Kay’s voice echoed throughout the building and alarms began sounding.
“Shit, Svenka, get the goddamn door open!” Ren was frantic, pushing on the locked door.
“Stand back Ren. There’s no reason for subtlety at this point.” I raised my foot to kick the door in but she forestalled me.
“The security on this door hasn’t been compromised yet and I’d like to keep it that way.” At the same time Svenka chimed in over the mindlink.
“Good news people. Looks like we have more time than we thought; there’s a disturbance out front that’s occupying the security forces. Hang tight, the bad news is it’s going to take a little more time for me to get that door open now that the alarms have been activated.”
We could hear footsteps coming from down the hall and both had the same reaction but moved in opposite directions, speaking over the link at the same time, “This way, follow me!”
“Shit Ren, I’m sorry, we’ll meet back here in a couple minutes when Svenka has the door open.”
“OK Hex. Watch your ASS you hear?”
“Yeah Ren. You too.” I rounded a corner at speed and nearly crashed straight into a group of security guards, leaping over their heads at the last moment.
“Hey you, stop!” One of them yelled. I desperately lashed out with Glamor and wiped the memory of my passage roughly from their minds.
I twisted the knob off the first door I could find that didn’t have a security panel and pushed it open, ducking inside before they could recover. The mop bucket and the slop sink implied a janitor’s closet and after a few minutes of not hearing footsteps I poked my head out. The building was rocked by an aftershock as I made my stealthily way back towards the room where The Original was kept.
The last of the guards was checking the door Ren and I had just left and I heard him talking into some sort of comm link, “No signs of entrance here, I’m moving on to sector four. Roger that.” He pulled a sub machine gun back to a more ready position on his chest and made his way down the hall in the other direction.
“Svenka. How about that door?” I reached out through the mindlink, “This place is clear now, maybe I can get him out on my own or at least get a start.” There was no response from her but the door made a subtle click and swung silently open.
“Ren, where are you? Svenka has the door open.” I didn’t hear anything back from her either, so with some trepidation I stepped inside.
Lights automatically turned on as I entered and what they illuminated was horrifying in spite of all I’d seen over the last few months. Behind a thick plate of glass was a partially dissected human hanging from gleaming steel hooks. His chest was split and his organs hung from their own hooks, completely spread out to be on gruesome display connected by stretched veins and distended tissue.
Even the arms and legs had been sliced open revealing the layers of muscle down to the bone beneath. One leg had been partially severed to show a cross section of the femur bone, the back hamstring was the only portion still holding it together. Even as I stared at the gruesome sight I was felt my breath catch in my throat; in spite of the terrible damage that had been done to the body the heart still pulsed with a sluggish but steady beat.
As I approached the glass the hair on the back of my neck stood up. The tortured figure’s one good remaining eye turned to fix me with a baleful glare of pure hatred.
“Isn’t he beautiful?” I jumped at the sound and looked frantically around the room for the source. “He is the source of all my genius and you are its culmination.” Although the sound seemed to come from the room I knew it was just in my head; apart from the horrific body on the wall I was the only person here.
“Burnham? Why are you doing this? You know they’re here for your head right?” I was speaking aloud and trying to reach out with the mindlink at the same time, “Ren! Help! I was right, Tsung is here and he’s in pieces. Still alive but in pieces. Burnham is here somewhere too. Svenka, why did you open the door?”
“Ahhh poor … Hex I understand you’re going by now? You were never anything but a tool; I will admit you were a highly effective and efficient tool even if you were unaware of your status as such. You see you’ve managed to bring them all here at once so that I may devour them myself.”
“Where are you? Don’t hide in the shadows like a coward, face me you bastard!” There was still no response from Ren or Svenka and I was getting worried.
“Hiding in the shadows is how I’ve managed to stay alive all these years. You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to show myself now do you? Besides Hex I know better than to come within the reach of your surprisingly large arsenal of destructive powers. I’ve been watching you every step of the way and I must say I’m impressed with the way you’ve eliminated my underlings. Originally I had thought you would be nothing but a flash in the pan so to speak but now I think I’ll keep you around for another purpose entirely.”
“Hex. Don’t panic. You’re right where you should be, the fact that you also happen to be where Burnham wants you is merely coincidence.” Mec’s dry voice was a whisper in the furthest corner of my mind. “You won’t be able to contact your friends for a bit, because he has this room sealed against most communication but in a minute you’ll see just how advantageous that fact is.”
I took a deep breath, running through some of the exercises Donovalo had taught me to calm myself and was amazed with how much they allowed me to focus myself. Walking to the glass I put my hand on it. Immediately a voice thundered into my mind, the force driving me to my knees.
“Why have you come here, to flaunt your freedom? I’ve heard you trying to make contact with her? Release me you bastard, I will slake my thirst with the contents of your veins.” The single eye burned malevolence with an intensity that was intimidating despite the fact that he was disemboweled and behind glass.
“I came here with her to save you. Ren wants to bring you out of this place and I plan to settle a personal matter between myself and that piece of shit Burnham.” My hand was still on the glass and I could feel a presence at the back of my mind, almost like a fly buzzing against a screen door.
The rage in his eye was replaced by a mixture of fear and hope, “You fool, you have brought her here into his stronghold?”
“Sorry but I don’t exactly remember anyone ever telling Ren what to do and getting away with it, much less bringing her anywhere. She was coming so I backed her up, I thought you knew her but I guess maybe not. Now tell me what I can do to get you free or I’m leaving you here.” The building shook again, “I don’t think we have a lot of time.” His attitude was pissing me off and the knowledge that I let some psychotic science experiment barely clinging to life piss me off aggravated the situation.
“I’m afraid I only have moments of lucidity, but I can tell you this much. I’m a lost cause. Get Ren and get out before he gets you and does something worse than he did to me.” The glass under my fingertips seemed to burn with the heat of a furnace and I jerked my hand away.
“-n’t ignore me Hex.” Burnham’s voice grated at my bones the instant I broke contact with the glass wall. “None of your friends are going to make it out of here alive. Little Svenka has failed to compromise my security, sweet Renyovalia has fallen victim to my guards and the fools outside are merely lambs to the slaughter.”
“Fuck off you spineless piece of shit. I’m coming for you and no force on Earth can stop me. You and I have unfinished business.” I was losing control of my anger, threads of Power were leaking and I couldn’t stop them. Burnham laughed in delight.
“Oh that spirit of yours is what made me change my mind about your usefulness Hex. The way you ignore self-preservation is dangerous but I’ve seen you press it to great advantage over and over. Unfortunately for you it won’t help you this time, you’re sealed in this room along with that raving delusional lab rat and I’m the only one who can grant your freedom.”
An image of destruction was forced into my mind, the entire front of the building was destroyed and a tangle of mechanical limbs was extending from it like some massive spider was clawing its way from the wreckage. Several of the arms had pinned struggling bodies to pieces of rubble; there was an aura of Power emanating from it that made my blood quiver.
The image flickered and changed, Ren was surrounded by close to a dozen opponents, some of them Hunters from the looks of things. Her movements were a blur as she was dodging and blocking strike after strike. A multitude of brutal wounds covered her body. Blood dripped from her fangs, her mouth distended in an animal snarl. At some point it was obvious that she’d had the upper hand as there were several motionless corpses littering the floor but now she was losing ground, and fast.
Now I saw Svenka, she was running down a hallway trying to escape from a group of heavily armored soldiers. She stopped to duck into a doorway and pulled a needle from her silver cigarette case. I winced when she jammed it into her neck with a gasp and crumpled to the floor.
I reached out with the tendrils of Power that were already leaking from my body and reached back at the source of the visions. It was easy to find him; I could follow his scent like a bloodhound. However once the trail reached the edge of the room my questing threads were cut as though by a razors edge.
“It’s hopeless Hex.” Burnham’s voice purred in my skull, “Sit and despair until I have time to deal with you.”
His words sent a shiver down my spine like icy fingers and I knew what he was saying was true. I didn’t have a chance, my friends were dying and my allies were outmatched. There was nothing I could do to change it.
“Damn it Hex, don’t fuck this up now. Didn’t you pay attention? You’re right where you need to be.” Mec’s voice whispered in that quiet corner of my mind, and he was pissed. “Don’t worry about the girls, they can take care of themselves, now relax and wait for me to contact you with instructions.”
What else could I do? I paced the room, trying the door even though I knew it wasn’t going to open. Whatever Burnham had done to shield me inside wouldn’t let me use any sort of Power to break out either. On impulse I walked back to the glass wall and put my hand on it again.
“Kill me motherfucker KILL ME!” Tsung was raving; the strength of his sending was like a nail in my temple. “He’s here again; I can feel him like a disease, a canker on my soul, a maggot gnawing at the edge of an infected wound. But I’m bound helpless and at his mercy. He and that goddamn machinist have enslaved me for their horrendous experiments.”
“Wait, what machinist?” My pulse started racing, “You mean Mec? You can’t mean him, he’s a friend-“ Tsung interrupted me with an unhinged laugh.
“Friends with benefits. Friends with knives and syringes and vials of serum. Friends with acid and meat hooks and blowtorches. Friends? Pain is my friend, let me introduce you.” Images flickered through my mind, each one more horrible than the next. Just one of the tortures he endured would have been enough to drive a normal person insane; his hatred of Burnham and of Mec were all that kept him alive. Revenge was the only shred of sanity he could cling to.
I wrenched my hand from the wall with effort and stumbled a few steps away trying to come to terms with what I’d just seen. My only out, the only one who could help me now was a traitor, rotten to the core.
“Sorry Ren. I know I said I would protect you but I guess all I’m going to be able to do is keep these assholes from using us. Time to pay the piper.” Gathering myself, I felt the Power pool in my gut like liquid fire. The destruction I was preparing to unleash would likely wipe half the town off the map but fucked if I cared as long as it took that sonofabitch Burnham with it.
The door slammed open and a wraith dressed in black rags trailing cobwebs of shadow burst into the room. “What exactly the FUCK do you think you’re doing?” The figure covered the space between us in less time than it took me to blink and grasped my face with a skeletal hand. “Let it go. NOW!”
The Power fled from me like a flock of startled doves and Mec backed me across the room, pushing me down into a chair as though I was a child. “You little fucking bastard.” He snarled, “I should cut you apart right here. What did I tell you?”
I stared at him in astonishment, for the moment unable to react. His eyes blazed like the unholy fires of hell, “I told you to fucking STAY PUT! If I didn’t have a use for you I’d break you right now. Shit, I can’t leave you alone but I can’t trust you to come with me.”
I caught the eye of Tsung over his shoulder and it eclipsed the anger Mec was exhibiting. I tried to get control of my scattered senses with limited results. Without my powers I was helpless before him, I scrabbled desperately to find it but I might as well have been trying to climb a glass wall. “If you’d just done what you were supposed to in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess, but you had to go and fuck it all up.”
“What are you talking about?” I knew I didn’t have much time to figure out my next move and needed to buy as much time as possible.
“You were supposed to infect them all, but you didn’t bite even one single human. What better way to destroy the species than to get rid of their food source. Just like before I was going to unleash death and chaos upon the human cattle in order to wreak havoc upon the beasts who rely on them for sustenance.” He flashed me a macabre grin, the rotting flesh of his face tearing with the effort.
I thought back to the soldiers in Mexico that Ren and I had decimated, I’d certainly bit enough of them. Evidently Mec wasn’t as omniscient as he thought. “What was supposed to happen then?”
“Just like I had explained to you before Hex, something very similar to The Black Plague; a deadly disease that would spread through humankind like wildfire. Those who had the strength to survive would join the ranks of the Hunters, feeding on humans and vampires alike and the rest would simply become mindless dealers of death.”
Oh shit, I wondered what had happened in the beautiful Mexican countryside by Donavalo’s house. One more debt I would be unable to repay.
“Who are you Mec?” I forced myself to meet his gaze. “I don’t understand.”
“You don’t remember do you? Think back to the first time you were able to resist my Power and things will become clear. You really are a troublesome little bastard Hex. After all the work I did to create the mythos of Burnham, after all the devious sneaking and plotting I’m nearly undone by a fucking piece of shit like you. Best of all you don’t even remember who you are.” He reached out and flicked the center of my forehead with his index finger.
The impact flipped the chair over and sent me tumbling across the floor like a rag doll. Pain bloomed between my eyes as though Mec’s finger had punched a hole in my skull, but I recalled the time he was referring to. It had been at Ren’s apartment, the first time I’d met Kay and listened to Mec’s little history lesson. I gasped in recognition, “Wait, you’re James. The son of that bishop who was bitten, but what I still don’t get is why you’re doing it?”
“They threw me to the fucking dogs Hex. After all I did for them they betrayed me when I threatened to reveal our existence to the world. We could have been Gods and yet they were content to skulk in the shadows. Instead of joining ME they turned tail and conspired with our sworn enemies in the Church, sacrificing thousands of us and millions of human cattle in exchange for my Final Death.”
I could see the anger coming off his form in waves, at times obscuring his entire body, “They tried to make me their sacrificial lamb. They used ME; the one who had united the Clans with charisma, skill and raw Power. I brought us to the brink of daylight and then those blind fools threw it all away on the promise of a fucking human.” He spat the last as though even speaking the word put a sour flavor in his mouth.
I was trying to shake off the dizziness still plaguing me from the blow to the head. I still unable to use even the slightest of my abilities and needed my wits about me. Mec continued raving, pieces of his decaying body flaking off like falling snow as he paced and gestured.
“If it hadn’t been for them I would have lived a normal life, died a normal death and been nothing but a tiny ink spot in the massive tapestry of history. When I tried to give back a little for the second life that was granted me they put me on the cross. Well fuck them, they failed to exterminate me and instead I chose to be the flame that will ignite that fabric and burn it to a cinder.” His voice hinged on the edge of insanity. “You made a deal with me too. You wanted Power, the ability to beat the disease that was devouring you alive and I gave you the out you so desperately needed.”
“No I’m sure you’ve completely lost it Mec. The first time I laid eyes on you was when Ren brought me to the Warehouse. Hell, I hardly even remember who I was before that.”
“I KNOW YOU DON’T FUCKING REMEMBER!” Mec was barely restraining himself from violence, his whole body trembled and I could see flickers and flashes around him. He brought himself under control and flashed me an evil grin, “Look at Tsung if you don’t believe me though, he knows you now. He’s been listening in and has put the pieces together, Burnham.”
I stared at him in complete shock, then burst out laughing. “There’s just no way. Burnham’s over a hundred years old; I’m barely thirty.”
“Your body is youthful enough in spite of the hell you’ve put it through, but where do you suppose you are drawing that wellspring of power from?” Mec was slowly advancing on me, “It’s not just anyone who can make use of that kind of strength without shattering their mind. Unfortunately your memory was sacrificed in the process and nothing I’ve done has been able to bring it back. I was hoping your hunger would lead you to your purpose anyway but somehow you were always able to dodge it.”
He stopped a few inches from me; I could see just how leprous and rotting the flesh on his bones was. “But for whatever reason you were stupid enough to get this close to Tsung and you’re the only person he hates more than me. Even more foolish was to let me in the same room since I’m the only one who can let him out. Well other than you, but obviously you’re too damn clueless to remember how.
“I think I finally know how to re-awaken your mind but there’s no point now. Tsung is cooperating nicely by operating my machine outside since I designed it to give him just a little vitae every time he destroys one of those filthy traitors. His mind is only just cogent enough to process normal thought occasionally after what we put him through; honestly I’m amazed he’s even still alive.”
