[Because people liked the snippet of this scene I posted on Twitter, and it’s a nice window into the world.
This takes place a few chapters on from the last full chapter posted, but before the NaNo teaser]
The witness statements, as the captain had implied, were almost entirely useless – though given it’d been only a day since Harrow was murdered, Archer had to admire the speed with which they’d been acquired. Harrow had disappeared from one of the many Smoke dens which dotted the lower levels of Old Town, which meant that half the witnesses could barely remember what they’d been doing when he’d vanished, let alone recollect the movements of a man most of them had only ever seen in passing, and the half who’d been sober enough to remember had mostly ended giving the Watch variations on ‘one minute he was there, and then the next he wasn’t’ – which, while it had a certain kind of poetry to it, wasn’t exactly helpful.
The one consistent oddity among the more coherent statements was a mention, mostly in passing, of an odd smell in the area where Harrow had been taken from. None of the witnesses could agree on what the smell had been, mind, but a fair number of them had agreed that it had definitely been ‘odd’.
It was probably nothing – there were odd smells in the vicinity of Smoke dens at the best of times, and the testimony of a bunch of drug-addled members of the city’s underworld wasn’t exactly the most stable foundation to build a hypothesis on – but nevertheless, Archer found himself fixating on that one detail as he flicked through the reports again, searching for anything he might have missed on the last two readthroughs.
Hold on a moment. Didn’t Viola say something about an odd scent around Caine? Or, at least, the person she thought was Caine? It was a tenuous connection, if there was a connection at all. But, given how little information they currently had to go on…
“You’re not likely to get much more out of those,” the captain said, lighting up another cigarette. She’d been doggedly ploughing through her own paperwork while Archer had been reading over the statements, and several of the piles on the desk were now considerably smaller – though the state of the wastepaper basket suggested that more of the reports and statements had ended up discarded than not. “Bastard had to go and get himself snatched from probably the worst place in the district for witnesses who actually know what they saw. I’m only surprised we don’t have more of them telling us he got stolen away by a giant dragon or a three-eyed snake or some such nonsense.”
Archer laughed. “It’d make for more entertaining reading, true. Though that detail about the smell which keeps coming up…”
“You noticed that too? Could be our killer wears a cologne or perfume of some sort.”
“Could be,” he agreed, though something about that explanation didn’t quite sit right with him. “It’s a pity none of them could actually describe what they were smelling, else we might have something more to go on.”
“If we wanted to go around smelling every suspicious-looking vampire in the city, yes.” She looked down at the report she was currently working on, and then frowned, taking a deep drag on her cigarette. “A question for you, by the way.”
“How much do you know about Turned?”
Archer froze. “I beg your pardon?”
“Turned,” the captain said again, not looking up from her paperwork. She sighed, the exhalation accompanied by a cloud of blueish smoke, and tapped her pen against the first line of the report. “Says here they’re-”
“I know what they are,” Archer said, coldly. He swallowed hard, fighting the sudden twist of panic in his guts. “What I don’t know is why you want to know about them. If you know enough to know they exist, you know they’re not something we’re overly keen on discussing. Especially with non-vampires.”
That was an understatement. The existence of the Turned was almost a taboo subject in vampire society – while there wasn’t a prohibition as such against mentioning the name, anyone who brought them up more than once, or, worse, engaged in lengthy discussion on the subject was likely to find themselves ostracised from their community until they’d at the very least undergone some sort of ritual cleansing. And as for those who actually created Turned…
I was young – gods, we both were – and she was dying, and I’d have moved the stars for her if it meant we had one more moment together… and that still doesn’t excuse the fact I asked.
She’d said no, of course. She’d always been the sensible one in that relationship. But he’d still asked.
Almost half a century ago, now, and fifteen years at sea should have been enough to wash away even the worst of what asking did to my soul.
And yet. I still asked.
There was no way the captain could know that, of course. She’d likely only brought the subject up because he happened to be a vampire who was within easy reach, generally happy to answer questions and, most importantly, not subordinate to her. And, even if she somehow did know, she wasn’t a vampire. She didn’t know what it meant.
Gods dammit, this shouldn’t get to me as much as it does. I did my penance for even considering the idea of creating a Turned – I shouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life jumping at shadows every time someone mentions their existence.
“-on our hands.”
He blinked, pulling himself back to the present with a start, and met the captain’s inquiring eyes. “I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?”
“I said, given those murders, half my squads are apparently convinced we’ve got a Turned on our hands.” She scowled. “Personally, I’m of the mind to dismiss the idea as so much paranoia, but I’m not a vampire, and I’m damned if I’ll let a monster roam my streets unchecked just because I didn’t think to ask whether it was possible that it existed.”
“Oh, they exist,” Archer told her. He looked down at his hands, unconsciously clenched into fists, and noticed with a sort of blank resignation that he’d managed to crush the reports he’d been holding. Ah well. It’s not as though they were all that useful anyway. And half her troopers have utterly abysmal handwriting. “They’re incredibly uncommon, thank the gods, but they exist.”
The captain nodded. “Could one be behind the murders?”
“It’s a possibility.” And not one he’d considered, which was currently starting to feel like a serious oversight. “They can’t survive on animal blood like we- like yellow-eyes can, and they’re unlikely to have either the patience or the cognitive capacity to source their food from willing donors. Unlike us, they truly are animals – which means, when they need to feed, they hunt.”
