The room was frozen. Nate may not have been the most assertive guy in the world, but he absolutely could be when he was in character. Right now, he wasn’t Nathan Regal the distinguished actor. Right now he was Detective Regal, a man straight out of the silver screen. Detective Regal was a man who felt most at home prowling through smoky alleys. Detective Regal was a man who didn’t drink cucumber water, he drank barrel-aged whiskey. At least in theory. Milah said it was bad publicity to drink booze while underaged, so he hadn’t tried it. But whiskey sure sounded like something Detective Regal would like.
“Stand back and let me work.” He murmured, his voice gravelly and tough.
“You don’t seem terribly qualified.” Ashur grinned, toying with him.
“Let him try.” ordered Annie.
The detective tilted his hat to the little girl. Nate pointed to Becca before she could leave.
“I need you to stay here for a minute, okay girly?”
She nodded, though still crying. He felt for her. The kid had it rough, but he needed to keep her focused. He looked to Kaori.
“You have tape in those pockets miss?”
Kaori nodded and searched her coat. It was like a dance as her hands darted in and out of a dozen pockets. Eventually, she found a roll of yellow electrical tape and tossed it to him. Nate caught it and then knelt down to look Becca in the eyes.
“Now listen. Every detective needs an assistant, are you interested in helping out?”
Becca’s eyes lit up, though her tears didn’t stop immediately.
“Can’t someone else do it?”
He shook his head.
“No can do, doll. You’re the only one here I know for sure didn’t take your father.”
She nodded and put on a determined face. She almost looked like Annie when she did that.
“Then here’s what I need. This whole room is a crime scene now. I need you to make a line across each doorway with tape, just like the police do.” Nate offered the tape to the little girl, whose little fingers snatched it up immediately. “Once you’re done, I’ll need you to take statements from all the servants. Ask them what they were doing, if they knew of your dad having any enemies or any other questions you can think of to help the investigation. Miss Annabelle can help you with that. Okay?”
She nodded and wasted no time getting started. Kids are like that, he thought, give them a task and they forget they ever had a problem to begin with.
If only it was as simple for the rest of us.
It was his turn now, he turned to examine the scene. Nate didn’t know the first thing about crime scenes, but he hoped Detective Regal did. The workshop was a mess, probably was long before the Major went missing. Everywhere were bits of half-assembled or broken machinery; scattered like the thoughts of an ill-disciplined mind. Some might have been broken in a struggle, others were likely just projects that were half done. Still, a few tools were scattered across the cold stone floor. He thought it unlikely that they found their way there just from a messy lifestyle.
But then there was the window. Glass was strewn about inside the room, jagged like harsh words.
He slid his hands into the pocket of the old jacket as he investigated further. There was something in there that he hadn’t noticed before. He pulled it out. A small leather notebook that had likely belonged to the previous owner of the jacket. He tore out the first few pages, which were mostly shopping lists, and began to write his observations with a pen he had to borrow from Kaori.
Signs of struggle, likely quick and decisive. No more than a punch or two.
Window was broken from the outside, likely how the suspect entered the building. Suspect would have needed a blunt object to break through.
If the window shattered with the Major in the room, why didn’t he run?
Theory: he knew the attacker.
He found his final clue quite accidentally. He stepped on it as he paced back and forth. Amongst the broken glass was a small torn piece of silky blue cloth.
He bent down and retrieved it. It had a tasteful paisley pattern etched in gold stitch. The cloth was thicker than he expected it would be. Not thin like a shirt, but thick like a formal jacket, or maybe a tie.
He nodded to himself and decided to call it quits. He didn’t have the training or the toolkit to find anything more. He’d leave dusting for prints to the actual police. Regal stashed the little fabric swatch into his pocket and went in search of his assistant. How long had he been investigating? It must have been longer than he thought because the hallway had cleared, save for Milah and the two little girls.
Annie was very much her normal self, save that she had actually taken her hair out of a bun and had curled it in a classical femme-fatale style. Judging by her glare, she wasn’t a fan.
Becca had completely transformed, however. Gone was the crinkly pink dress and replaced by a small and professional looking tweed suit and skirt. She wore the same hair as Annie, but with significantly more enthusiasm. Already red strands were frizzing up and breaking away from her new hairstyle. Milah’s drones were buzzing around with a comb, a curler, and hairspray, fighting a losing battle against the girl’s natural hair shape.
“Don’t these dear girls look marvelous, Detective?” Milah asked proudly.
