Prologue: Investigative Reporting, Scene III (Underwood, Erin)

   
Prologue: Investigative Reporting, Scene III (Underwood, Erin)

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“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

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January 22nd, 2007
Midnight


The deal was going down.

Over the next several days, J. T. Underwood was given a very simple and very familiar job. He was supposed to watch. The tigerish man, whom Underwood learned was Aleksander "Sasha" Zmeyevich, was the chief organizer of these matters, though Underwood slowly learned that Sasha was quite low on the totem pole. But it was he who had the most experience with matters of a criminal nature, and he who had Underwood following and spying upon the many members of Scratch's Machine.

Underwood saw Silk Eddie a few more times, making deals and talking to people. He talked with Serbskaya online several times, though the corpse-featured vampiress never left whatever secret lair she dwelled in. Underwood saw Scratch himself, with his chiropteran features and old fashioned, 1920s suits. He and Underwood shared a sense of dress, that much was apparent, though Underwood carried it off more successfully. And one, Underwood had even met the Canterbury Party, a slim, slender youth dressed in altar boy's vestments, with the features of a depraved St. Sebastian about him.

Tonight though, the deal was going down. Scratch had been as good as his word, at least so far, and now Othello and the Canterbury Party were meeting for the first -- and hopefully last -- time. The setting chosen was that of St. Paul's Cathedral, a noted and infamous neutral zone for the supernatural communities of London. Magic did not work in St. Paul's, or worked poorly. It was a safe place for the high and mighty to meet, without fear, without suspicion. Or at least, with fewer of those than usual.

Underwood's task was nearly at an end. He was standing in an electrician's van, which was parked some way down the street from St. Paul's, and he had a pair of night-vision binoculars (which were very useful things, even if these were covered in brass and knobs). His task? To make certain that no one snuck up to St. Paul's from the front of the building. Sasha and Heather were doing the same from the back.

"Twelve o'clock and all is well." Sergei Morozov said, cradling a cup of hot cocoa as he sat on a large toolbox. He was there as well, along with the small, faerie woman who was Sasha and Sergei's superior. "Does anyone know how much longer this meeting will go?"

"It will end when it ends," Erin replied idly, sipping her own thermos of hot chocolate. "As long a it takes, for both sides to agree to it. Given the parties involved, who could say? Perhaps an hour or so more."

Erin Lamothe did not look like the boss of very dangerous men. In point of fact, she looked like a moth. She was 4'10", slender, had chubby cheeks and looked like she was eighteen when she was really twenty-six. She also had yellow skin, fingers that bent backwards as well as forwards, white marbles in place of eyes, and writing on her cheeks in a language no one knew. Antennae, wings, a skull on her back like a death-head's hawkmoth, marking her as an omen of doom. But she was curious more than threatening, a tiny childlike being with a strange form of innocence. She'd taken one look at Underwood and exclaimed "Gorgeous!" - and spent a full twenty minutes pacing around him, trying to get a look at how he worked.

At the moment, however, she looked neither like a mafia don, nor like a moth. What was there instead was an willowy, pale woman, wrapped up in a black and white cloak and shawl, with satin white hair and skin the color of cherry blossoms. White petals drifted from her whenever she stirred, each one melting into the air before it touched the ground. Two pale white branches curled forth from her hair, like deer antlers. The changeling didn't even share Erin's face, and her personality seemed to have shifted with it. Shapechanging was a common enough trick among the lost, and it seemed Erin had learned it well.

Not that Underwood was looking like Underwood either. True to her gang's word, she'd covered him with dreamstuff and silver threads, weaving illusions around him, until he looked like something completely different. She'd even noted it could be permanent, if he wanted.

"Midnight. The witching hour. We'd best not let our guard waver," Erin said, moving to adjust Sergei's driver cap to cover his ears properly.

“I do a lot of things, Miss Lamothe. I don’t waver.”

There was some truth to that: when he focused on something, Underwood could be as immobile as a toaster and as observant as a CCTV camera. Granted, he looked a good deal less like either of those at present than was customary: while it seemed congenitally impossible for the reporter to not look somehow dated, he did look human, and he did look different. Higher cheekbones; blacker, slicked-back hair; a bulkier figure; and a nasty-looking scar across his right eye; all wrapped in a turtleneck and a pin-striped, double-breasted suit: the overall impression was of a Brezhnev-era Mafiya grunt on furlough.

For the past several hours, he had been dutifully watching the building, muttering absently to what was probably his night vision goggles at intermittent intervals. For the past several days, unbeknownst to his current employers and routed through a dizzying array of electronic switchbacks, he had been keeping Mr. White apprised of his current progress via a few select email and phone messages – just enough to update the Winter Court without drawing suspicion. Key takeaways:

-The deal was going to go down one way or the other.
-Underwood was going to keep Othello’s fragile keister out of the fire.
-Next time, when one of Mr. White’s associates has an organized crime syndicate on his payroll, an advance warning might be nice.

