Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 1

James Wood heard the car long before he saw it.

In the quiet of the woods, sound carried a long way. Loose gravel crackled under heavy tires. The engine purred, low and smooth and steady. A twig snapped. One vehicle, moving slowly, navigating the final turn into the farmhouse.

Not an assault.

Or so the driver wanted it to seem.

Everybody on Moreno Island knew that you never, ever, visited the Woods without an appointment. No exceptions. Deliverymen, postmen, farmhands, everyone had to set an appointment and call ahead before arrival. Without the call, they would be turned back, no matter who they were. Nobody wanted to argue with six feet and two hundred pounds of rock-hard muscle, muscle earned through daily labor, or the rifle he always wore everywhere he went.

That meant the newcomer was a stranger. Or someone who knew but chose to disregard the rules.

Maybe even someone pretending to be visitor, to draw his attention away from an assault.

Wood stood at the edge of a field of yams. No cover, no concealment. The perfect killing ground. Squatting low, he pretended to inspect a bunch of leaves, surreptitiously sweeping his sight left to right, far to near.

The woods around him were quiet. Birds sang to each other high in the canopy. Frogs croaked in the distance. An alligator answered with a low growl. He saw no motion, no straight lines, nothing that betrayed an impending invasion.

Which didn’t mean that there was nothing out there.

Make enemies of the New Gods and there would always be a monster hiding under the bed, in the shadows, just out of sight, waiting for you to slip up, lower your guard, look away for a fatal second.

“Something wrong?” Dad asked.

His father raised the visor of his augmented reality headset, looking at him in the eye. Shorter, darker, three decades older but not a drop weaker, Dad had passed on the best of his genetic legacy to James. He was a civilian though, even after recent events in Babylon, which was why instead of a long gun he wore only a massive revolver on his hip.

“We’ve got visitors,” James replied.

Dad frowned and pricked his ears.

“Yeah, I hear them now.”

“We don’t have anyone on the schedule today.”

“Going to say hello to them?”

James rose to his feet, taking his rifle in both hands.

“And goodbye.”

Father chuckled.

“Try not to scare them too much this time, okay?”

James strode to the farmhouse. The old instincts kicked in as they always did. His hands drew his weapon close in to his body, low and loose. Through the soles of his rugged boots, he read the microterrain, sensing the subtle dips and rises of the rich black earth, instinctively adjusting his gait for silence and efficiency. The sounds of the farm filtered into his ears: the droning of agriculture bots, the free-range chickens and goats and pigs clucking and bleating and grunting to each other, the crowing of a rooster. His head swiveled around, taking in the world.

Where so many businesses had collapsed in the past year, the Wood family farm had prospered. The Temple Commission had torn open gaping wounds in the body politic of Nova Babylonia, a drastic surgery to excise the worst of the corruption that plagued the land of the gods. Politicians and corporate officers and government officials fell like dominoes, rippling out across the country. Businesses and consultancies folded up by the bushel.

But people still needed to eat. And the Wood family offered better prices and fresher food than what the surviving corporations could promise.

Livestock, tubers, cabbages, carrots, beans, the Woods had something to offer to everyone. The property spanned five hectares of crops, greenhouses, pasture, and it was still slowly growing. In these dark times, the farmer was as important as a king. If not more so.

But only if he could keep what he held.

Just beyond the electric fence, the car rolled into view. Sleek and black, it rode low to the ground. The sun glared off its spotless hood and grill. A city car, and that meant trouble.

James closed his organic eye and zoomed in with the other. His prosthetic was a legacy of an op almost gone bad, the silver lining of an otherwise horrific firefight. It was bleeding-edge tech, mil and law enforcement only. After the Special Tasks Section was disbanded, he hadn’t gotten around to returning it. Nobody had gotten around to ask for it back too.

At 5X vision, he scrutinized the car. Two puck antennas jutted out from the roof. Bull bars guarded the front bumper. Flashlights peeked out between the front grills, and the side mirrors sported LED strips. The license plate was a three-layer vertical sandwich, a short string of numbers squashed between the words ‘MI’ and ‘MUNICIPAL’.

An undercover cop car.

James tensed. His previous interactions with the Moreno Island Sheriff’s Department were… less than cordial. It was a wonder that they had taken so long to visit him, a miracle that they’d only sent one car.

Or maybe there were other cops in the woods.

James scanned once more. The farmhands continued their business. The agricultural bots watched the fields and the livestock. Dad tended to the tubers. The perimeter sensor net remained quiet. Still nothing out of place in the woods.

Was there really only one car?

