1x04 - "Circus"
by K. B. Cribbett and Zachary A. Applebee
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Previously on DarkWatch...
Following Gamma team’s attempted heist of a freighter’s unsanctioned cargo, Alpha and Delta were sent in to secure another dangerous package. When the mission went awry and Delta ended up kidnapped, DarkWatch’s lead team was sent in to rescue them. Meanwhile, Zebediah has been chasing down some leads of his own...
“Is the package secure?” Zebediah MacPhearson’s Scottish brogue came through the line.
“Well...” Talbot Nox hesitated from the other end, cradling a bandaged wrist against his stomach. “Yes and no.”
“We had to.”
“You opened it?”
“Hey, you said it was some kind of weaponized anomaly,” the Englishman resisted raising his voice as he felt the adrenaline rush of the previous mission give way to absolute hunger. His hazel eyes darted around the infirmary, eying the colored bag connected to another agent. “I wasn't about to authorize the loading of a potential ticking time-bomb onto the Viper and risk bringing it back to HQ without knowing what kind of threat it might pose.”
“And is it an immediate threat?” Zebediah's tone seemed impatient.
“Worse,” the blonde vampire's stomach growled in tune with his voice. “It's a weaponized anomaly, alright. The original, weaponized anomaly. It's first-gen vore tech.”
The line went silent. Talbot waited a moment, wondering if the message got through, and he pulled his phone away from his face to look at the screen. Full signal, and still connected. Replacing the device to his ear, he tried again.
“Zeb? You hear me? I said it's--”
“I heard you.” Curt. Short. Probably angry. Talbot winced, kicking himself with the afterthought that he could have dropped that bomb a bit more gently. But then again, this was serious business, and it needed to be addressed, no time to lose.
“Look, Zeb, it's secure here at the base in L.A.,” Talbot finally said. “We can repack it and get it on the Viper and back to you by--”
“Negative. I have something else in mind for you,” Zebediah's tone was even shorter now, words spilling out with sudden urgency. “Instruct Delta to return here immediately with the package, post haste. Take your team and head over to Santa Monica; there's a client there you'll be meeting with.”
“A client? What are we, a business firm?”
“Shut up and get going. I've e-mailed details to your phone.”
As Talbot opened his mouth to give another snarky retort, the only sound that came forth was an aching gurgle from his abdomen. Looking down at his phone, Talbot saw a 'call ended' notification fade out as an 'incoming e-mail' replaced it.
“Sweets!” the man hollered towards the other side of the infirmary, where Alpha and Delta teams were catching their breaths. A young blonde stood deftly and made her way to Talbot.
“What's the boss-man say?” inquired Gloria Day as she tried to mask a slight limp in her walk.
“Pack your swimsuit,” Talbot almost smiled. Almost. “We're going to the beach.”
“You know, if you keep drinking like that, you’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
A young brunette woman sat alone at the bar of One Pico, a high-class restaurant inside of Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica. Her dark green cocktail dress illuminated her curves, including a deep plunging neckline and open back. Black satin strappy heels matched the elbow-length, fingerless gloves. She reached up to casually push a lock of long curls behind her ear, but she was really keying on the microphone attached to the bud in her ear.
“Sandy,” the brunette lifted her martini, masking the movement of her red-painted lips with the lip of the glass. “You made me put on this horrid costume. The least you can do is let me never, ever remember it. Besides, a drink or two is good for the heart.”
“But you look so cute,” Sandy's voice intoned in the brunette's ear. “If I were a dude, or gay--”
Enough, Chewy,” the brunette slowly lowered her glass as she heard leather-bound footsteps approaching from her four o'clock. “Incoming.”
“A bit warm for gloves, isn't it?” a pleasantly male voice came from behind the woman. She smiled slightly to herself, recognizing the predetermined code question as she slowly and deliberately turned on her bar stool.
“Unseasonably, I agree,” she murmured, gesturing to the chair beside her, silently approving of the stranger's muscular physique. The dark-suited man took her outstretched arm and gently pressed his lips against her exposed fingers as he took his seat. Turning to the bartender, she added, “Stan? Another Vesper for my friend here.”
“Deacon, I presume?” the man accepted the drink from the bartender and turned his dark-eyed gaze towards the brunette, unabashedly admiring her from the top down.
“I've been called worse,” the young woman flashed a grin as she crossed her legs. “But for now, 'Deacon' will do.”
“You're not an easy woman to track down. We've been trying to contact you for several months.”
“Yeah, I've been busy. And I can guarantee that after today, 'Deacon' will no longer exist.”
“Such as I've been told,” the man sighed as he plucked the lemon peel from his drink and placed it tenderly on the complementary napkin. When 'Deacon' responded with only a patient doe-eyed gaze, he continued. “Straight to business, then?”
“All I need is a name.”
“That's not what we agreed--”
“Look,” the woman slammed one gloved hand on the bar's counter-top, causing the man's nearly-full drink to sprinkle the vodka mixture onto his hand. “I know she's here. And if you get in my way, you'll be seeing eternity from the backside of your own skull, got it?”
“Well, now,” the man surprised her with a sudden smile. “There's the woman I've heard so much about.”
As he began to reach for the pocket inside of his blazer, the woman made a sudden movement, clenching her fists in a way that indicated she was ready to fight. He put his hands palm-out, indicating he was not, in fact, reaching for a weapon, and he carefully exposed the inside of his lapel to her. The pocket contained a single notepad and pen, which he removed as the woman let out a breath and relaxed.
“I would suggest a few more drinks,” he murmured as he scribbled something in the notepad, then tore the page from its binding. “For a woman as jumpy as you, I'd even go as far as to include a full day's spa. On me, whaddaya say?”
The woman gave him a sweet smile as she snatched the paper from him. “Maybe another time; I'm on the clock.” She read the name scrawled in pen, then ripped it in half. Taking her glass, she lifted it towards her new comrade. “A toast. To successful business ventures.”
“And to a beautiful day at the beach.”
The man raised his glass until it clinked against hers. Tipping back the drink as if it were a shot, he thanked her and stood. The brunette gently replaced her untouched drink on the counter as the man's brows furrowed, one leg giving way as if it had fallen asleep.
“Goodnight,” were the last words he heard as a sudden, overwhelming fatigue overtook him, and he crumpled to the floor, unconscious.
The woman stood, crouching down next to him and patting down his pockets. From them she extracted a wallet, a second notepad, a wad of bills, and a small Smith and Wesson 640. Removing a few of the bills and unloading the weapon, she clicked her tongue at the drugged man.
“Sloppy, sir, just plain sloppy,” she mumbled. Standing, she folded three of the larger bills and slid them into the bartender's tip jar. “Sorry for the mess, Stan, and thank you for your help. When he comes to, he shouldn't remember a thing, so tell him whatever you like. Except the truth, of course.”
Stan simply nodded, removing the used glasses from the counter and continuing on with his job. The brunette reached up to her earbud and made sure it was transmitting as she gazed out the window. A few soft plinks against the window indicated the beginning of a storm.
“We've got our next target.”
As the two taxis that chartered Alpha from the DarkWatch base in Los Angeles to the oceanfront in Santa Monica pulled away, the four teammates darted under a skyway and out of the rain.
“Alright, Tally,” Gloria ran a hand through her short, blonde hair in an attempt to squeeze some of the water from it. “About damn time you tell us what's going on.”
“Seconded,” Imogen Natura responded as she rubbed her dark, bare arms to warm them. “You're usually the last to keep secrets. Out with it.”
“Are all American lasses this impatient?” Talbot let out a soft laugh.
“I'm not American,” Imogen narrowed her dark eyes at the vampire at the same time that Gloria let out a curt, “Yes.”
“Alright, alright,” Talbot put his hands up in defeat. “Zeb thinks we've earned a bit of vacation time, so our next mission is just to meet a potential recruit and bring her back with us.”
“Good,” Elliot Washington grunted, lack of sleep evident in his half-open eyes. “We can be home by tonight.”
“Not exactly, Short Fry,” replied Talbot. “Easy collar, but there's a couple of stipulations, so we get to hang out on the beach for a couple of days.”
“Ya know,” the vore took in a deep, frustrated breath, “This is the third mission in a row that we were told was going to be 'easy.' I get a feeling we're being set up. Is there an opt-out for this?”
“Afraid not,” Imogen answered. “Delta's already gone, so it would be at least a day to get a normal flight or wait for the Viper to return. Now, if Sir Nox here had told us immediately, we might have been able to arrange something.”
“Aw, hell,” Talbot shrugged. “Here I was trying to do something nice for you folk, and all you can do is get cranky about it. Honestly.”
“I'm not cranky,” injected Gloria. “I love the beach. The rain, however....let's get out of it.”
“Aye,” Talbot nodded in agreement, and pointed across the street to a door below the skywalk. “That hotel there is where our client is.”
The four shuffled across the pavement and towards the door, which was opened to them by a clean-cut, suit-wearing bellhop. The doorman gave them an inquisitive look as he noticed their luggage-less hands and soaked, inexpensive outerwear.
“We're meeting someone,” Gloria informed him.
“Lass's name is Lockhart. Destiny,” added Talbot. The bellhop's lips pursed suspiciously.
“Wait here,” he instructed. As Alpha moved into the open, luxurious lobby, the doorman reached to the wall for a corded phone bolted there. He dialed, murmured a few things, and then asked aloud, “Who shall I say is calling?”
“Her private security escort,” Talbot clarified. “She's expecting us.”
The bellhop murmured into the phone some more as Imogen and Talbot exchanged a curious glance. Hanging up the phone, the doorman waved a slightly annoyed hand towards the group, indicating they follow him. Silently, they pursued him up a flight of stairs, to a private elevator, and down a long, thick-carpeted hall. Reaching a large set of double doors at its end, the bellhop knocked twice, gave them each a noticeably condescending glare, and left.
“What a kind chap,” Talbot mumbled.
“I think he was expecting a tip,” Gloria pointed out.
“Here's a tip: Don’t ask me for coin.”
Alpha waited for a few more moments before Talbot rapped the door again. When no one answered, the vampire gave a sideways glance to Gloria; the young blonde closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Before the telepath had time to start scanning the room, a loud thud rang through the air around them, barely muffled by the heavy door. The team, still on edge from the mission in the boat yard the night before, reacted quickly. Elliot barely had his sidearm out of its hidden holster when Talbot kicked in the door. With the entryway clear, the team filtered in, weapons raised.
The large, white suite was in disarray. Destroyed furniture littered the living area and a cool draft permeated the air as the team quickly checked the scene. The smell of rain mixed with something else had Talbot’s nostrils flaring. Led by the odor, he kicked away an overturned vase and quickly crossed the room to one of two doorways, Elliot following him as Gloria and Imogen silently glided towards the other.
Without letting his eyes leave the sights of his Sig Sauer, Talbot trained the gun through the doorway, spinning around the doorframe in a rapid motion. A slender figure dressed in rough black leather, her face obscured with a motorcycle helmet, had one leg out of the window, hesitating for only a moment.
“What the--” Elliot began, but Talbot cut him off by shouting at the caper, “Freeze!”
He was too slow crossing the room; the lithe woman pulled her other leg through the window and was gone. The vampire ignored the tufts of down his boots kicked up as he shot over to the window and aimed his pistol to the alleyway below, then up, across the fire escape, and to each side. There was no sign of the intruder.
“Bollocks,” he hissed, lowering his weapon as he raised his voice. “Bedroom's clear. Any sign of--”
Talbot turned to see Elliot staring green-faced at the bed. Following his gaze, the vampire first took in the amount of red staining on the ripped blanket, the ravaged pillowcases, and the once-ornate bedframe. A hunk of flesh fell onto the middle of the mattress from somewhere above it, and both men gazed upwards.
Remains of a human body were slung across the ceiling, entrails and innards used to hold a torso against the ceiling fan. Each limb had been removed, cauterized with surgical precision, and tied to a fan blade. The center of the abdomen was ripped asunder, leaving a gaping hole through which the fan’s lights could protrude, casting a ghastly pink tint on the room. Another piece of the destroyed body hung by a single thread, the weight pulling it taut until it, too, detached and fell to the bed.
“Where's the head?” asked Elliot, finally able to find words.
“Tally!” they heard Gloria’s panicked voice call from across the suite.
The two men moved swiftly, clearing the pile of feathers and body parts and vaulting through the living area. Imogen kept the door to the suite covered, but jerked her head towards the far wall. Her blonde partner stumbled out from an archway, retching and covering her nose.
“Sweets?” Talbot half-raised an arm towards her.
Gloria shook her head, refusing to uncover her mouth and nose. She simply waved towards the bathroom before leaning against the wall, slowly sinking to the floor. The two men exchanged a look with raised eyebrows, unnerved by the woman’s reaction. With a shrug, Talbot entered first.
