MERcURY IS HoT
I wanted to get the nasty thing back to the Procyon lab ASAP, but Ramos and Loredana overruled me. Ramos ranted about disturbing a crime scene, while Loredana was worried we might lose whatever tenuous connection the piece of astral fury might have to its surroundings. She didn’t want to risk our tracking efforts.
So, she brought Tracking into the woods.
Liz prowled around the tentacle. She had it stuffed inside a clear container. The way she looked at it suggested a cat watching a fishbowl—except this fish was already dead and was technically only a ruined fin.
The tentacle sat in a clear, fizzing solution of — something. Liz had listed the chemical compounds but all I got out of it was that the stuff preserved the limb. A quartet of white boxes surrounded the container, each one trailing gray and blue wires that snaked into the liquid.
“It should have sublimated, even in the solution.” Liz peered so close to the container her breath feathered the cool, transparent acrylic. “But it didn’t.”
“No kidding.” I leaned against the tree that Bowen had impaled with icicles. They dripped steadily as they melted in the warming weather. A broken branch dug into my spine. Didn’t make me move. Whatever we were dealing with was an anomaly. I hated the thought. Give me monsters that evaporated once I’d slain them.
“Does the dual nature of the creature have any bearing?” Loredana stood a foot from the box, her arms folded. She was dressed like she was on her way to a board meeting, all business and elegance, but she glared at the piece of astral fury like its existence was a personal affront. “It’s tethered to both this dimension and the other.”
“Could be.” Liz consulted a tablet screen. Didn’t take off her shades to read the indecipherable glowing symbols mixed with regular old letters and numbers. “There’s definitely waves of dimensional distortion, similar to what we see when rips open and close, but there’s aspects too that are like when Gemini triggers his portals. So, it’s simultaneously drawing its existence from the Interstice like astral fiends do but it also bypassing the typical transit methods.”
Gemini. Dominic Zein. The guy who could not only teleport from Point A to Point B on Earth, but through the Interstice—safely—to my home dimension of Meda. Oh, and he captured his evil twin from an alternate version of Earth, thus preventing a pandemic or something. Nice guy. A little bossy, but then again, I was surrounded by a lot of people with that trait.
I tapped my phone against my belt. His number was right there. Who better to help me chase down a hard-to-find monster that so far was eluding our best Tracking gimmicks?
But the guy had a life. And a wife. Someone who he loved dearly and, I’d guess would be hesitant to be away from to put himself in more danger.
I glanced at Loredana. Heat burned my cheeks. Speaking of married, I was gonna be the same guy soon.
“If we’re done brining or pickling or whatever you’re doing to that rubbish,” Niall muttered, “I’d best be on the prowl for our adversary.”
“Easy, Fido.” I said. “Let Liz pinpoint the guy before we go rampaging across the city.”
“We could have been doing just that, rather than standing about as if waiting for fair maidens to serve us meat and mead. I’ll not lounge while I could be scouring the streets for the fiend!”
“I for one would rather narrow the search.” Ramos had his hands on his hips. The sun glinted off his SCPD badge. “And before anyone gets any ideas about ‘prowling,’ let me remind you that neither of you men are affiliated with Procyon Foundation. You’re sure not authorized by our task force.”
“Peasant soldiers?” Niall sniffed. “I think not. This is the realm of sorcery, constable, and I’ll thank you to leave the real warriors to it.”
Ramos took a step toward the red-headed man with the sword—same guy who could turn into a fanged werefox—before Bowen shot a wall of ice between them.
“Wow. Oh, wow.” Liz lifted her sunglasses but immediately winced and put them back into place.
“Confound it all, Niall!” Bowen snapped. “This constable of the law is a servant of the Most High, and you would quarrel with him? We are the strangers in this land. We would heed his counsel if we are to succeed in our quest.”
“This again.” Niall sighed. “What would you have me do? Gaze into the lady’s magical glass and twiddle my thumbs until she gives me a command?”
“Well, you don’t have to wait around—I mean, by yourself.” Liz stood quickly. She bumped the container with her shoe, setting the suspension liquid sloshing. The fizzing intensified, obscuring the tentacle fragment behind bubbles. “So, I mean, I could take you to some of the possible locations to investigate. Not that I brought my car. I didn’t. Garvey drove but he’s a really good driver and—”
Niall smiled. “It is not that I would not find the company pleasant, but the sooner I can end my hunt in this strange dreamland, the sooner I can get Bowen back to our ship and home to our isle.”
“It’s not a dream.” Liz’s voice barely rose over a whisper. “Why would you say that?”
“Because the real world has angels in it.” Niall’s sword was jabbed into the dirt by his leg. He wrested it free, swiped dirt from the blade across his sleeve, and stowed it in his scabbard. He gave the ice wall a shove. It was only a couple inches thick, so it toppled.
