At the sound of the half-snarl, half-primal-scream outburst behind her, Peregrine’s grip on her twin batons tightened and she spun her upper torso sharply toward the noise. The two remaining thugs of the three she had pounced upon less than two minutes ago had been of little consequence—she had possessed no fear that they could take her down. But now she was exposing her back to them, and that changed everything. Not to mention the new calculus of an added opponent who sounded like he was hyped up on skeez or something.
Except that it wasn’t an enemy entering the fray, she realized suddenly.
Not that he was, strictly speaking, a friend either—but in any case, she was 90-percent certain she wasn’t his target.
Not that I’m planning to loosen the grip on my weapons, though, Peregrine considered in that split-second.
As she had guessed, she wasn’t Feral’s prey—his angle was all wrong for that. But it was perfect to lunge past her, toward the men she had been fighting. She turned back to finish dealing with them—realizing as she did that she was more concerned about potential damage to the expensive high-tech glider pack on her back from them than to actual bodily damage—but Feral was already tearing into them with his clawed gloves. No sooner had he laid open the abdomen of one man than he was slashing the throat of the second one. He didn’t stop there, though, raking his claws simultaneously up and down each man’s torso several times to turn their chests into shredded meat before their bodies fell limply and wetly to the ground.
It was over so fast that the men had been incapacitated before the final few drops of blood and bits of gore that had flown straight up into the air managed to hit the ground.
Peregrine kept her limbs taut for combat, her grip sure on her batons and her eyes on the vigilante in his primal rage. Just in case he forgot in his bloodlust who she was, or simply decided he didn’t care.
The glint of streetlights off the small steel mace-head on the end of her right-hand baton caught Feral’s eye. Peregrine noticed and flipped the weapon around nimbly to display the other end—a sharp steel rake in the shape of a hawk’s talon—just to ensure her status as a predator herself was clear. His head rose slowly, eyes meeting hers through his fur mask. Madness peering into icy coolness.
Or was it madness at all? Or calculation instead?
She could hear his panting. She could hear the thump of her own heart. Truth be told, there was precious little else to hear. One man unconscious from before Feral arrived. Another dead almost immediately after his arrival. The third with his guts spilling out, making muted, barely audible wheezing and sputtering noises, his windpipe apparently damaged at the tail end of Feral’s unnecessary slashing frenzy.
Peregrine swallowed slowly but firmly to push down her bile, her eyes never leaving Feral’s.
“I didn’t need any help,” Peregrine said stonily. “In fact, you distracted me. And that,” she added disgustedly, easing her stance and sweeping one baton slowly in the direction of the dead man and the dying one, “was totally over-the-top uncalled-for freakin’ gratuitous.”
Feral smiled. There was, Peregrine thought, something clearly mad in that grin.
But calculated, too.
“If Query should ask about this incident,” Feral said, “you just tell him your life was in danger and I did this to save you and there just wasn’t time for finesse.”
“Except that’s not what happened,” Peregrine pointed out.
“Sure it is, Peregrine. Just keep telling yourself it is. Make yourself believe. And tell others if you need to. Otherwise, I might mistake you for a black hat one night and slash open your throat before I realize my mistake.”
Peregrine’s eyes narrowed to slits, and she shifted calmly into a combat stance once again
Feral simply smiled more broadly, and walked back past Peregrine, giving her a wide birth.
Never taking his eyes off her until he was well out of reach of her and readily within reach of the shadows.
* * *
Query’s digital phone trilled out a digital rendition of composer Louis-Claude Daquin’s “Le Coucou,” and he answered it immediately via the wireless interface in his mask. Every transhuman who had ever possessed his number had his or her own uniquely assigned musical ringtone, and each was indelibly burned into Query’s memory—even the ringtones for the former heroes and vigilantes now among the fallen, whether because of death, crippling injuries or psychological scars.
Or, perhaps, especially those of the fallen were lodged in his head, he considered.
“Peregrine,” Query said. “What’s up?”
“I’m just letting you know that if you happen to correlate Feral’s movements tonight with the murder of a couple low-lifes, I can say with complete first-hand assurance that he was way out of line and out of control,” she answered.
“No innocents dead, though, at least?”
“None,” she said, “…yet. Not that I think he’ll go that far, but it seems to be take less guilt on people’s parts these days to get the death penalty from him.”
“I appreciate the heads-up, Peregrine.”
