The Gathering Storm, Part 18

Posted: October 18, 2011 in The Gathering Storm series
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In her Allison Wonderland costume, but sans the mask and wig, Vanessa Santos landed a vicious kick at the midsection of the practice dummy, then a quick trio of hand strikes at the nose, throat and chest. She did a short backwards hop away from the dummy, quickly wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm, huffed so loudly it was almost a grunt, and then howled and launched a series of punches, elbow strikes and kicks at the dummy again.

She repeated her onslaught for several more minutes with a manic energy—having already been at it for nearly 20 minutes—until she began to wear down, her blows slowing and losing strength. Finally she launched one last weak spinning kick that barely grazed the dummy and sent her tumbling to the lightly padded floor.

As she struggled back into a sitting position, Allison looked down at the slick, slightly sparkly, light blue gloves with white cuffs that ran almost to her elbows, then down at the identically hued blue dress and white apron, panting and gasping alternately until the two actions finally began to mix into sobs. She put her face in her hands, and launched one more flailing kick from her place on the floor, missing the dummy entirely, dumping her on her back again and leading to a louder series of sobs as she righted herself.

A few minutes later, she raised her face from out of the puddles in her palms. The streaks on her face and the puffy eyelids were a legacy to her crying jag, but her eyes were dry now. Hard. Angry.

And fixed on the camera in the corner of the training room.

She extended her middle finger, advancing on the camera as she continued to flip it off. When she was as close as she could get to it, she mouthed the words “Fuck you” and exited the room. Her legs were unsteady, but there was still determination in the pace of her stride.

“Dramatic,” Fortunato said, his light brown face impassive as he stopped the video playback of the scene and set the remote control for the digital disc player on the top of his desk. “Sloppy at the end, but certainly fierce. I can only hope she won’t cry in battle.”

“She’s probably embarrassed enough that she forgot about the camera and cried where you could see it,” Jeremiah noted. “I don’t know that she’ll cry again within a 10-mile radius of you now. I can guarantee that if she wasn’t imagining that training dummy was you already, she sure will be from now on.”

“Oh, she clearly already was,” Fortunato answered, “and I’m sure next time she’ll be envisioning testicles on it and aiming quite a number of blows between the legs.”

Jeremiah’s grin bordered on the sardonic as he said, “I find it amazing that she was surprised you had been grooming her for possible duty fighting on the streets and such. All those muay Thai sessions, tai chi and aerobics that you insisted on in between the studying and honing of her transhuman talents…”

“People have an amazing capacity to go into self-denial,” Fortunato responded, “especially when they don’t like the idea of where things are heading. Besides, the story I told her that it was necessary for properly gauging and testing her powers—as well as keeping her in shape for testing—was plausible; partly true, even. And I was never certain when I hired her that I’d ever make use of her transhuman powers.”

Fortunato paused, then fixed his gaze on Jeremiah for several moments before he continued: “You know, you should probably have a bit more sympathy for her.”

“I’m supposed to be on your side, sir,” Jeremiah noted. “I don’t question you unless you need a Devil’s advocate and I don’t coddle people you’re trying to mold—not even in my thoughts. Besides, isn’t it a little ironic that you want me to have sympathy for her when you’re the one who blackmailed her into becoming a costumed transhuman?”

“Well, you both have a similar status in many ways. You both work for me and owe your livelihoods to me,” Fortunato pointed out. “There, but for the grace of God, go you,” he added, gesturing toward the monitor that had so recently played Vanessa’s martial arts workout.

“I’d never be in that position, though, so I don’t have sympathy,” Jeremiah said, shrugging.

“Do you think you’re beyond the reach of my machinations, Jeremiah?” Fortunato’s tone had a hint of playfulness, but also curiosity and intensity.

“No, sir. However, I do think that sending your executive assistant into battle against transhumans when he doesn’t have powers, hand-to-hand combat skills or weapons training would be counterproductive. It would take years to break in somebody that could understand what you need and when you need it half as well as I do.”

“This sudden sense of self-importance and irreplacability will likely factor into your next job review, Jeremiah.”

“Well, sir, it’s a good thing for me that I have nine or ten months before then for you to forget,” he replied. “But, honestly, I know I can be replaced—just as I know that my value lies in where I am at, and replacing me would be an incredible inconvenience for you. So, I have nothing in common with your new project, Allison Wonderland, and no reason to sympathize with her, either in that role or as Vanessa Santos.”

