Monday, July 30, 2012

The Weight of the Ocean

            The doctors said it was too early to tell. Supposedly it was a good thing that Judy had found the lump, and they said that, given the circumstances, they were counting themselves lucky that they could start this quickly. Max Harrick did not feel so lucky. The biopsy was apparently an outpatient procedure – they used some sort of damned magic technique that was supposedly commonplace in Arizradna.
            Harrick was not happy about that. Magic was unpredictable. For all he knew, it was just going to make the cancer worse. Well, probably cancer. They were going to send it down to the lab all the way down in Port Sang to get it tested. Harrick stepped into his wife’s room at the hospital.
            Judy was awake and alert. She was even smiling. Harrick could not understand how she could be smiling when he wanted to scream.
            “Judy,” he said, as he leaned in and kissed her.
            “Hi, honey,” she said. “They’re going to let me out in about half an hour. They just want to make sure the sedatives have worn off.”
            “Does it hurt?”
            She shook her head and smiled. “I’m fine. Really. A very handsome young man came in here and patched me up. You can hardly see a scar and it doesn’t hurt in the slightest.” She thought about it for a second. “Well, that could be the drugs they have me on.”
            Harrick held tight onto her hands. In his imagination, he had flashes of what he prayed were not the future – a funeral, a lonely house, an empty bed. He rested his forehead on her hand. “This is so fucking scary, Judy.”
            She pulled her hand away from him, her voice lowering to a whisper, losing the calm charm she had maintained before. “Max. Max. Come on,” she pleaded. “I need to stay positive, ok?”
            He took a deep breath, feeling the warmth behind his eyes that threatened to become tears. “Gods, I’m sorry. Ugh, this is the last thing you need, isn’t it?” He took a deep breath, and he could feel his chest reverberating with nervousness. “Ok. You won’t hear any more worrying from me.”
            Judy laughed at this. “I seriously doubt that.” She looked him over. “I’ll be ok. Besides, you have more important things to worry about, Max.”
            “Nothing’s more important than you.”
            Judy smiled. “Well, then how about you let the less important stuff distract you, like the army of draugar or the ships blowing up in the harbor?”
            Harrick forced a laugh. “Ah yes, the simple stuff.”

            Ana felt as if her voice were being held down by a weight. She had only heard that Judy Harrick was in the hospital, and the almost haunted look on the Detective Inspector’s face did not bode well.
            But he had to be told, and it was her job to tell him. So, after taking a deep breath, she followed him into his office. Harrick was about to sit down, moving slowly, betraying the telltale signs of his age. “Harrick, we’ve got something.”
            Harrick exhaled sharply through his teeth, rising once again. “Yeah,” he said.
            “We have a suspect for the Black Ship Bombing in custody. Name’s Friedrich Ash.”
            Harrick sunk a little. “Gods. Fuck me.”
            “You know him?” asked Ana.
            “Where is he?” Harrick shook his head. “No, hold on. I’m going to need a fucking gallon of coffee.”

            Ash was in interrogation room B. Harrick looked in at him before he entered. Ash had grown enormous. He had to be in his twenties at this point, or at the very youngest eighteen. He had shaved off his hair and had the absurd musculature of someone who is not truly interested in strength or health, and probably comes by his physique through a number of chemicals.
            Ash’s arms were covered with tattoos – but rather than the traditional sailing tattoos common in Port O’James, Harrick could recognize a few gang symbols, and there were a hundred nicks and scars along the arms that the tattoos could not hide. Ash slumped in his chair, his lips pouting with seeming apathy.
            Harrick stepped in. He sat down in front of Ash and took a deep breath. “Hello, Friedrich. Do you remember me? I’m Max Harrick. I knew your father.”
            Ash kept his eyes strongly focused on a blank spot on the table. Harrick continued. “How are things at home?”
            Ash scoffed, but remained speechless. Harrick put the file on the desk. “Friedrich, they’re telling me something really bad. But I don’t believe it. Now, I can help you, but you’ve got to tell me exactly what is going on. You come clean with me – hell, look. This isn’t some drug bust or some… drunken bar fight. Frankly, if you were getting high that night, I’d consider it a relief. Are you listening, son?”
            Ash’s eyes locked with Harrick’s. “I am not your son.”
            Harrick pulled back. At least he was talking now. “No. No you're not.”
            “You can’t talk to me like I’m your fucking son.”
            Harrick allowed his face to contract into stately, authoritative anger. “No, but I am the head of enforcement around here, and you are suspected of murder. So if you don’t want to find yourself hanging by a noose where the crows will tear out your eyes, you’d better be straight with me.”
            “Fuck you. I didn’t commit any murder.”
            Harrick sighed, exasperated. “Ok, good. Where were you on the morning of the explosion?”
            “At a friend’s.”
            “Yeah? Who’s the friend?”
            Ash seethed. “Like I’d tell you. Not going to sell her out to you pig motherfuckers.”
            Harrick snorted bitterly. “Yeah, well, your dad was a pig motherfucker just like me.”
            Ash leaned forward as far as the handcuffs binding him to the desk would let him. “My dad is dead, you piece of shit. Don’t fucking talk about my dad.”
            Harrick remained silent, attempting to come up with a new tactic. There was another person of interest, this unnamed female friend of Ash’s. Not much, and it would not be easy to just let him out and keep a tail on him.
            The quiet seemed to make Ash uneasy. “Hardly counts as murder,” he grumbled.
            “What did you say?”
            “I said it hardly counts as murder. Those things were dead to begin with. They were broken beyond repair, unfit for the Great Machine.”
            The words were like a shocking splash of icy water. “Ashtor’s fucking blood, you haven’t joined up with the Machinists, have you?” The Temple of the Machine, as they called themselves, was the one of the biggest religions in the world, but that did not make it any less creepy or dangerous. Some of the more extreme members – who had apparently decided that the Stag’s Head shouldn’t have all the fun - were supposedly behind a bombing in Narcia a year or two back that killed the Bone King’s ambassador. This sort of connection might be circumstantial, but it did not look good in Ash’s file.
            “So what if I have? Is there a law against that?”
            There was not. Still, Harrick knew Karsoth Ash would be rolling in his grave if he knew his only son had taken up with those maniacs. “Friedrich, if you talk, we can prove your innocence. Or if… we can make some sort of deal.”
            Ash simply turned and spat on the floor.
            “This is a big fucking mistake, Friedrich. You’re at a dangerous crossroads, and before long, there won’t be a damned thing I can do for you.”

