« Toxicology report available. [C] ^@, [t] 87 detected. »
Agent Aird didn’t think those were numbers. Then again, it’d been twenty-six years since kindergarten.
The rest of the text read normal. Compounds were defined. Outside of a name, his suit seemed to know this.
Agent Aird lowered his goggles and turned back around, looking ^ and @ her.
“All right,” he said. “I understand it’s a longshot, but when the spooky A-3 jabbed my neck with a mystery chem, did you consider asking what it was he gave me?”
Agent Karla Chai, who had yet to stop smiling, or to blink, maintained her stance on both of these.
“Sure, boss,” she death rattled.
Then she stopped talking, and stared at him.
“But you didn’t ask because,” he prompted.
She stopped. And stared. Almost blinked, before he realized it’d been his reflection in the glassy whites of her monolidded eyes.
“What orders, Agent Chai,” he inquired.
She smiled wider.
“To not to, boss.”
That was his fault. He deserved the non-answer for a bad question.
“Okay.” Agent Aird tried again. “Whose orders?”
Great! Okay, this was good. He kept a straight face, but they were getting somewhere. Agent Chai had cooperated.
Masked suits took patience. He’d been one. He knew she could talk in full sentences, but he also knew she felt slighted by him moving in on 616 outside of their investigation’s scope. In hindsight, to a Deployable, that dumpster meant vindication, but as this investigation’s lead, Agent Aird had been obligated to visually confirm their target’s status, especially at the sign of a disturbance in an area with reported external threats. He’d agreed to let Agent Chai donate her mask to him during this to prove he still valued her input, but again, he used to be Deployable. This was what they did. Once she got it out of her system, they could move on.
Her creepy jack-o’-lantern grin, he just kept ignoring, along with how her arms dangled, ready to grab whatever landed in their reach. His grandma had an old, Victorian doll collection; Agent Chai reminded him of the one his cousin gave a haircut. The eyes didn’t shut, the paint had scraped off, the cheeks were black from fingerprints, and a tattered bowl of fake hair drooped from its head. He used to find it under his blanket taped to a knife. Agent Aird didn’t like his cousin. In that vein, for her second time in the last fifteen minutes, she blinked.
No, that was his reflection.
“Agent Talbot told you not to inspect the chemicals added to my bloodstream,” he restated. “Show me.”
She did. Agent Chai curled her arm towards her belt, leaving the other to hang. The gap between her rows of teeth swelled.
“All yours,” she said, holding out her issued phone, “boss.”
Then she stared.
“Thank you. Agent Chai.” He took a moment of angling his hand before accepting her offer so they wouldn’t have to touch – out of politeness. He was a mess; it wasn’t as if Agent Aird thought she was going to bite him. Anyway, “He texted you?”
“No,” he said. “It’s no problem.”
It was more casual than he expected, but he dealt mostly with A-2s.
You can ask but I cant say. Blame our privacy act
Their privacy act.
Did Agent Talbot mean privacy legislation? Was he treating ^@ as some sort of personal medical history?
“We good, boss?”
He quickly thumbed at the screen. The rest of their conversation was Agent Chai establishing how the A-3 had known so much of what happened: she told. Her tattling was accurate, but she’d gone into excessive detail. On that note, Agent Aird stressed, “You realize I was dying through this. In a dumpster.”
That dumpster. The one she’d watched as he crawled out from under the lid, and then while he dragged himself over the rim, crushing his leg to better land like a brick and re-heal from ^@.
She scrolled for him.
“Oh. Good.” He’d been worried they didn’t care. Now when Agent Aird caught whiffs of the hours spent baking the curls upon his head into layers of fish, Indian take-out, and kibble clotted at varying stages of digestion, he could rest assured they’d left him there deliberately. “Thank you, Agent Chai.”
He couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm. She seemed to know this. Her grin stretched. He couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm.
“Where are we with the job,” Agent Aird asked instead.
“Where you left it, boss.”
What Agent Chai, the Deployable, had meant was that his involvement left no discernible impact on their work either way. What she had referenced, and what Agent Aird elected to focus his attention towards, was that the status of the external threat hadn’t advanced. She was wrong; they now had to manage an active DTD armed with new knowledge of their target’s hotspots. These were hotspots purportedly swarming with external threat activity. If the DTD lied about wanting to avoid them, it pit a maximally volatile case against a group that cared even less about discretion.
“I think,” he said, “I need to call Agent Talbot.”
