Prologue: Investigative Reporting, Scene I (Underwood)

   
Prologue: Investigative Reporting, Scene I (Underwood)

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“One trembles to think of that mysterious thing in the soul,
which seems to acknowledge no human jurisdiction
but in spite of the individual's own innocent self,
will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.”

Herman Melville, Pierre: or, the Ambiguities

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January 15th, 2007
Late Night


The Streatham Ice Arena was an old ice-skating rink, three quarters of a century old, and it had been the home of the Winter Court ever since it was first built, back in the 1920s. It was a center for ice hockey and ice skating, and every Friday night, throughout the year, Winter held court among the orange tables and slick floors. Technically, if one consulted the records or asked the manager who's mind had been twisted and turned with faerie gold, the Ice Arena was being rented to a particularly fastidious group of ice skaters, who insisted on absolute privacy for their routines. That was the lie that was spread, and it was a lie that had held up for eighty-five years now.

The truth was that every Friday night, a host of changelings and assorted hanger-ons descended on the Ice Arena. During the summer, only the Winter Courtiers could be found, but during the darkest months of the year, much of Changeling society met here at the Ice Arena. All manner of changelings crowded the ice rink. Elven courtiers, some glowing softly, others with skin of night-sky darkness or flame-red hue, laughed gaily or glowered snidely at the efforts of a pair of mortals to dance upon the frozen ice. A butterfly-winged sprite dangled delicately from a light fixture, hanging above the head of a grotesque scale-skinned Beast with jaws full of row upon row of razor-sharp teeth. In one corner, sitting around a bright orange table, an ashen-skinned creature wrapped in a burial shroud held an animated conversation with a near-naked sand-statue, while an arachnid the size of a mastiff messily consumed something still-squirming at its feet.

This was the Carnival Melancholy. The Bazaar of the Bizarre. The Unseelie Court in all of its splendor. With fang and talon, tentacle and wing, they gathered here in all their unholy glory, to relax, to compete, to trade stories and lies and little bits of magic. But though this was a place in which one could lose one's shirt, one's mind, and one's soul to a careless slip of the tongue, J. T. Underwood had come to Streatham for another reason. He was here to find the Winter King.

Now, Todd White was a handsome fox, and he was not hard to find. Young, vigorous, and self-assured, he had taken to the ice, and when Underwood entered the ice arean, the Winter King was out on the rink, gliding along in ice skates. He did not perform for his court. Indeed, to look at him, one might think he scarce noticed them. But he was there, dressed in dark jeans and a black t-shirt with a scythe-wielding reaper imprinted on it, dancing upon the ice in sharp skates. It was a beautiful, ethereal vision, black clothing and pale skin, his ivory fur tinted red by the lights. Blood and night and ice, the Old Winter.

Then the dance faded, and Todd skated easily towards where Underwood was, near the railing, the Winter King's entourage keeping the curious back, to make for as private a conversation as could ever happen at court.

"J. T. Hello. Good to see you here." Todd White held out his hand over the railing, smiling a sharp little grin from his fox-like face. The Winter King was a handsome fox, of that there was no doubt. Pretty as sin wrapped in crystal, Todd had the sort of body that invited one to think the sort of thoughts one really shouldn't. He was a little over average height and broad-shouldered, with the well-muscled look of someone who'd done a great deal of hard work in his life. His face had a distinctly vulpine cast to it, with a sharp, narrowed chin, delicate cheekbones, and large, laughing eyes. He had long hair, white as ivory, with two pale, fox-like ears poking out from beneath his hair, and an ermine tail curling behind him. "Sorry about the short notice."

"Do you know anything about vampires?"


Underwood had just come in out of the cold. Being Winter Court doesn’t mean you grow your own insulation or anything – there was a charcoal trenchcoat over the suit, thin leather gloves, and a scarf to match – but he still managed to look dignified enough for an official emissary.

He gave His Majesty his best smile, and a surprisingly firm handshake. “Mr. White. Glad to be here – and please, call me Underwood. Twice as catchy, and more accurate.” With a wry grin, he rapped his chest twice with a fist; the sound was like a jar of loose change being jostled. “Hudson’s Rest sends its regards.”

