Laura’s dismissal had been a shock, initially. It came on the tail end of an infestation, just as reported in the Amicae Sun. Damage had been done, yes, but it hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as what she’d done to the army barracks in September, or even what she and Clae had done to a residence in August. Where those incidents had been either picked at or overlooked entirely, stories about this one had ballooned. It couldn’t be blamed on mobsters or another far-fetched reason, not now in Amicae’s “age of truth.” As good as it was to have people who knew about infestations, in this instance it proved extremely annoying. When infestations came up now, the public reacted in hysterics. Citizens wrote to the papers, bemoaning her ineptitude: Why couldn’t she have just not damaged anything? Why couldn’t she have prevented the infestation from coming at all? Why hadn’t she done her civic duty and shared the truth with everyone from the start? Okane suggested that maybe she should avoid the papers for a while, but she ignored him. If she was head Sweeper, she’d do this right. She needed to know what everyone was saying, so she could give them a proper and well-educated fuck you in case she ever met one of these idiots in person. (“- - - sound like Clae,” he’d informed her, and even his lack of “you” sounded exasperated.)
Part of her was viciously pleased when the Dead Ringer newspaper rose to her defense, but mostly she felt squeamish. Anyone with a brain knew that the Dead Ringer was run by the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs helped Sweepers during the Falling Infestation, but that had been basic self-preservation. With their own fleet of Sweepers far outnumbering the Sinclairs, there was no need for them to dig in their heels like this. Laura had a bad feeling that the Mad Dogs would come knocking on her door with a debt she’d never asked for. Furthermore, the obvious new link between Sweepers and Mad Dogs was a nightmare in publicity. Albright had since redirected any phone calls to the shop, but after the first Dead Ringer article a woman called the Sweepers and accused Laura of assisting the Mad Dogs in bombing a business on the east side and killing her son. Adding insult to injury, the bombing in question had been undertaken by Blackwater, a completely different mob. The very next day, the Dead Ringer churned out a page reading, You don’t even know which mob you hate! Why do you think you know enough to judge an organization you didn’t even know existed?
Laura had braced herself for a rebuke from the Council. Sure enough, she received a letter with the Council’s phoenix stamp. Inside it simply read:
Due to recent circumstances, we have agreed that you are no longer suitable to hold the position of head Sweeper.
Below it were signatures from multiple Council members. Councilwoman Victoria Douglas hadn’t graced the letter with her signature or approval, but majority ruled. Laura was demoted. She might have been biased, but she was still convinced this was a petty dismissal. There was no benefit for Amicae in removing the most veteran member of such a small Sweeper department, and Clae had remained in power for twelve years under the same tactics. Worse, there was no one to replace her with. The only Council-approved option was …
“Juliana MacDanel’s been authorized for full citizenship.”
In the here and now, December 5, 1233, Okane paged through another newspaper. It still took him a while to read everything, but he took in all the words with eyes she vowed never to compare to silver coins. “The Sun’s done a highlight on her in celebration.”
Laura’s head lay in the middle of a newspaper halo. She turned to look at him, scrunching the pages of today’s Dead Ringer.
“A highlight? Like they do for film stars?”
“Yes. I don’t see how they had the opportunity to do this kind of interview unless they paid for the telephone call,” said Okane. “It says she enjoys dogs, playing Aces, and eating Ralurian potato peels. When advertisements listed that as a delicacy, I thought it was a joke.”
“I’m still not convinced it isn’t.” Laura felt tempted to sink lower in her slouch, but there wasn’t anyplace lower to go when one’s face was plastered to the counter. She had no doubt this interest in Juliana MacDanel was engineered: a way to soothe the public, make Amicae feel like the Council was answering their call, all while endearing the Sweepers to them like the friendly entourage of a film star. “If they’re trying to make the head Sweeper into a mascot, I’ll admit I’m not a good fit for the job.”
Okane eyed her reproachfully. “There’s no way she would know the job better than - - - do.”
“With twenty years on the job, she would,” said Laura. “Knowing layout isn’t everything. She’ll probably learn quickly.”
“I still think - - -’re more suitable,” said Okane.
Laura snorted. “Look at it this way. If the head Sweeper’s going to be a media darling, that cuts back on her Sweeping time. She’ll be in an interview, and I’ll be on the extermination. I won’t have the title, but I’ll still be the real power here. So long as I can keep Sweeping, that’s enough for me.”
