Basin Street Blues
By: Jason Cline
As Jonathan Stevenson slowly drifted back to consciousness he realized two things. One confronting Marcus Devereaux: alone, in Devereaux's own home, and at huge party thrown by the Zebop where numerous voodoo practitioners would likely be in attendance; ranked in the top five stupidest things he had ever done.
And two…he was naked.
Johnny, as he preferred to be called, opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. A white hot icepick of pain stabbed at left side of his brain. He squinted his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose to lessen the effects of his growing migraine. Johnny took a few calming breaths, in through his nose and out through his mouth, as he centered himself and began to assess the damage from the previous night.
The broken jaw, loosened teeth and cracked bones in his skull from the beating Devereaux had given him last night were completely healed. The sympathetic biofeedback caused by the stress of channeling too much mana too quickly had left him, as it always did, feeling like he was suffering from the worst hangover ever. But all things considered he was in pretty good shape for a man who had been in the custody of one of the darkest sects of vodun around.
Now if he could just figure out what happened to his pants.
Steeling himself Johnny carefully opened his eyes. The pain was manageable this time and he slowly sat up and looked around the room. He was laying on a sofa in the living room of what appeared to be one of the shotgun houses so popular in New Orleans. It was morning, or at least daytime, because sunlight was visible through the heavy curtains near the front door. As the fog in his head began to clear he could hear noises in what he assumed was the kitchen area and smell the alluring scent of soykaff brewing. After further examination Johnny had to admit that strictly speaking he wasn't actually naked, he still had his boxer shorts on, but at this time in this place that was naked enough.
Before Johnny could decide whether to sneak out the front door or announce himself to his host, an extremely attractive young woman wearing an oversized tee shirt and apparently nothing else stepped out of the kitchen with a steaming mug of 'kaff in her hand.
She smiled at Johnny and said "Good mornin'…"
Johnny recognized her from the party; Devereaux had called her Ms. LeReaux.
Devereaux also said she was a shadowrunner.
Johnny was at a loss. Like most people he had seen the trids and read the blogs about Shadowrunners. They were the unseen hands of the corporations, mercenaries who worked for the highest bidders and did jobs outside the law. Some thought of them as heroes, sticking it to the corps and standing up for the little guys. Most people thought of them as criminals who only cared about the money. Johnny never really thought much about them at all, but if he had he certainly wouldn't picture a petite Creole girl barely out of her teens with bedhead and a 'World's Greatest Grammy' mug clutched in her hand.
"Um…hi." Johnny stammered.
"How ya feelin?" the girl asked, casually leaning against the trim of the archway leading to the kitchen. The move caused her shirt to hike up on one side revealing her naked hip and confirming for Johnny that she wasn't wearing anything under the tee shirt.
"I'm good yeah…" Johnny managed as he forced himself to look the girl in the eyes.
"So um…" the man sucked his teeth, "where am I?"
The girl laughed but before she could answer a massive ork wearing only his underwear plodded sluggishly into the living room.
Now *that* was what Johnny expected a Shadowrunner to look like.
The ork's chocolate colored skin boasted numerous scars and tattoos. His torso had a boxy quality that spoke of sub dermal enhancements. His right arm ended in what Johnny could only assume was a military grade cyber replacement. Johnny unfocused his gaze and allowed himself to peer into the Astral. Surprisingly the ork's aura was brighter than Johnny expected; other than the dark blotch that represented the cyber replacement and a thin web-like pattern over his chest, the ork appeared completely normal.
Neutral earth tones dominated the ork's aura, languid swirling browns and oranges, which Johnny associated with contentment. A quick peek at the girl revealed a slightly more boisterous aura, combining airy tones of yellow and blue with a sparkling sheen that Johnny associated with amusement.
"There sure as frag better be coffee left…" the ork muttered as he fully entered the room.
The girl kissed him lightly on the cheek before handing over her mug and disappearing back into the kitchen. The ork took a long pull on his coffee mug and stared at Johnny. Johnny shifted uncomfortably on the couch, becoming more and more aware of his lack of clothing by the second.
"So…here we are."
