Thursday, 6 December 2018

Six: Two Years Later

Two Years Later...
Having woken early, he'd untangled himself from her arms and slipped into the next room to get dressed. One thing Vincent had never really adjusted to was the fact that their new apartment was facing the morning sun. The light woke up him up early every morning, even with the shades drawn.
Connie mumbled as he got up, used to it by now. She managed to snuggle deeper into the blankets without opening her eyes, drawing them over her head protectively. Days when he wasn't required to work, he liked to stay in bed, even when awake and let her sleep longer. Days when he had to work, he took advantage of the extra hour.
Coffee and toast in hand, he returned to the bedroom, where he had a desk set up. His laptop was forever battling for room against Connie's omnipresent bits and pieces. Vincent loved Connie dearly, but the girl had no control when it came to buying things online. Their apartment was filled with a lifetime of knickknacks. Chinese puzzle boxes, snow-globes from practically every city in the world, model ships and aircraft of every kind...
Every now and then, his eyes drifted to the Lantern. The bulb had burned out, but he'd kept it anyway. It actually fit right in among Connie's knickknacks. She had everything, including books and posters... Not wanting to wake her, he picked a book at random and started flicking through it. He knew he'd never finish it, but it gave him something to do.
After a while, he noticed movement behind him. "Hm. Come back to bed." She murmured.
"Nothing I'd love more, but it's getting late." Vincent told her.
"Then be late. I'd make it worth your while." She hummed, sitting up. Then she saw the coffee cup and forgot all about being playful. "Coffee waiting the moment I wake up." She smiled sleepily, taking the cup straight out of his hand. "I love you."
"I'm sitting, reading innocently to myself when you wake up and promptly steal my carefully brewed cup of delicious coffee?" Vincent retorted with open affection. "It's a good thing I love you too."
She noticed the book in his hand. "Ohh, good choice. That's a first edition I picked up in London, at a clearing sale for one of the finest publishing houses in..."
"You bought it on for fifteen cents so that you could get a better price on combined shipping." Vincent retorted.
Connie frowned and took another deep gulp of his coffee. "Yes. Yes I did. But I like my story better."
Vincent chuckled. "So do I." He kissed her cheek. "I have to get moving. See you at the Kitchen tonight?"
"Don't you always?"
Yasi knelt on the floor, arms stretched out as far as she could. On the floor in front of her, was her sword, sheathed in its scabbard. She waited, alert. After a moment, there was the slightest of sounds, a scuff of a bare foot behind her. She didn't move. The sound stopped. Another moment, there was another step. She didn't move.
The faintest sound of air movement and she rolled forward instantly, the staff smashing down where she was a moment before. She came out of the roll already on her feet, settling into a fighting crouch. Dorcan lunged forward with the fighting staff, looking to land a blow. She didn't even bother with the sword. She let him hit her, and took the blow across her forearms. It hurt, but it let her catch the staff with one hand. Dorcan tried to pull it back, but she would not release it, and Dorcan found himself tossed off the other end of the staff. He didn't try to stop his momentum, instead directing himself toward her sword as best he could.
Yasi spun the staff back and forth elaborately, showing off her skill, as he snatched up her sword and spun around, ready to continue the fight. He swung the sword at her, still sheathed, no time to do anything else, and she caught the end of it in one hand. Dorcan swiftly pulled the sword down, drawing it out of the scabbard, leaving her holding the empty sheath and him with the naked blade. She danced aside quickly and threw the scabbard at him, buying her precious seconds. He ducked aside to dodge, and turned it into a sweeping slash that would have cut her in half.
Yasi didn't duck, she crouched, suddenly three feet shorter, as the blade flashed over her head, close enough to release her hair from its ties. Her locks fell over her shoulders, a few of them dropping to the floor, and she made an equally sweeping strike with the staff, knocking Dorcan off his feet.
With her opponent suddenly flat on his back, Yasi pounced forward, bring the staff downward in a sledgehammer blow. He didn't have time to dodge, so he brought the sword up along his own face to block it. The force of the strike sent the katana smacking against his face, thankfully along the flat of the blade, and sliced the staff in half. He grabbed the severed end of it, and they both jerked back, giving themselves room.
With a sword in one hand, and half the staff in the other, Dorcan started a slow infinity loop, making a protective and aggressive motion as he slowly closed in on his opponent. With half the staff, barely the length of either weapon in one hand, Yasi crouched, ready to fight. She lashed out like quicksilver, hitting the sword aside with one move, and the staff with another, he countered before she could press the attack, and suddenly they were flashing their weapons back and forth. She was moving twice as fast as he was to stop both weapons, and he was trying to get past her lighting defense enough to land a blow with either.
In one quick movement, Yasi knocked the sword out of his hand, caught his half of the staff as she blocked it, and pulled, suddenly leaving him empty handed. Dorcan didn't try to get his weapon back, instead getting in close, before she could make use of her weapons. He was in too close to hit, in too close to dodge back…
Dorcan hooked a leg behind her foot and Yasi suddenly found herself pinned, with him on top of her.
