Chapter 41 — Ghosts of the Past
”I just fuckin’ woke up, Aderholt. What do you want?”
”Need you to go pick up someone from DC Jail.”
”You know I outrank you now, right?”
”This is from the director, asshat. I’m just the messenger.”
Despite his annoyance at being woken up early, Jeremy got a kick of pleasure from the frustration in Aderholt’s voice. Man might not have gotten demoted, but me bein’ above him is just as good.
”They picked up a kid along with Nishimura. Alden Bensen. Turns out they don’t care about the little fuck, so they’re turning him loose. He’s awakened, so he’s your department. Get on it.”
”Fine. DC Jail, you said?”
”They’re releasing him in twenty minutes.”
”And you’re just calling me now?”
”Couldn’t get to a phone. I got work to do, Ashe.” The phone clicked off before Jeremy could get another word in.
Petty motherfucker… Jeremy dragged himself to his feet. Rachel was awake in the next room over, and he could hear a faint TV and some scratching noises, while Maddie snoozed on the bed next to his. Quietly, he pulled on his suit, since he’d still have to get back for their White House meetings later that day, and left Maddie a note before he headed out to his car.
Nice to be in the Bureau’s good book again. He sighed as he got in. They’d gotten him an even nicer car than they usually gave out, something showier since he’d been in the press plenty at Cinza’s side, playing the official liaison role as the government’s foremost expert on magic for the time being. Milk it while it lasts.
It only took a few minutes to drive over to DC Jail. To his surprise, Bensen was already right there on the curb—they’d tossed him out straight away. Jeremy laughed aloud. Spent all that fuckin’ time searching for him, following clues, goin’ to the kid’s house, and here he is: waitin’ for me to pick him up from prison. This fuckin’ life.
”Alden, huh?” he said as he rolled down the window.
The kid nodded. “Hi again.”
”Well, hop in.”
Alden got into the front seat, to his surprise. Jeremy liked it—he wasn’t a damn chauffeur, and the kid wasn’t in any significant danger as far as Jeremy knew. No more than I am these days, anyway. Jeremy started driving, though in truth, he had no idea where they were going. Aderholt hadn’t told him where to take the kid, just to pick him up and put him somewhere safe for now.
”Thanks, by the way,” said Alden, again to Jeremy’s surprise. He hadn’t heard more than two words from the kid before, way back at the Tacoma bar. “For saving my life in Tacoma.”
Jeremy shrugged. “It’s my job.”
”I didn’t know it was gonna be you picking me up. I would have told Hailey.”
”You got shoved in with her?”
”Yeah… I guess they decided everybody awakened should go into one cell block together.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Dumbasses.”
Alden smiled. “That’s what I thought too.”
”Well, you’ve ended up in the midle of every fuckin’ thing, haven’t you?”
”It feels like it,” he sighed.
Jeremy grinned. “You and me both. So, where are we headed?”
”Well, I’m supposed to put you somewhere safe. We can’t get you home yet ’cause all the flights to Washington are packed right now and they don’t want to spin up a jet just for you. I could take you to a safehouse, if you want.” Jeremy scratched his head. “Not sure what we’ve got in the area, but I’m sure we got somethin’ decent.”
”Actually,” said Alden, “could you take me to where Hailey’s mom is staying?”
”…Sure, but you think that’s safe enough?”
”I’ll be okay, I think.” Alden glanced out the window. “I always end up coming out okay.”
Well, that’s some confidence. Wish I felt the same way. “You got it.”
Stephanie Winscombe was staying with Hailey’s two boyfriends in a hotel only a few blocks from the White House, and she’d been stirring up trouble already. The woman was as much a potential hurricane as her daughter, even without magic, and she’d riled up supporters in favor of Hailey’s release. Jeremy guessed a good chunk of the protestors showing up every day were likely thanks to her mother’s rabble rousing.
With his reinstated badge and wide-reaching authority, Jeremy had no trouble getting them past the desk and straight to the batch of joined hotel suites. Alden was fidgeting more than usual, to Jeremy’s surprise. Where’d that confidence go? “You okay?”
”Well, I’ve never met her mom.”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “Thought you two were like best friends or somethin’.”
”That was Jessica,” said Alden with a sad smile.
He sighed, nodding. “Still, figured you’d have met her mom.”
”Never had the chance. We were in hiding, remember?”
Jeremy knocked on the door. A quick shuffle, and Stephanie was instantly at the door. “Mr. Ashe?” came her muffled voice.
”Brought you a friend,” said Jeremy.
The door swung open. “…Who are you?” asked Stephanie suspiciously. Behind her stood Rupert and Weston, who Jeremy had briefly encountered back at the hospital in Tacoma… while Jessica lay dying.
”Alden Bensen,” he answered, a little nervously. Jeremy couldn’t blame him. Stephanie Winscombe was an intimidating woman, especially up close and personal. “I was… I am one of Hailey’s friends.”
”He just got released from the same prison they’re holdin’ your daughter,” Jeremy added, eyeing Stephanie with a warning expression. He’d faced up against her enough to have gotten used to the strong-arm tactics, and Alden sure didn’t deserve to face this sort of suspicion. “They were friends back to Rallsburg.”
Stephanie’s face instantly softened. “You… you were there?” she asked quietly.
Stephanie stepped back. “Come in, please. Both of you,” she added, glaring at Jeremy, who’d begun to step away. “I insist you stay for breakfast, at least.”
”Gotta get back to the White House soon,” Jeremy grumbled.
”You’ve got time. I know your schedule.”
”You and the rest of the damn world,” he sighed. “All right then.” Jeremy nodded at Alden. “He’s gonna be stayin’ with you for the time bein’. You need cash to open up an extra suite, let me know and I’ll get it to you.”
”We don’t need your charity,” said Stephanie brusquely.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Suit yourself.”
As the others began to prepare a table for breakfast, Alden pulled Jeremy aside. “Hey… how much are you involved in Rika’s trial?” he asked quietly.
Jeremy shrugged. “Much as I can be, but it’s way outside my job description.”
He sighed. “Can you prove it? ‘Cause the evidence is lookin’ pretty bad. Even Cinza ain’t sure she’s not guilty.”
”I can. I was there.”
Jeremy raised an eyebrow. “So who did it?”
