The Gathering Storm, Part 35

Posted: 24th November 2013 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in The Gathering Storm series
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The need to look back over his shoulder constantly was like a burning itch beneath a cast—it tugged at Carl’s will relentlessly. He almost shook with the effort of continuing to look ahead and only casually turn his head to the side from time to time, as if absent-mindedly taking in his surroundings. To look sideward every so often with only his eyes toward storefront windows so he could see reflections from activity across the street or behind him.

Once, he stopped to slowly re-tie his Steve Madden leather brogue shoes. A few people walked by him. He tried to ascertain whether anyone behind him had stopped or slowed to keep pace with him, but didn’t notice anything.

Still, he fretted. And, yet again, he fought the urge to look over his shoulder as he stood and began walking again, his hand sweating as it gripped the handle of his briefcase.

I expect to be followed at times, being Query’s associate, he reminded himself, only to mentally add: But it’s a whole other kind of thing when you know for certain someone is trying to track your steps.

It was the only assumption he could make. The man who had contacted him nearly an hour earlier had sounded like Query, but the number on Carl’s phone wasn’t Query’s normal one. The dark-garbed hero had contacted him a few times before from unfamiliar phones, so it wasn’t unprecedented. And this call had included an explanation from “Query” that he was unable to get a clear signal and had to resort to a landline in someone’s office at a building he was investigating. He had asked Carl to rendezvous with him at Query’s office to discuss some disturbing findings there.

But the only thing that was right about this Query was the voice.

He hadn’t responded in any predictable or expected way to Carl’s comments or to an in-joke he tossed out as a test. The fact that this Query knew they met regularly in an office didn’t convince Carl as to his authenticity. Janus’ assassination squad had tracked him to Query’s previous office back in March, and no doubt Janus and his associates expected Query to set up in an office again and conduct business as usual.

They were right. He had set up in new digs and he and Carl followed much the same protocol, just in a different building in a new neighborhood.

Except that it’s not all the same as before. I’m more paranoid now, and Query has given me some tips and taught me a few tricks about being followed and losing tails.

Carl had called Query immediately after the unexpected summons to the office, using a landline in a hotel room he rented merely to use their telephone system, lest any pursuers were monitoring his smart phone somehow.

Sure enough, Query confirmed they weren’t meeting and that he hadn’t called Carl today.

Carl was relieved to find his instincts confirmed, but then the clumsiness of the whole affair began to bother him, given Janus’ usual careful attention to detail. Such bumbling made him suspicious. But he mustered on, walking toward a dummy office Query kept on the edge of downtown New Judah. He prepared to walk any potential pursuers into a trap as a reminder to them and anyone who might come later.

Don’t underestimate even Query’s portly associate. You fooled me once before, but there won’t be a second time.

I hope.

* * *

Janus walked into Underworld’s office. It was a gesture not lost on her, as he summoned people; he didn’t visit. She had expected this, though.

He set down a thin sheaf of papers on her desk, and she looked at the police report in front of her, and then up into his eyes peering through the holes of a wooden mask that was half human face on one side, half puma face on the other. She reached out, picked up the report and flipped through it. The narrative she read wasn’t entirely unexpected. Three lightly armed intruders found in an office near downtown, thoroughly caught up in sticky threads from a dozen tangler grenades they had set off in their intrusion. Men who had told the police they were hired to find Query.

She set the report down, and looked back into the eyes of Janus, who had yet to speak a word. He even seemed to be breathing more quietly than normal.

Is he trying to manage his anger with me? Underworld wondered. That’s so adorable. Although it’s most likely so he won’t cause his lie-detector powers to go wonky on him.

“Yes?” she asked him. “Is there a problem?”

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Janus responded. “Or are you going to tell me it wasn’t you?”

“Tell you that I didn’t have Carl Beacham followed even though you told me we weren’t going to do that again any time soon?”

