The Gathering Storm, Part 10

Posted: December 30, 2010 in The Gathering Storm series
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After a long day of meting out justice—or perhaps just venting her frustrations over life’s problems on the few kinds of people on whom it was more or less socially acceptable to do so—Solstice really just wanted to relax, grab a quick bite, and get acquainted with her bed.

Instead, she was met by the words, “Hey, Michele, welcome back!” and an upraised arm with a half-empty glass of soda being shaken back and forth as the woman added the words, “Drink’s a little warm.”

Shaking her head in half-amused irritation, Michele Cho stepped over to the couch, touched the glass of her stepsister and roommate for a few seconds, and used her cryokinetic powers to cool the beverage down to something near refrigerator temperature. She could smell just a hint of rum wafting up from the Coca-Cola.

“Thanks,” Isabella said. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around aside from that half-the-rent and half-the-bills thing.”

“That and my sunny disposition and the sheer joy of my company,” Michele responded dryly. “Why I keep your demanding and bitchy ass around, though, I’m not entirely sure.”

“I’m adorable and bitchy. You know you want me bad.”

“Oh God, that’s unseemly and depraved even for you, Izzie. We’re sisters.”

“Hardly. You the almost full-blooded Chink and me the almost full-blooded Spic. Sisters? Does not compute.”

Michele snorted a half-laugh. Isabella was right, of course—there wasn’t much sisterly in their relationship. Her Chinese father and the other woman’s Puerto Rican mother had married when Michele was 14 and Izzie was 12 and neither had ever viewed her respective stepparent as anything other than an annoyance.

“Still, it would be really awkward to explain you and me sleeping together at the family gatherings at holiday time,” Michele noted. “Not to mention the fact that you don’t go for girls, so why would I bother with keeping you around as a potential piece of tail? I don’t need to work on converting someone when I can get dates easy enough outside the apartment.”

“Not to mention the fact you don’t like brunettes,” Isabella said, flipping a bit of her hair for effect.

“Not true at all. I’m not generally attracted to brunette women—blondes and redheads all the way there,” Michele said. “Men, though—I love me some tall, dark and handsome there. Brown and black hair for the XY chromosome recreational nookie.”

“Fickle bitch,” Isabella muttered. “Hey, don’t go to bed too soon. I might need my drink chilled again.”

“Then get some ice you lazy twat,” Michele said with good-natured affront.

“So, how did the whole superwoman thing go tonight?” Isabella called out as Michele stepped into the kitchen and pulled out her Solstice cowl from her shoulder bag to give it a quick wash in the sink. “No trouble, I hope. No one got a good hit in on you, did they?”

“Nah,” Michele said. “Strictly losers tonight. I was busy and I’m tired, but it wasn’t even a challenge. Lots ’o bad guys, but zero skill.”

“Just don’t get cocky,” Isabella said. “I may find you to be a gloomy, pretentious Goth freak, but you’re still technically family as well as my roomie, so you’re my gloomy pretentious Goth freak. I don’t want to be dropping some roses on a casket for you until you’re at least in your 60s.”

“I’ll do my best to stay safe and alive, you self-absorbed, overly entitled slut,” Solstice said, blowing a kiss.

Isabella snatched the phantom kiss from the air and made as if she was popping into her mouth, then pantomimed chewing and swallowing. “Love you, too, Michele.”

* * *

Only a few days old now, the month of May did not look to be shaping up as a sunny time, Zoe considered as she nursed a soft drink and picked at the appetizer before her. This was the fourth time now that Underworld had treated her to a recruitment meal and each time, Zoe could feel her time running out more and more. She should be looking forward to graduation in about six weeks, but instead she could only envision doom. Underworld had made it clear that Janus wanted her to recruit Zoe soon and that college plans should be discarded—whether Zoe complied with Janus’ desires or decided to flee.

Zoe wanted a cap and gown and diploma, a little down time, a little time in the work world, and then start applying to grad school.

Instead, a madman was mentally fitting her for a costume and a criminal career, using Underworld as his proxy.

Underworld had gotten very good at reading Zoe’s expressions and discerning the track of her thoughts, and smiled. “Tick, tock; tick, tock,” the villainess said. She was wearing an auburn wig today and clothes that made her look a little like a soccer mom. “Are you feeling Janus’ breath on the back of your neck?”

“You’re an evil bitch,” Zoe said mildly.

“Hardly. You want to know about evil bitches, you should meet Madamnation.”