The vehicle stopped at the gates. A handsome black woman stepped out. In a black blazer, white shirt, black pants, she was dressed for the city. Not the woods. At least she had the sense to wear flats. Black eyeshields, mil grade, similar to the ones he wore infrequently, completed the look. As she moved, her blazer parted, revealing a shining gold shield on her belt.

And a holstered pistol.

His grip tightened on his weapon. An MR-77, the civilian reproduction of the M83 he’d carried into battle, customized to his exacting requirements. The one feature it lacked was full auto fire, but he could fire so fast on semi it didn’t matter. And if there were only one threat, he’d only need one shot.

“Good morning!” she shouted. “Mr. James Wood?”

“Not available!” he replied.

A friendly smile lit her face. Her hands stayed well within sight. But she stayed close to the car.

“I’m Detective Sergeant Janet Clark. I’d like a moment of your time.”

The name sounded familiar. As his brain rifled through its files, he approached her, his gaze alternating between the woman, the car, and his flanks.

“Are you on official business?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not talking to any cops without an attorney present.”

“Understandable. But I’m not here as a cop. I’m here as a sheriff candidate.”

Now he remembered. The Temple Commission had dragged out Sheriff Kane in chains after uncovering ties between him and the New Gods. The Undersheriff stepped up in his stead. With his mouth, Joshua Smith vowed reforms and change; with his hands, he simply sat on them. Not that it mattered: everybody knew that the New Gods were the true rulers of Moreno, of the country, of the world. Smith was as much of an Establishment man as his former superior. He wouldn’t have been appointed Undersheriff otherwise. He was a shoo-in to become the next sheriff.

Until Janet Clark announced her campaign.

In this tiny island, Clark was the only other candidate for the election. An insider turned outsider, she served in the Gangs and Narcotics Unit, focusing on gangland operations within Saint Lucille, the only city of Moreno. The Moreno media paid her little attention, the Babylon news cared not one whit.

He didn’t care about the outcome either way. He had grown sick of politics long ago.

“In other words, you’re here as a cop,” James said.

“Can’t deny that,” she admitted. “You’re a cop, weren’t you?”

“I was.” He paused. “Federal, not Moreno.”

“Still law enforcement in my eyes.”

“Even after what I’d done the last time I was in the city?”

Her eyes hardened.

“They got what was coming to them.”

James had expected many things. He hadn’t expected the vehemence in her voice.

Back when he was a member of Team Black Watch, he had hauled in a cyborg prisoner. A Superuser from the Singularity Network. As he and team leader Yuri Yamamoto interrogated the suspect, the deputies affiliated with the Guild of the Maker intervened. They attempted to coerce James and Yamamoto into handing over the prisoner.

Instead, they had broken out.

And beaten down a half-dozen cops.

And shot as many deputies.

And killed one.

Matthews uncrossed his feet, snaked his hand for ankle, turned around to face James—

James fired.

Blood.

James Wood blinked back the memories. Damn it. He’d thought Matthews was a friend. Was. But he’d found religion, and in the end, he’d chosen the Guild over him.

“You alright?” she asked.

James grunted.

“Yeah. Why are you here?”

“I need your help.”

“And I need you to get in your car and drive home.”

“We were police. Not going to help a sister of the badge?”

“I don’t know you. You didn’t make an appointment. I can’t let you in.”

“Paranoid, aren’t you? But I get it. The New Gods did a number on you and your team.”

“Then you should know why I can’t help you.”

“Can’t, or won’t?”

“No difference.” He gestured at the car. “Go home. You won’t find any friends here.”

“I can pay you well for your time.”

“I’m not a hired gun.”

“You’ve always been a protector.”

His eyes narrowed. The words cut deeper than they should. She stood where she was, still nonthreatening, but her eyes bored deep into his soul.

“Who I am isn’t important. What is, is you moving off.”

“People are trying to kill me.”

The sentence hung in the air, the ghost of an exploded bomb.

“The SD can help you with that.”

“I’m running against Josh Smith. My campaign is focused on cleaning house. They’re not going to lift a finger.”

“You think this is political?”

“Only reason they’d try to make a run at me.”

“Are the New Gods involved?”

“I don’t know. But they stand to benefit.”

“You don’t know if they’re involved.” James considered it for a moment. “There’s a lot I don’t know about you and your circumstances. What I do know is that my family is still in danger. If you know my history with the New Gods, you know why. I’m in no position to help anyone.”

“I’m your only chance of removing the New Gods from Moreno Island.”

James blinked.

Said nothing.

“Or would you rather stay cooped up here for the rest of your life?” she continued.

“You’re going to win the election?”

“Yes.”

James laughed.

“Alright, alright,” she said. “I can’t guarantee a win. But I know that if I die, your only hope of freedom from the New Gods dies with me.”

