The outside formal gathering was coming to its climax when a courier stepped in, squirming through the crowd. Crowe stood up from his plush chair on the stage as his name was called, brimming with confidence and bluster, like a peacock on display.
“I will now present!” the crier boomed over the crowd in a theatrical voice... “The Medal of Valor and the Citizen of the Year Award – an unprecedented two titles – to our favorite Detective Crowe Anatole!” The crowd roared and cheered like a rolling tide.
“These medals are given for his unprecedented discovery and dissolution of no less than five cults related to the Legion, the capture and imprisonment of fifty-five high-ranking Legion members and the solving of forty-three murders related to warfare, armed robbery and arson in just this year alone.”
Crowe Anatole beamed. He was tall, handsome, with close cropped blonde hair and a winning smile. He stepped up to take the medallion, just as the courier elbowed his way to the front of the crowd.
“SIR!” he yelled out to be heard.
Crowe ignored him, shaking the Captain’s proffered hand.
“SIR! Detective Anatole!” the courier yelled again.
Anatole frowned, stooping down from the stage looking profoundly annoyed.
“What is it?” he groused. “Is this the time?”
“Priority 1, sir. From Swain.” Crowe froze, deflating like a popped balloon. Then hesitantly asked,
He vaulted from the stage, to a roaring applause and more yells of accolades from the crier on stage, the captain clapping along with them.
“And to more important business Detective Anatole immediately goes! His sense of duty knows no bounds.”
“Shut up,” he said under his breath, shoving through the crowd. But not loud enough for anyone to hear. “Make way!” he called. And the people parted, as Crowe and the courier scurried out of the crowd into the gathering gloom.
The courier parted down a side-street, but Crowe walked, in his full-dress uniform, down to a deserted-seeming part of the encampment. Coming to a non-descript building, he ducked inside.
Someone stood in the gathering gloom from a chair in the corner, voice deep and resonate.
Crowe swallowed. “Commander Swain.”
He stood silent a moment. Then said, “There’ve been disappearances … disturbances, of late. We’re sure their linked to the Legion. More than before. This is big. Victor Pendrake is putting together a team. He needs the best.”
Crowe gasped. His hands trembled. “No,” he whispered.
“From our ranks, Lt. Anders has put forward Sylene...”
“No no no,” Crowe said catching his breath, stiffening.
“And he’s made the request that you deliver the missive to her, requesting her presence, in one month’s time.”
Crowe held up a shaking hand, sweating now.
“W-Wait – why me?”
Swain gave a slow, lazy smile. “You know why. Besides, he simply told me, it had to be you. Therefore you, it is.” He thumped a heavy envelope against his chest. Smiled. And melted into the shadows of the night.
The second floor was metallic. It looked as if the wood had been hastily attached to the metal sheeting of some building after it was destroyed – a building the Alliance had raised when they had first taken this area. The long hallway was deserted and he walked – cautiously – past gaps in the ceiling into a corner of the building that was actually not yet destroyed.
He stopped in front of a wooden door, breathing deeply. The outside of the hallway in front of the door was pock marked with scalloped gouges and holes in the metal wall and floor, along with deep burn marks and blackened soot spreading outward, as if a bomb had exploded from this room in times past. Maybe it had. But who knows what had caused the weird pock marks that littered the floor, walls and ceiling.
“Sylene?” he called in a tremulous voice.
A knife edge sprouted from the door, glistening silver in the faint light near his temple, and Crowe jumped back in alarm.
“Sylene! It’s me! Crowe Anatole.”
“I know,” said an ominous voice. The silence stretched and a bead of sweat dripped from his nose as he waited. The voice spoke. “Do you want to come closer?”
“Sylene, Lt. Anders and Commander Swain sent me.”
The silence stretched again. Another knife blade spouted through the door with a THOCK and Crowe jumped. “What could you possibly have to say to me, liar.”
“I’m NOT, I-I’m not lying.” Stuttering, he pulled out a sheet of folded paper from his breast pocket. “I have an official brief! Right here!” He waved it about as if she could see.
“Very well. Enter. If you dare.” He put a shaking hand against the doorknob.
“Don’t kill me, ok? Just – let me deliver this and I’ll be out of your way.”
