Alinore Valmont. Marday, Virgo 27th, 2353 AA. 6:34 PM. San Marino (Carroll’s House).
Lin told Pensey everything. She started with her brother’s disappearance, explained Nyka’s urdic collapse, and finished by sharing her suspicions about their “new pet.”
She was reasonably certain that Ginsburg was a chimeric cat that had been crossed with a cheshire—a monstrous feline indigenous to the Faed which could phase into reality at will. Purebred cheshires were the size of panthers. Lin further guessed that Ginsburg may have lured one of her half-kin into their room, which would easily account for the carnage.
They were at a loss on what to do about it though. The dorm already had wards installed that were supposed to prevent Faen incursions. But since Pensey had effectively invited the cat to live with them, those protections were moot. Metaphysically speaking, the cat was a valid resident of Yew dormitory.
Pensey tried to convince Lin to take the night off to recover under the guise of coming up with a solution to the problem she had created. But when Lin insisted on going to Carroll’s instead, Pensey insisted on accompanying her. Traffic was relatively light that night and they were able to make it to his spacious San Marino residence in about fifteen minutes.
Carroll’s wife, Liss answered the door.
She was a warm, intelligent, and perpetually frazzled woman who stood about five feet even. Her dun hair fell just above her shoulders, and she wore light make-up with prim spectacles, which resembled charming miniatures of her husband’s glasses. Unlike Carroll, who was given to holding forth, Liss seldom spoke, though Lin had learned to watch and listen to her carefully, as she often muttered amusing comments under her breath.
“Alinore, Pensey! Come in, come in.”
They exchanged hugs and greetings as they stepped inside. Both Pen and Lin had played babysitter for Doddin before, and they had joined the Carroll family for dinner on numerous occasions throughout the years.
A shriek of joy drew Lin’s attention to a toddler with a mop of wet brown hair, who peaked at her from around the corner of the door leading to living room.
“Hi Doddy!” Pensey said.
He giggled ecstatically and then fled down the hall next to the second story stairs, completely naked and soaking wet. Carroll emerged from the living room, holding a towel.
“Come on, Dodd!” Carroll complained as he started to give chase with the towel, only to pause when he saw his students. “Lin, Pensey! What a surprise!”
“Sorry, Master. I should have called,” Lin realized.
“Nonsense, nonsense. You know you’re always welcome,” he said.
There was a crash from the laundry room down the hall, followed by wailing.
“Excuse me. I have a nudist to apprehend,” Carroll said, and hustled toward the crying.
“We were about to put Doddin to bed and sit down for dinner. Have you eaten yet?” Liss asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. I ate earlier,” Pensey said.
Lin’s stomach roared. She hadn’t had anything to eat since lunch—which had consisted of coffee, sliced apple, a cheese stick, crackers, and a couple slices of salami. Lin tried to refuse, but Liss shook her head and led them both into the living room.
“I’ll set a table for three. Nothing fancy, just spaghetti tonight. We’d have extra anyway.”
“You really don’t need—” Lin insisted, but she knew she was losing the fight, even before she smelled the sauce.
Pensey elected to read Doddin a bedtime story and tuck him in while Lin, Liss, and Carroll enjoyed an old-vine zinfandel and spicy, Arrabiata spaghetti. Lin inhaled her plate before her better manners could intervene.
“Did you forget to eat again, mentee mine?” Carroll asked, amused.
“It’s been a busy day,” Lin said reproachfully.
“Seems like it. Aside from a warm meal, what brings you over tonight?” Liss asked.
Lin filled them in about Nyka, the string of urdic collapse incidents, and her suspicions about drugs. She did not mention Athren, or Pensey’s destructive new pet. Just before she could finish talking through her points, Liss took the opportunity to excuse herself and started doing dishes. She pointedly ignored Lin’s offer to assist, and shooed her and Carroll to his office upstairs.
