A Paragon City tale that's as much a story of the non-super residents as it is the heroes. How do you know where you stand in a place where things are often different than they seem?


Chapter 1

Elena learned that a new tenant had taken the vacant apartment when she noticed a neatly printed label reading "W. Halstrom" on the mailbox below hers. She sighed in frustration. She had really wanted that apartment; it was a two bedroom where hers was one, and since it was on the ground floor it also had a small, fenced-in garden. But unless she got a promotion, or found a better paying job, Elena knew she just couldn't afford it on her salary. Maybe after this tenant leaves, she thought wistfully, and then chuckled ruefully at her own optimism. With her luck, "W. Halstrom" would turn out to be another Mrs. Goodfield, her elderly—and inquisitive—neighbor who had lived in the building for over twenty years.

Whatever else W. Halstrom might have been, over the next few weeks he or she proved to be a quiet and elusive neighbor, with far different hours than Elena's, for she never laid eyes on the new tenant. Typically, it was Mrs. Goodfield who finally provided more information.

One day a few weeks later, when Elena was helping Mrs. Goodfield bring her groceries in from the hall, she remarked on something that had piqued her curiosity, "Mrs. G, maybe I'm imagining things, but there seem to be a lot fewer trolls in the neighborhood lately. I think it's been over a week since I had to take the long way to the tram station. Did you see any on your way back from the market?"

"Oh yes, Elena, dear, I've noticed the same thing; I didn't see even one between here and the store," Mrs. Goodfield responded. Her voice dropped and she glanced around dramatically. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but I think I know who's responsible."

Elena, after making sure that her friend's cat, Horatio, didn't make good on his usual escape attempt through the open front door, turned to her in surprise. "Who's responsible? You think someone scared them away?"

Mrs. Goodfield nodded gravely. "Mr. Halstrom."

Halstrom. The name sounded familiar, but she couldn't quite place it. Finally, Elena remembered. "You mean the person who rented the apartment on the first floor? Is he a policeman?"

"Oh, no," the older women responded, "he owns a store of some kind in Founder's Falls; it sells antiques, I think. Lovely man, I'm surprised you haven't met him yet. But then," she amended, "you'd have already gone to work by the time he leaves."

Elena looked at Mrs. Goodfield in amusement. "You seem to know a lot about him already. Why do you think…" She stopped, alarmed that her friend might have fallen in with a charlatan. "Wait a minute, did he tell you that he was responsible for getting rid of the trolls?"

Mrs. Goodfield snorted derisively, "Elena, of course not! He's far too well behaved to go bragging about something like that. As a matter of fact, I'm sure he would deny it if you asked him. Such nice manners," she added approvingly, "and always so well dressed, unlike these young men you see nowadays with their pants half off."

Feeling thoroughly baffled by this point—an all-too-familiar experience when dealing with her friend—Elena asked, "But then, why…"

Obviously pleased to be given an opportunity to tell her story, Mrs. Goodfield began, "Walter—Mr. Halstrom—sometimes walks me to tram station if we're leaving at the same time. The first time he did, I was telling him about the neighborhood and all the different routes you can take to avoid the trolls—just in case he needed it. Well, let me tell you, he was quite shocked and distressed that we have to worry about such things, and said someone should do something about it. Of course, I told him that we were used to it, and not to mention other neighborhoods in Paragon City have much worse than the trolls here in Skyway.

"But then the very next day I noticed that none of the trolls were at their usual spots, and there have been almost none between here and the tram station since then. So he must have had something to do with it—it's too much of a coincidence otherwise!"

Trying not to let her skepticism show on her face, Elena responded neutrally, "Hmm, maybe so." Then, trying to change the subject, she added, "But I'm glad you've found a friend you can spend time with."

Mrs. Goodfield rolled her eyes. "Don't be silly, dear; he's not that kind of friend! He's far too young for me, even if I was looking." She eyed Elena appraisingly. "But he's just about the right age for you, though. And he's plenty tall."

Elena groaned inwardly, easily recognizing the warning signs that her friend was in 'matchmaker mode' again. She had been looking for a tall man for the younger woman ever since Elena had begged off being set up with Mrs. Goodfield's nephew because he was too short. (Which was truthfully one reason she didn't want to date him, though not by any means the only one.)

