Saint of Traitors
an abandoned Starbreaker novel
Morgan Cooper knows that Isaac Magnin is behind the trafficking of devil-killer rifles and the attempted coup d’état in Boston, but he can’t prove it. He must therefore pin upon the smoothest criminal he’s ever faced a charge that he can prove. Wage theft and the possible disappearance of a scientist in Magnin’s employ will do nicely.
The following is a work of fiction. All places, events, and people depicted in this work are fictional or used in a fictitious context. Any resemblances to real places, events, and people are coincidental. This work may not be appropriate for all readers, and the author does not condone everything they depict in this work.
Table of Contents
- Chapter One: Wasting My Hate
- AsgarTech Building, Present - Isaac Magnin
- AsgarTech Building, Present - Morgan Cooper
- Vauxhall Gardens, Winter Solstice, Late Night: Morgan Cooper
- Royal Albert Hall, Backstage, Winter Solstice, Evening: Morgan Cooper
- Vauxhall Gardens, Winter Solstice, Late Night: Morgan Cooper
- AsgarTech Building, Josefine Malmgren’s Office: Morgan Cooper
- Author’s Note
For my wife, Catherine Gatt. Sorry about all of the false starts. Are you sure you wouldn’t like coauthor credit? It could be under Gatt/Graybosch; it worked for Sypha Belnades and Trevor Belmont.
Chapter One: Wasting My Hate
AsgarTech Building, Present - Isaac Magnin
Isaac Magnin had never been one to let the arrival of an Adversary perturb him. He had recruited many of them personally, and most still mistook him for a friend. He had rescued them from the lives of poverty to which they had been condemned by an accident of birth. He had altered the trajectories of their lives once, and he could easily do so again.
Not only had Magnin made many of the Adversaries, but he had made them necessary. He had shattered the old world order of nation-states and multinational corporations. The final death toll of the chaos following Nationfall had been measured in gigadeaths, but all that meant to Magnin was that when it was finally time for him to be taken down, the Adversary he had chosen for the task would have ample cause to do so.
Magnin had already given Morgan Cooper ample cause to confront him, but thus far Cooper had proved recalcitrant. He had staged the murder of his ex-girlfriend and former bandmate Christabel Crowley. He had bought up the bonds issued by Nakajima Armaments to raise capital for new research and development, and used the resulting leverage to coerce its CEO into developing a process to mass-produce Gauss rifles, which he then used a disgraced ex-Adversary to steal and distribute to manufacturers who had no scruples about producing military weapons for black-market distribution. He had goaded one of his distributors, Alexander Liebenthal, into taking an entire city hostage and accusing Morgan Cooper of helping the Phoenix Society impose tyranny upon the world by assassinating its critics.
Surely these machinations should have been sufficient to provoke a man into challenging the author of his miseries to a duel. Cooper had certainly seemed ready to do so at Christabel Crowley’s funeral a month ago, and Magnin suspected that only Naomi Bradleigh’s presence had kept Morgan from drawing his sword and calling him out then and there.
I suppose I should be proud that Cooper so craves my daughter’s regard, Magnin thought. But I cannot have her whispering sweet reason into his ear any longer.
A text came from the lobby receptionist. «Dr. Magnin, there’s an Adversary here with a warrant. He’s here to investigate an exploitation charge.»
This news would have struck terror into the hearts of many executives, for an Adversary could order a corporation dissolved, its assets confiscated, and its senior management exiled to the outer planets if even a casual worker had been coerced into working a single minute of unpaid overtime, but Magnin knew this would not be his fate or that of the Asgard Technological Development Corporation. There had been no need to compel Josefine Malmgren; the young scientist was eager to prove herself as an AI researcher, and when she let demon curiosity ride her she lost all track of time. «Send him to the top floor via the executive elevator.»
«He’s armed. Are you sure you want to let him up there? We could arrange a secure location with protection for you.»
While Magnin would have been happy to face most Adversaries while surrounded by heavily armed bodyguards for the sheer pleasure of letting his benevolent mask slip for a moment as he played the heavy, his experience with Cooper suggested that this would only result in needless bloodshed and expense.
Morgan Cooper has already proved himself capable of putting mere humans to the sword, Magnin thought. The question is whether he can kill ensof.
