The violent storm overshadowing the city lasted far into the night, long after the majority of Upper Haven had fled the waking world for the hope of a better tomorrow. And indeed, it appeared they might get their wish. For though a thick blanket of clouds still roiled across the night sky, it was permeated in places by the glittering of stars, and the piercing gaze of Rubedos, the eye of the Red Serpent. The moon looked down upon the sleeping city, its vermilion countenance turning the driving rain to arterial blood. It was a testament to the violence inspired by the Red Serpent, Gharlyle, the divine embodiment of strife and enmity.
Streaking across the night in the young aerophant he'd dubbed Skyrunner, Angeles Creed studied the eye of the serpent through the creature's transparent, membranous view pane. He thought its light a fitting ambiance for what was sure to be a long night. Fifteen minutes earlier, he'd been jerked out of a sound sleep by the insistent bleeping of his Chatterbox. It was HPA dispatch; always a harbinger of one form of misery or another. Tonight was no exception; a code 13 – a homicide – right near the heart of Upper Haven at Charon Heights, a place which should have been safe.
As if any place is safe these days.
He gazed through Skyrunner's forward view pane, out over the mighty city he'd sworn to protect. A forest of lights, spires and blocky towers drifted beneath him, rising amidst the plethora of parks and gardens which, though cast in shadow at night, added patches of green to the pristine city streets. Rows of thin stone columns stretched skyward from the sprawling cityscape. Down their lengths, beams of emerald aetheer spanned from pillar to pillar, fashioning an intricate layered airway which created order out of the chaos of air traffic. Amidst the storm at this black hour, the air lanes were all but deserted.
Angeles shifted in his seat, trying to get comfortable in his uniform. The pearl gray armor was designed for protection and intimidation, not comfort. The flexible exoskeleton conformed to his build, accentuating his forceps, triceps, pectorals and abdomen. The uniform was polythiate – organic metal. It could be shaped into any form by any talented Pha'eerist with the understanding to manipulate it. Polythiate made up the standard uniform of all Haven Peace Enforcement Administration field agents, though some agents chose to wear it differently. No matter the style, the organic metal was durable, flexible and incredibly hard to penetrate … most of the time. It was also snug and bulky, and made riding in the spacious Aerophant much less comfortable than it should have been.
Skyrunner's safety tentacles shifted over his chest and under his arms, reacting to his discomfort and giving him a little freedom to squirm. Around him, the interior of the Aerophant was dark, save for the myriad of illuminated nodes and nodules pulsing on the synapse console. The lights faintly outlined the form of the woman in the seat next to him. The HPA grays conformed to her athletic figure with calculated distracting curvature. Angeles couldn't help smiling. His wife and field partner was one to take every advantage. It wasn't so long ago he'd been on the wrong end of her distractions. He still had the scar, a smooth slash running from ear to jaw where her sword had cut him. He bore that scar with pride. It was a reminder of how far he'd come.
"What a fitting night for a murder," he said. "I feel like I'm in some cliché crime drama. It was a dark and stormy night. Boooowaaa." He made a face at her.
Her smile was all but hidden in the Aerophant, but Angeles heard it in her voice. After eleven years of marriage, the sound of Alicia's smile was as familiar to him as the sound of her breathing. "You're way too awake for so late," she said. "Or is it early?"
"We got three hours of sleep. It's late. I can already tell I'm not going to like this whole on-call proximity crap. We shouldn't have to drop everything just because we're closest to a scene."
"You're just mad because we're going to the rich part of town, and you don't want to pander to a bunch of, what do you call them? Highborn dillusionists?
"High-born, palm-sucking dillusionists. And no, I'm mad because it's the middle of the night, and we live under the open sky. Crap like this isn't normal up here. That's why we have the Undercity. That's why these people employ private security firms to ensure this sort of thing doesn't happen."
"Preaching to the preacher, love." She yawned.
He tickled her ear. The yawn was cut off by a giggle. "Don't," he said. "You'll get me started."
The yawn came anyway. He Indulged, stretched as much as the confines of the Aerophant would allow, then squared his shoulders. "Alright, let's see what's going on over there. Fill us in, Shepherd."
A translucent blue face appeared and stared placidly at them from its place super-imposed over Skyrunner's forward view pane. Its features lacked both a Duan's rounder, furry countenance, or an El'shi's delicate structure. Rather, the face resembled some perfected amalgamation of the two races. But it held something more, some exotic otherness that no Duan or El'shi possessed. It was an Avatar's face, a manifestation of the shepherd, the Lesser Anima which guided Skyrunner's animal intelligence.
"Oh, you're just going to love this one," the Shepherd said. Its voice had a distinct buzz to it. It was the way all Anima sounded to mortal ears. Their Avatars were fragile constructs, providing auditory and visual stimulation to a person's mind in order to create the illusion of face-to-face communication. In reality, the Anima were intelligences which existed somewhere between the physical world, and the immortal plane. Or so it was said. In truth, nobody knew quite what the Anima were, or where they existed. They were here to serve the living, and that was enough for most people. This particular one was joined to the HPA Encephalon partition, and thus had access to whatever information dispatch sent its way.
