Black steadied his gun arm atop the hood of the electro-craft. Rain dripped steadily from the tip of his weapon and fell like a curtain of crystals down the front of his helmet. He was soaked. He'd been in the rain for hours. A part of his body registered that it was growing numb with cold. He told that part to shut up.
"This is Juxtapose City Unit Two!" he shouted above the incessant clap of the rain. "We have cut off all of the exits. There is no where for you to run. Step out slowly with your hands up."
Beside him, Jake, his second-in-command shifted, his knee going down in a puddle. Jake didn't make a sound, his gun a motionless black thing sprouting from his fists.
In the wavering light of a neon sign, Riddy Kingman, smalltime Bliss dealer and frequent thorn in the side of JC2, stepped carefully from beneath the awning of the pawn shop. The electric blue lighting made his slack features look like poorly molded blue clay. Black's jaw tightened when he saw the dealer's expression. Riddy was high on his own product.
"Riddy!" he called out, watching from the corner of his eye as Lucas darted from behind a pillar to the cover of a computerized directory, "put your hands up where I can see them. Step out further."
Slowly, clearly dazed, the man took a few faltering steps toward Black. He raised shaking arms.
"Down on your knees, Riddy!"
The drug dealer fell heavily to his knees, nearly toppling over onto the brilliantly sheened asphalt. A hundred colors danced across the pavement around him as the twinkling lights of Juxtapose City's club district lit up the rain puddles. The virtual-shield that extended from Black's helmet read 4:58 a.m.. The late hour and the heavy rain had ensured that there weren't any clubbers still out and he was grateful. Any earlier, and the Blue Square as this area was known, would be packed with kids.
Ahead, Lucas cleared the directory and cautiously approached the kneeling man. Max followed, his gun trained on the middle of the drug dealer's forehead. Once close enough, Lucas shoved Riddy to the ground, water splashing up around them. Holstering his weapon, Lucas swiftly began to search the fallen man while Max covered him.
The rain began to fall harder, beating like marbles against Black's shoulders. His virtual-shield was equipped with anti-fogging protection but it was growing increasingly difficult to see between the thick rivulets of water that coursed down. Still, he refused to move. Not even to shake his head to clear it of the offending water. His eyes were riveted to what his men were doing, so he didn't miss it when Lucas jerked back from Riddy in alarm.
No weapons. The thought shot through Black's head as an afterthought. Riddy wasn't armed and he should be -- he was carrying two hundred tabs of illegal, high-priced Bliss.
"Lucas!" he shouted.
No one heard him over the explosion. It rocked the street, shattering the windows of the buildings around them and blowing out the glass of the electro-craft behind which Black and Jake crouched. Black found himself flying backwards through the air as if a rocket had been launched into his stomach. He had no breath to cry out in pain. A single word flew through his head -- stupid -- before he hit the ground and there was nothing.
Three days later...
"Lazy? I screwed your mother twice last night. How is that lazy?"
He dodged the first fist but was too groggy to miss the second. Calyx Starr fell back against the headboard, licking the blood that oozed from the corner of his mouth. "Maybe she didn't tell you?" he asked with a lazy shrug.
"Shut up and get your ass outta that bed!"
Calyx slid from beneath the hands that tried to 'help him' and rolled out of the other side of the bed. Missing his grip, his assailant, dressed in the black uniform of Juxtapose City police, fell face-first onto the rumpled sheets.
"Jumping into my bed already? We've only just met," Calyx drawled, laughing slightly. He tossed his waist-length, purple-tinged hair over his shoulders and moved to the closet. "What's the hurry this time? Thought you boys took your beauty sleep this time of night. God knows how much you need it."
"Just get your ass dressed. Captain wants you down in twenty minutes," the officer snapped.
"Fine." Calyx pulled out silver snakeskin pants and a black mesh top. Captain "Dick" -- as Calyx liked to call him -- hated when Calyx dressed in his street clothes so Calyx made it a point to do so as often as possible. He turned slightly, regarding the officer who remained in his bedroom. "Do you mind?"
The officer gave a leering grin, crossing his arms over his chest. "Not at all. Curious to see what the big deal is over the Captain's psychic fucktoy." His eyes panned Calyx's slender figure. "So far I'm not impressed."
Calyx's eyes narrowed until they were shards of emerald. A predatory smile curved his lips. He dropped the clothes and began to pace around the bed that separated him from the other man. "Ah, but why do you assume that I'm the one who takes it, hmmm?" His eyes lit on the silver band adorning the man's ring finger. "Curious to see what the wife's not giving you?" Ignoring the man's widening eyes, Calyx slid up to him and ran a finger up a tense arm. "Wondering what it'd feel like to be on the receiving end of a good, hard --" he licked his lips, "-- billy club? I could show you --"
"Fuck off, you faggot!" the man choked out, stumbling backwards. His fingers scrabbled at the small flesh-toned patch stuck beneath his ear. He relaxed slightly upon finding it still in place and threw a disgusted look at Calyx. "Get dressed and get your ass down in the craft. Five minutes or I'm strapping you to the hood."
Calyx's laughter followed him down the narrow, dirty stairwell.
"If you can go, I can go. You're not my mother."
Black glared at him and Jake could almost see flames flickering in the other man's multi-hued brown eyes.
