Welcome to chapter 33. It originally was going to be one giant chapter, but the mood broke halfway through, so I decided to make it into chapters 33 and 34. Maybe it's better, because I was already approaching 9,000 words here…
I originally wanted the Professor and Laura to journey to New York, but I realized I know nothing about the place. I could have researched and made it all up, but…you know, I know and love Chicago more, so that's what it changed into.
After this chapter, there will be one more brief chapter focusing on Laura and Layton, and the rest goes into major story changing events. We're moving out of the middle portion and into the final stretch. So if you're bored, you won't be, very soon.
I apologize again for my absence. I've been very very busy at work, and I now manage a portion of a warehouse for a scrub/nurse and doctor uniform company. It's…stressful, as we supply scrubs nationwide, and in huge volumes. But I listen to Layton and Itou Kanako music during the day and think of new developments for my stories all the time…Haha.
I WHOLLY APPRECIATE THOSE WHO REVIEW, INCLUDING GUEST REVIEWERS. While I wish the guests had accounts so I can reply back, I still appreciate your time and thoughtfulness. I ENCOURAGE YOU ALL TO EMULATE THAT. I really do love reviews and to know my readers are actually there! So please, even if just a small blurb, say something! And I DO accept critiques if they are intelligently written…
Reinventing gluten-free baking,
CHAPTER 33: ENGLISHMAN IN CHICAGO (ARRIVAL)
London was too big and Painswick was too small.
Laura wanted to get lost in the crowd, for the sole purpose of no one being able to pay her any mind. So, a large population wasn't so bad in that regard. But she didn't want to be suffocated and poked and prodded while merely visiting the grocery either, so perhaps it really was as bad as she originally thought.
London was out of the question.
And when it was the opposite—smaller population, not having her own carbon dioxide shoved back into her nostrils because her face was smashed between someone's shoulder blades—everyone knew everyone, down to the last and latest gossip, and that was just too much social pressure.
Little villages, like Painswick, were out too.
Now that things around her had settled down, the brooding girl had time to think, and now that she thought about it, Chicago might be a bit too much, but… Gripping the handles of her plane seat, she realized it too late. Off and on, in and out anger was all she'd been experiencing and now, it was the brass tacks of the Professor's surprise that made her squirm.
"Chicago, why Chicago. Why anywhere? What's your gain?" she started, first as a groan, then morphing into a hiss; her emotions transitioned into different phases as the ride continued, and her current expression was nothing short of livid. Any time she'd finally relax, it was only a matter of minutes before the feelings would storm across her features once more, a tempest across the ocean. "This is conducive to nothing. Such a waste of time, such a waste of money…waste of life, basically."
"I can't quite decide what I enjoy more: a conversation while you're composed, or mercilessly pestering you whilst incensed. It's still up for debate. I'll let you know the verdict in a while." Top hat falling down over closed eyes, Layton leaned back as much as he was allotted space to move. Laura held back the feeling of wanting to grate her knuckles across the part of his face still visible—the ridiculing, smiling part.
"Inconceivable. You are no gentleman."
"Any other lady would quite enjoy the gift of travel, so why are you so upset?"
"And any other gentleman would not partake in my suffering."
His snickering got caught in his throat and he coughed lightly. "It's 'suffering' now? Hmm…a ha ha ha."
"I'm. Not. On. Holiday." If ears smoked, she might have been arrested for breaking flight rules. "We're not on holiday."
He thought perhaps the third time might be the charm; after all, he'd already tried twice to validate his cause. "It's two days, two nights, I told you. We'll settle in, do a bit of leisurely sightseeing, rest up, go to a few sites tomorrow, and welcome the new year at night. You'll be well fed, and you have nothing to bother about. It's all been taken care of. And then on the afternoon of January 1st, we'll be back to puzzles and mysterious moguls back in Stabilnon—"
"—which reminds me," she cut him off abruptly, "can you please inform me of what you know exactly? You got all excited back at the hotel, and now you're just keeping information to yourself. Not exactly the fairest thing…"
"Hmm, I'll let you know as soon as I'm certain."
"How about you stop withholding information and just be honest with me?" Her eyes picked at him, but they didn't break him.
"I don't want to appear secretive, but in a way, I need to research my…findings. And it's a bit early to celebrate…"
"Oh! And yelling on the phone, all riled up with Luke isn't 'early celebration'?"
He was quiet as he thought a moment, guilty as charged. "I apologize for showing such excessive mirth at that time, but…you really must wait. Trust me. You need to go about your living, and be yourself. It may serve us better that you function normally. You'll have a clearer mind that way, you won't be biased, and your mind won't settle on a conclusion."
"Are you saying I'm not capable of separating fact from speculation?" she growled, her voice bordering on demonic. The Professor tried to think of an excuse before feeling the burn of her smoldering eyes.
"Listen, it's not that at all. One of us needs to keep a clear mind, and since you're the one dealing with Leopold, you need to analyze his every move without jumping to an assumption, an end. Since you won't have any information to even involuntarily assist in coming to a hypothesis..." It must have been a large enough deluge of logic as he felt her anger dissipate, her eyes now only warm with silent thoughts. "Do you understand?"
"…yes. Doesn't mean I like it."
"Before you know it, we'll be back in London. The least you can do is enjoy yourself now. I daresay you deserve it. And perhaps I deserve it as well, for helping you out?" He casually lifted his hat and gave an almost imperceptible wink.
