The Order of the Dark Rose by P. H. Solomon
Arch-mage Manny Mandeheim fell under a curse, watched his fiancé die, and then lost his job as a spy. What’s an unemployed arch-mage to do? Start his own magical investigation service while he works to clear his good name and avenge his lost love.
With his very un-magical partner, Wish Ackford, Manny discovers the menace of a conspiracy looming behind his curse. But the limitations from the hex leave him at a distinct disadvantage as he and Wish investigate.
Assassins lurk at every corner or in every tram car. The threat of an unknown mastermind with murky intentions lingers just out of sight. A questionable source offers the hint of a secret order hounding Manny’s footsteps. A murder leads to wrenching discoveries.
Nothing an arch-mage can’t handle…
Unless the curse limits how much magic he can use or kills him outright.
Targeted Age Group:: 13 and up
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
A question came to me one day: what if Sherlock Holmes were in a fantasy world. The idea grew into a this book and a growing fantasy series named The Cursed Mage Case Files.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The characters are drawn from Sherlock Holmes cases, but named differently. Some of them seem similar, but they take on their own life in this alternate world gaslamp fantasy.
Speaking with a wall never entered my mind when I rolled out of my cot that morning. Fate twisted around oddities as I strolled along the street, its name forgotten to me now. Oddities. I once knew such things like I knew magic. Everyone did. We used it in our technology. Commonplace wonders excited everyone, but few understood magic. After talking to the strangest oddity that day, I know that I certainly did not then.
My desperation gripped me at the time, the door of another writing house job shut in my face—quite literally. I leaned against a wall and tipped my hat over my face.
“Excuse me, but could you step aside?”
The voice spoke from the wall. I jumped aside and gaped at the brick wall of a building like any other in Cal Rindon.
“Hey, you can lean back, just do it a step to either side. Don’t look so surprised. Act natural. I don’t want anyone to know I’m here.” The wall spoke to me in a most casual way, the tone intelligent and alert.
“I must’ve drunk too much of something fermented incorrectly.” With a rub of my neck, I shoved my hands in my pants pockets and took a stride.
A hand grabbed my shoulder. “Hold on. You can stay. You were just leaning on me and blocking my view.”
A glance at my shoulder, and I tensed to spring. The wall had grown a brick-colored hand that grasped me tightly. My heart surged.
“Don’t make a scene. Calm down. Just step aside.” The arm, also brick-like and attached to the hand, pulled me to the right.
I stumbled aside with a sudden numbness in my thoughts. A wall spoke to me and then grabbed me. What had I imbibed the night before? My off behavior certainly lost me that job. “Who—what are you?”
“A man like you. Haven’t you seen magic? You know, illusion?” The hand let go of me and smoothed the wrinkles from my coat. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just need a clear view.”
“Uh, of what?”
The hand withdrew into the wall. Magic? It ran the trams and lit rooms these days. But illusion? Someone part of a wall?
Said wall replied, “That private post over there, across the street. Someone I want to know more about might come today and I’ve finally found him after six months of effort.”
“Who are you?”
The wall sighed. “Hold on. Follow me over to that basement stairwell.”
A glance in either direction revealed the suggested destination. I hesitated.
The sound of footsteps touched my ear, heading for the stairs, then paused. “Well, aren’t you coming?” The sound of shoe soles clomping on the pavement resumed.
I followed the walking wall, dragging my worn shoes along the sidewalk. Curiosity gripped my imagination at the thought of taking a walk with a wall, gaining a new friend. Surely something affected my mind that morning.
Shoes scuffed on the steps and stopped at the bottom of the stairwell. Or so I thought in my addled state of mind. A leg extended from the wall, followed by the rest of a body. I beheld a vagrant slouched in the basement stairwell of a nameless building. The sky was the slate-gray of late fall, and a sudden gust of wind pierced my overcoat and clothing. The vagrant had played some trick on me, had thrown his voice or knew some minor beguiling spell. But I knew nothing of magic in that degree. Not that day.
