1x02 - "Duck and Run"
by K. B. Cribbett
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Previously on DarkWatch...
After Elliot took care of his captor using an ability he did not know he had, the DarkWatch Institute took him in for further study. Before they could learn much, however, the facility was overrun by Chaotics. In the process of Delta team trying to get prisoners and medical patients out of the building to safety, Elliot and Imogen were cut off from the exit and forced to meet up with Talbot and Gloria. Unable to receive back-up, the four alone took down the Corrupted Hive Mind, and secured the base. Later, in the shadows of his own funeral, Elliot made his decision to join Alpha team.
“Seriously, why am I here?”
Elliot Washington stared in scrutiny down at the wooden batons he held in each hand. His emerald eyes were still puffy from sleep, his light brown hair uncombed and tussled atop his head. Imogen Natura had woke him early, dragging him into a decidedly eastern-inspired training room, a mix of peeling ivory paint and rice paper walls.
“To train,” Imogen replied flatly, tightening the elastic cloth wrapped around her olive-toned wrist.
“But you said I can already do this stuff,” Elliot's impatient glare lifted from his ridiculous practice gear to the tall, curvacious woman before him.
“Just because you have the ability to shift,” Imogen sighed, curling her long, dark hair into a tight bun, “Doesn't mean you have the training to control it. Especially when you've done it exactly, what was it? Once.”
“But I didn't even have to think about it,” Elliot groaned, turning his gaze heaven-ward. “It was all intuition and instinct. You can't practice that.”
A small breeze across his chin caused the young man to start, staring a bit frantically around the empty space where Imogen had been standing just the moment earlier. Before he had time to turn around, one of his batons was ripped out of his hand from behind, and another breeze crossed Elliot's ear as he spun to face his attacker, but it was too late. Imogen was behind him, holding his wooden baton across his neck in a choke hold.
“Wrong,” she chided in his ear. She pushed him away with surprising strength, and Elliot sputtered a cough as he caught his balance.
“What...why didn't I shift with you?” Elliot straightened his lean frame and caught the baton Imogen tossed at his head.
“Because you still have no idea what it is you're doing,” Imogen retorted, tilting her neck to one side until it cracked with several satisfying pops. “Again.”
“Alright...” Elliot gripped his batons and bent his knees in an amateurish preparatory stance.
He focused intensely on where Imogen was standing as she gave him a malicious sneer, and then she was gone. He tried to follow, but instead he felt a sharp pain to the back of his left knee. When Imogen's foot connected with his leg, he felt a slight tingling sensation as he fell to the floor. He rolled onto his back and saw Imogen towering over him, one of his batons in her hand, pointing it down at his head in a point-blank mimic of a handgun.
“Good, you shifted this time,” Imogen spat, lowering the baton and offering her hand to help Elliot to his feet. He again felt the strange tingling sensation as Imogen shifted them into real-time.
Zebediah MacPhearson cradled the corded land-line phone between his shoulder and his ear as he sifted through an imposing stack of manilla personnel folders, each stuffed beyond full.
“No need to be so formal with me, sugar,” a husky woman's voice filtered through the earpiece. The auburn-haired Scotsman cracked a winceful half-grin as he set down one of the folders.
“Christine,” Zebediah replied with a hint of trepidation. “How've you been? How's Charlie and the kids? I heard you just had an appointment with the gynecol--”
“Not that informal, asshole,” Christine snapped. “Look, I hear you just recruited another rookie.”
“Aye,” Zebediah started, but was immediately cut off.
“Team Eta is tied up with a class four chameleon, Xi is on suspension for failing their psych evals after that siren issue last month, and we've got a possible hit on a serial telekenetic that could use some taking care of.”
“Hmm, Delta team is--” pondered Zebediah.
“Great,” Christine's nasally voice faded slightly as her phone moved away from her face and back again, “So you just send your new rookie up here with some buddies and get this straightened out for us, m'kay darlin'?”
“Well--” Zeb pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers.
“Sending the mission specs to your e-mail. So sweet of you, g'bye now,” Christine half-mumbled, and Zeb heard agitated voices in the background for a moment before the dial tone took over.
“I'll clear my schedule,” he rolled his dark blue eyes to the ceiling.
Talbot Nox sat at his desk and stared blankly at the computer monitor as he idly clicked the mouse beside it. Alpha's bull-pen style meeting area was cluttered with desks, computers, cabinets, and papers everywhere. The England-born vampire sighed the deep sigh that only comes from hours of repeating the same arbitrary task over and over, and then he gave a slight growl in the direction of the flatscreen.
“Problems, Tally?” the innocent voice of Gloria Day drifted to her squadmate from across the room.
“No,” he grumbled back at her. “Computers are a wonderful invention, but they're properly infuriating.”
“They can be,” the young blonde did not raise her eyes from her own computer as she keyed in data from the previous day's work. “What are you working on?”
“Hmm?” Talbot glanced away from his screen for only a moment. “Oh, just, you know, e-mails and briefing reports, that sort of thing. Tedious, is all.”
Talbot returned his focus to his screen as Gloria paused, pushing a chunk of short, straight hair behind her ear as she tilted her head slightly to one side.
“Liar,” she said softly. “You're playing Solitaire.”
“What?” Talbot's hazel eyes snapped up to meet Gloria's calm baby blues. “I—oh, you telepathic little cheat. Aye, this game is both addicting and irritating.”
Before Gloria had time to respond, Talbot's computer let out an impolite notification beep.
“Ooh, I have mail,” the blonde vampire curled his lips into a grin while he scanned the screen.
“Mission?” Gloria looked hopeful. Talbot's smile widened as he stood and grabbed his leather jacket from the back of his office chair.
Imogen twirled one of the batons in her hand, then tossed it to Elliot. It clattered to his feet.
“But I am le tiiiiired,” he groaned, holding a bruised rib as he bent to grasp the baton. Mere inches from his fingers brushing the wood staff, he saw a hand, and then the baton was gone. Knowing what was coming, he squeezed his eyes shut and hissed profanity right before a boot landed solidly on his rear, tumbling him onto the floor.
“If you can smart-ass your mouth, you're not tired enough,” the brunette clipped. “On your feet, soldier!” When Elliot stayed exactly where he was, face-down, and gave the Barbadian woman nothing more than a grunt, she sighed. “Men are such babies. Fine. You have three minutes respite.”
Elliot thanked her with an exasperated huff as he rolled onto his back and attempted to let his muscles regain some self-worth. “So aside from disappearing into thin air,” he mumbled, “What exactly is it that we're doing?”
“You really have no idea what shifting is, do you?” Imogen leaned her arms on her knees as she gave the new guy a slightly incredulous look.
“Not really, no.”
“Amateurs.” Her head hung. “Always, they send me the amateurs. Okay, listen quick, Washington, because I'm not putting together a power point for you.”
“You look like you're sleeping.”
“Fine, if you miss anything, it's on your head. Now, shifting is categorized under time-manipulation, even though we don't manipulate time so much as we manipulate ourselves. When we shift, we move ourselves a fraction of a second forward, and can move freely within that space of time. Got me so far?”
“Not really,” one of Elliot's blue eyes squinted open. “Are we time-travelers?”
“No. Well, not really. It's not like we can just jump to tomorrow or to yesterday. We still exist in the moment, just further in the moment. Ya know what?” Imogen leaned back on the bench and rested her head against a wooden pillar between two sheets of rice-paper walling. “Let me try to explain it another way.
“Right now, in this training room, we exist in the eleventh hour of the morning. If I shifted, I would be pushing forward in time, but only slightly, and would be between eleven o'clock and twelve o'clock, without existing fully in either one. Are you following?”
“I think so...”
“While shifted, I am free to move around in the space between, and affect anything I touch, but only so long as I remain touching it. So when I unshift, then, I return to the normal time stream, and anything I changed stays changed, because it's now twelve o'clock.”
“So we hit 'pause' on the universal time remote?” Elliot rolled onto his side and propped himself up on one elbow.
“It's not really that simple,” responded Imogen, “But close enough.”
“So how come I can't just shift on command, like you do?”
Imogen did not answer immediately, locking her dark brown eyes to Elliot's blues as she contemplated her answer. Holding his gaze for longer than she intended, she inhaled and raised her eyes away from him.
“Your ability....is more of a....copy-cat kind of a thing,” Imogen sputtered in an attempt to explain. “When you come in contact with an anomaly, and that anomaly is used on you, you can repeat it for a while. That's why you couldn't shift until I touched you while shifted, and why you suddenly became telepathic when Gloria read your mind.”
“Sweet. I'm an absorbalon,” Elliot grinned.
“An absorba-what-now? No. Don't use that word. That's a stupid word. The term we use is 'vore'.”
“It's short for 'omnivore,' meaning--”
“Eat all the things?” Elliot interrupted. “Doesn't that describe all homo sapiens?”
“For food, yeah,” Imogen suddenly stood and raised her hands in a long stretch above her head, a motion that exposed a portion of her abdomen. “For anomalies, well, that's another thing entirely.”
“Ooh, like, mutants? Homo sapien two point oh?”
Elliot's grin expanded from ear to ear as he caught himself staring at Imogen's toned core. He jerked his eyes forcefully back down to the floor as a duffel bag on the floor near the door began to play a distinctive eight-bit fanfare.
“Is that--” Elliot started to define the ring-tone as Imogen closed the distance in a short stride, scooping her phone out of the bag and flipping it open.
“You will speak to no one of this,” interrupted Imogen with a warning. “Fancy a field trip?”
“So what's the job?” Gloria punched the call button next to the elevator. “Morphic? Elemental? Another gorram vore?”
“Not sure, Sweets,” Talbot rubbed his hand over her hair in a playful gesture. She snarled and pushed him away. “E-mail only mentioned a mission briefing in the board room on the first floor. Well, and Zeb's fantasy golf stats from last weekend. He's killing me.”
“Ooh, we get to go up top?” Gloria laughed as the elevator doors opened with a rude ding. “I feel so under-dressed.”
“Quite,” Talbot mimicked straightening an imaginary tie as he joined Gloria on the lift. She pursed her lips with a grin and hit the button for the main level of the hospital. They rode in a pleasant silence as the old service elevator clattered up to a secure wing where they would leave behind the secrecy of the DarkWatch facility below and join the mundanes—non-anomalous humans—on the ground level.
“So what do you think about the new guy?” Gloria murmured thoughtfully.
“Hmm?” Talbot's eyebrows scrunched together as the elevator came to a shuttering stop and the doors squeaked open. “Oh, the vore? I don't know. Seems like a proper, pompous ass, but I guess Zeb thinks he's worth the time.”
“Actually,” Gloria pointed out as she stepped forward towards the security guard and lifted her arms for inspection, “Zeb was thinking of using him for some other end, but he blocked me before I could get what.”
“Zeb uses everyone, the damn Scot,” Talbot half-curled his lips as the guard squinted at Gloria, using his anomalous ability to check for any non-certified items passing through the secured area.
“That's probably enough, Marcus,” Gloria lowered her hands to her hips and gave him a knowing glance. Marcus refocused his eyes to look her in the face, and gave her a shy grin through his trim beard.
“Yes ma'am,” his Southern drawl dragged out his words. “All clear. Sir?”
“Right,” Talbot stepped forward, hands in pockets, and let Marcus give him the visual once-over. “Would you like me to spin, lad?”
“Not necessary,” Marcus intoned, limping backwards. “All clear. Y'all have a good morning.”
“You, too,” the young girl mocked a tiny bow.
Gloria and Talbot slid their ID cards through the slot next to the door and it buzzed open for them. From this point until their destination they walked in close silence, partially to avoid accidentally saying something potentially revealing in front of the mundanes, but also to allow Gloria space to keep her telepathic head clear amongst the crowd. They shuffled through into the lobby and, flashing their passes at the receptionist, headed down a series of corridors until they came to a dead end with giant, steel double doors. Swiping their badges once again, after a series of clicks and gears grinding, the doors clunked open.
“After you, princess,” Gloria faked a salute as she held the door for her elder.
Talbot made a playfully rude gesture as he passed her. On the other side was a short hallway with a door on either end. The vampire paused and glanced back to Gloria, who seemed to contemplate a moment before gesturing to the left.
“I'll bet you never get lost, Sweets,” Talbot chuckled.
“Actually, I have a terrible sense of direction,” Gloria admitted as they opened the door on the north end of the hall and entered. “It's a wonder I know which way is up.”
“I'll say,” Zebediah rose from his place at a large, round table. Imogen and Elliot, the latter still sweaty and dirty from training, were already there.
“Sorry, sir,” Talbot and Gloria mumbled in unison as they took their seats in the small but well-furnished meeting room. Elliot looked up with a vaguely tired and confused countenance, but Imogen stared them down with her usual strict glare.
“Bad first impression for the rookie,” Zebediah gave Gloria and Talbot a disappointed look. “'Mission briefing' means stop what you're doing and get your asses moving immediately, no excuses, no pit-stops. Some of our cases depend on a few precious seconds. You know better.”
“Yes, sir,” Gloria looked down at her hands.
“Aye, sir,” Talbot met Zebediah's steady gaze with a slight temptation to rebel, but he resisted.
“Chicago called, they asked for our assistance on this case,” Zebediah began, sliding each of them a thin, red folder with the DarkWatch crest stamped on the front. “They've got a three-run murder streak with similar MOs: DOA with peri-mortem bruising on the wrists and neck, crushed jugular, and various other details you'll see listed in the report.
“Based on the autopsies of these three victims, our contact with the Chicago PD thinks it likely that an anomaly is the cause. Review the preliminary report and head up there to check it out. If it's an anomaly, I want it tagged, bagged and back here ASAP. The Viper will leave the airport in two hours.”
“Sir,” Imogen, Gloria, and Talbot chorused, rising as Zebediah prepared to leave. Elliot glanced up with a start, fumbling over his chair as he attempted to stand up too quickly.
“And will someone please feed the rookie before he passes out?” Zebediah growled with a mocking sarcasm. “You know vores' dietary needs. Get him to the mess.”
“Aye,” Talbot clicked his heels together at attention as Zebediah made his exit.
The three members of Alpha team looked around at each other in silence, glanced at Elliot, then back at each other.
“Well?” Imogen finally said. “Who's turn to take him? I just wasted my entire morning trying to train, so it's going to be one of you two.”
“I've got to--” Gloria started, but Talbot interrupted her.
“Fine,” Talbot sighed. “I can see where this is going. I'll take him. But I ain't carrying him.”
“I'm right here,” Elliot protested, slightly angry but mostly exhausted. “I can walk myself.”
“On the other hand,” Gloria walked over to the phone on the wall, “You may just want to order room service.”
“Viper leaves in less than five minutes,” Imogen intoned as she entered the private DarkWatch building off the main tarmac of the public airport. “Why aren't you on the plane?”
“Talbot wanted to bring some snakes,” Gloria had her arms crossed as she watched Talbot wrestle with a crate. “To freak out the newb.”
“For being almost five centuries old, you are acting quite like a child,” Imogen shook her head, pausing a moment before grabbing the other end of the crate and helping Talbot load it onto the baggage cart.
“You're in?” Talbot heaved a breath as he wiped his brow. “I thought you were too grown-up for pranks.”
“Nonsense,” Imogen cracked a small smile. “Every fresh recruit needs a bit of hazing. Builds character.”
“It's better than what you guys did to me,” Gloria laughed.
“What did they do to you?” a voice came from the open doorway. Zebediah was standing there, holding a large briefcase, and looking more cross than usual. Elliot was behind him with the sheepish look of someone who slept in and needed to be awakened by the founder of DarkWatch.
