Office Hours: Tuesday at the Office (Part Three)

Tuesday, 6FEB2018, 1517 Local Time (0117 AZT)

The coffee bar would be lovely, if it weren’t for all the fucking people in it. It’s a warm, welcoming space, lots of hardwood in the construction, plenty of natural light, but it’s too small for all the people in it, at least as far as I’m concerned. Never understood the affection for populated, noisy spaces. Charlotte tried to explain it to me, the energy of a public space, the combination of ten or twenty individual lives into what she saw as the perfect background noise for just about anything. I’d try to explain that the noise was nothing but noise, and it didn’t combine into anything but an ugly jumble of half-audible sentences and incomplete thoughts. It was always one of those subjects where we both agreed to sit on our side of the couch and be convinced that we were the sane one…

Sorry, got sidetracked. The coffee bar. The small, narrow, civilian-packed coffee bar. If a shootout started in here, some poor bastard might be going home without a head. Just one more step to take care of before we start things proper. Staff is already killing the various boilers and burners, security is hiding around the corners of the exits, diverting away new clients and doing quick spot checks on the ones leaving, and Susan and Minette are both in position.

The party is sitting at one of the tables virtually in the center of the room, and don’t seem to have noticed the slight changes in the room around them. Good. I prefer it when my enemies don’t notice things. Two of them are decked out in a mix of dark earth tones, rough functional clothing, the third in a demure, long sleeved dress that shows about as much as a nun, and the fourth in a blue steel breastplate over leather garb, a long dagger on his hip, an old twelve gauge Mossberg pump action resting against the table, and a bandolier of mixed shotshells across his chest. Two porters, a bodyguard, and a secretary, or at least that’s what they’re trying to look like. For casual observation it’s working. I am not a casual observer.

One of the porters hasn’t bothered taking off his hood, or his scarf, or his mittens, and is in the habit of keeping himself all tucked. The reason for this becomes clear when he reaches for the cream; his upper arm is far too long, his forearm is far too short, and the lower two fingers of his glove are stitched to the middle finger. The other looks the part a bit closer, but dropped the ball at the boots; no working man wears boots that fancy to work, period. It’s not a matter of being able to afford it, most keep a nice set for social occasions, but taking them onto a job site is just asking to have them destroyed. Even without that, I recognize him from a lecture a few years back. He’s a mage, fellow by the name of Tonis Hellswarth, and up until he was caught beneath a general’s wife he was a rising star in the Quellhorst Army. Rumors about what exactly the old man walked in on were legion, and each nastier and more physically unlikely that the one before, but however it worked out his days of honest employment were over.

The secretary and the bodyguard are both dressed for the occasion, and carry themselves about as well as one would expect, except for the fact that the seating arrangement is completely back-asswards. The guard has his back to the main entrance, and can’t keep his eyes on comings and goings without looking conspicuous, to say nothing of the inevitability of repetitive neck strain from turning your head a single direction for a few hours straight. The secretary, meanwhile, has her back to the nearest wall, putting most of the room and the main entrance within easy line of sight.

Only the guard is visibly armed, but between cloaks, skirts and the mage they could have enough harm on tap to kill the entire room, and the presence of Tonis virtually guarantees they’re here with the worst of intentions. No reason not to walk up and say hello. Who knows? Perhaps the little prick discovered the honest virtues of manual labor. And perhaps I’ll stop shooting people for money and take up tap dancing instead. Hey, it’s a big multiverse out there; technically, anything can happen.

“Tell me again why we can’t just kill them?” Susan had asked, as we made our final preparations in my office. Some couples give their partner a drawer in their dresser, she got a space for an armored load-bearing vest and a sub-machine gun.

“Because they’re the cutoff between the Duke and the crime. They go splat, so does the chain of evidence.” I explained, strapping on my own vest, a lighter plate carrier, over the kevlar I’m already wearing. “The sales invoice isn’t enough. We need people in a condition to testify. Actually strike that, we need person, singular.”

“But how will we know which one?” Minette asked. Poor girl looks ridiculous in my bulky, man-sized green loaner vest; the bottom of it is well past her hips, the top of the raised collar rubs against her chin, and there’s enough free space in the arm holes to park a small car. Not as fashionable as the rest of her ensemble, but most dresses don’t provide DOD Level III ballistic protection.

“Did any of them act like they were in charge?” Susan asked.

“Yes, Lieutenant Huenke seemed like he was giving orders.” Minette answered, while squirming about and trying in vain to find a comfortable position in the vest, an activity that was still ongoing last I saw her. “But does that really help us? I mean, if they were lying about their true mission, isn’t everything else suspect?”

“Smart call, kid.” Susan said. “Let’s just assume that it’s bullshit all the way down.”

“Even so, bring me up to speed on everything.” I said, while getting my coat on. It’s a big brown leather number, goes nearly to the floor, and adds about 20 pounds of weight. Kevlar and ceramic plates have a way of doing that. The only spots of color, aside from the occasional old bloodstain and places where I had to stitch or staple a bullet hole closed, are a short row of ribbons on the left breast and a pair of shoulder patches. On the left, a torch surmounted by a rising sun with the motto ‘Ex Oriente Lux’ and mountains in the background. On the right, a compass rose with an infinity loop in the West, the East arm broken off, and the motto ‘Nec Spe, Nec Metu, Ad Infinitum’. “The way a person bullshits can be just as telling as how they tell the truth.”

And so she did. That’s how we get to now, with me walking up to a table full of disreputable folks with Minette’s pistol in a borrowed evidence bag, ready to find some answers. Play our cards right, and we might be able to settle this without any violence. They’ve been busying themselves with a game of cards, poker from the looks of it, and are busy with the flop when I toss the pistol on the table.

A person is never more themselves than in that moment when the plan goes wrong. Those first few seconds, before they remember whatever they typically show to the world, sitting balls deep in the flight or fight response, can tell you more about someone than a whole month of watching them in their comfort zone. Tonis just about jumps out of his chair at the sound of the pistol hitting the table, and whirls about to look up at me, slightly panicked. Didn’t even try to go for a weapon. Pound for pound he’s the most dangerous person here, but he isn’t in charge of shit. His hooded friend flinches at the sound, clenching up and pulling himself inward as though in anticipation of a blow. Probably got hit a lot as a kid. We make eye contact briefly; they’re impressively clear and blue, but deeply sunken into his face beneath a pallid, hairless brow. Huenke is out of his chair just behind the moment of impact, but unlike Tonis, it’s controlled and deliberate, and he comes up with the shotgun in his hand. He doesn’t bring it up to the shoulder, but it’s on the way up before he pieces together that he isn’t in any immediate danger.

The secretary does… nothing. No flinching, no jumping, not even the courtesy to look back before she finishes drinking her coffee. When she does look back, she almost seems happy to see me, and if the flutter of her eyelashes indicates surprise, it indicates pleasant surprise. Not a reaction I’m accustomed to getting from people I sneak up on.

“I presume you all know why I’m here?” I ask calmly.

“I… we…” Tonis says, or at least attempts to.

