The squad car’s engine hummed, with a light click every few seconds. That’s new. Out of curiosity more than anything, I asked the computer back at base to run its diagnosis. To my surprise, the machine cataloged a dozen problems ranging from the fuel pump to the alignment to some hoses that were coming loose. This vehicle needs a trip to the shop.
“Come on, kid, don’t go all quiet and moody on me. I know you better than that.” Roberto forced a smile that wasn’t quite good enough to fool me. “How’s it feel to be back on the street? Everyone knew you didn’t deserve the rap IA gave ya.”
I turned my head toward him, not bothering to hide the smirk. “Everyone, huh? Come on, old man. I’m not that young.” The man was older than me, granted, but only by one decade rather than the three he thought he had.
The forced smile fell from his face. “Yeah, you’re right. But I stood up for you, and reminded them that they didn’t know the real story. Don’t take long behind a desk before they start to forget what the streets look like.”
The real story is that, by all rights, I should have been on my ass for a month and facing charges up to and perhaps including second degree manslaughter. My protection from prosecution was far above the pay grade of any police officer; the FBI had claimed jurisdiction after the shooting, and their people cleared me where a real investigation would not have. I consoled myself with the fact I only killed lifelike puppet rather than a human being, but the potential for abuse of power was sobering.
Right, Roberto’s looking for a reaction. I’ve grown so accustomed to moody and non-responsive that I’ve forgotten how to have a sense of humor. Well, no point in faking cheer at this point. “Don’t see how anyone could forget what the streets are like.”
“Well, if you know what’s good for ya, you’ll find a way,” Bob said. He tried to sound concerned, but even in the middle of the night New York had too much traffic to take your eyes off the road for a good heart to heart. “Don’t care if you’re a military superhuman, this gig will break you if you take it home with you.”
You don’t know the half of it. “Yeah, I know. Sorry I’m such crap company tonight, promise I’ll be better in the future.” Can’t possibly be any worse. “Hey, who’d they have you babysit while I was benched?”
Roberto chuckled, then hit the gas. “Nobody but the radar. They switched me over to speed trap duties. I swear, those things bend time and space to make every hour take three. On the plus side, got some rich pretty-boy jackass in a Lambo on DUI and an eight-ball. Think I’ll throw in a bid during the police auction.”
“Knew a guy with one of those things a while back. Trust me, you don’t want one. Sure, they look great, but the maintenance is absurd. You’ll be spending your whole paycheck just to fix all the stuff that goes wrong.”
Roberto turned off the main street into a neighborhood known for its drug trafficking. Ordinary cops rarely went into these neighborhoods, in part because these people saw blue and went for their guns. More than that, getting a bust in here was all but impossible; all the deals took place inside where we couldn’t see them. At best, we might scare off a few customers or bust a guy on a minor traffic violation and pull paraphernalia or a firearm from the vehicle.
“Oh, I don’t plan to drive it. Just gonna stick it in the garage and show it off to my buddies. Maybe use it to take Bonnie out for our anniversary. Then I’ll wait for the market to go up and sell it to the first fool who comes along with more money than sense. Then sit back and live out my retirement with a smile.”
“Retire?” My smile was genuine for a change. “Bob, we both know you’ll still be doing this job when I retire. You’re like that Archivist guy who’s at the Smithsonian.” <Don’t say a single word, Phoebe.>
“Oh god, talk about your nightmare powers!” Bob took us down a little cul-de-sac, a bit slower than necessary. “Living forever sounds cool and all, until you stop for five seconds to actually think about what that means. Don’t envy that guy one bit.”
I thought back to what happened to Skeletor. “Yeah. Things to keep you up at night.” For that matter, I have to wonder if I’ll be the same. I know I have some brand of regeneration that keeps me younger than my chronological age. I dismissed the fear; I held no expectation of a natural death to begin with.
<Phoebe’s getting lunch,> Integral said. <Kick the scanners up to full, I want to see how the system responds.>
My scanners pointed out target after target hidden behind walls where privacy laws rendered them untouchable. Can’t do an anonymous call-in, not in a neighborhood like this one. To say nothing of the fact that I’d have to issue fifty tips in an area with less than five hundred residences. I’d accepted that most of my anonymous calls would not result in arrests; Esper call-ins were rejected by the courts if a defense attorney so much as raised an eyebrow. I just did it to take the drugs off the street and cost the dealers money. If the police came to this neighborhood and kicked open every door I saw drugs or illegal weapons behind, they’d face a class action lawsuit.
