The Gathering Storm, Part 27

Posted: June 3, 2012 in The Gathering Storm series
Tags: , , , , ,

[ – To view a list of all current chapters, click here – ]

Almost human again, thought Zoe. Almost human. It’s amazing what water—hot enough and copious enough—can do to sluice away the remnants of a day full of horrors.

In the steamy confines of the small bathroom, a towel wrapped around her torso, Zoe looked at herself in the mirror. No one’s blood on her anymore. And on her face, neck and arms—the places people might see when she had clothes on again—she bore only a few scratches. Once she was dressed, it would almost be as if nothing had happened today. As if she’d never been kidnapped and never killed two men and then watched two more die at the end of Query’s gun barrel.

The intertwined mass of dreadlocks—a ropy mass of reds, pinks and light blonde on her scalp amidst those bearing her natural dark brown, almost ebony, color—reminded her too much of today. She wanted all memories of it shoved as far away from her consciousness as possible.

She closed her eyes, concentrated for a few minutes, and then opened them again, noting that the steam had mostly retreated from the room and the towel had slipped a bit down her upper body. She looked upon the  re-colored landscape of her hair and managed a small smile. A minor change, but a new start of sorts. Most of the locs remained their natural deep dark-chocolate hue but about a third of them now were deep purple or dusky orange, and a couple of them a swirled mix of the two. A few ribbons of lavender wove through the other hues here and there as well.

It’s all got to begin somewhere, she thought, and then slipped into the borrowed clothes from Query’s closets. As she walked out into the main area of the safe-house Query had sent her too, Zoe was greeted by the smell of scrambled eggs and sizzling bacon.

Breakfast for dinner. Mad Dash, I think I love you right now. A little of that in my belly and some TLC from this healer Asclepius when he shows up—I do have a few gashes on my torso along with some serious bumps and bruises—and I just might feel fully human.

* * *

Nearly an hour of searching through Janus’ forest cabins had, as Query had suspected would be the case, yielded no hard evidence to track down the criminal kingpin nor disrupt his schemes. He’d removed the hard drives from several laptops just in case, and commandeered all of the cell phones that Janus’ minions had been carrying, but his hopes weren’t high. The web caches, phone numbers, IP addresses and all the rest would likely lead him on a circuitous path to nowhere.

He’d have more freedom to go on those potential wild goose chases later, once he figured out what to do about Feral and then sent Buttress and Peregrine back home. Even dead-ends could yield insights, though those insights would be hair-thin—Janus seemed quite adept at not leaving evidence that could point to him.

On the other hand, Query didn’t make it common knowledge that all of his senses were highly enhanced, so Janus wouldn’t have guarded against that possibility, perhaps. Janus was probably smart enough that none of these men and women had been near his main headquarters, but that didn’t mean they hadn’t been at some key satellite operations and didn’t bear evidence for Query’s investigation. Every strange scent he picked up that didn’t belong in the woods gave him another clue. Every bit of debris or miscellany in a minion’s pocket that didn’t have anything to do with the forest fed him more information.

I have dozens of tiny puzzle pieces, he thought. Sure, it’s a 5,000-piece puzzle and I can only complete small portions of the overall picture, but I’m getting closer, Janus. My intuitive powers can guess at what some other portions of the puzzle are supposed to be. By having as big an operation as you do, you have lots of people. Eventually, I’m going to find one who can lead me straight to you.

Query glanced up at the two small cameras mounted near the ceiling, and then to the table lamp and potted plant with their hidden spy equipment. He’d disabled all four cameras shortly before beginning his search, but he smiled at them all the same.

Hope you liked the show, you son of bitch.

* * *

The growling and shouting had been going on for some time now; when Buttress first came to tell Query that Feral was fully aware again and angry, the response was simply, “Tell him I’ll be out in 10 and then leave him be.”

Six minutes after that, Buttress was urging Query to come resolve the situation since he had created it to begin with. Without even turning his black mask toward the man, Query held up four fingers and then waved him off with several flicks of his wrist.

Query didn’t really need the extra time to do any more searching for evidence—he was done with that. This exercise in delay was in part meant to gauge Feral’s temperament.

It’s also the principle of the thing. I said 10 minutes and I meant 10 damned minutes.

When he emerged from the cabin, Query was carrying a large black duffel, unzipped and filled to bursting, with a shotgun stock sticking out. He let it drop to the ground. In his other hand, he held a spray bottle he had found in one of the cabin’s kitchens.

Peregrine and Buttress’ eyes were drawn more strongly to the bottle than to the duffel bag that held a firearm. In other circumstances, Query thought, he might have found that amusing. The memory of the horrifically mangled body of one of Janus’ minions in one of the cabins, though, squashed all hope of merriment tonight.