Everything. Stopped.
They were nose to nose on the floor, breathing hard, staring into each others eyes, and Dorcan suddenly seemed nervous. She could have flipped him off, but she didn't. This was, after all, just a sparring session. Just for practice.
"Got you." Dorcan said finally.
"Yeah, you do." She shot back, unfazed. "Do you have a clue what to do with me?"
"Would anyone?" He deflected, getting off her.
Yasi rolled to her feet, when the sound of slow clapping rang out through the room. They both turned, to find Keeper coming in.
Dorcan pulled back modestly. "She was taking it easy on me."
"I know she was." Keeper responded, her voice sharp as always. "What the hell were you doing?"
Dorcan flushed.
"Anyway, that wasn't what I'm here to talk about." Keeper waved it off. "I was mediating a dispute between two of the Marketmen a few minutes ago. They both blame the other for trespassing."
"Borrowers are very particular about where they get to Borrow things from." Yasi nodded. "If they're going to give it back, they can't get confused about what came from where. They're very protective of their territory."
Keeper just glared at her. "Thank you, Yasi. Having been born yesterday, I never would have known that." She creaked sarcastically.
"So what's the problem?"
"The problem is, one of them mentioned there hadn't been any raids lately." Keeper got to the point.
"There haven't." Dorcan confirmed. "Things have been very quiet from the lower levels."
Keeper just looked at them both. "That doesn't bother either of you?"
"What? The fact that things are peaceful and going smoothly? You want us to report it when nothing happens?" Dorcan looked to Yasi, to see if she would join in on the joke.
Yasi however, was not smiling. "Actually… Now that you mention it, that is a little strange, isn't it?"
Archivist was writing in a huge bound volume, the pages yellowed, but not by age. The huge volume was one of hundreds that lined the walls of the older man's private chamber. After a few moments, he sensed a presence. "Keeper." He rumbled. "Were you trying to creep up on me?"
"If I were, you wouldn't have known I was here." The old woman cracked. "Yasi was training with her chief lieutenant this morning."
"Dorcan? He likes her." Archivist snorted. "That's hardly news."
"They were training together because neither of them had anything particularly interesting to do this morning." Keeper persisted.
"What about the Market caravans?" Archivist commented. "Has there been a delay?"
"Nope, not a delay." Keeper's face was stone. "The Marketmen have reported that they won't need a Shinobi escort today, because they haven't had any trouble with Riverfolk for at least three months."
Archivist froze. "Well now. That is interesting news."
"Yeah, and not the good kind. When was the last time we had no problem with raids for that long?"
"I honestly can't remember. Two years at least..."
"I hate sending people down to the River as much as you do, but there's something going on down there. And if it's something we don't know about then it's probably not good."
"So, eighteen months as a happy couple." Lindsay said with a grin. "You sick of him yet?"
Connie swatted her co-worker absently. "You're just jealous."
"Jealous? Me?" Lindsay mocked. "Your guy wants to spend his eighteen month anniversary with the homeless."
"Hey, that was how we met. We're having a recreation of our first real date. It's romantic."
"You're not serious." Lindsay said blankly. "A Soup Kitchen is not Romantic. Dinner is Romantic. A trip is romantic. New lingerie that you can't afford is romantic."
Connie was notably silent.
Lindsay grinned. "You're kidding."
"Like I said, we're having a recreation." Connie grinned, pushing her glasses up her nose.
"You leaving early?"
"Naw. Vincent's helping out tonight, and we always run late here." Connie shrugged. "We never meet up any sooner than nine."
Lindsay snorted. "Thank the Lord for the night-time."
A new patient came in, leading a boy by the hand. The boy jumped up to the counter and peeked over the edge at them. "Hiya, Miss Connie."
"Tecca." She welcomed him warmly. "Welcome back. Grab a seat, the Doctor will be with you soon."
Tecca had been there often enough that he knew the routine, and Connie smiled at the boy as he sat down. He was a regular at the clinic. It was clear from the way he and his mother dressed that his family didn't have a lot of money, but the kid was always smiling at her, and she always remembered their names.
Connie had seen it a hundred times. A family that poor, sometimes sleeping in a car, broke enough that a trip to the free clinic was the only time they could afford to go anywhere at all... She made it a point to have a bag of cookies to hand out to the kids, and a little story to tell whenever there was a free minute.
It made her popular with the youngest patients. Too many adults didn't even see the people behind the reception desk when they came by. It was hard not to love the kids to bits.
Tecca rubbed his arm as he walked out of the doctor's office.
"Tecca, you may be the only kid I know that's willing to lie their way into a doctor's office." The older woman who brought him and posed for the doctors as his mother commented, her curiosity making her more bold than usual. "You like needles that much?"
Tecca snorted, suddenly seeming twenty years older. "Thanks for your help, Martha." He pulled a fifty dollar note out of his pocket. "Groceries on me, same as always."
