Chapter 1: Another Day at the Office
The Dame that burst into his office Thursday evening was a tall drink of water, legs all the way up, and just about as hysterical as they come. She’d soaked through his handkerchief in one minute flat and left him scrambling for something, anything else. He settled on his tie, whisking it off and handing it over. She didn’t seem to notice the difference.
He frowned, looked concerned, and did his best to sound as absolutely hardboiled as possible. “Now calm down, toots; I can’t very well help you if I can’t understand you.” She wailed. “Easy, doll. Take a breath, let it out real slow and start from the top.”
“The Felt,” she managed, before she dissolved again.
Oh, shit. The nastiest pack of green assholes this side of the green sun. Funny, she didn’t look the type to be mixed up with the Felt – she wasn’t green, to start with. And maybe she wasn’t tangled up with them, but she was crying so much he couldn’t make heads or tails of what she wanted him to do about the Felt.
Might not matter, anyhow. Not like he could do anything about them. Even with his pulchritude stat maxed out, he was no match for them – they were impervious to charm. Practically impervious to bullets, too, now that he thought about it.
The bird was still howling, inconsolable and incomprehensible. He leaned forward onto his desk, hands clasped. “Listen, ma’am, I can’t do a thing about the Felt if you don’t tell me what you want outta them.” She lunged across the desk and grabbed him around the shoulders, still wracked with sobs. He stiffened, patted her on the shoulder. “Uh. There there.”
“They – they – they,” she sobbed. “They killed my husband.” The waterworks started again, worse if that were possible. He looked down at the back of her head, eyebrows raised.
“Toots it oughta be the police handling that, not –”
“You don’t understand!” Well, no, he thought, still patting her shoulder awkwardly. It’s pretty much conjecture at this point, because you’ve basically said three sentences and then cried all over my office. She sat up and dabbed her eyes with his tie. “I – I can’t go to – to the police.”
“Why not?” His mind was off and running. Bootlegger? Smuggler? Embezzlement? Shame the family name? Alright, probably not the last one since he had no idea who she was, but you never knew . . .
“The police –” pause to sob “– the police called it an acci – accidental death.” She looked up, her eyes wet and sparking with anger. “But it was murder.”
“I saw him – tall number, red hat, bright green suit – walking away from the scene.” Crowbar or Trace, then. Need more specifics on the shade of red, unlikely to get them.
He cleared his throat. Careful now, she’s calmed down just enough. Delicate-like. “Sweetheart, if you don’t mind, what was the manner in which your husband expired?”
She blinked at him through red-rimmed eyes. Her mouth opened, those cherry-red pouty lips framing the first syllable, and then she threw her head back, tears springing afresh from her eyes. He frowned and resisted the urge to pull his hat down over his eyes. “You understand I have to ask,” he said, a little louder over her crying.
“I – It was – was a –” sob “ – a crowbar!” Moan, sob. “To the face!”
Oh, so that’s pretty self-explanatory. Crowbar, you sadistic bastard.
“Please, Problem Sleuth, you have to catch him! Prove it was him, bring him to justice!”
“Was your husband involved with the Felt? Why did the police rule it an accident?” he asked, although he knew the answer. Deaths that were obviously caused by the Felt usually fell under one of two categories in the police blotter: ‘accidentals’ or ‘suicides’. It just wasn’t worth the risk.
“He was never involved with their filthy ilk!” she said fiercely, breathless from the crying, her cheeks flushed. In that moment she was striking, despite the bloodshot eyes. Stay professional, Sleuth, just another hysterical dame. “The police knew it was the Felt – they said as much when they thought I wasn’t listening! But they don’t want to deal with it, see? Keep their hands clean of them, protect their own.” She slammed an expertly-manicured hand onto the desk. “That’s why I need you.”
He looked down to his blotter, composed himself. Lady, I don’t do much with the Felt either. Too dangerous.
He looked up, steepled his fingers. “Extra charges for dealing with Felt. I hate to take advantage but the risk involved . . . I’m sure you understa –”
“Name your price.” Wow, okay.
He sat back, one arm draped over the back of his chair. “Sugar I’m gonna need to know if your husband did anything illegal that you knew about. Anything at all, doesn’t have to be related to the Felt.”
She sniffed, dabbed her eyes. Looked down. “He was just a drummer. He played at one of the clubs downtown – Revolution Lounge – every night, never did anything out of line, didn’t even drink.”
Sleuth’s eyes lit up at that. “Revolution? That’s one of the Midnight Crew’s juice joints.”
She scowled through the tears. “I tried to – to talk him out of it. Told him they weren’t nothing but bootleggers and thieves. But it was a steady gig . . . He just wanted to make a living . . .”
“The Crew usually takes care of their own.”
She sniffed. “Not their drummers. Not their employees, either.” Her voice broke. “AP was just the latest – they’ve had a string of employees go missing, turn up – turn up dead.” She broke down again, and this time Sleuth decided that was enough. He stood, walked around his desk, put a hand on her shoulder. “You have to – have to help me. I don’t know what I’ll do. Poor AP, everyone thinkin’ he’s just another sluiced-up drummer that drank himself dead.”
“Now, now.” He guided her to the door. “Gimme a couple weeks, time to track down some leads, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Of course.” Her hand, pale and shaky, plunged into her bra and came up with a blank check. “Money is of no object.”
He blinked, didn’t take the check. “Why don’t you just hang onto that ‘til we’re done here, toots.”
“Nonsense.” She pushed the check and his tie back into his hand. “Fill it out for a small advance if it settles your conscience, but I won’t have you after those dreadful brutes without pay.”
“That’s generous of you, lady but oof.” She threw her arms around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides.
“You’re the first person to take me seriously,” she wept into his chest. “No one else would take the job.” She straightened and smiled wetly down at him. “Thank you. I’ll wait for your call.”
He opened the door for her and watched her walk down the hall, out the exit, hips swinging all the way. He leaned onto the doorframe and scowled. “Because no one else was stupid enough,” he grumbled.
“Stupid enough for what?” he looked to his left, to the chair Pickle Inspector had optimistically set out in the hall for waiting clients. As if they ever had a line. His adoptive daughter was watching him, green eyes wide and bright.
“I didn’t think you’d be here,” was all he said, surprised, stepping aside and motioning for her to come into his office. He shut the door behind her, and pretended not to notice her checking to make sure it wasn’t locked. “You didn’t head home after school today?” He glanced to the clock. “Why so late?”
“Nepeta and I have been assigned to the same group for a project. We thought it prudent to work on it today in the library, and then we walked here together once we finished so that she could meet with Mr. Inspector.” She sat in the chair the hysterical dame had occupied just moments before. “What is it that you are stupid enough to do, Father?”
“Ah, it’s just work stuff, Kanaya. Nothing you need to worry about.” His tie and the check were still crumpled in his hand. He dropped them to the blotter, the tie making a damp little splat. “What kind of project?”
“It is for physics. We are to build a bridge out of nothing but glue and toothpicks, and it is to hold no less than five kilos.” Her eyes narrowed. “You know I am not one to pry but –”
He lit a cigarette. “Five kilos sounds like a lot for toothpicks and glue.”
“With the proper engineering it should not present a problem. Father I hate to be a pest, but I do hope you are not considering taking on a job that is reckless.” She glanced to the check on the blotter. “Although the failure to designate that check for a particular amount suggests you already have.”
He stuffed the check into his desk. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, sweetheart. Just business.” Her expression was very much unconvinced. “Come on, let’s grab something to eat, whaddaya feel like tonight?”
He picked up the tie and made to put it back on before thinking better of it and draping it over the back of his chair to dry. “Just some stuff with the mob, Kanaya, really, nothin’ crazy or anything.” Just going to try to find Crowbar guilty of murder and not die in the process, no worries ahaha.
“Which mob?” She crossed her legs and arms. “I will not move until I am convinced of your safety.”
He sighed. “Sweetheart, let’s just get home, I’m tired and I’ll make you something, how’s that sound? Maybe brownies.”
“I will not be bribed.” Her eyes narrowed more. “This is an uncharacteristic amount of evasion, Father. The mob you have decided to investigate is the Felt, am I correct?” In spite of his annoyance, he swelled a little bit at that. He’d raised her right, couldn’t get a thing past her . . . “Your expression would suggest I am.”
“Not the entire Felt.” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off, standing and grabbing her backpack from the floor. “I’m just looking into it, nothing too crazy. I might not even take the job – I have some leads to track down first but I’m not crazy, sweetheart.” He shrugged. “Besides, the guy worked for the Midnight Crew; might not even be any of my business in the end.”
She raised an eyebrow and stood up, following him out of the office. The door latched behind them. Ah well, he’d deal with it in the morning. “Has that particular group not handled the issue already? I was very much under the impression that the opposing gangs look after their own.”
“Usually they do, usually they do.” He ushered her down the stairs. “S’why I’m just gonna check into things. Don’t want to step on any toes.”
“Perhaps they are unaware.”
“You never know.”
“Have you means of contacting them?” she asked, after they’d left the building and started down the sidewalk for home.
He looked to her, confused. “Why the riot act tonight?”
She shrugged. “Initially it was out of concern, and while I am still concerned, I just think perhaps I could be of help in the matter of making contact with the lesser of the two evils and perhaps expediting the process of laying this to rest.”
“You know how to get ahold of the Midnight Crew,” he said flatly, disbelieving.
They turned onto their block, his arm around her shoulders, and she smirked up at him. “How?”
“Easy. Be waiting for me out front after school tomorrow.”
Sleuth wasn’t what you would call self-conscious, but there was something about standing around outside a middle school that made him uneasy. Like he expected Troll Chris Hansen and 60 Minutes to jump out of a bush and ask him to have a seat any minute now. So he did his best to look parental, huddling close to the group of other adults just in case anyone started asking questions. He sucked his cigarette and looked at the ground, mostly, every once and a while glancing up at the front doors.
Behind him an engine rumbled to a stop and shut off. There was the slam of a door, the snap of a lighter, and a whiff of cigarettes – Cuestick Specials? Sleuth’s eyes widened and his lips clenched around his own cigarette. A newspaper rustled. He spun.
Diamonds Droog, the Midnight Crew’s second-in-command, was just leaning there against his car. He caught Sleuth’s look and raised one eyebrow by about a millimeter. “Afternoon,” Sleuth said quickly. Droog looked back to his paper.
Kanaya you wonderful, devious little girl. Candy corn brownies for all tonight.
He shoved his hands into his pockets and debated his strategy. It wasn’t really an ideal situation, right here in front of a school with other parents standing around. Not the place you want to bring up mob business. There had to be another angle, something innocuous . . .
There. On the back page of the paper, a little article about the accidental death of a drummer outside of a nightclub. It even said the club name in the title, all the easier. He cleared his throat. “Nasty business with that drummer.”
Droog looked up, mildly, and then half-folded the paper to glance at the article. He shrugged. Not the talkative type, apparently. “Accident.”
“Weird place for a crowbar to be laying around for someone to just fall on.” He tensed. The mobster was just looking at him, blank, dead-eyed, not a hint of anything in his face. Sleuth smiled a little.
“Is there something you’d like to talk to me about, Problem Sleuth?”
So much for anonymity. Damn, I’ve seen ‘em around but I didn’t think they knew me . . .
The taller man settled back onto the car and opened the paper again. “I presume so. Tonight, ten o’clock, Casino front desk.”
“Yeah, that would be good. Just a chat, you and me.”
Droog sighed. “I do hope not, for your sake.”
“Oh. Well whatever then.” Droog didn’t respond, and Sleuth turned back around, eyes fixed on the bushes outside the school. He was debating the best way to casually sidle away from the other man when, blessedly, the bell rang and the kids emerged mere moments later.
Kanaya was talking to a girl Sleuth vaguely recognized as probably Droog’s kid, based on her impeccable and smart pinstripe vest. Strange, she’d never come up before, but of course they would know each other; a class can only be so big and they were the same age . . .
“Hi, Daddy!” the other girl quick-stepped to Droog and threw her arms around his middle. Kanaya fell behind, smiling faintly. The shorter troll turned back around and released her guardian, who hadn’t moved but to smile indulgently down at her. “See you tomorrow, Kanaya!”
“Good luck with your bridge, Aradia.” Kanaya pulled up next to Sleuth and smiled up at him, broad and a little smug. “Hello, Father.”
“Not staying late with Nepeta today?” he asked her, as they turned and walked away.
“We are working separately to ascertain the best possible design for the bridge, after which we will brainstorm an ideal structure. Aradia has some interesting things to say about ancient civilizations’ means of constructing stable structures and has provided me with a few leads to follow tonight.” She shook her head. “I am afraid architecture is simply not something that comes easily to me.”
He patted her hair. “I’m sure you’ll be fine, sweetheart.” They turned the corner, and Sleuth heard Droog’s car fire up behind them.
“Did you and Mr. Droog have a good conversation?”
“He’s not the talkative type, exactly.” She was watching him expectantly. “We set up a meeting.”
She beamed. “Excellent.”
“Sweetheart are you sure Droog was the best choice?”
“Yes.” She ticked off the remaining Crewmembers on her fingers. “Mr. Droog was the best choice because Mr. Boxcars does not ever get out of his van unless Karkat is throwing a temper tantrum, Mr. Deuce is too stupid to arrange for any kind of meeting, much less remember it, and Mr. Slick would have stabbed you on sight.”
“Well, dear, when you put it that way.” He sighed. “Candy corn brownies tonight?”
“Will you have time before your meeting?”
“Would I offer if I didn’t?” She smiled. He kissed her on the top of her head. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“It is the duty of a good daughter,” she said solemnly, “to assist her father in arranging meetings with dastardly and homicidal racketeers.”
His face fell. “Well when you put it that way.”
Chapter 2: Here be dragons
Midnight City was in fine fall form that night as Sleuth pushed past people on his way to Casino. Crisp air, just cool enough for a jacket but not cold enough to chase everyone inside, clear and bright. He assumed there were stars up there in the infrablack sky, but the lights from the clubs and casinos were too bright on the main drag for them to show up.
Casino’s a heaping neon monstrosity on the strip, crouched between lesser buildings like a landfill of vice, sin and money. The thing about it is, as big and gaudy as it indisputably is, it’s classy in its way. It’s the heart of the strip, certainly, and every other building clusters in its shadow and tries to be just as good, although perhaps with less neon.
Sleuth stepped through the front doors and immediately felt out of place. Everyone here was dressed better than him, talking and laughing, decked out in jewels and silk. He can’t see the casino floor but he can hear it roaring and chiming and ringing.
He also can’t see Droog anywhere, and for a second he thought maybe he misheard the man. Droog wasn’t the type to stand someone up – if he really wanted to talk he’d be there, just the same as if he’d wanted kill Sleuth for asking too many questions. They’d take a pleasant walk to some back office, Droog curt and formal as always, and then he’d just casually stick a knife between your ribs without so much as a break in stride . . .
Sleuth shook his head. It was unlikely. Probably not going to happen. Not even worth thinking about.
His palms were sweating.
“Problem Sleuth?” he jumped and spun. A Prospitan girl – she couldn’t have been from anywhere else with that alabaster skin and flaming red hair – was smiling up at him, hands clasped in front of her, polite and interested and gorgeous.
He cleared his throat. Casual and hardboiled, that was the ticket. “Yeah, that’s me.”
She beamed. “Splendid. Follow me, I’ll show you to the office.”
He tagged along behind her, through the tide of people going from the nightclub to the casino floor and vice versa, around the front desk and into the warren of first-floor offices.
A part of him was surprised that they were just offices. Gray carpet, beige walls, fluorescent lights, nothing special. Of course, he reflected, easier to replace when they got too bloodstained up. The elevator she led him to was stainless steel, totally neutral. Easy to clean, was the only thing he could think of, standing next to her. Normally he’d be doing his best Pickle Inspector impression, ogling her smooth calves and wondering if he could Sleuth out her phone number, but he was too nervous.
He’d worked himself into a froth by the time the elevator doors slid open, which made the shock of the décor all the more intense. Rich carpet, dark blue paint, wood paneling, brass fixtures. He almost didn’t follow her as she stepped out of the elevator, only remembering to scramble after her when the doors started to slide shut. She watched him with those big cornflower doll eyes, red-painted lips twitching up at the corners. “Don’t get lost.”
“Just thinking, sorry toots.”
The smiled dropped off her face and she spun on her heel, quick-stepping down the hall. “Don’t call me ‘toots’.” She stopped outside a door and pushed it in, gesturing to the office. “Have a seat. They’ll be with you in a minute.”
“Thanks, miss,” he mumbled, tipping his hat to her before he slid by and into the office. It was . . . a whole lot nicer than any office he could afford, that was for damn sure. The door – mahogany, probably, double-paneled, custom – closed behind her, silent. He walked around, took in the library – impressive – and the liquor cabinet – even more impressive – and finally sat down in one of the brown leather armchairs.
He wished there was a clock. It would have made the silence less deafening.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before one of the side doors opened – could have been ten minutes, could have been an hour, he really wished there was a clock – and the hulking form of Hearts Boxcars ducked through, the diminutive Clubs Deuce on his heels. Sleuth blinked and then stood, nodding at the other two, hand extended.
Boxcars brushed past but Deuce seized his hand enthusiastically, like they were old friends reunited after a long separation. “Mr. Sleuth, my name’s Clubs Deuce, pleasure to meet you, happy to see you here tonight!”
“That’s enough, Clubs; let ‘im go.” Hearts put his hand on the little man’s shoulder and pulled him back, into the leather couch he was already reclining on. “So,” he rumbled, after Sleuth had sat back down. “The boss’s gonna be a while.”
“The –” don’t scream don’t scream don’t scream “– boss?”
“They’re very busy,” Deuce volunteered. “I’m not sure what they’re busy doing, exactly, ‘cause –”
“Clubs.” Hearts looked back to Sleuth, solemn. “So tell us, Problem Sleuth, what brings you here tonight?”
He shrugged, leaned back in the chair, crossed his legs. Look casual, look cool. You’re not a kid up in front of the principal. “You know how it is, gentlemen. Working a case, tracking down a few leads. Just had a couple questions for Mr. Droog.”
“He’s busy, like I said.”
“Which is funny ‘cause it looked like he and Slick were just playing dar –”
Sleuth looked from one, to the other, and then back to the first. “You’re screening me.”
Boxcars smiled then, and Sleuth realized he’d never seen his teeth. It wasn’t that they were sharp – almost every Dersite had sharp teeth – but there were so many, interlocking rows of needles appearing in his dark face. Oh shit, he’s the one that eats people. “That a problem, Problem Sleuth?”
He cleared his throat and tried not to stare. “’Course not. You gentlemen are very busy, I’m sure. It’s to be expected.”
Clubs beamed and even that little fucker had a point to his teeth. Not anywhere near Hearts’, that was for sure, but still there. “So Problem Sleuth, what kinda case you workin’ on?”
“Well, it’s confidential –” Hearts cleared his throat “– but it’s about your drummer.”
“AP? Oh, that was so sad.” Clubs looked down, brow furrowed.
Hearts was frowning. “Was an accident. Nothin’ to investigate.”
“His wife says otherwise.” Sleuth put his hands out and shrugged. “I haven’t taken the case yet, ‘cause I ain’t convinced there is a case but –”
“What’s the broad say?”
Sleuth blinked. “Well that it’s murder, obviously.” And then he pushed himself back into the chair, because his vision was full of Hearts Boxcars.
“You accusin’ us of murder?”
“No!” He eased his hands up, placating. “No way.” Boxcars looked unconvinced. “Come on, I know you guys look after your own.”
“He ain’t never messed with us before, Hearts. I don’t think he’s accusin’ us of anything.”
Hearts sat back, reluctantly, and glowered across the space at Sleuth. “Don’t you forget that.”
Sleuth balled his hand up into a fist and took a minute to gather his thoughts, bouncing his fist up and down on the chair’s arm. “Boss hates that,” Deuce said. Sleuth stopped.
“The dame thinks it’s Felt,” he sighed, finally. “Gentlemen, I’m in over my head with the Felt, and I just wanna dust it off, see if that’s what’s goin’ on before I turn her away.”
Boxcars and Deuce exchanged a look. Then Boxcars made a show of checking his watch, and nodded. “Boss should be ready now. I don’t know nothin’ about Felt and AP but he might be able to clear that up for you.” He stood, towered over Sleuth, and smiled a thin little smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Have a nice night!” Deuce said, and he waved. It wasn’t supposed to sound like a threat – with that voice he couldn’t make anything sound sinister – but nevertheless Sleuth’s blood ran cold, although he was grateful that it was running cold in the privacy of his own vascular system. Hopefully that would remain the case.
They left and Sleuth sagged back into the chair. Round one, clear. That was good. Round two . . .
Round two would be Droog and, apparently, the boss. Spades Slick.
He almost groaned. He’d never met either of them with the exception of his short conversation with Droog – seen them here and there, sometimes at school, sometimes at a fresh crime scene, usually strolling away. He didn’t need to meet them to know what they were like: their reputations preceded them. They were a pair of murderers in nice suits with an eye for the public and more business sense than your typical psychopath.
They were terrifying.
And they were walking in the room, Slick hunched over, his hands in his pockets, Droog following, watching Sleuth with the dead gray eyes that gave nothing away. The door shut, Slick slung himself into the couch across from Sleuth. Droog lit a cigarette.
“If you fuckin’ think it’s the Felt why the hell are you here?” Slick demanded, finally. He leaned forward and glared.
Sleuth paused, made sure of himself. “Well, he was your drummer.”
“A drummer that we employed,” Droog corrected.
“You played with the guy, didn’t you?”
“He was an employee, Problem Sleuth.” Droog exhaled, twin streams of smoke from his nose. He looked like a dragon, Sleuth thought, with those cool reptilian eyes and the mouth full of daggers.
“I’m just covering my bases, gentlemen. If it was the Felt –”
“Fuck the Felt,” Slick said abruptly, jerking to his feet and stalking over to the liquor cabinet. “It wasn’t them, the assholes.” He slammed a glass down and the bottle of Maker’s Mark clinked on the rim. “Can’t believe I’m fucking letting them off the hook.” He turned back around, leaned against the cabinet and took a gulp. “You wanna go after them be my fucking guest, though.”
“How’d you know it wasn’t the Felt?” he looked from Slick to Droog, bewildered.
“Dickheads were all busy knocking over a bank on the other side of the damn city.”
Droog looked doubtful. “All fourteen?”
“Well probably not the fucking ice bitch but –”
“Crowbar?” Sleuth asked, hopefully.
Slick laughed and it sounded like a Tommy gun. “You must be fucking new. Without that piece of shit those assholes couldn’t tie their own fucking shoes.” He threw back another mouthful of bourbon. “Much less rob a damn bank.”
“Problem Sleuth –” Shit when did Droog move next to him? “– hard as it may be to believe, every crowbar-caused death in this city is not caused by Mr. Crowbar.” He almost looked wistful through the cloud of cigarette smoke. “Would that they were.”
“It wasn’t just that,” he said quickly, and hardboiled, not at all desperate. “The dame described him – green suit, red hat.”
“Could have been Trace.”
“Or a fucker in a green suit with a red fucking hat and a crowbar.” Slick was grinning and Sleuth was reminded of every Jaws movie ever made. “I’d like to shake their fucking hand before Crowbar kills ‘em – fucking ballsy.”
Sleuth frowned. “An imposter . . . ?”
“Yeah, I’d put money on it.” Slick looked positively giddy. “Fuckin’ retarded but damned if I don’t want it to work.”
“The cops won’t investigate,” Sleuth reflected, aloud. “They’ll call it an accident like they always do with the mob deaths and, uh,” he stopped. Droog was watching him with the sort of polite, detached expression that also, somehow, managed to suggest how very, very easy it would be to simply insert a cue stick into your brain. “Which is what they already did.”
“Problem Sleuth, a suggestion.” Droog leaned over the back of the chair, and Sleuth couldn’t see him anymore, but his voice and cigarette smoke floated down, overpowering and smooth. “Drop the case.”
“Smartest fucking option if you want to live,” Slick added, from the liquor cabinet. “Either you’re going after fucking Crowbar or some asshole who’s fucking bonkers enough to impersonate him.” He paused for a sip of bourbon. “Ain’t lookin’ good for you either way.”
“Let it be an accidental death,” Droog finished. “Tear up the check and call his wife.”
He twisted his neck around, but Droog had moved again, standing by the glass-front cabinet with Slick. “How did you . . . ?”
Droog gestured to the way Sleuth had come in with the half-burned remains of his cigarette. “The door is that way, Mr. Sleuth.”
He didn’t wait to be told twice. You don’t, when you’re in the Midnight Crew’s office.
He waited until the door had closed behind him with the quietest click of the doorknob before he pulled his hat down over his eyes and crammed his fist into his mouth to stifle his scream.
“I see the Midnight Crew decided not to kill you,” Kanaya said when he slipped back into his apartment. She’d waited up for him.
“You ought to be in bed,” he admonished, but there were no hard feelings behind it. He collapsed into a chair and tossed his hat in the general direction of the coat rack. It flew wide and landed on the floor between the stove and the kitchen table.
She sniffed. “You went out afterwards?”
“I needed it, honey.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “And you’re friends with their kids?”
“They’re very nice, actually.” She paused. “Even Karkat, although most would be surprised by that, I’d imagine.”
“Yes. I am not entirely sure I understand the nature of the relationship but I suspect they’re rather fond of each other in their own way. Karkat takes after him.”
“Well if he’s lived that long you’re probably right.”
She crossed her arms. “Father.”
“So how goes the case?”
He groaned. “They don’t know why the guy got offed. It wasn’t the Felt though – someone’s trying to frame ‘em.”
She looked surprised. “Who would be foolish enough to attempt that?”
“No idea.” He sat forward with a groan. “And to be perfectly honest, I don’t wanna find out. I’m dropping this one.”
She stood, stretched. “Good. There will be more cases, father, don’t worry.” She leaned forward and hugged him around the shoulders. “And I am exceptionally pleased Mr. Droog restrained Mr. Slick and his more violent reactions.” She straightened. “I did speak with Aradia about asking him not to kill you.”
“You did?” He smiled up at her, bemused. “Don’t you trust your old man to look after himself?”
She smiled. “Consider it an insurance policy, then. Goodnight, father.”
“Night, sweetheart.” The door to her bedroom closed with a snap. He sat there for a minute, thinking it over. “First thing in the morning. Find my phone parts, call the broad,” he decided, quietly, grabbing a candy corn brownie on the way to bed. “First thing.”
Chapter 3: Making the Call
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Kanaya was gone when he woke up the next morning and shuffled into the kitchen. Small wonder: it was almost ten o’clock on a Thursday and school would have been in session for more than a couple hours by now. She’d brought the paper in though, and taken the puzzle section, by the look of it. The remains, however, were neatly folded by the coffee machine.
He poured a cup and sat down at the table. He pulled his robe tighter as he browsed through the headlines, against the early fall chill in the apartment – the heater would have to go on soon. The headlines were typical – the mayor was crowing about some new plan to reform the ghettoes and bring justice to the entire city, not just the parts deserted by the Midnight Crew, the Felt and any of the other multitude gangs – and the following stories were predictable. A homicidal duck was on the loose in the park, apparently, which was vaguely interesting, but since it could be pacified by bread no one was very concerned.
The police blotter was more interesting, and Sleuth liked to spend the time to go over it thoroughly every morning. There was an old mug full of pencils on the table, and he idly pulled one out and chewed on the eraser as he browsed through the short blurbs on various deaths, robberies and assaults. He circled the ones that jumped out at him as unusual: a robbery on the west side, where nothing was stolen but hand-penned love notes were left on every surface, and an assault on the Strip where someone was nearly bludgeoned to death with . . . a crowbar . . .
The pencil tip bounced up and down on the first word in the sentence until it snapped off.
‘Course, it could just be Crowbar. Sure, there was one death-by-crowbar incident that was not due to Crowbar, but that didn’t mean all of them . . .
But four stories down: ‘A bank on the lower east side of the city was plundered early Wednesday morning; the thieves made off with a small amount of cash and the contents of several safety deposit boxes. The suspects are thought to be Green Sun natives of varying heights.’
So that ruled Crowbar out. Sleuth frowned. He wondered how much the police knew; had they seen Crowbar at the bank robberies? Were they going to hone in on the crowbar murders and assaults? As a general rule they avoided messing with the Felt or the Midnight Crew but if it got to be enough of a problem . . .
Abruptly, he got up from the table and went back to his own room, paper in hand. Scattered across the furniture were other papers, mostly from the past week but possibly older. He sifted through them, newly alerted to crowbar deaths. Of course some didn’t say, just read as ‘assault’ or ‘murder’ but there was one here, another there . . .
He was dressed and out the front door in twenty minutes. There was Sleuthing to be done.
His phone cord hung, dejected and unused, from the lamp over the table.
The main police station in Midnight City wasn’t far from City Hall, about ten blocks from the center of the city. Newcomers assumed it was the center of the city, but the funny thing was no matter how much Midnight City sprawled out into the desert, every survey found that the dead center of Midnight City was always Casino.
It was one of those things about the city that escaped logic and yet made perfect sense.
The desk sergeant recognized Sleuth as soon as he stepped through the door, and gave him his best welcoming scowl. “Morning, Fred,” Sleuth said, tipping his hat regardless.
“What’re you after, Problem Sleuth?”
“SV in today?”
Fred cast his eyes around the station, as thought commander might be standing nearby. “Oh, I dunno. You have an appointment with the superintendent today?”
“I’m sure he’ll see me either way.”
Fred’s eyes narrowed. “And you really think so, don’t you.”
“Problem Sleuth!” You could have heard the jovial cry half a mile away. CC, the commander’s right-hand man, appeared from the cells and strode over, weaving through coppers before one massive hand engulfed Sleuth’s and the other clapped the detective on the back hard enough to send him reeling. “Good to see you around the station again, eh?”
“Good to be around the station, CC.” Sleuth shot a Fred a smirk as CC slung his arm around Sleuth’s shoulders and ushered him back into the hive of desks.
“What brings you by? Got a case we’re falling down on?” he laughed, and that was the thing about him. He could say something that would normally put your teeth on edge, but instead he’d laugh and you’d end up laughing right along with him.
“Oh, I don’t know about falling down on,” Sleuth chuckled. “It’s one of the tricky ones, see?” He lowered his voice. “Felt.”
CC’s eyebrows shot up. “Kind of big game for you, isn’t it?”
“I haven’t decided to take the job yet,” he admitted. “Tracking a few leads down first, seeing if I’m in over my head.”
CC shook him by the shoulder. “Good man! I’d imagine you want to talk to the superintendent then, yeah?”
“If he has the time.”
“Can’t see why he wouldn’t – he’s doing some paperwork at the mayor’s request.” And there ‘request’ very clearly meant ‘order’. Not because CC had changed his tone or inflection for the word, but because SV was apparently doing paperwork at all. The stacks on his desk were legendary – rumor had it there were twenty-five new species of fruit fly incubating in the mounds of outdated memos, requests and authorizations alone – and were rarely touched unless the mayor put in a ‘request’.
“Well then I can’t imagine he won’t be thrilled to see me,” Sleuth remarked as the tall Prospitan led him toward the stairs to the man’s office.
“You might have to meet with the mayor later on. Some of that stuff’s almost a year overdue – he’s itching to get it back.”
“Cross that bridge when we come to it, CC.”
The cop smiled down at Sleuth just for a second before he knocked on the door. A weary “Come in” beckoned them enter.
SV – officially Superintendent Vimes – was behind the desk, fingers threaded through his thinning brown hair. His habitual scowl twitched a little when they stepped in, and in a bad light it might have looked like a smile. “Problem Sleuth. Have a seat.”
“I’ll be on patrol on the west side with SA, sir, if there’s anything you need.”
“I’ll radio you.” CC left, the door snapping shut behind him, and SV gestured to the stacks of paper scattered around. “Paperwork.” He rolled his eyes. “The way Legislature Virtuoso bangs on about it you’d think the city couldn’t run without it.”
Sleuth shrugged. “Maybe it wouldn’t?”
The man smirked and flashed pointed teeth – he was a rare breed, mixed Prospit and Derse stock, with all the teeth and none of the murderous intent – before he rocked back in his chair and propped his feet up on the desk. “New case?”
Sleuth followed the man’s example and slouched down in his own chair, hands in his trench coat’s pockets. “Cut right to the chase, huh? Yeah, new case. Maybe. I need to check it out before I’m sure I’m takin’ it.”
“Why the caution?”
Sleuth rolled his eyes. “Felt.”
“Ah.” A sly smile twisted its way onto his face. “Funny, one of my constables tells me he saw you walking into Casino last night. Felt’s got you spooked but no worries about the Crew?”
“The Crew ended up being part of the interview process.”
SV blinked and then barked out a laugh. “Went to them first, huh? You got balls, Sleuth, I’ll give you that.” He pulled a cigarillo from the flotsam on his desk and struck a match. “So what’s this case, then? What’s got you going to the Crew for info on the Felt?”
Sleuth followed suit, lighting his own cigarette. “Remember that guy that got killed outside Revolution?”
“Crowbar to the face? Yeah.” SV was scowling again. “Don’t tell me his wife went to you over that.” Sleuth spread his hands and shrugged, mock helpless. “Listen, I told her it’s not like I didn’t want to do anything – she saw the bastard and I’ve been itching to lock that whole gang up for years now – but what the hell am I supposed to do? They’re worse than the Crew – at least those assholes’ll go to court. Pay the judge off every time, but they don’t kill my officers on sight. The Felt, though . . .” He shook his head. “Better be good money, s’all I’m saying.”
“It’s not an issue.”
“Real good then. Ha, almost makes it worth it.” He blew a smoke ring. “You bring me a case against Crowbar and I’ll get you a prosecution. Trick’s gonna be not dying in the process.”
Sleuth slouched down further in the chair. “Thing is, I don’t know that this guy’s murder is the only one. I’m thinkin’ maybe they’re related – this guy and all the other crowbar deaths.”
“’Course they are – Crowbar kills people like it’s going outta style.”
“The other thing is, well . . .” He frowned. “Could it be possible it, uh, wasn’t Crowbar at all?”
SV snorted. “You’re losing your mind; he’s been seen at every single scene. Red hat, green suit, and a dead body with a broken face.”
“Fair point, but didn’t the Felt rob a bank the other night when the guy outside Revolution got whacked?”
“Sleuth there’s fifteen of those assholes – who knows where Crowbar was.” He quirked an eyebrow. “You tryin’ to defend Crowbar or lock him up?”
Sleuth raised his hands. “Just tryin’ to pull everything together. Any other suspicious deaths might be related?”
SV shook his head. “I’ll get you reports on the crowbar deaths from the past few weeks if you want. Not sure what else you’re hoping to pick up from it, but if you’re gonna work this case it can’t hurt. I’ll have Fred set you up in a back office.”
“Thanks.” They stood, Sleuth grinding his cigarette out in the ashtray. “Can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Guess I’ll make the call about whether or not I’ll take her case after.”
SV looked amused. “Sleuth you made the call the minute you went to the Crew for help. You’re on this case now, and trust me, the Felt knows. They’re probably watching you.” He led the way down the stairs, back to the booking desk. “Watch your step, alright? Oh, and hey,” he put his arm around Sleuth’s shoulder and pulled him in, voice low, “watch out for the Crew, alright? We’re keeping it hushed up for now, but Droog killed a guy last night down by the docks. I don’t know what they’re up to but I’d steer clear.”
Sleuth blinked. “What time?”
He shrugged. “’Round midnight. Not late.”
“That’s impossible; I didn’t leave Casino until eleven thirty. I saw him there.”
“You’re saying he couldn’t get to the docks in a half hour?” SV rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Whatever, Sleuth, I’m just saying Diamonds Droog was sighted at the docks last night beating some poor bastard’s head clean off his shoulders. Proceed with caution, alright?” He leaned in and patted Sleuth on the chest. “I don’t relish the idea of investigating your murder – it’d be impossible to narrow it down to who doesn’t want to kill you.”
“That’s a little dramatic, SV.” Their noses brushed and Sleuth’s breath hitched, lending him a lungful of cigar smoke. SV smirked.
“You’re dead wrong if you think this is happening in front of my men.” And just like that he stepped away, spinning on the desk sergeant. “Fred!” The sergeant looked up from his file and scowled. “Set Sleuth here up with CN’s old office and all the files on the crowbar deaths from the past few weeks, yeah? He’s looking into a case for me.”
“You know LV hates that –”
“LV can shove it.” SV shrugged and turned away. “Do it Fred.”
The sergeant got up, reluctantly, and led Sleuth back through a maze of offices, into a small, cramped space. He didn’t say anything, rather gestured sourly to the table and chair, and spun on his heel, leaving Sleuth to sit down and light up a cigarette in peace. He came back a few minutes later, dumped a filing folder on the table, and left.
“Thanks, Fred,” Sleuth called after him, pulling out the first file. “’Preciate it.”
He took his time through the files, sorting them into two stacks: ones that were obviously Crowbar’s work, and ones that weren’t. After the initial sorting, he went through the not-Crowbar stack with a little more discretion.
There were some that were just murders – the crowbar seemed to be the incidental and most convenient weapon – but some that looked like more than that. These were laid aside into yet another pile, and eventually files from the ones that at first glance looked like the real deal joined them.
It was a depressingly large stack.
Sleuth tried to sort out correlations, similarities, anything that jumped out at him. There were pictures, and those made it easy; he wondered how the cops had missed that the murderer wasn’t green. Green gloves, green suit, yeah, but in a few grainy shots you could see the guy’s skin and there sure as hell wasn’t that distinct tint of green to his skin that was so characteristic of the rest of the Felt.
The other mystery was that in one shot he was different. Same suit, but it didn’t fit right, and he might have been shorter, thinner.
He’d been scratching things down in his notebook, and this in particular he wrote in all caps, underlined. It didn’t add up. He looked from his notes, to the picture, back to his notes, and chewed the eraser on his pencil until it came loose in his teeth.
“Word has it the Superintendent’s gonna go after Crowbar if there’s many more of these.” Problem Sleuth startled, jumping up in his chair and reaching for his keys. The cop in the doorway, a long, lean troll with a glow around her – daywalker – crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows. “Easy, killer.”
“SH,” he said, gruffly, trying to cover his initial surprise. “Didn’t expect to see you.”
