Friday, May 10, 2013

Tooth and Claw: One Damn Thing After Another

Monday, July 9th, 2012

                Jones Kelly awakens to the sound of her phone buzzing.  It’s a text message from headquarters, instructing her to check her email.  She rolls blearily out of bed and stumbles across the hotel room to where her laptop sits open on the table.  Jiggling the tiny mouse to rouse the machine from its own slumber, she enters her password and brings up her inbox.  Sure enough, one new message awaits:
                Agent Kelly,
                Excellent work.  Postpone follow-up until resolution of next case.
                Terse and to the point, with a congratulatory flourish.  Some dozen attachments lurk beneath – she clicks “Download All” and heads for the shower.
                The hot jets both relax and invigorate.  She breathes deep of the steamy air and works the stiffness out of her joints.  Yesterday had been her recovery day, her time to rest and eat while composing and filing her report.  Her grafts were marvelous things, improving her performance in nearly every area – but damn if they didn’t work up an appetite.  Whether running, healing, or simply perceiving beyond the bounds of her mundane senses, everything had a calorie count attached, and the price was steep.  Yesterday’s dull ache had faded to a languorous stiffness by the time she bedded down, belly full at last.  As always, the stiffness seemed to have tightened its grip on her overnight, but it would be gone in a couple hours as long as she stretched.
                She turns off the shower, dries off, brushes her teeth, and performs her stretching ritual to work out the last few kinks.  She then dresses and heads to the lobby for coffee – whatever it is, it can wait until she’s fully awake.  She checks the time as she heads down the hallway:  a quarter past noon.  At least she’d been able to sleep in.
                Two cups of decent-for-free coffee later, a third in hand, Jones is back in her room and perusing the attachments:  dossiers on five hunters in Las Vegas, just like she’d received for her current case, as well as some intercepted network chatter and a load of photos.  She sets up a new case file and starts working her way through the mass of information.
                Apparently, some serious shit had gone down on Friday night:  four known Hunters were missing (or presumed so), having not showed up at their jobs after one heavy night of chatter on their Facebook group.  Facebook, now?, Jones wonders to herself.  Fucking really?  They didn’t even pick an inconspicuous name!  Their messages are perfectly transparent, although it occurs to Jones that this is perhaps only by conceit of her perspective.
                The whole thing seemed to have been noticed when one Ken Wu, a forensic analyst with the Las Vegas PD, was two hours late without calling in.  Atypical behavior, but his cell phone was also off and his car was missing.  Members of his “poker club” were also unable to be reached at their listed places of occupation – Jim Reynolds and Don Harper, who worked at a pawn shop and a sporting goods store, respectively, hadn’t shown up for work all weekend.  Stacy MacIntyre, a certified professional locksmith, was a no-call-no-show this morning just like Wu.  Evan Lawrence, a mechanic, was the only one to register any activity at all since Friday night.  So he was going to be Jones’ point of contact.
                Flagged files in police attendance records?  Jones could buy that.  But a pawnbroker and a sporting goods clerk?  Like a Chthonian horror, Task Force Whiteout seemed to have tentacles everywhere, and even Jones Kelly herself was continuously baffled by the absurd level of detail they were able to command.  It made her wonder what sorts of information they had that she didn’t know about – such as the R&D that must have gone into her grafts before she herself received them.  Her first one or two may indeed have been experimental, but as they added up, Jones considered it less and less likely that she would be used as a guinea pig with such considerable resources already invested in her.
                Whatever.  All this was above her pay grade, and she had to focus on the task at hand.  These Hunters were tracking bloodkin, and only Evan made it out after showing up late to the fight.  Now Jones had to find out whatever additional information she could, and determine how best to resolve the situation.
                She decides to start by checking out of the hotel, renting a car, and working out the rest over the course of the five-hour drive ahead of her.  With luck, she would be able to find Mister Lawrence getting off work, and he would bring her up to speed.  Until then, all she could do was cogitate on endless what-ifs.

