I watched as Laura very carefully drew a vial of blood out of her own arm, then placed it in a large mass spectrometer.
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The paper she had handed me said that’s what she was supposed to do now. But I didn’t know what one looked like. How was I supposed to know she wasn’t tricking me?
“Adam,” she admonished without turning around. “You’re not paying attention.”
“What? Yes I am.”
I sighed. That power of hers only seemed to work when it was most annoying. “Sorry. I just can’t really tell what you’re doing.”
“Testing my blood for Malcanthet’s masking agent.”
I waved my hand. “Yes, I know. And the lab instructions are clear enough. But I mean…” I indicated the dial she was adjusting on the machine. “Like that, right there. I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What does the paper say?” she asked with exaggerated patience.
I glanced at it. “’Adjust to nine percent power and auto-calibrate.”
She stepped aside so I could get to the machine. I walked up to get a closer look, and it did indeed see that the dial was at nine percent. Next to it was a small digital panel blinking ‘Auto-calibrate?’ with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons below it.
“Happy now?” she asked, again with a sigh of strained patience.
“Very,” I replied. “Please continue.”
The pale girl nodded and stepped forward again.
She followed the rest of the instructions to the letter, as far as I could tell. The point of this exercise was to check if she was a sleeper, using me as an observer. Hopefully this would prove effective, but it would take time.
Laura’s current theory, that Malcanthet was the Composer, was not a pleasant one. I had heard enough stories about the Succubus Queen to know that things would only get worse from here on out.
The masking agents she used in her sleepers were apparently extremely complex. Chemicals masking chemicals masking chemicals. If you weren’t testing for it specifically, it was pretty much impossible to detect. Worse, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to just add another masking agent on top, which would make this entire exercise futile.
Laura assured me that was unlikely, mostly because the number of masking agents Malcanthet could use was dwindling. That didn’t really make me feel much better, since the number was still in the double digits, and we simply didn’t have the ability to check them all, but it seemed to calm her.
“You almost done down there?” a woman’s pleasant voice called down from upstairs. “I almost have dinner ready.”
“Just a few more minutes, Mrs Arrow,” Laura called back.
“Well, don’t take too long. The butter-crusts will get cold.” I heard the sound of the basement door closing.
I frowned. “Butter….crusts?”
“Shellfish cooked inside their shells with butter and spices,” Laura explained as she tapped a couple more buttons. “Veronica generally uses crabs.”
“Right. What else is there for you to do?”
“It needs about an hour to run, but we don’t need to be here for that. Just…” she tapped another key, which I’m pretty sure was the one the paper said. “Done.” She smiled. “C’mon. We can deal with the rest later.”
We walked upstairs into Obould’s house. It was really just a big apartment; ‘house’ might have been stretching it a little. But it certainly felt like one. It had that warm feeling of home, especially with the orc’s kids running around our feet. The two older ones, a pair of fourteen-year old twins, boy and girl, were a demon and a vampire, respectively, but everyone else was baseline. Mrs Arrow pulled a steaming metal sheet out of the oven, which did indeed seem to be carrying crabs, cut in half lengthwise and turned into bowls.
“Eat, eat,” she insisted. “The least I can do.”
Veronica looked a lot like a smaller version of Derek’s mother, although her skin was lighter. Apparently the two had grown up together, which probably meant she was Italian as well, but you couldn’t tell from her accent—or lack of one.
“Where’s your husband?” I asked as we sat down at the giant table. It was big enough to fit about forty people, but there were only seven right now. As I understood it, Obould was something like the landlord of the building, so he invited everyone over for holidays. It was a small skyscraper with big apartments; otherwise they would never fit.
“He’s off collecting specimens again,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “I probably should have told him you were using his lab, but it’s his loss.”
I frowned a little as I picked up one of the butter-crusts. It smelled good, at least. “Will he mind? We didn’t mean to be a nuisance—”
She laughed. “No, not at all. I meant he has to miss dinner, and you two.”
I had some difficulty with the chopsticks, but no one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it, and ate my meal in silence. Mrs Arrow spent most of the time arguing with her children as they tried to talk their way out of chores. It was a nice background noise.