He hadn’t expected Milah to take the initiative of dressing up his co-star, but he was grateful.
“I look pretty!” Shouted Becca excitedly.
“Like a golden age actress in the flesh!” Nate answered back. Though one thing did surprise him. He turned to Annie. “You let Milah do your hair?” She really didn’t seem like the type to put up with, well, with any part of this whole thing.
“Miss Becca said it’s important.”
“It is important!” Becca exclaimed.
“Finishing touch, hold still.” Milah applied dark red lipstick to the little girl who was barely holding herself in place with how much fun she was having. Milah turned to apply the lipstick to Annie but was greeted by a look so cold that Nate made a mental note to try to master that facial expression for various roles later on.
“The hair is as far as this goes.” She gritted her teeth. “Captain Regal, I aided Miss Becca in taking statements from the house staff. No one seemed suspicious.” She handed a few papers back to Nate. Annie’s handwriting was odd. Nine-year-olds couldn’t help but have clumsy fingers, and so Annie’s letters were certainly messier than an adult. Even so, her printing was easy to read. Every single letter was shaped completely uniform to its fellows. There were no loops or swirls or anything fancy. It was like a computer font if a little messy.
Nate was chiefly interested in the penmanship since he’d already decided where he was taking the investigation. After pretending to read, he made his suspicions known.
Someone who was outside the house, and was known to Mark, had kidnapped him. Obviously, Nate didn’t know everyone, but he certainly knew one person already who fit that description.
“Miss Becca, your sister said she was going out, do you know where she might have gone to?”
“Dancing!” Becca offered.
“Club Horizon.” Annie answered.
The hottest new club in the spires. Nate had been hoping for an excuse to check it out. Pity it wasn’t an occasion to celebrate.
Small droplets of rain started pattering on the windows as Regal was preparing to leave. By the time he stopped arguing and agreed to let Becca and Annie come along, the drops had become a downpour. Nate liked the idea of popping his collar and walking through the streets like a brooding detective, but Milah made it very clear that he would be thrown out into open space if he put Becca’s painstakingly done hair-style at risk.
So they took a cab.
Nate still did his best to brood, staring out the window at the rain.
“Do you think You’re gonna find him?” Becca asked.
He turned his attention to the little girl. Tears were forming in her eyes, and Nathan was pretty sure Milah would be equally as furious as the whole hair thing if Nate allowed the child’s eyeliner to smudge. It had taken Milah ages to apply it since the little ball of energy wouldn’t quit squirming. It was her fault for putting makeup on a child.
“Yeah. I’ll find him.”
“How do you know?”
“People like your dad don’t just go missing for no reason. Someone wants something. My gut tells me they don’t have it yet. We have time.”
That seemed to satisfy her, so Nate looked back through the glass. Water streamed down the window, making the bright lights inside the spire look like a painting. The spires looked nice from outside, but indoors they had all the grime and dirt as everywhere else. The spires were like that. They had a mean heart, and if you weren’t smart, they’d break you without a thought.
Nate hoped he was smart, but as his excitement grew at the thought of seeing Jenna again, he doubted it.
“Give the man a dollar.” Nate said to Annie as he stepped from the cab and walked towards the big neon club. It wasn’t just to look cool. He spent the last unit he had on the jacket. As his shoes sloshed through the rapidly growing puddles, he heard Becca speak behind him.
“What’s a dollar?”
“Old money.” Annie answered back, paying the driver.
Old money. Wasn’t much of that these days. In Nathan’s early years you couldn’t go two feet in the Spires without tripping over a corporation run by a guy whose family had been rich for a hundred years. Now it was all new alien trade syndicates from the republic, squashing the old movers and shakers like ants. Sure, there were a few old folks with decaying treasuries, but they had lost the only thing that mattered.
The Spires were full of teeming masses of men and women who spend their whole lives without control.
But places like this were where they went to forget.
It didn’t look like much. The walls were a white plastic, the kind that everyone thought looked futuristic thirty years ago when the space age had first started. Well, it seemed the future that they wanted back then had long since sailed. Now, the old buildings were choking on dust and were largely a filthy grey or brown. Here and there were bits of graffiti, sprayed on in daring colors of glow-paint.
Throw out the alien! The Armada Still Flies!
As if. The aliens were here to stay, and they weren’t so bad thus far.
The club itself had a glowing blue sign that declared its name in neon.
Nate had heard it was a palace of lights and song on the inside. He must not have been the only one who heard that rumour, as a line of thousands stretched down the road, most were turned away at the doorway by a pair of gigantic men with genetically enhanced muscles.
