Track 23:Is It Just Me?

I don’t really remember what I said about my time fighting the Dragon’s Teeth. I just remember that nobody’s expression changed. I’ll admit, I was just dryly presenting the facts of my visit to Korea and some of their attempts after, but still, the facts should have been pretty riveting. I didn’t know why they were staring at me until one of the mobsters, an elderly man in a suit that was probably expensive, raised his hand.

“So,” he asked in a Boston accent when I called him, “you just go on a stroll to North Korea?”

“As I said,” I mentioned, “I was paid.”

“But you didn’t say by who,” the mobster said. “I kinda wanna know.”

“Is it important?” I asked. “Because if you want to talk to him, he’s not available.” The mobster didn’t say anything in response, but he did tent his hands and stare at me suspiciously. I suddenly realized that he wasn’t the only one. “Look,” I said, in response to his unanswered question, “there’s just some things that are too big for you. Accept it and move on.”

People around the room murmured in a mixture of amusement and shock. Jen seemed to be trying to suppress a headache. Mai was writing in her notebook. Both their retinues seemed somewhat impressed. Valkyrie seemed… annoyed. “Kid,” the mobster said, “Do you, or your friends, know who the fuck I am?”

“I personally don’t,” I said. “But I can tell you right now, you’ll be a lot happier not asking questions about my life’s story.”

“Ok,” the mob boss said, standing up. “I guess I can deal without your guns.” He left. His retinue and several other representatives from other gangs followed.

Another man raised his hand. He was also dressed in a suit, but he seemed to be one of the guards. “So how do we know you ain’t a fed?” He asked. He also had a Boston accent.

“If I was a fed,” I said, “I’d be directing traffic.”

“Did Agent Barton tell you that, or did Agent Hicks?” the junior gangster asked. Instantly, a bunch of the assembled crooks began clamoring. Some walked out, some in more of a panic than others. Others began reaching for their waistbands. “Yeah, that’s right!” the junior gangster said. “Burnie McWheels over there’s been traveling cross-country with clean feds and is being sponsored by a clean cape!”

Valkyrie slammed her axe on the floor again, creating another gust of wind. Judging by the crack it made “Do you want to mouth off, or do you want to listen?” Valkyrie asked.

The room was silenced. The person the mouthy mobster was guarding, a positively ancient man, said, “I think what Junior is trying to say is that he’d like to leave before the cops come.”

“Then go,” Valkyrie said. “Unless things have radically changed, the cops aren’t coming, so you have all the time in the world.” The people who left, which was a good chunk, didn’t seem to believe her. Hell, even the few remaining didn’t seem that keen.

Once the people who were leaving were gone, one of the few remaining mobsters finally asked, “So, how do we know that you aren’t going to favor your two exes with the weapon distribution?”

I looked at Valkyrie for help. She rolled her eyes. “He’s the manufacturer. I’ll work out distribution with you at later.”

“Thank you,” I said. I did not want to know where these guns would end up. I definitely didn’t want to know what these people would do with them.

One of the only black people in the room raised his hands. When I nodded, he said, “So, y’all givin’ us guns, but those guys have fucking tanks and shit. I am not sending my boys into a meat grinder.”

I picked up the rifle Nari had made. “This,” I said, “is the Mjolnir. It fires a 10.4mm bullet. It’s a hybrid of long distance precision and anti-material rifle. It can probably penetrate five or six millimeters of seltsamemetall, which is probably what the Charon uses for armor.”

“And how many inches thick is their armor?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, “the doors seem to be about four or five millimeters and the windows are pretty big so you can probably shatter them easily.” The gang leader raised his eyebrows. “The average body seems to be ten millimeters.”

“Yeah, we dead,” he said, rolling his eyes. But he didn’t leave.

Mai then raised her hand. “Yes, Mai?” I asked, a sinking feeling in my stomach.

“Well,” Mai said, “there are some people who can’t be trusted to act in good faith. What’s to stop them from making a move?”

Someone from the Kagemoto camp must have muttered something because Lang turned towards them and angrily asked, “The fuck you say?”

“Hey!” Valkyrie said as Kaori and Hirosama stepped in front of Lang. I noticed that Jaime and Bao were also moving in. “Do I need to separate you?”

“No ma’am,” Mai said calmly. “My people will behave.”

“So will mine,” Jen said sweetly, “but I have to wonder what Miss Lau’s definition of behave is. After all, a few weeks ago, her people were killing my people unprovoked.”

“Shit, girl,” Jaime said, “We had no idea which people were yours and which people were your dad’s. Think we did you a favor.”

“Oh really?” Hirosama asked. “Why, then, were some of Mark Kagemoto’s people given World War Two surplus? Why did some take to dressing in green?”

“Enough!” Valkyrie shouted.

“Guess they know what a winner looks like,” Jaime said with a smirk.

“I said-”

“Hey, Jaime,” Kaori asked, flames dancing from her fingers. “How’s your mother?”

“You fucking bi-” Jaime said, reaching for his waistband. I could see the cylindrical grip of a Broomhandle Mauser. Meanwhile, Hirosama was going for his Glock, Lang had his hand on a green polymer grip for a pistol, and Bao was pulling a sawed-off from seemingly out of nowhere.

“OI!” Eliza yelled, bringing up her Ballpeen, flicking off the safety, and turning on the laser in one smooth motion. “You fuckin’ pull a piece in ‘ere an’ I’ll pop you in your ‘ead, swear on me mum!”

“Eliza…” Jen said holding her hands up. I noticed she’d opened her shirt to reveal her two chrome Berettas.

“You know what?” the gang leader who’d asked how to deal with tanks said angrily, “Y’all should kick those motherfuckers outta here. The got Uzis, they got AKs, they got ARs, they got belt-fed shit. Hell, they even got capes. Meanwhile, my boys can barely scrape together some pistols and shotties. They don’t need any more shit.” The rest of the remaining criminals murmured in agreement.

“Listen, you little shits,” Jen said, “I don’t remember you having trouble a few weeks ago. Stop playing the underdog, and pay attention to what’s coming.” She stood up. “I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. The Kagemotos will guard their territory.” Her glare travelled around the room. “From everyone. Even if we have to throw rocks.” Before anyone could comment, she stormed out, her two bodyguards following close behind.

There was a moment of awkward silence. Mai stood up. “Nate,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel like we can make a deal in this environment. If you would like to make a deal with competent people, you know where to contact us.” She smiled and walked out, her entourage pausing for posturing.

 

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Track 22: Slippery People

“So,” Eliza said as we stood outside the brick perimeter wall to the factory, “is this really going to kill us if we don’t put in the correct codes?”

“According to Andy,” I said, “that’s an option that he doesn’t think is on. We didn’t want people taking things that didn’t belong to them and Andy wanted to test out some autonomous defenses. We honestly didn’t think something this bad would happen, but we decided what the hell. Have multiple layers of security in case of apocalypse. Right now, though, the shaped charges aren’t active, so all that should happen is the cops get called.”

“But you aren’t a hundred percent sure,” Eliza said.

“No, I’m not.” Between that knowledge and my painkillers wearing off, my hands were shaking as I typed in the code. “Hey, hey!” I said as there was a buzzing sound that cause Eliza to jump. “First try!”

The door opened to reveal a long hallway. Mounted on the ceiling was our prototype machinegun set into a prototype automated mount. “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Nate,” Eliza said as she pushed me in my wheelchair down the hall, “Please tell me the damn thing’s human-controlled.”

“Well,” I said, “with Andy, May, and Nari out of the country, and with most of our staff being former military and law enforcement people who signed back up, we couldn’t really have them be remote controlled. Don’t worry, that one isn’t on at this level.”

“Great.” Eliza said. “It’s so nice t’know that at least one death trap isn’t functional.” I decided, at that point, not to tell her about the auto-turret behind us. Or the claymores and C-4 built into the walls. Or the Punji sticks in the grates below us. Only the turret was active anyway.

Before the door swung shut, we heard a soft thump. Eliza turned around. “Oi,” she said. “I think Valkyrie’s ‘ere.”

“Let here in,” I said. “It’ll be good to talk to her before the others get here.”

Eliza mad a grunt of affirmation and opened the door. “Thanks,” I heard Valkyrie say. “I’ve heard things that make me… hesitant about just barging in here.”

“Yeah,” I said, “probably for the best. Let’s just get in so I can set the security to a more appropriate level.”

“Just so you know,” Valkyrie said, walking besides us, “there are several dead Dragon’s Teeth soldiers in the courtyard around the building.”

