Samuels’ face was white when I told her the lab results. “What the hell have you stumbled into?…” she murmured.
“I didn’t stumble into anything. It fell right into my lap,” I told her.
“Well, stumbled onto it or not…are you going to call Eli?”
I took a moment before I replied. “Yes. But not yet. We need to go over what we know,” I said. I stood up and locked the door. No point in getting disturbed. My arm was still screaming with pain. I’d fallen asleep with it hanging off my chair, and the weight of it pulling on the interface made it raw and inflamed. I twisted my arm off and set it down on my desk charger, then fired up the board and created a new file.
“Let’s sketch out what we know,” I told Samuels as I worked. I learned how to use my off hand right after my crash. Not much else to do until everything had settled down enough to get the hardware installed. “The victim was murdered in Armstrong Square.” I selected an overview of the scene from the files using my thumb, then transferred it from my glove to the board with a tap. I centred it at the top of the board. I created a pair of entries on either side for my main questions. “Why there? And how could he know that the target would be there?”
Samuels leaned forward in her seat, steepling her fingers like she always did when deep in thought. “Hrm. Well, the obvious answer is so that the killer could use that fancy gun. That just asks-”
“Why he used that in the first place. Which is only one of the things that doesn’t make sense,” I supplied for her. “Clearly it was sending a message – if the killer was just trying to take Mendoza out, he’d have just shot him in the head with something simple and untraceable.”
“Maybe the message was ‘We have military hardware’?”
I turned it over, then shook my head – but wrote it on the list anyway. “That doesn’t fit the bill for me. For one, there’s the location. Shooter was up in the penthouse. If it was someone trying to knock off Mendoza and take his place, he’d have down it from down low. And Mendoza’s been quiet. Nothing that should have pissed off anyone with the power to call commandos in to make the hit for them.”
“What if it wasn’t a planned hit?”
That seemed slightly more plausible, if only barely so. The city had a surfeit of devils – having a private guardian angel would be a nice change – even if he did cause more trouble than he solved. “What, a vigilante special-ops guy? Stranger things have happened. What do you think the odds of our getting a straight answer if we ask them if they’re missing a railgun?”
She chuckled. “About as low as Rowe learning to tap-dance.”
“Still, it’s something to follow up on. See if you can get the ball rolling with an enquiry,” I told her. I added ‘vigilante’ to the board. “Second part of the question still stands though.”
“How he could have known Mendoza was there.”
“Exactly,” I told her. A thought occurred to me, and I hid the case notes for a moment in order to bring up the weather. “Raining last night. Think Mendoza was the type to enjoy the rain?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. We can double-check, but who doesn’t like being under the sky?”
“Of course, we could be barking up the wrong tree. Could have been a mole – maybe one of those missing bodyguards.”
“Or someone put a transmitter on him, and hooked up relays down there. Or just had enough resources to hack into ours.”
“Either way, things are looking more complicated,” I told her. I brought the case notes back up and added the rest of of brainstorming. A whole lot of questions, and not nearly enough answers to go around. We already had an APB out on the missing bodyguards, though they were probably already being ground into paste somewhere. I took a step back and looked over the board, then sighed and rubbed my face. “Well, it’s something. Do we know if word’s gotten out yet?”
“Heavy ops mobilised while you were asleep.”
“Christ. There’ll be hell to pay when Nexus finds out who leaked it. Alright…I suppose it’s time to call my new friend. Be quiet, I don’t want him to know you’re here,” I told her. She just leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms, waiting patiently. I sat down at my desk, found the scrap of paper, and called Eli.
The phone rang once before he picked it up. “Katherine. I’m assuming you’ve found something interesting.”
“Yes, sir. I’m assuming that you don’t want to discuss it over the phone?”
He chuckled. “I told you, Katherine, call me Eli. And you assume correctly.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt about him using my given name. I wasn’t about to say anything about it. “Your office, Eli?”
“Not quite. I’d like to have dinner with you, Katherine. I’ll pick you up from your apartment in an hour.”
Of course he knew where I lived. I took a moment before I replied. “I don’t really have a choice here, do I?”
“Of course you do, Katherine.”