“Do you know that you can be a cold-blooded human at times, Jeremiah?”

“Isn’t that one of the many character traits you hired me for, sir?” he asked. “You need someone who can co-sign your cold-blooded moments and help you maximize them.”

He didn’t smile and neither did Fortunato. It wasn’t a joke and they both knew it; it was nothing more or less than the truth, plainly told.

After several minutes of silence, Jeremiah cleared his throat lightly and said, “So, how large of a team are you planning to create?”

Fortunato gave him a puzzled look. “A team for what? Is there a new IT rollout I’ve forgotten about, or a new drug that our pharmaceutical division needs to get through the FDA approvals?”

“I sincerely doubt you plan to send Allison Wonderland out as a solo avenger for your cousin’s murder,” Jeremiah said. “Also, you’ve been moving funds to some interesting parts of your corporate empire lately. If I couldn’t figure out the implications by now, it would probably be a sign I’ve outlasted my usefulness as an employee.”

Fortunato sighed. “It’s nothing personal, you understand. I would have needed to make you aware eventually. But I had been hoping to secure some support from the transhuman community—a few select individuals, anyway—before I started briefing you.”

“Like Query?”

“Yes, like Query,” Fortunato admitted, “though there are several others that are just as high on my list of potential recruits.”

“But none who’d so readily tell you to go screw yourself when you call them.”

“True. Besides, even when I start getting nibbles—Query excepted in all likelihood—it could all still fall apart.”

“Janus is responsible for the death of one of your family. There is no way you’d allow such a plan to fall apart. Still, team-building among transhumans is a tricky task, and this is no short-term plan you’re hatching.”

“I can’t think short-term on this,” Fortunato said. “It’s highly unlikely that even the most perfectly structured team could take Janus down quickly. There will be too many layers between us and him. Plus, I’ll need the support of the city and perhaps the state, which means I’ll have to include their needs, which means I won’t be able to focus full-time on my real enemy. And, frankly, even if I get lucky and do have a quick resolution to Janus, I have to think ahead. He’s setting a precedent in my city that in all likelihood means that the huge vacuum he leaves once he’s finished off would be filled by someone else—or multiple someones would make a mess of the city trying to. I need a good-sized team and one that has flexibility built into it to fill the ranks again as we lose members through…ummm…attrition.”

“Also a team with a good mix and balance of powers and capabilities,” Jeremiah noted.

“Naturally. Of course, now that you’ve deduced all this, you’ve put me in the position of needing to increase your workload several weeks earlier than I otherwise would have done.”

“Might as well add more work. I can sleep when I’m dead. I’d rather be working than dreaming anyway.”

“A pity we can’t simply eliminate sleep from the equation, eh?” Fortunato said. “I wonder, though, what it would do to a man never to dream again. I seem to recall that the military got some very bad results from long-term sleep deprivation experiments back in the ’60s or ’70s. I’ll have your assignment and project list to you tomorrow morning. Time for some team-building of the non-standard sort.”

* * *

“You’re now up to a total of 17 messages from Fortunato or his associates,” Carl noted midway through his evening meeting with Query. “Are you ready to start responding to them with anything but silence or some version of ‘fuck off’?”

“Do you think it would make him go away faster if I actually paid attention to him?”

“Uhhhhhh…no.”

“Then I think you have my answer,” Query noted. “I suppose it would be nice to know what he thinks is so important to keep calling, but won’t actually leave any info for me in the messages. Clearly, it’s no peril-and-jeopardy thing.”

“All that vaunted intuitive power you have in that brain, and can’t figure Fortunato out,” Carl teased.

“Who can?” Query said sourly. “Sadly, intuition, no matter how hyped up by mutated genes, doesn’t give me all the answers.”

“The problem is that you’re not really invested in finding out,” Carl pointed out. “You really are just trying to ignore him; not figure out what he wants. Because then you might be tempted to engage with him. Maybe he wants to put all that money to work for a fellow transhuman and respected peer and build you a fancy Question Cave.”

When Query didn’t respond, Carl looked up from his iPad Quinto. The transhuman hero was looking just off to the side of Carl’s face, suggesting he was deep in thought. Carl opened his mouth to speak, and Query lifted one finger to indicate he should be quiet.