Domestic disturbance, acted on local reports, sought to verify the case’s ultimately inaccurate profile; when he was asked, he could at least explain his side of things.
“Using my phone, boss?”
Out of reflex, he began handing it back. He paused as he noticed she wasn’t taking the phone from him.
The phone. He’d smeared it a little with what he told himself was innocently Vaseline. He tried wiping it, and crusted more of this dumpster paste into the charging port and under the volume rocker.
“Agent Chai,” Agent Aird suggested, “why don’t you find me something to clean up with?”
Without a word or facial tic of acknowledgement, his subordinate turned ninety degrees and moved past him. She then turned those ninety degrees back, and thus departed.
This wasn’t a person for whom out of sight, out of mind should have applied, but as she faded around the corner, he got the feeling she had never been here. It got chased by an odd plurality that she was also still behind him. She wasn’t, which he confirmed after snapping to check.
Good. Agent Aird was alone, free to call an upper tier Agent and explain how essentially a typo had put their second most delicate type of case into arm’s reach of anarchistic lunatics. The phone had 18% of its charge left; putting aside that neglect, he doubted the conversation would last past 16.
“Agent Talbot? This is Agent Aird.” He kept his voice light and professional. “I’m calling about an overlap between our cases. Are you available to talk, sir?”
What followed was a long, gliding breath from the other end. To no one’s surprise, it sounded like somebody smoking.
“Mr. Aird,” he heard afterwards. “You’re looking sprightly.”
Agent Aird adjusted his posture, and checked the alley.
“I am, sir. Thank you,” he said, scouting the other way. “I’m feeling sprightly, too.”
“Nothing reacted, chess pear.”
“No, sir. Not that I’ve detected.” Up. “But if I could ask, Agent Talbot,” he quickly proceeded to, scanning the brick by story, “what was I administered?”
“You’re the suit. You tell me.”
There. The man was leaning through a window, alighted on a sill now likely covered in ash. Those sunglasses and embers of a cigarette loomed from what Agent Aird counted as the sixth floor; along with the glass shards, it served as enough proof that this was the DTD’s room.
By the way – what?
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure I caught that,” he lied. “What was I injected with?”
The phone-lit smog circled the A-3’s head. Through it, Agent Talbot gave what appeared to be a shrug.
“I know what they think it is.” This twirled the smoke curling down the alley. “So?”
Agent Aird didn’t answer. His professional instinct spoke, because nothing else would.
“Our system recognized it in part – I’m truly, very sorry, sir, but did you stick me in the neck without knowi–”
“What part did it recognize?”
Again, instinct said, “The compounds, sir. The make-up, the…” He wasn’t a scientist. “I can send the details to the lab and have them produce a report.”
“Had I wanted to wait for the lab, Mr. Aird, I wouldn’t have stuck you in the neck.” Agent Aird wasn’t able to respond before the A-3 soared on with, “You mentioned an overlap.”
“Yes.” He agreed. With this. With that – with what Agent Talbot was doing, moving along topics. They could discuss what had happened later, and if what had happened involved someone stabbing him to get to his suit’s bloodwork instead of waiting four days for a lab report. “There’s overlap.”
“And you’re planning to tell me what it is.”
“Yes. Yes, sir,” he said. “Given my condition at the time, I wasn’t able to inform you that the cross contamination of our cases surrounding my target’s known locations should be considered our new, top priority.” He waited for the hammer to drop. A-2s yelled, A-4s swore, A-5s telegraphed the impending consequences through hysterical laughter. Agent Talbot continued quietly smoking. “… Your target knows where my target could go, and may attempt to interact with her.”
A-3s went mm.
Staring up this way hurt his neck; his posture was slacking. Agent Aird pulled back his shoulders, correcting his parade rest.
“As you’re aware, sir,” he resumed, “my target forms an extensive component of an A-1 project. More than any case, with no detraction intended towards your own, it cannot afford the public exposure risked through open conflict. We have two teams of sixty deployed to this location, one to address a locally reported external threat. I’m not sure how familiar you are with these reports, Agent Talbot; they’re classified, but I can assure you this threat won’t neglect the opportunity to attack your DTD if he’s discovered where they both think she’ll be.”
He counted to ten in the silence. He had to leave time for what he’d said to register. Or, as Agent Aird squinted, managing a clearer look, time for Agent Talbot to light a new cigarette off of the old one.
“I can’t say I am familiar with these reports,” he heard exhaled. “Enlighten me.”