It was a pathetic attempt to lighten the mood and it obviously fell short but Johnny was spared further awkwardness by the girl returning from the kitchen and tossing him a shrink wrapped bundle of vending machine disposable clothing. Johnny fumbled with the package and pulled out what was commonly referred to as Flats, a tan syth-cotton shirt and pants similar to hospital scrubs.
Flats had been all the rage back in the fifties when you could find them in vending machines all over the world in dozens of colors. Made of biodegradable material, Flats fall apart in a washing machine so wearing them meant you had the money to only wear clothing once. At the height of the craze in Fifty-seven you could even find Flats eveningwear at some of the higher end retail stores, dispensed from a vending machine just like every other set of Flats.
The disposable clothing fell out of popular fashion in the early Sixties when the retro fashions of a century before became all the rage and the sterile blandness of Flats were replaced with the chaotic colors of paisley and polka dots.
Johnny dressed quickly then turned his attention back to the two Shadowrunners. "Thanks, I feel much better. Now uh…where am I again?" The ork cut his eyes to the girl obviously deferring the conversation to her.
The pretty Creole smiled, "You're in mah home in the Marginy."
Silence stretched for a few seconds and Johnny asked, "Aaannnddd why am I here?"
"You'd prefer we left you bleeding in the street?" the ork asked.
Johnny held up his hand, "No, no…thanks really. Without you guys I'd probably be dead right now. Or possibly worse. But I guess I don't understand why you guys brought me here instead of dropping me at a hospital or calling an ambulance or something like that." The ork cut his eyes to the girl again.
She smiled sweetly, "We need some information. An' it seems to me that you can provide it."
Johnny nodded slowly, "Okay, what information would that be exactly?"
The girl sipped her coffee and smiled at him, "Tell us about the Catfish."
University of Washington – Sixteen months ago
Johnny fidgeted uncomfortably in the faux-leather seats of the Biology Department's waiting room. It was probably called something else, this room, but it was here that the faculty made the students wait so to Johnny it would always be the waiting room. The slow tick of the clock seemed to be conspiring with his academic advisor to drive him mad so Johnny flipped through his presentation one more time.
The Parazoology program at U-dub was insanely difficult to get into. As Johnny's dad was fond of saying, "For a program that teaches no marketable skills, they sure seem to have high standards." That statement was usually a preamble to a much longer tirade on how Johnny was wasting his talents in Biology…how all the real money was in Thaumaturgy. But Johnny wanted to *discover* something; to put his name on a new specie or expand the understanding of how mana interacts with physiology…not just rescript the same old formula.
Johnny pulled a grainy holopic out of his file. This was it! This was his chance to make a name for himself in the field.
The photo was of a seemingly normal looking catfish, Ictalurus fircatus, what is commonly known as the Blue Catfish, probably one of the most common fish in North America. Several other photos accompanied this one, showing a detailed dissection of this particular fish which revealed a hitherto unseen genetic mutation. Somehow this fish had developed an entirely new organ that attached to its digestive tract. As of yet no one had been able to determine what this new organ did but Johnny was determined to be the one to solve the mystery.
He had been messaging back and forth with several professors at the University of Lafayette in the CAS where the fish was discovered and they had come up with some pretty amazing theories so far. All he needed now was a grant from the U-dub and he could kick his research into high gear.
Of course to get a grant he had to convince someone in the department to sponsor him. U-dub wasn't quick to hand out grant money to undergrads…or graduate students for that matter. But if Johnny could just convince his advisor Dr. Multon to vouch for him then he'd be on the next flight to the Cajun Coast!
Dr. Multon's secretary looked up from her computer and smiled, "Mr. Stevenson? Dr. Multon will see you now."
Johnny jumped up from his seat ready to make history.
New Orleans, Present Day
"So…It's just a fish?" asked the Creole girl, who had introduced herself as Dixie though Johnny was certain that couldn't possibly be her real name.
"No…it's not just a fish." Johnny said incredulously, "This fish has a completely new digestive tract."
Girl and Ork exchanged confused looks.
