Welcome back for another installment in my latest short, The Storm in Her Smile. In the first two chapters, we met our (anti)heroine, a mysterious mercenary known as the Queen of Smiles, shortly after her arrival in Mobile, Alabama. She’s already killed one of the three brothers who run that city’s biggest crime gang, but her primary target, Arturo Melendez, remains alive and well. Worse, he’s now set a trap of his own down by the bay.
Rather than spend weeks canvassing a city she barely knows, the queen has decided to just go trigger the trap and see what happens. After all, given the violent things she’s capable of in this post-apocalyptic, superpower-driven world, what could go wrong?
That’s what she (and we) are about to find out.
As always, feedback is greatly appreciated!
The problem with traps is that knowing about them doesn’t necessarily make them any less dangerous. At the end of the day, you have to choose whether to avoid the trap entirely or to show up, spring the bastard, and see what happens.
With the bayside location being my only lead, I don’t have much choice… but I can at least try to shift the odds in my favor. For some people, that would mean reinforcements. For a mercenary and long-time solo act like me, I’m forced to rely on stealth and surprise. Because I tailed and confronted Jeannie, I’ve learned about the brothers’ supposed base a night early. That gives me a small window of time when they won’t be expecting me.
It means I’m not getting any sleep tonight, but it’s not the first all-nighter I’ve ever had to pull. The storm will still be there, waiting, when I’m done.
It always is.
The ambush site doesn’t look like much, but that’s true of most of Mobile. Downtown Mobile, especially. I’m not an expert on weather, but from what I understand, floods are supposed to be a temporary thing. Water sweeps in then eventually recedes, leaving soggy destruction and a fair share of confused marine life behind.
That’s not what happened here.
By the time I reach what used to be bay-side properties, I’m swimming as much as walking, slipping past buildings that rise like icebergs from the dark waters around me. My bike is tucked away near a pile of rubble several blocks west, left behind when the water level started creeping above its tire line. Electric vehicles do just fine with the occasional bit of moisture, but there’s a big difference between driving through a rainstorm and driving into the ocean.
Maybe that’s why the Melendez family chose to set their trap here. There’s no question that the water hampers my mobility, tugging at my leather-clad limbs like a living thing trying to hold me down. If they think it’ll stop the storm though… their newly dead brother Carlos will have company, soon enough.
Jeannie’s directions take me to the very edge of the old bay, to waters deep enough that I wish I’d stolen a boat. The building I’m heading to is on the far side of all that water. It was probably four stories tall before the hurricane, but the roof is missing and the first two floors are now underwater. The entire building is cock-eyed, leaning toward the bay like it could fall over at any moment, but there are lights in the third floor, and for a city that relies on kerosene and lamps, that’s a big thing.
Looking at the building, I find myself wondering if it’s more than just a convenient place for a trap. It’s possible this the Melendez brothers’ actual base. Proximity to the water means easy access for their smuggling operations, and being in the heart of the flooded downtown means they don’t have to worry about neighbors.
There’s probably an easier path to the building than through the bay. I could pull back, take the long route along the new shoreline, and assault the building from its front. But that’s the direction they’ll be expecting me to come from tomorrow. Swimming straight through the bay will get me to my target with none the wiser.
I’m forty feet from the back of the building when the night lights up like a bonfire.
That’s not just a pretty metaphor, either; the surface of the waters around me actually catches fire. I don’t see the torch that started it, but the sudden light shows me a small canister bobbing a dozen feet ahead of me. Its metal shell sports multiple punctures, and crude oil gushes from those holes to spread across the water’s surface.
The bastards booby trapped their own bay.
The good news is that I’m earlier than expected, and the crude hasn’t spread out like it would’ve by tomorrow morning. The bad news is that it still puts an ocean of fire between me and the brothers’ base. Even worse, my target clearly knows I’m here.
And the worst news of all, of course, is the still half-full bomb floating in the dark waters just in front of me.
