The Gathering Storm, Part 1

Posted: October 24, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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Milo Phillips’ fingers finished dancing across the keys on his touch-screen, as he imagined the winding down of the beat in the back of his mind that had accompanied the words he had written.

The tongue is a weapon, my words are a sword.
They sever, slice
Once, twice and thrice
Must suffice
So I banter right, and banter left
Death by verbal bat’leth

A young man paused near Milo, leaned slightly over his shoulder from the side, and looked down at the rap lyrics that he had just written on the screen of his palmtop. Annoyed and distracted, his mental reflexes kicked in even as he quietly verbalized the new lyrics, instantly retrieving the young rapper’s stage name from his memory: Slaughter Vox. Then other data flooded his thoughts. Birth name: Bourey Timothy Moore. Age: 22. Occupation: Fucking slacker. Social security number…

Milo shut off the feed of information flowing through his mind, kicking himself mentally for dwelling on pointless personal data that he had gathered about one of the semi-regulars in his musical circles. He wasn’t Query right now, so it was a waste of mental resources he could better devote to his rapping. Neither was he jazz composer Nigel Roy right now nor even in his original birth identity of Alan Millos, the scientist everyone thought paralyzed and secluded in his big house out near the edge of the county line.

Time to focus on the current identity and the current task—getting ready to go up on stage in about 30 or 40 minutes.

Slaughter Vox was still standing there, still peering over Milo’s shoulder, and now letting out a scornful little half-laugh.

Arrogant little prick, Milo thought.

Half-white, half-Cambodian, and he fancied himself as blacker than a black man—even one in his mid-40s, like Milo, whose parents had been part of the latter years of the Civil Rights Movement. Milo heard a snort of derision now from the young man as he finished softly vocalizing the lyrics a second time, and then looked up with boredom in his dark eyes, awaiting the jibe he knew must be coming.

“What ’da fuck’s a ‘bat lip’ old man?” Vox sneered.

“Bat’leth,” he answered evenly, correcting Vox. “Klingon sword. Star Trek. First seen in the Next Generation series. Nasty piece of work if you were to be on the receiving end.”

“Jeeeesus, niggah” Vox drawled in some pale imitation of a ‘street’ tonality. “Fuck. If you gonna pull a sci-fi ref to old-ass shit, try somethin’ people give a shit ‘bout, like Star Wars or classic ’Trek. Better yet, try yo’self on some Battlestar Galactica or Fringe or some other mo’ recent shit. Fuckin’ dinosaur. No place in rap fo’ clueless old men.”

Feeling a bit of his Query persona creeping in, Milo mentally reviewed the two or three best ways he could break Vox’s forearm. Then he considered that a blow to the moron’s windpipe would be a better idea, since it would spare the world the sound of his pathetic words for a while. Instead, Milo sighed, and went back to his palmtop, jotting down ideas for more lyrics.

This is no time for violence, he considered. I’m not in my Query identity, so no need for heroics. Not that hitting the idiot would be heroic, anyway, he considered. Vox isn’t even a criminal—at least not yet, or at least not that I know. He’s just a punk.

So a while later, Milo did what he did to any punk on a night like this. Instead of breaking a bone or giving out concussions, he slaughtered the young man on stage. With words.

* * *

By the next night, Milo Phillips was nowhere in evidence—nor was Nigel Roy or theoretically wheelchair-bound Alan Millos. This was another venue in another part of town. A small room in an aging commercial building that looked like a cross between an accountant’s office and a private detective’s. Too much high-end computer equipment and too clean to be called seedy; too cluttered and small to be called classy.

This was one of Query’s nights.

Shit, most nights are for Query, the man thought behind his almost featureless full-head black mask—the only adornment a red question mark occupying the space from the bottom of his nose to just above the tip of his chin. When you get down to it, Query is who I really am now.

Right on time, a key rattled in the lock and the door to the office swung open, as Carl Beacham stepped in.