I fought to stay calm and barely managed to keep my fear under control. Whatever Mec had done to me was inhibiting my abilities, but I could still feel the Power pulsing below the surface. Sooner or later he was going to make a mistake and when he did I would be ready. The glass wall that contained Tsung was only a few feet away. Keeping my eyes locked with Mec’s I edged towards it hoping he would interpret it as me moving away from him, not trying to get closer to the wall.
“We’ll kill off your friends and then I’ll feed you to him nice and slow after I’ve used you for some more experiments; the process of transference is almost perfected and when I dissect and study you to find out what went wrong then I’ll finally be able to stop swapping one rotting corpse for another and inhabit a living host.” The madness that gleamed behind his milky eyes burned into mine. He seemed lost in thought for just a second so I made my play.
With one hand I touched the glass wall, steeling myself for the roiling waves of rage and hatred that spilled over from contact with Tsung. “Help me get free of him and you will get your revenge. I’ll kill us all.” I forced the thoughts into his brain, “You said before you wanted to die, I can make that happen.” The image of Ren’s explosion in the harbor was easy to push into his consciousness.
“So that’s what you were doing before the thrice cursed machinist came into the room. I could feel the heat, even through the glass. If you can survive a few minutes longer I will give you the opportunity you seek.” He forcibly broke contact with me, the backlash leaving my senses reeling and my vision blurred.
Mec moved over to where I was in an instant and I was only just able to move my hands to partially ward off a vicious blow. “What the hell was THAT?” His rage was out of control now; I scrambled across the floor trying to get away from him, barely able to avoid brutal strikes that shattered the concrete where I had been the moment before.
“Conspiring against me you little shits? I thought I could keep you around for a little longer Hex but I guess you have to die your Final Death right now.” Although I had been able to avoid getting struck, his advance had backed me into a corner. “Nowhere left to run now little rabbit.” Mec reached into his ragged coat and withdrew what appeared to be a large bore pistol with a gleaming flexible tube attached to the bottom of the grip that ran back under his clothes.
“What was that you said before? Oh yes.” His voice took on a singsong tone, “Time to pay the piper.” In spite of having me dead to rights, he paused and I saw something in his eyes that surprised me. Mec was afraid.
What the hell did I have to lose? I stepped forward until the barrel touched my chest. “It’s all you can do to contain me isn’t it you lying sack of shit? Well, why don’t you use that little toy and end this? Or are you too afraid of what happened to Jam? You know don’t you? You said it yourself; it’s not just anyone who can take what runs through these veins.”
His finger tightened on the trigger but a moment of doubt must have touched his mind. At that moment the room shook again, a crack raced across the wall opposite the Tsung’s enclosure and an alarm began to sound.
“Warning, perimeter breach. Warning, perimeter breach. Inner structure compromised, building integrity unstable. All personnel evacuate immediately. Repeat, perimeter has been breached.”
Mec glanced at the crack in the wall, “How?” Then he glanced at Tsung and saw the triumphant look on his face, “You backstabbing BASTARD!” In that fraction of a second I could feel the Power once again and I embraced it with all my might. Before I could channel it, Mec had turned his attention back to me and pulled the trigger on the strange device he had pointed at my heart.
The first sensation was pain. My ears were ringing and I was no longer breathing. Although my eyes were open I was blind, but I could hear insane laughter.
“This is amazing, I never thought such power existed! It courses through my veins like a river of fire!” I managed to focus my vision and saw Mec standing in the center of the room surrounded by a wavering violet aura. The room was almost completely destroyed. An arm of the mechanical spider Tsung was controlling had broken through the wall on one side, and I could dimly see the glittering of steel extending down the side of the building.
I was lying in a puddle of my own faintly glowing blood which was still sluggishly oozing from a hole the size of my fist in my chest. As I watched Mec’s tattered rotting corpse was rebuilding itself with new unblemished flesh. Flakes of dried skin, blood and decayed muscle fell all around him and the aura kept getting brighter.
“Hex, where the fuck are you? What the hell is going on? That machine turned back on the building even though it had the upper hand and then I can suddenly feel you again? Damn it Hex ANSWER ME!” Ren’s voice echoed in my head and I’d never heard a more welcome sound.
“Run Ren. Find Svenka if she’s still around and run.” I pushed as much of what had happened inside the room into her thoughts as I could, feeling my life ebbing fast. “Thank you for everything. I’m ending this.” I cut the Mindlink and tried feebly to drag myself toward Mec.
“Stop now. STOP! WHY WON’T IT STOP?” Mec was glowing brighter now, the power began to shine through his skin, every vein standing out almost too bright to look at. “What have you done to me? Damn you to hell Burnham WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” This last ended in a high pitched shriek.
Mec was standing over me now, his whole body hurt to look at and I could feel the heat coming off him in waves. His hand burned my skin when he grabbed me by the shoulders and brought me eye to eye with him. “What did you do to me?” He whispered.
I smiled and used the last bit of strength I had to force breath into my lungs. “Annihilo.” I murmured and could feel the archo-scientific machines in his blood react to the command word that had been used to force Ren to be an instrument of destruction. Destruction leapt from his body in an uncontrolled flash.
“Terrorists have apparently attacked and severely damaged a medical research facility in downtown Sacramento late last night. We are unsure of the extent of the damage or of the body count at this point but rescue teams have been working now for several hours to find survivors but as of yet haven’t come up with any that we are aware of.”
Ren flicked the remote and switched to another news channel.
“The destruction is unlike anything we’ve seen before, it appears to have come from within the building itself. While initially it was thought there were a multitude of causalities but none of those have been confirmed after sunrise.” The image switched to a helicopter mounted camera showing the building that was now a pile of concrete rubble and partially melted girders. She tapped the remote again.
“No survivors or bodies have been found although an initial interview with a first responder indicated many casualties.” The screen flicked to a reporter standing next to a pale-faced man in an EMT uniform illuminated by the first rays of the rising sun.
“When we first arrived there were at least thirty if not more bodies on the ground behind me but as soon as the sunlight hit them they crumbled to dust. I’ve never seen anything like it before; all that’s left is clothing. Honestly looking at the damage done to the structure I’m amazed there were even bodies.” He lifted a battered leather duster with a large hole punched in the front before they cut to another scene.
She turned the channel to CNN, “-unsure how extensive the epidemic is, but as hard as it is to believe it appears that a small community in just outside of Heroica Guaymas has been wiped off the map. A general quarantine has been put into effect and the US State Department has mandated zero travel to the area even as they are attempting to ascertain the status of several American citizens in the area.
“Stateside, there are reports of a terrorist attack on a research company in Sacramento having completely leveled the building where it was housed and causing extensive damage to the entire block. Investigators aren’t commenting on the motive and as of yet no group has claimed responsibility for the explosion.”
Ren sighed, turned the TV off and tossed the remote on the end table. She glanced at the bed where a sleeping Svenka was still recovering from the effects of the nano-adrenaline she had used on herself during the fight. Apparently the initial shock of re-introducing it to her system after so many years had almost killed her, but once she had regained consciousness the effectiveness had nearly doubled. Good thing too, since the guards weren’t pulling punches.
Grimacing at the pain that came from sighing with broken ribs she gritted her teeth for something that was more distasteful. Running her fingers through her hair she turned to look at the battered and bruised figure in the corner who stood stiffly, as though not wanting to acknowledge the position he was in.
“Look, I know you report to The Tribunal and they’re going to be pissed about this clusterfuck of a situation. Kay was angling for revenge as far as I can tell and she found out it’s a bitter drink. I don’t know if anyone else survived, it’s only through the extraordinary efforts of an amazing man that I’m here at all.” She shook a cigarette from a fresh pack and paused to light it before continuing.
“The bottom line is we just had a massive breach and the treachery James perpetrated goes beyond anything we had imagined.” Ren took a long drag from the cigarette, wincing again at her ribs again.
“James? Who is James?” He looked at her cigarette with a dour expression.
“I won’t call him Mec ever again except to explain who I’m talking about.” Ren blew a cloud of smoke in his direction, “That bastard was a traitor a hundred times over, no matter how much he deserved his revenge against some of the elders. I certainly wasn’t involved in the underhanded bullshit that went down centuries ago. Having a decomposing brain isn’t an excuse as far as I’m concerned.
“So here’s where I stand as of today, go ahead and bring this back to The Tribunal. They can either reveal our existence or not; I don’t give a shit about that and I’m certainly not going to try and expose myself regardless of what they decide. With a very few exceptions I don’t trust anyone. Especially not humans, their lifespans are too short to be able to take the long view.
“Other than that I feel responsible for the situation in Mexico. From what Hex crammed into my brain before he evaporated I’m pretty sure James and his ilk planted some sort of plague in him; the idea being he’d bite humans and it’d spread like wildfire. Since I’m the one who put him in the situation and convinced him to drink from humans I’m going down there to see if I can help. With any luck I’ll be able to sort out some kind of cure before I get there using what I got from Hex and from another source you don’t need to know about. Barring luck, I’ll do what I must to make sure it’s contained.”
He raised an eyebrow at her but wisely kept his mouth shut, “I would appreciate any help The Reapers want to give me but mark me well; if they try and stop me they’ll find out just exactly why my agent name was The Angel of Destruction.”
The man shifted from the corner and in an eyeblink Ren had a pistol pointed at his head. “I’ll be going now to make my report if that’s OK with you.” He stepped into the light and she noticed his shadow reached much further than it should have. “For what it’s worth, if the Tribunal decides not to support you I’ll lend a hand if you’ll accept my help. There are a lot more of us out there who support the kind of thing you’ve been doing than you know.”
“What I’ve been doing? Exactly what do you think I’ve been doing?” The gun still hadn’t moved from his head.
He looked surprised, “Planning a revolution of course.” He scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it, bit his thumb and sealed it with a bloody thumbprint. “Look, if you want to get in touch with me just put your thumbprint here. We appreciate your style and the work you did against the Hunters. Too bad about your friend, I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Yeah, you’ll excuse me if I don’t accept your condolences at face value.” Ren realized she was talking to nobody. “Must be one of those Shadowstepping freaks.” She muttered to herself.
“Hey Renyovalia, who was that asshole?” Svenka was sitting up and sleepily rubbing her eyes.
“Nobody you need to worry about darling. Let’s get some sleep, tomorrow is going to be a busy night.”
“Are you sure about this place Svenka? It looks a little out of control to me.” We had pulled up in front of a club that had no sign out front but still had a line around the block. The music that pulsed out of the front every time the door opened to admit some of the questionable individuals waiting outside sounded a bit like someone beating on household appliances with hammers. “Is that guy wearing a leather skirt and a gimp mask?”
She laughed, “Come on Hex, where’s your sense of adventure?”
“Do we even have time for this? Besides I don’t think my attire quite fits in.” I made a deprecating gesture towards my torn half destroyed clothing that I still hadn’t bothered to replace.
“Actually Hex, I think you’re dressed perfectly. Very grunge. Now quit making excuses, I’m meeting someone important here.” Ren shot me that lopsided grin of hers and I could feel amusement pouring over the mindlink. “This is one place where we’re NOT the freaks Hex. Enjoy it!”
She had a point. Looking at the assortment of people waiting to get in I couldn’t help smiling myself. Here we wouldn’t stand out as unusual at all. Svenka was already stalking up to the front of the line with Ren and me following in her wake.
“Oi, you can’t just waltz in here like you own the place! Get in the fucking queue!” A group of girls wearing pleated plaid skirts, white tights with shocking pink mohawks and leather collars displaying a dazzling variety of spikes were glaring at us.
“I like you, I’ll get you in too but only if you buy me a drink.” I laughed out loud at their incredulous expressions as Svenka slithered up to the man at the door. That’s the only word I could think of to describe the way she moved; it was almost as though her spine was hinged to move sideways just above her hips. She stepped up to the red rope, leaned over and whispered something in the ear of the massively muscled bouncer.
Whatever she said must have made quite an impression, he practically bowed before pointing to Ren and me and the group of girls. “In. Let’s move.” He opened the door and as if on cue the music stopped. The band must be taking a break.
“I can’t fucking believe it! I’ll buy your friends a round too.” The girl caught up with Svenka and was reaching for her hand, “We’ve been trying to get in to this place for weeks how tha hell do you rate?”
“Vodka tonics all around then.” She was scanning the upper level of the club and her eyes paused on an empty table. “We’ll be up there, since it looks like he’s not here yet.” Her skirt wearing minions flounced off to the bar and we all made our way through the crowd, up the stairs and sat at the open table Svenka had spotted.
After we sat I got the chance to take in the scene below. It was a madhouse of leather, lace and vinyl occasionally punctuated with a flash of chrome. There were large cages suspended from the ceiling with a wide variety of people in them. Some dancing despite the lack of music, some striking scandalous poses to the delight of some onlookers and others apparently distressed at being so confined.
The stage was littered with damaged washing machines, refrigerators and dryers lying next to microphones and guitars. Behind was a banner proclaiming that Hurra Torpedo was playing here one night only. Apparently they had indeed been making music by beating on appliances. A flustered waitress in a stylized French Maid uniform that was made from mostly leather and canvas with more zippers than could possibly be necessary stopped at our table.
“Ah, excuse me but this table… is reserved. I mean it’s just that everyone knows it’s reserved and that’s why nobody sits at it.” She glanced around nervously, “I can seat you at another table if you’d like, just as soon as one opens up.”
“When is Jacob getting here then? He’s later than he usually is.” At this point her cadre of plaid skirts showed up loaded with drinks.
“Holy shit, either she’s gonna get killed or we get to meet Jacob!”
“For how easy she got in she must know him, how else do you explain it?”
“Here’s the drinks you wanted.” They each were carrying a tray with an assortment of glasses, “We didn’t know what kind of vodka you preferred so we got a bunch of them. I guessed Polish potato vodka.” She said with a grin.
“Thank you dears, I appreciate it.” Svenka turned to the waitress and proffered a card, “Can you let him know I’m here when he arrives? Just give him this otherwise he’ll show up here looking like a thunderstorm and I’ll have to diffuse the situation.”
I looked at Ren who was sitting back and sipping a drink, obviously enjoying the scene. She winked at me and slid me a glass, “Try this one. It’s Belvedere which is my favorite vodka.” I plucked it from the table and took a sip, crisp and refreshing with just the right amount of lime. The band was coming back out for another set, I was curious to see what they really sounded like.
One of the girls slid into the chair next to Ren, “How did you know that was Belvedere? It was my choice but there’s no way I could identify it if it was mixed with tonic and lime.” The other two hovered on either side of Svenka’s chair as if anxious to jump if she needed anything. A commotion caught my attention and I looked past Ren’s shoulder to see a beautiful woman in a stunning red velvet dress sweeping up towards our table with a gleam in her eye.
“Svenka you goddamn ice queen! It’s been too long. You brought friends I see?” Her masculine baritone drowned out the noise in the room and I realized with a start that this was a man. A very pretty man.
“Jacob, still frightening the help I see?” Svenka stood and picked him up in a hug, swinging him in a circle like he was a little kid. When she set him down he was laughing hard.
“You always make me feel like a dainty rose. What brings you around here? I hope it’s not business?”
“We can deal with that later. I just need to pick up a few things from you.” She gestured at Ren and me, “Ren and Hex, this is Jacob. He’s a good friend and a lecherous rascal.”
“And who are these little morsels?” Jacob was looking at the three girls who had accompanied us into the club.
“Gifts if you want ‘em they practically exploded when they found out they were going to meet you.” She paused to take in the frightened looks on the faces of the girls and then broke out laughing, “Just kidding. This is Ginger, Susan and Janet. I saw them outside and thought they were cute.”
“How did you know our names?” Janet looked at her in amazement and turned to her friends, “Did you tell her our names?”
