Agent Gemini, Page 2Lilith Saintcrow
Hold that thought, Gibraltar Agent Eight—or Cal, as he preferred, even though it wasn’t any closer to the name he was born with—told himself and pretended to stumble as they shoved him into an alley.
Three men against an agent was close to a cakewalk. Even when the agent was handcuffed. Knee to the first one’s groin, stamping down along the shin with a heavy boot-toe—steel-toed Docs were still the best—driving himself aside, that one’s got a knife, dammit, shoulder into the knife man’s stomach and skin tearing as he yanked his right hand free.
If you didn’t mind losing a little flesh, handcuffs came right off. Zip ties were laughably easy if you had some freedom of movement, so was duct tape, but cuffs always meant blood loss. The knife skittered away, fetching up under a Dumpster; Cal’s bleeding hand snapped up and there was a crunch as the nasal promontory broke, driving into the brain.
Oops. Steady on, Cal. Need one for questioning. Left hand whipping out, fingers folded through the now-free right-hand cuff to brace it, a strike to the third one’s throat.
These were standard-issue goons, probably NSA fieldhoppers though their watches were wrong, in suits with the wrong wingtips for urban camouflage and sidearms they didn’t dare use out in public. He’d waved himself like a red rag in front of them, and they’d leaped to snap the cuffs on him and get him off the street, probably to hood and zip-tie him while they called for backup.
Idiots. Getting all excited and moving to take him even though they probably had orders to call for backup first. But you got high-testosterone boys in a group, and their functional efficiency went into the basement once there was a bit of caveman exertion in sight.
Textbook closed-space combat, blond hair flopping a little in Cal’s face since he’d needed to grow it out a bit for camouflage. Really, with the enhanced strength and speed, it was hardly fair.
Fair was for idealists, not survivors. A greenstick crack as he took out the first one’s knee, spilling him on the alley floor, and the third was quietly choking. Big, bullish, brawny boys, probably ruthless and used to winning against defenseless civilians.
Definitely not used to fighting an agent.
A hollow bong—the third had kicked a Dumpster, the body scrabbling for breath. Cal sighed, stripped the still-twitching corpse—Number Two—of its gun and wallet, spent a few minutes making Number Three a little more comfortable and a little less visible from the street-mouth, then went back to the first. He got a hand over the man’s mouth just as shock loosened its grip enough to permit screaming, got that gun away and examined the man critically. A real corn-fed wonder with a high and tight, little blue eyes way too close together, and he smelled like chili. The sweet-roasted edge of incipient diabetes lay under the taco-and-beans funk.
Thirty-five or thereabouts. Not too old for fieldwork, but metabolism starting to slow down. Still in good shape but had too much rye mash last night. That’s alcohol metabolizing. A kaleidoscope of smell and sense impression inside his head. Sometimes Cal wondered how he’d ever got along without the invaders in his bloodstream, spinning all his dials up to eleven. The initial illness had been goddamn uncomfortable—that was true enough—but the end result was better muscular efficiency, flexibility, problem solving and a host of other benefits.
It was a pity he hadn’t come out of it with, say, Reese’s ability to plan instead of what the eggheads called “tactical flexibility.” But you made do with what you had, and what he had right now was a man to question.
“Hi,” Cal said softly, politely. No use in shouting. “Let’s keep this simple, okay? I ask questions. You tell the truth, you live.”
His sides heaving, his eyes white-ringed, Number One still had the remarkable presence of mind to look over Cal’s shoulder, probably thinking he’d get some help if he could choke out a yell. Cal sighed, shook his head, blue eyes darkening a little. “You want broken ribs, too? Come on, man. You’ve had a hard day. Just tell me what I want to know.”
“What?” Number One choked, his voice high and squeaky. Maybe fear, maybe pain, both were pouring off him in waves. Cal’s right hand smarted—the flesh was already sealing up. He might scar, despite the virus jacking healing processes into hyperspeed.
