Monday, April 8, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Three Pair of Eyes, part one

Prologue, Alice Takes a Road Trip

Friday, July 6th, 2012

                “So how much does a fake ID cost,” Della asks Jamie as they stroll East along Sahara Avenue.
                “Depends on how many you need,” Jamie answers with a shrug of her shoulders.
                “What do you mean?”
                “Well, if you just need the one, you’ll have to pay someone to do it for you.  You probably won’t know that person very well, so you’ll pay a premium for that.  But if you’ve got contacts in that line of work, you’ll probably need it pretty regular.  That drives the price down.”
                “I see,” Della says, thinking on the matter.  “And for us?”
                “Psh, when you need that kind of thing regular as we do, you score your own gear and do it all in-house.”
                Della felt a twinge of excitement – this was her first real night out since joining the bloodkin over a month ago, and the only time she’d left the complex aside from her trip with Thomas to visit his mage contact.  Being out among the uninfected was giving her a mild rush, almost like the thrill of the hunt, despite the admonitions to keep things low-key.  She was determined to be on her best behavior, though, and had chosen not to raise the subject of her recently-acquired forged identification until there was a sizeable gap in the pedestrian traffic.  The pair were coming up on another group, and the conversation lulled.
                Soon enough, they arrive at PT’s Pub, a plain-looking beige brick building at the corner of Sahara and Beverly.  They weren’t carded at the door, and neither of them will be drinking – Della’s identification is simply a precautionary measure, something she isn’t supposed to need but which would help minimize any fallout if things did indeed end up going South.
                Della takes in the scene as she and Jamie take their seats in a small corner booth.  The music blares in her ears, the stench of searing meat and volatile liquor nearly overpowering her heightened senses.  After spending a few moments to calm herself and focus, however, she is able to tune out the deafening roar and pick up on the subtler sensations underneath.  It feels almost like submerging her head underwater.
                Jamie, as always, is calm and collected:  her heartbeat is slow and even.  She is slightly sweaty from their walk in the warm summer night, and a mild tension seems to hold her taut like a well-tuned violin string.
                Della expands her awareness beyond her familiar friend as she sips at her ice water.  Across from an empty booth, a table full of friends is listening to someone’s humorous anecdote.  Della can feel them hanging on every word, laughing together on cue, tuned into each other and dead to the rest of the world.
                In the other direction, a young man and woman are apparently on a date.  The woman is speaking at a comfortable, lilting pace – about her hobbies or her job, perhaps.  The man is listening closely to her, a light tension running between them both.  But unlike the clarifying tension of Jamie’s practiced poise, these two are like pulled springs, trying to hold their shape in spite of the forces weighing upon them.  Their heightened emotions are a counterpoint to the emptiness Della feels growing inside herself as her humanity wanes and the predatory infection takes over.
                Della’s reverie is interrupted as their waiter arrives.  They order burgers and fries, politeness masking their indifference to food that will not sustain them.
                “What are you noticing,” Jamie asks after the waiter has departed.
                “It’s strange,” Della says.  “I can sense their emotions – like, ‘Oh, that guy’s happy.  Oh, she’s feeling affectionate.’  But there’s no, I don’t know what, no resonance.”
                “Resonance?”  Jamie speaks softly, in tones that would be inaudible to someone in the next booth over even were it not unoccupied, but Della is able to hear her quite clearly and lowers her own voice out of prudence.
                “Yeah.  Like, underground, among our kin, I can still tell what’s going on.  But it’s like everything’s in black-and-white.  Well, black, white, and red, at any rate.  And I was getting used to that, and now we come up here, and everything’s in full color again.  I can see the colors just fine, but somehow – it’s like I’m in black-and-white, and I’m just noticing it for the first time.”  Jamie nods knowingly and lets the moment linger.  Della reflects on the deep rift forming between her and the rest of humanity.  “It’s going to be like this from here on out, isn’t it?”  Jamie nods slowly.  “How do you deal with it?”
                “You get used to it,” Jamie answers with a half-hearted shrug.  “It’s jarring, at first.  As you’re seeing right now,” she adds with a humorless smile.  “But humans are great adapters, and thankfully that doesn’t change with infection.  It just becomes a new normal.”
                Della leans back in the booth and watches the crowd, the paradox settling on the back of her mind:  she can identify what people are feeling with ease, but cannot identify with them at all.  Gazing vacantly at the bar, she reevaluates her impression of Jamie – not so much like a violin string, after all.  No, even a single violin string would be capable of melodies to inspire a broad palette of emotions.  Jamie’s tension was more like that of a tightrope:  an instrument put toward a single purpose, with deadly potential if she should not keep her balance.
