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Donal sketched a fingertip salute to the shadows beyond the stone steps. Stuffing his hands in his overcoat pockets, he looked up at the two hundred stories of police HQ rearing upward, dark and uncompromising. It was late and cold and the sky appeared deep purple, heavily opaque.
Somewhere near the top, Commissioner Vilnar's office waited. And reading between the lines of this morning's phone call, the commissioner had a new job lined up for him—something Donal was not going to enjoy.
"Son of a bitch," he muttered.
From the shadows came a low growl.
"No offense," Donal added.
Donal unbuttoned his coat and moved easily up the steps, two treads at a time, passing between the glowing pillars that lined the stairway. He stopped at the big bronze-and-steel doors.
"Lieutenant Donal Riordan." He spoke clearly. "Badge number two-three-omicron-nine."
A tingling swept down Donal's skin, then huge locks rotated and clunked, and the doors swung inward. Donal passed inside, into the vaultlike reception area.
To the right, the duty sergeant, Eduardo, was a shadowy figure above the imposing granite block of his desk; otherwise, the place was deserted. Donal's footsteps echoed back as he headed for the bank of cylindrical lifts at the rear, his coat swirling capelike in the mixed cool and hot breezes that swept through this place.
He stepped into an empty elevator shaft.
"Hey, Gertie. Floor One Eighty-seven, please."
For a moment, nothing. Then:
*Anything for you, hon.*
The words felt like a caress.
Donal's stomach tipped as he shot upward.
Ten seconds later, he stepped out into a half-lit corridor.
In the reception offices, Commissioner Vilnar's secretary, known to every cop as Eyes, was sitting with her back to Donal. Slender silver cables hung around her switchboardlike console. Without turning, she waved her pale hand, which Donal took as a signal to go straight in.
"You're welcome, Lieutenant."
Donal strode past a row of ordinary-looking filing cabinets. Each was marked secure, imprinted with a tiny fist-shaped sigil. He wondered what they contained. Probably the commissioner's expense sheets.
The black doors in front of Donal pulled apart, and he stepped through into Commissioner Vilnar's office. There was a lone visitor's chair made of black iron set before the imposing desk. Behind Donal, the doors closed with a faint screech.
On the other side of the desk, the big chair rotated, revealing the commissioner's bald head, the wide shoulders of his black suit.
"Have you ever been to the opera, Riordan?"
"That"—the commissioner's flat features moved; a sketched rehearsal for a smile—"is what I thought you'd say. Read this."
A desk drawer slid open, and Commissioner Vilnar pulled out a broadsheet newspaper. It looked like a luxury edition, warm yellow vellum bearing a curlicued violet script: a copy of the Fortinium Times. Its layout was similar to the Tristopolitan Gazette, though not the flimsy edition that Donal read: the plebeian version shredded apart within hours.
"Um . . ."
There was a gangland killing featured on the bottom of the first page. A blue-and-white photograph showed an innocent victim, a passing nurse who'd stepped between a slowing car and the real target, Bugs Lander.
"Try the Culture section," said the commissioner. "Under Theater."
"You're kidding." Donal turned the heavy pages. "This? About the opera singer?"
Purple ink shimmered as his gaze moved across the description of Maria daLivnova's performance in The White Masque.
"I don't see—oh. She's coming to Tristopolis. The Theatre du Loup Mort."
The venue was an ornate building off Hoardway that Donal had passed many times.
"That's right. And while the diva is here"—Commissioner Vilnar reached over and retrieved the paper—"absolutely nothing bad is going to happen to her. Am I right?"
Donal closed his eyes, opened them again.
"Are you suggesting protection duty, sir?"
"I don't have to suggest anything."
"Um . . . no, sir."
From another drawer, the commissioner removed separate vellum sheets. Indigo typeface delineated a series of crime-report summaries, each headed with a location and date, the first crime scene being in the city of Fortinium. Two other sheets were reprinted newspaper articles.
"Six months ago," said Donal.
"Read the details."
The report described a famous actor falling dead onstage, accompanied by surprised applause from some of the audience who failed to realize how premature the death scene was.
"A fake ambulance crew," added Commissioner Vilnar before Donal could finish the paragraph, "came to take the body away. Five minutes before the real medics arrived."
"Thanatos," muttered Donal.
Commissioner Vilnar frowned: he disapproved of bad language. Donal continued to read scanning reports from three other countries in Transifica, plus one from Zurinam.
"The bodies. That's the common factor." Donal looked up. "Someone's after the performers' bodies."
