It’s when the pipes hiss that she hates living here. A high-pitched sound echoing off the buildings and all the animals – pets and strays – cry in response, creating one big auditory torture device out of the city. The mangled human body at her feet didn’t inspire any ballads about Trixa, either.
“If you are finished leering, be on your way.” The pock-marked officer barked and Clara was almost grateful he didn’t completely dismiss her like the other officers of Trixa’s police force. She raised a thin eyebrow, the original shape lost in the same incident where she lost the eye underneath it. Her bangs hovered just above her brows and the intense and scathing glare she faked over the officer.
“No need for that, Barnes.” Before the officer could be on the receiving end of Clara’s infamous acidic tongue, Chief Stonewall hobbled between them. Barnes snapped to attention in-between clicks of the chief’s cane. Every officer on the scene knew the authority behind the thin, alabaster stick and it’s wrinkled, eternally smiling leader and suddenly became models of efficiency. “He’s new to this division, Clara. Don’t pay him any mind.”
Clara kept her eye on Barnes as he scurried off, peering through the auburn strands combed across her forehead. “You just saved me from having to make that baby cry, bossman.”
Stonewall only smiled, his blue eyes stern despite the pure mirth in his grin. “Thank you for consulting on this, young lady.”
Clara crossed her arms as best she could over her chest, the thick hide of her jacket making a rich groan. “His head’s pureed, bossman. Its fucking soup.”
The old man turned to the decapitated, red remnants of a human body roped off in the middle of the street. The trollies had been diverted, but no force in the ten kingdoms could keep the masses from gathering to stare at the essential proof they were nothing but bags of juicy mush just waiting for the proper impact. The feel of their eyes around her made Clara sick to her stomach. The body felt sadly normal in comparison. Death was simple, but the ogling was far more disturbing.
“I can see that.” Stonewall’s grin faded for only a moment when he looked at the red froth on the stone streets. The mess would have a hard time coming up without some powerful cleaners and a hard rain as the blood made it’s lazy way down the shallow slope of the road, flowing slowly from the decimated neck on the dead body.
Clara looked up at the surrounding buildings before approaching the corpse, her boots clicking just like Stonewall’s cane. The officers parted to allow her and Stonewall to pass. “Nothing high enough to cause this much damage on impact.” She mumbled, a gentle whir singing in the air in response. Her gaze scanned the body, kneeling close to the gleaming remnants. “Spatters aren’t right.”
“Anything else you can see?
“Oh, he was murdered, bossman, no doubt. Looks like his head exploded.”
Stonewall nodded, still keeping his smile in place. “I was afraid of that.” He gestured with his bare chin to the corpse’s hands. A thick, gold ring glimmered in the sunlight, a single red stone sat in mockery of the blood on the ground.
“Quit grinding your teeth.” A voice scolded from inside Clara’s head. “You’re sending static.”
Clara licked her lips, her soft, round jaw suddenly aching when free from her abuse. “That’s ‘cause of the shitty signal.” She whispered, leaning closer to the ring. “Not good.”
“A High-Born. This young man must be the son of an official.” Stonewall sighed, suddenly beside Clara and looking every second of his sixty-two years.
Clara stood, adjusting her belt and jacket straps right around her waist. “Cover him before there’s a riot or cut off his hand. Whatever’s clever.”
Stonewall’s smile returned, powerful as ever. “Thank you for your expertise.”
“You’re full of shit, bossman. But don’t stop callin’.” Clara smirked.
“We got a dead High-Born!” Clara wiped her boots on the doormat as she shouted from the foyer.
“Gee, Clara; shout louder. Make sure everyone in the Ten Kingdoms hears you.” Audrey shifted her skirts away from the cloud of dust surrounding Clara. “And don’t you dare set a single filthy foot in here. Take those clunky man boots off and leave them there.”
“Good evening, Audrey. Nice to see you’ve skipped out on your duties to drop by and insult my shoes.” Clara sat on the last step into the hallway to remove the offending boots.
Audrey crossed her pale arms over her chest, the bronze bracelets scraping the hard leather and metal accents of her restrictive corset. The amount of jewelry and curls of bronze on her torso and the voluminous skirts indicated her high status among the Sacred Sisters. “You may keep as much of your indelicate nature from creating filth in your home. And I am quite busy, thank you very much. Katherine sent me a message over that strange device of hers and asked me to come here after your eye pictures came in. She wanted to review them with both of us in case I recognized something about the boy.”
“She calls it a telophone. You should at least get that right.” Clara kicked away her boots, smirking at the satisfying clatter; which made a certain vein on Audrey’s forehead pulse in annoyance. “And I know how to keep dust from the lab. I’m betting you think enough of Katherine as a machinist to trust her stuff to withstand a speck or two.” She shrugged and stepped around the fuming Sister.
“The coat, Clara!”
“Will come off when I’m good and ready.” Clara flipped her collar to send a small puff of dust in Audrey’s direction and headed for the back of the house towards a wall of thicker wood and a heavy steel door with a golden, fancy script “K” welded to it. Clara hung her coat on one of the hooks in the wall, pulled down hard on the long handle, and used her full body weight to shove the door open. When it slammed shut, she was hit with a sharp blast of air, blowing away any stray dirt from all over Clara’s body. After the air stopped and a chime sounded, Clara unlatched the second door, finger-combed her dark brown hair back into place, and approached the hunched, bespeckled figure adjusting the images on the screens in front of her.
“You really must work on your teeth grinding, darling. The vibrations disrupt the signal.”
“Sorry,” Clara mumbled, pulling over a chair to sit with Katherine at the monitors. “The crowd got on my nerves. They were annoying.”
“No need to explain. But you will need to be recalibrated. C’mere, let me do that first.” Katherine scooted closer to Clara, who leaned forward into the other woman’s hands. She smoothed back Clara’s hair, tucking it behind her ears. Nimble fingers spread Clara’s right eyelid and slipped the gold eye from the metal socket. Clara shuddered at the empty feeling in her head while Katherine wiped the glittering ball with a dust cloth. Intent on her work, Katherine opened a drawer without even looking and snatched up a tiny screwdriver, pick, and dust brush. With two held in her teeth, Katherine shuffled between them; tightening screws and adjusting the coils inside the eye.
“There we go.” She gave the intricate grooves a final inspection and nodded to herself before slipping the orb back into Clara’s face. “You have your key, of course?
“Always.” Clara unzipped her coat and reached inside her shirt to pull the key from a long chain. The tiny thing looked like a simple charm from afar but it kept the sophisticated eye working.
Kathy intercepted Clara’s hand before the key was free to gently draw it out and graze her fingers against the now shivering woman’s cleavage. Keeping their faces close, Katherine slipped the key into Clara’s temple and wound it. “How’s your vision?”
Clara swallowed, her heart pounding. “Getting clearer.”
The key turned several more times, the gentle clicking somehow louder than the buzz of the monitors or the whine of the electricity in the large laboratory. “Now?”
Katherine pressed a kiss to Clara’s lips. “Yes, certainly so.”
A rush of air and an indelicate shriek pierced the room and Katherine reached out to pull Clara’s jacket closed with a wink. Clara tucked the key back under the soft fabric and leaned back in the chair with a sigh. “That woman is cruel.”
Katherine laughed, shaking the tumble of red curls into her freckled face. “Be nice, dear. We shall have plenty of time later.”
The angry clicking of Audrey’s heels heralded her entrance. “Must that thing blow upwards as well? The indignity of it, by the gods, it is such a fuss to put these skirts back in order.”
“A necessary evil, hon. I must keep as much grit out of here as possible.” Katherine slipped the tools back into the proper drawer. “Ready to review the footage? Maybe he frequented the temples and you would recognize his ring?”
“Not many High-Borns have been to my temple lately but perhaps some others will know if I describe it.”
Katherine tapped the key panel and turned some small dials on the side of the screen to clear up the image. The black and white palette did nothing to diminish the gruesome nature of the boy’s death. Audrey forced herself to move closer to the screen, her stomach rolling at the black spatter on the street. She tore her eyes away from it and focused on the ring and the engraving of a wide-mouthed bell under a red stone rock. “Sorry, Kathy. No one from the Bellmouth family has come to me. But I will ask the other Sisters and see what they say.”
Clara leaned forward in her chair. “Can you make it closer?”
“Of course.” Katherine clicked a few keys and the image shifted, bringing the mangled neck into larger focus. With the body flopped at an angle, a patch of skin on his upper back was visible revealing three messy gashes. “Oh, dear…”
Clara narrowed her eyes, the mechanics of her right eye whirring as it focused. Her thick lips pressed tightly together, her face turned flat and cold, then she stood and left the lab without another word.
Audrey stared at the door in shock. “By the Great Mother, I’ve never seen her like that.”
“I have.” Katherine removed her goggles and rubbed her eyes to relieve the ache from staring at the screen. “Based on the way the neck is damaged, the device which may have done this is eerily similar to something I made. I’ve never shared this invention with anyone.” She leaned back and tapped her fingers on her knee in thought. “I better go see Stonewall. I’ll need to examine the body in person. I hope I can get passed the angry parents.”
“I’ll come with you.” Audrey did not look happy at the notion of being near such a savage murder. “I am willing to bet nobody gave the boy last rites and they would not risk denying a Sister her prayers.”
Clara wound her way through the darkest streets of Trixa with only the weakest, filthiest, and cheapest of gas lamps to light the way.
“Hey, honey! Where you off to in such a hurry?”
One look from Clara and the stranger withered and slunk back into the squirming shadows in the alleys.
She didn’t slow her steps, hands clenched into fists in the pockets of her jacket. The creak of the crossbow on her wrist gave her little comfort against the memories threatening to break down a very carefully laid wall. Clara walked until the smell of fish and saltwater forced her to pay attention to her direction, walking the length of an empty pier to the end.
Another woman stepped from the dark as if she was a phantom, her rum colored skin, blood-red hair, and long blades in each hand gleamed in the light of the moon. She said nothing as she walked up to Clara with silent footsteps.
“Elvira.” Clara pulled her fists from her pockets, letting them fall to her sides. “I saw the mark. I didn’t notice in the street. But it was the mark.”
Elvira stood beside her and peered at Clara through her ragged curtain of red hair.
“I didn’t tell. Not a word.” Clara covered her face with her hands. “Not one.”
Elvira lifted one arm and pointed her dirk at the sky as Clara fought to breathe. Choked panting filled the space between them but Elvira remained silent. Clara tried to keep back the wave of anguish, fear, and anger. She refused to cry. But she could scream. When the bellowing horns of a passing skyship echoed around them, Clara let loose a guttural howl of pain and rage only to have it swallowed by the deep groan of the horns.
“Thank you for this, Chief Stonewall. I know it couldn’t have been easy to pull so many strings so quickly.”
Stonewall shook his head. “For you, Katherine, it was my pleasure.”
Audrey clung to Katherine’s arm as they descended to the morgue; the chill on her skin having nothing to do with the cold. “There is nothing pleasurable about this.” She hissed through clenched teeth. Her position as a Sacred Sister allowed her access to the dead in the early morning for prayers and last rites. Despite the low opinion among High-Borns about the Sisters, the police couldn’t refuse a Sister’s religious duties without risking the already turbulent population turning on an embattled police force. Despite the tradition for a ceremony in a temple to be held to honor the dead, Audrey did not relish being near a fresh corpse. Sisters tend to only deal with the dead once the body has been fully prepared. Using Audrey’s position and Stonewall’s creative wording with the dead boy’s family, Katherine had her chance to inspect the body.
