432: Offering Advice

on February 15, 2010 in Book 15

In Which A Popular Suspect Is Ruled Out

Snuggling in bed with Steff, I learned a couple things… a pair of complementary lessons, I supposed.

The first was that just because you loved someone didn’t mean it would actually be comfortable to lie awake in bed with them pressed up against you indefinitely. Maybe that should have been obvious, but Amaranth… who was appreciably larger and heavier than Steff… was also just so comfy.

The second one was that if you did love someone, then lying with them could be nice even when it wasn’t completely comfortable. I couldn’t have done it forever, but I didn’t mind doing it for a while. The arrival of Amaranth and Two after their morning classes was a bit of a relief, though.

I didn’t say anything when I heard the doorknob jiggling… I figured it would be better if Steff roused herself at the sound of voices and activity than if I jolted her awake. She did murmur and shift a little as the door opened, which let me get an arm out from underneath her and move a little.

“Oh, dear,” Two said in a tone that sounded practiced and borrowed from someone else. Her friend Hazel, maybe?

“Baby, are you in here?” Amaranth called.

Steff woke up a bit more and kind of pushed herself up using my body as support.

“Watch your head!” I warned, right as she bumped it on the underside of Two’s bed. Luckily she wasn’t moving that quickly.

“Ugh,” she said

“Mack, baby, did you skip class?” Amaranth called from outside the canopy.

“We were excused,” I replied. “I went looking for Steff… she was looking for Two.”

“I’m here!” Two said. “Hi, Mack.”

“Hi, Two,” I said.

I had some vague notion that it would be better to help Steff get covered up before she dealt with Two, so I disentangled myself from her and slid quickly out of the bed. My foot hit our rug where it happened to be bunched up a little and I slid, hitting my back on the bed and my ass on the floor. The blanket we used as a curtain came down with me.

“Ack, light!” Steff said.

“Hi, Steff!” Two said.

“Honey, Steff’s probably a little out of it,” Amaranth said to Two, reaching a hand down to me. “Hey, baby… you should be more careful.”

“Yes, you could break something,” Two said.

“Um… I’m invulnerable, remember?” I said.

“You are, but the furniture isn’t,” Two said.

“…okay,” Steff said, with a syllable at the front that might have been it’s or I’m.

“I found your blouse, Steff,” Two said, holding it out towards her as Amaranth helped me to my feet and gave me a kiss on the cheek and a pat on the butt. “Please don’t leave clothing on the floor. I know Mack does it but it’s my floor, too, and I don’t like it.”

“Sorry, ‘wench,” Steff said. She took the shirt and put it over her face covering her eyes, and laid back down.

“Steff was actually hoping you could help her with clothing,” I explained. “Nothing she has except her skirts really fits her very well any more. Can you alter sizes?”

I watched Two think about that.

“I can let things out a little,” she said. “Or shrink them a little bit more. But I do not think I could make that blouse fit Steff now.”

“Not the way it used to,” Amaranth said, looking at it. “But… could you maybe make it cling in a little more flattering fashion?”

“What exactly are you talking about?” I asked, trying to picture it. “It doesn’t even cover her belly button.”

“Well, no… but clothing doesn’t have to, to meet decency standards,” Amaranth said.

“She might be a little cold walking around her stomach hanging out,” I said. “I mean, it seems like it’s kind of cold for skirts and loose blouses, anyway.”

“Maybe we should go over and see what we can find to work with in her room?” Amaranth suggested. She was looking at Two when she said this, which made me hope that I wasn’t being included in her “we”. “Steff, hon, can we borrow your key, or do you want to come with us?”

“It’s… there’s a pouch somewhere,” Steff said sleepily.

I picked up the blanket she’d been wearing and found the skirt that was tangled up in it. There was a little black velour pouch tied to its drawstrings, stretched out in the shape of an ID card. It jingled a little when I picked it up.

“Do you want to help?” Amaranth asked me as I handed it to her.

“I want to help Steff, yeah,” I said, thinking as I answered. “I’m not terribly interested in going into Viktor’s domain to do it.”

“Viktor’s domain,” Steff echoed. “I like that.”

