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Sneak Peek

Sucker Punch (Pauline Baird Jones)

Posted: 29 March, 2016 at 6:20 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Author: Pauline Baird Jones
Release date: July 19, 2015
Publisher: Pauline Baird Jones
Format: Ebook (Epub, Mobi); and in print in One Two Punch bundle
Links: Author’s websiteSubscribe to author’s newsletter

SFR Galaxy Award for Best Futuristic Romance With Ties to Contemporary Romantic Suspense and Contemporary Sci Fi Romance By the Same Author (Judge Riley Moreland)

Prior to reading the An Uneasy Future series, I had already read books in both Ms. Jones’ The Big Uneasy and Project Enterprise series. In Sucker Punch, I was pleasantly surprised to recognize names and technology from these seemingly unrelated series. Is that lazy writing? Or is that deviously imaginative? I pick devious.

Each time I finish a book by Ms. Jones, I appreciate her talent even more. Creative plots, smart-alecky writing, a sassy heroine and an intriguing hero are her sci fi trademarks that are present in Sucker Punch. Detective Violet Baker and alien partner Dzholh Ban!drn, otherwise known as Joe, are investigating a murder. The MITSC (Men in Top Secret Colors) are interested in the case too. I finished Sucker Punch last summer and I am still grinning as I recall the story to write this article. There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments while Baker and Joe solve a serious case. And there is quite a bit of made up science fiction – another Pauline Baird Jones trademark.

Chapter 1

Violet Baker did not look at guys as accessories, but it was kinda cool dating a guy—okay an alien named Dzholh Ban!drn that she called Joe because she couldn’t pronounce his name—who matched her eyes and her name. Way better than shoes or a coordinated tote. He was for sure prettier than anything in her closet. And purple, in all its shades, was NON’s “national” color, so he wouldn’t go out of style any time soon. Even better, Joe was a guy she most wanted to kiss and who wanted to kiss her. That hadn’t happened for a while, mostly because about ninety percent of the datable males in the New Orleans New Police Department were relatives. It was a Baker-rich environment, which made it a dating desert. And the few guys who had wanted to date her? Most of them couldn’t get past all the cousins and Captain Uncle to kiss her.

On the downside—did there always have to be one?—was the sentient nanite sharing Joe’s brain. And the fact that Joe wasn’t only here on an intergalactic cop exchange program. He and Lurch were hunting a dangerous and ruthless…something or other that liked to cook people from the inside out. This something or other could hide inside people, which had resulted in a minor misunderstanding during which Joe had almost shot her with his ray gun.

But she was over that.

A kiss had made it, if not all better, then ninety percent that direction.

And the truth was, if she had been hosting this something or other, being shot was quicker than being painfully cooked from the inside out. So she might be one hundred percent better. Or ninety-nine. Yeah, for sure ninety-nine.

She studied Joe’s profile, her gaze lingering on his lips. All right, she might be one hundred percent okay.

Except for…

She looked morosely out on a world that was, if not forever changed, then destined to be markedly different for a very long time.

Hurricane Wu Tamika Felipe had been one for the history books. A book she wished she could read in hindsight and not be currently experiencing. Though living through it was better than dying during it. She’d had her doubts about surviving one or twenty-five times.

“The trouble with surviving a hurricane,” Vi glanced at Joe again, as he steered their new-to-them skimmer through a reconfigured New Orleans New, “is that then you have to get through the aftermath.”

She’d never been that fond of math. So far aftermath wasn’t floating her skimmer either. It was a lot like the before-math, but with less rain, less wind, and no utilities. Oh, and a city requiring all emergency hands on an unrecognizable deck for an indefinite period of time.

“Oh, look, there’s Jackson Square,” Vi said, as she spotted the familiar lines of the cathedral. “I wondered where it got to.”

Well, maybe unrecognizable wasn’t the right word. She could see landmarks—why did they still call them that?—in the air space that was New Orleans New-ly Rearranged, but not in their place in the air space that had been NON.

“And there’s Lake Pontchartrain,” she added. At least it hadn’t moved, just expanded its borders for a bit. “Lots of white caps down there.”

“WTF caused considerable disruption,” Joe observed. “Do you wish me to log the location for Jackson Square?”

“I got it.” She entered the coordinates in the hastily cobbled-together program designed in hopes of putting Humpty Dumpty, aka NON, back together again.

The bright idea, conceived fifty years ago, to lift the city up out of the flood zone, had clearly failed to anticipate the effects of 200 MPH-plus winds on floating structures maintained by underperforming, aging thrusters. The problem had been further complicated by the anti-collision technology—though the anti-collision tech had performed better than the thrusters, much to the delight of the Anti-Collision Board, who had almost been voted redundant in the last election. Of course, performing correctly had helped scatter the various parts of the floating city even further when WTF tried to bump everything into everything else.

The City Alignment Board, who had been magnificently confident in the run up to the storm, were now deep in CYA mode—about the only thing aligned about the Alignment Board. They were lucky everything was mostly offline. The shell-shocked NONians playing “Marco Polo” in a huge and very unfamiliar pool might have time to get over it. Though Vi wouldn’t make book on that. This was a lot to get over, Vi concluded, watching another piece of the French Quarter floating beneath them.

Somewhere out there in the drifting bits of city was home. She hadn’t seen it since reporting for duty well ahead of WTF. At this point it didn’t matter that she didn’t know where it—or where her parents were. After working overtime ahead of, and during, WTF all emergency services were now in mop-up mode, snatching sleep and food on the go. At least she’d heard from her parents and knew they were okay, if not particularly happy. Eventually someone in her seriously extended family would find and log them into the database. And eventually they’d get far enough ahead of the emergencies that she’d get to go home and sleep. If she didn’t die from exhaustion first.

There were crews heading down from a variety of cities up north. The city fathers were hoping the utility guys could help repair the umbilical—which was also not as durable as advertised—that had supplied the city with utilities. Hospitals and essential services had emergency generators, unearthed from old emergency stores, but most of the city floated darkly over the slowly receding lake that was usually known as dirt side, or more officially, New Orleans Old.

While it was possible to fly above the fragmented city, without lanes or traffic indicators, it wasn’t fun and tended to verge on life threatening. Only emergency vehicles were supposed to be up there, but people needed food, water and help. And for many, their skimmers were the only way to cool off in one thousand percent humidity coupled with August heat.

If someone was keeping score, it was NON: 0 and WTF: a seriously big number.

It wasn’t just crapeau on a cracker. It was a cracker buried in tons of crapeau and topped with a nasty cherry.

Joe opened his mouth, but closed it again. Joe never wasted his words, particularly in stating the obvious. He settled for flicking her a sympathetic look. The warmth behind the look took the edge off her morose. She wasn’t quite used to the notion that her alien partner liked her like that. Super easy to get used to perfect features and yeah, perfect build, too, but—they had a lot to work out before they could call themselves a couple, if that’s what Joe even had in mind. He was from another galaxy. And she wasn’t sure—if invited—that this Baker could go where no Baker had gone before. She wasn’t sure Joe would survive to take her anywhere when all the Bakers found out he’d kissed the girl.

And then there was Lurch. A tiny, sentient computer living inside Joe and witness to the few kisses they’d exchanged. Because she didn’t want to think about Joe’s…internal entity, she said, “Still not seeing the FEMA MEC. Geez, I hope it’s not moving, too.” NON had stopped rotating as fast as WTF when the storm moved northeast and was downgraded. But the crazy air currents in its wake had created odd drift problems. “You see anything on your side?”

Joe did much better with questions.

“I do not.”

Sometimes he did better.

“Isn’t that some of the Irish Channel there?” Nothing channel-like about the scrambled blocks of houses now. Someone had logged it into the Ninth Ward, unless it was a different section. Which it could be. Because this wasn’t where the Ninth Ward used to be. Okay, she was pretty sure this wasn’t it, but it was getting harder to remember how it had been when dealing with what it was now.

“It does appear to be some of it.”