”I don’t know that. But I was with Rika. She left Rallsburg before all those people died. She flew out on a helicopter.” Alden smiled in a way that made Jeremy feel he was missing out on a joke. “Ditched me in the middle of the woods.”
”…Don’t take offense, but you’re a shitty witness. For the last six months, you’ve been maintainin’ you never went to Rallsburg. Lyin’ to federal agents on record. Not exactly credible.”
”There’s more though. The helicopter was Viper’s. And Rook was there too. She’s a witness. Hailey said she was on our side now.”
Jeremy worked very hard to keep his face steady when Alden said her name. “We don’t know where she is. Unless she comes in to testify, it doesn’t mean anything. Doesn’t explain the Seattle deaths either.”
”But Rika was in Redmond working retail. That’s where the whole Lakewood chase started. She couldn’t have been in Seattle that night.”
He frowned. “…That’s a bit better. Why wouldn’t Rika put this information up, though?”
Alden shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s… I mean, have you met her?”
”Only that night in Lakewood and the funeral, and we didn’t really talk much.” Jeremy sighed again. “I’ll make sure the defense hears about your offer.”
”Thanks.” Alden smiled. “You’re going back home soon, right?”
”Back to the Northwest? Yeah.”
”Can you let my parents know I’m okay? Since… you know, you went there and all.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Your sister told you?”
He grinned. “Meg had to brag about getting an FBI agent off my back.”
”Not even fuckin’ close.”
The smirk didn’t go away. “Thanks anyway.”
”You sure you don’t want to come back with me?”
Alden hesitated. “I wanted to stay here and help out.”
”Honestly, unless you’ve got some huge fuckin’ connections I don’t know about, you’re not gonna do anythin’ here. Stephanie’s got real pull, but this is all politics now.”
”What about testifying?”
”Trial won’t be for a while. If the defense wants you, they’ll come get you, don’t worry.” Alden still looked uncertain, but Jeremy shook his head before the kid could answer. “I’ll call again when we’re gearing up to leave. You tell me there. But I think you’ll be better off back in Washington. That’s where everythin’s happening.”
The smell of something sweet wafted by—fresh pancakes, eggs, bacon, and whatever else Stephanie had ordered on the room service cart.
Jeremy stood up. “Come on, let’s eat.”
One awkward breakfast later—Jeremy had no idea what to say to them, between a mother he’d repeatedly investigated back in the early days of the Rallsburg investigation, and the two boyfriends of Hailey who he’d never met and didn’t have a clue about—he was back in his car and on the road back to his hotel. They’d be picked up by the Secret Service soon for the next grueling day of negotiations and debates at the White House.
Grey-eyes appeared in his passenger seat.
”Jesus Christ!” Jeremy shouted, nearly twisting the wheel to the side—only to find it locked steady in place, as if it were suddenly made of solid steel. The car hummed along like normal despite his inadvertent attempt to crash.
”Sorry…” she said quietly. “I didn’t think I’d have another chance to talk to you today.”
”Give me some damn warning first!”
”I was just—” Grey-eyes cut off. She suddenly popped out of the vehicle again as if she’d never been there. Jeremy’s only hint the girl was gone was a sudden light breeze across the car, tickling his cheek as he drove through the quieter early-morning streets.
”What the fuck…” he muttered aloud. As soon as he rounded the next curve, a faint light appeared in his passenger seat. Well, guess that’s a fuckin’ warning. Sure enough, Grey-eyes popped back in again. “Thanks, I guess.”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. It’s spreading again. I have to do that more.”
”Go… go awaken people.”
”…Right,” Jeremy sighed. “‘Cause if you don’t, whatever poor motherfucker’s readin’ one of those damn bits of paper will bite the dust. Yeah?”
”Don’t envy your job,” he grumbled, turning the next corner. The hotel garage was in sight. “Thought you could slow down time or something too. Didn’t you do that last time we talked?”
”Huh?” She sounded genuinely confused.
”Back in the forest. At… whoever the fuck. Julian. Julian Black’s bar-casino-thing.”
”Oh…” Grey-eyes glanced away, out the window as Jeremy pulled into the dark parking garage. He pulled into a corner space and turned off the engine, leaving them in near-silence. “I’m… I don’t like risking that much energy anymore. It’s not easy to do, and if I’m not ready… I might get caught.”
She looked back to him, and there was a cool confidence in her eyes, a sense of power which set Jeremy back on his heels. “People have tried.”
”…They still alive?”
Grey-eyes looked offended, even genuinely hurt by his accusation. “I don’t hurt people,” she said quietly. “I’m trying to help everybody.”
Jeremy shook his head. “So far I’m not sure it’s workin’.”
”It’s not people I awaken who are the problem,” said Grey-eyes, fiddling with something in her pocket. “It’s how scared everybody is of them. I didn’t awaken Jackson, I didn’t awaken Brian Hendricks. The man who killed Jessica wasn’t awakened. The men in that bar in Tacoma weren’t awakened. They—” She disappeared again.
Fuckin’ hell… If she’s disappearin’ every five minutes or so, and it’s this early here, it’s the middle of the damn night in Washington. So how fast is she goin’ at noon? Or five p.m.? How many more awakened per day? Jesus…
Jeremy was about to get up and leave when she finally reappeared again. This time, Jeremy could tell she was winded, from her breathing and a slight pinch to her muscles. Grey-eyes was tense, and that put Jeremy on edge.
”What are we supposed to do?” asked Jeremy, after she’d caught her breath.
”I don’t know,” said Grey-eyes, to Jeremy’s frustration. “Isn’t figuring that out the job of everyone out there?” she added, nodding in the general direction of the White House.
Grey-eyes looked back to him. She pulled her jacket tighter around her shoulders, shivering from the cold. Ain’t she powerful as fuck? Just make the car warmer. Even Rachel can do that. Unless she’s blocked like Hailey? Diffinities or whatever? But… invisibility’s supposed to be in the same thing as making the place warmer. So which is it?
”Don’t take Rachel up there.”
”Don’t introduce her to the President. If she wants to work from the shadows and try to make things better, then maybe that’s a good thing, but don’t let her feel power again. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
”Jesus,” said Jeremy. “What the hell did that girl do?”
