Toaru Majutsu no Index:AgneseSS Chapter4
Agnese Sanctis had a question.
She gently crossed her arms while leaning back against the wall of a hideout built inside a huge metal container.
“It’s strange,” she said while looking up at the ceiling.
She was thinking back on something she had noticed before. The other two nuns must have noticed something similar because Lucia’s eyebrows shot up and Angelene dropped the cheese and cod snack sticks she was stuffing her face with, earning her a fairly serious slap to the food-filled cheek from Lucia.
“Bfoh foh mgoh!?”
“What in the world are those snacks!? What? They’re made a cheese beloved by nobility!?”
Unfortunately, the question worrying them was not the mystery of those cheese snacks.
The nun who boosted her height with thick-soled sandals gave a snort before getting down to business.
“Spain, France, and Germany. We’ve dealt with a few different cases now, but I have my doubts each of them could have been pulled off by a single individual. Yes, we did find a personal reason and objective behind each one, but the overall scale felt unnaturally large.”
Angelene’s response ended up sounding like a password from the 8-bit era before you could save your game. She was apparently willing to hold a serious conversation with her mouth full as long as she could avoid Lucia’s punishments.
Agnese uncrossed her arms and placed her index finger on her chin.
“Hmm, it’s kind of like using a nuclear missile to attack a local convenience store. If you have that much power, it feels like you should be able to find a cleverer use for it.”
After all, what would have happened if they had not solved those cases?
In Barcelona, Spain, that clean freak of a priest would have completely lost control and members of the Anglican Church might have even executed innocent citizens when they were meant to preserve order on the magic side.
In Calais, France, they had only barely avoided a war between England and France.
In Frankfurt, Germany, the curse would never have been stopped and it would have required more sacrifices indefinitely.
It was all so ridiculously overblown, like people attempting to leave serious scars on society based on no more than a childish dream.
“Isn’t that just how magicians are?” asked Lucia while folding up an unneeded flyer to create a paper fan for punishing Angelene.
“When they encounter the cruel side of life, they try to overturn everything for their own personal reasons. When forced to choose between themselves and others, they do not hesitate to choose themselves and let the world burn around them. Isn’t that why the Apostle Peter refused to let magicians fly?”
It can be deduced from the way she phrased that, but it would be best to state it outright.
Technically speaking, Agnese, Lucia, and Angelene were not magicians.
Using mystical powers did not make one a magician.
For example, Agnese did not have a magic name and she did not belong to a magic cabal. They were no more than nuns who followed the religion of Christianity and they viewed magic as tricks and vulnerabilities that took advantage of Christianity’s teachings.
In other words, they did not fully understand what a real magician truly was.
So if they were told that was simply how magicians were, they could only accept it.
On the other hand, something else felt off to them since they could wield “a small subset of miracles” as nuns.
“I think each of these cases was the work of a single individual,” bluntly stated Agnese.
“But someone else gave them the opportunity to do it. Just like someone dropping a gun in front of a person who wants to rob a bank or sending a pile of cash to a person who wants to take revenge. Could that be why the scale of each case seems too large for a single person’s crimes? And those people may have been entirely unaware how dangerous the thing they had ‘found’ was.”
Someone who granted wishes or who lent miracles to the weak might sound divine, but Agnese was not about to praise this Person X.
There was a Person X out there.
Her intuition told her that was almost certain.
And if Person X had given those three people what they needed, it painted a horrific picture. One of downright malice. For example, if you sent a pile of cash to someone who wanted to rob a bank, there would be no crime in the first place. It might look like Person X was being sympathetic and cooperating in a friendly way, but all they had done was find some small embers burning within someone and dump oil on them to trigger the worst kind of explosion.
That made them far worse than the actual criminals.
If Person X was allowed to go free, more large-scale cases were bound to occur.
“And you want to change your vague suspicions into solid evidence?” asked Lucia while swinging her oversized paper fan through the air to check on its center of gravity.
“B-but none of the people we caught said anything about someone else helping them.”
Angelene was right.
The Anglican Church was a world expert in anti-magic combat and witch hunting. Their interrogation and torture techniques had been polished over the course of a very long history. It seemed unlikely an individual could grit their teeth and keep a secret like that.
And yet no information had turned up.
That could only mean one thing.
“They were guided toward their crimes, but I have my doubts that they ever actually met or knew of Person X. Could they have been following the trail laid out for them without even noticing?”
But then who exactly had done it?
That brought them back to the original question, meaning that line of reasoning was a dead end.
Agnese sounded disgusted with it all.
