Jamadigni Renuka, Director of XSWAT and Defender of Angelus, sat alone in her grief, her only companion Corporal Cadbury. The massive Maine Coon occupied the pew next to her, and spent most of his time looking concerned (if a cat could display such an expression), occasionally laying an apparently comforting paw on her leg. Of her husband, Mitch Brogan, there was virtually no sign. If he was present, he was keeping as far from his soon-to-be ex-wife as possible.
She was dressed all in black, having discarded her XSWAT dress uniform for the occasion. Her hair was undone, and fell in rippling waves down past her waist, serving to hide her face far more effectively than any veil. Black-gloved hands were clasped in front of her lips, and she seemed to spend most of the service in silent prayer, apparently paying little attention to the words of the Order of Enoch priest standing behind the podium.
When the time came to pay last respects, Jamadigni walked slowly to the open coffin, Cadbury close behind. She spoke quietly to Nathan's still form, her cat curled protectively at her feet. Her long hair obscuring her face, no one knew exactly what she spoke about, and no one dared come close enough to find out. She touched Nathan's still face several times, even going so far as to push an errant stand of hair back, before dipping one hand into her pocket and placing a small bundle down in the crook of Nathan's folded arms.
Through the ceremony, Elaine Carpenter sat in the front pew, flanked by her children, although one place was conspicuously empty.
As Director Renuka stood by the casket in thought, she was distracted by a hubbub emanating from the rear of the church, in the foyer. She turned to see a knot of people milling at the door, mostly members of the Order. A voice suddenly rose over the group, laden with menace. A voice that Jama recognized.
"I have as much right to be here, if not more, than any of you! Get out of my way!"
There was a moment where the normally assertive Director seemed wracked with indecision. Then she glanced over to Elaine, as if seeking permission.
Nathan's wife sat still and stiff, pointedly ignoring the commotion. The two younger Carpenters also sat quietly, though they were fidgeting as if unsure what to do.
The youngest, Angelique, leaned and turned her head to look behind her, but Elaine's hand on the girl's arm caused her to stop and return to face front, her head down.
Appearing as if she wanted to speak, Jama looked up, as if seeking the sky overhead, and then glanced back to Nathan's still form in his coffin. The sight seemed to fill her with resolve, as her shoulders straightened, and with head held high she walked purposefully down the aisle.
As Jama approached the group, the force of her presence opened the way before her, causing the small mob to split like a flower blooming.
At the end of the gauntlet stood a young woman, her hands clenched into fists. Her suspicions confirmed, Jama looked at Elizabeth Carpenter, Nathan's oldest daughter, a former student of hers, and now one of the latest additions to XSWAT.
Elizabeth Carpenter was not in a good mood. Instead of the formal wear one would expect at a funeral, she was dressed in a T-shirt, jacket, and jeans. Her hair and clothing were disheveled, as if she had rolled in a dumpster before arriving. The heat of her anger was palpable, so strong Jama could feel it in the mystical plane. The young woman's eyes were completely black, with no white showing, and a dull-red light pulsed behind them.
She had been exchanging heated words with one of the group. Turning to see who the new arrival was, Elizabeth caught sight of Jama and started, swallowing visibly. She straightened to attention and nodded her head in the semblance of a bow, struggling to stifle and control her rage.
"Sif... Director Renuka."
"Officer Carpenter." Jama glanced at her feet where Cadbury had taken refuge behind her boots. The big cat looked up at Elizabeth and then Jama.
Nodding to her cat, Jama turned her attention to Elizabeth.
"Cadbury says you're scaring him."
Elizabeth swallowed again and, in a subdued voice, said, "I'm sorry." Like ink draining from a bottle, the darkness faded from her eyes, revealing a pair of hazel eyes so reminiscent of her father's that Jama felt again the tug in her heart she always got when looking at them. The young officer's body remained rigid with tension, though.
Bending down, Jama scooped Cadbury up in her arms, her eyes never leaving Elizabeth's face. Giving the Maine Coon a vigorous scratch between his ears, she regarded the young officer in silence for a moment.
Elizabeth raised her head to spear the Enochian standing out from the mob with her gaze.
"I tried to come to the service but I was... detained by a group of people intent on making sure I didn't get to. I've spent the last hour being chased through every back-alley in Epsilon Sector before I was able to shake them."
She turned her head slightly, in mock puzzlement.
"The funny thing is, whoever they were, they were very good at reading my moves and countering my... abilities. Yet they were damn careful to not actually kill me."
She leaned toward the man she was glaring at, who Jama recognized as one of the mid-ranked members of the Order attending the service.