“Nothing, boss,” said Gloria quickly. “It's not often you see us off. What's up?”
“Last-minute gear from Research that I thought might prove useful,” Zebediah lifted the case and laid it flat—right on top of the snake crate.
“Well, let's not hold us in suspense,” Talbot stepped closer, masking his anxiety of the location of the briefcase with a tint of curiosity in his hazel eyes. “We've got a schedule, you know.”
“Aye,” Zebediah clicked open the case and opened it to reveal two layers of foam separating four blaster-rifles. He lifted one gingerly from the case as he explained, “These were made using technology from that tree in Hollow's Grove. You shoot this at someone, and they take a nice, long sleep. They may or may not wake up with a glorious beard.”
“Fancy,” Elliot reached for the weapon, but Zebediah easily pulled it away from his grasp and put it back in the case.
“These haven't been field tested,” Zebediah warned. “There were some side-effects of use when tested in the lab, so only use them if you really, really need to. We want to avoid casualties on this case, boys and girls. Should be an easy grab and tag. Godspeed.”
“Yes, Dad,” Gloria replied sarcastically.
“And you'll want to feed those before you take off,” Zebediah nodded to the crate as he was leaving. “I'd suggest post-mission return flight.”
“Feed what?” Elliot looked at the baggage cart, the direction of his green-eyed gaze indicating that he thought Zebediah was referring to the briefcase.
Gloria, Talbot, and Imogen just laughed.
“So who's our new Chicago liaison?” grunted Talbot as the Viper hit the tarmac at O'Hare airport.
“What happened to Shane?” Gloria looked up from the in-flight magazine she was buried in.
“Got hit by a Rod,” revealed Imogen, staring out the window at the scenery whizzing by.
“What's a Rod?” Elliot asked, munching on some peanuts.
“Nickname for an Energist,” Talbot replied monotone as if reading from a textbook. “As in lightning rod. Energists can harness and use various forms of energy. Shane was struck in the chest and is still in recovery, poor lad. Which bring us back to my question. The important one. Who's our new liaison? One rookie at a time is about all I can handle.”
“Hey--” Elliot started, but Gloria waved a dismissive hand in his direction.
“Ignore him,” she half-whispered. “He's an ass to anyone who's not British.”
“Am not,” the vampire laughed. “I'm an ass to the British, too. 'Equal opportunity,' as you Yanks say.”
“Our liaison,” Imogen interrupted as the Viper rolled to a stop, “Is noted in the report as one Jacqueline Macey, a Sniffer. Didn't any of you read the report before getting on the plane?”
“I never read the reports,” Talbot feigned a bored look. “Too dry.”
“I read it,” Elliot offered as he unbuckled and stood, “But I didn't understand any of it.”
“Figures,” Talbot started, but Gloria rolled her magazine and tapped his skull with it.
“So we get a Sniffer?” grinned the telepath as she headed to the boarding ramp. “We get to travel, get some fancy new toys, and now we get a Sniffer. I should put in for the lottery.”
“If you recall,” Elliot ignored her, trying to counter Talbot's comment, “I did save your life. Twice.”
“Flukes, you got lucky,” Talbot shrugged, but gave Elliot a semi-apologetic grin.
“Break it up, boys,” Imogen teased, pushing between them to the ramp. “If y'all want to have a pissing contest, do it elsewhere. Gloria and I aren't the least bit interested.”
“Seconded,” Gloria's voice came from half-way down the ramp.
“Motion passes,” Imogen gestured a wave as she left Talbot and Elliot on the plane.
“Rats,” Elliot snapped is fingers. “And I was really hoping to cheat on my wife with one of those two.”
“Aye,” laughed Talbot, clapping Elliot on the shoulder as they disembarked. “We're cool, yeah?”
“Only so long as you stop calling me 'rookie',” Elliot pointed a finger. “And 'newb,' and--”
“Nah,” Talbot shook his head. “You have to earn the release of those titles. See, we have a habit of getting a fourth member of Alpha, and then they break down, or get killed, or think they're a kitten. Stick around, kid, you might just break the cycle.”
“Fine,” Elliot sighed, but half-smiled. He felt like sticking around was already happening.
“Macey,” the tall, brutish man called.
“Captain,” Jacqueline Macey poked her head into the man's office and stepped up to him, her short figure barely clearing his elbows.
“That specialist team from down south-wards just flew in,” the police captain adjusted his belt under an overgrown belly. “Driving up in some over-the-top limo, I'll wager. Meet them at the crime scene, would ya?”
“Yes, sir,” the dark-eyed girl resisted a defensive comment. She opened her mouth to ask him whether or not to take her mundane partner with her, but the agitated man was already walking towards the coffee machine. Macey decided that he would not understand the question anyway, and headed downstairs to her unmarked squad car.
As she keyed the ignition to life, she jammed the preset on her radio and blasted some Brad Paisley, only to spite her senior officer. She tolerated the mundanes, mostly because she felt sorry for them. Pulling out of the underground parking garage onto the snowy pavement, she gunned the gas pedal and flipped on her gumball.
She arrived at the crime scene just as a dusty black limo was pulling up to the yellow tape on the warehouse-infested corner of of Fulton Market and Green Street. Under her breath, Macey growled a snarky comment about her captain's opinions on the rest of the state's inhabitants as she mentally noted the chipped paint and worn tires on the slightly rusty vehicle. Tucking her dark bangs under a CPD cap and zipping her blazer up to her chin, she got out of her SUV.
“Macey, 12th, CPD Liaison, at your service,” Macey stuck her hand out to the first person to emerge from the limo.
“My pleasure,” a pale, broad hand met hers with a smooth English accent. “Talbot Nox, and your serv--”
“Alright cowboy, move over,” came a sweet voice from a petite girl exiting the vehicle behind the tall, blonde man. “Don't mind him, he's been cooped up all day and doesn't know what to do with all the fresh air. Gloria, pleased to meet you. And these are Imogen and Elliot.”
“Right,” Macey nodded, eying their matching, ragged blue cop suits. “You seem a bit...”
“Unconventional?” Imogen offered, giving Macey a knowing look. “Tell me about it.”
“Would a crime scene make you somewhat less uncomfortable?” Talbot offered.
“Yes, please,” Macey heaved a relieved sigh. “This way.”
Macey led them around the corner to where a black tarp was covering a bulge in the sidewalk.
“Damnit,” snarled Macey. “I told them to use the white tarps.”
“What's the diff?” Elliot mumbled from the back of the group as they gathered around.
“He must be the rookie,” Macey threw Elliot a sideways glance.
“Seriously?” Elliot turned his green eyes heavenward with a pleading glance.
“Aye,” Talbot nodded to Macey.
“Black tarps,” Macey stared Elliot down, as if he was the only other one there and he was being reprimanded in the principle's office, “Contaminate the body, including microscopic details that could make or break a case.”
“Show us,” Talbot gestured to the bulge. Macey knelt and pulled away at one corner to reveal a young man's body, beaten and bruised, sprawled on the cold pavement.
“He was found like this by a blue-and-white from the 18th,” Macey informed them. “Good thing it got to us right away. We don't need the media crushing down on us anymore than they already are.”
“Perimortem bruising around the wrists,” Imogen confirmed, crouching beside Macey as she pulled a pair of latex gloves from her jacket pocket. Unlike the photos in the report Zebediah had given them, the body did not seem as vivid or disturbing to look at, as if a gray filter had been placed over the scene.
“And crushed jugular,” Macey agreed, snapping on a pair of her own gloves as she tilted the corpse's head slightly to one side. “Just like the first two.”
“Talbot,” Imogen waved him over, “Take Elliot and look around, see if the two of you pick up anything the first-on-scene might have missed.”
“Aye,” Talbot turned on his heel, and, grabbing Elliot by the elbow, towed him away.
“What do you know about the first two?” Gloria stepped up beside Imogen, glancing down at the body and wincing at the too-familiar white noise that comes from a lifeless, soulless mind.
“The first murder was actually my first case,” Macey started, shifting her weight to one side. “Looked almost identical to this one, and there was no evidence of sexual assault or anything to that degree, but his wallet and personal effects were missing. Once we ID'd him, we were able to pin the murder on a co-worker who pleaded guilty. It seemed too cookie-cutter clean, but the captain called it a win.”
“And the second?” Imogen encouraged her.
“The second happened just last week,” Macey continued, “Same as this, only on the other end of town, so the 25th took the case. They didn't know about ours, and they got a confession from an angry ex-girlfriend.”
“Any ID on this one yet?” Gloria tilted her head to one side, looking away from the body and meeting Imogen's eyes.
“Nada,” Macey grunted.
“Go ahead,” Imogen gave an almost imperceptible nod over her shoulder to the guards standing around the crime scene.
“On it,” Gloria went to broaden the perimeter of guards so they could not overhear.
“Alright,” Imogen caught Macey's dark brown eyes and held them steady. “Jacqueline, was it? Level with me here. We're not from the Southside Police Department. We're from DarkWatch.”
“All of you?” Macey's eyes narrowed slightly as she looked at the receding guard line.
“The four of us,” confirmed Imogen. “So it's important we stay undercover. Now, I understand you're a Sniffer?”
“I prefer the term 'Macrosmatic Analyst,' but sure, 'Sniffer' works.”
“Perfect. So aside from,” Imogen pulled a notepad from her jacket pocket and flipped it open, “'Male, mid-twenties, African American and balding,' what can you give me?”
“Before we start,” Macey suddenly looked slightly hesitant for a second, “I should warn you about the side effects. When I trigger my...olfactory enhancements, I will be otherwise useless for as long as they're active. Sight, hearing, and touch will be impaired almost to a disability.”
“We've got your back,” Imogen promised. “We're very good at our jobs, and so long as you're as good at yours as I've read, this should be an easy collar.”
Macey responded with a brief nod as she closed her eyes. Placing her hands flat on the ground, she leaned carefully over the body. Imogen watched as Macey's rib cage contracted in short bursts as the policewoman inhaled various levels of scents.
“Blood stopped coagulating about nine hours ago,” Macey murmured. “Cheap cologne, applied seventeen hours ago, no deodorant. Grease stain on the left jeans pocket from french fries, about fifteen hours ago. Right hand has dirt on the fingers...potted plant soil. Twelve hours old.”
“Okay, so we have a timeline,” Imogen clicked a pen and scribbled in her notebook. “Left home after four in the afternoon, ate around six at a fast food joint, did some gardening about nine, and died about midnight.”
“Something chemical, I can't place it,” Macey continued. “Possibly some medication, or an injection. Too faint to tell. He held something metal in his hands that left a residue...a bit of iron, no rust, but lacquered.”
“Lacquered?” interrupted Imogen. “Like, a paint lacquer? Maybe a piece of a pipe?”
“No,” Macey wrinkled her nose. “More like a...protective lacquer. A polish, maybe.”
“A polish...” Imogen contemplated as Gloria returned, and Imogen gave her an inquisitive look. “Any help?”
“Focus on that smell, Jacqueline,” Gloria looked at Macey and tilted her head, listening. Pausing. “A handle of something. That kind of lacquer is used for decorative items, like candlesticks and silver. If he held it with both hands, it would have had to be at least ten inches long. If he was holding it to swing, based on the length required to use both hands, I'd say at least forty-five inches.”
“That's one helluva candlestick,” a man's voice came from behind them.
“Shut up, Tally,” Gloria snapped a glare on the vampire, who gave Imogen a shake of the head, letting her wordlessly know that he and Elliot did not find anything.
“It hurts to say this,” Imogen said slowly, “But Talbot's got a valid point. If the victim was holding something to swing at his attacker, something classy enough to be polished, forty-five inches is pretty long.”
“Bastard,” injected Elliot.
“Excuse me?” Imogen turned to give Elliot a reprimanding stare.
“A bastard sword,” Elliot looked confused at her anger. “They're about forty-eight inches long, polished if you've got a nice one, and you can use two hands on the hilt.”
“Tal?” Imogen gave Talbot an openly questioning glance.
“Aye,” Talbot pursed his lips. “Bastard swords of my time were slightly shorter, and definitely not polished, but the replicas they make nowadays are for decoration, not for practical use. My question is, if our innocent had a sword that sturdy, and was walking around with it, wouldn't he have used it against his attacker?”
“Not if his attacker was an anomaly,” countered Imogen. “We wouldn't have been called in otherwise. The evidence—or lack thereof—seems consistent with a telekenetic: Bruising but no fingerprints; crushed jugular but no hand marks; a victim with a weapon that didn't—or couldn't—use it. Jacqueline, are there any other human scents on him?”
“No,” Macey concluded, opening her eyes and leaning back from the body in at attempt to clear her senses. “The only other smells are from the latex gloves of the first-on-scene. Also, no other blood, so if he used the sword, it did not cut his attacker.”
“The sword may have been swiped along with the wallet and stuff; collectable bastard swords run about two hundred bucks,” Elliot shuffled his feet. “And they usually have serial numbers on them for warranties.”
“Sounds like the sword is our best bet at IDing this guy,” Imogen looked at Macey as she flipped her notebook closed. “If we can use some CPD resources, let's get some plains-clothes out to check out any swords fitting this description being peddled at pawn shops or local sword smiths.”
“On it,” Macey stood, digging her phone out of her pocket and turning away from the group as she dialed.
“As for the rest of us, it's time to go visit Chicago's DarkWatch.”
“Man, what it must be like working here,” Elliot gave an envious sigh as he and the others walked through the science museum that served as Chicago DarkWatch's front.
“Don't kid yourself,” Gloria almost growled as they passed a replica space shuttle with children climbing in and out of it. “Most of the technology in these displays was created by DarkWatch a couple decades before the public even thought about it.”
“Fact,” Talbot raised a finger, mimicking a tour guide as the group walked through a set of double doors marked 'Employees Only.' “DarkWatch actually set foot on the moon fifteen years before Neil Armstrong.”
“Now you're just jerking me around,” Elliot stole one last glance at the exhibits behind him before descending the stairs to a lower level.
“Not true,” Imogen led them around a corner and down a long, white hall. “The Armstrongs were all anomalies. Neil's father and younger sister had the ability to teleport, and his mother and brother were telepaths. Neil did not require oxygen to breathe. You can guess what happened.”
“Seriously...” Elliot grumbled, unwilling to set a precedent and believe everything his new teammates told him.
“Look it up in the archives if you doubt us,” Talbot gave Elliot a slighty-harder-than-necessary thump on the back as they passed dozens of identical doors differing only by their labels for the various displays they housed.
“More stairs?” Elliot's shoulders drooped as they came to the end of the hall. “Don't these people believe in modern technology? Elevators, for instance, wouldn't be so out of the box.”
“This is a highly visible, highly accessible landmark,” Imogen gave Elliot a push towards the first steps. “The base under the museum is a labyrinth of tunnels and stairs, making it easy for tourists to get lost long enough for DarkWatch security to get them away from anything potentially dangerous or revealing.”
“It's also used for physical training,” Gloria's blue eyes were narrowed in annoyance.
“You should know,” chuckled Talbot as they continued their path through the maze.
“Huh?” Elliot gave Gloria an inquisitive glance.
“I used to work here,” Gloria grunted. “As part of the Research team, before I made Collections.”
“You never talk about it,” Elliot offered as they approached a door marked 'CDW'.
“Because it sucked,” Gloria curled her tiny hands into fists as Talbot scanned his card through the electronic reader next to the door . “My skills were completely useless down here. It was the equivalent of data entry. With stairs.”
“Now, that's not fair,” a young brunette on the other side of the door quipped as it opened. “We never actually ran any of those stairs.”