Martha looked at him with open disbelief. Living in New York meant you could handle most everything, but this kid truly scared her sometimes. "Tecca, three times now you asked me to pose as your mom... You pay better than my job... But I gotta ask..."
Tecca, all of four feet all, and less than a quarter her age, glared up at her with sudden ferocity. "Mrs Cameron." He said with sudden ferocity. "I pay you good money not to ask. Or to notice, or to even think. You know the rules. You hold my hand when I walk in, you smile at whoever sits behind the desk, and you take my money when we're done. If you can't do that, there are thousands of women in this city that can. You're not the first one to get me past a front desk. I have no problem with someone else taking over from you. And how will you feed your own kids then? Do we have an understanding, mom?"
Martha swallowed, oddly intimidated. "Yes." She stopped just short of calling him 'sir'.
Tecca suddenly looked past Martha, as though there was something fascinating behind her. She turned to follow his gaze, and found nothing there. She turned back to Tecca.
He had vanished.
Shivering, she put his money in her pocket, and kept walking.
Tecca walked slowly into the subway station, and boarded a train. A few minutes after the train started rushing down the tunnel, Tecca drew his Lostkind watch, checked the time, and moved out the back of the carriage. The space between carriages was open, and the air howled around him. Tecca glanced in both directions, making sure nobody was watching, and moved. He put his hands on the subway car in front of him, and his feet on the one behind. Yasi could make this climb with one hand, but he was still too small to reach without pressure-walking his way up.
On the roof of the train, he checked the subway map from memory, and started counting down in his head. Nobody in New York knew that at certain times of day, a narrow trapeze net was slung across this tunnel, just narrow enough to go unnoticed by the passing trains. Tecca picked his moment, and pushed off the train, leaping out into the dark. The net caught him, and had stretch in it enough to catch him neatly. Unhurt, he waited until the train raced by, and rolled off the net, into the tunnel. He had another five minutes until the next one rolled by.
Wandering down the lonely deserted path, he kept walking till he found the glowing insignia, painted over the subway grime. He felt around till he found the latch, and opened the passage into the Labyrinth.
There were no lights in the Labyrinth. It was meant to confuse and misdirect anyone who found a way into its walls. Tecca had the route drilled into him over and over, and the walls were worn smooth by the gentle touches of a thousand Lostkind going in and out from memory.
Tecca was halfway through when he heard the sound of breathing and froze.
"Hello?" A voice called out from the Labyrinth.
Tecca sighed. "Kamy? That you?"
"Tecca!" The girl called back in relief. "Help!"
Wotcha had taught Tecca well, and the boy was at home in the dark by now. He found his way to her and caught her hand. The girl squawked in surprise, but clung to his hand tightly, more scared of the dark than of anything else.
"Shh." Tecca warned her. "Don't be afraid, Kamy. I'll get you home safe. I'm right here. There's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Nothing that wouldn't be there in the light."
Kamy quieted. "My lantern stopped working after... I wanted… I thought, since it was daytime Above, I should be able to…"
"I know. I won't tell the Shinobi, but they're right. You're still too young to come up alone."
Kamy sniffed. "I'm almost five."
"We have a word for 'almost five.'" Tecca said imperiously. "Four."
He led her back to the entrance to the Underside, and lit up a Lantern for her. She sighed with relief. "Now. Go find Yasi, and tell her-"
"WHAT?!" The girl screeched so loud it echoed down the tunnels. "You said you weren't gonna tell!"
"Find. Yasi." Tecca repeated firmly. "And tell her that I'm waiting up top with the surface reports."
Kamy nodded nervously and ran off, changed her mind a moment later and came running back. "Did ya see the nice Doctor lady?"
"She's not a doctor, she just works at the clinic." Tecca corrected absently, and pulled the cookie out of his pocket, tossing it to her over his shoulder. Kamy caught it and ran back into the Underside.
Keeper joined Yasi in her chamber, overlooking the Twelfth Level. "Archivist agrees with us. He thinks we should take it seriously."
"Dorcan wasn't wrong." Yasi said finally. "There have been lulls before. Remember two years ago? There was a lull then that lasted for a month of two."
"Two years ago?"
Yasi bit her lip. "Yeah. Right after we found that message scrawled on the wall." She rose from her crouch and went back into her chamber, collecting her sword quickly. "Might be worth taking a look."
Keeper nodded, not showing pity on her face. "But it's not just the silence from the River. I've been getting written surface reports. I get messages from the Gremlins, too."
Gremlins were the ghosts of the Underside. The kids that slipped in and out. Yasi remembered how Vincent had reacted to them, the way they vanished into their hiding places when he turned his head to look.
Yasi bit her lip. "People are sending messages by note now, instead of speaking face to face. It's happening more often."
"Why?" Keeper demanded.
"I wish I knew." Yasi admitted. "Can't you feel it?"
Keeper could, but had probably not noticed it before. Things were changing.