“Okay,” Amaranth said. “We’ll get some of Steff’s dresses and bring them over here so that Two can work them over. Why don’t you go downstairs and get everybody some food, then? We probably won’t have time to go have a proper lunch.”

“Sure,” I said. “I can do that.”

“I don’t think they’ll let you run other people’s ID cards, so we’ll just have to pay you back,” Amaranth said. I shook my head.

“I’ve got money,” I said. “Everybody else was willing to cover me when we started, I can get lunch this once.”

“Okay, baby,” Amaranth said. “That’s sweet of you. We’ll be back in a bit. Come on, Two!”

“Are… are you sure she’s going to be okay over there?” I asked. “On the guys’ side?”

“It’s allowed during the daytime,” Two said.

“I don’t see why not,” Amaranth said. “I’m not going to leave her alone. We’ll just get some dresses… I’d think those would be the easiest, since they have so much material to work with. Don’t you think so, Two? Steff’s dresses tend to be a little flowy to begin with, so if they end up a little shorter it shouldn’t matter too much.”

“Yes, I do think so,” Two said.

We headed downstairs, Amaranth talking about Steff’s dresses all the way. I could only think of one in particular… the elven-style gown she’d pissed Callahan off by wearing to class. Amaranth seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the contents of Steff’s closet, though, and she was scarcely concealing some kind of vicarious enjoyment from the prospect of picking clothes out for someone to wear. I remembered how much fun she’d had getting me an outfit for my first date with Ian, with Steff’s help.

I wondered how serious Mother Khaele’s prohibition on her wearing clothing herself really was… Amaranth clearly thought it was very serious, but I also had good reason to believe that she’d managed to get away with wearing garments behind closed doors without being struck down. I didn’t know how omniscient the nature goddess was when it came to her daughters, or how likely it was that she would have noticed, but I doubted it would ever be the most important thing going on in the world, from her perspective.

Of course, I wasn’t about to urge Amaranth to experiment with pushing any boundaries when our relationship was already being given the probationary treatment by her mother… under the circumstances, it was probably good that she had another outlet for her urge to play dress-up.

We parted company when we got to the first floor, Amaranth and Two turning and heading down the hall towards the boys’ side while I stepped out of Harlowe and around the corner to the little convenience store in the nexus.

The shop looked like maybe it had missed a resupply that morning. The sole remaining fruit tray didn’t look terribly appetizing… maybe Amaranth wouldn’t be picky, but with a garden salad in slightly better condition and a sealed bowl of cereal with nothing meatier than raisins in it available I decided to give it a pass. None of the more expensive salads with strips of chicken breast or bacon on cheese on them were left, which was unfortunate becauseTwo would be picky about getting a more balanced meal.

I grabbed the three lunch meat and cheese sandwiches that were left… I had no idea what Steff and Two’s preferences were in that area and I didn’t really look at what they were. There were only a few bags of chips left, and they all had questionable-sounding seasoning flavors but I grabbed a couple anyway. After I dumped everything on the counter I also scooped up the other garden salad that remained.

There was absolutely nothing left that could serve as dessert, but Two probably had something stashed away.

“Hoarding?” the guy behind the counter asked me after ringing them up and accepting my coins.

“No,” I said, maybe a little too quickly and too defensively, considering that I actually wasn’t and I couldn’t imagine he actually cared. “Just getting lunch for my friends.” I looked at the collection of food. It seemed kind of meager for four people, compared to the laden trays we could have got in the cafeteria… but at the same time, it seemed like a lot to carry. “You don’t have a bag, do you?”

“No,” he said.

I repressed the urge to let out a profound and world-weary sigh, as it seemed unlikely to make it any easier to get the food upstairs. I stacked the salads on top of each other and kind of scooped everything else up.

It was a good thing all the food was in sealed containers… I managed to get it all upstairs without spilling or otherwise ruining anything, even though I dropped a couple of the sandwiches and one of the salad bowls at different points along the way.

Steff wasn’t interested in waking up for food, so I laid everything out on my desk. Amaranth and Two got back only a few minutes after I did… it seemed Amaranth had had some really specific ideas about what they were looking for. I showed them what I’d picked up, apologizing for the poor quality and lack of selection, but Amaranth didn’t give the food a second look. She started fussing over Steff immediately, laying a long black dress out over her supine form and pinching the fabric to show Two what she thought needed doing.

