Part One: South Bronx, Morrisania
Years ago the sight of a young black woman sitting alone at Elliot’s Diner might have been cause for concern. Morrisania was once considered the worst the South Bronx had to offer, and the Diner was the unofficial stomping grounds of the Red Sevens, a gang with a reputation for ruthlessness and cruelty. Back then, anyone who wasn’t a Red Seven would immediately be marked a victim if they dared set foot in the place—and a young woman would be considered particularly vulnerable, no matter who she was.
That was before Jacob Dupree bought the place. Before his niece and nephew moved in. Before the Bastions claimed Morrisania as their own.
Alishia Webb sits at the only booth in the diner, enjoying a cold cut sandwich and a glass of iced tea. The diner is small and worn, the latter a byproduct of age rather than neglect. Indeed, there is no trace of neglect here: the floor tiles are cracked, but each broken tile has been repaired with mortar, and the floor is well-cleaned. The windows are old, and the panes rattle any time a stiff breeze blows, but the latches are in good repair and the frames are painted regularly. The tables, chairs, and the one booth are a mishmash of many styles—whatever Jacob could get his hands on at any given time—but they are clean, and none of the chairs or tables wobble.
The food is good, too.
She’s out of uniform, dressed well but not expensively: orange blouse, white Capri pants, orange, thick-soled clogs. Her thick, black hair is tied back in a white scarf; a black-and-silver handbag sits on the table to her right. It speaks to no particular style other than her own, and it’s not gaudy or flashy enough to command attention.
The silver badge sitting on the table at her left, however… that commands attention. Police aren’t well liked in Morrisania. For a very long time, the police were as much of a problem as the gangs, and from what she’s heard, the situation hasn’t so much improved as stayed away.
A shadow falls over her as someone slides into the other bench. She looks up from her food to see a tall, thin black man—so thin he’s almost gaunt—wearing a dark suit, a gray silk tie, and a black trenchcoat. Long, thin dreadlocks are pulled back into a ponytail; sport sunglasses cover his eyes.
Alishia sets down the rest of her cold cut and wipes the corner of her mouth with a napkin. The man stares at her badge. It rises into the air and turns toward him. He studies it for a moment, then studies her. She feels a faint tickle just behind her left eye and immediately goes through the mental exercise of hardening her will to block a telepath.
One corner of the man’s mouth turns up. The tickling sensation eases off.
“Brother Judgment.” Alishia says it matter-of-factly. It can’t be anyone else.
The man inclines his head slightly. “Sergeant Webb.” His voice doesn’t quite match up with his frame. He’s so thin he almost looks frail, but his voice is deep and strong.
The badge settles gently on the table, almost exactly where it started. Alishia moves it into her handbag—it did what she needed it to do. She doesn’t need it any more.
“You’re not a local.”
Brother Judgment’s voice doesn’t betray any hostility, but she knows it’s there. The Bastions have an unpleasant history with the local precinct—unpleasant to the point where every Bastion has an active warrant out against them.
“Not a local,” she agrees. “I’m not officially here.”
Brother Judgment’s eyebrow rises over his sunglasses. “You flashed your badge.”
“Just putting my cards on the table,” Alishia says. “Your file says you respect that.”
The eyebrow inches up a little higher. “My file?”
“Not an official one,” Alishia says. “More of a… passing of knowledge, from a mentor, passed on to his replacement.”
Brother Judgment tilts his head slowly to one side, as if the new angle might give him extra insight into the woman sitting in front of him. “You had a mentor? And he told you about me?”
“Who was this mentor?”
Brother Judgment goes completely still. Alishia feels the hairs rise on the back of her neck, and her left eye starts to tickle again. This time, she doesn’t try to stop it.
He leans forward, elbows resting on the table, and lowers his voice. “You’re the new Sky Commando.”
Alishia simply nods.
He straightens, his voice rising. “Jake, we need the room.”
An older, hefty man, hair gray and thinning, leans out from the door that leads into the kitchen. “How long?”
The older man steps around the counter, stops at the entrance just long enough to flip the sign from “Open” to “Closed,” then passes through the door onto the sidewalk beyond. Soft bells jingle as the door swings shut. Brother Judgment stands, stretching, and walks over to the front counter. He leans against it, watching Alishia carefully.
“We can talk now.”
Alishia’s gaze drifts over to the entrance. “He’s going to lose money because of this.”
“He’ll be OK. This talk should be private.”
“I agree,” Alishia says. “I just figured you’d choose a different way to do that.”
Brother Judgment shakes his head. “Ever had a long conversation telepathically?”
“No,” Alishia admits.
“Tiring. And a little invasive for non-telepaths, since it involves mind control.”
Alishia looks up in surprise. “It does?”
“Let’s get to the point,” Brother Judgment says. “I promised Jake we’d only take half an hour. So let me give you the same spiel I gave David: we’re not going to register. I’m not saying all cops are bad, but the ones around here are, and we won’t work with them. David was OK with that. If you aren’t, we’re going to have problems.”
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Alishia says. “That’s not why I’m here.”
“You’re not recruiting?” Brother Judgment sounds surprised. “It’s one of the first things David tried.”
“I know,” Alishia says. “He put that in your file. He also said you wouldn’t. I can’t argue with your reasons. I don’t like them, and I think you’re walking a real fine line, but the Lieutenant was a pretty good judge of character. Most of the time.”
“Was?” Brother Judgment tenses, voice sharp. “Did something happen to him?”
“You’d know better than I would,” Alishia says coolly.
Brother Judgment relaxes slightly. “I got nothing to say about that.”
“Didn’t think you did,” Alishia says. “I’m not here about that, either.”
“Why are you here?” He pulls on his trenchcoat, a single, sharp, agitated motion. “To say hello?”
Alishia shrugs. “Partially. The Lieutenant considered you one of the good guys. For the most part. So I came, in part, to say that until you show me otherwise I’m following his lead.”
“I see.” Brother Judgment tugs at his trenchcoat again. “Partially. So what’s the other reason?”
“To ask for your help,” Alishia says.
That catches the man off guard. “I told you we don’t work with cops.”
“I’m not asking you to join a task force,” Alishia says. “In fact, I’m asking you to help us catch one of the dirtiest cops I’ve ever met.”
Brother Judgment tilts his head to the side again, lips pursed thoughtfully. “What do you want the Bastions to do?”
“Not the Bastions,” Alishia says. “You. I need a telepath—specifically I need a telepath I can trust. I don’t know any, but the Lieutenant trusted you, and that’ll do for now. If you help me I will trust you, and I think that would be good for both of us.”
Brother Judgment thinks it over. “I don’t know what help I’ll be.” He doesn’t sound dismissive, just thoughtful. “I mean, I know how telepathy helps me, but I don’t have to worry about a judge throwing out an arrest. Telepathy doesn’t play well in court.”
Alishia nods. “I know. But what I want you to do doesn’t fall into that mess.”
“Really,” she says. “If I asked you to read the perp’s mind, yeah, that would stir up a legal shitstorm. But I don’t want you to read his mind. The guy you’re going to work with will be a willing, cooperative recipient… within limits, which you will agree to if you take this on. And we’ll know beforehand whether or not you mean it.”
“Yeah?” He sounds interested in spite of himself. “How will you know that?”
Alishia gestures to the empty bench across the table.
Brother Judgment frowns, hesitates, then shrugs. He walks over and slides back into the bench, hands folded, elbows resting on the table.
“Let’s hear it,” he says.
Alishia smiles. “A little background information first. Have you ever heard of a part of the DHS called Division M?”