“How refreshing that I won’t have to dance with you verbally. Is there a reason you rejected a direct order? You are my associate, but you are not quite my equal.”

“I believe you said you were against the idea of following Query’s associate; you didn’t forbid me from—”

The blow was quick and unexpected, the back of Janus’ hand striking her face and whipping her head to the side. Underworld was stunned and confused—it wasn’t totally unanticipated, but she had not expected an attack so quickly. She tasted blood, and her stomach boiled in anger as much as shock.

“You know what I meant!” Janus hissed savagely. “Are you a fool? Do you think you are above my violence? My anger? My retribution? Do you think your family is above—”

Underworld placed her hands flat against her large maple desk and seized it with her mind. The same contact telekinesis that allowed her to cling to walls or ceilings with no effort—one of her several powers—gave her a very effective emulation of super-strength, and she lifted her desk into the air, papers, pens, telephone and other paraphernalia tumbling to the floor. She couldn’t hold this effect for long, but crushing Janus wouldn’t take long. Only thoughts of Crazy Jane held Underworld back.

“My family is most certainly beyond your touch!” Underworld growled. “That was the promise you made when I agreed to help you lead this criminal operation. I may yet squash you for slapping me, you sonofabitch, but I may not. I will certainly kill you if you even think again, ever of touching my family. If you even mention the possibility again. Now,” she added, the pale piece of furniture still looming overhead to cast a dark shadow around him, “sit the fuck down in that chair.”

Calmly, Janus did so, and Underworld set the desk down with a heavy thump. Several people outside the office gawked through the windows and then hurriedly scuttled away.

“Are you calm now?” Janus asked.

“Are you?” Underworld countered.


“Good. If you ever hit me again, it will either be the last thing you ever do, or it will be the last thing I do when you kill me defending yourself. Are we clear?”

“I won’t make any promises like that.”

Underworld placed her hands flat against the top of the desk again, not re-exerting her power yet but looking him straight in the eye with a hint of savagery in her gaze. “I didn’t ask for a promise. I want your confirmation that you understand what the consequences will be if you do it again.”

She could tell he was smiling from the slight squinting at the outer corners of his eyes as he said, “I understand everything. Except why you had Mr. Beacham followed.”

“Because we had to know if he was still on guard or if it’s possible for Query to become complacent. We had to know if his pet lawyer was still a weak link we could exploit. And so I sent people to follow him,” Underworld said. “And I was intentionally clumsy about it.”

Janus leaned forward, clearly interested now. “Really?”

“Thanks to go-betweens, third-parties and outright lies, there are at least six layers of protection and subterfuge between us and the men who were following Carl Beacham,” Underworld noted. “As far as they know, they were hired by Rancor, who is currently out of the country enjoying a sunny beach and who will be dead shortly after he gets back to Newark. Even the Mimic who faked Query’s voice on a call to Beacham doesn’t know I hired him and didn’t know anything about the operation. He just knew he had a script to follow.”

“Still risky.”

“Not at all. And the fact we didn’t find Query’s new hidey-hole and the fact he’s on guard again means nothing,” Underworld said. “If anything, it will distract him, because now he’s probably going to think there are others out there looking at him as if he might be vulnerable. Not just you. Because why would you be so obvious if you wanted to sneak up on him? In fact, you would do well to have me set up a couple more diversionary tactics to make him think he has even more wolves sniffing at his trail.”

“I’m almost sorry I hit you now,” Query said. “Almost. Now, tell me more about your ideas to keep Query distracted.”

Underworld removed her hands from her desk and sat down, swallowing the last of the blood in her mouth. It tasted good to her in this moment, if only because it reminded her that Janus was as much her enemy as her business partner.

“Certainly,” she agreed, and told him, while her mind simultaneously plotted a dozen ways to kill the man.

And not a single one of them could she figure out how to pull off without Crazy Jane seeing her hand behind the act.