“Good evening, Query,” he said. “Keeping your nose clean?”

It was a common joke to hear from Carl. Query found it reasonably amusing even after hearing it dozens of times over the past couple years, but he didn’t laugh. He simply said, as he touched the mask-covered tip of his nose, “How would you be able to tell if I were lying or not?”

Carl smiled slightly at the usual comeback, and was reminded, as always, how strange it was for Query to talk to him but never to see that question mark over his mouth move a bit. As always, he wondered if some kind of thin and hard “protective cup” lay over Query’s mouth, chin, nose  and jawline to create that unnerving effect and to disguise slightly the shape of his face—and no doubt keep his teeth from getting knocked out in hand-to-hand fights.

“So, I met with the Grimmond family tonight as planned, and sussed out some more information. The kidnappers are still holding their child and giving them all sorts of rules, ultimatums and vague demands. The police still haven’t been brought in because they’re afraid that will get the kid killed, but the family can’t seem to give me any idea of when the kidnappers plan to actually make a firm demand. It seems like they’re mostly screwing with the family now, and the father is really nervous that you won’t be able to find the kid. I don’t know. Maybe the kidnappers are trying to scare them; maybe to see if they’ll break the rules and bring in the police. Or maybe the kid is dead and they’re trying to figure out how to cash in anyway.”

“This whole case has been odd from the start,” Query noted. “I didn’t expect it to get any easier toni…”

Query sniffed. Paused. Sniffed again.

“What?” Carl asked.

“Did you make out with some woman tonight before coming here?”

“No…what?…not that it’s any of your damn business, but…”

“Did you?” Query pressed.

“What kind of question…”

“A question from me. Just because I’m called Query doesn’t mean I ask questions for the damn sake of just asking them. You should know that by now. Did you…”

“No! I danced with a woman. Mr. Grimmond met me at a nice little tavern so that I wouldn’t be seen going into his home or office by the kidnappers. When I was leaving, a pretty gal gave me the eye, and asked if I could dance. I had time to kill before coming here, so we danced a couple slow ones to the jukebox. How did you know anyway…”

“Perfume. I can smell it on you. It’s not what Patsy wears.”

“Now, you’re not gonna say something to Patsy, are you? It’s enough trouble being your attorney, investigator and go-between in these cases without having you in my relationship.”

“Stand still,” Query said brusquely, then stepped forward to frisk Carl. The man simply let it happen, realizing that arguing at this point about anything was pointless.

“You know, it’s already not that damn easy being your go-between so that you can keep your dark and mysterious vibe up and keep people away from your secret office, and now you’re frisking me. You know, I had yet another reporter call yesterday and insist that it was obvious I was Query since I do all the interviewing legwork and initial investigatory work, and I was shitty at keeping a secret identity, and I should just come clean in an interview with him. I pointed out that I was at least five inches shorter than you and at least 30 pounds heavier and he snorted something about girdles and platform shoes before I hung up on him.”

“Well, that’s why I pay you well—to deal with that bullshit so that I don’t have to,” Query said. “Not to mention that you deserve plenty of pay since someone might take a potshot or something at you someday to get to me.”

“You have such a warm and comforting nature, Query.”

“You’re welcome,” Query said. “It’s becoming clear now. This entire process has been too drawn out. The family is either under contract to fuck with us and the child is safely with friends, or their child is being held to force them to help set us up.”

“Set us up for what?” Carl asked, as Query finished frisking him.

“Nothing,” Query muttered, and it was clear he was referring to the fruitless search of Carl’s person, not answering the man’s question. “Turn out all your pockets on the desk. Now.”

“For what…”

“Now. Do it.”

Carl emptied everything from his pants pockets, suit coat and overcoat. Query sifted through everything there rapidly, picked up a shiny quarter, considered it for a moment, then said, “Get everything else you care about back in your pockets, fast. We’re about to leave.”

“What’s going on?”

“Since when have you ever carried pocket change?” Query asked.

“What do you mean? Who doesn’t?”