Katherine patted her friend on the hand squeezing her arm so tight, she could feel the mild bruise forming under her shirt, and adjusted her instrument bag so it sat higher on her shoulder. “I’ll be quick, hon. I promise. I don’t need to do a full autopsy.”
Biting her lip, Audrey nodded and pried her hand free to instead clutch her skirts to her waist to properly navigate the stone stairs, coveting Katherine’s breeches for a moment. The smell of chemicals and decay strengthened with every step. “You would think after giving last blessings to so many, this would not bother me so…”
“It is quite a different thing to be in the bowels of police headquarters with angry parents up above you and before the burial preparations are complete.” Katherine consoled her with a smile; which Audrey appreciated.
Deep enough underground for Katherine to be grateful for her thick overcoat, the two women followed Stonewall through one last doorway, and Audrey tried not to flinch when the heavy steel door slammed behind them. Katherine stepped closer to the shredded neck of the body and pulled a folded strip of leather from her bag; unfurling it to reveal a set of gleaming metal tools. Audrey backed away and softly began to pray.
“Has anyone else examined the body?” Katherine pulled at the hardening flesh with a pair of tweezers, watching the color shift in the light. She retrieved a set of magnifying glasses from her bag and fitted them over her voluminous crimson curls.
“Not a soul.” Stonewall smiled when Katherine pursed her lips and switched to the more powerful magnifiers in her toolset. Watching the young woman disappear into her work made him long for his younger days working the streets of Trixa instead of withering behind a desk until trotted out like an old fossil for a case nobody wanted to touch.
“Good.” Katherine squinted through the lenses. “See here?” She gestured with a metal pick and Stonewall leaned in closer with his much less fancy handheld magnifier. “The flesh is only burned towards the back of the neck here where the charge exploded. This is a small but powerful explosion using a material that doesn’t emit much heat but produces enough force to cause the rest of the head to rip apart.”
Stonewall nodded and Audrey swallowed hard to try and settle her rolling stomach.
“And here,” Katherine pulled aside the muscle from the spine, a meaty whine coming from the decaying flesh. “His blood is tinted green, likely from drugs. With this much discoloration, he had to be a courier for a large group.” She set the glasses atop her head and inspected the sides of the remnants of the boy’s neck, then lifted one shoulder to turn the body on its side. When she pulled his shirt down, Katherine found a large gash between his shoulder blades. The messy scar had three smaller gashes crossed through it; the one on the top with scabs still on it. “This is the gang’s mark. They mark the couriers as property and each slash here is a mistake. Looks like this was his final infraction.” She took a slow, steadying breath and forced her eyes off the grizzly wounds. It wasn’t quite time to let Audrey know why she recognized it. “Have you told the family about the possible gang ties?”
“Yes, and they were as understanding as you would expect from a High-Born family.” Stonewall fished out his pocket watch and checked it, his serene smile returning to his lips. “In fact, they are waiting to claim him. Shall we, ladies?”
Audrey wasted no time scurrying out of the door but Katherine lingered as she sterilized and repacked her tools; looking down into Stonewall’s perpetually squinted eyes. “Sir, if someone working for a drug ring imitated my tech, we are in deep trouble.”
“I know, my friend.”
“And you also know that mark…”
Stonewall looked away from her, worry deepening the lines on his forehead.
“If any more High-Born addicts end up here. Agents will come. They will rip this city apart.”
The old man straightened and reached up to pat Katherine on the shoulder. “We will get this solved before there is a massacre. I still insist you all be very careful. Especially with Clara and Elvira.”
Katherine flinched away from him, apologized for her rudeness, then fled the morgue as quickly as she could.
“You don’t need to escort me, Kathy. If a fool dared to accost me, they would regret it.”
“It may seem overbearing but indulge me,” Katherine murmured.
Audrey peered at her friend with shrewd blue eyes. “Katherine, really?”
Her feet slowed and Katherine took a deep breath. “Did you ever hear how Clara and I met?”
The Sister gasped and pulled Katherine away from the bustling entrance to her temple to the privacy of an unattended delivery doorway. “What in the world does that have to do with the dead High-Born boy?”
Katherine leaned against the wall and Audrey stayed close by her side. “Clara doesn’t talk much about her past. There are so many things I don’t know but haven’t asked her. The scars on her body tell me enough. But I do know the mark on the boy is the same mark from the slavers Clara and Elvira escaped from and they are the ones who put Clara on my surgery table.” She shuddered and Audrey placed her hands over Kathy’s. “For a long time, she hated me for saving her life.”
Audrey squeezed her friend’s hand. “I am familiar with the old slave trades but they were shut down years ago. Most of the people involved were killed.” She chuckled darkly. “Poor old Stonewall must have aged twenty years when the Trixa police force got saddled with all those corpses. Nobody wanted to talk and nobody was sorry they were gone.”
“Not surprising. But if they are back and using something I invented, we have a serious problem.”
Audrey nodded. “I’ll ask around the temples. I’m sure someone has heard something. The temples are a wealth of secrets and they keep excellent records.”
“I’ll check some of my less reputable contacts. They may know of someone who is dealing in illicit materials.”
“Why do I feel you are quite overdue for a soul clearing booth?”
Katherine doubled over laughing. “Oh, honey. There aren’t enough priestesses in your temple to hear what I have done.”
Audrey took her leave of Katherine and went straight to the Temple archives to begin her research. Any High-Born in Trixa always meant trouble; dead or alive; but now a dangerous new drug on the streets? The city could barely handle the poor and sick now and to have addicts thrown into the mix? Audrey prayed the temples would be able to assist.
She told Katherine Temple records were detailed but Audrey found herself awestruck as to how much. Awestruck and in some cases disgusted. Nothing was spared in describing the symptoms and complications of the plagues but the actions taken inspired several possibilities in containing a potential drug crisis. She would have to see about partnering with city doctors and apothecaries for potential treatments. Perhaps Kathy and her dubious contacts would be helpful.
Shouts and running brought her head up from her dusty book and Audrey left it for the librarians to reshelve to follow the noise, the din growing as she joined the other Sisters and Brothers as they ran towards the rising screams. When Audrey finally made it outside, the courtyard in front of the temple was teeming with frantic priests and priestesses running between prone bodies as they screamed and cried; sweat soaking the hastily laid blankets beneath them. The younger priestesses in training ran between their elders fetching water, bandages, or whatever medicine could be spared. Audrey watched one of the temple healers try to hold down an emaciated man as he convulsed and foamed at the mouth. A quick count showed twelve people outside meaning all twenty rooms in the healer’s wing must be full.
“Audrey!” A dark-haired waif bounded up to her, struggling to hold a pile of clean towels in her arms. “Thank the Goddess you’re here.”
Audrey took the topmost precarious linens to keep them from falling. “Doris, what is happening?” She gasped, falling into step with the scurrying younger woman.
“They started trickling in last night but we were overrun as the day wore on; all of them on some kind of new drug.” Doris slipped through the other trainees in their white clothes with red trim as they rain to assist the frazzled healers. More experienced sisters and brothers in their pink outfits with white ribbing and lace lifted towels from their hands as Doris and Audrey passed them. The black robes watched over them, pistols at their waists; keeping an eye out for trouble. “I pray this doesn’t get any worse. Three of our smaller temples are already reporting being overwhelmed. None of the priests or priestesses can take petitioners because there are so many sick people!
“We have plenty of coin saved up for emergencies like these. When you are further into your training and have access to the archives, you will learn of the plagues. Very dark times.” Audrey knelt by the patient who received the last of her towels; the sick woman on the ground sweating and gasping as a young trainee in white mopped her forehead. Excusing her intrusion, Audrey lifted the patient’s chin to inspect her mouth and nose. Ice blue crystals clung to her nose hairs and stained the front of her chattering teeth.
“What a vile concoction to do something like this?” Doris wiped at her brow with her handkerchief. “Who could even make such a dangerous-”
A man across the courtyard let out a shrill, panicked scream, and wildly swung his fist at the priestess tending to him. Luckily for her, the woman was in the midst of more advanced training and ducked the savage blows. Before the black-robed guards could intervene, Audrey unclipped her belt and her whip shot out, wrapping the delirious man’s arms to his torso and dragging him to the ground. More red skirts rushed forward to secure his legs while the nearest healer jammed a needle into the man’s neck. He collapsed and Audrey flicked her wrist to release him.
At Doris’ heroine worshipping stare, Audrey only sighed and rewound the whip around her waist in its intricate pattern to resemble a waist training leather belt. “Do not gawk. It is unbecoming of a priestess of the Temple.” Audrey folded her hands in front of her skirts and lifted her chin high. “Show your admiration by continuing to train.”
Clara stumbled through her doorway and nearly hit the floor when she tried to toe-off her unlaced boots. When her coat got tangled in her arms and she groaned in annoyance, the lamps flickered alight to reveal Katherine waiting in the sitting room.
“Where have you been?” Her slipper tapped impatiently on the carpet as Katherine looked at the red-faced, wobbly, sweaty mess on the floor. “Have you been drinking?”
Clara snorted and crawled over to her crumpled coat, the crossbow on her wrist clattering in her shaking hand. “I was walking.”
“Walking!? For an entire day!?” Katherine shot up to her feet and a red curl fell into her face as it shifted from worrying annoyance to concern. “Why?”
When Clara tried to take a breath to answer, the effort made her crumple down, flopping to her side. She couldn’t get her legs under herself to stand and Katherine barely made it to her before the last stumble ended in her head hitting the floor. Katherine cradled her lover’s head in her lap, calloused hands running through the salty, sticky mess of the dark hair plastered over Clara’s brow. Katherine appraised her lover’s body with the sharp gaze of a machinist who could time any machine within seconds of precision. Clara’s muscles jumped and twitched in anguish, her breeches covered in filth, shirt soaked with sweat, and her hands swollen and useless.
“Hold on, honey. Hold on for me, ok?” Katherine pulled off her robe and rolled it up to put it under Clara’s neck to support her head. She ran to the washroom and turned on the water, filling their bath. When the bath was ready, Katherine turned off the stream and tossed handfuls of different herbs and oils.
Hauling a barely functional Clara into the washroom was enough of a task, she needed the therapeutic herbs herself from trying to manage a helpless body taller and heavier than her own. Clara tried to catch her breath, to give some sort of explanation but Katherine was too busy undoing the hidden ties holding the numerous weapons and secreted crossbow bolts and air canisters; tossing them forgotten on the floor tiles until Katherine finally reached Clara’s naked body. Without hesitation, Katherine left her own nightgown and slippers with the rest of the discarded clothing and pulled Clara into the bathtub with her.
Clara was limp in Katherine’s embrace as her shoulders, back, and arms were vigorously massaged until her muscles relaxed. Katherine rinsed and gathered Clara up before the water could grow cold and helped her into the bedroom.
“You saw.” Clara sighed as Katherine patted her skin with a fluffy towel. “You saw the mark on him.”
