Three briefings before a crisis
Outside of East St. Louis, too far west to see the mighty Mississippi and too far east to see the Cahokia mounds, there was a diner. A diner of the Waffle Crossroad franchise, to be specific. Occupying an unobtrusive stretch of land just off interstate 55, where SR111 and Collinsville road meet. And like every other Waffle Crossroad franchise scattered throughout the U.S., it sat on an older intersection of two even older roads.
It also served middle-of-the-road coffee, which pleased the two men in the far corner booth taking occasional sips at their mass produced mugs. Both of the mugs were seasoned dishes, an eggshell white on the outside and dulled to an ivory from the rim inward over oceans of coffee and countless turns in the industrial dishwasher.
The older and more slender of the two men sat in the side of the booth with his back to the wall, a position considered by a number of subcultures to be the more powerful one. Or, if not powerful in and of itself, at least the one that provided the most options, should various occasions arise. He was clean shaven, with the kind of creases in the face gained from more frowns than smiles, and a full head of hair that had recently turned to have more salt than pepper. He wore a fitted but simple suit of medium gray, with a wide tie just a shade lighter.
Opposite him was a larger man with broad shoulders and the beer gut of a man who spent more time off his feet than he was comfortable with. He wore battered and well broken in jeans with a set of scuffed but well-made work boots. The equally worn work shirt draped over a sleeveless undershirt was untucked, covering the multitool and flashlight worn in cases on his tooled leather belt, along with the expansive keyring that hung from a carabiner on his left side. His hair was thinning as much as it was graying, and long enough to show that he only cut it when there was time to remind himself to have it done.
The one waitress on duty refilled their cups at regular intervals and otherwise left the pair of them alone. This was far from the first meeting the two men had conducted in that booth. The older, who was the immediate superior of the larger, set down his cup as they moved on to new topics.
“And the incident in Jacksonville?”
“As contained as It's going to be.”
“That's not the same as dealt with, Marshal.”
“No Sir, but it's as good as the council is going to get.”
The older man's eyebrows narrowed in annoyance. “Do you enjoy pushing that button?”
The bigger man shrugged. “As long as they keep sending you to stick it up, I'm gonna keep mashing it. At least until they get their heads out of their butts and realize the Conjurers ain't gonna jump when they say frog on general principle. Until then, Harvey, these are the games we're gonna keep playing.”
The waitress came by and refilled their cups. Both men politely thanked her, waiting until she had retreated behind the counter before Harvey continued the conversation.
“And when the council tells me they can't abide that kind of blatant necromancy within American borders? What then, Jimbo?”
Jimbo shrugged in the universal sign of acceptance in adversity. “Then they can come down and try and stop 'em, boss. I don't even have to mention it to Momma Maude before I know that's what she'd say. Not to mention any of the others, which is another thing the council ain't figured out. You talk to one Conjure woman, you've talked to one Conjure woman. They answer to their communities, not to any sort of high council or poobah of their own. And they damned sure don't answer to some gagglefuck of old white wizards halfway up the Mighty Mississippi. And in case the stoners get it in their heads to try and make 'em, they can take their boots off long enough to do the math and realize they don't have the bodies to fight the zombie war again, let alone hide it.”
Harvey, who had spent Jimbo's tirade sipping his coffee, set the cup down. “Are you going to spend our time lecturing me about what I already know?”
“Is the council going to keep missing the point? Believe it or not, boss, most of the Conjurers have their shit together enough to show some discretion. But they got their incidents, same as we do. Just cause I don't have a deputy signing off on it don't mean the mess wasn't cleaned up.”
“Now that I can wrap up and send to the council. At the end of the day, they want to convince themselves they control North America.”
“Then they can stop looking too closely at the southeastern coast. From oh, Norfolk to Houston. Not to mention Florida. Shit, boss, I know we follow the compass for a reason, but Florida really needs its own Marshal. One that can show some fucking respect to the Conjurers when they work.”
“That I won't be able to do. But if you can groom one from within your own ranks, I can try and push for another deputy or two. Your region's growing fast enough for it.”
“I've got one in mind, but she's too valuable in Atlanta where I've got her.”
“I think you've mentioned her. Deputy Ward, I believe?”
“That's her. And speaking of Atlanta, that's probably the next hot spot. Wayland's Oath is almost up, and I don't see him leaving vampire service without something messy kicking it off.”
“Wayland... The Grunt?”
“That's him. His Oath to Chittenden ends on the fourth. But he's spent the bulk of the year subcontracted out to Marazzi, one of Chittenden's courtiers.”
“Marazzi. That's the madam from Italy. But she's been at his court for decades, and city suckers trade favors like baseball cards all the time. What's so special about this one?”
“Mostly the timing. Chittenden lost his son in a werewolf attack last year, right after Marazzi's son petitioned to stay in Chittenden's court. Between two children in residence and her age, she's got all the makings of a power bloc to usurp Chittenden. I'm thinking he gave her Wayland as a rope and is waiting to see if she hangs herself.”