* * *

“She loooooves the new line!” Julian enthused, grabbing Leon by one hand and twirling him, nearly knocking the more burly man over with the surprise of it all. Julian’s mouth at his own, pressing hard, was a surprise as well, but a welcome one. Intimacy had been hard to come by for the two men lately.

“Ewwww!” groaned Lois as she walked in on them. “Parents kissing! Gross!”

“You will learn one day to appreciate romance,” Julian said to their daughter as he gave Leon a quick hug, a brief peck at the corner of his lips that hinted at the promise of continuing where they had left off later, and then sat down on a nearby chair with a flourish.

“Ewwww again,” Lois said, wrinkling her nose. “I’d rather climb trees or build fairy houses than kiss anyone in my class.”

“Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” Julian said, and then kissed her forehead and turned to face Leon. “As I was saying, Cheshire loves the new line. Six more new outfits, and I’ll be doing three copies of each. I knew she’d go for having so many different costumes. It’s not like she’s trying to have one easily identifiable look or have a big brand image. And she’s more girly and fashion-conscious than she’d admit, just like our girl,” he added, giving a sidelong glance and smirk in the direction of their 8-year-old. She pretended to ignore him.

“Well, she has a ton of money to spend,” Leon reminded him. “Not everyone does.”

“But she’s spending it on us,” Julian said. “And letting us be public about the fact she’s a client. Your dreams of us shedding most of the villains on our client list will soon be realized, Leon.”

“How about we shed all of them?” Leon suggested.

“I love you, but you’ve got to lighten up, especially in the face of success,” Julian kidded him. “Besides, some of our villainous clients are far too interesting and colorful for me to want to stop outfitting them. But I promise to lose all the psychotic, sadistic, murderous ones.”

“Your moral compass never does quite find true north, does it, babyface?” Leon countered. “Good thing I love you too much to find a nice, Jewish boy to replace you.”

* * *

It had been early May, just a little over two months past, when he’d had his secretary of state and secretary of defense together in the Oval Office to discuss the revelation that Genesis One even existed. Now he had them here for the same topic of discussion, and this time with General Alexander there in person, instead of them simply talking about him.

President Obama rubbed his temples slowly before looking at each of the three people in turn.

“Hillary, Bob…Keith…” he said, deliberately forgoing his usual habit of saying ‘General Alexander.’ This man needs to be yanked back just a bit, so there’s no military courtesy today—no title, the president vowed. “Let’s all talk about Genesis One, and let’s hope we don’t talk about it very often going forward. And let’s make damn sure not a one of you talks about it to anyone else.”

He regarded each of them until every one had nodded his or her assent before he continued.

“I’m greenlighting the Genesis One project,” he said simply. “It can continue its work. In fact, knowing some of the things I know now—and there are some things I can’t share with you, Bob and Hillary—I’m going to go back on some of my earlier reservations. I’m going to make some requests for expansion of the facility’s research.”

All three seemed taken aback, but none more so than General Alexander, who said, “Expansion, Mr. President?”

“Yes, Keith,” he answered. “I think that I will be providing you with a ‘wish list’ of potential transhuman conversions—some powers I’d like to see explored—that I will want to move forward. Will that be a problem?”

“No, sir,” the general answered, clearly relieved that his commander-in-chief wasn’t pulling the plug on the entire project.

It was a sentiment the president could read on the man’s face all too clearly—perhaps the only time he’d ever surprise the general and catch him off-guard.

I’m too practical not to see the value of Genesis One, especially if I get a second term, the president thought. Also, if I have some personal pet projects for Bob and Hillary to be aware of, perhaps I can help further keep their eyes off what’s really going on in terms of core research at the facility.

He paused mentally, and the trio before him were clearly aware he was mulling something over, though none dared probe in this delicate and tension-filled moment.

The general and I are going to need to talk in private about knowledge of this project going forward, the president resolved. If I’m the first president to know about Genesis One, maybe I need to be the last, too. And perhaps we need to secure a role for me to keep things on track well into the future.

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