The Shepherd went on. "Dispatch received a chat from Erin Drake, the Commander of a triad of Watch Tower operatives contracted to provide security to Charon heights. Drake informed dispatch that the body of Shenn Vale had been discovered in his suite."
"I recognize that name," Angeles said.
"You should. He was a rising star in Haven's political theatre, a real mover and shaker with a lot of big ideas for social reform. Honestly, you two need to pay more attention to politics."
"Politicians are all dirty," Alicia said. "We deal with enough filth as it is."
The Shepherd's Avatar shook in descent. "Not this politician. He rose from the Undercity. All those issues the senate feels it understands enough to argue about? Vale actually lived them. If he'd ended up following through on even half the ideas he put forward, Haven might have changed quite a bit."
"You sound like you're in love," Angeles said. "Since when did you start caring about politics?"
"Someone has to keep you two informed."
"What would we do without you?" Alicia asked.
"I shutter to think."
"First day on the job," Alicia said, "and we're already cleaning up dead politicians. El'shi internal affairs should be dealing with this, not us."
"That's OCP detail for you," Angeles said. "The Directorate gives us the big bucks so they can make us do their dirty work."
"I'm afraid there's more," the Shepherd said.
Angeles sighed. "Of course there is. Let's hear it."
Guided by the Shepherd, Skyrunner streaked across the city, leaving a trail of emerald particles in its wake. Its eyes shown with orange light which illuminated the night, cutting swaths through the driving rain. A bed of stabilizing emerald aetheer held it aloft, holding it steady against the buffeting wind. The energy shimmered between its four spidery legs. While in flight, the creature's legs curled in on themselves to give it added maneuverability.
Before Angeles had time to prepare, the world dropped out from under him as The Shepherd dove to narrowly avoid an Aerophant which had suddenly cut across their path. The creature seemed to come out of nowhere. Skyrunner let loose a long, ululating scream, its way of warning traffic that emergency services were on the move. The air lanes suddenly seemed to be alive with vehicles. Skyrunner weaved through the nearest, ignoring the traffic regulations, just because it could.
"What's with all the splizerds all of a sudden?" Alicia asked.
"Media," the Shepherd said. "Someone put the word out on the Encephalon around the same time dispatch was contacted."
Angeles clenched his fist. "Gharlyle's balls. Every idiot with a camera is probably on their way."
"That's the part you're not going to like. Reporters from the Haven Chronicle and the Font of Truth have already gathered outside. Clambering to get a glimpse of the body before you two give it to forensics no doubt."
"How else?" Alicia said. "Someone inside the tower. Our own people wouldn't have done it. And even if someone from dispatch had, they should still be far behind us."
"So someone squealed before the call was made."
"Why not? If Vale is half as popular as he sounds, this is going to be one serious story. The media pays well for first-hand accounts."
"Always about the palms." Angeles sighed heavily. It seemed like most problems in Haven could be traced back to money. He straightened suddenly. "Wait, the Font of Truth is already there?"
"One of their reporters was first on the scene," the Shepherd said. "Her name is Angelina Delacroix."
"Delacroix. It would be her."
"Delacroix." Alicia said the name hesitantly, trying to place it. "She's the one who wrote that "A City over Ashes" book, right? The one with the hair?"
Angeles nodded. "Yeah, that's her. Some think she's the reason those Consortium of Liberty activists have gotten so vocal lately. Either way, she's the only reason that dirty tabloid has any credibility"
"Shenn Vale was a vocal supporter of the Consortium, and its ideals," the Shepherd said. "I believe Delacroix even interviewed him once."
"Right," Alicia said. "I remember that. It was right after that whole Nano crystal tracking controversy last year. Vale was quite vocal in his disdain of that bill if I recall. Said it gave the HPA too much power."
"I'm liking him more and more," Angeles said.
He had harbored his own misgivings about that bill ever since its inception. The implementation of Nanocrystal technology was a very recent development in the grand scheme of things. Nanocrystals had been used for well over a decade in haven, but their function had seen a drastic evolution. At first, they were used merely as a convenient and secure means of conducting business. An automated transaction processor interfaced with the crystal, on which the means to access personal accounts was stored. The crystals were keyed to their bearers' brain activity, and only once a sub-vocal personal security code was given could Funds be taken. Once their worth had been proven in that capacity, nanocrystal technology slowly evolved, replacing keys, providing access to one's home, and any other locations where their bearers had clearance. With his Nanocrystal, Angeles could access his home, their office and various areas in the Peace Enforcement Administration where he had clearance, with just a wave of his hand. And that was indeed quite convenient. But a year earlier, Alden Vartelos, a prominent El'shi senator put forth a bill which would allow the HPA to track all registered Haven Citizens via their Nanocrystals. Public opinion had been divided, even after a well-publicized media campaign targeted primarily at parents. Nanocrystals would be used by the HPA to more swiftly track down criminals, and find missing persons. The bill had squeaked by with barely enough public votes to get it moved up to senate debate. There, it had been declined; outvoted by a majority. Yet as with all bills in Haven, the Guiding Hand, the supreme council of nine had the final say. And to the astonishment and displeasure of many people, the Hand had ruled in favor of the bill. Now HPA dispatch had the power and authority to find out where anyone was, anywhere in haven, and despite its effectiveness, there was a lot of vocal opposition.