“Gets messier. My contact in fish & game has been seeing some odd carcasses out on her rounds.”
“Odd as in werewolf? They've gone after Chittenden before.”
“Odd as in country vampire.”
“Do they even roam that far south?”
“Not too often, but it looks like more and more are lately. Dunno if there's a connection, but given how deep Wayland's in it if there is?”
“Understood. You have Deputy Ward on station for it?”
“Yeah. Bit of a conflict of interest. They're not particularly close, but she and Wayland both survived Blue River.”
Harvey let himself sigh in annoyance, glancing out the window. “The great jugfuck of the millennium's end. Now one's a deputy and one's working for vampires.”
“If Ward's suspicions are right, he's a full blown renfield now.”
“Well that's a mess that needs cleaning, assuming he survives. What's his politics?”
“No coven, no faction.”
“How? If I remember his file, the man's an established alchemist and conductor at the least. That takes resources. Not to mention instruction time. How'd he accomplish that without a faction?”
Jimbo shrugged. “He survived Blue River. Yeah, he had help and put himself balls deep in debt to do it, but he still made it out. Deputy Ward claims he's the one who came up with that stunt with the shotguns. And Blue River was where the Iron Council screwed the pooch. If I was this kid, I'd tell the Daedeli and the Nimuen to go pound sand too. He's MacDougall's nephew, which may account for some of it. And I know he studied with Madam Anna for a few months. But the man seems to be self-trained, and has been since he graduated study hall. It does happen.”
“You sound like you want to recruit him.”
“If it wasn't for the debts hanging over his head, I would.”
* * *
In an undisclosed location near St. Louis, there was a cave. This wasn't impressive in and of itself. Missouri has more caves than counties. This specific one had been closed to the public since the 1930's. Between then and now, it had become more compound than cavern. This particular chamber was set up as a cross between an old-style lecture hall and a courtroom. Modern lighting let the limestone walls seem less claustrophobic than otherwise.
Harvey stood at what in a courtroom would be the prosecution's table, facing nine seated figures seated at the long table above him. The figures all wore identical black cloaks, which Harvey always thought ostentatious, as he recognized all of them. He wore the same suit as he had in the diner, but had traded an ivory shirt for a salmon colored one. A clerk sat unobtrusively in a corner, taking notes as Harvey spoke.
“... Marshal Sims considers the Jacksonville incident contained, and I consider it dealt with to my satisfaction.”
One of the cloaked figures scoffed. “Contained by its own perpetrators.”
Harvey nodded, “Contained was the goal, Councilor Smith. And encouraging practitioners to clean up their own mess is considered good practice in most traditions, I'm given to understand.”
Another cloaked figure spoke up. “The tradition of this council is that such outright active necromancy is not to be tolerated.”
Harvey tilted his head but didn't concede further. “Unfortunately, Councilor Weaver, the conjurers are not under the authority of this council.”
A third cloaked figure clenched a fist. “Chief Marshal, your words sound dangerously close to dereliction of your duty.”
Harvey's frown cranked just a bit tighter. “On the contrary, reminding this council of harsh reality is one of the pillars of my duty, Councilor Miller. Particularly behind closed doors. And the harsh reality is that the Iron Council does not in fact sit in authority over all practitioners in North America. Conjurers on the southeastern coast from Virginia to Texas govern and educate themselves, and everyone in this room knows it. As do some of the First Nations practitioners, among others. Our current laws on necromancy do not apply to them, whether we like it or not.”
Smith's hood moved, but not before Miller opened their mouth again. “And should we charge you to enforce the will of the Council over all of our claimed territory?”
Harvey couldn't help himself. “I'd say I'm a Marshal, not a General. And it's just as well because the council doesn't have an Army worth the name.”
Smith snarled. “How dare you!-”
Harvey barely let him get started. “If you want to grandstand about the power of the Iron Council, save it for an audience! If my performance is so offensively unsatisfying, then the circle is in the next cave over. Be my guest.”
The room was silent. Harvey had just made it clear he was willing to fight a duel rather than be a yes-man. The council members were all skilled and powerful mages in their own right. Now they were all skilled, powerful, and comfortable mages. Whether they were willing to admit it or not, they all wanted to remain that way. Dueling Harvey, who had been in the field as a Marshal for decades, was not conducive to such a lifestyle.
Harvey nodded in satisfaction. “Moving on. There is a potential coup d'etat in the works for the vampire court of Atlanta. Travis Wayland the Grunt is nearing the end of his Oathbound service to Lord Chittenden. Marshal Sims believes Wayland has already become a renfield, and may be at ground zero of a coup attempt.”
One of the cloaks moved slightly. “Another sensitive matter, and now we have a dangerous rogue like Wayland at the center of it?”
