Chapter 1: WV - The Way You Say Goodnight
The highlight of the Wondrous Visionary's day is when the Messenger arrives. Perhaps that says all that needs to be said as his position as the Mayor of Midnight City. He's a joke, the whole city knows he's a joke, and worst of all, even Visionary knows it. He does what he can, or what Slick will allow him to do, and he tries to make a difference. But there's so little he can do, and so much standing in his way.
But he feels different when she arrives in the mid-morning, ready to carry his correspondence out to the rest of the city, delivering a neat stack of messages that hold so much promise before they're opened. He feels like maybe he really is a Mayor, the kind who could make life good for his citizens, and one day break out from Spade Slick's thumb and legitimately help this city. The sort of man who could maybe win the heart of a beautiful woman.
"Good morning, Mr. Mayor!" The Proficient Messenger greets him, smiling broadly at the Visionary. She's so beautiful, and always so sharp looking in her uniform. He imagines her polishing her brass buttons every night, carefully washing and ironing her uniform until it's crisp and clean and new. It makes his heart flutter a little to think of her so dedicated and devoted.
"Good morning to you," He says, and happily takes the bundle of mail, exchanging it with the day's letters. WV's fingers brush against hers for a moment. It's the slightest of touches, but it makes his heart flutter all the same, "How are you this fine morning?"
"I am quite well!" The Messenger quickly flips through the messages, and he can almost see her mapping out her route in her mind. There's not a place in the city that she doesn't know, or doesn't go, and he has yet to have a single message go undelivered. Of course, he never sends her anywhere too dangerous. It's not that she wouldn't go, it's that he couldn't live with himself if something happened to her, "And yourself?"
"Same, just the same," Visionary means it when she's standing in this office. He's always at his best when she's around. Sometimes, even when he doesn't have messages to go out that day, he finds an excuse to write at least one piece of correspondence, just so she'll have a reason to return the next day, "Busy?"
"As busy as ever. You're still my best customer," She tucks the messages into her bag once she's sorted them into an order, and WV wonders how many other letters are in there, waiting to be delivered. It's strange, but his eyes are always drawn to her hands. They're so lovely and delicate, and yet so strong in their own way. He hastily draws his eyes up to her face when she asks him, "Anything else?"
WV steels himself. It's now or never. He's had her in this office so many times, exchanging pleasantries and messages, but he's never been able to work up the nerve to ask her if she would like to go for coffee, or perhaps a show, anything really. But today's the day. Today will be different.
"Yes. There is a gala happening next Thursday, and I am in need of a date," His heart is hammering in his chest but he plays it cool, doing his best to act as if this is completely normal, as if perhaps he always asks pretty girls to attend galas with him instead of attending alone, "I was wondering if you would like to attend?"
"Next Thursday?" He nods, and Messenger considers, and he waits in silent agony, hoping desperately that she'll say yes. Visionary wants nothing so badly as to spend just an evening with her, dancing and laughing, and listening to the speeches of others. When he goes up to give his own talk, he'll be able to look to her in the audience, and see her pretty face smiling back at him. Perhaps he could walk her home, take the long way through the fields and spend the evening moving among the fireflies, her hand held within his. Maybe even a chaste kiss at the door, but he doesn't want to press his luck. She's not that sort of girl and he'd never treat her that way.
When she doesn't answer right away, WV speaks up again, "I know galas are not terribly exciting, but it would be nice to have someone to visit with."
"It's not the gala. It would be a lot of fun," She looks at him, and there's something bordering on pity on her face, and his heart just sinks like a stone, even before she says a thing, "It's just... I already have plans that night with a... friend," Messenger hesitates before adding friend, and even though she's trying to be kind, the hesitation is almost worst than simply telling him she has already has a man in her life.
"Oh, of. Of course," Visionary tries to keep his voice light, even though he feels like an anchor's been tied to his heart, and that he's been drug down below the dark waters of misery, "Well, thank you anyway. It was just a thought-"
"If you're looking for a date, I know a few women," The Proficient Messenger suggests and he feels like crawling into a hole. He doesn't want other woman. He only wants her, "If you'd like, I could see if any of them are free."
"That would be nice, but, I would not worry," Visionary forces a smile, brushing aside the offer as quickly as he can, "I am sure I will find someone."
The door opens, and Slick strolls in like he owns the office. Which he does if WV is being honest with himself, "Vis, we need to talk- heeey there," Slick stops, head swinging around to look at the Messenger, "What's a dame like you doing in a shithole like this?"
The Proficient Messenger looks at Slick like he's a bit of mud clinging to the bottom of her boot, and glances back to Visionary, "Good day, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Of course, good day," He manages to say, watching her quickly walk out of the office and away from Slick. Visionary's slumps at his desk, feeling failure weighing heavily on his shoulders.
"Hey," Slick snaps his fingers, "Vis, was that girl with the gams?"
"Just... just the messenger," He reluctantly tells Slick, not wanting to give her name. Even though his heart's broken, the last thing he wants is for Slick to find her. He doesn't trust Slick, not one iota, especially not when it comes to the Messenger, "What do you want?"
"I'm just here to remind you to keep the police force under control," Slick leans against WV's desk, showing his utter disrespect for everything related to the mayor. Visionary hates when Slick leans against his desk, but there's nothing he can do to stop him. Speaking up might make Slick angry and when he's angry, people get hurt and they get hurt badly, "Some fucking idiot tried to give us a parking ticket yesterday."
"I will have a word with them," He says, not bothering to hide the disappointment in his voice. Nothing makes him feel lower than when Slick visits and reminds Visionary that no matter how he tries, he's still just someone else's puppet.
"What's got you all twisted up?" Slick reaches out, picking up the stack of letters and flipping through them. WV's skin crawls a little with Slick standing so close to him, "The dame who just left? She was a pretty one. You like her?"
"She is the messenger. Nothing more," WV's heart is aching in his chest. He can barely concentrate on Slick or the way he's playing with the mail. None of those letters matter anymore. How could he have been such a damned fool? That was stupid, incredibly stupid, and positively the dumbest thing he had ever done. Of course she has a man, of course there's someone else. Someone better than WV by far.
"Yeah sure, that's why you're all bent out of shape," Slick leans in, giving Visionary that sly smile of his that always spells out trouble, "Come on Vis, you've obviously got it bad for her. What's the problem?"
WV stares at his desk, fighting to keep his voice level when he's this upset and uncomfortable, the Messenger's rejection mixing with Slick's too-close presence, "There is no problem. And she is not free. She has a... friend."
"Friend huh?" He glances back to the doorway, as if perhaps part of her is still lingering there, "That's nothing that can't be changed. You want me to have a 'talk' with her man? I can have a 'talk' with her too-"
WV flushes, grabbing his letters out of Slick's hands and shouting at him, feeling a sudden overwhelming wall of rage at the thought of Slick standing anywhere near her, let alone speaking with PM, "Leave her alone!"
There's the snap of a switchblade and Visionary goes very still as he finds Slick holding the blade right against his throat. Slick's eyes Vis in a way that makes it clear that Slick's a second away from ending his life, "You're alive because you're useful. That doesn't mean I won't kill you if you start putting on fucking airs. You do what I tell you. And if I offer to do something for you, you don't start making demands. Got it?"
"Y-yes," WV doesn't nod, because if he nods, he'll cut himself, and he can't think of any worst last memory to have than Slick's foul smelling breath wafting in his face. Slick draws the blade back after a moment and Visionary swallows, "Sorry."
"Yeah, you fucking better be," Slick tucks the card away, straightening his jacket, "What's her name?"
"The Proficient Messenger," He reluctantly tells Slick, wishing he were a better liar or a braver man.
"You write me a letter, and when she comes around with messages tomorrow, you send her over to our place with it," Slick grins, and that cuts worse than the switchblade ever could, "Consider that payment for getting smart."
"Yes Slick," Visionary's voice is barely above a whisper. Slick nods and heads out, not bothering to giving WV another second of his time.
The Wondrous Visionary stays at his desk for a very long time, listening to the quiet tick of the clock. He doesn't bother to look at the correspondence. After all, it's not as if any of it will mean a damn thing. The sign on his door says mayor, but it might as well say nothing at all.
Chapter 2: PM - Brand New Colony
PM meets the Midnight Crew. Written for Bea.
The address is a sewer. Literally. PM's seen plenty of dumps in Midnight City, and she's even lived in a few, but she's never seen anyone living in the actual sewer. For a moment, she seriously contemplates just leaving the message on the manhole cover and leaving, but only for a moment. An address is an address, even if it's disgusting.
PM crouches down and listens. She can hear the very faint sound of jazz playing. ‘In for a penny' she thinks and knocks on the cover, calling out, "Delivery for Spades Slick!"
The music stops and she waits, listening to the quiet echoey sounds of someone moving around. After about half a minute, the cover suddenly shifts, and moves to the side, revealing a Dersite's face. She holds up the letter, showing it to him, "Mail for Spades Slick."
"Slick, delivery!" The tall man yells back down into the sewer, then turns his attention back to PM, "You're not the usual girl. Who's this from?"
"Mayor Visionary," PM answers, and the tall fellow nods, then suddenly disappears. She leans over and looks down, finding herself staring straight at the asshole from Mayor Visionary's office. Spades Slick is at the bottom of the ladder, and it's clear that he must have pushed his friend off the ladder, at least judging from the nasty look the friend is giving him. PM holds the letter out to Slick "Your message."
"Come down here!" Slick calls up. She stares at him with a fairly unimpressed look on his face, "Come on doll!"
"I'm not coming down if you call me ‘doll'," PM calls back, "I'm the Proficient Messenger."
"Fine, come on down Messenger!" Slick waves his hands as if he's making some great sacrifice calling her by her name. She eyes the sewer up with some apprehension and reluctantly climbs down. Not for the first time, she's glad that she traded her skirts for pants today.
Despite climbing into a sewer, it's not all that bad. It's actually quite nice, except for the part where it's a hole in the ground. At least it's dry. Her feet hit the cement ground and she glances around, taking in everything. It's a mess down here, a table taking up most of the room, and the table's just covered in an assortment of weapons, playing cards, and take-out cartons.