            When Ana saw Harrick again in his office, he seemed to have the weight of the ocean pressing down on him. She walked in, offering a glazed chocolate donut. “Thank you, Ana. You are a valkyrie.”
            “They searched his place. No explosives, but some pretty disturbing…” she could sense that he was already overwhelmed enough. She stopped. “You already know him.”
            “Friedrich Ash. Shit. Last time I saw that kid he was… four years old, I think. He looks just similar enough to make this a nightmare.” Harrick looked behind his desk and found a framed photograph. He handed it to her.
            The photo depicted Harrick as a somewhat younger man, and next to him was another enforcer – they were out of uniform, but it was obvious they were both cops – who looked somewhat similar to the suspect. The two were in a tavern, holding steins up to one another. “This is…?”
            “Karsoth Ash. He was my partner. And he’s that kid’s dad. Gods damn it. I don’t know what I’m going to do if we have to string up Karsoth’s own fucking son.” He took the photo back. “But of course, there’s always more work to do.”
            Ana leaned against one of the other chairs in front of his desk. “Is Judy ok? I heard you had to take her in to see the doctor.”
            Harrick chuckled bitterly. “Ah yes, well, she found a lump in her breast. We don’t know what it is yet, but…” he sighed. "Well, nothing to do now but wait. There are other crises that need attention."
            Ana tried to think of something to say. She had thought she had it rough, losing sleep because of that same damned dream with the faceless man. In truth, she had meant to mention it to Harrick, but she hardly wanted to pile anything else on the poor man. “Well, for what it’s worth, I wish you the best of luck.”
            Harrick shrugged. “We all have our bad days.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Globe of the Red Ship

            Milton awoke and entered the suite’s kitchen. There was a strange, lingering smell, like rubbing alcohol, but strangely sweet. Thankfully, it was nothing like the “coffee” the Diplomat had given him in his cell, and he could already sense that the scent going away.
            The Diplomat had left the electric icebox loaded with food – some of it quite high quality. He had not yet decided what he thought of the man. He knew it would be naïve to trust everything the Diplomat had told him, but he doubted that the House meant him any harm. They had put in a great deal of effort in to keep him alive, after all, and he did not possess any damning secrets they would want concealed (as far as he knew.) He expected that an organization that was so secretive would prefer to use Milton’s own instinct for self-preservation to cover up whatever needed concealment.
            Milton bit into a block of sharp white cheese, followed by a spicy-sweet pepper that had been kept in olive oil, and then put bits of each onto a torn piece of crusty, light bread to eat as a whole. The food was heavenly. He had not eaten so well since he had been back home. He found himself devouring a little of every food in the icebox.
            When he was finally sated, he stepped into the bathroom and took a shower. The dirt and grime, and even a little dried blood from days earlier, all washed down the drain. He stood under the nozzle, letting the water sweep away the pain and exhaustion of his imprisonment. He exited the shower feeling reborn. The Diplomat had even left him clean clothes, including several light shirts and denim pants, as well as a wide-brimmed hat that actually felt more comfortable than the tricorner that was part of his uniform back home. These seemed far less constricting than the robe he had been wearing, and had the added advantage of being clean.
            He found Senjib down in the market a block away. On every corner, there was an artist, a dancer, a musician, or some other kind of performer showing off. The streets seemed designed for it – each performer had a circular stone platform, rising up from the sidewalk and ringed with flowers.
            Milton passed a juggler who was throwing green and blue balls of fire into the air. Each time he caught one, the ball would flare with a different color. On the same stage, a man who looked to be the juggler’s brother held up a mirror, but it appeared to be enchanted so that his reflection would act on its own. The man and his reflection performed a mime routine, delighting a group of children watching.
            “Good Morning, Jack Milton,” said Senjib. The djinni had changed into a flowing white robe. It was strange. In the desert, Senjib had seemed like a being from the past – somehow ancient and majestic. In his relatively conventional Arizradna robe, he looked positively modern. “Did you rest well?”
            Milton clapped Senjib on the back as he shook the djinni’s hand. “Very well. What have you been up to?”
            Senjib gestured toward the performers. “I am seeing the artists. I enjoy this mime show, but what I am looking for is a painting or sculpture I can bring home.”
            Senjib began to walk down the street. Milton followed. It was mildly odd to see that in the bright sunshine and high temperature, he did not have a single bead of sweat – but then, Milton supposed, that was just part of being a djinni. This was probably refreshing to him. “My daughter asked me to get her something the next time I was in town.”
            “You have a daughter?”
            Senjib smiled broadly. “Yes. She is twenty-two. She wishes to go to University in Parasha, and go to live among the humans, but it is difficult.”
            Milton nodded, but he was not sure why that should be. In Narcia, universities charged a modest tuition, but in the rare case that the student could not afford it, the government would provide the fee. He had always understood that in Arizradna, there was no tuition at all. “Is it because you are djinn?” That sounded equally absurd. He could not imagine that the Arizradna, of all people, would have any kind of discriminatory laws.
            Senjib flipped his hand over back and forth. “In a way. We live deep in the desert, and she would be very far from home. And there are many ways in which human lands are… inconvenient, for my people.”
            They came to another corner-stage. Nearby there was an ornately painted caravan, with dozens of portraits and dramatic landscapes hanging on nails hammered into the side.
            The artist, who Milton assumed to be a Retron, given the caravan, was at work on the stage. He wore only an open black vest and a pair of pants, and his curly blonde hair had been allowed to grow wildly. When he saw Milton walk up, he looked up from his work and spoke. “Paintings are fifteen tolls each, sculptures are twenty, though we welcome larger donations. No obligation though, browsing is encouraged.”
Next to him, a middle-aged Arizradna woman with her greying black hair tied back in a ponytail was hammering on a metal structure – an abstract spire that might have been a person reaching toward the sky. Her wares were laid out on an intricately patterned carpet. Senjib stepped around the stage and began to browse the sculptures.
            Eventually, he settled on one – a polished sphere with what appeared to be a map engraved on it. Around the sphere’s equator, there was an inch-wide band of cold iron, collecting only a faint fog in the dry air. Senjib lifted it, turning it over. It almost seemed like it could be some kind of navigational device, and various holes within the sphere held lenses and crystals.
            “This is beautiful,” said Senjib. “What is it meant to be?”
The sculptor stopped her hammering and turned around. “I call it ‘Globe of the Red Ship.’ It’s based on artifacts they found at a crash site.”
Senjib admired it some more. He touched the band of cold iron with his index finger, but then pulled back as soon as he felt the frigid metal. “I believe that my daughter will like this. Here,” he said, and held the required money out for the woman to take.
The sculptor frowned and stepped down from the platform. “Please, for you, take it as a gift.”
“No, no, no.” Senjib pushed the cash toward her. “I insist, good lady.”
            “And I insist that you take it. The glass within it was made from Sarona sand, so it is already yours.”
            Senjib laughed, but it was clear to Milton that he did not enjoy being treated with such reverence. “I will tell you this, then.” He beckoned Milton over. “Here,” and he put the money in Milton’s hand. “He will purchase the piece. Does that satisfy you?”
            Milton looked at the sculptor. The painter had stopped working and was watching the whole affair with an impish grin. “I would like to buy that sculpture,” said Milton.
            Reluctantly, the woman took the money. Milton and Senjib walked away. “Thank you, Jack Milton. The people here are kind to my brethren, but sometimes an excess of kindness can be insulting.”
            “I can imagine.”