“Genny!” Gloria cracked a grin and tackled her old friend with a hug. “This is my old sparring partner, Genevieve Burnett.”
“You look good, Glory,” Genny replied, “But your wardrobe could use some help.”
“We're undercover,” Gloria giggled, glancing down at her blue jumper, “With CPD on a murder case.”
“Well, come on in,” Genny motioned the others through the door as she pushed her glasses up on her nose. “Just give me a second to check you out, ya know, procedure and crap.”
“We should hook her up with Marcus,” Talbot nudged Gloria with his elbow as Genny closed her eyes and held her hands out in front of her.
“Shush, Tally,” Gloria murmured back, smacking his arm. Genny aimed her fingertips first at Gloria, then at Talbot.
“What's she doing?” Elliot whispered.
“For lack of a better term, she's scanning our auras,” Gloria answered as Genny aimed her fingers towards Imogen. “Marcus scans us for unauthorized tech. Genny scans us for intentions.”
“This must be the rookie,” Genny smiled, eyes still closed, as her hands pointed towards Elliot.
“Seriously?!” Elliot raised his hands palm-up, half-heartedly defeated. Genny frowned for a moment, then dropped her hands and opened her eyes, staring straight at Elliot.
“Something the matter?” Gloria recognized the look, and stepped towards her friend.
“No,” Genny looked Elliot up and down with a measured scrutiny. “Just...something I've never seen before. Eh,” Genny shook her head and gave Gloria a smile. “It's nothing. No mal-intent, you're all cleared.”
“Thanks, Genn,” Gloria gave her friend another hug as Talbot scanned his card to open the door behind her.
“Next time, not so long between visits, huh?” Genny gave Gloria a good squeeze and then let her go. “Have fun with your murder case.”
“And you, don't get too bored down here,” Gloria turned to leave.
“No problem, got the texting going on with the hubby,” winked Genny, holding up her phone to them as they left.
The base on the other side of the security clearance was a drastic difference from the maze of halls they has just left behind. Plain, white walls were replaced by silver, steel-and-titanium enhanced hallways. Drab, identical, wooden doors were instead bold, thick, cement barriers. Tiny black bubbles every five feet marked the hundreds of high-def security cameras.
“This way,” Gloria walked towards one of the doors and placed her hand flat on the square pad beside it. It scanned her palm, and the door clicked open. On the other side was an elevator shaft going down several stories.
“Now this is what I'm talking about,” Elliot felt relieved as he stepped towards the lift.
“Wait,” Imogen put one hand out, stopping him in his tracks. In her other hand was her cell phone. “I just got a text from Macey. They're shorthanded up there, so she's requesting backup. Talbot, since you and Elliot know what you're looking for, you two check out anywhere the sword may have been pawned off.”
“Aw, man,” Elliot looked back towards the maze of ascending stairs awaiting his return.
“We'll take care of it,” Talbot confirmed as Elliot started trudging towards the security doors.
“Tally,” Gloria grabbed his wrist, lowering her voice. “I'm not sure what Genny saw in Elliot's aura, but just keep an eye on him, alright? I trust her instincts, and what she saw...was not okay.”
“Dont' sweat it, Sweets,” Talbot gave Gloria's hand a reassuring pat. “We got this.”
“So where do we start?” asked Elliot as he and Talbot stood on the snow-covered front steps of the museum.
“The pawn shops closest to the crime scene,” Talbot grunted, taking a drag from his cigarette. “If the sword can at all connect the killer to the murder, he'll want to have ditched it.”
“You think he'd be stupid enough to sell a sword with a serial number on it?” Elliot shoved his hands into his pockets to warm them against the harsh breeze. “Wouldn't he just throw it in the sewer?”
“Please,” Talbot flicked the ash off the end of the cig. “He killed a man and left the body in a public place, suggesting he didn't plan ahead. I'd say he's either stupid, or new.”
“But he left no prints,” countered Elliot. “The crime scene was clean.”
“Tekes don't leave prints, genius,” Talbot raised an eyebrow as a black SUV pulled up in front of the museum. He took a final pull from his cigarette and dropped it to the cement, smashing it with the toe of his boot. “That's our ride.”
“You guys coming or what?” Macey had the passenger's side window rolled down, and was leaning across the seat to yell at them. “Move your rears or you're walkin'!”
“Yes, ma'am,” Talbot pulled his collar up against the wind and followed Elliot to the car. “Shotgun!”
“Seriously?” Elliot ducked his head as Talbot reached opened the front door.
“Sorry, Rookie,” the vampire flashed a toothy grin as he got in.
“Quit'chyer bitchin',” Macey yelled against the noise of the wind. “It's only a fifteen minute drive.”
“Here we are,” announced Gloria as they reached the lowest floor—fifteen stories underground.
“Still,” Imogen glanced up at the ornate placards along the walls of the Research level, “Elliot was right. This place makes headquarters look like a cattle barn.”
“Sure,” Gloria's blue eyes narrowed. “What they lack in personality, they make up for in interior decorating.”
Imogen chuckled as they headed for a door on their left.
“Don't laugh,” Gloria warned her. “Researchers are allergic to laughter. The last person who laughed in these halls ended up in the Zoo.”
Imogen pursed her lips in an attempt to withhold an outburst. Gloria scanned her card on the keypad beside the door, and Imogen let out a snort. Gloria shushed her as they entered the white-washed room. On their right was a white desk with a simple white flatscreen monitor and matching keyboard. Behind it was an empty white chair. On the other side of the room was a horizontally mounted coat rack, on which hung three white coats and one kelly-green blazer. On the floor beneath them were three pairs of white loafers, and one pair of red, beaten Chucks.
“Why all the white?” Imogen raised an eyebrow as her eyes settled on the windowed door across from them. “Our Research lab doesn't look like this...does it?”
“No, it's just Chicago,” Gloria confirmed, a note of irritation in her voice. “They're... germophobes. Apparently white is easier to keep clean, or notice if its dirty. A large percentage of the reason I left was so that I could drink coffee. Ever.”
“May I help you?” a nasally woman's voice came from a microphone on the door.
“We're from HQ down south,” Gloria called out. “Requisitioning four sets of suits for a case.”
“ID please,” the voice droned.
“DI-DC-M-1184,” Gloria intoned back.
“ID please,” repeated the voice.
“She means you, too.” It was evident that Gloria was reaching her level of tolerance for her old workplace.
“DI-DC-T-1172,” Imogen stated.
“Confirmed. Please leave your coat and shoes in the designated areas.”
The door clicked twice and made a hissing sound. Gloria stripped off her red windbreaker and kicked off her black tennis shoes, and Imogen followed suit, slipping out of her dock martens and black leather jacket.
Through the door was a large, open laboratory with several tables running a couple dozen experiments. On each wall were multiple doors, leading to enclosed areas for more sensitive tests. The room was mostly empty, and Gloria and Imogen could see only three lab techs in the room, one of which was standing near them at a desk with several monitors laid out Matrix-style above it, each showing a different security camera's view.
“State your business,” the middle-aged woman nearest them demanded in the same nasally tone. Her graying hair was pulled back into a tight bun, making her eyes mere slits, made even smaller by the pair of tiny glasses perched precariously on her nose.
“As we said,” Gloria seemed more agitated than ever, “We requisitioned some suits. Headquarters confirmed that they sent you the details an hour ago.”
“Hmm,” the woman took her glasses off and scrutinized Gloria's ripped jeans and rock band t-shirt, and let her glasses fall to hang by a white cord around her neck. “You seem familiar.”
“We only worked together for three years, Gertrude,” Gloria sighed and crossed her arms, avoiding Gertrude's piercing gaze. “So are the suits ready or not?”
“Let me check,” Gertrude turned slowly and sat at the desk beside them. Bowing to the stereotype of people her age, the elderly woman sat down sluggishly, carefully placed her glasses back on her face, and with slow, deliberate strokes, typed out a search inquiry.
As Gloria's tension rose, she impatiently tapped her foot, shifted her weight, and made an almost inaudible growl under her breath. Imogen instead surveyed the room, watching one bald man in a white lab coat carefully mixing liquids from a dozen colorless test tubes.
Suddenly, a door near them crashed open, and a young boy wearing a bright red lab jacket and microscope goggles flew backwards out door, a large black cloud of smoke following him. Imogen and Gloria had their service weapons out and pointed at the dark mass billowing from the room, but the boy put his palm up to stop them.
“It's alright,” he squeaked in a voice not quite done changing. “It's just smoke. No Chaotics here!”
“Are you alright?” Gloria asked as she slowly clicked her safety back on and reholstered her Glock.
“Hell yeah,” the boy grinned from the floor, raising himself up on one elbow as he pushed up his magnifying goggles to rest on his head. “That was awesome.”
“Here we go,” Gertrude interjected out of the blue. “The coats were sent to the lab for final alterations ten minutes ago. They should be ready in.... about...” Gertrude's voice dwindled as she finally caught sight of the young boy sprawled on the floor.
“Heya, boss,” the boy waved.
“Austin Thaddeus Malone, you should be ashamed of yourself,” Gertrude's slitted eyes somehow were able to narrow even more. “It's not enough that you refuse to obey the dress code, you have to go and blow up the lab?”
“Aw, shucks, lady,” Austin Thaddeus laughed, then coughed as he inhaled a chunk of smoke. He waved his hand at it and it seemed to suck itself back into the room from which it came. “I didn't blow anything up.”
“Nooooo?” Gertrude raised her eyebrows and looked over her horn-rimmed glasses.
“Well,” Austin Thaddeus looked into the room with slight hesitation. “Nothing I can't put back together.”
He waved his hands again, and the remaining smoke whisked into nothing, and a strange sound like shattering came from the room in front of him.
“Austin Thaddeus, you will be the death of us all...” Gertrude grumbled, turning to the girls for affirmation. Her eyes paused on Gloria for a moment, she made a face, and her gaze settled on Imogen.
“Oh, oh no,” Imogen held up her hands defensively. “I know better than to get involved. We're just here for the suits.”
“The anti-teke suits?” Austin Thaddeus's voice squeaked. “Hell, I got 'em right in here,” he gestured to the room he had just come out of. Imogen and Gloria exchanged a look.
“Well, that one was another waste of time,” Elliot grumbled as they exited the fifth pawn shop on their route.
“Easy, short fry,” Talbot calmly stepped onto the curb and flipped open his phone. “We'll find the sodding sword. There's a pawn shop out west on the other side of the crime scene, or there's a blacksmith more southwards in Lawndale. Either way, it's a fifteen minute ride.”
“I'm sick of pawn shops,” Macey's face reflected her disgust. “Let's head south.”
“Done,” Talbot flipped his cell closed and grabbed for the passenger side door of Macey's SUV. “I hope our other ladies are having better luck.”
“I feel like a marshmallow,” Gloria stood in front of the wide two-way mirror usually used for interrogations. She turned her waist to try and see the back of the anti-teke suit she had been forced to try on.
“No, you don't,” Imogen's arms were crossed, one hand resting below her dark chin as she appraised the outfit. “It's form-fitting, and you're shaped more like a Pocky stick. I think the phrase you're looking for is, 'I think I'm a clone now'.”
“I just don't see how this is going to work,” Gloria turned her hips the other way and looked down her leg at the white suit. “I mean, the pieces don't even connect. Wouldn't those be weak points that would easily be taken advantage of?”
“No,” Austin Thaddeus was confident, grinning around a pair of braces. “That's the beauty of the design. See, tekes manipulate molecules, moving them around. All of the pieces of the suit are effectively made of anti-matter, which doesn't have any molecules. The white plates cannot bend or break, and the black elastic-y stuff underneath flexes with your skeletal structure. If a teke tries to squish your leg, for example, he may push against you, but the black mesh is designed to create a perfect balance in opposing force, so you won't feel a thing.”
“Brilliant,” Imogen gave him a short, satisfied grin.
“The only issue,” the boy ran a thin hand through his golden locks, “Is if you come across a really, really powerful teke. The only design flaw is that the black mesh has a limit of how many pounds per square inch it can reflect. So if you end up messing with a teke who can bench lift the equivalent of Willis Tower, the suit will start to deteriorate.”
“The what tower, now?” Gloria made a face through the mirror at Austin Thaddeus.
“Ya know, the tallest building in Chicago?”
“Oh,” Gloria and Imogen shared a laugh. “You mean the Sears Tower.”
“Kids,” Imogen grinned.
“To be fair,” Gloria pointed out, “Places in Chicago change their names more often than I brush my teeth.”
“Fact,” Austin Thaddeus agreed. “Now, back to the suits.”
“How can I help you?” a short, pudgy man behind the front desk asked.
“We're with Chicago Police,” Macey flashed her badge at the man, whose bushy eyebrow furrowed. “We're looking for a sword.”
“Well, now,” the old man rubbed a stubbly gray beard. “We don't do much sword making these days. Not a very lucrative business, don'tcha know.”
“We're not off to have one made,” Talbot corrected him, hazel eyes gazing lazily about the cluttered front office. “We're looking for one you might've bought recently.”
“By 'recently,' he means 'today',” added Macey.
“Hrm,” Eyebrow Man's puffy cheeks pushed out as he thought. “I haven't seen anything like that come in, but I was out this morning, so my assistant may have handled it. Let me check my books.”
“We appreciate it,” Elliot chimed in. Eyebrow Man ducked under the front counter and produced a thick, heavy binder with loose pages crammed in at every angle.
“Let's see...” Eyebrow Man gingerly opened the cover, placing his hand over the first page in an attempt to keep the pages inside. A few rebellious slips flittered to the floor despite his efforts. “Ahh, here we go. At about nine this morning, we recovered a 5160 high-carbon steel decorative blade from an anonymous seller.”
“We'll take it,” Macey ordered.
“Well now,” Eyebrow Man looked up from the book under his outrageous eyebrows. “I would be happy to oblige, so long as you have a warrant for it.”
“Sure, we can get a warrant,” Talbot took one long stride towards Eyebrow Man. “Or my cop lady friend here can start writing citations.”
“Hurmph!” Eyebrow Man angrily puffed out his cheeks. “Citations for what? I'm an honest businessman! I have done nothing wrong!”
“Then I'm sure you wouldn't mind,” Talbot leaned his long frame down to rest his elbow on the counter, “Explaining why I can see seventeen fire code violations from where I'm standing. A proper mate wouldn't want these papers to blow into one of your furnaces; these look pretty important. And it would be a shame if--”
“Erm,” a flush of red spotted Eyebrow Man's deflating cheeks. “Actually, let me see if I can find that sword.” With that, he turned on his heel and disappeared through a door behind him.
“Nice catch, Tally,” Elliot nodded in approval as he eyed an assortment of pewter dishes on display in the front window. Suddenly, two cold hands were clamped around his neck from behind.
“You don't get to call me that,” Talbot growled in his ear.
“Okay, okay,” Elliot sputtered, clawing at Talbot's strong grasp. “Uncle!”
Talbot dropped the rookie with an apathetic shrug. Elliot coughed as he righted himself and gave Talbot a half-confused, half-loathing glare. Macey looked between them with a growing grin of amusement spreading across her face.
“I should work with DarkWatch more often,” she chuckled. “Y'all way more fun than cops.”
“Here we are,” Eyebrow Man shuffled in, carrying a long item wrapped in a soft cloth. “Here we are,” he repeated as he hefted the heavy blade onto the counter, causing several more papers to escape confinement. He carefully unwrapped the cloth to reveal a clean, polished blade.
“Now that's what I'm talking about!” Elliot seemed instantly cured, eyes wide in excitement.
