Kathleen woke up slowly. Her chest and arm didn’t exactly hurt, but she could feel vague hints of pain stirring below the surface of her awareness, like carp beneath a pool, ready to breach the surface soon.
She lay on a bed, her chest bound with bandages, and a strange aroma hung in the air, a spicy scent that made her want to sneeze. She held it back for fear of straining her ribs. She couldn’t quite remember how she’d been hurt, not at first, but she knew she’d come close to death.
Kathleen opened her eyes and slowly looked around the room. Her eyes took longer to focus than she’d expected, and she realized she’d been given some kind of medicine. At last, she could make out a dark room with wooden walls, floor, and ceiling. A dim lamp sat on a table beside the bed. Blinds covered the window, but she could hear rain rattling on the windowpane. She turned her head in the other direction.
A long-haired, Asian man in a white sharkskin suit stood at the door to the room, gazing at her impassively through mirrored sunglasses despite the gloom. He held a nickel-finished pistol in his hand. Some kind of underworld guard, she realized.
At once, she remembered what had happened. Castilucci, the fight with Arbalest, being shot. The mobster’s promise to find Topaz. Where had he taken her?
She inhaled to speak to the guard, but before she could get a word out, he frowned and stepped out of the room. As he turned away, she spotted a strip of red paper speckled with gold characters protruding from his breast pocket like a handkerchief. She’d heard of such things. It was a magical inscription, a charm.
She was in the hands of the Five Dragons. The Black Rose’s rivals for control of Titan City’s underworld and the most magically aware gang in the city. She hadn’t had to fight them as part of SWAT, but she didn’t relish meeting them for the first time while recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest. She started to sit up.
“Don’t sit up so fast,” said a gravelly voice. “You got shot, y’know.” Castilucci had entered the room, followed by the same guard. Castilucci said, “Give us a minute, would ya?”
Even with the sunglasses in the way, Kathleen could feel the man glaring at Castilucci. But he simply said, “I’ll tell Miss Yu she’s awake. She’ll be up in a minute to explain.”
“Thanks,” said Castilucci without enthusiasm as the man left. Castilucci hurriedly shut the door and sat down beside her. “Feeling better?” he asked.
“I’ve felt worse,” she said. “I … I want to thank you. For saving—“
Castilucci waved her off. “Yeah, yeah. Listen, if we start down Awkward Alliance Lane, we’ll be at it for hours, and we’ve only got a little time before Mister Sunshades there comes back with his boss. Let’s just get this straight: you’re on one side, I’m on the other, and we’re only in this together because we both need to find Topaz. You get your mystery solved, and I get my life back.”
“Agreed,” she said.
“I help you figure out who killed that narc of yours—and make sure you don’t get killed—and you cut me a deal. No charges for anything I—“
Kathleen set her lips in a hard frown. “That’s up to the D.A., not me. All I can guarantee is that if you play fair with me, I’ll make sure the Department knows it.”
Castilucci rolled his eyes. “Fine. Fair’s fair. You don’t betray me, and I won’t betray you.”
“Speaking of which …” Kathleen looked around again. “What are we doing with the Five Dragons? I thought your guys hated them.”
Castilucci grinned mirthlessly. His teeth were stained but even. “Yeah, they do. But my guys and yours are trying to kill me, remember? This seemed like the safest place to get you fixed up. But the sooner we’re out of here, the better.”
He looked furtively over his shoulder. “I don’t trust these guys. Magic. Ugh. Time was, you had to look a man in the eye to kill him, but these overdressed jokers do it by burning a piece of green paper in a fire made out of newt’s legs or something. No matter how much they talk about ‘honor,’ it’s all a sham.”
Completely unlike the Black Rose, Kathleen thought sarcastically, but she bit the comment back. She pulled herself half-upright. It hurt, but not as much as she’d expected. “Then we need to plan our next move. What about Topaz?” she asked. “Any leads on his location?”
“The Tarot,” he said contemptuously. “And those freaks aren’t talking. Except to tell our hosts that they don’t have the guy any more.”
“So we need to trace the money, find who paid them,” said Kathleen eagerly. For a moment, she’d forgotten she was talking to a career criminal.
“Exactly,” said Castilucci. “That’s a little out of my line, but I’m hoping our hosts can help.”
“Why would they help?” Kathleen asked.
“Because assisting Mr. Castilucci will frustrate the Black Rose,” said a soft, even, feminine voice. “If there is one thing Milady wishes, it is that.”
The speaker stood just inside the doorway, flanked by the guard, who bowed to her and departed. She had entered so quietly that Kathleen and Castilucci had not even noticed her. She wore a short, stylish hairdo and an electric blue pantsuit. She carried a cup of tea. Steam spiraled up from its surface. “Mr. Castilucci,” she said, “we meet again. In truth, I cannot say it is a pleasure. Officer Aurelia, I am Miss Yu.” She inclined her head to Kathleen. Her teacup didn’t budge an inch. “I am pleased to see you are recovering.”
