Life was full of deceptions. Life was only one letter away from lie, after all. But there wasn’t really much a person could do about the fact but judge. And if a person judged, they were a hypocrite. But life was full of hypocrites. Life was full of people, after all.
Cadence was a self-labeled hypocrite; and if anyone judged her, they were a hypocrite too. Like if they judged her current predicament, for example, they’d definitely be a hypocrite.
Her current predicament?
“I’m tellin’ ya! I’m tellin’ ya!” Cadence snapped, slamming her hand against her chest with each clipped syllable. “You need to check me over again! What if ya missed something?!”
She was dressed in a loosely-buttoned, long-sleeved blouse that came down to her knees. While wearing it, she knew she looked like a child. The man who sat across from her on a metal stool wore a crisp white lab coat over his shoulders and a pair of white gloves over his hands. While wearing it, he almost looked like a highly esteemed doctor. Papers, shiny tools, and bandages cluttered the tables lining the walls of the room around them. While sitting within this room, Cadence figured the two of them probably looked like they were a regular doctor and patient.
But appearances were deceiving.
“Cadence, your psychological state seems to be in much more need of attendance than your physical state.” The doctor appeared amused as he said this and stroked his stubbled chin with a smile.
What a quack, Cadence thought. The doc’s bad interpersonal skills were probably what landed him here doing jobs underground rather than up above with the good folk in the first place. The doc was a specialist vitae Conductor, after all. If Cadence had been blessed with that manifestation of vitae manipulation instead of being born as a transmutationist, she would’ve kissed this city goodbye a long time ago. Or maybe it was just that the doctor just liked working in places like these. No rules. No restrictions. No law.
“Between me and you, doc.” Cadence raised a brow. “I reckon my psychological state is a lot better than the state of your other patients. If you can call them that.”
“Oh dear, Cadence,” the doctor sighed as he placed a tender hand to his heart. “Are you implying that I don’t see my patients as patients?”
“I ain’t implyin’. I’m clearly statin’.” Cadence returned with a crooked grin before she laughed and raised her hands. “I’m jokin’. I’m jokin’. I’d be dead six times over if it weren’t for you.”
The doctor merely smiled. “Well, it looks like you’re feeling better now.”
Cadence rolled her neck and shrugged. “Well, I’m alive and kickin’, so…”
“Much luckier than other patrons in that bar. It seems as if your Family retrieved you just in time. Unlike the others.”
Cadence paused and then rubbed the back of her neck and tapped her foot. “I see. Sounds like I got a lot of work cut out for me then.” She let out a dramatic sigh and hung her head. “Can’t a gal catch a break?”
“If it makes you feel any better, Nico called.”
Cadence perked up immediately. “Ya mean he’s on his way back?”
The doctor shook his head. “He did ask you to call him back though. You can use the phone outside.”
“Is that your way of tellin’ me to get out of your office, doc?” Cadence raised a brow. “I did nearly die, y’know. Y’sure I shouldn’t hang around here a little bit longer just in case? I know you’re the best in the business, but still. What if I pass out?”
“If you pass out then come back,” the doctor replied. “You know that I’m only interested in injured people.”
The phone booth outside of the room was — to put it eloquently — a piece of crap. Its wooden casing was so chipped that parts of it jutted out like jagged teeth. The nails that kept the wood in place were also hazardously popping up like weeds. The phone itself was covered in a thick layer of dust. Made sense. People didn’t make appointments with the Doc. They dropped in whenever they had a foot in the grave.
Cadence picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. She twirled the cord around her index finger and said into the mouthpiece, “Operator, connect me to the line that was called last from this one.”
As the line rang, she thrummed her fingers along the surface of the booth and grimaced when a splinter plucked the tip of her pointer.
“…. Cadence?” A voice cracked out from the speaker.
Cadence felt a smile crack across her face. “How goes it on the front lines, soldier?”
“That’s not funny,” came the quiet response. “People are dying out here, Cadence.”
“People die everywhere, Nico,” Cadence said matter-of-factually. When a silence fell over the conversation, she grimaced. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“Yeah… We managed to deliver the shipment to the Aquarians three days ago but just the other day they got caught up with the Capricornians—”
“Woah, woah,” Cadence shouted, straightening herself. “You’re okay, aren’t ya? Ya didn’t get caught up—”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“That’s a relief.”
Cadence considered telling him about her recent near-death experience but thought better of it. The entire ordeal seemed like something that was better kept on the down-low.
“It’s good to hear your voice, Cadence.” Nico suddenly said.
“Yeah, right back at ya. Don’t get all sappy on me again. And no need to worry about that other stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “It’s not your war, Nico. Just hurry up and get out of there, okay?”
The line crackled with static.
Cadence pulled away from the phone and shook it a bit before pressing it back up to her ear. “Hello? Nico?”
“Werner, what’s wrong?”
Cadence did a double-take. “Who the hell is Werner?”
“What?” came Nico’s voice. “Werner? Who’s that?”
Cadence pulled back from the receiver and stared at it. She shook her head and pressed the phone back to her ear. “Nothin’. Nevermind. Think we accidentally crossed someone else’s line.”
“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”
“It was only for a sec.” Cadence waved him off again. “Anyway, come home quick, aight? Don’t get caught up in complicated things, Nico.”
When Cadence stepped back out onto the streets of the city she knew like the back of her hand, she took in a deep breath and tasted both salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. Needless to say, she spat not soon afterward.
