Advancer: Asset 08 (Part 4)
Advancer: Asset 08
by Bek D Corbin
Once we had all the loose threads from the ‘Second Commission’ tied up, We sent the (considerable) cash from the scam to the Holding Company, as they’d be able to use it without it being traced back to anybody. That taken care of, we settled down to figuring out how to take care of the First Commission. “Okay, the first question is: do we have any indication that the First Commission knows what Wingate tried to pull?” Cornell started it off.
“We got nothing,” Hunter reported. “Wingate’s shitting bricks over losing that much money for the Second Commission, but if the First Commission knew that he was telling stories out of class, they would have nabbed him, and by now, he’d be M-4 or whatever. Wingate isn’t taking any special security precautions, so it looks like he isn’t that worried about the First Commission.”
“Yeah,” Sherlock chimed in, “he’s got special measures in place at his office and home, but they’ve been there for a couple of years now. So, it looks like Wingate’s still our best lead on the First Commission.”
Cornell nodded. “Good. So, the big question is: how do we get Wingate to rat out the Commission?”
“It’s no good leaning on him, or offering him Special Immunity,” Bad Boy said with the air of an authority. “He’s too much of a weasel. Any deal we threw at him would come back at us with a million hooks in it.”
“The only way that Wingate’s gonna give us the First Commission is if he doesn’t know that he’s doing it,” I summed up.
“Yeah, but he’s gotta be hell’s own paranoid by now,” Meg pointed out. “Even after that cage rattling we gave him with the base and everything, he KNOWS that Advancers exist. He may not be sure that we’re government, but he knows that we exist.”
“We know that Duncan’s still hot to get his hands on Jill,” Sherlock noted.
“Yeah, but who isn’t?” Bad Boy quipped with a leer in Jill’s direction. I gave him a ‘back off, she’s MINE!’ snarl.
“So, why not have Jill ‘make a mistake’ in Minneapolis?” Sherlock continued. “The Commission sends some thugs to pick her up, and we follow them to wherever they take her. This time, we tape everything, follow strict procedure, and we use the FBI or Federal Marshals instead of locals.”
“No,” Jill said with a stern look that probably shut down more than one rambunctious classroom. Sherlock assured her that she would be perfectly safe, and with a toss, Jill buried a pencil an inch into the back of the chair that he was sitting in. The idea was promptly dropped.
“I could go undercover as a mole,” Bad Boy offered. “I mean, I show up at Wingate’s office and offer to sell out the Agency…” he trailed off as all and sundry gave him ‘NO’ glares.
“Still, the idea of getting them to take some sort of bait and following them to whatever backup lab - that is, if they don’t have more than one lab out there - is a good one,” Cornell said.
“Well, we know about Wingate, and there’s no way that they’d leave Wingate alone if they knew that he’d blown their cover,” Jill pointed out. “So, we use him.” She thought for a second, snapped her fingers, and said with a mischievous grin, “We plant one of those goblin things in his house. What’s he going to do? Call the Ghostbusters? He’ll call the Commission and have them take care of it.”
“Not bad,” Enforcer said with an approving nod. “But Wingate’s in paranoid mode, so he’ll be suspicious if a goblin just happened to show up in his place right now.”
“Okay,” I said, “so, he’s paranoid. Wonderful! Paranoid people are a breeze to manipulate. We use that. Now, who is the ONE PERSON that he’d trust into his house in Georgetown right about?” I looked around for a rhetorical answer, and got none. “HIMSELF. Right now, our ol’ buddy Nelson’s got to be nervous about his position with the Commission. He’s looking for something to make sure that he’s still cool with his bosses. ‘Cause NOT being cool with the Commission is probably a good way to wind up on one of Dr. Duncan’s slabs, with the man himself standing over you, wondering what he can learn by puree-ing your gray matter in a certain way.”
“And he still knows that the Agency is real,” Bad Boy said with a gleam in his eye. “He’s looking for some payback, big time. If he manages to spot someone that he recognizes - either Hunter or Oh-Nine or the Bug - lugging around something that looks suspicious, and said errand boy just happens to be looking in the wrong direction at the right time… Where would he go with it? To the office? Where he might have to explain it?”
“It’s gotta be you, Gracie,” Meg said. “He thinks that you’re junior enough to get stuck with courier duty, and he really got off on embarrassing you in our Big Store scam. I’d say that he’d see ripping you off and armor-plating his butt at the same time as only justice for what you put him through.”
“Yeah, Bug,” Bad Boy said, “it’s one of the basics for any good sting: get the pigeon pissed off, and then tell him that he can get even and make money doin’ it.”
“Oh, fucking lovely,” I grumped, “So, if Wingate sees me, and instead of trying to snatch my purse, he calls the Commission and sends Eginhard to put me in the bag, I’ll be the one who has to shake another Hunter off my trail.”
“It’s your own fault,” Cornell smirked. “You wouldn’t be in this position, if you hadn’t insisted on lipping off at Wingate every time you had a chance.”
We’d been tailing and surveilling Wingate for weeks in preparation for the Big Store, and another week when we dropped the hammer on the Second Commission, so we had the weenie’s routines pretty well mapped out. It was Thursday, so first he had golf with various prospects, and then a few late hours at the office, then he’d hit the late Happy Hour at the K Street bars and eateries. I let him get a few Manhattans under his belt before I let him see me, ‘surreptitiously’ snapping a few pictures of one of the buddies that he’d tried to form his Second Commission with. Oracle told me over my hidden ear-bud that Hunter said that Nelson was all aquiver with curiosity. I followed Nelson’s buddy from that bar to another one, with Nelson ‘stealthily’ following me, and Hunter following him, and Enforcer following Hunter, just in case someone was following HIM. Don’t you just LOVE old spy movies?
Then, dramatically in the middle of trying to snap Nelson’s bud meeting with another C-lister, I got a cell phone call. I was told that the stage was set, and it was time to take it to Step Two. I tucked my camera away and made the obligatory look around, ‘just missing’ Nelson as he ducked for cover. I ‘casually strolled’ out of the restaurant and ambled a block or two over to one of the several genteelly nondescript luxury hotels that infest that section of Washington. Around the corner from one of them, I found a fresh new flier in an eye-catching shade of red. I lifted it up and found a claim check taped to the back of the flier. Taking the claim check, I legged it around the corner to the lobby of the hotel. At the claims check counter, I turned in the check for a rather distinctive looking cylindrical carrying case with straps.
Like we haven’t all seen that in a thousand old spy movies.
I sauntered a few blocks until Oracle told me that Sherlock had picked Nelson up in an Agency cab. “Has Yakko (Wingate’s radio handle) ever seen Sherlock?”
[Not to worry, Sherlock’s disguised as a typical cabbie]
“Oh, Lord, No! Sherlock’s ‘Hindi’ accent is horrible!” Still, that was one of the reasons why we waited for ‘happy hour’ to pull this on Nelson. I started a long stroll from K Street, stopping for brief moments in suspicious store fronts and so forth, then over the Anacostia River, and finally winding up in Fort Dupont Park. Which wasn’t suspicious at ALL! Why pretty white girls casually go strolling through the Anacostia area of D.C, a notoriously nasty and low-rent part of the District, all the time! “Oracle, what’s the sitch?”
[Okay, Enforcer and Bad Boy have managed to clear the area around the drop, and Witch is suckering the Park Police over to another area, so we shouldn’t have any problems there. Hunter just shooed off a couple of street punks who were following you. Sherlock deliberately ‘lost’ you for a few minutes, but he’s set to find you, any time now. Aaannnd… Yakko’s spotted you. Just head in to the park, head down the west path, and plant it as soon as I tell you that Yakko’s caught up with you]
I stalled for a few moments by looking around suspiciously into the gloom of the Washington night. Oracle gave me the heads up, and I ‘timidly’ moved deeper into the park, looked around for a suitable place to stash my load. I found a garbage can, pulled the junk off the top, and crammed the carrying case into it. I replaced the junk on top, and slapped a sticker in an eye-catching shade of red on the can, over all the other gunk. Then I walked off at a slightly quicker rate, as though I wanted to get the fuck out of there, having performed my blind drop.
[And you’re clear,] I heard Bad Boy say. [AW FUCK, WE MISSED ONE! There’s a bum digging the stash out of the can! But I can’t stop him ‘cause… What the fuck? I don’t believe this! Yakko just jumped the wino! They’re fighting over the case… wooo… put a few drinks in him, and Wingate can FIGHT! And the wino just pulled a knife… And Yakko just pepper sprayed the bum! And he’s heading out of the park… The wino’s cussing up a storm, but he ain’t goin’ nowhere for a bit. Man, we should’a arranged for something like this ourselves! Nothin’ to make a sucker think that he’s gettin’ over like having to FIGHT for it! Heads up, Bookworm, he’s headed your way!]
Forty-five minutes later, Nelson was in his Georgetown townhouse. He finally stopped clutching the thirty-pound carryall to his chest like his newborn baby. He set it on his oak kitchen table. He unzipped the nylon case to reveal a drab gray impact plastic tube. Obeying the ‘this side up’ instruction printed in the plastic, he set it upright and undid the catches. He slid the lid off the top, and his eyes bugged out at the sight of the large gleaming crystal within the transparent tube, and he let out an astonished sigh.
I know this, because we saw him do it through the visual pickups that we’d set up during the surveillance. Isn’t it wonderful, what having their back up against the wall will do to people’s ethics and principles?
As we watched Wingate gently stroke the cover, Bad Boy asked, “What? You chose THAT?”
“Okay, color me curious,” I said, “but what exactly IS that?” I mean, if Bad Boy doesn’t like the idea of using it…
“THAT is Subject 301,” Control 09 said.
“Ah, the Mathematician’s Answer, one that’s truthful and accurate, but doesn’t actually SAY anything.”
“Ah,” Bad Boy hedged, “I did NOT pick that thing, and I wanna go on the record as officially being against using it.”
“Okay, now I want to know what we just let loose in there,” Jill said.
“It is something that will definitely cause Counselor Wingate to contact his connection with the First Commission,” Control 09 said firmly. “It’s scary enough to get him on the line, but not dangerous enough that we have to worry about it escaping. Okay, he’s hiding it in his closet. He’ll probably move it somewhere actually secure tomorrow, when he’s sober. And he’s heading to bed. Okay crew, I want all surveillance equipment removed, and all traces covered, except for the landline tap and the cell phone router tap. We want to know who he’s calling, when they’ll arrive, and what he tells them.”
Three hours later, our laser pickup detected a shrill scream from within the townhouse, and three seconds later, Wingate scrambled out of his house in only his pee-jays. He stopped, turned around and came scurrying out with an overcoat and a cell phone.