PM hands the letter to Slick, who finally takes it, and discards it over his shoulder, "So, d- Messenger, what's a pretty girl like you doing delivering mail for chumps like the Mayor?"
"It's my job," She says, her tone cool but not rude. PM's heard about Slick. Who hasn't in this town? He's a lot shorter than she expected though. He just comes up to her shoulder, "He pays well and the work's steady."
"I can think of something else that pays well and is steady," Slick leers.
"That didn't make any sense," The tall man mutters, and offers a hand, "Diamonds Droog."
"The Proficient Messenger," She says, shaking his hand. He's got a good grip and he seems polite enough, but there's something in his eyes that sets her on edge, "You have a very nice… home," PM settles on, because she's not entirely sure what to call it.
"You like it? You're one of the few lucky ladies to see our secret headquarters! Not that we don't have women down here- it's just it's secret and- if we let every woman in-" Slick attempts to recover, and beside him, Droog's shoulders shake a little as he silently laughs, "Shut the fuck up you smug bastard!"
"Well, you have your letter, and I really should be going. I do have a job to do," She tries to head back to the ladder, but Slick just slides into her path, one arms snaking around her waist as he tries to guide her away from the exit, "Excuse me Mr. Slick-"
"Just Slick's fine, I like being on a first name basis. Mr. Slick sounds too informal, especially in bed," He is trying his hardest to be charming, but he is failing on a level PM wasn't really aware men could fail on. It's not even innuendo, it's outuendo, and it's bad outuendo.
"I'll keep that in mind. But unless you're offering me work, I really have to leave," She tries to once again politely brush him off.
"That's what I want to talk to you about! You deliver things right? You take things places the post office won't go, that's why Vis uses you," Slick guides her away and she lets him, but she steps out of his arm as soon as it's possible, away from the stale smell of old sweat and blood, "Well, we've got lots of things the post office won't take."
"Slick's had his package rejected multiple times," Droog says, and there's just the subtle tone of amusement lurking underneath, "He's quite used to it by now."
"I will stab you right in the face," Slick growls at Droog before grabbing a roll of papers off the table, spreading it out, "We've got competition here, here, and here-" He points to the red x's on the map, "And they're all trying to get a piece of our territory. I want to send ‘em a message, but we can't get within three blocks of their turf without them thinking we're declaring war."
"That'd be because we usually are," A voice rumbles behind her and PM quickly turns around. There's a large man standing there, broad and tall, and he offers a hand, "Hearts Boxcars."
"The Proficient Messenger," PM says, feeling a bit like a parrot, "Is there anyone else here?"
"Hey Deuce! Come out here an' meet the Proficient Messenger!" Boxcars shouts at a closed door, this one with the clubs symbol on it. She glances around, realizing that all the doors have symbols on them. It's a themed gang. Huh.
"Hey pigeon, you mind if I call you that?" Slick asks, then goes on ahead without waiting for an answer, "Look pidge, we're willing to pay pretty handsome for this service. And I can think of other ways to compensate you if money's not what you're looking for, if you get my drift-"
Boxcars smacks Slick on the back, "Don't be crude, she's a lady."
"Hello!" Another voice calls out and when she turns around, she doesn't see anyone. It takes her a moment to realize that she needs to look down, way down, at the smiling face staring up at her, "Are you Droog's new girlfriend? You're so pretty!"
"Shut up you idiot," Slick hisses at him, "Ignore Deuce."
"I'm Clubs Deuce!" He sticks up a hand and she kneels down to shake it. Deuce is simply the shortest person she has ever met, which is remarkable because she didn't think anyone came any shorter than Ms. Paint.
"The Proficient Messenger," She says once again, and smiles this time, "It's nice to meet you."
"Hey!" Slick yells, and everyone goes quiet, "I'm trying to talk here!"
"No, you're trying to hit on her, and you're being incredibly unsuccessful, like you always are. Maybe if you'd spent as much time on improving your hygiene as you do on hating Snowman, you might get up to bat-" Droog's barely finished saying the words and Slick tries to go over the table at him. Boxcars grabs onto him and holds him tight, barely restraining the furious mass. Droog keeps his distance, "You're clearly not her type Slick."
"Shut the fuck up Droog! " Slick snarls, struggling with Boxcars, "You're doing the same fucking thing! You tear me down so you look better, but you're still nothing but a smug piece of shit-"
"I'm married," PM quickly says, and reaches into her shirt, fishing out the chain she always keeps tucked inside. The men finally stop yelling and struggling as she holds up the simple gold ring, "I don't wear it on my hand because I don't want to lose it while doing my job but… I'm already taken."
They just stare at it for a moment, and then Boxcars sets Slick down, "Congrads," He tells her, grinning broadly, "Isn't sweet when two people find each other."
"Don't get fucking sappy," Slick snaps, but he seems less frustrated, gesturing for PM to look at the maps again, "Like I was saying, we've got messages for these assholes and we need somebody to deliver them. Post office won't touch our stuff, not since we sent those bombs-"
Deuce giggles. It may be the most unsettling sound she's ever heard. PM looks down at him, and he just grins back up at her, "I'm the demolitions expert!"
"I don't deliver bombs," She tells them, voice brokering no arguments, "I also don't deliver body parts."
Slick and Droog glance at each other, before Slick speaks up again, "Aright, fair enough pidge. It'd just be paper messages then, nothing more serious than a harshly worded letter and maybe some illustrations."
"That's acceptable," They're all near places her usual route already takes her. It'll be easy to add these. And the extra money is always welcome, "It's $3 a message, and that doubles if anybody threatens my life."
"Are you kidding me? That's ludicrous!" Slick looks downright offended by the price, "I can buy a tank of gas for that!"
"You're offering me this job because you can't do it and nobody else will. Either you can pay me, or your messages won't get delivered," She's not ruffled by his reaction. Slick's not the first to have it, and he won't be the last. But when people turn to PM, it's because the post office has failed. PM never fails. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night, nor gunfire or nasty desert creatures or weird creatures with supernatural powers could stay her from the swift completion of her appointed rounds. The best the post office could promise was "maybe sometime this week, and only if it's a good neighbourhood".
Slick eyes her with an unimpressed look, but slowly, it turns around to amusement, "I like you pidge. $2."
"$3," She doesn't budge, and after a moment, he nods, "Do you have the messages prepared, or should I come back tomorrow?"
"They're here," Slick moves a stack of papers and comes up with three thick envelopes, handing them to her. She waits and he sighs and digs out his wallet, handing over $9, "This better be service with a fucking smile for what we're paying."
PM smiles at him, tucking the money and mail into her satchel, "Thank you for your business. Would you like me to stop by on a daily or weekly basis?"
"Weekly," Slick says, and PM nods to them, heading back out of the sewer. He follows her up the latter, while the rest content themselves with nods and a very excited wave goodbye from Deuce. Slick pauses near the top of the ladder, his chest sticking out of the hole, "You charge Vis this much?"
"Mayor Visionary gets a discount for calling me by my full name," She tucks the ring into her shirt, "And for not making passes at me."
"He's a fucking idiot then, pidge. Whenever you get tired of whoever gave you that thing, you just let me know. I'll treat you right," He grins and she laughs a little, shaking her head at Slick. He's straight-forward, she'll give him that, even if his approach is flawed, "What, you think I won't?"
"No. I'm sure you'd be a very generous boyfriend," PM can't stop smiling and she finally explains why, "It's just hard to take you seriously when you're standing in a sewer."
"It's not a sewer, it's a secret hideout!" Slick scowls at her, "Ah fuck you. Just deliver my damned messages."
"Goodbye Mr. Slick. I'll see you next week," She nods to him, and he flips her off, dragging the manhole cover back into place. PM takes a moment for herself, slotting Slick's messages into her schedule, and then heads out to do her duty.
Chapter 3: AR - Upholding the Law
AR does his nightly rounds.
Getting the night shift is meant to be punishment, but it’s not much of a punishment, not when it lets the Adjudicative Reinforcer actually get some work done. He hates the day shift, and the constant politics, and the cowardice of Midnight City’s Police Department. At least on the night shift, he gets away from the backstabbing and useless political grandstanding.
It’s cold out, but he barely feels it with his coat wrapped around him, trudging through the city in his usual path. He knows these streets inside and out, and if he closed his eyes, he could find his way through them, the feel of the street beneath his feet, and the smells of the city to guide him through its tight and twisting alleyways.
Off in the distance, he hears faint screams that set him on edge. It’s too far away to tell if they’re someone calling for help, or someone drunkenly celebrating. In this town, you can never tell. There once was a time he would have charged off towards the sound, willing to look like an ass if it meant saving a life. These days, he saves his strength for the battles he’s got a chance, no matter how slim, of winning.
These days, those battles are farther and fewer between.
The city is bathed in yellow light, a crescent moon overhead, and the faintest edges of it’s counterpart in the southern edge of the sky, creeping around at the edges of the horizon. This city is never truly dark, not these days. There are always lights somewhere, peering out of tenements or all-night automats, diners where coffee is kept warm all night long and quiet lonely people gather like moths against a bare light bulb.
Sometimes it feels like this city is two different people sharing one space. In the day, the city is loud and sleazy, bright and garish and loud. At night, the city is lonely and tired, frightened and lighting candles to ward off the dark. Reinforcer prefers it at night. The darkness is an old familiar friend.
Like the moth, the light ahead calls to him and he quickens his pace. The diner is a welcome sight, and as he steps inside, the warm air rushes around AR. Above the door, a little bell jingles, alerting those behind the counter.
It’s sparse at this time of night. There’s a couple of Dersites sitting in one of the booths, lost in their own little world. A Prospitarian sits at the counter, scribbling into a book, barely aware that anyone else is in the diner with him. Another Prospitarian is at the very end, head lying on the counter. It’s hard to tell from here if they’re drunk or just exhausted. Judging by the wrappings instead of clothes, they’re probably a desert wandering, just stumbled into town.
