The Gathering Storm, Part 29

Posted: February 11, 2013 in The Gathering Storm series
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It was an alien feeling for Solstice alone in the skeez lab. It wasn’t her first time in such an environment, but usually when she was in a place like this, it was to kick ass, leave soon thereafter and call the cops.

Instead, she was alone and surrounded by all the equipment, chemicals and other accoutrements of a drug lab. All arrayed around her as if they were her own. In a sense, they were now. She’d claimed this place and Query’s hired hands had removed the people who had been here previously. They’d picked this lab out precisely because it wasn’t affiliated with organized crime or any gangs in the area. Just a boutique operation that hadn’t been gobbled up yet partly because it wasn’t really squarely in the middle of anyone’s territory.

Her drug lab.

What a weird damn feeling. And I’ve been here a night and most of a day so it just feels weirder and weirder, Solstice mused. I know the slow tink-tink-tink of the dripping pipe over that metal plate on the floor. I know the squeak of that one ancient ceiling fan. My drug lab. Even though I have zero interest in or intention of slinging skeez.

On the other hand, being the owner and operator of this skeez lab was precisely what Marty the Hun was supposed to think Solstice-summer_1of her. That was the fiction that Query had slipped into ears of a few select people on the street—that Solstice had gone rogue and went over the dark side. That perhaps her crime-fighting before had been nothing more than a sham for winnowing out the competition.

It would be an easy thing for Marty to envision; it would resonate with his black heart, Solstice thought. His bigoted, sexist self would expect just that kind of thing from her, especially being a Goth, Wiccan, Asian transhuman who’d humiliated him and gotten him arrested.

If only he knew I was bi, he’d really think me the scum of the earth, probably.

Creating the notion this was her lab was precisely why she’d been camping out here for more than 20 hours.

By now, Marty the Hun knew where she was and no doubt he still wanted blood. Except now he thought he was doing more than getting revenge. He’d also be taking out someone whose own drugs and money could be added to his own—if, of course, Query’s team hadn’t removed most of the finished drugs and taken the money, too.

I won’t begrudge him the money, even though under other circumstances I would have helped myself to plenty of it after a bust; I’ve certainly gotten major assistance from Query on this little operation, so if he has his own plans for the cash, so be it, she thought. Now we’ll see if his help and this crazy plan Isabella and I hatched gets me killed or if I get clear of Marty’s wrath for good.

The screen of the smart phone Query’s team had left behind for her lit up suddenly, revealing a floor plan of the building and two flashing red circles that indicated someone had slipped in through the front and the back almost simultaneously, tripping a couple of the sensors Query’s people had installed inside the building’s perimeter.

Marty won’t be in the front of the crowd, but he will almost certainly be here with his goons, Solstice reminded herself. He likes hands-on, and given what he’s heard on the streets and from whom, this wouldn’t smell like a trap. After all, he’s been thinking all this time since he got off that I’ve been running and hiding from him, when I didn’t even know he’d been hunting me until Query told me.

Marty the Hun would also be here, she realized, because the lab was too valuable a target to let his crew be running loose here without him.

The intruders didn’t expect her to know they were here, so she moved swiftly toward the rear of the building to keep that edge. Marty wasn’t the type to slip in through the back of anyplace, and she wanted to deal with him last of all. She spotted three men slinking in, wary and guns drawn. Her Attractor powers yanked the weapons from their hands and as they all gave out confused cries of irritation, she tossed a flashbang grenade into their midst and slipped back around the corner, closing her eyes and covering her ears as the grenade made the room a frenzy of light and noise.

She had been a little too close to the action, she realized, as her ears rang and she felt herself sway a bit as she rose to her feet—not even realizing she had dropped to her knees in the first place. She mostly regained her bearings in time to see the butt of a shotgun stock rushing toward her face, and clumsily blocked it with her left arm. Her arm vibrated and throbbed from the impact as she heard the man shout, “Got her for ya Marty!” and swung the shotgun in a tight, hard arc as he added, “Softenin’ her up.”

Oh, Marty wants me intact so he can do me himself—how romantic of him, she thought, and ducked under the attack, dropping to the floor. She lifted her legs, wrapped her ankles around one of the attacker’s thighs and poured an intense burst of thermal energy through them, then ran her ankles down toward his feet, burning his leg all the way down. His pants smoldered and the stench of burning flesh assaulted her nostrils. As he screamed in agony, she used her feet to pull him off balance, and relieved him of the shotgun. Taking a cue from his attack on her, she slammed the stock of the gun into his head half a dozen times in quick succession.