“You, for one. Carl, you pay for everything with plastic. I’ve observed you buying a $1.50 coffee from a gas station using a credit card or debit card on at least 20 occasions. You are cash-averse. And now there’s one lone coin in your pocket when you don’t pay in cash? The woman who danced with you slipped this into your pocket while you were copping a cheap feel.”

“Guess my dancing wasn’t very impressive. Or my flirting. Maybe I just picked it up from the ground or a table without thinking about it. Ever consider that?”

“It’s too heavy to be a real quarter, Carl. Short-range transmitter. They’ve probably had to circle around a few times in the neighborhood to get a good fix on it though—signal would be for shit, especially with the white noise and other interference I generate in the area. They wouldn’t have followed you closely by car for fear of spooking you. They’re here to kill me.”

“How long before they…wait, you said ‘they’re here.’ Shit. Already?”

“Setting up, and waiting for the rest of their team probably. Blocking any avenues of escape. I heard movement in the alley below and wondered why a vehicle was rolling down it so quietly. No doubt there are teams at the elevators and stairwells. They think I’m ignorant of all this. Not altogether foolish of them; they are good at stealth. I’m just better and more perceptive. They’ll be on us in 10 to 15 minutes probably—they know I was planning to debrief you and they’ll want to make sure they block off all the exits, so they’re not rushing. I’m figuring we should assume we only have three minutes, though, to be on the safe side.”

“So, we’re going to fight our way out? Take them by surprise?”

“Did you bring a weapon or body armor, Carl?”

“Of course not. My most dangerous weapon is a Mont Blanc pen.”

“Did you learn martial arts on the sly when I wasn’t looking? Develop superpowers, perhaps? Or do you simply want to die in a firefight?”

“So we’re gonna wait for them?”

“Nonsense,” Query said amiably, handing Carl a canvas shopping bag. “Please take my external hard drive there and carry it with you. The Chinese vase, too. It has sentimental value.”

Query snatched up a shoulder bag for himself, slid everything small and loose from the top of the desk into it, pitched the quarter into a corner, punched a few keys on his computer and then slapped a button on the side of the filing cabinet. Carl got a whiff of some terrible chemical stink from inside the cabinet and wondered how long before the acid-bath in there—or whatever it was—finished with the paper and started eating through the metal of the cabinet itself. No doubt a virus was currently trashing what little data Query actually kept on the computer’s CPU hard drive.

“Don’t worry, Carl, we have a huge advantage.”

“Really, what’s that?”

“They think I’m secure enough and complacent in my secrecy here and that I’m arrogant enough to not have expected something like this,” Query said. “Besides, they’ve already found my two ‘escape hatches.’ One of them anyway, from some noises I’ve heard down below; I have to assume they’ve found the other one, too.”

“Why is this supposed to make me comfortable and how does this give you an advantage?” Carl said. He was maintaining his composure pretty well as usual, but a little nervous tic was entering into the equation now, Query noted.

“Because, my friend, they don’t realize that I’m three times more cautious and paranoid than they think,” Query said. “Those two ‘secret’ escape routes are just for show.”

* * *

The primary assault team worked its way down the hall—three men and one woman who had killed enough people between them over their careers to populate a tiny backwater town.

They were hyper-aware of potential alarms and traps, and actually noted at least one motion detector and one laser tripwire, both of which they thwarted en route to Query’s office, which was listed as “Northeastern Market Consulting LLP,” a business theoretically co-owned by a man named Lloyd Swinton and a woman named Gloria Redfisher. When they got near the office door, they wasted no time, and opened fire on the door and outer wall with automatic weapons loaded with armor piercing rounds. When they were all clicking on empty, they dropped those weapons, pulled out fresh ones, and cautiously entered the office, expecting to find at least one dead body and perhaps one body-armored hero who was heavily wounded. Instead they got an office full of bullet holes and a filing cabinet with fumes leaking from partially corroded drawers.

