New Eden (Part 3)
It all happened so suddenly that Faith only survived through quick reflexes and a lot of luck.
As she cut across the open atrium floor, they stood up from hiding. She recognized the black armor and assault rifles: the mercenaries that always seemed to pop up wherever cops did, that always seemed to be right in step with her. There were half a dozen, all of them on the level above on either side of the escalators just ahead of her. They opened fire simultaneously.
Faith was already reacting when the gunfire registered. If she didn't consciously think it, then her body sensed the ambush on some level and did the motions for her.
She dove to the side, little to no technique in her form, face first, arms outstretched. She hit the ground with enough momentum to slide on her gut as the bullets chipped and shattered the tile floor, sending hot ceramic onto her skin. The urge to curl up into a ball and become a smaller target was frantically overpowering, but that would sap her speed. She stayed prone, clawing at the floor the last couple of inches until she slipped behind the elevator. When she tucked in her legs behind cover, she saw the bullet hole through the tied-off cuff of her pants.
The path she came from was wide open, a killing floor that would leave her an easy target for the gunners. Merc was saying something in her ear, but she could barely make out more than a couple of words over the continuous gunfire, let alone the sound of her pounding heart. The adrenaline spike was almost enough to make her dizzy.
That left the elevator she was hunkered behind the only way out. Not the safest escape, but she reached up and slapped the call button, feeling that the risk was better than waiting for the thugs to flank her. They were already starting to move down the escalators and around the atrium, trying to get a better shot.
The elevator was cylindrical, and little more than a glass tube that overlooked the atrium. Faith dove inside the minute it opened and hit the button highest floor she could go. If she could get above them, out of their higher ground, she had a chance.
The glass shattered immediately as soon as the gunmen saw the elevator moving down. Faith pressed herself flat against the floor, shards nearly burying her. There was a small frame of metal along the bottom, her only solid cover in addition to the track the elevator ran up. It was thick enough to stop the rounds, but thin enough to dimple on every impact, and the noise was almost enough to turn her deaf.
Halfway up the track, the elevator suddenly halted, whatever engine or motor running it reduced to a slag of metal and belts by gunfire, but it was enough. Faith kicked off the floor and jumped over the lip of the elevator, cutting her palm on glass as she jumped to the balcony that rimmed the atrium. Shots followed her, but she was only visible for a brief second, and the gunmen were still two levels down.
"What the hell Merc!" she yelled, jamming her earpiece with her finger. It had almost slipped off in the chaos.
"Jesus, there was nothing, I swear." He sounded horrified. "Faith, are you—"
"I'm fine! Just get me the hell out of here!"
She knew most of the mall's regular exits, but they were all on street level, and likely guarded by Blues and whoever the hell those soldiers were. This was a ground war; she needed something higher, on the roof, before the Blues decided to risk a chopper this far downtown. And that was if the Blues didn't have the roof scoped out, too.
"Shit, just move, and get higher. Blues are going to be coming in from behind."
The balcony she was on looped around the atrium, but also overlooked one of the wings. She hopped the railing, dropping a floor and then tucked and rolled on impact. The security gates behind her were closed, which would slow the Blues down a little, but the jump sacrificed some of the distance she had on them.
She ran down the lines of closed stores towards the escalators at the far end of the wing, already hearing the footsteps and crackle of radios behind her. They didn't reach the highest floor, but she was able to use her speed and the wall to scale to the level above. She clawed her way through a few planters that housed the lifeless white fica plants that seemed to be so damn popular lately as the gates behind her started to raise.
"Straight ahead, hang a left past the escalators. There should be some vents you can use, but they're above you—"
BAM! A shotgun, from behind her. It chipped at the orange-painted wall, leaving white pockmarks. Faith slid to avoid a follow up blast, which tore exactly where she would have been running a split-second earlier, tearing through the glass-paneled railing that ran alongside her. The Blues had used the escalators to move up on the other side of the wing, just coming into firing range. Bullets nipped at her heels as she rounded the corner in a wild turn.
The vents were indeed far out of reach, but the alcove Merc had led her to was lined with public storage lockers; just wide enough to climb, get a few good steps along the wall and get enough height to grab the edge of the vent and pull herself up.
She burrowed deeper into the ventilation system, not really caring where she was going as long as it was up and away from the Blues. Even with Merc's help though, she had to take a drop down into the employee access alleys behind the store front.
