Today I am delighted to be joining the Storytellers on Tour Book Blitz for Shadow of the City by R. Morgan, and I have an extract to whet your appetite.
A delightful fantasy of friendship and mystery in a setting reminiscent of Latin America, by a fresh new talent.
La Bene is a city poised on the edge of change, where automobiles mingle with horse-drawn trolleys and musicians rub shoulders with politicians in trendy cabarets. Every day brings new magical machines, new immigrants … and a new mystery to solve.
Detectives Rocío Díaz Rossi and Hala Haddad Sosa have investigated many crimes together, and Rocío’s intuition and Hala’s logic make them ideal partners. But this time they’re baffled by a newly discovered crypt in the subway, a missing choreographer, and reports of impossible magic.
As the clues pile up, they discover that they’re not working any ordinary kidnapping. Something darker and more sinister is taking root in the city, perhaps the return of a magic so destructive that no one dares to speak of it. If their suspicions are correct, they will have to face an opponent who threatens not only their commitment to justice, but everyone living in their beloved city.
DETECTIVE ROCÍO DÍAZ ROSSI had investigated a lot of crimes in her seven years with Miraflores Community Justice Center, but none had ever involved an underground access tunnel to the subte, a disap-pearing wall, and an empty room that resembled a crypt.
“Hala, we’re supposed to be determining how the wall could be removed without anyone noticing, not investigating the room that appeared once the wall was gone,” Rocío reminded her partner, Detective Hala Haddad Sosa. “Not that disappearing walls or empty rooms are crimes. I’m not even sure what we’re doing here.”
Her voice rang overloud oﬀ the close, pitted brick walls and vaulted ceiling, betraying her nerves. Behind her, electric bulbs, retrofitted into wrought-iron brackets for gaslights, lit the access tunnel for the subte—the subterranean train. Even here, twenty meters below the city, the lights had amber-tinted glass shades.
Only Rocío’s flashlight lit the room before her, small and dusty and claustrophobic. Clearly it was not part of the subte—even further out of their jurisdiction than she had thought. And creepier. She hated anything having to do with old burials, long-dead bodies or strange funeral practices, a legacy of her nonna, who had liked bloodcurdling cautionary tales, especially ones about the Ghost Years. The low platform in the middle of the room was perfect for a coﬃn and made Rocío think of all those stories. Luckily the few bodies she saw as a detective were generally recently dead.
The flashlight in her hand flickered and died, and Rocio’s breath hitched.
“The empty room might logically have something to do with the missing wall. The light, please,” Hala said, steady and reassuring as always.
Rocío shook the flashlight to see if the connection was loose. “It’s dead, just a sec.”
She recharged the battery with the innate magic every Benerex had, a process a bit like pushing a button that existed only in her mind. The flashlight flickered back to life, and she pointed it over Hala’s shoulder, catching her cropped black hair and dark skin in its jittery beam before sweeping it across the nonexistent, noncriminal contents.
“Go back to the plinth in the center,” Hala said.
Rocío made a face but obeyed. “What do you see?” She steadied the light. The plinth was about four centimeters high, dust-grimed blue, unadorned and empty. “I see the tracks of at least two people besides us, though I can’t tell if they were here this morning or two centuries ago.”
The air smelled of machine oil and magic—like ozone and burnt sugar—most likely from the batteries powering the lights in the tunnel. They’d passed the battery room on the way here, one of the many ‘landmarks’ Old Nico had mentioned in his directions to supplement the signage on the walls. Old Nico was a neighborhood institution and had been the superintendent for this section of the Miraflores subte line for almost as long as it had been here, through flooding, strikes and storms. A few months ago, he had tipped them oﬀ about tainted cacao beans being smuggled through the subte tunnels, so when he had flagged them down from his booth and asked for help, they had agreed to check out the missing wall and apply their expertise to the mystery.
“Not two centuries.” Hala crouched for a better view of the floor, and Rocío adjusted the flashlight. After seven years of working together, some things were second nature. “A little more to the right. Look how the footprints smudge this thicker dust on the threshold. They entered and exited from this tunnel, which was only possible sometime in the last week or so, according to Old Nico.”
