“The medical Conductors from the Medical Department have cleared me for travel.”
“So they have,” Alice Kingsley returned thickly. She sat across from him at her desk with cross legs and crossed arms. In front of her was a file with his name on it. She clicked her tongue. “The times certainly are tense.”
“I would be grateful if you cleared me too,” Jericho said after a beat. “So I can aid in the Ophiucian mission for peace.”
Alice waved him off. “Don’t try that with me. I’ve told you many times before — it doesn’t work with me.” She leaned forward and stared into him. “Let me get this clear. You’re insisting that you fell down the stairs.”
“I tripped,” Jericho amended. “Nothing was purposeful.”
“A trip that left you a bloody mess at the front of our SERPENS Establishment.”
Jericho nodded. “I am a klutz.”
Alice did not smile. Jericho was unsure of how to react.
“I can’t help people who don’t seek help themselves,” Alice clipped, tapping her fingers on his portrait photograph that was clipped to the file. “Since you’re insisting that you merely tripped, there is no evidence at present that allows me to hold you back.”
“So,” Jericho tried, “I’ve been cleared?”
“You’ve been reassigned.”
Jericho blinked. “Reassigned?”
“The team handling the Capricornian-Aquarian conflict has already departed,” Alice explained. “They left while you were in the Medical Department.”
“Instead, you’re being assigned to a missing person’s case,” Alice continued. She studied him and then made a sound that he almost assumed was a laugh. “No need to look disappointed. Any case assigned to an Ophiucian is high profile. But even if that were not the case, shouldn’t someone who has chosen to serve as an Ophiucian agent not care whether or not something is high profile? Are we not called by those outside these borders as neutral peacekeepers?”
“Yes, of course,” Jericho responded automatically.
Alice leaned back in her chair and studied him long and hard before she elaborated, “The missing individual is an Ophiucian agent.”
Jericho perked up at this.
“You may have heard of her. Leona.”
“The soon-to-be Chairman of the Investigations Department, and an individual who completed the State Conductor Exam with a score high enough to rank her as second out of all of those who have taken the exam.” Alice laced her fingers together and frowned. “The very fact that no one has seen her face and yet everyone knows these things highlights her position in our current world. Some say she is even the symbol of Ophiuchus. Peace.” Alice seemed to chuckle at the thought.
After wondering if he should laugh along, Jericho tried, “That is… troubling.”
There was a long pause of silence.
“I don’t know all the details but the agent was last seen in the Twin Cities of Gemini,” Alice finally said, closing his folder gently. “And it seems as if you were granted your wish. This case seems to involve ELPIS.” She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Your train is to depart in an hour so it’s best that you get ready. It would be unfortunate if you were to miss your train again.”
Giving a deep nod, Jericho rose to a stand. As he left Alice’s office, he passed by the cane-wielding, red-haired woman again. This time, she flashed him a smile. “Good luck with Talib, Jeri.”
Jericho arrived at the Grand Snake Train Station with a single suitcase in hand. In it was a single change of clothes and his conductor.
The station was as busy as usual. Ophiuchian Conductors dressed in their usual monochrome uniforms crowded the platforms and left little room to breathe. Wrapped around many of their right upper arms was a white sash with the Ophiucian symbol emblazoned upon it. Interspersed between the agents were a handful of individuals who were not dressed in monochrome. Rather than boarding the trains, they looked to be leaving them. They were most likely normal citizens here to submit requests for aid.
Jericho blinked down and found a young woman standing at his side. She was very small and very slender. Tiny. Jericho had to stop himself from asking how she had not gotten lost in the crowd. Well, it was probably because of that.
Pink. Bubblegum pink. That was the color of her pixie-cut hair.
“You are Mister Jericho, right? Of the Investigations Department?” She repeated.
“I’m Ferris Hart. Cancerian.” She extended her hand. “I work in the Assignment Department.”
Jericho stared at her extended hand for a moment before he accepted the gesture. For some odd reason, her face lit up at this and she cleared her throat and straightened her uniform.
“Please follow me, and I’ll introduce you to who you’ll be working with.”
Jericho followed the young woman through the crowd and nearly ran into her when she stopped short in front of a signpost. He glanced up. Platform 2, it read.
There was a small bubble of breathing space created around the post, and within the bubble resided two men and one woman. They were all dressed in monochrome suits. The man who stood with his arms crossed leaning against the post had a trench coat thrown over his uniform and a hamburg hat dipping down his head.
“Hey, everyone,” Ferris greeted them with a small wave before flushing and clearing her throat. She stepped to the side and gestured to Jericho. “This is Jericho, the one who’s been assigned on the missing person’s case. Please introduce yourselves.”
The agent who introduced himself first stood a head taller than Jericho. He had curly light brown hair that was haphazardly slicked back. The pair of horn-rimmed glasses perched on his hawk nose made his hazel eyes seem twice as large.
“Wtorek Izsak — Izsak being my first name,” the man said with a bright smile as he extended his hand. He was wearing thick gloves that were lined with metal. “From Taurus. Conjurer. Happily married. Proud father.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Am I missing anything?”
“Jericho,” Jericho said, shaking his hand and studying his face. Something about it was familiar. “… Not married… or a father.”
Izsak stared at him for a long moment before he barked out a laugh and clapped Jericho hard on the back. “Gabe, looks like we’ve got one of the good ones!”
The one who was nicknamed Gabe approached Jericho next with an extended hand. She stood at Jericho’s height and had dark skin and a dark rope of hair tied high into a ponytail. There were dark circles beneath her eyes but the smile beneath them was a blinding white.
Jericho stared at her for a moment before reaching out to accept the gesture.
