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The Beat Goes On
The sun had just begun to set on that cool September evening, the dying light bouncing off the gothic skyscrapers of Fort City like they were so much cheap jewelry. On the streets below a pulsating mass of humans and those who were more than human walked alongside cars pumping out smoke like they were chain smokers from a time sixty years gone. The horde was marching on its way to the existential death trap that was modern living. With the sun going down, Fort City was waking up. Just another vampire town.
Down on Shepherd street, in the actual vampire quarter of the Fort, life was still quiet yet. The mad rush into the solid brick wall that was corporate life didn’t really exist here. Hadn’t for a few decades. Optimists liked to say that was because our feudal system still worked, that we hadn’t bought in to the maddness that was democracy and the enlightenment.
Personally, I thought we just liked to sleep in late.
“All right, boss. Enough lollygagging, let’s get to work! Which beat do we walk today?” My squire, Jennifer Anne Ryan, said off to my left. I looked down at her. Jen was short, with hair the colour of a red fox and skin about as pale the aforementioned fox’s underbelly. A light sprinkling of freckles covered her face. She wore the Security Department Uniform: a black trench coat over a black suit and pants. A fedora was perched jauntily on her head, and black polarized sunglasses covered her storm-grey eyes.
I was dressed much the same, ableit on a taller frame. It was a good uniform, one that kept the freezing rains that came in from Madness Bay out and was distinctive enough, even in this burgh, that you weren’t likely to get mistaken for a kissogram.
I chewed on the toothpick that hung out of my mouth while I pretended to consider Jen’s question. Patrol assignments were determined by Colonel Walburga “Wally” Placeholder, not the officers, so it wasn’t as though we had a choice about which beat we walked. Though on the other hand, as the head of the Security Department and a knight bannerett of the Barony of Fort City, I could have overridden Wally. But that would have been… rude.
“East,” I said, gesturing to the left with a wave of my hand.
“Ah, the old Shepherd street beat,” Jen said with relish that would have been painfully and obviously fake in any sane person. Fortunately for the world at large, Jen was not a particularly sane person. Case in point: her squireship to a vampire. “You know, I’ve done patrol training off and on over the last three years and I don’t think I’ve ever actually done the Shepherd street beat?”
“It’s the easiest one,” I told her as we walked down the street, past the brownstone complex that was Sanctuary and down into the more neo-gothic townhouses that made up the rest of Shepherd street. “So we rotate it more often than we do the others. Can’t let the flatfoots get complacent.”
“That makes sense,” Jen said thoughtfully. “Though I always thought a patrol officer should know their beat like the back of their hands? Doesn’t rotating them kinda defeat that purpose?”
“Eh, not really,” I said. “Walk the same route every day the same way, guess what happens?”
“It becomes routine?” Jen asked.
“Exactly,” I said. “And what becomes routine becomes boring. What becomes boring becomes invisible. And what a cop can’t see…”
“Wastes the whole neighbourhood like an outbreak of the bubonic plague on steroids,” Jen finished. “Okay, I get that. So you rotate the patrols every now and again to make sure that the cops are always looking at the streets with fresh eyes, right?”
“Partially,” I said. “And, as part of your ongoing tutelage under my care, you get to figure what the other reason we rotate patrols is.”
Jen scrunched up her face the way she always did when she was thinking. Out loud, she said: “Well, the purpose of a beat is twofold: one, to look for crimes, victims, victimizers and all that fun stuff. The other reason is to get people comfortable around the cops and get to know them, make it easier to report crimes. So why do we rotate…? Oh! I know. It’s so people can get used to a lot of different cops, instead of just the regular guy, right? So that if they have to report a crime, they can go to any number of cops because they a whole bunch of them!” She turned her head to look up at me, beaming with triumph like she had just conquered Gallia.
Of course, that wasn’t at all the answer I or Lukas the Wolf-man had come up with in either of our careers as cops, which should probably tell something. Not sure what, but it’s probably something negative. “Okay,” I said. “Make that three reasons.”
The polarized lenses of Jen’s cheaters couldn’t hide her surprised blinking. Then she said: “Oh. You’re worried about corruption. That maybe if you leave an officer in one spot for too long, they’ll be more susceptible to bribery or something.”
“Full marks,” I said. “Plus some bonus points for coming up with a whole new answer.”
Jen snorted softly. “You’re a cynic, boss.”
“What can I say? The dog-like philosophy goes so well with being a part of a dog-like species,” I said. Jen specifically took her glasses off to roll her eyes at that one.
Right about then, we heard angry shouting from about five houses down. Jen and I picked up the pace a little to arrive at a charming domestic scene.
“You fucking pig!” the woman screamed. She was taller than Jen, which wasn’t much of an achievement, with brown hair that had red and yellow streaks dyed into it. She wore a tight fitting purple top with crossed straps across her front and floral-printed plants whose florals were dead. Strappy heels adorned her feet. Her face was white with what was clearly rage, as opposed to the pale make-up so common in this town. “How long? How fucking long?”
“Since third grade!” the man shouted back, his face equally white. “Which was about the same time you stuck your hands in my pockets and started robbing me dry!” He was a little taller than his current sparring partner, though his hair was about the same shade and they shared similar features. That is to say, utterly generic. He wore a plain black shirt over black pants and no shoes. A small crowd had gathered to enjoy the unexpected spectacle. Recognizing one of them, Jen and I approached them.
“Hoagie! Hey, Hoagie! What’s going on?” Jen asked as we sidled up to the man.
Jack “Hoagie” Swanson, owner of the local sandwich shop and proud Subway hater stood watching the scene at the back of the crowd with some amusement. He was a big man, being just a little bit shorter than me and a fair bit wider. Though as with Jen’s height, being wider than me was not exactly something to write home about. More than one would-be thief had made the mistake of assuming that width was all girth, and had suffered appropriately for it. He turned around, wiping his hands on his big black apron, more out of habit than anything, and said:
“Hey, Jen. Bianco. What’s up?”
“The opposite of down,” I said blandly. Jen and Hoagie both shot me looks that an observer could have mistaken for raw citric acid. Jen turned back to Hoagie and asked again:
“That’s what I said. Who’re the eggs and why are they squabbling in the middle of the street?”
“Oh, those two,” Hoagie said with a shrug. “Adam and Jane Robertson. A couple of young, stupid fresh-out-of-college kids. High school sweethearts, apparently, only they aren’t so sweet on each anymore.”
“You don’t say,” I said as I watched the two ‘kids’ bicker. ‘Kids’ was the wrong word for it. I’d seen better manners out of kindergartenners. “They got any particular beef with each other, or is this some new kind of flash mob performance?” I added.
“Let’s see,” Hoagie said as he rested his hand in his chin. “I think tonight it was because Adam, the dimwit, admitted that he liked oggling other girls. Specifically, Jane’s little sister. Jane took exception to that, though I don’t know what she’s worrying about. I know the little sister and she isn’t nearly dumb enough to get into bed with a schmuck like Adam.”
“So do I, now that you mention it,” I said. Watching our two ‘adults’ make molesworth and his cronies look mature had caused something to click. “Natasha Jenning, right? Works in that little tattoo parlour over on 5th Graveyard? Ah, what’s that place called…”
“Lazy-Eye Tats,” Jen answered. “And yeah, now that you mention it, Jane looks godawful like Nat. With fewer tattoos, though.”
“That’s her,” Hoagie confirmed. “She comes in every now and again and grabs sandwiches for the parlour. Good lookin’ broad; sharp too. Way smarter than her sister. Anyway,” Hoagie continued with a sigh as he folded his arms across his chest, “Adam took exception to her taking exception, and started pulling out the old cliché about how she was draining him of all his money. And here we are.”
“They been at this for a while?” Jen asked, jerking her head in their direction.
“Today or in general? Today, they just got started,” Hoagie said without waiting for Jen to respond. “But they’ve been doing this dance off and on for a while now, yeah.”
“Naturally, you didn’t think to mention anything,” I said dryly.
“What’s there to mention?” Hoagie said with a shrug. “It’s not like they’re abusing each other. And hey, it provides some great entertainment.”
“Remind me to update our ‘What is and isn’t Abuse’ PSA’S, Jen” I whispered to the sawed-off redhead’s amused giggle. Louder, I said: “Later, Hoagie. Hope you don’t mind if we interrupt your entertainment.” Hoagie just waved us off.
