Pointing to the stolen cargo van, the Inquisitor ordered Jougs to pull in behind it. By way of acknowledgement, Mr. Jougs jerked the steering wheel hard to the left. The Inquisitor gave Jougs a dirty look, but said nothing as the car slammed to a stop near the discarded shipping containers.
“They’re gone,” Mr. Vorant murmured from the back seat.
As the men congregated next to the cargo van, the Inquisitor said, “get your boss back on the line. The rest of you, spread out. Find them.” When the loader passed over his silver phone, the Inquisitor said to him, “go.” Into the phone he growled, “we missed them. Explain why you sent us the wrong way.” He listened for a moment, then said, “enough. We’re not your errand boys, Top. As far as I’m concerned we delivered the cargo on time.” Gripping the little silver phone tightly, the Inquisitor hissed, “that’s your problem. I expect payment as arranged. Don’t be late.” He hung up the phone, then shouted, “Misters Jougs and Vorant, attend me.”
When the two men reached him, the Inquisitor said, “we have a problem.” Jougs and Vorant glanced at each other, then focused on the Inquisitor, who said, “we’re leaving.” Once they were back in the stolen car, the Inquisitor growled, “Top thinks this is a game. We’re late for our next appointment. Go.”
“Sir, do you think the contact will even be there?” Jougs asked.
“She’ll be there. Drive,” the Inquisitor ordered.
“No,” the middle-aged nurse said as he smoothed out his powder blue scrubs.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Balin asked, holding his balled up fists behind his legs.
“I mean no. What’s confusing you, son?”
“Your attitude for starts,” Balin retorted.
“You’ve got a problem with my winning personality?”
“That and your ever-loving mouth.”
“Well, that’s your problem.”
Still resisting the urge to punch the nurse, Balin said, “you have no idea who you’re dealing with, do you?”
The nurse ran a hand through his thinning blonde hair, saying, “I know who you’re guarding. It doesn’t change procedure. He’s in shock. If the doctor wants him doped up, then and only then, will someone administer the dose. In the mean time, why don’t you go back to the room and do your job, so the rest of us can do ours?”
“He’s got other injuries. Didn’t you see his eye? He’s a priority. Get the doctor, now.”
“Son, he’s not a priority. You see that fellow,” the nurse pointed to a gurney being rushed down the hallway toward the operating rooms, “that is what a priority looks like. If the doctor doesn’t do surgery now that man dies. Understand life versus death?” Balin nodded. “Good.” The nurse leaned in and whispered, “now, go guard the new Bard. Mercury forbid, something should happen to him while you’re out of the room.”
“Fine,” Balin conceded before about-facing and marching down the hallway. Back inside the hospital room, Balin found Kent and Fulco on opposite sides of the bed vigorously squawking at one another. The body of Aeolus acted as a line of demarcation between them. He contemplated manning his post outside the door, rather than victimizing his ears, but held fast in horrified fascination, watching the bizarre face-off between man and falcon.
“Enough!” Kent ignored Balin and continued shouting at Fulco in the language of the birds. “I know they’re dead,” he pointed at Aeolus, “I’m not blind. All I smell is the—the burnt flesh of Fin—my—father,” he spit out the last word with vehemence. “If you’re so damned certain that we have to leave, I’ll open a window. Fly away, little birdie.”
“‘We’ does not mean me, idiot,” Fulco replied. “We’re in danger because you’re in danger. The Kaiser and the Bard were murdered. You are in jeopardy.”
“Ooh, not that. You don’t know what I’ve gone through. We’re at a hospital. No one knows us. And, we’ve got a guard,” Kent motioned toward Balin who stood with one hand on the door handle, body half turned to leave. “We’re fine.”
“I know everything about you. One guard cannot help. We’re exposed. The Merc has orders to take us to HQ. We should go now,” Fulco insisted.
“Bah! You don’t know shit, birdbrain,” Kent huffed.
A ruffled Fulco puffed up his neck feathers, taking a few steps toward Aeolus, he calmly said, “I know your heart as if it were mine. I know what you did to survive the streets of Sanctuary City. I know what you did to that soldier before we joined up. And, I know that if you’d stop wallowing in self-pity for five minutes, you’d understand what you risk by staying here.”
Blanched, staring warily at the bird, Kent thought, he knows about the Admiral and that piece of shit West. How? Kent’s cheeks went from pasty white to bright red, doesn’t matter. He angrily remarked, “tell anyone and I’ll kill you.”
“That is suicide,” Fulco stated.
“Your point?” Kent asked.
“I will not speak of it.”
“We must leave,” Fulco repeated as his ruffled feathers returned to normal.
“If we leave, will you shut up?” Kent asked.
“For now,” Fulco answered.
Turning to Balin, Kent squawked, “we’re going to your HQ.”
Without changing his stance, Balin regarded Kent with confusion.
“Wrong language,” Fulco said.
Glancing back at Fulco, Kent’s head tilted sideways as he realized he’d once again been speaking like a bird. A wave of memories pulsed through Kent, he recalled life as Fulco: learning to fly and hunt, mourning Halcyone’s death, and the horrors of initiation. Shuddering at the weight of Fulco’s knowledge, Kent bowed his head. He forced his thoughts away from Fulco and once again faced Ensign Balin. After a moment of working his tongue, Kent said to Balin, “we’re going to your HQ.”