"Care to shed some light on this mystery, Deacon?" Elizabeth asked, her voice silky with ill-concealed fury.
The man spoke stiffly, his words clipped.
"I have nothing to say in such a matter, other than to repeat that you are not welcome here."
"Why?" Jama interjected.
Any attempt at an answer was interrupted by another voice.
Everyone turned at the word. Elaine Carpenter stood just behind Jama, her attention entirely on her daughter. She stepped up past the Director to place herself in front of the young woman. Seen this close together, Jama was struck by how much of her mother's looks Elizabeth had inherited. But the eyes... they were all Nathan's.
Elaine spoke, her voice as cold as the wind whipping through the trees outside.
"You're once again causing a scene. You're hardly in any state to be a part of this. I think it would be best for all concerned if you just left now."
Elizabeth's eyes widened in astonishment. Jama felt a wave of emotion burst out of her, a tangled explosion of anger, grief, and betrayal. Then suddenly it shut off, so abruptly the sorceress thought she heard a clank like a vault door slamming closed.
"Very well... Mother."
With as much dignity as she could muster, Elizabeth raked her gaze across the gathering, gave another perfunctory bow to Jama, muttering, "Director", then turned and stalked away.
Once Elizabeth had stormed out of the premises, the Enochians drifted away, intent on resuming whatever tasks they had been engaged in before the interruption. Jama found herself alone with Elaine in the foyer.
Biting her lip, Jama looked at Nathan's widow over the tips of Cadbury's tall ears. The cat was tense in her arms, mirroring her own mood. No time like the present.
"Elaine? Why was Elizabeth turned away?"
The older woman regarded Jama for a moment. In a polite voice still only a few degrees warmer than the one she had used on Elizabeth, Elaine replied.
"Ms. Renuka, I respect the bond of friendship and shared hardship that you had with my husband, but I must ask you not to interfere in what is a family matter. Elizabeth is obviously not fit to attend this service without disruption and I will not see it disturbed by her histrionics."
With a parting nod, Elaine turned and walked back into the sanctuary.
Jama sighed. The Elaine she'd known from 10 years ago was long gone, swallowed by Enochian dogma and rhetoric. She'd never forgiven the 9th Squad for what had happened to Nathan after the fall of Gurzorath, and their presence here at his funeral was only reinforcing her opinions. Turning away she headed for the door. There was at least one other Carpenter she could try to speak to.
* * * * *
"The hell do you know about family?" Tyger growled to Elaine from the entrance of the foyer. He crossed his arms over his chest, interposing himself between the sanctuary and Carpenter's widow. Behind him, Marcy grimaced. She knew what this was going to be about; Tyger had watched things degrade in the Carpenter household as Nathan's health did the same, almost as if his continued existence ensured the family's cohesiveness. Marcy also knew it was a matter of time before Tyger let it all out. She had just been praying that this was not going to be the time.
"And don't go playing that 'it's none of your business' or 'it's nothing' bullshit with me. I heard everything. An' I've been hearin' it for the last ten years. I've kept my mouth shut hopin' that you'd all figure it out but this is the last straw. Why in the fuck can't your daughter sit at her father's funeral? She ain't good enough? Ain't dressed proper? Bullshit! Liz has just as much right to be here as anyone else... shit, as your daughter, she has more right to be here than anyone outside of you an' the other kids!
"You make me sick. I know you all let me hang around an' helped me out more times than I can count, but it's a goddamned shame that I know more about how a family's supposed to act to each other than you do."
Hemelshot had to suppress a smile at Tyger's eternal self-depreciation, then didn't have any trouble at all as he caught the expression of Elaine and her Order companions. This could be bad, and the situation needed to be defused.
"Tyger." He stepped into the angry clade's field of view and forced a tight smile. "As subtle as ever." Another step took him between Tyger and the focus of his anger, the two men facing one another. He wasn't worried about the Order shooting him in the back, at least in public.
"I think you've made your point," and in a low voice, intended to catch only the clade's ears, "and I have a secret to tell you."
With an groan of irritation and frustration he rolled his eyes and looked from Hemeshot to his wife, who had managed to also interpose herself between her husband and Elaine. "Alright... fine. But it still ain't right." The clade threw his arms over his chest with a huff.
He sent a glance to Marcy from the corner of his eye and then back to Hemelshot after a moment. "I guess this is the part where you tell me that I need to relax over a beer before I cause some collateral damage. Right?"
