“The suspect you arrested has cracked,” Pearce said. “He’s a captain within the ranks of the Guzman Cartel, and privy to a number of operational secrets. Among them is the existence of a group of elite killers operating in Riveria. These sicarios are all Elect, heavily armed, and highly dangerous. Taking them out will significantly reduce Cartel operations and influence in Riveria.”
Connor pursed his lips. He hadn’t expected to bring in a high-ranking Cartel soldier in the foot chase. But such things happened in this line of work.
“Our target deck is almost complete,” Pearce said, “but our priorities have changed. We need these sicarios removed from the picture ASAP. I’m bringing in more agents and specialist teams to help, but you, Black Watch of the Special Tasks Section, are at the tip of the spear.”
“Does that mean no more undercover patrols?” Wood asked.
“Yes and no. We need to develop evidence against these suspects. Until we have a solid case, we still need you out there. But we may call on you to perform or support surveillance operations. And once the target deck is ready, it’ll be game time.”
“These sicarios, they’re all pledged to the Court of Shadows?” Connor asked.
“Of course,” Pearce said. “Every member of the Cartel worships them.”
“And the Court finds favor with some members of the Cartel. Enough to grant them the powers of an Elect.” Connor leaned in. “The Cartel are the Court’s foot soldiers, aren’t they?”
“We don’t have any solid proof of that—”
“Ah, yes, so the Lord and Lady of the Shadows just hand out their powers on a whim? Because the Cartel members conduct the right rituals?” Connor shook his head. “I’m not buying that.”
“We can’t simply accuse the New Gods of running a private army of criminals. Not without evidence.”
This time, the entire team laughed.
“I fail to see the humor in this,” Pearce said.
“Sir, we’re at the front lines against paranormal threats in Nova Babylonia,” Tan said. “We know the New Gods don’t hand out powers without demanding a price.”
“In exchange for powers, they demand service,” Mustafa said. “Trust me, I know that first hand.”
It was just as well that Galen the White had sworn to protect humanity, and had repeatedly proved it, or Mustafa would never have been admitted into the STS. Even today, anyone who worshiped any of the Powers would never be allowed to attend Selection, much less inducted into the STS’ ranks.
“We are a nation of laws,” Pearce said, “and we will follow proper procedures.”
“Meanwhile, the Cartel carries out the Court’s killings. The kind they don’t want associated with the Court,” Connor said.
“Which is why we need to take the Elect sicarios out of the picture.”
“But we can’t sanction the Court?”
Pearce sighed and rubbed his temples. “It’s not that simple. The balance of power among the New Gods is extremely delicate. One wrong move, one accusation, and the country—the world—will tear itself apart. Sanctioning a New God is a last resort. And only if the case against them is airtight—and if we are ready to weather the storm that will follow.”
Connor bit back his frustration and settled down. In his younger days he would have lashed out. Now, older and wiser, he knew how to bid his time. They might not be striking at the heart of the beast—not yet—but they were cutting off his arms. And a declawed monster is easier to kill.
“What will qualify a New God for sanctions?” Yamamoto asked.
“Gross violations of the law, undermining secular authority, inciting conflicts between the New Gods,” Pearce said.
The Treaty of Babylon, signed between the mortal and the immortal rulers of the world, sounded so reasonable when Connor had first studied it in high school. No one, human or New Gods, was above the law. If a New God wanted to start a war, it would pay. Dearly.
Naturally, the first thing the New Gods did was to appoint Speakers and establish front companies and legal entities. Through their human agents, they issued orders and communicated their wills, rarely if ever appearing directly in public. The New Gods never got their hands dirty, they left no trace behind, and their agents knew better than to talk. With neither testimony nor evidence, per the Treaty of Babylon, the New Gods were all innocent in the eyes of the human courts.
“What about last night, then?” Yamamoto asked.
“What about last night?”
“Connor and I were shadowing a Pantheon procession. They brought an avatar of the Destroyer into Shadow Court turf, and the avatar destroyed much of the neighborhood. Don’t tell me that wasn’t an act of aggression.”
“You can’t just build avatars out of thin air,” Fox added. “It takes time, energy, resources. This was a planned assault.”
