Intermission 1, Part Two – Smokeless

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Pseudofunk: Starlight

One week had passed from that fateful day before my job truly began. The local police department was ordered to call the SIO offices, if you can even call them that, if anything connected to either the robbery or arson comes up. And sure enough, Wolfie (who had still withheld his name at this point, not even telling me what to call him) connected a call to my phone, and I listened to a frantic detective’s quick summary of what had happened.

Another robbery had been committed, this one, like the research heist, was right here in Lyon, and it happened immediately after an art show! Whoever these thieves were, they were getting craftier. I put the receiver back on the phone’s stand and shambled to my feet, grabbing my cane. I was still getting used to the feeling of having legs again, even though it was extremely faint and quite painful; the legs were absurdly heavy, about sixty pounds each, making it so all I could do for foot transportation was a shuffling gait, which was slower than just using my wheelchair. But I didn’t use my wheelchair; it felt too good to walk.

I limped outside to the car I had been given to drive around Lyon in, a Rover P6, fondly nicknamed the ‘jam sandwich’ by some officers, due to the white coloration and brown-and-blue stripe down the middle horizontally. It was quite painful getting into the driver’s seat, my knees hurting horribly from all the weight put on them by my new legs, but I managed to get inside and slam the door closed, throwing my cane into the back seat. I adjusted one of my new legs, which I had disguised with a new pair of loose jeans, and set a foot on the foot pedals, amused at how I wouldn’t be needing hand controls anymore. I stuck my keys into the ignition, started the car, and attempted to pull away from the sidewalk and into the street.

I wasn’t trying to gun the car, but the pained squeal of my tires definitely told me I did something wrong, and it took an instinctual swerve to stop me from rear-ending the car in front of me. It would take a bit to get used to how heavy my feet were, and I eased up on the gas as much as possible as the car bumbled down the road, just barely making the speed limit. I didn’t know Lyon well, but I DID know where my location was.

I managed to find my way to the new Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon; the first one exploded after someone lit a cigarette in a gas leak back in ‘51. The museum was an exhibit in of itself, a towering cathedral of sorts, quite different than the original in that it was less of just a big building and more of a landmark that people would easily recognize. I struggled getting out of the car, but finally managed to after a few unwomanly grunts and I began to limp towards the congregation of police cars around the front of the building. They had taped off the entrance, and I saw a few officers hold up some of the tape as they ducked inside. There was easily at least two dozen officers standing around, and I managed to stumble across that odd American officer I had met the week before.

They turned and looked at me unenthusiastically and instantly realized that I was now standing on two legs, not sitting in a wheelchair, rudely blurting, “The fuck?”

“Well it’s good to see you too, nameless American police officer. I see you’ve noticed my legs.” And my badge, I hoped; My new badge hung from a small chain necklace above my breasts. It put a little bit of pressure on the back of my neck due to its weight, but I had already gotten used to it.

The officer scratched his snout. “Yeah, uh, you, you have legs now. Um, how?”

“Science and non-disclosure agreements. INTERPOL sent me, they think this robbery is connected to an ongoing case. What was stolen?”

The officer, snapping out of his daze, cleared his throat. “Ahem, they, err, stole Van Gogh’s Starry Night.”

Oh dios mío.

It had been there not even two days and it was already stolen. The night before the robbery, a massive party slash art show was in full swing, celebrating the unveiling of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was placed behind a three inch thick panel of bullet proof glass, and the frame was secured to the wall with more than a few clamps, but it still managed to disappear. A janitor noticed it was missing sometime around three AM, after the party had ended at around one. They immediately called the police, and the local police department had been investigating up to the moment I drove my car up to the scene. From my questioning of a few of the detectives who had been there all morning, they suspected it had been stolen DURING the party, presumably when the person in charge of the cameras was looking the other way. They hadn’t checked the recordings from the night, leaving the examination up to me. I was lead to a small security office inside the building and watched the VCR recording of the previous night, from a camera in the corner of the room the Starry Night was being shown in.

The CCTV camera’s video quality was shoddy at best, most of the people being blurry splotches, but I could still make out each and every person. On the wall the camera was pointing down at was the painting, clear as day behind its supposedly impenetrable casing, ironic considering what painting it was, but a few seconds after the recording started, two odd individuals walked up to it. I adjusted my glasses and squinted, trying to make out the details of the two suspects; an average height canine of some sort with, brown fur maybe, wearing what seemed to be a brown overcoat, standing next to some sort of white-and-black mammal wearing a pink dre-wait a second. The skunk was reported wearing a pink dress. This suspect was white-and-black, and, when I squinted, it looked like they had a brown ‘swoop’ on their head, with the front of it bright white.

It was the bruja alright, no doubt about that. I leaned towards the small TV set the recording was being played on, and watched as the pair chatted for a little while, the other suspect wearing the trench coat nodding a few times before turning and walking away from the skunk, who watched them walk under the camera and back into the main gallery, and they glanced up at the camera as they passed under it.

They were a hyena.

My two seemingly unconnected cases had crossed paths; this hyena, who I can suspect is possibly the serial arsonist Gennady mentioned the week before, was chatting with the suspect from the international robberies. Why the hell would a serial arsonist need a painting worth millions? Burning it would give a few art majors instant aneurysms and enrage many others, but wouldn’t exactly mean anything; holding a painting hostage isn’t nearly as effective as holding a person hostage, no matter the painting. Using one as a shield is even less effective; a few holes and some blood splatter may destroy the value, but, eh, gonna shoot through it anyways.

I fast-forwarded the recording, to one AM. The party was winding down and most of the guests had left. I watched the recording until 1:15, then I swapped out the tape for one that recorded a camera in the main hall of the art gallery. I started it at one AM, and watched until 1:15. Minus a few leaving guests, I saw nothing odd. I went back to the previous tape, and sped it forward in increments of ten minutes.

1:25: Nothing.

1:35: More nothing.

1:45: I see the janitor walking around the main hall, mopping up some spilled wine as he dragged his cart behind him. He was the only janitor available for the evening, the other two having called in sick, probably attending the party in incognito i’m guessing, and he had already been interviewed by some of the local police force. He turns off the lights in the main hall, leaving only the moonlight as illumination, and the lights in the room where the Starry Night was being kept shut off too.

1:55: Janitor leaves the main hall, and even more nothing.

2:05: The camera overlooking the Starry Night shook slightly. At first I thought it was just a visual glitch, but, when I rewatched it a few times, I realized that it had indeed shook, as if something hit it or prodded it. Strange.

2:07: The camera goes out. I shifted in my chair as I looked at the empty screen. The cameras couldn’t be turned off outside the security room, and the guard in charge of the cameras swore he never shut any of them off.

2:12: The camera turns back on and, voilà, the painting is gone and the bulletproof glass is now laying on the floor in front of it, alongside a bunch of black specks, the rivets holding the glass in place. How could someone unrivet the case and steal the painting in only five minutes? I slumped back in my chair, rubbing my eyes under my glasses. I’d have to check the rivets for tool marks, the locals most likely already bagged them all after taking pictures of the crime scene. I don’t think this day is going to be a short one.

I hobbled out to the crime scene, and sighed as I looked at the empty case. The glass had already been removed alongside the rivets as I had guessed, and it felt odd staring at the empty display, especially with the sign in French in front of it adding insult to injury: ‘Présentation: Van Gogh’s Starry Nuit’. Although I have no way of determining it, I think that hyena was the arsonist of the embassy; it wouldn’t be odd for him to stay in town, probably to watch the news reports and relish in his destruction, and having seen him chatting with a suspected robber in front of an absurdly expensive painting which ends up stolen only a few hours later only added to my suspicions. The fact that they could apparently discuss the robbery in plain view and then execute it successfully only a few hours later tells me these thieves might be just a cut above my paygrade.

Oh, who am I kidding, there’s no chance I could investigate this on my own, but… I had to try. It was my JOB to at least try before throwing the case file over my shoulder and letting whoever it decks in the face take over for me, and besides, cracking two cases within my first month of work with only minor help from my few co-workers could possibly make me look really good for a quick promotion and pay increase…

And besides, it felt good to use my brain again, although, oddly enough, I don’t remember ever feeling this excited about a case before, as if I had completely forgotten about how it felt to even investigate something. Ugh, I have to shake off this rust. I talked with a few detectives, and before long I had the individually packaged rivets in my coat pockets and was headed for my car, limping to it outside the museum, but halfway between the steps and my car, a nasally, French-accennted voice pierced my eardrums.

“Ahem, Madam Deetecteeve Inspectore?” It came from someone behind me, and I turned around to greet a very small, very upset-looking little man, flanked on either side by a pair of burly-looking fellows wearing suits and shades, a bear and a polar bear.

