The Gathering Storm, Part 20

Posted: February 12, 2012 in The Gathering Storm series
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Through a mouthful of glazed doughnut, Carl Beacham mumbled, “Are we there yet?”

“Yeah, and we’ve been here a bit over an hour and we’ll be here several hours more at least. But you already knew that. I warned you stakeouts were boring,” Query said from the driver’s side of the SUV, peering out the window that, like the others, he had switched to tinted mode when they parked near Zoe’s dorm. “You should have brought some music and headphones; maybe a Raymond Chandler audio book to really get into our theme tonight. You know, I can’t believe you brought a dozen glazed doughnuts.”

“Too cliché?”

“No. I just don’t like glazed, unless it’s Krispy Kremes. We’ve had enough morning meetings for you to know I’m a maple long john or buttercrunch person.”

“You wouldn’t take your mask even halfway off to eat them anyway while I’m around, so I don’t feel all that guilty,” the lawyer retorted. “So, why am I on this stakeout with you again?”

“Because keeping an eye on Zoe is big, if I want to nail the man that almost got you and me shot to hell,” Query answered, glancing at the eight smart phones mounted to the dashboard—all of them the new Droid Nexusz that people had been scrambling for since the novelty had worn off the iPhone Sextet. Each was receiving a spy-camera feed from some exterior part of the dorm they couldn’t see from the vehicle. “Because of that,” Query continued, “I can use a second set of eyes tonight, since I don’t think Janus will wait much longer to nab her. Plus, like I said: Stakeouts are boring. I could use the company.”

“You overpay me a bit for something like this, but I suppose it’s good to be useful,” Carl said sourly. “Even if the only reason you probably pay me is for you to have someone to talk to besides yourself.”

“Jesus, Carl! What’s with the sudden moody tone? I don’t need you going all emo on me during an already agonizing chore.”

“It’s true, isn’t it? You don’t really need a lawyer. You could do all that yourself with your big, bad, super-intuitive damn brain. I’m paid to be around to be the cushion between you and the outside world and to be your friend.”

“What? You don’t like me? We’re not really friends?” Query asked. Carl couldn’t tell for certain through the mask if Query was being light or sarcastic, though his voice seemed to carry vaguely amused tones.

“Yeah, I like ya, but it’s hurting my professional pride, man. You pay me to be around; not because you need my skills.”

“Man goes into existential crisis; falls apart like cells in lysis,” Query mumbled—thinking he should jot that down for a future set of lyrics—then said, in normal tones, “You’ve got no fucking clue, Carl. Of course I need your skills. I don’t know the first thing about lawyering.”

“You could probably pick it up in a matter of weeks—or a few months at most—with your powers,” Carl grumbled. “Some of us have to work years at this shit.”

“Like I said, you have no clue. Is that really how you think my intuitive powers work? That I can do anything I want; learn anything I want?”

“When I asked about the clarinet in your office a few months ago—”

“Alto saxophone,” Query corrected him.

“OK, the sax in your office—you told me you’d never picked up a sax before your powers emerged. But when you started on it, you became a good player in a matter of weeks and a great player not that much longer after. Probably the same with your electronics skills and everything else.”

“Carl, half of why I do all that shit is to give me something to do every hour of the day so that I don’t go crazy. I don’t sleep!”

“Insomnia’s a bitch, to be sure,” Carl said through another mouthful of doughnut.

“No, Carl. I don’t sleep. Ever. I can’t sleep anymore. Not for several years now.”

“Huh?”

“A couple years of working this closely with me and you haven’t figured that out? That I’m up any time you need to call? That I send e-mails at all hours every day? That I’m reverse-engineering military drones, patrolling New Judah, tracking people down through physical, electronic and virtual surveillance and still have time to keep up with all the best new cable TV series and read three books a week? Carl, I have two fake secret identities just to keep myself busy and not completely bug out, in addition to who I really am.”

“Which is Donald Trump, of course, right? You forgot to mention the time you spend doing real estate deals, hosting stupid reality TV shows and trying to prove President Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen, right?” Carl paused and Query remained silent, looking at the lawyer briefly and then glancing at the phone displays again. Carl cleared his throat and began again, his voice more somber. “Seriously, though, you never sleep? I didn’t know you were being literal all those times you said ‘I don’t sleep.’ Thought you were just being all mysterious and brooding and bitchy.”