No luck, and no cigar.
"Helping me out? Ludicrous. Absolutely ludicrous…" And that's all she said.
Professor Layton had it all planned, down to the minutest of details. From touch down to departure, everything had been prepared carefully and precisely to make the most of their limited adventure. Although admittedly uncharacteristic of him, the idea of breaking away from the investigation struck him early on, something enjoyable to fantasize about while on the flight from London. But the follow-through didn't come to fruition until he was journeying through cobbled streets in Stabilnon. Somehow, his mind was abnormally sluggish, and he was having a harder than usual time talking himself out of fleeting thoughts and wanton wishes. His wallet might not have liked it (especially the financial fact that securing two seats on a flight—in the very midst of the holiday season—was enough to force a man of average budget to dine on beans for half a year) but…he'd bought the tickets when Laura was away engineering, and the deed was done. Regardless of the occasional trollish grunts seething from the passenger next to him, he was glad he arranged the thing.
O'Hare International Airport, an adventure all on its own, somehow allowed Laura the luxury of relaxation, and she practiced a long silence while gazing around thoughtfully. They made their way along bright tiled floors with the rest of the crowd. The smells of dozens of baked goods and freshly prepared meals spread as quickly as the people. It was a bit difficult to decipher which smelled the best: cinnamon and chocolate sweets from one side of the thoroughfare, or the spicy and savory lunches being served on the other. Although the Professor thought she'd grow more irate with the hustle and bustle, Laura instead grew talkative, smiling and pointing, neon lights and flashy departure signs reflecting in her eyes like an awe-struck child. The conversation was for the first time personable, no words or thoughts of investigations or oil rigs (or angry reprimanding) in sight.
"People are so funny, aren't they?" Laura giggled, humming to herself as she pulled her suitcase along. "That one's about four times my girth, and his friend about three times, and both of them are whining about that little bakery kiosk being closed! They might stand to lose some…"
"That's hardly polite. You're rather bold," Professor Layton said with a chiding tone, yet he couldn't suppress a smile. "Come, let's find the train. It has frequent departures, but I'd like to catch the next one if possible."
"Oh my! Trains, planes, automobiles. I quite like this bit of the trip."
Standing on the platform was a chilly experience, one spent pulling up their coats around their necks, blowing clouds of steam into the air and watching them dissipate into nothingness. Unconsciously they stood closer to each other, the prospect of warmth stronger than old feuds or awkward feelings between them. Just when their joints ached too much to properly bend, finally, the metallic, rickety clack of the intercity train careened off of every hard surface as the machine screeched to a stop. The doors slid open and a few people got out, but more rushed to get on, each passenger hungrier than the next to find a much-coveted seat. The Professor and Laura hadn't noticed how many were standing on the platform along with them but they now knew, as they instead had to fight to board, and then only to stand.
Layton held the cold handle bar and positioned Laura in front of him so she would have less of a chance of falling.
"You're suffocating me, you dolt," she puffed angrily, glaring up at him with dark eyes. "I can't see anything but your stupid coat buttons and your luggage is on my foot! You're too close."
"The ride won't be smooth, and I don't want you falling. You're safer this way."
"What do I look like, an invalid? I can stand and hold the bar just fine…"
"You're a lady, and it's my duty to keep you safe. The closer you are, the easier I can keep you steady." He smiled at her, which softened her expression. "There was a time when you wouldn't have minded this proximity."
"And…you call me bold," her voice stammered, and she stared down at a brass button as the train lurched forward. He was right: the thing was very bumpy, and each rise and fall of the track—even if it was slight—made the ride more like a children's roller coaster. As small as it was, she saw her reflection in the round coat button, and she tried hiding her smile.
She'd started to doze off to the drone of the overhead intercom voice announcing each stop, Each time that the doors would open and close: This is Montrose, this is Cumberland…Doors opening, doors closing… They continued to stand until the voice broadcast the next stop as "Doors open on the right at Clark and Lake."
"Our stop," Layton whispered, and it was only then that she noticed his arm loosely draped about her left hip, separating her from a new passenger who'd sardined his way into the crowded car. Skin prickling, she wanted to slap the Professor, but she weighed what was worse: his touch, or the stranger's. She glanced up to give him a look, but he was too busy steadying himself for the breaking of the train, and in a flurry of men, women, and children, they exited the train.
The platform was dim, the underground lighting giving the former passengers enough light to walk safely down the pathway. As they walked, the train zoomed off to its next stop, and the warm air rushed past them, sending Laura's hair flying messily about her shoulders. Up a flight of stairs, through the turnstyle, all while ignoring the dirty and dingy walls and floors, they were finally at ground level. They'd entered a lobby of some sort, its ceiling high above them, windows extending from the ground to the very top. The reflective floors were much cleaner and shinier than the dank, gray mausoleum of a subway below. In the lobby space, small eateries dotted the perimeter, a fair share of Drink 'n Donuts, Jungle Juice, and other chain restaurants that Laura knew from home, but never frequented. Their bright colors were quite vivid against the dark décor marble of the room. A slow-moving flow of people spotted and hurried towards the food and drink.
And the busy outdoors, visible from the tall windows, contrasted it all with excited shoppers, walking from the left and right, bags and smiles in tow. The Professor saw Laura shy away slightly, all traces of excitement fading into reluctance.
"It's quite alright, Laura. You're with me," he said confidently.