Alicia shifted in her seat, adjusting one of the safety tentacles. "It can't be a coincidence that an Undercity news outlet with ties to the Consortium just happens to be first on the scene where one of their most influential supporters was murdered."
Angeles yawned again. "Please let it just be a coincidence. It's far too late for anything complicated."
They lapsed into a silence made comfortable by years of constant proximity and shared intimacy. Angeles stared out at the storm, watching the rain stream past in sheets blown sideways by the wind.
All too soon, Skyrunner decelerated, dropping to half its speed in mere seconds. She had been flying faster than any civilian was legally permitted, and so had left most of the air traffic sucking her propellant. The air lanes were all but deserted now, save for the occasional aerophant racing slightly past the speed limit. In the distance, Charon Heights rose from amidst a lush - and currently waterlogged park. The sky rise loomed over the surrounding buildings, as if to prove its superiority through a sheer act of presence. The tower was ablaze with light from its many windows, a fiery needle against the backdrop of night. It glittered in the rain, a monolith of immaculate ironglass, and Silverstone imported from the Auroria Mountains. Charon Heights was rendered in a distinct Neo Artique style – all rounded edges and supple curvature stretching a good forty stories above the city. The edifice was slender, likely only containing a few spacious suites per floor. The architect had carved patterns and designs into the glittering stone, but these were merely faint spider webs of detail from such a distance. At the tower's apex, a beautifully maintained roof garden bore the full force of the storm, sodden flowers and slight trees swaying in the wind. Balconies accessed by picturesque windows jutted out from each suite. From there, haven's upper class – the politicians, actors, artists and business tycoons – could sit and gaze out over the city. Thankfully, no one was standing on their balconies gawking at Skyrunner's approach. The ferocity of the storm was likely to thank for that small grace.
Angeles studied Charon Heights with a mixture of disdain, and apprehension. Under the surface, beyond the banter, he was nervous. He was used to the confines of the Undercity, to its dark corners and shadowy alleys, its generally straightforward criminal elements and way of life. He hated the Undercity, but he understood it, and was comfortable with it. Though he had been living amidst the proverbial ivory towers and idealism of Upper Haven for eleven years, he had never been forced to mingle with the upper class in the way he would be tonight.
As the lights of Charon Heights drew near, Angeles couldn't help thinking back over his short career with the HPA. For nearly eleven years, he and Alicia had served as part of the Undercity Monitoring Directorate, the division of the haven Peace-Enforcement Administration in charge of maintaining and upholding the law in the Undercity. They'd tackled dozens of cases; traffic violators, jealous and abusive spouses or parents, kidnappers, rogue Trinitarians, Encephalon hackers, murderers and rapists. They'd thought they'd seen it all.
Then came the Valente Gardens incident. Angeles's chest tightened. The Valente Inn and Gardens; a vile testament to how far the City had fallen. Unbidden, images of what they had found in that tranquil bit of paradise slithered through his thoughts. He struggled to suppress the images. He thought of home, of Alicia, of their daughter. He thought of all the cases they'd solved; the triumphs they'd achieved. He even tried focusing on the case at hand. It was all to no avail. The images came, moments of horror condensed in a few brief flashes of recollection.
Two months ago, they'd uncovered an intricate ring of child prostitution which had its roots, not in the Undercity, but amidst the kind of high society citizenry which called places like Charon heights home. There were a lot of street drifters and low-income families in the Undercity; a lot of children searching for a meal, or a bed, or even just someone to love and take care of them. Nobody noticed if a few street kids went missing. The sex trade wasn't illegal in Haven, but it was consigned to licensed businesses in the Undercity, and strictly regulated: Mandatory birth control, No exploitation, no disease, no abuse, and no one under the age of twenty. But desperate children were easily exploited under the right circumstances, and there were always those willing to pay a high price for the forbidden. Most of the brothels which dealt in child prostitution were eventually discovered, and shut down. But this had been different.
The Valente Inn and Gardens was a family-owned business; a luxurious resort RUN BY a pair of clean-cut, upstanding high-borns who had inherited it from their parents. No doubt, the late elder Valentes had not intended their legacy to be used as a front for a lucrative side business. The business strategy was simple. Children were picked up on the street by the proprietor of a reputable Undercity bar – the Gagging Maggot. Most were homeless, the rest, run-aways. The children were passed through the hands of three separate brothel owners in order to confuse the trail. During this transition, those who had them were stripped of their Nanocrystals in order to ensure they couldn't be tracked. They were forced to ingest nymphrit dust, a potent drug which left them so sexually aroused that it became almost more than they could bare. Only release would ease their hunger, and once they were hooked, only the dust would keep the pain and lethargy spawned by withdrawal at bay. Once they were addicted to the dust, they were finally sold to the Valente brothers, where they were all-too eager to service whoever required it of them. It was a degrading, vicious circle, and Nymphrit Dust often had long-term affects. Once those affects manifested, the children were deemed used up. They were weighted down, and disposed of.