Johnny began to pace, "Don't you understand? We have no idea what this fish eats…well that's not exactly true. We have no idea what this fish *can* eat."
More confused looks.
Johnny closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Okay. Being in…your line of work…I'm sure you know all about the latest advancements in bioware right?"
Dixie narrowed her eyes slightly but nodded.
"Well imagine if someone could find a way for people to eat grass like herbivores do or somehow convert plant nectar into carbohydrates like bees do…imagine the possibilities? Well this fish has done that. Somehow the specie has mutated to allow it to process nutrients from other sources. It's not terribly surprising; similar specie of catfish like Loricariide are known to be able to eat wood. We don't know yet exactly what this fish can eat, this is the first time we've been able to capture one live."
The Ork, Bleu, held up his hand, "Stop. This is just a mundane catfish with a new bit stuck on…is that what you're saying?" Johnny nodded and started to speak but Bleu kept going. "So why are the Zebop involved?"
Johnny stopped pacing and frowned. "I don't really know. Me and my team spent over two months hunting through the Atchafalaya basin before we found a fish with the mutation and as soon as I made it back to UL campus there was Devereaux sitting in my office waiting for me. He told me he represented the Zebop and that he wanted the fish. I told him to go fuck himself." Dixie stifled a laugh and quickly covered her mouth.
Bleu seemed unamused, "You're lucky to be alive. The Zebop are a powerful krewe and when they want something they take it…usually with extreme force."
Johnny rubbed his bruised jaw, "Well I know that *now*. I'm from Seattle man what the fuck do I know about voodoo cults? Anyway…Devereaux spooked my peers at UL, which frankly should have been my first clue, so I managed to convince the University of New Orleans to let me use one of their labs for my research. I boxed up my research and had it shipped here but the Zebop sent people to steal it all. Now Devereaux has not only the live specimen but all the rest of my specimens as well."
Johnny slumped down on the couch and patted where he pockets would be, "Um…what happened to my clothes anyway?"
Bleu shrugged, "We dumped them, didn't want the Zebop to track the blood."
Johnny shook his head and muttered, "That is not at all how it works…did you happen to save my cigarettes?"
Dixie tossed a shopping bag that Johnny completely failed to catch; it hit him in the chest and slid into his lap. Fumbling through the bag Johnny retrieved a battered pack of cigarettes.
"You mind?" he asked.
Dixie wrinkled her nose; it was adorable, "Not in here…go out on the porch."
Johnny stepped out on the porch of the shotgun house and settled down on a weather-beaten wooden porch swing. He rubbed three fingers of his right hand together, channeled some mana, and touched the tip of his cigarette to his fingers. This was one of the very first spells Johnny had designed, a simple variation on the popular Ignite formula that channeled all of the heat but none of the flame to your fingertips…it was great for showing off but not much else. The cigarette crackled and he took a deep drag, leaned back and listened to Dixie and Bleu discuss what to do with him.
To be fair Johnny couldn't be certain that is what they were talking about, it was all in French. But since they had waited until he was outside, decided to speak in a foreign language, and Bleu was gesturing pretty animatedly out the window…it was a safe bet.
Honestly Johnny wasn't exactly sure what he should do. His entire academic future hinged on this research. Sure lots of famous academics had failed experiments to their names, that's just part of science. But even with failed experiments there is data, data that advanced the field even if all it said was 'You were wrong.'
Johnny had nothing. No data, no findings; just a list of expenses that the University of Washington had paid for and jack shit to show for it.
He had to get those specimens back.
Johnny crushed out his cigarette and with exaggerated motions opened first the screen door then the front door to give Dixie and Bleu enough time to finish the debate. By the time he was seated on the couch again it appeared that the two had reached a decision.
As expected Dixie laid it out for him, "The way I see it you have two choices Jonathan."
"Please…call my Johnny."
She shrugged, "Fine. The way I see it you have two choices Johnny. Go back to Seattle empty handed or help us get your fish back."
Johnny quirked his brow, "And why do you care about getting my fish back?"
Bleu grumbled just barely loud enough to be heard, "Good question…"
Dixie ignored the ork and smiled, "Because we were hired to do a job and the Zebop prevented us from doing it. That's bad business."
