As anyone over the age of thirty, Captain Lona Honder had a particular pining, at times, for the "good old days." Though, to be fair, that sort of thing usually entailed cheerful anecdotes about flashy cars and better beer and a downright suspicious amount of sunshine, while he contented himself with one extremely practical feature of his days on the Force, which played at the keys of Nostalgia with the maestro's zeal.
"Would it be too much," he wondered aloud, "to have a normal murder for once?"
He'd given up smoking a year ago, but he still found himself clutching at the air in front of his face. The smoke calmed him. Not just the heat of it, deep in his lungs, but the way it moved behind your eyes, as if it -
He felt eyes on him, and flinched. He moved his hand a little downward, to stroke his chin in a thoughtful gesture that didn't fool the other man for a second.
The worst thing about Lieutenant Bol, he'd decided, was the way he refused to be the least bit condescending. He caught you doing something petty, something small, something that made you out as a downright fool, and what did he do?
Bol paused for a moment, considering the other man's posture. Then, with a smile and a shrug, he said: "quite a job."
"Eh? Yeah. Yeah, that's right." He'd left his flask at - well, no. The wife had it. Ditched it. Whatever. "Back on the street patrol," he said, his words deliberate in their delivery, "gods . . . you know, I don't think half the lads even knew about this . . . stuff." He looked at Bol, gesturing at him with a cigar that, of course, wasn't there. "Dashing," he said.
"Something the watchmen would say. Guy gets knifed, blood running into the main cobbles, dashing, you know? Gun in the night, you show up, nothing there but bits of blackened flesh and stringy bits hanging on the lampposts . . ." He made an inviting gesture at Bol, who took the bait with a smile.
"Hell, no. That's when we'd call you guys. Us. Hell."
"With all due respect, Captain, after five years with us here in the Division . . . have you not become more acclimatized to our work? If you are suffering undue mental strain, I must recommend that you"-
Captain Honder waved away the rest of the sentence. "Dammit, Bol, I'm fine. Just yarning with you, get it? I'm fine. Go get your forensics, why don't you." Forensics. Hated that word. Back on the Force, they'd called it bit-picking. Nice and simple. And that's all it really was, wasn't it? Everything else was just . . . tassels. Glitter that made the job look more glamorous than it was, which was by no means a difficult task. He took another look at the withered husk on the floor, and drank some water. Worst few years of his life, and he was having to live them sober. Gods dammit.
"Captain, sir? Call, sir. On the tele-mic, sir."
"Not now, Inic. I'm busy. Go on and bother Bol, he likes interns."
"Sorry, sir. But, sir? He . . . ah, he says it's very important you talk to him. Sir."
"Who the damn fuck"- The boy cowered, tried to fade into one of the walls. "Don't touch that! That's evidence!" Inic yelped, disappeared into the hall. Honder looked at the buzzing tele-mic, now in his own hands, and sighed. Half of the evidence squad was looking at him with expressions that ranged from cruel amusement, to dim disapproval. "Back to your poking," he snapped.
"Ahem," said the shadow of Lieutenant Bol.
"FU"- Where had he even come from? There was nothing for him to have hidden behind, and . . .
"No need to shout, Captain. I've just come to inform you that we've found something odd. Concerning the body," he added.
"Are you going to tell me it's magic? Because I know that." He sighed. "Five years . . ."
"Indeed, Captain. But I'm actually here to tell you that the body . . . Well, it's over three thousand years old."
"Run that by me again."
"It's extremely old"-
"Yeah, well, I got that. You told me the guy's been dead two hours, tops!"
"That is also true. We wiped away the magical residue, and beneath the ancient exterior, we were able to determine that the time of death was not as"-
"Three thousand years!"
The tele-mic buzzed again, insistently.
"Hold on, Bol," he groaned. "I need to take this." He took a step in the direction of the hall. "Don't go anywhere. Stay there."
He picked up the small receiver, and held it very close to his ear. "This better not be who I know it is."