A soft chime echoed through the long, narrow office as the elevator opened. Morgan Cooper strode into Magnin’s lair as if it were his own, taking in his surroundings as the door closed behind him. He approached slowly, stopping to study many of the sculptures and paintings with which Magnin decorated his office.
Magnin waited for Cooper to cross the office before rising. “Good afternoon, Adversary. I trust no introductions are necessary.”
“‘Tis plain you’re a man of wealth and taste,” said the Adversary. “Unless I’m mistaken your collection includes art relocated during Nationfall.”
“Stolen from the Vatican. I must admit I had not considered it when cataloguing my crimes. Might this be the offense that pushes you over the edge?”
“Don’t try my patience, Imaginos.” Cooper’s tone had taken a cold edge as he used the name by which Magnin’s fellow ensof knew him, instead of the one he used when moving and shaking the human world. “That’s right. I know your name. And I am not as confused by the nature of your game as I once was.”
“And what is the nature of my game?”
Morgan shook his head. “I know you’re trying to draw me and my friends into some clandestine war of demons and wizards by turning my life into a piece of Grand Guignol theatre. You think that if you push my buttons in the proper sequence, I’ll master the preternatural powers you built into me and kill God Itself to get a clear shot at you.”
It was so close to the truth that Magnin failed to contain his mirth. A low chuckle escaped his throat before he slipped back into character. “Please tell me you managed to figure that out on your own.”
“Eddie Cohen told me everything. Got a buddy of his named Desdinova to put on a little magic show.” Cooper turned away, seeming to consider the artwork. His gaze settled on a masterwork by Caravaggio that Magnin had looted from the Vatican during Nationfall. “You’ve got the whole damn star system dancing to your tune, and all you had to do was kill nine billion people. Enjoying it so far?”
“Immensely,” said Magnin, for it was true. He had enjoyed ruling this world from the shadows. He had reveled in his power, and the wealth it brought him. All of life’s pleasures were his for the asking. “You should try it sometime. Then again, you already have some idea of what it’s like to be me.”
Cooper reddened, and it pleased Magnin that his Adversary could be stung by having his nose rubbed in his own hypocrisy. “Why are you here? You obviously aren’t ready to make me pay for what I did to Christabel Crowley. Do you even know the extent of my crimes against her?”
“I’m more interested in your crimes against Dr. Josefine Malmgren today. She works for AsgarTech as part of the AI R&D team. Any of this ring a bell?”
“I know the young lady, though not as intimately as she might like.”
“You won’t take her to bed, but you’ll work her into an early grave?”
“I’ve done nothing of the sort,” said Magnin, feeling as if he had had his scruples thrown in his face. “It would not do to take advantage of a young scientist’s admiration.”
“Where is Dr. Malmgren? I would like to see for myself that she’s still healthy and in good spirits.”
Magnin queried Heimdall, the daemon providing computing services for the entire AsgarTech Corporation, and requested Josefine’s current location. “It appears she is not in the building today. Moreover, she has not been in the office since the completion of initial testing for her current project over a week ago. I gather Dr. Malmgren didn’t lodge the complaint herself.”
“Not likely. What I find particularly interesting is that it was one of your friends who sent the assignment my way. Perhaps they hoped to halt your machinations without bloodying their own hands.”
Magnin smiled at that revelation; he suspected it had been Elisabeth Bathory who had steered Cooper his way. “I think you’re having fun with this.”
“Fun?” Morgan snorted. “Hardly. I require her personnel file and access to her office and any computing resources she used at work, preferably sometime before Ragnarok unless you’d like me to add obstruction to the charges against you.”
Magnin had hoped that Cooper’s visit would precipitate a duel, but he could work with the Adversary’s determination to continue playing his role. Better for this asura emulator to find the truth on his own than to hear it from my lips, he thought as he improvised a new gambit. Even if I told him how I had terrorized Naomi Bradleigh and shattered her faith, he would only dismiss my words as another attempt at manipulation.
“Indeed, Adversary,” said Magnin as he sent instructions to the IT department. It was unfortunate he could not be there to see their reaction; he suspected that the senior system administrator was having kittens right now. “If you go to the IT department you will be granted full access to Dr. Malmgren’s account on the AsgarTech megaframe. If there’s anything in there that can help you find her and confirm her safety, you are welcome to it. I am every bit the demon you think I am, but I am not without conscience.”
