The Sweetness of Poisoned Fruit

You never hurt for a drink in the MGC.

The bartender slides the glass of whisky in front of me, nodding her head, a single horn protruding from her orange brow pointing meaningfully at an expectant pair of eyes at the opposite end of the bar. Baby blue, but of course they would be, full of anticipation and hope. It almost hurt to dip the test strip in there, see the faint injury play across her face. She tries so hard to hide it too. Still, a man has to look after himself, Mamono are getting mighty creative at how to get that first ‘yes’ out of a guy.

The strip comes out clean, she’s on the up-and-up, a pleasant surprise to be sure. I raise the glass, smiling thanks, watching as the anticipation overcomes the earlier injury. She begins to saunter over, well, insofar as a half girl, half centipede can saunter. Despite her impressive length, she’s a nimble navigator, weaving between tables and loud groups, those baby blues never leaving my face. I take a mouthful of the drink, feeling it burn in my mouth and throat. It’s a dance you learn quickly, wether the first steps are bellicose or timid or sultry, it always ends the same way – the lingering touch, the question…

“You’re a hard man to find, Mr Trent.”

A voice from behind me, I turn, somewhat surprised. The Mamono had their own varied degrees of polite, but they held common that it was the height of rudeness to interrupt this particular dance. She’s middling height, curved ebon horns poking through rich violet hair, a thin, spade-tipped tail lashing around curves for miles, batlike wings sprouting from the rear of a jacket performing yeoman duty at keeping a chest that could only be described as ‘sinfully generous’ contained.

A Succubus. Just my luck.

I glance back, the Oomakude’s seen the Succubus and her shoulders droop in abject defeat. With a shift of dozens of legs, she makes an immediate bee-line for the side exit. Poor, pretty little thing… better you cry now and find a better option. I drink the remainder of the whisky, staring at the glass for a moment before placing it on the bar and turning again to the violet-haired demon behind me.

“Wouldn’t pick you for the kind to cut another bird’s grass.”

The Succubus blinked, before fixing me with a wry smile. “Were you planning to accept her proposal?”

“No but…”

“Then we’ve just saved you a lot of time, and her a lot of money, wouldn’t you say?”

Aw hell, way to make a guy feel like dirt.

“So…” I sigh, turning on the barstool “You’d prefer I wasted your money instead.”

The Succubus laughed, a throaty, sensual sound. “Waste? No. I have a… different kind of proposal. One I’d like to make in private.”

“Thanks, not interested.”

The Succubus gripped something on her belt, a gold crest catching the light and my eyes.

“I insist.”

Shit, SecPol. Mamono ‘Peacekeepers’. Little more than glorified muscle for the Powers-That-Be here in the MGC but the law, such as it remained was on their side. I surrender with a sigh, follow those hips as they sashay ahead of me, tail still lashing away, serpentine, entrancing, back and forth and back and forth…

“Please, take a seat Mr Trent.”

Slide into the booth, imitation leather squeaking beneath me. Human girl brings two drinks, sets them on the table in front of us. She looks tired. Wonder what she was looking for coming here. Money? Adventure? Maybe she just pissed off the wrong people…

“Cheers.” The Succubus drawls, raising her glass. I touch mine briefly to hers before pulling out another test strip. Heavy lashed eyes look at me levelly.

“Honestly, if I was looking to have you, I think I can do better than a spiked drink.”

I insert the strip deliberately, “Can’t play favourites. What can I do for you Ms…”

“Thorn”

“Of course, couldn’t give me your real name.”

Ms Thorn, as she called herself, takes a mouthful of her drink, smiling at me like some kind of predatory cat. “Names are power, Mr Trent. Power I’m told you’re something of a master of.”

I pat my jacket, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it. “Reputation’s something you can only point in the right direction, there’s no control over what it becomes.”

The succubus gives a short snerk of mocking laughter. “Oh please. There’s nothing more tedious than false modesty.”

“I would have said a revolutionary with a pension, but sure, as you will.” I reply, taking a drink. “Are we approaching some kind of point? Since you’re clearly not here to seduce me.”

“A job, Mr Trent.”

The world seems to pause for a beat, the loud surrounds of the bar dimming to muted murmurs as that simple phrase grabs my unwavering attention.

“I told SecPol before, I’m not interested in their recruitm…”

“This isn’t about getting you on board, Mr Trent… Quite the opposite, in fact. I assume you stay on top of the news?”

I tap the cigarette against the side of an ashtray, taking another drag, trail of blue-grey smoke dancing in the air as I considered the question. “As much as anyone.”

“You’ve heard about the murders?”

“Three separate incidents in the last month, blunt force trauma to the sternum, lungs pierced by some kind of broad tipped weapon, doesn’t match any known configuration. No defensive wounds which indicate the attacks were unexpected.”

Thorn curls those perfect lips, her pointed eye teeth glistening in the low light. “Yes would have done.”

“What are you keeping from the press?”

“A fair bit, unusually, which is where you come in.”

“I’m an investigator, Ms Thorn, not a dogwagger.”

Thorn makes a sound, half amused, half irritated into her glass as she throws the drink back inelegantly. “Would it make more sense if I told you it’s not SecPol doing the withholding?”

This broad was talking in circles, and it was beginning to make me tired. “Look Ms Thorn… Stop dancing around this. What does SecPol want me to do that they can’t do themselves?”

“We’ve got a suspect, which is where the problem lies.”

I chuckle, finishing off my drink and catching the eye of one of the bar staff for another. “Usually having a suspect is the opposite of a problem.”

“Depends on the suspect.”

“Do I get a name?”

“Xavier Lawrence”

An abrupt bark of laughter escapes my throat, bringing a narrow-eyed glare from Thorn and surprised glances from nearby patrons. Thorn raises a delicate, long fingered hand to the side of my face, leaning closer to me, sweet breath mixed with the smell of wine on my face.

“Why not just call the whole bar’s attention over?” she purrs softly, those plump, soft lips inches from my own. I glance out of the booth. “Just another guy getting propositioned by a Succubus” I thought to myself, “nothing to see here.” Slowly the glances turned away to something more interesting, or for some of the ladies, something less frustrating.

“Sorry, just… The porn writer?” I murmur.

Thorn made a face, leaning back from me. “He may be well known for his… erotica… but he was also the person who made the best… counterargument against The Order’s sermons.”

The human waitress brought over another round of drinks, and I raised mine with a smug grin. “The Embassy’s secret Propaganda Minister… You know there are a number of parties who’d pay big bucks to get a hold of that little gem.”

“And of course we’d deny it, and you’d spend what little remained of your life in a dark hole somewhere. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this helpless desperation, Mr Trent.” Thorn drawled, rolling the base of her glass on the table, the deep, red wine swirling within.

“Doesn’t add up, Ms Thorn. Why would an Embassy staffer start killing Mons? Sounds more like Orderlings.”

Thorn shook her head. “Two reasons. One, Orderlings would go for havoc. Chaos. Something with a big splash. Something they could set to dramatic music and play for the drones back home.”

“Fair point, and the other?”

“Lawrence used to teach at Harvard. All three deceased were former students, recently moved here for reasons as yet undetermined.”

There’s a moment, sometimes, where the little voice in the back of your head is telling you to get up, walk away. That all you’ve got to do is take that one little step, and this can all be a bad dream.

I’ve never been good at listening to it.

“So you’ve got suspicion, still not seeing why you need me for it.” I reply, lighting another cigarette.

Thorn sighs. “I was hoping to spark your interest enough to leave that out.”

“Life’s just full of disappointments.”

“Clearly. Let’s just say that two days ago, just when hair and fibre were going to come back with something, I get a call from my section command telling me to drop it. No explanation, no reasoning. Lawrence is untouchable, end of story.”

“So you need me to find something they can’t ignore.”

Thorn nods, “Or something too big to fire me for. I know there’s something he’s not telling us. I can feel it so hard it makes my tail twitch.”

“And here I thought that was just me.”

Thorn smirked, her gaze equal parts playful and speculative. She’d hooked me, she knew it, I knew it, now just came the inevitable minutiae of the agreement. ‘The Art of The Deal’ as the Old Don called it.

“Here’s my offer.” She drawled, sliding a piece of paper across the table. I raised it, deliberately keeping my expression neutral.

“Plus expenses and you have a deal. And I want copies of all the crime scene reports, as well as access.”

“Done. If you want to come down to the statio…”

“And have you blow what little plausible deniability I have left? Sod’s law, Ms Thorn. I guarantee at least one person who’s seen us together tonight is someone I’ll have to convince I’m not Jenny Law.”

