The Storm in Her Smile is a short story set in the same world as The Murder of Crows.
There are worse places in the world than Mobile, Alabama, but I can count them on two hands and still have fingers left over. More rubble than city since Hurricane Carrie swept in out of the gulf—given direction and one hell of a push by a Weather Witch with an axe to grind—it’s a wonder that anything lives in the wreckage other than rats and roaches. But that’s the thing about humans; they’re survivors. If they weren’t, they’d never have gotten so damn good at killing.
In the past few decades, life has returned to Mobile. Parts of the city are underwater from a storm surge that moved in and never left, but in other neighborhoods, people go about their daily business. The majority keep their heads down and try not to attract the wrong sort of attention. A few, like the Melendez brothers, are engaged in the age-old task of empire building.
And me? I’m just here for a job.
Bullets tear through the façade of the building I’m hiding inside, penetrating decrepit dry wall and pinging off hardier piles of rubble. I glance over at my motorcycle, lying on its side where I dropped it, grateful to see that the frame remains undamaged. One of the leather saddle bags has come open, a handful of charged batteries strewn across the dirt, but there’s nothing to prevent me from riding right back out of Mobile.
Nothing but the job and the armed assholes trying to kill me.
“Was it something I said, Carlos?” I shout above the chatter of machine guns even older than I am. I’ve been told I have a voice like a chain-smoking automaton; metal grinding against metal, a saw blade biting into cast iron, shrapnel forced into the shape of words. There are people who have a problem with a voice like this coming from a body like mine.
Most of those people are dead. I make no apologies for what I am.
“You’re dead, puta! You think we didn’t know you were coming? Ain’t nothing in this town that we don’t know.” Ironically, Carlos Melendez has a voice that could drop a woman’s panties at twenty paces. He’d be a hell of a lady’s man if he and his brothers weren’t so busy murdering their way through Mobile.
“If that’s true, you’d know I didn’t come for a fight,” I yell back. “Just recompense. Give me Arturo, and the rest of you can walk away.”
Bullets continue to ricochet around me, but the volume of gunfire has slackened. I can sense as much as hear Carlos’ forces creeping out from their defensive positions, scuttling across the dirt road between us. The building I’m in is little more than two walls and a partial ceiling; if the gunmen can flank me, there’ll be nothing left to hide behind. And who knows what might happen to my bike in the crossfire?
“My brother ain’t here!” Doesn’t sound like Carlos has moved at all, happy to let his enforcers charge into danger on his behalf. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. Someone with a voice like that… you kind of wish he’d have the balls to match.
He’s yelling something else, but I can’t hear the words anymore. His men are almost to my makeshift bunker, and the chatter of gunfire is drowned out by the rising winds of my own personal storm. I let my shell fall away—this body that everyone is so concerned with—and all that remains is steel and wire and the rage I was born from.
I’m around the corner in less than a heartbeat, tearing through the first gunman to leave only ragged flesh and Kevlar behind. The next shooter is faster than she has any right to be, fast enough to bring her AK-47 to bear, but the bullets pass right through the cloud of shrapnel I have become. She has a chance to open her mouth, to voice some sort of denial, and then I’m on her. Her remains join her colleague’s in the Alabama dirt.
Bullets are coming from every direction now, but it’s just fuel for the storm. I’m dancing across the rubble like a Weather Witch’s conjuration, and the scream of the dying would be music if I had any ears to hear it.
If the Melendez brothers truly knew I was coming, they should’ve brought more than guns to the fight.
There’s no sense of time when I’m like this. Just blood and ruin and a grim sense of satisfaction. I don’t know how long it takes, but eventually the battlefield’s clear, and there’s not enough left of my enemies to scream. I let my shell reform about me, and in the sudden silence, Carlos’ panicked, fleeing footsteps echo like thunder.
I pace him for a few blocks in the hopes that he’ll lead me to Arturo, but Carlos is a rabbit, running through the streets without thought or direction. Maybe there’s a reason the Melendez brothers came to Mobile. If his brothers are anything like Carlos, they wouldn’t have lasted a day in Birmingham, let alone a city like Atlanta.
Eventually, I tire of the chase. As Carlos turns onto one of Mobile’s decaying side streets, I step out in front. He tries to stop, loses his balance, and ends up on his ass in the dirt. He’s got a hand cannon instead of an AK, but he’s forgotten it even exists, scrambling backwards on his hands and feet like a crab.
