Issue #66 – City by the Lake

This entry is part 6 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures
The Chicago Police Department: Almost thirty thousand sworn officers accounting for missions of pages of reports, tickets and various and sundry paperwork. And on paper, there was but one man whose desk it all ended up passing over the desk of a single man; James Lawson.
 
But like so much of Chicago, there were layers to the situation. On paper, Lawson was the Chief Archivist in the Bureau of Administration, but that job hadn’t really needed a human in it for decades, thanks to the automation of so much of the paperwork processing.
 
Rumor among the rank and file was that the position had been resurrected for him out of sympathy and respect to his wishes to remain part of the force. Anyone who’d been in Chicago in the last five years knew that James Lawson had been a beat cop who had run afoul of the local branch of the Corbin street gang. They’d kidnapped him off the street to make an example, and over a three week period, had beaten, partially starved and dehydrated, and mentally abused him to the brink of both death and sanity.
 
In the end, he’d garnered national attention, a meeting with the mayor, and a windfall of charity to aid in his recovery. What he didn’t get was back onto the force: his knee had been shot for good, and there were doubts that he could pass a psych evaluation.
 
Behind closed doors, the rumors went, he begged to still be a part of the force. No one knew why he didn’t just get a desk job. What he got was the desk job, one in an obscure corner of police headquarters where most people couldn’t be bothered to go.
 
What the brass knew was that Lawson had almost become wasted potential. He was a natural born detective, and his office was where they sent the cold case files and those of crimes that would be politically advantageous to solve as soon as possible. Within days, they would get hot new leads about sixty percent of the time.
 
Things worked out so well for them that when Lawson asked to hire an assistant, they didn’t ask questions.
 
And none of them knew the real truth.
 
***
Candace McCartney was Lawson’s assistant and his total opposite. He was self assured and, even with his cane, moved with a certain grace. She stumbled through life (and the office) in a constant state of self-consciousness. He was a ghost who people usually only saw getting on and off elevators, she was the friendly girl who seemed to pop up everywhere around headquarters.
 
As every morning, she was dressed in a cookie cutter, gray suit-and-skirt ensemble that told everyone that she was an assistant more readily then her id tag. Her black hair was up in a twist held together by a black lacquered wooden comb.
 
Burdened by her briefcase, a tablet computer, purse, and two large bags from Burger Builders, she was forced to use her elbow to manipulate the door knob to the Chief Archivist’s office and stumbled in. “Morning, Boss.” She called, trying to offload what she was carrying onto whatever flat surfaces were available.
 
The office would have been good sized if there weren’t two of them in there. As it was, Lawson’s desk was pushed into a corner so as to situate him next to the lone window. Meanwhile, Candace’s desk was arranged to sit directly in front of the door like a receptionist’s, heedless of the fact that her boss would be seated directly behind her and within eye shot.
 
Luckily, they didn’t get visitor’s with any regularity. Files people wanted Lawson to look into were thrust into Candace’s arms as she made her rounds in the rest of the building, or sent via email. The only people who came up were detectives wanting to deliver a quick and hearty ‘thank you’. So most days it was just the two of them and the mini-server.
 
James Lawson turned away from what he was typing to greet her as she finished divesting herself of most of her load and brought over one of the fast food bags. He was in his early thirties and largely unremarkable. Average height; a bit on the tall side, but narrow at the shoulder and waist; a slight belly starting to form as a consequence of years behind a desk. His skin as a light caramel, his hair dark brown and cut close, and he had a mustache so light that lit might have been penciled on.
 
“Breakfast.” Candace said before he could speak. “Least I could do after the other night—I’m still very sorry about the mess I made.”
 
Lawson smiled at her, a smile she still associated with her father, and accepted the bag. “You didn’t have to do that. You made a mistake and mistakes are how you learn. This wouldn’t’ be much of an apprenticeship if you didn’t learn anything.”
 