“Get me the fuck outta these!” Feral shouted at Query, spittle flying from his lips, straining at the pair of handcuffs and the various nylon ties as he struggled in his kneeling position.

“Calm down, first.”

“Untie me and unlock me or I will rip your goddamn heart out!”

“That’s not my definition of calm. It’s not anyone’s definition of calm.”

“Let me loose you fu…!”

Query sprayed Feral in the face a dozen times; he could almost feel Peregrine and Buttress tense up at the first few squirts. Clearly, it never occurred to them the bottle would be filled with mere tap water.

What the hell are you…!”

Query sprayed him again, eight more times, saying, “Calm down so we can talk like humans.”

Sputtering as water dripped down his face, Feral half-growled, “I’m not a damn pet on a counter making a mess or getting hair on the couch. Stop trying to humiliate me.”

“I’m not trying to humiliate you, Feral. I am trying to get your attention and appeal to your rational side. I thought this would be a lot nicer than slapping you around.”

“I’m calm now,” Feral answered, his eyes glittering and a snarl teasing at one corner of his mouth.

“No, you’re not, but you’re close enough that I think we can begin to have our talk,” Query said. “I believe I asked you earlier not to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary. I’m pretty sure you could have beaten her senseless instead of shredding her into kibbles and bits. Certainly if you were going to go for a kill, a cleaner and more merciful one seemed appropriate.”

“I was wounded; it sets things off. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“And I’m concerned that this might not have been the first time, Feral. Is it?”

“Plenty of people don’t deserve to live, Query,” he snarled. “Or deserve to die messily.”

You’re avoiding my question, Feral, even as you show you understand my intent in asking it.

“I’m worried about the ones who did deserve to live and might possibly have met a bitter end at the claws you wear. Maybe a petty criminal or an innocent bystander.”

Feral mouthed neither protest nor confirmation, which was precisely what Query had feared might happen. It was a more damning response than an overwrought denial.

Query reached into a side pocket on the duffel bag, extracted something that looked vaguely like a wristwatch, then took out a charger, and tossed both items on the ground near Feral’s feet.

“When I do finally unlock the cuffs and cut off the ties on you, you are going to put that on,” Query said levelly. “I don’t care where. Wrist, ankle, dick—whatever. You will make sure it is charged at all times and you will make sure you wear it every time you leave your home. Do you understand me?”

“An electronic leash? Are you kidding me?”

Query raised the water bottle. “Are we losing our will to be Zen about this?”

“You have no right…”

“I want to know where you are at all times,” Query said. “I want to know if and when you are in the vicinity of a death or serious injury that is…unjustifiable. If I find a pattern, I will chase you down and we will have words—or more. I suggest some meditation classes and anger management.”

On the periphery of his vision, Query saw Buttress and Peregrine fidget, and without taking his eyes off Feral held out a hand, palm out, to urge them to stay out of it.

“I am a Primal. Hardcore Primal. That’s why I call myself Feral,” the man said to Query in a hard growl. “Being a Primal is my key power. It’s in my nature to be wild.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t control yourself and set limits. And if that is what it means for you, then you cannot be on the streets doing what you do because you will put innocent people at risk or you will go too far with someone who is just a minor thug and you will cause me to worry at night and make the rest of us look bad.”

“You can’t tell me what to do, you son of a bitch!”

“I just did,” Query responded, “and you need to calm down.”

“I will not calm down, you piece of shit!” Feral roared, a venomous look in his eyes, his torso and head pressing outward as if he thought he could stretch his way through his bonds to reach Query’s throat. The straining effort left him teetering, though he didn’t tumble.

Query dropped the squirt bottle, quickly snatched the shotgun out of the duffel bag, gave it a quick and hard pump and said with a placid voice, “If you continue to confirm my worst suspicions about you, I will put you down like a rabid dog. I suggest you act like a man instead.”

Feral kneeled back onto his heels, closed his eyes and took a few deep, slow breaths. When he opened his eyes again, there was still anger there, and resentment, but the raw fury had bled away.

“Uh huh,” Query said, sliding the shotgun back into the bag. “You can control yourself when you really want to. Thought so. And that makes my concerns so much more salient. Don’t do anything stupid when I cut you loose, and don’t do anything stupid for the rest of your career in costume. We’ll be working on your control and your boundaries.”

Feral said nothing.

“Did you hear me…Alexander ?” Query said quietly.

Feral flinched at the name, shocked to find that Query knew it and wondering what else he knew.

“Yeah, I heard you.”