Wasn’t it just a few minutes ago when I was uncomfortable about the FBI’s power? Now I’m lamenting laws against violation of privacy. As if this job didn’t come with enough cognitive dissonance. <How’s the scan look?>
<Everything looks good. The new Tech has an incongruity tracker to alert you if you’re seeing something it’s not. Up to and including Infiltrator illusions.>
More equipment I dismissed as unlikely to succeed. <Thanks. Keep up the good work.> It was as much a dismissal a show of gratitude; Integral didn’t seem fond of me in the first place.
Roberto sighed as he pulled out of the neighborhood that nothing short of an invasion could clean. “And I thought all those scenes of brooding superheroes were just bullshit Hollywood used to pad the movie.”
“Thanks, Bob.” The smile was forced, but the sentiment was genuine. “But I think a lot of people would argue I’m on the wrong side, here.”
“Nah, you’re too serious for that. Say what you will about the bad guys, at least they act like they’re having fun.”
“Impeccable logic as always.” I watched out the side, when I caught a glimpse of an attractive brunette in a dress coat far too nice for the neighborhood we were in. If there was any doubt Alice was Imbued before, it died here. “Hey, let’s hit the gas station. I want to stretch my legs.” <Unless your equipment just sent you an alert, the incongruity tracker didn’t work.>
“Sounds good,” Roberto went through the usual ritual of shifting into the right lane, an act which panicked the driver ahead of us. My scanners didn’t show anything illegal like drugs or bodies, but it couldn’t detect if a vehicle was stolen, or someone was driving without a license. In any case, Alice took priority and the Esper laws protected drivers as well as home owners. “I could do with hitting the head. You want anything from inside?”
<You’re certain?> Integral made it sound like an accusation. <There’s no sign that the equipment or your brain has been tampered with at all.>
I locked eyes on Alice, from her position far enough in the shadows that I doubt Bob noticed anyone was there at all. “See if they got the teriyaki jerky.” <Looking right at the same ‘Alice’ who played Stormbreaker’s body double.>
<That’s impossible!> After his outburst, Integral waited for some seconds and sighed. <Wonderful. can you not tell Phoebe about this one? She’s insufferable enough as it is.>
“You sure? That much salt is bad for your heart.” Despite his objection, Bob took us next to the pump closest to the building.
“Bad for your heart, maybe.” I turned my head to Bob with a smirk. “Power related immunity. I could eat motor oil and antifreeze. I don’t because I bet it tastes like shit.” <Mum’s the word. At this point, I’m afraid Patil will pull the mission just to get me as far away from our Infiltrator as possible. Now tap in to the security cameras at this location. Maybe they didn’t get them, or you’ll learn something about how they work on other equipment.>
“You l-” Roberto almost said I was ‘lucky’, but caught himself. I ignored the faux pas, though many other Imbued would have flipped out over it. “Well, it’s your body, you know it better than anyone,” Bob said as he opened the car door. “Just don’t go guzzling the gas. That shit’s expensive.”
<Found them. Counting four people in range of the cameras, including you and your partner. None of them are women.> As much as Integral wasn’t my biggest fan, I could not dispute his work ethic.
I got out of the vehicle along with Roberto. “Depends on how fast you bring me back that jerky. Oh, and a Gatorade, any flavor but diet.”
My scans confirmed Integral’s assessment, with the addition of another woman in the bathroom that he couldn’t know about. I also noted a handgun under the counter near the station attendant. I ignored it; even if the gun might have been illegal, I wasn’t going to be the scumbag who took away an honest man’s means of self-defense.
Alice stepped out of the shadows, swaying her hips a little more than necessary in her approach. No hesitation, no moment to glance around in case of onlookers, not even the natural hesitation a normal person should feel in a dangerous area like this one. She’s confident in her abilities; too confident, she’s not even trying to feign concern of what the night could hold. She’s either a rank amateur who knows she’s untouchable, or she doesn’t care if her identity is compromised.
<Looking right at Alice. Use my eyes to triangulate if you have to.> As I transmitted to Integral, I spoke to Alice. “So, come here often?” <I will relay every word she says as she says it.>
She tilted her head up, the usual cheshire grin plastered on her face. “We’re good at what we do.”
I made sure to parrot her words through the com, since nothing else seemed to detect her. “So you keep making sure I know.” I transmitted my own words, as well. “Don’t think I didn’t recognize showboating when I see it.”
“That so?” If anything, she grinned a little wider, and stepped a little closer. “Did it work? Are you impressed?”