”She was in charge when Rallsburg burned down,” said Grey-eyes. “I don’t know if she could have prevented it, but I know she could have done things better.”
”Yeah, she said so herself. Didn’t get the impression it was ’cause she’s a shitty leader, though.”
”Just don’t bring her to the White House.”
”Good news for you, she doesn’t want to go there anyway.”
”And wouldn’t it be useful to have someone with experience governing this shit advising the next group?” Jeremy was getting seriously annoyed now, and didn’t much care anymore how intimidating Grey-eyes might be. He was pretty sure she wasn’t ever going to do anything to him at this point—for all her supposed power, Jeremy hadn’t actually seen much from her in terms of real action. Even Rachel seemed more willing to strike when the time came—she’d pulled a gun on him in seconds, after all, when she felt threatened back in Vancouver. “At some point, somebody’s gotta be in charge. This shit can’t just run wild.”
”So pick someone better.”
”We’re workin’ on it,” Jeremy grumbled. “Would be helpful if you gave us some ideas, instead of just shootin’ down one of the best sources we’ve got.”
”Rachel DuValle can’t be trusted.”
”Seriously, what the fuck did she do to you?”
Grey-eyes looked back at him again, and there was real fire in her eyes. Jeremy could feel hatred flowing off her, heating up the car and driving away the winter chill. “She blackmailed me into killing the man I loved, and she forced other people I care about to help her do it.”
…My God. “What do you mean?”
”I can’t tell you,” Grey-eyes sighed, and for once, Jeremy didn’t feel annoyed anymore.
”Part of the blackmail?”
She nodded wearily. “I’m not going to pretend he didn’t deserve to be punished somehow. Jackson was out of control.” Jesus Christ, she’s talking about Omega? “But… she used innocent people as bait. She watched them die just to get a better shot. She forced me to lure him there into her trap. I’m probably already telling you too much, but someone should know. Nobody else does.”
Jeremy opened his mouth, but he was genuinely speechless. None of her words rang false. He was seeing Rachel in a new light, one far more uncomfortable than he’d known before. He’d heard the words of Grey-eyes and Julian Black, of Hailey and of Rachel’s parents, but they’d been tempered by the sheer praise heaped on her by Cinza and the rest of the awakened community.
This was something else. Jeremy didn’t know what to think about it yet. Grey-eyes disappeared again, but Jeremy got the impression this time it was for good. He got out of the car and trudged up the stairs, wishing he had time to sit down and think for a while—but the Secret Service were already there at the door, waiting to rouse his sister and the guest of honor. He needed to clear his mind and focus on the rest of the day. Rachel would have to wait.
Five days in a row, Jeremy went to the White House in the morning with Cinza, Maddie, and Makoto. Five times, they had gone in a different entrance. Nothin’s ever consistent with politics, not even their damn buildings. Sure, he could recognize it as a security tactic by the Secret Service, but it didn’t annoy him any less to roll through different procedures every day.
On Monday, they’d been in full pomp and circumstance mode, with Cinza arriving in full regalia down the carpet, official greeting and everything. Tuesday, they took the normal staff entrance, with the press still doggedly in pursuit, but far less protestors. Apparently, though, the public had caught on, and Wednesday entailed entering through the basement, ushered out of black SUVs and rushed into the building before anyone could spot Cinza’s trademark grey robes. Thursday, the same SUVs had taken them in, but with decoy groups to try and throw off the public while the main group slid around to yet another side of the building.
”Is this really workin’?” grumbled Jeremy as they boarded Marine One on Friday morning—apparently, a ground vehicle escort was no longer sufficient.
Cinza smiled. “Is it really security they’re after?”
”Well, you’ve been gettin’ more than enough death threats. What the fuck else would they be worried about?”
Cinza’s smirk didn’t diminish as she clambered aboard, Makoto only a couple steps behind. Her lieutenant looked nervous to be aboard a helicopter again, but Cinza held such a veneer of calm as to make Jeremy jealous. Jeremy briefly wondered if she’d been on helicopters in her past, but everything he’d done to research the girl suggested otherwise—and he’d done a lot of research ever since he’d been assigned as her official liaison.
Cinza had a history, and Jeremy was determined to dig it out. He hadn’t made much progress yet, since he was still stuck in D.C. and unable to follow up on the leads he’d begun to uncover, but he did have leads. The girl was known, and her appearance on international news (and subsequently across major newspapers and social media the world over) began to draw the crazies out of the woodwork. Thanks to his newly inflated status, Jeremy had access to a great deal more FBI resources than he’d ever held, and most importantly, he no longer needed to wait for approval on most of them.
The tip line had come in with some interesting tidbits. Most of it was obviously bogus, but Jeremy had a few choice picks laid out to move on, and a wider set of lesser pieces which he’d set other agents on. I’ve even got a damn staff now! About fuckin’ time.
Jeremy spent the helicopter flight going over them, while Maddie occasionally grabbed at his shoulder whenever the chopper tilted unexpectedly. His old friend Jonathan Hudson popped up a few times, to his amused relief. Kid’s still kickin’ and still bein’ an idiot. Good for him.
Another interesting possibility arose with the supposed parents of the now-infamous Jessica Silverdale, but with no positive ID, the tip line had marked it low priority. Jeremy ratcheted it up a few notches and assigned it to himself, but he hadn’t had time to go out personally—and he certainly didn’t trust any other agents to handle it.
Not that I’m better than them, but I’m the only motherfucker who’s actually been in this shit. They’ve gotta understand what they’re dealin’ with before I let ’em face up against two possibly awakened parents of a murdered girl who’s now headline news.
Cinza, though… Cinza was harder to track down, as expected. Her name—obviously fake and too common to get easy answers—gave Jeremy nothing he didn’t already know. The tip line was mostly useless, now that everybody and their mother wanted to say something about the young woman meeting on a regular basis with the President. Jeremy had sifted tip lines before, though, and he knew what he was looking for.
She’s from the streets, said so herself and only in the President’s meetin’. Nobody in there is prone to leakin’ shit. Immigrant, too. Focus on the accent and where she’d have been in the last few years. Trace her back.
