Swindler Cadence Morello has been tasked to investigate an individual who has been siphoning off modified conductors sold by the Romano Family whom she is an associate of. She has tracked the man down to the TwinStars Pub and disguised herself as a patron.
Just as she revealed the man’s and her own true colors, she was caught in a mysterious explosion.
Twin Cities, Gemini
“I’m tellin’ ya! I’m tellin’ ya!” Cadence snapped, slapping her hand against her chest with each clipped syllable. “Ya need to check me over again! What if ya missed something?!”
She was dressed in a loosely buttoned, long-sleeved blouse that came down to her knees. While wearing it, she knew she looked like a child. The man who sat across from her on a metal stool wore a crisp white lab coat and a pair of white gloves. He almost looked like a highly esteemed doctor. Papers, shiny tools, and bandages cluttered the tables lining the walls of the room around them. While sitting within this room, Cadence figured the two of them looked like they were a regular doctor and patient.
But appearances were deceiving.
“Cadence, your psychological state is much more concerning than your physical state.” The doctor appeared amused as he said this, smiling and stroking his stubbled chin.
What a quack, Cadence thought. The doc’s bad interpersonal skills were probably what landed him here in the first place, doing jobs underground rather than up above with the good folk. The doc was a Specialist vitae Conductor, after all. If Cadence had been blessed with that manifestation of conducting type instead of being born a Transmutationist Conductor, she would’ve kissed this city goodbye a long time ago. Imagine that. Being able to conduct vitae in a way that didn’t fall into any of the normal five categories. Not a Transmutationist, a Projector, a Conjurer, an Elementalist, or a Manipulator. But a Specialist.
“Between me and you, doc.” Cadence raised a brow. “I reckon my psychological state is a lot better than the state of your other patients. If you can call them that.”
“Oh dear, Cadence,” the doctor sighed as he placed a tender hand to his heart. “Are you implying that I don’t see my patients as patients?”
“I ain’t implyin’. I’m clearly statin’,” Cadence returned with a crooked grin before she laughed and raised her hands. “I’m jokin’. I’m jokin’. I’d be dead six times over if it weren’t for you.”
The doctor smiled. “Well, it looks like you’re feeling better now.”
Cadence rolled her neck and shrugged. “Well, I’m alive and kickin’, so…”
“Much luckier than other patrons in that bar. It seems as if the Family retrieved you just in time. Unlike the others.”
Cadence paused and then rubbed the back of her neck and tapped her foot. “I see. Sounds like I got a lot of work cut out for me then.” She let out a dramatic sigh and hung her head. “Can’t a gal catch a break?”
“If it makes you feel any better, Nico called.”
Cadence perked up. “Ya mean he’s on his way back?”
The doctor shook his head. “He did ask you to call him back though. You can use the phone outside.”
“Is that your way of tellin’ me to get out of your office, doc?” Cadence raised a brow. “I did nearly die, y’know. Y’sure I shouldn’t hang around here a little bit longer just in case? I know you’re the best in the business, but still. What if I pass out?”
“If you pass out, then come back,” the doctor replied. “You know that I’m only interested in injured people.”
* * *
The phone booth outside of the room was, to put it eloquently, a piece of crap. Its wooden casing was so chipped that parts of it jutted out like jagged teeth. The nails that kept the wood in place were also popping up like weeds. The phone itself was covered in a thick layer of dust. Made sense. People didn’t make appointments with the doc. They dropped in whenever they had a foot in the grave.
Cadence picked up the receiver and placed it to her ear. She twirled the cord around her index finger and said into the mouthpiece, “Operator, connect me to the line that was called last from this one.”
As the line rang, she thrummed her fingers along the surface of the booth and grimaced when a splinter plucked the tip of her pointer.
“…. Cadence?” A voice cracked out from the speaker.
Cadence felt a smile crack across her face. “How goes it on the front lines, soldier?”
“That’s not funny,” came the quiet response. “People are dying out here, Cadence.”
“People die everywhere, Nico,” Cadence said matter-of-factly. When a silence fell over the conversation, she grimaced. “It’s that bad, huh?”
“Yeah… We managed to deliver the shipment to the Aquarians three days ago, but just the other day they got caught up with the Capricornians—”
“Whoa, whoa,” Cadence shouted, straightening herself. “You’re okay, aren’t ya? Ya didn’t get caught up—”
“No, no, I’m fine.”
“That’s a relief.”
Cadence considered telling him about her recent near-death experience but thought better of it. The entire ordeal seemed like something that was better kept on the down low.
