They were all dead. I’d checked with security, and they were emphatic: ZombieCon had not and would not ever allow one of the walking alive into its event, on penalty of bones.
We’re checking guests’ bags as we speak, says the tall, slender man walking in front of me: my client, Mr. Andrew Rival. But, of course, they may have already left.
“Or,” adds the lumbering corpse with the nametag “Steven Roxbury” pinned over a red-and-yellow jersey, “they stashed it somewhere we wouldn’t find. ‘D be a bitch, but, y’know…”
“Who all’s been in the display room?”
No one, Mr. Rival says, taking us around a corner. Right, Mr. Roxbury?
“Yeah, that’s right,” Mr. Roxbury agrees, nodding his head up and down so hard that something in his body goes pop. “Second we found it missin’, we locked down the whole convention; not even a trip to the bathroom without a patdown or a chaperone. We’re checkin’ cameras too, starting with the one outside.”
Down the hall, I see the camera in question pointed at a pair of grand hall doors. “Not inside the room?”
“Ah,” he says, “no.”
I nod; his tone is more than enough information. “Cryptostatic interference?”
“Ooooh, yeah,” he says. “We tried puttin’ one in last year, had a newbie look over the tape; poor kid’s still starin’ down all nine hells at once, plus a few epochs of the unknowable universe.”
We finally make it to the doors. “Sucks to be him,” I mutter, followed shortly by: “Oh, motherfucker.”
“Greetings, Aria,” comes the venomously dulcet tones of Inspector Goldenglow, floating beside the empty plinth. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
I turn on Mr. Rival, too angry to remember that he’s the man signing my eventual paycheck. “You said no one else had been in the room.”
I did not call them, Mr. Rival said, his face unchanging.
“No,” Goldenglow cut in, “but there are over one thousand attendees at this convention—in fact, there are one-thousand and thirty-seven, but you never really were one for precision, dear Aria—so it was only natural someone would call the police. After all, this is quite a theft, isn’t it?”
Indeed, it was. The overdesigned plinth beside Goldenglow had, up until about an hour ago, held one of ZombieCon’s main attractions: the Necronomicon.
Well, to be exact, a copy. Contrary to popular belief, saying you have the Necronomicon would be roughly like saying you have the Hamlet, or the DVD of Snakes on a Plane. Still, it was a very, very old copy, all the way back to the Greek translation, which of course was the sort of thing that undead eldritch horror nerds cared about. I could imagine just how much Mr. Rival had to dole out to borrow Miskatonic’s copy for a few days a year.
I could also imagine how much he’d have to pay for not giving it back. Hence, me.
“Now then, Aria,” Goldenglow went on, “this is officially a police investigation, so I’m afraid your services are no longer required. We’ll take it from here.”
I cast a sidelong glance at Mr. Rival, who remains unmoved, tentacles waving unconsciously at his sides. On any other day, I might have shrugged and written off the job as a loss—more properly, if they’d sent anyone but my ex, I almost certainly would have. But I didn’t make it this far not being petty as hell.
“They already paid me my advance, Goldie,” I say, stuffing my hands into my trenchcoat pockets. “Might as well give ‘em their money’s worth.”
“Oh, dear—I couldn’t convince you to refund poor Mr. Rival his money?”
“Not my policy,” I say, coldly.
Tut tut, goes the glowing orb. “Always so devilishly shrewd, my dear Aria,” she says. “Very well: take as much time as you please, so long as you look and do not touch.”
“That’s what she said,” I reply.
She doesn’t deign me with a response, which was typical, instead floating away to the edge of the room, where a goblin and a mini-ent were standing in CSI hazmats, probably wondering who in Gaia’s name called a forensic unit out to a location swimming in the DNA of some few thousand people.
I start by wandering over to the plinth, and ask, “Who found it missing?”
“That was Pat,” Mr. Roxbury says. “They came around for their shift, and told me the stand was empty.”
“Mmhrm.” I bend down and examine said stand, the plinth that some poor bastard had spent ages carving intricate reliefs into, only for half of them to have gotten chipped away over time. Although, on that note—
“Did Pat knock the stand over or something?”
“Oh, uh,” Mr. Roxbury stammers, “not that they mentioned. Why?”
I look at one stone gash, as dull and faded as the rest of the plinth. I then look at one a few inches over and up, a bright, fresh gray of newly carven stone.
“No reason,” I say, standing. “So who would have been in the room before then?”
“That would have been Count Gris, the cleaning staff,” Mr. Roxbury says. “He comes in about noon to clean, when most of the guests are grabbing lunch. Takes him about an hour, usually, although sometimes he wraps up early.”
“Must have wrapped up early today,” I mutter, surveying the room. “Half the floor’s still covered in footprints.”
“I, uh,” Roxbury says. “He did, yeah. I was watchin’ him clean today, and when I left, I told him to check in with me in my office.”
“So,” Goldenglow chimes in, “he had a window where you weren’t watching to pilfer the book and stash it? Seems open and shut to me.”
“No, that makes sense,” I add. “Instead of any of the other days where your boss hasn’t been watching over your shoulder—which, based on the fact you specifically mentioned watching, Mr. Roxbury, I’m going to guess you don’t usually—you wait until the one day he is and asks to see you in his office right after. We’re dealing with a heist mastermind here, we should get Inspector Zenigata on the horn.”
Goldenglow was silent a moment. “You’re always so insufferable when you think you’re right,” she says.
“Coincidentally, I usually am. Now, to get this straight: Gris is cleaning the room from noon until, let’s say, 12:50ish?”
“Closer to 12:55.”
“12:55ish. Roxbury comes to watch for a bit, then leaves, and the janitor is right behind him. That’s the last time we know for a fact that the book was in the room. A couple minutes later, about 1:00, Pat the room staff shows up and radios Roxbury that it’s gone. Any other players?”