“The RPD and PSB field office are investigating the incident. Once we have the full picture, we will act accordingly. But until then, your top priority is to neutralize the Cartel.”
“And keep the peace between the New Gods,” Mustafa added.
“Ah, yes. That too.”
Connor didn’t like Pearce’s answer. It had sounded like an afterthought. As though the team’s primary mission in Riveria was barely worth considering. Did Pearce think they were here just to take down the Cartel and make him look good?
No matter, Connor supposed. So long as they got to take the Court down a notch, or just take them down altogether, he didn’t really care about Pearce’s motivations. Pearce was may be his superior, but he was a bureaucrat.
The Black Watch were gunfighters.
For the next six days, nothing happened.
The Black Watch ran undercover patrols throughout Riveria, reinforced by ESWAT, RPD and other STS teams. The followers of the New Gods minded their own business. No more provocative patrols, no more riots, no more street fights.
None that caught the attention of the police, anyway.
A week after the Black Watch arrived, the mission set expanded.
There were a dozen suspected Cartel sicarios operating within Riveria. The PSB field office had gone into overdrive identifying them and their associates. They were ready to close the noose, but the sicarios were all hard targets.
To a man, they were all security conscious. They checked their backs and flanks, they never took the same route twice, they always carried weapons, and when meeting someone for business they always had someone pulling security.
The pavement artists of the PSB’s Special Surveillance Group were on the sicarios’ trail. Hour after hour, day after day, they had painstakingly stalked the suspects, gathering intelligence on their habits and activities. But only from a distance. They studied trash, observed meetings, staked out houses and offices. But that was all they dared to do by themselves.
If things went to hell in a handbasket, they would need protection and emergency extraction. They needed protectors.
When the SSG deployed, so did the Black Watch. Where the pavement artists observed their targets, the operators observed everyone around them to identify threats. Walking in the pavement artists’ wake, the operators had to stay close enough to respond to an emergency, yet not so close they would compromise the operation. A delicate balance. But that was what made the Black Watch the best of the best.
These thoughts filtered through Connor’s head as he sketched on his notepad. For this role he had overhauled his image. Thin cotton sweater, deliberately outsized, over a tucked-out plaid shirt. Skinny blue jeans. Leather moccasins. He completed the look by perching a pair of huge black sunglasses on his forehead. His clothes softened and flattened his profile, erasing or blunting the hard edges, bulging muscles and scars that betrayed the operator within. Now he was just an aspiring artist in a working-class city, a nobody who worked as a harmless coffee shop manager and dreamed of higher and finer things, a guy who spent his time sketching and drawing and honing his skills for the inevitable day the world would recognize his burgeoning talent.
Looking at what his pencil produced, he was confident this artist was going nowhere. But hey, he wasn’t pretending to be a good artist.
Still, the artist persona gave him a great excuse to have his head up and looking around. Anybody who approached him would see his clothes, the painfully inadequate still life sketch on the paper, and ignore him.
And the backpack next to him, holding his ultra-compact M83A1.
Today’s customer, Dennis Parker, was a fitness addict. Every morning at daybreak, he would take a nice long run around the park. Ten kilometers, minimum. Then he would hit the fitness corner and spend half an hour to forty-five minutes working every station.
Fortunately, the SSG operators were also fitness addicts.
“Zippy here. Target in view. He’s wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue shorts, black sneakers.”
Connor glanced up. A black man in a gray sweatshirt, blue shirts and black sneakers blazed past him on the running track. Far behind him, Zippy jogged at a slightly more sedate pace. Just fast enough to keep track of Parker without alerting him.
Connor touched his push-to-talk switch.
“Boomer here. I see the target,” Connor whispered.
“Deadeye. The target is in my sights,” Fox added.
The sniper had set up on the roof of an apartment to the north of the park. From there she had a clear vantage point—and a clear field of fire.
As the pavement artists checked in, Connor’s pencil caressed the paper, adding shades of gray and the illusion of depth. It was one of the few things he remembered from school. One of the few things he wanted to remember. His counselor had recommended him for art therapy. He had scoffed at the notion, until his rage and his grief found expression in the interface of pencil and paper.
But he remembered his mission, and remembered to scan.