“Very well then. I’ll expect regular updates.” Thorn conceded, extending her delicate hand. I took it, her grip surprisingly strong for a hand so delicate. A faint vibration, sensed rather than felt behind her skin. Expectation for… something behind her eyes. Surprise when whatever it is isn’t forthcoming.

“So it’s true.” Thorn murmurs. “You really don’t…”

“We’re done here. I’ll be in contact.” I interrupt brusquely, the convivial mood of a well-paid gig suddenly soured by Thorn’s prying intrusion.

I leave the bar, turning up the collar of my jacket against the rain. Miserable time of year. The rain seems confused, like it can’t decide between a gentle nurturing fall and a beating torrent. Welcome or Reject… Encourage or Purge… Sink or swim…

“Pick a lane” I murmur mentally to the memory of a God I’d long forsaken. The streets of the city were thick with life. It probably had a hundred names since the dawn of the twentieth century, and here, staring down the gullet of the twenty-second, a hundred more were probably waiting to be born. We humans just called it ‘The MGC’ by and large. Monster Girl City. The new hub of interaction and trade since Zipangu dropped the curtain. A filthy, musky jewel reminding those who remained of the supposed ‘United’ nations what we had decided to fight our own over. Sure, it was a cold war of propaganda, economic manipulation, loud fanatics and silent assassins, but it was a war nonetheless. Only the very young or the very stupid denied that, and only the idealists fighting for secular integration on this side of the ideological fence denied it was one they were losing by degrees.

I flag down a cab, driven nearly exclusively by pleasant, polite constructs these days after a number of enterprising Mamono realized it was kind of hard for a potential mate to escape from a moving vehicle, and the near-collapse of the small charter vehicle industry once those potentials realized they’d realized. I give her my home address, and she nods deferentially, tiny lights blinking on the pseudo-mechanical interface she’s grown on the side of her finely-boned face.

Damn… Now that was a well-paid gig that went nowhere. Constructs weren’t ‘born’ like Humans or Mamono. From what little the self-effacing creatures would divulge, they came into existence from the actions of a ‘Builder of Constructs.’ I got paid a small fortune by a client once to try and track one down, but the trail went cold this side of the metaphorical ‘Silk Curtain’ which surrounded Zipangu.

The cab pulls up outside the brown brick apartment block which squats like a disgruntled fat beast amongst its more modern neighbours. “Your destination. That will be thirty-three oh five.” The construct interrupts my wool-gathering in a soft, clement voice.

I fish a crumpled fifty from my pocket, and the construct shakes her head slightly. “No cash.”

I grunt acceptance, digging in my pants pocket for my wallet, and tapping a battered card against the insistently blinking panel on the door. A muted ‘beep’ announced the machine’s acceptance. A muttered thanks from me, a polite if indifferent acknowledgement from her, and the sloshing of tyres on the wet road as the cab and its driver set out on their whirring way to find their next customer. I tap my wrist against the smudged and scuffed access panel on the wall, and the door to the complex opens with the clanking scrape of neglectfully serviced motors.

The elevator which shudders and squeaks as it carries me up to my floor was slightly malodorous, as if something had been spilled and cleaned with only the barest attention to detail. Clearly the rumours of the landlord employing Kikimora for common-area maintenance were incorrect… “Of course, come to think of it,” I muse to myself as I open the door and hang my dripping jacket on a hook, “the poor things probably would have taken one look and died of shock.”

I grunt “On” at the dull black of a wall screen, some insistent advertisement springing to life on its surface. I ignore the eager female voice as it desperately shills some kind of consumer product, my thumb stabbing at the buttons of the small oven recessed in the wall. The phrase ‘The Order of Ilias’ jerks my attention back to the screen, as I crane my head around the side of my kitchenette in surprise. The edges of the screen are blurry, the surest sign of a transmission hijack, and a reassuring male voice urges his unseen audience to ‘Cast aside the alien influence of the demonic invaders’ and ‘Return to the loving embrace of the One True God’. Images of a photogenic human family in a lush green field, of armoured angels smiling beatifically above a crowd of enraptured human faces montage on the screen to inspiring martial music. I smirk, tapping my wrist, the earpiece in my left ear beeping softly as the call connects.

“Trent?” a husky female voice answers.

“Still got holdings in Soleil Media?”

“You’re seeing it too?”

I make a noise of affirmation. “Sell. That’s four in a month, they’ve got someone on the inside.”

“You sure? Those stocks have been tracking nowhere but skyward this quarter.”

“Have I ever been wrong?”

“There’s always a first time…” the voice murmurs uncertainly “…but thanks for the input.”

As soon as it had begun, the hijack ends, a ‘news break’ showing the opening of a new ‘Sapient Relief Centre, sponsored by the Anderson O’Connor Foundation (A subsidiary of Embassy Corp)’ now displayed. No less photogenic images of Human and Mamono couples embracing, of SecPol officers shaking hands and holding children flashes across the screen. I chuckle helplessly, heading back into the kitchenette, retrieving my simple meal from the oven.

A war of ideology indeed.

I sit on the couch for some small time after dinner, sipping absently at a bottle of beer, watching something forgettable. I was just delaying the inevitable, I knew it. Tomorrow meant departing from indulging the distressed paranoia of housewives, convinced in their loneliness that their overworking husbands ‘Simply must be cheating’, of the dull stakeouts punctuated by greasy diner food, as unhealthy as it was delicious, and of the intricate dance of convincing those engaging in petty fraud to divulge the depths of their iniquities to me.

“Off”, I sighed at the screen, setting the empty bottle on a side table before retiring to my bedroom. As the darkness envelops me, dim sounds of the city are half-heard through the open slit in my window, and the shadow of my gently billowing curtain dances on my roof, reminding me as sleep took me in her somnolent embrace, that tomorrow I took the cold hand of a new partner as I led her onto the floor… and her name was Death.

“Can’t stay with you…”

“Break off! That’s an order!”

“…Not… Holding…”

“Pull up! Pull up!”

“No!” I yelled, sitting bolt upright in bed, sheets tangled in my legs, my sweat-soaked torso heaving as the fractured terror of the rapidly dispersing nightmare faded. As the adrenaline drained, a pained thumping began behind my eyes, and I groaned as the headache drove what remained of those spectral memories from my mind. I staggered into the kitchen, palming two aspirin and chewing them dry, the bitter chemical taste a now all too familiar accompaniment to my morning ritual. The display on my oven read 0500, the cold glow filling the darkened room with eldritch light, the distant flickers of lightning illuminating the sky behind the opacity of my curtains, soft rumble of distant thunder barely heard amongst the noise of the awakening city. I thumbed my coffee machine to life, before heading towards the bathroom to wash the clammy chill of fear and sweat from my body.

I wasn’t getting any more sleep anyway.

“Fucking Kobolds” I hear the courier mutter as she passes me in the hallway. Her long, stiff ears were twitching, and she moved with what could only be described as an ‘aggressive bounce’. What was she, I wonder… Jackrabbit? Kangaroo? Not a March Hare, she was much too sane… I guess it didn’t matter, the unquestionable source of her irritation pulled my lips into an involuntary grin as I opened the door to my unassuming office, ‘Trent Private Investigations’ written in plain silver lettering on its glass surface.

“Haven’t I told you about harassing the couriers, Penny?”

The Kobold girl behind the reception desk pricked her canine ears up at the sound of her name, turning from the pile of parcels she was intently sniffing.

“Mr T!” She gushed, her expression excited as she hurried around the desk, her girlish features eager as she seized my wrist in furred appendages that were more paws than hands, and a thick, brushy tail wagged frantically behind her. “She’s up to somethin’! I just know it! Smells awful tricky, and no mistake!”

“Alright, alright, down girl.” I chuckle. “What have we got?”

“Somethin’ from SecPol, Mr T, and one from… I dunno, smells like a snake.”

“Snake eh? I’ll take care of them Penny. I want you to call Mr Ellis and Ms Richards, tell them we can’t fulfil their contracts.” I state simply, bending to scoop the parcels into my arms from atop her desk.

“They ain’t gonna like that, Mr T…” Penny replies, concern written on her face, paw absently brushing a lock of brown hair behind her pointed ear. “…They paid big money up front.”

“Someone else paid bigger.” I reply as I nudge the door to my office open with a foot. “Tell them we’ll offer a full refund of their deposit, and we won’t even charge for time already spent.”

Penny shuffles her canid feet as she lurks in the doorway behind me. “Can we afford that?”

“We can now.” I reply, pulling the tab on a document folder and handing her the top sheet, on which account numbers and purchase orders are labelled below a stern looking SecPol letterhead. “Invoice the cost against that expense account.”

“We workin’ for Jenny Law now, Mr T?”