So Jeremy traced. The most intriguing tip came from a woman who stood out from the crowd by virtue of complaining. Most of what Jeremy saw from the street-level was praise. Oh, she’s a saint, she helps the needy, she kept things quiet and clean, whatever. No fuckin’ way was this girl that clean. Jeremy practically grinned as he read the transcript between the woman and the FBI operator who’d picked up the call.
”Would you be willing to state your name for us to get back in touch with you?”
”I don’t got a phone.”
”We’ll find a way to get in touch.”
”Maria. Maria Cabazanos.”
”And you say you know Cinza?”
”Cinza? Fuck no. Her name’s Misty. Misty-somethin’, I could never understand what the hell she said after that.”
”And how did you know her?”
”Worked a corner with her, nights mostly. She wanted to get off the street and stop trickin’, and offered me cash money to teach her how to cam. I was doin’ it since I got me a lap… wait, can I get in trouble for tellin’ you shit?”
”If you’re confessing a theft, the statute of limitations on a stolen laptop is less than two years, so you couldn’t be arrested for it anyway.”
”Oh, sweet. So yeah, I stole some bitch’s laptop, started cammin’ ’cause it made easier money than spreadin’ my legs every damn night.”
”And you’re saying Cinza—excuse me, Misty—participated in this same activity?”
”Sure as shit she did! Made five times what I made, pickin’ up perverts who like that kind of action. But somethin’ happened, she got messed up one night, so she wanted off the street, and yeah, I taught her how to make money camming.”
”And she owes you money for the lessons.”
”And givin’ her a place to live! Stayed at my place six months before she moved on. Bitch owes me last month’s rent and a cut of her income, like we agreed. Got it in writin’ and everything.”
”And you can prove this Misty was the same person?”
”Don’t you assholes record everything we do? Go look up her old camming profile. And tell the bitch she still owes me. I know she makes stacks now bein’ famous and shit. Do your job and make her pay up.”
The conversation only got more rude, but Jeremy had enough to start. Maria Cabazanos had a listed address in their database, and was more than willing to open up now that she was no longer doing anything illegal. Meanwhile, Jeremy could find old listings and profiles for a camgirl named ‘Misty’ on the sites Maria named and in the right time frame, but all the videos had been deleted. Until he could get ahold of archives—and the FBI was already putting out feelers to the data hoarders of the internet as a possible workaround—Jeremy didn’t have much yet to go on.
Besides the street angle, he’d also started getting vague results back from the foster care system of Seattle. Rachel had never outright stated it, but the tall young woman trying to rule the world wasn’t as careful as she thought she was. Enough clues slipped through the cracks for Jeremy to deduce where Cinza likely grew up. He had ordered records from every orphanage and foster system from Seattle to Olympia, and the court orders were starting to come through now.
If this girl is gonna be stirrin’ up this much shit in the world, I’m gonna know exactly who she is and why she’s doin’ it.
”Jeremy?” asked Maddie.
”We’re here, bro.” Sure enough, they’d already touched down on the White House lawn, far behind the police lines holding back the protestors. Cinza was already out on the walkway, heading for the waiting Secret Service line to take them back inside.
”Tired of this already, huh?” she asked as Jeremy grumbled and climbed out of the helicopter.
He shrugged. “Been tired of my job for ten damn years. Still gonna do it.”
”That’s the spirit.” She clapped him on the back, and together they walked back up to the White House. Jeremy was glad they were getting along again, even if he couldn’t quite trust her in the same way he used to. She’d never do that to me… right? Stab me in the damn back for political points? She didn’t know Hailey, but… fuck, do I know anybody anymore? After Lani…
He shook his head and shoved away his fears. There wasn’t time for that. They had more negotiations to get through.
President Stafford settled comfortably into his chair in the center of the table, directly opposite Cinza. His chief of staff Ioannis Miklos sat next to him, while the DTA secretary Wesley Gatiss held the opposite. Cinza, in turn, had Makoto and Jeremy flanking her. The usual crowd surrounded the rest of the table, but now with the addition of Courtney. Jeremy and Maddie’s sister had flown in the night before, with the stated focus of requesting—begging—for more federal aid to handle the spiking influx of pilgrims, radicals, protestors, and every other magic-obsessed person flooding into the state.
The press were completely barred from this portion of the building, giving them some peace—and tryin’ to hide from more people recognizin’ her from past lives? Too late for that now, girl. Jeremy still felt a bit strange sitting on her side of the table, but it was his job—didn’t necessarily mean he held her views on anything. Least it means I get to watch Aderholt make an ass of himself every day from the best seat in the house.
”I’d like to thank you, sir,” said Cinza, cutting through the murmuring on both sides of the table and drawing the President’s attention, “for dedicating so much of your week to our meetings. I know your administration handles a great many responsibilities and you could not possibly have planned for something like this. Your generosity is gratefully accepted.”
Stafford smiled. “Well, I’ll be sure to try that line on my wife when I explain again why we had to cut our Thanksgiving break short.”
”What’s on the agenda today?” asked Ioannis, glancing at his deputy.
”The Governor of Washington is here,” the man explained, nodding to Courtney, “with a request for federal aid and to present her strategy on state-level handling of magical affairs.”
Rachel’s strategy, Jeremy silently corrected. Courtney pulled out a stack of papers with a pompous air, and Jeremy could actually feel the table quiver slightly as she straightened them with a few loud taps.
”As you’re all aware,” said Courtney, “the state of Washington has seen a significant upturn in tourism lately.” The dry joke got a few appreciative chuckles, most importantly from the President himself. “We’ve called in our own national guard to help handle the situation, and every transportation agency is working practically around the clock to handle incoming traffic, but it’s not enough. We’ve got tourist camps springing up on roadsides. People are clogging up streets and neighborhoods. Worst of all, we’ve got untold numbers trespassing in the Olympic National Forest.”
”Pilgrims seeking their revelation,” said Cinza, her magical voice more pronounced than usual. Jeremy believed she’d been subtly increasing the effect every day the negotiations continued, to ensure no one got used to the sound. The Greycloak leader wanted them to always feel on edge and off balance around her, and it certainly worked on some of the cabinet. “Can you truly punish such an action?”
”Your right to your beliefs stops at the point you’re interfering with other people’s lives,” the deputy chief of staff shot back. Cinza merely smiled, while Ioannis gestured for his deputy to step down.
