Dealing with the police consumed the rest of the dark hours. By the time he stepped out of the station, a newborn sun peeked through overcast skies to return light and color to the world.
His eyes logged people, vehicles and danger zones as they always did, looking for the intention behind every action, every accessory, every piece of clothing. His heart only knew that the world was a little darker today.
Sharon was dead. The doctors called it shortly after she arrived at the hospital. He’d known it from the moment he’d treated her. The buckshot had ripped through her lungs and heart. If she had survived the blast, she wouldn’t have lived for long. Even so, he had to try to save her. He wouldn’t have lived with himself otherwise.
The cops had confiscated his bouncer uniform as evidence. He had brought a change of clothing in his bag, one of the things he’d learned on the job. While the clothes were freshly laundered, his skin remembered the feel of blood, his nose recalled the iron tang of death.
A pair of patrolmen dropped him off at his car. To their amusement, he inspected his vehicle. The windshield and windows, the hood and the engine, the tires and bumper, the underside. Good practice, he told them.
He didn’t feel like telling them he was looking for bugs and bombs. Either they knew who he was, and therefore needed no explanation, or they didn’t know, and thus wouldn’t understand. Convincing the detectives that the shooting was a hit was hard enough.
Alpha, Beta and Young Buck were hitmen. Not the A team, more like the B or even C team, but amateurs were still as dangerous as pros. Maybe even more so, because no one had told the amateurs what they shouldn’t do, which made them unpredictable. He should have recognized that the moment he’d felt the armor.
Alpha had been ready to be hit. That meant the confrontation over the ID card was a setup. A distraction for the inevitable police investigation. Why did Alpha try to shoot Will Connor? Simple: Connor had hit him, and Alpha wanted revenge. Occupational hazard of bouncers everywhere in the world, doubly so in Nova Babylonia. That was all the cops would see and would want to see. Few cops dared to challenge the might of the New Gods, and those who did stood alone. And died alone.
The hitters were good. They almost had him too. If Alpha or Beta had shot a little straighter, he’d be the one lying in the morgue. They’d caught him in the open without a gun, without hard cover, without any backup. The perfect kill zone.
How did he survive? Luck, and bad timing. They’d kicked off the ambush while he was still on the sidewalk. When he was still within leaping range of the streetlight. If they’d opened fire while he was in the middle of the road… No way he’d live through that. Not if he’d wanted to drag Sharon to safety too. Not without a gun of his own.
Part of him raged. If he had a gun, he could have ended it there and then. Kept them from killing her, or at least avenged her. He was a bouncer, a warrior, he knew that the place was a danger zone, that the New Gods were after him. Why the hell had he walked the streets unarmed?
Peace had broken him. He’d spent weeks, months, without carrying a gun. First he justified it by telling himself that it wasn’t worth the risk, that without a permit and the cops watching him, a stop-and-search would land him in hot water. And, yeah, the cops had picked him out of a crowd at random for a pat down a few times, and every time they hadn’t found anything they could use against him. But after that, after settling here in Lindon City, a place where the cops didn’t care much about him? He could have carried again. Just that he’d gotten used to not carrying.
His rational mind rose in his defense. Assuming he had a gun, and had shot it out with the hitters, and won. Then what? The cops would haul him away instead. The prosecutor would charge him with illegal possession of a firearm, manslaughter, whatever else he could make stick. And then he’d be in deeper waters.
What if he’d fled the scene instead? That’d make things even worse. He’d be a fugitive for the rest of his life. He’d give every cop everywhere in Nova Babylonia a reason to hunt him down. When the New Gods—and only the New Gods—were stalking him, law enforcement was at least sympathetic towards him. But they’d have no choice but to chase a shooter. A killer. It didn’t matter that it was self-defense. If the gun were illegal, or illegally carried, it crossed the line into unlawful homicide. He’d have to disappear again. This time for good.