Jen and I muscled our way through the crowd that had formed its way into a ring around the two yahoos. Just as Jen and I reached them, Jane chambered a right hook from somewhere back in Vermont and cut it loose across Adam’s face. I picked up the pace a little and shoved him to the ground, taking the punch across my chest. Jen slipped around Jane and went to confront the now prostrate Adam.
“Now, now,” I said. “Is that anyway to behave in civilized society?”
Jane must not have heard me, because she came in with a left jab that I easily brushed aside. She had some training, a little boxing from the look of it. Not enough to get her head out of that red cloud that was hanging over it, though, else she probably wouldn’t have taken the swing.
“I don’t think ‘civilized society’ and these two go together boss,” Jen said cheerfully from my left. I glanced over to see that Adam, similarly blinded by rage, was swinging wild haymakers at Jen, who would have made Muhammad Ali proud in the way she was dodging the poorly-aimed blows. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jane come charging in. I reached out with my right hand and grabbed her head, holding her out at arms lenght like a good older sibling would do to their younger rugrats. The kid’s training must have been decent, because she started wailing on my arm. It wouldn’t do her any good: the coats the Security Department wore were all armoured anyway and vampires were much tougher in a fist-fight than even the most enhanced humans, but… A for effort, at least.
“That’s a good point, pup. Were do you think we should put these two brawlers after we’re done? The zoo?” I asked. Jane at that point had figured out that targeting my arms wasn’t going to do her any good, and started in with the kicks. Took her long enough.
“Not the boxing ring, that’s for sure,” Jen said as she continued to dodge Adam’s unhinged windmills. Clearly having had enough of that, Jen finally stopped dodging and said: “Jesus Christ, mack! Who the fuck taught you how to throw a punch? I’m going to stand here and let you hit me, okay? I’m just going to stand here and wait for you to actually hit me. Do you think you can do that? Come on, goddammit! Hit me!” Adam stood there, swaying on his feet, clearly exhausted from both his overly-energetic attack on Jen and the previous fight with Jane, and took that swing. Or tried to, anyway. He ended up missing Jen by the length of a car, spun around, and collapsed down to the ground. Jen gave him a double-take, looked up at the crowd and announced:
“If I didn’t think it was a threat to whatever remains of my dignity from that fight, I’d break down and cry. That’s the saddest thing I’ve seen all evening.”
“I’ve seen Mayweather Junior fights that were more interesting than that,” I said. It was right about that point that Jane got really wise and decided to try for a joint lock on outstretched hand.
“All right,” I said, “that’s quite of that,” and hauled her in close while she was still attached to my hand. Then I gently grabbed her nose and twisted. With a yelp that wouldn’t have been out of place from a kicked dog, Jane quickly let go of my hand and stumbled backwards on to the street.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Mr. Bianco, how can you ignore a joint lock, but this Robertson dame gets shut down by a nose twist?
Answer: I’m a seventy and change year old vampire cop. I’ve had my wrist twisted so hard it came off and the chick who did it start beating me with my own severed hand. No human is ever going to be that tough in a fist fight. Period.
“All right my little zoo animals,” I said as the two combatants clambered back to their feet. “I think we’ve all had our fair share of excitment for the night. How’s about you all come down and tell me what this is all about, eh?”
“Who are you–” they shouted at the same time, only to stop short. It was Jane who spoke up first.
“My lord,” she said, gulping loudly. “I–I’m so sorry, I–I didn’t know.”
“Oh yeah, now she recognizes us,” Jen complained. “You couldn’t have maybe done that before you and lover boy over here started throwing punches?”
“I swear I didn’t mean to hit you,” Jane said. Her skin was flush as she was coming down from the adrenaline spike of the fight, but it was starting to go pale again with fear. “I–I swear! You have to believe me!”
“Don’t listen to her!” Adam said. His earlier struggle to get off the ground had apparently been in vain, as he now sat on the sidewalk, one leg bent upwards at the knee and the other outstretched. “She’s a lying, fucking…”
“Shut up, Adam,” Jen said with a yawn. “It’s not like your behaviour has been all that impressive tonight, either.”
“Indeed it hasn’t,” I said. I let some phony imperiousness into my voice, a little stage show to scare these two nitwits. You’d be amazed what you can get done when people think you’re the next coming of Gauis Octavious. “Assaulting police officers, brawling in the streets, domestic violence… I’m very, very disappointed in both of you.”
“My Lord, please,” Jane said. “This–this pig made the most disgusting comments about my sister!”
“So your way of dealing with that is a streetside slugfest?” Jen asked.
“Of course it is,” Adam said as he struggled once more to his feet. Jen just stared at him, hands folded across her chest, as he toppled back down to the sidewalk. “She’s a violent, gold-digging…!”
“Do you deny the accusations?” I cut him off. “Well? Do you?”
Adam glared at me. “No,” he admitted.
“Oh-kay,” I said. I turned to Jane and said: “So he admits he’s a pig. Good for him. Really. Shows great self-awareness and all that. I guess the next question is: do you deny the accusations he made against you?”
“He hasn’t got that much money,” she said scornfully, glaring at was quite clearly her soon-to-be-ex boyfriend.
“That isn’t what the boss asked you,” Jen said, an edge to her tone. Jane flinched but added:
“Yeah, I deny them. Like I said, he hasn’t got that much money. He’s just a self-indulgent little prick. Thinks he’s God’s gift to the world.”
“And you’re a cold-hearted–” Adam began. I cut him off with an upraised hand.
“The… validity of the accusations isn’t really important,” I said. “I don’t care and I don’t think you’re neighbours do either. What I really wanted to know was if there was some way you two could work this way out. I’m kind of guessing not, based on those last two statements. What do you think, Jen?”
“Is hockey the dullest sport ever?” Jen asked, full of false innocence.
“In certain places, those words would find you at the wrong end of an ice skate my dear squire,” I said. “As it is, I’m going to take that as yes. So, here’s what we’re going to do. If neither of you want to be charged for any of shenanigans today, you’ll do exactly as I say. Clear?”
The two idiots nodded.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Peachy, even. Okay, here’s the plan. You,” I said, pointing at Jane, “are going to go over to your sister’s house and stay there. If she isn’t home or doesn’t have a key… I don’t care. You’ll just have to wait until she gets home. Okay?”
“Okay,” Jane said. “Can I just…?”
“No stops anywhere between her and Natasha’s house,” I said firmly. “You may call your sister if you like. But you need to go now.” Jane nodded and ran through the crowd, who parted easily to let her through. I turned to Adam.
“This your house?” I asked, nodding my head towards the neo-Gothic townhouse that this little drama had unfolded. He nodded, with more than a hit of resentment.
“Good,” I said. “That makes this simple. You are going to go into that house. You are going to call your lawyer. You are going to tell them what happened. Everything, mind. Remember, the bar association meets every Tuesday morning for drinks and lawyers are the worst gossips in the world. If you lie to your lawyer, Omar Taylor will hear about it. And if Omar hears about you lying to your lawyer, I’ll hear about it. You don’t want me to hear about you lying to your lawyer, do you?” Again, Adam shook his head. With a bit more enthusiasm this time. “Good,” I said. “Your lawyer will tell you what to do. And where to go, probably. Now get out of here. Having to deal with a mutually abusive relationship this early in the evening makes me grumpy.” With that, Adam skeddalded faster than a boiled frog. Jen turned to the corwd:
“All right folks. That’s it, nothing more to see here. Come on people, get a move on. I’m sure you have work or something.” Slowly the crowd began to shift itself, dispersing like a bunch of children who had just discovered the ice cream truck was empty. I couldn’t resist a parting shot:
“And the Security Department would like to thank you once again for failing to report any and all crimes in your area. Keep up the good work; you might just drive us out of business one day.”
To my complete lack of suprise, nobody reacted to that comment. Nobody except Jen that is, who made a noise all mothers with bratty teenagers would be familiar with before returning to my side. We continued walking down the street.
“That was fun,” Jen said. “I wonder what other kind of trouble will we come across today?”
“Oh, it’ll be the usual buffet I’m sure,” I said. “Analysis, Jen.”
“I’m not sure that was a mutually abusive relationship,” Jen said thoughtfully. “I mean, we only saw one fight there, with a some second-hand gossip courtesy of Hoagie. The fight was nasty, sure, but aren’t all fights? So maybe breaking them up with the law wasn’t exactly the best way of handling the situation.”