“Is it your conscience that compels you to risk self-incrimination?” Morgan narrowed his eyes, as if suspecting a trap aimed at him. “I think you should consult an attorney before you give me the keys to the kingdom.”
“No need,” said Magnin. “You seem to have forgotten that I want you to come after me.”
AsgarTech Building, Present - Morgan Cooper
Morgan Cooper’s journey from Isaac Magnin’s penthouse office to the Artificial Intelligence Research & Development laboratories nestled in the basement was not quite a fall from the pinnacle to the pit, but it was still a long way down. Every minute he spent in that elevator as it took its sweet time was another minute Magnin could use to set up an ambush.
Isaac Magnin’s presence in the elevator did nothing to ease his paranoia. The wireless access point built into the ceiling allowed Morgan to reach beyond what would otherwise be a Faraday cage. It stood to reason that his host remained in full contact with the rest of the AsgarTech Corporation. End-to-end encryption might have kept Morgan’s communications secure should he need to call in backup, but they did the same for Isaac Magnin.
I had promised Naomi that I wouldn’t start a duel, but I never said anything about using this scumbag as an ablative meat shield. It was an unworthy thought, and Morgan despised himself for it. He knew what sort of person resorted to taking hostages, and such people did not earn the right to call themselves Adversaries. Worse, it was the sort of hair-splitting that allowed people to justify trampling the spirit of the law while clinging to the letter.
“You need not fear an ambush, Adversary.” Isaac Magnin accompanied the reassurance with an insouciant smile that suggested that he knew what Morgan was thinking. “If I thought killing you would serve my purpose I would have done it already.”
Another test, Morgan thought. Forcing himself to relax, he let his hand fall from the hilt of his sword and did his best to strike a pose more casual than he felt. “You’ll just have to pardon my cynicism. Why did you insist on coming with me, anyway?”
Magnin shrugged. “I had hoped to understand why my daughter seems so taken with you.”
I suppose that’s fair, Morgan thought. I never understood what Christabel saw in this asshole.
Vauxhall Gardens, Winter Solstice, Late Night: Morgan Cooper
Morgan had long ago resigned himself to the necessity of appearing at the benefit galas that Roseblade Records threw on solstices and equinoxes. Though he would have preferred a night out with the road crew to these pretentious meet-and-greets, the open secret of his day job often inspired greater generosity on the part of the beautiful people whose names crowded the guest list. Seeing a CEO reach for his checkbook after accidentally meeting Morgan’s gaze and recognizing him as an Adversary was the only fun he got at most of these parties.
Despite his efforts to at least appear sociable, he cared little for what his fellow guests deemed worthy of conversation. The one time he had dared suggest these parties were a waste of time and money for everybody involved, Christabel had not spoken to him for a week. At the time it had hurt, but a year later he had bought himself an entire month by suggesting that these events were obscenities that served no higher purpose than to give the rich and famous an opportunity to make a public spectacle of their generosity.
This year, there was no chance of him being seen with Christabel in public; their conversation in her dressing room after the Winter Solstice show at the Royal Albert Hall had taken a relationship that was already on its knees and put a bullet through the back of its head.
It had been his own fault; Morgan knew that much and would freely confess it. First, he showed up halfway through the warm-up band’s set and went on stage wearing a uniform still bloody from his duel with Munakata Tetsuo. By doing so he had made it plain for all to see that at least one member of Crowley’s Thoth was an Adversary. The crowd had loved it, but Christabel had never accepted Morgan’s willingness to serve the Phoenix Society or that his work avenging fallen Adversaries had been the currency that financed her dreams. He had been willing to bear that burden, for it had been his dream as well.
His second mistake, Morgan admitted to himself as he mingled with people to whom he might someday have to recite their rights, had been to apologize to Christabel afterward.
If I’m going to be honest with myself, I knew it was a doomed venture from the start, Morgan thought as a blonde socialite whose elocution lessons hadn’t fully erased the Bronx from her accent tried to flirt with him.
Royal Albert Hall, Backstage, Winter Solstice, Evening: Morgan Cooper
The first thing Morgan had heard as he knocked on the door to Christabel Crowley’s dressing room was its occupant muttering. “Can’t I get five minutes alone? Who is it?”
“I’ll come back later,” said Morgan.
The door opened before Morgan could turn away. Christabel stood barefoot in a thin cotton bathrobe with half her face still covered in smudged, sweat-streaked stage makeup. “Just say what you came to say.”
