By: Jason Cline
15:23 May 11, 2066 – Frost Bank Tower, Austin CAS
As the elevator made its slow assent to the thirtieth floor, Officer Franklin gave voice to his feelings, "This is a waste of time Sarge."
Sargent Riley, a squat pudgy man in a surprisingly well tailored uniform didn't bother to look his way, "Gotta chase down every lead Rookie."
"Yeah but Sarge…DSI already talked to everyone. The family, her friends…what are we supposed to find here?" Officer Franklin protested.
Sargent Riley turned to look at the young man, focusing his eyes on the meat world instead of whatever AR simulation he was running, "Look Rookie, if the Department of Special Investigations tells us to interview the health club staff…we interview the health club staff."
"But…" Officer Franklin began.
Sargent Riley cut him off, "Look…kid. I know you're new. I know you wanna make a name for yourself but; we're Street Patrol, they're Detectives. They out rank us. That's just the way it is. They say jump…"
The elevator doors opened up to the lobby area for the Frost Bank Tower Executive Health Club. The health club had almost as long a history as the tower itself. Opened in the early 2000's the club had been through a string of owners over the last sixty or so years; opening and closing again, moving from floor to floor, until it was purchased in the early 2033 as part of Lone Star's acquisition of the Frost Bank Tower. The Health Club was moved to the thirtieth floor and greatly expanded to include an Olympic sized swimming pool and two racquetball courts as well as a full weight room, sauna and massage parlor. Throughout the 30's Lone Star used the Tower as their corporate headquarters until they built a new facility in North Austin in '48 as a publicity stunt.
As the officers approached the front desk they were greeted by a young woman who smiled brightly at them, "Good afternoon officers how can I help you?"
Sargent Riley immediately took charge, "We're here investigating a missing person's case ma'am. "
The attendant nodded sagely, "Oh yes I heard about that…poor girl. What can we do to help?"
"We need to speak with some of your members, see if any of them can shed any light on the investigation."
The attendant smiled again, "Of course officer. Right this way."
16:18 May 11, 2066 - Frost Bank Tower Executive Health Club Pool Deck, Austin CAS
After almost a half hour of "investigations" and the only thing that Officer Franklin was sure of was that the people who frequented this Health Club had way too much time on their hands. Most of the people interviewed were trophy wives of the executives who worked in the building and between Sargent Riley's not so subtle flirtations and their propensity to gossip about one another; Officer Franklin was even more convinced that this was a complete waste of time. The latest star witness was called Devon and she was explaining to Sargent Riley that while she wasn't really close to the missing girl she did know that the girl's parents were relatively new members of the club and her father was only a mid-level executive don't you know so they were probably quite thrilled to be accepted in the first place.
As Officer Franklin was just about to tune out the conversation Devon made a disgusted noise. "Ugh…him. You know I don't know why I didn't think of this in the first place. It was probably the Scarred Man who took that girl."
Officer Franklin butted into the conversation, "Who's the Scarred Man?"
Sargent Riley shot Officer Franklin a dark look as Devon answered, "Oh I don't really know his name, none of the Moms do, we just call him the Scarred Man because of his face. He's been coming here every day for the last couple of months…it really creeps us out." Devon looked around the pool and pointed to a man who was stretching by the lap pool. "That's him."
Sargent Riley thanked her and left her his card and the two officers made their way over to the lap pool. "Excuse me sir." Sargent Riley said loud enough for Devon to hear, "We need to talk to you."
The man turned to face them and Officer Franklin could see why he got his nickname. The man wore a pair of cheap sunglasses but three angry red scars could be seen just above the frame in his eyebrow and below it on his nose and cheek. Officer Franklin could see other scars on the man's body as well, light white lines that appeared here and there on his forearms and shoulders and a few on his legs as well, but nothing as obvious as the ones on his face.
"Loose the glasses." Sargent Riley said in his "interrogating" voice and the man complied. Officer Franklin was almost certain he saw a hint of a smirk on the man's face as Riley flinched ever so slightly when he looked at the ruins of the man's left eye. The iris was drained of color, like the belly of a dead fish, and it remained fixed straight ahead as his other eye fixed on the picture that Sargent Riley presented to him. "You know this girl?" the Sargent asked as he held up a high quality vidprint of a young girl in her early teens.
"Yeah…that's Olivia." The man answered.
"When was the last time you saw her?" Sargent Riley continued.
"Well…" the man said. "She was here for swim team last week so…last Wednesday."
Something about the way the Scarred Man stood was starting to unnerve Officer Franklin. He was just so…still. It was like he wasn't even breathing. Officer Franklin got the feeling that if he wasn't paying attention to the man he would just fade into the background and disappear. And he seemed so calm. Most people when questioned by Lone Star react in very predictable ways. When they know they are innocent they are either outraged, annoyed or ever so rarely cooperative and helpful. When they know they are guilty they are either nervous, evasive or combative. But they are never just…blank. In many ways Officer Franklin had developed much better instincts than his training officer, and those instincts were telling him that the Scarred Man wasn't just some corporate wage slave trying to get in some exercise before heading home.
Sargent Riley either lacked that perspective or was too busy showing off for Devon because he began asking the Scarred Man questions in an authoritarian voice that was pitched just loud enough for everyone to hear. "What would you say your relationship was with Olivia?"
"Non-existent." The man answered nonplussed.
"And yet your recognized her photo…even know her name. Care to explain that?" the Sargent asked with a hint of triumph.
"Like I said, she's here for swim team every Wednesday. The kids all seem to like her and they yell her name when she shows up. She's usually the last one to arrive so it's not hard to put a face with a name. Can't really think of a time when I've ever actually spoken to her, I'm not here to make friends…just swim laps."
"And you're here most afternoons is that right?" Sargent Riley asked.
"That's right, an hour every afternoon to get my laps in."
"And then?" Sargent Riley asked.
"And then I leave." The statement was delivered in the same flat voice, his expression never changed, but Officer Franklin was *sure* the Scarred Man was mocking Sargent Riley.
Sargent Riley was too caught up in the "tough cop" act to notice and had positioned himself so that he could watch Devon's reactions to his performance. "We're gonna be checking you out chummer, you got some identification?"
The Scarred Man smiled, "Not on me. But my SIN is registered with the club."
Something about his reply finally broke through to Sargent Riley and he bristled slightly, "Ok smartass…what's yer name?"
19:10 May 11, 2066 – Congress and East 4th street, Austin CAS
Nick sat motionless on the hard plastic bench as he waited for the bus, but something was gnawing at the back of his mind.
Nick hadn't lied when he told the Lone Star officers that he had no real relationship with the girl. Other than her name and a vague notion of who her parents were Nick really didn't know much about the girl. She was probably in her early teens…but the older he got the harder it was for Nick to really tell how old kids were. They all kinda blurred together in that amorphous age between child and potential threat. Not that he could bring himself to think of Olivia as someone could one day be a threat to anyone. To be fair that was less an evaluation of Olivia herself and more a general disdain for most of the overly privileged members of the Frost Bank Tower Executive Health Club. Though if he really thought about it, most of the execs that frequented the Health Club were exactly the kind of men he could picture in a corner booth somewhere calling themselves Johnson, which put them pretty firmly in the potential threat column.
The bus arrived and Nick boarded on autopilot, choosing a seat near the middle door with a good view of all the passengers and three different potential escape routes. Something wasn't right. There was more to Olivia's disappearance than met the eye. Somewhere in the pit of his stomach he felt a familiar tension. Somehow…some way he *knew* they were involved.
They were here.
The bus pulled to a stop at the corner of Speedway and East 30th and Nick walked up thirtieth to his apartment building. He was the first one home which was unsurprising since Kate was taking mostly afternoon classes this semester. Nick couldn't remember if finals were this week or next week but either way she was going to be busy studying. Nick let himself into the apartment and stripped, dumping his wet clothing in the washing machine and heading for the shower. His mind was racing but it was all a jumble. Images of Chicago flashed through his head, sensory memories of nine years battling first the Insects, then the chaos wrought by Strain III; people he had met, places he had been all mixed together in a bizarre kaleidoscope. In a haze Nick stepped under the stream of lukewarm water, mentally kicking himself for not fixing the water heater yet.