“If sitting around thinking won’t give us an answer, then we just need more information to work with. But there’s no rule saying we have to gather up all the clues ourselves. We don’t have to give up just because we’ve reached a dead end. I’m willing to use anything available to us. Even if that means buying the information we lack.”
“Peh heh heh. You mean visiting an information broker?”
Angelene mocked the very idea, so Lucia slapped her on the face with a horizontal swing of her fan.
It was punishment time.
“Bwah!? B-but are information brokers even a thing? Aren’t they even rarer than a professional hitman???”
“It depends on what kind you’re talking about,” said Agnese.
For example, newspaper reporters and freelance tabloid writers would be the most above-board version of a job where you earned money by gathering information. There was also a form of journalism that used the threat of publishing scandalous information to blackmail the people involved, but that was a separate issue.
Also, no country or sufficiently-large organization would not have its own intelligence agency or department. Not to mention how search engines, online stores, social media, video sites, and most any IT company were doing everything they could to gather personal information from their users. Any of the corporate executives with a penchant for breaking taboos by dabbling in insider trading was sure to be on the lookout for any talk of a merger or buyout of related companies.
Meanwhile, criminal organizations also needed information. They needed it for their “business concerns” such as scams, abductions, and loan sharking, but they also needed it to defend themselves against traitors and criminal investigations, so they could use as much information as they could get (as long as there was no speculation or bias mixed in).
“Normally, the people who use that information want to keep it to themselves. If someone in a criminal organization shared their information with another gang or the police, they’d be viewed as a traitor. So it is unusual to find an information broker who gathers information from around the world and sells it to anyone for the same price like a convenience store or drugstore.”
That meant Agnese was talking about relying on an information broker that belonged to a specific organization or world power. Specifically, one that sided with the UK, greedily gathered information for the UK, and revealed that information only to people working for the UK.
“And we’ll find that here?”
“Yes, we will.” Agnese placed her hand on the door of the metal container and pushed it open. “Zurich, capital of the Swiss canton of Zurich. And what is Switzerland best known for? Its banks.”
Switzerland was a strange country.
First of all, it did not have a single unified language. Each of its 26 cantons used the language it preferred, so some parts of the country used German and others used French. The canton of Zurich used German, for example.
Second, the rest of the world recognized it as a permanently neutral country. There were plenty of self-proclaimed pacifist countries, but Switzerland had actual treaties spelling out that they had abandoned their right to go to war in exchange for the rest of the world agreeing to help eliminate the threat if Switzerland was ever invaded.
That made Switzerland useful as a place to arbitrate a conflict between two other countries. For example, does the word Geneva ring a bell? That is a city in Switzerland.
And third, the most well-known aspect of Switzerland – at least in entertainment – is not its history, its military neutrality, or its politics.
“When you think of Switzerland, you think of secret banks.” Agnese boldly made a highly biased statement. “People tend to shine the spotlight on the Cayman Islands these days, but when you want to hide your money, a spotlight is the last thing you want. Meanwhile, the Swiss brand remains steady and unchanged. There’s no unnecessary interest or investments, so the wealthy who just want to safely and indefinitely protect their assets prefer it here.”
“Th-then,” nervously cut in stooped and freckled Angelene. “Are you saying the Anglican Church has a vault full of documents here? Hm? But why would old English documents be kept in Switzerland?”
“It would be more accurate to call them British documents gathered by the Swiss. The Anglican Church probably sees it as a valuable opportunity to obtain an objective outsider’s view of themselves.” Agnese shrugged. “There is no single national religion in Switzerland, so the dominant culture differs between cantons. Some cantons side with the Roman Catholic Church and its 2 billion followers and others make it hard for the Catholics to get any headway. That makes this a useful frontline base for the Anglicans.”
Agnese raised a finger.
“By the way, comics and movies often talk about ‘Swiss banks’, but that isn’t a single large group. The national banking system allows people to open accounts with only a name and PIN and the bankers are traditionally very tightlipped, so ‘Swiss banks’ refers generally to all of the many banks in the country.”
You could choose whatever bank you wanted there, so there would be banks hostile to the Anglicans and those that were friendly to them. The Anglicans had found a bank that worked for them and used the safe deposit boxes for art and antiques to instead store dangerous documents and items, such as grimoires, old maps, cursed charms, star charts, and spiritual items.
“There are curses and grudges that only activate once they arrive on British land, after all. And there are things they don’t want returned to the UK, like someone’s adipocered head or the UK-made execution tools they exported. I think there was even a gross coat made from the hide of 1000 rats during the plague.”
“When they can’t let other countries have something but can’t store it in the UK either, it ends up here.”