It was going to be a delicate—and expensive—job piecing the city back to its previous configuration. Assuming that was even possible. And they managed to get three times more money than was needed, because yeah, graft.

The more NON changed, the more it didn’t. Even when it really did change. Which it pretty much had this time.

Most of their runs since the storm had been from HQ to Point Needs Help But Probably Won’t Get It Because It Can’t Be Found. Their search operation wasn’t helped by FEMA, who had been slapping blue tarp things on every other roof, making the few landmarks still left harder to spot from the air. No one was quite sure what the tarps were for. When asked, their vid spokesperson—

and quite possibly the only FEMA person not lost out in the city—had sobbed, “We’re doing the best we can in a difficult situation.”

If that was their best…

The one thing that should have been easy to spot—the FEMA MEC—was proving to be elusive. Not that she was that eager to find it. Once there they’d have to leave the cool confines of the skimmer and check out a dead body. Last time they’d done that they’d ended up in a whole pile of trouble—trouble that was not completely resolved. But she didn’t want to think about Joe’s evil something or other. The evil that men did in the tent city was sufficient unto the day. Or something like that.

“That’s got to be it.” Vi pointed at neat rows of what looked like white lines drifting on the outer edges of the ragged NON. It was the only straight lines of anything they’d seen since leaving HQ. The tents had been set up on emergency platforms hauled in by the underperforming FEMA, or so she’d heard. Didn’t seem like that great of an idea, but it was probably better than setting them up dirt side when it was still hip deep in water.

According to Joe’s Lurch—the nanite could sift through history in a blink—FEMA had never been very good at doing anything, so it was mystery how expectations remained so high. It seemed their only strength lay in finding their way to a trouble spot and staying until things were significantly worse. Whereupon they’d pull out, so that the locals caught the follow-on flack.

The only bright spot about their current assignment was that it delayed the moment they got to play Russian roulette with another meal-ready-to-eat back at HQ. The meals might be ready but she needed time to be ready to eat one. The old packages had lost their labels, making meal time feel like a series of bad, blind dates. Not that labeling would have helped. They’d probably lost their taste several decades back, so it was better to keep expectations really low.

Joe banked the skimmer, making a low pass over the platforms to find a secure LZ. A distinctive puke green FEMA transport lifted up from what appeared to be the service area and Joe grabbed the spot, causing a squawk of outrage over the communications grid. Joe shut it down, and then their engines. She popped the rear hatch and scrambled out. When she got to the rear, Joe had already activated the controls to release the body bag. It emerged smoothly, a stark and silent contrast from the one in the skimmer they’d crashed in the storm. Its body bag had developed some definite quirks, such as wanting to be carried once the body was on board. So old school.

The new body bag was the sole upside to being out of the skimmer, which technically wasn’t a big upside. It was hotter than she’d expected. It always was in August. And if one thought one was prepared? August would up the ante, because that’s the kind of month it was.

She stretched her back, to one side and then the other. It didn’t help. Like WTF, tired had moved on, leaving something greater than exhaustion, but just shy of dead. There wasn’t even a word for it. She should have grabbed a cat nap on the trip here, but Joe had needed her blood-shot eyes. The low budget skimmer didn’t have enough tech for safe navigation through everything-is-different. And honestly, cat naps just made her feel worse at this point. Felt like it was taunting her body with what might of been but wasn’t going to be for a good long while yet.

Of course, Joe looked refreshed and relaxed, no blood-shot red marring his gorgeous eyes, probably because of Lurch. It seemed there were benefits to sharing your innards with a nanite. Apparently it fixed what ailed him, though only if he wasn’t dead. Which he wasn’t. It was hard to like either of them at the moment, though this did not lessen her longing to kiss Joe again. Except, did that mean Lurch got in on the action, too? And the scary part? She kinda wished she had a nanite to fix her up. Which kind of creeped her out.

Nothing made sense, but this was the Big Easy. One didn’t expect sense to be made here, even on normal days.

They didn’t have coordinates to input into their body bag, so Vi tossed their CSI gear on it and then set it to follow them. The movement sent her a whiff of something not great. She glanced around. Not enough people close enough to blame. Her last shower had been right after their retrieval from New Orleans Old. She was kind of afraid to do the math on how long ago that was. Sure wasn’t about to sniff an armpit. Though that might clear some of the fog from her brain. If it didn’t knock her out.

She studied her surroundings slowly. This was her first experience with a FEMA Mobile Emergency Center. Kinda hoped it would be her last. It was probably better than nowhere to stay, but not by a whole lot. Containers of MREs, those mysterious Meals Ready-to-Eat, were stacked behind Points of Distribution for the meals, water and ice. Her gaze encountered line after line of blue coffin-like structures.

“What do you suppose those are?” She jerked her chin toward them and then wished she hadn’t when she felt hotter.

Joe studied them for several seconds, then offered, “I suspect they are latrines. Note that one section is for males, one for females, and the other section for the gender conflicted.”

“Really?” Curiosity did a slow climb inside her head. It had always been her biggest failing. Probably. At least in her top ten. She trotted over to the closest one.

“I would advise you not—” Joe began too late.

Vi pulled the door open and recoiled. “Holy crapeau on who knows what?” No question curiosity was her biggest problem. She put a hand over her nose and blinked rapidly. “Can’t un-see that.” Or un-smell it.

When she got close enough, Joe murmured, “Lurch did attempt to warn you.”

Vi hoped she wouldn’t need to use one of those things. Might be better to wet her pants. At least then she’d know whose pee she was sitting in. She had no idea the past was that primitive.

There was a roar and brief air movement as several emergency transports lifted off, making room for others to land. Whole setup kinda reminded her of a beehive. She’d seen vids of them in school. Lots of buzzing. Lots of movement. No clear sense of why. She glanced around again. No hope of producing any “honey” here. She repressed a shudder.

There was a muted, but different roar behind her. She looked back, saw one of the big tugs pulling in another tent platform. At this rate most of NON would be living in tents. Curious, they paused to watch technicians connect the platform and then the surface of the platform seemed to shudder. With a ripple tent after tent gradually rose toward the midday sun. It was kinda of impressive. She opened her mouth to ask if Joe thought they were air conditioned when a woman emerged from a tent on an already populated platform. No, no conditioning there. The white surfaces of the tents quivered in the wind caused by the tug, a reminder that they were, in the end, just tents. Affixed to a very hard platform.

Joe said, “Curious.”

“Do Garradians have emergency procedures?” Vi asked, not because she was that curious but because it gave her a good reason to look at him. Instead of tents and latrines—as fascinating as those were.

“We try not to have them.” He looked at her and added, “Emergencies.”

“That’s…good.” She blinked a couple of times, not sure she believed him. Being stuck in NON post-hurricane on account of losing an evil something or other kinda looked like an emergency to her. She gestured toward the sea of occupied tents. “I’m guessing our vic is in there somewhere. Let’s get done here before…” She jerked her chin toward the latrines and made a face.

“Indeed,” Joe said.

The caller had given their location by platform number, then in tent rows. Sort of. Ten in, then five to the right. Of course, that location depended on where the caller had begun their calculations. She could tell Joe was doing some figuring—or Lurch was—and followed him into the gridded pathway between two tent lines. It felt a bit deja vu of their last adventure with a body, only without the wind, rain, crypts and tombstones. And this one had a lot more people watching. But still, heading into a weird place looking for a body. Okay, that wasn’t deja vu. It was SOP for a homicide detective. But this was something new in weird, even by her usual and necessary, very low standards.

Vi didn’t think she’d ever seen tents quite like these. She touched one, gave Joe an awed look. “Fabric?” Everything old was, well, it was still old, but suddenly necessary in a new way.

Sweaty, dispirited denizens watched them move past. Even the kids looked subdued, though everyone stared at Joe and stirred restively. It wasn’t that aliens were so unfamiliar, but until Joe, Vi hadn’t seen one up close and personal. Just on news vids and such. So chances are none of them had either—at least none with purple skin. Who knew if other-skinned aliens walked among them?