I ignored the obvious flirtation. There was no sincerity behind Alice’s behavior, just a woman with a pretty face who long ago learned the power of a smile over men. “You’ve certainly left an impression my floor and ceiling will never forget.” I’m supposed to think you’re a man in drag. Have you forgotten your role, or do you know I know you’re not Stormbreaker? “That why you didn’t just drop by my house? Afraid I’d make you help clean up?”
<There’s nothing to see,> Integral said. <All cameras pointed in your direction are blacked out.>
“Well, if I knew you just left the place trashed, I’d have come over out of pity,” she said. “Queer eye style.” She reached into the top of her dress coat, and pulled out a folded piece of paper and some powder. Soon as she dropped it in my hand, it was identified as cocaine tainted with enough arsenic to kill three people. “Found a target for you. Perfect window coming up not long after your shift. Her dealer got a little distracted, so she’ll do anything for a hit. All you have to do is act like a boyfriend, walk in, and ask her all about her life. Maybe she can turn over some of her scumbag friends. Give her the drugs and it’s like you were never there.”
“Distracted, huh?” I raised an eyebrow even as I slid the packet and paper into my pocket. If busted, it would mean the end of my undercover mission, but it was unlikely that was their goal. If nothing else, I could activate my forcefield’s sterilization option and reduce the evidence to little more than pocket lint and sand. “It’s a good plan, but we both know you’re just testing me.”
The computer had already lifted the writing off the note for me and those back at the base to read. Kristie Hunter, F, 28. The details covered an all too familiar story of drug abuse, children with unknown fathers, and abusive boyfriends. The letter had all the bullet-points of why she was a waste of resources, and how her continued existence only caused harm to her three offspring. All appeals to emotion, complete with unfounded accusations of her pimping out her two daughters to her boyfriends and dealers. All facts only suggested she was a troubled drug user. With as much funding and influence that Outreach had to locate children at risk of becoming Imbued, I didn’t find it likely she escaped justice there. She didn’t have custody, due to the drugs rather than any sex crime. In any case, it was up to a court of law to decide her fate, not this bitch standing in front of me.
“See, knew you were a smart one,” she said. “That’s good. We need smart people on board.”
<Fuck!> Integral, for the first time since I’d met him, actually cursed. <They can’t be serious. I thought they were about killing violent criminals. This… this is…>
<The sick fantasies of serial killers? I wish. I saw similar shit i Iraq, the mental gymnastics people used to justify stepping out in front of a school bus with fifty pounds of dynamite strapped to their chest. This ain’t that different, in the end.>
<You have to stall! I’m getting Professor Abernathy and Doctor Patil!>
At least he knows his priorities. “I am not at your beck and call, just so we’re clear,” I said. “If I kill anyone tonight, it will only be if I think they deserve it.” At this point, I was sorely tempted to wipe the grin off Alice’s face with a bullet.
“Right,” she said. “We don’t want you compromising your morals. We’re trying to make the world a better place, not the army or a cult. But if you’re half the man I think you are, you’ll do the right thing. Well, I’d better run. Your partner’s about to get back.” She didn’t wait for a goodbye before walking toward a car parked in the corner. It was, I noted, a cheap little Toyota two-door rather than the Cutlass this time.
“Damn, kid, where’d you find her?” Bob had the smile of a man who thought he knew exactly what was going on. “Well, whoever she is, you should avoid her. I have a sixth sense, women like that are more high maintenance than that Lamborghini. And you can’t leave her locked up in your garage for months at a time.”
“Oh, trust me, I know she’s trouble.” I saw little point in pretending it away. “Bet you that Lambo she’s Imbued.”
His eyes widened as he glanced back. “You’re sure? Some kind of…” he stopped speaking in favor of wriggling his fingers.
“Nah, I don’t have a power detecting power.” If I had, the military would never have let me go. Espers and Trackers who could single out Imbued were rare. “I just have instincts of my own. Can’t prove it, and if I could there’s nothing illegal about having powers.”
“No, of course not,” Bob relaxed some, then climbed into the vehicle. I wasn’t far behind him. “But that just makes me more right. Imbued are nothing but trouble.” He hesitated just long enough for his next words to come across as hollow and fake. “Present company excepted, of course.”
“Please. If you don’t think I’m trouble, you’ve gone senile, old man.”
He laughed as he started the car. “Fair enough. Let’s get the rest of this night over. I got an impound lot to swing by in the morning.”
Both of us knew there was no way in hell it would happen; a car like that would not sit long enough to reach the auction block. It was a fun fantasy, not unlike lottery tickets and being the next reality TV star, but it was just a fantasy. My thumb brushed over the poison in my pocket. “Best of luck, buddy.”