As Told by Dakota Sue
A strange sight greeted me in the briefing room the next day: Paul, sitting quietly in a chair, staring morosely down at the hands folded in his lap. Every few seconds he would kick his feet, unable to remain completely still no matter his preoccupation.
“Good to see you again, Paul,” I told him as I found my own chair. He raised his eyes to me without moving his head, making him appear young and frightened and unhappy. I opened my mouth to ask him what was wrong when the rest of the team trooped into the room, making it temporarily too noisy for conversation while they rearranged furniture and sat down. I heard several rhythmic wooden thumps as Archer joined us.
“Before we begin our other business, I expect you’ve heard some rumors regarding the results of Paul’s assignment?”
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I didn’t say a thing.”
“Yeah, who would we hear rumors from?” I affirmed.
Archer shook his head. “It was a conversational gambit, you don’t have to take it literally.”
“In any case, the armored transport was attacked by what we believe was a group of OVERTHROW affiliates. Despite Paul and Agent Alpha’s best efforts the prisoners escaped. Agent Alpha was killed resisting the assault, by a grenade.” I winced at the news and Archer shot me a sympathetic look. “Alpha was a jerk, but he was a dedicated one. He’ll be sorely missed. At the moment, though, I’m glad we still have Paul with us, at least.”
I looked over at the teenaged speedster, who had resumed his morose foot-kicking. “Yeah,” I said softly.
In a surprisingly serious voice, Paul said, “I think they knew the route, which makes me wonder who their source is.”
“So what happens now? Are you sending us back out after them?” I asked Archer.
“I’d love to, but that assignment went to another division.”
“Great,” Durance sneered. “We scare up the ducks while a one-eyed half-blind hunter takes potshots at them. You know, I always hated that game. Stupid dog.”
“Duck Hunter?” Q asked. “I played that when it first came out.”
I blinked at him. “Oh, come on, wouldn’t that make you almost as old as Archer? Not to be mean, but he’s practically a corpse, and you don’t look a day over 25.”
Archer snorted ungracefully, trying not to laugh. “Why, thank you, Susan. I’ll remember that comment on payday.” Q just smirked and looked mysterious.
“In any case,” Archer continued, “we have a different mission instead.” He began passing around the now-familiar manila folders. “The research staff has looked over the names you brought back from the German Embassy raid. Most of them were dead ends, regular eighteen-year-old girls going about their lives.”
“And the ones that weren’t?” Durance asked.
“Just one, actually. She was incredibly difficult to track down; her files were altered at some point in the past. By the time we did manage to run down a location her adoptive parents had been tied up in their house and shot. Their daughter, Amanda Croft, had vanished, but not without leaving some . . .interesting . . . tracks behind her.”
Archer switched on the projection screen and everyone made his or her own noise of disgust. A photograph of bullet-riddled corpses lying around what had been just an ordinary suburban bedroom will do that. They were dressed in what I was coming to understand was the uniform for any paramilitary group up to no good: black fatigues, tactical vests, and ski masks.
“We believe these were her handiwork.”
“Whoa, whoa, back up here. I thought you said she was just an eighteen-year-old kid?” I asked.
“Looks like an eighteen-year-old meta-human to me,” Q interjected.
“Paul’s not that old, remember,” Durance added. The speedster half-smiled.
“It’s not the years, it’s the miles.”
“Even a meta needs training to shoot a gun,” I insisted.
Archer wavered his hand in the air to indicate uncertainty. “The evidence thus far indicates some kind of meta-human ability, but you’re correct, Susan, there’s something more here that we don’t know about.”
“All right, let’s go check out the scene,” I said, standing up. “Has anyone run phone records yet?”
“I can do that,” Nat offered.
“The workup we have so far is preliminary at best. You’ll need to do most of the footwork yourselves. It would be nice to have more, but unfortunately there wasn’t time.”
