The lights were on in the Firehouse, the heater was busy, and the whole place smelled like pumpkin pie when they entered. Grace assumed that William had stopped by to do more cooking, so she ignored the tantalizing smells and made her way to the computer terminal where the visitor logs were generally stored.
“So what’s the plan?” she asked Thresher as she browsed for the files.
“We start with the likely suspects. Anyone from my World Ship has knowledge of the power crystals. I can help identify anyone that might know specific information.”
“Well, that shouldn’t be too difficult. We mark all of our visitors as local or nonlocal when they arrive. It should be easy enough to check the files for any nonlocal visitors.”
“How do you verify?”
“We check the ship manifest for their name and if it’s there we mark them as local.”
“What if they’re lying?” Thresher asked.
Grace hesitated. “I’m sure that a few have… but we’re not ones to suspect everyone that comes here. I mean, if we treat everyone as a liar, then is there any reason to be honest?”
Thresher frowned. “I suppose. What do you know about Seda Kuna?”
“Lady Kuna? She helped William Everett with some research and development after she arrived from your World Ship. She’s a nonlocal, but she keeps to herself and William seems to have a good relationship with her.”
“She’s a criminal mastermind,” Thresher said bluntly.
“The Kuna family was notorious on our World Ship. She dealt in all kinds of illegal activities, including smuggling and selling rare and valuable materials, relics, and anything else they could get their hands on.”
Grace couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She hadn’t interacted with Lady Kuna much, but it seemed impossible to believe that she was a criminal… of course… Grace had been on the wrong side of the law too before she ended up in Winter Village.
Still, Winter Village seemed to suddenly be a hotbed of suspicious persons.
“So, do you think she stole it?” Grace asked, trying to ignore her internal panic.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I went straight to her when you visited. She said she was the one that actually sold it to him. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but I’m confident about one thing… if she did sell it to your boss, then it was likely a stolen good before it ever got to him.”
“Well, Seda has been here a long time, and if she intended to steal something of value, William has a great deal of other objects that she could have chosen that wouldn’t have painted a big target on her back.”
“Okay, so maybe not her,” Thresher replied.
Grace clicked through the logbook, skipping back to the weeks before the crystal was stolen. She found at least a dozen nonlocals that had come and gone, but only a handful of them had arrived before the theft and still remained.
“There’s a long list. Several have already left. We’ll have to run them all down.”
Thresher was peering over her shoulder as she scrolled until he finally pointed at one of the names, prompting her to stop.
“What?” she asked.
“Mekko,” Thresher said, pointing at one of the names. “This is your man. I’m confident.”
“How can you know that?”
“Mekko is a researcher, or at least he was back home. His focus area was developing new and powerful power crystal applications. Your logs show him coming in a day before the crystal theft, and he’s been lingering here ever since.”
“So, you think he might have reclaimed something that was already his?”
Thresher didn’t look convinced, and he only offered a shrug. “Care to find out?”
The artificial light was beginning to fade overhead as they arrived at the train station where Mekko was currently employed. He had been hired by the station operator just a few days after the theft, and he just helped finish up the afternoon departure cleaning when he caught sight of Grace approaching.
He flinched, like he knew exactly why she had arrived.
She knew she had her thief.
He didn’t run, but rather sulked about until they were close enough to talk.
“Mekko?” she asked.
He nodded, his eyes switching between her and Thresher.
“It’ll be a lot easier if you just talk to us,” she said.
He hesitated, then nodded. “Alright. Sure. Yeah.”
“Let’s step inside No one else needs to hear the conversation.”
Thresher started to follow, but Grace placed her hand on his shoulder and shook her head. He didn’t resist, but he did frown. She ignored the reaction and led the suspect into the small kitchen area to have a chat.
“First of all,” he started as he leaned against a counter. “I’m not a bad guy.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” she replied. “You still need to explain yourself.”
“Have you ever made any mistakes that haunt you like a ghost?” Mekko asked.
“Well, it starts with that. My family and the Kuna family. Bad blood and old debts that followed me from a dying world to this place.”
“I’m not following.”
