Authors: Nick Kelly
Cat nodded silently, turning over every possible response and its repercussions in his mind.
Midas grinned broadly and then broke into open laughter. “You had no idea this was coming, did you?” He slapped himself on the knee, laughing louder. He leaned on his cane and shook his head. He rose back to his full height and returned his gaze to the hitman. “And here I thought you prepared yourself for anything, cleaner. Now, join me. I’ll even let you put the bullet through that worthless little hooker inside to seal the deal.”
Cat opened his mouth to voice his best response when a flash of light pierced his peripheral vision. From Midas’ left, something broke into view, something with the speed and accuracy of a laser. Sparks erupted as metal met metal on the walkway. Cat tumbled backward, adjusting his direction and coming to a stop in a Krav Maga defensive posture. He looked at the bridge where he had just stood. He focused his view in time to see Midas’ headless form crumble to its knees and fold like a cheap suit.
Shocked, Cat looked the direction of the source, finding nothing. Something deep and distant registered in his ear. He dropped to the surface, feeling the rush of air above his head. As he spun and drew his pistol, he saw a humanoid form moving…no, flying, away from him.
Cat fired a handful of random bursts in the attacker’s direction. Barely visible against the night air, he caught its silhouette as a pair of the spotlights chanced to cross its path. It was humanoid, and feminine, with a set of enormous leathery wings. Worse, it was heading in his direction. Instead of checking on the corpse of his recent would-be employer, Cat sprinted back towards the factory. His cybernetic legs accelerated with superhuman speed.
The winged assailant sliced into the area where he recently stood, missing by a few meters. Sparks erupted as the thick steel railings holding the walkway in place split apart. Cat crouched, waiting for another pass from his attacker. The walkway creaked as the weight tugged on the final metallic threads keeping it in one piece.
The feminine form split the spotlights, visible for barely a second before she was on him. Cat spun aside, not realizing until she’d passed that she had even succeeded in cutting him. From his cop days to his barbaric surgery, Cat had enough scars on his back to mimic the constellations. This bat-winged bitch wasn’t going to provide any more.
When her form disappeared against the sky once more, he recognized the familiar sting of severed flesh. He was stranded in a losing proposition, and he knew it. That meant his enemy probably picked up on it as well. The creaking gave way to the moaning of shifting steel, and the walkway gave way. Cat stared over his shoulder long enough to watch the far end of the bridge bend towards the earth. Midas’ headless form slipped from the steel and plummeted below to the courtyard and its unsuspecting inhabitants.
Cat turned and sprinted to the building where he and Midas had met. He extended the pistol before him, firing round after round. Instead of hitting the door, Cat aimed above it, perforating the stained glass. A change altered the air behind him. He heard the singing of her wings cutting the night sky. He leapt forward, crashing through the window. Every ounce of oxygen left his body upon impact. Each shard of glass magnified the pain a thousand times as he landed in an unceremonious heap. Gunfire filled his head. Midas’ goons had arrived, too late to save their master, but in time to provide cover fire. Cat gritted his teeth, dropped several floors below to the dance floor, and joined the masses flooding to the exits.
Above the din of shock and amazement around him, he heard the passing of leather wings. If he’d have gone for the door, things would have ended differently. Screams and shouts filled the room around him and echoed as metal, glass and one of Nitro City’s most recognizable celebrities rained down on the crowd. The result was chaos. Bouncers sought control. Patrons flocked to the exits. There was no telling how many of them would be injured, mauled or trampled.
Cat rose to a knee, lifting his pistol at the backlit frame of the emergency exit door. Panicked forms crossed his vision, rushing to the exits, or to hiding spots. They were all a blur. He stared at the door, watching, waiting. The socialites seemed to move in slow motion. Their screams were distant. Their fear was a fantasy, something in a dream.
He concentrated until his pistol stopped shaking. He stared through the passing bodies back to the creaking walkway and the echo of leathery wings. He thought of Midas’ headless form, recalling an old joke about losing 10kg of ugly fat and smiled. He’d killed Hitch, drawing the attention of Midas. Now Midas was dead, from dealing with him, and there was a short list of those who had the stones to kill the powerful fixer.