Carlos is supposed to have a face to match that buttery smooth voice, but there’s not a lot to recommend it at the moment; eyes wide and bulging, mouth gaping open, sweat and fear oozing from every pore. As I stalk forward, his eyes chart the course of my leather-clad figure. It’s a body built to draw the eye; legs to die for and breasts that are more than evident even beneath my riding jacket. Wish I could take credit for any of it, but I am how He made me.
It takes a while, but his eyes finally make it past my chest. This is my favorite part, seeing confusion mix in with the terror and lust, watching the questions bubble to the surface. Even in Dr. Nowhere’s world, some things stand out more than others. A six-foot-tall woman wearing a motorcycle helmet with a smiley-face decal across its visor is one of them.
I can’t say I mind. God knows I love to make an entrance.
Why a smiley-face? Why not a devil or something scarier? Why have a decal at all? Someone asked me all that a long time ago. I can’t remember his face or his name, but I’d just finished a job and was feeling mellow and lazy, like a cat basking in the sunshine. Maybe that’s why I actually answered:
If I’m sending someone to hell, I might as well do it with a smile on my face.
I kick away the hand cannon and put my boot on Carlos’ chest, pinning him to the dirt. One rib snaps, then two, but his eyes are still fixed on my visor. My voice goes liquid. “I will ask you only once. Where is your brother? Where is Arturo?”
He grimaces through the pain, that once-handsome face now every bit as ugly as his reputation. “It’s not Arturo you should worry about, puta. It’s Marco. Marco and his beast.” Blood bubbles from his mouth as I continue to grind down with my heel, but he’s laughing now, despite the pain. “They’re going to tear you apart.”
I give him a moment to reconsider, to give me information I can actually use, but the youngest Melendez brother has gone to a place beyond words, full of blood, fear, and maniacal laughter.
I let the storm come and have its fill.
When I leave the side street, there’s nothing behind me but meat and dirt. I head back to the site of the battle, to seven dead bodies and the electric motorcycle that’s carried me across the shattered remnants of Dr. Nowhere’s world. I’d love to ride that bike right out of Alabama to someplace cool and quiet with a working jukebox and a man with balls and very little brain, but I can’t go anywhere just yet.
They call me the Queen of Smiles and I still have a job to do.
Spring Hill is a few miles west of what used to be downtown Mobile. At one point, it must’ve been nice; good-sized houses, manicured lawns, and just the right amount of retail thrown in for good measure. But that was before Dr. Nowhere broke the world, before Powers and chaos and the long series of disasters that were anything but natural. Today, Spring Hill’s best feature is its elevation. High enough that the monstrous flood waters never reached its summit, high enough that some residents here still cling to normalcy, so many decades later.
The place I’m staying at calls itself a bed and breakfast. No idea why, seeing as there isn’t any breakfast and the beds are little more than blankets on a frame. Still, even I have to sleep, and I can’t say I mind having a roof over my head when I do.
The proprietor, Jeannie, is a small thing, all bones and hair, with a long, thin neck and a too-large head that wobbles when she speaks. She swallows as I enter the lobby, swallows again as I wheel in my bike and chain it to the post by the wall. The blood’s long gone from my leathers, but the bike won’t be clean of gore until the next rain. Which could be tomorrow, or three months from now.
I wait for the inevitable outburst, but it seems Jeannie’s been around long enough to know better. Instead, she greets me with a nervous smile. Her questions, when they do come, are innocuous. How do I like the city? Did I make it down to the bay? Do I want any more blankets? She’s the perfect host, solicitude and professionalism squeezed into one tiny package.
An hour later, the sun is down, and I’m up in my room, sitting in the dark with my saddlebags. I don’t know how normals sleep. I assume their existence just becomes too much to bear and they look for an escape in dreams. It’s not like that for me. It’s not like that for most Powers, I’m guessing. When you can breathe fire or crack buildings in half, sleeping is its own kind of challenge.
I normally just lie back and listen to the storm, but tonight, I’m listening for something else. Another thirty minutes pass before I finally hear it: the door downstairs creaks open and Jeannie slips out into the night. I’m off the bed in an instant, hurrying down and out into the street to follow.
