East of Babylon, across the shimmering sea, it was so isolated that it was a nation unto itself. Left behind by the changing tides of time, it was decades out of date, hopelessly obsolete, so backward it could never hope to catch up with the rest of Nova Babylonia.
Few young people stayed in the island if they could. Those who did flocked to the towns and the city, to the promise of white collar work and salaries and the comforts of modern civilization.
The New Gods had brought modernity to the land but had demanded so much in return. Allegiance. Politicking. And souls. Yet before the New Gods came, older and stranger gods had laid claim to the swamps and the rivers and the woods of Moreno Island. Once dormant, the power vacuum caused by the Temple Commission would surely draw them out of the shadows.
Kayla Fox shuddered. She had no desire to see any of the older gods again.
The last time she’d visited this island, the STS threw down with a god of the swamps. It had led to the single largest loss of STS operators in recent history up to that point. When the god revealed itself, a giant overflowing with vegetation and raw occult power, it soaked up almost everything the STS could throw at it. Only James Wood, by sheer luck, had toppled the god.
And Yuri Yamamoto had sent it off.
Yuri. He was still out there in the world, somewhere, completely incommunicado. She was sure he could take care of himself, that he was busy with other affairs. She hoped he was well.
And if the New Gods showed their faces, or if older and stranger gods played their hands, she hoped they would survive without him.
Yuri was… special. He possessed a deep, personal connection to his god, a god rarely worshiped and never seen in Nova Babylonia. The secret weapon of the STS, he had cast out gods and demons with nothing more than the sheer power of his conviction. Kayla had…
Well, nothing but the hardware she always carried everywhere she went.
It was enough.
It had to be enough.
The ferry bumped gently against the pier, jolting Kayla out of her thoughts. She placed her backpack on her lap and glanced around the cabin.
It was a sad, sorry affair. Paint flecked off the walls and ceiling, exposing spots of rust. The television droned on about safety precautions. Built to seat a hundred passengers, most of the interior was unoccupied. She hazarded that there were more crew than passengers aboard.
No one paid her even the slightest bit of attention.
The ferry came to a complete stop. The boarding ramp dropped. The passengers steadily shuffled to the door, in no great hurry to leave. Kayla wended her way to the exit, placing herself at the rear of the queue. As she moved, she availed of every opportunity to check her flanks and back. Everyone kept their distance from her.
The interior of the ferry terminal was a wide open space, populated by empty chairs. Automated ticket booths glowed cheerily at everything and nothing. The display screens blanked out, declaring the end of the morning’s ferry services. A salesgirl at the entrance of the terminal’s sole shop gazed pleadingly at the crowd, silently imploring them with her eyes to visit, to buy something, do anything that would relieve the hours of drudgery behind and ahead of her.
Kayla ignored her and swept the terminal. She drifted along with the dispersing crowd, using its motion and mass for concealment, scanning danger areas, points of interest, the seats—
A black woman sat close to the ticketing machine. With eyes like a hawk, she scanned the crowd. Beside her, concealed by a pillar, a tall black man scanned also, this time focusing his attention on the main entrance.
Kayla scanned one more time, confirming there were no unwanted guests, and strode over.
James saw her first. Waving at her, a tight smile played across his face. He’d looked… older. Ragged. More than he ever was in the STS. Dark circles formed under his eyes. Harsh lines carved across his face, forcing his lips into a near-permanent frown. His coffee-colored skin was much darker than before, and his muscles even larger.
“Kayla. Good to see you again.”
“Same here,” she said. “You’ve… changed.”
“Farm life does that to you. How you been?”
“As well as a girl can be, living on the road.”
“I thought you were with Yuri.”
“No. He’s… alone. Somewhere else. Somewhere far away.”
“Damn shame. We sure could use him on this job.”
“Is this the client?”
The woman took the opportunity to rise to her feet and thrust her hand at Kayla.
“Hi. Detective Sergeant Janet Clark. Thanks for coming down here.”
The women shook hands. Clark had a firm, mannish grip, with thick calluses at the base of her fingers. The hand of a woman who worked for a living.
“I heard you’re running for Sheriff,” Kayla said.
“Yes. It’s how I ran into this… spate of trouble. I can tell you more about it at my place.”
“Let’s head off.”
James led to the way, clearing a path. Clark hung back an arm’s length away from him. Kayla stayed by her right, keeping her gun side free.
“How long have you lived here?” Kayla asked.
“All my life. Thirty-three years now.”
“Thirty-three? That’s awfully young to run for Sheriff.”
“Lots of old men sat in the big chair for an awfully long time. Old men connected to the New Gods. It’s well past time for change.”
“How’s your campaign doing?”
“Picking up steam, despite everything that’s happened to me. Maybe even because of it. They’ll have to kill me to keep me from running.”
She had spunk. An excellent quality for law enforcement. A terrible one for a protectee, one used to running down bad guys instead of running away from them.
“We’re here to make sure they can’t,” Kayla said.
“I’m counting on you.”