Wouldn’t that be interesting. The longer he walked around with the swarmies in his bloodstream, the more interesting things kept cropping up. Like the headaches. “What’s your initials, fella?” Cal dug at the man’s coat, found the badge holder and flipped it open. It looked legit, true, but looks weren’t everything. “Aw, come on. You’re not FBI. Your socks are all wrong. You’re not NSA, either, those watches are outside your pay grade.”
“In-indep-pendent,” the man stuttered, and Cal’s nape roughened with gooseflesh. “B-b-b-bait.”
Uh-oh. Independent contractors, working in a major American city. Deniability and tactical flexibility in one nasty package, and getting the authorization to let them do anything domestic was a maze of paperwork. Someone was very invested in this. “Huh. That makes you collateral, then, doesn’t it.” Still nice and level. His entire back was crawling now. If you’re bait, sonny boy, I’m a lot closer than I think. Like all good news, though, it had a lead lining.
Because bait meant trapjaws, too, nice and shiny and jagged, looking to close on him.
Cal glanced up at the alley sides and the slice of blue sky he could see between two six-story buildings, then back at the street, where a golden flood of pure-D Arizona sunshine was busy cooking everything stupid enough to try moving during the middle of the day. He wasn’t sweating too much—temperature differences were a lot less likely to affect him now—and it took a second to throttle back the adrenaline dump in his bloodstream, everything revving down so he could think without the chemical soup of fight-or-flight fogging his mental processes. “Bait, huh?”
“Don’t k-k-kill me,” the man whispered. “OhGod, don’t kill me, dontkillme please—”
You get this close to me and survive, they’ll kill you. Or make you wish you were dead in debriefing. Cal shrugged easily, every nerve screaming Get the hell out of here, man, what are you doing waiting around? “You’re not here for me.” Logical enough to make even Reese proud.
“G-g-girl.” Number One flapped his left hand, and Cal’s fingers were there, reaching under the suit jacket cuff to feel tape and paper. “B-b-blonde g-g-girl.”
He yanked on it, and the photo—taped to the shirtsleeve underneath for easy reference and sweat proofing—crackled against his palm. “A girl, huh? Didn’t anyone tell you she had a boyfriend already?” He grinned easily, and Number One’s mouth fell open as he cowered. Whatever was on Cal’s face at that moment must not have been pretty.
It didn’t feel pretty from the inside, either. A cold breath against his nape again warned him he was running out of time and room. Put him down. It’s kinder than what they’ll do.
Besides, jackholes like this had killed Tracy. His hands ached with the urge, ached further with the loss of skin, just two short moves and it would all be over. He could even make it painless, if he wanted to.
One hundred and twenty seconds later, Cal peered down from the roof above, the right-hand cuff already open and the irritating metal bracelets forgotten, as black SUVs clustered the alley mouth. More big brawny goons clotted the small space below, bundling up the two bodies and ushering Number One toward a quick ride to debriefing and maybe liquidation.
It would have been better to just erase the man, Cal told himself again.
Tracy’s voice, soft and kind. You’re not as bad as you think you are, you know.
Except Tracy was dead now, without ever knowing the truth: that Cal would be just as bad as necessary to get the job done. Right now, his job was finding another woman before these yahoos did. A woman who smelled like blueberry pie and sweetness, a woman who had neatly rescued Reese’s girl Holly and then saved all their collective bacon, before v
A woman like that deserved some looking after.
More independent contractors, taking their orders from someone in government. If he watched closely enough, he might get a clue.
Hang on, what’s that? He breathed softly, ignoring the sun beating on his back. A tall figure, dark hair not military cut but the rigidity of bearing suggesting some bootcamp, moving unhurried through the frenzy of activity. They’d probably take everything in the Dumpster in for scanning and analyzing, as well. Hello, sir, who are you?