See, the world isn’t perfect. It hasn’t been perfect since Dr. Nowhere dreamed his dream. Maybe since even before that, though you’d have to ask someone who was alive back then to know for sure. There aren’t many left, and even fewer you’d survive speaking to. Point is, it’s an imperfect world, and when something perfect comes along, it tends to stand out.
That was Jeannie’s mistake.
When I arrived yesterday, she blended right into the background; a little bit anxious, a little bit lazy, and plenty nosy. Tonight, she was different, even before she saw my bike, and that told me two things. One, she’s learned who I am. And two, whoever gave her that piece of information also told her to play a part.
That’s why I’m still awake. I’ve been expecting some sort of assault, but instead, Jeannie’s stealing out into the night. Wherever she’s going… whoever she’s meeting… this could be the key to finding Arturo and finishing my job.
With the sun down, Mobile is nothing but darkness and stagnant air, but I don’t have any trouble picking up Jeannie’s trail. She sneaks like someone unaccustomed to doing so, stumbling through garbage-strewn alleys and ricocheting off overfull trash cans that no disposal service is ever going to empty. With my bike still chained up in the lobby, I’m a good bit quieter, even in my leathers. I stay a half-block behind, far enough that she’ll never see me, but close enough to ward off the predators that stalk the city’s streets.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried; there’s nothing but clear space and empty air in front of the woman, like someone warned the denizens of the street that the morsel wandering their way was strictly off limits.
Little Jeannie’s definitely working for someone.
I can’t wait to find out who.
The man waiting for Jeannie is a bit of a disappointment.
It’s not the scar down his face, or the features that would have been ugly, even before that scar, it’s the fact that he bears no resemblance to dearly departed Carlos. I’d been hoping for one of the other Melendez brothers… maybe even Arturo himself, wrapped up like a present and a ‘get out of Mobile early’ card. Instead, I’ve found some random stranger. The only good news is the deference Jeannie’s showing him. I don’t see any weapons, but she’s giving him plenty of space, and her body language is one-hundred-percent poorly repressed fear.
This isn’t a booty call.
By the time I get close enough to eavesdrop, the meeting is over. I couldn’t hear a damn word, but it looked like Scarface was asking questions and giving orders, and Jeannie was doing her nervous best to comply with both. Jeannie gives one last nod, then the two separate. Jeannie turns back the way she’d come, while Scarface heads in the opposite direction.
Which of the two to follow is an easy decision to make—I already know where Jeannie lives, after all, and Scarface might lead me somewhere useful—but the decision’s quickly made moot. Before Jeannie has taken two steps, Scarface is gone, sprinting away at superhuman speeds, leaving only a swiftly fading trail of silver light behind him.
The eggheads in the Free States call his kind Jitterbugs. Most of the rest of the continent calls them Speedsters. To me, they’re just a pain in the ass. Even on my bike, I’d have no chance of keeping up.
It looks like Jeannie’s back to being my only lead. That’s not good news for her.
I make it back to the bed and breakfast long before she does. When she goes to light the room’s kerosene lantern, she finds me sitting on her desk, waiting. Panic and fear give way to calculation, swiftly replaced by a facsimile of solicitous concern.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there.” I watch her dark little eyes dart to my helmet, trying in vain to penetrate the smiley-face decal and tempered glass visor to scan the features underneath. Finally, she pastes on a too-wide smile. “Is everything okay? Did you want more blankets after all?”
I wave to the chair in front of me. “Why don’t you take a seat, Jeannie?”
She does so with a frown, head wobbling on that over-thin neck. I have to hand it to her; her confusion almost passes as genuine. Her body language tells a different story, of course, but lying with your whole being is a skill few people ever learn.
“What do you need, Ms…?” Her voice trails off, and she laughs self-consciously. “You know, I just realized I don’t even know your name.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Her smile starts to slip, but she hangs onto it like a drowning man clutching a straw. “I admit my memory ain’t as good as it used to be, but I’m pretty sure you never gave it to me.”
“I didn’t,” I let the silence build, then add, “but someone else clearly did. And I’m curious who.” She shakes her head, but I stop her before she can add to the lies. “The man with a scar, maybe? Who is he working for? And what do they want you to do?”
“I’m not… I don’t… What…” She’s gone pale, eyes wide, but makes one last desperate attempt to regain control. “What gives you the right to follow me? If you must know, that was Michael. He’s… a friend.” She tries for a shy smile, but her acting skills have deserted her. “I’m sure you know what I mean… a woman has needs.”
