Thursday, December 31, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 8

 

End in Fire

Even in Riveria, there were still oases of privacy, unobserved by the growing population of surveillance cameras. Among them was Hatfield Park.

Running along the banks of the Minato River, it was once a historic battlefield, in the pre-Cataclysm days when the peoples of the region made war on each other before finally agreeing to peace terms. Today it was a verdant stretch of green hills and pavilions, light woods and walking trails. The lamp posts were antiquated, lacking the sensors and transmitters of their modern counterparts. The few cameras here were mounted at the park facilities.

The parking lot was not among them.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 7

 

To The Mattresses

They hadn’t managed to grab Fernando. His burner phone was a decent consolation prize.

They’d escaped and evaded for an hour, winding through Riveria. In an underground parking lot, Connor stripped off his clothes, wiped himself down, changed into a new set. Kayla peeled away the license plate stickers and affixed a new set. The blood-spattered clothes disappeared into a dumpster close to a butcher shop. The expended breach pen went into a sewer.

They parked the SUV a block away from the motel, then wiped off the stray bloodstains and fogged the interior with privacy spray. The powerful disinfectant broke down genetic material, leaving nothing behind for the cops to find.

Back in his motel room, Connor treated himself to a long, hot shower, scrubbing off the last of the dried blood. Pink and pale red fluid sluiced down the drain like a river feeding a whirlpool. Now and then, he picked out a tiny bone chip or a string of organic matter stuck to his skin.

It was like being operational again.

At the sink, he sanitized his tomahawk and the scabbard with copious amounts of alcohol and bleach. By the time he was done, every trace of DNA and fingerprints had been completely destroyed. He stepped out to find Kayla sitting at his desk, the recovered burner phone plugged into his laptop.

“Any luck hacking the phone?” Connor asked.

Zen’s voice floated from the laptop speakers.

“Yes. Cracked the password in no time. Fernando barely used the phone at all. No photos, videos, emails, messages. Totally blank. However, he used it to call a single number many times over the past few weeks. And he didn’t scrub the call history.”

“Careless,” Kayla observed.

“Amateurs,” Connor snorted.

“The number doesn’t have a name tagged to it, but I’ll bet it’s the mysterious Mr. Tom,” Zen said.

“Who is he?”

“Stand by. Cracking his phone now.”

“How long will it take?” Connor asked.

“As long as it will take.”

“Have you boys eaten?” Kayla asked.

“No,” both men replied.

“Y’all should get some food.”

Connor’s belly rumbled. Now that the fight was over, his parasympathetic nervous system reasserted itself. His belly gnawed. His mouth felt dry as cotton.

And Kayla… So close to her, she smelled good. A clean scent of soap and shampoo, with a dose of honey. Suddenly he was aware of the heat radiating from her.

Easy, boy.

She was a sister in arms. Sister. In the STS, the introduction of female shooters had altered the team dynamics subtly. It had taken him a long time to overcome his biology. Kayla was easy on the eye, sure, but you do not ever touch anyone on your team. It would wreak havoc among everyone.

Besides, if he made a move on her, Yuri would never forgive him.

So he said, “You mind getting us something to eat?”

“What do you want?” she asked.

“There’s a convenience store a couple of blocks north. Get me something from the grill. Hot dogs, wraps, whatever they have available. Actually, make that, two somethings.”

She frowned.

“That’s not healthy.”

“Fuel up on salad and yoghurt if you want. Me, I need my proteins and carbs.”

She sniffed. Loudly.

“Be back later.”

Connor held his tongue until she left the room. Then he turned to the Zen’s face on the screen.

“Women.”

Zen chuckled.

“Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”

“You’re living with one, aren’t you?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny that.”

“C’mon, man, I was guarding her alongside you too.”

That gig lasted for three months. Three months of relative peace, ending with their relocation to a small town to the east. As soon as they were settled down, Connor left.

He had told himself that they were safe. That three strangers in town would attract a lot of attention. Zen and Marcie could pose as siblings, cousins, maybe even husband and wife. Him, though? He was pale as white bread, a stranger in the town, not part of any larger family unit. Better if he made his own way, keep an eye on things in the Riveria region.

Or so he thought.

He wondered if all this would have happened if he’d stayed with Zen and Marcie instead. Or if the New Gods would find another way to strike at their little corner of the world. But it was too late for what-if games. All he could do was follow this thing through to the bitter end.

As Zen worked, Connor tended to his gear. He cleaned his plate carrier and backpack, topped off his mags, swapped the fuel cartridge of his railgun, checked the loot from the safe house.

There wasn’t much else. Two wallets. Two smartglasses. The devices had been switched off, stowed in RFID-blocking bags. The wallets held money and cards and ID, and little else. They could take their time with the pocket litter later. For now, the priority was locating Tom.

A firm hand rapped on the door. Twice. Paused. Twice more.

Connor got up, lifted the peephole cover and glanced out.

Kayla. She held two large bags in her left hand, keeping her right free.

He let her in. The mouthwatering smell of hot food filled his nose. She handed him a bag and set the other down by the desk. Inside his bag, he found a pair of wrapped burritos. He hastily ripped one open, inhaled the aroma of grease, fried eggs, melted cheese and hash browns, and wolfed it down.

Heaven.

At the table, Kayla set a large bowl of turkey salad next to the computer, opened a container of yoghurt, and delicately took a sip.

And raised an eyebrow.

Connor mumbled something, his cheeks stuffed with food. He wasn’t sure what it was. Kayla shook her head anyway.

He forced down his last mouthful of burrito.

