“He’s going around back!”
Jericho skidded to a halt as Talib’s voice echoed around the stucco alley walls. He glanced up and found a paper crane enveloped in dark blue light racing over his head. He chased it down the opposite end of the alley and into the backdoor of what appeared to be a pastry shop. The pâtissiers within yelped and jumped backwards at his entrance, sending a mist of flour into the air.
Jericho ignored them and scanned the area.
Floured counters, folded dough, piping bags gripped tightly in hands.
The origami paper crane was fluttering over the counter that divided the kitchen from the front of the store which was crowded with startled customers. The crane began to ring around a patron who was slowly backing away towards the door behind him. A young blonde man with bulging, vacant eyes.
Jericho threw himself across the counter towards the man. Instead of running out the door as Jericho had calculated, the man grabbed the closest patron—an old woman wearing a floral shawl—next to him with one gloved hand and held out his other hand warningly. When Jericho continued forwards anyway, the man flicked his wrist. At the base of his gloved palm flashed brilliant light that flickered from a pastel pink to a mint green. Telling signs. The light eventually solidified into a distinct shape. A gun. A Conjuror.
The other patrons shouted, cowered, but Jericho paid no mind. Instead, he studied the gun. It was misshapen and crooked like someone had melted it the forge of a conductor-manufacturing plant. Seeming to not care about its malformation, the Conjurer lifted the weapon and pressed it against the older woman’s temple.
Without hesitation, the Conjuror moved his finger to the trigger. Without hesitation, Jericho kicked his foot out and knocked the gun right out of the Conjuror’s hand. The Conjuror didn’t hesitate to conjure another weapon—a knife—and he released the old woman and charged at Jericho.
The man jerked forward strangely. Like a puppet on strings. It didn’t take much effort for Jericho to dodge the thrust of the man’s blade. And as Jericho lunged forward to knock it out of the man’s hand, he found that the blade too was misshapen, bent. Jericho swung his suitcase up and uppercut the Conjurer causing the man to lose his footing. Using the open opportunity, Jericho dropped his suitcase on the ground, spun the man around, and slammed him against the wall. One of the patrons screeched.
Jericho reached for the suppression cuffs on his belt and slapped them onto the man’s wrists. The man immediately went slack and let out a groan.
“What is your name?” Jericho asked as he held the Conjuror in place.
“Leize. I’m Leize. My name is Leize,” the Conjurer whispered, eyes wide, words hollow. “That wasn’t me. I-It wasn’t. I saw. Not me.”
“You are okay, Leize,” Jericho said. “You will be treated by the Medical Department of Ophiuchus—”
“I’ve found the Manipulator!” This time Talib’s voice resounded much more closely. Just outside of the store.
The paper crane had slipped beneath the door and was now hovering outside the shop.
Jericho released the Conjuror who collapsed like a rag doll on the floor. He stared at the man for a moment, regretting that he had not put him down more gently. He then addressed the older woman whom the Conjuror had previously held hostage: “Please watch this man. And do not take off the cuffs.”
With that, Jericho burst out of the storefront following the fluttering paper crane through the busy streets of the Cancerian town. He blasted past the crepe stall that was pulled out on the side of the store and darted along the gray brick sidewalk.
The crowd casually strolling along the pathway let out shrieks and parted.
The only one who was running away from him.
The Manipulator. A tall, blonde man wearing a dark blue suit. His escape was one full of clumsy stumbling with each step ending in a trip that he had to pick himself up from. Jericho was vaguely reminded of the drunk, swaggering man whom Cadence had played a round of poker with at a bar the last time they had synchronized.
The distance between them closed swiftly.
As Jericho neared him, however, the man abruptly whipped out a knife conductor and began swinging it wildly in an arc in his direction. Fortunately, the Manipulator’s erratic behavior earlier had already prompted people to stay as far away from him as possible. No complications.
Ducking beneath the swing of the blade, Jericho swept his leg beneath the man’s feet causing the man to flop backwards onto his back.
Jericho pounced on the fallen Manipulator and held him there, squeezing the hand that wielded the knife conductor. There was a crack and the Manipulator released the weapon with a yelp. Jericho placed a foot on the conductor, dragged it away from the man, and slipped it into a slot on his belt. He then felt along his belt and then paused.
He had forgotten to grab an additional suppression cuff from his suitcase which was for once not attached to his arm. Where had he left it? Back in the store. Be more cautious. Right.
But what to do now.
Abruptly, the Manipulator began writhing and convulsing beneath him. The man’s eyes snapped to the back of his head and his tongue lolled out from his mouth.
Jericho released the man and rose to a stand watching the man continue to contort almost as if having a seizure. Jericho knew this, of course, was not a seizure. Fact. This was penance. Justice.