I let the storm come. When it subsides, I’m on my feet, the desk I’d been perched on is nothing but scrap, and Jeannie is on the floor, quaking in fear.
“All people have needs,” I tell her in a voice like scraping steel. “Food. Shelter. Maybe even love. But the greatest need of all is survival. And right now, truth is the only way you’re going to meet that need.”
Her eyes dart to the door, which might as well be a mile away for all the good it does her. I watch as she goes through the mental calculations, as she weighs what she’s seen me do against what Scarface and whoever he represents might do, and comes to the only rational conclusion.
She begins to talk.
A long time ago, someone said that misery is the fundamental truth of the human condition. In my experience, deception runs a close second. Even in the face of certain death, even as their hearts stutter to a stop, as oblivion creeps in like fog on kittens’ paws, people rage and rail against the truth.
Or maybe it’s just the kind of people I deal with on a daily basis.
Take Jeannie, for example. She knows the truth is the only thing that will save her, but she barely makes it two sentences into her confession when the first lie emerges, like a misshapen creature clawing its way out of the muck. The Melendez brothers have her son hostage and are forcing her to act on their behalf. This, despite the fact that her bed and breakfast only has two rooms, and one of them is hers and the other is mine. This, despite the fact that there was no sign of a boy at any time since my arrival. This, despite my choosing her place on a whim that the Melendez brothers couldn’t possibly have predicted.
The thing about fear is it turns us all into lousy liars.
Five rambling minutes later, the son has magically become a daughter, and I don’t think Jeannie is even aware of the inconsistency. I wait for her to run out of lies, for the flood of words to slow to a trickle, and then I crouch in front of her. She looks up at me through dark lashes, eyes riveted to the yellow smiley-face.
“And what did Scarface want you to do?” See, I don’t really care about the small lies. I don’t care about nonexistent children or Jeannie’s desperate attempts to recast herself as a sympathetic character.
I care about the job.
“He wanted me to tell you that the brothers have a base down by the bay.” She rattles off directions while I study her in silence. This part, at least, seems to be true, which means two things.
First, it’s obviously a trap.
And second, I know where I’m headed next.
The problem with traps is that knowing about them doesn’t mean they’re not still dangerous. You still have to choose whether to avoid the trap entirely or show up, spring the bastard, and see what happens.
With the bayside location being my only lead, I don’t have much choice in the matter… but I can try to shift the odds in my favor. For some people, that would mean reinforcements. As a long-time solo act, 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 won’t be getting any sleep tonight, but it’s not the first all-nighter I’ve ever had to pull. The storm will be there, waiting, when I’m done.
It always is.
The place 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. 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 brothers set their trap here. There’s no question that the water hampers my mobility. If they think it’ll stop the storm though… well, Carlos will have company in hell, 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 at least three stories tall before the hurricane, but the roof is missing and the 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 on inside, 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 an ambush. Proximity to the water means easy access for the brothers’ smuggling operations, and being in the heart of the flooded downtown means they don’t have to worry about neighbors. Could this really be their base?
I don’t care how strong your defenses might be, it takes some serious moxy to give someone like me directions to your home.
There’s probably an easier path to the building than straight 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, and I’m scary, not stupid. Swimming 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 waves around me actually catch fire. I don’t see the torch that started the conflagration, 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 a moat of fire between me and the brothers’ base.
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 lines of gushing oil into the canister itself. What started as a fire becomes an explosion that superheats the water. Swimming in leathers and a helmet is anything but fun, but lighting up like a human candle sounds even worse. I dive all the way down to the cracked asphalt of what used to be city streets, 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, water swirling about me. “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, looking up at the man I’ve 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 both their base and the place to set their ambush.
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. 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 just being metaphorical.
For all its bulk, the Beast moves like lightning. 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 water, in a bay 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 bay attacks 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. This time, Arturo is slow to adjust, and my greater mass tears through a net of water designed to hold smaller particles.
The Beast rockets forward, but I’ve already drifted to one 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 its 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.
For just a moment, I lie there in the darkness. 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 a brief instant, I 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.
Pride is a luxury in my business. The Melendez brothers have just reminded me of that fact.
Arturo being a Hydromancer is bad enough, but the real issue is 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’s still a damn sight more muscle than I expected 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.
Even worse, a week is plenty of time for someone to have found where I stashed my bike. The extra batteries are back with the saddlebags 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. 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 Mobile.