Katherine said nothing until her lover’s hair was completely dry. “Yes, sweetie.” She whispered as she rubbed medicinal oils into Clara’s skin.
“I never told you how I ended up on your table.”
“Shhh…” Katherine dressed the limp woman in a long-sleeved nightgown. “Not now, baby. Just rest.”
“I have to tell you.” Clara let herself be folded into bed and watched with bleary eyes as Katherine dressed in her own nightgown and knelt by the bed.
“Sweetheart, you don’t need to-”
“They liked us quiet.” Clara curled her fingers into the bedding. “The slavers got me young but not as young as Vi. They used shock prods. They beat us. Starved us. Soaked us in water in the winter and left us in the cold. Denied us water and left us to burn in metal cages in the summers. When er cried, they laughed so we stopped. Just stopped talking so they tried to make us scream. That’s why I got the scars.”
Blue eyes tearing, Katherine cupped Clara’s hands in hers and kissed each finger. Kathy knew the slave trades; disreputable men and women stealing children from poor families or worse buying them from the truly desperate to auction them off to High-Born families or deadly work in mines and factories. As a young girl, Kathy often had the misfortune to be on the receiving end of nauseating High-Born bragging of how their little helpers silently crawled into filthy piles and fireplaces to ensure their comfort. Then the mask of indifference protected her. Now, tears fell freely down Kathy’s cheeks.
“They tried to break us. A bunch of us escaped. Me and Elvira fell in with a bunch of thieves. They took care of us; trained us to fight. When we were older, we went back. The night you found me, we killed the people who hurt us.” Clara’s swollen eyes drifted closed. “Every single one we could find.”
Katherine remembered that night well. After escorting a young trainee priestess back to her temple where her superiors could keep her safe from some of the more brazen slavers who thought a virgin priestess would fetch a high price, she ended up walking alone in the dark streets to get home. Kathy was happy to volunteer her services to prevent more young ladies from being found with their throats slit when the strength of their faith would not be broken. So, when Kathy heard footsteps in the darkness, she selfishly thought of the coin the high priests and priestesses would pay for a slaver’s scalp and waited for the person to reveal themselves. Instead of a slaver’s bounty, Clara tumbled from an alley in a cloud of soot, dust, and blood; wildly swinging a pistol in one hand while clutching her face with the other.
When Katherine approached with concern, she met the barrel of that pistol.
“I won’t hurt you.” She had whispered, not that the wavering hand could have fired the device effectively as Clara could barely grip it. “You are losing a lot of blood. You need help.”
Clara glared at her, blood pouring between her fingers and down her face to splat on the ground when she struggled to breathe.
“Will you let me help you?” When Kathy took a step forward, Clara tensed and tried to pull the trigger. The shot went wild and Katherine easily knocked the pistol from her hand. That was all Clara had to give and she passed out at Katherine’s feet. It took several hours for Katherine to half drag half carry the taller woman to her workshop.
By the time Katherine shook herself free of the past, Clara was fast asleep. She climbed into bed beside her and kissed the raised scars on the darker woman’s shoulder.
“I won’t let anything hurt you, baby.” She squeezed Clara tight but the exhausted form in the bed didn’t so much as skip a breath. “Never again.”
When Katherine woke, Clara was naked and the dressing gown was tangled in her arms under her head to replace the pillow now abandoned on the floor. She had to laugh and shake her head. Kathy should have known Clara wouldn’t stand sleeping all night in clothing but was also impressed she managed to strip without waking Katherine at all. Kathy must have been exhausted to sleep through her girlfriend’s uncomfortable squirming.
Katherine untangled herself from the bed and crept to their private washroom to clean her face and teeth. She looked at the mirror as she patted her skin dry, her bright blue eyes watching Clara’s reflection as she curled into the covers with a contented groan.
It was hard to say when general human concern became scientific curiosity then became love but Katherine swore to Clara years ago to always be by her side; even when Clara cursed her for saving her life. Yet, after all these years, Clara had kept some of the more gruesome details of her past hidden. Kathy was sure Clara wanted to pretend it never happened. Given what little she knew, Katherine could understand why. Clara had lived a nightmare and blasted through it in a flurry of blood and rage; giving her eye as a final payment.
“Hey, gorgeous.” Kathy pressed a minty kiss to Clara’s cheek. “Come on. I’ll make you breakfast.”
Clara rasped. “Dun make the tea. You make it gritty.”
Katherine giggled and tugged the discarded gown from Clara’s arms. “Come on, now. Or I’ll eat the bacon without you.”
She finally cracked open her natural eye. “Is it real? Not the synthetic crap?”
“The real thing. Extra crispy if you can get ready in less than fifteen minutes.”
With a poorly rested growl and a large stretch of her generous curves, Clara shambled towards the washroom. Katherine waited to make sure Clara’s long legs supported her Kathy reorganized the pillows and made the bed, then went off to the kitchen to make the promised bacon.
“Feeling better?” Katherine smiled into her toast as Clara brewed the tea as fast as possible to get to her breakfast.
“Yeah, but still sore.” Clara gleefully crunched her bacon with a blissful expression on her face as she became more awake by the second.
Katherine hmm’d and took a long sip of some perfectly brewed tea. “Not that I mind rubbing you but please don’t make exhausting yourself a habit.”
Clara reached across the small table and interlaced her clean fingers with Kathy’s. “I won’t make you worry like that again.”
“At least leave a note. Gods, Clara. I know you can handle yourself but…” Kathy trailed off, squeezing Clara’s hand tighter.
The dark-skinned woman nodded solemnly. “I will never do that again.” She said, the deep brown eye and gold eye fixed firmly on Katherine’s blue ones. “I swear I’ll always let you know where I am.”
The trill of their telephone interrupted them and Katherine gave Clara’s hand one last squeeze. “You finish your bacon. I’ll get that.”
The sounds of delighted crunching made Katherine smile as she padded over to the phone. “Hello?”
“Katherine, my dear!” Stonewall’s voice crackled over the line and her heart sank. He never called with good news. “How are you this morning?”
“I am assuming how well I am will depend on why you are calling me, sir.”
“Not good news, sadly. We have another body. No head and a green tint to her blood.”
Katherine struggled to swallow the well-made tea, toast, egg, and real bacon bubbling in her stomach. “Another High-Born?”
“No, a young addict with the same marks on her back. No one has claimed her but she had some papers shoved into a bag hidden in her skirts. We managed to get to them before some thief could.” The old man sighed. “But given how filthy and bloody she was, I am not surprised she was left for us to deal with.”
With a low groan, Katherine shook her head. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I would be most grateful to you.”
“One day, you should call and invite me to tea just to keep me on my toes.”
Stonewall let loose a deep laugh. “And ruin your stellar reputation by forcing you into the company of an old man like me? You would never withstand the shame!”
Clara accompanied Katherine to the police station, walking with her hands firmly in her coat pockets. She was mostly silent on the walk there, making Katherine worry.
“Will you be alright in the autopsy?” Katherine talked at the ground but Clara reached to tuck one of her crimson curls behind her ear, forcing Kathy to look up.
“I’ll keep it together.” Clara attempted to sound comforting but strain showed around her mouth.
“You don’t have to.” Katherine looked up into the taller woman’s face. “If you have to leave, just don’t go far?”
Relief flooded through her and Clara’s lips split into a wan smile. “I’ll stay in the building if I can’t stand the body.”
Katherine stopped at the top step and leaned up to plant a kiss on Clara’s cheek. “Thank you.”
“Good morning ladies!” Stonewall met them at the front door to police headquarters, uncharacteristically without his suit coat, making his crisp white shirt gleam in contrast to his black slacks and the cloud of dust and smog forming in the air around them. As the day wore on, the clouds would thicken as more homes and businesses increased in activity; belching smoke and steam into the air. “My apologies for calling upon you so early.”
“You’re still full of shit, bossman,” Clara smirked, letting Katherine in first and holding the door open for the older man while ignoring his tut-tut at being coddled.
“I’m glad to be of help, sir,” Katherine said, deciding the sidelong stares of other officers and prim and proper secretaries in their bone corsets scowling at her breeches were not even worth a return glare. The temptation was further heated when those same judgemental eyes set on Clara, who likely gave little attention if she noticed them at all.
“She was found in an alley by the docks and, as per usual, not a single soul heard or saw a darn’d thing.” Stonewall’s voice cut through the clacking of typewriters and loud whispers of shuffling papers. “Much like the young man, the only obvious damage to the body aside for the head are gashes in the shoulder.” Stonewall’s cane clicked louder as if to chide his ogling staff. The cane quieted as they descended the stairs to the morgue.
“You mentioned a bag she had with her. Has anyone gone through it?”
“I did my best to keep that evidence untouched but you know how these things go. Curious hands went poking but the contents are all there.”
“We’re lucky we have a body,” Clara grumbled. “Would be easy to believe someone would steal everything worth selling and dump the body off the pier.”
“That reminds me,” Stonewall sighed. “We are due for a clear out of the unclaimed parts room. It’s getting quite cramped.”
Katherine’s eyes widened but Clara patted her shoulder and shook her head. Now was not the time for diversions and Katherine could lose herself for weeks in discovering what random bobbles belonged to who and how it could be repurposed.
“Another time, perhaps?” The anticipation and disappointment in Kathy’s voice made Stonewall cough to cover a laugh.
“Ahem, yes, I am sure they will wait until this case is wrapped up.” Stonewall lead the way to the morgue. The woman naked on the cold slab must have lived rough for many years; skin custard yellow and tight over her bones with little muscle. Her arms were dotted with various shades of bruises and her leg sat awkwardly as if broken and set improperly.
“Looks like she got worked over way before her head got blown off.” Clara’s voice was tight as she placed herself out of the way to give Katherine as much access as she needed to spread out her tools and get to work.
“Over there, my dear.” Stonewall pointed to a wooden table off in a corner with a hastily written note to identify it as belonging to the dead woman.
Katherine donned her magnifying lenses and used a metal pick and tweezers to pull at the skin on the woman’s neck. “Similar blast pattern and blood discoloration.” Kathy moved around the table and held the woman’s hand close to her magnifiers. “Bruising on the fingertips, some ripping off her fingernails.” She turned the palm away from her. “Defensive wounds on forearms. The bruises are of varying age indicating long term abuse.”
Stonewall nodded, jotting down every word in his notepad.
Kathy gently lowered the stiffening arm and turned the body to see her shoulders. “Same markings. Same gang, most likely. I bet she was a carrier, like the boy, and sampling too much of the product.”
“Or getting hooked and trying to horn in to get more drugs for herself,” Clara mumbled, the dark rage in her voice making every living person in the room look up at her. “Musta been desperate. Even skimmin’ off the top wouldn’t be enough so she’d try to sell on her own to buy for herself. Comin down would make her hurt; bad enough that she wouldn’t care about getting beat for cutting in.” Clara looked up to see Katherine and Stonewall staring unabashedly at her. “What? I’ve seen plenty. There’s a ton of ways to make a good lackey. Pain is one. Love is another. They love the drugs and comin’ off the drugs is pain. ‘S not that hard to hook ‘em when you get ‘em with whatever they’re peddling.” Clara shrugged. “Plus there’s all this grimy opium junk in the bag.”