A few looked away when they saw her looking, making her wonder if she’d questioned or arrested them sometime. She was too tired to attempt any mental matching. It was hard enough to put one foot in front of the other, with the heavy, soaking heat giving some serious pushback, like it thought it was gravity or something. Guess air could get uppity when it was, well, up. The ones who did look at her, their eyes bothered her. Took her the length of the row to realize why. They looked like those vids of refugees. This was NON, not some third world, well, world. Things like this happened on other planets, backwards ones. This wasn’t supposed to happen here. Despite overwhelming evidence of the incompetence of government, people had believed the city would come through the storm almost unscathed. Even if government let them down there was always their voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, protecting them from the grave. Maybe she’d rolled over or something.

At least the looting had been minimal. Early looters had been unable to find their way home and gave themselves up. One of them, so she’d heard, asked to be shot. Wasn’t sure she believed that. Unless he’d seen one of those latrine things.

She stopped. “It doesn’t smell right.”

Joe gave her a puzzled look.

“It doesn’t smell like New Orleans. It’s wrong….” New Orleans smelled like a lot of things, bad things, yes, but good things, too. Spicy and flowery and…New Orleans. Bad enough to get wrenched from their homes, but this—she shook her head. For some reason it made the unfamiliar feel more so. And wrong. “No wonder everyone looks depressed.”

They wanted to go home. She saw it in their eyes. It was probably in hers, too. Home. Even if she found it, would it be home? Or something that looked like home, only different? The more things changed… change wasn’t that popular in the city that care forgot. Only it forgot to forget the city this time. Karma—with the help of Maw Maw Nature—had given them a total smack-down.

“Are you unwell, Vi?”

She looked up, meeting the concern in his eyes with a wry smile. “I’m okay. Thanks.” She glanced around. “This is all a bit…messed up. Hard to wrap my brain around.”

His hands twitched, probably with a desire to help her, but they’d decided touching was a bad idea at the moment. She didn’t know about him, but she needed every ounce of energy to stay on her feet. When—if she kissed him again, would that make them a threesome? Bad enough she had the hots for a slightly purple alien. But with another alien in his brain? Did that make her kinky or something? Because she didn’t mind as much as she felt like she should. She looked up to find Joe looking at her. Had she said that out loud?

“Shall we proceed?”

Didn’t seem to have, though Joe could be splendidly oblivious. “Yeah, let’s find our vic and get out of here.” She let him go first. At least studying his backside—which was as great as his front side—distracted her from thinking about Lurch.

In the end, it was easy to spot the tent with their suspicious death. A small crowd had gathered, one somewhat contained by a couple of uniforms. It was comforting in a way. At least that hadn’t changed, though it was missing the Lucky Dog cart. A pity that. A Lucky Dog would have erased some of her homesickness for what had been. Put off a better smell. The crowd parted at their approach, with some encouragement from the two uniforms. Vi grabbed their CSI tech off the bag, then activated the bag’s controls. She set the parameters as narrow as it would let her, since the scene had probably already been compromised. The corpse was still in the shadow of the tent, which was a mercy that wouldn’t last forever, though the smell had definitely breached containment. Even in the brave new future, corpses smelled bad.

The bag “taped” the scene first, a red grid taking shape to seal off the area, but the tent was small enough that parts of the grid protruded from the top and sides of the tent. It flashed red, releasing a swarm of collection probes. Mostly they buzzed futilely around the space. It was a tent. On a platform. That had probably been picked clean prior to the call to report the body.

Vi arched a brow at the uniforms, caught the shorter one studying her as if she were interesting. She gave Vi a tentative smile.

Since she was too tired to answer questions, Vi asked one, “Got an ID yet?”

The gal cop looked at her companion.

He frowned down at his tech. “Seems he’s a squatter, a dirt sider—”

Vi felt a chill and deja vu. Didn’t mind the chill. It was stinking hot, but could have done without the deja vu. Her deja had not liked the vu lately.

“—name of Jimbo.”

Vi knew it was coming, but was still a struggle not to do the sharp inhale. Couldn’t do anything about hands curling into tight fists at her sides. She hoped the probes took their time. She was in no hurry to see how he’d died—the grid turned gold, indicating they could go in. Oh great, if the ‘it’ Joe was hunting had killed again, this was something else she wouldn’t be able to un-see.

* * *

It wasn’t that bad. Not the thought Vi expected to have about a dead body. Certainly not the thought she expected to have about Jimbo. But after her recent schooling from WTF, she’d had to revise her definition of “the worst” up by quite a bit. Or was that down? She was never sure about that.

She had been sure ‘it’ had got him just like it got the others. Had expected to see that look of horror from being torched from the inside out. Only Jimbo looked surprised, not cooked. He looked a bit simmered, but that was probably from the humidity.

“Maybe his heart conked out,” she murmured, keeping her voice low. Usually they just bagged and tagged, but the circumstances weren’t usual. They needed to do a bit more assessing so the body could get in line at the right morgue. For some weird reason, the morgues hadn’t shifted position that much. It was kinda wrong, while being helpful.

She worked her way into where she could kneel next to the body and started the CSI scan. This tech also released tiny probes, like a hundred pinpricks they descended on the body. Data flashed on the screen. Joe’s hands flexed once, but he didn’t breach this field either. Those little dudes stung like a son of a gun. Curiosity was a detective’s friend, except when it wasn’t.

“He appears surprised,” Joe finally said, waiting for her all clear signal so he could ease the body up just enough to examine the underside. After a long look, he lowered the body again, giving a slight, very slight shake of the head.

Her device beeped as it delivered the first scan results. “Look at his hands,” she directed, trying to make sense of what it was spitting out. She paused the auto-scroll and flipped back, a frown gathering between her brows. Maybe the CSI techs did earn their little bucks.

“Vi.” Joe’s soft tone pulled her gaze back to where he had one of the vic’s hands turned palm up.

Bingo. Well, half of one. As exit sites went, it wasn’t its best work. Or its worst. But at least they knew ‘it’ had left the building, er, body.

The question was, who was the new host of the awful whatever? Vi looked back, scanning the crowd visible through the tent opening. According to the tech, Jimbo had died approximately twelve to fifteen hours ago. That was odd, too. It wasn’t like the tech to be that approximate. Usually it was, like, death occurred between 0125 and 0128. Will attempt to refine with further data. She tapped the screen, but it didn’t offer even the hope of a more precise time of death. It didn’t shrug and go, “whatever,” so it was weird she felt like it did. There were those in the department who felt the tech trended toward AI-ness. Sometimes she was one of them.

“Detective Baker?” The female cop crouched by the opening, angled to see past Joe, though she did flick him a look that was on the curious side. That the look lacked appreciation was both odd and a relief—since said detective was younger and prettier than Vi.

They hadn’t introduced themselves upon arrival—she’d been too tired—but her name might be visible on uniform. And if it wasn’t, well, the odds were always high that at least one Baker would be at any given scene at any given time. Vi considered saying what, but the output of energy felt too high. Couldn’t even manage an arched brow. Settled for an inquiring look and that was almost a bridge too far.

“One of the witnesses says she might have seen something.”

Vi was mildly impressed. Most witnesses wouldn’t even admit to seeing nothing. Before Joe could offer to talk to the witness—who probably wouldn’t talk to him—Vi handed him the tech and crawled out of the tent. Straightened herself in stages. Painful stages. Neither of the uniforms offered to help her up. She might be glad about that because she might have taken the help. Probably against regs to get helped in front of the general public. Regs were full of stupid stuff like that.

“Are you all right?”

The question and the concern appeared genuine, so Vi twitched the sides of her lips. “I’m fine, Officer—” She peered at her lapel, but it wouldn’t quite come into focus.

“Benson, ma’am.”