            The reflection in the mirror watched them go. As was expected, the Prisoner had remained in Harisha. The next day, the word would be passed to Hollow. Hollow would inform Mr. Flow.
            In a day, five different Agents would all pass through Towatki, the next town over from Harisha. Not one of the five Agents would be able to recognize the other four.
            One of them placed a key underneath a large rock in a small garden. The next placed a locked briefcase on the roof of a building. The third made a reservation for two at the Meteor Lounge under the name Milton. The fourth installed a small camera at an ancient shrine. The fifth, who was known within the House as Dust, sat in the highest room of the Towatki’s astral observatory, lounging on a comfortable chair.
            Dust preferred to use her real name – well, not her original name, but the one that she thought of as the real one – which was Tessa Olanis. She was excited and a little terrified, anticipating the responsibility thrust upon her. The House had finally seen fit to grant her a subordinate. There would be a great deal of work to do, that was true, and she knew that the Prisoner had not yet accepted his role. But they would do great things together, that she could already tell.
Jack Milton was the Prisoner’s real name. She liked the ring of it. As she read through his dossier, noting his history and personality, she realized quite happily that they were about to become the very best of friends.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Chain in Sardok

            Nascine locked the door. Tarson was lying on his bed, reading. After what had happened, he seemed reluctant to leave the hotel room. A week had passed since her incident at the bar. The House was out there, clearly, but if they were still looking for her, they certainly had not made it known.
            It was not the first time Nascine had been confronted with intimidation. She wondered about her escape in the bar. Had that man really been aiming for her when he opened fire? He could not have been more than ten feet away, yet here she was, pleasantly devoid of bullet wounds.
            If she were the House, she would be very curious that someone else was trying to find Jaroka. Having identified a rival, she would shadow them, supplementing her own inquiries with the progress made by the third party.
            Nascine’s plan would likely disappoint them. She had spread the word as best she could, among the networks in Omlos, that she wanted a meeting with Jaroka. Narcian Intelligence, the University of Carathon, the Watchers (Arizradna’s quasi-monastic spy organization,) and now apparently the House should all know that she was looking for Jaroka at this point. She hoped that the assassin had friends in at least one of them, and Jaroka would come find her.
            There were two potential pitfalls, of course – that the Narcians or the Arizradna would want to take her in themselves, or that Jaroka would rather kill her than come talk. Nascine and Tarson had a strict policy of keeping the blinds closed at all times.
            She went to bed, and sleep came surprisingly easily. Her dreams were vague and formless – a phrase here and there, instantly forgotten, or an idea that popped up only to dissolve.
            In the middle of the night, she woke up. There was a faint illumination from the light coming up under the door, and in it she could see Tarson sitting up in bed, breathing heavily.
            “Hey,” she said, her voice coming out much quieter than she had anticipated.
            Tarson glanced over. “Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”
            The damage was done, though. Nascine felt wide-awake. Despite the apparent danger, she had slept far better than she was used to when out on a mission, what with the comfortable bed and the climate-controlled room. “It’s fine. Are you ok, James?” She remembered that his name was not, in fact James, but Chris. Still, as a rule, she forced herself to use the cover identity.
            Tarson seemed to find this amusing. He allowed one breath of bitter laughter. “I’m just… dealing.”
            Nascine reached over and turned on the light next to her bed. For a moment, it was painfully intense, but her eyes adjusted quickly enough. She could tell just by the straining muscles in his back that Tarson was upset. “You want to talk about it?”
            He stretched out, cracking his back. “The last time I was in Omlos, I was here on vacation. Perfectly lovely city. Good bars, decent theater scene. Just… a pleasant trip. But now… the same city, the same exact part of the world, and I’m afraid to set foot on the sidewalk for fear that someone is going to kill me.”
            “I see.”
            “How do you do it? You’ve been with the Rookery what? Nine years? How can you stand to live this way?”
            Nascine scooted up to a seated position. “It’s rarely like this. But even when it is… you get used to it.”
            “I don’t know if this is something I want to get used to.”
            Nascine nodded. “My first mission was over in Sardok. There was a piece of jewelry, one of those long necklaces that look like a big chain, worn by… I can’t even remember her name. Anyway, this woman, about three hundred years ago, she was the wife of some important nobleman or general… some fascist brute, is what I’m getting at. The man’s name was… Harsgal, I think. Anyway, this piece of jewelry, a big golden chain with emeralds set in each link, it was in the ruins of Banafel.”
            “Really?” said Tarson, impressed.
            “We’re talking black, choking miasma, the water is practically sparkling with radiation, and… well, here’s the part that made me want to give it all up: We get the thing, and we’re just getting ready to head out and cross back into Narcia when a twenty-foot tall monster attacks the camp. I’m talking a real monster – it had the body of a man… kind of, but instead of a head there was just a spiraling vortex, like a tornado turned on its side and flattened to a disk.”
            “Wow,” said Tarson.
            “I was terrified. The thing was tearing apart the building we were in, and I thought it was going to just suck me in and grind me to a paste.” Nascine realized her heart had begun to pump faster as she told the story. Nine years, and the memory still shook her. “But then, the Expedition Head stands up and starts chucking bits of rock and concrete at it. One of them hits the thing square in the vortex – and it does not like that one bit – and then it just scrambles away.”
            “That sounds pretty scary.”
            “Oh, I was a wreck. I couldn’t stop bawling my eyes out. So that’s when the Expedition Head comes to me. I say ‘I want to go home, I never want to do anything like this ever again.’ Then he says ‘Why? You’re doing such a good job.’ So I say ‘I almost died!’ and then, well, he just smiles at me and says: ‘But you didn’t.’” She shrugged, smiling, and Tarson gave a confused smirk.
            “That’s it?”
            “Well, he was right. I didn’t. We came out of it just fine. Every one of us made it home intact. And I went on to travel with him for seven years.”
            “Wait, who was your lead? Someone I might know?”
            “Gilbert Tartin.”
            Tarson searched his memory. “Wait, Tartin? I thought he was too scared to leave his office!”
            Nascine reluctantly nodded. For all the confidence and bravery Tartin had shown, all of that had ended on the Sarona expedition. Nascine wondered if a similar fate awaited her.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Law's Delay