Katherine’s creamy skin paled as Clara’s voice sounded as cold as the body on the slab, the tiny smattering of freckles along her jawline and nose flaring to life. “Clara, darling, can you get me a tea? I know you’re the only one in this place who can make a palatable cup.”
Clara stiffened, her eyes widening and the gold one whirring in a way Stonewall would never catch much less understand. “But I-”
“Trust me, love. Bring one for Stonewall as well. No doubt the old biddies in this place couldn’t make a cuppa with extra hands.”
A shadow of doubt passed over Clara’s face before it was buried under a veil of cold understanding. “They’re morons. I got this.” She turned on a creaking heel and skipped every other step to leave the morgue as fast as possible.
When the heavy door slammed shut, Kathy glared at Stonewall. “I have a horrid theory.”
“They’re back.” She croaked. “The slavers.”
“Clara told me about the punishments she endured as a slave. The only way she would know about such tactics -”
“Sir, we need to-”
The razor-sharp edge of Stonewall’s voice forced her from uttering another word.
“If this group has made a resurgence, we will have to proceed carefully. They must be aware of the overdoses and are trying to clean house. If we tip our hand, they will slip away.”
“Leaving more dead bodies behind.” Katherine chewed on her thumbnail.
In an uncharacteristic move, Stonewall pushed Katherine’s hand away from her mouth. “On the record, I cannot tell you that the dead woman was found on Rue Montain with a woman obviously connected to her lurking in the shadows. She fled before we could question her.”
Before a thousand questions could spill from her lips, Stonewall stopped her. “I would never encourage you to go looking for this green-eyed woman with red hair who likely frequents the opium dens based on her slight build, dry lips, sweaty appearance, and the paraphernalia in the bag. And it would be terribly inappropriate for you to go searching those places.”
“Yes, to do so would be quite improper.”
“And it would be a terrible breach of protocol to tell you her clothing was clearly from the entertainment district. Perhaps a gambling den but likely the circus.”
‘Lovely. I have contacts there.’ Katherine managed to calm her rising panic. “Yes, sir.” She said, throwing her bag together.
“Do remember not to interfere with our investigation, young lady.” The old man smiled, retrieving his cane and resting his hands on the metal top. “And do not hesitate to contact me if you need help.”
Katherine gave a mock salute with a shaking hand and darted up the stairs.
“Good luck young lady.”
Katherine found Clara fiddling with the office stove, a trio of secretaries watching her work. The two women and young man marveled at the rich scent and delicate flavors of the tea Clara managed to brew from the cheap leaves on hand.
“Incredible! I thought nothing could make these weeds palatable!” A smartly dressed clerk in brown tweed with a gold badge on her lapel stating her name and occupation carved into the brass took a long sip of her cup and sighed with bliss.
While Clara looked uncomfortable being surrounded by strangers, pride turned her lips into a small smile. “‘S not that hard. You have to make sure not to make the kettle too hot. Makes the tea bitter cause the leaves get scorched. Never let the water pass 85C or let the leaves sit for longer than 5 minutes or it’s trashed.”
Katherine watched her girlfriend expound on the virtues and preciseness of the perfect cup and almost felt bad for interrupting. Almost, since the same eyes who gleefully judged Clara’s dark skin and manish clothes only minutes before now boggled at her every word and gesture. “Sorry to interrupt.” Despite everything in her tone of voice taking pleasure in doing so. “But we must be on our way.”
Visibly relieved, Clara abandoned the pot and cups and fled to Katherine’s side. “Don’t worry. I save the good tricks for home.” She whispered.
“Excellent.” Kathy smiled, taking Clara by the hand as they left the station.
“Stonewall said a young woman was spotted at the scene. Opium user but dressed like she hails from the entertainment district.”
“I can check the opium dens since that crap was in the bag. It’ll be easier for me to blend in. You’re just too clean.”
“Don’t go alone. Take Audrey with you.”
At Clara’s sigh, Katherine gave her hand a soft squeeze. “I wish you two wouldn’t squabble. You know she would be completely capable of backing you up if necessary. Considering who may be involved, I don’t want you going anywhere alone.”
Nodding, Clara squeezed back.
“I’ll head to the entertainment district. I have contacts there who I bet would be willing to help.”
“You shouldn’t go alone either,” Clara whispered. “Vi should go with you.”
Katherine stopped walking and looked up at Clara. “A bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“I don’t trust that your contacts won’t try and sell you out ‘cause that High-Born kid died.”
Tucking a red curl behind her ear with a sloppy grin on her face, Katherine reached up to kiss Clara’s cheek. “Alright, love. We’ll both grab some essentials from home and meet up with them there. We’ll get started at sunset. Can you contact Elvira for me? I never quite know how to get a hold of her. And I will call Audrey for you.”
“By the Great Mother, what is happening over there?” Katherine shouted into the telephone to be heard over the cacophony of sounds on the other end.
“We have been swamped with these addicts! We managed to get most of them calmed down but they must be watched to ensure they don’t die in their sleep!” Audrey paused to mumble instructions to someone. “Word has reached the wall. My Sisters and Brothers who have traveled there confirmed the High-Borns gathering Agents. They don’t want any Flight getting over the wall and don’t want the users making a fuss to inconvenience them.” Someone screamed in the background and Audrey barked out an order for a healer to bring more sedatives. Katherine made a mental note to formulate a greater supply of medicines for the temples as soon as possible.
“Stonewall gave us a possible lead on a girl lurking around the last body the police found. Can we steal you away to help Clara check some of the places she may frequent?”
“Only if I can take a brief nap in your parlor. Though it may not be proper, I have not slept in a full day.”
“Not a problem at all, dear. I completely understand. Just come right in and settle. Clara and I will prepare while you rest.”
“Bless you, Kathy. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
When Katherine heard the jagged crackle of the line disconnecting, she replaced the receiver on the cradle and went to get a blanket for Audrey but bumped into a hard wall of muscle and animal hide. A plume of blood-red hair covered all but the lips of the much taller woman.
“Goddess, Elvira! Don’t sneak up on me like that, please!” Katherine held one hand where her pistol would be and the other clenched tight against her chest as if that could prevent a heart attack.
Elvira tilted her head and bowed slightly.
“Apology accepted.” Katherine took a bracing deep breath and unclenched her shoulders. “Would you like anything while you wait? I don’t dare attempt tea but some juice perhaps?” Her guest shook her head. “Milk then? And some tea cakes? Those I have a dangerous reputation for. In a good way.”
Elvira nodded vigorously, a smile curling her thick lips and Katherine thought she saw her bounce on her toes in excitement but did not dare to so much as twitch an eyebrow to show she noticed such a thing.
Katherine offered Vi a chair and reached for a metal tin set back on their kitchen counter. She placed a small collection of the soft, white cakes with blue frosting on a glass plate and set them in front of Elvira to nibble on while she poured the milk.
Sitting down with two glasses, Katherine watched Elvira devour the sweet cakes without bothering to comment on her manners. Elvira’s time as a child slave taught her to gobble up food the moment it became available lest she starve. “I trust Clara has brought you up to speed?”
A single nod this time and Vi dusted crumbs off her lips onto her plate to avoid leaving a mess on the table or on her lap.
“Excellent. I don’t anticipate trouble but you never know in the entertainment district. Clara and I agree none of us should be alone.” Katherine sipped at her milk and stared into her cup.
With a small nod, she blushed and held up her plate in her hands.
“Of course you can have more!” Katherine hurried to the kitchen to load up the plate with less concern for aesthetics and more concern for Elvira’s sweet tooth. “Perhaps one day I can teach you to make them? Clara despises cooking but perhaps you-”
“Hey.” Clara came down the stairs, the creaking leather of leather and her hidden crossbow the only herald to her arrival. “You ready?”
“Surely she has time to finish her snack?” Katherine set the plate back down and Elvira set to devour them immediately. “And the entertainment district doesn’t get going until after sunset.”
“I suppose… But you should start gettin’ ready and check your gear just in case.”
“Yes, you’re right, of course.” Katherine looked up into Clara’s eyes. “Audrey will be along as soon as she can. I won’t leave until she gets here.” She said, then went up to put on her protective leathers and load her pistols.
Clara sat next to Elvira and managed to steal a single cake to munch on. “You remember what to do, right?”
Vi sighed, annoyed at the question.
“Don’t get all huffy. It’s our old friends.”
Elvira tilted her head, allowing her hair to part briefly to reveal a disbelieving stare.
“Yeah, I know. We thought we got them all but it looks like not so much.”
Elvira emptied her plate and finished her milk. Crumbs fell from her lips as she frowned, brows furrowed behind the wild plume of her hair.
“Like roaches, I know.” Clara fiddled with Katherine’s abandoned glass, wishing it was anything but milk so she could finish it off. She would rather drink Kathy’s shitty tea than milk. “You just make sure you keep a keen eye on my Kathy, ya hear?”
Elvira pointed to Clara’s chest then to her gold eye.
“Oh yeah, I wound it. I won’t let them take me again. Just promise you’ll look after Katherine. She’s tough but she doesn’t… Know. Not really.”
Elvira tapped her fingers on her lips then spread her fingers open.
“I told some. Not all of it. I don’t like to remember.”
“Don’t give me that. I know she loves me and would share my burden and all that shit. But that burden left me scarred up and fucked up in the head and weighs you down so bad you can’t talk. We’ll see if our lips loosen once this is all over. When Jakon is dead.”
Vi’s breath hitched and she hid it poorly by draining the last drops of milk from her glass.
“He must have survived what we did to him. We know he liked to cut…”
Elvira released the glass with slow, deliberate movements and sat back, the leather of her cuirass groaning as she took a breath that would have been a growl if she ever made a sound.
“We’ll get him, Vi.” Clara growled for them both but cut it short when the doorbell rang. “That’ll be Audrey. She’s gonna sleep so you guys’ll probably leave first.” She looked longingly up the stairs. “Watch over her. Make sure she comes back to me.”
Vi stood and walked up to Clara, putting a hand on her shoulder and forced Clara to look at her. Despite the height difference, Elvira pressed their foreheads together. They both breathed in and out, falling into sync. A familiar rhythm from when they had neighboring cages after being stolen from a Sister’s orphanage as young children.
“I trust you.” Clara whispered.
Vi nodded and gently pushed Clara toward the door when the bell sounded again.
“Thanks.” Clara went to the door before Audrey could pass out on their doorstep.
Elvira went back to the table and put her dishes in the sink. She found a cloth napkin and wiped down the table to make sure she didn’t leave a single crumb, shook it out over the sink, and folded it to leave on the counter. Perhaps she would take up the offer to learn to bake. If they survived Jakon a second time.
Elvira slipped into step beside Katherine as naturally as if they were best friends out for a grand night of macabre whimsy rather than searching down a lead on a pair of gruesome murders. It was easier for the taller Elvira to fit in with the menagerie of people willing to frequent the entertainment district at night when darkness gave courage to more dangerous offerings. Despite living in Trixa for many years now, Katherine never lost the mannerisms of her High-Born heritage.
Katherine scowled at the mangy dogs in filthy costumes dancing miserably in the hopes their owner will be tossed a few coppers, shifty fortune tellers, and fraudulent medicines bound to inflict much worse than they claimed to cure sold to desperate customers. It galled her to keep to task and not shut down such shysters.