“Of course not, we’ve been with you the whole time.”
“Don’t bother speculating on it darlings, it’ll just keep you up at night.” She gave them a wicked smile and laughed. “Anyway, I hate to be a bore but we’re on a bit of a time table here.” The bantering tone evaporated from her voice and she leaned forward on the table. “You still have it right?”
“You came here for that?” Jacob sat gracefully and smoothed the velvet of his dress over his thighs. “I thought you said you would only come for it if the world was ending.” He licked his lips nervously and I couldn’t help but notice that he was gorgeous even when frightened.
“Yeah well, I was exaggerating slightly. It was more of a statement you know? Like a commitment to change myself or something.” If anything this made Jacob more fidgety. He looked down and seeing that the band was finally getting ready to play waited until the set had started to lean close to her face.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I could barely hear him over the noise, even with my heightened abilities. “Something’s going down right? Something really big, way beyond anything you’ve done before?” He turned to look at me, then at Ren, both of us calmly sitting and sipping drinks and apparently paying absolutely no attention to their conversation. Not that normal people would have been able to hear them over the sound of the band.
“It’s them isn’t it? There’s something off about those two, what have they done to you? What are you involved in?” Beads of sweat stood out on his upper lip and he leaned to whisper in her ear something that I only heard from Ren through the mindlink, “Do you need help? I don’t know what I can do if they’re government or mafia but I owe you.”
Svenka broke into the sunniest smile I’d seen on her face since she found out the truth about Ren and me. She grabbed Jacob by the cheeks and planted a long and lingering kiss on his lips, “It’s too bad you aren’t really a girl. I’d probably marry you if you were, most boys don’t know how to pay back their debts.” The shock on his face matched the expression on the three girls’ faces.
To my surprise Jacob blushed as red as his dress, “Well, I still feel like I owe you regardless.”
“Forget about it, you’ve already paid me back by holding what I asked you to, and returning it will cancel our debt as far as I’m concerned. How fast can you get it for me?” He shook his head and pulled a gold chain with a key on it from around his neck.
“Here’s the key. It’s for a safety deposit box at the main Post Office. I made it under your name, I hope you don’t mind. I think they open at six or seven tomorrow morning.” He gave her a sheepish look, “What, I couldn’t deal with the stress OK? I almost gave into temptation and opened it. I don’t want to know what’s inside.”
“Shit Svenka we don’t have time for this.” I wasn’t sure what was the item in question was but I was certain we didn’t really need it. “We have a lot of ground to cover before the sun rises.”
“It’s no problem Hex. It’s not like the security measures at the post office are any bar to the likes of us.” She gave me a mischievous smile, “Give me ten minutes; I’ll be in and out.”
I shrugged, “I suppose you’re right. What’s so important in there anyway?”
“Just some good luck charms. And some insurance.” She paused with a strange look on her face, “And some skeletons from the back of my closet.”
“Well it’s been fun darlings but I’m afraid we must take our leave.” Ren slid out of her seat and walked through the crowd, somehow managing to avoid even coming into contact with the throngs of people who were packing the balcony now that the band was playing again. Svenka and I were standing to follow when Jacob grabbed her arm, confusion on his face.
“Wait, who is she anyway? I thought you were in charge…” his voice trailed off as he took in my ragged appearance, realizing it might not just be a fashion statement. Svenka was already lost in the crowd and I turned towards him.
“Don’t worry about it. You really don’t want to know anyway. Thanks for the help Jacob, now just forget everything.” I shrugged apologetically, “Sorry for the inconvenience, but it’s better this way.“ I glanced at the girls, “Take care of yourselves, enjoy the hell outta life while you have it. After it’s gone shit just goes downhill.”
Without a backward glance I turned to go after Ren, ignoring the sounds of confusion from behind me.
* * *
True to her promise Svenka destroyed the security at the post office in a matter of minutes, returning to where we waited with the battered Taurus holding a safety deposit box in her hands. She slid in the back seat and as we started down the street she took a deep breath.
“I haven’t been completely honest with you Renyovalia. I know you didn’t know this but I was an assassin before I met you. Actually you were supposed to be my last mark.” She opened the box and drew out a matched pair of stilettos, tiny slivers of metal. “They told me to use pure silver, at the time I had no idea why.”
“Don’t worry Hex, everything’s cool.” Ren’s voice echoed in my head. I was watching Svenka in the rear view mirror, trying to keep an eye on her and the road at the same time. “Watch the damn road, I can deal with her if I have to.”
“It wasn’t until I met you that things changed for me. I had to change, you were my catalyst. I realized that without you life had no meaning.” She stared at Ren with a look of devotion in her eyes, “Everything changed, I gave up my old life and built a new one from the ground up.”
I started to gather Power just in case I was mistaking devotion for something else, “Hex, relax. She just has some things to get off her conscience.” Ren’s reassurance didn’t do much to my level of readiness.
Svenka removed another object from the box, this time a slim silver cigarette case. “I quit this a long time ago. I gave it up when I quit The Organization, but I saved the last couple of doses just in case.” She shrugged, “Maybe I’ll need it after all.”
I was about to ask exactly what was in there, but Ren caught my eye and shook her head. Svenka reached into the box again, “Finally, my secret weapon.” She pulled out a small box with a variety of wires extending from one end and a tiny keypad attached to the top. “There isn’t a coded encrypted access panel this little baby can’t bypass. I’ve regretted leaving it in here more than once.”
The remaining contents of the safety deposit box were passports, credit cards, ID cards and other odds and ends which she glanced at and then closed the box and tossed it on the seat next to her. “Most of those wouldn’t be useful now and the ones that still work would likely set off red flags in a half dozen agencies that monitor criminal activity worldwide so I won’t bother with them.”
“So. Yet another development in our exciting line of confessions and revelations. I figure you’ve saved my life enough times since we met that having a hit on me isn’t really all that important. It’s not like you haven’t had plenty of time to try and kill me if you were going to.” Ren quirked an eyebrow up and glanced over her shoulder pointedly.
“You’re in the company of murderers regardless… and we already knew you were a contract killer so what’s the big deal? You had me worried there for a second Svenka.” I was willing to forget about it for now, we had bigger fish to fry and Ren had a valid point.
I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw her relax marginally. “I feel horrible for not telling you sooner-“
“We all have our secrets.” I cut her off, “It’s not like we were completely honest with you. Let’s just forget about it.” By this time I had merged onto the Interstate and was coaxing the Taurus through traffic. “You still feel cool about your part in this operation? We’ve all revealed that the stakes are higher than anyone knew coming into it. As for me, this is something I have to do. It’s not too late for you to back out though.”
“No way. I’m not backing down for anything. I’m in unless you don’t want me.”
“I think it’s pretty clear we want your help, but just in case it’s not,” Ren turned in her seat to look Svenka right in the eyes, “I want you. I want your help too.” She turned back to face the front smiling her rare Cheshire grin. “Step on it Hex, let’s get in position to hit these fuckers tomorrow night!”
* * *
We had crashed in a small but well-appointed hotel that Ren was familiar enough with to know she wanted their suite on the second floor. The two women sat and talked for a while and then disappeared into one of the bedrooms. I didn’t even bother to sleep, instead opting to sit up and stress about the planned assault tomorrow.
Eventually I made my way to the hotel bar and was surprised to find I wasn’t the only patron at ten in the morning. An old man sat at the bar, his white hair and beard long and well groomed. The skin on his face was so wrinkled it was hard to see his eyes.
The bartender looked up as I approached, “What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have an Irish coffee please.” The old man turned his head to look in my direction. His eyes gleamed at me like polished obsidian.
“Getting married youngster?” He lifted a shaky hand to bring a glass of what appeared to be straight whiskey to his lips.
“No, just killing time. Why do you ask?”
“Dunno, you just seemed to be as nervous as I was the day of my first wedding that’s all.” The bartender set a steaming porcelain cup of coffee in front of me and I could smell the wafting of Jameson in the vapor.
I took an appreciative swallow and sighed in satisfaction. The bartender sat at the other end of the bar and turned a television to the morning news. “So are you and Ren hitting the place tonight then?”
I stared in shock at the old man, almost dropping my coffee. “Who – Wait, Mec? Is that you?”
He laughed, “Of course you dolt.” The bartender glanced at us and he continued in a lower voice, “Why didn’t you get ahold of me like you said you would? There’s no way you can make it in there on your own, security is insane.”
“Why do you look like that?” He wasn’t even the same height or weight.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff Hex. Listen we don’t have much time if you’re really going ahead with this plan, fill me in on the details.” He leaned toward me and gestured slightly with his drink. I could feel a mild compulsion slip off my mind, it almost seemed like he’d done it unintentionally.
“I’ll think about talking with you once you answer a few questions for me. Why do you look like this, how did you get here so fast and how did you know where to find me?” I took a sip of my coffee and glanced at the bartender who was obliviously watching Good Morning America.
“Fine. I stole this old man’s body just before he became a corpse, I took a goddamn Greyhound bus after hitchhiking to the border and I was able to track you by your Power signature because you’ve been radiating it like a miniature goddamn sun shortly after you crossed the border. Happy?” He glared at me, black eyes flashing. “I don’t have time for this shit Hex. Either you let me help you or all is lost!”
“OK, just don’t tell Ren. We recruited a friend of hers who has some pedigree in assassination and thieving. She’s going to disable the security and we are going to run like hell to where they’re keeping Tsung. With any measure of luck we’ll be there before they know it and be able to get him out before any real trouble starts. That’s the short version.”
“Aaaaahhhh, she did enlist the help of The Mork Varg eh? Well then, we might have a chance.” He smiled, a strange ripple of the wrinkles on his face, and took deep swallow of his drink. “I’ll work from the inside; I should still have the credentials to get in since they think I’m dead. If things start to go south on you I’ll do what I can to slow them down.”
“Great, it’s good to know we’ve got another person inside, just in case. What are you getting out of this anyway?” I couldn’t help but still be suspicious of him; after all he had openly admitted betraying us already.
“Revenge. Maybe my life back. I might even be able to redeem myself, I know I don’t deserve the chance after all I’ve done to her though.” He slumped on his bar stool, “I’m old Hex. Very old and very tired, but I’m putting everything I have into this last effort. Will you allow me to help you?”
“Yeah, I think we’ll need your help Mec.” I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him, and I was freaking out about our odds as it was.
“Good. Then take that phone out of whatever black box you have it in and let me review your plan of attack, otherwise I won’t know where to start.”
“No need for that, I have it all memorized.” I looked sheepishly at him, “I’ve been re-hashing this plan for days now, so it’s all fresh in my mind. We’re coming in through Dock Three in the back, that’s where security is the lightest.”
“Why not through the service entrance in the side alley? That’d be the closest entrance to your objective.”
“Because we’re more worried about security than time. We can move fast enough to get in and out in minutes no matter what entrance we use, but everything’s screwed if we don’t avoid detection.” He nodded and I drained the last of my coffee.
“Where are you going to be then?” He didn’t answer right away, “Just so we don’t have any accidents, we’re going to be pretty amped up you know?”
“I will try and get to Central Administration and shut down some of the security for you, but failing that I’ll have to risk the friendly fire and help out when I can.” He stood, “I’d better get going, I have lots of preparation to do and not much time to carry it out.”
“Sure.” My brain felt fuzzy, almost like I was dreaming.
“Just forget about this Hex.” Mec leaned forward and put his hand on my arm, the shining black pebbles of his eyes boring into me. “Everything is going to be fine.”
“You want another coffee?” The bartender was taking my empty cup and saucer.
“Yeah, that’d be great.” I looked back at the television where they were reporting a mild earthquake the night before had done some minor damage but no injuries or deaths. Something didn’t seem quite right. “What were we talking about?”
“Mmm? You were sitting there reading the paper and muttering to yourself. Did you feel the earthquake last night? I didn’t even notice.” He was bringing me another Irish coffee.
“Nope, I was on the road. Our car is a big enough piece of shit that a little extra shaking would go unnoticed pretty easily.” He laughed and set the steaming cup in front of me.
“I’ll be down here if you need me, my name’s Jared.” His attention strayed back to the TV and I looked at the paper that was lying on the bar in front of me. The headline was all about the earthquake and had quotes from a geologist commenting on the oddity of the quake.
“Sacramento generally only experiences earthquakes once or twice a century, usually they are just aftershocks from another, larger quake in another zone. This one was unique in that the epicenter seemed to be in the city proper where there are no known fault lines. We have a team of geologists investigating the area but as of yet have not found the cause.”
“Hey Jared, can I take this copy back to my room? You’ve got a couple papers down here and I’m too lazy to get another.”
Jared didn’t bother looking over from the TV which was now tuned to Sportcenter. “Sure, it’ll save me from having to toss it out.” I left some cash on the bar for my drinks, that nagging feeling pulled at my brain again when I saw an empty whiskey glass next to my coffee cup but it was quickly dismissed. Jared was obviously too preoccupied to clear the glass from the bar after whoever had been there before me was gone.
I walked back to the room wondering if I was just being paranoid. Something didn’t feel right and I needed a second opinion. Ren was just closing the door, room service having just made a delivery. “Hex! Where did you go? We were just getting ready for a little pre-party party.”
She laughed and went back inside. The hotel employee glanced at me and shook his head, “You’ve got your hands full man, a bottle of scotch before noon? Is she some kinda rockstar or what?”
“Yeah. Something like that.” I slipped into the room and closed the door firmly behind me, attaching the security chain just for good measure. The scene inside wasn’t what I had expected.
The main room had the floor completely cleared off and Svenka had the bed sheet spread out with furniture holding the corners down. She was drawing on it with a Sharpie and talking to Ren.
“Look, if you take this route it’ll save you at least 40 seconds.” I examined her drawing and was amazed to see that she had sketched out an amazingly accurate floor plan of the facility and was marking a more efficient route for us to take than I had initially done. When I entered, she looked up and smiled.
Ren proffered a glass of Ardbeg which I gladly accepted. “We’re going to do this Hex. It’s happening, I’m going to see him again and you’ll get the answers you were hoping for. I know we will.”
“Ren, I saw something in the paper about an earthquake in the city center that they can’t trace to a fault line. Is this something we need to worry about?” I showed her the newspaper and she glanced at it before replying.
“I don’t think so Hex. The Architect is so damn careful there’s no way he’d make this kind of mistake. It can’t be related to him.” I must have still looked skeptical for she continued, “Look it’s taken me the better part of a century to find him. Why would he fuck up his anonymity now?” I had to admit she had a point.
* * *
The loading dock was dark, only a few flickering high pressure sodium lights illuminating the entrance we were targeting. Svenka was picking the lock and compromising the electronic security with her tools while Ren and I hung back in the deeper shadows. There was a muffled click and she motioned for us to approach.
“OK, it’s done.” She whispered, “The security for this door has been disabled and I’ve made a loopback so it won’t show up on the main system. They’ll have to do a full audit before they notice it. I’m going inside with you to find the first data closet which should be at the end of the first hallway on the left.”
We moved stealthily inside, carefully closing the door behind us. The hall was brightly lit and empty. Just as we anticipated we easily tucked Svenka into the data closet and waited the ninety seconds for her to access the network.
“Good luck you two. I’ll see you on the way out.” She gave us a shaky smile, “I’d say this was too easy but it’s really that I’m too damn good.”
Ren and I turned and ran from the room, careful to move at a speed just below that which would damage the building enough to set off any alarms. Left, right, down the stairs, down the hallway, through the doors, further and further into the compound of our most bitter enemy.
