• ERIC BUTLER

Ephraim Godwin Chronicles - The Early Years: Inspector Joseph Kimbell

This is a stand-alone story that takes a look back at a preexisting character from the Ephraim Godwin Chronicles serial.

Summer of 1860...


Joseph Kimbell readjusted his newly purchased bowler for the tenth time as the carriage lurched over the country road. What was a gift to himself for achieving Inspector status was quickly becoming a reminder that people were dishonest. He envisioned his hands around the salesman's throat. Damn that man, perfect fit my foot.


Kimbell glanced out the window and sighed. He studied the lush green landscape as they rumbled by with a frown. He'd avoided the country for five years, instead using that time to claw his way up the force. Yet the moment he achieves Inspector, where does he find himself? Back in the bloody country, that's where. Still, he was on his first case and an important one if the gentleman across from him was telling the truth.


The carriage passed through an archway and the road smoothed considerably. Kimbell's head swung back to the man, his hand shooting up to steady his hat. The man offered a smile, his eyes avoiding the Inspector's hat situation. Kimbell's cheeks flushed, and he was grateful his beard covered his embarrassment. Snatching the bowler from his head, he pretended to study it while fighting the urge to throw it out the window.


"Again, I want to extend the Baron's regret at not being here to meet with you. He is stuck in London with...important business. As his solicitor I can speak for him while we are at his residence," the man said, the smile still on his lips.


Kimbell studied the solicitor; he heard the pause and wondered if anything the man said could be trusted. Of course, when dealing with nobility, Kimbell understood their truth might not mirror the actual truth.


"Quite all right," Kimbell said, slipping his hat back to his head before pulling his hands down to his lap as he fought the urge to jam the hat down, "Although the Lieutenant was vague as to why my services are necessary...especially if the Baron is not at home."


"We hope you can help solve the situation without the Baron's involvement."


Kimbell opened his mouth to question the man further when he caught a glimpse of the house. He gazed out the window, taking in the enormous estate. He wondered how many people worked at such a residence. The suspect list will be massive.


"And what exactly is the situation?" he asked as he returned his attention to the solicitor. Before the man could answer the carriage came to a stop.


"Ah, we are here," the man said as he motioned for Kimbell to step out.


Kimbell studied the solicitor for a moment longer before slipping out and stepping away from the carriage. I'm beginning to think this is a fool's errand.


"What's done is done," he whispered; the words his father spoke almost daily giving him some much needed calm.


"Pardon?" the solicitor asked as he stepped next to the Inspector. He continued to wear the same slight smile that Kimbell had seen during the journey.


"Nothing important," he said before calling out to the carriage driver, "Find the stables, Harry."


The driver tipped his cap and pulled away. Kimbell followed with his eyes, noting the direction in case he needed to find the man later. Of course I'll need a carriage just to make it to the stables in a timely fashion.


"Are you ready Inspector?" the solicitor called out as he moved toward the house's front door.


Kimbell kept his eyes on the carriage a moment longer before letting out a sigh. Am I?


***


Kimbell followed the solicitor through the house. So far so good; they had only turned once from the main foyer. Kimbell worried too many twists and turns would trap him forever in the oversized estate. He soaked in as many details as he could with each step. His guide set a steady pace. Portraits, vases, statues, and tapestries filled the hallways.


Exactly who owns this house? Kimbell wracked his brains but could not remember anyone mentioning an actual name. He slowed a bit to stare at the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte.


"Please keep up," Mr. Honeycutt called out. "There will be time later to look at the house's oddities.


Oddities? This feels downright treasonous. Keeping his thoughts to himself, Kimbell shook his head but picked up his pace to fall back in step behind the solicitor. Peaking over his guide's shoulder, he saw the hallway ending up ahead with three closed doors, but he suspected they all offered a way from the corridor.


Mr. Honeycutt turned once they arrived at the end. He motioned to the door behind him but didn't move. The two men stood in silence. Kimbell fought the urge to fidget as the quiet stretched.


"Gentlemen, this way," a voice as cold as the grave said as the door at their right opened. Mr. Honeycutt gave a start before a nervous giggle slipped out. He wasn't expecting that. Of course, neither was Kimbell.


As he entered the room, Kimbell found he had to fight the urge to stare at the largest human he'd ever seen. Kimbell, already shorter than most men he met, craned his neck to spy the man's face which appeared sallow, and his blonde hair was so pale as to seem white. The man's wardrobe of all black only intensified his appearance. He offered the men a smile, which neither touched his eyes nor offered any level of reassurance.