The Healers said that when someone was sick, they could tell. Without any specific symptom, without any test done, a person could feel it when something wasn't quite right inside them. When it healed, they knew it. They could feel a strength or a corruption within them.
The Underside was the same. You could feel the mood of the place, the strength of the people, the excitement of the day. Something had changed over the last few years. Something was not the same. Yasi could feel it. The Rhythm was off. The Lostkind weren't looking each other in the eye as eagerly, weren't negotiating in the Market with as good a cheer. There was a feeling of something being on edge, getting harder and more desperate. It was subtle and ill defined; impossible to say why or how.
It had been growing slowly for years. The facts of life Below hadn't changed, and nobody had realized that something was different.
At least not out loud. Yasi could sense things shifting, becoming more fragile.
Keeper and Archivist felt it too. Something was coming.
Keeper noticed the light from Kamy's Lantern at the entrance to the Twelfth Level, far below, and waited for the child to get to her. Crouched on the edge of Yasi's chamber, she looked out over the huge skyline of her home. It was peaceful, the condensation giving a light mist over the whole space. The lights of the private chambers cast a light blue glow in the mist. The rope lines between each floor were in constant movement as hundreds of people made their way back and forth. Tecca never bothered with the basket elevators, scaling the ropes like he'd been doing it his whole life; which he had. Kamy, on the other hand, was still too small to reach.
Keeper felt a glimmer of pain shoot through her heart. She didn't react to it, but deep down, in a place she would never talk about, she felt fear. Something was happening to her whole world, and she could not see the shape of it.
Eventually, Kamy made it to her level, and the child hesitated. She knew who lived in this particular chamber. The girl shivered, and looked to Keeper for help. Yasi wasn't offended, used to this reaction, and stayed further back in her room so that Kamy wouldn't see her. To be the Shinobi Captain was to be The Law. The Enforcer. It was a position that intimidated most in the Underside. Which made it all the more meaningful when Dorcan was clearly not afraid of her.
Kamy was having a quiet conversation with Keeper, and the old woman smiled. "I'll tell her." The smile dropped instantly and Keeper twisted Kamy's ear lightly. "And what the hell were you doing up there alone anyway?!"
"I was just exploring!" Kamy protested, breaking free and diving for the elevators. Keeper let her go.
Yasi came forward, adjusting her sword. "What was that?" She asked absently.
"Tecca's got the Surface reports." Keeper relayed the child's message. "Kamy says he's waiting at the usual place."
Yasi rose from her crouch. "I'll be right back, and when I do, I'll investigate what's going on down at the River."
"You're going up for those messages yourself?"
"Wotcha's staying Above more and more now." Yasi explained. "Getting older. Going back and forth is getting harder for her. If I go, I won't have to explain that to someone every time we need the messages collected."
Tecca was waiting calmly in his hiding place, perched on the corner of a building, above a deli. He watched the manhole cover, waiting for someone to come and meet him. It lasted for twenty minutes, before a pigeon landed directly in front of him. There was a note tied to its leg. Not expecting that, he read the message.
Do you have any idea how easy it was to sneak up on you? Try to look surprised.
Tecca looked up from the note and found himself nose to nose with the Shinobi Captain. She wasn't smiling, and was close enough for him to feel her breath on his face. He reeled back instinctively with a squawk and promptly fell off the ledge.
He was upside down and on the edge of falling to his death when Yasi caught him with one hand and held him there. "If you want to be a Watcher, you need to use your eyeballs." She said coolly.
"Yes Ma'am." Tecca called back.
Yasi reeled him back in. "You have the reports?"
Tecca nodded and handed over the stack of notes, tied with string. The boy drew one more note out of his pocket. "Wotcha asked me to give this to you personally. She said it was confidential."
Yasi took it and stuck it into her pocket as the sun began to set over the edge of the skyline.
"Hey." Owen looked up from his laptop and saw Vincent pulling on a tie. "You're heading out?"
"Vincent's got a better offer." Gill said jovially.
"What? You mean the man would rather go out with his lady, rather than stay here and argue about macaroni and cheese portions with us?"
Vincent pretended to be conflicted for a full three seconds. "Hmm, let me think about that. Dinner with the woman I love, versus another late night office marathon with you zoo animals."
"Zoo animals." Gill scoffed to Owen with a wry smirk. "That's a nice thing to call us cavemen."
Vincent pulled on his jacket. "You guys got it covered?"
"Sure, just a few zoning applications left and something from Earth-First."
"What's Earth-First?"
"Some Green-Tech Company, they want to talk about sustainability options for the City."
"Oh, I hate when Sustainability Initiative people come to us." Vincent sighed.
"Why?" Owen asked, confused.
"Because, they'll almost certainly fail in their attempt to improve the world. Money, or politics or apathy will kill it long before it gets out of committee, no matter what we say." Gill smirked cynically. "And that's sad. At least, it is for Vincent. I don't have a soul any more, so it hardly matters."
