Authors: Nick Kelly
“Master, you called for me?”
The words ripped through his glee like a scalpel. He turned, eyes still wet from tearing, cheeks hurting from smiling so wide. “Yes, my dear, indeed I did.”
The figure who addressed him was a mix of natural and surgical perfection. Beautiful to the brink of description even before his expert hands had adjusted her, she now boasted a superhuman sensuality. Her dark hair was straight, barely touching her shoulder, centering a face with high cheekbones and full lips. Her bright eyes were permanently framed with dark lashes, designed to project temptation.
She wore a leather sleeveless top, displaying her defined arms and tanned skin. Her full breasts filled the leather, which followed her hourglass curves over her slender waist and supple hips. Her long legs drove downward into heeled boots. Her lips pursed slightly before she continued. “You have need of my services?”
He grinned at his magnificent creation. She wasn’t his first, but certainly one of his proudest accomplishments. “Yes, Angelyka, I do.”
Cat reveled in the freedom the Honda-Suzuki provided on the highway, partaking once again in the open wasteland that had once been I-40. There were plenty of evils still afoot out in the desert sands, but he had driven this stretch dozens of times since his arrival in Nitro City. It was therapy. The ride was one sacred release he had from partnerships, caseload, and potential enemies. It was a perilous ride for the uninformed, but Cat’s growing reputation kept most threats at bay.
The new armor felt strange. He’d been accustomed to a black leather jacket and pants with the armored fittings for his legs and hands, but Delambre had insisted on more. For a geneticist, he showed a knack for military engineering that simply didn’t jive with his background. The armor, similar but lighter and more composite, still required some breaking in. Cat’s first test was to see how it felt on the H-S. If it failed that, it wasn’t worth even walking in.
The more he drove, the more he pondered. Delambre was strange, but instinct said he was reliable. His daughter, well, who really knew what made her tick, but Cat wouldn’t mind adjusting her gears to find out. Hitch was on a slab. Payment had been received for the job, and Midas hadn’t sent anyone after him yet. There was something seriously wrong with that part of the equation.
As if on cue, the comm buzzed inside his helmet. “Cat.”
“How’s the armor feel?”
Delambre chuckled in reply. “I’m not certain I’ve ever felt yellow. Can you describe it?”
“Sure, grab some binoculars, take a trip uptown or to the sim-lab and stare at the sun for an hour. Then get back to me.”
“You seem edgy. How can I assist?”
Cat rolled his eyes. “Just tryin’ ta put together a few loose ends on some cases. The armor’s better’n I thought so far. Ain’t had cause ta try it out yet, but the night is young.”
Delambre paused before replying, as if seeking a second opinion. “You have my assurance it will meet your needs, Catwalk.”
“I’ll keep ya posted.” Cat clicked the comm dead and twisted his wrist, burning more kilometers beneath him. The price tag on the armor was more than he had anticipated, and he would demand a back-up suit, given the pace of some of his investigations. He was going to need to cash from a few other outstanding jobs.
Fortunately, there was one he’d been trailing for a while, and tonight might prove the perfect outlet for a little recreation.
The Paradigm Shift was founded by two lifelong virtual world gamers who had decided on a permanent meeting place for those who logged more minutes in a fantasyland than reality. A neon display above the entrance boasted a myriad of colors, and the doors flanked by eight-meter high guardians. A red dragon reared on its hind legs on one side, perfectly crafted from reinforced steel. Opposite the dragon, a large robot with chain-guns instead of hands faced off against it.
The bouncer and his correspondents inside sported some formidable armor. After all, the clientele here was only half composed of meek gamers playing dress up. The other half had the resources and funds, usually through gaming, to undergo surgery to closely resemble their in-game personas. Everyone in the place represented some sort of fantasy rendition of reality…a character.
The main areas of the club weren’t potentially hazardous. It was in the VIP section where the real money flowed. The inhabitants there were revered by the common crowd. These virtual power brokers often decided on a whim how to change the very dimensions where hundreds of thousands clung to every imaginary facet of their lives. In this restricted area, the wardrobe ranged from custom tailored suits to armor and shields. Each player had their own idea of how to represent the money in their deferred off-world accounts.
