To The Mattresses
They hadn’t managed to grab Fernando. His burner phone was a decent consolation prize.
They’d escaped and evaded for an hour, winding through Riveria. In an underground parking lot, Connor stripped off his clothes, wiped himself down, changed into a new set. Kayla peeled away the license plate stickers and affixed a new set. The blood-spattered clothes disappeared into a dumpster close to a butcher shop. The expended breach pen went into a sewer.
They parked the SUV a block away from the motel, then wiped off the stray bloodstains and fogged the interior with privacy spray. The powerful disinfectant broke down genetic material, leaving nothing behind for the cops to find.
Back in his motel room, Connor treated himself to a long, hot shower, scrubbing off the last of the dried blood. Pink and pale red fluid sluiced down the drain like a river feeding a whirlpool. Now and then, he picked out a tiny bone chip or a string of organic matter stuck to his skin.
It was like being operational again.
At the sink, he sanitized his tomahawk and the scabbard with copious amounts of alcohol and bleach. By the time he was done, every trace of DNA and fingerprints had been completely destroyed. He stepped out to find Kayla sitting at his desk, the recovered burner phone plugged into his laptop.
“Any luck hacking the phone?” Connor asked.
Zen’s voice floated from the laptop speakers.
“Yes. Cracked the password in no time. Fernando barely used the phone at all. No photos, videos, emails, messages. Totally blank. However, he used it to call a single number many times over the past few weeks. And he didn’t scrub the call history.”
“Careless,” Kayla observed.
“Amateurs,” Connor snorted.
“The number doesn’t have a name tagged to it, but I’ll bet it’s the mysterious Mr. Tom,” Zen said.
“Who is he?”
“Stand by. Cracking his phone now.”
“How long will it take?” Connor asked.
“As long as it will take.”
“Have you boys eaten?” Kayla asked.
“No,” both men replied.
“Y’all should get some food.”
Connor’s belly rumbled. Now that the fight was over, his parasympathetic nervous system reasserted itself. His belly gnawed. His mouth felt dry as cotton.
And Kayla… So close to her, she smelled good. A clean scent of soap and shampoo, with a dose of honey. Suddenly he was aware of the heat radiating from her.
She was a sister in arms. Sister. In the STS, the introduction of female shooters had altered the team dynamics subtly. It had taken him a long time to overcome his biology. Kayla was easy on the eye, sure, but you do not ever touch anyone on your team. It would wreak havoc among everyone.
Besides, if he made a move on her, Yuri would never forgive him.
So he said, “You mind getting us something to eat?”
“What do you want?” she asked.
“There’s a convenience store a couple of blocks north. Get me something from the grill. Hot dogs, wraps, whatever they have available. Actually, make that, two somethings.”
“That’s not healthy.”
“Fuel up on salad and yoghurt if you want. Me, I need my proteins and carbs.”
She sniffed. Loudly.
“Be back later.”
Connor held his tongue until she left the room. Then he turned to the Zen’s face on the screen.
“Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
“You’re living with one, aren’t you?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny that.”
“C’mon, man, I was guarding her alongside you too.”
That gig lasted for three months. Three months of relative peace, ending with their relocation to a small town to the east. As soon as they were settled down, Connor left.
He had told himself that they were safe. That three strangers in town would attract a lot of attention. Zen and Marcie could pose as siblings, cousins, maybe even husband and wife. Him, though? He was pale as white bread, a stranger in the town, not part of any larger family unit. Better if he made his own way, keep an eye on things in the Riveria region.
Or so he thought.
He wondered if all this would have happened if he’d stayed with Zen and Marcie instead. Or if the New Gods would find another way to strike at their little corner of the world. But it was too late for what-if games. All he could do was follow this thing through to the bitter end.
As Zen worked, Connor tended to his gear. He cleaned his plate carrier and backpack, topped off his mags, swapped the fuel cartridge of his railgun, checked the loot from the safe house.
There wasn’t much else. Two wallets. Two smartglasses. The devices had been switched off, stowed in RFID-blocking bags. The wallets held money and cards and ID, and little else. They could take their time with the pocket litter later. For now, the priority was locating Tom.
A firm hand rapped on the door. Twice. Paused. Twice more.
Connor got up, lifted the peephole cover and glanced out.
Kayla. She held two large bags in her left hand, keeping her right free.
He let her in. The mouthwatering smell of hot food filled his nose. She handed him a bag and set the other down by the desk. Inside his bag, he found a pair of wrapped burritos. He hastily ripped one open, inhaled the aroma of grease, fried eggs, melted cheese and hash browns, and wolfed it down.