I eventually managed to finish my food. By that time, everyone else was already done, and chatting even more than before. After a minute, Laura glanced over.
“Done? Good. The tests should be done by now.” She stood up and carried her empty shell and chopsticks over to the sink.
Mrs Arrow scrambled up. “Oh, let me handle that, dear. You go finish your experiments.”
The sharp Spanish girl nodded gratefully, then headed back to the basement. I followed only a few steps behind.
“It’s done,” she said as she glanced at the machine. “Here, look for yourself.”
I grabbed the lab sheet again, and checked it against the readout. As far as I could tell, it looked like she was clean.
“I guess that’s the most we can hope for. What’s next?”
She pulled out the needles again. “I do the same to you. And while I’m doing that, you go get a sample from everyone else.”
I sat down and extended my arm, frowning. “Okay, who’s everyone?”
She tied some surgical tubing off on my arm. “Everyone close to us. Derek, Ling, Akane, Lizzy…” she paused. “Maria and my father, the retinue…everyone. I already did Doctor Clarke, but I couldn’t find Robyn. Oh, and I guess I should send you after Seena and Simon too…”
I bit my lip as she started drawing blood. “What…about Lily? She shouldn’t be a danger…right?”
“Yes and no,” Laura said slowly, probably realizing it was a sore subject. “On the one hand, she knows than to get into situations where she could get drugged, hypnotized, the whole process. On the other hand, Malcanthet is probably still very angry at her, specifically, for the Battle of Shendilavri.”
I winced, and not because of the needle. “I know, I know, but…”
“However, I already got her blood,” she explained. “I tested it at Clarke’s machines, and it came up clean, but I still have enough to do it again here.” She smiled as gently as she could, which wasn’t saying much. “You don’t have to worry about her.”
I sighed in something close to relief. She wasn’t quite clear yet, but close enough. “Okay. Okay, good. How should I get the samples? I’m guessing just asking is out.”
“Of course. Even the two of us knowing is still a risk. If she finds out our plans, things will start to go south.”
I snorted. That was an understatement.
“Start with the other Paladins,” she advised. “I doubt they’d be stupid enough, especially Akane and Derek, but we have to be sure. I can get my parents.”
I accepted the band-aid she offered and patched myself up. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grabbed the small box of syringes, already in a convenient carrying case.
“Don’t forget to label the samples,” she reminded me. “The last thing we need is to identify the wrong person as a sleeper.”
I nodded, and left.
Mrs. Arrow tried to get me to take some food with me, but I assured her I’d be back soon enough, which seemed to placate her. The second I got outside, I flipped open my phone.
“MC,” I said. “I need to know where the closest Paladins are.”
Her fake voice replied instantly. “That would be Miss Yu, about a mile north.”
“Thank you.” I hung up and started walking.
I could have caught a bus or a train, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Quite the opposite, actually. I kept expecting to get a call from Laura telling me that I was a sleeper, and they needed to lock me up so I didn’t hurt anyone.
We still weren’t completely certain, but the evidence was definitely pointing towards Malcanthet. Lily wasn’t going to be happy. I knew she wanted to put the Succubus Queen completely out of her mind. Finding out she was behind the recent attacks would not be good for her.
But what else could I do? Not tell her? Ridiculous. I had to. Sure, we had only been going out for about a month, but ‘By the way, your arch-nemesis is loose in the city again’ isn’t something you keep from people you care about.
I’d decide how to explain all that later. Right now I had to figure out how to get a syringe of blood out of a girl who could throw boulders at me, without her noticing.
The first thing that sprang to mind was knocking her out, but that was a bad idea. Short of giving her a concussion, the only way to neutralize her would be to drug her, which would probably screw with the test results.
Well…did Laura need an entire syringe? No, just a little bit. All I needed was a small sample.
The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.
I looked up. I had walked for longer than I thought. Ling and Lizzy were standing in front of me, weighed down with shopping bags.
“MC called,” the little Chinese girl said. “Something about you wanting to see us?”
Ah. So we had met halfway. “Yeah, Laura said you guys were out shopping, and I was wondering if you got anything for Lily.”
