The tattoo parlor was small, with a capacity of no more than four people at a time. It was remarkable that it even survived, in this economic climate and with the gangs. I pushed the door open, and went inside without so much as a sound, for whatever reason, they didn’t have a bell attached to alert them to customers.
Rick took a moment to admire the art displayed on the walls; much of the work was unusual, custom, and in Kevin’s mind it was one of the few things which allowed the small shop to eek out a living. There was a good chance Rick would steal a couple of the better pieces before we were done here.
From my perspective, it didn’t matter in the slightest. If this made him feel better about this trip of ours, then so be it.
Laura walked out from the back mere moments after the door closed behind us. I tapped into the perfect memory and augmented perceptions of Ferne’s legacy, which I would carry with me until my death.
Today was the first time I encountered Zach’s sister in person, and I needed to remain at the top of my game. All my research, prepwork, and sneaking around culminated in this moment. No, not yet, chances are high that today will be a failure, a learning experience.
Were I being objective, I’d have admitted Laura was an attractive woman; tall, excellent figure, good facial structure. Perhaps her jaw was a little wider than conventional beauty standards idealized, and the facial piercings, tattoos, and pink hair weren’t at all attractive in my books. The part of me that was Kevin at the moment was considering all the things he’d like to do to her. Most of his desires were vile beyond description.
I, the part of me that was Alex proper, was not objective, and all I could think of was how much she looked like her brother.
I would have loved to kill her here and now (Kevin’s mind didn’t object to that, either, to give you an idea of how repugnant he was), to take away someone Zach loved like he did to me, but it wasn’t enough. Zach had to pay, for Ferne’s life, and for the future she strove for that now could never be. To get proper justice, I had to take not just his loved ones and his life, but his very hopes and dreams. That required a much more nuanced and careful approach than murdering his sister. Today was the first play, more about learning the enemy team’s strengths; the game would be won later.
“Hey, are both of you looking for work done?” She made a gesture across the room. “I’m running solo right now, so you might be in for a wait, if that’s okay?” That bit of news was more than I’d hoped for; while my plans in any significant way, it did reduce the number of potential factors which could inconvenience me.
“Don’t mind me, lady,” Rick said. “I don’t think we’ll have time for much more than window shopping.”
Rick knew his place; muscle, not brains. He was prompting me to do my part of the job as leader of the mission. “As it happens, we’re here on business.”
I stood a little taller, loomed forward, drawing my stance from Kevin’s years of experience intimidating people smaller than himself, including more than a few pretty girls. Any doubts about Ferne’s crusade, and how she suffered for every mind she stripped with her power, had been lain to waste and scattered to the winds by this asshole’s memories.
“Business, huh?” Zach’s sister leaned back against the wall, showing off her figure; her clothes were tight enough to show her bra and pantie lines. Not for the first time, I tried to stomp Kevin’s mind back into the gutter it belonged. Some so-called people belonged dead. There would be a ‘suicide’ in order after this son of a bitch served my purposes.
“Well, since you don’t seem to be here about a photo shoot for a girlie-mag,” Laura continued, proving Zach’s ‘humor’ ran in his family. “I’m gonna guess this has to do with my brother’s activities. What happened to the rules about not going after families?”
Out of the corner of my eye, Rick tensed up just a little; he wasn’t a smart man, but he did understand we were in dangerous territory. “Ey, we’re just here to talk. Real diplomatic-like.” The threat in his voice didn’t pass cursory examination; beneath the dangerous, deep tone, he was frightened. “Bein’ friendly is all.”
It was a canned threat, one that Rick and Kevin alike used from time to time. While the words were innocent enough, the context, tone and body language was anything but. It was a fascinating talent, one which I hoped to retain after jumping out of this scumbag’s body. Right around the same time I jump off a bridge.
“Oh, I bet you wanna be real friendly, huh?” Laura’s smirk was almost the same as her brother’s, and I added slapping the bitch off her face as one thing I’d have to try before the day was over. “So, you guys are from Lightbringer, right? I hope this doesn’t sound racist, but gangers all look the same to me.”
A pulse of anger came from deep within; the emotional effects from Kevin’s subconscious, more powerful than all his conscious resistance. I didn’t understand why it worked that way; the conscious memories made sense to me, they were as natural as my own, though I had no trouble distinguishing Kevin’s thoughts from my own. The subconscious thoughts were harder to sort through, and seemed stronger for it. If I had Ferne’s psychologist package, I might have had greater insights into the phenomena, but that was denied to me forever.
Now my mood soured for reasons I understood. I need to take control of this situation before this body gets upset or Rick gets suspicious. I started walking toward the woman who, while taller than average, was still far shorter than Kevin and less than half his weight.
