She hadn’t gone more than three blocks before she wished that someone else was accompanying her. It wasn’t that the neighborhood was unsafe or that she was some wilting flower that couldn’t live without constant accompaniment. She wasn’t scared of the regular PD either. All but the newest there knew she wasn’t to be trifled with and the veterans warned the newbies, which was as it should be. There wasn’t a sudden chill breeze standing her hair on end nor was there the sound of footsteps tailing her on the final part of her work. Nothing about this journey made sense. It shouldn’t be necessary. Someone could have read the letter over the phone or emailed the text of it. If it had to be seen in person, the letter could have been carried down to MCU by a courier or if it was something important, Ruby could have brought it down herself to the meeting tomorrow.
That meant the letter was involved in some level of drama. Greta didn’t know if it was the contents or the sender of the letter that was drama llama. It better not be something of Ivan’s. She’d rather deal with that Boots poser or that mad woman who went about pricking everyone with a spindle. Bremen had it lucky compared to some places, but it did attract its own peculiar version of panhandlers. If she were lucky, maybe it’d be some delusional girl writing proposals to Hans. Those had to be carefully screened because any number of them were using princess enhancements. That never ended well, but at least no one needed replacement of vital bodily fluids after all. No, her gut told her this wouldn’t be lucky at all.
Greta refused to go up the big, fancy steps to the main entrance from the square. Instead, she slipped into the HQ side entrance. The door was labeled delivery, but she figured delivering herself counted. The city hall staff at the front never cared for her anyway; she didn’t smile enough. She skipped the lobby all together and headed straight to the real PD. She nodded at two rookies from the class she’d spoken to that summer. The smaller of the two, an Albert, waved back with a big toothy grin until his partner elbowed him. A few of the officers walking in the corridors nodded back to her. Only old Melchert glared at her. She was slipping. Either that or the attrition and retirement rates were finally working out favorably.
“Hey there, Annika,” Greta said, putting both hands down on the main secretary’s desk. The thirty-year-old woman looked up, annoyed at the interruption. Her stylish black frame glasses contrasted with her bright hair. “I like the pink. It looks good.”
“Hands off the desk. You know that, Henkel,” Annika scolded.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to muss the files. What’ll make it up to you?”
“What’s your brother doing later?” The secretary made a show of studying her nails.
Greta laughed. “You don’t want him, trust me. Hans is a mess.”
“I like cleaning up messes,” Annika said coyly. “It’s a hobby.”
“Truce, truce! Let me know where Ruby’s at and I’ll get out of your way. I’ll even leave you chocolate. I’ll get some office supplies! Those markers you like.”
Annika pouted. “If you insist. You had to switch to purple? We could have been pink twins. Then this place would have to listen to us.”
“Ruby?” Greta reminded her.
“The unofficial break room.”
“How do you know she’s in the paper closet? You didn’t even pretend to look at a calendar this time.”
Annika primped her pink curls. “Skills, darling. I don’t question your gritty work, so don’t insult mine. Hurry on up, she has a meeting with the commissioner in nine minutes and seven seconds.”
“You need a hobby—no, you need a drink,” Greta said as she hurried down the hall.
“Don’t forget the chocolate,” the secretary yelled out as the phones began ringing. The lilt vanished from Annika’s voice as she started taking down details and transferring the calls.
Greta marched passed rows of offices. She cracked open a door and slid inside, passing rows of toilet paper, gallons of hand sanitizer, and a mountain of tissue boxes. The next door led into a somewhat wider room filled with reams and reams of paper. The third door went into a room bare of everything except a worn out sofa, two overstuffed chairs and some crates for foot rests. Greta had never figured out how the furniture had gotten into the room. Maybe this stripped down little place had been built around when the floor was under construction. At any rate, it was a sanctuary, the one place the phones couldn’t reach, the paperwork didn’t pile and the public didn’t berate. MCU Liaison Director Ruby Syme lay sprawled across the sofa, her black heeled shoes kicked against the wall. Rather than her usual business attire, she wore a shimmering sleeveless blue dress that seemed quite incongruous with the chipped cream paint on the cement block walls. Her long white hair was pulled back up into a coronet and a small gecko was perched on her toes. She was also asleep.