After what seemed like an hour but was in reality only a few minutes we had arrived at our destination. I heard Ren through the mindlink, “Svenka. We’re here. Unlock the door.” At that moment the building shook, ceiling tiles fell and the floor buckled. A voice reverberated through the building.
“BURNHAM! YOUR TIME IS AT AN END. WE SHALL PRESIDE OVER YOUR EXECUTION!” I recognized the voice in shock. It was Kay.
Svenka grinned, “I’m going to go and pack up a bunch of gear. Why don’t you get dressed hon? While I enjoy the view it’s not exactly travel attire.”
“I’ve got some time; we’re not leaving until after the sun sets. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to avoid notice if at all possible.”
“That’s fine; it’ll take some time for me to gather what I need anyway.” She walked out of the room humming a tune I couldn’t quite make out.
“So our motley crew of miscreants gathers eh Ren?”
“For better or worse this is who we have to work with Hex. I think we’ll do as well as can be expected. If nothing else it’ll be a good fight!” A fierce light burned behind her eyes, “And Gods help them if they’ve done anything to Tsung.”
“Well if nothing else they’ll never see this shit coming right?” I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, “If I wasn’t already dead I’d say I was suicidal.”
“Yeah Hex. It’s us crazy fuckers that’ll surprise everyone. Hell, we shouldn’t have survived this long. At very least we’ll give these assholes a fight that they’ll never forget.”
Impulsively I grabbed her in a rib-cracking hug, “Damn straight Ren.” Was as far as I got before her return embrace cut off my air supply.
* * *
The sun was beginning to set and we were taking inventory of the equipment we needed to pack into the Impreza.
“No way I can do without my diagnostic equipment. You guys seem to think this’ll be a cakewalk but you’re fucking stupid or insane.” Svenka was standing with her fists on her hips glaring at me. “Look, no matter how much intel you think you have about this place I guarantee you that once you start to breach security everything is going to change. They aren’t about to let you just waltz in there uncontested if you let them know you’re coming. And you still haven’t fully explained to me how you expect to cover the ground you think you can cover if those goddamn scooters aren’t where you think they should be. You have to plan for everything.”
“You’ll be outside running security interference anyway, don’t worry about it.” Ren interrupted, grabbing her attention, “Look hon, we’ve done this kind of thing before. Hex and I work well together in tight situations; you can trust us to keep each other safe.”
“If I can’t change your mind that’s one thing, but you can’t make me be happy about it.” Her baleful gaze turned back to me, “If you let anything happen to you I’ll destroy you. Understand?”
“If anything has happened to her odds are I’m destroyed already.” Something in the tone of my voice must have struck a chord with her. She shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably.
“Yeah. Well as long as we’re clear on that then. Can you help me load this vibration sensor?” The equipment barely fit in the trunk of the car, it was bulky and looked custom.
“I thought spy stuff was supposed to be tiny and light so you could get in and out without being noticed. This shit weighs a ton!”
“I’d like to see you do better with the resources I had on hand Hex.” That was a surprise.
“You built this stuff yourself? Wow, I’m impressed Svenka.”
“I couldn’t find anyone else who could provide what I needed so I had no choice. Of course these days not many people do things old school so I haven’t had a job in ages.”
“A job?” Now I was confused. “What do you mean a job? I thought you made pottery.”
Svenka laughed with amused delight, the richness of her mirth a stark contrast to the childish lilt of her voice. “Oh Hex, you really are thick aren’t you? I’ve been an assassin since before you were wearing diapers. You may have even heard of me Mork Varg.”
“The Dark Wolf? No way, that was you? What the hell got you into that business?” Mentally I tried to find where I had learned that translation, I was sure I didn’t know Swedish.
“IS me Hex. It’s not like I’ve retired or anything, I’m too young to languish away twiddling my thumbs waiting for the Reaper to come for me you know?” She chuckled. “How did I get into the business? Well… that’s a long story. Suffice it to say that at a certain point in my life I began to notice that there were some people who didn’t need to be around anymore and I realized I had the ability to do something about it.”
“Ren, did this have anything to do with you?” I don’t know why I asked her, it was more curiosity than anything else.
She replied over the mindlink, “Of course Hex, vampires are unscrupulous hunters and those instincts carry over with the blood. When you realize you are physically superior to others of your kind it’s natural to want to dominate them, to bend them to your will. Human nature is a messy thing. At least she found a creative outlet.”
As I recalled Mork Varg was notorious for Mob hits, but I always thought he… well I guess now I knew it was a SHE, had done so at the bidding of a government agency or to stir up trouble, not with any real agenda. Shrugging this new piece of knowledge off, I turned and noticed Carlos was wandering into the room stretching and attempting unsuccessfully to straighten the wrinkles out of the white t-shirt he was wearing.
“Any chance I could get a shower in? I take it by the flurry of activity that roused me from a pleasant sleep we’re getting ready to leave soon?”
“Sure Carlos. Shower’s all the way down the hall. There’s some clean towels in the closet on the left.” Svenka gestured past the kitchen.
“Cool, I’m going to get some clothes from my car then.” He shuffled out towards the front of the house, fumbling a battered pack of cigarettes out of his pocket as he went.
When he had gone, Svenka’s eyes narrowed, “Renyovalia, are you sure we need him? I get a bad vibe from that man.” Before Ren could respond she broke in “I know, we need a good driver. Just don’t take your eyes off him OK?”
“I’ve relegated watching the lecher to Hex since I figured he’d pretend any attention he would get from you or me to be interest, and that’s more trouble than I really want to deal with right now. Besides, Hex was the one who insisted we ditch the Rover and get him to drive us so I figure he can babysit.”
In a few minutes Carlos came back in, carrying a duffle bag and a bad attitude, “Who the FUCK loaded all that shit in my car? Jesus, there’s gotta be three or four hundred pounds of crap in the back! You can’t be serious that amount of equipment is going to seriously screw with my power to weight ratio, not to mention the performance of the suspension off road.”
“Hey relax big shot, I thought your machine could handle the challenge.” Ren’s voice purred, “If you think it’s too much for you, we can always take two vehicles.”
Playing off his ego was ridiculously easy, “Look it’s not that she can’t handle the weight, just let me organize it in there so at least the car’s balanced properly. A second car would only slow us down, there’s no way any of you could keep up and I don’t intend on going slow.” With that he stalked off to the shower.
“He’s already more trouble than he’s worth.” Svenka was practically radiating hostility.
“If he gets us across the border without incident he’ll be worth his weight in gold. Do you have anything else you need to bring?” Ren had walked over and put a soothing arm around Svenka’s waist.
“I don’t think so. I’ll go double check though just in case.” She left Ren and I alone to do a final inventory of her equipment.
* * *
After driving all night and staying in some questionable hotels for a couple days we were finally approaching the border. Most of the roads we had been traveling were rutted and littered with potholes that could snap a careless driver’s axle but thanks to Carlos’s skill we navigated them much faster than I could have hoped.
“So Carlos, what’s your special way across the border anyway?” It was about 11:30 at night and we were approaching a border checkpoint in what looked like a totally normal manner. “If you mess this up I’ll have to kill you.” Ren was asking the questions since he was still influenced by her Glamor.
“It’s cool baby, I have a deal with these guys. It’ll only take a second, you guys wait in the car and I’ll handle it.” He gave Ren a winning smile and flashed his lights a few times at the guardhouse. Someone had come out of it and stood on the road carrying an AR-15 and wearing a flak jacket.
“I have a bad feeling about this Ren.” Svenka and I spoke in unison and she glanced at me in annoyance. We had been doing that all afternoon and I suspected that her thoughts were leaking through whatever bond she had with Ren and then to me via the mindlink. “I think this filthy maggot is about to sell us out.”
Our fears were quickly assuaged though as Carlos exchanged some words and a fat stack of bills with the guard and walked back to the Impreza with a smile on his face. “You didn’t believe me did you?” He looked me right in the eyes “I owed you for getting rid of those motherfuckers before. Now we’re even.”
Once through the checkpoint we traveled only a short distance before Carlos pulled the car off the main road onto a tiny dirt track. “I don’t know where you’re going and I don’t want to know but I can offer you a day’s rest here if you want. I know the night is fairly young but you’ll be hard pressed to get very far without a vehicle and I have a stop to make that you don’t want a part of. Sorry Hex, but I’m going to have to turn down your other offer for long range employment. Pre-existing obligation you know?”
“What the fuck did you offer him Hex?” Ren’s voice was indignant over the mindlink, “It’d better not be what I’m thinking.”
“No Ren. Just money, fame, women… whatever I thought would entice him, not eternal life.” She actually sighed out loud as we pulled into the driveway of a tiny house tucked behind some scrub trees.
“It’s all good Carlos, I didn’t really expect you to take me up on it anyway. Thanks for at least paying me back by getting us this far.” He shrugged in return and shut off the engine.
“I’m just going to go see if we’re clear OK?” He opened the door and I did as well.
“I’ll come with just in case there’s trouble.” I made a show of tucking the chrome 45’s behind my belt and he chuckled; obviously remembering my skill with firearms. He walked to the door and opened it. After sticking his head inside he walked in beckoning me to follow. When I passed the threshold darkness descended upon me and consciousness fled.
I came to myself unsure of how long I had been out or why. I heard voices that were unfamiliar to me obviously having an argument “-n’t expect it to be easy did you? Shit, we got the guy they wanted now let’s split!”
“No way. That… thing is still out there. I’m not leaving the house until it’s gone.” The second voice had tremors of dread in it. Not just fear, but wall climbing terror that bordered on hysteria. “I’ve never seen anything like that before; they just exploded.”
Oh shit. Ren must have lost it. Why were they after me and who the hell were they anyway? I didn’t have any trouble opening my eyes but there was some sort of bag over my head and zip ties held my wrists together behind my back. Additional restraints were around my ankles and the two were connected by something else trussing me up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The final insult was a ball gag that was so tight I found it difficult to breathe even through my nose.
Not having any idea what I would see I used a thread of Power to poke a hole in the bag over my head. All was dark, I assumed I was in a closet of some kind. The first voice continued, “It’s no big deal man, we’ve got our own monster. He’ll take care of things in short order, I’ve never seen him have a problem. That’s why his bumper sticker says ‘Speed Kills’ which just shows he has a sense of humor.”
Releasing a thread of Power I sliced through the zip ties binding my wrists, wincing at the sound of the plastic snapping apart. When there was no response from my would be captors I cut through the gag and my leg restraints as well, attempting to stretch muscles that had been twisted at unfamiliar angles and found that I wasn’t in a closet, I was in a box just barely big enough to hold my body.
I couldn’t even stretch out fully without hitting the sides. Old fears of being buried alive made me lash out in panic before fully thinking about it. A thousand whips of Power exploded from me instinctually, cutting the traveling trunk I was trapped inside into tiny shards. Even that amount of exertion was more than I could handle without experiencing intense agony. Damn I should have listened to Donovalo when he told me that my power was nothing more than the moisture left in a damp rag. I struggled to stand, the pain and dizziness was nearly overpowering but I managed to bring myself halfway to my feet, leaning against the wall.
“Holy shit! They said this guy was nothing special but I guess they were wrong!” I was in a room with two other men wearing well-fitting suits; one of them was pulling a pistol from inside his jacket. “Damn it we won’t get the entire reward if he’s dead but I guess there’s no helping it.”
“Don’t you fucking dare.” A terrible voice echoed through the open doorway. “There’s no way I’m going to let you damage the goods.” The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, the air quivered with malice. Here was a foe I wasn’t sure of my ability to handle; especially in my current state. “Go back to sleep like a good little boy!”
It took everything I had to resist the command and I almost lost my concentration in surprise when I looked up and saw Carlos standing in the doorway. “I’ve got too much invested in this to lose it all now you little shit!” Suddenly he was standing beside me with his hand on my throat, fingers digging into my skin like iron bars. “He’s going to reward me richly for this, but only if I get you there alive.”
“What does The Architect want with me?” Momentary surprise registered on his face and I knew I had hit the mark. “What has Daniel Burnham offered you? Perhaps I can do better.” My voice was barely audible; his fingers had nearly crushed my larynx. “But if you’ve harmed Ren I’ll just have to leave your corpse here for the ravens to eat.”
He threw back his head and laughed, “You’re really something, no wonder he wants you. Here I am holding you completely helpless and you’re making demands. You needn’t worry about that girl you likely won’t see her again.”
Hoping that the pain on my face from exerting myself again would be thought of as pain from him holding me by the neck I continued to try and distract him. “You assholes always overlook one important detail.” I let tiny fingers of Power extend from my body, working their way around behind him through the shadows.
“What’s that little worm?” He pulled my face close to his; the familiar scent of fresh blood was on his breath. Oh shit oh shit oh shit, this had better work.
“I never hold back. You always leave something in reserve but I don’t give a shit about my life, or yours for that matter.” I struck at him from all sides with razor sharp wires of Power, using what felt like the last dregs of strength I had left.
I stared in shock; the trap I had set for him had been sprung on me. Somehow he had managed to switch our positions and my own attack had pierced my body in a hundred places. Carlos was standing across the room with a smug look on his face. The strength to hold myself up faded and I slumped in the painful embrace of wires, dimly phosphorescent vitae trickling down them and pooling on the floor.
“You really are an amateur if you believed something so simple would work on me. Thanks for draining the last of your energy though.” He walked calmly over to where I was pinned to the wall, floor and ceiling and snapped one of the wires that protruded from my torso. “Interesting technique, you really could have done some serious damage with this.” I could smell the blood on him again and the scent triggered dozens of memories in my mind. Memories of Ren blood inundated my senses, every time she had been injured and the times she had fed me, saving my life.
He could see the recognition on my face and chuckled, licking his lips, “That’s right, she was delicious. That nasty little vampire wasn’t that important to you was she?” Screaming in animal rage I thrashed against my self-imposed prison, ripping holes in my body but was unable to free myself. “Stop that, you’re going to damage yourself; I want you to be as intact as possible.”
Carlos walked into the other room and returned with a large duffle bag and a roll of duct tape. “Not quite as elegant as how we were going to transport you initially but it’ll have to do since you destroyed the container.” I would have fallen had the wires not been holding me up, my head fell on my chest. I was fading in and out of consciousness while he was trying to work out a way to cut me loose.
“I have to hurry, he’s worth a lot less to me dead.” He muttered to himself. It took everything I had to keep from twitching when he was touching my skin while he gently snapped the tiny cables free. I knew I would only have one chance and I’d have to wait carefully for it. When he was in front of me, reaching over my head to break one of the wires protruding from my back I lunged forward, tearing myself free from the remaining cables.
His eyes widened in amazement as my teeth found his throat. He had no time to so much as twitch before my jaws closed. The power he once owned coursed into my body; the food I desperately desired repairing some of the damage I had done by so recklessly abusing myself. I looked at the two men in the room, their comrade’s dark blood dripping from my chin, my eyes glowing with malice. They were backing slowly away, handguns forgotten in white knuckled fists. When they reached the open doorway the night itself seemed to reach out to annihilate them.
“Goddamn it Hex, how the fuck did you let these assholes take advantage of you?” Ren stumbled into the room; her left arm was hanging by tendons and slowly rebuilding itself as though her system was only barely able to recover. A large chunk of flesh was missing from her neck too. She looked like hell.
I laughed, a bubbling guttural sound through the ruins of my throat, elated to see her on her feet. “You don’t seem to have done much better. But at least we’re still alive, or at least not dead again or whatever. Is Svenka OK?” I looked down at my body with morbid curiosity; most of my clothing was torn to shreds. Underneath I could see large pieces of flesh reforming and gaping rents knitting themselves together.