”This is your front lawn now,” pointed out Wesley Gatiss, bringing a calmer voice to the proceeding. He and Cinza were beginning to build up a rapport, but Jeremy couldn’t be sure. Cinza seemed ill-inclined to bond with anyone on the other side of the table, even the head of the department she’d most likely be dealing with in the future. “Aren’t you worried they’ll trample through your home?”
”They could not even if they tried,” said Cinza with supreme confidence.
”I’m more concerned,” interjected Courtney, trying to regain control of the conversation, “with the growing number joining the radical movement which claims Brian Hendricks as their leader.”
”The domestic terrorist group,” corrected Cinza icily. “Do not dance around with soft labels.”
”Whatever the term, a sizeable amount of the incoming population is certainly looking to join their ranks.” Courtney opened her packet, and gave them all the page number to match. Jeremy glanced through the page, seeing a stack of numbers he couldn’t much care about—it was a problem, certainly, but not his problem. “They’re being radicalized and encouraged into beliefs that will result in similar events as the Tacoma hostage situation and the conflict in Lakewood.”
The President glanced over at Kimberley Young, the National Security Advisor. “Do we have any ideas on how to find such individuals?”
Kimberley sighed. “Most people coming in aren’t exactly radical. They become radicalized when they attend meetings. Hendricks must be a hell of a speaker. Point is, we can’t really screen for them.”
Cinza shook her head in an exaggerated motion of disappointment. “All the money, research, and invasions of privacy, and you cannot provide a single possible threat.”
”I can get you plenty of damn threats,” Kimberley shot back. “Already arrested four crazies this week on roads bound for your neck of the woods armed to the goddamn teeth. Doesn’t help that much when we don’t have a clue who we’re tryin’ to protect.”
”This is as good a time as any,” said Courtney, desperately trying to break in again, “to announce one of our programs. Washington will be providing a strictly voluntary registration program for awakened residents. Anyone who wishes can register their status with us, which will provide some demographic data and also significantly increase our ability to monitor legitimate potential threats.”
”And you will one day provide them a list of who to lynch,” said Cinza. “Who protects this database? Who can access it?”
”I’m assured of its confidentiality and security.”
Cinza smirked. “I’ve no doubt.”
”She’s not wrong,” said Jeremy, to the surprise of many at the table. He generally stayed silent unless specifically called upon, which was just fine with him. This time, he knew he had to voice his concerns—ones he’d already raised to Courtney and Rachel without much success. “Hendricks has had active police officers in his ranks. We can’t be certain an ally of his wouldn’t get access to this database, and once they’ve got it, people are gonna get murdered in their homes. They don’t hold back.”
”We may have a solution,” said Courtney, to Jeremy’s shock. He hadn’t heard this part. “It is our understanding that these hunters, for lack of a better term, will not strike without verifying their targets. They hold to a code. This verification process requires magic to perform, and it is not instantaneous.”
”Hang on,” interrupted an aide Jeremy didn’t know. “They use magic to hunt people with magic? I thought their whole thing was anyone using magic had to die.”
”Terrorists are often hypocrites,” said Cinza coldly.
”You’re not wrong,” said Ioannis, “but in this case, they aren’t… not exactly. They aren’t hunting people with magic, they’re hunting awakened people. Brian Hendricks himself uses magic quite openly, as I understand it, but their targets are only people who have actually gone through the process.”
”How do they verify targets?” asked the President, silencing the growing debate.
”A stone,” said Jeremy, pulling out the one he’d been carrying ever since meeting Jonathan Hudson. “Looks like this, with the Korean word for ‘truth’ carved in it. Jackson Smith made a ton of them back in Rallsburg, and Hendricks inherited ’em.”
”How does it work?” asked Kimberley.
”Takes a few minutes and eyesight of the target,” said Jeremy with a shrug. “I’ve never tried it, don’t really care to.”
”It is functionally harmless,” said Cinza, though her eyes were locked onto the stone as if it might explode, “and you would not know it was used on you, so how do you intend to track it?”
”I have been in contact with an individual who can track magic being used, down to specific locations and types of magic in use,” said Courtney very carefully. Will Carbonell, still layin’ in a bed back in Vancouver with Rachel’s fuckin’ cadets… They’re gonna rely on him to protect every damn awakened in the Northwest? “They can notify us immediately upon the activation of any of these stones.”
”And there’s no false positives?” asked Gatiss. Nice to know he’s lookin’ out.
Jeremy shook his head. “Far as we know, I’ve got the only stone outside their possession. Unless anybody picked one up off the bodies of Hendricks’ guys in Lakewood, but I’m pretty sure they recovered all their own.”
Kimberley nodded. “Nothing like those stones was reported in our cleanup.”
”No one can manufacture more,” added Cinza, still staring down at the stone on the table with a cold glare. Shit, she never saw one before, did she? “The magic required was far beyond any of us.”
”So it’s true, then?” asked Ioannis. “This whole… God idea?”
”Not all Gods are noble, but Jackson certainly held the power of one.” Cinza refused to take her eyes away from the stone. “I recognize that we must keep it, but I would ask you remove that thing from my presence.”
Jeremy quickly withdrew it to his pocket again, and after a minute or so, Cinza finally returned to the meeting at large. The rest of the room had been utterly silent until she looked up again, without even the typical murmuring in the back row of aides surrounding the table.
”So,” said President Stafford finally, breaking the silence and turning to Courtney, “this individual would recognize one of these stones in use, notify law enforcement, who would move in to arrest them. Is that a correct understanding of the process you’re proposing?”
”They can recognize the specific type and from any distance?” asked Kimberley skeptically. “What about multiple users at once? How precise is the detection?”
”It’s my understanding they will be able to handle any precision we require,” said Courtney dismissively. But it’s all on Will. How the hell is he supposed to keep up with the whole damn region? I know he ain’t that strong, even if it’s his affinity or whatever.
”Is this even legal?” asked Gatiss, straightening his glasses slightly. “It sounds like a significant invasion of privacy to be able to detect this from any distance and into any home, without due process or probable cause.”
”The possession of these stones is probable cause,” said Cinza. “Their only purpose is to hunt us. They were created to help a monster perpetuate genocide.”
”We can’t arrest people for having a damn rock in their pocket,” cut in Aderholt. “No matter what it can supposedly do.”