"Sounds like we can handle it." Owen told Vincent warmly. "Go have a good night, boss. We'll hold down the fort."
Vincent waved over his shoulder as he left. Owen leaned out of the cubicle enough to track his exit. The second Vincent got onto the elevator, he turned to Gill. "So. We getting out of here?"
Gill tapped at his keyboard for a moment. "I don't see why this can't wait till tomorrow. Or at the very least, Vincent won't notice." He smiled cheekily. "First round is on you."
Keeper had tea brewed and waiting by the time Yasi made it back to her chamber. Yasi took a cup gratefully, and unwrapped the package, which was a stack of small notes, tied with string. She took the first one and read it, her brow furrowed in response. The cup in her hand paused, hovering in mid-air as she read the note again.
"Bad news?" Keeper creaked.
"Not bad news, exactly." Yasi said distractedly, her eyes still on the paper. "But I don't believe in coincidence."
"Neither do I." Keeper confirmed.
"Two years ago, Vincent-"
"I THOUGHT YOU GOT SMART ABOUT THAT!" Keeper thundered suddenly.
Yasi put her hands up automatically. "Keeper, chill. I haven't spoken to Vincent in over twenty months. I kept my word. But the last time I went to see him, it was because of his friend. Eugene Gillard went into hospital for blood loss after slashing his wrists. He attempted suicide when his gambling debts caught up with him. The Loan Shark in question was apparently killed in an unrelated matter the next day. That pretty much wraps things up, nice and neatly."
"Too neatly." Keeper agreed.
"The Shark in question had plenty of enemies, and was squeezing a lot of them. I figured the easiest simplest answer was the right one, and left it at that, but just to make sure, I had Wotcha keep an eye on the investigation. They closed the book on it a month later. Monroe was apparently murdered by one of his 'clients', who was never captured. But an alert was put out for the murderer based on forensic evidence. Evidence which was just recently matched to a petty, unrelated crime. This time they got an ID on Monroe's killer. Police went to arrest that crook and he was found dead too. Apparently from suicide."
"They overplayed their hand." Keeper agreed. "Whoever Vincent's friend is... he didn't borrow money from a typical Loan Shark. Someone killed him to cover something up, then killed the killer just recently to make sure. They overplayed it. Who was investigating Monroe's death?"
"Officer Grey, 10th Precinct." Yasi waved her note. "Ever heard of him?"
"Nope." Keeper shook her head. "Means we've never had anything to do with him before. He may not be involved. What was the result of Monroe's death?"
"A few people who borrowed money escaped." Yasi thought it through. "Some were feeling the pinch. My guess is the Loan Shark was scared."
"One of the ones feeling the pinch was Vincent's friend. If there is more to this than everyone seems happy with, then there must be more to one of the players than is generally known. Who on the list of people involved have a secret?"
"Vincent." Yasi gritted her teeth. "Vincent is connected to us. You always told me to watch for connections. You said that we never go after the guy we want, we go after the guy next to him and wait. If someone out there... One of the other Undergrounds could be following the same playbook..."
Keeper bit her lip. "McCall knows Wotcha, he knows where to find her. His office could point people at any number of entrances to our world if he's been digging, and you know he has..." The old woman sighed. "Yasi, this is now a threat to the safety of the Underside."
Yasi rose from her perch instantly, shoulders back, chin up, spine straight. Yasi had become 'The Captain' in a heartbeat, suddenly on duty. "I'm on it. I have to warn Vincent too."
"Do it quietly, Kid." Keeper warned her. "If someone is looking, you don't want to send up a flare."
Yasi nodded and slung her sword over her shoulder. "I'll check at the City Planner's office too. The first thing that happened after Gill's suicide attempt was someone new working closely with Vincent at his office. You said yourself that's a post that could find plenty of ways in."
"Check out Grey first!" Keeper shouted after her. "Remember, Vincent isn't the priority! He's not one of us!"
Nobody who was watching would have been aware of where she came from. But of course there was nobody watching. The City Planner's Office wasn't the hardest place she'd ever broken into, and it was pretty well deserted at this time of night.
Yasi catwalked, her feet making no noise as she wandered through the cubicles. She should have gone to the 10th Precinct first and investigated Officer Grey. But Vincent was a friend, even if she only met him a few times and hadn't seen him in more than two years. She wanted to know if he was in danger. She doubted he was at work that late, but if he was, she could kill two birds with one stone.
She noticed an office roster on the wall and went over to take a look. According to the roster, Vincent's workmate Owen hadn't been in today.
She went to Vincent's cubicle. The opposite desk was fairly Spartan by comparison. Vincent had pictures, train timetables, notebooks, a few photos...
The opposite desk had office supplies. No plants, no photos, no mementos. There were post-it notes all over the computer monitor as reminders, so it hadn't been tidied up deliberately...
Owen's desk drawer was locked, but locks were childhood toys to the Lostkind. She had the drawer open in seconds. More office supplies, no address book...