After exhausting the meager reserves of hot water his broken water heater provided Nick toweled himself off and made himself dinner. One of the benefits of living with Kaitlyn Henricht was that she did all the shopping. The refrigerator was stocked with an assortment of green leafy vegetables, real meats and organic juices…not a trace of soy to be found. Nick put together a salad and shredded some ham and chicken to go on top, covered it with shredded cheese and drowned it in TruRanch™ dressing. As a last little bit of decadence he topped his masterpiece with sunflower seeds and set down to eat.
Midway through his meal the door opened and Kate bustled in, backpack hanging off of one shoulder and a datapad clutched to her chest as she fumbled with the lock. She favored Nick with a dazzling smile, dumped her backpack on the floor and dropped onto the sofa next to him. Snatching the fork out of his hand she took a huge bite of the salad and sighed contentedly, "Mmmm…I'm *starving* I swear I didn't eat all day! Between back to back lectures on Thaumaturgy and History, a study session for my Algebra final which was a complete waste of time and an impossibly long line at the cafeteria all I had today was a power bar and a Jumbo Soy Frappuccino." Pulling the bowl in front of her Kate dug into the salad for a few seconds before she stopped mid-bite, narrowed her eyes and looked at Nick; "What's wrong?" she asked in a voice that was half suspicious half concerned.
Nick smiled in a way he hoped was disarming, Kate always had a way of knowing when something was on his mind no matter how hard he tried to hide it, "Nothing…" he said.
Kate placed the fork in the salad bowl and fixed Nick with a gaze that could be described as withering, "Nick…" she said in her 'tell me now or there will be trouble' voice.
"Couple of Lone Star officers came by the gym today." He said. Kate narrowed her eyes and spun her finger for him to continue. "They were asking about a girl who had gone missing." Kate sighed and closed her eyes. "I think its Bugs." Nick finished.
Kate was sat quietly for a moment with her eyes closed, then spoke to Nick in a calm voice…the kind of voice one uses with a child, "Baby…we've been over this."
If anyone else had spoken to him in that tone of voice Nick would have just tuned them out, but he could hear the pain and concern in Kaitlyn's voice. And he couldn't really blame her. This wasn't the first time Nick had cried wolf. Four years ago in Seattle, two years ago in New Orleans, six months ago in Houston…Nick had to admit that he wasn't exactly batting a thousand. He took a deep breath and said, "Ok…you're right. But even if it isn't Bugs a girl's still missing."
"And Lone Star will find her I'm sure." Kate said.
Nick snorted derisively, "Look...I just wanna talk to the family and maybe have Rocket go look for her. If it's not Bugs we drop an anonymous tip to the Star and they go and pick her up, but if it is…"
Kate stood up and started pacing the living room, "Nick…baby…this is not healthy. You can't keep worrying about the next Chicago."
A bit of heat crept into Nick's voice, "The Bugs aren't gone Katie…you know that! I don't give a shit what Kersh says they are still out there and they are a threat!"
Kate spun on him, "Yes they are still out there. Yes they are still a threat. But they are scattered. They've retreated into the shadows like their mundane counterparts. No more dreams of a Central Hive. No more working together. No more Universal Brotherhood. No more Grand Plan. It's over…we won."
The two stared at each other in silence for a moment. Finally Nick asked, "What if you're wrong? What if Kersh is wrong? Hell what if Two Spirits is wrong wherever *that*bastard is? Are you willing to risk it?"
Nick watched the internal struggle play out on the face of the woman he loved more than anyone in this world. Finally she sighed, "No…I'm not." Kate looked at him and asked, "How sure are you?"
"I can feel it in my gut."
"Well…" she said with a twinkle in her eye, "How can I argue with such a vast source of knowledge?"
"Hey!" Nick protested…
"Come on chunky…let's track down the parents." Kate called over her shoulder as she disappeared into the bedroom.
10:02 May 12, 2066 – Hyde Park, Austin CAS
As they crossed over Avenue H Kate announced, "Four fifteen should be on the right…"
Nick fidgeted uncomfortably in his suit, "So…what's our story again?"
Kate sighed dramatically, "We're hear as representatives of Lone Star Human Resources, we want to make sure that Olivia's parents are properly processed so they do not incur any loss of benefits due to their absence in this trying time."
Nick snorted, "And you think they'll buy that? A corp that cares?"
Kate smiled, "I think it'll get us in the door…"
Nick stepped out of the car and adjusted his sunglasses self-consciously. Over the years Nick had become accustomed to his eye patch, so much so that not wearing it felt weird to him. Usually he only took it off to shower or swim, but it didn't make sense for a corporate wage slave to have an eye patch so he had to do without.
Nick didn't much care for subterfuge, which was funny for a man who had spent more than a decade sneaking into places; he just wasn't very good at lying. Wearing a disguise, pretending to be someone he wasn't; ironically it made him feel exposed, like everyone was watching him and if he put a single step out of line he would be caught. Luckily Katie was with him.
Kate rung the bell and the door was answered by a well dressed woman on the long side of forty with short brown hair and a businesslike expression on her face. Kate extended her hand, "Ms. Spinner? I'm Carla Wong…we exchanged messages this morning…"
Ms. Spinner's face registered the briefest hint of surprise but she took Kate's hand and shook it, "Yes of course, please come in." She held open the door for them and led them to a small living room with a large bay window looking out on the back yard. The house was small but well appointed, with sturdy looking furniture that might even be real wood and a high end trideo set up. The Spinners were only mid-level execs but they appeared to be doing well for themselves.
Ms. Spinner indicated the couch and asked, "Can I get you anything to drink?"
Nick shook his head and Kate smiled saying, "No thank you."
Kate pulled a data pad out of her purse and began tapping the screen, "Now…Ms. Spinner, you and your husband are going through a horrible ordeal and we in HR want to make sure that we do everything to help you in your time of need."
Ms. Spinner took a seat on a nearby chair, "Yes thank you Ms. … Wong." The question was evident in the statement and Kate smiled.
"My husband's name…and please call me Carla." Kate sat forward on the sofa slightly and Nick could feel a slight prickling in his head that Katie was working her mojo on Ms. Spinner which meant it was his turn.
"Ma'am, could I use your restroom please?" Nick asked. As soon as he asked he tried not to wince…'could I use your restroom please'…who talks like that! It was too formal...why didn't he just say something like, 'excuse me where's the bathroom' or 'can I use your bathroom' or something like that.
Ms. Spinner smiled, "Down the hall there and on the left." Ms. Spinner turned her attention back to Kate who was asking a string of questions needed to set the family up on temporary furlough for the duration of the "event". Nick figured he had about five minutes before he would be missed. Opening up his senses Nick closed his good eye and literally breathed in the world around him.
He found could detect three distinct scents in the house, one was Ms. Spinner…one was masculine and the third had to be Olivia's. He followed the scent to her room. Moving in total silence he slowly opened the door and let himself into the girl's room. Standing in the doorway he took off his sunglasses and studied the room. Posters from bands he was probably too old to have heard of adorned the walls, everything was neat and tidy but she had been gone for a few days so Nick wasn't sure if it was always like that or if her mother had cleaned up it up. Nick closed his eyes again and pushed his senses out as far as he could looking for even a hint of taint; just the barest touch of rot that would let him know that a Bug had been here.
He found nothing.
Undeterred Nick carefully opened the drawers of her dresser looking for a diary or a datachip or something that would give him any indication of why she was taken. All he found were clothes and what he assumed was the typical bric-a-brac that pre-teen girls collect: ticket stubs for concerts (why do they even use paper anymore anyway?), holopics of her and her friends making funny faces, guitar picks, hair ties, a medal for a swim meet, and a few candy wrappers. Fearing he had been gone too long Nick carefully closed the drawer and left, making sure not to disturb anything in the room.
Nick put on his sunglasses and returned to the living room where Kate had obviously won Ms. Spinner's trust because she was sitting on the couch next to her and her eyes were wet with tears. Nick quietly took a seat in the vacated chair as Kate said, "I'm so sorry for all of this…it must be awful! And no one has made any demands?" Kate looked up at Nick expectantly; he gave a slight shake of his head.