As she withdrew to let him in, Morgan lifted the vase of long-stemmed, black-tipped burgundy roses he had brought as a gift. “I wanted you to have these. You were incandescent tonight.”
Rather than take the flowers and smell them as she once did, Christabel indicated a clear spot on her vanity table with a dismissive wave. “We’ve seen this movie before. You think you can give me roses and praise my performance, and that will make everything all right again. You think we’ll go back to being lovers, with everything forgiven.”
“We haven’t been lovers for at least a couple of years now,” said Morgan, as he asked himself yet again why he did this to himself. “But we’ve always put on a show in London for Winter Solstice, and I’ve always brought you roses afterward.” The ritual may be empty, he thought, but I can’t bring myself to stop performing it. It would be an admission of defeat.
“The way you always brought Naomi roses, too?”
“That’s different,” said Morgan, and it was almost true. “She gets white roses, and I have them delivered instead of bringing them to her personally.”
Christabel crossed the room in four steps, and reached up to grasp Morgan’s jaw. She pulled his head down until their eyes met. “Try actually seeing me for once. Do I look like I give a toss about the bloody roses?”
Without pulling away from Christabel, Morgan reached behind him and closed the door. “No. You’re still angry about Shenzhen.”
“Damned right I am. You buggered off to God-knows-where hours before dawn yesterday without a word of explanation. You left me and Naomi to face the media and the fans alone.”
How many times have Naomi and I had to run the gauntlet and start the show ourselves because you couldn’t be bothered to show up on time? Morgan left the question unasked; it would only make matters worse. “I’m sorry. I received orders that couldn’t wait.”
“The Phoenix Society couldn’t find somebody else? Bullshit. Haven’t I told you before that I don’t want you letting your day job intrude upon the band, or upon us?”
There hasn’t been an ’us’ in three years. Morgan left that unsaid, too; if he officially ended the relationship it would most likely break up the band as well. It wouldn’t just be his own dream he was shattering, but Naomi’s as well. “It was Tetsuo. Remember him? He went rogue and murdered an Inquisitor. The Executive Council thought I was the only one who could take him down.”
“Fine,” said Christabel, but Morgan knew it was anything but. She might be conceding this point, but only so she could shift her tactics. “You should have had plenty of time to make yourself presentable on the way back from Shenzhen, but could you be bothered? Of course not.”
“There’s a reason for that.”
“To hell with your reasons. You showed up halfway through the warmup band’s set in uniform. You went on stage wearing your sword and reeking of blood, sweat, and gunpowder.” Christabel leaned forward and sniffed. “Oh, and ozone. I’m not even going to ask about that.”
“I’m sorry,” said Morgan again, knowing it would do him no good. “I know we’ve talked about keeping that aspect of my life under wraps, but I literally had no–”
Christabel grabbed a book of timetables off her vanity table and brandished it. “Shenzhen to London, you shit, is eight hours on an express maglev. Twelve on a local. That should have brought you here in plenty of time. Where the fuck were you?”
“I was in jail, damn you!” Morgan’s shout stunned Christabel into silence, and shame burned him as he realized the extent to which his restraint had slipped. Schooling his emotions, he lowered his voice. “The local authorities take a dim view of dueling, and did not care that I work for the Phoenix Society and was on a mission sanctioned by the XC. By the time the Society sprang me, my only hope of getting here in time was a suborbital flight, and even that was delayed. I ran here from the airport because I knew you were counting on me.”
“You expect me to believe you ran here from Heathrow? Bullshit.” Though Christabel had turned away, the mirror revealed the contempt in her eyes. “You take pleasure in this, don’t you. You love rubbing my face in the fact that you not only do the Phoenix Society’s wet work, but that you aren’t even human. You’re just a machine who pretends to be a man.”
“I’ve always accepted you as you are. I’ve only ever asked the same of you.”
Though her expression remained composed, the set of her shoulders and the subtle trembling of her hands in her lap betrayed her. “You ask too much.”
It was past time to attempt a graceful exit. “I should go change. Do you want me to escort you to the afterparty?”
“Don’t bother attending. I don’t want to see you again tonight.”
“People will talk if I don’t show up. Maybe it’s time to take a break from touring. We could all use some time away from all of this. We could take some time off before returning the studio. I don’t want to break up the band.”
