The Gathering Storm, Part 25

Posted: March 24, 2012 in The Gathering Storm series
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She’d known he was coming—she’d been alerted by phone.

But apparently he’d also been warned she was on edge.

All for the best, Zoe supposed, as she heard a twig snap in the distance and a youthful, jovial voice calling out amiably, “Fringe, not foe!” as Mad Dash came into sight. The mask he wore—revealing only his nose, cheeks, mouth and chin and sporting almost comically large dark yellow goggles—was only slightly less grin-inducing than the garish short-coat he wore over his gray-green unitard, which was a medley of different colors, types and shapes of fabric. A sturdy looking coat and well-constructed, but ridiculous as hell, she thought.

God can I use a laugh right now, even if it’s only a chuckle and gone almost as fast as it arrived, Zoe considered, flinging her spent cigarette into the road from the rock on which she sat near the tree line. Before she’d fully exhaled her last lungful of smoke from that butt she was already extracting another one to light.

“Those are terrible for you, you know,” Dash told her when he drew near, though to his credit, Zoe noted, he didn’t wrinkle his nose or wave at the air to disperse the fumes like so many people did when they said something like that. “Your lungfish are going to go belly up in the aquarium if you keep up that habit.”

He delivered the cautionary note so matter-of-factly, without any trace of judgment in his tone, that Zoe decided to forego the usual snide response. “They’re right; you do speak a little odd,” she said. Then she cocked her wrist so that the smoldering cigarette stuck straight up into the air and she pointed at it with the index finger of her other hand. “Bad for me though these may be, they’re the only thing making me feel a little human right now, a little sane right now and a little calm right now. Chain-smoking several butts is phase one. Phase two will be a very long, very hot shower and lots of scrubbing until my skin is raw and any blood I see I know is my own. Phase three would be getting piss-drunk, but I can’t even hardly get a buzz drinking, so I’ll settle for some herbal tea and a warm bed and not getting up for 12 to 15 hours.”

“I didn’t bring a shower. Or tea. Or a bed,” Mad Dash said, though he glanced quickly inside his backpack as if he might find one or all of them in there, while he awkwardly juggled a large and apparently mostly empty soft drink cup from Wendy’s in one hand. He rattled it a little, lifted the lid, and then downed the last swig and let the last few chunks of ice left slide into his mouth. “I have some water bottles left in my backpack and a few snickety-snackedy-munchies,” he mumbled as he crunched the ice. “If you like granola bars and Cliff Bars and stuff.”

“I think I can keep food down now, so a granola bar sounds great,” she responded with a smile. “I’ll make Query come up with the other things to make up for letting me get kidnapped.”

After he handed over the snack and a bottle of water, he paused and then said, “Oh, salmon! Your clothes look like they came from the fall war-refugee fashion line at Macy’s and I should get you a…whoa! I’m so sorry I’m looking at you I just saw a nipple sorry sorry sorry,” he stammered, wrenching off his coat and handing it to Zoe.

“I like you, Madster,” Zoe said as she put her arms through the sleeves and buttoned it up. “You’re weird, but I like you. Chivalry’s not dead, even though your fashion sense might be. Comfy coat, though.”

“Thanks. I make them myself,” Dash said, positively beaming.

“Well, don’t give up your day job, because I think there won’t be many customers for this kind of style. But you’re a Renaissance man, Mad Dash, and you’ll make a fine catch someday.”

“Oh, I’m already the lobster special of the day—got a girlfriend named Honey Badg…hello? Yeah? Querio? Where you at, man? I’m here with Chloe…”

“…Zoe,” she corrected him.

“Zoe,” Dash repeated, and then rattled off a series off a series of “yeah’s” and “uh-huh’s” as his part of the communication with Query.

At least I hope he’s really talking to Query via a Bluetooth or some hidden headset, because I don’t want to find out he has voices in his head, Zoe thought. I can’t deal with shit like that tonight.

Mad Dash paused, then turned to Zoe. “Query says we need to stay put, stay down and don’t get involved with what’s about to happen until he says so.”

“Huh? What?” Zoe sputtered. “No, no, no. Tell Query to call me on my cell phone right now.”

“Says he’s kinda busy setting stuff up.”

“Tell him to call me on my phone right the hell now,” she snarled and then, as if on cue, her phone rang. “Talk to me. What’s gonna happen?”

“Zoe, I need you to trust me right now. I’ve got stuff to do and probably not much time to do it and I just want you and Dash to stay out of the way for now,” Query said.