No one had suspected a thing. The Valente brothers ran their operation like the expert businessmen they were. They'd been doing it for ten years. Maybe they'd have continued for another five, or ten. But then Yolanda Roxon disappeared, and everything changed.
Yolanda was the grand daughter of UMD director Marcellus (The Rok) Roxon. She was a troubled girl, just barely into her teens who preferred the wild life below to that which her parents gave her. Unable to investigate her disappearance himself due to his familial connection, Rok was forced to leave the investigation in the hands of the UMD's agents.
It fell to Angeles and Alicia to discover the truth. They picked up her trail near where she disappeared. She was seen in the company of a man named Preston Majot, the owner of the Gagging Maggot. They persuaded Major to reveal the next link in the chain. He had passed Yolanda into the hands of the matron of a brothel called The Tender Caress. From there it was a trail leading from one bad discovery to another, finally culminating in the final link in the chain. Yolanda had been handed off to the Valente brothers.
They found Yolanda Roxon In the basement of the Valente inn and Gardens's admin building. With her, they found one boy, and five girls, a mix of human and El'shi. The oldest was around sixteen, while the youngest, like Yolanda was barely more than thirteen. They were unmarked and well nourished. But enslaved by the Nymphrit Dust, they were almost feral with ardor. They yearned shamelessly towards the agents, desperate in their need, aching for release.
He and Alicia found other things too in that tranquil realm of depravity. They found financial records and payroll information, naming all those who had supplied children to the establishment. And there were recordings too. Sad, despicable records, all labeled with the names of clients who had partaken. It was a blackmailer's paradise, and more evidence than they knew what to do with. But most horrible were the bodies of the boys and girls deemed used up. The Valente brothers were preserving them in Pha'eer suspension cubes in the basement. Fifteen boys and girls, all freshly expired.
The Valente brothers had been experimenting with taxidermy and reanimation to recycle the children destroyed by the Nymphrit Dust. They wished to create an endless and beautiful supply of children, children who would never grow up, never grow ill or be used up.
They found the only surviving result of those experiments; a writhing, gibbering shell of a girl with a child's face and doll-like eyes. It was strapped on a table, kept alive by Trinitarian and technological perversions Angeles never wanted to understand. Her name was Anna. They were unable to save her.
The Valente incident was a massive scandal. People who had been to the inn for its intended purpose were outraged, and horrified that such atrocities had gone on so near. Some of the people caught in the recordings were prominent public figures. One was even a senator. The Valente brothers, their compatriots, and their clientele were sentenced to undergo level 4 societal rehabilitation; the highest level of behavioral reconditioning possible. The surviving children, including Yolanda Roxon were still being treated at the Varenor Psychiatric treatment facility. Both their addiction to Nymphrit Dust and their physical trauma would heal in time. But the memories of what had been done to them, and the use to which they had been put … Angeles wondered if that could ever be fully treated.
As for he and Alicia, they were presented as heroes. It was their crowning achievement, and Rok was beside himself with gratitude. He decided it was time to promote the partners. Angeles wasn't sure how he felt about that. It would mean greater freedom – freedom to tackle the cases that would make a difference in the grand scheme of things. And it would mean a substantial increase in pay. With their daughter's continuous medical expenses, they needed the money. But it also meant they would be on-call, at any time, in any part of Haven. Angeles wasn't sure he was willing to make that sacrifice.
The stabilizing Aetheer between Skyrunner's spidery legs began to dissipate as the Shepherd took them into a gradual descent. Below, an Aerophant stable winked with dozens of landing markers and tethering beams. The stable was divided into two concentric rings which encircled the park around the tower. The outer ring was opened to visitors, while the inner was reserved for the residents, and VIP guests who just couldn't deign to walk an extra minute. The residence zone was screened by a faintly perceptible cage of emerald Aetheer. The positively charged energy would be keyed to send all those whose Aerophants were not found in the building's registry bouncing gently off the screen if they tried to land.
Around eight Aerophants were tethered on the visitor's stable, with at least that many people gathered before the tower door.
Angeles glowered at them. "I really hope those are guests."
"Don't count on it," Alicia said.
"You know, just once you could try to be comforting." He straightened in his seat. Time to face whatever awaited them. "Shepherd, activate the Invictus Protocol and set us down in the residential zone. I want to make it clear to these media snoops that we are in control"
"Certainly," the Anima said. "And what better way to demonstrate that than by showing we can go wherever we wish?"
Angeles sighed inwardly. Some days, he wished the HPA had given them one of the Aerophant breeds where you could opt for mental control. This new breed of Anima-controlled Aerophants came with a price, and the price was personality. Newly awakened Anima were just like children, developing aspects of the personalities of those they served in conjunction with their own unique traits. Angeles saw more than a little of the Creid family in Skyrunner's Shepherd. Particularly Shaun Creid, his brother.