He swung the door open. His eyes immediately began watering and he rubbed a hand over his sweaty face, trying not to stare. The air smelled acrid and tinged with smoke. Sylene sat at a table directly across from the door, wires, casings, bottles and tools strewn over the table in what looked like a pattern. She looked up, dark, black eyes glittering malevolently. Crowe simply swallowed and quickly shut the door behind him, avoiding the knife hilts sprouting from it.
The left side of the room looked to contain some sort of bunker or bank vault. The right held shelves full of bottles without number, paraphernalia – flasks, tubes, bags of grit and materials of some kind, bubbling concoctions on a portable stove to one side. And shelves of knives. And rows of what Crowe could only assume to be grenades. Everywhere that didn’t contain a bottle, a knife or a grenade held a clock. Clocks on the walls. Clocks on the floor. A clock on the table. The room was full of the soft cacophony of ticking. It made Crowe nervous. Like everything was a bomb about to go off.
“Well?” Sylene said, putting her hand inside her coat pocket. She looked like a scare crow, all angles, dark, lean and tall.
Crowe held up a hand with his paper at once – as if it were poisonous – and placed it gingerly in front of her between the rows of casings she was fiddling with. Sylene tied a wire together between the three of them, cutting it with her teeth. She slid the paper over to herself. Opening a drawer in front of her desk, she pulled out a bottle and a dropper. Carefully, she dripped some of a clear substance onto the sheet of paper, watching it beadily. After a second, it bubbled and fizzed, turning a smoky green.
She spat to the side, a look of disgust crossing her gaunt features.
“Of course,” Crowe said.
“Shut up,” she gestured at him with her tool spanner, other hand disappearing inside her coat pocket again. Crowe swallowed, but she only brought out a pen, and carefully, signed the missive he had put in front of her. She read it.
Her eyebrow went up.
“Team for Victor Pendrake.” She snorted. “Swain knows I don’t DO teams. Tell him to find someone else.” She glanced at Crowe. “Nice shiny medal.”
Crowe looked down at his chest were he was stilling wearing the Medal of Valor and immediately blushed a crimson red and looked away.
“We both know I don’t deserve it.”
“Mmm.” Sylene said, in mocking tones. “Humility from Crowe?”
If possible, Crowe turned redder still. “Look Sylene, you have to do this.” He turned around, and seeing a plush-looking easy chair in the corner – looking out of place amidst the ticking clocks, he sat down, as if refusing to budge. Sylene cracked a smirk of a smile.
Crowe eyed the table beside his new found chair. Covered with bottles, one stood out to him. A decanter hip flask with the top askew. It reeked of gin and printed in bolded black letters were the words, “I dare you.” He pointed to it.
“Why don’t you drink it and find out?” she grinned at him wickedly.
Crowe folded his arms, ignoring the flask and sighed. He fidgeted. Sylene stared at him.
“What is your argument?”
“If you don’t do this …” he swallowed. “Swain will make me do it. And we both know I can’t.”
She snorted. “He wouldn’t dare.”
“Says this packet of information,” he waved the thick envelope over his head. “On page 11 – “ Sylene snatched it from his hand.
“You OPENED it?” she breathed out, eyes dripping with venom.
“It wasn’t sealed,” he said lamely. She turned from him and pilfered the contents – but carefully, pulling out each sheet – testing it with her clear fluid, and peering at the paper against a lamp, maybe looking for a watermark? That’s what Crowe assumed. He shifted uncomfortably.
“Idiots,” she huffed.
“Does that mean you’ll do it?” he asked.
She stared at him with venomous hate again, so that he flinched, her eyes lingering briefly on the medal, a sneer turning up her lips.
“Yes. Doesn’t seem I have much choice.”
He paused, stood up. “Can I … go?”
She looked up.
“Sure. Tell Swain I’ll report as he orders.” She thrust a lemon at his chest, shaking it at him. He took it, looking confused.
“A remedy. For explosive diarrhea.”
His eyes widened. “What?”
“My chair is poisoned, you nit-wit. I keep it that way for anyone stupid enough to sit in it.”
He yelped, looking panic stricken, and fled from the room.
Sylene smirked. She tied off a few more wires. Then read the entirety of the package with far more interest in her dark eyes than she would have anyone believe.