Welcome back for the next installment in my latest short story, The Storm in Her Smile. The mysterious mercenary known as the Queen of Smiles has finally recovered from being literally scattered across Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and is closing in on her target, Arturo Melendez… crime lord, Hydromancer, and all-around bad guy.
It’s time to spill some blood, and she’s pretty sure it’s going to be his.
Next week will bring the conclusion to this little tale. As always, feedback is greatly appreciated!
When night falls in Mobile, it falls hard. The dark city merges with the black-watered ocean to create a blanket of shadow as far as the eye can see. Here and there, the occasional kerosene lantern casts its own circle of illumination, but those sparse pinpricks of light only make the surrounding darkness seem even deeper.
It wasn’t always like this. Before Dr. Nowhere, before the Break, they say cities were as brightly lit at night as they were in the day, that the sun was secondary to humanity’s own creations. I can’t say if that was true or not, but I’m glad it’s not true anymore. Sneaking into Arturo’s bayside base is already difficult enough… it’d be damn near impossible without the cover of darkness.
There are checkpoints at the top of each ramp, two guards and a lantern. Ironically, those lanterns make my infiltration easier; every pool of light clearly identifies a guard post, and the guards at those posts can’t see shit because they keep ruining their own night vision by looking at the lantern.
It’s not all roses and whiskey, of course. The best route I’ve identified requires getting past this nearest checkpoint, and as soon as I step into the light, it’s all over. Normally, I’d just release the storm and kill everything in my path, but I don’t know where in the building Arturo might be, and I can’t afford to let him escape.
I creep to within a few feet of the lantern’s circle of light. The guards are easily visible, heavyset and sweating in the persistent Alabama heat, assault rifles cradled in their hands. What used to be a third-floor balcony has been converted into a porch by the addition of the ramp, but the remnants of that balcony stretch around the building and out of sight.
Now comes the hard part. I scoot to the edge of the ramp and lower myself over the side until I’m hanging below it, the ramp’s rough edges biting into my leather gauntlets. The edge of the third-floor balcony is a dozen feet away and still at least four feet above me, out of reach to anyone who’s not a bird Shifter or a Flyboy.
The second-floor balcony, on the other hand…
It rises a few feet above the bay on this side of the building, and I’ll need to get a lot closer before I have any shot at dropping down onto it. Ten feet or so, climbing hand over hand along the ramp’s edge, my legs and body dangling above the bay, like a lure for any wandering Beast to come snack on.
I’ve had better nights. Worse ones too.
It takes twenty minutes to inch myself into position, and the second-floor balcony looks like a much smaller target now that I’m here. I can’t just drop down… I’ll have to swing, let go, and hope my momentum carries me in the right direction.
So that’s what I do.
I’m three feet into my fall when I know I’m not going to make it. I cast aside my shell and let the storm loose, let it surge forward like an engine of destruction… and then, a fraction of a second later, I reform my shell.
Inertia’s a hell of a thing. My boots clear the railing by an inch, at most, but I tumble to the balcony’s safety instead of into the bay. I wait for an alarm, but the guards above me don’t react. It seems the sounds of the bay have covered both the storm’s noise and the impact of my landing.
There’s an irony for you; a Hydromancer getting screwed by his own element.
The second-story balcony is in considerably worse shape than the third floor. I crawl through the gaping hole of a broken window and into the darkness of what used to be an office or apartment. Rats scurry around me, drawn through piles of garbage and long-decayed remains to my intrusion. I kick a too-aggressive rat into the far wall, and the others decide I might not be food after all. Somewhere in this crap hole there’s an interior staircase that will get me back up to the main floor. With half the floor submerged, I just hope it’s above water.
I find two staircases, not one. Unfortunately, both are collapsed. The first looks like it fell apart back during the hurricane, but the other demolition is a more recent job. Both stairwells are blocked from above by a mountain of debris.
Nothing is ever easy.
I prowl through the darkness, looking for another way up. The chances of there being a third staircase—and that staircase not also being collapsed or underwater—are low, but maybe…
I stop in the middle of a garbage-strewn hallway. I’ve heard legends of the sheer laziness of the pre-Break people, but this is the first irrefutable evidence I’ve encountered.
An elevator in a three story building. That’s just ridiculous.
The elevator car isn’t on this floor… and wouldn’t work even if it was, given that Mobile hasn’t had a working electrical grid in decades, but a peek through the partially open doors and up shows that the brothers didn’t think to collapse the shaft. They were probably worried it would take the whole building with it if they tried. Besides, who’s going to climb the inside of an elevator shaft in the pitch black?
Just the woman who’s here to kill one of them, that’s who.