Harvey tilted his head. “I would hardly call Mr. Wayland particularly dangerous, Councilor Cooper. He is a sextus graduate and a survivor of Blue River, hardly an active troublemaker.”
“Wayland was Oathbound to considerable boons to multiple factions before his graduation, Marshal. Hardly indicative of good judgment.”
He only swore them because this council sat with its collective thumb up its ass when he went to them for aid he was due! Harvey thought. He bit his tongue back slightly before answering with his voice. “Mr. Wayland's actions, while unwise in hindsight, proved necessary to mitigate loss of life in the Blue River incident. That he has worked to fulfill the terms of them without complaint speaks more to his character, I believe.”
Cooper didn't let up. “And his actions since then have become increasingly suspicious. His enlistment as an infantryman was oddity enough. Now he claims no faction, is a part of neither circle nor coven nor cabal, nor has begun an apprenticeship.”
“Solitude is not a crime under the Iron Council.”
“Not in and of itself, Chief Marshal. But a skill set as developed as Wayland's without an apparent source combined with a history of unwise oaths does raise suspicions.”
Harvey wouldn't have been quite as annoyed if Cooper had had the guts to just come out and accuse Wayland of demonic allegiance. On the plus side, Smith was going to bitch about committing assets to Atlanta on general principle, and this was an easy way for Harvey to get what he wanted while staying out of the squabble. Wins all around.
“Fortunate, then, that Marshal Sims has already assigned a deputy to surveil Wayland. We will have swift notice of any changes to the vampiric court and eyes on a questionable young mage at the same time. Moving on...”
* * *
North of Atlanta, just off of I-75, was another Waffle Crossing. The staff at this particular location was just as used to Jimbo as those in Illinois. But in this particular meeting, it was Jimbo who got to sit with his back to the wall. It was that strange blue tinted part of early morning, when it was just light enough to see easily but the sun hadn't quite crested the horizon.
Sitting across from him and well into her second cup of coffee was Deputy Barbara “Babs” Ward. Babs was an athletically built black woman well into her second cup of coffee. Her inexpensive but sturdy suit said “mid-level government employee,” while her tactical boots said, “I can hike five miles, stomp a new hole in your ass and still be comfortable when I go home at the end of the day.”
Jimbo carved a chunk of waffle with his fork. “So what do we have on Wayland?”
Babs took a breath and slowly let it out. “Well, he's definitely a renfield, from what I've been able to see. Marazzi has him wrapped around her little finger. But I haven't seen word of a plot against Chittenden or any clue what part Travis would have to play.”
“Fair enough. Any other associations?”
“He went shooting at Warwell's with that guy he met after high school once. Otherwise, he's been balls deep in Marazzi, and I wish that was a metaphor. I don't think he'd go home at all if he didn't have to feed his cat.”
“Which still says renfield, not demon feeder.”
“Yeah.” Babs sighed in frustration, dropping her gaze to the table.
“Doing surveillance on a friend getting to you?”
Babs opened her hands, closed them, then looked up at her boss. “Jimbo, you know I got no love for the Iron Council. I joined up to unfuck it from the inside, and I've done my best to do that. But this shit with Travis got me between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, this is just the kind of action that would've saved lives if anyone had the balls to listen to us before Blue River.”
Jimbo motioned with a hunk of waffle on his fork. “But on the other hand, this is the kind of heavy-handed waste of resources we've used to meddle in the lives of schoolchildren, conjurers, and miscellaneous introverts ever since Blue River.”
“Yes. Travis can be an arrogant, stubborn asshole, but he really is that good. He had to be when we all needed to be to stay alive. Blue River, then the War, hell, council didn't see that one coming. Maybe he just needed to be good to stay alive and just... kept at it. And here we are, treating him like a potential hardcore threat. And the real fucker of it is, when I step back and look at what I see instead of what I know? He is one.”
Jimbo swallowed a hunk of waffle, then nodded in commiseration. “That's the badge life for you. Extra chances to be life's designated asshole.”
Babs' face creased with something that might grow up to be a smile someday. “Have I ever told you you're the most inspiring boss I've ever had?”
Jimbo shrugged. “Not yet. Oh, I got a call from the hot springs. There's a slot open for Wayland once he's free. Figured detoxing from being a renfield could use some serious rehab.”
Babs held up a single finger, downed the rest of her coffee in one gulp, then actually smiled. “that's not inspiring, but it's damn good of you, boss. Thanks.”
Jimbo hadn't opened his mouth by the time Babs' phone started buzzing. She went poker-faced at opening the text, then looked up at Jimbo.
“The Cotillion's on fire.”
He just nodded. “Take care of yourself out there.”
Nothing more needed to be said. Babs left the booth without another word. Jimbo went back to the business of breakfast as the sun began to shine.
Copyright © 2020 By Jay Peterson. All rights reserved.