“What?”

She looked away, giggling to herself.

“Nothing,” she sang.

He sighed. Women.

He unwrapped the other burrito and chowed down. Beef and beans, with a smattering of onions and celery, drenched in thick barbecue sauce. Good old fashioned comfort food.

“Jackpot,” Zen announced.

“Hit me,” Connor said.

“The number we recovered from Fernando’s phone is a burner. But the device associated with it is not a burner. It’s a pair of smartglasses. My guess is, this person used a burner app to generate a number to communicate solely with Fernando.”

“You accessed the smartglasses?” Kayla asked.

“Of course,” Zen said smugly. “I own it too.”

“Where is the wearer? Who is he?” Connor demanded.

“Geolocation places him at the Prism nightclub.”

“That’s Pantheon turf.”

The most exclusive Pantheon club in the city, Prism catered only to believers and neutrals. Worshipers of other gods were explicitly forbidden from entry. Elect bouncers stood guard at the entrances, blessed with the power to instantly see the religious affiliation of anyone they saw.

“Fernando was a Pantheon hitter?” Zen asked.

“One of the minor Pantheon powers takes the form of a worm. It’s possible,” Connor mused.

“We only have circumstantial evidence at this point,” Kayla said. “We need a solid ID on the user.”

“I’m rifling through his emails. He’s got three separate email accounts. One personal, one business, and one for secure mail. His business profile is… Thomas Taylor. Owner and General Manager of Prism.”

Kayla whistled. “You sure this isn’t some random guy using Taylor’s smartglasses?”

“Stand by. Gonna stream the take from his cameras.”

A new window popped up. The glasses stared straight ahead at an elegant wooden door. The lower edges of the lens hinted at a table carved from black wood. The microphone picked up the sound of unseen hands tapping away at an unseen device.

“Adding augmented reality overlay,” Zen said.

Multiple spreadsheets filled the display. One column listed a long list of expenses: salaries, electricity, water, maintenance, food, alcohol. Another column listed figures in the tens of thousands, all of them prefaced by a dollar sign. Other columns listed names, numbers, items, sales reports. A cursor jumped from one spreadsheet to another, occasionally copying and pasting data.

“Looks like the manager to me,” Kayla said.

“Why is he after me? I haven’t anything to cross the Pantheon lately, never mind Tom Taylor,” Connor said.

“They have long memories,” Zen offered. “Perhaps now they think it’s safe to retaliate against us.”

“If so, why did they send amateurs?” Kayla asked.

That was the biggest question. You never sent disposable muscle to take out heavy hitters. Unless…

“How high is Tom Taylor in the Pantheon hierarchy?” Connor asked.

“We need to check it out. Why?” Zen asked.

“We can see he’s a businessman. But the Pantheon values strength above all. I’m thinking he didn’t send heavy hitters because he isn’t senior enough to deploy them, and the higher-ups don’t think this job is worth risking their soldiers for. He has to take a shot using the assets he can recruit.”

“Which means this isn’t a sanctioned hit,” Kayla said.

“On the other hand, if he takes me out using his assets and manpower, he proves that he can play with the big boys,” Connor said.

“You’re saying he’s trying to climb the church ladder over your body?” Zen asked.

“It’s not sanctioned, it’s not personal, what else can it be? None of the New Gods will want to cross us without good reason.”

“But the Pantheon is among the most decentralized of the New Gods,” Kayla mused. “They can’t exercise command and control over every single member.”

“Exactly. If Taylor worships the worm as well, and if he kills an STS operator, it will elevate the worm god’s status within the Pantheon.”

Zen sighed.

“This is bullshit. But it’s the only explanation I can think of that makes sense.”

“If he can’t call in the big guns, how is he able to track us?” Kayla asked.

“I’ve been pondering that myself. There isn’t a BOLO on the two of you. It’s the first thing I checked when the job kicked off. I’m thinking someone flagged the two of you as persons of interest. If you show up on the cameras, the system notifies that person—and only that person. I need to dig deeper to find out what’s going on.”

“You’ve got a lot on your plate, don’t you,” Kayla said.

“Part of the job. Wouldn’t mind having more helping hands.”

“Maybe it’s time to start up that cybersecurity company you’ve been talking about,” Connor said.

Kayla arched an eyebrow. “He did?”

“Boomer and I got to talking about it last year. Now that we’re out of a job, we need to find a new way to make ends meet. I’ve been thinking about setting up a security company, one that combines cyber and physical security. It has to wait until after we’re secure, but—”

Taylor’s smartglasses buzzed.

A phone icon appeared on the window. The caller ID read ‘Det. Joe Nelson’.

“Zen,” Connor began.

“On it,” he said.

Connor hit the record button. Taylor picked up the call.

“Yes,” Taylor said.

“Mr. Taylor, there’s been a triple murder at one of the addresses you asked me to monitor. Apartment 02-02, 36 Burroughs Street. Dave Fernando’s home,” Nelson said.

Taylor went quiet for a moment.

“Tell me about the deceased.”

“One of them is Chris Cowan. Shot in the chest by a tiny bullet that exploded out the back of his chest, then decapitated. The other is Earl Floyd, also shot in the chest. The gunshot wounds are characteristic of railgun rounds. The last… We found the remains of a Husk, chopped up into many pieces by an edged weapon.”

“Fernando?”

“We… well, there’s nothing human left. We’re going to run DNA tests.”

“Did the Husk look like a giant worm with arms?”

“I… I guess so.”

Taylor growled under his breath.

“Who killed them?”