AR takes his usual spot near the doors, and he can’t help but smile when he spots Ms Paint, adorable as ever in that waitress uniform. She’s balancing a couple cups of coffee and a plate full of eggs and hashbrowns. He tips his hat to her before taking it off, “Ma’am.”
“Detective Reinforcer!” Her smile could light this city, “Your usual?”
He nods and watches as Ms Paint slides one cup of coffee down to the writer, and the other cup and plate of food to the tired desert dweller. The Prospitarian lifts his – no, her – head and blinks wearily.
“Get something in your stomach before you fall asleep again. Try the coffee,” Ms Paint pats the girl on the back of the hand and then heads back over to AR, grabbing the pot of coffee and a mug. She pours him a cup without even looking at it and the cup she gives him is filled right to the brim, “Out on the beat again?”
“Somebody’s got to look out for this town,” Reinforcer sips at his coffee, feeling it warm his insides. She makes the best damn cup of joe in this whole city. AR would probably walk over broken glass for a cup of this, and her famous pastries.
And speaking of pastries, she ducks into the kitchen and emerges with a slice of rhubarb pie. AR can’t help the little sigh of satisfaction he makes when he sees it, or when he picks up the fork and presses down, seeing it ooze an ever so delicious red colour. Down the counter, the woman eats like she hasn’t had anything in days. That may be the truth. The desert is harsh and hard, yet some people seem to prefer making their way out there instead of in here, in Midnight City.
AR can’t say he blames them. This whole town is corrupt and rotten to the core. There’s been many days when he thought about throwing his own rags on again and disappearing into the wastelands. But… he couldn’t do that. Who would look after the town? Who would eat this delicious rhubarb pie?
“Amazing, as always,” He tells Ms Paint, and she nearly glows at the praise, “All quiet around here?”
“Just the usual sort,” Ms Paint gets all kinds in here; the perils of being open all day and all night. But she knows how to handle them, and if not, AR usually turns up in time, or a customer steps in. People are territorial about this place. It’s always nice and clean, the food’s good and cheap, and Ms Paint is a little bright spot of hope. People are willing to do terrible things to protect something like that, “Can I ask you a favour?”
AR nods, not even needing to hear what she’s got to ask. Ms Paint only ever asks when it’s something she can’t handle on her own, “What do you need?”
She glances to the girl at the end of the counter, sucking back the cup of coffee, “She needs a place to stay. I’d take her, but we’re full up over here. I’ve got her working the night shift with me starting tomorrow. If you could just bring her along and drop her off when you start patrol-”
The last thing AR wants it to share his apartment with anybody. But it’s Ms Paint asking, “You need money to put her up in a hotel?”
“It’s not that. She’s been out in the desert too long. That girl needs to be around people she can trust, else she’s liable to open her door to any stranger that knocks…” She trails off but AR understands what she means. Carapaces like that are liable to trust anybody who looks like they know what they’re doing. That’s how the whorehouses get new girls. That’s how bodies turn up in the river.
“Alright,” AR reluctantly agrees. They might as well write ‘soft touch’ on his head. He’s supposed to be a hard-boiled police detective, “But if anything in my apartment goes missing-”
“I’ll cover it,” Ms Paint grabs onto her stool, dragging it over and standing on it, just so she can lean in and press a kiss to AR’s cheek, “You’re a good officer.”
“Aw jeeze,” Reinforcer quickly sips his coffee to hide the blush on his cheeks. Ms Paint gives him that look she always does, a little teasing, but a lot serious, then grabs the pot of coffee and heads over to the couple in the booth. Reinforcer looks down at the Prospitarian and slides over towards her, taking his pie with him. She looks up nervously as he settles beside her, but he makes sure not to touch her, just nodding, “I’m Officer Adjudicative Reinforcer, but you can call me AR. Do you have a name?”
She glances down at her plate, her fingers nervously prodding at the remains of the egg. Her voice is hoarse from lack of use when she speaks, “The Desolate Refugee.”
“DR? Can I call you DR?” He waits for the nod before continuing, “I’m friends with Ms Paint. She says you need a place to stay while you get on your feet. I’ve got a spare room. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s got a bed and a closet, and it’s own bathroom.”
She doesn’t say anything. AR glances down at her hands and notices that she’s missing a few fingers on her right hand. The carapace there is cracked and healed over roughly. She’s got another crack on her chin too, this one looking far fresher than the wounds on her hand. DR catches him looking, and AR doesn’t look away.
Instead, he slides his pie over to her, “Try it. It’s rhubarb. Ms Paint grows it herself out back. The flavour’s sort of tart, but in a good way.”
DR eyes him up, but the pie is clearly too tempting. She picks up her own fork and takes a chunk of the pie, shakily bringing it to her mouth. It disappears into her mouth, and her eyes go wide. AR watches a little sadly as the rest of the pie disappears into her mouth, bite by bite, reminding himself that it’s for a good cause. By the time DR finishes it, her mouth is smeared with red, and her eyes look a little less frightened.
The detective in AR has a million questions for her, wanting to know what happened to drive her out of the desert, wanting to know who she was before she was a Desolate Refugee, if she’s seen anything out there, if she might be able to tell him the location of smuggler’s stashes out on the desert. But he learned the hard way a long time ago that sometimes, you’ve got to stop being the law for long enough to be a good person.
Ms Paint heads back over, topping up Reinforcer’s coffee, “Now, I’ll be right back with some things for Refugee. I’ve got a uniform that should fit her, and a spare dress or two-”
“I don’t need charity,” DR says, but her hands twist nervously, as if aware that she doesn’t have much ground to stand on.
“It’s not charity, just lenders until you’re on your feet. Once you’re getting paid, you can pay Ms Paint back,” It’s not a lie, not exactly. DR will pay them back, but in time, and when she’s got her own place that she can afford. There’s been plenty just like her over the past years, and all of them repaid their debts one way or another. Some with money, some with other things.
AR was never one of those to wander into Midnight City, wrapped in rags and covered in years worth of dust and dirt. But he still helps when he can. The law’s been twisted and perverted by the people of this city, used against good people by the corrupt and the unlawful. AR knows that one day, things will be better, that one day they won’t be held under the thumb of the Midnight Crew. But the only way that day is ever going to come is if the people like AR and Ms Paint outnumber the criminals and those willing to stand idly by.
DR is their future, her and the hundreds of others like her that have slowly filtered into Midnight City and swelled their ranks. People have been willing to kill anybody threatening Ms Paint, just because she serves them coffee and smiles. AR can only imagine what the ones she fed and clothed would do for her if it was Spades Slick making those threats.
“I’ll be back in a few hours for DR,” AR finishes most of his coffee, but he can’t quite manage all of it, “I just have to finish my patrol. Mind wrapping up some pie for me?”
“I’ll have a whole fresh one waiting just for you by the time you’re back,” Ms Paint promises. AR’s knees go a little weak at the thought.
“One of these days, I’m going to marry you,” He says, and there’s nothing joking about it. AR’s serious. One of the days, he’s going to buy that ring and spring the question her in the middle of the dinner rush. Just as soon as things turn around and this town stops being so damn rotten.
It’s Ms Paint’s turn to blush and to flap a dishcloth at him, “Oh hush you.”
“One of these days,” He promises and he gets one last dazzling smile before he steps out the door, away from the light and back into the dark of the city. AR pulls his coat tighter around him. His belly is warm with coffee, and his heart feels light in his chest. Nights like this, he feels like maybe they’ll succeed, maybe they’ll take this city back and make her fresh and new again.
But that’s the future. He’s still got to deal with the present right now. AR steps away from the diner’s lights and into the shadows once again, eyes and ears open and alert for the sounds of wrong-doing. Somebody’s has to take care of that city.
Somebody has to be the Law.
Press conferences are the Wondrous Visionary’s least favourite duty.
No, that's not entirely true. Anything Slick forces him to do is his least favourite. The press conferences are just... awful.
It's not the conference that's the problem. In theory, it should be fine. WV should walk out, explain the City's newest project, take some well-thought out questions, and then go back up to his office and wait to see the headlines.
The problem is the reporters.
Verbose Litigant is a slimeball. Just standing in the same room as him makes WV's carapace crawl. He's short and always sweating, beads rolling down his dark carapace. It's a rare day when he doesn't show up to the press conference with bruises, or one of his glass lenses shattered, or spitting blood into a handkerchief. He runs the Midnight Star, a tabloid paper known for it's large excited headlines and it's dubiously researched stories. At the moment, VL has interrupted WV's speech about the building of the new damn, stuttering with excitement as he speaks, "Would you say that t-this project will be expensive?"
"I... imagine that there will be an initial investment, nothing that we can't afford-" WV starts to say, but as soon as the words are out of WV's mouth
"But you'll have to raise taxes to pay for it, won't you?" He's nearly vibrating with excitement, and WV's shoulders slump, already knowing exactly where he's going with this, "Nehehehe, aren't you?"
"Wow VL, you're really headed for new lows," The other reporter butts in. The Tenacious Scrivener is taller than VL by a foot or so, and if it weren't for the eyepatch over her right eye, she would almost look like the more professional of the two. She's standing only a few feet away, and WV can smelt the faint smell of scotch on her breath, her own special perfume. TS runs the Alternia Free Press, a broadsheet paper that's the closest thing this town comes to respectable. It has an actual arts section, whereas the Midnight Star only has the Page 3 Carapace.
Except, the Alternia Free Press is anything but free. It's rare that a story goes through shedding even the most vague negative light on the government, and the Midnight Crew never makes the front page. She understands that there has to be compromise. Her paper never lies, but the Scrivener knows the fine art of simply leaving things out of a story. TS knows her place, knows how to work with WV instead of against him.
Unless VL is involved, that is. Then it's like being caught between wild musclebeasts during mating season. TS taps her pencil against her pad of paper, "Mayor Visionary, isn't it true that this public works project will employ hundreds of out of work carapeople from all walks of life?"
"It is-" WV starts to stay, ready to break out the figures and numbers that he's memorized for especially this situation.
"And is-isn't it true that it's going t-to accomplish a whole lot of n-nothing?" Litigant interrupts, looking directly at the Scrivener, "Since the unemployment was caused by your last major project?"
