In her nightmare, the mines of Titan were bereft of light. Their darkness was impenetrable and without end. She stumbled through the stone labyrinth, fingers brushing rock, seeking guidance. All lay smothered in an oppressive blanket of silence.
And somewhere inside was a monster.
She could almost feel him, almost taste his sweat in the air.
A footfall behind her, a hissing rattle that might have been speech, and he was upon her. She ran. She ran faster than thought, itself, faster than her hammering heart - not fast enough to escape the shambling creature behind her.
When his clawed hand touched her shoulder she knew with utter certainty how chill was the grave.
Anna McKenzie awoke with a suppressed scream. Widened eyes darted frantically about, at last resting on the dim light that seeped from the bathroom. Rivulets of perspiration trickled from her forehead and tracked down her cheeks. Her wildly pounding heart threatened to batter its way through her rib cage.
She almost wished it would.
Adrenaline forced her to move. It took an effort despite her panic. Violent shivers made her muscles soften into gelatin and the pain of her wounded thigh protested the motion. Despite her best intentions and the reduced gravity, Annie winced when her bare feet accepted the burden of her body. She limped over the hotel room's powder gray carpeting, wishing that stitches could be made of elastic.
They'd be less painful, she thought wryly.
Cool tiles of white and gold made her shiver when she crossed into the threshold of light. The bathroom was spacious, even for a well-to-do place like the Sheraton-Fountainbleau. A large counter, dual sinks and a luxurious garden tub were welcome amenities after the cramped quarters on New Jerusalem. The agrarian colony was still mostly without running water or electricity. Her first order of business upon returning to Mars had been a hot bath. Weeks of tension had been soothed away during that long, leisurely soak. Too bad she'd had to prop her leg up on the side.
Annie bowed to the white sink like it was an altar and turned on the cold water, letting it run over her head. Gooseflesh prickled as her body reacted to the chill. The shock alone was sufficient to purge her mind of residual memory, and the last images of her nightmare were chased back into the darkened recesses of her mind.
Minutes passed, but eventually she pulled away from the water and dried off, idly wondering why all hotels used white towels. Surely whatever color scheme they chose would outlast them, so why not choose complementary colors?
The reflection that greeted her in the mirror's silver glass seemed vaguely familiar, but it was not the same girl she remembered. Oh the red-gold hair had not faded, and the eyes were still a murky green that sometimes resembled gemstones, and sometimes looked like swamp, but the face was leaner, planed more harshly than in years past. Dark circles betrayed the cost of experience -- each adventure was paid for by robbing the Sandman's coffer. She sighed softly as she returned the damp towel to its bar.
Turning back, her eyes rested on another small betrayal - the crimson tattoo etched into her left cheek. Positioned just below the eye, it was only a few centimeters long, but impossible to miss. R Psi... that ancient Greek symbol branded her a Telepath.
Ah well, Annie m'love, things could be worse. You could be a toothless, one-legged Telepath.
The memory of Iva's joke always brought a smile to her face. She watched in fascination as the corners of her eyes crinkled and twin indentations formed in her cheeks. It seemed that some things stubbornly refused to yield beneath time's sculpting fingers. Those pesky dimples, which transformed her face into that of a school-aged teen, were among them.
Shaking her head, Annie left her illuminated haven. The dim surroundings of her bedroom were soothing. Her gaze traveled over the pale wallpaper of pastel roses and twisting vines. Roses. It's been a long time since you've smelled one of those. In truth, it had been almost 18 years. She'd grown up on Camelot, one of two orbital platforms circling earth. Her parents had taken her and her sister Angela to visit the larger of the platform's two bio-domes. There'd been roses of every size and color there. And the aroma... a heavenly combination of honey and sunshine.
She turned away from the memory before it could become more bitter than sweet, her eyes seeking out a faded photograph casually tossed upon the teak nightstand. Two young girls stared back at her. One had hair the color of wheat and eyes like glimmering sapphires. The other was herself...
How innocent we were, Anj. God, it seems like centuries ago.