Jake sighed, running a hand through his hair. He winced a little as the movement pulled at his sore ribs. "Come on, Black. You're the one with the concussion. I only got a few busted ribs. Nothing to do for those but let 'em heal themselves. Besides, we're only going to watch, right?"
"I don't need you to come along," Black said, moving past him to grab the keys to his motorcycle.
Jake watched him, eyes involuntarily drawn to the pull of black leather over the firm curve of the other man's ass. Black was hot. Jake would never dare say it aloud, but it was true. Even more so since Black didn't seem to care whether he attracted that kind of interest or not. And he attracted a lot. If he wasn't the one currently fucking Black, Jake would have his hands full with competition.
His cock stirred as Black bent to refasten a strap on his boot. He smiled ruefully. He'd never taken Black that way and was too afraid to ask, but . . . damn.
Black straightened and picked up his helmet. "You're staying here with the others," he told Jake, oblivious to the carnal thoughts he was inspiring.
Jake heard a touch of desperation creep into his voice. "Don't make me stay here, Black. Christ, it's like a wake here. It's driving me insane. I can't sit here thinking about them any more."
It was a low blow aimed at Black's guilty conscience, but Jake was willing to fight dirty on this one. He honestly wouldn't be able to stay in the house of his dead teammates another hour. The ghosts of Lucas and Max were fresh and wailing. Jake knew he'd only end up shooting someone. Or himself.
He watched the leader of Juxtapose City's elite force pause at the door, helmet in hand. Black didn't turn and Jake barely heard him. "Come on, then."
"Great! I'll grab my jacket. Don't leave without me." Black said nothing, opening the door and stepping out into the hallway.
Jake dashed back into the house next door where the other two members of the team were playing a halfhearted game of poker.
"Are you going with him?" Bee asked, raising brown eyes from his handful of cards. His baby face, incongruous with his heavily muscled body, held concern.
Jake grabbed his jacket from where he'd tossed it over a chair. "Yep. I bullied him into it, if you can believe."
Bee exchanged glances with his playing partner, a deceptively young-looking man whose severe blond buzz cut only added to his youthful appearance. "He must be worse off than we thought," Haney said worriedly.
Jake shrugged into the jacket, his own fears unvoiced. "Yeah, well, we're all a little fucked in the head after what happened to Lucas and Max. He's just more so with that concussion."
Bee's round eyes held his. "Keep an eye on him, Jake. Don't let him do anything stupid."
His teammates were speaking to him as if he actually had some influence over Black. Jake wanted to laugh. Sharing the man's bed didn't mean he shared Black's confidence. Jake had as much influence over their leader as the rest of them did : zilch. But to make the others feel better, he nodded soberly. "I'll watch him." He pushed out of the room, breaking into a jog once he reached the front door. Just because Black had allowed Jake to accompany him, didn't mean Black would wait.
The streets were dead this early in the morning. Only those with dubious employment dared Juxtapose City in the dark. Black's cycle whizzed through the empty streets like an arrow through shadows. Nothing stopped them; everything seemed to part in their way.
Jake was a large,warm comfort against his back in the chill of predawn but Black barely noticed. His thoughts were caught in a loop as though replaying a scene from a bad movie. But it wasn't a movie. What had happened three days ago had been real. Lucas and Max were dead.
Black should have seen it coming.
It was the third fatality for his team in less than a year. JC2 had the highest mortality rate of any special forces team in the Department. It didn't matter that the previous death had been ruled the fault of the agent who had died. He had been Black's man, trained by Black's hand. If anyone failed in JC2, it was because he hadn't adequately prepared them.
Now they were down two men, a void he would have to fill quickly. Captain Dickerson used JC2 often and Black couldn't afford to be short-handed when the next call came. If Black's team wasn't ready, the Captain would use JC1. Black would sooner shoot himself in the foot than see a mission passed to the other team.
"Who're we going to evaluate?" Jake's deep voice came over the helmet's headset.
"Capt. Dickerson recommended Wolf Sola. He's been used lately as a sharpshooter, but the Captain says he'd be good on the point."
"Sola," Jake mused. "I heard he's something of an ass."
"You say that about everyone."
"Because pretty much everyone is an ass who doesn't work with us," Jake replied authoritatively.
"Confidence or elitism?"
"Confidence," Jake replied firmly. His strong arms tightened around Black's waist. "Correction: I have confidence in our fearless leader." A hand delved beneath Black's leather jacket, fingertips slipping over his taut stomach and beneath the waist band of his pants. "Black can do anything," Jake intoned, his voice dropping. "So can we."
The familiar chant, one his team had jokingly come up with one afternoon after pulling off a spectacularly dangerous mission, irritated Black. The litany sounded like a mockery on the heels of what had just occurred. If Black truly could do anything, two of his men wouldn't be dead.
He reached down and removed the questing hand from his pants, placing it firmly outside his jacket. "Stop it. We're almost there."
He knew Jake was glowering behind him but he didn't care. The man's emotional swings were beyond him. Jake was five years older than he was, yet Black invariably felt like the mature one of their relationship. He often questioned why he bothered.
