Silvia could smell the afterlife from here.
She pulled down the window, trying to chase the feeling away with a bout of fresh air. It was not a smell that you could really shake off, anyway – that sweet tanginess, with a hint of blood – at least the rushing wind from the side of the car might help keep her mind clear.
Rabini, next to her on the car, shifted his heavy body on the seat.
“They did not even cordon the place,” he coughed pulling down the window form his side as well. “What an amateurish response. I am going to give Ponchielli a piece of my mind.” He coughed into his fist and rubbed his rapidly-reddening eyes.
“Sergio,” Silvia said pointing to the car’s rattling dashboard. “There’s a filter there, put one on.”
“I’m perfectly fine,” he coughed with a ragged breath.
“Shut up, you whale. Do you think they are going to let us go past the checkpoint with dead Alchemist next to me?”
He glared at her, but in the end his thick fingers opened the compartment, taking out a couple of gas-masks. Silvia couldn’t swear on the state of their filters. She got them on a so-called garden sale the month before, during her latest foray into the Stravaganza. The runes inside should still be good for a modicum of protection, though.
“Did they pay you to take these out?” Rabini asked, enveloping his face with one of the masks, and passing the other one to her.
“You are only complaining because I got S-sized ones.” She rolled her brown eyes and put one on as well, driving with her elbows. She glanced past the outline of the apartment buildings nearby – it should be coming from there. As soon as she secured the filter on her mouth and she tried to take her first breath, the smell disappeared. Air now felt normal, save for a faint hint of dust. Must be the old filters.
Rabini leaned back, making the seat creak.
“You still making fun of your superior? I can assign you to the watch on Dulcamara, do you knot?”
Silvia thought about the crazy Witch in the south and shivered even in the warm spring air – but she knew Rabini was just teasing her.
“Sure thing. Who’s going to watch your heavy ass, then?”
He did not answer. Leaned out of the window, checking on the perimeter.
A number of military trucks surrounded a road junction, where a line of civilian cars still remained, signaling the border of the zone that had been forcibly evacuated.
Silvia slowed down, getting ready for the checkpoint.
An officer signaled them to pull up on the roadside, a tall man in camouflage, his face covered by a mask that looked much cleaner and sharper than the ones they wore.
“Turn around,” he warned them. “The area is locked.”
“Is this a joke?” Rabini leaned to the left, pulling out a card. “Can’t you recognize an Alchemist anymore? Or do you need to recharge your thaumaturgic filters?” He stated tapping on the side of his eyes.
The officer’s fingers did indeed raise to the glasses on his mask.
“Rabini,” he heaved. “Level four.”
Silvia allowed herself a smile. The officer seemed a bit out of his water, and under the mask he looked like a handsome young man, caught in a situation he had not been prepared for. After all, they had just rotated a lot of personnel and not everyone could have received enough training.
“I see. What about the lady?”
“The lady is my Retriever. Silvia, show him your card or we are going to be still here tonight.”
She added her card to Rabini’s. The officer flipped it. She imagined his lips tighten behind the mask.
“We have your name on our lists, but the Retriver was supposed to be Cantagallo.”
“I can’t stand Cantagallo,” Rabini explained with a huff. “Are we finished here?”
“Yes. Sorry for the delay.” He gave them their cards and signaled the others to open the checkpoint.
Silvia gave him a wink and allowed herself a satisfied giggle as the officer started, raising a hand to wave at her. She still got it, even in the middle of an emergency like this.
“What a world,” Rabini rasped, pulling on his seatbelt as if it was about to strangle him. “You see me, you recognize my aura, you step aside without wasting my time. What use are those guys anyway?”
“The military needs to feel like they can do something about it,” Silvia replied with a chuckle. She tuned him off as Rabini kept lamenting the current degradation of the system, and how they were doomed to get swallowed up by some etheric worm if they kept being so sloppy.
Behind Silvia’s lenses, she caught a glimpse of a certain apartment building standing a few hundred meters away – it shimmered like an iridescent flame, tongues of fire wriggling against each other like crazed eels.
Here we go.
She stopped the car just before the complex’s entrance, next to a group of soldiers. They did not gave them much thought, busy as they were setting up a wide silvery tube, sticking into the building like a too-large, too-curious caterpillar.
“Why are we stopping here?”
“I want to check my equipment before coming in.” She stepped out of the car, opening up its trunk.
“Also,” she mused, “who knows, maybe there’s a hunk or two in uniform around here. Maybe I won’t dinner alone for a change.” She pulled off her blouse and shirt, ending up in her white sports bra. Silvia showed her fit physique, her slender arms covered in scars and faded protective runes. She turned around a couple times, but not one of the guys working on the scene tossed her even a look. Pouting, she pulled up her protective layers, together with the thaumaturgic suit, glistening with bright blue symbols.
From a wooden box she produced an old, Eighteen-Century pistol and secured it to her hip. When she came to her car Rabini immediately noticed the weapon.
“It’s a lend from the Archives. They do not allow me to keep it, at least not yet.”
“Chin up, Silvia. You are almost there. A few more years of filed works and then you’ll be able to sit down behind a desk and grow slow and fat just like me.”
“Not if I want to go back home to someone, you whale.”
Rabini laughed, coming out of the car as well. He looked at the apartment complex just as Silvia made one final check of her equipment.
“Do you want an amulet?”
“I think I’m fine. Too much protection will make me dull.”
“No such thing,” he retorted, then he shouted at the soldiers. “Hey, you over there! My Retriever is about to go in! Why haven’t you even started with the containment foam?”
Silvia breathed in. In fact, so close to the Breach air smelled too-sweet, like a rotting piece of meat.
The smell of afterlife.
“Well, pointless to wait any more,” she said waving at Rabini.
He nodded, giving her a stern look.
“Come back in one piece. I hate Cantagallo and I’d hate having to start working with him.”
“Don’t worry, whale. I’ll keep swimming with you for a long time.” She settled her shoulders and took a long breath, trying to substitute the foul, sweet smell for the salty one of the sea. She had to keep her mind on what mattered. And this job was yet another stepping stone to help her sister have a normal life. A younger face surrounded by a halo of auburn hair smiled in her mind’s eye, and Silvia smiled as well. “Alright.” She pulled out her ancient gun. “Let’s show these boys how we do things.”
Author’s Notes: I felt like trying an opening again. This is the starting scene for a urban fantasy/horror novel I have been working on, The Better Bones. Hope you liked it and thanks for reading.