James looked at her. Truly looked. She was a small woman, barely coming up to his chin, and only because of her thick shock of luscious wavy hair. Yet every inch of her radiated poise and confidence. Spare and bony, she was all muscle and sinew, with just enough fat to highlight her curves. In her eyes he saw steel tempered in fire.

“Let’s talk inside,” James said.

He swung the gates open. Clark returned to her car, eased through the entrance, and parked by the main door of the farmhouse. James closed and locked the gate the second she was past. He swung around just in time to see Mom step out the main door.

“We have guests today?” she asked.

“Good morning, Mrs. Wood,” Clark said. “James kindly let me in.”

Mom’s eyes widened.

“I know you! Detective Janet Clark, aren’t you? The one running for sheriff?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well, it’s about time someone else ran against the New Gods.”

“Way past time.”

“Are you here on business?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Maybe,” James said.

“‘Maybe’?” Clark asked.

“I’m going to hear you out. Doesn’t mean we’re doing business.”

“Come on inside,” Mom urged.

James walked Clark to the door, keeping a safe distance behind her. Mom led them to the cozy living room. Clark took the power seat, the sofa strategically positioned against a corner, angled towards the door. The seat James preferred. He settled for the couch across her, backed to the stairs, rifle in between them.

“Would you like anything to drink?” Mom asked.

“Water, thanks,” Clark said.

“Me too,” James said, keeping his eyes on her.

Mom returned with a two tall glasses of cold water. Clark accepted hers with a smile, taking a large sip. James set his on the table, within easy reach.

Mom disappeared upstairs. James leaned in to Clark.

“Let’s start from the top. Why do you say people are trying to kill you?”

“A month ago, shortly after I announced my candidacy for the elections, I started receiving hate mail and death threats. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the thrust of it was that they wanted me to drop out.”

“Sent to your home?”

She clenched her fists.

“Yes. The last straw came when we received the dick glitter bomb.”

“The what?

“Someone dropped off a package at my home. I live with my parents, my brother, and his family. I was out at the time, and the package was addressed to my brother. Ed opened the package on the porch and bam! Faceful of dick glitter. Like confetti, but in the shape of dicks.”

“What was he thinking? It could have been a live bomb.”

She sighed.

“Yeah, well, Ed is a civilian. I tried to protect my folks from the death threats as much as possible, but… Anyway, now he knows better than to open suspicious packages. I hope.”

“You know who did it?”

“I sent in the letters and the packages to the crime scene unit for investigation. They said they found no fingerprints and no clues.”

“You believe them?”

“I found nothing on my end. The detectives assigned to the case told me they didn’t turn up anything either.”

“So you don’t believe them.”

“One third of the department is part of the Singularity Network. One third worships the Maker. The remainder… aren’t placed in any important roles.”

“Except you.”

“I’m the highest-ranking secular in the SD.”

“Do your superiors support you?”

“Captain Carter supports Josh Smith. Smith supports every deputy under him, so long as they support him too.”

“I take it you don’t have many friends in the SD.”

“Only the boots. Not the brass.”

“It sounds tough. But so far I’m only hearing harassment. Not attempted murder.”

“That was two days ago. Drive-by in downtown Saint Lucille.”

“What happened?”

“Someone called me on my police line. Said she had important information to give me, information about the New Gods and their involvement in a homicide. Insisted she’d only talk to me.

“I arranged to meet her in public, at a cafe I knew well. I showed up half an hour early. As I walked to the front door, a car drove up to me. I saw the windows wind down and I hit the deck just as the shooter fired.

“He had a pistol. Blasted a string of shots into the wall, well above head height. As I grabbed my weapon, the crew sped off.”

James had read about the incident in the news. The media hadn’t released the name of the deputy involved in the shooting. Back then he’d thought it was just another symptom of a country falling apart at the seams. He hadn’t thought the violence would wash up here.

“Was it a message?”

“Yes. Immediately after the shooting, I received a text on my phone. ‘We won’t miss next time’.”

“What did you do next?”

“I called it in and gave my statement. Josh Smith assured me that the department will spare no effort in finding the ones responsible. He also placed me on administrative leave.”

“He can do that?”

“Department post-shooting policy, he said. On the bright side, it’s how I’m able to talk to you now.”

“How are you able to run for elections while still serving on the SD?”

“I’ve been closing up my cases, handing them off to others, and tying off loose ends. I was going to take no-pay leave anyway to focus on the campaign. This just stepped up my plans.”

“You’ve only got a month left before balloting begins.”

“Someone really doesn’t want me to run.”

“Any idea who?”

“I don’t know. The investigators don’t have any leads.”

“You mean they say they don’t have any leads.”

“Well, yes.”

“Whoever they are, they are real desperate. They think you have a fighting chance of winning the elections. And they are powerful enough to think that they can be protected from the ramifications of assassination.”