The sand fox was maybe five feet and three inches tall at the absolute most, but that was probably because of his shoes and large ears making him look taller than he was. His outfit was quite odd, a too-small buttoned coat that almost resembled mine but in black and with white buttons and an also-too-small pair of pinstripe pants, but the detail the drew my eyes first was the orange-ish brown quiff on his head and the matching ‘sideburns’ down the sides of his face, which reminded me of Gennady. Must be a fad nowadays. He stopped a few feet in front of me and cleared his throat again, “Ahem, Detecteeve Inspectore, I am ze fantastique proprietier of zees fantastique muzeum, but I am sure you already know about mwoi, yes?” He spoke about himself with almost an air of royalty, using hand movements to accentuate his ‘fanciness’, also I had never seen this tiny man before in my entire life so I stared at him with my mouth slightly agape and eyes softly squinted.

“No actually, I have no clue who you are.” I bluntly answered.

The look on his face changed from one of slight smugness to one of obvious annoyance, his eyebrows furrowing and the edges of his mouth lifting ever so slightly; somebody didn’t have good body language-hiding skills. “Well zen I guess i’ll have to tell you! I am Godefroy Zineb Gaspard, and my painting was STOLEN!” He began to raise his voice and gesticulate more intensely, pointing in the air and standing on his toes when he yelled ‘stolen’, and that trait along with his name made me remember who he was; i’d heard of GZG before, mainly because of his vocal outbursts towards critics. The man was a prodigy, a clothing designer who also had a taste for the arts, buying the Museum of Fine Arts two years ago for a few BILLION francs. “Detecteeve Inspectore, I hope you find my painting quickly and without haste, there ees an, empty void een my heart caused by eet’s disappearance!” He clutched his chest dramatically. “Please, DI, please!” He clasped his hands together and pouted.

I weighed my options; if I punched him then and there, I would probably have to fight his bodyguards, but if I fought back the urge, I could escape to my car. “Yeah okay, sure, it’s my job anyways.”

As soon as he got what he wanted, he dropped the act, easing up and putting a hand on his hip as he began to stare at me with his head slightly cocked forward. “Good. You might be ze most useful woman i’ve met zees week so far.”

“Excuse me?”

He snapped his fingers, and his bodyguards crouched down and lifted him up, letting him rest on their beefy shoulders where he waved me off. “Tata Dececteeve Inspectore, I have very important things to do.”

I scratched the back of my head. “Uh, okay? Bye?”

He scoffed, before snapping again, and his bodyguards carried him off. I swore I saw sadness behind one of the pairs of sunglasses, but alas, I had escaped that social encounter with my dignity still intact. I don’t think that’s the last i’m gonna see of that pendejo.

I clambered into my car, driving back to my ersatz base of operations; this new SIO was still quite a fledgling operation. I parked my car outside the repurposed apartment building and hobbled in, taking the elevator to the top floor and walking into the main office. Unsurprisingly, it was just how I had left it a few hours before.

Donovan, who I had previously internally nicknamed ‘Wolfie’ when he hadn’t given me his name, was filing a few nondescript forms in one of the many file cabinets when I walked in, and Rafa was nowhere to be seen. He noticed my arrival and turned to greet me. “Hello Inspector, how’s the case going?”

“Fine, I just need a microscope and some putty.”

“Finding tool marks?”

“Exactly.”

Donovan nodded. “I’ll make it happen, oh, Mister Orlov is in your office waiting for you, apparently he’s more willing to talk.” Today was full of lucky breaks!

Sure enough, there was Gennady, quite rudely sitting on my desk and using my chair as a foot rest while smoking a cigarette. He had his back turned to me, so I got his attention by striking his shoulder with my cane, eliciting a shocked ‘blyat’ as he scrambled to get off my desk. Brushing himself off, Orlov plucked the cigarette from his mouth and coughed, “Err, hello Detective Inspector.”

“Hello Gennady. Donovan said you were willing to talk more about your, uh, experiences?”

“Da.” He walked out of my office, and returned with a folding chair. I shambled behind my desk as he unfolded it and took a seat, before sighing. “I don’t have much to tell you this time, so i’ll make this brief; I know you are a busy woman.”

“Thanks for the consideration.”

He sighed again, something he seemed to do quite a bit. “All I can say right now is, many years ago, the Gilded States assigned me to a mission, in a place deep in the African continent. I was assigned to, eh, eliminate a potential ‘problem’ and anyone who got in my way, which I did easily, no questions asked. The problem was, his wife got into the way, as the two, well, shared a bed like most spouses, but I had my orders. Later on, it, turned out that my target was a body double, leading to some suspicion there was some sort of ‘mole’ in the ranks. I am no racist when I say that, there was a general distrust flowing all around after that. The man I was supposed to kill was a hyena, and the man I killed WAS a hyena, but as I was disposing of the double and the wife, their child walked in…” He looked down and crossed his arms, “I’ve said enough. I hope this information helps you, in some way.”

I nodded. “Anything does. Thank you, Orlov, these memories are evidently painful and possible life-threatening, so, you telling me them is very honorable.”

“Tcht, ‘honor’, there is no such thing anymore, DI.” He got out of the chair and folded it up, holding it under his arm as he added, “Once I manage to convince myself, I will be back here with more information. Have a nice day, Detective Inspector Montreza.”

“You too, Mister Orlov.”

He left moments later, and I recapped the information I got in my mind: Orlov was sent somewhere in Africa to kill a male hyena, he ended up killing a body double and his target’s wife, and the target’s son saw him in the act. This information wasn’t that useful at the time, but I memorized it nonetheless, taking out my notepad and scribbling a few hasty notes into it.

What, expected me to be more surprised that a man is telling me the Gilded States is assassinating people? It’s as if you people think I entirely trust the guy, sheesh; so far he’s shown me no evidence that he truly is some sort of ‘ex-assassin for the GSS’ other than his word and stories, but so far, with the perpetrator possibly being a hyena, I think there may be some credibility to his claims…

After Donovan brought me the supplies in a cardboard box I departed for home, arguing to him that i’d be more effective working in a more comfortable argument, and he essentially let me walk out. At home, I hobbled into my office and set the box on my desk, pulling out the associated equipment; latex gloves with reinforced fingertips so nails can’t stab through, empty slides for a microscope, a small x-acto knife, boxes of putty, thin aluminum plates, and a large comparison microscope. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. I set up the microscope, next to my new lamp I bought the day before, setting out the rest of the supplies on my desk before slipping on the latex gloves. Time to do some forensics.

I took out the bags from my pocket and lined them up, taking a marker out from my desk and writing on their labels ‘Rivet #1-12’, and pulled little chunks of putty out for each. For each rivet, I pressed the putty against the obviously scuffed parts, a process that took me maybe five or so minutes, before setting each bit of putty to the side. Next I reached over onto a nearby bookshelf and pulled off my Polaroid camera, using it to take a picture of each bit of indented putty. My techniques were nonstandard, but they still worked. After the polaroids were collected, I took the x-acto knife and some cutting board provided and cut out squares around the bits of putty that were indented in the photographs, before chucking the rest of the photographs in the garbage. I put the comparison microscope on the lowest zoom, slid in rivets #1 and #2, and got to work.

I need to invest in a radio. In the boring hour that passed, I determined that the rivets had been removed using a hand drill and a screwdriver. I was given the ‘cores’ of the rivets as well when I collected the evidence from the detectives, the metal plugs on the inside that needed to be punched out before the entire rivet could be removed. That was done by taking a screwdriver and placing the tip against the top of the plug and then hitting it hard on the pommel, popping it out. You then took a drill and drilled out the rest of the inside of the rivet, and it would fall free, giving reason as to why they were laying all over the floor. But how did someone manage to drill and punch out twelve rivets in five minutes without someone in a nearby room hearing them?

I leaned back in my chair, letting out a sigh as I allowed myself to mentally relax. I needed to go out, maybe get myself a coffee. It didn’t seem like I could do anything else at the time so I bagged up my evidence, wrote down my findings, and left my apartment. As I walked towards the elevator, I glanced down the stairway; it didn’t seem THAT bad. Maybe if I took baby steps? My legs were still very, very early in the healing process, and considering that they were extremely heavy there was a real chance of them ripping themselves off. Why couldn’t they make it out of titanium instead of stainless steel?

I shuffled over to the stairs, and tentatively set a foot on the first lower step. “Baby steps,” I reassured myself, putting my other foot on the step, “Baby steps.” I held onto the rail with one hand and used my cane to stabilize me as I took another step down, and soon I had made it halfway down the set. I quickened my pace, and ten seconds later I set my feet onto the 11th floor. Impressive!

I then collapsed into the elevator because my leg muscles, which were still heavily atrophied, ached horrendously because of the strain put on them just by lifting my legs to walk, hence the shuffling.

I got a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop, a latte with excessive creamer and sugar, and sat at one of tables outside the shop as I tried to decide my next move. I had two suspects, and the knowledge of at least a third due to the odd fur found at two of the crime scenes in the burglaries. I hoped that we got some more people in SIO soon, as the workload was beginning to dawn on me. The coffee burnt my mouth, so I tossed it after a few sips, instead opting to shuffle across the street to a liquor store in order to start what would become a collection of assorted cheap alcohol in my penthouse fridge.