“I thought they might try and infiltrate the building,” I said. “After all, they did make several attempts to catch me. I think they might want me and one of my engineering partners because we can make better weapons than they can.” Valkyrie raised an eyebrow. “Really,” I said. “They can’t make rifles for shit. Vehicles are a different story. There’s other reasons, but I’m not going to get into them.”

“Maybe we should get the bodies out of the way,” Eliza said.

“Let’s turn off the turrets first,” I said. “Those things are set to motion and they can’t really tell the difference between good guys and innocent bystanders yet.”

“Why are they in a city of almost two hundred thousand?” Valkyrie asked.

“They’re facing inwards,” I said defensively.

“I swear,” Valkyrie said, “one of these days, I’m going to be here to give you an ass whooping.”

“‘E means well,” Eliza said.

“That’s what makes it so frustrating,” Valkyrie said. “With people like Minute Man, you expect them to be pieces of shit-”

“Wait,” I said, “Minute Man’s a piece of shit?” Minute Man was a hero who’d been in the cape scene since the eighties. He’d been the leader of the group by the same name and done the whole save kittens in tree and kiss babies thing for the entire time.

“Yes,” Valkyrie said. “You just have to look for it. Of course, the fucker’s gone to Canada, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But he’s a piece of shit, and only in it for himself. What’s frustrating are the people who are doing awful shit for others, or seem like they want to be good but it never works out.”

I considered her words as I began to fiddle with the security systems. I wondered if she was, other than me, she was referring to anyone I knew. Eventually, I got the systems tuned to an acceptable level (and discovered that most of the active turrets were out) and Valkyrie was able to fly the bodies to an Army command outpost nearby for disposal and analysis.

When she came back, I said, “So, how are we going to control the murderous criminals once they get their highly advanced firearms? I mean, I think this could be a good idea, but we have to take into consideration that they might be more interested in killing each other or in intimidating civillians than killing Dragon’s Teeth.”

“Could you put in some way of disabling them?” Valkyrie asked.

“No,” I said. “There’s a whole litany of reasons. Like if I could turn off the guns, so could the Dragon’s Teeth, for starters. Or I, or whoever I get to design this magic switch, could make it so that the gun accidentally turns off in the middle of a firefight. In any case, putting in a backdoor or remote off switch defeats the purpose. There’s also how long it would take to design and retool the factory, which is actually something I can’t do unless I get Andy back here. Whatever solution we come up with, it has to be social or political. Either that, or we have to decide that the worst thing they could possibly do will be offset by the thing they’re most likely to do.”

“That is a question really only you can answer,” Valkyrie said. “We’re not hearing anything from the captured areas.”

“Which is pretty disturbing,” Eliza said.

I considered this. If Alma was telling the truth, the Teeth might be under new management soon. Also, the one time I had been behind Dragon’s Teeth lines had been during a test phase. That could mean what happened in Korea wouldn’t happen again. On the other hand, even though I hadn’t encountered any mass graves there, I had only seen two civilians. One had been in the company of UNIX agents. The other had been Nari. Genocide seemed to be a very real possibility.

“Is there a way of distributing them so that they can’t access them until the Teeth show up?” I asked. Then I answered my own question. “No. They move too fast.” I took a deep breath. “The best case explanation for I saw in North Korea was that the DPRK and the Dragon’s Teeth had been supernaturally good at evacuating civilians. I don’t think that explanation is likely.”

An alarm buzzed. “Well,” Valkyrie said, “they’re here.”

“Let me check,” I said, getting out of my wheelchair.

“OI!” Eliza said. “Don’t you fuckin’ get out of that.” She walked over to the monitor. “It’s not just Jen. ‘Parently, all the other fuckin’ reprobates showed up as well and they’re ‘avin’ a chat.”

“So should we bring them in here to kill themselves or let them get it out of their systems?” I asked.

“Don’t even joke about that,” Valkyrie said.

“Sorry,” I said. “You two go bring them in, I’ll go over this stuff some more.” Eliza picked up a Ballpeen on her way out. “Leave that here.” I said.

“No,” she said, pulling out a forty-round magazine she’d taken from somewhere and inserting it into the well in the grip. “I ain’t lettin’ those fuckers shoot one of us ‘cause we weren’t prepared.”

I sighed as Eliza and Valkyrie walked off. As usual, the painkillers weren’t being too effective today. Funnily enough, I hadn’t felt like a piece of steak that had been in the oven too long until after I’d been scooped off that fallow field in whatever bucket had been handy. I looked at the shitty phone I’d salvaged, a budget model from the early two thousands. It was two hours until the next time I could take the super-addictive narcotic that didn’t do anything.

Valkyrie and Eliza brought in the first group. “You should wait until they all get here,” Valkyrie said. “I’ll go out front to buzz them in.”

“This isn’t all of them?” Eliza whispered. I had to agree with her somewhat fearful tone of voice. There were at least fifteen people in the conference area I’d picked out. I consoled myself in that they’d divided themselves into groups of two or three and were too busy regarding each other warily to consider rushing the sample table. I decided then and there that I’d skip the portion of the event where I’d bring the group down to the firing range, partly because I genuinely didn’t feel safe doing that, mostly because we were already halfway to the point where I’d either have to limit range time or get more product.

Something I learned about Massachusetts organized crime was that it seemed to be well-heeled and very white. Most of the people spoke like they were from either the North End, the South End, Worcester, or Russia. There was one group of black people, and two groups of Latino people. They were the only groups that approached friendly, but even I could tell there was a bit of restrained edge to their greetings.

Then the two elephants entered the room. Separated by Valkyrie, and looking like they would kill each other were the representatives from the Jade Empire and the Kagemoto family.

The Kagemoto family probably had the tiniest base in Massachusetts. They were genuine Yakuza and, from what I’d heard, only managed to maintain their pool of hardened gunmen by importing people from Japan. Jen was there, of course, flanked by Hirosama and Kaori Murakami, a husband and wife team of Parahuman enforcers who worked under the names Dokutsu and Tatsu. Jen wore a red Boston Red Sox sweater and blue jeans, while the Murakamis looked as intimidating as usual in their sharp suits and tinted shades. As usual, despite being smaller, Kaori’s burns were more intimidating than her husband’s acne scars.

The Jade Empire was a different story. Three of the four representatives were Asian, which, despite the gang being inspired by the Chinese Triads, was unusual for the group. Most of the people were bored, middle-class suburban kids, low-income people in their twenties, or Brazilian immigrants. Jaime Washington followed this rule. He was one of the few black kids from my hometown and had somehow gotten into the Jade Empire early on and now seemed pretty high up in the hierarchy. Lang and Bao Zi were exceptions. The Lupine brother and sister pair were from China. I’d only heard that they were Lupines as they didn’t have the dog ears like Eliza did, but they had a certain confidence to their movement that indicated powers. Those three people wore green: Bao Zi wore a green waist-length peacoat, black vinyl skirt, high-heeled boots, and green aviator sunglasses, Lang wore a Celtics jersey and matching track pants with long gold chain, and Jaime was wearing a green hoodie opened up to reaveal a Kendrick Lamar t-shirt and baggy jeans.

The fourth Jade Empire member was someone I never thought to see, but should have expected. Mai Lau was a small Asian girl who had been a few years behind me in school. She had somehow come into a large amount of money and, in retrospect, her fortune and business ventures had grown with the rise of the Jade Empire. She was the only one in her party not exchanging murderous looks with the Kagemotos. In fact, she was dressed in an orange Maynard High School tee, jeans, and sneakers. She was even carrying a notebook like she was going to class again. Then she saw that I was there. Her eyes widened in shock as she met mine.

Jen noticed her reaction and began staring from Mai to me and back. Mai noticed this, and her face became more guarded. It was at this point that the rest of the room noticed the new arrivals and the atmosphere somehow became even more tense.

“Alright,” Valkyrie said, “Kagemotos over there, Jade Empire over there.” The places she pointed to were on opposite ends of the room. The two groups made some last attempts at posturing, then moved to their assigned locations. Valkyrie took turns glaring at them until she was satisfied they wouldn’t kill each other, then made her way back to us. “Do you know them?” she asked me under her breath when she arrived.

“Good question,” Eliza said in a neutral tone.

“I went to NIU with Jennifer Kagemoto,” I said. “Mai Lau was from high school, we only knew each other from theater class and a play or two.”

“Is that all?” Valkyrie asked.