                The food arrives.  Della squirts a small dollop of ketchup from a squeeze bottle onto her plate, and tentatively dips a fry before taking a bite.  The preservatives are cloying, and the flavors beneath are little better:  syrupy-sweet, sour vinegar, too-savory tomatoes, with an oily-starchy crunchy-mush beneath it all.  She struggles not to make a face as she chews.  After a few seconds, the shock passes, and Della realizes that this is the first “real” food she’s had in weeks – of course the taste would hit her like a brick.  She forces down the rest of the fry, and another, controlling her expression.  By the third one, the taste approaches normal – but then it veers off yet again, not quite hitting “yummy,” but instead gesturing awkwardly at “bland.”
                She risks a bite of her burger.  The crunch of the lettuce is another foray into the familiar made alien, but she is grateful that she ordered it medium-rare.  The hint of blood – not human, not fresh, barely there but thankfully warm – is a welcome relief.  Della makes a courteous dent in her pile of fries, eats most of her burger, and then calls it quits.  Jamie, for her part, seems similarly unimpressed with her meal, but manages to make much less of a show about it.  As Della tries to wash out the unwelcome flavors with a gulp of her water, the waiter returns.
                “How is everything,” he asks with what strikes Della as mocking enthusiasm.
                “Great,” Jamie says without missing a beat, smiling radiantly at him.
                “I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought I was,” Della says, rubbing at her stomach and trying her damnedest not to let her disgust show through.
                “Happens all the time,” the waiter replies with a laugh, “I get off a shift and think, ‘I’m gonna eat everything in the house,’ then I take two bites and I’m stuffed!”  Della smiles at him and chuckles, then looks to Jamie with a slight wince.
                “I think we’re ready for the check,” Jamie says with a smile and a nod, then taking a sip of her own water.
                “OK, coming right up!”  The waiter clasps his hands and turns on his heel to head to wherever it is that waiters go – Della is in no mood to pay attention to anyone’s doings but her own.  She had thought this might be a night of fun, but it was shaping up to be a learning experience of the chilling and humiliating variety.
                “Don’t look now,” Jamie says, returning to her almost subaudible tone, “But we seem to have a secret admirer.”
                Della’s throat seizes up and her stomach turns to stone.  She takes a deep breath, forces herself to relax.  Another sip of water, then a gulp, then she swallows a couple of small ice cubes.  The cold sliding down her throat braces her, and she’s able to focus – there it is, off to her right.  A barely-elevated heartbeat, and tension of a whole other kind:  apprehension tinged with fear.
                “White guy,” Jamie says, “grey button-down, red ring.”
                Della looks out the corner of her eye, and sure enough, there he is, taking a pull off his beer and feigning disinterest.
                “Hunter, you think?”  Della looks to her left, out through the blinds, with all the nonchalance she can muster.
                “Sure as dammit,” Jamie says, following her gaze.
                Presently, the waiter returns with his little black folder.  Jamie takes some bills out of her wallet and leaves a generous tip, then stands to leave.  Della follows without a word.  They walk right past the man, and Della takes note of his appearance as they pass him and he reaches for his wallet.
                On the street, Jamie leads her at a brisk walk, West and then North.  Della is easily able to pick up the rapid tapping of his dress shoes on the sidewalk behind them, even at nearly half a block away.  Twisting and turning, they pick their way out of a suburban neighborhood, through the business district and across a couple busy streets, into an increasingly dilapidated urban environment.
                “We can’t move too fast,” Jamie says as they turn a corner, “But we gotta lose this guy.”
                “Got it,” Della says.
                Soon they turn down an appropriately dark alleyway between a warehouse and an office building.  Behind the warehouse is a fire escape.  Jamie points to the hanging ladder and leaps a good four yards up to grab it, pulling it down with her and climbing up after recovering from the shock of the drop.  Della follows on her heels, and the metal squeals as they pull it back up.  The shadow of their pursuer, cast by streetlamps, is rising on the wall of the brick building facing the opposite street.  Della and Jamie head for the roof, four floors up, finding to their dismay that the surrounding buildings are all considerably taller.  They are trapped.
                “Shit, what do we do now?”
                “Wait for him to lose interest,” Jamie says in a hushed tone, listening intently without revealing herself at the edge of the roof.  “He can’t get up here, and there’s no way for him to wait us out without drawing attention to himself.”  Della nods and hunkers down under the nearly-full moon.
                Minutes pass as the man paces back and forth in the alley beneath them.  There is little foot traffic, but enough cars to prevent the bloodkin from descending unseen down the building’s face.  Soon, three more pairs of footsteps join the man below:  some whispered words, grunts of assent, and then an electronic beeping.  Mechanical clicks echo softly up the brick walls, then a metallic creaking as a door is opened.  Jamie mouths a curse and moves in a slow, quiet crouch toward the roof access door.  Della follows as quietly as she can across the gritty rooftop.