In the sink was a decapitated head. The eyelids were wide open, showing scorched, empty sockets. Long, bleached hair pooled underneath in lieu of blood, the same cauterized effect noted on the limbs from the other room accenting the cleanliness of the grizzly scene. But even without the blood, one thing was obvious:Destiny Lockhart was, most assuredly, dead.
“Ugh,” the brunette ripped off her helmet, using her hip to thrust shut the apartment door behind her. “What a mess.”
“Miranda!” a short, round woman spun quickly around in her chair, turning away from the massive computer array that took up the majority of the apartment’s front room. “You....you changed.”
“Sandy, you didn’t expect me to ride in that dress, did you?” Miranda shook out her long locks, letting the wet curls fall freely about her leather-clad shoulders.
“Well, that would have caused a commotion, yes,” nodded Sandy, the short pigtails the same color as her name bobbing in time with her words. “But I don’t see it with you, either.”
“It’s here,” Miranda unslung a motorcycle saddle-bag from her shoulder and tossed it towards Sandy.
“Oh, the poor thing...” Ash-colored eyes frowned as Sandy slowly tugged the dark green dress--now wrinkled and soaked from the rain--from the bag. “What a waste...”
“It wasn’t wasted on tonight’s target,” disagreed Miranda as she unzipped her biking jacket and headed towards the bathroom. “I’d say it closed the deal, in fact.”
“See?” Sandy chirped from the other room, where she had returned to a constant typing on a myriad of keyboards. “Told you I could work magic. You should really dress up more often.”
“Too much work,” Miranda called back, removing her black gloves and tossing them in the sink. She inspected her hands where a red substance had stained them. “And way, way too messy.”
“Speaking of messes, you’d better get in here.”
“Give me a minute, I just walked in the door--”
“No time, this is big.”
The lack of pep in Sandy’s voice caused Miranda to hesitate halfway through removing the black shirt she had worn under her jacket. Sighing, she kept it on and went back out to join her partner.
“See? There.” Sandy jabbed a plump finger at a string of codes spiraling across one of the monitors.
“You have to be more straight with me, Sands,” scolded Miranda. “You know I hired you because I can’t read this nearly as well as you can.”
“Fine, fine, but translating is so slow,” Sandy huffed. “It’s a news bulletin from the coast. A young girl was found dead in a hotel on the beach. And not just any hotel. The hotel you were just at!”
“Did they say what happened?”
“Of course not, but we can guess. They’re not letting anyone anywhere near it, and the media is reporting the blue and whites losing their lunches, so it’s probably the nasty stuff we’ve seen before. They did arrest four people, though.”
“Yeah, two men and two women. Claimed to be a private security detail.....Well, now, this is different.”
“Here,” Sandy poked at another screen. “The 911 call log. The concierge who met the four security guards called in to report suspicious behavior. Guess he didn’t think they looked legit, plus the fact that he said her actual security detail went up to the room only a few minutes before.”
“But I was meeting with him at that time. He would have been taking a nice long nap when all of this went down.”
“Maybe he had a partner?”
“Shouldn’t have. Not with the company he was working for.”
“And here’s another doozy. Lockhart herself called 911 saying she felt threatened right before the concierge called. The line went dead before she could say anything else, and that’s when the police raided the hotel and found the four.”
“So we have plenty of suspects. Works for me,” the brunette turned to leave.
“One more thing,” Sandy added. “The private LAPD channels are chatting that at least one of the four in custody saw the murderer leaving.”
Miranda stopped in her tracks, fidgeting one foot in its leather boot. Pursing her lips, she finally nodded.
“If they’ve got enough for an ID....” she said slowly, “then it looks like we’ve got a clean-up on aisle four.”
Two unregistered Glocks were safe in their holsters. A third was secured between the small of the back and a belted pair of leather pants. Around the waist were an assortment of other useful items, including some small hand grenades, a couple of flash-bangs, a taser, retractable wire, and several magazines of extra ammo.
“You don’t think you’re overdoing it a little?”
The sandy-haired woman wrinkled her plump face in concern as she watched her associate strap a series of small throwing and fighting knives to ankles, thigh, and wrists.
“You said all of the employees on the payroll were registered, right?” the assassin stood upright, pulling long brown tresses into a fast braid, which she tucked into itself against her skull.
“Well, all of the ones on that floor,” responded the first woman.
“Then they’ve already signed away their rights.”
“And the prisoners?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Miranda...” the shorter woman paused and pursed her pink lips.
“I’ll be fine,” sighed Miranda. “Look, Sandy, if anything happens--”
“It’s not you I’m worried about,” Sandy shook her head. “But if those prisoners can ID the person who killed that pop star, then--”
“Let’s just see what they know first, okay?” Miranda picked up her black motorcycle helmet and opened the door to leave. “Then I’ll figure out what to do with them.”
“Yeah,” Sandy grimaced as the door slammed shut. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Bring me the first one.”
As the young pink-faced cop left to carry out his orders, Police Chief Regland sat in a small room with a pile of reports scattered across the table before him. He curled a lip at the gruesome images from the crime scene; it was no wonder he had to reassign more than half of the first responders.
Hearing the gentle clap of two sets of footsteps approaching, Regland admired the arrangement of the photos and leaned back in the stiff chair while crossing his arms. A short burst of three knocks on the door was followed by the heavy wooden slab creaking open on old hinges.
In walked a tall, pale-faced blonde man who carried himself with a proud gait, despite the shackles wrapped around his wrists and ankles. The young cop holding the door waited for a confident nod from Regland before letting the door fall shut, leaving the prisoner alone with the chief of police.
“Please, have a seat,” Regland gestured to the empty chair on the other side of the table. Hazel eyes casually roamed the room, ignoring the chair, table, and officer, and Regland recognized the pattern. Confinement was no stranger to this prisoner, as his gaze settled only briefly on the room-long mirror behind Regland, the three security cameras scattered around the room, and the thick, heavy door from which he had just entered. Finally, the blonde man secured his sight on Regland, not breaking eye contact as he gracefully crossed the room and slid into the unoccupied seat.
The police chief held the prisoner’s gaze, feeling the power play begin. Instinctively believing that this man was the leader of the other three, Regland knew that breaking him first would keep his associates sweating in their isolated cells. The longer this first interview went on, the better.
“You know we’re innocent,” the blonde man finally spoke, the missing ‘r’ in his accent indicative of an English origin. Regland made a mental note to follow up on the request he had sent to Scotland Yard with the man’s fingerprints.
“Innocent of what, I wonder,” the policeman pondered out loud. “That’s a heavy word to throw around when there are so many things you might be guilty of.”
“Of which,” the Englishman corrected him, then clicked his tongue. “You jump across the pond, win a couple of gunfights, and suddenly you’re ending your sentences in prepositions. Savages.”
“Is that what this is about?” Regland uncrossed his arms and placed well-groomed hands on either end of the scattered collage between them. Neither man had so much as glanced at the images upon the latter’s entrance. “Some kind of British retaliation for a war lost long ago?”
The prisoner only grinned, flashing unnaturally white teeth.
Miranda leaned to the right, flipping down the kickstand of her Ducati Streetfighter with the toe of her left boot. A steady pelting of rain splattered across her leather-clad shoulders and streamed down the front of her fogless motorcycle helmet. Street lights were dimmed by the night’s damp atmosphere, giving the city block a foreboding aura.
Reaching up to her helmet, Miranda touched an activation switch that brought up a digital view of the scene before her, displayed across the helmet’s protective shield. Concrete walls were doubled under blue structural spines. The woman opened a velcro patch over her wrist, revealing a small datapad, into which she keyed a handful of combinations. The blueprints faded into an electrical grid, which Miranda studied for only a moment before it faded into a mess of colored splotches.
“There you are,” she murmured, observing the movement of the heat-radiating bodies tracked by her equipment. Raising her right leg up and over the bike’s seat as she adjusted the small hiker’s pack on her back, Miranda reached behind the crotch-rocket padding and unholstered two Walther PPKs. She checked the magazines of each, flipped off the safeties, and strode straight for the building’s front entrance.
Regland could not identify the moment when the prisoner turned the tables and began to interrogate him. After several attempts and time wasted on trying to question the Englishman, the police chief moved on to his next target. Her quiet demeanor and readiness to fall in line under her commander made her seem like an easy break.
Instead, he found himself sharing a coffee with the petite young woman. Her chair was moved next to his, and her restraints lay useless in a corner beside the door. She was asking about his daughter now, who had just gone away to college, and he hid the tightness in his eyes with a large gulp from the mug in his hand.
“You must be very distraught,” the girl spoke softly, sympathetically. “L.A. is a big, scary place. Especially with all of the Hollywood types out there, jerks who can do whatever they want and get away with just a spot of community service.”
“You got that right,“ Regland nodded, his dark eyes stiffening in anger. “But I taught her to protect herself. She’s got more hours on the range than half the men in this building.”
“Bet she’s a pretty good shot, huh?” The girl batted long lashes over her bright blue eyes, laying a small hand on the officer’s arm. “Too bad she wasn’t fast enough this time.”
“This time?” Regland blinked, then followed the woman’s gaze down to the photos in front of him. He jumped up, as if seeing them for the first time, toppling his chair backward as he snatched his hand away from the prisoner and covered his mouth with it. “...the hell is this?!”
The police chief shook his head and rubbed his eyes, as if waking up from a long sleep. Trembling in fury, he glared at the prisoner through what felt like a dim fog lifting from his sight. His gaze caught the chains in the corner, and he bellowed towards the mirror for security to retrieve the prisoner immediately.
“Aw, well,” the girl sighed. “It was worth a shot.”
“You’re sick,” Regland thrust a white-knuckled finger in her face. “Sick.”
The front office proved to be easier than Miranda had prepared for. Night shift on a weekday left only a handful of dispatchers and volunteer workers lazily meandering the lobby. Five bodies with shots straight between the eyes were now hunched behind their desks, and six more were passed out with tiny darts in their necks.
Miranda keyed a sequence into her wristpad that brought up a second set of data over the heat-sensor. Each body was now attached to a string of information, including a specific red tag (or lack thereof) that signified to Miranda whether the target was shoot-to-kill or just a harmless bystander.
The display over one of the volunteers flickered for a moment as the data updated itself. When it stopped, a small red dot appeared next to his name. Miranda replaced the dart in his neck with the remaining bullet in her PPK, the man’s legs jerking as the shot pierced his brain.
Reloading her two favorite pistols from the ammo pack on her left hip, Miranda threw the empty cartridges into her backpack and hit the “Up” button on the elevator. The car was already on the first floor, and the door opened immediately. Studying the panel, she pressed the illuminated circle for the lowest floor.
The police chief changed his tune with the third prisoner he brought in. Pulling out the chair for her, he put on a cheery demeanor, and tried to soften her up with some friendly conversation.
“I’m so sorry that we have to go through this whole rigamarole,” the officer started with an empathetic grin. “I hate to be wasting your whole weekend. I’m sure you have other things you’d rather be doing...”
Regland paused, laying one hand flat on the closed case file and sliding it off to one side as he sat down. The prisoner did not respond, instead just giving him a blank stare through dark eyes.
“My name is Chief Regland,” he glanced down at the empty table, then back to the woman.
“Would you please state your name for the record?”
“Ma’am, I understand that this is a terrible inconvenience. Your cooperation would go a long way in getting you out of here more quickly...”
The woman took a deep breath in, as if to say something, but simply exhaled, her eyes leaving Regland’s for a moment in a look of boredom.
“You may find it interesting that we found absolutely no record of you or your companions in any of our background checks. No fingerprint matches, no birth certificates, no social security numbers. Not even a parking ticket. Almost as if you don’t exist.”
Crossing her arms, the prisoner only raised an eyebrow. Regland held her dark gaze for a moment, letting the silence fall between them. Although he had intended to play nice with this one, he felt himself unable to tear his eyes from hers, the white noise seeming to rise as a buzzing in his ear.
Regland finally blinked and looked away. A sharp pain presented itself at the back of his head and he craned his neck to the side until it cracked. Another sharp pain. This time, the prisoner seemed to smile as it happened, as if she could feel the headache forming in the back of his skull, and was reveling in it.
The police chief blinked again and rubbed the back of his neck. Suddenly, without moving, the prisoner’s arms were no longer crossed. Another stab of pain, another blink, and the prisoner’s arms were crossed again, a smug look on her face.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Three shattered skulls fell to their desks, the bodies beneath them flailing limply as the nerves were torn from their sources. Miranda crouched down, crab-walked a step, turned to one side and rose up again, firing off three more precision shots.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Two rounds hit their marks, destroying the faces of two on-duty officers who had barely registered her presence before their lives were taken. The third bullet veered slightly off course, slicing next to the final policeman’s head and removing his ear.
