Goren took off his hat and took several laborious breaths. He sat down in the grass. He felt he was baking in the sunshine. This blasted hill he thought to himself and looked up the last length he was going to have to climb to get to The Emerald House.
Goren knew it was a power play. Goren understood the angles. He knew he was fat and appeared ridiculous to most of the circus crews. He knew that Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei did not respect him. He also knew that, in its own way, this was often an asset. Chubby little Goren with his single minded fixation on the ledgers and ticket sales. He would play right into Lorelei’s game. Arriving late, out of breath, and ostensibly three steps behind whatever the doctor thought he was getting away with.
Goren settled his breathing. He felt certain that this meeting would shed necessary light on what was happening to the young boys disappearing from the circus. He would report back to Ungulen and they could ready from there. Goren prepared himself to play the part of the absurd little man who couldn’t see more than three feet in front of him. Once he had gathered his nerve, he trudged the rest of the way up the hill.
“Doctor Lorelei, it’s nice to see you,” said Goren stepping over the threshold as the doctor bowed deeply, inviting the accountant inside with his massive, outstretched arm. Goren noted the doctor’s posture and wondered how this insane individual could pass unnoticed through the world.
“Do you ever deal in fireworks?” Goren asked.
“What? No.” Said Lorelei, shutting the door behind them.
“That’s too bad,” Goren ventured, trying to counterstroke the man’s ego. “You strike me as someone who could have done wonders in the field of pyrotechnics.”
Lorelei’s eyes slid all over Goren’s face. Goren remained cheerfully neutral and, presently, Lorelei smiled a great cushion of a smile and bowed again. Goren felt uneasy. He decided not to pursue that approach.
“How’s Marrionetta lately? She’s staying with you these days, I hear?”
“She’s out at the moment. Please, come sit down.”
Goren and Lorelei sat together at Lorelei’s workbench. Lorelei had prepared tea. Goren noticed that the place was strikingly clean. This surprised him. By all accounts, The Emerald House had descended into absolute squalor. He was also aware that Marrionetta had not been seen out or anywhere for months. He concluded that she was, in fact, still somewhere in the house. Possibly listening in on the conversation. That little tart he thought disdainfully.
Lorelei quietly poured tea. “Lemon?” he asked.
Their eyes met over the proffered wedge of lemon. Goren gave the doctor an impatient twinge of his eyebrow. Lorelei smiled again and set the lemon aside .
“I wanted to speak with you,” began Lorelei. “About certain economic and anomalous realities of the circus. Since you are the chief of circus finances, I thought you would be just the man I needed to speak with on such a delicate, manifold subject.”
“I am a man of science. And the first rule of science, really the most paramount, is to be an open and insightful observer of natural facts.” As he spoke, Lorelei dug a spoon into a porcelain jar of sugar. He offered a great heaping mound of sugar for Goren’s tea. Goren refused it.
Lorelei continued, “Now it has been my observation that many of this institution’s patrons are, how shall I put it?” Lorelei pleased himself with a fanciful gesture. “From abroad?”
Goren said nothing.
“And so many! How is it that they travel here? There’s no nearby train station. No port. I have yet to see any particular kind highway?”
Goren’s mind raced as the doctor was speaking. Where was all this going? What did it have to do with the missing lever boys?
“It’s true,” Goren contributed in his circumspect way, “that our circus attracts a very wide audience.” He then gently replaced his teacup to its saucer. “Does that interest you for any particular reason?”
Lorelei swallowed his tea down. A bit greedily, Goren noted. “Purely for the sake of scientific observation, Mr. Hargus. How can I explain it? There is such nobility in the art of discovery. Such excitement in the power which is required to wrest secrets from nature’s tight, maternal grip.”
Goren was quiet for a moment or two. “Are you comparing scientific observation to kidnapping?”
Lorelei caught himself and rocked back gently in his chair. The two men observed each other.
“I know,” a strange tension began weaving itself into Lorelei’s voice, “that you are a patient and intelligent tally marker. Coin for entry. Coin for payroll. Coin for tit and coin for tat. Surely a man of your appetite knows that midnight pies don’t bake themselves.” Lorelei began slapping at his own belly.
The taunt was only the tip of the iceberg. Goren felt disrobed in some way but couldn’t say why. “What are we talking about?”
“Where does the portal go?”
Goren felt a chill go down his spine. He had not anticipated this avenue of inquiry.
“I don’t know,” he answered truthfully.
“But you must have some idea. I find it hard to believe that a ledgermaster is content to be dependent on an essential asset he cannot predict or understand. How does the portal work? Is it seasonal?”
“It’s not for us to know,” Goren felt both rooted in place and panicked to leave.
“Are they not dead? Or are they dreaming? Is it an in between state?”
Goren attempted to stand but Lorelei was faster. The doctor pushed the small, fat accountant back down into his chair. Lorelei stood over Goren, his huge open palm crushing Goren’s sternum. The two men breathed in each other’s stink. Goren, sweaty from his uphill climb and Lorelei perspiring in a blossoming pique. A tiny gleam caught Goren’s attention. It was only then he noticed the small knife protruding from the sleeve of Lorelei’s other hand.
“Please, Mr. Hargus. I beg your patience. After all, there’s still tea. And so much more to discuss.”