“Now, you know we can’t tell you that.” I reached out toward her, while Kevin’s body started responding. He was eager for what I might do to her. Laura stepped back, afraid of my touch. Something was suspicious about her stance, her movement. She isn’t intimidated in the slightest; the reason for avoiding contact is something else. Does she know? No, if she did she’d be terrified. “Don’t think the boss would like that much.”
She took a couple more steps, which boxed her in so her only way to run would trap her in the corner. Stupid, stupid girl. She smiled, oblivious to the danger she was in. “I don’t think your boss likes me, anyway. Last time we met, I threatened to shoot him in the dick with my dessie. Good times.”
“Is that a fact?” Now that she was penned in, I had no need to press an attack. I could also keep an eye on Rick while watching her, which was comforting in its own right; Kevin trusted the asshole, but I wasn’t Kevin, and I didn’t trust either scumbag. Some part of me registered that Kevin was surprised to hear the news about Crucible, and now that he had envisioned this girl carrying a Desert Eagle, he upgraded her from ‘cute’ to ‘complete babe’, which started a chain reaction up to my conscious mind that I had to force back down again.
His mind also urged me to grab her in case she had the gun hidden in the shop, and for other reasons, but I disregarded his concerns. First of all, she wasn’t moving with any purpose other than to back up, so I didn’t believe she was seeking a hidden weapon.
Perhaps I would have been more cautious, but I trusted my cold reading skills, and even if Laura did kill him, the only consequence I would suffer is being forced to jump hosts.
If anything, her killing him would be convenient, and there was a slim chance the police investigation would open up more opportunities for me in the future. In the moments it took Laura to speak, I began to hope she was going for a gun.
“Oh, yeah, it was fucking hilarious.” Zach’s sister brought hands up as if grabbing a beach ball, much like Zach did when she got animated in telling a story. “He was all ‘you know, I could kill your brother now,’ and then I was like ‘not if you want to keep your balls, bitch’, then he tried to play it off all polite and shit, just like you. He said something about us being even. If you’re here, that musta changed at some point.”
“Assuming we’re working for who you think we are.” A meaningless pretense where I was concerned, but the less suspicious they found this encounter, the better. “Your brother has become a nuisance. He thinks he’s invulnerable, that consequences don’t apply to him, that he can do anything he wants and-” I hesitated for a moment. My own emotions, and Kevin’s… desires… were a heady combination, and it was only through Ferne’s gifts that I maintained control. I forced myself to deescalate before things went too far.
“You let him know that if he keeps sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong, then other people won’t be as lucky as he is.” I didn’t like being so vague about the activities, but Lightbringer had adopted a modular structure that kept the right hand from knowing what the left was doing, and only the top knew the big picture. It was a system used to frustrate efforts by police, but it also proved effective at blocking Infiltrators, even powerful ones like myself.
“Oh god, you guys are dumb as fuck!” She laughed loud, tilting her head back toward the ceiling. Rick inched back, and I had to admit I was a little surprised by her behavior. “Don’t you morons know anything about powers? Important fact: they’re contagious.”
She extended her hand so the palm faced up, and then lifted her hand in the air. The air around us began to rumble, and objects started to levitate off the tables. “Spend enough time around Imbued, and there is a damn good chance you’ll become one.”
Ferne taught everything she knew about being Imbued, which was a lot, so I knew Laura was lying. Yes, Imbued tended to associate with other Imbued, but according to Ferne it was because they understood each other in a way that normal people could not. Now that I had powers of my own, I understood why; we were survivors of tragedy, one and all, it was natural for us to gravitate to other survivors. That more than anything was why powers seemed to run in groups. Gifters and the Mark of Caine was the sole known means by which powers manifested around current Imbued more than any other random sampling of the population.
“Fuck!” With those eloquent words, Rick scrambled for the door.
I wasn’t concerned; I tagged him earlier, and if necessary I’d jump to him in order to escape this encounter, because there was a real possibility Kevin wouldn’t make it out of here alive. The impossibility of Laura’s claim aside, there was no denying powers were in play here.
With what was more or less three minds working together- my own, Kevin’s, and Ferne’s gifts- I ruled out her being an impostor, based on how her mannerisms resembled her brother. Sibling Imbued existed, but were rare to the point of one in millions. The most probable answer by far was that there had to be another Imbued nearby acting on Laura’s behalf. Perhaps White Lady’s heretofore undocumented abilities, or someone else Zach conned like he conned me.
What I could confirm was one of my greatest worries; the precog working with Zach was powerful enough to identify nothing more than a potentially dangerous ‘discussion’ with those associated with Zach. I’d hoped it wasn’t so blanket, that there were flaws in the coverage, that perhaps it was some other sort of Esper that didn’t predict crimes so much as detect them in progress. Anything would have been preferable what might have been the most powerful precog ever recorded.
As disappointing and terrifying as that discovery was, it was better that I learned it now so I could work around it later, rather than later when I committed to a proper offensive. At the same time, I had one last possible avenue available to me.
