Chapter 8: Ear to the Ground

Heather raised an eyebrow, but the smile on her face didn’t waver. “A second set of clothes ruined? Nash, sweetie, you may need to be a little less hard on your wardrobe. I’m only one woman, here.” She’d met him outside of his apartment. He didn’t have the heart to tell her what had happened last night as she had sat him down in the main office. That he had almost died, his heart stopped in his chest. She was brushing a bit of bactine across his cheeks. It stung, but that was probably a good sign. The last thing he needed was an infection. “Have you ever considered backup? Maybe even just not getting into situations where you’re going to get murdered?” she asked, tone chiding as she folded the tattered outfit. She sighed softly, and the sound was warm and pleasant, as she fussed over him. It had been a long time since he’d felt something like that. He slipped the pink book he had recovered from his jacket into his pants pocket.

“You know, I thought about that, but I really wanted an excuse to visit you again.” He gave her a cheerful smile. It was fake, but perhaps not as fake as it would’ve been around other people. There was something about her presence that made him feel almost human. “I’ve only got one more set of clothing, so I’ll be sure to keep it intact. It wouldn’t do for me to wind up solving this murder naked.” The scent of instant oatmeal filled the small office. The microwave beeped, and she stepped away, pulling out the instant meal, in its small paper bowl. She mixed a little milk into the oatmeal, and handed him the bowl with a plastic spoon. He’d finished it by the time she’d reopened the bottle of bactine, wolfing it down ravenously. He tugged on the collar of his only remaining good suit.

“Well, next time, how about you just come around for breakfast. It’d be much more pleasant than seeing you walk in, looking like death warmed over. I worry, you know?” She smiled softly. “So. Busy day ahead of you, hmmm?” He nodded absently, rubbing his chin. He needed a shave. The last two nights had left him frazzled enough that he hadn’t gotten one. Ah well. He supposed he could put it off one more day without looking like a homicidal maniac. “You heard about the fight this morning?” He frowned, looking over at her. “Yeah, apparently a fistfight in Ariel’s diner. Things got good and properly wrecked down there- Hey, what about your clothes!” He was already out of the door, and running towards the car. He climbed in, starting the engine, and peeled out of the parking lot, gravel flying as the car found its traction. He knew he was driving more erratically than he should. It had been at least 24 hours since he had taken his anti-psychotics, and it wasn’t a good time to tempt withdrawal and madness. He swore to himself that he would take one on his way back. For now, a nameless dread had grabbed hold of him.

The front window of the diner was scattered across the parking lot, shattered into powder and small shards. Jagged edges remained in the window frame. Ariel was visible behind the counter, polishing it industriously, with a ferocious expression on her face. Nash winced. He stepped around to the entrance. “Ariel? You alright?” She looked up, her eyes full of thunder. When she recognized him, she relaxed, sitting back on a stool behind the counter, and gave him a smile. That was unexpected. Honestly, he’d anticipated an immediate reaming about how this was all his fault. “I came as soon as I heard about the fight.”

She sighed. “There was a bit of a fight this morning. Mister Laurence broke his cane over John Nakamura’s head, and threw him out of the window. Pearl gave them a good talking to, and told both of them that she didn’t want to see any more trouble out of them.” She caught Nash’s stare. “The window’s easy enough to replace, and neither of them were hurt badly.” Nash remembered Mister Laurence. The man had been geriatric. He stared back at the window. “Heroes are like oak, Silas. They don’t wear out when they get older. They just keep getting tougher. John Nakamura was fine, too. Tengu know how to roll with a punch.” She sighed. “You hungry this morning?”

“Thanks, I had some instant oatmeal with Heather. What the hell got them fighting? I thought this place was… peaceful.” He frowned. The long talk with Megan was still buzzing in his head.