To be sure, Greta stomped through her next few steps. There was no response. She coughed. Still there was nothing from the director. “Ruby? Ruby?” she hissed. While it was relatively certain this room was not bugged, one could not be certain of the continuation of such affairs. “Liaison Director, wake up before I am forced to take drastic measures to acquire your attention.”
There wasn’t even a snore. Well, she knew how to counteract that. With adept practice, Greta secured the gecko. She the leaned forward as if to balance the little lizard on Ruby’s nose. “That is the oldest trick off the books,” Ruby said with her eyes still closed. “It’s not going to make me scream, probationary Agent Henkel.”
“I didn’t need a scream, Ruby, only your attention pulled away from your little charade of sleep. What’s with the costume? It’s not Old Hallow’s Eve.”
“Annika didn’t tell you? She was laughing over it for hours.” Ruby sat up. She fiddled with some stray tendrils that had escaped her coronet before leaning forward to massage her calves.
“She mentioned you had a meeting with the commissioner very soon.”
“She’s toying with you if she called it a meeting. I have to attend the Glasshill Firm’s fundraising dinner because they are announcing their generous supportive donation to the Bremen Police Department Magical Crime Unit. I’m the pet representative and an unregistered weapon.” Ruby had to pause for a mouthful. “Excuse me,” she said after a pair of twin toads hopped from her mouth as if it was a diving board.
“Too bad they weren’t poison dart frogs. Then they would’ve matched your dress. A snake could have doubled as a scarf or a belt.”
“Your help is irreplaceable,” Ruby said dryly.
Rather than push further, Greta went for the direct approach. “My brother sent me to get a letter from you. Something that couldn’t wait for a runner, ma’am.”
“My request that someone from MCU come for the letter had nothing to do with waiting, as Hans knew from our conversation. It is a matter of trust. I cannot have all of law enforcement knowing of this, young Greta. It is a matter of some importance. I did want to it not wait until tomorrow and there is this ridiculous function that kept me from coming myself.”
“What is it?”
“Left heel,” Ruby said, pointing impatiently. “Let’s not speak of it aloud, even here.”
The insistence of secrecy here was strange. Greta nibbled on the inside of her lip. Hans had to moan about things being slow earlier. Now they were going to get whammied. She retrieved both of the black shoes, dropped the right one on Ruby’s lap, and examined the bottom of the left shoe. Wrapping the heel with the palm of her hand, she twisted. The material groaned but nothing opened.
“No, no, no,” Ruby said, a small stone clinking against her teeth with each word. Greta hardly looked at them once she saw the hint of blue. Sapphires weren’t here thing. “You don’t twist that. Find the switch and it’ll pop open. It’s child play, really. I expect you to know how to do these things. Your brother wouldn’t have any problem with it.”
Greta scowled, probing the toe and sole of the shoe for a camouflaged switch. Grazing against what she’d taken for a worn patch, she pressed down and felt a small click. The heel popped back and would have jabbed her right in the cornea, but she flinched back. She tipped the shoe upside down and a curled slip of paper fell out into her palm. Snapping the heel into its proper position, she dropped it on the sofa. “If Hans would do better, you should have had him come up here instead of letting him delegate.”
Ruby looked up after she finished fastening on the first shoe. “Examine that scrap and you’ll know why it couldn’t be him. He’s a great agent, but sometimes he can be entirely too noisy.”
Deciding it would be poor timing to remind Ruby that she was hardly a model of silence herself, Greta unrolled the scrap and squinted at it. This couldn’t be the original as there was no way the director would manhandle evidence in such a fashion. The real letter was probably locked up in a vault somewhere. Greta wondered if that vault would be concealed in a shoe box. This had to be a scan. It was a handwritten note, the cursive shaky. It wasn’t the just learning to write sort of shaky either. It was more like how writing got with infirmity. That seemed odd. Normally letters that came into PD that were threatening were made of cut out magazine letters or were printed from the printers at the public library since that one news story mentioned that printouts could be traced to the individual idiosyncrasies of specific printers. Of course, those same people didn’t stop to think their computer usage at the library was tracked.