"Inspector Kimbell, I want you to meet the reason you are here," Mr. Honeycutt said, his voice reflecting his sudden unease. "Mr. Zachariah Whitlock."


"Pleasure to meet you," Kimbell said after a moment of silence not sure if he spoke the truth yet as the man chilled him to the core.


"Inspector," Whitlock replied with a nod.


"Well I have delivered him as promised and now must take my leave," Mr. Honeycutt said, his words directed to Whitlock.


He offered a slight bow before spinning and rushing from the room. Kimbell studied the man's escape, practically tasting the fear oozing from the solicitor. He didn't seem the type to ever show any true reaction, especially fright. The thought tickled the back of Kimbell's brain, but he shrugged it off, eager to discover why he was standing in a Baron's parlor with a giant.


Whitlock strode across the room, his long legs eating up the distance. Stopping at a table, he poured a dark brown liquid from a decanter into a wide glass. His eyebrows rose in question which Kimbell answered with a quick shake of his head. Whitlock raised the amber liquid to his lips and sipped. Kimbell noted the man visibly relaxed with that first drink.


"I'm sorry to be short," Kimbell said, his cheeks coloring as the implication dawned on him, "But why am I here?"


Whitlock placed the glass down and motioned to a set of chairs by the cold hearth. Kimbell stepped to the seats, keenly aware of the difference between the two men's gait. He sat and placed his hat in his lap. Whitlock slipped into his seat with a sigh.


"Honestly Inspector," he said with a voice so soft Kimbell strained to hear each word, "I'm not sure why you are here just yet. I am but a humble servant to the spirits."


Kimbell shifted forward attempting to process exactly what he thought he just heard. Spirits? He glanced back to the door wondering just how far away Mr. Honeycutt might be.

"Mr. Honeycutt has retired to one of the house's many guest rooms. He will be no help in our quest for the child."


"What?"


"The Baron's missing babe," Whitlock said as his unblinking eyes bore into Kimbell's forehead.


"I'm sorry," Kimbell said as he leaned forward. "Are you saying someone has kidnapped his child?"


"Someone or something," he answered, a grim smirk on his lips. Kimbell stared at the man unsure how to take the conversation.

The door to the room opened. Kimbell glanced over and quickly stood as a young woman glided towards them. While still young, Kimbell sensed the grace and composure of an older woman. Her complexion appeared as pale as Mr. Whitlock's but only because her dark, almost black hair offset it. He could tell it was naturally curly even though she pulled it back into a rather relaxed pony-tail.


"That is why you are here," she said as she approached, her melodic voice a welcome change from Mr. Whitlock's subdued tone. "We believe you are the key to finding the child before it is too late."


"Mr. Kimbell, please allow me to introduce you to my dear sister Zona."


Standing, Kimbell swung his gaze between the siblings, trying to find a likeness and seeing a little here and there that might mark the two as related but nothing specific. Well maybe their height, although the girl falls short by a foot or two. Still, Kimbell noted she was much taller than he, and once again he fought the urge to stand any straighter. What's done is done.


He took her offered hand and shook it once before letting go, "Pleasure."


Ms. Whitlock wore a broad smile and bowed slightly to the Inspector, "The pleasure is all mine, but we must get on to business."


"Yes, yes," her brother said as he stood, and he stalked towards the door. "Come along Mr. Kimbell...time is short."


***


Ms. Whitlock followed the two men back out to the hall and through the opposite door. Her brother slid aside to allow the Inspector an unobstructed view. She visited the room on numerous occasions, and wondered what the man would make of the sparse setting. Zona found it heartbreaking the first time she saw it.


The room itself was spacious. A bed sat against the far wall with a crib across from it. Between the two, four large chests rested slightly away from the wall. One was open now as a small boy pulled out tin soldiers. His back was to the trio, and Zona fought the urge to rush forward to warn the child. Zachariah's hand shot out to block her as if he sensed her thoughts.


Zona gave a sharp shake of her head and continued to watch as the Inspector crept closer to the boy. Whatever is he thinking? Zona paused for a moment, suddenly pondering which "he" she meant. The Inspector, of course, she answered herself after a moment. Her interactions with the boy had produced nothing, except to terrify the poor thing.

