MERcURY OFF COURSE
By the time we rowed back to the shoreline behind the nearest houses, more lights joined the show. Red and blue ones.
Really hoped it wasn’t Homeland Security. Because if they got here as fast as we did, I’d have to wonder if they had anything better to do with taxpayer dollars.
“Come on! You guys have to get out of here!” Oz was slinking around the base of the trees like this was Platoon and he was about to go all Charlie Sheen on the enemy approaching from the street.
“Relax, kids.” The rain had let up to a drizzle, which gave me a chance to slip into my shirt and drag my jacket back on. Wasn’t dry as I would have liked, but hey, I wasn’t freezing anymore, so, bonus. “We’ve had a lot of experience talking our way out of these situations.”
“Though I would rather avoid them.” Loredana sounded weary. My body felt the same. She yanked another cord on the raft and it deflated so fast I wondered if there was now a giant gaping hole underneath. “Help me stow this, would you?”
We rolled the sopping wet bundle up into her backpack, which bulged against the hasty packing job. It was worse than repacking your luggage at the end of a vacation. I dismantled the oars and shoved them into my pack, alongside the stasis initiator.
“It’s probably Mr. Hardt, from the gatehouse.” Iggy frowned. “I can tell him you guys had to leave and… We set off firecrackers! That’s why he thought he heard guns shooting.”
“Good plan, kid. But let’s check out who our visitors are, first, because if it’s local PD, they might not fall for that. And Hardt already thinks we’re here from the police.”
“Duh, Iggy,” Oz said.
“He didn’t tell us that!” Iggy snapped. “Shut up!
“Truce, gentlemen.” Loredana touched their shoulders. “Thank you for your assistance. If there are times in the future in which you may need our help, or you come across instances of the, how shall we say, strange, do not hesitate to contact us.”
“Are you seriously gonna give these kids your business card?” I murmured.
“We can find your website and email her,” Iggy said.
“What’s a business card?” Oz asked.
Loredana smirked at me. “How does it feel to be among the newly aged?”
I shook my head as our group crept through the backyards, toward the street. Made it easier to see what kind of response we were dealing with.
Downside? It wasn’t Hardt. A black sedan, unmarked except for a federal government license plate, was the source of the flashing lights.
Upside? It wasn’t a random collection of agents. Bowe got out of the driver’s side door. Three more agents—one Latino woman and two white guys who could have been fraternal twins—joined him.
Sorry, did I say upside? I meant, double downside. Or whatever the term is.
“Guys, do you have a shortcut home?” I whispered. “A way to get to your house without being spotted?”
“Yeah.” Iggy pointed down the block. “But we have to go down by the Kuzara’s and cross the street—”
“Mercury!” Bowe didn’t need a bullhorn. His voice carried sharp enough he could have announced for high school football from the top of the bleachers unaided. “I know it’s you. Come on out, you hear? We pulled your images from the gatehouse.”
I rubbed my forehead. Mercury Hale, ace monster slayer, less-than-genius undercover investigator. “Cameras.”
“Yes. I counted three.” Loredana stood. “Come along.”
“You’re just gonna walk out there?”
“We can hardly afford to dodge Homeland Security while we’re attempting to retrace the cyber-spider,” she said. “I will gladly accept one adversary instead of two.”
“Bet he’s got a different opinion.” I shook my head but made sure I caught up to her before we left the cover of the bushes.
“Hey!” Oz blurted. “What about—?”
Iggy’s hand clamped over his mouth. Oz glowered. His jaw twitched. “Ow!” Iggy hissed. “Don’t worry. I’ll get him—Ow! Quit biting. – I’ll get us home, Mercury.”
I didn’t answer the kid. No point drawing Homeland’s attention to them, as big of trouble as we were gonna be in.
“Mercury Hale, again.” Bowe tipped back his blue ballcap. The yellow and white bobcat symbol shone in the streetlight. “And your blushing bride. Congrats, Mrs. Hale.”
“Lark-Hale.” Loredana stood toe to toe with him. The Homeland agents encircled us, with the twins reaching for their sidearms.
“My mistake.” Bowe waved his guys down. “Easy, fellas. Jimenez, how’s about you offer the happy couple a ride to the office in our vehicle? Vitarelli, you and Passarella take their rental. I bet Loredana here’s got the keys.”
“We’re perfectly capable of traveling without escort,” Loredana said. “What may I ask brings you to Whispering Pines?”
“It isn’t the need for a nighttime stroll in the woods of a gated community.” Bowe jerked a thumb back down the road. “Residents heard gunshots. Security guard told them everything’s fine—one big happy federal law enforcement task force, cooperating with local cops.”
“Don’t bother with the interrogation routine, Bowe.” I tossed the pulsar stave end over end in my hand. “Syndax didn’t show. Bummer for you.”
“So, what, you all were taking target practice out by the pond? Lousy weather for it.”