Ms. Spinner dabbed her eyes with a cloth and said, "No…nothing. It doesn't make any sense! Jim and I…we're nobody. We aren't even in R and D…we're clerical." Kate placed her hand on Ms. Spinner's shoulder as the woman began to sob, "I just want my baby back…"
Nick grit his teeth…ah fuck it…
"Did Olivia meet anyone new recently? Maybe someone from out of town?"
Ms. Spinner blinked a few times in surprise at the question, "I…I don't understand?" She turned to look at Nick as though really seeing him for the first time.
Kate smiled and shot Nick a dark look, "I'm sorry…this is Mr." slight pause "King…he's with Security. He's here to…"
Nick spoke over her "…I'm here to find your daughter." Kate shot him another dark look which he completely ignored, "Since no one has contacted you it's pretty obvious this isn't about ransom…can you think of anyone new Olivia talked about recently? A new teacher…perhaps a coach?"
Ms. Spinner shook her head, "No…nothing like that."
Nick rubbed his chin, "Did she start hanging out someplace new? Maybe a new mall or restaurant or wherever girls hang out these days…"
"Y-yes…yes, she and the team started going to Amy's for ice cream after practice. Olivia never really liked ice cream so I just assumed there was a boy…" Ms. Spinner's eyes were wet with tears but her expression was calculating, "I don't understand. I already spoke with Lone Star about all of this…who *are* you?"
Kate looked and Nick who nodded slightly, rolling her eyes at him she said; "Ms. Spinner…I'm sure Lone Star will do their best to find your daughter. But Austin is a big city and Lone Star has other priorities. My friend and I however are going to do whatever it takes to bring Olivia home to you."
"If possible…" Nick added.
Kate frowned at him and continued, "Please don't ask who we really are…we won't tell you. But we are going to look for Olivia so if there is anything that you can tell us that may help to bring your daughter home safely now's the time to do so."
Ms. Spinner looked back and forth between the two of them for a few seconds then she nodded. Nick leaned forward in his chair, "Why don't you start at the beginning and tell us everything you can remember about the days before she was taken."
Two hours later Nick and Kate said their goodbyes. As soon as her car door closed Kate turned on Nick, "You know…Michael took a big risk setting up that meeting for us. If the real Carla Wong ever found out he could get in real trouble!"
Nick smirked, "Oh yeah…that would really crush me if your ex-boyfriend got in trouble at work…"
Kate shook her head and chuckled, "Ass…"
Nick shrugged with a smile, "So…not much to go on. I didn't find anything in Olivia's room, and if mom is to be believed she hasn't really done anything out of the ordinary over the last few months. I guess our only lead is Amy's…"
Kate was quiet for a moment. "Nick…"
"I know what you're gonna say…"
Kate sighed, "Baby…it's just…there is *nothing* to indicate that the Bugs are involved. I mean…nothing!"
"No…don't do that. Don't use the 'Kate's henpecking me' voice. I *am* right…"
Nick said nothing.
Silence stretched between them for a full minute the Kate added, "You know this is really unfair right? You *know* I want to get my degree. I have finals in two days…*two* days Nick! I should be studying not catering to your insane fears of a Bug invasion of the CAS!"
Silence again, but not as long this time.
Kate shook her head and laughed, "I'm gonna do it aren't I? Tonight instead of studying I'm going to summon a spirit and ask it to spy on an ice cream shop for me…a fucking ice cream shop! And why? All because I had to fall in love with the dumbest man on the fucking planet."
Trying not to smile Nick said, "I love you baby…"
19:45 May 12, 2066 – Campus Crossing Apartments, Austin CAS
The air in the apartment was thick with incense as Kate completed her summoning ritual casting a handful of something (maybe cat food?) into the air which disappeared with near imperceptible pooping sound.
Years ago Nick had started a little game where he tried to spot the spirit before it fully manifest. He unfocused his eyes and relied on his other senses…there in the corner…Nick turned with a smile as the incense laden air coalesced into a shimmering translucent raccoon. "Hoi Rocket…how's tricks?"
The spirit raccoon cocked its head to the side in what Nick always assumed was amusement and then proceeded to completely ignore him. Nick was almost certain that Kate was always summoning the exact same spirit…or at least he chose to believe that despite what she tirelessly explained to him…and therefore he decided to call it Rocket after a famous comic book character from before the turn of the century.
The raccoon bowed its head reverently which Kate returned in kind, "Greetings spirit, I have a task for you if you are willing. Travel to the location I have pictured in my mind and watch over it for the night. If you see any spirits enter follow them when they leave. Report back to me in the morning." Rocket gave a tiny bow and disappeared back into the astral.
"Explain to me again why we can't just send Rocket to find Olivia?"
Kate sighed dramatically, "One, I have no idea where Olivia is so the spirit would just be flying blindly. Two I've never met Olivia so it would be really difficult for me to provide a good image to the spirit of what she looks like, whereas I am very familiar with Amy's. Ideally I would get some friends together for a Ritual but…A) we've cut ties with the APS and B) we don't have anything of Olivia's that's been properly prepared. So this is whatcha get…"
Nick put his hands on Kate's shoulders and leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, "Thank you." He kissed her again on the neck, then her jawline, then he kissed her mouth.
Kate held the kiss for a few seconds before pushing him away, "Slow down there cowboy…I still have to study for my exam tomorrow." Nick smiled and leaned in to kiss her neck again, after a few seconds she murmured, "…I guess we have some time…"
06:02 May 13, 2066 – Campus Crossing Apartments, Austin CAS
Nick couldn't say what exactly woke him up, but by now he was used to just trusting his instincts. His eyes opened and he lay perfectly still as he tested the room around him with his senses. Within a heartbeat he knew he wasn't alone, two heartbeats later he knew there was no danger and two after that he sat up in bed and turned just in time to see Rocket materialize. "Hoi Rocket…zappnin chummer?" As usual the spirit ignored Nick and stared intently at Kate.
Nick remembered Kate explaining that she and her summoned spirits communicated telepathically…or something like that…which would explain why she started to mutter under her breath, "…five more minutes…" Eventually Kate sat up and glared first at Nick then at Rocket before demanding, "What!" The spirit bowed its head reverently and stared directly at Kate in silent communication. The rapport lasted for what seemed like several minutes before Kate nodded once and said, "Thank you for your service spirit, with the rising of the sun I release you."
Kate rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and stared at nothing for a few moments. Then she turned to Nick, "So…the spirit didn't see any other spirits…" she began hesitantly, "But, there was something off about the astral of the location." She held up her hand to stop Nick from speaking, "Not tainted exactly just…thin? Like the barrier between the Astral and the Material was slightly weaker there. It's not really uncommon but it is a little more coincidental than I would like. Usually these places are nexus points of lay lines or places of power…it's kinda odd for such a place to fly under the radar like this one has."
Kate watched Nick surreptitiously as he processed this information and she was ready for him when he reached his conclusion. She cut him off before he could speak, "Yes…thin like the CZ was thin…but no not tainted. It could be a lot of things…it's a pretty old place and there are lots of people who love it there. All those shared experiences could have weakened the barrier…" She didn't sound convinced.
Kate slipped out of bed and began to pace around their tiny bedroom. "It's most likely a natural phenomenon…but there are theories out there that a magician can do things to weaken the barrier and make spirit summoning easier. Nothing has been proven yet but…" Kate stopped pacing and looked directly at Nick, "Insect Shamans are said to have perfected it…" Nick said nothing, he just continued to look at her as Kate sat down on the bed. "Look I'm not saying I believe it's the Bugs but…I think we do need to look deeper into this."
Nick nodded slowly with a grim look on his face, "So what do you want to do?"
Kate let out a single humorless laugh, "I *want* to pass my final today and got out for pizza. But I am willing to let you drag me along on another snipe hunt…*after* my test!"
15:27 May 13, 2066 – North Lamar and West 6th Street, Austin CAS
With the mid-afternoon sun beaming down on a beautiful summer day, Nick could see people milling outside of Amy's Ice Creams from a block away. He adjusted his sunglasses on his face and grumbled slightly. He had suggested that they come at night but Kate had shut him down explaining matter-of-factly that she didn't want to do this in the first place and she would be damned if she wasn't at least getting some ice cream out of it. His counter point that the restaurant was open until midnight was met with a glare that told him rather pointedly that the discussion was over.
