Undead Chaos, page 8
“Depends on how you want to handle it,” he replied. “You can either face the music and deal with the reporters that will inevitably show up on your doorstep, or you could lay low for a while and let things settle down. At some point the press will lose interest, so it’s simply a matter of what’s easier for you.”
“What do you think?”
“Unfortunately, this is one of those decisions you have to make on your own. Let me know what you decide.”
I hated that he was right. I was at the center of this whole mess, so ultimately it was up to me how I needed to deal with it. All Dad could do was support me.
Sometimes being an adult sucked.
We said goodbye and hung up.
I sat there, staring at the phone, trying to figure what to do. The smart choice was to contact one of the media sources with my story and get everything into the open. Like jumping into a pool, it was better to do it quick and be done with it. They’d find out eventually anyway, so I might as well be proactive and suck the wind out of their sails on my terms.
I called Dad back.
“Which is it?” he asked without preamble.
“I’m going to lay low for a while.”
There was a moment of silence. “You sure?”
I rubbed my eyes. “No, but it is the lesser of two evils. There is a window of opportunity for me to gather some information that may not be available when my name gets tagged by the media.”
“So what’s your plan?”
I ran through the outline in my mind. “Fawkes and his daughter are on the run, and there are only a few places where they can go. I need to check with some of my contacts and see if the trail leads anywhere.
“While I’m at it, I’ll see what I can find out about people messing around with some dark magic. A lot of shady people dabble, but from what Fawkes told me, a person or group would have to exert a whole lot of power to do what they did to Banks. I may be able to gather some information about them, but I have to act quickly.”
“I wish I could help,” Dad said with genuine concern in his voice. “Unfortunately, the Council will need everyone on hand to deal with this.”
“I really wish you could too, Dad, but I understand.”
“I’ll do some investigating on my end and see what I can come up with.”
“Marcus,” he said seriously, “please be careful. Watch who you talk to, and cover your tracks.”
“There’s always the chance that Simeon was wrong and that this whole incident is nothing more than a freak accident,” I replied with forced humor.
“Do you really believe that?” Dad asked.
“Me neither. Too many elements don’t add up. So, where are you headed?”
Dad was silent for a moment. “The Underground.” He sounded none too pleased.
“Yeah,” I replied, sharing his displeasure. “I’m going to the Underground.”
Several hours later, I parked the Gray Ghost in a garage near the waterfront in southwest DC. I shoved my pistol into a pack that held a spare set of clothes, then shrugged the sack onto my back. I pulled my sword from the passenger seat and gave the vehicle one final check. Satisfied I had everything I needed, I locked the doors and exited into the bright, sunny day to begin my search.
I spent the first thirty minutes checking doors and passageways I’d used in the past. They all came up empty. Considering the mobile nature of the entry portals it wasn’t surprising, but it did add an element of annoyance to the morning.
The sun was directly overhead by the time I found the small green door in the middle of a grungy alleyway. It was commonplace and I’d nearly passed it by, but the humming grabbed my attention. It was a low frequency, so faint that I could barely detect it with my Skill.
I checked to make sure I was alone, then tapped on the door the way Dad taught me years ago. There was a momentary pause, then the door creaked open and revealed a dark hallway. I adjusted the sword on my back, cleared my senses, and stepped across the barrier.
Unlike the spirit world of fairies, imps and pixies where everything is covered in ethereal flowers and misty bows, the Underground was a gritty, tangible place. Comprised of a series of magical doorways, ancient trams, and super-secret passwords, it served as a bridge between the mortal and paranormal worlds. Initially established as a safe haven for paranormal creatures during periods of major persecution, the Underground soon became a lint trap for everything from the detritus of the Skilled community to nightmarish creatures of lore. By the time the Skilled and Normal worlds formally achieved peace, the Underground had evolved from dark, secretive corners into a bustling province of commerce and filth.
The only redeeming quality of the Underground was the anonymity. There was an unwritten rule about avoiding eye contact and never asking questions.
Thankfully, most of the locals followed it religiously.
Considering the number of paranormal bad-asses the Shifter family had confronted over the centuries, announcing my presence would place a huge target on my back. But so long as I kept a low profile, I’d be just another piece of Skilled rubbish plodding along the streets.
The passage from DC-proper to DC Underground was instantaneous.
The moment my foot hit the ground on the other side, the air became heavier and the temperature warmer. I closed the door behind me and trotted toward the far end of the narrow corridor.
Stepping into the light, I found myself standing in the middle of a busy street. Shops lined either side of the brick walkway, and creatures of all sorts pushed hurriedly past one another. The majority of residents, like Elves and Dwarves, stuck to traditional outfits of their clans, but a surprising number of creatures had adopted a more Normal, contemporary style. While I appreciated the latter’s attempt to modernize, there was something hilarious about a Centaur trotting by in designer jeans.
