“She’s not dead,” Jarasax reminded me sullenly.
I didn’t stop passing out the drinks. “Yes she is. The fact that her body is still running around is irrelevant.”
George accepted his mug with a nod. “The boss is right and you know it. We have to accept that she’s gone and move on. Nothing else for it.”
Alex held up his glass. “To Katherine. Best sniper I ever met. First to fall to the screamers.”
“To Kat,” everyone muttered, as we clinked our glasses together and drank.
You get used to death pretty quick in Domina. I was actually the fourth child my parents had, but all three of my brothers had died by the time I reached grade school. It only gets worse if you decide to join a subculture or Necessarius; Kat was hardly the first friend I had lost since deciding to follow Butler.
“Kelly?” Sax said gently. “You all right there?”
I shook my head to clear out the cobwebs. “Yeah, I’m just…did Kat have any family?”
“No,” Alex answered as he sipped his drink. “Orphan, and her matron is dead. Her file said she was always a loner, so I doubt we’re going to have anyone calling to reclaim her things.”
I rubbed my forehead. “Yeah…that sounds about right.” Sounded like pretty much every ‘sarian I had ever spoken to, actually. “She have an apartment or something?”
“Something like that,” the massive giant who was guarding the door three feet from our table grunted. A Thor, if the hammer tattooed on his bicep was any indicator. When we all just stared at him, he shrugged. “You’re talking about Kat Lisbon, the fel anthro, right? She had a room upstairs.”
I glanced sideways at Alex. “Is that why you picked this bar?”
He grinned as he took another sip, but didn’t say anything.
I sighed and turned back to the bouncer. “Could you take us there? She was involved in some sensitive things, and we need to make sure nothing, you know…gets out.” With our luck, she’d have a journal explaining in full detail everything she had done for Necessarius ever since she joined, and some smug Satanist or Nessian would find it.
He shrugged. “Sure. It’s a bit slow right now.” He turned to the bartender. “I’ll be right back.”
The pale-skinned giant led us upstairs without another word, and we had to scramble to catch up. He obviously wasn’t the type to wait around, but some warning would have been nice.
“Watch your step,” he muttered as we exited on the third floor. “There was a spill here earlier.” He gave the yellow ‘wet floor’ sign a wide berth, which the rest of us mimicked.
“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” a sweet female voice called from down the corridor. “Dropped some raspberry juice.”
I turned to see Elizabeth Greene striding forward, her golden eyes nearly glowing in the dark, and her smile wide and guileless.
We hadn’t officially met, but we had glanced through her file when we found out she was a known associate of the Paladins. There wasn’t much information; she was a voice actress, and she had lots of friends. That was about it. No one really cared enough to write more.
“Miss Greene,” I said politely. “Hello there. I didn’t realize you would be here.”
She quirked her head. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
I held out my hand to shake. “My mistake. I’m a friend of Derek’s. He speaks quite highly of you, and he has a few pictures. I’m Kelly.”
The girl shook my hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “Well, Miss Kelly, don’t let me stop you from…” she waved her free hand. “Whatever it is you’re doing.” She turned to the giant escorting us. “Hammie, getur þú sagt mér hvenær Nabassu fær hér? Hann þarf að hjálpa mér við eitthvað.”
“Auðvitað, Lizzy,” he responded smoothly. “Ég hringi í þig.”
The bronze-skinned girl grinned. “Takk.” She released my hand and headed downstairs. “See you all later.”
Once she was gone, George shook his head. “That girl is too trusting for her own good.”
Our escort raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”
The ogre barked out a laugh. “Well, she trusts you, for one.”
I ignored the giants. I’m sure there was some amusing story about how the two met, nearly killed each other, and became friends, but I was hardly in the mood for it. I just wanted to get this over with.
“This it?” I asked when I found the door that looked right. It had a two-dimensional kitten face carved from wood nailed under the peephole, so I figured it was a pretty good guess.
The bouncer nodded. “Yeah. Just give me a second.” He fumbled with a massive keychain at his belt, and eventually selected one labeled ‘303.’ It fit the keyhole easily, and the door swung open with the soft grind of mostly-oiled hinges.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Kat’s room turned out to be as Spartan as her sniper reputation would suggest. The room itself was pretty small, maybe ten by ten feet, including the big walled-off chunk to the right, behind a door which presumably hid the bathroom. In fact, the room seemed a bit bigger than most hotel rooms, likely because Kat had removed the bed and replaced it with a small bedroll in the corner, next to the sliding glass door to the balcony.
I brushed my hair back. “Alex, it’s your show.”
