When they entered the tea store, an intense wave of earthy scents greeted them. Root, herb, leaf, branch. Dirt. It was poignant, to say the least. Foreign scents that did not belong this deep into the city.
Cadence walked up to the counter and tapped the scales. “I’d like twenty-five grams of morrowheat, please.”
The Sagittarian stared at the four of them for a beat before he headed to the back of the store. Without hesitation, they followed him past the curtain that hung next to the displays and into the backroom that lay beyond. They were then led up a long staircase and down a hall that opened into a large room.
The room had wooden floorboards that were covered by a royal red carpet. At the center of the rug was a square, wooden table manned by six chairs. A burly, thick man with a balding head and a thick beard sat at one of them. He had on a black dress shirt and a pair of pin-striped slacks. At his wrist gleamed several bracelets studded with gems. He had on a grim and gaunt expression that made it look as if he’d just come from a funeral.
At the opposite end of the room was an oak desk piled with neatly stacked papers. A man stood behind this desk with his hands folded just as neatly behind him. He wore a white button-up shirt and a white pair of dress pants. His hair was a snowy white as well, and his skin was as pale as the rest of his clothing. It was difficult to see with the lightness of his skin, the wrinkles that graced his features.
“I see you’re well, Cadence.” The man in white said as he turned his blue eyes on them. The monocle above his left eye glinted in the dull overhead lights.
“Define ‘well’.” Cadence raised a brow. “Honestly, I should be restin’ up somewhere nice instead of havin’ ta book it here.”
“I see you brought the Foxmans with you.” Cavallo continued, ignoring Cadence’s comment. He offered out his hand and gave each brother a firm shake. “As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you. Without your control over the ports, we would never be able to ship out our conductors. It is a shame that one of your establishments was destroyed in this incident.” He gestured to the chairs. “Please, sit.”
The Foxmans obliged.
“Thanks for having us, Cavallo,” Francis said as he flicked his wrist and put out his v-cig which he then tucked away in his pocket. “How’s Ricardo doing?”
“Our leader is doing just fine.” Cavallo returned. “Although he sends his condolences for your establishment.”
“Which is why we’re here,” Allen provided.
“Look,” the burly, balding man who sat across from the brothers sighed. “Your joint got busted. It sucks. I understand. But you’re gonna be wastin’ your breath lookin’ into it. It was probably just some drunk punk who got a little bit too handsy with a conductor of the explosive variety.”
“I think it’s more than that, Verga,” Cadence ruminated. She lifted her hat to scratch the back of her head before leaning back against the wall behind her. She crossed her arms. “Yeah, it’d be too much of a coincidence if it was just that.”
“A coincidence?” Cavallo turned to her.
“I’m thinkin’ someone has an aim here.” Cadence nodded. “I mean, look, everyone knows that that joint belonged to the Foxmans. No one in their right mind’d hit the place up even if they were wasted.” She ran her fingers along the brim of her hat. “And then there’s the fact that we were just about to nab the guy who’s been weedin’ out some of our business.”
“What’re you implying, Cadence?” Francis asked, throwing a look back towards him.
Cadence shrugged. “Looks like someone wanted to silence him.”
“That’s just an assumption.” Verga grumbled.
“It’s intuition.” Cadence returned. “There’s a difference.”
“And that’s what your intuition is telling you? That there is more to this?” Cavallo raised a brow. And then a smile wrinkled his wrinkles. “How about you take point on this then, Cadence? Look into this matter for us. Find out who set ”
Cadence pulled her scowl up into a grin. “‘Course, my liege.”
Going door to door asking questions about who saw who when and where and why was exhausting after having pulled through a near-death experience. It didn’t help so much that only one out of her three companions was any good at speaking to people. Then again, Allen was the one who handled the monetary issues and Carl was the one who dealt with their goons and underlings. Not many social skills were needed for those sorts of things.
After they made their final rounds around the block housing the burnt remains of the tavern, the Foxmans were approached by one of their underlings. There was something mentioned about one of their ships having gone missing from the ports. It sounded serious enough to make Francis lose the melodic quality in his voice. And so, they parted ways.
Cadence watched them go with a wave before she headed in the opposite direction. Slipping her hands into her pockets, she weaved through the streets and walkways with a hum. Soon the cement sidewalks bled into cobblestone paths and the high-rise buildings shrank down to two-tiered apartments with stucco walls.