“Don’t mention it. And I mean that literally. Don’t mention it to anyone; don’t mention it again even to me. I’m not really proud of tattling on someone in costume working the streets. And I didn’t like it when you forced Feral to wear that tracker 24/7. However justified it might have been, it still didn’t sit right with me. Still doesn’t. And if you ever pull some shit like that with me, be prepared to fight me to the death over it.”
“Fair enough,” Query said. “So why are you calling me to let me know about him, then?”
“Because he threatened me to provide an excuse for his little killing spree in case you should ask about it,” she answered, “and that sits even less well with me than what you did.”
“Well, may the rest of your evening be calm, then,” Query said.
“Going home early and going to bed early to try to erase that bloody scene,” she sighed. “I’ve got a shoot for a United Airlines commercial tomorrow.”
“Break a leg, but not a wing,” Query told her.
“Oh, don’t try to charm me; stick to being a brooding, menacing, shadowy figure,” she chided him, and disconnected the call.
Behind his mask, Query frowned, then decided he might as well make a phone call of his own while he had some conversational momentum to ride.
Cheshire answered the call almost immediately and said, “Yes, Query?” He wondered if she gave everyone with her number their own ringtone—undoubtedly the list of people she’d trust with that was far shorter than his own list.
“Remember that favor you owe me? For not crashing that debaucherous villain cruise party several weeks ago?”
“You’re not going to try to call in that favor to have me deal with Feral, are you?” she groaned. “I don’t like rough stuff.”
“How the hell do you already know about…” Query sputtered. “Never mind that. No, there’s something else I need you to do. I have to pass on some knowledge to you and you need to keep it in strictest confidence. You can only spill it to certain people under certain circumstances that I will lay out for you, and I might need some light intel for a period of time, too, related to the same matter. Gotta tell you in person, though, not over the phone.”
“Deal. I love secrets,” she purred. “Love getting and keeping them. Only thing I like better is discovering them on my own.”
* * *
As her stepsister gazed wide-eyed at the apartment, Michele tried to remember any other time in her life when Isabella had been speechless.
“Michele,” Isabella said in something barely above a whisper. “This is bigger than three of our old apartment.”
“Yes. Yes, it is,” Michele agreed, nodding and puffing out her chest a little. “We have arrived.”
“I love you Michele,” Isabella said suddenly. She paused and blew a loud puff from pursed lips. “Understand that’s just the shock talking. You’ll probably never hear me say that again.”
“Sure, sure,” Michele said. “Go look at the bathroom. Two doors past the kitchen area.”
Isabella did, and after a couple minutes, poked her head out the door. “It’s amazing.”
“Yes, and there is another one just like it right across the hall. We don’t have to share.”
“I love you,” Isabella blurted, then pouted dramatically. “This lovefest will wear off; mark my words.”
“So I’ll revel in it while it lasts, for all its weirdness,” Michele said. “Does the lovefest extend to putting in equal time unpacking all our boxes?”
“Sure. We didn’t have to move any of the furniture in, so I can manage some boxes,” she answered, then looked past Michele’s shoulder, eyes widening in surprise. “Uh. Hi! Um…”
“Welcoming committee,” answered Zoe, just stepping through the open door with Vanessa right behind her. “I’m Zoe, otherwise known as Loc-Down. This is Vanessa, otherwise known as Allison Wonderland. We live on this floor, too.” She put her hand out for Michele to shake.
“We’re teammates. So far, it’s just us girls, but we’re pretty sure some men will eventually show up as new hires,” Vanessa added, holding out her own hand. She looked past Michele toward Isabella. “We’ve been told you have experience keeping secret identities secret, so Zoe and I decided that we’d pass on wearing masks when you’re around, Isabella.”
“I make no promises that I can keep such secrets if I am ever captured and faced with the possibility of torture,” Isabella called jauntily from the second bathroom right after entering it to confirm it was a twin to the one she had just explored.
“Totally understandable,” Zoe called out to her, striding over to Isabella to introduce herself. “I like the civilian already,” she said over her shoulder to Vanessa.
Michele turned toward Vanessa. “I’m Solstice, by the way, though I guess you already knew that, right? So, uh, is Zoe kind of a little bit of a trouble-maker? Rabble-rouser? I mean, I like to party, but is she a bit more…um…push-the-envelope type?”
“Yup,” Vanessa answered. “Isabella, too?”
“And I can already tell they’re going to hit it off,” Vanessa said.
“We’re both so screwed,” Michele moaned half-jokingly.
“At least I don’t have to live with Zoe; I feel sorry for you,” Vanessa said, chuckling. “But yeah, we’re both probably doomed.”
