"Inflicted?" Reid met the man's mismatched, but equally-reflective eyes, certain he should be offended.
"Come look at yourself from where I'm standing. I grew up in the Fifth City. I've been living with the Bazaar and the joys and annoyances of the Neath since before the birth of Albion. Most of what I know about the Surface, I've picked up in passing from tourists, or from the reactions to the Bazaar printed in your newspapers in the last few months. I know what's different, because your people are obstinately denying it's happening, in print. I've read most of the objections before you ever bring them up. But, down here, these things aren't just real, they're normal. Yes, some things that are happening to your city are rare, because I think they only happen once to each city, but the vast majority of things people are losing their minds over are just an average Wednesday." As he talked, Chaz brought down a sugarbowl and cream pitcher that were the same beautiful silver, but didn't quite match the teapot. "I don't know about where you're from, but some people are a lot less entertained by having their entire history, substance, and world prised and prodded at as if it were some unbelievable fiction, and not in fact the place in which all involved parties are currently standing."
"I am extremely curious about this new world, and I am grateful that you've taken the time to offer your assistance, for whatever reason inspired that. I apologise if I seem a bit disbelieving, but the only things in my history that might have prepared me for what I'm encountering now involved delusions and hallucinatory states brought on by a variety of external methods. The best explanation I have for what's happening is that I've been drugged, again, and that's not a comforting position to start from." Reid paused, studying the doctor's sharp-boned face. "And the coyote really wasn't helping with that."
"Sorry. Like I said, it's usually more effort than it's worth to not be that, here, even if it isn't what I am." Chaz poured the tea and then sat. "Enough about me. In the purported words of the great Dr Schlomo," here his accent changed to something thick, blatantly fake, and likely only distantly related to any languages of the Neath, "tell me about chour muzzah."
Reid chuffed with amusement as he sat and took his tea. "Pass, thanks. She's still on the surface. But, I'll turn the same on you."
Chaz shifted uncomfortably. "I'm an orphan. I used to run with the Knotted Sock. Weren't we not talking about me? What about your city? What's that like? Or... what was that like?"
"Full of tourists, and you could never get a cab, when you needed one."
"Sounds a lot like London, actually. I wonder if that's what attracts the Masters." Chaz sipped his tea. "They're in love with love, actually. Every city that's fallen has been sold for a... I hate to say 'happy' ending to a love story. The Empress bought her consort a little more time. Well, a lot more time, though I hear he didn't take the trip to Albion well."
"The bookstores don't have romance sections, any more," Reid noted, turning the cup on the table, but not drinking from it. "Nor are there romance novels by the registers in the corner grocery. It used to be that they were the most-represented genre -- poorly-edited, formulaic stories about average women and their stalkers-turned-lovers. The terrible police novels have filled in the space, with their alcoholic protagonists bearing assault rifles and bulletproof vests, whose cases drag on forever, because they keep shooting people instead of questioning them."
Chaz covered his mouth, trying not to dribble tea on the table by laughing. His coat rustled slightly out of time with the shaking of his shoulders. "And to think, I can now witness the culture that produced such horrors. Speaking of horror, it's how London got around the romance prohibitions, for a while. You'd pick up a book, expecting a tale of monsters from over the Zee, and instead you'd find the story was about a monster-hunter's daughter hunting her one true love in ways that didn't involve any stabbing or shooting, except in the most metaphorical sense. Eventually, the Bazaar got wise to that."
Reid glanced at his watch. "I did say I'd be back in less than an hour, and I'm ... I think my watch liked the transition even less than I did."
"Don't worry about the time. You'll be back less than an hour after you left. There's a lengthy semi-scientific reason, but the short version is Parabola is like that. The Neath is like that, depending on who, where, and when you are, but Parabola is especially like that. I can lend you a book that covers it, though. Even to me, it sounds like the worst in conspiracy journalism, but it's true enough that the finer details are only going to make a difference to the kind of lunatic academic I didn't have the stomach to become. I did try, though. Gave some lectures in Supernumary Studies, and then wandered off into representations of count, value, and ordinality in the Correspondence. I'm lucky I didn't end up in the Tomb Colonies. I'm too pretty for Venderbight, and I'm not that good looking."
"Rossi thinks you look like me." Reid neglected to mention if that was a point for good looking or not.
"Rossi's apparently seeing what he expects. Don't let him stand too close to mirrors, until he gets over that. Definitely keep him away from the devils -- don't get me wrong, the devils are great, but you should go into a meeting seeing clearly. They are incredibly skilled at sleights of both hand and mind, and they're a little too close to the... well... Let's just say certain Parabolan arts come easier to them than to most people, and leave it at that. Again, I'm pretty sure I've got a book, if you want to borrow it." Chaz cleared his throat. "Weren't we talking about you?"