Ramos stepped back, letting the ice shards crumble around him. Niall brushed past. Ramos’ hand snapped around his bicep. “If I hear reports of you messing around in my city, I don’t care what your ‘magic’ is—I’ll lock you up so fast you’ll get your tail caught between the bars. Comprende?”
Niall snarled and broke free. He stormed toward the neighborhood.
Liz sank down beside the container. I knelt next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. That Niall. What a tool.
“I apologize for his behavior,” Bowen said. “Niall’s temper is as untamed as a cyclone. Were he not more kin to me than a brother of my own blood, we could have very well dueled to our demises years ago.”
“I get that he’s impatient,” I said. “But he’d better grow up. We’re not gonna get anything done by running off without a plan, one at a time. This is a team. No room for solo acts. The sooner you two get that, the better.”
“I understand, Mercury, but keep in mind, he is also my crew. Thus, he looks to me for orders—and I have none with which to satisfy him.”
“What?” I asked.
“Not a thing, sir.” He smiled and donned his sunglasses. “Come on, Captain Cord. I had better make sure my people don’t handcuff your friend to the nearest squad car.”
Once they were gone, Liz sucked in a breath. She stood, rubbing at the corners of her eyes, which were still hidden by the shades. “Okay. So, I’ve got Cyril running extrapolations on the astral fury’s appearances, and with the data we get from the dimensional distortions enveloping this piece, we shouldn’t have any trouble figuring out where the astral fury is.”
I gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Nice work. I’ll distract our wayward magicians in the meantime. How about it, Loredana? Pizza at Carlito’s?”
She blushed. I mean, full on red cheeks. This is the lady who emptied an automatic weapon at zombies and astral fiends in the middle of a torrential downpour. “Sadly, I have a Chamber of Commerce luncheon to attend. Procyon’s public arm must continue to support community initiatives if we’re to maintain at least a semblance of secrecy about what we really do.”
“But.” She kissed my cheek. “Do be a lamb and bring me mozzarella sticks.”
I helped Liz gather up the devices scattered around the tentacle, stowing them into a bag that reminded me of the kind used to carry a slow cooker, then lifted the box itself. “Hey, you said you rode here with Garvey. Did he bring his van?”
“Procyon Security?” Liz wrinkled her nose. “Yeah. It smells like boy.”
“Perfect.” I grinned. “I’ve got an idea to cheer up Niall.”
Ramos shook his head.
“Oh, come on. It’s ideal!” I spread my arms.
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Ramos,” I groaned. “Don’t be such a baby.”
“We don’t know anything about him! He could kill people!”
“Could, but won’t, because of Bowen his captain.”
“Look, the guy is a warrior from another planet and for all we know, another time period. He’s a great asset! And plus, I broke his gun.”
“So take him to a sporting goods store! Or Wal-Mart! Dios mio, Mercury, there’s background checks and rules for a reason! Too many people are trigger happy without adding a volatile alien vigilante to the mix.”
“I’m not asking you for permission, you realize.”
“But you’re asking my blessing. I won’t give it.”
“Fine.” I rolled my eyes. “I’ll get Loredana to hire him for Procyon Security. Then this conversation will continue with her. But I need all the help I can get on this one, Ramos, and short of calling in the superhero gang…”
“You should, you know. Call them.”
“We’re not quite at crisis level, yet. It’s one monster.” I pointed at the open door of the Procyon van. “And we’re about to add our own.”
Garvey, one of the Procyon Security veterans, was describing his inventory to Niall. Did I say inventory? I should call it, armory. MP5 machine guns. Beretta semi-automatics. Shotguns and rifles and an assortment of pistols. Garvey himself was best described as a weapon, albeit a thick-bodied brawler with a beard that he’d grown out over the past few months. Brown hair swept the edge of his collar. His buzzcut hadn’t gotten any longer.
Niall stared into the van, mouth agape. The guy who spoke of angels looked like he’d seen one.
“Oh, hey, Mr. Hale.” Garvey nodded. “I’m showing Mr. … Phelan, right? Mr. Phelan what’s available. He seems partial to the FN.”
The FN being a SCAR battle rifle. Niall turned it over in his hands. “And—the ramrod?”
“No need.” Garvey went through the drill of loading, aiming, emptying, the whole nine yards. Niall accepted it back. He held it at his shoulder, like he was born to shoot it.
“I cannot believe this exists,” Niall murmured. “And here I fawned over a well-oiled wheellock mechanism.”
“If you’re good, sir, I got these ready for him.” Garvey passed Bowen a black duffel bag. From the way Bowen shouldered it I gathered it weighed a ton. “Couple of pistols, easily concealed under their clothes—holsters, extra mags. The works.”
“What, no Procyon Security shirts?” I asked.
