It’s raining in Farraday City. Water courses through the sewers, the sluggish and nearly stagnant waters now rushing like overflowing streams. The water level has risen above the side walkways to the point that water flows over CB’s ankles. He can feel the tug of the current slightly. It’s inconvenient, and it if keeps rising it might get dangerous.
“OK back there?”
Jenny grunts in reply. Her hand tightens on his shoulder for a moment, and CB feels a stab of pain.
“Easy, Jenny. I might need that later.”
Her grip eases slightly, still firm but not uncomfortable. “Sorry, tough guy.”
She still has an edge to her voice, but the barb softens it a little. It’s encouraging.
“Ten minutes.” CB plays the thin, bright beam of his Mag Lite across the walls, noting the markings on the side passages. “We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“OK.” Jenny’s voice is even and strong. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Seriously, Jenny, most people who work with me know better than to ask that question.”
“You’re hilarious,” Jenny says. “Answer the question.”
“It’s risky,” CB admits. “The reason I had Elliot activate the safe house ahead of schedule is because I figured the bad guys were going to locate my apartment sooner or later. I don’t think they have yet, but I can’t swear to it.”
“Then why are we going there?”
“I need some stuff,” CB says. “I really need some stuff, and I get the feeling the window is closing on actually being able to get to it.”
“Gear. Weapons. Things to keep us alive.”
“I like the sound of that,” Jenny says. “The ‘keep us alive’ part, anyway. I can get behind that.”
Ten minutes later they emerge from a manhole cover near the boardwalk. The rain falls thick and heavy, and they hear the surf churning in the distance. The cloud-covered sky blocks the mid-morning sun, and the few street lights that still work flicker as if the rain were about to put them out.
They walk two blocks from the manhole cover to the boardwalk, and two more blocks along the boardwalk to get to the apartment. The boardwalk is largely deserted; those who have places to stay are staying inside, those who don’t are huddled somewhere else. CB and Jenny are soaked to the bone by the time they get to his apartment building.
It’s a squalid, dirty cinderblock building. The glass on the front door is missing, a dirty tarp has been stapled across the frame in its place. The tarp is torn in places, and a pool of water sits right at the front of the lobby where the rain comes through. Whatever the lobby was, once upon a time, it’s now a gutted room consisting of graffiti-covered walls and cheap vinyl flooring. It smells strongly of urine.
“Nice place,” Jenny says, shivering slightly. Her hair is plastered to her head, her windbreaker and pants heavy with rainwater. Her tennis shoes look like they’re in danger of falling apart. She almost looks miserable enough to be a tenant.
“It has it’s good points,” CB says. “Right now I can’t think of any. I had a list once.”
“It’s dry…” Jenny looks up at the ceiling, and frowns at the condensation dripping through. “Jesus, CB. You couldn’t do better than this?”
“Could have,” CB said. He pulls out a damp pack of cigarettes from his trench coat pocket, ignoring Jenny’s disapproving glare. “But this was useful. Come on, I’m on the third floor. We’ll take the stairs.”
They pass by the elevator. It sits open, the bottom sunk a foot below the level of the floor. Both the up and down buttons are lit, and the interior light flickers like a strobe.
Jenny looks at the elevator apprehensively. “Stairs,” she agrees.
The stairs are wide and the stair rail is mostly intact. CB takes them two a time. When they reach the third floor Jenny shakes her head in annoyance.
“You’re a smoker,” she says. “And you’re not even winded. How fair is that?”
CB doesn’t bother to point out that she matched his pace all the way up and didn’t break a sweat.
The third floor stairwell’s door has no window. CB hesitates, puts his ear against it, and listens intently. He can hear the noise of everyday life: a few televisions, a few stereos playing loudly, a lot of arguments, some sober, some not. Nothing out of the ordinary. He opens the door a crack, peers through into the hall, then relaxes as he swings the door wide open.
“All clear?” Jenny asks.
“So far,” CB says.
The main hall is a cracked, yellowed linoleum floor littered with trash—bottles and cans, mostly, though at the far end of the hall is a small bundle of cloth that may be laundry, or discarded clothing. A trail of fast food wrappers starts at the stairwell and ends a third of the way down the hall. The walls are an industrial shade of gray, cracked, covered in peeling paint and graffiti, and occasionally have chunks gouged out, revealing support beams and an utter lack of insulation. In stark contrast to the apparent flimsiness of the walls, the door for each apartment looks solid and heavy.
