This First Piece is for the Challenge:
Spoiler ShowLife's Troubleshooters
Yolanda Bello could see the mob from several yards away, a mass of pressing bodies shoving and vying for a better view of the victim. The swarm of writhing, bustling people craved a glimpse of the man who, supposedly, leapt to his death from one of the magnificent gardens of the Pinnacle, the tallest building in The City. At the base of the skyscraper there was a railway system that circulated the whole of the grand metropolis. In the parts of The City where the great trains traveled, the streets were enveloped in a state perpetual twilight, the black smoke of passing trains filling the air with a perpetual ebon film. People colloquially called the trains “Hell on wheels” because of the fire and smoke that poured out of their engines. This eternal darkness had become widely accepted as normal by those who lived near or commuted through the station and its surrounding real-estate. The press of people hardly seemed to notice the clouds of black smoke that engulfed them every time a train passed by. They didn't even realize the amount of poison they took in with every inhalation. It was to this darkest part of The City that Bello was summoned.
Bello pulled up a bit of fabric on her coat, and brought it up over her mouth. Despite having walked through this area for years, she tried not to inhale the sooty air if she could help it. Although a small bit of smoke in the lungs wouldn’t harm her, she didn’t want to take any chances. She decided not to take her time getting to the scene of the supposed suicide, walking up the steps at a purposeful pace, the sound of her heels lost in the jabber of the crowd. There was no rush, but the less time she spent in this pit the better it would be.
As Bello approached the scene of the event she concentrated and extended her senses outward, letting them weave their way through the mob. Traversing through the press of people, her perceptions seemed to highlight the presence of four men in black coats and equally black suits. They stood strongly, calmly, trying to disperse the crowd with statements that everything was fine, that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Their stern demeanor was the only thing keeping the spectators from pressing themselves up around the yellow caution tape like children at the glass of a candy store display. They were all members of the Agency, her peers, and based on how many of them were here, she was the last to arrive.
Like the other Agency members Bello wore nothing but black, her long coat buttoned to just below her naval and billowing freely below her waist. She wore a business dress that flowed just a little bit past her knees made from a sleek, silken fabric, a slight rebellion against the standard dress code her peers held to with such ardor. With her dark skin and darker eyes, she cut a striking figure among the grays, browns and pastel shades of the spectators clothing. Then again, that was the point of the Agency's dresscode, to stand out, to let others know who you were. Black was a shade exclusively reserved for Agency Sentinels. Her eyes momentarily met those of one of her co-workers who stood within the shifting circle of people and he called out,
“Clear the way! Move!” in a deep and rumbling baritone. “Let the lady through!” The crowd craned their necks in every direction until their eyes rested on Bello's black dress, and they began to make a path for her. Striding forward she looked at the faces of the onlookers and she could sense their emotions wash over her like a wave slamming into a rocky shore. Fear and anxiety wafted over to her like someone's overdone perfume. There was hunger there too, hunger for something to take them out of the monotony of their routine lives. Even if that distraction was someone's gruesome death, who cared? People got entertainment where they could in this world. There was little shame in that crowd, and more than a little disappointment that the spectacle they so craved was being blocked off by the law. Bello let her eyes survey the crowd of disgruntled observers. Many people diverted their gazes when Bello's eyes fell on them, their desire for a story to tell not being strong enough to outweigh their caution around Black Coats. When she'd first joined the Agency, such reactions were disquieting, making her feel like an outsider, but now she took them in stride. The turned faces were a sign of acknowledgment to the proper order of things. When a Sentinel was on call people knew to get out of the way. Obstruction of the law was not something people liked to have on their record.
Finally moving through the onlookers, she could get a good look at the scene of the incident. Her eyes narrowed and she now knew why the crowd was clamoring so vigorously to see what had happened. The body on the ground was in a state of grisly disrepair, as if some giant had taken their massive fingers and pressed down too hard on the man's body. Bones jutted, blood pooled, this cadaver was among one of the most dilapidated she'd ever seen. Beyond that, the body gave off both a foul stench and a fouler aura. There was great pain oozing off of the corpse like noxious gas. Bello fought of the desire to wince. It certainly had all of the familiar signs of a suicide. The impression left behind in the wake of the man's death could only have been left by someone in immense amounts of spiritual and mental agony. Without even touching the late victim she was almost ready to call this one an open and shut case. However, she owed it to this man to go through with the full examination. Sometimes subtler sensations became buried under the weight of more powerful ones. With a touch she could see what lie underneath the agony. The prospect was not appealing to her, but being a member of the Agency was predominantly about service. Often times a Sentinel had to put themselves in harms way in order to keep things in order.