"Um, that's what I'm worried about." Her voice was dull and drained.
"Come now, we'll keep to ourselves, and all will be well. Do you not trust me?"
It only took a moment—a surprising moment—and she pushed past him, taking the lead. "Well… I might as well make the most of it, hmm?"
"Er…are you alright? You just looked like—"
"Yes, let's go. I'm too tired to grumble and think of pithy comebacks anyway." She started towards the glass doors. "Well? Aren't you coming?"
Layton's planning made short work of finding their hotel, only a few blocks away. Fighting through lively crowds and scissor-like wind was the toughest part. Laura tugged and pulled on her hat endlessly to keep it secure against her head, luggage wheels whirring and grinding from behind as they walked. The Professor merely led the way a few paces ahead, as debonair as he would have been in London. He crossed streets and dodged the crowd effortlessly, and still managed to keep a pace comfortable enough for his company, who was already worrying about how she'd keep up with such a crowd current.
Now, as the crowd diminished, Laura looked around with open eyes, comfort low, but curiosity high. These strange people of all types—the wealthy with their fuzzy, long trench coats and handbags worth half of a small country's coffers; the homeless strewn about in cold vestibules, almost drowning in dirty blankets; the tourists, pretending that they knew their way around without a map, but were clearly lost…
'And here I am, in their midst, foreign and small. I hear them all, I see them. My senses are fine, but my mind is numb. I don't know why I'm here, why I agreed to this…
'I really do have a problem on my hands, and it's like I'm on holiday! Is this a life hint, to just relax…? No, no. I have a problem to solve.
'Aha, life hint. If only I'd had a lot of those, I might actually listen…'
It'd already been several hours later when the girl finally bothered to glance at a large clock on a building overhead. Where had the time gone? She barely had time to admire their lodging; they'd dumped their luggage in the hotel room when the Professor hurried her out the door, leading them back into the traffic of downtown once more. She'd barely even had enough time to grumble (that she was being treated like herded cattle). They'd walked for blocks, slipping in and out of stores they found sufficiently interesting to browse along their trek, and Laura might have admitted that the mere shuffling about with the crowd and talking with an old friend might be pleasant enough to enjoy.
Perhaps it was a smile plastered to her face, but somehow Layton could read her as easily as a text book.
"Don't have fun, Laura. You might actually enjoy yourself," he chuckled lazily as they passed by a park sign engraved in stone. Laura was too self-conscious to even bother reading it, and she looked away, hiding her red face. It was then that she spotted the strangest and most thrilling thing she'd seen in a while. On their right, after they ambled up the ascending sidewalk, sat an ominous shiny sculpture, perhaps 20 feet high, shaped like a bean. An enormous mirrored bean, reflecting the sky and the surrounding skyscrapers, as well as the gathering of people that were swarming the spectacle. Most had a camera in hand, snapping pictures and posing with friends against the mirrored backdrop. Others stood under the bean, looking up at their reflections within the concave portion of the underbelly.
"What in the world," Laura whispered, eyes wide and glassy. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry with delight. "It's a giant bean!"
"Indeed." Layton smiled as if he had expected it to appear in the middle of the park like magic.
"Well, what's it doing here? In the middle of a park?!"
She half-stumbled, half-ran towards the rounded behemoth, the Professor following. Gloved fingers splayed like fans, Laura smashed her palms against the bean, her smile watery in the mirror.
"Aha! I can't believe it. Who came up with such a thing? It's huge! Sculptures of pulses, what is this place…." Layton's explanation was lost, as she toured around the perimeter two, three times, her smile never faltering. She'd give the bean its space, then edge close enough to see her image, then retreat again. She was like a kitten gauging the caliber of her prey, knowing well that she couldn't handle it, but she could dream about it.
After sizing up the thing and granting her approval, both she and Layton entered the arched cave and became dizzy, staring up at their mirror counterparts underneath the bean. They appeared as stretched and distorted creatures, and even the Professor laughed heartily at their spaghetti-like images. It was the first time in a while that Laura felt completely at ease.
To her chagrin, they finally had to depart from the silver bean, bidding farewell as nothing else remained to be seen. She might have been able to stay all day, and the girl looked back over her shoulder a couple of times, shaking her head in amused disbelief.
Professor Layton rubbed his hands together. "It's amazing. I didn't think that that would be the landmark to change your demeanor," he finally spoke up after signaling a taxi. "It seems you've found something interesting?"
A cab raced in front of that one that was flagged down, prompting the cut off vehicle to lay on an echoing horn blast. Laura continued the conversation with a giggle. "Well, as I said before, I suppose I have to make the best of it, and that giant bean in the middle of everything just made my day."
"I see. It's all so grueling and awful, you'll just have to grin and bear it, make the most of your time with me. And yet…you're amused most by a giant mirror bean…"
Once they'd entered the car and buckled up, Layton politely addressed the driver and rambled off a destination, although Laura was too busy with her thoughts to hear it. The little cab whisked off and wove daringly in and out of traffic like a wild thread on a loom.
"Your first time in Chicago?" the driver asked huskily. The voice startled the Professor a bit; it didn't match the slight figure of the young man behind the wheel. He expected something a bit softer.
"Hmm, yes, yes it is," Layton responded, grinning awkwardly from his seat in the back. He was struggling to keep his hat from grating against the roof of the interior. "We're on a small holiday for the new year."