[Okay, pull back] Control 09 ordered. [Oracle, do you have a lock on who he’s calling?]
[Negatory, he called some sort of way station in the local relay setup, and his unit has a multiphase scrambler, so no joy.]
[Shit. Is the transponder in the quartz’s case still working?]
[Good. Well, in order to be any good to Yakko, the people that whoever his contact calls will have to be within an hour’s response time. Pull out the last of the surveillance gear, pull back, and assume your secondary surveillance posts. Hunter, Shutterbug, get to your action posts.] Oooh… I have an action post! I wonder if it comes with a kung-fu grip.
Wingate went over to a neighbor’s house and managed to get out of the early morning chill. About 45 minutes later, two Pest Control vans drove up. [Hmmm… Pest Control…] I heard 09 mutter, mostly to himself, [Nice dodge. Gotta remember that one] Two teams of three guys in coveralls went in, while two guys stood around, holding those tokens of ultimate authority: lab coats and clipboards. Wingate came out, spoke to the guy with the clipboards in a way that suggested that he was just beginning those lovely first steps of a killer hangover.
As Wingate answered some awkward questions, Hunter and I made rapid strikes, tagging both vans with tracking transponder stickers, and then various bits of gear, and then those clipboards. As the finishing touch, Hunter sprayed the roof of one of the vans with a numeral One in a reflective paint that was invisible to the naked eye, but glowed brightly in the ultraviolet under the proper UV illumination; I tagged the other van with a numeral Two with the same kind of marker.
About a half-hour later, and after a good ten minutes of highly suggestive noises, the six guys came out with the crystal tube, a capture canister, and two of their own, who looked like they’d been in a fight with a wood chipper.
Damn, now I’m never gonna know any peace, until I know what the deal with that fucking quartz is. [Okay!] I heard Control 09 order, [Initiate Phase Three! Helicopters take off! Pursuit Units start your engines! Hunter, Shutterbug, withdraw! Bad Boy, Enforcer, Sex Bomb; stay at your posts and use the UV; keep us apprised! Everyone else, gather at the collection points; we are on the move!]
Sex Bomb? Who the hell was… oh God… I think that Jill just got her call sign.
From there, it was what Law Enforcement types call a ‘Long Range Unobserved Pursuit’. You may think that we were being paranoid with all the trackers and everything, but if anything, we almost LOST the fuckers! They changed vehicles twice, they packaged a bunch of the gear that we’d tagged and sent it by freight, they dumped the clipboards and lab coats, and they went all over the fucking general DC area, playing all sorts of cloak and dagger games before heading off into Virginia.
HAH! Saw you comin’ asshole!
By moving outside the District to Virginia, you legally crossed State Lines, and the crystal in that tube is classified government evidence. By taking possession of it, and moving it across State Lines, you are committing an offense against Federal Property! Which means that the friendly FBI agents who are working with us (‘friendly FBI agents’; there’s a phrase I never thought I’d use) have legal grounds to pursue and arrest you! Eventually.
We were expecting them to head to some little out-of-the-way airport on the fringes of maybe Richmond or Norfolk, but instead, they headed westward to, get this: West Virginia. And West Virginia may not be Li’l Abner country anymore, but it is still DAMNED rural for any place that close to Boswash. Now, I may be doing a disservice to a great state here, but it struck me that they’d done a mighty canny job of picking a place where there wouldn’t be any patience with people playing ‘black helicopter’ and ‘Men in Black’ games.
We followed them to a disused pet hygiene commodity resource (that means it used to be a refinery for the clay that they use in kitty litter) outside Charleston. Hunter and I did quick photograph recons of the perimeter, and got shots of the license plates of the cars and trucks parked inside. A bivouac was formed a few miles away in the parking lot of an emptied out mall that some idiot had put up on a misguided notion of ‘if you build it, they will come’. After we’d put up automated surveillance equipment we had a planning session. But Sherlock wasn’t happy. “WHY are we wasting time like this?” he demanded. “We have Probable Cause; we KNOW that they have stolen Federal property in there! We should just go in and BAG those assholes!”
“Zip it, Sherlock,” Control 09 said repressively. “We’re NOT a Law Enforcement agency, remember? We’re here on the FBI’s dime and we have to follow FBI procedure. And FBI procedure says that unless there is a Clear and Present danger to civilians presented by not going in immediately, we have to get a Search Warrant from a Federal Judge to go in, even if we have Probable Cause. The Warrant has already been signed; all that we needed was the location. It’s on its way here, right now, and a raft of ‘John Doe’ arrest warrants are coming along with it. In the mean time-”
“Oh, gimme a break! Sitting around, playing pattycake like this is the reason that Duncan and Eiginhard gave you the slip in Oregon, and we wound up wasting the better part of a month getting that snake Wingate off our case!”
“THIS time, we’re going through FEDERAL channels, not local channels!” Control 09 yelled back. “We KNOW that the Commission doesn’t have Federal connections. Like I SAID, we’re here on the FBI’s dime, and it’s their rules! Period!” Control 09 calmed down a little. “AND, the three hours that we’ve got until the warrants get here give us a perfect opportunity to stop, think about what we’re doing, and to have an intelligent plan in place when they get here.”
I held up my hand. “And speaking of intelligent plans, any plan that we come up with will have to include that freaky quartz. Bad Boy here got all nervous when he spotted it. I remember seeing it in isolation tubes down in the lab, but I never heard what the fuck it IS?”
“And I wanna go on record, saying that I had NOTHING to do with choosing that thing, and I was against it, the second that I heard about it.”
“Thank you, Bad Boy; that was SO reassuring. So. What IS it?” Jill joined me in glaring demandingly at Control 09.
“It’s a Devil,” Forrest said from the back of the room, her answer echoing in the tense silence.
“Well, that’s the most ass-pucker value for your information buck,” I sneered. “’Devil’ is almost as context-free as ‘Evil’.”
“Well then, that’s the right word, then,” Bad Boy said sullenly. “’Cause that thing is EVIL.”
“Devils,” Forrest continued in a lecturing tone, “are like goblins, but they’re noticeably different. They appear to be more psycho-reactive, more responsive to human emotional states. While goblins will try to freak their targets out, they can also passively consume whatever Vis or whatever from whatever source is available. Devils, on the other hand, seem to be all about the hunt. They materialize, taking on whatever form their prey will have the most visceral response to. There are different theories as to how they do that, but that’s not important now. The important thing is that their favorite, possibly default, emotion to feed on is FEAR, abject horror being a favorite. They are quite capable of literally tearing a person apart, but they’ll play nasty games with their victim first, fulfilling all their worst fears and nightmares, until the victim has a heart attack or some sort of mental breakdown, and then they just rip them apart. Sometimes, when the victim has a breakdown, instead of killing them, the devil will enter the victim, and go looking for those nearest and dearest to them, and start the whole sick game all over again, using the first victim’s body.”
“’Intrusive Presences’,” I said, remembering what Duncan had said - and several of the more arcane security measures that the Agency used to guard ‘The Section’.
“What she’s NOT saying,” Bad Boy continued, “Is that ‘Subject 301’? The big quartz thing? That it doesn’t just have a devil in it. No, we killed SIX devils, before we figured out that that thing somehow makes devils!”
“What?” Jill and I exploded in unison.
“You had that thing in the lab?” Jill asked.
“You let that thing OUT of the lab?” I asked the more valid question.
“It was Control 01’s order,” Forrest said. “The memo that I got was very curious about those ‘goblin creators’ that you brought back from Oregon. 01 wanted to give these guys a look at Subject 301, and see what their reactions were to it, from the notes that we’re supposed to capture when we take this place.” I’ve never even MET the man, and already I know that Control 01 makes Cornell look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
“We need to learn as much about the Commission as we can, before they start covering their tracks again,” Control 09 said. “That means we need to observe and capture as many of their people as we can. Their researchers won’t be in just at the moment, so we’ll watch and wait, and follow them to wherever they’re quartered. Then we set up surveillance there…”
“Aw, MAAANNN! Not this AGAIN?” Sherlock whined. “This sort of bullshit is why we lost Duncan and Eginhard!”
“Hey, for once, I’m with the bookworm!” Bad Boy yelled. “We try to be too fuckin’ slick and get too much, then we’ll probably blow the whole LOT!”
This lead to a general bickering, with Sherlock, Bad Boy, Enforcer and me on the side of just going in and busting whoever we could as soon as possible, and Control 09, Hunter and Meg on the side of holding off and getting as much information as we could first. This went on for a while, until Jill cleared her throat in some special way that they must teach Middle School teachers to shush rowdy kids, and said, “Control, I agree with you: we need to capture as many people who actually know who the higher-ups in the Commission are as possible. That’s imperative, yes. BUT, Grace, Bad Boy, Enforcer and Sherlock also have a valid point: a prolonged surveillance, the kind we’d have to do to get the kind of evidence that you’re demanding, is very risky. Remember that fancy scrambled phone that Wingate had? The Commission didn’t think that we were on to Wingate, but their standard procedure was to use a fancy gadget like that. They did that whole elaborate dance to shake off any pursuit, just in case, despite that we think they don’t know we’re here. We have to assume that the rest of their security is on a par with that. Also, we have to assume that at least parts of their security team are either Advancers or those pseudo-Advancer implantees. Who knows what kind of techniques they’ve got that could spot our surveillance?”
“Yeah, if even ONE of us gets made, or they spot any of our taps, or they make that tracking transponder, then it’s all over,” I pointed out. “At the very best, they’d all scatter like cockroaches when the light comes on. And after that, it gets very nasty at high rates of speed. If we don’t pick up that we’ve been rumbled, we could find ourselves doing surveillance on the governor of West Virginia or something.”
We bounced it around a bit, and came to the conclusion that we’d wait until either noon, or until all the parking spaces at the refinery that were reserved had been filled, whichever came first. But we had to wait until the warrants arrived from DC.
At about 10:30 or so, about a half-hour to an hour before the warrants were expected to arrive, all of the reserved parking spaces were filled save one, and even Control 09 had to admit that waiting for that last one guy was pushing it. The second that the Special Agent in Charge had those warrants in his hot little hands, we’d go in, and God help the poor chumps. Our remote surveillance suggested that both the lab rats and their overseers were giddy with the potentials that the quartz suggested, and the techno-babble flowed thick and freely.
“Hey, Forrest,” I asked, watching her as she listened in intently. “You hearing anything that you haven’t heard before?”
“A few things,” she said in an absent nod. “Not a lot, but I need to look at their progress reports.”