“Oh shut up, you worthless bastard!” Huenke barks. The crowd, already startled by the sudden action at the table, lets out a few noises of shock and concern at the outburst. A few of them have the good sense to quietly make a break for the door, while the remainder gawk and gossip. “Show a bit of spine for once in your life! We aren’t admitting anything. He’s not the law here.”

“Is that a fact?” I ask, feigning surprise.

“You’re just a schoolteacher.” He says.

“Yes, I’m just a schoolteacher.” I say, before hopping up on an empty chair and giving one of the brass lighting fixtures three quick strikes with my knuckle. The crowd stops being a noisy mess, and all eyes go to me as I clear my throat. “Ladies, gentlemen, and officers of the Navy, this facility is now shutting down for the day. Please collect your belongings and leave immediately through the front door. The bill will be covered.” Some start to pack up immediately when I start into the speech, and the lion’s share are on the way out when I mention the bill. A last “Seriously, we’re closed, fuck off.” coupled with a half-hearted draw of my pistol are enough to send out the last stragglers. The staff was out the back door several minutes ago. As far as they are concerned, it’s just me and them now.

“Son of a bitch.” Huenke mumbles, still holding onto the Mossberg.

“You know, I’ve had a number of conversations with my students on the difference between de jure power and de facto power.” I say, hopping down from the chair. “The difference between what a person commands on paper and what they lead in actual fact. I’ll spare you the details, but short version? I am in charge here. Law? Civilization? They just walked out the door with the rest of the customers.”

I don’t bother putting the pistol away. It’s still in my hand, hammer back and safety on as I grab the chair and start dragging it behind me. A nice, high pitched squeal goes through the room. “Now that we’re alone, we can talk business. Mind if I join you at the table?”

“Yes.” Tonis says, trying to muster some confidence, while the hooded man nods his head in agreement.

“First smart thing you’ve said all month, pipsqueak.” The guard says. “We don’t have shit to say to you about the girl or…”

“Gentlemen, please calm yourselves.” The secretary says. She’s been sitting there, watching the show with her hands demurely folded on her lap and a bemused look on her face. “It’s a widely published fact that the Professor is an ambush predator. If he came down here to kill us, it wouldn’t come with the courtesy of a hello. I can’t be the only one who’s just dying to know where this conversation will go, isn’t that right, Fabian?”

Tonis’ response is initially more stammering, but a hard look from the woman settles him into a resigned “I mean, um, yes. Yes, let’s hear him out.”

“And you, Ludwig?” She asks.

“We had a plan…” The hooded man starts to say, before getting cut off. His voice has a wet quality to it, like someone fighting through a cold.

“Plans change, dear. If you can’t keep up…” She says. No one interrupts her, she just trails off.

“Fine.” He says with a sigh.

“Well, that just leaves you, darling.” She says, turning to the guard. “Now don’t tell me that Fabian and Ludwig are better prepared to face the peril of the Prince of Nightmares than you.”

“Right, just let him sit down.” He says sarcastically. “It’s not like he’s a notorious serial killer or anything.”

“That’s right.” I say, circling around the table and setting my chair between the guards and the mushy-sounding porter. “I’m technically a mass murderer.”

“What’s the difference?” Huenke asks.

“A mass murder kills as a means to an end.” I say, settling into my chair and making a show of setting my pistol down on the table next to the cards. “For a serial killer, death is an end in it’s own right.”

“You seem… really comfortable with it.” He says, trying to avoid eye contact, while his hooded friend tries quietly scooting away. Emphasis on tries.

“That’s because he’s a man. You should be taking notes.” The woman says. “Speaking of men, Lieutenant, why not follow the Professor’s lead, set your gun down and join us?” He hesitates, but he does take his seat, slamming his shotgun down on the table, muzzle towards Tonis. “Excellent. Now, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Introductions are in order.” She rises from her chair, tall and proud, before executing a formal bow. “I am Bytzel, secretary to the Baroness Vogelsang. To your left is Lieutenant Huenke, the Baroness’ adjutant and bodyguard, and to your right are Fabian and Ludwig, the porters. Collectively, we are the Baroness’ entourage.”

“Former entourage.” Tonis mutters, earning a hard look from the rest of the table. “What? He’s here, she isn’t, no matter how it ended we’re out of a job.”

“Well, Zauberer von Hellswarth, since the two of you have broached the subjects of identity and employment, respectively, why don’t we focus on those points?” Speaking his name, his real name, out loud changes the whole attitude of the table, like I had uttered a magic word. They know at least a fraction of the game is up, and at least part of the facade is broken. The hooded guy starts eyeballing the exits, Tonis curses quietly while applying palm to face, the guard’s face screws up with anger and slightly less quiet curses, and Bytzel settles back into her seat, abandoning the ladylike posture for a comfortable slouch, half-reclined across the chair with one elbow on the arm and the hand supporting her chin. “Oh, Tonis, you didn’t tell them we’ve met before. How unprofessional.”

“Damn fucking right it is!” The guard spits. “You incompetent piece of shit!”

“It was years ago, I didn’t think he’d…” He starts.

“No, you don’t fucking think! You just follow her around like a dog on a leash!” The guard interjects.

“And you don’t?!” Tonis shoots back, rising from his chair. “I’ve seen the way you stare at her when you think we’re not looking, and I know for a fact that you’ve turned down at least one better offer in order to stay close to her!”

I lean over towards the hooded man, who starts to lean away a bit more, trying to keep a distance between us. “They do this a lot?” I whisper.

“No. Sometimes they’re asleep.” He whispers back. We both have a quiet laugh, and I extend my hand to him.

“Hi, I’m the Professor.” I say. My hand hangs empty in space for a brief while as he stares at it, seemingly uncertain of what he’s supposed to do here. “If you want to be formal I’m the Professor of History and Philsophy of Armed Conflict at the Institute of Freistadt. Bit of a mouthful, eh?”

“Yes.” He says, finally taking my hand. All the force of his grip is concentrated where the index and middle finger would normally be, and it’s a notable amount of force. No sense letting on that it hurts, though. “I am Seth. Seth Brundale.”

“Hi Seth.” I say, as our hands part. “Should we say something? I’m missing a class for this.”

“Sorry.” He says. “I mostly just keep my head down when they get like this.”

“Probably for the best. Getting involved in workplace drama just tends to add more fuel to the fire.” I say. Seth seems to relax a bit, and has stopped actively leaning away from me. The secretary seems to be enjoying the show, but doesn’t seem to have a favorite. Every time one of them tears into the other, her smile widens, no matter who’s getting hurt. Even if she isn’t the leader of this little group on paper, she is in practice.

“Gentlemen.” She finally says after taking in enough of the show. “We can discuss this further later… in private.” The last part is delicately pronounced, full of promise, and directed at neither one in particular. Both seem contented, and have another sit.

“Excellent. Now, can we try again with the names?” I ask.

“Now darling, we already told you.” She says.

“No, you didn’t.” I respond. “We already know that at least half of those names are fake.”