“Good, because if you don’t want to cooperate with me on this, you either need to move to Marksburgh or somewhere else far away from here, or get used to the idea of being hunted down. Now let’s get you loose and get the hell out of here.”

* * *

There was no overt odor yet, though it was only a matter of time, and Janus hoped he could dispense with the rest of the unpleasantries in time to get the custodial crew in here before the air became rank. Sparing one last glance at the blue tarp slightly behind him, oblong and lumpy as it lay wrapped around the contents, he put his hands calmly on his desk and centered himself for a few moments.

Picking up the handset of his phone, Janus pressed the button for his receptionist and said, “Please send the next one in.”

“Yes, sir,” the young man answered, and Janus could hear his light chains tinkle quietly as he said “You can go in now” and set down the phone in its cradle, severing the connection to Janus.

Janus glanced down at the file on his desk to remind himself of the name of the man now stepping into his office.

“Please, have a seat, Walt,” Janus said, and spread his hands invitingly as the man settled in. Walt’s eyes drifted around the room, confused, and settled on the back door of the office for a few moments.

“Did Kevin go th…” he began, then stopped as Janus lifted a finger to one set of the lips on the two-faced helmet he wore tonight.

“So, Walt, you are my person in charge of logistics.”

“One of them, sir, yes,” he responded nervously.

“Well, among your various duties, you were charged with oversight of the teams in the Langehorne Woods, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So their supplies were your responsibility?”

“Yes, but what…”

“And do you think you adequately supplied them with…ahhh…defensive tools?”

“As well as my budget allowed. More than they would need, I think.”

“Perhaps you didn’t think hard enough. Perhaps you should have suggested some budgetary adjustments.”

“Sir?”

“The team there has been wiped out. The safe-houses there are compromised. Kevin was in charge of communications with that team and I found his defense of his actions somewhat…lacking. I don’t think he communicated my desires well enough to the operatives there. Did you supply them well enough?”

“Yes, sir, I think I…”

“There you go thinking again. But you seem to be doing a lot of thinking now, when I would have preferred you thought ahead earlier. Thought outside the box, perhaps. Anticipated various contingencies like competent trans white hats.”

When Janus paused, Walt fidgeted a little, and then asked, “How big a strike force hit them, sir? Did someone on the team there betray the location? Was it all transhumans in the assault team? There’s so much I don’t know that it’s hard to defend myself to you. If it was more than one transhuman, that wasn’t the sort of thing one could anticipate…”

Janus stood up, calmly stepped past the tarp behind his desk and stood near Walt. “You’re paid to anticipate. You are compensated quite well with other things besides money to anticipate.”

A hand flashed out as Walt opened his mouth to speak, gripping the side of his head firmly. Then a soft, wet, rending sound and a gurgle from the man’s throat instead of words. And then silence, and sluggish lines of gore running down the man’s face and neck toward his torso.

Not as messy as with Kevin; I must be starting to calm down finally.

Janus casually pulled out a second tarp from behind the sofa in his office and deftly whipped it out to lay flat on the ground. No rush. The man’s own clothes would slow the flow of blood and other fluids before they reached the carpet. Then he tipped the chair back onto the tarp, rolled the dead man onto it, and wrapped him tight, dragging him next to his co-worker. Fishing out a tube of Clorox wipes, Janus pulled out two sheets and cleaned a few stray bits of gore from the chair before he set it back up again.

Next time I find your lair, Query, I will have a dozen men fire rockets into the building. No more finesse. I will more than kill you. I will obliterate you for this. You were supposed to already be dead. Why won’t you cooperate?

Janus returned to his leather chair, feeling much less anxious and wondering where Crazy Jane had run off to. He shrugged, sighed, pulled out a new file, and picked up the phone to have his receptionist send in the third and final of the employees to question about this—the one who was supposed to be on top of security protocols for the Langehorne Woods safe-houses.

Maybe she’ll have better answers, Janus thought. It would be nice to send at least one of them back to the offices breathing to show I’m a merciful man at times.

* * *

“Good evening, and welcome to ‘Nighttime RightView,’ Isaac,” Ben Glick said into his headphone as the first caller of the evening was patched into the booth from which he hosted three radio shows a week: mornings on Monday, afternoons on Wednesday and late night on Saturday.

“Thanks, Ben,” said the caller. “I listen to your show at times, and rarely agree with you, but I’ve only felt the need to call tonight with you trying to fire up a race war in connection to transhumans.”

“And how have I done that, exactly?” Ben responded smugly.