“Carl, I can’t even be properly sedated. Believe me, I used to try,” Query said. “I do tons of stuff and learn to do lots of things so I don’t go insane. My Regenerator powers probably help, too, or I’m sure my synapses would just fall apart anyway, but yeah. That’s me. That’s what I do.”

“But still, you could drop one of your other identities or some extra hobby you have to eat up time, and learn all the law-school stuff I spent years on, and probably have it down in weeks. Ergo, I’m still just hired to be company. You could learn law and hire an agent or PR person or someone trying to earn their private investigator license to do the go-between stuff for way less than I cost.”

“I had no idea the depths of your self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, Carl. Do I need to give you a raise so you can afford some therapy?”

“I’d just spend it on some cool wines to stick in my cellar and tell you I was going to therapy,” Carl said. “I’ve got no interest in shrinks.”

“And I have no interest in law, Carl,” Query said. “I also call a plumber when my pipes back up and I let mechanics work on my cars when they go to shit. Sure, I need your law skills pretty often, even when you’re not my go-between with clients and authorities and crap—a task alone that makes you worth your salary already—but I don’t want to learn that crap.”

Query paused and stared at one of the camera views of Zoe’s dorm for several moments. “Is that…no…just a possum running past the front entrance,” he mumbled, then half-turned his head in the direction of Carl, who couldn’t understand how Query could have picked out such a small detail on such a small display even with enhanced senses. “Look, I play the sax like a pro. The guitar almost as well. I’m great at electrical and mechanical engineering. Master of disguise. Good with a gun. And more. But at a certain point, if I don’t give those skills plenty of exercise, all the intuitive, hyper-learning potential is useless. Practice makes perfect. I spread myself too thin…well, then I won’t be pro at anything. I’ll lose my edge in the things I need to know and the things I want to do well because I like them.”

Carl nibbled thoughtfully at the edge of his doughnut, pursed his lips and finally responded, “All right, I feel valued and valuable again.” Then he pointed the half-eaten doughnut toward Zoe’s dorm and added, “Think that guy over there should be hanging around here?”

“A guy in his 30s or 40s? At a women’s athletic dormitory? Nope,” Query answered. “Probably a pair of Janus’ eyes; either means we can expect a nabbing tonight, or more likely he’s just keeping tabs on her because things are about to come to a head. There’s also a guy on phone number five that shouldn’t be there.”

“Which hopefully means a kidnapping squad shows up here soon, so that you can take them down while I play Angrier Birds on my phone. Otherwise, I guess we’re taking turns sleeping and spending all night in this SUV to see what these guys do and try to figure out where they go.”

If I slept, of course. But yes, you’re a quick study. We’ll make a gumshoe out of you yet.”

“Good thing I’ve got 10 more doughnuts, then. Don’t have the faintest idea what you’re gonna eat though, Query.”

“I’ll dine on imponderable mysteries and deep thoughts. Unlike your diet tonight, I won’t need to wash it down with lukewarm coffee and pee into a bottle later.”

* * *

Serene.

That was the feeling Dr. Jack Hansen had when he worked very early or very late at the Genesis One facility. The subjects were typically asleep or sedated, and aside from a few screams, curses and incoherent cries on some days, he could simply be.

Be the director of one of the most secret places in the United States. Be alone with his thoughts. Be clear enough to rationalize his actions and push down his guilt. Be calm.

Staff was mostly scant or non-existent in the central operations area before 7:30 a.m., so that desire to be drew him here at 5:30 or 6:00. It was easy most days, given how often he slept in his office—his apartment was usually a memory as vague and inconsequential to him as musings of being a six-year-old or recollections of his first pet.

But serenity was a fragile flower, and the unexpected arrival of Gen. Keith B. Alexander—whose many titles included head of the National Security Agency—a few minutes after six made that peace of mind wilt away instantly.

“General, what an unexpected pleasure,” Jack said.

“I doubt it is, Doctor,” the general responded. “A pleasure or unexpected.”

“Wasn’t expecting your visit to happen quite so early in a workday.”

“I know your schedule; we need privacy.”

“Did the president give the green light?”

“He didn’t have much choice, but there is a decent chance he’ll pull the plug before his term ends,” the NSA director noted. “I hope not, because it would complicate my life a great deal. I don’t need this facility being any blacker a black project that it already is.”

