Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 6

“You came to Moreno Island in the morning and killed three people. In the evening you went out and killed seven more. What the fuck is wrong with you people?!” Sheriff Joshua Smith exclaimed.

Kayla shrugged.

In the STS they called it a regular workday. A heavy day, to be sure, but after months of high-intensity operations against the worst the New Gods had to offer, this body count was… normal.

On the other hand, what was normal to an operator was outrageous to the world.

“You killed more people in one day than the MISD shot in the entire year! Unbelievable!”

James sniffed.

“Every time you STS show up, you bathe the whole damn island in blood. What do you have to say for yourselves?”

Seated between them, Clark glanced at her protectors.

Kayla raised an eyebrow.

James spread his hands.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Smith demanded.

Kayla hadn’t thought of Smith as the kind of man to fly into a rage. She suspected he was faking at least half of it. His hands were clenched, his voice thunderous, but his face remained pale and his hands loose and relaxed. But with the District Attorney next to him in the conference room, he had to put up a show.

“In our STS days, we went to the hot zone to do the kind of jobs the cops couldn’t handle,” James said.

“Today, a biker gang marked a sheriff candidate, one of your own detectives, for death, and you couldn’t handle that,” Kayla added.

“We don’t tolerate disrespect here,” DA Dennis Dillon said.

“The MISD couldn’t protect me. My protectors did. And you’re slamming us for it,” Clark said coldly.

“You provoked them,” Dillon retorted.

“I interviewed them, as was my duty as a detective.”

“And they attacked you for it.”

“They chose to escalate. Not me. We warned them off. They ignored us.”

“Why didn’t you leave them alone? You’re on no-pay leave, Detective Allen was already assigned to the case—”

“Allen is in bed with—”

“Enough,” Smith said.

He was back to his usual self, cool and authoritative and slimy again.

“We have found no reason to charge you with any crimes,” Smith said. “You should count your fortunes.”

The Wood family lawyer had breezed into the station and played hardball with the cops and the DA. Silverman presented an impenetrable wall of logic and legal arguments demonstrating that everyone had acted within the law, that the trio were in fear of their life, and that the state had no evidence of a crime. Even now, he sat at the far corner of the table, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

“I’ll do that after you deal with the Hatchet Crew,” Clark said.

“The Department will do everything in its power to identify and arrest the attackers.” Smith paused. “Those that are left.”

The response to the shooting was a shitshow from start to finish.

The deputies had swarmed the neighborhood, stomping all over the crime scene and contaminating the evidence. They’d escorted the civilians to safety, secured and confiscated all weapons on site, and hauled everyone to the station. The crime scene technicians unceremoniously swabbed their hands for gunshot residue and seized their clothing, forcing them to change into fresh garments.

After spending the night in cramped cells, they were called up separately for interviews. It had taken the detectives most of a day to finish talking to everyone, and most of the evening to figure out what to do with them.

Now, twenty-four hours after the shoot, here they were again, contemplating another press release.

“What about the black hatchets?” Clark asked.

“I’ve posted a team of deputies to secure the scene. The PSB will send a team of specialists to recover them,” Smith said.

Distaste dripped from his words. Whenever the paranormal reared its head, the Bureau would be there. But for good reason. It was the only major law enforcement agency with the means to handle artifacts. Including and especially weapons that housed the essence of a malevolent spirit.

“Our main concern is you, Detective Sergeant Clark,” Dillon said.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Two shootings back-to-back like this is… unprecedented. Especially for a sheriff candidate.”

“The shootings do not preclude me from campaigning,” Clark said frostily.

“Correct. But we are worried for your safety. You should go underground with your family and leave the law and order business to the Sheriff’s Department.”

“I’m not going to let criminals stop me from running.”

Smith shook his head.

“I admire your tenacity, but you are still at risk. Unless…”

“Unless?”

“You cancel your no-pay leave and return to active duty.”

“But that would mean giving up the campaign.”

“You can’t have everything, Sergeant Clark.”

She snorted.