Another man came into view in front of her, bringing his pistol around. She lowered the temperature around him abruptly to startle him and slow him down just a hair, and aimed hastily at his legs with the shotgun. Her  aim was sloppy, but good enough to take out one of his kneecaps, and she hurried over to his prone body to take his gun before he could recover his wits.

“G’night, bitch-whore,” came Marty’s voice from behind just as she touched the pistol, and the shock and humiliation of him getting the drop on her was enough to throw her off. Instead of reacting, she froze for just a moment. Just a moment too long.

Marty-the-HunI’ll never swing around in time and he’s going to put a bullet into my head and oh fuck and…

Marty grunted, and then his towering body fell onto her, a heavy dead weight. There was stickiness between their bodies and Solstice wanted to retch with the knowledge it was her blood, or his, or both. That she was finished.

But why did he fall? she suddenly considered, and frantically shoved at his body to prepare for another attack. I didn’t hear a gunshot why would either of us be bleeding? She couldn’t dislodge Marty’s body from her own and she began to thrash, keening with fear and rage.

“Calm down,” said a firm and quiet voice, and Solstice saw Query above them, a large Bowie knife in one gloved hand. “Hold still and I’ll cut you free. I shot him with a rubber slug and then hit him with a tangler. You got caught up with the tangler threads.”

There were a few quick slashes, and Solstice rolled free of Marty.

“I took the liberty of trussing up the guys in the back,” Query said, grabbing Marty’s half-stunned body by one arm and dragging him to another room. “Kindly take care of the guy you roasted, please, and the one you shot, while I see to Marty.”

Solstice got the burn victim’s hands behind his back and cinched a plastic tie around his wrists, did the same for the hobbled thug, and then followed Query to the office where he’d dragged Marty.

“What brings you to the party?” she asked. “I thought this was my mess to clean up.”

Query-2“I came because I’m not half the asshole I let you think I was,” Query answered. “I don’t like dead peers, not even the young, headstrong, sometimes idiotic ones.”

“Goddamn you’re a charmer, Query. The girl heroes must be throwing themselves at you.”

“Only when we’re sparring or one of them confuses me with one of the bad guys,” Query said, then jabbed Marty in the ribcage. “Evenin’, Hun. How’s it hanging?”

“You’re both dead,” Marty the Hun slurred as he regained his senses. Then, with more gusto: “I’m gonna see you fucked up in every possible way I can think of; both of ya!”

Solstice slipped up close, and got in his face, almost nose-to-nose. “Gonna be hard to do from behind bars, Marty. Especially given how long you’ll be going away, seeing as how I’m going to leave you here for the police with lots of nice, strong evidence that makes it look like you run this place. Judges like to put skeez-cookers away for long, long time. They send lots of cops to skeez busts, Marty. Not a chance that you’ll only have your pet cops on the scene. You get to go down, down, down—for years before you see any shot at parole.”

“Don’t matter, because I hold grudges forever. Same to you, Query. And I got ways to touch people from prison.”

“You’re a pretty decent-sized fish, Marty, but not that big,” Query said. “There isn’t anyone who’s going to have anywhere near the tenacity in going after us on your behalf as you would, even if you can lay hold of money to pay them. And I’m not sure you’ll have much in the way of support from your friends on the outside when the child porn comes to light after your arrest. In fact, you won’t do too well with the guys on the inside when that gets around.”

“I’m not into kiddie porn any more than this is my lab!” Marty growled.

“You may believe in the motto ‘old enough to bleed, old enough to breed,’ Marty, but fucking 14- and 15-year-olds is plenty sick enough for me—it’s kid-fucking—and Query says that shit’s confirmed. Not to mention all those women you tortured and killed thinking they might have been me. So I don’t feel bad at all planting downloads with little kids on your computer—well, the computer that’s going to seem to be yours, especially when we finishing putting your fingerprints all over it. When you do get out someday, Marty—you know, if you don’t get killed behind bars first by a convict who thinks you might fuck his little kid when you’re released—you’ll want to be rethinking this whole concept of ‘If you want something right, do it yourself’ and stick to letting lackeys do the work.”