It took them two minutes to figure out that the bookcase covered a hole in the wall and that some kind of dumbwaiter had been built into that wall, leading straight to the basement. Five levels down.

That was already 14 minutes too late, and by the time a pair of two-person teams had been mobilized to the basement, all they found was a small explosive device that filled the air with high-velocity shrapnel and reduced their ranks by three.

* * *

“So, if I may ask, why didn’t the hit team think that you might escape to the sewers?” Carl asked, as they approached a dimly lit area at the end of a mildew-scented tunnel, where a ladder led upward into the barely illuminated gloom. Query motioned for him to go first.

As they progressed up the rungs, Query said, “Because this isn’t on the city plans. I didn’t pick an old area of the city for the shit of it, Carl. There are all kinds of old utility tunnels and other things that aren’t even kept track of anymore. The sewer is roughly parallel to our tunnel and 10 or 20 feet higher up. I’m sure they have the sewer covered—or booby-trapped—at both ends respective to the office building.”

When he reached the top of the ladder, Carl found that the trap door above him swung open easily. A light automatically came on in what appeared to be a small garage. A very nice five-year old Mercedes occupied most of the space.

Query followed him into the space, tossed what he was carrying into the back seat of the car, pulled out a couple of bags that were already in there, and handed a set of keys to Carl.

“Can you drive a stick?”

“Yeah.”

“Excellent. Good thing that it didn’t matter anyway, since this car is an automatic, but I’ll remember that in the future in case I leave my Porsche in one of my hidey holes. It never occurred to me to ask what you could drive when I hired you two years ago.”

“OK, Carl,” Query continued, “the GPS in the car can lead you to the Lark County safehouse I have. Uncork a bottle of merlot when you get there, thaw some steaks and grill yourself up a nice meal. Keep my shit safe, and don’t run up the cost on the pay-per-view too much with the satellite TV. If I don’t come up to meet you by 8 p.m. Sunday, you can safely assume I’m dead and carry on with your life. Keep the car as a memento if so.”

“What are you going to do?” Carl asked. “You’re not going back there, are you?”

“Of course I am, Carl. What if someone is working late in another office, hiding out after all that ruckus, and they end up dead because no one wants any witnesses?” Query said. “Besides, they who live by the sword, die by the sword. You reap what you sow. And all that jazz.”

As he shouldered his bags, Query paused, and stared off into the distance for a few moments. Though his eyes were hidden by the black mask, Carl could imagine the faraway look in them. “Though I suppose I should leave a couple of them mostly intact to answer some queries.”

* * *

The mercenary heard a soft sound and turned toward it, not realizing the man who made it had intended just that effect. Suddenly his vision was filled with a red exclamation mark that emblazoned the palm of a black leather glove, fingers splayed mere inches from his face and blocking his vision. A split-second of distraction before the other gloved hand, fingers curled into a striking position, hit him once at the base of his sternum and then in his throat.

I’ve had to use all of my tanglers already on his friends—a pity I had to use them on their faces instead of the feet or hands like I usually do; perhaps a few of them won’t asphyxiate, Query thought, as he made a final blow to the prone man to incapacitate him fully. Now that’s a nice pistol you have there, my friend. I hope you don’t mind if I keep it.

What Query lacked in expert martial arts capabilities—oh, he was far more than competent, but there were many heroes and villains, both super-powered and not, who could easily wipe the floor with him hand-to-hand, he readily acknowledged—he more than made up for in stealth. His enemies were still working their way through the building to find where he had gone or to discover if he were still hiding here, and he had dispatched a dozen of them already by ones and twos. Based on the trio of unfamiliar vans in the area that were clearly for transport and surveillance, he estimated that he had taken out more than two-thirds of their force by this point, and decided to err on the side of assuming seven more, though five seemed far more likely.

No police were going to come, clearly, Query surmised. Response rates to this neighborhood were notoriously slow, but after this much time, clearly there was either no one else in the building to hear the commotion and call the cops, or the strike team had disabled the alarms and phones and was jamming cell signals from leaving the area, too.