Here, in this backwater alleyway where the buildings stretched upwards to unbelievable heights, she could barely see the sky above her head. It was just a crack of white up there. Too far to reach.
She was back in her usual wear now. A simple and loose suit topped with her favorite hat. Dark maroon in color, because that got the blood going.
She turned and prepared to walk down the alleyway when she noticed a group standing at the mouth of it. They were looking at her. A trio of them. A trio of men wearing suits. From left to right the suits went from dark green to dark red to dark blue. From left to right the men went from frail to bulky.
“You could at least look a little bit happier to see us.” The one who wore the maroon suit and who stood at the center said in an almost musical voice. He then reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender, cylindrical object no larger than his index finger. He gave it a quick flick of the wrist, and the tip of it lit a glowing orange. Taking a drag from the unlit end, he studied her.
“Well, excuse me for not jumpin’ for joy when I saw you, Francis. Not to be rude but usually, when you guys show up, someone’s about to die.” Cadence shrugged and offered a lopsided smile as she closed the distance between them. “It was almost me this time.” She leaned forward and pressed the tip of her ringed index finger against the bud of the v-cigarette. A familiar yellow-orange light bled out from her ring and pooled onto the cig. The light-coated cigarette then began to take on a different shape. A curve there, a sprout here, a blossom there. By the time the light faded, the cigarette had taken on the form of a white lily flower.
“And I’m glad it wasn’t.” Francis smiled in amusement. “We were hoping to accompany you to Cavallo’s place.”
Cadence pulled her finger away from the tip of the cig. The yellow-orange light blinked again before cracking and receding from both her hand and the cigarette. The cig took back its original shape. The illusion, broken.
“Huh?” She frowned. “What for?”
“The Romano Family’s personal associate was nearly killed.” The blue suit provided. “How would the Foxmans look if we ignored this transgression against our closest ally?”
This was a lie. Cadence knew. Or maybe a half-truth.
“The explosion happened on our turf, Cadence.” Francis explained, after giving the blue-suit a look. “You know Cadence is a human lie detector, Allen.”
That was right. The TwinStar Pub was one of the Foxmans’ joints. They had many of these bars sprinkled throughout both the left and the right Twin Cities but this one in particular was one of their most famous. All patrons knew who held ownership of their bars but very few knew that the bars were in fact just a simple cover for the Foxmans’ real business.
Allen didn’t so much as shrug. “I thought she might be off of her game.”
“Well, it is a matter of turf.” Francis muttered after a pause. “But it also is a matter of connections.” And here, Francis’s expression darkened. “The fact that someone thinks they can harm a childhood friend of the Foxmans’ without retaliation just goes to show how soft we’ve become. Something we need to fix.”
Cadence whistled before inclining her head. “Well, shall we?”
And so they walked as a quartet out the alleyway and onto the open streets. The roads here were narrow allowing only one v-ehicle to roll along at a time. The sidewalks were wide, which allowed groups of five and up to walk alongside other even larger groups. The congested streets were something Cadence was in fact fond of. It was easy to blend in.
“So,” Cadence drew as they walked along the path. “Anything interesting happen since I nearly kicked the bucket?”
“Someone attempted to assassinate the prince of Aries.” The green suit supplied nonchalantly.
Cadence stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around. “You serious, Carl?”
“With a bow-and-arrow conductor of all things.” Francis clarified. “Word is that the arrow was shot by an elemental Conductor.” He took another drag. “Fire.” And another drag. “Anyway, the whole kingdom’s been in the fritz about it. To think that an Ariesian may have made the attempt. Can trust their neighbors as much as they trust themselves.”
“I’ll never understand monarchies.” Carl shook his head. “All this ruckus just ‘cause some kid got shot.”
“What, Carl?” Cadence raised a brow. “Don’t like the idea of bendin’ over backwards for someone and swearing fealty?”
“And you would?” Carl returned.
“Course,” Cadence laughed. “No point in hidin’ it.” She raised her ringed-fingers up and rubbed them together. “Just give me a nice sum, and I’ll swear my loyalty to you, my liege.” With that, she gave a deep and mocking bow.
“Pretty sure any king or queen you serve under’d be bankrupt in a week as soon as you joined their ranks,” Allen said.
“And I’d be filthy rich.” Cadence chortled.
They reached their destination five minutes after. It was a small and quaint building wedged between a flower shop and a bookstore. The sign at the top of the building read ‘Saggitarian Tea Store’. And if one peered into the large open windows of the building, they would see just that.
Jars of tea leaves and other herbs and roots lined the back wall of the shop. In front of this collection was a counter manned by a balding man who looked of Sagittarian descent. At the counter he manned was a balancing scale and a cash register. Perfectly normal and upstanding.
Every time Cadence came to this place, she’d have to force herself to suppress her laughter.
—everything, after all.
“Everything?” Cadence frowned. “They’re deceivin’ is what they are.”
Cadence blinked and found the Foxman brothers staring at her from the door. She glanced left and then right as a chill began to crawl up her spine. What was this feeling? Like she was being watched. But there were too many people walking back and forth to tell from where. No, that wasn’t it. It felt as if she was being watched from everywhere. Left, right, up, down. Outside, within.
Instead of addressing the subject, however, she pulled up a bright smile and dusted off her shoulders. “Gotta prepare myself to face the devil, y’know?”