Just the thief, notes Mr. Rival.
“Right. Well then, Mr. Roxbury: let me talk to your boys.”
Which goes to show me, of course, that I should always be checking my assumptions. “I thought the cops were handling this?” says a younger, androgynous-looking specter, wearing an incorporeal version of the convention staff’s nametag reading “Pat.”
“They’re doing their best,” I say, giving Mr. Rival a sidelong look as he stands by the door; Goldenglow wanted to talk to Roxbury privately, and I guess cops get first dibs in this facist nation. “But, your bosses wanted a second opinion. Hence, me.”
Pat shares a dubious look with their colleague, a tall, borderline albino man wearing a baggy gray jumpsuit and a nametag reading “Ct. Gris.” “Do you, like, have a card or something?”
I sigh and reach into my coat, dutifully producing an only mildly crinkled bit of embossed cardstock. Gris takes it and holds it for the both of them to read.
“‘Aria Peaseblossom,’” Pat reads aloud. Then, “Why’s the phone number scribbled out?”
“Because I recently had to change offices,” I say, leaving out that my new office was just my apartment. “New number’s on the back. Now, want to interrogate me some more, or is it my turn?”
Pat shares another look with Gris before pocketing the card—shit, I’ll need to put in another order—and sitting back, arms crossed in that huffy way that already tells me this is going to go great. “Alright,” they say. “What do you want to know?”
“I’m told you’re the one who reported the theft,” I say, watching for their reaction. “Tell me exactly what happened when you arrived for your shift.”
“I got changed, walked in, and saw an empty stand. Can I go now?”
“Nothing else interesting? No one passed you on your way in? It’s an awful narrow hallway.”
“No. Seriously, can I go now?”
Pat, comes the hiss of Mr. Rival’s voice. Please answer the detective’s questions—unless you’d like to speak with me in my office.
A look passes over Pat’s face that washed away every trace of impertinence, and I could just about kiss Mr. Rival’s weirdly smooth face for being such a good client and abusing his power.
“Okay,” they begin with a sigh. “I tend to work the afternoon and evening shifts for ZombieCon, so I came in just about noon to get set up.”
“Y’know—clock in, grab my nametag and radio, check my schedule, and head over.”
“Did you see Gris back there?” I ask, glancing at the pale vampyr to our side.
“Mm? I mean, not like I was looking for him—no offense, Gris—so… actually, no, I did see him. I remember passing him on my way in the door; I’m guessing he was headed out back?”
We both look over at Count Gris, hands clasped tight between his knees, and he returns the dual gazes with stark confusion, manifesting in a shrug.
“Don’t talk much, do you?” I note.
Pat shrugs. “I think he’s just a little shy. Anyway, yeah, I saw Gris on my way in, along with a few other folks; I got my stuff, went to Roxbury’s office to check the schedule—”
“The schedules are in his office?”
Pat nods. “He has to make last-minute changes sometimes, so he keeps everything nearby; that’s also why we gotta check when we get in, because he might have us working all the way on the other side of the convention hall.”
“Alright,” I nod. “So noon, you sign in, you head out into the hall—did you notice anyone strange on your way to the display room?”
Pat replies by way of a long, are-you-kidding-me glare.
“Right, convention, dumb question on my part. Anyway, everything seems normal, you don’t pass anyone in the hallway outside the room, but you get in and it’s gone? I’ve got that right, right?”
Pat nods their incorporeal head, a few wisps of hair getting caught in the wall. “I radioed Roxbury, he shut down the exits, and here we are.” They pause. “I didn’t steal it, before you start adding me to the list of suspects.”
“Sure,” I say, mentally adding them to the list of suspects. Now for Gris: “What’s your story, then?”
The count looks off to one side, not meeting my gaze, hands still clasping tight between his knees. I try leaning over into his line of vision, but he just curls in tighter.
“Is he alright?” I ask, half to Pat.
Pat shrugs. “Like I said, he’s a little shy.”
“Hrm.” I crouch, putting my face and his face on about the same level, and flex my hand in preparation for a mez.
See, I was never much good at the whole magic thing—I can’t fly so much as jump surprisingly high, and glamour’s never done much for my ratty brown hair or freckles—but I’ve at least put in the work for one thing: the mesmer. Mine’s not perfect—can’t do much beyond pushing someone into doing something they might already want to do—but it’s all I got of my heritage beyond an encyclopedia’s worth of court procedure and some wild memories of Athenian nonsense, and you bet I abuse the hell out of it whenever I can.
Like right now. “Gris,” I say, the buzz of magic buzzing through my nerves. “Can you tell me what happened today?”
His gray eyes flit to meet mine, and I swear I see just the finest haze come over them.
“Anything you saw? Anyone you passed on the way out?” I continue, pushing. “Anything at all that could help us out, Gris.”
He blinks once, then twice, and I can feel the mez growing stronger, I can feel it, he’s about to talk—
And then the haze is gone, and he looks away once more, saying nothing.
With respect, Ms. Peaseblossom, Mr. Rival chimes in, I believe Mr. Roxbury has already vouched for Gris’ alibi; anyway, if he did witness any untoward behavior, I’m sure it’ll show up on the security footage.
“Yeah,” I groan, standing back up. “I think I’m done here. Thanks for your help, you two—oh, and whatever you do, don’t tell the cops anything you didn’t tell me.”
“Why not?” Pat asks, one eyebrow raised.
“Simple.” I turn with a flick of my coat and glide out the door. “It wouldn’t be fair.”
Speaking of security footage and things not being fair, I had quite the shock waiting back in Roxbury’s office. “You’re giving the cops what?”
Roxbury looks down, guiltily wringing his hands, and I try not to notice when one of his thumbs accidentally comes off with a squishy pop.