“Your hypothesis seems sound,” Carroll confirmed as he sank into his chair. “And if drugs are responsible, we likely haven’t seen the last victim yet.”
“Then should we tell the AKF tonight?” Lin asked.
Carroll gave the suggestion due consideration and seemed stuck, which was unusual.
“That would be the most expedient thing to do,” he conceded. “However, I’m not sure you’ll be taken seriously without an introduction.”
“What do you mean?” Lin asked.
“Most divisions are fairly dismissive of ‘independent research.’ But I have collaborated with Arroyo’s Special Cases Venture a number of times. Enough to accrue a favor I think.”
Lin did a double-take.
“You’re talking about Sevardin Harker’s venture?”
Over the past two years, Sevardin Harker, Jecia Singh, and Juel Flores had closed a dozen high profile cases. They hunted a griffin in the Angeles Crest Forest that had eluded Keepers for the better part of a decade. They had disrupted an illegal artifice trafficking ring that operated out of the port of Los Angeles. Even before they were officially designated as the SCV, they had played a pivotal role in breaking the Black Lotus Curse, which was responsible for the most infamous serial murders in the southland’s long history of crime. Harker and Singh were capable of using the Mortal Breath; a semi-mythological technique that allowed them to sync and force magnify each other’s wyrds. To say Lin was a fan was a gross understatement.
Carroll answered her smile with a grin and pushed his glasses against the bridge of his nose, which he always did when he was feeling smug.
“I can’t guarantee that they will take on the case personally,” He cautioned. “But at the very least, they can pass off your leads to Vice, and their letterhead carries considerably more clout than an aspirant, or even a consulting Master.”
“Do you think I could meet them?” Lin asked.
“I never thought I would see Alinore Valmont star-struck. You’ve met heads of state, royalty, and too many celebrities to count, yet you are most taken with a venture from your home town.”
“Is it really so strange that I’m a fan?” Lin asked.
“Not at all, but it’s still amusing. Anyway, I can’t promise a meeting, but you can deliver my letter tomorrow, if you like. From what I understand, saving the world on a routine basis keeps you fairly busy, and we don’t want to sit on this until their schedule can accommodate you.”
Lin nodded. Then she hesitated and shook her head.
“Actually, we should just give the chapter word tonight,” Lin decided. “You can call in the morning to make sure they follow through. I don’t have time to wait around for a meeting tomorrow anyway.”
“Something else is bothering you,” Carroll observed.
The last thing I want is another victim on my conscience. Carroll looked at her curiously, probing her expression but leaving his wyrd neutral. Lin swallowed, but managed to hold her composure. He always sees through me. Time for a lizard’s tail lie. It was an old Carroll-ism. A tidbit of truth that would obfuscate subsequent lies of omission, like a lizard shedding it’s tail to escape predators.
“If I had recognized the common link faster, we might have been able to save Nyka. He has aphasia, Carroll. Glem is worried the deficits may be permanent. He might never speak again—”
“The entire right half of his body is paralyzed—”
“Lin, look at me,” Carroll said, raising her chin to meet his gaze. “That is not your fault.”
“Isn’t it? I lied about the juice to the soph and I failed to consider drugs as the link until it was too late.”
“Do you think you were the only one looking into this news story?” Carroll asked seriously.
Oh. He couldn’t figure it out either. For some reason, the realization made her feel much better.
“I actually considered the possibility of drugs, but it was… an idle thought. I dismissed it in passing, when I should have called the chapter that moment. I’ve just been so damn busy, and so damn tired… Fatherhood has hit me like a truck, Lin. I got the job too late.”
“You became a dad long before Doddin arrived, Master Carroll,” Lin said.
The comment took Carroll off-guard. He opened his mouth to say something, then swallowed and removed his glasses to wipe his eyes. Whenever he got vulnerable around her, he was almost pathetic. And on the rare occasions that Lin dropped her rebel routine and admitted he had become much more than a teacher to her, he was deeply touched.