“Dean, of course. John Nakamura said that it was a damn shame. Mister Laurence said that was a pretty thing for someone to be saying when it was one of the Japanese that killed him. Things got heated, fast. Before I could break it up, well…” She waved her hand towards the window. “I’ve been running this diner for the past eighty years. I’ve never seen a fight get out of hand that quickly.” She sighed. “I’d love to blame you. But I don’t think that’d be remotely fair.” She looked up at him, and finally seemed to notice the cuts on his cheeks, the pink where the fire had scorched his face. “Have fun last night?” she asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Oh, this. Someone bit me last night, and burnt down the old make-out shack. My heart nearly stopped, and you saved me from a fatal fall. I mean, that’s what it looked like. I was tripping on snake venom by that point.” Nash sighed. “Can you trip on snake venom? I didn’t even know there were any hallucinogenic snake venoms. Did I thank you for showing me how to use the wind yesterday? Because I’m pretty sure the only reason I’m not in a body-bag is because of that.” Ariel stared as he babbled, and the words finally, mercifully, stopped. Nearly dying must have been weighing on him more heavily than he thought.

“Well. I’m… glad I could be of help, Silas.” She frowned. “That’s twice now the gift has saved your life. And we’ve only known each other for two days. You know, when I’ve gifted a hero, they usually get a few months of solid training before they’re expected to risk their lives. I know I told you you’d be forced to learn fast, but this is a bit reckless.” He frowned. That was the second time she’d used his first name. It beat ‘G-man’, though. She seemed to read the expression on his face, and gave him a knowing smile. “Oh, yes. I’m very familiar with you, now. No secrets between teacher and pupil.” She laughed softly. “So, you heard that my diner was the scene of a fight, and the first thing you do is come see me? I’m a little bit flattered. Did you think, perchance, that something was going to happen to the Avatar of Storms, the Goddess of Wind?” She leaned her head on her hand, smirking. “Foolish. Chauvinist. But just a little bit attractive in a human. Most of the people who know me wouldn’t have even given a thought to my safety. They’d be more worried about the people who were fighting in my diner. A girl can start to feel as though she’s being taken for granted.”

“I… just wanted to make sure. I’ve been getting the impression that this place was peaceful. Hearing about a fight-” He thought of the woman in red, with bloody lips and a gunmetal smile. “I was worried it might have been something more than just a little brawl, if you know what I mean.” Ariel was still smiling. “And… I wanted to make sure my teacher was alright? You know how human stories are. Mentors are always at a risk.” Ariel eyed him, and sighed.

“Been talking to Megan, hmmm? All that stuff about stories. I bet she told you me and my sisters are a bunch of lovesick fools, desperate for humanity to feel about us the way we feel about them?” She snorted. “What an imagination that girl has. We don’t need you. We never did, after all.” She crossed her arms, leaning forward on the counter. “You’ll have to get used to something. If something was dangerous to me, or my sisters, you wouldn’t be able to protect us. You, Silas Nash, are a weakling. Human, and not even a hero. No destiny to see you through, no story to draw strength from. You get points from me for the attitude, but I would recommend that you be careful. You’ve already had your heart stopped once. And you haven’t even confronted one of the truly dangerous people in this city yet.” She closed her eyes, and sighed softly. “You shouldn’t try to act like a hero when you’re not one.” Nash was silent for several long seconds, and looked down at his shoes. “I’m fine, and the diner’s fine, and it was good of you to come by.” She smiled. “After you’re done with your work today, go see Gene. She wanted to talk with you about something.”

“She talks?” Nash asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, something she wanted to… gesture with you about.” Ariel smiled. Nash stood up to go, and she reached out, resting an arm on his shoulder. “Hey, before you go.” She turned away, and filled a Styrofoam cup with dark, black coffee. She passed it over the counter, and he took it gratefully, sipping from it. The coffee was hot enough to burn, and it tasted perfect. He let out a heated breath, and smiled towards her. It wasn’t quite a real smile, but it was closer than he’d gotten in a while. “Pick your fights, would you? And don’t get yourself killed. I don’t like emotionally investing in people who are going to die just when I start to like them.” He nodded.

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s all I ask.”

And with that, he walked out of the diner, and checked his cellphone. Some celestial forces must have aligned, because he had service. He dialed Pearl’s line, and set the phone down on the dashboard of the car as he climbed into the driver’s seat, turning it to speakerphone. It picked up. “Hello?” Pearl sounded, if anything, more exhausted than before. She was going to collapse of a heart attack- he paused. No, she probably wasn’t. But he didn’t want to see what happened to a… ‘spirit’ when they were exhausted beyond the point of endurance.