The soldiers were all in their proper lines, and the boy glanced up. He froze, his eyes cast down. Zona's heart went out to the boy as he began to tremble.


"Don't worry my boy," Kimbell called out as he inched closer. "You've nothing to worry about."


The boy stayed frozen; his trembling increased and tiny whimpers slipped through his lips. Kimbell raised one hand, which Zona took to mean he was attempting to soothe the boy but instead the cries intensified.


"He can't hear you," Ms. Whitlock said from the doorway, fighting the urge to spring forward and pull the child into her arms. Zachariah warned her that the first meeting between the child and the inspector might be illuminating, and yet Zona found herself caught off guard.


The inspector's fingers were moving in such a motion that Zona wondered if the man might suffer from spasms. He squatted, but his fingers never stopped moving. The child snuck a quick glance up and rocked back. His face was a strange combination of wonder and shock. His fingers began to match the Inspector and after a moment the man glanced at the siblings.


"He says they took his brother five days ago."


***


Kimbell sat on the floor to get a better look at the line of soldiers he controlled. The boy, Michael, lay across from him on his belly. His tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth as he finished positioning the cavalry. The Whitlocks continued to stand near the door, and Kimbell wondered if Zachariah terrified the boy too much to come closer. Or is it the other way around?


Michael smiled as he leaned back to rest on his elbows. Kimbell flashed his fingers in quick succession. They needed to get more information, so they could find the boy's brother. But first, there must be a battle. He pushed the soldiers closest to the front across the makeshift battlefield, but Michael's cavalry made quick work of the effort.


Once Kimbell's soldiers all lay in ruin, Michael clapped his hands together and sprang up. His fingers moved quickly as he answered the Inspector's questions. He wore such a serious expression that Kimbell fought his natural urge to disbelieve everything the boy was sharing. With a smile, Michael finished his explanation and his hands fell silently to his side.

Kimbell glanced back at the pale giant and nodded. Ms. Whitlock stepped forward and motioned to Michael who rushed to her side. She wrapped her arm around him and led him from the room.


"My sister is going to take the child to be fed. Would you like her to return with anything for you?"


Kimbell's stomach rumbled as if to remind him that hours had passed since he last ate, but he shook his head in answer. There could be no delays if what Michael told him was even half true. The time to save the babe was running out.


***


Kimbell studied the door at the end of the hall. It was the only door he had yet to enter, and according to Michael led to his brother's location. The door appeared larger than the others throughout the house; somehow taller and wider, and he wondered if the intricate carvings decorating the wood created the illusion.


He leaned closer soaking in the detail. Unless he was hallucinating, the door told a story. The same story Michael had relayed to him moments before. Kimbell glanced at the quiet giant standing slightly behind him. He wondered how much he knew...how much he believed of what happened to the Baron's youngest. A sly smile flickered across Whitlock's pale lips before the steady mask reappeared.


"Are you mocking me, sir?" Kimbell said, the words sharp and loud. He would not be made fun of by this man, no matter who required his presence.


"Be calm," Whitlock said as the smile returned. "You can see the carving...the story."


Kimbell paused a moment before nodding. Whitlock wasn't asking, he knew the Inspector saw it. Or at the very least was hoping. Whitlock rested his delicate hand on Kimbell's shoulder and offered a reassuring squeeze.


"No one other than myself, Zona, and that boy can see anything but a door. And yet here we have an everyday Inspector who not only can speak to the deaf but can see that which can't be seen by most of humanity. You are the key as my sister likes to say in these situations."


"Was I wrong?" Ms. Whitlock's voice echoed down the hall. Kimbell glanced back and tipped his head as she glided towards them. The boy was no longer with her and Kimbell sighed in relief. A weight he hadn't realized there lifted from his shoulders.


"No dear sister," Whitlock said as he ushered them back into the nursery.


"How truthful was Michael?" she asked the Inspector as they moved to the center of the room.


Kimbell stayed quiet, unsure of how to answer. A sane man, a man without his experience, might argue that nothing Michael said was truthful. Instead, he pursed his lips and scratched at his chin, stepping away from the siblings and toward the crib.


"I believe quite truthful," Kimbell finally answered, turning his attention back to the Whitlocks.


"Fantastic," Ms. Whitlock said as she clapped her hands together in celebration. "This will be easier for us to do then."