“Hoagie did mention previous fights,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, that’s true,” Jen acknowledged. “And I guess its better than putting them in jail for the night. Less paperwork for us, anyway. Still, maybe we should have tried to reconcile them?”
“Should we have?” I asked.
“Eh, maybe not,” Jen said as she scrunched up her face again like a puppy dog trying to decide whether it wanted bacon or beef for dinner. “They both took swings at us without realizing who we were, right? Not a good omen for reconciliation. And cops probably shouldn’t get involved in domestic disputes anymore than we have too, either. We’re not counselors and we’ve got other crap we’ve got to deal with. Probably best to send ’em to their corners and let the professionals handle it.”
“Fair analysis,” I said. The sidewalk was beginning to get crowded; more and more of the barony was starting to wake up. Jen and had to start pushing our way through the throngs, and more than once I had to reach out and pull somebody back on to the sidewalk so as they didn’t get run over. Maybe I should have asked Wally for one of the sublevel beats? Naw, the undergound was just as bad if not worse. And I wasn’t interested in dealing with the inevitable moron-crushed-by-subway death that would land in our laps if we had gone down there. Not before breakfast, thank you.
“Do you really think Jane Robertson’s a gold-digger?” Jen asked as we approached one of the bends in Shepherd Street.
“What do you think?” I said as I ducked under a particularly large and foul-smelling gent in a stained Misfits t-shirt and jeans.
“I can’t imagine why else she’d stick with Adam,” Jen said as she put her interest in Parkour to good use, sliding around the individual members of the horde. “Not that Adam sticking with her makes anymore sense. She’s kind of…”
“Generic looking with an unpleaseant personality?” I supplied helpfully.
“Not the exact words I was looking for, but close enough,” Jen replied. “Jesus. You know, with all the marriage and relationship councillors out there today, you’d think less people would get themselves trapped in such toxic relationships.”
“Would you?” I asked. We had to stop for a second as a car pulled out of an underground garage and cut us off.
“You are really on a getting me to think for myself kick tonight aren’t you?” Jen answered. “Okay…”
Just then, a tiny brown blur came shooting out of one of the townhouses and tried to make it on to the street. I simply extended my arm and cut the little bundle around the waist.
“Help! Help! I’m being oppressed!” Mohammad ibn Placeholder shouted while he tried to claw at my coat.
“They should have named that kid Hellion instead of Mohammad,” Jen said as I drew the scrambling child into my chest so as to keep a better hold on him.
“You’re giving hellions a bad name, Jen,” I replied. At that point, Mohammad’s mother, Jasmine, came rushing out of the house.
“That little monster! He hid behind my Acacia tree in the front lobby until I opened the door and ran out! Thank you for catching him, my Lord,” Jasmine said as she bustled up to where the three of us where standing. Jasmine was a short plump house-wife with a fondness for black star-patterned robes identical to the one she wore today. She had a round pleasant face with a nose that my own Roman-esque schnoz seem humble and brown eyes on black sclera, the hallmark of being a part of The Flock. Her skin was paler than usual.
“Eh, no problem,” I said.
“I ain’t a monster!” Mohammad shouted at the top of his lungs. “I’m a free human being on a quest to liberate the people form oppressive parental relationships! You can’t stop me, man!”
“This is new,” Jen remarked as we walked back into Jasmine’s house.
“One of the kids at the playgroup lent him some ‘Kids Next Door’ dvds,” Jasmine said as she opened the door. “I thought maybe they would calm him down a little. I haven’t been that naive since my first honeymoon.”
“He’s been tested for ADHD, right?” I said as I put the little rugrat down in Jasmine’s foyer. He tried to run off again only to slam into Jen, who promptly closed the door behind her.
“ADHD, ADD, and a whole bunch of other crap I can’t remember,” Jasmine said with an exasperated gesture. “The doctors all say he’s perfectly healthy, just rambuctious. I think western doctors are stupid. So of course I take him to The Imam and what does he say? The same thing!” She threw up her arms in despair. And that’s when Mohammad’s little sister jumped on me.
“I am a tiny Muslim ninja!” she said, gripping me around the neck as hard she could. Which wasn’t that hard.
“Hello tiny Muslim ninja,” I said as I gently pried the girl off of my neck. “And how are you today?”
“I am good,” said the girl, who was now doing a remarkably good impression of a spider-monkey dangling off of my arm.
“That’s your fault,” Jasmine said as she jabbed a finger at her daughter.
“It’s my fault you’re good?” I said to the girl. “Wow, that’s the nicest thing anybody’s said to me ever. Think I can take you back to Sanctuary with me? Show you off to Jess? Getting credit for somebody elses good behaviour would be quite a shock to her, don’t you think?”
The girl giggled. Jen sighed and said: “Come here you little monster,” and pulled the girl off of my arm.
“Nadia,” Jen said sternly as she set the girl down. “We’ve talked about this. No jumping on people, okay? Not even if they’re great big lummoxes like Joey. Okay?”
“Okay Ms. Ryan,” Nadia said.
“Good,” Jen said firmly. “Now how about you go grab your brother and go watch some T.V.?” Nadia nodded and grabbed Little Mo and hauled him up to the living room, Mo cursing her out for joining the great adult conspiracy all the way.
“Thank you, Jen,” Jasmine said.
“Hey, no worries,” Jen said with a shrug. “I coach Nadia’s gymnastics team, so I know how much of a handful she can be.”
“Handful is an understatement,” Jasmine said with a shake of her head. “I don’t know how I raised such troublemakers,” she continued. “Neither their father nor I or weere ever like this.”
I thought about pointing out that the man Jasmine was married to wasn’t the father of either of her kids but decided against it. There was nothing in that for me and besides I liked this family. And it wasn’t like Abdul was the most faithful husband either.
“They’re kids,” Jen said with a shrug. “They’re supposed to be rambunctious.”
“Well they’ve definitely got that down pat,” Jasmine said with a crooked smile. “Ah well. Today they’re staying with one another member of our parents group. Once they’re gone I can get good and baked–I mean, have some peace and quiet.”
“Just don’t burn the house down,” I said dryly. Jen said:
“Goodbye, Jasmine. Goodbye Nadia! Goodbye Mohammad!”
“Goodbye Ms. Ryan! Goodbye Mr. Bianco!” the kids shouted.
“Have a good night Jen. And you as well, my Lord,” Jasmine said.
“Ciao,” I said. Jen and I walked out the door.
“You know, that’s twice now tonight that somebody’s called you ‘my Lord’ and you’ve let it slide,” Jen pointed out as we resumed our patrol down the street.
“I just got back from a conference with half a million vultures with no sense of propriety whatsoever,” I answered sourly. “I’m just glad to back to some civil discourse.”
“Different world today, boss,” Jen said brightly. “People don’t use those forms of address any more.”
“No, they use different ones that are just as formal but without ever actually hammering out the rules for them and pretending that their forms of address are somehow less formal and more rational than mine,” I responded.
Jen laughed. “Okay, true,” she admitted with a grin that would have made the Cheshire cat proud. “But let’s face it boss. You’d be bored out of your mind if someone didn’t give you something to complain about.”
“True,” I said. “Very true. It’s what keeps me so old.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” Jen said. Then she took a deep breath and said: “Okay, the exam is coming up soon. What should I be looking for on my patrol?”
“You tell me,” I said. The exam that Jen was talking about was The Fort City Police Officer’s Practicum Exam. It was the first step in making you a bona fide police officer. Well, aside from the apprenticeship you had to take before the exam and The Fort City Police Officer’s Qualifying Exam, which was what allowed you to take either of the first two steps. And that was only if had the requisete grades to get in in the first place. Okay so it was more like the fifth or sixth step, but who’s counting.
At any rate, this was a big deal for Jen. Vitally important, one might say. Naturally I had not intention of making it easy for her.
“Don’t know,” I said.
Jen shot me a dirty look over her cheaters. I just grinned.
“Okay, if you’re going to play that way,” Jen said sourly. She took a deep breath and looked around. I did the same thing, cataloguing as much as I could to cross check with Jen’s version. It wasn’t that I distrusted her, but routine and the attendent tendency to let things slip past your notice was an eternal danger for a cop. So, in an attempt to reduce that danger as much as we possibly could, the Wolf-man had optened to use partners on the beat, constantly testing each other to make sure that nothing got past them. He also introduced, after stealing the idea wholesale from his friend/drinking-buddy/punching bag Theodore Roosevelt, the idea of the Master-at-Arms walking the beat with their cops. A tradition I was continuing tonight with Jen.