Yeah, right. A choice between do what he wants, or disappear. “Fine,” I told him, trying to make my tone light. I’m sure my voice was still dripping icicles.
“I’ll see you then. And Katherine? Wear something nice,” he told me. Then he disconnected.
I looked at the phone for a second, then dropped it and put my head in my hand with a groan. “As if my life really needed to get more stressful.”
“What is it?”
“His idea of giving me information is asking me out on a date. Don’t you dare laugh,” I warned.
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Kathy,” she told me, trying to sound as innocent as possible. She sobered up immediately, however. “Just be careful.”
“I intend to. Alright…keep me updated. I’ll go get ready,” I told her. As I reattached my arm and left, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was walking to my own execution.
It took twenty minutes to walk home, enough time left to get ready. My cat trotted over to greet me as I came through the door, and I picked him up. I held him and talked to him while I put my rifle away, and he reciprocated with purring. “Sorry, Khan,” I told him, setting him down on my bed. Can’t take a shower while holding a cat if you value your skin. I ejected the magazine from my arm before I removed it, for safety. Would be an embarrassing end, blowing my head off with an accidental discharge.
A hot shower and a scrub washed away some of the stress of the day. I tried to decide whether to indulge the opportunity to let my hair down – so to speak – or to make a statement. I decided to go half-way. I have some perfume that I haven’t had a reason to wear for a long time. I put on my normal deodorant instead. I didn’t put on make-up. He’d said nice, and I assumed that as an Agent, he’d be able to afford an expensive place. I only had one dress that fit the bill, and it was sexier than I wanted. Black, cut low enough to flash a little cleavage, sleeveless – I got that dress before I lost my arm. I was surprised that it still fit. I dug through my cupboard and found the handbag to go with it. A little dusting, and it was serviceable.
I wasn’t about to go into this without something to protect myself. For all I knew, Eli was planning on ogling me for a while before putting a bullet in my skull. I reloaded my arm and chambered a round ready for use. Into my handbag went my purse, my phone, my badge, and my mace. I don’t have much cleavage, but I have enough to keep a switch-blade there. With the dress, it was obvious – that was the point. After a moment of consideration I retrieved my backup weapon from my safe, a subcompact semi-auto. I strapped it to my thigh, under my dress, along with a spare magazine. I was just finishing checking the fit when Eli thumped on the door. A couple of sharp raps that rattled the door in its frame. Khan perked his ears up, then jumped down and trotted to the door to investigate. I took my time. When I eventually opened the door a couple of minutes later, Eli was waiting.
Eli was wearing another dark suit, almost identical to the one from earlier. This one was crisp and neat, rather than the crumpled one he’d worn in my office. If I’m going to be honest, I preferred the wrinkled suit. It made him seem more real. The wrinkle-free look didn’t suit his body – like his eyes didn’t suit his smile. He gave me a look, and then flashed that smile to me. “You look lovely, Katherine,” he told me.
“Thanks,” I replied. I kept my voice short. Enforced politeness. I was trying to convey the fact that I would much rather be doing anything else.
He didn’t seem fazed. He waved his hand to a car parked in front of my apartment, a sedan that was dark like his suit. “Your chariot awaits,” he told me, opening the passenger side door for me. I hopped in without a word. I don’t like being in cars. Bad memories. I made sure my seatbelt was tight.
Eli tried striking up a conversation as he drove, but I wouldn’t bite. I kept my responses down to as few syllables as possible. I didn’t drop my polite tone though. Wouldn’t do to piss him off. I had the sensation of walking along a tightrope the entire time. He headed up, just as I’d suspected he would. Ramps first, then when we got to the newer sections, he was able to pull onto an elevator. A tap of the dashboard display selected the floor he wanted. Right up near the top of the penthouse. I don’t go there often. When I do, it’s usually because someone is headed to the morgue in multiple body-bags. I took the opportunity to take in the sights. A lot more room, a lot more open air, more green, more sky. I’d forgotten how nice it was to look at the stars. Only the brightest could shine through without the glow of the city drowning them out. At least Mendoza got to enjoy the sky before he died.
Eli pulled up in front of the restaurant and moved around to open the door for me. He handed the key to the valet, then offered his arm to me. I pointedly crossed my arms. He just chuckled, shrugged, then waved me on towards the door.
