It has been a year since the City was decimated, and so much progress has been made in rebuilding the old town that many of us are beginning to forget what happened that day. The day the Blank went mad.
Thanks to Mayor Cassandra Devereux, I have a home in one of the new high-rises erected from the ashes of downtown. From my balcony, I can see the heart of the crater where the Blank Anna Greene lost control and destroyed our hometown in mere seconds. Hundreds of thousands of innocents died, all because of one psychopath’s loss of sanity – at least, as far as we know.
In fact, not much is known about Anna, the Blank who destroyed the City. The first time she appeared in the media was on April 5th, a year before the destruction, as the survivor of a hate-crime carried out by the nascent west-end Grim gang. She was interviewed again during the Backalley Basher’s three-month murder spree of from August through October. And then, of course, the tape was issued that has now become infamous, her final words before she wiped the City off the face of the earth on May 17th.
Over the next two months, I will be investigating the origins and motivations of one of the great monsters of history. I do not seek to justify the worst terrorist act ever committed, but I do want to understand it. Perhaps if we understand it, we can stop it from ever happening again. Stay tuned to this blog to find out more as my investigation continues. Farewell for now, faithful readers.
Aleixo Quintana sat back from his computer, taking a sip of his Malbec and yawning. Red, fading sunlight fell across the desk through the balcony doors. The sunset was huge and sprawling over the western spread of the City, still all in ruins, sand dunes drifting down rows of jagged concrete foundations like cracked ribs in an ancient skeleton, and yet, only a year before, those same rows had been swelling with leafy green canopies, lit by long lines of amber street lights. Mayor Devereux was using her talents on the north these days, erecting tall towers of condos over rambling boulevards and waiting, empty store fronts. There were less than a hundred thousand survivors of the City, and most were already rehoused in the new downtown core, but Devereux insisted that more would come once her vision of the new City was complete.
Aleixo hoped that she would raise suburbs. He had always dreamed of having a big green lawn and a big dog to run around on it. He and Janet had been getting close to saving up for a family home on the City outskirts before it all went up in flames. He drank deeply, emptying the glass, then the bottle. A bottle of white was chilling in the fridge, but he needed to save it as it had to last until his next pay day.
He walked over to his wall, laid out where the couch used to be opposite of the desk. He had sold the couch a few months after moving into the apartment, not spending much time watching TV or entertaining. The red sunset painted half the wall in bloody light below a diffuse diagonal, the upper part brightened by the LEDs overhead. Photographs, newspaper clippings, print-offs of emails and websites were tacked up across the white expanse, littered by yellow post-its with scribbled notes and questions and draped in twine showing the traces of connection and meaning. In the center were two large photographs of the same woman but vastly different. On the left, a picture of a startled, pale young woman, clearly in shock and sleep deprived, holding a placard listing her name and the date – “ANNA GREENE APRIL 6 2016”. On the right, a surveillance snapshot with a time code for May 17th, 2017 showing her with deep shadows under her eyes, lips curled up in disgust, wild hair half-obscuring her features.
He had seen her once, of course. He had been working on gaining information about the rise in crime in the City’s west end when he had picked up a police call on his “borrowed” scanner. Multiple dead, shots fired, magic discharged. He had rushed over, pushing through the locals brave enough to come look, and had seen a bloodbath. The police had been scouring the area, but they didn’t have the detectives there yet, so it was preliminary work only. Aleixo had squinted, pushing his vision through the mass of the cars, the bricks of the church, the concrete and wood of the neighboring buildings. He had seen her, huddled in a dumpster, rocking back and forth. He called over a cop and told them where to look. He had found Anna that night, and had seen her terror, her frailty. Just another broken, weak Blank like so many others in this part of town, traumatized after seeing her friends murdered. Just a small, normal woman.
There really was almost nothing that he had been able to find out from the basic research he had done so far. She had been 27, daughter of a normal, talented family, living alone in the west end. She had worked as a dishwasher at a chain restaurant a short drive from her apartment, and volunteered in a soup kitchen much closer to home. Good marks in school, no criminal record. A good woman, despite being a Blank. She had even attended that MID support group once a month at her local church for three years.
“How did you hide it so well?” he purred. Aleixo knew then that he was drunk – he only talked to himself when he was drunk.
Magic was born out of the soul, not out of the mind. People didn’t just decide to fly and fly. A talent was an expression of your deepest truth, good or bad or indifferent. Anyone who could destroy an entire city had to be pure evil, and would have always been. Nothing in her past made her seem the least bit naughty, let alone near-demonic.
He walked up to the wall until his nose was almost touching hers as she snarled at unseen people nearby. He stared into the pixelated, black eyes. “I will know you. You can’t hide from me. Bitch.”