There was a sound that, at a cordial convention of laughs, would have been kicked immediately to the curb. "Ever the sleuth, my friend," said a tinny voice, which sounded as if it was coming from somewhere very far away, while also uncomfortably close. It wasn't natural. No one, not even the wizards who'd come up with it, really liked to use the tele-mics.
Well, almost no one.
"I trust you know what comes next. I'm at the door, dear Honder, and it is terribly cold for the time of day." There was a pause. "There's some trembling variety of ghoul in the window. I think I've rather scared it."
"Wearing a uniform, is it?"
"INIC," he roared, in the direction of the stairs, "LET THE BASTARD IN, YOU USELESS LITTLE TOAD." He turned back to the tele-mic. "Gods hear me, Grey," he growled. "Don't screw this up, you hear? I still remember the Downs, and if you even start"-
"Listen, the Downs . . . oh, thank you very much . . . what? Sorry. Right." There was a heavy sigh, which in the mic sounded like the death-rattle of a tornado. "Look, I thought we agreed not to count that? It wasn't a good day. The dragon"-
"Wouldn't have been there at all," snapped Honder, "if you hadn't lifted the damn grates all down gods-forsaken Seventeenth." He slammed the tele-mic into its holder, just as Inic scrambled down the stairs, a second shadow looming in his wake.
In a single, sweeping motion, Thaddeus Grey entered the chamber of the alchemist.
Honder offered his arm, knowing full well that the man wouldn't part with his coat.
"I'll keep the coat, thanks."
Bol came out of nowhere. "Detective," he nodded. "A pleasant surprise."
"Hey, hey! What are you doing?" Honder snatched the files in Bol's proffered hands. "We don't let him see this until he asks, understand?"
Bol cocked his head to one side, the closest he ever got to expressing disapproval. "But, if he's to see it anyway, I don't see"-
"It's about the damn message," Honder snarled, and looked rebelliously into the detective's eyes.
Thaddeus sighed, and turned away. "Couldn't matter less," he said. "The Director's already given me the basics." He hesitated, then stepped closer to the corpse. The few forensic analysts still remaining made sure to part at his coming, and one or two of them looked awed under their leather masks.
Thaddeus crouched, his coat splaying behind him in a small puddle of expensive cloth. "Just give me the basics."
The analysts shared a panicked look, which peaked, then ebbed, as Bol stepped inexplicably into their midst.
"Time of death, two hours," he clipped. "Method, unknown variety of punitive verse, applied by an external force. Tissue dated to approximately three-thousand, five-hundred and forty-three years in age at the mortem."
"Plenty, but harvesting it has proven . . . difficult."
They continued to talk, some of the analysts pitching in to deliver a few tidbits that had emerged in the three seconds where Bol had been absent. Honder glared at the lot of them, hurting for something he really didn't know how to label.
It hadn't been like this. Not for the majority of his career. He was a street captain, a guardsman, not whatever the gods this was. Five years, and you're a senior officer. Thing is, no one really troubled to ask why.
Inic walked over, soundlessly, a cup of steaming coffee in his hands. Honder gave him a nod, took it, and continued staring at the cluster of bodies. He frowned, then made a decision.
"You ever seen a dead body, Inic?" The boy paused halfway back to the stairs. "Before today, that is," Honder added, though this didn't seem to help the boy's extreme anxiety at being subjected to the question.
"Um. No, sir. Never. Sir." He cleared his throat in a nervous sort of way. Honder paid him no mind.
"One of the better ones, actually," said the Captain, scowling. "We had a werewolf last month. Did you know," he said, "that werewolves have been extinct since the Middle Era?"
Inic shook his head.
"Gods know what they're doing. And this month, a corpse older than the city . . ." he sighed, and took a long draught of coffee that burned his throat but cleared his head. "Funny thing - they only made me Captain because no one else lived long enough to get a badge made. It's true. I've been shot . . . hells, more times than I can count. Pray you're never chased by a wizard, boy. Their fire has no fear of waves." He blinked a few times, then looked into Inic's pale eyes. "Oh, bugger off," he grumbled, and the intern scrambled away, thudding back up the stairs.