"Well, it's more complicated-" Again, WV attempts to speak, again, he finds himself brushed aside by the next set of questions, not even directed at him except in theory. Half the time, it feels like they could hold these press conferences without him. They certainly don't really care what he has to say, just that he only exists to give them a reason to bicker with each other.
"Except those losses can be directly attributed to the collapse of the Midnight City banking system, which we all know was caused by the Felt's insane and constant heists," TS adds, clearly leaving out the part where the Midnight Crew also had a hand in it. "But this project is going to revitalize the community!"
"Or destroy it completely! Nyehehe!" VL says and dissolves into nervous laughter tainted with a malicious sort of glee. WV can already see the headline in garish red. He takes his monocle off and polishes it, trying desperately to think of a way to retake this conversation.
"If you twist the truth any harder, you'll turn it into a pretzel," TS is openly disdainful, but WV can't remember a time when she wasn't. WV doesn't completely understand it. VL is a sleaze, but this is beyond the usual disdain you'd expect. WV can hardly say he likes VL (or TS to be honest), but he certainly doesn't understand how they manage to hate each other so very much.
He makes one last desperate attempt to pull the conversation back, though it's clear that they've all but forgotten that he's in the room with them. “Excuse me-” WV tries to say, but they easily talk over him, and all his carefully thought-out words are trampled underfoot.
“J-just because you can’t beat me to scoops doesn’t mean it’s my problem,” VL insists, patting at his head with a sodden handkerchief, “Maybe if you weren’t so lazy-”
“Lazy?” Tenacious Scrivener looks like she’s about to start into the violence, which by far is WV's least favourite part of the press conference, “You know what lazy is? Lazy is making shit up and trying to pass it off at the truth! If the Midnight Star had to print retractions for every lie you tell in that rag, your paper would double in size!”
“Don’t you call my paper a rag!” Verbose Litigant looks like he’s about to prod her in the chest but it seems to sink in at the last moment that he could keep his fingers to himself. He instead settles for pointing, “You don’t have any substance in yours! You’re too busy licking Spade Slick’s boots to bother reporting anything real!”
“That’s real fucking funny coming from you, especially since the way I hear it, you’re the one desperately trying to kiss his ass anytime you run into each other. Only we both know what Slick thinks of you,” And she prods him in the ribs had enough to make VL stagger back, “You’d toadie for them if you could, but nobody likes you VL, especially not them.”
“We both know the only reason they like y-you is because you’ll sp-spread to get an interview-” WV can see exactly where this is heading and the last thing wants it so clean blood off of the floors of town hall again. He gets between them, pushing them both away, ignoring their combined protests, “H-hey!”
“That’s enough!” WV forgets to be nervous and broken for a moment, his voice taking on its old power, booming as it bounces off the high marble ceilings of the capital building, “Every time there’s a press conference, you pull this! Nobody will ever take either of your papers seriously if this is how you conduct yourselves when you’re at work! You’re professionals, act like it!”
TS gives him the stink-eye and VL mops his brow, heavily perspiring. But they both actually do as their told, and the next words out of their mouths are questions instead of insults, “Can I get a quote for the front page.”
“Yeah, make it something snappy,” Verbose Litigant quickly flips his notebook open, pen hovering about the paper. Tenacious Scrivener does the same, both of them staring at WV and waiting for him to make a statement.
“Um.” WV anxiously tapped his fingers together, trying to come up with something, “A public works project will be good for this town. How can we be proud of who we are if we aren’t proud of our town? Midnight City is the jewel of the desert, we should take better care of her.”
Their pens fly over the paper, noting down what he's saying. VL nods, “Good, good. Okay, I’ve got something here. Something like… ‘Wondrous Wastes City’s Wealth!”
“Midnight City Moves Forward With Beautification Project,” TS prompts, and they glance at each other out of the corner of their eyes as if the other may steal their headline.
"Well it's not really a beautification project, or a waste of the city's wealth-" WV attempts to reason, but it's too late. They've both settled on their stories and they turn their back on WV, heading out of the hall.
"When the Midnight Crew swings over to stab you for the article you wrote about their diamond heist, make sure to say hi from me," TS says to VL as they head out.
"Y-yeah? Well when they s-show up at your paper to-" Thankfully, before WV can hear what exactly VL has to say, the door slams shut. WV's shoulders sag once he's no longer being watched. He really doesn't understand why he bothers to host press conferences, especially when they always end like that. No matter what he does, the papers always report it wrong.
Days like these, he really wonders why he's still holding this office. It seems like no matter how hard he tries to work within the system, it just comes back to bite him in the ass. If Slick isn't breathing down his neck, then the reporters are, or the other lawyers and politicians in Midnight City. He never gets a break, never has a moment when these things actually work for him instead of against him.
WV's about to get into a real good wallow when the door opens again, and PM walks in, looking like a vision of loveliness in her postal uniform. His heart skips a beat when he sees her, even though he knows he has no chance. It doesn't matter. He's still head over heels for her, "Miss Messenger!"
"Hello Mayor Visionary!" She smiles at him, and he completely forgets about the mess of a press conference, all of his troubles just melting away. PM lifts his heart like no one else alive, and when she pauses to frown, he wants to do nothing more than smooth it off her face, "Did I catch you at a bad time?"
"No, not at all. Everything's fine now," He assures her. In his mind, he silently adds now that you're here to the end of his sentence, "How can I help you?"
"Special delivery for you from the Chief of Police!" PM gestures to her mailbag, clearly stuffed full of something. WV's eyes light up. That should be the report on this month's crime levels, and for once, he's heard rumours that violent crime is down instead of up. That would be very good news.
WV gets bold and offers her his arm, smiling at PM, "Shall we?"
"Of course," PM smiles back and actually takes it. They head down to his office, WV nearly floating off the ground with joy. And this is how he remembers why he keeps coming in to work, why he keeps working with a broken system: because there are people who still believe in him, people like PM.
And as long as one person believes in him, then he's going to try his best to be someone worth believing in.
VL is Jones' fancarapace, borrowed with permission.
Chapter 5: PM - Signed, Sealed, Delivered
The Contumacious Lawyer’s office is as busy as usual when the Proficient Messenger walks in. Her Harried Receptionist is busy switching lines, only sparing PM the slightest of glances as he answers each caller, “Contumacious Lawyer’s office, please hold. Contumacious Lawyer’s office, please hold. Good morning PM.”
“Hi HR!” She pulls the package out of her mail bag, showing it to Receptionist, “Is CL in?”
The Prospitarian nods to the door, and the oh so familiar sound of Contumacious Lawyer yelling over the phone, “Can you try calm her down? Please? She’s driving me nuts.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” She tells HR and heads past him, ducking into CL’s office.
The tall Dersite paces back and forth behind her desk, yelling over the phone. PM takes a moment, letting the Lawyer carry with her tirade. They’re very nearly the same model of body, similar height, though where PM is lanky and muscular, CL is simply thin, her skinny legs always reminding her so much of WV’s equally skinny chicken-legs.
“-for one second that I’m going to stand for this, you’ve got another thing coming!” Lawyer yells, and there’s something just enjoyable about watching her go. In another life, she was once the Calculated Legislator, reviewing and passing laws on Derse. In this life, she’s the Contumacious Lawyer, always using her knowledge to keep one leg up on the competition, which in this town is nearly everyone. It’s not easy being a public prosecutor when the civil service is corrupt and ultimately useless, “Let me tell you, if you threaten me again, I’m going to squeeze your neck until your eyes pop like rotten grapes. Oh, you think that’s over the line? Was it over the line when you tried to break into my office? How about when you bugged my line? No, you listen to me-”
She finally notices PM, and Messenger waves her fingers at Lawyer. She gets a wave in return, and a brief smile before CL gets down to business again. PM tunes out the rest of the call, glancing over the Lawyer’s office instead. She’s been here plenty of times, but PM always enjoys looking around. There aren’t many reminders of their old worlds, but CL’s got a few things, photos she managed to take with her during the evacuation. Looking at them and seeing the old colours of Derse and Prospit always makes her heart twinge a little.
One photo in particular catches her eye. She’s seen it a dozen times, but always through the lens of Lawyer’s friend. For the first time, she notices who’s standing near CL, dressed in a uniform instead of a suit, and sneering at the camera.
“Did I ever tell you the story behind that one?” CL interrupts PM’s thoughts, grinning when PM startles and turns around, “Someone’s daydreaming today.”
“Sorry, I just hadn’t really looked at that one before,” She gives Lawyer a brief hug before holding out the package, “Delivery for you from Spades Slick. And don’t worry, it’s not a bomb.”
“Please don’t tell me you’re making deliveries for that creep,” Lawyer says, and when Messenger doesn’t deny it, she makes a face, “PM!”
“He’s a paying customer. As long as he follows the rules and keeps paying me cash up front, I’ll keep delivering,” The one point of contention between Messenger and Lawyer is that PM remains decidedly apolitical in this town, while CL always seems to be on a one woman crusade. It’s not that PM disagrees with CL: most of the time they’re on the same side. It’s just that PM can’t afford to limit her business, or to let her personal opinions colour it. She provides a service, and she can be counted on to always provide it, no matter what happens.
“You need to make an exception when it comes to Spades Slick. He’ll get you killed, if he doesn’t do it himself,” Lawyer heads back to her desk, setting the package down on it, “He’s no good PM, trust me.”
“I know he’s trouble, but he’s the kind of trouble who pays full price,” Messenger takes a seat on the other side of the Lawyer’s desk, “Do you have time to talk?”
“For you? I always have time. I haven’t seen you in ages,” CL sits behind her desk, and she fits perfectly in the role, just like how being a mail woman fit PM perfectly, “How have you been? How’s the delivery business going?”
“Good! It’s really nice,” PM grins, always happy to talk about her work, “The new deliveries are really expanding my route. What about you? How are the cases?”
“The usual. Miserably corrupt and occasionally painful,” CL sighs, but PM knows her better than that. There’s nothing Lawyer loves more than fighting for an otherwise futile cause. She nods to the parcel, “I’m trying to put a case together against the Midnight Crew, which is probably why they’re sending parcels of what I can only assume are body parts.”