After a minute or two, Query got up and started pacing slowly around the office. Carl thought he heard faint mumbling, and then clearer words came forth from the man’s mask—quiet but discernible and spoken in a rhythmic cadence.

“Not so gently; never incidentally. Is he Ritchie Rich or Remy Buxaplenty?”

“Huh?” Carl blurted, and Query stopped. Turned to face him. Considered him for a moment before answering.

“What?” Query said.

“You spaced out, and then you started rapping or something,” Carl said.

“I wasn’t spaced out; I was thinking. As for the rapping, I didn’t realize I was speaking out loud.”

“You rap?” Carl said. He looked like he was about to laugh.

“Maybe. I do a lot of things besides beat up on bad guys.”

“Rap? You know, you can’t…”

“…if you finish that as ‘…spell crap without rap’ I may be beating up more than bad guys in a moment. I think your secret enjoyment of Nickelback, Coldplay and Lady Gaga is questionable.”

For a moment, Carl was tempted to ask how Query knew about those guilty pleasures, then remembered who he was talking to. Even if the man wasn’t monitoring his online listening or music purchases, his hyped-up hearing could probably make out the music from the iPod headphones when Carl listened to music during some of their meetings.

“OK, OK. Truce,” Carl said. “But it was weird.”

“You don’t want to be in my head, Carl. Trust me. It’s a mess. Anyway, I sometimes think in verse, OK? It’s just a thing. But your smart-ass comment about funding me a Query Cave…”

“I said ‘Question Cave’ I think.”

“Not classy enough. Point is, you got me thinking about the bastard, as much as I was trying to avoid it, and you provided the trigger for me to start sorting things out. Not sure if I should kick you or thank you. I think he is looking to fund something big, but not a ‘Query Cave.’ He’s trying to get my buy-in on something, though. Maybe some sort of huge job he needs done. Maybe some kind of transhuman network or team. Maybe something else. Not sure yet. Question is how pure his motives are, whatever it is he’s planning. Whatever. I have to focus on Janus and Zoe Dawson right now, but I’ll set this to simmer on the back burner.”

“Rap singing and cooking. You’re quite the Renaissance hero, aren’t you?”

“Keep it up, Carl, and I’ll make you listen to a marathon of Ice T, Tupac, 50 Cent and Kanye West while I give you paper cuts and drip lemon juice on them.”

* * *

An explosion of flavors on her tongue; a symphony of scents and tastes to dazzle her senses. Zoe swallowed slowly to savor the pricey, gourmet fare, holding tight to every second of anything pleasurable to take her mind off her dinner companion and what that companion symbolized and portended.

“So nice to see you truly enjoy a meal with me for once,” Underworld said. Tonight, the woman was dressed in a somewhat matronly disguise, adding an extra 10 or 15 years to her actual age but barely putting a dent in her sex appeal—their waiter had been subtly flirting with the woman since they had arrived. “After all, I’ve been taking you to ever fancier places; it’s getting expensive to woo you to our little operation.”

“Crime doesn’t pay enough to buy a few nice meals?” Zoe said, her tones sweet but the rhythm of her words hinting at disdain. “I see it’s also no longer just Janus’ operation—you’re ‘all in’ now, are you?”

Underworld brushed off the attempt to bait her, waving her hand in the air as if to literally shoo away Zoe’s words. “Zoe, I appreciate your strength of character; I really do. And while I hate to put a damper on your appetite by bringing up business, since you finally seem to be eating a healthy amount in one of our little dinner meetings, I need to tell you that Janus is giving you room only until after your graduation. Once you hand in that rental gown, though, all bets are off. From that moment on, you’re fair game, and if you don’t sign on, you can expect to be drafted or start running.”

“I’ll let you know,” Zoe said noncommittally, spearing a piece of tender filet mignon and setting it on her tongue to mix with the earlier flavors of mushroom risotto and herb-butter-broiled lobster tail. “It’s nice to have a deadline in mind. That helps me stretch things out just a little and get to feel all pampered and loved and special with these recruitment meals.”

She tried to keep her tone light, as if none of this bothered her, but she could see in Underworld’s smile and eyes that the other woman saw through her charade. Zoe’s bluster was clearly a sham to Underworld, and the villain seemed to enjoy the cat-and-mouse game a bit too much for Zoe’s tastes.