            Ana led the emissary to Harrick’s office door, between the desks in the bullpen. Mraxinar was forced to duck his head low, and had folded his legs in a way that the front two and back two each worked like a single leg. He bobbed back and forth as he walked, which might have looked awkward, but he performed the action with practiced grace.
            “There are not many passageways this narrow in Spire,” he said. Ana detected a note of embarrassment.
            “Spire? Is that back home?”
            Mraxinar nodded. “It is our capital, where I live. Actually, it was the capital of Vansa when the Bone King was among the living.”
            Harrick was in a meeting with some ship’s captain. Ana stood with the emissary in the small waiting area outside of the office. Mraxinar regarded her and then spoke. “Please, sit down if you’d like. I don’t really have the need to.”
            Ana remained standing. “It’s all right. What is Spire like?”
            “Oh, beautiful. The entire city surrounds the Royal Crest – a gigantic rock bluff in the middle of a vast plain. Over the centuries, the Vansans carved paths up around it, and that is where they built the Hall of the Elect, as well as the Great Library. My King has since enhanced it. Today, there truly exists a vast spire – a metal tower, reaching high up into the sky, made of steel and glass. It is a greater wonder than all the cities of the Djinni. From the top of the spire, you can look down and see the Great Wall, and even across the Narcian border. If it is a particularly clear day, you can see as far as Carathon.”
            Ana tried to imagine it. She had never been outside of the North East Colony. The biggest city she had ever been to was Port Sang, when she was a kid. Port Sang had a population of about 500,000.
            The captain, whose name was Garret, if she recalled correctly, walked out of Harrick’s office. She knocked on the doorframe.
            “Ana,” said Harrick, grumpily. “What does he want?”
            Mraxinar did not look directly into the office, but he was clearly listening. She stepped aside. “Mraxinar?” At this, the bone construct hopped toward the office door. He would not be able to fit through it, so he simply stood outside.
            “Detective Inspector, hello.”
            Harrick took a sip of coffee, but he did not stand up, choosing to remain inside the office. “Ambassador.”
            Mraxinar lowered himself slightly. “Technically just an emissary. I have not yet achieved that rank.”
            “Uh huh,” said Harrick. “What can I do for you?”
            “Well, Detective Inspector, I… I was hoping that I might find out if any progress has been made in the investigation regarding the bombing.”
            Harrick scratched his temple. “I’m afraid we don’t have much to say so far. But I promise that you will be the first to know when we find out who was behind it.”
            Mraxinar straightened up again, his posture somewhat more stately. “I look forward to the news. Several loyal subjects of the Bone King were murdered in your harbor. Justice demands that the perpetrator be found and… prevented from performing any other acts of violence.”
            Harrick grunted, skeptically. “I don’t know what to tell you, I’m sorry.”
            “I see. Well, thank you for your time, Detective Inspector.”