“It’s simple, Aria,” Goldenglow explains, “I need to review today’s footage to check for suspects, and I’d prefer to look it over back at the station.”
“I’m sorry,” Roxbury mutters, still fumbling with his severed digit.
“You couldn’t have waited for me to get a look?” I insist, wanting nothing more than to take Roxbury by the collar and yeet him back into the nearest grave, albeit not before I’d sprinkled Goldie’s pixie ashes into the soil first.
“Oh, if you’d thought to ask, perhaps,” Goldenglow replies. “However, now that it’s officially police evidence, I’m afraid you’d have to come down and fill out the appropriate paperwork—which I’m sure would then need to be reviewed, and oh, that’s a process that could take weeks…”
Goldenglow, enjoying herself far too much, continues lording herself over me out the door and to the exit, until it’s finally, mercifully silent. As I stare after her, radiating hate, there’s a meaty schluck from where Roxbury’s standing; when I look again, he’s massaging his re-thumbed hand.
“Sorry,” he says again. “They were very insistent.”
“No, they were douchebags,” I correct him, “because they’re cops, and that’s how they are, ten times so for Goldenglow. In the future, you don’t ever have to give cops anything they don’t have a warrant for.”
“Sorry,” he says, for the third goddamn time.
“No, it’s…” I let out a hard breath through my nostrils. “It’s fine. I did have a couple questions left, though.”
“Like today’s staff schedule. Mind if I take a look?”
He hesitates, rigor mortis briefly kicking in for one last hurrah. “Why?”
“I don’t tell you how to run con business,” I reply, “you don’t tell me how to run private eye business. Schedules?”
With a general air of reluctance, Roxbury disappears behind his desk, and I hear the shink-shunk of drawers being opened and closed one after another, before finally he comes up with a stack of highlighter paper sheets held by a pink-zebra paperclip, handing the whole thing over.
I flip through—yep, Pat was scheduled for the Necro room at 1 today, and Gris had the janitor shift at noon (followed by a circuit of the con restrooms, and honestly if I knew I had to face those every day, I’d have gone catatonic too), but…
“How come you didn’t have me talk to Bartholomew here?”
I hold up the schedule to Roxbury’s face, tapping at the name just under Pat’s. “You had someone else working the Necro room this afternoon, same time as Pat—how come I didn’t talk to them?”
“Oh, Bart, right—they actually called out today.”
I blink, because that sounded about as convincing as it probably read. “Really.”
Roxbury nods, scratching behind his ear with a withered fingernail. “Yeah, last-minute, too. Didn’t like having Pat work the room alone but, eh, what are you gonna do?”
“Right,” I say, restraining my skepticism to tolerable levels. “In that case, I got one more question for you, Roxbury.”
“Did Goldie and her cronies walk off with all your security tapes, or just the one from today?”
“Just today,” he says. Then, dubiously, “Why?”
“Because I need all the others you got,” I tell him. “May I?”
To my astonishment, “tapes” here was literal: who knows how much money for the best attractions around, and convention management was too cheap to afford stupid SD cards. I’m forced to spend the rest of my day hopping around thrift stores and weirdo tech shops, acting like I’m just the world’s biggest fan of dogshit video quality when the cashiers make small talk, and on the way home, I get to imagine just what Lilah’s reaction is going to be.
Blessedly, it’s not even the first thing she notices. “You look like shit, honey thighs.”
An involuntary and wildly confused smile breaks across my lips. “‘Honey thighs?’”
The redhead amazoness in my kitchen shrugs, making a minced mess of some poor yellow onions. “Trying something out. How bad is it out there?”
“Not too bad,” I answered, shaking my hat dry and setting it on the bookstand that doubles as our side-table, because really, who can afford both? In this economy? “I think I’ve only got light pneumonia.”
Lilah makes a noise that manages to be both condescending and also the sweetest thing I’ve heard all week. “Poor baby. Need me to wrap you up and give you a bottle?”
“Too weird, babe.”
“Sorry,” she says, not sounding very sorry as she drops the onions and some garlic into a pot. “How was work, anyway? Was—is that a fucking VCR?”
It was, and my girlfriend takes the opportunity for several well-aimed shots to the jugular as I set up, asking if I want to watch any home movies, or if maybe I’ll be putting on the behind-the-scenes documentary of Cannonball Run 2.
“Could head to Blockbuster and grab a few skinflicks,” she adds, passing me a bowl of curry that smells toe-curlingly spicy, just the way we like it. “Wanna check out Deep Throat or The Devil in Miss Jones first?”
“How do you even know more than one old porno?”
“Internet,” she helpfully replies, plopping on the couch on the other side of the room. “What’s this even for, anyway?”
“Like I said, work,” I answer just as helpfully, observing the handiwork that’s gone into setting up a forty year-old VCR with a modern HDTV before I pop in the first of several tapes.
I will be the first to admit that I’m a terrible girlfriend. After all, a good girlfriend would have put off work till later, sharing dinner with their partner over pleasant, slightly insipid conversation before rocking their girlfriend’s world (twice) and getting back to business in the small hours of the morning, because we have only one life to live (or at least most of us do), and no one dies wishing they’d spent more time at the office.
A girlfriend too good for this sinful Earth would do what Lilah was doing, eating and reading quietly as I sat cross-legged in front of the TV, watching sped-up hours of con footage while taking sparse bites of their delicious dinner, occasionally pausing and spending minutes at a time inspecting a particular frame.
I do not deserve this woman, I know. God help me if she ever realizes it.
“Finding anything?” she asks after a while, flipping through a magazine.
“Nothing… yet,” I say, on the edge of something as I stare at the frame of a room guard who’s shown up for his shift 20 minutes early. Then, before I can stop myself, “I ran into Goldenglow today.”