“For Mai, yes.” I said. I turned to look Eliza in the eye. “I swear to God, yes.” I turned back to Valkyrie. “Jen, well, you’ve dealt with her. Jen makes everything complicated.” I considered this for a moment. “By the way, why the hell is Mai here?”

“She’s the Jade Emperor,” Valkyrie said. “When Jen killed her father a few weeks ago, she made a grab for Kagemoto territory. When Jen consolidated control, part of her retaliation was to dox Mai. She won’t admit it, but everyone knows Jen did it.”

“I take it that isn’t the first time they’ve fought?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Valkyrie said. “Mai’s been hidden pretty well. I think Jen only knew it a few minutes before the rest of us. Also, Jen hadn’t really had much control over the Kagemotos before she did her takeover. I think things got more intense.”

I sighed and buried my face in my hands. “Jesus fucking Christ, why the hell couldn’t this be easy?” I raised my head and said, “Well, you might as well give your speech.”

Valkyrie considered me with narrowed eyes for a moment. Then she turned around and slammed the pommel of her axe on the floor a few times. A gust of wind blew throughout the room each time the pommel hit. “Everyone!” she said. “I know each and every one of you are, to some extent, in this for money. We all know that there’s a new and very disruptive force that wants to take over pretty much everything. I thought, before I made my proposition, you’d want to hear from one of the few people with first-hand knowledge of them.” She stepped back and gestured to me.

 

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Know When To Fold ‘Em

“And you will give me a percentage of the proceeds if I lose?” The girl in the white Noh mask asked in a low, cold voice. The painted features and glowing blue eyes contrasted very well with her red and black samurai-inspired armor. The rest of her team, all wearing the same red and black colors and Japanese-inspired costumes, stood in a semi-circle formation around her.

Moe Green smiled at the girl on his computer screen. “Trust me, babe,” he said, “I do this all the time, plus I’ve worked with Minuteman before.” This girl, Hinomoto Oniko, was pretty good talent. Her body language was virtually unreadable through the grainy internet feed, which was quite a feat.

“And the security?” Hinomoto Oniko asked. “I’m not convinced that Skype is really the most secure method of communication.”

“So?” Moe asked. “Who’s gonna be watching, babe? The NSA and CIA don’t give a shit as long as we don’t consort with terrorists, and the FBI and local police need a fucking warrant. We’re good.” And even then, Moe was confident in his ability to bribe even the feds. After all, that’s how he made his living. And as much as they hated to admit it, prize fighters, superheroes, supervillains and cops were so easy to bribe.

The leader of the Boston-area superhuman team considered this for a minute. “You understand,” she said finally, “that if you stiff me, I will find you.”

“I understand,” Moe said, making sure to at least sound intimidated. In his head, he was laughing. He had been stiffing people much scarier than a jumped-up jumper almost three thousand miles away. Besides, the money they were getting would be more than enough for them to stop asking questions. The Minutemen and the Kagemotos had been fixing fights for years, but this would be the first time the Kagemotos would monetize it. “The bitcoins will be delivered to you by the first of July.”

“They better.” The girl, and from what Moe knew, she really was a girl, barely out of highschool, turned off the camera.

Moe shrugged off the rudeness. In a way, Hinomoto Oniko had done him a favor. With the last superhero/supervillain of the month fight fixed, Moe could now deal with the real moneymaker: milking his stupid investors. They were mostly mob bosses, and they were all so boring. Whether they were flashy like certain high-up Bloods and Crips, or no-nonsense West Coast guys like the MacGuyvers or the Castellans, they still were so boring. They had no panache, but they all seemed to be drawn to the glitz and glam of Hollywood showbusiness.

But his favorite was a young businesswoman named Mai Lau, the young chairwoman of Life, Liberty, Happiness and Prosperity Property Solutions. She had only recently begun investing, but it was already quite lucrative. The poor girl even believed him about opening a casino! She had even gone in and made plans, including altering it to have several stages for Broadway shows, Shakesperean plays, Chinese and European opera, Noh theater, and several types of traditional African theater. Her cute little plans made the scam even more satisfying. Originally, he’d made up a story about wanting to open a casino resort as a way to get out of some pretty serious debts after a bad month. He hadn’t expected anyone to fall for that, least of all a seventeen-year-old trust fund genius.

“Hello, Miss Lau,” Moe said as soon as he saw the Asian girl in the green blouse. She was based in the US, not too far away from Hinimoto Oniko, actually, but whenever she spoke, you could hear that she was from somewhere else. Still, she had been in the country for quite a while, as evidenced by the highschool diploma hanging above her head. “I see you’ve graduated. Class of 2016, very nice.”

“Mr. Green,” Mai said, smiling wryly, “You’ve said that every time you’ve seen me for the past two calls. I think you may have some memory problems.”

“I’m sorry, little lady,” Moe said. “I’ve just been a bit busy with organizing the boxing matches and the hero fights.” At the part about the hero fights, he noticed Mai frown. He knew she thought it was risky, and she was right. That was the reason he’d needed her cash in the first place. She just didn’t know that Moe was fixing all the fights.

“Mr. Green,” she said, “the thing is, you haven’t just forgotten my graduation. You’ve forgotten some of the terms of our agreement.”

Crap. The hotel. “Listen, sugar,” Moe said, “these things take time. It isn’t like some game where you choose a spot and…”

“Mr. Green,” Mai said, still the picture of naïve youth, yet now with a dangerous edge to her voice, “My business is property. I know the amount of time it takes to buy property on the Vegas strip when properly motivated and financed. Thanks to me, you have been more than properly financed. Your motivation should be…” Suddenly, there was a buzzing sound. “Oh, excuse me,” Mai said, picking up a phone.

Moe couldn’t believe it. The bitch had just interrupted him! And now she was laughing! Calm down, he told himself, You’re the one taking advantage of her in the end. Let her ignore you a few times. You’ve already had so much revenge.

“Sorry about that,” Mai said. “A certain problem of mine has been taken care of. I’ll tell you in a few weeks.” She beamed. “Mr. Green’s Gambling Team is going to have all its problems solved.”

Moe knew a payday when he saw one. “So, can I have a hint?” he asked.

Mai shook her head in girlish delight. “I’m sorry, Mr. Green,” she said, “but that would be telling. Is there anything else we need to talk about?”

Moe shrugged. “Not really.” With that, he cut the feed. Whatever this mysterious good fortune entailed, he could wait to find out what it was. Those strippers were coming in to entertain him. He swiveled around in his chair to the office building right next to his.

Life is pretty good, he thought to himself.

 

***

 

Life is pretty good, Agent George Hicks thought to himself. For once, he was in a relatively comfortable place for a stakeout. Normally, he’d be sitting in a car eating take-out food with his partner, Greg Barton and their junior partners. The only problem was how much trouble it took to hack a Skype chat (they were so secure even Microsoft had no idea what people were saying on them.) That left them with bugs, telescopes and various other bits of surveillance equipment.

“Wonder what’s so funny?” Barton asked, referring to the one seemingly legitimate investor Moe Green had talked to. Barton was looking at his computer monitor, which was currently viewing Green’s office.

Making sure not to look at the man currently staring at him from the other building and instead keep talking to his partner, Hicks said, “Dunno. But I think we should dig a bit deeper into Lau’s interest.”

“You thinking her investment was a little too lucky for Mr. Green?” Barton asked. “Yeah. Me too. Let’s just say some of my friends at the Treasury department have a few questions about her company. As far as we can tell, it just teleported into existence one day.”

“Plus, Massachusetts is due,” Hicks said. “Hasn’t had a big crime wave in years.”

“You know,” Barton said, “the bottom might be dropping out of the cape market, so to speak.” In response to Hick’s stare, Barton said, “Your guy might be wrong, you know. Data suggests that violent crime’s going down the drain. If we’re lucky, there might not be a need for us homicide guys.”

“That’s what they all say,” Hicks said, “until the artillery strike hits.”

“Your Marine experience is showing,” Barton joked. He looked back the monitor. “Oh great. More strippers.”

Hicks just laughed. Barton just sighed. “Look, I’m straight…”

“Oh, I know,” Hicks said in amusement. Barton, despite being in his early fifties, balding, extremely dorky, and a little chubby for someone who vaulted over fences and chasing perps for a living, was quite the ladies’ man.

“…but I’m tired of watching this guy solicit prostitutes.” Barton continued, suppressing a sigh. He then took a deep breath. “I want to take him down.”