After stuffing two bagged bottles into the back of my car, I decided to go to a business I had spied while Donovan was driving me back home after the prosthetic leg transplants. I drove down a few side roads, using the map I had hastily shoved onto my dashboard to direct myself, and found the road Donovan had taken me down, travelling down it until I saw the building I was looking for; a square yellow brick building with a flat roof sat on the right side of the road, ‘Kat’s Pafilo Vendejo’ painted onto the tinted windows with white paint that had begun to peel, and a flickering neon ‘OPEN’ sign sat half-obscured by the metal bars in the window. Thank god I still remembered how to read Esperanto. I pulled into the small four-car parking lot next to the building and hobbled out of my car and into the business.

With a name like that, I wasn’t expecting anything exactly unique or memorable about the place, maybe a few odd ball guns hung upon the walls, but, I wasn’t expecting THIS MANY odd ball guns on the walls! Wherever there was wallspace, there was either a rack of guns screwed in or a firearm hanging off some hooks, locked in place by security locks of course. Behind the counter was a young-looking orange tabby, flat-faced and wearing a black t-shirt with ‘THE ONLY GUN CONTROL I NEED IS MY HANDS’ emblazoned on it in white lettering alongside a white generic rifle. They were organizing money in the cash register when I stepped opened the door, quickly closing it and setting their hands on the counter.

“Howdy!” Their voice was a little squeaky and very obviously feminine, the only other tell to their gender other than the, well, pair of bumps under her shirt. “Lookin’ for somethin’ in particular, ma’am?”

“No, no, just browsing.” The employee, who I assumed was Kat, nodded and began to organize knives in the display case counter, and I limped up to one of the walls covered in firearms. “These, are all real right? Not models?”

Kat looked up from the display and smiled a sharp-toothed grin, her pinned-on nametag betraying her identity, her last name being ‘Braschler’. That name felt oddly familiar somehow. “Yep! The SBR’s and machine guns too, all registered and available for purchase!” SBR meaning short barrel rifle, a classification added to rifles whose barrels were ‘too short’. Machine guns is self-explanatory.

“Impressive…” I lifted a stamped metal submachine gun off a pair of hooks, locking back the bolt and looking down the ejection port, before setting it back and continuing perusing the other guns. The sheer amount still surprised me. They were all real?

A green and black rifle caught my eye from behind the counter, light shining off the worn edges of its distinctive carry handle, and a prancing pony adorned its lower receiver. I hobbled up to the counter and pointed at it. “What’s that?” I asked. Kat’s toothy smile grew unnervingly wide, and I swore they must’ve been related to the Cheshire cat.

“This,” She turned and took the gun off the hooks, pulling the oddly-located charging handle behind the carrying handle in order to check if it was clear before removing the twenty-round magazine, “Is a Colt 601, a rare bird of an assault rifle. Light, handy, and reliable if you use the right ammo and clean it regularly, kinda uncontrollable on full-auto though.” She tossed it in the air and caught it one handed. “Six and a half pounds in a gun is like holding air.”

“What’s the chambering?” I asked as I leaned against the counter.

“.222 Special, also a rare bird… well, flock of birds, I guess, sort of. Bit weak for a round, bullets like to tumble in flesh, but I got some rare experimental ammo in the back.” Kat pressed out a pin on the rear of the upper receiver with her thumb, letting the two receivers separate and hinge open on the remaining pin. “This gun is a bit of a beater, being almost a hundred and ten years old, and the previous owner did some… questionable modifications.” She popped out the other receiver pin and took the two receivers apart, setting the upper down as she showed me the inside of the lower. “For one, he added an aftermarket ambidextrous selector which, through the magic of shoddy gunsmithing, grinds on the hammer a little bit and causes light hammer strikes, somehow. I’m honestly astonished.”

I nodded and looked over at the upper receiver. “What about that one?”

Kat set down the lower receiver and picked up the upper, leaning it on the table and pointing at the muzzle. “Birdcage flash hider, probably added on when this was sitting in an armory somewhere a long time ago. The original was called a ‘duckbill’ flash hider, had three prongs, got stuck on stuff and broke off when used to cut wires so it went bye-bye.”

Interesting, an ancient assault rifle. Of course, I had already taken a liking to it, so I asked, “How much is it?”

Kat chuckled. “A bit. They only made maybe fifteen thousand of these, and most of those fifteen thousand are stuck in North America or lost in Vietnam,” I had no idea what she meant by that, “So, i’d let this one go fer, maybe, thirty-thousand Forands?”

WHAT.

“Thirty-THOUSAND? I make 2K a week!”

“You make 2K a week?”

“Well i’m supposed to but I haven’t been paid yet… should consult Donovan on that… but anyways, thirty-THOUSAND Forands?”

“It’s a machine gun, a rare one at that! I have to get the paperwork submitted and that takes MONTHS to get submitted! Pain and effort adds more price, yah know!”

I pinched the bridge of my snout. Okay, guess i’m not getting THAT then; would’ve been useful only as a toy anyways. “Ugh, well, fairly certain i’m not getting THAT.” I picked back up my cane, which I had been leaning against the counter, and went back to perusing the arsenal on the walls. Kat just scoffed and went back to adjusting things in the hybrid counter/display case.

One weapon caught my eye, something that’d make me feel a bit more secure in that penthouse of mine, more substantial than my Double Eagle.

A nice, blued, and polished Mossberg 500 ATP8.

A ‘welcome back’ gift to myself.

Sufficiently armed and bored at having had to sit through the electronic background check, I drove back to my apartment with the gun in a cheap plastic case I had also purchased, laying the case across the back two seats of my car alongside a few boxes of birdshot. Lugging the case into my penthouse from my car along with the ammo was uncomfortable to say the least, but I didn’t want to take a second trip. After that was all said and done, I went out to go get a bite to eat, driving around the general neighborhood looking for a fast food place, taking note that the sun had begun to set.

McDonald’s had to do. That damned place had outlasted all of it’s competitors in the last few decades, emerging as the sole winner of the ‘Fast Food War’ through the use of an expanding menu that swapped depending on what time of the year it was and a propensity to actually listen to customers, changes found necessary to survive. When I got back to my penthouse for the third time, I had a bit of an epiphany, and before long found myself climbing out of the window in my study onto the fire-escape, clutching a warm paper bag with my teeth. Sluggishly climbing the fire escape, my heavy legs slowed me so much that by the time I finally got to the top, the sun was almost entirely set. My food was still warm, and I sat on the edge of the roof, back to the sunset.

My seventy-cent Big Mac reminded me of the travelling I did before I found Hillcrest; many hours spent on the road in my converted Jeep Wagoneer, ‘Old Woody’ I called her. She was still sitting in my garage back on Hillcrest, waiting for me. I almost felt bad, but then I remembered it was an inanimate object with no feelings, so I stopped feeling bad. I lost one of my napkins over the edge of the building when I went to wipe my mouth, almost reaching out and trying to grab it, but a mere glance off the edge firmly planted my stomach to the roof. That was a long, long drop. I guess the wind can take the napkin today.

I turned and glanced across the cityscape, at the sunset. Only a little bit of orange was peaking over the tops of the many buildings behind me, far-off complexes mere shadows against it, but as the sun crept downwards, I saw that telltale green flash, more of a spark really, but as I pondered what I had seen the sun made it’s escape, leaving the sky blank and orange, like smoke laid over burning napalm.

Napalm. For some reason, thinking about that weapon of war sent a shiver down my newly-reconnected spine. Napalm. The smoke.

I shook my head, regaining my composure. That was, odd. I turned back around, looking down at the half-eaten Big Mac I clutched in one of my hands. Only now was I noticing that I had some pretty large paws. All the better for slapping, I suppose. I finished my ‘dinner’ and took a few sips of my Dr. Pepper, who I fully endorse as a well-trained medical professional, and watched the sky begin to darken. But as I did so, I had another epiphany.

I needed to go back to the museum. I didn’t know why, but, I had to. I just had to. The thought was random, but soon followed by a genuine concern; what if the second assailant, the one who did the actual stealing, left some hairs at this crime scene too? The hair was odd, unidentifiable but cat-like, so more samples could possibly help me find out who the REAL burglar is. I tried to ignore my gut feeling, to let myself actually try to enjoy the rest of my night, by my gut told me, ‘Do it Montreza, do it.’ I just had to comply, didn’t I?

Breaking the speed limit more than once, I rushed to the museum in my ‘jam sandwich’, skirting a few stop signs and arriving only a few minutes after I had finished eating. The night was cold, so I made sure my coat was buttoned tightly as I hobbled towards the police lines. Three officers were standing guard in front of the doors, two holding coffee cups and fighting the urge to fall asleep, and I raised my badge and announced in French, “INTERPOL has asked me to check in case there were any hairs found on the crime scene that were feline in nature.”