“I owe Seda Kuna big money. She showed up after my family got settled here. She just walked up to our house and knocked on the front door. She had receipts of all these debt payments my family had made to hers. She told me I was in deep. I told her I didn’t have any money, of course I don’t have money, look at us all…”
“She attempted to extort you?”
“Attempt is the wrong word,” Mekko said with a laugh. “She succeeded. All I had to do was swipe a power crystal for her and my family would be free of all our prior debts. One little act of thievery to set our slate clean.”
“So you stole the crystal?”
“That’s right. It wasn’t really hard, by the way, there was almost no security.”
“I suppose I’m thankful for your honesty here and now. Do you still have the crystal?”
“I do,” he said. “I wouldn’t give it to her until I had proof that my family’s debt was wiped clean. Lady Kuna is preparing an official statement of my debt’s payment. Her receipts won’t have any hold over us now. I was going to bury the past once and for all.”
Grace was feeling overwhelmed. Extortion. Thievery. What was happening here?
“I want you to give me the power crystal,” Grace said. “I’m confident that if we take this information to William Everett right now he can put a stop to it. Lady Kuna might have had some kind of grip over you on your old World Ship, but that’s not how things work here.”
“Oh yeah? The lady already has a replacement manor that looks just like her father’s old place. How’d she even make that happen? Oh, right, William Everett. Your boss isn’t going to listen to someone like me, not when she can just deny the whole thing anyway.”
“Mekko,” she said. “Please, you have to hear me out. When I came to Winter Village, I wore my own past like a cloak. It wasn’t who I was, and it wasn’t who I wanted to be, but I wasn’t sure I could ever escape it. Then, William Everett looked right at me and just… gave me another chance to start fresh. I’m so thankful for that, and I’m confident that he has given Seda another chance too. She’s taken advantage of that trust, Mekko. Come with me. Let me take you and the crystal back to William and we can set the record straight.”
“I don’t know…”
“Listen, you seem like a nice person, but how about you just let me deliver the power crystal instead? I can get my official debt release, and then you can rush in and arrest her or whatever it is you do.”
“Mekko, she didn’t steal the crystal… you did.”
Grace heard a cough from the kitchen doorway and turned to see Thresher.
“What is it?” she asked.
“He’s right. You need to let him finish his job.”
“Lady Kuna will deny hiring him. Why would she admit to that?”
“If she’s guilty—”
“Then she will lie through her teeth, and it’ll be up to you to choose between his account of events and her own. No one wins that way, especially if she’s covering her tracks. If you let him take the crystal…”
“Then we have proof of the true crime,” she mused.
“Fine,” she said. “Here’s what we’re going to do…”
The evening sun faded on the horizon and left the night air feeling frigid. Grace was bundled up, while Thresher shivered in the cold, unable to admit openly that he might freeze in the blustery wind.
The two had taken up a place not far from the residence of Seda Kuna, and they watched together as young Mekko drove up to the manor’s entrance and began to trudge through the snow with the power crystal in hand.
Mekko knocked loudly on the door and waited.
“She might be onto us,” Thresher said, looking at the time.
“She’s not dumb.”
Mekko knocked again.
He knocked a third time.
After waiting in the cold for over five minutes, he finally seemed to give up and began walking back to his vehicle. Then, the door to the manor swung open, and a young woman stepped out onto the stairs.
“Finally,” Grace heard Mekko mumble, stepping back over. “You have it?”
The woman didn’t speak, but held out an envelope. Mekko grabbed it and opened it right there on the spot, reading it carefully, then finally smiled and handed her the crystal. He started to walk away, then turned back to her. “This is the end of it. I don’t want any unsolicited calls or harassment. You’re not the bigshot you were back on our World Ship, and even if you do become as monstrous as your father, you better honor your word!”
“Indeed,” she said. “Be on your way then.”
Mekko nodded. “And so I am.”
As he drove off in his car, Grace watched the young woman look over the crystal. She stayed out there, letting the cold wind blow over her, just holding it. She turned it this way and then that, before finally stepping back inside and closing the door behind her.
“That’s it then,” Grace said with a heavy sigh. “A criminal at work.”
“A criminal that would have happily pinned the crime on Mekko,” Thresher added.
