My investigation had come to a standstill. That was the conclusion I had reached after reading every report detailing attacks committed by the mysterious assailant. Those reports included the additional reports that had been filed in the past week detailing yet more attacks that had happened. As ever they were thrilling reads. I found one report highly suspicious, but that was only because the acolyte who filed the report hadn’t even seen the assailant. They realised that their bank card had gone missing and filed a report saying that the assailant must have stealthily cast trap on them and stolen their card. What a joke. Don’t waste my time with your excuses for dropping your card somewhere. Now that I was through with the reports, I had resorted to looking for patterns. I had details on the locations, dates and money stolen for each attack, and was perusing them looking for any sort of common element. I had been unsuccessful so far. My interactions with Tom Beckman had been minimal during this time. I was expected to write a short report on what I had investigated and what I had found that week. The former section tended to be a lot longer than the latter.
One evening two weeks after I first arrived at the headquarters of the Church of Mammon, I was in the dining hall. It had taken me longer than I’d expected to get my identity card registered there, and the expenses claim for the money I’d spent there was taking even longer to be approved. The financial team were far too busy dealing with claims for Divitaetion casts to deal with my food related claims. Regardless, I wasn’t losing too much sleep over it, I wasn’t particularly hurting from the money spent on food, but it was the principle of it that mattered. If someone like Verity Pour could join the Church of Mammon and be able to obtain food without paying after only a day, then why was the same courtesy not extended to me, who had been part of the Church of Mammon for years?
Speaking of Verity Pour, I saw her sat eating alone. That had become a less common sight lately, as I’d seen her eating a few times with another woman, and occasionally with the man who had recruited her. Today Verity was eating alone and I thought, why not, I’ll go and talk to her. I’d done it before, it was very easy. Yet as I approached my confident stride began to slow. Why? Why was I finding this so difficult now? I’d slowed to an almost complete standstill when Verity herself looked up and saw me. She hesitantly waved and I realised that I had completely stopped and was just staring at her. It was decision time, and I had only a split second to take action. I could move on and sit elsewhere, or I could finish walking up to her and sit down opposite. What I couldn’t do was continue to stand stock still just staring at her like an idiot.
I went with option two, gritted my teeth, and completed my journey over to where she was sitting.
“Can I sit here?” I heard myself asking.
“Sure.” Verity gave me permission. Something had changed about her in the several days that had passed since we last spoke. She sounded a little less indescribably nervous and a little more confident. I sat down.
“How are you?” She asked as I pulled my chair in.
“Frustrated.” I answered.
“Oh, is the investigation not going well?” I thought for a moment about how much I could tell her. Well the assailant was no secret, and she already knew I was doing the investigation so it was probably okay. It’s not as if I knew much more than the average acolyte anyway.
“I can’t find anything…” I began, “These attacks take place all over the place, though it is mostly here in the US, and they tend to play out in the same way… but beyond that I can’t see any pattern…”
“Has anyone been able to beat the assailant?” Verity asked, then she frowned as if she was surprised by her own question.
“No… though one person managed to scare them off before they could steal his money.”
“Oh, him…” Verity looked thoughtful. “The assailant must be very skilled then.”
“Indeed they are.” I agreed out loud. “Though it doesn’t help that most of the acolytes they ambush are amateurs…” It was closer to “all” than “most” but… wait how did that even happen? Sure, there were plenty of first level acolytes out there performing menial tasks and grunt work, but it took several years to move up from first level to second level, so just because you were a first level acolyte didn’t mean you had no experience. Hell there were some second level acolytes who would take on field work as well, if only to assist first level acolytes… So why had the assailant managed to almost exclusively pick on weaklings?
A thought began to take root in my head. I had a lead, or at least a thought. Something to follow up on.
“How is your training going?” I asked, half my mind still running through my new theory.
“It’s okay. Faith was teaching me to cast trap today.”
“Did she keep using it on you every time you tried to take a note?” Verity nodded.
“She was very pleased with herself.”
“Most trainee acolytes go through that at some point. You become wary of anyone offering you any money.”
