The Gathering Storm, Part 23

Posted: March 19, 2012 in The Gathering Storm series
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Darkness is a comforting shroud. A sturdy cloak.

Those thoughts passed through the mind of Query, sitting in the semi-darkness of the club as Milo Phillips, while various pairs of rappers took their turns on stage to do a bit of freestyle vocal battling with one another. But not Milo tonight; he had to make sure he was on-call.

In so many aspects of his life, he preferred darkness. And many times, a mask as well to further obscure him and wall himself off from the world. He lacked the escape of dreams from reality, and sometimes, putting layers in between himself and others was all he had.

He reviewed his iPhone Sextet as a new message came in, disregarded it for now, and slipped it back into his belt holster. Then he pulled out his “real” smartphone—or at least the one he relied on as Query and when he was simply Alan Millos—his Android Hyyper. It was much easier to modify the Droid smartphone for his critical needs, but the iPhone was part of Milo’s identity and image.

Really need to make some time to buy the new Droid Nexusz soon, get it up to speed for my needs and transfer my data over, he considered. So hard to find time to do everything sometimes, even being awake 24 hours a day.

When he saw no messages there for Alan or Query, he slipped that phone back into its secret pocket and pulled his iPad Quinto out of his satchel to review some notes and files, as well as some pilfered video feeds from the police and FBI.

At least all my identities agree on the iPad as far as tablet computers go, he thought with mild amusement.

Reviewing his files did nothing but dim his flash of good humor, though. It had been nearly two weeks now since Janus had attempted to abduct Zoe, and there had been no sign of him, his lackeys or any freelance hired help since then.

Local and federal cops had questioned the mercenary team that Query had brought down after Zoe’s graduation ceremony, but nothing had come of it. A couple members of the team had been willing to give evidence and testimony for lighter sentences, but had precious little to offer. They couldn’t even say for certain who had hired them. That was a sharp divergence from the team that had tried to kill Query three months earlier. The two mercs that Query had spirited away then to question personally, as well as the survivors the police had questioned, were clear and consistent as to who they had been paid by—Janus—even if they were far less willing to give much information about him.

Not that they knew much anyway, but Janus has never been known for his forgiving streak, so most of those he hires tend to be discreet when captured, to the point of often not even sharing information that seems innocuous, Query considered.

Still, there was plenty of evidence to point to the fact that this team had been hired from the same source as the mercenaries that tried to kill Query. That supplier of talent was pricey indeed, and for two teams from that source to show up in New Judah over a three-month period was unlikely to be coincidence.

Not that the police have put that together, Query noted mentally. The FBI has made note of the oddity, but they don’t seem to get the connection is to Janus yet. I do, though. So, the question is, since Janus could have hired talent from a different source for the Zoe job, is he becoming lazy and sloppy? Or did he hope I’d figure it out and know he was still fucking with my city—even though it’s unlikely he would have expected me to be protecting Zoe and find out from first-hand contact?

It also didn’t help his mood to be reminded he was using Zoe as bait even as he was protecting her, and that might come back to bite her in some unexpected ways. Because Janus’ hired kidnapping team had struck in such a public place and focused on one woman, some people were looking at Zoe now and wondering, “Why her?”

The mercs hadn’t admitted to trying to nab her—or anyone, really. They didn’t want to be implicated in any more crimes than necessary, and so far, the hard evidence that they planned to kidnap anyone or even kill anyone was slim. They’d clearly face any number of assault and weapons possession charges—maybe even some domestic terrorism charges—but they weren’t going to want to face charges of attempted murder or kidnapping as well.

At least one person at UConn’s New Judah campus was speculating quietly in the upper-level administrative offices that Zoe was the sole target, and perhaps it had something to do with her athletic prowess. So, now rumors were circulating that she might be transhuman and that might have made her a target. The admin who’d had that epiphany was even suggesting to the dean that they might need to sue Zoe to make her pay back the scholarship money since she hadn’t disclosed she was transhuman.

It likely won’t happen, he realized, if only because they don’t want the scandal of having an athlete in violation of NCAA anti-transhuman rules. It would be a black eye they’d want to avoid unless they needed to be pre-emptive—and so far, the NCAA didn’t even seem to be taking any notice of the attempted abduction, much less have any reason to be suspicious about Zoe’s abilities.

Still, he had played a part in bringing about just the kind of attention that Zoe had so assiduously tried to avoid, and it was messing with his conscience more than a little.