“They know I won’t carry body parts. If there is anything in there, even a finger, I’ll stop service,” This is a real and serious threat coming from PM. Over the past few weeks, it’s become obvious how badly the Midnight Crew need someone to deliver their packages. PM is the only one who’ll touch their stuff, and if they cross her, there won’t be any second chances.
CL raises an eyeridge, “Not a bomb or a body part? Now you’ve got me curious to see what’s in it,” She picks up the phone, pressing a button, “HR? Get in here.”
After a moment, the door opens and the weary looking Prospitarian wanders in, “What do you need me to do?”
“See what’s in here,” She points to the box, “It’s from the Midnight Crew, so watch your fingers.”
Harried Receptionist fixes her with a look that says ‘you’re kidding’, but the words never come out of his mouth. CL’s known for a lot of things, but kidding isn’t one of them. PM watches at HR opens the box up and reluctantly looks inside, “It’s a bunch of angry notes.”
He carefully pulls them from the box, clearly waiting for some trap to be lurking underneath. CL takes them, flipping through the bundle of paper, a mix of crude drawing and messy letters, “Wonderful, more reading material.”
“And a key,” Receptionist lifts it up, showing it to the other two women, “Looks like it’s for a storage locker. It’s got something taped to it.”
Lawyer takes the key and pulls the piece of paper off of it, yanking the tape off and reading it, “It’s an advert for that hostel near the edge of town. Why’s he sending me this?”
“They have lockers there. That’s what I’d assume the key is for,” Receptionist pushes his glasses further up, “And that’s where that Prospitarian was killed a few months ago, remember?”
“The Reliable Postman,” PM says softly. She knows her own, even if they aren’t exactly hers anymore. He was one of the good ones, the dedicated ones. She had been livid for weeks after his death. Nobody had known who killed him, or even why.
CL doesn’t seem to notice PM’s cold fury, too busy caught up in her own thoughts, “He knows who did it. HR, get down there and get that locker open.”
“He’s just doing this to distract you,” HR reminds, even as he extends his hand for the key.
“I can run two cases at once. What do I look like, a lightweight?” She drops the key in the palm of his hand, “And get me a coffee while you’re out. I’m going to be pulling another all-nighter.”
“Joy,” The Receptionist deadpans before leaving. PM barely notices, her mind still on the Reliable Postman, and more importantly, on Spades Slick sending her over here with that key.
“What a sleaze. I can’t believe he thinks this will get me to lighten up on him. Really PM, you shouldn’t be taking his money. I know him and- PM?” CL sets a hand on PM’s shoulder, jolting her out of her thoughts. The Lawyer looks at her with concern, brow knitted with worry, “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yeah, fine. It’s just. I knew him,” She explains, telling CL the truth, but not all of it. PM knew him, but it’s more than that. It’s Spades Slick that’s clogging up her thoughts.
“I’m sorry. I’ll find the bastards that killed him, and I’ll get a conviction. I promise you,” CL swears, and she means so well that PM manages a smile. But it’s not a conviction that PM’s thinking of. The Lawyer leans against her desk, “Look, you want to hang out here? You can help me go through the files. It’ll be good! I bet you haven’t had any girl time in ages.”
“It does sound good but…” She pats her bag, “I’ve got deliveries to make.”
“Of course you do. Well then, go on!” CL sighs dramatically, “Be a slave to the mail. I’ll just be here, researching my case, all alone.”
“HR will be back soon enough,” Normally PM would tease CL but she’s not feeling in a teasing mood anymore. She shifts the packages, “I’ll drop by again sometime soon, when I don’t have mail to deliver.”
“I’m holding you to that. And if you don’t, I’m going to turn up at your home and steal you!” Lawyer straightens up, and before Messenger can react, she steps forward and wraps her arms around PM, hugging her tight, “I mean it. You better come back here, and soon.”
PM gives into the hug, nodding, “I promise. As soon as I have a moment.”
They break free after a moment, CL sighing again, though this time it’s a real sigh, “Back to the grindstone. So many criminals, so little time.”
“You’ll manage it somehow,” PM waves as she heads out of the office, and receives a wave in return. Goodbyes are always an ordeal with CL. She’s so good with them when they consist of slamming phones in receivers or someone turning tail and running away, but no so much when it’s just one person slowly walking away. CL follows PM, lingering in her door while PM heads out, “Bye CL.”
“Bye PM,” She looks like she might chase PM down, but her wits get the better of her and she backs into her office.
PM makes it into the hall before the expression on her face falls, revealing the cold blank look beneath. If Spades Slick has anything to do with the mailman’s murder, then PM is going to do a lot worse to him than just refuse to deliver his mail.
She shoulders her bag and heads down the stairs. There’s mail to be delivered. Even revenge doesn’t come before mail, not for PM.
Chapter 6: AR - Karma Police
It’s been a long time since Adjudicative Reinforcer lived with anybody, longer than he cares to admit even to himself. This apartment has had too many rooms for a long time and not nearly enough things to fill them.
The Desolate Refugee doesn’t take up too much room, or any room at all really. AR gives her the spare bedroom and she moves into it, bringing only a plain, dirty bag with her. He barely notices that she’s there some nights, coming home as the sun’s rising and finding no trace of her existence, except for some washed dishes and a closed bedroom door.
She’s still a mystery. AR hasn’t pushed her to reveal the reason why she’s missing fingers, or why she came out of the desert after all this time. Most of the people who wanted to live in a city moved here a long time ago. The few who didn’t stayed out in the desert, choosing to live as nomads for reasons the Reinforcer isn’t entirely sure of. But some of them move into the city, just like some of the city dwellers just abandon their lives one day and head back out into the desert.
AR doesn’t spend too much time worrying about her, or the who-how-where-what-whens of her life. People need their space. And he’s got other things to worry about, like the Suspicious Proprietor.
Kings in the Cornershop looks like a regular corner store, and the shelves are stocked with enough goods to keep up the charade. But it’s not a regular store. SP’s got a direct line to the local blackmarket. AR’s not sure where he gets his goods, but he can make an educated guess or two. Desert people find things, things of a very dangerous nature, and they bring them into town and sell them. And those things inevitably turn up at crime scenes, usually with the remains of some poor chump splattered against a wall.
SP glances up from behind the counter, looking away from the paper he’s reading. He’s a heavier-set Dersite, about the same build as AR really. The one-eyed man grins, that white eye patch of his blindingly bright against his dark carapace. “Detective.”
“Proprietor,” He cautiously greets the shopkeeper. SP’s not a man to be messed with. But he’s not stupid either, and as long as AR stays in line, so will he. AR slips the photos out of his jacket, laying the first one down on the counter. “You remember this woman?”
SP glances down at it, eyes raking over her face. She’s a pretty Prospitarian, wearing one of those felt hats that are all the rage lately. The woman is smiling openly at the camera, and SP smiles right back at her. “No, I’d sure as hell remember if I did.”
“How about this?” AR sets the second photo down and watches as SP carefully leans away from it. The black and white film has failed to capture just how vividly red everything was at the crime scene, turning it into a wall of blackness surrounding her crumpled body. “You recognize what did that?”
“Fuck’s sake,” The Proprietor makes a face. “I just ate. You trying to make me lose my lunch here?”
“I’m trying to find out who killed this girl. Sorry if that upsets your stomach, but you know what upsets my stomach?” He taps the picture, making sure to draw attention to her open eyes, pools of black in the picture. “She was found in a warehouse, no ID on her. It took us a week to track down a name. The Glad Bookkeeper. Her girlfriend reported her missing. I stood there beside her at the station, and I watched her break down as she identified the woman she loved.”
“That’s a shame,” SP says, and when AR scoffs, he leans in close, “No, I mean it. It’s a real shame. This is turning my stomach, I can’t imagine what it would do to somebody who loved her. But I don’t know nothing about any Glad Bookkeeper, or what sort of thing would make that wound. I’m a respectable business man.”
“Really? Should we walk into your storage room and have you say that again?” They both know what’s back there, in a not-as-hidden-as-he-thinks room. AR could arrest SP, like he did with the man who ran the blackmarket before SP. But all that happened was that one rat was caught, and the rest all went underground where they couldn’t be found, and his questions never got an answer. AR knows better now. He looks the other way on some of the things SP does and sells, and in return, SP gives AR the names he needs to bring people to justice for heinous crimes like this one. Reinforcer holds up the photo again. “Take another look. You really want to protect the guy who did this?”
“I’m lookin', don’t shove it in my face,” SP takes it, eyeing the picture up. His fingers tap on the counter as he thinks. Just as AR suspects SP’s about to hand the photo back without comment, he finally gives AR something to work with. “A week and a half ago, I had a gentlemen come in, inquiring about where he might find a weapon that could do this sort of damage. Of course, I told him he couldn’t find anything like that in this establishment.”
“Yeah, of course you did,” AR knows how this game’s played. “Do you remember a name by any chance?”
“Never caught a name. But uh. He had a rather nice bowtie. Red and white if I remember correctly,” The Proprietor taps his chest meaningfully. Red bowtie with spots. There’s only one gang in the city that wears those colours.
“Happen to catch the pip count on that bow tie?” AR pushes a little harder. Knowing that a Stoop Shooter bought some nasty weapon isn’t enough. He needs a name, somebody to lean on and work a confession out of. Pip count can tell AR approximately who might be the buyer.
“I might need something green to jog my memory,” SP ventures, and AR cannot fix him with an unimpressed look fast enough. AR may be willing to turn a blind eye, but he will never aid and abet a known criminal, and he certainly will never bribe for information that’s rightfully his. SP sighs, “Nine pips.”
Nine. That narrows things down quite a bit. AR’s got something to go on finally. But first... He slides the photos away and draws out his list, handing it to SP. “I need the things on here.”
SP glances over the list, confused at first, but then grinning. “I see somebody has a new lady friend.”
"Emphasis on the 'friend' part," AR warns him. The Desolate Refugee has a few things she needs, things that a single bachelor male doesn’t necessarily stock in his house. Miss Paint thinks of a lot of things, but she probably never thought about this.