“Damnit,” cursed Miranda as the injured cop bellowed in pain and anger. She ducked behind a desk as the officer fumbled for his weapon and unloaded the clip in her direction. As the hot lead flew around her, the brunette reached into the strap on her ankle and removed a small, sharp object. When the cop’s pistol clicked with the empty barrel, Miranda spun around as she stood, using the momentum to fling the object across the room.
This time the policeman went down, a look of shock frozen on his face as he fell backwards, the tiny dagger sticking out of one eye. Miranda crossed the room swiftly, another small dagger in her other hand, prepped for the final blow, but the cop was already dead.
As the woman stooped to retrieve the weapon, a small crash behind her caused her to instinctively duck and spin, daggers at the ready. In a doorway to a break room, a young woman stood white-faced, one hand held out from her where the mug she was carrying used to be before it slipped from her grasp, shattering to the ground.
Miranda blinked, frozen as she inspected the data on her helmet’s screen. No red tag. With a small flick of her wrist, she sent a dart into the other woman’s neck, causing the latter to jerk, roll her eyes back, and crumple unconconscious to the floor.
The leather-clad assassin stayed where she was, counting her breaths as they slowed, and listening for any other movement. Finally, she stood, replacing the daggers and reloading her used pistol. She cleared the rest of the room, checking under tables and in side doors to make sure all of the offices were empty.
Then she moved on.
After three unsuccessful interrogations, Regland was sure he would be able to squeeze some information from the fourth. Unlike his cellmates, the chief of police had managed to obtain a hard copy file for the last prisoner. Even though all electronic traces had been cleaned, one small folder remained, tucked away at the bottom of a drawer in an office in Chicago. A copy had been faxed over immediately.
The final prisoner now sat across the interrogation table from Regland, slumped down, ragged, with darkening circles under his eyes. When he had been retrieved from his cell, he had been half-asleep, and had not stopped complaining the entire way to where he presently sat.
“Dude, it’s been like seventeen hours,” the prisoner grumbled. “You can’t starve us, you know. We have rights!”
“You’ve barely been here two hours,” Regland corrected him with a sigh. “Or is it that you have the munchies?”
“Huh? Dude, no,” the prisoner shook his head with a curl of his lip. Drugs are for losers. Although I’ll take a smoke if you’ve got one.”
Regland hid a small grin. Even though this character seemed to whine a lot, he was talking. And the more he talked, the more likely he might slip and say something useful. Regland fingered the tips of two folders on the table in front of him. One held the grotesque images from the murder scene, and the other held the precious few files on the background of the prisoner.
“So what all do you need from us, then?” the prisoner broke the silence. “I mean, I’m only going to tell you the same thing the others told you.”
“Is that so?” One of Regland’s brows rose up.
“Well, yeah,” the prisoner shrugged. “That’s why you kept us separate, right? To corroborate our stories? Make sure we all saw the same thing? I mean, after three, it’s not like I’m going to tell you something different. We both know this is just a formality. Let’s just skip it then and let us go home.”
“Indeed,” Regland mumbled, straight-faced. “In that case, why don’t you bare with me. Just go ahead and tell me what you believe happened, from your point of view.”
“Fine, but there’s not much to tell. I mean, we get the security job, we go to the hotel, we show up, the girl’s dead. Too bad, too, ‘cuz I really woulda killed for her autograph.”
“Would you now?”
“Well, not like that, I mean. Sorry, I haven’t slept in like two weeks; give me a break, man.”
“You look it.”
“In fact,” Regland pulled open one of the folders. “You look pretty lively for a dead fellow.”
“Say what now?” A flicker flashed across the prisoner’s face, as if for a moment this came as a surprise, but then it was not, and then it was again. “Dead? Who says I’m dead?”
“Coroner’s report,” answered the officer, reading the file in front of him. “Filed just a few months ago. You were cremated.”
“Huh. Don’t remember that happening. You’d think I’d remember that.”
“And it says here you left behind a widow, a young woman by the name of Chloe?”
Regland looked up at the prisoner and was met with a pained expression. The policeman pursed his lips, knowing he had found the prisoner’s soft spot. Glancing one more time down at a few key notes on the report, Regland shut the folder and continued:
“Your friends promised they’d look after her, didn’t they?”
No response. The young, razzled man turned his gaze downwards, which was answer enough for Regland. He decided to show his first card.
“Your buddies, the ones who got you arrested, they were pretty hard to crack. But in the end, everyone talks. We know all about DarkWatch.”Regland paused to see if the code word elicited any reaction from the prisoner. If it did, none showed.
“I want to make this easy for you, so just think about it. These people have been trained for this sort of thing, trained to withstand interrogation, even torture, but we got the information we needed. And here you are, the new guy who hasn’t slept in, what was it, two weeks? What chance do you think you have?”
The prisoner simply stared at his own restrained hands. Regland decided it was a contemplative silence, not a resistant one, so he went on.
“We know where they’re keeping her,” murmured the police chief. “This doesn’t have to be messy. You play ball, give us the intel we need, and she’s yours again. No strings attached. You can return to the happy life you had before this whole DarkWatch business. What do you say?”
The prisoner made a face, glaring down at where he had begun to wring his hands. Regland let him ponder for several minutes before the prisoner finally looked up at him.
He was smiling.
As Miranda cleared the security office outside of the last detention level, a small digital beep sounded from her helmet. In the upper right corner of the screen’s display, a low battery icon began to flash. With a curl of her lip, Miranda flipped open the pad on her wrist and shut the system off completely. This far down the rabbit hole, everyone would be a red tag.
The brunette dumped the last empty clip into her backpack and reached to her waist for another magazine. All she had left were the man-killer rounds for the Glocks. Frowning, Miranda tucked the PPKs into her bag as well, unholstering two Glocks, checking to make sure they were loaded, and flipped off the safeties.
“Alright, Miranda,” she whispered to herself, “On your toes.”
“I’ve had about enough of you freaks,” Regland mumbled under his breath as he escorted the last prisoner from the interrogation room. After no response to signaling and then radioing out to have a security guard return to take the prisoner back to his cell, the police chief’s mood turned sour.
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” the prisoner yawned, then stumbled over the chains linking his feet together. “I didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything.”
“We’ll see what a long night in the drunk tank says to that,” retorted Regland as he swiped his security badge over the panel at the end of the hall. The red LED turned green, and the door clicked open. Pulling the door wide, the officer roughly pushed the prisoner through it.
Immediately, Regland’s hand was at his holster and he drew his weapon. The two guards meant to man the door were laying face-down in pools of their own blood. Swiftly, the policeman pulled the door shut until it clicked, then he moved in front of the prisoner, his gun trained on the open room before him.
“What’s going on?” the prisoner mumbled, and Regland shushed him.
“Just shut up and stay right here. You’re not going anywhere.”
“Wrong,” came a woman’s voice from Regland’s right side.
The officer turned and squeezed the trigger, a hail of bullets slicing through the air. As they impacted the thick cement wall, a single bullet exploded off of a metal pipe protecting an electrical conduit, and a spray of sparks cast a flickering dimness over the room. Regland raised one arm to protect his eyes from the inconsistent blaze at the same moment something hot seared into the left side of his chest. He fell to the floor, clutching at the wound as the pipe he had hit flickered from the damage. Regland’s face contorted as he took in the dark, lithe figure he had completely missed. She was dressed all in black with a larger-than-normal head, but the officer’s vision was tunneling, his sight blackening as he passed out.
“Well, that sucks,” the woman tilted her helmeted head to one side, raising her sidearm and sending another bullet straight through Regland’s head.
“I’m not armed,” the prisoner tried to put his hands above his head, but the shackles linking them to his feet only let them get about shoulder-high.
“Oh, settle down,” sighed the assassin, raising her arm to send a tranquilizer dart through the prisoner’s neck. The prisoner ducked and rolled to one side, his chains rattling as he stumbled back onto his feet and took off running towards the holding cells.
“Guys!” he hollered as he ran.
“Ugh, I hate weasels,” the leather-clad woman grumbled, then raised her voice as she walked after him, “I wasn’t going to kill you! Not like you have anywhere to--”
She stopped in her tracks as she turned the corner. There before her were four prisoners, having helped themselves to the bounty of her killing spree, now removing the chains by which they had been bound. Two women were unshackling the one she had just chased after. The fourth, a blonde man, was kneeling over one of the bodies, holding it as if it were a dear friend he had just lost.
“--the same one from the hotel, I swear,” the weasely prisoner whimpered to the two women. Both looked up and saw the assassin standing there, both pistols raised, aimed directly at their heads.
“Yeah, we believe you,” the dark-haired one replied, reaching down and swatting the blonde man upside the head. “We got visitors, boss.”
The leader of the group stood slowly, letting the dead officer drop from his lap like a limp rag. As he turned, the assassin fought the urge to turn and run; his face was covered in blood. As he reached up and wiped the red from his mouth with his sleeve, the assassin suddenly lowered her weapons, taking a step forward as she spoke:
“It appears you have me at a disadvantage,” Talbot Nox purred in a thicker-than-usual English accent.
He extended one hand towards the armed, helmeted figure facing him. The woman recoiled slightly, her eyes catching the red stain across his sleeve where he had, only moments before, wiped someone else’s fresh blood from his pale face. For a moment, she raised two Glocks back up at Talbot and his three comrades, but changed her mind, flicking on the safeties as the barrels turned to the floor.
“Talbot, I thought you were dead,” the leather-clad assassin murmured, reholstering only one of her pistols. With her free hand, she reached up to raise the shield on her helmet, revealing a pretty face framed by dark locks.
“I’m sorry, who--” Imogen Natura began, but Talbot cut her off.
“I could say the same about you, Miranda,” Talbot frowned at the assassin.
“Boss,” Gloria Day put a small but firm hand on Talbot’s arm. “Time to go.”
“Right, then,” the vampire sighed. “Formalities later. Have you a clear exit?”
“Give me some credit, Nox,” snorted Miranda.
“First, we need our--”
“Already on it,” Elliot Washington poked his head out of a side room, an assortment of Alpha’s weapons and gear hanging from his arms. Miranda flipped down her helmet shield, snatching her holstered gun and reloading it.
“Let’s move,” Miranda ordered, turning on her heel and taking off down the hall.
“Whoa, wait,” Imogen stepped in front of Talbot when he made to follow her. “Who is this girl?”
“An old...friend,” Talbot adjusted the bullet-proof blazer he had just put back on, trying to step around her. “We can sort it out later. When we’re surrounded by a few less bodies.”
“The bodies are what concerns me,” Imogen did not budge.
“He’s right, Momo,” injected Gloria. “If we stick around, we’re going to take the fall for this. Someone’s already sounded the alarm.”
Imogen swore under her breath, snatching her weapons from Elliot’s outstretched hands. Reluctantly, she fell in line behind Talbot as he led the way out.
“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?” sighed Zebediah MacPhearson.
“The prisoner for that cell was signed out five days ago, sir,” came a static-y response from the speaker on the boss’s desk.
“Signed out by whom?” Zebediah closed his eyes and pursed his lips to contain his outrage.
“By...by you, sir,” stammered the officer. A second light on the intercom flashed at him.
“There must be some mistake, Captain. Double check. Triple check. And track down that prisoner. Or you can take his suite.”
Zebediah punched a button to end the call, then clicked to pick up the other line.
“What is it?” his Scottish voice pierced the air.
“Nice to hear from you, too,” Talbot answered.
“You’re supposed to be on vacation,” growled Zebediah. “Or radio silence, at any rate.”
“If by ‘vacation’ you mean ‘forced on a mission on the beach,’ sure.”
“Mission? What mission?” Zebediah began fumbling around for the briefing folder.
“Damn,” the Scotsman paused, recognizing the mission code change from a security job to a murder investigation. “Any leads?”
“...Hard to say at this juncture. I’ll be in touch.”
“Fine, but send your updates to my alternate e-mail. And make sure Gloria encrypts them.”
“...Sir? ...You think we have a leak?”
“Just do it.”
Zebediah thumbed the speaker before Talbot could object, his attention drawn to a sticky note sticking out from under a file folder. Scrawled in his own handwriting was a message to himself that he did not recall writing. He turned it over to see if there was more to it, but the only words it contained were,
‘Start with the Ark.’
Talbot flipped his cell phone closed, catching Gloria’s eye as he did so, and tapped one finger against his skull. As they neared the police station lobby, Gloria responded with only a short, curt nod, indicating her understanding. She reached into her pocket for her own mobile device, but before she could unlock the touchscreen, it was snatched from her grasp by a gloved hand.