“Witnesses report two assailants dressed in ski masks, jackets and tactical gear. One male, the other female. Both had long guns and pistols.”

“Connor and Fox. Do you know where they went?”

Nelson hesitated.

“We’re working on it. The female shot out the cameras as they made their assault. The streetlight cameras were… wiped.”

“What do you mean, ‘wiped’?”

“Just that. The footage is gone. Every street camera for five blocks around was disabled when the suspects left the building. A third suspect, a hacker, must have set them to maintenance mode, then deleted the archives.”

“How is that possible? Someone hacked into the surveillance network?”

“It must be, sir.”

“Shit… Let me know if Connor and Wood resurface. No, wait. I need to harden up. I’ll reach out to you when I’m secure.”

“Understood. But, ah, there’s one more thing you should know.”

“What is it?”

“We found no wallets, phones or devices on the bodies. And Fernando’s bedroom was searched. The suspects found a hidden drawer in the nightstand.”

Taylor barked a blasphemous profanity out loud.

“Sir?”

“I have to go. I’ll send a man to contact you later.”

Taylor clicked off. Swore again. Then composed a text message.

Emergency. Get up here now.

“I’ve found Detective Nelson on the surveillance system,” Tan said. “He put in a request three weeks ago to flag you two as persons of interest. It’s not on the official records, but the logs show the system sending him real-time notifications of your movements.”

“Damn,” Connor muttered. “Is Nelson part of the Pantheon too?”

“Gonna have to dig it up. Along with Taylor’s PSB dossier.”

“Prioritize keeping us off the net,” Kayla said. “Last thing we need is tangling with RPD too.”

“On it,” Zen said.

A beefy man in a dark suit entered the office.

“You called, sir?”

“Connor and Fox killed Fernando and his crew. I’m next on the hit list. Take me home and harden the fuck up,” Taylor ordered.

The bodyguard’s face turned grim.

“Understood, sir.”

“Get the boys to prepare the safe room, move critical assets back home, and stand up to high alert. Until Connor and Fox are eliminated, I’m barricading myself at home. We’re going to the mattresses.”

The bodyguard escorted Taylor out the room. Three more men waited in a hallway outside. The protectors took up formation around their charge. Together, they headed to an emergency stairwell.

“Do we know where Taylor lives?” Connor asked.

“Not yet. I asked my buddy in the PSB for his dossier, but by the time he gets back to us, it might be too late to stage an in-extremis assault,” Zen said.

“It’s too late to stage an in-transit assault, that’s for damn sure,” Kayla said.

“We’ll keep tracking him through his glasses and find a window of opportunity,” Connor said.

“If we wait until he gets home, that window is going to close. There’re five threats, Taylor included, and they might have a Pantheon QRF on standby. We set up at his house, I can take him with one shot,” Kayla said.

“They know who you are and what you can do. If he has a second security team at home, they’ll be expecting a sniper,” Zen argued. “There’s too much we don’t know about the situation. It’s too risky.”

“We need to keep developing the situation,” Connor said. “We need to find out more before we act. Besides… we have a trump card.”

“What trump card?”

“The Liberated.”

Intrigue, investigations and desperate combat against demons and cultists. Just another day in the Special Tasks Section. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 6

 

The Killing Work

Sunset. The sky burned a deep red, staining the city in amber and crimson, reflecting off windows and waters in pools of blinding radiance. Streetlamps flashed to life, vainly keeping the growing darkness at bay. Signboards lit up the streets in a thousand hues. From where he sat, it was if the city was on fire.

Zen had worked his techno-magic through the daylight hours. He had steadily compromised every machine connected to Cowan’s and Dave’s devices, rooted the street surveillance sensor network, prepared contingency plans for everything from police intervention to the wrath of the New Gods. Hacking was incredible, but Connor knew that in the end, it always boiled down to men with guns doing the killing work.

Monday, December 28, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 5

 

The Secret Workings of the World

Before you kill a man, first learn everything about him.

Where he lived and worked, his haunts and routines, the people he loved and hated, his favorite foods and joints, his preferred routes, everything. From this raw data came his patterns of life. From the patterns came the ability to predict him.

And kill him.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 4

 

Brain Trust

Kayla Fox had always known this day would come. The New Gods never forgave and sure as hell never forgot. Cross the rulers of the world and they will move heaven and earth to find you.

You could run. You could hide. But in the end, you had to fight.

It didn’t mean she had to make it easy for them.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 3

 

Gravity

Built upon the confluence of three rivers, Riveria dated to the earliest days of the Cataclysm. Here, three peoples thrown together into a strange new world set aside their differences and banded together to carve out a new home. Overshadowed by glittering Babylon to the north, Riveria was her own city, the second-largest metropolis in the nation but second to none.

Riveria was a city of global commerce and heavy industry, where the working man sat down next to the merchant, whose people organized their society around the rivers and the earth. Here were sprawling factories and nature reserves, street hawkers in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers, wide open spaces and colossal bridges.

Connor knew every inch of this city. He was born and bred here, and once he thought he’d die here. His recruitment to the STS had relocated his body to Babylon, but his heart had remained in Riveria. When he rebelled against the New Gods and testified before the Temple Commission, he believed he’d burned every bridge back home. The New Gods knew he was a Riverian native, and they would never stop looking for him here. The second he set foot in this city, they’d come swarming all over him.

Yet he couldn’t completely break away.

Friday, December 25, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 2

 

Problem Solver

Dealing with the police consumed the rest of the dark hours. By the time he stepped out of the station, a newborn sun peeked through overcast skies to return light and color to the world.

