From the author: The first chapter from Titan Song (2021, DAW Books) volume 3 of the Carter Archives.
Look, it’s not that I hate disco.
There are plenty of things that I do hate. Predators who lurk in shadows, targeting the weak and the weary; villains who find joy in snuffing out the tiny lights of individual kindness and stealing the warmth that makes life worth living. Those are the people I’ve dedicated my life to finding and dragging into the light of justice. Compared to them, why would I be bothered by a garish, repetitive squeal of synthesized sludge pawned off onto vapid club-dwellers too tweaked out to recognize a decent melody if it walked up and bit them in the ass?
So no, I don’t hate disco. But I sure as Hells don’t like it, either.
Despite that fact, I’d been listening to the radio blare overproduced bilge for the better part of an hour as I drove across the ice plains. The reason for that was the cop who shared my ride; he loved the stuff. Jax drummed his hands on the dashboard of the snow-runner, roughly matching what passed for a beat as I gripped the steering wheel tighter and hoped that the radio signal would hurry up and die. My partner’s biting jaws were slightly open, reverberating a hum past jagged tusks the size of my fingers, self-harmonizing with the whistle from his speaking mouth, a hole set low in his throat, just above his necktie. It would have been impressive, if he hadn’t been off-beat and out of tune.
“Can you not do that?” I raised my voice above the rumble of treads on densely packed snow. We were due north of the city, the profile of the Mount retreating in our sideview mirrors, and with it the warmth of the geo-vents that made Titanshade an oasis on the snow-swept ice plains. The vents’ continuous output of sulfur-scented heat was the only thing that allowed the city to exist and cloak itself in something akin to civilization.
“Do what?” Jax’s eyes were concealed behind wraparound shades, making it impossible to see if they were crinkled with amusement, and nothing so expressive as a smile would ever grace the rigid bones of his biting jaws. Southerners were often intimidated by Mollenkampi faces and the frozen mask of perpetual aggression they conveyed to human eyes. Some people thought they looked dangerous, but I held no such uncertainty—the fact that my left hand was two fingers short of the usual allotment proved that a Mollenkampi’s bite was far worse than their appearance.
I peered at the ice plains through my own sunglasses. Shades were obligatory on the ice plains in daylight. While the sun was out the vast, unbroken white expanse was as blinding as it was deadly.
The fuzzy radio signal brought us a track from Dinah McIntire, the pop queen whose heavily processed voice had dominated the city’s radio playlists since she’d announced she was bringing a music festival to our town. Big-name artists rarely toured in Titanshade. It was too far to travel, the climate too inhospitable. The rest of the world had always been content to forget about us, as long as we supplied them with oil. That was one more thing that had changed in recent months.
“It’s not my fault you can’t feel the music in your heart,” Jax said.
In fact, I felt it too deeply. The blend of static and song echoed the buzzing sounds and the overwhelming, aching hunger that came when I crossed the invisible spiderwebs of sorcery. Sensations that I needed to keep secret.
I snapped back to reality when Jax stretched a hand in front of me, pointing at a speck on the horizon I’d been eyeing for the last little while.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Yeah, kid. That’s it.”
The Shelter in the Bend rig site grew larger with each second, and soon we were able to make out the outline of the temporary tents nestled in its shadow like the city’s buildings nestled against the Mount. The entire structure had been thrown up in the last two weeks, amidst much speculation and excitement. As much as I thought they were crazy, I had to admire the organizers’ audacity. If we rarely had big-names concerts in Titanshade, the thought of a dozen playing for more than a week outside the city was unheard of.
The Titanshade city leadership was thrilled about it. A festival located hours from the city would cause no traffic jams and require no police coordination. It was even far enough from the manna strike that the military encampment wasn’t concerned about accidental tourists. The festival made headlines for hiring furloughed rig workers for the structural work and security. The short-term salve for the unemployed made it an easy sell. It was a win for everyone.
It was a shame they needed a pair of Homicide detectives.
I’d never been to Shelter in the Bend before, but it had clearly been transformed into a tiny village of commerce. Signs welcomed us to Dinah McIntire’s “Ice on Her Fingers” festival. In a bold move, she’d made Titanshade the crown jewel of her promotions, a two-week-long festival with a large number of bands and events. The airwaves had been inundated with announcements: Ten Days of Dancing, Decadence, and the Divine D.M. Now that we were on-site, we were confronted with larger-than-life banners commanding us to look for her new single, “Titan’s Song” in stores.
The site belonged to Rediron Drilling, who’d loaned out the facility to the pop star for her special event. Like all the rigs on the ice plains, its operations had been frozen two months earlier when the raw essence of magic had been discovered below the ice plains. The man who’d struck manna, Harlan Cedrow, had been willing to pay any price to find his treasure. Things had ended badly for him, and for all of us who’d been at the rig where the manna strike occurred.
