MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Is he going to know?
Laura gripped the handles of her bike harder and squinted, taking in the building before her. No, she decided, no one was visible through the windows. Perfect. All she had to do was sneak in, sit down, pretend she’d been there the entire time. Late? Ha, of course not, what are you talking about? All that stood between her and impunity was that damn squeaky door; though its noise was usually unnoticeable, in the quiet of 8:30 A.M. she was sure it would reach anyone in a mile radius. She glared at it while climbing the few stairs, lugging her bike up alongside. She grabbed the handle, pushed lightly inward … and the hinges groaned.
“Shit!” she hissed. An answering sound came from inside, and she grimaced.
“Someone’s running late,” a voice drawled.
She kicked the door open with no more attempt at subtlety. No bell jingled by the door, but a cheap set of wind chimes clinked as a breeze filtered in. Apart from that chime, there wasn’t much decoration to be had. The place looked like it had once been a candy shop, with a long counter along three sides of the room, wood on top but glass below to display shelves there. All these shelves and the majority of the countertop were cluttered with glass bottles, tubes, and flasks. Some were held by wiry frames, others suspended above open flame, still others connected by a myriad of tubes, the entire contraption being called “the Kin system.” Throughout the maze of glass, golden liquid simmered and frothed. Odds and ends were strewn about in the clear spaces, lingering close enough to the Kin to blacken, or spread amid the glass-encased shelves: papers, a stray fountain pen, small clips and fasteners. Behind the glass sat a large metallic briefcase, long lengths of wire, tools, and a mess of mismatched objects and papers. Four rickety stools were scattered about in the open space between door and counter; on the right wall hung black drapes, and in the back wall was a closed door. It was warm in the room, the bottles and flasks hissing and steaming around her and making the heat even worse than it was outside.
Her boss sat on a stool just behind the Kin machine. He looked at her through the steam, partially obscured and in a position to block the drapes, as was his wont. No wonder Laura hadn’t seen him through the windows. Clae Sinclair was fairly young to be running his own business. Laura didn’t know his exact age, but he couldn’t be any older than thirty. His face was arranged in a look of nigh-permanent bored tranquillity, though when he was angry, it showed in his eyes. He bore three small scars on his face: two on the rise of his left cheekbone, one above his eyebrow; other scars marred his hands and lurked out of sight under his sleeves. Otherwise he was fairly attractive, shorter than the average man, with dark hair curled loosely to frame his face and hanging about halfway down his neck. His eyes were nearly as dark. On the job Laura had heard some other women twittering loudly about his looks, but for her he held all the appeal of a flowering cactus.
While he practically teemed with quirks, there was one so intertwined with his existence that it seemed just as ingrained as all his scars: the black drapes he sat in front of. No one was permitted to venture beyond them or even catch a glimpse of whatever was there. He guarded these drapes with a zeal hard to detect but terrifying to witness the scarce times it hit full force, and this had garnered the attention of some neighbors (who of course talked, and the whole thing was distorted and spread). When people weren’t talking about his attitude or latest stunts, they muttered about black curtains. What could he be hiding? A treasure, a monster, an heirloom? Nothing at all? Could it be the cause of his madness? It was rumored that he killed someone who tried to get behind those drapes. The one time someone had mentioned it to his face he’d smiled—actually smiled—and snapped his pocket watch closed with the most menacing click Laura had ever heard. This was the only “proof,” so it remained only jeering hearsay. These simple scraps of fabric were the eternal conundrum of the neighborhood. Laura didn’t know what was there, and was somewhat obsessed with the mystery herself.
Laura took her sweet time leaning her bike against the only open wall and taking a seat.
“Good morning,” she muttered.
Clae didn’t reply, just looked at her with that same blank expression. The flasks and tubes continued to spit, and smoke wreathed around him to make a halo above his head.
“I’m not going to make excuses.”
“I wouldn’t listen to them anyway.”
Of course not. “Sorry.”
“Don’t let it happen again. This job is time-sensitive. There’s a reason we have hours.”
Laura knew time was important, and the implication that she didn’t made her fist her hands in her lap. She tried not to make any other sign of anger, though. She hoped one day she’d master the same serenity Clae had, so when she was angry it carried that much more weight.
“Right. What are we doing today?”
“There’s an infestation in the Second Quarter,” he replied, finally taking his eyes off her to look at the pseudo chemistry lab around them. “Judging by the description in the report, it’s been working away for nearly two months now.”
“Two months?” Laura felt her face pale. She’d never encountered a monster that strong.
“It seems to have taken root in a house, eaten the insides.”
“And the people inside?”
“I did just say it ate the insides.”
Laura felt nauseous. “How big is it, exactly?”
“It’s overtaken the entire house, and Second Quarter houses are usually much larger than the Third ones.”
“Damn,” she breathed.
Clae slid off his stool and pulled the briefcase from under the counter, setting it on his vacated seat. He stalked around the room, picking up little glass and metal containers, tipping some golden mixture from the Kin into them. These he snapped into corresponding slots in the briefcase. As he did this he spoke, and Laura paid rapt attention.