Grace felt ill. Tomorrow, she would have to go visit with William Everett and tell him that one of his friends had betrayed him. She couldn’t quite stomach the thought of it, at least not at this moment. If she revealed the truth to William, he would know that criminals couldn’t be trusted to change their ways… would he lose faith in her?
“It’s getting a bit too cold,” Thresher said, breaking her inner turmoil. “Time to go.”
“Right,” she said. “Let’s head back.”
The next morning, Grace woke to the sound of the train whistle, but this time she rolled over and ignored it. They had been up late into the night, and after returning Thresher to his hotel room, she had collapsed on the Firehouse sofa without removing any of her outerwear.
She knew where the power crystal was now.
One call and William could go to Seda and confront her.
One call and William might never trust any nonlocal again.
He might not trust her.
She tried to shake the thought, but the idea of losing this place… losing home…
She closed her eyes and tried to have a pleasant dream.
A harsh knock on her door ripped her from her sleep.
“Grace?” Thresher’s voice was muffled behind the door. “Grace, are you okay?”
She stumbled to the door and opened it to find him standing with a worried look.
“What is it?” she asked.
“You didn’t answer,” he replied. “I just… we did spy on a crime lord last night, so an unexpected silence from you might have raised a few alarms.”
“I’m fine,” she grumbled.
“You seem less than fine to me.”
“It’s not nothing. You should probably spill it sooner than later.”
“I don’t have anyone to spill it to, Thresher.”
He stood there for a moment, then smiled. “Let’s have it then.”
“I’m here. Spill it.”
“You want to hear the inner turmoil in my mind?” she asked.
“I didn’t have anyone to talk to for a long time,” he replied. “There’s no reason to make you go through that.”
She wasn’t sure why, but she decided that was good enough. She gestured to the couch, flopped down, and contemplated where she should start.
“You remember how you said you felt like this place was an illusion?”
“I said it was fake, but yes.”
“Sure… well, William Everett lives inside an illusion. He sees the good in everyone, even Rayland Walsh!”
“You’re worried that when he finds out about Seda, that his illusion will be stripped away?”
“Exactly. He might shut down Winter Village, or realize he has a known usurper running his town’s protection!”
Thresher paused at this revelation, but then seemingly moved on. “I doubt it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because no one person, no one crime, is going to break someone’s spirit like that. I doubt, very much, that William Everett is unaware of Seda’s past. He built her a home, but he put it out away from the village. He worked with her on projects, but I don’t see her running anything important in town.”
“He’s not a fool, Grace, and you owe him that much. He was right to build this place. I know I was unkind to it yesterday, but if I’m honest with you, this place does bring me joy. I imagine the smile on Juliet’s face seeing something like this, and I remember the good days. It means a great deal to me, and I’m thankful for it. Yes, it’s an illusion, but I know it’s an illusion. William does too.”
Grace contemplated this, and then she felt an emotional weight land on her chest. She was the town’s protector, and Seda Kuna had betrayed their trust. She was a danger to this town, and Grace was the one that could put it right.
She stood up, rather suddenly, and looked at Thresher. “Alright. I need to get dressed.”
She found William at the Elf Clubhouse.
He had been overseeing the construction since the first day, and she knew he’d be there, like clockwork, talking with the construction crew during their lunch break. She had to work her way around some heavy equipment, but when she did finally find William, he broke away from his conversation and quickly approached.
“Grace? What’s happening?”
“I found the power crystal,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a good story to tell.”
William frowned. “I see. Let’s find somewhere private to speak.”
He led her into the Elf Clubhouse, to a protected area surrounded by construction materials.
“Lady Kuna appears to have been the one behind the theft,” Grace stated.
“What? That’s impossible. She’s the one that sold me the crystal.”
“It appears she may have exploited you,” Grace continued. “She smuggled the crystal over from her old World Ship, sold it to you for a handsome price, and then put pressure on one of the other nonlocals to steal it back for her. William, Seda’s family has a past, and while I am one for forgiving the past… it appears Seda has decided to embrace it.”
“Unfortunate,” William said, his trademark smile disappearing, if only for a moment.