“They are the names we travel by.” The ‘Lieutenant’ says. “Are you really going to insist on being a stickler for disclosure, ‘Professor’?”

“You know, out East we have a tradition.” I say, glancing about the table. “A person gets a name, but they pretty much never use it in familiar company. The only exceptions are when you need to fill out a form or when you get in trouble. Drop a vase or get arrested and suddenly ‘Bobby’ becomes ‘Robert Eugene Lazarus Ericson Junior’. My friends and associates call me Professor, and what my wife calls me is none of your damn business, but whenever something in this town unexpectedly bursts into flames the local press asks if the Prince of Nightmares is out hunting again. So, in short…”

“Too late for that.” Huenke interjects.

“In short,” I continue, “what do they call you when you’ve been naughty?” The woman across the table smiles wider, and one of her hands slips beneath the edge of the table. Probably going for a weapon. Can’t say I blame her. I’ve had a hand on the revolver in my pocket since my pistol hit the table.

“I like it when a man takes the direct approach.” She says with a smile. “The name my mother and father gave me is irrelevant. Among the fraternity of mercenaries and shadow warriors, they call me Sparrow. To my right is Sebastian Otmar. You’re already familiar with Tonis and our resident shitbirth.”

“Sparrow. Lovely name.” I say, pretending to give a fuck. “And would that be the same Sparrow sought as a person of interest in the Vandenberg Fire of 2016?”

“No more than you are the same Prince of Nightmares responsible for the spontaneous detonation of an abandoned Cardenas facility on the Eichstadt frontier in 2017.” She says, a growing blush on her face.

“You’re bordering on slander territory there.” I say. “A court of law determined that explosion was due to poor ordnance handling, and all of the witnesses withdrew their testimony. Now, down to brass tacks. A noblewoman walks into a transit station with a loaded pistol, ill intentions, and a squad of deadly assassins pretending to be her entourage.”

“Ah yes, our beloved mistress.” She says mockingly. “God, what a cunt. Every fucking time we would come into the room she was crying, fussing over paperwork, or crying onto the paperwork while fussing over it.”

“Be that as it may, we still have a murder attempt to discuss.” I say. “As it stands right now, one could make the argument that you four are accomplices to her crime. If you all keep your cool and maintain an illusion of ignorance through constabulary interrogation, they probably won’t find enough evidence to prosecute you…” I let a beat pass and feel out their reactions, the sense of relief on Tonis and Sebastian’s faces before I drop the rest of the sentence “… but they will detain you for a good long time while running the investigation, and who knows what they’ll find in the meantime. Flaws in your cover, past warrants, any contraband you have on or near your person, you get the picture. They’ll probably beat poor Seth here just for shits and giggles.” That last one earns a furrowing of the brow, followed by a resigned nod from Seth, and Sebastian seemed to tense up a bit around the time narcotics got mentioned. “Now, as Sebastian pointed out earlier, I’m not a constable, and am under no obligation to attempt to detain you. There are three questions I want answered. Answer them honestly, and our business will conclude.”

“Why do you care?” Tonis asks.

“Because someone made a mess, and then decided to make it my mess.” I say. “Three questions, and then we’re done. Everyone game?”

“Actually, I have a better game.” She says, standing up from the table. As she does, her hand comes out from a small, well-hidden slit in the side of her skirt. “Join us.”

“What, you want to play a round of hold-em?” I say, pointing to the cards.

“Dance with me.” she says, walking over to the record player.

“What?” I ask.

“Did I stutter?” She asks back, flipping through the horizontal cabinet of discs. “I’ve spent the past month babysitting that weepy little bint, waiting for the fun part to start. Now, not only did I not get to watch her bleed, but I have to sit through you lecturing. I want to have some fun. Show me a good time, Prince, and then we’ll answer your questions.”

“Will your friends get jealous?” I ask.

“Do you really care, or is that just an excuse?” She asks back, selecting a disc and placing it on the turntable. “I had heard rumors that you don’t like girls. If you would rather dance with Tonis while I watch that would be entertaining enough.”

“The rumors also say I killed a man with a chainsaw over a matter of three pieces of gold. Ridiculous.” I say, stepping around the table. “One dance, one song, and then you answer.”

“Oh, so you didn’t kill Lord Kramer?” She asks, disappointment in her voice. A few tables clutter the center of the room, but they’re easily dealt with. Whoever is responsible for buying the furniture for the Institute bought about eighty copies of the same round table for the lounges and dining areas, and they all have a set of built in pneumatically actuated wheels. Squeeze a lever hidden on the underside and they slide wherever you want, smooth as ice. Nothing so fancy for the chairs, but they don’t weigh as much as a man.

“Oh, I did kill him.” I say. “But it was with a concrete saw. A chainsaw blade would either bind up on the flesh or snap when it hit the bone. People really don’t give humanity enough credit.”

“And the gold?” Seth asks.

“Oh, I damaged the blade on his torso, so I lifted his wallet to defray the costs.” I say, shoving the last chair aside. While I’ve been at that, she’s been cranking the winding knob for the player. “The saw was just a loaner. Any last comments or objections before I take your boss for a spin, boys?”

“Yes. Bring her back in the condition you found her.” Sebastian says, crossing his arms.

“How possessive. Well, traditionally the lady decides what condition she comes back in, and I see no reason to buck tradition. Right now.” I say, stepping into the middle of the now-vacant space. Sparrow joins me as the needle falls, and a slow waltz fills the room. A polite bow, a hand on her waist, and away we go.

We observe the traditional polite gap between bodies, but the way she moves her hand about on my shoulder tells me exactly what her plan is. Fun aside, she’s feeling out the gaps in the plating of my coat, assessing for weaknesses. Figuring out the best place to stab me if this whole thing doesn’t go according to plan. Smart woman. As we turn about, I get glimpses of her crew. Tonis seems to have resigned himself to sulking as I lead his object of affection about, but Sebastian looks about ready to kill someone. Not sure if it’s me or her from the way she keeps smiling at the table when they come into her view. Seth has resumed contemplating the exits.

“You dance very well.” She says, while running her hand up and along my shoulder. Her hands are completely covered with a pair of gloves, which look like black rubber and run clear back up her sleeves, stopping at an unknown point.

“Thank you.” I say. “Don’t get a chance to practice much.”

“Well, if you joined us, you could have plenty of chances to get out on the dance floor.” She says, with a teasing smile, barely above a whisper. With our height difference she has to look up, but she’s doing it entirely with her eyes, peeking out from under her brow. From this angle, she looks less like a woman and more like a wolf considering its next attack.

“You want me to join your little band?” I ask. “Three boys not enough to keep you happy?”

“Two boys. The walking slimeball doesn’t count.” She says with a sneer, waiting until she facing away from the table to share her opinion and putting her happy face back on before the rotation brings her back into view. “They have their uses, but a woman needs more than boys in her life. For what I’m planning, I don’t need followers. I need someone who knows how to lead.”

“I already have a job.” You fucking sociopath murderess bigot wig-wearing cunt.

“This one pays better. Much much better.” She says. “I’ve made enough gold to retire a dozen times over.”