She glanced at her brother and slid forward after he nodded. Kimbell studied the young woman as she moved closer, his arms and legs suddenly heavy. He moved to speak, but his lips stayed closed. His body swayed as the room began to spin. Ms. Whitlock stopped in front and held out her hand, a shining ball pulsed in her palm.


Kimbell swore there was a person in the light, but she closed her hand and his world went black.


***


The next time Kimbell opened his eyes, he found himself staring at the ceiling. He thought they were in the same room, but it was darker than last time. Ms. Whitlock stood over him, studying him from above. She wore a smile and reached down.


"Ah, thank goodness... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad worried," she said, her voice conveying a confidence lacking in her words. He gripped her hand and allowed her to pull him to his feet. His head spun from the motion.


"What happened?"


Instead of answering, she swept her arm out as if presenting the room. Kimbell blinked the dizziness away, and after a few deep breaths focused on the room. His guess was correct. They were in the nursery, and yet something was different. Where did all this fog come from? But after a moment, Kimbell realized it wasn't fog but something else.


"It's like peeking through a shimmery curtain," he mumbled to himself.


"That's the best description I've heard yet."


Kimbell glanced at Ms. Whitlock who looked more solid than the rest of the room. A thought tickled the back of his brain, a fleeting notion that he was too slow to catch, as it slithered away. Shaking his head, Kimbell accepted the loss. Plenty of time to track it down later...at least he hoped.


The door opening grabbed his attention. A shadow slipped in and shuffled towards the crib. Kimbell moved to step in front of the creature, but Ms. Whitlock placed her hand on his shoulder.


"It can't see you," she whispered. "We are watching reflections of the past."


He glanced up at her and wondered exactly what the devil the woman was talking about. He swung back in time to see the shadowy figure climbed up the end of the crib and reach down to scoop up the baby. A soft mewing sounded as the culprit shimmied down and moved back towards the door. Kimbell stepped closer, and as the figure moved by he was able to study it in detail.


The person was a foot or so shorter than he. It had a roundness to it that reminded Kimbell of an over-inflated balloon. In its arms lay a baby. Michael's brother, Kimbell decided. It cooed and reached up to grasp his kidnapper's long bushy eyebrows. Kimbell ducked down to get a better look.


The kidnapper's face, where once chiseled features were now worn smooth by age, had the appearance of old leather. Its circular eyes were wide apart, and an immense flat nose covered much of the being's face. Its lips, fat and pale, pressed together as it attempted to ignore the babe's tugs.


The pair disappeared through the doorway. Kimbell stepped forward, ready to follow when Ms. Whitlock stopped him again. He turned towards the crib, suddenly aware there was still something there. He raced to the baby's bed and stood on his tiptoes. Looking down, he saw what appeared to be a baby.


Kimbell studied the bundle, leaning as close as the tall side would allow. It was the right size for a baby, but something was off. When Kimbell finally noticed it, he staggered back. He stared at the crib in wonder. The replacement was the spitting image of the creature who just took the babe from the room; the features not as worn, and the skin more supple and smooth but still the same face.


A ghostly shadow of Michael rose from his bed, a cry on his lips, as he hurried to his brother's crib. Looking down, much as Kimbell just had, he studied the baby and after a moment's hesitation scooped it up. Rushing to the fire, he threw in the swaddled creature. Kimbell sprang forward, but as he passed through the boy and reached into the flames, he realized his actions were futile.


Ms. Whitlock slid next to him and patted his shoulder, "This is why we are here. The parents believe their oldest a murderer, but we know better. He was removing the stranger left behind before his spell could entrance the household. You see Michael's condition is more in tuned with this world than his own."


Kimbell sighed, aware that the changeling's death made time even more pressing. He only prayed they found the babe before it was too late.


***


Kimbell stood before the old oak door once again. Ms. Whitlock stood a little behind, off to his right side. A soft bluish glow shined on the carvings, and they sprang to life. Kimbell leaned closer to see through the fog and study the growth of a group of vines in the middle. They crawled over the wood, covering the other carvings before blooming with small flowers. The light intensified and the vines pulled back as she held the glowing orb closer and revealed a knob.


Kimbell reached out instinctively, unsure if he would even be able to touch the doorknob through the shimmer. He gasped as his hand wrapped around the freezing metal. Terrified his hand might stick to the metal, he quickly turned the knob. The door held for a moment, then a click echoed through the hall and the door swung in. Kimbell released the doorknob, immediately jabbing his hand under his armpit for warmth.


