Artemis boarded the transit bus, briefcase in hand. He sat down in his customary seat in the back of the right aisle, by the window. Placing the briefcase on the floor by his feet, he leaned back and drummed his finger on the windowpane, watching the gray cityscape melt in the rain. He sighed and his breath created an amoeba of fog on the frosty glass.
Yesterday's events were still fresh in his mind. It was odd seeing Domovoi so still. Domovoi. He still couldn't believe that he hadn't known his bodyguards name until days ago, when he had visited the hospital room that last night. A Slavic guardian spirit – it made sense. A faint smile curled Artemis's thin lips. It fit perfectly.
Artemis had been a pall bearer, as had his father and his brothers. The others had been picked randomly to fill the required places – there was no one else close enough to Domovoi to request a place at the coffin's side during that terribly long, somber trek up the church's carpeted aisle to the podium. His mother had been hysterical in the front row, and Juliet had sat out the duration of the funeral with her toned arm around Mrs. Fowl's thin, shivering shoulders, tears streaming stoically down her own face.
Looking out the window, Artemis thought someone sat down beside him when the seat's vinyl cushion sank slightly. But when he looked over to acknowledge his traveling partner, whoever it was, the seat was empty. He twitched a narrow shoulder in a shrug and turned back to the window, traveling back to the funeral.
When the pastor had asked if anyone had any words to speak, Artemis had automatically raised his hand, assuming that when he got in front of the large assembly, the words would come as easily as they had for sixteen years, ever since his first lecture at Trinity College at the age of ten. But they hadn't come. He had opened his mouth and looked down at the closed coffin and back at the people watching him, hanging on the silence, waiting for him to come up with something memorable and moving so that they could weep for this family's bereavement.
He could, he assumed, come up with something satisfactory by their standards. But the truth was he didn't want to. His feelings for his former bodyguard were, he realized, something that were between him and the man in the coffin. They didn't want to hear about the time Butler and he had single-handedly rescued his father from the Russian mafia, or how Butler had managed to get them both out of that Jon Spiro scrape alive, or how the two of them had rescued Minerva Paridezo from the clutches of Billy Kong . . . He closed his mouth again with a firm snap and walked off the podium and sat down beside his father, aware of the many eyes upon him, and infinitely glad he had remained silent.
Something brought Artemis back to the present once again, a gentle whisper of fingertips on the skin of his wrist. He glanced over at where no one sat, and rubbed his wrist to rid himself of the phantom feeling. Butler's ghost, he thought wryly, and attributed it to an itch or a spasming muscle.
"I'm going back to Japan," Juliet had told them in a raw voice once the burial had taken place and they were on their way back to the apartment complex where Artemis's parents had lived ever since the crash that had brought the Fowl fortune down to a few bounced checks.
"You can live with us," Artemis's mother said eagerly, obviously more out of selfish reasons than generosity. She needed a Butler in the house, she had told Artemis later.
Juliet had shaken her head. "No, Mrs. Fowl. You have enough trouble paying your rent without another mouth to feed. Christian has boosted me into the graduate school with a scholarship, I'm planning on going on with my training." Christian had been Juliet's sensei ever since Madame Ko had retired, and was doubling as her current love interest. It was always good, Artemis figured, to have a boyfriend in the financial aid department.
The bus finally arrived at Artemis's stop, and he hoisted himself to his feet with a groan. Another day at the office. An accountant for McGumphry Shares, Inc. Possibly the most boring occupation invented by man. Certainly not what he had envisioned himself doing as the genius son of a billionaire. As he got off the bus and onto the drab sidewalk, he pulled up his jacket collar to ward off the chill and the wet slap of the rain.
"Hellfire," he muttered suddenly, stopping in his tracks and turning around on his heel. "My briefcase!" He sprinted back to the bus, but it was already pulling out and Artemis wasn't about to embarrass himself by hopping up and down and screaming for it to come back. He skidded to a halt on the wet asphalt and was left fuming in the exhaust-filled wake of the vehicle.
All his important files were in there. His clients' confidential information, everything. How on earth was he going to explain its loss to Mr. Braunmuller? The manager of McGumphry had it in for him already, as Artemis had rather unkindly fixed the man's desktop computer's screensaver so that "I Heart Justin Bieber" was the only setting accessible. The man had earned it, accusing him of possibly shifting some of the clientele's funds around illegally.
It was true that not all of Artemis's ventures had been completely aboveboard in the past, but he had reformed. He couldn't remember the exact date, but he did remember having a change of heart somewhere during his fourteenth year. He supposed maturity had caused it. Later on, when the family had come into debt, he had often considered pulling some kind of illegal stunt to get the money back, but he had only ever toyed with the ideas. The thought of breaking the law was somehow distasteful to him now. Not that Mr. Braunmuller would understand any of that, even if Artemis had bothered to tell him.