"Heh, whatever you say,' SP gets off his stool behind the counter and grabs a box from behind the counter, starting to fill it. AR half-watches him, his eyes drawn towards the lights outside. SP should be closing up shop soon. Reinforcer will have just enough time to pick the Refugee up from her shift and to take her home before he heads out on his official patrol. He hopes that this day went better for her than the day before.
Miss Paint had filled him in on a few of the details while DR was getting changed in the back. A customer – a Dersite – had gotten a little too handsy. DR had flipped out and smashed a plate over his head. It wasn’t anything he didn’t deserve, but it wasn’t exactly professional, and not the sort of thing Miss Paint wanted her diner to get a reputation for. Another few problems like that, and they’d have to figure out something else for the girl to do.
They weren’t about to turn her out into the street over a few broken plates. Hell, AR wanted to pat her on the back about that. Anyone who put an asshole in his place was good in his books. Of course, that would be sending mixed messages so he’s trying not to give her praise after Miss Paint has just finished explaining why that sort of violence isn’t acceptable.
He’s jolted out of his thoughts when SP drops the box beside him. “Five bucks.”
AR shells out the five dollars, trying not to think about how they could buy him a tank of gas and a nice meal out. The Refugee needs these things more than the Reinforcer needs to stuff his face. "I appreciate the assistance."
"And I’d appreciate not seeing your face around here for at least another few months," SP makes his meaning pretty well known.
AR just picks up the box and heads for the exit. "Keep out of trouble."
"You too," SP grins as AR backs out of the store’s door. AR does not flip him off, only because AR has something called manners, and because he wants SP’s cooperation, not his animosity. There’s lots of guys who won’t talk to a cop that isn’t dirty in this town. AR needs to keep his sources.
He puts his things in the backseat of the car and checks the time. There’s no rush to head over the diner. He could hang around here if he wanted, or head somewhere else. Or he could go to the diner and see Miss Paint’s sweet face, and have a little more of that delicious pie of hers.
AR makes up his mind, smiling to himself as he gets in the driver’s seat. There’s nothing that makes him so happy as thinking about Miss Paint. And about her pie, of course.
SP is Bit's fancarapace, borrowed with permission.
Chapter 7: WV - No One Will Ever Love You
There are a number of perks when you’re mayor of a place like Midnight City, the first and foremost being the Mayor’s Residence. When things get rough, when even pretty messenger women can’t manage to raise his spirits, he always has his home to return to.
It’s a little two story brick building, and it’s been WV’s home since the day it was built. It has a lovely brass knocker on the front door and a little garden in the back that he keeps well tended, and furnishings that he’s been given by friends and acquaintances over the years. WV feels that it’s the finest looking house in all of Midnight City, and he adores it. There’s just one problem with it: the locks are too easily picked.
Spades Slick is lounging in WV’s parlour when the mayor arrives home, and WV notices him as he walks by, stopping when he’s two steps past the door and just freezing up. He doesn’t want to look back. He doesn’t want to have seen Slick there. WV wants to keep walking down the house, to his kitchen, where there’s tea waiting to be brewed. He wants to sit on the back porch and look out over his garden, a delicate cup in his hands glowing with the radiant warmth that only well steeped tea can achieve.
Except he can’t, especially not when Slick calls out, “Vis, heeey Vis. C’mere willya?”
WV stands in the corridor a moment longer before turning around, tracing his steps back to the parlour. He tries not to look downtrodden but it’s hard when he’s spent most of his day being trodden over.
Slick’s slouched on the fancy couches – a gift from the Gentile Socialite – scratching his chest like he’s got nothing to hide. His feet are sitting on the coffee table, boots digging into the exquisite carvings on the top. Slick grins when he sees WV, “There you are. Working late?”
“Some… things came up,” WV does not go into detail on this ‘things’ since Slick should know what they were. Most of them are either partly or directly caused by Slick and the rest of the hoodlums that run this city, or are desperately fighting to run it. WV’s left to try clean up their messes, to talk to reporters and answer uncomfortable questions, to pretend like this city is going as it should, and is not a complete disaster.
“You look stressed. Go make yourself some tea. And get me a beer,” Slick doesn’t budge an inch from his spot on the couch.
WV reluctantly leaves the parlour, trudging to the kitchen. The kettle’s already full of water, all WV has to do is plug it into the wall and let it heat up. He’s got an electric kettle, one of the few people in Midnight City who does. It’s a prototype, a promise of progress, of convenience for all. It’s a lot like WV’s mayoral duties: a promise for all… but only kept for some.
There are days he doesn’t use it, days when he fills his old kettle and heats it on the stove and promises himself that he’ll never use the electric kettle again, not until everyone has one, not until it’s fair for all. And the next day, when he comes home with his bruises and broken bones (and these are not always metaphorical bruises or broken bones), he dumps the water out of the manual kettle and hides it beneath the sink until he’s seize by another fit of madness that he can wiggle out from under Spades Slick’s thumb.
Today is not the day he tries to squirm. Today is the day he plugs in his electric kettle and lets it boil the water. There’s beer in the fridge, but it’s not WV’s. It’s Slick’s beer, for whenever Slick makes an appearance, which is far more often than WV would like. He take out the bottle, and though his tea isn’t ready, he knows better than to wait for the water to boil when Slick’s waiting.
WV heads back to the parlor, handing the beer to Slick. He tries not to let the weariness run into his voice when he speaks, but it does all the same. “What do you want?”
“What do I want? Is that any fucking way to greet a visitor?” Slick gets his teeth into he cap, peeling it off and flicking it on the parlor’s floor. WV picks it up, holding the cool metal top in the palm of his hand while Slick takes a sip from the bottle. “I’m just here to have a nice evening in with my old friend. Or aren’t we friends anymore?”
“We’re still friends,” WV manages a weak smile. Slick pats the spot beside him on the couch and WV reluctantly sits down, knowing better than to protest again. Still, he ventures. “It’s just… you usually want something.”
“And you never do? Hell WV, the only time you go out of you way to talk to me is when you want something,” Slick drapes an arm over WV’s back, pulling him in close, making it all too clear that he’s the one with the power here, even if it is WV’s house. Slick’s the one who built this house, who built this whole city, who built WV up too. It’s like Slick can hear with WV’s thinking. “Didn’t I give you everything you wanted? All that shit you were mumbling about when I found you? We had a bargain, and I’ve always kept up my end.”
WV flushes, thinking about that day. He doesn’t remember much of his time in the desert, just bit and scraps here and there. WV was not exactly in a good state of mind when he was exiled as a traitor, and the desert drove him out of his mind. He mostly remembers being hungry and thirsty, always tired, and that awful guilt weighing down on his shoulders, threatening to crush him. Visionary also doesn’t remember the infection that nearly killed him, even though he’s still got the scar on his leg from the experience.
But he does remember waking up after the fever broke and finding himself in a cave. Slick had been there, though he’d been the Scurrilous Straggler at that point. He had pressed a cup full of warm water to WV’s lips and told him in that crackling voice of his. “Drink up kid.”
WV had drank up, and when he was better, he’d followed Slick back to his city, though it hadn’t been a city in those days. It had been a shantytown built out of tents, with a few buildings going up. WV still remembers the moment he’d seen it and how he felt like his heart might burst. Slick had grinned and pointed here and there, showing WV where the buildings were going to be. City Hall over there, the bar down there, a shop here and a shop there, and houses for the people. In that moment, WV would have done anything Slick asked him to do, just so long as WV got to be part of this city.
In that moment, Slick did ask. And had kept asking ever since.
Slick squeezes WV’s shoulders again, and WV finally nods. “Yeah Slick. I remember.”
“You and me, we’re cut from the same cloth. We couldn’t stand those bastards. We shut down their fucking system, didn’t we?” Slick always falls back on this, treating his own personal grudge against the Black Queen and her exile like it was the same as WV’s rebellion. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t. But Slick doesn’t see it like that. And WV can’t seem to make him understand why they weren’t the same. “We built our own city, a better city. Everybody does what they want here, that’s fucking freedom. That’s something we should both be proud of.”
WV’s shoulders slouch a little. This is the worst bit, the truly worst bit of all: Slick’s not wrong. They built a city where everyone has the choice to be free, to do what they want. They did make a better place, one where it’s not black against white, but black and white united. Or at least… that’s how it should be. If it weren’t for the gangs, and the corrupt police, the violent crime and the prostitution and the drugs and booze and the dead bodies that turn up every now and again just outside of town… if it weren’t for all of them, this would be a good place. A place worth being proud of.
In the kitchen, the kettle whistles and Slick takes his arm off of WV. “Hey, while you’re up, make us a couple of sandwiches. I’m fucking starving. And I got a few new ideas for the city, figured I’d run them by you.”
And there it is. A few new ideas. WV knows what that really means. It means scrounging in the budget to find more money, and cancelling projects that WV had underway, and once again failing to do any of the things WV keeps promising he’ll do for the citizens of Midnight City. “Yeah. Sure Slick,” WV gets up and heads for the door.
“Hey Vis,” WV pauses at the threshold, turning back around to look at Slick. Slick’s sitting up, and the look he’s giving WV is a pretty serious one, “Pidge says you’re all excited about some sorta public works thing, says it’ll be a big fucking deal. How come you didn’t run that by me?”
“I did. It’s… it’s the plans for the reservoir that you signed off on a few months ago. And some renovations to downtown,” WV frowns. He hates that Slick never really pays attention to any of WV’s plans, but he’s not frowning about that. It’s the name he doesn’t recognize, the one that Slick’s acting like he should know. “But who’s Pidge?”
“You know, the messenger dame, the one with the really great gams. What’s her name-” Slick snaps his fingers as he tries to think.
WV’s heart just plummets in his chest, and all the blood in his veins turns to ice. His mouth moves, whispering her name. “PM.”
“Yeah, that’s fucking it. PM. Pidge,” Slick grins, all his sharp little teeth showing. “I’m getting to know her real good there WV. I see why you’re all head over heels for her. She’s a classy lady.”