It was a lie, but admitting that felt petulant. She’d reach for any silver lining she could at this point. Okane seemed to be even more upset about this than she was, but luckily she was spared any additional arguing by a knock at the door. While strange during business hours, the gesture meant it must be one of two people. Okane waved at the large windows, and the visitor creaked the door open.
The police chief, Heather Albright, stepped in. She carried her black helmet under one arm, freeing dark red hair to fall in a frazzled braid down her back. Her glasses half hid the dark circles under her eyes, the sheaf of paper under her other arm presumably to blame. At one time her presence might’ve been odd, but ever since the disaster she dropped by to check on them multiple times a week. Whether this was because she worried over losing a vital cog in the city machine or actually felt concern for their personal well-being Laura didn’t know, but she appreciated the attention. She’d expected Albright to drop by, but the man who sidled in behind her, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and a pipe held loosely between his teeth, wasn’t familiar. He stood behind and off to Albright’s side, close enough to observe but not in the way, and seemed very used to this spot. Albright didn’t so much as look at him, instead fixing her tired gaze on the Sweepers.
“Good afternoon. Has business been well today?”
“Not really,” said Laura. “No one came in, even for recycling.”
“After the incident I didn’t think we’d need so many warnings printed, but I’ll ask for another round in the papers,” Albright muttered. “That should send them hurrying in.”
Laura smiled. “Did you need something today, Chief Albright?”
“Just giving you some news.” She brandished the papers. “For one thing, we’ve got the politics hammered out on this problem of yours. Might want to thank Douglas. She nearly turned the case into a crusade.”
The idea of the stern, elderly councilwoman charging into battle surprised Laura, but then again she’d never met Victoria Douglas. “How did it turn out?”
“Clae Sinclair’s will is going to be carried out as intended. Whether or not it was used for public service, all Sweeper equipment is privately owned, so the Council and city can’t claim it.” She muttered something about a gray area of whether Pits were considered private property, something the Council had argued over in the process. “And whoever inherits his estate gets all of it, since Sweepers are tax-free. The Council loved that. Bottom line: there’s a lot more up for grabs and possibly yours, but that’s all up to the estate administrator carrying it out.”
“Good. I wouldn’t trust the Council with it,” said Laura. She’d read more than enough about the early days when the Council had used Gin to pay off any small debt, and her personal experiences with their orders hadn’t been enjoyable. “Do you know how long an administrator should take?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had to deal with them.” Albright turned to look at the man, who’d drifted toward the counter to inspect the Kin. “Rhodes, how much time does it take for them to do their job?”
The man straightened up from squinting at a flask, pushing his hat back on thick auburn hair. “Depends,” he said, in a slow drawl. “If there’s organized documentation, they could be in and out in no time. If there’s not, you may have to deal with them for a while. Don’t worry, though. They don’t take nearly as long as people seem to think.”
Albright nodded her approval before plucking a small page from her papers and setting it on the countertop. Laura leaned over to see it better and recognized it as a telegram.
“In addition, your new boss is coming soon.” The mention made Laura’s stomach twist; half shame for her horrendously botched job and following dismissal, half dread for the newcomer. “Personally, I think it’s unnecessary. As far as I’m concerned you did the right thing. Clae Sinclair certainly wouldn’t have done any different. You prevented a massive loss of life, and—”
“And the Council doesn’t want another Clae,” said Laura. “I’m not happy about it, but there’s nothing I can do. Besides, I have faith in whoever Puer’s head Sweeper picks out.”
Albright pursed her lips but didn’t argue. “That man was in contact with us about her, and had a lot of good things to say. The Council sent someone to properly interview her and they were impressed, so she’s been accepted. This”—she tapped the telegram—“was sent yesterday. There was a mix-up in the mailroom so it only reached me today, but it says she’s eager to start and left for Amicae already. If the trains run on schedule she’ll arrive tonight, and if she’s as enthusiastic as I believe, she’ll swing by to look at the shop as soon as she does. You may meet her before I do.”
Laura wasn’t sure what to think. She thought they’d have a little more warning before the replacement swooped in to usurp the job. Time to mentally prepare themselves, time to hide the Sinclairs. She almost wished no one had been picked as head Sweeper.
She folded her hands, bit her lip. She glanced at the man before whispering, “Should we tell her about, um, those two?”
Albright leaned back and regarded them a moment.
“I think that’s up to you. I don’t know the extent of politics and rivalry between Sweepers, but I know nothing’s free of corruption. Wait awhile and judge whether you can trust her first. For the moment, I’d keep it secret. That said, I’ve shared information about the Sinclairs with Rhodes.”
