Liars and Thieves
The Clarks and the Woods crammed themselves into the living room. The couch overflowed with squirming children. The elder Clarks and Woods grabbed the remaining sofas. The others brought in chairs from the dining room.
James and Kayla stood, him presiding over the meeting, her watching the front door.
Wordlessly, Janet spread out photographs over the coffee table. Two dozen of them, a selection of shots taken from the ferry terminal.
“Two hours ago, I told Sheriff Smith that I was going to take you to Babylon by ferry. Five minutes later, these men showed up,” Janet said.
“Who are they?” Grandpa Clark asked.
“Soldiers of the New Gods. The Singularity Network and the Guild of the Maker. You can see the cyborg’s third eye here.”
“They came here to kill us?” Grandma asked.
“Me. But they wouldn’t care if you got caught in the crossfire.”
Ed gritted this teeth.
His children looked at him. He caught himself and exhaled sharply.
“The New Gods have done so much to build Moreno Island,” Naomi Clark, Ed’s wife, said.
“You know that they’ve done in Babylon. They’ll do the same over here,” Kayla said.
“But… but this is our home!”
Janet hadn’t been kidding when she’d called them civilians.
“Who do you think sent the bikers who attacked us?” Kayla asked.
“Those are criminals. These are…”
“Monsters in men’s skins,” James said.
“But they look so… normal.”
“What part of having an eye implanted in your forehead is ‘normal’?” Kayla asked.
“I mean the others.”
“The New Gods reach into your soul and corrupt you from the inside out. By the time someone outwardly manifests this corruption, it’s too late,” James said.
“Who sent these soldiers?” the Wood patriarch asked.
“The shooters arrived at the Golden Star Hotel this morning. After they settled down, these people visited them,” Janet said.
She laid down another set of photos. Stills from the hotel camera footage.
“Nu Theta Eight-Nine-One, Moreno Island Sysadmin of the Singularity Network. Caleb Anderson, Director of the Moreno Island Branch of the Guild of the Maker. And Sheriff Joshua Smith.”
A chill fell over the room.
“Motherfuckers!” the older Mr. Wood shouted.
The children’s eyes widened. They huddled up against each other. The baby fussed. Naomi held her daughter’s hands.
“You’re saying the Sheriff sent killers after you?” Grandpa Clark said, his voice freezing to ice.
“It looks that way, doesn’t it?” Janet said.
“You should send this to the PSB, to the press, to the Temple Commission.”
“We will, that’s for damn sure. But for now, there’s something more important we need to take care of.”
“Any second now, the MISD will pay us a visit. Maybe even the Sheriff himself. They’re going to ask for James.”
All eyes turned on him.
“What did you do?” Mr. Wood asked.
“Kayla and I gathered intelligence on the subjects, including visiting the hotel. Sheriff Smith might be planning to arrest me on trumped-on charges. At the very least, he’ll be looking to fish for something he can arrest me with.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Mrs. Wood said. “I can arrange for you to stay with the neighbors—”
“That just makes me look guilty,” James interrupted.
“We have a plan. But we need all of you on the same page,” Janet said.
“What do you need?” her father asked.
“Tell them what we’re going to tell you. And no more.”
The adults in the room digested the sentence. Stacey Clark, still holding her mother’s hands, kicked her feet.
“Are you telling us to lie?” Stacey asked.
“I’m saying you should just tell the Sheriff what we want you to tell him.”
“But that’s a lie, isn’t it? You told me that we shouldn’t lie to others.”
Janet shifted uncomfortably.
“If we tell the Sheriff the truth, he’ll hurt everyone in the room,” James said gently. “We can’t let that happen, can we?”
“But he’s the Sheriff! He’s a policeman!”
“A policeman’s job is to protect the people. When he sent those killers after your aunt, he stopped being a policeman.”
“It’s okay to lie to him?”
Janet crouched, looking at the children in the eye.
“Stacey, honey, most of the time, lying is bad. But sometimes, to prevent an even worse harm, we have to lie.”
“But you said we should never lie just to avoid punishment.”
“This isn’t punishment. We didn’t do anything wrong. But those men want to hurt us. To kill us.”
Janet didn’t say anything.
James knelt next to her.