Dead! That’s all I got to say to you, bitch.”

“Congratulations, Solstice,” Query said. “You have your first arch-enemy. You know, if he gets out of prison. As my own little gift to honor that occasion, here’s a little of the lab’s cash,” he added, tossing a bulging fanny pack to her. “Also, I’m going to let you take credit for all this. I wasn’t here. You’re the hero who took this place down solo.”

“Oh, fuck no,” Marty hissed. “You’re gonna boost her street rep like that? Oh, no. I’m not only gonna tell everyone I know that she needed your help, but I’m gonna tell them she didn’t take down a single guy tonight and you’re covering for her. Let’s see how long she lasts in the streets when people think she’s a pussy can’t protect herself.”

“You might want to rethink that, Marty,” Query said. “Not one of your guys out there had any wits about him to see me here. And everyone knows I leave dirty, street-level shit like busting drug labs to the younger and more impetuous generation of heroes. Start trying to convince people the big, bad Query was here, and they’ll be thinking you’re the pussy who not only got his ass handed to him by a girl but that he’s not even man enough to suck up that fact.”

“Gosh, Marty, that would go together real well with your new kiddie porn rep,” Solstice taunted. “You’ll be such a bigger hit with the other cons then.”

“Dead,” Marty repeated. “One way, one day. Dead.”

* * *

On her third day in Fortunato’s high-rise, Zoe found herself in what she considered an obnoxiously gargantuan office, finally meeting her benefactor.

“I hope your stay has been pleasant so far,” Fortunato almost purred.

“Can’t complain,” Zoe answered disinterestedly. “Query said if you took me in you’d treat me right. I appreciate that you’ve given me up to four months to stay. Not sure if I’ll put you out for that long, but it’s nice not to have two transhuman psychos breathing down my neck for a while.”

Fortunato_businessmanBowing his head slightly in acknowledgement, Fortunato said, “You could stay longer. Room and board for as long as you like, free of charge.”

“Oh. Really? Sir, I’m not in the market to become a kept woman. Ain’t going for the mistress look, no thank you. No matter how rich you are.”

Chuckling and waving one hand dismissively, Fortunato reached into a humidor on his desk and extracted a cigar. “Do you mind if I partake?”

“Only if I get to flaunt the city’s no-smoking-in-the-workplace laws, too,” Zoe said.

“Fine with me. Cuban or domestic?” he offered.

“Cigar? No. I’ll stick with good old Virginia Slims, thanks,” she said, retrieving and lighting up a cigarette from her purse as Fortunato toasted and lit his Havana with a wooden match.

As he puffed silently, Zoe regarded their slowly growing and mingling smoke for a minute or so before saying, “I’m still not interested in living here as some sort of sex-toy, by the way. Especially now. I’m not attracted to men who smoke.”

“Ironic. And hypocritical,” he said, eliciting only a shrug and a haughty exhalation of smoke from her. “But that’s not what I had in mind. I wish to employ you for your transhuman abilities. Query provided only a very meager file on you. No doubt to pique my interest so that I’d be more inclined to give you shelter in case I decided his payment for hiding you wasn’t good enough.”

loc-down-1_zoe“He paid you? Didn’t know his pockets were that deep. I bet your help is expensive.”

“It is. That’s why Query paid me in a currency more valuable than cash. But back to you and me, shall we?” Fortunato said. “I am in need of talented transhumans. You somehow got the very intense interest of Janus, which means you must be something special, perhaps even beyond just the powers Query mentions in the file. I’d like to hire you at a very generous salary and benefits, plus the free room and board I offered. A much bigger suite, of course, than you occupy now.”

Zoe took a thoughtful drag on her cigarette. “I’m not really the costume-wearing and crime-fighting type, sir,” she said through her exhale.

“Please, call me Fortunato. And I think it’s a career you should very much consider, since I’d be financing it. Not many transhumans who put on tights are able to find any kind of benefactor, much less one as flush as I am.”

“I rejected Janus and Underworld and hired Query to get them off my back,” Zoe responded. “They offered a lot to me as well.”