Agnese’s group approached a large marble building. It looked a lot like a white cathedral and that was no coincidence. A former church had been bought and converted into a bank.
Lucia looked disgusted by it.
“Curse those greedy capitalists. This is no way to treat god’s house.”
“I believe it’s called reusing old buildings. Once everyone moves out, it would just fall into ruin otherwise.”
The bank president was a courteous old man in a black morning coat nice enough to attend an evening party. If someone had claimed he was in fact a clockwork doll, they would have believed it.
“Thank you for your visit, Miss Sanctis and company. I am President Helm Himmel. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
(Ah ha ha. That’s as fake a name as Suzuki Saburou.)
Smiling Agnese refrained from speaking that thought out loud.
“What brings you here today?”
He had to already know the answer, but the bank had to ask regardless.
Agnese rattled off her answer without even checking the memo.
“Religious Organization Account #3X5-8X1-9X2-0X1-7X4. The safe deposit box. I have our key here.”
“Understood, Miss Sanctis. This way please.”
“Of course. And if you don’t mind have our access to the box go unrecorded ‘by mistake’.”
These safe deposit boxes generally had two keyholes.
The customer kept one key and the bank the other. The customer and a bank representative would use their two keys together to ensure neither side could open it on their own. That security measure made it harder for the customer to use the box for illegal purposes (such as a stalker hiding their collection or multiple people sharing the key to make a delivery of dangerous herbs) and prevented anyone at the bank from swiping gold bars from a box.
But the president only smiled and let the pearl key slip from his white-gloved hand to land silently in Agnese’s palm.
“Your access to the box? Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean nothing at all, of course.”
With that, their secret was safe.
At the same time, the bank was essentially saying they were entirely ignorant of any possible criminal activity carried out using their safe deposit box.
They left the president and walked back behind the general counter.
Once they were alone, Lucia looked like she was afflicted with a headache and toothache at the same time.
“What is wrong with this world?”
“The president is an ordinary person. If he saw what was stored in there, the shock might just destroy his mind beyond the level of infantile regression.”
Safe deposit boxes came in many forms.
The most common were rows of metal drawers, each one with a number and two keyholes. They were about the size of a study desk’s drawer. Those were generally used for documents like wills and land deeds.
There were larger ones for jewels and gold bars and those could be as large as the janitorial closet at a school. The ones for art and antiques were like 3m cubes and resembled air cargo containers. Although the actual storage space could be smaller than it looked when they included equipment to regulate the temperature and humidity.
But Agnese’s group was on their way to something much larger.
It was located deep in the bank.
They walked down a corridor protected by metal bars and opened one of the silver vaults there.
The door led to a steep staircase.
Once on a basement floor not included on the building’s plans, they found a thick round door just like to a bank vault.
Agnese tossed one of the keys to Lucia.
“It’s the usual system.”
“You mean count down from three and turn the keys at the same time?” asked Lucia with a hint of exasperation.
Remote-controlled robot probes could be used to explore outer space or the deep sea these days, so a machine could easily perform a task as simple as turning a key, but it was all about the aesthetics. With Monaco, the Cayman Islands, the Cook Islands, sketchy online banks, and virtual currencies, there were plenty of tax havens that offered secret banks, yet the rich continued to choose Switzerland because they valued the tradition and stability there. People like that did not look for new services that carried a lot of risk and were not yet perfected. Because they had already made more money than they could ever spend.
With a deep clunk, the round door slowly opened toward them.
Inside, there were metal bars, a passageway, stairs, and an atrium lined neatly with…what looked like as many metal drawers as there were stars in the sky.
“Th-this is it?”
Angelene gulped and was briefly hesitant to enter.
She felt like she would be crossing some forbidden line if she did so.
“This is the Anglican Church’s remote database? This is the ‘information broker’ we’re using?”
“It apparently has around 28,000 in all. In that sense, it isn’t even close to matching her.”
Anyone with any knowledge of magic would know exactly what Agnese was so casually referencing.
The girl who had memorized 103,000 grimoires had become something of a legend.
She was known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
“Well, she was just one of many prototypes and the only one that happened to be successful. Which is why you can still find these failed Indexes that didn’t quite make the cut scattered around the world.”
It was possible that conferring with the Index Librorum Prohibitorum would have solved their problem right away, but she was highly prized. Being a member of the Anglican Church did not grant you access to all Anglican equipment and personnel. And in this case, Agnese’s group had previously tried to harm the Index Librorum Prohibitorum more than once, so it was hardly surprising the higher ups automatically refused to let them contact her.
In that sense, there was still demand for a failed database like this one.
