MERcURY OFF COURSE
Guess what? His name wasn’t Cletus. It was Randy.
Our rescuer—hang on, assistant rescuer, because I had the situation totally in hand—took us on a winding right up and down what felt like every side street in North Beach, Miami. Not to be confused with North Beach, San Camillo, which wasn’t nearly as pretty and still bore scars from repeated astral fiend attacks.
Loredana embraced me as soon as I staggered out of the pickup’s bed. Wish I could have rested up for a bit. My otherworldly origins meant I could heal faster and absorb more damage, but man, getting smacked around still hurts.
“Y’gon need medical attention?” Our rescuer leaned against the open door of his pickup truck. Calling him square-jawed was to put all squares everywhere to shame. Guy was rocking a sleeveless black T-shirt and rumpled blue jeans, and a mullet that would have done Kurt Russell proud. In fact, his entire look screamed Big Trouble in Little China. Eyes as bright as the clear sky were the only thing that made me think he might be dangerous—well, that and his muscled arms decorated with cross tattoos, one cluster on each shoulder. Were those drops of blood inked down his wrists?
“I’m good. Thanks. For that, and the help.”
He pointed, without breaking his stare. “Might tell that to your leg.”
I glanced down. Ah. The prosthetic’s ankle was twisted 45 degrees. I braced it against the tire and shoved until it was in roughly forward orientation.
Loredana cupped my face in her hands, fingers brushing the whiskers which had miraculously sprouted since I’d foregone shaving a few days in a row. “Are you certain you don’t need to be examined?”
“Only in the brain.” I tapped the side of my head.
“Of that I have no doubt.” She goosed me before presenting her hand to this Randy guy for a handshake so formal it could have been offered to a prime minister. “Loredana Lark, Operations.”
“Randy Kyle.” The drawl struck me as familiar.
Loredana must have been waiting for more, like specific title, because we stood there with seagulls for background noise. She arched an eyebrow.
“‘Fraid that’s all you’re going to get, ma’am.” Randy extricated a toothpick from his pocket and went after the gap between a couple teeth like he was heading up an archaeological expedition. “Cordelia don’t prefer I talk to strangers about my line of work.”
“We didn’t figure you for a volunteer, Randy.” I jerked a thumb at the parking lot and its motley collection of cars. We were a few hundred yards from the beach, surrounded by restaurants. “But if this is your secret lair, you’ve gotta up your game.”
“You must be him.”
“Well, since I’m not the her…”
“Gentlemen,” Loredana said. “Let’s not keep Delia waiting, shall we?”
Randy made a gentlemanly bow and gestured for Loredana to cross the street. There was a Cuban restaurant called El Huerto on the other side, with a red neon sign that read “Closed.”
I was a step behind her when Randy put a hand on my chest. “No can do, partner. Cordelia’s instructions—Ms. Lark first, then us.”
“How about you quit touching me and we try that again.” I shrugged off his grip.
“Hold on.” Randy lifted the edge of his shirt. The butt of a pistol protruded from behind his belt. “Just ‘cause I heard stories of you don’t mean I’m inclined to let you run all over creation without proper escort. ‘Specially since Ms. Lark’s been a guest before, and you ain’t.”
Ain’t? Curiosity overcame my desire to remove this guy’s head. “Come on. You’re Operations, right?”
He shook his head. “Independent contractor. Emphasis on ‘independent.’ But Cordelia and me, well, let’s say we’re old classmates. Share an alma mater and everything.”
“I’ll let you two compare class rings once I get inside. You’ve got to have some Procyon access, though, if you know who I am.”
“Sure. It’s informal.” Randy grinned. “My old man was partial to a tall tale or two when he’d had enough whisky in his system.”
Old man… The mullet… The drawl I now recognized… “Jack Jackson.”
Randy winked and pantomimed shooting me. “Circle gets the square.”
“As in, Hollywood Squares?” I blinked. “Original or reboot?”
“Reboot. I ain’t that old.” Randy glanced at his watch—a smartwatch, I realized, with a black screen and the word “Proceed”
glowing in gold. I’d have been less surprised if it were LCD and with a Velcro strap.
He led me over the crosswalk to the restaurant’s white stucco front with long, narrow windows of tinted glass. A second sign underneath “Closed” read, “Take-Out Only” in English and Spanish, with a phone number available. Red and green Christmas lights framed their interior. The orange roof tiles were chipped, their flakes littering the sidewalk, but as Randy pushed open the door, I could have cared less. The beguiling aroma of ham and swiss Cubanos, the tang of ceviche, and the desire for a cold bottle of beer no matter what the brand left me salivating. I surreptitiously wiped the corner of my mouth.
Music drifted across the tables, a Latin beat that got my fingers tapping against my leg. What I wouldn’t give for another dance with Loredana. We’d been out once a week since the honeymoon—nightclubs, dance halls, even a senior center. Hey, it was a fund-raiser for their new building and Loredana’s a big deal in community relations.
Randy wove between the empty tables and leaned on a counter that was drowning in menus and tourist brochures. If you wanted to parasail, snorkel, or eat Stromboli while parasailing in a snorkel, the counter of El Huerto was the place to find it.