“Yeah, she almost got her head taken off but I think she’s just going to get away with a concussion thanks to the influence of my blood.” She shook her head grimly, “I can’t believe he was one of them for so long and I didn’t have a clue. I must be slipping.”
“He had some serious Glamor ability on par with Mec I think.” In spite of the pain from my wounds healing it had been so long since I felt so alive. I was intoxicated with power. Humans weren’t sufficient for my needs but Hunters appeared to have what it took to satiate my hunger.
“You look better than you have in weeks, you’re practically glowing. At least that’s some consolation.” She shrugged her arm uncomfortably, “Those two weren’t quite enough for me, but it’ll have to do for now. We’d better get Svenka inside and find an interior room, the sun’s about to come up.”
“I’ll bring her in. You find a place to crash, you look like you really need the rest.” Ignoring her protests I walked out the door as if taking for granted she would do as she was told and after a short search found Svenka’s comatose form. Picking her up easily I walked back inside and found Ren passed out on a dilapidated bed. I gently set Svenka down next to her and covered them both with a blanket from a hall closet. Ren curled protectively around her and sighed in satisfaction.
Not feeling tired at all I wandered back out into the kitchen. It was stocked with cheap beer and mason jars that seemed to contain someone’s home distilled version of tequila and not much else unless you favored microwave burritos. I poured a half glass of the questionable booze since I figured it had a better chance of tasting good than the beer did.
After the first sip I wondered if I’d made a mistake but a second one made me realize that this wasn’t tequila at all. It was Mescal, and although it wasn’t aged it tasted as good or better than any I’d had in the past. Whoever made it knew what they were doing, I found myself hoping Ren hadn’t eaten the genius behind the liquor I was drinking.
I wondered how Burnham had known to find us and how Carlos had managed to pinpoint our location well enough to find us. The only thing I could think of was the phone I had gotten from Mec, but it was cased in lead. Who knows, maybe Burnham just had so many agents in the field one of them was bound to find us eventually. There was a chilling thought.
Savoring the smoky, salty flavor of the Mescal I went outside to scope out the place a little bit. I figured I’d better get the lay of the land just in case I had to defend the house during the day on my own. The sun hadn’t come up yet but the predawn glow was lighting up the sky. There was a dilapidated garage behind the house with a beat up Ford Taurus inside, a dog house with a chain hanging from a staple driven into one of the corner posts but no dog and a few scrubby trees. Other than that it appeared this place was completely deserted unless you counted the dozen or so lizards I spooked while walking around.
The wounds I had accidentally inflicted on myself had healed completely now, my body felt lighter than air. Walking was effortless, I could feel the strength that had come from Carlos surging through my veins. Taking a deep breath I concentrated on slowing my heart rate, relaxing my body and conserving my power. The training Dono had given me paid off; I was easily able to bring myself under control.
A slight noise brought me into the room where Ren and Svenka were still sleeping. Ren was murmuring in her sleep and Svenka had curled protectively around her. As soon as I saw them I knew what I had to do. The thought shocked and frightened me but I was certain they couldn’t be allowed to come with me.
Ren had suffered enough and if I was ever going to be able to keep her from repeating the horror of her past I was going to have to do this thing alone. I wasn’t certain if I could even do it by myself but I had to try; I wasn’t going to be long for this world anyway. Feeling like I was cutting off my own arm I concentrated and severed the Mindlink that had joined Ren and me for months now. The feeling of emptiness was nearly overpowering but I knew it was what I had to do.
Without looking back I walked to the door; here I hesitated. Damn what was I going to do? The sun was up and I knew from experience how brutal its normally benevolent rays could be. As I was trying to make up my mind whether to risk it or not I heard a voice from the other room.
“Hex. Get your fine ass in here and keep us warm.” A sleepy Svenka was demanding my presence. “I know we’ve had our altercations but I’m fucking cold. Make yourself useful and maybe I’ll forgive your past transgressions.”
Despite the fact that I knew I’d severed it, Ren’s voice came over the mindlink clear and strong, “Please Hex?” My crumbling resolve completely disintegrated and against my better judgment I returned to the room where they lay.
“I know you think you were doing us a favor my sweet Hex, but you would have only accomplished making it difficult for us to catch up.” Ren spoke aloud this time, surprising both Svenka and myself. Her voice was a pale whisper of its normal strength which made it even more powerful. Hearing her sound vulnerable cut me to the core. “Thank you for wanting to protect us. It’s one of the things I absolutely love about you.”
Almost against my will my arms encircled the pair of them. “I will keep you safe. If I can’t do it by leaving then I’ll do it by standing between you and anything that dares to try and harm you.”
She chuckled, “You’re going to have to work on staying conscious at the start of a fight then. Let’s settle for watching each other’s backs shall we?”
Svenka opened one eye, “Will you two shut up? Jesus, I feel like I got hit by a truck.” She trailed back into sleep still muttering.
“Sleep Ren, I’ll stay alert. Tomorrow night is going to be a wild ride. I need you to be at your best.” She snuggled back against me and for a few moments all the training in the world couldn’t have kept my pulse calm and steady.
The day passed without event, I only stayed with the girls for about half of it. The wounds I had sustained still pained me beyond anything I had ever experienced when I got them and were only marginally better as they healed. Lying in bed, even this bed with these people I valued so much was more than I could stand for an extended period of time.
I snuck into the next room and sat on the couch, attempting to find a position which would put my aching corpse at ease. Just when I was almost comfortable I heard the slightest whisper of air and spun, stopping my fist millimeters from Svenka’s face.
“So, you can be discerning when you are at your best.” She whispered. “I’m glad to see that. I have felt fear for the first time in decades tonight Hex. I can’t save her from this, I need you.” Tears glistened in her eyes and I realized I still hadn’t moved my fist. I awkwardly lowered it while she continued, “I saw things tonight Hex. Horrible things. I can’t help loving her but please tell me.” She looked at me, trembling in every limb. “What is she?”
I stared at her in shock, unsure what to say. It was hard to remember when seeing and doing the things Ren and I did to survive was frightening. It was even more surprising since I was talking to one of the most notorious assassins in recent history and she’d certainly never shown men any sort of weakness during our short acquaintance.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s not for me to say.” I looked in her eyes and almost lost my will to keep Ren’s secret.
“So… so she is…” Svenka swallowed, “She’s a vampire isn’t she? A fucking for real vampire. Oh Jesus what am I going to do? You’re in her thrall or whatever too aren’t you?”
“I owe her my life, what of it there is.” She took in the ragged appearance of my clothes and the unblemished skin beneath. My body appeared to be fully healed even if the internal damage was still being repaired.
“You’re one too. Of course, I’ve been feeling something strange from you for a long time now, that must be what it is.” I could see her imagination getting away from her.
“No. I’m something else. Something worse. I don’t want to talk about it.” I turned away from her now, I didn’t want to think about it either.
“You might as well tell her Hex.” I stared at Ren standing in the doorway. “We can’t do it without her and after tonight she deserves to know. I would have had to tell her eventually anyway and since they know we’re coming she should hear it before we get started.”
“Yeah… ok then. You called it Svenka. Ren’s a vampire and I’m some kind of man made undead or zombie or something.” Svenka looked between the two of us, obviously not prepared for my blunt delivery. She laughed nervously.
“He’s serious. Ahh shit.” She sat down heavily, hardly seeming to notice that she missed the couch and landed on the floor. After sitting for a couple moments she took a deep breath. “OK, my initial freak out is over. I’m too damn old to completely loose it over something like this.” Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides and I suspected she was struggling not to at least grab her knife hilt.
“So where does this leave us? I mean your plan makes a little more sense now, but what do you really need me for? Can’t you just go and take what you want? Who can stop you?” She was looking at us in confusion, “You’re immortal right? Renyovalia, I saw that man with the grenade launcher nearly blow you in half Ren and it didn’t stop you.” Svenka shuddered involuntarily, “You barely even slowed down.”
“What you didn’t see is that I barely made it through this fight. You were knocked silly by the shock wave from that grenade; without the blood I’ve fed you over the years you’d probably be dead or have permanent brain damage. We may be immortal but we’re not invulnerable.”
“Besides, we aren’t the only ones with abnormal powers. Like I said humans made me what I am, and there are more like me. Carlos was one of them… one of us I suppose.” I grimaced, “Apparently they want me to join them, it seems they were altered somehow to be vampire hunters.”
“Remember how I was looking for someone the night we met?” Ren locked eyes with her, “Well although I didn’t know his name at the time that man was Daniel Burnham, known to my kind as The Architect. He created a secret agency to track, capture and kill us. He killed one of my best friends a long time ago and scores of my comrades just a couple months ago.”
Svenka looked at Ren and her eyes narrowed slightly, “Why haven’t you told me this before? You’ve been … augmenting me for all these years?”
“Because doing it was already against the rules and actually telling you what was happening would have been even more of a violation. Sorry dear, but I’ve been programmed to behave in a certain way for centuries. It’d be like you walking out in public without clothes on.” Ren sighed, “Also I wasn’t sure how you’d take it. The first time was because you had cancer and you were dying; I could tell your life was ending and I couldn’t just sit there and let it happen. What I didn’t know then was that our Vitae is a fatally addictive drug for mortals. All I managed to do is tie your lifespan to mine and force our paths to align.”
Svenka did a funny little shrug, “Well it does explain a few things I suppose, but after this shit’s over you and I are going to have a long conversation about this.”
I heaved a mental sigh of relief, not wanting her to know how worried I had been, “Good now can we get the hell out of here? I have a feeling we are going to have a lot of ground to cover. We probably shouldn’t take Carlos’s car and I doubt if the Taurus in the garage out back is going to start.”
“Don’t underestimate my mechanical inclinations Hex.” Svenka cracked her knuckles, “I haven’t met a car yet who I couldn’t coax into running. Or I could just remove whatever tracking system Carlos might have had on that Impreza. But just to be safe maybe the Taurus is a better idea; it’s not like his car is very subtle.”
To my amazement she had the car running in about 90 seconds despite its extremely dilapidated appearance. “Actually this car was in pretty good shape regardless of the way it looked. The battery was charged and the gas tank is full. I think they made it look like crap so nobody would try and steal it.”
It only took a few minutes for us to transfer the gear from the Impreza to the Taurus and we set off down the dirt road on our way to the interstate, and then to meet who or whatever was waiting for us at The Sacramento Facility.
“Holy fucking hell did ya see that shit? I’m some kick ass driver right, I mean if there was anyone else behind the wheel they’d have been Swiss Cheese but not this guy. Seriously babe, I can take ya anywhere faster than anyone else. You just say the word and we’ll bug the hell otta here.” As I approached the punk was leaning close to Ren and talking animatedly. It looked for all the world like a mouse hitting on a cat.
“Oh Hex, there you are.” I could feel palpable relief from her over the mindlink, “I was wondering what was keeping you.” Over the link I could hear her continue, “If you’d been a couple minutes longer I would have killed this annoying waste of fucking flesh. Jesus I wouldn’t even have eaten him, just wrung his damn neck.”
“Hey Ren, sorry to keep you waiting.” I unslung the AK from my back for emphasis, checked the magazine and replaced it with a fresh one. “Any idea why those goons were after you?”
He paled, eyes fixed on the weapon in my hands, “No man, I don’t have a fuckin’ clue. All I know is I came out here to practice and all the sudden these fuckers are on my ass hardcore. I mean it’s not unusual to have dudes challenge me on these back country roads but they haven’t ever gone this far.”
“Yeah, there’s always those who get angry with people who have real talent.”
“What?” Ren’s voice was indignant in my head, “Are you fucking kidding me? Please tell me you aren’t pandering to this piece of shit’s ridiculous megalomania. He’s a worthless douchebag Hex, nothing more.”
“Hey darling, he’s good cover right? I assume he’s going to want to travel at night and under the radar. If we play to his ego maybe we’ll have an easy way across the border.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t really expect me to deal with this fucker for the next week?”
“Hey we all need to make sacrifices, right Ren? Besides, if it makes you feel any better the mortality rate of those we associate with is pretty high.”
Aloud I continued, “So your offer to take us wherever we want to go is still good right? I figure you owe me since I got those guys off your ass and we’re in a bit of a hurry.”
“Umm, I don’t know man. I can probably take you as far as the border.” He was regretting shooting off his mouth now but it’s hard to argue with a guy who has a loaded assault rifle.
“We can figure that out later, first let’s get off this hilltop, I feel exposed up here.” I walked to the Landrover and grabbed the toolbox and a blanket to cover it with. “If it’s OK with you we’d rather travel at night. It’s easier to avoid unwanted attention that way.”
“Our primary destination is near Hermosillo.” Ren’s voice purred, “Think you can get us there before sunup?” I could feel her expending Power; the afterglow of her Glamour was so strong it nearly pulled me in. For an instant I was dizzy with the desire to please her.
“Fuck yeah I can get you there before the sun comes up. Carlos is the fastest motherfucker in Mexico. You need it transported, I’m your man.”
“Whoa, aren’t you overdoing that a little Ren?” The mindlink connection momentarily amplified her mental suggestion and I had to lean against the car to keep my knees from buckling.
“What the hell is wrong with you? You weren’t even the target and the target doesn’t seem to be in rough shape at all. Suck it up Hex, I can’t have you turning into a weakling now.”
She was right, I was weak. Even Dono’s training wasn’t sufficient to keep full control of my mental capacities. In contrast our gracious driver was holding the door for Ren, practically bouncing on his toes with the impatience to be off. I climbed in the back seat and buckled in while Ren fended off Carlos’s attempt to help her connect the four point harness.
“Piss off, it’s not like I haven’t seen a harness system before, just get in the damn car.” He ran around, hopped into the driver’s seat and buckled in. Instead of a key he leaned forward and pushed a green button on the dash marked “GO BABY GO” and the car roared into life. I waved goodbye to Dono’s Landrover as we tore away, slinging gravel from all four tires.
The speed with which we were moving was pretty astonishing. In spite of all the bluff and bluster this kid was actually walking the walk; he could DRIVE. Thankfully his full concentration was on driving and his steady stream of bullshit and flirting had stopped.
“Something’s wrong.” Ren’s voice was quiet in my head, “I don’t know what it is but there’s something off about this kid. Be careful and watch my back Hex.”
“You know it Ren. If nothing else you can count on me to have your back.” I looked at the side of Carlo’s face that was visible from my vantage point. He appeared to be perfectly normal to me apart from having ridiculous driving skills. Trees flew by my window at an alarming rate and the car seemed to be sideways more than it was going straight. If I hadn’t been securely strapped in my body would have been flying all over the back seat; as it was I was forced to hang onto the handle above the door with one hand and hold onto the back of Ren’s seat with the other. It was like riding on a rollercoaster.
“Thanks Hex. You know you can rely on me too right? I mean I’m not as fucking crazy as you are but it would suck if you weren’t around anymore.”
True to his word Carlos had us approaching the outskirts of Hermosillo by 4:30AM. “So where did you want to crash for the night? There’s a couple nice hotels up this direction.” He glanced at Ren with a smile that bordered on a leer.
“In the center of Ejido La Piana there’s a small artist retreat dubiously named “Rasgones de la Tierra” a friend of mine runs it. She’s a little crazy but let’s be honest here; we’re all a little crazy.”
“Sure, whatever you say.” I caught a flicker of something from him. For the barest instant his face looked different, less round with a longer sharper chin. Then he turned his head and I decided it was just the illumination from the instrument cluster. Probably.
“Ren, did you see that?”
“See what? That he has all the personality of a dog humping my leg?”
“I swear it looked like his face changed shape, but just for a moment”
“No, actually I’m trying not to look directly at him. Keep an eye on him Hex, I trust him even less now he’ll only stay Enamored for so long and it doesn’t really change his overall personality unfortunately. He seems to be ignoring you now that you aren’t holding a gun anymore, take advantage of that.”