“What was his name?” Bello asked, taking off her black gloves.
“Armon Beech.” Said the man closest to her, a tall man with bronze skin and gray eyes. His name was Kelen Urdo, and he was of the same Sentinel rank as she was. “Beech was the CFO for Lemot and Jastes, really rich, generally supercilious. I'd met him before at the Slate Gala.”
“Did he strike you as the suicidal type?” Bello said, putting her gloves in her pockets.
“Not really,” Urdo said, “I don't have your gifts, but Beech seemed like any other business man when we spoke. That being said, guys like that are good at keeping things to themselves. No telling what kind of skeletons he had in his closet.” Urdo paused, “So you're gonna read him?”
“I don't want to, but something about this seems off to me.” Bello leaned over the corpse, beginning to reach down.
“Need me to keep you steady, you know how intense these things can get.” Urdo said, kneeling next to her.
“Sure, make sure I don't fall over, I don’t want to make a scene...well, a bigger one.” Bello smiled and close her eyes. She could feel Urdo's hands on her shoulders, firmly keeping her in place. His hands were comforting, and gave her strength for what was to come. The Sentinel let her fingers brush a small section of the corpse's skin, and soon began to feel her consciousness lurch. She gasped and suddenly found herself in a fine hotel room. There was a four poster bed in the center of the room furnished with fine bed linens. There were curtains around the bed posts, thin sheets of thin red fabric that were probably supposed to give the place a more alluring atmosphere. The floors were of a dark wood, freshly polished and smooth. There was hardly a scratch visible on the glossy surface, and hardly a bit of dust covering any object in the room. The cleaning crew is thorough. Bello thought, committing the whole scene to memory. There was a large window in the room covered by a set of thick embroidered curtains that prevented any light from entering, making it impossible to tell the time of day.
For a moment, her consciousness alone occupied the room, but then she heard the sound of a key turning a lock, and then she heard cries of passion from the doorway. It seemed that the owners of the room had returned. A man and a women in the throes of arousal and need, kissed fiercely, discarding their clothes as the went. They wouldn't be able to see Bello, after all what she currently saw was nothing more than a memory, an impression. They were speaking as they undressed each other, their words hard to make out. Bello focused, trying to bring special emphasis to the memory of their words, the impression of speech. Though the strain began to induce a headache she could now hear what they said.
The woman, a blond with a well maintained body and a charming smile said,
“You always treat me better than those other men, Armon. You're a real gentleman. You make me feel like a hightown lady.” The words came out tinged with laughter and heat as she laid Armon out and began to run her hands along his chest. Her words were accented, something obviously foreign in the way she emphasized certain syllables but Bello couldn’t pinpoint an origin point. Armon was laying on the bed, his fine jacket open to reveal a muscular stomach, the woman was wearing a laced lingerie, and was straddling him.
“Oh yeah?” Armon began, his voice rough and deep like a habitual smoker. Now that Bello paid attention, she could see something odd about his face. Something was troubling him, but the blonde woman didn't seem to notice. “What do you think of high town, sweetheart?” There was a small wave of emotion that flowed out with the words like exhaled cigar smoke; suspicion, pain, resignation. Bello felt a small tension grow in the pit of her stomach. The blond woman answered as she planted kisses along Armon's neck and down his stomach.
“It's beautiful. I never thought I would get to see this level of The City. I should Thank you for bringing me here.” She began to fiddle with his belt. The feeling of distrust coming off of Armon became more vicious. It was moments like these that Bello wondered how normal people could interact with one another without her unique sort of senses. The blond woman kept kissing the man's body hardly noticing that the Armon was in a state of turmoil. The simpleton.
“So you've never been up here before?” Armon said, and the tension around him became whip cord and metal cable.
“Never.” Said the woman, and the lie made her words curdle in the air to Bello’s eyes.
“Not even to Gresho's Theatre?” The man said, a scowl now clearly warping his features. The woman paused in her affections, motionless as if she had a gun to her head. She looked up slowly as if afraid to meet Armon's gaze. When her eyes finally met his, her eyebrows creased and for the first time she saw the man's face, and the rage that lay therein.