“Anyway,” he said, clearing his throat. “The burden is not yours to bear alone, Lin. The AKF should have been involved long before now, if they aren’t already. And if they are involved, they should be the ones putting the pieces together.” After a moment, he added: “Don’t lie to healthcare professionals, though. It’s stupid. Also, frankly shitty behavior.”
Lin cracked up. Even Pensey had learned to swear worth half a damn, but profanity always sounded like a foreign language coming from Carroll’s tongue. Which was ironic. You speak seven asfalis languages, and god only knows how many magical ones.
“Lesson learned,” Lin said. “Anyway, all the more reason we should go to the AKF tonight.”
“Alright, I will still write you a letter of introduction. You can drop it off with reception, and that should ensure your general tip gets some serious attention by tomorrow.”
“Maybe I can also find somebody from Vice or GP to hear me out,” Lin said. “I would like to meet the SCV someday, though.”
“Who knows? Maybe they’re working late,” Carroll said hopefully.
—Sevardin Harker | 8:47PM |Arroyo (Farman Terrace) —
“Not sure why,” Juel began. “But I have a feeling this isn’t going to be your standard cuff ‘em and stuff ‘em.”
Damn it, Juel! Why would you say that?
“Goddammit, Juel!” Jecia complained.
“Want to jinx us much?” Sev asked, irate.
“Hey. You two have your superpower—I have mine. It runs in the family. Abuela on my mother’s side was presciente.”
Oh Christ. Here he goes about his abuela again. Jecia said nothing, but Sev could practically feel the same thought in her head from half a block away.
“When have I been wrong? Or would you rather have it take you by surprise? Hmm?”
“We’d rather you not fucking jinx us!” Jecia snapped.
“A simple ‘stay alert,’ or ‘stay frosty,’ would suffice,” Sev added.
“How would that help? If I said that every time I had a hunch, you’d know what I meant and get mad anyway. Besides, we’re psychic now. You’d feel it no matter what I said.”
The venture was connected by a telepathic link that Jecia had cast earlier, just after verifying their suspect had come home. According to his neighbors, Mavim Porter went jogging every afternoon. The venture had positioned themselves in a T-shape, Jecia atop the building across the street, Sev and Juel at the corner of either cross street in unmarked cars.
Porter was the Amagium’s worst nightmare; a tenth-year drum out: a student who was expelled from the Athenium after his ninth year. He was a fully proficient mage who only needed a cracked license to conduct extremely high-level magical crime. Since his expulsion, Porter had accrued an extensive rap sheet of mostly non-violent crimes—with the exception of how he engaged with animals. He vivisected, grafted, and performed arcane genetical engineering without heed for anything resembling humane protocol. It was not a surprise to learn that “Grievous Reservations of Ethical Responsibility” was what got him expelled.
Since then, Porter had continued his experiments by sneaking into the Athenaeum’s facilities and started selling his wares—bespoke chimeras—on the shadow market. He likely would have continued unchecked for longer, if it were not for two fatal flaws that were typically considered virtues: Porter branded aggressively and always over-delivered.
If a client wanted a bat-wolf, he wouldn’t merely give them the four or six-winged variant. He would try for eight wings—and throw in gorilla-forearm musculature for free. Or if he were requested to deliver an ent sapling grafted into a tortoise’s shell—he would impart knowledge of elemental magic to the creature after the graft was viable, completely unasked for. These additions never turned out well for Porter’s clients. His creatures invariably proved too unstable, too intelligent, and dangerous to control. Most only lived a few weeks, and those that survived longer usually killed people.
As for aggressive branding, Porter had the audacity to operate under the obvious and evocative pseudonym of “Owens.” It was, without a doubt, a reference to Jesej Owens, the asfalis scientist regarded as the father of the modern theory of evolution.
“I’ve got a visual,” Jecia said.