“Nicer looking than the kitten on your hat.”
Bowe scowled. “Montana State Bobcats. Eleven-four last season.”
“I’m sure the mommies and daddies paying tuition are proud.”
“Don’t go cracking on my alma mater because you didn’t take my warning seriously.”
“Gentlemen.” Loredana raised an eyebrow. “Agent Bowe, unless you have orders to detain us, I suggest you stand aside so we may reclaim our vehicle. Your interference is inhibiting our ability to resolve a critical matter.”
“Could be I do have those orders.” Bowe propped his hand on his holster. I swear he managed to make his badge shine no matter where he was standing or how little light he was in. “I wouldn’t recommend testing them. Don’t think Homeland’s forgotten how Serena vanished from your supposedly top-secret facility.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Our office is under construction after the terrible earthquake it suffered.”
“Right.” He shook his head. “The earthquake and subsequent explosion, that had nothing to do with all of San Camillo Bay hanging in the air over the city, while a whole bunch of people shot at monsters and the undead.”
“Good memory,” I said. “Want a gold star?”
Bowe pointed a finger. “Just you—”
“Agent. Bowe.” I didn’t know about the stubborn guy standing across from her, but I wasn’t about to contradict whatever Loredana had to say. “Stop your posturing, please. It’s unseemly for man of your caliber. If you had been authorized to apprehend us, or even detain us for a short interval, Procyon’s board would have been warned, and my manager Mr. Alvarez advised. Thus, I would have had foreknowledge. I do not. Therefore, I can only surmise your instructions are to surveil and report.”
She walked around him, heading down the street like she expected me to join her for an evening stroll along San Camillo’s Promenade. The Homeland agents swiveled, like they were gonna give chase, but then they glanced at Bowe, one at a time.
Bowe didn’t give orders to arrest us. He didn’t even bother placing a phone call. He lifted his cap, scowling, and repositioned it.
I grinned and trotted after Loredana. Had to clap him on the shoulder as I passed. “Keep that hat, Bowe. Rain might come back.”
We holed up for the night at a Hyatt near Oklahoma City’s airport. It was past midnight, which was becoming a pattern I didn’t enjoy. Of course, I was kicked back in a chair by the window, watching the city lights on the horizon.
“I’d have thought you would be exhausted.” Loredana approached from the bathroom, wearing a robe. She toweled off her hair, the red even bolder again the white fabric. “We had better rest.”
“Had to check on Liz’s scans. She sent them over. I hope she gets some sleep, too.”
“The woman has caffeine for blood, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” I tried a smile, but it evaporated, a lot like our chances of capturing the cyber-spider had.
Out the window, cars trickled down the streets. Not a wild town this late—or early.
“We really should get rest.” Loredana’s hand grazed the back of my neck.
“Keep that up and I won’t get any rest.” Smirk Attempt Number Two failed.
She flicked her fingers. I knew the gesture. As soon as I lifted the phone and sat up from my slouch, she alighted on my lap. “You’re troubled.”
That got a snort out of me. “I think everybody we know would agree.”
“Don’t be obtuse.”
“My specialty.” Ah, there went the grin.
Loredana’s lips pressed firmly together. An eyebrow lifted.
“Yeah, it was the same deal—the panic. I couldn’t get a hold of myself. There wasn’t any reason for it this time. No debris falling. No boardwalk crumbling. At least that made sense. But this was just water.”
“Memories are powerful. Traumatic ones even more so.” She turned my chin so we faced each other. “Perhaps we need to eliminate this memory with a more pleasant one.”
“Like our honeymoon.”
The kiss burned whatever lethargy fogged my senses. I ran my hands up her back, fingers pulling at the robe. But a doubt scratched at the back of my brain. Loredana’s face, determined, focused, as she shot at the cyber-spider… My lousy shots as I tried to capture it.
Oh, no. Not now.
It should not surprise you. The catalog of your failures reaches beyond dimensions, Mercury…
The voice was resonant, and chilling. It faded from a man’s tones to singsong and feminine on the last word as it faded in my head.
The Whisperer, merged with Marigold Yen, plus bits of Alexander Arkwright snide arrogance. What a combo. They liked to mess with my mind, because through my vanquishing of them, they got linked to me. Doesn’t seem fair. Vanquishing should afford a guy perks, right? Not punishment.
I’d been able to keep them at bay, and their murmurings to mere nuisance. But now the voice—or voices—rumbled through me as clearly as if I were listening on my earbuds.
Keep this up and you’ll be known more for what you do wrong than what you do right. Poor warrior, poor leader, poor husband.
I broke from our embrace.
“What is it?” Loredana cheeks were flushed. Her eyes searched my face, as plainly as if she was seeking her next target. “What’s wrong? Are you still hurt?”
“No. I’m good. I’m fine.”
She touched my cheek again, but I intercepted her hand. “Sorry,” I said. “I need a second.”