“Yeah?” Hicks asked.

“We got everything on him,” Barton said. “If we got him up on the stand, we could put him away for fraud, bribing police officers, fixing superhero fights, and god knows what else. We can also get him to turn state’s evidence on over a dozen organized crime figures. What more could we ask for?”

“Jennifer Kagemoto, Mai Lau, and Robert Castellan are going to walk if we do it now,” Hicks said. It was stated like an observation, but Barton knew his partner well enough to know that Hicks was about to dig in.

“Those three are going to walk no matter what we do,” Barton said. “I want those guys behind bars as much as you, but we can’t get at them from this angle.”

“Ok, ok,” Hicks said, “I’ll stop wasting taxpayer dollars. How are we going to do this? Just walk right in?”

Barton, noting Hicks’ sudden interest, said, “No. No way. That building is full of guns, his house is full of guns, and he travels with three cars worth of bodyguards. If we just have a conversation, he’ll either run as soon as we let him go or decide to shoot his way out. The best, cheapest way of getting him and avoiding a firefight is to get Captain Vargas’ unit and hit the building during lunch hour.”

Hicks considered this. LV SWAT was probably the most trustworthy branches of Las Vegas Police. Besides, Hicks had heard about some of Vargas’ work and wanted to work with him. If all went as planned, no one would get hurt.

 

***

 

The very next day, a plan had been drawn up. Three of the junior agents on Hicks and Barton’s team would attempt to do it the easy way. Basically, they’d walk in, ask for Mr. Green, then head up to his office, and drive away with him. They wouldn’t announce he was under arrest until he was back at the station. That was plan A.

Plan B involved two FBI agents and two plainclothes SWAT officers waiting in the parking lot behind the building, arriving a few minutes before the first group. If Mr. Green went for his car, either through bad luck or because he was running, the four officers would intercept him.

If Plan A or Plan B triggered some sort of fight, then Plan C would commence. The three remaining FBI agents and sixteen SWAT officers would be able to get to the building and provide backup in thirty seconds. They would then storm the building, detain anyone sensible enough to surrender, and shoot anyone who resisted arrest. Hopefully, even if they went to Plan C, no one would die.

Sitting in the back seat of the black Dodge Charger, laptop propped open, Hicks watched the grainy footage from the hidden body cameras of four of the five Plan A and B FBI agents. The car was a little ways away from Green’s office: close enough to be the cavalry, but far enough not arouse suspicion. The Charger was sandwiched in between the two SUVs containing SWAT officers.

“Hey, Hicks, Pablo,” Barton said from the passenger seat, “How long has that girl been sitting there?” He was referring to a young blond woman waiting for the bus, wearing a green Boston Celtics jersey. Her face was creased with worry, compounded by slight burn scarring on one side of her mouth, and she nervously checked her phone.

Agent Pablo, a young immigrant from Brazil in her late twenties, looked at the bus stop they had parked next to. “She was arriving just as we were,” she said. “That would be about… two minutes, thirty-eight seconds. The bus gets here in two minutes, twenty-two.” Pablo turned to Barton. “Is there a problem?”

“No.” Barton said, though Hicks knew his partner of over a decade better than that. “She’s not doing anything we can arrest her for.”

Hicks made one of his noncommittal grunts of acknowledgement, but he suddenly developed a bad feeling about the whole situation. As analytical as Barton could be, Hicks relied on the man’s gut as much as his own. If Barton thought something was suspicious…

“Anyway,” Barton said, making an obvious effort to distract himself, “how’s Team A doing?”

Hicks looked back at the laptop screen. “They’re entering the building,” he said, putting his headphones on.  “Putting headphones on now.”

As he did so, he heard Agent Weatherly and Agent Britt talk to the receptionist while Agent Murray scanned the room. The plan was that they’d identify themselves, then lead Green to their car. The arrest wouldn’t be official until he was back at the station. That way, they could decrease the risk.

Suddenly, one of the elevators from the lobby dinged. Agent Murray’s camera showed a thin, athletic-looking man in a battered suit got out, his eyes suddenly widening. Based on the fact that his eyes were slightly downward, Hicks guessed this newcomer had seen Murray’s gun.

“Who are you?” the man asked suspiciously. Looking closer, Hicks could see that this newcomer was shaking and his eyes were bloodshot.

Hicks pulled out his radio. “Stand by,” he said, “we could have a problem.”

In the building, Agent Murray, now as suspicious of the man as the strange man was of him, said, “I’m Agent Murray. Me and my team are here to…”

The strange man’s face contorted in a mixture of terror and rage. “I KNEW IT!” he shouted. “YOU KNOW!” As he shouted, fire began to form around his hands. He then stepped forwards, and a fireball flew forwards. Agent Murray’s feed suddenly displayed an error.

“Teams A and B!” Hicks shouted, “We have a rogue Parahuman, Fire Elemental. Move in NOW!”

“Roger that,” Captain Vargas said. The lead SUV began burning rubber instantly.  As the cars lurched forwards, Hicks noticed that Team B didn’t respond.

 

***

 

Moe had finally finished soothing Tomas Montana about his paranoia. Tomas, or Captain Fuego as he was known in the town, was a beloved superhero. He was also Moe’s first big moneymaker and his local persuader.

Tomas, however, had never liked fixing the fights. His grandmother was also always getting sick. Annoyingly, the strain had made him turn to drugs. Now, he kept hitting Moe up for money and annoying him with drug-induced paranoia. Today, it was about out-of-town people.

“Listen,” Tomas said, “whoever these guys are, I know they’re in the parking lot right now! They even… they’re even set up in the office across the street!”

Moe gestured behind him. “That office?” He asked, somewhat dismissively. “Those are just two old geezers working nine to five. They never once looked in here.”

“Not even once, huh?” Tomas asked. “Not even while you were partying?”

“Maybe they weren’t interested,” Moe said. “Maybe they knew enough to mind their own business, unlike some other people.”

“Fine.” Tomas said, getting to his feet. “I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

“You sure?” Moe asked sarcastically as Tomas walked to the door. “‘Cause I never wanted you in my office in the first place.”

“You’ll see, asshole,” Tomas said as he opened the door. “They’re after us, man. They’re watching us all.”

As the door slammed shut, Moe thought, Fucking junkie. He was shaking the entire time. Pretty soon he won’t be able to win fights unless I fix ‘em. He mentally consulted his calendar. Finances were in order, his investors had had their monthly appeasement, and his minions were the ones who did his actual fixing. He guessed that he could either have some prostitutes come over or he could boss around his minions.

He had just settled on prostitutes when a Skype text message from an unknown caller popped up. “Look in your AC unit.” There was another pop. “Middle vent.” Another pop. “Use your flashlight.”

“Who are you?” Moe asked.

“Someone with your best interests at heart.”

Moe was startled by the reply. He hadn’t typed in anything. “Ok…” he said. “I’ll look, but I’m not sure what you want…” He turned around while grabbing his flashlight. Moving in his swivel chair, he shone the light into the vent.

He gasped in shock. Inside was a tiny black box. He had no idea how long it had been in there and would never have noticed it without the light, but it was obviously a camera. The pop of a Skype message brought him out of his panic. He turned back around. Not only was the new message there, but there was also a feed from a security camera in the building. It showed the main reception desk. Talking to the receptionist was a group of two men, both of them flashing FBI badges.

“That camera isn’t mine,” the message said, “and it isn’t the only one. It gives a feed directly to the FBI. They have everything on you. If you don’t want to go to jail, go to the rear parking lot. Look for the green Bentley limo and the man in green. Start walking now and do not stop for anything.”

Moe stared at the screen. There was another pop. “Or stay and watch the FBI expose you to your investors,” the new message said. Instantly, Moe was reminded of every sick, violent thing most of his investors did to people who crossed them. He got up and started walking.

When he was just about to leave his office, his phone got a text. “Dump this in the trash,” it said. Moe, in a state of shock, did as he was told. As he moved through the halls, he began to hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire, and the sprinklers began to activate.

When he reached the parking lot, he instantly saw the dark green Bentley. It had obviously been extended to have a second bench seat, probably facing the original and its windows were completely blacked out. One of the four rear doors was open. Sitting on the hood were two men, one a middle-aged man with a large forehead, intense eyes and a black business suit, the other a young, wiry Asian guy wearing a Celtics jersey and a gold chain with a wolf’s head attached.