I watch the flames work their way back up the line of gushing oil into the canister itself. What started as a fire becomes an explosion that superheats the water all the way down to what used to be city streets. Swimming in leathers and a helmet is anything but fun, but I can hold my breath forever and lighting up like a candle sounds even worse. I dive all the way down to the cracked asphalt, and skirt the worst of the conflagration above me.
When I surface again, the fire’s mostly behind me, still spreading across the water’s surface. I look for higher ground, climbing up onto the remnants of a building just tall enough to let me stand with my shoulders and helmet above the water.
“I’d say that’s far enough, mercenary.” There are men now, standing on the balcony of the building I’ve been swimming for. Between the lanterns behind them, and the fires in front, they’re surprisingly well-lit. I spot the speedster, Scarface, and half a dozen toughs with assault rifles, but it’s the man in front who catches my attention.
He’s not as pretty as Carlos was before the storm had its fill, but the family resemblance is still plenty obvious. He’s dressed all in white, from the open silk shirt that shows off a too-hairy chest to the tight-fit pants and scaled boots on his feet.
It must have taken some work to find an albino alligator, but somehow this joker managed it.
I shake my helmet. I don’t mind a man in tight pants—and the Melendez boy has enough going on between the legs to almost make it work—but all that white makes him look like a vanilla ice cream cone. A self-respecting crime boss should know better. “Please tell me you’re Arturo?”
“In the flesh.” In the daytime, I’m sure even his smile would be white, but the flames’ light cast his face in crimson, and his mouth is a scarlet pit of jagged ivory and shadow. “And you’re the one they call the Queen of Smiles.”
I give a half-bow. “Also in the flesh. So to speak.”
Arturo shakes his head. “When I heard the puta, Coraline, had hired someone to get revenge, I was expecting a local. I guess my brothers and I have ourselves a bit of a reputation.”
“Enough to scare off the usual suspects,” I agree, regarding the man I’d come to kill, “but you’re wrong about one thing.”
“And what’s that?”
“Coraline didn’t hire me.” I feel the storm inside of me swell, as if in response to the surging waters, and my voice fills with the sound of steel and metal. “Her mother did. Coraline didn’t survive what you did.”
If anything, Arturo’s demon smile only widens, until it’s almost a mirror for the decal across my visor. “She died? Huh. Just like her weakling of a husband then.”
“And Carlos, your hermanito.”
The smile vanishes so fast it almost gives me whiplash. “Now it’s time for you to join them in hell.”
The water around me twists and turns like something alive, surging in to take hold of my shell, pinning my arms to my side. I finally put two-and-two together.
Why the brothers chose this site as an ambush spot.
How Arturo knew I was sneaking up on him in the dead of night.
And why the mercenaries in Alabama chose not to take this job.
Like me, Arturo is a Power. Worse, he’s a Hydromancer, and he’s lured me right into his element.
Then something surfaces in the water behind me, enormous and scaled, its hide spattered with burning oil, and I realize one last thing.
When Carlos warned me about Marcos’ beast, he wasn’t being metaphorical.
For all its bulk, the Beast moves like lightning in the water. It strikes the submerged building I’m standing on, tears through the concrete wall like it’s paper, and then it’s on me, flickering firelight revealing a gaping maw with rows of serrated teeth.
As quick as it is, I’m faster. I dive off the building and into the water, letting my shell fall away. The Beast’s charge sends it hurtling through the storm of steel and shrapnel I have become. I strike from all angles, a swarm of razor-toothed piranhas shredding the much larger prey.
That’s how it’s supposed to go, anyway, but even the storm is sluggish when submerged in all this ocean, in water actively fighting to bind the many pieces of my form. Strands of barbed wire are too slow to encircle the Beast’s bulk. Foot-long shafts of rebar ricochet off the armored hide, or miss entirely.
A Hydromancer can summon water. A good one can manipulate it like a weapon.