A voice and a bit of verse from the stage pulled him out of his Query mindset and back to the Milo Phillips role in which he currently was dressed.

“…Parlez-vous Français? Cuz all the Froggies say you’re gay. Comprende? Capiche? Cuz I’m deep old money, but you be nouveau riche.”

Milo groaned at that—both the rhymes and the awkward delivery. He hadn’t heard what verses had led up to that portion, but knowing the rapper who was delivering them, Milo knew all too well the prelude had probably sucked just as much and perhaps more. Killah-Be tended to get pretty far in these rap battles even though he was so terrible at hip-hop—Milo suspected the young man had some transhuman powers, though he might not be aware of them. People who went up against him on stage often got flustered, lost their concentration, and became nervous and hesitant—as a result, their flubbed verbal attacks ended up being worse that Killah-Be’s delivery.

He’s probably a Primal pumping out pheromones of some sort, or maybe an Interfacer who disrupts neural processing slightly, he considered. Might even be a Psionic projecting thoughts of inadequacy or worry.

Killah-Be’s opponent on stage, a 23-year-old indie rapper who went by the nom de rap of EZStreet, seemed utterly unfazed, however. Although Milo was certain Killah-Be was transhuman, he was uncertain if the young man’s powers were erratic or some people just resisted it better than others. In any case, with no muddling of his mind or confidence, EZStreet volleyed back verbally within seconds.

“That’s all you got, polyglot? I know what I am; know what you’re not. Not worth a second or a third thought. Be here long after your verses rot,” EZStreet snarled, then continued with: “You’re hip-hop-i-vomitous; I know that sounds ominous. But all it really means is you make me feel nauseous. My rhyme are plenteous; I’m rap-i-venomous. Toxic to fools like you who are the pettiest.”

Milo snickered to himself, happy to know that Killah-Be would be knocked out of the rap battle early for once, as he deserved. Then, once again, his brief bit of joy was snatched away as his Droid smartphone buzzed in its hidden pocket and as he realized it was a call from the private detective he had keeping an eye on Zoe tonight.

But whatever grim and dark thoughts that brought, as he wondered what mess was likely unfolding, it was quickly replaced by the hunger for the hunt.

I think Janus has finally made his second attempt, Query thought. I just hope there’s still time to keep Zoe from harm in all this.

* * *

Michele Cho opened the freezer door, pulled out the pack, shook it experimentally, frowned and then strode into the living room where her stepsister and roommate, Isabella Fuentes, lounged watching a DVD.

“Any idea where my cigarettes are?” Michele questioned Isabella with a snide edge.

“Oh, yeah, I’d hoped you’d see the empty pack and buy some more,” Isabella responded mildly, not even looking at Michele as she did. “You know, it’s really hard to enjoy smoking when you buy them so infrequently.”

“Buy your own, you cheap bitch,” Michele grumbled. “Or get a boyfriend to buy them.”

“Like you said, I’m cheap, and I don’t have a boyfriend just at this moment in time,” Isabella said, finally meeting Michele’s gaze and rolling her eyes as she said it.

“I’m going out to Club Darque, and now I gotta stop by a convenience store to buy something that I thought I already had because my stepsister has been bumming them all week. Really, Izzie, could you at least have told me you were stealing them?”

“You woulda just hid ’em, Michele,” she answered. “Hard enough to just sneak a couple a day so you wouldn’t notice for a while. You hardly even smoke, so why stress yourself out by keeping a pack in the house that I’m just going to steal from anyway?”

“I like to smoke when I go out clubbing and drinking and dancing and maybe hooking up with someone, you twat. You know that, Izzie. Fuck! Fine, I’ll buy a pack for you, too, when I’m out. Find a boyfriend soon so you don’t dig into the one I put in the freezer for myself.”

“I’ll do my best,” Isabella said sweetly, if with an obvious and humorously disingenuous note.

“When you were stealing my cigarettes like you did from my dad and your mom when you were 13, did you remember to get that intel on the skeez lab?”

“Of-fuckin-course,” she answered. “It’s all on the dining table. Not like I want you getting killed during a drug lab raid, Sis.”

“Yeah, because who would buy your smokes then?” Michele asked.

They both broke out laughing.

“God, I hate you,” Isabella said.

“Love you, too, Izzie.”