                At twenty past six, Jones spots Evan’s silver Dodge pulling up to his garage.  He spots her at the entrance to his building as he exits the vehicle to lift the garage door.  He hesitates for a moment, then resumes the task, pulling the vehicle in and lowering the door behind it.  He walks straight up to her, his posture indicating that he knows she’s waiting for him.
                “Can I help you,” he asks, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans.
                “I hope so,” she replies.  “Evan Lawrence?”
                “Who’s asking?”
                “No need to be coy, Mister Lawrence.  My name’s Jones Kelly, and I’m here to help.”
                “Ha.  One of the three great lies,” Evan says with a wry grin.
                “Excuse me?”
                “You know, the three great lies?  ‘The check is in the mail,’ ‘Of course I’ll still respect you in the morning,’ and my personal favorite:  ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’.”
                “I don’t recall mentioning my employers,” Jones says flatly.  Evan looks pointedly at her suit and says,
                “You didn’t really need to.”  He looks over his shoulders, each in turn, then says, “I’m guessing you’ll want to continue this conversation inside.”
                “If that’s all right by you,” Jones says with a nod.  She steps aside and follows Evan into the building and up the stairs.  Once inside his apartment, he throws the deadbolt behind them and heads for the kitchen before breaking the silence.  “Make yourself at home, I guess.  You want anything to drink?”
                “A glass of water would be nice, thank you.”  She takes a seat in one of a pair of armchairs at opposite ends of a coffee table.  Evan shortly returns with a glass of water in one hand and a beer in the other.  He sets down a coaster at each end before sitting in the other armchair and taking a pull from his beer.
                “So,” he says after swallowing, “what’s this all about?”
                “I understand you’re something of a poker player, Mister Lawrence.”
                “Drop that ‘Mister’ shit, Evan is just fine.  So yeah, you’re a spook.  That’s a closed group, and invisible, and I somewhat doubt you’re a Facebook administrator.”
                “All right, Evan,” Jones begins again.  “Friday night, you and your cohorts seemed to get in a bit over your heads.  I’m here to try and help you untangle the mess.”
                Evan stares levelly at her for a solid three seconds before slowly nodding his head and heaving a deep sigh.  “Well, you’ve sure got your work cut out for you,” he says.  “So what’s your outfit, then?  FBI?  NSA?  DHS?”
                “That’s classified,” Jones replies.  “But what I can tell you is that my organization was founded to deal with exactly the sort of problem that you and your friends try to solve.  We’ve got our fingers in a lot of pots, we’re spread pretty thin, but we do what we can.”
                “That’s a pretty swift response, thin as you’re spread.”
                “We’ve been keeping an eye on Mister Wu,” Jones explains.  “And I was in the neighborhood, so to speak.  Working another case.”
                “One damn thing after another, huh?”  Evan leans back in his chair and takes another pull from his beer.  “Ain’t that always the way of it?”
                “Pretty much,” Jones says.  “Why don’t you tell me what you know, and then we’ll see what we can do from there.”
                “Not much to tell,” Evan says with a shrug.  “All I know is probably in whatever communications records you’ve already got.  I showed up after everything was done and got out before I added to the body count.”  Evan pauses, then fishes his phone out of his pocket as he says, “Oh, and there’s this.”  He fiddles with his phone, then sets it on the table.  What follows is an audio recording, dull with distance and echo, but Jones is able to make out the words with some effort.
                “Just don’t fuck up, and we got four more in the stables,” a female voice says, probably African-American.
                “I dunno,” another voice responds – female also, probably white, somewhat younger.  “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, 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, I’m sorry.”
                The recording runs a few more seconds, then ends.
                “Where was this recorded,” Jones asks after Evan retrieves his phone.