Talib Al-Jarrah joined him half a second later. He was panting heavily but brushed past Jericho to inspect the perpetrator. A sympathetic yet righteous look passed over Talib’s face before he knelt down to slap suppression cuffs on the man’s wrists. “What a fool.”
* * *
Serpens Establishment, Ophiuchus
“The Cancerian Manipulator was charged with five cases of illegal manipulation and conducting without a license. Four of the cases were women. They were treated by medical Conductors who managed to transmute most of the Manipulator’s vitae out from their bodies. They are in recovery. The same cannot be said for a charged suspect. It seems as if he’s suffering from the usual psychosis that results from living manipulation.” Rattling off the details of their latest closed case, Talib took a sip of tea and crossed his legs. He clicked his tongue and shook his head, huffing, “This is why Manipulators have such a terrible reputation. Because of people like this man.”
“If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up not so different from him,” Doctor Alice Kingsley said from beside him. She was eating a fruit salad from a plastic container and had paused to gesture at him with her fork. “Although with the way you are, I’m not sure it’d make a difference.”
“Ah, yes, Alice, your words are as sharp as a knife that cuts through the heart as always,” Talib said. “Good. That’s how I know the Organization hasn’t gotten to you yet.” He pointed to her plastic fork. “But, if you continue using things like that then it’s only a matter of time. Don’t you know that’s how they’re able to move forward with their plans? They make small, subtle changes to your environment without you noticing. You think to yourself ‘oh yes, how convenient this disposable fork is,’ but in reality, that fork is a device they use to lower your guard—that’s how they get you. Ignorance is compliance!”
“It isn’t healthy to make blasé comments like that,” Alice returned. “You might eventually convince yourself that all you are saying is true, and then you may not even be able to discern reality from fiction.”
“Who says that it’s fiction?” Talib rebutted before his voice became gravely: “The Organization is a very real threat, Alice. I’ve known since childhood that you were of a person of intelligence so it’s strange that you would openly deny their existence—unless it’s that you’re trying to get them to think that you don’t believe they’re real which is quite ingenious—”
“For such a terrifying organization, Talib, why would they have such a common name as ‘Organization’? Assuming that they’re the megalomaniacs you’re painting them as then would they not choose a more eye-catching pseudonym?”
Jericho watched them go back and forth from the sofa across from him for a moment before he turned to study the others in the room. Ferris Hart from the Assignment Department was sitting to his left and was giving Talib a tired look. She had recently dyed her hair a bright popping blue, and Jericho still had yet to adjust to it.
“Adjusting to new things takes time,” Alice had told him during one of their first sessions. “And a willingness to accept.”
Roberto Gonzalez, a middle-aged man of Leonian descent with dark curls and full cheeks, was sitting to Jericho’s right and puffing a v-cig. Roberto belonged to the Commerce Regulation Department of Ophiuchus. Although the man was only a general agent in the department, as Gabrielle put it, “he had the keenest eye in Ophiuchus.” Accordingly, Roberto was able to spot conjured or transmuted counterfeits of anything on the spot. He had even closed a case that made headlines in the papers recently.
Although there was no seating chart in place that Jericho knew of, it always seemed as if they fell into the same seating arrangements whenever they had their lunch meetings in Gabrielle’s office. At the thought of Gabrielle, Jericho stared at the empty desk behind him. The dust piling up on the surface was unsightly.
“Regardless of your beliefs, your Cancerian criminal was handed to me,” Alice said, waving off Talib mid-rant. “I’ve heard from the chairman above me that they may transfer you both to more specialized departments.” She locked eyes with Jericho as she said this. “And I put a good word in for you both despite my initial misgivings, so we are making progress.”
“Well, your report was nicely typed, Talib,” Roberto commended. He spoke very fast like he was in a rush, but he appeared very relaxed. “Might get you a promotion up to maybe the fourth chair of the General Investigations Department. And with Gabe promoted to third chair last month, and Alice keeping it up as third chair of the Psychological Evaluations Department, we might actually be getting somewhere finally.”
“Correction, Roberto,” Talib interjected, “I wasn’t the one who typed up the report. It was my partner here, Jericho.”
“The ELPIS guy? Really?”
The guy who gets paid to play spot the difference? Really?
“I’m not with ELPIS,” Jericho said. “It’s rude for you to say that.”
Roberto scoffed. “I still don’t get why Gabrielle roped you into this to begin with. She wants to create a big and good name for herself in order to head Ophiuchus, but she took you in. With a background like that, you’re bound to ruin her reputation.”
“Not many people know of my former association with ELPIS,” Jericho corrected. “Only the first chairs of the departments and the head chairman of Ophiuchus know. And Alice. And you all.” And the other five. “I don’t use my conductor often.”
“Roberto, how could you say something like that?” Ferris interjected. “We’ve been working with him for months now and you can see how dedicated he is. I can’t believe you.”