He had used up almost all of his silent ranged attacks, and before long, he was going to have to resort to his flechette pistol, which was quiet but far from silent, or one of three semi-automatic pistols he carried—one of them the former property of his latest victim—and those would be anything but stealthy.

Query dragged his latest victim into a maintenance closet, bound and gagged him for possible later interrogation, and then consulted the homemade app on his smart phone to identify the last-known position of another pair of his opponents.

They had disabled all of the obvious alarms and monitoring devices by now—which was precisely the reason Query had made them obvious to begin with, so that they would be too busy to find the real devices.

The pair he was tracking now were registering as having been hit with an odorless aerosolized sedative some 10 minutes earlier when they accidentally sprung one of his traps. It wasn’t enough to knock them out, but it would sharply reduce their reaction time.

He found them a few minutes later, downing one with a small bolo, then firing off a flechette from point-blank range into the ribcage of the other. Query knocked the first one out and bound and gagged him as he had the previous victim, and then held down the other, covering his mouth to keep him quiet until the damage to his heart and one lung overcame him.

Query could hear the faint sound of a voice from the earpiece of the mercenary’s communication equipment. Even with his enhanced senses, it was too hard to make out the details of what was being said, but the fact that the man wouldn’t be responding would alert them to Query’s presence if they weren’t already aware of it—and the fact that most of their team was down.

Another check-in on the smart phone told him that two of the mercenaries had recently left through the front door. Retreating to live another day, no doubt, and Query didn’t begrudge them that.

He just barely heard a van start up, and drive away.

Two more gone, then, and one to three remaining, most likely. They hadn’t passed any of his electronic checkpoints though. They were either lucky or better than the rest.

No indication that they left, and only one van has left, Query considered. This is the clean-up crew. Dedicated and likely deadlier than the rest.

He felt the change in air pressure before he heard any sound from the person hunting him, and the shots were ringing out before he could find cover. Two bullets hit the vest protecting his upper torso. Their impact hurt, but nothing short of an explosive round was going to get through that body armor. Another bullet ripped through his left forearm, while yet another tore out a chunk of his left bicep, leaving two trails of agony in their wake. The sleeve of his leather duster was reinforced, but far from bulletproof. His accelerated healing would stop the blood flow soon enough, but that arm would be of little practical use for a good day or two while it healed—except maybe to block any other attacks. The limb had become a casualty to be put in harm’s way, so that the other arm could do its job.

A pity that I’m a leftie, Query thought, as he pulled out one of the pistols with his off-hand and lobbed a small flash grenade with the injured one. As it went off, he rushed out from his hiding place and grabbed the gun of his adversary with his left hand. Before he could fully wrest it away, the man fired off several shots, one of which plunged through his palm. With Query cursing in pain and momentarily distracted, the mercenary struck him repeatedly. Even mostly blinded and disoriented, the unarmed merc was putting up a good fight, and Query was intensely glad he wasn’t facing the man in peak condition. He managed the beat the man away long enough to get a good shot, and shot him twice in the gut.

Then, as suddenly as the enemy was down, Query heard the man’s partner approach from the side, and managed to take cover before any bullets hit him this time. Taking out his last bolo, he came out from behind his cover and flung it at the mercernary’s weapon. He heard swearing in a feminine voice and then rushed her, batting away the pistol she was drawing. Getting his attention with the gun had the desired effect though, and with her other hand, she slashed at him with some kind of powered knife he hadn’t seen her draw.

Query used his otherwise useless left arm as a shield, the blade slashing easily through the sleeve of his coat. Every time she hit home, he not only howled with pain but mentally tallied up the additional damage. One slash. Two. Three. Probably another week added on to his recovery time, as the blade reached bone with the final slash. Then Query got his opening, and kicked in one of the woman’s kneecaps. As she stumbled, he pulled a retractable baton and used it to disarm her, then strike her across the head twice.