As stimulating as the Underground could be to the eye, it was the nose that really got a workout. The street was filled with the sickly stench of paranormal body odor, wet mold and old urine. Yet floating above this cocktail of awful, I caught the distinct scent of bacon. My stomach rumbled with interest, and my feet instinctively directed me toward the source.
The first stop for anyone in need of rumors was Millie’s Place. A rundown-looking diner at the end of a side alley, Millie’s was a large brick house that appeared every bit as dirty and unstable as the surrounding buildings.
Unlike the rough exterior, the interior of the establishment was clean, and fashioned after a silver diner from the 1950s. Bright chrome accents gleamed and food was served on green Formica countertops. A jukebox spun vintage records in the corner, and each table had a small sound box where patrons could make requests for free. The all female waitstaff dressed in poodle skirts and they roller-skated between the tables like Olympians.
Millie, the matron, had been running the show since it opened some two hundred years earlier. No one knew where she came from or what clan or species she belonged to, but they didn’t seem to care. Whatever she was, she’d earned a loyal customer base that had lasted for centuries.
The food alone was enough to pack the place, but she also operated a small bed-and-breakfast above the main floor. Combined with a decent location in the heart of the DC Underground, Millie’s one of the most frequented in the area by travelers.
I entered the diner and paused to drink in the flavors. In addition to the bacon, I could smell barbeque, roast duck and saffron filling the air. My stomach growled again.
I unhitched my scabbard and backpack and sat at a nearby table. Once settled, I glanced around. Between the food and atmosphere, Millie’s Place was a bright, shining beacon of awesom
The owner appeared a moment later. She was short and portly, but jovial and full of life. Her flaming red hair was streaked with gray and bound in a tight bun held in place by an old Number 2 pencil. Horn-rimmed glasses hid her gray eyes, and she wore a pink poodle skirt that flared at the bottom. Her face that was covered in laugh lines, but she also had a hard, no-nonsense demeanor. She strictly enforced good manners and demanded that all conflicts remain outside her establishment. This, plus the great food, made Millie’s a popular meeting spot for opposing forces, which was why it had been used for everything from hostage negotiations to treaty signings.
“Good morning, Marcus,” Millie said with a grin that revealed rows of perfect gleaming white teeth. She was one of the few people in the Underground who didn’t bother honoring the unwritten rule of no names and no questions. She poured a large cup of coffee without asking and slid a huge plate of Texas toast in front of me. “How are you doing today?”
I took a sip of coffee, then shoved a full slice of toast into my mouth. “Better now.”
“It’s been a while.”
I chewed for what felt like a full minute before I was able to swallow. “I’ve been busy. Speaking of which,” I said, removing a large jar of honey from my pack. “The girls were productive last season.”
“Oh my,” Millie replied, accepting the offering. “You spoil me.”
“Of course. You’re my favorite contact in the Underground.”
She pursed her lips. “And here I was hoping this was a gift without strings.”
“It is, but if keeping you happy also happens to keep me informed, then all the better.”
“That works,” she laughed. Then she lifted the jar and peered at the golden liquid. “It’s so fascinating how those little bugs can create something so wonderful and tasty.”
“They’re amazing creatures.”
“Indeed. Makes me think I should put some hives on the roof. Too bad the only beekeeper I know doesn’t visit the Underground very often.”
“Ain’t it a shame?” I asked.
Millie rolled her eyes and set the jar on the table. “Enough about your hobby, how’s the family?”
“Getting by. Mom joined a book club.”
I shoved another piece of toast in my mouth and held up a salute. “Scout’s honor,” I mumbled.
“Good for her. I keep meaning to do that, but this place sucks up all of my free time. More so recently.”
I paused. “What do you mean?”
She huffed and pushed a loose strand of hair out of her face. “Things have been slow the past couple of months, With the exception of some visitors from the Chicago node that came in yesterday, we’ve had almost no travelers. Even our usual patrons are frequenting less often.”
“Maybe it’s the economy,” I offered hopefully. “Fewer people going out to eat and all that.”
“Perhaps, but the change was pretty sudden. One day we were full, the next we were like this.” She waved her hand at one of the open tables. “But I’m not worried. We’ve had dips in sales before, and we’ll weather the storm just fine. Here you go,” she said, nodding to a pretty brunette who rolled up to the table. The girl unloaded two plates full of food before zipping to another table.
“Enjoy your meal,” Millie added. “I’ll swing by in a little bit when we can chat without being distracted by your growling stomach.” She scooped the jar up and strolled back behind the main countertop.
Despite not placing an order, the western omelet and home fries were exactly what I’d wanted. I attacked the eggs like a rabid wolf and was halfway through by the time Millie returned to refill my coffee.
“Good. So, what brings you back this direction?” she asked. “Other than restocking my honey supply, of course.”
I raised my eyebrows at her.