I spend a moment in agonizing silence, bracing myself for the burst of pity that always comes when I bring up Goldenglow to my friends—
Then I hear the low, murderous growl from behind, and I’m reminded, once again, not to underestimate this goddess of a woman. “What’d she say to you?” Lilah asks, her voice as sharp and even as Damascene steel.
I shrug. “Nothing too unusual. Standard bickering. Regular garbage.” I pause. “I guess she’s the reason I’m probably spending most of the night looking through these shitty tapes, though.”
Absently, I fill Lilah in about Goldenglow’s flagrant disregard for her own stupid protocol, about rolling up and pissing all over my investigation just because, it really seems, she could. I don’t look at Lilah while I talk, my focus dead-set on the television set, although I can just see the outline of her expression in the glass, and I’m delighted to find that she looks royally pissed on my behalf.
“I’m going to kill that little shit,” Lilah growls, and the tearing noise is the first indication that her claws have come out. “She can’t just—Aria, if I ever get my paws on her, I am going to squeeze and squeeze until she… oh, yeah, that’s the spot…”
She trails off, passing from rage to reverie as I kneel awkwardly on the couch beside her, my fingers digging into her shoulders and bringing her back from the brink; before my eyes, the claws retract, and those little patches of bright orange fur disappear back into her skin.
“Babe,” I soothe, “Babe. It’s alright.” I let a beat pass, then ask, “That was awfully quick—that time of the month already?”
Lilah nods, making a pleased sound. “Full moon goes up in less than a week; surprised you didn’t notice.”
“Well, I’ve been busy,” I say, shifting a bit to save my poor contorted elbows. “Special one this time?”
She nods. “Blood moon—first one in a while. I should probably (oh, harder, please) hit up the gathering this time.” She hesitates, then curls her neck up at me, those beautiful blue eyes locking with mine, and I barely have any time to enjoy it before she adds, “Maybe you should come with me?”
My hands stop moving. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I tell her, an awful chill creeping up the back of my neck.
Her brow furrows. “Why not? They’d love you, and—”
“And if they didn’t?” I have a bad habit of questions I may, once all’s said and done, wish I didn’t know the answer to. Call it an occupational hazard.
“Why wouldn’t they like you?” she asks, so innocently.
(“Already been downgraded to ‘like,’” I quietly note.)
“You’re sweet, you’re funny, you’re really, really smart, I—”
“Lilah,” I say gently. “I’m mean, I’m boring, and I’m dumb enough that I thought private eye would be a safe and lucrative career path. Trust me: your pack’s better off thinking of me like a… ghost.”
I say the last word with the first tinklings of an idea forming, but it’s cut short when I notice Lilah’s expression.
Something I’ve gotten used to in this job, with ample opportunities for practice, is making people angry. Annoyed-angry, shouting-angry, legal threats-angry, decidedly illegal threats-angry, change form-angry, vaguely horny-angry—in the end, it all blends together into one gloopy anger puree, and I’ve long since gotten used to the taste.
The one thing I’ve never gotten used to, and doubt I ever will, is sadness. I’m not talking crocodile tears, or the self-pitying guff of a partner caught out cheating, but the weeping mother who hasn’t seen her son in two weeks, the bawling husband who sees the pictures he never wanted to see. I’ve had to deal with all sorts of crying in my line of work, and you can’t just shut down and let it wash over you like anger—it’s in your face, and it’s going to destroy you, every time.
This is all to say that when I look back at Lilah, I see tears in her eyes, and I know how badly I’ve fucked up.
“Can you just,” she struggles, swallowing, “just let me say something nice about you? Once? Fucking once?”
She sits up, which is good, because my hands are left free to curl into tight, guilty balls. “I’m,” I start, and restart. “I’m… ah, I mean… I can…”
“It’s not about meeting the pack,” she says, countering my first argument before it’s even out. “If you don’t think you’re comfortable meeting them, I’m not going to force you into it; I’m not Goldenglow, Aria.”
“But I just want to say something nice about you,” she goes on, turning on the couch to face me. “You don’t have to believe it; you don’t even always have to accept it. But it feels…” She sighs, the first tears running down the side of her nose. “It feels like you just tear yourself apart on reflex, and I don’t mean to make it all about me, Aria, but…” The first sob coughs out, despite her best efforts. “I really, really don’t enjoy it. Because I love you, and I…”
She draws to a stop, and before she can force herself any further, sighs. “I’m sorry, I think… I think I should go to bed. Good night.”
She talks so quickly that by the time my brain catches up, she’s already kissed me on the nose and made it halfway to the bathroom.
“Lilah,” I say, and when she turns, I realize that I had nothing at all prepared as a follow-up. So I say the first, and at present, only thing on my mind: “I’m sorry. I love you, too.”
To be perfectly accurate, I say half of the only thing, and bite my tongue before I can say the rest: “And you should be with someone who deserves you.”
Anyway, I’d earnestly like to say that the eureka moment came right away, that I didn’t stay up nearly all night and pass out on the couch before it arrived. I’d love to, and so I will: the eureka moment came right away. I absolutely did not have to stay up all night and pass out on the couch.
There. With my ego sated, we can move on.
I was woken up by Lilah headed for the door with her gym bag over one shoulder, already dressed in a set of workout clothes that really drove home just how easily she could beat the shit out of you, and also how much you would probably thank her for it.
“I’m headed to work,” she says, wryling observing my mussed hair and, I realize later, the speckled trail of drool coming off my lip. “Call me if you need anything, alright?”
“Yeah, alright,” I rasp, sniffing ungracefully as I catch a whiff of my own body-stink. “Have a good day. Love you.”
“Love you, honey thighs,” she says, winking. Dammit.
Now, being frankly honest back the other way: it was the door slamming that finally did it. Something about that loud, unexpected bang jolted my brain right into place for the question that I’d nearly begun asking last night:
Why was Pat really working alone?