There was nothing to do but go to work anyway, and try to print copies of whatever files he had stored on his computer. He really should have made backup folders, and he berated himself brutally for the oversight. But he really couldn't be blamed. With Butler taken deathly ill, he had been mentally distracted with worry. Still, he told himself, it is no excuse. Genii are supposed to be smart, and that wasn't smart.
Of course, Mr. Braunmuller called Artemis into his office toward noon that day, after several clients who had come to receive information had complained at the mysterious disappearance of their files.
"What's going on, Mr. Fowl?" demanded the brawny, red-faced man. Mr. Braunmuller had short, iron gray hair and a scruffy, bad cop look to him that reminded Artemis of someone. "I'm getting complaints. And I don't like complaints."
"Who does?" quipped Artemis, determined not to be made a culprit in this particular scenario. He took a seat despite the fact that he had not been invited to have one. "I'll tell you, Mr. Braunmuller, I was on the transit this morning and the bus ran off with my briefcase."
"You left your briefcase on the transit bus."
Braunmuller smiled, but it wasn't a particularly friendly smile. He picked up the phone on his desk and twirled it in his hand. "Well, then. If that's the case, I'll just call the station and ask to speak to Lost & Found. I'm sure they'll have it there and you can go pick it up."
"I've called," Artemis said icily, predicting exactly where this conversation would head within the next three minutes. "Apparently the second half of the Lost & Found department doesn't apply to me. They don't have it."
"I thought that might be the case," Braunmuller put the phone back on the receiver and leaned over the desk to look hard at Artemis. His breath, laden with the smoky scent of a million cigars, blew into the young man's pale face. "You're going to produce those files, Fowl. You understand me?"
"We're not in Kansas anymore," Artemis murmured.
Artemis shook his head. "Never mind," he said, really not sure why he had said that. He seemed to remember a man with a similarly red face and similarly bad breath speaking those words to him, but the image was gone as soon as it had come and Artemis forced a confident smile. "How exactly am I going to produce those files?"
"You have backup files?"
Drat it. "No, not exactly . . ."
Braunmuller sat back. "You seem like you're a smart man, Fowl. I'm sure you can understand how natural my anxiety is. An employee walks out of this office on Friday carrying, say, fifty something thousand worth in clients' papers. Then, on Monday, he walks back into this office not carrying said expensive papers. Not only that, but he fails to produce them or an adequate reason for why they are not with him. That gets me a little worried. A little more than worried, actually. I'm furious," hollered Braunmuller, slamming his fist onto the table.
Artemis couldn't help the startled flutter of eyelids. He didn't say anything. What could he say?
"I want those files back by tonight or else there is going to be a federal complaint filed," Braunmuller was practically crawling over his desk to get into his employee's impassive face. "I want those files here, on my desk, before closing hours or you're going to be in a lot of trouble. Do you understand me."
"Yes," Artemis said indifferently, though his insides were roiling. "I understand you. Can I go now?"
"Yeah," Braunmuller said, sagging back into his seat. "But don't leave the building. I don't want you punching out for anything until I get those files back. Not lunch, not anything."
How does he expect me to produce the files if I cannot leave the building? Artemis wanted to know, but he didn't say anything. Asking a question like that was almost tantamount to a confession. And Artemis Fowl, for once in his life, had nothing to confess.
"Now get out of here."
Braunmuller grabbed up a paper form and began reading it furiously, just to get the point across that Artemis was dismissed. The young man stood serenely and walked out of the office, leaving the door open a crack just to annoy his manager. Braunmuller hated it when the door was left open.
Once back at his cubicle, Artemis sighed and sank into his creaking swivel chair and spun himself around so he could glance at the photos and posters that adorned his side of the divider. Aurum est potestas, declared one in golden block letters. There was another picture of Fowl Manor and its extensive, manicured grounds, before it had been knocked down to make room for the oil refinery. His parents, his brothers, the Butlers, and him were all gathered around a Thanksgiving feast that overflowed the small kitchen table. A quaint gathering, nothing like the old banquets they used to host in the manor's ground hall, but it was homey, and in a way Artemis had enjoyed himself more that Thanksgiving than any other.
Butler was making a face at the camera, relaxed and at ease. He had been very laid back ever since the family fortune had disappeared down the tax toilet. No one wanted to steal a poor man's son, especially a poor man's grown son, so his job had grown infinitely less demanding and strenuous. They had become close friends, he and Artemis, instead of employer and bodyguard.
Artemis felt the tears stinging his eyes, and he raised a slim hand to rub them away before they overflowed onto his cheeks. He was twenty six now, nearly thirty. He shouldn't be crying. He had never cried as a child, according to his father. He supposed he was just making up for lost time.