Even if he wanted to wait in the line that long, Nate was underaged, so the front door was a bust.
“I’ll be out soon. Wait here.” Annie and Becca agreed and huddled together under an umbrella. Spire management should really cool it on the rain, Nate thought that the thick drops that were drenching the street were a bit much.
“I suppose you have to simulate bad weather too, not just the good stuff.” He muttered, secretly liking the mood it set.
He made his way down a side alley, soon spotting a half dozen workers unloading boxes from a truck and into the club.
It wasn’t hard to slip inside. He waited at the base of the truck and a worker passed him a big aluminum box. It was big enough that he didn’t raise suspicion when he used it to conceal his face on his way inside. Passing through the door was like entering another world. The club must have been equipped with alien grade soundproofing because the incredible pulsing sound of music shook his entire body the moment he entered. He stacked the box in a large pile with the others and investigated his surroundings.
It was a remarkably small backroom compared to the gigantic club, being largely a single dirty hallway with just enough room to stack boxes. A few doorways led to a kitchen, a staff room, the electrical room and whatever else. Nate was mostly interested in the door at the end of the hall, marked “Dance Floor.”
That door opened, and a young woman walked through, carrying a stack of dirty glasses. But what Nate found interesting wasn’t what she was carrying, but what she was wearing. She wore black dress pants, a white collared shirt and a blue paisley vest with a gold stitch. Nate didn’t need to pull out the scrap of fabric he had taken to know that it was a match. Still, he restrained himself from grabbing the poor girl, it was clearly a uniform. Which meant there were likely dozens of people here who could be his suspect. He’d need to keep an eye out for a staff member with a torn vest.
One thing at a time though.
He stepped out into the dance floor.
He’d heard it was like a palace in here, but it wasn’t. It was a jungle. Gigantic multi-colored spotlights rotated across the room, flashing a hundred colours, even some that only alien eyes could pick up. The music was louder here, and Nate couldn’t hear his own thoughts. The air was hot, the byproduct of ten thousand bodies moving and rubbing up against each other; it was nearly unbreathable with the stench of sweat and perfume.
He no longer knew why he had thought this was a place he wanted to visit. This was hell.
But he dove in; Jenna Whitley wasn’t going to find herself.
He squeezed through the mass of wriggling limbs. He didn’t know where he was going, so he moved anywhere he could. He tried not to think about the various sticky drinks that were spilled on him as he pressed through. Milah would get it all out eventually.
He wandered through the forest of limbs for what seemed like an hour. He was losing hope. He couldn’t even see the people he was pushing through, so how on lost-earth was he going to find her?
But then he caught a glimpse of smokey blue eyes. Eyes that said ‘I know something you don’t.’ Eyes that threatened to sear Regal’s common sense right out of his body.
She saw him too, across the crowd, and she smiled.
It was only a smile, but the meaning was unmistakable.
Come and get me.
He pressed through the crowd, twisting his way through narrow spaces between bodies, all while refusing to take his eyes off of her. She was walking away from him, making it look easy as she pushed through. Now and then she turned to flash him a glamourous grin, just to show how much fun she was having. A dozen times he thought he lost her, but a malignant magnetism always dragged him back onto her trail.
She reached the end of the crowd long before he did. She whispered into the ear of a bouncer as she entered a VIP room. She turned and blew him a kiss, before disappearing around the corner.
Nate knew he had been licked. There was no way he was getting past that bouncer. He didn’t know how to fight, and embracing his detective fantasies wasn’t going to correct that. Still, Nate pushed on through the last part of the crowd, glaring at the door to a room that might as well have been a fortress.
The bouncer nodded to him.
“Miss Whitley said to let the detective through.”
Well, that was easier than expected.
He entered into a far less crowded room with a floor made of flashing blue and purple lights. Jenna’s blue eyes cut through him from across the room. She sat at a table full of rich looking youth, clearly all other teenagers who snuck in with the aid of money and connections.
Nate cut a brisk pace through the room and was at last standing before her. He was sure he looked ridiculous next to the glamorous rich kids; his coat was covered in more types of booze than he could name. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say now that he was here. What could he say with words that their eyes hadn’t already communicated?
She winked playfully at him and turned to a darkly handsome boy beside her.
“Johnny, I’d like to dance.”
She and Johnny got to their feet, ignoring the detective entirely.
“Jenna-” Nate started, grabbing her arm.
