“I’m telling you, he knows too much!” Max raged. “About the tunnel, about the Outlanders, Quentin, everything. Every word that came out of the bastard’s mouth was like he was accusing us of something!”
The young elder had been pacing back and forth in the office for the last twenty minutes, trying to convince Lucien and Bernard that the journalist he’d shared drinks with the previous night was a major threat to them all. Lucien kept smirking in that stupid way of his while Bernard crossed his arms and huffed. But no matter how much Max tried to make his point, neither of them seemed to believe him.
“Would you relax?” Lucien chuckled. “Benoit Laurent is nothing more than a bloody hack, and everyone hates him. The Dispatchers even have a price on his head. You really think he’d go running to tell them anything we’ve done?”
“If it clears his name, I wouldn’t put it past him!”
“Not that I agree with Lucien,” Bernard sighed, “but he’s right. They would have done something by now. Edmond knew about the stolen phase unit Tomas had after his visit yesterday. He barely said a word about it.”
“That was before the attack on the wall. If they’re running inventory of these parts, sooner or later they’re going to question where we got them and come after us. And for some reason, Igor didn’t take the ones we stole, which throws a pretty heavy wrench in things!”
“Seriously?” Lucien’s eyes widened. Max rushed out the open door, grabbing the old potato sack full of stolen wares from the boys’ hall and returned promptly. He dumped the three phase units onto the counter and flung the bag on the floor.
“Any further questions?”
“What specifically did Benoit say to you?”
Max sighed. “The official story on record is that we were kidnapped and held hostage by the Outlanders. He deduced that the only way any of us could have been taken was if we were in some way using the subway tunnel in the old Steamworks building.”
“Or we could just be using the building itself,” Bernard added.
“Either way, we’re not supposed to be there.”
“Doesn’t matter. The blame falls on the Dispatchers for not having sealed the tunnel,” Lucien said. “Besides, one of our poor, helpless children could have escaped and gotten hurt on the tracks. Prime material for a lawsuit.”
“You have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“Shouldn’t I? What answers did you give him, Maxwell!” the lanky boy shoved him.
“Nothing he didn’t already know. How many phase units did you give to Igor?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“How many phase units, Lucien!” Max seethed. “You must have given them something, otherwise how else did they manage to blow a giant fucking hole in the city wall?!”
“All right, can we not do this now?” Bernard sighed, stepping between them. “We all agreed Barreau is neutral territory. This office is for diplomatic resolutions, not wrestling matches.”
Max narrowed his eyes. “And what about the ten phase units that went missing from the precinct? Antoine thought we had one in our possession last night,” he said, pushing past Bernard. “Sure, it could have been anyone. But why accuse us? He named you specifically.”
“Hello!” Bernard grinned, gesturing wildly to the three phase units left on the counter. “Seems you’ve forgotten our more pressing matter.”
The two boys glared at him a second, incredulous that there could be anything more important than their current spat. Max was just about to concede until a furious banging sounded on the front door. All three of them jumped out of their skin and looked at one another. Lucien rushed to the window and tore back the curtain to see who was there.
“It’s Edmond,” he smirked. “I’m out, au revoir, have fun!” The insufferable boy dashed out the open office door to make a clean break for the back exit past the staircase before either of the elders could catch him.
“This isn’t over!” Max yelled, charging after the lanky bastard, only to have the door slammed in his face. “Goddamn it! Bernard, lock the back door. Now!” He whirled around and tossed his key ring over to his second-in-command as he passed by him, making way for the boys’ hall. “Hide our shit, the Dispatchers are here!” Every child in the room immediately dropped what they were doing and scrambled to gather up their stolen wares. An assortment of old rugs they kept placed strategically about the floor were thrown back to reveal trapdoors which served as storage spaces. In a matter of seconds, phase units, badges, trench coats, radios, and other Dispatcher gear were being shoved into them amid a cacophony of anxious voices.