“Men like the Sheriff, when they have high posts, they want to hold on to their positions. They want the power and the money that comes with these positions. Your Aunt Janet wants to replace him, so she can help people.
“The Sheriff, the Guild and the Singularity Network don’t want that. They want the power and the money for themselves. They see Aunt Janet as a threat, so they want to get rid of her.”
“They want to kill her?”
“She is running for elections. The only reason they want to kill her is because they think they can’t win.”
“But that’s wrong!”
“And we have to stop that.”
“But the Sheriff shouldn’t kill people just for that!”
“That’s why he’s not a policeman anymore.”
“He’s still the Sheriff.”
“Not for long,” Janet vowed.
“Why is he the Sheriff in the first place?”
“He won the election.”
“But he’s a bad man. How did he win?”
“Bad men win sometimes. But not always. We’re here to make sure he won’t win again.”
“Are you going to kill him?”
James said nothing. Janet said nothing. The civilians said nothing.
“That is up to him,” Kayla said.
Every cop in his career had to contend with no end of liars and thieves. Clark, James and Kayla had learned from the best on both sides of the law.
The best lies were based on the truth. Simple, minor distortions of the truth, a retelling and reframing of facts, just enough to hide what must be hidden without telling a tale too complex to be kept consistent.
It only took a few minutes to coach the adults what to say. The children needed a little more practice. Over dinner, they repeated the story over and over, feeding off each other, until everybody knew what everybody else was going to say.
As the parents and grandparents cleaned up, the protectors made their final preparations. Kayla walked the farm, studying the terrain and its defenses. Janet cleared away the photos, compiled a report for the PSB, and waited for the inevitable.
James grabbed his shotgun.
The first weapon he’d ever owned, it was a gift from his father when he’d come of age. The walnut stock was faded, the bluing thin and dull, but the pump was still as smooth as butter, the tritium dot of the high-viz ghost ring sight still glowed bright against the night. No tactical accessories. The kind of gun a farmer would own. Innocuous in the countryside, deadly in close quarters.
He didn’t think he’d need it. But wearing it would send a message.
He dressed around the gun. Long-sleeved blue flannel shirt, worn-out jeans, comfortable boots, all of them stained with old dirt. The kind of clothes a farmer would wear.
The kind of clothing that concealed the pistol in his waistband and the folding knives in his pockets.
After that, he puttered around the house, doing this and that, the little chores that always needed doing—while watching the windows and the protectees.
At nine in the evening, the Clarks sent their children to bed. That eliminated the greatest vulnerability in their defenses. They were children, after all, and would crack quickly under pressure.
James relaxed. But only slightly.
There was still one more possibility they hadn’t discussed. One that he, Kayla and Janet knew was inevitable. But there was only so much civilians would tolerate.
They didn’t have to lie to them. They just didn’t have to tell them anything about that.
At a quarter to ten, headlights blazed in the night, working up the lonely road to the Wood Family farm. Two, four, six, eight of them. The light revealed a trio of police cruisers in the lead, an armored gravtruck in the rear.
The MISD was bringing in the big guns.
Seated on the porch, shotgun on his lap, James saw them coming. He tapped the call button on his eyeshields.
The cars drove right up to the gate. Bright white lights washed over him. His lenses darkened to save his sight. Eight men spilled out of the truck, dressed in green uniforms and tactical kit, their chest patches reading SRT and SHERIFF in brilliant gold.
More deputies stepped out their cars, hands on their waists, orienting towards James. They keyed on him, his hands, the shotgun in them, and tensed.
The door of the lead cruiser opened. A rotund man in an ill-fitting uniform eased himself out with surprising grace. He slipped on a Stetson hat, slammed the door shut and swaggered up to the main gate.
“Evening, Mr. Woods.”
“Evening, Sheriff,” James replied.
“Lots of trouble around here lately. Best to be prepared. And you?”
“We’ve got bikers, killers, Husks, God knows what else running around the island. We can’t be too careful.”
James stood, approaching the gate.
“What do I owe the pleasure of tonight’s visit, Sheriff?”
“There’s been a spot of trouble in Saint Lucille earlier today. Hoping you could help answer a few questions.”
“That’s a lot of manpower for just a few questions.”
“As I said, can’t be too careful.”