I wasn’t that curious about the tailoring stuff, but I was kind of interested in watching Two work her magic. Unfortunately, she seemed determined to do a lot of mundane things first, like measuring the fabric and Steff’s body with a little cloth tape measure, and marking on the dress with chalk. Before she got to the good parts, my mirror started buzzing.

It happened so rarely that it confused me for a second, and then I spent another second wondering if the media had managed to get through again somehow before Amaranth said, “You should probably answer that, baby, it’s bound to be Lee.”

She was right, of course, as I saw as soon as I opened the compact.

“Yeah, it’s him,” I said.

“Two, why don’t we go get some drinks from the vending cupboards while she takes this reflection,” Amaranth suggested.

“Okay,” she said and they headed out of the room.

“Hello?” I said as his tiny image formed. “What’s up?”

“Ah, Mackenzie… I thought this would be the best time to actually reach you,” he said. “Assuming you’re in class today, that is.”

“Yeah, I am,” I said. “My morning one let out early, but I don’t really expect my afternoon classes to be affected.”

“Good, good,” he said, somewhat absently. “It’s a good idea to keep busy, keep up your daily routine, when things like this happen. It helps you cope. It might also help with public opinion, but on the other hand, if someone wants something to bludgeon you with, coping too well can make a handy implement. Have you been watching the news?”

“Not really,” I said.

“I’d avoid it,” he said. “I’m afraid the chatter and speculation have already started. You’ve been in the public eye before… even if somebody isn’t completely aware of who you are or doesn’t know your name off the top of his head, he hears ‘alleged murder at Magisterius University, non-human students suspected’ and he’s going to think ‘Wasn’t there something about a demonblood?’ That’s going to happen whether the media feeds it or not.”

“And they’ve been feeding it?” I asked, a trap door over a bottomless pit opening up beneath my stomach.

“There’s been some testing of waters,” he said. “I sent out a statement yesterday, and I had one ready to correct the exaggerations and distortions that would crop up in the first news stories making mention of it. I don’t think we should do anything more right now… it would be a mistake to hold a press conference or put you in front of reporters right now. That would just bring more attention to what they’re calling your ‘involvement’.”

“What exactly are they saying, Lee?” I asked.

“They aren’t saying much of anything ‘exactly’,” he said. “They’re a little bit smarter than that. My statement to the press was detailed and specific and not actually very long, since there wasn’t much to say. In order to insinuate anything, they had to say less than that. But all it really takes is a word like ‘detained’ and ‘suspected’, or a phrase like ‘person of interest’. It’s not likely there will be any meaningful corrections issued, but letting them know that I’m watching should keep those words from gaining too much traction.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“The other reason I wanted to get you in the mirror concerns your case,” Lee said. “We’d hoped for a speedy resolution, you know, but of course ‘speedy’ is a relative term when it comes to the practice of law.”

“And this is going to slow it down, right?”

“It’s very likely to,” Lee said. “On the other hand, though, there might be an opportunity here.”

“For?”

“A quick settlement,” Lee said. “If it seems like the investigation might drag on… or might devolve into even more of a lurid spectacle… then it’s possible the university might not want to defend itself from your case at the same time that it’s dealing with the circus. Given the fact that you’ve expressed interest in seeing some sort of reform… well, if we pushed, we might be able to get a non-monetary settlement.”

“Is that what you recommend?” I asked.

“I think if we stick to our wands, you could see financial compensation as well as some changes,” Lee said. “But… well, if things get bogged down, they aren’t going to necessarily get unbogged any time soon. Before the incident on Veil Night, your case was likely looming very large in the thoughts and dreams of the university’s legal team and their PR people. It was a small case that could blow up very, very big. Now? It’s barely a blip. They’ve got a ready-made excuse to delay, they can use it to try to outlast your interest, they’re likely betting on you not wanting to draw attention to yourself right now… and they’re right, you don’t.”

“So you think I should settle,” I said.

“To be very clear, Mackenzie, it’s not a choice of us settling or not,” he said. “We’d be making an overture and it would be up to them to accept it or not.”