The reporter took another look around the rink, giving a low whistle. “Nice setup. Reminds me of Rockefeller Center, you know? Only more colorful.”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. White View Post
"Do you know anything about vampires?"
Underwood shook his head. “Not my ball game. Back home, far as I could tell, we stay out of their way and they stay out of ours. Last I heard was in 2004: we had a Hopper bothering some of our people out in Sunset Park, but Summer’s boys worked some kind of agreement behind the scenes, and we haven’t had trouble since. This is all secondhand, mind – I was fresh out of stir back then. Didn’t have my head on straight yet. You know how it is.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Why’d you ask?”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Underwood
“Mr. White. Glad to be here – and please, call me Underwood. Twice as catchy, and more accurate. Hudson’s Rest sends its regards. Nice setup. Reminds me of Rockefeller Center, you know? Only more colorful.”
"Thanks. New Jerusalem extends its welcome to you, Underwood." Todd White said, using the old, old name for the London Freehold. He grinned openly, showing very white teeth. "You should see Aurora's place. That is colorful. Not for a few more months though."

Quote:
Originally Posted by Underwood
“Why’d you ask?”
"Was hoping for more, but, you work with what you've got." Todd said, leaning against the railing. Idly, he carved little hunks of ice out of the rink with the blade of his ice-skates. "To make a long story short, courtesy of my predecessor, most of the Unseelie are kind of unwelcome with the fangs of London. There was a territorial scuffle over Guy's Hospital that led to some deaths, bad blood. You know how it works. But it means that sending any known Courtiers over to talk with the fangs on anything other than open diplomatic missions is dangerous in the extreme."

"Unfortunately..." Todd White said, and his bright smile faded. "One of Scratch's people has been asking after the Lost. And I would very much like to know why."

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. White
"One of Scratch's people has been asking after the Lost. And I would very much like to know why."
“Can’t blame you there.” Underwood nodded briskly. “You’ve got yourself an unknown Courtier. I’m no miracle worker, but I’ll dig up whatever I can.”

The reporter stretched his shoulders a bit, adjusting the collar of his coat. “So: who’s the guy, where’s his turf, and what’s he been asking? He want a face-to-face meeting, or is this an undercover job? The more info I have going in, the smoother it’ll go.”

"Thanks, Underwood." Todd White said, smiling at Underwood, the handsome fox pleased to have caught his mouse. Underwood had been caught and hooked, and Todd was pleased with himself. "I won't forget this."

"His name is Scratch. I don't know his real name, but story is he was a mobster back before the War, numbers-running, racketeering, ended up going stoolie on his mates when the police picked him up. Ended up as a bloodsucker when he went to Monster of Drury Lane rather than deal with the consequences."

The Winter King vaulted over the railing, a fairly effortless proposition for the athletic young man, and crouched down to undo his ice-skates.

"These days, he's the head of Clan Nosferatu in London, which means he's a politico with the Lady of London's Court, and he runs a criminal gang called Scratch's Machine. About a half-dozen vampires, all of Clan Nosferatu, and two or three times that many mortal associates." Todd White continued, slipping off the razor-sharp ice skates. "They don't keep a turf proper, and I don't know where their hideout is. They pull burglary, smash-and-grab jobs, con games with the help of spooky vampire tricks."

"But he's been asking through the grapevine about one of the chief courtiers in London, Othello." Todd reached into a pocket and pulled out a small business card, for a pizza parlor. On the back was a telephone number. "And he's offerring good money for it. This number is the one he's been spreading around. How you want to handle it is your choice, but I'd recommend not letting it be known that you're working for me."

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. White
"His name is Scratch. I don't know his real name, but story is he was a mobster back before the War, numbers-running, racketeering, ended up going stoolie on his mates when the police picked him up. Ended up as a bloodsucker when he went to Monster of Drury Lane rather than deal with the consequences."
There had been a few stretches of muffled tapping coming from beneath Underwood’s scarf; here, they stopped.

My War?” It was pretty obvious which war that was. “Whoof. Guy’s got some kind of staying power. Sixty years ain’t peanuts…even the Mob’s mostly out of Manhattan, by now.”

Underwood shrugged. “Course, you throw the whole ‘eternal unlife’ thing into the mix, I guess all bets are off. Anything relevant you know about his higher-ups? Associates? Not going to try and pull rank on the guy or anything, but it helps.”

Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. White
"But he's been asking through the grapevine about one of the chief courtiers in London, Othello. And he's offerring good money for it. This number is the one he's been spreading around. How you want to handle it is your choice, but I'd recommend not letting it be known that you're working for me."
“Hey, my lips are sealed, Chief. Discretion’s what I’m good at – I don’t want a gang of vamps breathing down my neck any more than you do. This Othello character, though…” Underwood leaned in a bit. “…Fill me in. He actually do anything untoward? If Scratch and his boys have a legit reason to be after him, well…that makes it easier, and that makes it tougher.”

"Your war." Todd said, grinning at Underwood's sudden surprise. "He's far from the oldest vampire in London, but he's one of the oldest that isn't an antisocial monster, so he's pretty high up. I don't try and decipher Kindred ranks, but figure him to be kind of an underboss or duke to the Lady of London herself. She's the only person with authority over him, and even that's tenuous."

"Associates... crooks. Lots and lots of crooks. Leg-breakers, burglars, computer hackers, everything. Scratch's Machine isn't a group of assassins, but they are criminals led by vampires. I don't know much about the lower membership, save that except for Scratch, they're fairly young." Todd White said. "So I don't know just what they can do. Super-strength and psychic invisibility are what you can expect."

"And Othello..." The Winter King pinched the bridge of his nose. This was one of those conversations. "He's the Seneschal of the Freehold, helped put me on the throne, is an incorrigable trickster, and used to be Autumn Court back when they and the vampires were killing each other over Guy's Hospital. He's not an evil person, but he is a trickster and a shapeshifter."

"If you meet Othello, don't let him talk to you." Todd said, very seriously. "He can sell ice to eskimos."

Underwood exhaled, looking out at the rink. “There’s one of ‘em in every city, I swear. Remind me to tell you about Blue Chip Sophie sometime, when we’re drinking heavily. Dame still owes me seventy bucks.”

“Still, gives me a couple more options.” He nodded a bit, absently. “I’ll put a couple feelers out; see if I can’t track down a couple of Scratch’s goons; go at things indirect. All goes well, and they won’t even remember I was there. Worse comes to worse, I’ll look for the man himself.”

He looked back at Todd. “I’ll need a good story, though. Othello – shapeshifter, right, but does he have any preferences? Aliases? What’s he look like when he’s fleecing your average citizen? Add to that: I may need what looks like harder information, if I’m up against Scratch and have to make like an informant. Something true, something that would sound promising if I were a stool pigeon calling this number…” He twiddled the card between his fingers.

“…Something useless. One of Othello's past addresses, maybe, if he doesn’t live there anymore. I don't actually want to get him in trouble, but it helps if I can sound convincing... Know anything like that?”

"Tricky." Todd White said, putting the two sharp-bladed skates aside and standing up. "Othello stays on the move, but not by means of anything that you could call an address. But you can tell them that he's a regular at the Goblin Markets, both Picadilly Circus and the Spider Span, pretty as you please. Does that suffice?"

"For what he looks like... he changes shapes freely, but he's usually short, usually dark-skinned, and usually has greyish white hair." Todd said, sitting down at one of the bright orange tables, resting his elbows on the plastic surface. "He usually goes by Othello on court business, Edgar Cheseapeake when talking to mortals, and the Marquis de Carabas with other supernaturals. It's the last name that Scratch has been asking after."

The muffled clacking wound down, more decisively this time; Underwood reached up and fixed what looked like his tie, under the scarf. “This, I can work with. Thanks for the rundown, Mr. White – it may take some digging, but I’ll get you your story.”

With a bit of a flourish, the reporter stuck Scratch’s business card in his coat’s breast pocket, and produced one of his own, handing it to Todd with a flick of the wrist and a smile. Quality off-white cardstock; tasteful black border; Courier New font:


J. T. Underwood

Information Services


A phone number and email address followed.

“You need someone for another job like this, don’t hesitate to call, yeah? Home office has got me on retainer for exactly this sort of thing, so when I’m not on the clock with them or on official Ambassador duty with your guys, I’m game for side projects. Worse comes to worse, I tell you I’m not up to it.”




 

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