I flipped back through the pictures I’d taken of Roxbury’s schedule, and I rewatch the footage for the last week of congoing, and every day is the same: two people to the room, without fail. Even better, every day, one of the two is that 20-minutes-early chap, presumably Bartholomew, showing up because I guess he’s just so gosh-darn excited to get abused by con attendees—every single day, also without fail.
So why not yesterday?
I nearly had an answer to that thought, but before it could materialize, a new detail caught me from behind:
Someone was missing on these tapes.
Just to check, I went back through again, and every day was the same: morning shift came in, left; afternoon shift came in, left; evening shift came in, left; with guest appearances from Roxbury every few hours.
Like clockwork—if one of the gears was missing.
Before I can even sit down and lay my thoughts out in any orderly fashion, I’ve got my hat and coat on, stepping out into the light of a gray, muggy day.
Coming into this investigation, I’d thought one of two things was going to turn out true, because one of these two things is almost always true on a case:
Option one: someone did something spectacularly clever.
Option two: someone did something spectacularly stupid.
However, sometimes, it turns out that life is kinda like the hottest friend on your contact list:
It denies a binary.
Roxbury wasn’t answering his phone, and ZombieCon was still in full swing. Thus, I was forced to find my way back to the back offices through a sea of ghoulish con-goers and merch tables, no small number of which tried to sell me everything from death-centric prints, to ancient Incan urns with “made in Taiwan” probably etched on the bottom, to vats of ultra-moisturizer (“Your grandkids will finally stop screaming when you visit!”).
And then, of course, there were the staff members at the doorway to the back offices. No, they didn’t remember me, and no, my shitty little business card didn’t mean anything. For all they knew, I was out to steal ZombieCon trade secrets. What trade secrets? Who knows, but whatever they were, they weren’t going to let me have them.
Grimacing, I flex my hand and channel the mez, staring the one dead (hah) in the eyes. “I really need to get back there,” I tell him. “It’s very important to Mr. Roxbury that you let me back there. Yeah?”
I almost see it. Please, I can almost see the twinkle in his eyes, the flicker that gives way to complete and total agreement. I just need him to say ‘yes,’ I just need him to say ‘yes’…
“Not a chance,” he says, a tooth wiggling in his rotted gums.
So I was going to have to improvise. It wouldn’t be the first time. First rule of getting in somewhere you’re not allowed: there’s always another way in.
For today, that way in was the bright blue maintenance door out back, next to a dumpster that, mercifully, seems to have been emptied out recently; one flick of the picks later, and I’m in.
It’s a straight shot to Roxbury’s office—turns out, once you’re past security, no one wants to risk the social mortification of asking if you’re actually supposed to be wherever you are—and in no time at all, I’m there with a cheery knock.
Nothing. Knock knock, Roxbury.
Son of a bitch. Well, it wasn’t like I could get any more arrested, I think as I rake the lock open and slip inside.
One thing I learned early in private eyeing, even back before I had officially taken the job title, was that searching someone’s office for evidence was a trickier endeavor than the stories wanted to tell you. For the hacks, it’s always “let me take a look in the top right drawer—hey, a murder weapon already dusted for prints, sitting atop a signed confession.” Don’t get me wrong, the evidence can be anywhere and everywhere, but that’s just it: you aren’t looking for the smoking gun so much as the scattered shape of its smoldering pieces.
In terms of hiding places, though, this was an office full of them: it looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since the invasion of Normandy, and was about as fucked up. I check the file drawer labeled “personnel”, and find schedules from sixteen years ago; I check one across the room labeled for old schedules, and find a bunch of rolled-up t-shirts for a band that broke up when I was still dating Goldenglow; I check a cardboard box labeled “T-SHIRTS”, and find a loaded handgun.
Yeah, I put that one back very gingerly.
Still, my search hadn’t been useless—with just a little bit of creative problem-solving, I’ve got something in the shape of a lead.
Then my phone rings, and with a glance at the caller ID, I figure I can turn it into a lead and a half.
“Ms. Aria!” Roxbury’s garbled Brooklyn accent assaults my eardrum. “Jeezis, I just got your messages; so sorry I missed ya, I had a bit of a, ahem, an issue in the toilets. A guest—”
“Oh, that’s the actual last thing I want details on,” I say, something akin to a survival instinct kicking in. “It’s funny, though; I actually had some questions regarding your cleaning staff.”
“Oh, we didn’t actually need the janitors. Had to call—”
“Again, Stevey, not even a single detail, thanks. Anyway: Gris has been working with you guys for a while, hasn’t he?”
“Yeah?” There’s a shuffling sound, Roxbury shouting at what I could only guess was a gaggle of congoers to clear the hallway. “What about it?”
“Nothing major,” I explain, deciding to take a gamble, “just something Gris mentioned yesterday.”
There was an extended silence on his end, con antics notwithstanding. “You said Gris told ya?” he asked, a slight wobble in his voice. “Not someone else?”
Goddamn, I should hit up Vegas. “Sorry,” I say, “Pat was the one that told me, not Gris. My mistake.”
“Okay,” he says slowly, “what about it?”
“Oh, nothing in particular,” I reply, lying through my teeth. “I did have another question, though: how come Pat was working alone yesterday?”
“Whaddaya mean?” he asks, too quickly.
“I mean…” My finger drags along a list of names on the schedule, a page I hadn’t been shown. “You said it was too bad Pat had to work the room alone, but you had eight people working the gaming wing, just a few rooms over. How come you didn’t pull in one of them when Bartholomew called out?”
“Called out?” he echoes, before he can stop himself. Then, like he’d said nothing at all, “I… it didn’t occur to me. You know how it is, always so hectic ‘round here—on that note, I really gotta get going—”
“Oh, actually, one last thing.” It was time for the final nail in Roxbury’s coffin. “Any chance I could get Gris’ contact info? I’ve got a couple more questions for him.”