They’re not entirely stupid though… at one point, there was a ladder along the elevator shaft’s wall, but that ladder is gone. I find some handholds in the ladder’s old moorings, but climbing to the next floor is neither easy nor quick. The climb coats my gloves with grease, and I find myself reforming my shell again and again just to give myself clean gloves to grip with. The brief sounds of the storm are swallowed by the shaft and the water that still surges somewhere below.
Finally, I reach the third floor, and my next obstacle: the elevator doors on this floor are shut.
I’m less worried about opening the doors—I’m pretty sure I can manage it even in my shell—than I am about the noise it will make. But I’m not spoiled for options either. I reform my shell yet again, slide my hands into the elevator door gaps and pull apart.
The doors slide open about ten inches and then grind to a stop, stuck on something. Whatever it is, it’s wedged in deep. I might be able to pry open the doors further, but it’s going to make one hell of a noise.
Instead, I summon the storm, and slip through the gap to reform on the other side. As loud as the storm can be, it’s still quieter than forcing the doors.
Unfortunately, it’s not quiet enough.
“What was that?” The voice comes from down the hall, where another circle of flickering light indicates an interior guard post.
“Sounded like metal.” The other guard sounds nervous. “I thought the bosses said this place was stable.”
“Maybe it was the corner stairs,” came the reply. “Told you to stop throwing your trash down there.”
“Like you haven’t been doing the same. Guess we’d better check it out.”
“Or we could wait. The Streak’ll be back this way in a few minutes anyway.”
“That’s my point. Do you want to tell him we heard something and didn’t investigate?”
I hear the heavy tromp of booted feet as the guards head my way. I take a step back around the corner, and wait. I can’t hear anyone else down here, which means nobody else will hear me. I’m just going to have to make this quick.
They never know what hit them.
I reform my shell in the gore-strewn hallway and drag the larger pieces of body aside. Times like this, I wish I was a Shadecaster or even a Stalwart… someone who could kill silently and simply, without leaving such a mess behind. But the storm is chaos and I am the storm and there’s little to be done about either of those things.
I’d already be moving onward to find Arturo instead of worrying about the carnage left in my wake, if it weren’t for two things. First, it’s a big building, and even with my search confined to a single floor, I don’t know how long it’s going to take to find my target. And second, the now-dead guards were anticipating a visit from someone named the Streak. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that that’s Scarface. Which means I have about a minute left to prepare for the Speedster.
There’s no way to hide the signs of battle in so short a time. All I can do is muddy the waters; make it less clear what went down. I need Scarface to see the empty guard station, look down the hall, and decide to investigate, rather than take off running. Hiding the larger chunks of corpse is part of that. The other part is setting the sort of trap that can actually catch a Speedster.
Ironically, I have my time on the gulf floor to thank for the idea. I let the storm loose, but instead of raging, I reach for that sensation of peace I felt beneath the waves. I let my consciousness spread with the fragments of the storm, across the long hallway, sinking into old carpet from the elevator doors all the way down to the guard post. Twenty-five feet of shrapnel mixed in among the building’s other debris.
That peace is elusive here above the sea. I fight to keep the storm quiescent, to enforce even a temporary order on something born of chaos, but it’s a battle I cannot win. We are our nature. I am what He made me. I’m already feeling my control start to slip when a silver streak reaches the guard post. Scarface stops at the guard post, even uglier in the interior’s dim light, and looks down the hall to the faint remnants of battle.
“Johnson? Eli?” This is the moment of truth. If he turns and runs, I’ll never catch him, but I’m hoping curiosity and powers-given arrogance will convince him to investigate.
If it’s going to happen, it needs to be damn soon though, because I can’t hold back the storm much longer.
As soon as I’ve formed that thought, Scarface blurs back into motion. Towards the carnage, instead of away from it. In less than a second, he’s standing at the elevator, his eyes widening as he takes in the bodies of the guards I killed. If I had lungs or a mouth to breathe with, I’d sigh in relief, but I’m nothing but the storm, surging back to life and filling the hallway—the Streak’s only escape route—with steel.
As fast as I am, he’s almost faster. Speedsters have a handful of gifts beyond just sheer acceleration. Those that live through their power’s emergence, anyway. They’re tougher than normals, so that they can survive the speeds they run at. Equally important, they have reflexes that would put a cat’s to shame. The storm is still rousing when Scarface pivots and rushes for the exit.
That’s why I needed to lure him deeper into the building. Ten feet wouldn’t have been sufficient space to trap him. Fifteen would have been iffy. But twenty-five feet? That’s an abattoir even a Speedster can’t escape.
With the storm so far dispersed, he’s actually able to avoid the first few shreds of shrapnel—dodging iron and steel, even running up onto the wall to avoid the looping grasp of barbed wire—but every step takes him deeper into the storm. Even superhuman reflexes have their limit.
He’s eight feet from the guard post when he collapses. Inertia keeps pieces of him going, chunks of flesh sliding forward through the air, into the steel teeth of the remaining storm. What finally impacts the floor is unrecognizable as anything human.
