Chapter 21: The plush side of town
It turns out the ‘plush’ part of town is a lot less soft and welcoming than I expected it to be.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect anyhow.
The street lights are dimly lit leaving shadows to play games on the walls.
The air has a dusty yet sweet quality to it like excess facial powders and perfumes.
The men and women lining the street seem impervious to the chill in the air with their bare shoulders, knee-length dresses and sleeveless shirts.
They talk in whispers and smiles out here.
I wonder what these people are saying but I have a creeping feeling that I’d regret to know.
It’s not like I can’t guess, I’m not dim-witted I’m just… inexperienced I guess?
I never really thought about love or lust or anything along those lines.
I’m not even sure I can see the appeal.
The idea of marrying a woman and having children of my own always felt more like a business exchange, instigated by my parents to keep the Winton line going, rather than an aspiration or goal of my own.
I guess making dolls is similar to having kids.
But no, that’s different that’s…cleaner?
Is that the word?
“It’s this way.”
My shoulders jump as I’m suddenly very aware of Tungsten’s presence. He’s been walking behind me all this time, quiet like a ghost.
I look back at him and he looks, apprehensive, nervous even.
Or am I just projecting my own nerves onto him?
“Right.” I chuckle “So…what is Utopia”
That doesn’t actually assure me but I don’t think pushing will help now “If you say so…”
I look at a wooden door without a sign or windows or even a house number.
“This is it,” Tungsten announces.
I regard it with suspicion “Is this a den?”
“It looks like a den.”
“What, no not every nondescript building is a den. Just knock, you’ll see.”
I knock on the door and the moment my knuckle leaves the wood a latch opens up showing off nothing but a pair of dark eyes peering out at us.
Then there’s a voice. “It’s been a while Tungsten and you brought a friend as well?”
“Yeah, I know Jet. But this guy’s cool” Tungsten answers before I have the chance to look confused.
“Well in that case, welcome to Utopia” the door swings open with a flourish.
We enter silently.
I expected the smell of tobacco and beer, that’s what bars are supposed to smell like right?
But instead, the smell of flowers drifts in and out of focus as we walk into the room.
Despite the lack of windows, there’s enough light to go around in the shape of sparkling crystal chandeliers and mirrored tiles that reflect the light in all directions.
A gramophone plays happy music while around me men and women of all stripes of life hang around to dance, talk and make merry.
Ladies walk around with jugs of beer, while gentlemen sip pretty cocktails.
I can’t help but notice a lot of the couples dancing are of the same sex.
I look back at Tungsten whose ears have gone flat against his head.
“Is this a same-sex club?” I ask.
Tungsten crosses his arms “It’s a ‘we don’t care, just make sure it’s consensual before you try anything’- club.” The big guy bites back defensively.
“I see…And you think we’ll find Neon here?”
The big man crosses his arms “If we’re lucky. He’s not one to go out often but when he does it’ll be here. I’ll go ask around, you stay here and act natural.”
“Uhm, okay?” I wonder if I should have told him I’ve never been in a bar before but it’s too late now.
For someone that large he’s surprisingly fast.
I guess I should sit down somewhere…I should get out of the entrance that’s for sure.
I stumble one way, then another wondering where would be the most ‘natural’ way to sit down.
I don’t want to grab one of the large tables, I don’t want to occupy it while I don’t expect that many guests.
There are smaller, more intimate seatings to the back but even I can sense that that’s a place for couples and lovers.
I pass the same tropical-looking plant three times in a row and I’m pretty sure the whole bar is aware I don’t belong here.
“Inquiry? Inquiry Winton?”
My stomach sinks, I twist around at the sound and find a man standing behind me. His hair is light, sleeked back and matches with a neatly trimmed moustache and beard.
But while he apparently knows my name. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this fellow in my life.
Well, I’m supposed to act natural so… “Can I help you?” I ask a bit uncertainly.
The man sighs in relief, “So it is you, for a second I was afraid I had the wrong bloke there. Will you sit with me? Only a moment would suffice.”
“I’m…uhm…not sure who you are?”
“Right, of course, how rude of me.” He sticks a gloved hand into his breast pocket and pulls out a small card. “The name’s Abel Gloria.”
I pick the card from his hand and feel dread crawl up my spine as I read it in full. ‘Abel Gloria, Winton automata assistant manager.’
“You work for my parents.” My voice is accusatory.