“What do you think you’re doing?” chided Miranda. She opened the back of Gloria’s phone and pulled the battery, dumping the pieces into her backpack. “You’re going to get us all killed,” she added as she thrust her hand towards Talbot and flexed her fingers, demanding his phone.
“This isn’t our first circus act, love,” grumbled Talbot, but he gave up his device anyway.
“Don’t give her that!” Imogen tried to intercept the exchange, but her swiping motion only grasped air. Miranda was too fast, already dismantling the phone and chucking it into her sack.
“You, too, missy,” the assassin exposed a gloved palm to the shifter. “And anything else you’ve got that works on wireless.”
“Tally--” Gloria started, but Talbot shushed her with a swift shake of his head.
“Just do it, Natura,” the vampire instructed. “We can trust her.”
“But she...” Elliot stammered, pulling out his own cell, fumbling with sleep deprivation. “The hotel--”
“Can it, frog legs,” snapped Talbot. “Time is something we do not have the luxury of having in excess.”
“Ugh,” Imogen made no attempt to hide her disgust as she finally conceded, giving up her mobile phone.
“Hiding any other toys?” Miranda turned her helmet purposefully towards Talbot.
“Not on this ride, duckie,” the vampire exposed his hands. “So where’s our ride out?”
“I didn’t exactly bring a bus,” snarled Miranda as she zipped her pack closed. “But I saw a few shiny new KZPs on the east side as I came in. Give me three minutes to clear a path.”
Nurse Margaret Rumsfeld approached the slightly ajar door to Zebediah’s office. Hesitating for only a moment, she raised one small fist and tapped her knuckles against the wood grain. Hinges creaked as the slight pressure and vibrations caused the entryway to widen. Peeking her head into the open space, Margaret had to give the door an extra push to get it to open all the way.
The filing cabinet that had blocked the door by leaning at an awkward angle gave way and fell with a loud crash to the floor. The scene before her caused the woman to instinctively reach for the medical pager at her waist. As the clip was loosed and she brought the device to her lips, her grey eyes darted around the trashed room, taking in the piles of papers, drawers torn asunder, and upturned cabinets.
Margaret began to tone out an emergency squad to her location, but a scuffle from behind the desk caused her to mute herself, her other hand silently drawing the pistol she kept at her hip. Treading lightly upon the crinkly paper, the nurse stole across the side of the room, the weapon trained on the desk, her pager still to her mouth.
Clearing the desk, Margaret huffed a loud sigh and canceled her page, lowering her gun with a curse as she did so. Behind the desk was a disheveled Zebediah, shuffling through a stack of old reports.
“Sir?” Margaret tried to get his attention.
“Mm,” Zebediah only grunted.
“Hey!” the nurse tried again, this time snapping her fingers a few inches from Zebediah’s head. The Scotsman jerked back, blinking rapidly as he looked up at her.
“Hmm? Oh, you. Yes, here, hold this,” Zebediah shoved a handful of papers into Margaret’s hand as he slipped on the paper-covered floor in the maneuver to stand. “And here, there are more,” he scooped up another stack from the desk and dumped them into Margaret’s arms.
“What--” she tried to start, but Zebediah was already advancing on another stack.
“These, too, and these--wait,” he paused, seeming to see Margaret for the first time. “When did your hair get moldy?”
“It’s not mold, it’s dye,” the nurse rolled her eyes.
“Yes, good. Now, what is--”
“Cut the small talk,” Zebediah interrupted her again. “This is more important. Look, all of these.”
“What am I looking at?” Margaret pursed her lips.
“All of them! Not a single one!” Papers flew into the air as Zebediah flung his hands upwards.
“Don’t you see?”
“I’m afraid I don’t--”
“Well, if you’re not going to help,” Zebediah yanked the papers from the nurse’s hands, “then just get out!”
“OUT!” the Scotsman gave Margaret a firm push towards the door, hustling her out so quickly that she did not have time to register his brief explosion by the time the door slammed shut behind her.
“...the hell just happened?” mumbled Margaret.
“Someone’s going to notice these if we leave them here,” grunted Imogen as she dragged the stolen police motorcycle into a cubby in the parking garage below Miranda’s apartment.
“The landlord is well paid to keep his trap shut,” Miranda snapped, covering her Ducati with a fitted tarp. “And his other tenants aren’t exactly keen on calling in to the local PD.”
“I see the company you keep has not changed much over the years, duckie,” grinned Talbot as the last bike was cradled against the others.
“At least they’re predictable,” came the low reply from the helmeted woman. “This way,” she gestured to a service door nearby.
“Boss,” Gloria tugged on Talbot’s elbow. “I’m still not okay with this.”
“Me, either,” Imogen agreed as Elliot drowsily began to follow Miranda through the door and up the stairs.
“Easy, lasses,” replied Talbot in a hushed tone. “I trust her; doesn’t mean you have to. But believe you me, we’re safer not crossing this one. Keep your eyes open, but to the outside. I’ll take care of the broad.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” sneered Imogen as she violently shouldered past the vampire and stalked away.
“Did I miss something?” Talbot asked Gloria as they mounted the stairs behind her. “Was it something I said?”
“Tally, if you even have to ask, it probably was something you said,” shrugged Gloria. Already a few steps higher than the vampire, she turned and gave him a short pat-pat on his blonde head. “Don’t juggle, boss, it’s not your strong suit. Especially not when it comes to women.”
“What? That’s not even--” he started, but was shushed by Miranda at the top of the stairs.
“Would you keep it down back there?” she hissed. “Just because the neighbors have no fond bonds with the local bacon doesn’t mean I want them knowing when I’m coming or going. Got it?”
“Yes, ma’am,” grumbled Talbot.
Alpha followed Miranda up several flights of stairs before they reached the landing to her floor. Silently, they moved through the entryway and down the hall, pausing only a moment as Miranda slid a card into the gap between her door and the wall, pulling back the latch. In a swift, practiced motion, she picked the deadbolt lock, and when the door was open only a few centimeters, she tapped a series of buttons on the strike plate.
“You have to break into your own place?” Talbot murmured.
“Keys are too easy to steal or copy,” growled Miranda, grabbing his arm and shoving him inside. The rest of the team shuffled in quickly and quietly behind him. The assassin turned and tapped a couple more buttons on the door’s frame, letting it fall shut with an almost inaudible ding as as the security system locked into place.
“Miranda!” a round, dirty-blonde woman swiveled in her chair to turn towards the door. “You go--oh!”
Elliot gave out a low whistle as he took in the array of monitors and computers rigged to cover an entire wall. “Dang, it’s like the Nebuchadnezzar up in here.”
“Sandy, we’ll be having some guests for dinner,” sighed Miranda as she finally tugged off her bicycle helmet. “This is Talbot, and....um...”
“Pleased to meet you,” Talbot swooped up Sandy’s hand and pressed it against his pale lips. “Talbot Nox, at your service. And my team,” he pulled himself proudly to his full height, gesturing to the others. “Gloria, Imogen, and TiddlePuss.”
“It’s Elliot,” the vore snapped.
“Same thing,” shrugged Talbot
Sandy only blinked and tried to nod.
“Here, can you decrypt this?” Miranda produced a thick set of file folders from her jacket and held them out towards Sandy
“Where were you hiding those?” the vampire did mask his stare at Miranda’s bodice.
In reply, the assassin thwacked Talbot on the nose with the folders before giving them to her assistant, who did not reply other than to take the paperwork and turn away from the group to frantically type away at the massive console of screens against the wall.
“What’s in that file?” Imogen demanded as Miranda disappeared into the kitchen for a few seconds.
“That’s what Sandy’s decoding,” replied the assassin, reappearing with a large glass of wine, which she set in front of the pigtailed woman. Sandy snatched up the goblet, gulped down almost half of it, and continued typing.
“Case L150T17,” Sandy blurted out between keystrokes. “The first degree homicide of one Caucasian female believed to be the pop singer Destiny Lockhart. Identity pending release of dental records.”
“Yeah, we know she’s dead,” huffed Imogen. “We were there.”
“The report goes on to describe the initial crime scene--ew,” Sandy made a face. “Skipping down...here. Found at the scene of the crime were four individuals, taken into custody as primary suspects. Initial claims include the sighting of a fifth female suspect who took a dive from the third story and vanished into thin air.”
“That would be you,” Elliot whispered to Miranda.
“Me?” the assassin seemed genuinely shocked. “I wasn’t there, I was--”
“Sorry, duckie,” injected Talbot. “Cubit and I both saw you. Dressed exactly as you are now, only with the helmet on.”
“I swear, I wasn’t--” Miranda started again, but this time Imogen cut her off.
“Talbot, honestly,” the shifter rolled her eyes. “Tell me again why we’re even here, listening to this?”
“But you were--”
“--saw her, really, had to be--”
“--only saw the head--”
“--the bar nearby, not up--”
“--likely story, so why--”
“--report clearly states--”
“--two places at once--”
“--doesn’t even sound the same as--”
“--such a waste of time, we should--”
“--did you say--”
“--was with someone, he--”
“--can’t hear myself think, can we please--”
“--no way to prove--”
“--cauterized with surgical--”
“--just want to sleep--”
“--but if you were--”
“--just go back to LA--”
“--quiet, I can explain--”
“--enough, I’m leaving--”
“--NO!” Sandy and Miranda both exclaimed at the same time as Imogen reached for the handle of the door. Talbot grabbed the woman’s wrist before her fingers could touch the cold metal, and he could feel her tremble in rage.
“If everyone could kindly shut the hell up,” the vampire bellowed, then turned a cold hazel gaze toward Miranda. “Tell me why I just did that?”
“This apartment is secure,” explained the assassin. “You can’t just open the door and leave; we’re sealed in. Digitally, hermetically, you name it. If your fingerprints and DNA aren’t coded into our system...well, it won’t be pleasant.”
“Great,” Imogen ripped her arm from Talbot. “From one prison straight into another.”
“Not a prison,” Sandy pouted. “A safehouse. It’s scary out there.”
“I can take care of myself,” snorted the shifter.
“Indeed,” Talbot furrowed his brow. “No more talking over one another; we’re all adults here. Let’s just step ourselves out of the situation and look at this as if it had nothing to do with us, aye?”
“Good, fine,” Miranda waved a hand in the air. The others grumbled their acceptance.
“First, we need a timeline. Destiny was in her room all morning, yes?”
“Yes,” piped Sandy, taking another swig from her wine glass. “She checked in at eleven thirteen the night before, and only left her room to get a bucket of ice at eight twenty-four the following morning.”
“How--” Elliot started.
“Hotel security cams,” answered the tech. “Easy to hack.”
“So true,” Gloria agreed.
“Breakfast was delivered to her room at eight oh one,” Sandy added. “Other than that, doors and windows shut; she was in her room the entire night and morning.”
“What about the security guard?” asked Talbot. “He was gone when we arrived.”
“He clocked in with her the night before,” said Sandy. “The suite has an adjoining room for him. Internal sensors indicate that he checked on her every hour during the night. At nine forty-five, he left his room, checked out with the concierge, and left the lobby.”
“To meet with me,” Miranda stated. “He showed up at the bar at ten on the dot.”
“You were at a bar at ten in the morning?” the vampire raised an eyebrow at Miranda.
“Quietest time to meet someone, very low chance of spectators, eavesdroppers, etc.”
“Correct,” nodded the tech, who then fell silent as she stared in confusion at the screen.
“Sandy?” Miranda encouraged her.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Here’s where things get weird.”
“Because things weren’t already weird,” Elliot mumbled from his leaning post against a wall.
“He checked back in with the concierge at ten fifteen, and went straight back up to the room.”
“How is that weird--” Imogen started.
“I drugged him,” Miranda murmured, her dark brows drawn. “No way he could have woken up that fast. You have the bar cam?”
“It’s been wiped,” admitted Sandy. “But...I swear, I was watching it when it happened. He stayed down for more than fifteen minutes, I’m sure.”
“No cameras in Destiny’s room, I don’t suppose?” Talbot hoped.
“Yeah, right,” snorted Gloria. “That’s just a harassment case waiting to happen.”
“We only have the door sensors, to let us know when any adjoining doors open and close,” informed Sandy. “So somehow....the security guy goes into Destiny’s room at ten twenty, through her door, not his, and then there’s no sighting of him. At all. Poof.”
“Well he wasn’t there when we got there,” Imogen explained.
“He may have been hiding,” Gloria offered. “I didn’t have time to get a read on the place, and the police showed up and jumbled everything. He could have slipped out in the chaos.”
“I’ll run a facial recognition on all of the foot traffic in and out of the room, just in case,” Sandy’s fingers whisked across three keyboards. “But I swear he should have still been down at the bar. But any proof of that is gone.”