A final pause, Roxbury hesitating. Hesitating hard.
“I think I’d need to run that by Mr. Rival,” he says finally. “You know how it is, employee confidentiality and all that.”
“No, of course,” I said, grinning so hard I’m surprised the opposite wall doesn’t light up. “Just let me know when he gets back to you.”
“Will do. Anything else, Ms. Aria?”
“No, you’ve been more than helpful,” I say. I mean it, too: the papers I found in that handgun’s empty case were incredibly helpful.
So, with a fistful of contact details, I make for the exit, and try not to think about what it does to my metaphor that I found them in the top right desk drawer.
Sometimes, you almost feel bad for full-blown, OG vampyrs. After all, they must have been living it up in whatever Eastern European squat they crawled out of, throwing feast after banquet after orgy; a few centuries and continents later, they have to make do with the city’s best-looking studio apartments, and in Gris’ case, not even quite that.
It wasn’t a bad place. The worst you could honestly say about it was “blindingly white,” in every sense of the word, an ivy wall accompanying a front sign yelling CROWLEY TOWERS. I ring the buzzer, and a whisper-y voice floats out the intercom.
“Special delivery,” I say, dropping my voice. Moments later, I hear the electrical whir of the door unlocking, and slip inside.
On the second floor, I find Gris’ apartment, and knock a jaunty little rap-datta-rap-rap. It’s not too long before the door opens a crack, Gris’ sad gaze looking out from above a length of brass chain, pulled taut.
“Sorry, I lied,” I say, voice back to normal. “Can we talk?”
He blinks, and without hesitation, slams the door in my face. I knock again, because it only seems polite, and curse myself for not trying the mez right away.
“Gris, please,” I call out, letting my voice carry. “I just need to run a few things by you; I promise, you won’t have to say a word.”
“Okay, I know I was lying about the package thing, but I’m not lying this time; really, cross my heart, you won’t have to say one word.”
Well, aside from mucking up the mez once already, I’ve had a good run of gambits today, so I decide to go for broke. “Gris” I say, more quietly this time. “I know it was an accident.”
Nothing, for a few seconds. Then there’s the rough sloook of the chain being slid undone, and the door opens, Gris looking downright stricken as he steps aside to let me in.
“Thank you,” I say, bowing and taking a discreet glance around the place, because of course I do. I’m a detective, I’m paid to be curious.
If nothing else, it certainly seems that Count Gris sought to carry on the vampyric banquet tradition, if in the most 7/11-shaped way possible, empty bottles of Barefoot and discarded cartons of pig’s blood strewn about in staggeringly precarious stacks; not to mention, if the Kleenex box and conspicuously hidden DVDs were any indication, he was also carrying on the orgies in a one-man fashion.
No judgement, mind. I’ve been in this exact place, and worse.
“Mind if I sit down?” I ask, and at a nod, flop into a patched leather recliner at one side. He casually brushes away some bloodstained napkins from the nearby couch cushion and takes a seat, looking down at his own folded hands.
“So,” I begin. “I said you wouldn’t have to say a word, and I meant it. However, I do have a couple questions—”
His gazes lifts up at me, one eyebrow raised suspiciously.
“So you just have to nod ‘yes’ or shake your head ‘no.’ Or don’t, it’s up to you. I just want this whole thing to be done with.” I lean forward, and hope I sound convincing when I say, “And I think you do, too.”
The eyebrow stays up for a bit longer, before it drops, and just barely, I catch him nod, silvery streaks of hair glinting in the windowlight.
I grin. “Thank you. Now, to start: did you know I used to be part of the Oberonic court?”
He looks up with what I assume at first to be shock, but then I realize he’s confused as to whether or not he’s supposed to answer.
“It was a hell of a time,” I continue, “and I mean that both the good and bad way—even as just one of the queen’s lowly retainers, you had to memorize a lot of protocol in case she or her husband ever randomly decided to party down with another court. It’s, ah…” I chuckle. “It’s actually what made me become a private eye, once that whole thing fell apart. You’re forced to memorize so much random bullshit, you might as well find a use for it all.
“Anyway, one of the cultures I had to learn about was yours, and one thing I remember—although, to be fair, it’s not like this is obscure knowledge—is that your people need an invitation to enter anywhere. Is that correct?”
Warily, he nods. Off to a good start.
“But, what I also understood is: the invitation can be revoked, can’t it? Someone can tell you to fuck off after the fact, and if they do, it’s not exactly pleasant if the vampyr sticks around, is it?”
Warily, he nods.
“And, what very few people think of,” I go on, “is that the revocation can be entirely… oh, what’s the word… conditional?”
Nothing this time. I press.
“If someone wants, they can tell you that you’re allowed in, but also that if you break a certain rule, you’re out. That was always how Titania kept the peace at those banquets, it… nevermind.
“So. Gris.” I lean forward in the chair, leather creaking and straining under my ninety pounds of pure beef. “Did someone threaten to revoke your invitation to ZombieCon?”
After a long, long silence, there’s the slightest hint of a nod.
“Is that a ‘yes?’”
He nods again, stronger this time.
“Can I ask who it was?” He nods, and I continue, “Was it Mr. Rival?”
There’s a second, and he shakes his head—which is exactly what I thought. Just needed to make sure he hadn’t been told to bullshit me.
“Was it Mr. Roxbury?”
A nod. Bingpot.
“And, let me guess: he told you not to say a word to me or the cops?”
Gris nods away, the stricken look on his face twinging.