            Ana walked Mraxinar to the door. As he stepped out, he turned back to her. “Detective Sweeney, might I have a moment of your time? I’d like to talk.”
            She shrugged. Before the emissary had arrived, Yalton had called her to come check something out, but supposedly it wasn’t urgent. “What is it?”
            Mraxinar had spread his legs out and seemed to be walking more comfortably now. “It is bitter cold here, isn’t it?”
            Ana considered it. Yes, it was cold, but then, winter was always very cold in Port O’James. She’d grown up with it. “I suppose.”
            “The Wastes are hot. Almost arid, in fact. And it tends to be sunny. It is quite gloomy here. Still, I do find the maritime culture charming.” He looked down at her. “I hope that did not come off as condescending. It was not meant to be.”
            “No, it’s all right. We are proud of our naval tradition here.”
            “And yet your chief of enforcement does not seem all that worried about a ship destroyed in your harbor.” Mraxinar kept his gaze focused forward, as if what he had just said was mere fact.
            “We are investigating the bombing, Mraxinar. I assure you.”
            “Then can you tell me what you’ve discovered?”
            “No, it’s not my case. Edgars and Sydow are heading it up.”
            Mraxinar nodded. “And are they good detectives, those two?”
            Ana hesitated. Sydow was fairly good, if a bit linear in his thinking. Edgars… he was a good beat cop, the kind you’d want checking in on your neighborhood, but as an investigator… perhaps not the brightest. “They’ll find out who did it.”
            “If you say so,” replied Mraxinar.
            Ana stopped. “Now you do sound condescending.”
            Mraxinar turned around. “That was not my intention.”
            “Spare me,” replied Ana. “You think Harrick is trying to cover up the bombing? You think we’re all just out to get you, because we’re scared and looking for someone to blame for all the things that have been happening to us lately. You think we’re all just one close-minded mob who can’t tell the difference between you and the draugar.”
            Mraxinar put his hand up, signaling her to stop. “I did not say that.”
            “But you meant it.”
            Mraxinar broke his gaze, looking up along the gradual curve of rooftops on the buildings that overlooked the harbor. “I do not think that the Detective Inspector was part of the plot to kill my countrymen and strand me here. I am inclined to believe, however, that – perhaps subconsciously – he is disinclined to put his efforts into investigating the murder of beings that he believes were already dead to begin with.”
            “You just assume that. The investigation is ongoing. Perhaps they haven’t shared their progress because they don’t want to speak before they have something solid to tell you.”
            “Detective Sweeney, I have traveled the world for eighty seven years now. I’ve been from Sardok to Fealdoraga. I’ve walked through the Sarona Desert and drudged my way through the Rotweald. Humans do not trust my kind. It is not their fault, really, but it is true. If I had the opportunity, I would take the surviving members of my team and go home, but our ship was destroyed, so now we are stuck here. I continue to offer my assistance, but I’m afraid we can’t be much help if we aren’t afforded some degree of trust. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting scheduled with the Ranger-Captain of your militia.”
            Mraxinar walked away. Ana stood there for a while, thinking about what was said. For what it was worth, she had never considered Mraxinar a threat to her. Perhaps that was stupid, suicidally naïve. Yet she clung to her trust. She knew that she, at least, was willing to give the visitors from the Wastes the benefit of the doubt.
            An office assistant – some teenager whose name she could never remember – ducked out of the enforcement station. “Detective Sweeney?” he called. He was not wearing a jacket, and had already begun to shiver.
            “Officer Yalton. She said you were going to come see her?”
            “Oh yes. Tell her I’m on my way.”
            She walked about a mile south, toward the fish market. There were many big warehouses here, broken up by small commercial centers with restaurants and grocers. Most of the town came here to get their food, but today the market was closed for the holiday. Few people were all that religious in Port O’James, but the holiday called Sircatak was still given a passing observance.
            She found Yalton outside a restaurant called “The Marker Table,” ostensibly meant to look like an old-fashioned Retron pub. Yalton was talking with an old man with a bristly grey mustache – presumably the pub’s owner. Yalton was in her forties – an old-school beat cop. She knew the lay of the land, and Ana often felt awkward around her. Yalton never had ambitions to make detective, though, and seemed to prefer enforcement on the street level. Supposedly she and Harrick went way back.
            “Detective,” Yalton said. “You’re going to want to see this. Oh, this is Mr. Eddington, the proprietor. I was just getting his statement.”
            Ana shook the man’s hand. He seemed extraordinarily distraught. “I just… I had nothing to do with this, you understand. Horrible shock, walking in, finding… Bloody business, this is. Bloody awful.” He spoke with a Retron accent, perhaps slightly faded, but he was still clearly a native of the Misty Island.
            Yalton led Ana through the pub and back into the kitchen. The place was a mess. A large metal table had been shoved aside, and much of the cooking equipment was broken.
            On the floor, there was an intricate pattern in spray-paint. It depicted a large spiral, about four feet wide, in red. From the spiral, three blue lines – also in spray paint – extended in a triangular shape. Then, in what appeared to be in black felt paint-pen – a favorite among the more sophisticated graffiti artists – there was a script in one of the magic languages, forming a spiral going in the other direction that encircled the red one. In the center of the spiral, there was a big splash of dark brown – dried blood.
            “Bloody bastards ruined my floor!” explained Eddington.
            Ana found herself staring at the spiral. For a moment, the letters almost looked like something she could read, but it was as if they were moving, fading in and out of her comprehension before she could make sense of the words they spelled out.
            “Detective Sweeney?” It was Yalton. “What do you think it means?”
            Ana broke out of her trance. “Call Harrick. It means he’s right. The Icelord has a man in Port O’James.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Diplomat

            Harisha was beautiful. Milton had never heard of it before, but the entire town was an explosion of color – flowers, trees in bloom, and fountains with colored light projected through the jets. Sun-soaked streets were alive with bustling markets, while wide awnings provided shade for diners in a multitude of different lounges and cafes.
            Water was everywhere. It was the blessing of the Arizradna. Even in the hot, desert climate, water flowed through Harisha like blood through the body. Milton had never been to Arizradna before, but he was well aware of the quality of life its people enjoyed. From Harisha’s size, and its proximity to the wide desert, it could not have been anything other than a remote town in the countryside, yet all the conveniences of a major city appeared available.
            He understood why the Arizradna seemed to be in such a good mood all the time.
            They arrived at the Maize House Hotel after Milton got directions from some friendly locals. The building was larger than he would have expected for a small town like this.
            “This man, the one you call the Diplomat. Who is he?” asked Senjib.
            “When you found me, he had only just helped me escape from a nightmare.”
            “Why did he not walk the desert with you, then?”
            “He wasn’t there when I left.”
            Senjib appeared concerned. “What does this man look like?”
            “I actually have no idea.”
            “You say he saved you from a nightmare. Do you mean to say he woke you up?”
            “No. He helped me escape my captors.”
            Senjib took a step back. “Jack Milton, you are not a criminal, are you?”
            Milton laughed. “No. Actually quite the opposite, I’m an enforcer.”
            “Enforcer? Ah yes, that is the term they use in the countries of Ganlea. Here in Sarona, we call them ‘police.’ You are a police man?”
            “Narcian National Enforcement. We deal with the larger crimes, or if there’s a conflict of jurisdiction between the local authorities.”
            “And you were captured? By whom?”
            Milton let out a long breath. “I would be very curious to find out myself.”
            Senjib looked up at the hotel. His eyes searched from window to window. The light of the setting sun reflecting off the glass made the whole hotel seem to glow. “You have a debt to this Diplomat, I understand. But know that you have a friend here as well.”
            “You don’t want to come up?” asked Milton.
            “I must tend to my own affairs, Jack Milton. There are those in Harisha who must know that I am here.”