James halted two arms’ lengths away from Smith.
“It’s real late, Sheriff. And I’m still on the job.”
“Protecting Janet Clark?”
“And your friend? Kayla Fox?”
“Also on the job.”
“As it happens, we’d like to talk to all three of you at once.”
“You’ve got to do this now?”
“Got a busy day tomorrow. The sooner we do this, the easier it’ll be for everyone.”
“Do I need a lawyer?”
“I was hoping we could keep it friendly.”
“It’s not an arrest?”
“Nothing like that. Just some quick questions, that’s all.”
“Then you can leave your boys outside.”
“It’s going to go quicker if I have them with me.”
“You don’t need SRT for ‘quick questions’, do you?”
“They can stay outside.”
“And the other deputies?”
“They go where I go. That won’t be a problem, would it?”
“I’ve got civvies and kids inside the house too. Don’t want to scare them.”
“We’ll be on our best behavior.”
“Give me a second.”
James waved his finger in front of his eyeshields’ cameras, working the haptic interface. The device patched him through into a conference call.
“The Sheriff is at the gates. He and his three deputies want to come in for ‘some quick questions’. The SRT is hanging around outside. Want me to let them in?”
“Go ahead,” Kayla said.
“Roger that.” To Smith, James added, “We’ll let you in. But only you and your uniformed deputies. Not SRT.”
James opened the gate. The deputies drove in the rest of the way and parked their cars by the main door. Smith ostentatiously strolled around the gravel patch, checking the other two vehicles parked here.
“Saw something interesting?” James asked.
“These are the Clarks’ cars, aren’t they? They’re staying with you?”
“I was hoping I could talk to them.”
“They’re all inside.”
“Alright,” Smith said, and gave James a once-over. “You sure you need that weapon?”
“My client was attacked twice in two days. Got to be ready for a third try.”
“It might make some people nervous, carrying artillery like that around.”
“It’s just a plain old shotgun.”
Smith laughed. James grinned.
“Keep it pointed somewhere safe at all times,” Smith said.
Kayla opened the main door. She, too, had a shotgun similar to James’, slung around her shoulder, pointed safely at the floor. This one was borrowed from the Woods’ arsenal, chosen for its combination of plain looks and lethal potential.
“Evening, Sheriff,” she said.
“Evening, Ms. Fox. Hope you don’t mind the intrusion.”
“You caught us just as we were going to bed.”
“We won’t take up too much of your time. I promise.”
“Let’s get this over and done with.”
The Clarks and the Woods were waiting inside the living room. The Woods offered seats to the cops. The Sheriff and his men demurred, and so Kayla and James remained standing. Smith looked around, his gaze lingering on the doors, the stairs, Janet Clark.
“What’s all this about, then?” Janet asked.
“There was a disturbance earlier today at the Gold Star Hotel. I was hoping you could assist with our investigation.”
“Must be a major crime for you to look into it personally.”
“We had reports of armed men at the hotel. Know anything about that?”
“I wasn’t anywhere near it.”
“And the rest of you?”
“We were here all day,” Grandpa Clark said.
“Oh? What were you doing?”
“Hiding,” Grandma Clark said bluntly. “Since someone couldn’t protect us from hitmen.”
“We’re chasing down every lead. It’s a complex case, and I can’t reveal any additional details, but we’ll get to the bottom of it,” Smith said.
“Does it have anything to do with the scene at the hotel?” James asked.
“Maybe it does. We also think you might have been there too.”
“At five twenty-four pm, a man matching your description was seen entering the hotel. He talked his way into a suite. A few minutes later, he ran out and hit the fire alarm. As the guests evacuated the hotel, he escaped in the confusion.”
James raised an eyebrow.
“That wasn’t me.”
“Sure. But we have to ask anyway.”
“Was anything stolen?”
“No. So far as we can tell, he stepped in, looked around, then stepped out and set off the alarm.”
“What’s the problem, then?”
“It’s still a crime, even if nothing was stolen. We have to investigate.”
“Pretty serious crime for you to send in the SRT.”
“Especially since your resources are tight,” Kayla added.
“Because of the armed men. We can’t be too careful.”
James smiled humorlessly.
“What does this suspect look like?” Janet asked.
