‘Ok, so you’re sure it’s safe,’ Stef asked as she spun on her chair.
‘As sure I can be,’ Ryan said as he put a hand on her hair to stop her spinning. ‘This shouldn’t be anything like Russia.’
‘You didn’t think Russia was going to be anything like Russia.’
He sighed. ‘You have to do your external training somewhere. You’ve been given dispensation to bring it down to four days, but you still need to do four days at an Agency that isn’t here.’
‘You sure I can’t just glue a “Paris” label to the lobby, and have it count?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘I know, I know. But, you’re sure this is the best option?’
‘Most of Williams’ recruits have the same kind of field rating as our tech recruits. Being a Madchester spotter isn’t very demanding, it’s mostly observation and analysis, sometimes a little interaction if one side needs something from the other, but those occasions are very rare.’
‘You were going to send me there, weren’t you?’
‘Madchester, at its heart, is a benevolent court, it’s a sanctuary with very little interest in war or stirring the pot. Queen Madhe may hold sway over a lot of fae and have a lot of power herself, but she will never turn away one of her own in need. If you are-’
‘You are pretty much guaranteed sanctuary. It’s somewhere where those who need to be, can just be, without comment or query, where one is allowed to converse with the walls, or sleep with a sword to protect them from things that others can’t see.’
‘And Enid’s there.’
‘Yes. She is,’ he said flatly.
‘I’m really sorry, I will aim for the head next time, but you’re lucky I managed to shoot her at all, I wasn’t exactly a great shot.’
‘There’s no next time, if you see her, walk away, if she’s in Madchester territory, you can’t touch her, because she has sanctuary with them.’
‘And if she’s not?’
‘It’s unlikely that you’ll see her,’ he said. ‘Just please don’t spark a war, we just avoided one.’
‘But she’s just one-’
‘Fine, I won’t shoot nobody.’
‘Are you trying to hide behind a double-negative?’
She shook her head. ‘Nope. Promise. Cross my heart and h- No. Not gonna say that. Cross my heart and swear to cookies.’
He smiled. ‘Well, a promise like that I can believe. It’s almost time to go, do you have everything you need?’
She stood, patted down her vest, and her pants pockets. ‘I know I left my ability to require around here somewhere…’
He reached down and lifted her laptop. ‘Aren’t you even going to take your computer?’
‘Oh. Right. Sorry.’ She required a bag, slipped Frankie inside, and zipped it up. ‘I didn’t bother taking him to Russia because I was under the impression I’d be doing a lot more punching than typing.’ She took a moment, thought, then nodded. ‘Ok, I think I’ve got everything now.’
He nodded, and handed her a business card. ‘Here’s where you need to go.’
‘You’re not going to shift me? I’m not getting picked up?’
‘Look at the card.’
She did, and at the number string there. It blurred for a moment, then a schematic of the Hyde Agency appeared in her HUD, with the lobby highlighted, and a dialogue box asking her if she wanted to shift to the given location.
‘Ok,’ she said, spinning the schematic, showing off a dozen different angles, ‘that’s kind of cool.’
She nodded, then took the option in her HUD, and felt herself shift.
The Hyde lobby was very different to the Brisbane lobby – smaller for a start, with the desk off to the right, and the elevators off to the left, instead of a central desk and elevators to the right.
There was also no secretary.
She approached the desk, double-checked her location, then rang the bell.
Nothing but the filtered traffic noises answered her.
‘Waitwaitwait,’ someone called. A small woman ran past her, screeched to a halt, and jumped into the receptionist’s chair. ‘Welcome to A & J Law Services, how can I help you today?’
She stared at the woman, at her blue hair, eyebrow piercing and the one-inch gauges in her ears, and smiled, then shook her head. ‘Ok, maybe wrong building, sorry.’
‘We provide a comprehensive range of services, you can discuss- Wait…you’re the Aussie, aren’t you?’
The woman smiled. ‘AJ, hiya, nice to meet you, sorry about that.’
‘…am I in the right place?’
‘If you’re looking for the Hyde Agency, then ya.’
‘One of you, no, plain old…well, I’m two parts fae, ten parts human, no powers to speak of, so pretty much plain old human.’ She pointed to her hair. ‘Unless this counts as my mutant power.’ She picked up the cordless phone and punched a few buttons. ‘Your guest is here, ok, ya, I’ll keep her entertained.’
‘Law services?’ she asked as AJ put down the phone.