Very few people could access the Anglican Church’s greatest secrets, but less-trusted members could still access these smaller secrets. So by searching here, they could avoid making an enemy of the sensitive higher ups.
Wield your rusty hoes and spades to kill the knight wearing brightly polished armor!
In every era, the commoners were asked pull off the seemingly impossible by gathering in large numbers.
“Now, then. Let’s get started on all the delightful work awaiting us.”
Needless to say, even 28,000 was a lot.
That was the size of a small library.
To check through that more efficiently, they would have to start by narrowing down what they were hoping to investigate. It was the same as a search engine in that sense. You needed to know what words to type into the box first.
“We want to find a point in common between those three cases.”
“I know that, but they all used completely different spells.” Angelene nervously expressed her pessimism. “The Barcelona one used Catholic forensic cleanup, the Calais one summoned a ghost ship using multiple types of spells, and the Frankfurt one used the Ceremony of Ba Moun, which is…um, a Voodoo curse, right?”
“If we wanted to force a connection, I guess the Barcelona one was linked to that Spanish restaurant run by Nihili Padpois, who was born in Haiti. And wasn’t it likely his wife was killed by a Voodoo curse? Still…”
Lucia trailed off there.
Yes, Voodoo referred to a lot of different things and they had no idea if that other case also had to do with the Ceremony of Ba Moun.
“If we were trying to link everything to Voodoo, what about the Hood battlecruiser that attacked Calais?”
“The Yucatan Peninsula is in the Caribbean Sea!” exclaimed Angelene. “There must be tons of ancient Mayan cities there!!”
Agnese was honestly confused. If that counted as a connection, they would have to research everything from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Chupacabra, but Angelene did not seem to care.
Agnese pulled her phone from her habit’s sleeve, started up the video app, and asked again.
“What about the Hood battlecruiser that attacked Calais? Now, Sister Angelene, repeat that shocking truth for us again! And make sure to smile for the camera☆”
“Stop that! You’re planning to dig this up 3 years from now to show it to me, aren’t you!? Okay, fine, I give up!! None of the 5 magicians who fit together like puzzle pieces were Voodoo, were they?”
“If we want to really overthink this, there’s the fact that the Necessarius necromancer named Isabella Theism was involved with all those cases. Her necromancy combines a number of different things, but she is well-versed in Voodoo.”
“Thank you so much for another of your crazy conspiracy theories, Sister Lucia! Don’t worry, I got a stunning profile shot of that one☆ We can all look forward to viewing this masterpiece at a later date.”
“Wait, you were still recording!!!???”
Lucia bristled and yelled, but that was what she got for suspecting people based on no evidence. They wanted the quickest route to the truth, so they did not want to start playing a game of concentration where they flipped over the cards at random. Especially when each card they flipped over could conceivably cost someone their life based on unwarranted suspicion.
Reasoning based on a foundation of mistrust and speculation would only lead to vague conspiracy theories.
They had to build a foundation of solid facts, no matter how insignificant they might seem. Otherwise, their visit to this vast database would be in vain.
“There is one thing we know for sure.”
“If you know the answer, then cut the dramatics and just tell us, Sister Agnese. Since when were you one of those detectives who sits around with a knowing smile until the murderer has killed a few more people!?”
Agnese grabbed her backtalking but beloved buddy Angelene by the collar and squeezed tight while continuing her explanation with a smile.
“We know that all three cases could be dealt with using our Catholic spells☆:”
“Agh, agagah, my throat!?”
“Sister Agnese, that goes without saying, so why bring it up now?”
“I’m saying that each enemy was someone we could defeat.” Agnese released her beloved buddy. “Maybe that was an issue of compatibility. Whoever Person X is and however they are boosting the methods used by the individual magicians, the end result was vulnerable to a Catholic counterattack. I’m not about to say all the world’s mystical powers can be generally classified as light magic and dark magic, but what if this is something similar? What if the toys distributed by Person X are extremely vulnerable to the glory of god?”
The mystical powers focused on the Son of God worked that way.
Believers would be saved.
And while taking the reverse might be going too far, it did imply that nonbelievers would not be saved. Christianity refused to accept the miracles and mystical powers (claimed to be) caused by those who worshiped other gods.
Lucia placed a hand on her chin.
“But wasn’t the person behind the Barcelona case a Catholic priest?”
“Are you familiar with Saint Vitus? Or maybe Saint Sebastian?”
Lucia fell silent.
She understood what Agnese was trying to say.
“With one, it was the Slavic god Svantovit. With the other, it was the Celtic hero Cuchulain.” Agnese shrugged. “Sadly, it happens. Christianity is supposed to be monotheistic, but sometimes older gods or legendary figures end up a part of it under a changed name. Although even those cases aren’t as bad as Saint Ursula who was said to have died along with 11,000 virgins due to a simple misreading of a number or Saint Christopher who was almost certainly a completely fictional creation.”