She had a point, I decided to do something about that. Keeping one eye on Carlos in the rearview mirror I carefully reached into the toolbox and withdrew one of the black 45’s from it and groped around for a magazine. Finally finding one I slipped it into my front pocket and tucked the unloaded pistol behind my belt. At least now I’d have some sort of intimidation device without expending any Power that would give me away.
Within a few minutes with Ren’s direction we had arrived at Rasgones de la Tierra. “You guys wait in the car until I go talk to Svenka. Like I said she’s a little crazy and I don’t want her to get the wrong idea.”
“Wait, what do you mean get the wrong idea?” I caught her hand as she was stepping out of the car. “What the hell are you getting us into?”
“It’s no big deal Hex. She’s just a little strange and a bit of a survivalist.” Ren favored me with a quick smile and a wink, pulled her hand from mine and slipped into the house.
“What’s the deal with you guys?” Carlos got out of the car and stretched, his back popping audibly. “It’s like you’re on a different wavelength or something. Shit, you only speak half sentences, only travel at night, are obviously not from Mexico even if you speak decent Spanish and carry automatic weapons. What are you guys like in the mafia or something?” Speak Spanish? Half sentences? What the fuck was he talking about? Damn, we must have been slipping with the mindlink but I certainly wasn’t speaking Spanish.
“Don’t worry about it, the less you know the better off you’ll probably be.” I gave him a considering look, “Then again, perhaps you could be an asset. What’re you doing now? Anything you can’t put off?”
I was watching carefully, his eyes flickered up and to the left for just an instant. “Not really. What are you offering?”
What the hell did I care if he got screwed over or not, “Money, fame, power and a chance to drive like a bat out of hell through some of the most consistently rugged terrain available.” I grinned, “It’s a wild ride, but if you survive you’ll have enough money to retire for life.”
“Yeah. I’ll think about it OK. Your name’s Hex right? What’s that short for?” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, “It’s been bugging me for awhile now, I can’t figure it out. Wanna coffin nail?” I plucked a cig from the pack he was offering and bent to light it from his lighter.
“Not short for anything.” I blew a plume of smoke at the moon, “It’s the only name I’ve got now. What the hell is taking her so long?” Over the link I sent out a question, “Ren what’s up?”
“Really? That’s the strangest name I’ve ever heard. Like something out of a comic or a movie.” He leaned against the door of the car and sighed. “At least it’s unique though. Must be a million Carlos’s out there.”
“She’s not in here Hex. I’m trying to find the crafty bitch but I’m not having any luck locating her.” I felt a whisper of air and before I could turn the blade of a knife was at my Adams apple.
“Don’t move a fucking muscle asshole. I’ll cut a new hole for you to smoke out of if you even flinch.” The voice sounded like it belonged to a 6 year old girl but I could feel the blade of the knife gently parting layers of skin.
“Found her Ren. Well she found me. Care to come explain things before she makes a mess of my throat?” I froze and allowed her to pull the pistol from my belt.
“What the fuck? Where did you come from? Holy sweet Jesus you scared the shit otta me!” Carlos was laughing nervously. The knife at my neck didn’t waver but the gun pointed at him over my shoulder.
“You keep your hands where I can see them. In case you didn’t notice I see in the dark like a cat so don’t try any funny shit.” Her voice was almost too much for me to handle, it pushed the situation over the edge into absurdity. I struggled not to laugh.
“Svenka, is that any way to treat friends of an old friend?” Ren appeared at my side as though she had arrived by magic and put her hand on the arm holding the knife. “Besides that gun isn’t loaded and even if it was you’d be lucky to hit the car with your firearm skills. The last time I saw you target practice it was painful!”
The pistol moved to point at Ren and clicked. “Huh. So you weren’t bluffing after all you daughter of a beet farmer.”
“You should know I don’t bluff when I’m holding all the cards you old Swedish hag.”
Svenka burst out laughing, a surprisingly rich and full laugh that contrasted with the shrillness of her voice. The knife moved away from my neck and she gave Ren an exuberant hug. “Damn me it’s good to see you again. Come inside I have some things to show you.” She glanced at Carlos and me. “I suppose they can come in too if they behave. You haven’t aged a single bit Renyovalia; someday I’m going to squeeze that secret out of you.” She was tall and muscular, making it hard for me to believe she had moved so silently especially with the moonlight washing her wrist thick braid silver. The black tank top and shorts she wore showed her form off to good advantage. As we entered the porch of the house I saw that her hair wasn’t blond, it was actually white.
“Other than your hair, which you could dye if you really wanted to, you don’t look any older yourself.” Ren said wryly.
“Oh stop, I’m getting crow’s feet and you have no idea how much work I have to do to stay toned.” We followed her to an interior room with odd accommodations. There was a large fireplace in the center with embers still glowing; a variety of freshly thrown pottery seemed to be curing on the hearth. A potter’s wheel sat on a slightly raised slate floor on one side with several bags of clay carefully wired closed on shelves next to rows of neatly arranged clay tools. Between us and the fireplace was a thick carpet with a variety of large cushions and a couple of low tables. The opposite side had a small kitchen with a single burner stove, large refrigerator and a well-used butcher block.
“Make yourselves at home boys. Renyovalia and I have some matters to discuss in private, please sit on the veranda if you want to smoke. Help yourself to whatever.” Svenka was holding Ren’s hand and pulling her from the room.
“Ren, what’s up?” I was a little worried, but not very. Ren was more than capable of taking care of herself.
Her reply came back over the mindlink, “Just catching up Hex. I haven’t seen her in ten years, and she’s a pretty shy person actually.” And with that the link was definitively closed. Huh.
I wandered to the bar and found it to be fully stocked with an assortment of powdered nutrients in stoppered blown glass containers and a few small clay pots with loose tea leaves inside. Fruit and vegetable juices filled most of the refrigerator. I filled a teapot with water from the tap and put it on the burner. I hadn’t had a good Jasmine tea in ages.
“Shit, there’s no beers in this fridge.” Carlos had followed me into the kitchen.
“Yeah, I get the impression that Svenka takes better care of herself than most people do. I’m looking forward to a good cup of tea though, it’s so relaxing.” He looked at me as though trying to decide if I was making fun of him. “Seriously. Don’t get me wrong I’d rather have an ice cold beer but tea is good too, especially quality stuff like this.” I poured the boiling water into a large earthenware mug.
“Sure. Look I’m gonna find a room to crash out in, I hope there’s actually a fucking bed and not just a pile of cushions on the floor.” He walked down the opposite hallway from the one Ren and Svenka had gone down and I heard a door close. I sat alone on the hearth, the warm stone feeling relaxing against my back. The aroma of the brewing tea mingled with the wood smoke from the open fireplace to my right.
Closing my eyes I let myself feel my surroundings, the currents and undercurrents of energy in the room. It was mostly for relaxation, but Dono had told me that eventually the exercise would allow me to interpret the emotions of those who surrounded me. I took a deep breath and beneath the fragrance of the tea, wood smoke and the earthy scent of clay I could smell something else. It smelled sweet, like incense and honey, sharp like the first whiff of a freshly opened bottle of whiskey, with just a hint of decay. I was pretty sure that was Ren. There were other scents too but they were too muddled for me to discern what they were. I remembered Dono telling me that those closest to me would be the first I would be able to… Harmonize with he had called it.
Sitting and sipping my tea I let my mind wander. One problem Ren and I had was we were trapped in here until the sun set. If Carlos took it upon himself to bail before then we would be screwed unless we could secure alternate transport. I couldn’t take his keys because apparently his Impreza didn’t have keys. I wondered why he thought I had been speaking Spanish. Shit, maybe I had been. Looking around I spotted a newspaper folded neatly on an end table near the cushions. Wandering over I looked at it and saw that it was written in English. The front page was a story on the destruction of a house on the edge of a picturesque sandy grotto being the victim of a freak landslide.
Glancing at the picture I immediately recognized Dono’s house. Oh shit, there’s just no way that was a coincidence. I started reading the story but was interrupted by the sound of a door softly closing and looked up to see Svenka padding quietly into the room. She saw me and her mouth formed an ‘o’ of surprise.
“I thought you’d have been asleep by now.”
“I don’t really sleep. It’s been a problem for a few weeks now. There’s hot water would you like some tea?” I studied her, trying to glean any information I could.
“Tea would be fantastic; it smells like you brewed some of my favorite Jasmine.” She let me go re-heat the water slightly and pour it over leaves in another earthenware mug while she lounged on some cushions. While Svenka settled herself I could see the faint outline of a knife sheath at the small of her back, probably the blade she’d used on me.
“Is Ren sleeping?” It was a loaded question, I was pretty sure Ren didn’t sleep unless she was completely drained and that wasn’t really likely. I still couldn’t feel her through the mindlink though and that was a little troubling.
“Yeah, she was pretty tuckered out. We had a good chat though; it’s so hard to have her gone for long periods of time.” She sipped her tea appreciatively and gave me a feral smile over the rim of the cup, “She always makes up for it though.” I had been anticipating something like this and just nodded.
“What kind of training do you have? I’m not the easiest guy to sneak up on and you totally blindsided me.” I sipped my tea and watched the satisfied smile touch her mouth.
“I’ve just always had a knack for being quiet. Ren’s the only person I know who’s better at it than me.” She leaned forward and I noticed that her face was much smoother than before; some of the wrinkles had around her eyes were gone. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but her hair also looked like it had a blonde tinge to it instead of the bright silver it had been before she and Ren had gone for their little chat.
Grimacing at my empty teacup I stood and walked to the kitchen trying to think of an excuse to go check on Ren. This woman was dangerous and probably in more ways than I knew. I scooped the tea leaves into a small compost bin and refilled the kettle. “Hey, any chance I could get that pistol back? It’s one of a matched set that I got from a close friend.”
“Yeah sure, I left it on the dresser in that room. I don’t really have any use for firearms anyway.” I turned to walk down the hallway and she called after me, “Hey it can’t be that urgent.”
“Sorry, I just feel naked without it, you know like that knife you keep within reach all the time.” Her eyes widened slightly and she stopped her hand from moving towards it an instant too late. Narrowing her eyes slightly she gave me a look that suggested she was re-assessing her opinion of me.
“Fine, if it means that much to you. If you wake her up though I’ll give you a scar to remember me by.” Her hand hardly seemed to move and a slim silver blade was in it. With another flourish it disappeared back into its sheath.
I moved down the hall and eased the door open. Ren really was sleeping sprawled half out of sheets that appeared to be made of silk. One leg mostly exposed one arm under a fat pillow and the other across her chest. She was also completely unclothed, the silk molding to her figure and leaving little to the imagination. I pulled my eyes away from her with effort and carefully plucked Dono’s sidearm from the dresser.
Turning to go I heard a whisper, “Just need a little rest Hex. She’s so demanding and needy.” Ren shifted slightly and I could see a newly healed cut on her left wrist when she moved her hand to rest against her thigh. The smile on her face was the twin of the vulpine grin that had been on Svenka’s lips. “She’s a lot of fun though.”
Satisfied that she was safe and feeling a little awkward I slipped back out of the room. “So you can move pretty well too. I’ll give you that.” Svenka winked at me and patted the cushion next to her, “Come on over here and tell me how you and Renyovalia met.”
“How’d I meet Ren? Oh you know, the usual.” I was totally unprepared for this question and was scrambling to come up with something.
Svenka laughed, “Now I know that can’t be true. Nothing’s ever usual with Renyovalia. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her.” She set her teacup down on a low table, leaned back on the cushions and stared off into space.
“I had been invited to share some of my work at one of New York’s newest and hottest galleries. It was a rather dark period in my life, my husband of five years had revealed that he’d had a dozen or more affairs and the divorce was messy. The man who had invited me to create some pieces for this show was supposed to meet me there. Burnham was his name I think.” Now she had my attention.
“Well the bastard was late and I was hanging around the entrance nervous that it was just a joke and I’d wasted a month crafting pieces that would never see display. There were quite a few big players in the New York art world all arriving by limo, all wearing some variation on the same boring crap we were all wearing. Just before the news crews were going to pack up and leave the sound of a big bore motorcycle shatters the night air.”
Svenka’s face lit up with the memory, “Ren blasts in on a custom Indian Larry springer hardtail wearing this skin tight orange and black leather jacket and pants, with her hair streaming out behind her and skids to a halt on the red carpet. Someone had heard buzz about her as an art critic and asked her to come and give her impression on the show. For some reason she loved my work and attached herself to my side from the first glance she took at the things I had created for the show.”
For some reason. Yeah, right she was there looking for clues about The Architect, I’d bet money on it. She had been so close to finding out the truth that I had discovered. “What kind of art were you into then?”
“Oh it was mostly clay but some mixed media as well. I mixed blood into the clay before firing it and it created disturbing patterns in the pottery. I also did some things with wire, steel and rawhide. It was pretty immature stuff, but edgy and different at the time.” She shook her head, “Renyovalia is really something else though. What does she mean to you? TELL ME.”
The volume and pitch of her words didn’t change but I felt Power in them. A weak form of Ren’s Glamor attempted to take me over and I felt a momentary need to tell her everything. I was so surprised that before I could stop myself I said, “I owe her my life and maybe more. She’s the only person in the world I can count on right now.”
She looked at me suspiciously, “What’s that supposed to mean? EXPLAIN YOURSELF.”
But this time I was ready. “Suffice it to say that she is important to me, and I to her.” Svenka’s command rolled off mental preparations Dono had taught me and I was able to answer under my own power. “How about you? Ren’s obviously as important to you as she is to me if not more so.”
“She’s mine. I’m hers. She’s my lover Hex and my beloved despite her penchant of abandoning me for years at a time. I’m not letting her go this time; I can’t bear to be parted with her again.” She leaned close to me, her face fierce with desire. “I can’t live without her, or at least I won’t.”
“Well I think that’s up to her, don’t you?” I edged back from her ever so slightly, ready for anything at this point.
“What the fuck is all this goddamn noise?” Carlos stumbled out into the room, bleary eyed and wearing only his boxers. I had to admit the dude had a decent figure. “Jesus Christ I’m just trying to get some fucking shuteye after these assholes made me drive all night. Is it too much to ask to have some peace and quiet?”
He turned and shuffled out of the room and the absurdity of the situation made me start to laugh. My laughter was contagious and Svenka joined in. “I’m not kidding though Hex. I’ve decided to give up everything. If she won’t stay with me I’m going with her. You can’t stop me.”
“I might be able to stop you Svenka, but I like to let people make their own decisions whenever possible.” I shrugged, “It’s only fair to warn you that we’re a bit of a dangerous crowd, we’re hunted by some people who would like nothing more than to see us chopped into tiny quivery pieces and set on fire.”
“Thanks for your concern, but I’m not exactly helpless myself.” Her hand unconsciously strayed toward the small of her back again.
I chuckled, “I can attest to that; it just seems like you have a pretty nice place here and a good life from what little I’ve seen of it. I’d hate to see you screw it all up; Ren will be back some time. Hopefully then she won’t have killers on her trail ya know?”
Svenka shook her head and gave me a sidelong glance, “Since you don’t really know me at all, I’ll forgive that comment. ‘Good life’ my ass. Do you know the term ‘machismo’ Hex? It’s how most men in Mexico think they have to interact with women and a successful, strong, capable woman like myself makes them nervous and feel threatened. So yeah, I have my own business, my own place and manage to eke out a living but it’s far from being a wonderful charmed existence.