“Ugh,” Talbot held out a hand, stopping Elliot in his tracks. “Too shiny for me. Macey?”
“Right,” Macey closed the distance between herself and the sword as she slipped on a pair of latex gloves.
Tenderly lifting the blade from the table, she pretended to look closely at the hilt, but let her eyes lose focus as she inhaled deeply. She stood like this for several minutes, inspecting the various scents that were embedded in the leather-wrapped handle.
“This is it,” Macey finally said, blinking her eyes as she lowered the sword. “This is the one.”
“Thank you kindly,” Talbot helped Macey re-wrap the blade. “And the scabbard?”
“None, sir,” replied Eyebrow Man meekly. “Just the sword.”
“And how did he receive payment?” Elliot interjected.
“Erm,” Eyebrow Man shuffled around the table for the morning's log. “Refused check, took a money order.”
“Doesn't want to be traced,” Macey mumbled to Talbot, who nodded in agreement.
“Aye,” the vampire flashed Eyebrow Man a toothy grin as he turned for the door. “Thank you for your cooperation, good citizen.”
As the three exited the blacksmith's with a tinny ding of the door's bell behind them, they all shared a breath of relief.
“This should make our next step much easier,” Macey spoke aloud what they were all thinking as they piled into her car. “Not only could I smell the fading smell of the victim, but I also smelled a cacophony of other odors that will be useful, including another person. Aside from the shop-owner, I mean.”
“Glorious,” Talbot laid the sword lovingly across his lap. “And there is indeed a serial number, meaning we can ID our victim.”
“Oh, my pants are buzzing,” Macey reached into her pocket and started the car at the same time.
“That's what she said,” Elliot mumbled from the backseat as Macey produced her phone and put the SUV into gear.
“Macey,” she growled into the phone as she turned and gave Elliot a forced view of her middle finger. “Yes...Okay....I have one stop to make...half an hour. Got it.”
“Duty calls?” Talbot asked as they screeched into the middle of traffic.
“Yeah,” Macey slip-streamed her big car through three lanes like a pro. “My captain needs me to check out something on the Northside. As if they don't have their own precincts up there to handle it. I'll drop you back off at the museum.”
“It's a simple question,” Gloria's short, scrawny legs were kicked up on the chair beside her as she sipped from a large mug of a coffee.
“Not in Chicago, it's not,” countered Austin Thaddeus from the other side of the break room table. “I've seen people killed because they gave the wrong answer.”
“She won't kill you,” Imogen interjected from her stance in front of a window. Despite being several stories underground, the Research team had rigged a few windows to sync with windows from the upper floors of the museum, giving the allusion of looking down on the surrounding city.
“Well, maybe not kill,” Gloria pondered. “But I might unfriend you on Friend Face.”
“That's worse than death,” Austin Thaddeus flashed his braces. “I've barely got friends as it is, I can't stand to lose one I just got!”
“Well, now that you know the stakes,” Gloria lowered her voice in an attempt to be overly dramatic. “What's your answer?”
“Mm,” the young blonde boy ducked his head and stared down at his can of Mountain Dew. “I guess if I have to risk my Friend Face status.... the answer is the Cubs.”
“Good God,” Gloria's blue eyes shot up to the ceiling. “Praise heavens, he's not a lost cause!”
“I know I'm the least informed about such matters,” Imogen mumbled, “But it seems that the Cubs are quite the losers.”
“Shush, you,” Gloria snapped a finger to point at Imogen. “There's always next year.”
“What's next year?” Talbot's face appeared in the door. “You're not placing bets on the zombie apocalypse again, are you, Sweets?”
“For once, no,” Gloria tilted her head back to watch Talbot and Elliot saunter into the room. “You let him handle evidence?”
“I lost a bet on the way here, so yes,” a sour look crossed Talbot's pale countenance as a triumphant Elliot carried the carefully wrapped sword into the room. Just then, Elliot's toe hit the metal transition strip on the floor, forcing him to stumble forward, throwing the blade from his grasp.
“Oop!” Austin Thaddeus's hands instinctively flew up, and Elliot and the blade both froze halfway through the fall.
“Nice,” Gloria carefully took hold of the wrapped blade from mid-air.
Catching the glance that passed between Gloria, Talbot, and the still-frozen Elliot, Austin Thaddeus spread a smile thick over his face and whisked his hands in Elliot's direction. The Vore unfroze and crashed to the floor.
“Oh, I like this one,” Talbot inspected the boy with approval as Elliot picked himself up. “Your talents would be useful in the field. Gloria, why isn't he in the field?”
“Not old enough,” Austin Thaddeus pouted.
“Oh, we might be able to do something about that,” Gloria gave him an encouraging wink as she set the sword down on the table and unwrapped it. “But first, let's solve this murder.”
The four members of Alpha plus Austin Thaddeus were crowded into one of the small rooms off the main Research lab. Gloria and Austin Thaddeus sat side-by-side in front of the Matrix array, while Imogen and Talbot inspected the sword. Elliot wandered between the two groups, feeling useless.
“I'm in,” Gloria called over her shoulder. “Got that serial?”
“Yes,” responded Imogen, and then read out a long string of numbers to the young blonde.
“The model is SH2250, if that helps,” Elliot offered as he munched on a granola bar he had snagged from the break room.
“Not really, but thanks,” Gloria droned, clicking away at the keyboard. “Ready, kid?”
“You betcha,” Austin Thaddeus replied. “Just need a name, but if you've got a sosh, it would be faster.”
“No social security number,” Gloria apologized. “But the owner's name is Luke Greenwall, age twenty-four.”
“On it,” the young lad typed furiously.
“Isn't this technically the 'Investigation' group's territory?” Elliot mumbled through a mouthful of granola.
“We're faster,” Gloria clicked through the pages of irrelevant information about the sword.
“Macey mentioned some other things she smelled,” Talbot informed them as they waited for the search results. “Specifically, heavy cotton, a stronger whiff of that chemical that she's almost positive is from an asthma inhaler, and some blood that was wiped off with a mild disinfectant, like a Lysol wipe.”
“Got an address,” Austin Thaddeus called out. “On the West Side. Oak Park.”
“To the Batmobile!” Elliot punched the air, flinging crumbs all over. He was given an assortment of annoyed and apathetic looks from the rest of the team. “What?”
“We should split up,” Imogen decided as they sat in the junky limo they had previously requisitioned when they first arrived in Chicago. “Four of us showing up at once might be a bit much.”
“You don't think we need the suits?” Elliot had his in his hands, ready to throw it on at a moment's notice.
“I agree, Momo,” Talbot ignored the newb. “Gloria and I will go in, she can scan the victim's family, and I'll gather intel. Can you handle the Nugget while we're gone?”
“But--” Elliot started.
“I'll be just fine,” Imogen promised, handing Talbot and Gloria each a headpiece. “We'll monitor from here.”
A light tap on the window made all four of them jump.
“--the hell?” Talbot narrowed his eyes at the shadowy figure silhouetted against the falling snow. He reached over and worked the manual crank to roll the window down.
“Heya,” Macey's wind-pinked face leaned towards the opening. “I'm back. Y'all still need help?”
“Don't make her stand out in the cold, Tally,” Gloria scolded the vampire with a sharp smack on his arm. “Chivalry really is dead.”
“Thanks,” Macey opened the door and slid into the already-too-crowded limo cab.
“We were just going to see the victim's family,” Imogen filled her in. “I think we got this, if you don't mind huddling in here.”
“No offense,” Macey sniffed, rubbing her frozen nose, “But I do mind. This is still technically my case. DarkWatch be damned, but it is.”
“Fair enough,” Imogen put out two defensive hands, palm out. “Don't want to step on any toes. We're just used to running our own game; you understand.”
“Sure do,” Macey nodded. “Which is why I'm going with you. Aside from my knowledge of the previous cases, my anomaly makes me singularly equipped for this.”
“I'll sit out in her place,” Talbot offered, still looking sheepishly down at his lap.
“Let's move out,” Gloria took the earpiece from Talbot's pale hands and handed it to Macey.
The two young women pulled their collars up against the wind and exited the limo. Braving the fierce Chicago wind and increasing snowfall, they somehow made it to the door. Gloria lifted one mittened hand and gave three raps.
“Someone better be home,” Gloria buried her face further into the lining of her coat. “This weather is crazy.”
“Welcome to Illinois,” Macey gave her a sardonic grin. “It was eighty-five and sunny this morning. We'll probably have a hurricane overnight.”
“What, no volcanoes?” Gloria teased, glancing at the door. Macey gave it three slightly more insistent pounds, to which they heard a muted reply from within.
“Do you need to announce that you're police?” Gloria chattered her teeth. “It always works in the movies.”
“Hell no. In Chicago, you say the 'P' word, and people run like you're one of the four horsemen. Better to let them see us first.”
A noise from the house turned the women's attention to it. Latches slid and locks were turned until the door opened the slightest crack.
“Whadaya want, it's freezing!” a short, plump woman's face greeted them.
“Mrs. Greenwall?” Macey offered her hand, which the woman ignored. “We would like to talk to you about your son, Luke.”
“You're Luke's friends?” the woman's face lit up. “Oh! Come in, come in!”
Mrs. Greenwall opened the door enough for Gloria and Macey to slide in, her attempt at holding back the furiously blowing snow failing as hundreds of flakes whisked in behind them and landed on her face. She ignored them, locking the door again and offering to take the girls' coats.
“Please, sit down,” the little woman told them. “I'll put some tea on.”
“That would be lovely, thank you,” Macey sat down slowly, an uncomfortable and suspicious look crossing her face.
“You should have mentioned Luke right away, my dears,” Mrs. Greenwall yelled as she hustled briskly between the kitchen and the front room, carrying in a series of plates and cups very obviously not meant for tea.
“Ma'am, we're--” Macey started, but Gloria put a hand on her knee to stop her.
“Let her sit down first,” the blonde whispered. “Something is off.”
“Do you do this a lot in Dar--”
“Here now, there you go,” Mrs. Greenwall waddled back in with a large pot of tea, and carefully poured them each a glass. “Now, how do you know Luke?”
“Well, we don't--” Macey started again, but paused, looking at Gloria for help. Gloria's head was tilted slightly to one side as she watched Mrs. Greenwall's face.
“Mrs. Greenwall--” Gloria started slowly.
“Please, call me Irene,” Mrs. Greenwall flushed pink. “Friends of my dear boy are all friends here.”
“Irene, we're with the Chicago Police Department,” Gloria began again. “When was the last time you saw your son?”
“Well, now,” Irene huffed. “Just this afternoon, when he came home for a spot of lunch. Hurried off again. Say, what is this about? Is my Luke in trouble?”
“This afternoon?” Macey and Gloria exchanged a look. “Mrs. Greenwall, are you sure?”
“Well, it wasn't that bastard President!” Irene threw her eyes to the ceiling. “Of course I'm sure.”
“Irene, would you look at this for me,” Gloria fished out her phone and tabbed through the menu to the images she had taken of Luke's sword, “And tell me if it belongs to your son?”
“Hmm,” Irene took Gloria's phone and squinted down at the tiny digital image. “Luke has a lot of these kinds of things for his costumes. It might be his. I can't tell. Did something happen to it? Did something happen to Luke?”
“Ma'am, please stay calm,” Macey spoke gently. “Where did Luke go after lunch?”
“Oh, he went off to one of his big party things,” Irene stated, not yet deciding if she should be suspicious or upset. “'Cons,' he calls them.”
“'Cons'?” Macey repeated, her eyes narrowing.
“Oh yes, you know,” Irene waved her had dismissively. “A bunch of kids go, dress up in costume, stay in the hotels, things like that.”
Macey turned to give Gloria a warning glance, but Gloria was smiling. Catching her inquisitive glance, Gloria shook her head.
“You mean, 'conventions,'?” Gloria interpreted. “For anime and games and things, right?”
“Precisely,” Irene gave a blunt nod. “Why does this matter?”
“Irene, dear,” Gloria carefully set her mug on the coffee table. “Would you excuse us just one minute?”
“Um, sure...” Irene looked confused as Gloria grabbed Macey by the elbow and dragged her up from the couch and towards the hallway.
“Okay, we need to reevaluate here,” Gloria spoke softly but quickly.
“Uh, yeah, I'd say so,” Macey agreed. “If Luke was dead early this morning, how is it that he managed to make it home to have lunch with Mum?”
“Either she's nuts--”
“--Or we're dealing with a chameleon--”
“Not sure what that is...”
“Shape-shifter. That, or.... or Luke isn't our victim.”
Gloria paused and let that fact sink in. Macey stared at her a moment before she realized what it was Gloria was suggesting. Closing her eyes, Macey exhaled until her lungs were empty, then took a slow, deep breath in. She repeated this several times before slowly opening her eyes and giving them a few seconds to refocus.
“I don't smell the victim anywhere,” Macey confirmed. “Whoever the victim was, he was never in this house. The only other smell in this house that is vaguely familiar is, I think, the other human scent from the hilt of the sword.”
“Well, that does make life interesting,” Gloria mumbled. “The good news is, we don't have to tell Mrs. Greenwall her son is dead. The bad news is, our victim is back to being a John Doe, and we're in the home of a serial killer.”
“Or another potential victim.”
“Right. Let's get the location of this convention, and see if Luke has some answers.”
“Welcome to our temporary headquarters.”
Alpha team stood at the door to the hotel room, each carrying an array of suitcases and duffels.
“Serious?” Elliot looked between the members of the team.
“I call little spoon,” Gloria piped as she led the way into the cramped two-bed room on the ninth floor of the hotel's convention center.
“We didn't have much choice,” Talbot explained as he threw his bag on one bed. “Apparently this place sold out after they announced some of their guest panelists. This was all they had left.”
“But...one room? For four of us?”
“Five,” Macey called from the open door.
“Oh, good, you made it,” Imogen smiled over to her.
“Which only leaves two problems,” Sliding onto one bed, Talbot threw his long legs up and leaned back. “One, two beds and five bodies means Boy Wonder gets to sleep on the floor, which isn't really a problem, per se, but then two, we only have four anti-teke suits. We never got Macey fitted.”
“She can take mine,” Imogen heaved one of her bags onto the desk in the corner. “We're about the same size. Plus, I already thought of that and had made a special order to Austin Thaddeus. Behold: our undercover costumes.”
Imogen unzipped the duffel and produced four white, round, Stormtrooper helmets. She tossed one to each member of her team as Macey hesitantly held one at arm's length.
“Bonus,” Elliot punched the air. “Best costumes ever.”
“No,” Imogen corrected him with a point of her finger. “Yours are second best. Mine, however...” Reaching into the bag for the final item, Imogen revealed a fifth helmet. It was a mossy green, painted to look worn and beaten, and had a recognizable red and black T-shaped face plate.
“No way!” Elliot pouted. “You get to be Fett? How come you get to be Fett?”
“Because I thought of it first?” Imogen asked as if it were an insult. “Besides, this way, we can blend into the crowd. Having someone actually knowing what they're talking about be in the lead costume only makes sense.”
“I hate you,” Elliot grumbled sarcastically.
“Alright, minions,” Imogen announced. “Suit up. We meet in the lobby in fifteen.”
“This is stupid.” Click.
In the crowded hotel lobby, two Stormtroopers in shiny white uniforms held black blaster rifles as they stood semi-casually near one group of couches.
“You agreed to it.” Click.
Several robed figures passed by. One waved their hand, not in greeting, but in an attempt to crush their throats.
“I didn't agree to be someone's patsy.” Click.
One of the Stormtroopers lifted his blaster rifle and aimed at the fleeting cloaked figure. Two more Stormtroopers approached and joined them.