“Ah,” she said knowingly. “Anything I can help with?”
“Perhaps.” I tilted my head toward the empty chair.
She muttered a few words, and the noise around us was reduced to a muffled hum. She set her pot on the table and joined me. “Go ahead.”
“I need information on two separate topics. The first is regarding a pair on the run.”
I raised my eyebrows and she smiled.
“Nothing can match the speed of gossip, Marcus.”
“Apparently not. But yeah, I need to find them.”
“Good luck,” she said with a snort. “The Delwinn Council was lucky to catch Simeon the first time. It’ll be impossible now. The man is as smart as he is powerful. Unless he wants to be found, you’re chasing a ghost.”
“Doesn’t hurt to ask.”
“Not exactly true, but I hate to see you waste your time. What’s the second topic?”
I gave her a snapshot of the past couple days, including what Fawkes had told me in the morgue. She listened intently, never interrupting. When I finished she chewed on the inside of her mouth.
“Tell me about it,” I replied. “Someone is screwing around with some pretty powerful magic, and the side effects have been messy. If I can find proof that the undead was created by someone else, it might be enough to clear Simeon’s name.”
“That’s commendable of you,” Millie said.
“Let’s call it a mild guilt complex instead.”
She patted my hand. “I don’t know anything myself, but there are a couple people who might. Have you ever heard of Forlorn Jones?”
“The name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He’s an oracle of sorts. His brain is filled with more knowledge about current and future events than a hundred people combined.”
“How do I find him?”
“There’s the rub. Jones is a skittish creature and antisocial to a fault. Your best bet is to check under a pile of garbage in the back alleys. Just make sure to carry a large bottle of booze with you. Preferably something cheap and pungent.”
I grimaced. “Of course he’d be a drunk.”
“Learn as much as he has about the wrong side of the Underground and it’s bound to drive you to drink.” She leaned forward. “Seriously, though, there are rumors that he knows things no mortal should. Some say it’s because he has a special Skill for prophecy while others swear it’s because he was exposed to something transcendental. Everyone agrees that he’s been driven half-mad and he self-medicates with liquor.”
“Lovely,” I grumbled. “You said there were a couple people I could talk with? Anyone sober?”
“Normally I’d recommend Reed McAllister. He’s as savvy about Underground rumors as the Oracle, yet unlike Jones, he completes his sentences and smells nice.”
I’d seen Reed in the diner before, but had never talked with him. He was an Underground merchant who, surprisingly enough, was honest. He was considered to be a genuinely decent guy and was well respected. His disappearance surprised me. As far as I knew, the man didn’t have any enemies, and he wasn’t the type to go into hiding.
“Don’t know,” Millie said, tucking another loose hair behind her ear. “Reed is one of my best customers. He was in here last month and seemed jittery. Overly cautious, even. He ate quickly and left a shockingly large tip.”
“There’s been no word about him?” I asked.
Millie shook her head. “None. It’s like he vanished into thin air.”
“The only time that happens is when you’re running from something.”
I didn’t say anything. We both knew the Underground operated on a basic level of fear of the unknown. If Reed was into something sketchy, his enemies would make more of an impact with his disappearance than they would with a direct attack. It would guarantee that anyone else Reed was working with would either get lost or stay quiet.
Then again, Reed could easily have married a trophy wife and moved to the suburbs. Sometimes the act of normalcy is the one we least expect. And as much as his disappearance intrigued me, there were other tasks to worry about first.
“So far we have a drunken oracle and a missing customer,” I said. “Anyone else I can talk to?”
“I know a few others that may be willing to talk for a price, but they wouldn’t be worth your time. Reed and Jones are your best bets. If you can find Reed, take him. Otherwise, Jones will have to do.”
“It’s not much to go on.”
“Sorry, but it’s all I have. Things around here have quieted down a lot, so I’m not as involved with the local gossip as usual.” She sighed heavily. “It just ain’t right.”
I wanted to offer her words of comfort, but didn’t know what to say.
The front door swung open and two pairs of patrons stepped in. All four could have been clones in their elegant leather britches, expensive travel cloaks and medium-sized travel bags. Their long silver hair hung down to their backs, and their sharp, pointed ears poked through the strands. They scanned Millie’s patrons in quiet contempt.
The majority of the diners, myself included, stared in complete shock. The few clans of Elves that still remained were mostly solitary, opting for the relative safety of their enclaves over bustling places like the Underground. Part of that was because they wanted to practice their strange, arcane magic in private. The other part, however, seemed to be because they completely disliked any species that wasn’t their own. I’d only ever interacted with a couple Elves, and each of them held PhD’s in Snobbery.
The appearance of unique visitors seemed to surprise the waitstaff as well. Several girls simply watched the newcomers for a moment before one of them rolled up to the Elves and escorted them to a table. They gave the waitress an icy glare as they sat.