“Then why don’t you?” I ask. “You seem pretty frustrated with having to play maid to a grieving woman.”

“Because it’s fun.” She says, smile widening. “Sometimes I have to delay my gratification a bit, but he always makes up for it.”

“Your master?” I ask. She throws back her head in a laugh.

“I may make a show of kneeling before him, but the second he stops being entertaining I’m out the door.” She says. “It’s not even about the money, it’s about the fun. You could do the same. Get exactly what you want.” Her hand continues to explore the shoulder and chest as we talk, moving further towards the center. The vital organs, lungs and heart.

“And what do you think that I want?” I ask.

“The same thing I do.” She says, smile widening. “I’ve read all about you. The things you’ve been up to. I know a kindred spirit when I see one. A true beast among mere animals.”

“I’m no beast.” I say. “I’m something worse.”

“And what’s worse than a beast?” She asks, eyes aflutter.

“A man.” I say. “But what do you expect from a being created in the image of a God whose idea of a do-over was the Deluge.”

“How ironic.” She says, hand moving closer to my mask. “A man happens to be just what I’m in the market for.”

“And the rumors that I’m married?” I ask.

“Bring her too.” She says. “If it is who I’ve heard it is, then she’d be fun to have along.”

About now is when her hand strays too far, brushing against the edge of the mask. She’s getting too bold in her explorations. When I wrap my hand around her wrist she lets out a small, surprised yelp, which becomes a gasp as I bend her arm around behind her back and drag her in close, pinning her arm and body against me. It’s not a pain sound, her arm isn’t being pulled up far enough for that. Through her dress I can feel a pair of hard objects strapped to the front of her thighs, likely a pair of knives.

“My my, if I knew touching your mask would get me treated this way I would have done it at the start.” She says, not struggling, or trying to get away. “No wonder you were the only one who could close the deal with the Captain.”

“And two things should be able to go without saying. But I’ve never let that stop me before.” I say, not letting go. “One, hands off the mask. Two, I’d need to consult the misses before saying yes to anything.”

“Fine, be that way.” She says. “But you still owe me another minute of dancing. Want your space back or do you just want to carry on this way?”

“Right. A deal is a deal.” I say, releasing her wrist. Soon, we’re right back to dancing, the respectable space restored between us. When the music ends, we bow to each other again.

“That was even more fun than I expected.” She says, heading over to put the record away, a bit more spring in her step. “So, are you ready to ask your questions?”

“I am, but let’s return to the table first.” I say, pulling out her chair before heading around to my own space. The moment of truth is nearly upon us. Taking my seat, my hands go into my coat pockets, each one coming to rest on a revolver. Sparrow rejoins us, taking a seat and slipping her hand back into her dress. “So, the questions. I am ready to ask, are you ready to answer?”

“I’m ready for a lot more than that, dear Professor.” She says.

“Question one, did Renard, Duke von Vogelsang murder his brother, Henri, Baron von Vogelsang as part of a bid to acquire the Vogelsang Trade Network?” I ask.

“Of course.” She answers.

“Question two, if Minette made it out of my office alive, were you planning on killing her?” I ask, grip on my revolvers tightening.

“No.” She says. “We were going to drag her off into the wilds and abuse her until she killed herself.”

“Good strategy. Fucked up strategy, but good.” I say. “Final question, then you’re done. There is a phrase that came up during my preliminary investigation. It means nothing to me, but perhaps you have some insight. Let me make sure I’m pronouncing this right.” Giving my throat a quick clearing, I proceed.

“Spare the bitch, kill the spares.” I say, in the best Hebrew I can muster. Having an Israeli spouse has many fringe benefits. One of those benefits is a direct connection to a rich and vibrant history and culture, which includes a language that damn near no one out in the Empire understands. She’s been hiding out behind the bar ever since we shooed out the workers, sub-machine gun in hand, waiting for the word, go or no-go. Final confirmation that our bad guys were, in fact bad guys. Well, three out of four are bad guys. Seth is a casualty.

When she stands up from behind the bar and gives the cocking handle on her M3 a crank, the party is too busy trying to puzzle out what I had just said to notice. A big fat silencer sits on the end of the barrel, but in a space this small it just serves to take the edge off the blast as she lets fly with a controlled burst. Tonis never gets a chance to finish whatever thought he was having, let alone find out who killed him.

Seth and Sebastian turn towards the noise, and aren’t watching when the revolvers come out of my pockets. Each man gets a muzzle shoved against the side of their head and a quick double tap, sending blood everywhere. Sebastian was going for his shotgun when I caught him, and his body kept going with momentum after the shots, sprawling over the table. Seth rolls off to the side with the shot, a significant portion of his face going another direction.

It was my hope that this display of force would be sufficient to cow Sparrow into submission. Normal people don’t pull a set of knives out of their skirt and go lunging at a man with a revolver in each hand and fresh blood and brain on his sleeves. They certainly don’t do it with a smile on their face and a gleam in their eye. And yet here we are. Susan isn’t going to risk hitting me to try for a follow-up shot, so it’s on me. Six rounds left. I’d rather not kill her yet, but screw it, I’m not looking to get stabbed today. Aim low, go for the hip or leg. Crack the pelvis or femur and she isn’t going anywhere.

She doesn’t even flinch. Whatever she’s got on under that dress is enough to stop a bullet. Fortunately I have something up my sleeve, specifically about 2 pounds of ceramic armor, or this day would be ending very badly for me. Her first swing wasted, the second swipe comes within an inch of my eyeball, a controlled backwards fall being the only thing between me and a lifetime of eye patches.

“Naughty boy!” She grunts, as she does a quick shoulder roll and comes up standing. With a quick flip of her wrists, the knife blades snap even further out, clocking in at nearly a foot long each and exposing a set of glowing blue markings in the fullers. The glow is enough to cast light through the holes the bullets ripped in her bodice, exposing an undersuit of the same material as her gloves. “You lied!”

“Oh go eat shit and die ‘Bytzel’. If I want a lecture out of you I’ll get it with a pair of pliers and…” I start to say, when my attention get’s diverted. From the ground next to the table, a low, sad groan sounds, and the source rises to his feet. Seth isn’t dead; all I did was tear up his face and knock his eye out of it’s socket. As his remaining good eye locks on me, the groan becomes a scream of pain and betrayal, and his cloak and shirt rip apart to reveal a set of four arms, a sharp object in each two-fingered hand, an expanse of gray skin peppered with long, spiny hairs and a catalog of old wounds and scar tissue, and a set of small, twitching vestigial wings poking out from behind his shoulders.

“My… my eye!” He yells. “You said you would let us go!”

“Drop the fucking knives, both of you!” Susan yells, hopping up onto the bartop and keeping Seth covered. “Do it or he dies!”

“Go ahead.” Sparrow says, adjusting her grip on the knives and sizing me up more. “You’re going to kill him either way. I’m the one you want. Seth, the only way out of here is through them, and even you aren’t stupid enough to trust them.”

“No fucking shit they can’t be trusted, but I don’t think we have a choice.” He says.

