Jericho sat up from his bed in the darkness. The doorway across from him was illuminated with yellow light and crowded by a familiar silhouette.
“Jericho. My wallet. It’s gone. The organization stole my wallet.”
“You lost your wallet?”
“No!” The lights to the room flicked on, and Talib’s form became revealed. Disheveled curls, wide and searching eyes, heaving shoulders. “The Organization stole it! They knew it was a limited edition denim Libran designer wallet! It was diamond-studded and everything!”
“You were pickpocketed,” Jericho concluded.
“Yes.” Talib nodded. “Pickpocketed by a member of the Organization.”
Jericho thought on this before he shook his head. “You bumped into someone when we first came here. He must have taken it then.”
Talib opened his mouth to argue but closed it in favor of giving Jericho a steady once over. “Did I interrupt your nap?”
Jericho swung his legs off the bed. “I wasn’t sleeping.”
At least he didn’t think he had been. Time seemed to bend oddly when he had been laying down staring at the ceiling. Was it an hour that had passed? Several minutes? An entire day?
He walked over to the storage chest at the foot of his bed. He clicked it open and pulled out his suitcase. His change of clothing was still stored inside of it, as was his conductor. He pulled it out and rose to his feet. Talib was still staring at him from the doorway.
“Our meeting with the Romano Family and the Foxmans?”
Talib checked his wristwatch. In turn, Jericho reached into his suit pocket for a pocket watch he didn’t own. He stared at his hand when he found nothing and then returned his attention to Talib.
“The meeting is in about an hour,” the man said, walking over to the bed next to Jericho’s. He knelt down beside his own chest, flipped it open, and pulled out his folded suit and a colorful stack of small, square papers. “Do you want to shower first or…?”
“I don’t need to shower.”
Talib placed the stack of papers on the bed and rose to his feet. “Everyone needs a shower, my friend. To wash off the deeds of the day. To refresh oneself. To appear presentable not only for oneself but for one’s companions.”
“And, of course, to do away with any possible trackers that the Organization might have on you.”
Jericho’s hair was still damp when they arrived in front of the cobblestone building an hour later. The walls of the building were also damp despite the lack of rain. A result of the fog rolling in from the not so far bay, Jericho concluded.
They were greeted by a large, burly man who motioned them in without a change in expression. Acting as a silent guide, he led them through a hazy dining hall filled with the sounds of clinking wine glasses and laugh-filled chatter. In-between those paired noises a saxophone blared out a hoppy tune that was complemented by some hidden singer.
They passed through this hall quickly and entered the kitchen in the back. Jericho met eyes with some of the kitchen staff before pushing forward through a curtain-draped passage at the end. After being led down a long flight of stairs, they arrived in front of a twin set of mahogany doors with golden handles. With a grunt, they were ushered inside.
The room within was also fashioned similarly to the dining hall upstairs save for far fewer tables interspersed in between the ornately designed poles that rose up from the wooden floorboards. The other discrepancy was the fact that there was only one rectangular table that was occupied in the room. At the table sat four men. One was noticeably older than the others and had a graying, balding head. He sat at the table’s head. He was neither heavyset nor overly thin. His sun-kissed face paired with the silver streaks that ran through his mustache gave him a friendly look. Like he could reach out one of his heavily ringed hands and offer a loving pat on the head.
To his left sat a single young man. His light brown hair was loosely styled back, and his caramel-colored eyes seemed almost amusedly smiling despite the professional maroon suit he wore. The two men to the older man’s right were also in similar suits although theirs were of different colors. Blue and green. Neither were smiling with their eyes. Their grim expressions seemed unfitting on them.
Talib stepped forward first, approaching the table with an extended hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you Don Romano.” He spoke in lightly-accented Geminian.
The old man who was evidently Don Romano accepted the gesture with a nod. “Agent Talib al-Jarrah, right? It’s a pleasure to have an Ophiuchian visiting our fair city. Please do speak in common.” He spoke in common, and his voice was baritone and croaky like something was stuck in his throat.
“If you wish,” Jericho agreed. “I don’t want to butcher your beautiful language, after all.”
The don merely smiled.
Francis Foxman stood after and introduced himself as Francis Foxman. Then came Allen and Carl’s introductions which were brief and unsmiling. It didn’t occur to Jericho until all men were looking at him that he had known their names before they had given them. And because he already knew their names, he had thought that they already knew his. But as the silence stretched on, he realized that was not the case.
Jericho approached the table with an extended hand. “Jericho.”
Another round of curt yet firm handshakes.
Don Romano gestured for both of them to sit at the other end of the table. They obliged and met eyes as they did.
Idle—“obligatory” as Alice often called it—conversation started. There was talk of weather, friendly and daily ongoings, and other things Jericho did not believe pertained to their purpose.
“Is there something wrong, Mr. Jericho?” Francis Foxman asked, turning his head away from Talib’s train ride tale to meet Jericho’s focused gaze.
“We’re looking for an Ophiucian agent. They should have passed by here three to four days ago.” Jericho supplied nonplussed. “Have you seen anything unusual around here within this time frame?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jericho could see Talib half-grimace. Allen’s brows rose, Carl looked torn between perplexed and smug, while Francis seemed as nonchalant as always.