“Pearl. It’s Nash. The stakeout last night paid off.”

“Nash?! Christ, where have you been?! We found the shack burned to the ground! We didn’t find any bodies, but-” The relief in her voice was obvious. He felt a little tug of guilt. He should’ve let her know. He supposed he’d assumed she’d heard from the doctor.

“Yeah, things got a bit heated. I took a snakebite. Nearly stopped my heart, apparently, but I recovered at the clinic. Cassandra Hirosata was there. You know anything about that?”

“Cassandra? I’ve been trying to keep her out of things. The girl’s going to get in over her head one of these days. So, what did you find?”

“Pink book. Looks like a diary.” He slid his hand into his jacket, pulling the book out, and placing it on the passenger seat. “Isabelle’s, by the name written on the inside front cover. It’s all in Japanese. Might give us a little insight if you can translate it. Let’s meet at the school. Talk with the kids there, get a better picture of Megara Drakos. I’ve got my suspicions about her.” He frowned. “And whoever attacked me last night, I’m pretty sure they were a teenager. Couldn’t make out any distinguishing marks before I got bitten, and started hallucinating.”

The school was an old building, built in the 50s, and felt like it. Dingy yellow tiles under buzzing fluorescent bulbs. Bright red lockers, endless rows of them, filling a single-story building. The school covered the area around Zion, K-12. There was no more than one class for each grade, and on average, maybe ten to twenty students to a grade. The city didn’t have a lot of kids, that much was clear. Nash felt the oddest nostalgia walking through the public school. Despite growing up in the city, his schools had always looked a lot like this. Maybe they built the places with a kit. Maybe they just always ended up looking alike because of mythic resonance. He spotted Pearl, and waved to her. She was standing outside of the principal’s office. “Megara Drakos at the school today?”

Pearl shook her head. “Took a temporary leave of absence. Nobody’s seen her since we talked with her two days ago. Nobody in the police department, at any rate.” Nash frowned. “Not necessarily suspicious. She disappears from time to time.” She gave Nash a look. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree about this. I really don’t think she could be the murderer.”

Nash nodded. “Is that your opinion as an omniscient being, or as a citizen of the city?” Pearl was quiet, and he continued. “I don’t think she was the one who killed him. But I think she knows why he died, and she might be keeping information away from us. I think we need to push her hard if we’re going to get the information we need. And that starts with finding out about what the hell is going on with the students here. Is Cassandra Hirosata here today, by the way?”

Pearl smiled. “No. Probably taking the day off. She’s been affected by this more than a lot of the people I know. That girl’s a strange one.”

Nash nodded. “I owe her my life for last night. I would’ve probably died on the beach if she hadn’t been there to help me.” He handed Pearl the book. “See if anyone can find any genetic evidence on this. Give it a read-through. I’d feel guilty about reading a teenage girl’s diary. Plus, I don’t speak Japanese.” He opened the door. Sergeant Dio was sitting at the desk, with a young man across from him. Nash took a seat behind the young man, who cast a nervous glance over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about me, son. Just talk with Sergeant Dio.”

The entire twelfth grade was interrogated. Most of them said the same things. Dean Constantinou was a well-liked young man. He had a lot of friends. He was extremely popular with the young women, and always friendly. He got along well with his father, and clashed somewhat with his mother. She tended to be harsher on him than on the other students. “Who’s next?” he asked Dio, checking the clock. It was nearly lunch time for the students.

“Isabelle Onnashi.” Nash sat up in his chair, focus returning. Pearl ushered the girl in. She looked slightly better than she had the last time, though her eyes were still red. The girl was dressed in a white T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. Her hair was messy, and she smelled of harsh soap, like she had spent an hour in the shower, scrubbing herself raw. He stood up, and held out his hand to shake with her. She smiled apologetically as she offered him her left hand. Her right hand was placed firmly in her pocket.

