Standing near XSWAT HQ’s rooftop helipad, Mitch Brogan wondered why he was up here. All he knew was that Director Renuka, his wife (and boss), had apparently called a meeting, although why it needed to be held on the roof he had no idea.
Looking over to where Jama sat calmly in her folding chair, he thought of asking her what exactly was going on. He still clearly recalled her statement of five years ago, when he’d first joined XSWAT, that he “deserved to know the truth.” Yeah, he’d learned the truth alright, and more than once he’d wished he hadn’t. Still, Jama looked rather unconcerned, sitting there in her long dress coat, a portable workdesk in her lap. She idly tapped the stylus on her chin for a moment before touching it to the interactive screen, making a rapid series of marks as she wrote notes, moved files, and launched programs.
Mitch give a slight sigh and shook his head. They’d been married for two years now and he still wasn’t sure what she did half the time. But then, he was her driver, not her auditor, all he needed to do was make sure she arrived at her various meetings and government functions on time and in one piece.
Oh, and look after the cat.
Speaking of which, where was Corporal Cadbury? Usually when he attended a meeting with the Director the over-sized furball was right out where people could see him. The Maine Coon loved attention and never seemed to miss the chance to get some. So where was he?
Stepping up to Jama’s chair, Mitch almost asked directly, until a faint hint of motion caught his eye. Bending down he caught sight of Cadbury’s gray-furred body curled up in a tight ball under where Jama was sitting. Pressed close to the hanging panels of Jama’s coat, Cadbury had flipped his tail across his nose, the only sign of life the bright points of his eyes.
“What are you doing down there?” Mitch asked. It hadn’t taken him long to accept Jama’s claims about the cat understanding what people said to him. But he still wasn’t sure how to interpret the occasional replies.
Hiding? Corporal Cadbury was hiding? Not bothering to question the reply, Mitch raised an eyebrow. “From what?”
“Hello, Officer Benedict.” Jama glanced up from the colorful surface of her desk to nod at someone standing behind Mitch.
What? Mitch turned around, wondering how someone could have gotten up here without him hearing. The metal stairs rang rather reassuringly under issue XSWAT boots.
There was a woman standing there, just a few feet away, wearing the uniform of an XSWAT officer.... Except it was stark white. Jacket, belt, gloves, boots, skinsuit: each and every article was spotlessly white. Her skin seemed to be an even whiter shade of pale, if such a thing was even possible. The only bit of color was her eyes, which Mitch noted were a disturbingly bright red within the shadow of her unkempt black hair.
Holy shit, she’s real! Was Mitch’s first thought. He’d heard some of the stories about a ‘ghost cop,’ but even his close association to the Director and intimate knowledge of the inner workings of XSWAT had made him unable to accept them. But here she was, standing right before him, apparently in the insubstantial flesh.
“Good evening, Director.” Mitch suppressed a shudder. There was an unearthly echo to Benedict’s voice. A timbre that normal people didn’t possess. Now he knew why Cadbury was curled up under his master’s chair. If he was able, he’d tell the cat to move it on over and join him.
Officer Benedict gave a slight nod to Mitch and then walked out towards the helipad proper. Watching her move was difficult to process. Her footsteps made no noise. In fact, she didn’t seem to actually step anywhere, but instead almost drifted across his field of vision.
“Jama?” Mitch whispered.
“What sort of meeting is this?”
Tapping the stylus against the desk, Jama turned it off and set it aside. “An important one. And one you need to be present for. It’s time you met some of XSWAT’s more unique officers. The ones who answer only to the Director.” She paused and looked up, “And the ones who will be there for you if I’m not.”
“What do you mean, ‘if I’m not’?” Mitch wasn’t sure he liked where this conversation was heading.
“If...” Jama raised a finger and stood up, forestalling any reply for the moment. “If something were to happen to me. If I were to go missing, or be incapacitated, or even killed, there are those you can call upon for help. To find me, protect me, avenge me. They are outside of the normal chain of command and report directly to the Director. Or...” and she nodded her head up at the sky. “The Defender of Angelus.”
Mitch turned to follow her look, unsure if he wanted to know what was coming. There was a bird circling the top of the tower. No... it was too big to be a bird and it was the wrong shape to be a spinner, it was... a... person?
