Early signs augured poorly for the Conservatorio’s thaumaturgical symposium when the delegation from the Sieur-Okombo Academy for Mystic Contemplations melted upon arrival. Professor Ghamba Theophaz, whose keynote on cosmic resonance was keenly anticipated, burst into sizzling gobbets as he stepped from the interreal transportal.
As the screaming began, Custodian Quech sighed, knowing her headaches were unlikely to be compensated with adequate overtime. She directed a hard look at Wicker, the Master of the Gates, who was responsible for the university’s interplanar transport arrangements.
“Constable Blaph,” she said, addressing her octopoid assistant, “kindly place Master Wicker under arrest or in protective custody, whichever he prefers. And call the Alchemy Faculty’s cleanup crew to deal with the hazardous waste.”
Within the hour, Blaph’s examination confirmed Quech’s suspicion: the transportal’s rune configurations had been sabotaged. “The reassembly protocols are incomplete,” she sniffed unhappily as the delegates were reverently scraped into silver buckets with golden spades, in accordance with their station. “Nothing organic could’ve emerged intact.”
“Splat,” agreed Blaph, ever the philosopher.
Quech’s jaw ached from working a double-sized wad of sombol gum. It was usually invaluable in suspect interviews, exposing lies and evasions; today would test its limits.
Czildra Tooth, the raven-faced Professor of Thaumaturgy, twirled a crown of miniature stars around her finger as she admitted, “I left the hosting arrangements to the Sieur-Okombo exchange student while I…attended to other duties.” Quech decided that Prof Tooth’s accidental admission of multiple affairs was intriguing but irrelevant and moved on to her next suspect.
The exchange student, Dillott Kilminster, was a mousy creature – literally – who bit his tail and desperately avoided eye contact with his interrogators. He was only partially successful, in that Blaph had no eyes.
“I talked to Professor Theophaz over ScryChatter every day,” he muttered piteously. “I ordered seven hundred copies of his book for the conference delegates. I transcribed his edits on the paper he co-authored with Professor Tooth. I even made sure they knew what kind of bourbon he liked. Everything was ready for his keynote address. And now I’m never going to see that extra credit he promised.”
Quech conceded this point with a note of sympathy. The note was somewhat insincere, since her sombol-heightened senses told her Dillott’s academic career was entirely artificial, most likely the convergence of overbearing parental expectations and an allowance sufficiently generous to commission academically gifted paupers to complete his assignments. Blaph escorted the miserable-looking student away to begin repatriating the Sieur-Okombo delegation’s remains to their home dimension.
Hospitaller Totenkoph Buchald’s team of hosts, auxiliaries and aides-de-tourist had laboured for weeks to prepare for the multi-species conference, constructing a dedicated lecture theatre, plush treetop sleepouts safe from roaming lymphovores, and a catering menu to satisfy fifteen different digestive schemas. Quech’s line of questioning quickly eliminated Totenkoph of suspicion over his clients’ gruesome murder.
“Remind me to run an audit of the conference budget after this is over,” she told Blaph as they moved on. “At least three of those aides were sentient illusions. Two simoleons will get you fifty if the Hospitaller’s not skimming expenses.”
“When will this be over, Quech?” demanded Archdean Sunk Kujagogo. “The Board of Governors is breathing down my neck on this. If they don’t get answers soon, you know they’ll be upset. I don’t know about you, but my respiratory system is incompatible with chlorine-based regurgitants.”
The Archdean became so nervous it disgathered, splitting into two separate but identical copies of itself. The Archdeans began to argue with each other over which of them would suffer more from the Board’s queasy fury. Quech recognised foreplay when she saw it and hastily dismissed the witness. Witnesses.
At last, Quech had no choice but to confront the Master of the Gates. “Wick, the rune configurations were your responsibility. Please tell me I’m not going to have to look for another partner for the next staff trivia night.”
Wicker shrugged. “I inscribed the coordinates they sent me,” he said. “Double-checked them with the exchange kid, and the transportal test was green as the sky over Lake Amoeba.”
Quech nodded, a little hurt. Wicker’s body language proclaimed his innocence, but also revealed a dislike of trivia contests she’d never noticed before.
“Maybe I should start doing sombol off-duty,” she told Blaph when it returned.
“Problem, boss,” declared the eight-limbed Altraxae, knocking his tentacle-tips together with an agitation not even sombol could interpret. “We’ve got another body.”
The student formerly known as Dillott Kilminster was now an indistinct smear on a wall near the cafeteria. Quech puffed out a cloud of sombol vapour, letting it crystallise into flakes. “I’ve seen this sort of thing before,” she told Blaph. “We’d better start accusing people before all our witnesses get bumped off.”
They arrested Professor Tooth in the staff refectory. “With Professor Theophaz and his prize student dead, nobody this side of the infiniverse can prove you didn’t write that paper yourself,” said Quech. “I bet you stood to pocket a bundle in discovery fees from one of the Big Sorcery cabals, huh?”
Professor Tooth clacked her beaks guiltily as she fled the Conservatorio Esoterica in exile, pursued by the slavering Board of Governors and its flock of shrieking IP lawyers.
Quech and Blaph watched the ritual cleaners detoxify the transportal and carry away bags of irradiated rune-stones.
“So,” Quech said after the last glowing rock was shoved into a pocket universe for safe disposal, “will you tell me why you did it?”
Blaph shrugged. “You going to tell me you don’t know?”
“Let me guess. The entire home dimension of the Sieur-Okombo Academy was infested with annhililation bugs, and the only way to stop them coming here was to trigger a portal reflux that destroyed all life in that universe.”
“And the exchange student?”
“Full of eggs.”
“Ew. I wondered why he smelled salty.”
“Yep.” Blaph offered her its insignia lanyard. “Am I fired?”
“Let’s call it reprimanded with a pay raise,” suggested Quech as her sombol buzz died. “So – do you like trivia?”
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I promised a friend this week’s story would be a screwball comedy, but it turns out those are harder to write than I thought. So instead I wrote a murder mystery, because those are easier. (Note to self: murder mysteries are very much not easier). Hi Al, I hope the new job is less disappointing than this off-genre story!
In other news, just a reminder that my magic-school apocalypse story ‘Burn the Future’ is now available, in issue #69 of Andromeda Spaceways magazine. You can get an ebook copy here.