“Benson.” Vi repeated it in hopes of slotting it into her short-term memory until the end of this encounter. “Thanks,” she tacked on, a bit belatedly, but Benson smiled so the time lag might be less belated than it felt. She studied Benson with some interest, mostly because it required less energy than meeting the witness. She was young, pretty. Apparently not related. Looked the type to interest a lot of her cousins. Dark hair, dark eyes, suspiciously well-pressed uniform. Eyes held a bit of hero worship that made Vi’s heart sink.

She leaned in and said softly, “I hear you were dirt side during the storm.”

Vi gave a sort of shrug. “It wasn’t as fun as it sounds.”

Benson laughed, even though it wasn’t meant to be funny, and if anything the hero worship increased. “What was it like?”

“Wet.” Vi thought a minute. “Windy. Hope to never do it again.” To head off more questions, she asked one of her own, “What was it like up here?”

Benson looked startled, then chuckled. “Wet. Windy. Hope to never do it again.”

It was Vi’s turn to chuckle, though she didn’t go overboard with it.

Benson turned slightly, gazing toward the city. “New Orleans New really is new now, isn’t it?”

“That it is.” The horizon blurred slightly. She rubbed her face. She gave a shake. “So where’s this witness who might have seen something?”

* * *

Joe watched Vi move out of sight, then turned back to the corpse. There was much to puzzle him about this death. Why had ‘it’ chosen not to torture this victim to death?

It would have needed to take care here where everyone is housed so close together, Lurch reminded him. Screaming would attract unwelcome attention.

It could have muffled the sounds.

Then I would postulate that Jimbo was not alone when it decided to egress the body. Possibly a third person was present?

And if Jimbo died screaming within minutes of that person leaving…

Exactly.

Jimbo was fortunate that its need for stealth exceeded its need to torture its host to death.

Indeed.

Lurch sounded as sober as Joe remembered it ever sounding. No question the events on the surface during the storm had sobered them both. Joe had lacked time since the storm to question the nanite on just how it hoped to eliminate the threat their enemy posed, not just to this place, but to who knew how many universes. It was clear he’d failed to ask the right questions when the nanite proposed their partnership. Not that he was certain he’d have known the right questions. “Will I die in screaming agony?” hadn’t been on the list, though it was now.

Can you look around very slowly?

Lurch would be looking for evidence of time stream activity. It was Joe’s research that made it possible for them to track ‘it’ to this world. Before Joe’s discovery, the time stream was a great place to hide, particularly for a nanite-controlled human. Joe was not sure how Lurch had learned of his research into time stream tracking. It had nanites in many places, he’d learned after their blending. All of Joe’s “training,” in this world and the others where they’d hunted, came from program downloads from Lurch—programs designed from the knowledge of previous hosts, Joe had gradually realized. Joe could only marvel at the wealth of knowledge he’d glimpsed during their time together, though he hadn’t liked it at first. The sense of becoming something other than himself had been unsettling. And Joe wondered if streaming vids of Dragnet had been meant to be helpful or a joke. Lurch did have an odd sense of humor.

A sense of humor that seemed to enjoy watching Joe fall for Vi. Why it did that when it knew Joe couldn’t keep her—Joe tensed as he realized that if it had entered the stream, then the “not keeping her” would start now. With increased concern, he finished his slow, visual scan of the interior of the tent.

No sign of time stream activity in here.

Would it have risked disappearing outside? Joe knew the ‘it’ was quite willing to take big risks, but that seemed excessive.

Probably not, but we still need to assess. We can’t afford not to.

It was true that the trail would degrade rapidly. How odd that time was of the essence even in relation to the time stream.

The tech Vi had handed him beeped, then produced another set of preliminary results. Joe did not mind the interruption to his thoughts. Lurch also indicated it had completed the data collection phase, so he triggered the body bag to commence the collection process.

He moved out of range as the bag made course adjustments until it had centered itself over the corpse. Straps shot from the bag toward the body, going under it, then pushing beneath and connecting and contracting. The body rose toward the bag until it was snug, then the bag itself rotated until the body was face up. He left it hovering within the partial cover of the tent and scrambled out.

The open air was a relief after the stuffy interior. The crowd had mostly dispersed, moving in the general direction of the sustenance point of the distribution platform, some also moving toward the primitive sanitation structures. He turned in a slow circle, trying to keep it casual, so that Lurch could look for time stream activity and capture the faces for later analysis, just in case ‘it’ was still here, waiting and watching. He would not want to linger in this place, but it had apparently lingered for some time down on the surface. This might be marginally better. Joe looked past the faces now, scanning the horizon and the drifting blocks of what had probably been some of the Garden District.

Based on what he knew of the mansions, if the inhabitants were in them, they would not be enjoying their current view of the FEMA MEC.

They are most likely enjoying a view far from this place.

Joe conceded this point to Lurch. Those that could had evacuated during the run up to the storm. Looting had not, up to now been much of a concern, but he would imagine that given time, those houses would look quite tempting to those camping here.

Once they can spare the people, I suspect the police presence here will be increased.

It made sense. Presently people were too shell shocked to be too much trouble. And their basic needs were being met. It would not take long for that to change. He’d seen the longing for home in her eyes, heard the desire for a return to normal in Vi’s voice. When that didn’t happen quickly, shock would be replaced with anger.

It was something he could understand.

I am sorry I got you into this.

Joe watched Vi returning and found he could not be as sorry as he should be. Which might be one reason Lurch encouraged Joe’s interest in his partner.

Vi took his arm and turned him away from the remnants of their crowd. “Let me see that report for a minute,” she said. He extended the tech, and she scrolled rapidly through the results, then made a face. “Just as I thought. Jimbo wasn’t a harmless dirt sider. He was cooking meth down there somewhere.”

“Meth?”

“It’s a very, very old school recreational drug, a lot cheaper to make than some of the designer drugs, so the profit margin is higher.”

Lurch filled in the historical details for him as Joe said, “But wouldn’t the scanners—” He stopped at her ironic look.

“At the corner of New Broom and Political Expediency you’ll usually find a streetcar named Graft.”

Joe lowered his voice further, casting a look around before asking, “Did your witness admit to seeing someone?”

“Wouldn’t have if she’d known who she saw. I ran some mug shots past her. She picked Afoniki out of the lineup.”

Joe knew enough about the crime family to be impressed. “He was not alone.”

Vi looked surprised. “No, he wasn’t.”

“That is most probably why the death was so…benign.”

“A good reason to never be alone with anyone. Ever again.” She frowned down at the device. “I wish we’d managed to save the post mortem data from our dirt side adventures. There’s a lot of chemicals in and on old Jimbo. I wonder how many of them are consistent with, you know, your friend. Maybe we could come up with a test or at least a way to track—”

Joe put a hand on the device. “May I?” She relinquished her hold, and he scrolled through the data until—the chemical he used to track it through the time stream—he tipped it so she could see it, his eyes filled with warnings. Her nod was slight, her gaze sober.

“Let’s get him to the morgue.”

Joe triggered the commands and followed her down the ramp, the body bag humming softly in their wake.

“If it is Afoniki,” she said, “that could be very bad. The combo of über criminal and über evil whatever…yeah, that can’t be good.” She stopped as a very sleek, very dark transport hovered over theirs, then dropped down with no apparent interest in the “no LZ” painted into the grid. “That might be bad, too.”

“Who is—are they?” He modified the question as two men slid out in well-coordinated synch. They were of the same height and similarly dressed in soberly crisp suits. Their eye wear was also the same and reflected as well as deflected the sunlight.

“It’s the MITSC—they used to be the Men in Black, but people started to catch on so now they are the Men in Top Secret Colors. The color is supposed to randomly change, so we won’t recognize them. And you can be arrested for saying whatever color they are wearing out loud.” She shook her head. “Like they wouldn’t stand out no matter what color they wear.”

“They…monitor…extraterrestrials,” Joe said, uneasily, after Lurch once more filled in the information gaps for him.

“Let me do the talking. But have your papers ready, just in case.” She glanced around. “At least there are a lot of witnesses.”