“If we do and they say no, does that hurt us at all?” I asked. “I mean, does it… I don’t know, make us look weak?” That sounded silly. “Sorry, I really don’t know…”

“That’s why I’m here,” Lee said. “And no, no… the only downside I can see to this is a reduced reward versus what we might get if it goes to arbitration and we prevail there. But it’s looking like less of a sure thing that we’ll be able to get it into arbitration this year, and of course the result of that has never been a sure thing.”

“So… what would this ‘overture’ be?” I asked.

“Well, it would be dressed up in a lot of flowery lawyery talk about the difficult times… actually, I think I’d enlist the company herald to write the beginning and deliver it,” Lee said. “The meat of it would be that we’d be willing to forego arbitration in exchange for an apology, some written policies protecting infernal and other planar-sensitive students, and… I’ll have to do some research on the structure of the governing bodies of the university, but the key component would be some sort of representative being appointed to watch out for the interests of all students, ‘all’ here having the meaning of ‘who aren’t already being watched out for by virtue of being human’.”

“There’s already a dean of non-human students,” I said, remembering the address I’d interrupted at the start of the semester with my bout of nauseau. “I don’t think her job exactly counts as watching out for our interests. Any chance we could get her replaced?”

“No,” Lee said. “Definitely not with a quick-and-dirty settlement. Almost certainly not in an arbitrated one. I don’t think the arbiter has the power to dictate that, and I’m sure the university wouldn’t agree to a high-level personnel change unless the person in question was already a scapegoat. No, the best way to approach this is to get them to create a new position… that way, nobody loses their job and everyone assumes the existing power structure will be able to ameliorate the effects of the new one.”

“Is there any way to stop that?”

“Not really,” Lee said. “The right person… the right kind of person… can do a lot of good in the right position, but there’s always going to be someone pushing back. You have the chance to maybe do some good here, and I admire you for wanting to take it, but… well, as an attorney I choose my words carefully. ‘Chance’ and ‘maybe’ are important words here.”

“So, if we did this… and they took it… how would you get paid?” I asked. “Would your fee be part of the settlement, even if there’s no other money involved?”

“That’s… sort of a delicate matter,” he said. “Putting any cash value into the settlement might change things a bit for the people who evaluate this sort of thing. An apology is just words. People apologize all the time without admitting guilt or responsibility. If you open up the coffers at the same time as you’re apologizing… that’s a different matter, in a lot of people’s minds. At the very least, attaching a price tag would mean that more people would have to say yes to get it approved.”

“So… would you just not get paid?” I asked. “Or would I owe you? Or is this somehow covered by…”

“Mackenzie, I’ll say again that this isn’t a sure thing,” he said. “But if we make the offer and they take it, I’ll be done with your case in far less time than I’d anticipated.”

“But you won’t have anything to show for it,” I said.

“A win’s a win,” he said. “I took your case on contingency. I thought it was a strong enough case to be worth the risk, but there was always the chance I’d have ‘nothing to show for it’… and now because I took that chance, I’ve got a sack full of gold I can bill for representing you and your friends. If we press on or the university decides to fight it out, I might be able to get you monetary reward with my fee being fully absorbed by the school. If we make them an offer to end it now and they take it, then I can close the books on this case and continue to collect for the other one until you don’t need me any more. I’m ahead either way, and this puts me in the enviable position of being able to do what’s right for my client.”

“What is that?” I asked. “In your opinion.”

“I don’t think you’ve got anything to lose by making the offer,” he said. “Unless you want to hold out for money. That’s your choice and I’m certainly not going to judge you for it. But I get the feeling you’d just as soon be quit of it, if some good can come of it, and if this thing gets pushed back… well, a good rule of thumb in law is that the longer something takes, the looonger it takes. Delays beget delays. The annals of students suing schools are full of cases that aren’t resolved until long after graduation.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it. Do you need me to do anything?”

“No, I’ll start by floating the idea that we’d be open to a speedy resolution, under the circumstances… focusing on the idea that it’s the proverbial ‘principle of the thing’ that’s more important than money, which I’m sure nobody will be sad to hear,” Lee said. “That might spur the conversation towards what they’d be willing to do… they might end up making an offer first themselves while I’m working out the specifics of ours. It’ll probably be insulting, but it’ll give us a baseline. If they say no… and I can’t stress enough that this is entirely possible… then we can say, ‘Well, we tried.’ It gives me an edge to keep pushing things along without looking like what we call, in legal circles, a ‘dick’.”