"Remember all metal will be like that down there," Ms. Whitlock said as she pointed to the dark opening before them. Kimbell nodded, gave a start, and swung back to the woman.


"Are you not coming?" he asked, his voice tinged with fear. His cheeks flushed with embarrassment, unnerved that his emotions were so plain in front of the young woman.


She offered a tight smile and squatted down a bit to be more eye level, "I cannot. I have already tried and failed. This is the final reason they selected you."


Ms. Whitlock held out her hand with the glowing bulb. The light hovered an inch or two from her palm, and Kimbell could see a tiny person standing in the orb. While feminine in appearance and sporting long hair to its shoulders, Kimbell found he had trouble deciding on the sex. He reached out tentatively, his hand shaking slightly.


"I wouldn't do that," Ms. Whitlock said, her voice trailing off into a few sporadic giggles.


"Sorry...it's just been a while since anyone tried to touch him. I'm not sure we ever found all the fingers."


Kimbell snatched his hand back and glared at the orb as tiny bell-like chimes floated from the sphere. Ms. Whitlock's free hand slipped up to her face, as she struggled to contain more laughter. Kimbell growled: anger, impatience, and embarrassment all fighting for dominance.


"And?" he finally asked, hoping to draw attention back to the task at hand.


"Quite right...quite right," she said as she stepped back from the bulb. "He will follow you and on occasion even help, but that is rare. When you are ready to return simply step into any mirror that will allow your girth; if that fails then tell him, and he will help you return to reality. But be warned...do not come back without the babe in your arms or all is lost."


Kimbell nodded and turned to the doorway finding a slick reflective glass in place of the opening. He studied his face, aware that it now bore many more years than when he arrived. He stepped forward; hesitating when his toe touched the mirror before pushing his foot into its reflection.


Kimbell gasped as he realized there was no sensation from his foot as it passed through the mirror. It just disappeared. He glanced at Ms. Whitlock wondering if he should mention this fact to her in case it was important. As he opened his mouth, a violent shudder wracked his body as some powerful force began to pull. Kimbell fell on his backside and reached out scrambling to grasp hold of anything permanent to slow his acceleration.


Ms. Whitlock pushed the ball forward and it slipped through the mirror just before the force pulled Kimbell through. He prayed he was ready for whatever was on the other side.


***


Kimbell plummeted through the darkness, consistent pressure on his ankle the only thing he experienced. Nothing I would expect a fall to be like...no wind, no noise, nothing but the steady sensation of being pulled. Yet Kimbell was sure he was falling down, and not being pulled across the dark.


A tiny pinpoint of blue light appeared below his feet, and as he came closer it grew into the orb Ms. Whitlock sent ahead. Relief washed over him as he approached the glowing light. Thank heavens. There was a point when he wondered if he might fall in the dark forever but now there was the light. Reaching out, he snagged it as he flew by. It pulsed in what Kimbell could only guess was irritation at being handled.


"Well tough," he growled, wrapping both arms around it. He would protect the orb and its occupant until his dying breath. Until then the bloody thing was stuck with him.

The pressure on his ankle lessened, and then disappeared right before he struck the ground and rolled through the darkness. With each spin, the darkness receded until he lay on his back and stared up at a midday sky.


Kimbell sat up and sighed. Where the hell am I?


"A field," a tiny voice said from a rose bush to his right.


"Excuse me?"


"Ya wanted to know where ya were," the voice replied.


Kimbell stood and dusted off his pants, front to back. He let out a long breath. Yes... I guess I did.


"Well, I was hoping for something a little more exact."


"Ya're in this field," the voice said, full of joy.


Kimbell stepped to his hat, now dirty and beat up, and bent over to retrieve it. As he balanced it upon his head, he turned to the bush once more. Slipping closer, he hoped to catch the voice's owner but there were only roses present.


"Say, you wouldn't have seen a baby about five days ago?"


"Can't say that I have, but there was a plump little lad six days ago."


Kimbell bit his bottom lip, fearful an outburst would drive the voice away before providing any useful information. He took a few deep breaths through his nostrils and forced a smile to his lips.


"Which way did that one go?"


"I'm not sure I like ya tone," the voice said after a moment. Kimbell spun around and stalked away from the bush. Each step came down heavier and with more force as Kimbell tried to channel his anger through his legs. After fourteen steps, he spotted the orb sitting against an oak tree.