"That's right." Commissioner Vilnar pointed at the third report, of family bodyguards at a heavily fortified mausoleum, who shot first and asked no questions. They had killed two of the intruders and driven off the others. "That was Trelway Boskin the Third, and his body is still in its sarcophagus."
One of the dead actors, Sir Alyn Conroly, had made it as far as the city morgue. That was in Lorgonne, on the dank south coast. There, forensic seers had found microscopic holes left by toxic slivers that had already dissolved.
But the morning after their examination, when a seer's assistant pulled open the lead-lined drawer that should have contained Conroly, the drawer was empty.
"And it is murder," said Donal. "Not just body-snatching."
"In a courtroom, in the other cases, that would be idle speculation."
"Yes. I see."
The reports covered twelve murders in total.
In Zurinam, where a popular foreign singer called Shalaria was visiting—just Shalaria, no last name—the same kind of thing had occurred. But after Shalaria's collapse, according to local custom, city officials had fed her corpse to the glistening albino snakes that lived in the city's largest cathedral.
In the blue-and-white photograph, the snakes were coiled impassively around the stone columns, while a congregation prayed. There were no signs of the digested remains.
The reprinted article, written by a Tristopolitan journalist, commended the city fathers for their speed in committing Shalaria to the snakes without those bothersome delays incurred by forensic examinations. Luckily, the authorities were trustworthy, the article continued, otherwise one might even doubt that it was Shalaria's body at all.
Donal pushed the papers aside.
"It could be coincidence."
"So. What else could it be?"
"A conspiracy across two continents. With resources and rigorous planning."
"And a burning desire," said Commissioner Vilnar, "to go for lucky thirteen?"
"It could be." Donal tapped the papers. "Even if not, this diva will need a protection detail. It's a question of how thorough the protection is."
What Donal meant was, how much money the department was prepared to spend. For a moment, a flash of something that might have been humor passed through the commissioner's eyes.
"She'll be safe in our city."
Donal understood that statement for what it was.
"When do I start, sir?"
"You just did."
In the antechamber, a folder was waiting for Donal on the desktop. He opened it and drew out a letter.
"You're supposed to read it," Eyes said.
Donal checked the letterhead, which bore the embossed Tree Frog insignia of the City Borough Federation, as well as the federal Salamander-and-Eagle.
Xoram Borough Council
99 Phosphorus Way
Tristopolis TS 66A-298-omega-2
Tristopolis Police Headquarters
1 Avenue of the Basilisks
Tristopolis TS 777-000
Quatrember 42, 6607
Re: Meeting with Malfax Cortindo, Director, City Energy Authority
Dear Commissioner Vilnar,
It has been absolutely my pleasure to arrange a meeting between one of your officers and Director Cortindo of the City Energy Authority. The latter body is, of course, a credit to our city, and the director evinced no hesitation in assuring me that he will be overjoyed to provide any technical assistance that is germane.
I have communicated with Director Cortindo that Lieutenant Donal Riordan will be meeting with him, as per your indicated request of 40th ult., on the evening of Quintember 37 at nineteen o'clock, at the Downtown Core Station. All facilities will be placed at the lieutenant's disposal.
Alderman Kinley Finross
P.S. All best to your honored wife. Sally and I hope to return the favor at the Styxian Ball.
Donal checked his watch. The appointment was for tonight in less than an hour.
"Sweet bleeding Death. How am I supposed to get there on time?"
Eyes shrugged without turning away from her console.
"Sorry. I didn't make the arrangements."
"No, of course not." Donal replaced the letter in the folder. "You want me to leave this here?"
"Then I'll get going."
Gertie quickly took Donal down to the twenty-seventh floor without a word: Donal's mood was obvious. He swept through the squad room, ignoring Levison, who was waving a piece of paper. There was no time.
Inside his office, Donal slammed the door shut with his heel.
"Death damn it."
Putting his phone's handset to his ear, he spun the first four combination wheels to dial an internal number, then waited.
"Hey, Sam. It's Donal. You got any squad cars down there ready to go?"
"Sorry, Lieutenant. O'Doyle and Zachinov took the last one. The others are still hooked up to the—"
Donal hung up. How—
A dark cable hung outside his office window, and he remembered that the cleaners were working on the exterior this week.
I must be insane.
But he was in a real hurry now, so he reached inside his desk drawer, hooked out a pair of black liquid-metal gloves, and pulled them on. Flipping up the window locks, he took hold and heaved the pane open.
It was a long drop down.
He flexed the black metal gloves, thought about it for a moment, then climbed up onto the windowsill and threw himself out.