Thaddeus made his way towards him. Bol was staying with the analysts, who now were engaged in heavy conversation. Honder gave him a cool stare. "Well then. Has our wonderful asset closed the case?"
Grey smiled. It was not a Bol smile, which was thin and superficial, but instead the sort of smile that suggests that there is a lot more going inside the head behind it than just half-brained chases and long, namesake coats. It looked like it could cut steel, and Honder felt a shiver running down his arms, and hated them.
"There will be a few nights," he conceded, "of interesting consideration. No chance at those files, eh?"
Honder scowled, and handed over the folder. "Be grateful we have copies of those."
A nod, and without a single look at the actual papers, Thaddeus strode from the room, taking the stairs in fluid succession. Above them, he heard the door open, then shut.
"He left you this," said the voice of Lieutenant Bol.
"Gods! Bol, I swear"- he paused. "What is this?" He took the small half-sheet of paper in the Lieutenant's hands. Neat blue ink had printed across one side:
You do something for me, I do something for you. T.G.
With a frown, he turned it over, his fingers deft and practical. His eyes widened.
"MotherFUCKER," he screamed, and, throwing down the paper, shot up the stairs four at a time. There were a series of heavy thuds.
Bol stood. He blinked once, deliberately, then filled the silence with the crackling of the discarded paper, which he picked up in a deliberate motion. One of the analysts, a glowing amulet in one of his hands, peered curiously at Bol.
"Please be very careful with that," the Lieutenant told him. "It could potentially leave you childless."
"Already have a daughter, sir."
"Precisely." The man took a very slow look at the thing, then turned very mechanically back to his work.
Bol considered the paper. The letters meant nothing to him, but then again, he was rather new to the Division of Arcane Investigation. It was rather exciting, really: four months out of the Academy, and he was already a serviced Lieutenant . . . he looked up at the ceiling, noting the peculiar brown stains. Perhaps there would be something in the records. Nodding to himself, he made to depart.
"Make sure only to leave," he said behind him, "when Bornin comes to relieve you. Until then, I have great assurance that you are versed in incident site routine."
On the street, he walked as if in a dream. Though, being one of those men who does not partake in the habit, this was not the description he would have used. He was only conscious of the thinking, the way that the world itself seemed to become a fog of sorts, mixing with all the other sights and sounds and scents of Ans. In his head, all he could see were the cavities of the dead alchemist. The sockets, staring out at a ceiling paved with mold and falling into the uttermost depths of the nether oblivions . . .
Three thousand years was quite a time to live. He had heard stories, though, of the alchemists, through the traders and sailors of his youth. Their quest for gold. For life that persisted through the normal wear and tear of time . . . he wondered: was it possible? Not even the greatest of mages had lived to even five hundred years, and they had always obtained great fame, great renown throughout their lands. Three thousand years . . . a thought struck him like a thunderbolt.
He has been killed out of his time
And was gone. Lieutenant Bol was not a man for fancies.
A line creased in the corner of his eyes.
He did not stand for many of Captain Honder's views of the world, but there was one thing in which the other man would have his eternal, if private, support: he'd be damned if he'd let an amateur show him up in a case.
But not to worry. Ahead, somewhere in the fog, was the Department, and its records. Ahead, there was knowledge. That was the trick, see: you always moved ahead, and when those who got the jump on you finally flagged, or stumbled, or hesitated for even a moment to wonder why the street was glowing a brilliant, burning red, you'd be there to usurp their lead.
"Wenviditsi," he muttered, and the word sank deep into the late morning air. He shoved his hands a little deeper into his pockets, and picked up his already considerable pace. Perhaps Honder had another point, at that. He wouldn't mind a normal sort of murder.