Elle could feel the ends of her teeth at a near breaking point, grinding upon each other until she swore the enamel would be worn away. John had been gone for what felt like an eternity; the clock in Robert’s office showed forty five minutes had passed. To Elle, it was a lifetime.
The interview with Robert went along as swimmingly as a thousand pound weight tied to her knees and then tossed in the ocean. Elle had no real case; John never briefed her on anything she could use. Instead, their talk turned to near mindless dribble, and Robert began shifting the conversation into increasingly uncomfortable territory about Elle’s future plans and thoughts on men. He kept slipping a hand onto her calf and working his way up until she brushed it away. He wandered his gaze to the edge of her skirt. Elle sat like a statue, uncomfortable and strained, not wanting to give Robert the pleasure of seeing something, anything.
“So, I was thinking about lunch,” Robert brought back up, probably the hundredth time Elle had heard the word in the last forty minutes.
“Oh, yeah…” Elle trailed off, “You know… I'm real busy and stuff. I really want to get back to the office and get what we talked about down.” Which was nothing…
“I know a great chop house. Owner knows me so I can get us a good table. You can do some work there!”
His blowhard attempt to impress her went about as far as a bike without wheels. Elle highly doubted a restaurant, any restaurant, would break the bank for some mid-level Coolage manager. Still, she played up her excitement, “Oh wow! That really is something.”
God damn it John… Where are you…? Elle fidgeted in her seat, and like a shark to her skirt, Robert’s eyes widened with furious hunger.
“We can see where the day takes us.” Robert was nearly frothing at the mouth. “Get lunch, talk a little more. If things are going real good, maybe you could-”
“Go home and get a good night’s sleep?” Elle chimed in, “I couldn’t agree more!” The wind left Robert’s sails, but he was not about to let that stop him. Nothing would get in the way of his “date”.
Except the return of John: a frantic John who nearly busted down the door. He was sweating, panicked, as if he’d seen a ghost. Elle jumped right from her chair, unable to utter and word as John croaked, “We need to leave. Now!”
“Uh… well… Elle and I were just about to-” Robert started, but Elle paid him no mind.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
John wiped his brow. “I’ll tell you when we get out of here. Now!”
“Easy there! You don’t need to go so fast,” Robert said, “Elle and I were just about to get lunch. Right?”
Elle turned to him. “Like I’d get lunch with some jackass trying to look up my skirt the last hour…” Robert’s mouth dropped, but he offered no protest. He was more shocked he’d be caught. “Yeah. It was pretty obvious.”
“Great. We’ve chastised the asshole. Let’s go!” Elle started for the elevator but was stopped by John. “Not that way. Rob, where’s the stairs?”
“Why would I tell you!?” Robert snapped and pointed at Elle, “You said she was into me.”
John rolled his eyes. “I lied…” He pulled a handgun out from his coat and aimed it at Robert. The manager went pale, shrieked and toppled back into his chair. “That make it easier?”
“Where did you get a gun?” Elle asked. Captain Richard’s had confiscated John’s when he placed them in the hotel.
“I punched a security guard out for it,” John replied, “And there’s currently about fifteen of them coming down that elevator right now. So, Robert, I’ll ask again. The stairs?”
“What did you do?” Elle was nearly speechless beyond her question.
“Found out some shit…”
Robert was shaking. “The stairwell is outside my office… just to the right of the elevator.”
John holstered the gun. “Thank you! Elle, after you!” Elle took off for the stairwell first with John close behind. The glass-wall elevator descended at rapid speed towards their floor. A host of Coolage security men filled it, ready to burst from the doors and take them. John tossed open the stairwell and pushed Elle inside.
John started explaining as they trucked down the stairs. “I found out Coolage is a lot more involved than we thought.” After the third flight, he realized how out of shape he was. Talking didn’t help. “The Revival is a ploy. Well, not exactly. It’s the real thing, but Coolage and the police are involved. They want him to almost complete his goal.”
Elle stopped; she was a whole flight below John. She looked over the railing. “You gotta be kidding me?”