Johnny frowned, "Wait…what?"
"We were hired to steal your specimens." Dixie said without a hint of embarrassment.
"And I might add we did so quite easily. However the Zebop hit us afterwards and took the crates. Normally we have a live and let live policy with the Zebop; they stay out of our way we stay out of theirs. But we can't let the word get around that we are unreliable, that would be very bad for our reputation. And in the shadows reputation is everything."
Johnny nodded slowly, "So…you're going to get my specimens back and sell them to your original client? How does that help me exactly?"
Dixie laughed, "Oh no that deal was blown. I doubt very seriously that our original client will want to see us after we lost the shipment. No we're taking your specimens back to prove a point. After that what happens to them doesn't concern me in the slightest."
Johnny smiled, "So I get my specimens back, your reputation is repaired and everyone's happy right?"
"Unfortunately it's not that simple." said a new voice from the doorway.
Johnny started, nearly jumping out of his skin, but Dixie and Bleu just shifted their gaze to the doorway. The voice belonged to an elven man slightly shorter than Johnny. He was dressed in black leather; leather jacket, leather pants, leather boots…but he wore a white tee shirt under the jacket. His voice was heavily accented and he had that vaguely European look that promised Johnny that his immediate future included numerous conversations in foreign languages he didn't understand.
Johnny assessed the newcomer's aura. He didn't even do it consciously, Johnny had been working with mana since his early teens and viewing the astral signature of people he met was just second nature to him; it was reflex like offering your hand to shake when you first meet someone.
The man's aura rumbled like a thundercloud, deep purples and blues shot through with angry yellow. A dark web of modifications shot through his entire aura. Johnny had never seen anyone so completely augmented; it was as though every single part of his body had been reshaped. For all the augmentation the aura was still strong, the elf was still more man than machine but only just. The elf narrowed his eyes and stared at Johnny as though he knew what the mage was doing, embarrassed Johnny looked away.
"What do you mean it's not that simple?" Bleu asked.
The elf turned to Bleu very briefly then spoke to Dixie, "I have received word that our client wishes to meet."
"Really?" Dixie asked with a shrewd expression, "Funny that they would contact you and not me since this was my job…"
Nonplussed the elf replied, "But it was my people who were to make delivery and my people who did not deliver."
Dixie shrugged and the elf continued, "We are to meet them in a private viewing booth at the Saenger Theatre in one hour." Dixie cut her eyes to Bleu who nodded slightly.
Dixie smiled brightly at the elf and said, "You hear that boys…we're going to the theatre."
. * * * * * * * * * * * * .
A little less than an hour later, and feeling increasingly more and more underdressed in his synthetic clothing, Johnny found himself in the atrium of the historic Saenger Theatre.
Originally opened in 1927 the Saenger had started life as a silent movie house but over the years had become one of the finest theatres of the US showcasing local talent as well as Broadway productions. Over the century plus that the Saenger has been operating it has been burned, flooded by hurricanes, looted by rioters and suffered years of vacancies between owners. But like New Orleans itself the Saenger always seemed to bounce back from the tragedies.
Johnny was momentarily struck by the grandeur of the entrance…marble sculptures, crystal chandeliers…it was like stepping back in time to a more gilded age. Johnny frowned at himself…a more gilded age? Shaking off his momentary flight of fancy he took a deep breath and focused on the task at hand.
The four of them: Johnny, Dixie, Bleu and the elf; were greeted at the door by a man dressed like a bellhop from an old trid…though given the surroundings Johnny supposed he was actually an usher. The usher led the quartet up a grandiose stairway and into a private booth overlooking the theatre.
The dimly lit booth had only one occupant, a man dressed in eveningwear looking out at the stage where a group of actors were rehearsing something. Johnny hesitated for a moment, unsure what to do, but the elf took a seat in the row directly behind the man and the other three followed suit. Feeling equal parts ridiculous and out of his depth, Johnny sat down beside Bleu.
Without turning to look at them the man spoke, "Thank you for meeting me so quickly."
No one replied so he continued, "Well…things have gotten quite out of hand haven't they?"
