The Investigations' building's Upper Conference Room was huge. It could have swallowed several small aircraft if it had been so inclined.
The Upper Conference Room was used only for major functions. Inter-Departmental meetings, budget allocations, and the greatest crises that had ever faced Investigations were all discussed from the comfort of the enormous leather chairs arranged around the hardwood table.
I was seated with Mallory to my left, and Jamal to my right. Across the table from us was Samantha Livingstone, Investigations head Conrad Walton, and Umberto—who was standing in for Glorious Exarch Timothy Wiles, head of Analysis.
The silence stretching between us was taut. Ms. Livingstone reached out and broke it. "It has come to our attention that these prophecies spouted by our captured Inquisitor may have some shred of substance to them. Is this correct?"
Samantha was an older woman, early sixties, with flint-hard features and gray hair pulled into a restrictive bun. She wore a suit that looked like it could cut stone with its edges, and I noticed that neither Conrad nor Umberto was sitting too close to her.
"Shred is a good word for it. We're not sure how much we can substantiate, but we do know the following." I'd never seen Jamal look nervous before, but there was a tightness to his confidence now that made me wonder if this case was getting to him. "The woman who has been identified as Mercury Lausier has been working with a force of unknown size within city limits, and she is claiming that she was doing so to save us. She is sane enough to recognize that doing this has angered the Council, and she knew that she was risking her life when she came here under false pretenses."
"She may simply be a zealot?"
"They all are. Undoubtedly. The question is whether they are also right. Umberto?"
As part of an inter-departmental agreement, Analysis had agreed to clothe its personnel in proper workspace attire when attending meetings that involved another department. One too many skyclad seers had prompted the initiative that had forced Umberto into a suit. Not that it was much of an improvement. He was wearing purple with gold pinstripes.
"Ah, yes. Mr. Owens, as an expert on this matter, I can tell you that there is no that way some bumbling countryside schizophrenic with a case of the vapors could have predicted something that Analysis had not. I went digging through our archives earlier today, and I found the following excerpt." Withdrawing a piece of folded paper from the pocket of his jacket, he fluffed it open and began to read aloud. "42% chance of minor food-poisoning by cafeteria meatballs next week. 11% odds that a missing parrot will lead to the recovery of the sarcophagus. 26% chance that coastal bluefin migration will begin early this year. 4% odds of massive Outsider incursion this month. This was dated twenty three days ago."
"You knew about this, and you said nothing?" Very deliberately, Samantha folded her hands together in her lap with the kind of force that could easily have pulped bone.
"My dear Ms. Livingstone, we also computed 15% odds that a passing asteroid would obliterate all life on this planet's surface between then and now. You do not panic over every disaster that does not come to pass. You simply accept the directions that your spirit guides give you and attune your energy to the voices of the planes. Incidentally, we recalculated those odds today, and the massive Outsider incursion has jumped up to 63%. The asteroid is hovering at about 12%."
"Then you're saying that we should be taking our captive's words seriously." Jamal leaned in and Umberto leaned back, started to put his feet up on the conference table, and then thought better of it.
"Oh, of course not, Mr. Owens. She is clearly some sort of lunatic."
"What about the supposed prophecy that Mr. Carol overheard on the factory? Even during deep interrogation, she was tight-lipped about it." Conrad was thin and reedy, with a buzz cut and a perpetually casual manner. He asked his question the same way you might ask someone if they would like a cookie. "The fat man who sings to the ground is the key, or something like that."
"Poppycock. Does anyone here know a man who matches that description?"
"Julius Prince." I realized I had spoken, and had to fight to clap a hand to my mouth.
"Who?" All faces had turned towards me—except for Mallory, who was just nodding contemplatively.
"The man we recovered from the West Protectorate Seismological Society. He's currently in our protective custody, working with your department, Umberto."
"Who is he? What does he do?" It was Conrad speaking again, and so he might as well have been talking about tea and sandwiches for all it showed in his tone.
"He, ah, allegedly has come up with a system to pinpoint where Outside entities can be found. It operates across the entire city, not just block-to-block like a Battery does."