Maybe Ropeburn had tried to set her up at the last minute, but that didn't seem likely. Celeste had probably been right; word had spread that Ropeburn was dead, and maybe his contact thought it was better to try and wax her by tipping the Blues off than to simply vanish. But there was no way that those soldiers and the Blues were there by chance, and there was no way a professional hitman would let himself get that close to them. It was an ambush; he had led her straight into their killzone.
Radios crackled from behind doors, too close for comfort. Most of the doors were solid metal and locked, so the only way out was back through the vents. She had to move up one more level to a catwalk that ran above in order to get further into the network.
"Okay, found a way out, but you're going to have to double back through the atrium. If you can make it to the skylight hanging, you can cross it and get to the maintenance pass that runs to the roof."
"Sounds risky." She pulled a snapshot of the atrium from her head, seeing the decorative hanging he was talking about. "You sure it will hold up under me?"
"If this is some kind of trick to get me to say you're fat, piss off."
It wasn't exactly what she was hoping for, but at least it was something. She doubted the Blues had budged from the atrium, so they'd probably be waiting for her. The skylight fixture was mostly glass and steel beams. Assuming it would support her weight, the Blues would be shooting at her, and the whole thing could come down with her on top. That meant a fall a couple of stories onto jagged glass and metal. Maybe even a few bullets.
"The next left drops you back on the edge of the atrium, third floor."
That put her about a floor lower than she needed to be. Nevertheless, she dropped down the shaft, then kicked through the vent at the bottom as quietly as she could, pressing her hands and legs to the side to prevent herself from tumbling out. When she didn't hear any voices or radios, she dropped down to the floor, landing in the dark shadows of one of the interior hallways. Beyond a gentle bend in the hall, a security gate was lowered, a Blue with his back turned to her on the other side.
Faith quietly stole behind him into an unfinished store. The front was nothing but clear glass, which didn't give her much comfort. If that cop decided to shift position, he'd have a clear line of site. The ceiling above though was equally unfinished, a series of cork tiles and frames, and through both it and the glass, she could see the fixture that hung from the atrium skylight.
It was in the shape of a large cross, and whether that was out of function or artistic integrity Faith didn't know. Most of the banners that hung over the atrium dangled from underneath it, not quite a mobile, but not quite a solid platform either. The exit Merc pointed out to her was a little more than a crawlspace embedded in the ceiling on the other side of the atrium.
Movement tugged in the corner of her vision. It was the Blue, slowly turning towards her, and then he saw her. If the glass hadn't been there, she would have had the time and distance to take him down, so instead she turned and ran towards the wall. The treads on her Loggos gave her a few feet up, and she slipped through the unfinished ceiling panels. It gave him enough time to draw and fire. Two handgun rounds punched through the cork ceiling tiles ahead of her.
Faith darted across the frames that housed the tiling, feeling them sag under her weight. More gunfire rang out from positions on the ground floor as she neared the lip of the balcony. There was one small section of solid footing, the concrete frame of the mall itself before the wall opened up, some artifact of the unfinished store below her.
The jump was impossibly far, but she jumped anyway, four high floors above the ground. There was a pole just in front of her, void of a banner, which she used to help propel herself across the gap. For a minute, she feared the worst—
—and landed on the fixture with a squeak of rubber. It swayed under her weight, but held fast. Then the bullets arrived, splintering glass all around her. She tucked and rolled, getting back to her feet. It felt like running on waves as the fixture teetered back and forth, and the breaking glass shook her footing, but she jumped and cleared the other side of the gap and darted into the crawlspace.
It led her to the maintenance stairwell, and after a few steps up, the roof access door was right in front of her. She kicked it, breaking the lock, and stepped out onto open roof. Late morning sunshine beat down, not yet warming the concrete roofing.
But she wasn't alone.
He was standing on a rooftop across the street, completely out of reach. Ropeburn's contact, the assassin, was quietly watching her, like he had been waiting for her to emerge from that one door the entire time. Faith swallowed uneasily, glancing around in anticipation of another ambush, but there was nothing.
"Merc, looks like my friend is back," she said, watching him carefully. "He's just standing there, watching me."
"Think he's the one who killed Pope?"
"Don't know. Could have killed Ropeburn yesterday, too. Could have probably killed me right now if he wanted to…"
"So why ain't he?"
He was too far away to get a good look, but his face was covered anyways. She thought she recognized the wire meshing of some kind of protective sports helmet, dyed that same off-white as his uniform. She for sure saw that he wasn't carrying any type of rifle, or at least any gun that she could see. His arms were crossed, legs in an easy stance.