“Don't think the boss would like you shooting up the mundanes.” Click.
“Aren't you a bit short for a Stormtrooper?” Click.
“Your mother was a whore.” Click.
“I--....but....we're.... clones.” Click.
“Why do you think there's so gorram many of us?” Click.
Several minutes passed in silence between the four white-clad soldiers. They stood without fiddling, the perfect mock of their costumes.
“If she's going to be late, she doesn't deserve that costume.” Click.
“Is this really how we should be spending our time?” Click.
“You have a better idea?” Click.
“Hey Sweets, why don't you scan for anyone thinking about a big, giant sword.” Click.
“Funny. You're hilarious.” Click.
“I don't get it. Why's that funny?” Click.
“Because we're surrounded by hundreds of fanboys, over half of which are thinking about swords, or other random weaponry.” Click.
“Maybe Mace could sniff him out?” Click.
“Yeah, sure, let me just stick my nose through the non-existent holes in these curséd helmets, and sift through dozens of layers of BO. I'm sure he's somewhere under the muck.” Click.
“Right, so...we wait then.” Click.
“Okay, minions,” Imogen approached them in a very accurate Boba Fett-painted anti-teke suit. “The hotel says they had no one by this name register for any of their rooms, or pre-order a convention pass, so let's split up. Here's a photo of Luke we snagged from his mother's house, so talk to anyone you have to and see if we can get eyes on the little brat. Use your badges if you need to, and for pity's sake, turn on the safeties for those blaster rifles. Gloria and Macey, you're with me.”
“Are you sodding kidding me?” Click. “I always get stuck with Tater Salad. Momo, please, I'd rather go alone.” Click.
“Tal, dear,” Imogen sighed. “You're the best at keeping him in line. Plus, you're the least likely to forget to feed him.”
“I feel like a pet dog no one wants to keep...” Click.
“That's a bit generous.” Click.
“Enough,” Imogen grunted. “If you weren't all somewhat relevant to my interests, I would turn this jetpack around and send you all home. Fine, we'll do this: I'll take Elliot, and we'll cover the guest panels on the west end. Gloria and Macey, you take the artisan booths on the east end. Talbot, you cover everything else. Got it?”
No one responded because they were all looking down at their feet.
“Good. Radio if you get anything, or else we'll meet back here in two hours. Move out.”
“Excuse me, ma'am.” Click.
A pair of Stormtroopers stood in front of a booth on the farthest end of the east wing of the convention hall. A girl with bright blue hair was showcasing some of her art and advertising for caricatures. With the isolated location and lack of foot traffic, the slender teen behind the booth had her chin propped up on her tiny fist, her head bobbing as she bravely maneuvered the fine line between the conscious and the napping. The two Stormtroopers looked at each other, then back at the girl. One gently kicked at the table, jostling the girl awake in a start.
“Huh!! What?! Oh!” the blue-haired girl piped. “Hi there, can I draw something for you?”
“Ma'am, we need your assistance.” Click.
“Oh,” the girl's face fell. “Down three halls, take a left, and they're on your right.”
“We're...not looking for the restrooms.” Click.
“We need you to take a good look at this picture.” Click.
One Stormtrooper produced a copy of a young boy's senior high school photo. The girl took it with slight hesitation, but then grinned.
“Oooh, he's cute,” she squealed. “You need me to draw him?”
“No, we need you to find him.” Click.
“We just need to know if you've seen him anywhere this weekend.” Click.
“Oh...I get it. He must be a rebel,” the girl casually handed the photo back to the Stormtroopers. “Sorry, I'm not the droid you're looking for. Move along.”
“Excuse me?” Click.
One Stormtrooper began to raise a blaster rifle, but the other put out a hand to stop the first.
“Thank you, citizen.” Click.
They made their way to the next booth.
“Sorry,” a girl with very long, dark brown hair pushed back her bangs. “Haven't seen him.”
“No worries, lass.” Click.
The Stormtrooper did not hide the slow nod of appraisal as he slowly looked the attractive woman up and down. His hand steadily held the image of Luke, silently insisting the woman continue her conversation with him.
“He may have been in costume.” Click.
“Hmm,” the brunette removed her leather gloves and tucked them into pockets on the front of her costume. Taking the picture from the Stormtrooper, she gave it a closer look.
“I honestly don't think I've seen him around,” she handed it back to the Stormtrooper, followed by a sudden look of playful suspicion. “Say, is this some kind of gag? This isn't a picture of you, is it?”
“Bloody hell, no.” Click. The Stormtrooper leaned closer to whisper, “I'm more of a ruggedly handsome chap, myself.” Click.
“Well, in that case,” the woman batted dark chocolate eyes at him, “You may or may not find what you're looking for at the Cloud City Ball this evening.”
With a suggestive wink, the woman adjusted the zipper on the front of her black leather vest, and turned to regroup with some friends. The Stormtrooper glanced down at the photograph in his hand, which had been turned upside down, and had a nine-digit number scribbled across one corner.
“Damn. I never even saw the pen. So hot.” Click.
“Well, that makes zero for, well, honestly I lost count at three hundred and twelve.” Click.
Boba Fett and one Stormtrooper came to the end of the lane of guest panels, having had no luck with any of the participants.
“Easy kid,” Imogen could feel the pain of slow walking burning into her calves. “Let's head over there and sit for a minute.”
The Stormtrooper followed his boss to a series of tables crowded together in attempt to make a food court. A couple of flashes indicated tiny digital cameras documenting their every move. Imogen found a table to one side with two empty chairs, and pulled her Stormtrooper towards it. As they sat, she removed her stuffy helmet and shook out her hair.
“You sure that's safe?” Click.
“It's fine,” Imogen rubbed at her scalp, which had grown weary of holding her long hair so tightly packed for so long. “If we haven't heard news of anyone seeing him yet, he's probably not here.”
“Ugh,” the Stormtrooper tugged at his helmet until it popped off and almost went flying across the table. Elliot's abashed face appeared from underneath of it. “So what now?”
“Well, it's not looking good for this guy,” Imogen tapped a green-gloved finger on the photo of Luke. “Him not being seen here all day means he's either a goner or on the run. In either case, the trail's gone cold.”
“That can't be good,” Elliot sighed, suddenly covering his stomach with his hand.
“Hey,” a third voice joined the conversation. As she followed the sound upwards, Imogen found a tall, gaunt fellow in a costume she didn't recognize staring down at her.
“What?” she snapped up at him.
“I just wanted to tell you,” the stranger responded in a low baritone, “That you are the hottest Boba Fett I've ever seen.”
“Dude, do you mind?” Imogen gave the man an annoyed glare and gestured to Elliot. “Get lost.”
“Fine,” the guy made a weird face and backed up a step, mumbling under his breath something about coming to these events to socialize. Imogen disappeared from her seat for a fraction of a second, and when she reappeared, the stranger was on his face on the floor.
“You were saying?”
“Anything?” Imogen had replaced her costume helmet and all four Stormtroopers had rendezvoused back in the hotel lobby.
“Nothing on our end.” Click.
“Epic waste of time.” Click.
“I may have found something.” Click.
Four helmets turned and spun to face the tallest Stormtrooper.
“Well?” Imogen insisted.
“Well, no one really recognized him from the photo, but I did get talking to several attendees. The general consensus seems to be that a lot of people hit the first few hours of these things, then head off to get ready for the evening entertainment. In this case, something called the Cloud City Ball.” Click.
“So you're saying that we may have missed him?” Imogen put her helmeted forehead into the palm of her gloved hand.
“I'm saying that it's likely we just aren't here at the opportune moment.” Click. “I'm saying, if the lad was planning on going to this Ball, he may have ducked out to get fancy for the gala. It's a big place, and there are a lot of people here. His costume might not have shown his face.” Click.
“Alright, what are our options?”
“We could get the hell out of here.” Click.
“The Ball might be our best bet.” Click.
“I'm game for heading back to the victim and getting a fresh start.” Click.
“Can't we use our liaison and get an APB?” Click.
“I've already done that, with nothing to show for it.” Click.
“I still think the Ball--”
“How about a shower--”
“And besides, I'm not your personal--”
“--and if we split up again--”
“--the overwhelming sense of--”
“--and I am sick of being the fifth--”
“ENOUGH!” Imogen hollered. The only noise to follow was three soft clicks of the helmets' voice boxes cutting out. One Stormtrooper was already half-hiding behind Imogen like a child.
“You,” Imogen pointed to the tallest Stormtrooper. “What time is the Ball?”
“In two hours, then,” Imogen spat, moving on to her next target. “You, where are we with the morgue and IDing the victim?”
“Haven't heard anythi--”
“Fine,” Imogen turned to the shortest Stormtrooper. “And you, what's on the radar?”
“Well, my antennae have been up, but--”
“Not good enough,” Imogen paused, and the three bickering Stormtroopers could feel her angry glare piercing through their anti-teke shielding. Everyone stood silent for a moment, shuffling their feet and fiddling with their blaster rifles. Imogen finally took a long, deep breath and let it out.
“Alright, here's the plan. Macey, you head back to the victim in the morgue. We need an ID if we're going to pin this guy. Gloria, I need you to go find a quiet corner somewhere and sort yourself out. Next round, I need you in peak shape, and completely focused. Talbot, I want you to cozy up to the convention hosts and get as many tickets into the Ball as you can. Four is optimal, but I'll take whatever we can get. Everyone got it?”
“Erm...” Click. Stormtrooper Elliot still stood sheepishly behind Imogen.
“Right, you. Um, I don't know; go find us some food or something. Two hours, folks. And this time, we find the elusive bastard and collar him. Got it?”
An hour and a half later, the temporary headquarters was abuzz with everyone trying to do what Imogen had ordered. Talbot had scored three tickets into the ball, and was on the hotel room's landline, attempting to get at least one more. Elliot was on his cell phone, trying to figure out why the massive order of Chinese he had placed an hour ago hadn't arrived yet. Macey had left in a hurry back to the morgue, and Gloria had disappeared to somewhere she could be secluded. Imogen was taking one of the longest and hottest showers of her life.
“Look, you said thirty minutes, pal,” Elliot grumbled into the phone as he glanced at the bathroom door, his legs crossed. “It's been more than thirty. It's been twice that. No, let me talk to your manager. MAN-A-GER.”
“Mate, I already told you, we're with the Chicago Police Department,” Talbot's face was buried in one hand as he sat hunched over on the side of one bed. “No, I don't have a badge number for you. I'm...I'm just a consultant....I just need one....”
“I understand that you have a lot of orders,” Elliot grunted, one leg bouncing up and down. “In that case, if you had told me it would be an hour wait, I would have waited an hour. But you told me thirty minutes.”
“It's just a sodding party,” Talbot bared his teeth, feeling the canines slide down. He was starving, and the person on the other end of the line was sounding more and more like dinner. “What's one more? It's not as if we're going to bring a thousand friends. You can fit one more person into the room, can't you?”
“Listen, if the order isn't here in ten minutes, I'm not paying you a dime,” Elliot saw the bathroom door slide open, and slammed his phone shut, disconnecting the call. As Imogen tip-toed out wrapped only in a towel, Elliot barreled past her and slammed the door behind him.
“Chaotic snakes,” Imogen stared at the door only inches from her face. “What's gotten into him?”
“Hmm?” Talbot looked up at her from the phone, his hazel eyes reddening. Imogen put up one defensive hand, and Talbot just gave her a sad smile. “Forget it,” he mumbled into the phone and gently replaced the handset on its cradle, turning his full attention to Imogen. “Please tell me you're wearing that to the Ball.”
“Are you kidding?” Imogen half-chuckled, turning away as she dug in her duffel for a brush. “We'd get nothing done.”
“Well, nothing relevant to the case, anyway,” Talbot agreed, leaning back and admiring Imogen's bare upper backside as she struggled to pull the brush through her long locks.
“Any luck with...ya know, stuff?” Imogen grunted as she fought with her hair.
“Some,” Talbot mumbled, catching Imogen's gaze through the mirror she was facing. “Um,” he looked away suddenly, his focus drifting to the ceiling. “I got three tickets, and they won't give us any more or let anyone else in without official police identification. We could req. some from the Chicago branch, but they wouldn't be ready in time.”
“Well, crap,” Imogen finally got her hair smooth, adjusted her towel, and dug around in her back for something else, watching the bathroom door. “He must have really had to go.”
“You were in there a long time. I don't think he had any luck with dinner.”
“I think today kind of sucks,” Imogen sighed, holding a stack of clothes on her lap and waiting for the bathroom to open for her to change, and she finally stopped to look Talbot full in the face. “Shit, man, you look like hell.”
“I feel alright,” Talbot shrugged, not meeting her gaze. “There's food on the Viper for the ride home.”
“Except we don't know how long that will be. Talbot, you need to eat. Especially if we end up chasing after a telekenetic all night. I need everyone at the top of their game.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Talbot gave her a mock salute.
“Talbot, I'm serious,” Imogen stood as the bathroom door opened and Elliot clicked off the light and the fan. “If you're not ready, you'll be the one staying here.” She slid into the bathroom and closed the door quietly behind her.
“What's that about staying here?” Elliot asked.
“Nothing, Short Round,” Talbot mumbled, lazily staring at nothing in particular. “Food. Now.”
“Ankle Biter, I will kill you.”
“Boys, honestly,” Gloria adjusted her earpiece as she, Imogen, and Elliot stood in the lobby waiting for the doors to open to the Ball.
“You sure you're up for this?” Imogen spoke softly so that only Gloria could hear. “I didn't mean to be such a dog earlier--”
“It's fine,” Gloria put a white gloved hand on Imogen's arm. “You did what you had to do, and we deserved what we got. I got my peace to realign my mojo, so let's catch this son-of-a-bitch and go home.”
“Good—wait. Realign your what?” Imogen gave Gloria a slightly baffled look.
“Just keeping you on your toes, Momo,” Gloria made one final adjustment to her earpiece, tucked her short blonde hair behind her ear, and slid her helmet into place. “Game time.”
“How now?” Elliot scratched the light brown pile of scraggly hair atop his crown. Imogen snatched the helmet out of his other hand and crammed it over his head, then gently replaced her own.
“Tell me again why Tally's sitting this one out?” Click.
“He drew the short straw,” Imogen replied. “Technically, I could have let him use my ticket, and I could have shifted in. But enough people saw me this afternoon that I think I might be recognized.”
The three shuffled slowly forward as the doors to the ballroom opened and the crowd surged forward at a deadening slow pace. Imogen tapped Gloria's arm three times, and the short helmet nodded. Gloria wrapped one arm around Imogen's elbow, letting herself be led semi-blindly as she opened her senses and began sifting through the hundreds of minds barreling into the ballroom from four different entrances.
After several minutes of inching forward, Imogen, Elliot, and Gloria finally made it to the doors. A bouncer dressed as a Tetris piece took their tickets, ripped them in half, and returned their stubs to them. Once inside, the crowd was able to thin into the cavernous space, and Imogen led her two Stormtroopers to one side.
The three of them stood for what felt like ages as people moved around the room in growing excitement. Chatter on every side was heightened with talk of celebrity guests, and Gloria clamped her hand on Imogen's arm in attempt to retain her concentration. Finally, she relaxed, and gave Imogen three short pats, signaling her to move to a new area.
This charade continued as the trio moved about the room, each time Gloria cleared and reassembled her telepathy in an attempt to grab onto Luke's mind. On their third pass, a striking brunette approached them and made straight for Elliot.
“You came,” she laid one black-gloved hand on Elliot's chest plate, and he tried to back up but had no room to do so.