“Seriously, though, why do you even buy cigarettes? I don’t get the social, once- or twice-a-week smoker thing. I started my off-and-on love affair with cancer sticks at 13; you didn’t start until 17, which as I recall is when you started piercing and tattooing and dressing in black a lot. Is smoking a required part of the official Goth uniform?”

Michele chuckled. “Kinda. Dunno. Gets me in the right mood when I’m out clubbing—feel more bad-ass and rebellious. Also, nice to have a cheap high that doesn’t inhibit my judgment, my ability to drive, or break the law. All right, so I’ll look over the stuff when I get back so I can start our little ‘catch Marty the Hun plan’ on Monday.”

“Yeah, because heaven forbid you should do the take-down and set-up this weekend and fuck up your chances of nailing some Goth chick or Emo dude that you hook up with tonight or tomorrow,” Isabella sneered good-naturedly.

“Girl’s gotta put herself first sometimes for the sake of mental health,” Michele said, then her equally good-natured tone suddenly turned serious. “Besides, Izzie, I’m more than a little nervous about this plan, and I’d like to have a good time before I possibly check out.”

* * *

Taking a life was a thrilling thing, Breathtaker thought, and something he didn’t get to do near enough of. Sadly, he wouldn’t be doing it tonight, either. However, making someone feel like they were dying and leaving them with their last conscious thoughts that they likely would end up a corpse was pretty satisfying, too.

The dreadlocked bitch that Underworld had set him to nab as his graduation test to join her and Janus’ operation had been easy pickings. She seemed largely withdrawn from the party she was in, which was attended mostly by current and recently graduated college students. She just stood there holding up a wall, a half-smoked cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other—either a cola or a mixed drink.

Stuck-up, much, Zoe? he had thought. Too good for everyone else? Shy? Psycho loner? Or do you just not feel like you fit in with all these fuckin’ norms?

He’d gone up to her, introduced himself and made small talk like he was trying to hit on her. After a minute or two she was clearly a bit short of breath and said she needed to get some air.

“Maybe you smoke too much,” Breathtaker had said. “Maybe that’s all it is. Then again, I make a lot of women breathless.”

The tone of his voice at that point—having taken on a more aggressively taunting tone then—had tipped her off that something might be wrong, and he had seen it in her eyes. But that had been what he’d wanted. Fear was good. Made things more fun.

He had grabbed one of her arms and then, with physical contact, could put his Interfacer powers fully to work, completely shutting down her ability to breathe. Her eyes had taken on a panicked look, and he noticed her appearance begin to change slightly. He had stepped back, knowing that he could keep her respiratory system in his mental grip for bit longer from a distance now that he’d made direct contact with her nervous system. She had swung haphazardly and slowly, her fear and inability to breathe throwing her off. Still, her nails grazed him, tearing open his leather jacket and shirt and one of them leaving a red line of blood. Janus had said she was a Morph, and he hadn’t been wrong about how sharp her fucking nails could be.

But then she was stumbling and beginning to lose her balance, and Breathtaker had rushed in to catch her. He had embraced her like they were making out, keeping her lungs from working until she passed out against him.

She had smelled good, he recalled. Really nice perfume or scented oil or something. He had taken a few moments to suck at the light brown skin of her neck, and cop a cheap feel for a couple minutes as he let her body begin to breathe again just enough to keep her from dying on him. She wasn’t his usual type—she was like some Rasta chick with those dreadlocks and about half of them colored red or bleached blonde. For Breathtaker, he liked his sisters to have long hair, but preferred it straight as hell and black as night.

Finally, he had spoken into the transmitter on his shirt collar, saying to the rest of the team, “One of y’all get the fuck in here and help me with this bitch.”

Now, she was in the car ahead of him, pumped full of sedatives, and on her way to Janus.

Hello, opportunity, Breathtaker thought, smiling. I’m in the Big League now.

* * *

“Talk to me,” Query said into his phone as he exited the club and left the world of hip-hop behind him, striding with purpose toward his van. The private detective wouldn’t be calling for some routine check-in—something was almost certainly happening.

“You said this Zoe isn’t the getting-piss-drunk type, right? Or the recreational drug type, either, right?”

“Correct on both counts,” Query told the man. “Why?”

“She’s been at this party thing at a college friend’s house for a while. Two guys were just carrying her out like she was drunk and needed help walking. She looked pretty much totally passed out to me. Got her into a car and drove away. One of the guys carrying her got into another car that followed the one she’s in.”