CB stops in front of room 313. The first number fell off the door years ago, leaving only a dust-encrusted outline of the first number three on the wood.
Jenny laughs. “Room Thirteen. Seriously?”
CB puts a finger to his lips. He bends over and stares at the seam between the door and the door frame. He can just barely make out the outline of the slip of paper, still wedged where he put it the last time he left. It’s a trick he picked up from watching The Sting—one of his favorite movies—and he exhales in relief.
“I don’t think the bad guys found this place yet,” CB says. “That’s good.”
He fishes his keys out of his trench coat pocket and starts unlocking the door. There are four separate keys for four separate locks, and by the time the last tumbler clicks Jenny is shifting from foot to foot, staring down the hallway nervously.
“Come on,” CB says, and steps into his apartment, flicking on the light switch. Jenny follows, exhaling in relief, then stops at the entrance as she takes it in.
“Not what I expected,” she admits.
CB closes the door behind her, and goes down the locks, one by one. “What were you expecting?”
Jenny shrugs. “Old food? Towering piles of garbage? This is actually clean. It even smells clean.”
The furniture is shabby, but not trashy. An old armchair and a repaired love seat sit in the living room, with a nicked and battered wooden coffee table set in front of them and a not-quite-matching end table set between them. An old TV and a beat-up but well-maintained stereo sit on a cheap entertainment system—the kind you get from a drug store, made entirely of particle board and prone to falling apart if it is moved after being put together. A small kitchen, separated by an island, is on the far end.
“No leaks,” Jenny adds, looking up at the ceiling.
“One of the advantages of living on this side of the building,” CB says. “Make yourself at home. Dry off. I’ll get my gear.”
Jenny sits down on the love seat and pulls out her phone.
“No calls,” CB warns.
“Yeah,” Jenny says. “Not going to be a problem. I took out the SIM card on this thing, remember? I want to look through the TriHealth files.”
CB nods. “Right. Good idea. Back in a bit.”
CB’s room consists of a mattress set on the floor, a dresser, one closet, two footlockers and four ashtrays. Band posters litter the walls. He opens his closet, rummages through his clean clothes, and heads back to the living room with a Joy Division t-shirt and a pair of black capri shorts. He drops them on the couch next to Jenny.
“They’re probably a little big, but they’re dry.”
“Capris?” Jenny raises an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“What? Skaters wear them all the time. Or they used to. I don’t know what they do now.”
“You skate?” Jenny is grinning openly now.
“Shut up,” CB grumbles, and heads back to his room.
“Thanks,” she calls after him.
He finds the crowbar in the back of the closet, hiding behind an old army jacket that slipped off a hanger and caught on the crook. He leans his mattress against a wall, then spends the next few minutes using the crowbar to tear up the floor. Everything is still there: three metal cases, each the size of a garment bag, stacked neatly on top of each other. He drags the first out and lugs it into the living room. Jenny, now wearing the t-shirt and shorts instead of her dripping clothing, looks up from her phone and stares at the case curiously.
“Gear,” CB explains, then goes back for the other two. A few minutes later they’re open, the contents of each laid out on the floor.
“Wow,” Jenny says. “Is that your old costume?”
CB has never been big on the idea of costumes. While his gear is distinctive, it doesn’t have any of the designs or symbols that a lot of other people in the game seem to favor. The black leather trench coat is plain, though the segmented armored plates inserted along the back and down the sides make it a little bulkier than normal. The long black gloves—gauntlets, really—are fingerless to minimize the loss of fine manipulation, and have rigid plates set in to the back of each hand, coming just past the knuckles. Extra plates travel up his forearm ending in elbow pads. The tactical vest is similarly armored, and has plenty of pockets for various gadgets. The heavy canvas pants also have the segmented armor, and knee pads built in to the fabric. The boots aren’t nearly as heavy as CB is used to—the armor plates around the toes and shins are significantly lighter than steel.
“It’s a bit warm for the summer, this far down south,” CB says, “but I think I’m going to want it.”
He sheds his shirt and kicks off his boots.
“Hey!” Jenny’s eyes widen, and she turns her head away. “How about you do that in private?”
