The dark-amber liquid was silk on my tongue. I knew many connoisseurs preferred velvet as their catchword, but as I sipped, I briefly had the impression of ravishing Carolyn, stripping her of her negligee, using only my mouth.
I rubbed the tip of my tongue across my upper and lower lip, pursed them, then smacked. No one else in the bar noticed, but I wouldn’t have given a damn if they had. It couldn’t be helped. Twenty-year-old tawny this good deserved a kiss—as did the memory of my wife, ten years gone.
The Sweet & Smoky had a decent mix of regulars and irregulars this afternoon. No more than two dozen or so, total. Average capacity for an early Friday afternoon. All of them were here to chat and relax over port or cigars or both. They had no other options in this little nook of heaven.
I was relaxing but had no interest in chatting with anyone. This week had played hell with my stamina and my sensibilities. My body was almost back to where it needed to be, but I needed a bit more time to get my mind right before the next hunt.
Time, however, had never been my pal.
I almost met the eyes of the deviant as he walked in. Lucky me: my specs weren’t on the right setting. I saw the aura about his head, but my eyes weren’t protected from any electromagnetic glare he might give me. I glanced away in time as he scanned the seating area; he was searching for more of his kind, I was sure. Finding none, he made his way to the bar.
I’d been careful when choosing my seat, as usual—dark corner, back against the wall. I’d no chance of staying completely hidden from those who could see through the dark and stuff much more solid. I just didn’t want any of the bastards sneaking up on me.
This one wasn’t stealthy at all, but he did take risks. His kind took a risk with each swallow of alcohol. I presumed he was among those on one of the stronger medications. The first clue was the way he carried himself.
He hadn’t run in like a lunatic, frothing at the mouth while raving rhymes and puns. He wasn’t a singer or dancer, trying to boil brains with a voice or slice throats with wicked moves. Not a would-be artist. He was seemingly just another smug hipster.
I knew the truth. I wouldn’t take my eyes off him. I’d try my damnedest to not even blink. None of the deviants were to be trusted.
This one slid up to the bar like a room-temp ice cube. I adjusted my specs and gave him a good look, just to be sure. My special status with the Heartland Security Agency notwithstanding, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
Yeah . . . I picked up the telltale signs—the dirty little mites, like several hundred miniscule bits of foil reflecting a variety of unnamable colors, off and on, like sparkles as they traveled complicated highways just under the upper layers of his skin. I downed my glass and stood up.
Most of my gear was in The Machine—under the seats, in the glove compartment, and in the back. Aside from my specs, which appeared to onlookers as the latest in sports-goggle fashion, I had two or three Skrapnel capsules on me, two eggs of Pixie Dust, one syringe, and a pair of sturdy gloves. I was wearing my custom leather shoulder holster, but it was empty. I carried no firearms, as guns and alcohol didn’t mix well with me. Either way, I couldn’t do anything in the Sweet & Smoky even if I wanted to. Not that I wanted to. I liked this bar. Quality port and the best cigars to be found in North Carolina—what was not to like?
The occasional clientele, I supposed. The target had struck up a conversation with Ed, the bartender. Ed shifted his eyes for just a second or less, catching my approach. Neither his voice nor his demeanor betrayed him, and his body language remained silent. It didn’t matter. His eyes told the whole story in a flicker. The deviant, like most others of his kind, probably knew something was up before he saw me take my place at the bar, two stools down from him. Wasn’t Ed’s fault. The gloves would’ve given me away anyway. Few people had a reason to wear fire-resistant gloves with integrated knuckles in here; I rarely had a reason to take them off.
“Another twenty-year tawny,” I said, interrupting whatever tale the deviant had been telling Ed.
Ed edged away a step at a time, keeping his eyes on the deviant, pretending to still be engrossed in the story, until the target finally stopped talking.
“Better get the man his drink,” the deviant said. He’d gotten the hint. “I can finish the story later, if you’re still interested.”
“I’m interested,” I said as Ed turned to retrieve the bottle.
The deviant glared with his eyes but smiled with his lips.
I adjusted my specs, setting the filter, before meeting his stare. I didn’t want his mind entering mine. But I briefly wondered what he thought, getting a look at this unshaven man with receding hair at least twenty years his senior. I probably still smelled a little of the grass I’d cut this morning—I didn’t know—but he seemed amused.
“Any idea what I was going on about?” he asked.
“I can guess,” I said as Ed returned with my port. “Your life story. A dirty joke. Whichever—the funny’s usually the same.” I held the glass up to my nose.