“Because getting kicked off the ZombieCon staff would be a hell of a blow, wouldn’t it?” I pull out a copy of the sixteen-year-old schedules from my pant pocket, and a tightly rolled-up t-shirt from inside my coat. “Been there almost twenty years, and enough of a fan to get your own primo t-shirt—here that is, by the way.” I toss him the shirt, letting him see the index card with his name stuck in the rubber banding. “I don’t know you, so I can’t say where it ranks on your priorities, but it’s gotta be pretty high up—high up enough for it to matter when Roxbury threatens you.”
Gris holds the t-shirt in both hands, looking it up and down with an expression of the purest, melancholiest nostalgia I’ve ever seen on a man, beast, or other.
“Which brings us to the other day,” I go on, after giving him his moment. “The disappearance of the Necronomicon copy.”
His grip tightens, and even though there was no question, he nods.
Unfortunately, I know we’ve reached the point where I have to push, because I can’t sit here and play 20 questions to find out where he’s stashed the goods. Once everything’s sorted, I’m hoping I can get Roxbury to re-invite Gris; he’s a coward, but he’s not unreasonable—at least, I have to hope.
My hand flexes, and once again, I call on the power of the mez; this time, I see the flicker come into Gris’ eyes, and preemptive victory swells in my chest.
“Roxbury told you to get rid of it,” I say, my voice a quiet, encouraging trill. “Where is it now?”
Gris hesitates, but this time, I know the mez has worked, I know it has, I know—
He answers, and I silently cheer.
Then the answer actually sinks in, and all I can feel is cold.
Oh, is all I can think. Oh, I should have seen that coming.
“He threw it in the fucking dumpster,” I groan, before sourly swigging my latte and scalding my tongue so badly I might need skin grafts.
Lilah notices my pain, but thankfully refrains from laughing. She’s still in her trainer clothes, which hey, you won’t hear me (or any of the other coffee shop lesbians) complaining about. “Okay,” she says, “but… I don’t even understand how we got to this point. Start from the beginning?”
“… Fine,” I sigh, taking another, gentler sip. “Let’s start with the kid in the footage.”
“Bartholomew. Seemed to work the Necronomicon room every other day of the convention,” I said, “and always seemed to show up fifteen, even twenty minutes early. Dude’s good enough at his job to show up early every day without fail, but just so happens to call out the day of the theft?”
“Maybe he was sick?” Lilah offers, not maliciously; she’s always been good at checking me, to the point of saving my ass on more cases than I care to mention.
I shake my head. “That doesn’t explain why Roxbury didn’t replace him with someone else; the place is overloaded with staff. No, Lilah: the reason our friend Pat was working alone was because Roxbury told Bartholomew not to come in, and he had to do it last minute.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because unlike Pat, he’d have shown up early, and spoiled the whole game—which the cameras might have also easily done, if not for being on goddamn VHS tapes.”
Lilah’s eyes narrow skeptically. “I don’t follow.”
“Babe, think about it: what’s going to be the problem trying to catch Count Gris on camera if he does anything?”
Lilah’s flame-bright brows remain beetled together for a good few seconds before she realizes: “No reflection.”
“Bingo—or, well, they used to think it was just the silver in old-school mirrors and photography, but then it turned out to be some weird tulpa-type thing with vampyrs manifesting their body in a way that recording equipment struggles with, it’s weird and fucked up. Anyway, something more modern might have caught a whiff, but VHS doesn’t stand a chance of getting a vampyr on tape—and Roxbury, the man in charge of getting stuff on tape, would know that for a fact. That’s what gave him and Gris a chance.”
“Okay, but,” Lilah says, giving an exasperated shake of her head, “his chance to do what? What happened in that room, Ari?”
“Simple: Gris lived out the worst nightmare any wage worker could possibly encounter.” I pause for dramatic effect, leaving my girlfriend in such suspense that I think I actually hear her rabbit-footing under the table. “He accidentally broke his boss’ expensive shit.”
“The Necronomicon copy, yes. I figure it probably went something like this:
“Gris comes around for his regular shift, doing the usual sweeping and mopping, but at some point, he messes up—he gets too close to the plinth, nudges it, and whoops, the ancient manuscript that might as well be written on rice paper and cardboard crunches into the floor, and breaks the plinth a little to boot. Panicking, calls Roxbury on the radio; he never gets back to cleaning, which is why half the room still looked like shit.
“Roxbury arrives, and he and Gris are freaking out. He knows that Gris loves working for the con, but more importantly, he knows what a hit the con might take if this gets out, that one of its own staff damaged a priceless artifact. Accidental damage would be seen as negligence—but a theft, he starts thinking? A theft would just be bad luck, a congoer taking advantage of their hospitality, and ultimately something insurance might cover. He hatches a plan—and then he checks his watch.”
“The other room guard is about to show up.”
“Yup. So, Roxbury makes the call, tells poor Bartholomew that he’s off the schedule today, and gets Gris to work.
“Roxbury keeps watching for a bit, then leaves—he needs enough time to give them both an alibi—while Gris is left with three instructions. One, wait a couple minutes, then sprint out the room with the book clutched to his body so tight that the cameras won’t catch it; two, stash it anywhere he can; and, three, if he says a word to any of the investigators, his invitation to ZombieCon is permanently revoked.”
This, of all the things I’m describing, is what gets the skeptical grimace out of my partner. “Seems kinda sloppy.”
“I mean, it’s not like we’re dealing with a criminal mastermind, love,” I contend. “He probably didn’t think about it until he was leaving, and even then, it was probably word-for-word something like ‘you say a single word to the fuzz, don’t even bother comin’ back.’”
“Hrm. Fair enough.”
“Thanks, babe. Anyway, since the cameras aren’t going to pick Gris up either way, and no one’s going to be paying attention to the janitor, Roxbury can say that he saw Gris come in the back, and that the book was still there when they both left, leaving a window of a couple minutes for Pat to show up and report it missing. Alibis all around, no camera recordings to gainsay them, and ZombieCon becomes a victim instead of an idiot.”