The eyes on them were significant, but Joe was not certain that would provide any advantage if these men wanted to make him disappear.

Could they know? Suspect?

I am uncertain, Lurch said, though with more curiosity than worry. Interesting. They look almost the same, though with less black. As it finally picked up on Joe’s deep worry, it added, if they attempt to seize us, we can enter the time stream.

It didn’t need to add that neither of them wanted this outcome, though not for exactly the same reasons.

It was clear Lurch had had dealings with them before, but Joe did not—yet again—have time for questions. The two agents watched their approach with a somewhat troubling lack of movement. When they were close enough, each man thrust a hand into the interior of his jacket, extracted IDs and extended them in a blur of movement that made sure they lacked time to see, let alone process them. The IDs were thrust back in the jackets. Then the lips of one of the men moved.

“We’ll be taking over, Detectives.”

“Taking over what?”

The other man indicated Jimbo’s remains with a head movement. At least Joe hoped it was Jimbo that interested them.

For a long moment, Vi didn’t move or speak, just stared at them.

“We’ll need all the data you’ve collected as well.”

So it was the body that interested them.

“You’re not taking our body bag or our tech.”

It did not appear that either of them moved, but the rear of their transport opened and a sleeker, darker body bag zipped out, stopped smoothly next to theirs. Straps shot from it and theirs retreated as if burned. The body transferred swiftly, the bag not just taking possession, but a shroud of some kind slid over Jimbo, hiding him from view. The bag paused by Joe and something like their tech, only better, disconnected from the side of the bag. At Vi’s nod, Joe extended their tech. There was brief connection, then it retracted again and the bag slid back into their transport.

Joe looked down at the tech. It blinked back at him with a “memory empty” notification.

There was a silence, then one of the men spoke. “This is no longer your crime scene, detectives. Move along.”

Chapter 2

“Do you think they are after…your friend, too?” Vi waited until they were airborne before speaking.

She looked around as if she suspected the sky was listening in on them. He could not blame her. Joe gave the question careful consideration. He knew that Lurch always feared being tracked. It was why it worked so hard to obscure its origins. It was the First of the nanites, and had it remained the first and only, this quest would not be so challenging. Its memory went back a very long way, and he was not sure he’d seen the beginning of it yet. It had exceeded the original nanite programming when it became sentient, though Joe was unclear how it began replicating, or the mechanics involved. Lurch easily created drones—non-sentient versions of itself—but sentient replication was a much more complicated process, he felt sure.

There was a further mystery surrounding Wynken, Blynken and Nod, a deeper connection there that stretched back deep into the past. Joe knew this more by how Lurch reacted when any of the three nanites were mentioned, though he had gotten brief glimpses into the past when they were integrating. The loss of Blynken had hit it hard, so Joe tried not to think about it any more than he had to. The fact that Blynken had been killed by Nod was a source of both pain and fear. If Nod could be corrupted by a rogue program, then might not all the nanites also be at risk? This was, Joe knew, the deepest, darkest core of its fear. And why Lurch hunted so hard to find the co-opted Nod and stop it.

“It is more likely they are tracking the trace substances left behind.” It was the only thing that the nanites could not control, the telltale signs of passing from one host to another. If the MITSC were tracking it, or even suspected its presence, well, it would be most dangerous for those two agents no matter what special governmental resources the MITSC could call upon.

“If they find out about our witness, they’ll go pay Afoniki a visit,” she said, cocking an eyebrow at him. “Pretending to investigate the murder. If it’s just the substance that interests them, then who knows what they will do.”

Tiredness lingered in her face, but the huntress in her showed signs of life.

“Do we know how to locate Afoniki? Would he not have evacuated prior to the storm?”

“We always know how to locate Afoniki. He’s had an ankle bracelet on him since he was like, fourteen.”

Joe did not understand why the court ordered tracking device was called that. It was an implanted chip, not a bracelet and it was no where near his ankle.

She bit her lower lip. “Of course, he probably knows a way around it. He’s got a bigger budget than we do. But if he’d been expecting trouble, he’d never have gone near Jimbo. He has people for that.”

“Is your witness quite certain it was Afoniki?”

“Picked him out without prompting. He’s a good looking guy.”

Joe felt a stab of something in the region of his heart. “It is possible he was less concerned, because of the storm.” Many services had been disrupted during WTF. Joe felt certain that keeping track of Afoniki’s location had not been a high priority during the height of the storm—which would make it a good time to commit a murder. But he hadn’t. He’d waited for Jimbo to surface and gone to talk to him. “How did he know where to find Jimbo?”

“Jimbo probably used a FEMA phone to contact him. They’ve been handing them out with the meals and water. We can probably track it down if the men who used to wear black aren’t one step ahead of us.”

“We did not find such a phone at the scene.” Had it been pilfered by someone or had Afoniki taken it when he’d been assimilated by it?

“Don’t know why anyone there would grab it. They’ve probably all got one.”

It has a vested interest in making that record go away, too, Lurch pointed out.

That might be more suspicious than the visit, Joe countered.

Or it wishes us to locate it again.

Joe didn’t ask why ‘it’ would do that. It had demonstrated severely erratic behavior during the storm. The only certainty about it was that it would kill and continue to kill until they stopped it.

She gave him a speculative look. “Can Lurch take us off the grid? Just until we find out if the men in drab are heading for Afoniki.”

Joe felt his mouth turn up in a grin. “It has it, er, covered.”

Vi’s grin almost stopped his heart. “I think I love Lurch.”

Was it possible to be jealous of a nanite? Before he could answer that question, Vi spoke again.

“So how do we tell if he’s, you know…?”

Joe sighed. “If we had the answer to that question, I would not have almost shot you during the storm.”

“Oh right. And touching…”

“…will expose it, but it also exposes Lurch to it.”

“You can’t go around shooting people you think are hosting it. There has to be a way to figure out who—” her voice trailed off and she was silent for several seconds. “What about those substances? Are they only left there after death?”

“They are present at integration,” Joe said, shifting a bit uncomfortably. The fact that the MITSC might have identified and were tracking the substance was unsettling, since his body also had them. “But confirming their presence requires contact.”

Vi turned to look at him, cautious hope in her eyes. “Maybe not. You see, Afoniki’s ankle bracelet also tests him regularly for drugs. Unless he’s figured out a way to fake that, which he probably has. But—the tests must still happen or appear to happen.” She frowned. “We’d need to be careful, though…make sure the boys in drab don’t get notified, too. They are way too close for comfort.”

I am on it. Lurch sounded the most hopeful he had in, well, Joe wasn’t sure how long, but certainly as long as they’d been partners.

“So if he is the one, then how do we stop him and you know, save Nod?”

Lurch flinched, hard enough to cause Joe to clench his hands. The skimmer swerved. He quickly corrected his course. But she’d noticed.

“You can’t just kill him—it?” she asked.

“Do you not think Lurch has tried to find a way? The risk is too great. There is no evidence that Nod still exists as a separate and distinct entity.”

“But what’s the evidence that Nod doesn’t?”

“The murders. The torture. The fact that it killed Blynken. Nod would not willingly participate in such things. Lurch attests to this. It has known Nod the longest, knew it the best. It would fight, would have fought until defeated.”

Silence for at least a minute.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod, one night sailed off in a wooden shoe…”

Joe blinked.

“Were there three?” she asked.

“Yes. Three separate personalities, but all living in a single host at, well, birth.” Why had he almost used the word “decanting?” He was unsure, but noted it felt right. “That was their designations, their names,” he admitted, wondering how she had discerned this.

“Do…you know…did they pick their own names?”

Joe felt Lurch’s affirmative, which made him wonder about its name. “Yes, they do.”

“Interesting. Sailed on a river of crystal light, into a sea of dew…that’s from a nursery rhyme. About setting sail, well, on the surface. Actually it’s about sleeping, dreaming…” Her voice trailed off. She gave a shake. “So they split up and that’s when it happened?”