Amy's was practically an Austin institution, an impressive feat for a city that prides itself on its originality. Opened almost a century ago, Amy's made a name for itself by providing quality frozen goodies in a variety of unique ways. The employees at Amy's were known to perform tricks while scooping the ice-cream. Elaborate juggling acts with scoops and bowls, theatrical flourishes when presenting the food…some even go as far as tossing the ice-cream across the room to another employee with a bowl. All of this made for good fun and even led to the creation of a Tick Olympics each year where employees competed against one another to see who could perform the most elaborate tricks.
Apparently the employees were in high form today because as Nick and Kate stepped through the doorway a ball of RealMint soycreme thunked into a bowl balanced atop a twentysomething year old dwarven girl's head. Applause broke out as the man behind the counter, another twentysomething year old human this time with shockingly blue hair, tossed two more balls of bright green soycreme into the bowl. The dwarven girl took the bowl off her head, produced a shaker full of multi-colored sprinkles and liberally doused the frozen treat before presenting it with a bow to a young girl who practically squealed with excitement.
Kate made her way to the line as Nick searched for a booth as far away from everyone as possible. "The usual?" Kate asked as she left. Nick nodded. About ten minutes later Kate Returned with a gigantic waffle cone for herself and a steaming cup of coffee for Nick. He had chosen a small booth along the wall outside of the 'performance' area where students often came to study. Nick took a sip of his black coffee and was once again struck by the contrast that he and Kate presented to the world as she spooned out a chocolate drenched mouthful of whatever flavor of real ice-cream she had chosen for the day.
The two sat in silence, or more accurately they sat without speaking as the noise of the room washed around them. Nick took a moment to steady himself then he opened up his senses. Immediately the taste of his coffee changed in a million subtle ways, becoming both fuller and more acidic at the same time. At first the sound was nearly deafening but his adept senses adjusted and soon he could hear everything without being overwhelmed. He registered thousands of smells all at once and with a skill born from years of practice he filed them all away, it would be impossible to pick out just one but if he came across a particular scent again he had a pretty good chance of recognizing it. Nick spent several moments probing the room before he dulled his senses again.
There was no trace of rot or corruption. Just a dozen or so families out for ice-cream on a beautiful summer afternoon. Nick grit his teeth and sipped his coffee. Kate had the eyes glazed over look she wore when scanning the Astral of a location so he didn't bother to speak until she lightly shook her head and turned to him with an ever so slightly pitying look. He shook his head and she smiled softly, "The Astral is thin here…but I don't sense any Bugs."
Nick nodded slowly, "Me either. Guess I was wrong…again…"
Kate put her hand over his but said nothing. She didn't have to. The look in her eyes told Nick everything he needed to know. She understood. She loved him. But she was worried about him. Nick managed a smile, "Hey…at least you got your ice-cream right? How long has it been since we had a moment for ourselves?"
Kate leaned in and kissed him, "Too long…" She held his gaze for a few more moments then turned back to her ice-cream.
Nick continued to scan the crowd desperate to find some clue when he noticed a small black orb attached to the celling. Of course! He nudged Kate and indicted the security camera with a jerk of his head. "More than one way to scan a place. Maybe Raff can find something we can't."
Kate sighed and rolled her eyes. "Fine you can go play with your friend. But I better not find out you went to Tijuana again!"
"One time…" Nick protested. "We went to Tijuana one time…for business!"
Nick smiled then leaned over and kissed her, "I'll see you at home." Then drained his coffee and left the booth. Kate grunted a reply and took another bite of her cone but he could see concern behind her eyes. Something wasn't right here and they both knew it. Nick just hoped that Raff could provide some leads.
17:02 May 13, 2066 – 800 W. 26th St, Austin CAS
Nick paused on the landing overlooking the pool and took in the opulence. The Villas on 26th had a long and distinguished history, starting as upscale student housing at the turn of the century then earning a reputation amongst the online community for high speed access to the internet. This was one of the first locations in Austin to provide Matrix access and still boasts the fastest (legal) connection in town. One month's rent at the Villas was roughly the equivalent of Nick's yearly earnings.
Nick finished climbing the stairs to Raff's apartment and knocked on the door. Nick looked up at the porchlight and waited as the various electronic devices hidden from sight determined his identity. After a full minute he could hear the sounds of locks disengaging from the other side of the door. A few seconds later the door opened and Raff appeared. Ashraf Shirazi, Raff to his friends, was born into wealth and he wore it well. This evening he was wearing tailored slacks a white button down with actual cufflinks and a wristwatch that was probably dated back before the turn of the last century. His dark hair curled naturally and he had recently taken to wearing a full van dyke goatee.
"Nicolas…I was surprised to hear from you. Please come in." Raff's rich voice still held a hint of an Iranian accent that Nick always suspected he affected to seem exotic. Nick stepped into the lavishly appointed apartment and took a seat in one of two wing backed chairs situated around a high end trideo unit that was the centerpiece of Raff's living area.
"Drink?" Raff asked as he stepped over to his liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of what Nick assumed to be scotch based on the color.
"So not a social call then." Raff's face took on a more serious look.
Nick leaned forward in his chair, "Well I guess that depends. I need some information and I'm hopin' to trade on our relationship 'cuz I doubt I can afford your rates."
Raff leaned back against the liquor cabinet and took a sip of his drink, "Nothing in this world is free Nicolas…but I suppose you have earned some goodwill over the years. What do you need?"
"I'm looking for a girl, she disappeared last week. The Star suspects a kidnapping but no demands have been made."
"But you suspect something darker?" Raff asked taking another sip of his drink.
"It's the Bugs."
Raff set down his drink and stroked his goatee, "That is a bold claim my friend. There has been no evidence of Insect Spirit activity in Austin."
"You think I don't know that?" Nick replied with just a hint of annoyance.
"I think…" Raff continued. "You have been wrong before."
Silence stretched between them. Then Raff smiled and picked up his glass, "But who am I to judge? You seek information and information is my business. How can I help you my friend?"
"I need someone to hack into Amy's Ice Cream on West Sixth and search their security feed for the missing girl. Then I want to see if anyone was stalking her. If it was the Bugs they wouldn't have grabber her at random, they would have made sure she was an appropriate host before they nabbed her. I've got a rough timeline so the Decker doesn't need to…"
"Hacker." Raff said.
"Hacker…no one calls them Deckers anymore."
Nick grit his teeth, "Fine the *Hacker* doesn't need to scan a years' worth of footage just a few months. So you know anyone who can help me out?"
Raff smiled and drained his glass, "I believe I know just the young lady for the job."
19:15 May 13, 2066 – Wagon Gap and Yucca Drive, Austin CAS
Raff's guided his Eurocar smoothly onto Yucca drive in the northern part of Austin formerly known as Round Rock. Once a separate city, Round Rock was absorbed into the Austin Metroplex in the forties when city governments merged in a cost sharing agreement. In reality the two cities were one long before that. In the early twenties Round Rock had been one of the fastest growing cities in what was still Texas at the time. After the Treaty of Denver created the Native American Nations in 2018 Texas became a border state. Many of the people displaced by the treaty headed east to Texas and as the population boomed the fifteen miles separating Round Rock and Austin quickly disappeared.
The Eurocar turned sharply into the driveway of one of the identical ranch style houses lining both sides of the street. Nothing differentiated this house from any of the others save the numbers above the door. Instead of heading for the front door however, Raff lead Nick around the garage and through a wooden gate to the backyard. Situated about a hundred meters from the main house, past a swing set and trampoline, was a small one room barn with an enormous satellite dish on the roof.
As Raff led him towards the barn Nick took in his surroundings, noticing that the chains for the swing set were longer and that the handle of the door set in the barn was slightly lower. So he wasn't surprised in the least when the door that Raff knocked on was opened by an attractive female dwarf with rainbow colored hair. An attractive dwarf which took one look at Raff and said, "No." then slammed the door shut in his face.
Raff chuckled then knocked again. Given their initial greeting Nick wasn't sure she would answer again, but within a few moments the dwarven woman opened the door again. "What?" she asked her eyes flashing.
"Can we come in?" Raff asked with an amused smirk on his face.