Past the main entrance, James turned left. Kayla automatically went right, scanning as she went. The parking lot was half-full, a mix of cars and bikes scattered randomly across the lots. For a moment she went way back, back to the first time she came here, when she was still on the job.
Still part of the STS.
“Heads up,” James whispered. “Gray SUV parked next to our vic. Lot 32.”
Kayla keyed on Lot 32. There was the vehicle he had described, sitting in between the terminal and the most obvious undercover cop car in the world.
“It wasn’t there when we arrived,” James continued.
“Trouble?” Clark asked.
Kayla couldn’t see through the tinted windows. But the fact that the windows were tinted said something about the SUV and its owners. It could just be a defense against the relentless sun. Or it could be something else.
“Proceed with caution. Could be nothing, but let’s not take any chances,” James said.
They made their approach. James brought his hands to his abdomen, ready to lift his cover garment. Kayla rested her right hand on her hip, keeping the other free. Next to her, Clark tensed.
“Relax,” Kayla said. “If anything happens, we’ll keep you safe.”
Thirty feet of asphalt separated the entrance to the parking lot. Hustling across the road, Kayla kept one eye on the SUV, the other on the world around. If the SUV were a diversion or a false alarm, if there were other threats hidden from sight, she wanted to see them coming a long way off.
Eyes burned into Kayla’s soul. She felt it, a heavy pressure on her face. She looked up at the vehicle, right hand reaching under her shirt—
The SUV rolled out of the lot.
Halted in the middle of the road.
And the doors burst open.
“CONTACT!” James shouted.
James leapt away, left hand tearing his cover garment up and away, right hand drawing his pistol. Kayla seized Clark’s shoulder and sprinted for the nearest car. A red sedan, front facing out, perfect for a quick getaway and quicker rush to cover. Clark yelped, but quickly kept pace.
Two men stepped out the car, each carrying carbines. Kneeling by the doors, they brought their guns up to bear.
An eight-shot string, working the gunmen back and forth, stitching them from chest to face, hammering them down to the floor. Kayla pulled Clark down behind the engine block.
“STAY DOWN!” Kayla shouted.
Standing tall over Clark, Kayla swept her shirt aside and drew her pistol. The red dot sight of her M99 glowed bright in the late morning sun. Her vision shrank down to the narrow window, the edges of her sight going gray and white. She exhaled sharply, relaxing, reorienting on the target.
The SUV screeched.
The car shot forward, turning rapidly towards her, flinging the gunmen away. The doors flapped back and forth like degenerated wings. The driver glared at Kayla through the windshield, lips locked in a grimace.
And fired and fired and fired, punching five rounds in a palm-sized circle over his face. The glass shattered. The driver’s head blew back and outwards. The SUV swerved sharply, crashed into the trunk of a nearby coupe, shoving it aside with sheer mass and momentum, then plowed into the body of the red sedan.
The car rammed into Kayla’s hip and belly, knocking her back a few steps. Then the mass of metal and shattered glass went still. The dead driver slumped forward.
The SUV’s horn screamed. Alarms screamed. People screamed. Kayla pulled her weapon close and tight against her chest, finger off the trigger, muzzle angled down, scanning left to right.
Powder tickled her nose and lungs, mingling with the scent of blood and soap. Tiptoeing, she looked at the driver. At what was left of his head.
“Driver is down!” Kayla yelled.
“Cover me! Going to check the gunmen!” James shouted.
James approached the fallen men, pistol held in both hands. Clark moaned, attempting to pick herself up.
“Stay down. It’s not over yet,” Kayla said.
The further shooter twitched.
Kayla swung her gun to him. He was pushing himself off the floor with both hands, blood staining his T-shirt, struggling to rise—
“DOWN! STAY DOWN!” James roared.
He flopped to the road.
Pushed himself back off.
And his hand reached his—
“DOWN! LET GO OF THE WEAPON!” Kayla shouted.
He seized the grip of his carbine and—
Kayla fired. James fired. His head erupted in red.
Kayla scanned. The other shooter lay in a scarlet pool, bleeding from a gaping hole in his battered head.
“All Tangos neutralized!” James called.
“God damn!” Clark exclaimed.
“Are you alright?” Kayla asked.
Clark, curled up in the fetal position, patted herself down.
“I’m fine. Couple of scratches, nothing serious.”
Keeping her master hand on her weapon, Kayla swept herself for injuries with the other. No blood.
“Everyone okay?” James yelled.
“We’re okay! And you?” Kayla asked.
“What the hell was that?” Clark demanded.
Kayla holstered her weapon and helped her to her feet.
“They just made a run at you.”
Clark looked at the dead men and shuddered.
“Detective, call for backup,” James ordered. “Kayla, help me secure the scene.”
“Who were they? The ones who tried to want me dead?” Clark asked.
“No,” Kayla said. “Only the trigger pullers.”
This isn’t James’ or Kayla’s first encounter with violence, or their first time in Moreno Island. Check out their previous adventures in BABYLON BLUES!