There was a portion of the gamers who chose to represent their investments through appearance. They sported uniforms identical to what their avatars wore in the virtual world. Some did so by choice. Others were so physically altered they’d become the very character they’d once invented.
Cat grinned to himself at the notion. He’d been no different, really. The surgery he’d undergone made him into the character he’d become. The difference was that when he killed an opponent, they didn’t get to reset somewhere. They flatlined, regardless of what game they thought they might be playing.
He set the half-empty glass of bourbon on the small tabletop. Sweat dripped from the glass to the rectangular surface, dripping onto the chessboard set into the mahogany. The chair across from him was empty. There would be no opponent tonight, merely a job to be done and a paycheck to collect.
He had pieced together the backstory, a high-level rivalry amongst the gaming companies. The man who called himself DoB, aka Descendant of British, had jumped ship to start his own firm, leaving one of the leading gaming companies without a head designer. Then, DoB decided to show up at Paradigm to celebrate with a few of his close friends.
Cat grinned at the irony. There was a benefit to identifying your friends solely by virtual renderings. It meant that in real life they could look like anything. In this case, they could even look like a scarred and tired ex-cop who’d moved west to make a living in theft, murder, extortion and other odd jobs.
DoB was a slovenly man, who clearly chose indulgence over self-preservation. His dirty blonde hair was unkempt, and the cheap suit he wore had been tailored for him long before he’d put on the excess weight of sloth and greed. His skin was a mess and his tie looked as if he knotted it together with his teeth.
The developer was the kind of man Cat took pleasure in hurting before the kill. There was simply too much self-satisfaction evident on the fat man’s face for Cat to let him go quickly. From here, he had a clear shot, which had never really been the hitman’s best exercise of assassination. Even after years as a cop and now as a killer, he was far from a marksman.
Instead, Cat had gone a different route, following DoB’s limo to the Paradigm on the HS motorcycle. Once DoB had gone inside, Cat bugged the limo, then went back a second time and wired it. The detonator rested nicely in one of the compartments of his new prototype armor that Delambre had crafted. For now, Cat could pick the cocky gamer off up close or blow him into a few million pieces later. Which option he chose would depend on how his night went.
Bored with the supposedly rich and powerful clientele, and nearing the end of his glass of underwhelming bourbon, Catwalk looked out to the main room through the one-way mirrors down at the “regular” folks. There were grinding bodies, plenty of misfits to be certain, and a lot of liquid courage creating flirtation and lousy pick-up lines. Elves danced, wrapped around vampires. Golems and cyborgs exchanged heated glances across the dance floor. Orcs and werewolves were heavy petting in the corners. A knight of the round table had his hand halfway up the wicked witch’s dress. A mermaid was riding a unicorn in a manner that should have been anatomically impossible. The entire place was a buffet of dream-driven fantasies. Cat chuckled to himself, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it while scanning the outside bar.
Several women appealed to him instantly. He ruled out two after seeing their profile and identifying Adam’s apples. He shook his head, took a drag and double-checked on the loudmouth developer he’d been sent to retire. The man hadn’t moved, still holding audience at the far end of the VIP section, boasting about past accomplishments and future triumphs. In one hand, he held a glass of something that glowed an unnatural blue, with the other he was typing code into a virtual keyboard, changing the worlds he’d created without thought to the lives he affected.
Cat returned his gaze to the outside bar and felt a paralysis wash over him when he caught the form of one woman near the end of the bar. She wore a manly outfit, almost exclusively urban camouflage and Kevlar. Beneath her hat, her deep auburn hair was pulled into a tight ponytail, and her otherwise flawless face was marked with dark eye shadow and eye black.
Try as she might to hide her identity, Cat could pick her particular face out of an adrenaline-fed riot throwing Molotov cocktails at his face. He’d seen her face before on billboards, vidfeeds, digital stills, and in his own drunken lust.
That woman, as much as she would deny it, was fashion model and designer Delilah DuPree.
