After The Storm
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After The Storm

MURDER MYSTERY

Chapter Four: Mateo Listens To A Stranger

“ Your patience is thin, so I will be as direct as possible.”

By Alex Mell-Taylor

Mateo whittled a stick with a hunter’s knife he always carried with him — an old metal blade made of an inefficient alloy that was static in form. He could not dematerialize it, pushing its back into his suit for safekeeping, but instead had to carry it on his side in a repurposed leather pouch.

Mateo liked to carve figurines from the dead wood he scavenged off the forest floor, peeling the wood off, chip by chip, until he revealed a shape underneath. He liked to make natural figures: a bird gripping a fish with its talons, a leaf, a cat sleeping on the ground. These projects could take hours to make, and yet there was something oddly comforting in the repetitive motion of it.

His brother could free form, letting the wood “speak to him” to create some chaotic new shape, but Mateo could not do this. There were too many variables to look out for; too many ways he could mess up. He needed a plan, or he found his anxiety spiking, defeating the whole purpose of whittling, which for him was to always unwind after a particularly stressful day.

Today, he had been the bearer of bad news. He had come back to his herd to tell them that the handoff was not happening and, left unsaid, that maybe their placement would be affected as a result. Their numbers had slipped this last cycle. What if the Confederacy dinged them? What if this caused El Paso to stop being Forest Sprouters? What if they became Maintainers, or even Reclaimers, as a result? He knew it was not his fault for this, but he still felt responsible. It was his job to begin the handoff — his responsibility.

Mateo had retreated to his brother Dario’s tent to avoid the dirty looks he felt were inevitable. It was not much bigger than that of the typical El Paso herds people, except for a small pole sticking out the roof that he used for advanced telecommunication. Dario kept the tent sparsely decorated, with a single painting of a Fallen Manhattan skyscraper he claimed was “intriguing.”

His brother had been furious to learn the news that the handoff had been delayed. “Damn witches,” he had cursed loudly and often, but he had been careful not to let that spill over to Mateo. “This wasn’t your fault,” he assured him.

“I know,” Mateo sighed. “It’s just. I’m the one who starts the handoff.”

“No, don’t do that,” Dario interrupted. “It’s not your fault someone got themselves murdered and messed up the schedule. And it’s not your fault that we are behind on our polluted quotas. That’s my job as a Chief Shepherd. You hear me?”

“Okay,” Mateo responded anxiously.

“Besides, I swear on my ballsack, I will not let it affect the herd anyway. So there is nothing to get sad about.”

Dario sounded confident, so Mateo decided not to press it. He nodded and went back to whittling, silently sitting there as Dario made a volley of calls to everyone in his contact list. His suit shimmered, and the pole in the center of his tent hummed loudly as the holographic display projected face after face. The energy requirements to ping people across the continent had gotten significantly less over the years, but for secure, encrypted conversations, certain expenditures could not be avoided — and from what Mateo could see, his brother was very into security.

“We got this,” Dario said, mostly to himself. He didn’t sound happy with any of the calls, often ending with something like “If that’s the way you feel about it, fine” or “No, you listen,” followed by a string of profanities. The calls did not get much better from there. The day was growing dark by the time he had given up, and, as far as Mateo could tell, he had appeared to have made little progress.

Mateo had finished whittling a small figurine of a woman in a ponytail. She was kneeling, lifting up a small child in the air. Their two heads pressed up against one another. He had copied the design from the Common Archives from a folk artist centuries now dead. It still needed to be polished and smoothed over, but he handed it to Dario all the same, almost as a peace offering. Dario held it delicately in his hands and proceeded to make a long groan.

“That bad, huh?”

“No, it’s lovely. If not a bit morbid given the whole situation. I think I’ve seen something like this before.”

“It’s a copy.”

“Ah,” he said with a hint of judgment. “No, it’s just that we are covered in filth.”

“Did the Confederacy tell you they would downgrade our role?”

“They’d hardly use that terminology: those oversensitive nags. No worse, no one is telling me anything at all, which is bad. Although I don’t yet know how bad it is.”

“I’m sorry,” Mateo whispered silently. “It’s my fault.”

“What did I already say? This has nothing to do with you. You always make it about you, Mateo,” Dario cut. He was exhausted and had little patience for him at this point of the night. There were bags under his eyes, and his long curly black hair was frizzled and unkempt. “Do you really?…” He paused, biting his lip, thinking better of whatever he was about to say. “Sorry. It’s been a stressful day. So you think you messed up this situation? Well, what would your counselor say?”

“She’d ask me to assess if there is any material basis to my negative thoughts.”

“And is there?”

Mateo’s head was spinning with thoughts and considerations. He kept thinking, what if he had never attempted the handoff at all? What if he had just stayed in the woods and waited for everything to cool over, not that he would have even been aware of the whole situation to do that? He breathed in, holding the air inside him and then exhaling slowly, centering himself on the here and now. The sound of his breathing. The hum of the pole. Dario’s coffee breath.

Mateo could feel his heart beating so quickly. His foot tapping anxiously, and then slower, and then not at all. His anxiety was suddenly very ridiculous: a thing he could almost hold and look at. His brother was right. There was no way this was about him at all. He was just afraid.