“Don’t look at me like that Penny.” I chuckle, “It’s just another job, and I plan to dip my hand as deeply into those pockets as I can, while I can.”

“Whatever you say, Mr T…” Penny concedes, heading back out to her desk and closing the door deferentially behind her.

I set the SecPol packages aside, inspecting the one box without their postmark. Taking a penknife from my pocket, I break the seal, opening it. Within lay a bottle of scotch, and a printout of a news article, headline reading ‘Soleil Media assets seized in Terror raid’ in bold font at the top. I look over the paper, noticing a small note scrawled near the bottom. “You saved my scales, Trent…” it reads, “…a small token of thanks.”

“You’re welcome…” I murmur to the bottle as I heft it, inspecting the golden label shining up at me with pleasant surprise, before setting it in a bottom drawer. Time enough to enjoy the fruits of questionable labour once this new dance was off and moving.

Just another job, that’s all it was.

“Mr T?”

I look up, Penny has changed out of her businesswear and is now clad in a slinky red cocktail dress, a long coat over it against the weather.

“Love the outfit Penny.” I murmur sincerely. The Kobold’s face lights up with a genuine smile.

“Gee, thanks!” She gushes, before clearing her throat. “I’m heading off now, you said I could leave early today, remember?”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t expecting it to be this early. It’s only…” A pause as I look at the screen in front of me. “…Huh… Well, I didn’t realize time had gotten away from me like that.”

“Did you skip lunch again Mr T?” Penny chides, a judging look in her eyes.

“What are you, my mother?” I chuckle. “Who’s the lucky guy?”

“I dunno yet!” Penny exclaims, excitement and anticipation in her eyes “But there’s another ship comin’ in, I just know it’s gotta be my turn!”

“Trawling the refugees Pen?” I sighed.

“D-don’t say it like that!” Penny objected, a flush of pink appearing on her cheeks. “W-where else can a girl find an unattached guy these days?”

“Fair enough… I’m sorry, didn’t mean anything by it.” I apologise, hands raised in surrender “Just… be careful, kid.”

Penny gives a snort of amusement. “Yeah right, like they’d try anything I didn’t want them to.”

“They might…”

“You’re missing the point, Mr T” Penny states, raising her eyebrows at me suggestively.

“No, you are, kid.” I retort, folding my hands atop my desk and looking at her seriously. “Embassy makes no secret The MGC’s taking on more and more refugees in the hopes of boosting the number of single men. Wouldn’t be that hard for an Orderling to sneak aboard one of those ships with a backpack full of boom.”

“Honestly Mr T, you’re so paranoid sometimes, ya know?” Penny laughs dismissively, waving as she heads out the door. “Why on earth would you even think that?” She asks over her shoulder as she closes it.

“Because it’s what I’d do…” I murmur to the ghost of her laughter, picking up another photo and studying it carefully.

The wind lashed stinging rain against my face as I stepped out onto the sidewalk. Damn weather. I hoped Penny had the sense to set her trap somewhere dry tonight… But I knew better…

Silly girl.

I sighed as I headed towards the corner, looking out for a cab, and resigning myself to retrieving my no doubt drenched and devastated receptionist. A large, black car pulled up ahead of me, two imposing female figures stepping from it.

“Mr Trent?”

I tap my wrist with the rapid ease of long experience. “You’re on record, ladies, what can I do for you?”

“Boss wants to talk to you.”

“Oh really, and who would that be?”

“Won’t say while your wrist is listening. You’ll want to come with us though.” One answered, white hair wet and trailing down her crimson skin.

I’ll admit, my bump of curiosity was nagging at the rest of my mind like an eager puppy.

“It’s about your most recent client.” The other insisted, slightly shorter than her comrade, blue skin glistening in the rain.

That tipped it over. Someone well connected enough to get blue and red Oni to work together for more than five minutes, as well as know this quickly about my new gig? It was worth hearing them out at least. I nodded acceptance, sliding into the rear seat of the luxury sedan.

“This is cozy…” The red Oni murmured as she levered her muscular bulk in next to me, depths of her décolletage hiding mysteries in the dim light of the vehicle, her eyes smouldering and eager.

I chuckle as the vehicle begins to move. She was in for a disappointment.

Gravel crunched beneath my shoes as I approached the door to a stately home. Everything about this place screamed money, and lots of it. The red Oni to my left quietly fumed, her large feet kicking up divots in the unoffending roadbase.

“Would it make you feel any better if I said ‘It’s not you, it’s me?” I ventured, trying to hide the cynical amusement in my voice. If I had a dollar for every time…

“No.” The Oni spat.

“Ah.” I offered in simple reply, before taking up a much safer silence. It’s not a prudent course to annoy a jilted suitor, particularly one that could snap you in half with a simple twist and pull. The blue Oni to my right, in contrast, openly wore a grin that would put the smuggest Cheshire to utter shame.

Ah, Schadenfreude…

We approached the cathedral-like front door, which swung open to reveal a young Holstaur, nineteen, maybe twenty at a rough guess, her ample voluptuousness contrasting vividly with her cherubic, innocent features, digitigrade hooves loud on the hardwood flooring.

“Mr Trent? Please, come in. My father is waiting for you.” The Holstaur welcomed me in a sweet, girlish voice.

“Thank you, Miss…”

“I hope Olga and Ingrid weren’t too… pushy with you.” She replies, sincerity written in her large brown eyes.

My brow furrows. Did she sidestep me deliberately or did her concern cause her to disregard the question? I meet her gaze for a moment, the well-oiled machinery of suspicion in my mind whirring. “I’m being ridiculous. She’s a Holstaur. Look up non-threatening in the dictionary, there’ll be a picture of a cow-girl next to it.” I tell myself finally, the devil on my shoulder no doubt staring at me as if to say ‘You got me up for this?’

“No… No nothing unexpected.” I found myself saying. “But thank you for the concern.”

She smiles sunnily, gesturing for me to precede her into a large room, lined with bookshelves. Two high backed leather seats sit before an open fireplace which crackles happily as it casts its golden comfort over the room. A wisp of smoke from a cigar, held in a hand whose wrist was concealed by a purple smoking jacket. The hand taps at the cigar, grey ash falling silently into a brass ashtray, before withdrawing as its owner stands from the chair, turning to face me.

“Ah. Mr Trent.” The man says, his features marked with the dissipation of a reckless youth, along with the heavy jowls and solid paunch of the athletic who has let themselves go to seed. The man positively reeked of excess. “Would you care for a drink?”

“I wouldn’t turn it down, Mr…”

The man sighs, studying me with bright eyes, belying the shrewd mind behind them. “If you haven’t worked it out by now, then I’m a little disappointed in Ms Thorn’s judgement.”

I chuckle helplessly. The old bastard’s outfoxed me, and he’s trained his people well, even his daughter didn’t give the game away. I tap my wrist, shutting off the monitoring program before removing the PC and sliding it into my jacket pocket.

“I trust we can talk a little more candidly now, Mr Lawrence?” I drawl, murmuring thanks as he pours a brown spirit into two glasses before handing me one. Fishing the ever-present test-strips from my pocket, I dip one into the liquid.

“Candidly, he says…” Lawrence snickers, shaking his head.

“Force of habit, no offense.”

“None taken, and as a gesture of trust, I’ll assume that was the only recording device you have on you.”

I grimace, pressing on a small device hidden in the lapel of my jacket. “You sure know how to make a guy feel like a crook.”

Lawrence raises his glass to me wordlessly, I return the gesture, taking a sip of the spirit and feeling its warming through my mouth. It was a rich, mellow whisky, with a mild bite untarnished by peat or oak.

“That’s very nice… Tennessee?”

Lawrence shakes his head. “Zipangan”

I struggle to keep my hand steady and my face neutral. ‘Priceless’ is a word bandied about often when referring to the affectations of the wealthy, but what I held in my hand might be liquid gold. Forget priceless, this should be flat-out unobtainable.

“Very nice…” I repeat, my voice cracking. “…How did…”

“Let’s just say some good friends still appreciate what I brought to the table.” Lawrence muses, gesturing for me to sit. I do so, taking a moment to savour another mouthful of the whisky. It was indeed, very nice.

“So, Mr Lawrence…”

“Xavier, please.”

“Xavier…” I repeat “…What did you want to talk to me about? If you’re trying to scare me off the contract, you’re definitely taking an interesting way about it.”

Xavier paused, setting his glass down on a small table near the arm of his chair. “Jennifer dear…” He begins, craning his neck to face the young Holstaur still lingering near the doorway. “…would you fetch the blue file from my study?”

“Yes Daddy.” The Holstaur replies eagerly, clopping from the room and closing the door behind her.