The telephone rang, and he swiveled back to pick it up, dragging in a deep, sniffling breath to clear his nose before chiming: "Thank you for calling McGumphry Shares Incorporated. My name is Artemis, how can I help you today?" As the person on the other end of the line began droning about account histories, Artemis's gaze wandered back to the photographs.
His vision homed in on that one curling photograph in the corner, held there by a thumbtack through the center of the top. He had been going through his old desk recently and had found it stuffed in the back of a drawer. Artemis wasn't even sure what it was of, but for some reason it inspired him and he could never bring himself to throw it away. It had obviously been taken on the grounds of the now-demolished Fowl manor – Artemis knew because he recognized the dogwood tree that graced the landscape with swirls of airborne, moonlit blossoms. There was something in the miniature cyclone of shimmering flowers, however. He had studied it for long hours and still he could not quite make out what it was . . . a heat haze in the vague form of a human . . . but there seemed to be an extra pair of limbs high up above the arms, and it simply didn't make sense. Every time he felt he was nearing a conclusion, he felt a mental wall rise against reason and he would lose all concentration. On the back of the photograph, he knew, was scrawled a simple message in his own hand. It read simply: Holly.
He didn't know anyone by that name. He had quizzed Butler on it when he had found it, and the old manservant hadn't remembered any Hollys either. He couldn't have meant a holly tree, because even someone who wasn't a genius would be able to see that the tree in the picture was a dogwood.
For some reason the sight of the picture depressed Artemis even more. It seemed to signify everything in his life – right there and yet eluding him. An insanely simple, boring, mundane thing that held so much complexity as to be mindboggling.
"Hello? Excuse me?" the voice on the phone whined. "Are you listening to what I'm saying? Hello, are we still connected?"
"I'm sorry," Artemis said quickly, tearing his eyes from the picture and closing them to better take in this particular customer's story. "There must have been some kind of disturbance on the line. It has apparently cleared up now. What were you saying?"
Artemis spent the rest of the morning dragging up the lost files from the depths of his computer system, attempting to patch into other mainstreams in order to trace file trails, printing off whatever copies he could find, typing down memos dealing with what he could remember of what he could not get his hands on. Hopefully this would be enough to satisfy Braunmuller, he thought acidly, glancing at the meager sheaf of copy paper from the printer's tray. I doubt it.
Someone knocked on his cubicle wall as though it were a door. "Who is it?" he snapped. He wasn't in the mood for doing people favors or putting up with small talk. There was no answer. Artemis shook his head and closed his eyes, then propped his elbows on his desk and massaged his temples with his tapered forefingers. He was going insane, he was almost positive. It was the loss, that's what. Or maybe the boredom. Or a combination.
"You can't be going insane," he muttered to himself in an undertone. "You are the great Artemis Fowl. You are a genius. Genii do not go insane for reasons so miniscule as boredom. Do they?" He ceased rubbing his temples and opted to rest his forehead against one palm.
Despite what he tried to make himself believe, he was also very worried about Braunmuller's threats to file a federal complaint. When one was a billionaire, one didn't have to worry overmuch about things like false charges or – in many cases – valid charges. One could simply bail oneself out of prison, hire the best lawyers, perhaps bribe the jury if all else failed. With no money, a lawsuit could easily end up bankrupting not only him, but his whole family.
Sleep waves washed over his worry-weary mind, tempting him to just let go, rest his head down on the desk, and go to sleep. There, he could dream and leave the real world and all its problems. He almost succumbed, and would have, if the knocking hadn't come again, louder and more insistent this time.
"What?" he almost shouted. Jerking up from his swivel chair, Artemis strode the few steps across his cubicle and poked his head out into the hall. No one was there. He left his station for a few moments and investigated up and down the aisle, but to no avail. He found no one. No one could have knocked and then gotten away so fast. It is me, he realized with a horrified shock.
When he came back to his cubicle, it took him a moment to realize that his briefcase was sitting placidly on top of the desk. When he finally did realize it, he sprang back with a shout. "D'Arvit," he cried, to busy puzzling over the mystery of the reappearing briefcase to wonder where in the world that particularly odd swearword had come from and how it had entered his usually very classical vocabulary.
Artemis ran his hands over it as though to make sure it were real, then punched in his combination and opened the lid, afraid that the plastic dividers inside would be empty. They weren't. Every file was there, neatly sorted and at attention. How in the world . . . ? But at the moment, the "how" didn't matter. What did matter was getting those files to Mr. Braunmuller as fast as was humanly possible.
Slamming the briefcase's lid back down, Artemis grasped it in both hands and hurried from his cubicle toward the manager's office. Mr. Braunmuller looked up and glowered when he came in.