                “They’re inside,” Jamie whispers as she tries the door.  Locked.  “Shit.  OK, we’ll wait for them to come out, jump ‘em, then we’ll have to fight our way out.  Just follow my lead and don’t do anything stupid.”
                “OK,” Della says with a nod, then adds after a moment, “I haven’t done this before.  What counts as stupid?”
                Jamie rolls her eyes and sighs heavily.  “I guess… don’t make any noise if you can avoid it.  Don’t get ahead of me.  And don’t act without thinking three steps ahead.  Capisce?”  Della nods.
                Interminable minutes pass.  Metallic groans emanate from under the door, punctuated by occasional footsteps.  Della strains to hear them beneath the noise of the passing traffic.  Jamie sneaks off to take a look over the rear of the building, then returns.
                “They’ve got a lookout at the back door,” she whispers to Della.  “We’re really stuck.  So again:  follow my lead, stay quiet, and don’t fuck up.”  Della nods again as light sweeps back and forth around the edges of the door.  Jamie stands just around the corner from the doorknob, positioned to turn and strike at whoever comes through.  Della takes up her position at the opposite side of the slanted roof access way.  A metallic click comes from inside, the door slowly opens, and a flashlight beam sweeps across the roof.
                Della holds her breath across a moment of silence as the door opens wide, blocking her view.  A slow step out onto the roof, a wider sweep of the flashlight, then another step.  In the space of half a second, Della hears Jamie’s sneakers scritch as she pivots around the corner, then there’s a grasp and a short cry of surprise followed by a crunchy thud and a clatter; two shuffling steps are followed by the sickening pop of a dislocating joint and a grunt of pain.  Della begins moving around the door, first seeing a dropped pistol, just as she hears another set of footsteps from inside.  She sees Jamie with a man in an arm bar – well, what was an arm bar, before his shoulder was twisted from its socket – and a twenty-something woman just clearing the landing behind him.  Della hears the second Hunter’s heart jump as she comes into view, and she raises her pistol, but Della is faster – she leaps into the second Hunter, spearing her down the stairs.
                The pair tumble once, Della’s spine rolling painfully over the edges of the grated metal steps, but the landing resolves in her favor:  the Hunter is concussed against the railing of the landing beneath where the stairs turn, and she is knocked unconscious.  Della hears a thump from above, then turns to see Jamie shuffle down the steps behind her, pistol in hand.
                “Don?  Stacy?”  A voice carries up from below, echoes making the source difficult to pinpoint.  Another flashlight clicks on, but the landing is a solid sheet of steel, and the bloodkin are invisible to its searching beam.  “Shit, man, get in here!”  Rapid footsteps sound from below, and Della hears two hammers being pulled back into firing position.  A second flashlight clicks on, the pair of beams sweeping thoroughly but impotently through the dark warehouse.
                Jamie motions to Della in the darkness:  a finger pointed at her, “You,” a palm pressed downward, “Stay here,” and she turns her back after Della nods her assent.  Jamie waits silently as the flashlight beams continue their oscillating sweeps, letting the Hunters give away their positions before acting.  After a few seconds, it’s clear that one is making his way up from the second to the third floor, the other ascending the stairs from the ground floor.  Jamie leaps down the flight of stairs to the third floor, then dashes away as both flashlights zero in on the sound of her landing.  The Hunters’ footsteps quicken, one dashing across the grated catwalk, the other rising swiftly up the stairs to the third floor.
                Jamie has stopped moving, but the Hunters are rushing to close in on her.  Della lets the first one pass her, his flashlight leading him across the catwalk beneath her.  Seconds later, the other Hunter follows – Della takes a moment to time her leap, then pounces on him from the fourth floor landing where Stacy lays unconscious.  He screams as his ribs crack against the catwalk’s railing, tries to recover, but Della snakes around behind him and winds her arm around his throat as the other Hunter turns back to train his flashlight on her.  The last Hunter shouts, “Don’t move,” and Della is blinded by the light but assumes his pistol is trained on her as well.
                Two steps are the only warning he has.  Jamie moves from her hiding spot and leaps at him, pinning him to the catwalk before he has a chance to fire his pistol.
                There is a brief struggle, then the click of a flashlight turning off.  Della can see in the ambient glow of the last flashlight that Jamie has the man pinned face-down, his arm locked between her ribs and her thigh as she crouches over him.  Della’s victim struggles, and she tightens her grip around his neck to discourage further struggle.  Jamie pulls her cell phone from her pocket and speed-dials a number.
                “Hey, it’s me,” she says.  “Yeah.  Can you pick up a four-pack?  Uh-huh.  All right, see you soon.”  She fiddles with her smartphone some more, probably sending a location to whoever she called, then puts the device back in her pocket.  Della manages to reach for the last flashlight and turn it off without loosening her grip on her victim.  “OK, Herman’s on the way,” Jamie says in the darkness.  “Just don’t fuck up, and we got four more for the stables.”  Della can almost hear the grin on Jamie’s face as she lets the thrill of the hunt overtake her at last.