At the table, Kayla set a large bowl of turkey salad next to the computer, opened a container of yoghurt, and delicately took a sip.
And raised an eyebrow.
Connor mumbled something, his cheeks stuffed with food. He wasn’t sure what it was. Kayla shook her head anyway.
He forced down his last mouthful of burrito.
She looked away, giggling to herself.
“Nothing,” she sang.
He sighed. Women.
He unwrapped the other burrito and chowed down. Beef and beans, with a smattering of onions and celery, drenched in thick barbecue sauce. Good old fashioned comfort food.
“Jackpot,” Zen announced.
“Hit me,” Connor said.
“The number we recovered from Fernando’s phone is a burner. But the device associated with it is not a burner. It’s a pair of smartglasses. My guess is, this person used a burner app to generate a number to communicate solely with Fernando.”
“You accessed the smartglasses?” Kayla asked.
“Of course,” Zen said smugly. “I own it too.”
“Where is the wearer? Who is he?” Connor demanded.
“Geolocation places him at the Prism nightclub.”
“That’s Pantheon turf.”
The most exclusive Pantheon club in the city, Prism catered only to believers and neutrals. Worshipers of other gods were explicitly forbidden from entry. Elect bouncers stood guard at the entrances, blessed with the power to instantly see the religious affiliation of anyone they saw.
“Fernando was a Pantheon hitter?” Zen asked.
“One of the minor Pantheon powers takes the form of a worm. It’s possible,” Connor mused.
“We only have circumstantial evidence at this point,” Kayla said. “We need a solid ID on the user.”
“I’m rifling through his emails. He’s got three separate email accounts. One personal, one business, and one for secure mail. His business profile is… Thomas Taylor. Owner and General Manager of Prism.”
Kayla whistled. “You sure this isn’t some random guy using Taylor’s smartglasses?”
“Stand by. Gonna stream the take from his cameras.”
A new window popped up. The glasses stared straight ahead at an elegant wooden door. The lower edges of the lens hinted at a table carved from black wood. The microphone picked up the sound of unseen hands tapping away at an unseen device.
“Adding augmented reality overlay,” Zen said.
Multiple spreadsheets filled the display. One column listed a long list of expenses: salaries, electricity, water, maintenance, food, alcohol. Another column listed figures in the tens of thousands, all of them prefaced by a dollar sign. Other columns listed names, numbers, items, sales reports. A cursor jumped from one spreadsheet to another, occasionally copying and pasting data.
“Looks like the manager to me,” Kayla said.
“Why is he after me? I haven’t anything to cross the Pantheon lately, never mind Tom Taylor,” Connor said.
“They have long memories,” Zen offered. “Perhaps now they think it’s safe to retaliate against us.”
“If so, why did they send amateurs?” Kayla asked.
That was the biggest question. You never sent disposable muscle to take out heavy hitters. Unless…
“How high is Tom Taylor in the Pantheon hierarchy?” Connor asked.
“We need to check it out. Why?” Zen asked.
“We can see he’s a businessman. But the Pantheon values strength above all. I’m thinking he didn’t send heavy hitters because he isn’t senior enough to deploy them, and the higher-ups don’t think this job is worth risking their soldiers for. He has to take a shot using the assets he can recruit.”
“Which means this isn’t a sanctioned hit,” Kayla said.
“On the other hand, if he takes me out using his assets and manpower, he proves that he can play with the big boys,” Connor said.
“You’re saying he’s trying to climb the church ladder over your body?” Zen asked.
“It’s not sanctioned, it’s not personal, what else can it be? None of the New Gods will want to cross us without good reason.”
“But the Pantheon is among the most decentralized of the New Gods,” Kayla mused. “They can’t exercise command and control over every single member.”
“Exactly. If Taylor worships the worm as well, and if he kills an STS operator, it will elevate the worm god’s status within the Pantheon.”
“This is bullshit. But it’s the only explanation I can think of that makes sense.”
“If he can’t call in the big guns, how is he able to track us?” Kayla asked.
“I’ve been pondering that myself. There isn’t a BOLO on the two of you. It’s the first thing I checked when the job kicked off. I’m thinking someone flagged the two of you as persons of interest. If you show up on the cameras, the system notifies that person—and only that person. I need to dig deeper to find out what’s going on.”
“You’ve got a lot on your plate, don’t you,” Kayla said.