One officer, ironically a feline, answered, “Well, other than the hairs from me and the other feline officers, ones we made sure to pick up, no other cat hairs have been found, ma’am.”

“I want to check anyways.”

They shrugged. “Alright.” The officer lifted up the short line of tape covering one of the doors and allowed me to duck under, and I limped into the main hall. Maybe the burglar left a few hairs on the ground near the broken display that no-one noticed, somehow? I just had to make sure!

When I arrived in the hall, I knew why my gut pulled me back here. In front of the display, scrounging on the floor for the hairs I had hypothesized might be there, was a stout individual wearing all black clothing and a matching knit cap. Crouched down near the floor with their back turned to me, they patted around on the floor, the moonlight from an overhead skylight undoubtedly helping them in their search, but they were having some trouble finding what they were looking for, acting almost frantic as they glanced around. They were swiping their hands all over the floor, and although I wasn’t that close, I noticed light glistening from their fingertips; they had put tape over them, possibly to collect the hairs they might have left behind. They were learning from their mistakes.

Too bad I hadn’t learned from mine.

I attempted to unbutton my coat in order to reach for my sidearm, but the hastily-re stitched buttons wanted to take revenge on me somehow, so one decided to pop off and clatter against the marble floor, the sound echoing throughout the chamber. The thief turned, glaring at me from behind a black bandana with two piercing eyes as I finally managed to pull my jacket open while also tearing off the rest of the buttons once again, and as I retrieved my shield and yelled, “POLICE!”, They bolted for a nearby emergency exit.

I tried to run after them, but my heavy legs only let me do a fast walk that I had to slow down after a few steps due to the pain my thighs were experiencing, but I HAD to MOVE. I pointed my gun at the escaping crook, who had shoulder-bashed an emergency exit open, and I decided to forget about the pain and let the job take me over. I started running, my cane dangling from my wrist as I ran, my legs hollering and hooting as my sore, diminished thighs whimpered, but I still kept running.

I then tripped. My cane, which was currently dangling from my right wrist by its lanyard, smacked me in the knee and sent me toppling, my glasses flying off my face. The crook had already escaped to the stairway by the time I managed to get my wrist out of the loop, tossing away my cane and stumbling back onto my feet. Things were blurrier, but I had no time for my glasses!

I ran into the stairwell the suspect had escaped too, squeaking soles heard from above, but I hesitated for a moment, but immediately remembered the stairwell I had (partially) conquered earlier. “Baby steps,” I assured myself as I started to run up the stairs as fast as I could force myself, “Baaaaby steps, guhhh.” I was hoping that adrenaline had taken over by now, but the pain in my legs still sung it’s horrible song as loud as possible.

It must’ve been twenty flights before I made it to the top. The suspect had gotten to the top only a few seconds before I did, and as I threw open the door to the roof, gun pointed ahead, I saw them vault over a vent like it was just a hurdle.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me!” I yelled as I started to run after them, slowly climbing over one vent. There was another, which the suspect easily hopped over, and I attempted to do the same, my foot catching on the edge and causing me to fumble my landing. At the edge of the roof was a railing leading to a lower section, and the criminal vaulted that as well, and I heard loud scraping noises as I made it to the railing. I glanced over, seeing the suspect recover from a roll and quickly get back into full sprint, and I had to decide how to get down FAST.

Jumping was out of the option, I might rip the prosthetics right off my legs and bleed out, but it looked like I had no other choice.

I made a cross on my chest, mouthed a short prayer, and unable to lift my feet very high, crawled over the top of the railing.

I fell fast and hard, landing semi-crouched and falling onto my back, leg muscles now yodeling and completely overwhelming my senses with the pain. My gun flew out of my hand, clattering a few feet away, I grimaced at the extreme pain. No walking for the next few days, dios mío! Rolling my head, and the suspect stopped near the edge of the roof, staring down at the bustling streets below, orange light from street lamps making them just a black silhouette.

“A storm is comin’, lady.” They said in a husky feminine voice, turning their head to look at me with their beady eyes. “I’d suggest you get offworld before it’s too late.”

“Wuh, w-what?” I coughed as I rolled onto my chest, making a quick glance at my nearby handgun; shooting them wasn’t in my best interests, but I had to at least make them stop running.

“Bad, bad, baaaahahaaaad things are comin’, sis. Bad, bad things.” They stuck their hand in their pocket, looking towards the sky.

I reached towards my gun, hissing, “Don’t, nggh, call me ‘sis’!” I clutched the grip, pointing it at the suspect… but they were gone. In the split second I looked away to grab my gun, they had vanished. How? HOW? There was no sound, no way they could’ve just gone poof from the rooftop! I tried to get to my feet, oh I tried, but my legs were too weak, there was too much pain, I tried to tap into my anger in order to feed me but they HURT TOO DAMN MUCH, GAAAAHHHHHH!!! HOW COULD THEY HAVE GOTTEN AWAY??? THE DIDN’T JUMP! HOW? HOW?!?

How?

I crawled to the end of the roof, too weak to get to my feet, and set my chin on the edge. Beneath me was a highway, but no red splatters on the pavement, no swerved cars, nothing. They were gone, just like that, and I was hurt. I was hurt all over.

I rolled over onto my back, wheezing, and set my hand on my chest. All I could see was stars, both figuratively and literally. They had gotten away. They disappeared. Everything hurts. I felt something tickle one of my hands, so I looked over at it. In the orange light that flowed over the edge of the roof, I saw two glinting strands. They left behind a few hairs.

I laid on that rooftop until morning.

Bathed in starlight.

I had roughed up my legs pretty badly; there was some swelling that essentially shoved me back into my wheelchair, and I was told to not walk on them for another week at least, but the amount of freedom I had felt when I ran after the suspect was, was, NOSTALGIC. I could run! Granted, not efficiently and very painfully, but I could still run!

After getting dragged off that roof I wondered all day how the suspect got away. They couldn’t have jumped, i’d have heard it. If they climbed down they did it abnormally fast, but there was no other way off that roof. Donovan instructed I take the day off and not worry about either of my cases, and instead instructed poor Rihardo to take me around town, help me readjust to the streets of Lyon, much to his displeasure.

The dog was practically shaking out of his sneakers when he rolled me out of the offices and helped me into my car, and I had an inkling of an idea that maybe, just maybe, this little guy liked me more than a coworker. Or something like that at least because he was causing more tremors than an earthquake.

“What about clothing stores?” I asked him as I buckled myself in.

“H-Huh?” Rafa’s ear flicked when he heard my voice, and he stuttered, “C-Clothing stores? Like, Old Navy?”

“Yeah I guess, whatever Old Navy is. Just take me somewhere I can change out of these stinking clothes, I smell like gravel!”

Rafa shakily nodded before attempting to put the car keys into the ignition, fumbling a little bit. What a pathetic little man. Finally, after three minutes of shaky control operation, Rafa managed to drive the car away from the curb, and so our clothing adventure had begun.

With my lofty salary I asked him to take me to somewhere a bit ‘upper class’, wanting to replace my now-buttonless-again coat with something less obtrusive. He took me to a strip mall and pointed out one of the store fronts. “T-That place has n-nice jackets.” He stuttered, looking at me as if he expected me to punch him, but I didn’t have a reason yet to, so I just nodded. Not today, Rafa, not today.

“Eh, looks okay to me. Come on, slave!” I unbuckled myself and pushed open the car door, and Rafa slightly freaked out.

“W-Wait, M-Montreza, your legs!”

I waved back at him as I stood out of the car. “I know I know, my legs, I’m not going to run or anything.” I pulled my cane, which I kept in case something or someone needed to be clobbered, out of the back of the car and began to fast-limp towards the store, attempting to outrun Rafa’s shaky little ass, but he fast-waddled up to and alongside me into the store.

There was a pleasant atmosphere inside; nice brown wooden walls, lots of clothing on those odd spinny racks, and a very-smiley lady stood behind a counter alongside the right wall. Avoiding contact with her I immediately banked left, examining clothes on racks along the wall and in general trying to imagine what would look best on me. I stopped in front of a short-sleeved blue jacket, pondered it for a moment, but moved on when I saw that it was impossible to zip closed. A tan coat was another option, but when I took it to the dressing room and tried it on, I found it too restrictive of my arm movement.

Then I saw it.

Sandwiched between two sweaters in the clearance section.

The jacket.

I pulled it out and held it up to the light. It was decently large, with full-length sleeves and a zipper on the front, but what caught my eye was the color; a bright yellow, obvious and flashy but still mellow. A mellow yellow. Rafa waddled over to me, and when he saw the jacket I was holding he inexplicably began to fidget, muttering, “W-Why d-don’t you look at the coats instead?”

I looked at him incredulously. “Haha what? Why?”

“O-Oh no reason, j-just a suggestion.”

I set the coat on top of the rack I yanked it out of, turning to Rafa and asking, “Are you okay Rafa? You’re starting to scare me. What’s on your mind?”