"At least all is not lost," he mumbled remembering Ms. Whitlock's instructions. No bloody mirrors in sight and the Lord only knows if I'll find one.


He picked it up and studied the light blue transparent bulb. The little man was unconscious. Kimbell hoped it was from the rough landing and nothing serious. He stared for a moment, took a deep breath, and shook the orb. The man jostled around and when Kimbell stopped, he stood and glowered. Kimbell offered a smile, but the orb exploded into a painfully bright light and zipped away.


He pressed his hands against his eyes and howled in agony. Fire traveled through his head as if the light had seared his eyes away and burned a hole to the back of his skull. He twisted and turned, struggling to embrace the pain but failing as it filled his very being. Stumbling after a few steps, Kimbell found himself on his knees before flopping to his stomach. A whimper slipped out before he could clamp his lips shut.


Whining won't help the situation...chin up. The thought flittered through his head in his father's voice. Just the calming presence he needed at the moment.


"Blazes," the tiny voice said. "I haven't seen a fairy that upset before... I mean blue?"


Kimbell's eyes fluttered open and through his blurred vision, he realized a small blob was before him. Ms. Whitlock did say the orb would help on occasion. Kimbell would mark this in the success column. As his vision cleared, he gave a start for the blob was actually a brown hare.


"A rabbit?" The question more to himself than the beast but at his words, it raised to its full height.


"I beg ya pardon," it said, sputtering in disbelief, "I am Lepus europaeus...or to the common man a brown hare." The creature added emphasis on the word common as it stared daggers at Kimbell.


"Sorry...sorry," Kimbell said raising one hand in surrender as he rocked back to sit up. "I was just caught off guard; I meant no harm."


The hare pounded his foot on the ground for a moment; raising such a racket Kimbell feared it would attract unwanted attention. As he opened his mouth to protest, its foot grew still.


"Very well but that is twice, once more and I will hop out of here," it said with a scrunched up nose that Kimbell expected the creature thought threatening, but he found adorable. He resisted the urge to reach out and bop it.


"Thank you. My name is Inspector Kimbell and as I said earlier, I am searching for a baby who traveled through fiv...six days ago."


The hare tilted its head and Kimbell wondered if it was thinking or if there was something behind him. As he began to ask, the hare spoke.


"Why...is it ya baby?"


"Well no but a young boy's life hangs in the balance; a life I am sworn to protect."


"What's it worth?" the hair said after a brief silence.


"I can't place a price on the boy's life or the baby," Kimbell said, concentrating on each word to keep his voice steady and calm. He forced a toothless smile at the end, hoping it would help disguise the rage boiling throughout his body. Bugger's lucky I don't have a rifle with me or it'd be rabbit stew for sure.


"What's a rifle?" the hare asked as he leaned forward, nose scrunched up once again.


Kimbell clenched his hands into tight fists at his side and growled. Damn this place!

"It's not important," Kimbell said. "What can I do to persuade you to help?"


The hare hopped back a few steps and scratched at one of its long furry ears seemingly deep in thought. Kimbell glanced around, searching for the orb and relieved to see it floating a few yards away. He motioned to it with his hand but it stayed in place.


"It can get awfully cold at night," the hare said, each word exaggerated as the beast hopped towards Kimbell. "And while ya might think my beautiful fur keeps me warm...there are times I found myself wishing for a hat. A hat like that." The hare pointed to Kimbell's head, rocking in excitement on its long hind feet.


Kimbell pulled the hat off his head and looked at the bloody thing. It is too small. But I just bought it with the last of my savings. The two thoughts clashed together in his head before he gave it a sharp shake. As if there's any choice to be made here. He nodded as he placed the hat back on his head.


"It's a deal. Once I have the babe, you will have my hat."


"My hat," the rabbit said.


"Yes, that's what I said," Kimbell said, exasperation creeping back into his tone.


The hare held up its paw, showing one finger, "I understand losing a hat can be upsetting, so I will let that display pass but ya are on thin ice."


Kimbell fought the urge to grumble as he suspected that as long as his hat was on the line, the beast would put up with quite a bit more.


"Very gracious," he said instead of the hundred other words rushing through his brain that he struggled to ignore at the moment. The hare turned and began to hop away in a zigzag pattern. The orb floated past Kimbell and pulsed in what he assumed was some sort of curse word in Morse Code. Slipping his hat off, he chased after the two.


