Chapter Twenty-Three: In Which Pearl Calls Stephanie
'Hm? Oh, at first it was simply to gain my freedom, yes – there's no question about that. But over time... well. It's something of a cliché, is it not? Albeit one that almost never occurs in real life.'
—Ashley Lacrimére, interview on The Ruby Rhodes Show
Eleven o'clock at night. The hotel was silent. All was set and I was ready.
I slipped out of my room and down the corridor, pausing at regular intervals to check that nobody was following me; as it turned out, no one was, and I reached the lobby without incident. Wednesday was still there behind the desk, and I approached him as sneakily as possible.
“Ah, Miss Gideon,” he said, when I was about thirty feet away. “What are you doing up at this hour?”
Blast. What hope was there for me as a detective if I couldn't even sneak up on a one-eyed man? As if they had read my thoughts, the ravens on the Norse receptionist's shoulders cackled, and I narrowed my eyes: had they sensed me and given me away?
“Little feathered bratchnies,” I muttered under my breath – and then, louder: “Um, hi. I was wondering if there were any mobile phone shops nearby?”
Wednesday looked at me as if I'd suddenly climbed into my own pocket and carried myself out.
“A phone shop? At this time of night?”
“Er... well, when a girl needs a phone...”
“I don't know if any will be open,” he said kindly, as if talking to an idiot. “Most shops are closed at night.”
“Isn't there even one?”
“Well...” Wednesday pondered. “None of the real phone shops will be open now, but there are all-night electronics stores on Muscat Street.”
“Yes, really. I always wondered why you'd need an all-night electronics store. I suppose now I know.”
“Yeah. I guess you do.”
I thanked him and walked out, where the cab I'd ordered from my room was waiting. I smiled. It was like one of those crime movies where there's an elaborate con, and all the parts move perfectly smoothly in that really satisfying way.
After our meal earlier – which had been a hurried affair, at Ashley's insistence – we'd headed straight back to the hotel, where Iago and Ashley had begun thinking about possible places to investigate based on the Blade Runner clue. This left me at a loose end, so after sitting around bored for a while I came up with a plan: I would do what I'd meant to do days ago, and get a new phone. Then I would call Stephanie, and see what she'd found out about Ashley.
As for why I was being so stealthy about it... well, that wasn't strictly necessary, but it was fun and I enjoyed it, even if I was awful at it.
The all-night electronics store was every bit as unpleasant as I thought it would be; the only mobile phones it sold were cheap and frankly nasty. The one I settled on was the least horrible, but it was still a poor trade for my thirty-eight thousand dollar Devon model; still, it was the best I could get right now, so I loaded Stephanie's number into it, got back in the cab and called her on the way to the Hrafn Hotel.
“Steph? It's Pearl.”
“For Christ's sake, I'd just fallen asleep,” she mumbled.
“Not everyone's Pearl Gideon,” she said. Then, as she woke up properly: “Wait. Pearl? Pearl, is that you?”
“Yeah, I just said—”
“What took you so long?” Stephanie demanded to know. “I've been waiting for this call ever since you left!”
“I only just got a new phone—”
“Only just? You're Pearl Gideon!” she snapped. “When have you ever passed up an opportunity to shop?”
“I've been pretty busy – I almost died—”
“It's been that way here ever since I learned the truth,” Stephanie said darkly. “Pearl, for the last few days I've gone to bed fully expecting for someone to come and knife me in the night.”
“Ah, I wouldn't worry about that – the guy whose job it is to knife people is here with me. Well, he's back at the hotel. Talking about movies with a superhuman detective in the hope of finding a bomb.”
“Are you feeling all right?” asked Stephanie, after a suitable pause.
“Yeah,” I replied. “It's just... things are weird here.”
She gave a short, sharp laugh.
“You have no idea just how weird they really are,” she said. “But I guess that's why you called.”