“You are tailing them, right?” Query said with an edge in his voice.

“Of course. Discreetly as hell. But I think they’re headed toward Grace Memorial Highway. Think they’re headed for the woods. Fifty-fifty chance, anyway. If I’m right, I gotta break off soon. No offense, Query, but if you’re involved, at least one of those mo-fo’s is a transhuman and I don’t fuck with transhumans directly. I follow them too far on Grace and they’re gonna spot me and make me out for a tail.”

“I don’t want you getting spotted either,” Query said, “and it has nothing to do with you keeping your out-of-shape ass bruise-free and bullet-free. Give me an exact report on your position and their direction and give me updates every minute until I tell you otherwise or you have to break off the pursuit.”

* * *

The Guardian Corps headquarters had an odd vibe, Cole noted. It was hard to put his finger on what it was, but he felt out of place somehow. It almost seemed like a whole other organization tonight to which he was a complete alien.

He tried not to let it bother him as he hung out and waiting for some marching orders. Desperado or one of his lieutenants would assign Cole to a team—

…a team, Cole considered. Why don’t I see many of the usual…

“Fuck! Shitfirefuckgoddam!” someone shouted, and Cole’s wasn’t the only set of eyes to turn toward the voice, which belonged to Blockbuster, the one person in the Corps who seemed to dislike him more than even Desperado did. “Another fucking patrol just got hit! Desperado! We’ve been fucking hit again on the streets! Total ambush! The raid on the red crush lab! Two injuries but no one dead this time.”

Desperado burst from his office, eyes blazing with anger and seeming to Cole as if they were seeking something in particular. They landed on him within seconds, and there was a dark satisfaction in them as they did.

“Talk to me, Blockbuster,” Desperado said, dragging his eyes from Cole and toward his right-hand man. “Who the fuck is doing this? Was anyone on that team who didn’t fucking get hurt connected to any of the other teams that got hit? I want a fucking suspect already.”

While Blockbuster started pulling up files on the six-year-old PC, another voice rang out.

“I don’t think we need to look very far,” said Puma, one of Desperado’s chief lieutenants. He walked toward Cole, one finger pointed at him like a gun. “That motherfucker over there has been around your office a lot when we’ve been talking lately. Including when we were talking about tonight’s major motherfucking operation. And guess who was conveniently fucking off the night we fucking had a bloodbath in here?”

“Yeah, you’re on to something there, Puma,” Desperado said, and Cole felt his chest constrict and his vision began to swirl darkly at the edges.

Wait! What? Oh shit what the fuck’s going on what the hell am I gonna do, Cole thought, panicky and confused.

“You know I am, Desperado. That shit-fuck joined us just to give us up to the fucking enemy!” Puma shouted. “Let’s take this motherfucker…”

“…Let’s take him out for a motherfucking drink why don’t we, Puma,” Desperado snarled, and now it was Puma’s turn to join Cole in confusion.

“Huh? What the…”

“Let’s talk about who else was at every meeting about a patrol that got hit,” Desperado said. “Only one goddamned person besides me knew about all those missions that got ambushed. I should know. I set up half of them just to fucking flush out the traitor and if the leader of each team hadn’t known they were fucking bait from the get-go I’d’ve probably lost a hell of a lot more people. And I made motherfucking sure Cole was fucking around so you’d aim for any patrol he might have been around to hear about and then make him the scapegoat. Right on schedule, you traitor shithead! Actually, ahead of schedule. What are you gonna do now?”

Suddenly, Cole realized what was weird about the headquarters tonight. He was one of only a handful of relative newbies here. He doubted there were more than a few people among the couple dozen or so in attendance tonight who hadn’t been in the Corps for over a year.

It’s a fucking trap for Puma and shit is going to go…

“Cover me! Hit the fucking exits all y’all!” Puma shouted.

In a panicked rush, Cole’s head swiveled and jerked in a haphazard attempt to take stock of the whole area, and it seemed that at least three people were reacting to Puma’s words.

He’s got friends in here who are traitors, too, Cole realized, and they’ll be fighting their way out.

