The Gathering Storm, Part 3

Posted: November 2, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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Another out-of-the-way, grimy location; another dollar.

Well, more accurately, $33,000 for this little trip, which was why Julian Gregori wasn’t grumbling much about driving all the way up to Maine from new Judah to deliver the crate in a defunct textile mill that hadn’t yet been snatched up by developers looking to repurpose it for offices, businesses, condos or a combination of all three.

And, aside from the money, continuing to cement his reputation for personalized and discreet service didn’t hurt, either.

“OK, Leon, I’m all set,” Julian told the driver of the truck, who was his partner in both the business and intimate senses of the word. “You go ahead and have some coffee and a roll down the road a bit, and wait for my call.”

A quick kiss, followed by the roar of an engine, a little spray of dirt and gravel and a dissipating cloud of exhaust, and then Julian was alone with a big box.

Par for the course.

Of course, his latest client was expecting to meet him at another location some 10 miles distant, where he would find instructions to come here instead. When dealing with transhumans, one always wanted to be careful. It was a lucrative enough part of Julian and Leon’s business, but there was no reason for both of them to be put in an exposed position.

For eight minutes, Julian let a song play out in his head and tapped the toe of his left foot in rhythm to it, clad in a relatively modest Ferragamo—no reason to risk a pair of his really high-end A. Testoni or Louis Vuitton shoes on a trip like this. Then he stopped and looked up as he noted the sound of crunching gravel in the distance, and was surprised to see an SUV pull into the parking lot of the old mill. It slowly come to a halt near him, and Julian took a deep breath.

Traveling 10 miles through city streets and here in less than 10 minutes, when he would have had to find my note and figure out how to get here? Julian thought. This client is not only in a hurry; he was there very early. Not a comforting sign. Transhumans can be a volatile bunch, particularly the ones who lead shady lives, as this one might hope to—if he isn’t already doing so.

While a beefy looking woman remained in the passenger seat, a man slid out of the driver’s seat of the SUV wearing khaki slacks, Timberlands on his feet and an L.L. Bean Jacket over a chambray shirt. Julian assessed him immediately. Trying to look like he belonged in Maine, but not from Maine. Not that he had expected his client to be from here, but going to such efforts to look like he belonged? That made Julian a bit more uncomfortable than he already had been.

“My employer doesn’t appreciate wild goose chases, Mr. Gregori,” the man said.

That made Julian a tad more comfortable—this wasn’t the transhuman guy he had been dealing with by phone and online but the client’s lackey instead. But then Julian lost that slight feeling of ease when he noticed the bulge under the coat that told him the man was packing a firearm.

Not the first time, Julian reminded himself, and it doesn’t mean it’s meant for me

“I’m not attempting to give anyone the ‘run-around’ sir,” Julian said. “But security is of course in both my interests and your employer’s.”

“Please open the crate,” the man said as he approached, “so that I can make sure everything is there.”

“I would be happy to, but as a show of serious good faith, perhaps you could at least make an effort to have a duffel bag or briefcase in hand that theoretically has your contribution to this transaction?” Julian suggested. “Mister…?”

“How does ‘Jones’ sound?” the main offered, and went back to his vehicle, opened the driver-side rear door, and pulled out a small duffel sack. He lifted it, gave Julian an expression that suggested, Well? and started back toward him.

Julian pried open the small crate, and stepped away. The so-called Mr. Jones peered in, moved the items around, and stepped back. “It all seems to be here,” he said, and handed over the duffel bag. The moment Julian took it, he heard a rustling from bushes off to the side and slightly behind him, and the woman got out of the SUV, as Mr. Jones said, “Julian Gregori, I am FBI Special Agent Roth, and you are under arrest.”

Julian dropped the duffel bag to the ground and placidly offered his wrists to be cuffed. “For what charge?”

“Attempting to aid and abet a known criminal transhuman,” Roth said as he applied the handcuffs, “and I think we’ll tack on intent to enter conspiracy with the same.” The FBI agent then read Julian his rights.

“I understand my rights fully, Agent Roth, and you should understand that I knew the supposed client I was working for wasn’t really Devil-May-Care, even if I didn’t know he was undercover FBI,” Julian said with a bored tone in his voice. “I figured it was a villain fan-boy who wanted to play serious dress-up or some copy-cat wannabe. Devil-May-Care has an in-house team to do his costumes and equipment, and if I know that, and every other designer who works with transhumans knows that, I’m sure the FBI already knows it, too.”