* * *
First a hit squad hired by Janus that tried to kill him and Carl, Query considered. Then a trio of men who’d followed Carl more recently in hopes of being led to Query, who said they’d been hired by Rancor—a transhuman who himself was now dead at the hands of Underworld for apparently offending her and Janus.
And now this.
Following a lead on a missing person case had led him to this small warehouse. He knew what the missing woman smelled like from the clothing her husband had given him—neither of the two people in here somewhere smelled like her.
For a brief moment, Query wondered if the missing wife was a piece of bait just like the fake kidnapping Janus had concocted to help track down Query’s office and send in assassins five months ago. But he’d checked out this client’s story and reviewed police records and other evidence too thoroughly. This case was legitimate, he was certain.
Which probably means I need to sweep Carl’s office soon—someone’s likely bugged him there to figure out what cases I’m working.
“I have a question, Query,” came a manically warbling voice from the other side of the building.
“Just you?” Query asked loudly. “Or does your friend have the same question?”
The pregnant silence made Query smile beneath his mask. The antagonist hadn’t expected Query to know there were two of them.
Now if only my sense of smell were just a little more honed so that I could get a fix on either or both of them by scent, because they’re far more sweaty than they are noisy; my ears are way better at pinpoint tracking than my nose is.
In fact, Query realized, they were far too quiet, suggesting that perhaps some kind of transhuman sound-dampening power was at work.
Time to end this now, before I get a bullet in my head.
“My question, Query,” the man continued, having apparently finally collected himself, his tone hinting at hysterical giddiness, “is whether you’re ready to meet your maker.”
The same voice, Query noted, but from a wholly different place. And yet he hadn’t heard the man himself move.
“You seriously need to work on your villainous repartee, because that was some weak shit,” Query mocked, and dropped a smoke bomb at his feet. Quickly obscured from view, he tossed out the other five in his possession in all directions around him and sprinted for the building’s electrical box. He’d already reviewed architectural blueprints and schematics of the warehouse before coming here, and knew where it was; in his brief time inside he’d already memorized the positions of most of the obstacles between him and that destination.
He miscalculated slightly and slammed his left knee into a crate a few yards away, stifling a series of swear words as he spun away and continued his run with a light limp. Query pulled open the door to the electrical box, realizing the haze in the warehouse from his smoke bombs was probably thinning fast, and slammed all the circuits to the “off” position.
As the interior of the building was plunged into darkness, the infrared sensors kicked on in the lenses of Query’s mask, and his hunt began.
One of his opponents came into view as a heat signature within seconds. Query watched the man’s head and torso twist and turn to try to figure out where anything was in the darkness, and he felt a bit of savage glee at the enemy’s predicament. Once he was within a few yards, and with a clean line between the two of them, Query tossed a tangler grenade toward the man and smiled when he heard the swearing begin; smiled even more at the sounds of the struggles against the polymer threads now entwining him.
Finding the second man took more time, as he was likely behind crates on the other side of the warehouse, and hadn’t spoken at all to give Query a clue as to his position. When the man stumbled—probably well aware of his ally’s dilemma given how loud the man was cursing, and likely eager to get out of the building as fast as possible in the darkness—he caused a couple wooden boxes to sway and creak, giving away his position.
Then it was just a matter of seconds, and another tangler grenade, and Query could meander back to the electrical box to restore the lighting.
And I still have one tangler in case there’s a friend outside waiting for them.
Query wrapped a long cord he found along the way around the first man’s neck, and cheerfully dragged him across the concrete floor to his companion’s side, the tangler-enmeshed man sputtering and gagging all the way.
Both men’s faces were adorned in gaudy clown makeup, and their costumes were black-and-white checked harlequin suits. Each also had several knives and two guns at his belt.
“You should have used those guns early on, shithead,” Query said, kicking the second man in the head once, just enough to rattle his skull—eager to spread the pain and humiliation around as equally as possible and soften both of them up for their imminent interrogation. “Also, I don’t find clowns aesthetically pleasing. So I’m really going to be motivated to fuck both of you up, and I highly recommend you get right with me and answer my questions if you don’t want to end up in the critical care wing of the hospital under armed guard for the next few weeks.”
After that speech, Query hardly had to even muss their makeup to get answers, and the process was over in six minutes.
Now, though, I have a whole lot more unanswered questions that these two can’t answer, Query fumed. Like, why the hell would Hush-a-Bye and GoodKnight over in Marksburgh want to hire anyone to take me out, and why two losers like this?
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