Lizzy grinned. “Liar. You just want to know if we got anything for you.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.” I glanced around the sidewalk. It was about twilight, so there weren’t many people around, but still too many. “C’mon. Let’s find a cafe.”
“There’s one on the fifth floor,” Ling promised, ducking into the nearest building, with Lizzy close behind.
The first four floors were restaurants too, fast-food places. Normally in a configuration like this, the bottom floor would be the main area, with all the others bringing their food down when ordered. But for some reason—maybe because there wasn’t enough space out front, or maybe just poor planning—that wasn’t the case here. We had to take a thin staircase to the side up to the fifth floor.
We sat down at a table near the window, and the girls ordered some hot chocolate from the squirrel-kemo waitress. I didn’t get anything, mostly because I still had to figure out how to get the samples. It was going to be tricky, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off.
“You not thirsty?” Ling asked innocently, and I was pulled back to the matter at hand.
I shook my head to try and clear it. I had time to think later. “No, not really. Anyway, what’d you buy?”
“A dress,” Lizzy replied cheerfully, pulling out the item in question. It was a red, slinky thing, but I don’t really know enough about clothing to be sure if it would look good on her. “Luckily, I already had Lily’s size.”
I had a swarmbuster grenade, which shoots out plastic shards. It wouldn’t kill a human, but it would definitely make them bleed. Unfortunately, Ling could sense all solids. She’d notice that I was the one who used it, even if I just pulled the pin and dropped it under the table. Wait, didn’t she have to concentrate to do that? Not sure, but I couldn’t risk it.
“So…why did you buy it for her, again?” I knew why; Lizzy apparently just buys things, and eventually gifts them to people. But I needed to get her talking so I could have a minute to think.
While she went on about stimulating the economy and getting presents for her friends and so on, I scanned the room as subtly as I could. The cafe was pretty busy, mostly with vampires just getting up for the evening. No one looked at us sideways, though, since a lot of the customers were diurnals meeting up with their nocturnal friends.
The waitress carried drinks around precariously on a tray. Including…a large glass pitcher of water.
That was an answer. Not a perfect one, but I wasn’t exactly in a perfect situations here.
Ling turned to me. “What do you think?”
I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation, of course, but I know an opportunity when I see one. “I think I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”
“It’s next to the counter,” Lizzy advised. “Ask the barrister.”
I did as she suggested, timing my slow press through the table-crowded room to reach the door to the back (and presumably the bathrooms) at about the same time as the squirrel-waitress.
“Come here real quick,” I muttered. “I need a favor.”
She raised an eyebrow, and her bushy tail twitched. That was the only toy she had, as far as I could tell. “No. This is a respectable establishment.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not that, I promise. I just need to ask you something out of sight of my friends.”
She sighed and followed me around the corner.
“I just need you to break one of those pitchers near my friends,” I explained, the second they couldn’t see us.
The eyebrow arched again. “Why would I possibly do that?”
“Call MC. She’ll explain.”
The squirrel looked at me funny for a moment, but sighed, and pulled out her phone. “Hello, I’d like to speak to the real MC.”
“Tell her it’s regarding Laura’s tests,” I urged.
She glared at me. “It’s regarding Laura’s tests.”
She continued glaring at me for about ten seconds, until suddenly her expression transformed into one of surprise. “MC? Well—yes.” She looked me up and down. “Yes. He wants me to—well, all right then.” She closed the phone with a snap, a bewildered expression on her face.
“You’ll help,” I said, trying not to sound too smug.
“I’ll help,” she confirmed, still too shocked to say much else. “I’ll…be over in a few minutes.”
I returned to the table, feeling pretty good about myself.
“Did that waitress follow you into the bathroom?”
I blinked at Lizzy. She had noticed that?
“Ah, no. She went to the women’s.”
The bronze-skinned girl rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously. That’s what I meant.”
Thankfully, before she could say anything else, the squirrel kemo walked by, an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray she was holding with one hand.
“Your drinks will be out in a minute,” she promised. “Was there anything else you needed?”
Both girls shook their heads, and I answered for them. “No, we’re good.”