By the time I’ve reached the city, I’ve come to a few conclusions. First, I need to head back to the ambush site and see if it really is the brothers’ base or not. 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 believe it really is the brothers’ base.
Pride 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 top 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 can’t afford alarms. That rules out fighting my way in. It also means I need to stay the hell out of the water.
Scarface’s presence makes sneaking in that much more difficult. While the normals seem content to remain at defined checkpoints, the Speedster is always on the move, making his rounds like a one-man security net. 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.
I watch that silver trail chart a course around the balcony, ducking into the building through the main door, and then back out again soon after. Every Power’s abilities manifest differently, but 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 fact… but he’d hate being a normal even more.
After a few hours’ observation and one full shift change of guards, I’ve scraped together the beginnings 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.
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 inventions. I’m glad that’s not the case 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. 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 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.
Which is why I’ve picked the second-floor balcony as my entry point. On this side of the building, it rides a few feet above the bay, and I haven’t seen Scarface’s silver light down there even once. I’ll need to get a lot closer before I have any shot at dropping down onto it though. Ten feet or so, climbing hand over hand along the ramp’s edge, my legs and body dangling above the bay.
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. Even with the building’s tilt, 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.
This balcony is in considerably worse shape than the one above. 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, swarming through piles of garbage and long-decayed remains. I kick the most aggressive of them into the far wall, and the others decide I might not be food after all.
Somewhere in this shithole, 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 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 wall is filthy and oil-streaked, 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 physically opening the doors 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?”
Boots sound 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 dead human 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 standing about, 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 set 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 fury and speed, 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 there, 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.
Even as I form 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. The ones who survive their power’s emergence, anyway. They’re tougher than normals, so 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 enough space to trap him. Fifteen would have been iffy. But twenty-five? 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, shiny black leather once again clean of gore. A second, shorter hallway leads from the guard post to the reinforced outer door and the guarded porch. 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 head 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, but 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 the end of this hall. And finally…
I come to a stop. Every room I’ve passed has had cheap, painted, plywood doors, but the hall’s last three rooms all sport 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.
I turn to the woman on the bed to find her white-faced and shaking. She’s twisting the bedsheets around her naked body like they’re some kind of armor and cowering against the wall.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “It’s over—“
Something hits the floor like a hammer, harder even than the tides Arturo tried to summon. I stagger to the side, but before I can move, a second blow comes. Half of the room’s floor explodes inward, revealing the dark waters of the bay beneath us. And from those waters comes something even darker, thirty feet long and scaled, rising from the deep like an avatar of destruction. The one remaining lantern shows me something that might have been an alligator once, given nightmarish proportions and fury. The Beast is too large to enter Arturo’s room entirely, but it thrusts its great maw and two front claws into the newly created gap, thrashing about in an orgy of destruction.
The storm rages across what’s left of the room. Once again, the Beast’s hide proves too tough to penetrate, armored scales that deflect the storm’s fury with ease. But Marco’s in our element now, not his. And while the brothers were damn near unstoppable as a team, they’re vulnerable when isolated. Without Arturo’s waters binding the storm, slowing its movements, I’m free to hunt for the cracks in that armor.
It doesn’t take long to find them. The thinner membranes that slide down over the creature’s enormous eyes. The boundary where the pale scales of its underbelly meet the darker scales of its flanks. Even the mouth itself; the pale white tissue that waits defenseless just past the terrible, tooth-filled maw.
The storm rushes forward again, and this time, the immovable object finds itself overcome.
When I reform my shell, the Beast is still thrashing, but these are death throes, not attacks. As I watch, the great body shrivels and shrinks. Scales run like water across the shattered remains of the floor, leaving a dark-skinned human corpse behind, its arms and torso still inside the room, its legs dangling over the edge like a fisherman’s lure.
The job only called for Arturo’s death, but something tells me Emma will be pleased to get three Melendez brothers for the price of one.
I turn back to the woman in the corner and freeze, the smile across my helmet now the only smile in the room. There’s little left of the bed itself, but the woman herself is still upright, all the better to show the gaping slashes in her body and the spill of organs across bedsheets that couldn’t protect her. I can’t tell if her wounds came from the Beast or the storm, or both, but there’s no life left in her wide, bulging eyes.