“Really, do you want to tell me more?” Roth ventured.

“What? You think that’s incriminating? That if I were smart, I’d make sure my lawyer thinks I should say that?” Julian said incredulously. “It’s a crime to sell clothing now? Even to villains or villain fans or wannabe villains? There’s not a single regulated material, controlled substance, weapon or piece of ammunition in that crate. Kevlar is legal. Chain mail links are legal. Leather is legal. So is the Egyptian cotton/Spandex blend undersuit—which breathes wonderfully and is heaven to the skin, by the way. So feel free to let me go at any time.”

“Then explain the secrecy around this transaction, Mr. Gregori, since you’ve clearly decided to waive your right to silence.”

“I deal with anyone who wants costumes like this, Agent Roth, some of them heroes with secret identities, too, by the way. If it’s illegal to do legit business with people you don’t like, are you going to start arresting restaurateurs and chefs who’ve fed Janus or Freak-Easy meals? Hmmmm? Maybe the mechanic who fixes Speed Demon’s day-to-day beater car if you find him?”

“We have enough probable cause and reason for suspicion to arrest you, Mr. Gregori. Now let’s get you in the vehicle and if you want to dig yourself a deeper hole by trying to justify your actions, you just go ahead and ramble. But I’m going to wait to ask any more official questions until we’re sitting down and I’m enjoying a nice hot French roast coffee from a mug while you drink some lukewarm water from a Styrofoam cup.”

“Barbarian,” Julian chided him with an amused and irritated little sneer.

* * *

The night feels good. Comfortable like a well-worn coat, Query thought. Been too antsy for too long. Hunting is good for me. And after three nights of it, I’m feeling almost human again.

There was a sudden shift in the displacement of the surrounding air, but Query’s enhanced hearing had already picked up the “Yoo-hoo, Query…incoming”—the only thing that kept him from reflexively striking out at the man approaching at high speed down the alley.

“Good evening, Mad Dash. How’s things?” Query asked as the man came to a halt with his usual remarkable skill, but with an odd, spinning flair that seemed equal parts ‘70s disco dancing, Olympic ice skating and flamenco dancing.

“Thought things were peachy like Tuesday morning until I got the news,” Mad Dash responded.

“What news, Dash? I like games, but ‘Twenty Questions’ isn’t one of them.”

“Julian Gregori, man. FBI arrested him on some bull-spooky, dude.”

“So?” Query asked, then nodded, adding, “What, is he your costumer?”

“Yeah, man. Crapiolo on that. I needed to order another shipment from him, too.”

“Gregori does your costume?” Query probed dubiously, eyeing the fellow hero’s short coat, which was a crazy-quilt assortment of colors, shapes and at least eight different materials, from velour to leather to corduroy. Mad Dash had a lot of other ones like it, in different styles, but all of them were at least as wild and haphazard in their design, if not far more so. Query couldn’t imagine how much someone like Gregori would charge to risk having his name attached to that kind of look.

“Nah, not my duds, dude,” Mad Dash said. “That would be bubblicious but I couldn’t afford that. I learned how to sew and stuff a couple years ago. I nearly go broke trying to keep my tootsies covered, though. He does my boots. The man is a genius with shoecraft. As much running as I do, I wear through even his phantasmo quality work after a few months. Whoa!” the hero said, swiping at the air. “Oh, though it was a flying scorpion again. Just a dust mote in God’s eye.”

Query had to silently admit that he was impressed at Mad Dash’s tailoring skills. The coat looked ridiculous and insane, but it was well put-together, and dealing with such disparate materials couldn’t be easy. But as usual, he worried about the man in that coat, and he sighed heavily. “You really should lay off the shift-running,” Query said, a concerned and soothing undercurrent in his words.

Mad Dash was that rarest of all Speedsters, not only able to run at legitimately high speed but also able to shift interdimensionally to take tiny split-second shortcuts through space-time—most could only do one or the other, Query reminded himself. It made Mad Dash one of the fastest Speedsters around, able to give a Formula 1 racecar some serious competition. Trouble was that Mad Dash also had some kind of sensitivity to the dimensional in-between space, unlike most shift-runners, and it was so acute a sensitivity that he got good long looks at whatever oddness lay between dimensions, even though he spent only tiny snatches of time there. Query suspected that the images stayed with him and revisited often like hallucinogen flashbacks.