I tugged on my uniform jacket and headed downstairs towards the garage, the others following behind, still making plans. I only listened with half an ear; I didn’t know much about investigative work, so on this assignment I was pretty much reduced to the position of sheepdog. Not really my favorite job. I climbed into the driver’s seat of our all-too-conspicuous black van, put the address into the GPS, and off we went.
Nat sat in the back seat, typing at the keyboard of her laptop, an oracle worshipping at her altar of knowledge. “The phone records indicate that there was a call this morning to an adoption agency in Boston.” I pulled to a stop in the street outside the house and looked back at her.
“All right, Finn, why don’t you take Nat to have a look at the scene, see if you can find anything. Paul, I’d like you to do an overview of the neighborhood, find me anything peculiar.” A loud rap occurred inches from my head and I jumped, looking up into the face of a frowning uniformed police officer. Not sure what else to do I rolled the window down.
“You the feds that we’re holding this crime scene for?” He asked without preamble.
“Something like that. We’re a meta-human support team, there’s some evidence that we may be needed.”
“There is? Well, damn, the scene is fishy, but I didn’t see anything like that.”
“That’s how you know it’s bad,” Durance opined. He climbed out of the car with Finn, Nat, and Paul. The policeman trailed off after them.
“Where do you want me?” Q asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I think I’m going to go around and see whether any neighbors saw or heard anything. Be creative. Surprise me.” I hesitated, remembering just how liberally he might interpret that. “Search the house, maybe.”
I knocked at the next house and a tall blond man in a polo shirt opened the door almost immediately. Quite possibly he’d been watching me approach. Startled, I pulled out my badge and waved it desultorily. It wasn’t really official, but it looked like it, and that was the important part. Now, how did they do this in cop shows again? “Excuse me, sir, do you have time for a few questions?”
“Umm . . . all right.”
“Did you hear the disturbance next door earlier?”
“Yes, gunshots, lots of them.”
“Well, a few minutes after that I heard a couple of cars peel out and go speeding down the street.”
I nodded. “Did you know the people that lived there at all?”
“Did anything suspicious happen before the incident?” The incident. Even to me that sounded contrived.
“Well, a few weeks ago there was a lot of shouting, kind of unusual. They were very loud.”
“Did they have a lot of friends? Frequent visitors? Anyone I that might have more information?”
“Well, Amanda’s best friend works up at the convenience store on the corner. Her name’s Jennifer.” [Authors note: the name was not my idea.]
“All right. Thank you. Sorry to disturb you.”
I wandered back to the van, where the group was slowly coming together again. “What have we got?” I asked.
“I found a picture of Amanda,” Q announced, handing it to me. I looked at the young blonde girl for a moment and handed it back. “That’s good. What else?”
“The police say she took the family Jetta when she made her getaway,” Finn added.
“She used her cell phone to call another at a convenience store a block away,” Nat continued.
“Probably her friend, I should go down there and . . .”
“I already went,” Paul stopped me. “I got their security video and took it back to our lab techs, then I got her friend’s cell phone number from the clerk. The friend left work suddenly after the call.”
I blinked. “Oh. Nice work.”
“She withdrew about $800 in cash at the mall about an hour ago, too,” Nat said. “So where do we go next?”
“Let me see that number, Paul,” I said, he handed it to me and I punched it into my phone. The first ring didn’t even complete before a nervous female voice answered.
“Jennifer?” I asked.
“Um, yeah? Do I know you?”
“I doubt it. My name’s Susan; I’m trying to find your friend Amanda before the bad guys catch up with her.” There was a long silence.
“Sorry, lady, I don’t know where Amanda is,” the girl quavered. I shook my head.
“It’s good of you to try and protect your friend. I can understand that you don’t trust me; you don’t know who I am. Can we meet somewhere public so I can prove that I am who I say I am?”
“Um. We could, I mean, I guess we could meet at the food court at the mall.”
“Good enough. I’m going to send a young man to meet you first, in case someone else is looking for you, all right. His name’s Paul,” I added, describing my somewhat geeky young cohort. “He’ll be there in just a minute.”
