The Fate of Billy Reins
“You asked to see me sir,” Guild Librarian Minh Thi Kim stood a respectful distance from the front of the imposing, horseshoe shaped desk of her superior.
She was used to being called by the higher ranks for special research projects, running down and sifting through old files. Sitting on the edge of the desk was a mountain of paperwork the woman eyed like a butcher deciding how best to attack a side of beef. She was a slight woman with a healthy, if pale complexion from spending so much of her time in the various vaults and libraries of the Guild. She stood in a relaxed, but attentive pose as she waited quietly. She pushed her wire frame glasses up the bridge of her nose with a manicured hand with unpainted nails, and her hair was tied back in a severe bun, she did not smile or attempt to curry favor from her superior. She was the very picture of a no-nonsense Guild functionary.
The wiry, dark skinned man behind the desk looked up from the file he was working on and gave the researcher an acknowledgement of her presence. He ignored her for exactly fifty-five seconds, leaving the researcher to patiently stand while he wrote notes in a neat, if cramped cursive in the page’s margin.
“There’s a man I want found, or at the very least confirmed dead.”
He was silent for another forty seconds as he went about his work, leaving the researcher to ponder the snippet of her task. Usually, she would simply point the gumshoes in the proper direction after assembling a case file full of useful information and cross references, but something about the way he said it belied that assumption. He neatly placed a ribbon in the ledger he had been sifting through and firmly pressed the ink blotter against the page before he closed the cover with the satisfying ‘thump.’
Sitting straighter in his high-backed chair he steepled his fingers as he finally gave the researcher his undivided attention. He nodded to the stacks of reports, ledgers, letters and accounts at the edge of his desk and watched her with piercing eyes.
She picked up a heavy, leather bound affair and flipped to the first marked page and read in a precise, clipped voice. “William ‘Billy’ Reins, Guild ‘Specialist.’ Forced indentured service March 1897, escaped later that month. Deputized 1899 by Governor General Kitchner on the recommendation of Madam Criid. Eighteen arrests, thirty-two confirmed kills, six commendations. Disappeared and presumed dead July 1902.” She pursed her lips in thought, peeling back a page and finding a glossy photograph of the specialist and his team posing in front of a covered body three times too large to be human, like a group of successful big game hunters returned from safari.
“He’s been missing for over five years. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to find him one way or the other after all so long,” she said as cautiously as she could, knowing that the most recent occupant of the office was a relatively new transplant to the city. “Bodies don’t always stay still in Malifaux, sir.”
‘Even assuming one is left,’ she added internally. After working so long in the previous administration, run by the masked secretary and his legion of bureaucrats, and listening to rumors of what happened to those who gave bad news had made cattle from much of the enclave’s rank and file. It was not in Minh’s nature to be cowed however, and while she wasn’t foolhardy, she was not going to sugar coat things to powerful people, even those who could make her life very difficult.
“True,” her new boss said as he put his elbows on the table, his fingers folding over his knuckles, the intertwined hands hiding a thin smile, no doubt aware of how brave she had been to offer a candid opinion, and certainly expecting it. It occurred to Minh that her willingness to tell the truth may be what landed her in the office in the first place.
“But according to at least one reliable source, Specialist Reins is alive. He’s worked with most of the Guild leadership from around that time. So run down their stories, find out what they know, and do what you do best, correlate the information and find the truth. You have authority to create a staff if you wish. Rein’s had a whole group of them, if you find any of them and think they can help you in your mission, feel free to add them to your own. Visit any Guild stronghold, from the Death Marshals to Latiago, and if you find your investigation would take you beyond the safety of the walls,” Minh felt a thrill of dread at the words, she was expected to conduct the entirety of the investigation and locating of a man powerful people almost certainly wanted to remain buried wherever he was.
His eyes twinkled, giving the impression that he knew exactly what she was thinking. “Then take someone you trust. Find Reins, convince him to come back to the enclave for an interview about reviving his section. Kitchner made a lot of mistakes, but he generally had an eye for people,” he paused before adding, “at least before he went off the deep end.”
He watched her for a long moment before he unfolded his cradled fingers and returned to his book, “it’s a time of change librarian Mihn, not all of it is good, and I want dependable people to advance the Guild’s presence inside the city and out.”
Mihn looked again at the lop-sided grin of the man in the picture and offered a small moue of dissatisfaction, that she never voiced.
If Billy Reins was what the Governor General’s office thought looked reliable….