”We also can’t implement such an invasive strategy without a careful examination of the situation and the need,” added the President, a great deal more tactfully. “I know your need is dire, Cinza, but I do not wish to sacrifice personal liberties for the hope of safety.”
Cinza nodded. “I can respect such an ideal.”
”But—” started Courtney, but the President held up his hand, and she fell silent immediately.
”I will certainly send additional aid to the region, Madam Governor. We’ll work out the numbers later today, no doubt, but I must also caution you that the scope will be fairly limited. There are certain issues we can’t move on immediately, because we aren’t certain of our jurisdiction.”
”Such as?” asked Cinza, before Courtney could even open her mouth.
”Well, Mr. Hendricks himself, for one.”
President Stafford shook his head, exasperated. “Cinza, as much as I hate to say it, the man has no criminal record, has broken no laws as far as we know, and is only accused by hearsay and rumor. There are supposedly videos of his speeches inciting violence, but we haven’t found a single one, nor have you unless I’m mistaken.” Cinza nodded slowly, anger practically boiling under her skin. “There’s no evidence yet, merely your accusation.”
”Sir,” said Jeremy carefully, “there is one thing.”
”Brian Hendricks is still listed as missing on the official Rallsburg investigation. Bringing him in for questioning is under the scope of that investigation, as with any Rallsburg refugees, and I’m still the lead investigator on that case.”
Aderholt looked livid, but the President seemed intrigued. “Not criminal charges, though.”
”We could charge him with contempt of court,” said Maddie thoughtfully, “for avoiding the subpoena to answer questions about the Rallsburg Incident.”
”He could argue he never saw it,” said Ioannis.
”We’ve broadcast it every day since we knew there were survivors,” said Courtney. “The man should have seen it by now.”
”Reasonable doubt,” said Cinza coldly, with a disgusted look on her face. The air in the room seemed to drop several degrees when she spoke, so icy was her echoing voice. “Once again, you will refuse to pursue the true villain because you fear the consequences.”
”You said it yourself,” said the deputy, “this is about civil liberties. Everybody’s got rights, even Brian Hendricks.”
”I’ll go after him,” said Jeremy suddenly, before the room started getting into another debate—one of their sessions the previous day had ended early after an aide took Cinza’s bait and went too far. The young man was no longer present in the room. “I’ve met him. He’s aware that he’s avoiding being questioned. I have the jurisdiction and authority to bring him in.”
”You’ve met him?” asked Ioannis in shock. The rest of the room echoed the sentiment. Jeremy had held that information in for a long time—only Maddie had known, after all. Even Cinza was staring at him with a mixture of gratitude and betrayal.
Jeremy nodded. ‘Bout time I decided the man was legitimately insane. I sure as fuck don’t trust Rachel anymore, so maybe he was right about something, but that man’s way more dangerous right now. “Man blindsided me with his golems, took me somewhere out in the woods. Just wanted to talk, sell me on his story. I’ll find him again.” He’s crazy enough to invite me back, I’m sure. Just gotta get in contact with Felix.
Aderholt looked like he might explode. “Why didn’t you report this?” he growled through gritted teeth.
”Well, at the time, I was suspended without pay,” Jeremy pointed out. And fuck if I’m doin’ that kind of paperwork for free, especially when it’s gonna do jack shit. “And since I’ve been reinstated, I’ve been pretty busy. Hadn’t had the opportunity.”
His old boss opened his mouth again, but the President spoke first. “Granted, Mr. Ashe. As soon as you can, find the man and bring him in. Use whatever it takes. You’ll be given a contact in the national guard for resources.”
”I will inform the Greywood,” added Cinza, inclining her head to the President. “Let this be the first success shared between us.”
An aide off in the corner, clearly a fresh-faced newbie, started clapping. Every single head in the room swivelled in unison to stare at him. The President raised an eyebrow, obviously desperately holding in a chuckle. The aide slowed to a stop, face redder than a tomato.
Jeremy leaned back in his chair, the weight of the task he’d just assigned himself settling into his stomach. Jesus… now I’m up against the whole damn terrorist movement, and I gotta bring the damn leader in alive. Fuck me.
They took a break. Jeremy checked in with Stebbins, who’d become something of an agent for him ever since Lakewood. Stebbins was currently keeping an eye on Jonathan Hudson, but Jeremy figured the kid was probably fine for now. Brian had promised he was safe, and the man seemed to hold to his word for better or worse.
Jeremy retasked Stebbins—build up a force of trustworthy, reliable allies. They’d need manpower if they were going to go after Hendricks personally. Through Felix, through assistance from Will Carbonell, and with his own growing stable of allies in the awakened, Jeremy was confident he could track the man down. The real question was whether they could actually take him into custody once they did.
Odds were, Jeremy was heading back to the Pacific Northwest that night, if he was reading the signs right. He dashed off a message to Alden, too—if the kid wanted to go home and help, Jeremy was happy to get anyone who he could absolutely trust not to be a follower of Hendricks. Alden might have frozen up once, but Jeremy could see the kid had changed, and he’d heard a few stories from Hailey about him. There was something about Bensen, and Jeremy wanted the good luck charm around if he could get it.
If nothing else, Jeremy could at least get him home, and pay Meg Bensen back while he did. Jeremy didn’t know why he felt competitive with a damn high schooler, but he was definitely going to figure out a way to one-up her.
”We’re back on,” said Maddie, sticking her head around the corner. Jeremy had just finished sending a message to Hailey—via her lawyer, but still, anything to encourage her. Alden had let him know she wasn’t doing well, and she could use the support.
Jeremy trudged back into the huge room once more along with the rest of the crowd. Courtney wasn’t joining them, nor was the National Security Advisor. They’d split off into another meeting, more focused on the state and federal response to the general threats. This next session was purely legal and geopolitical, and sure enough, the British Ambassador had arrived to fill Kimberley’s seat.
”Well, the good news for you lot first,” said the British ambassador, a chipper older man with a cane he seemed not to need in the slightest. “Cornelius Malton’s estate was examined and found to hold several pieces of magical paraphernalia, corroborating some parts of Miss Winscombe and Miss Cinza’s story. We’ve also been in contact with Sir Laushire, who provided us with evidence that Malton directed a massive cyberattack against his company. Criminal proceedings are an inevitability.”