He drove down a winding alley that grew progressively narrower. They turned a corner, the roar of the motorcycle echoing off the crumbling brick walls of the City-sponsored housing. Black switched his headset to the police's broadcast. Following the directions he heard, he stopped the motorcycle outside of a fire-darkened walkup. A large black van with one-way glass windows and no visible plates, was parked in front.
Jake quickly dismounted, pulling off his helmet to study the van. "R&R?" he asked, surprised. "Didn't know Sola was with Recovery." His voice held a hint of grudging respect.
Black locked their helmets and checked his gun. "Capt. Dickerson wouldn't recommend a sidewalk jockey."
The other man shrugged, quickly pulling out his own weapon. "Still . . . Recon and Recovery gets some pretty heavy shit. Some guys might not wanna leave it."
Black said nothing. He clipped on his portable headset and listened for a moment. "Third floor," he said.
Falling into a practiced motion that was second nature, the two men entered the stairwell and methodically made their way up, guns extended. Long attuned to each other's movements and signals, not a word was spoken as they carefully approached the target floor. They paused at the base of the third floor stairs while Black spoke quietly into his mouthpiece. They waited in the dark, the occasional sound of a radio or television set drifting down the hallways as residents opened and closed doors.
Black, already in a crouch in the shadows, shifted his sights when he caught movement above him.
He straightened at the whisper, Jake standing as well. They climbed the rest of the stairs and found a man dressed in combat gear and holding an assault rifle standing on the landing. Black glimpsed the other man's face in the darkness. "McCahill."
The other man's eyes gleamed with anger. "You're the last person I want to see around here, let me tell you that," he growled. The leader of the R&R team motioned towards one of the hallways snaking away from the stairs. "We're moving in now. You came just in time for the show."
Black nodded and he and Jake followed a discreet distance behind McCahill as R&R's leader jogged quietly down the thinly carpeted hallway. Black knew the basics of the mission: a kidnapping victim was being held by three males in one of the apartments. The kidnappers had rapid-fire weapons, but no positive count on how many. No ransom demands made, but JCPD had tracked the kidnappers via their communication devices.
Dickerson had called in R&R to end it as quietly as possible.
McCahill motioned for them to slow up. Black and Jake approached cautiously until Black made out the black figures of the R&R team, huddled together in preparation to ram the apartment door at the end of the hallway. Black halted, content to watch from where he and Jake stood. From their angle, he would be able to see into the room when the agents rushed inside.
McCahill joined his team and hand signals were exchanged. There was an audible gathering of breaths before the team exploded into motion. Loud shouting intended to confuse and surprise superseded the men as they rammed into the apartment. Like a black snake, the train of men slid inside, flashes illuminating the room as guns, equipped with laser sighting, quickly took out the kidnappers.
It was smooth and graceful, not a single step or bullet wasted. Black was impressed. Through the doorway, he watched the agents secure the apartment and subdue any subjects who hadn't been taken down by gunfire. If it had been JC2 in there, there wouldn't have been anyone left alive to concern themselves with.
After the apartment had been cleared, Black and Jake carefully stepped inside. A small lamp had been turned on, illuminating the gray ring of gunpowder and smoke that circled the living room. Two of the perpetrators lay dead on the floor beside a sagging green sofa. A third man was pinned beneath the knee of an agent in the doorway leading to the kitchen. Sobs could be heard from one of the two bedrooms to the left. Blood painted a red arc across a poster of the Turandot Bridge pinned above the television set.
Six sets of eyes, bright with the exhilaration of the recent gunfight, jumped to Black and Jake as they entered. Gloved hands regretfully eased off of triggers.
"What's JC2 doing here?" one of them demanded, lifting his helmet to wipe at his brow.
Black didn't answer, scanning the scene with a critical eye.
"Prick," muttered another agent.
Jake stepped slightly in front of Black, an imposing figure even in jeans and a leather jacket. "Got something to say, say it aloud."
The one who'd spoken last, raised his voice. "I said what's JC2 come to do, fuck this up, also?"
"Shut your fucking mouth or I'll teach you how it's done," Jake snarled
"Sure," sneered one of the other agents. "Just like in the Blue Square, huh? Great example."
"You little --"
"Cole." Black caught his teammate's arm, halting his forward surge. His use of the other man's last name was deliberate. It meant that Black considered this a mission. "This isn't the place."
Ignoring his fuming teammate, Black looked to McCahill. "You going back to the station?"
McCahill shook his head, bitterness darkening his face. He knew why Black was here. "Not until later in the afternoon. Dickerson wants us to wait. He's coming down. Wants to do an on-scene interrogation." He spit on the stained carpet, making no qualms about showing his displeasure. "He wants you to wait for him. Says you can do your 'business' here."
Black hid his surprise, conscious of the other men's eyes upon him. He didn't know if the members of McCahill's team knew that he was here to lure away one of their own, but he was aware of their animosity all the same. He had a reputation throughout the JC police system. It didn't make him many friends.
He mulled over Dickerson's order. On-scene interrogations were rare. They usually only occurred when there was a deadline of some sort. Ransoms and bomb-threats were the usual cases. As far as Black was aware, there had been only one hostage victim involved and no demand for ransom. If the loud wailing coming from the bedroom were any indication, she had definitely been found alive.
Not realizing that he did it, he rubbed at his temples, willing away the ache in his head that had faded to a dull throb since the day of the explosion. He sensed that something was up, but his fogged mind, hazy from lack of sleep the last few days, refused to follow the trail.