I parked near a pair of snow-runners identical to ours, the TPD shields on their sides a match for the badges in our pockets. One of them had a light dusting of snow while the other was clean, as if it had arrived recently, its engine still warm. Probably the crime scene techs or patrol cops there to secure the scene. Our response time to this call was much longer than usual. Most drill rigs were far enough from Titanshade that they fell outside our jurisdiction. The oil fields kept their own rough laws, only turning to the authorities in cases of emergency. But maybe a bunch of southern musicians were more inclined to call in the police than a crew of roughnecks.
“Alright,” I said. “Let’s gear up.”
Jax and I began securing the heavy coats customary for travel on the ice plains. Department-issue coats had only a few nods to utility, such as the heavy mitten tops that folded back to allow access to weapons. It was a struggle in the cramped quarters of the snow-runner, and the vehicle swayed as the wind drove into it, creeping through cracks and stripping away the interior warmth even in the short time we’d been there.
Jax peered at the festival signs. “You think the band is already here? They’d have to be, right?” He was excited, but also dragging a bit more than his usual eager young self.
“What’s wrong, kid?” I said. “Another late night alone with your books?”
It was usually fun to watch his reaction when I prodded him about his college education and academic bent. Instead, Jax pointed at the central spire of the derrick. “Really impressive what they’ve done here!” The high-toned clicks in his voice were artificially chipper.
I frowned at the sudden change of subject. I knew he’d been spending an increasing amount of time with Talena, my daughter for all purposes, if not by blood or legal marriage. I’d helped raise her, or at least had done my best not to screw up too bad while I was with her mom. I shot a look his way, and found he’d pulled out a handkerchief and taken a sudden interest in polishing his tusks.
I grunted and peered out the window, studying the layout of the site. The prospect of a ten-day festival on the ice plains was mind-bogglingly stupid. Even with our layers, Jax and I could only spend a limited time in the frigid air. But the marvels of engineering never ceased to amaze, and the transformation of the drill site certainly fell into that category. Structures of various sizes littered the area, but they were dwarfed by the central tent. It was a massive swell of tan-and-green-striped fabric, and the tip of the derrick raised through the center spire like the pole of a monstrous circus big top.
“They hung it right on the thribble board,” I said.
“Pipes sections stack,” I said. “This derrick’s a big one. It can stack three. A single, a double, a thribble.”
“You mean a triple.”
I clapped my hands together, making sure the fit of the gloves was proper. “Did your old man work the rigs? Mine did, and that’s a thribble board.”
Jax sighed. He was a newcomer to Titanshade, and didn’t have oil in his blood. “Should I even ask what they call the fourth level?”
“I genuinely don’t know if you’re messing with me or not.”
We stared at one another for a moment, then I killed the engine and opened the door. The wind grabbed hold of it, yanking it from my grasp and making the hinges squeal even as it snatched the warmth from the car and the air from my lungs. I climbed out of the snow-runner and slammed the door shut, eager to keep moving. Each inhalation was a sharp jab to the ribs as the cold bit me from the inside. I was instantly grateful for all those bulky layers.
Jax came around the vehicle and stood by my side. “You’re the expert,” he said, “which way do we go now?”
I considered our options. To one side of the parking area was a wide field of smaller tents and domed huts. These were rentals, heavily advertised as the perfect option for fans who didn’t want to miss a single moment of the show. The whole thing seemed like a guarantee for frostbite.
But the main tent held the most promise. There was a stream of heavily cloaked people with safety vests and tool belts flowing in and out of the tent opening.
“When in doubt, follow the people fleeing for warmth,” I said, and we moved in that direction, away from the hum of a small army of gas-powered generators that kept the lights and equipment boards running.
A human woman in a heavy coat stood apart from the foot traffic and waved us down as we approached. Only her eyes and a single lock of brown hair were visible beneath her hood and mask.
“Are you the cops?” The fabric of her face mask muffled her voice. “You look like cops.”
Jax nodded. “Can we go inside?” Mollenkampi may have more innate cold resistance than humans, but they don’t enjoy exposure to the elements any more than we do.
Our escort hustled us into the big tent, which turned out to actually be a series of smaller tents, roughly the size of my apartment, each separated by thick curtains, and each getting progressively warmer than the last. By the third entrance, flooring was laid out over the ice, providing better footing and adding a layer of insulation that would keep the snow from melting below us. That was impressive, but when we crossed into the main area I couldn’t help but draw in a shocked breath. They’d managed to re-create an entire arena inside the tent. A construction crew was putting the finishing touches on the stage, positioned so the performers would have their back to the city.