He just stares at Slick. That’s all he can manage. His mind is swollen full of terrifying possibilities, things that Slick’s done to her, thinks he could do to her. PM’s too good to be around an asshole like him, Slick shouldn’t be near her, he shouldn’t even be breathing the same air as her.
Slick laughs and stands, walking over to Visionary. The only thing that keeps WV from throwing a punch is the fact that if he does, it won’t be WV who Slick hurts; it’ll be PM who pays the final price. Slick sidles in, arm going over WV’s shoulders and keeping him pulled in close. “Vis, don’t have a heart attack. I ain’t fucking your girl. I wouldn’t do that to a friend. We just talk. We’re real friendly, just like you and me. We’re all friends. And we’re all going to stay friends, right? Right?”
“Right,” WV whispers. Inside, there’s a part of him that’s screaming, but it’s so deep inside and so far away, “All friends, Slick.”
“I knew I could count on you. I can always count on you. Now go get those sandwiches,” Slick gives WV a push forward, and he sort of stumbled into the corridor, Slick remaining in the parlour, “And another beer.”
“Sure Slick,” He can barely hear his own voice when he nods and starts down the corridor. Any other day, he would be admiring his home, enjoying how well-built it is, and all those lovely pictures and plaques on his walls, gifts from others. But all he can think about right now is PM and Slick, and everything else just fades from sight.
The Proficient Messenger has been here before a few times. And she’ll be here again, assuming there’s a body to bury when she dies. It makes her feel just a little uneasy, like seeing your own name on a tombstone, or walking over somebody else’s grave. She quietly steels herself before walking inside.
It smells like flowers in here, and something heavy and vaguely toxic smelling. Embalming fluid maybe? To be honest, she’s not sure if she’s really smelling anything, or if she’s only smelling things because she expected to smell something off. It could easily be both in this place. It’s neat and tidy though. Somebody has gone over the place and carefully organized everything, aiming for maximum tidiness.
“Hello!” A cheerful voice greets PM. It’s a Dersite, a woman about the height of PM, slender and beautiful and with a smile that is part real and part practiced fake. “May I help you?”
“Hi, I’m the Proficient Messenger,” She offers a hand to the woman. “I just wanted to ask a few questions about a funeral I went to about a month ago.”
“Carnaptious Moirologist,” The Moirologist shakes PM’s hand with a firm and practiced grip, a grip that says ‘I’m sorry for your loss but let’s get down to business’. “Body or service?”
“Excuse me?” PM frowns, not quite understanding her meaning.
“Questions about the body or the service? I handle the services and my husband, the Diffident Blackmaster, he handles the bodies. And the driving,” Her teeth are very white, and very sharp, stark against her dark shell. “He’s a very talented little fellow.”
“Oh. Well. I guess most of my questions are about the body,” She’s barely got the words out when CM heads down the hall. PM knows that walk well, and she knows enough to follow and ask questions as they walk. “Is it just you two?”
“Just us. It’s a little family business I suppose. Neither of us started out in this business though. I was part of the army back on Derse, my husband too, though he was on the other side of course. I never thought I’d be burying stiffs for a living, but hey, every day is an adventure,” She glances over her shoulder at PM briefly before glancing back ahead. “I bet you never thought you’d be a messenger when you ended up here.”
“Not quite.” There’s no need to explain further as they step through a pair of double doors near the back. The small-talk is officially over now that she’s standing in the morgue. “Thank you.”
“Let me give you our business card,” She offers PM one. “We’re the only place in town but it pays to advertise. We have a wide range of services, and we take care of everything from picking up the body to the luncheon held after the funeral.”
The last thing PM can imagine doing after burying someone is eating lunch. But she takes the card anyways and tucks it in her jacket. “Thank you.”
“He’s just through there,” Again, there’s that smile that PM can’t quite trust, and the Moirologist heads off, her heels snapping on sparking clean tile. PM waits until she rounds the corner before pushing open the door and stepping into the back.
The faint smell of formaldehyde becomes overwhelming back here and she holds her hand against her nose, her eyes stinking from the powerful smell. It’s colder back here, but just as spotlessly clean at the rest of the place. A large metal table dominates the room, tilted ever so slightly downward. There’s a drain right there beneath the tilt, well-scrubbed but still slightly red.
Here’s where he was. Here’s where they drained out what little blood there was in him. PM makes a face. Death is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t mean she likes it.
A small Prospitarian walks out of the back, not really noticing PM. He’s pushing a gurney that’s nearly the same size of him, whistling happily as he tends to his work. The moment he spots PM though, all the good cheer drains right out of him. “O-oh. Um.”
“Your- wife let me back here,” PM hesitates for a second while trying to pick the proper word to describe the Carnaptious Moirologist, but pushes on ahead instead. She has questions to ask. “I just had a few questions for you about someone you buried.”
“T-the Dedicated Postman,” The Diffident Blackmaster volunteers, and when PM looks surprised, he just nods. “I remember you. You came to that funeral but you didn’t stay long.”
“I had to get back to my route. My packages won’t deliver themselves,” That, and PM hadn’t seen the point in staying. After all, DP had been dead. It wasn’t as if he would notice or care if the Messenger left early. “You were the one who took care of his body, right?”
“I embalmed him, yes,” DB pushes the gurney out of the way and heads over to the table. There’s a stepstool there that he mounts, until they’re closer to eye-level. “If you have specific questions you should really talk to the police. T-that’s what they’re there for-”
“The Postman was a personal friend of mine. And I just found out a few days ago that someone I know might have had some involvement in his death,” PM interrupts him, and maybe it’s unfair to tell him this, but she has to tell someone. This is bothering her more than it has any right to. It’s not like PM wasn’t aware that Spades Slick had murdered people. PM’s had blood on her hands too, most people have, and she’s learned the hard way to reserve judgement. But…
There’s a difference between knowing somebody probably killed before and actually knowing the person they may have killed.
“I-I wouldn’t know anything about that,” The Diffident Blackmaster is quick to turn her question away, his fingers rubbing at the table as if there’s some unseen speck of dirt. “I only embalm them. That’s all.”
“I just need to know if you’ve seen that sort of death before. No names or speculating on who did it. Just… who else may have died like that,” She slips her hand into her pocket and when she slips it out, she holds some bills folded up between her fingers. PM sets her hands near DB’s, making sure he sees the money. “I know the value of information.”
“People die in all sorts of ways. There’s nothing special about. About death,” He looks away from her and the money, obviously ignoring it as if it will just disappear if he tries hard enough. “You don’t even notice after a while. You just… take care of the body.”
That’s a lie and they both know it. PM puts the money away, knowing that she needs another approach. Something a little more direct. She thinks about his wife, and decides to approach from a more familiar angle.
"If you care about your job even one iota then that's a lie. You prepare bodies. I deliver packages. And you learn things about your route, and about the mail, and the people who you deliver to. You learn about the busy times and the dead times, and you start to remember handwriting that always goes to the same addresses, and people who never remember enough postage," PM's voice echoes a little in this space, filling every nook and cranny. "If you give any damn at all, you remember these things. You keep them right here." She taps her temple. "And it's always there, no matter where you go or what you do. You know their names, the ones who died like the Dedicated Postman. And you're going to tell me them."
"I. I already told you. I don't pay attention to that stuff," DB weakly insists, even as PM walks around the table and gets into his space, forcing him to look at her. "Please-"
"You do, or you wouldn't be so afraid of looking me in the eye," PM takes hold of DB's shoulders, holding him still as she stares him down. "Names. And now."
He stares wide-eyed up at her. PM tightens her grip and suddenly he starts spitting out words like they're being squeezed out of him. "T-the Belligerent Boxer. The Glad Bookkeeper. The Rowdy Thug. They were all- killed that way."
Three names. That's a start. It's not everything she wanted, but it's enough for a start.
The Diffident Blackmaster weakly kicks his feet and PM realizes that she's yanked him off his stool and is holding him up by his shirt. She sets him down quickly. "Sorry. Thank you for the names."
He quickly puts the table between him and PM, just peering over the top at her. "Are you leaving now?"
"Yeah, I'm- I'm gone. Thank you again," She makes her way out of the room and into the hall. PM should say something to the Carnaptious Moirologist, maybe thank her for her help. But she's got a feeling she should just clear out of here before those two cross paths and he spills the beans about PM getting intense.
PM slips out the side door and into the bright sunlight, squinting at it. She hadn't realized how dark the funeral home was until this moment. The sun feels warm on her carapace, but she still shivers ever so slightly when she glances back at the funeral home. It still gives her the creeps, maybe more than ever now.
Can't think about that. She's got three names to follow up on, three people who died the same way the Dedicated Postman did, three people who may have connections. And she's got packages to deliver on the way.
PM sets out, leaving the funeral home far, far behind her.
CM and DB are Bea's fancarapaces, borrowed with permission.
Chapter 9: AR - The Police and the Private
There’s something almost beautiful about the way the broken glass all over the pavement glitters in the fresh morning sun. The Adjudicative Reinforcer takes a moment to admire it, even while in the back of his mind, he’s noting down exactly where the bricks were thrown from to have smashed out the front three windows.
There’s a Dersite cleaning up the glass. AR doesn’t recognize him. He’s not one of the usual archive workers. The kid glances over at AR, and then quickly looks away, like maybe that’ll keep AR from noticing him.
“Hey,” AR calls out to him. “Where’s Zeal?”
“She’s in the interview room,” The Dersite answers, not making eye contact with AR. He sweeps the glass into a dust pan and carries it over to the can nearby, dumping the shattered pieces inside.
He almost expects the kid to start lecturing AR about how he shouldn’t bug the Zealous Chronicler until she’s done talking to whoever she’s got holed up in there, but he doesn’t make so much as a peep. Instead, he just bends down again and starts sweeping up more dust with that useless handbrush of his.
AR steps over what glass he can and wanders into the Midnight City Archives. It’s cold inside and he shivers at the sudden loss of heat, the rough A/C system reminding him all too vividly of Derse. The glass on the inside’s been cleaned up already, probably by Zeal sometime this morning. AR’s not sure if she bothers to report this sort of vandalism anymore. It happens regular as clockwork. One of these days, he’s going to swing by and she’ll have just bricked up the main entrance instead of constantly replacing it.