“Any idea who this ‘Lombard’ guy is? He seems to be the head Lab Rat. The corporate weasel types are talking to him, and the other lab rats report to him. I don’t recall any ‘Lombard’ publishing in the Paranormal Research journals; you heard of him?”
“No,” she admitted. “But he’s making noises like he has a background in Hard Physics. Maybe we can cut him a deal: in exchange for immunity from prosecution, he rolls over on everyone he knows about in the Commission, and he comes to work for us.”
“On a contract that Meg seals?”
“Cornell would insist. And if he didn’t, Control 01 would.”
“Wait and see what they’ve got hidden in their back closets before you make him an offer,” I recommended. “From what we’ve seen of them, these Commission guys belong in jail.”
“Yeah, but so does Bad Boy,” she shot back. “Besides, just because Duncan is a screaming asshole from Hell doesn’t mean that the Commission’s hiring policy is out of an old Hammer movie. Lombard could be a normal Physicist who couldn’t find a berth with a regular university or research group.”
“Maybe, but Duncan demonstrates that the Commission’s willing to put up with a lot of crap from a researcher who can produce spectacular results,” I pointed out. “Given the level of ruthlessness that they show in gaining live specimens, and their security measures, I’d say that their researchers are under a LOT of pressure to produce. And there’s no severance pay for these guys, either. Desperation can make you do some strange things.” Hmmm… déjà vu…
“Okay, okay, if they have something like ‘M-1’ in a holding cell, I’ll let the FBI have him. Now quiet down, they’re about to start a series of exposures on the quartz that we wanted to do, but Cornell wouldn’t let us.”
“I never thought that I’d say this, but: Thank You, Cornell!”
“Very funny, now pipe down,” Forrest snarled. “They’ve made a couple of remarks that suggest that there’s a connection between 301 and those goblin makers. They’re starting a radiation bombardment sequence… it sounds like one of the exposure sequences that I asked Cornell to do…” Then she gave me the ‘speak to the hand’ bit and made ‘hmmm… interesting…’ noises for a while. Then her eyes popped open, her face dropped, and she said, “oh shit…”
‘Oh Shit’ is one of my least favorite things to overhear.
I patched into the surveillance feed, and there were sounds of crashes and screaming and things breaking and a weird keening noise that really got my hackles up. Then my cell phone rang. It was Hunter. [They whipped up one, possibly two devils with that! We have to go in NOW! Clear and Present Danger, people! FBI and Marshalls, stay back! Our people will handle this! Intercept anyone leaving the building and provide First Aid for the wounded! Shutterbug, Sex Bomb, we need capture units, get them here NOW!]
Jill and I each grabbed one capture unit and a capture rod and were out of the semi like a shot. By the time that we got there, Sherlock was getting the Control backups through the security gate. Jill and I just jumped over the fence, like Hunter, Enforcer and Bad Boy had. We rushed past a man who looked like he needed a paramedic BAD as he staggered out, and broke into the large main laboratory area that had once been the main refining chamber. The lab was a fucking madhouse. Besides Hunter, Enforcer and Bad Boy, there were maybe between fifteen and twenty people running around in a blind panic. And the panic was quite understandable.
Striding through the chaos like giants on a medieval battlefield were two huge, horrific figures. One of them was a tall shaggy black werewolf/ demon kind of thing with glowing red eyes and a mouth that looked like the gateway into hell. The other managed to combine the fears of spiders and snakes, with long wriggling viper-ish snake bodies radiating out from a large spider thorax, and the spider’s head had WAY too many mandibles to be anything natural.
The devils had smashed open a wall of cages, letting some of the animals out. The Spider/snake punched into one of the cages with a snake/arm, grabbed the animal and choked it down whole. The giant werewolf grabbed one of the lab rats who was trying to squeeze under a cart, dragged him out screaming and started picking him apart like it was pulling wings off a fly. “God Fucking Damn It!” I heard Bad Boy yelling over the din, “I KNEW something like this was gonna happen, the second I saw that fucking rock!” He started firing a shotgun into the werewolf.
“Focus on one target at a time!” Enforcer yelled. “Sex Bomb, keep the Spider/Snake busy! Don’t try to fight it, just keep it busy, and keep it from feeding! Shutterbug, keep the goblins and possessed animals off our back! Everyone else, on the Wolfman!”
‘Keep the goblins and possessed animals off our back’. WAY easier said than done. The goblins were smart enough to stay away from the crazy bitch with the capture rod, which was more than you could say for the possessed critters. The whacked-out cat and rat were bad enough, but wouldn’t you know it? The possessed dog just HAD to be a mastiff? How come you never hear about a possessed Chihuahua or Yorkie?
Figuring that the rat was, paradoxically the biggest threat (hey, it’s always the little ones you gotta worry about; people know to take the big ones seriously), I snagged it with a capture rod and shoved it in one of the cages that hadn’t been trashed, and then went after the cat. I threw Delphi at the cat, and she constricted around the cat well enough for me to snag it and chuck it in another cage. I spotted Bad Boy kicking the mastiff a good twenty feet, and had the good luck for Rover to land near me. Delphi and I bagged Rover the same way.
Enforcer and Hunter had the Werewolf by the arms and Bad Boy was wailing away at it with one of those truncheons. Then he gave up on the truncheon with a snarl and started hammering it with his fists, which seemed to work better for him.
Then a man who wasn’t one of ours, and wasn’t wearing a lab coat (but was wearing a rather suspicious-looking knit cap), kicked his way through the various goblins and leveled a boxy electronic device with a suspicious pistol grip attached and fired it at the spider/snake devil. It exploded.
Well, maybe ‘exploded’ is the wrong word; maybe ‘erupted’ is closer to the mark. Or ‘burst open’. One second it was a single, very large, if biologically impossible entity, then that guy shot it with that ‘gun’ (for want of a better word), and then it popped like a soap bubble into a couple of dozen smaller entities.
Jill, who had been mixing it up with that devil, looked at him aghast. “What did you DO?”
“HEY, Bitch, I-” he started, and then he realized that he didn’t know the girl he was cussing out, and turned the whatzit on her. He pulled the trigger and Jill spasmed like she was having an epileptic fit.
Oh no. You do NOT do that to my baby, no way.
I threw Delphi at him, and he must have been one of those ‘implantee’ pseudo-Advancers, ‘cause he sensed her coming and caught her in midflight. But he did NOT see ME coming, and I took out the back of his knee with one of our truncheons. He went down with a yelp, and I pulled off his knit cap. Yep, he was an implantee. I was about to apply the shock-prod to the studs on his head when my better judgment got ahold of me. So I took the weapon thing out of his hand and used it on him. That’s what happens when you mess with my woman.
I don’t know how to describe it to you, as it doesn’t really factor into the normal sensorium; basically, the asshole’s personal energies just flared, twisted a bit and then he just fell on his face and shit on himself. I looked at the piece of hell-ware in my hand, and gave very serious consideration to dropping it and ‘accidentally’ stepping on it. Very, very HARD. Then I really thought about it; this thing had been created by the Commission. If they had the blueprints and such for it, then we’d be facing the damned things again. So we’d need to know as much about them as possible. And we’d need Forrest and Fulbright to examine it and figure out how it worked, and maybe come up with a defense. Of course, that also meant that Cornell would be able to mass manufacture them once they understood how the things worked, which struck me as about as good an idea as giving Serbia the Bomb.
“EVERYBODY!” I yelled, aiming the boom-gun at the werewolf, “Back off and prepare for weird!” As soon as they’d given me the room, I let the werewolf have it. It spasmed and let out an earsplitting, bone-rattling howl. Then a dark, vaguely lupine shadow lifted from the body, and the very average looking guy revealed just slumped to the floor. The shadow flowed in the general direction of one of the lab rats and engulfed him. A moment later, the Man-Wolf was back, large and in charge.
I snapped the boom-gun up and aimed, but Hunter yelled, “BUG! Don’t do it!” I spared him an incredulous look, and he was kneeling over the guy that the wolf-devil had just left. “This guy is in bad shape, and I don’t think that it’s because of the beating we gave him! I think that the hosts take as much damage from that as the devil does!”
Crap! So much for the ‘anti-possession’ gun.
Then another of the lab rats did something really weird. He pointed a cylindrical device with a pistol-grip at one end at the much-deflated spider-devil, and first a light washed over the devil, and then a plug of some sort shot out of the gizmo into it. The spider jerked in the middle of devouring (or re-devouring, maybe) one of the goblins and started pulling at the cord that connected the plug to the gun, like a fish on a line. The lab rat secured his footing and started to reel the spider in. Then the spider was off like a shot, jerking the lab rat off his feet and dragging him around the lab at a breakneck pace, scattering the various fights like dry leaves. Then the spider stopped dead in its tracks and turned its snakehead ‘legs’ in the lab rat’s direction. The lab rat worked the controls on the grip of the ‘gun’ furiously, and then screamed as the spider/snake bared its fangs with a hiss and jumped him.
As the spider ripped through the combat like a runaway chariot, dragging the lab rat after him, a bunch of the other researchers made a break for it. Sort of. Six of them skittered through the spider’s wake and climbed into a large faraday-type electrified cage with large electrical coils alongside it. My impression was that it was some sort of containment chamber, but they were hoping that it could work in reverse, as a shelter from the goblins. But in their hurry, they forgot to turn the damn fool thing on, and they had to send one of their own back out to turn it on. As the last guy opened the door to the containment chamber, a bunch of goblins rushed in past him, and they found themselves trapped in the chamber with four very hungry goblins. It wasn’t pretty.
Enforcer and Bad Boy were grappling with the werewolf, and as I still had the boom-gun, I looked for something that I could use the damned thing on. I spotted the spider-snake thing making like Dracula on that guy who’d tried to put a leash on it. Okay, let’s see what a second squirt will do.
I gave it a shot and it didn’t explode, but not by much. I sort of jitterbugged in place for a bit, which gave Hunter a chance to pull it off the sort of deflated looking lab rat. As he did that, he took the cylindrical dingus from the boffin, and checked it out as the spider snake tried to pull itself together. Then he had an ‘aha!’ moment, stuck his hand into one end of the cylinder, and the spider-snake sort of snapped to attention. Then the spider jumped a goblin, but it didn’t drain it. Instead, it carried the goblin over to Hunter, who held out a containment jar, and then the goblin put its catch into the jar and went out for another. “It’s a remote control!” Hunter said, like a kid with a new toy. “You just think what you want the goblin to do, and it does it!”
“Gee, that’s nice!” Bad Boy said as he took another poke at the werewolf, “But could you put away the Pokemon, and DO something?”
