A City Reclaimed, Chapter 4
Trundling through the city outskirts on his patched-up cart, Gabriel felt like he had half a dozen things on his mind, all grabbing for his attention. Halfway to the city center, he realized to his annoyance that he’d forgotten his notebook. He’d just have to borrow one from the chief of police. But she was bound to be out negotiating already, with several mechanical analysts in tow—shopkeepers could be surprisingly resistant to defensive structures being constructed outside their shops, and the law declared the land and buildings Gabriel wanted to outfit with things like sprinklers or smoke traps as their property. Never mind if the structures prevented the area or neighborhood catching fire in the event that an attacker torched the place, particularly in the poorer districts, where structures were mainly wooden rather than brick or stone; if the construction appeared to be cutting off customers or needing to close the shop today, there was a chance the business might not survive. Gabriel himself couldn’t afford to offer money to counter the loss—he’d so far avoided getting Corveny into any major debt, and found maintaining the budget an important cause—yet part of the reason shops and restaurants were so close to failure was that they were being robbed every week.
Then there were the children who ran away from his cart when he rolled through the poor districts. Always underfed and poorly clothed, often diseased or injured. If he wanted to reduce the number of poor in Corveny, Gabriel knew, he had to start with the children. The time to save the adults had been when they themselves were children; adults in this area were unfortunately often as close to death as the businesses failing from theft. One nasty illness could have the potential to wipe out a neighborhood. It was lucky, therefore, that hephrol hadn’t yet touched Corveny.
That thought gave Gabriel pause. Why? Travel between the southern river cities wasn’t that blocked off. He knew hephrol mostly attacked noblemen, for whatever reason, but it seemed to be… randomly localized. Suspicious, Gabriel thought, but he had no idea what it might mean.
On top of it all was the question of why the pirates were attacking, why—among many other, more lucrative targets—they chose to take what they took. It seemed to be random. That almost ruled out money entirely. Power? Could they be the same people who… decided to… take over Muncival, somehow? That seemed too disparate. Gabriel still wasn’t sure how Muncival had been cut down; it seemed mostly like an attack of opportunity, except for the way his diplomats kept vanishing, which was worrying. A new ruler would normally fit one of a few different patterns in dealing with his neighbors: sometimes they’d try to chat and make nice; sometimes they’d outright make threats; the scary ones stayed quiet and let things run as usual, without letting on what they were thinking. But this wasn’t an attempt to intimidate. If the new power wanted to take down Corveny’s economy, they were doing so rather halfheartedly. These pirates could be doing a lot more damage, but weren’t; it was as though they’d considered staying in bed, but decided to stroll into the backs of local shops because they were out of toilet paper.
That question was more like two or three questions bundled into one, and Gabriel was getting a headache just thinking about it, so he set the problem aside for now. He regretted considering the issue so early in the morning, as now he was feeling as though his last night’s sleep had vanished. Whistling a tune the rest of the way, in order to keep his mind clear until he was ready to take on one problem at a time, Gabriel made his way to the city center.
He chained his cart to a post outside the city hall and went inside to his office on the second floor, which overlooked the town square. But his view quickly shifted from the world outside to the pile of paperwork on his desk, and he stifled a groan as a clock-tower crew member climbed the stairs just behind him. He could have sworn he’d been down to no more than a few unresolved issues when he’d left yesterday evening, and it wasn’t even six o’clock yet.
Gabriel sat down in his chair and rifled through the paperwork, looking for easy, simple things to get out of the way first. He found a few things that needed his signature, another that required a short letter describing his decision on something, and something that needed to be burned and ignored. The former, he set neatly in his outbox, and then—
“I smell burning paper,” said the chief of police, sticking her head in. “You don’t usually leave the door open, Mullary. What’s the matter?”
Giving her a tired smile and a half-salute, Gabriel responded, “I’m sure you know all twenty of them, Bowden. Did you come in here to escape?”
“A little bit,” she admitted. She closed the door behind her and visibly relaxed, unwinding her red silk scarf from under her collar and—while she still maintained the good posture of a policewoman and fighter—her stance became far less stiff and upright. “The summer’s kind of coming on, no? I’d rather be on my little riverboat than working through this nonsense.”