Hemelshot grinned. "Right. So consider yourself told and let's go have that beer." He nudged his old friend towards the door, and continued speaking in a low tone. "But you've got a point—it isn't right. Let me tell you about some of the contingency plans that Carpenter and I put into place...."
* * * * *
As Elizabeth Carpenter walked away from the crowd, a solitary black-clad figure quietly stood up and followed at a discreet distance. He had reluctantly come to pay his respects, while his sense of obligation struggled against the knowledge that he wouldn't be welcome. And I'm not the only one, apparently. Alright, I've seen enough here. Better if I pay my respects in private... later. Nathan would understand, and he'd appreciate it if someone, anyone, talked to Liz...
...even if Liz didn't, quite. She was waiting for him around the next corner, in no mood to talk, and ready to throw down. "Don't you people know when to quit?!" He jumped aside at the last instant, the way Jama had taught him in their Silat sparring sessions, and waited for Elizabeth to recognize him. "Oh, Sergeant Brogan. Sorry."
Mitch stood in the alley, catching his breath—she was almost too fast for him! "I'm sorry, too, Liz. Sifu's not quite herself these days. Never thought I'd see the day she wouldn't stand up for you." Mitch sounded 'not quite himself' as well, although Elizabeth wasn't sure what was normal for him anymore—he'd recently separated from the Director and left his assignment as her driver. Rumors were circulating that his father had vanished in Omega Sector. Was the whole world going crazy?
Elizabeth closed her eyes and took a long breath, holding it in for a few seconds then letting it out in a controlled exhale. Mitch recognized the calming technique from Jama's training.
"No, it's all right, sir. It's not her fault. Mother was right. I'm not in any condition to... be there...."
Her voice caught as her eyes shone with tears. She closed them again, and took another, more ragged breath.
"I... I'm sorry." She stood silently, struggling desperately to not break down in the middle of the street in front of a superior officer.
"Hey, Liz! Catch!"
Startled by another intruder, Elizabeth was barely able to get her hand up in time to grab hold of a... pint of ice cream? She focused on the panting figure behind Mitch.
Lorraine had watched her friend arrive at the funeral, to be abandoned by her own mother yet again. It hadn't been her place to say anything there, but she'd glanced at her dad to tell him she couldn't let it alone, either. He'd nodded and given her a smile, and she was off chasing Liz.
Knowing things could easily spiral out of control—especially with Elizabeth's mercurial temper—she made a quick dash into a Quik-Mart. As she'd skidded to a stop a dozen yards away and tossed the pint, she'd mentally crossed her fingers and yelled to her friend.
"Yer ma's a dorker—c'mon and tell me about it over a pint, ya?" She'd shared many a container of chocolate ice cream over the years in mutual bitch-sessions and perhaps she could turn this into one, too.
Elizabeth stood in shock, staring uncomprehendingly at the container in her hand. Slowly, a smile crooked the corner of her lip. The emotional storm passed, leaving dark clouds but at least a hint of sunshine. She shook her head slightly.
"'Raine, you brat. Did you even bring a spoon?"
Suddenly, another figure joined the small crowd. Sailing over Mitch's shoulder, a ball of fur launched over the air at Elizabeth, who instinctively put out her arms to catch and cradle the new arrival.
Cadbury stared a moment at Elizabeth, his feline face inches from hers, then curled in the hollow of her cupped arms, purring contentedly.
Elizabeth looked up to see the small woman approaching. She glanced quickly at Mitch, then turned to Lorraine.
"'Raine? I'm going to take a rain check on the pig-out, if you don't mind. There's someone I need to talk to right now."
Mitch stared at the scene unfolding before him in disbelief—was Jama sending in Corporal Cadbury to smooth over her little faux pas, now that nobody else could help her? He watched her approach neutrally, then took a few steps forward so he wouldn't have to raise his voice. He crossed his arms and looked at her over his shades, then reminded her quietly; "There was a time, Jama, if somebody pushed around one of your officers, you'd push back—hard. When did that change?"
Jama grin at the antics of her pet vanished the moment she caught sight of Mitch. She fixed him with a stern gaze, and replied in the same tone of voice, "What would you have me do, Mitch Brogan? Dress down the widow of one of my dearest and closest friends in front of the entire Order of Enoch? The Order and Elaine have little liking for any of us, and even less for Elizabeth. Do you wish me to prove them right for all to see?"
Mitch shook his head incredulously. Nathan's death had his wife completely off her game. "Those Enochians already know they're right, Jama—the only thing you've 'proven for all to see' is that XSWAT doesn't look after its own any more." He turned his head briefly, sighing in exasperation. Then Mitch turned back to her, leveling the same stern gaze she used on him. Elizabeth and Lorraine would both swear they could feel the temperature dropping.