“Are you suggesting that priest’s spell was an adulteration?”
“Well, he seriously believed gold never lost its shine and repelled curses. That’s something you find in every part of the world, including Egypt and Scandinavia. But that’s why this calls for thorough research. They might have thought their spells were Christian, summoning, or Voodoo, but it’s possible those spells were actually part of an entirely different system. Fortunately, we have no shortage of research material here. Doesn’t that sound worth investigating?”
After about two hours, Lucia and Angelene looked up from their piles of documents, sighed, and pulled out their phones in perfect unison. They started up their video apps and began squishing the dumbass’s cheeks.
“So, got anything to say for yourself, Sister Agnese?”
“Do have any comment at all regarding our wasted effort searching for two hours without finding a single thing? Please, tell us again how clever your theory is! With that smug look of course! I just have to hear that pathetic excuse for a theory again!! Please!!”
A porcine snort came from Agnese whose face had undergone an ugly transformation thanks to the pressure from either side.
“They’re in Italian, Spanish, French, or whatever else…and then there’s a pain-in-the-butt cipher on top of that base language,” complained Angelene. “Argh, why do grimoires have to be so hard to read? It’s a complete waste of effort!!”
“Sister Angelene, how many times have I told you to learn Latin?”
“Oh? Why would Miss Piggy think she has any right to talk back to me after this?”
It was not often Angelene straightened her back and looked down on someone else.
Yes, it had all ended up how Agnese Sanctis had said it would. If they started with a foundation of baseless doubts, mistrust, and speculation, they would only create a “highly realistic-sounding conspiracy theory”.
No matter how insignificant it might seem, they had to start with a foundation of fact if they wanted to reach the truth.
And in that sense…
“After two hours, all we’ve figured out is that there doesn’t seem to be any magical system in common to all three cases,” said Lucia.
“But we already knew that when we started,” tearfully complained Angelene. “It feels just as pointless as spending an entire century proving why 1 times 1 is 1. What was the point of all this time and effort!?”
They had hit a dead end.
They saw hints of a Person X. They were certain someone like that was out there. But they could not find any solid clues there. It was like they could see a crime taking place, but they could not gather enough evidence to do anything about it. It was like watching a politician hold an apology press conference where they insisted over and over that it was all a misunderstanding and they had done nothing at all illegal. Finding nothing at all was actually more suspicious, yet there was no way to use that in an investigation.
This massive treasure trove of information went to waste when they did not know what to search for. Right now, a single idea or flash of inspiration would be more useful than all this information. Sitting at their desks any longer would only be a waste of time.
Angelene finally began to throw a fit.
“Arrrrgh!! I need a change of pace. We’re in Switzerland, remember? I want try the food! I want to see the sights! I can barely breathe in this thick vault!!”
Should I smack her? asked Lucia with a glance, but Agnese shook her head.
“I guess we can go get something to eat,” said Agnese in a resigned way.
“Fine, but what food is Switzerland known for?” asked Lucia.
“Cheese fondue of course! And mineral water!!”
Angelene’s view was fairly biased. Was she trying to say the Swiss lived on nothing but cheese and water?
But then Agnese threw a curveball.
“I believe they’re known for their instant coffee and freeze-dried food. Also their ready-made, canned, and frozen foods, their curry roux, their white stews, their instant soups, and so on. But not cup noodles. Those are a unique genre that only really developed in Japan, just like miso soup and flavor enhancers.”
“Switzerland is home to the world’s largest instant food company. Look around and you might find a museum or souvenir shop dedicated to it.”
Angelene pouted her lips hard at the thought of eating instant foods after coming all the way to Switzerland. Angelene understood the feeling, but instant foods were a necessity and a lifesaver for the mountain climbers who attempted the climb the Alps along the Swiss route.
They decided to leave the bank and take a walk outside.
In a city of banks and insurance companies, they had expected to see a lot of businessmen out at midday, but they instead saw a surprising number of men and women in religious habits. And Anglican ones at that.
“Wh-what is going on?” hesitantly asked Angelene.
“While Switzerland is a country of banks, most transactions are handled over the phone or internet. The people visiting directly are the ones with treasures physically stored in the safe-deposit boxes. And in this block of Zurich, that means Anglicans.”
It was a lot like a company town where the city was financially ruled by a single company, but that had its pros and its cons. When you knew people of a certain affiliation would be in a specific restaurant, it was not hard for a third party to eavesdrop while pretending to be a customer.