“True, but I think you like to fight—mostly in a verbal or metaphorical fashion but still, you’re a fighter. And I suspect that despite your recent and harrowing little adventure that a big part of you would like to find an excuse to put your powers into action again,” Fortunato said, pointing the smoldering tip of his cigar at her. “And the main reason you turned down Janus and his crew was because you’re not criminally minded. You have too many moral compunctions. Well, about robbing, killing and that sort of thing. You certainly didn’t mind hiding from the NCAA and your college that you’re transhuman. Now that’s something that could come back to haunt you.”

“Let me guess: If I don’t take your generous offer now, my college and the NCAA will conveniently find out about my fraud, and you’ll swoop in with a less generous offer of employment that I’ll have to accept so that you’ll bail me out of the lawsuit they’d threaten me with.”

“That’s a cynical line of thought,” Fortunato said.

“True, too, isn’t it, Fortunato?”

“I know Vanessa approached you. I didn’t know that she put such slanderous thoughts in your head.”

“The fact that you know she talked to me for less than a minute tells me that I should invite Query to my room soon to find the hidden cameras and mics,” Zoe said. “Also, it’s nice of you to confirm that you must have extorted her in some way because she really didn’t give me quite that much detail when she warned me about you.”

“Oh, I’m sure she dropped big enough hints to get your imagination going, Zoe. Allison…I mean, Vanessa…has some issues with me, but I assure you…”

“She dropped the name Allison, too. What the hell?”

“Sorry, it’s her codename for costumed work. Allison Wonderland,” Fortunato clarified. “I sometimes get it…”

“Anyways,” Zoe said, cutting him off, “it was Query who warned me you’d probably make a pitch and I should be on the lookout for possible snares and blackmailing.”

“Query? He has more issues with me than Vanessa…”

“Plus he gave me a file on you, just like he gave you one on me,” Zoe continued. Reaching into her large shoulder bag, she pulled out a manila envelope and tossed it onto Fortunato’s desk. “As you can see, it’s way bigger than the one you have on me. You have an interesting history for someone who’s on the side of the good guys. I think Query left out a lot. You’re probably even a way bigger ass than he’s letting on to me.”

Fortunato set his cigar aside even as Zoe reached over to the same ashtray to stub out her half-smoked cigarette, and he said, “None of that changes anything about my offer or about your circumstances.”

“No, but it changes the nature of our negotiations, Fortunato. I’ve had a few days to think, knowing this meeting was likely to happen after you did the due diligence and digging around about me, and I’ve decided that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to work more or less on the right side of the law since it’s clear I’m being dragged into this costumed world whether I like it or not. I’d probably have to leave the country to have a normal life in the short run, and I don’t want to do that. I’d also like to make some good money, because I’ve got grad school in my plans and a desire to get through life debt-free and without two bankruptcies like my parents did.”

“What, pray tell, is going to change about our negotiations simply because you expect duplicity from me?”

“First, you’re going to make sure that neither UConn nor the NCAA drags me into the courts, and that means you don’t tell them that I withheld information to get my free ride. It also means that if they come to that conclusion on their own, you’ll do whatever you need to in order to make sure I don’t get sued by the college. Like buy them a new library or whatever,” Zoe said. “You’ll also make sure that no one ties my civilian identity to my costumed one. If I’m exposed, or sued or any of those things I want you to protect me against, you will pay me the equivalent of ten years of my most recent annual salary with you in one lump sum, immediately. A penalty. Or severance. Or whatever you wanna call it.”

“You mean I’ll pay if I’m somehow responsible for any of those things happening.”

“No, you’ll pay regardless,” Zoe said. “Consider it incentive to be very protective of me.”

“That means that you could, theoretically, expose yourself at some point in the future on purpose, at any time in your life, and collect on ten times the last salary I paid you before you left my employ,” Fortunato said.

“Yeah. Well, you need to take risks for big payoffs. I’m pretty sure I’m a five-power transhuman, Fortunato. That’s about as rare as we come. So I’m worth it.”

“You’re more ruthless a negotiator than I expected, Zoe. I think I like you.”

“I don’t know if I can say the feeling’s mutual, but thanks. We can talk about the other details now, but I won’t be signing anything until I have a lawyer look things over. Query’s going to lend me his attorney friend.”

“Oh, how she twists the knife,” Fortunato said with a smile, retrieving his cigar. “Zoe, I might have to watch out or I could fall in love with you.”

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