“Right,” the tracker said with some glee, clapping his hands together. “Normally, I’d put George to work on the beds, but we don’t seem to have to worry about that.” He pointed to a heavy-looking dresser, maybe four feet tall. It was probably where the TV usually went, but there wasn’t one. “Go through that, see what you find. Ignore the clothes. Sax, check the balcony and the bed area. Kelly, I think you and I should be in charge of the bathroom. We—”
“Alex,” Jarasax said warningly. “This isn’t a smash and grab, or a search. Just…take it slow.”
The angel held up his hands. “Sorry. Just…forgot for a second there. Be careful, everyone.”
I sighed and walked into the bathroom. It was only slightly more luxurious than the rest of the place, probably because Kat hadn’t figured out how to remove the small bathtub in the corner. But other than a single extra-large bottle of shampoo, there was nothing. No perfumes or bath salts or scented candles.
I really should have expected as much.
“Hey guys,” George called from the other room. “Take a look at this.”
I strode out of the bathroom, pushing past our escort still guarding the door to the apartment, to find that our ogre had flipped the dresser bottoms-up.
I sighed. “George, didn’t you hear Sax? Don’t treat this as a raid.”
“I’m not. But there’s writing and stuff too, and this was the easiest way to read it.”
I rubbed my forehead and stepped forward to take a closer look. He was right; there was some sort of strange writing in an alphabet I didn’t recognize carved directly into the thin wood making the bottom of the dresser.
“I found something too,” the changeling reported, holding up a small white letter envelope. “Under the cot.” I plucked it out of his hand and opened it.
It had a small single-use flash drive inside, the kind used to store viruses. Well, they had originally been designed to help protect copyright, letting customers download the data once before burning out, but it had taken all of thirty seconds for hackers to find a better use for it.
I held it up, frowning. It was unlabeled. “Sax, did Kat have anything to do with hacking? Better yet, did you give this to her?”
“No on both counts,” he confirmed. “She was on friendly terms with a few other Blood-Doused Hunters, but I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning her needing help with hacking.” He scratched his chin. “She did ask someone to fix her tablet one time, though.”
“Who helped her? Maybe they know what this is.”
“Nemeni, I think.”
Our escort choked. “Nemini? As in the warlord of the Blood-Doused Hunters?”
Jarasax ground his teeth. “We are not a culture, Thor. We don’t have warlords. Dame Nemini is our leader, but—”
The giant waved his hand. “Yes, yes, no one cares. What was the Paragon of the clan doing with a low-ranking traitor’s friend?”
Said low-ranking traitor spoke up. “Unlike the cultures, changelings are not kicked out if we join Necessarius. Nemini is actually very supportive—”
“Wait,” I said. “Paragon. What’s that?”
The Thor blinked. “Oh, sorry, I assumed you knew. It’s a new meme going around. The title for baseline warlords. Pretty much just Butler and the changelings, but I guess whoever is in charge of the Paladins would get called that too.” He scratched his chin. “Speaking of, ‘Honored Paladin’ is catching on for baselines in general.”
“Can we focus here?” George asked in exasperation, as if he hadn’t been the one to cause the derail. “I still don’t understand what’s written here.”
“The big guy is right,” Alex proclaimed, slapping the ogre on the back. “The burn drive is probably just a virus she bought for an emergency. Jarasax can ask Dame Nemini if anyone really cares.” He leaned forward, squeezing his head between me and George to get a better look at the bottom of the dresser. “What’s really interesting is all this.”
Jarasax looked at it a little sideways. “It’s Gaelic. I think.”
I nodded. “That makes sense.”
He chuckled. “Not really. No one uses it. Haven’t for…” he whistled. “Centuries, probably. Now, they just use a modified Latin alphabet just like everyone else.”
I brushed my hand through my hair. “Of course. So you can’t read it?”
“Well…” he leaned forward. “I can make out bits and pieces. But my Irish isn’t that good in the first place, and add in the Gaelic on top, it may as well be chickenscratch.” He straightened up and shook his head. “Gonna need a real translator for this.”
“Well, that’s easy enough,” our escort said from the door. I turned to see him grinning. “Lizzy!” he called. “Þú getur komið í núna.”
Next to the giant, the bronze-skinned Amazon looked like a skinny child. She glared at the bouncer. “Hvernig vissirðu að ég var þarna?”
“You breath loudly,” he explained, probably using English for the benefit of the rest of us. “So you hear everything?”
She brushed her hair back and managed to smile. “Of course. I’d be more than happy to help.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You can read Gaelic?”
“It’s not really that difficult,” she admonished. “The alphabet is mostly the same, just different shapes.”
Alex moved aside to let her in, and I did the same. “That can be said of every language, Miss Greene.”
She grinned at the angel. “And now you know why I’m so good with them.”
I adjusted my daygoggles. “Just…tell us what it says.”
“Well…” she leaned in to take a closer look. Then she frowned. “That’s interesting. It’s a poem.”
This was getting weird. “Why would she carve a Gaelic poem into the bottom of her dresser?”