Laura froze. “You what?”
“Rhodes, come over here.”
The man sauntered over to their group. He stood next to Albright, easily taller than all of them, though he had a slouch and his eyes were droopy in a friendly kind of way. If she’d met him any other time Laura would’ve thought he was harmless, but now she felt on edge.
“This is Byron Rhodes, a private investigator,” said Albright. “I’ve asked him to keep an eye on you. With the news and the recent riots, criminals have been getting bold. There’s been an upsurge in crime rates, mob and otherwise, so I won’t have the time to check on you. He’ll be monitoring you in my stead. He’s currently investigating the events leading to the disaster and evacuation, so in order for him to have a full understanding I gave him the whole story. What I know, anyway. If you have any other information I urge you to share it with him.”
So a stranger was free to know about Clae and Anselm while the head Sweeper wasn’t? That didn’t make much sense, but if the chief of police put so much faith in this investigator, Laura supposed she could trust him to an extent.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Rhodes,” she said, trying her best to look unruffled.
“Just call me Byron,” he replied, tipping his hat. “No need to be nervous. I’m here to support you, same as Heather here.” Strangely enough, Albright didn’t look remotely concerned with the use of her first name. “Quite a few strange pieces in motion around that infestation. There’s no telling who’s behind it, but if they attacked Amicae on such a grand scale, I’m sure their next attempt will be just as vicious. I’d like to make sure you don’t become casualties.”
Laura blinked. “Next attempt? I thought Sullivan was the one behind it all, and he’s in jail now. It was his pipes, right?”
“Maybe, but the man himself couldn’t have done the deed,” said Byron. “Takes a lot of workers. We’ve got false IDs on what’s left of the interior record and no matches in his workforce. I’d say there’s another group at work here.”
It couldn’t have been the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs had a disagreement with Sullivan before, and their Sweepers had come to fight off the infestation rather than evacuate. That left another city, Rex: they’d sent a small infiltration force, and their crest was blatantly painted under the ruined bulwark tree. But they’d only had three men, two captured. Surely one man couldn’t manage all that. But Rexian rumor was worse than ghost stories, and Laura had to quash her unease.
“You’ll find out who did it?”
“He’s more capable than his looks suggest,” said Albright, “which is one of the reasons I’m assigning him to you. If you have any immediate problems, go to him.”
Laura nodded but said nothing. Byron seemed to understand her reluctance. He pulled a card from his pocket and set it on the counter before her.
“Here’s my information if you need it. You probably won’t see me often, but I’m there if you need me. Until then I’ll try to stay out of your way.”
“Thanks,” Laura mumbled, while Okane slid the card closer and squinted at the type.
Albright checked her watch and let out a short, angry sigh. “I’ll have to be going now. Good luck with your new boss.”
Business finished, Albright inclined her head and left. Byron followed close behind, and their forms flitted past the right-hand window as the door clicked shut. The pair stared after them, silence unbroken for a while before Okane gave a shuddering sigh.
“So what do we do?”
“We keep Clae secret.” Laura shrugged. “I guess we move him.”
“If the new head Sweeper comes by tonight she’ll want to get in, right? Best move them now. Just to make sure.”
“To where, though?” He gestured at their surroundings. “It’s almost closing time. There’s no way we can get anywhere without people seeing them. This is all the space we have.”
“What about upstairs?”
The second floor of the Sweeper shop was a living space, Clae’s—now Okane’s—home. Other Sweepers would have no reason to go up there, boss or not.
That was how they found themselves hauling Clae bodily up the stairs. It occurred to Laura that there was a reason they’d left him on the ground floor in the first place. The stairs were steep and he was extremely heavy, not to mention slippery after being stuck in a tub of water. Laura couldn’t get a good hold on his feet without losing grip, having to lurch sideways and hug his boots to her side. Okane didn’t fare much better, but at least he could grab Clae under the arms. Clae’s face was enraged, as it had been the past few weeks, but if he’d been aware of the proceedings she thought he’d make the same expression. She stopped a third of the way up the steps.
“I don’t remember these stairs being so much like a ladder,” she panted.
“It’s an architectural disaster,” Okane wheezed.
“How did the Sinclairs get any furniture up there in the first place?”
Laura panted some more before heaving Clae’s feet up again and staggering. They went three steps before the crystal slipped in their grip and they scrambled to a halt. Clae’s form hit the steps with a loud thunk, and Laura sucked in a breath, horrified.
Copyright © 2019 by Mirah Bolender