"Mrs. G., I thought you'd agreed that to let me find my own dates, especially after the last time."

"Elena, how was I to know that man I met in the grocery store was an Arachnos agent?" Mrs. Goodfield asked indignantly. "I was as surprised as you were when they showed his arrest on the news!" She sighed, "He seemed like such a nice man."

Elena gave Mrs. Goodfield a meaningful look. The older woman must have seen the resolution in her eyes, for she said. "All right, all right, Elena, no matchmaking. But it's your loss—I'm sure you'd like Mr. Halstrom!"

-ooo-

One evening a few days later, Elena struggled with her mailbox in growing frustration. Over the past few weeks the lock had become increasingly more difficult to open—she had to put the key just far enough but not too far—and she kept forgetting to ask the custodian to fix it. Even worse, in a burst of optimism she had decided to tackle the lock while holding the bags of groceries she had just purchased; a choice she was now deeply regretting.

She swore under her breath and had reluctantly concluded that she'd have divest herself of the grocery bags, when she sensed rather than saw that someone—or something—large was standing behind her. Instantly, Elena's mind flashed back to a morning a few months before when she had come downstairs to discover an extremely unwelcome surprise in this very place; a huge, angry "Supa-Troll" had somehow wandered into the foyer and was stuck, like a fly in a bottle, between the inner and outer doors, too drug-addled to find its way out. In her rush to get to work she had her hand on the door to the foyer before realizing the troll was there. She had stopped in time, but she still had nightmares about what might have happened if she had not.

With a shriek of fear, she dropped the groceries and recoiled against the bank of mailboxes, her heart racing. It was only then she realized that whoever she had felt standing next to her had retreated to the opposite side of the foyer and was addressing her in perfectly understandable—if slightly accented—English.

"Miss, I am so sorry!" the voice was saying earnestly, "I assure you I meant no harm; I only intended to offer my assistance. Please accept my profound apologies for startling you."

Elena groaned to herself, what a ridiculous overreaction! With her cheeks blazing, after her heartbeat and breathing had slowed to something approaching their normal rate, she forced herself to glance up to see the would-be Good Samaritan who had unwittingly frightened her. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-thirties wearing an elegant and well-tailored suit that she would have bet money was custom-made. And despite currently looking worried and dismayed—for which she could hardly blame him—he was quite handsome, with wavy dark hair and a matching beard, both short and neatly trimmed.

He had blue eyes behind wire-framed glasses and watched her with some consternation. "Are you well, Miss Samuelson?" he asked after a moment of hesitation, "Is there someone I should call?"

Elena's fear, which had been subsiding, surged back in that moment, "How…how do you know my name?" she stammered.

Alarmed by her distress, he hastened to reassure her, "I don't know it, I merely guessed." The man gestured to the mailboxes behind her, where her keys were still dangling from the one labeled 'Samuelson'.

Not certain whether she was more relieved or chagrined to have misjudged the situation again, she explained, "Oh, you must think me a complete idiot! I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have screamed like that. It's just that a few months ago something happened here that frightened me—I ran into a Supa Troll that had gotten into the foyer…or rather, I almost ran into it…" Elena shook her head and smiled in apology, "Good lord, now I'm just babbling."

"A Supa Troll? Those huge, deranged creatures that appear sometimes in the neighborhood? I can certainly understand why meeting one in close quarters—or even almost meeting one—would be terrifying. Again, I am very sorry I startled you…you were struggling with your groceries and I wanted to help."

Reminded of her possessions which were now distributed across a wide swath of the floor, she heaved a sigh and knelt down to begin collecting them.

"Please, let me assist," the man said, approaching cautiously—obviously concerned that he might set her off again. "It's the least I can do after frightening you."

"Well, that's no excuse for shrieking like a banshee when you were trying to help." She gave him a wry smile, "You must have thought I was the one deranged."

He returned her smile, a glint of humor in his eyes, "I must admit that it was not the typical reaction I receive when I meet someone."

I just bet not, especially if that someone is a woman, she thought to herself as he knelt beside her to help gather the scattered groceries.

"I'm Walter Halstrom, by the way," he said, offering her his hand, "your downstairs neighbor."