“Placeholder’s got the hot dogs out early tonight,” Jen said after a moment. “It’s not even six-thirty yet and you can already smell them cooking. Um, let’s see what else.” She jerked her head down the street. “Gianno’s got his olives out early, too. But he’s been advertising a big sale for those things for a week straight, so I’m not surprised.”
“How did you know Gianno was advertising an olive sale?” I asked, wondering if Jen had somehow knew what beat she was going to be assigned tonight. Jen’s response put me at ease.
“Oh, I keep up will all that stuff,” she said with a shrug. “A cop’s got to know what’s going on in their city, right? Besides, I grew up dirt poor. Keeping an eye out for sales and coupons was vital if you wanted to life longer than a week.”
“Fair point,” I said, mentally kicking myself for doubting her.
“What else,” she said, returning to scan the street. “I dunno, looks pretty normal to me,” she said. “The clothing stores are already moving their fall gear out on to the streets to clear up space for winter. Look,” she said, jabbing her finger angrily at the stores in question, a gesture that would probably have carried a lot more force if her arms weren’t so stubby. “See? It’s not even fall yet, not really, and they’ve already got their crap in the clearance aisle. You gotta buy all your fall stuff in July! And it gets worse! Look! Christmas decorations! In fucking September! September! It’s not even Halloween yet,” she finished grumpily, as she stamped her feet on the ground.
“I see it,” I answered, my mood taking a decidedly sour turn as I took in the grinning pictures of Coca-Cola’s fat ode to spoiled brats and commercialism. Even amongst vampires, the greedy cannot wait to force you to pray to their false god.
“Not even Halloween,” Jen muttered. “Hell, we haven’t even gotten past Italian-American day yet!” she scowled further at the stores before saying: “hello, what’s that?”
I followed the direction of Jen’s gaze. There, at the far end of the street, almost hidden by the twists and turns of the road and the increasing mass of humanity, one of the shops had its windows boarded up.
“Don’t know,” I said. “But I think maybe we should check it out.”
* * *
The shop in question was Pierre’s Exquisite Imports, a place that mostly sold second-hand foreign made clothes as though they were high-end merchandise. Seeing the boarded up windows, I wondered if somebody had at long last decided to object to Pierre’s con artistry.
“Mister Placeholder?” Jen asked, softly at first and then much more insistently. “Mister Placeholder? It’s Jen Ryan and Joey Bianco of the Security Department! Mister Placeholder!” she continued, punctuating her questions with a tattoo that would have done a drill sergeant proud against the wooden door. And not even an echo in response. Jen looked back at me, biting her lip with concern.
“Do you think something happened…?” she began, but before she could finish her question, the steel lid that covered the entrance to Exquisite Imports‘ basement storage area started to rattle. Jen backed away from the front door quickly and shuffled back to my side to watch whoever came out.
It was Pierre Placeholder himself, shoving a heavy carboard box full of what I presumed was clothes in front of him. Jen hurried forward to grab the box from Pierre and put it safely to one side while I leaned down to grab Pierre and help him out of the basement.
“Thanks,” he said as he dusted himself off. Then he straightened himself up and got a good look at the two of us. “Jesus,” he breathed. “I didn’t know it was the two of you. What are you doing here?”
“Hauling you out of the basement,” I replied. Jen shot me a dirty look and said:
“We noticed that your windows were all boarded up,” she said. “And when we came to investigate, you didn’t answer.”
“Well I was in the basement, wasn’t I? Kind of hard to answer somebody all the way up here from all the way down there, isn’t?” he replied snidely. Then he gave himself a shake and said:
“Sorry, it’s been a long week.”
“That’s all right,” Jen said. “Did something happen to your store? Were you robbed or…?”
“Robbed, ha! Yeah, that’s a good way to put it,” Pierre answered with a snort. I waited for a minute and then said:
“Despite what the mortals say, we aren’t mind readers. Could you be a little plainer, mac?”
“Sure,” Pierre said. “I’m being shut down by the Merchant’s Guild.”
Jen did a double-take that would have made Tex Avery proud. “Why?” she demanded. “Jesus, you’ve only been here what? Thirty years?”
“Twenty-seven,” Pierre said with some pride. “But the guild’s cracking down. Anybody not onboard with their program had better get onboard, or else. You catch me?”
“Yeah, we catch,” Jen said sourly. I raised a finger.
“Cept on one point,” I said. “You’re a retailer. You belong to the Retail Guild, not the Merchies.”
“Yeah, so?” Pierre said. He folded his arms and leaned back against his storefront.
“So how are the Merchies shutting you down?” I asked. “The last time the Merchies encroached on Retail territory, they got their greedy hands chopped off. And even a dog learns to stop sticking its noise where it hurts.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought too,” Pierre said with a sigh. He ran his hand over his balding head and asked:
“You guys know what the arrangement is with Retail and the Merchies is, right?”
“Sure, same as the one between them and the Grocer’s,” Jen said. “Retail members sell and buy the goods in the storefronts, but the Merchies handle all the warehousing.”
“Basically,” Pierre agreed.
“Is that what they’re nailing you on?” I asked. “Warehousing?”
“Yeah, that’s part of it,” Pierre said with another one of those self-indulgent sighs that I was sure was going to put his back out. “Here’s the thing. Ever since the Internet, and especially with the rise of guys like Amazon and Google, the Merchies have been sayin’ that the Retailers aren’t needed. That instead, they, the Merchies, should handle all commerce in the Barony.”
“Yeah, that’s what got them into so much trouble way back before the Recession,” I said dryly. “They dumb enough to try the same thing again?”
“I guess,” Pierre said with a shrug. “Only this time, they’re doing it a little different. Instead of wiping us out outright, they’re buying us out. And when we don’t sell…”
“They find other methods of kicking you out,” I finished for him. Pierre nodded.
“In my case, it was rents,” he said. “All of a sudden, the rent on my place went sky-high, way higher than I could ever afford. So I’m packing up and shipping out. Let them have the place. Only now that they’ve jacked the rents up, I can’t imagine them being able to bring the rents back down again. So what are they going to do with the place?”
A good question. Jen and I stood there pondering it for a while. I suspected the Merchies and their collaborators in the Real Estate Guild hadn’t thought the idea all the way through yet, either. And I wondered if they had thought the rest of their little campaign all the way through, too.
On the surface of it, what the Merchies were claiming made a sort of sense. The retailer of old had been replaced with the gig economy and major online stores, at least in the mortal world. And the Merchies had long claimed e-commerce as their domain. So if retail was going the way of the dodo, and the Merchies had the only other mercantile domain under their command, wouldn’t it make sense to consolidate the guilds?
However, there were a lot of problems with the Merchies claims. The first and most prominent being that the so-called ‘Internet Revolution’ had largely passed the vampire world by. A combination of everybody needing to be a part of a guild or work directly for a vampire had severely limited Amazon and Google’s ability to penetrate our job market. A preference for home-grown and home-made merchandise lead to a thriving sub-market dedicated to vampires that didn’t really compete with Google or Amazon or anybody else, so even the loss of jobs had been avoided. And all of those home-grown internet merchants? Well, they belonged to the Retailer’s Guild.
A further, damning thorn in the Merchies little attempt at monopolizing the guilds was increased automation and 3D printers. In the small scale, at least, vampire-dom was way ahead of the mortals on that score, with mini-factories being built in basements and clothiers being able to assemble their merchandise in-store. All this had lead, not to a weakening of the guild system but a strengthening of it: tailors, manufacturers and retailers had all long sat down and carved up the market, deciding who would sell what and where so as to not step on each other’s toes. The boss had also sat down with these groups in order to make sure no customers were being cheated and the competition was fair. Although I guess you can’t really call it competition any more. More like cooperation between different sellers to maximize both their profit and customer service. Not, admittedly, something I thought I’d ever see.
Of course, none of that changed that the Merchies thought they should be in charge or what they might try and pull to make sure they were the only guild left standing. Greed. Ambition. If there are two more universal sins, I’ve yet to encounter them.
“Do you have any proof that the Merchies were behind your sudden rent increase?” Jen asked, snapping us all out of our reverie.
“No,” Pierre admitted. “Far as I know, the landlord hasn’t even agreed to a new lease yet. But I’ve been talking to my neighbours. They say they’ve been getting some of the same pressure, too. And some of their rents skyrocketed right after they told the Merchies to bug off.”