His eyes logged people, vehicles and danger zones as they always did, looking for the intention behind every action, every accessory, every piece of clothing. His heart only knew that the world was a little darker today.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

River of Blood Chapter 1

 



Full Moon

The full moon leered down on the night streets. Pack of young men prowled the pavement like wolves on the hunt. Women in skimpy dresses lingered in doorways and corners, strutted in high heels and flashy jewelry, their charms on wanton display. Neon signs blazed promises of drink and drugs, guns and girls. Shutters and grilles and bulletproof glass sealed off daylight stores from the world. Bars, clubs, pawn shops, every business that catered to the night sent out their guards.

The freaks were coming out to play.

Once upon a time, he had run with the Special Tasks Section. The highest speed, lowest drag outfit in the universe, rolling hard against monsters and gods day and night, holding back the tide of madness and chaos that threatened to drown the nation. Among that elite group, he made his name as among the hardest of the hard, machine gun in one hand and breaching bag in the other, earning his place in blood and fire.

Today, Will Connor worked the door in a skin bar in a no-name town.

It was a long, long way to fall. He had fallen further and harder than most. A year and half ago, after a series of unsanctioned operations, the government shut down the STS. Every operator was blacklisted. The military, intelligence, law enforcement communities refused to take them in. Even the private sector treated them as radioactive.

Among the former STS shooters, none were more ostracized than Team Black Watch. The tip of the spear, every operator handpicked by the man who had founded the unit and built up its operational capabilities from the ground up, every one of them responsible for the series of events that pitted the New Gods against each other and damn near burned the city down.

They’d tried to do the right thing. For their reward, they were cast out into the cold. Forever.

For most of the former STS operators, life moved on. Some settled down in small-town police agencies, places in desperate need of bodies and badges. Others took on contract work, floating around the world as guns for hire, living in the dark corners where even the New Gods couldn’t reach. But the Black Watch?

They… drifted.

He drifted.

The first year was the roughest. He bounced between Babylon and Riveria and all points between. Everywhere he went, watchers followed. With the Temple Commission cleaning up the machinery of government, the New Gods had other things to worry about. They didn’t touch him. Not directly. Even they knew the costs of dancing with a former operator. But they made sure to let him know that they were always watching. Always waiting.

No matter what he did, no one would have him. Every law enforcement agency rejected his application. Every branch of the military turned him down, citing vague technicalities. When every door in the brotherhood of arms closed, he turned to other jobs. Other industries. He applied for everything from food service manager to security guard to truck driver, and every single application disappeared into thin air.

The hands of the New Gods at work.

Finally, through forums and whisper streams and the few friends that would still talk to him, he’d turned to the shadow economy. Jobs and transactions that occurred below the radar, out of sight and out of mind, hidden even from the eyes of the New Gods.

One gig led to another, then another, then another. He exercised every bit of tradecraft at his disposal, networking with his fellow shadow dwellers, hiding from the New Gods, rooting himself in the cracks of the world.

As the weeks and months passed, the New Gods lost interest, turning their considerable but finite resources towards their own reconstruction efforts. Special Attorney Temple had swept through the Establishment like a wildfire, burning down everything in his path, but his efforts were finally grinding to a halt. He’d left a power vacuum in his wake, and now every Power, major and minor, were scrambling to seize what they could.

Eventually the New Gods left him alone.

And he rebuilt his life.

Which was why he was bouncing at Sal's Playhouse, the sleaziest strip bar in a bedroom town filled with strip bars.

The hours were decent. The regulars treated him with respect. The owner paid him under the table, completely tax-free, away from the prying eyes and sticky fingers of the New Gods. Combined with his pension, it kept him in steak and whiskey. The girls loved him, and any and all of them would go with him if only he asked. He even managed to find an apartment here in Lindon City, the rent covered in cash and in the dark, courtesy of the owner’s connections. It was… not a good life, but better than last year.

He’d rather fight the soldiers of the New Gods.

He stood alone on the sidewalk, far from cover and concealment, exposed to the world. A cheap walkie-talkie wired to his eyeshields connected him to the bartender, the boss and the floor manager, assuming they could hear him over the deafening noise the DJ pretended was music. Irregular pools of light betrayed shot-out streetlights, broken for weeks and months and counting. Signboards announced late-night pawn shops, pharmacies, liquor stores, places that attracted the criminal element.

Men—rich boys slumming it, college kids too cheap for the big city, blue collars and petty crooks looking to blow off steam—sized him up as they passed, running the cost-benefit ratios of entering the club and/or messing with him and the girls. Working women treated him like part of the landscape, party girls eyed him like a hunk of meat. Nothing a bouncer couldn’t handle, but the average bouncer wasn’t in the crosshairs of the New Gods.

He crossed his hands over his waist. In another life, he’d have weapons stashed on his beltline. Pistol on his strong side, knife on his other strong side, plenty of spare ammo. He’d supplement them with other gear on his body. Backup gun, other backup gun, more knives, more ammo, first aid kit, everything a man needed for a light day in Babylon. In this life, his concealed carry permit had evaporated along with his status as a federal law enforcement officer, and despite his applications and appeals the authorities refused to restore his rights.

The full moon brought out the lunatics, and his belt was awfully light.

Not that he didn’t have a gun. But the risk-reward ratio of carrying wasn’t in his favor, not even on the night of the full moon.

Lindon City wasn’t Babylon. Or even Riveria, for that matter.