‘Well, what’s your cover story?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said truthfully, ‘I don’t hang out in the lobby that much.’
‘Well,’ AJ said as she required and sipped an espresso, ‘we don’t have any face plating or anything, and you get the occasional person come in, either because they have the wrong address, or because they’re curious about what we do, so with me as the secretary and proclaiming that we’re five-hundred-quid-an-hour lawyers, we chase away nineteen out of twenty people.’
‘And the twentieth?’
‘Rock stars,’ she said. ‘Or creative types in general, or old creepy guys who propose paying the hourly rate for not law services,’ she said with a grimace. ‘I love being able to require a gun.’
‘What happens when you do get someone who wants a lawyer?’
‘We’ve partnered with a couple of firms, and we send them their way.’
‘Must work out pretty well for them.’
‘And for us,’ AJ said, ‘there aren’t many experts in faerie law, but there are a few that have studied up on Court laws, and we occasionally need a consult, and it’s good to be able to get an external opinion on certain situations.’
She nodded, then went stiff as she was attacked from behind. Arms wrapped around her, and she saw half a dozen pop-ups as emergency routines were unlocked. Without thinking, or controlling herself, she knocked the arms away, spun, and lifted her attacker by the throat.
Her attacker, that looked very much like a recruit. Very much like, and having the same pop-up as the recruit she was supposed to spend the next four days with. This much recognised, the pop-ups disappeared, and the strength fled her arm, and she dropped the recruit, who fell to her butt and let out a high-pitched whine.
‘I…’ she started. ‘I…um…sorry. I…sorry.’
The recruit stared at her, but didn’t reply. She offered a hand to the girl, who grabbed it, and pulled her to the ground, and laughed as she hit the cold tiles.
‘Ok,’ Milla said, ‘now we’re even.’
She sat up and stared at the recruit. ‘I’m sure I could reprimand you, or punish you, or something, for that.’
‘Gods,’ AJ said from behind the desk, ‘don’t be such a narc.’
Hacker pride flared. ‘I’m not a narc!’ she shouted. She clamped her mouth shut, then looked down at her suit. ‘Oh yeah, guess I am.’
Milla placed a briefcase in front of her and popped the locks. ‘Hungry?’ she asked as she pulled out a sandwich.
She unzipped her laptop case and pulled out a small emergency bag of cookies. ‘Trade you?’
Milla grinned and took the cookies. ‘This is going to be fun.’
‘Milla,’ a voice boomed. ‘No picnics in the lobby.’
An agent rounded them, then lifted Milla from the floor. ‘Look at you,’ he scolded gently, adjusting her suit, ‘you were supposed to be nice and clean for your guest.’ He brushed breadcrumbs from the girl’s suit, then tapped her on the nose. ‘I do suppose you’ll have to do.’
She slowly climbed to her feet.
‘And you must be Agent Mimosa,’ Agent Williams said. ‘Glad you found your way here all right.’
‘But her file said-’ Milla started.
‘She wants to know,’ Williams said, ‘if she can call you by your first name. She is used to being informal with agents,’ he said. ‘But if it’s not all right, then-’
‘Stef’s fine,’ she said. ‘I’m still getting used to the “Agent” part myself.’
‘So we noticed,’ AJ muttered. ‘I’m going back to the study hall,’ she said as she stood, then walked away, giving a casual wave over her shoulder.
Milla grabbed her hand. ‘Want a tour?’
‘I’ll let you two girls get to it, come see me if you need anything.’
‘Ok, Billy,’ Milla said.
‘Oh, Agent Mimosa?’
‘Would you prefer an office or a dorm room for the next few days? I know it’s usually an office, but you’re mostly going to be in the field, so…’
‘Do you have any dorm rooms free?’
‘Four or five,’ he said with a shrug.
‘Then I’ll take one of them, thanks, I mean, for giving me the choice.’
‘Here, give me your bag. Milla, I’ll put her in twenty-five, show her where it is at the end of the tour, ok?’
Williams accepted her laptop bag, gave them a nod, then shifted away.
‘I suggest,’ Milla said, ‘we start with the cafe down the street. No, wait, we can do that later. Important question: Which Court are you?’
‘Is this like the tree question?’
Milla shook her head. ‘No, it’s like how some people don’t know how to treat people if they don’t know your star sign? I like to know which Court somebody belongs to, so I know how to treat them.’
‘I’m…Agency,’ she said. ‘I don’t-’
‘Ok, so not everyone belongs to one really, but some people are aligned with them, or covered by them, or in their favour, or like that.’