“Darling girl, but I’m sure you can understand that there are things a father doesn’t wish his daughter to be privy to.” Xavier murmurs, fetching a lighter and re-igniting his cigar.

“Do you mind if I…” I venture, pulling out a packet of cigarettes.

“Oh please, go ahead.” Xavier replies expansively.

“Thanks. And I’m afraid I’m not familiar, but I’ll take the word of a man of the Forty-Second.”

Xavier grips the arms of his chair as if I’d just struck him, his eyes bulging and mouth agape. “How…” He gasps.

“Scar on the inside of your left wrist, ‘bout the right size for a unit tattoo. You might have turned songbird, but you used to be Order, and well placed unless I miss my guess.” I light a cigarette, taking a deep drag. “Which I rarely do, mind.”

“What do you want?”

“Stop dancing with me. You’re making a show of it but we both know you’ve got me here to let me see the fist beneath the velvet glove.”

Regaining his equilibrium, Xavier looks at me, taking another drink. “You see those photos?” he asks, gesturing at the mantle above the fireplace.

I look up, flicking the ash off my cigarette and studying the pictures. A well-built young man is shaking hands with a number of individuals, some human, some markedly not. His winning smile is the sort seen in toothpaste commercials, his build the kind used to sell hot sauce to lonely housewives. The eyes though, those eyes were unmistakable.

“You got old.” I remark.

“Time’s a vile bitch like that.” Xavier chuckles mirthlessly, taking another draw on his cigar. “I’ll not insult your intelligence by assuming you don’t recognise the others.”

“Kusanagi Keito, John Walden… The Gazer’s one of the McDavidsons but I’m not sure which.”

“Akemi, the younger.”

“Right. I don’t recognise the guy she’s with.”

“Kyle Cavendish.”

“The SecPol founder? Huh… He looks… Different.”

“Not entirely unexpected…” Xavier accedes enigmatically, gesturing at the clean-cut, almost military bearing of the officer in the photo, contrasting with the younger Lawrence’s pop-star image. “…considering the circumstances. Still, we’re avoiding the issue, and Jenny won’t be away forever. Thorn thinks I killed those women. I didn’t.”

I snub the cigarette butt out on the ashtray, downing the last of my whisky before lighting another. Exhaling slowly, I study Lawrence through the rising blue-grey haze. “I’ve never known SecPol to accuse without reason.” I remark, leaning forward on my knees.

“Would it make any difference if I told you I’d slept with her?”

I took that one in, sitting back slightly and chewing my lip in thought. “That’s definitely a factor. Still, let’s pretend for a moment that it didn’t. I’ve seen the evidence, young women, though not as young as they used to be, revered you as a mentor, some would say there was an element of hero-worship there, came here after a contact seemingly from your old office. Dropped everything. Even if you didn’t pull the trigger it’s not exactly an illogical deduction to assume you’re involved in some way.”

Xavier poured another helping of whisky for himself, and then me before I could object. “Then consider the photos. I have the closest contacts to the Powers-That-Be in Embassy Corp this side of the Silk Curtain. If I did it, I think I’m more than capable of making it go away before the inconvenience of a SecPol investigation.”

“Thorn’s Section Commander…” I ventured

Xavier made a noise of disgust into his glass as he took another drink. “…Is a feckless climber with very little sense in that pretty head of hers. In trying to curry favour she’s made things even more complicated. What did she think a bloodhound like Thorn would do when told to drop it, concede meekly? Hah. I don’t think the word ‘meek’ even exists in Pandemonean. And here I am, filling a gumshoe with a small fortune in Zipangan whisky to try and convince him that I’m Not a Killer.

I raised my glass. “For what it’s worth, it’s appreciated. The calls from your office though, getting the girls to come here…”

Xavier stood from his chair, heading to the door and locking it. “Part of what I didn’t want Jennifer overhearing. I had those calls made, but for reasons of my own.”

“Coincidence?”

Xavier shakes his head. “Her mother… Well. Let’s just say she was one of many encounters I’ve had throughout my life.”

“The last?”

“No.”

I gave a low whistle. “You’re game. Mamono are worse than Baptist street-preachers when it comes to being sore on infidelity. Believe me, it’s what keeps the lights on half the time.”

“And like Baptist street-preachers, you’d be surprised what they’re willing to ignore, given the right… stimulus.” Xavier replied without missing a beat. “It was research, I’d tell myself. Hell, I think I even convinced them halfway themselves. Then Jenny’s mother came along… I’d like to say I changed my ways but there was always another book tour, another Embassy conference… I wasn’t faithful to her, even after Jenny was born… even all the way up until…”

Xavier’s voice cracks, the only sign of true humanity he’s shown. He passes a hand in front of his eyes, suddenly nothing more than a tired old man.

“How?” I ask as gently as I can, though I’d imagine there’s no real ‘gentle’ way to twist that particular knife.

“Cerebral Edema. She went to bed early one evening with a headache and just… never woke up.”

“My condolences. Still I really don’t see how…” I pause as intuition dumps another perspective straight in my lap. “…Someone’s gotten to you, haven’t they.”

Xavier nods. “It started about twelve months ago. Incoherent e-mails from unknown senders, voicemails of heavy breathing, whispering. I took it for some kind of crank. I mean hell, I wrote erotica as a front for my activities with The Embassy, and that was after my ‘emigration’…”

“Defection”

“Did someone actually go and declare war while I wasn’t looking? The point is, Mr Trent, I had no shortage of material for the unhinged to latch onto. I shrugged it off as just part of the cost of questionably deserved fame and fortune, until someone sent me a picture of Tiffany accompanied by naught but two words: ‘I Know.”

“That’s Tiffany Maye, the first victim?”

Xavier nods. “I thought it might end there, tragic as it was. But not a week later Cindy’s photo pops up in my inbox, again, accompanied only by the words ‘I Know.’ I’m sure you’re noticing the pattern.”

“So three girls, three calls. You haven’t made the effort to reach out to any other ‘old flames’ since then?”

“I couldn’t take the risk. I’m stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, Mr Trent. Thorn’s likely got a construct plugged permanently into my upstream merrily monitoring everything that comes from me. Even a man as ‘loved’ by the Embassy as I am can become a liability, and you know what happens to those the Embassy considers a liability. All I could do was pray that whomever it was wasn’t as informed as they threatened, or that they got bored of it eventually.”

I nod wordlessly. Couldn’t contact any previous partners for fear of something politically damaging being thrown open to public scrutiny, yet couldn’t leave them to be hunted down by some deranged nutjob… It made a pretty story if nothing else.

“So. Assuming you’re telling me the truth Xavier…”

“For God’s sake Trent…”

“Again, didn’t mean anything by it, I’m a slave to the evidence. Assuming that, is there anyone else who knows about these women, and… the others?”

Xavier nods. “My Agent. Zhi Feng.”

“The Tanuki?”

“Who better?”

“Fair point at that. Will she talk to me?”

“I’ll make sure of that.”

“Thanks. No reason you might conceive that she might have to want to fuck you?”

“Oh she had reason, and opportunity. In fact she’d probably still be mad at me if I wasn’t her best client.”

What was this guy, part goat?! My jaw hung as I stared at him in disbelief. “You didn’t…”

Xavier spread his arms with a sheepish grin. “What can I say?”

A knock at the door broke our exchange. “Daddy? I have the blue file, have you finished talking about whatever it was you didn’t want me hearing?”

Xavier chuckled helplessly. “Yes Jennifer, please, come in.”

The young Holstaur unlocked the door from her side, clopping into the room and handing a blue folder to Xavier, before bending and giving him an unashamed smek on the cheek. Xavier smiled, before hunting through the folder and pulling varied records from within. Tapping them on the edge of the table, he handed them over to me.

“To demonstrate my sincerity, this is what hasn’t been released to SecPol’s systems. I will trust your discretion on this, Mr Trent. I am not without my own resources, and I will look very sternly on any lapse on your part.”

“If I land you in the shit, you’re bringing me with you?” I smirk. Xavier shakes his head seriously.

“Oh no, Mr Trent. If you land me in ‘the shit’, as it were, I shall use you as a flotation device… Face down.”

Whew. The old boy knew how to make a point. I nodded, “Understood, thanks for the drink, and the information.”

“You’re quite welcome. Jennifer will show you out.” Xavier dismissed me with a wave, once more the bored old libertine as he resumed his seat in front of the fireplace. “Oh… One last thing. You’re not the only one to recognise someone from ‘the old school’, as it were. Who were you with?”

“We Are The Dead.” I replied simply, not bothering to face him.

“I’m… Sorry.”

I shook my head. “My cross to bear.”