“Hey, man,” the Asian man said with a trace of an accent. “You made it.” Moe’s eyes darted over to the car parked next to the Bentley. One of its windows was shattered, and its blue paint and brown leather interior were splattered with red paint.

The older man with the suit, noticing Moe’s gaze, said, “Don’t worry about that. My partner and a few SWAT officers weren’t looking to make any extra money. We had to part ways.” He ended this sentence with a smile that was as arrogant as it was creepy. “Now get in the fucking car.”

Moe moved into the car like a robot. He barely noticed that the interior was lined with trash bags, or the girl on the seat facing him, probably the younger man’s twin until she pulled the bolt of her SPAS-12 back to check the chamber. She was dressed in a black skirt, green blouse, aviator glasses, and spike-heeled ankle boots. Moe noted with some disappointment that her legs were crossed. When she saw that Moe was checking her out, she returned the stare. Due to the glasses, her expression was completely unreadable.

For once in his life, Moe found it safer to look away from the beautiful woman. Instead, he stared out the front window. There, the two men who had greeted him were in conversation. “Yo, this shit should be real good,” a male voice from the front said.

Paying attention, Moe began to listen. “…concerned about my payment,” the man in the suit said. “I mean, I’m an FBI agent who’s just killed a fellow agent and two local cops. I need a getaway.”

“Yeah,” the man in green said, an odd note in his voice. “I know.”

At first, Moe thought the man in green had just punched the bent FBI agent. But then why had he twisted his arm and brought it out? And why was their so much blood? “Oh shit!” the driver said, laughing a bit. The FBI agent collapsed. After seemingly kicking the FBI agent (Moe couldn’t tell, his view was obscured by the car he was in,) the man in green reached into his waistband and pulled out a pistol and fired five rounds. “Damn!” the guy in the driver’s seat said, still laughing like he had just seen an awesome scene in an action movie.

The man in green was already moving. Quickly, he moved his gun back into his waistband and got into the bench seat opposite Moe. As the man in green closed the door, Moe noticed that three bone claws covered in the FBI agent’s blood protruded from his other hand. He was also paler than he had been a few seconds ago and shaking. Fuck, Moe thought, I’m being abducted by fucking Ferals.

“Jaime,” the Feral said as soon as the door was closed, “get us out of here.”

“I gotcha, Lang,” the man in the driver’s seat said. Instantly, the car began moving forwards. There was a series of sickening thump as the Bentley ran over the FBI agent’s corpse, but aside from that, there was nothing stopping them.

When they were down the street, Lang turned to the woman. “Biao,” he said, his breathing still heavy, “do it.”

Biao pressed a button on her phone. In the distance, Moe heard a thump. With a sickening certainty, he knew his office had just been destroyed.

 

***

 

It was all going so well, Hicks thought as they got to the area of the building that had housed Moe Green’s office. The Parahuman just had to screw everything up. Luckily, standard LAPD SWAT uniforms were relatively fire-retardant. Still, the sight of the SWAT officer on point getting engulfed by fire would haunt Hicks for the rest of his life, especially how the fire licked around his ballistic shield like it was a sentient being trying to find a weakness.

In response, two SWAT officers returned fire with HK-416Cs. Someone inside also screamed. The four SWAT officers on point continued in. Inside, several people returned fire, one with an SMG of some sort, the other with a Kalashnikov. The SWAT officers quickly silenced them, eliciting more screams from the civilians. After a second’s pause, there came a chorus of SWAT officers calling out, “Clear!”

Hick’s team and the rest of the SWAT officers filed in. “Jesus…” Hicks said, instantly seeing what remained of Murray, Weatherly, and Britt. While the SWAT uniform was fireproof, the business casual suits Hick’s agents had been wearing weren’t. Weatherly was only slightly burned, but the explosion had knocked him out. Britt had been knocked through the secretary’s plate glass window. Murray, however, was completely charred. Hicks lowered his MP-5/10 in shock. For a second, he hoped Agent Murray was dead, or at least unconscious, it was that bad. His hopes were dashed when Murray moaned in feverish agony.

“I don’t suppose I can get you to stay here?” Captain Vargas asked as one of his men began to desperately radio a medevac.

“Yeah,” Barton said, also staring in shock, his shotgun gripped loosely. Agent Pablo was too busy checking on Agent Murray to respond.

“No.” Hicks said this at the same time Barton said yes.

Captain Vargas sighed. “Ok, Agent Hicks, you can come with us.” He turned to the rest of his men. “Zebras two, three, four, and five: you guys stay with the injured and secure the room and make sure the FBI guys don’t die. The rest of you, stick to the plan.”

The green-uniformed officers began to move. Hicks went with the main group up the stairs. Quickly, quietly, they approached the office suite that Green rented. Just as they were about to set up, a man with a TEC-9 pointing at the floor walked out the door. “Drop it!” the SWAT officer with the shield yelled.

The man froze. “Drop your weapon!” Captain Vargas called out as the SWAT team moved into the hallway. “You have three seconds to…”

He was interrupted when the man shot him with the TEC. Instantly, Vargas, Hicks, the shield and three other SWAT officers returned fire. The man slid slowly to the ground, staining the door behind him red with blood. More people screamed, but the SWAT officers ignored it. Instead, two officers moved the corpse away from the door while the others stacked up.

“Hey, Hicks,” Vargas asked as he slid a shell into his shotgun, “am I bleeding?”

“Nope,” Hicks said, checking his Glock, “the bullet bounced off your chest plate.”

“Clear!” an officer near the door yelled. There was a thump, and the door blew off its hinges. There was a burst of gunfire, then two more thumps. The gunfire from inside ceased temporarily and the SWAT officers began to storm the room.

What followed next were some of the most intense moments of Hicks’ life. Normally, no one had the presence of mind to shoot after flashbangs went off. Someone in that room did. Two SWAT officers went down. By that point, some of the others had recovered.

Still, by the time Hicks had actually entered the room it was mostly over. The SWAT officers had clear control of the room and were rounding up all the remaining goons and office workers. People who were completely healthy screamed and shouted, a few people who were dying moaned in pain. Hicks didn’t care. He was heading straight for Green’s office. That bastard’s coming home with me, Hicks thought. I am not going back to Quantico empty-handed. Not after that Para bastard.

He kicked open the door and crossed the threshold… and suddenly found himself outside Moe’s office, staring at the ceiling, Captain Vargas and several other SWAT officers staring down at him. Then he blacked out.

 

***

 

I can do this, Mai Lau thought to herself. I made a crime empire when I was in eighth grade. I escaped the Chinese government the year before. I can do this.

She continued to pace back and forth the office she had rented for LLHP Vegas. As she had specified, this main office was covered in tarps. No painting would ever commence. Before she left, Moe Green would suddenly sell her the property he had bought. LLHP would then build a hotel on that ideal chunk of land.

My hotel… Mai thought to herself. I honestly have no idea what to call it. Maybe I can still call it Green’s Casino. She laughed at the irony, then nearly vomited from how sick it was. That’s an incredibly strange sensation, she mused.

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. She quickly hurried over to the desk covered in tarp and made sure the two items were in their correct positions and the shades were drawn. Then she straightened her t-shirt and tried to do something about her frizzy hair. Then, she sat down in the executive chair. Across from her was a folding chair. She could have gotten something nicer, but the point was to make her guest feel powerless.

Satisfied, she pressed a button on a remote in one of the desk drawers. The button unlocked the door with a loud thunk. In walked Moe Green, flanked by Lang and Biao Xi. “Listen,” he said, “all I’m saying is this Jade Emperor is…” He suddenly turned to see Mai sitting behind the desk. “You…” he breathed. “But… but…”

Mai giggled girlishly. “I know, right?” She said. “I’m not even eighteen yet, but I’m already a real estate tycoon and a criminal mastermind. How cool is that?” Stop. She chided herself. Don’t start monologuing. She gestured to the cheap folding chair. “Please, sit down. We have things to discuss.”

“So,” Mr. Green said as he sat down, “is this where you ‘solve all my problems?’”

“No,” Mai said, making her voice change to be more threatening, “this is where I solve your company’s problems.” It was a very calculated act, drawing on all her acting experience.

“Are you seriously trying to intimidate me?” Mr. Green asked, a hint of a laugh in his voice. “Babe, I’ve seen fucking Chihuahuas with more juice than you.”

“I would recommend,” Biao Xi said, “that you show some respect.”

Mai regarded her two Lupine lieutenants. When she had escaped that reeducation camp, she had brought them with her. Now, for some reason she didn’t understand, the two were completely loyal to her.