The Shepherd guided them towards the residential stable, spindly legs unfolding as the Aerophant descended. Skyrunner's beak opened, and a pulse of nearly invisible silver washed over the stable's security cage. Silver was unique in the Aetheer spectrum. The particles carried a wide range of quantified information, as intricate as thought, and almost as invisible. The presence of silver Aetheer was a constant imperceptible shimmer on the air, a sparkling haze, like breath on a winter's night. It was a phenomenon which went unnoticed by most people; as common a sight as the sun.
At their approach, the screen protecting the residential stable parted as an algorithm contained in the pulse of information emitted from the Aerophant bypassed the building's security protocol. Skyrunner slipped through, and the beams of the security cage reconnected.
Angeles couldn't help feeling dirty every time he used the Invictus Protocol. The Administration was sanctioned by the Guiding hand to enter any space – locked or otherwise – where a threat to Haven's citizens was perceived. The upper class was not exempt from the protocol, and this was the only thing that made him feel better. There was something perversely thrilling about having the freedom to go where you wanted, and it bothered him how good it felt.
The Aetheer dissipated further, now only a slight emerald sparkle force keeping them from dropping the last twenty feet or so to the ground.
The Shepherd's buzzing voice filled the interior. "Welcome to Charon heights everybody; home to haven's rich and shiny air heads."
Skyrunner touched down gently on the stable, coming to a stop with barely a shudder. Its legs easily absorbed the force of impact, despite their delicate look. A chain of pulsing emerald aetheer stretched from a heavy metal pylon and latched onto the Aerophant, securely tethering it. The energy binding was less to keep the creature from flying off and more to ensure no one "borrowed" it. An Aerophant without a Shepherd to guide it often didn't care who rode it.
"I'll grab our gear," Angeles said. "Could you lock the old girl down? I don't want any of these snoops getting any ideas."
Alicia nodded, already pressing a series of pressure points on the glittering synapse console. "Full deterrent measures?"
"You read my mind. I don't want anyone getting within spitting distance of her."
"You got it." She winked at him, an impish smile transforming her into the girl she must have been before life forced her to grow up. "Don't forget the flash spheres."
He returned the grin. "I'd never forget the flash spheres."
The sides of the Aerophant irised open, splitting apart with an odd grating squish. Angeles stepped down into the storm. In spite of the wind and rain, the night was warm and humid. The smell of wet vegetation filled his nostrils. He inhaled deeply. It was a good smell; a cleansing smell. The rain instantly drenched him, plastering his hair to his skin. Water ran into his eyes, and in glistening rivulets down the swells and concavities of his uniform. He was grateful the polythiate was waterproof.
He circled to the rear of the beast and placed a hand on a fold of scales, discolored to make the area stand out. The surface beneath his fingers peeled back as the Aerophant recognized his touch. The storage compartment was dark and spacious. He grabbed their personal field blades: hers a plain but well-balanced short sword, his a slightly longer and heavier blade. The Scabbard was polished leather, inlayed with lead to cut down excess Aetheer bleed-off from the sapphires fitted into the base of the blade. He grabbed Alicia's concentrated Aetheer dispersion pistol, hesitated as he always did, then grabbed his own. His Energist talent combined with his customized sword practically made the weapon redundant, but Alicia always scolded him for leaving it behind. Finally, he picked up their stun rods and Reality Interface Gauntlets. He topped off the arsenal by adding a pair of flash spheres, because you never knew when a loud, bright burst of unpleasantness would come in handy. Alicia always made fun of his paranoid need to over-arm themselves even on seemingly simple calls like this one, but she always humored him.
A warm tingle washed over him as Alicia activated Skyrunner's deterrent field. It wouldn't affect them, but anyone passing by would feel an overwhelming sense of foreboding at the thought of getting too close. There were some with the mental aptitude to fight the compulsion to steer clear, but the faintly shimmering cage of sapphire aetheer would put an end to any attempts to gain access with shocking results.
Up close, Charon tower combined its modern neo-artique flash with the elaborate style of an age centuries past. It's double-wide glass doors were arched, and framed by polished wood inlayed with Silverstone brocade which wound through the wood in elaborate abstract designs. Though the door itself just begged to be shattered with a big rock, the tendrils of sapphire aetheer crawling like curls of smoke over its surface ensured nobody would dare try. Above the door, the thickly muscled forequarters of a stone wolf seemed to be straining to escape the constraints of the building's frame. It glared down at them, its lips skinned back from rows of glass teeth in a perpetual snarl. From its slitted eyes, soft orange light washed the eager news hounds gathered before the door in the warm glow of the setting sun.
Angeles gazed up at the monstrosity, and his mounting apprehension grew. He couldn't explain it. It wasn't merely because the sight of that wolf dredged up fleeting memories of darker days during a time of which he was not proud. And there was nothing particularly ominous about the building on its own, or the storm, or even the gaggle of news hounds clustered around the brightly lit entrance. Yet all these things combined to produce a feeling more sinister to him than the sum of their parts. Angeles was not one to give in to fear. He felt he had danced in the midst of the worst Haven had to offer. Yet walking towards Charon heights, seeing the barely disguised contempt on their faces as the first news hounds turned to study their approach, he barely managed to suppress a shudder.
