In Which Gladys Does Not Appear
The east end of campus, by the union and the pent and especially the cordoned-off fountain, were crawling with cops and men in gray suits and robes. Further in, the place was quiet, even for a Sunday. Lee was reading his tablet as we pulled up in front of Harlowe.
“The investigators have set up shop here, on the first floor,” he said, frowning. “I wasn’t really expecting that.”
“Does that mean we should go somewhere else?” I asked hopefully.
“No, I don’t think so… they’ve asked students to stay in their own residence halls as much as possible,” Lee said. “Let’s head on in and get the lay of the land.”
We clambered out of the coach and headed down the slightly uneven concrete steps to the front patio. Lee entered the basement lounge ahead of us, holding open the door.
The room was fuller than I’d seen it any other time since the first weekend and its hall-wide meeting. It wasn’t just students, either. Some of the larger groups were sitting with humans, who I figured were their resident advisers, judging by their ages. The dean of non-human students, who probably hadn’t been back in Harlowe since the first weekend, was talking quietly to a couple of guys who were probably either somebody’s lawyers or plain clothes investigators.
The gorgon girl who lived in the room directly beneath me was standing with a couple of figures in all-encompassing black cloaks similar to the ones that Dee wore, and another person who looked like a humanoid mushroom standing about three and a half feet tall.
“It looks like there was an all-night Veil party,” Lee said.
It took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about… he was looking at Sooni, who was dressed in her latest Science Princess outfit. Maliko and Suzi were huddled around her. Sooni was bawling her eyes out, Maliko looked scared. Suzi looked oddly serene, as if she possibly didn’t understand what was happening.
Arrayed around them were men who looked like body guards… easterners, three who looked human and two who were canine yokai.
Interestingly, Kai was standing just outside the ring of bodyguards, looking sort of adorably stern in her baby clothes. She had a weapon belt strapped around her padded diaper, with a pair of long and short curved swords and wicked-pronged throwing blades.
“No, that’s actually just… Sunday morning,” I said.
“Ah, well… looks like Gregory’s not at the Crystal Palace any more but he hasn’t turned up here yet, either,” Lee said quietly, his eyes going back down to his tablet. “He might be at the admin building. Most of the agents and officers on premises are blanks to me… I don’t want any contact between them and you if he’s not in earshot of an uproar.”
“Is this one guy really going to make that much difference?” Ian asked. “I mean, if someone decides to play a little game of blackguard, paladin, with us don’t you think we can count on at least one honest cop hearing? Dorms aren’t known for efficient soundproofing.”
“Mike Gregory’s one of the ‘good guys’, no doubt about that,” Lee said. “But that’s not why I want him. I told you, I spent part of the morning studying him.”
“Um, no offense,” Ian said, “but I really hope you’re not staking everything on some hunch you gleaned from reading news clippings. I admit I don’t know much about these things except what I’ve seen on TV… but that sounds like something I’ve seen on TV.”
I nodded my own agreement. I trusted Lee… but I wasn’t sure what he could have learned in an hour or two that would make him seem so certain.
“Let’s just say that my firm’s information on Mr. Gregory is better than news clippings,” Lee said.
“What, do you have a psych profile or something?” Ian asked.
“I really can’t say anything about the specific nature of the information,” Lee said.
“Holy shit,” Ian said.
“Please do us all a favor and don’t go jumping to conclusions, or spreading them around,” Lee said. “Now, I’d rather not leave you completely alone but I’m kind of on my own here for the time being. Will the three of you be okay sitting tight here while I go up and have a chat with the people on-site here?”
Ian and Amaranth both looked at me. I knew they weren’t deferring to me. It looked more like they were sizing me up somehow… maybe wondering how well I’d handle myself if someone confronted us, or if I’d say or do something rash.
While that kind of concern had some basis ordinarily, I resented the idea that I couldn’t be counted on to control myself when it counted.
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” I said, trying to force myself to be nonchalant. “Go on, have fun.” Okay, maybe I could stand being a little more chalant than that. “I mean, do what you have to.”
“Right,” Lee said. “If anyone official… imperial, provincial, school, or other… wants to talk to you, tell them your attorney is upstairs and will be with them shortly. Don’t listen to anyone who says you don’t need me. I’ll make this as quick as I can.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be polite but firm,” Amaranth said.
“Okay, but if someone presses you to the point that balancing those two things becomes tricky, make sure you remember which of them is optional,” Lee said. “I’ll be back.”
He left us alone. We all looked at each other, but nobody said anything. Amaranth stirred as if she were about to speak and break the silence, but then she seemed to think better of it. It was like she shrank back inside herself.
The atmosphere inside the main lounge was somber. That didn’t seem too odd, considering that Leda was dead, but it was surprising that so many people would seem so deeply affected by her death. Sooni was the only one who was weeping so openly, but there were more tears throughout the room.