“Well I got her back.” Verity grinned. I raised an eyebrow.
“You cast trap back on her?”
“Yep.” Verity grinned a little wider. “When I took a note from her, I cast trap on her before she could do it to me.”
Daring. I would never have tried to do something like that to someone teaching me, no matter how much they were toying with me. We talked a little longer until two people came over. Verity’s new friends: Isambard and, presumably, Faith.
“Ah Hugh Stirling, the new guy.” Isambard sat down next to me and Faith sat next to Verity. “How is studying under Tom going?” I got the feeling that, a week or so ago, a jab like that would have irritated me a lot more. This evening, however, half my mind was still unravelling my train of thought concerning the assailant, and the other half now had the phrase “it sounds like he trusts you a great deal” echoing over and over in it again. If Isambard was disappointed by my lack of any response more meaningful than a small grunt, he didn’t show it.
“Ah Verity.” The woman, Faith, clapped her hands together. “You’ve been here for two weeks and you haven’t even had a chance to get out of the Church of Mammon and see the city. Isambard and I thought we’d take you around LA, and maybe even to Hollywood.”
“Ah, okay.” Verity nodded but didn’t sound too enthusiastic.
“You too.” Faith turned her attention to me. “You’re Hugh, right? The one who transferred here to study under Tom? Why don’t you come too?” Both halves of my mind dropped what they were doing and turned their attention to this question. Unfortunately they weren’t particularly well equipped to handle what had been thrust upon them.
“Sure.” I eventually said. The words came out casually, but the effect was probably ruined by the fact that it took me a second or two to come up with that response. I sneaked a glance at Verity. Did she look pleased? Was I imagining it?
The next day I went in search of some data. I had discovered that the Reference Room that I was using as my unofficial office was no longer the preferred method of storing records, and the latest files on those shelves were almost twenty years old. There were plans to convert them to a digital form but, as with many similar plans, the work involved would be very dull and no one was really interested in invoice records from two decades ago. If you wanted data that didn’t pre-date the current millennium you would have to search the electronic records. Presumably Tom Beckman simply preferred printouts. At the headquarters of the Church of Mammon, if you had your own office you would also get your own computer. Anyone else had to go to the Library. When I got there at half eight in the morning, many of the machines had already been taken but I was able to find one tucked away in a corner. I was relieved to find that my details and password worked and I was able to log on. It looked like the headquarters here in Los Angeles used the same record system that was used in London. That was helpful, it meant I didn’t have to waste time learning a new unintuitive system when I could rely on my existing knowledge of the current unintuitive system. I found the field work records. Whenever an acolyte was sent out to the field the details of both the acolyte, the location and the nature of the work would be logged. I was able to find all the reports that I had been reading the printouts of too. Why I hadn’t done this two weeks ago was a mystery to me. I checked the names and dates of the reports against the field work records. They all matched up save for one, Tom Beckman’s. Out of interest, I looked at some of the field work history of some of the acolytes who’d been ambushed. All of them were very short, many had less than ten records to their name. If you had access to this information, which anyone ranked at first level or above did, then you could purposely seek out inexperienced acolytes when they were out on the job.
By the end of the day I had built up my theory, and the case for it, so I went back to Beckman’s office in Room 221.
Beckman looked at the freshly printed out records, as well as the summary of what I’d found. He nodded.
“You’ve done well, Mr Stirling. If your theory is correct, then you have a chance to discover the identity of our assailant.”
“Wait… I do?” I questioned.
“Of course.” Beckman placed the printouts onto his desk where they became just another feature in the sea of paper. “If our assailant if only going after inexperienced acolytes then surely the greatest bait is an acolyte with no field experience at all.”
Oh right. Me.
While I was a Divitaetion prodigy, I had never been sent out into the field. That was apparently about to change though.
“That is,” Beckman continued, “If you are okay with that role?” I looked into Tom Beckman’s eyes and the phrase “it sounds like he trusts you a great deal” once again whispered in my mind.
“Of course.” I nodded. I’d go and be bait for this assailant, and hopefully come out the other side in one piece.