“Right. Soon as the doctor clears you.”
“Wrong. Can’t wait. We’re going now,” Kent ordered.
“My orders are unmistakable: hospital, doctor, clearance, and then, HQ.”
“You outrank his boss,” Fulco screeched.
Covering his left ear, Kent ignored Fulco while struggling to think in human speech. Finally, he said, “I’m not staying here. I hate hospitals.” Swinging off the bed, Kent spun around too quickly, forcing him to put out a hand to use the bed for support.
“Sir, please. Sit back down,” Balin stepped forward.
“I’m fine,” Kent growled. “After I dig through those cabinets for something to wrap the bird in, we’re leaving. You coming or not?”
Gauging the injured Bard, Balin crossed the room to the cabinets and started digging through them. He pulled out a variety of medical supplies before turning back to Kent. “Sit down, sir. If you’re not willing to wait for the doctor, then at least let me clean you up first.”
“Then, we leave.”
“Please stop it!” Adonis begged.
General Willard Tomlyn leaned next to Adonis’ burnt ear and yelled, “give me the names.”
Jerking his head away, Adonis continued begging, “please stop. I’m innocent.”
“Fraunx, you’re a lot of things, but ‘innocent’ isn’t one of them,” General Tomlyn laughed. “You’re a murdering, slaving, wretched little shitbag. I don’t know what game you’re playing, but you will give me the names of every fucker you’re working with.” That said, the general snapped Adonis’ left pinky finger. Adonis screamed as Tomlyn idly remarked, “funny that you had an opportunity to prevent this type of interrogation and didn’t take it. I asked myself why a few times. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. My subordinates are well-trained in methods of extracting information without leaving evidence on the body. I saw to it. That was my fall back plan in the event that you and the other justices tied our hands. Fortunately,” Tomlyn broke Adonis’ left ring finger, “you didn’t.” While Adonis screamed again, the general asked, “the names?”
“To me,” Celatrix Verna said, standing in the front of the morgue door and waving over her ministers. When they surrounded her, she began, “Kaiser Rudolpho Imler was murdered this afternoon.” She paused for their collective gasp, letting the news sink in. Before they started chattering amongst themselves, she continued, “we’re to cleanse him, dress him, and pass his spirit to the Phoenix Rose. After which, we’ll bury him in the Tomb of the Gryphons as all his line gone before him. Ministers, you know your duties. Go to them. Scribus. Clericus. Attend me. We have much to prepare.” She turned to the handful of people waiting in the parlor, “those of you who were near the Kaiser after his death will wait here. Have the new arrivals wait with you. We’ll need you all at midnight. Do you understand?” She looked each person in the eyes. When she was satisfied that they comprehended, she spun around headed for the morgue.
The Merc, whose raised weapon pointed at the morgue entrance, relaxed when he saw the Celatrix. He holstered his gun and stepped back from the exam table.
“Scribus, use that corner,” she pointed, “render him as exactly as possible.”
“Yes, Celatrix,” the young woman bowed deeply, shoulder length auburn hair falling around her face.
“Clericus,” Verna said, placing a hand on the overweight woman’s shoulder, “did you bring everything?”
Nodding, she reached into her grey cloak and unfastened a large leather bag which she handed to Celatrix Verna. “Your tools are in the front pouch and the Indigimenta is in the main compartment,” the woman stated.
“Good. Open to the last entry,” Celatrix Verna said while unrolling the sheet over the Kaiser’s body. The Clericus held the Indigimenta open and facing the Celatrix who stood with her palms hovering over the Kaiser’s stomach. “Young man,” she addressed the Merc, “this is your last chance to use the restroom until the ritual is complete.”
“I will maintain my post until properly relieved,” he replied.
“Then we begin.”
Convinced that they were about to get themselves killed, Musgrove whispered, “sir, are you sure there isn’t another way?”
“I’m sure,” Commander Dante said.
“It’s just—well—we’re about to cross that point, you know? See that chain-link?” He pointed up the hill they were climbing. The street lights abruptly stopped on the other side of a chain-link fence surrounding a huge undeveloped lot. “That’s where Hellion territory begins.”
“I don’t think you understand.”
Dante stopped, grabbed Musgrove’s bicep and stepped in, their faces only centimeters apart, “Anthony, I understand perfectly. You’re nervous. Balls up. These people are nothing to us, save a means to an end. We’re not moving in, we’re passing through. You get me?”
Grinding his teeth, Musgrove closed his eyes and breathed through his nose in a feeble attempt to stop the tick threatening his right eyebrow. When the commander squeezed Musgrove’s arm, the driver opened his eyes and said, “I get you, sir.” He yanked his arm away, adding, “that doesn’t mean I like it.”
Chuckling, Dante slapped Musgrove on the back, “who does?” Wrinkling his nose, Dante said in all seriousness, “I can’t believe I let you talk me into wearing this rank filth. I’m positive a cat pissed on them.” Sniffing at Musgrove’s shoulder, Dante grinned, “you little son of a bitch. You don’t smell like cat piss.”
Musgrove shrugged, “I gave you first pick, sir.”
“Oh, I’ve got you now. Damn joker,” Dante said while nodding his head. “Let’s go.”