“Yeah.” I glanced at the cabbie and lowered my voice. “I've seen Ashley change his shape, Steph. I've seen Cynthia Buckley hug him because he'd shrugged off the effects of enough poison to kill an elephant. I've seen him make the strongest Ghost in Sinnoh scream for mercy without even moving. So tell me, Stephanie: what is he, and what is it that no one wants me to know?”
Liza punched the wall, splitting both her knuckles and the plaster; her fingers came away with a film of bloody dust.
“Cal,” she hissed at the floor, voice rasping with anger. “Not here either.”
74 Zana Road, which was supposed to be the residence of one Samantha Wilson, was in fact deserted – and had been for at least three years, judging by the state it was in.
She had searched so many, house after house after disappointing house, and now Liza was growing desperate. There were just four remaining places to check in Sinnoh – the last four in the world, in fact – and when they ran out—
“Stop,” she told herself. “You're going to find the right place. You will. It has to be one of these.”
And what if it isn't? asked the little voice inside her head. What if you find nothing? What do you do then, when it turns out that your life has no foundation after all?
“I go with Cyrus,” Liza replied, after a pause. “I let him unmake the world, and I join him where nothing matters any more.” She pulled away from the wall and rubbed her knuckles, wiping away the blood and plaster. “Bad cut,” she said, wincing and thrusting her hand into her pocket. She could see to it later; it wasn't like it would kill her.
Liza left the bedroom, and was halfway down the stairs when one of those blinding recollections struck her: she was by a tower again, and there was an arch – that was very important, she knew, that there was an arch – and something rushed down upon her and her brethren with the points extended out towards them—
When Liza opened her eyes, she was lying at the bottom of the stairs, in the remnants of a rotting rug, and her head was aching as if it had been hit with a mallet. She barely registered the pain, though; her whole mind, her entire being, was bent upon one thought, one supreme thought that blazed in her mind like an erupting volcano:
There was an arch.
How long she stayed there, lying on the floor and staring sightlessly at the ceiling, was a mystery even to her. It might have been ten minutes, or ten hours; all Liza knew was that when she came to her senses, and the image of the arch faded from before her eyes, her clothes were damp from the moisture in the decaying floor.
“What the hell?” she mumbled, sitting up and rubbing her head, which had started to pulse with slow, dull bursts of pain. “There was an arch...”
Then it passed, and Liza got to her feet. She was slightly unsteady, and put a hand against the newel post to keep her balance; as she did so, she noticed that there was blood on it – though when she investigated further, she couldn't find its source.
“That's...” Liza shook her head and blinked firmly, trying to clear her head. “It's probably nothing,” she decided eventually, and stumbled out.
“You have to understand, that's the most difficult question,” Stephanie said, her voice low and urgent. “No one's completely sure – there're lots of different explanations. But I know the main three, and believe me, I think that's enough to have the League after me – especially since I'm pretty sure at least one of these is true.”
“Are you OK?” I asked, frowning. Stephanie was almost gabbling; it was very unlike her. “You don't sound OK.”
“I'm fine,” she said. “Shut up and listen. Now, the first explanation is that he's somehow influenced by Dialga.”
“You never read any books of legends as a kid?”
“Only the Greek ones.”
Stephanie sighed; it sounded like it was born half of exasperation at my ignorance and impatience that she'd have to explain further before continuing.
“It's an Ancient Sinnish legend, Pearl. In the beginning was the One, the Alpha – Arceus. You know that one?”
“Yeah, of course.” I made sure to sound indignant; everyone in Sinnoh knew about Arceus, the old creator-god. He was a national symbol: you could find him in statues and paintings across the nation, on the flag, on tinned food, for God's sake. In fact, I could see a picture of him advertising newspapers in a shop window outside the taxi – tall and red-skinned, holding a copy of the Pastoria Gazette in each of his many hands.
“Well, the legend goes that Arceus created two lesser gods to start the universe going,” continued Stephanie. “Dialga and Palkia, the gods of time and space respectively. When they were born, the universe started to be.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said. “You think Ashley might somehow be channelling the power of the Ancient Sinnish god of time?”