***


Squatting behind a hedgerow, Kimbell studied the small cottage on the other side. The orb burnt a hole straight through the greenery so Kimbell could watch undetected. Little fellow is handy in a pinch. The hare rocked back and forth, its eyes glued to the Inspector's hat.

"And you're sure they took the babe there?" Kimbell asked even though the question had been asked and answered many times.


The hare nodded, eyes wide with exasperation, "Yes, yes, yes! Well...unless his time is up of course."


Kimbell turned his attention to the creature and leaned close. "What do you mean by 'time is up'?"


The hare offered a weak smile before glancing down toward the dirt. It began to shuffle its oversized paws and Kimbell wondered if it planned to bolt. Not without the hat, I suspect.


"Surely the shiny bulb there told ya that after a while the babe becomes locked to this place."


"As you may have noticed he speaks very little."


The hare's head cocked to the side, suspicion, and bewilderment battling over his face, "He hasn't shut up since I found ya two."


"Yes well... I am hard of hearing," Kimbell said with a sigh. "Now what do you mean locked to this place."


"Humans aren't supposed to be able to travel back and forth...so when they borrow a babe, they take it to that house and after a bit, it gets stuck."


The orb flashed brighter and brighter as the hare spoke until the light shined as bright as the sun. Kimbell glanced over at the ball as a bag slipped over it and killed the illumination. Struggling to draw the bag closed was the ugliest person Kimbell had ever witnessed.


He struggled to identify if the creature was a man or woman, and as soon as he decided it would shift and throw doubt on the choice. Long, stringy black hair hung down partially hiding not only the being's face but also its body. Its hair tied and woven together produced both a shirt and pants for the creature, leaving only its arms, feet, and eyes exposed. The tip of a very long nose poked out of the mess on occasion.


The exposed skin was an ashy color, with patches of green and brown haphazardly scattered. Its arms were thin and elongated, ending in fat palms and insanely long fingers. Each finger sported an equally long fingernail that ended in a point.


"Look here," she said with a voice like scratched glass. "What are you doing outside my house?"


Kimbell drew up and flashed his badge, "Inspector Kimbell, ma'am. I'm investigating a missing babe and you are a person of interest."


The hare stared at him with a slack jaw before glancing around as if to find anyone to share in his disbelief. Kimbell ignored the brown bunny, instead staring intently at the creature holding the bag. She tapped one long finger against her bottom lip before shaking her head.


"Not talking to you," she growled as she pointed at the hare. His left foot began to tremble, and he held up his front paws as he bowed his head.


"Just trying to get what's owed me, Kyla," the hare said, his voice so shaky the words garbled together. Kimbell glanced at the creature with a frown as it began to slide farther away from him. I think I may be in a spot of trouble. He fought the urge to curse the Whitlocks and this long-eared turncoat.


"Well off with you while I deal with this trespasser," Kyla said, her voice sharp and commanding. She pointed back the way they came and the rabbit slinked away, seemingly afraid to hop.


"Now look here," Kimbell said, puffing his chest out. He wasn't about to let anyone deal with him, let alone this woman. She waved her hands and Kimbell's mouth slammed shut. Invisible bonds tightened around him, pinning his arms to his side and tangling around his legs. He swayed side to side as the bonds began to cut into his flesh.


"Your kind has no say here, blue-belly," she said with a sneer.


Kyla slung the bag over her shoulder and stalked past the Inspector. After a few feet she motioned towards him, and he jerked forward as if pulled by a rope. With his legs pressed together, he found the only choice was hop or fall and be dragged. Damn that rabbit!


***


As they moved closer, Kimbell realized the cottage, while old, was well taken care of. Fresh paint covered the building, flowers bloomed around the base, and the roof had been recently thatched. A gentle breeze crossed their path, and Kimbell found the area soothing. About the opposite of Kyla truth be told. The thought made him shiver as he imagined what was about to happen. Bedtime tales spoken in the dark flooded his mind and his blood ran cold.


The front door opened and the old crone entered with Kimbell hopping behind her. As he approached the entrance his legs cramped, and he tumbled to the ground. A loud moan of discomfort slipped past his lips and Kyla reappeared in the doorway. In her arms was a babe wrapped in green blankets. No not blankets, giant leaves. The thought boggled his mind; never had he seen leaves like these.