Paul bounced forward. “I’m on it, boss lady,” he said, and flashed off into the distance.
“Be careful! It may be a trap!” I yelled after him.
“All right, Jennifer, I’m going to hang up. You may want to turn off your phone in case someone is tracing it.”
“All . . .all right.”
“I think we go to the mall next,” I told the rest of the team. Nat looked up from her computer.
“Well, the cell phone you called is at the mall . . . Amanda’s phone is there, too.”
“Do you want me to follow Paul in case there’s trouble?” Q asked.
“Yeah, go keep an eye on him.” We piled into the van, Durance driving.
Finn nudged Nat in the back seat gently. “While we’re waiting, see what you can dig up on Heinrich Stahl.”
“Who’s Heinrich Stahl?” I asked him, mystified. He waved another laptop at me.
“Idle curiosity. Amanda Googled him recently.”
“Idle curiosity?” Nat asked. “He’s a German geneticist working for, surprise, a German pharmaceuticals company.”
“Aaand, we’re here,” Durance interrupted. “I can go in if you want, I’d like to test my new camo.”
I blinked at him. “Sure, go ahead.” Then I looked back at Finn. “Do you want to go in as well?”
“Aren’t you in charge?”
“So I can ask you what you want to do whenever I feel like it.”
“I’m just here to follow orders. So, whatever.”
I shrugged. “Well, I’m going inside, do whatever you think is best.” I made my way through the parking lot into the building, assaulted by the overpowering smells of the crowd, cooking food, and merchandise. As I neared the food court, however, I began to pick up an incongruous scent: gunpowder. While my crew had weapons, they hadn’t fired them recently. About thirty feet away, Paul was talking earnestly with a girl.
“We really need to get Amanda somewhere save and THEN work on finding the knuckleheads behind this.”
“I’m only here for one reason. Amanda’s gone, she just wanted me to stay here and talk with you.”
“You’re just buying her time to get away?”
She nodded. “That’s why I’m wearing this wig. Amanda didn’t tell me where she was going, so it’s no use asking me.”
“You may still be in danger . . .” Paul insisted.
“Why would you say tha . . .”
Something coughed faintly overhead and Jennifer went abruptly limp, wig falling off to reveal long brown hair. I flicked my eyes upwards even as I bent my knees and jumped straight up three stories, grabbing the ceiling supports to change direction and rocketing through the skylight just after a gunman in a long leather coat.
“Sue, what’s going on?” Durance asked, his voice clear over the communicator.
“Jennifer’s down, I’m taking her to the hospital!” Paul shouted, making my ear hurt.
“I’m chasing the sniper . . .” I glanced over my shoulder. “Finn and Q are right behind me!”
The gunman leaped off the rooftop, landing on top of a waiting van that took off in a squeal of tires. Below, Durance burst out of the doors, leveling his rifle. Then, for a second, he froze.
“Him,” the cyborg whispered into the com.
“What?!” I demanded.
Durance’s leveled his rifle and fired all in one smooth motion; there was a loud thump as the van’s front left tire blew out. It instantly fishtailed, the driver frantically trying to control it, and flipped over on its side, skidding to a stop just before an intersection.
I jumped down and ran towards the stopped van just in time to be the welcoming committee for a horde of masked men that threw open the doors and spilled out. I belted one to the ground reflexively as they began leveling assault rifles in my direction. A couple more went down as Finn, Paul, and Durance arrived, but it was like one of those clown cars you see at the circus: there were still more of them. I pushed my feet on the pavement, trying to get out of the way of the incoming rain of bullets when the entire crowd was suddenly swept away by an enormous bulk that whizzed by only inches from my face. Q had his hands out, waves of rippling power wielding the van like an enormous battering ram.
I gasped and staggered backwards. “WHERE’S THE SNIPER?!” Durance howled. Thugs were scattered everywhere, but the man in the leather coat was nowhere to be seen.
“Lupe!” the cyborg snarled into the empty parking lot.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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