Jake's questioning tone, shaded with concern, made him drop his hand. "Fine," he said to McCahill, "we'll wait for the Captain here. I'll want to speak to Sola then."
"Assuming he wants to speak to you," McCahill grumbled, turning away. It was an empty threat. Black was the commanding officer of JC2, a group more important in the hierarchy of special teams than R&R. Sola didn't have a choice.
Paying little attention to the way McCahill's team glared at him, he walked to the first bedroom and stood in the doorway. A young woman in her mid-twenties was wrapped in a police issue blanket, sitting on the edge of a bed. At her feet knelt an R&R agent, speaking to her in hushed tones. He had a notepad and stylus out and was writing as he spoke to her.
Behind his kneeling partner stood another man, still helmeted, watching the scene with a blank expression. He had the cold, hard look of a professional soldier. Short, clipped brown hair topped a tanned face sharpened with horizontal wrinkles. He was not an old man since special teams enforced age limitations, but his blue-grey eyes were grim like those of a seasoned veteran. From the file he had been given on the man, Black knew that the agent was an avid hunter. He liked to release his pent-up aggressions by stalking prey in the country outside Juxtapose City. This was Wolf Sola.
Jake read the white lettering stenciled on the man's helmet. "Sola. Hell, he looks like an asshole, Black."
"He's good at his job," Black replied.
"Good at bein' an asshole, probably."
Black's eyes roamed over the woman currently shivering beneath the blanket. He didn't recognize her, and he knew from his briefing that she wasn't a high profile victim. Just an ordinary, if somewhat attractive, woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. So why did this case require Dickerson to be here personally?
Black left Jake frowning at their potential new recruit and returned to the living room. McCahill's agents were busy rummaging through the apartment. The cleanup crew -- site investigators and representatives from the medical examiner's office -- wouldn't be called. Black didn't bat an eye as he watched the scene and its evidence being disturbed. This would be just another mission that would quietly disappear beneath the rug.
He leaned back against a wall, crossing his arms and watching the men work. Some occasionally sent him suspicious, uneasy glances, which he returned dispassionately. He was used to it. Since being given command of JC2, Black had fallen prey to the hungry bite of the police house rumor-mill Not that he ever listened or cared what anyone said of him behind his back, but he was aware of it. He paid too much attention to the things that went on around him to be ignorant of his notoriety.
His ears picked up the sound of heavy tread outside in the hallway. He recognized it immediately. McCahill's men were alert as well, all eyes turning to the doorway and to the bulky man who filled it.
Captain Dickerson. The closest thing to a father that Black had ever known.
"Captain," he murmured, inclining his head slightly.
The older man smirked slightly at the show of respect. "How are you, Black? Don't see you much at the station these days."
Black was supposed to check-in weekly with Dickerson, but had favored connecting to the Captain's computer, instead. He would never admit it to the older man, but the less he interacted with Dickerson, the better. He saw him enough as it was. Besides, everything Black needed to know about JC2's missions, past and present, could be found on disk. He hadn't seen the need for face-to-face meetings.
"Been occupied," he replied, unapologetic. "McCahill says you're conducting an on-scene interrogation tonight?"
The Captain chuckled, wiping a hand across his head. Beads of moisture had gathered on the thinning threads of gray-brown hair which Black suspected was due to a return of the rain that had abated last night. Dickerson's dark blue eyes, set within a strong face that had nevertheless succumbed to time and gravity, were amused as they regarded Black.
"Always so damned eager to get to the chase, eh, Lieutenant?"
If they weren't in the company of R&R, Black might have smiled. "Just curious, sir. Not a normal occurrence. I had expected to meet you back at the station to discuss the transfer of Sgt. Sola."
"Which, excuse me for saying, sir, is total bullshit!" McCahill cut in in a hissed undertone. "Sgt. Sola is my man. He's been with R&R for over a year. He's an integral part of my team. Losing him would be a huge blow to us."
Dickerson raised a hand impatiently, apparently well versed in the other man's arguments. "Can it, McCahill. We've been over this already and I'm done with it. You can cull another member from one of the other teams. JC2 needs him and that's final."
"Fuckin' bullshit," McCahill mumbled again as he stalked away.
Black waited for him to leave before turning once more to the Captain. "Why are you here? I'd planned on doing this at the station. Not in front of McCahill's team."
Dickerson's eyes panned over the men of R&R, knowledgeable eyes cataloging their movements. "Sundhill is there," he said, nodding a greeting to one of the men. "Thought you'd prefer to avoid his interference."
Black frowned at the mention of JC1's team leader. Few people unnerved Black as much as the hotheaded leader of their rival team. Still, Sundhill's presence at the station wasn't enough to make Black go out of his way to avoid the place. That would be conceding defeat of a sorts.
Dickerson seemed to understand this. "It's my business I don't want him poking his nose in," the Captain explained, returning his attention to Black. "It's better handled here."
The Captain was being deliberately vague, which didn't surprise Black. Having been trained by the older man for the last seven years, he had learned patience when faced with the man's circuitous methods. He fell into a frustrated silence as Jake emerged from the bedroom.
"Capt. Dickerson, surprised to see you, sir."