There was the sound as the flap of the tent parted. The presence of a new being. “Chief Shepherd Dario,” said a voice Mateo recognized as Shepherd Lex. Mateo was instantly brought back outside himself to the world at hand. The moment of clarity was gone. “Salem’s CRS, Calisto is here to see you,” continued Lex. “Can I let them in?”

“Are you good?” Dario asked Mateo.

Mateo nodded, and then Dario did the same toward Lex.

A person entered. They had brilliant black hair with beaded earrings that ran down the sides of their cheeks. Their complexion was a tad darker than Mateo’s. Their suit was more decorative than the uniformed colors that often accompanied Reclaimer and Forest Sprouter herds. Like the fashion sense of many collectives he had seen on the Archives, this one was more chaotic. It had intricate patterns dancing across the surface of their bronze, one-piece suit. The patterns didn’t form a concrete shape, instead being more like an abstract growth of gray and blue lines.

“I thank you very much for agreeing to see me,” Calisto said delicately.

“Of course, Calisto, was it? I think I’ve read your file, the public one, anyway. Tell me, what news does the CRS Delegation have for us?”

“Oh, I apologize. I am not here in an official capacity. At least, I would prefer not to be. Hello,” they said, turning to Mateo.

Mateo grunted hello, and then sat back, not bothering to introduce himself further. He whittled away at his newest creation: a tree. He was not sure if what the CRS had said was a threat or not.

“He’s just a little tired,” Dario explained, apologizing for his brother. Mateo hated when he did that. He could speak for himself.

“Sorry,” Mateo mumbled.

“You are all good.” Calisto beamed.

“Truthfully, it is I who must apologize,” continued Dario. “I’ve had a long day, and my patience has run too thin for subtleties. Would you enlighten me on what in the Fallen hell you want?”

“Very well. Your Delegate to the Chamber, Montoya Fuentes, has not responded to my messages.”

“And this is my responsibility because?”

“He was there on the night of the incident.”

“The murder, you mean.” Dario corrected.

“Yes, Salem was having a celebration. They were saying goodbye to their collective-bound, and reportedly, he was there on a goodwill tour between your two herds. Now, I can officially bring him in to be interviewed, but the situation is already tense, and I would prefer it be handled within your herd.”

Mateo observed Calisto wordlessly. Calisto’s eyes were moving up and down, assessing how Dario would react to this new information.

“Is that right?” Dario cut in. True to his word, he was unable to hide his annoyance with this line of questioning.

Calisto did not respond, still waiting.

“Wait, you think Montoya is responsible for this?” Mateo gasped. He would normally not interject, but he couldn’t help himself. “Montoya wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“I cannot say who is and who is not a suspect at this time,” Calisto stated firmly. “I would, however, like to interview him.”

“My brother’s right. Everyone loves him. Delegate Montoya’s never lost an election. Something I can hardly admit to. We aren’t going to betray him because you came in here all smiling. If he’s not talking to you, he must have a good reason.”

“Your herd is behind on its quotas, correct?” Calisto said calmly. There was a second pause, and Dario gave them an almost embarrassed look. “You are not the only one who reads files,” they continued. “A lot of herds want to be Forest Sprouters. Several Indigenous herds, in fact, desire it. And since your handoff has been delayed, some in the Confederacy now want to place you behind them in the rotation.”

“That’s Fallen-loving trash,” Dario shouted. He looked the angriest Mateo had seen him in a while, but he held his tongue before saying more.

“I’m sure the Tribal Council would be delighted to hear your thoughts on reparations, but I digress. Your patience is thin, so I will be as direct as possible. Retrieve Montoya Fuentes from Mahn-ah-wauk and bring him to me for an interview, and I will make sure that your slide in the rotation does not happen.”

“How long do I have to think about it?”

Calisto smiled. “A day. After that, I bring it to the CRS Delegation.”

Mateo took in what Calisto was saying. They did not appear to be lying, at least not when it came to going to the Delegation.

“You will have your answer in a day, then,” Dario responded curtly.

“I will be seeing you, Chief Shepherd.” They said confidently before leaving the tent.

When they were a reasonable distance away, Mateo resumed his conversation with his brother. Every part of him was panicking, but he decided to keep things light. His brother could hardly be expected to manage another panic attack right now: “So how confident are you of your ballsack now?” He joked.

Dario let out a small chuckle. “Better than I was 10 minutes ago.”

“So, who are you thinking of making go to the capital? I mean, you are going to do it, right?”

“Yes. That CRS knows we are backed into a corner. I was thinking of someone I could trust. A worrier who has years of investigative experience in the wilds.”

Mateo couldn’t believe his ears. “No. You just had to walk me through a nervous breakdown.”

“I did no such thing. I simply reminded you of the tools you have already developed.”

Mateo felt the world around him was breaking, like the crumbling edges of the shorelines the Fallen had destroyed with their oil and plastic. Everything was playing out, just like he had feared. El Paso was on the verge of losing the Forest Sprouters’ status they had clung to for over three generations, and there was one shot now to stop that from happening, and somehow, it had fallen onto him.

“I am not going to be able to talk my way out of this, am I?”

“No. Here,” Dario said, handing Mateo back the figurine of the woman and child. “You can give this back to me when it’s finished. When Delegate Fuentes is home.”

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