"Oh, of course, I should have guessed!" Elena exclaimed as she shook his hand, "Mrs. Goodfield told me about you."

"And she has mentioned you to me on a number of occasions," Mr. Halstrom replied.

"Has she? What did she say?" Elena was accustomed to hearing the latest news on the other tenants, but she had never considered that information might flow both ways, mostly because she had never thought of her activities as particularly newsworthy.

"It was all highly complimentary. She told me how kind and helpful you are to her, and how hard you work, among other things. She also mentioned that you are unmarried—" he added in a voice of dry amusement, "several times."

Elena felt her cheeks redden, "I'm sorry about that. She really does mean well."

He smiled reassuringly, "I know, and she obviously cares for you very much."

They had finished gathering her groceries, and both moved to stand. Mr. Halstrom offered her a hand to assist her, even though he had also somehow managed to collect all the grocery bags. Now that he was standing closer to her she realized that Mrs. Goodfield was right—he was quite tall, at least a half-foot taller than her own five foot eight.

"You are in 2C, is that correct? If you will unlock the inner door I will take these to your apartment," he said briskly.

"Oh, you don't have to do that!" Elena protested, making an ineffectual grab at the bags which he avoided easily.

"Yes, I do" he said firmly, "I insist."

Realizing he had no intention of yielding the point—or the bags—she unlocked the door to the stairs and followed him through. "I'll just leave these in front of your door, Miss," he said as he strode energetically up the stairs.

She watched his retreating back and blew out a long breath. Besides the fact that her new neighbor was very handsome and obviously in excellent shape, there was something about him… His accent, though still present, wasn't as pronounced now as it was when she had first heard him speak, probably because he was no longer stressed by having to placate a hysterical female. It sounded vaguely Eastern European, though it was too faint for her to place more specifically than that. But in addition to the accent and his extremely formal English, everything about him said very clearly, 'not from around here.' But in a good way. A very good way, she thought as she watched him return from his errand.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Halstrom, that was very kind of you," she said when he rejoined her.

"I am pleased I could be of assistance, Miss Samuelson," he responded with a smile, ducking his head in what could only be considered a bow in her direction. "Oh, and in case you ever need anything else, please take my card." He pulled a card case from the inner breast pocket of his coat and removed one, commenting, "The printed phone number is my shop, but I'll give you my cell number too." He quickly wrote a number on the face of the card and handed it to her with a flourish.

Elena noticed that he didn't specify what that 'anything else' might be, but she didn't feel the least bit inclined to question him on that point. She considered whether she should offer him her phone number, but didn't want to make her interest too obvious, and besides she was certain that Mrs. Goodfield would take care of that detail, if she hadn't already. So instead, she met his eyes and returned his smile, "Thank you, Mr. Halstrom; but please, call me Elena."

His eyes widened in surprise and his smile broadened, "I am honored…Elena. A lovely name, and it suits you," he added. "Mine is less lovely, but I would be pleased if you would call me Walter, or Walt, if you prefer. I am less fond of Wally."

Elena could understand why; she had never met anyone less like a 'Wally'. "Of course…Walter," she replied, trying not to blush, "I…I should go put my groceries away."

"Then I won't keep you any longer, Elena," he said, "but I hope we meet again soon." He reached for her hand, and given his courtly manners she wouldn't have been the least surprised if he had kissed it. But he merely clasped her hand briefly in a firm grip before releasing it.

She turned toward the stairs and replied, "I would like that, Walter, and I promise not to shriek at you next time." He gave her a warm smile and waved farewell, but stayed where he was and watched her go up the stairs. She snorted in amusement; no doubt he would wait until he was sure she was safe in her apartment before returning to his own.

Elena dragged the groceries from the hall into the kitchen, and only after putting them away she collapsed on the couch to think over the events of the evening. She pulled the card Mr. Halstrom had given her out of her jacket pocket and examined it for the first time. There was an address and phone number in the Founder's Falls neighborhood, and as well, it said:

Walter Halstrom
Specializing in Fine Antiquities and Magical Artifacts
By Appointment Only

Her eyes widened, Magical Artifacts? Oh my. Then the neatly hand-printed number on the card caught her attention. She smiled to herself and thought, now all I need is a good excuse to call him.