"Sgt. Cole." Dark eyes swiftly took inventory of the younger man. "How're the ribs?" No condolences over lost teammates. Those had already been spoken and would not be repeated again.
"Healing fine, sir. Doctor says I'll be ready for full duty by the end of the week." Jake's eyes slid to Black, noting his silence. "Unexpected seeing you here, Captain. May I ask who's doing the interrogation? Is it McCahill?"
Dickerson nodded. "Partly. Someone's being brought in." His thin lips twitched as he glanced at Black. "You'll find this interesting, I think." He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a waxed paper envelope. He tossed it to Black. "Put these on. This should be fun."
Fun. Never a concept Black enjoyed hearing from his Captain. Dickerson's humor tended to stray to the perverse. Black had long ago learned to turn a blind eye. Every man was due his idiosyncracies, he told himself. And Black owed the man too much to be judgmental . . .
He opened the small envelope and felt his insides turn cold.
"What is it?" Jake asked.
When Black said nothing, the other man took the envelope from him and upended its content into his palm. Two small patches the size of coins slid out. They were flesh-toned and looked like Band-Aids. But they were nothing so innocent. Black recognized them immediately.
"Put them away," he said beneath his breath. He met Dickerson's amused gaze. "Since when does JCPD supply its force with Bliss?" he demanded in a tight voice. "What the hell is this?"
"New issue on special cases." Dickerson watched him expectantly."We've started using an empath. Gratifying results, I must say."
Empath. The word and everything associated with it made Black grab the envelope back and clench it in his fist. Empaths and telepaths were steadily becoming Juxtapose City's most voracious consumers of Bliss. They used the serotonin-inducing drug to drown out the psychic feedback that they were unable to block on their own. Along with being the drug's most frequent users, the psypaths were rapidly becoming its next generation of dealers. With the exception of Riddy Kingman, JC2's last three run-ins had been with either psypath users or dealers.
"Psypaths on the police payroll?" Jake blurted incredulously. His handsome face reflected his distaste of that growing segment of society. "I can't imagine those freaks working alongside us. How do we trust 'em? They could be fuckin' with our heads."
Dickerson's look was indulgent. "JCPD would never employ the services of telepaths. That's pure idiocy, and I, for one, am not an idiot." He paused, waiting for Jake's flush of contriteness. "We've started working with an empath only. Call it a test run, although I'm pleased with the results so far."
Jake scratched his head, looking almost comical in his confusion if he weren't 200 pounds of solid muscle. "But why would any empath want to work for the police? Don't they need Bliss to keep themselves from going crazy?"
"Let me guess," Black said coolly, watching the spreading amusement on his captain's face, "you've given this man no choice. Either you've placed him in a position in which he cannot refuse you, or you've promised him something he cannot resist." His fist opened, the Bliss tablets lying within his palm.
"Correct on both points." Dickerson extracted a slim electronic notepad from within his trench coat and handed it to Black. "He was arrested two months ago on four counts of possession. Combine that with intent to sell, prostitution, assaulting an officer and it's an easy twenty years in Hangway." He smiled. "Unless he chooses to play. Then it's no jail-time and we sweeten the deal with access to limited amounts of Bliss when he cooperates with us. Saying no," Dickerson said smugly, "was never an option for him. And now that he's worked with us on two cases, he's as good as dead if he tries to step back into his former lifestyle. We can leak the details of his involvement in a heartbeat."
"So he's screwed," Black muttered beneath his breath, activating the notepad.
McCahill strode over, speaking quietly into his headset. He covered the mouthpiece and said to Dickerson, "They're on their way up. Guess Aines had some problems with him on the way."
"How unsurprising." Dickerson inclined his head at the tablets Black still held. "I suggest you put those on. They're only a few grams worth, a low enough dosage to blur your brain wave patterns, but not enough to affect your awareness. Trust me, you won't want him reading your emotions. He's rather --" Dickerson paused, searching for the right word, "-- intractable. Letting him get to you would be a mistake." He reached into his coat and pulled out several more waxed envelopes and walked to the other men to distribute them.
Black stared at the tabs in his hand. Dickerson knew how much Black didn't want to use the Bliss. The Captain knew, more than any man alive, and yet he was pushing this. A cold fury burned behind Black's eyes, aggravating his headache.
"You gonna give me one of those?"
Black held out his hand as though offering the other man poison. Jake removed the backing from one of the patches and stuck the tab behind his ear. As a member of JC2, Jake had experienced the effects of Bliss as part of his training. Using such a small amount didn't faze him. He hesitated though, when he noticed Black had not applied his patch.
Black shoved the unused tab into his pocket. "I don't need it."
"But he'll read you --"
Jake crossed his arms angrily. "If you weren't my commanding officer, I'd tell you what a stupid, stubborn --"
"Sgt. Cole." Black's voice had taken on that intense control that signaled he was on the verge of explosion. "Your comments have been noted. That's enough."
"I think that concussion was more serious than any of us thought," Jake muttered just quietly enough that Black had to strain to hear him. "Knocked your last brain cell out of your ear."
Black tightened his lips and said nothing, dropping his attention to the electronic pad he held. The notepad contained the empath's file. Not an unusual police record. Various arrests for drug possession and being under the influence of a controlled substance, assault. Brought in twice for prostitution but both cases dismissed for lack of evidence . . . He checked the empath's stats. Twenty-six years old and no known family. Perfect for Dickerson's needs. Black was immersed in reading the file when a loud voices from the hallway raised his head.