He was four hours into an eight-hour shift and all was quiet. The customers behaved themselves, the girls were happy, the owner was happy, he was… not happy, just cruising in Condition Yellow, no threats on the horizon but ready for action.

It wouldn’t last.

Animalistic desire crackled through the air, leaping from person to person, infecting and agitating, engulfing the entire world. The women became brazen, more provocative, flashing legs and tits and ass at passers-by. The men grew hungrier, bolder, the kind of heroic fearlessness that came with too much alcohol and too little brains. Signs glowed a little brighter, people whooped and cheered a lot louder, he scanned the street much more often.

In the distance, sirens wailed.

It’s begun, he thought.

Off to his left, he caught movement in the dark. He turned his head just so, watching it in his peripheral vision. Three silhouettes shuffled down the sidewalk. Their collective gaze drilled into him, seeking to penetrate the depths of his soul.

He glanced at their hands. Low by their sides, hidden in shadow, too dark to tell if they were holding anything. Their walk was slow but purposeful, predators making their final approach. They kept their stare hard and narrow, looking at nothing but him. The old instincts roared up in a flash.

This is wrong.

They didn’t look at the girls, the signs, the other guys. Only him. Customers or troublemakers, and given the crowd Sal's Playhouse drew, likely both.

Not his business whether they were troublemakers on the street, so long as they made no trouble in the club, or more to the point, for him. That wasn’t likely, though. Their vibes were too hot, their focus too tight, locked on like heat seeking missiles.

He glanced to the sides. All clear. Tilted his head up, checking the windows and roofs. No sign of threats. He touched the push-to-talk switch on his wrist.

“Group of three approaching from the west. Might be trouble.”

“Roger,” the boss said. “Need backup?”

Sal had run the club for three decades and counting. He knew how to handle himself. But he was a civilian, and if this became serious…

“Stand by the door. Don’t step out unless I say so.”

The men continued ambling towards him, stepping into a pool of light. Three young men, college age, all of them wearing jeans and sweatshirts and sneakers. The two guys in the side had hoodies pulled up over their heads. The man in the middle, the youngest, had a ball cap, his hands in his pockets. All three of them walked with the cocky gait of the young and foolish, but kept their heads angled towards the street.

Ice trickled down his spine. Something was wrong with this picture. But what?

They presented themselves as college kids. They might have been. But their faces covered and turned away from overhead cameras. Not civilian behavior.

On the other hand, serious bad guys with malicious intent would keep to the shadows. They wouldn’t walk into the light like this. Predators wouldn’t let their prey see them coming.

Wannabes? Amateurs? Something else?

Whoever they were, they triggered all his alarms.

They came closer and closer now, no longer pretending to be civilians. Fanning out, they stared at him, hot and hungry, blocking off the street.

Connor glanced up at the camera icon on the upper edge of his heads up display and blinked three times. Hard. The eyeshields’ integrated cameras awoke and began recording everything they saw and heard.

Connor glanced once more around him, confirming there were no other threats, then pivoted to face them.

And waved.

“Evening! Looking for a good time?” he asked.

They hesitated. The one in the lead halted and glanced to the guy on his left. So did the one on the right. Whatever script they were running, he’d just disrupted it.

“We’ve got hot girls, cheap booze, great music. Everything you need for a party!” Connor continued.

The guy on the left cocked his head. The lead guy gulped and stepped up.

“Um, yeah, what’s the cover charge?”

Connor stepped back, raising his left hand.

“Easy there. Could you show me your hands, please?”

The kid froze.

Connor’s heart thumped. Heat surged through his veins. He exhaled, widening his focus, looking at hands, hips, shoulders, feet. His muscles coiled, ready to spring into action.

The kid removed his hands from his pockets.

Empty.

“Thank you. I need to see some ID.”

“Yeah, sure.”

The kid dug into his back pocket. Connor glanced at the other two.

“I need your ID too.”

“C’mon, really?” the one on the left said.

Heat roiled off him like steam. The alpha, he decided. The young guy was the junior man and the face. That made the last guy the beta.

“Club policy.” Connor shrugged and smiled. “That’s the way it is.”

The kid produced his wallet, flipping it open.

“Here ya go.”

Connor squinted. Slowly, smoothly, he raised his right hand to eye level, revealing a flashlight grasped in a large fist, and clicked it on.

A student ID card peered out the identification window. Tom Marshal, University of Riveria, issued early this year. The photo showed a boy with an awkward grin not dissimilar to the one before him. Nothing unusual, except…

“You’re twenty years old,” Connor said. “Minimum age is twenty-one. I can’t let you in.”

“I’ll be twenty-one in three weeks.”

The bouncer shook his head.

“Come back in three weeks and you can celebrate your birthday here. Lots of girls will be willing to show you a good time then. But until then, I can’t let you in.”

“Hey, come on—”

The alpha shoved the new buck aside.

“You saying you can’t let him in?”

Connor instinctively backed up, retreating into the doorway, light aimed at chest height. He scanned, checking all three men, their bodies, their hands. Beta caught the boy against his chest. Alpha snarled, stepping up with his left foot, cocking back his right hand cocked back.

“Back up,” Connor ordered. “Back up now.”

“Fuck you!”

Alpha lurched forward, grabbing for Connor’s collar.

Connor torqued his right hand through a sharp ‘C’, hooking away the incoming arm with his flashlight. At the end of the arc, he blasted off into a vertical elbow, spearing Alpha in the chest.

Bone slammed into a soft gel-like layer. The gel rippled, hardening instantly, sending the force right back into Connor’s arm. Pain screamed through his nerves, popping his fingers open.