“Two ballcaps.” Garvey gave me a crooked smile. “Didn’t have their sizes.”
“My man.” I squinted into the dark recesses of the van at a bulky device that looked like a radar gun and a floodlight had a child. “You’ve got the portal gun out for a spin?”
“It was under review by some Procyon techs from the Chicago office. They took a liking to it, but Liz wanted it back pronto.” Garvey shrugged. “Says she’s got a brainstorm.”
“Those are usually awesome.”
Niall and Bowen armed themselves with pistols. Niall slung the rifle by its strap. I gestured at the bag. “Better stow it for now. It’s, uh, frowned upon to walk around in daylight with that puppy on a leash.”
“I’ll not let this out of my sight,” Niall said. “Never.”
“You think that’s great?” I clapped him on the shoulder. “Wait until you taste pizza.”
Twenty-Second and DeLeon. My home away from home. Okay, second home, I guess, if you counted Procyon. My shoes squeaked on white tile floors. I ran a hand over the olive-green paint on the walls.
Niall inspected the black and white photos of celebrities. “These are warriors of great fame?”
I chuckled. “Suppose you could call Stallone that, yeah. Let’s get a table. You guys need a pie.”
Twenty minutes later, we had a gorgeous pepperoni and sausage pizza casting steam from the center of a four-top. Bowen ate his slice with the slowest chews. I swore time itself had failed. And Niall? He wouldn’t stop grinning, even with cheese trapped between his teeth.
“We’re truly indebted to your hospitality, Mercury.” I was impressed Bowen waited until his mouth wasn’t bulging with his last bite. “I wish we could return that favor.”
“I don’t make a habit of playing tourist on other worlds.”
“But the physician—he said this is not your home, did he not?”
A big white metro bus flashed by the window. I gazed at the traffic, the crowds on the sidewalk, the bike messengers zipping between everyone, even the homeless guy pushing his shopping cart full of cans and cardboard. Seagulls. Sirens. Kids swearing. Music blaring from a low-rider. Old ladies laughing at a joke as they passed us.
“He’s right. Sort off.” I snagged a pepperoni round off a pizza slice. “I wasn’t born here, not even in this world, let alone this city. But San Camillo’s where I grew up. It’s where I learned everything I needed to know. It’s where I found friends—family. And when I discovered where I really came from, it just expanded the definition, you know? Of home. Those chances I’ve gotten to go to Meda, I walk stone streets and think, ‘I’m home.’ Then I come back through a portal to San Camillo and smell garbage stinking in the heat and the hot dog water and the bay breeze... It’s the same feeling. I’m in both places.”
Bowen nodded, a smile broadening on his face. “There is an isle I call home. Yet I cannot deny the joy it brings when I set foot on the deck of Northwind, riding the currents that carry us across the Atlan. A man can give pieces of his heart to more than one land, so that he finds comfort wherever he may be. Yet, that is not all that comforts the soul.”
“This is when he would start in the sermon.” Niall dragged cheese off his slice with his teeth. He belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Let me be the one to rescue you.”
“Thanks.” I chuckled. “Appreciate you guys helping on this.”
“Not a great deal of choice in the matter, but Bowen seems to trust you.” Niall slurped his glass of beer. Then he sneezed. “That accursed foam. Mind, I cannot fathom how it’s possible he remembers being in this dreamland without it having happened yet, but I’m not one to dwell on the philosopher’s questions. I need only a target and a weapon to discharge.”
“Got that fixed up for you, didn’t I?”
“You did.” Niall sneered. “Yet you still owe me a pouch of silver for the ruined musket.”
That got a good laugh from Bowen and me. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon—pizza, beers, good (but strange) company.
So of course, that’s when the people on the street started screaming.
My phone rattled across the table, clattering to the floor before I could catch it. In the few seconds it took to duck underneath and return with it, a car slid down the street upside down, its chassis burning.
“Well now,” Bowen murmured. “I would say your hunt has been curtailed, Niall.”
The astral fury squeezed between the buildings on Twenty-Second. Tentacles—including one that was truncated—slashed at the offices on either side, shattering glass. People scattered in all directions.
Squeezed? Yeah. It was forty feet tall. When had it been taking evil monster steroids?
“What’s our strategy?” Niall snapped.
“Get to the car and get your weapons.” I reached down by the seat and retrieved a backpack. Liz and Loredana made sure I’d left Procyon with it in my car, especially since I didn’t have it during my last daylight brawl with the astral fury.
It didn’t hurt that the suit amplified my powers.
I unzipped the backpack on my run toward the back of Carlito’s. Nobody stopped me, because the customers and employees fled out the doors to the street and the alley like rats off a sinking ship.
“Whelp!” Niall had his hand on the door. “Where are you headed?”
“To the can!” I snapped. “Where else am I gonna put on my superhero suit?”