Annie lowered herself into an overstuffed chair, and glanced at the room's faintly glowing alarm clock. It was only 0245 hours, too early to start anything, too late to sleep. The dream was waiting for her. Allowing her eyes to close would only invite it back.
So she reached left and plucked up her battered acoustic guitar. The small wooden instrument had seen better days since she'd packed it snugly in its traveling case 17 years ago. Recruits at the Telepath Training Academy were only allowed two pieces of luggage. Annie had sacrificed extra clothing and niceties to bring her favored toy, not knowing that it would become a tangible piece of sanity. It was all that and more. Bringing its metal strings into tune calmed her more quickly than any sedative. Her mind relaxed with each note, coming into alignment as surely as the notes came on key.
The peaceful strains of Beethoven's Hymn to the Night eased around her. Fingers plucked absently and she closed her eyes against the surrounding shadows, swaying as she played. Sometimes she thought that if she could only put the night to sleep with her, then the dreams would go away. So far it hadn't worked.
An irritating chirp from the room's phone made her flinch. With regret she lowered her instrument and moved to answer.
"Good Morning, Mac." The lilting baritone of Edmund Waters greeted her. He did not apologize for waking her; the Dean of Journeymen already knew her erratic sleep patterns. "We have an assignment."
"Of course," she murmured in a calm, inflectionless voice.
The words came unbidden, skulking thieves peeking from the shadowed corners of her mind. Maelstrom pushed them away. She eased soundlessly from the darkened alley and followed her quarry. Her optical implants easily adjusted to the gloom. Just ahead was a young couple. The blonde, a frizzy headed woman in pink tights, was laughing. Her arm encircled the waist of a tall, slender boy who might have been all of twenty-one. Now and then he leaned down to plant a noisy kiss on the offered lips.
She was pretty, at least in pictures. Maelstrom remembered sparkling blue eyes and a wide, friendly smile.
Why her, El?
The target was drunk. Giggling like a mad hatter, the bubble headed woman stumbled over an invisible land turtle and had to hang on to her output's shoulder just to stand upright. Faint traces of alcohol were left behind.
El could have navigated these streets without her cyberoptics. As one of countless street-kids, she had carved out an existence in the New York Metroplex's dank alleyways, learning its secrets, navigating its shadows. The odd combination of old architecture and new technology was now comfortingly familiar.
Any ten credit boosterboy could ice this broad.
Shut up .
The target's handle was Blue Angel, and she worked for LifeSavers, a private medical service owned by Shogunata Industries. Everyone who had enough sense and credits bought a membership in it. El had been a member for years. It was good insurance. Get shot, stabbed, dismembered, and the implanted sensor supplied by the company would alert them instantly. LifeSavers guaranteed a 10 minute response time anywhere on Earth.
She's practically a child.
El crossed the gray streets, passed by a Marilyn Monroe look alike and her Robert Kennedy poser of a boyfriend, and moved into an equally gray alley. At 2:45 AM, things were beginning to slow down. The drunken partiers were content to remain in whatever bar they'd passed out in. Lovesick couples had begun heading home for a quick fuck and a good night's sleep. The deadlier gangs were reveling in recent conquests.
The target was young. El had to own that. Shogunata's information placed her birthplace on Camelot, a high dollar space station where the rich and shameless raised their plastic children in peace and perfection. Blue Angel didn't know shit about survival. She had no fucking instincts, and her too-thin boyfriend seemed not much better.
So why would the company pull out their deadliest solo to off her?
A soft, misted rain began to fall. The tiny droplets stung a little as they impacted the exposed skin of her face.
Acid rain. Welcome to 2113.
Her optical implants made traversing the inky darkness of the alley relatively easy. Bits of newspaper, rolling cans, and reeking cardboard boxes lined it, like some sick god's museum display. Switching to infrared, El confirmed no heat sources. Good . She'd had the alley cleared only an hour ago. The Talons were one of several gangs 'sponsored' by Shogunata. A single phone call was all it took. Now only a few streaks of blood remained. What was left of the bodies had been hauled away.
The sounds of wet, slippery kissing approached as El settled behind a dented garbage bin. The HK VP-98 warmed her palm like a lover's caress. She fingered the worn grips gently. More giggles drifted to her amid the hissing impact of rain.