Hunter sicced the spider/snake on the werewolf, and it got pretty ‘Universal Monster Movie’ for a bit there. I was torn between watching, bagging more goblins, and seeing to Jill. Delphi wrapped herself around Jill’s neck, which seemed to help. Jill was just beginning to come around, when it looked like the fight was over. Bad Boy had pounded the Man-wolf to a fare-thee-well, and that vaguely lupine shadow slipped free of its very battered looking host. But, before anyone could jab it with a capture bident, it slithered right at one of the Control agents, and just moved right on in and took over. The new Man-wolf broke the capture jar he was holding and chowed down on the goblin inside. “Oh Fuck,” I muttered.
“What’s the matter?” Jill asked muzzily.
“Fucker’s just figured out how to take hostages. That’s Control Oh-whateverheis. It’s bad enough that we’re mauling these Commission idiots, we can’t hurt our own guys!”
Or, at least most of us cant; Bad Boy just tucked into the Man-wolf, same as he did the others. Hunter barked out an order to stand down that Bad Boy obeyed with all the good grace of a Doberman on the attack being yanked back by the choke collar. The Man-wolf took advantage of that to shed first Enforcer and then Hunter. Bad Boy just stood there, like a dog on a leash, unable to do anything until his orders were changed. Jill struggled to get to her feet, but she was way too logy to be any good yet, so I held her back. The Man-wolf looked around, snapped its jaws and readied for Enforcer, who was getting back to his feet. “STOP!” the voice rang (yes, it literally rang, echoes and everything) through the chamber, carrying the weight of Ultimate Authority. And everyone, Assets, Controls, Lab Rats, assistants, goblins and even the Werewolf too, all stopped dead in their tracks.
A man stood in the door, and he dominated the entire very large open chamber, despite the fact that he was a very average, if rangy, person physically, and he was wearing orange jail scrubs, with no shoes and leather restraints on his wrists and ankles. But he radiated a stern, just, uncompromising authority that would not be denied. “DEMON!” he snapped stalking forward like the high school vice principal from Hell, “You will release that man, NOW!” He grabbed the Werewolf by the throat with his left hand, placed his right hand on the Man-wolf’s forehead and said, “You! Will! Be! GONE!”
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. It never is. The Man-Wolf broke out of his hold with a backhand that sent him flying back a good ten feet. Something that hard really should have broken something in the man, but he got up, and looked like he was ready to dish out some Divine Retribution. But Enforcer didn’t let it get to that. He stepped up, aimed the Stopper (you know, the handgun with the Elephant Gun Round?) at the Wolfman from maybe ten feet, if that, and pulled the trigger. And YES, it IS just THAT loud. Everything stopped. The Wolfman was thrown back a good five feet, but it still got up. It got up slowly, but it got up after being shot by an elephant gun. Enforcer was scrambling to get another round in the Stopper, but I got the distinct impression that his hands weren’t very happy with him at the moment.
“Jump it!” Hunter barked, and he and Bad Boy tackled it together. They grappled with it, but it was burning Cheerios and it managed to toss Hunter. It was gearing up to get rid of Bad Boy the same way, so I stepped up and blasted it with my camera. It sagged, but it wasn’t quite out.
So, I grabbed one of its arms, and between the two of us, Bad Boy and I had it under control. More or less. I glared at the guy in orange and snarled, “WELL? You were doing something?”
The man in orange nodded, gathered himself and stalked over, ready to fight the good fight, no matter what. He took the Wolfman by the throat again, laid his hand on the wolf’s forehead and started invoking every angel and guardian entity that he could think of, commanding the foul being that plagued this poor man to leave his body NOW!
And strike me het if the damned thing didn’t come out of the poor Control’s mouth, like toothpaste out of the tube! Mind you, the guy wasn’t very happy, he looked like he’d been through the wringer, but at least he wasn’t snarling or snapping anymore. The, ah, ‘Exorcist’ latched onto the vaguely lupine shadow and held it in his hand like it was a Resident Evil version of a Yorkie.
I didn’t know that you could DO that.
One of the Controls came over with one of the new-design capture units and gingerly indicated that he should tuck the devil inside. He did so, but I definitely got the impression that he wasn’t sure who was more dangerous, the unnatural thing in his hand, or the weird people with the guns. That strange overwhelming awe about him faded, and he was just a man again.
Then the goblins around us remembered what was going on, and it quickly devolved into a Marx Brothers movie, with we Assets trying to bag as many goblins as we could, the Controls trying to keep the lab rats from escaping or destroying evidence, the lab rats trying to keep from being either mauled or arrested, and the goblins doing, well, Harpo Marx. Between the new guy, Delphi, my camera, Hunter using that Spider/snake thing, and the other Assets, we managed to get most of the goblins before they could wriggle out of the lab in into the backwoods. I had a definite sense that my camera was full up, and Delphi gave out that blissfully replete burp of the totally stuffed. Showing that Boffins really are a breed apart, one of the Lab Rats walked up to me, gazing in wonder at Delphi and me. “How did you… Is that…?”
“Up against the wall, asshole,” I said in my coldest tones, “and assume the position. You’re under arrest for Receiving Stolen Federal Property.”
“WHAT?” I must have been watching too many Cop shows. That was almost the absolute worst thing to have said. They all started squawking about warrants, proper procedure, entrapment and like all that, which would have been annoying enough if they’d had the slightest idea of what they were yapping about. As it was, I was about to go Dirty Harry on them.
But Meg let out a piercing ‘hailing a cab’ whistle and said in a clear, ‘spelling it out for the reality-challenged’ voice, “When I went back there,” she jerked a thumb at a door to the part of the building not within the open lab area, “I found HIM,” she pointed at a particularly harassed looking lab rat who was nursing a bloody nose, “who was using THIS,” she held up a remote, “to shock the hell out of him,” she pointed at the guy in orange scrubs, “and cussing at him to get our here and do something. Given that we came in here responding to a Clear and Present immediate threat to life and limb, I think that we have a good case for at least Illegal Detention and Cruel and Unusual Punishment, even if you have a legit reason for keeping him here.”
“He is a DANGEROUS psychotic, with violent delusions!” the Lab Rat with the nosebleed said pompously, “We are just following the standards and practices of-”
“My name is John Carver,” the subject of discussion cut him off. “I’m from Hadleyburg, Ohio. I’m the shop supervisor at the Salk’s furniture factory and I’m a deacon in my local church, the Second Congregation of Souls Methodist Church.”
“He’s a convicted KILLER, named Fred McDow, from right here in West Virginia! We are a Federally funded private research foundation, trying to determine exactly what his connection with these creatures-”
“They claimed that they were Federal agents, and arrested me three weeks ago, and dragged me here without a trial or anything!”
Another lab rat looked like he was going to get into the act when Control 09 cut them all off. “Oracle?”
[Already all over it, Control,] I overheard on my earpiece. [The ID number on this guy’s jail scrubs identify it as belonging to the Lake County Jail at Waukegan, in Indiana. There’s no record of any ‘Fred McDow’ in custody in West Virginia. Okay, there’s a Fred McCready, but he’s only doing Five for GTA. And, according to the Hadleyburg Bugle, about three weeks ago, John Carver, a local working man, husband and father of three, two boys and a girl, suddenly went missing without explanation. They mention it three times in the first week, and the second week, the Salk family that owns the furniture factory offered a 10 thousand dollar reward for any information leading to his return. Oh, and the website for the Second Congregation of Souls Methodist Church also has a big picture of him with his family, asking if anyone knows anything about his disappearance. And there’s a mention of something about a Roger Kaegan incident a month or so ago, that they sort of assume that everybody already knows about…]
“Roger Kaegan was a man who worked in the furniture shop,” Carver said cautiously. “He had been acting strangely for weeks, and his wife, a woman in our church, asked me to speak with him, in my role as a deacon. I and two other members of the congregation visited the Kaegans at their house. Donna, that was Mrs. Kaegan, showed us a room that Roger had set up as some sort of unholy shrine, decorated in patterns on the floors and walls with his own blood, where he’d sacrificed small animals - squirrels, rats, rabbits, a young kitten - on upright spikes. When we tried to reason with Roger, he became violent, and started throwing us around the room. His strength… it wasn’t normal. Convinced that I was facing a Demon, I called on the name of Our Lord, and grappled with Roger. Roger handled me like I was a little kid. He had his hands around my throat, and he was doin’ something, like he was tryin’ to eat away at my immortal soul. And then…” At this point, the Deacon paused, and I could see that he was trying to choose his words very carefully, like a man who was on the stand and didn’t want his tongue to trip him up. Then I could practically see him say to himself ‘screw it, I’m telling the truth flat-out’; “and then the power of God Almighty filled me, and my arms were strong and I broke the demon’s hold on both my body and my soul. I took ahold of Roger, and in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I forced the demon from Roger’s body. The demon tried to get away, but I tore it apart, and scattered it to the four winds.” He finished, glaring at us to contradict him or call him a liar.
“You see?” one of the lab rats said, “He’s NUTS! He…” We all glared ‘why are you insulting our intelligence?’ looks at him, and Enforcer indicated the lab, with the havoc wrecked by the goblins. “Well, you can’t blame me for trying…” he whimpered.
Deacon Carver looked at us as Sherlock fiddled with the control, unlocking the collar. “You’re with the Federal Government? They said that they were with the government, some secret agency or another.”
“In case you haven’t noticed it, these guys lie like rugs,” Enforcer said as the Controls pulled the poor assholes out of the cage, while keeping the goblins inside. “But yes, we are with the Federal Government, we ARE going to throw the book at these yahoos, and not only do we believe you, but we could tell YOU a few things that would make your hair curl.”
“You… believe me?” the Deacon said wide-eyed. “You’re not gonna try to convince me that I just imagined the whole thing, or that it was swamp gas or some junk like that?”
“Deacon, not only are we NOT going to try to sell you any of that junk, but-”
“Ah, Hunter?” I cut him off, “Before you try to get him to sell his soul, the way you did with me, can you at least get the man some real pants?”
Control 09 called for the FBI and Marshals to come in and take over the formal arrests, and gave the okay for Forrest and the other lab rats (who worked for US), and the paramedics to come in. Forrest charged right in, and asked about the records and research notes. As she was checking the condition of the notebooks and laptops, she noticed the researchers being handcuffed, remembered something, and asked, “Okay, which one of them is Lombard?”
We started asking around, and one guy claimed to be Lombard, but his voice didn’t match Lombard’s Suthron drawl. He gave in with a deep sigh and said, “Lombard was right next to the crystal when the shit hit the fan. I saw him take the first of those Shinma right in the face.”