She didn’t say anything about Rocío missing the obvious. For one thing, what was obvious to Hala was not always obvious to anyone else. And after seven years of friendship, she knew a thing or two about Rocío, including the fear of ghosts that was distracting her now. Instead Hala reached up and guided Rocío’s hand and the flashlight beam to the opposite wall, revealing a bricked-up doorway in the stone. Her hand was warm and dry on Rocío’s. She stopped at a maker’s stamp on one of the bricks. The upside-down logo wasn’t familiar to Rocío.
“Ah, that’s González and González, an Iberex brickwork that went out of business two hundred years ago. The brick must have been ballast in a trading ship, which means it’s likely that other door, and this room, predate the subte by at least as long.”
Of course Hala knew that. “Unless someone reused old bricks.” “Yes.” Hala pointed Rocío’s flashlight at the other two walls, each with its own bricked-up doorway, and then at the wall immediately to their left. “Look at that.”
In Rocío’s imagination, the darkness immediately populated itself with ghosts and bogeymen. She squelched those thoughts firmly. “With everything you carry in your pockets, I don’t understand why you refuse to carry a flashlight.”
Hala always wore sturdy broadcloth trousers covered in pockets of disparate sizes, widths and uses, from which she routinely extracted astonishingly varied things, such as mosquito repellant or samples of first-century silk from Jeen. The invariable trousers necessitated a thick leather belt to hold them up, but she varied her tops; today it was a flannel work shirt in her favorite green and a woolen overcoat. Rocío’s trousers had a more normal number of pockets, and her alpaca wool sweater and camel hair coat would have done a good job of keeping her warm if the chill hadn’t origi-nated from inside her. With her long dark hair wound up and pinned, the nape of her neck felt exposed. She should have worn a scarf.
“You barely carry anything—it’s only fair. Look.” Hala pointed to a dark patch on the newly exposed stone.
“You still haven’t answered my question. What are we doing here?”
“Hold the light steady.” Hala used tweezers to free a splinter, dropped it into an evidence bag and returned everything to yet another pocket. “This room wasn’t empty. The corner of one of the tiles is chipped, and whoever was here removed something wooden. I want forensics.” She stood, dusted oﬀ her knees and pushed her bangs to the side. They were long for Hala, and she would no doubt raze them back to infinitesimal soon.
“Property crimes,” Rocío said dubiously, “are not our oﬃce. And are too bougie for your interest even if they were. We should have told Old Nico to contact POPA.” POPA was the disordered acronym for Property Oﬀenses Against the People.
“And let him down? You wouldn’t.”
Rocío blew out her breath in surrender. “Okay, I wouldn’t. But we should get someone from POPA here instead. That should satisfy Old Nico. I don’t want to come back down here with forensics.” She shud-dered theatrically. “I think we deserve pastries from Benito’s after this.”
“I’m surprised at you,” Hala said, removing her spectacles and stowing them in a case in another pocket. “Old Nico deserves better from us. If he hadn’t told us the last time he saw something strange, we never would have found out who was smuggling those cacao beans. And what’s stranger than almost two hundred kilos of stone going missing without anyone noticing?”
Rocío refused to be distracted by Hala’s oﬀ-the-cuﬀ estimation. Sudden suspicion stabbed through her. “Let me guess.” She swung the light to shine on Hala’s face.
Hala blinked back at her, her expression completely blank, a defi-nite sign of no good.
“‘Anything interesting, you tell me, Old Nico, and we’ll investigate for you,’” Rocío said, imitating Hala’s even voice. “That’s what you told him, isn’t it? Seres celestiales—you and your curiosity. Fine. Let’s go talk to Old Nico about when this could have happened, and then tube forensics. Just let me out of here.”
Consulting with Old Nico again revealed that the window, so to speak, for his disappearing wall had to be between Saturday, 4 April and today, Tuesday, 14 April. The old man extracted a willing promise from Hala to follow up with the Department of Transportation about work orders while he investigated whether anyone had lost a key to the maintenance entrances; those were the least conspicuous ways to remove such a quantity of rock.
Leaving Old Nico’s oﬃce, Rocío and Hala traversed the bowels of the city via more access tunnels and very civilized stairs, neither of which resembled actual bowels, thank the seres celestiales, and emerged, blinking, outside. Rocío opened her umbrella and took a deep breath of leaf mold and horse manure. The muscles in her back relaxed, and thoughts of ghosts receded to where they belonged, the dim recesses of her mind.