I was taking in the sights more than I was paying attention to him. He had reservations, and we were lead through the restaurant. It would have been hard for me to feel more out-of-place. Everywhere was tanned skin, perfect teeth, flawless complexions, and long, luxurious hair. Up here, nobody had an obvious prosthetic like mine. You lost an arm, they just grew you a new one in a vat. Or failing that, you got an arm so realistic you’d have to touch it to know the difference. Then there was me: with my pale skin, my arm, my scars, my shaved head, my knife in my cleavage. The maître d’ didn’t blink, at least. The patrons were another matter. They stared and muttered. I got a little satisfaction by picking out celebrities – and remembering everything that we’d caught them doing. Most of it got swept under the rug, but we talk to each other. Drugs here, prostitution there. A movie star sneered at me and made a derisive comment to his wife. I briefly toyed with telling her that we’d caught him giving a blow-job to a transvestite in a public park. I fought the urge down.
Everything up in the penthouse is beautiful, and everything feels hollow. I’d take the filth, crime, and desperation on the ground floor any day.
Eli and I were lead back into a private room. A table for two, lit by candles with an expensive-looking bottle of wine sitting in a cooler. The door swung shut behind us, and the sound of the restaurant disappeared. There was a second door, for staff to deliver food to us privately. I suspected that they’d deliver whatever else you asked for, in a place like this. They’d probably even dispose of the bodies for you – though that might require an extra tip.
Eli pulled a chair out for me, and I sat. He took his place opposite me, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the table. “I come here often. I don’t need to look at the menu – you go ahead and choose what you want. I’ll pay, of course.”
I picked up the menu, and scanned it. “Good, because one meal from here is a month’s pay.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Really? They’re clearly not paying you enough then, Katherine.”
My temper had been so carefully controlled, but finally, I slipped a little. “Oh come on, cut the flattery crap, Eli. The answer is no.”
“Oh? No to what?”
“No, I won’t become an Agent.”
He just laughed. “Who said that was on the table? We evaluated and rejected you already, Katherine, a long time ago. After your first commendation in fact.”
“Oh,” was all I managed to say in reply. I’d been so sure, and he’d thrown me off of my game. That wasn’t something that happened often.
“You were evaluated as being immensely skilled…but of an incorrect temperament for the work. Look, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have ulterior motives. Having ulterior motives is my job. That doesn’t change the fact that I invited you to dinner because I find you attractive, and want to get to know you better.”
“Right,” I replied simply. I’m sure it came out sounding like ‘bullshit‘.
For the first time since I’d met him, his mask of perpetual good-natured cheer slipped. He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, and let out a sigh. “Why is that so hard for you to accept?”
“Because you’re a murderer.”
“Because I do my job? I protect this city, just like you do.”
I slammed my fist into the table hard enough for the knuckles to gouge the surface. “I am not like you. I enforce the law. I don’t ignore it,” I told him, staring into his eyes.
For a moment, I thought he was going to explode. Instead, after a moment, he broke the eye contact. “Well…I suppose I’ll stop trying. I know when it’s time to throw in the towel.”
He sounded…disappointed. I told myself that it was nothing but manipulation. “Thank you,” I replied, keeping my tone clipped and controlled.
I couldn’t help but wonder, though.
Maybe he actually was genuine. Maybe he thought he had a chance at something with someone who wasn’t scared away. Maybe he thought I’d understand. My last real relationship ended when I joined the Academy. After that…anything that might have started ended as soon as they found out I was a cop.
I shoved that train of thought away. Eli was a manipulative scum-bag, pure and simple. He was playing games with me. That was his job, how those people operated. And once they had you all wrapped up in their little games, then it was a black bag and a one-way trip for you. It’d be easier to believe if Eli looked more like a scum-bag – though I suppose that’s what made him good at his job.
There was a soft tap at the back door, and a waiter entered a moment later. We placed our orders, and he left. As he did, Eli leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Well, I’d hoped that this meeting could avoid being entirely business…but I suppose it needs taking care of. There’s one thing that I need to tell you straight away, Katherine.”
“It’s not wise to ignore what an Agent tells you.”