And in the bottom drawer, what looked like a fob watch. Feeling a chill of familiarity, she picked it up and flipped it open.
The watch face had four hands.
Yasi paled. Owen had a Lostkind watch. The kind of timepiece that told the time above, and the day-night shifts of their underground world.
She quickly went to the phone on the desk, and hit redial. The phone rang once. Twice. Someone picked up on the third ring.
"This is Grey." Responded a grizzled voice on the other end. "What could you possibly want at this time of night?"
Yasi paled. "Sorry, wrong number." She hung up.
Owen had been talking to the officer in charge of solving a murder. A murder that was clearly covering something up. A crime that had several effects, not the least of which was to put Owen at this desk for two years, three feet away from her friend Vincent.
The light switched on.
Yasi spun. She had never met him before, but Wotcha had described him from the time Vincent was spending with her. It was Owen.
"Find anything interesting?" Owen asked her. He seemed nervous, but not surprised. It was an odd combination of emotion given the fact that he wasn't supposed to be there, and she wasn't on staff.
But the question had been asked, so Yasi took advantage. "Who is Officer Grey?"
Owen shrugged. "Someone I know."
"Mm. He was looking into the murder of a small time Loan Shark named Monroe. A case that was just closed with the suicide of the killer this morning. I'm betting the Precinct call sheets will say that Grey spoke to you just before, or soon after." She seemed to relax, but her hands were free, inching toward her weapons... "Discuss anything interesting?"
"This and that. Nothing that should concern the great Yasi, Lightning of the Lostkind." He grinned at her.
Yasi froze. He knew her name.
"But you had to go and get curious, didn't you? Tell me, was Monroe's fate really so interesting, or did you just want to give your pet McCall closure? Even after two years?" Owen waved that off before she had a chance to answer. "Doesn't matter. We've got far more interesting things to deal with right now, don't we? And McCall... won't be part of it."
Yasi turned and bolted for the window.
Vincent was on his way to the restaurant, when he got a message on his phone. He checked it. It was a photo of Connie, in her underwear, with a naughty smile on her face. She was holding up two dresses to the camera, a red one, and a black one. The message read: Getting Ready for Tonight. Any Preference?
Swallowing automatically, he quickly answered: Black
A moment later, he told the cab driver to take him home. He knew he wouldn't catch her before she left, but if she was in a playful mood, then he wanted to make a greater effort than putting on a tie over his work clothes.
Yasi knew the Rhythm as well as she knew her own pulse, both in the Underside, and in New York. She knew where the traffic would be this time of night, where the most pedestrians would be walking, where all the cameras were placed, what time and what speed the trains were running...
Her whole body focused on her motion. Everything was motion. Her long stride ate up the length of the rooftops as she ran. The wind was against her, blowing in off the river. She cursed the wind for slowing her down. And cursed herself, for not being faster.
She had none of her traveling equipment. Some ninja fought with a hook on a long chain, able to strike at long distance. If you used that on the right jump, the right street, you could clear a huge multi-lane road instead of having to go the long way round. She had to take the long way, and hated it.
She lost a few seconds waiting for a truck big enough to not notice her. That got her across the Midtown traffic, but riding a train would be faster.
"Come on!" She urged herself. "Come on!"
She didn't know what was happening, but knew it wasn't going to be good.
"Tonight is going to be good." Vincent told himself in the mirror.
He was glad he went home first. Changing into a nice suit, a quick shave to get rid of the five-o'clock shadow, some new aftershave… He looked better than he had in a long time.
"So." He said to his reflection, feeling happier with his life than he could remember. "Gold cuff-links, or silver?"
He checked his watch, and quickly decided on neither. Connie was probably waiting for him at the restaurant by now. They were never on time, either of them. Since getting together, they'd had no qualms about blaming their lateness for events on each other. But tonight was a special occasion, and Connie was almost certainly looking forward to it as much as he was.
Hurrying down the steps of his apartment building, he went looking for a cab, walking in the general direction of the restaurant.
The train moved as fast as she wanted it to, but Vincent's house wasn't at the door to a station. In that part of the city, the buildings were close enough together that she could leap it, but she was wearing out from the speed run. She saw the street she needed and leaped off the speeding train, into power lines. They were strong enough, and had enough give to break her speed without cutting her in half. She twisted her body sharply to avoid the opposite set of wires, inches away from electrocuting herself. The contortion cost her hands the grip, and she landed badly, falling fifteen feet from the power lines.
Swallowing the scream as her legs twisted under her, she forced herself to keep moving. Her eyes focused on a payphone. Staggering towards it, she searched her leathers for a coin. She didn't have one.
Not bothering, Yasi snap-drew her sword and slashed the payphone open. Coins rained out and spread across half the sidewalk. She grabbed the first one her fingers touched and picked up the receiver.
Vincent was whistling to himself as he looked over his shoulder for a cab, yet again. They were supposed to be everywhere in this city.
His cell phone rang, and he answered it. "Hello?"