One of those men, standing several yards from Cole—who went by the codename Kobra—made a lunge for one of the Corps members from behind, his hands growing to the size of spades and the fingers becoming deadly claws. From seemingly out of nowhere, PrinSass barreled into him before he could strike. She wasn’t a Speedster—just a Tank—but still Cole was amazed she could move so fast given the size of her body. Her big fists were pounding at Kobra with blunt, determined blows that sent blood and teeth flying from the man’s nose and mouth. The blows made sounds like wet thumps and Cole was certain he heard them punctuated by the cracking of a cheekbone despite his distance from the fight. PrinSass made up for lack of finesse and agility with hits that were harder and faster than anything he’d ever seen, and Kobra was down without having been able to so much as scratch anyone.

A shot rang out, entering the back of the computer monitor where Blockbuster had been working, coming out through the screen and nearly clipping the man as he ducked for cover. Cole whipped around and saw the gunman, a guy who went by the name Breakout—clearly another of Puma’s friends and now taking aim at Desperado from behind. Marshalling his will, Cole began to twist space near Breakout but even as he did, someone shouted a warning and Desperado spun, both revolvers drawn with breathtaking speed and aimed with unwavering accuracy. Desperado only pulled the trigger of one gun, and took Breakout down with a single shot between his legs, shouting out gleefully, “Hah! Gelding!”

The gun in Desperado’s other hand moved in an arc to reacquire the target he had wanted to take down before Breakout had become a threat. But that intended target, Puma, was already on the move and Cole got an inkling of at least one reason for his name when he realized the man was a Speedster.

Desperado’s chances of hitting Puma as he headed for an exit were slim, as he couldn’t track the man quickly enough with the gun in his left hand…

…until Cole realized Desperado’s other gun hand was moving inward, and Puma was headed right for that arc. A pair of cracking sounds and two small explosions of blood and torn fabric from his shoulder and hip, and Puma tumbled to the ground, rolling and crashing against a wall. Several Corps members rushed him.

There had been noises all around him during those hectic moments, and now Cole tried to figure out where the other conflicts might be—there had to be at least one or two other threats…

…but there was suddenly silence.

Relative silence, anyway, and Cole realized that five men and one woman were down, and only one of those people seemed to be getting field care at the moment. So, Puma and four accomplices—and only one casualty among the loyal Guardian Corps members.

Cole was close enough to Blockbuster’s desk to overhear as Desperado approached him, and said quietly, “Yo, ‘buster. Isolate Nightstrike from those other motherfuckers. Puma brought him on a few weeks ago; he might not know about Sweet Talker. Lock him up and get her in here to pump him for information. If that doesn’t work, torture his ass. I wanna know if anyone else not here tonight is on Puma’s payroll.”

Blockbuster hurried off to carry out Desperado’s order, and the bronze- and brown-clad man holstered his guns, cocked his Western hat and stepped toward Cole.

“Exciting night, huh?” Desperado said blandly. “You get hit or anything?”

“No,” Cole said. “I don’t think…um, no.”

“You almost messed up my shot with that Warpsmith shit, Cole. Don’t mess with my fucking shots. That said, sorry for the rude surprise of all this. You were the perfect fall guy to make this plan work but obviously I couldn’t tell you what was happening. The fact you weren’t here the night they attacked us directly here was fucking gold—made things move quicker when Puma knew he could finger you perfectly. Probably why he had several guys here tonight, to make sure you didn’t live through the night to defend your case. You being off that night was spectacular for my plan.”

“I doubt the people who got killed or hurt that night feel spectacular about it,” Cole said darkly.

“What? Fuck you, Cole. Or fuck you, Quantum. Whichever you prefer. Don’t get high and fucking mighty with the moral high ground. I didn’t know they were gonna fucking attack us that night. You not being here was luck, man. I appreciate divine providence when it comes knocking. I wouldn’t put that many people at our HQ at risk to flush out a traitor.”

“You put patrols at risk to flush him out. You said so,” Cole noted.

Every damn time I send out patrols I put them at risk, motherfucker,” Desperado retorted.

“So, all this time you didn’t really hate me,” Cole said. “Ever since I came on, you’ve been eyeing me as the guy to use to figure out who the leak was.”

“No, I hated you from the start, Cole. Made it a whole lot easier to play you, in fact. I don’t hate you any more. I just really strongly dislike your smarter-than-thou ass,” Desperado said. “I’m still hoping you quit soon or wash out of here, because I don’t think you have the shit to make it on the streets.”

Desperado turned and strode away without another word.

I just helped save the Guardian Corps without even knowing it, Cole thought, and I’m still just as much a pariah as I was before.

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