“Oh no no no no no,” Zoe said, dragging hard on her cigarette and then expelling smoke in a chaotic mass like some angry dragon. “Look, I’ve had a really shit goddamn day and I’m just barely holding it together and you failed to stop them from getting me and I want some damn answers.”

“I take all my jobs very seriously, Zoe, but you’re not being charged for this work,” Query said. “What do you want? A refund check for zero dollars? I’m trying to protect you.”

“And I just killed two guys and some of them is staining my clothes and that’s fucked up and I deserve some answers,” she retorted, her voice sounding angry and anxious all at once. “Plus, if shit is about to go down, I want to know what is going down. Tell me right now or I will walk out into that road and flag down the next car I see.”

“OK, fine. Zoe, they were taking you into the woods. Must mean they have a safe-house somewhere around here. If I were running this operation, I’d have at least a few people waiting there in case there was trouble getting you out of the car. I’ve made some best guesses based on the topography around here and I’ve got some ideas of the most likely places. Also, the guys you zeroed out aren’t able to check in or respond to any communications so chances are Janus and gang will know soon shit’s gone wrong, if they don’t already. I intend to ambush them when they come looking for their friends’ car.”

“How would they find it? You had me drive it off the road.”

“I already figured Janus would likely have all the cars fitted with locators,” Query said. “Pidwidgeon’s on-board sensors have confirmed transmissions from it—someone’s likely monitoring. So I’m going to wait for them to come. I promise I’ll get you out of here. Just sit tight.”

“It’s almost dark already,” she noted.

“I have night vision equipment.”

“We don’t.”

“Dash does. And if things get too hot, and I need you to pitch in, I’ll provide the party lights,” Query said. “I promise. Now find cover, keep quiet and let me do my job. Pretty please. With sugar on top.”

* * *

He was standing in the doorway to her office. Had he been anyone else, Underworld wouldn’t have cared. But she hated him right now, and she was trying not to think of murder right now so that she could get work done. It was way too soon to deal with him again.

Not to mention the fact he never visited other peoples’ office—he summoned them to his. That disturbed her even more.

“I thought we were done after we discussed Odium,” Underworld noted.

“I may have been too quick to praise you for your successful abduction plan,” Janus said, the sourness of his tone mixing in an interesting way with the slightly tinny echo produced by his two-faced helmet.

Underworld said nothing; simply arched one eyebrow.

“We’ve lost contact with the car carrying Zoe,” Janus clarified.

“Where?”

“It was last seen getting ready to get onto Grace Memorial Highway by Breathtaker and the two men in his car when they parted ways.”

“Then I still win,” Underworld said dryly, taking her eyes off him and returning them to the computer monitor.

“How do you figure that?”

“Because if my plan had been flawed, the car would have been stopped or commandeered or whatever long before it got to that point,” she said, still not looking at him. “And the other car, too, for that matter. I assume Breathtaker and the two guys with him are still in contact and running free.”

“Yes.”

“Then the problem isn’t that I had a bad plan or that I failed. The problem isn’t that my hand-picked team got sloppy. The problem is, I suspect, that you picked a fight with Query and he’s still got tricks up his sleeve for keeping tabs on Zoe because this shit is personal and not just business.”

A loud metallic sigh, and them a simple “Hmmmph” from Janus. “I hate it when you’re right,” he said as he walked away. “I think I’ll kill somebody after I finish handling this.”

* * *

A car finally arrived nearly 20 minutes after Query got off the phone with Zoe, stopping very near to where Zoe had driven her abductor’s car behind the tree line. Making some educated guesses about probable locations for any Janus-owned safe-houses out here, Query did some quick calculations about when the car with Zoe might have been expected to arrive at any of those areas, figured their comrades would wait until they were 10 or 15 minutes late to panic, factored in required travel times for those other bad guys to show up here from all the possible locations, and had the sites for Janus’ place in the woods narrowed down to three prime leads.

All while he used the scope on his rifle to size up the three men who were now getting out the car. One of them had a device in hand—probably some kind of receiver/locator—and was likely getting a read on just how far away their missing car was and in which direction it lay. All of them had flashlights; the two guys with Mr. Receiver—as Query had mentally designated the lead guy—had Uzis in hand as well.

If Mad Dash and Zoe were following instructions, they wouldn’t be anywhere near the car and its two corpses right now—wouldn’t be in any spot where the three new arrivals would be scanning the trees with their flashlights.