Jennifer looked at me speculatively as we walked in silence towards the door. “I get the feeling that was one of the things Daddy doesn’t like me hearing.”

“Do you know what it means?”

She shook her head, ivory horns like promontories in the chestnut sea of her hair.

“Then be happy with that, it’s not a pleasant thing to know.”

“If you say so, Mr Trent. I DO hope you can help Daddy. He’ll be much happier once he doesn’t have to deal with all of this. It’s putting a terrible strain on him.”

“I’ll do what I can.” I promise, a painting on the wall catching my eye, faux-oil, well rendered. Young, laughing men are running from a herd of Taurean women, naked from the waist up, also laughing as they chase their fleet-footed quarry. “Say. That’s interesting.”

“It’s the new running of the bulls at Pamplona. It’s where Mummy and Daddy met. He had it commissioned as a present after Mummy caught him being naughty… again.” She sighs with disappointment. “Mummy was always very forgiving.”

“Your father told me about your loss. My sympathies.”

“Thank you, Mr Trent. Our driver will take you wherever you need to go.” She assured as she ushered me from the house, the great wooden door closing firmly behind me. Taking a breath, I slid my PC back onto my wrist.

“Where to, sir?” The enigmatic shape of the driver asked in an echoing voice as I slid into the car. Ah hell… What kind of man employed a Shoggoth as a driver? I checked my wrist as the device powered on, it was only eight thirty. I still had a chance to rescue Penny from probable humiliation.

“Swing past the quay please.” I murmured, deliberately not meeting those weirdly glowing eyes as the oddly alluring horror next to me gave its closest approximation of a welcoming smile “I have a… friend I’d like to check in on.”

The rain fell steadily, the wind from the ocean swinging driving sheets at me as I bundled my jacket around me. The unmistakable, forlorn figure at the end of the jetty, trembling with cold and tears.

“Penny?”

The figure turned to face me, large green eyes red-rimmed as they widened with shameful recognition.

“Mr T? What are you doing here?”

“I was in the neighbourhood, thought I’d see how you were doing.”

Penny forced an unconvincing laugh “J-Just you wait! I’ve got them r-right where I wan… Right where I wan… wan…”

Her façade crumbled and she fell into me, sodden paws clinging at my jacket where she howled her disappointment.

“Come on Pen.” I murmured “Let’s get you dried off.”

The Kobold murmured acceptance as I put my arm around her, guiding her back to the car. The trip back to my apartment was quiet, save for Penny’s muted sniffling, her wet hair cold against my chest as she clung to me in the back seat of Lawrence’s sedan. A slight juggling act as I opened the door, attempts to disengage Penny from my side were met with whining, wordless protest.

“C’mon Pen, into the shower with you. I’ll have a towel and something dry for you when you’ve finished.” I cozened. Penny raised her tear-streaked face, nodding with the ghost of a grateful smile.

As I heard the shower turn on, I rummaged through my drawers, a tracksuit now too small for me, but warm and roomy for my once-vivacious receptionist. I set them out with a towel just inside the bathroom door, before hunting myself for something warm. Grabbing an old jersey and a faded pair of jeans, I towelled myself off roughly, pulling the clothes on over my still-damp frame before retiring to the couch to study the records Lawrence had given me. The dirty old bastard had a history, and no mistake. Ambassadors, Diplomats, Barmaids, Hotel cleaners…

“Who’s next, an Illian Priestess?” I murmur to myself.

“You still workin’ Mr T?” A soft voice intrudes. I look up from the records. Penny has clad herself in the tracksuit, the rear sitting low on her hips to accommodate her brushy tail.

“Just getting a feel” I reply, waving the pages briefly. “Jenny Law’s gonna be pissed, I don’t think he did it.”

“Mmm… Can we maybe talk about it tomorrow Mr T? I’m really… really tired for some reason.”

“Sure Pen. Look, it’s blowing a gale out there and there’s no sense you getting soaked a second time. Why don’t you crash out on my bed? I’ll take the couch.”

“O-okay.” Penny agreed. “C-could you sit with me a while though?”

“No funny business.” I insisted sternly. Penny shook her head vehemently.

“Tonight… Hurt. I just don’t wanna fall asleep alone, ya know?”

“Alright Pen.” I sighed, standing up and putting a comforting arm around her shoulders as we headed into the bedroom. “Alright.”

“I can’t see! Oh Ilias! I can’t see!”

“Come on soldier! Just a few more… shit!”

“Please… Please mommy! Not the dark! Don’t leave me in the dark!”

“Get ahold of yourself! We can’t be… Oh no… No! You bastards! You miserable fucking bastards!”

“Mr T!” A voice in the swarming black, clawed paws on my shoulders, the enemy. With a yell I grabbed the appendages, swinging myself atop my assailant who cried out in surprise and fear.

“Penny?” I gasped, as reality flooded in.

“Please let me go, Mr T…” The Kobold beneath me whimpered, my left hand in a vice grip on her arm and my right balled in a fist, coiled to strike.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry kid.” I babbled, releasing Penny as if she had just become red hot.

“Maou’s ample bosom, Mr T.” Penny murmured, panting slightly with the aftermath of adrenaline. “That musta been some nightmare.”

“Yeah… Sorry, I must have fallen asleep.”

“It’s OK. It was nice… Well, up until you started re-enacting a kung fu movie next to me.”

“Sorry” I repeated. “I’ll just go to the couch…”

“No.” Penny insisted, a paw on my shoulder. “Stay.”

I lay back reluctantly as Penny’s warm, furred arms wrapped around me from behind. Her sweet breath was on the back of my neck as it slowed into sleep. For anyone else this would have been soothing. For some, even arousing…

…But We Are The Dead.

“Thanks again Mr T!” Penny gushed, her return to exuberance a welcome change as she near-skipped around her desk to open the door for me, my arms burdened with document cases. “Your bed’s really comfy when you’re not fighting Dragons on it.”

“Yeah well, I’m glad you got a good night’s sleep in the end.” I reply with a helpless chuckle. “Can you make sure that appointment I mentioned is set up for after lunch?”

“That all depends.”

I raise an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Yes. I can do it for after lunch assumin’ someone here actually TAKES their lunch break!” She replies cheekily.

“Yes Mom” I sigh, rolling my eyes and heading into my office, burying myself once more in the fractal web of intrigue which consumed my days. File after file, page after page, the humming terminal consuming one data shard after another into the hidden mass of resonant crystal which comprised my server, its danger well shielded away from prying eyes and fingers.

“Mr T?”

“Yes Penny?” I murmur, rubbing eyes which throbbed from staring at a display for so long.

“It’s twelve thirty. Go to lunch.”

“In a minute Pen, I’m just going to…”

“No. Now. The appointment’s made and I’m not gonna have you yellin’ at me because you were too busy tryin’ to be a construct.” Penny declares imperiously, pointing at the door with a clawed digit.

“Thanks Pen.” I chuckle, ruffling her hair absently as I walk past.

I wave down a cab, absently giving the address to the driver as I study the sheet in my hand. Zhi Feng, agent not only to the stars, but the sun, moon, and probably a few minor nebulae if her expansive client list was anything to go by. Like most Tanuki, she judged her worth by her profit margins, and if her tax return was accurate (unlikely) I was going to be dealing with a towering ego in a few minutes.

“Your destination, Sir” The construct at the wheel pipes up, bringing me from my reverie. I murmured thanks, tapping a card against the panel on the doorframe which emitted the familiar beep as the fare was deducted. The building before me was a modern monstrosity of shining glass and steel, clawing defiantly at the heavens. I took a deep breath before heading inside.

“Can I help you sir?” The smiling, surprisingly human woman at the front desk greeted me.

“Name’s Trent. I have an appointment with Zhi Feng?”

“Oh yes, Mr Trent. She asked me to send you straight up. Third floor, second door on the right. Have a nice day!”

I nod, smiling thanks as I head towards the bank of elevators, dodging Humans and Mamono all rushing hither and thither in the pointed manner of those who wish to be seen to be doing something terribly important. Step into the elevator, murmur “Three please” at a young man in an ill-fitting suit, who is all but leaning on the panel, sigh and push him aside to punch it myself when he ignores me. Stare down his indignation until he shuffles his feet and stares intently at his wrist.

It’ll be a cold day in a Lamia’s bedroom before I let some jumped up entry-level corporate cocksucker give me shit.

Bell-tone as we reach the third floor, pretend not to notice the alp-bait pretending not to be relieved that I’m leaving. The hall is quiet… surprisingly. An office as busy as Zhi Feng’s, I’m expecting a lot more life than this. I spy a note on the front desk. “Boss wants the place clear, management’s picking up the tab on an ‘extended lunch’ at springtails” it reads in hasty scrawl, a scribbled smiley face underneath.