“Shinma. I take it that that’s your term for the things we just put down,” Forrest grumped.
“Someone’s been watching Anime,” I sniped.
“So, basically you’re saying that the Wolf-thing ate him.”
“So, the Wolf was the third of the Shinma to come out.”
“THIRD?” was the general response to this. “There were THREE of those things?”
Then the penny dropped for me. “There was a guy who was all bloody heading out when Jill and I came in! That must have been Lombard!”
“And you didn’t STOP him?”
“We were BUSY!” With no further ado, we Assets (and the Deacon) all headed out of the lab at a full gallop. We found a FBI guy who pointed us at one of the paramedic ambulances that had pulled into the parking lot. On silent cues, Hunter indicated that on Three, he and I would pull open the doors on the back of the van, and first Enforcer and then Jill would go it and grab Lombard, and drag him out; then the Deacon would drive out the devil, and I’d bag it in my camera. Well, you don’t need to have gone to West Point to know decent tactics when you see them mimed at you. He counted out One-Two-Three, we opened the doors and-
“SHIT!” The interior of the ambulance was covered in a thick coat of blood. One of the two bodies was in civvies, and looked sort of like the guy we’d seen going out. The other one was in a paramedic’s uniform. “It must have jumped bodies!”
“I KNEW using that thing was a bad idea! Didn’t I TELL you those things were EVIL?”
“Thank you, Bad Boy; that helps so much.”
“Over here!” Sherlock pointed to a breach in the chain link fence. There was a trail that went off into a dense wood that blended uncomfortably into the West Virginia hills.
“Why is this thing running away?” I asked as we bolted through the woods at a full clip. “Why did it leave the lab, when there was so much food right at hand?”
“Because these things are SMART!” Bad Boy snarled. “At least some of them are! The really nasty ones!”
“WHAT? How can something that was just created out of a fucking crystal have intelligence? Let alone know that we were coming? And it’s only been in fucking existence for-”
“Not the time or place, Gracie!”
We came to a place in the brush where the foliage and been nearly shredded, and there was some blood on the ground. Hunter kneeled and examined it. “It jumped someone. Male, about 170- to- 185 pounds, wearing hunting boots.” He fished a sporting rifle out of the brush. “A hunter. A civilian. No body, so either the devil mixed it up with him for a bit and he managed to get away, or it jumped bodies, and the EMT is in a hysterical fugue state. There are two trails, going off in nearly opposite directions. Shutterbug, you take the one going east-by-southeast with Sex Bomb; Enforcer and I will take the other one. Deacon, you stay here with Bad Boy and Sherlock - er, listen to Sherlock here, he usually knows what he’s talking about - and when one of us catches up with our bunny and finds out what he’s about, you come running, and cast out the devil. Shutterbug, if your guy isn’t the devil, leave him with Sex Bomb, and come for us ASAP.”
“Great plan, Hunter,” I said, “with ONE fatal flaw: namely, I know exactly bupkiss about tracking! I admit with all due modesty that I am a very skilled and versatile gu- ah, girl, but I never got out in the bush that much.”
“Shutterbug, you’re a Hunter, you can do this,” Hunter said in his best paternal uncle manner. “Just LOOK at this scene, feel around for the energy that’s all around this place, and you should be able to see the energy. There are two trails, and you should be able to follow them, once you know what to look for.”
“Hunter that is the dumbest, most inane ‘open yourself to the Force’ spiel that I have - well, I’ll be a sunnuvabitch!” Sure enough, there were faint traces of a colorless energy that I could just make out, and there were two trails going off in opposite directions.
I nodded to Jill, and we tore off east-by-southeast. A few minutes later, we heard the sound of someone thrashing around in the brush. I nodded at Jill, she nodded in understanding, and I went stealthy. I advanced, and caught sight of a guy, maybe forty or so, in hunter’s camo with the red safety vest and a slogan baseball cap, who was throwing some sort of fit. He was thrashing around like he was being swarmed by bees, and grunting in pain and fear. I waited for his thrashing to pitch him the right way, tackled him and got him in a Full Nelson hold. “JILL!”
Jill was right there, and she took him out of my hands. “Well, THAT was easy.”
“You’re right,” I said as I looked him in the eye. He looked back at me in fear and confusion. “Oracle, call Sherlock and tell the Deacon to follow Hunter’s trail. I’m on my way, but Sex Bomb will be bringing the decoy with us. The target did something to him, and we may need the Deacon’s help to set him right.” I nodded at Jill and she nodded that she got the idea, and I was off as quickly as I could run.
When I caught up with them, I had a ‘Marvel Comics’ moment. Only ol’ Jack and Stan never showed the Human Torch as standing around buck nekkid. Hunter, Enforcer, the Deacon and the others were all gingerly standing around, trying to keep him hedged in, but the guy himself was standing in the middle of a column of flame, unharmed except for a few places where there were melted globs of plastic that had burned his skin; the residue, I assume of the clothes that he’d been wearing. He was standing there, snarling, ‘cause the Deacon had his hand forward, and he was yammering at him and you could just feel (if not see) the energy between them. They were sort of at an impasse. The Deacon was keeping the devil from attacking, and the others were keeping it from escaping, but on the flip side, they couldn’t get at the damned thing through that sheath of hellfire.
Maybe they were waiting for it to run out of gas, but that was just waiting for this thing to pull some new bit of nastiness out of its ass. Well, let’s add a few new wrinkles to this scene… I pulled up my camera, got ‘Johnny Storm’ in my viewfinder, and gave it a nasty ‘rap’ with a blast. The aura of flame flickered out for a moment, and the devil turned to see what had happened. I used that brief opening, and threw Delphi at him. Delphi wrapped herself around his neck and squeezed. Enforcer and Bad Boy were on him like a heavy sweat, and they got him by the arms. The devil gave a helluva fight, but Delphi seemed to be keeping that fire trick of his under wraps. Deacon Carver approached, and looked bewilderedly at Delphi who uncoiled herself from the guy’s neck. Then Carver shook his head, remembered his mission and set about casting the devil out. He placed his hand on the guy’s head and gave a rousing (if obviously improvised) evocation of the Higher Powers to free the poor man so afflicted and, sure enough, a nasty looking lizard of living fire wriggled out of the guy’s mouth. Then Deacon Carver just mashed it into the ground, like he was squashing a particularly vile little bug, and that was the last of it. Jill had jogged up by this time, and watched this with mounting interest. She said aside to me, “I would SO do him.”
“The Deacon, the devil or the host?”
The Deacon finished off the devil, but he watched Delphi as she slithered over to me and crawled up and nestled around my shoulders. Carver walked up, looking shaken at Delph, and asked, “Is that…?”
“Now don’t make a big thing out of nothing, Deacon,” I chided him. “Sometimes a big white snake is just a big white snake.”
“Dammit, Oh-Eight, why are you fighting me on this one?” Cornell demanded.
“I’m trying to save you from yourself, Boss,” I said with an innocent smile. “You want to sic Meg on the Deacon, and get him under your thumb, like you did with Meg, Bad Boy and me.”
“We NEED to bring him into the Agency,” Cornell insisted. “Aside from the fact that he’s an Advancer, he’s a security breach just waiting to happen!”
“Y’see Boss?” I jeered, “This is why you need me. You’re about to shoot yourself in the foot here. That nasty dominance compulsion of yours is about to get you in a heap of trouble. Cornell, if you try to get Deacon Carver under your thumb, it WILL come back and bite you. While he has a raft of admirable traits, I’m willing to bet you that Carver’s got some very Old Testament notions of revenge. And he’s patient, Boss; if you give him cause to, he will wait and wait and then when you can least afford it: BAM! It WILL be nasty.”
“Merlin, we NEED to study him!” Forrest insisted. “I think he’s a whole new kind of Advancer! Not a Hunter or Combatant or Savant or even Mediator, but a whole new dynamic that we’ve never seen before! We NEED to study him. And that ‘casting out devils’ thing that he does!”
“So? Offer him a trade: we teach him Advancer techniques to keep his Vis in check, and he sits still for your tests.”
“We need him in the Agency,” Cornell kept at it.
“Oh, I agree. I think that we need a voice of reason and morality around here. Especially with Bad Boy around. Look, all I’m saying, is just give him the pitch without any nasty tricks. Let him go home, visit his family, and let him think it over. I’ll bet you a month’s salary that he’ll come back and agree to some kind of part-time work.”
“And what if he TELLS people about what happened to him?”
“ONE,” I counted it off, “if he DID, he’s a small town guy in southern Ohio; it would just get lost in all the UFO abductions, cryptid reports and Elvis sightings. TWO, he won’t; he knows that only a handful of people believe him about the Roger Kaegan thing. He doesn’t want to jeopardize what credibility he’s got left. THREE, he won’t, because he’s a man of native intelligence, and he gets most of the issues going on here without having them spelled out for him. FOUR, he won’t because he’s a man of faith. If he gives his word freely, he’d rather burn than break it; if you force one of Meg’s pacts down his throat, he’d rather burn than submit to it.”
“I’m glad that you trust him so much,” Forrest snorted. “Some of the biggest assholes that I’ve ever met were throwing around Bibles.”
I let out an amused snort. “Bones, could I tell YOU stories! Look, I’m telling you that Carver isn’t one of those religious bully types.”
“Oh? And how do you know this? Some new Advancer power?”
“No, old experience. Look, Forrest, I had some thirty years’ experience as a paranormal investigator, a whole bunch of that in the field. Now, one of the first things that happens when the word gets out that a bunch of parapsychologists are checking something out - right after the visit from a bunch of yahoo reporters - is that we get a visit from at least ONE of the local churches. After a while, you get to be able to tell the honest citizens from the attention whores or Bible-thumping bunko artists. And, check this out. Of the various types who identify with their church to the point of becoming a Deacon, only two would have gone charging in to handle those devils that way: fanatics and the Real McCoy, the kind of Christian who doesn’t just preach the doctrine, he does his best to LIVE it.
“But a CONTRACT,” Cornell started.
“Wouldn’t be anywhere near as binding as a freely given promise,” I cut him off. “Look, he defines himself as a Man of God. Not a cleric, not a Man of the Cloth, but a man of GOD. He’s worked it into his personal framework for making his Advancer powers work. If he gives you his word, hand to God, you’ve got him, in ways that even Meg’s pacts couldn’t even touch. Besides, if you got him under contract, you’d have to move him here to the Big Apple, and I really don’t think that that’s a good idea.”