"No." she replied.
"Are you sure?" Raff purred, "This really isn't the sort of thing we should be discussing where your siblings can overhear…"
The dwarven woman, no the dwarven teenager Nick amended now that he had gotten a good look at her, shot Raff a look of pure poison but opened the door wider to let them in. The barn had obviously been originally meant for human-sized use because neither of them needed to stoop to pass through the doorway. The single room barn looked like a combination storage shed and electronics workshop, with a lawnmower and various lightly rusted garden tools on one side and a long bench attached to the other with what looked to Nick to be a disassembled comm unit that someone was in the process of upgrading.
After letting the two men enter the young dwarf walked over to the electronics bench, folded her arms and scowled saying nothing. Raff smiled again, "Nicolas Muldoon allow me to introduce you to Amanda Velez…or Tousi as she prefers to be called."
The dwarf frowned deeper, "Yeah you know…two…cee. Like the number two and the letter c."
Nick shot Raff a look.
The teen unfolded her arms, "You know…two cups."
The teen threw up her hands, "You don't cook do you? Two cups is a half a pint. Jesus Raff where'd you find this guy? And what's with the eyepatch…what are you a pirate?"
"Yeah I'm a pirate…arrr." Nick replied in a flat tone.
"I caught young Tousi here nosing around my datastores a few months back. She didn't get very far but she showed promise so in exchange for not pressing charges she does some work for me from time to time." Raff idly picked through the scattered electronics on the bench as he talked.
Tousi swatted Raffs hands away, "So what am I doing?"
Raff waved his hand at Nick. Nick nodded, "I need to you pull some data off of the security system at an Amy's Ice Cream shop and see if we can determine if anyone was stalking a young girl who frequented that location. I have her picture and the dates I suspect she was at the shop as well as a rough time she would have been there."
Tousi leaned forward and the scowl dropped from her face, "Wait…for real? Like this girl was kidnapped and you need me to try to figure out who did it?" Her voice took on a slightly excited tone.
"Hold up…are you a Shadowrunner?" Tousi's voice sounded both hopeful and surprised.
Nick and Raff spoke at the same time.
Nick frowned at Raff then turned to Tousi, "No…I'm not a Shadowrunner. I'm looking for the kid for personal reasons."
Tousi looked between the two of them and frowned disappointed, "Whatever…so which Amy's is it?"
"The one on West Sixth."
Tousi picked up a comm unit from the bench and started to play with the settings. "Ok…send me over the picture and the times and I'll get started."
Nick hesitated, "You don't need to…jack in or anything?"
Tousi laughed, "For this? No. Not since Matrix 2.0…what you been living under a rock the last two years?"
Nick narrowed his eyes, "Very nearly."
"Well get with the program Blackbeard it's a brave new wireless world. Now text me the info and let me do my thing."
23:05 May 13, 2066 – Campus Crossing Apartments, Austin CAS
Nick shut the door as quietly as he could but it was no use, Kate sat up on the sofa and took a deep breath. "What time is it?" she asked sleepily.
"A little after twenty-three hundred…sorry I didn't mean to wake you."
Kate stretched and mumbled, "No...s'okay…did you find anything?"
"I don't know yet. This kid named Tousi who works for Raff managed to pull all the security feed but I haven't looked at it yet."
"Mmmhmm…" Kate mumbled laying back down on the couch. Nick tucked the blanket around her and headed into their room, shutting the door to block the noise then began to scan through the forty five minutes of tape hoping to find some clue.
It was sometime around two in the morning when Nick finally began to notice one person who appeared every time that Olivia was at the ice cream shop. He had been through the tape three times at various speeds hoping something would jump out at him when he noticed someone lurking just at the edge of the security feed. Whoever it was had obviously taken notice of the security cameras and found a spot where he wouldn't be filmed, but every once and a while he was forced into the frame by a customer jostling him or a trip to the restroom. Towards the end of the recording there was one moment where he was returning to his hiding spot from the restroom and was pushing through a group of college kids when something happened and he looked directly at the camera for a split second giving Nick a clear view of his face. Nick didn't recognize the man and there was no way to tell if he was a Bug over the camera but it was a lead. Nick rewound the video and zoomed in as close as possible on the man's face before taking a screen shot.
Nick considered sending the picture to Tousi to see if she could find the man but dismissed the idea. Tousi was a good kid and a talented Deck...Hacker, but if this guy was a Bug she was way out of her league. Even looking too much into this guy could be bad news for the young dwarf. He could bring the picture to Raff but that opened up a whole new set of problems. Ashraf Shirazi was well aware of the existence of Insect Spirits as well as the danger they posed, and he had helped fight them in the past but his involvement would lead to the involvement of others that Nick was not keen to see again. No it was best for Nick and Kate to handle this on their own.
Nick powered down his comm once again lamenting the fact that he could no longer turn off his commlink he could only put it in sleep mode. What was it Tousi told him earlier? It's a brave new wireless world and apparently there is no way to escape it anymore.
Nick's alarm beeped angrily at him six hours later. Grumbling incoherently he shut off the alarm and wandered bleary eyed out of his bedroom towards the shower. The meager amount of hot water provided by his still un-miraculously repaired water heater did little to motivate him to rise or shine but his first cup of soykaff took the edge off. Kate was nowhere to be seen and Nick racked his brain to try and remember if today was the last test or the second to last test. He was pretty sure it was the last test…which meant that she would be free to help him locate the mystery man from the ice cream shop later that afternoon.
That left Nick some time to work on his growing list of repairs that needed doing. When they moved into the apartment Nick had worked out a deal with the landlord to do odd jobs around the complex for a break on the rent and some cash. It was strictly off the books and he barely made enough to justify not looking for a real job, but it wasn't like his prospects in that area were real good. It's hard to explain an eleven year gap in your resume. It wasn't like he could list 'Scavenger' as a profession and he was never officially a part of the Astral Preservation Society. Hell even if he had been on the books Dr. Kersh wasn't the first person Nick would go to for a glowing recommendation. And all of that was assuming that he got to an interview in the first place. Anyone even suspected of spending time in the Chicago Containment Zone was persona non grata even eight years later. Fortified by a second cup of soykaff Nick called up his list of projects and got to work.
14:12 May 14, 2066 – Amy's Ice Creams, Austin CAS
"You seen this guy before?"
The purple haired girl behind the counter took a glance at the holopic that Nick held up and nodded, "Oh yeah…he's a creeper. He comes in here a lot and just sits in the corner watching the kids. The manager has reported him to the Star a few times…they come out and run him off but he's back in a few days. Probably a pedophile."
"When was the last time you saw him?"
The girl frowned at Nick, "You a cop?"
The girl narrowed her eyes, "I haven't seen him in a while. You gonna buy somethin or what?"
Nick sighed and pocked the holopic, "Yeah...sorry just gimme a cup of coffee."
The girl rang him up and Nick slid her his credstick. He should have waited for Kate she was so much better at getting information out of people. Nick accepted his coffee and retreated to a booth to wait for his girlfriend. He didn't wait long. Kate arrived with a group of her fellow Thaumaturgy students and Nick was surprised to see how at ease she was around them. None of those kids could have possibly have anything in common with Kate outside of school, maybe a couple of shared interests but there was no way they had similar life experiences. But somehow Kate just…fit. Like she fit in any group she was a part of. There was just something about Kaitlyn Henricht…everyone liked her. Kate said her goodbyes as the rest of the group headed to the counter to place their orders.
Kate dropped down opposite Nick in the booth grinning, "I kicked that final's ass!" Nick smiled and for just a second he felt guilty of for dragging her into this. There was absolutely no reason to believe that Olivia's disappearance was connected to the Bugs and yet Nick was insisting that Kate spend time chasing down what even he had to admit was a thin lead on a day when they should be celebrating the end of the semester.
As if sensing his thoughts Kate asked, "So…down to business. What do we know?"
Nick laid the holopic on the table between them. "This is the best photo we have, pulled off the camera behind you. He shows up on camera every time that Olivia was in the store. He has obviously done his legwork because he found a blind spot about three meters to your right that he can stand it where he is mostly out of frame. The girl at the counter recognized the pic but says she hasn't seen him lately."