She then turned her attention back to Mr. Green. He annoyed her. She could tolerate his sleazy philandering. After all, she tolerated Lang’s. She could also tolerate his constant condescension. That was something adults gave her all the time, and it had made her powerful. No, what she couldn’t tolerate was his sticky little fingers.

“Mr. Green,” she said, “your company’s only problem is its leadership. The fixing, in my opinion, was a necessary evil. When you claimed you were getting in on the casino business, I jumped at the chance because I thought you had been honest with your other investors.”

“Listen, babe,” Mr. Green said, slouching in his chair, “that’s life.”

“Hey, buddy,” Lang said, “show some respect.”

Mai, continuing like nothing was happening, said, “Instead, you were milking everyone. Cheating your customers, scamming your investors, underpaying your employees…” And then Mai actually got mad. “…and you delayed my hotel.”

“So?” Mr. Green asked, the cocky smile still on his face.

“After all this,” Mai said, “I’m still willing to let you leave. That is, if you are willing to sign this.” She reached into the desk and pulled out a piece of paper. “If you sign this, not only will you leave with your life and without any ill will from me, but I will personally escort you to Tiantang or Diyu, depending on circumstances. No one will ever find you in either place, I guarantee it.”

Mr. Green briefly scanned the paper. “Fuck you,” he said, throwing the paper back at Mai. “I ain’t signing my company to a bratty little whore and her mutie leg breakers. You don’t scare me, little girl, and you can’t make me sign this.”

Mai looked at her two bodyguards. They were literally shaking with rage. Lupines, like wolves, had a tendency to be very physically protective people they felt were in their “pack,” so to speak, and this man had just insulted their alpha. Mr. Green wasn’t used to taking beatings. Especially not beatings from enraged Lupines.

“Lang, Biao Xi,” Mai said calmly, “Mr. Green needs to sign this document. That means within the next…” she checked her watch for dramatic effect, “five minutes, he cannot lose consciousness or the use of his right hand. Apart from that, you may do with him what you wish.”

It was like she had fired a starting gun. One minute, Mr. Green was on the chair, the next he was on the floor, Lang and Biao delivering vicious, methodical blows at the speed of light. Mai had never seen a beating quite so bad. Even the guards at the camp had been gentler than this. Exactly one minute and fifty-eight seconds later, Mr. Green called out, “All right, all right… you win…”

Instantly, Lang and Biao hauled him back onto the chair. Lang wheeled a tub of water over, and the two began to wash and dry the fixer. When most of the blood had been cleared away, Mai carefully set the paper in front of Mr. Green and handed him a pen. Mr. Green wrote something down, then passed it back to Mai.

Instead of writing his name, Mr. Green had written Fuck you. “Real mature,” Mai said. In response, Mr. Green spit in her face. Mai felt some blood and a tooth hit her. “Lang,” she said, “towel, please.” Lang quickly came around and wiped her off. When he was done, Mai said, “Give him another round. Then waterboard him.”

If possible, this next beating was even worse. Again, forty-five seconds into his beating, Mr. Green said, “I’ll sign! I’ll sign!”

Mai shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Green,” she said. “I’ve been burned by you twice. You’ve literally spat in my face. You’ll take your five minutes, then you’ll go waterboarding.”

Thirteen minutes later, Mr. Green was toweled off and sitting in the folding chair. Mai took out a second copy of the contract and placed it in front of Mr. Green. Again, she held out a pen. This time when Mr. Green reached for it, Mai grabbed it away.

“Before you take this,” Mai said, “you should know that if you write anything other than your signature in your right hand, Lang and Biao Xi will do things to you that will make your sickest, most twisted investor sick to their stomach. It will be so gut-wrenching that when we parade you in front of every person you cheated, not even the most obsessive will want revenge on you. Do I make myself clear?”

Mr. Green nodded. “Good,” Mai said, letting go of the pen. Mr. Green, using his dominant hand, signed the document. After Mai checked the document, she said, “Congratulations, Mr. Green. You have finally made me happy.”

“Do… do I get to leave?” he asked, a note of hope seeping into his voice.

“Yes.” Mai said, the lie upsetting her stomach even more. “Please, leave the room for a bit while my people and I discuss your getaway.”

Miraculously, Mr. Green was able to get to his feet. Once his back was turned, Mai brought out her final prop. For a moment, she debated whether to use it. You’ve needed to do this ever since you got into this business, she told herself. Besides, he’s seen you. He can’t be allowed to live.

Without any more hesitation, Mai pulled the trigger of her “prop,” a .454 Raging Bull revolver. The bullet struck the base of Mr. Green’s spine, just as Mai had intended. He fell face first onto the floor, then began to struggle to get up.

Doing her best not to show how much she was shaking, Mai walked over to Mr. Green’s twitching form and crouched in front of it. “In case you didn’t know,” she said, looking into his desperate eyes, “Tiantang,” she waved her gun at the ceiling, “is heaven. Diyu,” she jabbed the barrel of the gun at the floor, “is hell.” She paused. Then, somehow managing to keep her voice casual, she asked, “Which one do you think you are going to?”

Mr. Green, ever since he had been shot through the spine, only seemed to be able to make these horrific wheezing noises. They became more and more shallow until he fell on his face. Eventually, he stopped making any sound.

Well, Mai thought to herself, that was particularly awful. Why, again, did you want to watch someone die? Before this moment, she had some notion of needing to know what it meant to take a life in order to run the less than legal areas of her business. Now, she couldn’t tell whether she should order a pizza, vomit, or blow her own brains out to balance out what had happened.

Eventually, she stood up and asked Lang and Biao Xi, “So, are any of you hungry? I’d like to order a pizza.”

 

***

 

It was two days before the doctors let Captain Vegas and Agent Barton in to see Hicks. However, those two days were enough for Hicks to get a decent amount of news from the TV. Apparently, the Para who had flipped out and burned most of his team was a cape named Captain Fuego. He had been a hero.

“Man,” Vargas said, walking into Hick’s room, “I can’t believe Fuego was on the fucking take. He was always good with kids, working in the soup kitchen… Hell, I stood face to face with him and didn’t know he was a fuckin’ junkie.”

“That’s what happens with vigilantes,” Hicks said. “Eventually, they realize there’s no rules for them. Anyway, how’s my team?”

Vargas and Barton looked at each other. “That,” Hicks said, “is just making me worry. The doctors say it’s bad for my health.”

Barton finally spoke up. “Britt and Weatherly are recovering. Murray’s still in the ICU, along with two SWAT officers… and Green escaped.”

“How did he get out?” Hicks asked. “Paxton…”

“Paxton,” Vargas said, frowning darkly, “according to ballistics, shot two of my men in the back with his service weapon while an accomplice blew your other agent’s face off with a shotgun.”

“Where’s Paxton now?” Hicks asked. He had always had a vibe about Paxton, but Barton had vouched for him.

“A Lupine,” Barton said, “ripped out his guts. Then someone, probably the Lupine, put five rounds in his face with nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol. Then someone ran over him with a car.”

“Three FBI agents injured, two dead, plus one SWAT officer in critical condition and two SWAT officers dead,” Vargas said, a note of helplessness in his voice. “That’s not including the number of perps shot, the explosion, the injured bystanders… That was the worst day in the history of the Vegas police.” He looked up, tears in his eyes. “I’m going to lose my job, man. And I think they’re right.”

Hicks glared at him. “They aren’t going to fire you.”

“They’re going to fire someone!” Vargas shouted and stood up. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be me. Maybe it’ll be the fuckers who vouched for the guy who shot two police officers.” With that, he stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Barton,” Hicks said. “What do we have?”

Barton shook his head. “We have nothing. A localized EMP in the security room after the bomb went off erased all the footage at the parking lot, and the body cameras of our agents in the back are missing.”

Hicks leaned back in the bed, considering this. “Listen,” Barton said, “I know I’ve stressed you out…”

“We do have one thing.”

“What?”

Hicks, exasperated, said, “We know that a damn Lupine was on the scene, don’t we? How about we start looking for that bastard?”

Barton smiled. “You’re right. The Bureau started recording Lupine claw marks. They’re almost as good as fingerprints.”

“Look for any unsolved murders those claws were involved in,” Hicks said. “Especially if they were in states where Green had investors. No matter how legit they seem.”

“I hear you,” Barton said, smiling as he got up. “We’re going to get these guys.”

As Barton left, Hicks nodded. They would get them. What had happened in Vegas would not stay in Vegas. Hicks would see to that.