Five. Her mental clock timed the couple's approach. Four. She closed her eyes. Three. This is the closest you've ever come to killing a child. Two. Aultman is only playing games with you. Her targeting scope came on line, painting the inside of her eyelids with geometric crosses. One.
El opened her eyes in time for Blue Angel to step into her scope. She let go the breath she'd been holding. For an instant the girl's yellow hair froze, her laughing blue eyes gazed into her lover's face, mouth eternally open for another passionate kiss.
She squeezed the trigger.
There was a hissed pop and then the youthful face disappeared as that single bullet penetrated, burrowed, and exploded. In that instant the night was alight with blue fire. Then it was gone. Before the headless corpse had time to collapse, Maelstrom had holstered her weapon and merged once more into the waiting dark.
Her steps were silent, making no more noise than a summer's breeze. Overhead she heard the wailing siren of LifeSavers' hover car. Moments later a police craft warbled a reply. They sounded like a pair of macabre love-birds.
Yeah, except the only birds left alive are seagulls and pigeons. And they don't fucking sing.
She needed a drink. Tonight's piece of work had left her feeling hollow inside. There was a time when killing had given her a sense of euphoria. Each success added to her reputation. Time was when the hunt set her blood on fire, releasing an almost sexual passion that culminated with the kill. Now...now she felt nothing.
Pulling out the cell phone from a hip pocket, she mechanically dialed.
"Yes?" Aultman's whispery soprano greeted.
"Good." There was a seductive softness as the word stretched out. Her employer might as well be complimenting a lover on some innovative technique. "Return. I have a surprise for you."
Maelstrom could hear a cruel smile play across the woman's lips. The sound of it quickened her pulse in anticipation. Her chromed fingers closed the phone's face and threw it aside. She wanted the distraction, needed it. And yet...and yet dreaded it. Dreaded the boundaries of passion that Aultman could shatter. Dreaded the self-loathing that followed the sex.
El shut down her mind, trying to force her body to relax, her breathing to slow, her heart rate to ease.
You've been spiraling downward for a long time. Next time it might be a child. What will you do then?
What could she do? Shogunata Industries owned her contract, and Alexandra Aultman owned her soul.
You don't have one of those.
A headache was born in the thrumming pulse between her temples. It flashed pain like a flickering neon light.
Stop thinking. Just put one foot in front of the other. When you're dancing across thin ice you can't stop. There's no going back because that ice is already weakened. All you can do is just keep dancing until the ice gives way beneath you, or you reach the other side.
David Brimley, sometimes called Brimstone, moved through the polished granite halls of Shogunata Tower with an easy grace. He'd worked the sixty-story building for three years as Chief of Security and was comfortable with his territory. Every day he made the rounds, double-checking computerized defenses, inspecting the two hundred plus cybersoldiers that functioned as guards, and reviewing reports from the previous shifts. When he finished his ritual today, however, there would be a new batch of security screenings waiting on his desk. Creel had been busy.
Elijah Creel was the head snoop at Shogunata. He was a Class 7 Telepath, a designation illustrated in his yellow tattoo, and the most powerful of the cadre contracted out to the company. His rating qualified him for contract verification and moderate psi scans. Not that he conducted many screenings. Those were left to the less powerful espers. Creel reserved his 'talents' for upper level management.
"Chief." His intradermal transmitter crackled, interrupting his musings. He recognized the voice of Lt. Myers, one of the newer security guards.
"We've got two Hounds at the front desk."
What the -
Brimstone stopped short, eyes narrowing. Hound was a slang designation for Psionic Enforcer. Jesus Christ, even other telepaths hate those fuckers . "What do they want?"
"They won't say." Barely contained irritation edged into the younger man's voice. "They want to meet with you immediately."
"Go to Security Condition Alpha." That would put all security units on standby alert. "Have them escorted to conference room 311."
Brimley broke off communication and redirected. "Creel."
"Yes, may I help you?" The man's silky tenor never failed to rankle.
"Meet me in 311. Now."