Kate nodded slowly. "Ooookay in that case I think I have an idea. It's a long shot but it's our best shot. I need to read the area he was hiding in."
Nick nodded and led Kate to the blind spot, a corner of the room near the restrooms. Kate leaned up against the wall and closed her eyes, "Lean close and pretend you are talking with me."
Psychometry was one of the higher forms of magic known as Meta Magic amongst the awakened community. Kate started studying psychometry with Two Spirits years ago, but she didn't practice it much anymore. She had told Nick it was because she wanted to focus on her Thaumaturgy but he suspected that it had more to do with missing him. Psychometry involved opening yourself up to the emotional residue of an object or area and reading it. Kate had described it once to Nick like how she imagined his heightened sense of smell worked; dozens of scents tangled together some stronger than others. The skill wasn't in detecting the scents…the skill was in separating one scent from the other. But instead of dealing with scent where the worst you would have to deal with is nausea, dealing with the emotions of a place often brought all your own emotions to bear. If done correctly the mage could get glimpses of past events and even the auras of those who had a particular emotional attachment to the object or area.
If done incorrectly it could really fuck you up.
Nick took a second to focus his own gifts on their little corner sanctuary, breathing in the scents and hoping to find one that was stronger than the others. He pushed his supernatural perception outwards as he had not even twenty four hours before searching for any clues he could find. He was unsuccessful…Kate was not.
After nearly five minutes Kate opened her eyes, blinked away a few tears and pulled Nick towards her. She kissed him almost frantically and held him there, lips pressed together hungrily one hand holding his head while the other encircled his waist. She released him almost as quickly and blew out a breath.
"Quick…I need to get to the alley." She pushed past Nick and headed towards the front door. One of the patrons watched her go then gave Nick a thumbs up. Nick ignored him and followed Kate through the door and around the building to the dumpsters.
"Keep a lookout while I summon a spirt."
Nick nodded and leaned casually up against the wall of the building just out of sight to passersby. Kate flipped open the lid of the dumpster and began rummaging through the bags inside before pulling out two handfuls of half rotten vegetables.
"I don't understand." Nick said without turning from looking towards the street. "I thought you said a spirit couldn't track someone."
"No…" Kate said as she arranged the rotten vegetables in front of her. "I said that a spirt would not be able to track Olivia when you asked me to. Things are different now."
Kate pulled some bound sage and a lighter out of her pocket, "Could you track someone's scent if you had never smelled it?"
Kate lit the sage stick and began fanning the smoke over her head, "Neither can a spirit. But now that I have seen the man's aura I can provide the right information to the spirit and we can find him…hopefully."
Nick nodded to himself impressed. "Hoi Rocket…" he muttered as the spirit manifested but never took his eyes off the street.
Kate addressed the spirit, "Greetings spirit thank you for heeding my call. I wish you to find the man I have pictured. When you have found him I want you to return and then lead us to him."
The spirit made no reply…or at least no reply that Nick could hear but its presence vanished from the alley. Nick was silent for a few minutes then said, "You know…it's actually kinda scary to think that it's this easy to track someone using a spirit."
Kate snorted, "Easy? You think that was easy?"
Nick turned and leaned his back against the wall, "I think there's something you're not telling me."
Kate looked down and chewed her lip. When she spoke she didn't look up, "The aura I found was strong and…troubled. You remember I said that the barrier in the ice cream shop was thin…I think that was his doing." Kate looked up and pointed her finger at Nick, "But that doesn't mean he's a Bug. I didn't detect any taint just…well…there is definitely something off about him."
"And that makes him easier to track…like crazy people have a stronger scent?"
Kate frowned, "More like a…different scent? It's really hard to explain in mundane terms."
"Still…I don't like the idea of spirits being able to track me that easily."
Kate laughed, "Oh sweetie…your aura is so dim even I can barely see it."
Kate cocked her head to the side and her smile faded slightly, "Wait…you mean…sorry I just assumed that you masked your aura on purpose."
Nick shook his head, "Noooo…this is news to me."
Kate started to say something but Nick sensed Rocket's return. He and Kate turned to look as the spirit appeared on top of the dumpster. Kate nodded to the spirit then turned to Nick, "He's found him…but there's a problem. He's in the Border Zone."
Nick shook his head ruefully, "Great."
The Border Zone was a contested area between the Aztlan and CAS border that ran through the city of Austin essentially cutting the metroplex in half. The northern edge of the Border Zone was the Colorado River which is the official border between the Confederate American States and Aztlan, but the southern edge varied greatly depending on who you talked to. The Sons of the Alamo, a homegrown militia group intent on running Aztlan out of Texas, claimed to hold all territory south of the formerly affluent area known as Bluff Springs, however Aztlan claims that the rebels only control up to the old US 290 highway and the area formerly known as Southeast Austin. So at any given day this no man's land could be twenty five to eighteen kilometers from one end to the other.
Not to say that the Border Zone was some sort of conflict zone…well not anymore. When Aztlan invaded Texas in 2035 the Border Zone was actively fought over with Aztlan forces in direct conflict with Texas militiamen. Texas called on the CAS military but the fledgling country was in no position to offer aid, outraged Texas succeeded from the Confederacy and declared itself independent country almost 200 years after they had won their independence from Mexico in the first place. Texas looked to the UCAS for help but once again no help was forthcoming so Texas battled Aztlan on its own for four months before the CAS was able to negotiate an uneasy peace between Aztlan and Texas. Texas rejoined the CAS and Aztlan regained much of the land they claimed was taken from them by white settlers so long ago.
The only official entry point into the area was the I-35 Bridge and security was tight along the interstate corridor and the southern riverfront. Chain-link fences with all manner of electronic surveillance as well as guard posts and even military equipment from time to time. These days it was mostly posturing on the part of the Azzies, trade had been reestablished between the CAS and Aztlan and even though The Sons continued to be a thorn in their side there was no overt hostility between Aztlan and the CAS.
"Do we know where?" Nick asked hopefully.
"Yes…he was able to find the man's apartment but it's near the river."
That was the biggest obstacle they faced. Even if the increased security at the border was mostly for show it was still quite effective at keeping unwanted visitors out. Not that it would be difficult for Kate and Nick to cross the border, they had completely legal SINs and neither of them were wanted for any crimes…officially. But that close to the river both sides took border security very seriously, so while they could get across it would be hard to explain Olivia's presence on the way back.
Nick sighed and rubbed his forehead, "Katie…"
Kate held up a finger, "Stop. Before you even start explaining to me how important this is. Yes we're going but you owe me Nicolas...big time! I'm talking flowers and expensive jewelry big time."
"Thank you." Nick said completely serious.
"You're welcome…come on let's go get the car."
16:57 May 14, 2066 – Aztlan Border Crossing
As they waited not so patiently in the line of cars to cross the border Kate fumed.
"I should have known it was the Azzies. Probably kidnapped her for some crazy blood ritual."
Nick remained quiet. Which was apparently the wrong move.
Kate turned to him, "What? What! When it's *your* boogeymen it's fine but I can't be irrational for a minute?! You don't understand Nick…you're not Texan. You don't know what it's like growing up with *them* right across the river. Hearing reports every night of bombings and violence on the other side of the border. Hearing stories of their Blood Magic and their Path of the Sun bullshit. Especially in Austin. You know my father fought the Azzies in thirty-five?"
Robert Henricht had been Nick's teacher and friend in the CZ. He was the first one to suspect that Nick was a physical adept and the first one to really take a chance on the young man, "Well no wonder the Azzie's lost."
Kate narrowed her eyes at him, "Damn straight."
Their car pulled up to the checkpoint and two guards in full body armor emblazon with the Aztechnology logo approached. It was not uncommon these days for countries to look to private industry to perform a significant amount of their "civic duties", but Atzlan was in a class all its own when it came to blurring the lines between corporation and government. Essentially Aztechonolgy and the Atzlan government were one in the same…unless it was advantageous for them not to be. Border protection was a perfect example of the latter. Officially the Atzlan government has a standing army of only fifty thousand troops. Aztechnology has over one hundred thousand troops and an extra-territorial designation that allows for much more flexibility when "engaging hostiles". So in forty-nine the Atzlan government privatized their border security and awarded Aztechnology the contract allowing for more boots on the ground and less liability to the government.