“I-I don't know what you-”
“Don't screw with me!” Armon said, pushing the woman off the bed with such violent force that the breath was knocked out of her lungs. Bello knew what was coming, her stomach churned. The air reeked of barely restrained violence, and it was starting to gain the bloody odor of murderous impulse. The Sentinel wanted to sever her connection to the man, but she needed to follow this train to its conclusion. Memories were like a string of beads. The Memory she sought was part of this chain of memories that she needed to follow like a trail of breadcrumbs. Besides, her senses indicated that this memory was very strongly linked to the feelings that lead to the man's death.
Bello watched the struggle, feeling ill all the while. The room slowly fell into complete disrepair as Armon threw the woman about the room, accusing her of selling important information about him and his associates to an opposing company. The gold bar that held the fine curtains over the windows were pulled down by the woman at one point. The fine wood carved furniture around the room was in various stages of destruction. The drapes on the bedposts were torn. Then the moment came. The man, uncontrollable rage on his face, began to choke the life out of the woman. She was now nude, and her head craned back as if looking at something. There was terror in her eyes and then, as if God flicked off her life switch, there was nothing. Bello felt the impression of the woman's death like a blow to the stomach, and she knew that her body outside of the memoryscape was shuddering and seizing from the feeling.
Armon seemed to snap out of his rage, and looked around and down at what he had wrought. The horror he felt was just another putrid layer added to the hideous impressions left in that room. Armon stood up frantically, and got dressed. The man took the time to make himself look presentable, and spent an unnecessarily long time adjusting his tie; his fingers were shaking. Armon collected his things in a disorderly bundle and began to leave, but he paused with his hand on the doorknob. The man turned back to the woman and closed her eyes, then covered her with one of the fallen curtains. He stood there for a moment, stunned and numb looking at the vaguely woman shaped lump in the thick curtains. Then he ran out, closing the door behind him. Bello blinked and the world blinked with her. When her eyes opened she suddenly stood at the hotel lobby. Armon was bribing or threatening the manager who was agreeing to keep his mouth shut.
The Sentinel blinked again and now she stood in a large board room. A long table with a row of ten chairs on either side was the only thing that made the room anything other than a box of chrome and glass. The floor was transparent showing the vastness of The City below. It made it seem as if the board room were suspended in mid-air. Armon and a woman in a sharp suit dress occupied the room. Armon seemed to be doing everything in his power not to look the woman in the eyes, and Bello could understand why. Everything about the suited woman who sat across from the CFO was sharp; her features, her posture, and especially her gaze. There were no soft edges in the look she gave Armon, it was a regard that could kill.
“So you killed her.” The woman said. Her voice was low, husky, and tinged ever so slightly with roughness. “You killed her and left the body?” Anger seared the air around her, giving her the aura of a burning piece of coal, or a block of heated metal. Usually the emotions of other people were difficult to sense through a subject’s memories unless it was important or powerful, and the rage this woman harbored was strong enough to have clung to Armon. It must have been something truly terrible to behold in person.
“I-I couldn't stop myself I-” Armon stopped, his throat going dry, his hands clenching into fists. “I felt betrayed. Personally and for the company.” The suited woman sneered at Armon letting out a snort of disgust.
“I couldn't care less how you felt, you were reckless, you let your emotions get the better of you. If my people hadn't gotten there before the Agency and removed the evidence, your ass would be hung out to dry. In fact, I'm still not sure I shouldn't just have you removed to eliminate any potential security risks.” Armon looked up, his face contorted by fear. He stood up sharply and said, just shy of hysterics,
“No, you can't! I do too much for this company, I've been managing the accounts for more than a decade. No one can do what I do!” Armon was shaking.
“I could replace you,” The woman snapped her fingers and looked Armon dead in the eyes. “Like that. Functionally nothing would change. You may think you're indispensable, Armon, but no one is, and I have to consider the well being of the company as a whole.” Armon was practically whimpering. The woman shot him an annoyed expression. “Calm yourself, Armon. I've made no decisions yet, and despite what I've said, I believe keeping you around is still of more use to me than disposing of you.” There was a pause. “As long as nothing like this happens again.”
Bello blinked once more, feeling that she was nearing the end of this horrid journey. Several more small fragments passed by her. For a moment, Bello found herself in memory that was somehow less solid, less steady as those she had seen before. A dream perhaps? Armon was in the hotel room where he'd killed the blond woman again, though the room seemed to flicker between its original orderly splendor and the ruined crime scene it had been after the murder. On a small chaise lounge that made its home at the corner of the room, Armon sat weeping. He held his head in his hands, and by the sensations he gave off, he was teetering at the edge of sanity. After a moment, warm arms surrounded him and as if from nothing the dead blond woman appeared behind him as a giant made of luminescence. Her hair was perfectly curled and seemed crafted out of threads of sunlight. She whispered words that even with intense focus, Bello could not hear. She could however feel Armon's guilt, his grief. Part of this man had loved the blond woman. Perhaps it was for this reason that her betrayal had driven him to such extremes. Crimes of passion could be some of the most gruesome, and irrational. For an endless moment, Armon simply wept in the angelic woman's arms. Upon the woman's face was an expression of serenity, of care. Bello could read the words, “I forgive you” on her lips.
