New Sheriff in Town
“What a goat rope,” Connor declared.
“Hey, at least we all got out intact,” Fox said. “Can’t say the same for the other guys.”
The men and woman of the Black Watch were gathered around a long oak conference table. Still dressed for war, their presence had caused a stir among the hotel staff. When the call came, they had simply thrown on their gear over their civilian clothing, grabbed their guns, and rushed for the SkyBear.
This wasn’t an operational deployment. Not a direct action deployment, anyway. They had come to Riveria expecting a low-pro security mission, and had kitted themselves accordingly. But they were STS. They got the job done despite having the wrong gear. That, and Yuri Yamamoto was either farsighted or crazy enough to demand that the team be loaded for bear at all times. Or both.
“The suspects are all down, the hostages are safe, and you restored order to chaos. That’s a win in my book.”
The speaker was the sixth man in the room, Executive Assistant Director Roger Pearce. The STS nominally fell under the ambit of the Public Security Bureau, but everybody knew that the STS did its own thing with minimal PSB input. This mission was the exception.
Pearce had flown in all the way from Babylon, accompanied by the Black Watch. The field office had reported a spike in Elect-on-Elect violence. Far too many Elect were killing each other in the streets and in front of too many witnesses for the politicians to brush aside. The mission was to sit down with representatives of the three factions and lay down the law.
And if that didn’t work, the Black Watch would step up.
“Will this affect our mission?” Yamamoto asked.
“It will certainly prejudice the talks,” Pearce replied. “Including this episode, seven in ten cases of Elect violence in Riveria were started by the followers of the Court of Shadows. We need to know why.”
“Turf,” Connor said. “They want turf. And with it, money, power and influence.”
“You sound confident about that.”
“I grew up here,” Connor said. “I saw the Court of Shadows rise from a no-name cult to a virulent cancer.”
“The Lord and Lady of Shadows are recognized Powers,” Pearce said.
Connor flicked his hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah, they’re gods and all now, but they began as street scum and they haven’t left the gutter. Time was, this city was divided between the Pantheon and the Liberated. Then the Court moved in and carved out a niche for themselves. That was almost twenty years ago. Now they’re doing it again.”
“Do you know that for sure?”
“I saw it happen before my eyes.” Connor leaned forward. “Look, the Court of Shadows specialize in ultraviolence. It’s how they rose to power so fast, and how they managed to take one-third of the city away from the Pantheon and the Liberated. Their own doctrine makes it clear that they respect only strength and the will to power.”
Pearce bristled. “We still have to talk to them. We can still find a way to end this peacefully.”
“If we’re dealing with the Pantheon or the Liberated, sure, I’ll be right behind you. But we’re dealing with the Court here. You can’t reach them with words. Only guns.”
“Do you have a problem with the Court?”
“Vampires open their mouths only to lie or to bite.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Pearce said.
Connor had seen too many bureaucrats like Pearce. Having climbed a long way from the street, Pearce was in no hurry to go back down into the blood and the muck. Naturally, men like that were entrusted with making decisions that would affect the lives of those on the ground, in full confidence that no policy they dictated would touch their own careers, much less lives.
Naturally, it was up to operators like the Black Watch to clean up after them.
Fox, Mustafa and Wood, now dressed in generic black-and-white suits, stood guard in the hallway outside the main conference. Tan, Yamamoto and Connor waited in the room next door. The techie and the team leader stared at their laptops, studying the feed from the mini cameras they had planted in the conference room and the main hall. The Mastiff rested silently in a corner. Connor joined it in solitude.
“Heads up,” Yamamoto whispered. “Principals coming up the elevator.”
Connor peered over his shoulder. The screen showed three people crammed into the tiny lift. Two hulking men in dark suits flanking a tall woman in a blood-red corset and matching ankle-length dress. The men were slim and fine-boned, the woman curvaceous and tall. Their skin and hair had turned a ghostly white, and their eyes glowed a deep shade of scarlet.
“Vampires,” Connor muttered.
“That’s not politically correct,” Tan said.
“That means it’s accurate.”
The three representatives from the Court of Shadows didn’t walk so much as glide down the hallway. The woman moved like a queen, proud and fluid. The subtle sway of her hips drew the eye to her curves, her lips were framed in a dreamy half-smile, her arms and legs were a moving symphony. Her escorts swiveled their heads back and forth, keeping their hands close to their waists, and yet they oozed the same degree of confidence and sexuality.
The three operators in the hall greeted them, subtly patting them for weapons. The woman entered the conference room. The other two bodyguards took their places opposite the STS operators.