“N-Nothing! Nothing, I’m fine.” He started to calm down, but I was still mystified. He wasn’t fidgeting in the ‘I have a big crush’ kinda way, he was acting as if he was… scared. Scared of me? Why?

I just shrugged, turning back to the rack with a dismissive, “Whatever.” I took the jacket to the dressing room to the back and pulled off my coat again, sliding it on. It slid over my arms like greased lightning, the texture on the inside pleasantly smooth, and I adjusted it a little so I could see how it looked draping over my breasts or separated to the sides. It looked great either way, and I felt my confidence almost skyrocket with it on. I looked really good! That was the first time in almost a decade that I felt that I looked good.

But there was an issue. As I stared at myself in the mirror, I was happy with my look, yes, but something about it made me feel uneasy. I realized what it was: my glasses. They were out of place and to be blunt quite ugly, the frame having been the only one available when I got them, so I took them off. Instantly my look improved, but I still wasn’t feeling quite right. My jeans were faded, and my shoes were scuffed; they had to go.

And go they did, god damn, because I went next door and bought myself some Timberlands! They matched the yellow of my jacket almost EXACTLY, and when I returned to the dressing room, I felt quite self confident about myself.

But my confidence vanished when I actually noticed how I looked while I pulled on the yellow jacket. I set it down, staring at the marks and scars on my upper arms, and glanced down at my bottom-heavy legs. I was, how do you say, quite ‘frumpy’? Does that make very much sense? I hope it does. It was obvious that I hadn’t kept myself in the best of shape these last few years, the obvious bags under my eyes a permanent fixture due to my weird sleeping schedule or lack thereof, my arms were flabby due to a complete lack of exercise, and my thighs… They were borderline skeletal. Thankfully I was born with wide hips, but with how thin they were, they didn’t look like much more than skin and bones in my old jeans. Right then and there I began to concoct a workout schedule for myself. It was time to take my body back from my disability. I could walk again, so I had NO EXCUSES to not exercise!

That day was a good day. I felt reborn after the shopping trip was over, and back home I modeled in front of the mirror on my bedroom door. I held up my fists and bared my teeth at it with my new yellow gloves on, a matching tone to my new boots and jacket, and examined my posterior in my deep blue jeans that I chose specifically because they matched my hair. There was a lot of color coordination going on here, which was the point; you have to dazzle the suspects first, confuse them, then go in for the arrest.

Naaaaaaaaaaaaah I just thought I looked a little less horrendous than usual in the get up. My confidence boosted and my clothing fresh, I rolled into the offices the next day in my wheelchair essentially a new woman. Rafa was busy tapping away on a computer, Donovan was examining a bottle of alcohol he had for some odd reason, and the hairs were sent off to ‘an expert’ according to Donovan. It’s more than an oddity when a high-profile thief is leaving hairs across the globe but you can’t even IDENTIFY the hairs! I wheeled into my office and took one of the security camera tapes from that night off my desk, sliding it into the slot on the shell of my computer and watching the recording intently.

But still, how the hell did they get in there? All exits and entrances were locked and being watched with surveillance cameras, and the only that didn’t have a camera covering it had those officers standing in front of it! Checking the footage of that evening didn’t help me in the slightest, as the thief just slinked into the hall from out of the blindspot of the camera watching the now-empty display, with none of the other cameras except for the roof one capturing them, said roof camera recording them as they escaped. I spent the next hour trying to examine the recordings from each of the cameras, attempting to formulate in my mind how they managed to get inside.

Maybe the skylight? No, no, they have lasers covering it. There were no underground entrances either… I think this was a sign to let the case rest.

But with that mess out of my focus, I had the other mess still on my plate; the arsonist. At least now I had a likely suspect, and Donovan made sure ‘Information Wanted’ posters of the suspect were posted up all around Lyon and airport police were told to keep an eye out, but even there we had no leads.

Except for one.

I had no idea where Gennady was, or how to contact him, but I still had the information he had given me. I began to search the Viralnet for recent assassination attempts on country leaders in Africa, limiting my search to smaller countries as the leaders there are more likely to be dictators. No, i’m not bigoted, just experienced.

Well maybe a little bigoted.

One likely match popped up; in 2049, the country of South Sudan broke into yet another civil war, not surprising anyone, but what did surprise everyone was the ‘formation’ of the country of Garamba, in New Zaire’s Garamba National Park. A hyena South Sudanese general had claimed the park was now an autonomous community of South Sudan, essentially deflecting the military away from actually dealing with the civil war and instead using them to fight the forces of New Zaire. After a bout of prolonged fighting, the war between Congo and South Sudan ended in early 2051, but the same general THEN declared that Garamba was now an independant nation, and the South Sudanese military was too preoccupied dealing with the civil war while New Zaire’s forces were stuck licking their wounds. Garamba is more of a fortress than a country, and I doubt that any of the people living in it are anything other than conscripted soldiers, a lot having been dragged in due to hopes that they’d strike it rich in the tiny country, which only exists currently because a MASSIVE amount of petroleum was discovered there back in 2055.

The GSS LOVES their petroleum, needing it to fuel some of their weaker spacecraft and their tanks among other things. So much so, that i’ve heard rumors of the GSS colonizing planets solely because of the possibility that they might have oil, but those are just rumors. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if the GSS did try to assassinate him, possibly to put a puppet in power in the fortress-country so they can access the oil…

Heh, this reminded me a bit of one of my operations back when I first joined INTERPOL. I was…

…what was I doing?

I can’t remember?

Like, I DO know that I did something, but, everything is just fuzzy. Sleep-deprivation?

As I began to ponder about why I couldn’t remember that random operation I was a part of, a sharp pain resonated through my crotch. I hissed and put a hand on my pelvis, grimacing. I’ve never felt a pain like THAT before! It was like a line down my pelvis, a line comprised of, uhhh, fire? I’m not good at describing pain, but still, that stole my focus, and I decided that it might be time to go to the little girl’s room.

One bathroom visit later, I returned to my office and continued to ponder the possibility that this general, whose last name was Magran, could be the father of the arsonist. Both were hyenas, and when I pulled up a picture of General Magran, I cross-compared a screen capture of the security footage I saw the suspect in with the photograph. The markings were similar, but that could just be a coincidence. I could find no information on Magran’s relationship status, if he even had a wife or son, but I felt like I was starting to slowly tighten the noose on the arsonist.

I will find out who they are.

I will finish this case as quickly and efficiently as possible.

I’m supposed to be the best of the best, so, I better act like it.

But as for right now…

Coffee break!

As I drove home, I mentally examined the recording of the two suspects. The hyena, if not the arsonist himself, could still have some sort of connection to Magran. Of the small amount of information I could scrounge up on him, I learned that he was a failed painter before he enlisted in the South Sudanese military. Hmmmmmmmm.

If you have a lot of petroleum, you have a lot of money, and if you have a lot of money, you can feed your expensive appetites. And if you’re a failed painter…

Bah, I can’t come to conclusions right now, I have to focus on the task at hand; identifying the skunk. I had brought the tapes with me, so I planned to watch them when I got home on my television while doing some more research on my new fancy schmancy personal computer.

But I had nothing to search for. She could be ANYONE, and I had no idea where to start. For now, my only way to progress in building my case around the burglaries was just to wait.

I don’t like waiting.

However, while I sat at the computer dumbfounded, I felt that telltale sharp pain in my groin again, gritting my teeth. What WAS that? Curious, I walked to the bathroom and pulled down my pants, examining the ‘metal diaper’ unceremoniously bolted to my pelvis. It was secured in place by a pair of bolts on the front and on the back, said bolts going right through my pelvis bone; it WAS meant to be permanent. I then got an idea. A really, really bad idea.

Pulling out the toolbox under my sink, I found an adjustable wrench, and tightened it around the top of one of the front-facing bolts. I twisted slightly, but immediately collapsed on the carpet, gasping for air and shaking. I honestly don’t know what I was expecting, but the pain was intense and instant, and I decided to leave THAT alone for the time being.

What to do, what to do… at this point I was just waiting for any possible developments in the case and the fur to get analyzed and any important information sent back, but it was late so I decided to just go to bed. Shambling into my bedroom, I leaned my cane next to my loaded shotgun, which I relocated to the crack between my bed and the wall, and slid off my jacket. I placed my glasses in their case, turned off the light, and blindly groped my way to my bed before flopping onto it. I thought I heard a quiet cracking noise, but I ignored it.

What I didn’t ignore was the cracking of my front door being busted open. My eyes shot open as I reached behind myself, pulling out my shotgun from where I hid it and groping for the lamp next to my bed, flicking it on. I grabbed my ear plugs and stuck them in, before flicking off the safety of my shotgun. I had no doubt that someone was unhappy that I was investigating them, be it the thieves or the arsonist. I slid my legs off of the bed, having slept on the sheets, and slowly inched towards the door to my room. I pressed an ear up to the door and listened for any voices or movement. I heard shoes squeak on the linoleum floor of my kitchen and hushed voices whispering, so I moved my head to the seam between the door and it’s frame and listened, holding my breath.