The guard on Kate's side approached first, "Credsticks." Kate handed the sticks over and he slotted them into a portable scanner. The two had filed online visa requests earlier that night and received their conformation almost instantly.
"Purpose of your trip?"
"Heading to the Riverwalk."
The area known as the Riverwalk in San Antonio grew out of a disastrous flood in 1921 which prompted city planners to build a dam upstream and bypass the bend of the river that passed through downtown. Originally the city council planned to pave the entire area and make it one large storm drain but the San Antonio Conservation society blocked that move and the area fell into limbo for three years before a local architect suggested a plan to regulate the flow of water and turn the area into an outdoor shopping district. The idea took a while to catch on but by the mid-twentieth century local businesses had begun to open up in the Riverwalk area and by the end of the century it was a thriving tourist attraction contributing millions of dollars every year to the local economy. The annexation of San Antonio by Aztlan had slowed tourism for a while but by the fifties even Texans were traveling to San Antonio again.
"It says here you're both magically active?"
Kate smiled, "That's right. I'm studying at A&M's branch here in Austin. Semester just ended and we're taking a long weekend."
The guard nodded and handed the credsticks back to Kate, "We're going to scan your vehicle now ma'am. If you have any active spells or bound spirits I suggest you release them now."
He took two steps back and waved his partner on. The second guard stepped forward, Nick presumed to get a look at the vehicle with his Astral sight, as the first guard retrieved a chem sniffer from the guard shack. After both inspections came back clean the vehicle was waved through the checkpoint and Kate maneuvered around the concrete barriers that had been placed in a slalom to prevent anyone ramming the gate.
The exited the interstate almost immediately and ended up on East Riverside. Kate drove slowly trying to match the image she had gotten from the spirit to a location. They ended up at a run down three story apartment complex surrounded by a rusting metal fence. The best thing that could be said for the location is that it was right on the river, but it had obviously seen better days. Parking was on the ground level with two levels of apartments above it. The fence had a sliding gate across the entrance but it was stuck half open and most of the parking spots were empty. Either the most of the residents worked nights or they were too poor to afford a vehicle in the first place. There was a transit terminal across the street but Nick found it very unlikely that any bus lines came out here.
Despite its proximity to the river, water access was impeded by a five meter high fence topped with razor-wire. There were no guard posts in sight but it was obvious that the area was patrolled occasionally because a makeshift road had been constructed along the inside of the fence that looked large enough for an armored vehicle to pass. It fact it appeared that the apartment complex had once boasted a third and fourth set of units that had likely been bulldozed to make space for boarder security. If the two remaining units were any indication their loss had not been a huge blow to the housing market.
Kate maneuvered her car through the half open gate and parked nearby, backing into the space in case they needed to leave in a hurry. "Was Rocket able to scout the apartment?" Nick asked as the nearly imperceptible whine of the electric engine cut off.
"No I didn't tell him too."
"But we know which one it is?"
Kate nodded, "Yes it's the third door on the second floor of the right building."
"But we don't know what we're walking into."
Nick nodded, "So…whatcha thinkin?"
Kate smiled, "Well we still don't really know if he has anything to do with the girl's disappearance so why don't we just knock on the door and ask him some questions? I'll compel him to tell the truth and you just stand there looking scary."
Nick nodded and the two exited the vehicle. He followed her up the rusty pig-iron stairwell to the man's apartment. The red plastic door had an old fashioned deadbolt lock and there was a large bay window to the right hand side with the shades drawn. Nick could hear the sound of the trid in the background so it was likely the man was still at home. Kate stood directly in front of the peephole and knocked while Nick stood to her left and out of sight of both the door and the window.
As the door opened several things happened all at once. Nick could feel Kate manipulating mana to cast her spell. He could hear the slight scraping as the deadbolt was disengaged and the door was opened. And with the opening of the door a gossamer breeze brought a familiar scent to his nose.
Nick stepped in front of Kate and punched the man in the throat. The man staggered backwards and too the floor and Nick took two steps fully into the room and cast his senses about looking for danger. Kate stepped in behind him and turned to throw the deadbolt before focusing her attention on the man on the floor.
"Keep a lookout." Nick said as he grabbed the man, who had regained his footing, and slammed him up against the wall.
"Where's the Hive?" Nick asked in a cold voice.
"What…" the man stammered.
"Really? That's how this is going to go? You're going to play dumb?"
Nick slammed the back of the man's head against the wall, denting the cheap sheetrock. Kate frowned at the noise then stepped over to the trid and turned up the volume.
Nick leaned in close, "So if I go in that room back there…the one that smells like blood and death…I'm not gonna find a little girl named Olivia?"
The man's eyes widened and he opened his mouth to scream. Nick grabbed the lower part of his face covering his mouth with the palm of his hand and slammed his head against the wall again. "Cut that shit out. Now I'm gonna ask you again. Where is the Hive?"
"I don't know what you're talking about…" the man panted, blood dripping from the back of his head.
"Bullshit!" Nick spat and grabbed one of the man's fingers, yanking it out of the socket. The man tried to scream again but Nick muffled it with his hand. The man slumped weekly to the floor sobbing in pain.
Nick grabbed another finger, "Tell me where the Hive is! Where's the Queen? What's the Shaman's name? Tell me motherfucker…" He yanked hard and practically ripped the man's finger off.
"Nick he's telling the truth." Kate said as Nick stifled the man's screams once again.
Nick stepped away from the man, who had bitten down on his hand at some point and drawn blood. He inspected the wound with a frown and made a fist. "Keep an eye on him…I'm gonna check the back room."
The apartment was small. It was really only three rooms, a living room that turned into a small kitchen and off to the right a 'hallway' ending at a blank wall with a bathroom on one side and a bedroom on the other. The bathroom was where the smell of blood was coming from but soft noises from the bedroom drew Nick's attention first. He opened the door slowly alert for any danger. The room was small with the bed taking up most of the space but there in the corner was a large dog crate and inside the crate was a hunched form.
Nick carefully crossed the bedroom and knelt down in front of the crate. Oliva Spinner was locked inside the dog crate, curled up so tightly that the bars were likely bruising her ribs every time she took a breath. Nick looked around for the key and when he couldn't find it he just grabbed the gate with his hands and managed to force the door open.
Olivia's face was away from the door and when Nick started trying to pull her out she began to struggle, kicking wildly. "Hey…hey it's okay. I'm not him…" Nick said soothingly. After a few seconds the girl allowed him to extract her from the cage. She was only wearing a dirty tee shirt and urine stained panties and she smelled like blood and sweat and fecal matter. She wouldn't look Nick in the face and flinched every time he touched her.
Nick stepped back and knelt down to her level, "Olivia we're here to take you home. It's gonna be okay now."
Olivia said nothing but as Nick led her into the living room she began to thrash and panic when she saw her captor. Kate had gagged the man with his own sock and shoved him in a corner where he had proceeded to fall unconscious. The girl jerked free of Nick's grasp and ran towards the door. Kate stepped forward and caught her.
"It's okay sweetheart…he can't hurt you." Kate said, and Nick could feel the magic laced into her words as she added, "Calm down."
Olivia buried her face in Kate's chest and sobbed. Kate just held her for a few seconds stroking her hair before Olivia said into her chest, "He told me I had to fit. He said if I didn't fit he would have to fix me like his other pet. Please…please I just wanna go home."
Kate looked up at Nick who said, "Katie why don't you and Olivia go to the car. I'll be right there."
Kate nodded and picked Olivia up. With the girl's face still buried in her shoulder Kate left the apartment. Nick returned to the hallway and opened the door to the bathroom. Unlike everything else in the apartment the bathroom was surprisingly large, with a full bathtub on the right side and a set of drawers, sink and finally a toilet on the left. A plastic curtain was drawn across the shower rod over the tub but it hid nothing.
Even without magically enhanced senses Nick would have smelled the corpse in this room.
Nick pulled the curtain back and looked down on the mangled remains of a child. The boy was probably Olivia's age and had a slight build. His arms had been hacked off at the elbow and one of his feet had been removed as well. The boy had been there for a while…Nick had unfortunately learned many years ago how the smell of a dead body changed over time. Nick closed the shower curtain and left the bathroom, closing the door behind himself.