Connor checked the other screen. Pearce was on his feet, shaking the woman’s hand and guiding her to her seat. She accepted his courtesies with the regal indifference of a woman long used to being treated like royalty. Back in his chair, Pearce tried to make small talk with the woman. She replied with terse but polite pleasantries, revealing nothing more about herself.
“More principals coming in,” Yamamoto reported.
Two men in off-the-rack suits, sharp but not as sharp as their Shadow counterparts, stepped out of the elevator and scanned the hallway. The one on the left gestured, and a woman stepped out. Dressed in a flowing green cloak with a hood pulled over her head, Connor couldn’t see her face. Yamamoto cycled through the cameras until he got a good angle.
A moment later, the elevator opened again, this time discharging a single male. Tall and slim, he wore a simple white tunic and an orange-and-gold robe shawl wrapped around his shoulders. And a pair of simple sandals.
“Why do Elect have to dress up like this?” Tan wondered.
“They’re afraid the whole world don’t know who they are,” Yamamoto replied.
The operators shared a laugh.
The woman in white and the man in orange exchanged brief pleasantries, then walked side-by-side to the conference room. After searching them, Fox and Wood allowed them inside. The bodyguards stayed put in the hall and glared at the Shadows. The Shadows returned the favor.
The STS operators kept their hands close to their weapons.
Inside, Pearce glad-handed the dignitaries, shaking their hands and guiding them to their seats. Once everyone was settled, he cleared his throat and spoke.
“Thank you for coming. I am Executive Assistant Director Robert Pearce. Please introduce yourselves for the record.”
“Shane DeMille, Speaker of the Court of Shadows,” the woman in red said.
“High Priestess Emily Anders, Grand Coven of the Liberated of Riveria,” the woman in green said, pointedly looking at the vampiress.
“Guru Nav Chaudhari, Priest of The Limitless One, on behalf of the Pantheon,” the man in orange declared.
“Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules for this conference,” Pearce said. “We’re here to discuss a most pressing issue: a rising trend of Elect-on-Elect violence here in Riveria.”
“There is nothing to discuss,” Anders snapped. “The Court of Shadows invaded our neighbors and houses of worship, slaughtered our believers, and occupied our streets.”
DeMille smiled viciously. “The actions of a few Elect do not necessarily represent the policy of the Court.”
“But you granted them their powers, and you did nothing to restrain them,” Chaudhari said.
“I did not. I have no authority to do so. The Lord and Lady dispense their favors as they see fit, and who are we to question the will of the gods?”
Pearce cleared his throat. “Ladies, gentlemen, this is a tough time for everyone—”
“You’re saying that the current offensive is the will of your gods, then?” Anders interrupted.
“The Lord and Lady do not interfere in the affairs of mortals, as agreed upon in the Treaty of Babylon. I cannot say the same for you.”
“We provide for our believers, and for those who seek help from us,” Chaudhari said. “You rob and murder everyone who doesn’t swear allegiance to you.”
“The work of a few rogues do not represent—”
“Yes, yes, we’ve heard that before,” Anders said. “How convenient that these ‘rogues’ are members of the Guzman Cartel.”
“Oh?” DeMille turned to Pearce. “Is that true?”
“Yes,” Pearce said, quickly asserting himself. “Recently the Cartel has mounted an offensive to expand its area of influence, and all members of the Cartel are sworn to the Court of Shadows.”
“One could even say they act on behalf of the Court,” Anders added.
“The Court does not condone criminal activity,” DeMille said primly.
“But the Court granted members of the Cartel the powers of an Elect,” Chaudhari said.
“So it seems.”
“How do you explain that?” Pearce probed.
“Our doctrines are different from yours.”
“The Pantheon is an alliance of minor gods, yes? They have banded together to protect their interests and to support each other against domination from the other Powers. The abilities of these gods are rather limited, but they are far more willing to grant their believers power. Why, I understand that if followers of a Pantheon undergo an empowerment ritual, they will automatically receive the powers of a god.”
“The empowerment puja is a demonstration and declaration of allegiance to the gods,” Chaudhari said. “And what power these initiates do receive is limited only to what is necessary to serve the gods.”
“Yes, yes, but it’s power nonetheless. As for the Liberated, the standards aren’t that much higher. Your core doctrine is simply to do as you will and to pursue freedom from social shackles. Namanah grants her power to those who pursue the path of liberation, in whatever form it may take.”