“An Ophiucian agent?” Don Romano rubbed his chin. “You two are the first peacekeepers I have seen face-to-face in a decade. I am actually very surprised by your visit. I trusted that Ophiuchus had enough trust in us to allow us to run our operations without interruption. If another Ophiucian was sent here earlier without our foresight then…”
“Of course, Ophiuchus is very aware of the contributions made by your businesses,” Talib interjected before Jericho could even open his mouth. “Although the peacekeeper in question was here several days ago, it was not her destination. She was headed for Aries for a certain case.”
Francis frowned. “You’re not referring to the assassination attempt, are you?”
“That is correct.”
“Ha, well, they did a sh—”
A loud thud underneath the table silenced Carl before he could finish. It was followed by a yelp from the man’s mouth and then a glare directed in Francis’s direction.
“It seems as if they’ve failed in the task they were given.” Don Romano did not seem amused nor contempt when he spoke. And despite his words being curt and simple with no questions attached, Jericho felt inclined to answer. It seemed as if Talib felt the same because the man cleared his throat and nodded.
“Yes, they failed their task,” Talib said. He folded his hands beneath his chin. “And it’s something that all departments in Ophiuchus are curious about. But we don’t have an answer for the failure. And that’s because the peacekeeper in question went missing right before she was to board her train to the Ariesian capital. Right here in this capital.”
Jericho waited for Talib to mention the organization, but Talib never did. The silence that stretched on in place of his usual ranting was long.
“Which is why my associate here is asking if you’ve seen anything strange recently,” Talib finally concluded.
Another beat of silence.
Don Romano either let out a heavy sigh or took in a deep breath. “These cities are large, Mr. al-Jarrah. I am not even foolishly arrogant enough to say that I am aware of everything that happens in my domain of these parts—which is only this half of the two cities, mind you.” He chuckled. “Perhaps I should retire.”
Showing vulnerability while hiding vulnerability. This man was definitely wise in his years. Someone who dealt with all types of people.
— he was also cunningly kind. Calculated neglect paired with rationed praise. Even knowing this—
“Any information will be helpful. Anything out of the ordinary.”
“You’re in the Twin Cities,” Carl said. “There’s nothing ordinary about any day.” He paused and glanced across the table at Francis and then at Romano. “With all due respect, of course.”
Francis reached into his coat pocket where he pulled out a stack of v-cigs. He offered it around the table before selecting one for himself and lighting it with a flick of his wrist.
“As I’m aware, you do not have a Conducting Licenses, Mr. Foxman.” Talib inclined his head towards Francis’s hand. “Despite your position, you are not above prime laws. Without a license, it is illegal to operate a conductor. Depending on the type of conductor in question, the repercussions can be quite serious.”
“If I recall correctly, that law only applies to weaponized and engine-type conductors.” Francis waved his cig in the air in-between two fingers. “I’m afraid to say that this is just for show. A normal general conductor.”
Talib’s brows raised to almost comical levels. “I see. Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m only doing my job.”
“Of course.” Francis smiled thinly. “We all are—”
“Anything unusual,” Jericho repeated, “would be helpful… Thank you.”
Allen and Carl exchanged looks as they always did while Francis seemed to stifle a laugh like he normally did in these types of situations. The boss, on the other hand, remained unreadable.
Then again, Jericho didn’t quite understand what type of situation this was. Too nostalgic and friendly to be a matter of investigation and business. His head was beginning to hurt but he ignored it.
Francis hummed before he out an ‘ah’ of realization. “Well, actually…” He took a drag of his cigarette. “One of our cargo ships left the docks without our prior notice. We thought it’d been stolen but as it turns out one of our men had a misunderstanding with one of our suppliers.”
Jericho had known this but he didn’t know how.
“As you can see, miscommunication is the greatest downfall in any relationship.” Saying this, Romano clasped his hands and leaned forward. Met Jericho’s eyes.
Jericho stared back.
There it was again. That itch to answer a question that had not been asked.
“What about your business location that was burned to the ground?” Jericho asked. “That seems unusual.” Talib kicked his leg underneath the table for some reason. Jericho ignored it and continued, “It may tie in with our investigation.”
“I see word gets around fast.” Francis took another drag. “Your concern is warranted, but that was just an accident. The conductor in the building overheated. Led to a blown insulator and an explosion. It was a very tragic occurrence. We lost many patrons and many of our men.”
Jericho stared at him. “The conductor didn’t overheat. Your bar was attacked. Why are you lying?”
And something in the atmosphere snapped in two. It snapped so abruptly and with such force that even Jericho became aware of it. Aware he had misspoken.
The bud of Francis’s loosely held cigarette dribbled out ash onto the table.