No time to introduce himself to this interesting new player on the scene, even if he had the urge. There was a thopping of chopper blades, and Cal ran lightly across the rooftop, tar softening under his boot soles. It took a special kind of sliding to keep your speed across footing like this—you were liable to throw your knee out if you didn’t do it right. By the time the helicopter arrived and began its search pattern, he was already in the car, almost running a stop sign the way they did down here, just slowing to a California roll with the AC blasting and the steering wheel hot enough to cook his fingers. A police scanner set under the dash crackled and burbled softly, and he had the picture from the guy’s sleeve propped over the RPM gauge.
It was a woman with big dark eyes, her blond hair pulled too tightly back and little gold hoops winking in her ears. Unsmiling, she stared directly into the camera as if it was a mug shot, and the shape of her cheekbones was sweet enough to make any man’s heart pound. She was too thin, the architecture of her neck clearly visible and her lush mouth pulled tight with what had to be hunger.
The scanner squawked—they were using some of the local resources, which meant he could infiltrate and hop one step ahead of them, again. It also meant they were very, very close to the prize, and getting closer all the time.
Cal let out a soft breath, not quite a whistle, and rolled his window up since the AC had finally stopped blowing more heat into the car and started doing what it was supposed to.
Now the only problem was getting to the girl before they did.
* * *
There was someone in her aisle. Trinity suppressed a scratching feeling behind her breastbone—it was not rational to be irritated at a bundled-up figure who had shuffled in from outside to stand in front of the tuna-fish shelves, staring at the cans as if the fate of the world depended on picking the right constellation of ocean trash and dolphin meat.
Homeless. Female. Thirty-five or a little older. The scent—ripe and almost rank, a woman who tried unsuccessfully to keep herself clean against great odds—rode a draft of chilly air, and Trinity’s head cocked slightly. It was far too warm outside for the bulky parka and knit cap the woman wore, not to mention the layers of sweatpants tucked into high-laced hiking boots caked with sand and quite possibly some animal scat. The boots were also much more worn than Trinity’s and had been mended with duct tape.
Trinity dropped the box of pickled asparagus—the people on this patch of dusty earth seemed to crave a truly prodigious amount of the things—just hard enough to make a noise, but not hard enough to crack any of the jars.
The homeless woman didn’t even flinch. Trinity’s nostrils flared slightly—copper adrenaline, nervous sweat, but no hint of any drug, illegal or otherwise, metabolizing on the homeless woman. Then again, if she was deconstructing, could she trust that her sensory acuity would remain, or—
That was the trouble with this sort of work. It was not nearly challenging enough to keep her from what could be classified as worrying, a fruitless endeavor if ever one existed, and that probably hastened the deconstruction.
“’Scuse me.” Shuffling footsteps. The woman was coming closer, her head bobbing strangely. “’Scuse me, ’scuse me.”
Adrenaline, cortisol, other substances to prime her for combat—Trinity throttled them back, watching as a flushed, pitted face swam into view under the knit cap. Bloodshot blue eyes and one shoulder hunched much higher than the other. Scoliosis. Malnutrition. Her teeth are rotting.
Had the virus saved Trinity from this fate? There wasn’t any way to tell. She did not fold her arms or straighten. She simply stood, as the woman hitched herself closer and closer. For a moment or two she had thought it a feint, the woman a government asset sent to pinpoint while others closed in. Then she discarded the idea as vanishingly unlikely, only a 1.2 percent chance such a maneuver would be tried in this setting.
“Got a cat,” the woman stage-whispered. “A cat. Yes, a cat.”
Trinity stayed very still. If the other woman kept approaching on this vector, they would collide, but there didn’t seem to be any need to step aside just yet. No further calculation she was capable of seemed to apply. Not a threat. Ankles swollen—edema? No, the shape is wrong. What is that?
“For my cat,” the woman whispered and winked, her face screwing up into a map of sunstruck wrinkles and peeling. She altered her course by just a few degrees, passed close enough Trinity’s eyes threatened to water at the smell, and she suddenly realized what the bulkiness around the woman’s ankles was.
She has cans of tuna fish in there. Another swift glance, calculating. Three on each side. How interesting.
“Hey!” Tengermann’s piping tenor echoed off the floor, the shelves, bounced back down from the light fixtures. “Hey! You!”