“Because that’s totally kosher,” I said sarcastically. “Nobody will ever suspect intimadation with that set up!”
“Eh, they’re Merchies,” Pierre said with a grin. “Nobody ever said they were smart.”
“Oy vey,” I muttered. Jen chuckled. She said to Pierre:
“We’ll let Jess know what’s going on. There’s a big parlaiment scheduled in a couple of weeks, too. We’ll bring it up there.”
“Thanks,” Pierre said.
“No problemo,” I said and flicked him a two-finger salute. Jen and I turned to walk down the street.
* * *
Breakfast at Sanctuary is a noisy, chaotic affair that makes the average restaurant look tame. This is even true in building number six, where we, the Black Coats, held court.
And it was especially true when Mikhail Ivanovich Tchaikovsky was cooking.
“Don’t burn the house down, Mishka,” Jess called from the head of the dining table where she sat in place of her father, who was out of town on business and would be for the next month. Jessica bat Jacob was a dhampir, half-vampire, half-human. Not quite ‘all of the strengths, none of the weaknesses’, but darn close. Like all full-blooded vampires, she was a shapeshifter, capable of changing into any human form. These days her preferred mask was that of a tall dame of average build with long brown hair, angular features and skin that was on the lighter side of the Med. Her eyes were usually blue to go with her outfits, though sometimes she wore ’em brown. Either way worked for me. Tonight she wore a black blazer over a blouse the colour of lapus lazuli and black pants. A silver watch, a gift from some long dead watchmaker, hung from a slender wrist.
She was the Boss’ Chancellor, kind of like a Prime Minister but for a vampire instead of Queen Elizabeth. She was also my best friend.
“I’m not burning the place down!” Tchaikvosky responded over a sound that sounded disturbingly like a blast of flame. “The grease got a little hot, is all.”
Mikhail Ivanovich Tchaikovsky was at once of American intelligence’s greatest success stories and a victim of one of the most pointless, stupid tragedies that had ever hit the Soviet Intelligence community. His dam had been a code breaker for the Soviet Union back in the late seventies and early eighties, primarily in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, his superior had been a paranoic, a mental illness that the Soviet Union’s relentlessly paranoid culture had only excaberated. And so, in due time, the colonel had gone berserk, slaughtering most of Tchaikovsky’s unit before killing himself. Tchaikovsky, by some miracle, had managed not to be there when the slaughter occurred and, fearing that he would be blamed as the only survivor, grabbed everything he could and made his way to the mujahdeen, who sent him over to the CIA. From the CIA, Tchaikovsky made his way to Fort City, where I found him lying in the gutter, half-dead from alcohol and survivor’s guilt. I took pity on the man and turned him, producing the vampire Tchaikovsky that now was hell-bent on burning down our kitchen. It’s not that he was a lousy cook, by any means. He just had a different interpretation of kitchen safety than everybody else.
Tchaikovsky’s preferred mask these nights was that of a slight young man with straight black hair cut short. His features were broad, set in an oval face, with darkly intelligent eyes that peered out beneath their heavy lids. He wore his skin a shade between pale and brown; too dark to be a tan, but not quite dark enough to be natural. He wore a white shirt with a skinny tie underneath a black apron that was emblazoned with the phrase ‘bite the cook,’ that also covered his skinny black slacks. His ears were ever so slightly pointed.
Mishka was our resident techno geek and spymaster. He handled all the dirty business of the Barony and at the same time was responsible for much of our revenue stream.
“As in, ‘hot enough to start a fire,’ Mishka?” Nafisa Bartlett said from her seat to the left of Jess. Nafisa was something of an oddity in the vampire court of the Barony of Fort City: a wifwolf. Way back in the mid-eighties, she had her twin sister had been victims of an unethical medical experiment on the University of Zion State campus. And by that I mean that they had been continually dissected and then put back in cages to let their organs regrow. When I found them locked in the those cages, they were more than half-starved and delirious. I broke them free and Jess and I nursed them back to health. After that, Nafisa and Neema had clawed their way up through the ranks of the Treasury Ministry, desperate to prove that they did not need our charity after such horror.
In a twist of fate, our last Foreign Minister had at long last given up the ghost, and we’d been forced to find a new one. There really had been no debate: Nafisa had been nominated and drafted into the position before the poor dame had even known what was going on. If she had been ill-prepared for the position, though, she had proven to be the best choice by far. And she had and Tchaikovsky had developed a friendly rivarly, as so much of their spheres of responsibility overlapped.
Lycanthropes, out of all therianthropes, had the least amount of shapeshifting ability. They couldn’t, unlike vampires or kitsune, change their human form, only their animal one. As such, Nafisa looked very much like she always had: a woman of slightly under average height and build, with skin that was only a couple of shades lighter than her braided hair. The parts of it that hadn’t been dyed gold, at least. She wore a black suit with a gold blouse and golden jewellry hung about her ears and wrists. Gold was a common accessory for lycanthropes for what should be obvious reasons, but I always thought it oddly appropriate to the two economic/accounting wunderkinds.
“No comments from the peanut gallery!” Tchaikovsky shouted back.
“Is this how you cook for Angela?” Nafisa said. “After a hot day of mad love, do you turn up the heat by burning her house down, too?”
There was a clang from the kitchen as something dropped, and Tchaikovsky swore profusely in Russian.
“Leave him alone, pup,” I chided Nafisa. “Its not his fault he doesn’t know his way around a kitchen. After thirty years.”
“Fuck you all,” Tchaikovsky responded.
“Hey, I don’t want the one that you dropped, kay?” Neema was both larger and darker than her sister, and her hair was being let out natural. Her eyes were the colour of liquid gold compared to her sisters brown, the only outward sign of her supernatural heritage. Otherwise, she was very much a match for Nafisa.
“I didn’t drop any of the food,” Tchaikvosky retorted. “The frying pan was empty when I dropped it.”
Jess turned her head sharply towards the kitchen. “If you dropped a frying pan on the floor Mishka, you’re paying for the repairs!” she shouted.
“Hey! It was Nafisa who caused me to drop it! That’s not fair! Besides, I can’t even see a dent in the floor,” Tchaikovsky defended himself.
“You shouldn’t,” Omar Taylor, the Barony’s chief prosecutor said. He was a tall broad man in his mid-thirties, and perhaps the finest criminal lawyer the Fort had ever seen. But if the Bartlett twins were an anomaly for being wifwolves, than Omar was an even bigger outlier for he was one hundred percent human. He had been selected by me and Jess purely on his debut showing in the courts, which had almost been his last when a group of mobsters had objected to one of his witnesses. Omar had held them off with an old .22 rifle for nine hours straight before I managed to get to him, and he signed up with us immediately upon his rescue. Omar had, however, insisted he remain purely human: no injections vampire blood for him, nor would he be a dam. He wanted, in his own words, to prove that humans could stand with vampires on their own merits. And he proved it, night after night.
The bulky lawyer had a preference for grey suits over pink shirts, which was his ensemble tonight. It contrasted nicely with his charcoal dark skin. He had shaved his head again, to raise money for cancer this time, and occasionally ran through his hand over his non-existant hair. A watch of intricate metal links adorned another wrist. He currently had his face buried in The Washington Post, which was a decent enough rag, I supposed. I was a New York Times guy, myself.
“Joey and me totally redid the floor after we broke it the last time,” he continued. “Reinforced it. There’s no way even those heavy-duty, more-suited-to-a-battlefield frying pans will damage the floor anymore. Hell, you shouldn’t even see a scratch!”
“Eh, there’s a bit of a scratch,” Tchaikovsky said, with the kind of timing that made you wonder about divine providence. “It’s not very big, though.”
“Perhaps I exaggerated a little,” Omar admitted. The rest of us chuckled politely.
“When did you two break the kitchen floor?” Jess asked, her eyes darting between us like a schoolteacher trying to figure out which of her pet miscreants had misbehaved that day.
“Few months back,” I said with a shrug from behind my own newspaper. Suddenly, the baseball stats had gotten very interesting.
“I hadn’t heard anything about it,” Jess said, not quite accussingly.
“An oversight, I’m sure,” I offered. When Jess turned the full force of those blue eyes of hers on me, I demurred and said:
“Your father knew.”
“I see,” she said. “I suppose that makes it all alright, then.”
“Something like that,” I answered.