“Señor Kyle.” The man behind the Square payment tablet—no old-school register, unless it was underneath—plucked a green notepad from the pocket of his floral shirt. He had curly white hair and a thick, wavy moustache. “What will it be?”
“Bottle of Corona for me, Eduardo. House Cubano, with pickles, for my friend.” Randy produced a credit card from his wallet.
“Hey, man, come on. I’ll get it.” Provided I remembered my wallet, or card, or cash.
“Nah. Company money.”
“Yours or Procyon’s?”
The owner ran the card. He shouted orders to the kitchen. Male and female voices shouted in response. “I will send when they’re ready.”
“Beer me first. Gotta check the pantry.”
Eduardo retrieved a bottle from the cooler behind him. “You just add these to your stash, right? Never actually drink one?”
“I’m prepared. Like a Boy Scout.” Randy slapped me on the back. “C’mon. Pantry.”
Didn’t really want to follow him but since I was pretty sure Loredana wasn’t hiding in the ladies’ room, I followed Randy to an alcove. A red curtain covered the back wall. He slipped between the folds.
Huh. Really was a pantry, stocked with every kind of canned bean and vegetable you could imagine. “This where they keep the salad fixings?”
Randy popped the top of his bottle and sipped it, as he counted down from the center of the top row, then over three to the right. He pushed the can of black olives.
The entire wall slipped soundlessly back three feet.
“Stay close. Arms tight.” He shoved me forward.
“Listen.” I stood close enough to get a whiff of whatever product he used on his locks. The floor wasn’t tile there. My shoes scraped metal. “If you keep with the hands—”
We dropped so fast I swore I’d left my stomach ten feet above.
Blackness shut off the square of light overhead. My eyes strained in the dim yellow bulbs set into the walls and the floor. The corridor stretching ahead of us was barely wide enough for me to extend my arms. Puddles littered the concrete. The rumble of machinery drowned out most other noises. I spotted the glow of electronics in a brightly lit room about twenty feet ahead.
“Don’t want to leave the ladies waiting too long,” Randy said as we headed for the light. “You know how they gossip.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s literally what you’re doing.”
He chuckled, and I did my best to remain cynical and sarcastic—because inwardly, I was jumping up and down. Secret entrance! Underground base! Beneath a restaurant!
If Procyon’s headquarters was underneath Carlito’s and I had to smell pepperoni pizza all day, I’d never have any money.
We passed five metal doors, unmarked, stained with rust. Even the concrete walls felt damp. But the corridor opened into a room that shared a lot with Tracking back at home, only on a smaller scale—three desks with computer screens, scattered equipment lockers, and a big, sprawling monitor that took up a wall. Probably thirty feet long, and my height. It was just as damp in the room as it was in the hall. I wondered who thought it was a good idea to have a basement in this part of Miami—or any part, for that matter.
“About time the boys joined us.” Cordelia Keyes leaned against one of the desks, with a tablet nestled in the crook of her arm. She was a tall, slim woman with high cheekbones and coppery brown skin. Her classy black skirt and jacket with a scarlet blouse were in direct contrast to Randy's casual Friday garb. “Good to see you, Mercury.”
“Hey, Cordelia.” I dragged a wheeled chair across the floor and positioned myself next to Loredana, who was working on a plate of nachos slathered in cheese and pork. “Good thing I got my order taken upstairs.”
“We wouldn’t want you to starve,” Loredana said. “Delia and I were catching up.”
“Saved the briefing for the grownups?” Randy propped his feet on a keyboard.
“Only so we don’t have to repeat it, and with smaller words.” Cordelia shoved his boots off with her tablet.
“Hate to break up the party, but when my food comes, I’ll have to take your super-cool secret elevator back upstairs.” I jerked my thumb toward the corridor.
An orange light pulsed next to a storage locker off to the left. Randy pushed his chair, rolling to intercept. He opened the locker and… My sandwich?
I bet my jaw dropped far enough to create a second basement. “Your secret base has a dumbwaiter to the restaurant?”
“Got to stay subtle and fed.” Randy handed me the plate.
I took a ravenous bite of the sandwich. “You guysh are th’ besht.”
Loredana snickered. “I think we can proceed, Delia.”
“All right, kids. As you might have already guessed, Syndax is in town.” Cordelia swiped a display on her tablet. “They’ve been staying low to the ground—until your loud arrival.”
“Hey, the only thing loud was the automatic weapons fire they introduced.” I used the sandwich to wipe sauce from my plate. Too bad I was on the clock. I could have used a nap after scarfing an entire Cubano.
“We did do our fair share in retaliation.” Loredana crossed her arms. “Have you been able to deduce their aims in Miami, Delia?”
“Si. They’re not subtle.” Cordelia smiled. “If anything, they’re clumsy. I suppose the repeated tachyon dosing doesn’t improve their mental capacity.”
Randy snorted. He swigged a bottle of Corona. “Dumber than a discounted box of rocks at Wal-Mart.”
I didn’t figure how that made the rocks dumber but, hey, his quip, not mine. “Let me guess: You’ve had them abducting and trying to sacrifice families so they could bring astral fiends over to Earth for late night snacks.