“Madame Nation? Who’s that? Some jingoistic villainess with a patriotic theme?”

“You really don’t like to follow the transhuman crowd in the news or on the web, do you?” Underworld noted. “Not Madame Nation. Madamnation. Madame plus Damnation. And believe me, she takes the demonic and hellishness thing all the way. The only fellow female for whom I’d reserve the use of the word cunt.”

“Guess you and her have some history,” Zoe noted, trying to keep the discussion away from Janus. The closer the talk came to him, the more her anxiety deepened.

“History? Yeah. She runs a website, too, for all the fanboys and girls, just like I do,” Underworld said. “Except where I do merchandise, book sales and soft porn or artistic sexy images, she’s riding high on the kinky stuff. Fetish, full nudity, a whole stable of girls with cam shows and everything. Tacky, slutty stuff all the way.”

“And more popular because of that, of course,” Zoe added, relishing the chance to get even a small dig into the woman relentlessly recruiting her.

“True. The web was always ripe for the most base desires and for our darkest fantasies to be made readily accessible, wasn’t it? But we’ve also crossed paths in criminal endeavors and she’s done me wrong there, too. Still, as much as I hate her and as unbalanced as she is, she’s less psychotic than Janus, so that’s one plus in her column. Maybe you should see if she’ll take you in and shield you from us.”

Zoe groaned as the conversation again steered where she didn’t want it.

“Really, Zoe,” Underworld continued. “You need to make a decision soon. Janus is a terror, to be true, but he can be managed and I can help you learn how to avoid the dangers. To be honest, I think it might be nice to make you my protégé. You’d find a lot to like on our side of the line, my dear. Crime really does pay when you’re smart enough to do it right. While I don’t like his approach much, Janus and I both know the business, we complement each other, and you’ll do a lot better financially with us than you will with corporate America.”

“I have this nagging moral streak, you see.”

“Oh, yes, the moral streak that allows you to lie to the NCAA that you’re not transhuman, so that you can get scholarship money to pay for college. What does Jesus think of that, Zoe?”

“Don’t go there. Don’t,” Zoe said with unvarnished threat in her tone.

“You see? Zoe, I’m a hardened criminal. I publicly crippled Glory Boy. I’ve escaped prison twice. I’m not a sociopath, but I’m dangerous all the same. And right now, you show that spark again that you aren’t cowed by me. That’s the kind of spirit I want to work with. Yes, I’m worried about you being close to Janus but I think he’s got the right idea about your potential, and I’m really warming to the idea of mentoring you.”

“Not interested.”

“How long can you put it off before you realize you don’t have any choice?”

“There are always choices. And they don’t have to be limited to running away or bending my knee to Janus—or you,” Zoe noted.

Underworld looked around slowly, assessed her surroundings, and then smiled. “I don’t think you’ve brought in the authorities yet, but I admit I was wondering for a moment there. I am curious why you haven’t yet done so.”

“Because if I do, you or Janus might be mad enough to kill me—or worse.”

“Now, now, Zoe. You know we aren’t going to throw away such potential as you have over something like that. You’d only get hurt…a little. And don’t try to play as if you’re afraid of me. What’s the real reason you don’t call in the cops and tell them about me and my efforts to recruit you?”

“Easy. For one thing, I don’t ever know where we’re meeting until the last minute.”

“Oh, I’m sure the FBI would love to stake you out and be ready at a moment’s notice to follow you and try to nab me,” Underworld pointed out.

“Oh, yes, and won’t it be so nice to have to tell them I’m transhuman and possibly trash the college education that I’m still hoping I can finish before I have to figure out how to get Janus and you to fuck off.”

“Well, there are always the so-called ‘white hats’ that you could call in,” Underworld noted with an air of disdain.

“Oh, yes, because it’s so easy to just call up a superhero to come on over and help—or to be my bodyguard for a while,” Zoe said. “And a transhuman battle on campus between you and some super-dude would be so fucking great for my college career. And yeah, I have tried to see if there are any who I could get to help, just in case. But they don’t have receptionists.”

“Well, some of them…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Zoe said dismissively. “Super groups. Teams. Sure. I’ve done my research. Most of them are more like clubs. A bunch of transhumans who sort of get along but none of whom think the others know shit. They’ll have an office and a phone number for a few months and then they can’t keep up with the bills any more and the number they had in the phone book is disconnected, their website hasn’t been updated in months, and their e-mail inbox is overloaded and kicking back your messages. The only transhumans who always keep their phones operational are mercenaries, and I can’t afford one of them.”