With a frown, I turned away as my face heated with embarrassment, and leaned my back against the wall. I sighed as I glanced over the want ads for writers, my singular talent being words. But both women and the writing houses wanted little to do with a pitiful fellow such as I. The paper rattled in my hands as the wind whispered along the street and stirred the fitful mists rising from the sewers, mists that half obscured the thoroughfares at times.
“You are looking for a job?” The voice of the beggar in the stairwell sounded clear in the crisp air. Not drunk, and that was a wonder. It was the same voice as the wall.
“Yes, if you must know. How’d you guess?” My back to the vagrant, I half turned my head to my shoulder as I addressed him. “How did you do that? And why?”
“Heard your stomach grumble from half a block away. And you leaned on me. No trick—at least, nothing aimed your way.”
“Ha! Did you now?” I pressed a hand to my stomach. That loud? My legs wobbled a bit since I’d only eaten a few meager bites of gruel at a charity line that morning. That last fruitless effort at a job had left my stomach emptier still with my coin running thin. I sighed. A few more day jobs to earn scant coin appealed only for the food and a barren room in the building full of grasping laborers who drank, gambled their wages, and brawled half the night. It was a wonder I survived. I carried all my needful possessions on my person since I often found my door ajar, and the room searched for valuables. “What are you doing, then, if not trying to pick pockets from hiding in whatever illusion spell you used? You didn’t hear my stomach, and you know nothing about me.”
“Your pants are crisply pressed, but the cuffs are worn. Your shoes are shined with a thin coat of spit-and-ink. You carry your belongings in your pockets as if always on the move.” The vagrant stirred in the stairwell behind me.
Who was this odd street cat? He’d noticed everything about me in the spare moments I’d paused near his perch. “What of it, then?” I rolled my paper, slapped it in my other hand, and turned to leave for my next stop. A position undoubtedly filled. Honestly, did I smell so much? I sniffed my clothing.
A jingle caught my attention from the stairwell. “I’ve a bit of coin for an easy job if you’ve a mind for it. Simple. Easy. Enough to fill your belly for a week or so.”
My temptation toward the vagrant’s small purse consisted of a snatch-and-run, so low were my spirits as to consider theft at that moment. But the thought skipped my mind as I peered at the figure hunched below me. Behind the smudges of dirt on his hands and cheeks lay a keen face, hidden from casual inspection. Without a doubt, the downcast mien hid far more than a passing glance might discern about this man.
He jingled his purse again. “It’s a simple job, and a sharp fellow such as yourself can perform it without trouble.”
I crossed my arms and assumed the air of command one tried to take with street dwellers. My stomach rumbled and undermined my play for control of the situation. “Where did you get that money? Steal it from someone?” I turned to go to my next employment possibility.
“Suit yourself. I’ll find another man for the job. Hope you eat tonight.” The muffled jingle of coin ceased behind me.
I halted and wheeled toward him like a dog heeled on a leash. Best to hear him out. The job would wait. It was likely filled anyway. “What do you want done, and how much?”
“A man with long sideburns and wearing a black overcoat will arrive in a few minutes at that private post shop. You’ll wait in that alley until I give the signal, then you will stroll into the shop.” He lifted a finger. “Mind you, stroll into the shop.”
“Yes, stroll in, then what? Attempt a robbery? I hardly think that wise with a witness. I’m not up for illegalities.” Crime interested me not at all, regardless of my stray thought of theft mere moments earlier at the noise of clinking coin. My vision roamed the street. The chance of a satisfying meal for several days sounded better than starving on the street. I wasn’t close to that. Yet. But I needed the money.
“Hardly that. You wait for the man to do his business. Make note of what he says and does. Once he’s finished, ask for a package for Mr. Blickens. The clerk will have it. I’ll meet you around the corner there.” The stranger pointed to the next corner along my original direction. He spread his hands, palms up. “See? Simple. Three silvers for your time and trouble while you gather information about the man.”