What the fuck was that? What’s he wearing under his hoodie?

Alpha cannoned into Young Buck, knocking him down, sending his cap flying. Young Buck fluidly curled his back and neck and smacked the asphalt with his palm, breaking his fall.

Alpha staggered away, rubbing his chest, his face twisted into an exaggerated grimace.

“You son of a bitch!”

Beta swung into action, grabbing Alpha by the shoulders from behind.

“Easy, easy!” Beta said.

Groaning, Young Buck picked himself back up. Touched his head. Froze.

“Get out of here,” Connor growled. “You’re done for the night.”

Alpha cursed, arms flailing. Beta locked in his grip, digging his heels, rooting into the asphalt. Young Buck tucked his hand and swept his cap off the ground.

“I’m gonna kick your ass!” Alpha screamed.

“Sorry,” Beta said. “He’s had a bit too much to drink.”

Connor’s eyes narrowed.

Alpha didn’t have drunk breath. He walked in a straight line during his approach. He didn’t slur his words.

This didn’t add up.

“Take your friends home,” Connor said.

“Yeah, let’s go home,” Young Buck said.

“Sorry, man. Make it up to you next time,” Beta mumbled.

Beta let his friend go. Alpha snarled something incoherent. Beta leaned in and whispered something. Alpha swore again.

“Let’s go!” he yelled.

The three men turned around and went back the way they came from, hands in their pockets, heads down. None of them looked back.

“What the hell was that about…?” Connor wondered, turning off the camera.

The door swung open behind him. Connor stepped away, turning to the opening.

Sal waddled out, big and beefy, massive arms crossed at his chest.

“You alright, Boomer?”

Boomer. A lifetime ago it was his callsign. A name that bordered on sacred. He didn’t use it any more. He was done with the STS. For whatever reason, Sal insisted on using it, as if it were a nickname.

As if he had earned the right to speak it.

But the man paid the bills, and it didn’t do to bite the hand that fed you, not for something a civilian would see as inconsequential.

“I’m fine,” Connor said, massaging his sore elbow.

“You hit that guy good. Surprised you didn’t floor him.”

It was his go-to move, one he had used dozens of times in his first few months at the bar. It was the first time a solid hit hadn’t put the man down.

“He had body armor under his hoodie. Some kind of gel.”

“I’ve heard of that before. Liquid armor, isn’t it? The latest thing for military and law enforcement?”

He’d used it in the STS, back when it was still a cutting-edge prototype. Lighter, thinner and more flexible than traditional soft armor, it would protect against cuts, stabs, pistol rounds, high-velocity fragmentation. Reinforce it with a hard plate and it would stand up to armor piercing rifle rounds.

“What the hell is that guy doing wearing that? And why?”

Sal shrugged.

“Beats me. At least he isn’t a problem now.”

“They might come back.”

Hazard of working a door. You had to stand your post until the end of your shift. Anybody looking for revenge would know where to find you.

“Keep your guard up,” Sal said. “Full moon ain’t over yet.”

“Always.”

***

The rest of the shift passed in peace.

Connor turned away a bunch of underage kids, directed a couple of prospective dancers to the boss, stalled a few angry wives and girlfriends while their men sneaked out the back door, escorted a half-dozen customers from the premises once they got too drunk and disorderly. That was all.

A quiet night, for Sal's Playhouse.

Quiet was good. His running and gunning days were over. He didn’t need the attention that came with altercations. He wasn’t above throwing down when the situation called for it, but it was his job to keep the party going, not to kill the mood. The bouncer who cracked skulls and broke bones everywhere he went would quickly find himself out of a job—and on the radar of the police.

And the New Gods.

At three a.m., the witching hour, Sal's Playhouse shut down. As the staff cleaned up, Connor patrolled the perimeter. He didn’t mind. He was on the clock until Sal said he was off. The longer he worked, the more Sal paid him, so it worked out in the end.

The streets emptied out. The last of the party animals had gone home. Apartment windows and signboards went dark, leaving a silent jungle of concrete and asphalt around him. The hormone-charged stew of the evening hours drained away, leaving behind a hollow stillness. He was alone on the street.

Now was the most dangerous hour.

Surrounded by eager eyes and bright lights, few had the guts to try anything stupid. After closing time, when the staff were exhausted, the lights switched off, the customers gone, the street animals struck.

Place like this attracted more than its fair share of stalkers. It’s what happens when you mix pretty girls and cheap booze in a city with nothing else to do. Just yesterday he’d caught an old man standing at the back entrance while making his end-of-shift rounds, eagerly staring at the door, hands hidden deep inside his grimy coat pockets. A bright smile, a brighter promise to call the cops, and the would-be stalker hustled into the night. It happened often enough that Connor was excused from helping out with the cleaning, allowing him to continue working.

Burglars and bandits eyed Sal's Playhouse too. Strip clubs were cash-heavy businesses. Customers tipped in cash, paid in cash, threw around cash like confetti. An easy target. When word got around that Sal had hired a new bouncer, Connor had spotted no less than five separate crews casing the joint, sizing him up, seeing if he were predator or prey. He knew what they were, they knew that he knew, and an icy detente settled between them. So long as they kept their business out of his business, they were free to enjoy themselves at the club.

He wasn’t a cop any more. Whatever they did was someone else’s problem.

His major concern was disgruntled customers. Patrons he’d ejected earlier in the night, now fortified with liquid courage, coming back for round two. Or three. Or as many rounds as they thought they could go. Most of them were idiots, easily dealt with, but on a handful of occasions he’d confiscated knives and brass knuckles from more combative ex-customers. He’d heard horror stories of other patrons coming back with guns.