Harlowe was a place of insular cliques, in my experience… and indeed, the room was full of islands of people with no more than half a dozen students in each and many smaller than that. Leda had been standoffish… at the risk of speaking ill of the dead, she’d been more than a bit of a snob.
Then I became aware of an undercurrent to the scene: fear. I could feel it, I could smell it… and once I knew it was there I could see it on the faces of everyone in the room.
One of their own… our own… had died, been killed. Imperial suspicion was on someone from our building. Who wouldn’t be afraid? The fierce and feral-seeming had to worry about being accused and brought to trial for a crime they might not have done… or worse, accused and not brought to trial. The more conventionally vulnerable had to worry about becoming victims themselves.
I was probably creating a dichotomy that didn’t exist, I realized. I myself was proof that someone could look innocuous by human standards and still be both physically powerful and dangerous. The gnomish students would probably garner little suspicion, but everyone else would be fair game for the investigators.
Lee had kept my mind on my plight, my defense, to the extent that I hadn’t had much thought for the question of who might have done it. Now I found my mind turning to that subject.
The fact that Leda had been human-like and killed in water suggested one very strong possibility to me… or rather, one or two of them. If she bore bite marks and was torn apart to the point that resurrection didn’t seem to be in the cards for her royal personage, as it seemed was the case, then that made it even more likely.
Suspicion wasn’t proof… although it might turn out to be just as good for the imperials if it gave them a satisfactory resolution. Lee seemed like a good guy, and he definitely had my back… but that was the thing. He had my back. I was sure he’d want me to share my information about the mermaids if he thought it would help me out.
I couldn’t even say that he’d be wrong to do so. I hadn’t killed anyone. Feejee and Iona, by their own admission, had. Would it be such a terrible injustice if… say, Iona… were to take the blame for this one?
Of course it would, I realized. Someone had killed Leda. Trying to punish Iona for unrelated deaths without knowing for sure she was responsible for this one would only mean someone else might get away with murder.
And, of course, I’d had no interest in seeing Iona punished before doing so coincided with a chance to shield my own ass.
But maybe I was overthinking it… the investigators weren’t going to take the unsupported word of a demonblood murder suspect as damning evidence. They’d at least check Iona out because I had a lawyer who would use it against them if they ignored a tip that could clear me, and they’d either find proof of her involvement or…
…or the’d discover that under her smooth, red-tinged skin, she was hiding something a lot scarier looking than any demon and forget about finding evidence of anything else.
Also, I was thinking of this in terms of blaming Iona, but there was no way I could shield Feejee. While Feejee was hardly innocent… she seemed to be, in some ways, an innocent. She knew nothing but her people’s own peculiar system of morality. There was no connection in her mind between the idea of humans as people she could talk to and befriend and humans she could eat… or there was no conflict between the two.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, either way. I had the feeling that if she ate me, she might miss me afterwards, but I didn’t expect any remorse.
If Leda hadn’t died in water, I would be pretty sure Feejee hadn’t been involved. That she had been killed in the fountain muddied the… metaphorical water. It might even have made it more likely to be her than Iona… I could see Feejee not giving a second thought to the victim’s identity or standing as long as she was in water.
On the other hand, I could also see Iona just not caring. Feejee could overwhelm me with fear when she shifted into her less human-looking states. Iona was just plain scary, no matter what face she wore.
“Holy shit!” Ian said.
“What?” I said, looking around.
Hovering over the underworld contingent was what could only be the observer Lee had described as “some sort of eyeless fish-beast”… it was at least five feet across, generally flat and maybe three feet tall at the center, with wavy fringed fins protruding a foot and a half farther on each side. The front of it seemed to be all mouth, except for a small knob over the center of it from which a pair of whisker-like undulating antennae protruded. Its coloration was… hard to describe.
Dark and glistening, but just when I thought I was getting a handle on exactly what dark and glistening color it was, my mind slipped off it.
“Did I miss that thing somehow, or did it just show up?” Ian asked just as the thing faded back out of sight. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that’s… interesting.”
“It probably exists simultaneously on multiple planes,” Amaranth said. “Physical, ethereal…”
“The ether doesn’t extend that deep below the surface,” I said. “Probably some place stranger than that… somewhere that’s farther removed from anywhere up here. That could be why it seems to have trouble manifesting.”
It shimmered back into view, slowly turning in the air as it did. I had a distinct sense of unease as I realized that it was “looking” towards us, its long, whippy appendages streaming out through the air. Something rolled over me… a feeling like being pounded by a cold, strangely dry surf, and then the thing reoriented itself back the way it had been.
“Oh, so that’s how you say ‘mind your own business’ in extraplanar fishese,” Ian said. “I’ve been wondering.”