“Who is this man? Why do you want to know about him?” A few people, bundled against the cold, strolled by, and my odd benefactor slouched deeper into the stairwell.
After they passed, he looked me in the eye. “No questions. Not here. If you’re in, then head for that alley. He’ll be along in a few minutes.”
I crossed my arms again and tapped a foot. It could be trouble, and more of that I didn’t need. “What’s in the package?”
He shrugged. “Useless trinkets.”
“I see.” Now I lifted a finger in warning. “There better not be city guards waiting around that corner or in the shop. I’ll tell them about you, fast.”
The stranger chuckled. “You can be sure I’m not with them, nor have I anything to do with what interests them. They’ll not help me in this matter.”
I opened my mouth with more questions.
The vagrant forestalled me with a wave of his hand, the purse in his grasp. “I’m in disguise. That man might recognize me anyway. But I need the information. Are you in? If not, I’ll wait for another day.”
I clenched and relaxed my jaw a moment. “You have the claim ticket?”
He reached between the bars of the handrail and offered me the parcel identifier. I took the slip of paper and headed for the alley indicated and stood with my shoulder braced against the corner, out of sight of the street. The newspaper, scrounged earlier that morning and held as if for reading, hid my lower face without blocking the view of my accomplice. If this went wrong, I’d disappear down the alley without possibility of recognition. Lacking enough money for a tram ride or a maged steam-carriage meant I’d have to walk fast and take other alleys, but I didn’t intend to be caught in an illicit scheme. Months of living in my rat-infested building left me with plenty of tales of witnessed crimes committed by teams of tricksters.
My eyes strayed to the page headline: “Sniffers Still in Turmoil after Accident.” I scanned the article until motion grabbed my attention. My newfound employer signaled from deep in his hole, his face barely visible but his finger pointing along the street, though no doubt hidden from view of his marked man.
I sighed, stepped onto the sidewalk, and affected my best casual stroll past a tailor’s shop, then a cobbler before I reached the private post shop. I glanced at the ticket, then at the address, as if confirming my location. With a nod to myself, I opened the door to the clang of a bell and entered a small room with a counter. Various supplies and flowers, which a man might wish to buy for a lady’s favor or to affix to his lapel, lay in easy reach of waiting package claimants. I queued behind my man and waited for the others ahead of him to conclude their business. He wore a dark overcoat, and his lamb-chop sideburns stood out from below his ears distinctly. I observed his salt-and-pepper hair between his collar and his rounder hat.
So fixated was I on the stranger, I almost forgot to listen to the clerk as he waited on him. “How may I help you today?”
The clerk, a balding man with reading glasses on the end of his bulbous nose, brushed loose hair along the side of his head and flicked his gaze at me as I strode to the counter and feigned interest in the flowers. Among the variety within the floral display was a rose so dark as to be almost black.
“You have a package for me, I believe.” The voice of my marked man sounded deep in the suddenly quiet room and carried what struck me as dangerous confidence. Besides his bushy sideburns, his pale, shaved face bore unremarkable features: a common nose, eyes dark but not piercing, his chin neither protruding nor recessed. Likewise, his cheeks appeared none too prominent nor his lips either full or thin. One would never remember him from a crowd. He tilted his head toward me slightly, as if to hide his plainness in embarrassment.
“Your ticket, please.” The clerk wiggled his fingers in anticipation over his list of voucher numbers that matched the temporary bins in the backroom. He flashed a quick smile my way as if to instruct me to be patient.
I shifted my eyes to my own business as my mark slid a ticket onto the counter. Except it wasn’t a ticket, and my averted gaze almost missed it entirely: a card with a darkened image printed on it.
The clerk covered the image with his hand so quickly that I never glimpsed it. The balding man’s face paled, and a sudden sheen of perspiration gleamed on his head in the light of maged lamps. He ducked his head, and his hands trembled as he turned from the counter. “I’ll just be a moment.” His throat worked as he swallowed and ducked into the backroom.