“That’s not what you said when you found out the first time he used to be a part of ELPIS,” Roberto scoffed. “You told me you were scared of him.”
Jericho paused and stared at Ferris. “Really?”
“Enough,” Alice said, putting her salad down on the island table. “Even though Gabrielle is away, we need to maintain consistenty with our work. There is no point in remaining in the same position. We all need to work to elevate our rankings, including you, Roberto—”
“Hey, I’m trying—”
“Yes, Roberto is merely being stagnated by the Organization’s machinations—”
“Talib, be quiet—”
Jericho watched them fire back and forth.
In the past couple of months, Jericho had found that his social circle had increased somewhat. The addition of Olivier, Lavi, Cadence, Werner, Maria, and Atienna had already increased Jericho’s circle from one to seven. He was quite happy with his progress, although he could not inform Alice of it due to the group’s agreement of secrecy. Therefore when he was introduced by Talib to the individuals who were in Gabrielle’s inner circle, he supposed he had been something akin to ‘happy’ since Alice was able to see this progress.
“What are you looking at?” Roberto huffed suddenly causing Jericho to realize he’d been staring at the man.
“Nothing,” Jericho replied, looking away in favor of staring at Alice’s salad.
Jericho wondered if Roberto was someone who could even be considered a friend. He made a mental note to inquire Alice about it later. Or maybe Atienna or Cadence.
That aside, other than Gabrielle herself, three other people who were a part of Gabrielle’s ‘inner circle’ were missing from the luncheon.
The first was Moerani, a man from Piscese who apparently knew Izsak and Gabrielle from during the war. He worked in the Licensing Department and had a rather busy schedule. Cadence had tried several times to convince Jericho to “butter Moerani up” so that Olivier could more easily pass the State Conducting Exam. Jericho hadn’t understood what she’d meant but Werner, Atienna, and Olivier had all shut down the idea.
Whenever Jericho would pass Moerani in the hallways, the Piscese man would always give Jericho a wink and a small smile before rushing off to his next evaluation. Jericho would try his best to return the gesture. That was what their relationship amounted to.
Then there was Elizabeta. Wtorek Elizabeta.
Despite apparently being a significant part of Gabrielle’s operations, Elizabeta seldomly made her appearance. She was a Transmutationist in the Medical Department of Ophiuchus which was one of the busiest departments in the organization alongside General Investigations, Assignments, and Licensing. She was most likely preoccupied with her largest case. That of Izsak.
Izsak. Wtorek Izsak.
An Ophiuchian Conjuror originally from Taurus. Someone Alice, Talib, and Gabrielle respected. Someone Olivier was fond of. Someone who had been a part of Gabrielle’s inner circle. Someone who had tried to kill Olivier for being a ‘True Conductor’. Someone who had become a member of ELPIS. Correction: someone who had been manipulated via Manipulator into working with ELPIS.
Needless to say, Wtorek Izsak was also a no show.
The last no show was Flannery Caertas, but Jericho did not find her not being present unusual. She was not a peacekeeper by profession. And she apparently only swung by in their first meeting because she was well acquainted with Alice and Talib. Jericho was confused about the relation there, but he did not question it. “She’s the money bags,” Roberto had told him one day when he had been in one of his better moods.
Their luncheon concluded half an hour later, and they all headed back to their respective departments within the Serpens Establishment. While on the way back to the General Investigations Department, Talib excused himself to the toilet leaving Jericho to stand out in the hall waiting for him.
At the sudden whisper that tickled the back of his neck, a sense of deja vu whipped through Jericho’s mind and something akin to a chill ran up his spine. He turned his head in the direction of the whisper but all he found was Ferris Hart.
“Hey, Jericho,” she said when she approached him, “sorry if I startled you—”
“You did not startle me.”
Ferris chuckled. “Oh, okay. Uhm…what Roberto said earlier. I—”
“It is okay if you are afraid of me,” Jericho stated, offering her a thumbs up since it seemed customary and appropriate. “I won’t force you to change how you feel.”
Ferris looked sad when he said this, but he couldn’t understand why.
* * *
His weekly session with Alice saw to them dissecting the contents of a small leather journal.
“I’ve noticed that you’ve been adding drawings to the weekly journal entries I’ve been requiring you to write,” Alice noted, flipping through the journal in question.
That was true.
After the events in the Twin Cities several months prior, Alice had begun requiring him to detail his thoughts, feelings, and activities in weekly journal entries which she would go over the following week.
His first journal entry had read, “Given advice by C. Suggested to use Ophiuchian badge to get occasional free drinks. Informed C that I do not drink alcohol.” The next entry read: “Spoke with Doctor Kingsley. Spoke with Talib. A stated interest in my journal. Spoke with member of ELPIS Department. Denied requested information. Will try again later.”