“Everyone is free to become their highest selves,” Anders said. “Everyone has a different path. We ask only that they refrain from harming others. We can’t say the same for you.”
“Us?” DeMille tittered. “The Court holds itself to far higher standards.”
“I didn’t know you had any,” Chaudhari said.
“I suppose it’s hard for a religion with no standards to recognize them when they see it.”
“Ms DeMille, we’re not here to snipe at each other,” Pearce said.
“Yes,” Chaudhari agreed. “We’re here to find out why your Court consistently grants powers to criminals.”
DeMille smiled languidly, revealing perfect, beautiful, white teeth. Human teeth.
“We are the church of last resort. We gather the outcasts, the pariahs, the ones who have been rejected by every man and every god, and offer them hope. Hope for a better life. We celebrate courage, determination, the will to act, and we cultivate it among our followers. The Lord and Lady grant their powers to they who demonstrate and cultivate these virtues.”
“Including the Guzman Cartel,” Pearce said.
“It is not my place to question the Lord and Lady, but I trust they have their own reasons for doing so.” Her eyes flashed. “Perhaps they believe the Cartel is more virtuous than the common man.”
Anders scoffed. “Criminals? Virtuous? I daresay you’ll make a fine lawyer.”
“The Cartel is nothing more than the Court’s pawns,” Chaudhari declared.
DeMille’s eyes glittered. “Perhaps you’d care to explain the activities of the Peacekeepers of the Pantheon and the Wardens of the Liberated, then? I’m sure the PSB—and the STS agents observing this meeting—would be keenly interested in the activities of your Elect.”
“I am not privy to the Peacekeepers’ activities,” Chaudhari said.
“Our Wardens protect,” Anders said. “The Cartel harms. That is the difference between us.”
“By empowering the Cartel, the Shadow Court necessarily takes responsibility for the actions of the Cartel,” Pearce said.
DeMille laughed. “Oh? Shall you then serve a warrant on the gods?”
“Per the Treaty of Babylon, we will pass sanctions on Powers that do not uphold the peace.”
“Really, now? You should start with the Pantheon and the Liberated. I can tell you all about their long and bloody history, about the methods and strategems they used to wrest control of Riveria from secular authorities in the days when Nova Babylonia was young.”
“We are here to discuss the relationship between the Cartel and the Shadow Court.”
“There is no such relationship.”
“Do you mean the legal entity named the Court of Shadows, or the religion it represents?” Chaudhari pressed.
“Ms DeMille, I find that difficult to believe,” Pearce said. “If there is no relationship, then why do members of the Cartel display powers associated with the Court of Shadows?”
“The Court does not associate with criminals.”
“The entity or the religion?”
“Then why does the Cartel worship the Lord and Lady, and why do they have their powers?”
“I do not know. I know only that we don’t associate with criminals.”
“I thought you spoke for your gods,” Anders said.
“I speak for the Court, and what the Lord and Lady give leave for me to speak. Beyond that, I do not dare represent the thoughts of such august beings.”
Chaudhari flicked his hand dismissively. “There is no difference between the Court and your gods.”
“On the contrary, per the Treaty of Babylon, there is an extremely important distinction between the gods, their religions, and the legal entities that represent them.”
“Yes, and I believe your Court lobbied had to introduce that provision in the treaty,” Anders said.
“Shall the gods be held responsible for everything their followers do or don’t do? We might as well arrest parents for the crimes of their children, or dissolve corporations for the misdeeds of their employees.”
“It’s one thing if an Elect misused his power,” Pearce said. “Quite another if his god ordered him to commit a crime.”
“Once again,” DeMille said, “allow me to assure you that the Court of Shadows does not condone criminal activity.”
“Does the Court of Shadows disavow the actions of the Guzman Cartel?”
“Once again: why did the Lord and Lady of Shadows grant their powers to members of the Cartel?”
“They must have found favor in their eyes. Beyond that, who knows the minds of the gods? Or perhaps the power burned out their minds, transforming them into mindless Husks. If you wish to punish a lawfully-recognized Power for granting powers to humans who committed criminal offenses, then you must sanction every god that walks the world.”
“Very well.” Pearce looked around the room. “Ladies, gentleman, I’m here to clean up this city. There’s been too much fighting, too much killing, in Riveria. Especially among members of your respective faiths.
“The PSB and the STS will be cracking down hard on all organized crime groups, terrorists and Husks in Riveria. The Cartel will be our number one priority. However, if they see fighting between Elect, the STS won’t care who started the fight or who they worship. They will put a stop to it. I’m sure you know exactly what they can do.
