Ryan looked up from the paperwork he was desperately trying to ignore. Paperwork he was doing in his real office for once – as much as he needed to avoid Emma, he needed to maintain some semblance of a normal routine. ‘Come,’ he said to whoever had knocked. The handle twisted and an agent, followed by a nervous recruit, walked into his office.
‘Williams,’ the agent said, ‘from Hyde.’
‘I know,’ Ryan said as he stood to shake the agent’s hand. ‘We met at that conference.’
Williams scratched the side of his head. ‘Gods, that was a lifetime ago, eighty-three?’
He nodded. ‘What can I do for you?’ He required two chairs, Williams sat, but his recruit simply stood and fidgeted with her briefcase.
‘Sit down, Milla, he’s not going to eat you.’ The recruit gripped her briefcase and sat, staring at him as though he might grow a second, violent, head at any moment. ‘You know what we do in Hyde.’
He nodded.
‘Milla is one of our Madchester spotters, and she saw something of interest to you.’ He turned to the recruit. ‘Go ahead.’
She popped the locks on her briefcase and began to rummage around in it. A frightful look crossed her face. ‘Billy, it’s the wrong suitcase…’
Williams smiled at her. ‘No, Milla, it’s not. We checked before we left, settle down.’
She swallowed and began to pull files out, dumping them on the floor. Half of a wrapped sandwich was deposited on his desk. ‘Sorry,’ she said, her face bright red with embarrassment, ‘yesterday’s breakfast.’ She grabbed a file and let the briefcase slide from her lap. She shuffled the chair forward and laid it on his desk. ‘Three hours ago, I was doing my normal walk around Manchester. Always the same route, I don’t deviate like the others do. You can’t get precise data if you deviate, you can’t notice patterns-’
‘Milla,’ Williams cautioned.
She pulled out a large colour photo. ‘I saw her. Him, I’ve seen before, and we all know who he is. Her…’
He took the photo. ‘Damnit,’ he swore.
‘So it is your recruit?’ she asked, her fear slipping away. ‘I knew I did good, Billy, I knew it!’
‘Enid Prest. Traitor. Who’s the-’ he stared at the fae in the photo. ‘Is that a goblin? It’s very tall for a-’ Williams nodded at him. ‘Oh. Him. Well, at least everything makes sense now.’
‘What are you going to do?’ Williams asked him. ‘Obviously you need to know what she did, besides working with a leech. If she’s out and about in Manchester, then obviously the recruit that shot her needs some more training.’
‘Unfortunately that recruit died.’
‘Sorry mate. What do you want to do about this one, then?’
‘She wasn’t very happy,’ Milla said quietly. ‘She kept arguing with him. She didn’t want to be in Madchester. And she doesn’t like Madhe. Kept calling her bad names. And agents bad names. And the city bad names. She knows a lot of bad words.’
He looked to Williams. ‘I’m not up to date on Court law, what’s the jurisdiction?’
‘If she’s openly rejecting the Court, then she’s got no right to claim sanctuary.’
Williams stood. ‘So you’re coming?’
He nodded. ‘At least I’ll get to wrap up one loose end.’
Williams gave him a curious look. ‘That bad, huh?’
‘The mirror was…shattered, so we only got a partial. It also means that a lot more people potentially got their hands on pieces.’
The other agent shook his head. ‘I need to hear that story, but at least what they did get a hold of will be weaker, and a lot of little threats is better than one cataclysmic one.’
‘Depends on who you ask,’ he said. ‘By your leave.’
Milla looked up at Williams. ‘We’re going back Billy?’
Williams patted her on the head. ‘Yes love, you did good.’
‘I don’t like going back so quickly,’ she muttered, ‘I’m always afraid I’m gonna get the bends…’ Williams simply shook his head and shifted them all away.
He looked around mid-morning Manchester – it was so strange to be in a city with no fixed Agency presence – the Madchester scouts did their job, and their lead agents stepped in when necessary, but for the most part, they weren’t necessary, the city governed itself.
What few Solstice that entered were swiftly, and often violently, dealt with – unless they were seeking out the Court, then they were allowed to travel unimpeded. Demons didn’t visit Manchester – those that were insane were comfortable with it, or looked after by their brethren. The fae, no matter their station, seemed to universally respect Madhe and her ability to, if not control, then at least guide the throngs of people that came to her.
