Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 8

 

Our Own Special Way

“Motherfucker,” Clark whispered.

“You know these people?” Kayla asked.

“Sheriff Joshua Smith. Moreno Island Sysadmin Superuser Nu Theta Eight-Nine-One. Guild Branch Director Caleb Anderson.”

“Everybody who’s somebody in Moreno,” James said.

James and Clark were gathered in the Woods’ den, clustered around his desktop. Kayla’s face dominated the video call window. Outside, the Clark children giggled and laughed and played. Nearby, the grandparents watched television. Whenever the children tried to look for Janet, their parents shooed them away.

“We’ve got proof of a conspiracy, but not proof we can send to court,” James said.

“We’ve got proof of a meeting. We don’t know what they said,” Clark corrected.

“It’s a mission brief,” Kayla said. “The VIPs describe the mission, promise support, and ensure the shooters play nice. The shooters stay in their rooms until they get intel, then roll heavy.”

“We still don’t have anything we can use to pin them down,” Clark insisted.

“I have an idea,” Kayla said, “though you might not like it.”

“What is it?”

“We give them a reason to leave their rooms. Send a message to Smith or Holt or both, tell them that you’re going to be at a certain place. We set up nearby and we take photos of the kill team as they arrive.”

“How will that help?”

“James, you’ve got a black bag kit?”

He smiled.

“That’s right. B&E kit, trojan exfiltrator, audio visual surveillance devices—”

“How the hell did you get bugs?” Clark interrupted.

“You can buy anything off the Internet these days, if you know where to look.”

Clark shook her head and muttered something dark.

“While the shooters are away, penetrate and search their rooms,” Kayla said. “Photograph documents, compromise their computers, but leave no trace behind.”

“It’s going to be a rush job,” he warned.

“Just do what you can.”

“What if you’re caught?” Clark asked.

“I won’t.”

Clark shook her head. “Overconfidence gets people killed.”

“Once the shooters leave the site, you leave too,” Kayla said.

“Roger that.”

Clark held up a hand.

“Wait a second. What are we going to do with this information? Even if we tell the PSB that ten suspicious-looking people descended on a location after I told Holt where I was, they’re not going to act on it. They’ll need more information.”

“You can also tell them about how the first wave of shooters showed up after you informed Holt that you hired me.”

“Still a bit of a stretch. It won’t necessarily trigger a Temple Commission investigation. We need to prove that the shooters are soldiers of the New Gods.”

“Only way to do that is to get them to unmask themselves. And they’ll only do that if we’re in their sights,” Kayla said.

“There’s three of us and ten of them. We are not going to fight them if we can help it,” James said.

“What more can we do? Photos won’t be enough, and whatever you find in their rooms won’t be admissible in court.”

“We’ll worry about it when we get to it. For now, we need proof to confirm your suspicions,” Kayla said.

“And after that?”

“We develop the situation.”

#

James had a gravcar.

His personally owned vehicle from his STS days, he had taken measures to erase it from notice. He’d accessed the transponder and changed its identity, then slapped on a set of license plate sticker and applied a silver vinyl wrap. Highly illegal, but they had left legality behind long ago.

James flew. Clark rode, composing an email on a tablet loaned from Mrs. Wood. A half hour later, five blocks from the Gold Star Hotel, he landed the car, programmed the autopilot and got out. The second he shut the door, the vehicle lifted off again.

It flew nap of the earth, low enough it wouldn’t show up on air traffic control, high enough it didn’t have to obey ground rules. It zipped through the streets, dodged buildings and streetlights, and landed at the edge of Downtown.

Kayla was waiting.

She climbed into the driver’s seat. Set her bags down. And fanned herself off.

“It’s hot outside.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Clark said.

The car sat by the curb of a six-lane boulevard, the only such boulevard on the island, slashing through Saint Lucile on a north-south axis. It was a pork project. There weren’t anywhere enough people here to justify the expense. Even in the build up to rush hour, only half of its lanes were in use.

On the bright side, they had a clear line of sight to the terminal.

Clark brought out a digital camera. This one was borrowed from Ed, fitted with a humongous telephoto lens. She took a few test shots and nodded to herself.

“We’re good to go.”

“Let’s light them up,” Kayla said.

Clark brought out the tablet. Turned on the VPN and opened a secure browser. Logged into her MISD email account. Copied over the draft message.