“It’s fucking with your mind,” Query continued,  wondering how many times he’d given the man this admonishment. “Give yourself a rest from it.”

“Gotta go gotta go gotta run,” Mad Dash said in a sing-song voice. “Black hats don’t stand still for long. Besides, it’s too cool. Makes me happy. Anyhoo what I really wanted was to ask your help.”

“With a villain?” Query asked hopefully.

“No. Nah,” he said, then paused. “Nah na na, naaaa na na naaaa,” he added, mimicking some children’s show tune, then stopped. “Nope. Hoping you can spring Julian. Get the feds to let him go. Man, I’m down to my last pair of boots.”

“They’re just hoping Gregori will give up something on his nastier clients,” Query said. “Maybe he will and maybe he won’t—if he even has anything useful to share other than what he charges them, which I doubt. But regardless, his lawyer will get him out soon. He hasn’t committed any kind of crime. FBI is just flailing around the past few months. They’re irritable. Besides, even if that weren’t the case that he’ll be out soon, I’ve got more important things to worry about, Dash. Janus sent a whole team to try to kill me almost two weeks ago.”

“Did they…?”

“What?”

“Did they kill you?”

“Mad Dash, even for you, that’s a crazy question to ask,” Query noted. “Do I look dead?”

“I don’t know. How do you look when you’re dead?” Dash asked, leaning forward and squinting his eyes behind the oversized yellow goggles he usually wore. “You heal so fast. Maybe you can do a Lazarus trick. Come back from the Great Beyond-oh, you know-oh?”

“Doubt I’m that lucky,” Query muttered. “Or that gifted.”

“Maybe Baby Jesus would raise ya back up,” Mad Dash offered. “You seem worth it to me. You’re worth more than a thousand-year-old solid gold buffalo nickel.” He smiled in his usual disconcerting mix of earnestness and mania, and Query smiled back, even though he knew the man couldn’t see his mouth.

“Thanks, Dash,” he said. “That’s nice. Crazy, but nice. It means more to me than you can know.”

* * *

“I’ve been happy to be mostly retired, Janus, since I’m still young enough to enjoy it. I don’t like being summoned. I don’t like the implications of someone thinking they’re entitled to do that and I don’t like sticking my head out. I still have two unfinished prison sentences.”

“Semi-retired, and yet you came here wearing your costume,” Janus pointed out. “You always did look good in black. It still fits nice. You’ve kept in shape.”

“I still do publicity photo shoots, asshole, and I have a web-based pay-per-view program, and other interests—and you know it,” Underworld said. “And wearing my costume when I’m out is safer. Better for people to see my costume and mask and forget the mugshots, so that I’m less likely to be recognized when I go get a cappuccino in civilian mode.”

“I’ll never forget your face, my dear,” Janus said through his helmet, with a face in front and back, in the style of the Roman god Janus who could look both into the future and the past.

“I’d really like you to forget,” she retorted. “Why did you insist on seeing me?”

“Something has been bothering me for a long while, Underworld, and I do believe that your ability to dispel my confusion will lead to great success in my new life here on the East Coast. I wish to know how you escaped from prison the second time.”

“Trade secret, Janus. Now, if that’s all…”

“How? Don’t lie to me, now…you know I’ll know if you do…”

Underworld said nothing.

“I could hurt you to find out, you know.”

“Bad business to hurt someone you think is so valuable.”

“Your information is valuable,” he noted. “Not your body.”

“I have a great many fans and supporters who would argue otherwise—plus I think you’re lying. In any case, do you really think you’re fast enough to catch me, Janus?”

“Of course not. But how long can you run? I have all the doors sealed. I have since you entered.”

“Really?” Underworld noted blandly. “I hope the place is also rocket-proof. I do have people watching, Janus, and even if you’ve already found and neutralized some of them, you haven’t found all of them. I guarantee it.”

Janus laughed smoothy. “Oh how I miss working with you, Underworld. It will be good to have you back as an associate for a while. After you answer my question, of course.”

“No to both items on your agenda,” Underworld said. “Did I mention that I’m armed as well? I knew from the moment you called that this meeting would be trouble. You were too insistent. Too eager for it. But I couldn’t afford not to know what you wanted.”

“We won’t need to fight, Underworld. I’m sure that keeping your sister alive will be enough incentive to get you to answer my question, avoid killing me and sign on to my team for a while.”