Milton stepped into an ornate lobby, with beautiful mosaics in the floor and intricate ceramic latticework panels on the walls. Milton accepted the key from the concierge and got in the elevator. As he rode up, he looked over the bottle of bluewine. The label depicted a highly stylized black and white figure, like a crude cave painting of a person with wings. The wine itself appeared dark, but through the green glass of the bottle, he could not judge much about the vintage. Milton was no expert on wine – blue, red, or white – but the bottle radiated age and class.
            The elevator reached the top floor and Milton stepped out into the hallway. The hotel was reasonably luxurious, but any pretentions of being an older, historical institution were abandoned as soon as one stepped out of the lobby. Milton found his room, number 1004, took a deep breath, and opened it.
            The hotel room was very large – a suite – and upon entering, one walked into a fairly comfortable dining room. “Jack, wonderful to see you. Please, come in.” It was the Diplomat.
            The Diplomat was impossibly handsome. He appeared to be in his late thirties, and had black hair, swept to the sides, and dark, brooding eyes, with just a hint of blue to them. Though he did not have a beard, he had just enough stubble to accentuate his chiseled jaw line. If there was one feature that could possibly be held against him, it was that he was relatively small. Milton, who from an early age had been perfectly confident in his own good looks, suddenly felt utterly inadequate.
            The Diplomat leaned back in his chair. He was clad largely in black leather, from his feet in boots resting on the table to a jerkin and a pair of gauntlets on his hands. He also wore some sort of cloak or cape on his shoulders, but this was a light, billowy fabric, and was the same dark navy blue of the clothes he had left for Milton.
            “Please, for the love of all the gods there are, tell me you have the wine,” said the Diplomat. Milton pulled out the bottle and put it on the table. “Excellent! Not that I would have held it against you, but I was worried you had already drunk it.”
            “It’s good to finally see your face,” said Milton.
            The Diplomat was already opening the bottle, though where he had gotten the corkscrew he was using, Milton could not say. The Diplomat smiled. “Yes, I imagine I had you wondering about that. Now sit down. It’s time we shared a beverage that wasn’t that foul ‘coffee.’”
            Milton sat down at the table, across from his benefactor. “I suppose I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
            The Diplomat yanked the cork out with a satisfying pop. “I only wish we could have gotten you out sooner.” He poured two glasses and handed one to Milton. “Give the wine a few minutes to breathe.” Milton accepted the glass and leaned back in his seat. The Diplomat scratched his chin and then leaned over his glass and inhaled deeply. “Chateau de la Fée. Tragically, the vineyard burned down about five years ago, so I try to save the bottles I have left for special occasions.”
            Milton decided to broach the subject. “I want you to know I am very grateful for your help. I know I would have gone mad there it if hadn’t been for you.”
            “Don’t sell yourself short. You were quite resilient on your own.”
            “Well, nevertheless, I’m grateful. What I meant to say… well, what I wanted to ask you was…”
            “Yes?” asked the Diplomat.
            “Who are you?”
            The Diplomat laughed, as if the question were particularly amusing. “Ah. Complicated question, that.”
            “How so?” asked Milton.
            “I’m a very private individual, Jack. I mean no offense, but I would prefer it if, at least for now, you would refer to me as The Diplomat, or just ‘Diplomat,’ to keep it short. Not ‘Dip’ though. A bit undignified, that one.”
            “Ok,” said Milton. The Diplomat swished the wine around his glass and finally took a sip. Milton took this as his queue to have a sip from his own glass. The wine was beyond excellent, with a thousand subtle flavors. “How did you get into my cell? Even I couldn’t see you come in.”
            The Diplomat now leaned forward, with an expression of excitement on his face. “Ah, good. Down to business. You’ll have to forgive me, I do sometimes get wrapped up in the pleasantries, but this is good. You’re going to keep me on task.”
            “I told you when we first met that seeing things is what I do. I can see many things, and I know many things. I know, for instance, what June Greene is, and why there are those who want to find her.”
            “Do you know where she is?”
            The Diplomat leaned back. “I couldn’t say that I do.”
            “That’s a decidedly vague answer, Diplomat.”
            Milton’s benefactor returned to his excited posture. “Indeed! Oh, this is going to be wonderful. Please, ask another question!”
            “All right,” said Milton. “What is the faceless man, and why was he down there?”
            “Ah. Well, what he is… he is a monster. What was he doing there? Well, I would have thought that was clear.”
            Milton shook his head emphatically. “Not remotely.”
            “He was there to find out where June Greene was. It took him long enough to realize you didn’t have any more of a clue than he did. I think that’s when he decided he might as well destroy your torturers.”
            “Why would he decide that?”
            “Because the faceless men – and yes, I’m sorry to tell you that he’s not the only one – are really, true monsters. They are only interested in spreading death and erasure through the world.”
            The thought was a profoundly troubling one, especially that there could be more of those things out there. “So why did you help me?” he asked.
            The Diplomat’s face turned solemn. “Jack, you remember that I asked you if you had ever heard of the House?”
            “Yes. I didn’t think they existed before you mentioned them. Is that who those people were?”