Cat headed out of the VIP section immediately, the cigarette dangling from his lips. He strode with purpose through the writhing crowd on the dance floor, making an unnatural slice through the drug-fueled incarnations of warriors and wizards. He emerged on the opposite end, confirming in a split-second what he’d originally thought or hoped. The subject of a thousand photo shoots, five hundred interviews, and an immeasurable number of his own fantasies, was sipping from a tumbler a few meters away.
He watched for a moment as she looked just past the brim of her faded cap and caught the unsteady advances of a potential suitor stumbling up behind her. Taking a drag, he let the drunken man get closer. The man wore a full-fledged ogre outfit, dyed his skin green and wore a torn shirt, leather kilt, and boots. He reached to tap the woman on the shoulder and instead landed a hand on the bar next to her. She shifted to her left, revealing more surprise than she had intended. The man belched involuntarily and then asked her to slow dance with a crooked, awkward smile.
The woman graciously thanked him for his offer, stating she was waiting for her other half, and patted his cheek. That alone satisfied the would-be ogre, who eventually regained his balance and stumbled away. Relief was evident on her face as she exhaled a deep breath and reached past the ice-filled tumbler for her cigarettes.
“Le Courvoisier, I presume,” Cat offered, lighter in hand, faux accent on his lips.
The woman looked up at him, startled for only a fraction of a section. She smiled and allowed him to light her cigarette. “Thank you,” she stated with a note of dismissal.
Cat smiled back, with no intention of letting so little a tone dissuade him. “The pleasure is mine, Miss?”
“Mrs.,” she replied coldly.
He nodded. “But of course,” he said, leaning closer. “Madame Dupree, as it were.”
The woman’s insightful green eyes flared slightly then settled with a deep breath. “It’s Mrs., as I said. Mrs. Raul Azuria.”
Cat smiled. “Of course it is.” He dropped the accent, going back to his own delivery, “Listen, Mrs. Razawhateveryouthinkyouwannacallit, you’ve got at least six separate parties in this particular little chithole of a bar who are infightin’ over which of them is going to come over here an’ get you to dance. So, how bout you an’ I either entertain ourselves over a nice glass a’ real-world natural liquor in the VIP section, or you let me escort you safely to whatever transportation you swindled inta gettin’ you into this joint?”
Her eyes flared with the challenge as she blew smoke in his face. “And why should I trust a yellow-eyed stranger like yourself?”
“Because,” he smirked, “despite the fact I share their appreciation of that body a’ yours, I’m the only one here who knows yer technically still married to a multi-billionaire off-world investor.”
Delilah’s face didn’t betray the change in her emotions, but her body language shouted profanities at him. “How sweet, I believe I’ve had enough of your banter.” She reinforced her statement by suggesting he perform a self-servicing sexual act.
“It’s Leon,” he said confidently, leaving a small card on the bar near her drink, “Leon Caliber. Payin’ parties call me Catwalk.” He took a step away, paused and leaned back toward her. “By the way, when the vampires in the corner start stalkin’ you tonight, feel free ta call me.” With a smirk, he disappeared into the crowd on the dance floor.
How long had it been since she left the bar? A minute? Two?
The shadows shifted behind her, filled with mechanical catcalls and laughter. She knew those voices. They belonged to the vampires from the bar. She pulled her coat tighter around her. No one was supposed to follow her. This was a research trip. Damn it, where was her driver?
She rushed forward on quick steps, heading east on Rampart for the brighter lights of Beverly Blvd. She’d be safe there, hidden among the tourists and fashion-famined crowds who walked those streets all hours of the night.
Voices spoke, no, howled in the distance behind her. Delilah’s pace picked up, though she told herself to maintain the façade of control. The boots had barely any lift. They were comfortable and warm compared to the heels she wore the majority of her typical week. She stepped up her pace, walking quickly, fighting the urge to break into a run. Her breathing quickened. Even in the cool air, she was sweating openly. The snap of leather trench coats joined their caterwauling. She knew they were closer than she’d thought. She spun, bearing pepper spray in her right hand. “Stop right there.”
The four vampires moved as if in slow motion for a few moments before laughing in unison. The tallest, with his blonde hair cut in a Mohawk, grinned from behind his dark sunglasses. “Pepper spray? I’ve never had a meal that came with its own spice rack before.” His supporting cast broke into a laughter as uniform as their black leather apparel.