"Umberto, why wasn't your department aware of this?"
"This is most distressing. You, rational men and women, are indulging in fantasy."
"Umberto." The word was an ice-pick thrown expertly from Samantha's lips, and it pinned Umberto to his chair. He slumped back, deflated.
"We didn't just scry to determine whether the Herald might be real, Ms. Livingstone. Mr. Walton. We attempted to locate it. We tried to determine its weaknesses. We looked for people that might be connected to it. We got only noise."
"Are you saying that something was blocking you, or are you merely confirming your incompetence?"
"The only thing that can interfere with the results of our foretelling is if the event we are scrying is so charged with possibility that it could resolve in any number of ways. Even then, we would be simply overwhelmed with possible results, not shut out from the future entirely."
"We are hurting for information. Obviously, we cannot turn a possible lead down." He could've been discussing the weather along the Inner Coast, but Conrad brought his hands together with an authoritative clap, signaling that the meeting was at an end. "Jamal, please deploy whichever agents you feel are suited to the task of tracking this alleged Herald. Ms. Livingstone and Mr. Triviali, we will continue this correspondence more privately."
At his direction, the three of us on my side of the table stood and walked out of the conference room. It was almost a whisper, but I heard Jamal whispering as the doors swung closed behind us. "He's almost never this agitated."
"No! Shut up! I'm busy!"
I hesitated for half a second, frowned, and then resumed knocking on the door. Cussing followed from within, and then the pounding of approaching feet. "Mr. Prince. It's Jason. We called ahead. This is ur—"
The door opened the very faintest of cracks. Through the gap I could see a fleshy, pink sliver of Julius' face, complete with a portion of bulbous eyeball. "What do you want?" The space beside the eyeball asked.
"We're here to talk to you about your device. There's a message on your answering machine saying exactly that."
"Oh. I don't listen to those."
Mallory, who was shivering on the cold porch next to me, sighed in frustration. "You might want to start making a habit of it. And where are your minders?"
"I mean your bodyguards. The ones protecting you from future lizardman encounters?"
"They're out in the garden. I told them I couldn't work with them looking over my shoulder. They told me they were already as far away from me as their job would allow. I told them that they could watch me through the sliding doors, and that wasn't it better that I was cooperating instead of trying to leg it down the block?"
"You ran for it?"
"I wanted to get some air without those goons hovering all over me. Look, you can come in, but I'll have you know that my work is reaching an absolutely critical stage. Any more interruptions, and I make no promises for what the consequences will be."
"Dire?" I ventured. The front door swung the rest of the way open and Mallory ducked in ahead of me, glad to be off of the windswept porch.
The little condo where we had stashed Julius was right in the middle of one of the largest housing developments in Clemont. The buildings to the left and right of it were crowding in like nosy structural neighbors, and both had the same brick-and-cream paint scheme, same lawn ornaments, and same flowerbeds. These similarities echoed up and down the block. Anyone who managed to zero in on Julius' location would still be driving around in circles for hours.
The interior of the condo was also full of stock furniture. Generic imitation-oak counters, generic tile flooring, generic watercolor pictures, and generic Federated Carmine Provinces import carpeting. The only thing that clashed with the carbon-copy decor was the pile of machine-bits and MawMart bags on the kitchen table. Julius tottered over, and began to pick pieces out of the plastic-and-metal sprawl. His hands were surprisingly nimble, and he resumed gluing, soldering, wiring, and tying without a backwards glance.
"You know, it wouldn't hurt if you guys sent me some help."
"We did. We gave you Casey and Duke."
"Those apes? Please."
I crossed the kitchen to go sit at the far end of the table, and as I went, I noticed the back porch and the withered garden it looked out over. A man and a woman in ODC jackets were standing on the other side of the glass sliding doors, shivering furiously. "Well, who do you want?"
"I can't imagine my old associates have been too busy since the ODC cordoned off our old office and took possession of our computers. Maybe they'd like to come here and help me."