                “I dunno,” Della says.  “Maybe we ought to let one of ‘em go.  Tell him there’s a new breed of –“
                “Shut up, Della!  You done fine so far,” Jamie hisses, “Now don’t go and fuck it up!”
                “I was just –“
                “Just, nothing!  Think about it.  How’s it gonna help us if we turn one loose?  No way, no how – all it’s gonna do is give them more intel on us.  They know we’re here, they know there’s a fight on, and four down is four down.  Three down is one less.  This scare-tactics bullshit, trying to make your mark or whatever – it’s bullshit!  Don’t even fuckin’ try it.  You hear me?”
                “All right,” Della says, “All right.  Sorry.”
                As Della’s eyes adjust to the darkness, she hears clicking and sliding as Jamie disarms the pistols and engages their safeties.  Della looks around for her victim’s pistol, but can’t find it.
                A few minutes later, Herman pulls into the alley behind the warehouse with a cargo van.  The Hunters Della and Jamie are subduing have their hands zip-tied behind their backs, and Herman knocks them out with some kind of drug from a syringe before loading them up.  The two unconscious Hunters are retrieved from above, as well as the pistol from the roof, and the other two which had fallen to the ground floor.  The building’s alarm had apparently been disabled by the Hunters, but the bloodkin make sure to re-lock all the doors before leaving.
                The ride back to the compound proceeds in silence, save for Jamie’s incessant tapping on her phone.  Della’s curiosity is overcome by the certainty that she’s in some kind of shit for her suggestion at the end of the fight – a certainty which is borne out by her immediate summons to Thomas’ office on her arrival.
                “I understand you and Jamie had a bit of a scuffle tonight,” Thomas says as Della shuts the door behind herself.
                “Uhh, yeah,” Della stammers.
                “Go ahead, have a seat.”  Thomas gestures at a chair before his desk, and leans back in his own.  Della sits and stares awkwardly at the corner.  “You need to understand the nature of the conflict we’re in.”
                “I know,” Della says, “Jamie told me.”
                “Jamie may have told you, but you still don’t know,” Thomas says.  “As evidenced by your little outburst.”
                “No, I get it,” Della insists, looking Thomas in the eye.  “Trying to intimidate the Hunters is a no-go, we need to just take care of business and be done with it.”
                Thomas nods.  “And why is that,” he asks after a moment.
                “Because,” Della begins, “Because – shit, I don’t know.”
                “Because this is a shadow war,” Thomas elaborates, leaning forward to steeple his fingers over his desk.  “Because although there is fighting in the streets, we need to keep this conflict out of the public eye, to the best of our ability.”
                “But couldn’t we –” Della’s interjection is cut short with a narrowing of Thomas’ eyes.  She feels the anger pulsing briefly beneath his otherwise impassive countenance.  It fades, and she composes herself.
                “I can see the old question on your face,” Thomas says after a moment.
                “What question?”
                “Machiavelli’s question:  is it better to be feared or loved?  If you cannot find love, cannot feel love, then perhaps you can find satisfaction in the fear of your enemies.”
                Della shrugs and looks away.  “It beats indifference.”
                “That it does,” Thomas says with a nod, leaning back in his chair once more.  “But indifference still means that others are aware of you.  You must go a step further:  you must strive to be anonymous.”  Della mulls this over as Thomas continues.  “We may still strike fear into the hearts of our enemies, even as we fight in the shadows.  While ostentatious shows of superiority may provide momentary satisfaction, they are ultimately proud displays:  and any kind of display risks blowing our cover.  In the end, it’s an unnecessary risk.  Ask yourself, what is more frightening?  The enemy who flaunts his superiority, who taunts you to your face, who asks for your retaliation?”  He pauses, and Della looks him in the eye once more.  “Or the enemy who remains unseen, who you know is there but you know not where, who does not let you see his face?”
                Della thinks this over for a moment.  “OK, yeah, I get it,” she says.  “The boogeyman’s scarier when you can’t see his face.”  Thomas arches an eyebrow, waiting for her to continue.  “Because,” Della reaches, “When you don’t know what he looks like, he could be fuckin’ anything.  But if he stands there in plain sight, you at least have a good look at what you’re up against.”
                Thomas nods approvingly.  “You’re getting it.  Consider this a learning experience.  You got off easy tonight.  If Jamie had been incapacitated, and you had still come out on top, and then done things your way – well, then you’d be in much hotter water.  Understood?”
                “I understand,” Della says with a nod.
                “Good.  Dismissed.”  Thomas waves his hand, and Della gratefully rises to leave.

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