“Fuck!” Max rushed back to the office, nearly forgetting about the three phase units he’d dumped onto the counter as the banging on the front door continued. “Please, just one bloody second,” he cried. Tears streamed down his face as he loaded the things back into the potato sack. Stupid. The elder was not one to cry under tense circumstances, but considering that everything seemed to be going to shit lately, such involuntary responses must have got the better of him. He swiped the tears with his sleeve and rushed back to the hall, clamoring to fit the bag into the space before Bernard answered the door. The rest of the boys kicked the rugs back into place and returned to stand at attention in front of their beds. Max heard Edmond’s team charge in before he’d even had the chance to turn around.
“Ah, Ferrier!” the lieutenant chimed. “You just can’t stop showing up on my radar, can you?”
Max scowled. “Believe me, it’s not as if I try.”
“House calls aren’t a pleasant experience for either of us,” Edmond sighed. “I prefer to avoid them when I can. But given recent events, I’m sure you understand the necessity.”
“What I understand is that one of my boys is dead and Lucien is off founding his own orphanage at the corner library up the street! Why don’t you go give him a house call? You’re wasting your time here. We have nothing to hide.”
“Is that so?” the lieutenant narrowed his eyes. “We found Quentin hiding away in the crawl space of your room just the other day-”
“Don’t you dare speak his name!” Max seethed.
“Of course. Forgive me,” Edmond said. “All the same…we were missing ten of our phase units from inventory the other night, for a total of thirteen. Three were confiscated that morning from myself, Captain Georges, and Isaac here by the Outlanders. Some were undoubtedly used to construct the bomb they used to break in, and we managed to retrieve four from the gang members we killed. Judging by the blast radius on the wall, we estimate that five units were detonated at maximum capacity. That leaves-”
“Four. I can do the math.” The elder shuddered. Three of those lay under his very feet, which meant all the missing units were accounted for…except one. Where the hell could it be? Not that it mattered much. Max was certain they didn’t have it, unless Lucien in all of his craftiness had somehow managed to smuggle it onto the property—of course, he wouldn’t have put it past his former friend.
“Look, I don’t mean to place you under suspicion-”
“That’s exactly what you mean,” Max sniffed, wiping his nose. It was still stuffy from the tears.
“You have obviously acquired older models of phase units before,” the lieutenant stepped toward him. “I’ve no idea how you managed it, but I’m sure you’re well aware that the possession of such equipment is illegal for civilians. We have come across a few units being sold in back room black market deals during previous investigations-”
“I’ve resolved to look the other way for as long as I can. The Barreau District is a dangerous place, and out of principle, I must allow you some form of protection. I’ll spare you a search for now, but those units must be tracked. Given my generosity…I trust you’ll keep the settings low and report to me all serial numbers of any units that may pass into your hands. Can you do that?”
“Yes…of course,” Max swallowed. “We have two older models currently in our possession,” he said, nervously making his way over to a shelving unit aside one of the stone support columns. He rummaged across an assortment of old radio parts and picked it out from behind a pile of books. “This is the one we were caught with last night. Florian gave it to me and then ran off. I’m guessing he’s with Lucien now, but who knows.” He watched Edmond pull out a pad and paper. “This is number…006374.”
“And the other?”
“Tomas has that one, he’s always tinkering with it,” the elder sighed. “Tomas…Tomas?” Max gazed over the faces of the boys under his watch, who all seemed to be making bewildered glances at one another. He frantically checked the ranks, but the child was not amongst them. “Shit! Any of you know where…oh, right. He left with Lucien the other night.” Several of the boys sunk their heads. How could he have forgotten?
“At this hour, I believe I might have some idea where he is,” Bernard cringed through clenched teeth.
“Well let’s hear it!” Max demanded.
“Private affairs of a…certain nature.”
“That thing he did every morning when he crawled-”
“Oh! Right…let’s not embarrass anyone.” Max felt a cold sweat come over him as he looked again to the boys, some of whom hung their heads a bit lower than usual to hide the flush of red on their cheeks. For one consecutive week during the summer, he recalled coming downstairs to wake everyone up and noticed a rhythmic movement beneath the sheets of a different boy’s bed each morning, after which Tomas would emerge and slink back to his own mattress. He had been performing oral sex on several of them for some time. In an orphanage of hormonal kids, Max figured it was bound to happen now and again. Out of respect for their privacy, he would whistle quietly and wait a few moments until they’d finished their business before ringing the bell. But where most were content to talk about girls and exchange dirty magazines, Tomas seemed strictly more interested in males.