“Actually, it was just saying hi,” Amaranth said. “Introducing itself.”
“What’s it doing now?” Ian asked.
The fish turned its attention towards the door at the back corner of the room, where the stairwell to the boys’ side was. A moment later, the door swung open so hard and fast that I thought perhaps its attention had caused it to move, but then Dee came flying through it in a dark-dark green robe… as far as I could tell, her feet were on the ground, but there was really no other word for it but flying. She used the unearthly smooth elven stride, but she crossed the room over to the group of her compatriots far too quickly to call it “gliding”.
Her appearance took them by surprise. I could imagine the substance of what Dee was saying had something to do with her obligations to Steff, though I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying, or even hear what the cloaked elves said to her in response. They were either sticking to telepathy or modulating their voices to a degree Dee wasn’t bothering to do. They seemed deeply concerned with her state of dress, though… one of them actually stripped off her cloak, revealing herself to have spiky black hair, and tried to throw it over Dee’s body. Dee batted it aside mentally, her voice getting slightly louder.
“Do you think we should go help her?” Amaranth asked.
“It looks like she’s doing okay to me,” Ian said.
“We probably shouldn’t be getting involved with anything right now,” I said. “Remember what Lee said?”
“I think we could support our friend without getting entangled with officialdom,” Amaranth said.
“Right, except we’d be supporting her to ambassadors or lawyers or oathspeakers or whoever those are,” I said.
“Looks like it doesn’t matter anyway,” Ian said, as Dee threw up her arms and then turned and zipped back towards the door.
The woman who’d taken off her cloak made a lunge for her, but the other one grabbed her arm and held her back. As soon as Dee was out of sight, the uncloaked one shook her head sadly, then let out an audible “oh!” and disappeared. The discarded cloak seemed to pick itself up and then settled itself into an elf-sized shape.
“Apparently they’re privacy advocates?” Ian said.
There was a loud scoffing sound from behind us. I turned to see Trina had just come in. All three of her eyes looked bleary and red.
“I can’t believe you’re joking at a time like this,” she said. “Or actually, I can. Come on, Gladys,” she said half over her shoulder, apparently not even realizing that her friend had fallen behind her at some point and wasn‘t even in sight. “Let’s go find Mariel.”
“…she sure told me?” Ian said as Trina headed for the stairs.
“Everybody deals with tragedy differently,” Amaranth said.
I thought that maybe Trina’s way of dealing with it differently was by dealing with it exactly the same way she dealt with everything else, but I didn’t say that. I looked around the room, looking for something else to say, something else to talk about… and I was again struck by the amount of fear there seemed to be. Some people even had the look on their face that I recognized as being a certain kind of “guilty”… the look that says you know you’re going to be punished and you at least halfway feel you deserve it, irrespective of anything you’ve actually done. It looks the same as being guilty to a lot of people… particularly people who think that the innocent don’t have any reason to fear punishment.
“I think the really sad thing is that no one’s really dealing with what happened yet,” I said. “I don’t know who’d be mourning Leda, but right now everybody’s worried about what happens next… everybody’s waiting for the hammer to fall.”
“We’re sort of lucky, in a way,” Amaranth said, nodding. “Or we will be, if Lee’s right and he can get them to move on from you fairly quickly. You know you’re under suspicion, and you can look forward to a quick resolution.”
“I can hope for one,” I said. “It’s not a guarantee. I think I’d rather not be under suspicion in the first place.”
“Well, yes, but you can’t choose that, any more than you were able to choose your birth,” Amaranth said. “And even the people who don’t share your circumstances are under a cloud… they just don’t know exactly how bad it is yet.”
“Amaranth… I know you’re trying to look on the bright side, but it sounds to me like you’re talking about ’having a big enough problem to notice it’ like it’s a good thing,” I said. “And yeah, Lee’s got confidence and I’ve got confidence in him, but he‘s always been pretty upfront about the fact that there are no guarantees. There are a lot of things that could go wrong… there’s no way of knowing for sure that I’ll be cleared of suspicion, much less that it‘ll happen quickly.”
“Um, your coat’s buzzing,” Ian said.
“Oh!” I said, and I pulled my mirror out of my coat pocket and flipped it open. “It’s Lee,” I said for the others’ benefit as I accepted the reflection. “Hello?”
“Hello, Mackenzie?” he said. “Yes, I think things either got a whole lot simpler or more complicated. They have a demon expert here insisting there was no infernal handiwork in the killing.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?” Amaranth said, leaning over my shoulder. “Wouldn’t that make things simpler for Mack?”
“For a demonblood who’s under suspicion?” Lee said. “Very likely yes. For Mackenzie Blaise? That depends.”
“Depends on what?” I asked.
“On your relationship to a Martha Blaise.”
Next time: Do you really need a teaser?