I tapped my foot with a sigh. “Seems a tad slow. Maybe a little peaked, don’t you think?”
The other fellow tipped his hat toward me in the barest of greeting. “Oh, I think he’s more of the skittish type.”
Silence followed between us as a clock ticked on the wall. I returned my attention to the various other merchandise until the clerk returned, his hands still atremble as he carried three flowers in a narrow vase. One was a bright red tulise, the second a yellow caranelle, and the third none other than the deep crimson rose.
The deep-voiced fellow received the flowers without a word.
“I say, what variety of rose is that? Never seen one like it before,” I said as the man turned and I got a good look at the vase and flowers.
My erstwhile employer’s mystery man moved past me without answering the question except for another tug of his hat and the thinnest of smiles. “Good day.” The flash of his dark eyes and his tone meant I should leave him alone. He left and strode in the opposite direction from which he’d arrived at a brisk clip.
“May I help you?” A flush spread across the clerk’s chubby cheeks.
I pointed to the nearby black roses that numbered less than a dozen. “What are these? Out of curiosity.”
The clerk’s fingers drummed on his list of numbers. He cleared his throat. “They’re maringias, a special rose. A bit rare, but I’ve a few clients who have me stock them for special requests. Not for sale, just display.”
“Of course.” I edged along the counter away from the flowers and offered the ticket to earn my pay. “Here for a package.”
Stubby fingers snatched the ticket, and the clerk frowned as he read the numbers through the glasses perched on the end of his short nose, then glanced at me. “Expecting a different man for this one.”
With a lift of my chin, I answered, “I’m his agent.”
“Of course. Not seen you before, is all.”
Most people used younger men than I for their deliveries and pickups. I certainly didn’t look the part. “Well, I’m new to the job, so I’m just getting around to some of the shops.”
“Certainly. Just be a moment.” The clerk consulted his list again and left the counter.
My gaze traveled along the list and spied only numbers. My eyelids narrowed. No names, so who was he expecting?
A moment later, the clerk returned with a small box marked with the handling instructions. “There you go. Anything else today?” He waved a hand at the flowers. “Perhaps a bloom?”
“Not today. I’m afraid I must move along on my rounds.”
I tipped my hat in farewell and exited the post shop, then casually strode toward my rendezvous with my secretive employer. After a short walk to the proscribed side street, box in hand, I turned left at the corner, then almost halted at the sight before me. A man stood reading a paper near the alley entrance instead of the vagrant who had hired me. I reached the alley and peeked along its dank length as several people strode past us. Perhaps he hid in another basement stairwell. I approached the nearest set of steps and found no one there. Befuddled, I glanced along the alley in both directions.
“There you are.” I turned to the familiar voice of the vagrant but beheld the face of the newspaper-reading man.
My jaw worked at the change of appearance. No longer did my secretive employer wear a dingy, threadbare coat over a stained shirt with trousers patched at the knees. Nor was his face smudged with ash any longer. Instead, he wore a proper suit of gray cloth, and his face bore no marks of rough living. “But how did you…?” I pointed to his face and attire.
“Changed, of course.” He held his paper behind his back. “Best not to be recognized.” The former wall of a man glanced at the box in my hands and pointed to it without touching the package. “You were given this?”
I glanced at the package in my hand and offered it to him, expecting my pay. “Yes.”
“That won’t do. Please follow me if you will.” He strode along the alley.
“But what about—?”
“Quickly. You don’t want to be caught with that box in hand. Trust me.” The gray-suited man strode to the second basement stairwell and clattered down the length of steps, where he whispered and thrust the door ajar. “In here.”
I hesitated. “Just what’s going on?” He could easily do me harm, though I bore little of value in my state of unemployment.
He motioned for me to enter the door. “Quickly, I say, or I shall leave you to your demise.”
The warning set my heart pounding.
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