“What can I do to keep us open?” Jack asked.

“Showing him results that involve induced transhumans who aren’t crazy as bedbugs would be a good start.”

“We have many of the usual speed bumps in that regard, but we’re managing all right. If you can put him off another few weeks, that would help.”

“With as much as he has to deal with right now with the Republicans in Congress, I can probably give you a month and a half. Just don’t give me any disasters.”

“There won’t be any more cases like Dr. Kelly’s,” Jack said firmly.

“Which bring me to my next point: Under no circumstances do you tell or allow any information that we are responsible for creating Doctor Holiday to get to the president. Are we clear?”

“I voted for Obama; I still like him more than Bush. Asking me to hide information from the president of the United States is a tall order, Keith. I’m also not pleased you told me some weeks back that he wanted results by Thanksgiving; you had me believing he was already on board.”

“You needed incentive. As for my original point, Obama has been staunchly repeating—himself and through cabinet members—that Doctor Holiday was not a government experiment. It was easy to keep that from President Bush—he was never in a position to know anything but the most vague hints of what we are. But now we’re at a point where the president has to know what we’re doing—but he doesn’t need to know that.”

“Because he’ll shut us down if he does?”

“Jack,” the general responded gravely. “We take away his plausible deniability about that particular thorn in society’s side and his opponents pin him to the wall and make it seem like he’s responsible in some way for Doctor Holiday’s continued freedom—and they will—and the president might find us both special accommodations at Guantanamo Bay that the CIA won’t even know we’re in.”

* * *

Going on patrol with Mad Dash tonight had seemed like a good idea to Ladykiller at the time, since they hadn’t been able to get together for a couple days. It seemed an especially good idea since she had suggested their target: an apparent kidnapping and forced prostitution ring that she had gotten wind of.

If I can’t do my normal Ladykiller routine and take out rapists and such, at least I can go after a similar kind of target—though I wouldn’t have tried something this big solo, she thought.

Sadly, the operation they had decided to take down tonight also seemed to do a small but brisk business in meth and skeez—something she hadn’t expected—and so there were several more heavily armed individuals than she would have expected, an observation punctuated as several rounds whizzed by and dug chips out of the brickwork facade of a nearby warehouse where she had taken cover behind a car.

There was a sudden thump and clatter above her as a body landed on the roof of the vehicle and then rolled on onto the pavement right next to her with a loud “Ouchie!”

“OK, managed not to get shot with that turbo-charged-double-espresso pass, but I don’t see any good way to get near them without ending up dead-dead-deadio,” Mad Dash said, rubbing one shoulder.

Ladykiller was in her Honey Badger identity tonight since Mad Dash might be spotted with her, so she had a pair of bulky clawed gauntlets instead of her usual single, sleek one. She had to pull off both of them as she sighed heavily and then reached behind her back. From a small fanny-pack beneath her faux tail, she pulled a 9mm pistol that was half pink and half gunmetal gray and flipped off the safety.

“Cute gun, hon,” Mad Dash said.

“Thanks. Gift from an admirer. But I’m not that great of a shot and I’ll be out of bullets really quick. You carrying?”

“Gun? Like that?” Nah,” he answered. “I really try to avoid them. Chainsaws, too, but mostly because they’re bulky and burn fossil fuels.” He eyed her gun and then her tail. “Got anything else back there?”

“My ass. If we live, I might let you see it nekkid before bedtime,” she answered, then cringed as another bullet struck the wall behind her, closer than the previous ones. “Any other weapons on you, since you don’t have guns or power tools?”

“I try to remember to bring a couple taser guns but I forgot ‘em again.”

“Not that they’d be much use at this range when we’re being shot at,” she said as she unzipped Mad Dash’s small backpack and looked inside. “Let’s see…no…no…uh…what the fuck!” She pulled out a dark cylindrical item. “What are these and why didn’t you tell me you had them?”

“Oh, my ‘Flashdance’ grenades? Cool! I always forget those are in the bottom. Always burying them under the snickety-snacks. Gift from Query a few months ago. Got 10 more at home.”

“Flashdance? You mean flashbang grenades? Jesus, Dash!”

“Hey, I like Jennifer Beals!”