Parker blazed round and round the track, leaving Zippy eating his dust. Zippy heroically tried to catch up, but where he left off, another pavement artist took over. There were two agents working the track, keeping Parker boxed in and constantly in sight. And if that failed, there was always Fox.
As Zippy ran, Connor scanned the park. A woman holding eight dogs on eight different leashes strolled down the walking path. She was petite, a few of the dogs were huge, but they obeyed her directions and followed her lead. Must be a professional dog walker.
Down by the playground, a few mothers watched over their children. A small group of joggers worked the track, chatting and laughing, obviously a group more focused on recreation than fitness. Parker zoomed past them and kept on going as though they weren’t there. Senior citizens, singles and couples, brisk walked down the path, content to let the younger people pass them by.
No signs of threats.
Forty-five minutes later, right on schedule, Zippy spoke again.
“Target is slowing down and stretching. He’s finishing his run.”
“Zippy, Papa Doc. Roger that. Moose and I are ready for him.”
Moose and Papa Doc were stationed at the fitness corner. Having arrived ten minutes prior, they allowed Parker to see them working the pull-up bars. Just a pair of guys working out together, nothing to see here.
Connor packed his things.
“Boomer here. I’m on foot, heading to the pavilion by the dog run.”
As he walked, he played a stream of thought through his head, letting the narrative leak through into his body language. He had sketched everything he wanted to draw over there, time to get a fresh perspective. He liked dogs; maybe he could find one to draw at the dog run.
He moved with the unhurried gait of a man with nothing to do all day, keeping his gaze dreamy and distant, his arms loose and relaxed. He swung his head side to side, letting the whole world know he was looking for something.
As Parker cut across the field, he locked on to Connor. Connor’s eyes swept past him and kept on gong. Connor looked up at trees and clouds, down at the potted plants lining the footpaths, completely ignoring Parker.
Parker kept going. Connor allowed himself to feel a hit of satisfaction. Parker would know that the authorities would send the best of the best after him; a guy whose mannerisms were so big and obvious, who looked at everything but people, who had been sitting at a bench sketching stuff and was now walking away from him surely wasn’t a PSB agent.
The joke was on Parker: from the pavilion at the dog run, Connor had a clear view of the fitness corner.
Connor leisurely set himself up, placed his notebook and pencil on the table, his gun bag next to him, and continued sketching. His body was angled towards the dog run, but in his peripheral vision he watched Parker.
Parker was a beast. Three sets of twenty perfect pull-ups. Up and down the jungle gym five times, different routes each time. Back and forth across the parallel bars six times. Three hundred crunches. He was like a machine, cranking them out without a break.
He was extremely fit, cybered up, or an Elect. Or all of the above.
The two PSB agents took their time, indulging in long breaks to catch their breath and chatter about the weather, family, and fitness tips. They took turns to use the equipment alongside Parker, complimented him on his incredible strength and begged for advice.
The SSG artists had balls. Huge brass ones.
As Parker wrapped up, Connor spotted a man approaching the benches. Blue ball cap, white shirt, skinny jeans, and a messenger bag slung around his back. He was built, all muscle and unafraid to show it. The man walked with a spring in his step, but his head warily swept back and forth.
“Boomer here. I have a possible at the benches. Blue cap, messenger bag.”
The unknown subject sat down, placed his attache on the table, and looked around in every direction. His right foot was planted solidly on the ground, but his left bounced to a fast tempo.
Parker departed the fitness corner, approached the subject, and raised his hand in greeting.
“The target just waved at the possible,” Connor said. “It looks like a meeting. Call the possible ‘Blue Cap’.”
“Deadeye. I have eyes on Blue Cap.”
Blue Cap stood and extended his arm. Parker pulled him into a handshake and an affectionate hug. The men sat back down and talked.
“All call signs, Cherry. I’m setting up the mic.”
Cherry and her team were set up in a van by the parking lot. Armed with long-range microphones and surveillance gear, they’d be able to listen in to the conversation.
Parker and his buddy continued chatting. Connor continued drawing, studying everything and everyone around him. No sign of security, but the two subjects were facing each other, watching each other’s backs, no doubt sliding their gaze left and right to watch their flanks.
Blue Cap pushed over the messenger bag. Parker accepted it.
“Cherry to all call signs. We need to take down the suspects now.”
Connor froze, tamping down his emotions.