“I wish, Elle. When the Revival fails, the police are set to arrest them. They’ll use this as a way to keep the status quo.”
“Take a guess.”
Elle bit her lip. “Smells like… money…”
“Ding ding ding.” The clamoring of security above them sent Elle back into high gear. She charged down the steps, and John was impressed by her athleticism.
They sprinted into the lobby of the Coolage Headquarters; security had already been alerted. John expected this, and as Elle pushed through the door, he grabbed the back of her shirt and pulled her to a hiding spot. Behind a collection of fake plants, they watched as men in black uniforms cased the area and attempted to locate the “breach”.
“What do we do now?” Elle asked, “We took a cab here.”
“Ever hotwire a car before?”
John smirked. “With all the surprises you’ve shown me, I’m actually… well… surprised. I got us covered on that one.”
Elle didn’t question him, and after waiting out a few from security, they made their move. They had to. The collection from the stairwell wouldn’t give them forever, and as John shut a side door to a large parking structure, he could hear their pursuing guards already informing the others. The lobby became an immediate hotbed.
The employee parking, or better named executive parking suites, was filled with expensive cars of varying colors and styles. A lineup of narrow parking spots with company chargers filled the parking structure with a low hum. John assumed the energy bill would be deducted from an employee’s check… before tax. Security was also searching the parking garage. John picked out a nice one, a CX-14, with a racing stripe on the side. Its chrome finish and fresh gray paint job was a far-cry of excellence compared to his rusting CX-7.
“Even better, it’s a convertible,” John said with a hint of sass, jumping into the driver seat. Elle opened the door instead.
“Do you think this is a good idea?” she asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to take something a little less… loud?”
John ripped off the panel under the steering wheel and pulled out a mess of wires. “Possible. But if we’re going to end up on the lam, I’d like to drive something nice for once.” He pulled up a host of the wires and began cutting them. He passed Elle a blue one. “Hold this, please.” Taking two black wires, John touched them together, swiped the blue one from Elle, and added it to the sparks. The gray convertible sprung to life and lifted off the ground.
“And we’re in business!” John cheered. He detached the charger and pulled the convertible from the parking spot. Even at low speeds, Elle was not used to the wind whipping through her hair. She was not ready when John hit the gas, the result of one of the patrols spotting them. She grabbed onto her seat for dear life as the car sped forward, cranking around a tight turn towards the entrance checkpoint.
A massive, glowing red X appeared over the exit. The gate began to close as the gate security stepped out from their booth and flagged John to pull over. Elle glanced over to her chauffeur. “John, that gate’s closing.” He said nothing, inching his foot down on the gas. “John, we’re going to hit it!” Ever so slightly more. His speedometer climbed: 15, 20, 30, 40, 50. The engines of the CX-14 rocketed forward; the gate guards dove out of the way for dear life.
“Duck!” John yelled, pulling himself down into the convertible. Elle slid down into her seat just as they passed under the closing gate. It brushed the top of the windshield; sparks erupted with firework-like ferocity. Elle screamed until she realized they would not be crushed, and instead, were headed for the expressway.
She nearly jumped out of her seat. “Are you trying to get us killed?”
“It was that or surrender,” John replied, “Ever watched a car race before?” Elle shook her head. “Great! You’re going to experience one right now. Those Coolage goons won’t standby and wait for the police. 20 bucks the police are already aware!”
“Then what do we do?”
“This car’s gonna get pulled over real fast.” Using the fancy touch screen on the wheel, John flipped to the registered owner’s information. “Huh…”
“Car belongs to Robert Barathorn,” John replied, “He’s helped us twice tonight.”
Elle crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. “Fuck that guy. Crash his car!”
“Are you telling me he didn’t pull out the charm?”
“I will hit you again.” John winced as he expected Elle to put down the beating. Instead, she asked, “Where are we going now?”
“To a friend… to get this car deregistered… and to hopefully find where Sal is…” John replied, “See if we can’t convince him to put a stop to all this before the police and Coolage do. I think… no… I know someone that I’m sure will help us.”