She came in the room and perched on the edge of the desk, utility belt and its contents banging and clattering against the wood surface. “Well you probably wouldn’t have if Fred wasn’t raving on about you being back here. Figured I should at least come back and say hello.” She picked up one of the discarded files. “Ah, yes, the crowbar deaths. SV’s all bent out of shape about it – apparently he and LV are trying to figure out how to nab the bastard without getting the entire police force murdered in the process.”
“I mean one or two deaths a month, eh, not worth it for us, but six in a week? It’s a bit much.”
“Does it strike you as wrong, though? I mean . . . this ain’t typical.”
“Who knows.” She prodded the picture of the short, thin man in the suit. “That’s what jumps out at me, right there. It’s not Crowbar but no one’s gonna tell us who it is. Can’t, really. Well, except for the victim.” She snorted. “And good luck with that, huh?”
Sleuth closed his notebook and pocketed it, cheek resting on his fist. He pawed through the files that were still out. “Yeah. Tough case.”
“Word on the street is that you haven’t taken it yet. Turn it down.” He scowled. That was the thing about cops – they gossiped worse than a sewing circle. She ruffled his hair. “Not worth your pretty blonde head, PS.” He swatted her away and she laughed before hopping down from the table. “SV told you about Droog?”
“Yeah. I don’t buy it.”
Another shrug. “No one asked your opinion.”
He waved the picture at her. “Could be like this.”
She flashed her fangs. “And I could be the White Queen of Prospit, but we’re not talking hypotheticals.” She waved goodbye and backed into the hall. “You need anything, Problem Sleuth, give me a ring. Can’t have you running around out there getting murdered by the various gangsters of Midnight City.”
He returned the wave before surveying the files with a sigh. Then he neatly bundled it all up, put it back in the box, and headed back to the front of the police station to hand the box back off to the desk sergeant before he went home.
He had a phone call to make.
Kanaya was engrossed in a book on the history of textile manufacture when Aradia primly sat down in the chair across from her and delicately cleared her throat. “Hey, Kanaya.”
“Oh. My apologies – I must have been a million miles away, figuratively.” She smiled. “How are you, Aradia?”
“Can’t complain,” the other troll replied with a small smile. “Hey, I wanted to ask you – how did it go? Did your plan work?”
Kanaya nodded. “Yes, a meeting was accomplished. I believe the outcome was satisfactory to all involved.”
Aradia sat back, her hands folded on the table, eyes sparkling with obvious interest. “Is he going to take the case?”
“I do hope not and as of last night he did seem resolved to bypass this particular opportunity for a more favorable one.”
Aradia nodded. “Not surprised, really. The Felt . . . ugh.”
The chair next to Kanaya squealed out across the linoleum, and the skinny frame of Terezi flopped into it. “The Midnight Crew ugh,” she countered, beaming at Aradia. Aradia scowled. “So what’s this about Sleuthles going after my family?”
Kanaya blinked from one to the other and sighed. “Nothing.”
“Her dad’s investigating Crowbar’s recent murder spree,” Aradia snapped. “Maybe.”
“He has decided against taking the case,” Kanaya snapped.
Terezi was frowning though, forehead creased with discontent. “You mean the set-ups?” Aradia looked surprised, and Kanaya sighed. “I don’t care what it looked like, Crowbar didn’t even do half of them.”
“What are you even talking about?” Aradia sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “You mean there’s some other deranged crowbar-wielding psychopath in town?”
“Sure I do. It’s not that hard to find a crowbar, after all, and it’s a good weapon. Nice heft. And he’s not a psychopath,” she added. She lowered her voice, leaned forward. “I’m telling you guys, he’s being framed. I don’t know who, or why, but it’s got everybody up at the mansion really nervous.”
“Psh, sure.” Aradia rolled her eyes, but Kanaya was nodding.
“My father has similar suspicions based on his investigations,” she whispered, earnest. “He spoke to me about it after meeting with the Midnight Crew last night.”
“Why though?” Aradia’s chair thunked as she scooted forward. “Everyone knows he’s a murderer –”
“Oh, says Droog’s daughter –”
“– so why would they bother to frame him? All they’re gonna do is put themselves in harm’s way.” She shook her head. “They shouldn’t even be worried about the cops, they ought to think more about what the Felt’s gonna do to them.”
“Let me tell you, if Mom or Die gets their hands on them it’s gonna be ugly.” She shook her head. “They’ll handle it I’m sure.” Her bony elbow ground into Kanaya’s ribs. “Better for your dad, huh?”
“Yes, I have strongly discouraged him from persisting with this case.”
“Oh, hey, and speaking of psychopaths,” Terezi went on, leaning toward Aradia, “I see someone was busy last night, huh? Down by the docks? Not that anyone minds, of course, since that guy was asking for it with all that moonshine he was pouring out but –”
Aradia’s expression was getting progressively more confused as Terezi went on. “What are you talking about?” she asked, finally.
“The Midnight Crew took Unscrupulous Bootlegger out of the equation last night,” Terezi said, exasperated. “Everyone was talking about it over breakfast this morning. Cue stick straight to the throat, took his head off.”
Aradia looked to Kanaya and then back to Terezi, lost. “I don’t know who did that. Daddy was at Casino all night last night; he came home right after the meeting.”
“Sure he did.”
Kanaya looked between the girls and finally held up a hand. “Could it be possible this is another copycat?”
“Well it’s gotta be,” Aradia hissed, not taking her eyes off Terezi. “At least, this guy is. Not sure about Crowbar.”
“Never mind that, Aradia,” Kanaya said firmly, even as Terezi flashed her teeth. “Ladies, I think this is a point we should bring to the attentions of all involved. I believe there may be some sort of nefarious plot afoot.”
Terezi beamed then. “Ooh, nefarious plots. I love those.”
Special hurricane Irene update! Enjoy. :) Also fingers crossed that I keep power lol.
Chapter 4: Three Stories
whoops my otp is showing
also the scene with droog is inspired by this beautiful picture by wachtelspinat: http://s3.amazonaws.com/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_lqz48z96qn1qdx0wxo1_1280.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ6IHWSU3BX3X7X3Q&Expires=1315360178&Signature=ExcFxxlhIUXbaF8bfip0xMO0HgE%3D
“Father, might I have a word with you?” Kanaya looked across the kitchen table, polite and interested, her hands folded in front of her. Sleuth, desperate for any opportunity to avoid eating the broccoli she’d prepared ‘for nutritional purposes,’ dropped his fork with a clatter.
“Yes, Kanaya, of course.” He sat back.
She looked to his plate, and her expression hovered to the disapproving side of neutral. “Father, broccoli is a vital source of many vitamins and minerals, and it is rich in anti-oxidants, which have been shown in preliminary studies to slow the process of aging. Not to mention it is a vegetable, of which you are supposed to eat three to four servings each day.”
“I had some V8 earlier,” he lied. “Don’t worry, Kanaya, I get plenty of whatever. Now what’s on your mind?”
She looked away from the broccoli, back to him, and leaned forward. “Have you resolved to drop the case concerning Crowbar?”
He took a breath, looked down, caught sight of the broccoli and felt tremendously guilty, and looked back up. “Well, sweetheart, here’s the thing: It’s . . . it’s an interesting case.” He held up his hands and reassured her, “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful; I’m going to handle this one with kid gloves, alright? I was down at the police station today looking at some case files and I let SV in on what I’m thinking – they’re watching out for it too.”
“But were your initial suspicions correct? The information gathered from the Midnight Crew and the case files – does it seem to coincide?”
“From what I can tell, yeah.” He frowned. “Why the interest? I thought you were dead set against me taking this case.”
She weighed her words for a minute while he sipped at his coffee. “I would be open to considering that perhaps the case is not totally without merit and dangerous besides. I have been speaking with some of the girls at school, and perhaps there is more to this than we initially imagined.”
A little shiver of pride ran through him. He’d never asked her to help him with the detective stuff or the stupid puzzle shit, but ever since she’d been little she’d taken an interest in his work. And now, here she was tracking down leads on a case he hadn’t even officially taken yet . . . “Father?” he snapped back to the present, startled. She was looking at him, a little wary. “Are you alright, Father?”
“Yeah.” He cleared his throat. “Yeah, fine. So, uh, you and your friends were talking about this at school?” He frowned. “Who? I’m not sure this is something that you girls should be getting involved in –”
“Terezi Pyrope and Aradia Megido.”
“Oh.” Snowman and Droog’s girls. That was fine, he thought. They might even know more than he did. “What did they have to say?”
Kanaya shifted in her seat, sat up straight. “Well, to begin with Terezi seemed to be almost totally positive that not all of the murders committed in the city by Crowbar actually were committed by Crowbar. Certainly the murderer looks the part, but according to all of Terezi’s sources, Crowbar himself has not committed anywhere near the number of murders that are currently being attributed to him.”
“And Terezi’s sources, I’d imagine, are the Felt, so that’s pretty reliable . . .” Sleuth mused.
“Yes. She says it has everyone very much on edge at the mansion.”
“She have any idea why someone would be framing Crowbar?” Sleuth gestured with his coffee mug. “He’s the brains of that entire operation, apparently; seems like suicide to go after him.”
“No. There are no leads as to who it may be, or their motives for such activity. But yes, it does seem like a foolish thing to do, we all agreed.”
“They still haven’t got caught, though, so they can’t be dumb.”
“But Father,” she went on, urgent, “there may be more to this than meets the eye. There was a murder at the docks last night –” he froze, save to blink, surprised and caught off-guard, “– of a bootlegger that is typically in direct competition with the Midnight Crew. The murderer was spotted, and between the eyewitness account and the fact that the victim was killed by a cue stick to the neck, the chief suspect is believed to be Diamonds Droog. Indeed, even the Felt was of the impression that Aradia’s father had carried out the deed.”
“But he didn’t,” Sleuth breathed.
“So you have already heard about this and made your own judgments?”
“Sweetheart the cops are hushing that murder up – how did you know about it?”
She shrugged. “Neither the Midnight Crew nor the Felt were fond of Unscrupulous Bootlegger. Apparently Terezi overheard discussion about the murder during her breakfast. Aradia had not heard of it, but she was immediately able to vouch for her father’s whereabouts.”
“I can vouch for his whereabouts. He didn’t do it.”
“We considered,” she went on, “that perhaps the murders are related.”
Sleuth coughed, half-choking on his coffee. “What, the same person’s framing Crowbar and the Droog? Sweetheart, it’s not impossible but it is improbable because if it is the same person they’re not dead yet.”
“I agree that the plan is suicidal but perhaps it is a plan to consider?” She smirked, and stood up, carrying her own plate (empty) to the sink. “Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance to your case. Despite my reservations about the safety of this enterprise, I must admit to having an interest in the progression and eventual outcome.” She walked off, down the hall. “I will be doing my homework.”
“Good,” he said, faintly, his brain suddenly firing on all available cylinders, half of which were trying to figure why someone would want to frame Droog and Crowbar, and the other half of which were busy trying to figure out how he could ever express his unabashed fatherly pride. “Great. Let me know if you need help.”
Well, the Droog and Crowbar thing was easier. Taking out Crowbar would hamstring the Felt, leaving them vulnerable and possibly prone to mistakes. Taking out Droog would disorganize the Midnight Crew and effectively accomplish the same thing there. If the murders were related, and someone really was trying to lock up Droog and Crowbar, it seemed likely that that someone would stand something to gain by knocking out the city’s two biggest gangs.
As for the other thing . . . perhaps he could call the Egbert boy’s dad. The man was a paradigm of fatherly pride and Midnight City’s undisputed Icingmeister. An inscription across a tray of candy corn brownies would doubtlessly be child’s play.
In a nice townhouse in a distinctively more upscale district of the city, Aradia Megido had similar intentions as Kanaya – her father would certainly want to know if he was being framed for murder, after all. The tricky part was that if she just brought the topic up, he’d ignore it, brush it off, redirect. So the trick was to soften him up; to so destroy his psyche that he would be desperate for any other conversational topic, including and not limited to possible framings for brutal murders.
She did this by talking about boys.
“– and then Equius brought me some flowers that he’d picked while we were supposed to be looking at the leaves and identifying tree species,” she went on, making sure to include every single male interaction that had occurred during her Horticulture class’s trip to the park, “and it was all very sweet but I just had to tell him that Sollux and I were talking about going to the movies this Friday, and I couldn’t possibly make other plans.” She sighed, dramatic, and kept going, a little louder over the crackle as he hastily peeled the plastic off a fresh pack of cigarettes.
“And I guess Eridan must have overheard, because then he got all upset because he and I are supposed to be meeting in the library after school on Friday to work on our toothpick bridge, and I guess he thought we would be there for a while.” She flipped her pencil around and rubbed the eraser across a line of equations. Algebra was more difficult when she was plotting, but an extra forty minutes on homework would be worth it. “Of course I didn’t mention to him that the movie we’d wanted to see doesn’t even start showing until eight thirty, because then he probably would have suggested we go back to his apartment to keep working –” It was a low blow and, apparently, the final straw.
“You will not.”
She blinked, feigning surprise, and then scoffed. “Please, Daddy, it’s Eridan. You couldn’t pay me to go back to his apartment. For any reason.”
Droog watched her over the paper, grey eyes narrowed, and then he shook the newspaper back out and disappeared behind it once more. “Good. Fine. What else happened at school today?” There were perhaps two people in Midnight City that would have recognized the hasty change of subject as being a signal that Diamonds Droog’s last nerve was frayed to the point of no return. Aradia was one of them. She brushed some of her hair out of her face and thought.
“Hm. Well . . .” She tapped her pencil on her notebook. Her thoughtful manner was only half-faked; pushing her guardian’s buttons was easy enough, once you knew what they were, but getting him to talk about something he would normally be opposed to was a delicate operation. One misstep and he’d end up saying something like ‘hm’ and that would be the end of it, or worse, he’d tell her to go to bed.
“Not much,” she concluded. “I helped Kanaya and Terezi with some things for history over lunch, but really nothing else exciting. Oh, but did you know Unscrupulous Bootlegger died last night? Terezi was talking about it.” She sniffed. “I told her she might do better in history if she managed to tear herself away from her police scanner for two hours, but she won’t listen.”
The paper had twitched aside though. Victory. “Did he?”
She nodded. “Down at the docks. Murder, obviously. Why else would the police be involved?” And then she laughed, just a little. “Funny thing about it was, Terezi was saying it was you that did it, but I told her she was an idiot. Just because someone in a suit kills someone else with a cue stick doesn’t always mean –”
“Where did she hear that?”
Aradia shrugged. “Either the police scanner or someone up at the mansion, I’m sure. I didn’t ask. The police will clear it up soon, though, I bet. What’s the square root of 121?”
“Thanks, Daddy.” She penciled in the answer. “You’d think she’d be more understanding of that with all the stuff she’s been telling me about Crowbar lately – you know someone’s framing him for a bunch of murders? Kanaya’s dad’s looking into it. Crazy.” She looked up when he didn’t say anything. Droog was just watching her, perhaps a little confused, or maybe stunned. “What?”
“Have you girls ever considered that you talk too much?” he finally said.
She smiled as sweetly as she could. “Never.”
And meanwhile, in the green architectural disaster on the outskirts of the city that was Felt mansion, Terezi was engaging in her own brand of deductive inquiries. This mostly consisted of irritating whoever she ran across first.
“Hey, Die!” she dropped into the chair next to the thin man, causing him to yelp and drop his doll. She waited for him to seize it once more, sunken eyes wide as he clutched it to his chest. “Whatcha doing?”
“Oh. Terezi. Nothing.” He composed himself, re-adjusted his top hat, and frowned as she grinned and kicked her legs back and forth, drumming her fingers on the table. “What are you doing?”
“Just, you know, checking in on my favorite voodoo uncle.”
His expression flattened, and he frowned a little, rolling his eyes. “Itchy gave you coffee again, didn’t he?”
“Just one cup!”
“Hey guess what.” She leaned in, her bony shoulder grinding into his chest. He sighed. “Guess, you know you want to.”
“Itchy’s going to be found dead later with a pin in his jugular?” Die mused.
“No, silly. You know that murder last night down at the docks?”
Die thought. Of the Felt members, he was second only to Snowman in being intentionally ignorant of most of the petty gang activity in the city. He kept up on the bigger stuff, of course, but the scuffles and minor disagreements that occurred between, say, the Shamlegger Street Rude Boys and the South River Prospitans were . . . well, it’s not like there was much for him to do with them. He couldn’t have a pin for everyone in the city, after all.
“Itchy and Clover knew what I was talking about right away,” she sighed, exasperated. “Unscrupulous Bootlegger?”
“Uh . . . nope.” He shrugged. “Sorry, Rez.”
She threw her hands up and grabbed his wrist. “Well as long as I have to explain everything we might as well find Crowbar. This is of vital importance, Die; there is a nefarious plot afoot.” She jerked his arm, and he followed her, if only because he feared for the future integrity of his rotator cuff.
“And I need to get involved in this,” he asked, flatly.
She stopped short and spun and treated him to a look that suggested that he was possibly the stupidest person she’d ever met. “Nefarious plot. You’re my creepy voodoo uncle: nefarious is what you do.”
“Does your mother know you’re doing this?”
“So where’s Crowbar?”
“Alright, so that’s a no.”
“I would tell her! I just haven’t seen her yet. I’ll tell her.” Terezi nodded, solemn. “I swear. Cross my heart and hope to –”
“God help you if you finish that phrase.”
“– perish.” She beamed. “So where’s your boyfriend?”
He glared, but he rather suspected it was lost on the blind girl. Who knew, though – she picked up on enough to keep everyone guessing. “Probably the bar.” He hardly had time to finish before she wrenched him by the arm again and motored off toward the mansion’s impressively extensive barroom. When Terezi kicked the doors open, Die was tremendously relieved to see Crowbar sitting on one of the couches, notebook and heist plans open in front of him. Terezi released him and left him standing there, doll tucked under his arm, trying to rub the life back into his wrist and hand.
“Crowbar guess what!” She flung herself down next to the man, sending papers flying. “Guess what.”
He scooped up a handful of papers while Die sat down next to him, handing him a collection of photographs. “Itchy gave you coffee again?”
She paused, thoughtful. “Well, yes but no. Yes he did but that’s not what I wanted you to guess.”
Crowbar looked to Die. “Tell me you’re not a part of this.”
“Of course he is; it’s a nefarious plot,” Terezi hissed, while Die shrugged. “You know that murder down at the docks last night?”
“UB?” Crowbar nodded, hesitant. “Yeah. What about it?”
“Droog didn’t do it.” Crowbar and Die exchanged a look. “I talked to his daughter at school today – she said he was home last night when it happened.”
“Well obviously she would,” Crowbar scoffed. “Besides, Rez, I don’t give a shit whether Droog did it or not: half the city wanted the guy dead, no skin off my nose who actually did it.”
“You’re missing the point, Crowbar.” She grabbed the lapels of his coat, knocking the re-organized papers askew again. Die stifled a groan and started gathering them back up. “Droog was framed.”
The men stopped what they were doing (shuffling papers and trying to escape Terezi) and looked to each other, then to her. “Yeah?” Crowbar asked, finally. “You got proof?”
“Other than that the eyewitnesses said it was Droog while the actual Diamonds Droog managed to be at home two districts away? No.” She sat back, gesturing widely. “It’s just like you, right? Someone is trying to frame both of you.”
“Well they’re easy targets,” Die pointed out, but he sounded skeptical. “Someone looking to get away with murder would know Crowbar and Droog aren’t likely to take a lot of flak from the police. They could even be unrelated.”
“Yes, but the nefarious plot is more fun and more advantageous to a particularly ambitious scofflaw.” She stood and paced in front of them, her hands folded behind her back. “Think about it, gentlemen, if you will: the “Crowbar” murders and the “Droog” murders become so numerous that eventually the police are forced to take action and bring both criminals to trial. You will obviously be found guilty –”
“– Let’s not act as though you are innocent to begin with!” she snapped over his objection. “Anyway, both of you will be found guilty and imprisoned. Which would leave who in charge of the Felt? My mother? Die?”
Die paled. “Oh God, no.”
“My point exactly! My mother would kill everyone within the week and Die would have a nervous breakdown four hours in. Maybe less, if Eggs and Biscuits are feeling particularly frisky that day.
“And what of the Midnight Crew? Droog technically isn’t their leader but without him managing them the other three would fall to pieces; Slick’s no good at organization or forethought. So where would that leave the two premier gangs of the city?” She turned to them and adopted a wide stance. “I leave that to you gentlemen to consider.”
Crowbar looked to Die, who still looked a little rattled at the hypothetical prospect of spearheading the Felt. “So what, Rez? Fake-Droog’s killed one guy, and it was a guy everyone and their bloody mum wanted dead anyway. Your logic is flawed. At best.”
“I’m just saying, the connection is something to consider. Are there any gangs that might be motivated to take over the city right now?”
Crowbar snorted. “All of them.” He took the papers from Die’s still-shaking hands and paperclipped them together. “Rez it’s an interesting thought, but I’m not buying it yet. This not-Droog character kills a few more people and we’ll see.”
She frowned, clearly disappointed. “But what if it’s too late? Action must be swift! You and the Crew both stand to lose –”
Crowbar pinched his nose with one hand and slung his other arm around Die. “We ain’t working with the Crew. Doesn’t matter what the hell’s going on.”
“Which is why it’s really lucky that Problem Sleuth is –”
“I can’t wait until your mother hears these theories because clearly you haven’t told her yet.” He leveled her with an almost-glare. “Go to bed, Terezi.”
“Out.” She stared at the two of them for a minute and then huffed, turned on her heel, and stormed from the room. Crowbar slumped back into the couch, stretching his legs out. “That girl is scary.”
“She had a point about you going to prison though,” Die murmured, curling into him. “I’m going to buy a video camera. We’ll film you constantly, right, and that way when the cops come looking for an alibi we’ll have hours of footage and –”
“Hey.” Crowbar interrupted his train of thought, surprisingly gentle, and kissed him. “It’s not gonna come to that, alright? It just . . . we’ll find this guy before it does, alright? It’ll all go away.”
“But maybe you should stay at the mansion until –”
“Relax. I’ll get Trace and Fin on it tonight, okay? They might even find something. By accident,” he added, darkly, because there are certain things that every Felt member knows and one of them is that Fin and Trace, as wannabe crime scene investigators, were completely useless.
“I still think you should stay here.” He sat up and straddled Crowbar, grabbing him by the lapels and leaning in. “You cannot go to prison. Can. Not. The minute you do I am out of this timeline like a chicken at a Santeria ritual.”
Crowbar kissed him again and leaned back, smirking. “Relax. Last thing I’m gonna do is go to the rock, alright? Don’t get all worked up about nothing.”
Chapter 5: Narrative Causality Loves Promises
Your name is Perry Richards, and you are alone. And you are terrified.
You were driving home from city hall, well you weren’t driving, since you’re a senator and what senator drives themselves anywhere – but you were on your way home, anyway, with your driver and your two bodyguards when you got tangled up in construction. Roadworks, with orange barrels and cones and a bored-looking Dersite holding a sign that said ‘stop’ that he stalwartly refused to flip around to ‘slow’.
“This is going to take forever,” you groaned.
Your driver looked at your in the rearview and shrugged. “You want I can turn around, take a shortcut through the shipping district.” Your bodyguards both jumped to the defensive immediately. No, not the shipping district, not after dark, not when it was this late. Was he crazy? That was asking for trouble. “Just offering,” the driver muttered, hunching down behind the steering wheel, ashamed. “Sorry.”
You wanted to tell him to take it anyway – it was late, you were tired – but all these recent murders had you on edge. You’d been looking into them after the last one actually caught the attention of the senate floor: the senate was more than willing to stay out of the bigger gangs’ way, as long as a balance was maintained. But this . . . this wasn’t balance.
People were saying Crowbar had lost it, gone off the deep end. It had started with maybe a couple of murders a week, more than expected but not a whole lot, and built up to the last week, when he’d iced twelve people, Dersites and Prospitans and humans and one troll. The police’s main morgue was full on his victims alone. Not that autopsies were really necessary: a crowbar to the face is a fairly distinctive wound, and almost always fatal.
You’d been looking into these murders. There was something about them . . . At first they’d been random, but the most recent victims were tied to the senate, somehow. An aide here, a clerk there. Nothing major. But still strange.
And you’d heard Problem Sleuth was asking around about them too. That was good. You’d decided to meet with him the next day – not at your office, he was too unpopular around the senate since that case with the last Speaker, but at his. You had the case files ready to go in your briefcase.
So you didn’t tell your driver to take the shortcut – not with these murders, and not with your case files about them sitting on the floor between your ankles. You just waited for the guy to flip the sign. “Finally,” one of your bodyguards sighed, when ‘slow’ turned to face them and the driver guided the car through the bumpy obstacle course of road repair.
You were the last car the Dersite let through. Now, you realize that was probably calculated. At the time, no one thought anything of it. No really thought anything of it when the backhoe reversed into the road and your driver slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting it.
Your bodyguard picked up on something being wrong when the worker on the backhoe shot your driver in the face.
You’d ducked, and your bodyguards had pulled out their guns, but the car was under siege. The guard in the front seat – you’d never bothered to learn his name, they switched every week and each one was generic as the next – took a shot to the neck and sprayed blood all over the inside of the car like a screaming, writhing fire hose. He’d stilled then, and you’d reached up between the seats for his gun, until the red crowbar slammed into the windshield. “Oh, fuck,” you’d said, with real feeling.
Your other bodyguard had apparently caught the flash of a green suit too, because he started spraying bullets that way. For all his gunfire, though, it didn’t stop someone from putting a shot between his eyes, and it didn’t stop someone else from grabbing you by the back of the jacket and jerking you out of the car.
And that was how you got here, in a chain-link prison behind a bulldozer and a building, sewer water seeping from the crack in the street and sloshing up over your shoes. There were two guys holding your arms, and they weren’t Felt – that was a clue. If you lived through this, you’d have more evidence to hand over to Problem Sleuth and Superintendent Vimes than you’d imagined.
And then the guy in the green suit emerged from the other side of the bulldozer, and he wasn’t Crowbar. He had the hat, and the suit, and everything else, but he wasn’t even ginger.
He was carrying your files. “This is all very interesting,” he said, in his not-Scottish, not-Crowbar accent. You squirmed, and one of the other guys clamped down on your elbow. He waved the file. “Caught the attention of the senate, have I?”
“You’re an imposter,” you said. “I knew it, I knew you weren’t Crowbar and I’m not the only one that suspects –” you trailed off when he dropped the files into the scummy water.
You rallied, despite your fear and the fact that you were shaking. If it weren’t for the two guys on either side of you, your knees would probably have given out. But if you kept talking, you thought, someone might notice. You might yet live. “Oh well,” you say, forcing a laugh that sounded nothing like one. “There’s other evidence – loads – at the police station and believe me I’m not the only person in this city that thinks you’re not the real deal!”
He looked to the crowbar, and you could see the red paint chipping off the edges. He ran his hands along it and sighed. “Ah well. Guess I’ll have to murder them, too.”
“W-Well let’s not be hasty,” you said, holding your hands up. “Perhaps there’s something I can do for you . . .” Aiding and abetting criminals. You’d beat your last opponent by laying bare his ties to the Midnight Crew and claiming a clean race and term. Funny how someone waving a blunt object in your face can dissolve your campaign promises. “Something you want?”
He watched you, appraising. “Yeah, there’s something I want,” he said, finally.
“I can help,” you say urgently, water sloshing around your feet as your knee buckles and you get caught by the guys holding you up. “Anything. Tell me your agenda, tell me what you need.”
“And you can let the Superintendent know in the morning, huh?” he laughed. “Nah, Richards, I ain’t gonna let you in on all that stuff, bein’ as I reckon I have it pretty well covered for myself. No, what I want from you is the answer to this question.” He leaned in, and you just trembled and worked your jaw like there was something you were going to say to make him stop. “What’s a senator’s brains look like?”
“See my bridge is gonna be vastly superior to any piece of shit you can whip up, because I’m making Tavros put it together using exactly eight of everything.” Vriska flipped her hair over her shoulder and twirled her spoon around in her cereal bowl. “Way better than that shit you and Strider are putting together.” She laughed, “I mean, triangles, sis, really. As if.”
“Triangles are the strongest shape in nature, dumbass,” Terezi snapped.
Vriska slapped her hands onto the table. “No, stupid, squares are and oh, they have four sides, that’s funny because four is a multiple of eight, and two squares is stronger than one. God, you’re an idiot.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see on Bridge Day whether your fucking squares will hold up to the strength and might of –” Bong. Terezi and Vriska paused, Vriska with her spoon halfway to her mouth, both of their expressions perplexed. “Was that . . . the doorbell?”
Vriska shrugged. “Probably just Itchy dicking around,” she dismissed, shoving her spoonful of Trix into her mouth. “No one ever rings the doorbell.”
“It’s a quarter to seven in the morning,” Terezi said, doubtful. “Itchy isn’t awake.”
“’Less he just didn’t go to sleep last night.”
Terezi bit her lip and then spun out of her chair. “I’m gonna answer it.”
“Don’t be stupid, Taz, it’s not anybody. Besides, it’s halfway across the mansion, someone else’ll get there before you do.”
“Well fine.” Vriska shoved her chair backwards. “I’m coming with you, just so I can point out how stupid you are when it turns out to be Itchy.”
The door was closed when they got there, so no one had beat them to it, unless they’d already come and gone. But as Vriska peeked through the green-tinted glass, she could see a couple figures swathed in dark blue and . . . more behind them . . . and flashing lights. “Shit, Taz.” She grabbed her sister and pulled them behind a potted plant. “Taz, it’s the fuzz. There's like . . . an entire SWAT team out there.”
Terezi paled. “I thought I smelled copper.” She bit her lip. “It’s about Crowbar. They’re here to pick him up.”
“Why now? Shit, I’m gonna go find Mom, she’ll handle this . . .”
“Girls?” They turned to look. Stitch was standing there, watching them with a bemused smirk. “Care to explain why you’re behind a plant?”
“Stitch there’s cops out there,” Vriska hissed. “They’re here for Crowbar!”
He scowled then and adjusted his hat. “Yeah?” He leaned a little, likewise catching sight of the police officers on the front step, before he sighed and started limping for the door. “Get your mother, girls. I’ll hold ‘em.”
Vriska nodded and took off, back toward the apartment, although why Terezi wasn’t sure. They hadn’t seen Snowman all morning – no telling where she was. Terezi, instead, bolted up the stairs and through the rabbit’s warren that was the east wing. She could think of something much more useful.
She didn’t pause when she got to the door, just flung it open and beelined for the bed. “Crowbar, you have to hide,” she said urgently, while Die woke up with a scream and fell to the floor. “Come on, get moving, the vault in the basement oughta be good enough –”
Crowbar sat up as quickly as he could, rubbing his eyes. “Terezi, what the hell?”
“Jesus, Taz, what is wrong with you?” Die had scrambled back into bed, grabbing his voodoo doll in the process. “Giving me heart palpitations. We talked about knocking.”
She latched on to Crowbar’s wrist and gestured urgently to the door. “Move, we don’t have much time.”
“Time for what?” he yawned.
“To hide you from the cops!” They both froze then, and she flashed her teeth. “They’re at the front door – something bad happened last night, it had to! The cops never come up here, they have to be here for you, it’s something about –”
Crowbar raised a hand, while Die scrambled out of bed and started pushing furniture around. “Slow down. You don’t know they’re here about me?”
She scowled. “When was the last time the cops came up here?”
“Taz they could be here about something completely different.” He tugged his wrist out of her hand. “Just calm down, let’s figure out what they’re doing here and then . . .” he trailed off, watching as Die rolled the rug back to reveal a large summoning circle ringed with an array of retina-burning inscriptions and symbols. “Die what the hell are you doing?”
“Terezi’s right, we don’t have a lot of time,” Die said urgently, throwing his coat on over his t-shirt and sweatpants. He picked up a rickety old chair and plonked it down in the circle.
“Have you been drawing occult symbols on my floor?”
“Listen, you never know.” He hauled the top drawer of the dresser out and upended it, disgorging it of a pile of green socks, about twenty candles of various colors and contents, a book of matches and a tin of Morton’s salt. “Get in the chair.”
“Die.” Crowbar leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “What is this?”
“An occult ritual!” Die whirled around, eyes full of green fire, salt in one hand and a couple candles and the matches in the other. “Now get in the chair before I make you!”
Crowbar sighed and got out of bed, shrugging his shirt on over the undershirt. “You don’t have to get dressed,” Die said, still frantic but at least a little put-off. “Doesn’t matter to me either way.”
“Terezi, go tell them I’ll be down in a minute.”
“What?” Terezi and Die snapped, in unison.
“You heard me.”
“No,” Die snapped. “No, you get in this chair and let me turn you into a chicken right now.” Crowbar and Terezi turned to him, staring, wide-eyed. Die paused, and then looked away, arms crossed. “It would be a good disguise.”
Crowbar shook his head and turned back to Terezi while he straightened the lapels of his coat. “Go now, alright? Don’t argue with me.” She didn’t move. “Terezi.”
“Why can’t you just hide?”
“Just . . . trust me, alright?” He swiveled her to the door. “Get out of here. I’ll be there in five minutes.” She looked to him, over her shoulder, eyebrows knit, but she did go after he gave her an encouraging shove. Die, however, was willing to put up more of a fight. Crowbar just sighed when the door burst into green flames after she closed it behind her.
“Listen, all I have here is for the chicken, but if you want to wait until the police leave I can maybe do an alligator or . . . or an iguana or something.” He shrunk when Crowbar moved over to him and grabbed him by the shoulders. “You can’t go down there.”
“It’ll be easier if I do.”
“Easier for who?” Die asked, whining. “For you, sure, but what about me? You promised me you wouldn’t go to prison. I should have bought that video camera, I knew you wouldn’t agree to the chicken thing but I thought maybe when it came down to it you –” Crowbar clapped his hand over Die’s mouth.
“Calm down.” He let Die go and grabbed his hat off the dresser. “Me going to prison is the fastest way to get this cleared up. Either this guy’s going to keep impersonating me and killing people, in which case I’ll obviously be innocent, or all my alibis’ll check out and they’ll have to let me go, okay?”
“Or they’ll find you guilty and put you in jail and I’m gonna have to figure out how to get you out,” Die whimpered.
“No, they won’t.” He snickered. “For once, I’m not guilty. It’ll work out. But you are gonna have to manage the rest of these idiots while I’m gone. You can do it, Die, just ask Snowman for help if you need it.” And then he leaned in and kissed the Cajun, as long as he dared, until he had to pull back to breathe.
“Please let me turn you into a chicken,” Die whispered, Crowbar’s lapels clenched in a white-knuckle grip.
Crowbar chuckled. “No.” He hugged Die, while the skinnier guy whimpered. “You’re gonna be fine. I’m gonna be fine. Everything’s gonna be okay.”
The door, which had long since stopped burning and showed no outward signs of its previous incendiation, swung inwards. Snowman leaned on the frame. When they failed to notice her, she very pointedly cleared her throat. “Crowbar? Your chariot awaits.”
“I’m coming.” He stepped back, pried Die’s hands from his coat, and followed Snowman down the hall, leaving the sixth Felt member behind.
“He’s going to be a wreck,” she pointed out, blowing a stream of smoke.
“He’ll be fine.” Crowbar caught her expression and sighed. “Yeah, he’s gonna be a wreck. You’re gonna have to hurry and figure this out, ‘cause the cops aren’t gonna look into this very far and I have a feeling this guy’s too smart to make a mistake quite this early.”
“Problem Sleuth’s on the case.”
Crowbar groaned. “Jesus. Well help him, could you? We should have a few weeks before trial, so that’ll buy us some time to get everything straightened out. And, uh, help Die?”
Snowman blew a stream of smoke at him and stopped at the top of the stairs. She smiled, just barely. “I hate it when you go to prison. It’s so much work.”
“I’ll try not to make it a habit,” he smirked, and then he turned and strolled downstairs. He greeted Vimes – of course he’d come personally for this – and stood while they handcuffed him and led him out. Stitch watched as the cars pulled away, and then slammed the door with some Yiddish curse, glaring up at Snowman before he hobbled stiffly back to his workshop.
Vriska and Terezi were there too, staring up at her. She smiled down at them. “Time for school, girls.”
Vriska colored. “But . . . But they just took –”
“I have it well in hand, Vriska. Now go get your things, and your sister’s, as well. Rez, go get Die, would you? We have some errands to run after I drop you off.”
Problem Sleuth called AP’s wife first thing in the morning. No sense in pretending he wasn’t taking this case, since he’d basically already taken it. She’d cried, and thanked him more times than he could keep track of, and told him to make the check out for whatever he wanted. He thanked her for her generosity, assured her he’d be in touch, and hung up.
So, he had a case.
Time to gather the team, then.
“Hey, Ace.” He leaned around the doorframe to Ace Dick’s office. “You busy?”
“Extremely!” Ace yelled, from behind one of those stupid busts. He leaned around to snarl at Sleuth. “Someone defaced Starsky.”
“Oh,” Sleuth said. “Ah, because I have a case I just took and I was wondering if –”
“Workin’ a case of my own.” Ace disappeared back behind the bust with a flourish of his rag. “Ain’t got the time, Sleuth.”
Sleuth frowned. “Is the case the case of who graffitied your Starsky bust?”
“None of your business. ‘Sides, I overheard you talkin’ to the dame – it’s got Felt written all over it and frankly, I’m not eager to play a part in that.” There was a slosh, and water dribbled out of a bucket and onto the carpet. “Leave them to their own business.”
Sleuth coughed. “Ace, we’re a team –”
“Until you take on the Felt, then you’re crazy and I’m busy.”
“We took out a demon.”
“Yeah, and this is 15 lesser demons, one omnipotent asshole and the demon that will bring with him the end of the universe.” He darted back around the bust to flash a grimace that was probably supposed to be a smile. “Have fun, Sleuth.”
Sleuth huffed through his nose. “Fine,” he concluded. “Whatever. Do what you want. But don’t come to me when you want in on this later.”
“Yeah, I won’t.” Sleuth closed the door – closed, certainly not slammed – and stalked down the hall toward the other office, hands in his pockets. Well, who needed Dick anyway?
Scratch that, that sounded awful.