That said, the reporter had a job to do. He kept watching.

3 Successes on a Wits+Composure to keep watching.

"So. What can go wrong?" Sergei said, running his hand along the golf bag in which he had a rather ugly-looking rifle. It was a spidery sort of thing, with iron sights, and something told Underwood that he would not like to be seen in those sights. "Is Scratch on the level, or are there parties that might want to break this deal up?"

Underwood cocked his head slightly, still looking through the goggles, and grunted a sarcastic laugh. “Yeah, he’s on the level for now…unless he decides to welch, and to sock our boy into the pavement. Or unless Mr. Canterbury decides the same thing. Or unless one of their many, many faceless enemies decides to roll in and liven things up with bullets.”

With his free hand, Underwood found his own mug of hot cocoa, took a sip, and set it back down, continuing to watch as he did so. He still didn’t trust the moth-fey much farther than he could throw her – which was probably a decent ways, come to that – but it was damned good cocoa. “That’s what we’re here for, though. We’ve done all we can. Now, we wait.”

4 Successes to continue to watch

"Anything and everything can go wrong," the pale cherry lady said with vague amusement. "I know too little of everyone's enemies to name names. But then, perhaps someone with no grudge, but a wish to steal the item in question, may come. How they would learn of what it is, I do not know. And what they would plan to do against so many vampires, I do not know."

"But then, we should be wary," Erin said, sipping her cocoa with an exasperated smile. "Keep in mind what this looks like to other people. Back-alley deals with vampires? Some do-gooders may barge in trying to stop us, on the grounds what we are doing must be nefarious." The woman sighed.

"Still. Mr. Othello has talked raging privateers into going away. I shall hold him in some confidence, and assume that the people he is legitimately meeting will not try to harm him."

Dice Roll: 7d10s8e
d10 Results: 8, 6, 4, 7, 2, 2, 6 (Total Successes = 1)
Perception
Plus bird surveillance system.

"Othello did what?" Sergei said, fixing himself a cup of tea. He was Russian, and if there was one thing that was certain of the Russian people, is that they were just as tea-obsessed as the British. Unlike the British, however, the Russians drank their tea black, strong, and sweet. So it wasn't actually that far from cocoa. "I don't think I've heard this story."

"Does anyone else find it strange that the best neutral ground in London is a church?" He added after a moment.

"Not so strange? The church has always been a place of sanctuary. I think it fitting," Erin said, brushing a spot beneath her cloak, where her cross was hidden.

Erin laughed a little at Sergei veiled request. "Well. They weren't raging so much at the time. But it is how he became Seneschal, do you know? Let me see. I'll tell the story as I heard it - though I may not remember it quite right." She took a breath and began.

"Not so very long ago, there were two great houses, and they were on the brink of war. Though there was no open bloodshed between them, it was always mere moments away. The two Lords of these houses hated each other from they day they'd taken the throne, and their houses had hated each other for far longer before that. But eventually, all grew weary of this hatred, and so a solution was set upon. The two heirs of the houses would be wed, and the old Lords would step down, and peace would reign, and all would be righted."

"But the princess had a knight that she loved more than all the stars in the sky, and she did not wish to wed the prince of the other house. And not all wished for this wedding to happen, for two hunters, privateers, a fox and a wolf, were unleashed to kill the princess in her bed, before she could wed. So the princess came to Othello, the Marquis de Carabas, and begged him that he might find some way for her to escape her fate. Othello gave her a little watch, and bid her swallow it down, and when she did she fell into a deep slumber, and all thought she was dead. There was great grief and lamenting, and it seemed there would be war between the two houses. And the fox and wolf were quite vexed, for they knew they had not slain her, but dead was dead, and they left their hunt."

"But the princess was not dead, and her beloved and faithful knight whisked her away to safety, and they went to meet with Othello and the prince of the other household. And the prince and princess made their own alliance, and set their own wedding, one that named itself to be political only, and let them be free to love as they wished. But the hunters caught wind that the princess still lived, and so they came to sneak into the festivities, and murder the bride."

"Othello would not have this, and so he set two bold and brave men with with the princess and her fairest knight, and set three guards at the door. The first guard, the oldest and the tallest, had the strength of many men. The second guard, who was the youngest, had the eyes of an eagle and the nose of a bloodhound. And the third, who was the smallest, could see the difference between truth and lies."