-Five years ago-
William ‘Billy’ Reins winced as he lifted the sheet from the corpse, looking at the mess of lacerations, broken bones, stray hairs, and sticky red bits beneath before gingerly lowering the canvas back over the body. “Well,” he said to one the guards taking note nearby. “I don’t reckon this one will be shuffling about anytime soon, I doubt there’s enough for McMourning to identify, never y’all mind a rezzer to reanimate.” He reached into his duster and produced a stubby cigar from the breast pocket, the edges already burned from a previous smoking, and lit it back to life after flicking a match with his thumb. Billy had learned when he was running from the Guild not to waste good tobacco, despite that he now ran ‘for’ it and could afford plenty.
The guard straightened his back and Billy smiled wryly as he tried to figure out what got the guard’s goat more, the cigar or the slang.
“I’m sure if this were a ‘resurrectionist’ killing there’d be evidence that would warrant the Death Marshals being mobilized rather than ‘your’ section,” the guard sneered as he said ‘your’ and then seemed to struggle to add the obligatory, “sir.”
Slang it was. Slang and everything else.
For many guild guards, Billy was something of a sore spot. He was a high-ranking investigator and troubleshooter, fully empowered, deputized and notarized by Kitchner’s office. Every ‘i’ was dotted and every ‘t’ crossed, but being a formally convicted criminal, his governor signed pardon did little to clear his reputation with the rank and file. While few believed the initial charge of robbing a stage coach Earth side, he had still escaped confinement along with a multitude of other cutthroats and thieves, and subsequently broken enough laws to make a Guild lawyer run out of breath, all the while dodging Madam Criid and her Witch Hunters for almost a year before he’d been brought into the fold at gunpoint and sarcasm instead of put in the ground.
No one doubted he was resourceful, or that he got results where others ran into dead ends, but at the end of the day, even if he wore the badge and sported the hat, he was never really a member of the club. Outside his own offices and staff, he rarely got a warm welcome from his coworkers.
Billy stood, rolling the cigar with his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other. “I’m not so sure yet constable, this poor sod looks like they’ve been killed a couple of times over, besides best never to rule anything out until you can rule it out, y’all see what I mean?” He grinned and gestured at the mound with the stubby cigar. “Get our unfortunate friend here down to the doc and we’ll see if we can’t find out what ultimately did them in. I want to know how much was for the killing, and how much, if any was to throw us off the scent. Do we have an identification yet?”
The guard sergeant failed to fully suppress his naked scorn as he watched Billy stand and point at the bloody sheet, ashes from the cigar littering the sheet even more. The guard’s eyes lingered on his so-called superior’s custom pistol, one of a pair of hand cannons visible from his open coat, the guild’s badge prominently displayed on the holster as he bit back into the cigar, noticing the look but not feeling especially wary of the sergeant. What the sergeant couldn’t see was the second pair hidden by the coat’s long back. ‘Guns for days,’ as he once told Hopkins that first night around the fire after agreeing to join Criid’s band of misfits, only to be thrown out of the Witch Hunters to make his own unit while Sonnia smiled Cheshire like, as if it had been her plan all the long.
“No sir, there aren’t enough,” the guard chewed over the words, trying to choose them with care as his eyes darted down to the corpse as if afraid to offend it, “identifiable features for that.”
Billy nodded as he looked around the room with a critical eye as he reached up and plucked the cigar from his mouth and rolled it between his fingers, taking in the scene and the smell of the smoke. He turned his penetrating gaze to the gore splattered floor and then looked out to the street and after a moment’s more consideration, brought the fingers of his empty hand up to his mouth and issued a sharp pair of whistles.
The sudden noise made the guards around him jump with a jolt of surprise, and then share sheepish looks with one another before shooting glares at Billy for the scare. If the investigator’s glares had been bullets, the specialist would have riddled until he was barely as recognizable as the corpse at his feet. Billy ignored them as he heard a distinctive pair work their way through the cordoned off crime scene outside over to him.
The first to enter the abandoned office was a half mechanical guild hound, both its front legs replaced with hissing pneumatics that left distinct gouges in the floor, raising a half chorus of complaints from the investigators that died in their throats as the hound glowered at them through its one good eye, the other clouded over and scarred by the same landmine that had taken its paws, forcing the investigators present to merely look forlornly at their previously ‘tidy’ crime scene.
Following closely behind the hound was a short brunette, wearing a battered, floppy guild hat and a pair of goggles so thick her eyes appeared three times larger than usual. Billy had forced her to start wearing the goggles after she’d lost her glasses too many times to count during investigations and was left practically blind. The team still sniggered about how she’d thought a mindless zombie was her partner. She’d claimed she was just going off smell, which didn’t do a lot to endear her to Malcom, who’d never quite lived down falling into a stinking bog chasing after a gremlin that’d stolen his favorite hat. She was already used to the cranial accessory, various lenses popping up and down over the thick cut glass from a control switch on her belt buckle, allowing her to see the crime scene’s details in ways unassisted eyes couldn’t even imagine. Billy had tried them on when she first got them, and took them off after only a few seconds, feeling a hangover like migraine teasing at his temples. Still, she claimed she did know what she did before she got them and walked confidently behind the dog as it snuffled its way up to Billy, the disfigured critter wagging its stubby tail excitedly as it reached him.