“I asked him, and Deacon Carver’s been out of a thirty-mile radius of Hadleyburg maybe a dozen times in his life. He’s been to Cincinnati two or three times, and Chicago ONCE. That town is his life and his support network. You try to transplant him to New York, even if you bring his wife and kids here, and you’ll probably kill him.”
Cornell opened his mouth, but I could see my point register, and he shut it with a sour grimace. “Okayfinebethatway,” he grated out through clenched teeth. I don’t think that Cornell likes losing. Or, at least, not having things all his own way.
Now that I was sure that Cornell’s control freak tendencies would be kept on a tight leash, I walked out into the main room, where Deacon Carver was waiting, talking with the other Assets. “Okay, Deacon, I think we’ve hammered things out. After Forrest’s walked you through a few tests, you’re free to go back home. Just remember, you’ve got the right to say, ‘we’re done’; otherwise, Forrest would keep running you through re-takes all year.”
Carver let out a deep sigh of relief. He was going home. But then a look of worry crept over his long, weathered face. “I just hope they’ll have me back… I mean… I hope they don’t think that I just ran off. I mean, after that thing with Roger Kaegan…”
Oracle favored the Deacon with a big warm ‘everybody’s kid sister’ smile. “I wouldn’t worry about that.” She turned a monitor around and showed him the archived pages from both the local paper and his church’s website.
The Deacon’s features damn near melted as he read the Second Congregation of Souls Methodist Church’s description of him as an ‘irreplaceable pillar of the congregation’, and showed that weird mix of emotions as he saw the worry on his wife and kids’ faces, the strange blend of regret at their anxiety mixed with the happiness in knowing that they really cared.
“Okay, but what am I gonna TELL people?”
“Simple, tell them the truth,” Hunter, of all people, suggested. “That you were kidnapped by a group of rogue researchers who had heard about the Roger Kaegan thing. That you were rescued by the FBI and Federal Marshals, pursuing stolen Federal property. That the people who abducted you took you over State Lines, so it’s a Federal matter, and they’ll be tried in Federal Court. And that you’re a federal witness to both the abduction and the operation of the lab, so you can’t talk about it, except in generalities. All of which is perfectly true. All the other stuff? The Agency, the Commission, Advancers, the goblins, the devils, the weird technology? Do they really need to know any of that? WOULD they believe it? Heck, you won’t be lying, you’ll just be avoiding over-complicating an already complicated story. And, since we’re talking about Federal Court, it’ll take the better part of a year at the very least before you’ll be called as a witness - that is, IF you’re ever called at all. I’m laying odds that the Commission’s lawyers will cut a very quiet deal.”
“And speaking of lawyers,” Bad Boy cut in, “what are we gonna do about that pinhead, Wingate?”
“Not to worry,” Enforcer said with a smirk. “We have that well under control.”
C. Nelson Wingate drove into the underground parking garage at the Lincoln Center in Washington. The Philharmonic was playing Wagner’s Tannhauser, and he had tickets. Unfortunately, while he’d jumped through a thousand hoops to get those tickets, they were only to get him into the stupid garage. It ticked him off that he wouldn’t hear any of the first-rank music, despite the fact that he actually understood and appreciated Wagner, the seat that he’d paid good money for was probably being filled by some political hack who was napping through the whole thing.
But this was business. He sat in his car, waiting until 7:25 precisely, and then flashed his car’s headlights three times. He waited for a minute precisely, and then flashed them three times again. This time, another car flashed its headlights four times. He waited for a ten-count, and flashed his headlights twice. Then, all the cloak-and-dagger crap taken care of, both of the occupants of the cars got out and walked towards each other. The other person was a chunky, square-faced, rather frumpy woman that Wingate had seen in the entourage of a Congressman who sat on the Department of Agriculture oversight committee. She was a minor but trusted functionary in the Congressman’s organization. They said nothing as they faced each other. They held identical briefcases. They both held up their cases facing the other and opened their case. In Wingate’s case, there was 120 thousand dollars in used ten and twenty dollar bills; in the woman’s case was a trade-bound book with a plain paper cover, with the seal of the Department of Agriculture on it, and the title: ‘ANNUAL REPORT REGARDING THE ORANGE HARVEST’. In three weeks’ time anyone could buy a copy for three dollars and change. But Stanton, Carlisle & Associates’ principal (or more accurately, the clients of Stanton and Carlisle’s principals, another, more prestigious lobbying firm) the investment firm of Duke & Duke, was willing to pay this much to read that report before anyone else did, and set their investment strategy accordingly. They both shut their cases almost immediately. Aside from the brief confirmation, neither would ask for any further proof; the transaction was too minor, too routine to be worth risking their reputations in the economy of favors.
But just as Wingate and the woman were exchanging their cases, a car came through, its headlights up and blared its horn. The woman flinched and knocked both her and Wingate’s cases out of their hands. They both scrambled to hide from the driver of the car as it passed, and to recover their case. There was a bit of a muddle, but they got their cases straight, and when the car had passed, they gathered themselves together and headed for their cars without a word being passed. Just another unremarkable exchange in the nation’s capitol.
Wingate headed back to Stanton, Carlisle & Associates’ offices on K Street. He had no problems with the security guards; lobbyists were in and out of the offices at all hours. He went to his office, and opened the briefcase. But instead of the DoA crop report, there was a copy of the District of Columbia phone book. Totally gobsmacked, Wingate gawped at the phone book. Then there was a flash, and Wingate heard a velvety chuckle. Wingate spun to face his desk. There was another flash and chuckle. “Ooh, that one was even better!”
Blinking the stars from his eyes, Wingate saw a beautiful young woman with shaggy black hair and large sapphire blue eyes that twinkled with malicious glee in a minxish face. She grinned at him from behind his desk, kicking back, her black short boots casually propped up on his desktop, and a cell phone in her hand. “Y’know, that was almost worth the wait,” she gloated.
Wingate pulled himself together and glowered at her. “So. Miss Merlin. Or is it Lieutenant Saarsfield? Or is it Misty Barlowe, convicted drug mule and suspected petty prostitute? Because it CAN be, very easily. All that I have to do is make a phone call, and you’ll be arrested as Misty Barlowe, or some other name, and you’ll simply be filed away in the system, as an already convicted par-”
Wingate’s rant was interrupted as his visitor broke out in peals of derisive laughter. “Oh! That! Was! Pathetic! ‘Mister Aiken’,” she added with a sneer. “Now the woof that you ran down, back in Enterprise? Now THAT was some primo Bee-Ess. But you had a couple of hours and a plane trip to prepare, didn’t you?”
“How did you steal that report?”
“That’s NOT what you should be asking yourself, Nelson.”
“What is?” he asked the rhetorical question suspiciously.
“What are you gonna do when Stanton, Carlisle and the Associates find out that you lost not only the DoA report, but the payoff money, AND these reports?” she held up a sheaf of papers and documents.
Despite himself, Wingate turned to his office safe which was wide open. “How did you get into that safe?”
“The same way that I got both of those cheap-ass briefcases. With supreme ease and consummate grace. But I didn’t come here to see what petty-ass bullshit you were involved in. NO, like the Angel announcing the coming of the Christ-child to the shepherds, I come with glad tidings. You CAN extract your rumpled ass from the wringer that you’ve got it caught in. And your ass IS firmly in the wringer, ‘Mister Aiken’.”
“I’m in nowhere near as much trouble as you and your ‘Agency’ are,” Wingate snarled.
The girl just laughed again. “Well, I’ll give you this, you’ve got balls. You’re annoying as hell, but you’ve got balls. Which just happen to be in the wringer, right along with your ass. Nelson, you’ve screwed up one time too many. You cost that ‘Second Commission’ crew how much? Thirty MIL? And tonight, you cost Duke & Duke a hundred and twenty grand. Dude, you are severely SCREWED.”
‘They don’t know anything about the crystal that I hijacked,’ Wingate thought smugly through his poker face. ‘Duke & Duke will be angry, but as long as the Commission doesn’t know about the “second commission”, I’m golden.’
“Oh, and that tube with the crystal that you think we don’t know that you grabbed? We LET you have it,” the girl said with a feline grin. “Yesterday, we raided the Commission’s lab at the Pettigrew clay refinery outside Charleston, West Virginia, using that crystal that you gave them as a pretext.” Wingate’s poker face folded, with a pair of treys. “And the fact that the Commission hasn’t told you anything about this, suggests that they’re laying low for the moment. But, don’t you worry - they won’t forget about you. No sir, I’m sure that they’re telling Dr. Duncan ALL ABOUT you, and he can’t wait to together and, ah, pick your brain.” The girl’s feline grin went acid.
“You’re not telling me this just for the sadistic pleasure of seeing me squirm, though I’m sure that you’re enjoying yourself immensely. So, what do you really want here?”
The girl’s smile faded away and she scowled at him. “What do you THINK we want, shithead? We want Galliand and Ipatieff, the rest of the Commission, and Eginhard, and believe me, we really want that sick fuck doctor Duncan.” Wingate tried to pull a pro forma ‘who?’ at the mention of two of the members of the Commission by name, but didn’t quite pull it off. The girl pulled a business card from a pocket on her leather blazer and set it down on the desk. “This is the number for a Federal Attorney at the Department of Justice. Call her, and try to convince her to provide protection in exchange for turning witness. And maybe you’ll live without having your gray matter shirred like an egg.”
She got up and headed for the door. “You’re asking me to violate my professional ethics by breaching Professional Confidentiality,” Nelson said, grasping around for anything, anything at all.
The girl broke out in laughter again. “You? Ethics? PLEASE! Go ahead, don’t call; I don’t really care. To be honest, the only thing that I’ll regret is not being here to see your face when you realize what I was really here for, after you check the firm’s secret slush fund accounts.” With that, she was out the door.
Her parting words hit Wingate like a blow to the stomach. He knew that she was gaming him, but he HAD to know! He also wanted to follow her, maybe sic the security guards on her, but indecision between the two actions made him pause, and by the time that he screwed up enough decisiveness to run out into the hall, she had disappeared without a trace. He rushed to the lobby, but the security guards said that no such woman had left - or for that matter, entered - the building. Steaming with frustration, Nelson stalked back to his office and dug out the special time-and-date sensitive encryption that the firm used for its accounts. Fuming with resentment at the fancy high-tech frills that had replaced simple, reliable things like hard files and actual bank accounts, things he neither understood nor trusted, Nelson slogged through the security measures and accessed the firm’s accounts with their various off-shore banks. At first, he was nonplussed - nothing had happened within hours, nothing at all. But why would she game him about it?
Then, suddenly, the numbers started doing a merry jig on the spreadsheet.