"They're like starving wyverns," he said, nodding at the news hounds, "just hovering around waiting for dead meat."
"Throw rocks at them and they'll scatter like flies," Alicia said.
"Don't tempt me."
They strode up to the gathered news hounds, putting on their best official faces. Angeles merely scowled – which wasn't hard at this point, while Alicia adopted a disarming smile with just a hint of detached professionalism. She took point, approaching with studied relaxed grace. It was an old technique, and one they'd been using for years. Alicia's look and charm helped put witnesses and suspects at ease, while her Animancy quickly separated truth from fiction. Yet it was her disarming warmth and empathy which often led them to discovering that one crucial detail that put an end to most cases before they could begin. Angeles was happy to leave the niceties to her. It left him free to study the intricate details of a scene.
Not that there was much to see right now. Beyond those initial masked glares of displeasure, the little crowd barely spared the agents a second look. Their attention was focused on a middle-aged man who had just emerged from the tower. He was short and stalky, and wrapped tight in a flannel robe. Thick glasses magnified the piggy eyes set way back in his face. His scowl was truly spectacular, and if his nose was any more upturned, it would poke him between the eyes. He was gesturing at the foremost news hounds with quick, pointed jabs, completely ignoring the rain that drenched his clothes and flyaway hair. His voice, raised against the wind was a thin, nasal whine - complete with enunciated inflections - and what it lacked in power and authority it made up for in sheer volume.
Angeles and Alicia hung back, waiting to see what would happen.
"This is a matter for the piffs," the man was saying. "Not the press, and definitely not you amateur pimply-faced, half-baked pubes in the back there! Yes, I can see you!" His voice dripped with scorn. The aforementioned pubes turned out to be a couple of El'shi kids barely out of their teens who had sauntered up behind the agents. They were fidgeting, shifting from one foot to another and trading nervous glances. The man swept his arm in an all-encompassing gesture. "Now get off my property before I sick what passes for security around here on you!"
Angeles snickered. "Pubes. I'm afraid I'm going to have to say that from now on."
Alicia rolled her eyes. "Oh good. I hope you say it every day."
One of the news hounds stepped briskly forward. She was tall, with a familiar plate of platinum hair which fell to the middle of her back. She was dressed in a long black slicker which shrugged the rain off with contempt. A spherical metallic Speye hovered just over her shoulder, and Angeles just knew it would be capturing every detail.
"Angelina Delacroix," Angeles whispered, "larger than life and twice as persistent."
Angelina Delacroix stepped right up to the bristly little man, a sound trapper in one hand. She thrust it between them like a talisman. "You can't keep us out. The people have a rite to know why your security" – she mocked the word – "failed to protect the senator. You high-and-mighty types earn" – another scornful word – "all these palms, and you still can't hire anyone capable of protecting the people who really matter!"
The man's jaw tightened, and his little eyes narrowed. "The people can wait for the Administration to go public with results of an autopsy. All your speculations and conspiracy theories have no place here, Miss Delacroix." He gestured at the others. "That goes for all of you. Clear out! If you want interviews you can come back tomorrow when the Administration has finished and my tenants have gotten some sleep."
"There's a guy used to getting his own way," Angeles observed.
"Definitely a false sense of entitlement," Alicia agreed. "What do you say we wreck his night a little?"
"Sounds like circumstance has already beaten us to it. Push him any further and he might throw an A-class tantrum."
They pushed past the small gathering and stepped up beside Angelina, who looked over at Angeles with a triumphant smile which showed off far too many white teeth.
"Well it's about time someone in authority got here darlin," she said. "Be a diamond and tell this self-important gentleman this is a serious public issue, will ya?"
"You impertinent little trollop!" The little man was practically shaking with fury.
Angeles couldn't help smiling. "Sorry, Miss Delacroix, we can't do that. The public does indeed have a rite to know the truth, but right now the truth still needs to be determined."
Her smile transformed into a glare. "You mean modified."
A crack marred Angeles's patients, but he managed to hold onto his smile. "I mean that as soon as we discover what really happened, we'll share it with the press. But to do that, we need to do our jobs. Now if you'll step back please, this area is now a crime scene."
He stepped in front of her and pressed a node on his Reality Interface Gauntlet. The RIG blinked to life, tendrils of silver interlaced through the device glowing bright. With the press of another node, a small filament extended from the space right over his hand. The tip glowed with positively charged emerald aetheer.
"By the authority of the Guiding Hand," he announced, "This area is now under the control of the haven peace-Enforcement Administration."
With the filament, he traced a glowing green arc from one side of the tower entrance to the other. Angelina took an involuntary step back when the filament passed in front of her. The emerald energy hung suspended between himself and the reporters. Such a small amount would barely have any effect on anyone, but its presence said more than its affect ever would. The tower was now off limits to the public, and anyone who stepped through the cordon would be in violation of the law. Doing so wasn't a serious offense, but the implied threat was usually enough to detour people.
He turned to the doorman, who was standing with his arms crossed defiantly over his chest.
"You're not going to be able to cover this up." Angelina's voice was defiant, and full of certainty.