“I’m sorry, detective. I burned my fingers something awful yesterday, while I was cooking.” Her eyes flickered away from him. The girl’s pretty white hair hung around her shoulders like an angel’s halo. Nash gave her his best fake smile, and switched hands, giving her a reassuring shake. The liar. “How can I help you?” she asked, her voice soft. There was the rasp of snake scales slithering around her. Nash very carefully did not react as he pulled the chair out for her.

“We’d like to ask you about Dean Constantinou’s relationship with his mother, Megara Drakos.” Dio’s voice was firm, but surprisingly comforting. Nash hated playing the bad cop, but he’d never be able to get that kind of fatherly, kindly authority in his voice. Isabelle’s stance visibly relaxed at the question.

“Oh.” She looked aside. “I don’t like to speak ill. They loved each other, but they didn’t quite get along. Dean was never happy to be moved here , you know. He was used to the military life. He had all of these stories about exciting things that happened there. And here, there was so little. He couldn’t wait until he was 18. He said he’d leave the day he graduated.” She smiled softly. “I think that Megara was worried that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. They fought a lot. He’d come to me afterwards, talking about how she called him an ungrateful child.” She sighed, frowning. “He always said he hated the snakes that she kept. He thought they were ugly things, just like her, full of venom and trying to choke the life out of things.” She looked up, and frowned. “But- you don’t think that Megara Drakos was responsible for him dying, do you?”

Nash spoke before Dio could. “We’re not ruling anyone out, Miss Onnashi.”

Isabelle looked over her shoulder at Nash, frowning. Then, her head turned down, her eyes on her shoes. “That couldn’t be. I’m sure she’d never do something like that.” Her voice was soft. “They fought, but they were family. I… No, she wouldn’t do that, no matter what” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself.

“Tell us a bit about Dean himself. Was he the sort to get himself into some trouble?” Dio asked, and Isabelle brightened up again.

“He was… always a bit of a troublemaker. I think that was part of why he and Megara were so strained. He thought he knew everything, and he didn’t like being told he was young. He was always in such a rush to grow up.” To Nash’s annoyance, a blush ran across Isabelle’s cheeks. God, how he hated young love. Then he considered what had happened to the boy, and felt quite guilty. “I met him when he first moved here. I was always an outsider, and I didn’t have many friends besides Susan. He stepped right up to me, and told me I was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.” Isabelle stared into space for a moment, brushing her fingers through her hair, eyes lost in the memory.

“How’d you burn your fingers, again?” Nash asked. Isabelle jumped in her seat at the sound of his voice, then turned to face him.

“I… They were burned while I was cooking. I was making rice for me and mother last night. Why?”

He smiled cheerfully. “Just concern. You hear about that fire last night, out on the bluffs?” She didn’t answer, staring down at her hands. He rubbed his cheek. The skin was still pink where it had been scorched. “Lot of burns going around. You can go now.”

The bell rang, as if on cue. Nash stepped out of the principal’s office, standing next to Pearl. “So what the hell was that fight about in Ariel’s diner, this morning?” He asked under his breath. Sergeant Dio stepped out of the principal’s office, and nodded at Pearl, before heading for the exit to the school.

“You heard about that, did you?” Pearl leaned against the wall, and frowned. “There aren’t a lot of fights here. It’s part of…”

“The truce?” Pearl gave him a surprised look. “I talked with Doctor Smith. She was forthcoming about things. It was a welcome change of pace. One of the things she mentioned was the magic behind this place. Holding spirits and humans apart. Keeping the world calm. Anything you want to tell me about that?”

Pearl sighed. “The Maiden. She has a bad habit of sharing that information around without mentioning how subjective it is. The thing of it is…” She stared into space. “Out of everyone in this city, only Gene, Ariel, Heather, and I were anything like sapient when the accord was first struck. The time before humans is like- well, do you remember what it was like in your mother’s womb?” He raised his eyebrow. “So much of what the people of this city know is more like legends and mythology than historical fact. Megan Smith has been around for only perhaps a millenia or two, if I remember correctly. The upshot is, this place was built to be a source of harmony. To allow the world of stories and humans to meet without damaging each other. It’s why there are no crimes. It’s why people here can live in harmony with people who are so different from them. But that’s not in the nature of monsters, or heroes. They’re beings of passion. When the harmony here has been disrupted, even just a little bit, it means that the peace will fracture. The natural inclinations of heroes and of monsters will rise to the surface. If Dean’s death is not made right, the city will fall apart.”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre. The falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; The centre cannot hold.” Pearl raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I read Yeats, too. How the hell can all of this be going wrong this fast? How can the world have stayed balanced on a knife-edge like this, Pearl? I mean, these Horsemen-” Pearl flinched.