With a loud snapping of displaced air the newest arrival to the meeting landed out on the helipad. It was another woman, or so he hoped, since he’d never seen one with white feathered wings that spread a good twenty feet. She stood perhaps five-six or so, in bare feet, her only garment a toga-like affair the color of a bright cloudless sky. With hair that reminded him of gathering storm clouds she cut a striking figure.
“Aino,” Jama said as she pushed Mitch’s jaw back in place. “A free-willed spirit of the air and sky.” She gave him a slight smile. “Want to sit down?”
“Miss Renuka,” Aino’s voice was the complete opposite’s of Officer Benedict’s, full of life and mirth. She smiled at both Jama and himself, and even bent and waved at where Cadbury still crouched under Jama’s chair. For his part the cat flicked his ears and tail.
“Sit... yeah, like that’ll help.” Mitch shook his head. “No, I’ll stand beside you, like I’m supposed to.”
“Hmm...” Jama muttered, then took Mitch’s hand in her own. “Just remember, no matter what happens, you’re safe here.”
“What?” Mitch blinked and tried to process what she’d just said. “What do you mean by that?”
Before the Director could answer a cloud of bats spiraled out of the sky. Swarming about the helipad, they darted this way and that, fluttering about Aino, who held out a hand and allowed one of the small brown bodies to alight momentarily, and Benedict, who stood perfectly still and seemed not to notice them.
Perhaps joining the good Corporal under the chair wasn’t such as bad idea after all? Mitch held his ground (and Jama’s hand), and resisted flinching when one of the bats flashed past. They finally coalesced into a tight cloud and disappeared behind one of the maintenance sheds. “What was that?” Mitch hissed to Jama.
“Director.” The voice was a deep baritone. Mitch swallowed and looked for its owner.
He was tall, well over six foot in height, and dressed in a uniform as black as Benedict’s was white. Like her his skin was pale and his hair dark, falling across his face and past his shoulders. Mitch couldn’t make out too many details, as light seemed to dim near him. Only the gold trim of his uniform and the bright white of the cross in his lapel allowed Mitch to figure out where Jasad was as he went to one knee, his head bowed. Like Benedict, he seemed to make little to no sound when he moved.
“It is good to see you, Director. I hope you are well.”
Releasing Mitch’s hand, Jama inclined her head in return. “I am. Thank you for asking.”
What is he? Do I really want to know? He had a suspicion (the bats were a big clue), but would wait until later (much later) to ask Jama.
There followed a few long moments that seemed to stretch on forever. Officer Benedict stood as silent and still as... The grave. Mitch thought with a suppressed shudder. Jasad faded back into the shadows, with only the bright white of his cross to indicate his whereabouts. Aino made her way over to the Director’s chair, and actually managed to entice Cadbury out, plucking a feather from her wings to give him something to play with. Mitch thought he could almost relax.
It came almost as a relief to see the next arrival wearing the standard XSWAT uniform. On the other hand, the person inside it seemed anything but. Six foot if she was an inch, broad-shouldered and buxom, with long legs and a head of hair that rivaled anyone on the force, the Director included.
Mitch wasn’t sure to make of the newest attendee to the meeting. Her uniform bore no rank tabs, while her golden-blonde hair fell nearly to the floor. Good lord, her hair’s longer than Weischlange’s, as his first reaction followed by: is she a Clade? Few women had a physique like the one hinted at by the curves of her uniform, while her face had an almost unnatural degree of physical perfection.
“Officer Long,” Jama gave a slight nod. “Will your father be joining us?”
Long towered over the Director, yet seemed almost in awe of Jama. “Yes ma’am,” she replied, extending an open hand to where Cadbury sat in Aino’s arms. The Maine Coon gave a soft trill and ducked his head, submitting to the great indignity of having his ears scratched.
Mitch noticed the big cat was now far more relaxed than he’d been when Officer Benedict had arrived. It seemed he had favorites among Jama’s personal cadre. Then again, Mitch could hardly blame him. Aino appeared to be genuinely good-natured, while Benedict and Jasad gave him the willies just by standing there.
Pausing with her hand on Cadbury’s ears, Officer Long looked up and across HQ’s roof. “Director Renuka? Father’s here.”