Well… That answers that question… The next question was, what concerned her so much that she’d empty her office just for my appointment?

“Hello?” I called, walking through the office and peering into the empty rooms. The quiet was unnerving, like the building was holding its breath. I spied the glow of a terminal through the crack in the door of a corner office. I nudged the door open, the sight it revealed stopping me in my tracks like a physical wall.

The Tanuki lay on her desk, legs sprawled inelegantly, a shoe clinging to an uncaring foot whilst its mate lay on the ground. Her pencil skirt was hiked up slightly, and with a slight perversity I noticed she was wearing a pair of lacy black panties beneath it. Dark blood dripped steadily off the desk, wet, twin circular holes below her ample breasts against the dark fabric of her jacket, so neat as to almost excuse missing them at first glance. Her pale face stared upwards in surprise, the dead eyes open and unfocused, hands splayed to her sides, the thick, fluffy tail at her rear now soaked and dripping crimson. I felt my hands begin to shake, my mouth suddenly dry.

This was a problem.

This was a big fucking problem.

“Close your eyes Trent. Good. Three deep breaths…” The calm, methodical part of my mind whispered to the chaotic miasma of my thoughts. I tap my wrist, starting the recording. “…Now open them and tell me what you see.”

“Victim suffered massive trauma to the ribs and sternum, posture indicates impact from the open door here. Lack of defensive wounds indicates surprise.” I mutter to the empty air. “Looks like number four.”

“Don’t speculate. Stick with only what you see.”

“Papers on the desk are disturbed, clearly sifted through after the fact… wait. That book in the shelf there.”

I edge around the sticky pool of crimson, taking a handkerchief from my pocket and easing the book from the shelf. It falls open, revealing a hidden compartment cut from its pages. Something drops to the ground, an envelope bearing a single word, a word which fills me with a sudden complete and overwhelming relief.

‘Trent’

I quickly pocket the envelope, sliding the book back into the shelf. The body would be found soon and it probably wouldn’t help my case to be found with it. That being said I’d raise more suspicion if I didn’t at least try and contact Thorn…

“Freeze!” A harsh shout barks out from behind me. “Hands where I can see them!”

Ah, yep, should have seen that coming. Stupid.

“Easy there…” I reply, raising my hands slowly.

“Turn around!”

I obey, coming face to face with the blue hair and pointed, fuzzy ears of a Raiju, clad in the black glossiness of a SecPol uniform. Her delicate, girlish features are set in a glowering expression, a laughable attempt at intimidation. The coherent ball of lightning arcing and snapping in her raised fist, however, is much more successful in that regard.

“My name is Trent. I’m a private investigator under contract to SecPol…”

The Raiju almost laughs “That’s a new one…” She snickers, before her face hardens again. “On the ground. Now.” She orders.

“That won’t be necessary, stand down officer.” A new voice intrudes, as Ms Thorn’s curvaceous frame comes into view.

“Ms Thorn.” I murmur, pausing where I was in the process of sinking to my knees. “Thank you, you’ve saved me from getting claret on my good pants.”

“Oh, don’t thank me yet Mr Trent.” Thorn muses sweetly, before the body catches her attention. “His agent? This is a little surprising.”

“It’s a right bitch is what it is. I had an appointment with her.”

“He’s telling the truth then ma’am?” The Raiju asks deferentially, extinguishing the arcing plasma in her hand. Thorn nods, a smile on her lush lips which doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“For now, at least…” She concedes. “Secure the scene and call forensics. I don’t think we’ll get anything new out of this one, but we can live in hope.”

I chuckled at her pragmatism. “Plus as an official crime scene you can rifle through all kinds of things marked ‘confidential’, am I right?”

“We must be thorough, Mr Trent. I assume you had the good sense not to touch the body.”

I directed a level stare at the Succubus, secretly glad she was so specific with her statement. I didn’t know if she had any ability to divine thoughts and the envelope in my pocket suddenly felt like it weighed ten pounds. I knew Succubi were of the ‘despicably talented’ brand of magic user, but they usually kept the full extent of their abilities pretty hush. Understandable, when Mass Media was so eager and willing to be a two edged sword.

“The hell kind of moron do you think I am, Thorn?” I asked incredulously, forcing a hint of mild indignation into my voice.

“Can’t play favourites.” She replied with a smug grin.

“Touché… so. Am I free to…”

“Go?” Thorn finished for me “Not quite. What was the appointment about?”

“Who else would know your suspect better than her?”

Thorn nodded. “And you expected her to talk?”

“She accepted the appointment didn’t she?”

“Fair point… So. I’m assuming you didn’t get anything out of her?”

I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Ms Thorn, I came in here, the front desk was told to expect me, the office was empty. I found her like this. You now know all I know about this situation.”

“Mmm…” Thorn mused, absently brushing a strand of violet hair behind an ebon horn before pulling a latex glove onto her hand. “You’ll have to make a statement, and I want you to be printed by forensics before you leave.”

I give a gallows sigh. “Of course.”

“Mr T!” Penny exclaims as I burst through the door of the office. I grunt a greeting at the Kobold, hurrying to my office and tearing open the envelope with shaking hands. A data shard falls into my palm, and I take a breath, studying the irregular matrix before inserting it into the reader.

“So… What happened?” Penny ventures, staring at me from the doorway.

“Dead.” I grunt, opening my bottom drawer and retrieving the bottle of scotch gifted to me the previous day. “Did you take my glasses Penny?”

“Dead?!” Penny echoes in shock “W-What d’ya mean ‘dead’, Mr T?”

“Just what I said. Zhi Feng is no more. She has expired. She has ceased to be. She has run down the curtain and joined the damn choir invisible… Ah… Here they are. Stop looking.” I pour myself a healthy measure and down it in one draught, making a face as the liquor chastises me for abusing it so. I quickly pour another glass, scrolling through the contents of the shard. Oh shit on me… this contained not only the list which Lawrence had given me, but three separate SecPol officers, as well as a magistrate and…

“Fucking hell” I breathed, recognising the face of the waitress who had served Thorn and myself in the bar the other night. “Sod’s law indeed…”

“Mr T…” Came Penny’s timid voice from the doorway. I glance up and pause, glass in my hand.

Penny has opened the front of her jacket, which she now slides from her shoulders, leaving herself bare, apart from a set of lingerie which could only be described as ‘racy’. Her modest bust strains against a low-cut brassiere, darker colour of the areolae barely hidden against the lace fabric. The fur on her paws and forearms ends at the elbow, likewise her canid legs are hairless above the knee. Part of me always wondered about that. Always wondered, despite…

“You’ve been workin’ real hard. You’ve been through a lot today, y’know? Maybe you should… Take some time to relax?” She offers, sauntering over to my desk and resting her paws on my shoulders, her cleavage on prominent display below her smouldering eyes and moist lips.

“Penny…” I murmur, raising my arms to push her off me.

“Shhh… Don’t you worry Mr T…” She cozens, her legs straddling me as she sits in my lap “…I’ll be real nice to you.”

“Don’t…”

“W-why not?” She demands, suddenly hurt by my recalcitrance. “Ain’t I pretty Mr T?”

“Of course you are Pen. It’s just…”

“Then shut up and let me take care of you…” The Kobold insists, fondling at my crotch insistently, almost roughly, her mouth busy on my neck and ear. Resigned, I let her make her attempt, sitting back and waiting for her to realize the obvious. Within a minute or so, she sits back, her face a mixture of puzzlement and hurt.

“Why ain’t you…”

“Responding?” I ask, giving a sigh and gently easing her paws from my shoulders, holding the softly furred appendages in my own hands. “Why couldn’t you have found a nice boy to seduce, Pen? Why’d you have to make a pass at me? You were the one person I never wanted to hurt.”

“You think I was serious with all those times on the docks? I thought if y’thought you were gonna lose me, you’d realize how I felt! Dammit Mr T, I Love Y…”

“Don’t Pen. Don’t say it.” I interjected sharply “You’ve got access to all my files, and I know you’ve gone looking. What do you know about me from before?”

“You weren’t a refugee…” Penny begins, her natural inquisitiveness winning out over the lust and hurt. “…You just kinda… Showed up.”

“I was Order, Pen. And the Order has a very direct way of making sure the agents they send into Mamono territory don’t become ‘assets’ to the enemy. Before you leave, they give you a shot, which serves a dual purpose of improving reaction time and analytical ability, as well as leaving you as dead as a doornail from the waist down.”

We Are The Dead…

“T-that doesn’t make any sense!” Penny cried, still clinging to hope “Why would The Order do a chem-job on their own? Humans gotta breed too!”