“Fuck the band.” Christabel sprang to her feet and turned to face Morgan, her expression twisted with revulsion. Grabbing the vase, she hurled it at him.
Morgan caught the vase, his reflexes proving her earlier accusations. He accepted that this discussion was over. “We’ll talk more later.”
“What more is there to say? I’ve had enough.” Christabel held his gaze. “I’ve had enough of the band, and I’ve had enough of you. I would spit on Tetsuo’s grave if I could. It’s a shame he failed to rid the world of you instead.”
Morgan turned away from Christabel and opened the door to leave.
Her last knife went into his back, and she broke it off at the hilt. “Just so you know, I was only in the band, and with you, because Isaac Magnin was paying me. The thought of continuing this farce a moment longer sickens me.”
Vauxhall Gardens, Winter Solstice, Late Night: Morgan Cooper
Edmund Cohen had always warned him against trying to apologize to a woman. While the old soldier’s casual misogyny was a relic of a dead past best left to rust in peace, the underlying message held a morsel of truth. “Never hope for forgiveness when you apologize to somebody who has already decided that you’re an irredeemable asshole.”
Morgan’s mood was as bitter as the drink he nursed while he pretended to enjoy himself. It took all of his stagecraft to put on a brave face, but the alternative was to burden Naomi Bradleigh with his melancholy.
He scanned the crowd while sipping his drink. Where is she? One might reasonably expect a tall, snow-blonde Valkyrie to be somewhat conspicuous. A waiter bearing an empty tray approached as Morgan emptied his glass; slipped a folded banknote underneath it and placed both on the tray en passant.
The buffet table was loaded with plates, utensils, and chafing dishes offering a variety of dishes no doubt chosen primarily for their ease of mass production. Every dish had been marked as either ’vegetarian’ or ’vegan’, rendering the buffet completely unsuitable to people with congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder like Morgan, who were practically obligate carnivores. I wonder if anybody would notice if I ducked out for an Agni Burger.
“Disappointing, is it not?” The soft, melodic voice came with the brush of fingers that grasped his for a moment before letting go. Hers was a grip Morgan recognized, one that combined a swordfighter’s strength and a pianist’s delicacy. It was a hand he had cause to grasp on the occasions when he underestimated her skill and ferocity and got knocked on his arse. “I could have used a good steak after the show,” said Naomi Bradleigh.
“I could buy you dinner once we escape this miserable excuse for a party,” said Morgan.
“Miserable?” Naomi favored him with an indulgent smile. Though journalists preferred to praise her sense of style rather than her looks, using words like ’exotic’ or ’striking’ only under duress, Morgan had always thought Naomi’s an austere, wintry beauty that belied an effulgence that burned brightest when she took the stage. “I suppose fighting with Christabel does rather spoil the mood.”
“It’s better now that I’ve found you,” said Morgan. He was about to say more, but something occurred to him. “But if you’d rather not be seen with me tonight I’ll understand.”
Naomi suppressed a laugh. “To be honest, I was hoping I might make use of you. I keep running into boors whose inebriation leads them to mistake polite conversation for flirtation.”
Here was a plight with which Morgan could sympathize. “I’ll watch your six if you watch mine,” he said, suspecting that Naomi had spent enough time around Adversaries to know what he meant.
This time she failed to suppress her amusement. “I daresay you’d be happy to watch my six regardless of whether I watched yours.”
“Is this repartee or flirtation?” The question came from a slim, energetic brunette in a black evening gown whose expression suggested a natural vivacity augmented with regular caffeine overdoses. She had dragged a harried-looking man in an equally expensive tuxedo in her wake. “Have I gotten ahead of myself again? It’s been years, Ms. Bradleigh, so I’m sure you don’t remember me–”
Naomi beamed at the newcomer. “Christine Pennington! We both dodged a bullet named John, if memory serves.”
Pennington drew Naomi into an embrace complete with air kisses. “Oh my God, you do remember. But nowadays it’s Pennington-Glendale,” she said, indicating her companion. “When Marion and I got married we decided to hyphenate. We should catch up sometime. Maybe over lunch?”
Naomi clapped her hands with delight. “I would love to, if only to hear how you managed to snag the Lord Mayor of London.” She pushed Morgan forward. “Allow me to introduce Morgan Stormrider. He handles guitars and backing vocals.”