"No time for layin' about," Kyla said with a toothy smile. "Stew can't make itself and by the looks of you...tenderizing will take some time."


The babe squirmed in her grasp and two pink arms stretched out. It issued a sharp cry before settling back down. Kimbell cursed his luck. So close to the babe...well a babe, and tied up like a pig for slaughter.


Kyla waved her hand once again and the bonds grew tighter as he began to slide towards the house. She stepped down and to the side so Kimbell could be dragged inside with no issue. Dirt rose from his movement and soon the area was a dusty mess.


A sharp cry rose from the dust and the bonds loosened. Kimbell scrambled to his knees, hands ready to repel any attack. The hare appeared and held out the babe.


"Now give me my hat!"


Kimbell jammed his hat on the rabbit's head and snatched the babe. He stumbled to his feet and hurried away from the cottage. Where in the hell am I going to find a mirror?


The babe cried out as Kimbell jostled him, switching him from one shoulder to the next. Kimbell tried issuing soothing noises but after a few steps could only offer gasps. He rushed away from the cottage and down the walkway, each step taking him towards where he appeared. The crone's cries filled his ears, and he hugged the boy closer.


Crashing through the hedge, a section to his left exploded upwards. Kimbell stumbled in surprise. His confidence in his escaping the woman shattered as leaves rained down upon them; won't matter if I don't discover a mirror over here.


"You could double back and retrieve the orb," he said, hoping hearing it out loud was more effective than just thinking it. After a moment he shook his head and sighed...nope sounds just as crazy.


Everything about this place was insane, and he stamped his foot in anger. I'm a simple Inspector...not some fairy tale hero...damn those Whitlocks! Stamping his foot again for good measure, Kimbell pushed his anger aside and moved forward. The babe had grown quiet and Kimbell wanted to make it back to the original clearing and check on the lad.


The ground shook under his feet as jets of dirt and bits of green shot up all around him. Kimbell focused on shifting his course every few feet hoping to confuse the old hag. Trees ripped from the ground and toppled, as Kimbell dodged left to right and back again. He prayed the chaos was hiding his movement, but he had no idea if the next explosion would be under his feet.


Entering the clearing he slowed to a walk and spun around to keep an eye on the way he came. The sky above appeared to be darkening and it was at that moment Kimbell accepted there was no escape. He slumped to his knees and held the baby out.


The boy was eight months old, Kimbell guessed, but he really had no experience with babies; except once when he was a young boy himself, barely old enough to walk on his own. In fleeting memories and deep dreams, he witnesses a dark time when a child disappeared from his crib and no one batted an eye at the replacement.


Kimbell pulled the boy back to his chest, hugging him tightly and praying for a miracle.


"Ya really can't stay," the hare said as he bounced to a stop in front of the inspector. He dragged the sack he held from his shoulder and pulled the drawstrings free. The orb shot out like a cannonball on the battlefield. It slowed at the tops of the trees, hovering for a few seconds as it lit the sky in a bright blue hue. "Especially since that little bugger just told the whole world where to find ya."


"I concur," Kimbell said through gritted teeth as he struggled to his feet.


The glowing ball fell back to the earth. Kimbell stared up at it, growing uncomfortable as the orb plummeted towards his face. The bluish light enveloped him and the babe as the hare hopped away with a wave. Kimbell glanced towards the movement, sad to see his new hat leave but content that it was for a good cause.


"Goodbye," Kimbell said before his world went black once again.


***


"Inspector?" a soft voice said with concern and a bit of impatience present. Kimbell's eyes fluttered open, the darkness slowly dissipating until Zachariah Whitlock's face appeared.


"Mr. Whitlock?" Kimbell asked, shocked to see anything. "The boy?"


"He's fine," Ms. Whitlock said, her voice coming from across the room. "You sir are a hero."

Kimbell's cheeks burned hot as he struggled to sit up. His coat was off, and his cravat loosened. His face ached. He reached to his nose, wincing when his fingers brushed the mashed mess.


"Yes, that will take some time to heal. Never seen the little bugger bring someone back in quite your shape, but better than staying over there I expect."


Mr. Whitlock's words sank into Kimbell's ears, but they didn't register. The boy is safe. An unseen weight lifted from his shoulders as he laid back down and slipped back into a deep slumber.

© 2020 Naked Cat Press. All Rights Reserved

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©2020 by Naked Cat Press. All Rights Reserved.