“I’m not questioning your taste in movies; it’s your total disorganization when it comes to accessorizing that drives me nuts,” she responded, pulling out the other stun grenade. She pulled the pin on the first one, threw it over to where their opponents were, then ducked back down, smiling as the loud blast and blinding flash put a theoretically non-lethal and sudden stop to the gunfire. A few seconds later, she pulled the pin on the second grenade and tossed it over as well. “Never do anything half-way,” she said, then fixed a glare on Mad Dash that was, in truth, only half-irritated. “Let’s go truss them up and get to business. Seriously, Dash, do I have to start dressing you for these outings so that I’ll know you’re properly equipped?”

“Oooo, sounds like fun. OK!” he answered. “Can you also put me in my strawberry jams at night before bed?”

* * *

Solstice didn’t like that Query had dumped the whole Marty the Hun mess back into her lap instead of solving the problem for her. On the other hand, exercising her investigative skills was probably long overdue.

Also, taking down Marty was going to be really fun if the plan her stepsister and roommate, Isabella, had cooked up ended up working. Marty might have dodged the other charges for now, but he would have owner and operator of a drug-cooking lab on the list, too, and likely not slip that one. A few other bits of planted evidence, and he should at least do a decent stretch.

Killing him would have been easier, but killing even a scumbag when she wasn’t in imminent danger from said scumbag was a line she hoped not to cross. Certainly not this early in her crime-fighting career.

While Query wasn’t willing to let her off the hook for dealing with Marty herself, he turned out to be very amenable to assisting her with the frame-up of the man. He seemed very pleased with the plan she and Isabella had hatched, and pointed her in the direction of an operation he’d apparently wanted to take out but had been too busy to address.

Now all she had to do was take down the few people that were usually there, call up Query to have someone pick them up and drop them naked on the turf of their bitterest rivals, and then lure Marty and his goons to the empty drug lab so that she could take them down, plant some more evidence, call the cops and be done with all this shit—maybe still have time to go out dancing with the cute redhead she had run into at that art gallery last week.

* * *

Sleek, stately and elegant, Hush-a-Bye sat in an oversized, dark leather office chair, but with only a small, sleek stainless steel desk before her. Her back was ramrod-straight, hands crossed over her lap, and one leg crossed over the other. The black gown she wore, so close in shade to her long, straight hair, was tight enough to reveal her every curve to perfection, but modest enough to make her appear regal rather than slatternly. A pearl choker graced her pale throat, and diamond earrings hung from her ears. The dichotomy of the short, shiny, red patent-leather gloves and the similarly-colored thigh-high, chunk-heeled boots lent a certain primal edge to the formal demeanor she otherwise conveyed.

At her feet was a man curled up almost like a dog—though doing so more like a pit bull than a lapdog. That man, GoodKnight, wore at least a half-dozen knives and three pistols on his body, clad in heavy black leather from head to toe, except for his mouth and eyes.

“To what do I owe the honor of this visit, Janus?” the woman asked, the slightest sarcastic lilt on the word honor. “I was surprised enough when I heard you’d moved eastward and left a criminal void out west. Now you’re visiting Marksburgh? Paying respects to me? Offering some kind of tribute to me? Looking for me to take you under my wing?”

For a moment, Janus’ two-faced metal helmet regarded her silently, then a low laugh came forth. “Well, business and money are involved, but I was thinking that you might want to become a subsidiary of my operations.”

For a few seconds, Hush-a-Bye pursed her lips and placed one gloved fingertip to them as if in consideration, then put her hands back into her lap and shook her head slightly. “No, I think not. I rather like ruling the roost all by my lonesome, with my faithful vassal by my side.”

“Oh, but I insist. I don’t take ‘no’ very well,” Janus responded.

“Really, I thought you’d be more careful, Janus. Coming with just a pair of bodyguards into my lair. Into the dark heart of Marksburgh, where people watch documentary footage of the roughest gang-ridden Detroit and South Central L.A. neighborhoods to cheer themselves up have something brighter to dream of. To the throne of a crime lord who can put people to sleep with a thought.”

“I suppose it would be foolish if, in fact, I were here,” Janus said, “rather than having sent a minion in a really nice suit wearing one of my used helmets, helpfully installed with a speaker, mic and two-way transmitter in it.”

“I say that’s a bluff,” Hush-a-Bye responded. “GoodKnight, sic him—just a tiny bit.”