Castilucci gestured vaguely toward his forehead as if tipping a hat he’d forgotten he wasn’t wearing. “Nice to see you again, too,” he said sourly. “Aurelia, the lady in the suit here is going to help us track down Topaz. Help you, I mean.”
“I have set up a meeting with one who has investigated the Tarot, one who might know who paid them to kidnap your ‘Topaz.’ But Mr. Castilucci is … out of favor … among his colleagues,” said Miss Yu with a tight smile. “He must remain out of sight. He cannot follow where I will take you.”
Kathleen looked quizzically at him.
“You should be excited, Aurelia,” he said. “You’re going where no cop has gone before. No honest cop, anyway.” He grinned. “The Opal Room.”
She’d heard of the place, of course. Every cop in Titan City had.
The Opal Room looked like Kathleen had imagined. Shafts of overhead light and dim table lamps did little to disperse the shadows. Members of a half-dozen different underworld groups lounged in the smoky darkness, drinking alone or talking in hushed voices. Kathleen spotted three Rooks in chessboard patterns, a pasty-faced, staring Unforgiven, and three beer-swilling Aether Pirates. A woman with a deerlike face and a single, branching horn negotiated quietly with a very handsome man in a suit. A man in rune-spangled robes nursed a drink beside the tiny, empty dance floor.
What she hadn’t expected was the fear, a fear she’d never experienced in combat. Here, she was an outsider in every way. Every patron was hostile. The shadows themselves felt hostile. Even dressed in unremarkable, civilian clothes, even accompanied by Miss Yu and a Five Dragons Initiate of Metal in a grey robe and mask, she couldn’t shake the feeling that every patron could see right through her, to the badge she wasn’t wearing.
Kathleen’s gaze fell on a faint, brownish mark on the dance floor. Somehow, she knew it was an old bloodstain.
“Ah,” said a velvety, female voice beside her. “First time seeing the landmark?” Kathleen turned to see a slender, young woman beside her. Despite her youthful face, her hair gleamed white in the dark room.
Opal, she thought, the owner, with the cursing powers. The one who keeps this place both a criminal hangout and neutral ground. “The landmark?” Kathleen asked.
“Since you came in with the 5D’s, I thought you’d know,” said Opal. She smiled slyly. “That mark on the floor is a piece of Titan City history. Jerry Chiang himself, founder of the Five Dragons, was gunned down right there back in the ‘90’s. Of course, that was before I was around to keep things civil. Poor man. All that superstrength didn’t make him bulletproof.”
Kathleen had heard that story, too. Jerry Chiang had been killed not by ambitious subordinates or the Black Rose—which had been reeling from the aftermath of Operation Anvil at the time—but by corrupt TCPD detectives. Rumors about the killing still swirled around headquarters from time to time.
“Those detectives must have thought they were doing the city a favor,” Opal said, as if following Kathleen’s thoughts. “But they ended up giving the cops a black eye it took years to recover from.” She snorted derisively. “Personally, I think they just resented doing all the work in Operation Anvil, then seeing heroes getting all the credit.”
“Chiang was a coarse fool,” said Miss Yu, breaking her silence. “He founded the Five Dragons, true, but he nearly led us to ruin. If Milady had not come and taught us the old ways of magic …”
Opal shook her head, as if she’d heard this all before, and said, “I have business to handle in my office. Enjoy the Opal Room, ma’am.” She nodded to Kathleen and moved off.
The Initiate pointed firmly at a table in the shadows, just behind the trio of Aether Pirates. “Him,” he said.
The man they’d come to see sat deep in shadow, but he was easy enough to see. Circuitry glowed a dim blue beneath his skin, and LEDs gleamed harshly around one bicep, casting a sickly light over the table. He looked up, and his eyes flashed an unearthly green. “Hey,” he said. His voice held an eerie, half-synthesized buzz.
An ePunk Radical, Kathleen thought. Their cybernetics made them powerful fighters, but their real specialty was controlling and stealing information.
Miss Yu bowed. “Greetings, Raveheart.”
The ePunk dipped a finger in his drink. The liquid flickered and glowed at his touch. On the scuffed table before him, he wrote R U U? He smirked up at them.
“If you’re going to write out this whole conversation, this is going to take all night,” said Kathleen.
“Eh, you’re no fun,” the ePunk, Raveheart, said as Kathleen and her two escorts slid into the empty chairs at his table.
“You had no trouble stealing Tarot’s funding information?” asked Miss Yu.
“Heh. Information should be free, babe.” Raveheart grinned like a lothario at a singles bar. He held up a slip of paper. “Address where it was paid from is right here.”
“We have brought your payment,” said Miss Yu.
Kathleen leaned forward. This could be the key to finding not only Topaz but the murderer of Detective Aragon. She grabbed the slip of paper.