Sheriff,

In light of the deteriorating security situation on Moreno Island, I will be moving my family to Babylon.

We will depart on the evening ferry, but I will stay in Moreno Island to continue my election campaign. I respectfully request your assistance to liaise with the Babylon PD to ensure that my family will be protected when they arrive.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Detective Sergeant Janet Clark

Clark had no intention of sending her family away. There were some lines she could not, would not, cross. She would not use them as bait. If even half of what she’d heard about the New Gods were true, there was no telling what they would do. She was only doing this to lure out the shooters and hammer another nail in Smith’s coffin.

She felt herself poised on a precipice. Never before had she lied to a brother officer. Never before had she even contemplated doing so. Yet here she was now.

On the other hand, Smith had betrayed the oath.

“Is it good?” Clark asked.

“Yeah.”

She clicked the send button.

And exhaled.

“That’s that,” she said.

She’d expected relief. Instead she only felt invisible sandbags piling on her shoulders.

“Now comes the easy part,” Kayla said.

#

Watching. Waiting. Most people would be bored to tears, but both women had spent countless hours on stakeouts. And they wouldn’t have to wait for long.

People streamed out of offices. Cars took to the streets. Kayla watched them all, logging every detail. A few people glanced at the car. Even fewer looked at the women within. Kayla paid special attention to the lookers, watching for signs of recognition. Of aggression.

A faint whirring filled the air. The whirring of a gravcar. Four of them.

“You hear that?” Kayla asked.

“Yeah,” Clark said.

The sound grew louder, faster, angrier. It came from behind, skimming above roofs and trees. Kayla reached under her shirt, placing her hand on the grip of the pistol.

Four black blurs passed over their vehicles, one after the other, a column of flying cars. The second the last one was past, Clark lifted her camera to her eyes.

The gravcars landed by the terminal. Four men stepped out of each vehicle, dressed in light jackets and sweaters. Two pairs entered the terminal proper. The other two pairs spread out across the parking lot, checking every vehicle.

Clark snapped away, the camera clicking as fast as a machine gun. Kayla maintained overwatch.

A message flashed across Kayla’s eyeshields.

I’m in.

#

There were many ways to surreptitiously access a hotel room.

The fastest was to talk your way in.

Across the street from the Gold Star Hotel, James enjoyed a cup of coffee in a cafe. He sipped at the hot beverage, pretending to people-watch. One eye on the sidewalk, the other on the entrance to the underground parking garage, he took in the world around him.

Watching. Waiting.

Gravcars burst out the garage. Four of them. The second they rolled out onto the asphalt, they took to the air.

James sat a minute longer, sipping down more coffee. He wasn’t too concerned that they would make him. He had changed his face dramatically.

With eye liner he had thickened his eyebrows and drew crow’s feet around his eyes, with a salt-and-pepper wig he added volume and age to his hair, with lip liner he slimmed his lips and added a huge fake mole, with blusher and foundation he made his cheeks fuller and larger. With the rest of his outfit, he was practically a whole new man.

After exactly sixty seconds he got up, tossed his coffee and crossed the street.

The doorman hustled to open the door. The air conditioning was a welcome relief from the hot and muggy evening. He crossed the lobby with long, purposeful strides, making a beeline for the front desk, yet dipped his head low and away from the cameras. The receptionist looked up as he approached and greeted him with a smile.

“Welcome! How can we help you?” she asked.

He smiled bashfully.

“I, uh, have a problem. I accidentally locked myself out of my room. Could you help me?”

“Sure. May I have your name and room number?”

“Jason Carter. Room 601.”

She turned to her screen. Her keyboard clattered. Her eyes widened a fraction.

“Thank you, Mr. Carter. Could I see your ID please?”

Lips curling upwards, he shrugged and rubbed the back of his head.

“Well, um, this is a bit embarrassing, but I left my wallet in my room too. My card and my ID is in it. Sorry about that.”

The receptionist pursed her lips. James leaned in, placing his left arm on his counter, whispering conspiratorially.

“Listen, miss, I’d consider it a personal favor if you could help me with this. There’s no harm in letting a guest back into his room, right?”

The receptionist blinked. And looked at him.