"Hurry up, you freak! Captain's gonna be pissed we're late. We should've been here ten minutes ago."
"As if I care about pleasing him."
The hairs on the back of Black's neck rose at the sound of that smooth, unconcerned voice. It wasn't alarm he felt, for he was well familiar with that particular sensation. This was something different. Not understanding his own reasons, he backed along the wall, urging a confused Jake with him, until they stood in the corner of the room nearest the door. Whoever entered would have to turn to see them, providing Black with the advantage.
A tall, slender figure stepped through the apartment's doorway. Black quickly scanned him, registering black boots over skin-tight silver pants, and a sheer, long-sleeved black top that barely covered the midriff -- club wear. He'd seen similar outfits often enough in the Blue Square. Had the empath been dragged from the middle of a club? Slightly confused, Black's eyes traveled up and took in the waist-length blond hair so pale that it was nearly white. It was tinted purple at the ends. He hadn't the chance for a more detailed study for suddenly the man turned around -- ignoring everyone else in the room -- and looked directly at Black.
Feral green eyes caught and held him like an insect pinned to a wall. Full lips curved into a surprised, delighted smile as they studied Black as blatantly as he himself had been looked over. In the abrupt silence caused by his appearance, the man purred, "Hello, Darkness. What a pleasant surprise."
The eyes of McCahill's men shot to him accusingly. Black recovered from his temporary shock and returned the feline stare. "You must be Calyx Starr."
Long lashes swept down lazily, half lidding the intense eyes. "Mmm, and you must be bold. Bold to not hide from me like these other boys. Or are you simply stupid? Think you can block out an empath?" Calyx regarded him from beneath his lashes, a still air about him as though he were listening to something. "No one can hide all of that darkness, sweetheart." His smile widened. "Though you're trying."
"What the fuck?" Jake mumbled.
The voice of his teammate broke the odd spell Black had started to fall under. "Bliss is a controlled substance within the limits of Juxtapose City," he told the empath. His eyes noted the fine tremors that ran the length of the other man's slender hands. "Being a cop, I'm sure you understand why I don't feel comfortable taking it." He knew his disapproval was patent.
Calyx didn't appear to care. "Yes, but all these other boys are JCPD's finest also, and I can't feel any of them." His verdant gaze panned the sneering faces watching him. "Maybe they're just lapdogs, hmmm? Doing whatever their master tells them to." His eyes returned to Black. "Or maybe they're just not as reckless as you. You like danger, sweetheart. I can feel it."
"Give up the head games, Starr," Dickerson growled, emerging from the bedroom. He threw a disapproving look at Black before facing the empath. Calyx's chin rose slightly in obstinance. Dickerson's eyes swept the taller man, smirking slightly at the minute lines of stress on the other man's coolly beautiful face. "How you feeling, Starr? Got any . . . cravings?"
Calyx was in need of a hit. Black recognized all of the signs. Dickerson must keep the empath clean before an interrogation so his senses would be clear enough to give a good reading.
"Just an urge for a nice hot bath," Calyx replied snidely, making it obvious whose contact made him feel the need to bathe.
Dickerson reached up, chasing the other man when he leaned away, and grabbed a handful of purple-tinged hair. "Maybe while you're there you can wash this shit out. You look like even more of a freak than you are."
Black frowned when he saw the familiarity with which his captain touched the empath. It wouldn't be the first time Dickerson had taken liberties with hookers and their ilk, but Black continually hoped that the man would give up his indiscretions and stick to his wife. It would make it a hell of a lot easier to defend the man.
The officer who had brought Calyx in, sidled up to Jake. "Fucktoy," he whispered knowingly.
Black's stomach clenched. Wonderful.
Calyx reached up and yanked his hair free of the captain's grasp. "Capt. Dick, as much as I loathe -- excuse me, enjoy -- the feel of your hand upon me, I'd rather get this over with so I can return to my dreams of firebombing police headquarters." He smiled sweetly. "Just dreams, of course."
Dickerson chuckled, stepping back. He threw a glance at Black to ensure he was watching, then waved a hand at the surviving kidnapper who sat propped against a wall. "Yes, let's get this over with. There are many things I would rather be doing in bed, also."
Calyx ignored his suggestive tone and looked down at the handcuffed man. The kidnapper was sallow-skinned with ragged brown hair. He was young enough to still have pimples. R&R had roughed him up some, but the black eyes that returned the empath's stare were bright with challenge. Calyx nodded, "He's fine. Get it started."
McCahill stepped up and knelt beside the bound man. "What's your name, kid?"
McCahill pulled out his handgun and pressed it to the kidnapper's forehead. "You're not dealing with the usual police here, kid. Notice how there's nobody here taking evidence samples? This ain't going to court. You either answer my questions or I shoot you in the head and toss you over the Turandot Bridge. Captain here won't care either way."
The man visibly swallowed before answering in a scratchy voice, "Kelpy. Eric Kelpy."
"Truth," Calyx said, sounding bored.
McCahill lowered the gun. "Smart move, Eric. Now tell me, who set you up to kidnap the lady?"
