Caren

“Chicken”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Content Warning: ANIMAL CRUELTY

Caren cast a glance around the huge, litter-strewn Kensington parking lot, which was empty except for Porkchop and a handful of vacant cars parked on the far side.

Flipped her balisong. Sighed. Rubbed her chest.

Stashed the knife. Shivered and stamped her feet. Checked the time on her phone for the million-bazillionth time.

hurry the fuck up, she texted Grenville. you’re gonna miss our ride 

Doing my best this is EXTREMELY last minute, came his reply.

“Whatever. I can do this the fuck without you, Daddy’s Boy.” Caren stuffed her phone in her jacket pocket, started to pace.

She took a drag, again glanced aimlessly around. Flexed and clenched and flexed and clenched her empty hand at her side. Cut off a sudden mental flash of Sylvan gazing up at her blearily from Porkchop’s trunk while she double-checked the bracers on his wrists, as he managed one barely audible bleat into the cloth gag—a sound Caren imagined might have been her name—before she smothered his whole dopey sad face with a fresh rag soaked in Morphean miasma till he finally passed back the fuck out.

Everything I do is for you, Caren.

Once more rubbed, scratched at her chest.

Tires on asphalt. A black Mercedes-Benz pulled into the parking lot next to Porkchop, a familiar poker-faced teenager behind the wheel.

“I keep forgetting you’re old enough to drive,” said Caren, as Grenville set his car alarm with his key fob, pocketed his hands, and walked over to join her. “You know only rich douchebags actually use their car alarms, right? Those things don’t do any good and everyone fucking hates them.”

“You’re in an extra-special mood,” Grenville observed blandly, assuming his position upwind of her. “I would think you’d be doing a happy dance right now. We got the meeting with Meillassoux, and fast. How’d you pull that off, anyway?”

Caren twitched, took a deep pull from her Marlboro Red. “Got my hands on something he wants.” Choked a bit on the smoke, went into a coughing fit.

Grenville raised an eyebrow. “What would that be?”

Caren let out a few more coughs, then spat on the pavement. Grenville wrinkled his nose. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.

He eyed her, but didn’t question further.

“What about you, dude?” Caren went on. “What the fuck is ‘information stored for later’? Did you find anything useful at the crime scenes or not?”

Grenville became suddenly very interested in picking a bit of loose thread off his lapel. “Nothing that useful for now. Eventually it might be.”

Caren frowned. “Explain. Use your words.”

His chest rose just slightly and fell, a repressed sigh. “I recorded a handful of DNA codes.”

Caren’s heart jumped. “Shit—really? That’s hella useful, right? I know people who can get us access to mundane law enforcement databases. If we can find some matches, that’s huge.”

“It’s not possible to cross-reference the codes with a database.”

Caren stared at him. Clenched, unclenched her fist at her side. “And why…is that?”

“Because I can only record genetic information directly into my own gnostic memory reserves.”

“So…get it. Into. A computer.” Caren spoke slowly, as if to a barely verbal child.

“I will, as soon as you find a way to plug me into a FireWire port.” Grenville brightened almost imperceptibly, like he might be pleased with his joke.

“I’ll jam a FireWire adapter in the base of your squishy infant skull.”

“Abusive language isn’t necessary.”

“Seriously, can’t you just transcribe it?” Caren mimed typing: “‘G-T-C-A, C-A-G-T, F-U-C-K Y-O-U,’ et cetera, et cetera?”

“The human chromosome ranges from tens to hundreds of millions of base pairs. Even taking into account that not all that information is needed to identify a match, it would take hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours, not including breaks, for me to transcribe enough of the data to make just one human genome comparable to potential matches in a database.”

Caren blinked at him for several seconds. Then, “What the fuck good is it if you can read fucking DNA, but you can’t cross-reference it with any DNA fucking databases?”

“I can project certain phenotypic and hereditary characteristics, which means I could identify a potential match based on visual assessment—hair, skin, and eye pigmentation, for example. I could then analyze the genomes of any suspects identified on that basis to determine whether they’re an actual match.”

Caren grimaced. “Did you at least get hair, skin, eye color for the suspects?”

“Based on my prior analysis of the remains of the victims, most of the DNA I found was from them. Other genomes I recorded—it’s pretty likely they’re just from tranquilized mundanes. But impossible to know. Mage DNA and mundane DNA are indistinguishable from one another. Are you sure you shouldn’t get that defective agimat looked at?”