“Still.” She shook her head and went to find where she set her tablet down. “That was a big one and I appreciate you pulling me out of the fire on it.”
 
Lawson pulled out a wrapped sandwich and inhaled appreciatively. For his money, no breakfast could compare to Burger Builder’s Ultimate Breakfast Build: a bagel stacked with scrambled eggs, cheese, onions, steak and three strips of bacon. His apprentice knew how to properly thank a person, that was certain.
 
Meanwhile Candace retrieved her tablet and started flicking through programs until she found what she was after. “And I know this will make your morning: Murphy in SI filed something new around three this morning.”
 
“Hmm. Did she put in for her consultant?” Lawson leaned forward. Special Investigations often got handed cases that he was uniquely equipped to handle. But when Murphy and her consultant got involved, things were often resolved before he needed to step in.
 
Candace nodded. “And he ended up billing the city for fungicide for his car. I’m going to go ahead and say I’m happy we didn’t get in on that. I’ll let you read the juicy bits yourself.” She deftly tapped the screen to send the file over to him. “Other than that, there doesn’t look like a lot that needs our attention in the casework. Any leads on your end?”
 
“Something.” Lawson said cryptically and unwrapped his sandwich. After a large bite, he called up some files on his computer. “There’s a hit over at city hall. You know the State Braylocke Act?”
 
“Authorization for the state to hire private bounty hunters to arrest wanted psionics—excuse me, descendants—instead of law enforcement officers?”
 
“The same.” Lawson gave her an appreciative look for using the proper term, even if she had slipped up. “A group just registered at city hall; they look to all be descendants themselves; say they’re here the bring in some juvenile delinquents from Florida.”
 
“Fishy?” Candace asked as if she were answering a question on a test.
 
“Fishy.” agreed Lawson. “I don’t trust that law in general and after that thing with the Academy and all those fake schools that cropped up after, I trust anything that has to do with kids less. I think these people need someone to keep an eye on them. Someone like…”
 
***
Cyn made an unladylike noise as she opened the box of freshly baked donuts in the back of the rental van. She didn’t look at all like herself: dark skin, brown eyes, far more generous curves; she looked like a young Laurel, which was the idea, or so she said when explaining her ‘cover’ to the others.
 
“Oh, my sweet babies, where were you on the flight over?” Her gaze on the fried treats was that of Mammon staring at a hill of gold. And, yet, she somehow remembered her manners. “Want on, Jun?”
 
Juniper sat beside her, watching the scenery go by, craning her neck on occasion to gawk at Chicago’s buildings. With more towers above one-hundred and twenty stories than any other in North or South America, Chicago had the title of tallest city in the western hemisphere, rivaled only by Tokyo, Palestine City, and Nairobi.
 
“Thank you.” She said accepting a doughnut. Her method of going undercover was tying her hair into one huge, high ponytail and wearing dark colors. If Cyn didn’t know that she was really Willow Chamberlain, she would think the other girl didn’t even know what ‘cover identity’ meant.
 
“How about you, mom?”
 
Laurel glanced back in the rearview with a smile. Even if Cyn wasn’t consciously aware of it, she knew that this was the point of the whole ‘cover’ things Cyn was insisting on, and not the fact that Illinois had a Braylocke Act on the books as she said.
 
They had been close for a very long time, but her last encounter with her father had bee a tipping point for Cyn. Unknown to the others, Cyn had come to Laurel’s workshop later that week and asked if Laurel could alter her already heavily doctored records to make it so she was Laurel’s adoptive daughter. Even though she was old enough that it didn’t matter legally, it mean something to her.
 
“I’ll get one when we reach the hotel.” she said.
 
Cyn nodded and set one doughnut aside before grabbing two and shoving them into her mouth. “So,” She said after no chewing whatsoever, “Where are we meeting the Young Delinquent Wunderkind Club anyway?”
 
“Aren’t all wunderkind young?” Juniper asked.
 