“Oh, I don’t know…maybe your insistence on a 50-foot-high wall with snipers and electrified gates along the Mexican border, your call to suspend all immigration and naturalization from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia for the next decade and…uh…your crazy insistence that there’s a ‘Tex-Mix buffet’ of dangerous transhumans all through the Southwest raping norm women to corrupt peaceful white American genetics…”

“Well, Isaac, Caucasians are decidedly less prone to developing transhuman powers, aren’t they? Kinds of puts us at a disadvantage we need to correct and protect against, don’t you think?” Ben retorted.

“No, not really,” Isaac answered. “Whites are still the overwhelming majority of people in this country, even more so when you factor in white Hispanics. So the number of transhumans here is pretty close to even between whites and non-whites in the U.S.”

“Sure, sure,” Ben said with a patronizing tone. “But the projections say that whites will be a minority by 2050; what’s going to happen then?”

“Whites will be a little less than half the population, I think is what the studies say, and that will still make them the single largest group—not a minority.”

“But the transhuman figures won’t be anywhere near as close to equal then, will they, Zach-y boy?” Ben countered. “And when our not-native-born ‘President’ Obama starts ramping up immigration for his extremist Muslim pals abroad and hands out all sorts of government money to them and encourages them to build big, strong families, and then starts marching our Christian, Caucasian women to the abortion clinics to start slicing into our numbers—well, whites will be a minority well before 2050.”

“That’s ridiculous! He doesn’t have broad powers like that, not to mention he’s U.S. born, no matter what your birther nonsense paranoia, and he’s Christian. People like you…”

“Hey, gotta go to the next caller, Isaac. I’m sure you have an militant Liberal-Islamo-Socialist Party meeting to go to so you can raise funds to get Obama his fascist emergency powers and a lifetime seat in the Oval Office anyway. Don’t want you to be late.”

“Muslim, terrorist, socialist, leftist and fascist? That doesn’t even make any…”

With a slice of his index finger across his throat as the signal, Ben had the technician cut the connection, smiled broadly as he saw a thumbs-up in regard to the next caller, and said, “Hello, John, and welcome to the call-in part of our show. I hope you’re a bit smarter than the last guy.”

“Ben, I’m a huge fan, and I wish you’d put your hat in the ring to run against that pretender in the White House. I just wanna say that…”

Ben smiled broadly, and winked at the technician through the booth’s window, watching the phone lines light up with callers, and knowing it was going to be a flood of contempt for the opinions of Isaac and every other weak-willed idiot out in the world who thought like he did.

* * *

After a 15-minute conversation to catch up, most of which she couldn’t hear—not that it would be easy to understand as Mad Dash lapsed into a string of metaphors and absurdities that confused her, anyway—Zoe saw the Speedster give Query a nod, wave to her and then exit the safe-house.

“Sorry about that,” Query said to Zoe. “I know it’s been a rough day for you but I needed to catch Dash up on things.”

“Oh, I feel a lot better,” Zoe said. “About most things, anyway. Not so sure about this,” she added, holding up a tiny, oblong black lozenge between her thumb and forefinger.

“Yes?” Query said in a tone that was unconcerned but also invited her to continue.

“Mad Dash called over that Asclepius guy on your tab, apparently. Nice guy. Fixed up my boo-boos really good. Also sensed a foreign object that he ‘encouraged’ my body to spit out. Funny—it seems to be in the same spot you ‘accidentally’ jabbed me on graduation day when you helped me off the ground.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t exactly 100% forthcoming about that small ‘mishap.’ I put that there on purpose,” Query said.

“Care to tell me what the fuck it is?” Zoe pressed, her voice gaining an edge.

“Transmitter. Tracking device.”

“So, I didn’t need to be kidnapped, or at least not wake up in a trunk panicked and out of control. You could have saved me all that bullshit and stress?”

“No, not really,” Query answered. “That was mainly an emergency backup plan. It’s a passive transmitter; otherwise, Janus’ people could have detected it and be tipped off that you were tagged. I needed to have something else like one of my flying drones get close enough to communicate with it and make it active. I had someone following you when I couldn’t, like tonight.”

“He didn’t do a very good job, did he?”

“He did a great job,” Query countered. “Kept track of you long enough for me to get a couple drones in your vicinity and make sure you had a rescue coming.”

“He let me get caught,” she snapped.

“It was his job to watch you, not protect you.”

“Yeah, that was your job, wasn’t it?” Zoe nearly spat at him. “Except you wanted me to get captured, didn’t you? So that you could get to Janus. You son of a bitch.”

Query regarded her for a moment through the eyeless black mask, arms crossed over his chest, and nodded slightly. “It was something I considered could happen. If I had wanted it to happen, though, I wouldn’t have saved you the first time at graduation, now would I?”