He gazed over his shoulder, glaring at her. "Despite what you might think, Miss Delacroix, we don't intend to."
Her eyes pierced his with razors. He heard the others grumbling, and he turned his back on the lot of them.
Alicia addressed the little man. She was all smiles and warmth, just like always. "Good evening, Sir. I'm OCP Agent Alicia Jensen, and this is my partner Angeles Creid. Can I have your name please?"
"Well it's about time! I'm Cornelius Schrote. I'm the manager of Charon Heights. He practically preened.
"A pleasure." She held out her hand. Taken by surprise, Schrote shook it. "I understand we have a problem."
"A problem?" Schrote dropped her hand. "I have ninety-nine bloody problems, Miss Jenson. The press crawling like maggots in front of my door, a whole building full of scared people, and did I mention the dead man upstairs?"
Angeles couldn't resist. "That's only three."
The little man opened his mouth to say something scorching, but Alicia doused the attempt. "We're looking for Erin Drake. I understand he's the one who found the body?"
Shrote shook his head. "No, it was Elaina Rinehart, Shen's neighbor. But I left Mr. Drake to guard the senator's and Elaina's suites. Most of my tenants are clustered like frightened rabbits in the lobby, but a few didn't want to wait for you lot to get here."
"Vigilante crime fighters and mass hysteria," Angeles scoffed. "That's all we need. Why the mass gathering, Mr. Schrote? They should all be in their rooms."
"Mr. Drake suggested it would be preferable to having everyone scattered about."
Angeles shook his head. "So, you woke up an entire building and told them what exactly?"
"I said that something had happened, and that they all needed to gather in the foyer. When they had, I told them the truth. Don't look at me like that, Agent. I did what I thought best at the urging of Mr. Drake. Safety in numbers and all that."
"Idiots," Angeles growled. "You've got two, maybe three suites on each floor? If you'd have just left it alone, a lot of them could have just slept through the whole ordeal."
"It doesn't matter now," Alicia cut in. "Let's get out of the rain. We'll just talk to whoever's involved – your security chief for starters, do some investigating, and then we'll be on our way."
Schrote gritted his teeth. "Yes, of course. Right this way."
He spun about, and practically sprinted through the double doors.
Angeles took one more look at the reporters beyond the cordon. Angelina Delacroix was nowhere in sight. The rest mumbled among themselves, clearly intrigued by the scene they'd just witnessed, and disappointed they wouldn't see how it played out. They'd come all this way only to be turned away without even so much as a drop of blood glimpsed. Their lives were over.
"Well? What are you waiting for?" he said. "You heard the manager. Go home already! That's a rap." He punctuated the order by raising one hand. An ark of sapphire Aetheer shot towards them with an audible crackle. It dissipated well before it reached anyone, but those in the front row gasped. A few even raised their arms to protect their faces. He grinned maliciously at them. He shouldn't really waste his energist talents on these fools, but their reaction made it all worthwhile.
He trailed Alicia and Cornelius Schrote inside.
Charon Heights's expansive foyer was alive with sleepy-eyed humans and El'shi, milling about under large crystal chandeliers looking lost, or sitting poised on the edges of plush sofas, talking in agitated voices. Many were in their nightclothes, some of which were quite risqué for the circumstances. The tension and fear were a physical presence. All throughout the foyer, eyes flitted about like frightened birds. Angeles had an overwhelming urge to walk up behind one of them and say "boo" really loud. He smothered it. He couldn't blame them. Self-entitled high-society snobs or not, waking up in the middle of the night to the knowledge someone not too far away had just been killed was bound to be terrifying. This was Upper Haven. Such things generally didn't happen up here. Many of these people had likely never dealt with anything like this before. The thought took him by surprise. He hadn't expected to feel sympathy for such people, but there it was.
At their approach, the din slowly died away. One by one, people turned to face them. The relief in the room was as palpable as the tension had been. The piffs were here; everything would be all right now. He hoped that was true.
"How are they feeling?" Angeles asked Alicia. "Can you sense anything that might narrow down the list of suspects?"
"Give me a moment." Her eyes swept the foyer, then lost their focus. She was concentrating, using her Animancy to tap into the emotions of the people around her; feeling what they were feeling; reading their emotions like words in a book. It was not mind reading, but it was often enough to discern a lie.
Her eyes regained their focus as she looked back at him. "Some are angry. Most are just scared. I don't sense anything else. Either the killer isn't among them, or he's good at masking his emotions."
"There isn't much that gets past you." He looked over at Schrote, keeping his voice low. "Hey Corny, how many of them came down? Is anyone else skulking about on the other floors?"
Schrote glared at him. "All present and accounted for. Except for the ones who were out, and the ones bothering Watchtower's security upstairs."
"And you recognize everyone here?"
"Of course. I make it a point of learning everyone's name and face."
"Of course you do," Angeles muttered.
"What do you want to do?" Alicia asked him in a low voice. "It might help to have them all together if we need to start asking questions, but if we let them carry on talking amongst themselves like this, we might not get anything reliable out of anyone."