“I thought so too.”

“That means the New Gods.”

“No evidence of that.”

“Who else wants you out of the way?”

“My campaign is focused on crime and corruption. That means the major gangs, the old money families that run the big businesses in Moreno, corrupt cops…”

“But all roads lead to the New Gods.”

“I don’t want to bias my investigation here. I work with what the evidence says, not what I want the evidence to say.”

“And right now, you don’t have any evidence pointing to a definitive suspect.”

“Yes. Which is why I’m here now.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I need a bodyguard.”

“What do you need from the bodyguard?”

“Protection. I want you to protect me when I’m on the campaign trail, and my family when we’re at home. I can take care of myself, but I need someone to watch my back if… or when something happens.”

“That’s all?”

He kept his tone light, but loaded the two words with heavy implications.

She met his gaze dead-on.

“That’s all.”

No pre-emptive work, then. Which was good, because it kept things nice and legal. Bad, because it left the opposition free to act in the shadows.

“Why me? Why not an executive protection specialist from Babylon?”

“You’re former STS. The baddest badass in Moreno. You’ve fought gods and demons, and won.”

James snorted.

“You can see where that got me. Exile in a farm in the middle of nowhere. Besides, there are plenty of former STS operators went into executive protection. I could recommend them to you.”

“You also know the terrain and the people. They don’t.”

“I also have a family to look after. If I take this job, I could place them at risk.”

“We both have families at risk. On the other hand, yours has fences, guns, robots. Mine… don’t.”

“They’re unarmed?”

She sighed.

“They’re civilians. Never needed guns their lives. I tried to teach Ed about guns, but he didn’t like them. At least, not enough to carry them around. After taking glitter dicks to the face, Ed has changed his mind about that. But among us, you’ve got the most experience.”

“If I leave the farm, the New Gods could strike.”

“They won’t. Moreno is a sideshow to them. They’re focused on the crown jewel. On Babylon. After the Temple Commission swept through here, they’re too busy trying to rebuild their influence. They aren’t likely to seek revenge on a disgraced operator living quietly in the woods.”

Which, he had to admit, was probably the only reason the Woods were still alive. He was good, yes, but if the New Gods really wanted to, they could drop a company of cyborgs on the farm. Or dig up some eldritch abomination from the depths of the earth and turn it against him. He wouldn’t stand a chance against that. No one could.

He came here to protect his family. But, really, if the New Gods attacked there’d be no way they were walking out of it alive. The only question was how many of their foot soldiers he’d take with him.

But now that Clark was in the game…

“My unit monitors the activities of the New Gods,” she continued. “The New Gods use the gangs as their proxies, and right now, gangland is pretty quiet. They don’t want to mess up Smith’s chances of election. It’s safe for you to leave. Or at least, safer.”

“There’s still a high risk. If they see me out and about, they may decide to make a play here. And if they target my family, they could use them as leverage against us.”

“I understand that. Which is why I’m offering a suitable reward.”

“Such as?”

“Police protection. So long as you’re working for me, I’ll have my friends run regular patrols around here, and work with you to increase security. If the New Gods try something, we can catch it and respond to it in time. Or at least give your family early warning.

“Further, I am prepared to pay you premium rates commensurate with your risk. One hundred dollars an hour, from now until the end of the election.”

“Where’d you get that kind of money from?”

“Campaign donations. Lots of people want the New Gods out. They don’t want the Husks, the political intrigue, the danger. They want to be left alone to live their lives in peace. They just won’t say that openly to the pollsters.”

“I’ve got all the money I need. And the means to make more money.”

“That’s true. But there is one more thing I can offer you.”

“Go on.”

“If I win, you’ll have a friend in the MISD. The things you’ve done here will be… forgotten.”

“I thought I’m persona non grata.”

“As Sheriff, I can make you persona ultra grata. You did us all a favor, getting rid of the corrupt cops. I can return it. In spades. And in the future, well, let’s just say there are plenty of opportunities within the SD for someone with your skills.”

“A real politician, aren’t you?”

“I have to be.”

“It’s a tempting offer. But in my world, there’s one thing that trumps money and politics.”

“What’s that?”

“Tactics.”

“Tactics?”

“You’re a woman. And I am a big, scary black man. There are places a woman can go that a man can’t. There are times when you don’t want to draw even more attention to yourself than you have to. Not only that, if the threat is as deadly as you say it is, one protector is not going to be enough.”

“What do you propose?”

“I’m going to make a call. And then we’ll see.”

But even as he spoke the words, he knew he’d take the job.

And she knew it too.

Want to see James Wood in his heyday? Check out Babylon Blues on Amazon!

Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 1
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