He was the bouncer. The man they see standing in between them and a good time. The perfect target for their ire.

His thoughts turned to the college kids he’d bounced earlier in the night. Alpha, Beta, Twenty-on-Twenty-One. Something about them rubbed him the wrong way. He couldn’t put a finger on it, but they didn’t have the college vibe. The civilian vibe.

But they weren’t players either. Heavy hitters would play the role from start to finish, concealing their true intent until it was too late. They wouldn’t have waited for him to read Young Buck’s card either. They’d have struck the moment he was distracted, precisely the reason he kept all three of them in his peripheral vision.

Whoever they were, they were… wrong.

At the close of the hour, Connor saw Sal stepping out the front door.

“Quiet night?” Sal asked.

“Yup,” Connor said.

“May all nights be quiet.”

“Amen.”

Sal raised an eyebrow.

“Amen? What’s that?”

Connor hesitated. He’d first heard it from Yuri Yamamoto. He’d found its meaning in his year of running the shadows. But was this the right place to talk about it?

Was he the right man?

Connor shook his head.

“Figure of speech. That’s all.”

The men lowered the shutters. Sal dug out his key ring and secured the shutters with heavy locks while Connor removed his earpiece and switched off his radio.

“Good work today,” Sal said.

“Thanks.”

“See ya tomorrow? Same time?”

“Count on it.”

They shook hands.

Whistling tunelessly, Sal jangled his keys in his hands and strolled away. He lived in the low-rise apartments right across the street. Connor had never been to his home, never even seen his family, but from what he heard, Sal had lived there all his life. Must be nice to live within walking distance of your business.

Everybody else had to drive.

At the street corner, the bar backs called a taxi. The manager and the bartender walked off in opposite directions. They exchanged goodbyes with Connor as he passed, professional but polite, keeping just the right distance from him. Around the back of the bar, by the staff entrance, he found the girls.

On the stage, they were vixens and goddesses, bright smiles and soft curves and lean legs, glitter and gold matched with G-strings and platform heels, the avatars of every male fantasy. Now they were just a dozen women getting off from a hard night’s work, their makeup wiped off to reveal dark circles and saggy skin, hair tousled and messy, their costumes swapped out for sensible shoes and comfortable clothes.

Didn’t stop men from lusting after them.

This was his last job for the night. Walking the girls to their cars. Lindon City wasn’t Babylon or Riveria, but it still had its fair share of creepers and crooks. Besides, the parking lot was on the other side of the road, and his car was there too. Escorting the women didn’t take any skin off his back. Hell, some men might even see it as a bonus.

“Evening girls,” he said.

“Evening Willy!’ they chimed.

Many of them giggled. The rest of them smiled. He shook his head and smiled back.

“Ready to go home?”

“Lead the way!” one of them called.

She called herself Sharon. Neither the oldest nor the youngest but most certainly the most stunning, she was the queen of the dance crew. Thick black hair that flowed down to her shoulders, tall and statuesque as an Amazonian, taut lean muscles that rippled and flowed with every step, the perkiest breasts and butt money could buy, she was the star of Sal's Playhouse, the money maker that kept the men coming.

Connor knew many of the girls had side hustles, let the customers bend the rules for more generous tips, or entertained them outside the club. Not Sharon. She danced on the stage, danced in the booth, danced for anyone who asked for her and paid her well, but never did more than that. Or so he knew. She’d hinted more than a few times that she wouldn’t mind crossing the line with him, but Connor knew that nothing good could come from getting involved with her. With a civilian who didn’t know the hell that stalked his footsteps.

Nonetheless, Sharon slipped in beside him, chatting away about nothing and everything, sometimes roping in the other girls. She ‘accidentally’ brushed against his side, letting him feel the heat of her bare arm, the firmness of her muscles, the delicate bones of her fingers. He pretended not to notice, sweeping the world around him.

Which was how he spotted him.

The parking lot was little more than a plot of dead earth enclosed by a chain-link fence. A solitary streetlight illuminated the sole entrance. The edge of the light caught a black van parked just beyond the entrance, facing the dirt driveway. A man leaned against the van, staring intently at the gaggle of dancers.

Connor bristled.

Sharon keyed on him instantly.

“What’s wrong?”

Connor held up his hand.

“Everyone, freeze!”

The van flashed its high lights. Connor squinted, shielding his eyes against the sudden brightness. The rear door slid open, and another man stepped out. All he saw were two dark shapes.

“Remember me, asshole?”

Alpha. He remembered the voice.

“You hit me in the chest. It fuckin’ hurt. Time for some payback, motherfucker!”

Limbs swung.

“DOWN! GET DOWN!” Connor screamed.

Connor ducked. His left hand came up to shield his head, his right hand dove for his waistband. A sawn-off shotgun thundered in the dark. The muzzle flash stole what was left of his sight, leaving behind a purplish splotch. The girls screamed.

Beside him, he heard the unmistakable thump of steel striking flesh.

Hot blood sprayed over him. Springing back to his left, his right hand lifted his shirt from his beltline, dug for his gun—

No gun.

“Fuck!”

The shotgun blasted again. Buckshot whistled past his ear. Alpha, whoever he was, had too much finger on the trigger, pulling his rounds high and to the right. Even so, with no cover, he was a sitting duck.

“RUN! GET TO SAL’S!” Connor shouted.

Connor scrambled behind the dubious cover of a streetlight, the only cover he could find here. Sharon lay on the road just inches away, lying in a growing pool of darkness.