“If I recal correctly, Jess, you were out of town when it happened,” Chandramathi Dhaliwal chimed in. Chandramathi was the second-oldest of this generation of Black Coats, after me. Her dam had been a former prostitute whose lover had been killed by a local pimp. If you can’t guess what happened afterward, then clearly you haven’t read enough comic books. After she had piled up a sufficiently large body count across the nation, a collection of pimps and hired guns finally cornered her in one of the Fort’s many back alleys and gunned her down. I arrived just a little too late and stopped the massacre. Unfortunately for Chandramathi, she had been so badly injured that there was only one cure. So I made the offer: become a vampire, or die on the streets. I sweetened the offer by suggesting that as a vampire, she’d get the tools she needed to really reform the prostitution business and not just murder some of the cheapies associated with it. Chandramathi signed on, so I bit her and sired the vampire that sat here tonight. These nights she was the Master Courtesan, in charge of, well, just about everything really. But in particular, all sex trade within the Barony, food, theatre and general entertainment and culture. Her ministry was by far the largest of the lot, even surpassing Jess’, which would go a long way in explaining the large bags under her eyes.
Chandramathi’s preferred mask these nights was that of a very dark-skinned dame with a nose almost as prominent as mine and long straight black hair that she liked to do up in various Indian hairstyles. The one she had now was such a complex braid that I wondered how she hadn’t broken her fingers doing all those twists. She wore a black suit over a green blouse. A golden necklace hung from her neck via a thick, almost rope-like chain. Another golden chain stretched from one nostril to her ear. Her eyes were the colour of grass in a children’s cartoon.
“On vacation, in fact,” Chandramathi continued. “Bailing out after you had lost a fight with Joey, no?”
Jess ducked her head, accepting the rebuke. I, on the other hand, shot Chandramathi a glare. Coat or no, it wasn’t her place to interfere between me and Jess. Chandramathi ignored me.
“Who cares about the kitchen floor?” Jen demanded. She had her knife and fork upraised like a hungry bear from some old cartoon ad and pounded them on the table. “I’m hungry! Are you almost done in there, Uncle Mishka?”
“Just about,” Tchaikovsky said. “At least somebody appreciates my cooking.”
“I think at this point, Jen would eat just about anything. Including a bull elephant,” I said drily.
“Your gift for ruining moments remains intact, you pale-faced asshole,” Tchaikovsky responded, equally dry.
“I thought for a minute you were going to say she was hungry enough to eat Gears,” Jess said.
“Jen’s always hungry enough to eat Gears,” Neema said with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. The rest of us burst into laughter.
“It’s all right, Uncle Mishka,” Jen said with a wounded sniff. “Clearly these barbarians don’t appreciate your hard work and skill.”
“For that, Jen gets two servings,” Tchaikovsky said. “And the rest of you can starve.”
“You shouldn’t starve your critics, Mikhail Ivanovich,” I chided. “You should let our words of wisdom wash over you like a cleansing rain.”
“I’m gonna remember that the next time you tell the Historian to bounce,” Tchaikovsky retorted.
“I didn’t say that was what I should do,” I said. “I said that’s what you should do. There’s a difference, see?” Jess chose that moment to hit me with a rolled up napkin.
“Yeah, I see,” Tchaikovsky muttered as he came out of the kitchen, dishes in hand. “I see that you’re a skinny pain in the ass, is what I see.”
“It’s a gift,” I acknowledged. Everybody else groaned.
“What’s on the menu tonight, Mishka?” Omar asked, setting down his paper.
“Hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, sausages,” Tchaikovsky answered as he lowered dishes containing two of the aforementioned foods. “Which reminds, we’re a little light on stuff. We need to do a grocery run.”
“All of Sanctuary needs one,” Jess agreed. “Ms Kassian’s compiling a list; if there’s anything you guys want on it, you had better go talk to her.”
Shelley Kassian was the boss’ head steward, and ran all the parts of Sanctuary that were for the Black Coats. Actually, for that matter, she ran a lot of what went on in our neck of the woods, too.
“I already did,” Jen answered.
“I don’t need anything special,” I replied. “But we do need a bit of everything.” The others agreed. Jess put her hands up and said:
“Don’t tell me, tell Shelley.”
“Right,” Tchaikovsky said as he loaded up his plate. “What else is on the agenda?”
“Not much,” Jess said. “Parliament’s coming up, though.”
“Yeah, wasn’t that supposed to be two months ago?” Tchaikovsky demanded.
“That’s what I thought, too,” Jen confessed. “A summer and a winter session, right?”
“Not necessarily,” Jess said. “Technically, Parliament has to meet at least twice a year and can be called anytime during that period. And if we do have a winter session this year, that’ll be three times the Parliament’s met this year: we met once in spring, too.”
“Right, ’cause the Americans decided to jerk around their federal aid to us,” Tchaikovsky added, “and we had to rearrange our entire fucking budget. Not that we need that money, really, but they could have told us that’s what they were gonna do in the first place.”
“No, they couldn’t have,” I said wearily. “That edict came from the White House, not Congress. Congress doesn’t really care about the money they send our way: we’re a state problem, not a federal one. As long as the paperwork’s been filed, they don’t care. So they had no idea that our new idiot in chief would decide to jerk our chain.”
Jess nodded. “That was just him trying to prove a point,” she said. “Intimidate some of his critics into silence.”
“Didn’t work that well,” Jen added.
“Never does pup, never does,” I said. “Attempting to silence your critics just makes them criticize you more. Either ignore them or heed them, not much else you can do.”
“Haters gonna hate, eh, boss?” Jen said with a wink. Then she loaded up her plate and made like a vaccuum cleaner. I sure didn’t remember eating that fast at twenty-one. Maybe that’s why my closest evolutionary cousin is a stick insect.
“Something like that,” I said.
“Actually, the feds jerking us around like that was a good thing,” Neema said. “It allowed us to rework all of our budget priorities. We managed to free up a huge amount of money for education, for example.”
“And help drive a wedge between the Reds and the Greens,” Jess agreed grimly. “I’m just worried about who’s arms the feds dicking around might drive us into.”
“We haven’t signed up with Council yet, Jess,” I said as I loaded up my own plate.
“Yet being the operative word,” Jess agreed in that same grim tone, and then loaded up her own plate. Not with bacon, though: Jess was somewhat observant of the kosher laws and refused to eat pork. But not, however, cheeseburgers. Weird, huh?
“I’ll take anything that breaks up that little voting block,” Omar said grimly. “The Greens and the Reds both want war. And we can’t afford war.”
“No, we can’t,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, the White House is forcing us to go along with some of the Red/Green agenda. Unless we’re willing to sell out immigrants to the highest bidder, I guess.”
“Not in this lifetime,” Jess said firmly.
“Yeah, that was my feeling on the subject, too,” I said. I sighed. “Unfortunately, that’s the choice we’ve got. Kowtow to the Feds blatantly illegal agenda, or back the Red/Greens’ even stupider one.”
“There’s a way out,” Chandramathi said firmly.
“I’m all ears, honey child, but I haven’t seen one yet,” I said.
“Splitting the Reds from the Greens is the first step,” Jess said. “That unwashed louse doesn’t have the people or the support to force us into a war without them. The second step is bringin in the Yellows and the Oranges.”
“Isolate the Greens, eh?” Omar said, rubbing his chin. “It could work.”
“It might,” Chandramathi agreed. “But the knights aren’t the only people we have to worry about, here. A lot of the guilds are starting to cause their own brand of trouble, too.”
“Yeah, that reminds me,” I interjected, “out on the beat today Jen and I ran into Pierre from Pierre’s Exquisite Imports, way down on the corner of Shepherd Street and Shiloh Avenue. The place was boarded up. Pierre says it was because the Merchies were forcing him out, using his rent as the lever.”
“It’s true,” Jen said through a mouthful of food. I was going to have to talk to that girl about etiquette. Again. She swalllowed and continued:
“That Pierre said that. I don’t know that what he said is true.”
“It probably is,” Chandramathi said grimly. “The Merchies have been throwing around some serious weight at the guild meetings as of late.” Technically, knights weren’t supposed to be a part of any guilds. Chandramathi, Omar and I were all the exceptions. Omar because he was part of Zion State Bar Association, and Chandramathi because she was so much a part of the sex industry in this town, she had to be a part of the Sex Worker’s Trade Guild. Me, I got stuck with the Ancient (it was formed in 1843) and Honourable (at least they spelt ‘honourable’ right, the Yankees) Association of Footmen, Night Watch and Detectives in the Barony of the Fort. The Security Guild, for short. It was run by one of my old flatfoots, Manny Calavera, and I used them as basically a PR shop, to help explain what policing really was and why the Republicans were almost always wrong in their law enforcement policies and the Democrats only slightly less so. Didn’t stop us from getting slapped with a conflict of interest suit once every three months.