The gloves took hold of the rope by themselves, and a smell like burning oil rose up. The air was cold as Donal's feet touched the wall every fifty feet or so—an insane rappel—while behind a window, a woman jumped back, her mouth wide in an unheard scream.
Gripping harder now, the gloves slowed Donal's descent—for Thanatos's sake—leaving it to the last moment, but his feet touched lightly, and he was down.
A purple taxi slowed, the driver catching sight of Donal, but then began to speed up again.
"Hey!" shouted Donal.
Just then a dark shape shot into the road from beyond the HQ steps. Amber eyes blazed and the taxi screeched to a halt, rocking on its suspension. Donal stared for a moment, then pocketed his gloves and strode to the taxi, his heart still beating fast from the effort and adrenaline.
He pulled open the passenger door and stopped.
The huge deathwolf grinned, sitting on its haunches in front of the vehicle. Then it nodded and trotted back to its place in the shadows as Donal climbed inside the taxi and pulled the door shut.
"Police emergency," he said.
"Uh . . . yeah?"
"Thousand Seventh Street. Let's not hang around."
The driver turned, an unlit black cigar hanging from his lips.
"What, you want to see my handcuffs? Or my gun?"
"No, chief." The driver gunned the engine and pulled away from the curb. "No need."
"Good." Donal's voice was soft. "That's a good thing."
From the corner of Avenue of the Basilisks and Hellvue Boulevard, a white-skinned woman in a pale-gray skirt suit watched the taxi depart, admiring the efficiency of the man's exit.
"That's a quality that could be useful."
At her words, a street cleaner paused on the other side of the street, curious. Just then, there was a shimmering movement in the air.
Grabbing a broom from his cart, the cleaner got to work in the gutter, no longer looking up or sideways. Not even from the edge of his vision. Some things are not meant to be stared at directly.
*You think he's honest?* the air whispered.
The woman in gray pulled a compact out of her handbag and flipped it open. The mirror was one-third silver, the remaining two-thirds black but still reflective: plenty of time remaining.
She snapped the compact shut, replaced it beside her platinum-coated pistol, and slung the bag back over her shoulder.
"I don't know," she said. "Do you think we could use him if he isn't?"
"Neither do I." The woman looked down the long perspective of the dark avenue, watching as the taxi hooked into a fast left turn and was gone. "If he doesn't survive, it doesn't matter either way."
*I thought I was the negative one.*
The woman turned and strode toward the nearest black hydrant. Her dark, finned car—a Vixen—was waiting at the curb. As she walked, a half-glimpsed ripple passed through the air alongside her, keeping pace.
*Or maybe you're afraid to let yourself admire him. Is that it?*
The woman stopped, fingers touching the car's door handle. She looked up at the air.
"Am I that transparent?"
There was another ripple, altering the outline of the art gallery beyond.
*Is that meant to be funny?*
"Well, I laughed." The woman got inside the car and slammed the door.
After a moment, she opened the passenger door from the inside, waited for approximately thirty seconds, then reached across and pulled it shut.
"Let's go keep watch. If Lieutenant Riordan doesn't reappear, we'll have someone to charge with his murder. There's always a bright side, Xalia. Didn't you know?"
*I prefer the darkness, Laura.*
*And you don't?*
The car slid away from the curb.
Two great pillars of stone reached up. If a visitor craned his head back, he would see, against a background of purple sky, that each pillar was surmounted by a skull wearing an Ouroboros headband, a flattened Mobius serpent twisting around and swallowing its own tail.
Lowering his gaze just a little, he would register the immense size and weight of the solid black iron gates and the great walls formed of granite stretching off to either side, encircling the Downtown Core Complex.
The taxi stopped, small in the foreshortened black drive that stopped at the gates. Behind the taxi, beyond the street, rose the attenuated blocks of old denuded buildings, empty niches showing where gargoyles once perched.
"Man," murmured the taxi driver. "This place . . ."
Donal said: "Sound your horn."
"Oh, I don't—"
A long howl rose from under the taxi's purple hood. "There. Are you—"
There was a grinding sound, and the taxi shuddered as the gates began to move, sliding to either side. Donal remained impassive while the driver swallowed twice, three times, then rolled the taxi forward.
As they entered a gargantuan courtyard, the driver almost had his eyes shut, but Donal was scanning the environment, checking the gun slits on the walls, noting the internal stairs that led to watchtowers.
Then the taxi slowed and halted on a brass circular area at the courtyard's center. The brass disk's diameter was perhaps twice the length of a delivery truck.
"PLEASE CUT THE ENGINE." The voice reverberated around the courtyard.
"Oh, man . . ."