“I’m so sorry,” Grace continued. “I want you to know that despite this, I hope you find you can still trust in others that you have helped.”
William looked confused, then laughed. “Of course! One bad apple won’t ruin my bunch. I’ll be real honest with you, Grace, I knew about Lady Kuna’s past. Her father was a real piece of work, but I wasn’t sure if she’d taken up the family business. There were some signs, I won’t lie, but I hoped maybe if I gave her an opportunity, she might see fit to correct her course, like so many others have.”
“I wish she had too.”
“You say she exploited another nonlocal. Are they okay?”
“It appears so,” Grace added. “We allowed them to continue with their plan so that she would clear their family of debt. As far as we know, she’ll leave them be now.”
William nodded slowly. “Well, that’s that, I suppose.”
“Should I confront Seda?” Grace asked. “Get the crystal back?”
“I think I’ll handle that,” he said with a smile. “Grace, you’ve done good work. Am I to assume then that the Thresher fellow had nothing to do with the crime?”
Grace nodded. “In fact, he was quite instrumental in helping us solve it.”
William laughed again. “Always a mystery, that one!”
“He definitely has a few layers to him,” she replied.
“Say, you don’t think he’d want to be a part of the new celebration, do you?”
“A new celebration?”
“Indeed. You see, it’s been six months since the refugees arrived. We’re going to light up the big tree in town square and give out presents to a bunch of nonlocals. Rayland Walsh is shipping them in from all over for the event. It’ll be a real hoot.”
Grace couldn’t help but smile. “Do you mind if I make a suggestion?”
William nodded. “I’m all ears.”
“Good,” she said. “It’ll take a little leap of faith, but I think it could go a long way.”
“Oh, I like it already,” William said happily. “Do tell!”
The next week was a whirlwind of activity. Lights were added, music was rehearsed, and the citizens of Winter Village all got into their best festive attitudes. When the train arrived with the first load of refugees, they were greeted with fresh snow, cheerful carols, and an overzealous excitement from eager citizens that wanted to spread some cheer.
In the center of it all, dressed in a hilarious red outfit, was none other than Thresher. Grace had convinced William Everett to give Thresher a role as the official “Bringer of Cheer” in Winter Village. The suit was part of the experience.
When the ceremony began, he announced himself to the audience, not as the captain of the Hammerhead, or as Thresher, but as a simple citizen named Geoffrey; husband to his beloved Juliet, and a man so very proud to see the refugees starting their new lives aboard the World Ship.
“My wife would have been so proud to see me here today,” he said to a captivated audience. “To see me wearing red felt and handing out presents to my fellow citizens. I can’t tell you how over the moon she would have been. Not just because I’m here doing this with you all, but also because I can look out into the crowd and finally see someone that I can call a friend. One more gift from my wife’s tender heart.”
Grace felt a tear rolling down her face, but despite the chill, she did not wipe it away.
It was a tear of joy.
Since arriving from the Core, Grace had known many people, but she had never heard any of them refer to her as a friend.
Now, she had someone that wore the title proudly, and she was so thankful.
“I won’t be sappy any longer,” Thresher was saying, looking once more at the massive crowd that was gathered here. “So with that, I’ve got some great presents to hand out. I end with this, let’s take a cup, raise it to the sky, take a cup of kindness yet, for days of auld lang syne.”
At his closing, a massive blast of fireworks shot into the sky, and the giant evergreen behind him was lit ablaze with powerful lights that pierced the winter night air like a powerful signal to the hopeless, to the lost… Winter Village could be their home.
As Thresher stepped over to Grace and picked up the first present, she couldn’t help but smile again. “Geoffrey, eh?”
“Yeah,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I like it,” she answered, honestly.
“Well, that’s one then,” he said jokingly. “Care to help me hand out these gifts? William has so much wrapped up that I’ll be here all night if I hand it out myself.”
“You want me to help?”
“Of course,” he said. “What are friends for?”
She beamed a smile at him, her heart filling over with joy, and she nodded. “Yes, I’d love to help.”
“Alright then. Let’s get to it.”
At first she thought he had been joking about the number of presents, but after the first hour she realized he had not. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of presents here to be handed out as a line of refugees made their way across the town square. Each and every one of them offered a heartfelt thank you, and she couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by all of the positive energy that swirled through the air.