He knocked and waited for PI to bid him enter. He’d only had to undergo three or four lectures on manners before deciding that he could oblige the taller man and obey general laws of courtesy rather than undergo three or four more lectures. As it turned out, PI answered the door himself, and ogled down his long nose at Sleuth.
“Got a case,” Sleuth said, smiling perhaps a little too brightly.
“I – I’m terribly sorry b-but I’m not interested,” PI said as quickly as his nervous stutter would allow. “P-Please go away.” He went to close the door, but Sleuth got his foot in between the door and the jamb. “Sleuth, I-I’m so sorry b-but I s-simply can’t – I c-can’t assist with this case.”
“I h-have concerns of my own. N-Not to mention that this in-involes the Felt and . . . and I am n-not eager to entagle myself in their af-affairs.”
“You have your own case, too?” Sleuth fixated on the first part of the rejection: by this point the concern over getting wrapped up with Felt business seemed to be everyone’s hang-up.
“Of sorts.” He looked shifty. “N-Not officially.”
Sleuth’s eyes narrowed. “What are you up to?”
“I’m very busy and you’re being very rude,” PI snapped, apparently reaching the end of his ever-frayed rope. Sleuth blinked. “Please remove your foot.”
“Alright, PI. Jeeze, sorry.”
PI took a breath and his usual hunted look returned. “I h-hope this does not c-come between us. B-But I simply cannot involved m-myself in this case.” He nodded. “Go-Good day.” The door snapped shut.
Sleuth watched his slim form move around behind the frosted glass as PI went back to his desk, picked up a pencil. Alright, so maybe he legitimately did have a case. That did nothing for his mood, though, and faced with the prospect of investigating this case on his own, he found himself a little daunted. Probably best to have some coffee and a cigarette then, and think about how to proceed.
He was almost finished with his first cup of coffee when 13.33% of the Felt burst into his office. Lucky his cup was empty, because he jumped so much he probably would have sloshed most of a cup down the front of himself. “Jesus!”
“What is your hourly rate I will double it,” the first of the two said, darting to Sleuth’s desk and leaning his knuckles on it. Sleuth didn’t say anything, just found himself looking up to the guy’s hat. Alright, #6, couldn’t remember his name but he was the one with the creepy voodoo doll and . . . general air of creepiness. Sleuth had seen him once or twice before, but never been toe-to-toe with him. Based on the doll in his hand and the pins in his hat though, he was ready to roll, whatever that meant for him.
“I’m sorry?” Sleuth asked.
“I said, you imbecile –”
“That’s quite enough, Die.” Sleuth’s blood ran cold. He hadn’t seen her, he’d been too focused on #6, Die apparently. But that voice was unmistakable. “I apologize for his rudeness, Problem Sleuth, it’s been a long morning.”
She stepped around Die. #8. Snowman.
He was very possibly in very deep trouble.
“Don’t look so worried.” She lit her cigarette and brought the holder to her lips. “Against my better judgment, we’d like to hire you.” She pushed a chair under Die, which was just as well, because he collapsed into it almost immediately.
“Merci,” he mumbled. And then he pointed to Sleuth. “You’ve been looking into the crowbar murders, right?”
Sleuth nodded, slowly. Of course they knew, they’d probably known since he started poking around. “Officially, just one of the victims.”
“Yeah, well, we’d like to hire you for the rest, then.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed. “You need to prove Crowbar’s innocent.”
Sleuth blinked. “The Felt wants to hire me?”
“We’re not working on behalf of the Felt right now,” Snowman supplied. “Officially, anyway. So no, the Felt does not want to hire you. We want to hire you. A little extra incentive to look into murders beyond the scope of the one you’re investigating, shall we say?”
“Alright,” he said slowly. “So you want me to clear Crowbar. Ah . . .” he craned his neck around the pair of them. “Did he not come with?”
“No,” Die snapped, “because he got arrested this morning.”
“Oh.” Sleuth pulled the first question he could think of. “Did they say why?”
“I hardly think they needed to,” Snowman said coolly. “Murder, I assume.”
“Well yeah, but . . .” he looked from one to the other, and then stopped. “Never mind.”
“We’d like the case solved as quickly as possible,” she went on. “Money is of no concern to you.”
“Well, then –”
“I meant that literally. You will not be paid.” She smirked. “You’ll be allowed to live, though.” She ashed her cigarette in his ashtray. “Not something to be overlooked, hm?”
He laughed nervously. “Yeah, alright. I’ll look into the other murders. Uh, is there anything you can give me or tell me that might –”
“He wasn’t at the one last night,” Die said quickly, insistent. Sleuth recognized the tone, even if it did strike him as a little strange: worried partner. That, coupled with the fact that the guy was only half-dressed and he’d missed a button on his coat all pointed the same way, and Sleuth wasn’t dumb enough to miss it. “The cops won’t take me as an alibi but I’m telling you he didn’t kill those guys.”
Snowman looked surprised. “You didn’t read the article in the paper this morning?” Sleuth coughed. He hadn’t, actually. He’d been in such a rush to get into the office to call AP’s wife and prepare for his meeting with Senator Richards - who knew what that guy had wanted, just called and given Sleuth a date and a time - he’d just stuffed the paper into his pocket and run out the door. Embarrassed, he pulled the rolled-up paper from his trench coat pocket.
‘SENATOR MURDERED’ the headline crowed. ‘Driver and Two Bodyguards Also Killed In Vicious Felt Attack’, it read beneath that, and beneath that, ‘City Nearly Stunned’.
“Oh,” he said, distantly, because he couldn’t think of anything else.
“Oh indeed.” Snowman smiled like a serpent. “So, Problem Sleuth, what can we do to help expedite your little investigation?”
Fuck, he shouldn’t have taken this case.
Chapter 6: Shit Gets Real
Kanaya caught Terezi in the lunch line, both of them carrying trays laden with sandwiches and French fries and other institutional food the school figured counted as decent nutrition, until the kids got both their hands and their ketchup on it. “Excuse me, Terezi, I saw the paper,” Kanaya said quickly. Terezi’s head snapped around to face her, and Kanaya almost stepped back at the expression she found there. “Are you alright?”
“Of course I’m not alright,” Terezi snapped, and then her shoulders sagged. “Sorry Kanaya, I know you’re not asking to be mean. I’m just on edge.”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
They absconded to the bathroom; Terezi perched on the toilet tank with her tray in her lap, Kanaya on the lid, her tray arranged likewise. Kanaya threw the lock on the stall door and looked up at the other girl. “The cops came and arrested Crowbar this morning,” Terezi mumbled through a mouthful of brown bread and turkey. “You read that?”
“Not that he was arrested, just that he was the prime suspect.” Kanaya contemplated her baked beans. “Since the victim was a man of some import, I assumed an arrest would follow.”
Terezi put her skinny elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, and sighed. “Die and I wanted to hide him, but he wanted to go. Why he would do that I have no idea. He’s not even guilty!”
“Perhaps it will be more advantageous for him to allow himself to be arrested,” Kanaya said gently. “If the murders continue while he is securely behind bars, that will certainly cast doubt on the previous accusations, will it not?”
“Well duh, but what do you think the likelihood of that is?” Terezi shook her head. “I dunno, Kanaya, this is really weird . . . no one messes with the Felt. Or the Midnight Crew, really. They’re just . . . untouchable I guess. So what’s going on?”
“I could not even begin to speculate, but my father is handling the case. Sort of,” she added, to her hot dog. “I imagine he is going to focus on the element of the killer’s impersonation of Mr. Crowbar as he investigates the death of AP.”
Terezi nodded, glumly, and then looked up as the bathroom door slammed open. There was a pause, and then someone grunted, and two gray hands hooked over the top of the stall. A minute later, Aradia managed to get an elbow over the top of the stall door and haul herself up high enough to frown down at them. “A feelingsjam on the toilet, you two? Really?”
“If you’re here to gloat you can fuck off,” Terezi snapped.
“I’m not, actually.” Aradia dropped to the tiles and knocked. “Let me in, we need to talk about this.”
Since your average bathroom stall is not equipped to deal with a three-way feelingsjam, they elected to commandeer the handicapped stall instead. “Someone’s framing my daddy,” Aradia said without preamble, as she primly settled herself on the toilet tank. “Just like they framed Crowbar.”
“Huh?” Terezi looked up from her French fries. “Really?”
“Yes. Besides the Senator’s murder last night there were four guards killed around a warehouse down at the docks. With a cuestick.” Aradia looked miserable talking about it, eyes downcast and wringing her hands. “The cops pulled me out of math this morning to ask about it. And he wasn’t home last night so . . .”
“So how’d you know he didn’t do it?” Terezi asked, before Kanaya had the chance to phrase the question more diplomatically.
“Because! He was at the hideout with the Crew, and I know that because he told me so when I asked him why he wasn’t feeling well this morning.” She rolled her eyes. “But I can’t prove it, and it’s not like the cops are gonna take the Crew as rock-solid alibis.”
The three sat in silence for a minute, before Kanaya spoke. “Ladies, although I think it is premature to conclude that these impersonators are working together, I do believe it is something that bears heavy consideration.”
“Well yeah they’re related,” Terezi said, surprised. “They have to be – there cannot possibly be two people that stupid.”
“So why hobble the two biggest gangs in the city?” Aradia asked, her chin in her hand as she stared pensively at the graffiti on the stall wall. “Who’d have the motivation?”
“Who wouldn’t?” Terezi snorted. “It is weird though, none of the other gangs would have the brains for this, I don’t think. Maybe someone political?”
“Which is a great plan until someone figures them out,” Aradia pointed out. “I think a gang’s more likely – someone’s got it in their heads to break into the major league.”
“And it appears as though they have prepared for it fairly well. To have goaded the police into arresting Crowbar is no mean feat.” Kanaya sighed. “I worry about my father handling this case; I’m afraid it could get very rapidly out of hand.”
“You’re worried? What about my dad?”
“Or my adoptive gay uncle? He’s the one that’s actually in prison right now.”
“I think Daddy isn’t going to be far behind. And what, we’re supposed to just sit around and wait while your dad looks into this? Because the cops sure as hell aren’t gonna – not when they have an excuse to put Daddy and Crowbar away.”
“I –” Kanaya paused. “I have a great deal of faith . . .”
“He’s not even looking into Droog’s impersonator,” Terezi sighed. “And I know your dad and Vimes are besties but I really doubt Vimes is gonna be cooperative if it means declaring Crowbar and Diamonds Droog innocent.”
“And I am not sitting around not doing anything while someone sets Daddy up to get arrested,” Aradia snarled. “That is so not okay.”
“So what are you suggesting we do?” Kanaya asked, looking from one to the other.
“Well I don’t know your dad all that well,” Terezi said, and she managed a strained grin, “but I think if he were here his idea would be to pose as a team because shit is gonna get real.”
Half a city away, Problem Sleuth wasn’t even considering posing as a team, because his usual team seemed to have chickened out on him and he sure as hell wasn’t posing for anything with Die and Snowman. Besides, they had left almost an hour ago to go back to the mansion.
They could both vouch for Crowbar’s whereabouts last night, Die moreso than Snowman, and while Sleuth believed them he was pretty sure Vimes wasn’t going to buy it for a second. It was worth a try though.
“Problem Sleuth!” Vimes grabbed him by the hand and clapped him on the shoulder almost as soon as he stepped into the station; he’d been talking with one of the sergeants. “Good morning.”
“You seem cheerful,” Sleuth said weakly, smirking.
“Oh, just peachy keen.” Vimes barked out a laugh. “You have no idea how long I have been waiting for this day, and it just keeps getting better.” He turned back to the sergeant. “You find out more, you let me know, alright? We’ll roll – he’s gonna be harder than Crowbar, I guarantee it.” Vimes slung his arm around Sleuth’s shoulders. “Let’s have a word in my office, hm?”
“Perfect,” Sleuth replied, shooting the sergeant a puzzled look as they walked away. Vimes guided him up the stairs and into the Superintendent’s office, where Sleuth made himself comfortable on one of the rickety chairs.
Vimes leaned on his desk and smiled broadly. “What a day, huh?” He sliced the end off a cigar and lit it up, taking a few contented puffs as he sat down and propped his feet up on his desk. “Finally got that bastard in the Tanty. Shame about Richards though,” he added, his affect faltering for just a second. “Wish it’d been someone else – Perry was the one honest man in that damn senate.”
“So guess that does it for your case, huh? We’re gonna tack AP’s murder onto the list of charges. Might as well, while we have the opportunity and the evidence.”
Sleuth’s brow furrowed. “But . . . but listen, Vimes: Crowbar didn’t do it. There’s an impersonator, I got the evidence for it. I mean, he’s a cold bastard, yeah, but you can’t just let someone frame him.”
Vimes leveled him with an incredulous look. “What, so I’m supposed to drag an impersonator case into this too? Sleuth it’s not like this is an innocent man we’re putting away; it’s Crowbar. He killed a Senator last night. And, added bonus, it’ll knock the Felt out of commission for a while, unless Snowman steps up to the plate, because none of those other bastards are gonna be able to handle it.”
“He didn’t kill Richards,” Sleuth said.
Vimes looked up from the paper he’d been reading sharply. “What?”
“He didn’t do it. It’s the same impersonator that killed AP, probably – someone’s framing him. None of this shit is Crowbar.”
“You defending the bastard now?” Vimes’s eyes narrowed. “Sleuth you can’t be that hard-up for cases.”
“I, uh, called around, talked to Snowman and Die this morning –” he started to lie, before Vimes jumped in.
“You what?” Vimes opened and shut his mouth once or twice, cigar smoldering in his hand. “You talked to who?”
“Listen, Vimes, the guy wasn’t even there last night.” Sleuth rushed through what he knew, because he could practically see the Superintendent’s blood pressure rising. “He hasn’t been there for most of the murders, including AP’s. I looked through those case files you gave me the other day, and it’s not Crowbar at those crimes. Dressed the same and everything but Vimes they’re not even the same height. I’m not saying Crowbar’s innocent but you can’t just put him away for a political assassination he didn’t commit! There’s something going on here, something bigger than some idiot dumb enough to try to frame the Felt. It’s political or it’s a gang thing or some shit but listen –”
“No.” Vimes was shaking his head, his tone utterly disbelieving. “Jesus, Sleuth, really? You’ve taken a lot of bloody stupid cases but this takes the cake. This is Crowbar! We’ve been waiting to put him away for years, and just could never find an excuse good enough to risk the manpower!” He blew a smoke ring. “Who’s hired you?”
“Uh huh. Who else?”
Vimes gave Sleuth a long look, but Sleuth wasn’t budging, not on this. Of course Vimes would find out eventually, that was a given, but the longer he could delay the man finding out he was working on behalf of the Felt, the better. “Come on, Sleuth.”
“I can’t say, SV. Sorry, really.”
“God damnit, Sleuth.” He ashed the cigar on the floor and snarled. “This is a moment for my officers, alright? We get a big player in the gang scene collared and we’re this close to getting another one and you –”
Vimes took a drag off the cigar. “Why? You want to try to prove him innocent too?”
“It’s not Droog is it?”
Vimes rolled his eyes. “Of course it’s Droog, PS. What the hell else would put me in the mood I was in before you came in my damn office and started defending every cold-blooded killer to set foot in this city? You planning on trying to tell me that’s an imposter too because let me tell you: I’m not buying it.”
“He’s got alibis. They both do.”
“Yeah, Crowbar’s got his entire gang, that’s bulletproof, and Droog’s got his gang. And his daughter but again, not exactly iron-clad testimony.” Vimes was seething, and Sleuth leaned back in his chair a little. “And let me tell you something, Problem Sleuth: I been helping you out with cases for a while now. The least you could do to repay me would be to keep your goddamn nose out of this and let me throw these two assholes in the Tanty. All those case files, all that shit with the Crowbar murders that I let you look into because you’re a good guy, you work with us, hell we consult you sometimes, you are not going to turn around and use that against me – against my men – and let those two walk free like they’re innocent!”
Sleuth was on his feet before he knew it, his grip on the arm of the chair white-knuckled. “They’re not killing these people, Vimes, and regardless of who they are or what they are, there’s another murderer out there that you’re not looking for!”
“Well then bring me some goddamn evidence!” Vimes slammed his fist into his desk and got up, glaring at Sleuth. “But you sure as shit are not getting it from me, or my Watch, because I am not playing any part in this stupid wild goose chase you seem so intent on pursuing! And don’t even think of asking for police protection when you’re on this fucking case because as long as you’re working against me and my Watch and my men you are going to be treated as such.” He spat, disgusted, and put his hands on his hips. “I hope your new friends in the Felt and the Crew are as eager to look out for you as you are for them, because I am sure as hell not looking out for you anymore.”
Sleuth blinked. “Vimes, really, I’m serious, this could be a legitimate concern; don’t you want to nip this kind of activity in the bud –”
“Are you dense? I want the criminals behind bars. I don’t particularly care what order they get there in. And Crowbar and Droog have been on my list for a damn long time.”
“So . . . so you’re going to put two men,” Sleuth said slowly, catching himself and not slipping the word ‘innocent’ in there because it was patently false, “into prison for crimes they didn’t commit because you can’t get them on crimes they did? While meanwhile the actual perpetrator walks free? Is that what’s going on here?”
Vimes snarled, cigar clenched between his teeth, sawtooth jaw clenched. “Get out.”
“Just want to clear that up, is all, Vimes,” Sleuth grit out.
Sleuth almost made to go, but then paused, reached into his pocket. He pulled a cigarette out. “I didn’t think I stuttered, Sleuth.”
“You didn’t. Just lighting up a smoke for the road.” He was pushing now, but if this was going to happen he needed to be sure. He and Vimes had been . . . friends. Close friends, for a long time. But right now he wasn’t sure Vimes was thinking that way, and he wasn’t sure himself. So he figured he’d make sure.
Vimes glared. The question was if Sleuth had called his bluff, or if he’d rise to the bait. “CA!”
Well, that answered that.
CA tried not to toss him out to the curb too hard, and she apologized before she shoved him down the stairs. He didn’t fall at the bottom, but only just, staggering out into the sidewalk before he managed to catch his balance.
So that was that, he thought, re-adjusting his hat and sparing one hurt, frustrated look over his shoulder. More than ten years of whatever the hell they’d been working on.
Over fucking Crowbar.
He really wanted to prove the asshole innocent now, to make a point, and so he could punch him in the face after he got out of jail.
“Tough break, pal,” said someone with a voice that sounded like it’d been smoked out and then run over by a car, right before they put an arm around his shoulder. “Get in.”
Before he could think to resist a hand caught him in the middle of the back and shoved him into a van. He sprawled to the floor, surrounded by makeshift seats and weapon racks. When he looked up, the gaunt face of Diamonds Droog looked back at him.
“Don’t tell me,” Sleuth half-sighed. “You guys want to hire me.”
“He really is a great Sleuth, boss; he figured that right out!”
“Shut up, Deuce,” the first person – Slick, it had to be – snapped. The van lumbered off, Boxcars at the wheel, and Slick grabbed him by the back of the coat with that sci-fi nightmare hand of his and hauled him to his feet, before shoving him roughly into a seat.
“It’s a strange thing, Problem Sleuth,” Droog said, sitting back in his own seat and crossing his legs, “that you should come around asking me about imposters and then, not a week later, I seem to be dealing with a similar problem.”
Sleuth raised his hands, palms open. “Not my fault, gentlemen.”
“We’re given to understand you’re still pursuing this case, however.”
Slick leaned forward. “You think they’re related, Mr. Brains?”
“I – I don’t really have enough evidence yet, gentlemen, and I don’t have any on the . . . On your copycat, Mr. Droog.” He glanced out the window. “And I just lost my line to any more evidence, unfortunately.”
“What, police files?” Slick snorted. “Easy. What’s the broad payin’ you for AP?”
Sleuth blinked. “Uh, well, we haven’t really –”
“We can make you a better deal,” Droog cut in. “Should you find the imposter before anything . . . unfortunate happens.”
“Wait, I think I might be able to sleuth this problem,” he groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. “In exchange for me solving this case for you guys, you won’t kill me.” He looked up, to Droog’s calm, blank look, wreathed in cigarette smoke, and to Slick’s fairly incredulous monocular stare.
“Wow, boss, he got that one too!”
“Deuce maybe you just shouldn’ talk for a little bit, ‘til Sleuth gets out,” Boxcars rumbled, not unkindly.
“Glad to see you’ve played the game before,” was all Droog said, tapping the ash off the end of his cigarette.
“Just this morning,” Sleuth confirmed. “Had a couple clients in actually who were looking for me to work on the same case; it’s the only reason I’m taking this in the first place,” he lied, and he could tell Droog caught it because he rolled those slate eyes. “You all might know them: names of Die and Snowman.”
Sleuth had never seen Slick draw his deck before, but it was frankly astounding how fast he went from almost relaxed, elbows on his knees, to in Sleuth’s face, horse hitcher in hand. “Slick, wait just a moment.”
“The fucker’s working for the Felt. Any friend of those assholes is better off dead.”
“They’re clients,” Sleuth said smoothly, despite the fact he had to keep his fingers on his knees to still the shaking in them. “Not friends.”
“I don’t give a shit.”
“Slick, stop menacing him, would you? This could work to our advantage.”
Slick glared, but slouched back into his seat. “How the hell you figure on that?”
“If the imposter is indeed the same person, Problem Sleuth will be a valuable go-between for us and the Felt. A single point at which all the information can be gathered.” Suddenly, Sleuth realized, that sounded very dangerous. The osculation point between two lethal curves, which also happened to have all the information from both sides regarding an equally dangerous murderer who Sleuth himself was striving to prosecute. And the Superintendent of Police had just refused him any help or protection. “With his insight we may be able to figure out the identity of the killer before he uses my visage again.”
Slick looked doubtful. “I guess so.”
“Gentlemen, I’m, uh, flattered, really, but I don’t have any evidence. Like I said, the cops kicked me out, I’m not privy to their case files anymore, and I don’t have police protection so if I’m honest, I’m not real inclined to pursue this case much further.” He frowned.
Slick gave him a long look and then shrugged. “You’re worried about someone snuffing you, we can work something out. And like I said, case files are easy.”
“You got a man on the inside?” Sleuth asked, tired and not at all surprised.
“In a manner of speaking,” Slick snickered, while Boxcars chuckled low in the front seat. “Could have, later tonight.”
“The guise of offering this job to you as a choice was a cordiality, Problem Sleuth.” Droog sighed. “I do hate to take hostages of your . . . caliber.”
“Yeah,” Sleuth sighed, as the Midnight Cruiser lurched to a stop outside of his office building. “I figured.”
Slick looked from Sleuth, who just nodded and then cradled his head in his hands, to Droog, who likewise nodded. “Alright, you two numbnuts, get upstairs and sweep the office. Droog and Sleuth and I are gonna have a chat – you’d better be done in ten minutes.”
“You got it boss,” Boxcars said, tossing the keys over his shoulder to Slick, and getting out of the van to the screaming of shocks. He and Deuce trotted up the stairs into the building, and Droog lit another cigarette.
“Alright, Mr. Sleuth. Everything you know, from the top.”
Sleuth told them. There wasn’t a lot to tell, not really. He had no description of the murderer, no witnesses who would point to someone other than what appeared to be the two targets, and no motive. The victims were unrelated: some were political, like Richards, and some were, well, almost nobodies, like AP. In fact, they all might have been unrelated, were it not for the thread of an impersonator.
It was a mystery, and it was a stupidly complicated one, and Sleuth’s pride was still smarting over the incident at the police station. Droog seemed to follow, and when Sleuth finished he just nodded and ground the rest of his cigarette out and stood to get out of the van. Slick followed suit, but not before shooting a glare at Sleuth.
“This stupid puzzle shit?” he asked, as Sleuth opened the door and clambered out.
“Yeah, Slick, it is.”
Chapter 7: The Reality of Being in Way Over Your Head
Midnight City was still buzzing three days later: everyone’s attention was focused on the fact that Crowbar was actually in prison, that the cops had finally managed to put him away. The papers ran column after column about what this meant for the city, and for the police. And people read the columns and they talked and laughed and speculated about the future for the Felt and the gangs in the city. ‘You know someone else is just going to take control of that gang, though,’ they all said. ‘There’s 14 more, surely one of them will step up to the plate.’
Terezi wondered if the people saying those sorts of things really knew very much about how the Felt worked. Obviously not, because the assumption that anyone could or would want to fill Crowbar’s shoes was patently insane.
“Well what about Scratch?” Quarters asked, his chair creaking as he leaned back, hands folded on his stomach. “Where’s he – anyone even seen him?”
“Only people he talks to are Crowbar and Snowman, and I ain’t seen her either,” Matchsticks scoffed. And then he remembered Terezi was there and looked sheepish.
“She’s busy trying to get Crowbar back,” she snapped. “Which you’re welcome for.”
“Sorry Rez.” He cleared his throat. “But still, someone gotta steer the ship, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“So you do it,” Fin said then, idly twirling the remains of his lunch around his fork.
“Dude that’s bad manners,” Trace murmured.
“Shit, I ain’t stepping up,” Matchsticks laughed. “What, you think I wanna be next for the Tanty?”
“Just because Crowbar got framed out doesn’t mean you will,” Quarters said, although he sounded like he doubted it.
“The most outspoken supporter of a new regime is destined to become the leader,” Fin explained, in that weird clipped monotone that he always used. “Think about Luke Skywalker and how he eventually spearheaded the rebellion against the Empire, even though he wasn’t even a part of the Alliance before Obi-Wan Kenobi –”
Trace elbowed him. “They get the point.”
“Well I’m gonna shut up then, I guess.” Matchsticks smirked at Fin and Trace and then stood. “Maybe Itchy’ll do it.”
“God, no,” Quarters groaned.
The door to the dining room banged open, and everyone present jumped. “I hear my name, assholes?”
“Later, guys,” Matchsticks said, and he left, pushing Itchy out of the doorway as he did.
“Fuck you, watch where you’re walking!” Terezi heard him drop into the chair next to her and lean over her textbook, before starting up again, his speech so rapid-fire you almost couldn’t understand him. “What’s this, a study group? Ooh, Shakespeare! Classic literature – you assholes probably wouldn’t know Hamlet from a hamsteak.”
“Hamlet is a play named for an ill-fated incumbent prince of Denmark, and a hamsteak is either a food item or a fan of an onli –”
“Shut the fuck up, Fin.” Itchy shifted in his chair a little and looked to Quarters. “So you in charge now?”
Terezi held her breath. If Itchy caught word the Felt was without a leader, he’d jump to the forefront, which would spell disaster for everyone, probably within minutes. But the three assembled certainly weren’t about to step up either, which meant . . .
“Die’s in charge,” Trace said quickly. “Die.”
Yup, that was predictable.
“What, that neurotic asshole? Ha! Hope he’s getting some help from your mom or something, Rez, ‘cause he’s on a one-way train for a nervous breakdown if he isn’t. Hey, where are they, speaking of?”
Terezi debated telling him, just for a second. But then she realized that even if he knew where they were – and she didn’t even know that down to the last detail – he probably wouldn’t do anything, because he couldn’t immediately harass them. “They’re on stakeout tonight; they want to see if they can catch the guy in the act.”
Surprise was evident in Quarters’ voice. “They got a tip or something?”
“Uh,” Terezi said, and then she smiled and lied through her teeth. “Obviously.”
They didn’t have a tip, not even a little one. But they’d talked to Problem Sleuth earlier that day, and he’d decided that since they didn’t even have a foggy idea as to where the guy was going to strike next, they might as well just drive around, see if anything jumped out.
“This is stupid,” Snowman murmured, at the wheel of her car, a gigantic Cadillac monstrosity that had the turning radius of a small yacht. Die was looking to and fro out the windows, bird-like, for anything suspicious. “We should pull Trace and Fin in on this.”
“We don’t know who we’re following.” He pulled his coat tighter around his chest. “And I still think we oughta look down by the docks more.”
“We could have Fin stake us out near deaths, or Trace could follow the trails of people at the murder, if we find a fresh one,” she pointed out. “And I don’t think we’ll find anything at the docks; it’s too obvious.”
“It’s secluded. It’s quiet. No reason for anyone to be down there, really, so it’s inconspicuous.” He rolled his eyes. “It’s the perfect place for a murder.”
“Yes, Die, fine, but where are the victims going to come from, hm?” She thumped the steering wheel and then looked to him, expectant, eyes wide and lips pursed. “Can’t have a murder without victims!”
He wriggled around in his coat and slumped against the window. “Maybe we should provide some,” he drawled, sarcastic and totally disinterested, eyes following the raindrops as they trailed down the glass.
“Hm.” Snowman turned the car off the street they were on and headed for the docks. Die raised an eyebrow. “Shame I’m fresh out.” She hung a left, and floored it down the abandoned street. “Maybe we’ll think of something when we get there.”
“Or maybe they’ll have thought of something already,” he muttered.
She smirked. “I’d hate to rely on them.”
Die rather thought he probably should have suspected something them, but he was distracted, worried about Crowbar, and about what he was going to have to deal with when he returned to the mansion. So it caught him unawares when they pulled into the docks, and Snowman grabbed the high collar on the back of his coat. Buttons popped off.
“The fuck –” he had time to get out, before she tore the remains of his coat off him, snatched his hat and shoved him out the door of the car. She peeled out – not before he could rip her side mirror off – and then he was alone, by the docks, without his pins, in the rain.
“Fuck her,” he snarled, before looking around and trying to gain his bearings. The river was close enough that he could hear it, and the strip was too far to walk, through too many sketchy parts of town. Felt mansion was out of the question. He didn’t bother patting his pockets: he never carried cash, he’d never owned a bus pass, he was totally without resources.
The stupid bitch had dumped him for bait. It wasn’t often that Die empathized with Spades Slick, but he was having a moment.
He swore as he stalked through the warehouses, arms wrapped around his chest and shoulders hunched, and when he ran out of swearwords in French and English he started combining them into exciting new hybrids. “Fucking branleur, Crowbar, brûle en enfer, et Snowman, maer la miche, la piece of shit pute, et –”
Tires screeched behind him. He spun, but there was nothing there that he could see. Quite unrelated to the cold rain, he shivered. “You better be close by, you putain salope,” he muttered, spinning back around and picking up the pace. God he … he was furious, yes, and jumpy, and if he managed to get back to the mansion without getting killed he would almost certainly succumb to consumption or something a few days later.
Something lit him from behind. Headlights, he thought, spinning, his hand already going for the knife in his vest. Technically it was a ritual knife, but a sharp edge was a sharp edge, and while it might not do much good against a car . . . But no, no it was a couple flashlights. Even better.
“Ha! Look what we have here, boys.” The lights were shining straight in his eyes, so he had to squint to see very much, and the face of the figures were totally indiscernible. “The Felt’s little voodoo child.” A snicker. “All alone, out in the rain.”
The leader stepped forward and he was in a black suit, black shirt, white tie. A red diamond glinted on the lapel of his jacket.
But it wasn’t right; the voice was off. There was no Derse lilt to the accent: it was rougher, sharper around the edges. Die must have let his realization show somehow, and although he quickly composed himself into neutrality, the not-Droog noticed. “Yeah, that’s right, Harry Potter, I ain’t who I look like.” He shrugged his hands out of his pocket and spread his arms, his teeth cutting a sharp white line in the otherwise blinding light from the flashlights. One of the people following him handed him a cuestick. “But when they find your body and see the footage from the cameras, who’s gonna notice? Who’s gonna care?”
Die managed to duck the first swing and roll out of the way when the stick cracked into the pavement where he’d been. “Grab ‘im, boys.” He laughed. “Whassa matter, lost your pins, kiddo?”
Die didn’t bother to respond, because it would have been a stupid waste of time and energy anyway, and because green fire was already crackling around his fingers. It wouldn’t be a lot, not on short notice like this and without any reagents, but probably enough to take one of them out and hopefully spook the others.
It was just as he was getting ready to let loose the ball of flame that several things happened. First, a couple of not-Droog’s cronies started screaming, and their voices were drowned out by the sound of an engine. Secondly, a different, nastier-sounding engine flared to life much closer, and third, two sets of headlights utterly flooded the assembled group and members.
The first engine drew closer, fast, and Die recognized it: Snowman’s green Caddy. She plowed straight into the group, knocking a few of the assailants out of the way and sliding to a stop on the wet pavement in front of Die, who just started screaming at her in French. He was angry with her, but not angry enough to push his luck in English.
And then he was on his feet, scrambling into her car, because the other engine was getting louder and there was another pair of headlights cutting through the rain. Die grabbed his coat off the seat and set to peeling off his vest, not that it would help much – he was soaked to the skin. “Ce que l’enfer que vous –”
“Later, Die,” she spat. “And in English.”
“I could have been –”
“Later!” She jerked the car up a gear and peeled out onto the surface streets. “Someone’s chasing us.”
“Who?” He spun in his seat, trying to make out any features of the car behind them. There were no streetlights here, and the car was black, so beyond that it was impossible to tell. The car behind surged forward and slammed into the back bumper. “Oh, shit, shit Snowman I can get us outta here but I can’t take the car –”
“Calm down, this thing’s a tank.” They both lurched forward in their seats as the pursuing car revved forward again. Snowman floored it and pulled away, before whipping her car around a corner and onto a better-lit street. “Whose car is it?”
“Huh?” He looked. “I don’t … It’s black, I don’t know, it’s not a car I’ve seen before.”
“Maybe … It’s a Mercedes,” he yelped, when they darted under a streetlight. “Black Mercedes. New.” And then he was ducking down in his seat, because Snowman had opened the sunroof of her car. “The hell?”
“Here.” She shoved a shotgun into his hands and where she’d gotten that from he’d never know. “Engine block’s dead center if it’s in the front. You’re going to have to hit at least twice to get through the manifold.”
“Snowman I –”
“Listen, Die, I know you can shoot that thing, now hurry the hell up! And I want them alive,” she added. “Their leader’s not with them, that’s for sure; the more we can get out of them the better.”
He groaned. “Whatever you say.” It was still raining, and they were flying through the streets, so the cold and the wet cut right through him when he slid the gun out of the sunroof, cautious, in case they decided to return fire. “The things I fucking do for you, Crowbar,” he muttered, and he lined up the mouth of the gun with the center of their hood.
The first shot went left, because they swerved to avoid it. In the time it took Die to pump another shell into the chamber, their car had roared up right behind them, and one of the passengers was leaning out the window, uzi cocked up against his shoulder. Die wasted no time this shot, and just fired square at the middle of the car; if he didn’t hit the engine, he’d get the windshield, and right now that was probably fine. At least one person would live, anyway.
He did hit the hood, though, but the way the blast ricocheted off the hood made his stomach drop. “They’re armored,” he yelled to her, over the wind and the rain. And then he ducked down into the car, under the ledge of the seat, because the guy with the uzi opened up and started peppering the back of the Caddy with rounds. The back windshield spiderwebbed up and shattered, and sparks flew off the trunk; he aim wasn’t great, but with an uzi it didn’t really have to be.
“Let’s just get the fuck out of here – don’t touch that doll,” she snapped, and the car slid down another street. “I’m not losing another car.”
“Well I have to say I think it’s the best of our options,” he snapped, digging around in the glove box. “You have any more shells for this thing?”
“I thought you said they’re armored.” Die lurched and rammed into the door as she swerved around another car, going to opposite direction.
“The guy with the gun probably ain’t.” The box of shells slid from under the seat when she tapped the brakes, and he grabbed a handful, stuffing them into his coat pockets. “Merci.” He rolled down the window and cocked the gun, pumping the rounds into the chamber and eyeing up the guy with the automatic. He was reloading, which was good for them – meant they were out from under fire, anyway – but he was back in the car, which meant Die would have to wait for him to take another shot.
It was then – as he watched the silhouette of the gunman scrambling a new magazine into his weapon behind the armored windshield – that another set of headlights surged out of an alley and lurched onto the street behind them. Die’s eyes went wide. It was dark, yeah, and the car was black, but there weren’t a lot of cars in Midnight City with that outline. “Shit, Snowman, we got company.”
She glanced in her rearview, and frowned. “More of the same?”
“Nope. Slick’s car.”
“Ah, shit.” She hauled the wheel around and flew down a wider street, between rows of banks and commercial buildings, toward the strip. “Never knows when to just shut up and keep his head down, does he?”
“Apparently not.” The gunman noticed too, it seemed, and this time when he leaned out of the car the barrel of his gun wasn’t pointed their direction. Die hooked and elbow over the edge of the door for stability and leaned out – best to take the opportunity while it presented itself. His finger was just about to pull the trigger, when Slick’s car flew forward, up beside the Mercedes, and then jerked sharply into it. The front bumper of the black Impala smashed into the back bumper of the Mercedes and then it was spinning, the tires screaming and smoking but totally unable to get purchase on the wet pavement. Snowman glanced up into the rearview in time to see the Mercedes crash into the concrete steps of Prospitan National, and then slammed on the brakes, blocking the street with the body of her car and jumping out before Die had even got his door open.
Slick had jumped out of his own car, too, and was strolling to the wreckage with his horse hitcher casually over his shoulder. He didn’t look at all surprised to see the Feltmembers, but he didn’t look happy about it either. Snowman fell into step alongside him, lighting her cigarette in the dry halo of her hat. “Fancy seeing you here,” she said, but Die could see her surprise in the way she held herself. “My knight in shining armor, hm?”
“Don’t fucking flatter yourself; I’m just trying to get the drop on these assholes faster than your pack of green retards did.”
Die, a few steps behind, saw Slick’s passenger climb shakily out of the car, his long ten trenchcoat buttoned up tight against the rain. “Problem Sleuth?”
“Huh? Oh.” He smiled weakly. “Die. Uh, I see you took my advice to heart.”
“Hm.” Die watched Sleuth’s outstretched hand for a minute before shaking it, stiffly, his soft green glove squelching and dripping water all over Sleuth’s shoes, not that it mattered much. “This is your style of investigation?”
“Typically it involves a little less shooting.” He thought about that. “Well, no, maybe not typically. Preferably it involves less shooting.”
“And since when do you work with the Midnight Crew?” Die asked mildly, buttoning his coat up the rest of the way while they hung back and watched Snowman and Slick haul the survivors from the wreckage.
“Funny thing, they hired me for the same case.”
