Cherchez La Femme
Cherchez La Femme was the grand dame of the Babylon nightlife scene. The hottest women, the biggest sounds, the friendliest staff, they could all be found here. Celebrities and drug lords, salarymen and self-made men, there was a place for everyone who walked past its double doors.
Including a washed-up former law enforcement agent named Kayla Fox.
Once upon a time she ran with the biggest dogs in the LE world. The Special Tasks Section, nominally the premier tactical unit of the Public Security Bureau, in practice an independent company of heartbreakers and lifetakers dedicated to cleaning up the streets of Nova Babylonia. Not only that, she was with Team Black Watch, the elite of the elite, the team the brass called on for the most dangerous and difficult operations. They had extinguished Dark Powers, ended massacres, stopped a three-way war between the New Gods in Riveria.
And, as thanks, the Black Watch had been suspended.
That was ten weeks ago. The Office of Professional Standards and Ethics was still investigating the team’s conduct during the campaign, not that there was anything to investigate. Everyone knew that the STS ran by their own rules. They weren’t unaccountable to the law, not exactly, but with their high operational tempo and the threats they faced, lengthy post-shooting investigations kept them warming benches instead of kicking asses. It was just a farce, a way to placate the brass in the PSB and their patrons among the New Gods while they figured out what the hell to do with Black Watch.
Until then, the men and woman of the Black Watch were supposed to cool their heels.
Not that they’d done any of that. They’d been working in the dark themselves, gathering leverage and actionable intelligence, preparing for the inevitable backlash. The events at the Golden Mile had merely accelerated their timeline, forced them deeper into the shadows. Officially, the PSB still had no idea who had raided the arcology. But the list of potential suspects with the means and motive was a short one, and the Black Watch was at the top.
Neither the PSB nor the STS would want to out and out declare the Black Watch as rogues. It would undermine public faith in the secular authorities, signal weakness to the New Gods, start a fire that couldn’t be put out. But it didn’t mean they would sit around forever. Sooner or later the hammer would come down. And when it did, the Black Watch had to be ready.
Which was why she was here. If she could, she would have buried herself in the deepest hole she could find, skulk about at night, keep under the radar of law enforcement. But if today’s meet went well, it could change everything.
She lifted her overpriced ginger ale to her lips and stole a sip. In that motion, she glanced about the club.
It was Queer Friday at Cherchez. The day the club celebrated the outsiders, the nonconformists, the weirdos, everyone who refused to follow the crowd. Of course, in Babylon, that statement didn’t mean anything anymore.
On the floor, bull dykes with hard faces and close-cropped buzz cuts cozied up to femmes in micro-dresses. Herms strutted about in skintight leotards and bodysuits, their bulbous breasts and massive phalluses straining under the fabric. Men with painted faces and women’s clothes congregated at the bar and the buffet tables. Pale-faced andros dressed all in black hovered at the edges of the club. Most of the waitstaff had dressed for the occasion, in crisscrossing vinyl straps that covered everything important while exposing slithering tattoos and glistening scales and shining chrome and other bodymods. On the stage, illuminated in deep red lights, a stripper tore off the last of her garments, revealing thin strips of flesh-colored biopolymer implants that covered her nipples and vagina, simultaneously obeying the law while flaunting it.
Hidden in the shadows were the most normal-looking people among them. The bar backs, the bartender, the security staff, the high-powered executives—all of them men—who wrote their own rules with stacks of cash.
Anywhere else in Babylon, her outfit would pass the dress codes of most clubs. But not here. She’d gone for function over flash. A white blouse paired with shiny black leggings. Low-pro steel-toed boots molded to fit her feet. An urban gray jacket, strategically reinforced in key wear areas, laden with hidden pockets, comfortable and classy enough for all seasons and all environments. A wide leather belt with a gleaming gold buckle.
A folding knife in her pants pocket, a neck knife under her blouse.
An M99 pistol and four spare 30-round mags on her hips.
A revolver on her left ankle, a first aid kit on her right.