"Any word from your father-in-law, Madam Director?"
Jama's jaw tightened for a moment, the symbol on her forehead now a circle with with two trailing arms. "I was going to tell the Enochians that Officer Elizabeth Carpenter was to be my guest, but it's too late for that. And to answer your question..." Jama's shoulders slumped and she looked to almost deflate before their eyes.
"...no. There has been no word. He's not overdue... yet... but...." She stepped forward, laid a hand on Mitch's shoulder and rested her forehead on his chest. "But he'll be all right, won't he? He's always made it out before."
Mitch grasped both her shoulders and gently pushed her to arm's length, holding her up as he did so, making sure she wouldn't fall.
How am I supposed to stay mad at her when she smells so damn good?
"Jama." He continued when she looked up at him. His tone was serious. "Something's wrong. Dad knew Nathan's health was failing—if anything he should have been back early. Keep me posted. When you send a search party, I'm in."
Jama nodded numbly.
Abruptly he turned to Elizabeth, "You have any more trouble with the Order, Liz, let me know—I won't stand for this any longer...." The way Mitch spoke, it sounded more like a promise than an order, but the effect was spoiled by the simple fact that Elizabeth was not there. Only Corporal Cadbury remained, contentedly digging into the open ice cream container
"We've got let them know...." Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence, staring at nothing. Comprehension and fear waged a short battle for equal time in his expression, until he regained control. "No... they wouldn't...."
Then Mitch seemed to reach a conclusion. He was still visibly angry, yet he masked it behind a veneer of professional detachment. The old Mitch Brogan was back—the Director's Man. He turned to Jama and stood facing her squarely, reporting to her in the crisp, precise voice she had heard so many times over the years.
"Madam Director, this isn't likely to be a coincidence. With Nathan Carpenter gone, conservatives now control the Order of Enoch, and they're willing to openly confront XSWAT officers they deem to be 'tainted.'" He glanced at Elizabeth. "Captain Brogan is an entity hunter, but they've always been uneasy about him due his... condition. It's possible, maybe even likely, they have something to do with his absence. This could be the beginning of a much larger problem."
Mitch watched the Director very closely to gauge her reaction. Much as this idea appalled him, he wished he had thought of it sooner—and wondered if it had occurred to her at all.
Would the Old Man see it coming if the Order went after him? Mitch thought. His sense for Entities wouldn't help at all against the Order. I swear, if they've betrayed him, there's gonna be hell to pay... and anyway, why do I never see this shit coming until it's too damned late???
Jama closed her eyes and took a deep breath, mulling over the events of the last few minutes in her mind. "Officer Hemelshot," she said in in the clear tones of command, "I want you to find out where Officer Carpenter has gone to and then call me once you've located her. Sergeant Brogan, I think I've found out where you can be of use to XSWAT. Assemble yourself a squad of five officers. You have my permission to select from any squad, any sector. Your objective is to locate Captain Brogan and determine if the Order of Enoch has decided to declare war on XSWAT. Understood?"
Mitch stood there looking at the Director for several moments as a complex mix of expressions chased each other across his face—surprise, uncertainty, gratitude, and finally, determination. Whatever had passed between them in private, his soon-to-be-ex-wife still had every confidence in him as an XSWAT officer. "Whatever you say, Chief."
Mitch turned to Lorraine with a slight smile. "Congratulations, Officer Hemelshot, you're...." Gone too... Lorraine was nowhere in sight. I can NOT keep up with these young girls. So how am I gonna get this squad together?
Mitch faced the Director once again. "Boss, your confidence is inspiring, but we've got a few more details to work out—I've got no precinct to operate from, no budget, no equipment, the operation doesn't even have a name, and I'm definitely gonna need some kind of vehicle to cart all these kids around in...." As Mitch's litany of operational trivia droned on, Jama began to realize that she had probably just added yet another monster to the XSWAT personnel roster. "...and what if I need to negotiate with these yobs? What terms am I authorized to offer...."
"Negotiate?" Jama interrupted. "There will be no negotiation. If the Order wishes war then then they will have it. I will not see my people kidnapped simply because the Enochians have taken a dislike to them." She paused and straightened her coat. "As for the rest...." she paused and looked thoughtful. "I think Epsilon Sector could use your help. The APD doesn't like to go in there, and I've been thinking of increasing the XSWAT presence in return. Once you're satisfied with your squad, we can draw up a budget and operation plans. Sound good?"