Smith fished a phone from his pocket and unfolded it into a mini tablet.
“We’ve gotten stills from the security cameras. Suspect looks a lot like Mr. Wood, doesn’t it?”
The screen displayed a top-down view of James Wood, walking towards the elevator.
“Do I look like I’ve got gray hair to you?”
“Wigs and hair dye are everywhere.”
James pointed at his cheek.
“Don’t have a mole here either.”
“Moles can be drawn in or erased.”
“Eyebrows aren’t the same, heights aren’t the same, you’re really stretching things, Sheriff.”
“He doesn’t even look anywhere like him,” Janet protested.
“We’ve got to chase down every lead,” Smith said.
“How did you know to come here anyway?” Mr. Wood asked.
“Sources and means, sir. Can’t divulge them.”
“James couldn’t have been in Saint Lucile. He was here all day long.”
“Last night. After the Clarks settled down, he stayed in the house all day.”
Smith turned to James.
“What did you do all day?”
“Stood watch. Did the chores. Protected the Clarks,” James said.
“What kind of chores?”
“Vehicle and equipment maintenance. Checking groceries and supplies. Cleaning up. That sort of thing.”
“You’re contracted to protect the Clark family?”
“The job is to protect Detective Clark. Since hitmen are going after her family now, protecting her means protecting them too.”
“Did you leave the house at all?”
“Just for chores.”
“Is that so?”
Clark turned in place, taking in everyone in the room.
“Is this everyone in the house?”
“The kids are sleeping upstairs,” Ed said.
“You don’t mind if we look around, do you?”
“We do,” the Woods said as one.
“Thought you said you were here for some quick questions?” Clark asked.
“I did. Just want to know if there’s anyone else here.”
“No one else. And the subject of your investigation is right in front of you, isn’t he?”
“No harm looking.”
“You came here to ask about me, here I am,” James said. “No need to wake up the kids. Just to let you know, Sheriff, I’m recording this conversation on my eye.”
His cyber eye, not his eyeshields.
Smith nodded somberly.
“You’ve got anyone who can vouch for you?”
“We can,” Ed said. “I saw Mr. James walking around the house all day.”
“You saw what he did?”
“As he said. Chores and standing watch. He did a real good job of them too.”
“Can anyone tell me what he was doing at around five today?”
“He was doing one of those security checks,” Mr. Wood said. “Walking around the house.”
“And when did he come back?”
“About an hour later.”
“I noticed you have security cameras. I’d like to see the footage.”
“He was inside the house. He won’t show up there. And, no, we don’t have cameras indoors.”
“Ah. So everyone saw him all the time?”
“We all stayed on the ground floor,” Grandpa Clark said. “He went upstairs for a while, then came back down.”
“When was that?”
“About six or so. Wasn’t paying attention at the time.”
“Sheriff, Saint Lucille is over three and a half hours away from here by car. Maybe longer. I couldn’t possibly have zipped down there and back up here in an hour,” James said.
“That’s a fair point. Detective Clark, Ms. Fox, what about the two of you? What were you doing between five to six in the evening?”
“Protecting my client,” Kayla said.
“And where were you two?”
Janet Clark smiled like a shark.
“Funny you should ask that question, Sheriff. I emailed you where I was going in the early evening. Did you get my message?”
“Yup. Answered it too.”
“Kayla and I were in Saint Lucille, watching the ferry terminal. A few minutes after I sent that email, we saw something real fishy.”
Janet spread out the terminal photos across the table.
“Were these the ‘armed men’ who showed up at the hotel?”
Smith’s eyes widened a fraction. Color bled from his cheeks.
“Where did you get these from?”
“Every time I alerted your office of my location and plans, hitmen followed me there. I decided to run a test. I set up near the terminal, then sent that email. These men showed up. And, as you can see, at least one of them is a cyborg from the Singularity Network.”
“I don’t know who they are.”
“You’re saying they’re not deputies.”
“No, of course not. I’d have liaised with you to arrange a plainclothes or uniformed detail.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I was checking to see if I had anybody to spare. Then the incident at the hotel occurred.”
“Were these the same men who showed up at the hotel?”
Smith leaned in.
“I can’t say for sure. Could you send me a copy of the raw photos you took? That could help us.”
“Why didn’t you call the MISD?”