”And for the charge of murder?” asked Cinza.
”Well, about that…” The ambassador touched his collar nervously. “With all respect, marm—”
”Your titles and formalities are entirely unwanted,” said Cinza. “A name is enough to address me.”
”Well, Cinza, as I’m sure has been explained, your word is not enough. We’re investigating, but Cornelius’ lawyers are delaying discovery in every form, and our government simply isn’t certain the case holds enough weight.” Cinza looked just as frustrated as before, but did not respond. The ambassador nodded. “Rest assured, we believe you, but we simply don’t have enough corroborating evidence to convict the man at this time.”
”What about the mercenary company?” asked President Stafford, to Jeremy’ shock. He didn’t think the President was even aware of Rook’s offer. Nor apparently was Cinza, equally surprised by the President jumping to her aid. “I’m told one of Malton’s direct lieutenants has evidence of his ordered killings, among other equally damning statements, and is willing to testify.”
”We… err, haven’t been able to locate her,” said the ambassador. “Her offer stands, and if she comes in to sit in Her Majesty’s Court, then I can assure you we are willing to pursue the fullest extent of justice against Cornelius Malton.”
Cinza nodded. “We will find her.”
The ambassador smiled. “If it is any consolation, Cinza, I’m told that the Culver-Malton Group has voted to strip Cornelius of all his privileges and powers. He can’t be forced to sell his shares, so he holds considerable personal wealth, but he no longer has any influence in his own company. Wendell Culver has broken his retirement to take over the company once more.”
”A start to the punishment he deserves,” said Cinza, though she did look considerably more satisfied than before.
”Of course, this also leaves the matter of Miss Winscombe,” said the ambassador. He turned to the other newcomer in the room, the Attorney General. “My government requires assurances that Miss Winscombe will not be let off lightly for her own crimes.”
”For pursuit of justice?” said Cinza sharply.
”For entering the country illegally, assaulting quite a few innocent servants, reckless endangerment of a significant portion of London, and significant destruction of property in multiple locations.” The ambassador shook his head. “The Crown remains one of the very few states not pressing the United States for access to magic, but our show of support must be met with mutual cooperation. I sympathize with Miss Winscombe’s motivations, but this cannot put her above the law.”
Feel like I’ve heard this damn conversation before… Jeremy leaned back in his chair, wishing he could close his eyes and just ignore the whole meeting, but the group was too important, the people involved too powerful and influential. Any missteps were amplified a thousandfold, any words spoken carried ten times the weight.
”Hailey Winscombe’s trial is still in the early stages,” said the Attorney General, whose name Jeremy couldn’t be bothered to remember. “Our focus today is on the trial of Rika Nishimura.”
”Twenty nine murders by magical ability, two with conventional weapons,” said the Ambassador with a slight nod.
”Voluntary manslaughter,” amended the Attorney General. “There is no evidence that Nishimura had any premeditation or malice aforethought.”
But she does have a damn alibi, apparently… Is this the place to bring it up? Jeremy wished he could talk to the girl and decide for himself if she was innocent. He was a second-hand source, so it wouldn’t hold much legal weight—hearsay, really. Jeremy trusted his own judgment above all others, and he just didn’t know Alden well enough. He believed the kid meant well, but at the same time, Alden had thrown himself under arrest for the sake of this girl. Biased as hell.
Of course, Jeremy had tried to visit her. His new authority should have granted him access. A series of bureaucratic blockades kept him away, and only by the last few did he get their source—Aderholt, using the last vestiges of authority he held over Jeremy purely out of spite. Asshole.
”The evidence against her is still circumstantial,” said Wesley Gatiss, opening his packet to the pages on Rika’s case. “We’ve never come up with motive or intent beyond self-defense, also just a guess. The primary reason she’s even a suspect is based entirely in coincidence and conjecture.”
”She decided Rika was guilty,” said the deputy Chief of Staff, nodding at Cinza.
Cinza shook her head. “I agreed there was enough to bring Rika in and ask her some questions. I have consistently stated my own belief of her innocence.”
”There’s new evidence,” the deputy shot back. “This isn’t the first time she’s been accused of murder.”
The fuck? “What are you talking about?” Jeremy cut in, when Cinza didn’t reply.
The Attorney General glanced over at an aide near the wall. “Can you hook up the recording?”
A faint hiss and crackle through the speakers set into the table with the phones. Jeremy had no idea what to expect. In the back of his mind, he was racing through the implications—new evidence that hurts Rika. Related to the Seattle deaths? Or the Rallsburg massacre? Probably the latter, everything looked pretty thorough in Seattle and we never got everything we wanted in Rallsburg. If they’re revealing it now though, they’re way ahead of discovery in the case, aren’t they? Did this go by Nishimura’s lawyers?
The aide finally got the system hooked up, and the speakers sprung into life. Everyone leaned forward slightly. The air seemed sharper in the room, the taste of adrenaline thick in Jeremy’s mouth.
”I heard they burned alive. You’re trying to hide a nutjob among us.”
”Is that true, Mayor? The victims were set on fire?”
Voices echoed through the room, some long dead, some simply missing—and several of which Jeremy knew very well. Jesus… that’s Jackie.
”If you want to get into it, Bob, yeah, they burned. Now who told your gossipy ass about it?”
”Friend of a friend.”
”That’s crap, Robert. If you’ve got a source that knew about the murders before this meeting, you’ve got a responsibility to the town to own up.”
The recording paused. President Stafford had raised a hand, looking to his cabinet. “This is from Rallsburg?” he asked quietly. The room was silent as the grave.
The Attorney General nodded. “The voices you’re hearing are Sheriff Jackie Nossinger, the town journalist Gordon Merrill who made this recording, Robert Harrison—” Cinza spat on her sleeve at the name. “—and the other notable members of the town. A transcript with names attached is on page 47 of your packet.”
”And when was this recording made?”
”Saturday, May 12th. Three days before the town was destroyed.” He nodded to the aide, and the recording resumed.
How the fuck did we never find this? Jeremy was racking his brain, trying to figure out how neither he nor Lani, nor anyone in the FBI, had ever come across this recording.