Maybe he should do that. He had nothing left in Nova Babylonia. No family, no property, nothing anchoring him here. Maybe he should make like Yuri Yamamoto catch the first flight out of the country, make a clean start somewhere else, somewhere the New Gods hadn’t corrupted.
He was daydreaming again. Fatigue weighed him down like lead, pulling his muscles and mind into strange places. He had to focus. Get some sleep. Think about what to do next when he got home.
Home. Had he been compromised? Were the hitters waiting for him there to finish the job?
The thought sent a jolt of adrenaline through him, keeping exhaustion at bay. For now.
He talked the cops into escorting him home. As he waited three blocks away, the patrolmen circled the area, looking for suspicious people and activity. They reported none and drove away. He made his own rounds. Just in case.
The neighborhood was dead. Three-quarters of Lindon City worked in neighboring Riveria. Just about everybody who held a job or went to school had left long ago. The only people on the street were late shift workers trudging home, gray and faceless, seeking only to crash for a few hours before waking up and repeating the routine all over again.
People like him.
Yet not like him.
He pulled into his parking space. Right in front of him, a twenty-story hunk of brownstone and glass loomed over him, so large it commanded its own city block, so featureless that but for the laundry lines it had nothing for the eye to hold on to. There were few cars around him, all of them unoccupied, their engines off.
Passing through the main door, he walked in a tight circle, sweeping every corner of the lift lobby. All clear. He entered the stairwell climbed up to the sixth floor.
By the door, he tapped his eyeshields awake. A new secure connection appeared. The feed to the security camera he had installed inside his home. Armed with a motion detector, it would start recording the second anyone entered the apartment. With his fingers, he scrolled through the augmented reality menu projected on his lenses, checking the archives.
No new videos.
He stepped out into an empty hallway. His apartment was at the leftmost end of the corridor, next to the fire escape. He had taped a strand of hair across the window frame. Low-tech but effective, if anyone opened the window the tape would be broken. It was still intact.
He inspected the lock of his door. Weathered but serviceable, no scratches or any sign that it had been picked. Kneeling, he checked a second strand of hair taped across the door and frame. Still intact.
Satisfied, he unlocked the door and entered his apartment.
A stranger stood in the living room.
“Hi,” he said.
Tucking his head, left arm wrapping around his chin and throat, right hand going for his flashlight, he charged the intruder.
“Wait! Stop! I’m not—”
Connor yanked his flashlight free and raised it to his head—
The intruder jumped away—
Connor stomped his feet, killing his momentum, scraping his shins against the edge of his living room table. He pivoted through a circle, glaring at the intruder, flashlight held high by his temple.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Connor roared.
The stranger backed away, holding both hands out.
“Mr. Connor! Please! I’m here to help!”
“Who the fuck are you? How the fuck did you get in here?”
The man smiled.
“Robert Steele. I represent the Riveria Coven of the Liberated.”
“A Speaker of the New Gods.”
“No, not at all. I’m just a representative. Think of me as a… problem solver.”
“You’re the biggest problem I’m facing right now.”
“Now, now, there’s no need for violence—”
“You break into my home and you tell me there’s no need for violence? Get out. Now.”
“You know about last night’s hit. We can help you.”
Connor’s eyes narrowed.
He shouldn’t be surprised. The New Gods had eyes and ears everywhere. It was only a matter of time before they figured out where he lived. The second the police arrived on the scene, the clock had started counting down. He just hadn’t expected to be running against a such a short timer.
“Nothing good comes from accepting help from the New Gods.”
“You’ve got a crew of killers after you. I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to turn me down.”
“What do you know about the hitters?”
“Let’s step things down a little before we talk some more, alright?”
And lowered his guard.
“How did you get in here?”
“Like I said: I’m a problem solver.”
Steele didn’t look like one, which made him terrifyingly effective at his job. In his pressed gray suit and blue tie, he could have been a salaryman, a salesman, a mid-level corporate type, the kind of man who could disappear into any city anywhere in Nova Babylonia. Short, wavy hair and trimmed eyebrows, dark as night, reinforced the illusion. His sun-kissed skin would blend into any demographic anywhere in Nova Babylonia.