“The same MISD that told these men where I was going to be? Come on. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you sic’d them.”
Smith went completely, totally, still for a moment. Then he breathed out and shook his head.
“You know I wouldn’t do that.”
“I’m sure,” Janet said dryly.
“I’ll direct Professional Standards to investigate everyone who works in my office. I won’t tolerate any leaks inside the MISD, especially to a gang of assassins.”
“‘Assassins’,” James mused. “How did you know that?”
“Well, what else could they be?”
“If they’re assassins, then this makes it terrorism. This makes it PSB businesses,” Clark said.
“I’d hold off on alerting the Bureau. We don’t know enough about the situation to make that call.”
“Too late for that. I’ve already filed the paperwork. The PSB would be getting back to me soon.”
Smith’s eyes hardened.
“You’ve got cyborgs, hitmen and terrorists running around. Seems you’ve got more important things to do than to question James,” Kayla said.
“We’ve got a few more questions and we’ll be through,” Smith said.
“Fire away,” Janet said.
“A gravcar was spotted landing near the hotel, shortly before the break-in. The suspect stepped out and headed to the hotel on foot. The gravcar took off, and reappeared near the terminal. It stayed there for about fifteen minutes. Shortly after the suspect entered the hotel room, the gravcar took off. It picked him off a few blocks away from the hotel.
“Do you know anything about this?”
“The photos show the suspects at the terminal arrived in four gravcars. Could have been one of them,” Kayla said.
“Impossible. The vehicle we tracked was a silver Subaru. None of these vehicles match the description. Besides, we had images of the vehicle from street cameras.”
“We don’t own any gravcars.”
“Then where did you take the photos from?”
Her eyes narrowed.
“You’ve got a leak in your department, and you want me to tell you where I set up? Why?”
“Are you accusing me of aiding and abetting a crime?”
“Can you show me you were not in the gravcar?”
“What happened to innocent until proven guilty?”
“This isn’t a trial.”
“Then what is this?”
“Just some questions. That’s all.”
“You’re trying to pin this on us.”
“The photos were taken at ground level, from long range. Where were you?”
“At ground level, a long way from the ferry terminal. And that’s all I’m going to say.”
“Come on, Janet, work with me here—”
“Hitmen made two runs at my client already,” Kayla interrupted. “We’ve established that they’re getting information from your office. We tell where she was, we tell them how to track us. No. We cannot afford to cooperate.”
“Perhaps you could account for your activities today, then.”
“We left the house after lunch. We reached Saint Lucille where we set up for the stakeout. When the suspects arrived at the terminal, we snapped away. After that, we returned to the house,” Janet said.
“Didn’t you say you were home all day?”
“That was me,” James said. “None of us said Janet or Kayla stayed home.”
“Ah, my mistake. Could you give me a timeline?”
“We left at about a quarter past four. We reached Saint Lucille a half hour later. I sent the email and settled down. We abandoned the stakeout immediately after the suspects left.”
“You reached Saint Lucille a half hour later? How?”
“I lent them my gravcar,” James said.
A smile crept across Smith’s face.
“Is that right? Well, aside from the suspect, street sensors showed only one gravcar in the vicinity of the hotel and the terminal.”
“You also said it was a silver Subaru. Mine isn’t. I could show you if you want.”
James led the way to the garage. Kayla, Clark, Smith and the deputies followed. The size of a barn, the garage stood alone, off to the left of the farmhouse. Past the gates, the SRT members congregated around the cruisers, ready to burst in on command.
James ignored the tac team and pulled out his remotes. With a series of clicks, he opened all four garage doors and turned on the lights.
A pickup truck. A 4X4 utility vehicle. A riding lawn mower.
And a green Subaru.
“That’s your gravcar?” Smith asked.
“That’s right,” James said. “Green, not silver.”
“Then you don’t mind if we check the license plate and transponder code.”
Smith squatted by the car, examining the front and rear license plates, and ran them against his tablet. James climbed into his car, turned on the engine, and displayed the transponder code on the heads up display. Smith checked the code too.
Smith wouldn’t find anything. Immediately after the flight from Saint Lucille, James had stripped off the license plate stickers, reset the transponder, and peeled away the vinyl wrap. Now the gravcar was back to its original registered configuration.
