“Headfirst for Halos”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
VIEW CONTENT WARNING
Elisha backed the Challenger into a parking spot, shut off the engine, glanced over at his passenger. Jules seemed even quieter today than usual. To be fair, there hadn’t been much to talk about during the ride—no breakthroughs in the case, other than the whopper of a lead they were about to look into now:
But Elisha sensed that Jules’s silence was due to more than a lack of conversation fodder. Ever since their visit to Secure Medical Records, the Prefect had started to suspect there was something Jules wasn’t telling him.
Going by the heavy dark cloud that had descended over the alchemist that day, it was something pretty serious.
“Ready, kid?” the Prefect asked in his gruff Caliban voice, stopping himself just short of tacking a -do onto the end of it.
Jules gave a brusque nod. “Ready.”
They exited the car onto the Downtown sidewalk. Gazed up at the Aon Center towering above them.
“Fancy building,” Elisha observed as he fed the parking meter.
“Emily Susskind-Frankel’s a prominent attorney,” said Jules.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. I did my research,” grunted Elisha. “Hope she’s not so fuckin’ prominent we can’t get past reception.”
“We will. I’ve got a card to play. Literally.”
The two mages signed in with the doorman at the front, rode the elevator up to the seventy-fifth floor. Exited to find themselves standing at the polished-glass entrance to Deere Lovell Hart, Attorneys at Law.
Approached the young man at the front desk.
“May I help you?”
“I’m Agent Kaplan, with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.” Jules flashed his glamor card, indicated Elisha. “This is my partner, Agent Calvaluna. We’re here to speak with Emily Susskind-Frankel.”
“The FBI…?” The receptionist blinked. “Please, gentlemen, have a seat. I’ll let Ms. Susskind-Frankel know you’re here.”
Emily Susskind-Frankel rounded her desk, gestured to the empty chairs in front of it as she sank into her own leather executive chair on the far side. Behind her loomed floor-to-ceiling windows offering a stunning bird’s-eye view of Lake Michigan. “Let’s dispense with the pleasantries, Agents, if you don’t mind. I’m a busy woman. If I’m receiving a visit from the FBI, I’d like to know what it’s about up front.”
Jules found himself zoning out on her face, tracing the echoes of her daughter. Susskind-Frankel was more angular than Max, heavier-built, colder around the eyes. But she had the same color hair—a trained-sleek bob, not air-dried and rumpled like Max’s—the same pointed chin; the same eyes, but darker, lacking the starbursts Jules loved.
“We have a few questions for you, Ms. Frankel,” said Caliban, seating himself.
“Susskind-Frankel,” she corrected him.
“Apologies, ma’am.” Caliban shot Jules a look, tilted his scarred head, prompting Jules to take the lead.
“Ms. Susskind-Frankel”—Jules took a seat—“we’re conducting a top-secret investigation into a possible domestic terrorist organization. I’m afraid I can’t divulge any further details at this time, but our sources have indicated that someone connected to you may have ties to this group, and it would be helpful if you could provide us with some information.”
Susskind-Frankel frowned. “Who?”
“The father of your daughter.”
The attorney’s lips formed a small, bemused smile. “My ex-husband? Never in a million years. Even if he had anything remotely resembling an ideology, the man doesn’t have the stones.”
“I didn’t mean your ex-husband, Ms. Susskind-Frankel,” said Jules.
Caliban raised one of his hairless eyebrows.
Susskind-Frankel fixed Jules with a stare. “What are you implying?”
“Please forgive the intrusion into your personal affairs, Ms. Susskind-Frankel, but, according to our information, your ex-husband James Frankel isn’t your daughter Maxine’s biological father.”
Susskind-Frankel rolled her eyes. “Figures it’s Maxine we’re talking about, not Sara. Was it Maxine herself who told you James isn’t her real father? She’s leading you on a wild goose chase. Girl will do anything for attention.”
Jules felt his temper flare. “Max—ine didn’t tell us anything. Our information comes from DNA evidence.”
Susskind-Frankel stared at him. “Well, then, your DNA evidence is wrong. James Frankel is the father of both my daughters. I think I’d know if he wasn’t.”
Jules stared back. “It’s very important that you cooperate with this investigation, Ms. Susskind-Frankel. Your daughter may be in danger.”
For the first time, Susskind-Frankel seemed to falter a little. “In danger…? How?”