“Everything fits,” said Stephanie. “I've uncovered records of Ashley that go as far back as 1891; he's immortal, Pearl. He doesn't age. Like his body is frozen in time.”
“Hm,” I said, unconvinced. “Steph, are you sure you're all right?”
“I'm fine, just paranoid,” she replied, surprisingly frankly. “Look, I'm serious about this. If Ashley is blessed by Dialga – or even is Dialga – it explains everything he can do. The only leap of faith is believing that Dialga exists.”
“It's a pretty big one,” I pointed out.
“I know. That's why I think the other two explanations are more likely,” Stephanie went on. “Well, at least one of them is.”
“Give me the likely one first.”
“Do you remember that Zero affair from this summer?” she asked.
“Some people think Ashley's like Zero – a Ghost-type Pokémon fused with a human mind to create a new being.”
“That would explain what he did to the Driftenburg,” I mused. “And we know that that's definitely possible.”
“How did I know there was going to be a 'but'?” I sighed.
“Because twenty years of life is just about long enough to teach you that nothing's straightforward,” replied Stephanie. “Anyway, I've got my doubts about this one. Ashley is supposed to be immune to having his mind read by Psychics, yeah?”
“Oh yeah – even the Alakazam at the reserve couldn't read it.”
“You went to the reserve? No – wait – don't distract me. The point is, there's no Ghost species skilled enough in telepathy to resist that. A really strong one might kill or stun a Psychic before it managed to read anything, but it couldn't actively resist having its mind read. It's more like he's a—”
“A Time God?”
“No, I wasn't going to say that. I was going to say, like he's a Dark-type. Dark-type Pokémon are completely immune to everything Psychics can do.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Dark-types can't get inside someone like a Ghost can.”
“That's not strictly true,” said Stephanie, sounding triumphant. “They can. I found a record of an old dual Ghost/Dark Pokémon from the sixteenth century – something called Spiritomb.”
“You think that could be in Ashley?”
“It's a possibility,” Stephanie told me. “It would give him the Ghost powers, and explain why no one can read his mind.”
“But it wouldn't explain the shape-shifting,” I said thoughtfully.
“Hang on, the taxi's stopping. Tell you in a minute.”
I paid the driver, got out and walked over to the hotel; it was cold and the rain was beginning to get harder, so I ran over to the portico before putting the phone back to my ear.
“Sorry. What was I saying?”
“You were telling me about Ashley shape-shifting.”
“Oh yeah. That. Well, I know he can do weird stuff with his arms.”
I told her about the arm-blades and the bees as I went in.
“Combee? Pearl, are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Hey, I can't back out now,” I said, nodding at Wednesday as I passed. “Look, we've had this discussion. What do you think about the shape-shifting?”
“I don't see how a Spiritomb could do that,” Stephanie said dispiritedly. “Maybe Dialga could. He's a god, after all.”
“Maybe.” I paused. “Is there anything else you know?”
“A lot. Where do you want me to start? The League? The secret Pokémon disasters? The vaults?”
I pressed the button for the elevator, and stopped to think for a moment.
“What do you know,” I asked, “about Darkling Town?”
They don't let their children out after dark in Hearthome. There's a reason for that.
When dusk falls over the city of show business, of glitz and glamour and gilt edges, the lights go out, and the theatres close. The Contest Hall doors are barred, and the night shift from the Gym patrol the leafy boulevards with torches and Haunter.
And the Ghosts come out to play.
Walking through the midnight streets of Hearthome is always an unnerving experience. Rarely, if ever, does one see a Ghost, but they're there; you can hear them in the sound of approaching footsteps, of unexpected whistles and shrieks, of low, throaty chuckles. If you see anything at all, it will be a shadow on a wall, or a pale face that flickers in your sight for a brief instant before vanishing; occasionally, the star Pokémon coordinators on their posters will move to a different position, or leave the paper altogether for who knows where.
No, they don't let their children out after dark in Hearthome – and with good reason.