"You dragged your heels every step of the way. What makes you think they'd be receptive to working with us?"
"You mean you can't just take them like you did with me?"
"Misery loves company, huh? Alright. I'll pass the word on up."
"All I ask." Fingers slipping carefully around the sides of a glass charm, Julius screwed it into place next to hundreds of its brethren on a massive metal dish. "Now, what were you saying earlier? You had some questions about the new ectoseismographer?"
"We want to borrow it."
A charm skittered out of Julius' grip, rolled across the table, and smashed on the tiled floor. It let out a little dial-tone scream and a puff of white smoke. "No."
"It's not even slightly ready."
"What about your old machine?"
"Gave it to your mooks to study. It's probably in pieces."
"Well, how long until this one is operational?"
"Complete with casings, detailed feedback program, and optional comparability for the IGourd OS? Over a month. If you want a very basic prototype with no compatibilities, five hours."
"Do that. We'll be back for it."
"You're not sticking around?"
"There's something else I want to check up on."
Abigail's parents were watching television when Mallory and I arrived. The program looked familiar as I glimpsed it through their window. Something about a secret agent, cut free of the support mechanisms he usually relied on, eking out a living on the Inner Coast. I think it was called Firewatch. I hadn't followed a TV show in years.
We had called ahead, and so the Swanson's guards were there to meet us at the door. With plain clothes and dark glasses, they might just have been creepy relatives over for a visit, but the oblong shape of handguns against the smalls of their backs gave them away as ODC. Investigations was a large department, and I didn't know these guys personally, so I badge-flashed on the way in. They both nodded, like this was a perfectly normal thing to happen, and I counted my lucky stars that I had never spent much time on protection detail.
Lawrence Swanson was the first to greet us as we entered the living room. "Can I help you?"
On the TV, agent Mychal Wistin was keeping the bad guys distracted while his associate planted a bug on their vehicle. Joan Swanson didn't even look up.
Eyebrow raised, I turned my attention fully on Lawrence. "Yes, actually. If you can spare a moment. I just wanted to review a few key points regarding your daughter's disappearance."
Once upon a time, he had been healthy, fit, and his features bright with color. I had seen it in a picture on his mantlepiece on the day we first spoke to him about Abigail. The man that waved us into the dining room, offered us a drink, and finally slumped down into a chair looked like he could have been that other man's ghost. There was a weariness around the corner of his eyes—the faint impressions of a mask kept up for too long. "What can I tell you?" He asked.
In the other room, Mychel's plan was going off without a hitch. His zippy little sports car was keeping pace with the villains' van, and he was flirting dangerously with the heiress in the seat next to him. She recited what must have been a particularly witty line, and Joan laughed. The sound was sharp and abrupt, cutting through the sobriety of the mood at the table. "Is she alright?" I asked in a voice low enough not to carry over the noise of the set.
"Well enough. She'll be better once this is over."
Whatever hope he was clinging to, I didn't disabuse him of it. "This will be resolved soon, I promise." He smiled to show he understood, and it came out only as a tightening of his lips. "I need you to take me through the events of the morning your daughter went missing. Can you do that one more time?"
Lawrence nodded. "We put her on the bus in the morning, although she didn't want to go. She had been up late that night, later than usual, telling us that her belly hurt. We thought it was something she had eaten. It had cleared up enough for her to have some toast and eggs before she left."
"Her teachers told us that she was well-behaved at school—unusual for her. She didn't make noise or disrupt class or fight over the swings at recess. She was very still and very quiet and had a look of intense concentration for most of the day. When classes were over, she was present at the line-up for the buses. The teachers always do headcounts. That's one of the things they told us on parent information night. There's never any risk of a child getting...getting lost." Mallory and I looked away, giving him the privacy of a moment to wipe away the moisture from his eyes. "She never made it to the buses, but she couldn't have left the line without someone seeing her. We called the police as soon as we could, and then we got a call from you, saying that there had been an artifact sighted near Saint Mary's. I..."