She had dressed around her weapons and comported herself accordingly. She was as bulked up as a woman could get without resorting to steroids or pacts with the New Gods. With her hair buzzed short and done up in a fauxhawk, she was just another bull dyke in a club filled with them. If anyone noticed her outfit, they would decide she had embraced the butch look without quite crossing over into the exaggerated pseudo-masculine aesthetic of the actual dykes on the floor. If they looked closer, the shine of her buckle and leggings would draw attention away from her face, her hands, her tools. And if all else failed, well, that was why she had dyed her hair platinum blond and donned enormous glasses with tinted lenses.
Deception within deception, camouflage within camouflage. She had learned that in New Operator Training School, and again in the Black Watch. Yuri Yamamoto had taught her that. Among many other things.
She drank again. Scanned again. Her soul wondered how and why people would willingly twist themselves into grotesque parodies of the human form. Her face offered an appreciative smile to anyone who happened to look at her. Her eyes hunted for hands, faces, weapons.
Nightclub fashion and firearms do not play nice together. Queer Friday even more so. Three in five of the patrons here showed off so much of their bodies, they couldn’t possibly hide any weapons without resorting to cyber or bioware or ultra-deep body concealment. Of the remainder, nine in ten paid no attention to her. The last was the security staff, and they watched everybody.
She had hoped to sneak in early, find a good spot and hunker down. No such luck. An hour before opening time, there was already a long queue snaking from the door to the street. In the end, once the doors had opened, she walked up to the doorman and flashed her badge.
She might be suspended from duty, but the muscle let her through anyway. But he had also alerted the staff to her presence, advising them to treat her nice.
It wasn’t that bad. The night manager herself had personally tended to her, walking Fox to the booth of her choice, one that offered a clear view of the entrance, right next to the service hallway to the bathrooms and the back exit. Drinks were on the house. So was the buffet and, if she’d wanted it, personal services from the dancers. Fox had simply smiled and said she was here to wait for a friend. A friend who would also show a badge.
Except that, unlike Fox, she was active duty.
Not that she would tell anyone that.
At ten minutes to ten, Fox spotted the woman she was supposed to meet tonight. She was clearly not dressed for the club. A dark sweater over a thin blouse, black pants and low heels. A huge handbag dangled from her shoulder.
It was corporate attire, most assuredly not tactical attire. The heels would slow her down in a dynamic situation, the clothing would tear up on first contact with asphalt, and she had no gun belt. She might have a weapon in her bag, but it wasn’t a fast action bag designed for rapid firearm deployment. Even if things went sideways, Fox knew she was quicker on the draw.
Ripples spread throughout the club, the crowd reacting to the presence of the stranger. Faces turned, staring at the oddly-dressed newcomer, trying to classify her. Too femme to be a butch, too conservatively dressed for the night’s theme, too plebeian to be an executive. And she wasn’t wearing a staff nametag. She didn’t fit in. Already she was tensed up, winding through the crowd, following the manager’s lead, craning her head back and forth, looking for Fox.
Fox looked past her.
No one had come in with the woman, or behind her. The ones who had come in before her were Queer Friday celebrants, outfitted in the most outrageous costumes they could find, costumes that couldn’t hide weapons. No one paid any extra attention to Fox, and the vibe in the air signaled curiosity instead of hostility.
She was—probably—here alone.
Cherchez La Femme was a deliberate choice. Cops would stick out like sore thumbs here. Hell, men would stick out here, especially the kind of men who populated tactical units. An undercover takedown team would be dressed similarly to Fox, but other than the unarmed security staff no one else followed the same nontactical tactical fashion she subscribed to.
But if the New Gods were in play, their Elect would have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.
Which was why Fox kicked up her alertness a notch.
As the woman approached, Fox rose to her feet, her lips parting into a bright smile.
“Tessa! I was waiting here for ages!”
“Sorry,” Tessa White said sheepishly. “I got held up at work. You know how it is.”