“Bond,” whispered Ellen, as they looked out over the dark, silent city below, “I'm scared.”
“I would be lying if I were to deny sharing some of your concerns, madam,” Bond admitted, “but I have faith we shall make it through.”
They stood atop a small hill west of the city, having made their laborious way down from the mountaintop over the last few hours; being much lighter than normal people, they had taken the journey in a series of jumps, drifting down from crag to crag like strange fusions of balloon and mountain goat. This was, it turned out, a far faster method of transport than the more conventional climbing, and so now, at midnight, they were just a few miles west of Hearthome, watching it with increasing trepidation.
We want to get to the train station, said Pigzie Doodle. From there, we can get to Veilstone relatively quickly, and without too much hassle. Thank God there are no Rotom around, he added. Plasmic bratchnies just love to mess around with the railways.
“What's a Rotom?” asked Ellen.
The vanguard of the future, said Pigzie Doodle in tones of such disgust that she dared not ask him more. Look, we should get going. It's midnight now; if we start moving now, we should get to Hearthome after dawn, when most of the Ghosts have retreated for the day.
Ellen relayed this information to Bond, who agreed that it seemed a sound idea, and together, the three of them began to climb down the hill and towards the city.
“Darkling Town? That's the key, Pearl,” said Stephanie. “That's the one time where there's solid, reliable evidence and eyewitness accounts about Ashley and what he can do.”
“Good. Are you going to tell me about it or not?”
The lift pinged and the doors slid open; I stepped in, pressed the button for the second floor and listened to Stephanie as they closed again.
“In 1891,” she told me, “Ashley returned to Sinnoh from wherever he'd been before, on Newmoon Island.”
“It's this little place far north from Canalave. There used to be a town there – Darkling Town.”
“Used to be...?”
“Until Ashley came there.” Stephanie paused. “See, when you know there's someone like him around and you're a wealthy, egotistical kind of person, you want to own him. You must've seen what an asset he is for the League, even if he does spend eighty per cent of his time playing around with his detective agency.”
“Yeah. So, what – someone tried to catch him?”
“Yes. It was the Stone family, actually – you know, the mining dynasty from Kanto? Currently run Devon in Hoenn? They'd heard about him and, since the Stones haven't always dealt with their problems entirely legally, they decided he'd be good to own. So they sent some people after him, and they met him in Darkling Town.”
“I suppose he released?”
“If by 'released' you mean 'turned into a bladed monster and turned his attackers and Darkling Town into paste', then yeah. I don't think he was expecting anyone to try and attack him; he seems to have got a bit... carried away.”
I thought of Ashley and the Combee, or of Ashley and the Driftenburg. Yes. I could see that happening. One moment, he would be completely normal, then his eyes would flash yellow and... Well. I didn't doubt for a second that nothing in 19th-century Sinnoh would have been able to stop him.
I stepped out of the lift, checked to see if Iago was spying on me (which he wasn't) and headed back to my room.
“Right,” I said. “So... what happened next?”
“The League turned up, thinking that some ridiculously powerful Pokémon had gone berserk,” replied Stephanie. “Two Elite Four members flew in, and sent a request for help about an hour later; the rest of the Elite Four and two of the Gym Leaders went in after them. In the end, it took the combined efforts of the Elite Four, the Champion and six Gym Leaders to stop Ashley.”
“Whoa. Stop there. That – that can't be right.” I thought of the bees. “He was beaten by a swarm of Combee earlier.”
“I think either his powers are waning with time or he's just not as angry as he used to be,” Stephanie said. “He was really pissed back then. Thinking about what you just said about him shape-shifting – well, they said he wasn't even recognisable as human until they got him back to the League HQ. Now I know why.”
“Yeah, I know. They only managed to stop him because a lucky Leaf Blade cut his head off and knocked him out.”
“Only knocked him out... you know, I'm not even surprised any more.” I unlocked the door, went in and flopped onto my bed. “Tell me more.”