“You won’t let me back on active duty so soon. I need to take mandatory admin leave, then talk to the shrink and get approval. Twice, one for each shoot. After that, you’ll have me ride a desk until Professional Standards completes their post-shooting investigations. Both of them. That would take months. Am I right?”

Smith smiled unpleasantly.

“We have department-wide policies for a reason.”

“Then there’s no reason to quit the election.”

“As an active-duty deputy, you and your family would be accorded police protection. But as a deputy on no-pay leave, well…”

Clark’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“Did I hear you just say that?”

“Sheriff, I remind you that what you just said could be construed as a threat,” Silverman added.

Smith spread his hands.

“I’m just saying we need to prioritize our resources. Especially with dangerous criminals on the loose.”

“You know what else is unprecedented? Terrorists targeting a sheriff’s candidate and her family,” Clark said.

“All the more reason to focus our resources on finding who’s responsible. Since you already have bodyguards, we can concentrate on investigating the attacks.”

“Am I right to say that I can’t count on the MISD to protect me?”

“You already have two highly formidable bodyguards with you. I don’t see how much else we can help you.”

Smith rose to her feet.

“The press will hear about this.”

Dillon grinned.

“Ah, but what will they say about this?”

“I don’t have time to argue with you two. Am we free to go?”

“You’ve been free ever since you stepped into the room,” Smith said.

“Let’s get out of here,” Clark said.

#

By the time the SD cleared the paperwork and returned everyone’s belongings—less their clothes, cars, gear and weapons—it was well after dark. A final insult, inconveniencing everyone.

The Clarks found and booked a collection of rooms in the Balboa Hotel, one of the two major hotels in Saint Lucile. The civilians settled down for the night. James and Kayla conferred with Clark in her room.

They re-scrambled their eyeshields. They stripped down their electronics, checked for suspicious chips and devices, ran anti-malware scans, powered them down and stowed them away in RFID blocking bags.

Then, and only then, did they talk.

“We can’t stay here in Saint Lucille for long. We’ve got an X on our back,” Kayla said.

“At this stage, we’ve got to assume the entire MISD is fatally compromised.”

“You’re expecting another attack?”

“It’s not over until we find out who wants you dead.”

“I smell the New Gods,” James said. “No way the Department would act like this if only a bike gang were involved.”

“We haven’t seen their involvement,” Clark said.

“Yet.”

“What’s our next step?”

“That depends on what you want to do. Still planning to run for elections?”

“Of course.”

“And the shot caller? You want to find him too?”

“Absolutely.”

“How do you plan to do both at once when people still want you dead?”

Clark sighed.

“I don’t think it’s possible. Not until after the elections. I plan on keeping the family safe and continuing my campaign. Once the dust settles, we can go hunting for the shot caller. Unless new evidence turns up, of course.”

“Slow down there,” Kayla said. “You’ve got friends in the department, don’t you? Let them do the heavy lifting. At least until we’re sure you and your family are in the clear.”

“None of them are detectives. On the other hand… some of them owe me a favor or two. I’ll see what they can do.”

“And what about your campaign? How do you plan to run it?”

“Moreno is old school. You’ll have to talk to people face-to-face and win their trust. You’ll need rallies, press conferences, advertisements… There’s only so much you can arrange online.”

“You’ve got any campaign staff?”

“Remote workers based in Babylon. They take care of the web-based organization, admin, advertising and other stuff for me.”

“But no one in Moreno.”

“No, not really. Over here… it’s just me.”

Loneliness crept into her voice. Her face fell, her eyes cast downwards, yet the rest of her remained upright and composed, poised upon her sofa like a princess.

“We’ll look at your schedule and see how we can plan around it. But in the meantime, there are two things we need to take care of.”

“Name them.”

“First, we need to plan long-term accommodations for your family. It’s not safe for them to stay in Saint Lucille. You’ve got anywhere else you can take them to?”

She shook her head.

“Not on Moreno Island. I was thinking of stashing them in one of the smaller towns. Or Babylon.”

“I could speak to my parents, see what they have to say,” James said.

“You don’t have to go out of the way for me.”