It was the agreed-upon password. White was here alone, and she had spotted no signs of surveillance.
Fox sat right back down, still commanding her view of the door and the club. White eased up next to her, resting her bag on her lap. Fox sneaked a glance, saw that it was zipped up tight.
White said something, but a blast of music drowned out her voice.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! FREAKS AND WEIRDOS! HERMS AND QUEERS! PUT YOUR HANDS TOGETHER FOR! MIZZ! DAAAAAAANIKAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
On the stage, a dancer in a crimson bathrobe strutted down the catwalk, heralded by an up-tempo electronic instrumental blasting from the speakers. She shrugged her shoulders, letting the bathrobe pool at her feet. She was an exotic, her entire body covered in fine feline fur, save for her naked belly. Cat ears sprouted from her silky hair, and a prehensile tail swayed side to side as she sashayed. Her shiny black vinyl bikini and assless chaps contrasted against her fur.
Only the Liberated offered bodymods as extensive as that. Fox wondered if it were worth the price.
The crowd seemed appreciative. A roar of approval shook the walls. Notes fluttered in the air like confetti. White stared wide-eyed at the dancer, her mouth gaping, her brain trying to comprehend what it was looking at. When the acoustic spike settled and the background noise fell back to normal, Fox turned to White.
“You said something?” Fox asked.
“Interesting place for a meeting!” White repeated.
Fox grinned. “It’s got character, doesn’t it?”
Not to mention VIP rooms in the back, for lap dances or more private business.
White just shook her head.
A passing waitress set White’s order on the table. A margarita, complete with a slice of fresh lime. Fox raised her glass.
“Cheers!” she said.
They clinked their glasses and drank. White gulped down a great mouthful, then another, and yet another, as though trying to drown her nerves. The second the glasses touched the table, Fox slipped into business mode.
“Our mutual friend said you had something for me,” Fox said quietly.
White nodded. “He said you were looking for information about the New Gods. And their dealings with the Directors.”
Special Agent in Charge Nick Malone was, and remained, one of the finest PSB agents Fox had known. When she joined the Bureau, Malone showed her the ropes. He had mentored her, guided her, pushed her to be all she could be. When she floated the idea of joining the Special Tasks Section, he had cheered her on. Even after joining STS, they had kept in touch, swapping gossip and intelligence in their off-time.
When the dust settled at the Golden Mile, Fox came to him looking for leverage. Malone asked no questions; he simply said he would make a few calls. One thing led to another, and here they were now.
“What do you have for me?” Fox asked.
“Logs. Audio transcripts. Minutes of meetings. All of them heavily classified. All of them point to ongoing long-term relationships between the PSB and the New Gods. And an ongoing criminal conspiracy.”
Fox’s eyes widened.
“What kind of conspiracy?”
“Murder for hire. The Speakers of the Gods share intelligence about their rivals with the PSB. The Directors in turn send the STS to strike at their rivals. The New Gods also give the directors and the upper management perks and kickbacks to keep things sweet, and to try to buy each other out.”
Fox breathed, killing all signs of surprise and anger before they leaked from her body.
Director Pearce had claimed that the purpose of the STS was to maintain the balance of power among the New Gods. To prevent them from initiating a catastrophic war that would destroy the world. Thus, no single faction could be allowed to gain or lose too much power. She might have been on board with that, had she been told about it.
But this… this was too much.
“You’re saying the Directors are using the STS as guns for hire,” Fox said.
White nodded vigorously. “Yes. The Speakers even go so far as to specify who they want dead or alive, what kind of tech or artifacts to be recovered, and who should be left alone.”
Which went a long way towards explaining why the New Gods were still the top dogs in Babylon.
“How far does the conspiracy go?”
“All the way to the top.”
White shook her head. “It’s not safe here. I can’t say the names in public.”
“You mean the Directors.”
“Higher.” She lowered her voice, so low Fox had to read her lips. “The Cabinet is involved.”
Shaking her head, Fox sipped at her drink. It sounded unreal. Maybe it was. But maybe it wasn’t. Only one way to tell.