It was time to shed the elaborate coats. There was a temporary coatrack set up near the entrance. A few paces away were lockers, row after row of them, along with signs indicating the price: two taels. The concertgoers would pay to store their coats, eliminating the need for a coat check.
As we all peeled off our own layers of protection, our escort proved to be a young woman, her hair tucked under a knit cap. “Name’s Vandie,” she said, draping her coat across an open rack. “You want a tour, or a soda or something? Or do you want to meet Cavanaugh?”
“We’d rather go straight to where the incident occurred,” I said, avoiding the loaded term, crime scene. “Where’re the patrol officers whose vehicles are outside?”
“The patrolman is by the dressing room, and the others, um . . .” She trailed off, eyes widening as I removed my face mask. I’d gotten accustomed to reactions like that since our photos had begun appearing in the papers. I braced myself for a quick barrage of questions, but was saved when another woman’s voice called out from behind us.
I turned to find a pair of plainclothes cops making their way across the massive open space. They were both human, a man and woman, the fabric of their dark cloaks swaying with each step, lined by shifting symbols stitched in iridescent thread. Outfits that marked them as divination officers.
The woman had an elaborate up-swept haircut, though a few casual wisps had escaped to tumble onto her shoulders. She smirked and said, “Appearing by popular demand, huh?”
Her name was Guyer, and she’d been a friendly ear more than once. I’d even taken my greatest secret to her, only to have her dismiss it out of hand. From the way she stared at me now, I guessed she was starting to rethink her skepticism.
The male divination officer outpaced her, grinning as he approached us with hand extended.
“Harris,” he introduced himself. “I hear McIntire made serious noise to get the two of you sent out here.”
He didn’t know the half of it. Our public profile was a source of great contention within City Hall and the TPD. With the influx of cash and public relations that the concert brought, we’d never have been allowed near the site of such an important event if McIntire herself hadn’t demanded we be present.
The male divination officer peered down at Jax as they shook hands. “You’re much younger than you look in photos,” he said. “Here I thought I was the freshest face in plainclothes!”
Harris was broad shouldered and tall, with dark skin and a wide, friendly grin that showed off a set of front teeth large enough to make an ice hare jealous. His hair was a neatly trimmed halo of natural curls, and his handshake was firm, with the kind of calluses you didn’t get from police sorcery.
“And you must be Carter!” He pumped my hand with an abundance of enthusiasm. He didn’t tell me how young I looked.
“Carter.” Behind us, the woman who’d led us inside muttered my name. I ignored it. Over the last two months I’d been caught up in a series of high-profile investigations, and I got the occasional star-struck civilian.
“Why’d this case rate a pair of DOs?” Ajax asked, glancing from Harris to Guyer. It was a good question. Divination officers relied on manna to force details from the remains of the departed, either through reading entrails or more direct methods. For my entire lifetime manna had been so precious that it was only used in the most extreme of circumstances. Or at least it had been, until the last few months when the manna strike turned the global economy upside down. Now we were walking onto a crime scene that apparently warranted not one but two divination officers.
From farther in the tent, a pair of human men in security jackets walked over to us, but our guide intercepted them. She answered whatever concerns they had and they retreated. Maybe she was more than a junior intern after all.
“It’s high profile,” Guyer said. “But Harris is the only DO officially on this case. I’m merely here for the view.” She swung an arm as she said it, as if she were there for the concert setting, but her eyes were locked on me. She felt I owed her a conversation, and I felt she owed me an apology. As a result we hadn’t spoken much in the two weeks since Titan’s Day. We’d have to talk sooner or later, but when exactly is the right time to have a talk about developing an inexplicable talent for magic, especially when there were so many additional ears around? A fact underscored by the way the woman who’d welcomed us inside now hovered close, listening in on our conversation. It’s a common experience when wearing a badge. If someone isn’t a victim or potential arrest, they like to hang around and observe things go down.
“The problem is that there’s a whole structure behind the tents,” Harris was saying. “Not to mention the wider scope of the drill site. There’s still tons of people running around here.”
“I can get you whatever access you need.” Our guide’s voice broke through our conversation, loud and confident. “The rig, the outbuildings, the fields.”
“You can?” Harris asked. “Not the stage and tent, but the rig itself? That’ll probably be off limits.”
“Not for me,” she said. “I own it. I’m Vandra Cedrow.” She turned from Harris to me and her smile hardened into something less than friendly. “You killed my uncle.”
When a murder threatens to delay a high-profile concert, the diva star performer demands that the famous Detective Carter work the case. But the investigation triggers a spiral of deceit, paranoia, and nightmarish magical transformations. Soon the machinations of the rich, powerful, and venerated are exposed and the very foundation of the city is shaken as Carter navigates old enemies and fragile new alliances while racing to learn the cause of these horrific deaths.
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