Hopefully, they’ll also be behind some cover, since Mr. Receiver has clearly figured out where the car is and is now pulling out night vision goggles to look for threats, Query thought. He probably doesn’t really expect any police presence here, or else the car they were seeking wouldn’t be out of sight. But he might be expecting a trap of some other sort. As well he should.

Mr. Receiver even took a long, slow look at the other side of the road, where Query had found a tiny hillock to give himself just a bit of high ground. Query didn’t flinch; the modified portable hunter’s blind he had set up in front of himself would block his heat signature and look like a rock or bush to the night-vision goggles. The barrel of his rifle like some branch.

The man was very thorough in taking stock of his surroundings; his companions were very vigilant in watching his back.

And Query’s trigger finger was feeling quite itchy.

But it was too soon. He trusted his instincts and waited for what he expected—for what he would have done in their place.

And so it was that a second new car arrived on the scene some five minutes after the first one, pulling off to the side a bit farther up the road. For a moment, Query considered waiting some more for a third car, but that was just getting paranoid. So he simply waited until the new quartet of men started walking toward the trio, pulling night vision goggles on as they did.

Odds are that the first team will be going down to check out the car and team two is here to give them some additional protection.

About 10 meters from the trio, the quartet’s tight formation began to fragment just the slightest amount as one man slowed a little, and Query knew that was the point one of them would stop, as the other three would continue on and each stop in turn so they could fan out for the best coverage and ability to kill anyone coming at them from the woods. The two armed men from the original trio were already keeping watch on the road from near the edge of the trees.

Since Query knew the most dangerous threats were getting into position, he decided there was no time like the present to prevent them from getting organized.

While the newest arrivals were still clustered relatively closely to one another, he said into his headset, very softly, “Dash, in 10 seconds the first three guys are yours—take them alive,” and then fired off five shots in rapid succession at the group of newcomers.

The first bullet entered the skull of the man who had just stopped walking. The second bullet went through the throat of the man nearest him, who likely would have been the next to stop in a few more meters. Figuring the time for piling up corpses had come to an end, the fourth and fifth bullets took the third man’s ability to shoot and to run with a bullet in his gun arm and another in one thigh.

Naturally, Query thought, the fourth guy would be alert enough and agile enough to take cover.

Query set down his rifle, picked up a grenade launcher not much larger than the Uzis that Janus’ men were carrying, and said into his headset, “Wait, Dash. Close your eyes until you hear two booms, then hit them.”

Query fired two flashbang grenades just past the roof of the original trio’s car, where his quarry had taken cover, one near the front of the car and the other near the trunk. A loud “whump” and another a second or two later accompanied two bursts of bright light and then Query was bounding down the hillock and toward the road.

He wasn’t trying to beat Dash—no sense in trying that anyway and there was a bit of cleanup work yet. Once he had sprinted across the road, he walked to the man he had shot in the arm and thigh and pepper-sprayed him in the eyes and mouth before quickly binding his hands to his ankles with nylon ties, then continued around the front of the trio’s car, confirmed that his target there was stunned insensate, and quickly bound him as well. He did his best to focus on the task at hand and not react to the sounds of shouting and running so close to him; did his best to be as quick as he could without rushing. Then when he was done, squatting behind his place of cover, he closed his eyes and let his ears sort thing out.

Feet running through the dirt, twigs and rocks—faster than a normal person’s. Mad Dash was still moving. Voices calling out to each other and swearing—only two, though, so Dash had likely taken one man out. Shots fired, but none of them in the direction where Query was huddled against the car, so the remaining pair was clearly too focused on Dash to think about or deal with their other threat: Query.

Query opened his eyes and stood, taking out a tangler. He was just in time to see Mad Dash do a furious high-speed zig-zag through the trees, sliding finally as if trying to beat a ball thrown to home plate and slamming into the legs of one of Janus’ men, who went down about as hard as one might expect when being hit at about 35 or 40 miles per hour.

I know Dash’s unitard is padded and/or lightly armored in places like the thighs and ass, but that costume’s likely going to be a goner and Dash is going to be sporting some rather bloody scrapes, Query thought.

The last man, seeing his comrade go down and realizing he was alone now, was already headed for the car and an attempted getaway, but came to a startled halt as he saw Query.

“Evenin’,” Query said, casually throwing the tangler at the man’s legs and smiling as the sticky tendrils burst out and then contracted back on themselves. The man wobbled for several seconds and finally fell over in a heap. Query tossed a small plastic bag of nylon ties to Mad Dash to restrain these last three men and added to the man on the ground at his feet: “You just relax while I make sure those two friends of yours are really dead and decide whether to make all of the rest of you the same way—only much slower.”