Arturo Melendez is better than good. Standing thirty feet away and on dry land, he’s able to track the many shifting pieces that make up the storm. The waters of the bay attack at his command, a multi-tentacled beast that cannot be killed.
To say nothing of the actual Beast that just shrugged off my assault.
The fires on the surface above us are insufficient to truly see the creature, even if I had eyes to see with, but something that size displaces a lot of water. I feel it turn for another pass, and I pull the fragments of my storm into a tight cloud of churning steel. Arturo is slow to adjust, and I tear through a net of water designed to hold smaller particles.
The Beast charges through the bay, but I’ve already drifted to the side. I let the creature’s wake pull me in close and then send the storm into its flank like a tightly packed shrapnel harpoon.
The impact is horrendous. I don’t feel pain when the storm is loose, but the collision alone leaves me stunned, floating free as I rebound again from armored scales. I can’t detect any blood in the water. No pale, vulnerable flesh exposed by punctured or torn scales. There’s nothing but the unseen leviathan, its massive bulk streaming past, unharmed.
For the first time in our existence, the insatiable storm has met an immovable object and fallen short.
And then the great Beast’s tail sweeps around and cracks into my gathered core, like a wrecking ball into a wall. The storm fragments into a thousand pieces and I cannot stop our disintegration. The waters of the bay shift again at the Hydromancer’s command and my pieces are carried out into the gulf, scattered across the miles.
I fall into darkness.
I come to, sometime later, still in pieces strewn across the ocean floor. By any rights, I should be dead, but death is one of the two things that has eluded me all these years.
The second, of course, being the reason I took this job in the first place.
A normal Shifter would’ve changed form on losing consciousness, would have returned to their shell—if they were able to do so at all—to find themselves sixty feet below the water’s surface, stranded and drowning on the continental shelf. A normal Shifter would’ve died long before they woke up, but I’ve never been normal, and that, too, is part of the reason I took the job.
I come back to silence. The storm is still free, like a djinn I wasn’t able to stuff back into the bottle, but its pieces are spread so far that the ever-present snarl of its existence is absent. I’m a shard of twisted steel, half embedded in the gulf’s floor. I’m a torn scrap of wire that snagged upon the shattered hull of an ancient shipwreck. A thousand feet in the other direction, I’m something else, and so it goes, fragment to fragment, piece to piece, the storm’s remnants scattered like driftwood across miles of sediment and rock.
I wonder if this is how Dr. Nowhere felt, during the dream that changed the world, or in those first moments after, when he woke to discover that his dream had become reality. Like some kind of god, omnipresent and omnipotent, everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
If I find him… when I find him… it’s one of the many things I’ll ask.
There’s a peace here, in the silent waters, free from the storm and the endless war, free from the questions that have driven me across the continent and back again. For just a moment, I let myself succumb to that peace, to the serenity of stillness.
Then I pull my shit together—metaphorically speaking—and get down to the business of pulling my shit together in a more literal fashion.
Arturo Melendez is still alive.
I have a job to do.
There’s no sense of time when I’m out of my shell, but I suspect I’m down there for days. A part of me is present with every shard and scrap of shrapnel, but I’m spread so thin that control is almost non-existent. I spend three forevers focused on a single piece of the storm, willing it into motion, walking it towards another shard. As I near that second fragment, two separate shreds of consciousness merge, and I am one step closer to being myself again.
I don’t know how many pieces make up the storm. I keep myself from counting them all, in a desperate attempt to stay sane. When that doesn’t work, I focus instead on the lessons I can glean from my recent ass-kicking.
I was overconfident. That much is clear. After Carlos’ easy death, I’d foregone reconnaissance. Hell, I’d known the bay was a trap and had charged right into it anyway, smugly certain that I could handle whatever the Melendez brothers had to throw at me.
Arturo being a Hydromancer… that had been a surprise, but I’m pretty sure I could’ve handled him, even so. The bigger issue was the Beast. There’s little question that the creature is a Shifter. I’ve seen bigger and way badder—the Free States’ own King Rex and the Weaver up in Canada, respectively—but it was still a damn sight more muscle than I’d been expecting to find in Mobile, Alabama, of all places.