Trinity watched, mildly attentive, as the night manager, in his pressed white shirt and black slacks, bolted past her. The heels of his prissily polished shoes left long streaks on faded blue linoleum-over-concrete. The homeless woman scuttled for the front doors with amazing rapidity, given her decrepit condition, and just as it seemed he was going to catch her, Tengermann slipped on an overly shiny patch of linoleum, careening over an endcap—boxes of soda cans and a middle stripe of two-liters, all full of carbonated chemical sludge the people here drank instead of water.
Considering the quality of said tap water, it was probably a reasonable choice. Trinity began calculating how many of the cans would explode with fizz when opened, her brain seizing on the problem as vastly more complex and entertaining than the pickled asparagus, and watched as the homeless woman made good her escape. The doors opened, whooshed closed behind her, and Tengermann struggled out of the nest of boxes and two-liters, his face beet-red and his right eye rapidly puffing shut.
Cynthia, the night checker, openmouthed, stared at him; there was a low snort an aisle over—Eddie, but he didn’t sound as if he was in pain.
No, Trinity realized Eddie was trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. Cynthia’s mouth twitched; she tucked a strand of frayed, frizzed, reddish hair behind her ear, her worn face lighting with a brand of amusement possibly close to schadenfreude.
What a lovely word. And completely applicable. Finding a word that fit perfectly in a proper slot was a deeply satisfying event.
Tengermann finally bounced to his feet. Nobody moved to help him; he spun angrily on one heel and fixed Trinity with a hot glare, though his battered face—one of the two-liters must have fallen on him—somewhat detracted from any quelling force said glare would possess.
Funny, he looks like Bronson. A jolt of recoil against her wrists, the man’s body sagging—
Trinity pushed that aside. Free-associating about the man in local control of Division’s Midwest section was useless. After all, Richard Bronson was dead.
Just one of many murders.
“Goddamn it, Alice! You let her get away!” Tengerman yelled.
Irrational. She watched as he stamped back down the aisle toward her, fuming. Ah. He feels his authority has been threatened. Next comes anger.
Petty tyrants, really, were all the same.
He halted just inside her personal space, probably thinking to intimidate her. Trinity realized she was smiling just before he did; his face went through several shades of fury and finally settled on something close to apoplectic.
ther precise, beautiful word, she mused. The world was full of them. When they fitted into their proper slots, the satisfaction was almost intense enough to be physical.
“You let her get away!” he fumed, pointing an accusing finger, its nail darkened with an arc of dirt, at her. “You will be written up! What do you have to say for yourself?”
He constantly berated his underlings about hand washing and proper procedure, yet allowed a great deal of grime to accumulate on his own digits. “Apoplectic,” she murmured. That was an absolutely correct word for his expression, his flushing cheeks and throat.
I did not mean to say that. Calculations sparked and flowed inside her skull, a delightful shivering. She heard herself speak, as if from a great distance.
“I quit.” Her hands were already unbuttoning the frayed polyester vest with flying ease. The magnetic name tag, with its peeling sticker saying Alice because “corporate” hadn’t sent a permanent one yet, clicked slightly as she shrugged out of the sad little garment. “You are a man of little intelligence and even less personal hygiene, and you bore everyone who has the misfortune to speak to you. Also, your habit of demanding unpaid overtime is against local, state and federal labor laws, and the interest you display toward teenage girls who enter this store is nothing short of repugnant.” She had the vest in a ball now and flung it at him, an accurate toss that hit him in the midriff. He blinked, his mouth ajar, working like a fish’s, and the free association—tuna fish, cat, man, fishmouth—pleased her even more deeply for a moment before she turned to walk away. There was an exit near the cardboard crusher; she could easily step out and away, vanish into the empty lot behind the store, catch a bus on Salterello Street and go back to her hide.
None of them had ever noticed that she carried no purse. The address given on the job application was false, the phone number a now-defunct prepaid cell. When she vanished from here, it would be permanent.