He made his way to the kitchen and rummaged through the drawers until he found a large knife and a plastic shopping bag. Maybe this was the knife the man had used to mutilate the boy Nick thought as he knelt down in front of the man and shoved the knife between his ribs and into his heart. The body spasmed twice and then slumped forward. Nick pulled the knife out and wrapped it in the shopping bag; he would toss it in the river on the way home. Then he switched off the trid, turned out the lights and left the apartment.
Nick opened the passenger side door and dropped the plastic wrapped knife on the floorboard. Kate looked over grimly, "All done?"
"You should have let me do it. Safer that way."
Nick sighed deeply, "Yeah your right. Here's hoping no one gives a shit."
Nick cut his eye to the rearview and saw that Olivia was sleeping in the back seat. "Now for the hard part." He said.
20:15 May 14, 2066 – Lone Star Border Patrol Building, Austin CAS
Nick sat in complete silence in the interrogation room. He stared straight ahead and didn't fidget in his chair. He imagined someone was sitting on the other side of the one way Plexiglas mirror that filled the entire wall; waiting for him to squirm. They had a long wait ahead of themselves.
As it turned out it hadn't been that hard at all to cross the border. Nick had never crossed the border before so he expected the Aztechnology guards to detain them on the way back. Turns out Aztlan is only worried about scrutinizing the people coming *into* their country and the guard waved them through without sparing them a second glance. The CAS guards however proved much more difficult.
Nick and Kate had stopped at a truck stop outside the Border Zone and purchased new clothes for Olivia before attempting the crossing. They even found a working shower stall and she was able to clean herself up a bit. While the girl was in the shower they had discussed several cover stories. The one that stuck was similar to the one they gave the Aztlan guard. They were on the way to San Antonio for a long weekend, got turned around and stopped to ask for directions. They heard fighting and got out of the car just in time to see someone flee the scene. When the checked the apartment they found a dead guy and Olivia chained up in the back. They dumped the knife at the truck stop and headed back to the CAS.
When the border guard heard their story he escorted them to the holding facility downtown where the three were separated. Nick was ushered into the interrogation room twenty minutes or so ago and had been sitting there quietly ever since.
Finally the door opened and a middle aged man in a blue suit entered. He had a coffee cup in one hand and a datapad in the other. The man didn't bother to look at Nick as he walked around the room to sit opposite him; instead he kept his focus on the datapad in front of him occasionally taking sips from his mug. Nick watched him with a blank look on his face. After a few moments the cop put down his datapad and looked at Nick appraisingly.
"Mr. Muldoon I'm Detective Martin, I'm the Special Investigator assigned to the Spinner case."
Silence stretched between them for a few seconds, then the Detective continued. "So I see here that you found the girl in Aztlan…is that right?"
"And you and your girlfriend miss...Henricht, you were on your way to San Antonio for the weekend."
Detective Martin stroked his close cut salt and pepper beard for a second then blew out a breath for effect, "Whew…it's pretty lucky then that you got lost. I mean if you hadn't happened along asking for directions who know what would have happened to the girl."
Nick looked at the detective with a blank expression.
Detective Martin stood up and started pacing in front of the Plexiglas. "You know what I think? I think you two were part of the kidnapping. I think you killed your partner and got caught trying to smuggle the girl back into the country so you came up with this ridiculous story."
Once again the room went silent. The Detective watched Nick intensely. Nick returned the stare with a blank expression. The Detective dropped back down in his chair and leaned forward, "You see this is the point where an innocent man protests or a guilty man squirms. But you…you just sit there. Why is that?"
"What's the kid say happened?" Nick asked.
The Detective narrows his eyes, "She says the guy was gonna cut her arms off."
Finally Detective Martin stood up again and said, "You and your girlfriend are free to go."
Nick stood up and turned towards the door but stopped when the Detective spoke again.
"You know she's one of ours." Detective Martin asked. "The kid…the family. The parents work for Lone Star so it's very likely this investigation isn't over. If this was more than just some random sicko grabbing the kid we're gonna find out. And when we do we're gonna make life hell for any som'bitch involved. You get me?"
Without turning around Nick continued through the door leaving the Detective behind in the interrogation room. He followed the hallway to the entrance and found Kate waiting for him. Without a word the two left the station and collected Kate's car from the impound. Neither spoke until they had turned onto Red River Street.
"How'd it go?" Kate asked.
"I did just what you taught me. I answered his questions when I had too and the rest of the time I said nothing."
The car was quiet for a minute before Kate said, "You didn't tell me that she looked like Phebe."
Nick looked over at her confused, "What?"
"Olivia," Kate said. "You didn't tell me that she looked like Phebe. I wonder if it even registered to you until I said something."
Nick squinted his eyes and tried to call up a mental image of the girl they had lost so long ago. Kate was right Olivia had the same round face, the same shape to her eyes…eyes that Nick had seen replaced by multifaceted orbs in the ruins of the young girls face when they found her body back in Chicago. A body that had been possessed by an Insect Spirit.
They didn't speak again until they made it back to the apartment. The two of them sat on their worn sofa in the living room two bottles of untouched beer on the coffee table nearby. Nick didn't know where to begin.
"I'm sorry." He said.
"No," Kate said kindly. "You're not."
He was quiet for a moment then nodded, "You're right. I'm not. I wish I was. I wish this time I would really change. But we both know that I won't."
"You know why I stay with you?"
The question hit Nick out of left field. It was certainly a question he had asked himself before. They were two very different people, and while Nick knew that Kate loved him it couldn't be easy living with him. He wasn't sure he trusted his own voice so he shook his head.
"Because you're not the only one who can't leave Bug City behind. I wish I could. I wish I could just go on with my life, get my degree and get some corp job researching awakened hedgehogs or somethin'. But I can't. Because you're right, the Bugs are still out there and sooner or later they are gonna be back. I was raised to fight, first by my father then by Two-Spirits…there's really no other life for me."
Nick nodded. "So…what do we do now?"
Kate smiled and wiped some moisture from her eyes, "Well obviously you have way too much time on your hands. You need a job mister."
Nick laughed, "Yeah…you know anybody who's hiring one-eyed paranoid former Bug Hunters?"
"Weeellll…" Kate said, eyes glinting. "While I was waiting for you at the Border Patrol office I happened to see an official looking terminal with a sign that read Bounties. Maybe you could look into that."
Nick shrugged, "I mean we did find Olivia when the Star couldn't."
"True…" Kate said.
"And we do know an awful lot of people in North America who would could help us out if we needed it."
Nick smiled, "Sure…what the hell I'll give it a go. Maybe the Scavenger will turn out to be a Hunter after all."
"I'm sure Two-Spirits would be happy to hear that." Kate said.
"Wherever he is…" Nick added.
Kate snatched up her beer, "To Two-Spirits and the Bug Hunters."
Nick clinked his bottle to her's and took a long pull. Tomorrow he would look into how he could get a Bounty Hunter's license. But tonight he and Kate would drink a few beers in honor of the people they had fought beside over the years…and those they had lost.
21:15 May 14, 2066 – Lone Star Special Investigations Office, Austin CAS
Detective Ernesto Martin listened to the recording from the bug that had been placed in the cab of the suspect's vehicle while it was in impound one last time before erasing it. The conversation, brief as it was, confirmed two things for Detective Martin. One the story those two had told him wasn't true, and two letting them go was the right call. Detective Martin flagged both the suspects SINs for level one discreet monitoring and closed the case file.
Detective Martin had been on the job for nearly twenty years and in that time he had learned a thing or two. He was certain the kidnapping was more than a one man job, and he was pretty sure that whoever had helped that crazy cabron grab the girl was from this side of the border. He didn't think Henricht or Muldoon were involved in the kidnapping…it was much more likely they had been hired to retrieve the girl, probably by the mother. But either way they no doubt pissed off whoever was involved and that would mean trouble for them later on.
Trouble for them but not for Detective Martin; he was more than happy to close this case. He had two dozen active missing person cases of varying levels of priority to occupy his time and he wasn't about to waste any more of that time on a case where the girl was returned. If those two were involved they would slip up sooner or later and Martin would haul them back in for another chat. If not then maybe they were just good Samaritans after all.