“And I in my library,” Gabriel agreed, “but this needs to be done.”
“I finally got the west neighborhood to accept the sprinkler install,” she said, stretching. “And I think I’ve found us a more reliable copper-smith, if he’s not too expensive.”
“Really? Well done,” Gabriel said, genuinely impressed. Bowden looked rather pleased with herself.
“And I’ve got a lad to bring you food here at noon,” Bowden continued. “So you don’t have to stop working. I know you get a lot done talking to people over lunch, but there’s some stuff in that pile I need back from you as soon as possible.”
Gabriel ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. “All right. Before you go, there’s actually something I need from you.”
“Let me know if you find a stolen toolbox,” Gabriel said. “Actually—she said it was a bag full of tools and money.”
“Who’s she? What kind of toolbox? Gabriel, are you getting involved with a beautiful locksmith or mechanic or something?”
“Mechanic’s tools,” Gabriel clarified. “Including but not limited to the kind used on tractors. I may have more details later. She is not a romantic interest of mine.”
“Darn,” Bowden said with a sly sort of grin. “You could use a lady to—”
“Bowden!” Since Gabriel’s happy marriage to Rosalind (which had been years ago), he hadn’t sought out another partner, but this was good teasing material nonetheless. Bowden had known Gabriel for years, and knew exactly how far she could push the envelope for maximum amusement at his expense. Besides, said a little thought at the back of Gabriel’s mind, I don’t have the time to give a woman the attention she deserves.
“Yeh, toolbox, tractors, got it,” she said, still grinning despite the interruption of whatever lascivious pun she’d been building up. “Where was it stolen?”
“It was this block,” Gabriel said, pointing to a map of the city on his wall.
“Any leads as to where it might be now?”
“Unfortunately not. It was a mugging, and the victim’s safety came first at the time. They knocked her out—blunt force, probably, left a concussion.”
“We’ll probably not find it on just that,” Bowden said, “but I’ll put the word out.” Her grin came back, and she put her hands on her hips. “Admit it, Gabriel, charming young ladies just put you through a valve you can’t escape. Especially me!”
Gabriel rolled his eyes and went back to his paperwork.
“Aw, you know I’m corking you,” she said.
“I know, Angela,” he said, looking back up at her with half a smile. He ran his fingers through his hair, and picked up another paper.
“Eh, don’t work too hard,” she said. “I can always tell how stressed you are from how messy your mop is.”
“It’s a habit I’ve picked up from James, I’m afraid.” He waved vaguely with one hand while signing the paper with the other.
At that point there was a knock on the door. Gabriel nodded at Bowden, and she opened it. A younger police officer was standing there with an envelope.
“Corporal?” Bowden opened the envelope offered. She sucked in air through her teeth. “That’s me off, Mullary. Homicide.”
“Oh, please leave me out of that one,” Gabriel responded. “I’ll see you later.”
“Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening,” she said. Then, ironically, she added: “Don’t work yourself to death, Mullary.”
The door clicked behind her.
Gabriel just had enough time to rest his head on a hand before the next person knocked. “Yes?”
The door popped open. It was the tea trolley.
The day got a little better.
Gabriel managed to finish the paperwork by that afternoon, despite the constant flow coming into his office. More was still arriving, but he decided it was time to get out into the fresh air. He’d do a little negotiating, to take some work off Bowden’s shoulders, and pick up something for Connie to cook tomorrow.
“We’re out of lamb chops at the moment,” the butcher said. She wiped her hands on a rag. “Michael’s got some awfully tasty corned beef put by, though. He’s in the back just now.”
“Really, at this season?” Gabriel asked. “Your lamb stock hasn’t been stolen, by any chance, has it?”
“It has,” she said resentfully. “We didn’t see a thing. Nothing for the police to go on.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gabriel said. “We’ve got patrols on every night, you know, but they can’t be everywhere. That’s why I’ve been so concerned about implementing defensive measures. These smoke traps we’ve been installing help give our force something to hide behind, or use to blind thieves as they’re trying to run. And the lamps…”
She sighed. “Governor, I’m afraid if we close down for your workers, it’ll steal away our profits as much as the pirates do.”
“It’s the same everywhere, I’m sorry to say.”
