Now like two angels off the track,
Whom wild relentless fevers rack,
On through the morning's crystal blue
The swift mirages we'll pursue.— The Lover's Wine, Charles Baudelaire; translation Roy Campbell
“Hot damn,” Panzer chuckled, “that’s the third time I’ve heard that today!”
“Really?” The security officer raised an interested brow as her face slackened with relief. She was almost grinning by the time she tipped the beer bottle to her lips.
“Yeah,” Panzer lied. Getting information out of people was a lot easier when you made them think they were just one of many sources. They were less worried about retaliation, less likely to extort more compensation out of you, and felt less isolated thinking there were other people just like them out there. Information that could help save people and put criminals away flowed more freely, and her sources felt more secure even if it was a false security. Win-win.
In a way, it was a noble thing to lie.
Madam Mirror hadn't been happy about her involvement in bringing down Undertow the night before, but both she and Shadow Lass had stuck to their stories and avoided her wrath. She had even seemed pleased after seeing the red lines criss-crossing the captured villain. Who was Panzer to ruin her happiness by telling her that the arrest had been made while she was flagrantly violating Madam Mirror's orders? Or by telling her about the excessive violence she employed? It was better for everyone to let that knowledge remain a secret.
It was a very noble thing to lie.
“Crazy,” the guard murmured after a deep drink.
“I know, but what are you gonna do? These sorts of people don’t stop until we make ‘em stop.”
“And no one will know I said anything?”
“Nobody but me.” That one wasn’t a lie. Keeping sources private gave her a leg up on everyone else when it came to crime fighting. And, she supposed, keeping them safe was a nice moral bonus too.
“So let’s hear the details,” Panzer encouraged, motioning to the bartender for two more beers.
“Alright so three weeks ago one of the eggheads down in Research and Development does an inventory tally and stuff doesn’t add up,” she started, swirling the last of her beer in the bottom of the bottle, “Now normally a little slippage and spillage isn’t a big deal, even at Lentrium. But one we’ve got the VP of Development on our ass because for one the company is trying to finish up some big corporate merger and two there’s this cutie over in HR I’ve been seeing who says this particular R-and-D team has a ridiculous churn of employees. Like they’ve had fifteen people quit in the last two months. On a team of eight people! Soon as they hire someone, someone else leaves. No good explanation why.”
Panzer nodded along with a hungry look in her eyes. This matched the staffing turnover she’d heard about before investigating Calmwater Logistics. The very thing that had led her to their first real break in the case.
“So we beef up security a bit, crack down on people badging in and out of the labs, install a new camera or two. You know, keep the upper management happy.” The bartender came back with two more brown bottles. The security officer drained the rest of her current beer and grabbed a new one. Panzer followed suit and clinked the two new bottles together before they each took a swig.
“Where was I?” The officer smacked her lips together. “Right. So I notice after a few days that someone keeps putting a sticky note over one of the lab cameras. I watch through the footage and figure out who it is, one of the senior chemists down there, and decide I should go and have a chat with them. You know I get it, people don’t like being surveilled and all that, but I figured I’d let them know what’s going on. That this will probably all go away after the merger To just let this thing ride its course.”
“Well as soon as I mention blocking the camera they get real testy. At first I think they’re just mad they got caught, and then that they’re kind of arrogant, but they just keep getting more and more agitated. They start shouting and screaming that they’re the only thing keeping the lab going, that they’re going to usher in a new world, that we’ll all be sorry; all the signs of a mental breakdown. And then all eyes on them, right there in the middle of five other people, their hands start clawing at their head and they fall to the ground. Boof. Catatonic.”
Panzer grinned excitedly. This was almost certainly the work of the Crimson Codex.
“Afterwards we check their badge logs in and out of the labs and figure that they might have been responsible for some of the inventory… misplacements. We won’t call it theft because we can’t prove anything, but we haven’t seen anything else go missing since they went comatose.”
“That’s spot on what I’ve been hearing from everywhere else,” Panzer told her, neglecting to mention that “everywhere else” in this case was just one other place, “And let me guess, it wasn’t reported to the police due to business concerns.”