Marion Pennington-Glendale gave Naomi an appreciative nod before offering Morgan his hand. “Thank you, Ms. Bradleigh, but Adversary Cooper and I have met before. I’m glad to see a familiar face at events like this. It’s one thing to attend these parties as one of the Lady Mayor’s staff, and rather another to attend as Lord Mayor yourself.”
“I imagine it’s harder to slip away for a beer,” said Morgan, accepting the Lord Mayor’s hand, “Not to mention a decent meal.”
“Thank you!” Christine beamed at Morgan. “I’m glad Marion and I aren’t the only ones disappointed by the catering. We were hoping there’d be a second buffet but all we found was the bar.”
“I suspect Morgan found that first. He always seems to get lost at these events,” said Naomi. “Not that I blame him. I could use a glass of red myself.”
“I’ll get it,” said Morgan, leaving Naomi to catch up. He waded through a sea of bodies, catching snippets of conversations and arguments. It was mostly gossip: the usual litany of who had been fucking whom in either the bedroom or the boardroom. He soon returned with a glass of red wine for Naomi, and found her waiting alone.
“Thanks for being sociable earlier,” said Naomi after she tasted her wine. “Are you all right? It looks like it’s just the two of us again.”
“That might be my fault,” Morgan admitted, thinking back to the disastrous conversation in the dressing room.
“Because you had to go on stage in uniform? These things do happen.”
Morgan shook his head, and wished he had gotten another drink for himself. “It gets worse. We talked.”
“Oh, dear. Nothing good ever comes of that.” Naomi sipped her wine. “So, are you going to dish or what?”
“I’m not in the mood tonight, Nims.”
Drawing closer, Naomi slipped an arm around Morgan’s and pulled him closer. “If it’s that bad, then I’m going to have to insist. It’s for your own good, love.”
Morgan looked around, sure that the eyes of the beautiful people were on him and Naomi. “I’ll tell you everything, but not here.”
Before Naomi could answer, the massive front doors opened and the crowd parted to admit a pair of new arrivals. A slim woman in a midnight blue gown with voluminous chiffon skirts entered with the studied bearing of a queen. Beside her strode a tall, snow-blond man in a bespoke double-breasted white suit with a blue cravat.
“Ian Malkin,” Naomi whispered the name as if it were a curse, but Morgan spared no time to wonder why she recognized Isaac Magnin by another name. The question of why Christabel Crowley would choose Magnin as her escort so soon after their breakup seemed more pressing.
“Un-fucking-believable,” said Naomi, grasping Morgan’s hand. “Do you trust me?”
Before Morgan could reply, Naomi tossed aside her empty glass and drew him into her arms. He barely heard it shatter as their lips met. This was not the kiss she had given him for luck years ago after he admitted to her that he had enlisted for training as an Adversary against her advice. Nor was it the affectionate, teasing peck she occasionally stole between a sprig of beneath the mistletoe after a long night celebrating the Winter Solstice. This was a sacrament of defiance, Naomi’s way of announcing to the world, “This man is mine if he will have me.”
It was not until Christabel and Isaac had reached them that Naomi let Morgan go. He reeled for a moment, breathless, but regained his balance as Christabel fixed Naomi with an accusing glare. “You certainly didn’t wait long.”
Morgan opened his mouth to speak, but Naomi beat him to the punch. “Did I spoil your entrance?”
“Hello again, father,” said Naomi, fixing her gaze on Isaac Magnin.
Why would Naomi call Isaac Magnin her father? It was a question Morgan knew better than to ask in public.
Christabel denied Morgan the chance to make a fool of himself by prying into Naomi’s secrets. Gathering her skirts about herself, she turned to the crowd and raised her voice. Lacking Naomi’s vocal training, she lacked her former band-mate’s ease of projection, but the ballroom’s accoustics allowed her to make a credible effort. “If you’ll grant me your attention for a moment, I’ve a brief announcement. Those of you who attended tonight’s show have had the privilege of attending the final performance of Crowley’s Thoth. As of this moment, we have disbanded, and no hope of a reunion.”
The silence shattered into tumult as Christabel flounced away, leaving Isaac Magnin behind. The abandoned escort favored Morgan and Naomi with a wry smile. “That was a rather dramatic turn of events. We should meet like this more often.”