In some back alley, under dim lights, John touched the CX-14 down. Its metal frame clanked against the jagged pavement, surely scuffing the bottom with surface damage. It was a hard landing, but at this point, John couldn’t care. He and Elle were essentially wanted criminals. Their offices would not be safe, and Coolage Group and the police would be looking for them. Captain Richard probably shifted his police detail from a simple search to a full on criminal manhunt. This went beyond escaping their “witness protection”.
It always seemed to rain in Yorktown. The Undercity could never be anything but a sickly moist with overfilled drainage pipes. Elle stepped out from the CX-14; her hair glistened in the pattering drops of rain. Looking up at the neon signs, she was radiated in neon, glowing like a technological angel. John regretted so much in this moment, but they had come too far.
“Elle, hey, before we go in and see this guy…” John started, “You and me… when this is all done…”
“It’s over, isn't it?” Elle asked, breaking from the neon lights. Her eyes glowed against flashes of greens and pinks. John could only describe them as “human”.
“What do you mean?”
“All this. Our jobs. Our lives in Yorktown. It’s all over,” Elle said.
John hated to say it. “When this is done, assuming we aren’t behind bars in the back of a cop car, we need - no - you need to get out of Yorktown. There’s dozens of places in this country that you could go to. Write to your family then. Promise me. You will not stay here.”
Elle offered nothing except the smallest grunt of confirmation. Her non-confirming confirmation would suffice, and John wasn’t going to let them stand around any longer. He took Elle by the hand and led her further into the gut of the alley.
Down a flight of stairs, masked by a chain fence with far too many tears in it, was a single, wooden door. It was strange to see a door made of wood, especially outside. Maybe in the home of someone wealthy, somewhere in the Uppercity where these materials could be procured. In the Undercity, it was unheard of. Only someone of immense wealth and power would bother sticking such a high class door in such a sketchy area.
Nile the Nose could be that eccentric.
When John beat on the door, he felt the crispness and give of sanded and painted lumber. It was so foreign that he couldn’t help but press the tips of his fingers against the grain. There was more: a certain sturdiness that such a material would never offer. The door was reinforced with steel, either from the back or weaved throughout. Nile wasn’t stupid enough to not protect himself. A camera, set above them, moved at John’s knocking; the lens zoomed in upon them.
John said, “I’m here to see Nile. John Darcy. He knows me.”
There was no immediate response, but after a moment of the camera scanning over Elle, a voice came from it. “For what purpose? Who's the Neko?”
“Elle, my assistant. Also, for what else… net-hacker work. Nile still specializes in that, right?”
“One moment.” The camera jolted upwards to its original position. And then, they waited. John reached to his side and assured that the gun was still there. It was right where he left it. Though he didn’t think Nile would turn on him, business and money talked. A simple tip to the police could be quite lucrative if Nile sought an easy payday. Still, being a rat was bad for business, especially if you rat against a “friend”. Hurting friends made making new friends difficult. Still, this was taking far too long. John realized how exhausted he was.
Finally, the door opened. A Neko with a large scar held it for them. He was dressed in all black and outfitted with the latest in military technology. A heavy automatic was strapped to his back. This wasn’t kid stuff. You couldn’t walk to the local gunsmith and purchase that type of firepower. It bore the mark of military, which meant Nile was in some real dangerous shit. Elle had never seen anything so powerful or deadly before. At this point, very little shocked her anymore.
“This way,” the Neko instructed, bidding them to follow him.
Nile the Nose kept his back room in near pristine condition. For someone who tinkered with machinery, made it a business to cheat business out of their profits, and illegally installed augments, John expected him to be messy: a crazed genius type. No, Nile was far more civilized than that. He sat back on an expensive leather sofa, pressing a glass of scotch to his lips. A large screen TV played old action movies, the type of fast cars, large explosions, and beautiful women. When his muscle made the announcement that John and Elle wished to speak with him, Nile paused his movie, somehow capturing a still image of the actress leaned over and exposing her cleavage.
