“I’m not going in there again,” said Nikita.
“Understandable,” said Arpin, “But I think you will be safe.”
“That’s what Detective Durand said and I nearly got caught in a Repeating Whorl. Plus, the stairs are made of ierósium.”
“What’s that?” asked L’Horloge.
“A metal alloy that repels spirits.”
“Is that possible?” mused Maxi.
“No! I made it up because I’m a coward!” snipped the ghost.
“It’s not like you can die again,” quipped Maxi.
“That’s also not true! Read the papers!”
Unexpected put two fingers in her mouth and whistled loudly. Everybody stopped.
“We have nothing to fear,” stated the Chevalier.
“What makes you say that?” asked Maxi.
“I’d like to know too,” added Nikita.
“It’s very simple, everything is stuck in time with the exception of us, spirits, and the cats. Any traps or other measures will be frozen. Any devices we’ve tried to use haven’t worked. The exception being things on our person and I don’t think the rules are about to change.”
All of them stood silently for a beat.
“Well reasoned Chevalier,” said Arpin.
“That does make sense,” said L’Horloge.
“I feel a little better about this now,” sighed Nikita.
“Let’s be optimistically cautious,” said the Sergeant.
They all crossed the rue to the entrance of the League’s headquarters. It was a solid and unremarkable building lacking any style or distinctiveness.
“This place has no painfully ordinary,” observed Maxi.
“I know, right!” agreed Nikita.
“That is clearly no accident,” stated Arpin, “The League worked very hard to avoid all scrutiny.”
“Well, let’s get on with this,” said Maxi with a smile as she took out a soft leather wallet filled with lock picks.
“And you just happened to have those in your pocket,” commented Unexpected.
“Just in case I forgot my keys.”
Placing a flat metal tool in the keyhole, Maxi turned it slowly clockwise. Her brow crinkled, she extracted the pick and looked at the door.
“What’s wrong,” asked L’Horloge.
“It’s that easy?” Maxi said, more to herself than her companions.
“Mademoiselle?” asked Arpin.
Maxi put her hand on the handle, then pulled the door open.
“It’s not locked?” asked L’Horloge, “Isn’t this the lair of the League of Spiders, a secret society, and the implacable foes of the Coterie du Honor?”
“Poetically said,” observed Unexpected.
“Shouldn’t this be a fortress?” sputtered the watchmaker.
“The League hides in plain sight, this building is designed to avoid attention.”
“But it’s unlocked!”
“Nikita,” asked the Sergeant Gendarme, “What did Detective Durand discover about this building?”
She tapped her finger on her chin and replied, “Officially, this is a record-keeping concern, they pay their taxes on time and have an unimpeachable reputation with the many merchants that use them.”
“That seems sinister,” said L’Horloge.
“Yes, but not in the way you mean. It’s a perfect disguise. A venture that is profitable but of no interest to the average person,” mused Arpin.
They all agreed that it was an ingenious plan.
“Shall we?” said Maxi as she pulled the door open.
It was as Nikita remembered it, a drab, uninspired lobby. Even so, it still filled her with dread, the ierósium stairs radiated a whisper of pain. It may have been just the memory of her last encounter but it still felt quite real.
Arpin went to the front desk, moved the unassuming clerk away, and began to search the draws. Much of it was ordinary things one might find such as pads of paper, graphite pencils, a fountain pen, a half-empty bottle of ink, rubber stamps, and other common sundries including a small bag of licorice.
Sitting on the desktop was a ledger that was filled with notations, which upon closer inspection looked like names and numbers and dates, dull enough to dissuade further investigation.
“Monsieur L’Horloge,” said Arpin, “You have an eye for details, would you please look at this?”
The watchmaker turned from the grey clock that hung from the wall and looked at the ledger. After a moment, he uttered a, “Huh.”
“Is there some code or pattern?” asked Arpin.
“No, it’s just scribbling, there is no discernable pattern. If it’s a code, it’s a masterful one,” replied L’Horloge.
“May I?” asked Maxi?
L’Horloge handed her the book. She flipped through the pages and frowned. Then, with a cocked eyebrow, she sniffed the pages.
“Sergeant, can you tell me if you smell anything floral in this?”
Taking it, he leaned in and took a deep inhalation.