“Shit! She told you about them.”

Nash frowned. “Was she not supposed to?”

Pearl sighed. “It doesn’t matter now, I suppose. Just remember this. The White Buffalo Calf Woman is damned clever, and she knows more than most people you’ll ever meet. But what she tells you is only what she has heard. It’s not the truth.” Nash frowned.

“So then what the hell is the truth?” Pearl smiled, and didn’t answer. Nash’s frown deepened. “You could be a little more helpful.” Pearl took out the pink-covered book.

“Tell you what. I’ll translate this, and see if I can ferret anything out of it. I’m going to go get a bite to eat. You ought to do the same. I think we’ve just about exhausted the potential for information here.” She smiled, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “The truth’s out there, but nobody ever said it would be easy to find.”

“Thanks, Mulder.” He gave her a wan smile, and turned.

Truth being a subjective thing wasn’t something he was comfortable with. The very idea rankled him, not least because he had spent years thinking that he couldn’t trust his own mind. There was a world out there, where everything was well-defined, and where there was no question about what was the truth, and what was a lie. He’d tried to become a part of that world for years. He’d worked so hard for it. And just for a moment, he felt his eyes water, and the tears threatened to overflow. He had tried so hard to keep it together, and in two days it was gone. The real world was shattered, and he was surrounded by monsters. But he held back the tears.

He had a vague idea of going to the small, grassy lot behind the school, which appeared to serve as the football field. As he walked down the corridor, someone hissed at him. He turned towards a doorway, leading into a darkened janitor’s closet. A young woman stood inside. She was Asian, with dark brown hair, and shockingly green eyes. Her face was pretty, though not breathtaking. He frowned. She hadn’t been one of the students they’d interviewed that day.

“Agent Nash! I’m Susan Xian. I need to talk with you,” she hissed. His eyes ran over her. She wore a T-shirt. It was for a band called the Arch-Senators. What looked like Benjamin Franklin in a wizard’s robes adorned the front, lightning rising from his fingertips. Her hands were on the door frame. And around her, he heard the rustle of scales. He tensed, but studied her hand. No sign of broken fingers there. That probably didn’t mean squat, but he relaxed slightly, and stepped into the small room. He leaned against the wall.

“Alright. Let’s hear what you have to say. You’re Isabelle Onnashi’s friend, yeah? And you used to be friends with the deceased?” He slipped his hand into his jacket. He could feel the butt of his gun. His fingers briefly touched the grip, and then drew out his pen and notepad. “Please, tell me everything that you think would be helpful.”

Susan took a deep breath. “I think that Mrs. Drakos was the one who killed Dean.” She looked down. “I didn’t want to tell anyone. But I’ve been friends with Dean since he moved here, and Isabelle since we met back as kids. They liked each other right away when he moved here. And he got along with her really well. But Mrs Drakos never approved. She said that Dean was…” She frowned. “I always thought she was kind of racist. Dean told me that she’d go on these rants, telling him that he should date his own kind. That he wasn’t supposed to be with someone like- like Isabelle.” She frowned down at her hands. “People in this town give you looks. You know? If you’re not the right color, or the right kind. Mister Constantinou was always really nice to Isabelle and me when we visited Dean’s house, but Mrs Drakos…” She shook her head. “She never did it in public. She was polite with me and Isabelle, but Dean would tell me about the things she said. That if he kept dating Isabelle… He’d get exactly what he deserved.”

Nash stared. The idea of race playing a part in all of this was so surreal, he had to fight to keep from laughing. He’d gotten so used to dealing with the idea of monsters and heroes, the simple concept of racial tension was almost a relief. And then came the question. “Miss Xian. What do you know about snakes?” The girl froze, staring. “Since I’ve come to this town, it’s become very clear that strange things are happening. What I want to know, is how much of the strangeness are you familiar with?” She was silent for several long seconds. “If you have no idea what I’m talking about, of course, you can just ignore it.”