Without waiting for a reply, the Security Chief strode down the hallway. He switched channels and put in a call to his boss. "Ms. Aultman?"
"Hello, Brimstone." She was slightly out of breath. There was something so seductive in her voice. The young corporate was beyond beautiful. He'd seen her from a distance a time or two, that willowy form, shapely backside, and beautiful platinum hair. "I take it there's a problem?" Her tone was teasingly playful and he struggled once again to marry the voice with the sort of cold-blooded cutthroat it took to run a mega-company like Shogunata.
"We've got two Hounds nipping at our heels. I've put the tower on alert."
"Ah." He did not miss the lack of surprise in her tone. "My, my. That is serious. Keep me posted." There was a pause. "Oh, and I'll send down Maelstrom...just in case a little clean up is required."
"Yes, ma'am." The thought of any close association with the boss' pet assassin unnerved him. It wasn't that he couldn't handle himself. Two tours with the Galactic Marines had prepared him for almost anything. Maelstrom was just...hell, he didn't even know what she was.
Trouble. His mind supplied an answer.
Like I need more of it...
With those thoughts chasing themselves about his head, Brimstone continued toward the conference room. It was going to be a very long day.
Annie sat stiffly in the ox-blood leather chair. It was comfortable enough, but she had not the luxury of relaxation. Today was too important. This was her first assignment on Earth. Journeymen were shuttled from one colony to the next, no tour lasting more than a few months. The grueling experience was designed to round out their skills as well as expose them to the greatest variety of cultures. Each success carried her one step closer to the rank of Master. With that title came a permanent assignment. No more moving... The very thought filled her with a sense of relief.
Her companion stirred impatiently and Annie turned a narrow glance toward him. Thurmon West was a slender man, not very tall, possessing a thinning mass of brown hair. Dirty gray eyes glittered coldly beneath the harsh florescent lights. Like most Master Enforcers, his face was a frigid mask of arrogance. She despised it. Belief in the innate superiority of telepaths was fostered in the Academy. Once, Annie had almost allowed herself to believe it.
No longer. Traveling to colonies like New Jerusalem and Sylth had shown her the strength and tenacity of Normals, how they conquered every obstacle, overcame every setback. Ordinary citizens had scratched out lives on planets where even roaches could not survive.
And that, Annie m'love, is not the lesson that you were supposed to be learning.
Iva again. The warmly rounded black woman fluttered into her mind's eye. Theirs had been an unexpected friendship, more a wildflower growing through a crack in asphalt than a cultivated bed of flowers. It was beautiful in its own way.
Her attention returned outward. This room certainly lived up to the Shogunata reputation for opulence. Polished marble covered walls from floor to ceiling in mottled gray and white. There were micro cameras imbedded in its surface. Annie spotted them with difficulty despite her training - a testament to the quality of concealment. Rich burgundy carpet covered the floor. Beneath it she'd heard a series of pressure plates click softy as she'd walked across. The long, rectangular conference table was made of antique oak. Its value was incalculable.
Her partner shifted, an exaggerated sigh pushing past his thin lips. West's growing restlessness boded ill. He had a reputation for brutal efficiency. When tracking down a 'runner' on Delis, the Master-Level Enforcer had reduced two witnesses to mindless vegetables. The renegade telepath had been found and returned to the Academy for retraining. Word was West had received a commendation.
Their initial encounter had not gone well. The senior telepath's imperious gaze clearly revealed his contempt for Annie's ranking. Barren gray eyes had raked across her uniform, seeking imperfections, darkening when they found none, then resting enviously upon the stylized 'R' interlaced through the crest of her Enforcer's badge. Very few telepaths had earned a commission in the Colonial Rangers. West, it seemed, had coveted one.
Of course, her reputation for being 'soft' in her dealings with Normals didn't gain her any points with him either.