“The Champion at the time was a woman called Allegra Fairfax,” Stephanie told me. “If half the stories about her are true, she was probably the most powerful lunatic in the history of Sinnoh. I can't think of any other example where someone so out of touch with reality ended up with such a high position.”
“Probably someone European,” I suggested. “A king, maybe?”
“That's really helpful, Pearl,” said Stephanie with deep sarcasm. “Thanks for that. Anyway, she had Ashley cut up and stored in pieces in different vaults. Spent years interrogating him – though no one knows why. She did a lot of stuff like that – like banning Mightyena from all official Trainer battles, and stabbing her mother-in-law in the chest with a bayonet. That was what got her sent to prison, actually.”
“Mm-hm. Once she was out of the picture, the next Champion was Edmund Carthelwick, who negotiated a deal with Ashley: they'd let him go if he'd work for them when they needed him. He agreed, thinking he'd just leave as soon as he was released.”
“But? I feel like there should be a 'but' here.”
“There is. But Ashley found out he couldn't actually break free of the League's control. No one actually knows why – there's a theory that being chopped up for so long weakened him or something, but I guess the only way you'll find out is by asking him.”
“So now he's stuck with them,” I said.
“Yeah. He was imprisoned again by the last Champion – you remember him? Jonathan Farnese? – but he saw his chance when Cynthia came to power and seduced her so she'd free him.”
“They're lovers. You saw Cynthia with him, right? Didn't you know?”
“I... actually, yeah,” I said, thinking of Cynthia's reaction earlier. “It explains it perfectly – especially why she doesn't like me. She's the jealous type.”
“They've been together ever since she became Champion.”
“But Ashley? Seriously? I can't imagine him ever being in any sort of relationship...”
“He is human,” Stephanie reminded me. “And he's also at least a hundred and twenty years old. I bet he's had thousands of girlfriends.”
I tried to imagine it and failed. Ashley was just too... alien. No one could actually love him, could they? And he could never love someone either, I was sure. It just couldn't happen.
“I'll take your word for it,” I said at length. “For now, Stephanie, what does all of this mean? Is there anything conclusive you can say that would be the turning point in a detective movie?”
“You want a McGuffin? Pearl, this isn't a film—”
“Do you have one or not?”
“No. This was all I could find. If this was a film, I'd be a genius hacker and would've got the whole story already, but this is all I can get that we can reasonably believe to be true.” Stephanie paused. “Understand?”
“Yeah. Sorry. Look – thanks, Steph. You're a – a good friend.”
“I thought I told you this wasn't a film.”
“Shut up. It's close to twelve. I can only think in clichés at this time of night.”
Stephanie laughed, though it sounded a little off; she must be tired.
“It's OK, Pearl. I got pretty paranoid, but no one's come to kill me so far and I feel better for getting it off my chest. I should get back to bed now. I'll call this phone if I find anything else out.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Now, get some sleep for once. You'll probably need it.”
“Who are you, my mother? Anyway, I doubt I'll be getting to sleep any time soon.” I sighed again. “We're on one of those all-night detective cases. It turns out that in the movies they skip over the bits where the hero sits around for hours thinking about what they need to do.”
“That's real life for you, Pearl,” said Stephanie. “Anyway, some people have work to do tomorrow. See you later, Pearl.”
“Bye. Thanks again.”
The line went dead, and I looked at the phone for a moment, alternately contemplating how hideous it was and how surreal that conversation had been. Then my thoughts were interrupted by Ashley, who threw open the door and proclaimed in ringing tones:
“Pearl! Quickly – to Stanner Square!”
“There we go, darlin'. Wasn't so 'ard, was i'?”
Stephanie shook her head, beads of nervous sweat shining on her brow. The man in black smiled, and pulled the gun away from her head.
“Atta girl,” he said. “Gimme that phone now.” She handed it over, and he retied her wrists. “Cheers. Don' go nowhere, will you. Be back soon enough.”
With that, he walked out, leaving her alone in the dark.
Yes, Stephanie Knew Too Much.
And serious repercussions had come to pass.