“What’s the plot boss,” the brunette asked as she pulled an apple from her jacket and took a loud bite from the crisp fruit.
Had the other guards not been around, their collective gasp and sputtering creating a staccato refrain around him, Billy would have told her not to eat in the crime scene, but really the effect would have been lost. Gloria Quinn was a brilliant investigator in her own right, but eccentric even by Billy’s warped standards. He’d found her literally buried under a pile of books in an archives section she had no access to, and discovered her talent for deduction and detail, immediately adding her to his growing collection of Guild misfits before the librarians could skin her for sneaking into the restricted archives.
Instead he pointed at the body and told her he wanted to know who the victim was, and who done it, and let her wander off through the carnage to find whatever clues she could, watching as she pulled out a small leather-bound notebook and tap a pen against her lips in a way the nearest Guild-ies found distracting before she began to mutter to herself in a way that reminded them of padded walls and screen windows. If one listened hard enough, they could swear they heard her interrogating the scene itself. Every few moments she would pause in her mad muttering and cock her head to the side, then scribble something in the notebook, before wandering off in a haphazard direction to continue her work.
Looking down at his panting companion Billy gave the hound a stern look and pointed to dog’s nose severely. “Alright Piston,” he said in a with half a grin, “time to get to work.” The dog tilted its head much in the same vein as Gloria before the specialist snapped his fingers at the hound.
The change in the dog’s behavior was immediate. It stiffened and sat at attention in a way that would have had any guild sergeant worth their salt green with envy. “Let’s find out who was scheming in here,” he said as he snapped his fingers twice above the corpse, giving the hound its target. Piston sniffed at sheet and the body underneath, the sounds of the canine’s natural claws a quiet whisper in comparison to the hiss-snap-clack that issued from each movement of her front paws.
Billy watched as the dog made its way through the room, jostling an oblivious Gloria, then practically trampling over a protesting guild investigator who yelped in an unseemly way as they dodged the dog’s mechanical bits as it clambered up a knocked over cabinet and leapt through a half opened window, breaking the glass and eliciting a multitude of alarmed shouting and one squeal from the people outside.
“Good girl,” Billy said as he ran out the nearest door to follow the hound, leaving the crime scene in relative quiet, the investigators looking at one another and sharing a scowl among themselves at the chain of disturbances, and then turning more suspicious and worried grins at the still muttering Gloria.
Outside there was a small crowd being held back by a line of guards and a frayed rope. Billy ducked under the rope and shouldered his way through the throng towards the shouting towards the back as they obviously got in Piston’s way. Piston never minded folks getting in her way, she always just went about her business of hunting and tracking evidence.
It did not take Billy long to catch up with the dog and find her digging at a refuse pile.
“Investigator Reins!” A familiar voice shouted from behind him, and Billy felt his heart drop as the voice of an impetuous young reporter who he’d been learning to dread like the other ranking guild officers as of late. Her penchant for going on flights of fancy and derailing her own narratives was something the Guild was not too concerned with yet, as they drew attention away from the real aspects of the case, but more than once she’d still gotten uncomfortably close to the truth, too close for her own health, or the health of those she was investigating.
The daughter of a well-connected European Egyptologist and his Egyptian wife, the reporter was young and hot headed, but she had good instincts, and when she learned to temper her imagination with logical detachment, she’d probably be worth a damn. There was even gossip that some of the higher ups wanted to grant a position to the young woman in a Guild newssheet to improve public appearances, something the Kitchner administration cared relatively little about at the present, so debate was supposedly fierce. Reporters in the Guild? Preposterous! One side argued. It’ll allow us to control the narrative, the other side countered, and on and on it went.
Billy could hardly care less for appearances and the narrative the Guild higher-ups spun. The only appearances giving him any issue currently was the appearance of an annoying journalist. It was probably her squeal that he’d heard from inside when Piston had leapt from the window.
‘Stranger things had happened. We have a blind woman heading the Death Marshals, swinging a great sword around as easily as a butter knife, a whole family of gunslingers building a fortress city to fight a legion of monsters, and even a former convict gunslinger investigating weird murders,’ thought Billy as he tried to imagine the puppy like Phara Heit handling a pistol wearing the duster and hat… and failed.