Caren glanced down at her own hand clawing her chest. Dropped it, stuffed it in her pocket. “Look.” She took another drag with shaky fingers. “Is the DNA any fucking use to us or not?”

“Probably not.”

She gritted her teeth. “Then what good are you?”

“The DNA’s not all I found.”

Caren raised her eyebrows. “What else, then?”

“Well.” Grenville eyed her, seemed to hesitate. “What I identified as remains of Severin and Langit were mingled with soil whose physiochemistry differed distinctly from the soil at any of the ten sites. Also with scraps of plant life that really don’t belong in an urban setting. Ligustrum obtusifolium. Lindera benzoin. Shrubs typically found in the underbrush of disturbed streams and valleys.”

Caren found herself staring past his left shoulder, her gaze out of focus. “So…those two…Severin and L—Langit…were killed someplace more rural.”

“Possibly. It’s still not a lot to go on, to be honest. But it narrows things down a little. I’ll follow up on it tonight, after we’re done with Meillassoux.”

Caren took a deep breath, suddenly cucumber-cool. Comfortably numb. “That was it? Nothing else?”

Grenville glanced at his phone, fiddled with some of the vials in the lining of his coat. “Nothing further to report at this time.”

Caren nodded. Took a last drag from the butt of her cigarette, threw it on the sidewalk, stamped it out. Guess Ambrose wasn’t kidding about the ‘unprecedented forensic capabilities’… I suppose the kid’s an asset, even if he hasn’t turned up much just yet. “Why the hell didn’t you just tell me that about the soil and stuff, instead of wasting so much breath about the fucking DNA?”

“That was next on the list. But then you started asking a million questions.”

Caren checked the time on her phone. “Okay, for real—where the fuck are Meillassoux’s guys?”

As if in answer came the wildcat roar of a revving sports car engine. Caren’s and Grenville’s heads both swiveled toward the sound—a red ’81 Firebird Trans Am that had been parked innocuously at the far end of the parking lot this whole time, along with a couple of other cars, seemingly unoccupied. At this distance, with the headlights now blaring, it was tough to make them out, but there now appeared to be men in both the driver’s and passenger’s seats.

“What the—?”

She was cut off by the car suddenly lurching into motion, accelerating straight toward herself and Grenville.

Grenville was off like a shot in the direction of his Benz.

Caren stood her ground. It’s probably a bluff.

She made a show of yawning into her flat hand, squinting into her cigarette pack, checking her phone. Silently fired up her super-speed agimat.

The Trans Am continued careening toward her, picking up speed.

“Navarrete!” Grenville’s voice was barely audible above the screaming of the sports car’s engine. He was in the driver’s seat of the Mercedes now, leaning across the console, holding open the passenger’s side door, waving furiously for her to get inside.

Caren ignored him, mana flowing through her agimat, calf muscles coiling in anticipation as the muscle car closed the distance.

She was just about ready to bolt—could have been safely halfway across the parking lot in a fraction of a second—when suddenly Grenville’s car backed into the path of the oncoming Trans Am, and the latter veered in an impressive feat of stunt driving, narrowly avoiding a collision before screeching to a halt.

“Get the fuck in!” Grenville yelled at Caren.

Caren waved him off—though she had to admit, she was surprised and impressed he had the stones.

A young man in his early-to-mid twenties, reed-thin and impeccably dressed in a light salmon tailored suit and long, fur-lined cashmere coat, leaped out of the passenger’s seat of the sports car, an indignant and half-panicked look on his exquisitely delicate features. “What the fuck, Vern?” he hollered into the car. “You trying to wreck my newly modded Trans Am and sabotage the fucking job?”

The driver’s side door swung open. Another man, this one a few years older and more powerfully built, got out twirling the car keys around his finger. Tucked them in the pants pocket of his pinstripe suit, straightened his tie, ran a palm over his fashionably disheveled pompadour. Grinned an apple-cheeked Howdy Doody grin. “No need to get your baby britches in a bunch, Natey-boy,” he crooned. “What’s the point of having a nine-fitty-HP engine with up to ten thousand RPM and a souped-up sport suspension if you can’t have a little fun with it? Ms. Navarrete, by the way!” He sauntered toward Caren, beaming with two full rows of perfect teeth. Extended a hand. “Color. Me. Wowed. Far as I could tell, you didn’t even flinch.”

Caren ignored his hand. “I know a shitty bluff when I see one.”