Another glass of wine followed dinner, and then dessert after that. Then more banter and thinly veiled threats of potential abduction and Janus’ potential ire if Zoe hemmed and hawed too much for too long. Zoe playing hard-to-get and Underworld deftly mixing the roles of recruiter and intimidator.

When she could finally leave, Zoe almost sighed openly with relief. When she was far from the restaurant, alone and sure she couldn’t be seen, she pulled out the pre-paid cell phone she had bought for no other reason than to contact Query to begin with, and she started typing a message to him—or whomever handled his calls, emails and texts.

The deadline that Underworld had given her sounded fishy. It felt like a trap. It seemed all too likely it was a way to lull her into a sense of complacency so someone could abduct her sometime between now and graduation—and probably closer to “now.”

She conveyed that in her message to Query as well as she could in typed words, put the phone back in her purse, and rushed to find the nearest taxi so she could get out of the open and back home—someplace she could at least have some shadow of a sense of security.

* * *

The text from Zoe was a welcome thing for Query—it made him look like just another electronic communications-obsessed pedestrian as he read it while trailing Zoe’s dinner companion on foot. He was able to scan the message while he walked, feeling sympathy for the young woman even as he tasted the potential for a chance to get a shot at Janus or one of his cronies soon.

His assessment of the situation was much like Zoe’s own, though he didn’t want to assume too much. Janus had already proven to be unpredictable, and perhaps calculatedly so. He might snatch her up in a matter of hours or days, but he might also wait for months after her graduation just to ensure she’d be unwary when he sent someone after her.

The woman who had bought Zoe dinner tonight was walking calmly. No rush. A few times, she even stopped to check out dresses in the front windows of expensive boutique shops, making Query have to readjust and look natural without getting too close or calling attention to himself—that self being a slightly overweight, no-longer-middle-aged-but-not-quite-elderly Middle Eastern man tonight.

Query was certain that this woman was the same one who had been working to recruit Zoe at every other meal he’d spied on—she wore a different wig each time and altered her appearance in other, more sophisticated ways, but her height and build had never once changed, and that was enough for Query to confirm it was the same woman each time. According to Zoe, the woman was Underworld, and based on the most recent data Query had on the villain, the body type and size matched close enough.

For Janus to have such a well-connected and competent transhuman criminal like Underworld directly recruiting Zoe made him uncomfortable. What was it that Janus knew or suspected about Zoe and her powers that made her so valuable to him thsat he would do that? Such complex and befuddling machinations by Janus were made all the more uncomfortable by the increasing awareness that Fortunato was plotting something himself.

Sure, Fortunato is one of the white hats, but he’s unsavory and borderline criminal in a few ways, and an asshole in most ways, Query thought. To some degree, the plotting of a villain makes me less uncomfortable, because I can simply go after that person. But what to do when someone who’s supposedly my peer and potential ally is someone I don’t trust?

Query pursued Underworld on foot for another 15 minutes before finally losing her in a crowd and finding himself unable to pick up her trail again without looking conspicuous and possibly drawing the attention of any watchers that might be looking out for her on Janus’ behalf.

It had been the same with the other four stake-outs, too, when he’d followed her afterward. Underworld never took the same route, and almost never even headed in the same compass direction each time, leaving him baffled as to where her ultimate destination lay. And always, there came a point at which she managed to lose him. It wasn’t unexpected, but the caution she showed suggested that Janus was keeping security as a top priority. Tracking his operation down and nailing him was going to be very challenging indeed.

Query had considered putting a tracking device on Underworld somehow, but with this much in the way of caution and security protocols, no doubt at some point before she got near Janus, someone would search her physically and electronically. If a device was found, Query would have tipped his hand and would probably lose his chance to draw out Janus.

He doesn’t leave me a single useful clue to which I can apply my much-vaunted intution, Query grumbled mentally. And neither does Underworld. In other words, they’re acting just like I do to protect myself.

A part of him reveled in that. A challenge. Something to put him through his paces.

Query hailed a cab, and set out to re-acquire Zoe. Tonight was probably the last time he could risk wasting time trying to track Underworld without putting Zoe at undue risk. From now on, he would have to stay close to the young woman—but not too close.

The game is afoot, mine enemies, Query thought. Even if you’ve eluded me tonight, eventually you’ll slip up. Or I will. Either way, we’re going to have some resolution eventually. Bet on it.

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

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