“Okay, so we got there...when exactly?” inquired Gloria.
“And the police?” the assassin asked.
“So between nine forty-five and ten forty-seven is our kill zone,” Miranda crossed her arms. “No one came or went through the door to the suite until the security guard at ten twenty, and you guys at ten thirty-two.”
“You can cross out the time after we got there,” noted Gloria. “We didn’t do it.”
“This wasn’t a DarkWatch hit?” scoffed Miranda.
“We don’t do that sort of thing anymore,” Talbot shook his head.
“Anymore?” echoed Elliot.
“Fine, fine, so that narrows it down to the security guard--” Miranda began again.
“We’re forgetting about you, duckie,” added Talbot. “We saw you climb out the window only moments after arriving. Could have come in the same way. Plus, the burns on the girl--”
“Cauterized, clean cuts. Work I’ve seen before.”
“But I wasn’t there,” snapped Miranda.
“And supposedly, neither was the security guard,” Imogen countered.
“The windows to the back alley aren’t covered,” Sandy informed them. “There’s no way to see if anyone came or went that way. You might have seen the security guard leaving.”
“Oh, ho, no,” Talbot half-laughed. “That was no man I saw. Those legs were definitely Miranda’s. Trust me, I--ow!”
“I’m telling you I wasn’t there,” Miranda retrieved her arm after backhanding Talbot.
“And I’m just telling you what I saw,” the vampire rubbed his jaw, but winked at Miranda anyway.
“It would appear our sense of sight has been compromised,” Elliot mumbled, his dialect mimicking Talbot’s for a moment. With eyes half-closed in drowsiness, he snapped back to himself, “Weird anomaly shit is our thing, right?”
“Now there’s a thought,” Gloria pushed her way through the small, crowded room to get to Sandy’s array. “May I?”
“Erm--” Sandy looked at Miranda for help, who in turn glared at Talbot.
“She’s the best hacker I know,” offered the Englishman. “Better than Hash.”
“Go ahead,” Miranda bobbed her head to Sandy, and Gloria took the keyboards with masterful precision.
“Oh, I see!” Sandy clapped her hands in glee. “I never thought of that!”
“What are you doing, Glory?” asked Imogen.
“One second....there,” Gloria pointed to one of the screens, which showed only a series of horizontal code spilling from left to right. “I wrote a code to digitally record the movement of the security guard as he was leaving that morning, and then compared that to the man who returned from the bar. The alignment is close, but it’s not a match. That sort of hip-knee movement is definitely feminine. Unless our guard suddenly got very fabulous.”
“Well, he was drugged...” Miranda offered. “He would have been pretty unsteady after that drink.”
“Shaky legs from passing out have a totally different pattern set,” the telepath lowered thin eyebrows above her bright blue eyes. “What we’re looking at isn’t just a guy wobbling unsteadily, this is the slight shake-what-your-mama-gave-you weave that you need a female pelvic bone for. Granted, the mock security guard is very good at faking a male gait, but you can’t change your bone structure. That is, without a doubt, a woman.”
“The same woman we saw climb out of the window?” Talbot locked eyes with Miranda.
“Since there’s no video of the back alley, there’s no way to tell.”
“Sure there is,” Miranda glowered back at the vampire. “You have the video of me entering the bar? From another camera? Match that against anything else; I promise you I was not up there.”
“The feed of the lobby is still in tact,” Sandy used Gloria’s program to record Miranda’s earlier movements. “We can use that against the feed of the imposter guard.”
“The results won’t be conclusive,” warned Gloria. “Since the imposter is working to walk like a man and not using her natural walk. But there might be enough of a discrepancy to clear any doubt.”
“There--” Sandy pointed at the screen.
“I see it,” Gloria nodded.
“Well, we don’t,” sighed Imogen.
“The recorded movements of Miranda entering the hotel,” Gloria explained. “They are...how do I put this delicately? Calculated. Precise. Exact. Feminine, sure, but almost mechanically accurate. The imposter, here, the hip swing is natural and fluid, more like a dancer’s.”
“Are you saying I walk like a robot?” chided Miranda.
“Easy duckie,” Talbot put a hand on her arm, which she batted away. “She’s just saying your moves are practiced. Perfect footwork, just like I taught you.”
“Please,” the assassin grunted with a sneer. “Who taught who?”
“Either way,” Sandy downed the remainder of her wine, “the person who entered Destiny’s room is neither the security guard nor Miranda. And unless they came in through the bar, I see no record of them entering the hotel.”
“And yet we clearly saw them both at the scene,” Talbot’s hazel eyes lit up as he locked them with Miranda’s, and at the same time they said, “Chameleon.”
“Ka-what-now?” Elliot blinked. “We got lizard-people?”
“Shapeshifters...” groaned Imogen. “I thought they were purely hypothetical. The human body can’t take that kind of stress--”
“Neither should a natural vore, but we found one of those,” Talbot argued.
“You can’t be serious...” Miranda’s brown eyes widened.
“Talbot,” chastised Imogen. “That’s supposed to be something like a secret.”
“Settle down, Momo,” the vampire purred. “We can trust her.”
“You can trust her all you want.”
“And as leader of this team, I will do just that. And you will follow my orders. Right, soldier?”
“Well, right, but you can’t order me to trust someone, not when it goes against my gut!”
“Then I’ll order you to cooperate with an outside intelligence source. Savvy?”
“Good. Now, Miranda.”
“How do we track someone who looks like anyone, or everyone?”
“Using your hacker’s program,” Sandy interjected. “We have a record of the gait of the fake security guard, likely both the chameleon and the murderer. I can upload it to Miranda’s helm. You can run any suspects against the program and see if it’s a match.”
“That doesn’t narrow it down much,” Gloria shook her head. “We still have the entire population to scan against. And only one helmet.”
Talbot reached into his blazer pocket and produced a pair of sunglasses. Sandy snatched them away, letting out a squeal as she realized they were no ordinary UV-blockers. Within seconds, the rims were connected to the array of computers with a small wire, and the lenses flickered as they were formatted to receive Gloria’s code.
“Nox carries tech? First a cell phone, then those--” Miranda hesitated before continuing. “We’re getting side-tracked. There’s one other thing... my meeting with the real security guard.”
“Yeah, what was that all about?” sneered Imogen. “What were you doing there?”
“Trying to get a lead on a serial killer,” the assassin admitted. “The security guard works a lot of angles, and the company he’s contracted through has been closer than comfortable to a lot of the victims. He was going to leave, but wanted the information out first.”
“Looks like he left, all right,” Elliot grumbled.
“He’s not important, just one pixel in the bigger picture. That name is our best lead.”
“Then lead on,” Talbot told Miranda.
“She’s cheap and dirty, but she’ll get the job done.”
“I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to hear that,” Talbot Nox grinned.
“Ugh, the twenty-first century has tainted you something awful,” groaned Miranda, turning her attention back to her assistant, Sandy. “How long for the uplink?”
“Almost done,” the dirty-blonde technician replied. “We only have three sets of eyes, though.”
“I think I can do more damage here,” Gloria Day offered.
“We could really use your talents in the field, Glory,” countered Imogen Natura. “If you could get a solid read on our guy, even if it’s only for a minute, it will--”
“No,” the blonde telepath shook her short locks. “I’ve never read a chameleon, and there’s no guarantee that they can’t change their mental signatures as quickly as they swap out faces. We’re still only assuming that the bone structure doesn’t change. Here, this one is done,” Gloria unhooked a pair of sunglasses from the computer and handed them to the shifter. “You be my eyes, and I’ll do the rest from here.”
“She just wants some time alone in the construct,” Elliot Washington mumbled from under his arms, where he had slumped down on a table to rest his head against them.
“She stays,” decided Talbot. Gloria detached a second set of spectacles and handed them to him. “This operation will work better on two fronts, and no offense duckie, but I’d prefer having one of my own on the back end, just in case.”
“I thought you trusted me,” the assassin chided.
“It’s not about trust, it’s about tactics. Sweets is a damn fine sharpshooter, plus she can read all that...mumbo-jumbo,” the vampire waved his arm at the array of monitors streaming various codes.
“Are we going to ever talk about the dozens of dead cops back at the police station?” Imogen buttted in. “It’s not like they were just tranqued.”
“Some were,” argued Miranda, “The rest were Tech.”
“Who or what is Tech?” the vore asked.
“Crimson Tech?” Gloria exchanged a look with Talbot. “How can you be sure?”
“We got a hold of a file of known registered affiliates,” Sandy informed them. “The less agents CT has, the better. That should be good news for DarkWatch.”
“I don’t get what a software company has to do with any of this,” Elliot grumbled. “I mean, my wife worked there for Customer Service, and it was definitely just your normal amassing of idiots and nerds.”
“The software bit is just a front,” Talbot explained. “Below the surface, Crimson Tech is working on technology that’s a lot less....user-friendly. Sweets? How are we coming with that lead?”
“Almost done triangulating a location,” answered Sandy. “We’ve narrowed it down to a handful of possibilities in the Silver Lake, Echo Park area.”
“That’s about a half-hour drive from here,” Miranda scooped up her motorcycle helmet from its charging base on Sandy’s desk. “If we get on the road now, you can give us the exact location by the time we’re close.”
“Then let’s roll,” grinned the vampire, slipping on one of the pairs of encoded sunglasses.
Zebediah MacPhearson stood hunched over his massive oak desk, balled fists propping up his weight as a stony blue glare scanned his office. Having regained a sense of clarity, he had righted the overturned cabinets, realigned the filing cabinets, and cleared the paperwork from the floor. Piles of files still cluttered every surface--desks, chairs, cabinet tops--but at least his workplace was no longer a fire hazard.
“...Sir?” a woman’s voice interrupted his musings from the doorway.
“Please, come in,” the Scotsman replied without moving.
“You called, sir?” a young nurse with bright green tresses stepped tenderly into the room, taking only a few paces before stopping a safe distance from the man.
“Aye, first, Ms. Rumsfeld,” Zebediah started, pushing himself up from the desk and clasping his hands behind his back. “I owe you an apology for my behavior during your previous visit. I was out of line and did not treat you with the respect that a woman of your position deserves.”
“It’s okay, boss, I just--” Margaret Rumsfeld started, but was cut off.
“Quite the contrary, miss. While I accept full responsibility for my actions, I do believe I have been on the receiving end of one kind of anomaly or another. As my most trusted medical professional, I have called you here to begin an investigation into some...discrepancies.”
“You... think you’ve been whammied, sir?”
“The files on my desk, Ms. Rumsfeld, are all signed by myself. These are not forgeries; I indeed signed them. Some are mission briefings, some are orders of release, some are terminations; there’s a little bit of everything. I couldn’t find anything linking them all together until now.”
“And what’s that, sir?”
“I don’t recall a single one.”
“Well, I’m sure a hundred papers pass by your desk every day, boss. I’d be more worried if you did remember every single one. I mean--”
“No, Margaret, you misunderstand,” Zebediah pursed his lips. “These are not bits of bureaucracy that have been delegated to other departments and simply signed off to be filed away. These are high-profile cases that I was deeply involved in...including a couple of active missions.”
“Some sort of....memory-altering anomaly? For what purpose?”
“What, indeed. I want you to assemble a team, in secret if you will, to investigate the cause of my....my condition. Take all precautions; this may be the work of a mole or spy within our ranks. I want every one of these files to be scrutinized, to find if there is any link that I could not find myself, anything at all that ties these events together. I want all video surveillance of this office and my whereabouts from the date of the oldest file to be pulled and gone over. See if there is any indication as to the onset of the events, be it someone I spoke to or something I touched. And this investigation must be kept very close to the chest, do you understand?”
“I do, sir, but--”
“I’m recording this conversation, in the event that it, too, disappears from my mind. You will receive a copy that you are to show me should I not recall it when you report to me on this matter, which I expect to happen every few hours. I will also require a medical exam to rule out any biological factors.”
“I’m putting myself at your mercy, Ms. Rumsfeld. I trust you’ll not abuse this privilege.”
“I won’t, sir,” the nurse nodded, turning to leave.
“Oh, and Margaret?”
“Yes, sir?” the woman paused. Zebediah attempted a small smile.
“Please get someone in here to refile this mess?”
“Nice place,” mumbled Elliot as the team entered an enclosed condo array with elaborate iron gates.
“I never thought about it before,” Imogen agreed, “But I suppose being able to look like anyone could have some...financial perks.”
“It would appear so,” Talbot paused to admire an array of stone fountains in the courtyard of the complex.
“Here,” announced Miranda as she stepped up to one threshold. As the others moved in on her position, she inspected the door for any electric locks or booby traps. “Simple deadlock? How boring...”
“Anyone inside?” Imogen cupped one hand over her eyes to peek in a curtained window.