“…there’s little to nothing here…”

“…check everywhere…”

“…the bedroom?”

English, but with heavy African accents. If the arsonist is the son of an African warlord with a large amount of oil money, it’s not surprising that they sent assassins, and judging by the amount of voices I heard, there was at least three of them.

“Check the hall…” I heard soft steps on my carpet towards the hall that led to my room, so I took a step away from my door and set a hand on the door handle. I slowly exhaled and psyched myself, slowly beginning to turn the door handle, cradling the stock of my shotgun under right arm. The time for listening had passed; now was the time for action.

When I heard the steps come close to my door, I threw it open, and in the darkness saw a single, confused man, some sort of canine wearing a full-head ski mask. I pointed my shotgun at his chest with one hand and pulled the trigger. Even with hearing protection, the concussion from the blast caused me to flinch, and the muzzle flash illuminated the hallway for a split second. The man crumpled immediately, falling stiffly to the floor, and scared yelling erupted out from the living room as I walked out of my room and down the hall, pumping the shotgun and ejecting a smoking shell onto the carpet.

I caught two goons falling over the coffee table and couch trying to run for the door, another one in the kitchen trying to charge their pistol with thick leather gloves on. I raised my shotgun and blasted them in the chest, and the guy fell to the ground with a peeled-apart chest cavity. The other two ran out of my ruined front door as I ran the action of my shotgun, escaping, and for a second I thought about chasing them, but I wouldn’t be able to run far OR fast with my legs still healing. I rubbed my eyes as I approached the dead criminal in my kitchen, prodding his head with the barrel of my shotgun; my official opinion was that he was pretty dead looking. I sat down, my legs too weak to be crouching, and began to sift through his pockets, adjusting my legs a little to avoid the growing pool of blood under him. Killing people wasn’t fun, but it was a necessity, and I was already numb to death from both my short stint as a coroner and my previous career at INTERPOL.

His left front pocket was empty, so I reached over and checked his other pocket. Inside I found a crumpled up receipt, which I set on the kitchen counter before checking his back pockets. One had an extra magazine for his handgun, which wasn’t even suppressed, and the other was also empty. I turned my attention to the receipt, flicking on the lights above the kitchen counter and stumbling back to my room for my glasses, stepping over the corpse of the first criminal I ventilated. Returning to the kitchen, I read the receipt, raising an eyebrow as I did so.

Five cheeseburgers from a nearby diner, dated about an hour ago. Now, last I counted, there were four goons. Yes, one could’ve had two, but it was the only lead I had.

I got my shoulder holster and put it on, taking my jacket off the hook by the broken door and slipping it on too, before splashing my face with some water from the kitchen sink and running a hand through my hair. The clock on the wall told me it was close to three in the morning, and I had a feeling I wasn’t going back to sleep any time soon.

Lyon early in the morning or late at night is a wildly different experience than in the day; the large complexes that line the streets seem almost like walls boxing you in, and the streets feel like they shrink to half their size in the orange light of the street lamps. The traffic is still the same however, much to my displeasure. I sped towards the diner, mostly adhering to traffic laws as I swerved around corners and narrowly missed taking out someone’s trash on the sidewalk. I parked out front and stomped up the stairs in front of the diner and inside, walking to the counter with my hands on my hips. I spotted a boxy security camera in the corner, red light blinking as it slowly scanned the patrons of the small restaurant. More tapes to watch, oh joy.

“Hi and welcome t-” I flashed my badge at the waitress doubling as a cashier, and she went silent.

I slapped the receipt on the counter. “I’m Detective-Inspector Montreza Nappleton, i’ve been sent here to follow a lead relating to a house invasion half an hour ago, the suspects of said house invasion having left,” I tapped on the receipt, “This receipt at the crime scene.”

The waitress looked down on the receipt, and she said, “Oh, the five cheese burgers guys! They were a rowdy bunch, and only one spoke E-”

“How many were there?”

“Huh?”

“How many men were there?”

“Well, there were five of them.”

I knew it. I pointed to the security camera. “I’m gonna need the footage from that, only four suspects were spotted at the crime scene, and I need to know what the fifth one looks like. Also i’d like a frothy chocolate milkshake and a waffle please, i’m starving!”

I wiped syrup off of the sides of my mouth with a napkin as I sped back home, the tape riding shotgun in the other front seat. I rushed back into my penthouse and into my private study, slamming the tape into the small television sitting on my desk and falling into my chair. I had to act fast; if I took forever looking through this, I may lose my chance to catch whoever wanted me dead. Fast-forwarding through the day’s footage, I may have witnessed a robbery or two, but I ignored that, because if they didn’t tell the local police already, well, their loss.

“There you are.” Looking down on the diner from the corner, I recognized some of the goons sitting at a table at the end of the camera’s field of view as the ones who broke into my home, ducking out of my office to look at the bodies again just to verify, but the last person… It was that same damn hyena again. I watched as the five talked and ate their burgers, before the hyena wiped off his mouth and apparently bid the others farewell and left, dropping some cash on the table for his own meal. I watched him walk outside and along the windows of the diner, waving down a taxi cab. I squinted as a taxi cab, which had a sideways scrolling ‘destination bar’ on top of it, you know, those things that usually are plastered onto the front of buses and say where it’s current destination is, slowed to a stop in front of the hyena, and he clambered in.

The previously-blank destination bar flashed on a few seconds later and displayed the first few digits of an address, which I scribbled down on my notepad. Cross-referencing with an address book for the local area I had rented from the library just in case situations like this came up, I found one likely spot where he may have gone, and wrote down it’s address. “I’ve found you…” I hissed as I lept out of my chair and rushed out of my still-ruined penthouse, almost tripping over one of my wannabe-assassin’s bodies. I stomped down the stairs and rushed into my car, slamming the door roughly and immediately driving off as I had left the engine running. Popping open my glove box I yanked out a local map of Lyon and quickly scanned it when I got to a red light. The one location the arsonist could’ve gone with the same four starting address letters as on the cab was a large hotel only a few miles from my penthouse and the diner.

However, when I came to another red light, I heard intense ringing begin to buzz from my trunk, loud enough that I could just faintly hear it whenever I wasn’t driving, so I pulled over to the side of the road and climbed out, popping open my trunk. Bolted inside next to my shotgun was a portable phone, which was fiercely ringing. I yanked it off its receiver and asked, “DI Montreza here, who is this?”

“People had heard gunfire at your apartment and the two-man patrol sent to see what had happened have found your penthouse utterly trashed, I just wanted to learn if you are alright.” Donovan answered. “You ARE alright, correct?”

“Tired, but yeah, i’m fine. Can you find Gennady for me? I think i’m going to need his help.”

“Why Gennady?” Donovan asked. “I can send an Enforcer squad to meet you, wherever you are. I hope you’re safe?”

“I already told you, i’m fine. Call him, tell him to meet me at…” I checked the map thrown onto my dashboard. I read off the address of the hotel: 54 rue de la Villette, 69003. “Call him. Now.” I hung up the phone before Donovan could respond, before slamming my trunk and hopping back into my car.

I swerved to a stop in front of the hotel, driving my car alongside the sidewalk and leaving it there. It was a nice hotel with a cafe integrated into the bottom floor, but I had no time to care about its little details. I opened the glass front door and walked up to the black feline wearing a black waiter’s vest standing behind a computer, watching something on their PDA.. When I got close they quickly stuck the rectangular device into their back pocket and set their hands on the counter, acting as if they were just quickly checking something, although they seemed to have been pretty engrossed on whatever was on their phone.

“Bonjour madam, welcome t-”

I put my hands on the counter, asking quite frantically, “Hey my boyfriend is in a room here, can I learn the room he’s staying in? We planned to meet tomorrow but my plans got all messed up.”

“U-Umm, can you give me a name madam?”

“Oh he’s super recognizable, stocky, wears a big overcoat I bought him a few months back, hyena dude, probably the most handsome hyena in the city, heh.” Eugh.

“A name, madam.”

He probably, actually no, he WAS staying under a pseudonym, a pseudonym that I had no way of knowing. I continued my bluff, acting as if I totally hadn’t heard her. “Actually i’ll just call his mobile phone, can I use this?” I pointed to the phone sitting on the counter.

“Uh, yes?”

“Grand, thank you.” I picked it up and typed in the first number that came to my head.

“Hello? Who eez zees?”

I had called Godefroy Gaspard. His number had been given to me by Donovan the previous day in case I needed it for whatever reason, and I guess this counted as ‘whatever reason’.

I turned my back to the hotel desk jockey and sighed into the phone, “It’s me babe, listen, you didn’t tell me your hotel room number!”