The driver nodded his approval. Laura saw his pearl-white teeth smiling in the rear-view mirror. They looked like perfectly arranged gum tablets; she wondered if perhaps they were…
"Well, you'll have a nice little time there on the Pier. I'm sure you know of the main attraction?"
"Absolutely," Layton said matter of factly. He asked the driver casually about his job, whether he had any customers waiting to be picked up, or whether he merely waited on the next eager tourist to signal his service. After a brief conversation, the Professor directed his attention to the linear blur of people, buildings, and lights outside the window.
Just when Laura began to feel carsick, the rough taxi barreled around a circular road and stopped brusquely to a halt at the curb. Layton paid the fare, bid the driver farewell, and stepped out calmly, but Laura only gave a curt 'Bye' before hauling herself bodily out of the vehicle, all too happy to be in the cool air, feet on stable unmoving ground. With a splutter from the exhaust, the car whisked off along the road and back into city traffic, out of sight.
"Do you feel the need to converse and ask questions of everyone now?" Laura mumbled, pulling her hat over her ears. "We aren't investigating here. Don't make talk with the driver, for goodness' sake…"
"No, but I like to be polite." He smiled assuredly, but Laura wasn't having any of it. Her eyes somersaulted.
They were now located outside of a tall metal fence with an open gate. Dormant hedges spanned the length of the fence, the dormant brown stems appearing dead without their green leaves; those had to sleep until the spring, still several months off. Beyond the fence was a promenade paved in concrete bricks. The spaces between the bricks made a criss-crossing grid that stretched towards forever. At least, until it ran headlong into the perimeter's edge, somewhere out of sight.
A tall, long building ran along the entire left side of the area. Throngs of people entered and left out of several doors that dotted along the side. On the right, there were a few roofed areas, the metal coverings supported by beams at each corner. Each space housed a couple of vacant kiosks, none of them in use now. Perhaps when it was warm, but winter seemed to kill everything except for the crowds.
People laughed and talked, walked around leisurely, some carrying bags, others carrying sandwiches or hamburgers. Some sat at patio tables, despite the cold, possibly waiting for someone they knew to show up; the men were most likely waiting for their tardy wives, and they had the chiseled grimaces to match. Others raced to taxis, and they had their pick, as an endless line of cabs lined the rounded curb.
As Laura stared around, the Professor stepped toward a tall, lit up information sign. He read, and Laura saw the name of the place where they now stood.
"Navy Pier? Hmm. Seems like a neat little…place…" She'd forgotten to look up, and now she saw the structure that towered over everything on the busy 'pier': the Ferris wheel. "Wow, they really do have everything here, don't they?"
"That's not the best part." Layton shoved a paper map deep into his coat pocket and casually draped his arm about her lower back, coaxing her through the open gate. She made to flinch, but instantly decided it might not be so bad.
'Hmm…or maybe it is.' She gave him a reproving look but continued onward. And then she saw what he'd been talking about. How could she have missed something so obvious?
Seemingly endless like the ocean, Lake Michigan, pastel and bright, met the matching horizon hundreds of yards away. One boat threatened to reach it, but it wouldn't venture out that far today, for anyone with ears knew a snow storm was expected to blow in.
Tiny lapping waves crested and attempted to sparkle in the dying daylight, and each one plapped as it broke against the walls of the pier. Laura approached the edge, and found the sound and sight dangerously mesmerizing. Staring down, there was no reflection to look back at her, like the bean had had. The lake only offered an opaque, cold abyss, and an equally cold death should she fall in and feel the clench of liquid winter.
"I bet it's dreadfully cold…"
'I wonder what it's like to drown…not that I want to find out.'
"Don't get too attached. You'll have a better view later," Layton said awfully close to her ear. She jolted from her reverie and spun around, exhaling a single puff like an angry steam train.
"Okay, where from here?" Her voice was more nervous than angry.
"I thought we could get a bite for dinner, and look around the shops a bit before riding." He pointed upward at the huge wheel. "Unless you're afraid of heights."
"Me? Afraid of heights? The only thing that frightens me about heights is the compulsion to jump."
"And why in the world would you have that sort of compulsion?!" the Professor chuckled, a tinge of worry cloaked in his laugh.
"Because…I'd like to fly." She roughly linked one of her arms with his, the other reaching out to the sky. Her hand arched against the evening glow, outlining some sort of flying trajectory. Stunned, he might have been able to listen better if she hadn't just grabbed him bodily and pulled him close. The wind picked up, almost intuitively understanding the situation, and left her hair sloppily scarved about her neck. Her smile and energy were undeniably contagious. "Wouldn't it be fun to just up and go? No gravity strong enough to pull you down, no weight on your feet. Just you and the air and the sky, wind pulling at your limbs. And that's it."
"Yes…that…sounds quite pleasant…" He cleared his throat. "I know I asked earlier, but are you okay?"
"I'm plenty okay." She never let go of his arm. "Now, where's that meal I was promised?"
"Hmm. I might have known that's all you'd bother about…" Holding onto his hat, he led her inside the building that housed the shops and restaurants, prepared to blame his pink cheeks on the bone-chilling cold.
Stomachs stuffed and topics of interest close to exhausted, the couple ventured back into the cold towards the now brightly lit Ferris wheel. It was like a beacon, leading mariners back to land. It shown beautifully against the dark evening sky as they approached the line of anxious soon-to-be riders, people as crazy as they were, riding in the night freeze.