“In theory you get the antidote when you get back.”

“There you go, Mr T! We can get a hold-a that antidote, I know we can! Then we can be tog…”

“The antidote’s a lie, Pen.”

“How do you…”

I take her in my arms, holding her to me gently “Because they only gave us enough fuel for a one-way-trip.”

W-we’re not going home, are we LT?

No… No we’re not.

I let her cry in my arms for a moment before gently extricating myself. Time enough to resolve this later.

Right now I had lives to try and save.

“Nikki?” I asked, approaching the Human woman who had just finished handing a beer the size of my head to a hulking Amazon.

“Yeah hon?” Nikki replied absently, and I took a moment to study her. She was a pretty one, though not as young as I originally thought from my brief observation the other night, light laugh lines webbing out from the corner of her eyes.

“My name’s Trent. I was wondering if you had a minute?”

“I’m flattered, but I’m just here to work.”

I give an involuntary bark of laughter. Nikki pauses, studying me through lowered eyebrows. “Something funny?”

“Oh… No, just… weird day. It’s actually about a mutual acquaintance.”

Recognition dawns in her eyes, and with it, a mild suspicion. “You’re the guy I saw talking to Jenny Law the other day.”

“I’m a PI; I talk to a lot of people. I’m not scoping you out or anything, like I said, it’s about a mutual acquaintance.”

“Uh huh… Does this acquaintance of ours come with a name?”

“Professor Lawrence.”

That got a reaction, her eyes widened and her grip on the glass she was pouring tightened so that I thought it would surely break in her hand. She leaned closer to me. “My break’s in fifteen, meet me out back.” She murmured, before pouring two fingers of whiskey into a glass. “On the house.” She said with a wink, sliding the glass across to me. I pulled a test strip from my shirt pocket, dipping it into the glass, eliciting a chuckle and a helpless shake of the head from Nikki.

“Can’t play favourites.” I drawl, raising the glass in a toast to the barmaid.

I stub out the cigarette on the concrete, turning the collar of my jacket up against the light drizzle which had begun falling around me. Suddenly, the door flew open, and Nikki came tumbling through, arms windmilling as she fell into me.

“Nikki? You alright?” I begin, my breath catching in a sharp hiss as I spy the gushing holes in her torso. A font of bright crimson bursts from her mouth and she grabs my jacket, staring at me with incomprehension.

“Pamplona…” She gurgles, more blood drenching her face and spilling across my jacket, before with a rattling sigh, her eyes roll back in her head and her body goes limp.

Pamplona? What on earth did that have to do with…

Oh…

Oh no…

“The New Running of the Bulls…” the sweet, girlish voice of Lawrence’s daughter echoed in my mind. “…Daddy was naughty… again…”

“Oh fuck me…” I gasp, tapping at my wrist frantically “Hello? I need Urgent medical assistance and SecPol attendance at three-twenty…”

A sudden impact on the back of my head sent a sea of stars into my eyes, before blackness overwhelmed me.

“Urghhh…” I groaned, my head throbbing as consciousness re-asserted itself. Blinking, I studied the bare metal and concrete around me, luffing of plastic sheeting in the gusting wind which blew its cold mockery all around.

“Hello? Who’s there?” A nervous voice queried. I tried to stand, only to discover I was securely tied to the chair I was sitting on. “Answer me!” the voice demanded, and suddenly I recognised it.

“Xavier?” I croaked, my throat and mouth dry.

“Trent?!” Lawrence replied incredulously “Get me out of this and I will make you a disgustingly wealthy man.”

“Tied to a chair, Lawrence, not really in a position to help” I replied, straining my neck to try and catch a glimpse of the man. There he was, bound in a position similar to mine, though naked as a newborn, his flabby, pale flesh shivering in the cold wind. “Listen, see if you can…”

“Now now, naughty boys, there will be none of that!” A girlish voice interrupted, clopping of digitigrade hooves on the concrete. Sure enough, my suspicions were confirmed as Jennifer, Lawrence’s Holstaur daughter sauntered between us, her rich brown hair matted with blood, her ivory horns caked with flaking gore.

“Jennifer?!” Lawrence cried in horror and disbelief. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve been naughty, Daddy. Just like you were with Mummy. It’s not your fault though; those whores turned your head. I had to do something… Had to stop them from taking you away from me…”

“Jenny, you’re my little girl, why would I ever…”

“You never did what you were supposed to. It was supposed to be so simple! Mummy goes away, and you come to me. Me. Me. Me!” The Holstaur continued, stomping a hoof and waving her arms before straddling Lawrence’s bound form. “But it’s OK now… All of the whores here are gone, and you won’t be calling any more, will you daddy? You can have me now, and you won’t be naughty any more, will you?”

“Jenny no! Think about what you’re doing!” Lawrence pleaded, his voice high with fear and revulsion.

…I guess there was a limit to his debauchery, after all. Good to know, in a way.

“You won’t walk from this, Jennifer.” I stated, licking my lips and trying to force some moisture into my throat. “If I can figure it out, Thorn’s just a few steps behind me.”

“Mr Trent, I don’t know what you’re talking about! After all…” She mused, tossing a cruelly pointed weapon into my lap, its curved, circular blade almost an identical match for her horn “…You killed those women.”

“You think I can’t give them proof?” I chuckle, though my heart was hammering in my chest like a caged bird.

“We’re nineteen stories up, Mr Trent. I don’t think after that fall, you’ll be telling them much of anything. They’ll find the confession in your office, the Order Assassin suddenly overcome with guilt at killing so many innocent women.”

“How…”

“We Are The Dead… A rather unique catchphrase, given to only a few elite commando units of the Illian Temples. Did you think me an idiot?”

My mind worked frantically as she forced Lawrence into a kiss, something about the way she was moving… deliberate, yet now her legs were shaking from more than just desire.

“You’re sick, Jennifer.” I yelled

“Takes one to know one, Orderling.” Jennifer spat, breaking the kiss.

“No. Really. That shaking that keeps happening? It’s Creutzfeldt–Jakob… Mad Cow… Think about it, would any other Holstaur do what you’ve done?”

Jennifer stood from where she was straddling Lawrence, stomping over and striking me across the face with surprising force. The copper taste of blood was in my mouth, and I spat onto the concrete.

“You just don’t understand! Nobody Loves Daddy like I do! NOBODY!” She bellowed, before raising her hands to her head.

“They’ll only get worse, those headaches. They’ll kill you eventually… Or you’ll forget how to breathe and drown in your own fluids.” I continued “You can get help. There’s a cure…”

“Shut up! All of you! Shut up!” She yelled “I hear you whispering over there! You won’t take Daddy from me!”

“The voices aren’t real, Jennifer!” I yelled, trying to break through her psychosis. “Let us go. We can help you! There are… provisions, legal ones. We can explain what’s happened to SecPol…”

“Just hand yourself over! It’s all for the best…” Jennifer giggled madly, fixing me with rolling eyes. “…You really are a terrible Investigator, Mr Trent, if that’s the best argument you can come up with.”

Dim sounds of sirens… Almost here, just a few more minutes…

“…But I think it’s time you learned to fly.” The Holstaur mused, almost sweetly, pawing at the concrete before lowering her head and charging at me.

“Last knot loosened, swing arms free, lower centre of mass. Pull chair around, brace front legs on floor. Aim for midsection, Holstaur skull too thick to attempt to daze from front on, left leg poised to strike weak point on ankle… move Trent, MOVE!” I ordered myself, having now worked free of the amateur knots which had bound me. Her head lowered and a frighteningly intimidating bellow building in her chest, Jennifer didn’t notice my movements. I tensed for the impact…

…Suddenly, a pale form placed itself between us, Jennifer’s impact driving breath from its lungs, lifting it off the ground before collapsing beneath its unexpected weight.

“Xavier!” I yelled in shock and dismay.

“Nononononono Daddy no!” Jennifer shrieked as she held the mortally wounded man to her breast, keening and wailing in mad grief.

“So Sorry…” Lawrence choked around the blood rapidly filling his ruined lungs. “Failed you… Jen…”

“Fuck!” I yelled, kicking at the chair which clattered to the edge of the concrete, teetering there before plunging into empty space. “You fat old lecher! I had it in hand, why did you have to decide to be a hero?”

“Still… Got it…” Lawrence burbled with a weak smile, before the light faded from his unfocused eyes, blood dribbling from his slack-jawed face.

Jennifer kissed his bloody mouth softly, before standing to face me, crimson smeared across her lips.

“If you know what I was Jen, you know what I can do. Come along quiet like, now.”

“For what? A cure? A life in an institution? A comfortable cage? What life have I without him in it?” The Holstaur laughed, her eyes still crazed. “WE Are The Dead now, Trent.”