It doesn’t matter that she was, by all appearances, Arturo’s willing bedmate, that she was probably a member of the Melendez gang, predator rather than victim. It doesn’t matter that I’ll forget her face in time, like so many others that are now just faint smudges of color from the past. What matters is that I’m supposed to be a professional, and there’s nothing more amateurish than collateral damage.
I reach to close her eyes, but I can still feel them on me all the way out the door.
Most of the brothers’ men have fled by the time I emerge from the innards of the crumbling building. A few idiot souls raise their weapons and die, but what was once the most feared gang in Mobile has already fragmented into pieces, spreading out into the city like cracks in a window. By the week’s end, there will be a half-dozen new gangs, fighting for dominance over a dung heap.
I’m at the top of the ramp to the street when I sense movement. One guard remains, huddled inside the checkpoint’s barrier, too scared to fight, too scared to even run. I kick his gun into the water and crouch down.
“Someone took my motorcycle. Electric, one of a kind. 60 kWh battery life.” I describe it in detail, my voice filled with the snarl of metal against metal, the storm adding its voice to mine. “Spread the word. If I get it back, I’m gone. Otherwise, I’m going to stay a while in Mobile and kill every damn person I find.”
It takes hours to make it back to Jeannie’s little bed and breakfast, and by the time I do, my bike’s parked out front, freshly washed and shining like it just rolled off the factory line. Someone even tried to buff out all the scrapes and dents it’s accrued over thousands of hard miles.
With the brothers gone, Mobile is kind of growing on me.
The next morning finds me strapping my saddlebags across the bike and wheeling it out into the street. Jeannie watches me go, her imaginary son—or daughter—long forgotten. Can’t say I think much of her establishment or her hospitality, but she served her purpose, for the brothers and I both, and that’s all you can ask of people these days.
It’s a long drive north, and I have to swap in a fresh battery from my saddlebags, but eventually, I roll into Lexington. It’s as far from Mobile as you can get while still being in Alabama, more ghost than town. I ride through the empty streets, past broken windows and boarded-up houses, and come to a small shack on the town’s edge. Its windows are filthy but intact. If it was nighttime, it would be lit from within, not by lanterns—not up here where even kerosene is hard to find—but candles. Dozens of them, all shapes, sizes, and fragrances.
Emma answers the door, looking even smaller than when she hired me, dwarfed by the shabby doorway she’s standing in. She stays quiet, swaddled in layers of clothing and saggy, wrinkled skin, and waits for me to speak.
“It’s done,” I tell her. “Arturo Melendez is dead. His brothers too.”
She stands there in silence, no emotion crossing her weathered face. Then she nods and steps aside. “Come in and tell me about it.”
The shack is barely big enough for the two of us, but a job is a job. I stand while she sinks into the only chair in the place. I tell her the story of her purchased vengeance, the gritty details of the deaths I visited upon her daughter’s attackers. When it’s done, she gives another nod, and swipes a crooked-fingered hand across her cheeks, as if wiping at tears that forgot to fall.
“Thought I’d feel something, hearing the news. But all I feel is empty.” She stirs suddenly, as if from sleep, and stands back up. “But thank you anyway. It’s good that he’s dead. That they’re all dead. And this is yours.”
I take the object from her outstretched hands. It’s a small journal, wrapped in weathered leather, and filled from front to back with pages of handwritten text. “This was your grandfather’s, you said?” I keep the words soft, but there’s nothing I can do about the metal in my voice.
“That’s right. Wrote down every dream he ever had, from the time he was a boy to the time he died. Even the one where a man he’d never met spoke to the world, and in doing so, broke it.”
I pack the journal into my saddlebags. On the long journey ahead of me, I’ll scour its contents, looking for information. There weren’t many people witness to Dr. Nowhere’s dream. Even fewer lived to write about it. The rest of us just had to live with its aftermath. Somewhere in this long-dead normal’s diary, there may be clues that will take me one step closer to the man at the heart of everything that happened, to the creator and destroyer, to Dr. Nowhere himself.
But for now, I’m heading west. Across the Mississippi and then over the Rockies to the Free States. There’s a man there with a job for me and the right sort of payment to offer. It’s an escort mission this time. Should be quick. Should be easy.
Night falls behind me. Emma goes to bed in her empty house on the edge of an empty town. When she sleeps, like all normals must, I hope she dreams of her daughter, of happier times when there was still light and laughter and hope for the future.
For too many people, dreams are all that remain.