“You can tell me what it is that bothers you, Mercury. We’re not to keep secrets from each other, even in this line of work.”
“I know. It’s…” I blew out a breath. “Let’s leave it alone, okay? I need to check in on Liz’s results.”
“That is what we should both do.” Loredana pushed away. She found her phone in the pocket of her jacket, which hung next to mine on hotel-provided hangers. A dark splotch of damp carpet broadened as they dripped. “Since we have abandoned this topic.”
“Come on, don’t do that.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could have blasted them midair before they got to my ears.
“Do what, precisely?” Loredana swiped into her phone without matching my gaze.
Keep your stupid mouth shut, Mercury Hale! But I couldn’t help it. The abrasive panic of the day before and this night had worn away my filter. Which sucked for everyone who wasn’t me. “The thing where you wall off as soon as we disagree on something.”
“It has nothing to do with disagreement, as you categorized it.” Her voice was as cool as the frost on the edges of the windowpane. “I ask you a question and expect honesty in return.”
“Look, some stuff isn’t as easy to talk about, especially when it involves freaking out because of something that could have killed me.”
“Then perhaps Doctor Becker was correct in his assessment. You should have been benched.”
“Are you serious?” A distant part of me hollered that she was digging because I’d hurt her feelings. Another part argued that she made valid points and I was the one being the jerk. “How do you not get what I’m going through? When I pulled you out of Arkwright’s temple on Meda, you were all set to walk away from Procyon and me!”
Ouch. Wrong thing to say. Big time. Loredana did meet my eyes, and I could tell I’d crossed a line. Aching from my own pain, I’d sought out and ripped the bandage off hers. Why’d I bring it up? We both knew how hard it had been, getting through those days after I’d rescued her—after she’d spend weeks in an isolated dungeon on a foreign world.
She was near tears.
“Elizabeth’s analysis is nearly complete. We’ll review her findings in the morning.” Loredana snapped her phone down on the bedside table and hurried back to the bathroom.
“Hey, Loredana, wait…”
The door slammed shut. Water ran.
Man. I wasn’t one to agree with the Whisperer’s haunting messages, but he wasn’t far off. Botched the Syndax fight, lost the cyber-fiend, and got on non-speaking terms with my newlywed wife in less than forty-eight hours.
I got up from the chair and made it halfway to the bathroom door, intent on salvaging something from the mess, when the voice rolled over me like a wave. A wave filled with jagged debris.
Whatever you say will make it worse. She is proud and strong. You’re not fit to heal the wound you inflicted, Mercury, when you cannot heal yourself.
“Shut up,” I growled.
Don’t blame us for revealing the truth, the voices hissed. The truth being, you’re as scared and vulnerable as the little boy left wailing in a pizza parlor by dead parents. Failures who begat a failure.
A cold sensation erupted at the small of my shoulder blades.
I shouted and spun toward the wall, pulsar stave alive with blazing energy. Sparks erupted—but not from the weapon. I’d sliced a desk lamp in half.
Loredana emerged from the bathroom, in her “prickly” pajamas. She took one look at the ruined lamp and shook her head. “Good night.”
“Hey, wait.” I sat on the edge of the bed.
But she was already sliding under the covers. Her eyes were rimmed with red. She sniffed, as if she’d developed a sudden cold. Yeah, right. “Good night, Mercury.”
“Good night.” She rolled over. A hand tugged the comforter over her shoulder.
I gazed at my bare feet, hands gripping the edge of the bed. I let the pulsar stave roll onto the floor with a muffled clank. Dead metal, once it was out of my grasp. “Sorry. I love you.”
So, I sat awake in the chair by the window, watching those lights again, wondering how many other guys fouled up so badly they were looking back in my direction.
Man. Really wished there was an astral fiend to slay right then.
I swirled around. Couldn’t tell down from up, back from front.
A massive, shadowy bulk surged beneath—wait, so that was down. And there were ripples of white lights above, past the water’s surface. Floodlamps?
Three rusted funnels yawned. Orange flames sparked from inside.
If it was under water, how was it on fire?
The arms shot up through the darkness, twisted amalgams of flesh and metal, stabbing through my chest.
“Ahh!” I sat up so fast I fell sideways out of the chair.
“Well. Good morning.” Loredana was dressed and ready to go, casual slacks and professional blouse. No trace of our blow-up. No indication she’d been upset—Except, of course, for the steely way in which she regarded my fallen state. “I trust your late night of study was productive.”
“My late—Ah, oh.” I fumbled for my phone. Sure. Liz’s scans. “The cyber-spider’s signature wound up in Florida. That’s—weird. A long way off from San Camillo.”
“Quite. I have made a few calls. There will be a car waiting for us when we arrive.” Loredana grabbed her backpack. “Do be ready for departure.”
I was pretty sure I was gonna still be laying on the floor in shorts and a T-shirt when she took off for Miami, so I got dressed faster than I’d ever slipped into the supersuit.