AsgarTech Building, Josefine Malmgren’s Office: Morgan Cooper
Morgan had not expected Dr. Josefine Malmgren’s office to be so spacious. Since she was a relatively junior employee, he expected that AsgarTech would have consigned her to a cubicle, or given her a seat in some open-plan office where the only way to hear one’s own thoughts was to wear noise-cancelling headphones.
Instead, she had been given a space large enough to contain a desk worthy of an executive with a chair to match, a couch that all but invited one to stretch out for a nap, and a kitchenette in the corner with a full-size refrigerator. A door by the fridge, which Morgan closed immediately after opening, led to a private bathroom. Another hid a small closet containing several changes of clothes and an extra pair of shoes.
Nestled between the couch and the wall in a corner beneath the vent was something that resembled cat furniture. It boasted a ramp, a padded platform for napping, and a couple of cubbies in which to hide. The row of cabinets behind Dr. Malmgren’s desk had several potted plants, and a couple of them looked rather the worse for wear because something had been chewing upon the foliage.
He tried to reach out to the daemon that ran the Manhattan brownstone in which he lived and often assisted him in his duties, but could not directly access the public network. The use of his preternatural senses revealed the reason; the office was a Faraday cage, and the only way out was through AsgarTech’s intranet. I knew this office was too good to be true, Morgan thought.
Despite having to connect to AsgarTech’s network, Morgan could still create set up a virtual private network and connect to his home’s daemon via secure talk protocol. «Hello again, Astarte.»
«Finished so soon?» Morgan had already contacted Astarte when he had arrived in Asgard, and had promised to let her know once he left. «When does your maglev leave?»
«I’m not done yet,» said Morgan as he continued his examination. A brief whiff of ammonia assaulted him before the building’s ventilation system scrubbed the air clean. «There’s something weird about Dr. Malmgren’s office. Can you get your hands on the floor plan for the AsgarTech Building and tell me if Malmgren is getting special treatment?»
«That sounds like a job for Claire.»
«I’m under orders not to involve Claire in this job, or even to interact with her for the duration. Something tells me she was the one who filed the complaint.»
«OK,» said Astarte. «I’ll see what I can dig up. Do you think it would be all right if I finally gave the Eddie/Natalie shippers what they want in the next chapter of Eddie Van Helsing, now that Charlotte is out of the picture?»
«What did Naomi say?» The manga Astarte had asked about was one of her sidelines; in addition to renting out the brownstone in which she resided and providing legal and accounting services, the daemon had an artistic side; she had used stories Morgan and Naomi told of life as part of Crowley’s Thoth to write a manga called Eddie Van Helsing in which the titular protagonist was not an Adversary but a vampire killer who had taken exception to having his fans sucked dry during his concerts.
«Nims just said to make her look good.»
Morgan shrugged. If Naomi was OK with having her fictional counterpart doing a love scene, it seemed churlish of him to object. «If she’s comfortable with it, I’ll go along too. But don’t expect me to model for you.»
«You’re no fun.»
Morgan could almost hear the daemon pouting on the other end. «I’ve told you before that Claire’s a bad influence.»
«But she’s fun.»
That much Morgan could agree with, but now was not the time. «You get that floor plan yet?»
«Just a moment ago. Wiring, network, and ventilation schematics, too. There ain’t a single cube farm or open floor at AsgarTech. They’ve still got the whole corporate panopticon thing going, but they’re more subtle about it.»
«No, but the HVAC system is weird. The ductwork is completely non-standard. If a cat got in there it would have the run of the building.»
Morgan narrowed his eyes, remembering how he had smelled ammonia for a moment before contacting Astarte. He withdrew a multitool from his pocket, unfolded one of the screwdrivers, and stood on the arm of the couch closet to the vent so that he could remove the cover.
Before he could find a screw to loosen, the grate opened outward as a long-haired tuxedo cat stuck its head out. As Morgan got off the couch and backed away, the cat settled atop its tower and regarded him with eyes the orange of old arc-sodium streetlamps as it washed one of its white paws.
What’s a cat doing in the HVAC system? Morgan wondered as he reached out to the cat, hoping it would be friendly. Perhaps it had useful evidence attached to its collar.
The cat hissed and swatted at Morgan’s outstretched hand. He withdrew before the cat’s paw could strike him, and a message came to him over secure talk: «Keep your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.»