“Besides, the shiny has worn off outliving all my critics. I’m ready to get back into the real world again.” She grinned at my confusion, “I’ve unlocked the secret to eternal youth Hex. The way I treat my body, the food I eat and the meditation I do has extended my life long past that of my colleagues with the exception of Renyovalia. I’m not sure how she manages to stay as youthful as she does with her reckless lifestyle.”
“Outlive? What do you mean Svenka; you can’t be more than maybe forty? Forty five?” I looked at her unlined face and wondered exactly what Ren had done to her.
She threw her head back and laughed delightedly, “Hex I’m turning ninety five years old next month.” Now I was certain Ren had a hand in her longevity. That would explain the strange weak Glamour-like ability she seemed to have too.
“Unreal, I can’t imagine how you pull it off. You look young even for forty honestly.”
She smiled; soaking up the adulation. “I’m not telling; if I did loads of assholes who don’t deserve to live longer would still be surviving. What I want to know is how Renyovalia does it. She smokes, drinks, stays up all night and hardly eats anything but still looks amazing.”
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a secret meant to be shared either.” Svenka’s eyebrows rose, “I suppose I only found out by accident myself.”
“There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye Hex. At first I thought you were just another one of the string of worthless assholes she’s had in her life but you’re different. This is the first time I’ve met one of Renyovalia’s acquaintances who wasn’t a miserable bastard.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” I grimaced at my cold tea and sighed, “Well I guess I’ve gotta say the same Svenka. You seem to be all right too; unlike the other of Ren’s friends I’ve had the displeasure of meeting. Although I thought some of them were OK in the beginning too, but at least you’re protective of her.”
“Overprotective is more like it.” Ren stood in the doorway, wearing a long linen robe loosely tied at the waist. “I’m glad you two are getting along, we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other over the next couple of weeks.”
“Renyovalia!” Svenka jumped up to warmly embrace Ren.
“What do you mean we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other Ren?” I was afraid I already knew the answer but had to ask anyway.
“Don’t play stupid Hex, it fits you about as well as ‘weak’ or ‘helpless,’ you know exactly what I mean. Did you think we stopped here just for a place to crash?” In my mind she continued, “I can’t leave her again so soon Hex. It would kill her.”
“Since when are you so damn soft Ren?” I replied over the mindlink, “Her feelings aside, she’s just dangerous enough to be cocky and that kind of attitude will get you killed in the world you and I inhabit.”
“I have certain skills Renyovalia and yourself may find useful Hex. She explained everything to me last night before our other more intimate discussion took place.” Svenka smiled that possessive Cheshire grin of hers.
“No Hex, I mean she’ll really die. She believes she is just my lover but in reality she is a human who I have granted a small portion of my vampiric vitality to.” Ren’s sending was tense and nervous, “When I was young and unsure of my newfound Powers I discovered that I have this ability. To a mortal, consuming just a few drops of my vitae is like a powerful, euphoric drug.”
“Everything? Such as what exactly?” I wanted to keep Svenka talking long enough for Ren to finish explaining herself to me without there being a long awkward silence.
“To make a long story short you two are on the run from the Mob, and on your way to rescue a friend who has been captured by them.” Svenka was smug and satisfied that Ren trusted her with this knowledge.
“The other part Hex is that like my drug my vitae is highly addictive. However, unlike normal drugs without properly weaning the recipient slowly the side withdrawal symptom is death. Besides, she does have some skills we can use. In addition to the euphoric effects she also gains a hint of my Power and longevity. Since Svenka was dangerous before that enhancement she is even more so now. Plus she can pick a lock faster than anyone else I know.”
“Great one more to worry about.” I said aloud, partially to fill the silence and partially to let both the women know I wasn’t exactly happy with the situation.
“Oh shut up Hex. I can take care of myself.” Svenka was partially indignant, unsure if I was joking or not.
“Believe me, I know you can.” I ruefully rubbed my neck where the razor burn from her knife still itched, “That’s what I’m worried about. I guess I’m going to have to resign myself to being stuck with you though.” Before she could do more than glare at me I walked to an end table where I had set the folder containing my notes on the facility we were planning on infiltrating. “If you are coming with you need to know the game plan. Look over this information and see if you can see anything I missed.”
Svenka shut her mouth on the spiteful comeback she had been preparing to hit me with. “Every time I think I have you figured out you surprise me Hex.” She reached for the folder with a quizzical look on her face.
“One more thing Hex. She doesn’t know jack shit… just in case you hadn’t figured that out for yourself. She credits her long life and physical prowess on a bunch of health shakes and meditation which I hear does have some effect on mortals, but that’s not the reason she’s in such good shape.”
“Yeah, I guessed as much. You know I don’t exactly approve of how you’re treating her.” Ren’s eyebrows rose, “You know confusing her with Glamor and all. It’s not cool; she really loves you I think.”
I could feel the sadness Ren was feeling, “What makes you think I’ve been staying away because I don’t feel the same Hex? She doesn’t deserve the life of death and chaos I would subject her to. I keep extending her existence because she is one of the few rays of sunshine in my life. I stay away because I can’t bear to have her involved any more than she is. Until now. I need her Hex, she keeps me strong in much the same way you do.”
My mouth dropped open but Svenka was already talking to me and I couldn’t focus on her and process Ren’s comments at the same time. “OK this looks good Hex, except for a few things. First, your timelines to get from point to point are way too ambitious. You’d have to be able to run over thirty miles per hour to cover these hallways at that speed.”
I exchanged a guilty glance with Ren. When I made these plans we had been thinking it was just going to be Ren and I so that speed wasn’t unreasonable.
“We have a plan for that. There are supposed to be some transports around and we’re hoping to snag a couple. Barring that we’ll just have to increase our checkpoint times.” I paused, trying to think fast and settled on sarcasm. In my sweetest voice I said, “If you need help I can give you a piggy back ride.”
“The second question I have is what the FUCK kind of mafia group are you involved with here? This security is ridiculous, the building is massive and the personnel roster makes it look like there’s a small army in there. Well? What aren’t you telling me?” Then she looked at me, her voice becoming dangerous. “What have you gotten her into?”
“It’s not him dear, it’s me.” Ren hung her head, “That’s why I’ve been away so long, I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“Well it’s both of us really. Now that I’m involved they’re not likely to leave me alone either.”
“Let me do the talking Hex.” Ren admonished me over the mindlink, “I was sorta expecting this, she’s just too damn smart.”
“Remember when we first met?”
“Renyovalia, of course I remember.” Svenka’s voice softened, “Sometimes it feels like that’s my first memory.”
“I told you I was looking for someone didn’t I? A very dangerous man who was probably wanted by every single government on the face of the earth for a multitude of crimes? Well, with Hex’s help I’ve finally found the bastard.”
“I don’t believe it. You told me after he didn’t show up that night you had reached a dead end.”
“Actually that was the closest I have ever been to catching up with him, even if I didn’t know it. If you and I hadn’t slipped out of the gallery opening early to spend the night together I would probably have been killed.” She looked at Svenka with a tear that I was sure wasn’t faked in her eye, “Your love likely saved my life.”
The emotion leaking over the mindlink enveloped me as well, warming me from the inside out. I could tell that the words were having a similar effect on Svenka who took a deep breath and looked back at the paper in her hand.
“Fine, I’ll let it go for now. I still think this is far too dangerous for a team as small as ours, but maybe that’s the only chance of success we have. All right, my third question is why don’t we know more about the room in the center? Our main objective seems to be an unknown right now.”
“That’s because you’re right, it is an unknown. The room was recently built; slightly after this data was collected. We also don’t know what condition Tsung is going to be in when we find him.” I shrugged, “It’s a huge risk, but it’s one we’re going to have to take. Our last contact might be able to furnish us with more information when we actually arrive at the facility. He’s supposed to meet us there.”
“Last question then, do we really have to take that douche along as our driver? Surely you could have done better than him. Where the hell did you pick him up anyway?”
“I think he knows a quick quiet way across the border, or at least the amount of cocaine he’s carrying would suggest as much. I don’t think much of him either but he is fast.” Ren admitted grudgingly.
Svenka threw up her hands, “You are both crazy. One of you is fine with a drug running walking hardon for a driver and the other thinks breaking into a top-secret grade facility with zero knowledge of the final objective is perfectly acceptable. It’s a good thing I’m coming with or you guys would be totally screwed.”
“How is Burnham still alive?” Mec was relighting his cigar, “That is a valid question Hex, and one which I also do not have an answer for.”
“Well then I’ll just have to ask him myself.” I paused and gave him a level look, “I think you shouldn’t be here when Ren wakes up.”
“What? But you’ll need my assistance. There’s no way you’ll be able to get into some of those facilities without someone who knows their way around.”
“That’s why I’m keeping this.” I hefted the phone, “Look Mec, if I reacted the way I did and nearly killed you three times she’s not going to do any better. You helped kill all her friends. You’re working for the man who orchestrated the deaths of even more of her friends. You’ve been lying to her about who you were and what you were doing for years, decades even. I think she deserves better… and I think she’ll rip you apart if she finds out the truth.”
Mec’s face fell, “I suppose I probably should have expected as much. I wanted to explain myself to her in person but I imagine you have the proper assessment of the situation.” He sighed, “My time is fairly limited; something which I’m sure you can relate to. However, I have some emergency procedures in place that I can make use of if it comes to that. They just won’t be comfortable.”
I nodded “You can still contact me on this thing right?” I was still a little distrustful of the gleaming silver and glass sliver of technology in my left hand. “And you’re certain that I can’t be tracked with it?”
“Oh yes, I can get ahold of you anywhere in the world on that device. I actually did something brilliant with the tracking device; I attached it to the spot where they believed me to have perished. The skin I shed carries it and I believe that lacking creativity they sealed it in concrete like common mobsters.” I decided not to ask about the skin and the process of shedding it. I really didn’t want to know.
“Good. I value the information this little device has in it but not at the expense of my anonymity. Since sacrificing that is as good as dousing myself in gasoline and lighting a cigarette.” Wondering if I had just accepted a brick of C-4 with a remote detonator attached I slipped the phone in my pocket. “How do I wake Ren up? Jam bit her… and I think drained her pretty badly. I don’t have anything to feed her and she might explode if she bites me. Jam did anyway.”
“You did well bringing her here. This place will help rejuvenate her, and also her machines store a bit of energy that they can feed back to her. As long as she doesn’t expend herself too much before she feeds again she ought to be OK for a couple days. Just none of the antics you two were pulling before like riding day and night for a week.”
“That’s fine. We’ve lost the bikes anyway, I’m not going back to the bar to claim them. I figure we’ll swipe Dono’s Landrover. I’ll paint the windows black like I’m Spike from Buffy.” He gave me a blank look, “Never mind. It’s a TV show.”
“I’ll head to the Sacramento facility before you, or at least I’ll start there ahead of you. Odds are we’ll arrive at roughly the same time since you will have an easier time traveling. Good luck Hex.” With a tip of his hat he shuffled out the door and I was left standing in a room littered with shattered glass wondering if I’d done the right thing by letting him go.
* * *
I decided to do more research on the facility we would be infiltrating. The sunlight wasn’t as unpleasant to my eyes as it had been before, so I decided to stay upstairs. I walked over the broken glass back into the pantry and discovered a few bottles of wine hadn’t exploded when I had nearly released my rage on Mec. Grabbing one at random I uncorked it and walked back to the dining room, picking up a notepad and a felt tip pen from next to the phone. I pulled of the comfy wicker chairs from a corner and dragged it out to a small coffee table.
Sitting in the dining room I pulled out the smartphone and started sorting through the data on the Sacramento research facility. I began scribbling notes, not being sure if the phone’s battery would last very long or not. There were detailed diagrams of many things but what I was mainly interested in was entrance points and making a route to the chamber where The Original was stored. Alternating between taking sips from the bottle of wine, a malolactic chardonnay from the light buttery aftertaste on my tongue, and drawing diagrams, maps, writing notes on locations of cameras and access panels I worked for several hours.
The sun beginning to set brought the amount of time I’d spent sitting here to my attention. I had pages of notes and an empty bottle of wine. The phone didn’t seem to have a battery bar so I took a couple moments to find and activate the off switch. I gathered my notes and stood, stretching to work the kinks out of my back. Figuring I could explain the intel I had gathered by claiming some vague connection to Dono’s library I went to check on Ren.
She hadn’t moved from the spot I had left her. Her face was still pale and her skin was cold, as far as I could see nothing had changed. Since she hadn’t stirred I decided to look into burying poor Donovalo. I picked him up and brought him outside, still wrapped in my shirt to keep him all together. A quick search of the garage yielded a spade and a pickaxe. I closed my eyes and tried to feel the leylines of the area, knowing that the nearly full moon would magnify their presence and allow me to see well enough to dig a grave. My subconscious guided me to the foot of a massive tree and I began to dig. The manual labor would occupy my body and leave my mind free to categorize the information I had absorbed thus far.
The first thing that came to mind was how easy it had been to actually convince Mec to betray someone he had been supposedly working with for years on projects of monumental scale. I dropped the spade and used the pickaxe to chop through a root the size of my wrist that was in the way. It seemed to me that most people would probably at least establish a rapport or have some feeling of respect with someone they had worked with for so long, even if Mec had never met him in person.
I wondered how he had known about our motorcycle trip. We hadn’t told anyone about it, but then again Jam had managed to find us somehow.
Something else that bothered me was how excited he had been when he realized some of Ren’s blood had mingled with mine and that I had the same inhibiting machines built into myself that she did. Come to think of it he hadn’t really begun to be open and cooperative until he’d found that out. With the large root out of the way I resumed my work with the spade. It occurred to me that I had probably made a big mistake when I revealed that little secret; not that I could have helped it since it had been news to me too.
Thinking about that reminded me how much I was hesitant to carry the device he had given me. I had an idea about that though and the more I thought about it the more I was sure I was going to do it. The ground I was digging through was rich and black, despite my fears that I would hit bedrock or sand it was still a healthy loam even four feet down. So here I was, digging a grave and wondering how long it would be until I was going to be occupying one… really the only person I could trust was Ren and I was pretty sure that I was going to have to lie to her in order to preserve her trust in me. If I told her about Mec there’s no way she would be able to trust me since I let him go. I thought about that for a long time, then I decided that I’d rather she distrust me because I told the truth instead of her mistrusting me because I kept the truth from her. After all she was my only friend and I was going to need her help no matter what.
I had finally gotten down around six feet and decided to stop. Any deeper and I would risk hitting the water table. Taking advantage of my abilities I simply jumped out of the hole picked up Dono’s body and jumped back down. Not sure what he would have wanted but figuring it didn’t really matter at this point I just made sure his head was pointing north and covered him up. It wouldn’t take long for his nutrients to help the tree above him grow; I thought he’d appreciate that at least.
“Sorry I couldn’t do more for you Donovalo. You deserved better. Thank you for everything.” I realized this was the first time I’d actually been present at a burial. Despite the circumstances I felt a weight lift from my shoulders after doing what I felt was right by someone who I considered an ally even if I didn’t know him well enough to call him a friend.
Gathering my tools, I made my way back to the garage. I had a plan to make absolutely sure Mec’s phone wasn’t going to be giving away my location. Using a flicker of Power I melted an old car battery into a steel ammunition box with a locking lid. I kept melting the battery and drizzling the lead so that it coated the inside of the ammo container and after I was sure I had good coverage I made sure I could still close the lid completely and then let it cool. That ought to keep any unwanted communication from happening I thought with a smirk and after it had cooled I wrapped the phone in a shop rag and stuck it inside. Now that I had taken care of the basics I went back inside and sat next to Ren, waiting for her to wake up.