“Aha.” He straightened his cuffs as much as he could, the way they were sticking to his skin, soggy and heavy, and then shoved his hand into his pocket, stroking the familiar bulk of his doll. “As long as you don’t lose sight of why we hired you.”
“At this point,” Sleuth said, stepping closer to Slick and Snowman, who were leaning over one bloodied individual, “I’m just trying to pull the strings together. Hey,” he snapped, and the broken man looked up at him.
“Oh, thank GPI, Problem Sleuth,” he sighed, laughing almost hysterically, blood bubbling out of his mouth. “These – these maniacs –”
“Yeah, save it, kid, and maybe I’ll convince them to save you. Who you workin’ for?”
The guy blinked the rain out of his eyes – eye, really, since the other one was already mostly swollen shut – and trembled for a minute. “I dunno.”
“Listen, kid, I’m not inclined to let you die here, but you’re not givin’ me a whole lot to work with,” Sleuth sighed, hands in his pockets. “So let me ask you again –”
“He doesn’t know!” Another passenger from the Mercedes yelled, struggling against Slick’s hitcher, which was pressed firmly into his sternum. “None of us know who the fuckin’ guy is!”
Sleuth looked up sharply and snapped, “I wasn’t asking you.”
“He’s – he’s right,” the man on the pavement gasped, hissing in pain and arching his back as he tried to move a little. “We don’t know him. He just – ah – just give us cash and tells us where to – where to – argh – be when.”
“How’s he get there?”
“I dunno.” He was gasping, tearing at his shirt, which was stained crimson. “He just – no one sees him come in.”
“How’s he hire you then? Who’s your contact?”
“It’s him! It’s him – oh God – he just … he just finds you! Please!” He squinted hard against tears, or pain, or the rain. “I’m gonna die, please.”
“Hang on,” Slick said, leaning on his horse hitcher a little while the guy he had pinned whined. “I know you. Rodney, yeah? From the Legbreakers?” He leaned a little more. “Last I saw you you were tryin’ to fuckin’ knock over my van.”
“There’s no contact! He showed up at our hideout,” Rodney – apparently – wailed. “Just walked in, nobody let him in. Told us he wouldn’t pay us the courtesy of what he’s doin’ to Droog and Crowbar ‘cause we weren’t as useful!”
“How flattering,” Die murmured.
“He said we could live if we helped him!” Rodney went on, looking frantically between the other three gangsters and the detective. “Just had to help him set up a couple murders! Listen, I didn’t like knocking off Richards but it’s not like we had a whole lot of options!” He looked to Sleuth then, pleading, pointing to the other man on the ground. Die listened to the rattling, wheezing breaths, watched the way the blood was coming out of his mouth, and frowned. “Come on man, that’s my brother! You gotta do something for him!”
A shot cracked the rain. Snowman looked up to Rodney, coolly, and holstered her pistol while the rest of the brother’s blood bubbled from the hole in his forehead. “He wasn’t going to make it.”
“Hah, yeah, and you might not either, ‘f you keeping fuckin’ hedging.”
“Woah, hang on,” Sleuth said, throwing his hands up. Slick smirked at him over his shoulder. “Let’s all just calm down a minute.”
“I’m calm. You wanted to work with the Crew; this is how we play.”
Rodney was crying, shaking his head. “That’s everything I know, I swear! I don’t know what he looks like, I don’t know who he’s working for –”
Die and Sleuth exchanged a look. “Say that again?” Sleuth asked.
“I don’t know who his boss is, please, you gotta believe me, I ain’t lying!” A sob tore through his chest. “They hide him, though – it’s a trick, or magic, or something, I don’t know. You never see his face unless … well, I’ve never seen his face! I just can’t see him! Please.”
Snowman walked over and crouched next to him, the hot ashes from her cigarette dropping onto his face. She ran a hand down his cheek, and Slick sighed, exasperated. “Listen, bitch, either him or do something, ‘cause it’s fucking pouring and –”
“Shut up, Slick..” She smirked down at the gangster and pulled the cigarette from her lips, holding it delicately between two fingers, under her hat and out of the rain. “I believe you, Rodney. I think you’re telling the truth.”
“Uh oh,” Die muttered.
“Huh?” Sleuth looked from her to Die. “Why uh oh?”
“You say you can’t see him,” she went on. “I appreciate the honesty. You’ve been helpful, Rodney. But –” she grinned “– you did wreck up my car.” There wasn’t a pause between that and Rodney’s screaming when the hot ember of her cigarette plunged into his left eye. Slick cried out and jumped back, hands in the air.
“The fuck is this, a trend with you?” he snapped.
“No,” she said, patiently, while Rodney writhed in front of her. “I’d just hate for him to be lying any time in the future. He can’t see the guy, well, what a shame that would be if the situation changed, hm?” The sharpened end of her cigarette holder jabbed into his other eye then, and he screamed more, hands scrabbling at his face, while Snowman stood and shook the blood and vitreous fluid off her cigarette holder. Slick had ducked back to the other two, almost standing behind Sleuth.
“Jesus, Snowman,” Slick growled.
“He did ruin my car,” she shrugged, stepping back to the other three. “And try to kill Die. I hardly think my actions were unjust.”
“I think we need to all have a talk,” Sleuth said, still a little stunned. “Call an ambulance and have a talk.”
“About not killing people?” Die guessed. Sleuth nodded fervently.
“You’re no fuckin’ fun,” Slick grumbled.
Chapter 8: PS: Address the Pack of Mobsters You Generously Call Your Team
Snowman’s car was trashed – driveable, yeah, but leaking like a sieve and looking like hell. “What do you think, do we dump it?” she asked Die, outside the shitty diner the four had rolled in to. She and #6 stood in the rain, his shoulders hunched inside his soaked coat, and took in the blown-out back window, the bullet holes riddling the trunk and the roof, and the sopping upholstery.
“Quarters might be able to –” he started, and then he shrugged. “Might.”
“What do you think, Slick?”
The short man looked at her sidelong, sucking on a dogend, his other hand in his pocket. “I don’t give a shit.”
Snowman frowned a little. “I’ll have to think about it. Get everything you need out of the car, anyway, Die.” She turned on one stiletto heel, stepped delicately over a puddle and sashayed into the diner. Problem Sleuth was already inside – he ducked in first to pick up a phone and call an anonymous tip into the hospital – and he managed to get a booth, complete with coffee, in one shady corner, out of the way and line of sight.
“This place is shit,” Slick complained, dropping into the seat next to Sleuth with a squelch. “This the kind of joint you flatfoots fuckin’ like?”
“It’s the kind we can afford,” Sleuth returned with a smirk.
Snowman smiled a little and ashed her cigarette into Slick’s coffee. “And to what do we owe the pleasure of dining in this fine establishment? What’s on your mind, Problem Sleuth?”
Sleuth paused to gather his thoughts, and looked around to the assembled company. The three gangsters who had for some reason listened to him and decided to do some investigating themselves. Slick had even done so with a minimum of complaint – grudgingly agreeing to driving with Sleuth while Hearts and Clubs covered another part of the city.
In a way, they were his team for this case, which was pretty terrifying.
“Hey asshole,” Slick snarled, grabbing Die’s coffee cup and swapping with him. “Wake the fuck up.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. Okay, uh.”
“Killing people,” Die prompted, shivering in hit wet clothes and the groaning air conditioning.
“Right, um. Don’t.” He drew himself up a little, and tried to look commandeering. It fell flat under the three stares that they fixed him with. “Not on this case, anyway. We’re trying to catch a murderer, right? So the goal there is to catch a murderer without actually, uh, muddying the waters up. See?” He spread his hands. “You three have an interest in proving your people innocent, and it’s not gonna help your cases at all if your method of finding the murderer is just whacking all the other options.”
Slick looked thoughtful. “Might be the fastest way, though. I mean, fuck, we kill anyone suspicious, eventually the murders’ll stop.”
Snowman patted his hand. “Oh, Slick.”
“Yeah, no, bad idea,” Sleuth cut in firmly. “I don’t know what this guy’s motivations are yet, but I’d guess he wouldn’t object to any of you going on a killing spree. That’s how he’s working: draw the cops’ attention until they really just can’t ignore it and have to do something about it.” He took a sip of his coffee. “Why do his work for him?”
“An excellent point,” Snowman agreed. “And once the murderer is found, you’ll be the only one who’s actually guilty.” She looked pointedly at Slick.
“Okay, fine, we find out who the murderer is without killing anyone, good, great,” Die said quickly. “But Crowbar’s away on, uh … well he’s not innocent of all the charges.”
Sleuth frowned. “I’m just working a case here, I’m not a lawy –” The hammer of a gun – revolver, it sounded like – clicked back, out of sight, and Sleuth paused. Then he smiled brightly. “Cross that bridge when we come to it, hm?”
Snowman patted Die on the shoulder. “I’m sure after the actual perpetrator is identified there’ll be some level of excitement – we may be able to slip through the cracks around then.”
“Or you could just leave him in prison,” Slick suggested. A shot went off, deafeningly loud, and Slick jumped up on the vinyl seat with a yelp. The fry cook, behind the counter, looked up sharply.
“Hey, knock it off.” He shook his head and went back to the coffee machine. “Jesus Christ, this town.”
“The fuck was that for?”
Die snarled, green fire lit up in his eyes. “We are not leaving him in prison.”
Snowman sighed, and plucked her revolver from Die’s hands, popping the chamber open and letting the bullets fall out on the table. “Relax, Die, of course we won’t leave him.” She sipped at her coffee delicately. “And do try not to attract attention.” She looked to Slick and Sleuth. “So am I to assume that the Midnight Crew is also involved with this case now?” Her eyes narrowed as she smirked. “Or is this perhaps some sort of tryst between the two of you?”
“The fuck is a tryst?” Slick asked, while Sleuth looked mildly horrified at the suggestion.
“Uh, I mean, no, no of course not,” Sleuth stammered. He cleared his throat. “Uh. No this is um, strictly professional.”
Slick was still looking around the table, bewildered. “The hell is a tryst?”
“Un rendez-vous d’amour,” Die sighed when Slick still looked blank. “Romantic meeting.”
Slick grimaced, sticking his tongue out as though the very idea was so awful that it tasted foul. “No, fuck, that would imply this asshole isn’t completely fucking terrible at everything.”
“Says the man who hired him to clear his best friend’s name,” Snowman snickered.
“Fuck off,” Slick snapped, leaning forward. There was a whisper of playing cards, under the table, and Sleuth decided to jump in before someone maimed someone else and, more importantly, he got kicked out of his favorite diner.
“Yes, I was hired by the Midnight Crew as well,” he said hurriedly, leaning forward between the two in a maneuver that was all at once reckless and astoundingly brave. “But it’s not a conflict of interests, I assure you all.”
“Not quite as funny when it’s your Crew they’re going after, hm?” Die asked.
“It was the worst Droog impersonation I’ve ever seen,” Snowman sighed. “He wasn’t even smoking."
Slick’s expression went curious then, and Sleuth looked to her, wide-eyed. “You saw him?”
Die laughed hollowly. “A lot more than saw him.” His voice cracked a little, and his tone went frantic at the edges. “Almost took a cue stick to the face courtesy of him.”
“Really?” Sleuth blinked. “When? Where? What did he –”
“You sure it wasn’t fucking Rodney or his asshole brother?
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He frowned at Snowman. “Someone dumped me off –”
“Die took it upon himself to survey the docks,” she said smoothly, returning Die’s glare with a sweet smile. “I watched from a distance, of course.”
Slick snickered. “So you used him as bait. No honor among thieves, I’m fucking telling you –”
“Says Spades Slick, paradigm of virtue.” She blew a stream of smoke into his eye and he flinched away. “Anyway, it worked: it drew them out, didn’t it?”
“Hell of a coincidence, them being there for that,” Sleuth murmured, thoughtfully. “I wonder … What did he look like?”
Die and Snowman shrugged in unison. “Didn’t see his face,” the green-clad man sighed. “They had lights shining at me, I couldn’t really see anything. He is pretty poor as a Droog impersonator up-close though.”
“He’s not tall enough, maybe a little heavier,” Snowman corroborated. “I didn’t see him very well either, I’ll admit; he dodged my car and then I lost track of him.”
“He dodged your car?” Sleuth sighed and put his head in his hands. “This is what I’m talking about, attracting attention.”
“Point taken, Problem Sleuth. Besides, I think there might have only been one or two casualties; he wasn’t one of them, regrettably. I really didn’t spend much time there – they may even have survived.”
“I hope so. You didn’t recognize anybody?” Sleuth rubbed his forehead and fished a cigarette out of his breast pocket. She shook her head. “Alright, fine. So if it was the two leaders of the Legbreakers back there, I think we’re gonna work off the assumption that the entirety of that gang was involved.”
“Not anymore,” Slick muttered. “They’re gonna find someone else, some other half-wit pack of jackasses to back ‘em up.”
“Shame the Midnight Crew’s otherwise occupied.”
“He’s right though,” Sleuth said, while Slick just snarled at Snowman across the table. “It’s just one man; he’s not taking chances with bigger targets, pulling in other gangs. Which means maybe they stand something to gain …”
Die grabbed the two sides of his mostly-buttonless coat and tugged them back around himself, against the cold. “Not dying, probably.”
“Or getting a ride to the top.” Snowman dropped her cigarette in the remains of Slick’s drink. “Although I doubt their new friends will make good on their promises.” She pulled a lighter from her overcoat pocket, and held it to the end of her fresh cigarette. She exhaled then, and looked out the window at her ruined car.
The car exploded.
Die screamed and flattened himself on the table, pulling his hat down over his eyes. “Fuck!” Slick yelled, scrambling backwards. Sleuth jumped away from the window and ended up in Slick’s lap, before being promptly shoved roughly to the floor under the table.
“Que l’enfer –” Die whimpered, and then he took a breath. “What the hell?”
She shrugged. “I thought about it.”
He just gaped at her while Sleuth crawled back into the booth. The fry cook was on his way over, and he didn’t look particularly happy. He had a spatula. “How are we getting home?” She just looked expectantly to Slick.
“No fucking wa – What?” he snapped, when the cook leaned onto the table.
The cook raised his eyebrows. “That car belong to one of the four of you?”
As one, they pointed to Problem Sleuth.
“Oh, thanks, very much guys.”
It was late when Kanaya was awakened by the front door rattling in its frame. She’d fallen asleep on the couch, waiting up for her father, and the rattling of the door and the locks startled her back to wakefulness.
She didn’t get up, not right away. She wasn’t an idiot, after all, and you didn’t have to be raised by the city’s premier sleuth for long before you learned that not everyone at the door was there for a polite visit. Certainly not at this hour of the night. Instead, she slid her hand under the couch cushions and slipped out a tube of lipstick; a gift from her aunt.
She stood on tiptoe to peer though the peephole, and stepped back when she saw who it was, pocketing the lipstick and throwing back the locks and the chains until she could wriggle the door open and squeak it back across the undulating linoleum. “Hello, Mr. Boxcars.”
He smiled thinly and tipped his hat to her. “Evenin’, Miss Kanaya. Your dad in or is he still runnin’ around with Slick?”
“He has not returned yet.” She didn’t scowl, although she wanted to. Her father could be reckless, certainly, and she had a very definite opinion on just how reckless he was being, driving around the city with Spades Slick after dark, in search of a mystery killer.
“Oh!” Clubs Deuce stepped out from behind Boxcars, a cardboard box in his hands. “Because we got these files for him; he asked us to stop by the police station and pick them up.”
“Would you keep it down?” Boxcars hissed, before looking back to Kanaya and shrugging apologetically. “Sorry, kid. Mind if we leave them here for him to check out when he gets back? Didn’t feel right breaking into his office, now he’s workin’ for us.”
“Well, I mean we probably could have nailed it shut behind us when we left!”
“Clubs, no.” He raised his eyebrows. “Issat a problem?”
Kanaya shook her head. “No, no, not at all, gentlemen. I will be sure to just leave them for him somewhere discreet.”
Clubs smiled at her while he handed the box off. “I don’t know what discreet means, but that sounds perfect, Kanaya. How’s your bridge coming?”
“Very well, thank you Mr. Deuce. Nepeta and I do not have a great deal of architectural ability but we are persevering and I believe we will at least be able to satisfy the minimum requirements of the project, if not win the wager for extra credit.”
“That sounds dangerous,” Clubs gasped, and Kanaya cocked her head. Boxcars sighed.
“Persevering means sticking with it, Clubs.”
“Anyway, Miss Kanaya, if you could make sure your dad gets a look at those files soon as he gets home, we’d be obliged.” He peered around the door a little, into the dark of the small apartment. “You gonna be alright here by yourself?”
“I believe so; my father has installed a great deal of locks.”
He looked doubtful. “You got Tavros’s number, kid?”
“I believe I have the class directory, yes.”
“Alright, well, you get in trouble, don’t worry ‘bout givin’ us a call, alright? There’s some bad stuff goin’ on out there.”
She blinked. “Thank you very much, Mr. Boxcars.”
“Or you could call Sollux!”
“Don’t call Sollux, Miss Kanaya.”
“Yes, sir, of course.” Boxcars tipped his hat to her again, and shoved Clubs back the other way down the hall. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
“Thank you again, Kanaya. You take care, alright? Have a good night.”
She nodded, and waited until they were gone to close the door and throw each of the locks. Hopefully her father would be in a clear state of mind when he returned; she would hate to have to change her key ring out again. Then she looked down to the box in her hands.
It was brown cardboard with ‘White Hoofbeast’ stamped on the side. She dropped it on the table and peeled back the top of the box, and pulled the first file out at random. It was a crowbar murder, and she dropped the file straight away, holding her hands up. Then she reached into the pocket of her bathrobe and pulled out a pair of gloves, and picked the file back up, flicking through, speed reading.
She was on her four file when she laid the papers aside and gathered the phone parts. It was late, but she felt fairly certain her call wouldn’t go unappreciated.
“Yeah whaddaya want?” Kanaya paused, and took a breath. “Yeah, hello, yeah? Who’s there? Whaddaya callin’ for?”
“I apologize for the hour, but I believe I may have dialed the incorrect number. May I ask to whom I’m spe –”
“Name’s Itchy. You a kid? You sound like a kid. Who you want, Vriska? Terezi? Gotta be one a’ them if you’re a kid. You are a kid, right, I’m sure of it, not a doubt in my mind. Ha! Like a steel trap. So which one you callin’ for? They’re both up, we’re watchin’ a movie, great movie, it’s got a guy and a pirate or somethin’, I dunno really what’s goin’ on but there’s some zombies or somethin’ and –”
“I would very much like to speak with Terezi if she is available, Mr. Itchy.”
“Yeah, okay! Rez! Rez there’s someone on the phone for you! Hurry up Rez, I want to see what’s going on with the zombies, come on, Rez get in he – oof, you didn’t have to hit me.”
“Hello?” Terezi answered, tone annoyed. “Hang on, sorry – I thought you wanted to watch the movie, Itchy, get out of here – yeah, hey?”
“Terezi, it’s Kanaya.”
“Hey Kanaya!” She paused. “Kinda late for you to be calling – everything okay?”
“Yes, yes, everything is completely fine. Better than fine, actually.” She flipped through one of the files. “My father has obtained some information regarding the murders. I believe there is significant information present that would allow us to present our case to the police and perhaps motivate them to clear Mr. Crowbar’s name of these particular crimes.” She flicked through the rest of the files in the box. “And perhaps Mr. Droog, as well.”
“Really? Ha! That’s great news, Kanaya. Justice cannot proceed without well-founded evidence, and if your dad has evidence that proves precisely the opposite, the judge’ll be sure to –”
“Terezi, if you would please calm down for a moment, I would like to propose something.” She twisted the phone cord around her finger and thought for a moment. “It is probable that it will be some time before my father critically evaluates the evidence within these files; he is somewhat distracted by patrolling the city with that Mr. Slick. So until he is better able to focus I think it might be a good idea to take a look at the case files ourselves, and perhaps muster together some information.”
“What do you mean, look through stolen police case files? Wicked! But isn’t your dad gonna figure out we’re doing that? I mean he’s probably gonna want to take the files to his office so he can do the whole detective thing over them –”
“With the three of us, I do not anticipate it will take very long to gather the appropriate notes and record them discreetly.”
“Three of – oh, Aradia.” She paused. “So her dad’s in prison now?”
“Not … to my knowledge.”
“So how’re you planning on getting her out of the house without Diamonds Cuestick realizing what’s going on?”
Kanaya frowned. “I will think of something.”
“Alright, I don’t envy you that. So, what, should I catch the bus down there or … ?”
“Perhaps not.” She glanced to the front door and frowned. “I expect my father will be arriving home at some point in the evening, and not knowing the time of his arrival, I am hesitant to have others here.”
“Oh, yeah. Right, yeah my mom is probably going to be back eventually.”
“Ah, but perhaps if you came over before school tomorrow?” Kanaya snapped her fingers. “Yes! Say you have homework, or something to do, or a project – I can conceal the files for that long, at least, and we can go through them before school while my father is still asleep!”
She heard Terezi breathe in. “That’s … impressively devious, Maryam.”
“Are you not in support of the plan? I have to admit I am somewhat puzzled as to how we could carry this out without being at least slightly deceptive.”
“No, anything that clears Crowbar is fine by me, but I just never really realized you had that criminal mind.” Kanaya blushed and scowled. “Alright, Maryam, see you in the morning; hopefully I’ll survive the car ride with whatever asshole I get to drive me.” The line went dead.
Kanaya sat at the table and thought for a while before picking the phone up again, flipping through the class directory for the number. It would be difficult to explain a phone call if Droog answered, and the chances of him handing the phone off to his daughter at this hour were slim to none, unless the reason was compelling. She was still wracking her brains while the phone rang, and found herself half-hoping that no one would pick up. Certainly it would be slower going in the morning without her, but perhaps that would be easier than –
“Hello?” it was Aradia, dazed and groggy. Kanaya sighed, relieved. “Who is this?”
“Good evening, Aradia, this is Kanaya.”
“Kanaya?” She perked up a little, and her tone shifted to nervous. “Is everything okay? It’s late to be calling.”
“Yes, as far as I know, everything is perfectly fine; my father is still out trailing a murderer with Spades Slick, so I am sure there is nothing to be worried about. Is your father in?”
“Your dad and Slick. Good Lord.” She groaned. “No, no Daddy’s not here yet; Slick wanted him down at Casino most of the night so that he’d have an alibi in case something happened. There’s a nanny here, but she’s asleep.”
“She must be a very deep sleeper to have not heard the telephone.”
“Yes, well, I might have given her a dose or so of Dex to get her off my case. Anyway, what’s up? Why the late-night call?”
“I have come into the possession of some … evidence. Courtesy of your father’s friends.”
Aradia dropped her voice. “So Boxcars and Clubs managed to pull off the police station break-in? And you have the files at your place?”
“Yes. Now, I can conceal them from my father for tonight, probably, at the most. Not that I don’t trust Father, but he tends to be more … action-oriented with his investigations, so I am fairly certain it might be some matter of time before he takes a very critical look at these files. Therefore, I thought perhaps it would be prudent if we – meaning you, Terezi and myself – were to take a look at the files and make any relevant notes.”
Aradia inhaled sharply. “So you’re gonna hide those files from your dad until we can get a look at them? Kanaya that’s –”
“Practical. I believe there may be sufficient evidence of an imposter present for us to assemble a coherent argument against your father and Mr. Crowbar being involved in these murders at all, and thus clear their names before this case has the opportunity to proceed much further.” She took a breath, before Aradia had a chance to jump in. “Terezi is arriving at my apartment tomorrow morning some time before school under the guise of working on a project. Do you think it possible that you could convince your father of similar intentions?”
Aradia made a little noise as she thought. “Daddy is always so difficult to lie to … But I guess I can come up with something. The project thing might work, it’s the morning thing that’ll be difficult. I’ll think of something; I’ll be there.”
“Excellent. Have a good night, Aradia; I look forward to seeing you in the morning.”
After she hung up, she re-organized the files in the box, roughly in chronological order, and concealed the thing under her bed. Hopefully her father would return soon, and sleep through his daughter’s departure in the morning; she would much rather not explain what her friends were over for at such an early hour. Not that her father would be particularly difficult to fool right now: the case had him distracted, and he would probably accept nearly any explanation, so long as it sounded halfway plausible.
Once satisfied that the box was adequately hidden, Kanaya padded back out of the front room that pulled triple duty as a kitchen, breakfast room, and living room, and settled down on the couch to wait.
Chapter 9: All the Senators' Deaths
Terezi woke the next morning earlier than usual and crept around the apartment, gathering her things for school. Her mother was home, judging by the telltale signs: cigarette holder cleaned and drying by the sink, overcoat hanging on the back of the door. The trick would be getting out of the apartment without waking her mother – nearly impossible, but doable, Vriska managed it often enough – and finding one of the more oblivious Felts with driving privileges, who wouldn’t rat her out.
A delicate operation, to be sure.
Phase one went well enough, Terezi thought with a satisfied nod, after she’d quietly pulled the door to their apartment closed behind her. She paused on the threshold for a minute and unwrapped a pop-tart; undercover sleuthing was hungry work. She strode off through the halls then as she ate, ears tuned for the first hapless gangster she might encounter.
“Terezi!” a breathless voice called out, somewhere in the vicinity of the communal kitchen. “Good morning!”
She swallowed her mouthful of cherry-filled breakfast pastry. “Hey Sawbuck.”
“You’re up early – is something the matter?”
She shook her head. “No, I just didn’t get all my homework done last night. I need a ride to my friend’s place to finish it up.” She threw the last out there hopefully; Sawbuck drove slowly, but he could drive. He sighed, though, and Terezi frowned. “Busy?”
“No, I will have to find the keys, can’t remember where I left them last, but I was actually rather hoping you could speak to Die this morning; no one else has been able to calm him down.”
Uh oh, a wrench in the plans. “What happened?”
“Well, he arrived home late last night, with your mother. And since in Crowbar’s absence he is the de facto leader of the Felt, I’m afraid he was immediately fallen upon by Itchy, Eggs, Biscuits, Matchsticks, Fin and Trace, all of whom had apparently urgent needs.”
“Oh, no,” she groaned. “Where is he?”
Sawbuck led the way to Die’s actual rooms – he rarely stayed there anymore, but apparently in his stress he’d retreated to the familiarity of where he’d spent the majority of the last two centuries. He raised his fist to knock, but Terezi brushed past him and slipped through the door.
The first smell that hit her was incense. The second was blood, chicken, and maybe a little cow as well. There were things that reminded her of Die, too: chalk, sage, tabasco and old books. And curiously, over the top of all those smells, was the pervasive odor of wet wool. She cocked her head. “Die?” She wandered through the minefield of his rooms, around the circles etched in the floor, past the forest of various candles, under the architecturally impossible bookshelf and its host of gris-gris hanging from the shelves. “Uncle Die, are you in here?”
The wet wool smell was getting stronger. She followed it, because it was unusual, and wound up in front of a coat stand. It was his coat, then, damp from the rain, possibly, and empty. “Die?” she tried, louder, and this time there was a yelp from one direction. She turned and grinned broadly. “There you are.”
He was on a low sofa, wrapped in an old, musty-smelling blanket. She sniffed out and stepped over the ring of salt around the couch – he must’ve been sleeping – and dropped next to him and slouched into his side. “Awful lonely at the top, isn’t it?”
He started to speak, and he stammered a little before he got her name out. It was bad, worse than she’d expected. He’d stop speaking before too long, if things didn’t change. “I’m not in the m-mood,” he managed with some effort.
She nudged him a little, her thumbs hooked into the straps of her backpack. “I need your help.” His breath caught. “But not anything really hard! Might actually be good for you to get out of this place for a while. I’m going around the madre unit, you see.”
“Oh?” he shifted a little to look at her. “T-Terezi, are you in trouble?”
“I’m not! I just need to you drive me to Problem Sleuth’s apartment.” She beamed. “Come on, Die, get you out of the mansion, away from the idiot brigade for a while.”
“Problem Sl – Terezi what are you up to?” He sounded more stern. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Crowbar, does it?”
She sighed, exasperated. “Die, you are my creepy voodoo uncle, you’re not supposed to ask questions like this. You’re supposed to say ‘oh, sure, great Terezi, let me get the keys to the van!’” She poked him. “Now try it again from the top.”
He was quiet for a minute, and then he grabbed her. She squealed, and tried to wriggle away, laughing. “Maybe,” he said, prodding her in the side, eliciting another string of giggles, “I am suspicious of my niece going by Problem Sleuth’s apartment, hm? All things considered.”
“No!” she crowed. “It’s for school! It’s a project for school, Die, I promise! Please!” he released her, and she wheezed on the couch next to him for a minute. “I wasn’t at the library the other night, I was out with Dave, but Mom can’t know that, and she can’t know I’m behind on my homework because she’d kill me.”
“Hm. And you’d like me to be an accessory to your misbehavior?”
He sighed, and she felt him lean back on the couch. “I can’t. Someone has to manage these assholes. E-even if it has to b-be me.”
She paused. “You sure it wouldn’t do you good to get out of the mansion for a little while?” she offered, in one last gentle push.
“It would,” he sighed. “But I c-can’t. Ask Fin and Trace, they’re looking for things to do. I should try to sleep, b-before everyone else wakes up.”
Terezi nodded and stood, hugging him around the shoulders before she left. “We’ll get Crowbar back soon.”
She stalked Trace and Fin out with double the determination then, not that it was hard. They were in their room, wrapped around each other and dead asleep when she found them. She rolled her eyes and tapped her foot as they sprung apart and frantically explained that they had been cold in their rooms, and it’s important for friends to help out in situations like that. Because they were just friends. Yes.
“Whatever guys, I don’t really care how you explain your overpowering need to spoon one another, I just need a ride.”
Thirty minutes later, she was in Kanaya’s kitchen. Aradia had been there for a while yet, and she and Kanaya had sorted through a lot of the case files already. Terezi plopped down between them and grabbed a stack of photos, sniffing them and making notes.
“None of this adds up to produce a satisfyingly firm conclusion to these cases,” Kanaya groaned, quietly, because Sleuth was asleep in the room down the hall. She scratched out a line in her notebook and circled something else and scowled at the page. “The only logical explanation is that there is an imposter utilizing a disguise!”
“The murderer in this photograph isn’t even the same height as Daddy, and that suit is atrociously fitted,” Aradia added.
Terezi took a long whiff of one of the pictures and shook her head. “This guy’s Dersite, but he’s dressed as Crowbar.”
“But even though our hypothesis explains the murders, there is nothing in these case files to indicate any reason for us to even form this hypothesis! Besides our own intuition, obviously, and common sense.”
“A court can’t convict on common sense and intuition. Pictures though, they can convict on, even if the pictures are lies.” Terezi flipped through the photos, her bangs blowing back out of her face in the breeze. Outside the door, there was a thump as the paper was deposited on the doorstep. Kanaya got up while the other two continued to pore over the materials gathered.
“Oh,” she said, when the paper unfolded. The other two looked up.
“Oh what?” Aradia stood, and came around to Kanaya’s side. Her eyes flicked over the headline and she gasped, hand covering her mouth. “Oh, no.” She spun and the other two barely had time to open their mouths before the front door shut behind her and she ran off down the hallway.
“Come on, Terezi.” Kanaya threw the case files back into the box and put the lid on, leaving it looking for all the world as though it had not been disturbed. “I believe Aradia is attempting to reach her father before he is arrested.”
They were too late, ultimately. By the time Aradia stormed in the front door of her own home it was a crime scene, and the place was swarming with cops. Droog was long gone, indicted and being held in the city prison without bail. One of the police officers took Aradia aside, gently, and it was with her that they found their friend, when Kanaya and Terezi arrived at last.
“Officer von Humpeding,” Kanaya said breathlessly, pulling up next to Aradia. “Aradia, I’m so –”
“Leave me alone,” Aradia snapped. Sally, the only rainbow drinker on the force, offered a sad smile to the other two.
“You girls ought to be in school.”
“We were working on a project when we heard the news; we couldn’t just leave her,” Terezi snapped. “Who’re you?”
“This is Officer von Humpeding,” Kanaya said quickly. “Officer, this is Terezi.”
“Yes, Snowman’s girl, right?” She asked, rubbing Aradia’s shoulder idly while the younger troll tried to compose herself.
“This isn’t fair,” Aradia snarled, mopping at her face with the hem of her shirt. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye. And he’s innocent – he came straight home after work last night!”
The police officer shushed her and ran a hand over her hair, gently detangling some of the snarls that had formed on the frantic run over. “They’re gathering evidence now, I’m sure they’ll –”
“No, they won’t! They won’t find anything except my testimony that he even came home! And they’re not going to believe me!”
“I believe you.”
Kanaya cocked her head. “Sally, may I have permission to ask you a question?”
“Go ahead, Kanaya.”
“Do you find anything suspicious about these murders? The crowbar deaths and the most recent string in which the murderer appears to be Mr. Droog?”
The rainbow drinker smiled thinly, her fangs just peeking out between her lips. “You girls are working on that theory too, huh? I know your dad’s keen on it.”
“Because it’s true,” Aradia insisted, choking back a sob.
“Yeah!” Terezi jumped in. “Crowbar wasn’t even responsible for half of those deaths and it’s like no one even cared enough to look into ‘em! I mean all you have to do is look at the evidence folders – oops.”
The elder troll was smiling broadly now. “Funny you should mention that, Terezi, was it? All the evidence for these cases went missing overnight. We have copies of course, but the originals did just seem to disappear. Rumor around the station has it the Midnight Crew swiped ‘em to protect Droog.”
“Uh,” Terezi said.
Sally stood and brushed her uniform off, glancing over her shoulder. “Against my better judgment, girls, I’m not going to turn you in. Your dad has the files, doesn’t he, Kanaya?”
“I will neither confirm nor deny –”
“Alright, so he does. And I’m going to just … chose not to share that information with the rest of the force.” She helped Aradia up and used her handkerchief to dab at the girl’s cheeks. “You girls sounds like you know an awful lot about this case. Wouldn’t have anything to do with those files, would it?”
They looked at her. She smirked. “How about this: I’ll drive the three of you to school by way of breakfast. You tell me what you’re thinking because you’re right – the evidence in those files isn’t adding up at all. Nor is,” she added, when Aradia sniffed, “the testimony.”
“I don’t want to go to school,” she said quietly. “I want to see my dad.”
“Aradia, you won’t be able to see him until at least Thursday. I’m sorry, but he’s being arraigned today and visiting hours aren’t until Thursday for maximum security –” Aradia whimpered, and Sally sighed. “Who do you usually stay with when things like this happen?”
“Alright, I’ll find Boxcars for you and drop you off with him. You two are going to school though. As soon as we grab something to eat: I want to hear what you girls are getting up to.”
“Yeah, okay,” Terezi grumbled. “Long as you don’t turn us in.”
“I won’t, I promise. I might even help you out a little; it’s an unpopular opinion on the force,” she said, lowering her voice and ushering the three girls into her cruiser, “but right now there’s a few out there thinking your old man isn’t so far off with his assumptions, Kanaya. And with this senator’s murder last night … Politicians aren’t Droog’s style, even if he doesn’t agree with them. And Mitchell was definitely not one that didn’t agree.”
Terezi blinked as the door slammed shut. “Wait, they arrested Droog for whacking Senator Mitchell?”
“Yes,” Kanaya replied, peevish. “Didn’t you read the paper?”
“Uh, no. Blind.”
Aradia frowned through the tears. “I thought you could still read though.”
“Yeah, given the time, which I didn’t have this morning. Plus,” she grumbled, arms crossed, “newspapers are hard. They just smell like alcohol and desperation.”
“Ah yes,” Sally sighed, turning the key in the ignition. “The telltale odor of reporters. Alright, girls, now tell me what you’ve got – I see your notebook, Kanaya. Start with Crowbar and we’ll go from there.”
While the girls and officer von Humpeding were demolishing pancakes and pulling pieces of a bizarre string of murders together, Problem Sleuth was being shook awake by Midnight City’s most dangerous man. “This is what you calling doing your fucking job?” Slick snarled, straddling Sleuth’s hips. “I should fucking kill you, you fucking asshole!”
“What?” Sleuth shook his head and tried to clear his thoughts, which were stubbornly sluggish. He’d been sleeping hard, and waking up quickly wasn’t his forte anyway. “What’s going on? Slick?”
The mobster hoisted him up by the front of his shirt, so they were face-to-face. “They arrested Droog, you asshole! I told you if you managed to clear his name quick enough I wouldn’t kill you and you fucking didn’t!” He stopped yelling, which was almost scarier, that raspy voice dropping to a growl. “They fucking arrested him. God, I’m gonna fucking enjoy killing your ass.”
“Woah!” Sleuth twisted out of his grip and scrambled back in his bed, hands up. “Hang on, let’s talk about this!”
“I hate talking.” The knife appeared in his hand, apparently plucked from nowhere, and spun once before it speared Sleuth’s palm and pinned him to the wall. Another knife sparkled into existence, and Sleuth twisted, just barely avoiding taking it in the ribs.
“Slick what the fuck are you doing?” he yelled, dodging again, as much as he could without jostling as left hand too much. “I work for you!”
“You fucking deaf?! They arrested Droog!” Slick wrenched his knife out of the wall and snarled. “And the asshole just went with them! Said he killed a senator or some bullshit and cuffed him!” He waved the knife under Sleuth’s nose once or twice before pressing the tip of the blade into the bottom of his nose, cocking the detective’s head back and baring his throat. “You were supposed to prevent that, you jackass!”
“Which senator?” Sleuth asked, frantically scrabbling for ways to stall.
“The fuck does it matter?” He pulled the knife away and swung. Sleuth ducked just in time, and plaster rained down on his head as the blade scored through the drywall.
“Slick I can’t help you if you kill me!”
“You’re fucking fired; I don’t want your damn help anymore.” Another swipe, and this one missed Sleuth’s throat but caught him across the bicep. “Investigate this shit myself!”
“Oh yeah? And the cops are gonna listen to you when you come at them with all the evidence? Come on, Slick! You need me!” Slick wrapped his hand around Sleuth’s throat and pressed. Cartilage crackled. A cool whisper of metal slipped up his throat and came to rest along the line of his chin, right over his jugular. “Slick,” he gasped, desperate and breathless, “I have a kid. Don’t do this; I can still help you.”