“It’s good to hear your voice, Cadence,” Nico said.
“Yeah, right back at ya. Don’t get all sappy on me again. And no need to worry about that other stuff.” Cadence waved him off. “It’s not your war, Nico. Just hurry up and get out of there, okay?”
The line crackled with static.
Cadence pulled away from the phone and shook it a bit before pressing it back up to her ear. “Hello? Nico?”
“Werner, what’s wrong?”
Cadence did a double take. “Who the hell is Werner?”
“What?” came Nico’s voice. “Werner? Who’s that?”
Cadence pulled back from the receiver and stared at it. She shook her head and pressed the phone back to her ear. “Nothin’. Never mind. Think we accidentally crossed someone else’s line.”
“Really? I didn’t hear anything.”
“It was only for a sec.” Cadence waved him off again. “Anyway, come home quick, a’ight? Don’t get caught up in complicated things, Nico.”
* * *
When Cadence stepped back out onto the streets of the city she knew like the back of her hand, she took in a deep breath and tasted salt from the nearby ocean port and soot from the nearby conductor manufacturing plant. She spat soon afterward.
Here, in this backwater alleyway where the buildings stretched upward to unbelievable heights, she could barely see the sky above her head. It was just a crack of white up there. Too far to reach.
She was back in her usual wear now. A simple and loose suit topped with her favorite hat. Dark maroon in color because it got the blood going and it complemented her freckles and copper hair.
She turned and prepared to walk down the alleyway when she noticed a group standing at the mouth of it. They were looking at her. A trio of them. A trio of men wearing suits. From left to right the suits went from dark green to dark red to dark blue. From left to right the men went from thin to bulky.
“You could at least look a little bit happier to see us,” the one who wore the maroon suit and who stood at the center said in an almost musical voice. He then reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a slender, cylindrical object no larger than his index finger. He gave it a quick flick of the wrist, and the tip of it lit a glowing orange. Taking a drag from the unlit end, he studied her.
“Well, excuse me for not jumpin’ for joy when I saw you, Francis. Not to be rude, but usually when you guys show up, someone’s about to die.” Cadence shrugged and offered a lopsided smile as she closed the distance between them. “It was almost me this time.” She leaned forward and pressed the tip of her ringed index finger against the bud of the v-cigarette. A familiar copper light bled out from her ring and pooled onto the cig. The light-coated cigarette then took on a different shape. A curve there, a sprout here, a blossom there. By the time the light faded, the cigarette had taken on the form of a white lily.
“And I’m glad it wasn’t.” Francis smiled in amusement. “We were hoping to accompany you to Cavallo’s place.”
Cadence pulled her finger away from the tip of the cig. The copper light blinked again before cracking and receding from both her hand and the cigarette. The cig took back its original shape. The illusion broken.
“Huh?” She frowned. “What for?”
“The Romano Family’s personal associate was nearly killed,” the blue suit provided. “How would the Foxmans look if we ignored this transgression against our closest ally?”
This was a lie. Cadence knew. Or maybe a half-truth.
“The explosion happened on our turf, Cadence,” Francis explained after giving the blue-suit a look. “You know Cadence is a human lie detector, Allen.”
That was right. The TwinStars Pub was one of the Foxmans’ joints. They had many of these bars sprinkled throughout both the left and the right Twin Cities, but this one in particular was one of their most famous. All patrons knew who held ownership of their bars, but very few knew that the bars were in fact just a simple cover for the Foxmans’ real business.
Allen didn’t so much as shrug. “I thought she might be off of her game.”
“Well, it is a matter of turf.” Francis muttered after a pause. “But it also is a matter of connections.” And here, Francis’s expression darkened. “The fact that someone thinks they can harm a childhood friend of the Foxmans’ without retaliation just goes to show how soft we’ve become. Something we need to fix.”
Cadence whistled before inclining her head. “Shall we?”
And so, they walked as a quartet out the alleyway and onto the open streets. The roads here were narrow, allowing only one v-ehicle to roll along at a time. The sidewalks were wide enough to hold a pool table lengthwise but still filled to the brim. The congested streets were something Cadence was in fact fond of. It was easy to blend in.
“So,” Cadence drawled as they walked along the path, “anything interesting happened since I nearly kicked the bucket?”
“Someone attempted to assassinate the prince of Aries,” the green suit supplied nonchalantly.
Cadence stopped in her tracks and whipped her head around. “You serious, Carl?”