It was cold, but Layton never noticed. He eased into a rather comfortable flow of intellectual conversation and jocular sarcasm, his company more glowing than he'd ever realized before. Maybe it was their surroundings. Maybe it was the lack of pressing responsibilities. All he knew was the energy of the city and Laura. There were occasions during their talking when he'd just stare, his ears hearing words but brain not comprehending. Laura never seemed to detect his lack of interest; he really had become too good at mimicking attentiveness while tucking into his own mental discussions.
And before he had a chance to start paying attention to time, they were boarding their own enclosed car, the attendant dictating some sort of instruction. He sat across from Laura, clean and neat in her navy dress coat and soft faux fur hat, white as fresh snow, but as warm as a frothy bubble bath. She said something. And something again.
"Hello? Earth to Hershel, are you afraid of heights?" Laura laughed haughtily, hoping to find a chink in the armor.
"Perhaps you think you've got me on something, but no, I am not." As he replied, the wheel began to revolve slowly, and their car ascended as quickly as molasses above the loosely assembled crowd. The people looked like spilled salt and pepper as the car went up. "I'm glad we were able to secure our own car. These seat six, but we'd be cramped…"
Laura continued as if not hearing, her smile honest. "Are you afraid of anything?"
Slightly miffed, Professor Layton wasn't sure he ever had to entertain such a question from her. "I…" His eyes darted around their cabin, as if someone had graffitied a fitting answer. "I'm not sure I've ever thought about it."
"But I'm not lying. Answer it now for yourself."
She sat silent. The Ferris wheel groaned a bit, and the car swayed ever so slightly as the wind embraced it. "What am I afraid of?"
"Mmhmm," he hummed, leaning his elbows on his thighs.
"I'm afraid of people."
"Of…people?" It wasn't the answer he was expecting, and she said it so surely, it had to be truthful.
"Well…what is it about people that frightens you? You seem to get along fine in life, you went to school, you have a job, and—"
"That doesn't mean it's easy for me, Hershel," she said, somewhat sadly. "I have to force myself through every social action. Literally every conversation. It doesn't come naturally, as it does for you, obviously…" His neck craned to the side, Layton looked at her curiously. "I mean, you have no problem guiding others, being around them. Teaching. Lecturing. Those things involved direct interactions. I have goals that involve people, and a need to help others too, but…it's more of a background, behind the scenes sort of thing. It's indirect. That's what makes it easier."
"Well, you had no problem ever talking to me. At least, no problem I could ever detect," he said with a small shrug.
"That's just it. To me, you were an enigma, because I couldn't figure out why I didn't have such a hard time talking to you. You were…different." And then her tone changed, from sadness to bitter frustration, as if she was having trouble explaining herself. She'd sigh, then grin nervously, then shake her head. Her mouth would open to speak, but she'd only repeat the whole process again. "You just…you don't understand, you can't understand. I literally have to talk my way through, like…how to socialize, how to communicate. In my head, I just follow a pattern, follow cues. I only appear somewhat normal because I analyze all of you and mimic actions, phrases…how people behave. Of course, not everything, because many things that people do are just so inane…"
He thought she sounded a bit like some extraterrestrial life-form from the way she was going on about her social observations. It was as if she were analyzing them all on earth, and was striving to assimilate.
'Is she really that handicapped?'
"Are you having a hard time now?" he asked.
"I…not as badly as if I were saying this to someone else but…I suppose I never told you any of this…have I..."
"No. I expected your fear to be something different."
"Well, and I fear connecting with people too." Her hands wrung around and around, a nervous habit that never died. "It hurts, to know there won't ever be any legitimate, deep understanding between me and another person. It's like…I'm someone apart. It all ends with my lack of ordinary emotion. I tend to…feel things deeper than basic, bland emotion, and I don't quite get that understanding with anyone. Well, I suppose I did, but…well, I thought I did. And…you know…"
The silence might have exploded the little box capsule that they sat in, it was so pressurized and heavy. Suddenly, the gentleman in the tall hat felt sorry, and he wasn't so tall or gentlemanly anymore. He felt traitorous. He felt low and foul and flat and wormish. The whole ride was supposed to be enjoyable, and it turned sour with a simple question.
'What am I afraid of…'
"You don't need to say anything, I know I'm painfully awkward."
"No, you're not, you're very pleasant to be around, and there's nothing wrong with you." He tried to continue when he was met with a very specific snort. Her demeanor was all of a sudden embittered and cynical.
"Oh okay. That's what I tried telling myself for quite a long period of time, just to have a semblance of sanity after…yeah, never mind."
"No, I'm being honest, completely serious, Laura," the Professor tried reassuring her. He grabbed her hands, all this time cupped over her knees, and his grip shook her small wrists slightly. "I would never lead you to think something that wasn't the truth. You still don't have anything to fear around me, that never changed."
"Oh really?" she grimaced, sarcasm leaking through her every pore. It was chilling, if not treacherous, those dark eyes of hers. She may have struggled internally with emotions, but sarcasm was something she was quite skilled at, and with the pointed wit she wielded she was often able to draw a hazardous amount of mental blood.
"Laura, I assure you, I—"
Screams erupted, the Ferris wheel frame groaned, and the gondola creaked as it shook and swayed. Laura gasped as the Professor fell forward a bit before catching himself, leather loafers firmly planted against the metal floor; the last thing he needed was to injure her physically by headbutting her in the jaw. The conversation terminated, whether they liked it or not, Layton stood up as much as the clearance allowed and looked around him out of the surrounding windows.