Whether she realized that or not, Angelene made her own complaint.
“Then everyone here was forced to travel all the way here for research while working outside of the UK, just like us? Everyone is supposed to be equal, but those of us at the bottom always get the short end of the stick.”
They peeked inside a variety of restaurants.
Most of them served thick bacon and potatoes. It looked German at first glance, but not all of Switzerland was like this. To reiterate, the country did not have a single official language or religion. Each canton chose German, French, or whatever other language to use.
Angelene had the dark look of a child who saw curry rice for dinner the third day in a row. Yes, she had only just finished fighting for her life in Frankfurt.
“It’s not bad. It’s definitely not bad, but it’s just not what I want. Ahhh! Why couldn’t we be working in an Italian-speaking area!?”
“Be careful what you wish for. Any Italian food you got here wouldn’t seem quite right. When you want a margherita pizza topped with tomato and cheese, you don’t want to be served Pasta alla Genovese covered in ham and avocado, do you?”
Because Italy was their homeland, they could be much more particular about Italian cooking. Just like the Japanese were particular about dashi, the French were particular about sauces, and Indians were particular about seasonings, Agnese’s group could be extremely demanding when it came to pasta. (Enough so that a simple disagreement could lead to a never-ending war.) They would never approve of someone who always went with long, skinny spaghetti regardless of the sauce or method of cooking and who assumed anything was fine as long as you cooked it al dente. So they might find foreign cuisine more familiar since they would fail to notice the small differences there.
They ended up grabbing a very German-smelling pizza for lunch. Simply put, cheese and tomato sauce were spread across a round piece of dough, fries and sliced salami were placed on top of that, and then the whole thing was cooked.
“It’s called a pizza patatine,” said Angelene while staring fixedly at the large plate carried to the table.
“Hold on,” cut in Lucia to point out the fundamental mistake here. “What kind of a crazy food did you order for us here? I mean, who puts fries on a pizza!? That’s carbs on top of carbs!”
“I will admit it looks pretty wild, but it’s actually a traditional dish. For kids. Admittedly, it’s more like a snack than a proper meal.”
“You mean people eat a meal in addition to this? How can that possibly fit into a healthy diet?”
Lucia was flabbergasted, but this was actually an Italian dish, not a German one. What Italian food meant changed a lot between different regions of Italy, so it was not that strange for Lucia to be unfamiliar with this one.
(Hm, we let Sister Angelene’s tantrum convince us to eat here. Even though eating Italian outside the country can only lead to trouble.)
“Now, now. Burgers generally come with fries, right? This is a lot like combining the two since eating them separately is a pain.”
“That is not a very appetizing description!”
Food came in countless forms around the world, but it was actually very unusual to serve carbs on top of carbs when either one would have qualified as a main dish. With the burger example, the fries were only a side. The most prominent example of breaking that rule was Japan. They would put yakisoba between bread as a sandwich, serve rice with ramen, put rice cakes in udon, and otherwise mix carb-filled main dishes. The tendency had such deep roots that you would see things like a small katsudon or oyakodon listed on the menu for a soba place that was (obviously) where people went to eat soba. And that culture had been so deeply imprinted on the people of that country that they failed to even notice it was weird to assume a soba place would cook them some curry or an oyakodon along with their soba.
“Yum, yum. It has a pretty shocking visual, but I could eat this all day. It’s like an even better version of poutine!!”
“But in exchange, it has enough calories to keep you alive for a week stranded on a snowy mountain. And isn’t poutine that Canadian stuff that will fatten you up with ruthless efficiency?”
Angelene’s eyes were shining bright, but Lucia had a gloomy cloud over her face. Calling it a snack for kids may have influenced her view of things. Incidentally, poutine was a giant pile of fries with lots of melted cheese and gravy dumped on top. It was like a culinary trap because it was so delicious you never wanted to eat anything else, but it would fatten you up no time if you ate it exclusively. Specifically, it would fatten you up so much you could no longer fit through the door and needed to call a rescue team to extract you from your room.
“Not to worry, Sister Lucia,” said Agnese who (unlike Angelene) was keeping track of how many slices she had eaten. “We’re still growing girls.”
“You can’t just use that excuse for everything.”
“Everything we eat goes straight to our boobs. Isn’t the human body a miracle?”
“Just in case you are serious about that, women’s breasts are not the same thing as a camel’s humps.”
It was during that discussion that Agnese Sanctis noticed something odd about her surroundings.
She saw a latte.