Annie gave herself a mental shake and returned her thoughts to the assignment. Psionic Tampering. The words sent a chill tremor of unease up her spine. Subtle alterations in a Normal's thought patterns caused profound behavior changes. The affected victim had no idea that anything was wrong. Suddenly he or she just didn't value the things they used to. Before the Academy, telepaths had abused this power. Governments rounded the espers up ruthlessly, imprisoning them in concentration camps... or worse...forcing them to be spies. Out of that time of fiery oppression, the Guild was born. With it came new laws, extensive training programs...and the Enforcers.
The sound of an opening door jolted her out of her reverie.
Maelstrom let her optic implants rove over the two Enforcers. The male was older, his gun-metal eyes regarding her like a scientist examining the latest microbe. Cold eyes. So cold... so similar to another pair of eyes...staring into her...
"Don't resist," he'd whispered. "It will only hurt more."
No. Oh please...
El forced the memories aside and replaced tendrils of fear with the comfortable fire of rage. Brimley settled in the chair opposite Hound #1. She elected to lean casually against the wall.
Aultman's triumphant face filled her mind. "What's the matter, Ellie? Are you afraid of two little, tiny, helpless telepaths?" Amused malevolence danced like whirling demons in the depths of her brown eyes. Steel nails on plastic fingers pinioned her neck, digging into flesh, drawing blood. "Well get over it, lover. It won't take long and the thrill will be... delicious." Full lips covered hers roughly, forcing open her mouth. A free hand snaked to her center and pressed. "I always give you what you need, don't I?" She was pushed down into the soft folds of a leather sofa, body arcing into the skillful touches, succumbing to desire. Then the woman was gone.
"Get up," she ordered. An arctic frost descended in her eyes. "Time to go to work."
Brimstone spared a nervous glance toward the tall woman. Despite her relaxed posture, there was tension in her shoulders. She was wired tight.
Course the lady's never been fond of espers. Word was she killed a couple of them on Titan. One was left in little pieces.
Moments later Creel joined them. The telepath's assured gaze swept over all occupants, then silently greeted the Enforcers before he settled at the table.
"All right," Brimley kept his voice low, confident. "Let's get this over with."
Enforcer West began with the usual preliminaries. Government permits and warrants were downloaded from his handheld 'puter to Shogunata's mainframe. Introductions were made on both sides, and there was a minute pause as each considered the other.
Maelstrom turned her gaze to McKenzie and found the woman looking right back at her. Emerald pools studied her intently, meeting her cybernetic orbs without flinching.
El acknowledged this fact absently. The Hound's red-gold hair was cut short, barely reaching her uniform collar, but it framed the lean face with a golden kind of radiance. Tiny wrinkles edged the corners of her eyes.
Distantly she heard the drone of voices. What they said was of little importance. Some snoop had broken the rules, fucked around with the inside of some Normal's head and these two snoops where here to bring him in. Shogunata's lead telepath was denying that any of his precious subordinates could be culpable. So those involved would be mind-sifted until the perpetrator was found, that way everyone's head could be fucked with.
Same old tired song.
The tattoo on McKenzie's face was red, like her senior enforcer's. On her right cheek was an incomplete triangle, missing the bottom-most side, confirmation of her Journeyman status. When she completed her training that triangle would be finished. She dragged her regard lower, taking in the slight swell of breasts almost camouflaged beneath the masculine cut of her uniform. The Hound was a small, fine boned figure. Perhaps a trifle too thin... Her eyes paused on the white-gloved hands resting on the table's smooth surface. There was a softness to them, concealed though they were...almost a gentleness.
El pulled herself away from such thoughts. There was nothing remotely gentle about a telepath.
Annie's heart was pounding...fast. It had started that madcap cadence when a pair of chromed cyber-eyes contacted hers. Maelstrom dominated the room from the moment she entered. She had to be nearly two meters tall. One arm rippled with lean, ropy muscle and the other gleamed a mirrored metal finish matching the woman's optic implants. Her complexion was darkly tanned, like she'd spent her life on the bright beaches of New Jerusalem. Hair dark as a moonless night cascaded unbound to her back. It picked up the ceiling lights and glittered, an ebony waterfall of sweet softness.
There was nothing sweet about this statuesque woman. Even in repose, casually - almost negligently - leaning near the door, energy hummed about her. Darkness swirled tangibly in the black brows, the thin line of her lips, the tense outlines of her muscles. She was danger incarnate. It didn't take a telepath to figure that out.