Then Bello blinked for the last time and she stood next to Armon. He looked terrible, as if he'd not slept properly for days. There were shadows under his eyes, his skin was sickly pale and his cheeks seemed gaunt. Bello couldn't tell how much time had passed, but she guessed it had been more than week since he'd been in the boardroom. They both stood at one of the upper city gardens, large outcropped parks in the upper City that were kept in near perfect condition year round by a series of busy florists. It was late, no one else was in sight, and Armon leaned over the stone balcony looking down. He could see the entire City from this position. He could see the writhing smoke of the lowest parts of the City, a pool of living darkness that was both inviting and terrifying all at once. Armon looked to the side at her, almost as if she were actually there, though Bello knew that was impossible. Who knew what he thought he saw. Perhaps the dead woman? Bello couldn't always see the delusions of madness in these visions.
Armon, as Bello knew he would, stepped up onto the stone ledge and began to speak. “I can't forget what I've done, and I want the world to know. If I try to tell someone, they won't believe me. Lemot and Jastes is too powerful a company to be brought down by one man’s testimonial.” Armon took off his suit coat and tossed it to the ground behind him. “But I know the stories. I know the Agency has ways of getting to the truth that aren't...normal. I hope my body gives you what you need to bring those who hid Silvie’'s death to justice, and she's not the only one. Who knows how many people that they've...that we've killed, who we've disappeared. I can't do it any more.” Armon spread his arms wide, like a diver preparing to take the plunge. “My name is Armon Beech, and I'm a murderer. I know the penalty for murder is death, and because I know my crimes, I deliver my own punishment. I hope...that this will mean something.” Then he stepped into darkness, and Bello's world went black.
When Bello's eyes opened, she could hear Urdo calling out to her in an almost frantic whisper. Bello was still partially out of herself, confused, but she focused on the stern features and concerned eyes of Urdo and she let out a sigh.
“You okay Bello?” Urdo said, helping her to her feet. For a moment she staggered but she gathered herself and managed to avoid falling over.
“Fine. I'm fine.” she said, her eyes falling on Armon's broken body and she frowned.
“What did you see?” Urdo asked following her gaze. “What happened?” Bello sighed and shook her head.
“I'll explain everything when we get back to headquarters. We're going to have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks.”
“That bad, huh?” Urdo asked, beginning to dial some numbers into a phone in his pocket. Bello could hear it ring. “Well, I'm gonna call the clean up crew. Don't need this body here causing a distraction. The boss is gonna look forward to seeing your report on the reading.” Then he began to walk away, rattling off their current location and the condition of the body to some examiner over the phone.
Once again Bello found her eyes resting on the dead man, and she felt a stab of pity for him despite his crimes. The City was like a large machine. It worked best when nothing disrupted the flow of energy, of processes. On an individual level, each person was like the City in miniature. People worked best when they simply existed uninterrupted in their daily flow. This man, Armon Beech, was about to cause many disruptions with the information he'd died to give her. Lamot and Jastes was one of the most powerful companies in the country and the City branch of Lamot and Jastes was the commercial hub for the entire industry. Bello was scared of the potential depth of illicit activity she would find when this investigation began, but she did know one thing for sure. There was no way she would let this man's death be meaningless. If the City was like a machine, then it could be improved and repaired. Sometimes that required the removal and replacement of parts.
This was why the Agency existed. They were the troubleshooters and repairmen of lives, of societies. This required them to cause the occasional upheaval. It was why so many people regarded them with both fear and respect. Bello turned away from Armon Beech and began to walk back the way she had come after debriefing the other Sentinels who stood guard around the body. The smoke swirled around her as she descended the steps to the train yard. There would be much work to do in the coming weeks. Many things would change and chances were that she was putting herself in very real danger. Despite the knot of anxiety that was forming itself in the pit of her stomach, Bello felt herself starting to smile as she entered the elevator to the upper City. If she didn't feel up to the task, she wouldn't have joined the Agency.
“It all starts with one report.” she said under her breath as the gilded doors closed and she ascended into the light.