Kevin struggled in silent, meaningless terror as I charged Laura with his body. Something pulled me, tried to slow me down, but it was little different than running into the wind, nowhere near enough to stop a man of Kevin’s bulk.
Within inches of Laura, an orange aura burst outward from her skin. It touched me, and I screamed out in agony before I even realized what happened. The stench of burning hair assaulted my nostrils, and Kevin even managed to slow me down by struggling against my control in visceral, animalistic panic that far more powerful than his conscious resistance ever managed to be.
Still, I willed my way through the pain, the firestorm, Kevin’s will, and the telekinetic wind that all sought to bar my path. I made contact with Laura’s throat at around the same time the blisters covering my hands had begun to pop and ooze fluid and blood.
None of which mattered; now that I’d contacted Laura, I could lock on to her- and then it was denied to me. Laura vanished from my sight, my touch, and my power in a shower of green particles. Her clothes dropped to the floor.
Zach’s power? Fuck. I got too greedy, I’ve been using Kevin’s body too long, and it’s getting to me.
I stumbled toward the door, forcing the body to move despite every nerve screaming in protest. It was rather fascinating, how dissociated I was from the pain; let there be no doubt that it hurt, a lot, but it also didn’t matter. Kevin’s body would survive the burns, though without medical attention I felt certain an infection would set in long before recovery.
What I couldn’t figure out was how I could still see; if the damage done to my skin was uniform, it should have burned out my eyes. Now that I was paying attention, I noted that Kevin wasn’t as damaged as he should have been in other ways, either. I had a good understanding of a human body’s limits, Ferne’s power amplified that understanding, and it seemed my own powers improved upon it further.
White hot pain met my skin when I pushed open the door, and embraced the bitter cold on my burning skin. I almost made it to the street when a car shot around the corner. The door was open before the vehicle came to a stop. Rick to the rescue. “Get in! Holy fuck! What happened to you!”
I climbed in the vehicle, with my abused borrowed body screaming in silence. “Rie” I tried to say drive, but the damage to my lips and my tongue made that impossible. The back of my throat was almost all I had to work with.
Rick didn’t need the instructions; he stomped the gas and pulled us out of there as fast as possible. “Fuck man?! Didn’t I tell you this was a bad idea? Oh god, what was the boss even thinking?!”
Rick was in full panic mode, and that was going to cause a lot of trouble, fast. Even the best case scenario meant he’d call up the leadership chain, and he’d learn that Crucible did not order any attack on Zach or his associates. In fact, the orders were to avoid them at all costs. God damn it, I didn’t want to have to do this yet.
I reached into my coat pocket, brushing aside ash and burned polyester until I found Kevin’s lucky pocket knife.
I drew it out and flipped it open. Kevin’s memories came flooding back; this simple weapon saved his life almost twenty years ago, at the expense of a black kid that was trying to beat him for the supposed crime of wearing the wrong shoes in the wrong neighborhood. It was the event which sent him down this path of violence. In a way it seemed almost poetic that it end for him the way it began, inconvenient though it was.
Rick looked over at me again. “Hey, man, what are you doing?”
I reached over and grabbed his wrist with my left hand, all while forbidding this body from crying out in desperate pain. Having made a link with Rick once, it was easy enough to make a second.
That is when I plunged the knife into Kevin’s throat. Now that he was dying, I made the jump into Rick.
Shit! Fuck! No! What do I do?! Rick’s panic was overwhelming at first; he was big, he was dangerous looking, and he had no problem hurting those smaller and weaker than himself, but in the end the man was a deplorable coward. In many ways, Rick’s mind was the easiest to repress of all I had encountered thus far. Whether because he was weak, or because I was developing more skill over time, I didn’t yet know.
Less than one full second of objective time since I sank the knife into Kevin’s throat with his own hand, I reached over with Rick’s hand and tore the blade out, severing every important part of the neck which wasn’t the spine itself. The spatter of gore covered the right half of my cheek and most of the front interior of the vehicle, and a sick, metallic scent joined a scent not unlike bacon.
As I declared myself a vegan from then on, I picked a route that took me toward the river; it was in the disputed zone between Lightbringer and whatever the southern faction of the former Los Fieles called itself. Kevin had that knowledge, but Rick did not. What I knew was there were former safe houses in the region that neither side considered safe anymore.
In keeping with his flesh, Kevin’s memories in my mind were dying away, aside the last three days which I had spent in his body and would retain as my own memory. Kevin’s talents, knowledge, and personality, everything that made him who he was, consigned to oblivion.
The world became a somewhat better place for it.
Rick’s memories started building themselves into my mind, starting with the formative and important, then working their way outward bit by bit. So, he has a daughter named Megan. She’ll turn seven this August.
She’ll be sad when her father dies, but in the long run it’s better if she lives with a happy lie that her father was a good man who died too young, than for her to discover the truth. This is right. This is justice.