“You hadn’t tagged me before then, though” she pointed out.

“True, but I have my ways,” Query said. “But yes, I did consider that if I couldn’t stop Janus from succeeding with one of his nabs, I could use you as a way to either get to him or at least get close enough to some of his operatives to gather clues.”

Zoe threw the tiny transmitter at him and watched it bounce off the right cheek of his mask. It didn’t satisfy her nearly enough, so she swept one arm wide to knock over a torchiere-style floor lamp and a side table, along with the small candy dish and a set of coasters that had sat on it.

“Tell me how that makes you any different from that bitch Underworld who’s been trying to get me to join up with Janus and trying to manipulate me into saying yes or scare me into it. How the fuck are you any better?” she shouted.

“I could say that you’ve been getting my services for free, so you get what you pay for, but that wouldn’t even be true, because I’ve gone out of my way to keep watch on you—and Underworld where possible—and keep you from harm and prevent you from being whisked away from my surveillance,” Query said. “What I will emphasize though, is that I’m a shitload different from Underworld because my goal in all this—beyond any desire to use you as bait or gain something from Janus’ interest in you—is to ultimately free you from a threat so that you can make your own life decisions. Underworld’s been trying to snare you; I’m trying to get you free to move on with life as you choose. And then get me out of your life, too.”

“You used me,” Zoe said miserably. “I trusted you and you used me.”

“My plan was never to let you get caught, Zoe. That would have been plain stupid along with being rotten,” he said, holding his hands out, palms up as if in supplication. “You being caught and a teeny little passive transmitter vastly increased my chances of losing track of you altogether. But I considered the possibility you might be successfully kidnapped, and I’d have been a fool not to plan ahead to capitalize on that.”

“Capitalize?” Zoe sneered.

“Face it, Zoe: Regardless of any personal interest I have in taking Janus down, it’s in both our interests for me to find him. He may try to get at you again; he may not. Probably not. This latest attempt cost him a lot in terms of manpower, money and more exposure to me. You’ve become expensive. Going after you is now officially a liability and a loss proposition.”

“All the more reason to punish me by coming after me again.”

“Wrong. He’d come after me because I’m the one messing with him.”

“I killed two of his guys,” Zoe pointed out.

“He doesn’t know that. Also, it’s small potatoes compared to the damage I did. He’ll come after me or one of my few friends if he looks for revenge. I doubt you’re one of my friends after all this, so he won’t pick you.”

Zoe leaned against the back of the nearby sofa and sighed. “You could have at least told me what you were up to,” she said dejectedly.

“A secret backup plan ceases to be secret if I tell someone,” Query said. “And I like my secrets. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I’m not sorry I planned things the way I did, because I still think it was necessary, but I am truly sorry for what you went through. That’s the other difference between me and Underworld. She may not be as outright nasty or vicious as Janus, but she likes control. She practically orgasms when she breaks someone or gets them to submit to her will. I don’t get any pleasure from having played you; not even a little bit.”

For nearly a minute, they remained in silence, before Zoe finally broke it. “So, what now?”

“To be on the safe side, I find someplace you can stay that give you a bit more freedom than this little place and even more security. Cute as it is, I doubt you want to spend the next several months here while I assess the fallout and whether you’re still at risk.”

“Any ideas where yet?”

“Yeah, I think I have a place; a person who will make sure nothing happens to you.”

“A friend of yours?”

“No. I don’t like him much at all, but I know you’ll be safe from Janus with him. But for now, you get some sleep, and I’ll fill you in when the sun is up.”

“Where will you be?”

“Right on the couch,” Query said. “I’ll be reading. No one will find you here, and if they do, they won’t get by me. I promise that. I can do that because I’ll die before I break that promise, and if I die, I won’t have to worry about catching shit from you for breaking it.”

Zoe laughed despite herself, and muttered, “I still don’t like you right now.”

“I have that effect on a lot of people.”

“What if you fall asleep?”

“Not a chance. You see—and considering what I’ve put you through, I guess I can tell you what only a few people know—I don’t sleep. And before you ask, yes, I mean that literally. The price for my powers is a brain that doesn’t know how to shut down anymore, even for a few minutes.”

“You know, it’s not a secret if you tell someone,” Zoe pointed out, feeling some satisfaction for using at least some of his earlier words against him.

“It doesn’t need to be a secret, Zoe. It’s just personal. And I don’t share personal with many people. You may not like me, and that’s understandable. But I like you, and I wish we could have met under better circumstances. You’re good people, Zoe, and I want you to step out in the real world with as clean a slate as possible. You deserve that as much as I deserve your scorn.”

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s