With a cry, she lunged at me. Without a thought, I sidestepped her blind charge, and she followed the path of the chair, arms and legs windmilling where they suddenly found only air beneath them, insane laughter fading before becoming silent against the howling wind.

I sighed, collapsing into Lawrence’s vacated chair.

“Trent?” came the echoing sound of Thorn’s voice, the urgent clomping of booted feet and cloven hooves on the service starwell. I started laughing helplessly.

“Too late, Ms Thorn. Too late…”

“The Holstaur…” Thorn stated disbelievingly.

“They’ll find Nikki’s blood on her horns. Lawrence’s too.” I answered, wincing slightly as speech pulled at the butterfly binding my split mouth.

“And that pig-sticker?”

“A distraction.”

“How?”

“Mad Cow…” I sighed. “I knew it had made the jump to Humans, but Mamono being what they are… I never thought…”

“Odd that nobody caught it. Still, how did she manage it?”

“Who’d suspect her?”

Thorn nodded her agreement of that fact. “That being said, this is all working out conveniently neatly for you, Mr Trent.”

I grimace, throwing back the whiskey in front of me. “Subpoena my records. Fuck. Just go to my office and have Penny give you everything there. I don’t care, he’s dead now, it ain’t gonna mean shit to his corpse.”

“Oh, we have. And there’s some… Interesting material there, Mr Trent. You’re not officially under suspicion of anything, but if I were you, I wouldn’t leave town.”

“Course not.” I snicker. “Where would I go?”

Thorn’s perfect lips curled in a smile as she sipped at the glass of wine in her long-fingered hand. “A defected Order Commando with a fake identity. Where indeed?”

“Thompson.”

Thorn paused, her delicate brow furrowing. “Come again?”

“Liam Thompson. That’s my real name. Look it up, you’ll see why I left it behind.”

Her eyes widened in surprise, “How very… forthcoming of you, Mr Thomp…”

I shake my head. “It’s Trent. And I’m done. No more SecPol, no more criminal cases. I’m staying with tax fraud, paranoid housewives, and stolen jewellery from now on.”

Thorn sighs. “Probably for the best” She agrees, before leaning in and pressing her lips softly to my cheek, her perfume yelling in my nostrils “And mine’s Ellamere”

“I know.” I murmur, and she pulls back with a look of surprise.

“How…”

“Look it up,” I insisted “The Embassy interrogated me when I defected. If you know the right strings to pull, which I’m sure you do, you’ll see, and when you do, you probably won’t be kissing me again…”

She nods, slightly uncertain now, before giving an ‘Oh’ and reaching into a pocket. “This was on Miss Penny’s desk. It was addressed to you. Goodbye, Mr Trent, we’ll be in touch.”

I open the letter as she slides from the booth, folding the tear-stained paper out and reading. It was from Penny. She professed her love effusively, promising me that she’d find an antidote to the Order’s castratative serum, and wouldn’t be back until she did. I held the letter for a moment, lost in thought. Part of me hoped she’d find someone nice, that her memory of me would fade and she’d give up, beckoned by the promise of a new life. And yet… a tiny part of me, the atrophied remains of youthful idealism, dared to hope that she’d be successful.

Still, it was a pointless exercise, and first things came first. I had to find a replacement for my receptionist. I folded the letter, sliding it into my pocket, the sound of a glass being placed in front of me bringing me back to reality.

“Hi!” The youthful face before me grinned, as a goat-horned Mamono slid into the booth, dim shadow of cloven hooved, woollen legs kicking beneath the table.

“What are you, twelve?” I exclaim in disbelief “What are you doing hitting on guys in a bar?”

“Hitting… on you?” The goat-girl replied with a look of amusement “You wish. I’m here to deliver something.”

“Oh yeah?” I drawl, dipping a test strip into the drink before me. “What’s that then, kid?”

“Urgh. You can do away with the ‘kid’ thing. I’m much older than I look.”

I nod, comprehension dawning. “You’re a Baphomet.”

“Uh Huh!” The Baphomet grinned, digging in the satchel slung across her petite frame. “Wanna Mango?”

I chuckle, accepting the ripe yellow-orange fruit she passes me, its skin sticky with nectar. Pulling out a penknife, I slice off a portion, popping it into my mouth eagerly, my stomach reminding me that I haven’t eaten yet today. “Mmmm… That’s good. Shame you don’t see too many of these around.” I remark, swallowing it and slicing off another portion.

“My Papi’s real proud of ‘em. Which brings me to why I’m here.” The Baphomet replied, folding her delicate hands on the table in front of her.

“Papi? That, er…” I trail off, gesturing suggestively. The Baphomet looks at me levelly.

“What do you think?” She drawls, a slightly lecherous grin on her bowlike mouth.

“Not sure I want to know, no offense. Still, what are you chasing?”

“Well… You.” The Baphomet replies. “You were real hard to find. It was only this recent thingy you did for Jenny Law which let me get a handle on you at all.”

“Figures.” I murmur, eating another slice.

“Uh huh… Papi’s real upset with you. Selling him out so you could disappear like that. Even after he ditched that dreary Order stuff and I fixed his bits, he was still mad as hell about it.”

“Fixed his…” I gasp, a slice of mango halfway to my mouth “…Your ‘Papi’… He’s…”

“Yeah, you get it, no need to say his name.”

“What’s he after? Money?” I ask, eating the mango slice but keeping the knife out. “A fight? Am I gonna run into a pack of ogres on the way out?”

“Nah. He just wants you dead.” The Baphomet replied nonchalantly “Me personally I don’t see the point, he’s got me, and the house, and the trees…”

“That a fact? If he wants me dead, why are you telling me about it?” I ask in a low voice, gradually turning the knife into a combat hold.

“Because you’re already dead, silly!” The Baphomet giggles. “And that knife won’t even touch me, so don’t cause a scene by trying.”

“Already dead…” I echo, looking down at the half-eaten mango in my hand.

“You’re real thorough at testing your drinks, but people don’t offer you food much, do they?”

I shake my head, a helpless laugh escaping my mouth. “How long?”

“About five minutes. Papi wanted it to be slow and lingering but between us I don’t like that stuff, it’s yucky. In fact if Papi didn’t want it so bad I wouldn’t be here at all.” The Baphomet sighs dreamily, a distant look in her eyes. “He does have a way of getting a girl to do what he wants. But let’s call that our little secret. What Papi doesn’t know can’t hurt him! Buhbye, Mr Trent!” The Baphomet replies cheerfully, sliding out from the booth and skipping out of the bar on dainty, cloven hooves.

I fold up the penknife, sliding it back into my pocket and picking up the drink in front of me. A thought struck me, and I laughed, coughing slightly before taking a sip of the whiskey, the first hinting spasms of my failing heart beginning to flutter in my breast.

You never hurt for a drink in The MGC.

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6 thoughts on “The Sweetness of Poisoned Fruit”

  1. Holy. Shit.

    That ending was unexpected and, well, like Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes. Awesome. I should go through the rest of your stuff too.

  2. I don’t get how the street confrontation worked – if Nikki fell into Trent’s arms, that means he was facing the door she came through, right? So Jennifer had to have gored Nikki inside the bar, then ran outside and around it to get behind him before Nikki came through the door? And despite being a trained commando with hopped-up reflexes who’s seen death multiple times before, Nikki’s revelation rattles Trent so much it allows Jennifer to sneak up on him and clock him one?

    That aside, I love noir-style stories and enjoyed this a whole bunch – there’s something about how he always checked his drinks b/c they related to sex which he couldn’t do anymore, but completely let his guard down with food (an orange-ish food, which spells trouble to those in the know) that really tickles me.

    1. >Nikki

      Trent was standing in front of the door yet far enough forward the swing didn’t hit him, so when nikki fell backwards she was heading past him slightly, turning his body so his back was to the door when they went to ground, but I didn’t think anyone would pay that much attention.

      >Shock

      A Holstaur actively MURDERING in this universe (as outlined by the ‘dictionary… non-threatening’ quip when trent first meets her) is nearly unheard of. You have to piss them off royally or be presenting a clear threat to their person for them to get violent. It’s the reveal of the completely unfathomable as well as the realization that the fox is in the henhouse with regards to Lawrence which locks him up long enough to get sapped.

      >Drinks vs food

      I was hoping someone would pick up on that. 🙂

  3. Not my kind of story (I think that life is already sad and dark, so I don’t enjoy stories with bad endings) but it was very well written, and it didn’t felt that bad when I realized this was going to have this kind of ending.

    Thanks for the story, I guess. I still prefer the other stories I’ve read about this same universe though, lol

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