His disguise wasn’t perfect. His true nature leaked through the tiny cracks in his carefully-camouflaged shell. His jacket emphasized his broad shoulders and thick neck. His knuckles were huge and swollen, the knuckles of a fighter. Callouses marked his lower palms and the side of his right middle finger, the sign of a serious shooter who worked with handguns with checkered grips and trigger guards. His eyes, black as pitch, swallowed in the world, drinking it down into an abyss deep inside him.
Within that abyss, something swam.
Connor turned his eyes to the camera icon on the upper edge of his lenses and blinked hard, three times.
“What kind of problem are you here to solve?” Connor asked.
“The problem of the hitmen who made a run at you.”
“They’re my problem.”
“They killed one of ours. That makes them our problem.”
“Ann Floyd, alias Sharon, yes. She was part of the Riveria Coven.”
A cold wave ran through Connor’s spine. He hadn’t seen that coming. Was that why she tried to get close to him? Because she was under orders from the High Priestess? Or from Namanah herself? That would explain why the watchers had peeled off. They already had someone next to him. Or at least the Liberated had.
“I know what you’re thinking. She’s a civilian. She’s got nothing to do our world,” Steele continued.
“Everyone who worships the New Gods becomes a pawn or a player.”
“Believe what you will. Regardless, you need safety, while we demand justice. I think you’ll agree that our interests coincide.”
“Justice? Why do you care?”
“Come now, Mr. Connor, skepticism doesn’t become you. Namanah is the mother to all her worshipers. What mother would not grieve for the death of a daughter? What mother would not want justice? I have the honor of being the instrument in her hands.”
“You don’t have to drag me along for the ride.”
“I know you, Mr. Connor. You wore the blues once. You were part of the STS. The desire for justice burns in you, doesn’t it?”
“I leave that to the cops now.”
“The killers are connected. The police aren’t going to do anything.”
“Connected? To whom?”
Dark jewels glinted in Steele’s eyes.
“I assume you’re interested in our offer.”
“Assume that your assumptions makes an ass out of you, not me.”
Steele laughed. His hands went to his belly. Connor tensed, until Steele finally relaxed.
“We’ve identified one of the hitmen,” Steele said.
“The boy you knocked down. The one you carded before you elbowed his friend. When he fell, he lost his cap, and landed in a pool of street lighting. The bar’s surveillance camera got a good look at his face. We cleaned it up and ran him against our databases. And found a match.”
“Who?” Connor insisted.
“Eager, aren’t you? We haven’t agreed to anything yet.”
“How do I know you’re on the level?”
“I can tell you that he lives in Riveria. Uptown. Shadow Court turf.”
“Doesn’t mean anything.”
“Think about it. The Court of Shadows has a mad-on for you. The last time you operated in Riveria, you took down most of their infrastructure, and their allies in the Guzman Cartel.”
“It was a team effort.”
“Yes, but you also assaulted their Speaker. That they can’t forgive. Now that they’ve found you, they sent a team of killers after you.”
“There’s no proof it’s them. All of the New Gods have their reasons for coming after me.”
Including the Liberated.
“That’s true. On the other hand, Uptown falls into the Ninth District. It’s been thoroughly compromised by the Court of Shadows. Not only that, Uptown is part of the North Detective Division Area, which is also compromised by the Court. If we pass on this information to the Riverian police, they will simply hand it over to the Court. What do you think they’ll do about it?”
“Depends on who the hitter is.”
“Yes, well, I can see three possibilities. One, the hitmen are independents, in which case the Court, and therefore RPD, will do absolutely nothing about them so long as they do not invite trouble to the Court’s doorstep. Two, the hitmen are from a rival faction, and the Court will take care of business themselves. Three, the hitmen belong to the Court, and thus the Court will protect them.