“Then I have nothing to say to you.” I hand the card back to him and stuff my hand into my pockets ready to stride away when a hand grabs my arm.
“Oh, well hold on now. I’m not here to arrest you or anything. There’s no need to be afraid.”
“I’m not- never mind, what do you want?”
“Just to talk. I’m your replacement, in a way, so seeing you walk around here I can’t help but wonder what the original is like.” He gestures to the table again “Will you humour me? Just for a moment?”
I should say no, I know I should say no. But resisting my curiosity has never been my strong suit “Fine, but my friend is here as well so if you try anything get ready to get your ass kicked by a very big guy.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. He nods and leads the way to one of the tables in the back.
We sit down together I take the seat facing the door just in case.
“Can I offer you something to drink?” he asks cordially but I shake my head.
“No thanks.” Part of me wonders if he wants to poison me, or drug me and drag me back home to my horrible parents.
Is that normal?
Or did I hang around alchemists for too long?
“All right…so…how are you doing?”
I shrug “You said you were my replacement.”
“To the point I see, I like that.” he chuckles lightly “I see, well I’m a cousin of yours on your estranged aunt’s side does the name Haven Winton ring a bell?”
“Can’t say it does.”
“I’m not surprised but I am disappointed. Haven is my great-grandmother, she fell in love with one of the servants and married him in spite of our family’s wishes. His name was Proper Gloria and she took her husband’s name when they got marries despite convention. hence the Gloria instead of Winton. But I’m still ‘Winton enough’ when it suits them I guess. I’ve been ‘adopted’ shall we say, to continue the business and the Winton name.”
“So replacement in the literal sense of the word.”
A smile curls around his lips “Were you expecting them to wait for you to return?”
“No, well, I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about my parents much.” I’ve been a bit too busy with…everything.
“I see, well you must understand your family isn’t even sure you’re alive. I’m surprised I found you at all if I’m honest, you hid well.”
He pulls out a box of cigarettes and holds it out to me. I politely decline the offer. He then shrugs pulls out a cigarette for himself, then changes his mind and pushes the box back into his pocket. “Of course now I know you are alive I also know my offspring would not take precedence over any heirs you might produce. Which does worry me a bit if I’m honest.”
“I don’t have kids and I don’t plan on getting any.”
“Oh that’s good, uhm I mean for my children.”
“You already have kids then?” he doesn’t look much older than me.
Was I supposed to have kids by now?
“Yes, a son and a daughter.” He pulls a gold-clad booklet from his breast pocket and opens it to reveal a set of photographs. The kids are dressed up in little angel costumes holding golden instruments and flowers around their heads. “Her name is Virtue and he’s Justice.”
“I see, I don’t mean to be rude but, if you have children and all that, what brings you to Utopia?”
The man blinks at me for a moment. Then closes the booklet with a snap “Oh, well, some of my university buddies aren’t welcome in other establishments because of their preferences. So, we decided it’s best to all go here rather than have only some of us go to the ‘regular clubs’. My wife Pretty doesn’t mind and the beer tastes a whole deal better here so it’s a good spot to catch up.”
“I hope that isn’t offensive, I mean no disrespect by it.” He adds carefully.
“What? Oh, I don’t know I’m not…uh? I’m not offended by it?”
He smiles at this, putting away the booklet while I wonder whether men hold an appeal to me.
I don’t think so. But then neither do women.
Or is it just that I never thought about it?
I haven’t kissed anyone besides my own parents and didn’t like doing that either.
“So what have you been up to?” Abel asks before taking a sip of beer and I decide soul searching has to wait. “Well, I became an alchemist.”
The man almost chokes on his drink, he sets down the jug, coughs a couple of times and then asks “Really?” In a small and squeaky voice.
“Yes.” Though technically I guess I’m still an Ion. I leave that out for now. I think a petty part of me wanted to see his face pull in shock for a bit.
He clears his throat “Right, fascinating.” He lets out, his voice back to normal seemingly trying very hard to ‘act normal.’
“I’m not some murderous modder if that’s your concern.”
“What no, no I wouldn’t think of it. It uh, it explains the whole vanishing bit.”
“It does, doesn’t it? So do you plan to tell my parents I’m still alive and practising alchemy?”
“Do you want me to?”
“Then I won’t.”