“I’m IN Like Flynn with a Great Big Grin!” Oracle cackled as her fingers flew over the keyboards of four different laptops, urging three Expert Systems to work their cryptographic magic.
“You did WHAT?” Cornell demanded.
“I, um, took too much money.” Oracle said as she worried her lower lip, looking like an overgrown naughty little girl.
“How MUCH too much money?” Bad Boy asked, clearly puzzled by the entire concept ‘take too much money’.
“A LOT too much,” Oracle whined. “I was trying to cover our tracks! And y’know how you said that those Stanton-Carlisle people are, like, errand boys for the bigger, more prestigious lobbying firms? Well, the Commissions funds were all sort of mixed up and connected with the rest of Stanton-Carlisle’s clients, who were all mixed up with Kane-Harbin-Delacourt, and Byram-Hubbard, and a bunch of other lobbying firms, and THAT’S all mixed up with a bunch of tax shelters and off-the-books deals, and THAT’S all mixed up with money laundering, and I was moving money around like a FIEND, trying to shake off all the nosy parkers who were trying to figure out who I was and what I was up to, and… I think I triggered a major bear market in the Asian exchanges.”
“How… BAD a bear market?” Meg asked.
“Weeeellll…” Oracle hedged, “Let’s just say that I really hope that you didn’t have anything invested in Indonesian bonds…”
“You’re saying that you blew several million dollars, trying to clean its trail?” Sherlock asked. “Well, that sucks, but at least we don’t have to explain where we got a few Mil from out of nowhere.”
“No, actually, I multiplied the money several times, selling short at the right time. Then, I tried to move the money over to the European markets, and hit a big Bull market that was largely fuelled by the money that I was moving in, and-”
“Oracle,” I asked, rubbing the bridge of my nose, “exactly how much money are we talking about?”
“Oh, I’d say roughly a hundred and twenty billion and change,” Oracle said as she cringed.
“A HUNDRED? AND TWENTY? BILLION?”
“Would this be a good time to ask for a raise?”
“Shut it, Bad Boy!” Cornell snapped, “Oracle, you could have sunk the economy! Things are shaky enough as it is, without you jerking the funding out from-”
“Actually,” Meg cut in, “according to the Federal Reserve, there’s more than a hundred trillion dollars floating around the Off-Shore, untaxed and unregistered. The Very Rich have their own none-too-micro economy,” she added with a huff. “A hundred and twenty billion won’t even put a ding in that. Besides, the fact that it all got swept up in Oracle’s maneuvers means that that money was liquid, and not connected to anything stable. I’d say that there was a lot of Mob money in there, and payoffs, slush funds and like that. There will be some screaming in Washington and Wall Street, but I doubt that it’ll get anywhere near us. Mind you, I doubt that that Stanton-Carlisle place will still be there, this time next month, but really, how big a tragedy is that?”
Cornell massaged his temples, and I think I heard the sound of grinding teeth. Then he let out a gust of breath. “Okay! Oracle, just send the money over to the Holding Company. They’re set up to handle that kind of money, and they may actually cut us a break for kicking money back to them for a change.”
“Can I send some of that to Greenpeace or Amnesty International? They do good work, and they always need money.”
“Oracle, honey,” Meg sighed, “you can’t just drop that kind of money on groups, it doesn’t help.”
“Not even the United Negro College Fund?”
“I didn’t say THAT…”
Cornell cleared his throat repressively, “Did you learn anything about the Commission from the funds that you, ah, moved?”
“Yeah, from the way that the funds were set up, and the fronts that they moved the cash through, I’d say that there between fourteen and eighteen members of the Commission, that is the guys actually calling the shots, with an ‘inner circle’ of five to six who were probably the original founders. I don’t think that any of the founders were Advancers, but I’d say they’ve got at least one or two Advancers on the extended board. The founders are mostly West Coast, with their money seeded in the ‘jump off’ investment fields that so many of the Silicon Valley bandits moved to after the bubble burst in 2001. But there are signs that some of them are from the Great Lakes region and in the Philadelphia area and maybe Atlanta. But definitely American. I’d say that they’re between 35 and 50 years of age, and heavily male, though there are definitely a few females among them, at least one founder is female. Mark Galliand and Constantine Ipatieff are almost definitely members of the Commission, and I’d say that there’s a 87.4% +/- 3 chance that Ipatieff is one of the founders. There’s a 64.7% +/- 4 chance that Jason Beaumont, the guy behind Pretend™ and E-Kwirk© is on the Commission. While I haven’t given it my full attention, I’d say that there are signs that Beaumont is using at least one Advancer to make E-Kwirk work, ‘cause a hyoooj chunk of the money from that was flowing through Stanton-Carlisle.”
“Good work,” Cornell said, leaning back in his chair. “Okay, I know that you’re all eager to get out there and bust the Commission’s chops. I wouldn’t mind taking a poke at them myself. BUT. We are not the Advancer cops, we’re a research group. Period. We’ve pushed the very limits of our brief on this one, and after our to-dos with The Network, I think that we’d better back off right about now and let the FBI handle it. We’re not letting the Commission off the hook, we’re just downgrading them to a secondary priority. We’re going back to our usual set of priorities, and figuring out as much as we can. They’ve proven to the commission that we’re not their lapdogs, and that we can hurt them; we’ve made our point, so there’s no use in carrying on the war. So, back to work, people.”
I opened my mouth to complain that someone had to slap the Commission down HARD, or they’d just come back, smarter and meaner than before. Then the penny dropped. “Well?” Cornell demanded, giving me the evil eye. “Are you going to make an objection?”
“Nope!” I said perkily. “It’s a good idea. The Commission is a bunch of businessmen; they’ll be so busy recouping their losses that they won’t have any time or money to waste with Duncan or the others. By the time that they’re ready to try anything, we’ll know enough about their tech and methodology to spot them a mile away.”
Cornell looked at me suspiciously. “That’s very… reasonable of you, Oh-Eight.”
“Hey, I only kick up a fuss when there’s a valid reason to.”
“I’m glad that YOU think so.”
There was, naturally, a party to celebrate our glorious victory. Hunter held it at his place, which looked like a ‘swinging bachelor pad’ set from a 1960s romantic comedy, all leather upholstery, Danish Modern, modern art, frosted glass and brass. He even had the obligatory ‘cool guy’ private pool table.
After a couple of hours of making merry, I found myself dragged into a game of Eight-ball with Meg, Enforcer and Sherlock. The guys of course insisted that it be boys vs. girls. I’m gonna have to get used to that. Meg and I got stripes, the guys got solids. Sherlock racked up the balls, set his cue, pulled back for the break, and then Meg asked “So, Grace - what did you spot?” *crack!* Sherlock broke, sending the balls scattering across the table.
“What?” I was distracted, torn between the question and following the balls.
“Get real, Bug,” Sherlock sneered as Meg checked the layout of the table. “One minute, you were ready to dish out a heaping helping of Inconvenient Truth on Number Two, the next you’re all ‘yes sir, three bags full, sir!’”
“SO not your style, Gracie,” Meg said as she sank a ball, and then searched the table for another layup.
“Yeah,” Enforcer said as he casually watched the table. “Besides, that rationale you spouted was strictly kiddie-show. You may not be any great shakes as a strategist, but you know that when you’ve got the opposition on the run, you don’t give them time to recoup, retrench and rethink; you keep hammering at them, keep them on the defensive and encourage their partisans to defect.”
“Exactly,” I said. “And Cornell knows that, too. Kids, the fix is in. Someone on the Committee ordered Cornell to back off. He was just as ready to go for their throats as we were, but he backed off like a good little soldier.”
Meg misjudged her next shot, and Enforcer took the cue. “So. You think that the Commission really does work for the Committee, like Wingate said? Maybe they went renegade, and the Brass used us to bring them back into line?” He sank two balls, creating an increasingly good layout for himself with multiple recams, herding the balls into a layout that favored his side.
But he blew it on his third shot when, just as he was stroking the cue, Meg said, “No Way! If the Commission had gone renegade, the Committee would use us to break them apart and bring the useful people back into the fold, while getting rid of the real troublemakers. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say that everyone on the Committee agrees on everything, and they speak and act as one. We may just be one tool of one part of the Committee, and the Commission is another, and this is the big boys’ way of settling something.”
“Nope,” I disagreed as I checked the layout for opportunities. “This isn’t about the Commission. It’s about US. If it was about the Commission, the Brass would have either been a lot more open, or a lot more oblique. As it was, they were being subtle. They timed putting the brakes on very carefully, for a planned result.” I sent the cue ball through the wall of solids that Enforcer had set up by the closest of margins, and knocked the Twelve-ball in to the side pocket. But while I had more options on this side, I fouled my line and didn’t get the 11 in the corner pocket.
“They’re gaming US?” Sherlock said as he pulled off a complex multi-bank carom that sent the Three-ball in to the far corner pocket. “Why would they game us? They can just give us orders!”
Meg waited until Sherlock was about to stroke again, and then she said, “They’re baiting us. What’s the best way to get someone to do something that they’d rather not do, when you can’t just order them to do it? You get them riled up, and tell them that they can’t do anything.” She didn’t completely foul his shot, but it was so complex that he wound up sending the balls all over the place, and even wound up sinking one of our balls.
“So, how are they baiting us?” Sherlock asked as he pulled the foul ball out of the bin, and putting it and a penalty ball back on the table.
“Remember, they kept telling us, ‘we’re not the ‘Advancer Cops’? And then they kept putting us in situations where we wanted to go in like Gangbusters? So, what’s your knee-jerk reaction to being told that?”
“That we should be the Advancer Cops,” Enforcer said carefully, clearly thinking it over. Then something clicked. “The Agency is perfectly set up to eventually move over into a policing role; the way that we work, looking for traces of Goblin and Advancer activity is almost exactly how the police operate looking for traces of criminal activity, a blend of watching and waiting, and rapid deployment to deal with unexpected developments. We can respond to anything within the Five Boroughs almost immediately, and we can have a force anywhere on the Mainland inside six hours. We have Advancers to deal with the weird shit, and baselines to provide objectivity and credibility. And writing scientific reports translates very easily into writing police reports and court statements.”
“And it works politically,” Meg said as she took her shot. “When the Agency finally goes public - whenever THAT happens - the Committee can say, ‘we didn’t set up a secret police force; they were simply a research group that was forced into a police role by unavoidable circumstances’.”
“So, Cornell knew that it was a bluff from the word go,” Sherlock framed it for himself. “Y’think that Hunter was in on it?”
“Not a chance,” Enforcer said definitively. “Hunter can’t act to save his life, or lie to save his soul. Probably the reason why he never made it past Major when he was in the Army.”