“John Darcy, finally, after these years, you finally come to me,” Nile said, giddy at the prospect. He sent away his man
Elle expected… something different. Net-hacking sounded so “cool” and impressive. It wasn’t something anyone could do. She had anticipated Nile to be dressed in something more fitting the job title: some futuristic silver outfit or a visor that covered his eyes. He would be young, with glasses, and quirky. Instead, the older gentlemen looked ready for a game of golf with his green polo and khakis. Casual dress or not, this man was a criminal and not just for net-hacking.
“What can I do for you, John?” Nile asked, “Promise it’ll be on the cheap. After all, I only offer discounts to friends.”
“Well, you might not like it,” John replied. Nile pressed for the challenge, so John gave it to him. “First thing, I got a CX-14 sitting in the alley. I need it wiped.”
“A 14? Now, John, dear, where did you get that?”
“Stole in from Coolage headquarters.”
Nile almost coughed. “You serious?”
“It’s been a long day.”
Nile turned his attention to Elle, almost asking if this was some elaborate joke. She wished it was. “Wiping the car’s easy. Surely that isn’t it?”
“I’m looking for someone. Well, that and information,” John explained, “Sal Regis. He’s a Neko and in charge of the Revival. Don’t play dumb. I know you’ve heard the name. You tried to warn me at Skeeters.”
Nile bit down on the end of his thumb. “John, a car wipe is one thing. You’re playing with some hot fire with the other.”
“I’m already burning. No talking us out of it.”
“Your assistant here be better to turn tail and run,” Nile said, “Stealing a car from Coolage, needing to talk to the Revival. Johnny boy, I don’t got a lot, but it’s starting to come together.”
“I’m not going anywhere!” Elle shouted, “People are going to die. Do you get that?”
Nile understood that all too well. “Elle, is your name?” She nodded. “There’s some good fire there. It's a shame, really. Lot’s of good Nekos in this world. Lot’s of good Nekos that don’t get their due. Men like Sal Regis just want to give them that opportunity. Not the way I’d go about it, but desperate times and all that. There’s a reason I give the Revival a wide berth.”
“Please!” Elle pleaded, “Sal is going to try and detonate explosives throughout the Undercity. Coolage is setting him up. They're going to kill all of them and then use this as an excuse to tighten its reins over the Undercity. At least… that’s what we think…”
Nile thought to himself, mulling over his options. As he spoke, his words were shaky. “I expected you’d come to me with something small, John. A parking ticket or something like that. Fine… I do owe you. This, however, is the straw. It’s broken. We’re relieved of each other.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” John replied.
Niles took down a flight of stairs off the “sitting area” where he had been watching his film. They were far into the undercity of Yorktown, passed what most would consider the Undercity. The creaking of old machinery, some used but most unused, droned on in the background. Red light filled the narrow, steel covered halls. Elle imagined places like this in her worst nightmares: dungeons plucked right from the fantasy novels she read as a child.
However, there were no prisoners. Unless… you counted them.
“These tunnels reach out over the entire Undercity,” Nile explained, “Most don’t realize it, but something has to keep the city from touching irradiated Earth. You won’t find a cop in sight. This, my friends, is the true Undercity.”
Nile pushed against a nondescript wall; it sank inwards and slid to the side. Had Nile not opened it that way, Elle never would have known it was there. John looked less surprised, but over their time together, Elle learned he had an excellent way of masking it. She held back her excitement and unease.
A blinding, white light blinked on as Nile stepped inside. Elle shielded her eyes as they adjusted from the low red lights to this bright new world. The extra light illuminated an incredibly sterile space, completely apart from the filth and grime of the Undercity tunnels. The two worlds were truly a night and day difference, even if both were centered around machines. Here, Nile kept the largest computer Elle had ever seen. Its monitor was especially small, requiring a viewer like she had used in the District 19 precinct. Multiple cannibalized Servo units were interconnected together. They were long “dead”, but their processing power kept everything running. Many of them gave “the keys” Nile needed to do what he did. As Elle stepped past the wall, it jolted back into place, scaring her.