“Do I know you?” Click. Elliot could feel Imogen's heated stare through the back of his helmet.
“Don't tell me you're not the same tall stud I ran into earlier,” the girl gave an adorable pout, and Elliot felt multiple pangs of guilt as images of Chloe flashed through his mind.
“I'm … sorry. No.” Click.
Suddenly, Elliot felt a buzzing in the back of his head, and an intense surge of adrenaline poured through him as he saw the people in front of him slow down to almost non-motion. He attempted to turn around, but Imogen was pulling him off towards one door with Gloria on her other arm.
When they reached the west entrance, Imogen forced them into real time, and Elliot stumbled forward, his stomach lurching.
“We got eyes on a potential hit, west corridor,” Imogen spat into her earpiece. “You got those cameras linked?”
“Aye, thanks to a little blonde hacker,” Talbot's voice crackled in their ears. “I'll have sights on you when you make the hallway...there you are.”
“Target is in a brown cloak,” Gloria chirped. “Lean, about five ten. We'll herd him towards the lobby.”
“Negative,” Talbot responded. “There's a brawl breaking out there, red shirts versus rebels. If you take a left at the end of the hall, it dumps out into an alley. I don't have eyes out there, but it should be a bit more secluded.”
“Copy that,” Imogen let go of the arm she had been dragging Elliot with and shifted out of sight.
“Wait, but--” Elliot started. Gloria gave him a push in the right direction.
“Just keep your eyes out for the target,” she mumbled, forcing Elliot into a two-man formation to keep their prey from escaping through their direction.
The two of them walked in silence for several minutes before the crowd around them revealed the man Gloria had caught sight of. The gaunt figure was slightly slouching, and Gloria and Elliot walked a few paces closer, then stopped. Imogen appeared next to the figure, far enough that he did not see her unshift, but close enough that when she took a step towards him and aimed her blaster rifle, he jumped.
The figure turned around and faced Gloria and Elliot, his hood falling away from his face as he did so, giving the two Stormtroopers a clear view of his face.
“Positive ident on Luke Greenwall,” Gloria growled into her earpiece. “Repeat, positive ident.”
“Confirmed,” Talbot and Imogen said at the same time.
Gloria took a confident step towards Luke, making sure he saw her before she raised her weapon. Luke's blue eyes widened as he frantically caught sight of Elliot, who mirrored Gloria's move. A few passersby noticed the sudden tension and, assuming it was a skit, began to cheer.
“Use the Force!”
Luke's dark-capped head spun frantically as he watched Gloria and then Elliot each take another step towards him. The cheering crescendoed and Luke panicked. He took a step backwards, then raised his hand towards Gloria and Elliot. He flicked his wrist, but nothing happened. His dark brows furrowed, he looked down at his hand, and then flicked at them again. The crowd went wild.
“We got him,” Gloria's voice was low with elation. “Suits are working like a charm. Imogen, we're pushing him your way.”
Gloria and Elliot slowly, surely pushed forward towards Luke, one step at a time. The crowd booed at them, taunting them for not 'playing along' and falling over when Luke 'used the Force.' A couple of renegades hollered 'Cheers to the Empire!'
Imogen came into view behind Luke, and gave Gloria a signal. Too many mundanes in the hallway to attempt to shift him out. Imogen kept her blaster aimed at Luke, but aimed low enough to not attract unnecessary attention. Gloria and Elliot continued herding Luke towards the door at the end of the hall.
The trio was only feet from the EXIT sign when another wave of anxiety hit the target, and Luke tried to make a run for it. Imogen swore under her breath into her mic and shifted around to the other side of him. He stopped in his tracks when his face was inches from the barrel of her blaster rifle.
“Come with us, son,” Imogen demanded calmly. “We're not going to hurt you. We just have a few questions.”
“I didn't do it,” Luke pleaded, his eyes still wide in fright and flight.
“Good,” Imogen gestured towards the door behind him. “Then we won't take up much of your time.”
Eyes roaming the surroundings and seeing that he had no other choice, Luke resigned to following them, and was led at gunpoint through the door and into the alley, the slamming door shutting out the wild applause of their unintended audience.
“Alright, Luke, level with us here.” Click.
“Who are you?” Luke was still staring at the three blaster rifles pointed at him. “And how do you know who I am?”
“We're with the Chicago--” Elliot started, but Imogen cut him off.
“We're not going to hurt you,” Imogen put one hand out, and slowly lowered her blaster.
Elliot and Gloria stared at her for a moment, then lowered theirs as well. Luke still looked between them with fear-struck blue eyes, but Imogen moved slowly, and sat down on a crate in the alley. She carefully removed her helmet, dark hair falling to her shoulders as she patted the pile of boxes next to her for Luke to sit. When he fervently shook his head, Imogen continued.
“Luke, we just want to talk. We know you're scared, and that's fine. But we just need some answers, and then we can all have some peace of mind.”
“I didn't do it!” Luke stammered, falling backwards into some piles of trash. He righted himself, and cried out again, “I swear, I didn't do it!”
“What didn't you do, Luke?” Imogen encouraged him. His breathing slowed just slightly, and he looked between Imogen and the two Stormtroopers.
“You cops?” he raised his eyebrows with scrutiny. “You look like a cop.”
“We're not police,” Imogen promised. “But we are after the truth, crazy as it may appear.”
“If you're not cops, what right do you have, hunting me down like a dog!”
“Would you rather have this conversation inside?” Imogen gestured back to the door. Luke instinctively took a step towards it, then thought about it, and shook his head. “Good, now let's start with the sword.”
“Huh?” Luke's eyes darted up with evident surprise. “My sword?”
“The bastard sword you sold to the blacksmith in Lawndale,” Elliot offered. Gloria nodded.
“The hell?” Luke's nostrils flared. “What I do with my own property is none of your damn business!”
“Luke, we need you to stay calm,” Imogen spoke softly, but her patience was wearing thin. “The sword was somewhere near Fulton and Green Street before you sold it. Do you know anything about that?”
“Err,” Luke's face drained of color. “Um....no?”
“Please don't lie,” Gloria cocked her helmeted head to one side. “It makes my head hurt.”
“What?” Luke was beginning to break. Imogen saw the tipping point and took it.
“Sit down, Luke,” Imogen again patted the boxes beside her. “You'll want to be sitting for this.”
As Luke shakily lowered himself onto the boxes, Imogen signaled Gloria and Elliot to come closer and remove their helmets. Elliot did so immediately, but Gloria froze a moment. Imogen watched her, understanding her hesitancy, but nodded that it was alright.
“We know that you're...special, Luke,” Imogen started, turning her attention to the telekenetic as Gloria slowly removed her helm. “We're a bit special, too. You're not alone. We can help you, but you have to let us. Do you understand?”
Luke nodded slowly, his hands shaking. Imogen reached over and laid her gloved hand over his.
“Take it easy. Just answer the questions, alright? Were you at Fulton and Green either last night or this morning?”
A hesitant nod.
“Is that where your sword was?”
“Did you know the man who was holding your sword?”
“Who was he?”
Luke looked down at his hands, and Imogen pulled hers away. He flexed them into fists, then laid them flat on his lap.
“Carl Nelson. His name is Carl Nelson.”
“And how do you know Carl?”
“From the convention. We met last year at one of the booths. He was supposed to come get me.”
“What do you mean, come get you?”
“We hadn't talked in a while, but then when the convention was coming up, he asked if I wanted to go, and we could carpool and get drunk and find some hot chicks. Last night he texted me that he had picked up the booze and would be at my place to pick me up at about eight in the morning so we could scope out the booths.”
“And he never showed up?”
“Well, he texted me again at about midnight, saying he had an idea about a skit, and wanted me to meet him at the Publican to go over it.”
“And when you got there?”
“I got there late because I was in the middle of something. When I showed up, he wasn't there, so I texted him, but he didn't answer. I hung around until close, and then took the shortcut home instead of catching a cab.”
“And this shortcut...” Imogen urged him to continue.
“It....it led me straight to his.... to....” Luke's voice trailed off.
“Did you see what happened to Carl?” Imogen lowered her voice, trying to maintain the balance and keep Luke from tipping backwards.
“So you are saying that Carl was dead when you found him?”
“And what did you do then?”
“I panicked. I took my sword and ran.”
Imogen looked at Gloria, who nodded to indicate that Luke was telling the truth.
“Why did you run?”
“Because of the bruises....”
“What was wrong with the bruises?”
“They're....they're from someone like me.”
“What do you mean, from someone like you?”
“I.....I thought you knew?”
“We need to hear you say it,” Imogen patted his shoulder gently. “Just to make sure.”
“I....I can move things. With the Force.”
“Can you show us?”
Gloria and Elliot immediately reached for their helmets, but Imogen put up a hand to stop them. She pointed Luke towards the pile of trash he had almost fallen into earlier. Luke hesitated, but Imogen nodded him on. With one extended hand, Luke easily lifted one bag of trash and deposited it neatly into the dumpster.
“Good,” Imogen reassured him. “You're very talented.”
“It's just a thing,” Luke flushed.
“It's a very remarkable thing. Luke, we have just a few more questions, okay? Did you see anyone near Carl when you found him?”
Luke shook his head.
“Did you kill Carl?”
Fervent shaking of the head.
“Did you hurt Carl at all? Were any of those bruises from you?”
More head shaking.
“Good, Luke, you're doing just fine. Listen, you're not in any trouble, but we need you to come with us. See, the police don't know about people like us, people with abilities. We know you're innocent, but until there is evidence to point to someone else, we want to make sure you're safe. Do you understand?”
Luke hung his head with a sigh, and then nodded. Imogen reached up to her earpiece.
“Talbot, did you get all of that?”
“Aye, mum,” Talbot's voice replied. “Smooth talkin.”
“Yeah,” Imogen stood and Luke stood with her. Gloria and Elliot fell into line with her, surrounding Luke and leading him around the building to the parking lot. Imogen lowered her voice into her mic so that Luke couldn't hear.
"Let's get him to the museum where we can keep eyes on him. If he's not our killer, we've got a big problem.”
Macey stood over the cold, dead body with an equally vacant expression across her face.
“Well, this is it,” she muttered to herself. “I officially hate my job.”
As the dark-haired cop faced the remains of Carl Nelson in the morgue, her phone vibrated on her hip. Without a change in her countenance, she deftly unclipped it, flipped it open, and put it to her ear.
“Macey,” she intoned.
“Miss Jacqueline,” a pleasant male voice responded. “I am with CrimsonTech Industries, and I'd like to--”
“Look, I don't know what you're selling, but I don't--”
“We'd like to offer you a job, Miss Macey.”
“I'm sorry, who did you say you were with?”
“CrimsonTech. We are the leading competitors in the world of innovative technology, and we're interested in your singular talents.”
“Okay, I don't know how you got my number, but--”
“Your police Captain gave it to us. We have a very good relationship with our local law enforcement, Miss Macey, and I assure you that we want nothing but the best for your future.”
“Right...well I'm not sure what my Captain told you, but I suck with computers. I can barely use Friend Face.”
“Your technological abilities are not what we are interested in, Miss Macey. Your record with the Chicago Police Department shows incredible promise, and we have some job opportunities opening up that we believe you would be uniquely qualified for.”
“Miss Jacqueline, we are a very prestigious and respectable company, and this isn't a sales call or some kind of prank. We are serious businesspeople and we want you. If you have some spare time tomorrow morning, would you please stop by our offices?”
Macey hesitated, then agreed. The caller gave her an address and directions, and hung up. Macey was halfway in the motion of putting her phone back into her pocket when it buzzed again.
“For crying out loud,” she muttered, lifting it back to her ear. She gave Carl's corpse a cold glare as she answered, “Macey.”
“Hey, Macey, it's Imogen.”
“Hey, I've got that ID, his name is Carl Nelson.”
“Yeah, we just found out. We just secured Luke Greenwall and have him in custody.”
“Were you able to find out anything else?”
“Yes, actually,” Macey stepped away from the corpse and towards an operating table where she had scattered some reports in an attempt to make sense of everything. “Luke Greenwall is connected to the first two victims.”
“Shut the front door. You're kidding...”
“No, I'm dead serious. The first victim, Harry Cotter, went to school with Luke Greenwall. They had the same fourth grade teacher.”
“That's a bit of a stretch...”
“It is, but listen to this. Harry's co-worker Greg Stanton confessed to Harry's murder and was put away. He was found this morning in his cell, strangled, and they ruled it a suicide.”
“Right? Now, the second victim, Christopher Garland, is the son of Mickey Garland, who was once dating Luke's mother Irene. Christopher's ex-girlfriend Hailey Coher admitted to killing him, and was taken into custody last week, but was released due to circumstantial evidence. She was found in her apartment this morning.”
“Let me guess...dead?”
“Overdose. Also ruled suicide.”
“This isn't looking good for Luke.”
“Are you liking him for this?”
“I don't know, he just seems so....scared.”
“I'd be scared, too, if I were a serial killer and people were on to me.”
“Not that kind of scared. More like....like he'd never seen a dead guy before.”
“Possibly, but I don't think so. It's getting a bit late, but why don't you head down here tomorrow and take a look for yourself? Since you worked on the other cases, maybe you can give us a better feel for the guy.”
“Absolutely,” Macey paused, about to hang up, but then remembered. “I have a meeting in the morning, but I'll be out there when I'm done.”
“Perfect. See you then.”
Luke's room was dark and quiet. The members of Alpha team had set up temporary quarters for him to rest in before renewing their interrogation efforts. Sprawled across a cot that was too short for his long legs, Luke was snoring quietly. The door to his room slid silently open, then shut again before the light from the hallway touched his face.
The next morning in interrogation room seven, Gloria and Imogen were pacing the floor. Gloria stopped to stare through her reflection in the two-way mirror, feeling equal waves of trepidation from Elliot and Talbot on the other side. Imogen tapped her fingers on the table.
“I don't like this,” she nearly growled, sitting down on one of the tinny, metal chairs.
“No one likes this,” Gloria tilted her head to one side. “They're here.”
The door to the interrogation room opened, and two uniformed security officers led a stoic-faced Luke inside. Stripped of his costume robe, he appeared in dark brown khakis and a plain white t-shirt. Nodding to the women, the security detail closed the door behind them and stood guard outside.
“Hey Luke, you sleep okay?” Imogen gestured to the chair on the other side of the table. Luke's expression did not change, as if he did not hear her.
“Luke?” Imogen repeated. Gloria turned on her heel and gave Luke a slightly perplexed look.
“Yeah, yeah,” Luke seemed to snap out of whatever zone he was in and he slid with a thud into his chair.
“I'm sorry we have to do this, Luke,” Imogen turned to face Luke more directly. “It's all about the paper trail and making sure you don't get put away for something you didn't do.”
“Sure,” Luke shrugged, not meeting her gaze.
“Then you won't mind if I ask you to please put your hands on top of the table?”
“I will as soon as she gets out of my head.”
Gloria took a step back as if she had been slapped. Imogen's eyes narrowed, and she nodded at something she heard through her earpiece.
“Gloria, maybe it's best if you--”
“Yeah,” Gloria cut her off, and made for the door in a way that indicated she couldn't get out of the room fast enough.
“I'm sorry Luke,” Imogen turned soft eyes on the young man. “We weren't meaning to make you uncomfortable or be invasive. We just want the truth.”
“Fuck that,” Luke slumped in his chair, but put his hands on the table. “You don't want the truth. You want to experiment on me like a fucking frog.”