“Let’s check,” responded Talbot, leaning over Miranda to pound on the door.
When there was no response, he knocked again. Stepping out of the way, Talbot let Miranda work her magic on the lock, and within seconds the door swung open. The vampire drew a small Glock from the holster inside his blazer and silently indicated that the team fall into formation behind him. Each followed suit, stalking through the heavily-decorated front hallway into a lavish front room.
“Clear,” Imogen called from a side room.
“Clear,” echoed Talbot and Elliot from opposite ends of the living space.
“Check this out,” Miranda boasted from the final room.
“Damn,” sighed Elliot as he entered the room. Long clothes racks filled the room from end to end, each holding dozens of outfits of varying sizes, styles, and fabrics. An entire corner of the space was reserved for a couple hundred pairs of shoes.
“It’s like an on-set costume closet,” Imogen ran her fingers across an array of silk gowns. “Although, Hollywood is literally around the corner. A chameleon could easily pass for an actor or cosplayer.”
“Or drag queen,” Elliot picked out a loud, floral jumpsuit. “Talk about identity crisis.”
“Now this looks familiar,” interrupted Talbot and he closed in on a pile of unhung items strewn across a couch on the back wall. “The suit the security guard was wearing.”
“And a leather jacket like mine,” Miranda picked up the item, holding it up to herself.
“Well that answers that question,” the vampire mused. “The next one is where is she? And what is she doing murdering innocent pop stars?”
“Try this,” the shifter reappeared at the doorway with a laptop under her arm. “Found it on the nightstand in the other room. It’s encrypted.”
“Of course it is,” Talbot reached into his pocket for his phone. “I’ll dial Sweets and have her hack into it from....where’s my cell?”
“Your girlfriend took it, remember?” Imogen’s dark eyes narrowed.
“I’m not his girlfriend,” Miranda curled her lip. She pulled up a velcro flap from her wristband and spoke into it, “Sandy, I need you to remotely access an Alienware M18x.”
“Wait, how come you got to keep all your communication stuff?” pouted Elliot.
“Because this doesn’t work over a wireless carrier that a five-year-old can hack,” retorted the assassin as she swiped the computer from Imogen and flipped it open. Within moments she had it powered on, logged in, and opened up to the most recently used programs. The three members of Alpha looked over her shoulder as she scrolled through.
“Here we go, a list of dates and appointments,” Miranda clicked on a calendar icon.
“There,” Imogen pointed to the screen.
“I see it,” Miranda swatted the shifter’s hand away. “The date of the murder, there is an entry labeled ‘D.L.’ I think we can safely assume that stands for Destiny Lockhart.”
“Show today,” Talbot instructed. “What’s that?”
“Just a location, no description. Natural History Museum in L.A.”
“Maybe they have an exhibit on Native American skinwalkers,” Elliot offered.
“Either way, we know this chameleon is dangerous, and not afraid to make a mess,” stated Imogen. “That appointment is only an hour from now. We should get there before anything happens.”
“Agreed,” the vampire pursed his lips as Miranda snapped the laptop shut. “But first, I’ll be needing my phone.”
Miranda begrudgingly reached into her sack and scooped out the pieces of Talbot’s flip phone. While he began putting together an encrypted e-mail from the device, the team exited the condo with the assassin at the rear to re-lock the door behind them.
Concealed behind one of the decorative shrubs, a single pair of eyes narrowed as they followed Alpha through the iron entry gates.
“When did these incidents begin?” Margaret asked.
Zebediah was stretched out on one of the medical cots in Nurse Rumsfeld’s office. One arm was curled under his head for a pillow, and the other, along with one leg, dangled off one side. The nurse had an assortment of clipboards and notepads surrounding her.
“The earliest report that I do not recall signing off on was right around Christmas,” the man replied.
“And when did you first actually notice that there were gaps in your memory?”
“Earlier this month. Two, three weeks ago, thereabouts.”
“Let’s take the current mission first. What do you remember about the deployment of Alpha team?”
“I don’t remember deploying them at all, honestly. I do remember ordering them to back up a team in California, but I thought the case was closed, and that I told them to take a week for R&R.”
“In your report, it shows that the week off was postponed due to a call you received from a potential client in Santa Monica.”
“Not ringing a bell.”
“Does the name Destiny Lockhart mean anything to you?”
“Isn’t she a singer?”
“And that’s all I know.”
“If I told you that she’s the one who called you...”
“Really? Why would she call DarkWatch?”
“You and her are the only ones would could tell us that.”
“Have we contacted her?”
“She’s....she’s dead, sir.”
“What?” Zebediah abruptly sat up. “How? Overdose?”
“Not nearly so cliché, I’m afraid,” came the somber reply. “The police won’t release anything officially, but Gloria sent an encrypted file to your office less than an hour ago. It wasn’t pretty.”
“So I sent Alpha to investigate.”
“No, but it’s what I would do.”
“I was hoping that discussing these most current events would spark something in your memory. Nothing, huh?”
“Nothing. It’s strange....I remember being in my office, I remember working, I remember making phone calls, signing papers....but the details are gone. It’s like the phone calls just begin then end, and the reports are just blank.”
“It definitely sounds like the kinds of symptoms an anomaly would cause.”
“Did you find any links in the reports I gave you?”
“Nothing conclusive. We found some consistencies, but not among the entire grouping. It’s like one-third have this or that in common, and another chunk all have to deal with something specific, but as for the entire thing....nothing.”
“What are some of the things that are common among at least parts of them?”
“Well, there is an entire string of reports and prisoner releases that are tied to some redacted case that I don’t have access to. It’s labeled under the heading ‘Sundial,’ which I’m assuming is a code name.”
“It is. Sundial has nothing to do with this.”
“What is it?”
“Even if it’s related to these memory lapses?”
“It’s not related. Sundial is an external matter. Being as I seem to be the only one affected, and the only things I don’t recall are DarkWatch-related, we will operate under the logical reasoning that this is happening in-house. Give me something else.”
“Okay....well the date and time of the first incident lines up with the acquisition of ‘88.”
“Which one is that?”
“DI-DC-A-1188. The vore Elliot Washington.”
“And you say he’s linked to the files I gave you?”
“Not all of them. But a good number; probably half, maybe less.”
“...And would you say the other half involve Sundial?”
“I’m not sure about that...it’s possible. I thought you said that was--”
“Find out for sure,” Zebediah rose and snached his overcoat from the foot of the cot. “Separate the files for Sundial from the ones for ‘88. If there are any that include both, notify me immediately.”
“...Sir? Where are you going?”
“Well there’s fifty bucks I won’t ever see again.”
Talbot moaned as he tucked his wallet back into his pocket. Beyond the main ticket counter, the team entered a large, open area with massive skeletons of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a Triceratops on display. Aside from the roped-in area around the dinosaurs, the room was filled with sightseers traversing from one exhibit to another, the room itself seeming to flex and move like a living thing.
“My helmet is no good here,” Miranda shouted over the crowd to the vampire. He nodded, signalling for Elliot and Imogen to come in close.
“We have a lot of area to cover and not a lot of time,” he instructed, pulling out a map the ticket-taker had handed him. “We’ll split up; each team gets a set of the encoded sunglasses. Mira, I know you don’t want us to use our cells, but there’s no other way for us to keep in touch in here. You and I will head east towards the rotunda. Imogen, you take Elliot and head west.”
“Why don’t we get to see the dinosaurs?” whined the vore as Miranda clicked together one of the mobile phones from her pack and handed it to him.
“Nox just wants to visit some of his relatives,” the shifter snorted, adjusting her pair of glasses as Talbot passed the cellular device to her.
“You’re wasting time,” the vampire growled, pointing strictly to the west. “Just go. And don’t get separated.”
“Sir yes sir,” mumbled Elliot, turning to drowsily follow Imogen through the crowd. She hooked her arm through his to keep him from falling behind, and the vampire kept his hazel eyes locked on them until they disappeared into the crowd.
“Let’s move, Romeo,” the assassin had removed the stuffy helmet, letting her long dark curls fall freely around her pretty face. Her dark eyes glared in contrast, impatiently ordering Talbot to uproot his gaze from the shifter. Hiding behind darkened lenses, he let out a sigh that was swallowed by by noise of the museum.
Back in his office, Zebediah impatiently tapped his fingers on his desk as the phone in front of him pulsed with an attempted outgoing call. The line rang, and rang, and rang, and finally went to voicemail. Swearing, the Scotsman slammed his hand on the receiver, ending the call. He punched in a different series of numbers, only to receive the same response.
“Curse it, you London rat,” Zebediah huffed. “Pick up the damn phone!”
“Hello?” came a muffled reply from the speakerphone.
“Talbot?” Zebediah swiped the phone from its cradle, pushing it tightly against his ear. “Can you hear me?”
“Only just,” the vampire replied.
“Listen: is Elliot with you?”
“No. Well, yes, but he’s at the other end of the complex.”
“The what? No, never mind, you just need to get him out of there.”
“What? You’re breaking up...”
“Get. Elliot. Out. NOW.”
“Alright, alright, no need to get sassy. Where am I getting him to?”
“Back here, immediately. The Viper is on its way to LAX.”
“Who the hell was that?” Miranda glared at Talbot.
“My boss,” he replied, ignoring her stare and turning to look back the way they came. “We have to get Elliot out of here and back to base.”
“Ha!” scoffed the assassin, her face flushing as she followed his gaze. “We’re a little bit busy right now! Trying to catch a serial killer, remember? Or did you forget that this might be our only chance? That we might be preventing some kind of mass murder right here?”
“Don’t patronize me, young lady,” Talbot reprimanded her. “This is about preventing a much larger disaster.”
“What’s bigger than potentially losing everyone in this entire museum?”
“One chameleon can never cause as much destruction as one vore.”
“Wait, Elliot? He’s the vore you talked about? I thought he’s part of your team!”
“He is, but he’s new, and more than a little unstable. I don’t know what information the boss-man has that I don’t, but when it comes to vores, if he says get him out, we get him out, capiche?”
Just as the duo prepared to backtrack, a woman’s scream pierced the air, coming from somewhere near a statue of three muses in the center of the rotunda. Without hesitation, Talbot and Miranda took off towards the source of the sound.
One scream turned into two, and by the time Talbot and Miranda caught sight of the statue, a panic-induced stampede had begun. Visitors near the statue were pushing by confused bystanders in an attempt to escape whatever caused the initial screams. At the foot of one of the muses lay an unmoving figure, slumped over backward with his legs crumpled unnaturally beneath him. Miranda recognized the fear-stricken face immediately:
Destiny Lockhart’s security guard.
Perched over the corpse was a young woman holding a long sword that was dripping with the victim’s blood, which was also beginning to pool underneath of him. The woman’s face was turned down, admiring her work, but when Talbot and Miranda approached she looked up. The vampire skid to a stop, his glance darting between Miranda and the woman with the blade.
They were identical.
“Let’s do this, Nox.”
Talbot Nox’s hazel glare was transfixed on the exact duplicate of Miranda standing beneath the statue. The copy-cat’s brown eyes gleamed with a fresh-from-the-kill glee, and a playful smirk was spreading across her face as she delicately lifted one boot over the body at her feet to face him.
“The hell does she think she’s doing?” growled the real Miranda from Talbot’s side. The initial rush of tourists running away from the scene of the murder seemed to take a breath as the crowd bottlenecked at the exits.
“Come on, Nox, I want to dance,” the chameleon purred in Miranda’s voice.
Talbot tore his gaze from her to study the woman beside him, giving her a short shake of his head with the hope that she would understand his meaning. When she smiled and turned towards a set of blades on display behind him, he knew she did not.
“Don’t be a puss,” the assassin tossed Talbot a sword, which he caught mid-air, swiftly spinning it in an elaborate pattern to test its balance before letting the tip come to rest with a gentle tap on the marble floor.
The vampire opened his mouth to protest when a flying black shape in his peripheral induced an involuntary turn of his heel, bringing the blade up to parry against the chameleon’s attack. Instead of stopping her in her tracks, Talbot fell in line with the momentum of the attack, spinning to slingshot the chameleon away from him.
With an agile twist, the imposter got her feet beneath her just before touching down, boots skidding across the marble tiles as her body crouched down to soften the fall. Throwing her head back to toss the hair from her face, she gave the vampire a devilish grin.
Talbot spun his blade, re-adjusting his grip to move on to the offensive. As he prepared to strike, the real Miranda came flying out from behind him towards her double. The vampire shouted for her to stop, but she had already begun her charge.
A loud clang echoed through the vaulted museum ceiling as the two Mirandas collided. Talbot swore as he dove into the duel, ducking beneath one blade just to cross with the other. Using his height and weight to push the women apart, the vampire howled as he thrust the butt of his sword into the chest of the chameleon, throwing her away from him.