“What? What iz zees? It’s two in ze morning, I do not like prank callers in two in ze morni-”

I cupped my hand over my mouth and quickly whispered into the phone, “Gaspard it’s DI Montreza i’m trying to bluff someone into helping me find whoever stole your fucking painting so just let me talk but be silent okay? Okay.” I leaned back on the counter, stretching out my arm and yawning, “Yeaaah yeah I know, listen, the party got cancelled, Braschler drank all the alcohol we were gonna bring and vomited all over the carpet.”

“Oh my, zis sounds like an, interesting situation you are in, madame detecteeve-inspectore.” Gaspard cleared his throat. “Very interesting indeed.”

“Yeah I know right, anyways the party is cancelled and I need your room number babe. What? You won’t give it? Why? A surprise?” I covered the mouthpiece of the phone with my hand and asked the cat behind the desk in a whisper, “What room?”

“A name, madam.”

“He literally just walked in less than an hour ago you couldn’t have missed him,” I pressed the phone back up to my face, “Yes babe i’m still listening, but seriously tell me your room number I need to see you, Braschler drinking all the alcohol wasn’t the only thing that happened. Okay FINE if you won’t tell me your room number i’ll find it myself. See you soon hun.”

“Goodbye, detecteeve-inspectore.” Giggled Gaspard.

“Shut the fuck up.” I whispered back. I turned and slammed the phone back on its stand. “Room number, PLEASE.”

The cat rolled her eyes. “Two-fifty-one, second floor, a mister Ribell Kinder?”

“He a hunky hyena?”

“I’m a lesbian, madam.”

“Still?”

The cat sighed. “Yes, he is.”

I snapped my fingers and pointed at her. “That’s the spice, thanks sister.” I ran off to the elevator and hopped in, smashing the button for the second floor. I made sure my jacket was open for easy access to my gun as I felt gravity shift and the elevator begin to rise, and only a few seconds later the doors opened again. I walked out and checked the nearest door’s number: 230. The one to it’s right said 229. I turned left and walked down the hall, reading the door numbers.

240…

245…

250…

And 251, but as I walked up to it, the door opened, and I quickly ducked behind one of the jutting walls in the hallway. I heard an argument in a language I had never heard of before, but judging by the accents of the speakers, it was definitely African. Two men walked past me without seeing me, and I recognized them instantly; they were the assailants who had gotten away! I heard the door to the hotel room slam shut, and when the pair were far enough down the hallway crept out from my hiding spot and pressed my back up to the other side, in case they looked back down the hall. I heard the door’s of the elevator I just came out of open, and then promptly close.

I’d get those two later, I thought as I tiptoed up to the door of room 251. I had no idea what to do next; here he was, an international arsonist-turned-murderer, but I don’t think just knocking on the door and pointing a gun at him would get me anywhere on the art thieves; i’m working TWO cases, and i’d prefer to kill two birds with one sto-the windows.

As I walked towards the building from my car, I had noticed that some of the windows of some of the hotel rooms were open. There was also a large edge, about a foot wide, that denotated where the floors of the building separated. Walking up to room 250, I knocked on the door, before hiding again. No answer. I knocked on it again. Still no answer. That made the window access easy, but the desk jockey might be suspicious of me wanting to get the room next to my ‘boyfriend’…

I looked down at my legs. “I shouldn’t.” I looked back at the door. Then back down at my legs. I mean, the swelling HAD gone down…

I bit my lower lip. “I will.”

“This is a terrible idea.” I grilled myself after walking out of the department store across the street from the hotel with a briefcase and some clothes. “Absolutely terrible.” I got into my car and pulled the heavy overcoat over my jacket, putting on a pair of $5 sunglasses and a headscarf. “But it just might work.” I tightened it so my face was barely visible, straightened out the overcoat, and hopped out of my car. I dragged the empty briefcase behind me as I walked into the hotel’s foyer, up to the black cat behind the counter. The cat was mid-yawn when they saw me, quickly closing their mouth and straightening out their posture. I put my hands on the counter and asked in as good of a French accent as I could muster, “Madame, zees ees where I, pay for a room, yes?”

“Yes madam it is, do you have a reservation?”

IT WAS WORKING. “No, I just came eento ze ceety. Do I need one?”

The cat shook her head. “No madam, let me check what rooms are available.” They began to tap on the keyboard of the computer sitting in front of them, scrolling through something with their mouse.

I leaned on the counter. “Zat is quite alright, I have a room I used ze last time I came here, had a good view. It was uh… room… two-five-zero? Somewhere around zere, my memory might be failing me, heh.”

The cat nodded, before checking something on her computer. “Room two-five-oh is actually unoccupied right now. Do you need any bags shuttled up there?”

“Oh no no no, I vill only be here a day, how much for a night?”

“Two-hundred and thirty one, madam.”

I could feel my wallet screaming from my pocket, and my brain screamed with it. I fought myself and forced a smile. “Wonderful.” Not wonderful. I pulled out my wallet and felt myself die a little when I doled out 231 Forands for the room; okay, now I REALLY needed to yell at Donovan for payment. The cat took my money and handed me my key, and without further ado I shuffled on my way.

“Check-out is at ten AM!” The cat called after me, before going back to watching whatever they were watching on their PDA. A few minutes later and I was in my absurdly expensive hotel room, which was very nice I might add, but I wasn’t here to eat the pillow chocolates put on the towels they leave on your bed and gawk at the high-pressure showers that come provided with fancy mini-shampoo bottles, as nice as they might be. I was here to do a potentially life threatening act in the pursuit of JUSTICE and also a famous painting. But mainly JUSTICE. JUSTIIIIICE!

I threw off my headscarf and overcoat, wiping away the sweat that had formed on my forehead as that overcoat kind of roasted me alive with all my other clothing on underneath it. Here in the presence of some nicely-cleaned beds and the aforementioned pillow chocolate I noticed an odd fact about myself; I was completely exhausted. Being jolted awake in the middle of the night by people breaking into your house, killing a few, driving across the city like a fox out of hell in my car, and splashing my face with cold water hadn’t helped. I thought the last one would at least. But the beds… the pillows were a soft tan color that contrasted lightly against the floral-patterned brown sheets, and just for a second I sat down and laid back on the bed. I was too tired to even lift my heavy metal legs onto the bed, my muscles refusing to even move. Just a moment, I thought to myself, I need to get at least a little energy. Then i’ll climb out the window, climb across, and get into the guy’s room. Easy. I closed my eyes, exhaling. Easy. So easy they should teach new INTERPOL detective-inspectors how to do it in training. Yeah. Super easy. Easy…

And then I fell asleep.

But my mind did not.

I was falling through the stars. The dark blue void only had white specks in it, along with my fat ass. I felt my body moving down, but not the associated g-forces. I just felt, falling. Falling. Falling. I hit something. I died. I was dead. Falling. I had died. Falling. My body was being scooped up by paramedics. Falling. Falling. Fallen.

I sat up. The void was gone, replaced by a forest. The forest then transformed into a field, and I was sitting in the middle of it, but I wasn’t alone. A fire formed out of the darkness, revealing a small circle of semi-charred logs it was using as fuel, and around me, I felt presences.

“It’s odd, ain’t it?” A male voice came from the presence ahead of me and to the right, a voice that strangely calmed me and made me feel safe in this dream. Why? “How we’re still stuck out here, but everyone else has gone home?”

“It’s not ‘odd’, it’s the nature of reality.” Huffed a female voice from the presence to my front and left, a voice that I despised the haughtiness of. “Someone has a plan for us, somewhere. Probably the generals.”

“I hope it’s the generals, I hate these damn NCOs!” Said a happy-sounding ladies voice from the presence directly to my right, almost touching me. “I mean, although I am one of them… I still hate the others, dangit!”

“We know that, Feldwebel, you’ve made it obvious. Obvious enough that you decided to.. Fly into enemy territory with no nearby support.” The male voice chuckled.

“Well if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t have met all you dorks! Ain’t that right, soldier?” I felt the female voice’s presence touch me. Did they just elbow me? I still couldn’t see anything other than the fire, but the voices… I knew them. But, I didn’t know from where. INTERPOL training maybe? No, of course not. Feldwebel… that’s German. The language they spoke in, I had no idea what it was, but it sounded… odd. But I understood it, and that one word was said in German. German.

Wake up.

“Now, uh, what next? Do we have enough stuff for smores?” I heard shuffling from the male voice. “Uhhhh, I got some SchoKaKola, I guess, that’ll work?”

The dreary female voice coughed, “I may or may not have some biscuits left from my ration.”

Wake up!

“I got marshmallows, woo!” Yelled the jovial woman’s voice. “Smores!”

“Uh, smores.”

“Smores!”

Miss, wake up!

Someone shook me.

I jolted awake. An irate feline cleaning lady gave me a pissy look, crossing her arms over her apron. “Miss, checkout was two hours ago.”