“Cherry, Deadeye. What’s going on?”
“Blue Cap is the target’s handler. He just gave the target a new job, and he wants the vic dead ASAP. EAD Pearce has given us the go-ahead for the takedown. We can not let them leave.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit! The pavement artists were good, but tactical takedowns were a whole different kettle of fish. They could do that, sure, but it was one thing to go after an ordinary criminal, quite another to take on a confirmed Elect.
Time to earn his pay.
“Boomer copies. SSG, listen up. I’m assuming control. I will approach the subjects from the direction of the dog run, and will proceed northwest. Fall in on me and back me up.”
As he spoke, he swept his things into his backpack, unzipped the main compartment and pulled out his carbine.
This was going to suck. Bad. There was no cover or concealment between the pavilion and the benches. No way for a stealthy approach, not on such short notice. The targets would spot him and the other agents as they approached. And there were plenty of civilians around.
But this was why he was paid the big bucks.
He slung the carbine around his waist, shouldered his bag, and pushed off. Scanning, he saw the other four pavement artists hustling towards him, ready to cover his flanks.
The agents had nerves of steel and balls of brass, that was for damned sure. Wearing their badges on lanyards around their neck, they armed themselves with pocket pistols and snub-nosed revolvers. Perfect for last-ditch self-defense, laughably inadequate against Elect.
“Deadeye, Boomer. Scope on Parker. If he gets froggy, drop him.”
“Acknowledged,” she sad.
Keeping his carbine low, Connor approached the suspects. A woman jogged past him, music blaring from her earbuds, completely oblivious to the gear on display. Behind him, an elderly woman gasped.
“What’s going on?” someone asked.
Connor ignored him, rapidly closing the distance. Blue Cap and Parker were standing up, getting ready to go, making one last sweep-
Parker saw him.
Connor snapped up his carbine, crosshairs on Parker’s face.
Parker roared and leapt away from the bench. A black cloud spilled from his skin, consuming his clothing, transforming him. He grew a full foot taller, all of it hardened bone and iron muscles. Deep gray fur covered his transformed flesh. Massive wings burst from his back. Claws grew from hands and feet. His face stretched and expanded, becoming the head of a wolf. He threw his head back and howled.
A sharp peal of man-made thunder heralded the arrival of the enormous round. The Elect’s skull vanished in a fine pink mist. Connor studied him for a fraction of a second, long enough to see him fall, and turned his attention to the other suspect.
“Blue Cap is running!” Zippy reported.
Connor and the pavement artists gave chase. Blue Cap swung his arms and pumped his legs, sprinting for his life. The surveillance team, already exhausted, quickly fell behind. Connor, still fresh, continued the chase.
“Suspect is heading north,” Fox reported. “Cherry, move around and cut him off.”
“Acknowledged,” Cherry said.
Blue Cap’s right hand dipped to his front. A split second later, he spun around, arm outstretched, metal glinting in his hand—
Connor threw himself to the grass. Blue Cap cracked off two shots. Both rounds whistled over Connor’s head.
Blue Cap took off again. Connor pushed himself up and sprinted after him.
“Shots fired, shots fired! Blue Cap is armed with a pistol!”
Blue Cap turned.
Connor hopped to the side. Dropped to his knee. Weapon up, sights on a face, fire.
Blue Cap went down.
Connor dashed to the body. The bullet had blasted clean through the gunman’s temple. A few feet away, a chromed revolver shone bright in the morning sun.
“Blue Cap is down,” Connor reported. “DOA.”
Zippy jogged up to him, panting and gasping.
Connor patted himself down.
“No holes in me.”
As the agents secured the scene, Connor checked on Parker. Elect always died hard. Even a wound as grievous as the one Deadeye had inflicted might not be enough to permanently put one down.
Black, foul blood poured from the remains of Parker’s face. Connor poked the body with the muzzle of his weapon. No reaction. It was most likely dead. He hoped.
In all the excitement, the suspects had left the messenger bag behind. Connor found it on the grass by the bench. He set it on the table and undid the buckles. Out slid a thick manila folder. He flipped it open.
The first page showed a photograph of Nav Chaudhari. Priest of the Pantheon, Speaker for the Limitless One.
“What the hell…” Connor muttered.
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