The snow fell soft over the dark street, casting a grayscale shadow over the dark avenue. The streetlights highlighted the wet pavement, polluting the clouds in a dull glare that pulled the warmth from the road. A black boot splashed through the slush, approaching a pair of its wearer’s comrades. He pulled his coat high around his neck, shaking off the winter breeze as he commented regarding it to his friends. He felt the cold, wet weather in his toes, chilling him all the way up from the ground with the deep, aching cold that shook his entire form.
The car they awaited would be there in just a few minutes, and after that he could get back to his apartment, get a warm shower and go to bed. Anything to be out of this environment.
After the hours I’d been tailing him, I felt the same way.
Needless to say, both of us were relieved when the cab pulled up to the curb.
The cabby rolled down the window as one of the gangsters walked around the back of the car, opening the edge of his coat to ease access to the gun in his belt.
He clutched it tight in his hands as the streetlights flickered to blackness.
The two on the sidewalk held their breaths before the silence broke with the sound of the rear driver’s side window shattering against the first man’s skull. The driver shifted the vehicle into drive when the engine promptly died, the final lights on the scene dimming to blackness. He clutched his weapon and exited the vehicle, listening for any sound other than the snow beneath his feet as his unconscious mind considered every great and terrible thing hiding in the shadow. The following moments were a calamity of sound as the passenger side door’s paneling dented before the door slammed against the next assailant.
His eyes shot around the area as the streetlights came up once more, revealing an entirely empty street, not even tracks in the snow to be found.
Then it hit him.
The back of his head collided with the pole of the streetlight. He struggled to stand, to run as the hand gripped his collar and threw him even harder against the pole.
He sat dazed in the snow as he struggled to regain the clarity in his vision when I grabbed his collar, striking him again against the post.
He stared at the fuzzy black form before him, the confusion turning once again into terror.
“The man you work for.” I snarled. “He was assassinated two days ago. I want to know why. And you want to tell me, unless you still need to be convinced.”
“Who – who in the hell are you?”
“Was that what I asked you?” I roared.
“Marcus… Marcus heads the taxi company… It’s a front for someone else.”
“Why was he killed?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“That’s all I can say.”
“We’ll see.” I said, drawing a curved blade from my shoulder and kneeling down in front of him.
He began to squirm as I gripped his skull, lining up the karambit with the top of his eye.
“What are you doing?”
“Lining up with the edge of your zygomatic bone and your supraorbital margin. Here’s hoping you don’t go blind.” I said, touching the sharp end of the knife to the top of his eyelid.
“No, no, nononono.” He pleaded.
“The more you squirm, the more this hurts.” I snarled. “Now who killed Damien Marcus?”
His tone grew desperate. “Look, man, I swear I don’t know, just please don’t hurt me.”
“It’s been a real long night.” I said, driving a shallow cut into the edge of his eyelid and beginning to blur his vision with blood. “Why’d he wind up dead?”
“Jesus, man, please stop, you gotta stop.” He squeezed through grit teeth. “Marcus used the taxi company as a front for trafficking. Laundering, transportation, I don’t know, I don’t ask many questions.”
“Then try your best with the ones I’m asking.” I smiled. “Where would I find info on Marcus’s contacts?”
“He’s got an office down at the taxi company, probably got all kinds of info there.” He said. “You’ll never get in, it’ll be crawling with guys. With guns.”
“Oh, I’m counting on it.” I smiled.
“Please, man, that’s all I know, I swear. You gotta believe me.” He cried.
I folded the knife and returned it to my belt, standing up as he leaned forward and put his hands over his eye, heaving a sigh of relief.
“Should heal up in just a few days.” I said, pulling a steel cable from my vambrace as I walked around the lightpost, wrapping the cord around his neck and snapping him back against the pole as I began to strangle him. “But it’s past time you left this city.”
He passed out. He’d be fine, but he wouldn’t forget me anytime soon, meaning he’d be on the next bus after he woke up. I’d call him a poor bastard, but he’s better off somewhere else.
The taxi company would be the best lead I’d had in a few days, if not at least a few more heads to crack. And after the luck I’d had, if I wasn’t nice and pissed off already, I’d find a way to be by the time I got there.
The white marble foyer was dark as it could be in the early morning, in a house so silent it was as if even the room reacted when I slid up the dim lights. I shook the slush from my boots before I made my way up the stairs, dragging up around the corner to the master bedroom. I stepped carefully through the door into the dark room, opening the closet door and the hidden compartment behind it. The light shone from the empty case where I kept the inactive armor, casting a faint beam into the closet behind it. I pulled a drawer out from beneath the stand before a faint word came from the shadow.
