Things were bad. Neta had felt it as soon as she walked out on the paved stones just outside her apartment building. Something wasn’t right – not right at all. She’d made the decision to skip the daily administrative tasks at the office, which she could do later, and to head straight for her designated observation points.
When she’d called in to inform Mrs. Thompson she’d be late the old secretary had sounded a bit worried and told her to be careful. She’d replied that yes, she would be careful, as she always was. They both knew this wasn’t strictly true, but it was part of the informal ritual of reassurance they’d established over the years. Neta had smiled to her self and wondered if it was the ritual itself or the words that were said that were most reassuring. This too had become part of the ritual.
Neta was fortunate in that her observation points were mostly fairly close together and in the same part of the city as her apartment. In a matter of minutes she’d pedaled her trusty old bicycle to the first stop; Emmie’s. The small convenience store on the corner of Blanketwasher Street and Emerson Plaza was named after its original owner; a little hobbit lady who ran the place on her own for nearly four decades until she unexpectedly died a few years ago. The new owners were a young couple, also hobbits, who’d tried to change the name, but who’d eventually given in and changed it back to Emmie’s.
A man of routine and habit, Mr. Fibbleton had been both worried and startled by her sudden appearance in his store well over an hour and a half before her usual time. Neta had taken one look at the racks of newspapers and magazines that covered the entire right wall of the little store and it had been enough to confirm her suspicion that something wasn’t as it should be. She’d taken two photos of the racks and would later upload them from her camera to her computer. Neta had never found photos to be usable for divination but it was a regulation requirement that she documented all observations she made. She had shared a few polite words with Mr. Fibbleton, told him everything was fine and then rushed out again.
That was two hours ago, and even then she’d known it for a lie; everything was not fine, not fine at all. She’d passed all but one of the observation points she’d intended to visit, mostly convenience stores and newsstands but also one of the larger shopping centers in the city. The signs were clear; the Innastarn, the spirit of the city, was afraid, and about to get angry.
There was still time though. The signs were clear but also fresh, it would take time for the innastarn to work up enough anger for it to become truly dangerous. The night would likely be rough for the cops. There would be fighting and accidents, but with enough warning they would be prepared and should be able to handle it. In the meantime, the city’s shamanistic operatives, of whom Neta was one, would be able to determine and neutralize the source of the innastarn’s fear. Neta judged they would have three, maybe four days before things started getting really bad.
She still had time. She’d visit her last stop and then head to the office to write her report assessing the current threat. She’d meet up with the other operatives on duty and with them agree on whether or not it was necessary to issue a public warning. She was certain a warning would be issued, just not how severe it would be.
Her last stop was Café Peach on Beach Street. From their first floor terrace she would have an excellent view of the stairs leading down to the Beach Street subway station. The station was a major hub for commuters from the suburbs and it would have a sufficiently large amount of people passing through even outside of rush hours.
By observing the commuters milling about up and down the stairs she would be able to more directly assess the current mood of the Innastarn. Commuters were more difficult to divine than racks of magazines and newspaper, but the results were more reliable. Racks were updated at a slower pace; covers changed on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis and consumers removed the magazines only once in a while. Commuters on the other hand were constantly in motion and thus reflecting the mood of the innastarn from moment to moment more accurately.
From the racks of magazine and newspapers she had observed Neta had a good idea of what to expect and knew what to look for. Observing the stairs to the subway and the area around them would give her the final details and a better impression of what was scaring the Innastarn.
She sat down at the small table set aside for the city’s shamanistic operatives, ordered mineral water and a quiche and settled in comfortably. Regulations required at least 30 minutes of observation during non-rush hours, but at a station like Beach Street an experienced seer like Neta would be able to draw conclusions within five to ten minutes. Still, she had to remain at the post for 30 minutes so it was a good opportunity for her to sit down for a bit and to get something to eat.
The news racks had indicated great unrest among people with something to hide and there had been a hint of poison. Her initial impulse was to look for signs something was going on in the city’s criminal underworld, probably drug related. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out that a showdown between gangs would unsettle the Innastarn. It might be more complicated though – a confrontation between criminal gangs and law enforcement could be just as violent as a clash between gangs and it may be the prospect of an upcoming drug bust that worried the spirit of the city.
Just as her food arrived Neta noticed something she hadn’t seen at first. It was just a glimpse and the waiter setting down the plate on her table startled her into losing her focus and she lost track of what she’d seen. The signs of gang related crime had been clear but apparently there was more to it than Neta had first thought. She decided to eat her food and then restart her divining with a fresh perspective and a full stomach.
She chewed thoughtfully on the quiche. It tasted well enough but her mind was elsewhere. The glimpse she’d caught of something else was worrying. It had lacked the violent energy of gang-crime but was tinged with malice and corruption. There was a fair chance it was unrelated to the criminal gangs, which meant things were worse than she’d first expected; two threats were always worse than one.
The other option was even worse; the unrest in the criminal underworld could have been orchestrated in order to provide a smoke-screen to hide signs of another more serious threat. Either way, things were likely to be worse than she’d first expected, possibly much worse.
As she washed down the last of the quiche she thought of how this was the calm before the storm. Sitting there in the sun on the terrace at Café Peach was likely to be her last moments of peace and quiet for quite a while. She drank the last of the water and gazed across the street; to the stairs where commuters were still leaving and entering the subway station, ignorant of the signs of danger they conveyed.
When the waiter came to take away her plate and glass she didn’t notice him at all.