‘Lost, I think,’ she said. ‘I had one of their imaginary friends when I was a kid, and I’ve got an offer to go there if I need to.’
Milla beamed. ‘Good. Lost is good. Ok, not the show, but the Court. Who was your friend?’
‘Um, Captain Hook?’
Milla nodded in approval. ‘Better than a blue kitty named Toffee Oliver.’
‘Nope, Recruit Milo…something, I forget his name. Except he didn’t just have her as a kid, she kind of stayed with him all the time, even when he grew up, except she wasn’t just a kitty then, she would come here in people-form, and bring him a cut lunch and stuff. They left to go have babies, or kittens, or something. He pops by now and then, but not for ages. I think he might be training to be an imaginary friend himself.’ She shrugged, popped her briefcase open again, and unwrapped a sandwich. ‘He was pretty cool, even if his name was Milo. Milo’s a weird name.’
‘Did he taste like chocolate?’
She stared at the recruit. ‘Huh?’
‘Racist,’ Milla said in a quieter voice. ‘I mean-’
‘Milo’s this chocolate drink stuff, you put it in milk, yanno?’
‘Oooooh…’ Milla said, then bit into her sandwich again. ‘Sorry I thought you were being a horrible person that I couldn’t be friends with and would have to pretend to like for the rest of the week.’
‘It’s not mandatory to like me,’ she said, ‘most people don’t, so don’t feel weird if you end up hating me.’
Milla gave a lopsided smile. ‘I’ve got plenty of other reasons to feel weird.’
‘So what,’ she asked as Milla led her over to the elevator, ‘do you do if someone doesn’t have a Court? How do you know how to treat them then?’
‘That makes it harder,’ the recruit said as she swung her briefcase, ‘if they don’t have a Court, I try and find out which Sin or which Virtue they belong to.’
‘Which what now?’
Milla screwed up her face in confusion as she stepped into the lift. ‘Don’t you have to pass a test or something to become an agent?’
‘I didn’t. I’m still learning, gimme a break.’
‘Seven Sins, seven Virtues,’ Milla said. ‘Everyone belongs to at least one of them, but I don’t believe the crap that you get to belong to one of each, some people have nothing bad about them, and some people have nothing good about them, not that I’m saying which is which.’
‘How do you know who you belong to?’
‘It’s generally a guess,’ the recruit said. ‘Unless you’re lucky enough to get visited by them. I mean, you get immortal, like, really immortal guys wondering around, and they’re that way because Fortitude smiled upon them, and got Life and Death’s permission to let them keep living.’
‘Like Dorian Gray?’
‘You don’t know who the Sins and Virtues are, but you’ve had time to read Dorian Gray’s file?’
‘Dorian’s…the reason I’m in this whole mess in the first place.’
‘So the Agency is a mess now?’
‘No, I just mean-’
Milla poked her tongue at her. ‘I’m just messing with you. What’s he like?’
‘Subtle and quick to anger?’ she said. ‘Nothing like the book. Complicated.’
The lift stopped and let them off. ‘Here we are.’
‘Everywhere,’ Milla said. ‘Well, not everywhere, but most-where. You’ve got a segregated Agency, right?’
‘You’ve got separate field, tech and combat divisions.’
‘Here, not so much,’ Milla said. ‘Most of us do the field stuff and the tech stuff – our field work isn’t like normal field work, not so much running, jumping and shooting, just watching and observing, taking notes, that kind of stuff. Some people just stay here and do tech stuff though, if they don’t want to go out into the field. We’re…kind of a specialised Agency.’
‘What happens if something, like, end-of-the-worldy happens?’
‘We call for help, it isn’t our job to handle that kind of stuff. As for the everyday stuff that you deal with, well, this close to Madchester, all of the fae pretty much keep themselves in line. Around these parts, the fae pretty much police themselves.’
Milla led her into a large room, with a dozen recruits sitting at desks, and three poring over maps at a large table in the centre of the room.
‘Hey guys,’ Milla said, and the other recruits looked up, ‘we’ve got a visitor.’ The recruit jerked a thumb at her. ‘Agent Mimosa, she’ll be around here for the next few days, I’m taking her on a tour now, but Kristy, could you give her the round table discussion when we get back?’
A blond recruit nodded. ‘Sure thing.’
Milla grabbed her hand. ‘Come on, there’s other stuff to see.’
‘Ok, so you’re sure it’s safe,’ Stef asked as she spun on her chair.