“With eight people to manage, and just the three of us, it’ll be extremely difficult. Better to stash them somewhere remote and well-protected. The family farm is at the top of my list.”

“You’ve got room and board for eight?”

“We get plenty of seasonal workers. We can cope. Besides, there are many empty rooms you can use.”

“Your brothers don’t live with you anymore?” Kayla asked.

“They… I…”

He sighed. Shook his head.

“What’s wrong?”

“Their wives belonged to different gods. One chose the Singularity Network, the other joined the Guild. They brought their husbands with them. They lived in peace under the same roof for a while. Then came the Temple Commission.”

“They were investigated too?” Clark asked.

“Only indirectly. Only because of me. But it was enough.

“When I returned home… well, they said in no uncertain terms they couldn’t live under the same roof as a mass murderer. I, in turn, told them I came back to protect them, and Mom and Dad, from retaliation. It… didn’t end well.”

“I’m sorry,” Kayla said.

James shook his head.

“Water under the bridge now. They packed their things and moved out. Last I heard they were somewhere in Saint Lucile, more actively involved in their respective religions than before. The Commission opened up positions in the hierarchy, and they’re scrambling to make the most of it.”

“Family is supposed to stick with family,” Clark said.

James shrugged.

“It’s what the New Gods do. They divide brother against brother, son against father.”

“They’re false gods. All of them,” Clark said.

Kayla chuckled.

“Yuri said that too.”

“Sounds like an interesting man. And a fellow believer. I should meet him someday.”

Kayla pursed her lips.

“He’s… overseas. He’s not coming back anytime soon.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Drawing the wrath of the New Gods away from the rest of us.”

“That’s a huge cross to bear.”

“He’ll be fine. I hope.”

“But without Yuri, we have to deal with the New Gods by ourselves,” James said. “I’ve got more guns at home, but I don’t want to keep donating hardware to the evidence locker.”

“That’s if the hardware even helps,” Clark said.

“This is the second issue we need to handle. Fortunately… I can help with that,” Kayla said.

“How?”

“I have a friend in Babylon. He can put together a care package for us.”

“What kind of package?”

“Man-portable railguns.”

James’ eyes widened.

“Railguns? I heard about those. Didn’t the Guild use them in Babylon?”

“They did. Have they made their way over here?”

“Not yet.” James sighed. “But soon. The Sinners and the Guild are waiting on the results of the election before they will decide what to do next.”

“How did you get your hands on railguns?” Clark asked.

“Reverse-engineered Guild tech.”

“Do they work?” James asked.

“They’re the most powerful guns I’ve ever used. The railgun fires a five millimeter flechette at two kilometers per second. Laser-straight trajectory out to eight hundred meters. It will kill everything that isn’t a tank.”

“You’ve seen in action?”

“In person.”

Clark blinked. James smiled grimly.

“Guns like that could give us an edge.”

“Best of all… a railgun not even a gun.”

“No way.”

“A railgun is neither a firearm nor a directed energy weapon. It doesn’t fall into any legal classification. Dot gov has no idea how to deal with one. Legally, we’re in the clear. Even if we use one.”

“It sounds scary,” Clark said.

“Damn straight it is. The Guild figured out how to build railguns using a 3D printer and commercial off the shelf parts. And they’ve got a strong presence here. You’re going to see railguns on the street sooner or later. Guaranteed.”

Clark shook her head.

“What a fucked-up world we live in.”

“I keep thinking that every day,” James said.

“What do you plan to do with these railguns?”

“We go hunting.”

“Hunting? Why?”

“Haven’t you realized it yet? This isn’t law enforcement any more. This is war.”

“This is Nova Babylonia. This is Moreno Island. There’s no war—”

“People tried to kill you. MISD isn’t going to help. How is this not a war against you?”

“We have to follow the evidence, and the evidence doesn’t point to terrorism, or the New Gods, or whatever. A hit by a biker gang at most. That’s all.”

“That’s what they want you to think. Someone’s backing them.”

“I know. But we can’t act without evidence.”

“How much more evidence do we need? When they send assault armor and demons after you?” Clark asked.

