The Gathering Storm, Part 12

Posted: February 5, 2011 in The Gathering Storm series
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When Carl Beacham, attorney-at-law, entered Query’s office from the tiny and unstaffed outer reception area—He really should get a sexy secretary, Carl mused silently—a head swiveled toward him swiftly—a metallic-and-polymer visage regarding him coldly with two large and luminous eyes separated by a sharp and curving beak.

His body jerked reflexively, and he faltered in his stride, but saw Query patiently tinkering immediately behind that bird-like head and his heart rate quickly ramped downward. He closed the door as he stepped inside, curious now instead of concerned, at the thing on Query’s desk that looked like a hybrid between a large model airplane and an owl.

Query was intent on his project, and said nothing, so Carl sat in one of the time-worn chairs, wood darkened from thousands of sittings, probably, creaking loud enough to make him worry he might be about to land on his ass on the floor.

He waited, and was rewarded a couple minutes later with a cordial “How are you, Carl?” as Query set down the precision tools he had been using and flipped a switch. The eyes of the “owl” went dead, and its head tilted forward slightly as if in rest.

“Doin’ fine, Query,” he responded. “You couldn’t afford a better office? Bigger at least?”

“It suits me fine, Carl, and it’ll be easier to trash if I have to make an escape again because you let some hottie slip a transmitter into your pocket. Building is older, and access to escape routes and hidey holes is better.”

“Is the main escape hatch behind the bookcase again?” Carl asked casually, not really expecting an answer this time any more than he had when he asked it at their previous meeting.

“You’ll find out if you happen to accidentally lead another hit squad to me, Carl,” Query said with dry humor. “So let’s both say a prayer for you to never know where I’ve hidden my bolt-hole.”

Carl nodded to the mechanical construct on Query’s desk. “New pet? I think you should try for something a bit warmer and softer that licks you. And it is…?”

“This is Archimedes,” Query said nonchalantly, ignoring the verbal bait that Carl had set out.

“You named it after a philosopher?”

“No. Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, scientist, engineer and inventor,” Query corrected him, “but I actually named it after the owl that Merlin had in The Sword in the Stone or The Once and Future King—I forget which. Maybe both.”

“So, it does have a name. Funny, I always figured you for a cat person,” Carl said with a wink and slight leer.

“There is no truth to the rumor you are no doubt attempting to start that Cheshire and I have a ‘thing’ going,” Query said with mild irritation, unable to let the second bit of bait pass by. “It has a name so that I can know which one it is. I have eleven, after all.”

“Eleven? OK, eleven what? What is that thing?”

“Same tech as military drones. You know, the ones that do the spying missions over Afghanistan or Iraq or whatever. Or killing missions if they’re fitted with micro-ordinances.”

Carl opened his mouth but Query interrupted him before he could speak.

“Before you ask—No, I’ve armed none of them, at least not yet, and yes, the others have names too. Bubo, after the mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans; Hedwig, Pidwidgeon and Hermes, who are the only owls I remember in the Harry Potter books; Plop from a children’s story called The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark; Soren and Coryn from the Guardians of Ga’Hoole stories; Woodsy Owl from the U.S. Forest Service’s ‘Give a Hoot—Don’t Pollute’ campaign; and Laurel and Hardy. Now you know a little more about my operations and I’ve given you literature, film and pop culture education to boot. You can thank me later.”

“Laurel and Hardy were humans,” Carl pointed out.

“I ran out of owl names and besides, those two drones typically work together in back-and-forth, crisscrossing surveillance runs, like a well-tuned comedy duo routine. There, another cultural reference for you. You need all of the culture you can get.”

“You built yourself eleven drones?” Carl asked incredulously. “I know you have a lot of time on your hands, but…”

“This one I built,” Query said, passing his hand over the drone almost theatrically, “which is why I’m tinkering with it. It’s always been a bit buggy. Reverse-engineered it from one of the ten military-issue models that I acquired previously. All I did with the others was reprogram them a little and fit them with some custom sensors and their own owl heads. I wanted them to have some customization and not just be khaki couture. I’d like them to have a little flair and style.”

“Wasn’t aware that you had a shopping account with the military. How did you get them to sell you ten…” Carl paused, then said, “Oh, Query…you didn’t steal them from the military, did you?”