Susan didn’t speak. She just gave him a bemused, slightly frightened look. Nash sighed. “Alright. Let’s move on with this. You think that Megara Drakos was responsible for Dean’s death. Do you have any kind of proof of that?”

“Someone killed him. Right?” Susan’s voice was very soft. Nash shrugged.

“I don’t think that his death was just an act of nature. I don’t know about murder. I haven’t met anyone in this city who seemed like they wanted to kill him.”

Susan sighed. “He was- something good in our lives. Me and Isabelle grew up together, and we were always lonely. There aren’t a lot of people our age in the city. And we looked weird, compared to the other girls. My eyes, Isabelle’s hair, we never really fit in. And the fact that we’re adopted. Not even Japanese. They’d tease us about those things. The mean things that kids say, you know?” She bit her lower lip. “But Dean- he came here, and he liked us. He said we were the only interesting people in the whole city. He was always talking about how someday, we’d all leave together, and do something actually important. He was so confident about the future, and it made us believe, too.” Those green eyes swam, and tears dripped down her cheeks. “And Mrs Drakos doesn’t even care. She’s just been cold throughout the whole thing. This really nice, sweet boy is dead, and-” She shook her head, taking a deep breath. Nash studied her for a long few seconds.

“So, how long have you been in love with Dean?” he asked, nonchalantly. She recoiled, as though she’d been slapped.

“It wasn’t like that. He was Isabelle’s. I just liked them both.” She didn’t meet his eyes as she spoke. “I would never do that to Isabelle.” Nash nodded sympathetically, and stood up.

“If you happen to get ahold of any evidence, then I’ll be happy to consider it. Thank you for telling me about all of this.” He stood up, and she grabbed his wrist. He looked back at her, raising his eyebrow.

“Please. Whoever did this. Make sure that they pay for what they did to him.” She looked him in the eye, green eyes full of pain. “They don’t deserve to live if he’s dead.” Her voice was slightly hoarse, and ragged. He felt a strange gnawing sensation, a tension inside of her, a tortured helplessness that was all-too-familiar. A part of him was almost moved by the emotional plea.

“I’ll make sure that justice is served.” Hollow words. They could mean anything, after all. He stepped out of the janitor’s closet, and walked down the hallways to the rear exit of the school. The day was a beautiful one. Summer’s heat was still in the air, but tempered slightly by the oncoming fall. September was just around the corner, and with it, colder days. Winter would come soon. He walked across the well-cut grass. The school’s athletics field was surrounded on three sides by the dense forest. He stared into the woods, and walked over to one of the large sets of aluminum bleachers. He sat on the second-lowest row, and stared out into the forest.

Everyone he had met in the city lied to him. Sometimes it was a lie of omission. Sometimes they lied to his face. It was hard to imagine that he was in a city populated by myths, and there were still greater secrets that were being kept from him. It made reading people nearly impossible. Take Isabelle, for example. She’d been lying when she said she’d burned her fingers cooking. But could it have been her who attacked him the night before? Or was it something else she was lying about? Susan had lied to him while she was explaining her history with her friends, but was it because there was something sinister? Or was it the simple lies of a teenager, embarrassed by their own selfish desires, and overestimating the animosity between mother and child? He sighed, leaned back, and saw Pearl approaching the bleachers from the other side. Even she had lied to him, though mostly by omission. She had told him that what was important was that he learn the truth for himself. He could appreciate that. It meant she was willing to let him make up his own mind about what he found. “What’s up?” he asked, as she approached. The look on her face was grave.

“Megara Drakos is leading a demonstration in downtown. Things are getting ugly.” He spat out an oath, as he stood up.

“Got any riot gear?” She raised an eyebrow. “Right. Town full of monsters and heroes. A plastic shield and a baton probably aren’t going to be much good. Shit. Let’s get down there. Maybe we can stop anyone from getting murdered today. What’s her beef?”

“She’s claiming that Irayama Onnashi murdered her son.”

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