Lilah’s smile changes, and I realize that this time, it’s with a healthy dose of pride. “But he didn’t anticipate you.”
“Few do, my darling,” I reply. I remain aglow with the warmth of triumph for only a few more seconds, however, before the steel hammer of reality comes crashing back into my skull. “Unfortunately, I have no idea what the fuck I do next.”
“You said he threw it away,” Lilah points out. “Can’t you just—”
“No, babe: I said he threw it in the dumpster.” I groan, and flop my head against the table. “The dumpster I saw earlier today. The dumpster that’s empty.”
Lilah is thoughtfully silent for a few moments. “You can’t just tell Mr. Rival and close the case?”
“I could,” I reply, turning my head so that one eye can look up. “But if Mr. Rival can’t get the book back, he’ll want to know who’s responsible for losing it, and I’m not condemning a poor janitor to losing his job over one mistake, especially not when he was blackmailed into keeping quiet about it. Not my place.”
“I had no idea I was dating such an idealist,” Lilah replies, resting her chin dreamily in one hand.
“Babe, I’m being serious.”
“So am I,” she says. “I get what you’re saying: without the book, you only get paid if you screw a (mostly) innocent man over, and you’re not going to do that.
“So, it’s simple.” She stands up, stretching both arms over her head, and then slugging back the rest of her coffee. “We get you your book.”
“Uh,” I say, my brain short-circuiting so that before I know it, I’ve left my drink on the table and followed Lilah out the door, squinting into the light of a bright yellow day. “I don’t think you understand, babe: we could spend all month dredging through the city’s junkyards and still not find it.”
“No, I understand,” she says impishly. “That just means we need some help.”
“I don’t follow.”
She says nothing at first, merely reaching up and tapping her nose, which I notice has become more canine-esque than it was this morning. “That time of the month, sweetheart—and the pack always helps its own.”
For a detective, it takes me an embarrassingly long time to catch on, but when I do, I nearly trip over my own two feet. “You’re serious?”
“Mmhrm,” she says, grinning wolfishly, which honestly should have been a pretty clear red flag.
“They’d do that?” I ask. Then, “You’d do that?”
“Mmhrm,” she says again.
“What do I have to,” I start to ask, before realizing exactly what I’d have to do in return. “Oh, babe—you can’t be serious…”
Lilah’s smile nearly breaks right off her face as she says, with finality: “Mmhrm.”
“Here it is,” I say, dropping a torn, smelly, and bespeckled copy of the Necronomicon on Mr. Rival’s desk.
He picks it up in one of his long, spindly hands, blankly absorbing the state of it. Yuck, he hisses. Where the hell did you find this?
“Yes,” Goldenglow chimes in from one side, the condescending demeanor dropped in favor of undisguised envy. “We are all so curious where you managed to find it.”
“Landfill,” I answer, trying not to think too hard about how I smell right now; it speaks to lycanthropic fortitude that Lilah’s pack handled it, because I sure as shit need the soapiest, scaldiest shower in recorded history. “I’m guessing he either ditched it, or was stashing it for later.”
The thief? Mr. Rival asks. So you’ve found him?
“Him? No,” I say, face straight as I can make it. “Not sure we’re going to, to be honest.”
“Really?” Goldenglow asks. “So no one stands to face justice for this heinous crime?”
Of course that’d be the cop’s first concern. “Last I checked, I wasn’t hired to find the thief—just to retrieve the book. If you want to burn off some of that overinflated budget tracking him down, be my guest.”
He wasn’t on the cameras?
“Oh, I wouldn’t know,” I say, unable to help myself. “But she should—after all, you’ve got that day’s tape, don’t you, detective?”
“Uh, I mean,” Goldenglow says, deliciously flustered. “Of course, why would you think other—yes, I’m sure we’ll find them based on, uh, based on the tape.”
Excellent, Mr. Rival says, relaxing in his chair. Answers would be nice, but at least the book’s been recovered—albeit in substandard condition. He sighs, which is a sound unsettlingly similar to TV static. We’ll have to up security for next year, which will be quite a hassle.
“You really think they’ll let you use it again?”
With a hefty donation? If Mr. Rival could grin, I do believe he’d be grinning. Oh, I believe the Miskatonic Society will be quite willing. After all, it’s not like this was the fault of one of our own.
“Nope,” I agree, and shut up.
Now, then. One of his branch-like limbs disappears beneath his desk, returning with a mist gray checkbook. I believe all that’s left to do is tend to your payment, Ms. Peaseblossom—unless you’d prefer to stay and explain how you solved the case?
“Oh, yes, please,” Goldenglow says. “I’m sure we’d love to know all about how you found the Necronomicon.”
“Oof,” I say, “But actually, I’ve gotta get going—got another case on the docket, you understand.”
And I did. Technically. Figuring out how I introduce myself to Lilah’s parents without making a fool of myself, after all, was looking to be one hell of a riddle.
Not that I’d tell her that, of course. I’d learned my lesson.
“Three things before I go, however. One, Mr. Rival, could you actually call Count Gris and let him know you’re looking forward to seeing him at the convention? He was, ah, he was feeling a little anxious about this whole incident.”
Uh, comes the perplexed hiss. Certainly. What else?
You’re welcome, you gray-skinned idiot. “Two, ask Roxbury to give that one kid a raise, Bartholomew. Dude’s coming in early every single day, I think he deserves a little extra dosh. Don’t you?”
Absolutely, Mr. Rival says.
I look Goldenglow dead in the eyes; truly, well and truly, I am unable to help myself sometimes: “It’s a Necronomicon copy, detective.”
I let the silence linger, so hard that a pin could drop like a cannonball. Then, making for the door, basking in the golden glow of flickering rage, “You never really were one for precision.”