Their position was almost directly at the top of the wheel. How many times they'd made the revolution trip was unknown, if they'd even made the entire trip at all, but they were now at the apex, over a hundred feet from the ground. It was easy to see a great majority of the surroundings from the birds' eye view, but difficult to tell specifically what was going on at ground level. The lake, black as a patch of midnight, and the actual night sky were one where the horizon line would have been, a single empty void. In the other direction, the downtown skyscrapers were still set against the black sky like bright battlements, a testament of civilization, but out of reach now.
Nothing seemed amiss. Everything looked as it did before they boarded.
"I don't see anything out of the ordinary," the Professor stated matter of factly. Laura sat, unmoving and mumbling, but otherwise taciturn. "What on earth is going—on—"
They shook once more, swinging back and forth, and the shouting of the other riders and the grounded onlookers chorused up to their airborne gondola. It felt as if the entire wheel was tilting on its axis, coming loose from its center mechanism. The Professor steadied himself and held fast onto his hat's brim as Laura's eyes, large orbs glassy like a cornered cat in an alleyway, were furtively looking around for something to protect her.
"Malfunctioning machinery, terrorist attack, God only knows!" she hissed and spluttered, to herself rather than to the Professor. He looked at her, hoping for an answer, but realized that was quite out of reach. What would she know that he didn't?
"Laura, don't lose your head," came the soft admonishment. Subconsciously, he said it to calm himself, rather than her. "Hold onto me and—"
"HOW'S THE VIEW, LAYTON?"
Stunned to silence, Layton and Laura gawked at each other for a split second, in that time hoping the other would understand and explain the situation. A cackling, grating sort of voice had boomed from outside, from below. The question now became not what was going on, but—more pressing—how did the source of the voice know the Professor, and how did it know his location?
"Professor, this is very odd," Laura whispered, lips quivering. Layton wished she was cold, but it was more than obvious she was scared. She hid it well to the unobservant eye, but…some things, he just knew. "I wonder if Leopold has caught on to us, what if it's him?! He's really up to something!"
Trying not to shake the only thing keeping them in the air, Layton moved around delicately to look out of the windows; they encircled the two, giving a clear view around the entire perimeter of the car. The door was short—about half the height of the car—which left the upper portion completely open. One could get a clearer look but…leaning out of the car didn't seem like the most intelligent of ideas at the moment. The voice still bouncing in his ears, Layton tried to place the source, hoping to find a person to match with the out-of-place yell. It seemed futile; he could only see the cold metal beams coming from the frame's center, spokes sprouting from the middle and connecting each car to the ride. It looked much like a bicycle tire.
'I can't see anyone, but…'
That voice: he knew it; it wasn't the first time. Nor the second. It wasn't so much the sound or the musicality of the voice that was familiar, no, but the tone… The bitterness…
"No, it's not your employer, Laura," the Professor snarled, as gentlemanly as he could. His face was pressed to the window, vying to get a glimpse of the disembodied voice. "I believe that it's just an old friend…"
"Friend?! What sort of friend jokes during a plight like—"
Shrill and chittering, like wind-rattled bones, the voice was heard again. And it laughed.
"I know you can hear me, Professor…" it chortled above the breeze, over the cacophony of people crying and yelling. The person (who, by the sound of the voice, must have been a man) must have had a formidable command of the vocal chords to reach such a pitch.
Near the wheel's center, on a maintenance platform, stood a tall figure. The person was barely visible in the darkness, and almost impossibly so from the Professor's vantage point directly above. He had to bend his neck awkwardly, smash his shoulder against the window, and strain his eyes at a downward and sideways angle to see, but now he saw him.
"Huh. So it's the taxi driver," he mumbled, half to himself, half to Laura.
"The taxi driver?!"
"Indeed. That's his attire, and his smile is the same. Well, perhaps more of a leer. Hard to tell given our height and the pitch black…"
But it was definitely him. Like a fresh blade of grass, the driver was young and lean. And while he would have appeared handsome otherwise, his face was wild, and his grimace brooked a hint of obsession. In the man's hands was an enormous, borderline obnoxious, plumber's wrench, measuring almost half of his body. What exactly was done with the tool was unknown, but Layton guessed he'd used it to dismantle something important on the wheel's engine or gears, perhaps a crucial bolt. It didn't matter, as it was now being wielded insanely by the very person who had just brought them to this place mere hours ago…
'What on earth is he doing?!' thought the Professor as he briefly labored over the possibilities.
"Can you see him, are you certain? What's he trying to gain, and…how does he know you?" Laura asked hesitantly, as if the answer was more frightening than their circumstances.
"Yes, I can just make him out. And how…I don't know for sure…" He was busy analyzing the frame holding the car aloft.
"Well! What do we do now?!"
"I suppose it's all I can do."
"H-Hershel, what are…what are you doing?!"
Before her eyes, he managed to shove open the door that served as both their entrance and exit, opening the two of them up completely to the void outside. He had had the smart idea of removing his top hat, for when he stuck his head out, the wind flipped around a few locks of his hair and slapped his skin bitterly. His eyes obeying gravity, he chanced a look downward. Solid, cold, uncompromising concrete was all that lay below. Well, and the panicking crowd, which could serve as an unwilling audience, should the Professor make one wrong move…
Trading places with his hat, he sat it down in his seat and reached out of the car. He grabbed the nearest white metal pole of the frame; it was cold, and almost felt wet against his palms and curled fingers. Proceeding with the utmost caution, he gingerly slid down a couple of feet of the vertical portion before resting his feet on a horizontal bar. The rest resembled a ladder, albeit one with a split-inducing distance between the rungs. Ducking beneath the gondola, he slowly began descending the remainder of the frame, his feet struggling to manage each bar.