Vi brushed her hand against Kathy’s and kept her eyes forward.
“I’m focused, my friend.” Katherine led the way through the crowd and a mixture of food and animal hide wafted towards them in puffs of steam, winding through the stream of people to the larger tents in the center of the chaos. The air turned more pungent with the scents of fur and excrement. “This way. My acquaintance will be in her private tent between shows. If she’s not there, we’ll wait for her.”
They stopped at a gold tent with black trim and bright red ropes winding the posts holding it to the ground. “Hello?” Kathy called, rustling the closed tent flaps. “Jessica, are you in?”
“Is that my dear Katherine? “A sing-song voice tinkled from behind the gold cloth. “Come in, darling. It has been too long.”
Pulling aside the heavy drapery, Katherine stepped inside to a wall of thick incense and scented oils; the overly sweet to the sour air outside. Upon seeing Jessica pull her robe up her bare shoulders, Katherine hurried to close the tent flap behind Elvira. “You should have said something if you were undressed.” She averted her eyes from the exposed dark skin with white blooms up her slim neck and face.
Jessica turned as she tied the belt on her plush cotton robe, the metal prosthetic on her left hand creaking as she did so. “Come now, we have been friends too long for such nonsense.”
“Friends is a strange term.”
Sliding on to a lounge covered in soft furs, Jessica pressed her hand to her heart, failing to appear wounded in the slightest. “Such a cruel woman.” Her thin lips curled into a lopsided grin that made the scars from sharp claws on her cheek shimmer. Jessica appraised her two visitors, one white eye caused by the splash of vitiligo on her face and the other almost sinfully dark chocolate brown. “And what does my not-friend come to see me about? I am not due for any deliveries for a few weeks so if you are running low on certain supplies, there will be a delay.”
Vi tilted her head but Katherine did not explain. “Information is what we seek today. Likely you have heard of the recent murders.”
“Why, they are the talk of the town, my dove! The rabble speak of nothing else now. Makes me long for the sweet comfort of my menagerie.” Jessica made a vague gesture towards the animal cages. As flippant as she seemed mentioning them, it was clear through her scars, bruises, a chapped hand with nubby fingernails, and the other hand replaced with a hook showed deep dedication to the welfare of her creatures.
“And since their needs are so varied, I wondered if, in your service to your brood, you have come across any unusual cargo?”
Jessica eyed Elvira then sat up and crossed her long spotted legs. “I would never-”
“All ears are safe here, Jess. Elvira would never say a word even if she could. Speak freely.”
Jess stood and padded over to a record player on a stand next to an impressively ornate vanity piled high with heavily scented soaps, lotions, and perfumes. She turned on the clanging circus tunes up high with the horn outward so the music overpowered their voices. She then stepped close to Elvira and Katherine with firm determination in her eyes. “You know my stance on such disreputable filth but yes, I have seen some highly nefarious individuals using the most bedraggled urchins they snatch up to transport a vile-smelling substance hidden amongst legitimate cargo.” Jess put the finger of her flesh left hand to her sharp chin in thought, resting her elbow on her hooked hand. “At first I believed it some bootleg liquor and thought to inquire with my own trusted and reliable contacts for a bottle of my own when one of their shipments came in contact with a shipment of my special live food for my dear Anton.”
“Anton was my beautiful Kori bird. Poor thing, I found him when he was small with a mangled wing and no mother in sight. I took care of him his whole life. He needed lizards from his homeland and I was more than happy to spare any expense to get them for him.” Jessica moved away, looking at a lonely spot in the corner of her tent where an empty perch still sat. “Those bastards spilled their filthy powder on my lizards and Anton ate one before I realized they were contaminated. If I had just looked closer…” Her voice caught with a sob she swallowed. “He went mad and attacked me; frothing at the mouth and convulsing so hard he broke his neck.”
When a tear slipped down Jessica’s cheek, Katherine reached up to place her hand on her shoulder. “I can see he was quite dear to you. I am sorry for your loss.”
“I shall persevere, dear Katherine.” Jess wiped her tears with her metal hand and stepped away from the offered hand before it could be retracted.
“Do you still have those lizards?”
“They are all dead as well. I burned them after my dear Anton. I still have the remains, if you wish. I did not know how to dispose of them without risking further contamination.”
“May I have them? Perhaps I will be able to use the sample to help develop a treatment.”
Jessica nodded with a wet sniff and retrieved a thick cloth sack and a wood box and dropped them into Kathy’s waiting hands. “These are Anton’s bones.” Jess tapped her metal hand on the lovely box, the candle light catching the deep grooves and stylized carvings that were a staple of Katherine’s customized work. “In exchange for my help, I would like you to fashion something with them for me. Something I can keep with me always.”
“I will, indeed. Once all this nasty business is concluded.” Katherine handled the box with as much reverence as it was given. “Thank you for the information. We will head for the docks right away.”
Jessica smiled wide. “You are a good not-friend, dear girl.”
“When I need to be.” Kathy inclined her head and left with Elvira right beside her.
“Are you sure your cloak and garb will protect you?” Clara squinted against the thick smoke curling in front of the door to the opium den. Even before the vestibule, the smoke telegraphed the establishment’s intentions; the air swirling with sweet poison. She did not relish the faux delights of the air inside.
Audrey tried not to yawn. Her nap helped but it would be some time before she got the sleep she truly needed to feel herself. “I cannot make promises as it is clear an addict will not behave predictably.” Another half yawn escaped but she curtailed the tail end of it. “We have sedated some of the more violent ones.”
“The crazies won’t be stopped by red robes.” Clara grumbled, stopping at a set of descending stairs heading down to a black door with red light seeping through the doorframe.
“This is the fourth establishment. Do you believe we will find this woman?”
“If not her then someone who’s seen her. Users are a tight group. No money to really go far so they know how to hide, scatter, then find each other again when it’s time for their next hit.”
“A pity they use such skills to destroy their bodies.” Audrey picked up her skirts to walk down the stairs, angling herself so she could be seen clearly when whoever was on the other side of the door slid open the large peephole to appraise her and Clara. “I am from the Temple of the Sacred Sisters.” Audrey bowed her head to the doorman. Pulling back her red hood so the outdoor lanterns could illuminate her face. “I am not here to lecture, only to ensure others are not suffering the same symptoms as the poor souls who have flooded to us for help.”
Ice blue eyes squinted through the slot before it slammed shut with a rusty thud and an even more grating whine of rust on rust sang out when the door opened. A towering man with bulk belying his gaunt face loomed over them as the two women squeezed by him to enter. “Watch yourself.” He muttered, more to Clara than to Audrey and while the former ignored him and kept walking, the latter turned on her heel and looked sternly into his eyes.
“My friend is here to help keep me safe in case one of these people driven mad by this new drug attack me. Do not disrespect anyone who is willing to protect a Sacred Sister.”
Clara tried not to let her jaw drop as the man seemed to shrink under the weight of the dressing down. “Pardon me, Sister.” His voice cracked and he retreated to his post at the door.
“Uhm… Thank you.” Clara waited for Katherine to join her before venturing down a long hallway side by side.
“Never stand for such treatment.” Katherine adjusted her hood around her shoulders, golden curls bouncing as she walked.
“Maybe that’s easy for a Sister. Or for Kathy. Not so much for me.” Clara shrugged.
Audrey didn’t say anything further about it, knowing some still judged Clara simply by her skin color.
The smoke thickened as they neared the back room. Audrey pulled out her handkerchief to cover her nose and mouth while Clara sniffed and grimaced at the itchy feeling in her nostrils. The cloudy hallway split open into a huge circular room spotted with lounge chairs and massive pillows all weighed down by broken doll-like bodies of the patrons of the opium den.
A man swathed in a black silk robe with linen pants underneath shuffled up to them with thin raised brows and a confused frown on his chapped lips. “The pair of you clearly do not partake.” He rasped, throat raw from frequent smoking. “And Sisters never come here. What do you want?”
“We are looking for a young woman who was seen at the scene of a recent murder. We are hoping to speak with her.” Audrey’s posture was one of pure business.
The man looked at Clara, gold eyes stopping at the glint of an air pistol in her holster. “You’re looking to do more than talk.”
Audrey stepped forward. “I swear on my oath as a Sister only words will be exchanged. We wish to find out who could be behind the murders before the High-Born security forces swarm over us. Unlike our own police, they will not hesitate to rip this city apart.” She held out her hand. “I am Sister Audrey of The Temple of the Great Mother and I swear this is truth.”
“Gerald. Brother to these sad sacks on the pillows.” He bent to press his dry lips feather-light to Audrey’s gloved knuckles. “As I am the owner of this establishment and the most lucid, I may have some information for you but I will be frank. My faith is lacking these days as is fear from death by rich city cops.”
Clara pulled a small cloth bag and a slip of paper from her jacket pocket. “A dozen gold coins. When this nonsense is over, that paper has a note to The Temple so you’re first on the list for treatment should any twitchers end up here.” Clara smirked, her golden eye glinting on the lamplight. “I bet you don’t want a bunch of burnouts making this fancy place of yours all grody like the rest of the dives. So you’ll be extra honest, yeah?”
Gerald plucked the money and the paper from her hand, dropping them both into the pocket of his robe. “Of course, dear ladies.”
“May we speak in a different room?” Audrey tried to cough delicately from behind her handkerchief only to emit a garbled, wet sound from her throat.
“Of course.” He crooked his finger and walked from the room to the first closed door in the hallway and welcomed them inside.
“Thank you.” Audrey sighed with relief at the comparatively cleaner air.
“Take any seat you like.” Gerald sat at a small dining table in the luxurious room; deep red curtains and dark wood furniture, including a spartan desk with every utensil and paper in pristine order.
Audrey took a seat opposite him but Clara remained standing behind her chair. Audrey folded her hands expectantly in her lap. “Please go ahead.”
“A young woman did come in yesterday wanting some of the stronger offerings in our selection. Quite unusual for her as she favors little poppers to perk her up or mellow her out. It was her little friend, Jesse who was decidedly experimental in the past.”
“This Jesse was seen here with the new drug?”
“That little idiot tried to sell it here. You may feel we deal in sinful decadence, honorable Sister Audrey but I stand by my business. My den deals in opium and perhaps some hashish or cannabis. Not some strange, unpredictable, twitchy garbage that leaves you trembling and itchy if you don’t get a bigger hit.”
With an angry snort, Clara scowled. “Must be nice to have high standards.”
Gerald met her scowl with a mirthless chuckle. “My little toxies are harmless little lumps, lolling around in their pillows until their time here is done. This new thing is different.” He put his ankle on his knee and leaned back, his brows creased in imperious disgust. “She called it Flight. Fitting when you consider how it feels before you hit bottom after your high. These doves have tasted the sky and now the ground burns them. So, I turned Jesse and her friend out because such a thing would destroy my business.”
Audrey took a deep breath, her blue eyes fluttering as she processed it all. “That is a strange moral high ground to have, if I may be so bold.”
“Well, dear Sister.” He smirked, yellowing teeth gleaming in the lamplight. “A skilled winemaker could hardly think it a good idea to sell a product of garbage quality to make a quick coin while their quality stock is ignored nor would I risk my reputation on some slop to try the same. In all honesty, my business depends on repeat customers. Trips on Flight are few in number and word on the street tells me the destination is sickness and madness. I threw her out and a rather surly gentleman waiting on the street did not seem pleased I turned her away. He got quite violent with her.”