I immediately went tense. Slowly, my fingers eased towards the gesture that would deploy my sidearm. Whatever he was planning, that would be faster. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied.
“You’re a poor liar, Katherine,” he told me. He sounded amused, rather than pissed. He opened his jacket up, to show me that there was no holster underneath. Instead he retrieved a phone from the inner pocket, and tapped the screen a couple of times. Immediately, my voice started playing – a recording of me telling Samuels everything that I’d learned. Eli stopped the recording and put his phone away. “Thankfully for you, I anticipated the security leak to Detective Samuels. I would advise that you avoid talking to anyone else, though. You’ll find that most of my fellow Agents aren’t nearly so easy to get along with.”
“You bugged my office.”
“Of course. It’s my job to know everything. I’m honestly a little surprised that you didn’t check as soon as I left. It has been a long day for you,” he told me with that damned good-natured laugh of his. I knew what he was doing by then – the son of a bitch was using my own tactics against me. Playing the good cop, letting the spectre of his colleagues hang over my head like the fucking Sword of Damocles. And of course, he didn’t make any specific threats himself, just let my imagination fill in the blanks. And of course, I wasn’t to worry – because he was a good guy, he’d keep me safe if I just trusted him. Bullshit.
I didn’t let him rattle me. I was tired of his games. “Just give me the information you promised, Eli.”
“You’ll understand that there’s not much I can give you, with your clearance level.”
He leaned back in his seat. “Allow me to point you in the right direction, then. Did you think to check who worked on Mendoza, after he lost his jaw?”
“I had, but I haven’t had a chance to dig up the names yet,” I replied.
“Don’t bother. Every doctor and nurse who worked on Mendoza died within a month, mainly from accidents. Auto crash, gas leak, fall from a railing and down three levels, the list goes on.”
“Which makes it seem like these accidents aren’t accidents.”
Eli nodded. “Exactly. I saved you the trouble of finding out that there was one doctor who might have survived. Dr Karl Eichmann – surgeon, disappeared shortly after Mendoza’s stay, but no body was found.”
“What makes you think he’s still alive? Plenty of bodies don’t get found.”
“That’s true. But plenty of bodies aren’t facial reconstruction surgeons, and don’t withdraw all of their money before disappearing. Nor are they last seen stuffing fistfuls of medical supplies into a briefcase,” Eli replied.
I whistled softly. “You’re suggesting he changed his own face?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Katherine, I’m giving you a lead. Here…” he reached into his jacket again, and handed over an envelope. “A hard copy of our file on Dr. Eichmann. I’d advise you not to try and scan those documents – there’s a very good reason they aren’t digital already. Reading them only in your own home would be another good idea.”
“Understood,” I told him. I had no intention of disobeying this time. Odds were, those files were like a digital hand grenade. Just printing it off would have embedded security marks into the paper. Any attempt to scan it – or even read it too close to a camera in the wrong place – would set off all sorts of alarms in places that you really didn’t want attention from. I didn’t have a pocket to store it in and my bag wasn’t safe enough, so instead I jammed the envelope under the straps for my thigh holster.
Eli took a sip of wine. “Other than that lead, I’m not sure there’s much else that I can tell you at this junction. I’m sorry I can’t do any mo-”
He cut himself off in surprise when I reached over and snatched the glass from his hand. “You’re driving me home. You aren’t drinking,” I told him.
He opened his mouth, then glanced at my arm and closed it again. A moment later, he laughed. “Most people wouldn’t be brave enough to do that. Alright, no wine.”
“Thanks, Eli,” I told him. I considered having some myself, but it wasn’t a good idea. For one, I wanted to keep my head clear. Secondly, drinking wine with my pills would probably do bad things to my liver. Thinking about them made my stump itch. I ignored it. “There’s nothing at all you can give me?”
“Just a warning to watch your step, Katherine. You’re smart enough to realise that you’ve stumbled into something a lot bigger than yourself…”
“So I’m told,” I replied dryly.
He studied his hand as he spoke. “My job is a complicated one, Katherine. I know much more than you, and at the same time much, much less. This city is full of secrets, and the more you learn, the more you realise how little you really understand. What I’m trying to say is this – there are almost certainly other elements working against us. The dangers of compartmentalisation, as it were.”