“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Mayor Devereux.”
Mayor Cassandra Devereux, a tall blonde in a draping cream skirt and matching wrap top, turned from her view of the city to flash Joanne a big, perfect smile. “Not a problem, Miss Weng.”
The Mayor’s office sat atop the tallest spire of the downtown core, and all the walls of her office were made from floor to ceiling one-way glass, each pane filigreed with titanium struts and braces that looked like faint spider webs. From Joanne’s seat in a plush, quilted armchair she could see the core all around them, a cluster of tall silvery-blue towers swelling and tapering like seedpods, joined by breezeways and covered walkways stretched organically in between. Joanne had seen it from the City limits once, and it looked like a sculpture of a dewy spring garden about to bloom. Cassandra had raised it all from the ashes, using her talent for architecture to weave new buildings out of rubble. This room was one of many features in the new downtown that were being hailed as a revolution in structural design. Sitting in her chair, it was hard for Joanne not to fear the ceiling falling down and crushing them both. But if one thing had become clear in the last year, it was that Cassandra Devereux was a true genius, a rare example of someone who had turned their talent into something profoundly useful.
Joanne turned on her phone’s voice recorder and set it on the small table in front of her. “My editor was hoping to do a feature on you for our website, something a bit more in depth than the more cursory, fluff pieces we’ve seen over the last year. If it was alright with you, Mayor, I thought today we could start with some basic background on you.”
“Please, call me Cassandra. George was pretty clear in his hope that you could tail me around the city for a few weeks. If we are to spend so much time together, then let us be on a first name basis.”
It was hard not to feel a swell of warmth knowing that this woman was taking her in, but Joanne did her best to cling to objectivity. “Certainly. Perhaps we could start with your childhood.”
The Mayor crossed from the broad wall of glass over to the high-backed leather chair across the table in only a few lazy strides, slender black pumps padding on dense, foamy carpet. She sat, crossed her legs, and sighed. “It is rather well known. When you grow up the child of a millionaire, very little of your life is lived in the shadows. I would prefer not to rehash all the old times any more than absolutely necessary.”
“In that case,” Joanne said, “would you mind just telling me in your own words how you developed your own talent?”
Cassandra smiled fondly. “Italy.”
“Yes. Father loved to vacation in Florence. I loved it there. The city is full of wonderful architecture spanning more than two millennia of development and innovation. Fountains, statues, palazzos, churches, villas… Those summers were an education without peer. As I got older, however, I became more aware of the social strata of the city. Such poverty existed around these magnificent structures, people living on the streets, in old sewers and tunnels and abandoned structures. I felt profound pity for these dregs of humanity. Just because they were born without the ability to find talents of their own, they were destined for lives of desolation, intoxication, and emptiness, horrible emptiness. It became this terrible schism in my mind, utterly irreconcilable. I loved the grand structures of the wealthy, but I pitied the homeless poor. While I was in university studying modern architecture my talent made its first appearance. I finished my degree and immediately founded the House of Dreams.”
“An interesting question that has been floating around is whether or not your non-profit will survive now that your time and energy are dedicated to rebuilding the City. Care to comment?”
“The House of Dreams is still a very important part of who I am and what I am trying to accomplish. I have promoted a leader from within the ranks to take over while I focus on leading us back from the brink. The House of Dreams will continue without me, and when I have completed my work as Mayor, I will return to it.”
Joanne smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. I always loved the work the House of Dreams did in the City. I’ve made a donation every year at Christmas since I was fourteen.”
Cassandra clapped her lands just once, beaming. “Thank you, my dear! Every little bit helps us move toward eradicating homelessness.”
While she was happy… “Now, I know it is a difficult topic for you to address, but I would like to get it out of the way as soon as possible. After the destruction of the City, you made a statement. You implied that you had known Anna, the Blank. In the last year many people have speculated on the nature of your connection to her and what happened. Would you like to put the whole issue to rest?”
The Mayor’s beautiful, beaming face clouded and grew solemn, then sad. Joanne made a quick mental note that the expression on Cassandra’s face was one of personal loss and betrayal – she genuinely felt remorse and regret in some measure over the Blank. It was a confusing realization, but Joanne carefully controlled her expression to remain open and nonjudgmental. Cassandra sighed, and cleared her throat. “Anna… yes, I knew her. I… may have helped to make her what she became.”
Joanne couldn’t mask her surprise. “I’m sorry…?”
Cassandra met her gaze, and her eyes were wet with barely held tears. “There’s no point in trying to conceal this any longer. I think I have earned everyone’s trust enough to tell the story. And you, with your talent, are the perfect person to finally tell it.”