And her eyes... The mirrored orbs lacked iris or pupil. They reflected everything, revealed nothing, and never, ever blinked. For the briefest moment, Annie wondered what color Maelstrom's human eyes had been.
Blue. Blue like the deepest waters on Delis. Blue like sadness, loneliness, despair. Blue like the music played when a good man feels bad.
Pressure on her mental shields drew her away from her indigo visions. She looked at West and opened her shields to him. He and Creel merged easily within her mind.
"They're both jammed." The senior Enforcer spat out the thought with venom. Annie nearly flinched at the harsh impact despite the fact that West had directed his ire at the corporate telepath. "I was unaware that TIC's were standard issue."
Creel's response was humorless, more a quick brush than real contact. "They are for upper level operatives in Shogunata. Their use is sanctioned by the United Government and the Academy."
Annie closed her eyes when they abruptly departed. She carefully lowered a layer of her mental barriers. There was... a background noise, like a radio slightly off station.
Smart. Very smart.
Telepathic Interference Chips were state of the art counterintelligence technology, designed to protect the strongly transmitted thoughts of Normals from being accidentally received. They couldn't withstand the focused energy of a scan, but passive 'listening' would be utterly useless.
Her thoughts returned to the mysterious assassin. Shadows cling to her soul like dried blood at the edge of a deep wound.
Lord, Annie! What is happening to your well-ordered brain. This is the second time you've waxed poetic since laying eyes on the woman. What hugs the fringes of her aura is death. She's got a receiver harness in her brain for hardware insertion. You already know she's wired for counterintelligence. Hidden in that cunningly wrought piece of shining metal attached to her shoulder is at least one pistol. Who knows how much wiring is stuffed inside her?
So how much humanity is left?
Chromium implants awaited Annie when she opened her eyes. The older woman studied her steadily, her face an empty mask.
Maelstrom observed the silent communion between snoops with a satisfied smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. Mirrored implants met the navy blue optics of Brimstone and the two shared an unspoken communication of their own. Score one for the 'less than gifted'.
Unbidden, her attention returned to the little Enforcer. Those luminous eyes were closed, her face distant. When West resumed his monologue, one golden eyebrow winced downward almost painfully. She looked so young...so innocent... despite the drawn planes which rendered her face a little too lean. Where have you been, kiddo?
And just what the fuck do you care, anyway?
The verdant ocean of her eyes opened and Maelstrom was trapped in their pools. It was like drowning. It was like surfacing. No fear was revealed in the Hound's unwavering look. No arrogant condescension. The younger woman was diffident...in a curiously seductive manner.
Annie was startled by West's demanding voice. She forced herself to turn away from Maelstrom, inwardly shaken by the connection that had just occurred when their gazes met.
"Journeyman McKenzie and I will require approximately 30 minutes to acclimate to whatever room you designate for the interrogations. We will begin by examining Mr. Creel." He rose imperiously, a dismissive expression clearly etched on his features. Taking her cue, Annie stood with him, drawing in a deep breath and slowly releasing it. The action banished the last trembling vestiges of nervousness resulting from Maelstrom's inhuman stare. It was time to work.
A single glance of Brimstone's blue button eyes that tracked from El to McKenzie told her which of the Hounds she was to shadow. She was vaguely aware that part of her was pleased to be attached to the blonde esper. She dismissed it. The book's cover might be painted in different colors, but on the inside it read the same. One esper was as bad as the next. Maelstrom disengaged herself from the wall with a graceful shrug. As the little Enforcer passed, a feral smile found its way to El's lips. There was but the tiniest flicker in her lovely green eyes - lovely? -- and then she passed by, leaving behind a trace of cinnamon that seeped into El's nostrils like an unwanted guest.
She didn't want to be here. There were things buried that had no business being exhumed. Things that would be resurrected by watching the scans.
Don't resist. Deep scans are always a little painful.
The pressure had been tremendous. The thrusting inward was worse. Alien thoughts, feelings rifled through her mind coldly. Deeper the tentacles reached...trying to find the bottom of her soul.