“You really don’t.” I say, keeping a revolver trained on each of them and hoping they didn’t keep a good count of how many rounds I’ve fired so far. The Mossberg is still on the table, under it’s late owner’s corpse, with my Remington-Rand next to it, but if I turn my back on Sparrow she’ll probably stab me right in the kidney. “Go quietly, and this doesn’t have to get any worse.”

“You shot me in the face! How could it get worse?” He asks. “We were co-operating! You bastard, all good manners and civility until you get what you want!”

“You know what kid, blow me!” I yell. “No one shoved a pistol in your neck and made you take up this profession. Do you even hear yourself? So I shot you in the face. Boo fucking hoo! If that’s the worst thing that happens to you today then you’re doing better than a lot of people. If getting shot really bothers you that much you made a pretty shitty choice of careers. Surrender now, get through jail, and then find a more suitable line of work, you fucking pussy.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know what they’ll do to me in prison, Professor.” He says, dropping into a low stance. “And stop acting like you haven’t fired all your shots!” Fuck. The kid moves fast, ducking low to put the table between him and Susan. She empties the rest of the magazine into the tabletop, blasting it to splinters but failing to get a worthwhile shot in.

Sparrow makes her move at the same time, coming straight in, knives out, completely undeterred by the revolvers. A traditional reaction to an empty sidearm from someone who has never been cracked in the head with an empty sidearm. Ducking to the right and fending off her strike with my left arm, the right hand gun catches her just behind the ear, putting her physically between me and Seth, buying me a few seconds to reassess the mess. Susan’s dumped the SMG, and is down off the bar with her Ka-Bar in hand, ready to close in.

The Sparrow pops right back up as soon as she has her bearings, leaving behind her hair, an elaborate wig that was covering up a hood, the same material as the gloves and the bodysuit. No doubt it goes clear down to her feet as well. Magically reinforced armor, probably worth more than I pull down in a year, side gigs included. Tangentially related, I should have asked for more money. And a pickaxe. Seth tries to come back at me again, but gets an Air Corps boot to the spine for his trouble, sending him into a wall. If he wants to interfere, he’s going to have to deal with Captain Frohman first.

“Well, alone at last.” She says. “I was hoping we’d get a chance to dance again.”

“You don’t give a single fuck about your team, do you?” I ask, adjusting my stance.

“Don’t be absurd.” She says with a laugh. “It’s going to take me at least a month to replace the horny little bastards. Does the phrase ‘expendable assets’ mean anything to you?”

“Sure does.” I say. “Does the phrase ‘killed resisting arrest’ mean anything to you?” Susan and Seth have taken to circling around each other; he’s got an advantage on reach and armament, but Susan’s a trained killer with fully functional depth perception. Speaking of expendable, I could benefit from having one less revolver in my hands, and Seth has his bad eye towards me. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but two problems sometimes make one solution. Tossing the revolver aside, it catches him right next to the vacant socket, smashing up the already dangling eyeball and sending him into a fit of pained screaming, which only gets worse when Susan capitalizes on the opening and starts hacking away. Sorry kid. Such is the life.

Sparrow is already making her play when I get my knife out, eight inches of top-rate Florida craftsmanship versus her two feet and change of magically enhanced steel. The outer layers of my coat should be sufficient to turn a knife, but those damn things are going through everything but the ceramic plates, and she remembers just where to aim to miss those. It’s a maneuvering game now, trying to keep her from putting a hole in one of my lungs while looking for an opening.

That opening comes in the form of a shotgun blast. She glances over her shoulder to see Susan standing over the now-decapitated body of Seth. The follow-up shot to center mass may be a hair excessive, but I can’t fault her for it. Sparrow only loses focus for a second, but that’s long enough for me to make a move. Stepping in, I slam her arms out of the way with my forearm, and continue the rotation take my knife across her forehead, splitting her brow from temple to temple. Nothing bleeds quite like the forehead, and as I dart backwards out of the way of her pained flailing I get to observe the results; a rapid oozing of blood down into the eyes, with the left side in particular spurting very actively.

She’s still in the fight, but her smile has gone, replaced with a pained squinting and a grimace. Her speed is still there, but accuracy has been thrown to the winds. No reason to get complacent; those knives are still just as deadly as they were in the beginning. Susan has her covered with the shotgun, and is waiting for my signal. I shake my head no. A load of shot to the back of the head might knock her out, but it also might kill her, and she still has a part to play in this.

“Hold still, damn it!” She yells.

“What’s wrong? Not having fun anymore?” I say, keeping one of the tables between us as I toss the second revolver aside and reach for a chair. “It’s not too late to quit.”

“Fuck you!” She yells, coming in for another lunge. She overshoots the mark as I sidestep, and bring the chair swinging down. Her suit will protect her hands, but I’m gambling that the hinges those knife blades are mounted on aren’t so rugged. It pays off, and one of her knives comes apart in her hand like a… um… metaphor. Ah, damn it, how long have I been bleeding?

“Ah fuck it, drop the bitch!” I yell, backpedaling away further. Susan springs directly into action, slamming the buttplate of the Mossberg straight into the base of Sparrow’s skull, sending her crashing to the floor like a sack of… something… know what? Fuck it. Come up with your own wit, I’m sitting the hell down.

Adrenaline is starting to fade, and now I’m feeling everything it was covering up. She was doing a lot better than I was giving her credit for, and she managed to tag me a few times. All my fingers are moving and I’m not having any trouble breathing, so it’s all fairly superficial. That said, I’m not planning on standing up quickly. Susan has the situation under control, and has already kicked the second knife out of reach. A low groan from the floor indicates good news. Sparrow isn’t dead. Not yet, anyway. The afternoon is still young.

“What’s the matter, you lazy…” Susan starts to say, before seeing the blood dripping out of the sleeve of my coat. “Ah, shit. You going to make it?”

“Nope. It’s a lost cause.” I say, setting my knife on the table and pulling my backup piece out of my boot to keep Sparrow covered while Susan searches her. “Remember, I want a viking funeral. Ship burial. Have Sparrow’s throat cut so she can be my slave in Freyja’s hall. Get some of your marines to see to the preparations.”

“What, not going to Valhalla?” Susan asks, skipping the traditional pat-down and going straight to cutting Sparrow’s dress off. As suspected, the armor suit is full coverage, from the scalp clear out to the fingers and toes, with a few web belts to hold an assortment of knives of varied sizes and a reinforced section along the spine, a series of articulated metal plates holding the actual guts of the suit. To a layperson it’s just a mess of metal inlay, but if you know the meaning of the inlaid symbols it’s as good as an instruction manual. If you have the time, you bring in a mage you can trust and let them give it a good, hard read, but if you’re looking to do it quick and dirty you pick a piece of wire, circle it with a wax pencil, and then break the wire. With a heavier design this might take a hammer and chisel, but even from back here I can see that the inlay pattern is insanely elaborate, and by extension was made very thin in order to make it all fit. A quick knife stab is enough to shut the thing down.