“How did you come across this information?” Fox asked.
“I am a Supervisory Special Agent at the Riveria field office,” White replied. “As part of the Preternatural Crimes Division, part of my responsibilities is to consolidate and organize intelligence concerning the New Gods. Including official government contact with their Speakers.
“Two months ago, I was placed in charge of a project to upgrade the databases. My team and I had to sort and classify the documents we had on the New Gods. While going through the archives, I discovered a cache of documents that wasn’t classified. I peeked at them and…”
“And I saw what I wasn’t supposed to see.” White shuddered. “The database leaves access logs, you know? And I don’t have the know-how or the pull to erase the logs. Someday, the New Gods are going to learn that I saw the files. Them or the Directors.”
“Wait a second. If the files are as explosive as you say they are, shouldn’t they be classified?”
“They were. Top secret, sensitive compartmented intelligence.”
“How did you get access?”
White squirmed, blinking rapidly.
“It’s… well, it’s a flaw in the database management system. On the PSB intranet, it doesn’t properly enforce SCI restrictions. Admins with TS clearance can access all information, even if they aren’t read into it. The project was supposed to rectify this issue, among others.”
“Why did you read the data, then?”
“Because it was unusual. All docs in the DMS are tagged and index for easy retrieval and reference. But these docs? They had nothing. No profile, no originator, nothing. Just timestamps. When I saw it, I thought it was legacy data that wasn’t properly classified. I figured if I read it, I could figure out how to sort them out. Instead…”
“You dug up a bomb.”
“Yeah…” White gripped her glass. “This is the sort of data the New Gods will kill for.”
And the Directors, Fox wanted to add. If they were in league with the New Gods, they would stop at nothing to ensure White’s silence.
“Even death won’t stop the New Gods from getting what they heard,” Fox said.
“I heard about machine interrogation.” White shuddered. “Tell me, does the Singularity Network really upload minds into their Net to torture them?”
“Yes. They can do that to dead bodies, even, so long as the brains are still fresh and intact.”
“What do you want to do with the info?” Fox asked.
“I… I don’t know. But Nick told me you were looking for leverage. Something you could use to expose the New Gods and their relationship with the brass. If we publish this, then maybe… maybe they’ll be too busy saving themselves to go after us.”
“That’s the plan,” Fox said.
It was the Black Watch’s only hope. Once he earned the ire of the New Gods, no man could withstand their wrath.
Except maybe Yuri, but he was special.
“We—the Black Watch—have been suspended. Technically it’s illegal for you to hand this information to us,” Fox said.
“Yes, but everyone knows that the STS is independent of the New Gods. Especially the Black Watch. They suspended you because you offended the New Gods too many times, right?”
“There are formal channels for whistleblowers.”
White laughed, then shook her head.
“The New Gods are above the law. Always have been, always will. If I go through the proper channels, I’ll just disappear. Or worse. You guys… you guys are my only hope.”
Fox couldn’t disagree. At least whistleblowers who exposed corruption and malpractice within the human government earned the sympathy of the people. Those who spoke against the New Gods were guaranteed only eternal condemnation.
“Do you have the information with you?” Fox asked.
“Not in person, no. The data is copy-protected. I can access it on my laptop, but that’s it. I can’t download it on external drives.”
“Where’s your laptop?”
“In my hotel room. I… I thought it was too dangerous to bring it out.”
A complication. But not a major one.
“Let’s go get it.”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
“I know a tech guy. He can do the impossible. I’ll hand the laptop to him, let him do his magic, and we’ll extract the data we need.”
“And publish it.”
White twitched nervously, scanning the crowd. “We should get going.”
“Did you drive here?”
“No. I took a cab.”
Fox slammed down her drink.
“Let’s go. I’ll drive you there.”
Superheroes, cops, and a criminal conspiracy that engulfs the Establishment. If this appeals to you, check out my novel HOLLOW CITY!
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(Image from Pixabay)