She smiled. “Holler if you change your minds.” She turned to go, and I almost thought she had decided not to help.
Instead, her tail knocked into Lizzy.
Even though I knew it was faked, I could barely tell. Her squirrel tail wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as Lily’s demon one (though whether that was limitation of the technology or the girl’s finances, I wasn’t sure), and it was very bushy. It had probably taken her lots of practice to not bump into things; I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to do the opposite.
Lizzy cursed in a language I didn’t understand, flailing about and unintentionally completing the illusion. With a yelp, the waitress lost control of her tray. The pitcher slid off and shattered on the tabletop, shards flying everywhere.
I didn’t know if the girls were injured or not, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a small hand towel in each hand, both covering a small pocketknife. Under the pretense of leaping up to help, I slashed both Ling and Lizzy near the upper shoulder, hopefully making it look like they had just been cut by flying glass.
“I am so so so sorry,” the waitress cried. “Let me—oh fur and fangs, you’re bleeding!”
She was good. The girl had a future in acting, if she cared.
“Let me get that,” I said, holding the knives with only two fingers each, and using the rest to hold the towels and mop at the wounds I made. I just needed to make sure not to mix them up.
“The one time I’m not wearing armor…” Ling muttered. “Lizzy, you okay?”
The amazon swallowed, and nodded. “I…think so. Can we just leave? Right now?”
“This is all my fault,” the waitress apologized frantically. “If there’s anything I can do—”
“Let us leave,” Lizzy replied instantly. “Right now.”
The manager had run over by this point. “Of course, of course. Next time you’re here, you will of course get free drinks—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ling brushed him off. “C’mon.”
We left quickly, only stopping once we were on the empty street outside.
“What are you doing?” I asked, noticing the girls had dumped out everything in their bags on the ground and were slowly putting it back in.
“Checking for broken glass,” Ling said bluntly. “I have half a mind to get that waitress fired.”
I really hoped it didn’t come to that. “She made a mistake. Happens to everyone.”
“Yeah, whatever,” she muttered. Having decided her purchases were as close to glass-free as she could get them, she picked up her bags and headed north.
“Where are you going?”
She turned to me, eyebrow raised. “Back to the dorms. You?”
I scrambled for an excuse. “Ah…no, I think I’m going to take a walk.” I jerked my thumb south, towards Obould’s place. “This way. I’ll see you both later. Be sure to get those wounds looked at.”
“We will,” Lizzy promised. “Good night.”
It took me about twenty minutes to get back to Laura, despite the fact that it was only two blocks away. I had to take a few small detours, mostly to avoid hungry-looking ghouls in dark alleys. I was armed, and confident in my abilities, but not that confident, and I didn’t want to risk contaminating my samples. I kept them in separate pockets the whole way, to make sure I didn’t get them mixed up.
“That was quick,” Mrs. Arrow commented when I walked through the open door. “You find what you were looking for?”
“Ah…yes. Is Laura…”
“Downstairs,” she assured me. I thanked her and headed to the basement.
The sharp-faced woman looked up as I came down the stairs. “I thought that was you. Good timing. Your results just came in. Looks like you’re clean. You get Ling’s sample?”
“And Lizzy’s. But…I had to use towels to do it. There was no way I would have been able to do it with the syringes.”
She cursed lightly under her breath. “Hardly ideal…you at least made sure they were clean, I trust?”
“Good,” she said, nodding in turn. “Then we should be able to get a good reading regardless.”
I pulled out the towels, in the small plastic baggies I had put them in, and carefully set them on the table. They weren’t ziplock bags; I wouldn’t have been able to get them closed without the girls noticing anyway.
“Left is Lizzy,” I explained. “Right is Ling.”
She examined them closely. “How, exactly, did you get the samples?”
I shrugged. “Recruited a waitress to break some glass near them, then cut them while they were distracted and daubed up the blood.”
She held up both samples carefully. The towels was pure white, without a drop of red.
“You missed,” she said flatly.
I cursed under my breath. Of course.
Behind the Scenes (scene 92)
Squirrel kemos are known as “daes.” The waitress (her name is Grace) is actually a chipmunk kemo, or daemarm, but no one really cares.