The gangster watched him for a long time – or it felt like a long time anyway, to the man with the knife at his throat. “The fuck else can you do?” He eased off Sleuth’s throat. “Droog’s already in jail.”
Sleuth gasped for breath, taking huge gulping lungfuls of air through his bruised-up throat. When he’d calmed down, he swallowed and looked to Slick. “I can clear him of these murders. I have a feeling they’re not gonna stop just because they got Crowbar and Droog out of the picture. You said they killed a senator?”
Slick sneered. “Shit, you didn’t even know? Mitchell got whacked last night. Cops said it was Droog, took him in this morning.”
Renee Mitchell. This was bad. She was the one senator who might be considered to have been on good terms with most of the gangs in the city; she didn’t work for them, but she recognized the advantage to having the gangs working off against one another, rather than running amok through the population. She had her ear to the ground on the gang scene, too – everyone knew she met with Diamonds Droog and Crowbar and half the other gang kingpins every once and a while, hammered out details. She was corrupt, yeah, but she wanted the best for the city, and she was realistic about where the gang scene fit in with that.
And now she was dead. Supposedly at the hands of Diamonds Droog himself.
“Droog wouldn’t kill Mitchell,” Sleuth breathed.
“Yeah, which was why he didn’t kill her. But the cops say they’ve got pictures or some shit, took him in and he’s in lockup now.”
“I thought you said he was staying at Casino all night last night.” Sleuth shook his head. “He oughta have an alibi, they can’t –”
Slick’s expression faltered, concerned for just a second. “Idiot decided to go home; Mitchell got killed almost right away.” He scoffed. “Even if they decide to take Aradia’s testimony about what time the asshole got home, I’ll bet fucking money she got knocked off between when he left and when he got home. It’ll be fucking plausible.”
“Which means they’re watching him,” Sleuth muttered. “They watch whoever they’re marking. They know when to strike.”
“Yeah, no shit.”
Sleuth slumped back against the wall, ignoring the sear of pain through his left palm. Slick pulled his hand away, but he didn’t sheath the knife. “This is big.”
“Yeah it’s fuckin’ big. It’d have to be to fucking take down Droog.”
Sleuth wanted to groan. This was above his pay grade, that was for damn sure; it wasn’t about some stupid drummer getting whacked by a copycat anymore, or even Crowbar getting put away because of aforementioned stupid copycat. This was assassinations. He couldn’t handle this: this was a job for at the very, very least Team Sleuth, and honestly not even them. In reality, this was a job for the cops. Shame the cops didn’t agree. “I can help you,” he said, instead. “I can get Droog’s name clear, get everything out in the open, but you’re gonna have to help me. And you can’t kill me.”
Slick was crouched on the bed like some kind of predatory animal. He was thinking, and Sleuth was pretty sure he could guess at the mobster’s thoughts.
The knife disappeared. “Fine,” he spat, rolling off the bed. “You got the Midnight Crew with you, long as you get Droog out in the end.” And then the knife was back and pressed into the crook of Sleuth’s chin. “But the minute they start with his trial the deal’s off and you’re dead, kid or no.”
Sleuth wanted to nod, but he caught himself. “Deal. I’ll get him out, Slick, I swear. We just gotta figure out the connection between these senators, the common thread, maybe who they’re marking next, and we can track ‘em backwards from there. I’m gonna need the Crew, though; my Team’s out.”
“Yeah, yeah, you got us.” The knife vanished again, hopefully for the final time. “So you … fuck, you need us to do anything?”
“Yes, actually.” Sleuth took a breath and composed himself as much as possible. “First, you can take the knife out of my hand. Then you can drive me to the hospital.”
Slick snickered and pulled the knife out of the wall, leaving it through the center of Sleuth’s palm. He smirked, and turned and stalked from the room. “Hey –”
“Call me when you got a real issue, Problem Sleuth.” The front door clicked open, Sleuth all the while just glaring after Slick in shocked silence. “And there’s a box on your table you should probably look at or something!”
He slammed the door behind him.
Chapter 10: In for a penny, in for a pound.
Happy Halloween! This spooky installment contains a bonus creeper moment at the end - thanks so much to tumblr user sannam for bringing that particular aspect of the story to life!
The warden of Midnight City Penitentiary was having a confusing day. He was conflicted, he was struggling, his emotions were running wild with him.
On one hand, SV had finally found an excuse to throw Crowbar and Diamonds Droog in jail. The city’s two worst criminals, locked up and off the streets for, at least, a little while.
On the other hand, Warden was faced with the puzzling dilemma of housing two maximum security criminals when he had exactly one maximum security cell. There was the isolation cell, of course, he thought, glumly looking over the schematic of the prison, but there was hardly cause to put either one of them in there yet; they’d both been model prisoners.
“What about modifying the nearest cell to max?” The deputy warden, Theodore, pointed one gray finger to a box on the schematic. “The guard could patrol between the two.”
The Warden snorted. “No way; there’s a bulletproof door sealing off the max cell. Plus, that other cell couldn’t hold either one of them; I don’t trust them to not pick the lock and stroll out.”
“Well it’s not like they can stroll out,” Teddie said doubtfully, slumping back in his chair. “This is a prison.”
“And they’re Droog and Crowbar.” He looked askance to the troll and sighed. “Ted I don’t trust either of these guys as far as I can throw ‘em, and that ain’t far.” He traced the outline of the single max cell. “How big is this?”
“Little bigger than standard. 10x10, ‘f I remember right.”
The Warden was frowning now. “We could fit a couple of beds in there, couldn’t we?” Teddie opened his mouth to say something, but the Warden went on. “Go ahead and do it. As far away from each other as we can, and bolt ‘em to the floor.”
“They’ll kill each other in twenty minutes!”
“Not if we keep ‘em chained out of arm’s reach.” He didn’t have to see the troll’s face to know what he was thinking. “Listen I don’t like it any more than you do but it keeps ‘em both locked down and it’s a hell of a lot nicer than solitary!”
“It’s against every regulation in the book. Who’re you gonna get to watch those two without ratting you out?”
He thought. “Well a couple of the max guards shouldn’t care. And …” he thought about it some more. Midnight City Penitentiary was cutthroat, and Teddie was right to worry; for most of the guards, if they could take the opportunity to knock off the man at the top, they would in a heartbeat. It’s what made the precious few guards he was considering in max so valuable, why he always made sure to keep Teddie happy …
Oh, he realized, clear as crystal. Him. Yes. Yes there was one guard, one guard that wouldn’t care how flagrant the rules violation was, one guard that would pass sleep up for the chance to supervise those two all day every day, one guard who could most likely keep them quiet and under control.
“I’m putting Bob in charge of Maximum while we got the two of them,” he decided. Teddie had chosen that unfortunate moment to take a drink of coffee, and the majority of his beverage sprayed out of his mouth and across the room at that announcement.
“Bob? Christ, Warden, and you were worried about solitary! That’s … what did they even do to deserve Bob? We haven’t let him off duty in the Wall room, not since the last incident!”
The Warden spun his chair around slowly and gestured widely. “I’m a man who believes in second chances, ain’t I, Ted? ‘Course I am! I run a prison – what kind of warden would I be if I didn’t believe in giving everyone an honest shot after some time off to think about what they done?” His hand slapped the surface of his desk, hard, and Teddie flinched away. “Go let Bob know he’s being moved to maximum, and he’s in charge of Droog and Crowbar. And then get that cell set up for the two of ‘em; remember, I don’t want ‘em reaching each other. Use an ankle shackle or something.”
“Ye-es sir, well …” He stood and pulled his hat down over his horns. “Is it possible, ah. Could I just delegate the task of informing Bob? Perhaps to Marcel, in light of what happened with him in the yard last weekend?”
“The man’s getting a promotion Teddie; someone from upper management ought to be the one to tell him!”
“Can I promote Marcel then?” He and the Warden exchanged a look and he sighed heavily. “Fine.” Halfway out of the door, he leaned on the handle and turned to shake his finger at the Warden. “Listen, though, if this goes wrong, Warden, I am not getting your back on this. I’ll get you for the shared cell, I’ll help you out with the ankle restraints, but if something comes back on Bob –”
“I get the picture, Ted.”
Three hallways away, on the top floor of the prison, Diamonds Droog was irritated. He was irritated because he was being pushed around, he was irritated because he was in prison, he was irritated because his hands were still coated with the black fingerprint ink, and they’d put a mouth guard on him as soon as they’d caught a glimpse of his teeth, but most of all he was irritated because they’d put him in an awful orange jumpsuit. Orange.
No one should ever wear this much orange, he though, distantly, as one of the guards grabbed him under the arm and half-carried him along a long metal walkway. And then he turned his thoughts to the guard. Strong grip under his arm, but weak through the elbow. Quick spin, bring the chain of the handcuffs under the elbow, sharp upward pressure … Broken elbows were good for buying time, but perhaps now wasn’t the time.
The walkway was getting shorter, because there was a thick white door up ahead. Steel, by the look of it. Bulletproof, or near enough. Fireproof, maybe. More locks on the outside than the inside, no doubt. An inescapable prison, and he was walking right for it. He hadn’t been worried before, and he wasn’t worried now – he was innocent, after all, and even with Slick and that idiot detective on the case something would come out about that sooner or later, although he greatly hoped for ‘sooner’ – but he was working toward ‘concerned’. It sounded heavy when it opened, and there were more locks on the other side.
There was a cell, too, with two beds and one ginger gangster. Droog blinked before the guard shoved him through the open door.
There was a troll in there, with a gun trained on Crowbar. He met Droog’s eyes, and raised another revolver. “Stay still, Diamonds; no need to complicate this.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Droog muttered, behind the mask. The first guard snapped a cuff shut around his ankle, and the troll stepped away from Crowbar. The mask was removed, and the two guards stepped out of the cell before either man had much of a chance to move. And then the door slid shut on its massive cogs and the lock clunked into place.
It wasn’t the first time Droog had been in prison, but it was certainly the most intimidating.
The troll flashed them a weak smile through the bars. “Your head guard’ll be in in a minute. Good luck.”
The two guards left, and the steel door swung shut behind them.
The gangsters didn’t leap at each other, although certainly they were both sure there would be people watching carefully through the one-way Wall just in case such a thing were to happen. No, they were both too reserved for that. Had it been Slick and Itchy, certainly the door wouldn’t have even shut behind the guards before the claws had come out. But this was Droog and Crowbar, so instead of leaping, Droog calmly turned and stepped toward Crowbar, while the other man did the same. Chains rattled, and eventually went taut.
“Well,” Crowbar sighed. “Can’t reach me, I can’t reach you.”
“Clever of them to think of it, but I have no interest in killing you, cathartic as it may be.”
Crowbar smirked. “Yeah? Nah, you don’t need another murder charge on your rap sheet.”
“Does it count as murder if you don’t have the decency to stay dead?”
“Would you like to try to find out?”
Droog allowed a small smile to twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Rather not. Besides, I fully anticipate that my “rap sheet” as you refer to it, will be cleared soon enough.” Part of him – the part of him that had been tackled to the ground by seven Special Forces officers at six fifteen that morning – ached to sit down, but he’d be damned if he sat before Crowbar. His only consolation at the moment was that he looked better-groomed than the other man, even with the black eye and the orange jumpsuit. Prison life was clearly not suiting the Felt leader.
“Oh. You too?” Crowbar cocked his head. “What was the last straw for you?”
“Mitchell?” Crowbar laughed, although it was more disbelieving than entertained. “Like you’d kill Mitchell. Like any of us would kill Mitchell. Really, she’s dead?” Droog nodded. Crowbar swore, and slumped back onto his bed with a creak of the springs. “What the fuck.”
“I suspect we were framed by the same individual, or perhaps organization.” Droog sat back onto his own bed, and a loose spring poked up through the sad excuse for a mattress and dug into his thigh. “At the moment I haven’t concluded whether or not the deaths of the senators are to advance the cause of that individual or group, or simply to ensure you and I are locked securely away.”
“And it ain’t as though you’re gonna get the shot to think about it much further,” Crowbar sighed. “Not in here.”
“Yes, well.” Droog sniffed. “There are those on the outside with a vested interest in proving my innocence. And yours, I suppose.”
“Die?” Crowbar asked, and the hint of hope was apparent in his voice.
“Yes, in your case it’s Die and Snowman. Ironically, I believe they hired the same private investigator that we were utilizing before –”
Crowbar cut him off with a groan. “Problem Sleuth? Not Problem Sleuth.”
“He couldn’t investigate his way out of a wet paper bag!” Droog didn’t say anything. Crowbar shrugged, at length. “Guess if it’s any consolation, they can’t fry me. I’ll get out of here sooner or later.” He sneered at Droog across the cell. “Pity you won’t be so lucky.”
“I have every bit of confidence that Slick and this Problem Sleuth will uncover the evidence sooner or later.”
“And that’s worked out great for you so fa –” he stopped, because the door was opening again. They watched, but for a minute it looked as though it might have been an error, some sort of mechanical failure. Droog started calculating immediately; the humidity, the temperature, anything that might come in useful later should he wish to open the door in a more-or-less unplanned fashion. If the door was flawed.
But it wasn’t flawed, not really. Moments after it swung open on its hinges, far longer than the normal, socially-acceptable time frame, a breathy, damp wheeze sounded through the cell. Droog and Crowbar exchanged a look, briefly, because the wheezing had started in earnest, and there were heavy footsteps on the metal gangplank.
The guard that stepped into the cell looked to be a man assembled by committee; his head was too large, his hands were too small, his long, lanky arms hung limp at his sides. His mouth gaped open as he wheezed for breath, and his watery grey eyes surveyed the two of them from behind thick tortoise-shell glasses.
He grinned, and Droog’s lip curled in unconcealed disgust. “Hello gentlemen,” the guard said, congested and altogether too damp. “I will be your guard. My name is Bob.”
“You’re the head of maximum security?” Crowbar asked, before he snorted and smirked. “You? Bob?”
“Indeed. I look forward to an uneventful time watching the two of you.” He licked his lips. “On your part.” Droog frowned at that, just barely. Something about that sounded distinctly suspicious. Bob nodded to the two of them, and then took a hesitant step backwards, so as to sink into the rickety plastic chair that was just inside the door, well out of reach of the cell.
They watched each other, the three men. Crowbar and Droog looked to Bob expectantly, waiting for the paper or the book of puzzles or the novel to come out. Surely he’d read, surely he’d distract himself, lose focus, give either of them an opportunity to escape. They waited, and watched him, and Bob sat, shoulders rounded and his gaze intent, his hands clasped neatly in his lap.
He waited for them to exchange another look before his breathing hitched, he licked his lips and swallowed, and spoke again. “Oh, please, carry on as you were. Don’t mind little old me. I’ll just be watching.” They looked back to him. Crowbar’s eyes went wide, and Droog’s shoulders grew just a touch more tense when the guard smiled a disconcerting little smile. “I’m good at that, you know. Watching. Just … watching.”
Problem Sleuth went to his physician, first, on an emergency appointment. He was a good guy, never asked too many questions, just sighed and stitched up Sleuth’s hand before sending him on his way, neatly bandaged up. Then he went back to his apartment, picked up the case files, and took them to his office, where he could work with them in peace, and without the prospect of his teenaged daughter nosing in on them.
He was proud that she was interested in the family business, of course, but this case – with all the mobsters and the murders and the dead politicians – was really one he’d rather she not get involved in.
The first thing he did was sort out the erroneous cases; the ones that were probably actually Crowbar or Droog. They were good evidence for the cops, sure, but if he was trying to prove their innocence, not so helpful for him. They were surprisingly few, too, which was good to see. He tossed them in a pile in the corner of the office, and set to the rest.
There was no geographic pattern; that was what became apparent first. He was sticking pins in a map of the city as he went, but after the first ten or so murders it was clear that the deaths were correlated not with one region of the city or another, but with wherever the intended suspect could plausibly be. The only consistent thread, at least so far, was that the murderer was clearly not Droog or Crowbar, although he dressed exactly like them, down to the red diamond cufflinks on Droog’s outfit. And in some photos – the ones where Sleuth could see well enough – he looked to be Dersite, maybe; his skin looked dark, almost black, so that would be consistent.
The other consistency was that this hood was smart; he never tipped his hand, always made sure it was at the very least plausible that one of the two did it. There were never witnesses, either, or at least not witnesses who could see clearly enough to ID the perp beyond “well he had a suit and a cue stick, I guess he looked like Diamonds Droog”.
He sat down on his desk, looking over the floor riddled with case files and photographs. So it was a smart perp, with no apparent motivation or MO besides getting Diamonds Droog and Crowbar locked up and behind bars. He was using the other gangs, too, and according to Rodney they were just as much in the dark as everyone else. There were no other murders that indicated another gang leader might be next; Sleuth had almost expected to hear about murders that put Slick on the chopping block, but no dice on that.
But then maybe that was the goal: get the Crew and the Felt running scared. Distract them, tie their hands and then …
And then what? Sleuth stared down at the list of victims he’d written out. There wasn’t a thread. Besides the two senators, these people were … they were just people. The drummer, and a grocery store clerk, an accountant, a lawyer, two construction workers …
There was nothing linking these people. They meant nothing to the city’s gangs, or even, in the larger scheme, to the city itself. They were faceless innocents, they were nameless, they were just crimes of convenience.
Sleuth blinked. That was it. They were victims of convenience. The cops needed to build decent cases against Droog and Crowbar, and for that they needed bodies. These people were just bodies. Cannon fodder.
He looked down at AP’s case file. The entire reason he’d got involved in this stupid case, the guy’s crying widow, the stupid “accidental death” in the dirty alley behind one of the Crew’s clubs, was completely irrelevant.
Had he figured that out a week ago, he would have felt bad about calling up the dame and telling her it was just plain unlucky that her husband had got whacked, and that the rest of the case was for the cops to puzzle out. He would have probably drank a little too much that night, ripped up her blank check, lost all his phone parts and passed out on the couch. It would have been a bad night but, he considered, compared to the nights he had already had, and that he could certainly look forward to, it wouldn’t have been the worst.
But he hadn’t and now he was working for the Felt and the Midnight Crew and he was trying to prove two of their number innocent. He glared at AP’s case file, and then groaned and threw it across the room.
Irrelevant. Alright, fine, so he’d been an idiot and got pulled in via an irrelevant case. No going back on it now, he thought, as his hand twinged.
So sort out the irrelevants, that was the next trick. He picked up the case files, leaving only the map with the pins as the only sign of the day’s work. The lawyers and the CPAs and the construction workers and AP were irrelevant; nothing to do with gangs, the government, the cops, nothing.
In the end it was just the one file, really and this morning’s newspaper. Richards and Mitchell. Two big players in the city, the two who might have needed to die to advance some kind of obscure agenda.
First had been Perry Richards; Sleuth had known him, hell, he’d talked to him on the phone a few days prior to his murder. Young, fresh-faced, very up-and-coming, probably legitimately the only senator in the city who’d never taken a bribe. Sleuth was pretty sure that wouldn’t have remained the case, not if Perry had stayed a senator, but it had been fun while it lasted. Had a thing against gangs, but not a break-their-doors-down-and-drag-‘em-to-justice thing. Wasn’t personally in on the gang scene, but he kept his ear to the ground through his employees. And, most notably, had been involved with the Crowbar murder case before he got killed. Sleuth wasn’t sure what he’d wanted to meet about, but he was pretty sure it wouldn’t have just been a friendly chat about the baseball season.
Then there was Mitchell. She was an old hat in the senate, an institution; she had sway and influence there and knew her way around Midnight City’s seedier districts to boot. Rumor had it she met with Crowbar regularly enough, although no one had ever seen it. And it was an established fact that she stopped by Casino every couple of months to have a friendly lunch with Diamonds Droog. Or, Sleuth ruminated, based on his newfound knowledge of that particular mobster, a tersely polite lunch. She liked the gang power in the city exactly where it was: with the Midnight Crew, who loved the city too much to hurt it, and with the Felt, who were too incompetent to do much actual damage, and she was motivated to keep that particular status quo. Sleuth wasn’t sure if she’d been in on the Crowbar and Droog situation, but to be honest he would have been shocked to find out she wasn’t. Hell, she probably suspected it before anyone else in the damn senate did.
So two senators dead, one of them anti-gangs, the other one pro-status quo. Two senators who watched the gangs in the city more than anyone else. Two senators who were big players in the city, either because they had played the game for long enough or because they were learning the game fast enough to be better at it than anyone else. Two senators who could make establishing a new gang in Midnight City a hell of a lot harder than the Crew and the Felt already would.
Or would have.
Sleuth grabbed the phone and paused, his finger hovering above the dial. It wasn’t a break, not really; pretty much everyone had figured as much up to that point. But the problem was where they would strike next, who would be the next likely target. To figure that out, Sleuth needed someone who knew the bad side of the street, who could give him names and addresses.
He thought about his options, and decided he didn’t like either of them. On one hand, Sleuth had got the distinct feeling that Die was just as oblivious to all but the most major gang activity as Sleuth himself. On the other hand – or, perhaps more accurately, through the other hand – the only other option was Spades Slick.
He held the phone awkwardly in his bandaged-up hand and drummed his fingers on the face of the phone for a long time. And then he spun the number.
Well, he thought, as the stitches pulled the skin of his left hand and the line rang, it’s like they say: in for a penny, in for a pound.
But then when you’re dealing with a psychopathic murderer, he thought immediately, that’s not the most comforting adage.
On behalf of Bob and the entire cast of PSI, I would like to wish you a happy Halloween.
Sleep well; Bob is watching. Just ... watching. :)
Chapter 11: Belly of the Whale
Sleuth has never been good with politics. It’s not honest or straightforward enough, there’s too much lying and ins-and-outs and stupid puzzle shit to figure out to get to the person you want to talk to. He tangled with various clerks, secretaries and interns for about two hours, over the phone, before he decided the going was too slow, and resolved to go down to the senate himself.
Easier said than done, of course, he reflected. For one thing, the senate was on exactly the opposite end of town – in the nice bit – and for another, a private detective walking into the senate and demanding to see the staffs of the recently deceased was a good candidate for being shown the door. He needed an in, someone that could get him to the people he needed to see.
One thing was for sure, it wasn’t going to be Slick. Slick had given him the names of the senators that had more of a mind for organized crime, and then cussed him out for wasting his time. Besides, Sleuth’s hand was still aching and stinging, and if he was honest he wasn’t exactly eager to get within stabbing range of the Midnight Crew’s leader any time soon. He could call Boxcars, maybe, but he doubted that would go over well with Slick, too.
So that left the Felt. And that bore thinking about: his two green-clad options were Snowman and Die, and neither one was particularly appealing. Snowman probably carried more clout around senators, not to mention she was a knockout ten in an overcoat, which never hurt when you were stalking around the offices of the city’s great and powerful. But then on the other hand, she apparently had a habit of maiming people she didn’t take kindly to, and while that might help get them some attention, Sleuth wasn’t sure he wanted to risk ending up on the business end of that cigarette holder. She was too mercurial and too dangerous to take on an errand like this, he concluded, although if he needed a dame to lure a guy in and rough him up later, she’d be his go-to contact.
And all that meant, at the end of the day, that for this particular errand, the only remaining option was Die. He was sort of an unknown quantity; Sleuth had never seen him before this case, only knew there was a number 6 with freaky voodoo powers. He’d seemed alright, maybe a little neurotic, but then again he was supposedly an item with Crowbar, and having your boyfriend locked up would shake anyone. And then Snowman had dumped him at the docks for bait, so maybe he was fine. Hopefully, Sleuth thought, because he was about to call him.
Snowman and Die had given him one number; he sincerely hoped it wasn’t a general number for the Felt.
They’d given him a general number for the Felt.
“Uh. Hello, er. Is Die available?”
Sleuth took a breath. He could lie, on one hand, but then they might just hang up on him. How much did the rest of them know? How spooked were they? There had to be a way around it … “I’m his chicken supplier. Only the best for sacrifices.”
“Oh,” the answerer mumbled. “Weird voodoo shit. Hang on.”
The phone clanked down, and Sleuth listened as the answerer stomped off. It was radio silence for a while, just the gentle crackle of static through the line, and Sleuth had nearly phased out and taken a short hiatus to the imaginary world when someone else’s voice barked into his ear. “If you’re selling double glazing we don’t want any.”
“Huh? Oh! I’m not selling double-glazing.”
“The tone of your voice indicates you’re nervous about something.” Sleuth pulled the phone away from his ear for a second, and stared at it. “By my deduction, you’re not lying about the double-glazing, but you are lying about something else. Who are you calling for?”
“He’s calling for Die,” the unknown conversant informed someone. “I don’t think he’s lying about that, either.”
“Well tell him he can’t talk to Die; Die’s freaking out.” Ah yes, the heavy lisp; that clue, combined with the clipped rapid tone of the person on the phone pointed to none other than Midnight City’s two biggest dental disasters. The voice got closer to the phone again. “Who did you speak to regarding this?”
Sleuth cleared his throat, faked a cough. “Well, I call him routinely for his sacrifice supplies. I’m not sure who answered the phone –”
“Die buys all his sacrifice supplies at the grocery store.”
Sleuth winced. “I sell special chickens for uh, well I don’t know the particular sacrifices they’re used in but they’re very special. Beautiful plumage.”
“Plumage.” The voice – Fin’s, for sure – went muffled again. “He’s lying; he says he’s a chicken purveyor. He says he sells them on the basis of their plumage, but Die’s always worried about the states of their gizzards.”
“Well then ask who he really is.”
“I don’t want to tip our hand – if he knows we suspect he’s lying he might clam up and withhold evidence as to who he –”
Sleuth rested his head in his hand and sighed. “Fin, I can hear you.”
The reply came lightning-quick. “Who is this Fin you speak of?”
“You’re Fin. It’s you.” He groaned. “Fin, it’s Problem Sleuth; I need to talk to Die about Crowbar.”
“Problem Sleuth? The Problem Sleuth?” There was a commotion on the other end of the line, and for a second Sleuth was afraid Fin had panicked and hung up. But then he heard them arguing, hissing and grunting as they apparently squabbled over the phone.
“I want to talk to him!”
“I had the phone first, it’s only logical and according to generally-accepted social norms that I continue the conversation!”
“But that’s not fair, then I don’t get to talk to him at all!”
A clatter as the phone fell and swung into the wall, presumably. “I never said you wouldn’t get to talk to him at all – you shouldn’t make that kind of assumption!”
“Just give me the phone.” More scrabbling, and then the heavy lisp: Trace. “Problem Sleuth, you don’t even know, I’m your biggest fan, the way you investigate all those crimes, and what you did with Mobster Kingpin I mean wow –”
“Stop talking to him, he’s going to think we’re weird!” Too late.
“Fin an’ I like to do some investigating of our own, see? I mean, not on your level ‘cause wow, like, I don’t think we could, but when we’re around the mansion or doing something with the guys and they have a problem we try to help ‘cause we can see the past and the future, sort of, it’s actually kind of complicated but man, you’re just so cool, and I read up on all your cases – we did, together I mean – an’ I know everyone says Mobster Kingpin was your greatest case but dude there were so many other cases, like that one with the bird and it ended up being fake and you were all just like –”
“He’s going to hang up on you, you idiot!”
Sleuth took the new scuffle as an opportunity to cut it. “Ha! Ah, well, always nice to meet a fan, you know? Don’t uh, give up on your dreams of … investigating crimes …” He paused. “Aren’t you two gangsters though?”
The time it was Fin’s voice that answered. “It does seem like an impossible dichotomy, sure, but we don’t consider it a conflict of interest if we don’t investigate crimes that the Felt caused in the first place. And we have an advantage there because we know what crimes the Felt caused in the first place, because we usually help with them.”
“Naturally.” He paused and listened to the two of them pant into the phone on the other end, clearly waiting for him to say something else. “So, uh, you boys done anything yourselves to try and clear your leader’s name?”
“No: we’re immortal and technically invincible, so I don’t think we should really worry about him going to prison.”
“But what about the last murder? We went right by there, remember! Earlier in the day. You didn’t see anything?”
“Um. Hm.” A quick tapping, like the toe of a boot on hardwood. “It’s hard out in the field, you know, all those people and it’s not like we live in the country where you can pretty much narrow it down through logical reasoning. But … But I guess I did see the Senator’s trail, yes, although it ended right outside her door.”
“Could you go back and see if there was another trail with her?”
“I can do that! I can do that!” Despite being separated by a phone line and several miles, Sleuth felt compelled to lean back from the phone: he could hear the spit hitting the mouthpiece. “Oh man, are we helping you with a case? I mean, shit, stupid question I guess! Oh, man, come on Fin we gotta go change into the other coats and like, hang on I can’t think clearly.”
“Unsurprising.” The phone was dropped again, the voices more distant, but not moving away quite yet. “Take a breath, Trace. This is a tremendous responsibility, and you can’t afford to have your head clouded.”
Inhale, exhale. Sleuth strained to hear what was going on. “You’re right. Okay.” Another breath, this time in stereo. “Secret handshake?”
“Secret handshake.” A complicated-sounding series of slaps. “Alright. Let’s get changed and get on the case.”
“Yeah. Oh, man, can I wear the fedora this time? You always get the fedora, I’m tired of the other hat –”
“I saw the trail first, so I should get to wear the fedora.”
“That’s what you always say, ‘cause you always see the trails first, but this time I’m the one –” The two walked away, if Sleuth was judging by their footsteps and the fact that their voices and conversation faded into silence. He groaned and let his head fall into the crook of his elbow, resting on the table.
“’F I have to work with these people they’re giving me a better number to reach them …” He thought about it. Well, Slick would probably have Snowman’s number, wouldn’t he? They had a thing. But it wasn’t that kind of thing, not at all, more the kind of thing where she was always two steps ahead of him and overly eager to remind him of that. Sleuth wasn’t sure that that kind of thing lent itself to the exchange of phone numbers. Although if he didn’t get a hold of Die soon he’d have to try, and that was sure to be a fun conversation.
There were footsteps approaching the phone. Sleuth sat up quickly, grabbing the phone’s handset off his desk and sitting up in his chair, clearing his throat a little. “H-hello?” The detective almost sighed. Finally.
“Die, it’s Sleuth.”
“Oh, u-uh. G-good af-afternoon.” GPI, he sounded like a total wreck. Maybe he wasn’t the best choice. “S-s-some-something I can help you with?”
“I got a couple leads on the case, was wondering if you’d like to come along to the Senate with me to see if I can root some stuff up. I need an in,” he added, before Die had the chance to refuse.
“Oh. Oh, uh. Have you t-talked to Snowman?” he managed to stutter out. “She’s m-much better at this sort of thing.”
Sleuth leaned forward onto his desk and lit a cigarette up. “You know, Die,” he said, before exhaling a long stream of smoke, “it was just the other night that I watched Snowman take a man’s eyes out, for no particular reason that I could discern. You’ll forgive me if I wasn’t eager to ask for her.”
“Sleuth, I’m sort of b-busy –”
“Do you have a car?”
“I suppose I can use one of the cars, yes b-but as I said –” he attempted, haltingly, but Sleuth took advantage of one of the long pauses between words.
“If you want to help me get your boyfriend back I need you to drive me to the Senate, and I need you to come inside and help me talk to the people I need to see.” He pushed his hat back and gingerly ran his punctured hand through his hair. “They’re not gonna talk to me, not unless they have a reason to.”
At first Sleuth thought maybe Die was having a hard time spitting out what was on his mind, but when he spoke again, his tone was reproachful, rather than nervous. “Are you sure Snowman wouldn’t be a better choice for this?”
“His eyes, Die.”
“… I’ll find the keys.”
Sleuth never thought he’d be so happy to get out of a car, especially not after his brief and exciting car chase the other night, courtesy of Slick. It wasn’t that Die was a bad driver – quite the opposite – but the car was so filthy inside, strewn with burger wrappers and old shopping bags and a Tupperware of moldy peanut butter, that not only could he barely wait to get out of the car once Die eased it into a parking space a couple blocks away from the Senate, he felt as though he should probably have a shower, as soon as possible.
“The thing is,” he mused aloud to Die, as the two of them trooped up the stairs to city hall and the domed Senate building, “if these murders are strictly political, why kill all the other victims? I mean, I don’t know what kind of stuff you guys have worked out with the cops in this city, but I feel like if either Richards or Mitchell had turned up dead at the hands of Droog or Crowbar, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had priors. You’d think they’d just take ‘em in, right? I mean, it’s assassination.”
Die shrugged. “I really don’t know: Crowbar handled all the political things. Or Scratch. I’m not sure they would have, but then again we’ve never k-killed a Senator before. None of us have, anyway. Crowbar always said they were off-limits.”
“Yeah, well.” Sleuth pushed open the door and Die stepped through ahead of him. Inside – the main lobby of city hall – it was nearly packed, with regular citizens stopping to sit down, lawyers and politicians a clerks bustling around across the tile floor, tour groups taking in the architecture, everything. They wove through them all, silently, making their way out of the hustle and bustle of the main lobby and into the quieter, carpeted hall leading to the Senate. It was funny, Sleuth noticed, how people just stayed out of the way of the green coat.
At the end of the hall, there was a metal detector, a fenestrated Wall, and a couple bored-looking guards behind a velvet rope. Bored-looking, that is, until they caught sight of Die, and snapped to attention. “Identification, gentlemen, and if you’d be so good as to leave all weapons in the bins –”
Sleuth flashed his badge, before tossing the little piece of tin into one of the proffered containers. “Here investigating the recent unpleasantness. This is my associate.”
“Your associate’s Felt?”
“On this particular investigation yes, he is.”
“You do realize that Senator Richards was –”
“He was not,” Die cut in. “Which is exactly why I’m here right now.”
The guard didn’t exactly start trembling, but his voice shook a little as he held out the bin. “Well, I’m gonna need your weapons.” Die frowned, raised his finger as if he wanted to say something, and then pulled his doll from his pocket, tugging gently at the limbs.
“It’s not really a weapon.”
“Yeah, well. Well. We need it.” He looked to his partner. “Right?” The partner shrugged. “Yeah.”
“I’d r-rather not …”
The guard rolled his eyes and grabbed for the doll. Sleuth, in a moment of crystal clarity on exactly how this could go, stepped between the two of them at the last moment and held his hands up, one of which contained a gun. He dropped it in the bin. “Just let him keep the doll, alright? It’s just a doll.”
“Actually it’s –”
“Now isn’t the time, Die,” he muttered, out of the corner of his mouth, hastily divesting himself of his trusty knives. “You got any other weapons?” Die looked hesitant to put the doll into his coat pocket, presumably to free up his hands. Sleuth sighed and held out a hand. “I got it, get your knife out or whatever.”
It didn’t feel like an eldritch voodoo time tool. It felt like a cotton-stuffed kids’ toy. It squeaked. “I don’t know why it does that,” Die stuttered, fumbling the top few buttons of his coat open. “Always has; I think someone thought it was funny at some point, probably English …” There was a clank as he produced and relinquished a gun. Sleuth blinked.
“A pepperbox?” Another clank. “And a blunderbuss?” He turned to Die, who was leaning on his shoulder and digging around in one of his boots. “Do you own any guns that are under a hundred years old?”
“Of course.” He wrenched a pistol out and dropped it into the box.
“Is – is that it?” The guard hazarded.
“You keep that in your shoe?” Sleuth boggled.
“Yes, and yes.” He frowned. “W-where else would you p-put it?”
“Well maybe in my – never mind.” Sleuth looked to the guard. “Satisfied? Can we go now?”
“D-do you promise you’re not going to kill anybody?” he asked, mostly to the lone member of the Felt.
Die frowned at him. “Considering that w-would be fairly counterproductive, yes, I promise not to kill anybody.”
“I guess you can go then –” the guard started, and that was all the invitation Sleuth needed to brush past him, Die tagging along behind.
“Alright, so first order of business is to find out who else might be a possible victim. Then I guess we talk to them, see if they’ve noticed themselves being tailed, maybe offer to tail them too …”
“You didn’t have specific people in mind before you came here?” Die glanced to the office doors they were walking past now, each one indistinguishable from the next but for the gold nameplates on them.
Sleuth paused. “You don’t happen to know the members of the committee on gang violence, do you?”
Die gave him a long look, before pushing open a door at random. “I’ll get a clerk.”
The clerk they ultimately found – the one that didn’t turn tail and run as soon as they saw the green coat – pointed them to two senators. The first one was a troll, younger, fresh to the senate. He granted them an audience, partially because the request was couched as his secretary screaming “Oh my God, Felt, run!” and sprinting out of the office.
“Sorry about that,” Sleuth muttered, as the senator gestured for them to sit down across from his desk, in two leather wingbacks.
“Ah, no, er.” He coughed into his fist, eyes fixed on Die, who seemed to be getting progressively more nervous with all the attention. “Senator Tucker, of course, call me Barney, ah … How can I, uh, help you?”
“Problem Sleuth and, uh, this is Die.” Sleuth pulled out his notebook and pencil. “I’m looking into the recent string of ah, murders, I suppose, for a few clients of mine.”
“Problem Sleuth?” Barney looked puzzled. “Yes I think the Superintendent might have mentioned you at the last city council meeting. You’re the detective that’s working with the Felt now, aren’t you? Trying to clear Crowbar’s name?”
Don’t wince, Sleuth thought, that’s the ticket. Don’t lie, either; no point in doing that. “Yes, that’s correct.”
The Senator’s eyes narrowed. “I see. And you’re still pursuing that line of work, are you?” Sleuth nodded. “Hm. And you’ll tell me you’re working with the Midnight Crew next, trying to clear Droog’s name –”
“Shut up, Die.” He shrugged. “Maybe if they’re related, who knows? Could end up clearing him too, just on the basis of finding the actual murderer. Anyway, ah, at the moment I’m just interviewing, uh.” He thought. ‘Victims’ wouldn’t be the right phrasing, that was too specific, Tucker might start getting ideas. “Uh, interviewing others that have a similar interest or involvement in gang violence as Senators Mitchell and Richards. Did they mention anything unusual to you before they died?”
Tucker sniffed. “I’ve given this information to the actual police, already, you know.” And then he looked sharply to Die, eyes wide.
“Hm?” Die looked up, unconcerned, leaned back in the wingback with his legs crossed, doll in hand. A tin of pins rattled in his other hand. “Sorry?”