At any rate, my guild wasn’t in any danger from the Merchies and didn’t show up to any of the guild meetings, which were mostly for trade guilds anyway. So I was curious as to what Chandramathi had heard.
“C’mon C, you can’t leave us hanging like that,” I said.
Chandramathi shrugged. “Mostly its the same argument they ran before,” she said. “How the internet and automation have changed everything and the old guilds are completely irrelevant now. Only they’re more pushy then usual.”
“Define ‘pushy’,” I said.
Chandramathi shrugged. “Nothing overt,” she said. “It’s not like they’re outright threatening us or anything. But they’re always going on like: ‘You know your guild is finished, right?’ Or ‘Man, what a future. Can you imagine a world with no guilds?’ Stuff like that. They’ve been getting into members faces, too. Kind of pushing them around, but not getting close enough to actually be considered assault.”
“So that’d be the traditional definition of ‘pushy’ we’re going with here,” I sighed. “Great. Because that’s just what we need.”
“When have the Merchies ever given a damn about what we need?” Neema said. As the Treasurer, she dealt with the guilds in general and the Merchies in particular. It did a lot to take the sunshine out of her disposition.
“They aren’t all bad,” Jen protested. “Several of them are my friends.”
“No, they aren’t all bad, honey,” Jess agreed. “Just prone to being short-sighted and stubborn.”
“Well, yeah,” Jen admitted with a laugh. “That’s true.”
“You know–” Tchaikovksy began. I cut him off with a look. I knew what he was going to propose and Jen would never in a million years go for it. Something I’d learned the hard way. And by that I mean I had to regrow most of left arm after she hulked out on me. Of course, some of that was my fault: I lost my temper too. The difference is, I get cruel when I get angry, whereas Jen just blows her top. And I’m ashamed to say that I got very cruel in that fight.
So, having no desire to go down that path for what should be obvious reasons, I cut Tchaikovsky off. Fortunately, whatever his failings as a cook, Tchaikovsky was not stupid. He immediately got the hint.
“Never mind, stupid idea anyway,” Tchaikovsky said. “But I’m just thinking, have any of your friends in the Merchies said anything, Jen? Like, I don’t want you to spy on them or anything, but…”
“No,” Jen said remorsefully. “I haven’t heard a word from them about any of the crap their bosses in the guild are pulling. All my friends are young and low-level. They get marching orders, not meeting invites.”
“I thought guilds were supposed to be democratic,” Omar said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “So’s the U.S.”
“Point taken,” Omar said.
“If we could move from Joey’s obligatory America-bashing for a moment,” Jess said, “the question is: what do we do about the Merchies?”
“I’m for letting them get smashed by the law again,” Tchaikovsky said. “Those guilds are protected by the Zion state constitution, the Compromises, and the Barony’s own statutes. The Merchies are getting nowhere with their ‘we need to close down all other guilds other than the Merchants Guild’ schtick.”
“Never figured you for pro-guild, Mishka,” Nafisa said.
“I’m not,” Tchaikovsky admitted. “But I don’t like bullies, either. There’s a right way and a wrong way to get rid of the guild system, and these yahoos are definitely going the wrong way about it.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Neema admitted. “That they’re going about it the wrong way, that is. I don’t agree with Tchaikovsky on the rest of it, though. Those guilds are an important part of our economy and our culture. They need a much stronger support than just letting the Merchies run wild until they get smacked down by the law.”
“Agreed,” Nafisa said.
“Third,” Chandramathi said.
“Joey?” Jess said. “No, wait. I know exactly what you’re going to say.”
“We need more info,” I said.
“Told ya,” Jess said.
“C’mon Aunty Jess,” Jen said. “A deaf water buffalo could have told you what Joey was going to say.”
“True, true,” Jess agreed.
“I’m with Joey,” Omar said. “We need a better idea of what the Merchies are up too. And, unfortunately, Joey and I can’t really be a part of that.”
“You most definitely can’t,” Jess said firmly.
“Yeah, we’re not Americans here,” I said cheekily. “We have standards.” Jess threw a balled up napkin at me again. Such a violent woman.
“Moving on,” Jess said firmly. “Joey, I want you to keep your ears to the ground. Don’t go looking for trouble, but I want to know if the Merchies cross the line into outright intimidation. Catch?”
“Gotcha,” I said.
“Good,” Jess said. “In the meantime, I want us to look like we’re doing what Mishka suggested. If the Merchies are really up to no good, then they might get cocky and come out into the open while it looks like we’re not noticing.”
“And what of the guilds they are targeting?” Chandramathi demanded.
“That’s the other prong of the plan,” Jess said. “You, Neema and I are all going to, very quietly, start to prop up the other guilds. Backroom deals only, you understand? I don’t want to scare the Merchies off the scent just yet. I want to know what they’re up to. And once we find out, we’re going to hammer them flat. Which, actually, brings me back to the other part of the plan: while we’re supporting the guilds, we’re also going to be investigating the Merchies. Everything you or your people hear, Chandramathi, I want to know about it. This nonsense is going too far. And we need to stop them cold.”
“Your father…” Chandramathi began, her eyes flashing.
“Isn’t here,” Jess said firmly. “And he won’t be for a while. If he gets back before the Merchies make their move or we get enough intel to smack them down, I’ll defer to whatever plan he comes up with. Until then, this is what we’ve got. Any further objections?”
Nafisa raised her hand. I hid a grin behind mine. There was a time when Nafisa was dead terrified of Jess. To see her objecting to one of Jess’ plans was a sight that warmed my soul. Or it would, if I’d ever had a soul.
“Um,” Nafisa said. “I’m just thinking that if we openly support the guilds now, we might not have to slap the Merchies down in the first place?”
“I doubt it,” Tchaikovsky said. “We have no choice but to support the other guilds against the Merchies, Nafisa, and they know that. We are bound up in too many different laws. So, they know that and they’re starting to cause trouble anyway. No, any open support from us will just cause them to either go underground or move into open opposition. Eventually, we’re going to have to hit them right between the eyes anyway.”
“Mishka has a point,” Jess agreed. “Besides, I’m not entirely convinced that getting rid of the other guilds is the Merchies only goal. Signor Ferrari is a much nastier customer than his predecessor, and with a lot more ambition. And I want to know just what kind of minefield he’s laid for us out there.”
“You’re assuming he has laid such a minefield,” Chandramathi said.
“Yep,” Jess, I, Omar, and Neema all agreed.
“Oh,” Chandramathi said, a little surprised by the force of our agreement.
“I don’t know the guy personally,” Tchaikovsky said. “He doesn’t show up much in the spy business. But I do know you don’t get to be the head of the Merchants Guild by being a sweetheart. I’m gonna bet he’s laid down a minefield, too.”
“I agree,” Nafisa sighed. “Sorry, C. But Ferrari is an absolute bastard, and Jess is probably right. It’s better to know what he’s up too first before we get into too much trouble.”
“I see,” Chandramathi said.
“Anything else?” Jess asked.
“Oh, nothing much,” I said. “Just our friends at the DHS.” That drew heavy scowls from everybody, and with good reason.
There were few government departments as hated in Fort City as the Department of Homeland Security. On their best day, the DHS was a corrupt, venal institution that kicked in doors of taxpayers, assualted huge swathes of the immigrant population with weapons that would have been overkill on neo-Confeds, and as an added bonus were neo-Confeds, down to the man. In point of fact, there were no Zionites working for the DHS; even to the other Zionites who worked for the feds considered even turning so much as a sandwich over to the American gestapo as nothing short of treason. And with admittedly good reason.
“The idiots currently running the federal government have decided, against all reason and common sense, to give the DHS unlimited authority against the immigrant population,” I reminded the other Coats. “Which is kind of a problem. You see, me, my friends in the FBI, and a couple of victim advocacy groups banded together a few decades back and put together a little package that helped gut immigrant crime. Made them into citizens, if not in the official sense of the word, a lot faster. We have the lowest immigrant crime stats in the world, bar none. But we need the immigrants to help us out, or the whole program goes caput. And the DHS comes swaggering in, taking all our witnesses and deporting them. Most of our victims, too. The guys they leave behind, funnily enough, tend to be very rich. Rich in ways that are not easily traceable, if you catch my drift.”