“Gabrielle Law,” the woman said. “I’m originally from Aries. Lived in the countryside. I’m an elementalist. I’ve heard a lot about you from Doctor Kingsley — er, is everything alright?”
Jericho found himself unable to release the woman’s hand. Unable to remove his eyes from the woman’s face. There was something about the woman’s face that itched at his memory.
“Have we met before?” Jericho tried, still shaking the woman’s hand. “On another assignment?”
Gabrielle searched Jericho’s face. “No, I don’t think so.” She glanced down at their still ongoing handshake. “But it’s good to hear that you’ve heard of me… er…”
That wasn’t it. There was something else. Something about Gabrielle Law that was very nostalgic. Familiar. Jericho was certain.
“You…” Jericho was close now. Close to the answer. “You are… someone who looks like they have a terrible personality.”
Gabrielle stared. Ferris stared. Izsak stared. The unintroduced man stared.
Jericho released Gabrielle’s hand and covered his mouth. “I didn’t mean to say that out loud.” He paused. “Oh. I mean—”
Izsak threw his head back as a laugh tore through his body. He slapped Gabrielle hard on the back and wiped a tear from his eye. “Told you, you can’t get everyone on your side.” And then he leaned forward and gave Jericho a cuff on the shoulders. “You’ve got a good eye.”
“I am sorry,” Jericho apologized. “I meant no disrespect.”
Gabrielle looked nonplussed. Unaffected. Maybe she was too tired to care. It seemed that way because the woman soon yawned and rubbed her eyes. “None taken. Can’t please everyone.”
It was then that the final agent in the trench-coat stepped forward. He did not extend his hand, however, and instead regarded Jericho with charcoal-colored eyes. The color of his hair was the same shade of black, and his curls were barely tamed by his hat. A mole dotted his cheek right below his left eye.
After a very long pause, the man pulled down his hat. “The name is Talib al-Jarrah. Manipulator of Scorpian descent.”
Jericho extended his hand.
Talib studied it before rubbing his chin. “I noticed that you have yet to introduce where you’re from, and you have yet to state your conducting form. Why is that?”
“Is it because you’re working for the Organization?”
Jericho felt his heart skip a beat. He frowned. “The Organization?”
“Yes, the Organization.” Talib nodded gravely before leaning in close and whispering in Jericho’s ear. “The ones orchestrating everything since the very beginning. The ones behind everything.”
“… the ones behind everything?”
Before Talib could elaborate, Ferris cut in between them. Her face was red. Jericho couldn’t tell whether she was angry or embarrassed.
“Talib!” Ferris snapped. “Not this again! Other agents will avoid going on assignments with you if you keep doing this!”
“Avoid me, Miss Hart?” Talib scoffed. “They only avoid me because they know that I’m onto them.” He leaned in close again. “The Organization is afraid of what I know.”
Jericho stared. “What…”
“Talib is our resident conspiracy enthusiast,” Izsak provided, looking more amused than anything else. “Sure makes the train rides go by fast. My favorite is the one about bubble blowers being secret weapons mass destruction.”
“You call it conspiracy,” Talib drew with a tip of his hat. “I call it the hidden truth.” He whipped his head round in Izsak’s direction and then formed a circle with both of his hands. “How you can even view bubble blowers as a child’s toy baffles me. Look at how they release those circular monstrosities.” He turned to face Jericho again and clenched his hands into fists. “The Organization is nefarious and clever. They’ve even found their way into Ophiuchus through the Assignment Department.”
Ferris threw up her hands. “Oh, so you’ve finally found our links to your Organization, have you?”
“Aha!” Talib pointed a finger at her face. “So you’ve admitted it! You are affiliated with them!”
“I don’t mean to interrupt your flirting,” Jericho interjected. “But I didn’t realize there would be so many people on this assignment.”
Ferris and Talib paused with their mouths ajar. Their cheeks reddened in unison, and their gazes met. In the background, Izsak chortled.
“That’s not—” Talib began.
Ferris cleared her throat loudly and straightened her uniform. “Actually, Gabrielle and Izsak are on a different assignment but they’ll be riding along with you partway.”
“A different assignment?” Jericho inquired.
Ferris cast a glance sideways as she began to dig into her bag. “Yes, it’s one that involves Leona — the subject of your missing person’s case.” She procured two manilla envelopes filled with papers and handed them to Jericho and Talib. “The details are in here, but in short, before her disappearance, she was investing a lead on a party we believed to be involved in an Ariesian assassination plot.”
“A party?” Jericho pressed. He received odd looks at the question.
“From the stories I’ve heard, Leona is a very skilled Conductor,” Ferris continued quietly. She glanced around. “I didn’t think anyone would be able to lay a hand on her, but if there were anyone able to then it’d be…”
Yes, it had to be.
It was them.
Finally, he would be able to—
“But we still don’t know for sure.” Ferris waved the idea off. “At least until you and Talib locate her.”
Jericho blinked out of his thoughts and glanced at the mentioned man. So he was working with Talib Al-Jarrah then.
“Anyways, the lead that Leona was looking into turned out to be true.” Gabrielle ran a hand down her face. “Which is why Izsak and I are heading to Aries. And since we’re riding together, it’d be a good opportunity to exchange information.” She laughed a bit as she studied Jericho. “And get to know our fellow agents.”
Jericho paused. “Aries…? Then the assassination…?”
“Yes.” Ferris nodded. She looked grim. “I heard you were in the Medical Department when it happened, but… There was an assassination attempt on the prince of Aries.”
Jericho’s shoulder throbbed with an odd phantom pain, and he reached up to rub it out. “I see…”