Through the link spell, Jecia shared her view of Porter. He had hit the gym since his Athenaeum days, and made a point of showing it off. He wore a sleeveless hoodie, jogging shorts, basketball shoes, and sunglasses. No licenses around his wrists, fortunately. He paused in the doorway, looked from side to side, and pointedly raised his hoodbefore starting down the steps to the street.
Jecia was looking at him through the scope of a rifle. She was supposed to provide overwatch in case he called a chimera or pulled some bullshit when Sev and Juel moved to arrest him.
“One shot, one kill,” Jecia said, in some sort of ominous voice whose intended origin was unclear. Jecia was terrible at affecting accents.
“Not how we do things, Love,” Sev chuckled.
The kid froze at the front gate. He was staring directly at Sev, even though Sev was in an unmarked car at the opposite end of the block. There’s no way. You’d need eagle eyes to see me. But Porter bolted. Shit!
Jecia adjusted her rifle and fired.
“What the hell, Jesh?!” Sev said through the link.
“Calm down, I was aiming for his legs!” she explained
“I know! You missed!”
She had gotten damn good with that rifle since he gave it to her in Pisces. Sorcery-enhanced rifles, or SERs, were new additions to Keeper’s restricted arsenals. They allowed amagia to funnel their wyrd into the weapon through its grip, influencing various parameters of its projectiles. After some training, they could adjust the penetration, speed, and stopping power of the bullets. And when aiming down the enchanted sites, a skilled user could even subtly influence a shot’s trajectory.
“Something happened—He changed shape!”
Sev looked back at the criminal to realize he now had enormously muscular but dainty legs instead of human appendages. That man just grew gazelle legs. And he was moving fast indeed.Sev stoked the car to life and started to pursue Porter, now springing down the street toward Juel’s ambush. Juel drove across the street to block him, but the goddamned gazelle-man skipped across the hood of his car, and bounded into a local park that bordered the northern slope of the arroyo.
Sev jumped out of his car and Juel did the same, both applying reflex contracts on themselves as they started to pursue Porter.
“If he makes it down the bank of the arroyo, he’s gone,” Sev cautioned.
“No shit!” Juel said.
With spell-enhanced speed, they began to gain on Porter as he bounded across the lawn. But before Juel and Sev could close the distance, Porter pivoted to face them and produced a nine-millimeter handgun from the front pocket of his hoodie.
“Easy, Porter! This doesn’t have to get violent!” Sev said, raising his hands.
People who had pulled symphones to record the altercation, now screamed, fleeing the scene on either side of the standoff.
“You’re right. It doesn’t. So just stand there while I walk away.”
“Not how this works, man.” Juel said. “Our partner has a line on you. You shoot at us, and she shoots you. Plain and simple. You try to run? She also shoots you.”
Sev and Juel started advancing simultaneously, not giving Porter time to think. He looked around wildly before seizing on a spot in the air with a furious sneer. Jecia had cast a flight spell on herself, and hung roughly thirty feet above, aimed diagonally downward, so the rifle was lined up in a sniper’s position. She waved at him.
Porter’s gun hand began to shake, and finally he threw down his Plato petulantly. Jesus, who does that with a loaded weapon? His gazelle legs shrank in places and shortened and widened in others resume their normal man-shape. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on the back of his head in a triangle.
Sevardin moved to cuff him. He started crying, and snarled something through his tears:
“…you people would be so fucking dead if I got that damn cat to work…”
“Cat?” Juel asked.
“Fuck you, pig!” Porter spat.
Sev burned an air animus to mute him with a contract, and they led him back to their cruiser, parked around the block behind his apartment building. Porter continued to silently cuss them out, trying to catch their gaze and snapping like a rabid mutt whenever he managed it. This guy’s got some dog in him. Maybe literally. What kind of lunatic uses themselves as a guineapig for chimeric splicing? Moreover, how the hell did manage to flesh-shift at will? Maybe he just gave himself a gazelle-strain of therianthropy…
“That wasn’t so bad,” Jecia said, touching down when they reached the car. “Looks like abuela was off today.”