“Nah, Odin’s joint is a sausage fest.” I say. “And bill the ship to Vogelsang. I’m pretty sure my field insurance doesn’t cover boat procurement.”

“Are you ready for us to enter, sir?” One of the guards calls from outside.

“Yes.” I say. “We have three KIA, one injured.” The door doesn’t open; the seven-man team, spearheaded by the commander with the purple lens goggles, appears in a flash of light in a clearing between the tables, and rapidly fans out across the room in well-practiced formation, double checking the few abandoned pieces of luggage and securing the bodies. Sparrow is still dazed when they haul her off the floor, and the guards don’t bother asking nicely before pulling her suit off. Unpleasant, especially since she didn’t take the precaution of wearing underwear, but leaving a magical device in a prisoner’s possession is dangerous. With the suit off, we can see her hair, the same color and texture as the wig but trimmed down to barely over an inch, and the number of long, faded scars on her body, likely old knife wounds. The blood is still coming from her forehead, joined by a new torrent coming out of her nose. Hitting your face on a hardwood floor tends to do things like that.

“You could have just surrendered.” I say, as the guards drag her to her feet. The sensation of room temperature air on her skin helps clear her head, but she’s still a bit wobbly.

“You… you cheated.” She says, spitting some blood out of her mouth while trying to blink the red out of her eyes. If she’s bothered by being this exposed in front of all these people, she isn’t showing it.

“You had a two to one numeric advantage and a mage. You bet your ass I cheated.” I say, keeping the revolver in-hand. She’s naked, bleeding, and in a headlock, but that’s no reason to get complacent. “Don’t pretend you’ve never done the same.”

“I never claimed I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.” She says, looking back at the guard holding her, eyes catching on the ring on his finger before darting up to his face. “And how about you, big boy? How do you feel about cheating?” She asks, leaning back into him in an awfully familiar manner and trying for a sultry voice. A busted-in nose is quite the handicap for being seductive, and she just isn’t metal enough to pull it off.

“Um… you’re really not my type.” He says.

“And what is?” She asks.

“Oh… uh… taller… darker skinned…” He responds, trying to be diplomatic.

“Not a crazy-ass skank?” Susan chimes in, picking the shotgun back up.

“Well, I wasn’t going to say it, but…” The guard continues, interrupted when Sparrow catches him in the eye with a glob of blood-tainted spit. He recoils back, but doesn’t lose his grip. “Ok, now I am going to say it. Crazy-ass skank! Are you happy now?”

“Oh, yes.” Sparrow says mockingly. “Everything is just wine and roses now. I could spend the rest of my life lovingly clutched in your arm listening to your whisper sweet nothings in my ear, you fat fucking bastard. I was going to make you an offer for helping me out, but now you can go lick your own ass for all I care.”

“Are we fucking secure yet?” Susan asks, looking back over her shoulder at the guards sweeping the room. They’ve made it about three quarters of the way back, and confirmed that all three dead bodies are, in fact, dead. Said confirmation has produced a few piles of concealed weapons, fake documents, hidden gold, and at least one bag of cocaine.

“Nearly done, ma’am.” One of the guards calls back, kicking open a discarded piece of luggage. “A few more things to check and we can bring in the medic.”

“Good.” She says, turning back to us. “Professor, they have this under control. Lets get out of here and get you fixed up.”

“It can wait another minute or two.” I say, standing up slowly. “We’re nearly done here.”

“Alright, but if you bleed to death I’m divorcing you.” She says.

“Deal.” I say. Shrugging off my coat, I can get a better view of my injuries. Like I suspected, it’s pretty superficial, and the cuts are almost surgically thin and clean. When the whole thing shakes out, the scars from the sutures will probably stick around longer than the ones from the actual cuts. Ruined my shirt, though.

“All clear!” One of the guards yells from the very back of the room.

“Made another horrid mess, did we?” Says Maynard, the first through the door. The full suit of plate mail was probably overkill for a simple call-out, but it comes with a fully-qualified church trained medic inside, so I don’t care. “Beating up naked women. This is low, even for you.”

“She was wearing a dress when I got here.” I offer. “And she started it.”

“You always say that.” He says, taking one glance at my knife wounds and walking right past me to start inspecting Sparrow. He looks her up and down, not the way a man looks at a woman, but the way an engineer looks at a damaged bridge, eyes lingering on the old wounds and searching out any fresh ones beyond the obvious.

“Give us the short version, Professor. Enough of the Institute’s time has been wasted on this.” Says Bursar von Jagoditz. He’s the fattest fucking mage I’ve ever seen in my life, but he is the guy I have to explain this entire mess too.

“They sent the Baroness Vogelsang into your offices on false pretenses so your security teams would assassinate her. Let them keep their hands clean while the Institute catches the fallout for killing a noblewoman.” Susan says, cradling the shotgun in her arms. “The Professor was able to sort it out, and talk a confession out of the guilty party.”

“And what was the pretense she was sent in on?” He asks.

“She was told that I had murdered her father.” I say.

“Did you?” He asks.

“No, of course not.” I say. “Have an alibi and everything.”

“People, please, we have more pressing matters to attend to.” Maynard interjects. “We need to get this woman down to the infirmary immediately.”

“Gee Brother, I didn’t realize ‘cunt’ was a life threatening condition.” Susan says.

“This isn’t a joking matter. Which one of you did this damage to her face?” He asks.

“The knife wounds or the nose?” I ask.

“Yes.” He answers.

“Well, the knifing was the Professor, but technically she broke her nose herself.” Susan says.

“And how, pray tell, did she do that?” He asks.

“Well sweetie, when a man and a woman hate each other very much, sometimes they have something called a knife fight.” Susan continues. “And then the man’s wife smacks the woman in the back of the head with a shotgun and she hits the ground like a bitch. And that’s how she broke her own damn nose.”

“Well, that’s all I needed to hear.” He says. “She’s showing symptoms of a sub-dermal hematoma. She looks fine now but that could change in a matter of minutes.”

“And what’s our liability if she dies from it?” The bursar asks.

“Zero.” I say. “She suffered her injuries in the course of committing a crime. No civil recourse.”

“A sub what?” the Sparrow asks.

“Ever have a bruise so bad it swelled up?” Maynard asks, getting a nod. “Imagine that happening inside your skull.”

“Wait, you can’t be serious.” Sparrow says, eyes wide. “Is that actually a thing that can happen?”

“Young lady, do I look like the kind of person who would just make up a medical condition?” Maynard says, looking honestly hurt.

“Yes.” Says Susan. “But he isn’t bluffing. It’s legitimate. Short falls, blunt impact, being too close to an explosion, anything that bounces your brain around hard enough to start a trickle of internal bleeding. How does a professional killer not know about brain trauma?”

“Because when I hit someone in the head they die immediately, you limp-wristed bitch.” She shoots back. Susan rejects the bait. “You’re making this up. I feel fine.”

“Did you get smacked in the back of the head?” Maynard asks.

“Well, yes, but…” She starts to say.

“Did you black out?” He asks, talking over her.

“Only for a little bit. I think.” She answers.

“And are you a doctor?” He asks.

“No.” She answers.