"I'm not that interesting," Reid insisted, finally taking a sip of the tea. It was definitely some kind of spiced chai, but he was completely unfamiliar with any of the flavours in it. "I grew up in Las Vegas, went away to college, got a few degrees, and took a job with the FBI."
"You are that interesting, because I don't know where Las Vegas is, and I'm still not sure what 'FBI' stands for, if it's not something rude."
"Las Vegas is a city in the desert. A few miles outside of it looks a lot like where you found me, the first time. The city is mostly known as the casino capital of the country. All anyone sees is the bright lights and the gambling, but there's a real city there. All the support people who work for the casinos, all the people who have nothing to do with the casinos, but if it's off the strip, it might as well be invisible. It's a strange place, where nothing's quite what it seems, if you're from somewhere else, but if you live there, everything's exactly what it looks like."
Chaz looked contemplative. "Sounds a bit like Worlebury-juxta-Mare, honestly."
Reid shook his head. "I can't say I've heard of it."
"You're better for it. I keep meaning to ... do something about it, but there's something so wrong with the place I can't quite get a grip."
"You can't. And you probably shouldn't. If it's like Las Vegas, the strip, whatever its incarnation is there, is probably keeping the rest of the city alive to some extent. You'd break the economy, if you actually succeeded in 'doing something' about the place." Reid shook his head again, this time a bit more tiredly. "What exactly is it that you're against? Gambling? Drugs? Prostitution? Some local vice I've never heard of?"
Chaz caught his eye with a somewhat unsettling gaze. "Slavery, actually."
"I rescind the preceding objection in its entirety. Though you are probably still going to destroy the local economy, and the impact on the people you're trying to help needs to enter into any attempt to do so. I don't know why it didn't cross my mind, and it should have. I do know better."
"And you see at least one of my problems. Technically, it may be indenture, but the conditions are fundamentally horrible, functionally incorrect, and virtually inescapable, so I'm not sure there's a practical difference. The same can be said of a lot of resorts, I suppose, but there's something more wrong than usual. I should be able to see it, and I can't... aside from the obvious problem of the acidic atmosphere and the donkeys that-- Let me not ruin a good tea. " Chaz shook his head. "You still haven't explained 'FBI'."
"Federal Bureau of Investigation. Obviously enough, we investigate crimes, but national and regional crimes, rather than those confined to a smaller jurisdiction. When it's something that can't be handled by the local police, because it's too geographically large or they lack the resources, that's when they ask for our help. I belong to a team that's most often specifically assigned to stop serial murderers, like Jack of Smiles." Reid cleared his throat and sipped his tea. 'Tea', really; something about it tasted like it might be some herbal blend without a single tea leaf in it, but the odd citrusy notes were pleasant. It was as if someone had heard of orange spice tea and had tried to recreate it with no knowledge of oranges or the sort of spices that went in it. "Of course, now that there's no longer a nation to speak of, I'm not sure the Bureau will remain intact. It's a bit of an awkward position to be in, but I know my team will be working together at least to the end of the Jack of Smiles case."
"Then you've got nothing to worry about. I'm not convinced we can stop Jack, but we can definitely slow down the frequency of the attacks. We almost had it under control in London, for a lot of years, and then another cache turned up." Chaz tapped a finger on the air, pointing across the table. "Do you know if maps of your city still exist? The Bazaar's not going to let that stand, for long, so if you can get one, hide it well. I'd also like to see it -- the street names may have changed, but a lot of them are probably roughly where they are on the old maps, still, and I might be able to help you figure out where the knives are coming from, because I know where a lot of them were stored pending destruction."
"That's right, you said they were kept in a safe." Reid paused. "But, if the safe was crushed by the falling city, wouldn't that mean all those knives are underground?"
"Not necessarily. Between the Masters, the Bazaar, the Treacheries, and the fact the knives are Polythremic, they may have come up in a sewer or the tunnels of your Metro. Or they may have been forced down into one of the underground colonies -- a multitude of Clay Men, like Duke, lived under London. We're pretty sure they're still there, but the entrance to the Clay Quarter was always concealed, and I suspect they've felt no urge to resume relations with humanity just yet. Like the Rubberies, they're probably protecting themselves."
"I hate to say it, but they're probably right."
"All of the cities have been human cities. They know."
"...Did you say the 'Treacheries'?" Reid blinked as he went back over the words in his head. "I know the Masters, the Bazaar, and at least something about Polythreme, but I'm not sure I've come across any Treacheries with a presumably capital 'T'."
