Once you’ve fried every cockroach in your room, the stench gets to be a little…what did Sky like to call it? Malodorous, yeah, that’s it. Good word, the kind you can roll around in your mouth. Malodorous. The Singing Cockroach should consider using it in advertising.
The Singing Cockroach: Three Rats’ Most Malodorous Establishment!
You Won’t Believe the Miasmic Qualities of Our Communal Toilets!
Try Our Bedsheets! Free Fungal Infection with Every Lice Infestation!
Anyway, after Alma’s visit, sleep is out of the question, so once the bug-zapping is done – they pop when you raise their internal temperature high enough, you should really try it if you’re a fire god – it’s time to go for a walk. Visit Sky’s fake apartment. Not that it’s likely to turn up anything, but maybe there’ll be some clue that Alma and Dion missed in their state of shock after the collapse of Sky’s sanctum. And there could be somebody watching the place. Now wouldn’t that be a lucky catch? A Whisper gang soldier to interrogate – wouldn’t that put a smile on Alma’s face?
That of course requires a different approach from the usual. Chowringhee Road is even more insular than most of Three Rats. The road is only one twisting throughway among a mess of alleys, streets, lanes, trails, and accidental spaces between buildings that are paths only by default, that from above must look like a dropped bowl of noodles. And everyone in that compact neighborhood knows everyone else, and will take careful note of any newcomer. This could be useful for identifying Sky’s captors, except for the fact that Sky is the only cop who has gained any trust from the people in this particular stomping ground, and they will know that telling on the Whisper is a death sentence, a notably bad one as well.
So it’s time not to be noticed. The old on-duty uniform is made for that. Black with red trim, it can change color any time, useful for when you have a boss who wants the red trim to be blue trim so you’re obviously Guardia, as Alma did a couple weeks ago, but also useful for disguises, and for camouflage. The neck-scarf is useful as well. Pull it up over the lower half of your face, and it changes, becoming a translucent blur, casting a spell of ‘nothing to see here’ on the face of the user. People’s eyes just slide right off, and they wouldn’t remember the face with the help of the best hypnotist in the City of Gods.
Helpful to be able to see heat sources at night, as well, since there’s barely a functional streetlamp in the whole neighborhood, other than along its eponymous main road. Sky had said he’d worked hard to get the lamps repaired and to convince the locals not to break them. Times were changing. Will they continue if Sky’s gone?
So it’s in through the shadows, moving quiet, taking time to get there without attracting any notice. What would normally take twenty minutes takes almost an hour, but that’s what it takes to get close enough to see the apartment while not close enough to reveal yourself to anyone who might be watching.
And what do we have here but a light in said apartment? Someone else is nosing around. It’s a steady golden glow, not the wavering dim light of the gas lamp that the place is equipped with. Just one warm, glowing shape, expected size, two legs, no tail, someone with average human body temperature. Even the light source is giving off no heat. Unless the person in there is the light source. No, it’s not moving with him. Or her.
Who else is watching?
Keeping an eye on the window to make sure the light doesn’t go out, a careful search of the places a watcher could be hiding doesn’t take too long. Sensing heat sources doesn’t seem too remarkable when you’ve been able to do it all your life, but it sure is useful. And the warm bodies around here are asleep or engaged in their own pursuits. One or two call for a closer look, but after half an hour, it seems like the area is clean. Time to get closer.
The steps are easy. Sky never fixed them. Fates, if anything he made them worse. Squeaks and creaks to warn of an approach, and that broken one that looks nice and solid but tries to bite into your shoe if you’re not careful. But go up the right way and it’s mouse-quiet.
Makes it a good ambush point. Could wait until the target is away from here, in a dark alley, or even just follow him all the way home. But what if he gives me the slip? Better to take him down now, quick and quiet. And here, at the door, on this landing is good. Target’ll have made squeaks and creaks on the way up, most likely. Will expect to hear them if someone else comes up. That, and his eyes won’t have adjusted to the night. Might be the best moment to catch his guard down.
The light is moving, brightening under the door, lengthening in an arc across the landing. Press back against the wall next to the door, on the hinged side. Leathers changing color very slightly to blend into the shadows almost perfectly. Scarf saying “I’m not here.”
The light extinguishes. The knob turns and the door opens, blocking my normal vision, but I can see his heat through the thin door. Male shape, pausing, looking out into the night. The door closes behind him and just as my arm is closing around his throat I realize who it is.
But he doesn’t realize who I am. A lot of people might freeze, somebody gets them in a chokehold, but not Dion. No thought, just training, and fast, the hips shift, his right foot swinging in a little arc to get behind my left leg, getting those hips behind mine, chest against my side and his head lower, pulling me forward, him with the better balance now, left arm slamming against my chest.
It’s a thing of beauty and since I’m not exactly trying to stop him, he carries it off perfectly, but as I don’t want to get smashed against the door, I release and go down, laughing, falling to the old planks, meaning to do a neat little side-reverse roll and pop back up. Except he spins and snaps out a forward kick to my chest while I’m still falling. If this were a real fight I’d have blocked it – yeah, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – but with this being a simple misunderstanding, I’m not really on my game. It’s fast but he’s not really set, so not much pain through the leather but it sure does add energy to the roll, sending me back a body-length further than I’d intended. Instead of popping up, I crash against the cheap, rotten railing, hear it crack, and have time to think, Crap…
The railing slows things down though, and just as I’m going through and my body’s starting to react to an impending one-story fall – not too bad, if you can get your legs under you and there’s no broken glass or crocodiles waiting – the jacket jerks against my chest and everything stops. I’m hanging over the edge and Dion’s holding onto my jacket, looking down at me with a scowl that would freeze a penguin.