“I see someone has been doing some homework other than prepping for final exams,” Underworld noted.

“As if I’m going to sit on my ass while you and Janus map out my life without my consent?” Zoe said. “There are only what—three legitimate transhuman hero teams?—and one of them is in California, the other one’s in Texas, and the third is in New York and its has such a low opinion of New Judah that they wouldn’t come across the Long Island Sound to do anything here if you paid them. And the fucking Guardian Corps are all about street crime and training new heroes. So, yeah, I’ve got lots of backup, don’t I?” Zoe finished with a sarcastic note.

“That’s what I like about you, Zoe. Proactive. Thorough. Practical. Logical. Fearless. You’ve been working the angles and you’re not afraid to make sure I know it. Join us, Zoe. I’ll keep Janus off you. He has Crazy Jane back in his hands and that makes him happier, and I’ll find new playthings for him, too. You don’t have to worry.”

“Put myself in your loving hands. Lesser of two evils, huh?”

“I’m not so evil, Zoe. I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”

“Go ahead, steal lines from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but that doesn’t change the fact I don’t trust you to have my best interests at heart,” Zoe said. “I’m still weighing options. I figure it’s going to take you at least two or three more lunches to convince me.”

“I doubt Janus will let me do this more than four or five more times before he steps in, Zoe, so I hope you’re right,” Underworld said. “And I hope you make the smart choice.”

Oh, I plan to, Zoe thought, as she idly fingered the smart phone in her pocket. And now that I finally have a number worth calling, I have more choices than you think. At least I hope I do; I don’t know what kind of response time I can count on with this option.

* * *

Carl wasn’t sure he liked Query’s new office all that much—this building was even older than the last one, and smaller, too. After the attack at the last one, he felt more exposed now. But he supposed he would also get used to it soon enough.

“I trust you passed on the chance to dance with, fondle, feel up or neck with any strange women, right?” Query asked. It was the first time they had met face-to-face for business purposes since the destruction of the previous office.

“Learned my lesson,” Carl said. “Mr. Beacham has turned over a whole new leaf in terms of fidelity thanks to almost getting killed before.”

“Don’t refer to yourself in the third person. You’re not famous or eccentric enough.”

“Agreed,” Carl said. “So, is there an escape route behind the bookcase, just in case?”

“If we need to escape, that’s the point at which you’ll find out where I’ve put it. But you also passed through several screeners on the way in here, and I think you’re clean. I clearly need to step up my paranoia level now that Janus is in the region,” Query said. “So, on to the business stuff, which I’m sure has backed up. What do you have for me?”

“Backed up is an understatement,” Carl noted. “I haven’t been able to screen or research all of the calls. Fortunato is trying to reach you…”

“He can go fuck himself,” Query interrupted. “At least until I have a personal reason to want to talk to him, then he can have his say. Go on.”

“The FBI and ATF both want to talk to you—I think they’ve guessed that the whole hit squad thing at your last office had something to do with you…”

“The ‘fuck off’ thing goes triple for them,” Query noted. “Next?”

“A senior at UConn New Judah says Janus is trying to press her into service, using Underworld as a recruiter. She wants help, she’s asking for discretion, and even though she tried to sound tough in her message, there’s a strong undertone of ‘scared shitless’,” Carl said. “She’s also left several e-mails.”

“Trap?”

“Too soon to tell. Could be. Good chance. Janus would want to make it look good, and this student is likely already in his pocket and ready to stab us in the back when we—rather, you—show up to help. On the other hand…”

“I don’t want to leave some girl twisting in the wind while Janus is stalking her—if she’s on the up-and-up.”

“Exactly,” Carl said.

“All right. Be discreet. Get in touch with her. Find out if she seems to be playing it straight. Let me know what you think. I’ll have to trust your judgment.”

“All in a day’s work, boss,” Carl said, batting his eyelashes and smiling in a purposefully insincere manner.

“Yeah, Carl, I know the check is late. I would say it’s in the mail, but I actually have it right here,” Query said, handing over an envelope. “Have I ever let you down?”

“No, and that’s why I try not to let you down either, Query.”

“Just stay away from loose women with transmitters to drop in your pocket, Carl, and you probably won’t let me down ever again—Patsy will be a lot happier too. All right, what else do you have for me?”

As Carl turned over the sheet of paper on his clipboard, and Query spied how many lay underneath it, he knew it was going to be a long night.

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