“Good.” I wonder what else there is to say? I guess it’s been nice to see someone who isn’t a doll or an alchemist for a change, but I’m not going to explain everything that’s happened in the last couple of years to a stranger I’ve just met. Especially not one who works for my parents.
“So uh…do you like being a Win-” my sentence gets cut short by shouting in rage “I was honest with you!”
“Sounds like a lover’s spat to me.” Abel sniggers as he looks over my shoulder.
“And I recognise that voice.” I jump up from my chair. “I have to go. It’s been a pleasure.”
“Wait.” Abel swipes the card I refused before off the table and tries to hand it to me a second time. “In case you’d like to reach out in the future.”
Tungsten scoffs loudly “Really? Mister ‘things are improving.’”
I have no time for this. “Sure, thanks.” I pocket the business card and dart towards the dance floor as Abel calls out behind me “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
I try a clunky wave back before setting my sights to more important matters.
“Most of the time. Certainly more than you!”
“But you lied about the important bit!-”
I don’t have to look long for a group of spectators who have already gathered to watch the spectacle. I try to see what’s going on and wriggle myself through the mass of people.
“I wonder why!?” Neon shouts back.
“Yeah, I wonder why too!” Tungsten retorts.
I get a painful stab in the side as someone’s elbow presses me to go backwards again.
“All right that’s enough okay, let’s all just take a deep breath a chill out for a bit.” Sounds like someone finally manages to get between the two.
“Don’t meddle in my business Jet!” Neon hisses.
“Your business is killing the vibe Neon. You know the rules, if you wanna fight you gotta take it outside.”
“Neon, I’m not here to fight you.” Tungsten warns.
“Should have thought about that before showing your face here.” In a last ditch effort to see what’s going on I try to jump and look over the crowd as I hear Neon say “You. me. outside. now.”
“Neon stop. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Too late for that asshole.”
The sound of shattering glass is deafening. The whole room holds their breath.
My stomach drops as I spot a glimpse of white hairs and green glasses dashing towards the door with people jumping out his way to let him through.
Well, there goes our alchemist.
With the fun part apparently over the crowd dissipates and the big wolfkin walks up to the bigger Tungsten and asks “You okay mate?” with a sinking feeling in my stomach I spot the blood dripping down his arm. Shards of glass sharp at his feet.
Tungsten nods but his face is blank.
“Want me to patch that up? I got some bandages in the back.” Jet offers.
Tungsten’s eyes go confused for a bit, he looks down at his arms “Nah, just a scratch, I’ll be fine.” He scans the quickly emptying dancefloor. I wave, trying to catch his attention.
His eyes soften as he sees me “Ah, hey ion.”
“What happened? I couldn’t see.
“Couldn’t see huh?” he sighs “That’s good. Let’s go home.”
“Shouldn’t you get that treated first?”
“Yeah mate it’s no effort whatsoever.” The wolf pushes trying to reach for the injured arm but Tungsten pulls away and shakes his head. “It’s fine.” He then turns and walks to the door.
“Thank you for stepping in,” I tell the wolfkin.
He waves his hand “It’s the job, just make sure your guy is okay.”
I nod, then rush after Tungsten.
The moon cowers behind the clouds as we make our way back to the forest.
Tungsten is silent, I look at his arms, a small streak of red drips down.
He should feel that right?
“Uhm, are you sure you’re okay?”
“So what happened back there?”
Seriously? What are you twelve? “You know, if I knew you had a history I may have opted to keep you out of sight.”
“I doubt he’d have given you the light of day either way.”
“So now what?” I ask. “Neon was our only lead remember?”
“We could start a meeting? See who will show?” Tungsten offers but even he sounds halfhearted by the idea.
“I doubt they will, especially if Neon talks to them first.” I grunt “We should have tried that first actually. Now it’s too late.”
“Then I’m out of ideas and we should head to bed. Maybe we’ll dream up a solution.” Tungsten pulls up the latch, cracks his neck and climbs on down.
I follow suit, not sure what to say beyond the usual “Good night.”
Taking a right, then a left and a right again I find a room the size of a large cupboard.
The pile of secondhand pillows that cover the floor aren’t as comfortable as the feather bed I left behind.
But it’s not as bad as it might sound.
I arrange them for a bit, trying to keep the day’s events from playing in my mind on repeat.
And then just hope I’ll fall asleep from exhaustion soon.
I fear it’s going to be a long, long night.