“All of you have your differences. I expect you to resolve them peacefully. We can help facilitate meetings like this, but we do not want a war between your respective religions.
“There’s a new sheriff in town. Play nice.”
“They won’t,” Connor said.
“That’s why we need you around,” Pearce said.
The Speakers of the gods had finally left. Now the STS operators were gathered around Pearce in the conference room.
“What’s the plan?” Wood asked.
“The local PSB office will work up a target deck for the Guzman Cartel. We’ll take out their leaders, dismantle their operations, hit them so hard they’ll crawl back into the gutters they came from. Once the time comes, you’ll get a piece of the action.
“Until then, we need you to keep the peace. We’ve identified several high-risk areas where all three factions hold a stake. Commercial, industrial and residential districts. Ninety percent of all internecine conflicts took place in those areas. RPD will step up patrols in the area, but if Elect-on-Elect violence occurs, you’re on point.”
Connor knew violence was inevitable. The deflections and denials that flowed from the Speakers’ mouths offended him at the most fundamental level of his being. Riverians were by nature blunt, open and direct; this level of dishonesty signaled that all three Speakers were planning something. Daggers in the dark, poison slipped into a drink, energy beams that obliterated everything they touched, pick one, pick all. The only questions were who was next on the hit list, and what the STS could do about it.
“We’re conducting presence patrols?” Yamamoto asked.
“PSB ESWAT and RPD will take care of it. Your mission is undercover patrols.”
“Woah, hold on,” Wood said. “Will the locals be in our AO too?”
“ESWAT are part-timers, and so is the RPD SWAT team,” Connor said. “They don’t have our level of training and equipment. If things kick off, it’ll go to hell in a heartbeat.”
“That’s why we need your help too,” Pearce said.
“Undercover patrol limits our options,” Wood said. “We won’t have access to the gear we need to take the fight to them.”
“If you ask me, the locals should handle plainclothes patrol, while we stand by with the big guns,” Connor added.
“You’re STS. You may not have the big guns, but you have superior training,” Pearce said.
“Training only goes so far,” Fox said, crossing her arms. “If we can’t carry heavy calibers into the field, we’re dog food.”
“ESWAT has access to heavy firepower, and they do handle paranormal threats.”
Mustafa sighed. “Sir, on my first mission with the team, we went up against a Husk who was bulletproof. We needed armor piercing rounds to put him down. In my second mission, we fought a… a Class A monster so dangerous we needed 30mm high explosive incendiary shells to destroy it. I don’t think AP rounds and HEI shells are part of the standard police arsenal.”
“Or ESWAT,” Tan added.
“You won’t be alone,” Pearce said. “I’m calling in five other STS teams. With six operational teams, half of you can perform UC patrols, the other half will be our quick response force.”
“Why, exactly, do we need UC patrols?” Yamamoto asked.
“To reinforce local law enforcement.”
“Going high-viz will be a better option.”
“Supporting the locals isn’t your only mission. If we have uniformed cops nearby, the bad guys will behave. We need intelligence on the Cartel. I need you to keep your eyes open on the ground and watch for signs of illegal activity.”
“So this is a recon mission too.”
“Yes. You’re the only law enforcement agency in the area with this capability and the ability to defend yourself from Elect if necessary.”
The operators shifted. Arms uncrossed. Hands drifted down to neutral positions. Weight shifted to positions of perfect balance. Eyes widened.
“You should have said so from the start,” Connor said.
“Well, recon is a secondary mission. Your job is still to keep an eye out for trouble and head it off if necessary.”
“That we can do,” Yamamoto said.
“Excellent. I knew we could count on you.”
“It’s all part of the job.”
“Do you think the Court, the Pantheon and the Liberated will keep away from each other?” Tan asked.
“The Pantheon and the Liberated would,” Pearce said. “But the ball is in the Court’s… well, court.”
“They won’t,” Connor said. “They can talk a good game about how they don’t condone crime, but the Court of Shadows is the religion of street scum. The Lord and Lady of Shadows are using the Cartel as soldiers and everybody knows it.”
“Regardless of how you feel, our job is to enforce the law,” Pearce said.
Yamamoto laughed bitterly.
“What’s so funny?” Pearce asked.
“The New Gods see themselves as outside the reach of the mortal law. They won’t respect social conventions or institutions, and nothing us humans can do will touch the New Gods. Do you know what it’ll take to stop the violence once and for all?”
“We kill their soldiers and everyone who stands with them. And we keep killing until the rivers run red.”
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