Kelpy's eyes darted to Calyx nervously. "N-no one. It was Skiv's idea," he said with a nod towards one of the dead kidnappers.
Calyx rubbed at his eyes. "Lie."
Kelpy looked at the empath in desperation, obviously realizing the futility of resisting. "If -- if I tell you, I'm a dead man. They'll send someone to kill me in jail. I won't last -- "
"You're dead here, too, if you don't tell the truth," McCahill interrupted. The leader of R&R shared a look with Dickerson as though they had discussed this possibility already. McCahill raised his gun again. "You're dead no matter what, Eric," he said in a softer voice. "The moment you kidnapped Lord's mistress, you started digging your own grave. You know that."
Black hid his surprise. So the woman in the bedroom wasn't just a nobody -- she was the lover of one of Juxtapose City's most powerful Bliss dealers.
Kelpy let out a quiet sob and dropped his head, sweat-matted hair hanging over his face. "I didn't have a choice. They were gonna kill my sister -- "
He started to cry then, his voice loud in the silence of the room. Black ignored him to watch Calyx. The empath was rubbing the back of his neck in agitation, shifting from foot to foot. The tremors Black had seen earlier had progressed to visible shaking. "Hurry up," Black thought he heard him mutter.
McCahill patted the kidnapper's raised knee. "You know what's going to happen now, don't you, Eric? When we take you in, whoever it is who hired you is going to think you ratted, even if you didn't. You and I both know that they'll kill you, but they might take out your sister first just to teach you a lesson."
"No!" the handcuffed man wailed.
"You know it's true. You're dead either way, it's just who you take with you that matters now. Give us a name, Eric. We'll put him in a bag and send him after you."
The young man sniffed and raised his head, his helpless state beginning to sink in. "And my sister?"
McCahill shifted. "We'll protect your sister. And you, well . . . we'll make it quick."
Execution by JCPD's hands or risk a painful, slow death by the goons of whomever hired him. Kelpy knew his choices were limited.
Black looked to Calyx, curious to see if the decision would be reflected in the empath. It was. The strained expression on Calyx's face melted to a mixture of relief, sadness and fear.
"Volton," Kelpy whispered, his tears drying. "It was Volton's men who hired us. Said they didn't want us to kill her, just hold onto her, make sure Lord knew we had her. Didn't make any sense."
McCahill looked up at Calyx. The empath nodded impatiently. "He's telling the truth."
McCahill smiled slightly at the young kidnapper. "Good boy." He grabbed Kelpy's arm and pulled him to his feet. The young man allowed himself to be dragged into the second bedroom, his face expressionless, already resigned to his fate.
"Close the door," Dickerson called after them.
After the door had shut, Dickerson reached into his pocket. Calyx watched him hungrily, his fixation almost animalistic. The Captain tossed him a small tube which Calyx immediately tore the cap off of. A roll of narrow paper slid out, covered with rows of small pink tablets. Black felt his mouth twisting as he watched the empath peel off a tablet and slide it quickly beneath his tongue. The look that came over Calyx's face was one of absolute relief. Of bliss. The odd thought shot through Black's head that this must be what Calyx looked like when he was about to orgasm. Black quickly banished the stray thought.
"Freak," Dickerson muttered, laughing quietly. He rejoined Black and led him outside into the hall. His expression was one of supreme satisfaction. "So what do you think of my little experiment? Impressive, wouldn't you say? We'll never have to worry about lying sacks of shit ever again. Not with Starr around."
"He's a drug addict," Black replied, unable to hide his disgust. "How reliable can he be?"
"I told you. He can't go back to the streets and we're giving him enough drugs to keep him sane. He has no choice. As screwed up in the head as psypaths are, Starr's street-smart. He knows what's up. He'll cooperate for as long as we need him to."
Black didn't want to talk about the empath anymore. Seeing the blatant use of -- worse, the supplying of -- Bliss in his presence made him sick inside. "It's your show. You know what you're doing."
Dickerson shook his head, a secretive smile upon his face. "No, this is your show. I'm assigning Starr to JC2."
He should have known. The moment Dickerson had brought up the subject of an empath, Black should have guessed something like this was up the Captain's sleeve. Dickerson may have saved Black from an early death in Hangway, given him command of JC2 at the unheard-of age of 23 -- but he still had a twisted streak that compelled him to occasionally punish Black. Just small reminders that Black owed him big time. Of course, Black could never argue. He knew his debt as well as Dickerson did.
That didn't mean he couldn't put up some resistance.
"My team is in tatters right now," he argued, keeping his voice pitched low so Jake wouldn't overhear. "Besides dealing with the loss of two men, my team will have to incorporate new members. Now you want to throw in an empath? Sir, JC2 is in the middle of a major transition. Don't make me have to deal with this on top of it."
"But you can handle it," Dickerson replied confidently. A touch of pride -- not for Black, but for Dickerson's own decision-making skills -- came over the Captain's face. "Do you think you'd be leading JC2 right now if you couldn't cut it? Do you have any idea how much pressure I fended off when I gave you the team? But I dealt with it because there's no one better for the job, Black. Consider this one more way to prove that my faith in you is well-founded." He clapped a fatherly hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Starr won't give you any problems, not if he wants his Bliss. And you know you have my backing should you require extra force to keep him in line."
