in case anyone’s watching when we’re laying it. It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference to the outcome.”
Curnow blew the pinch of dust into the air, where it hung for a moment, pale orange in the shape of a stylized puff of air, then settled. Helen sipped her coffee. Sylvia’s thin dark fingers flickered forth for another biscuit. A thin white mist began to rise, smokelike but cleanly odorless, from the faded red Turkish carpet, filling the room with a cold graveyard haze, swirling mysteriously about, and thinning to nothing in the few inches near the floor.
“See,” Curnow said happily, voice slightly muffled by the fog. “Isn’t it perfect? We even got the sound quality right, indistinguishable from the natural thing.”
“How did you get into this line of work?” I asked, remembering suddenly what I was there for. “How long have you been working out of East of Nowhere?”
“I’m hereditary,” Curnow said. “This house has belonged to the local Mister… oh, a couple centuries now. Father to son, all the way down, there are posts all over the world – the bloodlines cross in a few places, mostly Eastern Europe and South America – Misty here was a surprise, we were expecting it to be her brother. Jonas – you remember Jonas, he was at school same time as you, he liked you – Misty’s father, he’s working alone now. A local Mister up in Oregon. Misty will take over this post in a few years, when I’m ready to retire.”
“And Helen? Surely causing floods isn’t hereditary?”
“Oh, no, no, no. Flooding is an incredibly new field. It might become hereditary if Dean’s grandson shows promise, or if Chris or Sophie – or even Kate, Chris’ daughter, but she’s only two – is any good. No, we’re on the first generation. Dean was a local Mister for Mongolia and a lot of western China. He coped. Not much mist needed out there. Anyway, we corresponded, about the work, about life, and later about the papers Helen was publishing on memory-materials. We contacted her to ask about the scientific basis for liquid memory, and offered her a vial of Dean’s latest batch of flooding liquid, as an inducement to work with us. We knew it worked, but we wanted to know why, so we could make it better. Well, it’s fascinating stuff, and Helen soon gave up her work in Paris and came here full-time.”
“At first I thought we would use the liquid to deal with drought situations,” Helen picked up the tale. “But the floods are too temporary for that. A real flood comes from somewhere – upriver, the sea, a dam breaking – and goes somewhere – downriver, the sea, out across the floodplain and evaporates or soaks down to the aquifer. With the flooding liquid, the water appears, and vanishes. None of us wants to find out what it would look like if it vanished after someone drank it.” She paused, head cocked to one side. “Well, we want to, but we’d never get ethical committee approval.”
Sylvia looked up from the iPad, turning it toward Helen. “Chris just took Kate and got on a plane. He’ll meet Sophie at her flat in the city, so we’ve a few hours before they arrive here. I’ll go make up the beds in the blue rooms.”
Of course, I offered to leave, since my research was considerably less important even to me than the complication that had just hit the house in the Hollow, but Helen waved my concern aside.
“Chris and Sophie know I have work to do, and to be quite frank, dear, I don’t care to let my husband disrupt my work even – especially – now he’s dead. You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to ask about the East of Nowhere superstitions around this house. Go on.”
We spent the afternoon in Helen’s lab, and she answered most of the questions I had. About the blue lighting sparking on the roof during the lightning storm the summer I was twelve (Curnow testing a pet theory about St. Elmo’s fire), about the boxes of chemicals and toxic this and flammable that Lou brought every month (you probably don’t want to know, dear, but we’re careful, and nobody’s been hurt), and about how they lived there at all, if the mist and the floods weren’t ‘normal’ paying work (oh, there’s an agency that sees to all that.) What she wouldn’t answer were the ones about the combination of events that brought her to East of Nowhere, and the ones about her son Chris. Everyone in town remembered Chris Harvelle: he was the one who arrived, bilingual and sulky, in Lindsey Carey’s first-grade class. Sophie, two years younger, stayed in the Hollow House, and we barely knew she existed until she started school as well. I was at high school in Nowhere at the time, and working for Jason after school, so I saw little enough of the Harvelle kids, but I – and everyone else – heard about the sodium-metal-down-the-school-toilet incident, and the mysteriously-severed-gas-main-in-the-science-classroom incident that forced the whole building to close for a week while Jason and Mr. Rickard repaired the pipe.
“Well,” Helen said quietly, shutting off the heat to a beaker of gloppily boiling orange slime, “how many more town stories do you have there?”
I flicked through my notebook. “A lot. Some from town, some from Nowhere; most of them are probably about Curnow or even before.”
In one of the succession of rooms branching off the lab, a timer started beeping, piercingly high-pitched, with a faint click in it like a circuit breaking. Misty appeared suddenly, hands full of bottles. “It’s five o’clock, Helen. We have an hour.”
“It’s time for you to leave,” Helen told me. “Come back at ten-thirty tomorrow; Curnow can show you how the mists work, and…”
“And by ten-thirty tomorrow we might need an outsider. Someone who’s not involved,” Misty interrupted. “I’ll show you to the door.”