by Cyn Shepard
She always liked mysteries. If I can remember nothing else about the childing, it's that. Her name was Winifred and she was an inquisitive handful, always turning up where you least expected. Her birthright - dislocating her joints - allowed her to hide in many places and she was always scaring hell out of folks with her spying. Nothing like a Sluagh in the dryer to spook you when you go to fluff your delicates.
She had a large collection of puzzles in her room; small ones, large ones, puzzles in all sizes, shapes and cuts. Wooden do-nothings and woven Chinese finger traps. Metal rings and Rubik's Cubes, sliding puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, marble puzzles, water puzzles. And she had solved all of them. Did I mention Winnie was incredibly smart? Didn't have a lick of common sense about her but she -was- sharp as a whip. Got her into more trouble.
We heard about her latest obsession first from the Nevers down in the commoner freehold. They were all gathered around the popcorn bowl, relaxing from their miniature war with Harvey, our resident orphaned Pooka-child. A rabbit-eared bundle of mischief he was, who always conferenced with his green stuffed Cthulu doll before doing anything of import. We had a bumper crop of odd childlings Chrysalize that year. I think Merriwether, the sidhe girl, was the most stable of the lot and she never did quite get over Harvey's Amazing Joyride that he took her on, using a filched scooter to rocket downhill toward the open construction site... Sidhe. Rarely do have a sense of humor. Even as kids.
Anyway. The Nevers fished up this chip of pine wood from the bottom of the bowl and set it on the bar. Needless to say I -- Oh. My. I never did introduce myself to you, did I? I've been here so long I forget the new faces don't recognize me on sight anymore. My name's Felicity, your local freehold Eshu tale-spinner. I used to be quite the traveler in my day but now it's the imaginations of you younger Kith that I roam. But enough about me, On with the story. Where was I? Ah, yes.
Needless to say I was incredibly curious as to why a piece of pine was in the treat dish; not precisely standard fare though the moving gingerbread men were a great aid to Harvey in his battle against the Nevers. Poor things... bled red frosting when they were poked with the Nevers' toothpicks. Cutest cola-bottle cap-helmets. But yes. After some amount of prodding the little buggers coughed up that an unfamiliar tow-headed Redcap had dropped it in there, claiming he was 'hiding the puzzle piece'. This whetted Winnie's curiosity immediately and nothing would do but for us to find the other pieces. We divined there were three and the four of us - I, Harvey, Cthulu and Winifred - set out to locate these pieces.
The second piece we found in the hand of a dead kinain, the body locked inside an old warehouse. Through various leads and a skip-and-jump all over town we tracked him there and, with the aid of a few helpful plants to whisper the way, we found the door in. It took some fancy footwork to get inside and a little spray of Dream-dust but we made it without breaking anything. Too late for the kinain, though; he was already growing cold by the time we got to him. His assassin apparently didn't understand what the woodchunk was as it was right in his hand whereas his wallet had been lifted. We carefully took the chunk from his person and contacted the Summer Duke once out of the building to let him know what had happened. He wanted us to stay there but the childlings were antsy for more excitement and there was a pale-haired Redcap fast closing in on the building. We espied him from my Duster and decided he'd probably be most upset once he found the body stripped of its Treasure and, since he had a semi-automatic in his hand when he got to the door, we all agreed unanimously that our adventure was calling. So we left.
Our next stop was the WalMart with the intention of picking up a couple of Icees and a road map to Laughlin as we'd heard tell from Lady Sallow, Winifred's foster, that the final piece lay in Laughlin. But we'd misinterpreted what she meant; she didn't mean Laughlin, Nevada. She meant the chimera gawthling elf /named/ Laughlin whom we discovered at the WalMart. She was wise to our search and had moved to intercept the competition and scope us out. She wasn't counting on Harvey and his chimerical Cthulu spotting her, though, and it was Cthulu who discovered the final wood chip on her when he - as was customary for the thing - peeped up her long, black lacey skirt and saw it strapped into her garter.
So. Here we all were in this WalMart, in the hats-and-scarves section, facing off. We had two pieces, Laughlin had one. Both sides wanted the final piece. Being outnumbered, outmaneuvered and outperverted, Laughlin did the sensible thing: she ran. We had to chase that chimerical gal all the way out to the parking lot before Harvey managed to shoot her feet out from under her with his Watermelon Bubble Yum bubble gun, tangling her hopelessly in yards of neon pink. She was more steamed than Louisiana crawdads but that didn't help her much. Cthulu did the honors of removing the woodchip; Harvey wanted to but I wouldn't let him. I was -not- going to be responsible for Harvey's telling the whole freehold that I let him feel a girl up in the parking lot at WalMart, chimera or no.
We had it. The final piece. But now the problem was this: how to make them into one? We could see that they could stack together but no matter what way we stacked them or who did it... We couldn't get the damned thing to hold. It kept falling apart. And therein was the puzzle: getting it to stay together. Thinking on the road wasn't doing much good for us and after having to shake that pale-haired redcap again... We'd just pulled out of the parking lot when we felt a drag on the back end of the Duster. Winifred investigated and there was that guy from the warehouse latched by his teeth to my fender, gnawing his way up into the back seat. Winnie waited till his ugly, pierced puss was showing and fed him a tire iron. That got rid of him. Found out later he survived the encounter, something I /was/ a bit concerned with. Iron is notoriously bad for Kith, but apparently his Redcapness dampened the poison to a bad case of food poisoning and last I heard he was being held by the Duke for questioning regarding the death of the kinain, Wilfred Smith. But I digress again. I steered us to a friend of mine's house where we could get some cold drinks and find a place to sit down. A place where Cthulu could peek up skirts and Harvey could tell his tall tales of fictional nobility. And somewhere, somewhen... Winnie and the puzzle vanished.
I was outside talking to my friend Anne when I felt it: a huge surge of Glamour that nearly knocked me over it was so potent. And I knew, knew with cold certainty that something Bad had happened. I dove inside the house and rapidly turned it upside down searching for the missing Winnie and pine puzzle, Harvey right on my heels as he'd felt the wave too. We found the bathroom locked and, with the careful application of a screwdriver, we forced our way inside. But it was too late. I remember... how tiny she looked. Paler than normal, little black eyes rolled back in her head. In her small, frail hand was the completed puzzle -- all three pieces conjoined seamlessly into a solid polished square. It pulsed faintly with goldenglow and fairly dripped with Glamour. Her essence: trapped in the coveted square of pine. She'd solved the puzzle but in the end it was she who was the missing piece. In order to be completed the dread thing needed the soul of a Changeling to bind it. Her opus. Her final enigma.
We locked the thing in a strongbox and pitched it into the Hudson. We couldn't think of anything else to do with it and keeping the finished puzzle around seemed a blasphemy not to mention dangerous. It was Harvey's thought to mount it on the mantle at the freehold to remember her by but that struck me as being rather irreverent. So we held a wake and blessed her trapped spirit and let her go. But I'll never forget Winifred. Or her obsession with puzzles that was finally her Undoing.