The Howdy Doody grin persisted. There was a glimmer in this dude’s eyes Caren really didn’t like. “Hmmmmmmm. Guess it’ll take something a little more…outside the box to scare you.”

“Are you Meillassoux’s Boys or not?” said Caren.

The younger man jogged over to her. “Nathaniel Betancourt, ma’am. And this is my colleague Vernon Zhao. We’re here to escort you to the meeting with Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux.”

“Why’d you bring your son?” Zhao squinted over at Grenville. He smiled a goofy smile at the Martial Magus, the way you would a toddler, and flashed him a tiny fluttery wave.

“I told y’all, I’m working with a partner,” said Caren. “Your guy Ishaan said there wouldn’t be a problem with that.”

“There isn’t,” said Betancourt, giving Zhao a look. “Listen, sorry to ask, but the two of you have to turn off tracking on your cell phones and surrender them to us, along with any weapons. You also have to wear dampening bracers and blindfolds, just till we get to headquarters, for security’s sake.”

Caren grinned, rolled her eyes. “Dude. Come on.”

“Non-negotiable, ma’am,” said Betancourt.

Everything I do is for you.

“Fine. Whatever.” Caren got out her phone, disabled the tracking while the two of them watched. Handed it over with her balisong and baton. “Just remember, y’all pull any clown shit, you can forget about ever finding out where I hid Zachry.”

Zhao strolled over to the Mercedes. Braced his arm against the passenger doorframe, peered inside. “You too, Caillou. Let’s go, bud.”

Grenville sat motionless in the driver’s seat, staring at him like a wary animal.

“You wanna come along, Grenville, these are the breaks,” said Caren, as Betancourt snapped bracers onto her wrists. When the younger mage still didn’t move a muscle—“What’s-a-matter, Daddy’s Boy? You go into system shutdown?”

“Yeah, Daddy’s Boy, what’s-a-matter?” Zhao made an exaggerated sad face. “Don’t you trust dear old Uncle Vernon?”

“Watch it, fuckstick,” said Caren. “I get to call him ‘Daddy’s Boy.’ You don’t.”

“Ooh, Mama Bear angy!” giggled Zhao, with a clap of his big puppy-paw hands.

“Back off, Vernon. Jesus.” Betancourt shooed Zhao away from the Mercedes, ducked to look inside. “Don’t worry about him. He’s just a jackass. You don’t make trouble for us, we won’t make trouble for you, okay? But nobody gets an audience with Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux without obeying the rules.”

After several seconds of silence, Caren heard Grenville’s voice, monotone as always—“Let me park my car”—and moments later he joined her—didn’t set the car alarm this time, she registered—his porcelain-doll face somehow even more expressionless a mask than usual. She noticed his hands trembling ever so slightly as he disabled the tracking on his phone and handed it over to Betancourt, offered his wrists for bracers.

“Verny drive the pretty car again?” Zhao asked Betancourt, clasping his hands and batting his eyelashes at his colleague.

“No, Jesus. Never.” Betancourt shoved a hand in Zhao’s trousers pocket, yanked out his car keys. “Look, you hit a fucking bird, for Chrissakes. Clipped its fucking wing or something. Poor lil’ bastard’s back there hopping around with a fucked-up fucking wing.” He jerked his head in the direction of a pigeon that was hobbling around several yards behind them, dragging a broken wing.

“Oopsie,” said Zhao. “Guess I better fix that.” He glanced back at the bird, fluttered the fingers of his left hand dramatically in the air, then brought them together in a snap.

The pigeon collapsed to the pavement in a mangled heap.

The small feathered mass twitched once…twice…before going deathly still, a pool of dark blood spreading rapidly beneath it.

After a silence—

“Maleficer,” whispered Grenville, aiming a laser-stare at Zhao.

“Whatcha gonna do? Call the Hounds?” Zhao grinned.

“Fucking Christ, Vernon. Stop showing off.” Betancourt produced a pair of black scarves from his coat pocket.

For once, Zhao’s expression lacked any trace of humor. “Just figured our guests oughtta know up front what happens if they step one eensy pinky toenail-sliver out of line.” He looked Caren and Grenville each in the eyes—a dark, smoldering stare—then once more broke into his Howdy Doody grin. It was the last thing Caren saw before the blindfold covered her eyes.

NEXT EPISODE: ASH – “COFFIN”
PREVIOUS EPISODE: CAREN – “FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS”
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