“Josh Smith already hinted that he’s not going to go out of his way to protect you. We must protect ourselves. Easiest way to do that is to go on the offensive,” Kayla added.

“And that means hunting for the shot caller.”

“Yes.”

She shook her head.

“I… I can’t authorize this. We have laws here.”

Kayla sighed. Some people were just so damn stubborn.

On the other hand, how many had to confront the New Gods on a regular basis?

“You still have your badge. That opens doors for us. We don’t necessarily have to go kicking in doors, but we still need protection,” James said.

“We don’t have to kill them all either,” Kayla said. “We just need them out of play. Arresting them is good enough.”

“If anybody dares to arrest them.”

Clark screwed her eyes shut and massaged her temples.

“I’m… I’m a cop. I’m running for sheriff. This is conspiracy. This is a crime. I cannot hear this. I cannot not act on it.”

“Everyone says you’re a great detective. If anyone deserves to be sheriff, it’s you. But you must understand, you’re way out of your depth here. The rules of the game have changed. We can’t play checkers when the other side is playing chess,” James said.

Clark drummed her fingers against her armrest.

“This is… this is just worst case scenario planning?”

“Yes,” James said. “It’s better to have the railguns and not need them, than to need them and not have them.”

“And what about hunting the ones hunting me?”

“We can’t do this without you,” Kayla said.

“The regular MISD isn’t equipped to take on the New Gods. Most don’t even want to. The three of us, we’re the only ones who can do anything about it. If the New Gods are in play, they won’t stop until they’re out of the game. Or you,” James said.

Clark held up her hands.

“Alright, alright. If the evidence points to the New Gods, if there is no other way to deal with this through legal measures, then we talk about dealing with them… unofficially. But that’s the only circumstance I’ll even consider it. Got that?”

“Understood,” Kayla said.

#

In another time, the ferry was the only economical way to travel between Babylon and Moreno Island. Then came the advent of gravity mirrors and long-endurance flying vehicles.

There were few gravcars on the island, almost all of them the property of the rich or the municipal government. Moreno was just too small a market for gravcar manufacturers to bother with. On the other hand, it made surreptitious trips from Babylon to Moreno and back much, much more convenient.

West of Saint Lucille, long stretches of empty beaches stared across the waters at distant Babylon. The capital city was a blur of glittering towers just beyond the horizon, just out of sight. From far away it tempted witnesses with offers of wealth, glamor, and fortune. Kayla had seen the view up close too often and too long to fall for it now.

She saw the gravcar long before she heard it. A sleek black slab slicing through the humid air, darker than the pre-dawn sky, perilously close to the calm seas. It altered its approach ever so slightly, angling towards them. James cracked a pair of bright green chemlights, waving them in wide, lazy circles.

James and Clark had assured them that Winfield Bay was one of the most remote beaches on the island. No one came here, especially this early in the morning. Even so, Kayla scanned the world around them, checking for inconvenient witnesses.

And suddenly the gravcar was there, right there in front of her. It stopped instantaneously, floating five feet off the ground, its engine humming softly.

It drifted towards a patch of empty beach. Halted again. And settled down on the soft sand.

The driver door swung open. Out stepped a giant, sleek and muscular, thick of neck and arms and legs. A mane of hair billowed from his shadowed face. James held out his chemlights.

“Heya,” Daniel Lamb said. “Good to see you again, Kayla.”

“Same here,” she said. “Daniel, this is James Wood and Janet Clark.”

Lamb smiled.

“James Wood! Yuri spoke well of you. Said you were the best second-in-command he ever had.”

“Thank you,” James said.

“You worked with Yuri Yamamoto?” Clark asked.

“Yup.”

“STS?”

Secrets glinted in his eyes.

“Naw. I just helped them source for custom gear now and then, back when they were still active. And speaking of gear, I’ve got yours in the trunk.”

Everyone gathered around the rear of the gravcar. Lamb drew a small but powerful penlight, clicked it on, and opened the trunk. Inside was a pair of duffel bags.

“Your order, as requested.”