She skipped to the bottom of the note to get the signature. The first name was hard to read, but the last name was unmistakable—Lang. Then it was all too clear what the first name had to be. Isabel Lang. “Oh, pixie sticks,” Greta cursed, sitting down hard. The Langs, any of them, were trouble. Urs had been a good man on patrol, a friend. His disappearance had rocked the entire corps. Then his father, the judge—it had not been a good time to be on the force. The rest of the family had been nothing but thorns, though Greta had to admit it was circumstances more than personalities. Hans had known them all, and it made everything all the worse. Isabel. Isabel Lang. It had to be her. Greta felt a headache coming on. “You know he’s going to go postal. I’ll have to lock the kitchen.”
“Read the letter now. It gets messier.”
Messier than explosions? Not that real pyrotechnics had been involved during the last clash, but it had been a near thing. Brain matter had certainly fried. Queasy, but not wanting to show it, Greta mouthed off before studying the letter. “I am the queen of messes. There is no mess that can vanquish me. It wouldn’t dare do more than quiver.”
Ruby said nothing as she stood, the gecko now residing on her shoulder. She straightened the sofa pillows and moved toward the door. Greta read on. Isabel wanted to meet with MCU. There was something of an evidentiary nature she wanted to share related to a case. The ending of the letter was all weird, something about being unable to leave her father’s house undetected so could MCU come to her rather than the other way around. Isabel mentioned a door that would be unlocked and not noticeable from the vehicles parked on the front lawn. Why would a judge’s house have cars strewn all over the yard with people in them?
“What’s with the cars?” Greta asked, subdued. Hans couldn’t go to that house, not without a lot of warning and some serious relaxation first. Besides, he and Anne were tangled up on Ast street business. Even if they could have waited, Anne would be all wrong for a Lang confrontation. They didn’t need a researcher there until they were finally ready to close in. Marcus was going to have to do. Maybe she shouldn’t have picked today to dye her hair purple. She was going to stick out; she wasn’t meant to be ninja.
“Check your news feeds,” Ruby said, voice short. “It’s all over them. The timing of this is disastrous. My money acquiring duties do not wait. Good luck, Agent Henkel. Do remember to ask first, destroy later. It does make cleaning up after you so much easier.
Greta’s phone rang then. She looked at the screen, but she didn’t know the number. “Greta Henkel, MCU.” She sounded daft when she pretended politeness.
“We have problems,” a male voice said. It took her a moment to place the caller as Marcus.
She was clearly going to have to go over when it was and wasn’t appropriate to interrupt her with the newbie, regardless of the fact she had been moments away from calling him to insist that he accompany her to the Lang residence. “Look. This better not be about the copier jamming. It always jams. That’s what happens when you accept equipment in lieu of payment from freelance cases.”
“I would not call about something so simple as an imp-possessed piece of office equipment,” Marcus snapped.
“Is it the scanner?”
“Yes and no.”
“What does that mean?”
“Let me finish more than three words and you will know,” he countered.
She took a deep breath. Someone had to learn how to control his temper. “What?”
“I was leaving the MCU before Hans said to because the Magical Resistance Fields were easy to put back into functionality ahead of schedule. The attic scanner went off while I was on the stairs. More than one Quest entity is loose. That transmission came in the clear, not like the one that sent Agent Henkel and Anne there.”
“Who was speaking?” Greta
“Same officer as before. Not your brother.”
“Can you get there?”
“I’m two blocks away. I can use a satellite.”
“Yes, yes, of course you can.” She didn’t need his wounded ego on top of everything else, though she knew she’d driven him to it. Greta needed duct tape rather than a mouth. “Don’t go in without me. Please tell me you packed supplies. Munitions. Something more than a power source.”
“Of course. In addition to the tricks of my trade, I grabbed the emergency kit.”
At least he was thinking on his feet. “See anything yet?”
Sprites, freaking sprites. Landscape alterations were bad business. “Don’t go in without me. I’m on my way. Henkel out.” She ran. She didn’t care who saw her frazzled. Her big brother needed her. The Langs would have to wait.