“Left hand versus right hand.”
“I was trying to avoid using that turn of phrase, but yes.”
“How touchingly aware of your language, Eli,” I told him. I might have been a little sarcastic.
He shrugged. “I do try,” he replied. Almost everything I tried just bounced right off. I’d put a crack in his composure once though, and it’s like they say – if it bleeds, you can kill it. It was just a matter of finding an artery.
I leaned forward, resting both of my elbows on the table, clasping my hands together. I rested my chin on top of my interlaced fingers, looking at him. “I just have a question for you, Eli. Why me? Why help me out? What can I possibly give you that another Agent couldn’t? You said yourself that you always have ulterior motives, but somehow, I don’t think ‘getting to fuck me‘ really cuts it as far as motivation, here. So what is it that makes me so damn useful to you?”
He just laughed, yet again. “What makes you useful, Katherine, is that you ask those sorts of questions,” he replied. At that moment, there was another soft tap at the door, and the waiter returned with our meals.
I’m not going to pretend that the food wasn’t worth it – it was the single best thing I’d smelled in my life. I wanted nothing more than to just tear into that lobster like there was no tomorrow. I gave him a look first. “That wasn’t a real answer,” I told him.
He smiled. “I know. Have your meal, Katherine,” he replied. He set about starting his own meal, content to leave my questions unanswered.
I wanted to just beat him like a recalcitrant hoodlum, force him to give me a straight answer. But that lobster was singing its siren song to me, and I couldn’t bring myself to ignore it. So I didn’t. I ate that lobster like I’d been starving for weeks, uncaring of what I looked like – Eli thought I was attractive? We’d see if he still thought that by the time I was done. I was going to enjoy myself on his dollar.
He tried to make idle conversation as I ate, just like he had in the car – the type of banal, pointless questions that would be fine from a normal person, but felt fake coming from him. He wanted to know about my parents? He had free access to my file, he could read it any time he wanted. It was just a diversionary song-and-dance, an attempt to make me forget what he really was. He could try all he wanted, but I wasn’t about to forget any time soon – as soon as I’d seen that tattoo, I’d known that he was trouble.
Eventually, I finished my meal. Eli had been taking his time, but he still managed to finish before I did. “Quite done, Katherine?” he asked mildly. “Now, would you like dessert, would you prefer to go home now?”
“I’m done. And I’d like to go home, if I can,” I told him.
If he’d been the type, I’m sure he would have rolled his eyes. “Of course you can. I’ve been trying to show you that I’m not some sort of monster.”
“I know. All you’ve shown me so far is that you’re great at acting like you aren’t,” I shot back.
He didn’t seem to mind the barb. He stood up and smoothed his suit out, and smiled to me. “Let’s go then. Can I have your arm this time, at least?”
“No,” I replied, walking past him to the door. He followed me, a step behind and to the side. I refused to look back at him. “I need to refresh myself,” I told him. He nodded towards a discreet, mirrored door, then stood aside to wait.
The first thing I did when I entered the bathroom was retrieve my phone, and send a message to Samuels – letting her know that I was still alive for the time being. Anything more than that could wait until I could speak to her in person. I took care of my business, and while I was washing my hands, I took the opportunity to look at myself properly in the mirror. No time, back home. I looked nice in the dress, yeah – but it didn’t suit me. I didn’t look like I should be wearing a little black dress, standing in a bathroom larger than my entire apartment. I looked like I should be wearing my boots and my armour, keeping the peace one broken skull at a time.
I liked it that way.
I finished up and left. Eli wasn’t in sight – I figured that he’d gone out front to get the car, so that’s were I went. I stepped out the front of the restaurant, and looked about – no sign of Eli. There was, however, a man who called out and started towards me. “Detective! Detective Chandler!”
He stepped further into the light, and I got a good look at him. Little in the way of a discernible neck, more tattoos than teeth, a shaved scalp bearing ground floor gang tattoos. A bulge in his coat indicating a concealed firearm. I recognised this particular thug from what little footage we’d managed to snag.
He was one of Mendoza’s two bodyguards.