“Oh yeah?” He shifted, turning his body toward me. I knew his story in just a few glances. He was wearing yellow work boots in which he’d never performed a minute’s worth of work, torn and faded jeans recently purchased from a local thrift store, an open plaid shirt with the sleeves rolls up to his elbows, and a black T-shirt with some cartoon etched in white that I was just hip enough to recognize as ironic. Normally I wouldn’t even need my special tools; a round from my P320 could end him in a second. But respecting Ed’s wishes to run a respectable establishment, I never brought it or any other piece inside the S & S.
While I studied him, the deviant studied me further: in the jeans I’d roughed up and patched up all by myself over the last several years, in the boots that had been through actual combat, and the softshell jacket, which was water repellant, wind resistant, and specially modified to hold and hide a few accessories.
His smile faded as our faces traded expressions.
“Maybe you’d like to pick up where I left off,” he said flatly.
“Sure,” I said. “Your story is the one of a naughty boy, one who should’ve left it alone instead of picking it up and playing with it.” His brow furrowed as I said, “Now, I know you’re no moralist, so your life story doesn’t have a good moral or even a good laugh. But I can finish it in such a way that it has both.”
He sniffed. “You’re neither clever nor funny, hick.”
I nodded toward the entrance. “Let’s step outside. I promise I’ll leave you in stitches.”
“Go fuck yourself.” The deviant threw some money on the bar, gathered his cigars, and retreated to the lounge area, where the majority of the smokers were.
I held my glass and stood as I watched him settle into a comfortable leather chair.
With narrowing eyes, he watched me approach. He bit off the end of one cigar as I took the armchair adjacent to his. I expected him to spit it at me, but it hit the floor right before he said, “What do you want, prick? A date?”
I nodded. “How ’bout this evening?”
“Just leave me the fuck alone.” He lit up the cigar—with a match, not his vision.
“You see, that’s the thing. I can’t. You and your kind are fucking up my kind, spreading your disease, corrupting bodies and minds, polluting every environment God and Mother Nature blessed humankind with—an environment in which we were supposed to thrive, excel, eventually transcend our own skin . . .”
“Oh.” He puffed, then sneered. “You’re one of those. Of course.”
I smiled and moved my right hand closer to my heart. “I’ve pledged my allegiance.”
“A nut,” the deviant said. “A fundamentalist, in a bar. I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Oddly, his pupils didn’t shift; his irises didn’t change color; he didn’t even try to X-ray my jacket pockets.
“At least,” he continued, “my surprise shouldn’t equal my disgust at seeing a religious type with a drink in his hand, preaching to and against someone he knows nothing about. Blow away, reverend redneck. Let me smoke and think in peace.”
“Here’s something you should think about, deviant.” I leaned forward. “I do believe in family. I do believe in God. I believe in angels, the true angels: twenty-first-century humans at their true potential. I believe a fraction of these would-be angels have fallen from grace—hard—and I believe you’re among that tainted elite.”
He remained sitting, comfortably leaning backward, but I was perceptive enough to tell all the swagger had left his body. Cocksure no more, he was at a loss as to what to say. Maybe it was my words or merely my grin. Or maybe, reading the body language, he was smart enough to tell mine was winning the argument. Whichever, he felt he had only one tactic left.
The deviant leaned forward and puffed, blowing cigar smoke in my face.
No, he was in no way smart.
Coming from a man, this would have been a minor annoyance, like a death-wishing clown throwing confetti into my face. But as with any deviant, my senses were on high alert. The odor was like brimstone; the smoke was denser than London fog. Even though my specs were set to automatically adjust and cut through it, when they did, he was gone.
Well, not really. Just invisible.
I stood as I manually adjusted the specs and looked around. Got ’im. He was walking quickly toward the exit. I moved at twice the pace.
“Frank . . .” Ed called.
I waved him off. I wasn’t stopping. Did he really think I would let one that fell into my lap get away—run away—to unleash yet a little more Hell on Earth?
The deviant was heading toward a vehicle: a late-model hybrid. Funny.
I reached in my jacket and retrieved a Skrapnel capsule from the pocket near my left shoulder. I then stopped, reared back, and shouted, “Hey—you forgot this!”
He slowed and turned, perhaps involuntarily, just a bit but just enough. The capsule had already left my hand. He may’ve realized what it was a fraction of a second before it pegged him, bursting open on his left cheek.
He transitioned to visibility as he screamed at a pitch that would’ve curdled the blood of those with hides much thinner than mine.
The parking lot was empty. The only folks who heard were those across the street. Like all smart citizens in this day and age, they scurried away from any sign of trouble, paying it only a glance.
I kept running, adjusting my specs and reaching in the other side of my jacket for the “pen” holsters.
The minuscule metal jacks that had managed to attach themselves to the deviant’s cheek were melting and being absorbed as if the skin were cloth seeping up water. The Skrapnel would hopefully do its job, preventing the thing from using its light-manipulating abilities, or at least making it damn painful to do so.