“That's not true, Luke—”
“Would you quit that shit?!” Luke jumped up from his chair, and Imogen reflexively did the same. “Quit babying me like I'm some fucking child. I'm a murderer, get it? You want me, you got me. Now back the fuck off!”
Imogen took a step back, but Luke's hand was already up, ready to throw her against the wall. His hand flicked at the wrist, and he made a fist, but nothing happened. She was still wearing her anti-teke suit.
“What the fuck did you do to me?!” Luke reached behind himself and grabbed the chair, throwing it at random across the room. It flew harmlessly into a wall and clattered to the floor.
“What happened?” Talbot and Elliot turned to watch Gloria slip into the observation room.
“I'm not sure yet,” she murmured, her blue eyes engulfed in dilated pupils. She turned to look through the window-mirror and watched Luke turn over the table in a rage, then use his telekenesis to throw another chair across the room.
“He's gone completely mental,” Talbot spoke into his mic. “Imogen, you might want to get out of there before he loses it completely.”
“I got this,” Imogen's voice came through the speakers. “Let him get it out of his system, and he should calm down a bit.”
“I don't know; he's pretty pissed,” Elliot paused to think a moment, then grabbed Luke's cloak. “I have an idea.”
“Cool it, Sunflower,” Talbot put a hand on Elliot's shoulder to stop him. “Imogen said she's got this, which means she's got this.”
“Tally,” Gloria turned their attention to the interrogation room. Luke was advancing on Imogen and was trying to corner her.
“She could just shift--” Talbot started, but as he turned, Elliot made his escape to the door. “Damnit, Rookie!”
“I think his idea might work,” Gloria blinked, her eyes still not completely in focus. “Just let him try.”
“Luke, I'm not your enemy here...” Imogen had both of her hands up. “Please, just calm--”
“Shut up, bitch!” Luke screamed, the table throwing itself up against the wall. Luke took hold of it with his mind and moved it towards Imogen, pinning her in the corner.
“Luke!” Elliot's voice came from the now-open doorway. He had donned Luke's cloak and had one hand stretched out towards the telekenetic, as if he were willing him to stop.
“Who the fuc--” Luke turned to face Elliot, and Imogen frantically shook her head, growling into her mic.
“Luke, don't give in to the Dark Side,” Elliot lifted his hands and slowly removed the hood of the cloak. “Your anger will consume you. Anger...leads to hate.”
“But--” Luke's rage seemed to freeze on his face, and he turned to gesture to Imogen.
“Hate.... leads to suffering,” Elliot continued.
“I only--” Luke's hand dropped, and the table pinning Imogen to the wall fell with it.
“What causes anger, Luke?” Elliot took a step towards him.
“...Fear,” Luke admitted. “Fear leads to anger.”
“Fear gets us nowhere, young padawan,” Elliot closed the gap between them and put one hand on Luke's shoulder. “Using the Force to murder will only--”
“But I already did!”
Luke brushed Elliot's hand from his arm and made a fist with the other one, swinging at Elliot's face. Elliot leaned backwards to avoid the strike, but Luke's knuckles glanced off of his nose. Luke grabbed Elliot's robe and used it to swing him around and throw him against the mirror. Without his helmet on, Elliot's head was vulnerable, and Luke went for his neck.
“I used the Force, and my anger made me strong!” Luke's telekenesis clamped down on Elliot's throat and began to lift him from the ground. “They deserved a just and vengeful death! I welcome the Dark Side!”
Elliot's hands went to his neck in a reflex to remove the object constricting his trachea, but his fingers clawed uselessly at nothing. He continued sliding up the wall and his face began to redden from oxygen deprivation.
“Elliot!” Imogen called, trying to climb over the table to get to him. Before she had time to shift, Luke's other hand went out, invisibly grabbing her by the neck, and threw her head-first into the side of the table. She crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
In a gut-reaction, one of Elliot's arms instinctively straightened towards Imogen. As he did so, the table beside her shook and clattered across the floor. As black patches began to cloud the outer edges of Elliot's vision, he had a sudden realization.
With a final surge of energy, Elliot threw his fingertips to point at Luke, but the boy just grinned at him. The wall behind Luke shook and chunks of plaster fell. Elliot grunted against the vice about his neck, his hands scrambling to pick up something, anything, to get Luke to stop.
The room flashed with a bright light, Luke blinked, and his eyes rolled back into his head. As he slid to the floor, his hold on Elliot released, and Elliot fell several feet to the floor, landing with a thunderous crash. Coughing and sputtering as his vision cleared, he looked up to see Talbot and Gloria standing side-by-side in the doorway, both armed with the blaster rifle sleep guns.
“What the hell took you so long?” Elliot wheezed as his two saviors went to Imogen's side.
Mild concussion, looks like,” Talbot muttered, carefully lifting Imogen into his arms.
“You looked like you had things under control,” Gloria growled, turning wrathful blue eyes on Elliot. “I mean, until you let Imogen get smashed. She could have died, you foolish idiot.”
“I was just--” Elliot started.
“You were trying to be a hero,” Talbot finished for him, his glare red in hunger and rage. “Being a hero gets people killed. Next time, you follow orders.”
“Can it, Nugget.”
“Alpha Three to Command Post Seven,” Gloria touched her earpiece as she spoke into the mic. “Clean-up on aisle five.”
Macey rolled her black car through the wide driveway entrance, and pulled up to the booth in front of the high iron gates. She angrily threw the car into park and punched the button to slide her window down.
“Yo,” she called out to the figure in the booth. “Anyone home?”
“Yeah, yeah,” a gruff voice came from the booth as the tinted window cover was pulled up from the inside. The man on the other side was slouching in his chair, comfortably out of the elements and not even looking at her as he asked, “Whaddaya want?”
“Name's Macey, from CPD,” Macey spat back. “I'm expected, so get off your ass and open the door.”
“Geez, lady,” he responded, as if he was first noticing her. “Alright, alright. I need to see some ID.”
Macey grabbed her CPD badge from the chain around her neck and showed it to him.
“Police, huh?” the bearded man looked at the gold-plated emblem with some doubt, then glanced around as if checking that they were alone. “Do you have any, uh, other ID?”
“What, like a driver's license?” Macey lowered her badge, confused.
“No, like, um,” the man fiddled with something outside of the window, making Macey nervous. “Never mind. Who called for you?”
“He didn't say his name,” Macey slumped back in her seat. “What an epic waste of time. I have a murder to solve.”
“I'm sorry, ma'am,” the response was somewhere between the end of apologetic and the beginning of annoyed. “If you have no valid company ID or a name of who sent you, I can't let you in.”
“Ya know what? Fine.” Macey slammed her foot on the brake and grabbed for the gear shift.
“Hold up,” the man adjusted his hat, and Macey barely caught a glance at an earpiece. He seemed to be listening to someone from the other side, and then his face went white.
“Y-yes, sir,” he gulped, and a trembling hand hit a button next to the window. “Go on in, ma'am. Clarice will help you at the front desk.”
“Thank you,” Macey gave him an exasperated sigh as the iron gates ground slowly open.
She pulled through them into an interim area, and the gates shut behind her.
“So he's mental, what's the sodding problem?” Talbot sighed.
After securing Luke in an isolation chamber, Talbot and Gloria had met up with Imogen and Elliot in the medical wing. The latter two sustained only minor injuries and were cleared for duty within the hour, when all four reconvened in one of the break lounges.
“It was just such a drastic change,” Imogen muttered, reaching up to the bandage on her forehead and trying not to scratch at the bump.
“Flippin' light switch,” Elliot nodded while taking a sip of coffee, causing the hot liquid to dribble down his chin and onto his clean white shirt. “Frakkin' A.”
“We've seen this act before, Momo,” Talbot ignored Elliot, instead focusing on Imogen's dark face as he put a large red packet into the microwave. “Guy acts innocent, guy gets caught, real guy shows his face.”
“I suppose you're right,” Imogen shrugged. “But there's not enough evidence either way. Gloria? Did you see anything that might help?”
“His brain was a mess,” Gloria grunted, her eyes not quite focusing. “Not at all like when I caught scent of him at the hotel.”
“A mess how?” Elliot furiously rubbed a paper towel over the stain on his front.
“I...I can't be sure,” Gloria sighed, squeezing her eyes shut. “I didn't have enough time to get what I needed. We should go back in.”
“Sweets,” Talbot closed the distance between them in no time, putting one pale hand on Gloria's shoulder. “I know that look. That's an addict's look. I for one don't want you in some psycho's head any more than need be. It can be contagious.”
“Just a few minutes is all I need,” Gloria snapped up at him, her blue eyes still slightly glazed over. “In and out, all business.”
“Momo, a little help here?” Talbot looked at Imogen with a slightly pleading glance.
“I think Gloria's idea may be our best shot at figuring this out,” Imogen admitted, and three heads whipped in her direction in surprise. “Honestly, Gloria is well-trained enough to shield herself, and what other choice do we have?”
“Thank you,” Gloria nodded, hunkering down with her mug of hot cocoa.
“However,” Imogen contemplated, slowly looking around the room until her dark eyes settled on Elliot. “I think we may need to mix things up a little bit this time.”
“Your name, miss?” a pretty-faced redhead addressed Macey as the latter entered the main lobby through giant, gold-trimmed double doors.
“Uh, Macey,” Macey said softly, afraid her voice would echo off the high, chandeliered ceilings.
“Jacqueline Macey of the 12th?” the receptionist inquired as she glanced at her monitor and then back at Macey.
“That's me,” the dark-haired cop nodded, reaching for her badge.
“That's not necessary,” the young girl shook her head, taking another quick peek at her monitor. “Take the burgundy elevator to floor sixteen, right down the hall, third door on your left.”
“Burgundy?” Macey's dark eyes drifted across the expansive, expensively-furnished rotunda lobby to a series of elevators on the far side.
“Yes,” the receptionist half-stood and pointed them out in order. “Scarlet, Rose, Chestnut, Burgundy, and Wine. You'll take Burgundy.”
Macey left the front desk and paused a moment where the marble tile ceded to lush, deep red carpeting. Glancing down at her wet, dripping service boots, she contemplated a moment before leaning down, unlacing them, and yanking them off. Letting her socked toes sink into the thick carpet, she strode to the elevators.
Following the directions she was given, Macey hopped on the fourth elevator, clicking the button for the sixteenth floor as she reintroduced her feet to her shoes. As she tightened the last knot and the door opened, she got a cold chill up her spine. The elevator did not ding when it opened. It had not even provided music for the ride.
With sudden trepidation, Macey stepped from the elevator, and the doors slid silently shut behind her. She took a moment to re-assess her situation, and decided she did not have a good feeling about it at all. Looking around the pale peach hallways, still frozen in front of the elevator, Macey decided to risk a few seconds of vulnerability.
She closed her eyes and focused. She smelled. She waited. She took a larger inhalation. Her eyes snapped open.
Nothing. She smelled nothing. She could not smell the dried paint on the walls, or the dirt between the wood panels lining the floor. Not even a scent of dust from a vacuum or bleach from cleaning, yet the place was kept pristine and spotless.
“Miss Macey?” a voice pierced through her returning senses.
Macey's head jerked to the right towards the sound. A kind man's face was protruding from a door a few doors down, and he waved her towards him.
“Too late now to turn back now,” Macey mumbled to herself.
Bracing for impact, she went to her appointment.
“All set, mum.”
Talbot stood behind the unconscious Luke, who was strapped to a chair and had an IV plugged into his arm. Talbot gave the medical team the okay to leave, and Elliot squeezed between them into the interrogation room as they left.
“You sure that's gonna hold him?” Elliot left plenty of room between himself and the telekinetic as he made his way to the other side of the table.
“Nope,” the vampire flashed a slightly malicious grin. “But ya know, if he comes too far out of it, just use his ability against him.”
“Because that worked so well last time,” Elliot grimaced, rubbing his neck.
“You've got backup this time, cowboy. And a plan.”
“Alphas Two and Three in position,” Imogen's voice pulsated into their earpieces. “One, get out of there.”
“Aye, mum,” Talbot saluted towards the window and made for the door.
“And Washington?” Imogen's voice growled.
“Yeah?” Elliot carefully sat down.
“Try not to screw this one up.”
“Not the plan.”
On the other side of the glass, Gloria's now-clear eyes bored onto Luke's still figure. With a gentle mental tap, she startled him awake.
“Welcome back, Luke,” Elliot's voice crackled through the speaker. Gloria kept a mental distance from Luke, letting the sedating IV cover her presence.
“What---” Luke's head bobbed as he slowly came to.
“Hey there, buddy.”
As Elliot continued talking Luke into consciousness, Gloria took advantage of the moments of vulnerability to sync her telepathy with his brain waves, taking a back seat to the thoughts that gurgled forth. The familiar bits of confusion, evaluation of the setting, and other common cognitive functions washed over her.
“Luke,” Elliot read from the prompts scribbled on the notebook before him, “Where were you the morning of January 12th?”
“I was asleep at home,” Luke mumbled. He tried to sit up in his chair, but the bindings stopped him. The sedation medication slowed his reaction to it. Gloria saw images of Luke's home pass by, the alarm next to his bed, the fan on his ceiling.
“How about the night of January 11th?” Elliot read.
“At home, then at the Publican. Why... why--” Luke struggled for the right words. Gloria brushed aside the bar, the food, and the drunkards in Luke's memory.
“Just a precaution, Luke,” Elliot intoned. “After the Publican, and before you went to sleep, where were you?”
“I took a walk...” Luke's fingers fumbled uselessly at the arms of his chair. In Gloria's mind, she followed Luke's exit from the Publican and into the street towards the clump of warehouses on the other side. Suddenly, Luke's hands gripped tightly onto the arm of his chair, and for a split second, his eyes cleared through the haze of the medication.
“And then I killed him,” Luke growled, every muscle tensed. The surge in adrenaline sucked up more liquid through the IV, and he relaxed.
Gloria's hand went to her head and she winced, seeing the corpse of Carl Nelson, dead on the ground. Then he was not dead, as if Luke's memory was playing in reverse. Carl's eyes snapped open, and his body was raised from the ground by his neck. Fear plastered over his face, muscles twitching, and words forced out backwards.
Gloria did not see the second spike coming as Luke again fought through the sedation. He pulled against his restraints, ripping free one arm, and Gloria's open, watching mind was crammed full of hundreds of images all at once. As Elliot rose from his chair and threw a side-long punch to Luke's right temple, Gloria's eyes spun around in circles, her hands clamped into fists, and she fell out of her chair, unconscious.
“Please, Miss Macey, have a seat.”
Macey cautiously entered the room into which she was beckoned, where she was greeted by three well-dressed employees of CrimsonTech. The tall, blonde, athletic man was gesturing to an empty chair in the cozy business space. As she slowly sank into the soft, micro-fiber-covered easy-chair, one of the attendants met her with a thin folder and a hot beverage.
“Miss Macey, if you don't mind us skipping the pleasantries,” a dark-haired, broad-shouldered gentleman opposite her across the table acknowledged as Macey took a sip of the chamomile tea, “I'd like to skip right to the chase. Your skills are highly favorable. And I don't mean your detective work, although that is top notch as well. I'm talking about your anomaly.
“We at CrimsonTech do more than just advance technology, Miss Macey. We advance the human race. As I'm sure you noticed when you entered our neutral zone, your anomaly became...unavailable to you. The plane has been leveled so that we can meet the real you...and you can meet the real us.
“Our goals are rather simple. We want to create a world in which anomalies like ourselves no longer need to hide behind the mundanes around us. In the future we wish to forge, anomalies will walk among the streets, proud of their abilities, no longer slaves to those who think us a disease to be cured.