“A bit too ambitious for me. And a little unpatriotic I might add. No, someone else stole them, and when I crushed their operation and started scavenging through their ill-gotten wares, I found the drones. That was about a year ago. Figured they’d be useful; I was right. Figured the military already wrote them off; don’t care whether I was right about that or not—finder’s keepers. Archimedes here is my pet project. Once I get him to be more or less bug-free, I can build my own in the future. Still expensive as fuck, but I can cut some corners and score some deals on materials that the military can’t.”

“So, this is how you keep tabs on events in New Judah.”

“And New York,” Query added. “They’re just one tool, really, but they are very useful. Aerial recon is a serious upper hand. I can only do so much hacking into surveillance systems, hiring informants and all that. As much as I’d love to talk shop, though, we’re not here to discuss aerodynamics and espionage, are we?”

“Patsy and I had a little fight, so I’m in no rush to get back home and besides, I’m enjoying our repartee, but yeah, flying spying owl mini-planes isn’t really on our agenda.”

“Argument?” Query said, turning his head more directly toward Carl—the other man could feel the intensity of the gaze even though he couldn’t see the eyes behind the mask. “Patsy’s the best thing in your life aside from my paychecks. Try not to screw it up. OK, give me the daily report.”

Not for the first time, Carl took note of the tone in Query’s voice when he spoke of Patsy, and he wondered if the hero had some personal connection, or whether he simply snooped so much on Carl’s life that he had a strong opinion about how the man should live it.

“Allrighty then…first item on the list is Zoe Dawson. Met with her, talked with her, researched her. Feels legit, but I still have worries.”

“How so?”

“She sounds honestly unnerved by this recruitment effort she says Janus is conducting on her through Underworld. She seems sincere in wanting help, but at the same time, she’s two parts pissed and one part scared. Seems like the ratio should be reversed, and that makes me wonder if she’s just a good actress. Also, I’m not buying the level of interest Janus supposedly has here. She’s an Acro—I got her to admit that much and it wasn’t hard to figure out anyway—but why would he expend this much effort on her? And if she has other powers, why is she being so cagey about them with me? Frankly, I think the odds are slightly tilted toward this being a trap, with her as the willing bait to lure you out.”

Query leaned back slowly in his office chair after sliding Archimedes to the side of his oversized desk, and put his army-booted feet up on the desk. By turns for the next few minutes, he gazed up at the ceiling or consulted something on his computer monitor.

Carl, for his part, regarded the well-worn soles of those boots, and wondered how much they’d witnessed; how much they’d done. How many moonlit, blood-tinged puddles had lapped at them in alleyways where Query might save a wounded victim from a rape or murder? How many skulls might they have concussed and how many cheekbones might they have shattered in fights? How many miles had they logged pacing or wandering over countless sleepless nights and days?

Finally, Query sighed and removed his feet, sitting back upright and looking right at Carl in what the lawyer presumed was an intense and penetrating gaze.

“She’s legit,” Query said. “Certain enough to bet your life on it, anyway.”

“How kind of you,” Carl said dryly, knowing it was a joke.

“OK, I’d bet my life too,” Query said. “I’ve already hacked into her student records, medical records, e-mail accounts, parent’s e-mail accounts and all other sorts of shit, and her being more pissed than scared fits the personality profile I’ve constructed. So unless Janus recruited her for this theoretical trap for me back in middle school—which is long before I even entered onto the hero scene—I think we can mark that off the list of concerns. Zoe is confrontational and smart; if she wasn’t so much the former, her professors’ grades would more accurately reflect the latter. As it is, probably half of them downgrade her a half to a full grade because they don’t like the way she challenges their assumptions so often.”

“What about the whole power thing? She’s either not much in that respect or she’s being evasive about other ones she possesses. Doesn’t it seem a bit much for Janus to be so hot for an Acro?”

“Not odd for Janus to be hot for any attractive transhuman female from what I’ve been able to figure. He’s a man-whore, apparently, as well as being a sociopath, sadist and control freak. But what it comes down to is that Zoe doesn’t trust us. Or you, at least.”

“Why not? She called us for help, remember?”

“She’s smart, and now a little paranoid thanks to Underworld’s avid attentions,” Query noted. “She’s wondering if perhaps you’re actually working for Janus and trying to find out more about her or trick her somehow. Most likely, she doesn’t know how Janus knows she has any powers, but she’s deduced he still doesn’t know the full extent and she doesn’t want him to know, because then she knows he won’t let up on getting her. Janus is still unsure of what she’s capable of, but Zoe knows she’d be very valuable to him. And she doesn’t want to be.”

“I know you have great insight, deductive powers and intuition, Query, but those are big jumps.”