In mid-autumn, the city of La Beneficia de nuestros vecinos y los seres celestiales (La Bene for short) was not at her most attractive, but the rain pattered softly, comfortingly, and birds cheeped slightly franti-cally, as if they had stayed out late partying instead of doing their housekeeping chores for the winter and now realized how unprepared they were. On the median, the brightly colored umbrellas of pedes-trians waiting for a horse-drawn trolley to pass made a pleasant picture against the bare branches of the tipa trees lining the broad avenue.
Hala turned left on 15 de agosto instead of right towards the tube oﬃce. Rocío ambled after her and popped a piece of gum into her mouth, waiting to see if Hala was going to tell her where they were going now. Rocío absently greeted a street cleaner she knew and a neighbor from her apartment building, which was only a few blocks away, where the neighborhood changed from swank to merely chic.
“I wish someone had invented recording more than ten years ago so we had an idea what the really old accents sounded like.” Hala turned left on Calle ch’eju’ut, one of the oldest streets in the city, where families who traced their ancestry to the first refugees to arrive in La Bene lived in mansions behind more trees, whitewashed walls and wrought-iron gates.
Rocío accepted this non sequitur with the ease of practice. “Like Old Nico’s? My grandparents sounded like him, except for my nonna, of course. Are you thinking of doing a linguistic analysis?”
“I’d love to track how fast each immigrant group adapts to and changes the dominant accent.”
“So where are we going?” Rocío finally gave in and asked.
Hala stopped abruptly at the entrance to the biggest house on the street. The black gates were worked in the shape of mountain peaks tipped with gold. Rocío tilted her umbrella back to get a better look at the grounds and the mansion, though she could see only a slice of dark green manicured oleander bushes and a white portico and columns.
“Montenegro House,” Hala said. “If it’s not above the under-ground room, I’ll eat my socks.”
“Don’t do that. You’re still wearing yesterday’s.”
Hala turned her intense stare from the house to Rocío. “How do you know that?”
It was a game they played; their minds worked so diﬀerently that they often came to the same conclusion by wildly diﬀerent routes. But that didn’t mean Rocío couldn’t get back at Hala a bit for luring her underground and not telling her where they were going after.
“Really, Hala? I am a detective. A bona fide member of the Miraflores Community Justice Center. And I happen to know you only have one pair of E=mc2 socks. Which you also wore yesterday. And laundry day is Sunday in your house.”
“Umphf. I ran out of clean socks because of the rain on Tuesday.” “Hala, it is Tuesday.”
“Last Tuesday. I missed laundry entirely this week.” She turned back to the house. “Rocío, the empty room is there. What’s more, it must be within their wards.”
“You’re sure?” Rocío asked, straightening.
“Dirty socks sure.”
“About the wards, too? Because opening up an unused room in the subte is one thing, but getting through expensive wards like the Montenegros must have is another.”
Her flat tone increased Rocío’s worry. “Surely we’d have heard if someone had tampered with their wards.”
Then again, the Montenegros, one of the wealthiest and most important families in the city, had their fingers in most political pies. So maybe not.
“They might not know yet.” Hala marched up to the gate. “Wait.”
Hala had people skills; she just didn’t always use them. She showed her ID booklet to the gatekeeper.
“Let me do the talking,” Rocío whispered. “They’re not going to like this.”
“I usually do.”
The gatekeeper gave them a nod and allowed them in, revealing the house at the end of the drive. Black gate, white shell drive, white house, black angular details around the door and windows. It reminded Rocío of the Kaellic dance troupe that had come through last year, their bodies stiﬀ straight lines imposed on the world, emphasized by the stark white costumes printed with black knotwork designs.
As they approached, the door opened, disgorging the Ministrx of External Relations—an imposing older man with silver hair—and two women in their early thirties, who looked enough alike to be cousins and were probably assistants. All three were most likely related, because that’s how politics worked in La Bene. The pins in their elaborately arranged hair were no doubt real gold and silver with real gemstones, unlike Rocío’s enameled silver-plated steel. The woman with the lighter brown hair whispered to the others, recogni-tion and interest flaring in her eyes, and Rocío braced herself.