“Can you elaborate?” Audrey tilted her head and tapped a flawlessly painted fingernail on her chin. “This woman’s friend may have information that could lead to ending the scourge of this new drug.”
“From what she showed me, it’s a red powder that’s snorted; sold in little bags with a nicely done butterfly as a logo. Great Mother, what was that girl’s name… Lea! I didn’t catch the man’s name, however. Both women fled when he threatened them. All in all, it was clear Lea was trying to keep her friend Jesse out of trouble. Likely Jese was sampling more than she was selling given how she was shaking.”
Clara clicked her tongue. “Rookie mistake. Never sample what you’re supposed to be sellin’.”
“Smart woman.” Gerald gave a wink that sent a chill up her spine.
“What did the man look like?” Audrey said.
“He was the bully sort, cuts all over his face and some horrid scars on his neck and face. He threatened to cut her right there in the street with bulky prosthetic.”
Clara stifled a growl. She was right. It was Jakon.
“The dead girl, Jese, must have been killed by that man or whoever he works with.” Audrey tapped her nose now as she pondered. “Would you know where Lea is now?”
“She didn’t have the funds for her needs and went to procure them. She claimed she would be back tonight but one never knows. You are welcome to wait as long as you don’t stir up any trouble.”
“We will be the very soul of discretion.” Audrey stood. “I am sure you do not want us waiting in here?”
Gerald stood. “We do have a waiting room, of course. I’m sure she will be along and my doorman remembers her. I will instruct him to point her out to you.”
“It is much appreciated.” Audrey followed Gerald with Clara behind them but only Audrey noticed the poorly veiled rage on Clara’s face. When they were left alone in the dimly lit waiting room, Audrey pondered any way to politely inquire what was bothering her.
“Don’t.” The one-eyed woman growled, sinking deeper into the soft cushions of the couch as she hugged herself so tight, the leather of her jacket and wrist-mounted crossbow creaked.
Audrey’s lips pressed together in worry but she said nothing, straightening her back and folding her hands in her lap.
It wasn’t long before the doorman signaled them with a wave and a short, painfully thin woman with stringy brown hair shuffled through the foyer, green eyes darting from one end of the room to the other.
Clara readied to jump to her feet but Audrey stopped her with a soft touch to her arm. “Let her get comfortable. She’ll bolt if we pounce on her right away.” She looked up at Clara. “I let you stew. Now, listen to me. Can you fake being high? To get close to her and get her talking.”
“Yeah.” Clara’s voice was a clipped growl and she slipped out from under Audrey’s hand to follow Lea. “If you can’t find me and she’s still here, go home and get Kathy. She’ll know what to do.”
Audrey snatched at Clara’s coat sleeve with one hand and the other rested on her belt. “Don’t you dare. We came in together, we leave together. I will raze this place to the ground and bring you with me hogtied before I leave you behind.”
Clara sighed and took her seat again and Audrey relaxed and sat beside her. “I know. I’m sure Kathy made you promise.”
“You may not like me but not just a promise to Katherine would make me want to ensure your safety. There is a deadly drug on the streets and heads are exploding.” Audrey’s hard blue eyes made Clara’s heart skip. “We are all Go Aways. We stick together.”
Naked shock left Clara frozen in place for a moment. “Got it. I got it, Audrey.”
The Sister sighed in relief. “Good then-”
Audrey’s words were cut off by a puff of sleeping powder to the face. In seconds the Sacred Sister shut her eyes and fell into Clara’s arms. “You don’t get it. And I’m glad you don’t.” Clara set Audrey back up and put her hood over her head so she looked like she was still waiting on the couch. Clara stood and walked up to the doorman. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what could happen if my friend there even so much has a curl mussed or lipstick smudged until she wakes up. Unless you want the wrath of every Temple on this door. Understand?”
The doorman gulped, his lungs rattling as an unfortunate side effect of his place of employment. “Yes.”
“Good boy.” Clara slapped him on the shoulder and went to follow Lea. She watched the young woman tottle down the hallway. Clara kept silent, noting this was not a drug-induced shuffle. She could hear Lea sniff and sigh, wiping at her eyes. Grief? Maybe shock? Likely both if she saw her friend’s head turn to froth in the middle of the street. What was mildly atypical to Clara would be horrifying to a regular woman like Lea. Especially if it was a close friend.
Clara squeezed her eyes shut tight until light bloomed one and the mechanics of the other whirred to express its annoyance. She felt tempted to rub them the way Katherine did when she stared at her screens too long.
‘Sorry, Kathy.’ She thought, quickening her step. Clara fought the urge to slam her hands down on Lea’s shoulders, drag her off into a dark corner, and manhandle her until information tumbled from those chapped lips. ‘I have to take this chance to end it.’
Lea took her offered pipe and shambled over to a pillow to fall upon with a wet sigh and another sniffle. Clara waited until Lea sucked hard on her pipe, filling her lungs to bursting then releasing the smoke with a sigh.
Clara waited for the drugs to take hold before making her move. “Lea?”
The woman groaned in response. “Waddya want? Ain’t got no money left it I owe ya. I’m smokin’ it.”
“Keep your coin and your dream stick, I just need some information. I want to know about Jese.”
Lea hiccupped, her lightly lined corset twisted with garish colors designed to be seen from a stage, expanded with her torso, allowing extra room for an active stage performer. Perhaps she was a tumbler? A juggler? It must be something on the ground as no arial artist would risk drugs altering their perception. “Don’t wanna talk about that.”
“I want the guy who did it. There’s no reason to protect this asshole. Just tell me where he is.”
Tears trickled down Lea’s cheeks as she turned to face Clara. “I can’t. I didn’t take any jobs from him like Jese but he’ll get me. I can’t tell.”
Clara got up and crouched in front of the crying woman. “He can’t get you if he’s dead.”
“Ya don’t get it. He put somethin’ on em. A collar.” Lea’s tongue faltered as the opium did its job. “A little metal ball at the back of their necks.”
Heart sinking, Clara snatched away the pipe. “I need this guy. He has dangerous drugs and weapons and he’s gotta be stopped.”
“No. NO!” Lea panicked, scratching at Clara’s arm to take the pipe.
“You wanna get high? I want that guy.”
“Hey! Calm down in there!” The doorman shouted, his voice making the other patrons groan unhappily where they lay.
“Give him up, Lea, and I’ll kill him for you. For Jese.”
Lea’s gaunt face fell, sorrow making her entire body wilt into the pillow. “Didna wanna get all involved in the Flight. Is all dirty…”
“Focus, woman. Where’s the boss?”
Lea’s green eyes became overwhelmed with tears. “Jese tol’ me it comes by boat… Over a’the pier… He has a warehouse… Lil’ butterfly on the door…” She mumbled.
Clara took mercy on her and returned the pipe. “That’ll do.” She gruffed and left Lea to her poppies, walking quickly into the street and towards the docks. By the time she arrived, the moon’s light was dimmed by passing clouds; so she slipped into the shadows looking for a door with a butterfly on it. Creeping in the dark, she strained to hear every footstep and creak of wood around her. She started at the first warehouse at the far end of the pier, sneaking from door to door before she lost count of how many before she spotted a freshly painted butterfly on a decrepit door clearly from a defunct company due to the age of the wood as compared to the fresher paint of the logo. The average passerby would hardly notice it unless they were searching for it.
Avoiding an approaching guard – or goon, more like considering his wide frame and shabby clothes – Clara searched for a quiet way inside. After her second pass around the warehouse, Clara found a cracked window and crouched to listen to the men talking inside.
“This junk has people too sick. We gotta cut the mixture with something.”
“We’ve cut it twice. It’s your runners oversellin’. That High-Born boy tried to sell over the wall and that girl tried to hit up the opium trade. We don’t need either of those people breathin’ down our necks.”
“Too late for that.”
‘That voice…’ Clara’s ears rang as rage shot through her. Jakon, that shit bastard, was still alive.
“The Sisters are already mobilizing at the wall because of that stupid kid. We’ll have to move this stuff out of Trixa on the next ship. Once the prissy High-Born agents are done, we can come back in. Flight is a money magnet in this city and there are bigger cities out there. We can hit up some of the other ports while the Agents muck about here.”
‘That fucker. He’ll let this city burn to make a few coppers. A coin for your suffering to line his pockets… Twitching misery on a Temple palate, stone-cold in a morgue with no head, a small child shivering in an iron cage with only the cramping of an empty stomach for company…’
In her anger, the sounds around her went unnoticed for too long and Clara only had time to raise her arms to block the punch headed her way. It took her off guard, stars blooming in pain as she was knocked to the ground.
“Fucking nosy druggies.” A nasal voice growled as the large man followed her attempt to squirm away but Clara was too dazed to escape. The noise brought the men inside to the window.
“The hell is going on out there, Thomas?”
“Some dumbshit snoopin’. Lookin’ around for a score, I bet.”
“That’s the third one today!” Jakon rapped his knuckles on the window. “Bring ‘em in here. I’m gonna make an example.”
Clara jammed her heel into her attacker’s stomach. He folded briefly but recovered, grabbing her foot in a meaty hand. He dragged her closer and punched her in the jaw hard enough for Clara to feel her teeth rattle and cut into her lip; blood spurting into her mouth.
Thomas grabbed her by the collar and carried her into the warehouse.
“Tie her up. Let’s get a look at her before I mess her up.” Jakon sneered.
Clara couldn’t tell where the ropes came from, only felt them tighten around her wrists and ankles, leaving her trussed up with her arms behind her and head ringing in pain.
“Great Mother, this is tedious.” Jakon flipped his greying hair out of his eyes; revealing a mess of scars. His mangled, sallow skin and softening figure spoke of days long past when he treated his body well. His belly obscured the top half of his belt and his unkempt beard poorly hid a growing second chin. “Get her up.”
Clara felt a hand wrench her head up by her hair but she refused to utter the slightest sound.
“Hey. Hey! Pay attention!” Jakon slapped her across the face, splitting her lip a second time and making strands of her hair stick in the blood and sweat on her face.
“What the-” Jakon gripped Clara’s chin in a clumsy, bruising grip with a three-pronged metal appendage. “Oh, there is nothing I could’ve done in my life to deserve this gift.”
“Who’s this, then?” Thomas said.
“We were once such good friends; weren’t we, little one.”
Clara met Jakon’s eyes, clearly seeing the twisted bloom of scars over his forehead, slithering into his hairline where a few determined strands grew through the burned flesh. His right eye was white and useless but the ear behind it was replaced with a clunky bronze contraption shaped like a tiny gramophone horn than a human ear. She smiled, teeth pink with her blood. “Lookin’ good, Jakon. Cleansin’ flame’s a good look for ya.”
He squeezed tighter, the gears in his pincher whining, “Still a smart mouth.” Jakin released her and shoved her down into the dusty floor.
“What are we gonna do with her?” One of his compatriots asked, nudging her with his foot.
“Let’s get the rest of those crates loaded before me and my old friend get reacquainted. Toss her in the old back office and lock her in. She won’t be able to cause trouble in there. I emptied it out of the essentials.”
