Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley
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From: Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley, by Danyl McLauchlan
Chapter 1: A hero’s return
Danyl stepped off the bus then stepped away as it pulled out from the kerb, splashing up sheets of spray. Its tail lights mixed with the lights reflected in the wet black streets. The hiss of its tyres mixed with the rain.
And the rain was cold. So cold. He took shelter under a leaky shop awning and watched the bus continue to the end of Aro Street then turn left and vanish. It was just past midnight. Midwinter. He’d been away for six long months, but now he was back.
Back in the worst place in the world.
The shop windows were dark. There was no one around; no other vehicles on the road. He took a minute to get his bearings, surveying the terrain through the curtains of rain. He stood in the rough centre of things, halfway along Aro Street which extended from one end of the valley to the other, with streets and alleyways running down to it like streams feeding a thirsty river. The valley itself ran from west to east. It was surrounded by hills on three sides, with the eastern end open and adjoined to the Capital, which Te Aro was geographically in, but culturally and economically and spiritually and sociologically and politically not of. Lower and mid-Aro Street was lined with shops and apartment buildings, barely visible through the darkness and the downpour. The rain pooled on the road, turning it into a muddy sea. The wind swept ominous patterns on the water.
Danyl’s reflection gazed back at him from the window of a badly parked van. He was a once-attractive man reduced by hard times to mere handsomeness. His light brown hair was long and wet, swept back from his face like an otter’s fur. His glasses were blurry with raindrops. His fine aristocratic features were hidden behind a scraggly beard tinged with premature grey, and he’d gained a lot of weight in the months he’d been away: a side effect of his medication. His clothes were simple but elegant: navy woollen trousers and a rust-coloured tweed jacket, both stolen that morning in a daring raid on a thrift store mannequin. He wore a leather satchel slung over his shoulder. His eyes were clear and bright: twin blue flames gleaming from between a wet brow and pudgy rain-streaked cheeks. Their gaze swept the road and the houses and hills then settled on Devon Street, a narrow road connecting with Aro Street.
The eyes narrowed; the fire in them flared. He stepped out into the rain.
A short, damp minute later he stood before his old house, studying it from the opposite side of the road.
It was a two-storey wooden building with paint peeling from the walls and a front garden crowded with weeds. There was a mail slot in the front door and this was stuffed with letters and pamphlets and community newspapers. They spilled out onto a mound on the path. The windows were dark. The curtains were open. There was no sign of habitation.
The gate creaked and stuck. Danyl forced it: it groaned open. He kicked his way through the sodden mire of junk mail and weeds to the front door, cleared the debris clogging the mail slot, then took a tiny but powerful torch from his satchel. He knelt and shone it through the slot.
The hallway beyond was empty, a region of shadows and spiderwebs and dust. The house was deserted; it had been for months.
And that was a mystery. The house was owned by Danyl’s former girlfriend, Verity: she threw him out when she ended their relationship. He still didn’t know what went wrong between them: his deteriorating mental condition and financial dependence on her may have played a role; he wasn’t sure. He’d never had the chance to find out: a misunderstanding with the criminal justice system had forced Danyl to leave Te Aro, and events had conspired to prevent his return. Until now.
He’d expected to come back and find Verity back in her old house. Comfortable perhaps, but lonely. Remorseful for the way she’d treated certain people in her past. Repentant.
Instead she was gone. Where was she? And why didn’t someone else move in and occupy the abandoned home? Property rights in Te Aro were porous. Empty buildings did not remain empty for long. There were always vagrants looking for shelter and experimental dance groups looking for performance space. They occupied bankrupt shops and the houses of the intestate dead. Where were they?
He closed the lid of the mail slot and stood up, and the beam of his torch lit up a series of deep scratches in the wood of the door at head height. A message. He stepped back to inspect it.
Death to the Agents of the Real City
Danyl frowned. People in Te Aro scrawled death threats on each other’s doors all the time. None of it meant much—but something about this particular threat troubled him. He ran his finger along the wooden stubble, tracing the letters, trying to fathom their meaning, but no answers came.
His stomach growled, reminding Danyl that he was not only cold and homeless but also very hungry. His original plan was to have Verity welcome him into her house and her arms and then cook him something delicious and nutritious, and feed it to him while sobbing and begging his forgiveness for throwing him out. But this no longer seemed viable. He needed to adapt his plan. Improvise. And his top priority now was to eat before he collapsed of hunger.
There might be something edible in Verity’s kitchen. Nothing fresh, obviously. But maybe muesli? Noodles? Maybe salted nuts, if the fates smiled on him. He fumbled around in his satchel and found his old house key. He wasn’t sure it would still fit, but it did. He turned the lock and then hesitated.
Because he wasn’t technically allowed to be there. Just before Danyl left the valley Verity took out a trespass order against him, barring him from the property: a final, baffling gesture of malice. He was legally forbidden to enter his own home.
But he was cold and really hungry. Shouldn’t the law make an exception for that? Besides, Verity wasn’t even there. He wasn’t trespassing so much as entering her home while she was away and ransacking it in the dead of night. Surely there was no law against that?
He unlocked the door, forced a semicircle in the pile of junk mail, and stepped over it.