He retrieved his pistol from the ground—no, it was her pistol, he realized—and considered killing her or at least shooting her through the spine. He already had five other mercs trussed up in various locations, and he only needed to take two with him to question. Simply knocking this one out was too risky—she was probably the most dangerous enemy still alive or uncrippled.

But a woman and a man—one of each—that could be useful, Query thought. Each gender has its own weak points, and I need all the edge I can get to obtain answers.

He bound and gagged her, unloaded a syringe of sedative into her, and dragged her into his dumpy looking backup car—then found one of her teammates and tossed him along with her. He wondered if one last mercenary would show up, but no one did, and he smiled with as much satisfaction as he could with a seething and bloody landscape of agony where a fully functional arm was supposed to be.

When he was a few blocks from the scene of the attack, Query called the police and told them where to find the bodies—both warm and cold.

* * *

“You have come here with good news, I hope, though I wonder—because you seem to lack the corpse that would make me happy,” said the well-dressed and broad-shouldered man to whom the remaining two mercenaries had retreated. He turned his head slightly to face them, his expression unreadable, covered as it was by a full-face drama mask, half of it the iconic “comedy” image and the other being half of the “tragedy” image. His eyes seemed hard, though, and added to the severe, almost military-style cut of his hair, Janus presented an imposing image.

But still his mood was unreadable, and a report had to be made.

“Judging by the fact that our remaining two team members haven’t joined us, I presume the entire mission is wash,” one of the mercenaries admitted. “Query took out 16 of us by himself.”

“It could have been 18, had you two stayed to do your job to carry out the mission, or die trying,” Janus pointed out.

“We were ordered out of there to report back to you.”

“Do you think I wouldn’t have ascertained the results of your mission had you stayed to die or be captured? After all, Query probably has a kinder hand than I.”

“If the ranking member of the team orders us out, we go. If you have an issue with that and he’s still alive, take it up with him,” the mercenary answered.

“Orders. Obedience. Well,” Janus said. “I can’t argue against that when it’s precisely what I demand, can I? It is, after all, the only reason that you’re still alive.”

“I appreciate that,” the man answered, and his partner nodded.

“Don’t,” Janus said. “The fact I don’t plan to kill you doesn’t mean I won’t hurt you. I want to make sure I get a full and accurate debriefing, and I wish to ensure that you are telling the truth when you say you were ordered out.”

Both mercenaries tensed, and the one who had been speaking could easily visualize the cruel smile that must be under that mask. Both he and his comrade considered running, but in the end, they allowed themselves to be led away by a trio of henchmen in kabuki masks.

Besides, they wondered, how bad could a painful interrogation be if it meant they got to live?

It was a question they would ponder quite often in the weeks after Janus let them go. It was a question that one pondered for three months, actually, before he ultimately took his own life to burn the memories from his brain. The other one took a slower form of suicide, and buried the memories for years with heroin instead.

[ – To view the next chapter, click here – ]

Comments
  1. Anxiety is a strange feeling and the fear of fear itself can be crippling

  2. Deacon Blue says:

    Yeah, I know…the above comment is spam.

    But at least by approving it I no longer have an empty “Recent Comments” area in my sidebar. 😉

  3. Joe Romanak says:

    I really like this universe you’ve made, I’ve read this chapter, and all of the one-off stories up to Hippocrates Deferred, and i will definitely continue to read your stuff as it comes out, keep up the great work!

  4. Deacon Blue says:

    Thanks, Joe. It’s really been a pleasure so far…just wish I had more time to churn things out at a more rapid pace. And to you and anyone else who comments in the future, don’t ever hesitate to point out my flaws as well as my virtues. I take criticism well, and there have been times in the past with other online ventures where a commenter has saved me from making huge mistakes in an ongoing story with a suggestion here or an observation there.

    As far as I’m concerned, this is the readers’ blog as much as it is my own, and I hope that those who visit here can help me shape this universe.

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