Again no one spoke.
The silence stretched…one second…two…five…finally Johnny blurted out "I'm sorry…who are you?"
The gentleman let out a small chuckle.
"Ah Mr. Stevenson…the intrepid young researcher. The man who set this whole unfortunate chain of events into motion. Your "discovery" had caused quite the stir in certain circles."
The way the man pronounced the word discovery supplied the quotation marks quite nicely.
The silence returned, but it did not last. The gentleman seemed to be warring within himself and finally he said aloud in a slightly amused voice, "Shall I tell you what you've found…yes…I think I shall."
Continuing to gaze out over the rehearsal the man continued, "First let me say that you are correct Mr. Stevenson. The organ that you have discovered in the specimen was indeed intended to allow for a more adaptive diet in the host. However what you have failed to realize is that the organ did not occur naturally. I'm sure a more seasoned biologist would have noticed all the hallmarks of genetic manipulation and perhaps after you really got a chance to look at the organ you would have too but alas fate was not kind to you. Unfortunately the organ did not function as expected but it did lead the way to a very impressive procedure that will be available shortly and manages to meet most of the original goals with the project. Everything should have ended there…neat and tidy. But unfortunately for us it appears that some of the test subjects ended up in the wild."
The gentleman paused his narrative for a moment and clapped enthusiastically as the actors left the stage. The dark clad tech crew swarmed over the stage resetting the props and hurriedly constructing an entirely new area for the next scene. Without preamble the gentleman picked up the conversation again.
"We were not overly concerned with the escape; the subjects were sterile and would not have been able to reproduce in the wild. Worst case scenario they would live another fifteen years in the swamps and then die. But then one of our subjects ended up the focus of your own misguided research project."
The gentleman turned slightly to look a Johnny though his face was still too obscured by shadow to make out, "At first we considered taking direct action."
A jolt of ice ran down Johnny's spine.
The gentleman turned and faced forward again, "But we decided that was too extreme and likely to be expensive. Far simpler was to just retrieve our test subjects and dispose of them properly."
Still shaken Johnny studied the gentleman's aura, silently kicking himself for waiting so long to do so. His aura was subdued not due to augmentation, he had a bit of headware but nothing out of the ordinary; it was due to his state of mind. Even after the implied threat his aura was calm, almost serene, consisting of mainly soothing dark yellows and creamy pinks bordering on chartreuse. The man was relaxed and content and radiated a sense of satisfaction and control over his emotions.
Instead of making him feel better, Johnny was put even more on edge by this man who could casually mention plotting his death and register no emotion at the thought.
Oblivious to all of this the gentleman continued, "But then the Zebop interfered. I have my suspicions as to why and they do not concern you, but regardless of the whys the Zebop are now in possession of our property. So that brings us to this moment…a very significant moment for us all I believe."
The gentleman paused again, but Johnny was quick to fill the silence this time.
"I still don't understand why you care? I mean the experiment was a failure, it's not like someone can reverse engineer anything from the fish. Why go through all this trouble?"
The gentleman laughed. It was a hearty laugh, a genuine laugh, one that lasted a bit too long for Johnny's taste.
"Money Mr. Stevenson…money. The possession of our test subjects would not be of direct benefit to any of our immediate competitors, but that does not mean that access to failed experiments and especially failed genetics experiments is something we wish to allow. A *trained* researcher could do a great deal with such biological material."
Bleu's voice startled Johnny as he asked, "So why are you telling us all this?"
"Because I am offering you a job Mr. LeBleu…or should I say I am extending our previous contract. I want you to recover my property, same as before, however now you will be recovering it from the Zebop instead of a witless college student."
Johnny grits his teeth at the insult but wisely kept his temper in check.
"And because it is the Zebop you will need some magical backup. So point in fact I wasn't telling *you* anything Mr. LeBleu …I was merely explaining to Mr. Stevenson that his dreams of becoming a famous Parabiologist are very much at an end but he has a chance to at least make it out of this whole affair with his skin intact if not his reputation. Assuming of course that he decides to join your little motley crew and retrieve my property."