“Part of the job. Wouldn’t mind having more helping hands.”
“Maybe it’s time to start up that cybersecurity company you’ve been talking about,” Connor said.
Kayla arched an eyebrow. “He did?”
“Boomer and I got to talking about it last year. Now that we’re out of a job, we need to find a new way to make ends meet. I’ve been thinking about setting up a security company, one that combines cyber and physical security. It has to wait until after we’re secure, but—”
Taylor’s smartglasses buzzed.
A phone icon appeared on the window. The caller ID read ‘Det. Joe Nelson’.
“Zen,” Connor began.
“On it,” he said.
Connor hit the record button. Taylor picked up the call.
“Yes,” Taylor said.
“Mr. Taylor, there’s been a triple murder at one of the addresses you asked me to monitor. Apartment 02-02, 36 Burroughs Street. Dave Fernando’s home,” Nelson said.
Taylor went quiet for a moment.
“Tell me about the deceased.”
“One of them is Chris Cowan. Shot in the chest by a tiny bullet that exploded out the back of his chest, then decapitated. The other is Earl Floyd, also shot in the chest. The gunshot wounds are characteristic of railgun rounds. The last… We found the remains of a Husk, chopped up into many pieces by an edged weapon.”
“We… well, there’s nothing human left. We’re going to run DNA tests.”
“Did the Husk look like a giant worm with arms?”
“I… I guess so.”
Taylor growled under his breath.
“Who killed them?”
“Witnesses report two assailants dressed in ski masks, jackets and tactical gear. One male, the other female. Both had long guns and pistols.”
“Connor and Fox. Do you know where they went?”
“We’re working on it. The female shot out the cameras as they made their assault. The streetlight cameras were… wiped.”
“What do you mean, ‘wiped’?”
“Just that. The footage is gone. Every street camera for five blocks around was disabled when the suspects left the building. A third suspect, a hacker, must have set them to maintenance mode, then deleted the archives.”
“How is that possible? Someone hacked into the surveillance network?”
“It must be, sir.”
“Shit… Let me know if Connor and Wood resurface. No, wait. I need to harden up. I’ll reach out to you when I’m secure.”
“Understood. But, ah, there’s one more thing you should know.”
“What is it?”
“We found no wallets, phones or devices on the bodies. And Fernando’s bedroom was searched. The suspects found a hidden drawer in the nightstand.”
Taylor barked a blasphemous profanity out loud.
“I have to go. I’ll send a man to contact you later.”
Taylor clicked off. Swore again. Then composed a text message.
Emergency. Get up here now.
“I’ve found Detective Nelson on the surveillance system,” Tan said. “He put in a request three weeks ago to flag you two as persons of interest. It’s not on the official records, but the logs show the system sending him real-time notifications of your movements.”
“Damn,” Connor muttered. “Is Nelson part of the Pantheon too?”
“Gonna have to dig it up. Along with Taylor’s PSB dossier.”
“Prioritize keeping us off the net,” Kayla said. “Last thing we need is tangling with RPD too.”
“On it,” Zen said.
A beefy man in a dark suit entered the office.
“You called, sir?”
“Connor and Fox killed Fernando and his crew. I’m next on the hit list. Take me home and harden the fuck up,” Taylor ordered.
The bodyguard’s face turned grim.
“Get the boys to prepare the safe room, move critical assets back home, and stand up to high alert. Until Connor and Fox are eliminated, I’m barricading myself at home. We’re going to the mattresses.”
The bodyguard escorted Taylor out the room. Three more men waited in a hallway outside. The protectors took up formation around their charge. Together, they headed to an emergency stairwell.
“Do we know where Taylor lives?” Connor asked.
“Not yet. I asked my buddy in the PSB for his dossier, but by the time he gets back to us, it might be too late to stage an in-extremis assault,” Zen said.
“It’s too late to stage an in-transit assault, that’s for damn sure,” Kayla said.
“We’ll keep tracking him through his glasses and find a window of opportunity,” Connor said.
“If we wait until he gets home, that window is going to close. There’re five threats, Taylor included, and they might have a Pantheon QRF on standby. We set up at his house, I can take him with one shot,” Kayla said.
“They know who you are and what you can do. If he has a second security team at home, they’ll be expecting a sniper,” Zen argued. “There’s too much we don’t know about the situation. It’s too risky.”
“We need to keep developing the situation,” Connor said. “We need to find out more before we act. Besides… we have a trump card.”
“What trump card?”