            The Diplomat shook his head. “No. That’s who I am. I am an Agent of the House.”
            “And the people who captured me?”
            “Very bad people. Whatever you’ve heard about us, remember that it was the House that saved you from that dank pit.”
            “I see.”
            The Diplomat poured another glass of wine, but something had changed. His overpowering charm had faded, and his voice did not hold the same airiness it had before. “Jack, I have a confession to make. I hope you will not take it personally, but I know that lying to you is not going to do anything to earn your respect or your trust. You need to be able to trust me, because if you don’t, well, I might as well send you home.”
            “Diplomat, I can’t say that doesn’t appeal to me.”
Now the Diplomat contorted into a kind of sad tightness, the face of someone delivering bad news to a stranger. “Jack, I should tell you that the woman who was killed in your apartment… I’m afraid you are their prime suspect.”
It had not occurred to him, but now that he thought of it, he realized that his captors had put him in a very difficult position. The woman would have been found in his bed, with his own gun’s bullets in her body, and he was nowhere to be seen. In an instant, Milton realized he was a fugitive.
The Diplomat read his expressions well. “I am so very sorry. It is an absolute miscarriage of justice that someone like you, an upstanding defender of the peace, would be the focus of such a distasteful crime investigation.”
“Can’t you help?” asked Milton, the volume of his voice betraying his desperation. “If you have all the resources of the House, can’t you find some way to let them know I’m innocent? An alibi, something?”
For what Milton realized was the first time in their conversation, the Diplomat broke eye contact. “I am so very sorry, but there is nothing that we can do. I assure you that once it is possible for us to straighten this whole mess up, we will do so.” Milton caught the Diplomat’s quick glance back. He could tell that the Diplomat was either lying to him or at least speaking deceptively, but Milton could not tell exactly why the Diplomat had treated him to this little performance.
“I guess I’m stuck for now then,” said Milton, attempting to mimic the nonchalance with which the Diplomat liked to speak. “So, why is it you want me to trust you?”
            “Jack, I had an ulterior motive in helping you escape from those people. I would like to think that if I had the opportunity to help some other poor soul in the same circumstances, that I would. But if I am honest with myself, I wouldn’t have. The House plays its cards very, very close to the chest. As much as we would like to see everyone safe and happy, it is just not something we can afford to do.”
            The Diplomat stood up. He leaned against the counter that separated the suite’s dining room from its tiny kitchen. “Jack, we’ve been watching you. You’re a good man. A smart man. Skeptical, capable, and, perhaps most impressively, resilient. A lesser man would have gone mad in that cell, tortured day in and day out, assaulted by that faceless abomination. Yet here you are, mere days after escaping from that hell, and you seem hardly the worse for wear.”
            The Diplomat walked to the door, glancing at the lock and the bolt. “An Agent needs to be resilient. Some of us go for years without any word from the House. Jack, I know that we have a somewhat negative reputation. Those who actually believe that we exist tend to think of us as monsters in our own way: the manipulators, the ‘spook show.’”
            Milton knew exactly where this was heading, He stiffened his posture, to project with body language what he was about to say. “And you claim, that is, you want me to believe, that you are not.”
            The Diplomat smiled, as if he had not heard the skepticism dripping from Milton’s words. “I do. Jack, we’re not trying to rule the world. We’re just people. Ordinary people, doing what we can to make sure we all survive. I am proud to call myself an Agent of the House. And I think you will be proud too.”
            Milton took a deep breath. “I… I’m very grateful. And frankly, flattered.”
            The Diplomat nodded, a knowingly disappointed smile on his face. “But your answer is no. I understand completely. We’re forced to live a double life, and it is hard.”
            The guilt trip was working, at least enough to make him feel bad, but Milton shrugged and said “I really can’t thank you enough for getting me out of there. I’m sure I would have wound up crazier than the Shabby Man if it hadn’t been for you.”
            The Diplomat gave a slight bow. “You are most welcome. And please, do not feel the need to apologize. Consider my assistance to be an act of good will. Perhaps in the future, you will see the House in a better light.”
            Milton laughed. “Or any light at all.”
            The Diplomat laughed as well. “Yes, very good.” He downed the rest of his glass, then put it back on the table. “For what it’s worth, Jack, I really enjoyed our chat. You are a good man, and I am sure all of this awful business back home will be taken care of in short order. Please, enjoy the hotel room as long as you’d like – my treat. I’ll see what I can do about getting you air tickets to take you home, and if I find that I can pull some strings, or if I can help you track down the bastard who killed that woman, I will.”
            The Diplomat stuck out his hand. Milton took it and shook. “Thank you, Diplomat.”
            The Diplomat gave one more solid pump, then released. “It was my pleasure. Be well, Jack.” He gestured to the bottle of wine. “Oh, and you should invite your friend up. The Djinni have excellent taste in wine, and I imagine he will enjoy it quite a bit.”
            The Diplomat stepped out the door. Milton got up and walked over to see the Diplomat off. He peered out into the hallway, looking down both ways. The Diplomat was nowhere to be seen.
            “Of course not,” he said to himself.