“We will both survive the indignity,” CB says. “Tell me about the files. Find anything?”
Jenny stares intently at her phone. “A few things I don’t understand,” she says. “A few summaries of medical reports that focus on something called TRH. I don’t understand that. And then there’s this…” She holds out her phone to CB, head still turned away. “It’s some kind of test.”
“It’s OK,” CB says, amused. “I’m wearing pants now.” He takes the phone and looks at the display. He frowns, then hands the phone back. “The name of the patient… he was one of the murder victims.”
“That’s what I thought,” Jenny says. “Do you know what kind of test it is?”
CB shakes his head, then picks up the tactical vest and straps it on. “Not specifically. It kind of reminds me of a metahuman classification test. It’s not, though. The categories aren’t right.”
“Well, so far all patients in these files have one,” Jenny says. “And they’re all referenced in one of the TRH reports. Do you know what TRH might be?”
“Nope,” CB says. He reaches for the gloves. “A company, maybe? Can’t remember a TRH in Travers’ report.”
“I think it’s a medical term,” Jenny says. “That’s what it looks like in context.”
“We’ll need to ask a doctor.” CB slips on the boots, tugging sharply to tighten and close them.
“You know one we can ask?” Jenny asks.
“Robert,” CB says. “Gladiator. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to want in on this.”
“How do we contact him?”
“Good question,” CB says. “He’s a pretty solid recluse these days. I don’t have a phone number, and he doesn’t respond to email that often. Back in the day we all had homing beacons we could activate in a pinch, but I didn’t bring one with me. I guess sending an email is our best shot…”
CB’s voice trails off into silence. He cocks his head to one side and frowns.
Jenny tenses. “What’s wrong?”
CB raises a hand for silence. He hears music playing three rooms down. Televisions in four other rooms. Everything else is quiet…
People. He can’t hear people.
“We’re in trouble.” He grabs the armored trench coat and shrugs it on, then empties his old trench coat pockets hurriedly, transferring their contents.
“What’s going on?” Jenny’s voice instinctively drops down to a whisper.
CB shakes his head. “Don’t know, but all of a sudden everyone stopped shouting.”
He falls silent again. Very faintly, almost hidden behind the sound of the music and the televisions, he can hear a low thrummm that reminds him of the sound you hear from an electrical generator—only it doesn’t have a specific location. It sounds like it’s coming from everywhere at the same time. Then something oily slides across his skin. Something burns his blood, something freezes his soul, something cuts into his mind like a thousand tiny razors.
“Fuck,” CB snarls.
Jenny stares at him in alarm. “What?”
CB takes a breath and forces himself to stay calm. “You need to run.”
Jenny’s eyes widen. “Why?”
“Listen to me very carefully. Get your jacket. Go into the spare room next to the kitchen. Open the window, climb out on to the fire escape. Climb up to the roof.” CB reaches into his pocket and pulls out the cell phone Travers gave him and his USB thumb drive. “There should be an old extension ladder up there. Extend it, put it across this building to the one next door, crawl across, and drag it onto the other roof after you. Take that building’s fire escape down, then get to the pawn shop. Find Elliot. Can you get there on your own?”
Jenny nods. “I think so, but—”
CB hands the cell phone and thumb drive to Jenny. “This phone can be used to call Travers once—just once. Call him, tell him what’s going on.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Jenny says.
“Magic,” CB says. “They’re coming after me with magic. That takes this to a whole new level of bad news.”
Jenny stares at him blankly. “Magic? You’re kidding, right?”
“Magic is bad, Jenny. It’s very bad. I’m going to give you as much of a head start as I can. Get going.”
CB cuts her off. “Don’t lose that thumb drive. There’s another copy on the laptop at the safe house, but Elliot might not be able to get you back there. Tell Travers. He’ll help you out.”
Jenny glowers, torn between a desire to help and the thought that there might not be much she can do. “Try not to get killed,” she says, then runs to the spare room. A moment later he hears wood squeaking against wood, then hears the sound of rain through the open spare room window. He walks over to his door and starts unlocking the deadbolts, one by one.
Try to give her five minutes. Try to give her at least five minutes.
The last deadbolt slides open. CB takes a shuddering breath, opens the door, and steps into the hall.