All eyes were on Jericho but he didn’t care. All he wanted was an answer. And then he would be one close stepper to—
Talib cleared his throat loudly and laughed heartily while giving Jericho a clap on the shoulder. “Ah, yes, my associate Jericho here is using an old Ophiuchian interrogation technique, you see. It’s a very archaic yet effective thing. Used in the olden days. Absolute confidence. He’s a stickler for the past and—”
“It is understandable for there to be doubt between us.” Don Romano smiled as if amused. “After all, by name, you peacekeepers represent justice. By rumor, we represent the opposite. Trust is something that must be forged by hand—”
“But I do. I trust you.” Jericho turned to the don and looked him up and down. He then glanced at Francis and Carl and Allen.
Talib paused. Francis paused. Romano paused.
“Which is why I don’t understand why you’re lying about this. Hiding information from us acts as an obstruction of justice.” Jericho blinked. This was a fact.
Finally, Francis shook his head, flicked the line of ash from his cigarette, and took a drag. “If you trust us,” he said with a thin smile, “then trust me when I say that whatever is occurring with our establishment has nothing to do with your missing peacekeeper. It is a personal matter.”
The smile looked like it could cut through steel.
“Well, that was an awkward situation.”
Jericho was winding down a long stretch of cobblestone stairs alongside Talib. The flight of stairs curved around high-rising stone buildings that scratched at the darkening sky. The buildings seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions and were pressed up tight against each other. Whatever few alleyways that were squeezed in between the buildings were only a meter or so wide. Despite this, it felt much easier to breathe here.
Their descent was a crowded one. There were as many people descending down with them as there were people ascending up past them. And Jericho wasn’t sure if he was tasting the smoke from the city, the smoke from the pipe of the woman walking down next to him, or the lingering ashen smog from Francis’s cigarette. Above the echoing voices that volleyed within the walls around them, Jericho could barely hear Talib’s words. He managed to inter the man’s words from studying the movement of his lips. But unfortunately, Jericho did not know how to respond to Talib’s statement and settled on a change of topic—
“They were lying.”
Talib inclined his head before stroking his nonexistent beard. “Yes, yes, I believe they were.” He pushed up his hat and ruffled his hair. “It seems as if their pub incident has to do with bad blood.”
“Yes, poor relations. Maybe one group wronged another. Maybe a rival family—although, I doubt that’s the case. From what I’m aware of, the families are trying to hold a peace between them.” Talib readjusted his hat. “So maybe it’s something akin to a petty sense of justice or maybe… vengeance?”
“Vengeance…” Jericho tried the word out on his tongue. It melted in his mouth.
“I noticed that you seemed very, very passionate about this case, my friend. While I do agree with the sentiment that the families are overstepping bounds and need to be dealt with, I don’t think direct confrontation is the way to go. And it seems like you weren’t even thinking about that during our meeting with them.” Talib said. He peered out at him from beneath the brim of his hat. “Passion is neither good nor bad. It’s something to conduct a person’s actions or something to be conducted by the person.”
Jericho blinked at him.
“Well, no matter. I’m sure the Romano Family and the Foxman have all the assets they need to handle their situation. What I’m interested in is that ship that left their port at the bay without their notice.”
Jericho tilted his head. “You think Agent Leona may have been kidnapped? By the Foxmans?”
“Yes, I know how that sounds. They stand more to lose than to gain from targeting Leona.” Talib scratched his chin. “But the same goes for the Organization, and yet they’re relentless in their nefarious deeds. That’s passion, for you.” He tapped his nose. “And then there’s the fact that the Foxmans mentioned it so openly—but that could also just be a ploy. Though that might be overthinking things…” He quickened his pace a little and slid his hands into his pockets. “Still, it warrants a looking into, doesn’t it?”
Of course it did. Anything that involved ELPIS did.
Jericho took a step after him and—
“We are ELPIS.”
Jericho stopped short and whipped his head around. Nothing. Just an ordinary street crowded with ordinary people, many of whom sent him a glare as he blocked their way with his sudden halt. Even still, that word rang in his ear, worming its way out from his temple.
Where had it come from?
Raising his hand to his ear, Jericho combed through the area thoroughly. Nothing, nothing, nothing. And yet—
—there was that feeling again. Like something was stringing him along.
His left foot moved first. Then his right. Forward and forward into a brisk walk. Weaving past the pedestrians around him. Destination unknown. Down the stairs to the bottom. Through the one-roaded streets loosely dotted with v-ehicles. Past the fallen TwinStars Pub. Forward through a haze of humid fog.
Onwards, onwards, until the noisy chatter of the city became drowned out by the sloshing of waves against a cement ridgeline. Onwards until the acrid smell of smoke became drenched with the smell of seaweed and brine.
Finally, Jericho came to a halt. He didn’t know how long he had been walking for but he was sure it was a long time because he was now out of breath. He glanced around but could see nothing through the thick haze that surrounded him. Perhaps he was lost. No, that wasn’t it
The fog around him peeled away revealing the other end of the invisible string.
Before him loomed a warehouse with cracked wooden walls and cracked windows that bled out warm light. Even from this distance, he could hear muffled shouting from within.
Warehouse number 13.
But despite the pull, he knew this place had nothing to do with the case. Nothing to do with Leona. Nothing to do with ELPIS other than that ironic number. Nothing keeping him there, but—