Still safe inside, Laura had sat glued to her seat, her face now devoid of all color and nerve function as she gaped, slack jawed and unbelieving of what she just witnessed.
"What the bloody hell are you doing, Hershel?!" she shrieked as she finally gathered the courage to peer outside. She tried her best to look out of the doorway while maintaining stability; she was mortally afraid any one movement would make the car shift just enough, and she'd join the fledglings of the universe that hadn't paid heed to the 'survival of the fittest'. The black and sharp air tore through her hair, her coat, her skin. Piercing her ears inside and out, the cold wind kept her from hearing the conversation clearly, but she made out enough of it. Anxiously, she watched his brown head and shoulders disappear from her sight. "You've lost it, you've gone mad and just lost it!"
"I can hear and see you quite well!" the Professor's voice boomed. Laura thought she was speaking to her, but then realized he must have been addressing the rogue taxi driver. "Don't think for a second that you will be successful in your goal here!"
The man called back. "Not any more successful than you ever have been, you rocks-for-brains twit! It's just enough success to get what I came for…"
"And tell me, what would that be?" Layton yelled again. "What is it this time?"
'This time…? Does he know who he is? Has he met him before?' Laura asked herself, eyebrows stitched at the center of her brow. "Why are you entertaining him with conversation?" she butted in, calling from above. It felt stupid, talking to the darkness, but somewhere below the Professor was negotiating the apathetic wheel's frame. "Get back in here this instant! There's nothing you can—"
"Doesn't this remind you of something?" Layton's voice sliced through the tension, ignoring Laura's pleas. There was a moment of silence between the two men when only the cries from onlookers below was able to be heard. Police had entered the scene, and more squad cars and emergency vehicles could be heard wailing from farther away, most likely making their way to the Pier. Laura hadn't noticed it, but there most certainly were people in the other gondolas, and they were just as frightened as she. But now, she was wondering why the police weren't already swarming the mad cab driver. Perhaps they were deterred…
"…remind me of what, Layton?!" the driver retorted to the question. "You're just trying to buy more time as you climb about like a monkey and distract me from my work! Don't think I can't hear you clambering around up there!" He placed the wrench back onto a portion of the wheel and turned, the metal-on-metal contact issuing a terrible crunching squeal. More screaming from the riders, as the wheel jolted a bit.
Professor Layton merely chuckled, abnormally calm and enjoying the exchange of words. "Well, it should remind you of—"
"Oh, of all the things, do NOT say it—" Laura groaned, almost in tears.
"DAMN YOU, LAYTON!" the man bellowed. His voice trailed through every single bar and beam of the ride, the resonance causing the thing to vibrate and clatter. Layton felt it tickle his hands as he continued to move down the frame; he was now halfway to the center mechanism's platform, and hoping the man couldn't see him quickening his pace. "I come here to get revenge and you offer me a puzzle?!"
"Well, you aren't going to reject it are you?" the Professor said coaxingly, goading the other.
The driver twisted his face and grumbled and cursed. "Go ahead and dish out your puzzle, Layton. I'll have this thing undone before you can make it down here alive!"
Layton halted, resting for a moment against a bar. "Then, how about making this a bit more interesting, and having a challenge, my good man?"
The Professor's offer was well met, for the wrench was still. A throng of police officers had collected several yards away from the platform and started screaming out threats to the man through a heavily locked entrance. It apparently had been secured tightly by the taxi driver after he'd entered the maintenance area, and the officers had begun to dismantle the gate and climb the metal fence. The barbed wire at the top proved tricky, but the mad man at hand was proving to be trickier.
"Hershel, you're playing a dangerous game," Laura whispered to the wind.
As expected, Professor Layton remained composed. As composed as if he were conducting a class. "If you fail to solve my puzzle," he proffered, "you reveal your identity, leave this Ferris wheel alone, and turn yourself over to the police."
"And if I do solveit?" the man countered with barred teeth.
"…You can continue your 'work', as you call it, without my interfering."
Everything was set in ice, stock still and mute, as if the world was waiting for the answer. Triumphant, the man smiled. "Let's have it then!"
"Very well. I find this one fitting:
Not only solid when I churn,
One small sniff, and you'll soon learn.
Keys and wheels need a force to turn,
But I—yes, I—will turn on my own.
What am I?"
'Rage' was an understatement, as the once composed taxi driver, wrench in hand, swung it at the nearest bar repeatedly. It dinged loudly and reverberated through the cold multiple times.
"What sort of rubbish is that?!" he shrieked. "It's a stupid riddle, so stupid! I hate your idiotic puzzles!"
As the maniac threw his fit, Professor Layton was almost upon him. He reached his foot out, testing a final portion of the frame that was thinner than the rest, and leapt onto the maintenance platform surrounding the engine box and gear housing. He hadn't considered himself a heavy man, but his weight made a loud enough bang to surprise him, as well as the taxi man.
"Do you have an answer?" he asked before a pause, straightening as he stood up, tall and confident. "If not, remove your mask."