“No comment,” he simply grunted as he moved over towards the dog to see what she was pawing at, making a real mess of the alley’s cobblestones.
“I haven’t even asked my question yet,” she whined as she grabbed onto his arm and dug in her heels like Piston with suspect’s leg as he tried to walk by.
“I know,” he said as he attempted to shake her off his arm, feeling ridiculous as members of the crowd turned to look as she was dragged along with him as he moved towards pile of potential evidence. “I’m busy trying to solve a murder,” he said through gritted teeth and immediately regretted it.
“I knew it was murder! Who was the suspect, how long does the Guild think it’ll take before a suspect is named? When will they be apprehended? How many victims have there been so far? Oh! Is the death related to Seamus, we’re only a few blocks from Red Chapel, is it Madam Sybelle’s all over again,” she pulled equally hard on his arm, her heels leaving distinct parallel lines in the muck on cobblestones.
“T-the people deserve,” she heaved, stray strands of her hair falling into her face as she huffed, “to know!”
Sighing, Billy stopped struggling and the girl almost fell over, grabbing his arm for support instead of to stop him from walking away. He let the girl pant and catch her breath. “Look, so far its just one murdered sap, no known connection to any slashers. We don’t have suspects yet. We don’t even have an identification yet. And no signs of Seamus, but for the love of all that’s sacred don’t print that, it just makes him jealous and the last thing I need is for the bloody Mad Hatter to think someone is trying to show him up two blocks from his stomping ground and go on a killing spree through the streets to soothe his ego. Now, NO. FURTHER. COMMENT.” He punctuated each word very carefully, pointing at her and making her stagger backwards to avoid being poked in the face.
"I have work to do and if you interfere, I’ll ask the nice Guards over there to lock you up and between you and me, they look like the sort that will forget to the file the paperwork for a few days.” He said as he turned, when she reached out for him again, he shot her a serious glare, which seemed to give her just enough pause for him to continue his work.
“Tha-that’s outright corrupt!” She gasped, looking shocked and more than a little hurt.
“Just my opinion, I didn’t say they would forget about locking you up, just that I think they look the sort,” he countered, grinning over his shoulder as he moved over to the pile and the self-satisfied looking hound.
She waffled between indignation and anger before she stepped back with a petulant pout, still watching him and scribbling on a pad she pulled from god knew where. “Oh! I bet you’ll find the victim’s wallet in that mess, I’m sure it’ll lead you straight to them,” she excitedly said, before muttering about keen eyed detectives and sound deductions, which reminded Billy of his associate in the warehouse before he pushed thoughts of insane women from his mind. He crouched down and fished a man’s wallet from the refuse, noting the splatter of blood on the leather.
It could have been from any pick pocket or robbery. Except the wallet still had several large Guild Script notes within. The identification was there, and the general description matched the corpse.
“Good girl,” he said to Piston, who looked quietly smug with herself until the reporter spoke up.
“You’re welcome! Now one more question….”
Minh Thi Kim paused in her reading, and stretched, looking at the mess arrayed on her desk. The files had their own organization, if one knew how to look.
Looking through the case files, she found several accompanying news script clippings involving the same reporter for a now defunct newspaper, Phara Heit. The paper had folded under Guild pressure years ago, but much of its staff had continued their investigations into Guild corruption, and found themselves harassed by Kitchner and Matheson’s goon squads, more than a few ending their careers in shallow graves, vaguely filed reports of violence against Guild Guard who fired in ‘self-defense’, or washed up in the river from what were deemed ‘suicides’ despite strong physical evidence of foul play.
Phara appeared to be one of the lucky ones. Between her own good instincts and her father’s Guild connections, she’d landed on her feet and found a new employer. She worked not for the Guild, but as an investigative editor for the Herald. According to the records, she was still there, and had a file as thick as her thumb for potential criminal connections the Guard had tried to use as an excuse to arrest her and failed. They’d tried break-ins to plant evidence, following her around and using false witnesses, and even one alleged attempt at pushing her in front of an oncoming carriage, but each time it ended in embarrassment for the Guild, and eventually the attempts stopped as Phara found herself at a desk job instead of poking her nose where it didn’t belong. Minh believed the owners of the Herald promoted her to keep her out of harm’s way and protect the paper from vindictive Guildsmen, perhaps with more influence from her affluent family.
Looking through the dismally depressing file, Minh was not sure Heit would even want to look at a Guild professional, never mind talk with one.
But looking at the old newspaper articles and studying the tones of her coverage of Reins and his team, there was perhaps a touch of hero worship or at the very least respect for the Guild’s black sheep.
Minh stood and grabbed her jacket and left for the Herald, thinking that the editor might just be wiling to discuss Billy Reins.