“You brought this car over from Babylon?” Smith asked.
“Do you use it?”
“Never had a reason to leave the farm until recently.”
“There’s still a target on my back. And my parents’.”
“You’re paranoid. The New Gods aren’t that vicious.”
“Only because they’re too busy scrambling for more power to bother with me. For now.”
“You’ve stayed here all this time, protecting your family? Being real careful, aren’t you?”
“That’s how I lived so long.”
Smith laughed and shook his head.
“Are you STS types always this serious?”
“We have to be. And on that note, did everything check out?”
“Yup. This ain’t the car we’re looking for. Gotta wonder, though, how come we didn’t see it in Saint Lucille.”
“Wrong guy to ask.”
Kayla smiled impishly.
“Trade secret,” she said.
“You don’t say,” Smith said.
“I take it we’re done here?”
“Yup,” Smith said. “Thank you for your time.”
“No problem,” James said.
“You know anything about those other armed men? The ones at the terminal?” Clark asked.
“If I learn anything about them, I’ll let you know. But so far as we know, they haven’t committed any crimes beyond brandishing firearms in public.”
“Not exactly a major crime, is it?”
“We’ve got lots of bad guys running around. We’ve got to prioritize our resources.”
Kayla gestured at the deputies and the SRT.
“Which is why you brought so much muscle here.”
“Can’t be too careful.”
“We live in interesting times, don’t we?”
“Yup. It looks like some serious players are after you. Players with serious heat. You should go underground until this blows over.”
“And miss my shot at the elections? No.”
“Well, we tried to warn you.”
The protectors led the Sheriff and his men back to the gate. James saw them out.
“Thanks for your cooperation,” Smith said.
“You stay safe now.”
Smith offered a smile as fake as a three-dollar bill. James mirrored his expression.
The men of the MISD went back the way they came from. Or tried. The road was too narrow for them to turn back ground, and James kept the gate shut. The assembled vehicles trundled back and forth like clumsy hippos, bumping gently up against each other.
The SRT truck reversed well clear of the formation, very carefully and awkwardly turned around, and headed down the road. One by one, the other cruisers followed. James stayed where he was, standing guard until the last of them left.
He returned to the living room to find the adults assembled around the table.
“Is it over?” his father asked.
Now it was time to drop the bombshell.
“The New Gods are coming.”
“Wait, what?” Grandma Clark asked. “The New Gods are what?”
“What happened just now wasn’t just an interview. It was recon.”
“While the Sheriff asked questions, the deputies were looking around,” Kayla added. “They were looking at our hardware, our gear, the layout of the house.”
“We didn’t give the Sheriff a reason to arrest us all. That’s why the SRT didn’t bust in and drag us all away. Since he can’t count on the law, he’ll have to use force,” Smith said.
“The soldiers of the New Gods will be coming. Soon,” James said.
The Woods, the Clarks, everybody of interest to the New Gods were clustered in one location. A huge, tempting target. Here was their chance to finish things once and for all. They could kill everyone, burn down the farm, and no one would know.
And when they came, James and Kayla would be waiting for them.
James and Kayla had used the civilians as bait. He made that choice, and Kayla knew what he was up to when he didn’t ask the others to evacuate. He hadn’t told Janet, the Clarks, or even his parents about this. Not until now.
Someday, he hoped they could forgive him.
He knew he couldn’t forgive himself.
“What do we do?” Father asked.
“Get everyone into the cellar and bolt the door. Janet, you too. Don’t open it for anyone but me or Kayla. Or the PSB, if they get here. Anyone else tries to break in, blast them.”
“How long do we stay there?”
“Until it’s over.”
Naomi’s eyes widened.
“Do we really have to do this?”
“Every time I spoke to the Sheriff, hitmen came. This won’t be any different,” Janet said.
“But are they even coming?”
“You want to risk being wrong?” Kayla asked.
“We can’t take any chances. We’re in the endgame now. Just hunker down and we’ll ride out what’s coming,” James said.
“What about you and Kayla? What will you two do?” Mom asked.
“Say hello in a way they’ll never forget.”
This is far from the first time Kayla Fox and James Wood have had to deal with liars and thieves. Check out their stories in BABYLON BLUES!