“Do you worry about that?”

“It would be an insensitive time to come off as one,” he said. “And that could reflect poorly on you.”

“On that subject… is it really okay to be doing this?” I asked.

“Doing what?”

“Using Leda’s murder to push for a settlement,” I said.

“Mackenzie, I’m not representing Leda’s interests,” he said. “I don’t even know what they’d be, at this point, beyond bringing her killer or killers to justice. The circumstances of her death are going to impact your case. There’s nothing wrong, nothing unethical or immoral, about reacting to the changing circumstances. If you’re worried about being respectful, look at it this way: you’re just trying to get out of the way of things. You can’t be more respectful than that.”

“I guess,” I said.

“Well, you talk it over with Amaranth, see what she thinks,” he suggested. “She seems to have an unexpectedly practical streak when it comes to you.”

“Yeah, I guess she does,” I said.

“I’ll get started on the groundwork… you’ll be able to change your mind up until the point you actually sign an agreement with the university,” he said. “Though if you get to that point and don’t, we’re running into ‘dick’ territory… but if you decide you don’t like this idea, if you want to fight it out, you’ll have time to change your mind before we get there. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

“Great,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to do and I’m sure you’ve got places to be, so I will give you a reflection… say, this time tomorrow?”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll be looking for it. Um… aside from the news getting stuff wrong, is there anything I should know about the investigation?”

“I think you’re in the clear there,” he said. “If they get a firm suspect and it’s someone you’re acquainted with you might be interviewed or called as a witness, but the imperials’ interest in you is otherwise over. I’ve been told by Gregory, by the mouthpieces, and informally by our very important and highly placed other client that you’ve been ruled out as a suspect. Diviners confirmed what your grandmother said, as well. No appreciable demonic traces by the fountain, absolutely no infernal element to the attack.”

“Good,” I said. Having been told again and again that I’d be quickly and easily ruled out as a suspect, knowing that I made no real sense as a suspect, wasn’t the same thing as being told I had been ruled out. “That’s good.”

“Now, your other friend, Steff… I didn’t want to draw too much attention to my interest there, but I’ve gathered there’s a bit of a divide there. Gregory thinks she’s only a marginally better suspect than you are, by dint of actually having been on campus, but there are some elements within the investigation who are pushing for more focus on her,” Lee said.

“What happens if that happens?”

“That’s a matter for her attorney,” Lee said. “Which she should definitely have. You would be doing your friend a very big favor by finding out if she has one and making sure she’s in touch with him, or recommending that she gets one. Her paramour just as much, if not more.”

“Have you heard something?” I asked, a little scared by the urgency of his suggestion. “Something specific?”

“No,” he said. “But that’s my first and best advice for anybody who might fall under suspicion of a crime, whether they’re innocent or not. Especially if they’re innocent, and especially if they’re not. The law was not meant to be navigated unaided.” He glanced out of frame and scowled at something on his desk, possibly a timepiece. “Mackenzie, I’m afraid I’ve got to…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Sorry for keeping you, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” he agreed, and then with a wave of his hand, he vanished from the mirror.


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2 Responses to “432: Offering Advice”

  1. pedestrian says:

    it will be interesting who would become Dean of Outlier Students.
    i would prefer Embrie but that would conflict with his present. position.

    Let me float a crazy notion, how about Callahan? I know, I know, every whiny spoiled brat with an ego swollen with High School clique entitlement would leave MU in a bodybag. You make that sound like a bad thing. Think of it as cleaning the shallow end of the gene pool.

    But when there was an important issue, in Callahan’s jaded eyes, who better to lead the charge to terrorize administration dullards and savage blowhard Trustees? Several bureaucratic heads on spikes, with the ravens pecking out their eyes, now and again, would be just the thing to encourage progressive reforms.

    Current score: 0
    • Moridain says:

      I would prefer Bohd. Not so much for her background(s) but because she seems to have the most open and non-judgemental attitude of Mack’s teachers.

      Current score: 8