“B-but I suppose if you have to know,” Tucker said quickly, “for your own case, no, they didn’t say anything. I met with Perry a few days before he died to discuss the issue, actually: he was so idealistic about the gang situation in the city, you know. Thought we could eliminate them and clean the city up. And, and if you’ll pardon me saying so it’s not that I disagreed with him –” he glanced to Die, nervous, but the voodoo man appeared for all intents and purposes to be absorbed with whatever he was doing with his doll. “ – But it’s just not realistic, you understand? Renee was a bit too much the other way, of course – we can’t have them running around d-doing whatever they want – but to eliminate all gang activity?” He scoffed. “The Midnight Crew would be difficult enough and they’re not … well … What I’m saying is the gangs are dug in enough in the fabric of the city that to try to disrupt that would totally destabilize the political landscape!
“I’ve always been more of a moderate myself: maintain what we have, you see. I don’t like that state of affairs but to try to manage the issue the way Perry wanted to would have been a huge drain on the public purse, and it would have left so many holes to be filled with perhaps less savory organizations.”
Sleuth nodded. “Better the devil you know.”
“Exactly!” He shook his head. “But Perry didn’t see it that way. He was talking about hiring you, you know; he wanted someone to get to the bottom of why Crowbar had suddenly decided to start murdering citizens apparently at random. Thought you’d do more than the cops in the end to bring him in!” His eyes slid back to Die. “Apparently not.”
“Yeah, well, some evidence came up.” Sleuth tapped his pencil on the notebook and frowned. “But he didn’t say anything? Didn’t feel like he was being followed or anything?”
Tucker shook his head. “No, although he did mention that he wouldn’t have been surprised if one of us – him, or me, or Mitchell – ended up getting pulled into it.”
“He was the first political murder, though, wasn’t he?”
Tucker nodded. “He had a feeling though, thought there was more going on than just random gang violence.” He sighed. “He was right, I guess. I should have listened to him more, but a little paranoia isn’t uncommon in new senators.”
Sleuth nodded, made a note. “And what about you – have you noticed anything yourself?”
Tucker’s eyebrows knit together, his ears flattening back a little as the thought. “Me? Nothing, no – you don’t think … ? The police assured me that I was being watched in case of anything like that – they think one of the Midnight Crew might be the next to carry on.” He looked to Die again. “Or … The Felt …”
Die shook his head. “No! N-no, certainly not. It wasn’t even Felt to begin with.”
Sleuth pressed on. “But have you noticed anything not related to gangs? Anything that might have been out of the ordinary? Anything that sticks out is important; never know where a lead might come from, you know?”
“No.” Tucker shrugged, shook his head again. “Nothing. Just … everything’s been very ordinary.” He glared at Die. “Are you sure you don’t think –”
Die scowled. “I c-can’t speak for the M-Midnight Crew but no, n-not us. Crowbar is in-innocent, I’m just trying to c-clear his name.”
“Ah.” Tucker glanced down at the papers, and fussed with the pile on his desk. “Well, I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more, Sleuth, Die. But I think with … well, in light of recent events, we may be in the clear.” He paused at Die’s horrified expression. “I’m sorry, sorry I just … I understand what you’re trying to do, Problem Sleuth, I really do, but the evidence …”
“All points to it being someone else,” Die snarled. “He doesn’t look like – ”
“Thank you for your time,” Sleuth sighed, standing and jamming his hat back onto his head. “Please let me know if anything changes, if you notice anything.”
Tucker looked up with a barely-detectable frown. “I will notify the police, of course.”
Sleuth nodded, and refrained from sighing again until he and Die had cleared the threshold, and the oak door had closed behind them. “He d-doesn’t think it’s an imp-poster.” He squeezed the doll and it squeaked, a little sadly. “Why doesn’t anyone b-believe the evidence?”
“Probably because the accused are murderers.” He shrugged at the look he got for that. “Sorry, but it’s the truth. Listen, if Crowbar and Droog were octogenarian Sunday school teachers without so much as a parking ticket, we’d be having an easier time of it, alright?”
“Well obviously b-but it’s fairly clear that –”
“Is it, though?”
Die faltered. “Well … W-Well in the pictures you c-can t-tell that it’s n-not Crowbar.”
“Because I know Crowbar, and it’s not him!” he snapped, and for a second Sleuth felt a sear of heat pouring off Die’s skinny frame. It faded as quickly as it came though, and Die stepped back hurriedly, leaving Sleuth flinching back, stunned. “I’m sorry,” he muttered, staring fixedly at his doll. “I l-lost my t-temper.”
“Yeah, well, uh, it’s fine.” He started leading the way to the next office, more cautious. “I’m sure you’re under a lot of pressure.”
Die just grunted a little and looked miserable, by way of response. Though he was curious, his earlier conversations on the phone were enough to keep him from asking very much about the nature of the Felt; he had a feeling he didn’t really want to know.
“Anyway,” he went on, consulting his notebook, “next person we’re looking for is one Wilhelmina Quaestor.” He squinted at a rapidly-scribbled note. “She’s been in the senate a while, I guess, which means maybe she has one of the nicer offices –”
“It has its perks.” They stopped and turned, Sleuth as casually as he could, Die with a startled yelp. The woman – god, she could be Snowman’s Prospitan twin – quirked an eyebrow at them and swirled the plastic stirrer in her coffee. “Call me Willa.”
“Oh.” Sleuth realized he was grinning like an idiot and staring at her chest, and he hastily looked up to her face, snatching his hat from his head. “Problem Sleuth,” he said quickly, offering his hand. “Private investigator.”
She almost crushed his hand in hers. “I figured.” She looked to Die. “And who’s your Felt friend? Number 6, I’m sorry I don’t know – oh.”
“Bonjour, mademoiselle.” Die – no less nervous, but suddenly (and, in Sleuth’s opinion, infuriatingly) very French – took her hand and bent to kiss the back of it. “J’appelle, ah, Die.”
Willa blinked, but she was quick to recover, smirking at the taller man and managing a half-curtsey, even with coffee in hand. “Enchanté.” She took a sip of coffee and then spiked the stirrer into the trash can. “So what can I do for you two? Must be important, if it’s worth a Felt risking a trip straight into the Senate.”
“Well, I’m looking into the recent string of murders,” Sleuth started, flipping to a fresh page in his notebook and willing himself to stop looking at the way her pencil skirt hugged her thighs. “On behalf of my clients.”
Her eyebrows twitched up, imperceptibly. “The Felt?”
“Yes. Yes, uh, well, you see, I know the police have their suspicions but on reviewing the evidence myself, if you’ll excuse me saying so, I don’t think it quite adds up –”
“You think Crowbar’s innocent.” She took a deep whiff of steam and watched them through half-lidded eyes. “I heard rumors. And I don’t disagree.” She brushed between them, moving off down the hall at enough of a clip to make Sleuth consider half-jogging. Die did a better job keeping up, what with his height attribute, and she spoke mostly to him, as he hovered off his shoulder. “The Superintendent was good enough to let me look over some of the evidence myself, you see; when I heard the news I just couldn’t believe Crowbar was actually doing all of that. And then when Perry …” She stopped herself, shook her head. When she spoke again, she had to raise her voice; they’d turned a corner, and a cleaning crew was busily vacuuming the hallway.
“Anyway, you all have a rule about politicians, don’t you? I know Crowbar did.” Sleuth followed as she wove past the janitor. He tried to, but nearly fell flat on the sandy rug when he got tangled in the cord. “Careful, Sleuth.” She swung the door open and they stepped through, the sounds of housekeeping getting mercifully duller as soon as the door shut on the hall. “What I’m saying is, I have my doubts, and so did Perry, I think. I know Renee did.”
“Exactly,” Sleuth agreed, making a note. “The evidence is there, but a lot of the pictures could have been an imposter; there was nothing that expressly identified Crowbar in any of the murders besides the outfit.”
“And tell me, is it the same for Diamonds Droog?”
“Hm.” She set her coffee down and settled behind her desk, flipping through a pile of envelopes. “But the murders have settled down since their imprisonment.”
“W-which an imposter c-could do just as easily –”
She raised a hand. “Just making an observation. Besides, I would assume that if Crowbar and Droog are innocent, we can expect more murders, yes?”
She smiled, thinly. “Which makes me a potential target due to my political involvement with organized crime, which brings you here.
Sleuth nodded, slowly. “Ye-es.”
“Well, gentlemen, as I’m sure you know from your little talk with Barney, the police had similar thoughts; I feel quite secure in knowing that my safety is well-accounted for in their hands.” She took a long sip of coffee, and dabbed delicately at her perfectly-painted lips when she’d finished. “As far as other evidence for you goes, I’m afraid I don’t have anything: Perry didn’t speak to me very often. Renee and I were always much closer.”
She shrugged. “And personally. But yes, I have to say I agreed with Senator Mitchell about the importance of organized crime to the fabric of Midnight City, especially the current gangs in place. For the most part. Perry always talked about eradicating the gangs in the long-term, but without the Midnight Crew and the Felt, who knows what kind of garbage would float to the top?” Her lips pursed. “Not to say I’m about to have lunch with Spades Slick, not like Renee, GPI rest her soul, but I see the value of him.”
Sleuth nodded, made another string of notes. “I know you’ve probably already spoken with the police, but –”
“Neither of them noticed anything unusual before they died.” She shrugged. “At least, Renee didn’t. Perry I didn’t talk to much. We’ve all been on edge, of course, and speaking for myself I’ve certainly been more alert, but I haven’t noticed a thing.” Her eyes narrowed. “Except for all this infernal vacuuming.” She sat back in her chair, arms and legs crossed. “But that’s hardly related; the idiot in the office next-door has been surveying the desert every day this week for more irrigation canals. It’s like he drags half the damn place back with him.”
Sleuth chuckled at that, politely, and snapped his notebooks shut. “Well, if you notice anything –”
“The police will be the first to know,” she cut him off. He faltered, and she smirked. “But I think I’ll find the time to give you a ring as well. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more with your line of inquiry: I admit I’m intrigued.” She plucked a pen from a cup on her desk. “Shame you can’t ask the victims what they saw.”
Sleuth did laugh that time, genuinely. “That would always make my job easier, Senator. Maybe too easy.”
“Yes, I hear you like puzzles.” She smiled up at them, letter in hand. “Well, gentlemen, I am sorry I don’t have more to help you with. But if you’ll excuse me –”
“Of course,” Sleuth said, leaning forward and shaking her hand once more. “Thank for all your help.”
“My pleasure.” She held Die’s hand for perhaps a beat too long, smiling broadly up at him. “C’était merveilleux de vous recontrer, Die.”
“Aussi.” He bowed, and then followed Sleuth out, back into the hall, the two of them skirting the janitor.
Sleuth waited until they were clear of the offices, and the guards, and had got their weapons back, before he said anything. “So what the hell was all that about?”
Die jumped. “All what?”
The Detective sashayed a little, doing his best Die impression. “Bonjour, mon amie, je suis le man de sus dreams.” He dropped the act. “I thought you and Crowbar were, uh, you know, like …”
Die was watching him with narrowed eyes. “It’s c-called manners. Chivalry.”
“Are you kidding? More like flir –”
“I d-don’t have to let you in m-my car, you know.”
Sleuth hastily cleared his throat and composed himself. “Yes, well, Senator Quaestor seemed to like it just fine, I guess.” He scowled at the sidewalk. “Shame neither of them could help us.” He snickered a little. “Would make it easier if we could just ask the victims though, wouldn’t it? Bring ‘em back to life and …” he trailed off. Die didn’t realize Sleuth was staring at him until they got back to the car.
“Hm? Oh.” He glared. “No.”
“But could you? I mean you know how to –”
“The answer is no.” Die yanked the door open and folded himself into the car. “That’s n-not the sort of th-thing I do.”
“But voodoo –” He jiggled the door handle a little, but it refused to open. “Hey, I think the lock’s stuck.”
“It isn’t.” Die just watched him through the window. “I’ll unlock it on one c-condition. You don’t bring up what you so d-desperately want to b-bring up again.”
“Not even to help Crowbar?” The engine growled to life. “Alright, fine! Fine, sorry. I won’t mention it again. I’ve solved other cases without that.” He looked up to the sky, which was steely gray and threatening rain, maybe storms later. “I promise, Die, alright? I won’t bring it up.”
The lock clicked open. “Fine.”
Sleuth slid into the seat, a little sheepishly. “Sorry. And, uh, I don’t think I’ll need to go all the way back to my place. Maybe over to where Mitchell died – I want to see if there’s anything there I can find.”
Die nodded, and drove quietly for a while. “D-do the other private investing-gators in the city have their c-clients rive them around?” he asked, after a long stretch.
Sleuth winced. “No.”
“But listen, that’s no mark of a detective –”
“I know.” He looked to Sleuth, sidelong. “I hope n-not, anyway. I hope, for y-your sake, that your r-reputation is more accurate than y-your appearance.”
Sleuth slid down in his seat. The doll, nestled between Die’s palm and the steering wheel, squeaked. “It is,” Sleuth assured him, his voice a little weaker than he would have liked. “It is.”
Chapter 12: Ingredients: Soylent Green
Sleuth returned home that night tired, and without anything to show for his afternoon poking around the crime scene but soggy clothes. The clouds had been true to their threatening appearance, and about twenty minutes after he’d got out of Die’s car and started rooting around in the bushes, the heavens had opened and poured rain. Luckily, the thunderstorm had held off for a while after, but eventually the lightning had started up and driven him home, hunched in his now-soaked-through coat, his hat floppy and shapeless on his head.
Kanaya wasn’t home when he got back, which was odd, but then she had that project. Probably at PI’s place. She’d turn up later, he was sure. Anyway, right now his priorities were more aligned with getting clean, dry clothes on, and finding something to eat.
She did trail in, perfectly dry with a soaked umbrella, a little after six. “Where’ve you been?” Sleuth asked, his mouth full of sandwich. “Working on your project?”
“Good evening, Father.” She walked right past the table, stopping only to deposit her umbrella in the pot by the door. “I was with Aradia – she is still quite distressed. I am helping her with her bridge.”
Sleuth nodded, and swallowed. “You’re not getting behind on your bridge with Nepeta though, are you? Or if Nepeta’s doing all the work –”
“Do not worry overmuch, Father; Nepeta and I are hard at work on our own design. I am just assisting Aradia, since she is having some trouble with recent developments. The imprisonment of her father is taking something of a toll on her schoolwork.”
Sleuth softened at that. Sure, it was Droog, and that didn’t bother him so much; Droog was probably fine in prison. He would be the sort. But his daughter hadn’t asked for this, to get caught up in this. “Alright, Kan, well … don’t let your own studies slip.”
“Of course not.” She turned toward the hall, toward her bedroom, before she paused and turned back. “And, if you do not object to my asking, Father, how goes your case? Have you found any new leads?”
He shook his head. “No, nothing.” And then he thought about it, and frowned up at her. “Nothing you need to worry about, anyway, Kan.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re not still looking into this case yourself, are you?”
She waved a hand. “Father, that is patently ridiculous. I have no more evidence than the paper provides me. I am just taking an interest in your work.”
“So all this spending time with Aradia has nothing to do with –”
“Of course not!” she said quickly, and then she composed herself, shifting her books in her arms and straightening. “Of course not. Just making conversation. How was your day?”
Sleuth frowned. “It was … fine. Got a little rained on. Sweetheart, I’m glad you’re sticking there for Aradia, I know the poor girl probably needs it, but if you and she are looking for ways to clear her dad’s name, you need to leave that to me and the others, alright? It’s too dangerous.”
“Father, it would be foolish for us to try to clear her father’s name.” She sighed. “I promise, I am not involving myself unduly in your work. I am simply helping a friend.”
Well, that seemed believable, he thought, so he softened and smiled at her. She was a good kid, really. Headstrong, and way too grown up for a girl her age, but a good kid. “Alright. You want a sandwich?”
“Oh, Aradia and I had dinner together. But thank you. I should do some homework before bed.” She smiled, and then strode out of the kitchen and into her bedroom, closing her door firmly behind her.
“Hm.” Sleuth watched her door, puzzled, for a minute after that. That wasn’t like her, just shutting him down like that. Usually she’d sit, talk about school for a little, or a case, but that was a closed path of conversation. Of course, school was something she talked about less these days – she was a fifteen year-old girl, there was only so much he could understand, or relate to, or truthfully, want to know – but to not even mention classes … Well, then again, it sounded like she was helping Aradia with a lot, maybe she was tired and behind on her work.
He’d just about convinced himself of that when the phone rang. The last thing he needed was Kan trying to answer it, so he practically fell out of his chair in his lunge for the receiver, before he recalled that she was in her room, working, and was unlikely to attempt to even answer the phone. So he took his time, cleared his throat, and made sure to answer in as hard-boiled a manner as he could muster. “Problem Sleuth.”
“Hey! Hey, oh my god he answered, Fin, this was the right number, he answered the phone –”
Sleuth leaned into the cabinets, eyes closed. “Trace?”
“Yes!” The gangster on the other end of the line squeaked – actually squeaked – and stammered a little bit. “Yes yes y-yes it’s Trace! And Fin, too, Fin’s here with me.”
“Good,” Sleuth said quickly. “Great, so uh, you guys find anything?”
There was a long pause. For a minute, Sleuth was worried the connection might have dropped, but then Fin’s voice came over the line. “He’s upset.”
Sleuth’s eyebrows rose, slowly, although he was careful to keep his unasked questions unasked. “Sorry to hear that.”
“Reason being, we didn’t find anything. Searched high and low, low and high. Well, I say nothing, but that’s a bit broad. We didn’t find any trails, not specific to the murder. They’re too old.”
“Oh,” Sleuth said, and now it was his turn to be disappointed. Too old? What kind of time powers had an expiration date? “Sorry to hear that.”
“We were sorry to find that. There was a lingering hint of Mitchell – that happens when someone dies – but there was no past trail that Trace could find that showed how she got there, and there wasn’t one for the killer, either.”
“I’m so sorry, tell him I’m sorry. Oh, GPI, he’s going to hate me now.”
“He doesn’t hate you, he’s just crushingly disappointed. Anyway, there were no trails there, but there was some sand. We took samples. They’re individually bagged.”
“I … appreciate the effort,” Sleuth responded, after a good few seconds’ thought. “But Midnight City’s hemmed in by desert, so I can’t say I’m very surprised …” He added, as if he were explaining to a child.
“Yes, that’s what we thought at first as well. But that’s false, because if you look at the sand we found, it is distinctly different from desert sand. The sand in the surrounding desert is a mixture of white sand granules and traditional yellow sand, stirred up in the previously fertile region by agricultural overuse for the war –”
“And the sand you found wasn’t white or yellow?” Sleuth asked quickly. It was pretty obvious that Fin was prepared to launch into an extensive history lesson. Best to end that before it really got started.
Alright, so that was interesting. “And you said you took samples?”
“Yes.” He paused. “We were thinking about showing them to Die, because he’s working with you on the case, and something seems off about the sand. Die’s good at things being off.”
“Yeah, do that.” Sleuth frowned. “I wonder if … Black sand, you said?”
“Like the presence of all colors at once, yes.”
“Huh.” He thought about that for a minute, and then cleared his throat. “Well, Fin, Trace, thanks for all your help. I’ll let you know if there’s anything else I could use you for.”
“We’re available on an hourly basis and we take our own clients,” he heard Trace say in the background, somewhat desperately. Hang up the phone, quick, that was the key there. He could always pretend he didn’t hear later.
He thought for a while, mulling over the black sand. Could be naturally occurring, he thought, but then did black sand occur anywhere? Die might know, but if he didn’t Sleuth figured he’d look like a pretty poor detective if he didn’t have a single lead on the sand.
He was in front of Kan’s door and knocking, hopefully before she went to bed for the night. “You still awake?”
The door cracked open, Kanaya peeking out through the crack. “Yes, Father?”
“Hey, uh,” he peered around the door a little, into the darkness of her bedroom. She must have been nearly ready to go to sleep; all the lights were off, with the exception of her reading lamp. “How’s your homework going?”
She pushed the door closed a little more. “Fine. Can I assist you with something?”
He coughed. “Uh, well, are you using your lunchtop?”
“No.” She ducked out of sight for a minute, and reappeared to thrust the lunchtop into his hands.
“Do you need any help with your home –”
“Goodnight, Father.” The door slammed shut. Sleuth blinked, the pressed fake wood of the door half an inch away from his nose.
“Must be tired,” he muttered, turning away, back to the kitchen table. Had he been in an appropriate frame of mind, he might have been more suspicious of her behavior. But he was distracted, and so instead he retreated to the table and propped the lunchtop open. He typed ‘black sand’ into the search engine, grabbed a cup of coffee that had long since gone cold – he couldn’t rightly recall when he’d brewed it – and settled in for a long night.
Come morning, he would wish first and foremost that he hadn’t fallen asleep in the armchair, or at least that Kanaya would have nudged him back to bed before she left for school. The second thing he would wish was that Spades Slick would learn to use a phone, or perhaps knock.
This was because Sleuth woke up in the morning, screaming, with a knife through his hand. Again. “Goddammit, Slick!”
“Shut the fuck up,” Slick snarled, leaning into his field of vision. This time, wiser to the gangster’s game, Sleuth pulled the knife out of his hand and the couch, and threw it behind the furniture. He’d worry about it later, as long as it was one less knife in play for the present. “This what I’m holdin’ off killing you for? So you can sleep and fuckin’ dick around on the computer?"
Sleuth was still blinking the sleep out of his eyes and trying to staunch the blood flowing from his hand when Slick hit him. “I was doing research!” he yelled, wrenching his hand away from Slick and baring his teeth. “Fuck you, asshole!”
“That’s not even a decent response!” Sleuth leaned back and kicked out, catching Slick in the hip. “You think you can just storm into anyone’s damn apartment and stab them in the hand?”
“When they’re working for me, yeah!”
“You’re a shitty employer,” Sleuth snapped, wrestling his sweatshirt over his head and wrapping it around his hand. “Could be I decide to stop working for you, if this is the kind of shit I have to put up with.”
Slick sneered. “You wouldn’t, if you think your fuckin’ life is worth anything.”
He had a point there. Best to just glower at him in a hardboiled manner until he folded and backed off. Unfortunately, Sleuth forgot that he was trying to get Spades Slick to back off, which resulted in another knife, this one embedded in his forearm, up to the hilt. “I’m not fuckin’ kidding,” he sneered, leaning away and straightening, his arms crossed over his skinny chest. “Piece of shit gumshoe, don’t give me that bullshit.”
Sleuth sighed then, defeated, and grimaced while he pulled the knife out of his arm. “Alright Slick, fine. I get your point.” He tossed the knife over his shoulder, in the general direction of the other one. “What do you want?” He watched the mobster carefully, even as he shifted the sticky sweatshirt from his hand up to his arm.
“You seen the papers this morning?”
“… Obviously not.” Sleuth flinched back when Slick pulled another knife out. “Knock it off with the stabbing!” Instead of a knife, a newspaper hit him in the face. “Goddammit.”
“They’re goin’ after Boxcars now.”
“What?” Sleuth tied the shirt off around his arm, and flipped the newspaper open. “Why Boxcars? He’s not …” He trailed off as he scanned the first few lines of the article. Slick perched on his kitchen table, taking a swig from a flash he’d had hidden in his coat. After a few minutes, Sleuth leaned away from the paper, as though it had tried to bite him.
“Eaten?” he looked to Slick, who was helping himself to some toast triangles Kanaya had left out for her father. “People got eaten?”
“S’what it fuckin’ says, isn’t it?” Slick glared at the toast. “The cops think it’s Boxcars, but it ain’t.”
Sleuth was still flipping through the article, his mouth opening and closing as he framed and discarded sentences, one after the other. “They’re getting their … organs eaten. Through their … noses?” He looked up. “Is that how Boxcars –”
“Fuck no!” Sleuth ducked out of the way of the knife this time, and it embedded in the wall. “None of your fuckin’ business how it happens, but it sure as hell ain’t like that. They’re settin’ him up, just like they set up Droog an’ –”
“Is it related to the other murders?”
Slick’s face twisted up. “Huh? How the fuck’m I supposed to know? You’re the fuckin’ detective.”
Sleuth was shaking his head. “This isn’t even consistent with the M.O., except that it looks like they’re trying to set up Boxcars. And there’s nothing in the paper that even suggests that Boxcars is a suspect, except that the way they killed was to … eat bits of them.” He risked looking back at Slick. “You sure this is setting up Boxcars, and not completely unrelated?”
“The cops showed up at Casino this morning.” He took another sip of whatever was in the flask. “He an’ Deuce are goin’ public with everything they do, keepin’ their noses clean.”
“Well apparently someone’s gotta make sure you do your damn job.” He slid off the table, disgusted, and went to retrieve his knives. “Fuckin’ sleeping.”
Sleuth got up and headed for his bedroom. “Man’s gotta sleep sometime, Slick.” He paused in the doorway, his arm throbbing, and took a breath. “Uh, this might be a bad time, but I was thinkin’ of running down to the nearest crime scene.”
“Oh, yeah.” Slick snapped his teeth. “Great idea, me just drivin’ down to a crime scene to drop your fuckin’ ass off. Christ, why the fuck I let Droog talk me into fuckin’ extorting you is a goddamn mystery.”
Sleuth ducked into his room and slammed the door, which was why the knife embedded itself in his door, instead of in his skull. “Is that a no?” he yelled, emboldened by the plank of solid wood separating himself from the mob boss. “’Cause if you’re gonna keep it up with the knives I can just walk down there and check it out on my own time, after the cops have a chance to comb it over.” A silvery blade splintered through the door.
“I’ll be in the damn car,” Slick concluded. “This better fuckin’ pay off, that’s all I’m saying. Goddamn flatfoot needs a fuckin’ babysitter.” On that note, the front door slammed. Behind his own door, Sleuth grinned.
“I can see why Snowman likes him.”
“Because Slick’s ridiculously easy to manipulate,” Terezi hissed, her mouth full of sandwich. The three girls were taking lunch in the bathroom again, going over the information that they’d managed to twist out of their respective guardians. “If we can get Karkat in on this he’ll probably be able to get all the details out of Slick and –”
Aradia rolled her eyes. “He’s not going to talk to you, Terezi.”
“Well no, but he’ll talk to –”
“Karkat has already informed me that he will not be discussing the details of what he informed me was ‘stupid detective bullshit’ on any level.”
Terezi frowned. “Not even to help Droog?”
“He said it was about time Daddy spent some time in prison.” Aradia sighed. “Which is fair, I suppose; Slick has had more than his fair share of time behind bars. Although I do think the parts about Daddy learning to deal with un-ironed clothes was a little unfair – just because he wouldn’t let Karkat wear his stupid t-shirt …” She trailed off, and then shook her head. “Never mind. The point is, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Karkat is not an option.”
“Alright.” Terezi propped one bony cheekbone on her fist and glared blindly at the back of the bathroom stall door. “So what about you, Kan? Mom won’t tell me anything – she had to bring up that stupid conspiracy theory incident again. Which wasn’t even my fault, just because Fin and Trace are excitable –”
“Father has barred me from any further conversation about the case.” She smiled thinly. “That said, I did have an informative eavesdropping session last night, in which Father had a discussion with aforementioned Misters Fin and Trace, regarding a find they made at the location of the late Senator’s murder.”
Aradia’s eyes lit up. “Something to clear Daddy’s name?”
“I am afraid not; at least, not as it stands. Just some unusual black sand, I gathered.” She folded her hands and went on, lowering her voice. “Now, black sand in and of itself is not found in the desert, at least not naturally. Through some quick searching, I was able to ascertain that the most common sources of black sand are volcanoes and deposits of heavy metals in loose dirt. But there is often black sand associated with horrorterrors,” she finished, with a slightly conspiratorial whisper.
The other two looked to her for a minute, before Aradia once again rolled her eyes and Terezi snorted. “Please, Kan, horrorterrors? This is murder, not horrible apocalyptic chaos.” Terezi leaned back, gesturing grandly. “Besides, there was a person sighted at the scene of every crime, not a gigantic monster with tentacles spewing from every orifice, howling bloodthirsty wails into the night as it fixed its writhing palpi onto the onto its hapless victims’ throats and curdled their very innards with its molten burning touch.” She scoffed, as the other two stared. “Honestly, Kan, I’m supposed to be the conspiracy theorist here. Horrorterrors, I ask you.”
“… Yes, well, uh, as verbosely and bizarrely put as that was,” Aradia said, cautiously, “I have to agree with Terezi. Something doesn’t seem right about that. Anyway, why would horrorterrors have a specific set of victims they were targeting?”
Kanaya frowned at her folded hands. “I admit I am not clear on all the possibilities of this line of questioning, but to me it seems the most likely source of the black sand –”
Aradia shrugged. “Or someone could work somewhere with it. I’m sure there’s somewhere in this city where you can buy black sand if you really want to. We should look into that.”
“You think we could ask Sally?” Terezi mused. “She seems pretty on-board with the idea that Droog and Crowbar are being set up; she could probably help us find all the places in the city that’re likely.”
“And then we can interrogate the people that work there!” Aradia smiled. “That sounds cool; I like interrogating.” She looked a little sad then. “My dad always did the interrogating for the Crew, I guess I could use some of his stuff, since he’s not around at the moment.”
Kanaya looked a little reproachful at that suggestion. “Perhaps we could just start with asking perceptive questions.”
“I dunno, interrogating sounds pretty cool to me!”
“We are not interrogating anyone, Terezi.” Kanaya frowned at the taller girl for a minute, and eventually broke off in the face of her bright, unyielding smile. “Besides, we still have a few avenues of inquiry to pursue before we jump to such extreme methods. Your father, for example, Aradia – surely he must have some information about the crime he allegedly committed? Did he mention anything to you when you last saw him?”
Aradia shook her head and brushed a handful of her hair back behind her ear. “I tried to ask him, but he kept changing the subject. I didn’t … have the heart to really push it.”
“Did he mention Crowbar at all?” Terezi asked, hopefully.
Aradia chewed her lip a little. “He did, actually. It’s odd … the prison has them as cellmates, which I’m given to understand is usually not okay. But they’re not trying to kill each other, at least not from what Daddy told me.”
“That’s kind of weird.” Terezi frowned. “Is the prison crowded or something?”
“I’m not sure. There was something about a guard … I don’t know, he didn’t really want to talk about it.” She sniffed. “Can’t say I blamed him; he looks terrible. Like he’s not sleeping.”
“Well, the noise level is probably highly intrusive, I would imagine.” Kanaya patted Aradia’s back, frowning a little. “I am sure he will be fine though – both of them will. They are gentlemen of resource. We must simply redouble our efforts to get to the bottom of this case, before the situation gets much more drastic.”
On unspoken agreement, they’d taken to sleeping in shifts, when Bob was there. Which meant the majority of the time, since Bob was nearly always there, mute, his eyes fixed on then two of them through the cell bars. The worst part, Crowbar had decided, was the overwhelming, oppressive silence. They had to reach an unspoken agreement, because any kind of spoken agreement would have been ear-shatteringly loud.
The problem was, exhaustion was edging in for both of them at this point. They’d both slept through the entirety of the relief guard’s six-hour shift, but it wasn’t cutting it. Crowbar was watching Bob as closely as he could, but despite his resolve to make sure Bob didn’t move, despite his overwhelming desire to do his duty, so that Droog would pay him back in an hour or two, he couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open. He was fading, and nodding off. Eventually, his chin hit his chest, and her jerked back awake.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d been out. He could have sworn it was only seconds, but ever since coming here, in the windowless box that housed their cell and away from his crowbar besides, time seemed more like a distant concept, rather than something he was intricately aware of. But the exact time wasn’t important in this case, anyway; the important bit was that however long it had been, it was long enough.
Droog was stiff and unmoving on his cot, still in the half-careless pose he’d twisted into in his sleep, but his eyes were wide open, and he was staring at Crowbar. Help, he said, without speaking a single word. Crowbar looked away from him, and instead of moving forward, off his own cot, he instead pressed back, into the reassuring plate glass at the back of the cell.
“You feel tense,” Bob said softly, running a hand down Droog’s back. “Such a shame. These aren’t very good mattresses.”
Droog didn’t respond, and went even more rigid when Bob’s hand wandered up to his head, and the guard started running his fingers through Droog’s graying hair. “I said, these aren’t very good mattresses.”
He waited another beat, and then he grabbed the shoulders of the thin mobster’s uniform and hauled him up, his back against the bars. Droog didn’t make a sound, but he twisted a little, trying to get away. Bob, for all his pasty, drawn slimness, clung on and pulled until Droog gave up, just sitting stiff and terrified against the bars.
Bob leaned in, and his nose brushed against the back of Droog’s ear. “Do you agree, Mr. Diamonds?”
“Yessir.” Had Crowbar not been struck with horror, he might have laughed at the image. As it was, he could only push himself harder against the glass, his knees drawn up in front of his chest, for all the protection that would offer him.
“Now now, was that so hard to answer?” Bob smiled his thin, unnerving smile, yellowed teeth peeking through the slit in his lips. “A pity; perhaps I should see about getting you gentlemen more comfortable sleeping surfaces.” He nuzzled Droog again, and then inhaled deeply. “Delightful; it would be a veritable tragedy if we lost you to exhaustion. Such an interesting person.” His hands wandered from their positions, clenched into the back of Droog’s uniform, and slid up his shoulder blades, until he stopped, and started rubbing. “So tense – ah!” Droog bolted of the bed, toward Crowbar, scrambling out of range until the chain connecting him to his bed snapped taut.
“How rude, Diamonds.” Bob frowned. “But perhaps I was hasty. After all, I’m just to be an observer.” He retreated from the bars, back to his seat, and folded his hands in his lap. “I do apologize for interrupting your sleep. By all means, resume your rest.”
Droog looked away from Bob, just for long enough to glance to Crowbar, who’d done his level best to fuse himself with the plate glass. Crowbar cocked his head back towards Droog’s mattress. Do you want to sleep?
A shake of his head, and a look cold and hard enough to make Crowbar grateful for the chains fastening them to their beds. Unlikely.
Chapter 13: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
So to make up for my month-long hiatus, have an obscenely long chapter <3
There was a gardening depot just outside of the city, right off the last stop on the blue line. Kanaya knew about it due to her gardening habit, and as one the three girls decided that that particular depot would be the best place to start their enquiries regarding the mysterious black sand found at the scenes of the crime.
They jumped on the very first bus after school, sitting side-by-side as they rumbled out of the city proper and into the lusher suburbs. “So say this black sand is more common than we think it is,” Terezi mused, her fingers tracing the crest of the dragon head that made up the handle of her cane, “where do we go from there, you know? Like what if everyone that could possibly want to buy black sand can just get it?”
“Then it’s erroneous evidence,” Kanaya sighed. “Or, at least, it is not the conclusive evidence we have all been hoping for. Unfortunately, that is a hazard of investigating crimes.”
Aradia sat back into the plastic seat, her hands folded in her lap. “From where I’m sitting, it’s easier on the other side.”
“Yes. LV has always said that the minds of highly organized criminals are some of the most beautifully sophisticated, for them to create such impossible puzzles. It makes me think that perhaps we are dealing with somebody who is incredibly devious in this particular case.”
“They would have to be, to set up Daddy and Crowbar,” Aradia said, tacking Crowbar’s name onto her assertion as if it were an afterthought. “And these most recent murders, the ones that the cops are trying to pin on Boxcars, those are pretty clever too.”
“We don’t even know they’re related though.” Terezi leaned her chin forward onto her hands. “Not yet, anyway. This killer’s tough ‘cause his MO is that he’s a copycat, but he’s not copying the same people every time. I mean, what if this is someone totally different, but they’re taking advantage of the whole mass killing thing?”
“Could be,” Kanaya acceded. “Unfortunately the prospect of us investigating the murders that have occurred thus far, I believe, is probably close to nil. We will just have to focus on those that we know can be attributed to one person or group, and see if we can get to the bottom of those.”
“As long as it gets my daddy out of jail, I’m down with it.” She glanced to her watch. “And we have to be back by six, so I can catch the bus to the prison.”
Terezi frowned. “I don’t think it’s very fair that you’re only allowed family in supermax. And that I’m not considered family.”
Aradia’s expression softened a little. “I could see if Daddy would give him a message.”
Terezi nodded. “Okay, then tell him this.” She smacked her fist against her palm. “Strength in the face of adversity! Courage in the face of hopelessness! Cunning in the face of –”
“I was thinking more along the lines of ‘I miss you’.”
“Are you gonna let me finish or not?”
“… Let me get a pen.”
“I’m gonna draw him a picture too.”
Kanaya let the two of them at it, Terezi scrawling a rough approximation of Crowbar apparently breaking out of prison action-hero style, all the while dictating an inspirational speech that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a Mel Gibson film. Aradia rolled her eyes here and there, but she was smiling as she wrote. Kanaya simply turned her attention to her notebook.
The details she’d got off her father were scant, although eavesdropping at the door last night had proved fairly fruitful. They’d already been through all the information from the old case files, too, although they’d never been considering that black sand might be relevant. Still, she couldn’t recall any mention. Perhaps there had been some, and no one had thought it important? And what did it mean? As simple an explanation as a murderer with ties to somewhere that provided black sand was, Kanaya kept coming back to the horrorterrors, the thought that perhaps there was something related to them …
The piled off the bus when it finally reached their stop, and Kanaya led the pack into the store. The proprietor was an older woman, wispy-haired and thin, apparently always dressed in an overlarge sunhat and fluorescent green apron, regardless of the weather conditions. She was working on a display pot at one of the registers, but hastily set her trowel aside when the three of them walked in the door.
“Oh, Kanaya! So nice to see you out here again; how are the violets coming?”
“They have not bloomed yet,” Kanaya replied, smiling and setting her bag down on the counter. “But they seem to be growing just fine. I intend to check the pH of their soil if they don’t bloom soon, but for now I’m tempted to accept that they may just be slow.”
The store owner beamed. “Yes, everything in its own time, dear. And the raspberries?”
“I just had a lovely crop, actually, although I’m afraid I didn’t get to actually harvest many. Father ate most of them straight off the plant.”
“Ah, well.” She winked. “Best way to eat them, I think.”
Kanaya smiled. “I may have helped him; he does not bear all the blame.”
“Hah! Well that’s alright then, isn’t it?” She turned her attention to the other two, her smile not wavering. “And you brought friends today, did you?”