Silence once again and Johnny could feel everyone's eyes on him. But what choice did he really have? If what this man said was true then the catfish was intellectual property of whatever corporation that he worked for, which meant that any research Johnny had conducted belonged to that corporation. Which meant that the last three months of his life had been a complete waste.
Even if he did tell this mystery man to shove it the Shadowrunners likely wouldn't so either way he was getting his damn fish back. If he was lucky he wouldn't have to reimburse the university for his grant but even then he wasn't likely to be welcome back to U-dub any time soon after this debacle. The Zebop probably didn't really care about him but Johnny strongly suspected that Devereaux himself wasn't the live and let live type so either he needed to get outta town *now* or figure out some why to deal with that guy.
Long story short…he was hosed.
Johnny sighed, "Fine…whatever…I'll help them get your research back."
"So happy to have you on board…" the gentleman said in a sardonic voice. "Now I have people working to locate the specimens as we speak, as soon as I have a location I will let you know. Ideally I would prefer the research returned to me but if that is not possible the destruction of the specimens is an acceptable alternative."
The three shadowrunners nodded and when no further instructions were forthcoming they stood and headed for the entrance. Johnny followed them out and when they finally reached the street outside he paused uncertain.
Dixie turned to look at him, "What do you mean?"
The elf kept walking but Bleu hung back with the two of them.
Johnny smiled weakly, "I mean…now what? What do we do?"
Dixie frowned looking puzzled, "We wait for him to contact us."
Johnny frowned this time, "That's it…we just sit around and wait for him to call us?"
Dixie chuckled, "Yes…"
"I donno it just feels like we should…be *doing* something." Johnny floundered.
Bleu looked Johnny over and said, "I'll tell you what you should be doing…you should be shopping. Them Flats ain't gonna cut it for long."
"I've got clothes back at my hotel." Johnny said absently.
"I wouldn't recommend goin back to your hotel." Dixie said.
"What?" Johnny said startled out of his revere.
"Until this thing with the Zebop blows over you need to lay low. I can have a friend collect your stuff if you like. And you can sleep on the couch until the runs over." Dixie's last offer elicited a frown of disapproval from Bleu but he remained silent.
"Yeah that would be great…thanks."
"Hey…till this runs over we're partners. And besides this way I can keep an eye on you and make sure this wasn't all some elaborate set up." Dixie smiled sweetly but there was a slight edge in her tone. The three of them wandered up the street to catch a streetcar back to the Marigny.
. * * * * * * * * * * * * .
Fifteen minutes after Dixie, Bleu and Johnny had departed on the streetcar Corneille rounded the corner of the building and stepped through the entrance. He made his way back to the private booth where his handler from United Oil was waiting for him. Corneille took the same seat just behind the man and to his left.
"I still don't understand why you didn't have me remove Stevenson from the picture before the Zebop were even involved."
"Strategic thinking." The company man replied. "Now you have added a magical asset to your little band. New Orleans is a magical city but most of the local magicians have well established alliances. Mr. Stevenson, as an outsider, does not. For you to best serve our interests in this area you were going to need magical support sooner or later. Thankfully this opportunity arose."
"Quite a coincidence…those specimen escaping the way they did." Corneille said casually.
The company man turned in his seat and frowned at him. "Please…now you are just being silly. Or perhaps you think that you and your little operation here are important enough to jeopardize years of research? Allow me to squash your little conspiracy theory right now. We had nothing to do with bringing Mr. Stevenson here…nor would we concoct such a convoluted way of securing an asset. This isn't some low budget holopic…this is business."
Corneille nodded tightly.
"And speaking of business…I have a little side job I need you to work on for me. Something to remind the Zebop not to mess in our affairs. I will send the details along shortly, if everything goes right it should dovetail in quite nicely with the reacquisition of our property from their Hounfor."
"So you already know where the fish is being kept?" Corneille asked.
"Of course," the company man chuckled. "We've known for the past half hour, I just wanted to see how your little team would react. I have to say I was impressed."
"Now go home…we'll contact you soon with instructions."
Corneille left without comment and the company man turned back to the stage as the second act began.