Alice had not been pleased at these entries, although she voiced her interest in ‘C’ and ‘A’ and only seemed mildly put off when he declined to speak on them.
The transition from writing in the journal entries to drawing in them had been a smooth one. When Jericho initially received the journal from Alice, he hadn’t been sure of what she wanted from the entries and had spent his free time staring at the blank journal page in thought. It was during one of the first synchronization meetings that Werner held that Jericho had begun to sketch absentmindedly in the corner of his journal. He rendered the Capricornian first lieutenant in stick-figure form wearing a frown beside the Ariesian prince with a scowl and fire spewing from his mouth. Olivier had noticed it first, glancing down at the drawing before snickering. Werner hadn’t been pleased and had made his displeasure known in a concise five-minute lecture. “A hobby was acceptable,” was something along the lines of what he’d said, “but a distraction was not.”
Afterward, Atienna had taken interest in his drawings and had suggested that he continue them in his spare time as to “have something to take his mind off of things.” Maria had asked for him to draw all sorts of things. He wasn’t sure if some of those things existed but tried to complete the requests anyway. Which landed him here with Alice squinting at a cat with bat wings.
“I was told it was customary to ‘doodle.’” Jericho stared. “This is not what you wanted?”
“Why would you assume that?” Alice asked tersely. She leaned back in her chair with crossed arms. “What you’ve drawn here has told me more than what you’ve written and spoken about in all of our sessions.” For a moment, Jericho thought he saw her smile. “They’re nice, Jericho. Continue them. But I am curious as to what’s inspired them.”
And then she stared at him with her piercing blue eyes.
Again he found himself wondering if she could somehow hear his thoughts. Maybe, he thought, she would be able to pry the other five from his mind if she stared long enough. He couldn’t let that happen. He broke off eye contact and stared at the corner of her desk.
“I’ve noticed that you haven’t mentioned ELPIS recently in your entries or in our sessions save for your recent interview with the ELPIS Department,” Alice drew suddenly. “What are your thoughts on Wtorek Izsak’s condition?”
“The Medical Department says that it’s complex. The manipulation. They’re having a hard time transmuting the Manipulator’s vitae from Izsak. Elizabeta would know more about this than me.”
“Yes, that’s what they say.” Alice raised her head. “And Elizabeta is only able to perform transmutations along the guidelines that they’ve provided her with. She’s told me that it’s been difficult to even do that.” She began tapping her fingers on the surface of her desk, her manicured nails click-clacking. “You’ve seen how suppression cuffs affect individuals who have been manipulated firsthand, Jericho.”
Recalling Leize’s groaning and stuttering, Jericho nodded. “Yes.”
“This detail hasn’t been released yet but Elizabeta has told me that the suppression cuffs render Izsak fully unconscious.” She shook her head. “And that implies that Izsak isn’t under such manipulation—something that Elizabeta refuses to believe…. As much as I believe in Izsak’s character, these are the facts. But there is something missing. The head of the Medical Department is still labeling this as a manipulation case despite everything. Something here isn’t fitting. I don’t like it.”
“Is that something Talib has said?”
Alice frowned. “Don’t insult me, Jericho.”
Jericho stiffened under her gaze.
But then she shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose before reclining back in her seat with a sigh. “Forget I said anything.” She handed Jericho his journal back before reaching under her desk to pull out a leather, diamond-studded handbag. “Continue your journal entries, Jericho. And feel free to leave whenever you’re ready.”
Jericho accepted the journal.
Alice paused as she rounded the desk and seemed to evaluate him in the silence. After a beat, she said, “Elizabeta asked me to invite you to come down to the Black Constellation Center to visit Izsak.”
Jericho cocked his head. “Why? I wasn’t close to Wtorek Izsak.”
“I’m surprised you’re not more interested in it to begin with given your goal,” Alice returned after studying Jericho for a beat. She then sighed: “Elizabeta’s being selfish most likely. I wasn’t going to even mention it. But given your recent journal entries, I thought it might be a good exercise. I’m also curious about it myself so I can’t deny I have a reason either.”
Jericho thought on it for a moment. “For you, Alice, okay. Izsak is not a real member of ELPIS. But since he is being used by them, I will assist.”
Offering either a hum of approval of a sigh of disapproval, Alice departed from the office leaving Jericho in silence.
This time the whisper ghosted Jericho’s ear. When he turned his head, however, he only saw the awards and certificates dotting Alice’s wall.
A ghost of a memory? The blurring between reality and past illusions hadn’t happened in a while. What was it that Alice had said? Focus on a single point.
Jericho focused on a point on the wall. It was painted white, he realized.
He wasn’t forgetting, was he? Forgetting ELPIS? Forgetting what they’d done? Forgetting that feeling?
He gripped the journal tightly, crinkling the pages beneath his fingernails.
No. He would never forget. His reason for being.