A seemingly unending series of majestic pillars lined the boulevards hidden beneath Mount Hoffmann. Each pillar uniquely detailed in pictographic form a history of Falun’s long life, the accumulated images conjuring a tale that was oddly both garrish and sincere.
Lottie scanned far ahead to an area on the far side of a set of train tracks a half mile ahead. The buildings appeared to be less cared for than those in surrounding areas. If someone wished to hide by keeping to the margins then that appeared the most likely area to do so.
For several hours, Lottie had been searching the city for signs of Malus. She had learned quickly through her communications with the Falunians that since most city streets ran parallel on many levels, points of location within the mountain required the vertical dimension in order to be complete.
Despite initial reactions of suspicion, Lottie found the Falunian people were quick to relax, accommodating with ease to her style of inquisition. In general they tended to speak with an open hospitality and a natural gregariousness.
“I ain’t seen no boy like that, dear,” a small woman reported, her wispy white hair wild and undisturbed in the windless Falunian street. The woman was bent nearly double, no doubt after decades of carrying coal from the Pipco Mines to the train cars that would ferry the coal from the mountain.
“A boy, at least of the type you describe, would be hard to miss.” The old woman spoke in merry tones. “Now my cousin Mary Sue over on the southern curve, third level, she seems to know a lot about what’s going on. She was just at market earlier all excited about some monster on the loose. Seems to be a right terror.”
The lady craned her neck in order to look up and smile. “Why don’t you come for a spot of tea, dear, and I’ll get my cousin’s address for you. She be right friendly. You need a place to sleep I’m sure she can findja a bed.”
“That will be unnecessary,” replied Lottie. “I require neither tea nor sleep.”
“Now that’s just crazy talk,” the little old lady chuckled. “Everybody requires tea.”
Lottie approached the set of train tracks. They ran perpendicular to the boulevard upon which she walked, emerging from a tunnel to her right and continuing to her left, out across the great cavern via a stone railway bridge carved directly out of the mountain.
From the tunnel came the sound of a train whistle announcing the approach of a coal train en route to the outside through an opening in the mountain about five miles below the surface settlement of Falun. On either side of the tracks was a wide area painted with white stripes.
Lottie stood upon the white painted area beside the tracks watching as a small train emerged from the tunnel pulling a line of about a dozen open-topped cars filled to overflowing with coal. The locomotive, exhaling white steam and black smoke, puffed along, toting its load across the great cavern on its way outside the mountain.
Well before the final coal-filled car passed, Lottie noticed she was not alone. A small mechanical man, no more than three feet in height, approached from the far side of the tracks.
“This is the Central Scrutinizer,” said the mechanical man, though his mouth did not move. His voice sounded frightfully artificial. “The White Zone is for loading and unloading only. . . if you have to load or unload, go to the White Zone.”
“Are you in charge of the trains?” Lottie asked in an effort to determine if the man might have any pertinent information.
“This is the Central Scrutinizer,” the tiny mechanical man repeated. “The WHITE ZONE is for loading and unloading only.”
“Have you been at your station long?” Lottie asked. “I am searching for a man who may have passed this way in the last twelve hours.”
“This is the Central Scrutinizer…” the mechanical man spoke without inflection. “It is my responsibility to enforce all the laws that have and have not been passed yet. It is also my responsibility to alert you to the potential consequences of various ordinary everyday activities you might be performing which could eventually lead to The Death Penalty.”
“Excuse me,” said Lottie as she walked past the metallic official. “I must seek someone useful.”
“This is the Central Scrutinizer…” But Lottie did not wait for the rest. Without another word she started to run.
“I am looking for a man,” Lottie stated.
“Yer in luck, sweet stuff.” The shorter of the two fat little miners elbowed his brother while letting out a series of laughs that sounded very much like a series of rapid-fire hiccups. “You done found yerself two of the underground’s finest.”
“No,” Lottie stated. “The man I am searching for is aesthetically pleasing; tall, with long dark hair and green eyes.”
“Then ye best try elsewhere other than Falun.” There was nothing particularly malicious in the laughter of the two men. They were crude and intoxicated but not overly intimidating or threatening.
“No,” Lottie stated. “The man I seek is most definitely in Falun.”
“There be something off ‘bout you,” said the smaller of the two off-duty miners, squinting and leaning in slightly. “Yer a clank, ain’tja!” He snapped his fingers. “Lookit, Major, seems a stray little dolly done wandered our way.”
“Excuse me,” said Lottie belaying the impulse to bowl past the men for their insult. “I am in a hurry.”
“I believe you are right, brother,” said the taller of the small round men. “She’s a mighty pretty dolly too.” The miners bent double, heads touching while their great derrieres effectively blocked passage along the narrow walk.
Lottie looked at them, her head cocked to the side. “I will only repeat the request once — excuse me!”
“Hey dolly, you look like one of them girls from the Tick Tock Kitty,” spoke the miner named Major with intensifying obnoxiousness. “What say you toss the two of us in that alley, dolly.” The man made some sort of signalling motion with his hand, perhaps employing a sign language with which Lottie was not familiar.
“As you wish,” Lottie replied. She wasted no time in firmly grasping each man by the coveralls. Despite their shouts of protest she spun around several times, generating force before releasing the men, sending them crashing into trash bins lining the alley.
Lottie spun around suddenly at an unexpected burst of laughter. There on the rundown side of the tracks stood Petra Flax slapping her leg and hooting. “Those Minor Brothers, old Major and Sharply, they was always a bit dim. But you sure just educated them.”
“You failed to follow instructions and came below,” Lottie stated.
“Had to,” replied Petra. “Sheriff Snots ‘n his two deputies was after me. Chased me right down here from the door in Old Lady Vorpal’s kitchen floor.”
“What about the others?”
“They’re fine,” Petra assured Lottie. “I think Father Vorpal’s gonna help Mr. Emerson and Miss Junie with their plan.”
What were you doing in this area of town?” asked Lottie. “Were you hiding in these dilapidated buildings?”
“Nope, I come over here Clankside to warn my Ma to be on the lookout in case the authorities come askin’ about me.”
“You have a mother?” Lottie asked, letting the derogatory term pass for the second time in the past ten minutes..
“Yep,” Petra nodded. “She works the bar in the Tick Tock Kitty when she ain’t boilin’ sheets at the Silverfish.”
“Is your mother trustworthy?”
“Hardly,” Petra replied. “I feed her false information from time to time. She wouldn’t turn me in on purpose but she don’t know how to not talk. She’s touched with voices in the head you know. So I fill her with false information to set people lookin’ the wrong way.”
“We need to find Malus,” said Lottie. “I have no direct evidence of his whereabouts but I spoke with one Mary Sue who reports rumours that the monster he pursues is heading to some cavern of black mold.”
Petra brought both hands to her mouth as her eyes widened in shock.
“Oh no,” said Petra. “They’re going to The Forbidden Zone.”