The assassin watched her for just a couple of seconds longer, then turned and broke into a light jog. She saw him jump once to clear a gap, but with her lower ground, she quickly lost sight of him, and just like that, he was gone. A hiss of frustration left her throat, but she needed to keep moving. The Blues were still behind her.
"I don't know," she said to Merc finally, "But I think I know someone who does. Listen, skies are clear so far. Point me towards the closest route, then get on the horn with Drake. I need to find Jacknife."
Jacknife never saw her coming. It just showed how much his skill as a Runner was starting to fade, but Faith honestly didn't care how much he let himself go. The less she could associate herself with him and what she did the better.
It had taken Merc and Drake working in tandem the rest of the morning to track him down, monitoring gang chatter through the wires and calling in favors, but they found him. It didn't take as long as she initially figured since they started in the Lower East Side; apparently that was his turf now, and that helped narrow the search. He wasn't big on keeping himself hidden, either.
Faith crept along the underside of a rail overpass about a story above him. He was walking alone down the sidewalk. He looked like a punk, hands thrust in his pockets, the collar of his leather jacket popped up. This part of the Lower East side was a shit neighborhood, but he didn't seem to care; like nothing in the world could touch him. She couldn't help but bare her teeth in revulsion, but she pushed it aside. He was going to learn that he should watch his back very soon.
He more or less followed the overpass as he strolled which was convenient for her, eventually turning off the street and into the back alleys. A train passed overhead, and then she slipped off the maintenance catwalk, the sound of her impact covered by the noise on the tracks. She had to give him some credit; he recognized the sound of her footsteps under the noise as she sprinted to close the gap and began to turn. He was still too slow.
She wished she could have followed up the single punch to his jaw with a lot more, preferably enough to leave him unconscious and bleeding, but one was all she needed. Jacknife took the brunt of her right hook plus whatever momentum she was still carrying, reeling to the side and giving her enough time to push forward and twist his right arm high behind his back, her elbow on the back of his skull. What was left of her speed went into shoving him against the concrete support pillar underneath the rail overpass.
He grunted, but amazingly turned it into a chuckle. "Hey Faithy," he said, craning his neck to glance at her. There was pain in his words. "Nice of you to drop by."
She didn't give into any of his crap, and instead fed it right back at him. "Getting rusty, Jack. Should have heard me coming ten seconds earlier, seen me twenty seconds. Guess gang life will do that to you…."
"So you're here to keep me on my toes? How sweet of you. I knew you still—"
"—what I came to say," she interrupted, "was that with a little bit of persuasion, Ropeburn got pretty chatty. Told me all about his little meeting at New Eden mall today…"
"…and you're thanking me, right?"
She twisted his arm further. He grunted, and she considered twisting it a little more. She had spent the morning getting shot at, then tracking down the person she hated the most in the entire the city. The limit she had for anything to do with him was quickly reaching capacity.
"Oh, I'm not done," she snapped. "When I got there, guess who was waiting for me?"
"No idea, Faithy, I just go there for the pretzels."
The shift in his body was subtle. If she hadn't known him, she wouldn't have picked up on it, but she was expecting it. Jacknife whipped his head back, trying to head-butt her, but she leaned back, just narrowly avoiding the blow. That gave him enough room to break her lock on his arm, and he spun, fist outstretched. He was still too slow.
The punch went wide, and Faith was back inside his reach. She lifted her arm, striking his throat and pressing down hard on his Adam's apple, then shoved him back against the pillar. He gasped and went limp again.
"…a bad case of the Blues," she finished icily. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"
She lifted her arm higher, putting more pressure on his throat. He tried to shove her arm off, but she had him good, pressed too close to his body to effectively strike, and with the slightest shift of her body weight, she could do some serious damage.
"No…ack, Faithy, it wasn't me!"
Part of her felt good. She had him squirming right under her. It was like taking a hot shower and letting stress wash off. And yet, she hated being this close to him of her own free will, actually touching him. In the end, she stepped back and removed her arm. Jacknife doubled over, massaging his throat and gasping for air. Faith watched him carefully.
"…though I did hear about the ruckus CPF had to deal with downtown this morning," he said, voice a little raspy. Even then it sounded snide. "Something about another run in with the illusive suspect in Pope's murder?"
"You're awfully well-informed to not be involved, Jack," she contested, stepping forward menacingly, but at the same time keeping her distance. Just because he was stooped over didn't mean he wasn't primed to fight back. It'd be just like him to fight dirty.