“Now who’s tempting fate?” Juel scoffed.
They shut Porter in the suspect’s seat, and Jecia got behind the wheel of the cruiser. Sev and Juel walked back to their plainclothes vehicles, and put portable sirens on top of the cars to act as an escort for Jecia.
“Should we take the knot?” Jecia suggested through the telepathic link.
The knot was a multi-layered interchange that had been carved out of Arroyo’s enormous briars in a pattern strongly resembling a Celtic knot. It allowed drivers to ford the three-way gap between the Brookside, Centra, and Farman terraces. And thanks to a recent, artificial extension to the south, Westridge Terrace could also be reached via the same interchange, which itself threaded through the 210 freeway.
“Traffic shouldn’t be too bad,” Sev agreed.
— 9:03 PM | Arroyo (The Knot) —
The three of them took off in a convoy with Juel leading, Jecia in the middle with Porter, and Sev bringing up the rear. When they reached the middle section of the Knot’s spiral—which worked like a multi-tiered roundabout connecting to different surface streets—The rear door on Jecia’s cruiser seemed to throb outward, with an audible thump shattering its window in the process.
Through the telepathic link, Sev and Juel heard Jecia exclaim shock. In the same instant, a massive gorilla arm punched the rear door open. Porter emerged by swinging himself onto the roof of the cruiser.
Porter, whose entire upper body now resembled a silver-back gorilla, turned to face Sev’s car, knelt against the roof, and tore the door the rest of the way off its hinges. Then he drew the door back over his shoulder and lobbed it at Sev’s car like a massive tomahawk.
By virtue of his stunt driving training, Sev was able to partially dodge the slab of bullet-proof plastic and metal. Instead of crushing the driver’s side, it smashed into the right side of his car, spinning the vehicle completely perpendicular to the flow of traffic. The airbag punched Sev in the face, breaking his nose. Again. Cars behind him screeched to a halt, mercifully falling just short of the flimsy Crown Vitoriae. Sev unbuckled himself immediately, and jumped out onto the interchange. His neck was torqued slightly, but otherwise his body was good.
“Sev!” Jecia called through the sympathetic link.
“I’m fine!” Sev said.
Jecia hit her brakes. But Porter was ready. As the cruiser lurched to a halt, he leapt with his gigantic gazelle legs and landed on Juel’s car, which swerved violently beneath his shape-shifted bulk. As Porter punched his gorilla fist through the driver’s side window, the car veered directly toward the guard rail on the interchange.
“Juel!” Sev called.
“I’m… okay…” Juel coughed through the link, but he sounded shaken, or in pain.
“Call for backup,” Sev said through the link. “I’m going after him.”
Porter jumped off the car, stood on the rail, and jumped up to the next level of the roundabout. Sev sprinted to the guard rail, jumped off the ledge, and performed a feat of sorcery-assisted parkour to jump up to the next level. As he pulled himself up the ledge, he caught a glimpse of Porter springing and sprinting through traffic, heading back the way they came, towards the bridge to Farman Terrace.
Sev hastily cast another reflex booster contract on himself, and realized he had not reloaded his licenses since they originally apprehended Porter. Between the original reflex booster, the muting spell, and the current spell, he was down to half his magical ammunition.
Porter abruptly stopped running halfway across the bridge to Farman as he encountered a yellow Appaloosa convertible with its top down. He used his silverback arms to rip the driver’s seatbelt, plucked the hapless man out of his seat, and threw him at Sevardin, who was still chasing him.
Sev managed to catch the driver but in the time it took disentangle himself from the terrified civilian, Porter had completed his hijacking. He pulled a squealing U-turn onto Walnut Avenue—a crowded throughfare that ran the entire length of Farman Terrace.