I turned to the tired voice behind me. “…Hey there, pretty bird.”
“..You ready to turn in yet?” She asked, pushing the thick onyx hair from her face.
“Not quite, beautiful.” I said. “Night’s not over, I gotta strike while the iron’s hot.”
She groaned, rubbing her eyes. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. They’ll know I’m following them in the next few hours, so I have to get there before then.”
“What do you think you’ll find?”
“Someone who can tell me about Marcus’s killer.” I said. “The people who bought the Aperture android prototype will need to test their hardware for what it was built for. Marcus’s death fits the description, so if I find out what happened to him, it should lead to the new robot, and eventually, the people who made it.”
“Why’d you stop here?”
“Something I had to pick up.” I said, placing the storage compartment from the equipment unit on top of the dresser.
“What?” She asked as I opened the unit.
I stared down into a case displaying two vambrace modifications for my armor, thick steel shields that went over the top of my forearms to lock my wrists in place with blunt points just above the hand, each attached to a glove enhancement lined with two jagged brass ridges.
“Extreme prejudice.” I said. “You should know… The thing I’m about to do… It’s not gonna be very nice.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“Not this time. I don’t want you getting into this one, but… I need you here to patch me up if I need it.”
“Anything at all.” She said.
I pulled the steel plates from the case. “Thank you, Iris.”
I turned, walking over to the edge of the bed and kneeling down to level our gazes. She took my hand in hers and held it between our foreheads, her hand illuminating with a faint white glow as she brushed her first two fingers over my brow, first a vertical line, then a horizontal one.
“Please be careful.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”
Eight taxi cabs sat in two lines in the back of the building, steel shutters closed before them above an expansive concrete floor wet from the snow. The locked office at the back was one of the few sources of light, save an emergency light next to a utility closet in the back and a few lamps surrounding the vehicle lift equipment at the rear of the room. Six men stood around the front of the room, hands crossed in front of them clutching subcompact machine guns. Two stood at the back on either side of the office door, and a man with a shotgun guarded the closet next to the lift equipment.
I gazed at the sixteen-inch-long steel plates on my forearms as I wrapped my brass-augmented knuckles around the lever.
They all stared up in confusion as the lights blacked out.
“Two minutes.” They heard. “Two minutes before the last man hits the ground. You have until then to run.”
They all shifted their weights, straightened their weapons before them. They thought they were ready for me.
A few moments of silence.
Footsteps of nervous men, guns clicking as they loaded their weapons and the safeties were disabled.
A steel door at the front of the building sliding open as a man screamed, dragged off the pavement before the door slammed against the floor.
The eight remainders tensed, squaring their shoulders as their muscles tightened.
They began to walk slowly through the garage, searching the edges of the room for the blackness that pursued them.
The air split with the clash of a steel toolbox at the back of the room slamming against the wall behind it as the man’s skull crashed against it three consecutive times before hitting the floor. They ran to the location as he collapsed to the ground, staring in a nonplussed silence for a few moments at the site of the abandoned, haggard scene.
A rear window shattered across the room as the fifteen-pound plate shot through it, calling all of them to the vehicle. Four strikes to the man leading up the rear pounded him into the ground, followed immediately by the sound of a second being thrown through a window.
The five left became frantic as the cold, black fear began to make its way through the cracks, hearts racing, eyes dilating, animals in the house of a predator.
A cry rang out through the darkness with the sound of a collarbone snapping through the middle as the spine curled into the floor.
A string of bullets peeled through the silence, igniting the room in a flashing, fiery light.
Then they saw it.
Moments of light like photographs depicting it wrenching away a ceiling-facing submachine gun, disassembling the weapon in mere microseconds as it curved the gunman over his own shoulder, tripping him with its knee and bringing his entire body down onto the front of his skull.
A car alarm rang from the cab in back corner, lights flashing and illuminating the entire room, filling it with noise.
The second began only a few moments later on the opposite end of the room.
A third, a fourth. A calamity of noise echoing through the concrete chamber.
A car door slammed at the end of the room, accompanied by a string of violent thuds inside the interior before the second door closed.
One of them cleared his magazine through the window, eliciting a series of clicks as the gun emptied before he was dragged under the car.
The alarms stopped.
The room fell silent.
One man remained.
His gaze shot around the garage frantically as he tripped and crawled back into the corner, shooting his hands around for anything he could get his hands around to keep from falling off the face of reality.
His grasp met a shotgun, a handle he accepted readily and lifted to the room before him.
Now he had to find it.
He fired at a flourish of blackness in the corner, the flash of the weapon illuminating the entire room. The shadow stood a few yards away to his right.