“Sure thing, boss.” Once again, Clara was hauled up and roughly dragged away.
“Oh, it’ll be a blast, Jakon.” Clara snorted, spitting blood at his feet.
“Shut up.” The man carrying her shook her, making her head spin. By the time Clara got her bearings, she was dumped on to the cold ground.
Her shoulder joined in the chorus of pain along with her jaw and Clara wondered idly if anything was broken. When the lock turned, she sat up to take stock of her surroundings. As Jakon said, the office was emptied; every wall stripped and some empty drawers carelessly left open in the cheap desk on its side shoved into a corner. Discarded office supplies lay strewn on the floor but nothing sturdy enough to help her escape.
With her wrists bound behind her and ankles tied tight, she scooted back so she could lean her aching head against the rickety wood desk. The cool touch soothed her but it still took effort to unclench her teeth. ‘The grinding causes static. Musn’t grind…’
Panting heavily, Audrey ran at full speed, her skirts pulled up in tight fists to keep from tripping. She didn’t slow at all until she could pound her fists on Katherine’s door. “Katherine!” She pulled frantically at the bell and kept hitting the door. “Gods, Katerine! Please be here! You must be here!”
“Hold on, hold on!” A muffled voice from the other side responded and Audrey heard Katherine fumbling with the latch. “What in the world-”
“No time! It’s Clara! Gods, Kathy, I am so sorry!”
All color drained from Katherine’s face. She pulled Audrey inside and slammed the door behind them. “What happened?”
Audrey still wiped her feet before pacing and waving her hands in a frenzy as she spoke. “We tracked the woman but when she came to the opium den, Clara hit me with sleeping powder and by the time I awoke, she was gone!”
Katherine didn’t speak. Her world blurred and she fumbled her way to the nearest soft surface to sit down. “What. Exactly. Happened.”
Audrey’s steps slowed but she gestured with her hands between wiping smeared makeup from her face. Elvira offered her a handkerchief to mop her face. “May the Great Mother forgive me. Clara saw the girl and I told her we Go Away’s stick together. She agreed but Mother damn it all, it was a trick.”
For a terrible moment, Audrey watched Katherine process this information with increasing dread that transformed from pale to flushed determination on Kathy’s cheeks. “Give me a time frame.” Her voice was cold logic as she pushed herself up from the chair.
Audrey followed. “The doorman confessed to an hour and a half at most from when Clara left and told him to ensure I was not bothered while I slept.”
“That should be ok.” Kathy sprinted to her lab with Audrey and Elvira close behind. To save time, they squeezed into the air chamber together but Katherine was the first to exit; sliding into her chair and flipping on a small monitor before using her hand to adjust it to be closer to her.
Audrey and Vi gathered around to watch the screen as it blinked to life and came into focus revealing a map of Trixa. A blinking dot blossomed in the middle, widening into concentric circles.
“What is this?” Audrey gasped.
“Clara’s eye isn’t just so she can see. Hell, it’s not even the first I made for her. I’ve added several customizations including a radio transmitter. I can track the signal and get her current location.”
Elvira blew through her lips as if she could whistle and Audrey gasped in equal awe. “My friend, this is ingenious. Practically magical.”
Katherine hummed in lieu of thanks, her eyes transfixed on the screen as it moved, honing in on Clara’s location. “Did she say anything at all to give you a clue as to why she would leave you behind?”
“Nothing overt. She was agitated and honestly too agreeable when I insisted we stay together.” Audrey stepped back, tears forming in her eyes. “Damn me, I should have been more attentive. I should have known.”
“No, I should have.” Kathy’s fingers drummed on her desk as the signal zeroed in. “The source of these drugs has ties to the men who kept Clara and Vi as slaves. They seem to have transferred their misery to the drug trade.”
Elvira’s chin trembled before she looked down and away, her hair concealing more of her face than usual.
“Apologies, Vi, but this is not the time to curb my speech. If it softens the blow, Clara declined details so while I know what you both endured was horrific, I know little detail and you should not be ashamed. If you have secrets, they are and will remain yours.” Katherine’s eyes never left the screen so she missed the relief in Elvira’s unclenching hands and lowered shoulders. “There! She’s at the docks! The far end where a bunch of companies closed years ago.”
Audrey moved closer to the screen. “Probably where they’re bringing Flight in. Could she have found the dealers?”
“Perhaps…” Katherine turned a dial and the screen shifted, narrowing the map to give them a more precise location. “We’ll call Stonewall. The police may be able to-”
A deep trill of an alarm cut her off, making Katherine’s breath hitch, horror filling her blue eyes. “No…”
“What is that?”
“We have an hour to get to her at most.”
“I’ll have Stonewall meet me there. You need to rally some of your fastest Sisters and evacuate the area around Clara’s location. Vi, you come with me.”
“Kathy, I should be with you!”
“Get as many people as far away as possible, you hear me! People will die if we don’t act in time!”
“In time for what? Tell me what is going on!”
“One of those customizations for Clara’s eye is an explosive. That’s the stolen design I believe caused these murders.”
Audrey stepped back from Katherine, shaking her head and gulping down any further questions. “I’ll call the temple. We’ll begin clearing the area right away.”
“Tell them to keep as low a profile as possible.” Katherine checked her air gun and snatched up her bag of tools. “I don’t want any of the criminals to get spooked and run off before we can round them up.”
“Understood.” Audrey nodded once and ran out of the lab and to the telephone to tell her temple the plan.
On their way out of the lab, Elvira tugged on Katherine’s sleeve.
“Stick close to me until I say. If I tell you to run, don’t hesitate. Go as fast as you can.”
Elvira tugged again.
“She made me swear she would never become a slave again. Clara said she would rather be dead and take her captors with her. It was the only way she would accept the eye. The only way she would stay and stop hunting them.” Katherine swallowed her tears. “I never thought she would have to use it.”
Elvira sighed, patted Kathy’s shoulder, then exited the lab while adjusting the scabbards of the dirks on her back.
“Don’t forgive me.” Kathy mumbled and hurried to follow.
Clara didn’t hear the door open, only alerted she was no longer alone by the blinding light filling the dark office.
“That’s more like how I remember you.” Jakon sneered.
Smiling, Clara lifted her head, blood drying on the side of her head from a wound above her now empty eye socket. “Feelin’ nostalgic? Lemmie loose and I’ll help ya relive gettin’ your arm lopped off.”
She was able to tense her abdomen just in time for the blow so the heavy boot would leave a bruise but Clara didn’t throw up or let the eye slip through her fingers. “We are going to have such fun once we leave the harbor. Maybe put my little poppers all over your body. Blow you apart one limb at a time…”
“Must’ve got my gift f’r talkin’ from you.” Clara coughed, her diaphragm protesting in a wave of pain. “Too bad you weren’t gifted with better gear. Your creaky, rusty mods make my head hurt.”
“After your little stunt left me maimed and my business ruined, I didn’t have much coin to spare for fancy equipment like that eye of yours.” He grabbed her by the hair and twisted her head to see the empty eye socket. “Looks like your fancy shit isn’t much better, sweet girl.”
Now Clara’s stomach churned at the familiar term and she audibly gagged at the stench of his breath.
“Yeah, you must have missed me. I thought of you and your little red-haired friend every moment as they scraped away dead, charred skin and fitted me with these metal contraptions.” The muscles in Jakon’s shoulder tensed and the metal arm obeyed, shuddering gears twitching the poorly oiled pincher as it slid down her cheek, smearing her blood. “Took forever to find an engineer to skim some parts from some curious shipments to build this thing.”
“Built those little gadgets that blows up heads, too?” Clara growled.
“Strangest little things. Messy. My engineer went spyin’ on some girl builder purchases and worked out how to build ‘em. A little spark, fuel under pressure… Never got them smaller than a baby’s fist but on a collar, they kept my little ones in line.” Jakon clenched his fist and Clara felt hair ripping from her scalp. “I’ll fit you with them so we can play like we used to. This time, I’ll break you for sure.”
Clara tightened her fist, feeling the gold eye turn with a click. “Playtime’s almost up.”
Katherine pushed the speed on her motorbike as fast as she dared with a woman who refused a helmet clinging to her waist and a priestess in her sidecar wishing she could wear two of them. When they reached the outer docks, Katherine killed the engine and shoved the keys into her jacket pocket. “Audrey, stay with the bike until more Sisters arrive. Since you insisted on riding with us, you will have to guide them and back them up.”
“I am still not comfortable letting you go without me.”
“Miss Katherine! Sister Audrey?” Stonewall jumped from his motorcar with senior officers following close behind. “Goodness, Miss Elvira! A pity to see you after so long under these circumstances.”
Elvira smiled but lifted a long finger to her lips.
“Good advice, dear woman.” Stonewall winked and saluted with his cane.
Another motor car slipped next to Stonewall’s and a cluster of red cloth and stern expressions ready for instructions stood before Audrey; which she was thrilled to provide. “We need to evacuate the area of any civilians in the vicinity. Stay away from the police barrier so the targets don’t get a chance to escape. Step lightly, step quickly. We need to clear at least one kilometer, two to be sure. Let’s go!” Audrey didn’t need to direct her fellow Sisters further as they looked to one another then darted off in different directions to carry out their orders.
“Officers, assist them in any capacity.” Stonewall stripped off his coat and tossed it back into his car, the black of his leather holster glaring against the crisp white of his shirt and brown suspenders.
Elvira drew both dirks from her back and followed Katherine to the warehouse where Clara’s signal came from. Three Sisters flanked them, each directing any person they found towards the officers to be evacuated. Katherine raised an eyebrow upon seeing Stonewall at her side, his cane slipped into his suspenders at his back and pistol in hand.
“I failed these young ladies as children. I will not do so again.”
Rebuttals died on her lips and Kathy surged forward with her compatriots close behind her. The two remaining Sisters with Audrey went to find any other civilians and the three of them hid in the shadows, approaching the building from the back. Elvira elbowed Katherine and pointed to a single guard outside a door with a butterfly on it. Katherine opened her mouth to whisper instructions but before she could utter a single syllable, Elvira was gone. Once they noticed she was missing and looked back at the door, there was only a spray of blood and the man was gone.
Stonewall tapped Kathy’s arm and pointed up to the roof where an Elvira shaped shadow flashed by. They shrugged and made their way to the blood-spattered door. The body was nowhere to be found and no other guards could be seen or heard. Katherine and Stonewall took up a post on either side of the door and waited. Stonewall pulled his pistol; Katherine noting it was far from a standard issue for a common police officer but made no mention. The perpetually lacking budget the Trixa police force has inflicted upon it must have inspired Stonewall to get creative with some custom gear. Perhaps Katherine would have to take him up on an offer to take tea with him when things calmed down to compare engineering notes.
The lights within the warehouse went off and the sound of men shouting turned into the gurgles of a slit throat and bodies hitting the floor.
Stonewall used the noise and confusion to shoot the knob and lock off the door; one-handed to brace himself from the kickback from the deceptively powerful weapon. They both spun away from the door as pistol fire peppered the thick wood until Elvira finished her work; cutting them down until Katherine and Stonewall could burst in and take whatever cover they could find.
Stonewall picked off two more men while Katherine provided him with cover fire. When her gun emptied and she needed to reload, Stonewall shouted. “Light it up!”