“In short, Miss Macey, your talents are currently being wasted. The Chicago Police Department, while prestigious in the mundane world, has no use for us. Even your friends at DarkWatch have left you behind, turning their backs on a fellow anomaly as they proceed without you.
“With CrimsonTech, we can reveal the real you, the anomaly inside itching to escape and be free. You will receive training, pension, and the full spectrum of benefits, as well as a career that will pay your bills without you having to give up your pursuit of justice.
“Please, do not feel rushed into making a decision at this very moment. Take your time, and think over our offer. If you decide to stop hiding and become the person nature intended, give us a call within the next twenty-four hours to arrange a meeting, and we will get you all set up.
“If you decide otherwise, and wish to continue the path you're already on, simply do nothing. The tea you are drinking is laced with a beta-blocker that will initiate in twenty-four hours. You will remember nothing of this meeting, and you will be able to continue with your life without the regret of missing such a lucrative opportunity.”
Macey stared into her half-empty cup of tea as the man finished his presentation. Her mind reeled with the possibilities presented before her. Before she had time to think of a response, the other two CrimsonTech associates helped Macey to her feet and ushered her gently towards the door.
“I'd take the bait,” the tall, blonde man murmured in her ear. “He's not kidding about the benefits.”
The door shut behind her, and Macey was left alone in the blank, nullifying hallway.
“...oria? You sti--…--n there?”
Words faded in and out of Gloria's mind, sounding garbled and underwater. She fought through the heaviness that seemed to cover both her mind and body.
“.....weets. You ca--......--ough.”
Gloria managed to push out a grunt as the cloud began to lift. As the haziness was finally forced aside, a thunderous, crashing headache immediately replaced it.
“Bullocks,” she mumbled as the feeling returned to her extremities and she pushed herself from the floor.
“Easy, killer,” Imogen supported her back, helping her to sit up, but not allowing her to stand. The sudden wave of nausea made Gloria glad for the assist. She ignored it and gestured that she was fine.
“I just fell, I'm fine,” the young blonde gave a few short stretches and forced herself to her feet.
“You sure, Sweets?” Talbot offered a hand but Gloria ignored it, instead asking,
“What happened to the target?”
“Fido knocked him one in the head,” the vampire informed her. “Knocked you out with him.”
“It's because I was connecting to him,” Gloria found a chair and sat down, all business, continuing to disregard the constant thumping against the back of her eyeballs. “I'm fine, stop mothering and smothering me.”
Alright, alright,” Imogen and Talbot both took a step back, revealing a guilty-looking Elliot standing in the doorway to the observation room. He opened his mouth to apologize, but the piercing glare from Gloria snapped it right shut again.
“I saw Carl, before he was dead,” Gloria punched through the string of memories her brain had been forced to view. “And the other three victims. Luke has issues, let me tell you. So much confusion, and anger. I'm not sure if it was the delusion that his telekinesis was an extension of a fictional universe, or if something happened when his anomaly was awakening, or if he has just always been a victim of psychosis. Either way--”
“Hold on,” Elliot interrupted her, this time avoiding meeting her angry glance. “Other three victims? Weren't there only three...total?”
“Three...” Gloria repeated, her eyes twitching as they scanned the images of the victims, now laid cleanly in order in her mind. “Carl, Harry, Christopher, and the girl. Four.”
“What girl?” Imogen countered. “There was no girl...”
“Unless we never found her,” Talbot offered. “It's possible she hasn't been found yet.”
“Can you describe her, Gloria? We'll need to find her if we hope to pin this on Luke.”
“I....yeah. Tall, but not very. Thin, but busty. Long, dark hair. White shirt, black vest, black gloves, black capris, black sneakers. Red rib--”
“Stop,” Talbot demanded. “I think I know who that is. Sweets, I'm going to remember a face, and you tell me if it matches the fourth victim.”
Gloria took a deep breath, forcing the exhaustion and headache to the back of her mind as she carefully tapped into Talbot. She saw the same face, the same girl from Luke's visions.
“Yes, yes that's her,” Gloria nodded. “Who is she?”
“She's from the convention. I met her while canvasing for Luke. She said she didn't know him.”
“Then one of them is a liar,” Imogen stood quickly. “Let's head back to the hotel and find her.”
Macey got into her SUV, her mind still overloaded with the CrimsonTech proposal. As she put the car into gear and left the premises, she weighed the options. On one hand, a lot of her current worries and struggles would be erased. Job security, a regular paycheck, and all of the other promises made were incredibly tempting.
On the other hand, red flags were jumping around Macey's feet like Jack Russell terriers. For starters, most respectable businesses did not have memory alteration as an alternative to a job opening. The neutralization of her anomaly also made her more than slightly uncomfortable.
Without thinking about where she was going, Macey found herself pulling up to the back door of the science museum, the entrance used by the DarkWatch operatives within. As she put the car into park and let it idle, she thought about the team she'd been working with for the past few days.
The rough-and-tumble group was nothing if they weren't spontaneous and unpredictable. Easily likeable personalities, but Macey could not help but feel like they were living on the outer edges, surviving by the skin of their teeth, and procedure completely escaped them.
CrimsonTech offered the exact opposite. Predictability. Stability. Clarity.
Macey's heart gave a start when the back door of the museum flew open. She watched as Imogen, Talbot, Gloria, and Elliot came flying out, and her hand was on the gear shift, ready to follow them to wherever they were going. But then she froze. Her mind backpedaled to something the CrimsonTech employee had said.
“Even your friends at DarkWatch have left you behind, turning their backs on a fellow anomaly as they proceed without you.”
Macey slowly drew her hand back to the wheel, waiting. Waiting for her phone to ring. Waiting for the team to see her car. Waiting for a hail or a notice of some kind to tell her that they had not forgotten about her already.
Nothing. The four DarkWatch operatives ran towards the limo requisitioned from the airport, one of them diving behind the driver's seat as the rest piled into the back. The limo squealed backwards and then took off towards the main highway.
Macey sat for several minutes, still waiting. In the back of her mind, she knew she was beyond the point of making a decision. They had left without her. It took a while for that to completely sink in, and for the young cop to slowly relinquish control of her life. Her mind was made up.
She put the car into drive.
“Negative on the perimeter sweep. Gloria?”
“Nothing in the ballroom.”
Spreading thin to cover as much territory as possible in a short period of time, Talbot, Gloria and Imogen came up empty. No sign of the girl from Luke's visions anywhere. Elliot sat in the limo's driver seat, holding their parking spot in the valet lane and watching the entrance in case he saw the girl in question.
In the twenty minutes that it took for them to sweep the hotel from top to bottom, Elliot had, in fact, seen at least that many girls fitting the costume description, but none of them were the one they were after. Elliot flipped on the limo's radio, scanning through dozens of FM stations, hoping for something to dull the humming in his skull.
Spanish channel, crappy rap, some pop tunes, more Spanish, and a station still playing Christmas music. Elliot flipped over to AM to try and find a sports broadcast, but every channel landed on a commercial break. The ear-bud crackled as Talbot's voice broke through.
“Hey Peaches, why don't you grab some some coffee instead of sitting on your ass?”
“Can it, girls,” Imogen broke through. “The hotel register says she checked out two hours ago, in person, which means she was still alive when we took Luke in.”
“So long as it was her that checked out,” Elliot thumbed off the radio. “There are so many girls here with that costume that it could have been any one of them.”
“I'm looking at the surveillance cams now,” Talbot objected. “Most definitely her, leaving just before eleven.”
“No chance for a chameleon?” Imogen pondered out loud.
“I really doubt Luke was working with anyone, let alone a shape-shifter,” Talbot answered. “Didn't seem to have any proper mates, really. What's our next step?”
“Well, the name she used to check into the hotel is a fake,” Elliot could hear Gloria's tension through the microphone “So that's a dead end.”
“I have an idea,” Imogen's voice was fast and excited. “Washington, heat up the car.”
Elliot sighed with a grunt as he tapped his earpiece to turn off his mic.
“Worst. Sidekick job. Ever.”
“What the frak ever happened to our driver?” Elliot obediently geared the limo onto the street to the left.
“Had other things to do,” Gloria mumbled from the backseat. “We couldn't afford the hourly, so we got the car.”
“Up ahead on the right,” Imogen pointed out the front windshield.
“We're going back to Luke's house?” Talbot groaned. “That was your great idea?”
“I never said it was great,” Imogen clarified as Elliot stopped the car and they disembarked. “I just said it was an idea. Come on.”
Braving the coldest fifteen feet of their lives, the four DarkWatch agents made their way to the front door. After several knocks without an answer, they agreed that Luke's psychosis put his mother in immediate danger, and Talbot went to kick the door down, but it opened with ease.
The house was exactly how Gloria and Macey had left it a few days earlier, sans Irene Greenwall. After doing a quick sweep through all of the rooms, Elliot pointed out a day on the calendar indicating a four-day spa retreat with a woman named Marle.
“If Luke truly is serial killer material,” Imogen explained as she herded them towards Luke's bedroom in the basement, “Then he would probably have some kind of evidence in his room. Trophies, trinkets, a diary or list of names, that sort of thing.”
“So we're looking for anything that can link him to the victims, then,” Talbot snapped on a pair of latex gloves, “In the bedroom of a teen lad. This could get messy.”
“The hell?” Elliot raised an eyebrow at the vampire as he slid open some dresser drawers.
“You don't remember being a teenage boy?” Talbot flashed him a grin. “Think of all of the things you hid from your mum. It's with those kinds of things we'll likely find a stash.”
“Gloria?” Imogen stopped pulling the mattress from the bedframe when she noticed the young blonde standing in the doorway, not moving.
“Just retracing the images,” Gloria murmured. “You keep looking; if I see something I'll let you know.”
“She's like a walking computer,” Elliot praised. “You can really just get a hit like that, and sort out all of those thoughts into pictures?”
“With intensive training, yes,” Gloria snapped. “Now shut up and let me think."
Elliot's mouth clamped closed and he continued digging through Luke's clothes. He found several dirty magazines, some manga, and a couple of expired condoms, but nothing useful. He turned to see Imogen pull a shoebox out from under the bed, dumping it out to reveal a cascade of old birthday cards and ticket stubs. Talbot's search through the book shelf was even less productive.
“Hand me those,” Gloria pointed suddenly to the pile that Elliot was holding.
“The porn?” Imogen froze halfway through picking up a card. “Really?”
“The cartoons,” Gloria snatched the manga volumes from Elliot and began shaking them out. Three books in, several slips fell out of one. Talbot scooped them up from the floor and sifted through them, handing them to Imogen as he did so.
“There's a picture of Carl,” Elliot jabbed a finger at one of the slips.
“And the other two victims, Harry and Christopher,” Gloria glanced over Talbot's arm.
“And the girl from the hotel,” Talbot reached the final images, an array of stalker-view snapshots taken from behind trees and cars.
“Not looking good for the Jedi-wannabe,” Imogen sighed, picking up her cell phone to dial Macey. “Hmm, went straight to voicemail. Okay, Tal, bag these up. I don't think there's anything else we can do here.”
“I don't think...” Gloria trailed off.
“Yeah, Sweets?” Talbot did not look up as he slid the photos into an evidence bag.
“Something's off,” she admitted, her hands on her hips and she continued looking around the room. “Something's...missing.”
“How do you mean?” inquired Imogen.
“I mean, the flashes I got from the telekinetic. It was as if they were already organized. I've never had such an easy time putting them in order.”
“Maybe you're just getting better at it,” Elliot offered.
“No, this is different. I would expect this level of an organized mind if I linked with another telepath, but not a telekinetic, and definitely not one as frayed and spastic as Luke.”
“What are you trying to say, Gloria?” Imogen frowned. “You think he's been altered?”
“No, not altered really. Just, I don't know, there's this funny taste to his memories that I didn't get earlier. A kind of third presence in his head, aside from him and myself, like a sudden onset of schizophrenia that hasn't come forward yet or something. I don't know...I'm not making any sense, am I?”
“No, Sweets, you're not,” Talbot put a gloved hand on Gloria's slender shoulder. “You've been a bit on edge for the past couple of days; your brain needs to rest. Why don't you go sit for a while and let us wrap this up?”
“I...alright,” Gloria suddenly looked extremely fatigued as she gave in. Handing Talbot the remaining photographs she was still holding, she took her leave.
“Is she going to be okay?” Elliot whispered after she'd gone.
“She's a tough cookie,” Talbot scribbled labels on the evidence bags. “I wouldn't worry about her.”
“I kind of agree with her, though,” admitted Elliot. “It seems too much like a perfect storm, like everything just fell into place at the last minute. Too easy, too simple.”
“Easy?” Talbot scoffed. “Simple? Define 'simple' to me, because I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
“Tal's right,” Imogen stood and headed for the doorway. “As far as anomalies go, this is generous in regards to evidence, circumstantial or otherwise. We have photographs, Gloria's testimony of Luke's thoughts, and Luke in custody, plus a fourth potential victim alive and free. Usually all that's left is a smear on the pavement. Now, let's call Zeb and get the hell back home.”
“Riddle me this,” Elliot clamped on his seatbelt. “How is it that DarkWatch can find the means to fund their own private jet, but we couldn't get a decent limo or driver for a whole whopping three days?”
“Because the jet can haul any anomaly smaller than a rubbish truck in a neutralizing containment field,” Talbot yawned and fluffed his travel pillow. “Slightly more necessary than making agents comfortable while working.”
“But I don't--” started Elliot, but he was interrupted by Imogen.
“Can you just shut up for five minutes? Gloria's trying to sleep.”
“She's not even in this section...”
Elliot pouted as the Viper rolled onto the tarmac and began accelerating. The seatbelt light came on with a ding, and as it did so, the overhead compartments above Elliot sprung open, throwing dozens of yellow, squirmy somethings all over him.
“Eeeeeek!!” the shrill pierce of Elliot's scream encouraged an outburst of laughter from Imogen and Talbot. As Elliot disentangled himself from the myriad of harmless snakes that the senior team members had planted prior to take-off, the vore caught sight of Gloria's grinning face from the partition between sections.
“You sounds girlier than my three-year-old niece,” the blonde giggled as she quickly slid into the empty seat beside Imogen and strapped in.
“At least he found my snack pack,” Talbot caught the closest reptile slithering across his boots, lifted it to his mouth, and sunk his long canines into the scaly flesh.
Three security technicians led a sedated, cuffed, and bound Luke down a brightly lit, trench-like hallway. As the telekinetic drifted in and out of lucidity, he would struggle against the guards, once managing to extend an arm and take out one of the fluorescent lighting fixtures on the wall. Zebediah MacPhearson stood watching from a windowed hall above.
“The Zoo is getting pretty full, sire,” a second figure approached him, scribbling a note on a clipboard as he stood beside the founder of DarkWatch.
“Aye, that,” Zebediah agreed as he stood, hands in the pockets of his oversized trench, standing in a pose that would make any actor envious. “Too bad for the poor lad.”
“No one exactly 'enjoys' the Zoo, sire,” the man beside Zebediah replied. “It's not meant for the weak of heart; it was built for criminals.”
“You and I both know how many we've put away who did not act of their own accord.”
“Indeed. In that case, yes, they are unfortunate. You believe this telekinetic to be among them?”
“I know it,” Zebediah's blue eyes darkened. “It's like a rerun of Boston and San Diego.”
“I see,” the figure turned slightly to give a side-long glance at Zebediah. “The shoelaces?”
“Aye,” sighed Zebediah. “No shoelaces.”
Continue reading: Special - "Winds of Madness" by Zachary A. Applebee.