She could now see the skyline stretching high above her head. Just within reach. The sun was hanging low on the horizon there, but it was hidden by a long bridge that stretched out far into the distance.
The Dioscuri Bridge. The bridge that connected the left and the right Twin Cities to each other. It rose up in a great arch above the Castor River that ran through the Twin Cities and emptied out into the Pollux Bay. At night, sometimes the city officials would activate the conductor that was wired into the bridge and cast illusions of light across it.
Faintly, Cadence could make out a stream of smoke passing above the bridge. The v- train. If she strained her ears, she bet that she could make out its clicks and clacks and its bellowing horn as it pulled into the station. She’d always imagined herself sitting on that train. Watching the Twin Cities flit past below her behind a window. Of course, she’d be on the train leaving the city not the one that was arriving to it. A pleasant daydream—
A small, frail body collided with her own and sent her stumbling backwards. When she righted herself, an adolescent no older than thirteen stared back at her with wide, round, black eyes. A boy. Unruly brown hair framed his face and barely concealed a scar ran from his left temple to his right cheek.
“Sorry, sir, sorry.” The boy bowed his head. He bent down to pick up her hat that had fallen to the ground and handed it out to her.
She accepted it but held it there. “No problem, kid.”
“Really,” he said, retracting his hand. He turned to leave. “I’m really sor—”
She reached forward, grabbed his retreating hand, and jerked him towards her. Out from his pants pocket, fell a familiar object. Her wallet. The boy’s eyes widened at the sight of it, and he blinked up towards her with a startled expression. An expression which became horrified as she took on his appearance in a burst of orange light with a snap of her ringed fingers.
Holding him in place, she bent down to pick up her wallet. She then pried open his hands and emptied its contents out onto his palm. Ten cens. Enough to buy three drinks at any bar.
“I’m really sorry,” she said, mimicking his voice, “but I’m not stupid enough to carry a lot of money with me on these streets.”
The boy stared at her wide-eyed, wordless.
She sighed and released him as she snapped her fingers and took on her original appearance. She then waved him off absentmindedly. “Get a move on, kid. And try to pickpocket someone who doesn’t look stone cold broke next time.”
The kid opened his mouth to retort but paused. He then pulled the coins close to his chest and took off down the street without another word.
Sighing, Cadence continued her path down the cobblestone walkway until she reached her most frequented place in the city. A small building that was only one story tall. A wooden sign was placed in front of its singular square window. Sognare, bar and tunes.
Shrugging her shoulders, Cadence entered.
The bar was dimly-lit and empty. The bartender didn’t even look up from his busywork of cleaning glassware when she entered. And so with a whistle, she slipped past the round tables that dotted the floor and made her way to the very back where a stage had been raised on a platform. She hopped up onto the platform and made her way to the large, grand piano that stood tall there.
It was a beautiful thing. Black and white keys made of ivory. A polished shine. Dusted religiously.
Her fingers itched for the keys. They longed for them.
Cadence gently placed her fingertips on a set of their desired destination and pressed down. A shrill chord rang out.
“That’s a lovely piano.”
Cadence started, turned, and found someone standing at the very edge of the stage beneath the spotlight.
It was a young woman wrapped in a bright green dress that looked like it was made of silk. The top of her dress was a mesh of colorful beadwork that wrapped all the way around her neck. Her dark skin seemed to bring out the vibrancy of the colors, and her dark eyes reflected the dim lights coming from the bar in an eerie way. Her cheekbones were high, and her lashes long. In other words—
“Doll,” Cadence cracked a grin as she drew off her hat, “you’re lovely.”
A white smile broke across the woman’s features, and she hid it with her hand.
“What’s someone like you doin’ in a place like this?” Cadence continued.
“Sir…” The bartender called out in the distance.
“And what is ‘this place’, exactly?” The woman returned. Her brows were arched, and her eyes glimmered with mischief. She glanced around as she drew her arms around her waist.
“Well.” Cadence scratched the back of her head. “You tellin’ me you entered this place without even knowin—”
“Sir, who are you talking to?” Finally, the bartender raised his voice loud enough to cut into their conversation. What a spoiler.
Cadence frowned at the bartender before gesturing back to the woman. “What do you mean? I’m—”
The space she was gesturing to was empty. A spotlight on an empty stage.
There it was again. That itching feeling. Like she was being watched.
“I’m…” Cadence concluded. “… losing my mind.”