* * *

Underworld was finally in a decent frame of mind again—she’d done a quick set of breathing exercises and a few calming yoga poses and was finally able to get back to the work she needed to finish for phase one of her and Janus’ team expansion plans.

It was, therefore, very disheartening to her when a person burst through the door to her office, ran all the way to her desk and jumped over it, pushing by her legs and then crawling underneath it.

Underworld looked down to see a completely tattooed face staring up from between her legs, and resisted the urge to make any number of snide and risqué comments to the woman huddled underneath her large maple desk and only inches from her lap. She was less able, however, to control the flood of irrationally joyous feelings over the fact that Crazy Jane was near her, though she was pretty sure she managed to keep those feelings from showing on her face.

Crazy Jane’s eyes were wide and earnest as she looked up at Underworld. “If Janus comes looking for me, I’m not here. Please don’t tell him. Please say you don’t know where I am.”

Keeping her eyes fixed at a point she could see both her doorway and Jane in her peripheral vision, Underworld said quietly, “He’ll know if I’m lying. He always knows.”

“Not always,” Crazy Jane. “Not when he’s enraged. It doesn’t work when he’s really mad. That’s when he can’t do that and that’s also when he can do other things. That’s why I need to hide. He’s furious.”

“You do something naughty?”

“No, but Query did,” Crazy Jane answered. “At least I think it’s Query. We’ve lost contact with the team sent out to find out what happened to the car Zoe was in.”

“I don’t think you have to worry, Jane,” Underworld said soothingly. “If you got out of Janus’ way, he’ll likely find some staff member to take it out on. Pretty unlikely he’ll come to my floor looking for trouble, much less looking for you.”

“Thank you, Undie,” Crazy Jane said, and Underworld almost teared up at the sincerity in the younger woman’s voice. “Sometimes, we girls have to stick together, right?”

Underworld simply nodded.

“Can I stay here a while, just in case?”

Underworld nodded again.

“You know, while I’m down here I could give you a foot rub. I’m really goooooood.”

“Oh, what the hell,” Underworld said after a few moments of consideration. “Why not? Girls sticking together, right?”

This time is was Crazy Jane’s turn to nod. And to smile as well.

As Underworld settled in to get her admittedly aching feet pampered a little, she smiled, and not just at the wonderful feeling of having knots and kinks worked out of her toes and soles. She smiled as well as getting some unexpected intelligence about Janus.

I’ve long suspected his ability to tell when a person lies was gender-specific, since he only ever stresses to women that he can tell when they’re not speaking the truth, she thought, but I never realized it was tied to his mood, too. And Jane’s reference to “other things” makes me think perhaps Janus has two sets of powers: one for when he’s calm or relatively so, and one for when he’s not. Makes sense when you consider he named himself after a two-faced god.

Suddenly, being Crazy Jane’s friend, willingly or not, didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

* * *

Two corpses had been added to the pair already in the car with the ruined trunk. The five surviving members of Janus’ team were well past the tree line now and all of them bound and gagged. The two other cars were now parked near each other by the side of the road and a little closer to the tree line.

Query walked back toward Mad Dash and Zoe from those cars, after having left Mad Dash’s backpack on the trunk of one of them and a few scattered granola bars on the hood of the other, along with a jacket and a pair of shoes and socks from one of the dead men

“Why did you do that?” Zoe asked.

“To make it look like they pulled over to do a little wandering and hanging out, instead of looking like they need help. Less likely that a state trooper will check things out if a cruiser happens down the road, and regular drivers will be even less likely to stop and look at things,” Query answered, looking over each man in captivity as if assessing and comparing each one, and then setting down a small tool case he had brought back with him.

“What now?” Zoe asked, fiddling with her bright orange disposable lighter nervously.

“You and Dash will go to my van parked a couple hundred yards down the road and head to a safe-house I have near Fishmonger’s Wharf. Dash knows where it is. You can clean up and you should be able to find some clothes that’ll fit you, Zoe. Have a decent meal, too, if your stomach can handle it. Watch some DVDs or listen to some music. Get some sleep. Dash’ll keep you company there until I’m finished. If I’m not there by dawn, chances are I’m dead and Dash will know who to call to get your situation as sorted out as possible.”

“What about them?” Zoe asked, nodding toward the captive men.

“Don’t worry about them. I have that covered.”