The closest car to Sev was a beat-up Yamato Urban. He raised his licenses at the driver—a terrified Asian woman—and demanded she open up. She raised her hands in surrender, cost him nearly eight seconds freaking out, and finally disembarked. Sev apologized, jumped in the driver’s seat, backed into a U-turn, and gunned it after the yellow sports car. There was a metaphysical snapping sensation in Sev’s brain as he drove out of range of the telepathic link.
Opposing traffic slowed Porter somewhat but each car he left stupefied in his wake created more obstacles for Sev. Fortunately, I’m the better driver.
Within a block, Sev had nearly caught up with the Appaloosa. But before he could manage a maneuver to disable the car, Porter veered sharp right, over the sidewalk, onto the greenery of Memorial Park. Ah shit! Oh well. In for a penny… Sev gave chase, destroying his commandeered Urban’s front bumper in the process.
Transients and late-night joggers screamed as Porter’s car rocketed up the sloping lawn. He doesn’t know the park’s layout—he’s headed for the hill! Sev turned sharply away from the slope and tried to head Porter off. He rounded the corner just in time to see the yellow Appaloosa soar through the air, and land with a horrifying crunch. Despite the car’s ruined suspension and axels, momentum carried it into the wall bordering the community center at the far edge of the park. This is gonna make headlines. And not the good kind like you want.
But as Sev surveyed the wreckage, he saw that Porter was no longer on board the vehicle. When did he bail out?! Sev searched wildly and caught a glimpse of the shapeshifter limping his way toward the park’s Gold Line station.
The Gold Line light rail system ran the full length of Arroyo, continuing to Los Angeles to the south, and several other cities to the east. If he gets on a train, we are screwed. Asfalis law enforcement might be able to meet him at the next stop, but I doubt they’d be able to stop him. Sev drove his car along the jogging path leading to the station and jumped out just as Porter disappeared down the stairs.
By the time Sev made it to the staircase, he saw Porter use his gorilla arms to pry open the doors to a train car, just after they closed.
Shit! Sev jumped from the top of the stairs.
It was nearly two stories down to the platform. As he fell, he negotiated a contract with his remaining wind animus. He originally hoped to cast a flight spell, but settled for the ability to glide so he didn’t kill himself. He landed heavily on the roof of the rear train car just as it started to pull away from the station.
Sev used sorcery to adhere to the top of the car, staying flat against the roof. Wind and dust tore at his face as they continued through the tunnel. The track would lead them to middle of the 210 Freeway. Which is a less than ideal location for a fight. Sev slipped from the roof to the side of the car, and with another titanic burst of sorcerous energy, he shattered an exterior window and crawled into the car.
People were already screaming. By the time he managed to get onto his feat the brakes on the train were already squealing. Sev bolted down the aisle, shoving aside a kid who was recording the fiasco on his symphone. He punched open the door to the next car, where Porter waited with a hostage. He held an elderly woman by the throat with his silverback hand and drew her in front of him as a human shield. He’s still got the gazelle legs. Bet he’s top-heavy with those arms.
“Stay back, Pig, or grandma gets it!” Porter screamed.
Sev halted his approach and raised his hands as the train finally started to slow under the strain of the emergency brakes. Three… two… one….
As the train jerked to a final halt, Porter stumbled, unable to keep his footing with his gazelle legs. Sev leapt forward again and—thanks to his gliding contract—he was able to close the distance. He planted his right palm on Porter’s gorilla-ized head and channeled pure kinetic force into his forehead. Porter released the woman and fell to the floor of the car. A normal human would have been dead and a half—Sev didn’t have time to be gentle. But Porter had already shaken off the blow.
Fine. Guess I have to get rough.
Sev followed up with an electrical contract and proceeded to shock the ever-living shit out of him. The lights in the car flickered, disrupted by the spell ripple. As Porter spasmed, his shape shifted wildly. He grew a wolf’s snout, his left arm turned into an octopoidal tentacle, his right into a massive goose wing, and porcupine-like quills erupted from his shoulder. Sev held the shocking spell as the passengers continued to scream.
