Phaethon Bay and the world at large need a new Hero.
Book three of Artifact Hunters.
The thief you must fear the most is not the one who steals mere things.
-- Ann-Marie MacDonald
Considering the number of clouds in the sky (zero) and the temperature (a balmy twenty-three degrees), Officer Arthur might have thought it a beautiful day outside Iowa City. Unfortunately, it was also a launch day for Edison Aerospace, which was the worst time to be a security guard in charge of supervising the reception checkpoint. It was a big doorway built out of stone with witch runes carved along the frame. Anyone who passed through it was scanned for magic. Anyone who tested positive had to be searched by a guard.
And there were a lot of guests on launch days.READ MORE
The building’s lobby had been designed to accommodate normal traffic, so the modernist architecture left nowhere for the waiting suits to take a seat until security processed them. They were queued into a line wrapping around the edge of the wall, where photographs of Edison Aerospace’s first space vessel hung. Murmuring voices echoed against polished concrete walls and the towering tinted windows. It was all so mundane that people took pictures of boring details, like actual security cameras hanging where most used scrying foci.
“Looks like we’ve got another three hundred reporters outside,” said Officer Krueger, his coworker with short black hair and a round chin. “We better hurry.”
“Really? You think?” asked Officer Arthur.
The CEO of Edison expected security to keep the pass-through time under thirty seconds per visitor without missing a single illicit wisp of magic which might endanger their delicate electronic equipment. “One bad charm could blow all the sensors and put us back a month,” Arthur’s manager had explained once, standing over Arthur with folded arms and a glare that could curdle milk in the breast. “Do you want to explain to the CEO why he has to wait until autumn for a launch window?”
Officer Arthur did not, but nor could he get the average pass-through time below thirty-five seconds.
Especially not when they had high-security guests like Jack Fester.
A visitor who cut through the line to the front matched the photo Arthur been given: A sallow-faced white guy with a bushy mustache, carrying a briefcase stamped with the logo of Silverclaw Cult. Fester also wore a crown that cut into his forehead like barbed wire. Something black oozed from underneath the jagged metal—blood, Arthur assumed—and it stained the collar of his salmon-hued polo shirt.
“Step to the other side of the yellow line,” Arthur said.
Fester walked to the designated area like a puppet. Arthur had been warned that a demon would arrive wearing energy dampeners, so the ping of magic on his sensors was fine. Better dampeners than infernal power. Demons didn’t shut down electrical equipment like angels, but they could easily blow a sensitive operation like a rocket launch.
“Hello Officer Arthur,” Fester said robotically.
“Afternoon. I, uh, need to get you checked in, with your…” Don’t say scary demon crown, Arthur thought furiously to himself. Don’t say it. “Your briefcase, and your suppressors, and your scary—uh, your crown.” Dammit.
Fester set the briefcase on the waiting table. “Scan. I am late.”
“Aren’t we all?” Arthur trembled when he swept a handheld scanner over the demon and his accessories. The timer on his desk hadn’t stopped ticking while he worked. He had already wasted almost a whole minute staring in horror at Fester’s bloody face. “Looks good, move on.”
“Be careful today, Officer Arthur,” said Fester, sliding the briefcase off the table again. “Edison’s launch isn’t the only thing at stake.”
Arthur just waved at him again. Go. Please go. Don’t tell me how to do my job and get the hell away from me.
Fester marched on and Arthur returned to his desk to hurry a couple more visitors through.
“Gonna dock your pay, Officer Arthur,” he muttered under his breath, swiping through the control console as another visitor entered. It flashed three green lights and one red. An error. He hadn’t been sitting for sixty seconds before he hoisted himself off his chair again with a groan. “Ten percent of your paycheck for every second over the threshold, Officer Arthur.” Louder, he said, “Please step aside, ma’am. I have to scan you separately.”
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
“You got a red light, that’s the problem,” he said. “Step to the other side of the yellow line.”
Arthur left the console under the supervision of Officer Krueger, who was so stoned that her average pass-through time was forty seconds. There were no consequences for the lady fucking the manager. How was Arthur supposed to compete statistically with some twenty-something bimbo with a butt the size of their passenger capsules?
By cutting corners, he decided with resentful pleasure.
The alarms had made him pull aside a woman who waited on the other side of the yellow line, underneath the glass catwalk leading to the research center. She was a lean and leggy blonde whose hair hung to her waist. She had an employee badge hanging below her cleavage.
“Arms up, feet on the dots,” Arthur said. She obeyed. He took a long look at her badge, and the nearby cleavage, while he swept the handheld charm detector over her body. “You, uh, work in the command center, huh? Don’t think I’ve seen you before.” He would have remembered that cleavage.
“I’m Doctor Brinley. A transfer from the Arctic facility.” Her voice was silky and level. “They told me that my authorizations should have gotten here before me.”
Arthur glanced at the records on his tablet. They were due a Doctor Brinley, but not until the late afternoon. “You got ahead of yourself. Better slow down to give our paper pushers time to work, you know?” He winked at her. He’d already gotten the clear on her second scan, but he was tempted to pretend the light was red just to keep her around longer.
“My flight left early to avoid an Arctic storm.”
“You shoulda enjoyed a few free hours,” Arthur said. “Enjoy Iowa City a little. Catch some sunshine. Though by the looks of it, you got a good tan for the Arctic.” The doctor giggled behind her hand, girly and cute. She was gonna be fun to scan every day for the next few years. “Have a good afternoon. Looking forward to seeing you around here more.”
“Thank you, Officer.”
Arthur was smirking when he returned to his desk.
“That was the transfer from the Arctic facility?” asked Officer Krueger.
“Pay attention to your own work,” Arthur snapped.
The next person to step through the arch came up with all green lights, so he waved her through.
“It’s just, the transfer from the Arctic,” Krueger tried to say.
“Watch the timer,” he said.
“I heard that Doctor Brinley is a man,” she said. “He might be a pretty man, but…did you check the employee badge?”
Arthur had been too busy eyeballing the breasts behind the badge. “Of course I checked, Linda. I do my job around here.” He waved the next person through. His average for the day was approaching thirty-two seconds.
Krueger’s daily average was already past fifty seconds, yet she hadn’t let anyone else through the gate yet. The crowd grew restless. Echoing voices approached a roar. But Krueger swiped through the employee records anyway, gnawing on the inside of her cheek as she searched.
“So is this the guy who was behind those big sunglasses?” she asked, turning her monitor toward Arthur.
Doctor Brinley was a portly man with a heavy beard and dark-brown skin. The only way he could have been the woman Arthur permitted to enter was if he was wearing a whole lot of glamour charms, which would have showed up as more than a single red light.
“Shit,” Arthur said.
“Oh my gods,,” Krueger said.
Which was when the facility alarms went off. The ones that said there was a big fire somewhere, which would make blast doors close, windows shutter, and the CEO very angry.
Klaxons shrilled. Shutters slid over the windows. The long but orderly queue broke as people started rushing for the exit. They were smart to escape while they could. Once locked down, the building would be swarmed with security drones, and anyone who looked threatening would get tased.
“You know the drone deployment is coming out of your paycheck, right?” Officer Brinley asked.
Arthur threw his security badge to the floor and bolted after the reporters.COLLAPSE