“Ah.” Kanaya turned and pointed to the other girls. “Sorry for not introducing them sooner: this is Aradia Megido, and Terezi Pyrope.”
“You girls have an interest in gardening?” She snapped her gloved fingers. “Or are you new? I’m always eager to help out a new enthusiast. You want to start with something simple and hardy, that’s the key, although it should be attractive, so you have incentive to keep up with it, yes? Now I think for you, Terezi, some Gerbera –”
“I am sorry Ms Belton,” Kanaya cut in, her face the very picture of apology, “but we have not come to start gardens for my friends. I was actually hoping to ask you a few questions. And,” she went on, blushing and not looking to the other two girls, “to see if the starfish plant seeds had come in yet.”
“Oh, no, not yet dear – they’re tied up in customs! I’ll call you the moment I have them in my hands, I promise. I’ll even hold some for you.” She and Kanaya exchanged smiles, and then the shop owner leaned onto the counter, brushing her hair behind her ear. “Now, what is it I can help you with?”
Terezi jumped in. “Do you sell any black sand here?”
She looked thoughtful, frowning. “Black sand? Hm. I haven’t for a while, I suppose. It’s quite hard to get a hold of, you see, and very expensive, and there aren’t many people that are interested in growing plants in it anyway. Sand is a difficult medium, you see, and black sand is mostly an aesthetic choice, so –”
Aradia leaned onto the counter. “But you did sell it once?”
“Years ago. I haven’t had any here since, oh, since before you girls were probably in school. Like I said, it’s expensive. If someone wants to grow something in sand, they usually opt for the cheaper route and just drive out into the desert a bit, pick up as much as they need.”
Kanaya nodded, and carefully wrote that down in her notebook. “Say someone wanted some black sand, though. Does anyone in the city sell it?” She noticed Ms Belton’s expression, inquisitive and suspicious, and added, “This is for a school project. On … volcanoes.”
“Makes sense! Hm, does anybody sell black sand, let me think …” She tapped her lips with one dirtied fingernail. And then she smirked. “Well it depends on the sort of black sand you’re looking for.” She gestured back into her shop. “I sell color-sorted sand, and I have a brown that’s very nearly black. Just regular old sand, though. If you want volcanic sand, I think Mr. Blakeslee out on the edge of the city sells some. Very rich in certain minerals, and I think he sells plants that thrive in that environment. A niche market, you see.”
“Silica is the most common, I think. Very high in that, it’s a dead giveaway to connoisseurs whether they’re buying bone fide black volcanic sand, as opposed to anything else.”
Terezi cocked her head. “Like what else could there be, though?”
Belton shrugged. “Regular old sorted sand, like I sell or … Or horrorterror sand. But nobody reputable sells that, anyway. Won’t get tangled up in it.” She sighed at their expressions. “You don’t need to concern yourselves with that, girls. Your project is on volcanoes, no need to research the black arts.”
Terezi waved a hand. “Oh, please, I dabble in the black arts every time I make breakfast with my uncle. What’s the story with horrorterror sand?”
Aradia was more cunning. “After all, if we’re to present on volcanic sand, it would be only thorough to do a brief section on things that could be confused for true volcanic rock, yes?”
Ms Belton frowned, although the way her eyes crinkled at the corners gave away the fact she was trying not to smile. “I’m sure it would. Why don’t you ask Miss Terezi’s uncle? Apparently he uses the black arts to make eggs.”
“He uses them to un-make Eggs, actually. It’s sort of complicated.” She flipped her fringe out of her face. “Anyway, he won’t tell me. Sure, when he wants to sprinkle blood on doorsteps and bury chicken bones under the threshold it’s all ‘Oh Terezi, are you busy? Want to help?’ but when I have a question it’s suddenly ‘A girl your age has no business knowing anything like that, go play with your gavel’.” She leaned her elbows onto the counter, and beamed blindly up at Ms Belton. “So what’s the 4-1-1?”
“I have to say, I’m inclined to agree with your uncle on this point. Whoever he is.” She tapped one finger on the counter. “You’ll do no good mucking around with horrorterrors, even the remnants of them.”
Aradia sprang on that clue. “So sand is what’s left after you summon a horrorterror?”
Ms Belton scowled. “Clever girl, aren’t you?” Aradia smiled, a thin, knowing little smile that, in Kanaya’s opinion, was nearly identical to the smile she’d seen Droog flash. “Fine. Yes, black sand is what you get when you summon a horrorterror. They’re much larger out in the Void, so when they come to this plane, their mass is compressed. Of course, some must be lost, or they’d be so supermassive they’d form their own gravitational field. That’s the black sand.”
Kanaya nodded eagerly, scribbling notes. “And is it made up of silica?”
“No. It’s made up of nothing.” She shrugged. “Literally nothing. It’s dense – denser than regular sand. You pick up a handful and it’ll wrench your arm out of the socket. It’s how I used to test my volcanic sand, back when I stocked it, to make sure it was pure: weighed it. You can do all sorts of other fancy tests as well – it’s lustrous, and it looks purple if you throw a black light on it – but why go to the trouble when you can just use a scale?” She nodded. “And that’s all you’ll know.”
Kanaya nodded, and stuck her pencil behind her ear. “It ought to be more than enough, thank you Ms Belton. I’ve great confidence that our presentation will the thorough, and garner no less than highest marks.”
“Well I do hope so, dear.” She smiled, and picked her trowel back up. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to have a look around, see if there’s anything you need? I could put it on your father’s tab if you haven’t got enough money.”
“No, no, it is quite alright. We have a great deal of work to do to organize our presentation. Perhaps we will go to Mr. Blakeslee’s shop and purchase some as a visual aid, hm?” she asked, turning to her compatriots.
Ms Belton shook her head. “You won’t get a bus out there this time of day; he’s too far out into the sticks. And he’ll ovecharge you, besides.” She winked. “If all you girls need is a little sample, you could try the Delta.”
Aradia frowned. “The casino?”
“Yes; they have an indoor beach there, did you know? All done up in black sand, it’s a mock-up of Hawaii’s Kaimu Beach. Wave pool and everything. I’m sure if you girls paid admission, they wouldn’t notice you slipping a baggie of sand out.” She chuckled. “Must cost a fortune for them to keep that thing running.”
They exchanged looks, and then Kanaya nodded and snapped her notebook shut. “That is a wonderful idea, Ms Belton. We very much appreciate all your help.”
“Of course, Kanaya dear, any time.” She winked. “Anything for one of my best customers, of course. Oh, if you don’t mind, could you pass a message on to one of your classmates for me?”
“Tell young Miss Harley that I found a bushel of pumpkins in my back shed this morning. I believe they might be hers.”
“Of course.” Kanaya smiled, and nodded, and the three of them turned for the door. “Thank you again Ms Belton. I shall return later in the week, I believe, unless the starfish plant seeds come in sooner.”
Once outside, Terezi started talking again, rapid-fire. “Alright so here’s the plan. We go to Blakeslee’s place first and grill him, get him to give up the info on who’s buying the stuff from him. Then we go to Delta and grill all the employees. Aradia, you should get some of your dad’s stuff for a little intimidation factor, and then –”
Kanaya held up a hand. “Ms Belton is right: Mr. Blakeslee’s shop is far too remote to be accessible to us tonight. I think it would be more prudent for us to go instead to Delta, sample the sand there, and perhaps take note of the employees at the beach.”
“And go swimming.”
“Terezi.” Kanaya frowned. “I thank you in advance for staying focused.”
“Hey!” Terezi held up her hands. “Excuse me for thinking maybe we ought to take some time to ourselves in between getting all our stupid guardians out of trouble, huh? Anyway, there’s only two places in the city with black sand; this case is practically closed. If it isn’t Blakeslee, it’s someone that works at Delta, and the sand’s dropping off their clothes during the murders.”
“I think you might be oversimplifying things a little,” Aradia muttered.
“Everyone always says the simplest answer’s usually the right one,” Terezi snapped.
“I don’t know, Kanaya’s theory that it might be horrorterrors is starting to sound a little more interesting. And that’s simple enough in and of itself, anyway.”
“Oh please.” Terezi put her hands on her hips. “Clearly neither of you has a creepy voodoo uncle. Horrorterrors don’t work like that! I mean yeah, you can summon them to do your bidding, but you have to be really strong. Like, the only people that can do it are super-powerful sorcerers, and maybe the monarchs of Prospit and Derse. Maybe. And I can tell you right now, my mom isn’t summoning any horrorterrors, besides her cooking.”
“Your mother cooks horrible creatures from the void?” Aradia asked, slightly horrified.
“No, she cooks regular food really, really poorly. It’s a family joke thing. Anyway, what I’m saying is that unless there’s a really powerful sorcerer in the city – or the former Queen of Prospit has a bee in her bonnet – there’s no way that someone’s summoning horrorterrors. Delta is way more likely.”
“She makes a point,” Kanaya sighed. “Although … well, I suppose Wilhelmina Quaestor is a fairly unlikely suspect.”
“That’s what I’m saying; Senator Quaestor doesn’t have anything to gain from putting Crowbar and Droog in prison: she’s a Senator. What else could she want?”
“The whole city?” Aradia suggested. “She did used to be a Queen, maybe she misses –”
Terezi cut her off. “Doubt it. I really, really doubt it.” She rubbed her hands together as the bus lumbered around the corner. “Alright, so we’re going to the strip then, yeah? Hit up Delta, investigate some employees, swim a little in between –”
“You don’t even have things with you to go swimming,” Aradia snapped. “And I’m not going.”
Kanaya’s face fell. “Why not?”
“It’s almost four-thirty; if I’m going to get to the prison before visiting hours are over, I need to get on my way. It takes almost an hour to get back to the visiting windows anyway; you have to wait for all these guards and go past all these security checkpoints and then they have to search you. It’s kind of insane.”
“Very well. Terezi and I will have to investigate independently, and we will report the results to you over lunch at school tomorrow?”
“Sounds good; we can work on it over the weekend then, too,” she added, climbing aboard the bus. “Go through all the evidence.”
Terezi steepled her fingers. “I love it when a plan comes together.”
“Slick, that plan will literally never work.”
“The fuck are you talking about?” Slick glared out at Sleuth from under the bush frond he’d duct-taped to his hat. “This is goddamn brilliant.”
“You taped a branch to your hat.” Sleuth pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. “For a nefarious criminal, I really expected more from you.”
“Yeah? Well, for a piece of shit of shit detective I expect you to have a lot less fucking attitude.” He jerked his hat off his head and set about stripping the branch away. “You have any better disguises in mind, asshole?”
Sleuth refrained from rolling his eyes – barely – and looked back to the crime scene. It was mobbed by cops, and Vimes himself was still there, talking to a huddle of what looked like crime scene investigators. Even from this distance away, Sleuth could see the pools of inky black on the sidewalk: sand. He frowned, and turned back to Slick.
“We need to pick up some of that sand.”
“There’s been sand at other crime scenes. A few … private investigators I work with sometimes found a sample at Mitchell’s murder scene. I’d like to see if it’s the same, see if we could tie all the murders together.”
Slick peered at the gathering of cops. “S’behind all that crime scene stuff though. An’ they’re kickin’ it around.”
“Hm.” Sleuth put one hand on his hip, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully with the other. “There’s the hedgerow behind them all, looks like some of the sand is close to the hedges. If I could slip through there and scoop some of the sand into a bag without anyone noticing –”
He gestured to the area in question. “They’re all focused on where the damn body was; you’ll never get close enough. S’a stupid idea.”
“Maybe with a disguise –” he went on, biting his lip. There was another option here, of course, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to …
“Are you fucking serious?” He threw the old, discarded branch at Sleuth. “Fucking stealing my ideas?”
“Not you,” Sleuth snapped, finally, jerking back to the present. “Slick, you couldn’t be disguised if I you were the best fucking con artist in the city, which you aren’t.”
“Yeah?” He was suddenly in Sleuth’s face, teeth bared, the brim of his hat pushing up under Sleuth’s. “How ya figure on that, Problem Sleuth?”
Sleuth sneered. “Look at you. Who else in this city has one eye, one arm, and maybe brushes 5’1” on a good – urk.” He stopped, shoved up against the car, with a thin blade pressed to his throat.
“You wanna finish that sentence, flatfoot?”
“No,” he squeaked.
“Didn’t fucking think so.” He leaned close, and made sure Sleuth got a good look at his teeth. “Let me make myself fucking clear: you bring any of those things up again an’ I will stab the shit outta you. Deal’s off, alright? You understand, Sleuth?”
“Clear as crystal,” he whispered, his hands in the air. The knife disappeared then, hidden back in Slick’s coat somewhere. Hesitantly, he reached to his neck. His hand came away red and wet.
Sleuth swallowed, gingerly, and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, mopping at his neck. It was just a little cut, nothing fatal, certainly, and nothing that would last very long. “I have another idea,” he hazarded, pressing the cloth up against the cut and hoping it would clot off soon.
“Yeah?” Slick barely glanced to the detective, instead choosing to focus on cleaning the blade he’d so recently made use of.
“We could use a distraction.” He frowned at the crime scene. “Something to get them all looking away, while you sneak through the hedge and grab some –”
“Why the fuck am I the one sneaking through the fucking hedge, huh?”
Sleuth clutched the handkerchief closer to his neck, leaning away from Slick. “Because if the cops see you, they’ll arrest you. Come on, Slick, you know they’ll think up some charge to get you locked up, even for a little while.”
The mobster was watching him, his knife twirling around his fingers, apparently totally unconsciously. “If I get caught it’s gonna be a lot fucking longer before they cut me loose.”
“Then I’ll have to come up with a pretty damn good distraction, won’t I?” He shrugged. “You got any better ideas?” Slick just glared, and Sleuth took it as a ‘no’. “Fine, then take this baggie and just get a little bit. I’ll distract the cops.” He took a step toward the yellow tape, and then froze when a tiny, sharp point bit into the skin just below his chin.
“Somethin’ for you to remember, Problem Sleuth: I’m Spades fucking Slick. I don’t take orders from anyone, much less a goddamn private piece of shit detective.”
Sleuth nodded by millimeters. “Understood, Slick.” He took one shaky breath. Slick watched him, and then nodded and tucked the knife away once more.
“You’re fuckin’ lucky you’re the only asshole in this city willing to try an’ bust Droog out.” He straightened his black jacket, and grabbed the plastic baggie. “Otherwise I’d fucking kill you.”
“Understood.” He waited a while, until Slick had stalked off, out of sight, and then he approached the crime scene. He checked to make sure he wasn’t bleeding quickly, and then stepped between a couple of surveillance vans and into CV’s line of sight. The harried-looking man glanced up at the intrusion, and then scowled.
“This is a closed scene, Problem Sleuth.”
Sleuth tipped his hat. “Afternoon, Commander. Just admiring from the sidelines, checking it out for myself, you know.” He stopped short of the crime scene tape, his hands in the air, placating. “I’m not coming near the scene.”
“Keep looking,” CV snapped to the others, before wrench the tape up and striding over to Sleuth. “Just what the hell are you playing at here, Sleuth?”
Sleuth shrugged. “Rumor has it you’re looking at Hearts Boxcars for this one. Just thought I’d drop by the scene myself, before you got too carried away with that idea.”
“Hearts? How did you –” His scowled deepened. “Never mind. I’m not giving away any information to you, Sleuth, like I said, as long as you’re representing those two packs of killers. Now get out of my crime scene.”
“The thing is,” and here Sleuth leaned up against one of the vans, casually, just to grate Vimes a little more, “I don’t know if they are killers. At least not in these cases. I’m not gonna say they’re innocent men being caught up in a bad situation, but –”
“Really?” Vimes grumbled. “God damn it, Sleuth, you’ve bought their goddamn stories hook, line and sinker, haven’t you? How much are they paying you?”
Sleuth shrugged. “Nothing. A little pro-bono work, for a change. I can’t stand the thought of people being accused of crimes they didn’t commit, see.” He smirked. “Suffer-Not-Injustice-Sleuth, they’ll call me.” Vimes had him by the lapels in half a second, and the breath went out of him as the Commander cracked his back up against the van. “Hey, come on, Vimes! Easy! I’m not doing anything!”
“The hell you are!” His eyes were narrowed, and his knuckles were white where they were pressed up against the private detective’s chest. All of which Sleuth duly did not note, because he was busy watching all the surrounding officers drop what they were doing and turn to stare. “You come here – to my crime scene, and my investigation – trying to prove your half-baked theory that the goddamn Midnight Crew is innocent, and then, and then –” he was building now, nearly shouting, which was good, because no one noticed the brushed-titanium hand scooping a little bit of sand into the plastic baggie “- you have the nerve to … to use that name!”
He dropped Sleuth, and pointed one trembling finger right under the shorter man’s nose. “I told you to stay out of this investigation, Problem Sleuth! And it goes fucking double now, alright? If you’re not out of this crime scene in twenty goddamn seconds, I’m arresting you for obstruction of justice and defiling a criminal investigation, and I’ll have you locked up.” He shoved Sleuth back into the van. “See how your new friends like you then!”
“Please, Vimes, they’re just clients.” Sleuth straightened the lapels on his overcoat, and stood up, disguising the fact that he was out of breath, and shaking in his boots. “They’re not gonna take the time to break me out of jail.”
The police Commander stepped back and lit a cigar, before continuing on with an attempt at forced cheer, “Well then I guess you’d better get outta here soon, hm? If you’d like to avoid an arrest.”
Sleuth didn’t push it. Not only was CV’s expression one of unconcealed loathing, the other officers had started to close in. Handcuffs were in evidence, although it was a testament to the character of CV and his men that not one of them drew a weapon. So instead of fitting in a parting remark, something hardboiled and clever for preference, he turned on his heel and strode off.
Slick had had the foresight to park his car away from the scene itself, and Sleuth hot-footed it back to the space, a couple streets away and concealed in an alley by a club Slick apparently owned. The other man was already there, waiting, plastic baggie in hand. “Took you long enough,” he griped, when Sleuth turned the corner.
“The key to a good distraction,” Sleuth pointed out, drawing even with Spades and glancing down to the bag, “is that it works.
“Yeah, well, it worked.” He handed the bag to Sleuth. “One fucking sample of black sand, whatever the fuck that means for Droog.”
Sleuth turned the bag in the light. “They found it at Mitchell’s death. Whoever was impersonating Droog left it behind there, too.” He shook the bag a little, watched how the sand hardly moved. “This is the key to our killer.”
Slick rolled his eye. “Our nameless, faceless killer?”
“Clues are clues, Slick. Patience.” He cupped the bag in his hand, weighed it and noted how something was curiously … off about that. “I need to get this to Die.”
“What the fuck has that asshole got to do with this?”
Sleuth jiggled the bag again. “Does something about the sand just … not seem right to you, Slick?”
“The fuck do I look like, a sand expert?” He wrenched his door open and dropped into the car. “Should ask fucking Die, he’s probably got enough in his –”
“It just seems like it’s … not right.” Sleuth got in the passenger’s side, before Slick roughly shoved him back out into the alley. “What?”
“You want to go see Die, that’s your fucking prerogative, but I ain’t driving you there.” He turned the key in the ignition, and the car growled its way to life. “Take the fucking bus.” He peeled out, swerving onto the street with nary a second glance for cross-traffic, and disappeared into the city.
Sleuth watched him go, frowning, and reflected that being a grown man without a car – or, indeed, a drivers’ license – was not an ideal situation.
Felt Mansion was outside the city proper, built on – and, perhaps, into – a hillside. The bus ride was interminably long, and didn’t actually go to the mansion. Rather, it just delivered Problem Sleuth to the neighborhood below, leaving him and the curiously heavy bag to hike up the winding road to the place. It was just at the base of the driveway – a massive, sweeping thing, lined with spherical hedges and oddly-disturbing statuary – that Sleuth realized that his entire plan to infiltrate Felt Mansion and speak to Die consisted of ‘knock on the door’.
It was flawed, at best.
He considered the structure, and found himself wishing Slick was there. Slick had infiltrated the place once or twice before, with the Crew, and while ultimately it hadn’t gone well, at least he’d gotten inside. Sleuth, on the other hand, hadn’t the faintest idea where to start. There were windows, some soaring and arched, others just barely large enough to let light in, but who knew where they led. Possibly, Slick hadn’t cared, and had broken in to one at random. Sleuth considered that strategy, but settled on the decision that since Slick probably had also not cared if there was anyone else in the room he’d smashed into, whereas Sleuth did, breaking into a random window was, at the very least, reckless.
So faced with no better options that he could discern, Sleuth approached the front door with a knot in his stomach and sweat on his palms. He prayed – prayed – someone decent would answer the door. Fin and Trace, maybe, or Die, or Snowman, although playing butler didn’t seem her style. But that was improbable: four out of fifteen was long odds at best. He briefly considered just walking in, but the mansion was an architectural nightmare on the outside, and Sleuth realized that his chances of finding who he wanted were slim at best.
He knocked, and then jumped back. And then he waited.
And then he waited rather longer, because the door remained firmly un-opened.
And then he went on waiting, because while the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics dictated that the door could probably exist in any number of states, including ‘open’, ‘closed’, and ‘weasel’, Sleuth’s considerable, if absent, appraisal of the door itself caused all such probabilities to immediately fall upon one conclusion, which was that it was still closed.
He considered knocking again, or maybe even trying the doorbell – although that, he thought, was probably a bit more dangerous than he was willing to risk – when the door slowly swung inwards. “He … llo.”
The private investigator blinked in the face of the man answering the door. Stooped and bewildered, the young man looked politely, expectantly up at Sleuth. “Uh, hi,” Sleuth managed, when the initial shock wore off. He had to lean a little to catch a good glimpse of the face under the blue top hat before he went on. “Uh, is Die in?”
“Die?” he asked, the monosyllabic name stretching out achingly long. “I’m not … certain. If you give me … some time, perhaps I could ascertain his … location for you?” He nodded helpfully, although it struck Sleuth as being a distinctly sloth-like gesture, which was odd in and of itself. Did sloths even nod? “May I ask who’s … calling?”
“Problem Sleuth,” he answered, too stunned to lie. “I’m helping him with Crowbar’s case.”
“O-oh!” He raised one finger. “An essential visit, then … I will fetch … him … directly.” He turned. “Please wait here …”
Sleuth watched him go, and debated calling him back. There was something wrong with him – there had to be. Glaciers thought this guy was slow. But he was the one who’d answered the door, and Sleuth wasn’t about to let that opportunity slip by. Maybe he’d gone to get someone who moved faster …
“Hey asshole.” A green-yellow blur solidified in the doorway, casually leaned up against the frame, coffee in hand. Sleuth almost groaned. Careful what you wish for, indeed. “Overheard you telling my buddy Dozey you’re here to see the resident chicken-killing loony tune, yeah? Working on getting his boyfriend back? Must be some case, for you to be brave enough to get all the way up here. I mean shit, no one comes up here unless they really have to, or they’re Midnight Crew, in which case they’re just stupid as hell. You stupid as hell, Sleuth?” He punched Sleuth in the shoulder.
“Hah! Just kidding, ‘course you aren’t, if you’re smart enough to see the city needs fucking Crowbar like it needs a nailgun to the damn eye. That was sarcasm, by the way. I mean really, Crowbar’s such a fucking tight-ass that things’ve been great up here since he got nicked. Hell, I’m practically in charge, and who wouldn’t want that? I’m a leader, Sleuth, a born leader, an’ I got three damn centuries of leadership experience to back me up. I was leading shit before your granddad was taking a dump in a diaper, you realize that? So when I tell you we don’t need fucking Crowbar up here you can believe me that I’m telling the truth. Hell, this place is a tight ship anyway with Scratch around, and now that I’m in charge it’s –”
To Sleuth’s astonishment and eternal gratitude, a fire extinguisher collided with the side of Itchy’s skull, knocking him to the floor, unconscious and drooling. “Sorry ‘bout that. You gotta keep an eye on him, you know? Like havin’ a damn toddler around.” The newcomer stepped into the doorway proper, shoving Itchy’s limp form out of the way with a foot, and offered his hand. “Matchsticks.”
“Ah. Uh, I’m Problem Sleuth. Nice, um, nice to meet you.”
Matchsticks cocked his head back on his head and smirked. “I’ll tell ya, if you’re the one breakin’ Crowbar out, the pleasure’s mine.”
“Hah well, that’s me,” Sleuth chuckled nervously. The thick-set gangster clapped him on the shoulder.
“Thought so! How many Sleuths are there in the city, right? You here to see Die?” Sleuth nodded. “An’ you had the misfortune of this one opening the door? Sorry ‘bout that mean, really –”
“No someone else got the door,” Sleuth said quickly, as Matchsticks hefted Itchy over his shoulder. “Short, blue hat with a two on it –”
The other man half-groaned, half-sighed. “Doze. He’ll get Die for ya, sure, but you might be collecting a pension by the time he gets back. Hang on, I’ll catch him up for ya.” He turned and walked off at, Sleuth was relieved to see, a totally normal pace, pausing only to dump Itchy head-first into an umbrella stand.
Helpful as Matchsticks was, Sleuth reflected, he had quite enough of the Felt for one day. So he stepped aside, out of the doorway and possible line of sight of any new-to-arrive gangsters, and rested on a carved stone bench just inside the entryway arch. He propped his elbows on his knees, turning the bag over and over in his hands, watching the sand slide around. It wasn’t normal, Fin and Trace had been right about that. Something about the way it moved, how heavy it was. It put Sleuth in mind of the iron shavings his teacher had used to demonstrate magnetism, back when he’d still been in elementary school. The way it stuck together, moved more like a liquid than a solid, all would have made Sleuth suspect iron shavings from the outside, but then the way it caught color and just … ate it, was distinctly wrong.
The iron shavings comparison wouldn’t stop irking him, though, and he started patting his pockets for something magnetic, anything. He was just wondering if there was a magnet involved in his magnifying glass, since they started with the same three letters, when a crash from inside the mansion startled him back to reality. Seconds later, the front door slammed open, and then closed again.
“This –” Die said, snatching the bag out of Sleuth’s hands and holding it at eye-level, next to a similarly-filled bag “– is extremely not good.” He shook the bags at Sleuth. “T-this is not good on m-multitudinous levels, P-Problem Sleuth.”
Sleuth, leaning away from the bags, raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”
“D-do you know what this is?” He gave the bags another shake, and the plastic stretched under the weight of their contents.
“No.” He paused, and then collapsed onto the bench next to Sleuth. “W-well I mean, yes, it is s-sand but n-not ordinary sand. Feel how heavy it is?” He dropped one of the bags into Sleuth’s still-outstretched hand.
“I was wondering about that.”
Die hefted the other bag. “It’s Void sand. T-the sort you g-get when you summon ho-horrorterrors.” He set the baggie down, carefully, and buried his face in his green-gloved hands. “And F-Fin and Trace said they found it at M-Mitchell’s murder site?”
Sleuth recoiled from the bag he was holding, before gingerly setting it down. “Horrorterrors? Like the dread Void beasts that are going to destroy the world some day?”
“P-Precisely.” He rubbed his eyes with his hand. “Sleuth if t-this is what is involved in this case, I’m a-afraid it goes significantly b-beyond simple p-political maneuvering.”
“Yes. D-do pay attention.”
Sleuth blinked, and then grinned, broadly. “Die, this is great.”
The #6 man looked up sharply, expression wrought with open scorn. “Great? I h-hardly think the involvement of s-super-powerful, ruthless s-supernatural beasts qualifies as ‘g-great’. Our enemy is v-vastly more powerful than we expected and –”
“Exactly!” Sleuth jumped up, skirting the bags of Void sand. “How many people can there be like that in the city? Shit,” he went on, jumping off the porch and striding around the lawn, “when we thought it was just politics there were thousands of people that stood to profit from that kind of move! And hell, maybe some of them were pretty smart, too, right? Impossible to narrow down! But now, now we’re looking for someone who can summon a horrorterror and control it! How many people like that are in the city, huh?”
Die frowned. “I t-think you’re overlooking the part where they c-can summon horrorterrors.”
“I have experience with demons,” Sleuth dismissed, shrugging. “Before Midnight City.”
“Demons are very diff –”
“All we need to do is find the person, right? And we already have a clue!” He paced back and forth, lighting up a cigarette and tossing the match over his shoulder as he did. “Rodney told us, remember? A man without a face. Always shows up alone, no one ever sees him come in, no one ever sees him leave. Die, the possibilities are exactly the opposite of endless.”
“N-no face, yes,” Die muttered thoughtfully. “P-presumably obscured by magic, by his b-boss.”
“Right! So all we have to find is our mystery man, the one with the horrorterror and no face, and then we can find his boss!”
“It occurs to m-me that your m-mystery man is … n-not a man,” Die said quietly, in the silence that followed Sleuth’s deductive conclusion. Sleuth – already racing ahead mentally, to where he was going to stake out, and how he was going to cuff the faceless guy – lost focus, stumbled over a rock in the path, and caught himself before turning to Die.
“N-no face. B-black sand at e-every murder, recently.” He swallowed. “H-horrorterrors can d-disguise themselves as people, you know. G-generally they’re not v-very good at it.”
Sleuth paused and thought about that. “Not good at it enough to remember a face?”
“P-precisely.” He nudged one of the bags with his shoe. “It m-may be easier to b-break Crowbar out, leave the city.”
“And let this horrorterror get away with it?” Sleuth boggled.
“Y-you want to try and catch him?” Die snorted. “P-problem Sleuth, even I don’t h-handle horrorterrors. I very much d-doubt anyone in the city could, besides Snowman and p-perhaps the former Q-queen of Prospit."
Sleuth snorted. “Well that certainly narrows it down, doesn’t it? We just got back to Willa’s office and …” He trailed off. “Ah, shit.” And then he rallied. “Okay, so there’s another person that it might be, but that’s still only one person in the entire city!” He thought.
“One p-person who’s incredibly powerful, yes.” Die sighed. “There’ll be no p-proving them guilty. They’ll simply escape, or k-kill everyone who d-dares oppose them. Using horrorterrors like this – this b-blatantly – means they’re g-getting braver. Or s-stronger.” He looked up. “Either w-way, it’s not g-good.”
“Right.” He bit his lip. “But these horrorterrors … these are new, yeah? Richards wasn’t killed by a horrorterror, just a guy in a suit. Same with AP.”
“But it’s all for the same goal,” Sleuth went on, ignoring Die. “Get Droog and Crowbar put away. We know they’re related – the same person masterminded them. They just stopped using hired help recently.” He snapped his fingers as he puzzled it through. “If we can find a tie between the hired help – someone like Rodney, someone who knew stuff – maybe we can go around the horrorterrors. Sneak in the back door, in a manner of speaking. Go straight for the top.” He shook his head. “I doesn’t have to work like a video game, we can skip the horrorterrors, go straight to the boss, the source and –”
“I h-hate to interrupt,” Die cut in, his tone utterly insincere, “b-but I believe you’re overlooking the f-fact that we k-killed Rodney, and h-have no other l-leads as to who m-might h-have worked for this b-boss. W-whoever it is.”
Sleuth sighed, looked up beseechingly to the sky. “’Course we do, Die.” He stepped back onto the porch, and put his arm around the Felt’s skinny shoulders. “We have a ton of leads, if we just –”
“– asked the –”
“Absolutely not.” Die shrugged Sleuth off. “I’m telling you, I d-don’t do that.”
“But you could! Just once?”
“Just because I can doesn’t make it a good idea!” he snapped, sliding away from Sleuth and crossing his arms. “T-that sort of voodoo is highly volatile and can endanger the very fabric of –”
“What? Reality? Like horrorterrors do?” He clasped his hands. “Come on, Die, just one time, that’s all I ask. We can get a lead off one of the stiffs – maybe AP, looked like he got a good glimpse of the killer from the pictures – and trace that down. Please. We can break the case, get to the bottom of it –”
“And then what?” He rolled his eyes. “Arrest them? You think p-prison will contain a horrorterror?”
“No. Kill them.”
Die blinked. “Oh. I t-thought … I thought …”
Sleuth blew a stream of smoke into the air. “Killing witnesses is one thing, Die. Killing perps that are trying to take over the world or rip it to shreds, that’s another.” He smirked. “I told you, I’ve killed demons before, Die. This isn’t my first rodeo.”
Die just scowled. “W-well how fortunate we have an expert on the case.” He rested his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, staring pensively at the bags of sand on the porch. “Fine. I’ll m-make a deal. I w-won’t bring the dead b-back, but I c-can try to tap their m-memories, just before they d-died.”
Sleuth beamed, and patted Die on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Die. We’ll be killing horrorterrors in no time.”
“Y-your blind overconfidence is incredible, P-problem Sleuth.” He scooped up the bags, rose, and put his hand on the doorhandle. “I d-doubt we’ll be able to outright k-kill anything, but I suppose we’ll c-cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Sleuth shrugged. “Thanks, Die. AP’s buried in Saint Isidore’s – meet there tonight?”
Die sighed. “I g-get my things together.” He glared. “And this had b-better pay off.”
“I’ll make sure it does.”
“Good.” He pushed the door open and Sleuth rose to go. The detective and the mobster jumped, however, as a cussing, screeching umbrella stand, from which emerged two skinny, green-clad legs, rolled out the door and down the sidewalk, bouncing off a hedge and into a decorative pool.
“MOTHERFUCK!” Itchy screamed, as water started filling the stand. “I FUCKING HATE DROWNING.”
Sleuth glanced to Die. “Should we –?”
“I’m sorry, young lady, but there are no visitors allowed tonight, on account of the unrest,” the guard told Aradia, not unkindly, outside of the prison gates.
Aradia blinked. “What unrest?”
The guard looked surprised. “You didn’t hear? I thought it was all over the news. You know, the murders.”
“Oh. You mean the senators?”
“No, sweetheart,” the guard said gently, while Aradia’s blood boiled. There was only one person that was allowed to call her sweetheart, and he was on the other side of the gate. “Prisoners. They ran a story on it in the afternoon paper – didn’t you see? We lost four last night. And we simply can’t be walking other prisoners past the scenes; they’d get too upset. They’re already nervous.”
Aradia paled. “Who?”
The guard frowned at that. “Who are you here to see, little girl?”
Her lip wobbled. It was a dirty trick; he father hated it when she pulled it with anyone, especially him. But it was also fail-safe. “My – my daddy,” she whimpered, tears welling up in her eyes. “I just want to see my daddy. He’s not – is he … ?”
“Shh, sweetie, it’s alright.” The guard stroked Aradia’s hair back out of her eyes. “There, there. Calm down and tell me who your dad is.” She crumbled in the face of Aradia’s half-choked little sobs. “Come on, honey, maybe I can arrange something?”
“D-Diamonds Droog,” she sobbed, collapsing into the guard’s arms. “But he’s probably dead now!”
“No, honey, shh, he’s not dead. He’s fine, he’s safe in his cell. Shh, little girl, it’s alright.” And now the guard did look worried, because imprisoned or not, Droog would hear about this. She’d made his little girl cry.
The consequences would probably be dire.
“Hey, hey now, sweetheart. Chin up, alright?” She swiped her badge, and the first gate unlocked. “Let’s see if I can arrange something, how’s that sound sweetie?” she asked, ushering Aradia into the yard.
“I d-drew a picture,” Aradia went on, letting the tears stream down her face. It was probably just milking it at this point, but nothing’s worth doing halfway. “I just miss him so much!”
“Oh, sweetie, it’s okay, it’s okay.” She swiped her badge again and shouldered open a bulletproof steel door. The troll guarding the room beyond looked up from his paper, quizzically.
“I thought we said no visitors,” he muttered to her, over Aradia’s keening wails. “Who’s the kid?”
“Droog’s little girl. We can bring him down the back stairs, he’ll never have to see the crime scenes.”
“Except the one on the way out of his cell.”
“They didn’t clean that up yet?”
“I mean, the body’s gone.” The troll shrugged. “But there’s all this black sand shit all over the place. They can’t get it up; it’s all stuck in the grates and it doesn’t vacuum for whatever reason.”
“You think he’s really gonna care about black sand?” she hissed, as Aradia’s wails increased a decibel. “Let’s just bring him down, alright? She’s just a kid and he’s her damn dad – she’s probably never gonna see him on the outside again, let’s be honest.”
The troll sighed. “Alright, fine. I’ll call up to supermax.”
The guard made a face at that. “Bob?”
“Nah, he’s off for the afternoon.” He rolled his eyes as he spun the number on the rotary. “Thank GPI.” He cocked his head down the hall. “Set her up in the visitors’ room; I’ll get him down in a minute.”
Aradia made sure to keep up a steady stream of tears as she waited, stopping only when she heard the door on the other side of the Plexiglas clank open. A minute later, she was wiping her eyes with a tissue the guard had given her, and Droog was being dropped into the seat on the other side of the window. She beamed. “Hi, Daddy.”
He tried to look disapproving, but she could tell something was wrong. He was tired, obviously, but something else … nervous? But that was ridiculous; he didn’t get nervous. “Have you been crying?” he asked.
“It was the only way they’d let me in here,” she hissed, glancing to the empty room behind her. “And give me privacy.”
“You know I don’t like you playing the innocent crying child card.”
“Next thing I know you’ll be crying your way out of parking tickets. I raised you better than that, Aradia.”
“Daddy.” She rolled her eyes. “How about a happy to see you?”
“It goes without saying, Aradia.” He closed his eyes, sighed, and folded his hands on the counter in front of him. Aradia noticed, just before, that they were trembling. “I am glad you’re here, though. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Her eyebrows crinkled and her mouth twisted. “Are you okay?”
She frowned. “You don’t look okay, Daddy. You look like you’re getting sick. Are you sleeping enough?”
He grunted. “Not nearly.” He tapped the table. “But don’t worry about me, Aradia, I’m fine.”
“I don’t think you are.”
She scowled. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
“I’m in prison, Aradia, and I’ve been wearing the same orange piece of trash since I got here,” he snapped. She blinked, and he took a breath. “Sorry, sweetheart. I’m just a little … tired.” He forced a shaky smile. “So.”
“School’s good,” she said, worry still evident in her expression. “It’s fine. Oh! Before I forget, can you give something to Crowbar?” She slid the piece of paper under the window, through the miniscule slit between the glass and the counter. “It’s from Terezi.”
He nodded, and tucked it up his sleeve. “Fine. Are you still working on your project?”