“Gangsters,” Jen said sourly.
“Well, we don’t know they’re gangsters,” I said. “They’re just disgustingly rich, can easily buy their way out of trouble and tend to be the targets of our investigations. I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for why. In another universe.”
Jen snorted. Jess clicked her tongue.
“You aren’t telling us what we already know just to give your tongue some exercise,” she said. “Spill. What’s the straight?”
“There’s a trial coming up,” I said. “One José Vargas. Nasty customer. Domestic abuse, racketeering, half-a-dozen murder charges… He’s been terrorizing his little neck of the woods for the better part of five years before we finally got the goods on him. Our star witness is his wife, one Maria Vargas.”
“Don’t tell me,” Jess said. “She’s next on the DHS’ hitlist?”
“Got it in one,” I said. “I got word from a friend working in the state attorney’s office that they’re looking to book her and deport her. And they’re going to come pick her up at trial.”
“They can’t do that!” Omar exclaimed, snorting like a bull that’s just been stabbed by the matador. “We’ve got absolute jurisdiction over any immigrants into vampire territory! And any witnesses we pick up are protected from further legal action while a trial is ongoing!”
“Unless there are extenuating circumanstances,” I pointed out. “Like maybe an executive order or two?”
“I thought the judges struck that down,” Jen said. “It was unconstitutional or something, right?”
“Unconstitutional and by the time it reached the Supreme Court, totally irrelevant,” I agreed. “The dates set in the order had already long past, so the Supreme Court basically told the Feds to take a hike. The Feds didn’t get the memo, apparently.”
“Guess not,” Jen said. She leaned back in her chair, arms folded across her chest.
“It’s not like we ever expected them too,” Jess said. “Goddamn neo-Confederate bastards. We should have destroyed the South when we had the chance. Wiped out every last one of those genocidal motherfuckers.”
I kept my mouth shut. Maybe it was because I hadn’t grown up in the Fort, or maybe it was because my own province of Alberta had wandered too close to sympathizing with the Confederates and their stupidity, but I lacked the burning hatred most of the Fort had for the South. And by that I mean I don’t think we should have wiped out all of the white South: just its military and political leadership. As it was, though, I was finding it increasingly hard to argue that more drastic action shouldn’t have been taken: the last gasp of the single worst people in United States history was making for a lot of problems in the modern world. Oh sure, we’d beat them in the end, but it was starting to look like we’d have to crack some heads to do it.
And I hated using the state against it’s own people. That was the way to madness and another, equally dangerous evil. Yes, sometimes it was necessary, and it was always necessary long before anybody thought it was. But the decision to use violence was never one that should be taken lightly. Especially not when said violence was being used on the part of the state. How’d that old saying go? ‘Never hit if you don’t have to, but hit ’em once real hard if you do?’ Something like that. And it was starting to look like we’d have to hit these people very hard indeed. As in, set up a gatling gun at one end of the street and turn them into raspberry jam kind of hard.
I needed a different job. And the worst of it was, these deranged schmucks had absolutely no qualms about trying to inflict the same kind of violence on other people! It was like the idea that people, you know, are violently protective of themselves and retaliate as viciously as possible when backed into a corner had never occurred to them. Either that, or they were stupid enough to want to be victims of a re-enactment of Sherman’s march to the sea. Either way, I was stuck griping about the use of violence on a pack of rats too stupid and evil to understand what was going to happen to them. It wasn’t the most seriously lopsided fight in terms of morality, ethics, and materiel I’d ever been in, but it’d be pretty close.
Yeah, I definitely needed a different job. Shame I literally can’t do anything else other than be a cop or a soldier.
“So what do we do?” Jen asked.
“We stick to our guns,” I said firmly. “Their deportation policies are illegal in the extreme and we have every right to refuse any requests these schmucks make.”
And when they press?” Omar asked, in a tone that was both tired and a little smug.
“We thump ’em,” I said savagely. The others, save Jess, looked a little startled. “We arrest them on charges of witness tampering, jury tampering, conspiracy to commit same and anything else we get them for,” I continued. “And we push all the way. And if they resist? Well… there’s ways to deal with that, too.”
The others were definitely more than a little shocked. Except for Jess.
“I knew you were going to say that,” she said softly. “Do you think you can get away with it?”
“Yes,” I said firmly. “All state judges are deeply antagonistic towards the current administration, and the federal judges here aren’t any more sympathetic. The fact that every federal judge here has to go through a seperate hearing strictly-in state before they can get confirmed means its going to stay that way.”
“The advantages of being dragged into the Union, I suppose,” Omar sighed. “The only question I have is, how long can we keep that up?”
“Not long,” I admitted. “But we don’t have to, either. The sunburnt orange hasn’t exactly had any victories here. And there’s a massive legal and political resistance movement already moving against him. And his supporters are, let’s face it, utter cowards.”
“Punch a Nazi once and they all go down?” Tchaikovsky said, laughing grimly. He had every reason to be suspect of that kind of logic, given what had happened to his country the last time these scum were in power. However…
“I don’t think we even need to punch them,” I said quietly. “This new breed is a lot weaker than our old enemies, Mishka. They don’t have the same iron in their belly. Already half-a-dozen marches and speeches have been cancelled purely on the fact that their opposition decided to show up in more numbers than they could field. No. All we have to do is show up and slam the door once. And the whole ship of rats will sink to the bottom of the sea.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Tchaikovsky said, a grim smile on his face. I grinned.
“Ah, but have an advantage on our old friend,” I said. “I’m not facing Stalin. Or, frankly, anybody else with the same kind of guts. Stalin’s forces may have proven themselves inept, but they were brave. And the brave can be made ept. This lot has proven themselves both cowards and inept, and that gives us the advantage.”
“But we have to press it,” Jen said, shooting me a critical look. I nodded.
“That we do,” I agreed. “I’ve already switched the Security Department’s priorities to emphasise hate crimes. We keep pushing and they’ll crack.”
“So you don’t think we should let them alone,” Omar asked, a shrewd look on his face.
I snorted. “Of course not,” I said. “C’mon, Omar. You know how the law works. We’re firm but fair. We don’t torture anybody for the giggles, but we don’t let criminals get away scot-free either.”
“Fair enough,” Omar said.
“Of course, some people are going to wonder why we aren’t cracking down on Black Lives Matter,” Neema pointed out.
“Nobody in the Barony is,” Tchaikovsky countered. “BLM’s got a ninety-nine percent approval rating!”
“That, and they’ve comitted no crimes,” I added, “aren’t planning to commit any crimes and aren’t part of any genocidal hate organizations. When or if any of that changes, my policies will change. Until then, they just aren’t my problem.”
“Out of all of us here, they criticize you the most,” Neema said. I shrugged.
“I got thick skin,” I said. “I’m not worried about a little criticizism. Besides, sometimes its actually useful. Not often, but sometimes.”
“You’re a lazy dog, Joey,” Jess said with a grin and a lazy shake of her head.
“I like to think of it as efficiently prioritizing,” I said. “If you commit a crime, or there’s a reasonable chance that you might commit a crime, then you’re my problem. If neither of those are true, then you’re just noise. If you’ve got a suggestion that’s useful, then you’re a benefit. If you don’t you’re just noise. And in this beat, we get a lot of noise. A lot more noise, really, then we ever get anything we need to worry about.”
“Cynic,” Jess said, her tone mocking and slightly teasing.
“Has it really taken you this long to figure out?” I said. Jess just gave another lazy shake of her head, with that same indulgent grin.
“If you two are finished with all the flirting,” Jen said severly, “what’s next on the agenda?”
“Yeah,” Tchaikovsky put in. “You guys shouldn’t embarrass your kid like that.” Jen went redder than the Egyptian sands. Jess turned a cool look on Tchaikovsky and said:
“No, I think that’s about it. Unless anybody else has anything?”
“Nope,” we all said.
“Okay,” Jess nodded. “Dad’s back in a month or so. And I want to make sure that this barony is still standing when he gets home. So let’s see to that, shall we? And in the meantime, let’s finish this breakfast that Mishka nearly broke our kitchen over.”
“I did not break the kitchen!” Tchaikovsky protested. The rest of us laughed and settled into eat.