But the brown-haired girl shook her head. “No, no…it’s a poem in English. Properly translated, it rhymes in a simple A-B-A-B sequence.” She tapped one of the words. “There are a few lines that don’t rhyme, but I can’t tell if that’s because she chose some weird translation, or if it was intentional.”
“It’s a code, then,” George noted.
Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Obviously. Probably for me or Kelly. What’s it say?”
Lizzy shrugged. “It starts with ‘Steel and snow—’”
“Stop,” I said suddenly. The solution had just come to me. “Stop. The poem is a red herring. It’s not important.”
Our translator raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, this is a lot of effort to confuse whoever is trying to read this. Who would care?”
I waved my hand. “It doesn’t matter. The point is what Sax said—It’s for us, and we don’t speak Irish.” I tapped the very first word, in the top left corner. “What is this? In Irish, I mean?”
“Cruach,” she responded instantly. “Steel.”
“Okay, okay…spelled C-R, I assume? Good.” I pulled out my reading tablet, a cheap little thing only slightly bigger than my cell phone, and plugged Kat’s burn drive into it. As I expected, a book downloaded itself onto the device—Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. At least, that’s what the title page said. But even though I hadn’t read through the entire book, I had paged through enough of it to know that this wasn’t a standard translation.
“It’s a book code,” Sax muttered, looking over my shoulder. “A…triple nested book code? Maybe more?”
“That’s what I’m guessing.” I frowned. “The only question is whether its based on English or Irish…Greene, what number is the letter ‘C’ in Gaelic?”
“Third. Same as English. ‘R’ is fifteen, though.”
I tabbed through the book until I found page three, then counted to the fifteenth word. Exorbitant. Okay…probably not it. “What number is ‘R’ in English?”
I moved three words over. The. That sounded more likely. “All right…give me the first two letters of the next line.”
“’S’ and ‘C.’ Nineteen and three.”
Page nineteen, third word…latrine.
Jarasax was still following my progress. “That doesn’t seem very likely.”
I kneaded my forehead. I was not built for code breaking. “Fine,” I said, handing him the reader. “You have a better idea?”
The middle-eastern man chewed his lip briefly. “I think…we should try doing it by letter. The first one is third page, eighteenth letter. That’s…G.” He tabbed back to page nineteen. “And then…A. Yeah, that sounds more likely. Miss Greene, what’s next?”
It took a while, but we eventually managed to pound out Kat’s code, letter by letter. Especially since it took a while for us to realize we were supposed to count spaces as letters. By the time we finished, I could see the sun dipping out of sight through the room’s sole window.
“’Fey scheming together,’” Sax read aloud. “’Investigating now. Tapped their comms before they switched, ask Little Sister zero zero nine nine eight two seven.’”
“I’ll just let myself out…” Lizzie said as she slinked away. The Thor bouncer had left hours ago. I barely noticed.
“LS0099827. That’s one of MC’s programs, right?”
Jarasax nodded. “Definitely. Not sure which one, of course, but we can figure it out. I’m more interested in why Kat didn’t just give the info to MC directly.”
Alex shrugged. “Paranoid, maybe? The fey are pretty good at rooting out spies. And if they’re working together now, its even worse.”
The fey courts had some…interesting relationships with each other. The seasons, directions, and Day/Night fought each other constantly, but at the same time they respected the boundaries they had created for themselves. Night’s Southern Autumn may as well not exist anywhere but the south of the city, and she disappeared completely during the non-fall months.
But if they were actually, actively working together, that meant…
Well, nothing, probably. The fey were crazy. They weren’t likely to toss fifteen years of paranoid psychosis to the side just at the drop of a hat. In fact, if they were trying to work together, the most likely result is that they’d end up killing each other.
I shook my head. “Whatever. We’ll see. I’ll take this to Clarke, see what he thinks.”
Sax raised an eyebrow. “Not MC?”
I shrugged. “Kat decided not to tell her, for whatever reason. We have to respect that until we know more. Clarke will have the expertise to check whatever data she dumped in the Little Sister. Then we’ll know more.”
Alex pulled out his phone. “I’ll call—” He frowned. “That’s weird. I missed a call from MC.” He moved the phone to his ear to listen to the message. After a moment, he cursed. “Dawn—I gotta go. A job came up.”
George grunted. “For just you?”
“Yeah…” the angel muttered. “I asked MC to call me the second anything came up. I didn’t think this would take so long…sorry guys, I really have to go.”
“It’s all right,” I promised. “We’ll be fine.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 37)
This almost went somewhere really weird. Weirder than it already is, I mean. Thankfully, I managed to stop myself before Kat’s message turned out to point them towards an ancient sect of druids that had lived in the city for centuries. Yes, the city is only thirty years old. That was my first clue I was doing something stupid.
Oh, and Lizzy and the Hammer are speaking Icelandic here.