And you thought you'd already been raped in every way possible.
Maelstrom flopped into a high-backed office chair and stretched long legs out in front of her. Feigning a repose that she was light years from feeling, she watched the two Hounds busy themselves 'acclimating' to the room. It was, in an absurd way, a fascinating study in contrast.
West walked about the room with hands outstretched, pausing at each corner, occasionally resting gloved fingers against a beige wall. He moved on soon after. The air of self-importance was wrapped around him tighter than a suit of combat kevlar. McKenzie, however, rooted herself in one spot. Green eyes were lowered, staring at some invisible point on the floor. Slender arms crossed over her chest. The diminutive Enforcer could have been a statue for all her movement. Only the slow rise and fall of her chest lent the semblance of life.
What does her voice sound like?
The question rolled out of her unconscious mind. It mocked her for the nanosecond she allowed it to remain in the light.
The senior Hound stopped in his tracks and stared pointedly at his partner. McKenzie's head snapped up immediately. Then she nodded. The next instant those beautiful eyes focused on El's face. Deep. That word kept recurring. The verdant pools were still and so very, very deep.
"We're ready." The voice was a melodic alto that vibrated through the air, falling in softly accented waves upon El's ears. It was almost British, that accent, but not quite.
The irritating chirp of a cell phone sounded just as Creel entered the room, Brimstone hard on his heels. All three of the espers checked the black pouches at their sides, but it was McKenzie who pulled out the phone, stepping to one side, voice quiet amid the ensuing silence.
"McKenzie." The woman paused, listening. El's implants easily detected the sudden tensing of muscles in her back. "I see." Suddenly her tone had become detached, emotionless. "Hold on." The Enforcer's eyes sought out her senior and the two locked gazes. After a moment she spoke into the phone once more. "I'm on my way."
The call ended and Maelstrom studied the slender profile. There was a pallor to the face that had before been absent. Then the Hound punched several numbers into her phone. An inquiry was made for a cab company. Another call requested transportation. When those tasks were completed, McKenzie tucked the device away and headed out the door without a word.
El stretched languidly, eyeing the remaining telepaths before following the young blonde. West seemed mildly irritated. Creel merely looked bored.
Annie closed down her thoughts with an absent shrug of will. The dull ache in her chest became disembodied, a pain without origin. It was better that way. Her mind focused on each passing moment. She noted the quiet squeak her rubber-soled boots made on the white linoleum floor. Once in the elevator, she paid rapt attention to the lurch of her stomach as the moving box began its descent. The breath sliding in and out of her nostrils was subtly scented with floral air freshener. The elevator stopped. There was a noisy rumble when the doors opened. Outside the car several corporate types fell back from her, allowing her to move unhindered through the huge lobby of mirrors and brass. It was beautiful. Light sparkled in a symphony of glorious flashes, sliding images, and moving shadows.
She stepped into the city. All around was a gray canopy of cloud cover. No one really remembered what the sun looked like anymore unless they could afford to leave the atmosphere. Generations of car exhaust and soot had seen to that.
Maelstrom's darkling presence still clung to her. In her imagination it was like a section of shadow had pulled away from the solid, heavy world and was made manifest in the woman behind her. Words of an ancient poem recited themselves slowly, " I have been one acquainted with the night..."
"Will you be accompanying me?" Annie voiced the question whose answer she dreaded. The last thing she wished was for the dark assassin to see her appearing weak. And with what was waiting for her... Stop it. Stay in the here and now. The future is moving with the speed of a solar flare. Deal with it when it arrives...not before.
She turned jade crosshairs on the taller woman, meeting those inhuman orbs squarely. "Yes." Maelstrom's rich contralto purred over her. It held the promise of pleasure and pain.
Annie inhaled a shaky breath. "This is a personal matter." There was no reason for a company solo to be tagging along.
To her frustration Maelstrom merely lifted an ebony brow, a sardonic grin toying with the corner of her mouth. "Sorry, little girl. My orders are to stay with you until the investigation is finished." She stepped toward Annie like a hunting cat seeking its latest meal. "So where are we going? An early morning tryst, perhaps?"