                “Some warehouse, Northwest of the strip.  Jim had ‘em cornered on a rooftop, the others showed up and stormed the gates.  Della, the second girl, she’s new.  Turned only a month and a half ago by some bloodsucker named Cochran.  They both disappeared, but then Jim spotted her Friday night.  We thought she’d be easy pickings, get in the way of the other one – we got cocky.  And now we paid the price.”
                “You seem to keep pretty close tabs on the locals,” Jones says in a suspicious tone.
                “Yeah, well,” Evan begins, but a quick “don’t bullshit me” look from Jones interrupts his train of thought.  “Look,” he says after a measured second.  “Jim’s got this ring.  Someone pawned it, thinking it was a mood ring.  Turns out, it detects pretty much any supernatural presence within about five hundred feet.  It’s even conveniently color-coded:  red for bloodsuckers, blue for mages, you get the idea.”  Jones nods for Evan to continue.  “So, you know, that helps narrow it down.  It won’t point ‘em out in a crowd, but we’ve been able to get more than a few hunts underway because of that ring.”
                “I see,” Jones says.  “And is that what happened Friday?”
                “Far as I can tell, yeah.”  Evan takes another sip of beer before continuing.  “Jim was at PT’s, he sometimes spots bloodsuckers there as they’re coming off the Strip.”
                “Do they tend to congregate around the Strip?”
                “Shit yeah,” Evan says.  “It’s practically a damn buffet for them.”
                Jones asks, “Have you found out where they’re holed up?”
                 “No, not yet,” Evan says.  “We’re narrowing it down, though.  They keep falling off the map at the North end of the Strip.  We’ve found a couple of business fronts around there, fake companies that don’t do anything.  Nobody enters or leaves.  But we’ve combed ‘em over pretty well, haven’t been able to find any leads.”
                “Mind if I take a look,” Jones asks.  “I might be able to spot something you missed.”
                “Knock yourself out,” Evan says with a shrug.  “We might want to head out tomorrow, though.  It’ll be dark soon, streets will be crawling with all kinds of people.  Without Jim’s ring, we won’t get much of a heads-up if someone’s coming.  I’m trying to lay low for the time being, but the places are deserted during the day.”
                “Sounds good,” Jones says.
                Evan finishes the last third of his beer in one long pull before standing up.  “You want a beer or anything in the meantime?”
                “Sure,” Jones says.  Evan heads for the kitchen.  “So about these stables,” Jones continues.
                “Yeah, I caught that, too.”
                “Any idea what that’s about?”
                “Not really,” Evan says.  “That is, not beyond what you could guess just by hearing it.  They probably keep a bunch of people locked up in cages or something, easy access.”
                “It’s not unheard of,” Jones says.  “Chicago, New York, L.A., Miami – all those cities have something like that.  Keep a steady supply of blood in-house, so they don’t need to go out on the prowl so often.”
                “Sounds like quite an operation,” Evan says as he returns with two open bottles.  “Wouldn’t it be hard to keep something like that under wraps, though?”
                “Not as hard as you might think,” Jones says.  She takes a sip of her own beer before adding, “People disappear in big cities all the time, without any extra help.”
                “Fair point,” Evan says.  “But something like that seems like it would be pretty easy to notice.  Gotta keep the prisoners fed, and all that.”
                “Not if it’s under the guise of some legitimate business.”
                “True,” Evan says.  “That how they do it in other cities?”
                “Usually,” Jones says.  “But they’re not false fronts.  They’re actual companies, they have employees and payroll and logistics, they even have websites.  It’s easy to spot a fake – I’ll be honest, you’ve probably got money-laundering or some other mundane crime going on with the ones you guys found.  Still, it won’t hurt to take another look.”
                “Right on,” Evan says.
                The two Hunters set about planning their day, then call it a night.  Jones sleeps on the couch in her suit, and makes a mental note that she needs to hit up a dry cleaner at some point.  As luck would have it, Evan works weekends and has Tuesdays and Thursdays off, so he doesn’t need to dip into his sick time.  The Sun has barely set as they bed down, but they have an early and busy day tomorrow.

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