“For a PI, you scare easily,” Nile said, “This is scary work. You sure you're up for it?”
“As up as anyone,” Elle replied, holding onto her tail that had nearly been slammed between the walls.
“Enough of jokes, Nile. We don’t have a lot of time. You know that. Or, are you stalling on purpose?” John fired as he scanned the room. This would be his first experience with net-hacking, but he anticipated it being much “dingier”.
Nile shrugged. “PI’s never can have any fun.” He took a seat in front of the monitor viewer and slid his fingers within ten holes on the side of the machine. He pulled his hands up; wires connected the computer to a plate that now rested against his palm. It was a different setup than Elle had ever seen. She was used to a classic mouse and keyboard.
Nile caught her curiosity. “Net-hackers have their tricks. I literally manipulate data with the tips of my fingers.” Elle may have missed it, but John did not: a faint blue glow emitting not from the “gloves” but from Nile’s finger tips. He was augmented. His very fingerprints had been infused or manipulated with nanomachines or wiring. John wasn’t sure which.
“Call it whatever you want. Can you find Sal for us?” John asked.
“Easy, my friend. First, your vehicle,” Sal said, “Now, I could have one of my underlings do that, but where is the fun in that? I haven’t done something simple like deregistering a vehicle in a long while.” Peering into the viewer, Nile began to twitch his fingers at lightning speeds. His wrists jerked his hands up and down in miniscule motions. It was so machine-like that John wondered if his entire hands were augmentations, synthetic replicas of the originals.
“Can you give me the registration details?” Nile asked, twisting his fingers as if he had turned a knob or dial. John replied with what he remembered upon starting up the CX-14. “Ah, that’s right. Coolage registration. This may be a bit interesting.”
Elle turned to John. “What does that mean?” He just shrugged. A net-hacker, doing net-hacker things, was a mystery to all but those who understood it.
After a few moments of awkward silence, the net-hacker sat back with an eager grin. “All set. Coolage loves to act like they have their shit together, but they don’t. Enjoy your freshly registered CX-14.” Nile grinned. “It’s not under John Darcy, but a Mr. Smlo King.”
“Cute… Like a police officer wouldn’t side eye that…” John grumbled.
“You got to have a bit of fun with this stuff,” Nile said, “Else, it gets real boring. Now, let’s find your Sal Regis. I’ve never met the guy. Got a description?”
John frowned. “We did meet him, but it was dark. I don’t know if I can give you the best description.”
“That’ll make things tougher,” Nile explained, “Guys like him don’t have ‘data’ lying around. Pinpointing a location based upon things like IDs or registrations won’t work. Least, if they did, he sucks at his job.” Nile rubbed his chin. “I’d need to see if I can find old data. Stuff never truly gets deleted. That could lead to a description.”
“I’ve met him !” Elle piped up, “At the café we met Amber at. He picked her up. I can give you a description!”
“Well, girl, come on. Spit it out!” Nile demanded. Elle relayed what she remembered from the café. It had been several hours, but his image was still fresh in her mind. Thinking back, Elle thought her encounter with Sal had been days ago, but in reality, it hadn’t been that long.
“A dark haired Neko in a Hawaiian shirt…” Nile muttered, “Sunglasses. Scruffy. You could be naming a dime a dozen Neko in this city. Least his clothes were odd. Let me see what I can do.”
“How long will this take?” John asked.
“With such a dull description, could be hours or days,” Nile said, “This guy doesn’t have a unique hairstyle, scar or birthmark that would make him easy to spot. Sure, his Hawaiian shirt is different, but people change clothes. Unless it’s fused to his body, it isn’t a surefire solution.”
“We don’t have days…”
“I’m not a miracle worker. Well, I am, but I can't determine when those miracles happen.”
John cursed as Nile went back to the viewer. There was little they could do now except let Nile do his job. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be too crazy of a wait, but the pit in John’s stomach told him otherwise. He felt sick about it. With a sigh, John asked Elle, “Well, looks like the floor is going to be the best seat. Shall we?”
Please log in to leave a comment.