“With a bow conductor of all things,” Francis clarified. “Word is that the arrow was shot by an Elementalist Conductor.” He took another drag. “Fire.” And another drag. “Anyway, the whole kingdom’s been in the fritz about it. To think that an Ariesian may have made the attempt. Can trust themselves as much as they trust their neighbors.”
“I’ll never understand monarchies.” Carl shook his head. “All this ruckus just ’cause some kid got shot.”
“It’s important this ruckus gets resolved quickly,” Allen grumbled. “Aries and Gemini are strong trading partners. They provide us with most of the material for Ricardo’s modified conductors. We’re losing money by the second.”
“Still,” Carl huffed.
“What, Carl?” Cadence raised a brow. “Don’t like the idea of bendin’ over backward for someone and swearin’ fealty?”
“And you would?” Carl returned.
“Course,” Cadence laughed. “No point in hidin’ it.” She raised her ringed-fingers up and rubbed them together. “Just give me a nice sum, and I’ll swear my loyalty to you, my liege.” She gave a deep and mocking bow.
“Pretty sure any king or queen you serve under’d be bankrupt one week after you joined their ranks,” Allen said.
“And I’d be filthy rich.” Cadence chortled.
* * *
They reached their destination five minutes later. It was a small building wedged between a flower shop and a bookstore. The sign on top of the building read ‘Sagittarian Tea Shop’. And if one peered into the large open windows of the building, they would see just that.
Jars of tea leaves and other herbs and roots lined the back wall of the shop. In front of this collection was a counter manned by a balding man who looked of Sagittarian descent. At the counter was a balancing scale and a cash register. Perfectly normal and upstanding.
Every time Cadence came to this place, she’d have to force herself to suppress her laughter.
—everything, after all.
“Everything?” Cadence frowned. “They’re deceivin’ is what they are.”
Cadence blinked and found the Foxman brothers staring at her from the door. She glanced left and then right as a chill crawled up her spine. What was this feeling? Like she was being watched. But there were too many people walking back and forth to tell from where. No, that wasn’t it. It felt as if she was being watched from everywhere. Left, right, up, down. Outside, within.
Instead of addressing the subject, however, she pulled up a bright smile and dusted off her shoulders. “Gotta prepare myself ta face the devil, y’know?”
* * *
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 hanging next to the herbal displays and into the backroom that lay beyond. They were led up a long staircase and down a hall that opened into a large room.
The room had wooden floorboards covered by a royal-red carpet. At the center of the rug was a square 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 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.
The white knight to her black knight.
“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 boss 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 the Romano Family business.”
“What’re you implying, Cadence?” Francis threw a look back toward her.
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?” A smile wrinkled Cavallo’s wrinkles. “How about you take point on this then, Cadence? Look into this matter for us. Find out who set off the explosion. A favor from the Romanos to the Foxmans. Pay will be included, of course, Cadence.”
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 leaving the port off schedule. 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.
The skyline stretched high above her head. The sun hung low on the horizon but was hidden by a long bridge that stretched far into the distance.
The Dioscuri Bridge. The bridge that connected the left and the right side of the Twin Cities. It rose up in a great arch above the Castor River that cut the city in two and emptied out into the Pollux Bay. At night, sometimes the city officials would activate the engine conductor wired into the bridge and cast illusions of light across it.
Cadence made 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 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 backward. 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 that 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 grabbed his retreating hand and jerked him toward her. Out from his pants pocket fell a familiar object. Her wallet. The boy’s eyes widened, and he blinked up at her with a startled expression. An expression which became horrified as she took on his appearance in a burst of copper 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 shattered the transmutation. She then waved him off absentmindedly. “Get a move on, kid. And try to pickpocket someone who doesn’t look 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 only one story tall. A wooden sign was placed in 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. 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 approached 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. Even if the person she’d played for was no longer present.
Cadence gently placed her fingertips on 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 thin 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… losing my mind,” Cadence concluded.
Transmutationist: a Conductor who falls in one of the five general conducting-type categories. Transmutationists tend to be versatile. Most are able to utilize vitae extraneously, but there are some Transmutationists who are able to utilize vitae intraneously. Transmutationists are able to directly manipulate the vitae particles within objects. Thus they are able to change the form of objects by breaking apart and rejoining the vitae particles within those objects. They tend to mostly find occupations in the medical field. Transmutation of currency is outlawed*.Conducting 101 by L.B. Ran with an addendum* by the Literary Department of Ophiuchus