“Did you hear that?” Balin asked, his face pasted to the passenger window.
“For the last two hours I’ve heard nothing but the road and our rumbling stomachs,” Dagon answered, still staring at the lines on the blacktop in front of them. His ass and gas foot both ached. By his calculations, if he continued up GV-17 to the Templus Center exit, they’d make Merc Head Quarters within 10 minutes. Considering they’d be driving through downtown in the middle of dinner, Dagon was fairly certain they wouldn’t meet with heavy traffic.
“There,” Balin jabbed a finger at his window, nearly shouting, “smoke.”
Colonel Dagon glanced over Balin’s shoulder, “I don’t see anything.”
If they took the back road up Faith Gryphus Lane, they’d add five minutes to the trip. Every extra minute was a risk. Dagon needed to reach HQ to find out what happened. “I’m sure the fire department is handling it.”
“But…I heard an explosion, sir.”
Walking the justices through the bombed out husk of Avalona passed through Dagon’s mind, at the last minute he swerved the old militia truck onto the Faith Gryphus off-ramp.
Kent Wheelock headed through the unfamiliar neighborhood at a careful jog while his falcon, Fulco, flew directly to the source of the explosion. Every hair on Kent’s body rose to attention as the horrendous shrieks of dying men reached his ears. Passing one nearly identical squat house after another, Kent didn’t notice the occasional change of color scheme. Instead, he focused on the growing cloud of grey-brown smoke covering the street ahead. Hitting the edge of the smoke field, his eye started burning, and he began choking on hot, thick air. The agonized screeching torn from burning throats grew louder. Standing in the smog and unable to see more than a foot in any direction, Kent wondered, why in Iphi’s name am I running into fire and not away from this? I’m going nuts. That’s it. He held his shirt over his mouth and rapidly blinked tears from his stinging eye. What can I do? I’m not a firefighter or a doctor. Damn it! I don’t even know where to go for emergency services in this godforsaken shithole. Without knowing what compelled him forward, Kent slowly walked through the smoke toward the screaming. Three bright orange flaming figures became visible as the shrieking topped intolerable levels. One-by-one the figures dropped into writhing fire heaps. The stench of alcohol charred human, along with the knowledge that he was watching flame induced death-throws, stopped him in his tracks. I’m going to kill Fintan for this, he thought as his brain rejected the sight and his stomach ejected breakfast.
“Careful boys,” Commander Felis warned the Mercs carrying the Kaiser’s body, “drop him and you’ll pull EMI for the rest of your careers.” For once, Felis was thankful that the manual was clear on procedure when the Kaiser died of either natural causes or suspicious circumstances. In what he’d once seen as a sign of his inner morbidity, Felis had memorized the section on death and signs of assassination. Celatrix Verna is not going to like this, he thought. As the men steadied the stretcher, he yelled, “Ford, Smollet! Escort duty. Once you get to the mortuary, one man stays with the Kaiser at all times, one roves, and the other two post at the front and back entrances. Got me?”
Ford, Smollet, and the two Mercs holding the Kaiser’s stretcher, popped to and yelled, “sir, yes, sir!”
Turning to the two investigators from HQ, Felis ordered, “get what you can, fast as you can. Pressure front’s coming.”
“Sir,” the stocky lead investigator said, “there’s not much here.”
Ignoring the woman, Felis ordered, “report to me as soon as you know something.”
“Will do,” she said, though she shook her head.
Satisfied that the investigators would do their jobs, Felis stared up at the thickening band of light grey clouds, another hour, maybe. They better be quick. He spun away from the open grave, determined to head to the funeral home. Mid-spin he caught a glimpse of smoke rising up from the same direction as the explosion he’d heard earlier. I need to get some men over there. Dead king. Explosion and smoke. Storm coming. I should have stayed in bed. He shook his head, exhaled sharply, and then started forward again. He hadn’t made it six steps before he heard someone yelling his name. If this day doesn’t kill me…
“-mander Felis!” A well-built man wearing the green and black canvas cargo pants common among landscapers, froze a few feet from the investigators. His normally tanned face visibly paled. Glancing nervously from the hole to the investigators and back, he set his jaw, and continued approaching Felis. When within whispering distance, he repeated Santos’ message, “I may be crazy as a loon, but a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush, even if the early bird gets the worm.”
The last thing Felis expected was a gardener spouting Merc code, “what did you say?”
Repeating the message, Patrick Field struggled to keep his attention on the commander. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed the taller of the two investigators start to climb into the grave, he shouted, “wait!”
Both investigators froze.
Having barely processed the meaning of the message, Commander Felis stepped forward, “why should they?”
“Uh,” Patrick Field hesitated, “well, uh, there’s a body in there.”
“How do you know?”
“That’s…um…see he…tried to…” Patrick didn’t know where to start. Finally, he said softly, “yesterday, Kaiser Imler told me to take Arch—uh, Kaiser Archel, and hide Meranti’s body. So, we put it there.”
Commander Felis’ eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Patrick Field, “why would he?”
“I don’t know. I did what I was told. I mean, don’t you follow orders?”
Uncertain of the groundskeeper’s sincerity, Felis nodded, “usually. Then again, I’ve never been ordered to hide a body.”