“A nurse?” He asks.

“No.” She answers.

“Any medical training beyond how to use an ice pack or a bandage?” He asks, letting his annoyance creep into his voice.

“Um… I know where the veins are…” She mumbles.

“Amazing! She knows where the veins are, but apparently not the arteries!” He bellows. “That’s fantastic. It also means that your counter-diagnosis of ‘I feel fine’ is worth precisely NOTHING to me. Not only are you wasting my time, and the time of every person in this room, but you are also literally KILLING YOURSELF with your stubbornness! Now would you kindly go with these armed men down to the infirmary so we can help you NOT DIE or shall I just grab an icepick and a brick and do the job here like some kind of savage?”

“Um, the infirmary would be fine.” Sparrow says, cowed by Maynard’s sudden outburst.

“What do we say?” Maynard says, lowering his voice back down again.

“…Please?” She asks.

“There you go.” He says, stepping aside and gesturing towards the door. “Let’s roll, gentlemen. Try not to hit her head on anything.”

“No.” I say, stepping into their path. “We aren’t done here. There is still information she needs to provide.”

“Are you insane?” Maynard asks. “The lucid period may end in a matter of minutes, and after that it’s brain damage and death.”

“Well then,” I say, stepping around him and going face to face with the Sparrow. Maynard’s a little prick, but I have to give him credit; he seems to have quite literally put the fear into her. “I guess you have an incentive to speak quickly, don’t you?”

“You evil bastard.” She says.

“I keep trying to tell people that, but they never listen.” I say. “You’d think my resume would speak for itself, but it never does. Now, the Duke isn’t just going to sit on his ass and wait for you to come home with a body. There must be a contact method. What is it?”

“I’m not telling you.” She says.

“Don’t tell me that this is loyalty talking.” I say. “He’s nothing to you. Why are you protecting him?”

“Loyalty has nothing to do with it.” She says. “He has other people on his payroll. They aren’t as good as me, but when they send fifty of them at a time the odds start getting a bit crooked.”

“Quantity does have a quality all it’s own. And if the Duke had some manner of… accident?” I ask. “Say, like he inadvertently fell on about ten bullets?”

“Some accident.” She says. “What are the odds of that happening?”

“Pretty good. They get better if he thinks that the job went off without a hitch.” I say, looking into her eyes and watching the gears turning in her mind. “Renard has pissed off the wrong people, and there’s about to be a great deal of chaos in his neck of the woods. Perhaps even a new regime in need of people who know the land and aren’t afraid of direct action. The kind of people with the resources on hand to make a stay in jail very civil and uneventful, do you understand?”

“And this new regime has already started making moves?” She asks.

“Who the fuck do you think paid me to come down here?” I ask. Her smile comes back. “The new boss is already making their moves on the throne. They’ve got the brains, the resources, and the drive. The Duke is as good as dead, the only question is whether or not you have what it takes to get your slice of the pie.”

“And all I have to do is give up the Duke?” She asks, regaining a bit of her bravado.

“The information is step one.” I answer. “You give me the info, I check it out while you go under the knife. If it’s legitimate, we talk more business when you wake up. If it isn’t, you don’t wake up. Understood?” I ask.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say this isn’t your first interrogation.” She says.

“That would be telling.” I say. “Are we doing business?”

“Of course.” She says, and starts talking. The communications protocols are very intricate, multiple layers of checks and counter-checks, an assortment of panic codes and warning signals, multiple independent routes of contact. Exactly what I would expect from a man who goes through money like most people go through water.

“For fucks sake, all of that to talk with one group of mercs?” Susan asks.

“Like I said, I’m not the only one on the Duke’s staff.” She says. “But that information isn’t going to be cheap for the new man. Say Brother, would you mind fixing up these knife wounds and my nose while you’re at it? I’d like to make a good first impression for my new employer.”

“I’m more concerned about the state of the underlying bone and circulatory system, but yes, I was planning on fixing the rest of the damage while you were under my care.” Maynard says. “But anything other than basic lifesaving procedures will be billed separately.”

“I’m sure Wilhelmina will be delighted to hear you’re upselling.” I say.

“The Lord and his Saints provide for our spirits and our souls, but the upkeep on the church is our burden alone.” He says. “Now, can we stop the dramatics and keep this woman from dying?”

“There’s one last thing I need to know.” Sparrow says. “Who is our mysterious benefactor?”

“Are you sure you want to know?” I ask. “You are about to get surgery performed, and you should really focus on your own health and well being right now.”

“Curiosity, Professor.” She says. “Besides, what’s telling me going to hurt?”

“Ok. You asked for it.” I say, walking towards the door. “Meet your new boss. Same as your old boss.”

I fling the door open, and standing right there, as though on cue, is Minette. She’s ditched the vest, and done an admirable job of straightening herself up, looking every bit an Imperial noblewoman. Sparrow, on the other hand, looks like she would shit her pants if she were wearing any.

“So, ‘Sparrow’ is it?” Minette asks, striding into the room and straight up to her would-be killer. “I would have guessed Robin based on how much red you have on you.”

“Oh, my god.” Sparrow says. “This whole thing was a trap, wasn’t it? You knew we were assassins the whole time, didn’t you?” Minette and I share a brief glance. All I can think to do right now is shrug.

“… Yes. That’s exactly what happened.” Minette says, not giving away her confusion. “I let you and your cretins in so I could confirm my uncle’s guilt, and arranged for the Professor to get the answers out of you. And you gave me all the evidence I could ever need. Kneel.”

“What?” Sparrow asks.

“Did I stutter?” She responds. “You were so keen on serving the Duke’s replacement just a few minutes ago, and that’s me. Professor.”

Technically this isn’t part of our deal, but screw it, the kid’s on a roll. Susan tosses me the shotgun, and a quick jab to the back of the knee is enough to make Sparrow fall. The guard, to his credit, sees the move coming and lets go of her neck just before impact.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Minette says. “I was originally going to ask you to kiss my ring and swear allegiance to me, but now you are going to have to settle for my boot.”

“I refuse.” Sparrow says, glaring at Minette contemptfully. “You can go to hell.”

“Oh, how willful.” Minette says, circling around Sparrow. “Professor, any suggestion for how to get that under control?”

“Normally I’d suggest extended periods of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, but we are under a bit of a time crunch here.” I offer.

“We’ve got pliers, she has fingers.” Susan says, reloading her sub-machine gun. “I don’t know how many of her bones we’d have to crush to get compliance, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than thirty.”

“You maniacs!” Maynard yells. “You’re killing this woman.”

“She tried to kill us first.” I say.

“We’re not killing her, Brother. She’s killing herself.” Minette says. “Poetic, isn’t it? I heard your little chat with the Professor. Your master plan if I survived my Uncle’s plot. Take me out into the woods and have your fun until I put myself out of your misery? Well, it’s a fantastic plan, and I see no reason to let it go to waste.”

Sparrow isn’t budging yet. If this goes on too long, the stubborn woman might successfully wait us out until her condition becomes terminal or someone shoots her. We need to shove this along. “Sparrow, stop running down the clock.” I say. “Stalling doesn’t accomplish anything at this point. It only hurts.”