“Talbot!” a familiar voice called from the crowd. He turned towards the sound, catching the dark-skinned Imogen Natura pushing her way against the current towards the battle.
“No!” he yelled back, putting one hand palm-out to her.
Before he could warn her further, the copy-cat pounced on him from behind, knocking him forward onto his knees. He almost lost his grip on the hilt of his blade in the tumble, rolling into a somersault as he swung the sword back around to block the following attack.
In his moment of disorientation, Talbot found that the attacking Miranda was instead using him as a springboard to fly towards the other Miranda, and the vampire realized that in the second his eyes had left the fight to find Imogen in the crowd, he had lost sight of which Miranda was which.
The two leather-clad women continued to spar without him, their swords ringing in furious swings. Wiping a bit of sweat from his upper lip, Talbot reached into his blazer and withdrew his firearm, aiming it at the couple.
“Enough!” he bellowed, just as the two Mirandas each had a blade against the other’s throat.
Talbot clicked off the safety of his pistol, taking several swift steps towards the pair. Both ceased movement, arms tangled and swords ready to slice skin. Imogen had finally broken free of the withdrawing crowd, drawing her own gun to aim at the Mirandas.
“You started without me,” the shifter pouted. “Which one are we shooting?”
“You need to get Newb Sauce out of here,” replied the vampire. “Where is he?”
“With the body,” Imogen nodded towards the statue of the three muses, where Elliot Washington was crouched over the corpse of a security guard. “What’s the rush?”
“Boss’s orders. Don’t waste time with the ‘why;’ just get him out.”
“Shouldn’t we be shooting one of these bitches? Maybe both?”
“I’ll take care of it; just go.”
“Talbot,” one of the Mirandas mumbled. “Just shoot her and end this.”
“What?!” the other Miranda cried, twisting out of the grasp of the other to push herself away. As they detached, Talbot swung his barrel between the two.
“You don’t know which is which, do you?” Imogen kept her pistol aimed at the one on the left.
“Nox, it’s me,” the Miranda on the right lowered her blade and extended a hand towards him. “I can prove it. Back in Vienna, we took out that marauder outfit, remember? What about Galway? You still owe me a Guinness for saving your pale ass.”
“Oh, please!” the left Miranda flung her hand up in disbelief. “Anyone with any skill could have hacked that out of my personnel files. The Vienna execution was public! What wasn’t public,” she turned towards Talbot, “was the week after, with the bull run in Buenos Aires, and that hot weekend in Vegas.”
“Vegas is about as public as it gets,” the Miranda on the right rolled her brown eyes. “Enough talk about ancient history. Talbot, it’s me. I just broke you out of jail and we trashed this wench’s loft.”
“The jail-break is all over the news, and the condo was easy-access; anyone could have seen us come and go!” the Miranda on the left scoffed. “Would the chameleon know that you have a vore on your team? You literally just told me that!”
“A vore named Elliot,” the Miranda on the right added.
“As amusing as this is,” Imogen snarled, “I’d just as soon shoot them both. Remember when I said we should bring Glory?”
“Just get Elliot out of here,” ordered Talbot. “There’s something else going on here. We need him--and the civilians--clear of this. Now go before I shoot you, too.”
Fine,” the shifter sighed, lowering her gun. “If one of these hoes kills you, I call dibs on your stuff. Elliot! Let’s go.”
“Huh?” the vore stood as the shifter approached him.
The Miranda on the right darted her eyes to Elliot, gripping her blade tighter when Imogen grabbed his arm and began to drag him towards the exit. An ugly sneer crossed her pretty face, and while her eyes were diverted, the Miranda on the left took a swipe at her abdomen.
The Miranda on the right did not cry out; she did not even flinch. The leather across her belly that was torn from the other’s blade seemed to flux and repair itself as the whites of her eyes began to blacken. Raising one hand, a flap of leather from the collar of her jacket seemed to float away from her skin like smoke, reforming into a long tentacle that thrust out and punched the other woman in the face.
The angle of the blow caused the flying Miranda to crash straight into Talbot, leaving them both in a heap on the cold floor. The chameleon turned her attention towards the retreating Imogen and Elliot, and a second black arm unwrapped itself from her, darting across the open space to attach itself to the vore’s ankle.
“Geh!” Elliot cried as the jerking motion smashed his face against the ground, then swept him upside-down. A sudden barrage of bullets pierced the air, slicing through the appendage holding Elliot.
“Get him out!” Talbot bellowed as he reloaded his weapon.
He emptied the second clip into the chameleon while Imogen scraped Elliot off of the pavement. The creature only roared in anger, throwing out additional tentacles to rip the gun out of the vampire’s grip. Ducking and spinning to the left, Talbot nearly escaped the grasp of the chameleon, but one arm wrapped itself around his torso, lifting him from his feet.
“I said I wanted to dance, Nox!” a terrible double-voice came out of the creature’s pretty lips.
As she drew him nearer, Miranda slid across the slick floor, raising a blade to cut through the tentacle holding Talbot. The appendage splintered into an oily mess, releasing the vampire. When the chameleon reeled back in pain, Miranda tossed Talbot the sword he had dropped, and they rolled backwards to regroup.
“Is she....corrupted?” Miranda panted. Talbot only nodded, trying to catch his own breath.
“Do you...remember....Bangkok?” he wheezed. The assassin narrowed her eyes at him.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No time to argue.”
“Fine,” Miranda moved the sword to her left hand. With her right, she made a fist, and a short blade sliced out of her leather glove from the back of her wrist. The blade shimmered with a pale white glow.
“Let’s kill the bitch.”
With one dark hand wrapped firmly around Elliot’s bicep, Imogen shouldered her way through the hundreds of tourists cramming through a set of double doors.
“What the hell is stopping these people from leaving?” retorted the woman, finding herself in the Dinosaur Hall where the patrons were packed in like sardines. “Elliot, you gotta snap out of it, buddy. Have you eaten today?”
“Erm, I grabbed some stuff at that killer lady’s--” he started.
“Fine. Listen,” Imogen pulled him close to yell into his ear over the noise of the crowd. “We’re going to shift to the entrance, and get an opening for these people to leave. Got it?”
“Good, follow me.”
Before the sleepy vore could protest, Imogen felt a familiar buzz spread across her skin, and the chaos in the room around them slowed to a stop. Releasing Elliot from her iron grip and using the citizens around her as stepping stones, Imogen pulled herself up above the masses. She glanced behind at regular intervals, making sure Elliot remained shifted and was still following her.
“A little faster wouldn’t hurt, you idiot,” she growled, nearing one wall where she discovered an inviting series of windows to the outside. “Found a shortcut!”
As Imogen glanced away from the windows, a black-clad arm swung out and into her face, throwing her backwards and into the concrete wall between the windows. Shaking her head, the shifter heard a voice, then two, then more. She felt herself being pulled away from the shift and the crowd began to move around her.
With a sneer, Imogen pulled herself from the floor, fully expecting to see one or both of the Mirandas. When she blinked the stars out of her dark eyes, however, she was surprised to see two heavily armed agents looking down at her through the sights of semi-automatic rifles.
“Hello, boys,” she winked, then jerked a thumb towards the rotunda. “Bad guys are back that way.”
The two helmeted heads turned towards one another. The one on the left spoke in a gruff voice, “How far has it spread?”
“Can’t tell, but this one’s on record.”
“Copy that. Sierra One?” the first agent appeared to be speaking into an internal comm. “We have a positive ident on an echo-three, plus a possible breach in containment....yes, sir... copy that.” He turned to his comrade and concluded with, “Full quarantine.”
“This should be fun,” the other replied. Imogen sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Indeed, it will be,” she ducked as they opened fire.
Throwing out one leg, she connected with one of the agent’s knees, taking satisfaction in the sickening crunch of the bone breaking. As he fell, she slipped around behind him, grabbing his arms--and the weapon they held--and pointed it towards the other agent. A rain of bullets pierced the helmet in a red explosion, and the shifter pulled the weapon sharply backwards, cracking the shield of the first agent’s helmet. With one final swing, she spun the rifle out of his hands and shot him in the head.
“Elliot!” she bellowed, looking up from the bodies. In the few seconds it took for her to take out the mysterious agents, a second wave of panic had engulfed the tourists, turning the sardines into a meat grinder.
Swearing, Imogen jumped up, grabbing the rails of the balcony above her. She swung in a well-practiced move and perched on the upper landing. From this height, she could see dozens more agents entering the hall, blocking the exits and herding the patrons towards the center of the room.
“There you are,” a man’s voice resounded from behind Imogen. Reflexively, she spun and kicked out at the figure, realizing too late that it was Elliot now landing with a crash to the floor.
“Damnit, son,” she scolded him, reaching a hand down to help him up. “We have guests to take care of before we leave this party.”
“Yeah, and they--” Elliot started, but Imogen, her hand still in his, used his grip to pull herself in a slingshot around him and land a kick to the face of a mystery agent. Releasing the vore, she tried to shift around to the other side of the agent, but paused when nothing slowed down for her.
“What the--” she started, looking at her hands in confusion as the agent regained his balance.
“Sucks, don’t it?” the agent grumbled, lifting the barrel of his weapon. Imogen suddenly grinned.
“Not so much as this will,” she retorted, turning to grab the collar of Elliot’s shirt. As the hammer of the agent’s gun fell, Imogen pulled Elliot down to the floor, spinning as she did so to throw the vore off to one side and out of the direct path of the bullets. Pushing forward as she stood, she came up right in front of the agent, grabbing his wrist with one hand and punching him under the arm with the other.
The agent howled in pain; the fabric covering his armpits was not padded or armored, and Imogen had hit a nerve cluster. Snatching the rifle out of his hands, Imogen dug the barrel into his face. When he fell back, lifeless, she took a second to steady her hand before shooting straight through the heads of three more agents approaching her position.
Hearing a commotion behind her, Imogen spun and brought the rifle up to aim, ready to take the next shot. To her surprise, Elliot had collected himself from the floor and was single-handedly taking on four agents. His fists flew in a blur, as if they were almost shifting independently of the rest of him, knocking weapons away and ending the scuffle by smashing two agents’ heads together. Imogen thought she saw a shadow cross Elliot’s face, and her stomach churned as she recalled his brief contact with the corrupted tentacle of the chameleon.
“Time to go!” the shifter shouted, holding back her panic. Elliot only nodded, his green eyes glistening as if in a trance. Swinging over the edge of the balcony, Imogen used the agent’s weapon she still carried to blow out three of the windows.
“Get out of here!” she shouted at the civilians around her. She gave one family of four a push towards the broken glass, encouraging them to move. Elliot jumped down from the upper landing and stood beside her, seeming strangely taller.
“Not feeling so great,” he mumbled. Nodding, Imogen grabbed his arm and pulled him through the window and out to freedom.
“Watch your left!”
Miranda ducked and rolled to the right, narrowly missing the swing of two black tentacles as she masked the slight limp in her left leg. The chameleon yelled in rage, several corrupted appendages flowing freely around the rotunda, attempting to grab at her attackers. Her creamy skin was nearly bare; only a couple of tentacles were still wrapped around her slender frame. Raising one hand, another set of black arms followed her swing and lurched out towards Talbot.
“Parry! Balestra!” Miranda called out.
Talbot fell back half a step, blocking the attack before jumping forward to drive his blade into the offending tentacle. Miranda ran straight towards him, and as the vampire withdrew his sword from the now-puddle of corrupted oil, the assassin placed a boot firmly on his blade. Favoring his left shoulder, Talbot uneasily vaulted her into the air, where she used one long and one short blade to tear through several appendages bearing down on them.
Landing on the other side of the chameleon, Miranda spun and took out several smaller arms that were emerging from the creature’s back. A shattering noise from above had Miranda bolting off to one side, her back slamming against Talbot’s as they aimed their blades to the ceiling.
In the center of the rotunda ceiling was a beautifully intricate arrangement of stained glass windows. Was. Three of the windows became little more than splinters when black-clad figures smashed through them, descending into the cavernous room on long, black ropes.
“Freeze!” a man shouted from the balcony above the rotunda. Stationed around the overlook were at least a dozen more of the dark soldiers. Each was heavily armed, aiming semi-automatics down into the room, the echo of hammers falling out of safety position filling the room.
“We have eyes on the rogue,” stated the man suspended above them, his weapon trained on the chameleon. “Commence full quarantine. Open fire.”
Agents all around the room squeezed their triggers, a barrage of bullets pouring into the center of the rotunda. With a deafening roar, the corrupted chameleon thrust tentacles up towards the suspended bodies, ripping them from their ropes and throwing them across the open space.