“You’re implying they’re not intelligent, then?”
“They’re cunning, but they’re not people. They’re beasts,” Archer said, and wished he could believe it.
She frowned. “That doesn’t track with our killer, then. Unless your definition of beast is a good deal looser than mine.”
“There-” The word slipped out before he could stop it, and he bit his lip, hard. Dammit, Will. You’re in enough trouble already without adding that to the mix.
“You were about to say something. If it’s relevant to the investigation, I want to hear it.”
“There are rumours…” Archer said, and prayed to all the gods he knew that he wasn’t making the biggest mistake of his life.
There had always been rumours, since the existence of the Turned had become widespread knowledge among vampires, that there were ways to Turn someone which allowed them to retain both their personality and their intellect – in effect, to continue to be the person they’d been before the transformation.
As far as most people knew, that was a lie – and certainly no non-bestial Turned had ever come forward to admit to the world that they existed. But still, the rumours continued. And, when vampires who’d made the mistake of falling in love with humans found themselves facing centuries without their loved ones, there always seemed to be a thread of information somewhere within reach which hinted that if they were clever – if they were very clever – they might find a way.
Archer had. Or, at least, had thought he had, and been confident enough in his decisions to offer it. But then she’d said no, and, after the funeral, half-mad with grief, he’d gathered all the research he’d done on the matter and burned it.
That didn’t mean, however, that he’d forgotten everything he’d read.
“It’s never been confirmed,” he added, once he’d explained the bare bones of the concept to her (leaving his own part in the narrative firmly out of things). “But there are enough reports of Turned acting in ways which don’t match to our understandings of what they are that it’s probably worth considering.”
The captain winced, stubbing out her cigarette on the side of her boot and immediately moving to light up another. “So. A terrifying monster vampire might be hunting my citizens, and it’s entirely possible it’s as intelligent as you or me. Excellent.” She flicked the lighter open, glaring at the flame as though it’d personally offended her. “I don’t suppose there’s an easy way of telling one of these things apart from an ordinary vampire, is there? Before I go out and have my people round up anyone who looks vaguely monster-y round the edges.”
“They don’t look like vampires,” Archer said, and found himself biting back an unwanted laugh at the look on the captain’s face. “They look like humans.”
“They’ve vampiric fangs and fingernails, from the change, but their eyes stay human – human eye colours and round pupils. If you passed one on the street, you’d not be able to tell what they are.” And that’s what makes them so damn dangerous.
The captain groaned. “That’s what I was afraid of. I can hardly go around asking law-abiding citizens if they’d mind showing me their teeth and fingernails, and most everyone except the werewolves is wearing gloves in this weather anyway.” She leant back in her chair, taking a drag on the now-lit cigarette. “How dangerous are they?”
“You’ve fought vampires before, yes?”
She nodded. “Occasionally. Usually drunks who wouldn’t come quietly, mind.”
“Good enough. Imagine that level of strength and speed, but with no self-preservation instincts.” He shivered, a chill running up his spine which had nothing to do with the weather. “They heal like us, they die like us, but they fight like rabid animals – no defence, no self-preservation, no tactics, and no holding back. And, like us, you’ll need to behead them or use fire if you want them to stay truly dead.”
“Wonderful,” the captain said, with heavy sarcasm. She blew out another cloud of smoke, this one heavy enough to obscure her face for a few moments. “In your honest opinion, is it likely that our murderer’s one of these? If they’re as taboo a topic as you say, I’m not bringing it up with my people unless I absolutely have to – they’re already under enough pressure as it is, and I’ll be damned if I’ll add to it without good reason.”
“Likely? No.” There’d not been a credible report of a Turned in the city since before the Revolution, and anyone making noises about researching them tended to get shut down in no short order: the vampires of Sacaan knew all too well how tenuous their position in the city really was, for all the crown currently rested on a yellow-eyed head. “It’s a possibility, I’ll grant you that much, but it’s a good deal less likely than almost any other explanation we’ve come up with so far.”
She mostly managed to keep the look of relief off her face, but he caught a glimpse of it in the brief moment before the smoke cleared – by the time she was fully visible again, she looked every inch the unshakeable bastion of law and order. “Good. In that case, I’ll-” She broke off, looking towards the door, and raised her voice. “Wait one! I’ve a couple more things I need to finish up in here.”
“Your officers?” Archer asked, though he suspected he knew the answer.
“On time, for once. Worse luck.” She stood up, brushing ash from her trousers, and offered her hand. “I’ll not keep you any longer. Thank you for your time, and for the information: I’m not happy to know more, but it’s sure as hells better than going into this completely blind.”
Her grip was as strong as he’d expected, her hand calloused and rough from swordwork, and he found himself flashing back to another handshake, twenty years before, under a burning desert sun. If she’s anywhere as tough as she was, the district’s in safe hands. “If the gods are smiling on us, you won’t need it. And thank you. Those witness statements might be more helpful than you know.”
“If I ask, I’m not going to like the answer, am I?”
“Then I’ll leave that to you. Good luck with your war, ‘detective’.”
“And good luck with yours, captain.” And, because it seemed like the right thing to do, he gave her a quick, informal salute.
She grinned, returning the gesture, and nodded towards the door. “Off you go then. And send my officers in, will you? I need to work out how in the hells I’m going to explain all this.”
Copyright © 2019 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.