* * *
When I got back into the room where Ren was there was a momentary flicker as though a light switch had been quickly turned on and off and I thought I saw someone standing next to her for a second. My guard was instantly up and my body tingled with the desire to unleash destruction on whatever alien presence was there. After a couple of tense moments I decided whatever it had been was gone or more likely I had imagined the whole thing. I settled myself on the floor with my back against the wall, closed my eyes and let the tension slowly drain out of my body. For the moment we ought to be safe, I needed to take a few minutes to just sit still.
After about an hour I heard Ren begin to stir and opened my eyes, relieved to see her finally coming around. “Hey stranger, how are you feeling?”
She stretched and winced, “Sore. Tired. Hungry. Other than that I’m doing ok.” Her voice was subdued, I could tell she recognized her surroundings.
“I know this probably isn’t where you would have preferred to come around, but I didn’t know where else to bring you. I can show you where I buried him if you want to say goodbye to Donovalo once you’re feeling up to it.”
She looked at me, “Under that massive tree on the ridge. That was a good choice, I know he liked to sit under that tree in the afternoon when the sun would shine against the trunk.” A tear leaked out of the corner of her eye. “Thanks Hex.”
“I also have to tell you that Mec was here.” She sat bolt upright and I could feel her trying to link. Using the things Dono had taught me I could have fended her off but instead I just let her take what she wanted. She wasn’t gentle but I was careful not to hold back. “I won’t hide anything from you Ren.” Talking made her rummaging around in my brain hurt a little less, “If you want revenge on him you’re going to have to do it on your own time. I think the condition he’s in is revenge enough for me.”
“Why did you let him go? I want to see him face to face. Even in though I am seeing it in your mind I still don’t believe he did what he did.” She turned to look at me, ceasing her mental intrusion. “I won’t believe it until I hear it from his lips.”
“Fine, I’ll let you figure that out on your own. I won’t tell you anything about it you don’t want to hear. I do have some good news though. I think I know where The Architect is and I absolutely know WHO he is. Mec confirmed that and I have a good plan for infiltrating the facility where I’m pretty sure Burnham is currently hiding. Ren, they mention something called The Original. I think they’re talking about Tsung. I think they still have him there somehow, or at least part of him.”
“WHAT? Are you sure? Hex that’s a pretty big logical leap, although I can see where you would draw that conclusion. We should go. What time is it, can we leave immediately?” I grinned in spite of myself at her lightning change of mood and had to admit I was itching for some action myself.
“I figure we can take Dono’s Landrover. We can drive at night and sleep during the day right?”
“We’ll have to be careful Hex; we don’t want to get caught out in the sun.” She shuddered and I wondered what her experience with sunlight was.
“Well it’s after dark now Ren, we don’t need to worry about it tonight.”
She squared her shoulders, “Well I’ll just go say goodbye to Donovalo and we can get out of here. I don’t think I need anything from the house.”
“I’ll get the truck ready to go and let you make your peace.” I left Ren to say her goodbyes and went to check out Dono’s Landrover. It was in fairly good repair and the key that I’d found hanging by the door fit the lock perfectly. I tossed some random things in the back and got a can of spray paint from the garage. It only took a few minutes to paint the rear windows so that no light would get in and we would have a safe place to hide out if we got caught out. I put some gas cans in the roof rack and a few other essentials that I found laying around. A tarp, a shovel, a spare battery, jumper cables and a large toolbox. The toolbox surprised me by being very heavy but a quick inspection showed a large number of wrenches in the top shelf inside so I figured it was a full set; something which might come in handy.
Ren had returned by the time I was finished and gave me a quizzical look as I was loading the toolbox. “Really? You’re packing that?”
I shrugged, “I thought they might come in handy just in case we get into a tight spot.” She rolled her eyes and we said in unison, “They’re just tools.” Only her voice was pitched like a petulant teenager.
Unsure as to why she was making such a big deal about it I gestured to the rest of the truck, “I think we’re all set. See I even painted us a sanctuary in the back just in case we can’t find shelter.”
She snorted a laugh, “I suppose that might work, but it’s only a last resort. At least you had the sense to paint on the outside so we won’t have to smell the fumes the whole way to Cali. You drive, I’m still feeling a little drained.”
The Rover started on the first crank and I backed out of Dono’s compound. When we reached the top of the hill I could see headlights coming towards us. I pulled the truck onto a side trail and shut it off. “Hey Ren, you wait here. Anyone coming down here at this hour probably isn’t friendly, I’m going to go do a little recon.”
I closed the door carefully behind me and ghosted from tree to tree, careful not to get close enough to be seen from the road. There were three Humvees squeezing down a trail that was barely wide enough for them to fit, their tires sinking into the soft shoulder and bogging them down. Armed men sat inside and I could hear them shouting rapidly at each other in Spanish. They were talking so fast I wouldn’t have been able to understand them even if I spoke the language. Either way it was clear they weren’t the bearers of good news and I was betting they’d seen the headlights of our Landrover.
“Hex, if you pin them down I can take care of the rest, give me a couple minutes to circle around behind them.” I was so used to Ren being in my head I hadn’t noticed her looking out through my eyes.
“No problem Ren. But don’t overexert yourself OK? I know you’re still recovering.”
“Don’t worry Hex. I’ll just use some tools instead.” She sounded extremely amused in my mind. After a moment she spoke again, “OK I’m ready.”
Shaking my head I snuck to a large tree and expended a fraction of Power to form my right hand and forearm into a blade sharp enough to wound the wind. When the first Humvee was at just the right place I quickly slashed through the side facing away from the road and shoved as hard as I could. I was rewarded with a resounding crack and the tree slammed down onto the front of the first truck. At the same time I heard a loud “THOOP” sound from behind the last truck and it exploded into a blazing inferno. Not expecting the sudden stop of the vehicle in the front, the one in the middle smashed into the rear of the leader.
“Holy shit! Ren what’re you doing?”
“Just playing with the tools you brought Hex. Wait did you actually think that box had sockets and wrenches in it?” THOOP! The center truck exploded. A couple of the occupants who were faster than the others managed to stumble out, their clothes on fire while a few of the men in the front truck had recovered from the impact of the tree and the other Humvee enough to start firing their weapons. Although they seemed to simply be spraying lead around at random in the hopes of hitting something I took cover behind another tree when a couple bullets came uncomfortably close to my head.
I crouched down, getting ready to sprint in and keep the remaining men from calming down enough to start concentrating fire where Ren was probably reloading for another shot with her grenade launcher and I caught a momentary flicker of bloodlust over the mindlink. It was just enough to remind me what I was. Just enough to remind me that I was hungry, starving even. Here was food, even if it was inadequate for my needs.
“It’s OK to eat Hex. Eat before you become so hungry you lose control again. Besides I don’t wanna drag your ass out of any trouble if you starve yourself.” She was trying to lighten the comment but I knew she meant it. She was really worried that I was going to frenzy again and that she was going to be the target.
“I’m so hungry Ren.” I was already halfway to the front Humvee, “So hungry and they are so tiny.” The first soldier’s life ended, his blood disappearing down my throat, a drop of water in the desert. My thirst frightened me, how hard it was to slake that thirst frightened me more. A second soldier’s died under my fangs, then a third. Gunshots were afterthoughts, trajectories calculated in milliseconds, I walked through the hail of lead as though I was dodging dandelion down. Three, four, five, six and Ren met me in the middle, laughing with blood on her lips.
“This is it Hex. This is Life itself. Learn to love this feeling, it’s what sets us apart from everyone else.” Ren’s eyes were shining as she looked at me. “Isn’t it amazing?”
“Yes.” I felt the hunger still eating at me. I looked at Ren and my stomach growled. “It’s amazing.” I ruthlessly suppressed my desire to eat; the tiny amount of sustenance I had gained allowing me to hold the rest of my need to consume at bay. It wasn’t amazing, but I knew exactly what would be. I knew how sweet Ren’s vitae was, I could still taste it on my tongue.
Wrenching my eyes away from Ren’s neck, I attempted to analyze the situation. “Well I don’t think these are from Burnham. He wouldn’t have messed around with these peons, he’d have sent a couple of Hunters. They weren’t ready for us either, my guess is they were coming to get Donovalo.”
“Yeah. Or they could have been sent to protect him. Either way they would have at very least detained us for a day or so, and that’s something we simply can’t afford to let happen.” The flames on the last two Humvees were dying down slowly. “Help me tip these things off the road so we can get out of here.” We walked to the first one and even the two of us had trouble moving the tree. I cut the top of it off so we could lift the main trunk more easily and we finally rolled it to the side.
“You’d make a fortune as a lumberjack.” Ren was grinning her lopsided smile at me. Her face had a smudge of soot on one cheek and there was a stray lock of black hair with silver streaks straying over a temple. The shoulder strap of the grenade launcher she had used to destroy the Hummers slanted across her chest, crisscrossing a half empty bandolier and emphasizing her slim form. She looked amazing. “Come on cowboy, we’ve still got these three trucks in the way so unless you plan on sitting there and staring at me all day or are we gonna get the hell out of here?”
I went over to the first of the Humvees, “Roger that lil lady.” I tipped an imaginary ten gallon hat as she joined me, giggling in a most unladylike manner.
“You’re such a dork sometimes Hex.” We flipped the vehicles out of the road and into the jungle as though they were Tonka toys and then returned to the Landrover. “I’m feeling a lot better, why don’t you take a well-deserved rest and I’ll take the first turn driving?” She was putting the ‘tools’ back in the ‘tool box’ and I caught a glimpse of two sets of large caliber hand guns, stacks of magazines, an AK-47 with a folded wire stock, several boxes of assorted ammunition and even a brick of plastic explosive. No wonder it’d been heavy.
“Awesome, thanks Ren. That’d mean a lot more if I actually slept but I appreciate the sentiment.”
“Oh just get in, sit down and shut up you.” She punched me on the arm, “Seriously you’ve earned it, and besides I have too much energy now after that feast. You still look like Hell warmed over, take a rest and recover a bit.” Through her banter I could tell she was concerned, “I’ll get us a ways down the road and find a place to crash for the day.”
I supposed it was pretty obvious to her that the amount of human blood I had consumed wasn’t really making much of a dent in my thirst. Something that would be worrying indeed if it was as energizing to her as it seemed to be. Leaving the navigation and planning to her again I gratefully stretched out in the back seat and closed my eyes. This type of rest wouldn’t help me with the real problem but it was relaxing and gave me time to think. To my surprise I found I wasn’t really all that upset about killing and eating all those soldiers. Huh, maybe I was losing more of whatever humanity I had left after all.
As unsettling as that thought was I put it aside and began to think about our next steps. The border was a real concern of mine, our method of crossing over to get here wasn’t going to work with this vehicle, and I had to assume it was registered to a Mexican citizen. Besides that I was worried we’d have some problems with whatever organization had sent that caravan to Donovalo’s place. Even though I had a decent floor plan as well as several entrance and exit points the looming problem was getting into and out of the research facility we were headed to, but there wasn’t much I could do about that.
I could tell the Rover had moved onto pavement, we were moving faster and the ride was smoother although the all-terrain tires made a lot more noise. “We’re heading to visit a friend of ‘Renyovalia’s’ who runs an artist retreat center on the edge of Hermosillo We ought to be able to make it there before sunup if we’re lucky. If not I found the best places to take shelter during the day are churches, ironically enough. They tend to not ask questions and have spaces out of the sun where people or undead can rest comfortably. Especially in Mexico where many still have catacombs.”
I sat up and climbed into the front seat, “Do you think we’ll have any more trouble with whoever sent those soldiers?” Ren’s mouth tightened into a grimace.
“I don’t think so. If they had been dedicated to whatever task they were on things wouldn’t have been so easy for us. Besides we would have seen something by now if there was additional pursuit.”
“I’ll take your word for it Ren.” We were climbing a large hill just on the other side of Heroica Guaymas. As we crested it a group of military vehicles came into view as though our conversation had summoned them. They were heavily armed and moving fast.
“Not our concern Hex. They aren’t signaling for us to stop even if they are responding to our little incident.” She did start driving faster though. After a couple of miles we turned off the main highway and onto a winding dirt road. I gave her a sideways glance, “Just in case they are looking for us.” She said sheepishly. “Can’t hurt to be careful right?”
The road was empty and the moon was bright enough that we didn’t really need to have the headlights on. We climbed in silence for 15 minutes then Ren looked in the side mirror, “Damn, someone’s coming behind us. You’ve got me all paranoid now Hex.”
“Should we stop and check it out?” I couldn’t see behind us because the mirrors were adjusted for her to see and the rear window was painted black. Leaning out the window I looked back and I could see headlights and faintly hear racing engines. “Looks like there’s two of them and they’re pushing hard. Might be related to us and might not but either way pull off if you find a convenient place.”
“That’s the issue Hex, there’s no pull off until you get to the crest of this valley. If they catch up and they’re hostile we’re going to be in trouble.” She was driving faster now, the tires spraying gravel around every corner.
“Slow down Ren, let’s not do their work for them. Besides if they don’t catch up we’ll never know if they’re friend or foe.” I clambered into the back seat and opened the tool box. Pulling out the assault rifle and a couple magazines I turned to catch her eye in the rearview mirror. “Just keep going Ren, I’ll meet you at the top one way or another. If they come all the way up they’re no threat. Either way I’ll slow them down so that you won’t have to deal with them in a tight space.” She started to slow down, I opened the door and jumped out tumbling in an easy roll and coming up on my feet. Ren was heading into a series of switchbacks and I thought they presented a good opportunity to get a good look at whoever was following.
A few short minutes later I was settled and ready for the vehicles that were coming towards us at a breakneck pace. The first car was completely sideways when it entered the first switchback and probably traveling at least twice as fast as Ren had been. It was a dark blue Subaru WRX that appeared to be set up for rally driving. The driver was already sliding through the second corner by the time the car chasing it had caught up. The second vehicle was a lifted black Ford Expedition and it came to a sliding stop at the first hairpin and three men with assault rifles jumped out.
The Subaru roared by just below my vantage point and the men at the bottom of the embankment started shooting. Their aim was terrible and my options were either return fire or get shot so I set the AK to burst and started picking them off. When the first of the men fell the others looked at him in surprise. I was already drawing a bead on the second and had dropped him with three shots to the chest. The third dove for the still open door of the truck and the driver beat a hasty retreat.
“Hey Hex, who the fuck is this goon? He’s offering to drive me wherever I want to go. I swear if he was any more obvious he’d be humping my leg.” Ren’s voice wasn’t faint at all despite her being close to a quarter mile away.
“I have no idea, but there were some people chasing him who definitely wanted to make him dead. So he owes me since I shot a couple of them and got them off his ass. I’ll be there in just a few minutes.” I started jogging up the road with the rifle at the trail. Maybe this would be a good thing, if anyone was looking for Dono’s Landrover we didn’t want to be caught in it. Even if this dude was being hunted whatever he was involved in paled in comparison with what Ren and I faced. Shit the guys shooting at him could barely hit a moving car.
“Hey Hex, I like the way you think. The only problem might be convincing this jackoff to only drive at night but I think he would prefer to do the same. I don’t blame him I think there’s about 20 kilos of cocaine in the back of his car.” Her disgust was obvious, “I can’t stand drug runners but as long as he doesn’t know we know I don’t think we’ll have a problem, and if he does cause trouble I won’t have a problem snapping his neck. Hurry your ass up before I have to slap him just out of principle.”
I walked into a small overlook area at the top of the ravine and saw Ren sitting on the hood of the Landrover talking to a short kid wearing a soccer jersey, gold chains and baggy jeans. Great. A walking stereotype.