A handgun roared. Hot and heavy, a high-caliber round, once, twice, thrice with the long, slow cadence of a double action only trigger. The girls screamed again.

Connor dug out his flashlight from his pocket. Held it high up to the right. Clicked it on.

The white beam revealed three men. Alpha with a stockless sawn-off shotgun, holding it straight out in front of him. Beta by his side, revolver gripped in one hand, canted fashionably to the side like every two-bit gangster. Young Buck in the van, ducking against the light.

He clicked off the light and brought his hand back against his chest. A fusillade of fire followed, tearing through the space where his light once was. Steel whined and ricocheted off the streetlight. A round punched clean through it, tearing up the wires, killing the lamp altogether.

Connor lunged.

Grabbed Sharon’s collar.

Ran.

Sharon moaned, her body completely limp. Connor sprinted, boots pounding the asphalt, thankful for his daily fitness regimen, prepping him for a dash just like this one, racing for the street corner.

“HE’S GETTING AWAY!”

More gunshots. Rounds smashed into brick and asphalt. Connor angled off, keeping the wall between him and them. He set Sharon down, then scooped her up in both hands.

She was so light. So wet.

“Willie!” a woman yelled. “Are you okay?”

Connor grunted. A gaggle of girls clustered around a pair of streetlights, goggling at him.

“Yes! Run! NOW!”

He ran. The girls ran. He picked up the pace, weaving among them. Sharon, so strong and lithe on the stage, was now so light and weak, little more than a lump against him. Just down the road, the hitmen shouted.

“Motherfucker! We called the cops!” a dancer yelled.

“Better run ‘fore they kill your ass dead!” another called.

Connor focused on running. On putting on boot in front of the other, on sucking in oxygen and blowing out waste, powering every step.

At the street corner, he spotted another group approaching from the left. More dancers.

“What’s happening? Why is there shooting?!” a woman asked.

“Get to Sal’s!” Connor shouted.

“He’s waiting for us!”

One more street. One more sidewalk. Then safety. Or what passed for it.

“C’mon, Sharon, you’ll be fine. Stay with us,” he whispered.

She said nothing.

He dashed across the road, keeping his ears peeled. The girls herded protectively around him, around Sharon, shielding them with their bodies. He didn’t dare glance over his shoulder. He just kept running.

“Here! Over here!” Sal shouted.

Sal stood at the doorstep of an apartment. Connor adjusted course and picked up the pace. Sal held the door open and stepped out the way.

Connor burst into searing light and soft muzak. He needed a second to adjust. Now he was inside an empty lobby. Behind him, the girls trooped in, panting and gasping and screaming.

Sal raised his voice, organizing them. Connor set Sharon down on the carpet.

“Lock the doors! Don’t let anyone in!” Connor yelled.

“On it!” Sal replied.

Connor examined her.

Four round wounds peppered her upper body, leaking thin streams of blood. Blood soaked through her crop top. Blood dripped from her open mouth. Her eyes were rolled up, staring into nothing.

He shook her shoulders.

“Sharon! Can you hear me?”

No response.

“Sharon!”

Silence.

He brought his ear to her nose, sensing only stillness and silence. He touched his fingers to her nose.

No breathing.

He felt the side of her neck.

No pulse.

“We need an ambulance!” Connor yelled.

“I called 911! Ten minutes!” a girl replied.

Connor reached behind his left hip, finding his belt-mounted first aid kit. He ripped the pouch free and set it down next to her. The gunshot wounds were grievous, but she needed to breathe right the hell now.

He tore open a packet of nitrile gloves and slipped them on. He grabbed a CPR face shield and fitted it over her face. Then he placed the heel of his hand over the middle of her chest, interlaced the fingers of his other hand, and pumped.

“One and two and three and four and five!”

Bones compressed and recoiled under his hands. Bright blood spurted from the wounds, oozing over his hands. He continued compressing her chest, counting to thirty.

He tiled her head and lifted her chin, opening the airway. Pinched her nose. Sucked down air.

Breathed into her.

The chest rose.

Fell.

Remained still.

He breathed in.

Breathed into her.

Her chest rose and fell and remained still.

He planted his hands on her chest. He compressed. He counted. He breathed.

All around him, Sal and the girls watched, giving him room to work, whispering among themselves, saying nothing to him.

He compressed. He counted. He breathed.

“C’mon, Sharon, breathe!”

He compressed. He counted. He breathed.

“Wake up! You gotta wake up!

He compressed. He counted. He breathed.

No response.

He kept at it until the ambulance came and the paramedics peeled him off her and carted her away.

Still kneeling on the floor, he stared stupidly at his bloodstained gloves. At the bloody carpet. At his blood spattered clothes. At the sudden nothingness where there had once been a woman.

Sal patted him on the shoulder.

“You did your best.”

Connor clenched his fists.

Said nothing.

Want the story of Will Connor before he was forced into the shadows? Check out BABYLON BLUES here!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Singularity Sunrise 3: The Digital Veil is live!

 

It begins as an extraction. It ends in war.

For decades, the Caliphate and Free Europe have been locked in a stalemate.

Until the coming of Eden, the world's first sapient AI.

Hired by Eden's creator, psychic contractor James Morgan and his partner Maya Knight infiltrate the Caliphate to extract a hunted journalist.

But when the extraction escalates into a continent-wide conflagration, Morgan and Knight are trapped in Europe. With no way to return home, they have only one option left: help Eden win the war.

And prevent Eden from becoming a monster.