It could have been sarcasm, or it could have been French. Either way, it seemed safer to reply in earnest.
“Other people with powers, sir. Quasi-organized. Destructive. They’re meant to be active in this area.”
“Meant to be.”
“Yes, sir.” According to the Keeler case file, which was obviously under review. “It’s best to err on the side of caution.”
“Who am I to argue that.” Definitely sarcasm, however subtle the undertone. “All right, Mr. Aird. What do you suggest we do?”
“I was hoping, sir,” Agent Aird said slowly, “that you would monitor the situation.”
“Ban it’s been monitored. They’re out together as we speak.”
His suit pinged. He didn’t need to check – he did – to know it was suggesting the 14. The grip he had on his phone tightened. His other hand centered behind his back clenched in a ball. Very evenly, Jason asked, “What?”
“You know, Mr. Aird, for all the information you release, you don’t seem to get much.” The A-3 sounded like he had changed to speakerphone. From these six stories away, he also looked to have started poking at his screen. “Why, say sa. She’s not here, Karla writes.”
Agent Chai. About Keeler.
“That doesn’t mean she’s with your target,” he argued.
A need to ask what Agent Talbot was basing this on pinched at the back of his mouth. Before the words could leave, he shut it. When it felt safe to speak, Agent Aird tried being less confrontational.
“When did she send this?”
“I don’t get a sir?”
“Sir, when did she send this,” he asked again, amplifying the urgency.
The sense of the A-3 rolling his eyes dripped down to the alley; nevertheless, he got a response: “A little before you called. I think they’ve maybe been out for an hour. Everything’s fine, Mr. Aird. I haven’t heard that he’s killed her yet.”
Agent Aird had been thinking in terms of leverage through kidnapping. DTDs were trying to get away; the thought of this one stopping to usher in her wanton destruction hadn’t even crossed his mind.
“Sir,” he said, over his suit pinging about the 14, “I have to request full access to your case file.”
Agent Talbot laughed and laughed, and then laughed more for good measure.
“Oh shit. You meant that.”
Of course he’d meant it.
“This situation has escalated beyond…” Agent Aird caught himself. “… well beyond my case’s condonable parameters –”
“Do you rehearse how you talk, or is that it naturally?”
“By authority of the A-1’s commission, I need to formally request, if not demand, that you supply me with your case’s full profile and its relevant, supporting information.”
His chest was seizing. If he hadn’t known what a heart attack felt like, he would swear this was it. He tried to keep his eyes focused on something close – like the fucking dumpster.
“You don’t work for an A-1.”
The smugness in there sent a hard series of pings through his neck. He didn’t need the 14. He wanted the 87.
“No, sir, I don’t. But I work for an A-4 with a direct line to his A-2, who has her direct line to that A-1. If I report to either of them that Bethany Keeler is at risk of dying because of a DTD, who went undisclosed in this area, I can promise they won’t ask as nicely as I did.”
He wasn’t shouting. He wasn’t quite not shouting, however, and now the silence on their line had flooded with his ragged, panicked wheezing. His throat still felt raw from how hard he’d had to work to breathe this morning – again, because of this guy’s rogue case.
“You understand how this will turn out for you, should I give my interpretation of events.” The A-3’s voice had gone low and deliberate. “I’ll begin with you having divulged the very information being used against your target now.”
“That’s okay, sir,” he cried, “because at this rate, I’ll be equally as screwed if she dies.”
He counted to ten this time to keep his sanity. Every upper tier rank had quirks, but universally, they abided by the rule that the first to speak lost the negotiation. This was more of an ultimatum, he realized, but the rule applied. He stayed quiet, counting higher until he heard something.
“I’ll think about it.”
The line cut. Agent Talbot stepped back into the room’s embrace, and the gray smog thinned until it had cleared. Agent Aird was alone again. He stayed alone until the pings stopped.
The name flashed through his mind like a bomb. He had her phone. How could she be texting? Why hadn’t he been the first for her to –
He looked up in time to get hit in the face. It was a glove; more specifically, it was his glove. The other and Agent Chai’s mask landed beside him.
“As a favor, when I call your mommy, I won’t mention that the other boys stole your hat and mittens.”
And then Agent Talbot disappeared.
It could have been worse. He had his gloves back, and the mask he thought he’d lost. Reunited with this equipment, Agent Aird looked to the fifth floor.
“Don’t get caught this time,” he muttered.
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