Eventually, he straightened, massaging his throat one last time. "Don't be so delusional Faith. Turn on the TV sometime and watch the news. Besides," he continued, "if I wanted you dead, don't you think I would have just killed you myself?"
His tone genuinely caught her by surprise. Not cocky, arrogant, or teasing. This was cold, and he was glaring at her, not smirking. It wasn't like him to be so straightforward.
Faith's eyes narrowed, and she returned his look. Her body tensed, sensing an attack, but he didn't move. He was just screwing with her again. "You're right," she said, relaxing. "A creep like you couldn't have organized all this."
Jacknife's glare vanished, his cocky bravado now turning into mock-hurt. "Now don't be like that. That hurts my feelings, you know, and give me a little credit; I ran with Merc and Drake. I know a few things about organization." He crossed his arms, head cocked lazily. "So let me guess, you want more information on Ropeburn?"
"Ropeburn's dead," she said flatly.
"I'm impressed," Jacknife said with an appreciative nod.
"It wasn't me," she snapped back. "Whoever killed him seemed to know I was going to be there. Even had a whole squad of Blues ready to show up." Her gaze narrowed accusingly again, but Jacknife just smirked.
"You need to be more careful with who you hang around with," he chided. "Those kinds of friends will get you in trouble."
"Oh, I learned that a long time ago," she said through gritted teeth. The memory tasted sour in her mouth.
Jacknife spread his arms grandly. "And yet, here we are again."
Faith took a step forward, her hand curling into a fist as her nostrils flared with her snarl. She thought about taking another swing at his grinning face after how good the first one felt; her knuckles still stung in a good way, and there was even the beginning of a welt starting to rise on his jaw. But even if he didn't show it, she knew he was on guard. She might get lucky, but it would turn into a fight, and not a beating like she hoped.
He stepped back. "But anyways, I need to cut this meeting a little short," he said, sliding around the edge of the pillar. "Places to be…you know how it is." He turned and thrust his hands into his pockets. The digital tat on the side of his face was as sharp as a sickle as his profile passed. "Try not to get yourself killed."
She started forward after him, but then stopped, letting him walk off. Jacknife wasn't going to give her anything more, unless she beat it out of him, and she wasn't going to stoop that low. Not for him.
Once he sauntered off, Faith sighed. Back to nothing, again. Ropeburn was dead, and the one lead he had given her had led her straight into a trap. They were close to something, she could feel it. But they had already dug up everything they could on Ropeburn, and to get anything more on him would take a lot of time, time Kate didn't have. And it would be a step in the wrong direction. Ropeburn had just been a means; she needed to find who he hired, who actually killed Pope.
And then the revelation suddenly popped up in front of her. Or rather, it had been hanging there the entire time, white text on a black billboard. Right next to a digitized emblem of a bulldog. It was sandwiched between a new ad for Vegade and Raposa. If she hadn't been staring at the back of Jacknife's stupid sneering head as he walked off, she wouldn't have even noticed it.
Pirandello/Kruger Private Security: Securing Your World.
"Pirandello/Kruger," she whispered aloud. PK. She mashed her earpiece. "Merc…Merc! You can stop pretending to not listen. Jacknife's gone."
Merc chuckled on the other end. "What's up kiddo?"
"I need you to do a web search for Pirandello/Kruger Private Security."
"…okay. Why do you ask?" Keyboard clacks were just audible through the earpiece.
"Miller told me that private firms were moving in on city districts," she explained. "He made it sound like a hostile takeover. Those guys I keep bumping into with the Blues had PK on their armor. And the company logo is distinctive; I saw the same emblem on a file in Ropeburn's office. Getting anything?"
"Mmmm, just what you'd expect. Alarms, fencing, armored cars, private security…oh, and they secure our world, apparently…no mention of secret plots to assassinate political candidates, framing your sister, et cetera."
Still, it was the connection she was after. CPF, Pirandello/Kruger, and Project Icarus; those three things were involved, and somehow, Pope's murder was the glue holding it together, except a private security firm really didn't factor into anything the police had to do. PK had to be involved for another reason.
"Where are they based?"
More key clacks. "A few offices around town…but they just got a new place down by the docks. Went up pretty recently. Big place, too."
"Got some coordinates?"
"Merc, this is getting old, you know."
"Yeah, I know. Figured it was worth a shot, but you're right. Head south, towards the harbor. I'll guide you in. Just watch your back, Faith."