The pieces of railing that broke free clatter below. He could just let me go, and I’d be down there with them in about one second. Wouldn’t blame him. But I give him the patented Somrak grin, the one that charms the ladies and scares the little kids. Oh! The scarf!
“Nice move, Dion!” All cheerful, as I yank down the scarf with one hand and grab his forearm with the other.
“Somrak?” The frown turns to surprise, and he takes a long step back to leverage me up. Nice of him. Releases me, tugging at his cuffs to smooth his sleeves and turning his face away a little. “Well, that is one way to greet people…”
“I was coming by to do the same as you, look for clues. Saw the light and thought you might turn out to be a useful lead. Find anything here?”
Dion shakes his head, and gestures, annoyed, back at the apartment door. “I am afraid nothing we can use. I was merely puzzling over how they did it, breaking into a god’s sanctum.”
“Huh.” Scanning around to see if our tussle attracted any attention. “I know someone who knows how to do it. But I can’t contact her for this. We might want to be able to break through when the time comes to go in after Sky.”
Dion shakes his head. “We would need to find demon blood, ferrous sulfate, and infera aura, then. Plus half a dozen minor, more-easily found ingredients.”
“Demon blood could be available on-site, depending on the opposition. Dion…what the hell are you thinking?”
Yeah, that’s right. Hit him with the old ‘change the subject without warning’ approach. Dion turns back, nonplussed. “Personally, I’m thinking they need a better bonding agent to help focus the spell. But perhaps that’s…not what you mean?”
Sigh. Time to go where angels fear to tread. “I mean you and Alma. She told me you’d had a fight. But it was obvious something is wrong.”
Oh there we go. Face turning red, eyes all hooded and dangerous. Really great effect in the moonlight. “With all due respect, Somrak, I don’t think this is a matter for the two of us to discuss.”
“Fine, no discussion. I’ll talk, you listen.” Take a breath. “Look, I was stupid. But I get it now and she loves you so I’m asking again, what the hell are you thinking? She doesn’t need two idiots around.”
Glowering. Yes, that is definitely Dion’s glowering look. Too bad I don’t have a camera. “Because of your actions, I made a mistake.” Ice-cold voice. This could turn into a fight. Lovely. “You made it clear, Somrak, quite clear what your intentions were. The friendliness, the compliments, the little act at the market. Every time she denied it until I found out about your…slip up. So I judged her based on that.” Disgust, but for himself more than anyone else, from the way he looks down and away. “Frankly, I would have thought you would be taking a wonderful opportunity to show her how much better a match you can be to her.”
Shrug. “Yeah, I’m a little surprised at myself that I’m not. But here’s the thing. She needs someone to support her and I can’t. You know why? Because even if I’m honestly just being a good friend, in the back of her mind she’s going to be wondering exactly what you expected: that I’m just doing it to win her over. And that’ll taint everything. So it’s up to you, Prettyboy.”
And Dion turns away again, takes the first step down those stairs. Come on, man… “She hates me at the moment. With good reason.”
This is getting ridiculous. I should just say fine, and go after her myself. Maybe I would if I didn’t think I’d be dead in a day or two. Maybe not. One more try. “I am the least likely person to be giving good relationship advice, but you don’t want to be going into this thing with a gulf between the two of you. Dion… Look, I don’t know the details, and I don’t want to. But she needs you.”
He stops. Not looking back, he says, voice harsh, “She is not the only one in pain, Somrak. If it were that easy… I just…don’t want to argue with her again. Don’t want to have her walk away.”
“So you let it lie for now, and then we go in to get Sky, and maybe she doesn’t make it out?” Harsh. Well, he needs harsh. “Or you don’t make it out? You really want to risk having that extra guilt on top of everything else? Guilt for whoever survives?”
Three cheers for guilt. Yeah, I know, they only think they’re going in to rescue Sky. Not like I haven’t lied to a friend before, but I don’t really want to compound the lies like this. The more lies, the more likely the truth will come out.
Still, it got Dion to look back. The thought of losing Alma turns him as pale as she is. “That’s…certainly not what I meant.”
“World doesn’t care what you meant. Intentions don’t mean a thing without action.” Who am I talking to, him or myself? Arms crossed, leaning back against the wall, I try to drive it home, but gently. “I know you’re hurting. But somebody has to make the first move.”
Dion stays silent long enough that I start to feel a little sleepy, but then he nods in defeat. “Tomorrow.”
Good enough. Strange how much I like the guy. Pampered, ridiculously handsome, politically connected, infamous for all the dalliances he’s had with the most sought-after goddesses across the First Ring, and yet I like him. “I’ll be coming by. Got some info to share with the both of you. But…maybe now I can sleep.” I push away from the wall and poke at the railing, which makes a big length of it start to creak away slowly from the landing. Oops. I grab it to prevent the sound it would make on falling. “Hey, what’s up with you and her and the Singing Cockroach, anyway?”
He chuckles, though there’s no smile to accompany the humor. “Our first day here, she asked if I had a place to stay and suggested the Singing Cockroach. We had just met. I followed her suggestion and got into a fight. Turns out the owner is not fond of Guardia.” He gives me a look that seems grudgingly grateful. “I need to return to the station. It’s my shift.”
I give him a nod and let him go, listening for the creaks on the stairs. Not many – he’s a fast learner. I just stand in the dark for a few minutes. So many lies, piling deeper and deeper. Soon it won’t matter anymore, but… Well, when you’re dead, you don’t have to worry whether they forgive you.