Underworld’s face registered blank confusion as she blinked and said, “I don’t have a sister.”

“You lie so convincingly, my dear,” Janus said, and clapped his hands together in brief applause. “You really should have been an actress. Yes, you went to quite some trouble to erase your old identity and create an entirely new one when you started your criminal career. Complete with wiping out any sign of your surviving sister. And two cousins. And one great-uncle. Would you like me to recite their addresses? Your sister, of course, in Berkeley, California, at 436 North…”

“Enough! I get it!” Underworld snapped. “You’ve made your point. Why is it so important for you to know?”

“There was no sign of your cell being forced. No sign of you on any monitoring equipment. No tunnels. Nothing. What power are you hiding, woman? I want to know, and if I like the answer, I’m going to insist you sign on with me for a while.”

Underworld just looked at him defiantly for three minutes, and he stood impassively, face unreadable behind the bearded and bronze visage of his namesake god gazing into the future. Then she closed her eyes, and her chin drooped just a fraction. “My answer buys a promise from you that my relatives will remain untouched. Not just now, but forever.”

“I will also require you to join me…unless I don’t like the answer, and then you can leave with only my disdain to accompany you.”

“Two months only,” she said. “Not a day longer.”

“Twelve. Rebuilding a criminal empire after abandoning one is a daunting task.”

“Four. Final offer.”

“Don’t dither with me, woman. Twelve. Or I’ll make sure it’s my own hand that helps release your sister’s intestines into the light of day.”

“God DAMN you, Janus!” Underworld growled, and pulled out a grenade. “I’m not your bitch! Be a good businessman and negotiate, or I will send us both to Hell!”

“Now there’s my old Underworld,” Janus said gleefully. “I knew I could bring her out again. Ten months.”

“Four-and-a-fucking-half,” she said.

Janus paused. “Oh, this is getting boring now, and you’re becoming petulant. Let’s just skip to the middle and agree on six months, which is where we both planned to settle anyway. You’ll probably stay on at least another year or two once the money starts whispering sweet nothings to you.”

Underworld put the grenade back in her pocket and shook her head, muttering “Doubtful.” Gritting her teeth, she said, “OK…how I broke out: I phased.”

“You’re a fantastic Speedster, but shift-running only works in fractions of centimeters at a time—an inch or two at best. Even if you managed to hold it a bit longer, you’d have a concussion, contusions all over your body and a few small bits of you stuck inside your cell wall after your dimensionally shifted impact—and you’d still be imprisoned,” he noted, then paused and rubbed one metallic bearded chin of his helmet. “Still, you’re not lying. I’d know. I can’t see how you could be that lucky to have had perfect timing with the dimensional shifts even if you had enough speed to carry you through a wall in concert with them. And the perimeter alarms still would have caught you later. Come now, tell me the whole story. Some hyper-acute clairvoyance, perhaps? Long-term illusion generation?”

“I did tell you the whole story, but you didn’t pay attention. You’re too fucking pleased with the sound of your own voice. I told you: I phased,” she said. “I didn’t just shift-run. I short-hopped through space several feet at a time. I teleported.”

Janus paused, then laughed. “Now who’s won the lottery? Janus, that’s who. Teleportation! No one’s managed that. You’re a true prodigy, Underworld. I never could have hoped for that. Not just some new zero-to-mach-2 in a split-second speedster capability mixed with the shift-running. Not some new powerful mind-bending ability you used on the guards. Real teleportation. This will be so useful.”

“Not as much as you think. It’s exhausting and dangerous.”

“Then we’ll use it sparingly, won’t we? Welcome aboard, Underworld. You can tell your friends outside to stand down now. How many teams did you have by the way?”

“More than one. Less than 10,” she answered.

“Well, then, you can congratulate anywhere between one and nine teams on their consummate skill, because we only found one team, and so you only have two corpses on your conscience. You know how to pick your staff, don’t you?”

“Janus, this is low even for you. This whole thing. Extorting me in an effort to recruit me. What ever happened to honor among thieves?”

“I’ve never believed in that,” Janus countered.

“Then believe this: No one threatens my family,” Underworld said. “This is the kind of thing that leads to a reckoning one day.”

“Yes, I suppose it would,” Janus said. “Then we will both simply have to hope that we come to a reconciliation along the way so that one of us won’t have to kill the other. I’d miss you.”

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

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