"Now the hunters could change their shape, so the third guard asked each guest what their name might be. But the hunters instead came boldly to the gate, for one had cloaked herself in fire, and the other had cloaked himself in the air, and was unseen to the mortal eye. The fox cloaked in fire tried to blind the guards, and wolf cloaked in air tried to sneak past, but the second guard could smell the wolf, and called him out. The guards cast a mighty vat of icing onto the hunters, so that they could be seen by all. And so it was that two guards held the gate, as the second ran to get Othello."

"And Othello would not let these two killers ruin his festivities with blood, neither his nor the bride's, nor the hunters themselves. With a kick of his boots and a flick of his tail, he spoke to the privateers, and such sweet words they were! So sweet they forgot their bloody business, and went away hand in hand, for they too were man and wife, and had a desire to live life and play with the frosting." Erin gave a slightly wicked grin at that.

"And so the prince and princess were wed, and the the princess was free to woo her knight, and they all lived happily ever after. And a little moth was there and stole some of the icing from the cake, and that is where I heard the story," Erin concluded, with the traditional ending.

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"Say, Mr. Underwood, don't I recall you? You were singing with Mr. Squick at the Jack-of-Crow's birthday," Erin noted, brightening as she made the connection. "Oh, but sir, you were lovely together! Have you ever considered singing at other venues? I sometimes have a very talented violinist play at my restaurant. I would be happy to leave the stage open for you."

“Oh!” Underwood blushed, which was actually possible in his current guise, and waved it off. “Aah, it was nothing – just a hobby. You pick things up, you know…” He gave the moth-fey an embarrassed sort of smile. “You that hard up for performers that you need a low-rent reporter singing Sinatra?” It was clear that Underwood wanted the answer to be “yes”, even if he didn’t want to admit it to himself. “I guess you let me know…”

Somewhat mollified by the suggestion, the reporter sat down in his chair, gazing briefly at the ceiling – but not before whispering a few words to his night-vision goggles, and propping them up in the window. Had to keep watching somehow, after all.

“Now stories…stories, I know. Talk about weddings… Well, here’s a good one. Tell me if you’ve heard this before.”

The reporter leaned in, shifting his cadence and punctuating the yarn with hand gestures. It wasn’t a traditional fairy tale, not by a long shot, but there were other traditions, and this one suited Underwood just fine.

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“So one time it comes on the week before Christmas, and here is a citizen sitting in the back of his Chinese restaurant and having a good and long stew to himself. Now, this citizen is the type who is liable to duck at the eye of the public, but he is known as an all around stand-up character, for he is one time the President of a cold-weather organization, and a good listener besides. But now, this citizen is in a stew, and he is talking about his stew to Miss Jenny Showtime, who is a pusher of computers and a blue haired doll, and who is sharing with this citizen a plate of egg foo young.

“‘Miss Jenny Showtime,’ says this citizen, ‘I am a man who circles the old drainpipe of life. When I am President of my cold-weather organization, I sit in this restaurant, which is once a delicatessen, and I speak with the many gentlemen who are like to frequent such an establishment. These gentlemen tell me their troubles. Some of these gentlemen, they give me their troubles, for they are not the sort of gentlemen whose business is above the board, and from this comes many capers and shenanigans. Sometimes such events come out sunny, and sometimes they come out blue and sorrowful, but there are always events. It is a good time to be a President.’

“‘But then the federales move back into the beer racket, and then the new buildings go up, and then Mayor What-Is-His-Name with his broken windows takes a squeegee to the entire business, and by this time I am not President no more. I sit in my restaurant, only now they make it a Chinese restaurant, and I watch the bankers and the computer billboards and the tour bus camera slingers, and it is my opinion that Broadway goes altogether farshlugginer while I am not watching. It is slick, and it is put together as neat as you please, but nobody comes by the restaurant no more, except for you, Miss Jenny Showtime. This is why I stew. It is not the Broadway I remember, and I am vexed by this more than somewhat.’

“Miss Jenny Showtime nods and says that is truly a pickle, and thank you for the egg foo young. Only when she gets up and goes to push her computers, she has a thoughtful-like expression on her kisser, because Miss Jenny Showtime is a thoughtful kind of a doll.

“So it comes on the next day, which is a Tuesday, and this citizen sits down to his lunch in the back of his Chinese restaurant, and he notices that there are not so many gawkers and day-trippers and Midwest camera rubes as is customary on Broadway, and this befuddles him quite some. Furthermore, when he is not halfway through his won tons, into this restaurant comes Berhanu Bekele, who is a man who sells watches from a coat, and who is sporting a bona-fide look of distress across his mug.

“‘Well,’ says Bekele, ‘I am a cussed sight better off for finding you here, my friend, because I owe a character by the name of Chechen Harry a cool ten thousand G’s by ten o’clock this morning, only I hear on the news that there is a transit strike just happening, and it is for this reason that I cannot deliver the necessary potatoes to Chechen Harry by this time, for Chechen Harry has the misfortune to live in Bushwick. But I hear that you are a stand-up guy and a good listener, and maybe that you help me with this grave predicament.’