He finished the purchase, but hesitated before leaving. “Your lamb stock… we’re discussing meat that has already been butchered and prepared for cooking, yes? Not the actual livestock?”
“Yes, that’s it,” she said, wiping down a slicer. “Work gone to waste and everything.”
“Interesting,” Gabriel said. “Well, I’ll see you later.”
Across the city, he kept asking the same questions, and finding bizarrely similar answers.
“My fields haven’t been touched; it’s the harvest that’s been stolen.”
“I found two crates of ammunition taken, but there’s plenty of valuable brass and copper metal that got overlooked.”
“Who knows why, but the whole batch of leather gloves I made last week got stolen, and yet the saddles are still here.”
“I’m not sure how come they took the work clothes and left my silks alone. Needed them, I guess.”
“Two of my clocks went missing, but the gold I use around the facing is in the back room, untouched.”
Gabriel had been suspecting careful sabotage. But that didn’t make sense, now. Outside Corveny’s official city limits was where most of the food came from: farmers would have a place in the city, but their fields would be a few miles away, to be reached by cart at dawn. Fishermen would set up on their docks along the river and take the catch home at the end of the day. But if the enemy wanted to attack Corveny and destroy its economy, wouldn’t it be easier—less risky—to bomb the docks, torch and salt the fields, and set up mines around the roads, rather than sneak in and take things?
The police had caught only a few thieves, and they were as hard to keep in cells as water in hands, and as talkative as rocks. Each one had stayed stubbornly silent for up to a few weeks and then vanished, except the most recent one. Gabriel had reluctantly agreed to let one of Bowden’s force use some… older interrogation techniques, but after the first round of this, the man had killed himself in the cell, presumably to keep himself from talking. As far as anyone could tell, he’d somehow climbed the walls and intentionally dived into the stone floor headfirst, cracking his skull and dying via blunt force. Unfortunately, one of the younger police found him. Gabriel felt worse about that than the death of the pirate, but it wouldn’t be the last body the lad would have to see. It was just a shame that the first one he dealt with felt like the police’s fault.
That event was not publicly known. It was a squirmy sort of decision, and nobody needed to know yet just how worried Gabriel was. But Gabriel was worried. None of this made sense. He couldn’t think of any historical precedent for this sort of thing. Of course, the airships the pirates were using hadn’t been around that long, either, but…
“Governor!” A young man came running up. “We’ve got the west gate almost secured. That wing of the city is reasonably secure now.”
“Oh, good,” Gabriel said in relief. “That’s where we thought they came from last time, yes?”
“Yeh, it is,” he said, “but… well, gov, they’re airship pirates. They can come from anywhere really.”
“That’s true, but if we seal everything off, we might get a chance to shoot them down. They’d have to enter from above, and we might be able to hit the envelope and send them to the ground.”
“In the middle of the city?!”
“Better than this continuing.”
“What if that causes a fire?”
“That’s why we’re working on the sprinkler system,” Gabriel explained patiently. “To minimize property damage, no matter how the fire is started.”
Whether or not the lad was satisfied with this explanation, he saluted and ran off.
Gabriel found his mood dropping again. Bowden was right yesterday. They really aren’t thinking this will end in war…
AN: I’m not sure how I’m feeling about snarky/sporty Chief of Police Angela Bowden. She’s never showed up before; this is the first time I’ve written her, and I’m not sure if she’s coming off as childish here. She’s a bold, outgoing personality who likes to get things done, work with her hands, and personally get into the action, but she also gets lonely or bored pretty easily and the stress of recent events is getting to her as much as anyone else. Her job encompasses not just general crime stuff but some local negotiation and other duties as well.
Basically she’s very different from Gabriel. I wanted to put in the idea that he isn’t the only government person in the whole city. Without getting too detailed into how Corveny is run–Gabriel, Angela Bowden, and the chief judge run the city. Gabriel’s the governor and the most powerful, but the other two have kind of checks and balances over his decisions if he’s doing something they find questionable. That’s why he’s not so tempted to “cheat” and rewrite the laws so he doesn’t have to negotiate to put up city defenses; Angela’s thought about that too, but the idea sets off mental “bad politics” alarms for her, and the Judge Caman is set against it for the precedent it would leave.
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