"I don't know," he replied. "If the killer is still here, it might be safer to keep everyone together. But you're right. The more people talk amongst themselves, the less likely anyone who knows anything at all will be of any use. Comparing notes muddles recollection worse than a few dormant hours ever could. No, I think we'd be better off sending everyone home. We'll call a couple agents over to keep an eye on things while we poke around."
"It's a plan."
They stood there for a moment, looking at each other.
"Aren't you going to tell them?" Angeles asked.
"No, you go ahead. Use those budding inter-personal skills of yours."
"Thanks a lot."
"Oh don't pout. It'll be good for you."
"Fine." Angeles turned to address the crowd. "I'm OCP Agent Creid. This is my partner Agent Jenson. I know you're all scared right now. I don't blame you. But we're here to help. We're going to find out what happened. But we need your cooperation. I want you all to return to your homes. Whoever did this is probably long gone, but just in case, you'll be safer inside your homes. Additional agents are on the way to make sure the tower is secure. Lock your doors. Don't let anyone in until one of us tells you it's safe."
There was a collective murmur of uncertainty. Then a young El'shi man in a black silk robe and slippers leapt to his feet. His face was beautiful, even by El'shi standards. His high brow and prominent cheekbones looked to be chiseled by an expert body sculptor. He even had a dimple in his chin. Angeles immediately disliked him. "Wait a stuffin minute! OCP agents? So you two are just here because you happened to be closest?" The El'shi glared at Schrote. "Maybe you can explain to us exactly how this was allowed to happen, Cornelius! We pay you well to hire security contractors who will ensure we're kept safe. And now this?"
Schrote spread his hands. His voice was placating, worried even. "Please calm down, Jarn. We'll figure it out."
Jarn Sho'ell, a renowned playboy and majority shareholder in Sho'ell Farms – a multi-million dollar Aerophant genetics business – went as red as a Blood Apple. "Don't you stuffin tell me to "calm down", Cornelius. Not when the best you can do to rectify the situation is to bring in a couple of on-call rookies. Don't say anything," he said quickly, seeing Angeles and Alicia both about to protest. "I know you two. You might have gotten a lot of notoriety in haven's toilet, but this is the real world, where we pay good money to make sure slop like this doesn't stuffin happen!"
"Yeah!" someone seconded. There was a murmur of agreement.
Alicia took a step forward. Her blue eyes turned to ice. There was no hint of the smile, or the warmth that had softened her features. "Mr. Sho'ell, unless you have something useful to contribute to this investigation, shut up and go home."
For a moment, it looked as if Jarn Sho'ell would stand his ground. He stood straight, head held high, glowering at Alicia, then Angeles, and finally Cornelius Schrote. His gaze lingered on Schrote for a long moment. His mouth worked, but he stopped himself. Finally, he shrugged and turned away, heading towards the row of elevators at the far end of the room. "Stuff the lot of you," he muttered, just loud enough to be heard. He glanced back once as the doors opened. He stared right at Schrote. "Maybe you're satisfied with rookies, but I'm not." Then he was gone, disappearing behind the mirrored elevator doors.
Angeles stared at the doors; a few dozen anxious faces stared back. He didn't like Sho'ell's eyes; didn't like how they'd fixed on Shrote with such fury, or he and Alicia with such contempt. "Think he'll be a problem?"
Alicia shrugged. "He's a bag of hot air itching to show others how big he is. He's madder than a wet Duan, but we've got bigger problems."
"Yeah, like all these people." He gestured at the elevators. "All of you go home please. Try to get some sleep if you can. If anyone has anything they think might be helpful, give us your name, and we'll be in touch. Despite what Mr. Sho'ell thinks, we are going to find whoever did this and ensure he's dealt with."
There was more collective grumbling and discussion, but gradually people began making their way to the half dozen elevators. No one stepped forward to offer their names.
As the exodus went on, Angeles contacted HPA dispatch and requested four additional agents. He was given three. It was a busy night in the Undercity.
When the room was all but empty, Angeles moved over to where Alicia was sitting with Cornelius Schrote. The little man seemed diminished somehow, disheveled by the rain and drained of his former pompous arrogance.
"So, Mr. Schrote, how exactly did this happen?" Angeles asked.
Schrote rang his hands. "I don't know Agent Creid. Nobody does. Nobody heard anything; nobody saw anything. Senator Vale's suite was locked up tight. Nobody broke in." He stood up suddenly. "Listen, I'm not the one you want to talk to. Mr. Drake wouldn't even let me go up there. Go talk to him and Elaina. They're the ones who can give you the details."
Alicia stood up as well. "I think we'll do that. Which floor?"
"They're at the top. Not 41; that's the garden."
"Sit tight until the other agents arrive. They shouldn't be too long. Don't let anyone else in or out until Agent Creid or I give you the go-ahead."
"Alright." He slumped back on the sofa. He didn't even seem to care that the expensive fabric was getting wet. He looked up at them, and Angeles was amazed anew at the transformation. He was just a scared little man who had suddenly been caught in a situation way over his head. Angeles found he liked Cornelius better that way. "Find him, Agents. Please. Shenn Vale was a good man. He didn't deserve this."
"We will," Alisha assured him.