“I guess so. I’m supposed to be working with Eridan, but he doesn’t like to work very much. Mostly he just builds little toothpick people and puts them on the bridge, and then shoots them off with paperclips. It’s all very unproductive, you know, so I guess I’m doing a lot of the work, which isn’t really fair. And besides, I’m kind of busy. I’m working on an extracurricular project. Hey, can I ask you something?”
Droog startled from where he’d slumped, up against the concrete between the visiting booths, eyes closed. “Hm?”
“Daddy are you sure –”
“What’s your question, Aradia?”
She frowned at him, and he looked politely back at her, half-smirking. It was a game they played, concealment, almost lying to each other. She used to try to do the same thing to him all the time, when she’d try to sneak out with boys, and he knew, and he’d play dumb and then at the last minute intercept her. She wished she could do the same to him now, intercepting him on his way back to his cell and taking him home, so everything could go back to normal. But she couldn’t, so she settled for the next best thing.
She sniffled back a tear she certainly hadn’t intended to eke out, and covered with, “When you were walking down here, did you notice any black sand?”
“On the floor, yes.” He frowned. “How did you know about that?”
She nodded. “They’re finding it at the recent murder scenes now, too. And they found some at Senator Mitchell’s murder scene.”
“Really?” He looked perplexed at that. “Are they reporting on it?”
“Yes,” she said, perhaps a bit too quickly. Droog, despite the obvious exhaustion, picked up on it. “I mean … they are … in the police reports …”
“It was Kanaya’s idea!” she hissed. “I’m just helping so you can get out of here sooner! I think it’s horrorterrors, Daddy. The black sand, I mean. Terezi thinks it’s just regular old sand, but how careless would that be? It’s got to be horrorterrors. Someone’s summoning them, Daddy, and using them to frame you and Mr. Crowbar, I’m sure of it.” She lowered her voice to a nigh-inaudible hiss. “But now it’s in the prison too, Daddy. There are horrorterrors here. Have you noticed any?”
Droog ignored her question and leaned closer to the glass. “Aradia Megido,” he growled, “are you doing something you oughtn’t?”
“Probably.” She raised her hands. “But it’ll get you out of here!”
“Aradia, that is incredibly reckless, and foolish, and –”
“So I’m supposed to visit you twice a week and watch you get sick and wait for Problem Sleuth and Uncle Slick to figure everything out?” she snapped. “No! I’m going to help!”
“Not if it gets you killed!” He poked at her, tapping against the glass. “Aradia if horrorterrors are really involved –” and, he knew, they were; that sand was unmistakable, but he wasn’t about to tell her that “- then this is extremely dangerous. You need to stay with Boxcars until –”
She sat back, her arms crossed. “Until you get out. And I’m going to expedite that!”
“Daddy,” she said, attempting to be firm, but the waver in her voice gave her away, “I hate to say it but … but I’m going to do this and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.” She cringed, and fought the tears welling up in her eyes. “I’m not letting this happen, Daddy. Me and Terezi and Kanaya, we’re going to stop it –”
He leaned in more. “You are in so much trouble when I get out of here –”
“Which is going to be soon, Daddy, I promise! I’ll stay in the house for the rest of my life, but I have to get you out first, so you can ground me.” The door behind her cracked open, and the guard leaned her head in.
“It’s been ten minutes, Aradia,” she said gently.
Aradia sniffed, wiped her nose with the back of her sleeve. “I know.” She gathered her pack to her chest and stood up. Droog just watched her, his expression a mixture of anger and something else, something sad. “I love you, Daddy. We won’t do anything dangerous, I promise. It’ll be okay; we’ll be smart about it.”
“Aradia, you’re too young –”
“I have to go,” she said quietly, putting her hand against the glass. “I’ll be back on Sunday, promise. If we find anything, I’ll tell Uncle Slick, Daddy. We’ll stay safe.” He put his hand up against hers, and she whimpered. “We’ll stay really safe.”
He frowned, and then he sighed, resting his head in his opposite hand. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t.”
She smiled a little at that. “See you on Sunday, Daddy. Please don’t be sick.” She flashed another weak, damp little smile, before turning and walking slowly back to the guard waiting at the door, and disappearing into the hallway.
Droog didn’t move. Every part of him was screaming at him to kill everyone between himself and the exit, tear their throats open, crush their delicate little eggshell skulls, just to get out and stop her. But he couldn’t. Logically, because there were too many people between there and here, and the doors were steel, and even when he was a young man he couldn’t break down a steel door.
And more immediately, because he was simply too tired to do so much as stand up.
“Visit’s over, Diamonds.” A guard grabbed his shoulder from behind and tugged. “Get up, come on.”
He forced himself up, and immediately staggered. His knees didn’t seem to want to cooperate. Or, more accurately, they’d gone to sleep without him. The guard was watching him, perplexed. “You alright, man?” Droog nodded from his position, slumped up against the wall, before he re-asserted his balance and dragged his feet toward the door. “You got a lotta time in here, dude,” the guard went on. Droog realized the younger man was doing a lot to keep him from falling over at just that moment, but didn’t really feel like doing anything about it. “Maybe you oughta use some of it to sleep, you know?” He chuckled, and helped the mobster up the stairs. “Just you an’ Crowbar in that supermax cell anyway, and it ain’t like you can reach each other. There’s nothing that can get you in there.”
“Well,” he amended, two staircases later, huffing and panting from basically pulling Droog up the last flight, “the guards can get you. By design, that bit. But none of us are stupid; we ain’t gonna do anything to you.” He propped Droog up against the wall, and then radioed for backup after the mobster collapsed to the floor, fast asleep. After the other guard registered, he propped his hands on his hips, and shook his head down at the man. “We’re just gonna watch you, dude. It’s safe to sleep; all we do is watch.”
Chapter 14: Rhymes with Necro-chancy
As professional as their goals were, Kanaya reflected, while she pushed open the front door to her apartment, the trip to Delta to collect some evidence had been largely unproductive. Sure, they’d managed to snag some sand from the false beach, but almost immediately afterwards they’d been asked to leave said beach on the basis of not having proper swimming attire. Terezi’s reaction to that decree hadn’t gone over well either, and in the end they’d been asked to leave the casino altogether, on the basis of not having a good attitude.
“I’ll say this for Slick,” Terezi had griped at the bus stop, “he’s never told me to leave his place ‘cause I have a bad attitude.”
Kanaya thought that over. “But you have been dismissed from Casino before, haven’t you?”
“Not for my attitude though.” She’d rolled her eyes. “Aradia’s dad always tells me to leave. Says I’m a crime against fashion. Dragon print’s fashionable, I always tell him, but the just shakes his head and tells me to come back wearing a solid color.”
“Ah.” Kanaya had changed the subject then, not really wanting to pursue that particular avenue of conversation, since she found herself in agreement with Mr. Droog on that count. They’d talked about the case, and the black sand, until the bus reached Kanaya’s stop. The next day, they agreed, Terezi would bring some black sand she was planning to pilfer from Die, and they would compare the two samples.
While Kanaya had her reservations about Terezi obtaining the sand from Die at all, she hadn’t voiced them. She’d just bid the other girl a good night, and headed home.
Her father was out, which made sneaking in with a baggie full of black sand easy enough. Kanaya set her notebook, and the sand, on the kitchen table, and set about making herself a snack, something to hold her over before dinner, and a long night of investigation (and rather more reluctantly, homework).
She was halfway through smearing the bread with jelly when the phone rang. “Problem Sleuth, can I help you?” she asked, after she’d managed to find the cord in the silverware drawer.
“Kanaya!” Kanaya’s stomach dropped. Nepeta. She’d forgotten. “Where have you been?” the other girl asked, accusatory. Kanaya couldn’t blame her. “I’ve been doing all the work fur our purr-ject, you know.”
“I apologize, Nepeta,” she sighed into the receiver. “I’ve been preoccupied.”
“Hmph!” She sniffed. “That’s no excuse. It’s impawsible for me to do this on my own! Equius has been helping me, and I think my father has been adding bits.” There was a crinkling. “I’m certain we didn’t plan on adding a crossword pawzzle.”
“No, I do not exactly recall drawing that into our design,” Kanaya agreed. “Nepeta, I apologize. I have been looking into something for my father and things have regrettably gotten a little hectic. But perhaps tonight I could stop by to work on the bridge with you …?”
She listened, and could hear Nepeta sigh a little on the other end of the line, content. “That would be purrfect, Kanaya. I understand how crazy things can get but purrlease help a little more …?”
“Of course. I’ll be over a bit later; how does eight sound?” Kanaya leaned against the counter, and drummed her fingers. Perhaps because of this, she didn’t hear the doorknob rattle.
“Purrfe –” she was cut off when Kanaya screamed, and then clapped her hand over her mouth, spinning toward the door, with a brand new bullet hole through the lock. “Kanaya, are you alright?”
“Yes, fine. Father has arrived. I will see you at eight, Nepeta: I am afraid I have to go now.” She let the phone fall back into the receiver, and made for the kitchen table, grabbing her notebook and the sand up and bundling them to her chest just as the door swung open.
“Fucking stupid idea, keys doubled with firearms, why the hell did I even – Hello, Kanaya.” His scowl relaxed into a smile. “Just home from school? Or were you working with Nepeta?”
“Oh, school, Father. Nepeta and I are going to meet later tonight to work on our project.”
He glanced to the counter. “Making a snack?”
“Hah, ah, yes. Yes, I got distracted. Nepeta called.” She smiled. “I’ll just put these things on my desk and come back to finish up.” She turned on her heel and stepped back to her door. “How was your day?” she asked, over her shoulder.
“Fine. You dropped something.” Her heart stopped and she turned back, slowly, as her father stooped down, and came up with a bag full of black sand.
The worst part was the silence. It stretched out in the room, got comfortable, while Kanaya’s heart raced and her father looked at the bag. His expression shifted from mildly interested, to confused and then, slowly, to undeniably furious.
“Kanaya,” he said mildly, while she wilted in anticipation of what was coming, “care to explain why you have a bag of black sand?”
She scrambled for a lie. “Nepeta and I did some research on bridge structure and if you embed the support in sand …” she trailed off in the face of his glare. “I, uh, I found it at Delta?”
“You overheard me talking about my case, didn’t you?”
She hunched closer to her notebook. “It was difficult not to; the walls are not well-insulated –”
“What’s in the notebook?”
He held out a hand, and Kanaya looked to the door. It was still half-open; without the security chain holding it, it wouldn’t close until the latch was properly repaired. He was probably too upset to be quick, at least right away. But he’d catch her eventually, and there would be more trouble then. Instead, she handed the notebook over and looked away, face twisted up and miserable, her arms crossed over her chest.
He looked at page one. Turned to page two. And then he kept flipping, on to page three and four and beyond, to her most recent notes about black sand, volcanoes and horroterrors. The notebook snapped shut.
“We talked about this,” he said, and Kanaya kept looking away. She could hear the shake to his voice, the way he was just barely managing not to shout at her. “I told you this case was too dangerous for you to follow along with, Kanaya.”
“It proved to be rather perniciously interesting,” she mumbled.
“Per – what? Never mind.” He slammed the notebook down on the table. “I told you. I expressly forbid you from staying involved with this! And you decided to look through the case file?” He was yelling now, and Kanaya shrank away, backed up against the door to her room. “Eavesdropped! Ran around the whole damn city and talked to anybody and everybody about confidential details!”
“At what point were my intentions unclear?” he shouted. “At what point did you think it would be alright to carry on? What did I say that indicated that that would be just fine?”
“Nothing,” she answered. “I disobeyed. I was interested, and I thought … What I thought is not as important as my safety,” she said, hasty. “I should have listened, Father.” She looked up to him, still stiff-jawed and angry. “I am very sorry.”
“Good,” he snapped. “But sorry’s not gonna cut it this time. Kan, you could have been killed. I’m working with the goddamn Midnight Crew, okay? This isn’t lost jewelry!”
She flinched back. “I know.”
“And what’s more, you disobeyed.” He groaned. “Kanaya, I like to think I can trust you! You’ve always been very grown-up for your age, but this – I’m not sure how much I trust you now.”
“Now I have to figure out what I’m going to do about you, and solve this stupid case without getting killed!” He stomped in a circle, pacing. “And see, what this means,” he went on, gesturing to the notebook, “is that I feel like I can’t trust you to stay out of this and stay safe. Do you understand where I’m coming from, here?”
“Father, I promise I will take pains to stay totally uninvolved from this point forward –”
“Hah, no no.” He shook a finger. “I’ve heard that already, you see? And if you find this so interesting, Kanaya, I can’t trust now that you’re not going to keep looking in to things on your own. No.” He looked to her, and under the angry surface there was something that Kanaya recognized as depression. “I don’t know, Kanaya. I have literally always trusted you.”
That, somehow, was worse than the shouting. Kanaya sagged into the door, and couldn’t bring herself to look up. She brushed her hair back behind her ear, and blinked furiously in an attempt to keep herself from crying. “Father, I think it might be impossible for my to convey how sorry I am but I promise I will stay uninvolved. I will not even spend much time in the apartment, if that makes it easier. I will go from school to Nepeta’s; we need to do more work together on our bridge anyway.” Right after I give my notebook and the sand to Terezi tomorrow, she thought.
He shook his head. “No.” She looked up and found him standing with his hands on his hips, pensive, eyes fixed blankly on the notebook. “Pack your things up.”
She looked up, eyes wide. “What?”
“Come on, get packed.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You’re staying with Dame until this is over.”
He picked up the sand, and the notebook. “And I’m taking these.” He looked to her, opened his mouth, and then shook his head. “Get everything you need; I’ll bring anything you forget by later.”
Kanaya didn’t move, just watched him with her eyes downcast, as he headed back into his room, and slammed the door.
Dame’s place was a couple blocks over – not far enough to warrant a cab, even with the wet streets. They walked in silence, Kanaya stunned and stoic, Sleuth still upset enough that she could practically hear his teeth grinding. He carried her bag the whole way to the door, where he exchanged a few words with HD before turning back to Kanaya. “Were you really going to meet with Nepeta tonight?” He was calm, sort of. Kanaya watched the line of his shoulders, hunched a tense, under his coat, and nodded.
“At eight. I was going to go over to her apartment so she would not have to be concerned about transporting the bridge.”
Sleuth and Dame exchanged a look. “I can walk her over,” Dame shrugged. “Gamz’s out for the night doin’ the same thing anyhow with Tav. It was jus’ gonna be me.” She smiled. “’Sides, it’s been a while since I seen ol’ PI; I could do with a social call.”
Sleuth did smile at her then. “Thanks, HD.”
“Hey, no problem. I’ll look after her; you just look after yourself, alright?” She took the bag from him and slung it over her shoulder, before she put her free hand around Kanaya’s shoulder. “Come on, doll, we’ll have fun, just us two, huh?”
Kanaya smiled, if only politely, and looked back to her father. “I –” she paused, and then breathed out through her nose. “Be safe, Father.”
They shared a look, before he put his hand on her head. “You too, Kan. I’ll see you after school tomorrow, if I can, okay?”
She nodded, and then she and HD disappeared into the apartment, Dame already going on about ways to spend the evenings if Kanaya wasn’t too busy. Sleuth waited for the door to close, and then he looked up to the ceiling, closed his eyes, and swore.
It wasn’t the most promising start to a night that already probably had enough unpleasantness in store. Raising the dead, while convenient, wasn’t a particularly appetizing prospect, but if it helped solve the case then it was a price worth paying. And with just Die there, maybe Snowman if he felt like he needed the back up, it would ideally be a quiet, uncomplicated affair.
Which was all too much to hope for. Sleuth didn’t groan when the old Chevy growled to a halt next to him, but it was close. Instead, he looked in through the window, across the empty passenger’s seat, to the driver.
“Get in,” Slick snarled.
Nothing about Slick’s car was quiet. The engine was an un-muffled abomination, fueled by more horses than it looked like this car ought to have, the doors probably hadn’t been oiled in ages and screamed bloody murder when you opened them, and, last but not least, the driver was an angry little man prone to occasionally-incomprehensible rants. Sleuth ignored the first two, but politely gave his attention to the third as he sat in the seat. Well, as he dug a knife out of the seat, tossed it into the back, and then sat.
“I’m gonna take you bein’ out and strolling around as a sign you figured out what the fuck was up with that sand.”
Sleuth nodded. “Horrorterrors.” Slick swore and thumped the steering wheel, his robot arm nearly bending the wheel out of shape.
“Thought it looked familiar,” he muttered. “Fuck.” The car jerked to a halt in traffic, and Slick crossed his arms over his skinny chest. “So now what? You get a lead on someone keepin’ a horrorterror in their apartment or some shit?”
Sleuth scoffed. “No. Just taking care of some family business.”
“Hm. Fuckin’ kids. Pain in my ass.” The car squealed when it shifted to first. “Fuckin’ car. So what’re you gonna do now?”
Sleuth thought about it, and then shrugged. “I’m looking into things. It certainly narrows the pool of possible suspects down: apparently it’s exceedingly difficult to summon a horrorterror.”
“Shit, yeah it does. I wonder if the bitch is doing it,” he mused. “Fits a profile for that kinda shit: Dersite, powerful, smooth in with the horrorterrors, a total bitch …”
Sleuth frowned. “I doubt it.”
“Eh.” The gangster drove like he had a grudge against his car. Maybe he did, although Sleuth watched the way he held the steering wheel, carefully, in between the violent gear shifts, and the way he ground his dagger teeth at other cars. No, not the car, then. Traffic. Understandable. “So where the fuck were you going?”
“Dinner,” Sleuth lied. “Grab something eat before the night gets started.”
“More specifically, dumbass.”
Sleuth blinked. “I hadn’t really … I was just going to wander until I found something, I guess.”
“Yeah.” He wrenched the wheel around, and the tires screeched. “’Cause I want some KFC.”
They were about a quarter of the way into the bucket of chicken before Sleuth really realized what was going on. “Did you just buy me dinner?”
“Fuck off. It’s bribery.”
“For what? I hardly think you need to bribe me, considering if I don’t solve this case you’re going to kill me.” He took a bite out of a drumstick. “Besides, if this is your bribery, I’m kind of insulted. Aren’t you a millionaire?”
“Fucking rude.” Slick grabbed the chicken bucket and nestled it into his lap. “Jesus, who the fuck asks those kinds of questions?”
Sleuth shrugged. “I always just assumed. And if you are, are you’re bribing me with KFC, then …”
“KFC is delicious,” Slick muttered, sullen, from behind his carton of macaroni.
“Well,” Sleuth conceded, “true. I’m still a little insulted, though.”
“Fuck you.” And then suddenly, there was a knife at his throat. Somewhat impressively, Sleuth noted, Slick didn’t even pause to set his food down. “I’m insulted that you’d think I’m godamn stupid enough to think you wanderin’ around after dark was just for food.” His eye narrowed. “So, Problem Sleuth, where the fuck were you really headed?”
“Oh,” Sleuth laughed, nervous, “so this is what the bribery was for. Aha. Well, uh, I was working on the case, just going to check out a possible lead.”
Slick grinned, and Sleuth’s eyes trailed down to the sharp white zig-zag that cut in his face. Pointed teeth, what the hell kind of person has pointed teeth? “Good. Thought so.” The knife scraped slowly down his neck, grinding against the stubble that was growing there, and settled with the tip pressing into his fight shoulder, in the hollow just above his collarbone. Despite that, Sleuth didn’t relax: it was somewhere without important organs, but it would make it hurt like a bitch to use his right arm. His left hand still ached. “Where?”
“I can handle it,” Sleuth answered, automatically. Threads popped as the tip of the knife pushed through them. “Really, Slick, you don’t need to worry, I can –”
“I ain’t worried about you.” The knife pressed harder, cold against Sleuth’s skin, undercut by something warm and liquid blossoming out into his clothes. “I don’t give a shit about you. What I give a shit about is that you solve this fucking case, and you get Droog out. So tell me again, Sleuth, where the fuck were you going tonight?”
Sleuth swallowed and leaned back, away from the knife. “The graveyard. With Die.” That was the last-ditch effort: maybe if Slick knew Die would be there, he’d back off. At the very least, the knife disappeared.
“I hate that voodoo asshole,” Slick muttered, mouth suddenly full of macaroni. “Piece of shit.”
Sleuth looked to his shoulder, experimentally tugging his clothes out of the way. The fabric had barely torn at all, but the sear of pain through his shoulder when he moved his right arm told him that was indicative of nothing. He hissed. “I wish you’d stop stabbing me.”
And then, despite everything, he almost laughed, because Slick patted him on the shoulder – surprisingly gently, considering he used his robot arm, and he was Spades Slick – and did his best to look sympathetic. “Well you know Sleuth,” he said, as though he was speaking to a child, “if you wish really hard on a goddamn star, that might come true.” He looked up. “Oh, wait. There’s no fucking stars! We live in a city!”
Sleuth stopped laughing, because there was a knife in his shoulder. “Slick, goddammit!”
“Eat your fucking chicken,” the gangster muttered, as he tossed his empty macaroni container aside and fished out a chicken thigh. “An’ tell my why the fuck you an’ Jimi Hendrix are meeting in a damn graveyard.”
Sleuth gasped as he brushed his fingers across the hilt of the knife. Slick punched him in the not-impaled shoulder. “I asked you a fucking question!”
“We’re talking to the victims!” Sleuth snapped. “A victim. He can tap into their last minutes or something, God.” He gestured to the knife, stuck in his dominant shoulder. “What the fuck am I supposed to do about this?” He screamed as Slick pulled the blade loose. “That’s not what I fucking meant!”
“S’what you do with it,” Slick shrugged. He flicked the worst of the blood off the knife, and wiped the rest off on his trousers. “Eat your food. Longer you take, the longer that bastard’s gonna have to wait for you.” Slick watched as Sleuth gingerly tried move his right arm, and ended up hissing, supporting the elbow in his left hand. Before the detective knew what was happening, the mobster had snatched his drink off the hood of the car, and was pressing the cool plastic side of the cup against the wound. Sleuth blinked at him, stunned, but Slick just looked away. “Not gettin’ anywhere with you bitchin’ and whimperin’. Pussy.”
Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately, if leftovers were to be considered), the stab wound destroyed whatever was left of Sleuth’s appetite. So after Slick helped him – grudgingly, and not without complaint – use his tie to make a sling, to two of them got back in the car and set course for the graveyard. “Damn wimp,” Slick grumbled, when the car crunched into the gravel parking lot. “Not even gonna be able to help dig now.”
Sleuth raised his eyebrows. “Dig? I don’t think he needs to dig up the body …”
“He does if he’s gonna talk to the guy,” Slick answered. He kicked his car door open. “I know a couple things about dead bodies,” was the only other thing he’d say, even as they walked through the graveyard and searched their way to AP’s grave. Die wasn’t there yet, although Sleuth wasn’t particularly surprised: if he was even at the cemetery, he certainly didn’t know who he was looking for, or where the grave was.
Slick had brought shovels, though, and Sleuth was surprised how easily he’d strolled into a graveyard, armed like that. It didn’t say a whole lot for the security of the bodies there. Casually, Slick drove a shovel into the soft dirt topping AP’s final resting place: it was still mounded, and grass had yet to start growing on it in earnest. Sleuth, in an attempt to avoid yet another stab wound, did his best to help, but his shoulder was far too sore for him to be of any significant value. Besides, as he watched Slick toss multiple shovelfuls of dirt over his shoulder and onto the pristine turf to the side of the grave, easy and relaxed, he got the distinct and uncomfortable feeling that the short man had dug one or two graves before.
They were about five feet down when Die finally arrived. Die and, Sleuth winced, Snowman.
“What are you doing?” Die almost wailed, leaning over the edge of the grave.
Snowman appeared next to him, cigarette holder streaming smoke. “Oh, Slick. How unsurprising. I’d say it’s interesting to see you from this angle, but frankly I’m pressed as to how this angle’s different from any other time I see you.” She smiled, smoke wreathing her face. Slick snarled.
“Just like you assholes to bitch after someone else does your fucking work for you.” He glared up at Snowman. “Familiar fucking situation.” He winged a shovel of dirt at her, but she faded, reappearing on Sleuth’s end of the hole.
Die had hand over his face, his head thrown back. “I don’t need the actual body! This is tremendously disrespectful to the dead; it’ll be amazing if he even chooses to show us his final moments now!”
Slick paused and looked up. “You’re leaving it up to him? Well, fuck, I think we’ll all be grateful we have the body, ‘cause I’d bet money this asshole isn’t going to vouch a damn thing.” He drove the shovel home, and it clunked hard against the top of the casket. “Good.”
Sleuth had sort of hoped Die or Snowman – well, Die, mostly – would relieve him from the final bits of digging, considering he was still bleeding and it felt like his entire right side was on fire, but neither of them made a move to. Snowman simply stood and watched them remove the last of the dirt, and Die sat on the headstone, sorting through various herbs he’d pulled from his pockets.
“This probably isn’t going to work,” he announced after some time, before he went on, muttering something in French. “Mr. Percussionist will most likely be insulted,” he concluded.
“So force him back,” Slick grunted, working his shoulders under the weight of the coffin, and the body. Sleuth gasped with pain as the full weight of the bottom end rested on his bad shoulder. “Push on three,” Slick added.
The coffin slid out onto the grass, jerking across the ground as he and Slick frantically pushed it out of the hole. Die watched them, dispassionate. “I can’t just force him back. Voodoo doesn’t work like that: it’s mostly a positive/negative exchange system, and to force him back would have dire consequences –”
Slick clambered out, and stood in front of Die, arms crossed over his chest. “So how positive,” he asked, voice low, “is sending someone to another fucking dimension?”
Die’s line of sight flickered to Slick’s neck, the thin, white cord of scar that crossed his throat. He looked back up. “Alternate timeline, and that’s different.”
Sleuth cocked his head, and then stepped back as Snowman brushed him aside, coming to rest between the other two. “Enough,” she snapped, looking from one to the other. “Not tonight.”
“This asshole,” Slick snarled, “sent me to a fucking timeline where –”
“You killed me before that, if you’ll recall!”
“Enough!” She grabbed Slick by the collar, and Die by the tie, and jerked them in close. “Do you want Crowbar back?” Die nodded, a little desperate. “And do you want Droog back?” Slick nodded. “Then shut up.” She dropped both of them. Die, off balance, stumbled off the tombstone and just managed to get his feet underneath himself before he fell into the hole. “You can both sort it out later, for all the good it’ll do you.” As if to illustrate her point, she pulled a cigarette from her case and stabbed it into the black-and-white holder.
“He started it,” Die muttered, straightening his tie.
Problem Sleuth, doing his own part to head anything else off, flipped the lid of the casket open. “Hey, here’s a dead guy! Let’s talk to him.”
Die sighed, and threw his head back. “Alright, let me correct a few misconceptions everyone here seems to have: first, we will not actually be speaking to this man. Second, I don’t need his body, and third, he may not decide to participate! I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, considering all the stupid bullshit –”
Slick settled himself on a neighboring tomb. “Just move it: we gotta get this stiff back in the ground before anyone notices.”
That only drew an exasperated sigh from Die, but he did start setting things up. Snowman moved over, leaning on the tomb next to Slick, and Problem Sleuth cautiously hopped up onto the memorial, next to Slick, careful not to jostle his injured shoulder too much.
“What happened to you?” Snowman asked, while Die sprinkled corn meal across the ground in some sort of sigil.
“Slick stabbed me.” No sense in lying: the answer was probably apparent enough, between the sling and the blood-soaked clothes. Snowman scowled at the shorter man, but Slick just shrugged.
“He wasn’t gonna tell me where he was going! An’ I bought him dinner and everything.” He propped his chin in his hands. “Fucking rude.”
Snowman’s eyebrows went up at that. “You bought him dinner?”
Slick flashed his teeth at her. “It was bribery!”
“It was KFC,” Sleuth added, likewise minimizing the inference made.
“Ah. Well, that’s not so bad, I suppose.” She smirked. “For a minute there I thought perhaps the two of you –”
“No,” Sleuth groaned. “Please don’t.”
Slick smirked. “He’d probably be a better fucking option than you: he hasn’t ripped off any of my body parts yet.”
Snowman blew a smoke ring and raised an eyebrow, coolly. “Who said I was an option, Spades?”
Die spun around, and pelted them with a handful of what, on closer observation, turned out of the dried blueberries. “Would the three of you shut up? I’m t-trying to concentrate!” He rolled his eyes, and sprinkled the rest of the blueberries into a little bowl. “Dieu, aide-moi, je ne peux pas travailler autour de ces enfants.”
“I hate when he does that,” Snowman glowered.
“Quiet!” He sprinkled more of something-or-other across the sigil – smelled like sandalwood – and then stood back, looking the set-up over. He nodded, and took off his necklace – red and black beads – and set it down in the middle. Then he knelt, and started chanting.
At first, Sleuth was tempted to say it was French. It certainly wasn’t English. But as the chant went on, it started sounding less like common French and more … foreign. Alien. Sleuth put his head on one side and watched. And then leaned back, because the sigil started glowing. Or burning, bright cherry red and hot. Die chanted more earnestly then, almost pleading, and splashed a generous helping of what smelled like rum across the sigil. Flames jumped up, sparks flew, black smoke burst forth from the very ground and enveloped Die and the sigil. Behind the veil of smoke, Die was chattering so quickly that it almost didn’t sound like words anymore, just one long broken-static wave of sound and then …
Nothing. The smoke vanished, and Die sat back on his heels, hands on his knees and shoulders slumped, panting. The other three, still perched on the tomb, shared a look, but none of them was bold enough to speak.
“He doesn’t want to talk,” Die said, after he’d got his breath back. “You m-made him angry when you dug him up.” He dragged the back of his sleeve across his soot-blacked face. “I thought as m-much."
Slick glowered. “So you gotta ask again, then.”
“Ha! No.” Die looked back at them, the entire front of him totally black. “This,” he gestured to himself, “doesn’t usually happen. It’s b-because he’s angry, he feels d-disrespected.” He swiped a hand across the sigil and scattered the burnt ingredients, spilling some of them into the hole. “Merci, Ellegua, pour ouvrir la porte. Je suis reconnaissant pour votre aide,” he finished, pouring another belt of rum onto the blackened patch of ground.
Slick blinked. “So what, that’s it? Fuck that.” He slid off the tomb, and strode over to the body. He crossed his arms and glared down at AP’s desiccated and partially-decayed face, as though the corpse had done something to personally offend him. “You can’t make him talk?”
Sleuth sighed. “Slick, it was just a shot in the dark –”
“Of course I can’t make him talk,” Die chided. “I’m not going to order a d-dead man to tell me about his last m-minutes. You c-can’t do that.”
Slick stripped off his jacket and tossed it to Sleuth, who caught it, taken by surprise. Then he rolled up the cuff of his sleeve. Snowman breathed in, quietly, and when Sleuth glanced over she was watching Slick with wide eyes. “Slick …”
“I didn’t dig a fuckin’ body up for nothin’,” was all he said, before he knelt down by the coffin and grapped AP’s body by the neck.
Whatever Sleuth expected Slick to do, it certainly wasn’t catch fire. Purple fire, starting in the middle of his back and flaring down his shoulders and arm, licking around AP’s head and neck. Sleuth shouted and jumped back, Die scrambled backwards so quickly he fell into the grave, and Snowman just screamed something about being stupid.
And then Slick was hauling AP out of the coffin one-handed, and the corpse – not anymore, Sleuth thought, horrified – was looking around, milk-white eyes rolling in terror. It screamed, and Slick responded by slamming its – his – head into the rim of the coffin.
“Shut the fuck up!” AP did, for the most part, but the stream of terrified, cracked whimpering didn’t stop. “Who the fuck killed you?” Slick snarled, still alight with sickly purple fire.
The man’s jaw worked, but the funeral home had clearly done some sort of magic to make his face look presentable for the funeral that also inhibited him from ever opening his mouth again. He squealed. Slick snarled, but he changed tactics. “Did you know who killed you?”
AP shook his head. In the background, Die had hauled himself out of the grave half-way and was slack-jawed as he watched Slick interrogate the dead man. “Did they say why they killed you?” Slick demanded. Another shake. Slick rolled his eye and Sleuth flinched when instead of Slick’s normal green eye and slightly-less-normal half-shut wrecked eyeball, there was mostly purple fire. “Did they say anything?”
That got a more frantic nod. “A name?” Slick asked, a little more hopeful. No, head shake. Slick frowned. “A place?” Yes. And then AP raised his hand, and held up two fingers. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Sleuth shakily slid off the tomb, and moved into what he thought might be AP’s line of sight. “Two words?” That got a nod.
Unseen by everyone, Snowman’s expression went flat. “Are we seriously doing this?”
AP held up a finger, and tapped his sleeve. Sleuth nodded. “Alright, first word, sounds like …” he watched the dead man’s stiff, clumsy movements, limited by Slick’s hand around his throat and his position in the coffin. “Sounds like … bottle? Alcohol? Liquor! Butt?” he asked, confused, when the dead guy pointed to Slick’s ass.
“Watch it,” Slick warned.
Sleuth watched as AP continued to mime, increasingly desperate. And then, finally, he made a frustrated noise, and jerked one of the wood partitions out of his own casket and held it up. “Wood! Rhymes with wood! No? Beam? Uh … Wood, beam, two-by-four … Plank!” AP dropped the wood and pointed at him while he nodded his head frantically. “Rhymes with plank! Yes! Okay, plank, rank, stank, lank – that’s not a word – tank –”
“Bank,” Snowman said, flatly.
AP nodded again. “Okay, good, bank! The first word is bank!” Sleuth leaned in. “Okay, second word –”
“Hurry up,” Slick grunted, shifting positions. His knees wobbled.
AP held up two fingers. “Two syllables?” Sleuth asked, but then the dead man traced the shape his fingers made. “Oh, no, V! Starts with a V!”
Snowman sighed. “Vault. He was going to a bank vault.” She leaned closer. “Did he say which number?”
AP nodded. Hanging over him, shaking all over now, Slick groaned. AP held up a series of numbers on his hands. “8-6-4-3-9,” Sleuth repeated. His brow furrowed and confusion etched its way into his expression. “That’s a long number.” AP shrugged. Sleuth shook his head. “Okay, fine. Was that everything?”
Another nod, but then he held up a finger, a request for a quick minute. Slick leaned more heavily on the casket, his shirt soaked through with sweat, but still burning with cool purple flames. “What the fuck,” he panted, “do you want?”
AP glared, and punched him in the face.
The fire went out, and Slick and the dead body both slumped into the casket. For a minute, the graveyard was totally silent, Sleuth still bewildered, and Die still staring at the coffin. “I can’t b-believe he did that,” he said, finally, his voice faint.
“I just talked to a dead guy,” Sleuth said, his own voice similarly stunned.
“I say we leave them both in that coffin,” Snowman said. She scowled and ground out her cigarette on the tombstone, before striding over to the coffin and glaring down at Slick, unconscious and pale, sprawled across AP’s torso. “Of all the monumentally stupid things,” she concluded, kicking Slick’s back end into the coffin and hoisting the lid shut.
A half-second later, a thin, pale hand shoved it back open. Sleuth screamed – although he’d never admit to it – and jumped backwards as Spades Slick untwisted himself from inside, and spilled onto the grass next to the coffin. “Pity,” Snowman said. Slick just threw up.
“I hate doing that,” he gasped, wiping the chickeny vomit from his face with the back of his sleeve. “Fuck.”
“No one made you,” Snowman pointed out.
“I can’t believe you did that!” Die repeated, indignant. He hauled himself fully out of the grave, and stormed over, waving his arms. “The level of a-audacity to d-do something like that! The b-blatant disrespect for the g-guardians of the afterlife and the souls –” He jumped backwards when Slick heaved again. This time, though, instead of half-digested KFC, a stomachful of black sand spilled out across the ground. Silence rang out like a shot, before all three of the still-standing people took several large steps back.
“Slick,” Sleuth said, slow and low, “why did you just throw up sand?”
He heaved again, and spat out another mouthful of sand. “S’how you get into … into the afterlife,” he wheezed. “Horroterrors. Y’gotta know the … s’a trick to it …” He flopped onto his side, shaky and weak. “Haven’ done it in … ages …” He retched again, but this time, nothing came out.
“How do we know,” Die asked, slowly, “that it’s not you summoning up all this shit?” He stepped back toward Slick, and then kicked him in the gut. “Thought you’d just p-put Crowbar away, didn’t you? J-just get him out of the picture!” He wound up for another kick, but Snowman caught him around the shoulders and pulled him backwards. “What a brilliant fucking plan!”
“Die!” She shook him. “Calm down,” she ordered. He did – or, at least, he stopped struggling – and he looked up to her, eyes narrow. “Die if he can’t even manage to get into the afterlife without ending up like this, what do you think the likelihood of him being able to maintain control of a horrorterror in this dimension is? Hm?” Die looked away. “Besides, Droog’s in prison too, remember? Now.” She let go of Die and turned to Sleuth, eyebrows raised. “Do you remember the bank vault number, Problem Sleuth?”
“86439,” he recited.
“Good. Your job now is to figure out how man vault 86439s there are in this city, and narrow it down to a particular bank.”
Sleuth mused, “But why would he leave the scene of a murder and go straight to a bank vault? He didn’t even rob this guy.” Cautiously, he approached Slick, and bent to put his hands on the gangster’s trembling shoulders. He was freezing.
“That’s for you to find out, it seems.” She looked back to the casket, and her lip curled with distaste. “I don’t suppose you’d mind staying to help Die re-bury this, would you?”
“What?” Die asked, at the same time Sleuth said “No.” The detective glanced down to Slick. “I feel like we oughta do something with him first, though …”
“I can think of something,” Snowman muttered. And then she rolled her eyes, and scooped Slick up, set him down on the same tomb they’d all sat on earlier, and draped his coat over him. “I’ll be in the car, Die.” She vanished.
Sleuth looked to Die, and then to the shovels on the ground, and the big hole. They looked at one another again. “We’re not going to do a very good job on this, are we?” Sleuth asked.
Die cast off his coat and set his hat carefully on top of the headstone, before flipped the casket lid closed, and helped Sleuth shove the whole thing roughly back into the hole with a grunt. “No,” he grumbled, shooting Slick’s half-conscious form a dirty look, “no we are not.”