“Again—and I’m sorry—we can’t divulge details. But honest answers to our questions would be a great help.”
“I’m being honest with you.” Her defensive posture dissolved. “That man cheated on me right and left, but I never set one toe outside that sham marriage. James is Maxine’s biological father. I don’t know what to tell you. Your information’s wrong.”
“I think she’s tellin’ the truth, Agent Kaplan,” Caliban grunted.
Jules hesitated. “Ms. Susskind-Frankel, do you recall any unusual circumstances surrounding your daughter’s conception? Or birth?”
A weird thing happened—so fast he could have easily missed it, but it made Jules’s heart stop. Emily Susskind-Frankel’s face changed—went taut against her skull, her eyes bulging in mortal terror. Her body gave a small lurch in her seat.
The next moment, it was as if nothing had happened. “Well…she wasn’t planned. The birth control didn’t work. I…was going to terminate the pregnancy, actually, but she was born preterm before I’d quite made up my mind to do it. It was…a rough pregnancy. Much rougher than my other daughter. The birth itself I guess I don’t remember too well. I was pretty loopy from the anesthesia.”
“Is there anything more you can remember, ma’am?” Caliban tried. “Like we said, your daughter’s safety’s on the line.”
Susskind-Frankel looked flustered. “I wish you’d just tell me what’s going on here. God…I haven’t thought about it all in so long. It wrecked my marriage, if I’m being honest with you. Almost derailed my career, too.”
Jules surveyed her face gently. “Go on.”
Susskind-Frankel took a deep breath. “I swear to you, I never cheated on James. But he insisted I did. That he wasn’t Maxine’s father—just like you’re saying. But I’m telling you, it’s not true. I’d obviously know.”
“Did James say why he thought that?” Caliban asked.
Susskind-Frankel hesitated. “Around the time Maxine was conceived, I was…mugged. Assaulted. Not sexually. Put me in the hospital for a few days…just a random attack on the street. Well, one of my ex-husband’s fucking drinking buddies told him he’d seen me going somewhere with a man the night of the attack, that I ‘looked high.’ He must have seen someone who looked like me. But James chose to believe him over me. Thought it was some secret boyfriend of mine who’d put me in the hospital. James was a cheater himself. Guess he was all too ready and eager to believe I was too.”
“Is it possible you were drugged, Ms. Susskind-Frankel?” said Jules.
“No. No, it’s not possible. I never lost any time. I know what happened that day.”
Jules and Caliban exchanged frowns. “Did James’s friend describe the man he thought he saw with you?” Jules asked.
“What does that matter? I told you, it wasn’t me he saw.”
“We believe you, Ms. Susskind-Frankel,” said Jules. “But if you could please indulge us.”
Susskind-Frankel sighed through her nose. “Said he was tall, thin, well-dressed, with a long blond ponytail and ‘spooky’ eyes.”
Jules and Caliban looked at each other.
“Spooky how?” asked Caliban.
“I don’t know. I don’t see why this is relevant. I told you, I never met this man. I was mugged. I know what happened to me. Quite frankly, I’m sick of men not believing me.”
“I can understand that,” said Jules. “And I’m sorry our questioning’s been so invasive.”
“Agents, will you please just tell me something, anything about what’s going on with my daughter?”
“Could you give us a minute, please, ma’am?” said Caliban. “Just gonna speak with Agent Kaplan in the hall. We might have a few more questions for ya, but we should be finishin’ up here soon.”
Susskind-Frankel looked frustrated. “Fine. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t keep me waiting.”
“Good hunch, kid,” Caliban muttered, the second he and Jules were alone in the hallway. “James Frankel’s probably not the dad. Cogimancer erased her memory, wrote over it with the mugging story.”
“I can retrieve it.”
“Will it hurt her?”
“There’s a risk. Always a risk. But this is the only way we can get answers.” The mercenary paused. “I’ll be as gentle as I can. You can wait out here if ya want.”
It’s our only hope. Jules gritted his teeth. “No. I’ll go in with you.”
Caliban sighed through his nose. “As you wish, kid.”
They returned to Emily Susskind-Frankel’s office, resumed their seats.
“Just a couple more questions, ma’am.” Caliban removed his shades. “Then we’ll let you get on with your day.”
The blackness swirled in his eyes, then in hers. Her face and body slackened. She slumped back in her chair.