A customer at another table had ordered that item that could be ordered just about anywhere in the world. However, it was somewhat unusual for the thick espresso and the warm milk to be carried over in separate containers. The customer took a small lick of the plain espresso with the tip of her tongue and then slowly poured the hot milk in with a thin metal spoon. The action was similar to carefully mixing several drinks together with a muddler.
You were meant to enjoy the drink at the bitterness you preferred, so that was the correct method.
If you just thoughtlessly dumped in the milk, you would end up with something like a coffee milk. And if it was brought out already mixed in a single container, the individual’s preferences had nothing to do with it.
This was correct, but…
(That’s an awfully Italian thing to do.)
You would not find this method listed in an etiquette book about Italian cuisine. It was more like a stubborn life hack the common folk had invented after getting frustrated with so many places serving them something like coffee milk no matter how they tried to order it. Only someone who really knew what they were doing would know about this.
“Sister Lucia. Angelene too.”
“Do not turn around, but I recognize the person eating three tables behind you two. …And this isn’t someone I met after joining the Anglicans. She acted as a guide for us a few times back in our Catholic days. It’s Sister Monica.”
Tension ran through them.
But that must have been too much.
The other girl looked up from her food and her eyes met Agnese’s.
She was quick to respond.
“Tch!! Sister Lucia and Angelene! Capture her!!”
Monica only hesitated for a moment.
She stood up so quickly she essentially kicked her chair away and then spun around. She shoved aside a waiter near the entrance to forcibly run outside.
Lucia and Angelene’s eyes widened as they pursued her.
“Why did she run away? We’ve been in that Swiss bank all day, so I doubt she was tailing us. Did we run across her by pure chance???”
“I don’t know, but she must be up to something to run away the instant we saw her!!”
This block of Zurich contained a lot of Anglicans. That meant you could pretend to be a customer at a restaurant to eavesdrop on all sorts of conversations, so it seemed likely Monica had at least been working as a spy.
And since she had run the instant her eyes met Agnese’s, she must have been warned in advance she could not let Agnese notice her.
That suggested she had been spying on Agnese.
(Is she connected to this string of cases?)
Agnese could not answer her own question as she ran full speed through the city.
(If so, are the Catholics behind it??? No, wait. It’s too soon to say. For now, we just have to capture Monica!!)
The fleeing girl in a nun’s habit ran into the small alleyway between two banks.
“Wait!!” shouted Lucia.
Agnese and the other two arrived in that same alleyway less than 10 seconds later.
The entire world seemed to change in that moment.
A rusty smell.
The color red.
The odor and hue of blood.
“Ugh!!” groaned Angelene as she came to a stop.
A dark red liquid was splattered across the ground and even on the walls up to a point even higher than the girls’ heads. Before even worrying about concrete threats like a curse or infectious disease, their legs were forced to a stop by no more than the sinister atmosphere.
Something had fallen into the very center of the pool of blood.
It was larger than the palm of a hand.
It looked like a flimsy piece of paper or plastic, but it had a few holes in it.
It had two eyes, a nose, and a mouth.
The skin of a human face had been torn away and abandoned.
“Sister Monica…” groaned Agnese.
“Since her ‘face’ was left here, does that mean this was someone else pretending to be her?” said Lucia while trying to remain calm.
There was indeed magic related to faces.
In the 16th Century, Gerolamo Cardano proposed metoposcopy that determined someone’s destiny based on the lines in their forehead. Similarly, Johannes de Indagine and several other magicians developed physiognomy that determined someone’s inner character by looking at their nose, mouth, and other facial features.
And if such methods had been developed, people would also develop methods of preventing a third party from analyzing their face or to alter their face to give them the destiny or personality they wanted.
Agnese slowly crouched down while careful not to step in the blood.
“This doesn’t look like one of Isabella Theism’s imitations. This is the real skin off someone’s actual face. I hate to think what’s become of Sister Monica.”
“E-eww,” said Angelene while going pale in the face. “You mean the person we were chasing had been living with someone else’s skin over their face in order to hide their identity???”
If being seen by Angelene Sanctis had been enough to do this, whoever it was must have been taking this seriously. Removing that borrowed face had to take a lot more effort than simply removing a mask. The gruesomely splattered blood was testament to that.
Lucia made herself take a deep breath before speaking.
“We need to report this to the higher ups. This might require a discussion or information exchange between the Anglicans and Catholics. I’m curious who that was, but finding out if the real Sister Monica is safe comes first.”
“Th-that’s right!! And if that person had stolen Sister Monica’s face, then they might have stolen documents from the Catholics too.”
“Hm,” said Agnese while crouching and bringing a hand to her chin.
Was that really what had happened?