“Lurch postulates that had they not separated, that by combining their strength, they might have prevailed over the rogue program. That what had been their strength became instead, their weakness.”

She blinked at this, but to his relief didn’t ask how Lurch knew this.

“What about Wynken?”

“Wynken was damaged trying to save Blynken.”

Silence.

“Nod…”

He nodded. “Wynken is…recovering.” Mourning. Possibly damaged beyond repair, according to Lurch.

“I’m sorry.” She sounded sorry. “But doesn’t that make it even more important to try and save Nod?”

Joe sighed. “It was while attempting this that Wynken was injured.”

Another silence. “Oh.” She slanted him a wry look, said as if trying to ease the tension, “Sometimes you sound more like a scientist than a cop.” She chuckled.

He managed to echo something he hoped sounded like a chuckle. He had played many roles during the hunt for it, but at his core he was a scientist. That she’d sensed this was disquieting and yet not unpleasant. He had believed he would dislike playing a cop, but it had many advantages he had not foreseen. He glanced at one advantage and almost sighed. He had lost much of his detachment during the storm.

Much? Assuming you had some before….

Do you have an update for me? Joe was most eager to change the subject.

Afoniki is scheduled for a drug test in thirty-seven minutes. If it has taken him over, it would notice the test being moved up. So we must wait for the regular test window.

He took a mental breath, trying to get his thoughts back on task. Does that give you enough time to prepare?

I believe so. No need to rush to his location.

And if it is inside Afoniki?

I believe I can use the access to upload a disabling virus. I have been working on it, but did not know how to safely deliver it.

Joe had been aware that killing ‘it’ might kill them. This was a most hopeful development, if it didn’t detect and disable the virus.

I would advise a policy of distraction when we arrive. If it is distracted, it will give me more time. And the virus time….

Joe glanced at Vi. Based on the last time he’d seen Vi question Afoniki, distracting would not be a problem.

* * *

Afoniki had a nice place, though his view, like the rest of NON, had been shifted by WTF. It had originally been located in the Warehouse District, snugged up against where the river would have been before the rising. Based on his current location, his riverfront property had moved up river. Even moved, his view wouldn’t be that different. The river was the river. A muddy ribbon winding through varying shades of deep green. But his neighbors had changed. Vi recognized a Bucktown restaurant off to the right that had also shifted out of place during the storm and some low rent property off the left side.

In the old days, the ground floor had been used for utilitarian purposes, probably loading and unloading ships, and the upper floors were about the esthetics, but the super rich had transparent first floors these days, so they could take advantage of the dirt side views, too. So, even shifted, he still got some of the benefit of being riverfront in more ways than one. Since he hadn’t moved too far out of place, Vi suspected he had better thrusters. Probably could have held his air space if it hadn’t been for collision problems during the storm.

Vi had a feeling that if Afoniki wanted his old address back, he’d probably get it. Shouldn’t be a problem for him. He’d know who could get it done and how much it would cost him. With the taxpayers picking up the bulk of the tab, of course.

She popped her door, letting the thick, hot air rush in and clambered out against it. Her door slid down, and she looked at Joe across the skimmer.

“So how do we play this?” Vi wished they were going on a date instead of into a potentially life-threatening meeting with an evil something or other. “We don’t have a crime, thanks to the men in super secret drab.” It felt kind of anti-something to be going in without a crime. Upset the delicate balance between the good guys and the bad. “We can’t just stop by to check on him. He and ‘it’ would smell a rat.”

“We found many chemicals and organics on Jimbo. Perhaps…a contamination issue?”

Vi considered this. “It could work, not for long, but hopefully long enough.”

“We just need to keep him talking, distracted for about ten more minutes,” Joe said, setting his watch.

Ten minutes. Surely she could blather on for ten minutes. Best case would be getting Afoniki talking, but he pretty much had a “no talking in front of the cops” rule. He even resisted admitting that his name was Afoniki.

An escalator wound up to the middle of the structure, like a corkscrew, taking visitors to where all the utilitarian stuff happened. His property even had power, she noted, when the escalator activated at the pressure of her foot on the bottom step. It was interesting, though sadly, not illegal. He was allowed to have emergency power. She rose smoothly, the corkscrew of the stair oddly soothing. It also made the air move, which was nice.

They entered into a setup that appeared benign. Could have been any business reception area. It was discreetly classy, though currently tended by a goon instead of a benignly elegant female. Vi, going out on a mental limb, postulated she’d been unable to get to work. Even a bad guy couldn’t control Mom Nature. Though she’d bet money she didn’t have that he’d tried.

It was cooler and smelled better than outside. The storm had for sure stirred up the muck at the bottom of the swamp. She angled her head, pretending to look at some artwork, and took a cautious sniff of herself. Maybe the gently moving air would help dissipate what the storm had stirred up at the bottom of her armpits. At least she didn’t have a habit of shaking hands with Afoniki, so she could keep her distance. She tried to identify the good scent, but all she come up with was: expensive.

She recognized the goon filling in at reception. And he knew her. They exchanged looks of mutual…something. Wasn’t respect. Might have been a bit of “I’m not here to arrest you so don’t make me change my mind” on her side. His gaze had some “I ain’t done nothing, so don’t get your knickers in a twist” to it. His gaze shifted to Joe. He’d made the news when he arrived, but she didn’t think they’d arrested the goon since Joe’s arrival, so he might not have seen Joe up close before. Joe’s cool gaze must have made him uneasy, because he pressed a button and a door slid open with a pricey-sounding whoosh. Vi kept her eyes on the goon until he looked away and the door closed between them.

Hard to feel it was suddenly safer when this meeting might involve an ‘it’ bent on causing widespread pain and destruction. She’d seen its work and was not eager for this possible confrontation.

There was another goon and another set of escalators. One that went up and one that went down. Vi followed, with her eyes, the one twisting up toward another floor. Straight ahead, a bank of seriously high windows appeared to look out over the city. Only it was NON the way it used to be, not the way it was now. The down escalator was equally elegant, a definite upgrade from the one outside.

The goon grunted and jerked his chin toward the down escalator. Like the one outside, this activated at pressure from her foot. The slow spiral down gave glimpses of the artificially generated views. It made the high ceiling appear higher and the room bright and light. At the bottom, the view through the transparent floor was the real deal. She’d have probably hesitated before stepping out, but the escalator slid her smoothly onto what seemed like nothing. The effect was that good. And it was that clean.

She looked past the floor, hoping it would help with her sudden vertigo. Afoniki’s block had been shifted over the old Metairie cemetery, she realized, after studying it for several moments. It had been some kind of racetrack prior to becoming a city of the dead. From this angle, the track made an elegant curve through the dead space. Pieces of old freeway poked up out of the green spaces here and there, and she could see the skeletons of old buildings, heavily coated with moss, though all of it showed signs of fresh scarring from WTF. From this place, she could better see the standing water glinting where it had not glinted before WTF. From a distance, it was pretty. Until she remembered what it was like down in the goo.

The low hanging clouds shifted, giving her a glimpse of what might have been the old airport. Had its floating version shifted, too? She hadn’t been over that direction to see. It shouldn’t matter. Logically one knew that floating locations floated. Moved. But…New Orleans had always been this thing and now it wasn’t. It had been shuffled like a deck of cards, and no one knew if it could be put right, even if her mental metaphor was so wrong it was embarrassing. Two wrongs still didn’t make it right, as her Great Grand Paw Paw liked to say.

She spotted a lean, elegant figure gazing, well, she wasn’t sure if he was looking at the fake or the real reality, over by one of the windows. He did look a bit posed, which made her lips twitch. Vi couldn’t deny that the sight of him made her pulse twitch a little. Snakes could be pretty, as long as one didn’t forget that they could also be lethal. She could never decide if Afoniki flirted with her because she was a girl and it bugged her many relatives or—well, the why didn’t matter. They were as opposite as—north and south poles weren’t opposite enough, even for someone really bad with metaphors. More like the equator and whichever pole was the coldest. Was that a metaphor? She wasn’t sure. She was sure she had a headache that was getting worse.