”So what if I have? We all oughta known sooner than this. From how he tells it, they died nearly a week ago. That’s right, folks. Our sheriff and our mayor knew we had a psycho in town, and didn’t say a goddamn word for a week! What if he’d come after you in your diner, Dan? Or your shop, Hector? What if he went for your sister, Preston?”
”He’d get what’s coming to him.” Both the recording in the past and the room in the present gave an appreciative chuckle. Out of the corner of Jeremy’s eye, Cinza had mouthed the words right along with Preston Bowman.
”There’s something going on in this town, and we all know it. It’s been happening for months and we’ve all been plopped on our hands waiting for the next tree to keel over.”
”Please,” said Cinza, “this part is not relevant. What you wish for us to hear is the end of the recording.”
”Hiding something?” asked Aderholt.
”A false accusation,” said Cinza, “and the identities of those who are deceased and deserve their dignified rest.”
The Attorney General agreed, to their surprise. The recording skipped ahead a few minutes.
”Enough of this,” said the long-dead voice of Rowan Rhistler, perfectly timed to agree with Cinza in the present. “Robert, Julian, you two will hold your tongues if you mean to accuse further, unless you can present solid, factual evidence about the group and not wild speculation.”
”Actually,” and even in the past in this old recording, Jeremy could hear the trustworthy, everyman voice of Dan Rhodes. It was the sort of voice you wanted to believe. “They are witches.”
”Dan? You have something to add?”
”I’ve seen it. People making fire from thin air, people with impossible things. Casting spells. You know, witchery.”
”Explain,” said Jackie, and Jeremy knew that voice. Jackie believed him, and so Jeremy believed him too.
”That girl who comes around every once and a while. She shoots lightning from her fingertips. And a few guys that came in, they threw fire at her. Just thought everyone should know.”
”That sounds ridiculous,” and a collective gasp went up at the recognizable voice of Hailey Winscombe. They didn’t pause the recording again, but Jeremy saw more than a few eager questions quickly bit back. “People throwing fire and lightning? Are you on something?”
”The girl, what’s her name?”
”She goes by Rika, but I dunno if—”
”Hector, cut it.”
The recording fizzed and abruptly stopped. Jeremy glanced around, confused. Was that it? Rachel did something at the end there…
”What happened?” asked President Stafford, glancing at the Attorney General.
”The connection to Gordon Merrill’s phone abruptly ends at that moment. We can’t determine why.”
”The phone was disabled,” said Cinza. “We were protecting our privacy.”
”So you verify this recording is accurate?” asked the Attorney General.
Cinza nodded. “Without the proper context, but yes, it sounds accurate to what I remember.”
”As I said.” He turned to the President. “Rika has been accused of murder before. We have a police record from Rallsburg one day later, in which Mayor Rhistler names her as a possible suspect in the murders of Alexander Nelson, Jaysmith Miller, and Jennifer Wilson. Nishimura has not given any alibi for the time period a week before their death through to her arrival in Rallsburg on Friday, May 11th.”
”She was not accused of murder,” said Cinza sharply, before the President could respond.
”Rika was wanted for questioning, yes. This is not the same as an accusation. This was a plot formed by Robert Harrison and Julian Black to throw suspicion on Rika, and by extension, her friend and Councilor Rachel DuValle. They were trying to destabilize the town.” Cinza shook her head. “Julian’s motivations, I cannot say, but Robert Harrison’s were clear. He was working with Brian Hendricks and Jackson Smith. They were responsible for the deaths of everyone in Rallsburg.”
”As you’ve outlined before,” said Wesley Gatiss.
Cinza nodded. “This is prejudice. Nothing more.”
”Prejudice of what, exactly?” asked the Attorney General. “She’s awakened, therefore she’s guilty?”
”That’s a bit of a stretch,” said the deputy Chief of Staff skeptically.
Like you would know. Jeremy shot him a pointed look. “Less of a stretch than you think.”
”She’s here now, she can defend herself,” said the Attorney General. “Heaven knows she’s affluent enough to afford strong representation.”
”And you can afford to tie her to the stake for her abilities,” said Cinza coldly.
”I think that’s lunch, everyone,” said the President, cutting off any countering remarks in their tracks. “We’ve been talking for hours and we’ve got a lot more to get through. We’ll meet back here at… what?” He glanced over to his bodyman. “One thirty.”
The President stood, and everyone hurried to match him. He exited from the room with dignity, even as Cinza continued to glare at his side. Slowly, the rest of the room filtered out, awash with indistinct murmuring, until only Jeremy, Maddie, Cinza and Makoto remained.
”I feel like we didn’t do anything,” said Makoto quietly.
Maddie burst out laughing. “Shit, that’s every day in this damn building.” She patted Makoto on the back, who flinched a little. “You get used to it.”
”Fuck that,” said Jeremy. “Gettin’ used to it is my nightmare. I’m out of here tonight for sure.”
”Signed myself up for the most dangerous case of my life.”
”I hope you accomplish your goal,” said Cinza. She turned to Jeremy. “I’d like to apologize.”
Didn’t see that comin’… “What?”
”I told you I could not get along with you, and that we would not become allies.” She shook her head. “I’m pleased to say I was wrong. Even if we do not agree, you’ve proven more than once your integrity and dedication to duty.”
”Thanks,” said Jeremy, not sure how insulted he should feel. Is this more political bullshit or is this genuine?
”It’s genuine,” said Maddie, reading his mind while she smirked out of Cinza’s sight. “She thinks you’re good at your job. So now I’m losin’ respect for her.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “Thanks, Maddie.”
”Love you too, Jere-bear.”
”I trust you’re in communication with Rachel, as your sister is?”
Jeremy didn’t bother trying to deny it. “Yeah.”
”You might pass on the information about the recording we just heard. She won’t need the file itself. Her memory is perfect—”
”Yeah, we know,” said Maddie with a groan.
Cinza smiled. “She will want to know that she’s being entered into the evidence for this case, and therefore public record. Given how the recording ends, it will be obvious she is both awakened and in a position of authority.”
He nodded. “I’ll let her know.”
”Come on, let’s go eat,” said Maddie.
”You go,” said Jeremy, as the other three rose to head to the cafeteria. “I gotta go meet someone.” And fuck Aderholt, I’ll break into the damn place if I have to. I gotta get both sides of this fuckin’ story.