She had been the first to start talking about the borrowed face, so she had nearly failed to view this objectively. If she had not heard Lucia and Angelene discussing it, she would have continued down that line of thinking without noticing this oversight.
They had originally come here to Zurich, Switzerland, in order to find a point in common between their past few cases. And in that sense…
“This feels familiar.”
Lucia gave her a puzzled look, but she did not look up and instead continued viewing the pool of blood.
“Doesn’t this feel familiar, Sister Lucia? All that remains is evidence of someone destroying all solid evidence and covering their tracks. That should tell us that there was a third party here doing harm.”
“Oh,” said Angelene. “That’s the same as that first case in Barcelona where we found unnatural traces of a forensic cleanup in Nihili Padpois’s restaurant!”
“And if the method is similar, there’s a good chance we’re looking at a group that reuses the same tricks. We need to at least keep in mind the possibility that no one was disguising themselves as Sister Monica at all. What if Monica tore off her own face and left it here to escape suspicion that she is Person X?”
“U-urp!?” groaned Angelene with a hand over her mouth.
Agnese pulled out a cylindrical container of fries she was hiding.
“Excellent work, Sister Angelene!! Heading out for lunch worked so much better than our time in that information broker vault! Have a reward. Don’t be shy – just stuff your mouth full of fries.”
“Bgweh, they’re so greasy!! And I have to know. A-are you being intentionally malicious here, or is it just second nature to you!?”
Living with someone else’s skin over your face was messed up enough, but tearing off your own face and leaving it behind in less than 10 seconds was terrifying in a different way.
But that method would allow Sister Monica to escape suspicion.
She would be “tearing” the Person X identity away from herself so she could abandon that identity here and escape.
Once she got her wound treated to stop the bleeding and was then picked up while wandering aimlessly around the streets of Zurich, she could walk around freely once more. She would be no more than a victim whose face had been stolen a few days before so that the wicked Person X could take on her identity.
“In that case,” said Lucia while placing her hands on Angelene’s small shoulders. “Should we stop here and investigate Sister Monica instead of chasing blindly after some other unseen villain?”
“Yes, but this does not mean the Catholics are necessarily behind this,” said Agnese with a shrug.
She was not about to defend their old organization that had abandoned them, but the Catholics had 2 billion followers. They were such a large percentage of the population that a lot of Catholics were personally up to no good or also part of some other organization. Even 0.01% of them would be 200,000 people.
It was just like a search engine.
Now that they had a term to search for, that vast collection of documents showed its true value.
Once back in the bank, Agnese’s group only had to search that pile of 28,000 books for just the one thing.
“I found something, Sister Agnese! Local folklore from Turin of Piedmont mentions a spell for tearing off your own face as a last resort to overturn a critical decline in your life. The idea is to throw out your old identity in order to leave behind the bad luck pursuing you!!”
If it was known simply as “folklore”, it was probably actually a witch’s spell.
But something not appearing in the Bible was no reason to take it lightly. There was a good chance it received power from a mythology or religion other than Christianity.
“How far did that spread, though? That spell isn’t the same as fortunetelling by picking a flower and plucking out the petals one by one. We’re talking about tearing off your own face here. To convince people to do that, you would need enough authority to conquer the pain, fear, and physiological disgust. That means it must have some kind of organization behind it.”
For example, people only accepted the pain of dental treatment because of the medical field’s seal of approval that it would heal your cavities. If some filthy old man in a rundown hut said he was going to drill at your teeth while chanting an original prayer of his, no one would ever agree to it.
It was all about providing authority.
People would accept far more from a source they trusted than from one they did not.
And to convince people that tearing off their entire face was a good idea would require a very powerful source of authority. Enough that people were convinced they would feel no pain at all if they tore off their face and that they would have no trouble at all after permanently losing the face they had possessed from the moment they were born.
The spell was from Turin, capital of the Italian region of Piedmont.
(I swear, this had better not come full circle and turn out to be the Roman Catholic Church after all.)
Agnese had a bad feeling about this, but then Lucia provided an answer.
“This mentions a ‘guild’.”
That was a fairly common term for anyone steeped in the world of magic. Just like lodges and salons, it referred to a collection of craftsmen or intellectuals with a certain specialty.
But that alone was not enough to determine anything specific. Just like knowing something was a “school” or “company” did not tell you anything specific about it. You needed a more specific name like the Such-and-Such School or the So-and-So Company.
But Lucia shrugged.
“That’s all it says.”
“It must be something big enough that saying ‘the guild’ is enough for locals to know what you mean. Just like world-famous cup noodle and cola brands become words that refer to their entire industry. So if we send someone to Turin, I imagine we can figure out just what kind guild this is talking about.”