“And all of a sudden also comes in Sangat Singh, who runs his own cab when the license board is not looking, and he says to this citizen, ‘Today is a transit strike, and because there are fifty fares and then some for every block of Broadway, I make a bet with my friend that if I pull in more Mazola with my cab than he does with his cab, then I win as my prize a date with his best gal. Now, I do this because my friend is a no-good two timer, and because I am crazy for this doll with all my heart and all my soul. But I go to my garage this morning, and I see that some rat takes a Louisville Slugger and gives my transmission the business. I hear that in this restaurant is a man who knows people, and who is good at handling situations. I think maybe you are this man.’

“And also comes in this guy who is maybe a newspaper scribe, and who maybe does some business on the side, and he says: ‘That is a coincidence and no mistake, for I am on the tail of a bent copper for a newspaper column, and I fix to follow him to the Bronx this morning to watch him take a payoff from a two-bit hop slinger, only because of the transit strike the trail goes as cold as a dead duck. But I hear that here there is one time a President of a cold-weather organization, and that maybe this morning he helps another member of this organization, owing to the cold weather.’

“The citizen gets a thoughtful look, and he keeps mum, and he finishes his won tons, and then he looks at the three gentlemen and he says, ‘Gentlemen, because there is a transit strike, and because I am a citizen that remembers what it is like to live on Broadway, I help you with your troubles. But first, I am of the opinion that I like to walk across the street and look at some computers. In the meanwhile, on account of it is lunch time, maybe you sit for a spell, and I order you an order of lo mein to share.’

“Well, the three gentlemen are more than somewhat puzzled at this declaration, but it is indeed lunch time, and it is very good lo mein, and so they make like this citizen says. As it comes across, these three gentlemen do not know Miss Jenny Showtime from a hole in the ground. They also do not know that Miss Jenny Showtime is in thick with a doll happens to work high up in the Transit Union. And they especially do not know that, even though Miss Jenny Showtime is just rising 36, and is as modern a dame as ever you like, she loves this old citizen with a love that beats out Casanova seven to five.

“So it is coming on fifteen minutes later, and this citizen walks into his Chinese restaurant with a big old smile plastered all over his kisser, and he says, ‘Come on, boys, it is going to be a busy day.’ And it is a very busy day to be sure. And comes that May, what do you think but there is a wedding in that same Chinese restaurant, and who do you think but a newspaper scribe takes down the whole story. And that is where I hear it.”

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Underwood sat back and sighed contentedly, savoring the memory. “Great reception, too. At least, that’s what I hear.” He smirked, implicitly acknowledging the fiction that he had come across the story secondhand.

There was a small “beep” from the reporter’s suit jacket pocket, and the top half-centimeter of a PDA peeked out where his handkerchief should have been. Underwood looked at it sympathetically. “Yeah, wish you could’ve seen it too, buddy.” Back at Sergei and Erin: “Sorry: I’ve got a phone, his name’s Sparky, and he’s got opinions sometimes. Should’ve said, probably.”

5 successes to keep watching somehow!

Erin listened attentively to the story, even if she had to take notes on words to look up later, and the pale cherry blossom face even gave an open smile when it ended. But her commentary on it was quickly stolen by the appearance of the phone. Erin scooted over, stretching her elegant neck to look at Sparky, her willowy figure quite at odds with her brilliant grin.

"Well, hello there!" Erin exclaimed to the phone, giggling slightly. She hovered a finger near Underwood's pocket, as if she was holding it out for Sparky to shake, or as if she wanted to pet him.

"I didn't see you hiding! Aren't you just the cutest thing?" The pale lady looked back at Sergei, trying to coax the phone further out so that the rabbit-eared man could see it. "You can come out, we're not scary. Honest."

"You know, I have a little fellow named Beat that reminds me a lot of you. He's not so talkative, though," Erin told the phone, still hovering a finger in front of it, like a girl would act towards a kitten. "Do you have any stories you like to tell?"

Also presuming Sergei takes a turn telling stories I try to help him out and hope I don't botch the contract rolls!
Dice Roll: 9d10s8ez
d10 Results: 7, 4, 4, 8, 7, 9, 5, 7, 1 (Total Successes = 2)
Omen (2)
Dice Roll: 11d10s8ez
d10 Results: 8, 6, 8, 6, 2, 7, 1, 8, 9, 4, 8 (Total Successes = 5)
Verdant Spring (5)
Dice Roll: 11d10s8ez
d10 Results: 1, 3, 5, 1, 3, 10, 4, 8, 8, 10, 3, 3, 5 (Total Successes = 4)
Verdant Spring (4)




 

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