“Backed by your report, my research, those nifty transhuman intuitive abilities of mine, and the fact I’ve spied on your two interactions with Zoe—so I have some personal insight into her demeanor. I’ve also slipped into her classes and her dorm on a few occasions over the past several days.”

“She lives in an all-girl athletic dorm,” Carl pointed out. “Really working your disguise skills this week, aren’t you?”

“I hadn’t used them in too long. Weeks, really. Don’t want to get sloppy in my skills.”

“So, you’ve vetted her; what do we do now? Help her vanish? Nab Underworld at their next meeting? What?”

“You do nothing, Carl, except to let her know you’ve reported to me and to tell her to sit tight. The rest is up to me.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“More or less,” Query responded. “I have a few. Circumstances in the field will dictate which comes into play.”

For several moments, Carl stared into the almost featureless black mask, focusing on the red question mark—the sole bit of flair it possessed—and tried to form his own theories as that punctuation mark mocked him silently.

“You’re going to use her as bait to draw out Janus, at the same time as you’re going to try to protect her, aren’t you?”

“Probably,” Query admitted.

“Risky for both of you.”

“Yeah,” Query admitted, putting his feet back up on his desk, presenting Carl with their scuffed, cracked landscape once more. “But Janus tried to have me killed without provocation, and I’m not about to let that slide.”

* * *

“Love what you’ve done with the wings,” Tooth Fairy said, craning her neck a little, twisting her torso this way and that, and regarding her back in the trio of mirrors. “I really appreciate those little bits of decoration that make them a bit more sinister, and the flapping action is so much easier to control now.”

She stopped admiring herself and the updates to her costume, and turned to face the woman with whom she was speaking. Tooth Fairy smiled and added, “You know, it’s not many people in your line of work who would be so accepting of a severed head in a plastic shopping bag. You really are the best.”

Francesca DeSantos returned Tooth Fairy’s smile—she was genuinely flattered and felt no guilt taking credit for everything, even though Julian Gregori’s original wing-work was still in place—just tweaked a bit. She was actually impressed with Julian’s design, but wasn’t about to admit respect of a rival designer to her new client. “Thank you, my dear. In the few weeks since you switched from Julian over to me for costume design, I’ve found you to be a refreshing bit of company as well. Too many of your ilk are so serious and don’t know how to enjoy themselves in their work.”

Tooth Fairy snorted slightly, and frowned. “Julian and Leon. Pffffpppht! So many rules and principles with those two. You’ll actually hook me up with weapons suppliers, which saves me so much time. They couldn’t even take a joke or two about me snacking on the flesh of their little girl.”

“Truth be told, considering most of the children I’ve encountered in life, the world would be a better place if more than a few of them were eaten,” Francesca responded drolly. “By the way, why do you have a severed head with you?”

Tooth Fairy quickly recounted a tale of a kidnapping for ransom that she decided to abort when she realized how annoying her victim was going to be while she negotiated a ransom amount and the delivery method for of money. In the end, she noted, he was less trouble to her dead than as a source of new income.

“Are you sending a message to his family with the head, then?” Francesca asked with undisguised curiosity and sincere interest.

Tooth Fairy shook her head. “Just want the teeth. Need some new jewelry. I normally let victims off with just a couple extractions, but since he was dead, well…might as well take them all. Easier with the head off. Anyway, I was just getting ready to pull them out when I heard police sirens. Decided not to take a chance and bolted with it in a bag.”

“Really? What kind of jewelry? I do design accessories as well, you know,” Francesca noted.

Tooth Fairy smiled broadly, and let her teeth grow longer and wider to make an almost cartoon-like exaggeration of a smile. “I was thinking something more substantial than my normal baubles. Maybe a broad torc-style necklace. Not enough teeth in this head for that, but I have others at home.”

“Do you have any objection to mixed media?” Francesca asked. “Perhaps his teeth and some of your other human ones mixed with animal teeth and a few bones, and working in some precious metals and stones here and there for accent?”

“Sounds expensive,” Tooth Fairy noted, but she was still smiling, albeit with normal teeth now.

“A girl’s got to stay in business,” Francesca answered. “And I promise I’ll make you even more gorgeous than you already are.”

Tooth Fairy reached out a hand, and as she shook the other woman’s, she noted that the designer didn’t flinch a bit when she felt the brief touch and scrape of tiny dentition that Tooth Fairy had formed momentarily in a faux mouth on her palm. “I think this is going to be a beautiful business relationship,” the villain said. “As long as you keep the cost under $20,000, you’ve got a deal.”

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