"Hey, it's me." Owen's voice answered brightly. "Just wanted to see if she got there in time."
"She who?" Vincent asked in unconcerned confusion.
"Doesn't matter." Owen chuckled. "Goodbye, Vincent."
Yasi heard the line connect, and got a busy signal. Letting out a frustrated sob, she hung up and started moving again, looking for a car she could flag down, a motorcycle she could hijack, a child on a bicycle she could mug…
"Too late." She croaked. "I'm too late. God, Vincent, I'm sorry!"
Vincent felt his head explode suddenly, and he dropped to the ground. His eyes rolled in opposite directions as his skull cracked against the pavement.
An inhuman growl filled his ears as something picked him up savagely, thrashing him back and forth like a wild dog with a bone. His head cracked back and forth from the shaking; he honestly couldn't tell down from up.
Another explosion erupted in his ribcage, and he heard the sound of bones snapping. The pain hit him a moment later.
He was shoved back down again, fire racing through his whole body, except for his stomach, which was made of ice. His skin was prickling with something horribly, there was a wet, sticky feeling from his clothes, and he saw six of everything.
And what he saw came straight out of a childhood nightmare.
His attackers were vaguely humanoid, but not human. They had gray rubbery skin, and didn't seem to wear any clothes, apart from thick black gloves. Their hands and feet seemed webbed somehow, and their faces were unformed and expressionless, except for enormously large red eyes that glowed with an unnatural inner fire. They were terrifying, cold-blooded beasts, and at least three of them were closing in for the kill. There was the sound of metal on metal, and one of them drew a long, wicked blade, already stained with dried blood.
They closed in on him, and Vincent pathetically waved an arm, trying to make his limbs move. He couldn't gain enough air to scream over the tight pain across his ribs…
One of the Monsters howled as a crossbow bolt speared into its stomach, the others quickly spinning around to face this new enemy. Vincent couldn't see anything in the dark, but the Monsters could. The one with the throwing knife hurled it into a dark shadow that Vincent could barely make out, and there was a shout of pain. It was a familiar voice.
The Monsters went into the dark, suddenly becoming invisible in the shadows, and emerged a moment later with Wotcha. She was thrashing around like a wildcat, the long blade embedded in her shoulder. She grasped it with her good arm and yanked it out, slashing back at her attackers.
The Monsters threw her down next to Vincent, and the blade went skittering. Wotcha came up with a can of Mace, and a heavy webbed foot came done on her hand, smashing the old woman's grip. Wotcha howled, and sent a bleak look to Vincent, who could barely focus his eyes enough to look back at her.
"Where's the crossbow?" The Voice of The Monster was a cross between Darth Vader and a feral wolf, savage and hungry for blood.
Another crossbow bolt speared out of the dark, and missed completely.
"How could you miss!?" Wotcha roared, indignant. "I was the perfect diversion!"
The Monsters turned again, and Tecca emerged from the shadows, running in terror down the street, clutching a crossbow that was almost as long as his arm.
Vincent expected them all to chase after him, but they paused professionally, to check on their target.
On me! A clinical part of his mind thought distantly. I was the target!
"How's he?" One of the Monsters growled, with a voice that didn't sound human.
Vincent wanted to rear back in fear as the nearest one got in close to his face, the huge red eyes coming unnaturally close. "He's alive, but won't be for long."
"Let's kill that kid before he gives us away." The Leader hissed, a low vacuum sound that made Vincent's hair stand up on end. "Kill the Watcher too."
Three of the Monsters took off after Tecca, the wounded one holding his stomach around the bolt, collecting the knife from where it dropped.
Vincent rolled his head to the left, just barely. He saw Wotcha fumbling for something in the folds of her clothes. The Monster that stayed stomped on her again, kicking her hand out of her pocket. Vincent heard her cry out futilely, unable to get a deep breath. But in her hand was a flare gun.
"What?" The Monster blinked.
Wotcha pulled the trigger, and a bright red light flashed out, faster than his bleary eyes could follow, as it smashed into the Monster's face. It may not have been a bullet, but the flare canister was big and heavy and moving fast enough.
Vincent passed out.
Yasi half ran, half limped to Vincent's apartment building, knowing he wasn't there, but having no idea where else to go. For a long helpless beat, she just stared up at his windows. He had moved since the last time she'd visited. It wasn't even the building she knew as his home. It was a home and a life he had had built for himself after letting her and her world go, building a future with somebody else.
And he wasn't there.
Frustrated, she shut her eyes. What do I do now?
"Help!" She heard a voice yell. "Somebody help me!"
"Tecca?" She hissed to herself in disbelief, quickly hurrying out into the street. The familiar boy was running for his life, clutching an unloaded crossbow… with three armed Riverfolk giving chase.
A demonic grin crossed her face. The panic was gone in an instant, and the pain in her legs went with it. Without a trace of her limp, the warrior woman stalked out into the street, casting aside her long coat. There was a ring of cold steel, and her blade was drawn.