Zoe looked at the case at his feet, and then stared down his concealed eyes behind the black mask for several seconds. She walked up to him, pointed to the red question mark on the mask over his mouth—her finger just inches from it—and said, “Your name is Query; I just asked a question.”

“I ask questions; I rarely like answering them,” Query said coldly.

“You’ll answer mine,” she said, nervous at his tone but reminding herself it was probably bluster to get her to leave—and reminding herself that even if she was wrong, she was hardly powerless. “What are you going to do with them?”

Query sighed behind his mask, and Zoe imagined that his eyes were probably rolling behind it as well. “Zoe, I’m going to ask these fine gentlemen where their little hideout in the woods is. If they don’t answer me, I’ve going to demonstrate how badly I can hurt them with easily accessible items here in nature, and then tell them about the tools in my case here that are more professional-grade. If they don’t answer me even then, I’ll begin using those tools on them.”

Zoe shuddered. “You’re going to torture them.”

“Only if they make me.”

“You mean only if it’s the most convenient route for you.”

“Zoe, I don’t want to debate situational ethics with you right now,” Query groused. “These men kidnapped you. They were willing to kill you.”

“Noooo,” Zoe said. “Two of the dead men in that car over there, and I guess some guys in another car from what Dash has told me, were the ones who kidnapped me, and only one of them maybe was trying to kill me. They’re dead. I fucking lost my composure and killed them. Two other men are dead at your hands. These men came to check on their buddies. I don’t know what they would have done if you hadn’t attacked them.”

“Surely you not suggesting I shouldn’t have…”

“Of course not. You shot first. Wise move. They work for Janus. They were armed. But goddamn it I’m not going to let you torture them just to find out where they came from or for anything someone else did to me. I mean, really, do you expect to find Janus at their hidey-hole? Do you expect him to come here to the woods and throw down with you? I’ve been dealing with Underworld all this time and nothing suggests to me that they’ve suddenly gone lax on their security. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts these guys probably don’t even know where Janus is or the other guys who tried to nab me before at graduation probably would have known.”

“I think we need to be sure, Zoe. And if I go to their place here in the woods, I can look for clues that will help me find Janus later,” Query said. “I need you to go now.”

“How would you even know if they were telling the truth if they did give up a location to you, huh?” she pressed. “People will say lots of things under torture or to buy time.”

“Because,” he responded, raising his voice for the benefit of his captives and turning his head slightly in their direction, “I’ve already figured out from their response time and what I know about this area where the three most likely locales are. If they give me any other location that isn’t in one of those areas, I’ll hurt them more.”

“No.”

“Zoe, this isn’t your operation. This isn’t about you.”

“Yes it goddamn is!” she shouted. “I was the one kidnapped. I’m the one who’s got bits of people all over her. People have been firing bullets all around me and one zipped right past the top of my head. You took on my case so I’m your fucking employer—kinda. It’s all about me and I say you aren’t going to do this.”

“It’s more about me than you know, Zoe. In any case, I need this info…”

“…fine!” she interrupted him, and stalked toward the bound men, morphing as she did to take on a slightly more attention-getting and menacing look—though Query noted her locs, while clearly hardened and sharp, were no longer animated as when she was panicked in the trunk. “Here’s how it’s gonna be, boys. One of you will tell me right now where your little place in the woods is. Then after you’re handed over to the police or whatever—somebody less likely to torture you, in any case—you can go back to clamming up and not saying any damn thing about Janus and if he asks you can all tell him you don’t know how Query knew how to find your hideout. He can just assume Query found your place on his own with his super-intuition. Totally plausible, since he’s apparently already narrowed it down. But he’s really cranky, as you can see, and if you make him search too long, or waste too much time talking to you about it, he’s going to go all Spanish Inquisition on you. Whoever wants to tell me can just nod and I’ll pull off your gag.”

No one nodded.

“Unless Janus is there at your place in the woods, this is a win-win for everyone to tell me, guys,” Zoe said more firmly, flexing her fingers with their sharp, glistening burgundy nails. “You stay quiet about it, then Query is going to start thinking Janus is there, and if that happens I think you’re all going to be probed in a lot of places humans weren’t meant to be probed with things that weren’t meant to go there. Your choice.”

Ten minutes later, Zoe was in the passenger seat of Query’s van on her way to a date with a hot shower, with Mad Dash humming some tune wildly out-of-key on the driver’s side, while Query was taking a ride in one of Janus’ cars to a place in the woods.

Zoe closed her eyes and smiled a little.

I win.

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

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