 

More Reports

Track of the Day

Track 6: Tainted Trust

The day before we were going to go back, we had a meeting scheduled with our UNIX handlers. Originally, they had wanted to meet with us separately, but we had campaigned hard, even refusing to show up if we were separated.

We were meeting at the Sao Paolo Grill, a local Brazilian barbeque joint. It had gotten famous when I was in seventh grade. The owner had been attacked by a gangster of some sort, and everyone had come to show support. John lived in New Hampshire, but he figured he had to drive down here anyway since we were all flying out of Plymouth, so his parents dropped him off at my house the day before the meeting. Then, around 11:30, we began walking to our meeting.

“So,” John asked, bundled up tightly in his winter coat, “have you been to this place before?”

“Nah,” I said from inside my many layers, “but apparently, if you want meat on a stick, it’s the place to go.”

“Sounds good,” John said. “Any other places you eat at around here?”

That started a whole conversation about the various places to eat at Maynard. There are a lot. We’ve got several pizza joints, a couple standard family places, a bunch of bars, and a few ethnic restaurants.

Around the time we got into the downtown, city-like part of Maynard, I ran into an old friend. “Nathan?” a voice called out. I turned around. There, coming out of the street by the Town Hall/police station, was Mai Lau. Mai had moved from Beijing to Maynard in 2010. She was in my grade, but I didn’t really know her that well until we took a theater class in our senior year. It was hard to believe that was something that happened less than a year ago.

“Mai!” I said happily, “How are things going?”

She laughed. “Very good. Do you and your friend want lunch?”

“We’re actually heading out to the Sao Paolo Grill,” I said. “We’re meeting up with some scholarship people.”

“Oh yeah,” Mai said, “you went off to college. Where did you end up?”

“This international school,” I said. “Kind of in the middle of nowhere, but you meet all sorts of interesting people.”

John laughed. “You can say that again.” I instantly thought of all the people I had met. The Al-Qaeda terrorists like Amir (also the first person I had killed,) and his psychotic second-in-command Salim. Richard Forrest Taylor the third, a legit KKK member. Eric, Ray-Gun, Doc, The Monk, MC Disaster, former child soldiers who somehow became millionaires. There were also people like Eliza, Oro Okoro, Bai and Li Feng, and Ricardo Montana, people who, along with me and one other person, formed a group called The Seven Supreme. There was also May Riley, a certified genius with an eccentric personality and mutilated face, and her sister Mary, a no-nonsense girl training to become a combat medic. Then there was the horror in human form known as Ulfric Trollbjorn.

“Sorry we can’t meet up at the moment,” I said. “I’d love to, but this is kind of a private meeting.”

“Don’t worry,” Mai said. “I’m having lunch with Jesse there. After you’re done, we can talk, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Oh, before I forget, this is John Marshall. We met this semester. John, this is Mai Lau, the only person in MHS who’s more interested in set construction and choreography than improv.”

After that, we had this big conversation about our year in theater class. It ended with me doing my beached whale impersonation as we walked into the parking lot where Sao Paolo Grill was located. It wasn’t exactly the same, due to the fact that I couldn’t lie down. Two people in trench coats and sunglasses looked up. It was Takashi and Brosnan.

“That,” Brosnan said with amusement, “must have an interesting story behind it.”

“It does,” I said. “Are we going to do this out here, or are we going to go outside?”

“Is she going to be here?” Takashi asked.

“Actually,” Mai said, “I see Jesse right inside. I’ll catch up with you later!” I looked inside the Sao Paolo Grill. There was Jesse, a small black girl who I think was a Junior in high school at the time. She waved at us. Mai and I waved back.

After Mai hurried off, I turned to Brosnan and Takashi. “So,” I said, “are we going to go in?”

“Actually,” Brosnan said, “this won’t take long.” He took out a wad of cash and handed to me. “Your work was substandard.” He kept a cheery tone of voice as he did so.

“Where’s John’s?” I asked.

Brosnan shrugged. “He didn’t do anything,” he said. “If you disagree, you can give him money from what we’ve given you.”

While he had been talking, I had been counting. There were ten fifties in the roll. “I’m sorry,” I said, “This is five hundred dollars. To split. You said a hundred thousand for each of us…”

“If you did a good job,” Takashi said. “Compared to the other students, your… essay was unacceptable.”

“First off, how was it unacceptable?” I asked angrily. “The prompt was to write about the other students. I think I got a very good picture of the student body. Second,” my voice dropped to a whisper, “I almost died several times. One of the only reasons I’m alive is John.”

“We told you,” Takashi said, “that this would be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. If you can’t do this…”

“Yeah,” John said, “you said it would be hard. You neglected to mention the projected casualty rate!”

“Don’t you mean dropout rate?” Brosnan asked.

“Oh please,” John said, “you knew that they fucking aim for a fifty percent death rate. We didn’t. There’s a difference between…”

“Please Mr. Marshall,” Brosnan said neutrally, “control yourself.”

“Fuck you,” John said. “There’s a difference between knowing the risks and not having basic information! Next time, fucking tell us if we’re going to be thrown into a fucking meat grinder with a bunch of psychotics! That way, we don’t have to have conversations like this!”

“Are you done?” Brosnan asked politely.

“He didn’t mention,” I said, “how you just tried to turn us against each other by stiffing me.”

“You’re right!” John said. “You know, I’m starting to think you don’t want us to succeed.”

“Now you have.” Takashi said, handing us each a small camera. “These microcams can take pictures with the big button on the right. If you hold down the small one on the left, it can translate a document to a PDF. Use it. Maybe this time, your fellow scholarship student won’t run rings around you.”

“Are you sure there’s only one other?” I asked.

“Of course,” Brosnan said, getting into his car. “Why would we lie to you?”

As the two UNIX agents drove off, I commented, “Y’know, I’m glad I don’t have a gun on me. I’d hate to explain why I just shot two UNIX agents on American soil in front of a bunch of witnesses.” I then handed him half the bills.

“Yeah,” John said, taking them and putting them in his pocket. “Those guys are assholes.” We then walked into the Sao Paolo Grill.

When we entered, Mai and Jesse immediately waved us over to their table. “What was that about?” Jesse asked. Both she and Mai were giving me concerned looks, though I noticed that Mai’s expression of concern was masking… something else.

“There was a bit of a disagreement on the scholarship front,” I said.

“Really?” Mai said. “I didn’t think disagreements over scholarships got that bad.” Suddenly, I realized where I had seen that look before. I had seen it on Bai’s face when she had considered killing me and I had seen it on Doc’s face when The Monk had executed a prisoner during our final. I suddenly realized that I had seen some… interesting things in Maynard.

They were things I had been things that had been there for a long time. Every time I had entered Maynard, there had been people with the tell-tale signs of having seen combat together. It was hard to see, unless you looked for it. It was an attitude, a way of moving, a look. The problem was that this wasn’t proof. It wasn’t even circumstantial. These telltale signs were often extremely contradictory.

There was also a sort of uniform a bunch of young people were wearing consisting of hoodies, baggy jeans and green t-shirts. Jade green t-shirts. I quickly took a look around. I noticed several other people in these t-shirts. One, I recognized as Jamie Washington, another person I knew in school. His t-shirt had a Chinese-style dragon, much like the kind Lang and his flunky had been wearing as lapel pins at the Kagemoto’s party. Suddenly, I felt very nervous.

Jesse reached over. “Hey,” she said, “are you ok? You’re looking pretty pale.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to regain my poker face. “I’m fine.” It was hard. I was now in a weird state of hyperawareness that would be hard to describe to someone who’s never been in combat. I’m sure John noticed it, but he said nothing.

“If you’re worried about paying the bill,” Jesse said, “Mai’s got us covered. I mean, didn’t you just inherit Lau Holdings? You kind of own this building.”

“Through some intermediary company,” Mai said dismissively. “Honestly, it took some digging to find out I actually had holdings here.”

That was quite interesting. We made polite conversation for a bit. Apparently, Mai was planning on opening a theater where the old DEC building had been. “It’s better than the Walmart they were going to place there,” she said. “Besides, you know me. I love theater.” That was Mai. Patron of the arts and math genius.

“Are you going to college?” I asked. “Because the college I go to would love to have you.” It was true. Even discounting my formless suspicions, I knew she was some kind of genius.

Mai shrugged. “Not at the moment. I actually have some things that I have to do right now, and college would just be a distraction.” She smiled. “Besides, there are cheaper ways to learn.”