“If you have the serial number, that’s all I need,” Edmond assured him.
“Anyone remember that stupid number?” the elder asked.
“I do,” the shy, red-headed boy named Louis said. “It’s 006981.”
“Thank you,” Edmond nodded.
“Wonder how he remembers those two middle numbers,” one of the older boys cracked. Max slapped him. “Ow!”
“Well then,” Edmond coughed, “seeing as this was just a routine visit, and you’ve provided the information I needed, I see no reason to bother you any further. We will of course be increasing security detail in this district over the coming days up until the gala celebrations. If I deem it necessary to conduct a more thorough search, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you may want to keep an eye on your own ‘inventory’,” he nodded toward the boys. “I wouldn’t want you to lose another.”
Max frowned. “You’re so charming.”
“So I’ve been told. Cheerio,” the lieutenant said. He moved for the doorway, but stopped short. “Oh, one last matter I think should be brought to your attention. Your Outlander boy who was killed-”
“Quentin,” Max corrected him.
“Yes…a blind elderly gentleman came by the precinct earlier claiming to be his grandfather. We released the body to him.”
“You said you didn’t want it, so I saw no harm in doing so, and since family takes priority in such matters, I thought you deserved to know.”
“He doesn’t have any family, why do you think he was staying at Barreau? There were no surviving relatives listed on his citizenship papers! Or didn’t you bother to do your job?”
“I would not normally disclose this information, but standard Dispatcher procedure is incineration of any deceased bodies that come into our custody, whether they are released to proper relatives or not. His name is Fernand Vaugrenard if you’d care to look him up, perhaps pay a visit.”
“Thank you, I will,” Max breathed.
“Good. Well I’ve got to be going, so I’ll get out of your hair. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
With that, Bernard led the young lieutenant out the front door and promptly locked it behind him. As Max watched the rest of the boys disband to resume their daily leisure activities, he couldn’t help but feel overcome with a strong sense of loneliness. There was a certain finality to the knowledge that Quentin was now truly gone. So long as his body remained, he’d thought, perhaps there might be some way in Viktorium to…no. That’s silly. People die here, just as they do in the real world. That night was proof.
And yet if there were any truth to Benoit Laurent’s articles, which—considering the man’s remarkable knowledge, there had to be—maybe, just maybe, it was possible that some part of Quentin was still alive somewhere. Max had also observed that he was among one of the few in Viktorium who aged. Bernard didn’t seem to, and neither did most of the orphan boys. But all of the Dispatchers aged normally. In fact, he couldn’t recall a single Dispatcher on the force who appeared immortal. I still can’t remember my own death…if Quentin were to come back, would he remember his?
Max shivered and did his best to shake such questions from his mind. Unable to do so, he paced back to his office and dug out the bottle of whiskey he kept stashed in the bottom drawer of his desk for such occasions. Bernard came through the door a second later and grabbed two shot glasses from the corner shelf.
“Read my mind,” the African boy smiled. “That was pretty close.”
“Yeah,” Max smirked.
“So they released Quentin’s body. That was pretty damn quick.”
“And unauthorized, as far as I can tell.” He tore open the center drawer of the desk and slapped the dead boy’s citizenship documents down to look over them again. “Yeah…not a single living relative listed. No mention of a Fernand Vaugrenard anywhere.”
“Must be a new arrival,” Bernard winced as he downed his shot. “Damn.”
“I’ll look into it later. No time to head to Immigration Affairs now. We’ve got preparations to make for La Cour’s welcome gala. It’s being moved to Verdevale, which means we’ll need all hands on deck. That also means smoothing things over with Lucien, yet again,” Max rolled his eyes and downed another shot. “All right, I’m not about to lose any more boys. Where the bloody hell is Tomas?!”