"No, it doesn't." He leaned close to her, until they were eye to eye, and made a warning gesture with one raised index finger. Mitch lowered his voice so only Jama could hear him. "You're talking about a blood bath, Jama, and it's not the one we were expecting. We're cops, not soldiers... and this is a missing person case until we can prove it's a kidnapping. If you don't mind, I'd like to do some serious police work and solve this case before we go to war with the Order."
"Just a moment ago you accused me of going soft," Jama replied in kind, her voice almost a hiss, "and now when I tell you we are going to make a stand, you want to back away? Which will it be Sergeant Brogan? You all but said the Order is behind your father's disappearance; have you suddenly changed your mind?" She held up a finger of her own to forestall any argument. "I am not telling you to go to war. I'm not even asking you to provoke the Order. What I want is to know if the Order is behind Captain Brogan's silence, and if so, why. And if that why is because the Order has decided to eliminate those XSWAT officers that don't fit into their world view, you can be damned sure that the Director of XSWAT will have something to say about it. Do you understand?"
Mitch seemed to calm down at this. He stood up straight and nodded, "Of course, Madam Director—you want an appropriately measured response. Thank you for clarifying that. I'll take it from here, Ma'am." He saluted. In a softer, more concerned voice, "Get some rest, Jama."
Before he left, Mitch knelt down to have a word with Cadbury as he avidly lapped up a growing pool of melted ice cream from the sidewalk. "Corporal, Mama Jama's gonna have a fit if you get sick in her limo." Cadbury looked up at him, licking his chops mischievously. "Yeah, I guess her new driver gets to clean it up. Knock yourself out, buddy." The cat winked at him and went back to work on the ice cream.
Time to go to work. This is insane....
Mitch already had a list of names—Madam Director had given it to him, the same night she announced she was divorcing him. But there'd been no discussion of investigating the Order! No, they hadn't figured on this at all, but then, that was before the trouble at Nathan's funeral, and Captain Brogan hadn't been missing. Now, there wasn't any choice—he had his orders. Epsilon Sector was bad enough, but before they were done, Sergeant Mitch Brogan's first assignment with his squad of hand-picked rookies would take them all into the Omega Sector.
See you soon, Dad.
Mitch turned at the sound of Jama's voice. She stood there, looking very much alone, and very small, all dressed in black.
"Do you remember our wedding? How we felt that day?"
He nodded sadly. "I'll never forget."
"Do you supposed we'll ever be able to feel that way again?"
* * * * *
Around the corner, away from the young people talking, a sleek black spinner pulled in front of the church, its engines giving a gentle hum as it landed. The side door melted away, and a man stepped out.
The man had stark white hair, and at first glance, appeared to be well over 60 years old. This image was aided by the cane at his side, his bent posture, and the strong lines of his face. He was wearing a simple Californian Native-American funeral garb with a large grey falcon on the back, and his face was painted for mourning.
Quietly, and aided by the cane, the man walked up to the ornate double-doors of the church. It was warm inside, despite the constant drizzle and unusually cold weather outside, and the glow of many candles was a welcome sight.
The man continued inside, his cane making a 'tap-tap' on the flagstone floor. He reached the archway into the auditorium. Laid out at the foot of the altar was the still, serene form of Nathan Carpenter in his casket.
Standing in the archway was another man.
The light in the room flickered slightly and something rattled in the distance as the white-haired man stopped and spoke but one solitary cold word.
The other man replied in kind.
The white haired man, now identified as Yiska Karuk, continued in and approached the woman standing proprietarily by the casket.
In a much warmer and comforting voice, the old man said, "Elaine, I must compliment you on your work in the memorial garden—it is beautiful."
Elaine acknowledged the compliment silently with a nod. There was a slight feeling of tension in the woman's posture.
The man turned for a moment to the still form of Nathan Carpenter. His words were gentle as he spoke, loud enough for the congregation to hear. "There is no death, only a change of worlds.
"To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
a time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
a time to kill and a time to heal...
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn and a time to dance...
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to lose and a time to seek;
a time to rend and a time to sew;
a time to keep silent and a time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war and a time for peace.
"They are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind.
"Nathan Carpenter is not truly gone—for he lives on in the memory of those who are here. He spent his life dedicated to saving others, so that they may live their lives in the fullest. Every creature, both great and small, owes him a debt of life. Let us remember him as in life, not in death, and he will continue to live on.
"Every new beginning, is another beginning's end. Nathan purchased for us all our future - let us not squander his gift by living in the past."