I’d been lucky enough to hit the face. That was prime property on any deviant’s body. But this one wasn’t as stupid as I was ready to presume. His face remained, anguished expression and all, as the patterns on his clothes shifted, first to a three-dimensional plaid and then to something unexplainable, appearing in shape like a hovering stingray, one with the same color as television snow with a few blotches of red thrown in.
I’d faced stuff more bizarre. I took the syringe out of the “pen” holster and continued forward.
He ran, too—toward me, yelling a war cry of sorts. The cries of these deviants were sometimes simply meant to intimidate. Oftentimes, the sounds were used as weapons.
My initial impression of static wasn’t far off as I heard a crunchy roar, popping on every part of my outer, middle, and inner ears as it went deeper to whip snap my nerves. I wasn’t quite ready for it.
On a better day, I would’ve done better than stumble and trip, almost jabbing the syringe filled with liquid metal into my own chest. I tossed it aside, under a car, before falling and scuffing up my jeans as I pushed myself up and kept moving. I’d been trained to never remain still when facing off against their kind, no matter how much it hurt.
If only I’d parked closer to the building, I would’ve bolted for my Hummer. But the former agent in me was always prodding to park far away, at a good enough distance to do surveillance on the way to the end point. Lot of good it did me at this point.
Separated from The Machine, the best I could hope to do was run headlong into the deviant, tackle him, and strangle him till he lost consciousness. The target was already bleeding on his cheek, but maybe I could finesse him down so that the blood wouldn’t touch me or anyone else, and I wouldn’t shed more.
Easier thought than accomplished.
The staticky stingray with the pissed-off man’s head was as elusive as he appeared, and he had something sharp I couldn’t see. When we were close to colliding, I dove and missed, but he rapidly sliced up the forearms of my jacket. As I pushed up from the asphalt, I noticed he’d gotten deep enough to draw blood.
Damn. The mission earlier in the week must’ve taken a bigger toll than I’d thought. I was much better than all this. Forget the deviant’s blood touching my skin; if it touched my blood . . .
I stood and whirled around. He was there, ready to grab my arms, ready to dance the last one.
I clasped my hands behind my back and kicked—a child’s move, but I wasn’t interested in proving my maturity. The tip of my composite-toe boot didn’t connect with his groin or any other chunk of flesh, just visual snow. I expected it—I’d made the move only to make him pause while I shifted my weight back and to the side, hitting the ground and rolling for a few feet, putting distance between us as I reached inside my jacket for the egg close to my heart.
He saw. This time it was fear rather than confusion that kept him in one place. He wasn’t a skilled combatant; otherwise, he would’ve moved when I fastballed the egg straight toward his face.
There was no war cry this time. It was more of a death scream as the sun’s rays connected with the granules that stuck to the deviant’s skin like damp sugar crystals. They were nothing any human would ever want to ingest, but the sun’s rays shaved themselves down to the thinnest, tiniest, sharpest snakelike devourers, eating, ingesting, and immediately processing the crystals as, in turn, the parasites in the deviant’s skin and blood fed on the electromagnetic rays, attempting to digest and process but only regurgitating them. I wasn’t seeing it down to the exact details; this is how it had been described to me back when I was with the Agency. But I didn’t even really need my special-agent specs to see the deviant’s head being picked apart by the hair of a sun-Medusa, picked to the bone, leaving a blood-streaked, crystallized skull in its place.
Curious and brave patrons poured out of the S & S in time to see the deviant’s lifeless body slump and a piece of its prism-patched skull chip off when it hit the pavement.
I heard the expected groans and screams as I hustled to The Machine, uncloaked it, and opened the back. I had only two of the specially lined body bags left. I’d need to restock first thing in the morning.
I put on a different jacket and a surgeon’s face mask. I wished I could’ve donned my battle-dress uniform, but I didn’t have the time—and if I wanted to maintain my “special” status, that was a no-no in this environment. This wasn’t the woods or countryside. I couldn’t even put on my helmet.
Once my skin was covered as much as possible, I pulled out my cell and called one among my most-trusted at the Agency as I doubled back to the remains. Thankfully, no one had been brave or stupid enough to approach it, so there was no need to shoo or shout anyone away.
I finished my call and visually examined the body, adjusting my specs several times. The thing was dead, but I wanted to be sure there’d be no convulsions or other surprises when I touched the body. I was mostly covered, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.
There were still living parasites in the corpse, but they’d been shocked to exhaustion. I went to work.
I’d no trouble zipping him up.
My Agency contact promised to send a retrieval squad to take the body and handle damage control for the witnesses. They’d probably use the same old story about the guy trying to rob the place. Ed would go along. He’d been a great friend throughout the years. I just hoped the damn squad got here soon.
I checked my watch. School was almost out.