He turned the weapon and fired again, snapping a new, brief image of the room, the shadow fronting a few feet away to his left.
The final blast passed between the creature’s knees as it stood above him, wrenching the gun from his hands, breaking the firing mechanism and casting it aside before the steel plate crashed down like the meteor of a mass extinction.
The lights came up.
I turned toward the office door, striking the hinges with the steel plate on my arm and breaking them out of the doorframe with ease. I gripped the handle and pulled the door off the frame, fronting on the man in the office.
He smiled over his pistol from across the desk, a sinister grin over a dark bronze face. His beady brown eyes stayed narrow, grinning still as he lowered his weapon.
“I thought it was you.”
“Put down the gun.”
He set it on the desk. “I won’t need it.” He said, stepping past me through the door.
I placed an arm across the door. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To settle this, like professionals.”
I turned to watch him walk out into the center of the room, stretching his shoulders as he squared himself in the center of an empty concrete floor between four steel pillars.
“I’ve seen you before.”
“Come on, spooky, you don’t remember me?”
The image of his face fell through my memories. My instinct knew his name, his family, but there was something else. Some unique experience.
“Wait.” I said. “You’re that guy. That boy who was kidnapped twelve years ago. I saved him from you.”
“And I was the one who beat you.”
“I guess you’ve gotten another rung up on the ‘piece of human garbage’ ladder.”
“It’s a lucrative service.” He said. “Why don’t you check out the new product?” He gestured to the closet at the back of the room.
I backed toward it slowly, unlocking the door and turning the knob before cracking it open.
I turned my head inside to behold six pre-teen girls, kneeling together in the back of the closet, terrified at the opening.
“Stay here.” I said. “I’m going to get you out of here.”
I closed the door and turned the lock.
I just found my reason.
“I won’t let you do this.” I said.
“We’ll see.” He said. “But none of the fancy crap. Just you and me, man to man.”
I scowled, my eyes never leaving him as the scythes fell into my hands before I cast them to the floor behind me. The scales followed suit before I unbolted the steel vambrace augments and brass knuckles, landing on the ground with a heavy thud and a subsequent clatter.
I clenched my fists before me, squaring into stance.
“You’re not leaving here in one piece.”
He made a wide arch with his leg, firing up toward my shoulder. I blocked with the side of my arm, crashing down and locking his knee over my shoulder. He shot around me, wrapping his legs and pulling me to the floor, locking his legs around my throat. I placed my feet on the floor as his lock tightened, arching my back to throw my legs up and slide out from under him. I made for his knee and forced him to flip over, mounting his back and locking an arm before he wormed his way out from under me.
He pushed back and we both returned to our feet. He was just as good as he was twelve years ago.
He heaved a breath. “Been waiting a long time to kick your ass.”
“You’ll be waiting a lot longer.”
He threw forward with his knees as I blocked low, batting away higher strikes from his elbows and fists. I tore a strike across his jaw as I turned the lead my way, pushing forward with continuing strikes and landing several on his abdomen and shoulders.
He was good, but he wasn’t as good as me.
We pushed apart and readjusted our stances. Time to prove it. I caught my knee as I slid back, unlocking the armor plate covering it and slipping it about a half inch down without his notice.
His breath heaved. “You haven’t lost your skill.”
“You’re about to lose a lot more.”
I threw back across his center, following with an elbow and a shoulder in an elaborate flourish of spinning motion, my legs lifting to push him back. He readjusted after my landing, pushing forward with a flurry of fierce strikes. I blocked shot after shot, waiting for my opportunity.
He threw his right arm straight across my center, and I stepped forward into his side, locking my arm over his neck and my foot behind his ankle before I twisted him around me. I drove my knee up into his lower spine, feeling it crack against the top of the loose knee plate.
His body hit the floor like a sack of potatoes.
He grit his teeth, wincing before it turned into a laugh, pushing his hands against the floor and attempting to stand before he realized it.
“T eleven, T twelve, L one.” I said. “Those are the vertebrae I just shattered.” I stepped to the side as he managed to flip himself onto his back. “Not that I’d expect you to know, considering you just lost all the nervous capability in your legs.”
“Something funny?” I asked.
“You ain’t gonna leave me like this.” He said. “I’ve seen the work you do. All those guys you beat the hell out of, you patch ‘em all right up. Couple weeks and I’ll be right as ever, but don’t worry, I’m sure the traumatic memories ‘ll be enough to set me straight.”
“What makes you so confident I won’t just walk out of here and leave you this way?”
“Because.” He said. “That’s not the kind of man you are.”