“What really happened the night I was attacked?” Caliban murmured. His voice was soft, less gruff than usual…strangely familiar.
Susskind-Frankel’s face slowly crumpled. A low, childlike whimpering rose in the back of her throat. She squirmed in her chair.
“It’s okay,” said Caliban. “We’re looking at the past, just looking. None of it’s happening now.”
She stiffened, shuddered. Kept making muffled sounds. “Nnnnn…nnnnn…”
“It’s okay,” said Caliban again. Then he, too, went rigid. “Oh—God.”
“Is everything okay?” murmured Jules, unsure if it was safe to interrupt.
“NNNNNN…” Susskind-Frankel writhed in her chair. Her ink-stained eyes were bulging, lips peeled back, face frozen in the same tortured expression that had flashed across it earlier.
Caliban’s was its mirror.
“Caliban, I think you should stop,” said Jules, louder. The sounds coming from Susskind-Frankel were making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end.
Her moaning glissandoed to a high-pitched whine. Her body started pitching rhythmically in her chair. Caliban’s bucked in time with it. Tears poured down both their cheeks.
“Stop! Stop!” Jules grabbed Caliban by the shoulders, spun the merc to face him.
Black ink swirled across his vision. Pain and penetration—a drumbeat—a gagging stench. Dangling decaying meat. Firelight on a masked face with spooky eyes.
On the sidewalk out front, Elisha bummed a cigarette off a passerby. It had been years since he’d had one, but if there was ever a time he’d needed one, it was now.
“I’m sorry you had to experience that, kid,” he said to Jules.
“So that’s what cogimancy’s like,” Jules murmured, his eyes still haunted.
“Definitely helps if you’re a masochist,” Elisha replied around his square.
Jules was silent a moment. “Did we at least get some kind of lead?”
Elisha nodded. “Details of the ritual. Location, too. Since they planned to wipe her after, they didn’t bother hidin’ from her where they were takin’ ’er.”
Jules stared off. His shaking, and Elisha’s too, had finally started to subside.
Jules looked at Elisha. “You can put her back, right?”
“Put her back…?”
“Wall off that memory again.”
Elisha sighed a cloud of smoke. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Jules fixed him with a stare. “You can’t be serious.”
There had been a palpable change in Emily Susskind-Frankel after Elisha had unlocked the memory of her ritualized rape. She’d been glassy-eyed, trembling, virtually unresponsive. Had spoken only to ask, in a childlike voice, if she could please have a minute alone. “Tell you the truth…I’m worried I did enough damage already.”
“Exactly. So you have to fix it.”
“I don’t think you understand, kid. Every time I go in, it ups the chances I break somethin’ important.”
Suddenly, Jules was wild-eyed. He swung his arm in a wide upward sweep toward Susskind-Frankel’s office seventy-five stories above. “You can’t just leave her to live with that.”
“Whoa, whoa, kid. ‘That’ was already in there. Shit like that happens to ya, it has its effects, whether you consciously remember it or not.”
“You saw her! She’s defenseless! Naked! You took her dignity!”
Aside from the time the alchemist had been possessed by a daemon, Elisha had never seen Jules Nimri this unhinged. “Her dignity was taken from her twenty years ago. Trust me, I wish I could undo it, but I can’t.”
“Fucking ask her, Caliban.”
“What she wants. Ask her if she wants you to put it away again. Tell her the risks and let her make a choice.”
“You didn’t ask her if she wanted that memory back. But you can ask her if she wants it taken away again. She never had a choice in any of this. You can give her one.”
Elisha sighed, took a deep drag. “Look, why don’t we just take a minute and—”
“You don’t wanna ask her? I will.” Jules shoulder-checked Elisha, knocking the cigarette out of his hand, as he stormed past.
Elisha would never know what made him look up at that moment—whether he heard some subtle sound or sensed a stirring of the air. But look up he did. And what he saw spurred him into motion in the nick of time.
He lunged, wrapped his arms around Jules, swung the boy around like a rag doll. Set him down on the opposite side of him, curled his own body over his, a protective shield.
The same instant Jules’s feet touched the ground, Emily Susskind-Frankel shattered like a dropped watermelon on the spot where he’d been standing, spraying scarlet across the sun-blanched sidewalk.
NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER FORTY-FIVE
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