"I found the briefcase," Artemis told him, wincing because he knew just how much like a poor cover-up this sounded. How could he have possibly found the briefcase when he claimed he had left it on the bus and had not left the building? But the fact remained that Artemis had found it, and that was really all that mattered. He could take care of his little personal vendettas later on. Right now he needed to clear his name of the suspicion of theft.
"Let me see those," Braunmuller growled, coming out from behind his desk and snatching the files away from his employee. He quickly thumbed through them, pulled a few out, read them and noted the company's official watermark, and then re-filed them and handed it back to Artemis. "They seem to be in order."
Artemis gave a brisk, supercilious nod.
"You feel like explaining how you came by these files, Mr. Fowl? Or are you going to leave that until the investigation committee?"
"What investigation committee might that be?" Artemis asked, afraid to find out. He had produced the files as demanded. Of course, that was no reason for Braunmuller to keep his promises of neglecting to inform government officials about the incident. There was no guarantee with him.
"You escaped making this a federal affair," Braunmuller explained, reveling in every minute of his lording over of this small pale man. "This time. However, because it directly affects the company, you will be subject to an investigation and possibly a corporate meeting on the subject."
"Very well," said Artemis, unhappily.
"Get ready for suspension," Braunmuller stuck a bulbous finger in Artemis's face. "I'm planning on trying to get you a nice long vacation – without pay – for this little stunt you tried to pull. Permanently, if possible."
Artemis knew it was no use denying the fact that he had not stolen the files, as he himself was not sure exactly how the incident had been resolved, himself. So he contented himself with a dry comment: "Come now, Mr. Braunmuller. You aren't still upset about that little Justin Bieber joke, are you?"
Braunmuller grew red in the face, but attempted to calm himself with another gloating session. "You make all the wisecracks you want, smartass. Just rest assured that while you're sweating it out in your dingy little apartment, hawking valuables to secondhand thrift stores to keep food in your fridge, I'm going to be living it up. I'm getting a raise for preventing this attempt from going any farther. You wait and see."
Mr. Braunmuller's laughter as Artemis left the office once again was cut abruptly short by a holler of surprised pain. Artemis spun around in surprise and saw the manager holding his nose. "What did you do?" the red faced man demanded.
"Please, Mr. Braunmuller," Artemis said. "You cannot expect to pin everything on me. I was all the way across the room, I couldn't have done anything. The laws of physics deny it."
"Someone punched me in the nose," insisted Braunmuller, "and you're the only other one in here."
"Not anymore," Artemis said, deciding enough was finally enough, and leaving the manager to whine about his nose and gloat about his raise.
That night, Artemis couldn't sleep. His nightly cup of Earl Grey tea went untouched on his nightstand, as did the worn copy of Crime and Punishment. Even though he did not like to admit it, his stomach was in knots thinking about the meeting that was scheduled for tomorrow. He knew that there was no way that he was going to be able to prove himself innocent. The case against him was almost irrefutably damning. He would more than likely be fired, not that his job had meant that much to him anyway. However, it was the principle of the thing. He had not done anything wrong, and he was going to lose a paying job because of it.
Think of something, he begged himself, twisting in his scratchy sheets so that they tangled around his legs. Think, please. But it was no good. He was too emotionally drained. His whole life seemed to be slowly unraveling, and the future seemed as unclear and impossible to make out as the thing that was standing in the cherry blossoms in that photograph. I have to sleep, he told his body. A good night's sleep will refresh and rejuvenate me for the coming exertion. I should be at my mental best tomorrow.
A wind blew through the open window of his bedroom, and he closed his eyes. No sooner had he done so than he opened them again with a gasp. "Who's there?" he demanded hoarsely of the dark, empty room.
There was no answer.
But Artemis had sensed eyes on him, had almost seen them in his head. Strangely familiar. Something shifted in his peripheral, but it turned out to be the swirling curtain half-drawn across his windowpane.
"Hellfire," he swore gently as he lay back down. "There's no one there, Artemis. Figments of your overworked imagination."
He was soon asleep, a sprawled out figure in the mess of blankets on the narrow, creaking cot. He didn't see a shimmering shadow detach itself from its siblings and come gliding across the room. He didn't see the fairy's shield disappear to reveal the slim, green-clad figure of an elf. Didn't see her eyes full of ache and pity as she surveyed the surroundings, his uncombed hair, his unmanicured hands, the five o'clock shadow on his chin. Not the billionaire's son she had left.
But he felt the kiss in his sleep, the gentle brush of lips that ran lightly along his stubbly cheekbone to the corner of his mouth, where they lingered for a moment, and he felt the fingers smoothing away the strands of hair away from his face. And he thought: Holly.