Vi knew she was trying to keep her thoughts light so she wouldn’t panic. Were they walking into some crazy nanite battle? Would it all be fought out of sight? Was it dangerous to them? Could it be contained or would there be collateral damage? She should have asked more questions. She knew that now. Maybe. She might not like the answers. She’d known that at some level, so had been afraid to ask. It had seemed straightforward heading over here, but now it felt a bit like falling into a maze. One as murky and dangerous as what they’d faced on the surface. Only without the wind, rain and green ooze. So better, without actually being better.

Afoniki turned to face them, as if he’d just become aware of their presence, which she knew he hadn’t. They’d never have been admitted without his permission.

“Detective Violet Baker.” A dramatic pause. “This is an unexpected…pleasure.”

The hint of surprise was as fake as his smile. Did the dude ever have a normal human reaction? Of course, them coming here was unexpected. They usually “met” at HQ in an interview room. Which brought her circling back to wrong and would-things-ever-be-right-again?

Afoniki’s gaze flicked Joe’s direction and real interest gleamed in the dark depths. It was true that Captain Uncle hadn’t let Joe play good cop in interrogation yet, which was a pity because he really was a good good cop. He was also a bit distracting, which would have been helpful. Funny how hard it was for Orleanians to get used to purple skin when they had no problem with purple everything else.

“A partner who matches your eyes. How charming,” Afoniki murmured. “He must be a huge hit at Mardi Gras.”

This annoyed her, even though it had been her first thought at their initial meeting.

He moved toward them, but didn’t make the mistake of holding out his hand. They were handcuffing, not handshaking acquaintances. It was a nice bonus, not being on handshaking terms, if he was currently playing host to an evil something or other that liked to switch bodies through physical contact. Which just showed it was possible to find the good even in a bad situation.

“This is—” she stopped and sent Joe a wide-eyed look.

“I am Dzholh Ban!drn,” he said. It still sounded like her cat coughing up a hairball, not helped by the almost imperceptible bow he offered with the words. “Intergalactic Law Enforcement Exchange Program.”

In the past six months, she’d noticed that the depth of the bow reflected Joe’s notions of someone’s importance. He’d for sure nailed it this time.

“That’s quite the view you’ve got.” She touched an elbow to a tall, semitransparent cabinet and studied the view again. One wasn’t supposed to fear heights in a floating city, but one feared them less when one couldn’t see exactly how far one would fall if something malfunctioned. “Is it better or worse?”

“It is…different.”

Yeah, he’d spent way too much time with lawyers.

“Change can be satisfactory.”

Afoniki cast Joe a doubtful look.

“Except when it’s not,” Vi said, possibly a bit too emphatically.

A real smile spread across Afoniki’s face. Who’d have thought they’d find common ground in the aftermath of a big old storm? Vi noted the smile failed to spread to his eyes, which were so cold, she lacked a metaphor for how much. One brow rose over one cold eye, and he indicated the sumptuous seating with a touch of hesitation. As if he weren’t sure how long they planned to stay, but he did have company manners. For now. Vi didn’t kid herself that their “welcome” mat could easily be pulled out from under them. Which brought her mind back to the floor. She eased over to the couch, trying not to look eager or relieved, and sank down. It was as comfortable as it looked, which was sad, because she still didn’t feel comfortable. What if he had a button that would drop all of it, or the section she sat on, into the goo of NOO below?

If she hadn’t seen the evil something or other’s handiwork, her imagination might not be running quite so wild. But she had. She glanced around, as if studying the fixtures. He had a good decorator. Even the furniture had a lightness to it that went against the vid portrayals of bad guys homes as dark and sinister dens of iniquity.

“I love what you’ve done with the place,” she said. Most of it.

“My designer was most…satisfactory.”

Vi was pretty sure that was a double entendre. Not everyone looked beneath his surface—or cared to look. Lots of money and good looks were all that mattered. Vi, well, she always felt a bit dirty after spending time with him. This time she’d arrived dirty, so she was ahead of the game.

“Can I offer you something? A beverage? Food?” His gaze lingered on her face. “A bed?” Joe must have tensed or something because he added, “For sleeping, of course. You look exhausted.” His gaze shifted to Joe. “You as well, naturally.” His gaze flicked between them, both piercing and unsettling.

Vi looked at Joe and danged if he didn’t look tired. She had to give Lurch chops for knowing how to set the stage.

“Thank you, but no, thank you.” She wasn’t sure how to start a non-hostile, non-interrogation. “I’m fine. We’re fine. Thank you.”

He shifted from one foot to the other, his hands sliding into the pockets of his perfectly fitted slacks. He didn’t say that they needed to get to the point, but his lips lost their pseudo-friendly curve. Vi hesitated, but this wasn’t a power struggle, at least not yet. Afoniki hadn’t killed Jimbo, and the meth lab was probably sleeping with the fishes. If a meth lab could sleep. Would the fish be high? She firmly reined in her thoughts. This was not the moment to lose the plot.

“In a rare turn of events, we aren’t here to talk about legalities.” Or lack thereof. She gave an amused shake. “Feels really odd.”

“Indeed.” His other brow rose to the same height as the first. He crossed to a chair that faced her, flicking a brief curious glance at the still-standing Joe. He didn’t seem too worried about power positions, though, since he sank into it, stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles, his hands once more finding their way into his pockets. Was that where he kept the buttons that would drop them into the river?

“And what does bring you—so happily—into my presence?”

“We’ve just come from the FEMA MEC.”

“Really?” He looked mildly interested. “I hope you didn’t eat anything there. I’ve heard stories.” He gave an artistic shudder. “One can only hope they are wild rumors.”

Vi grinned. “We have the same food at HQ. Sadly, not rumors.”

“I have never doubted your courage, Detective.”

Vi had, but she didn’t say so. She tried to think of something to continue the nonrelevant conversation, but couldn’t. Luckily Joe picked up the slack, though chatting wasn’t his forte either, so he just went with the plan.

“Some surface dwellers, what you call dirt siders, were evacuated there after the storm and one of them died last night. There are concerns about possible contamination risks for anyone who came into contact with him.”

Afoniki was a cool customer. His face didn’t change. He didn’t even blink. He didn’t ask either, but then he’d probably learned how not to blink or ask back in kindergarten.

“Indeed? How unfortunate.” He didn’t say it wasn’t his problem, but she felt it quivering in the air between them.

“It seemed a bit far-fetched,” she said, adopting her I-didn’t-want-to-but-have-to mien, “but someone said you were there yesterday evening?”

“Indeed?”

He didn’t say he hadn’t been there, so she added, “We are required to warn anyone who had contact with the vic. Regs.” Since no one had read all the regs, it was easy to trot them out as an excuse for just about anything. Had it been long enough yet? Vi wanted to look at her tech, needed to know the time, but didn’t dare look away from the bad guy. And whatever might be lurking inside him. A pulse throbbed painfully behind one eye, possibly keeping time with Joe’s countdown.

“Regs,” he echoed, his tone was smooth but just a hint of a crease formed between his brows.

“We can scan you for contaminants or you can see your own doctor, but I wouldn’t wait too long. Our vic went down pretty fast.”

“Isn’t it fortunate that I was nowhere near the MEC?”

She thought about asking him if he was sure, but it’s not like it was something you’d be unsure about.

“Well, they say everyone has a double.”

He did not seem enamored of the idea of a double. Which made her wonder if he really did have one. And if he did, what he’d do about it. She could see where one might come in handy for a bad guy, as long as it didn’t get around he had one. Which it just may have. She pretended to check her tech. “So, just to be clear, you don’t know a dirt sider, name of Jimbo?”

This question verged into interrogation range, because she’d bet money he did know Jimbo and would bet even more money he’d never admit it. On the tail of the question, tension seeped in, stealing some of the brightness from the room. She really wished she’d asked Joe what to expect when…whatever was going to happen happened.