“Thank you for your trust.”
The Mayor held her forehead for a moment. “I am getting rather tired, and this is not something I find it easy to discuss. I would prefer not to address the whole tale today, if you don’t mind.”
“We will proceed at whatever pace you prefer.”
“Thank you, Joanne.” Cassandra leaned forward slightly. “I will say this much this evening. Have you heard of the ancient legends about Blanks who rise?”
Joanne furrowed her brow, thinking. “I am aware of certain myths about people without talent who were able to gain them when in times of danger.”
“Yes. Many myths from the old religions say that Blanks can be inspired to find their magic when in a desperate situation. King Arthur, for example, or David.” Her voice became quiet. “Fewer people are aware that during the Great War, both sides experimented with creating what were referred to as Tools of War.”
“I’ve heard that conspiracy theory.”
Cassandra shook her head. “Not a theory. My own grandfather worked for the military program that carried out the work. He told me terrible stories about it when I was young, about how they forced those poor men and women to become... He felt incredible remorse about the whole affair, and died without any hope of salvation.
“There have been theories since then that perhaps some kind of therapeutic program could be used to help Blanks develop useful, menial talents. Perhaps not true talents, as we have, but things that could help them build better lives. I have come to believe that perhaps I could do this very thing by helping a Blank to see all the good that could be done in the world, by fostering their self-confidence and setting them on the right path. To that end I… employed Miss Greene shortly after the unfortunate event on April 5th.”
Joanne took a long moment to gather her thoughts before speaking. “You had Anna Greene on your payroll? Was she aware of your intentions?”
“Of course,” Cassandra said. “I do not think such a thing could be done without the participant’s full knowledge. Anna was fully aware of what I hoped to accomplish, and, at the beginning at least, she seemed as excited as I was at the prospect.”
Joanne took a moment, focused in on Cassandra’s face, on every twitch of a muscle and every inflection of her voice. She replayed the conversation in her mind, testing each sound, each moment against her infallible inner compass. Every word the Mayor had said so far was completely true. It would be a massive story.
“My dear, I assume that right now you are considering the implications of what I have told you,” Cassandra said. “I would ask that you refrain from publishing any of this until after I have finished telling you the full story. It is a painful tale, one that has caused me great distress in the last year keeping so close to my chest. I am grateful for this opportunity to finally be rid of it, but I feel that it cannot be retold until you have all the facts. Can I ask for your professional consideration on this point?”
Joanne Weng, the first reporter to reveal the connection between Cassandra Devereux the savior and Anna Greene, destroyer. It would be huge. But to maintain the Mayor’s trust at this early time was crucial, so against every instinct she nodded. Cassandra beamed once more, a more restrained but heartfelt smile. “Thank you, Joanne.”
There was a knock at the door. Cassandra called out for them to enter. A woman in her thirties climbed the curving staircase that rose out of the floor along the wall, wearing a well-tailored, deep emerald pantsuit. Joanne had met her only an hour ago – Mary Gorski, the Mayor’s assistant. She had seen her face before in press release pictures from House of Dreams; she had probably worked for Devereux for a long time. “Miss Mayor, the Commissioner is here.”
“Wonderful! Please ask him to wait in my private offices.”
Mary nodded, almost a slight bow, and walked gracefully back down the stairs and out of sight. Cassandra winked at Joanne. “I can’t tell you how nice it is to mix business with pleasure.”
“You’re referring to your engagement?”
“Yes. Dan and I have been in love since we were kids. Neither of us would have ever guessed we would end up here.” She laughed, and it was a musical, confident sound. “Scandalous, I know, but what can I say? He’s my soulmate.”
Joanne smiled and shrugged. “Life is complicated.”
“Truer words have never been spoken. Now, we will have to say goodbye. I have to get ready – there’s a gala tonight to raise money for a new library collection.”
“Of course,” Joanne said, standing. Cassandra rose, and she stood at least a head taller than her. Joanne picked up her phone, turning off the recording. The Mayor extended her hand, and Joanne shook it. “It has been a pleasure speaking with you, Cassandra.”
“Lovely to meet you, Joanne. You can make arrangements with Mary for when we meet next. And give my best to George. Tell him to stop working so hard.”
They both laughed, and Joanne agreed to carry the news back. Cassandra put an arm around her and led her to the stairwell, then pulled her in for a warm hug. Joanne was surprised, but couldn’t resist hugging her back. They wished each other a good night, and Joanne walked down the stairs. The story of a lifetime, the perfect assignment, and a pleasant interviewee. This was going to be a wonderful few weeks.