"They're the differences in time and space between the Neath and the Surface. Everyone's affected by them, to some degree, just in the course of living here. Obviously, calling them 'Treacheries' comes from a Surface perspective. It's just the... if not laws of nature, definitely the strong suggestions of nature, down here." Chaz shrugged and got up, leaning out into another room and coming back with a red-bound book. He stopped for a tin of biscuits before he sat back down. "Here, this is the book I was talking about, when you mentioned your watch being off, Cosgrove's Seven Treacheries. Please don't let anyone know you have it. Mr Pages was not a fan, and it's really hard to get a copy. Probably moreso, now. Cosgrove and Byers were working on the Dawn Machine, when the first human applications of the Treacheries became apparent. They parted ways over a researcher who lost her taste for the project, and Cosgrove published in his own name. Shortly afterward, Cosgrove was found in a warehouse in London, irretrievably crushed under a toppled pallet of Ministry-approved literature, and Byers disappeared for years. Most of the copies of Seven Treacheries disappeared, after that. This is one of the last."
He didn't mention that he was sure there were other copies because he'd copied the book himself.
Reid raised an eyebrow, sceptically, sliding the book across the table toward him. "How is it that we've just met and you're willing to lend me a rare banned book? You'll forgive me for saying that seems unlikely."
"I know where another one exists, and I can copy it, if necessary," Chaz admitted, opening the tin of biscuits and taking one for himself. "I'm more concerned about you than I am about the book. It's one of those books that seems to surface just before unfortunate accidents that are reported to result in devastating deaths for the owner and the destruction of the book. But, I'm starting to like you, and you seem like an intelligent individual, so I'd like you to understand that if you're crazy, it's not because you're experiencing any of these things."
Reid blinked, a laugh surprised from between his lips. "If I'm crazy? Have I given you the impression I might be?"
"Dr Reid, you, like I, are an alienist, and as such, you know I can't possibly make that kind of determination based on so short an acquaintance." Chaz's eyes gleamed with amusement. "On the other hand, you're an alienist, so you must be mad." He laughed easily, eyes still shining unnaturally in the warm light of the room.
There came a light tapping from the foyer, and then a woman's voice. "Flukelet? You here? Because I promise you someone else is..."
"I'm not Rubbery, Hafs! And we're in the kitchen!" Chaz held up a hand, drawing Reid's eyes away from the door. "Unlike me, she's exactly what she looks like."
Reid glanced over, confused and half expecting another coyote, when a massive, bone-thin panther stalked into the room, wearing a lavishly jewelled collar in unusual shades of semi-recognisable colours. He continued to observe, half hoping a woman would appear in its wake. But, no, just the enormous, hungry-looking cat.
"Chazzie! Did you get me a present?" Hafidha crossed to where Reid sat, tail swishing, and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder in a gesture anyone familiar with cats would recognise as friendly. "Look at him! He's so cute!"
"Down, Hafs. He's not your species." Chaz rolled his eyes apologetically at Reid, who barely dared to breathe.
"Says the guy who has never once let that get in his way," Hafidha teased, padding around the back of Reid's chair to stick her nose in the biscuit tin. "Besides, he's cute like you. And I love you, but ew, no."
"Please excuse my sister," Chaz sighed at Reid, as crunching echoed up from the biscuit tin, accompanied by a spray of bits of shattered biscuit. "Hafidha, this is Dr Spencer Reid, from Washington. Spencer, this is my sister, Hafidha. We're... ah... I don't think we share any parents."
Hafidha lifted her head from the biscuit tin, crumbs caught in her whiskers. "We might. You never know. What is your--"
Chaz stepped on her paw, eliciting a furious yowl. "We're orphans. It's like that."
For a moment, Reid didn't think he looked like a coyote at all, but more like a stepped-on frog. "Ah, I ... see?"
"Spencer, here," Chaz went on, "is trying to put an end to Jack of Smiles. I've had to explain the difficulties in doing that."
Hafidha looked over from where she was scornfully eyeing Chaz and licking her stepped-on paw. "We've been trying forever. Every time you think you've got him, you get a break of a few years, and then somebody finds another one of those devil-rejected knives. Not even Hell wants the bloody things."
"You work together?" Reid asked, extremely aware that he was now, technically, in an incredibly dangerous situation, moreso than he had been up to this point. In a place he wasn't certain how to leave, with someone he barely knew, and now, a very hungry, very large cat that had just been offended.
"We work with a lot of people. Weird crime affects us all, and you can't solve the case if you can't even identify what's happened, which your average Londoner couldn't." Hafidha yawned widely, wafting breath that smelled of fish and ginger across the table. "There's... eight of us?"
"We lost Violet and Reyes went North."
"Yes, but that nice Carnelian boy joined us."
"It's only eight if you count the Devilish Anatomist. I've heard she's working in Ealing Gardens, again."
"Eight," Hafidha assured Reid. "Because we have the Devilish Anatomist, the Carnelian Ventriloquist, the Clay Journalist, the Inscrutable Khaganian, the Implacable Detective, and the Vulcanised Beefcake."
"Brady's not Rubbery, either, Hafs," Chaz sighed.
"The hell he isn't. Humans aren't shaped like that naturally. He may have been human, but he's some kind of shapeling, now. Amber-touched."
"He can't even speak the language." Chaz sighed loudly. "Excuse my sister."