In a flash, the muscular man in leather was upon Janus and had two fingers of the left hand in his grip. With a quick jerk, he snapped them both and bent them back hard, until one broken bone of the little finger burst free of the skin. The helmeted, Armani-clad man screamed, but coming through calmly, mixed with that cacophony, was Janus’ voice.

“Really? Violence so early on? You know it’s going to much harder to hear me now over the moans and groans of this pitiful, pain-averse pawn.” The fake Janus was on his knees, gripping the wounded hand close to his chest, as the real Janus’ voice continue to issue forth from the helmet, unperturbed. “Satisfied that I’m not really here, or do you need to wound the two bodyguards, too?”

“Well, I had to be certain. I could have gotten lucky,” Hush-a-Bye noted.

“You’d consider harming the real me to be ‘lucky?’ This does not bode well for our future business dealings.”

“You didn’t come to do business, Janus. You came to get a foothold in my playground and a firm grip on the balls of my criminal enterprise. No one—no one, I say—takes from me anything that is mine. I worked hard to take it all from others, after all.”

“It’s true that I had hoped you’d be a bit softer or more fragile in person and perhaps easily cowed by a personage with such a notorious reputation as mine,” Janus admitted over the sobs and groans of the man on the floor wearing his attire. “But mostly I’d like to diversify. I propose to invest in your operations a bit. And in so doing, reap some of the rewards of your efforts.”

“I’m not a publicly traded company, Janus; I don’t need investors. I subsist on victims, pawns and customers. Privately owned and never imitated.”

“There could be benefits in this for you, Hush-a-Bye. I have begun to assemble a very impressive group of transhumans. I’ve been very exacting in finding just the right personalities and just the right incentives to have a stable dynamic. No infighting. Just a perfect collection of power at my command.”

Hush-a-Bye smiled, but there was no humor in it. She stood up slowly, and then rested one hand on top of the leather-clad head of GoodKnight, who had quickly and quietly returned to her side on all fours after breaking the faux Janus’ fingers.

“Are you telling me that such a force would be available to aid in my own endeavors from time to time, Janus,” she asked with a warning note in her voice, “or that it will be aimed at me if I don’t comply and let you ‘invest’ in my operations?”

“I’ll let you decide which is more likely,” Janus answered.

“You’re playing a dangerous game with a lethal person in the meanest city in the United States, Janus. And even if I do say ‘yes,’ your cut will be small, your obligations will be set in stone and your input will be silent.”

“A ‘silent’ partner? Is the pun intentional, Hush-a-Bye? Is that a sign perhaps you’re warming to my charms?”

“I’ll let you decide which is more likely,” she responded. “Have your two upright henchmen here pick up that whimpering fool and bring him back in two days. I’ll have a response to present through him to you then.”

“As you say,” Janus responded through the speaker in the mask, as the man was lifted by both arms and half-dragged from the room. As the trio retreated slowly toward the door, the voice fading slightly as they did, Janus added, “Let’s just make sure no nuclear responses will be called for.”

* * *

Cole had groaned inwardly when Blockbuster told him to show up at Desperado’s office in the Guardian Corps HQ at 3:15 sharp.

He almost groaned out loud after he passed through the empty meeting area and conference room—a shabby area filled with mismatched chairs and even more mismatched long foldout tables—and then realized that Desperado was meeting with a pair of his top lieutenants. He couldn’t hear everything, but much like the fiasco when he was doing the newsletters the other day, he was certain he was inadvertently intruding on a very private conversation.

For a few minutes, he hovered near the door, unsure whether to stay—it was 3:18 now and he had been told to be here—or whether to leave and risk Desperado’s wrath for being a no-show.

“Is someone out there?” Desperado demanded roughly, then threw open the door, throwing his imposing shadow over Cole in the process. “What the fuck are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be hear for an hour. Get the fuck out and get the fuck back when you’re supposed to!”

The man stepped back into his office and slammed the door, but not so soon that Cole couldn’t see the piercing glares of the other two men inside—one suspicious and one almost hostilely curious.

As he left, the stress of the whole situation sent a piercing stab of pain through his head, and he stumbled to the nearest quiet space away from Desperado’s area as he could to ride out another one of those dirty, almost migraine-like auras dominating his vision. The dirtiest yet, turning his world into a haze of greens, browns and bloody reds.

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