“In two out of three possibilities, the police will do nothing. Those aren’t betting odds.”
“You could deal with the problem yourself, can’t you?”
“We could, but Uptown is Court territory. Operating there could be… difficult. Not impossible, of course, but there could be strategic repercussions. Especially in these tense times. We would like to avoid that. You, on the other hand, have no such concerns.”
“You want me to do your wet work for you.”
“I’m saying we have an opportunity for mutual benefit.”
“I’m only hearing liabilities so far.”
Steele grinned like a shark.
“Consider your position, Mr. Connor. Your enemies know where you live and work. They’ll make another run at you. Even if you take out the hitters, they’ll simply send another wave. And another, and another, and another, until at last they overwhelm you through sheer weight of numbers. You, a mortal, alone and with few resources, cannot hope to fight a god.
“We are prepared to help you. To protect you. Do this favor for us, and we will protect you from your enemies.”
“You want me to sell my soul to Namanah.”
“No, no, you don’t have to. You know, less than half of our coven actively worship her. The others are simply part of the coven for the community. For what we offer to our believers.”
“What kind of religion is that?”
“We simply wish for all people to be free. That’s why we call ourselves the Liberated. We are free to participate in our ceremonies and activities as deeply as we wish, or not at all. Our only law is to do as thou wilt.”
“I don’t buy it. There’s always a price for everything. Especially if it comes from the New Gods.”
“You don’t have to join us, as I said. But your skills are extremely valuable indeed. In addition to protection, we are prepared to compensate you well.”
“You can’t pay me enough to be your pawn.”
Steele spread his arms.
“Look around you. A rundown ‘efficiency’ apartment in a shrinking city, whose only purpose is to house people who work in Riveria and entertain them when they come home. Work as a bouncer in a shady part of town. You could be so much more than this. Let us help you. Everyone who works for us can live like a prince, like a king.”
“And all you want is my immortal soul.”
“Dramatic, aren’t you? It’s true that we would like to work with you. That we may, from time to time, encounter situations that require the services of someone as… specialized as yourself. But that’s all we ask. Work that makes full use of your gifts, your training and your experience. The work of a warrior.”
“I don’t need that kind of work.”
“We could postpone discussion of this arrangement if you want. Or we could make this a one-off deal. Regardless, you know that you need our help.”
“I’m doing just fine.”
“But for how long? I was surprised to learn that you didn’t shoot back at the hitmen. That tells me that you’re unarmed. The only reason a man like you would be unarmed is if you were disarmed. That you can’t carry, not that you don’t want to. After all, there’s no valid concealed carry permit in your name.
“I’m sure a man as resourceful as yourself has other ways of acquiring weapons. But in the end, you’re alone. After one night, I tracked you here. The next time you return home, you may find someone else waiting for you. Someone who doesn’t have your interests at heart.”
“I could always disappear. Leave the country. Never look back. That way, you’ll win too, wouldn’t you?”
The words were bitter venom in his mouth. He hated the thought of losing, especially to the New Gods. But what other option did he have?
“There’s nowhere on Earth you can hide for long, Mr. Connor. Even you have limits to your resources and capabilities. We will find you again. And if we can find you, so can your enemies.
“Besides, I know you. I know what you are. You’re the kind of man who can’t let this go, can you?”
It took every ounce of effort he could muster to keep his face straight.
“You don’t know nothing about me.”
“You have enemies at your back. Enemies who killed an innocent woman. You’re not the kind of man who will walk away from this.”
Steele was right. But not entirely right. Connor had no idea who the hitmen were, or why they wanted him dead, or even who sent them. He needed answers. And the fastest way to obtain them was through Steele.
And it might just be the only way Sharon would ever see justice.
“Tell me about the hitmen,” Connor said.
“We have a deal?”
Before he was a bouncer, he was an elite operator. Check out Will Connor’s story in BABYLON BLUES!