Those that saw things that weren’t there. Those that were visited by nightmares on an all-too-frequent basis. Those that were haunted by memories to the point where they were unable to function. Those that needed their little idiosyncrasies. Those that just needed to converse with a brick wall in order to organise their thoughts, or have an intelligent conversation. Those that had voices in their head.
Like Stef.
‘Where were you when you saw her, Recruit?’ he asked of the nervous girl.
Milla pointed across the street. ‘I was standing there. My reflection in the store window was odd. They were…’ she trailed and walked a few metres to the right. ‘She was here.’ She hopped back a little. ‘And he was here.’
‘He walks around in broad daylight without a glamour?’
Williams clapped him on the back. ‘You forget where you are. And he’s tall enough to be mistaken for a really ugly bloke.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever understand the mortal urge to rationalise everything away.’
The recruit pouted. ‘That a mortal-ist generalisation and I don’t appreciate it.’
He smirked and felt himself relax, just a little. ‘I do apologise.’
‘This may be where they were,’ Williams said, ‘but there’s no way that-’
‘Billy…’ Milla popped the locks on her briefcase and handed him a dirty sheet of paper. ‘This is former-Agent-Tate-now-goblin-Tian’s sighting schedule.’
‘And how often does he follow it?’ Williams asked as he shook the paper and required it clean. ‘It’s no use if it’s-’
‘He only follows it every second Wednesday of each month. Which isn’t today. I hate people who don’t follow their schedules.’ She pulled an apple from one of her bulging jacket pockets and stared at it briefly before biting into it.
He rubbed his eyes. ‘Where’s the nearest entrance to Madchester?’
‘Steady on, you can’t be that far behind on Court law, hell, that’s our law. You can’t take action on neutral ground, if you do, you’re no better than-’
‘Let’s do ourselves a favour and not speak of him. I have no intent of taking action, I just want to talk to her.’
‘Talking usually doesn’t-’
‘I’m just going to talk,’ he reiterated. ‘I’m a man of my word.’
‘Yeah mate, that’s our nature, but we all deviate from it sometimes.’
‘It’ll only be me who suffers if I break from my word. Where’s the entrance?’
Milla grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the corner. She pointed at the gap between the two buildings across from them to the park beyond it. ‘There’s always story thieves over there. Madhe keeps them as pets.’
Williams placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Remember the rules. Traitor or not, if she’s got sanctuary, there’s nothing we can do.’
‘I’m hoping she has asked for it, gods help her if she hasn’t.’
Milla grabbed her agent’s sleeve. ‘See? I knew he was scary!’
Williams simply nodded. ‘Good luck.’
He crossed the road, leaving the agent and his fidgeting recruit behind, made his way through the narrow space between the buildings – more of a default place to put bins than a real thoroughfare and to the park beyond it.
A halfbreed sat alone at a table, sparking fire with his fingers and staring at it until the light breeze extinguished each and every flame. A story thief across the park saw him and immediately ran, its appearance slipping every few seconds.
A tree turned to look at him, then slipped into its natural form – a nymph. ‘Visiting, collecting, causing trouble or here to stay?’ she asked, her hand hovering above the pouch hanging from her hip.
‘I request a meeting with Enid Prest, if she’s here in the Court. Four guards at the least.’
‘Oh her. I’ll give you a fiver if you forget the guards and-’
‘Four guards at the least. Mutual protection. So she’s here?’
‘Madchester isn’t big enough to hide from here. Wish she’d just give it up and go join Remmy or something.’ She sighed, caught a lock of hair in her mouth, chewed on it for a long moment, then blew three times into the set of panpipes hanging around her neck.
‘Four guards.’
‘I’ll get someone to spot another fiver and we can call it ten.’ He simply stared at her and she gave another short tweet with the pipes.
The ground caved in a moment later to reveal a set of steps. A thing young man, his arms covered in ugly track marks up and down his arms ran up the stairs. ‘Whatcha need?’
‘The loud-mouthed bitch-’
‘Which one?’
‘Tian’s pet. And an escort. Tune of four.’
An elderly hob appeared the young man and shook his head. ‘You don’t leave angels standing on the doorstep, lad.’ The hob beckoned to him. ‘Enter humble and no harm will come to you.’
‘I’m armed.’
‘Got two myself, wingless, you coming in, or are you going to let Mrs Rockeby’s excursion to the park see an angel arguing with with the denizens of Madchester?’
There was no choice – there was no use calling attention to themselves. It would also give Emma more ammunition to use against him.
He pulled his gun from his holster and required it away.
With a sigh, he followed the old hob down the stairs and into Madchester.