Johnny’s fist collided with Nate’s mouth, and he fell backward.
Nate hadn’t been punched before but found it wasn’t nearly as bad as expected. He had split his lip a little, and it sure stung, but it didn’t hurt any more than tripping, or any other accidental injury he had taken over the years.
Plus, it turned out that anger made it very easy to overlook the pain.
Jenna slapped Johnny’s shoulder playfully.
“Harsh.” she said, before smiling at the battered detective.
Johnny took her onto the floor and the two danced. Jenna pressed herself up against Johnny, holding him tight in her arms. She paid Johnny very little attention, however, staring at Nate over her partner’s shoulder with mischief in her eyes.
It was Detective Regal, not Nate, who got to his feet a moment later, and stumbled over to Johnny. He didn’t surprise him, however, and Johnny was quickly wheeling around for a second punch.
“Can’t you see the lady doesn’t want to talk to you?”
Nate wouldn’t have had the nerve to let himself get punched a second time, but Regal did. Johnny’s knuckles cracked across his cheek. It hurt like mad, but it was just pain. He didn’t raise his fists in retaliation. He just stood there, standing tall after the hit, just glaring at Johnny, daring him to do it again. So he did. The next punch was to his ear, but Nate was finding himself oddly empowered by the experience of getting beaten to a pulp. He stayed on his feet. He didn’t intend to fight, he was a talker, a performer. Fighting wasn’t who he was. He could probably break Johnny’s nose, but if he did that it would mean he lost. Not the fist fight, but he would have lost as a person. So he took the fourth hit, and the fifth.
By the time he finally went to the ground, he was fairly certain he’d won. Jenna was pulling the angry boy back, shouting at him with equal anger. Eventually, the boy ran off in a huff.
Jenna looked at him. There was a flash of concern in her eyes, but she concealed it quickly. She knelt down and looked Regal in the eyes.
“For a detective, you sure aren’t that smart.”
Nate grinned with bloody teeth.
“Yeah, but I got other qualities.”
“What do you want anyway?”
“You couldn’t have just asked that to start with?” He sat up, still a little dizzy. “Geeze, Jenna, your father’s gone missing. Only an hour or so ago.”
This time she failed to conceal the concern. Jenna dragged his from the floor and pulled him out the nearest exit.
Nate stumbled out into an alley. It was mostly empty, they shared it only with a stray cat and the dumpsters. Nate felt like he could breathe again out here, free from the oppressive booming of the music. Out here they could hear the empty streets, though it sounded like a manager was reaming out one of his employees nearby.
“What happened?!” She asked, clearly distraught.
Nate found it to be a very good performance.
“As if you don’t know.” He pulled a small tissue from his pocket and began wiping away the blood from his mouth.
She didn’t like that one bit. Nate didn’t mind, it felt good to finally be one step ahead of her.
“What do you mean? You think I had something to do with it?”
“I have my suspicions.” Nate said. His gut told him it couldn’t be anyone else, but somehow he hated that. More than anything, he didn’t want it to be her. He pulled the fabric sample from his pocket. “Look, Jenna, it doesn’t look good. I found this at the crime scene. Convenient that you happen to be at the exact club where they wear uniforms that match our perps outfit, isn’t it?”
She went pale.
“Plus,” Nate continued, “It’s more than a little suspicious that you ran from me, then sicced your boyfriend on me.”
She took a step back, not bothering to play it cool anymore.
“Boyfriend? He’s not my- I was a jerk and I’m sorry, okay? You just seemed to be really into that whole noir detective thing, so I just thought if I played hard to get like in those old movies then you’d-” She stopped mid-sentence.
“Listen!” She hissed.
What was there to hear? Just the sounds of the cold night. That and-
And the manager yelling at a worker.
“-come to work with a torn up uniform? I hired you because I thought you’d clean up your act you stupid-”
Torn up uniform.
Sounded like Regal had his man.
He sprinted down the alley, Jenna tried to follow, but there was little she could do to keep up in heels.
He rounded the corner and saw his perp.
Time froze while he memorized his appearance. Male, early twenties, wavy blonde hair, tall. They made eye contact, and without wasting a moment to think, he raced away from Nate at full speed down the road.
Nate pursued immediately, hearing Jenna’s clicking heels behind him as well. He felt bad about it, but he shoved the manager out of the way as he ran; there wasn’t time to go around.
There were only two ways to go on a road in the Spire, up the spiral ramp, or down. The guy in the vest ran down, beelining to a parked motorbike across the road. Nate picked up his pace. He wasn’t quite fast enough and the guy was on his bike and revving the engine before Nate could get his hands on him. The speedy bike roared away.