James and Kayla lifted them out and set them down on the sand. Lamb pulled out two heavy-duty groundsheets and spread them on the sand.

“Here you go. Feel free to check the goods.”

Kayla produced her own light and opened the duffel bag. Inside was the boxy, familiar profile of a railgun. But it was… different.

It was much shorter. Even with the smuzzle, a muzzle device as long as her forearm that served as a suppressor and muzzle brake, it was only slightly longer than an M83 with a 20-inch barrel. The magazine was still the same, but the pistol grip behind it featured a sharper angle and an oversized trigger guard. Past the pistol grip, a hydrogen fuel cell cartridge was slotted into the stock.

She slung the weapon around her neck, turned around, and aimed it out at the ocean. Through the LVPO, the bright lights of Babylon blazed in crystal clarity. Just ahead of her support hand rested a grip pod, slightly out of reach. She made a note to shift its position later. A green light blazed within a small window at the base of the 12 o’clock accessory rail, a light only she could see.

The weapon was live.

“This is different from the one you sold me,” Kayla said.

“What happened to it?”

“Languishing in long-term storage. I hadn’t expected to need it.”

“You won’t need it again any more. Based on your feedback, we made some improvements to the original design. We’ve increased the efficiency of the railgun, so we can afford to shorten the rails. We’ve also managed to increase the rate of fire to thirty shots per minute, same as a real smooth bolt-action, but now we also have a velocity dial. Dial it down to half power and you can double the effective ROF. It’s quieter too.”

“Is it waterproof?” James asked.

“It’s a bit finnicky with water. The huge electric current will vaporize stray drops of water and blow them out the muzzle, no problem. It’ll hold up to the increased pressure. But you wouldn’t want to shoot it underwater. You could electrocute yourself if you aren’t wearing a wetsuit.”

“How many shots do we get?” James asked.

“The mag holds twenty rounds. Fuel cartridge will give you sixty shots before it needs replacing.

“You’ve got six magazines, two fuel cartridges, two hundred rounds of penetrators, two hundred more of tumblers.”

In the side pockets, Kayla found the spare mags, the extra cartridge, and a half-dozen ammo boxes.

“And sidearms?” she asked.

“Hard case inside the main compartment.”

She felt around the bag until she found it. She opened it on the ground sheet, finding an OZ-72 pistol with a red dot sight and three magazines.

“It’s all here,” she said.

“Wonderful.”

Clark stood watch. James and Kayla inspected the gear. They stripped the pistols, examined every part under the harsh glow of their flashlights, and put them back together. Lamb walked them through the disassembly and reassembly of the railguns.

As the sun rose above the horizon, James and Kayla scrutinized the ammo. Every magazine, every round, every flechette, they checked them all for irregularities. It was long, monotonous, tedious, but better tediousness now than a failure to fire later.

No rejections. This was Lamb, after all, gunsmith for the great white sharks of the military and law enforcement worlds. Even so, trust but verify.

Over the waters of the bay, they test-fired their guns. Single shots, then strings of semi-auto fire for the pistols; ear-tearing high velocity flechettes and whisper-quiet shots for the railguns. James took a little longer, acclimatizing himself to the unfamiliar recoil, controls and cadence of his railgun. They took care to aim away from Babylon. Away from anything visible out to the horizon. Clark marveled at the weapons, discussing them animatedly with Clark, and checked her email on her eyeshields.

At last they were done. Kayla packed up her weapons and handed over a stack of banknotes. One thousand five hundred dollars. A steal, really, given the lethal potential of the railguns.

But as Lamb had told her, the railguns were obscenely cheap.

“Thank ya very much,” Lamb said.

“No problem,” she said.

“You need me again, you know how to reach me.”

Lamb took off in his car, rocketing off to the horizon. When he was out of sight, the protectors gathered around their client.

“Ready to head back?” Kayla said.

“Something just came up,” Clark said.

“What is it?”

“One of my CIs just sent me a message. We have a lead.”

For more stories of faith, demons and firefights in neon-drenched streets, check out BABYLON BLUES!

Sheriff of the Swamps Chapter 6
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