‘Father’ crawled out of the shadows on five-clawed feet, his body long, sinuous, and heavily scaled. A shaggy beard hung from his jaw, while two long horns projected from his mane. A frill ran down father’s spine, ending at the tip of a long tail.
That’s her father? Mitch had figured that after the ghost and the presumed vampire, nothing else that night could phase him. But he hadn’t counted on forty feet of Asian dragon. Especially not forty feet of dragon which quickly become over six feet of human. When he looked over at Jama, Mitch realized she was bowing slightly to the new arrival, and he hastily followed suit. He didn't stand straight again until his wife did—what did he know about dragon protocol?
"Well, my dear, you always did know how to make an evening... interesting."
Suppressing a smirk, Jama gestured to where Mitch stood. “August Long, may I present my husband Mitch Brogan.”
Mitch gave the dragon-turned-human a cautious once-over. He stood over six feet in height, with dark skin and rich black hair that fell down his back. Under thick eyebrows gleamed brilliant green eyes which Mitch later swore had vertical pupils. His grip was quite strong while his fingers seemed longer than normal. “It is good to finally see you, Mister Brogan. You honor us with your presence.”
It was painfully obvious Jama had told Long about him, yet Mitch had received no advanced warning from his wife about meeting a dragon... what should he say? And what, exactly, was the proper form of address? Way to put me on the spot, love!
"I am honored, as well, Master Long." As August returned his gaze, Mitch couldn't help the feeling that he was being... appraised.
The dragon released his hand with an slightly amused smile. "Master Long... I like that. Well spoken, Mister Brogan." He glanced around the roof, “And you seem to be taking all of this rather well.”
“Ahhh... thanks?” Mitch tried to smile but figured the end result was some ghastly parody. Hopefully Master Long wouldn’t notice. “Well, you know how it is in XSWAT, weirdness comes with the badge.”
Master Long’s only reply as a smile of his own, mysterious and enigmatic.
Gesturing her officers to come closer, Jama brought her hands together. “Now that we’re all here, I’d like to get this over and done with. I don’t wish to detain any of you any longer than necessary.”
* * * * *
True to her word, Jama had the meeting over in under an hour. Other than the first 15 minutes, in which Jama presented Mitch to the gathered officers, most of what was discussed went over his head. Or, to be more accurate, Mitch decided he really didn’t want to listen to closely to what was being said. It seemed some of the officers present—such as Benedict and Jasad—worked the city’s steam tunnels and back streets, while others—such as Aino and August Long—were often abroad, investigating various issues that Mitch knew didn’t fall under XSWAT’s jurisdiction. Technically such things were a violation of the city’s (and XSWAT’s) charter. But then, based on some of what was being discussed, perhaps it was the lesser of two evils. Besides, Aino and Master Long didn’t seem to be part of XSWAT. He guessed they served the Defender, not the Director.
Eventually it was just him and Jama (and Cadbury) on the roof. The other officers had each left in their own unique way—Master Long had resumed dragon from and flown off into the night sky, Jasad has stepped into the shadows and never stepped out again, while Aino had simply flapped her impressively beautiful wings and taken to the air. Amber Long had taken the elevator back down leaving only Miyako Benedict, who simply wasn’t there anymore.
How does she do that? Mitch wondered, followed by Do I really want to know? In fact, he was pretty sure the less he knew about Jama’s special cadre of officers, the better of he’d be. They existed and apparently served as faithfully as any other officer. That was good enough for him.
In a way, however, it all made sense. "So, Alice Cadbury had 9th Squad, and now you've got this group, whatever they're called."
Jama thought about that for a moment. "I suppose you could say that, although some of them served Director Cadbury as well. They don't have an official name, though, and probably never will."
Mitch smiled grimly. "Unofficially, I think Graveyard Shift fits pretty well...."
She rolled her eyes and stifled a groan. "Do not let Miyako or Jasad... or any of them, for that matter... hear you say that, Mitch Brogan."
"I'll behave... promise." He almost sounded serious.
She decided to play along. "Good. Miyako has no sense of humor." Then Jama glanced at him ominously. "But Jasad does. Remember that."
Mitch stopped smiling. They climbed into the Stozwind for their ride home.
“Jama, dear? can I ask you something?”
“If August is Amber Long’s father, who’s her mother?”