“Yeah,” the officer said with a nod, “If word got out that senior staff in R and D is stealing inventory and spontaneously going comatose in the middle of our merger, well then you can bet Regina Farras will ass fuck our company on this deal even harder than she already is.”
Panzer raised an eyebrow. “Farras Ironworks is the one buying you out?”
“Aw shit, that’s not supposed to go public for another week,” the guard sighed, “I’ve escorted her up to the board room multiple times in the past week, and had to escort our CFO out of the building on Friday after he got drunk and wouldn’t stop ranting about how much she’s screwing us over. Just don’t go telling anyone I told you.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Panzer replied, taking a deep swig of her beer. Farras Ironworks was the only tech company she hadn’t heard of having any issues in the last few months. In fact, they’d only been doing better in recent days as every one of their competitors was suddenly floundering in the stock market or with their internal financials. It was an angle she hadn’t considered as of yet: corporate espionage. Regina Farras went from fifth to third richest person in the world after the Zenith stock crash, and from third to first just two weeks ago as Lentrium, Tachyderm, and Neuvis sagged in the markets. Was this the missing piece?
She placed the empty bottle back on the counter and held up her fingers for two more.
“So, anything I said helpful?” The security officer raced to finish their beer before the new ones showed up.
“Extremely,” the superheroine replied with a grin, “Let’s celebrate with one more drink before we part ways. Don’t worry, they’re on me.”
The roof of Swim-Two-Birds writhed with corvidae as Cynthia approached, their relentless cawing bringing a snarl to her lips. She hated birds. Hated their songs, hated their beaks, hated their wings. But she’d agreed to meet Magpie on Panzer’s behalf, because the information broker having too many ties to League members for the heroine to approach him herself.
God, the stupid things she agreed to for a ripped girl in green spandex. She could tell herself she was doing this for the sake of justice or to satisfy her curiosity, but those things were only half true. She had run into the indestructible, green-clad, muscle girl twice in the past week and she was growing on her. A lot.
Cynthia Coffey, heiress to Lentrium Chemical, was wearing a floral dress of neon blue and pink flowers on a black background. Even as simple as it was, it seemed too high-class for the venue in front of her. She walked in her basic black flats towards the door, unnoticed by all but the birds. She was plain faced with messy black hair. Her few friends claimed she had something called “Resting Bitch Face”, but she had never bothered to understand what that was. She had purposefully cultivated a vibe of standoffishness and reclusiveness to keep others away wherever possible, avoiding the hyper-scrutiny that had driven her brother to ruin.
Even when she wasn’t literally melding in with the shadows, she still choose to be mostly invisible.
One of the freakish avian creatures looked right at her and squawked. Its beak opened wide as it screamed again and then again in her direction, fluttering down from it’s rooftop perch to continue its campaign of annoyance. She flinched at the sound. It landed on the railing between her and the bar, screeching in her face. She flapped her hand at it, hoping to shoo it away, but that only seemed to anger it more. Giving up, she scurried past it, pulled open the door to the bar, and went inside.
Tobacco and stale beer hit her nose as she glanced around the dim-lit bar. All in all she only counted five people in the place, most of them returning to their drinks before the door had closed behind her. A man with a hawkish face, a long nose and sharp eyes, waved her over to a corner booth. That had to be Magpie.
“Finally you came in,” he said as she approached, his voice a low grumble.
“Was it really necessary to have one of your birds screech at me?” she asked as she slid into the booth.
“Naw. But they do what they want.” He studied the empty lowball glass on the table between them, head dipping down and reddish-brown curls bouncing. “What did ya want again?”
“Information on the Crimson Codex,” she whispered, leaning in.
“Could use a refill.” His bloodshot eyes met hers, appraising her.
“Fine. One drink for the information. Deal?”
He nodded in approval, leaning back against the hard wood of the booth.
“Jack and a splash of coke would do nicely.”
Cynthia waved her hand at the bartender, motioning her over. The bartender shook her head, gave the heiress a weary glare, and beckoned her to come to the bar instead. Sighing, she got up and trudged to the bar with the empty glass, ordered the drink, waited for it, paid for it, then trudged back. Magpie perked up as it clunked down on the table.
“Alright,” Cynthia prompted, “There’s my end of the deal, now tell me about the Crimson Codex.”