After five seconds, he relented. Porter lay twitching and smoking, reverting to his fully human form, all his clothing shredded. Jesus Christ. Sev tried to kneel to Porter to check for a pulse, but he ended up falling on top of the fugitive. My lungs are gonna pop. Sev’s head was clouded by arcane symbols and whispers—wyrd begging him to enter exus.
Porter still had a pulse. Thank the gods for small favors.
Sev took a deep breath and waited several risky seconds for his wyrd’s rhythm to calm down, and then used his final animus—a cognitive orb—to hit Porter with an extremely heavy sedative spell. Hopefully, the shock alone had put the shapeshifter down for the count. But I am not taking any more chances. He collapsed into one of the subway seats, breathing heavily.
How the hell did he pop his cuffs? They obviously didn’t disrupt his shapeshifting. Maybe he just grew until they broke? That’s insane. Sev laughed and shook his head.
— Lin | 9:48 PM |Central Terrace (AKF Central Precinct) —
Lin and Pensey pulled up to Arroyo’s central precinct a little after quarter to ten. Carroll had insisted on writing up a full account of Lin’s findings, as well as a lengthy letter explaining who she was, and why her observations deserved merit. Pensey lay in the passenger side seat, nearly asleep.
“You want to wait here? I shouldn’t be too long.”
Pensey murmured her assent as Lin got out of her car and approached the building. She noticed a number of helicopters hovering, somewhere over Farman terrace, and, searching for something with spotlights. She could also hear the distant wail of different types of sirens—amagiate, medical, and asfalis law enforcement. Must be one hell of a party.
The inside of the precinct was busy too. Two receptionists juggled phone calls, while central booking processed a lean, teenage boy who had been newly arrested, and seemed incapable of shutting up. He switched from pleading for leniency, to denying his crimes, to attempting bribery with the officer in a single breath. Lin waited until one the receptionists placed a caller on hold and addressed Lin.
“You here about the chase?” he asked.
“Chase?” Lin emanated confusion.
The receptionist gestured never mind, and continued:
“Listen, it’s a busy night. What do you need, bluebie?”
“Do you know if the chapter has assigned a venture to the recent urdic collapses throughout Arroyo?”
“Not to my knowledge,” the receptionist said.
“I believe I have some information on them. Their cause, specifically. My Master, Lewin Carroll, wrote this letter for the SCV, but if you have any detectives from Vice or General Patrol available, I’d like to go over—”
The receptionist snickered as she mentioned the SCV and held his hand up to stop her from continuing:
“I can make sure they get it. Or, if you’re willing to wait, you can hand it over to them yourself. They just made an arrest and should be getting off shift. But they are meeting with the Deputy Chief now, and I have a feeling it will be a very long conversation.”
Lin couldn’t believe her luck. How long could a conversation be?
“I’ll wait!” she said.
As Lin took a seat in the waiting area, she saw a symvision tuned to a local news station which showed a live aerial feed of a ruined sports car in a park, with the headline: Dangerous Chase Comes to a Close. From the closed captions, she gathered that Keepers had pursued some sort of shapeshifter in a car and on foot before finally making an arrest aboard a Gold Line train. Miraculously, there were no recorded fatalities, but several people had sustained minor injuries, and Walnut Avenue was littered with cars damaged during the chase.
Lin’s eyes widened and she went back to the receptionist, waiting until he hung up.
“Excuse me, but was the SCV involved with that?” Lin asked and gestured at the news.
The receptionist blinked slowly, then spoke in a monotone, as if he was reciting a script:
“The Arroyo Keeping Force apprehended a dangerous suspect after they escaped arrest earlier this evening. The city is in no immediate danger. We will be releasing a statement about tonight’s police action tomorrow morning. Until that time, we have no further comment. Thank you for your patience.”