"Yasi!" Tecca called out in relief, and he ran to her side. She stepped between him and the Riverfolk without hesitation, her sword held out to the side, ready to swing.
The attackers saw this new opponent and hesitated, drawing their own weapons, Throwing knives, spear gun, machete.
Yasi's grin was cold. "I want to thank you boys. You have no idea how bad I was feeling about myself until just this moment."
There was no hesitation as she strode toward them, in no particular hurry. The Riverfolk split up, taking her from opposite sides. They had been trained, they knew how to fight as a team, how to avoid getting in each others way. Yasi didn't care.
She struck, wasting no time on elaborate techniques. No showing off, no holding back, no doubts or worries. This wasn't a sparring session with a friend, this wasn't showing off her agility to Shinobi recruits, or making sure the kids respected the warriors of their world through intimidation.
This was an execution in the making.
The New York Ninja was cutting loose.
Vincent woke up to numb agony.
Worse than the pain was the sheer weakness in his limbs. How long was I lying here? He thought bleakly. How long have I been unconscious?
His limbs moved like they were filled with lead. He could feel the darkness creeping in on the edges of his vision. He gasped as fire lanced through his spine, and he started to crawl.
They fought back, bigger than she was, brutal and warmed up. She met them with cold fire. Her sword flashed in the moonlight, but Yasi knew better than to limit herself to it, her whole body was a toned, lethal weapon. What she lacked in size she made up for with grace, and her twisting form was impossible to predict or pin down. They were throwing everything they had at her and weren't even getting close.
Yasi's sword flashed, again and again, sharp enough to slice the spear-gun clean in half. She was able to block the machete, her sword stronger and sharper. Their blades chipped against the katana, but Yasi was not satisfied with that, slicing lower, through her enemies themselves. The first of them howled at she took his arm off at the elbow. He dropped, leaving Yasi with only two opponents.
But Yasi was wasting no time on showing off, she needed to wrap this up fast and see to her friend. The Riverfolk fought as a team, withdrawing out of sword-length when the other got in tighter. The one that pulled back had throwing blades, and he took aim, ready to throw. Yasi flicked her blade up to hold it like a spear, and she beat him to it, throwing her sword forward. It tore into him savagely, and she turned to her final opponent, not wasting the time it took to watch the second fall down.
The final opponent tried to get in close, to make sure she could not use any of her martial-arts moves to throw him or give her attacks any power. Yasi didn't even blink. She let him get close, clapping her hands around his neck. He was easily two feet taller than her, and she planted a boot on his knee, boosting herself up to climb his body like a jungle gym. In seconds she had a leg wrapped tightly around his head, putting him into the bend of her knee, and she dropped. The weight of her body brought her leg around, and his head with it. There was a crack, and the Riverfolk Warrior dropped with her.
Tecca was still clutching the crossbow, apparently forgetting that he could have reloaded it by now. Yasi took it off him. "Where's Vincent?"
It felt like hours, and he'd only managed to drag himself eight feet down the alley.
He had to get out of the alley. He had to get back to the street, where somebody would see him. He reached one arm out. He reached, grasped the concrete and pulled himself forward. Gasping for breath after that exertion alone, he did it again.
Reach, grasp, PULL! Another six inches. Reach, grasp, PULL! Five inches that time. Reach, grasp, PULL! Nine inches. Getting faster.
Things were going dark, even in the night time. He wasn't going to make it to the street. It was twenty feet away. An impossible distance.
His vision started to tunnel, the light rain cooling his blood as the darkness closed in, and all he saw ahead of him was a sewer grate.
"…Help…" He pleaded weakly. "...h'lp... help me..." Somehow, he heard his voice, like it had become a living thing. His words passed into the grating and suddenly became alive, echoing down the pipes into the darkness beneath New York City.
Vincent was just so tired, so tired…
"Oh no..." He heard a voice from another life whisper gently over him, whiskey and promise in her worried tone. "Vincent? Vincent, it's me. Can you hear me?"
Calloused fingers stroked his face and he gasped wetly. "Yasi? Is that you?" He croaked, and passed out again.
Connie checked her make-up for the fourth time. She knew how good she looked in this dress. Vincent had seen it six months before on the morning of their one-year anniversary and was still trying to get his breath back when they'd met that night...
She wasn't vain by any stretch, and wasn't used to being the centre of attention. Vincent put her at ease about that, making her feel beautiful no matter where they were... But she was still waiting for him, and she felt people's eyes on her.
She fiddled with her watch, her silverware, her napkin. He was late. He was supposed to be here over half an hour earlier. Being on time wasn't either of their strong suits. Vincent could have been caught up by something. Once, she'd thought he'd stood her up and discovered it was because he'd helped a total stranger fix a flat tire...
Connie checked her make-up again, more to give her fingers something to do than anything else.
Where is he?


If you're enjoying 'The Lostkind', but don't want to wait for the next chapter, you can get the whole thing here in ebook and paperback format.