“I thought that he was a colonel.”
“He IS. Now.” Enforcer thought about it a bit. “Okay, so Hunter folds when Wingate ranks him, and Eginhard and his flunkies walk. Cornell either gets the order from the Committee to sic us on the Commission without them giving us an order to put the wind up our asses, or he decides to do it on his own authority. Either way, Cornell figures that Grace is the one most likely to figure out that it was a bluff, so he rides her until she rises to the bait.”
“I THOUGHT that that bit with him recording all his conversations was bunk,” Meg said sourly.
“Cornell wouldn’t have gone that far, if he didn’t know that the Committee would back him a hundred percent, so the Committee knew about it, one way or another,” Enforcer continued. “So, we did exactly what the Committee wanted us to do. Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”
“Hey, nobody likes getting yanked around,” Meg said.
“Advancers aren’t a fluke,” I summed up as Enforcer studied the lay of the balls for his shot. “Why this is happening, and why NOW, I have no idea. But it’s shaping up that Advancers are not just one-in-a-hundred-thousand freak occurrences. The American power structure is going to have to cope with us, whether they like it or not. Combatants? Not a problem; the people upstairs have been dealing with soldiers and fighters for centuries.”
“Yeah,” Sherlock snickered, “Just give ‘em a raw steak and a spare tire to play with.”
Enforcer shot Sherlock a ‘very funny’ glare from his shooting crouch. “Yeah, and all they have to do to deal with you Savants is give you a Rubik’s cube.”
“But Hunters? Invisible people scare the Big Wigs. And Witches?”
“Mediators,” Meg corrected me.
“Mediators,” I amended, acknowledging the error, “Meg scares the bejeezus out of them. And what are the odds that she’s the only one around? Can you imagine what political life would be like, if a candidate had to take an Oath of Office - sealed by a Mediator?”
Meg snorted, “Damn Skippy! And the Committee must’ve started shipping in the ulcer medicine by the crate when they read the report about the Deacon. Me? I’m scary, but what Deacon Carver could do, if he didn’t have those iron-clad small-town ethics of his? Terrifying!”
“No shit,” Sherlock said as Enforcer ran through a streak of balls that ended with a foul, costing him one of the balls back. “Think about some of the crap that we pulled on this one: Breaking and Entering, Electronic Surveillance without a Court Warrant, Entrapment, Fraud, Wire Fraud, Grand Larceny, Felonious Endangerment, and that’s just the stuff we did without our more outrageous effects! I mean, Bug, we only got into the Commission’s slush funds ‘cause you used that Bene Gesserit thing you got on Wingate; can you imagine the shit you or the Deacon could pull, if you wanted to?”
“We had our backs to the wall,” Enforcer said defensively as Meg took her shot and another one.
“There’s always an emergency,” Meg grumped. “And if there isn’t one going down, someone will trump one up, just to have the excuse. Let’s face it, we Advancers may be more evolved, but we’re not necessarily better. While Jill and You, Enforcer, can be expected to act like reasonable adults, and Deacon Carver gives me hope for the Human Race, the rest of us? Please! Bad Boy is still a thug, Hunter is a ‘Good Soldier’, Oracle is a nerdy girl who wants to sit with the cool kids, Sherlock is a showoff know-it-all, and Grace is a rebellious troublemaker. And Duncan and Eigenhard are actively toxic. We MAY get better as we get older; but I read Hawthorne’s Professor Heidegger’s Experiment, and I doubt it.”
“But, at the same time, that argues that ‘Advancer Cops’ are necessary,” Enforcer said carefully. “If Machiavelli - and history - teach us anything, it’s that powerful people use that power to get more power, regardless of the costs to others. The Commission and the Network both have used Advancers in ways that are at best illegal; just think about Oh-Eight’s pictures of M-1 and the others for a second. Yes, we went outside the Law against Wingate, but just think, Witch, what someone with your powers, or the Deacon’s or Oh-Eight’s ‘Command’ could do to people who have no idea that things such as Advancers exist.” He punctuated this by hitting the cue ball with such English that it spun in an arc, avoiding two balls and hitting another, imparting much of its spin so that the other ball curved into the side pocket. Well, almost.
“Yeah, that’s nice,” I said chalking up my cue, “but too many things don’t add up. There’s more going on than we’ve been told about; how much the Brass actually knows, who knows? There are definitely more players in this game than just the Commission and the Agency, or even the Network, which you guys don’t seem to be inclined to tell me about for some reason. The problem with becoming the Advancer Cops is that we don’t know who the good guys are, and who the bad guys are, or even if there ARE good guys. I dunno about you guys, but I don’t look good in jackboots.”
“Godwin’s Law,” Meg snipped.
“Godwin’s Law is against spurious likening of someone’s position to the Nazis, not against learning from history,” I countered. “I mean, really, do you think that fit young Germen men joined the SS saying, ‘Gee, this is my opportunity to oppress other races, commit mass murder, and destroy half of Europe’? NO! They told themselves, ‘we’re gonna kick ass and GET the bad guys!’ Then they gave that everything they had, and in the end, the rest of the world was pointing at them, calling them ‘the bad guys’ and making it stick. We’ve GOT to know what we’re doing; just ‘following orders’ is a recipe for disaster.” I hit the cue so that it spun, following the bumper, and imparted a bunch of its force onto the 10-ball. Which was a cool trick, but didn’t sink the ball.
“The Power Elite - American and Foreign - will insist on some method of protecting themselves from Advancers,” Sherlock pointed out. “And they won’t be very picky about how they do it. They’ll want to either control or neutralize Advancers somehow. And since the most effective method of ‘neutralizing’ someone is killing them, control doesn’t look that bad from this end. With the Agency in place when the lid blows off, there’ll be a control mechanism already up and working, which follows the rules.” Sherlock shot the cue into the bumper, making it jump over the other balls, knocking the 3-ball in to the side pocket. “Well, mostly, anyway. My point being, if we don’t offer them the Agency on a silver platter, they’ll develop their own solutions; where the only rules will be ‘keep us safe at all costs’.”
Enforcer nodded as Sherlock lined up his next shot. “Abuse. That’s the real issue here. And the kind of secrecy that the Agency insists on breeds abuse like mold in a damp sponge. BUT, until we do enough about Advancers and Goblins and Vis, it really IS the only reasonable policy. It sucks, and it’d be nice to have a better alternative, but we don’t.” Sherlock made the 3-ball jump, landing on the 7-ball, knocking it into the corner pocket.
“Maybe,” Meg grumped as she watched Sherlock work a five-ball chain to get one ball into the side pocket. “But there’s GOT to be a point where we know enough. We’ve got to set a point where it’s agreed that that’s our finish line; we get there, and it’s Full Disclosure Time. Otherwise, secrecy will breed abuse, which will breed more secrecy. And, just for the record, when that time comes, I hope that you guys are all there. ‘Cause secrecy also breeds paranoia, which doesn’t give a damn about logic.”
“Hold it guys,” I said carefully, “we’re getting WAY too heavy here. It’s one thing to realize that this isn’t a cop show, where everything’s gonna turn out okay just in time for the credits to roll, but it’s another to start making ‘we’re fucked’ noises, too. Yeah, we went too far, slapping the Commission down. But think about it: Advancer ‘culture’ is still in its ‘Wild West’ stage. Hell, it’s not even in the ‘Wild West’ stage, it’s still in the ‘Dan’l Boone Kentucky Frontier’ stage. Things are still getting started, we’re still finding out what’s out there. At this stage, things are always rough and confused and sketchy; that’s the way that things ARE. Things will get better, once we figure exactly what’s going on. But the Agency will be a big part of that. The Agency could be something that Advancers can look to for stability and fairness, something that can offer them support and guidance.”
“Nice thought,” Sherlock said as he bounced the 2-ball off the cushion, right into the side pocket. “IF it turns out that way. IF the Agency doesn’t turn into a secret police, or a bunch of lazy old cowardly drunken sheriffs from an old John Wayne movie.”
“Ay-yuh, Pilgrim, let’s saddle up and show those varmints they can’t act that way in Rio Bravo!” Enforcer said in a bad John Wayne accent. “What? I like John Wayne movies!”
“We need to know who the Committee is, and what their agenda is,” Meg said sturdily.
“Agreed,” I nodded, “but not the point at the moment. Yes, the Committee is the Boss; but, let’s face it, the Boss may make the decisions, but he doesn’t really set the culture of any given police force, no matter what the Mayor or Commissioner or Chief of Police think; the boots on the ground do. And that’s US. WE will decide what the Agency becomes, us here in this room, at this table and out there. WE keep this human, WE keep this fair, WE are the ones who’re going to have to figure how to make this mother work, so it doesn’t turn into a complete cluster fuck.”
“Deacon Carver,” Enforcer said sturdily. “We need Deacon Carver. If anyone can keep this train on the rails, it’s him.”
“Agreed,” I nodded. “But on a very real level, we’re still gonna have to do it ourselves, day in and day out, whether the Deacon decides to join us or not. Besides, the Deacon’s our first real victory.”
“Y’mean liberating him from the Commission’s lab?”
“No, liberating him from Cornell,” I corrected. “Carver gets to go home. He didn’t get suckered into one of Witch’s pacts. He gets to decide whether he stays in Hadleyburg, or comes and joins us. THAT is a victory.” I held up my beer in a toast. There was a pause, and Meg raised her glass. Then Enforcer, and then Sherlock. “To Deacon Carver. And Liberty.”
“To Liberty.” They all said touching their glasses or bottles to mine.
“Okay, you win this one, Bug,” Sherlock said as he sank his last ball, “But you’re losing this game. Eight ball in the side pocket.”
“Actually, Holmes, I’ll bet you that you don’t sink that ball with this shot,” I said, leaning on the table and giving him a wiseass smirk. “Loser buys dinner for the whole crew.”
“Care to sweeten the wager?” Sherlock leered at me.
“I doubt that you could pony up to my satisfaction. Like I said, if you don’t sink that ball, you pay for dinner for the entire team.”
“You. Are. ON!” Sherlock cued up, lined up the ball for the side pocket and made the stroke. The eight-ball headed straight for the side pocket-
-and Delphi popped up out of the hole and caught the eight-ball in her mouth. She held it there for a moment and then spit it out *ptui!*
Sherlock sputtered furiously, but as Delphi crawled up my arm to her usual spot on my shoulder, Enforcer laughed and said, “Oh, right, like those shots you were making were kosher! HEY EVERYBODY!” he called out to the others, “We’re heading out for dinner! Sherlock’s buying!”