            The Diplomat leaned back in his seat. The heat of the day was almost too much for him to stand, but those lovely cool nights soothed him to the bone. He was in the corner of the tavern, whose adobe walls opened seamlessly into a courtyard where a band was playing some old song actually written by a Redlander, but that had become popular in Arizradna about a hundred years earlier.
            The Diplomat could name every member of the band, as well as the author of the song, and the craftsman who had assembled the band’s guitar. No one could say he was not thorough.
            He ran through the conversation with Jack Milton (29 years old, father Randolph Milton, mother Caroline Waters,) recalling every word, gesture, and tic, making sure he had not made any errors.
            Milton would make an exceptional Agent. Normally, the Diplomat enjoyed mulling over the name for a new recruit, but the Diplomat’s first attempt seemed too deliciously apt to even bother coming up with other options.
            For Jack Milton, he had decided on The Prisoner.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bird's Eye View

            Rosanna Jaroka sat on the rooftop, using the binoculars to watch the woman going by the name of Valerie Justinian. A false name, certainly. Not one easily intimidated, though. The other agent had been killed in a traffic accident before she arrived, but as far as Jaroka could tell, Justinian had not hesitated to pick up the search once again.
            Jaroka had been on the run from the House for well over a year now. The day that Paul Sabein was supposed to meet with her, everything had changed. Sabein was a member of the Circle of Thorns, which was the ruling body of the Temple of the Stag’s Head. Jaroka had been raised in the faith, had known the hatred with which the rest of the world looked upon her people. The spiritual truths did not hold Jaroka’s interest except in the most abstract way, but all her life she knew it was her duty to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies of her god.
            And the Stag’s Head had provided for her. For years, Jaroka and her team had lived in relative comfort thanks to the benevolence of the Circle. Not everyone in her team even worshipped Sadafeth, but the Stag’s Head was generous to those who served, even if they did not believe.
            All of that ended the day Paul Sabein failed to show up in Entraht. Her team - her dearest friends - were all killed in one brutal act of betrayal. Yet Jaroka herself had been spared. It was months before she realized the truth, that Sabein had never even heard of her, and that the plot to kill the Bone King’s ambassador was the work of the House.
            And here they were, chasing her again, for whatever reasons they had. The Justinian woman was actually quite pretty, in a haunted sort of way. That seemed unusual. In Jaroka’s experience, the House preferred to employ the unremarkable as their agents, when they could afford to.
            She hadn’t heard Justinian speak, but her manner and poise did not match up with the rest of her appearance. She looked like a fellow Retron, though Jaroka could not be sure. This could be an intentional affectation – to distract from greater truths with small lies. The House was known – insomuch as it was known at all – for hiding behind layers and layers of falsehood.
            Instinct told her that violence was the best option. Agents of the House were frightening, certainly, but they could still be killed – at least she hoped so. She had her rifle in the bag next to her on the ground. Her heart began to beat faster, and she even went so far as to take hold of the bag’s zipper.
            Not now.
            Justinian was nearly at the door of her hotel. There were many people around. Escape would not be impossible, but a sniper bullet was much harder to pass off as an accident than a steam-cart speeding through an intersection.
            Besides, this one looks like a talker.
            She had the look. Athletic, certainly, and driven, but there was a softness in the Justinian woman that Jaroka could sense even through her binoculars. She would not deal with pain well. Perhaps it was that she had been too good, had never been caught, but Jaroka decided that she would be useful alive.
            “Getting soft? You of all people?” she could imagine her old friend Brun saying. Brun had been killed with the rest of them after the botched job in Entraht.
            Not soft. Trying something new.
            Justinian entered her hotel room. The curtains would be drawn, so there was no way of knowing in what window to look. But the assassin had gotten her look, so she judged the night a success. Next would be confrontation. Jaroka slung her bag over her shoulder and walked down the stairs into the building.

            “I thought she’d be there all night!” said Four Eyes, and he stood up, cracking his back as the dimness around them faded. “Don’t suppose we could have taken chairs, could we?” he asked. They had been squatting in the corner, a mere fifteen feet from Jaroka, in the corner where the northwest and northeast facades of the building met.
            “Are you going to make the drop, or should I?” asked The Inked Man.
Four Eyes reached down and touched his toes. He groaned as he did so. “Damn it, my back is killing me. I’m bringing a folding chair if we have to do something like this again.” He pulled a notepad out from his shoulder bag. “Right, let me just write out my report.”
“You weren’t writing while she was here?”
Four Eyes smiled. “Even if I could see a damned thing while I was in there, the sound of my pen scratching along the paper would be too loud. Hell, I was afraid she’d hear us breathing. Lucky that there was all this wind.”
“It is a tall building.”
Four Eyes held the pen cap in his teeth as he wrote, holding the paper at an angle where the floodlight could hit it. Four Eyes did not wear glasses. The Inked Man had long ago stopped caring why he had that name. The Inked Man himself was named in a fairly straightforward manner, as practically everything from the neck down was covered in tattoos. At first he worried that it would make him too easily recognizable, and that it would interfere with his duties, but Four Eyes had put him in touch with someone who taught him how to control the tattoos – to make them shift and re-form themselves with little more than meditative technique and a some chemical alterations to the ink.
Still, in retrospect he wished he’d gotten a different name when he’d become an Agent. He wondered who Four Eyes’ superior was, and why he or she had decided to give him the ironic name. No one in the House knew their superiors’ real names, or at least that was how it was supposed to be. The Inked Man could name several House Agents, but their actual identities were a complete mystery even to him, a House Agent for almost fifteen years. The Inked Man wondered on occasion if the names remained while the Agents came and went, but if they did, he was in the dark.
Four Eyes scribbled one last word on the note and tore off the page. “Done. Wait, just wanted to check with you to be sure. Crescent Moon comes after Square, right?”
The Inked Man nodded. “Yeah.”
“I just do not have a mind for these codes, Ink.”
“Is that why you keep me around?”
Four Eyes chuckled. “It’s just one part of your diverse skill set.” Four Eyes folded the note up and creased it, then handed it to the Inked Man. “Loose brick outside the ice cream shop off Mercer Avenue. And if you stop there, I highly recommend the Sea-Salt, Chocolate, and Cayenne Pepper. Shockingly good.”
The Inked Man nodded and slipped the note into his pocket. “Hey Four Eyes,” he said. “Where’d you learn that trick?”
“What trick?”
“The thing that made it dark where we were sitting.”
“Oh, you mean the dimness?”
Four Eyes walked up to him, and looked around to make sure no one was listening. “I learned it from my superior. My superior learned it – I think – from an Agent called the Patient. But the Patient, well, he-she-it supposedly… and I can’t guarantee you this is true, but I like to think it is, because frankly it would be really cool… supposedly, the Patient learned it from the Diplomat.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2012)