“Let a man wet his beak first,” he replied, picking up the drink and making a grand show of sniffing it and squishing it around in his mouth before finally drinking the first gulp. He flashed her a toothy smile. “Mmmm… hits the spot.”
He smacked his lips and began speaking:
“Well King Crimson started as a band in 1969, with Robert Fripp on the mellotron and Greg Lake on vocals. Yeah the same one that went on to form Emmerson, Lake, and Palmer–”
“Crimson Codex,” she hissed angrily, “not King Crimson.”
He cocked his head and moved his eyes back and forth cartoonishly. The universal sign for “someone could be watching.”
“No respect for artistry anymore,” he murmured. She felt something hit her knee. “I really think you should give the band a chance. And I know it’s hipster shit, but you really should try to give it a listen on vinyl. I’ve got a friend who works at Long Dash Records a few blocks down, ask him for a copy of Starless and Raven Black. Give it a listen and I swear you’ll be in love.”
Cynthia spread her hands in confusion and mouthed “Really?” Something swatted across her kneecap again, harder this time. Magpie’s eyes bulged as he mouthed “Take it”. Feeling like a fool she reached beneath the table and grabbed an envelope from his hand, bringing it up into her lap. She began to peak inside.
“Why would I hand you something under the table if I meant for you to open it here?” he said through clenched teeth. She tucked it into her handbag. He took a drink and flashed a cheery smile once more. “Really though, you should go talk to my friend at Long Dash records, ask for Starless and Raven Black. You’ll find your world… expanded.”
She nodded, uncertain of what to do next. He stared at her for another thirty seconds before letting an annoyed exhale flare his nostrils. He met her eyes once more and with a head bob to the side motioned that she should leave.
“Thank you very much Mr. Magpie,” she stammered as she stood, “Thank you for the recommendation.”
“Thanks for the drink.” He raised the half-empty glass towards her. “And hey, next time watch a spy movie or two before doing one of these. It’ll help you learn the basics.”
She stumbled out of the bar and into the sun, the bird on the railing outside hopping about on one leg to face her. She reached into her handbag and began to pull out the envelope. A loud cawing made her drop it back into her bag, startled, as the bird glared at her. Apparently she wasn't supposed to open it right outside of the bar either. She pulled out her phone instead and found the directions for Long Dash records, a mere three blocks away.
After a block she chanced pulling out the envelope again, relieved when nothing dive bombed or screeched at her. Inside was a ripped slip of paper with the words:
Call. Ask for Scarlet. Tell her you traffic in grasshoppers and bees.
Cynthia frowned as she searched for a number to call, flipping the paper over far more times than sensible or necessary. She dug around in the envelope hoping to find something more, but that was it. With a sigh she continued towards the record shop.
Long Dash records was crammed between a shoe store and a cell phone store, all three businesses completely empty save for their respective employees. Cynthia walked in and nervously approached the counter. The bored-looking man behind it shifted his weight from one leaning arm to another as she drew near.
"Do you have a copy of Starless and Raven Black?" she asked. The man narrowed his eyes at her, a frown creasing his lips.
"You mean Starless and Bible Black?" There was a hopefulness to his voice, begging her to have made a mistake.
"No. I'm quite certain it was Starless and Raven Black."
He let out a deep sigh and swallowed hard before nodding and walking into the back. Cynthia waited at the counter as minutes rolled by. She was about to shout back to him, to ask if he was okay, when he returned with a white-covered vinyl album. It clearly read King Crimson and then below it Starless and Bible Black. He shoved it across the counter and into her hands.
"Are you sure this is the right one?" she asked, "I was certain my friend told me a different title."
"Sorry m'am," the clerk muttered, "but the store is closing soon. I'll have to ask you to leave."
"Closing? But it's only two in the after— "
The clerk was already walking around the counter, making shooing motions with his hands. Cynthia opened her mouth to ask what was going on, but couldn't find the right words. Within seconds she was back outside, the door closing behind her with a jingle. There was a faint knock as the Open sign flipped over to Closed. She watched the clerk walk to the back of the store through the windows and then all the lights in the record shop went dark.
Everything was in shadow.