He gave Lin an obviously forced, please-shoot-me-in-the-head smile. Then he picked up the phone, which had continued to ring throughout their entire exchange. Lin smirked when she heard him repeat the exact same speech—in the exact same intonation—to the caller. She sat back down in a chair in the waiting area and texted Pensey that she would be a bit longer than originally planned. Pensey replied with a snoring emoji.
After nearly half an hour, the receptionist motioned to Lin just as she herself was starting to doze off.
“Follow me,” he said. “The SCV just got out of their meeting with the Deputy Chief.”
The receptionist led her to an elevator and punched the button for the second floor. They arrived in a forest of cubicles. The division room was labeled Monstrum and Malefaction, but Lin followed the receptionist through to a conference room on the exterior wall, labeled “Special Cases Venture.” He knocked twice. A couple seconds later, Senior Detective Jecia Singh answered the door. Lin recognized her by the chevron-shaped scar coming out of the corner of her eye. Oh wow. She’s beautiful in person.
“What’s up, Beni?” she asked, voice dripping with fatigue.
“This bluebie has a letter from a Master. Said she needed to deliver it as soon as possible.”
Singh turned to Lin, who gave a polite salute in greeting.
“We’ve had kind of a wild night,” she said to Lin apologetically. “Could we possibly do this another time?”
“I, uh… sure,” Lin said and handed her the letter.
Singh received the envelope gratefully, but before she could shut the door, Lin added:
“It’s, uh… it is urgent. People are dying. One of my students nearly died today.”
Singh hesitated, but curiosity overcame fatigue, and she bid Lin to continue. Lin gave her report like she was answering a test question.
“Seven people have suffered urdic collapse over the past three weeks. Four asfalis people are dead, and three amagia have suffered serious strokes. There is no apparent cause, but my Master, Lewin Carroll, and I, believe that tainted drugs may be responsible.”
Singh hesitated another moment as Sevardin Harker and Juel Flores came to the door. They both looked like shit. Harker’s nose was broken, and the left half of Flores’ face was swollen with a massive bruise. It looked like he’d been boxing with an ape.
“What’s going on?” Harker asked.
“She’s Lewin Carroll’s student. Has a letter for us about the urdic collapses.”
“I’m Alinore Valmont. A ninth-year peacekeeping aspirant,” Lin said, and belatedly added: “I’m uh… I’m a big fan. Of the work you do, I mean. Of your venture.”
The venture snickered as if she had told a joke but all of them bowed their heads with respectful appreciation.
“Wait, Valmont as in… the former Archon? Or the ARC officer?” Flores asked.
Lin smiled a touch bashfully and said:
“Yeah, that’s my dad. And my brother.”
“Oh, damn! You’re all the same family! I didn’t know that. Didn’t know his daughter was studying to be a Keeper either,” Juel said, then turned to his partners. “Did you guys know that?”
“Would it kill you to read a fucking paper?” Jecia asked acidly.
“Whoa! What’s with this hostility?” Flores asked.
“Ask your abuela,” Harker muttered.
“Oh, for the. Last. Fucking. Time. It wasn’t my fucking fault!” Flores said angrily. “And leave my abuela out of this, pendejo!”
Lin found herself doubting her Spanish. Doesn’t “abuela” translate to “grandmother?” The air was suddenly thick with three powerful wyrds coruscating with emotional tension. Lin realized that the receptionist had abandoned her. An uneasy smile crept across her lips. My heroes are lunatics. Of course, they’d be lunatics.
“You’ve clearly had a hard night,” she said, gently trying to intercede. “I don’t want to hold you up, but do you know if a venture has been assigned to these deaths yet? I’d like to relay my findings to somebody before I go.”
The members of the Special Cases Venture looked at one another and all shrugged amiably. The flash of animosity between them seemed to have broken faster than a fever.
“I’d rather hear her out than start on the paperwork,” Harker said.
Flores nodded emphatically, then winced and touched his bruised temple.
“I think we can spare ten minutes,” Singh said.