“You… you’re not going to let me have any more fun, are you?” Sparrow asks quietly.

“That depends on how well you serve me, doesn’t it?” Minette asks. “If you can be a good little bird, I might let you out of your cage every now and then. And the first step of being a good little bird is to kiss my boot and address me as your mistress. Refuse, and we have the nice men with the swords hold you down while your brain gets crushed inside your skull. This is the final time I ask.”

A silence hangs over the room for a minute as Sparrow considers her options. She looks about ready to cry when she finally bends down and kisses Minette’s boot. “What are your orders, your grace?” She asks, not looking up from the floor.

“My second order will be for you to go with the Brother and accept whatever treatment he gives, and then to remain in custody until I send for you.” Minette says. “My first order concerns your name. From here on in, your name isn’t Sparrow anymore. Sparrow is dead. You approached me as Bytzel, and that shall be your name until I grow tired of you. Say it.”

“Sparrow is dead.” She says, scarcely above a whisper. “My name is Bytzel.”

“Louder.” Minette orders.

“Sparrow is dead.” She repeats, a tear finally falling from her eye. “My name is Bytzel.”

“Good.” Minette says, stepping away. “Take her away.”

The guards help the freshly rechristened Bytzel up off the floor and escort her towards the door, one of them offering her a blanket to cover herself. The rest of the guard detail starts filing out after them, hauling the evidence out with them. Bloodstains and bullet holes remain generously strewn about; they’re someone else’s problem.

“Well, I hope all three of you are happy.” Maynard says, tossing me a suture kit. “It wasn’t enough to just capture the woman, you had to break her.”

“Save your tears, Maynard.” I say. “If she spends the rest of time in the holding room, it would be a net gain for mankind.”

“And that gives you a clear pass for torture?” He asks.

“Don’t put words in my mouth, Brother. I have no illusions about the quality of my actions.” I say, pocketing the kit and handing off the shotgun to one of the passing guards.

“Don’t you have a patient to see to, Brother?” Susan asks. “Five seconds ago you were chomping at the bit to get her laid out on your table, and here you are running your jaw.”

“You’re both sick.” He says, turning away. “A genuine match made in hell.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.” She responds, while I head over to reclaim my pistol and revolvers before they get hauled away as evidence.

“And you, Baroness? Will you be stopping by the Church before you depart to seek forgiveness for this?” Maynard asks, turning to Minette.

“No.” She says, observing the carnage in the room. “I’d just have more to confess before next Sunday anyway. Now Brother, I hope I don’t have to remind you that regardless of how you feel about this, Bytzel is my subject, and my prisoner. If you have a moment of misguided conscience and help her escape my wrath, I will hold you and your entire church responsible.”

“Is that a threat?” He asks.

“No.” She says, not turning away from the mess. “Just a reminder that I can afford to have your building dismantled one block at a time, loaded into a fleet of airships, and dumped into the ocean.”

“It won’t be a problem.” He says, turning for the door. “Just don’t forget that we all answer to someone for our sins, young Baroness. Either in this world, or the next.” The door, which didn’t do anything to deserve it, gets a good hard slam as he storms out the door.

“Well, that was dramatic.” The Bursar says, breaking his silent vigil over by the side of the room ‘inspecting’ an abandoned sweet roll. “Now, there is the matter of the mess. As you have taken responsibility for the culprit, can we also expect you to take responsibility for the actions of the mercenaries you used to bring her in?”

“Of course.” Minette says. “Prepare an invoice for the damages, Bytzel’s treatment and her incarceration for two weeks, and I will send an agent to settle it. Do you accept gold certificates?”

“On which bank?” He asks.

“Mine.” She answers.

“Of course.” He says with a smile, turning towards the door. “Good day to you all.”

“An itemized invoice, Bursar.” She says, halting him in his tracks and wiping the smile off his face.

“Of course, Baroness.” He grumps. This poor door has had no manner of luck today, and receives another round of harsh treatment as the Bursar storms off.

“Confess.” Susan says. “You enjoyed that last little bit.”

“No.” Minette says, a growing smirk giving her away. “Alright, perhaps a bit.”

“And that stuff about letting her out to play?” I ask. “You do know she has a very different definition of fun than most people, right?”

“Yes. I heard everything, remember?” She asks, turning away from the splatter. “And no, I’m not letting that maniac run off unsupervised. Any suggestions for how to keep her in line?”

“Keep her in a dungeon, let no one but you interact with her, and then shoot her in the head the second she runs out of worthwhile intelligence.” I say.

“But we broke her.” She says. “She works for me now.”

“We can’t be sure of that.” I say. “Based on what I’ve seen, I think she’s a sociopath. Crazy. Not ‘my ex-girlfriend is crazy’ crazy, but ‘my ex-girlfriend gets murder orders from aliens through her dead mother’s urn’ crazy.”

“So?” She asks.

“That kind of crazy isn’t 100% human, but can fake it.” Susan answers. “She’s probably spent most of her life learning how to feign socially appropriate responses purely by rote. All that kneeling and weeping could just be her putting on a show.”

“She’ll play along, until it serves her purpose not to.” I say. “She went along with being your Uncle’s leg breaker, feigning allegiance in exchange for a ready supply of victims to get her jollies on. She’ll go along with being your bitch, but one day you’ll turn your back and she’ll either bolt out the door or stick a knife to your throat.”

“She deserves to suffer, just like my Uncle.” She says.

“Well, often in life we get better than we deserve.” Susan says. “And in her case, a bullet is better than she deserves.”

“All of this is a problem for another day.” I say. “The Institute will keep her contained, indefinitely if you’re willing to pay for it.”

“What do we do now?” Minette asks.

“Right now we go back to my office, stitch my skin back together, use the leftover wire to patch my coat, and hide out until the meeting with Beatrix and Caroline.” I say, grabbing my coat and walking to the door.

“Shouldn’t you replace the coat?” She asks. “There’s blood all over it.”

“Trying to sell me something again?” I ask.

“Sorry, force of habit.” She says.

“Well, that’s one plan.” Susan says. “Or you both can catch a ride with me to the Airbase, you can have an actual surgeon look at your stab wounds instead of this DIY bullshit and she can hide out inside a military base until the meeting.”

“Ooh, I like that plan better.” Minette says. “No offense, but your office is a bit small.”

“That’s fair.” I say, holding the door open for the ladies. “Anyone mind if I check in with Frankie before we go? You know how she worries.”

“Well, tell her to stop horning in on my turf.” Susan says with a smile.

“Hey, where did my pistol land?” Minette asks. Her pistol, which was already in a borrowed evidence bag, is now absent from the table where I had tossed it.

“Fuck it.” I say, turning off the lights and giving the door one last slam. “It’s Wednesday’s problem.”



One thought on “Office Hours: Tuesday at the Office (Part Three)

  1. Pingback: Office Hours: Tuesday at the Office (Part 2) | P.T. Krieg's Mandatory Minimum Web Presence

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