Whoever it was now had a bull’s eye squarely on his…or her…back.
Cat turned from the door. He chose a pattern of chaos. He would be shadowed by the figures running rampant for safety. Less than a minute later, he was astride the Honda-Suzuki heading away from The Cell Block.
Nitro City’s biggest pimp was dead. Cat had been set up, and he’d been lucky to survive the night. He was luckier still that he recorded Midas’ assassination. Someone was making a power play big enough to kill Downtown’s golden child. As he raced back to the freeway, Cat sent a confirmation message to the lab. He wanted to make sure the recording went through. He began to formulate the list of power brokers who would take a run at Midas. That list was short. A light in his Cyberoptics confirmed that his recording had reached the lab. Delambre and his daughter would have access to it. Maybe they could shed some light on the situation he had just escaped.
Cat banked a hard right and joined the flow of traffic on the freeway. Hitch’s murder had led him to Midas. Now, the pimp was dead, and someone or something else had tossed its hat into the ring.
Things were about to get very, very interesting.
4 March 2022
Artificial light provides the only comfort from the darkness. The air smells fabricated. He can taste the chemicals in the air. There is no warmth. There is no heart. Everything here is a sterile, inhuman construct.
All he wants is something, anything with emotion, a feeling.
His throat is dry. Words barely escape his mouth. He would plead for water if he had the voice. The separation of his dried lips pulls from the exterior of his teeth. It adds another layer of slow agony. When his eyes gain focus for the first time, he clicks on the call button. It is a century of measured breaths, inhaled and exhaled with practiced efficiency, before the uniformed nurse arrives.
She is an angel, light-skinned, hinting at an African-American heritage. Her hand graces the bare layer of his arm, and he cannot resist the attraction at the feel of her fingertips. He mouths the request for water, though he never realizes if the words cross his tongue. His attention is solely on her, his new savior, the embodiment of his physical improvement. She represents a life away from the wheelchair, from the paralysis.
He lies here in the hospital bed, a young punk who willingly hit the streets to find quick and easy money and sex. He had been the feet on the streets, the delivery mechanism for the latest and greatest in chemical satisfaction. It occurs to him, numb and distant, that the drug runner is all the nurse sees on the bed. She has no inclination of his life, no desire to find out who he is. She tends to him because she is paid an hourly wage to do exactly that.
The angel reads the chart and sneers, her words thick with contempt. “You’ll never walk again, Leon.”
Hope dies in his throat. The vision of the wheelchair is a slap in his face. He chokes on his own breath, the frozen emotion of hopelessness. He struggles to draw air in defiance, but her words crush him. Leon swallows, memorizing the instant for eternity. He remembers every wrinkle of her face, some caused by age, others by disdain. He remembers his own response, and how it isn’t defiant enough.
The time will come soon enough to return that venom.
“Don’t be such a baby.” Delambre fought off a grin as he addressed the man accustomed to murder and mayhem as a way of life.
“Pulling glass out of me shouldn’t involve putting metal in its place. I’ve been through that before, remember?”
“If you’re such a hardass, why didn’t you take out one insane woman who envisions herself a bat?”
“Shock you, Delambre.” The medtech had hit close to home with that comment. Why hadn’t he been able to even mount a countermeasure against the winged attacker? Cat had been caught so unprepared he’d barely managed to survive intact. Now, his newly hired partner was pulling shards of glass out of his unarmored neck and hair. He had no answers regarding Midas’ killer, and nothing to go on, save the brief video feed he’d snapped while running for his life.
Delambre’s confident and chiding response interrupted Cat’s mental assessment. “One of Nitro’s highest conductors just found himself the recipient of sudden, and rather drastic, cosmetic surgery. Any leads?”
“I gave you the video feed. That’s the best I got. I’ll do a search on his allies and enemies, but you know how long that’ll take.”
“Hmm, I already have Angela working on it.”
“Did you have her include the keywords for leather wings, razor sharp claws, and the ability to decapitate shiny pimps at will?”
“Of course, Catwalk. I even had her use the filter that protects her backside from drooling ex-cops with a blatant desire to fondle her, regardless of her father’s presence.”
