October 30th. Tuesday. Nine days since Ling had gone missing.
Nine days and we hadn’t found so much as a hair.
All the evidence we had was the presence of the Blackguards. Fillip Ritter, Ziba Brannigan, and Mitchel St. John. MC had found Ritter’s apartment, but he was long gone by the time we got there, and General Brannigan had disappeared as well. Mitchel had been a real stroke of luck…but Derek had killed him, and his corpse hadn’t told us anything useful. He hadn’t had a phone on him, so MC couldn’t go by that, and he didn’t have any matchbooks or business cards or anything else that generally acted as a clue in this situation.
I wanted to be mad at Derek for killing him, but I knew he hadn’t had a choice. Alone, he might have been able to capture him, and with Akane it wouldn’t have even been difficult. But with me there…he couldn’t afford the luxury.
Which is why I was at NHQ right now, and had no plans of leaving any time soon. Noncombatants should stay out of combat. Any idiot knows that. So why had it taken me so long to actually do it?
Whatever, no use crying over spilled milk. It could have all gone worse. Right now, all we had to go on was my stupid seismograph—which told me nothing—and a bunch of scared birds who had no idea where their boss had gone.
Still, the aves were a better option than staring at a computer screen, waiting for a digital needle to jump. “MC, can you patch me through to G’Hanir?”
“Sure thing.” The monitor in front of me flickered briefly. “Aaand…done.”
A face appeared on my screen, a hawk anthro. Female, judging by the delicate curve to her features. She had dark brown feathers, a sharp black beak, and keen eyes. And I recognized her.
“Delia?” I exclaimed in surprise. “The leader of the warhawks? I assumed you were with your King.”
She snorted in annoyance. “I’ve been out of the loop, because of my capture. She thinks I might have flipped. Besides, I kinda had a really strong reaction to that Sauron Field or whatever…” She shrugged uncomfortably. “I, uh, might have tried to kill a few other aves who wouldn’t let me near it.”
“Yes, well…I don’t suppose you have any idea where Soaring Eagle is now?”
The ave narrowed her eyes. “No. I keep telling you people, I don’t know anything. Seriously, it was a miracle I was allowed back into G’Hanir. No one told me anything before they all left.”
I drummed my fingers on the desk, thinking. “But you’re in charge of the domain now, correct?”
She rested her chin on her hand. “Yeah, with the King gone, I was one of the highest-ranked Hunters left. Then Monday—not yesterday, last Monday—when the Blackguards press-ganged everyone to fight you guys, they killed a lot of people, including everyone above me. So…”
“Well, that’s one way to get a promotion.”
“Yeah. Not exactly my preferred one, though.” The warhawk sighed. “Anyway, we done? There’s a thousand things I have to do today.”
“No.” This was one of the most important aves still alive. She had to know something worth looking into. “You already told Necessarius about all the old labs, right?”
“Not that it did you guys any good. They were all cleared out by the time you got to them.”
“Yes, I am well aware. But…” I frowned, struggling to come up with something to ask. “How did she pick them?”
The hawk blinked at me. “Uh…what?”
“How did she choose the labs?” I pressed. I was on to something here, I could feel it. “Did she prefer out of the way locations, affordability, what? Did she have a favored agent? Anything like that?”
“Well, I mean…nothing special. Secluded spots, that kind of thing. She didn’t use an agent, she just checked to see—” Understanding dawned in her eyes. “She checked to see which buildings would be abandoned for a few weeks, and camped out there before moving on.”
“Perfect,” I practically purred. I was grinning now—we had something, we were close. “Anything else? Anything that can help narrow it down?”
“Uh…” the warhawk closed her eyes, concentrating. “She didn’t like short buildings…but she used them anyway, so that’s no help…uh, there was…ah! She tried to get buildings in abandoned sectors as much as possible. Ones recently hit bad by the Culture Wars, or—”
“Or screamers,” I finished. I should have known. The only reason more people weren’t moving to take advantage of all the empty real estate was because they were paranoid that the Composer may have left surprises behind. Obviously, Soaring Eagle didn’t have that problem.
“That’s all I can think of for now,” Delia babbled. “But I’ll call if I remember anything else.”
“Please do,” I said firmly, before cutting the connection. “MC? Can you—”
“Collate the data and find likely spots? Working…aaaand done. On the map now.”
I quickly rose from my chair and turned to the map in question, a large monitor built like a table. It showed a map of the entire city, including Whitecap Bay and all four Fusion Islands. In addition to the white lines marking the districts, there were now colored flags, presumably labeling the likely lab locations.
There were hundreds of them. Maybe even close to a thousand.
“Okay,” I muttered, trying not to let myself get discouraged. “MC? What’s your color coding here?”
“Red are the most likely locations. Secluded buildings in abandoned areas not scheduled to be inspected for months. Yellow are less likely, and green are only abandoned buildings, but still in inhabited areas.”
Hm. “Remove all yellow and green flags.” Over half of the markers disappeared, but there were still a lot left. We needed to narrow it down more. “Okay…if any are within, say, five blocks of previous lab sites, remove them.” A bare handful disappeared. “Any ideas?”
“There are only a dozen red possibilities in screamer areas,” she noted, and twelve of the flags turned black. “That’s the best I can do.”
I nodded. “No, that’s good. Organize a couple strike teams—silver and gold.”
“Laura?” MC asked. “What’s wrong?”
“We have to attack as many of them as possible at the same time,” I muttered. “Or Soaring Eagle could hear about it and start moving her lab around.”
“But we already knew she would do that. That’s how she’s been staying ahead of ‘sarian inspectors.”
“Yeah, but if she figures out what parameters we’re searching under, she could move to a basement or somewhere else non-optimal.” Word was that the Animal King had a phobia of underground, which is why I hadn’t even considered it until now. But if we made her desperate enough…
“Then we won’t let her figure it out,” MC said firmly. “It won’t be hard. I’ll have a dozen elite squads in a few days, we can hit all the black sites at once. I’ll talk to Butler, see if he has ideas on who to tap for this.”
“I don’t like rushing in blind…” I rubbed my forehead. “But it’s better than nothing. Can you call Derek? Get him over here? I want to hear his opinion on all this.”
“Done. Sent him a text.”
“Thanks.” I sighed. “At least this feels like progress.”
“It is,” she insisted. “Trust me. In a few days, we’ll be closer to finding Ling. Maybe even have her safe and sound again.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 199)
A bit on the short side, but it flowed well.