The Archives give Reinforcer the creeps. He’s really not sure how anybody can feel comfortable in this spaces. The shelves are all too high, ladders leaning here and there to help people up to the tops, and each shelf is bursting at the seems with paper and books, boxes and furniture, bones and clothes and all sorts of other things that have been tagged and sorted by some reference system that AR couldn’t hope to understand in a million years.
The interview room is just up the stairs, past a whole section on the Fauna of Alternia. Skulls are stacked on the shelves where they can fit, empty eye sockets staring blankly at AR as he passes. He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets and soldiers up the stairs. AR’s not entirely sure what’s all up on the second level. Maybe more information, though a quick glance at the archives makes him wonder exactly how much information a person can keep. There’s the interview booth though, and AR knows it pretty well.
He peeks in through the window. The set-up is the same as ever. There’s a mic on a table, and two chairs. Zeal sits in the one near the door, scribbling down notes on a pad of paper and asking questions that can’t be heard through the thick glass. She’s the same as ever, a tall heavy-set Dersite that always looks like she should be on guard duty somewhere, not running the city archives. Opposite her is a Prospitarian, a tall fellow who looks like he works with his hands for a living. They’re in the middle of some fairly involved conversation, though he’s the one doing most of the speaking from what AR can see. AR raises a hand, waiting until Zeal spots him before lowering it. He knows better than to knock on the glass. She makes a just-a-minute motion.
AR waits for them to wrap it up and he wanders further down the walkway to see exactly what is up here. There are a couple of locked doors, and then one on the end that opens when he turns the handle. He peeks inside, and then quickly backs out and closes it once he realizes that it’s her room he’s staring into. AR puts some distance between him and the room, not wanting to make it obvious that he was snooping, and he wanders back over to the booth.
Zeal leans over and unlocks the door when she spots AR, and as the door swings open, he can finally hear the conversation. “-for your time. I’ll have a full transcript done by the end of the week, and I’ll deliver the finished product. Hello Detective Reinforcer.”
“Zealous Chronicler,” AR nods to her and glances over at the Prospitarian. “Another for your collection.”
“Not quite,” She’s still scribbling in the margins, “The Banausic Smelter is part of a new series on trades. We’re putting together a how-to manual on smithing for future generations.”
“Sounds interesting,” AR glances over at the Smelter. The Prospitarian seems less than enthused by AR’s presence, but he’s not outright hostile or anything, going for more of a subdued dislike. “I’ll have to read it whenever it’s ready for lending.”
“You can, but as a warning, you’ll have to wait a long time,” The Banausic Smelter says, and thought he’s polite, there’s an undertone in his words that even AR can’t help but notice.
“It isn’t for release until after BS dies,” ZC is as blunt as usual, a habit that is both infuriating and useful. “It’s mean to preserve his trade, but not encourage competition in his lifetime. Excuse me gentlemen, I need to fetch BS’s fee.”
ZC stands, towering above AR. For someone shaped like a brick wall, she moves far more gracefully than she has any right to. As she leaves the room, Reinforcer takes the chance to give BS a look over. He’s nothing special, just your ordinary Prospitarian, taller than AR but most other carapaces are. The thing that does catch AR’s attention is BS’s hand, and the finger distinctly missing from his hand. It reminds him of the fingers missing from the Desolate Refugee’s hands, similar cracks in his carapace.
“What happened there?” AR asks, nodding to it. It’s the wrong question to ask. Smelter hasn’t been looking at AR in the friendliest manner before he asks it, and as soon as it’s out, he can see BS completely shut down.
“Nothing that I want to talk about,” Is the only answer Smelter gives, sinking down lower in his chair.
AR tries a different approach, less conversational, more official-police-business, “You know who busted in the windows?”
BS perks up. It seems that this is a topic he can get behind, “Weeeell... it was probably the Midnight Crew or the Stoop Shooters. Not much of a surprise there. The Midnight Star had a whole issue devoted to them a few days ago. From what I heard, they went to shake him down and find out his sources, and of course he said he got it all from ZC. You know how some people can be… So they showed up over here in the middle of the night and broken down her windows. I’m not saying somebody should shut that fellow up before he gets people killed with his ‘reporting’, but I wouldn’t shed any tears if he just wasn’t around one of these days.”
That ‘fellow’ is VL, and AR doesn’t completely disagree with BS’s statement. VL is a danger, not just to himself, but to everyone around him. His chronic foot-in-mouth syndrome has a habit of getting everyone in hot water. And it doesn’t help his case when, for ever real story, he publishes three or four completely false ones, claiming things ranging in the utterly ludicrous to the intermittently offensive.
Zeal steps back inside and BS gets to his feet. He’s still forced to look up to meet her eyes as she hands over some folded bills. “Next week, same time.”
“I’ll swing by,” He sides his hat onto his head and nods respectfully to the both of them. “Detective. Zeal.”
AR waits until he’s certain that BS has gone down the stairs, and just for good measure anyway, he lets the door fall shut before he speaks. “Instruction manuals? That’s a new one.”
“I think you’ll find it’s a very old tactic. That’s how I got your story after all,” Zeal reminds him as she shuts down the recording equipment. And as embarrassing as it is, she’s right. AR first met her when she asked if he wouldn’t mind talking about the police force. Four hours later, he finished spilling his guts to her about everyone on Derse, and his own part in the Queen’s exile, only to realize too late that he couldn’t take back any of it.
Zeal pulls the fresh record out of the machine, scanning over the surface for impossibly small errors before gingerly tucking it away into a sleeve and sealing it. AR watches as she puts it with the rest of her things. “Are you going to report the break-in?”
“It wasn’t a break-in, simply vandalism,” ZC slips out of the room and AR follows, knowing better than to ask where they’re going. They head down the stairs, and towards the back of the archives. “The Felt did not appreciate the article written about them in the Free Press.”
“I heard it was the Midnight Crew or the Stoop Shooters, and it was about whatever was written by VL,” AR has to walk twice as fast to keep up with ZC, zipping by shelf after shelf full of things.
“You shouldn’t take anything the Smelter says at face value. He’s a gossip hound, and he’s incredibly biased against Dersites,” ZC stops as the reach the vault, entering the combination. She hands her things to AR and gets her hands on the door, pulling the heavy thing open. “It was a few of the Felt, and they were just presenting me with a reminder that I should not be trading information with TS.”
AR has more questions, but they fall away when he gets a good look at what’s inside the vault. A dozen shelves are just crammed full of records, each in their own envelope. ZC motions for AR to step inside and she lets the vault door slam shut behind them. The darkness is awful and suffocating in the moment before she finds the light switch.
A single bulb lights the room, but it’s more than enough for a place this small. It’s warmer in here than the rest of the museum, the sort of warm that’s comfortable for now but promises to be unbearable if they stay here too long. He looks around at the shelves, wondering where his own records are in this mess. “I thought you weren’t talking to TS anymore.”
“So did I,” ZC sighs, setting the disc on a pile of records near a typewriter. “Detective, what are you really here for? I know it’s not about the windows.”
AR pulls his attention away from the shelves, getting down to business. “I’m calling in my debt. I want to know everything you do about carapaces with missing fingers.”
ZC’s eyebrows shoot up. “That’s a very broad field. You’re going to have to narrow it down if you want me to put something manageable together.”
“I’m looking for ties between people who lost fingers, the hows and the whys. I’m not interested in people who lost them in accidents so much as anybody who lost them in a fight or something similar,” AR does his best to narrow it down excluding anything crucial. “I’ve seen three Prospitarians with missing fingers in the past week, and I know I’ve seen more in the past. If there’s a connection, I need to know.”
Zeal taps her fingers on the shelf, thinking it over. “I’ll put something together for you. Give me a week. I’m not promising you’ll find a connection.”
“I know. Just find out what you can, and get it to me as soon as possible,” AR hesitates, not entirely sure how to approach this or if he even should, “I have… someone living with me right now. She just came in out of the desert. They had her working at the diner but… she couldn’t handle the people. She needs a quiet job, somewhere with people who won’t ask too many questions.”
“You want me to hire her,” ZC cuts to the chase. “You’ll owe me a favour.”
“I know,” AR doesn’t like the thought of owing ZC something. It isn’t like owing a loan shark. ZC never wants money or goods. She wants information, and more specifically, she wants information that other people keep hidden and secret. There are secrets in this record collection that were never spoken out loud before ZC coaxed them out, terrible things that she has learned simply for the sake of learning. Who knows how many war crimes are in this room alone?
“Send her over tomorrow, I’ll put her to work sorting the card catalogue,” Zeal pushes the vault door open again. “Get the lights.”
AR does so, quickly stepping out before she shuts the vault doors. The thought of being left alone inside, in the dark, is a terrifying one. Zeal heads off again, not really noticing if AR follows or not. He follows since they aren’t done talking.
“Just one thing. Zeal, I don’t want you interviewing her,” That gets her attention. Zeal stops and turns around, and AR has a chance to catch up. “She’s not ready for it. DR is still too new. Let her get her feet under her first.”
Zeal stares AR down, but he doesn’t budge. Finally she does, giving a little ground. “The favour you owe me just got a lot bigger.”
“I know. Believe me, I know,” AR really hopes this is all worthwhile in the end. The things he’s willing to do for Ms Paint are more than a little insane. But one of these days, it’s all going to pay off, he’s sure of it. “And you should stop talking to TS. She’s going to get you killed one of these days.”
“We all die eventually,” Zeal avoids answering his question, turning philosophical instead. “Have a good afternoon Detective.”
“You too,” AR watches Zeal stride off before heading out of the archives. By the time he reaches the front, all the glass is gone, and the only sign of vandalism are the empty holes where glass once was. He knows she won’t call it in but when he goes back to the station, he’ll log a report anyway. One day, they’re going to arrest all the mobsters in this town, and when they do, AR plans on throwing the whole book at them. Vandalism may be a little crime, but you stack up enough of those together, and you’ve got yourself a worthwhile case.
He sticks his hands into his pockets and heads home.
BS is Shad's fancarapace, borrowed with permission.