“Hmmm, subtlety’s never been my strong suit, Delambre. Next time, have yer old lady push out an ugly kid with a huge ass an’ you won’t have to put up with me so often.”
Delambre twisted the scalpel in a way that made Cat flinch. “Somehow, Catwalk, I doubt it would even slow you down.”
Cat’s response never escaped his gritted teeth. Instead, he focused internally, centering on his breath and the ability to fortify against his pain. The medtech could have continued the procedure with less agony, but they hadn’t yet reached a level where they truly knew or trusted one another. For now, he would suffer the probing metal of a protective father and counter it with meditation.
Shock it. It was worth it just for the line about Angela’s backside.
There were six messages waiting as Cat stepped, tired and sore, into his loft. Three were solicitations or exotic off-world travel packages targeted at the financial group he was in as a front. The fourth was a concerned mother seeking to restrain her estranged husband. The last was the same woman, openly crying and confessing about dumping the body of the man previously identified as her missing ex-husband. That case was easy to close, but Cat doubted he’d get a commission or reward for it.
It was the fifth message, which caught his attention. Delambre’s daughter spoke with a tone of emotional absence and analytical precision. When she stated there was material Cat ‘needed to see’, an alarm rang in his head. Angela hadn’t exactly radiated calm the first few times they’d met. He grabbed his helmet and bounded toward the Honda-Suzuki. Creeping back into her shell meant something had triggered her. Cat needed to know if it was a threat, a change or a break in the case. He also needed to figure out if he could trust the crafty medtech, and what extent exactly Angela played in his work.
The quick ride through Downtown was as uneventful as things ever got in Nitro City. Cat pulled the motorcycle into an empty parking space. He had run through a handful of possibilities on the ride over, but few had any real substance. Still, it was better to come off cocky than to let his partners know he was completely at a loss. He stepped into Delambre’s working area.
“What’s the verdict?” He asked.
Angela, as Delambre had referred to her, dropped the control to the video feed on the table and walked away. Her brown eyes offered no depth, a conscious attempt to hide any hint of her internal anguish. It didn’t take an empath to read her concerns. Cat cursed silently for not checking for other telltale signs. It was too late to check her eyes for redness or tears, too late to monitor her hands or posture for signs of stress. Instead, he had a black screen and a remote.
Deciding to pursue her behavior before the video feed, he called across the open room. “I’m gonna grab a drink. You want anything?”
Angela slammed the door behind her.
It took almost four minutes to track down any alcohol worth imbibing and another two to find an empty glass clean enough to drink from. By the time Cat sat down in front of the monitor and cracked his neck, Angela was locked away behind who-knew-how-many doors. He wasn’t sure if her feelings towards him were fear or distrust. Either way, she’d called him here without dear ol’ Daddy D to look out for her, which meant he probably had wasted crucial time before viewing the video.
He sighed, poured a tumbler of cheap whiskey, and flipped the monitor to ‘play’.
Instantly, he recognized his own video feed, an eerie out-of-body method of witnessing his recent near-death experience. It was as if he had actually died and was watching his spirit pull away from his physical form, only he hadn’t been graced with the invite to the pearly gates. He was quite alive and dealing with the dizzying images dancing in the frame. It was annoying at first. Before he knew it, he was becoming entertained at the experience.
Angela had slowed the footage, filtering it for clarity. As a result, Cat watched the words mimed on Midas’ gold-tinted lips. Instead of a surprising blur, he was able to track the assassin’s attack movement-by-movement. Midas’ eyes engaged him with the self-important smugness, unaware of the airborne murderer. As the flash entered the screen, Cat witnessed the tearing of the platysma and scalyne muscles, the severing of the jugular, and the separation of the spine from the base of the skull, clear step-by-step features of Midas’ decapitation. He raised a glass to Midas’ cadaver just before it dropped.
“Bottom’s up,” he chided the video feed.
The video returned to standard speed for the next few moments. Cat recognized as he picked up the target, acknowledged its speed and reflexes, and moved in counter-measure. It was just before he turned and leapt through the window that the feed returned to frame-by-frame super-slow motion.