Eventually, we had ate the food. Mai paid, and John and I excused ourselves. Once we got down the street a bit, John asked, “So what was that about?”

“Later,” I said sharply. I was still noticing things. That teen in the hoodie taking a picture of the store we were walking by. The beat up Pontiac with a bunch of guys in it driving right past. The black Dodge charger with blacked-out windows driving in the other direction. Stuff like that. “We’re being watched.”

“By who?” John asked, suddenly stiffening. Thankfully, he didn’t look around.

“Not here,” I said, trying to sound casual. “Let’s go back to my house and play some video games.”

“Sounds relaxing,” John said.

I was able to keep him from asking about it until we (we being me, him, Charlotte and Eliza) piled into Charlotte’s Maybach. “So,” he said, “who did you think was following us?”

I laughed. “Everyone. We’ve come to the attention of the Kagemotos and the FBI. I’m also pretty sure there was a Jade Empire presence as well.”

“Are you sure?” Charlotte asked. “I mean how do you know you were being watched?”

“I’m I can’t prove it at the moment,” I admitted, “but I know it. Besides, the FBI and Kagemotos watching us makes sense.”

“I don’t know…” Charlotte said. “You do sound a bit paranoid.”

“Well,” Eliza commented, “they are interested in ‘im. Just ‘cause ‘e’s a little paranoid doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”

“Thank you, Eliza,” I said.

We then began the journey to the airport. The sun was not out yet, so we were all tired. Surprisingly, when we got there, we could board the plane, a Boeing 747 with NIU markings, directly. As we did, I noticed that Eliza’s only carry-on item was a tweed and brown leather guitar case. “Huh,” I commented, “I didn’t know you could play guitar.”

“It isn’t a guitar,” she said as she walked up the plane’s boarding ramp.

When she got in, a guard asked, “You carrying any weapons?” I was right behind her.

“Yeah,” she said. “I got an L1A1 in the case and a Browning Hi-Power in my pocket.”

“Ok,” the guard said, somewhat bored. “Next!” I stepped forward. “You carrying any weapons?” the guard asked.

“Why would I be carrying weapons on a plane?” I asked.

“Are you going to be this way, mate?” the guard asked. “Because you can either reveal the weapons you’re carrying, or I can get someone to strip-search you.”

“I’m not carrying anything!” I protested.

“Oi, Artyom!” The guard called out, “We’ve got a yank claiming ‘e’s not packing! Want to verify?”

“He isn’t armed!” John called out from behind my back. “His dad would freak if he brought guns into the house.”

“Ok, fine,” the guard said to me. “Go on, into the plane.” I walked into the plane, somewhat annoyed. I noticed that there were only a few people there, most of them white and/or sleeping. I walked over to where Eliza was struggling to insert the case containing her L1A1 into an overhead compartment.

“Need help stowing it?” I asked.

“Nah,” she said, finally shoving it in, “I got it. Thanks for the offer, though.” She had chosen a lounge area with four seats on each side facing each other.

Before she could close it, John came running up. “Wait,” he said, “I’ve got something, too!” It was a black ABS case.

“What manner of death are you illegally bringing aboard a plane?” I asked.

John smiled. “Mossberg 500 Hunting in the case, and a Browning Hi-Power under my coat. This means you’re going to have go out and buy stuff for us at the commercial airport stops.”

Charlotte, who had just come up behind him, said, “Yes. If you possess a firearm, you are not allowed to leave the plane until we get back to the university. Something to do with firearm laws. Shame, I rather like seeing new places.” I took this to mean she had brought her Webley with her.

“I should think so!” I said. “I mean, think about it. Some guy gets off the plane in, I don’t know, whatever international airport they have in the Midwest, then loses his temper and pulls his Glock on someone. By the way, I call window seat.”

“Yes, of course,” Charlotte said.

About a half an hour later, I saw a Lexus pull up. I was unsurprised to see Jennifer get out. Eliza, who also had a window seat, saw her as well. “Lovely,” she growled, her ears flattening, “Ms. Kagemoto’s ‘ere.”

“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got some questions to ask her.”

“Is this about yesterday?” John asked, “Because I still think you’re ever-so-slightly paranoid.”

“Paranoid about what?” We turned around. Jen was staring at us innocently.

“How did…” John asked.

“Jumper,” Charlotte, Eliza and I said in unison.

“Aww,” Jen said, “you spoiled the fun. I wanted to see how long it would take for him to figure it out.” She sat down besides Charlotte. “So,” she said, suddenly business-like, “what did you want to ask me?”

“Just curious,” I asked, “does there happen to be a big Jade Empire presence in Maynard? I went home, and I suddenly start noticing a lot of people wearing green.”

“Interesting…” Jen mused.

“What?” I asked. There was something ominous about how intently Jen was processing this information.

“Well,” she said, “there are some who believe that’s where the Empire was born. In fact, some of their most feared lieutenants come from there. It’s been considered Empire territory since 2010. You say you live there?”

“Yeah,” I said, “and I didn’t notice anything until yesterday. But looking back, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was active in Maynard around 2010. There’re a few kids in my school who started wearing all green back then.”

Jennifer nodded. “Was it around spring?”

I shrugged. “Not sure.” After that there was a bit of silence. Then the plane took off. Apparently Cross was on a different flight. We also learned we’d be doing a sort of criss-cross with a couple other planes, stopping at a bunch of different airports. That translated to a lot of stops, many of which were in the kind of airports without restaurants. Apparently, I was the only person in the plane who didn’t deal with it by getting drunk as a skunk.

Charlotte, surprisingly, was the first. When the flight attendant came by, a massive Russian dude, Charlotte ordered some kind of mixed drink.

“Charlotte…” I said, “It’s nine thirty. AM. That cocktail has, like, three servings of alcohol in it.”

“But it seems so interesting!” Charlotte protested.

By the time we reached California, I was the only one who didn’t have a hangover. It was… unpleasant, to say the least. I thought people were going to start murdering each other. Or worse, they’d start vomiting.

“Never,” Eliza moaned as the plane landed, “let me drink this bloody much on a plane again.”

“I tried to stop you,” I said, getting up. “I tried to stop you all.” I hurried away as they all groaned. As I left, I realized that some of the accumulated stink was mine. God, did I want to get off this flight.

I saw them as soon as I was in the waiting area. May and Mary Riley. The twins were a year older than me, but May was both more intelligent and more childish than I was. She bounced up, her scarred face lighting up. When she was just a kid, she had been in a car accident, leaving one side a patchwork, except around her mouth. Also, an eye had been damaged, so now they were mismatched, one green, one brown. To complete the weird look, she had dyed her hair blond and frosted the tips purple.

She shot off at me like a rocket. “Wow, you’re here!” she said. “Man, I didn’t expect it, but I should have. I mean, you live in the states and go to the same school and you’re probably going to the same place, right? Wait, never mind, where else would you be going. That’s kind of stupid of me. I just made a hangover cure and…”

“Wait,” I said, interrupting her before her rant could gain any more momentum, “you made a hangover cure?”

“Why?” May asked. “You don’t seem to have hangover syptoms.”

“My friends do,” I said. “Please. I have to sit with them the entire flight.”

“Do I know them?” she asked, now business-like.

“Yeah,” I said, “you’ll know John and Eliza. You might not know Jen and Charlotte.” May brushed by me, moving with a determination I hadn’t seen. “Also, could you ask them not to drink so much?” I called after her.

“Don’t worry,” Mary said, “if I know my sister, they won’t touch a drop for the rest of the trip.”

“I believe you,” I said. “I’m going to get a pizza and fries.”

When I got back, everyone was fully recovered. They were also staring at May warily. I wasn’t surprised. May had an excellent death glare when she wanted something. Speaking of May, she had a tendency to rap songs from memory when bored. That is how some of us were introduced to people like Biggie Smalls, Tupac, Tech N9ne, The Geto Boys, Kendrick Lamar, and Lupe Fiasco. She was really good, from what I could tell.

However, it was still about forty-eight before we finally got to Nowhere Island. When we finally touched down in that hell hole in the Pacific, I was exhausted. I was done. It was in a daze that John and I got back to our dorm room.

Eric was the only one in the room when we got in. He looked up from his desk. “Ah, John! Killer!” I winced as he used my hated nickname. “You are back! This calls for a celebration! Would you like to go to The Drunken Mercenary?”

We stared at him for a second. Then we both shouted, “NO!”

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