“I’ll take her now, then,” Raveheart said. Faster than an eyeblink, his hand locked on her wrist. She felt the pressure of his cybernetically enhanced strength dragging her closer.
“This was not agreed,” said Miss Yu. She sounded more surprised than bothered.
“When I started digging for that information,” said Raveheart, “I found the guy easily enough. He only used a couple aliases and shell companies. Amateur. But I found out he’s got much deeper pockets than you’d think.” He turned his crazy grin on Kathleen. His teeth fluoresced purple-grey in the dim light. “And he’s got a major hate-on for you, Aurelia. For you and that mobster they’re talking about on TV. You would not believe what I’m getting paid for killing you.”
“By going back on our deal,” Miss Yu said, “you insult us. Milady will be angry.”
“Don’t make any sudden moves, Miss Pantsuit,” said the ePunk. “You or the officer or your friend in the bathrobe there make any trouble, and I call out her real identity to the room. Then all hell breaks loose in here.” Raveheart dragged her to her feet. “Just follow me outside, and it’ll be over quick and painless.”
“It occurs to me,” said Miss Yu serenely, “that if anyone has the right to offer up the officer for that reward, it is us.” She stood. “Let her go. She belongs to us.”
“No,” said Raveheart. “This is my payday. Mine!” In a blur of lights and fists, he flung Kathleen to the floor and lunged at Miss Yu.
She stepped back and raised her arms in a defensive posture, but the Initiate moved even faster. He swept his arm around in a showy, martial-arts like move. Silvery shards of metal flickered into existence and hurtled toward Raveheart like thrown daggers.
Raveheart raised an arm. The shards sliced into his skin, but sparks and wires and fiber optics, not blood and shredded muscle, spilled out. He punched the Initiate with another super-fast attack, striking right through the magic-wielder’s elegant block. Kathleen heard bones crack.
Miss Yu thrust a hand toward the ePunk as if making a martial artist’s punch. The beer in the stunned Aether Pirates’ mugs flowed up and out to follow her gesture, striking Raveheart in the face. His nose broke with a burst of blood. He screamed and stumbled to the floor.
The Initiate of Metal gasped in pain, but he drew a long, straight knife from beneath his robe and raised it to slash down across the wounded ePunk’s throat.
At that moment, Kathleen felt something in the air twist, as if reality was being pulled out of shape.
As the Initiate drew back his blade, one of the Aether Pirates sneezed. His drinking companions flinched, jostling a nearby Rook. The Rook stumbled, spilling his drink and falling against a heavy stool. Solid as it looked, the stool tipped over, landing behind the Initiate. He dodged it, but overbalanced by his backswing, he slipped in the Rook’s spilled drink. He fell with his neck squarely across the edge of the stool’s seat. His neck snapped, sickeningly audibly. The blade flew from his hand, spinning through the air. Just as Raveheart sat up, gasping in relief, it impaled itself in his jugular. He coughed up blood and stranger, sparkling fluids, then fell dead across the Initiate’s body.
Kathleen turned to see Opal glaring furiously at the corpses. “Not in my place,” she said, hard and quiet.
Miss Yu kept her hands raised. She called out the silent room. “This woman”—she pointed to Kathleen—“is a TCPD officer! There is a reward on her head. That reward belongs to the Five Dragons.”
Opal folded her arms. “She may play for the rival team, but the truce of the Opal Room applies to everyone, even them.”
“I will tell Milady of your obstreperousness, Opal,” said Miss Yu.
“Pull any more of your fancy water magic, Miss Yu, and Lady White will learn about my obstreperousness from your bloody corpse.” Opal smiled coldly at Kathleen. “You’d better run, officer. Thanks for stopping by, and don’t ever come back.”
Kathleen backed out of the room slowly, away from scores of hostile glares. As she climbed the steps to the street, her mind cleared. She thought about what’d she’d seen.
She had never considered herself a detective; she left that to men like Roth. But tonight, she felt threads weaving themselves together in her mind: the conversation about Jerry Chiang, the reward for killing her, Topaz, Tarot, the war between the TCPD and the underworld. She looked at the slip of paper she still clutched in her hand.
It was an address.
Castilucci waited for her across the street. “I was worried you weren’t gonna come back,” he said distrustfully.
“I nearly didn’t,” she said. “We have to move, and we have to hurry.” They started walking.
“What’d you find out?” he asked.
“That whoever hired Tarot to kidnap Topaz wants us both dead,” she said. She held up the address. “And that they have an address in Aurora. Daybreak Ridge. Those old, refurbished warehouses.”
“Sounds like time for a trip to the north side, then,” said Castilucci.
They both smiled.
Next time: The Murderer of Detective Aragon!
By Jack 'OLantern' Snyder.
Thanks to: GeeksGoneBad, Dr. Tyche, and the entire City Structure team for the view of the city with the TCPD car.
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