He allowed her to see what he wanted her to see. Tall, clean-shaven black man, polished and urbane accent. He wore the uniform of the successful businessman, a dark blue suit with matching tie. His thick-soled dress shoes added inches to his formidable frame. His eyeshields were sleek and futuristic, and his sleeve pulled back to reveal a chromed cufflink and chunky gold watch. A rich and powerful man, the kind of guest hotels dreamed to serve, the kind that could do a lot of favors for someone who helped him.

She smiled.

“Sure. I’ll go get the manager.”

She went into a back room. James turned around, casually looking about the lobby.

Everyone knew the cyborgs were rich and powerful—but they also lacked human warmth. He could put up a more convincing performance if he had to, but he saw no point in antagonizing the staff that way. He wasn’t here to be remembered. Better to empathize with them, give them a nudge, help them help him.

It was something the Sinners would never understand.

In moments, the manager returned, the very picture of obsequiousness.

“I heard sir is locked out of his room?” he wheedled.

“Unfortunately.”

“A small matter. Please come with me. I’ll take care of the problem.”

With a fake smile and overly-exaggerated hand gestures, the manager led James to the elevator.

Up on the sixth floor, they headed to the suite. The manager produced his master key, worn on a loop around his neck, and touched it to the reader. The LED flashed green.

James stepped aside and behind the manager. The manager turned the knob and opened the door.

“Here you go!”

“Thank you very much,” James said.

He stepped in.

Took the door knob.

Gently pushed the door closed.

Still smiling, the manager closed the door shut.

James waited for a moment. Two. Three. Turning around, he saw a piece of cardboard taped to the door, covering the peephole. Clever. Someone on the outside couldn’t see if someone on the inside was looking out. He lifted the cardboard and looked through the lens.

The manager was gone.

James had expected the manager to ask for ID, had prepared excuses for it, but he had simply assumed James to be who he said he was. Always trust humans to be the weakest link in the security chain.

He turned to regard the room. The late afternoon sun streamed in through the closed balcony windows, highlighting an assembly of sofas and couches. The air was still cool, still fresh, carrying the scent of citrus and lint. To his left, a marble bathroom stood, completely pristine.

He composed a message on his eyeshields and fired it off.

I’m in.

James cautiously moved through the room. There were—probably—no tripwires in the room. That the manager had safely opened it was a good sign. Still, with the New Gods in play, it couldn’t hurt to be safe.

Past the sitting area was a dining room. All six chairs were neatly tucked in under the table. A door opened into the bedroom, where he discovered four single beds, placed side by side. A fifth lay by the window. A second bathroom awaited inside the bedroom.

The room was too neat.

The beds were immaculate. The bathrooms were practically untouched. The dining table had been left alone. The chairs were slightly out of alignment, and the cushions had been randomly scattered across the sofas, but otherwise there was no sign anyone had even lived in the room.

Impossible.

For civilians.

The Singularity Network had brought their A-team. It was how James had operated in his old life. Keep all your gear close to hand, never leave anything lying around, put stuff back as soon as you took it out. When the order came in, you grabbed your gear and moved out.

His heart sank. Already he knew that there was no point searching the room. But since he was here—

A message flashed across the lenses.

They’re rushing for the cars. Exfil now.

#

“Something’s wrong,” Clark said.

Kayla looked up. She’d been so preoccupied watching the streets, she hadn’t had time to monitor the terminal.

“What’s up?”

“They’re running back to the cars. All of them.”

Kayla’s blood ran cold. Had they been discovered?

“You got the photos?”

“Plenty.”

“I’m going to the rally point. Warn James.”

“Roger.”

Kayla gunned the engine. The gravity mirror hummed to life. She lifted off the ground, turned the vehicle around and glided through the air.

She fought down the instinct to panic, to hit the gas, to rush at full speed. She was now just another rich kid with more money than time. She flew as a sedate velocity, matching the ground traffic. No hurry, no rush, nothing to look at.

In the rear view camera, she saw the four gravcars rocket off in the direction of the hotel.

Three blocks away, she set the gravcar down by the curb. Kept the gravity mirror humming. And breathed.

“Think he’ll be all right?” Clark asked.

“Of course,” Kayla replied.

And rested her hand on her weapon.

#

He’d been compromised. He could worry about the hows or whys later. It was time to go.

He grabbed an alcohol wipe from his inner coat pocket and cleaned down the door handle. Still holding on to the cloth, he opened the door, careful to avoid touching anything with his bare hands, and stepped out. He wiped down the handle on the other side too and stuffed the wet cloth into his pocket.