“The kind of man I am…” I said, reaching over and gripping his collar.
“Let’s just see what kind of man I am.”
A cold wave cascaded through the air as the water shocked the line of gangsters awake, each of them discovering themselves bound on their knees with their backs against a taxi cab. They stared forward in confusion for a moment, beholding their boss hung by his hands from a vehicle maintenance lift. A hooded shadow stepped out in front of them.
“This is your new employer.” I said. “Former employer, anyway. I don’t see him doing much work since I broke his spine.
“Currently, he’s looking at about four reconstructive surgeries and twelve months of physical therapy before he’ll enjoy another late night walk on the beach.
“With modern medicine, it’ll take a lot more damage yet before we completely give up hope on seeing him walk again.” I said. “But medical science is limited.
“Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to ask the room some questions about your previous employer, and every time I don’t get an answer, he gets a surgery.” I threatened, swinging the steel pipe up over my shoulder. “Once the doctors start losing hope… Next patient.” I growled, turning to the men sat up against the cab.
I beat the pipe rhythmically against my palm. “I’m looking for Damien Marcus’s killer.” I said. “First one to answer doesn’t wind up in traction.”
They said nothing.
“A bold start.” I said. “Much as I admire your betraying your friend over here, I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate it. And I don’t think he’ll be as merciful as me in the worst case scenario.”
“Works for me.” I said. The steel pipe hit his kneecap as the henchman all responded with cringing and various curses to the deafening crunch. “Six surgeries and eighteen months.” I said. “And I still got all night.”
I waited a few moments before his lower leg got the bar. “Eight and twenty.” I said, poking the side of his hip with the bar to indicate my intention. “Who’s up for twelve and two years?”
They pleaded for me to stop.
I didn’t hear an answer.
The steel pipe cracked into his pelvis as they all continued to beg.
“Next one and this place will need to be wheelchair accessible.” I said, brandishing the pipe in my hands. “And the doctor starts taking new patients.”
I wrapped both hands at the base of the pipe and wound it up like a baseball bat.
A bearded man sitting next to the gangster with the broken collarbone looked up at me.
“I saw him, I’ll tell you whatever you want, just please stop.”
I knelt down in front of him and placed my hand on the shoulder of the man beside him, applying pressure to his broken clavicle as he groaned.
“Marcus’s killer.” I said. “You saw them?”
“Yes.” He sputtered.
I released the man next to him as I stared him in the eyes, clenching my fists as they began to glow black.
His world began to fall apart as I searched his memory, maggots crawling up his chest and burrowing into his skin as his fears began to live.
I saw him. Black crew cut, wide jowls, brown eyes. Not the robot I’d expected, but.
I recognized him.
I reopened the closet door, kneeling down slowly and extending my hand to the group of terrified young women in the back corner.
“Everything’s going to be okay.” I said.
One of them ran forward and threw her arms around my shoulders as she began to cry.
“I’m going to get you home.”
Two pairs of high-heeled black boots made their ways through the hospital corridor.
“He hospitalized fourteen men.” The blonde one said. “Saved six girls from the sex trade.”
“You sound like you admire him, Zoe.” Vivian said.
“Don’t you?” Zoe asked. “This is the kind of work we’re trying to do.”
“Be that as it may, and much as I do appreciate his efforts, I’d like to make sure your former experience with him doesn’t cloud your judgement when the process begins.” She said. “I chose you because I thought it a weapon.”
“And I’ll use it like one.” Zoe said.
The woman at the door greeted the two of them. “What you’re going to see in there… isn’t pleasant.”
“I’m not in that line of work.” Vivian said.
She opened the door for them and the two stepped in.
There came into a view a man in a hospital bed, a steel brace surrounding his hips with two similar ones supporting his shattered legs.
“Holy hell…” Zoe said. “I heard the report, but… Good god.”
Vivian smiled. “What happened?”
“Three broken vertebrae at the lower lumbar and upper thoracic, shattered kneecap, broken tibia, fibula, split femur, three pelvic fractures of various degrees… The doctors haven’t looked at the spinal damage in great detail, but… They’re not optimistic.”
“That makes one of us.” Vivian said. “This is exactly what I wanted from him.”
“What next?” Zoe asked.
“We continue to let the test phase run its course.” Vivian said. “Azrael will follow as planned, and we’ll get the results we need.”
“And what about this guy?” Zoe said.
“Leave him alone. He’s of no utility to us anymore, and he’ll serve as an adequate symbol.” Vivian said. “And I’d suggest you look into digging up the old regalia…
“The war’s about to begin.”
Copyright ©Josiah Delnay 2016.