I shook my head; everything ached, and there was light outside. Guess that uh, short nap, ended up not being short at all. Fuck. “Yeah sorry.” I groaned as I stood up. “Just, throw this junk away will yah?” Before the cleaning lady could say anything else I was out the door and standing in the hallway, rubbing the bridge of my snout. Shit, he was probably gone. I had ruined my only good chance by FALLING ASLEEP. God DAMN IT, MONTREZA! I rolled my head back and grimaced when I felt my neck pop and crack, before cracking my knuckles. Maybe INTERPOL got a new lead when I was on my little adventure?

I heard talking behind me, so I turned to see what the source was, just in case. Two aghast hyenas stood there, eyes locked on the badge on my chest. Or my breasts. Somewhere in that general region. I sleepily waved at them. “Hi fellas, remember me?”

They turned and bolted down the hallway, and I reached into my jacket and pulled out my handgun. The door to the hotel room my arsonist was living in was open, and as I began to chase the pair, I stopped for a moment to peer in. Empty, with one bed in disarray. Well, he’s not here, but his buddies are! I went back to chasing the pair, who jumped into an elevator that had just opened, knocking a canine with rich-looking clothing out of the way and hammering on the button for the bottom floor, but when I got to it and raised my gun, the doors shut, and I cursed, “Damn!” Desperate, I pushed open the door to the stairway next to the elevators, grimacing the whole way down as my still-healing legs started to complain once again, before stumbling out into the lobby. I saw the pair barrel through the front doors, much to the dismay of the desk clerk, who was the same employee from last night, just a bit sleepier looking.

As I ran past them I yelled, “ROOM WAS GREAT LOVED THE BEDS WOULD RECOMMEND ON YELP BYE!” I flung my key at them and maybe hit them in the face with it, but I didn’t exactly stick around to see where it landed and/or hit as I was now shouldering open the glass door, which was not very smart as it instantly shattered. “I’LL PAY FOR THAT LATER!” I yelled again as I stopped on the sidewalk and raised my handgun with one hand, holding up my badge with other and loudly announcing, “POLICE, ARRÊT!” That was French for ‘stop’. They didn’t stop, in fact, they just seemed to be running faster. They hopped into a black flatbed truck, and as I ran up to the driver’s-side window it sped off. Well crap, my car was across the street and it would take me too long to jump in and-hey wait a second.

Down the street from the nice shiny hotel was a seedy-looking bar, complete with a variety of motorcycles outside. A man wearing a bit too many leather and spikes on his clothing just pulled in on a yellow one and was in the process of taking his helmet off when I ran up to him, hopping on before he could pull out his keys and revving the engine. “Sorry, police business!” I flashed my badge in his face, before zooming off. The last I saw of him was him throwing the helmet on the ground angrily and cursing at me in French, but I turned around and sped down the street after the van, which was driving with no regard to the safety of other drivers by swerving between cars and coming close to clipping a few as it overtook them. If I couldn’t arrest them for attempted murder, i’d DEFINITELY book them for traffic violations!

The wind deafened me, the only sounds I could hear other than the high-speed whistling and the rumbling engine of the motorcycle being my booming thoughts. I had no idea how I was going to stop the car; ramming it in a motorcycle is suicide. Maybe I could shoot out the wheels? The car swerved around a bend and bashed a parked taxi before continuing down the road, and I almost made the same mistake, swerving to a stop and dragging a foot against the ground. I stopped right next to the taxi, and an enraged badger with glass in his fur shoved open his ruined door. In the back seat of the taxi was an utterly terrified marsupial, holding a briefcase with glass shards imbedded in the leather over their ears.

“Goddamnit!” Yelled the badger, running a hand over their face, “Are you a cop?”

“Yeah?”

“You better catch that guy!”

“Trying to!” I revved the engine of the motorcycle a few times before resuming the chase. Up ahead, the road began to raise up, the beginning of a highway. I weaved between cars, and I saw the black truck disappear in front of the raised road. The motorcycle hopped into the air as it flew up the ramp, and I almost landed on top of an SUV, landing between it and a minivan and actually leaning a bit too far to the side. I unintentionally headbutted a mirror on the minivan and shattered it, but the adrenaline rushing through my body only made me blink. I quickly righted myself by kicking off the door of the car, but that unearthed the damn screaming coming from my healing legs. Suddenly, I found myself unable to lift my legs any, and I smacked myself on the left thigh in order to jolt my leg back into working condition, or at least something like that. All it did was make my already-sore muscles even more sore. Great.

I rode up next to the truck, trying to both focus on the rode and the car at the same time. I pulled out my handgun and banged the grip on the window, spooking the already-stressed hyenas inside. “Pull, over!” I yelled, but I could barely hear myself over the air whipping past my face, and my hair was starting to get in the way of my vision as well. The hyenas just started to scream at each other inside the car, before speeding up and overtaking me. “Fuck!” I caught up to them and banged on the window again, snarling as best I could; maybe if I looked frightening enough, they’d pull over? They just sped up again. Nope.

We were both going at close to 90 kilometers per mile now, and, not wanting to crash and be liquefied, I slowed myself down. The truck plowed into a micro car and knocked it to the side, and that act of recklessness made me determine that stopping them on their own terms wasn’t going to happen. I raised my right arm and tried to point my pistol at the wheels of the truck, but I found myself having to pull my arm back so it wouldn’t get ripped off by a passing car. When I got to a short stretch of highway without a car about to disarm me, I aimed again, firing twice. One round went into the bumper, but the other hit the wheel, a burst of air and a high-pitched whining signifying that. The hyenas screamed and the car started to swerve, but they quickly got control of it again. Well that didn’t work as well as I hoped!

As I tried to formulate another quick plan, I looked ahead, and realized that I was gonna need a plan NOW. Some of the railing was out on the highway, only a simple wooden barrier with black-and-yellow striping on it along with reflectors warning people to stay back. About twenty feet below us was water. The truck made a beeline for the barrier, knocking two other cars out of the way and sending shrapnel flying. As they crossed over, only feet away from the barrier, I pulled up the sights of my Desert Eagle, and lined them up on the rotating car’s window. Just like with the assassin at the bus stop, I felt reality begin to slow, as if on command.

My legs pulsated with pain.

My fingers twitched on the grip of my pistol.

My hand tensed on the handlebar of the motorcycle.

I saw the hyenas faces be revealed by the frame of the car’s window, first from their snouts, then their mouths, then their eyes. They seemed content with their inevitable escape; their seatbelts were even off, so they could easily jump out of the truck when they fell into the water. But the driver noticed me, and his head began to inch arund, turning to face me. The satisfaction on his face started to drain, and his passenger also started to turn. I laid my finger over the trigger of my pistol.

“Should’ve stopped.”

I squeezed, and time returned to normal.

The window fractured as a hole appeared in the middle of it, and I saw the two hyenas jerk to the right through the cracks. I hadn’t prepared myself for the recoil of my pistol, so my arm flew up through inertia, my butt slipping off the seat from beneath me. My left leg hit the ground at an angle, and I honestly can’t tell you what happened next; things were all a blur. I felt my face hit the ground, but all I saw was colors vomited into my eyes, and all I felt was aching and the bruises growing under my clothing. After taking a second to collect myself, I looked around.

Next to me was the underside of the black truck. The wooden barrier stood defiant of the truck beside me, one hundred percent intact, not a scratch on it. Behind me were all the other cars on the highway, honking their horns and filled with either surprised or angry passengers. I dragged myself up using the crumpled motorcycle next to me, the yellow one, my valiant steed. I think it hit the truck after I fell off, as the front of it was kind of… squished. The large dent in the side of the truck’s left door verified that, and when I got to my feet, I leaned over and picked up my discarded pistol, slipping it back into my holster and clipping it in. Limping over to the truck, I reached up, and gave a painful hop. I grabbed the side of the truck, and my extreme weight (not because i’m fat or anything, because of my legs) eased the truck down, and I stumbled backwards to avoid getting crushed.

The hyena’s bodies flopped to the side when the truck hit the ground, the driver-side window shattered except for a few small pieces. Blood was splattered all over the dashboard, and when I reached in and unlocked the door, I felt something sticky on the handle. The driver’s corpse fell out as soon as I opened the door, but was held in place by the seatbelt; a good chunk of the back-right side of his head was missing, with a clean entry hole above his left eyebrow. The other hyena was similar, a more-ragged bullethole in one of his cheeks, back of his neck blasted out onto the headrest of his seat and the cracked passenger’s side window. Messy, but I had no time to be disgusted.

I stuck a hand into the driver’s pocket and pulled out a flip phone, some cheap disposable one. With a flick of my wrist it snapped open, and I saw that there was a missed call. Checking the contacts, I saw that the number that was calling was the sole contact on the phone. “Your boss, huh?” I pocketed the phone. “Thanks for the tip, pal.”

I patted the head of the driver, but flinched and yanked my hand away as soon as I finished my second pat. Only now had I realized that I had just patted someone’s exposed brain, and the red and pink on my hand showed that quite clearly to me and all the nearby bystanders, some of whom vomited. I wiped off my hand on the seat. At least I know what brains feel like now!

(For your sake: they feel squishy)