Given what Carlos said before he died, and the fact that nobody on the balcony with Arturo shared the Melendez family resemblance, I’m guessing the Beast is Marco’s other form.
It would have been nice if Emma, Coraline’s mother, had told me that two of the three Melendez brothers were Powers. Guess she was worried I’d turn down the job if I knew.
I spend another few forevers thinking up ways past the Beast’s armored hide. I’m one-hundred-and-thirty-three pieces in—damn it, I was counting after all—when I realize it doesn’t matter. Marco Melendez is a bad man, a criminal, and a walking threat… but he’s not my target. I can avoid the Beast entirely and still finish the job.
It’s not the heroic thing to do, but I’ve never claimed to be a hero.
The sun is just peeking over the horizon when I finally emerge from the water, whole if not complete. It’s morning, but not the morning after the fight. More like a week later, I’m guessing.
That much time passing is both good and bad. It’s good because the brothers will have assumed I’m long dead, and that will make it easier to get to Arturo. It’s bad because they might have sent someone after Emma while I was out of commission. She’s a good ways upstate, living under a different name, but that doesn’t mean she’s out of their reach. And if the old lady dies, I won’t be getting paid when all this is over.
Worst of all, a week is plenty of time for someone to have found where I stashed my bike. The extra batteries are back at Jeannie’s bed and breakfast—assuming she hasn’t sold them—but the bike itself is going to be damn near impossible to replace anywhere this side of the Rockies. This continent is big enough on its own without having to actually walk across it.
Frankly, I could use the bike right now. Between the gulf’s current and my own struggles, I’ve washed ashore well down the coastline from Mobile. Makes me wish there were still taxis around, or any sort of vehicles, for that matter, but the deep South’s been teetering on the edge of anarchy for decades. I should be happy there’s even a road to follow.
I reform my shell and start the long hike back to the city.
By the time I’ve reached Mobile, I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, I need to head back to the ambush site and see if I can pick up the brothers’ trail from there. Second, I’m damn well taking the long way around, instead of swimming through the bay. And third, if anyone has stolen my bike, that person will live long enough to regret it, and not a second longer.
My bike is gone. That’s the bad news… both for me and for whoever stole it.
The good news is that I’m not the only one suffering from overconfidence. I’ve been observing the building where I last saw Arturo, and I’m starting to think it really is the brothers’ base. They were so certain of their victory that they gave Jeannie their actual headquarters’ location to get me there.
Overconfidence cost me at least a few days of my life. It’s about to cost Arturo so much more.
In the daylight, the building still looks lopsided, its front portion up on the shore with its rear half submerged in the water. The third floor is the only story entirely out of water, and that’s where the Melendez brothers have relocated the building’s entrance. Guards are stationed around the exterior balcony and at the top of two ramps leading up from the shoreline. They’re just normals, by the looks of it, but they’re armed. With the bay an all-too-easy escape route for Arturo, I need to find a way in without alerting him. That rules out fighting my way in. It also means I need to stay the hell out of the water.
Scarface’s presence makes my task that much more difficult. While the normals seem content to remain at defined checkpoints, the Speedster is always on the move, making his rounds. As fast as he’s going, I wouldn’t even know he was there if it weren’t for the trail of silver light he leaves behind.
Every Power’s abilities manifest differently. Scarface is the first Speedster I’ve met who comes with his own light show. It’s kind of pretty too. As a wannabe crime flunky, he probably hates that… but he’d hate being a normal even more. With only a percentage of a percentage of the world having superpowers, beggars can’t be choosers.
Anyway, I’ve seen what I need to see, and have at least the basic framework of a plan. Now, I just need to wait. Stealth has never been my thing, and a six-foot tall woman in black leather has a way of sticking out in the daytime.
Once it’s dark… well, we’ll see what the night has in store for us.