“All entrances to the building will probably be sealed off, so the creature can hide from the light. It took advantage of the early morning to bulk up its defenses.”
She remembered another time with only a month’s growth, where tables were pressed to the windows and couldn’t be moved.
“We’ll have to attack through an entrance it hasn’t noticed. We may not be able to use bombs or anything highly destructive though, as that may damage the root amulet and make the situation worse.”
He pulled out one of the long lengths of wire and unraveled the end. He squinted at it, as if to be sure the silvery material was undamaged, before coiling it up to store in one of the many bags on his belt.
“How do we find one of those entrances?” questioned Laura, slipping off her own stool. “It wasn’t exactly hard for you to find one last time.” But last time was in June; Laura hadn’t been at all knowledgeable at the time. No other high-level incidents had happened since. “What’s the secret?”
“It varies. We’ll have to investigate the house itself, figure out which is the most opportune place, and once we know that we can come up with a plan of attack.” He plucked a small gun from somewhere in the mess of Kin. “Once that’s settled, it’s fairly straightforward.”
“Can we keep a distance?”
“As usual, all that stands between us is the walls of the house.”
In Laura’s cheap Third Quarter apartment, the walls were thin enough that she could hear people in other rooms and outside talking. It seemed like little protection.
“Second Quarter houses are better, right?”
“Of course. They’re only a step down from First, after all. But if we seriously piss this thing off, a few more inches won’t stop it.”
If Laura thought about it too much, she’d psych herself out and end up getting herself killed. She had to do something, occupy her hands and her mind. She rolled up her sleeves, took a glance at the briefcase, and asked, “Okay, what else do we need in there?”
Nearly an hour later, their cable car arrived in the Second Quarter. When their cab reached the platform it stuttered to a halt. Everyone else stood slowly, but Laura hopped off the cable car as fast as she could to avoid getting caught by the door. Clae followed more sedately. She could hear his boots on the thin metal grating while she wandered toward the edge.
The cable car station was mostly an open-air platform. Jutting out from the main wall, a metal structure reached up and out to better accommodate the slant of the cable car’s ascent. This particular station was only a two-stopper, not a main continuous line throughout the city, so had fewer decorations. The metal was painted rusty red with subtle accents, the platform, ticket booth, and covered seating area lackluster compared to those on the main line. A structure behind the platform housed the machinery used to raise and lower the cars, enclosed and locked to keep away saboteurs. While the main line’s platform might have been fancier, the smaller ones had less to get in the way of the view, so Laura could lean on the railing to peer down at the other Quarters.
The city of Amicae rose from the flatlands like a massive tiered cake, First Quarter on top, sitting on the wider Second, which lay above the bigger Third, and so on, all the way down to Sixth Quarter. Job and status determined which Quarter a person lived in: First Quarter the richest, with the best buildings, best shops, best food, best people; Second a step down, still clean and decent; Third Quarter almost a standard of mediocrity; Fourth miserable; Fifth abysmal. Sixth Quarter was the army central, to more easily protect the city and keep the disorderly Fifth in line. From the Second Quarter platform Laura could see clearly how, with each terrace, it grew darker and dirtier. The cable cars rattled up and down their lines all over, shining bronze beetles on wire.
“Laura, this way,” Clae called.
Laura jumped and ran after him, making a loud clatter on the metal grate.
Clae led her to a trolley. It was much cleaner than the ones Laura was used to, and much emptier than the cable car. Many seats remained open, with only a middle-aged couple sitting near the back. The man slept, but the woman, in her fancy lilac dress, eyed them like a hawk. Clae stayed standing, gripping one of the rails on the ceiling in one hand, briefcase in the other. Laura didn’t know why, but chalked it up to some sort of etiquette of the upper Quarters. She couldn’t reach the bar so hesitantly gripped the elbow of Clae’s sleeve as the trolley moved off. The woman in the back relaxed, and Laura wondered if she thought they’d soil the seats by sitting down. She also wondered how Clae could possibly wear this big jacket in the sweltering heat.
The ride went by quietly, and Clae directed her off at a corner with a statue of two large birds. The trolley trundled off behind them.
There was a crowd down the street, in front of the row of trendy houses. The black uniforms and silver badges of the police stood out amid the brighter fashions of the residents. The sight made Laura nervous again. As usual, Clae’s face betrayed nothing. One of the policemen spotted them and jogged over.
“You’re the Sweepers?” he asked hopefully.
A thin scar twisted across the bridge of his nose, skewing to trail under his right eye. He was bald, but between his hat and dark uniform the August heat was making him sweat up a storm. Laura caught a whiff and fell behind Clae, happy to let him take charge.
“We are,” Clae answered. “Any change in the situation?”
“Another death. There was a relative. She seemed calm, but the moment we turned our backs … She got into the house before we could catch her.” The policeman mopped his face with a handkerchief. “Got in through the cellar. We tried to pull her out, but the door shut and we couldn’t get it open again.”
Clae opened his mouth to reply, but a voice cut him off. “Is that the Sweeper?”
A policewoman approached, a gold badge on her uniform instead of silver. She glared at them through thick glasses that magnified her brown eyes, and gestured at the house.
Copyright © 2018 by Mirah Bolender