I let him trail off. There was no pressing need for us to hear the end of that thought. "In the week leading up to the event, did your daughter do anything out of the ordinary? Did she have any sudden changes in emotions? Develop a temper? Experience odd cravings?"
"I'm guessing you don't have one of your own, Mr. Carol?"
"Strange is normal for a seven year old. She didn't start drinking blood or climbing up the walls, if that's what you're asking. She was antsy, anxious, and impatient, but that's our girl." He choked on the last word, shut his eyes tight, and then forced them back open. "Neither of us could have guessed that something like this would happen."
"I know. It's not your fault. But anything you can remember, no matter how trivial, could still help us with this investigation. Was your daughter ever left by herself during the week leading up to her disappearance?"
"What kind of parents do you think we are?"
"Even just while you ran down the block to get groceries, or if you took your eyes off her for a couple minutes at a playground. It must be difficult to watch a child every hour of every day. There must have been come gaps."
"How would you know? I work. Joan stays home. The only time when there wasn't one of us nearby, there were teachers and other children. Why aren't you over there quizzing them? They found the artifact at a playground, right?"
"We haven't ruled out that possibly, Mr. Swanson. This is simply a precaution, to ensure that none of the facts go overlooked."
"Well, I'm just about at my limit, okay? Do you know how many stabilization charms my wife and I have burned through in the past two weeks? I just want my daughter back."
"I understand. Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Swanson." I quickly withdrew.
"He was defensive."
I stopped fiddling with the stereo to glance over at Mallory. Her arms were folded aggressively, and she was staring out her window at the scant patches of traffic as they passed. The Council Guardsmen presence was less pronounced during the daylight hours, but they had still set up checkpoints along most major roadways and train-stops. Anyone who wasn't comfortable going through a pat-down and scan every twenty minutes was staying off the roads. "You think he's hiding something?"
"All I said was that he seemed defensive. There could be any number of reasons for that."
"Well, then, let me ask it a different way. Do you think he's hiding something?"
I abandoned the radio dial, leaving it tuned in to big-band swing. "Why? The man's brittle around the edges. He has every right to be defensive, because another sharp shock could break him in half." No amount of Cleansing could clear away on-going grief. As soon as the warm glow from the treatment started to fade, he would remember that his daughter was still missing and his anxiety would begin again.
"I'm not saying it has to be anything big. Maybe it's just guilt. He let his daughter out of his sight for a moment, and then this happened. Admitting it to one of us would be like admitting it to himself."
"Wouldn't it make more since for her to have been infected at school?"
"Yes, if anyone else at Saint Mary's had gone missing. Everyone there—students, parents, faculty—has been acting normally, all things considered, and that is not normal Outsider behavior. I don't think she could have accidentally infected herself, either."
Every year, the ODC prepared and distributed a list. It contained a general run-down of behaviors that all children should be discouraged from pursuing. Don't plant wild seeds on the night of the full moon. When you get cut, don't stick your finger in your mouth. Do not play near old lots, and report to your parents immediately if you are ever stuck by an iron nail. We didn't tell parents that it was only milkweed seeds that were dangerous, or that the cut had to be perfectly horizontal across the tip of the ring finger. We didn't need to be telling people exactly how to summon a Hamadryad or a Ronove.
The Contagion Assessment List was important for children because they didn't have the same instincts and awareness of infection that adults did. They were also frequently more curious and prone to the kind of strange behavior that could easily turn a normal human being into a host. Fortunately, they didn't have access to the same resources that adults did, and so were less likely to discover new entities. A grown man might bump his elbow against his knee at exactly four hundred and three feet up while skydiving and advance modern science by discovering Shub-Wankathoth, entity #00872, but the experiences of children were almost universally limited. If Abigail had indeed infected herself with a new, entirely unknown entity at the level of virulence that we had witnessed at the Worthling apartments, she would've had to have been behaving very aberrantly to have given it a chance to get in.
"In our line of work?"
"I'll call it in to Gable. Maybe he can get Analysis to come over and take another look at them. In the meantime, we should swing by the school."