“I have no idea.” said Cyn. “I’m not even sure what that word means.”
 
Laurel stifled a laugh. “The last I heard from them, they were going to take Rain to the Field Museum at two to see Sue. We’ll try and meet them there…” her tone grew more serious. “Thought things might not go as smooth as we hope. Noah was wary about telling me that much; he’s incredibly protective of his family. Plus, he’s had a few… incidents since I last talked to him.”
 
Two more doughnuts disappeared into Cyn’s mouth. “Incidents like…?”
 
“It looks like he’s been having problems with his second form again. I’ve found reports of something matching his description crashing a wedding in Streeterville and eating the cake, smashing in the windows of two candy stores, and flying around in Streeterville and the Gold Coast neighborhood.”
 
Juniper frowned. “Those are the most expensive places to live in the city. Noah and his friends have been saying there?”
 
Laurel shook her head. “They refuse to take more money than the bare minimum and do temp and seasonal work in the cities they stop in. Noah doesn’t like them leaving too much of a footprint for Tome to track. Even if they had the money, he’d be too paranoid to check into a high class hotel.”
 
“How did you know those were expensive places to live?” Cyn stared at Juniper, who merely shrugged. She rolled her eyes. Juniper was smarter than she let on, but Cyn had no idea where it all came from. “Okay, so if the Field Museum doesn’t work out, what do we do then?”
 
“Chelsea Rimbu’s campaign headquarters.” Laurel decided after some deliberation. “Tillie wanted to work on her campaign because she wants to repeal the Braylocke Act. That’s the whole reason the Kin are in Chicago in the first place.”
 
Cyn ate another doughnut, slowly this time. “It’s kind of hard to believe Tesser is into politics. She’s like my age.”
 
“Ian was into politics back when we were into high school.” Laurel shrugged as sh switched lanes in preparation to make their exit.
 
“Yeah, but he was probably old when he was a baby.” Cyn laughed until she snorted. “But yeah, it’s going to be weird seeing them in person, especially since the only pictures we’ve got are from like a year ago. Rain’s pushing fourteen now, I think so the cute factor might be gone bye-bye.”
 
Laurel’s voice was chiding. “No matter how they look, the point of this visit is to make sure they still know they have friends in the wider world, and to try one more time to convince Kevin and Rain to come to the Institute. I’ve even got either college or jobs at Descendants Rights Worldwide for Noah and Tillie if they want to come too.”
 
Putting the box aside, Cyn turned to look out the opposite window from Juniper. The skyscrapers and towers were tall and inviting. She could practically sense the wind begging to give her wings a stretch. She curled up a little in her seat, sinking into the comfort.
 
“No way in hell they wouldn’t want to come along. Those four only have each other. I’ve only talked to them a handful of times and I can tell they really care, you know? Nobody’s going to split that up. If they tried… well there’d be an ass-kicking waiting for them.”
 
***
Dave Cameron wasn’t a man known for his attention to detail. He didn’t need to; he had his parents’ money, their company and their house now that his father was dead and his stepmother confined to a nursing home. He didn’t have to do much of anything at all if he didn’t want to; just an occasional guest appearance at the software firm, where, inevitably, he would have to make corrections to problems the so-called professionals were too stupid or geeky to notice.
 
Like their stupid decision to hold a game until they could come up with a satisfying ending. What was that about? Who cared how a game ended? Who even knew games had stories in the first place? Boom. He ordered it shipped in time for Christmas and he didn’t care if they cobbled the end together or what. That was business.
 
Between that and axing that stupid game where the player built a futuristic space-faring society from the ground up, he was on a roll with making good decisions.
 
His lack of attention to detail caused him not to notice the claw marks on the back fence of his property and around the door of this gardener’s shed. It also made him ignore the musky, animal scent, mixed with a sickly sweet one, coming form said shed, as well as how the door hung slightly ajar.
 