"Eh heh heh heh…speak for yourself, you selfish coward…" The other man lowered his weapon, and only now could the Professor see the tiredness in his eyes. He didn't look so young anymore. "I suppose I don't have an answer. No time to think it over. And I don't care about it anyway. I don't negotiate with the likes of you."
"Then reveal yourself. Confirm my suspicions, Don Paulo." He thrust out a pointed finger, a trace smile tugging at his lips. "That is who you are, correct?"
In a flurry, the man's right hand flew to his neck, latched onto what appeared to be a flap of skin, and tugged. The handsome young man's face peeled off and was now only a ghoulish and eye-less semblance of a real face, floating in air as the person held the mask aloft. And indeed, the harsh and gritty countenance of Don Paulo was revealed, crooked nose, pointed hair, scoffing smile and all.
"Are you happy now, Layton?" he hacked, tossing the mask aside. It hit the ground with a light slap. "You just have to be right. Always right. I'm only glad your blasted hat isn't mocking me from that block head of yours…"
"I'm merely trying to stop you from harming innocent people," Layton said nonchalantly, dismissing the insult to his precious attire. "Whatever issue you have with me should not involve those around us. And now you'll hold up to the rest of the bargain, as we had dis—"
"I don't negotiate. Or 'discuss'…"
It just so happened that at that moment, the police managed to break through Don Paulo's barricade, SWAT members rushing the platform in a black wave. It looked like a section of the darkness had mobilized and swept towards them like a swell on the ocean. Guns were brandished and in an instant they'd locked on to the now shocked machinist. Don Paulo growled under his breath as they forced him to raise his arms and come with them slowly. It was pure theatrics, for when a pair of handcuffs was issued, confusion struck as a cloud of smoke blinded them all, every officer striving to get a grip on the culprit in a mad dash. Only an uninhibited cackle filled the air as they all waved their arms, a futile attempt to get rid of the haze.
By the time the cloud cleared, Don Paulo had gone.
"Strangest thing I've ever seen in my entire life," one of the head officers exclaimed tiredly, rubbing his forehead with a shaky hand and coughing heavily. He'd asked Professor Layton several questions, including but not limited to his knowledge of the man behind the chaos, how he had gotten involved…not to mention how he'd descended the Ferris wheel unscathed. It took a good hour and a half to find a mechanic who could get the wheel moving again, allowing each rider well deserved freedom in succession, and the entire time was used to interrogate the only person who'd made it down from the ride. None of them could believe it, but the Professor stood as testament in front of them, humble and willing to comply.
Finally, after half of the riders were released, Laura's gondola approached the ground and came to a halt. Layton had been freed from the barrage of questions and had already made his way to the exit platform to meet her. After that whole ordeal, he hadn't been happier to see her in all his life. He was more than grateful for her chiding yet noticeably relieved smile.
"You are a lunatic, do you know that?" came her greeting.
"Certainly not the first time I've been told, but we must be confident with ourselves regardless."
She laughed. "Oh, okay. But you can stop being confident about climbing the Ferris wheel. It's a Ferris wheel, not a roundabout! Vertical, it's vertical, Hershel…" She handed him his top hat slowly, almost unwillingly. Laughing, he took it.
"I almost forgot…" Atop his head once more, the hat made him feel whole again.
He led her away from the scene, one that was supposed to be fun and exciting. They'd certainly gotten the exciting part, and more than he'd paid for. As they made their way towards a taxi, both looked at each other and laughed.
"I'm not so sure I want to trust another taxi driver," the girl giggled while eyeing each car warily. "Not after all that."
"You know, I thought it was odd that the taxi didn't wait after dropping us off earlier." Judging each blue and red and yellow taxi with stronger scrutiny, the Professor became exceedingly contemplative and crossed his arms as he walked. "A taxi driver typically waits at such a busy place for a new customer, yet this one drove off, and rather quickly. I asked him his schedule before we left and he said he didn't have any immediate clients, yet…off he went."
Deeming it safer to take public transportation, they used a bus to get back to their hotel. Laura felt worn-out and drained from the events of the evening, and by the time they'd returned to their room, she had missed out on half of what Layton was continuing to go on about.
Ending the day right, she settled into her own bed and almost drifted off instantly, but had one thing worming through her mind.
"Who was the driver, really, Hershel? I heard you talking to him, as if you knew…"
"Oh, yes…" His hands were behind his head, and he was leaned back into a mountain of down pillows on his own bed. The room was quiet except for his sigh. It sounded more like an outlet of sorrow than a release of tension. "An old acquaintance, from my younger days. Known now strictly as 'Don Paulo,' but…"
"Oh, your younger days. I forgot you were so old."
"Laura…" She chortled weakly, like the dying coo of a mourning dove, as the Professor rolled his eyes. "Anyway, yes, Don Paulo. Quite the genius with machines. Were he a bit more…stable, you and he would get along quite well, I'm sure of it."
"I suppose we would." Her voice became more and more faraway and jaded. "The thing with the Ferris wheel was still odd. I suppose it's not the first time for you though, huh? Huhuh."
"No, I…suppose not…"
Intrigued, Professor Layton sat up and looked over at his companion, but she had already fallen asleep.
Hmm...that's a bit weird, isn't it! Don't forget to review! And the next chapter should come quickly, as it's already close to being finished. Also, if you have an answer to the riddle, go ahead and PM me. Haha. I won't reveal it otherwise.