Flinching, Patrick chewed on the inside of his lip. Then, he said, “until yesterday, I hadn’t either. Of course, the whole world’s gone crazy since then.” Without humor he chuckled, “you might say crazy as a loon.”
Nodding again, Commander Felis approached the investigators, “seems there’s another body in there. Dig it out. Continue your investigation. I’ll send someone to pick it up.” The two investigators looked into the grave, then stared at Felis in confusion. “You have your orders.” He turned back to Patrick, “with me.”
“Left here!” Balin said.
“A bit more warning next time,” Dagon ordered while ripping the steering wheel left. The mid-sized militia truck screeched rubber as it rounded the corner. “You sure you know where we’re going?”
“We’re close. Can’t you smell it?” Balin asked. He rolled his window down, stuck his head out it, and said, “next right.”
“I can’t smell anything,” Dagon jerked the wheel right and screeched around another corner. Without warning Balin, he jammed his foot on the brake.
The ensign’s head slammed into the doorframe. Sliding back into his seat and holding his injured head, the young man growled, “motherfuckme! Say something next time, will you!”
“Ensign,” Dagon pointed out the windshield.
With his eyes closed and his hand holding his left temple, Balin didn’t see Dagon pointing. Balin said, “I’m sorry, sir. But, my head is fucking killing me.”
Using his knuckles, Dagon rapped on Balin’s leg, “I don’t give a shit about that, cuz. Look!” Anna Caliber Drive was covered in slowly dissipating tendrils of brackish haze; heedless of which, a small semi-circle of aged veterans stood near a light blue house on the left side of the street. Dagon released the brake, pressed the gas, and drove the militia truck up to the crowd. Not one of the seniors responded to their arrival, rather the gaggle kept staring at a young man bent over one of three piles of charred remains. They hopped out of the truck and gagged on the smoke and stench. Inside the truck, even though Balin’s window was down, the smell had been muted.
When Dagon started to step through the crowd, Balin grabbed his elbow, “let me check it out first, sir.”
“Pshaw!” Dagon shook the hand off and edged through the old-timers. As Dagon approached, a miserable cawing broke the silence. An instant later, the young man threw his head back and howled, matching the bird’s wailing tone for tone.
Ensign Osborne ran a hand through his ginger curls, “but, General Michaels, I don’t see any sign of her. Much less anyone else.”
In exasperation, the general drew out a sigh, “Whistler has killed us.” Using his cane, he tapped a group of pointing twigs, a broken branch in a hole in the bushes, and piece of cloth hanging just inside the hole. “Didn’t you learn to track? That used to be first year at the Academy.”
“I’m not a Regular. Sir, I never went to Academy. I went to Elite. Different schools.”
The general stared at Osborne’s tan slacks, then huffed, “it seems Lara will be pleased to know I’m teaching again. Here. And, here. Signs.”
“Anything could have broken that,” Osborne said.
“A squirrel will rarely take the time to arrange twigs in the shape of an arrow.” Tapping his forehead with one finger, he added, “think ensign. She has to communicate with what’s available. I know they teach you that.”
“It’ll be difficult for me to get through. You go. I’ll walk around that mausoleum and see if there’s a break in the shrubbery. Keep your eyes open for other signs. If I can’t get in, you’ll have to follow her trail.”
“Okay, sir,” Osborne said as he disappeared into the bush.
“Then what happened?” Commander Felis asked as they neared the funeral home.
“Well,” Patrick said, “one minute I’m bringing our lunch in, and the next I’m watching a girl appear in my living room and the boy, uh, the king, change into a griffin. I ain’t never seen anything like it. She just popped in out of nowhere and h—he... You ever see someone transform?”
“Seen it?” Felis fiddled with his pinky ring, “no. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it.”
“I wasn’t expecting it.”
“I’m sure that was unsettling.”
“Unsettling? That’s an understatement. Frankly, Commander, it was unreal. Everyone’s heard the tales. But what sane person believes in griffins and teleportation? Unreal. And, meaning no offense, downright freaky. I was glad when Santos gave me that ridiculous message. I needed to get out of my own house. Get some fresh air.”
“I don’t think you do,” Patrick sighed. “I’m not made for politics. I’m a gardener. And, I’m two days behind in my planting. Mr. Silvan is gonna be pissed.”
Felis stopped walking, “I can handle Silvan for you, if you can take care of a couple things for me.”
“Did you see the smoke?”
“Yeah. Any idea what happened?”
“No. Verify the fire department’s on scene or at least been called. And, get Celatrix Verna down here from the Ministrae. She’s got arrangements to make.”
Patrick eyed Felis before saying, “that’s it? Run errands?”
“Yes. I don’t have any guards to spare right now.”
Thinking about his uninvited house guests, Patrick said, “alright. I’ll be your errand boy. Anything else?”
“If that’s not enough for you, I’m sure I can think of something else. Report to me when you’re done.”
“No. No. That’s good. You’ve got a deal,” Patrick stuck out his right hand and Felis shook it with his own.
With the deal sealed, Patrick took off jogging toward the smoky streamers rising over the retirement neighborhood. Rubbing his neck and watching the darkening sky, Felis grunted, if he thinks a griffin is freaky, I wonder what he’d think of a Versicatus. He’s probably never even heard of one. He turned back to the funeral home and strode the last hundred feet to the office entrance where Ensign Ford paced.