But that wasn’t the only engine Nate heard.
A shiny blue Neo-Lynx Convertible pulled up next to Nathan and Jenna, who wasn’t far behind. Annie shouted from the driver’s seat.
“Get in the back!”
“Sh-should I drive?”
“Now!” the little girl commanded, making no move to leave the driver’s seat.
Nate didn’t have quite the backbone to argue, so he jumped into the backseat, Jenna joining him.
“We stole a car!” shouted Becca, slamming down on the gas.
The convertible growled angrily as it ripped down the ramp after the bike.
“You brought my sister?! Shouted Jenna.
“More like I failed to leave her behind!”
Annie swerved through what traffic there was until they were in sight of the bike, it’s driver still unaware that he hadn’t made a clean escape.
That didn’t last long. The roar of the Neo-Lynx was impossible to miss and the bike was soon accelerating away.
“Becca?” Annie began.
Whiplash knocked Nate’s head back as wind battered his face. He slid around the backseat, failing to find a seatbelt. They weren’t quite keeping pace, but also they weren’t far off.
“Nathan, take the wheel.” She didn’t wait for Nathan to acknowledge before she had climbed over to the passenger seat and began firing blue bolts of electricity at their suspect with her sidearm.
Regal dove through the gaps between the seats, grabbing the wheel. He needed both hands to steer, so he had to leave his legs sticking out into the backseat.
“Not a scratch Nathan! We’re returning this car in perfect condition!” Annie ordered.
The Lynx swerved in Nate’s less skillful hands, narrowly avoiding the cars around them.
“Becca! Slow down!” He shouted!
“Disregard that.” Annie countered. “Drive better!”
So he took a deep breath and did it. The bike was weaving across the road to avoid the gunshots, which meant they were finally able to get beside him.
“Hey, Annie? I’m going to do something really stupid. Take the wheel and get us close.” One little hand grasped the wheel while the other continued shooting. Nate crawled into the backseat. He climbed across Jenna’s lap to get to the closest side to the biker.
He looked to the flustered teenager beside him.
“You like old movies?” He asked.
“Yeah, Dad has a collection.”
“You think any of those stunts they do would work in real life?”
“Not a chance!”
“Hold my hat.” He pressed it into her chest before he leaped out of the convertible and pounced on the biker. They swerved hard to the right. Too hard. They ran out of road, plummeting off the ledge. It was a long drop down to the next sub-level of the spire from there, a very long drop.
“Regal!” Jenna shrieked after him.
Nate was glad that the spire authorities weren’t reckless with their infrastructure.
Two humans and a roaring motorbike ceased their freefall, caught by a thick nylon net. They bounced high into the air.
The blondie grabbed Nathan’s jacket collar as they fell, delivering a punch that only hit open air.
Nate grappled with him, trying to pin him down, but the man was far stronger and squirmed free. They both stumbled to their feet as the bouncing ceased. They waddled across the net towards the nearby safety ladder. The guy slid down first, with Nate in hot pursuit.
Regal turned to pursue the boy, but it was the end of the line.
They were back on the road. He could run all he wanted, but actually losing Nate wasn’t possible anymore outside of a battle of endurance running, and they both knew it.
The guy was holding a revolver trained right on Nate’s chest.
“Why couldn’t you have just left me alone?” He was shaking. They both knew what had to happen next.
Nate’s blood filled with frost. He shouldn’t have gotten so caught up in the performance. This was real life, and he certainly wasn’t an unstoppable movie detective. That bullet was going to kill him.
He looked into the guy’s eyes. It was oddly intimate. There was a closeness. Neither of them wanted that gun to fire. Even though both understood it needed to.
“Becca! Brake!” Shouted Annie.
The Lynx slammed into the side of the blonde guy, sending him flying. He fell into an unconscious heap on the floor.
Nate took it all back. He was an action hero! He could do anything! He was the greatest! The adrenaline and joy that he was still alive kept him unable to sit still while Annie tied up the unconscious kidnapper.
Jenna made eye contact and seemed similarly antsy.
Somehow the two of them dropped the act. For a few short moments, they stopped pretending there was nothing between them. They laughed. A little at first, and then hysterically. Somehow she ended up in his arms.
Nate liked this girl. He liked her a lot.
A part of him still told him to run, told him that this girl was a python in human skin. But when she kissed him, he stopped listening.