Ministrx O’Higgins nodded courteously. “Detectives, is there a problem?”
“Nothing to worry about,” Rocío said blithely.
“I’m Ministrx O’Higgins Cruz, and these are my assistants, Gumersinda de Herrera Nuñes and Críspula de Herrera Carmona. Should we be concerned for Ministrx Montenegro?”
As a stratagem to extract Rocío’s and Hala’s names, it was fairly obvious.
“Not at all, ministrx,” Hala said. “Have a good day.”
Rocío guessed that as soon as the group stepped past the gate, they would begin to speculate wildly. That wouldn’t endear them to Ministrx Montenegro when she learned of it.
When they were out of earshot, Rocío said, “Those are unfortu-nate names.”
“Very old Benerex names. The twenty-fourth of November and the thirteenth of March in the old almanac,” Hala said, reprising her role as human repository of mostly forgotten facts.
“Ah, of course,” Rocío said dryly, used to Hala’s habit of spouting obscure information.
The Montenegros’ majordomo held the door open without communicating any welcome. She was middle-aged, with the straight nose and sharp cheekbones of Disi ancestry. The laugh lines around her eyes hinted at a sense of humor that was not in evidence at the moment. She didn’t blink when Hala introduced them, and she didn’t oﬀer to take their coats or umbrellas.
“Ministrx Montenegro is not available at the moment.”
Rocío nudged Hala out of the way. “We understand the ministrx is a busy woman,” she said, balancing courtesy and authority. “We only need a moment to speak with her. It is important and sensitive. I’m sure she would like to hear what we have to say.”
“The ministrx is unable to see you at this time.” “Tell her—”
Rocío stepped on Hala’s foot and spoke over her. “We would like to leave her a note.”
“Of course.” The majordomo extracted the necessary tools from the table in the foyer and continued to block further entry to the house, so Rocío penned her note in situ, summing up the situation, and folded it.
“We’ll wait, just in case,” Rocío said. The majordomo withdrew up the stairs and left them dripping on the black-and-white mosaic inlay.
“I don’t see how that was more eﬀective than what I was going to say,” Hala said. She flicked a nail against the cobalt vase on the silver-mounted demilune table, and it pinged.
“Don’t do that,” Rocío said. “It’s worth your yearly salary.”
Hala hesitated with her hand still raised and gave Rocío an incredulous look.
“Seriously. It depends on what your goal is,” Rocío said. “Mine is primarily to not oﬀend the ministrx so much she decides to get us fired and only secondarily to let her know she might have a problem.” Hala snorted. The majordomo’s return precluded any further
response, for which Rocío was grateful.
“The ministrx is not available.”
“Thank you.” Rocío nodded to her and pulled Hala out the door by her arm. At least it had stopped raining. Hala didn’t speak as they crunched down the drive to the street.
“What do you think?” Hala asked, turning the right way for the tube oﬃce.
“You know as well as I do that interpreting body language depends on each individual’s patterns, and changes to the pattern—”
“If you’d let me finish, I was going to say that the majordomo seemed more surprised on her return than she was to see us knocking on the door, so you could extrapolate that she read the note or passed it on to the ministrx, with the same result in either case.”
“Will the ministrx call us back?”
Rocío’s parents had spent decades aspiring to leave the ranks of the well heeled and well bred to join the highest ranks of the political elite of La Bene, and had … bestowed … upon Rocío all the education and exposure money could buy in an eﬀort to achieve that goal. At seventeen, Rocío had run away to join the theater. At thirty-four, she had joined the CJC. In neither career had she been able to prove her parents entirely wrong; knowledge of the elite was useful.
“I think she will. Eventually.”
About the Author:
R. Morgan is a New Yorker living in Bangkok, Thailand. She works as a technical editor and was a Spanish to English translator for ten years. She has worked in Bogotá, Mexico City, Lima, Montevideo, Moscow and Surabaya.
She has protected sea turtles in Costa Rica, walked 11 dogs at once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and worked in district courts with victims of domestic violence.
She’s a graduate of the Viable Paradise XVI writers’ workshop and attended Rebecca Stead’s 92nd Street Y workshop.
Her favorite things are long rambling walks, preferably under trees, but a city will do, the smell of rain and a good book.
She also writes YA fantasy under the name Raf Morgan.