I reform my shell in the guard post—shiny black leather once again clean of gore—and cock my helmet, listening. A second, shorter hallway leads to the reinforced outer door and the balcony that was made into a porch. The entire fight couldn’t have taken more than a few seconds. I don’t think Scarface even had a chance to scream, but the next few moments will tell me for sure.
Thirty seconds pass and all is still quiet. No guards, come to investigate. No alarm, ringing through the building. I’m inside the Melendez brothers’ base, and they don’t know it.
I don’t bother trying to clean up Scarface’s remains. I’d need a broom, a mop, and a fire hose to even attempt it. More importantly, I’d need a lot more time than I have. If the guards in here knew to expect the Speedster, the same is likely true of wherever he’d have headed next. I have only a few minutes to find Arturo before someone gets suspicious.
Other halls branch off as I proceed deeper into the building, but the few not clogged with debris are thick with dust. I keep pressing forward. There are dozens of doors on either side of the hallway, leading to offices or apartments or whatever this building used to be. I don’t have the time to check all of them, and I don’t even try. Arturo and Marco may be Powers, but Carlos was a normal. He’d want his quarters away from the guard post, safely distant from the gunplay if attackers made it that far. And given their powers, Arturo and Marco would want access to the balcony and the bay, which puts them on the far side of the building. And finally…
I pause as I reach the end of the hallway. Every room I’ve passed has had cheap, painted, plywood doors, but the hall’s last three rooms all have doors that could grace a country manor; richly carved mahogany, polished until it shines.
I’ve never met a crime lord who could resist waving their power in everyone’s faces.
Three rooms for three brothers. Two are dark, but the third has light seeping out from under the door. One of the dark rooms is Carlos’. I’m hoping the other is Marco’s. Of the two remaining brothers, the Beast seems like the better candidate for spending his nights out in the bay.
Not that it matters, at this point. Whoever is here tonight is going to die. If it’s Arturo, I’ll be out of the city as soon as I retrieve my bike. If it’s Marco… well, that’s one less obstacle to me finishing the job.
Plus, there’s a certain sort of something about kicking in an asshole’s door.
If I had a smile, it would match the decal across my visor.
Mahogany or not, the door blasts inward, and I’m right behind it. There are two lit lanterns in the room, more than enough to illuminate the look of shock on Arturo’s face as I burst into his quarters. He’s in bed, a curvaceous bit of fluff snuggled up against him, but he’s a hell of a lot faster on the uptake than Carlos was. Before I’ve taken a step, he’s out of his bed, and diving towards the corner of the room.
As fast as he is, he’s a long way from a Speedster. I reform my shell on top of him, a boot pinning his outstretched hand to the floor. There’s a trap door in that corner, cut neatly into the floor, and I can hear the waters of the bay beneath it. I kick Arturo onto his back and discover his reflexes aren’t the only impressive thing about him. Nothing like a naked bit of crime boss to brighten my day.
As he glares up at me, his mind finally catches up with his reflexes. I can tell the moment he realizes who and what he’s seeing; his face goes pale, and what’s between his legs shrinks, like a turtle trying to retreat into its shell.
“You’re… dead.” His wide eyes are locked on the smiley face across my visor. “We killed you!”
“You gave it a good effort,” I agree, hearing the metal in my own voice, “but I don’t have time to be dead. Not when there’s a job to do.”
“Whatever the old bag is paying, I’ll double it. Triple it, even!”
I hate it when they try to bargain. That’s not how this works. It’s not how I work, but nobody ever seems to understand that small fact, so I go with the other truth. “She’s not paying me in money, Arturo, and there’s nothing you have that I need.”
He says something else, but I’m not listening to his words anymore. I can hear something else, muffled, dim, like a distant drumbeat. I look to the woman in his bed, but she’s quiet and still, a rabbit trying to avoid drawing the hawk’s attention. The sound is coming from somewhere else, from outside…
I upend a dresser onto the trap door just in time. The heavy furniture shudders as the waters of the bay hammer at the trap door from below. Cracks are forming in the wood. Arturo is still on his back, but his free hand is pressed against the room’s floor, summoning the bay. Out the window, enormous waves are swelling, spilling water over the third-floor balcony’s edge.
I have seconds to spare.
So be it. I’ve wasted enough time here anyway.
There is one last thing to do. I crouch down over Arturo, helmet to face, as I straddle his naked torso. I let the yellow smiley-face fill his eyes, and then I whisper, in a voice gone liquid like molten steel.
“This is for Coraline, meat.”
My shell falls away. The storm speaks words of its own.
What’s left of Arturo Melendez trickles down the uneven floorboards in tiny rivers. It pools around the trapdoor and drips through its cracks to mingle with the suddenly calm waters of the bay below.
Continue on to the conclusion of The Storm in Her Smile