Both he and Kathy shut their eyes as tight as they could and Elvira flipped the lights back on to reveal only three men left.
“What the hell is going on?” Jakon burst from the office, thinking the lights coming back on meant he was safe.
“Boss, don’t!” The warning came too late, cut off by a bullet to the chest from Stonewall, and Katherine’s reloaded pistol took out the remaining two.
Elvira, eyes still blocked by her plume of red hair and showing all her hatred through the snarl on her lips, sprung from above and her blade severed the flesh and bone of Jakon’s remaining organic hand from his body.
“Don’t let him bleed out! Take him alive!” Katherine trusted her companions to do so as she ran past them. “Clara!? Clara, where are you?”
“Kathy?” A weak moan carried through Jakon’s screams and foul-mouthed vows to destroy whoever took his remaining hand. Elvira stood over him, her face blank, watching his blood spurt out of the stump in the tempo of his heartbeat.
Stonewall lunged forward and used the weighted pommel of his cane to knock Jakon out and stop his screaming. He made a tourniquet out of his belt while Katherine ran into the office to find Clara bloodied and bruised on the floor.
“Where is it!?” Katherine fell to her knees and pulled Clara’s head into her lap. “Baby, where?!”
Clara coughed, melting into the soft pillow Katherine’s thighs provided. “Din’t let go. ‘S in mah hands…”
Without the care she would normally show, Kathy spilled out her bag and fumbled her tool pouch open with one hand and snatched the eye away with the other. Unwilling to let the ticking bomb in the eye out of her sight, she selected her tools by touch alone and somehow kept her hands from shaking as she worked to disassemble the entire mechanism and destroy the trigger to the bomb. Despite being fully inert, Katherine smashed the entire unit with her boot heel until it was a mess of crushed metal.
Only when she was sure did Kathy cut Clara’s limbs free but she kept Clara cradled in her lap. “It’s ok. You’re ok.”
“Am I?” Clara rasped, her body melting into the soft touches.
When her bruised face felt water dripping down, Clara forced her remaining eye to open to look at her love to see a face in absolute anguish.
“I’ll make you another. I’ll make you a dozen, a hundred, a million just,” Sniffing and wiping at her face, Katherine hugged Clara so tight it pained them both but neither of them cared. “No more suicide. I’ll save you no matter what. I won’t make another bomb that could keep you from coming home to me.”
Clara had no words; no pithy sarcasm, only a deep sigh. Her body went limp from the beating Jakon gave her. This lap was safe. This voice was safe. It was time to rest.
With the help of the Sisters, Stonewall and his officers rounded up the dead and wounded suspects and Triumvirate Sister Maryia met the Agents of the High-Born at the wall, delivering the drooling mess of Jakon without his prosthetics and unlikely to cause trouble in the future. Stonewall neglected to mention a highly unethical medical procedure Katherine performed on his brain. She kept the details to herself about what exactly was done to him. She only assured Stonewall that Jakon would never be a problem again to give him plausible deniability.
Placated, the Agents retreated with their prize, and Stonewall didn’t bat an eye when Katherine was gone from the crowd without a word.
Once the gates shut, Stonewall sent all nonessential personnel home and abused his authority to slink away himself. Back and knees aching and leaning heavily on the same cane he’d used as a weapon hours earlier; Stonewall took his time climbing the half dozen steps to his front door and used the last of his failing strength to disengage the custom-built door lock.
“Arthur?” A chipper yet anxious voice accompanied the quick footsteps entering the hallway. “Thank the Great Mother, you’re home.”
“Jonah, don’t be alarmist.” Stonewall tutted and locked the door.
“I shall, old man; when you are blissfully retired.” Jonah stripped Stonewall’s overcoat with strong, wrinkled hands and ushered the Chief of Trixa’s police over to his favorite soft chair. Stonewall noticed his favorite pipe was not in its place.
“Don’t you even think about it.” Jonah huffed, the soft lines of middle age forming around the frown on his face. Stonewall had to smile in contrast, knowing the lines he owned were far more deep, worrisome, and showed the depths of a life lived in stress but also happiness with the man he loved; though Jonah was a decade his junior.
“A wise choice, love.” Stonewall sank into contoured pillows shaped by his own body. “In fact, we shall not see that pipe for some time, yes?”
Jonah backed up a step, the deep olive of his skin flushing pale then deep red in rapid succession as an elated smile spread across his face. “Indeed. About time you did what’s best.”
Stonewall breathed a deep sigh, all his muscles screaming at him for thinking he could move like he was a hot-headed lieutenant in his prime as a warm cuppa was pressed into his aching hands. “About time.”
Scolding within reason – which Clara was loath to admit she appreciated – Audrey replaced the bandages around Clara’s rope burns on her wrists and ankles. “I see you haven’t been listening to Katherine’s warnings to take it easy.”
“Dun wanna git soft. I c’n at leas make it to th’ bathroom ‘n mah own.” Clara’s words still slurred together as Clara still remained dosed with the strongest painkillers the Temple could spare due to her inability to allow herself rest. Somehow, Katherine managed to maintain her contacts through the mess left behind by Jakon’s group despite the rightful and understandable crackdown by Trixa’s police on imports and exports. Thanks to Katherine’s excellent work to create an intricate necklace with the bones provided, Jessica felt more than inclined to provide whatever aids to Clara’s convalescence Katherine requested. And perhaps Katherine took advantage and acquired spare medicinals for all the Temples.
“Well, you shall simply have to resign yourself to the fact you are bedbound until my dear Katherine says the contrary.”
Clara chuckled, wincing at the throb of pain in her chest. “I d’mand a pro’er doc.”
Audrey smiled, perhaps with more emotion than intended because Clara was struck silent. “You fight her for that, then.” And with a light pat on Clara’s arm; with care to avoid any injuries. “Good luck finding any doctor willing to fight Katherine in regards to your care. I have been summoned by the Triumvirate so I shall be off.” With a soft smile of perfectly white teeth, Audrey took her leave.
After some blessed silence where Clara ignored her dark thoughts; she succumbed to temptation and weakly scratched at her new eye.
“Stop that, love.”
Her head sinking in the direction of the voice, Clara whined. “How’d ya kno?” she found it hard to focus on the shape of Katherine at the side of her bed.
“That must be the medicine talking because you don’t ask stupid questions.” Katherine set a tray of steaming broth and tea over Clara’s thighs.
Clara tried her best to muster a chuckle but found it too painful. “Jus’ tell me you din’ make th’ tea.”
It was Katherine’s smile that broke through the cobwebs and fog of the painkillers. “Audrey helped me. This is Temple tea. Perfectly safe from my hands. It may not be as good as yours but if you can’t stomach it; my bacon is out of the question.”
Clara accepted the broth and sipped at the tea until her remaining flesh eye drooped with fatigue. “It’ll do, Kathy. Thanks.”
After watching Clara to make sure every drop stayed down and smothering the guilt at hiding the fact the tea was laced with whatever would keep Clara in her bed and resting, Katherine cleared away the dirty dishes and leaned into whatever clear space on their bed and unwrapped the stained bandages around Clara’s mechanical prosthetic. “I won’t try to calibrate it so strictly until you’re stronger. I want you to heal up before we start that project.”
With a highly medicated groan, Clara’s head drifted to what she thought could be upright. Even though the bandages, she could make out the familiar shapes of their bedroom. “Ic’n see fine. Is our room.”
“Good.” With a clatter, Katherine left the tray on the floor and curled up next to Clara and snuggled close. “It’s a prototype of a new design. Completely custom and ordered from much more secure sources. Nobody will be able to reverse engineer it. But no more bombs. You come home whole, ok?”
“Yer stuck wi’ me.” Clara slurred, wrapping her arms around whatever parts of Kathy she could and allowed the medications to lull her to sleep.
Katherine lost her wits for a moment and forgot Clara was not in the shape for hard hugs but relented when Clara squirmed in her sleep. “May the Great Mother never change that.”
Audrey sighed as she left a long shower. She ached for a luxurious soak in the baths but her matron issued a summons to all the senior Sisters and Brothers of her temple for an emergency session with representatives of all the major temples in Trixa. It was a blessing and a special dispensation for Audrey to be allowed to rest due for a few days to how much she assisted Katherine in the effort to halt the influx of Flight but the privilege only extended so far. Audrey’s presence was required before the highest Matrons in the closing of this matter.
Despite the urgency of her summons, Audrey did her due diligence rubbing oils into her skin in the proper order with gentle pats, layering her undergarments before securing her sacred raiment, and ensured every blond curl was in place. When everything was done, Audrey walked with sore feet and swimming thoughts and she was relieved others were as late as she was.
Grateful for some familiar faces, Audrey greeted fellow senior Brothers and Sisters with comforting hugs and sincere handshakes when appropriate before the Triumvirate declared order; Mariya’s voice a bolt of lightning over the storm of voices in the small auditorium.
“Take your seats and quiet down.” There was no need for Mariya to shout and the hall went silent. “I would like to begin the briefing by thanking you all for your stellar devotion to duty during this crisis. Now that healers and medical centers have been apprised of the situation, they have generously donated space and time to help those withdrawing from Flight. While no drug crisis is ever over, what we have learned will enable us to combat future overdoses. We have paired with the Education and Library high counsels to enact measures to prevent the public from being tempted to try this drug in the future”
Mutters went through the audience. “We are aware of other substances out there and the Temple will continue to work with legal drug establishments as a measure of control. Even The Great Mother knows we cannot suppress every temptation but we can educate and heal.”
When the auditorium quieted, High Brother Christoph stood. “I would also like to commend all of you for your actions at the wall. Those of you at the front line showed tremendous bravery and that is to be acknowledged by all. It is a blessing the agents of the High-Born did not test our strength.”
Chuckles and smiles erupted from the crowd.
‘Don’t get overconfident.’ Audrey thought, taking a moment to adjust her posture to release the stress in her shoulders.
Mariya cleared her throat, blunt nails tapping on her podium. Her dark skin showed lines of stress on her face, creasing the scarred skin on her cheek and splitting the red dot on her forehead with a worry line. “I would like to take this chance to thank, on record, Sister Audrey and her work with her friends. Without them, the source of this scourge would have remained.”
The applause and cheers felt sour to Audrey as she thought of Clara and Elvira’s scars and pain. She forced a smile to her ruby lips and curtsied as befitting her station.
When the praise quieted, the Triumvirate stood together, signaling absolute attention, and Audrey felt grateful to be out of the limelight. “There are many details to iron out but as of this meeting, we consider this matter of a lower priority. We will allocate resources and personnel as needed.” Maryia shuffled some papers and sighed, fatigue showing in the wrinkles around her mouth. At her left, the third Triumvirate member Darice inclined their head and Maryia sat down.
Darice addressed the assembly with a soft but demanding voice. “There will be smaller committees assigned to maintaining Flight programs while the rest of us resume our duties.” They picked up a small collection of papers from their podium. “We have a new concern as several of our Sisters and Brothers out in the field have failed to report in for weeks, far passed any reasonable delay. The Triumvirate have to decided to investigate-”
Audrey sank into her chair and tried to think cooling thoughts as her anxiety left her overheated. Whatever the Triumvirate needed, she would read later in the meticulously detailed minutes available for review tomorrow. For now, she just needed to breathe.
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