Tryst? Don't I wish.
Turning away from the dark woman, Annie swallowed down her emotions and answered, "The morgue."
El spent the cab ride silently regretting her rash words and simultaneously cursing that kernel of remorse. She studied the esper's profile beneath hooded eyes. Hastily applied make-up could not fully hide circles of fatigue marring the youthful face beside her. In the span of less than an hour, she'd observed complex forces moving behind those controlled features. It had been a long time since she'd empathized with anyone, but the suppressed sorrow that could not be concealed within the open windows of lush green had touched her. She'd seen enough fake emotion to last a lifetime. Whoever had been lost to McKenzie, it was obviously someone very dear.
"You're so very dear to me, Jordan." Leigh's sultry tones filtered through the night air. El's given name, unspoken by any other human being, sounded sweet through the channel of her lover's mouth.
God, it was all still so vivid. The long tresses of auburn hair that fanned outward from Leigh's head spread across her pillow and resembled fire made flesh. Freckles spattered her small nose. El always thought it looked as though some artist had flicked copper paint upon that alabaster face. And her eyes... They were so blue that it didn't matter how dark the sky became.
She'd not thought of Leigh in years. Memories of their time together had been locked away on purpose. Now was not the time to open those doors.
For her part, Annie surreptitiously observed her companion. Graceful fingers twitched on the human hand, an unconscious response to some inner turmoil. The dark woman's pulse beat rapidly at her throat. Tiny muscles near her brows caused the black lines to frown slightly.
What ghosts are haunting the hallways of your memory?
She turned away as the cab reached its destination.
Why is it that all morgues look alike?
Annie pushed through swinging double doors to enter a sterile foyer containing a desk, chair, and lonely looking med tech. Chipped paint on the doors attested to their endless battles with gurneys. Gray tile, white walls, and the sick smell of formaldehyde mixed with vanilla wrenched at her already twisting stomach. She glanced around quickly and spotted a burning candle.
"What can I do for you?" The med tech was a smallish man, possessing a shaved head paler than snow. A thick goatee coated his lower jaw and was dyed a pale yellow. The cagey hazel eyes gleamed nervously at her, though in all honesty, he might have been just as frightened of Maelstrom. The dark assassin seemed to foster terror in her wake.
Producing her ID, she responded, "Anna McKenzie, Journeyman Enforcer. Maelstrom," she gestured to the woman who shadowed her. "Shogunata Security. You called me."
At the mention of her companion's name, the white-coated tech stood. Annie's eyes fell upon his nametag, 'Reilly.' "Um, right," he stammered. "You're listed as next of kin for Angela Blake, and we need some paperwork signed." Surprisingly, his eyes softened. "You don't have to identify her or anything. DNA has already been confirmed."
Maelstrom heard the lifeless tones creep back into the Enforcer's voice. This was the second time such detachment had been displayed in her voice. Unless she missed her mark considerably, McKenzie became outwardly calmer in direct proportion to the amount of turmoil raging inside.
"Relationship to the deceased?" El retuned into the conversation.
"One of you married?" Curiosity tinged the med tech's tone.
"No." McKenzie volunteered nothing. Grudgingly Maelstrom had to admit she admired that trait.
"Why are your last names different?
Annie's eyes jabbed into the unknowing tormentor. Then she sighed deeply. "Telepaths take on the last names of their mentors." As a visible reminder that they were separate from Normals, that the Academy had now become their family . "I want to see her body."
Another look of surprise crossed the man's face. He rubbed at his whiskers with the cap of his pen. "There's no need for that." His words were slightly rushed.
That fact did not escape the blonde Enforcer. El watched as green eyes shifted along the furrowed brow, clenching jaw, and nervous glance. McKenzie drew in a deep breath before speaking again. This time her voice was gentle. "It would be simpler if you would just tell me."
Reilly's hazel eyes fairly leaped back to McKenzie's face. "Your sister was killed using an explosive bullet." He paused, weighing his words carefully. "She was struck in the head."
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