It was he decision-making skills that led him to investigate why the gardener had fled screaming, and then, upon seeing that the ground at the back edge of his property was littered with pieces of chewed chocolate bars, gum drops, and other, less identifiable candy, to choose to investigate that mystery instead of wondering why someone would run screaming from that direction.
 
Those same skills drove him, upon hearing a soft snarl inside the shed, to draw himself up, march to the door, fling it open, and shout. “Hey! Who the hell said you could leave shit all over my lawn!”
 
And it was poor reflexes that ultimately decided his fate when a clawed hand sprang form the darkness and palmed his head like a basketball before pulling him inside.
 
***
By noon, Lawson and Candace had the name of a hotel and were nearly ready to skip out on work.
 
“You’re going to have to learn to master the quick change sooner or later.” Lawson smirked as he leaned against the wall, talking to the door of the lavatory beside him. A pair of officers walked past him without a second glance and showed no indication that they saw or heard him.
 
“This is not my fault.” Candace’s voice came through the door, awash with grunts of effort and frustration. “Ladies’ office-wear wasn’t meant to be changed quickly. Or moved in. And I can’t dress like ‘however’ like you do.”
 
“You could carry your toy around all the time.”
 
She cackled. “It refuses to disguise itself. So everyone would be like ‘Candy, why are you wandering around the HQ with a flute?’”
 
“Good point, but hurry up anyway. And tomorrow, you go shopping for a pant suit you can run in.”
 
There was a definitive sounding zip, and she replied with, “Yes, sensei.” She opened the door and stepped out wearing black jeans with zippers all over, a black tank top, and a light, white jacket with a pair of drama masks on the back. A brown, leather case was slung over her shoulder. “And now this humble hero in training awaits your most wise orders.” She smirked when she said it.
 
Lawson pushed off the wall and caught himself with his cane; a plain walnut stick with a bent top that had been with him since his ordeal. “Good, student. I’m keeping anyone from seeing us, so go ahead and suit up.”
 
Still smirking, Candace reached into the case and drew out a flute of ancient design. It looked like it was made of silver, and from its heft, she never doubted it. Up close, it was inscribed with a chaotic network of geometric shapes, vine-work and constellations that were never the same on every viewing.
 
The moment she touched the thing, the transformation took hold; her already pale skin turned inhumanly white with no trace of freckle or vein, her clothes melted into flowing shadow to become a strapless, corseted black dress, open in the back to reveal a sun-and-moon tattoo, and slip up one side to the thigh while it plunged to the floor and dissolved into swirling ebon smoke. Evening gloves formed in shadow on her hands, up to her shoulders, and silver studs and rings appeared in her ears, her eyebrows, nose and lower lip. Her hair came loose from its comb and became a shape in ink against her white skin; shifting from moment to moment: now a bob, now long and flowing with princess curls, now up in an elaborate stacked braid.
 
Lawson rolled his eyes. “Try and keep your hair in one shape?”
 
Embarrassed, Candace concentrated and her hair settled into long, flowing waves that reached to her waist.
 
“Good enough.” Lawson teased. Then he too changed. But instead of something human, he became something… more.
 
Candace knew the truth: that his power was to alter the perceptions of those around him to create mental illusions, but even knowing this, watching that something both awe-inspiring and educational.
 
Most people who had seen it were never able to describe or even draw it accurately for their court appointed doctors. It was a towering figure, almost eight feet tall and covered in a cloak of darkness that trailed off into the shadows and a pointed hat like a classic witch’s, except the tip was bent. The face within was a death mask: black on black such that the only things truly visible were the brilliant white shapes that were indisputably eyes.
 
He raised a hand, a hoary claw that trailed dark smoke from the tips wherever it moved, and gestured. When he spoke, it was an echo from the deepest crypt, but had none of the devastating effect on her that it did on Chicago’s most dangerous criminals. “Shall we go?”
 
And so Chicago’s own Shade left police headquarters with his apprentice.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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