I almost shot him dead on the spot. My arm got half-way up, my sidearm already deployed and ready to fire – then I stopped. He didn’t have the look of a guy out to make a hit. He looked like a man who was absolutely terrified for his life. He jerked his head from side to side like a nervous rat, trying to look in all directions at once. He put both meaty hands up, eyes wild. “Easy! Easy! Ya gotta help me, Chandler! Ya gotta help! Listen, I’ll tell ya everything, ya just gotta help!”
I kept my arm half-raised. “How did you find me?”
He kept looking about, coming closer, right up into my face. “Not important right now! Will ya help me? I’m a dead man, Chandler, ‘less ya help protect me. I’m beggin’ ya!” he replied, frantic. I felt a rush of air behind me as the restaurant door opened. The thug’s eyes went even wider, and his hand whipped down towards the bulge in his jacket. I responded by trying to bring my arm the rest of the way up. I didn’t get a chance to.
Eli’s hand clapped down on my shoulder, and he shoved me to one side like I weighed nothing more than paper. He didn’t bother to draw a gun or a blade, if he had one. Instead, his right hand snapped out and hit the thug’s throat like a runaway truck. There was no gasping, flopping about, or clutching at his throat – Eli’s fist hit home, and the thug dropped, dead. Eli had crushed his throat with a single blow.
I looked at the dead man, then at Eli. Was he even human? There was no way that a punch like that should have been able to kill a man instantly. The thug looked like he’d had his throat smashed with a length of pipe.
Eli just straightened his jacket, then whistled to the valet and pointed at the dead thug. The valet nodded, and murmured into his cuff-link. Clearly a hidden microphone there. A second valet had already pulled Eli’s car around. “Come on, Katherine. Time to get out of here,” he told me, waving his hand towards the car – the same hand that had just killed a man like that.
I stood my ground. “I suppose you aren’t going to let me search him?”
Eli shook his head. “No. I’ll let you know if there’s anything relevant,” he replied smoothly. “Now, please, get in the car,” he added. He was still smiling.
The thug had been terrified for his life, and wanted my help. He’d gone for his gun the second Eli had come out of the restaurant. It didn’t take a detective to put two and two together. And now the staff – who I now had no doubt were employed by the Agency – were going to make the body disappear. And most of all, the man who had just killed my witness with a single blow was going to drive me home. Things didn’t look good at all.
So, I nodded to Eli and hopped into the car. I didn’t have a choice otherwise.
Eli didn’t murder me. He was silent the ride home, a stark contrast to his attempts at conversation on the way in. The journey seemed to take forever but eventually he pulled up in front of my apartment. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. I was going to go in without a word, but he called out to stop me. “Katherine!”
I stopped and turned around. “Yes?”
“You don’t trust me right now – and I understand that. Quite honestly, you’d be a fool to. But you can believe me when I say this – you don’t need to be afraid of me.”
“Bullshit, Eli. You’d kill me in a heartbeat if you had to.”
“I would. You’d also never know it was coming. But you don’t need to fear that. Do you know why, Katherine?”
“Because you might turn me down, you might talk to me in ways that nobody else would dare – but you’d also never do anything to harm this city. And in the end, that’s all I care about.”
I met his eyes – those beautiful, cold, killer eyes of his. I believed him. I believed him completely and utterly – that there was nothing that he truly cared about, aside from his job. “I know, Eli. I’m sure we’ll be in touch,” I told him.
He nodded, and climbed back into his car. I watched him go before I went into my apartment. The first thing I did was jam a chair into the door to try and slow down any forced entry. The second thing I did was retrieve my rifle, and load a magazine into it. I didn’t believe that Eli was going to kill me any more – but I sure as hell believed that being associated with him was going to get me killed.
I sat down on my bed and pulled Khan onto my lap, cradling him close and rubbing his ears. The floor shook faintly with an explosion, somewhere far below. Heavy ops was keeping the peace. Even if that meant disturbing it a little first. I just sat there stroking my cat for minutes, listening to him purr, letting my mind churn.
My phone rang, and I retrieved it. It was Samuels. “Yes?”
“Are you home?” she asked. She sounded stressed.
“Yes. What’s wrong?”
“Heavy ops is downstairs, stomping out fires all over the city. The Armstrong sector commander got contacted by a tunnel-rat waving a white flag. They asked to talk with you by name.”