“Yes, it’s very faint, like the memory of a flower”, he replied.
“Where there any spectacles in the desk?” she asked.
“I didn’t see any”, he replied.
The two of them ransacked the desk but no eyewear was to be found.
“I thought they were using an Encre de Les ténèbres, it’s ink made from the midnight lily and can only be read with specially treated lenses,” said Maxi with frustration.
“Perhaps they are hidden somewhere else.”
“Let’s see if this desk has any hidden panels of compartments,” said Maxi.
“Pardon,” said Unexpected.
They looked up. The Chevalier pointed behind them. Sitting in the chair was the frozen clerk, who was wearing spectacles.
“In plain sight,” said Arpin.
Taking care to not damage them, Arpin removed the wire-rimmed spectacles and handed them to Maxi. She put them on and saw the real ledger.
“It appears to be, if I had to guess, a list of their agents’ comings and goings, departures and returns,” said Maxi as she ran a finger over the list.
“Some of the notations are little pictures, a bird or house, or some other thing. Some sort of shorthand.”
“What was the last entry?” asked Arpin.
“Right, it was today, or is that yesterday? Well, in any case, agent 873 was left at 3:46 in the afternoon, and next to it is a tiny gear and a tower,” read Maxi.
“The Penultimate Device and,” said Arpin.
“-the Tower Cerulean,” finished Maxi.
“There’s no return time, correct?” added L’Horloge.
“That’s right,” answered Maxi.
“So, the Repairperson has not returned,” said the watchmaker.
“We don’t know that,” replied Maxi.
“Someone like the Repairperson is a detail-focused sort. She’d make a note that she had returned.”
“What makes you say that?”, asked Unexpected.
“Because that’s what I’d do,“ stated L’Horloge.
They wasted no more time and quickly deduced that the additional numbers on each entry indicated room numbers. Everyone, save Nikita who would not come any closer to the stairway than she had to, went upstairs.
Room 305 was filled with wooden and brass filing cabinets and League members sitting on stools at high clerk’s desks. The ledgers they wrote in were filled with perfectly ordinary notations until they looked at it with the spectacles. Then there was a sea of pictograph notations that promised a wealth of secret knowledge, if only they could understand it. It would have to wait for another time.
The inner office, which Maxi unlocked, was the Repairperson’s workshop. L’Horloge’s eyes went wide as he saw the treasure trove of tools and books. Maxi gently steered him back on track and they began to search the room.
“What are we looking for?” asked Unexpected.
“Anything that references the Penultimate Device,” replied the watchmaker as he delicately turned the pages of a tiny book, no bigger than the palm of his hand.
It took a while. Shelves were lined with books and a variety of intricate mechanical mechanisms. Finally, Unexpected found a hollow back behind one of the bookshelves. Maxi was able to open it, though it had a sigil inscribed on the back that would’ve exploded if time was running and discovered a cold iron key.
This key in turn opened a case behind which was another compartment that held a blue leather portfolio. The pages it held contained clearly detailed notations on the Penultimate Device. Additionally, further details were inscribed with Encre de Les ténèbres ink.
“Can you discover what is needed to set time back to normal?” asked Arpin.
“Yes, I think so,” said L’Horloge as he read, “But it will take me time to sort all this out.”
“Fortunately, that is a resource we have in abundance,” said Unexpected, “But I think we should leave this place.”
Everyone agreed. They made their way down to the lobby, taking the inert sigil with them at L’Horloge’s insistence that destroying all that knowledge would be a crime once the time stream was restored.
Waiting for them in the lobby was Nikita and a tuxedo cat that was vocally berating the ghostly young woman.
“I told you that I can’t understand you! They went upstairs, you’ll just have to go up yourself!” spat Nikita.
Maxi knelt and the cat padded up to her and began to ‘talk’ to her rapidly.
“We need to leave, right now,” said Maxi as she stood up and moved to the door.
“What’s wrong?” sputtered L’Horloge.
“I’ll tell you on the way.”
All of them rushed to the door and stopped at the threshold. Surrounding the outside of the building there waited a ghossling of ghosts standing silently. The spirits regarded them with cold malice.
“Was that-“ began L’Horloge.
“Yes,” said Maxi.