“That’s a big negative,” Randy said. “I’ve been tailing them. No abductions. Shoot, not even any gunfights until y’all showed up.”
“They’ve focused their activities on charters.” Cordelia highlighted a section of docks on Miami’s shoreline, tracing a loop on her tablet as the image repeated on the room’s massive screen. “Deep sea.”
“Charters. As in, boats?” I frowned. “Don’t tell me they’ve taken up fishing.”
“I doubt it. More likely, they’re looking for something.” Cordelia brought another screen up, this one filled with numbers and calculations and all kinds of formulas I had trouble with in high school. Still had trouble, actually. The only math I wanted to do was when it came to my paycheck and how much got eaten up by the feds and the State of California.
“I trust Elizabeth was able to forward the scans she has undertaken in pursuit of our quarry.” Loredana snitched the last pickle from my plate before I realized her hand had moved. Man.
“She did, and her data helped us correlate the strange readings we’ve been getting off the coast. Procyon’s satellites and oceanic buoys kept pinging fluctuations in background radiation—nothing bad, but nothing good, tampoco.”
The map expanded, taking in the Caribbean and eastern Atlantic. I grinned as I recognized the contours of the region. Any connoisseur of the weird—and popular culture—would recognize the area beyond the Bahamas, with Puerto Rico and a certain tiny island to the north. “They’re going to the Bermuda Triangle.”
“I’ll be,” Randy murmured.
“Syndax isn’t the only one.” Cordelia swiped one more time. Two red dotted lines crept out across the USA and wound up in the leftmost corner, near the edge of the Bahamas island chain. “These are the routes Liz calculated. Spatial distortions preceded by tachyon bursts. One began in Oklahoma City before ending here early this morning.”
“The cyber-spiders.” Loredana pursed her lips.
“Good name, right?” I nudged Loredana. “See, he agrees.”
Loredana shook her head but continued, “Delia, can you give us precise coordinates to this rendezvous? I would very much like to be on site so we can apprehend both creatures.”
“We can get the wheels in motion, honey, but it’s not a simple matter of walking down to the quay and hailing a boat like you’d call for a taxi.”
“Yep.” Randy snapped his toothpick and tossed the pieces into a trash can. “‘Specially with all the ruckus you pair caused. Cops are going to keep a close watch on the roads… Hold the phone. Your car.”
“Is trashed, yeah, good memory.” I rolled my eyes.
“No, genius, I meant, it’s no trick to pull the plates and see where it came from. As in, the rental agency. As in, the airport.” Randy frowned. “Surprised I ain’t seen your faces splashed across my phone.”
“Procyon will deflect any fallout from the unfortunate incident on the freeway,” Loredana said. “No doubt Delia is already aware of the necessary machinations.”
Cordelia smiled. “You’re not wrong. I’d give up Whoopie pies if I never had to have another phone call from Hector Alvarez.”
I winced. “He knows?”
“How can the man not? Law enforcement calls the airport—and that gets TSA involved…”
“Homeland Security, too.” I rubbed my forehead. Suddenly I was glad Loredana had stolen the last pickle, because my appetite vanished.
Randy tapped my shoulder with something cold and solid—an unopened bottle of Corona.
“Thanks.” I pried the cap off with one end of the pulsar stave and took a decent glug.
“Unreal,” Cordelia murmured. “Did he just use the weapon—?”
“I’ve found it best to not dwell on the idiosyncrasies of his personality.” Loredana gestured to the map. “Back to our procurement question, if I may.”
“Of course.” Delia was still frowning at me. “Like I said, I can get you a boat, but it’ll take some doing. Give me twenty-four hours. That’ll also give you time to recover from your ordeal and for some of the heat to die down.”
“Wait for Miami to come up with more crime.” Randy belched and wiped the back of his mouth. “Make you old news.”
“Solid plan.” I clinked my bottle with his. “So, who’d you have in mind for a boat captain on our—how long of a cruise is it, anyway?”
“About six hours to the coordinates,” Randy said.
“Teacher’s pet,” I muttered.
“I’m the pilot, bonehead,” he said. “For your boat.”
“Oh. Right.” I drummed my hands on my thighs and stood up. Oof. Too fast. My stomach churned Good thing we weren’t going anywhere soon. “You guys got a place to crash?”
“The hotel. Randy will take you down the passage.” Cordelia stared me like I was an exotic creature—probably zoo-level exotic, not as weird as a cyber-spider. “I’ll text you the particulars this evening. If Syndax makes a move, be prepared to accelerate the timetable. But our best bet is to depart tomorrow morning. This may not be as simple as it seems.”
“Is it ever?” Loredana and Cordelia hugged. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
Randy slapped my back. Again. Next time, no joke—I’d whack him with the pulsar stave. “Catch you later, Dee. Come on, Mercury. Let’s go find what’s behind Door Number Two.”
I made a show of crossing my index and middle fingers on both hands. “If it’s anything other than a hidden passage to a nearby hotel, I’ll be bummed.”
Randy did the finger-guns thing and led us back into the dark hallway.