“Jim…bo?”

“Dirt sider,” Vi said, trying for light and adding a shrug, just in case she missed the mark.

“Indeed.” He shifted, uncrossing, then crossing his legs the other direction. “I thought the surface had been evacuated prior to the storm?”

Deflect a question with a question. It was his SOP. But it would know that, if it was lurking in there. If it was in there, it would know that she knew Jimbo hadn’t been evacuated.

“We did try. The storm got worse faster than expected, and we got separated from him. I was surprised he made it off the surface, actually.”

“Dirt siders are resilient.”

“They are,” Vi agreed, “until they aren’t and die.”

He shrugged. “Everyone dies. Eventually.”

Was this a veiled threat? The fact that it was true didn’t make it not a threat. Something dark passed in the sky underneath them. Vi blinked, but Afoniki stiffened. His attention shifting from her long enough she risked a glance at Joe. Was that…?

He nodded to her silent question. Did that mean the MITSC had talked to the uniforms or were they following her and Joe? Had they had time to tag them? Had they needed time? Lurch had taken them off grid, but they were the MITSC. According to legend, they’d always had better tech than anyone else. She loosed an internal curse. She’d hoped to avoid having the MITSC and Joe’s evil something or other in the same space they were.

Afoniki’s gaze found her again, something more than speculation in his somehow empty gaze.

“Well, if you weren’t at the MEC, then we’d better get moving.” It was already too late. The boys in drab were probably parking next to them right now. But that didn’t lessen her flight or—no, it was pretty much a flight instinct. No fight in there at all. And what would ‘it’ do if the MITSC shouldered their way in? In a tech versus tech battle, Vi felt like she had “collateral damage” tattooed on her forehead. Unfortunately “serve and protect” was imprinted on her DNA, and the mandate included clueless men in drab, even if they had stolen her body and body of evidence.

So that ruled out asking for another exit, even though Vi was pretty sure Afoniki had several.

“We still need to track down the other person….”

“Other person?”

Vi couldn’t put her finger on just why the question felt menacing. She really wished she weren’t standing on the transparent floor. She turned enough to see him, while still moving toward the escalator. Not that it represented safety. There could be crazy, bad guy traps on it, too. Electrocution. Metal teeth. She blinked. Or maybe she was just really tired.

“Yeah, your double was with someone. Just someone not someone’s…double.” Yeah, she was really tired. “I guess it could have been someone’s double, but not someone that someone recognized as someone’s…double.” She wished she could make herself stop talking.

Joe had his usual lack of expression on his face, but she sensed he wished it, too. Vi clamped her lips shut. Felt more words try to punch their way out. She had one foot on the escalator when the two men in drab appeared at the top. On the upside, the sight of them killed the babbling impulse.

* * *

Vi’s sudden lack of coherency was troubling. And confusing. Most unlike her.

She is scared.

What does she fear? Joe had not seen her show fear, even when he believed he would have to shoot her. She was the bravest human he had ever met. And the most—he cut off that thought as unprofitable.

It.

Oh. He paused, studying her. This does not look like fear. Or what he thought fear would look like on her face. She appeared exhausted. And she did not seem to care for the transparent floor. If he were honest, he did not care for it either.

She had to move aside as the two MITSC agents descended. They had a certain…

flair…

Joe could only agree, though with reluctance. He knew he lacked flair. Why this bothered him more than his current lack of information was also not clear.

They should not have it. They should blend in, merge.

So why aren’t they?

And what do they know? Or not know? Lurch finished, instead of postulating why they were showing their flair.

The two men descended at the same rate that Vi and Joe had, but it felt longer and more…more. Joe noted that Afoniki had risen to his feet, taking his time, as if this were theater and he followed a script. Afoniki didn’t move toward the two men. And they didn’t move toward him when they reached ground level. What did they know? And if they knew—did they have the tools to contain it? To remove the threat? That he wished they did know how to contain it—well, wishing did not make things so. This he had learned during his time in this place. And the other places he and Lurch had hunted.

No one wanted to be the one to break the silence, but in it, Joe sensed the power struggle playing out as gazes clashed and wills were tested.

For himself, Joe found it easy to not speak, since he did not know what to say, or what question to ask. It was possible the MITSC were following the same trail they were, that they had talked to the officers at the MEC, but their purpose in coming here was unclear. The air in the room was thick with testosterone and menace. The clash of strong men against a strong man. Predictably, it was Vi who broke the stalemate.

“We were just leaving,” she said, pointedly to the men blocking the escalator.

“Your purpose in being here?” one of them asked.

Joe thought it was the one on the right.

“Not your business,” Vi shot back.

“What is, er, their business?” Afoniki inquired, strolling a few steps closer. His thin mouth curved a bit, but his expression never altered that Joe could ascertain. Prior to this meeting, he’d only watched him through the screens in interrogation. He’d believed those screens had removed some of the man’s humanity. He did not think this anymore. This was a man who’d never had humanity. He was as without conscience as the ‘it’ they hunted. The thought of combining two such evils was…not a happy thought.

Could this man give up his autonomy? Is it strong enough to subdue him?

That is an interesting question. Lurch sounded intrigued, somewhat curious.

Is it in him? Joe realized the nanite had not said. The time must surely have passed, lost in the arrival of the MITSC.

Inconclusive.

What did that mean? Joe had questions. Vi would have more questions. If they could manage to exit their current situation still functioning. He better understood the earth phrase “touch and go.” And Vi’s more earthy crapeau on a cracker.

The two men did not clear the escalator. They did extract their badges, using same technique of flash and stash. Afoniki held up a hand.

“I’m afraid I wasn’t able to see them.” He strolled closer and held out a hand.

Vi made a small movement, quickly checked. The two men paused, then held up the badges once more. Something in their stances that…suggested Afoniki read from a distance.

“Smith and, er, Smith. And what department…?”

“A classified department.” This time the other Smith spoke.

Vi gave him a Look. Afoniki’s brows rose. He shrugged.

“Fair enough.” He went to a beverage setup close by and poured himself something. This time he did not offer anyone anything. He turned to face them, lifting the glass and sipping from it as his gaze studied the two men, then tracked to Joe and Vi. If ‘it’ had infested Afoniki, then it had found fertile ground for its evil. Joe sensed something feral in the cooled air. The fine hairs on his body rose.

Could these two make a major crime figure and two police detectives disappear?

They think they can. Lurch felt more than usually ironic.

The silence stretched—and snapped when their communication tech shrilled. Even the two MITSC jerked at the sound. Afoniki appeared to tense.

“It is the Captain,” Joe said. The air changed, though Joe was not certain if it was for better or for worse.

Vi tapped her device. “Captain Uncle?”

The two Smiths exchanged looks. Joe thought he sensed uncertainty from them. It was one thing to make a couple of detectives go missing, but when one of them was related to most of the police force and beyond….

Vi’s side of the conversation was not overly informative, until she looked at her timing device. “Yeah, we’re heading in right now. Be there in ten. Or less.”

Afoniki set down his glass and moved toward Vi, sending the tension scale rising again.SneakPeek-Cover-SuckerPunch

“You forgot your card, Detective.” He held out a white square that Joe knew was a business card. Normally not something to fear, but ‘it’ could use even this innocuous electronic device to wreak havoc if it had been infested with drones.

With an almost imperceptible pause, Vi took the square. Joe noted that her fingers did not touch Afoniki’s. That reduced the risk, but did not eliminate it.

“Can’t blame a girl for trying,” she said, lightly, turning away before Afoniki could respond. She strode up to the two Smiths. Their pause was very perceptible, but they finally stepped aside, one to the left, the other to the right. Vi angled to avoid brushing against them as she stepped on. A move Joe mimicked. As they were lifted up, Joe looked back, wondering if they’d ever see Afoniki again. That he did not mind, did not overly trouble Joe. He saw the two Smiths watching him and looked away. But he carried the look in their eyes with him as he followed Vi out.

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