Miranda and Talbot looked at each other in a moment of decision. With silent understanding, they pushed away from the other, rolling into a run to opposite ends of the room. Using a decorative pillar, Miranda catapulted over the glass balcony’s handrail, nearly slipping on the small, round tube before driving her blades into two agents standing there.
Across the rotunda, Talbot mirrored her, pummeling through one armed guard after another. After three, he was swept from his feet by the chameleon, whose rage-induced corruption was beginning to fill the room. He tried swinging out at the appendage holding him, but it was just out of reach of his blade.
“Mira!” the vampire cried out. As Miranda bounced off a pillar towards him, she was halted mid-air by another tentacle. Any amount of wriggling proved fruitless by either party, and it was all they could do just to dodge the bullets still being fired by the remaining mystery agents.
While the chameleon swung him around the room in fury, Talbot continued his attempt to cut himself free, but gravity was against him. He looked over at Miranda, hoping desperately that this would not be her final image of him. To his surprise, she was not trying to cut herself free. Instead, as the creature whipped her about the room, she kept trying to latch on to one of the ropes still suspended from the ceiling.
Talbot would have smiled if he were not so dizzy from the acrobatic display. Adjusting his focus, he, too, began trying to grasp one of the elusive cables. Miranda beat him to it, first letting herself continue to swing with the chameleon’s motion, then pulling the rope taught. In the chaos, she managed to get the rope wrapped around the tentacle holding her, and while the creature was still confused, the assassin was able to tie a secure knot around the appendage, loosening its grip on her.
Meanwhile, the vampire was still flailing around, trying to catch his own rescue. Swinging from her rope to the next, Miranda aimed directly for Talbot, using a similar maneuver to twist him free and tie a second appendage up and out of the way. Wrapping his arm firmly around Miranda’s waist, Talbot snagged the final rope and descended down to the rotunda floor, quickly releasing both the rope and the assassin, allowing them a moment to breathe and regroup.
“That’s not going to hold it,” Talbot heaved.
“It’ll keep it distracted enough for the Tech agents to expose the core,” huffed Miranda.
“Tech agents? Man, they’ve evolved since last we met.”
“Indeed--there! On her back.”
“I see it,” Talbot narrowed his sharp hazel eyes as he caught sight of the ‘core’ of the corrupted chameleon; a small, glowing red dot on her spine. “There’s no way we’ll get close enough.”
“You’re bleeding,” Miranda pointed out.
“Like you’re not?”
“You must be getting slow, old man.”
“Just distract it, and I’ll--”
“Hell no. I’ve got a personal vendetta to settle with this bastard.”
“Fine. On my mark, three, tw--damnit!”
Before Talbot could finish his countdown, Miranda was off and running under the cover of the balcony. The chameleon had freed one arm from Miranda’s rope bindings, and was aiming for the assassin as Talbot sat alone in the shadows.
“Right, distract it.”
With one eye on Miranda’s location, the vampire slid out from behind a pillar, walking slowly and confidently towards the chameleon, head-on.
“OI!” he bellowed, waving one hand towards the beast. Its black eyes narrowed in on him, several appendages still blocking gunfire from the few remaining Tech agents. A slim, black arm crawled along the floor towards him.
“Enough of that!” growled Talbot, easily reaching down to slice the tentacle apart. “Show me your real face!”
The chameleon blinked, as if it were surprised, but the expression soon gave way to a malicious grin. The creamy skin began to shudder, liquify, and reform.
“You asked for it,” the double-voice purred. “Remember me now, Nox!”
The short, lithe limbs stretched into something much more lanky and pasty. Her flat, toned stomach appeared to suck in until the outlines of the bottom of the chameleon’s ribs appeared. Where dark, thick locks had framed her face, only wisps of thin, mousy-brown strands remained. The heart-shaped jaw was replaced by an angular, more handsome face. Talbot squinted, trying to recognize her.
“And your real name?” he shouted.
A sudden silence engulfed the room; there were no more shots being fired, and Talbot assumed that Miranda had taken care of the leftover Tech agents. Recoiling as a brief look of pain crossed her face, the chameleon’s tentacles dropped to the floor. Large, grey eyes shimmered as if tears were soon to follow.
“You...you don’t recognize me, do you?” the shape-shifter’s feet silently touched the floor as the corrupted limbs holding her in the air let her down.
“I’ve lived longer than most; many faces are but a blur in my memory,” admitted the vampire, making sure to keep his stare locked on hers.
“So, I’m just a blur to you?” the grey eyes snapped up, flooded again with the black corruption. “Well, let me tell you about this blur!”
One tentacle whipped out towards Talbot, and he slashed it apart in defense as the chameleon took a step closer.
“This blur catered to your every whim and fancy for over twenty years, Nox!”
A second arm flew at him, and again he blocked it with his blade.
“This blur took the fall for you when the Uppark mansion burned!”
Another attack. Another puddle of oil.
“This blur loved you!”
The chameleon’s fury resurfaced, and all of her tentacles were suddenly active again as she dove towards the vampire. Desperately, Talbot swung his sword back and forth, trying to catch as many of the limbs as he could reach. Unfortunately, the creature was faster than he was, and the multiple punctures of the Tech agents’ bullets did not seem to fatigue her as much as the scrapes and bruises Talbot had sustained affected him.
Several smaller appendages began to crawl around the vampire’s ankles. As they anchored him in place, more slunk around his middle, and then his wrists, until Talbot found himself completely restrained, unable even to maintain his grasp on his blade.
“GAH!” he cried out as the corrupted woman pulled him close, her tentacles boring into his open wounds like salt-covered hot irons. In her original form, the chameleon was nearly as tall as Talbot, and as her black eyes glared at him with hatred, she reached one hand up to his throat.
“Say my name,” the double-voice growled.
“I--I don’t--remember,” Talbot choked.
“SAY IT!” bellowed the creature as she lifted the vampire until the toes of his boots barely scraped the marble floor as he struggled to escape.
“Mira--” he started, and the grip on his throat tightened.
“I’M NOT HER!”
Black spots began to form at the edges of Talbot’s vision as his oxygen supply deteriorated. He finally let his gaze dart away from the creature, looking for the leather-clad assassin. When the desperate scan of the room proved fruitless, the vampire wondered if Miranda had left him to face his fate.
As Talbot fought to remain conscious through the rising white noise pounding in his ears, he thought he heard a single gunshot. A shudder went through the tentacles holding him, and the hand holding his throat loosened. His eyesight blurred red for a moment as he gasped for breath, and his restraints felt as if they were melting away. Dropping the few inches to the ground, Talbot lost his balance and collapsed to the floor, coughing as his vision returned to normal.
Shaking his blonde head to clear it, Talbot lifted his gaze to see a single black hand extended towards him. He flinched, but then realized that it was Miranda, offering to help him to his feet. He reached up and wrapped his large palm around hers, slowly staggering to his feet. To his surprise, when he stood, Miranda threw her arms around his neck and buried her face in his chest.
“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. “I had no idea.”
“Hey now,” the vampire’s normally-suave voice was gruff as he gently pulled her close. “No idea about what?”
“That she was after you this whole time,” Miranda admitted, suddenly pushing away from him. “I thought she took my form out of spite for me. I didn’t realize...”
“You’ll have to forgive me, duckie,” Talbot gave her a crooked grin. “I’m not following…”
“You don’t remember the fire at the Uppark mansion?”
“Of course I do, but what does that--”
“She was a maid there. You were usually gone by the time she would come to clean our room, but I spoke with her a few times. She was always asking about you…”
“All this time….I never even knew her name,” Talbot sighed, then locked his gaze on Miranda’s chocolate stare. “Speaking of time, you certainly cut it close just now.”
“I couldn’t get a good shot, and I only had one. Here,” the assassin handed Talbot a pistol.
“How did you--” he started, patting his blazer for the spare Glock he should have had stored there.
“You’re just as easy to pickpocket now as you were back then,” Miranda gave him a sad smile.
“Come back with us,” Talbot reached out for his weapon, his fingers lingering on the exposed skin between the sleeve of her torn jacket and her glove.
“I--I can’t,” the assassin recoiled sharply, causing the gun to clatter to the ground. Neither moved to retrieve it.
“It’s not like before,” promised the vampire. “Things are different; you can--”
“No. You don’t understand. I know Grandfather is still in charge.”
“Even more reason to go!”
“It’s the exact reason I can’t, Tal,” Miranda dropped her gaze, and Talbot could see the conflict in her brown eyes. “Look, it was great seeing you, and I...I missed you. But--”
“But nothing,” Talbot reached for her, but she stepped back.
“It’s not safe,” the assassin spurted. Talbot let his arms fall.
“If you mean the vore, it’s not what you think--”
“Not Elliot, although he unnerves me. There’s something else going on back home--back in Illinois.” Miranda raised her right hand to her chest, holding the back of it with her left. “The artifacts are reacting to something...just please be careful. When you go back, don’t trust anyone.”
“Mira,” Talbot gave a short laugh, “My team are the most trustworthy--”
“Don’t kid yourself!” Miranda stooped to grab the pistol and shoved it into Talbot’s abdomen. He fumbled to catch it as the assassin turned away from him.
“Wait!” he called.
“No,” she paused for a second and turned her head slightly, but not enough to fully look back at him. “This is where we go our separate ways. Don’t try to find me. Goodbye, Talbot.”
Zebediah MacPhearson slammed his palm down on the table, causing all four members of Alpha team to wince. Gloria, the only one to come out unscathed, sat at Zebediah’s right side, the case file open in front of her. Elliot was across the table from her, isolated inside of a plastic-like bubble to maintain and neutralize any corruption he may have carried with him after his brief encounter with the chameleon.
Beside him, Imogen had her arms and temper crossed, glaring at Talbot with unforgiving dark eyes. Both of the vampire’s pale hands were placed flat before him on either side of his copy of the report, his blonde head bowed in disgrace.
“In your pathetic attempt to take out one little girl,” continued Zebediah, “You not only closed the open dialogue we had with CrimsonTech--an attempt to infiltrate their ranks--by murdering seventy-three of their undercover operatives, but you also failed to protect public citizens, resulting in the slaughter of over three hundred innocents!”
“Sir, we--” Gloria began.
“No excuses!” bellowed the Scotsman. “When I put this team together, you were top-notch. Over the past couple of months, you’ve let yourselves slip into a lazy routine of barely scraping by. This is unacceptable. Nox, explain to me why you pulled Gloria--and later the others--from the field?”
“I made a judgement call,” Talbot mumbled, not moving. “I underestimated the enemy, believing that once we could identify her, detaining her would be simple. My decision reflected that; the punishment should be mine alone. We had no evidence suggesting that the chameleon was also corrupted, until it was too late.”
“Your evidence was at the hotel!” countered Zebediah. “Had you spent the time to actually investigate, instead of letting a little blood turn your weak stomachs, you would have found the dozens of oil slicks all over the place!”
“Understood, sir,” replied the vampire. “But please, do not punish my team for my mistake.”
“This will not happen again,” Zebediah growled. “Effective immediately, the four of you will be stripped your field-ready status. Until I deem you fit, you will spend your hours within the confines of this building, demoted to sorting through the paperwork of all active teams until you ‘understand’ how it’s supposed to be done.”
“Yes, sir,” Talbot sighed in defeat.
“Talbot, you are being relieved of Team Leader status. Pending your behavior in the next few weeks, Imogen will fill in for you. And If I see any of you outside of the perimeter, I’ll see to it you take a vacation in the Zoo. Now, because of your sloppy execution, I have to go resolve the absolute media nightmare you’ve caused.”
Zebediah snatched his copy of the mission debriefing from the desk and stalked out of the room. Talbot stood involuntarily, but kept his head down. The heated brush by his shoulder told him that Imogen had coldly left, followed by the rattle of Elliot rolling his bubble out behind her. A tiny hand on Talbot’s elbow finally caused him to look away from the table.
“Sorry I couldn’t do more, boss,” Gloria spoke softly.
“You’ve done enough,” replied Talbot, avoiding direct eye contact. “Thank you for leaving her out of this.”
“I’m still not sure why,” the telepath searched the vampire’s face, but only saw a vacant stare. “You’re still blocking me out. Tally--”
“Please, don’t,” Talbot leaned away from her hand on his arm. For a moment Gloria lingered, still hoping Talbot would explain why the entire team was ordered to omit Miranda from their individual accounts. When he did not move, the telepath lowered her gaze and left him to his thoughts.
Talbot narrowed his hazel eyes as the door fell quietly shut, the assassin’s final words still echoed through his mind:
“Don’t try to find me. Goodbye, Talbot.”
“I will find you,” he whispered.
Continue reading: Episode 5 - "Mask of Sanity" by K. B. Cribbett.