Whatever nagging feelings she had felt about Seda Kuna before melted away as she handed a small girl a large toy with flashing lights and whistles. She giggled uncontrollably and ran out of the line screaming for her momma to look and see.
It was the greatest night that Grace had experienced so far, and as she looked at Geoffrey handing out his own gifts, she couldn’t help but think that there would be many more good memories to have in the future.
Township Will Return in 2021!
Late that night, as the celebration ended and folks cuddled up at home, a blizzard descended on Winter Village. Despite the sudden change in weather, everyone went home feeling happier than when they had arrived. The snows would come, and when the weather let up, snowball fights would be the new activity.
William Everett, however, had one more stop before he could head home.
His driver pulled up in front of the Kuna Manor, and he stepped out, tightening his hoodie before heading to the front door and knocking loudly. There was silence for a long time, but eventually the door swung open and Lady Seda Kuna was standing there looking at William with pure confusion.
“What are you doing out here at this hour?” she asked, gesturing for him to enter.
“Business, I’m afraid,” he replied.
“Oh?” she asked. “Curious!”
“Yes, unfortunately, you have heard by now that my power crystal was stolen.”
“I had heard that, yes,” she said, looking disappointed. “I’m so sorry.”
“I doubt that,” William said, quite casually. “You’re the one that took it, after all.”
“Grace followed up on it,” he explained. “We don’t need to have a deceitful conversation about it or anything like that. I know you hired one of the other nonlocals to take the crystal and bring it back to you.”
“I’m shocked you would accuse me of such a terrible crime!”
“Ah, so you’re going to tell me that it was not you then?”
“Of all the tomfoolery,” she scoffed.
“So, no power crystal here?” William asked, gesturing around.
“No,” she said firmly.
William sighed. “Unfortunate. I had hoped to give it back to you.”
Seda suppressed her confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“I learned more about your background, you see,” William explained. “You were a prodigy back on your World Ship… focusing all your education on the creation and stabilization of power crystals.”
She shifted uncomfortably.
“Having one power crystal is nice,” William continued. “Having a dozen is better.”
“I’m afraid I’m not following…”
“You are,” William pressed. “I need you to help me, Seda. Imagine all your work coming to fruition here, on this World Ship. You could join me, and you could usher in the safety and security of a population powered by crystals!”
“A shame you don’t have one to study,” she mumbled.
“The position would pay well,” he added, ignoring her. “Flexible hours, too.”
“What’s the catch?” she asked.
“No funny business,” he said flatly. “I can’t have you bribing citizens or endorsing the criminal activities of your old life.”
“Some of us have a reputation to uphold.”
“Not here,” he replied. “Seda, on this World Ship, your name has no history. It has no power. You’re starting over, and while a small financial gain from pulling one over on me might help you get started, you’ll find the citizens of this World Ship have no room for unsavory shenanigans.”
“You accuse me again?” she asked.
“I think we’re past that,” William said. “This is an opportunity, Lady Kuna.”
“An opportunity to turn away from wealth and riches, for what… an office job?”
“A legacy,” William answered. “A life that people remember.”
William finally sighed. “Very well. If you do find the power crystal, please reach out to me. I would very much like to follow through on everything I have said tonight.”
As he turned to leave, she groaned. “Wait.”
She stepped over to a portrait, swinging it out of the way to reveal a small safe. A quick twist of the dial and she popped it open, pulling out the azure power crystal that Mekko had given her just a week earlier.
“Happy now?” she asked, displaying it for him.
“I am,” William said.
“So, what now?” she asked. “Are you going to follow through?”
William smiled. “I’m just glad the crystal reached our resident researcher for further study.”
Seda looked shocked. “Really? Just like that?”
William nodded, putting up his hoodie and heading outside. “Just like that. We’ll talk soon, Lady Kuna. Good luck with your research.”
The door closed between them and Seda was left alone in her home, wondering if she’d just been given a wonderful deal, or been tricked into something unexpected. She glanced at the power crystal in her hand and decided it was worth it.
William wanted power.
She did too.