He strolled down the hall, just another satisfied guest, keeping his head low and away from the overhead cameras. He stopped at a fire alarm call point. Looked both ways for witnesses. Wrapped the wipe around his right hand. Breathed.

Smashed the glass.

Alarms screamed. Doors unlocked. James ran.

At the end of a hall, a maid poked her head out a room and stared quizzically at him.

“What’s going on?”

“Fire! Fire! Run!” James shouted.

“Huh?”

James sprinted past her.

She yelled at his back. He ignored her.

He blasted through the fire escape door. He charged down the stairs. On the third floor, he heard footsteps above him. He slowed down, enough to silence the thundering of his shoes. On the ground floor, he took a moment to regain his composure, to smoothen down his clothes and adjust his hair, and stepped out into the lobby.

Guests streamed out of the elevators and stairs. Staff gathered in the lobby in a confused knot. The doorman held the door open, waving everyone other.

“Please leave the building in an orderly fashion!” he shouted.

James hung back, falling in behind a group of suited businessmen, far enough away that they wouldn’t register him, close enough their mass obscured his body. As he stepped through the door, he heard the humming of gravity mirrors.

Four gravcars descended from the heavens, forming up in single file, landing right in front of the entrance. Men leapt out, carbines in their hands, plate carriers strapped to their torsos. Among them was a tall, slender man with a roving eyeball in the middle of his forehead.

A cyborg. A Superuser of the Singularity Network.

The businessmen stopped to gawk. James stepped aside and activated the cameras on his eyeshields, snapping photos of their faces.

“Move! Make way!” the cyborg shouted, his voice drowned out by the ear-splitting alarms.

The shooters scanned the crowd, weapons at the compressed ready.

To James’ right, people streamed past. He shuffle-stepped back, sliding into the gaps between people. He hunched over, wearing an expression of fear and panic, turning his face from them, following the crowd.

“Where’s the fire?”

“I don’t see any smoke!”

“What’s going on out there?”

Abruptly the group lost its momentum. People slowed. Others stopped. They turned to look up at the hotel, at the shooters, at the cars. James eased his way past them, shuffling around bystanders. The soldiers of the New Gods yelled orders, demanded compliance.

James kept walking.

#

Kayla saw James first. He’d disguised himself well, but he walked with purpose, with energy, with single-minded intent. He cut across the road, making his way to his gravcar, scanning both sides of the street as he walked.

“Here he is,” Clark said.

Kayla looked around him, past him, looking for signs of pursuit. The street was clear, though in the distance, sirens howled.

James clambered into the back seat and belted himself in.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“Back to the farm?”

“Yes.”

Kayla worked the controls. The gravcar rose steadily into the air. She input the destination into its computer and the car took over.

“What happened out there?” James asked.

“I don’t know. One minute they were setting up for an ambush. The next they were running like all the devils in Hell were after them,” Clark said.

“Did you trip an alarm?” Kayla asked.

James swore.

“Must have. But I didn’t see anything.”

“It’s the Singularity Network. They’ve got microsensors. Smart dust. They’re so tiny, you can’t see them with the naked eye. They could have sprinkled the room with it.”

James swore again, louder and more ferociously this time.

“I thought you fought the New Gods often. Why didn’t you think of it?” Clark asked.

“Even if I did, there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it,” Wood said. “We don’t have the kind of tech that can defeat that. Not anymore.”

“Did you get anything from the room?” Kayla asked.

“Nothing. It was completely clean. They’d taken everything with them when they’d left.”

Clark cursed.

“What was the point of going through all this?”

“We took a chance. It didn’t pay off. But we can still use this to our advantage,” Kayla said.

“How?”

“The New Gods know we’re acting against them. They’ll have to react. So do MISD. They’ll come knocking on our door soon,” Wood said.

“And when they do, we greet them in our own special way,” Kayla finished.

“You… you’re planning on killing cops?”

“Only if they plan to kill us first.”

“Count on it,” James said.

Clark buried her face in her hands.

“I can’t believe this but… but after what we’ve seen of the New Gods…”

“Believe. It makes life a lot easier,” James advised.

“How do you two even live like this?”

“Simple. We do, or we die.”

“And if anyone has to do the dying, we make sure it’s them,” Kayla said.

Want to know how Kayla and James made the soldiers of the New Gods do the dying? Check out Babylon Blues here!

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