Black looked away from the meaning in the Captain's eyes, but the words followed him. "You can have your fun with him, too, Black. Starr knows his place. He won't fight you. Might be a nice diversion from Cole every now and then, hmmm? The freak's got a talented mouth when you shut him up."
Black didn't want to hear this. "I'll take him on, but he won't be an active member," he bit out even though he knew he had no leverage in this fight.
Dickerson shook his head. "You may start him off slow, but I want him to be an active member of JC2 eventually." He raised a hand to fend off Black's protest. "Starr's from the street, he knows how to take care of himself. Right now, we're allowing him a phase whip for personal protection, but he's good enough with a gun to be rated if he were ever tested. I trust you to train him to the standards of the other agents."
This was ridiculous. Black wanted to storm out right now. A nice fantasy, but it would never happen. Black was as good as a dog on Dickerson's leash.
"Fine," he grated out. "Starr and Sola. Thank you, sir."
Dickerson ignored the hint of sarcasm. "Go speak to Sgt. Sola. I'll have Starr waiting for you outside."
Black watched his captain walk down the dirty hallway to the stairwell. He needed aspirin badly. His head felt like it was going to explode. He turned and braced his hands against the peeling wallpaper of the hallway, shutting his eyes as the implications of what he'd just agreed to struck his brain like a mallet. What a mess.
He didn't jump when large hands wrapped around the back of his neck and began to carefully knead the taut muscles. He'd heard Jake approach. He'd also heard the muffled thump of a silenced weapon being discharged from the bedroom -- the end of Eric Kelpy.
"How's your head?" the larger man asked.
"Do me a favor and cut it off," Black muttered. "It's more pain than it's worth right now."
"You really need some rest, Black. I'll bet you haven't slept since -- for a while now." Strong fingers dug in, making Black bite back a moan of pain/pleasure. "So what's up with that little scene we just saw?"
Jake's hands encouraged him to submit to the massage, but Black knew he didn't have time for the indulgence. Ignoring the other man's snort of irritation, he shrugged off the touch and turned around. "Volton and Lord are at each other again, nothing new. I doubt there's much more to this."
Jake rolled his eyes. "Not that. I'm talking about the psychic freak in there. What's his name?"
"Calyx Starr," Black murmured, feeling the weight of Dickerson's demands hanging like a stone around his neck. "He's joining us along with Sola."
Silence from Jake. He was too stunned to speak. After a long moment, he sputtered, "Are you joking?"
Black firmed his expression. "We'll speak to Sola now, then you wait for me while I deal with Starr."
"Jesus Christ. This is nuts. The Captain's fucktoy --"
Black fisted a hand in the larger man's jacket, shoving him against the wall. Despite the differences in height and weight, Jake looked suitably intimidated. "If I ever hear you say that again, I'll write you up, Jake. He's going to be a member of the team from now on. So deal with it."
Jake held up his hands. "Sorry, Black. It's just -- it's a surprise, you know?"
Black felt suddenly very, very weary. The stress of his fallen teammates and now this was starting to get to him and shorten his admittedly volatile temper. He released other man. "I know," he muttered, backing away. "Just go with me on this, Jake. This is difficult enough as it is."
The rare admittance of need got through to the other man as threats never would. "Sure, Black. You know I'll back you." Jake started to reach for other man's chin, but when Black tensed, he dropped his hand. "Let's go talk to Sola, huh? I wanna know if that guy's as big an asshole as he seems."
Shaking his head ruefully, Black followed the other man back into the apartment. As they headed to the bedroom where the victim was being kept, Calyx and Officer Aines were passing them on the way out.
"We'll be waiting outside," Aines told them, a hand on the empath's arm.
Calyx threw Black a quick smirk, all visible evidence of stress erased from his body. "Don't keep me waiting, sweetheart."
"Shut up and keep going," Aines snarled, pushing him forward.
"God help us," Jake mumbled, continuing on to the bedroom.
Black followed, but could not help a glance back. Green eyes caught him, amusement bright in their depths. Shit.
"Naughty, naughty," the empath called out before being shoved outside into the hallway.
This, Black decided, was going to be a nightmare.
"Give me a cigarette."
Officer Aines snorted where he leaned against the police craft. "It's my last one. No fucking way."
Calyx smiled. "Give it to me or I'll find something else of yours to suck on." He let his voice drip with innuendo. "Or maybe that's why you're holding out, hmmm, officer? Just because you're married doesn't mean you can't experiment."
The nearly empty packet skidded across the ground at Calyx's feet.
He chuckled. "Thank you."
"Why I'm a fucking baby-sitter to a freak . . ."
Calyx closed his ears to the familiar rant. Aines was painfully unoriginal. If Calyx had actually had a place worth escaping to, it would have been worth it to teach the idiotic officer how inept he truly was. As it was, Calyx had nowhere to go so he was stuck enduring this bore's ravings. Calyx sighed. At least he had encountered one person in the police department who looked to provide some entertainment. Assuming Calyx ever saw him again, that is.
It looked as though he might. Calyx heard his voice coming down the stairs. Anticipation urged him to push away from the crumbling brick building, but he stayed where he was in his casual slouch. His long legs were crossed at the ankles, pushing his hips forward, and his shirt rode up just slightly, baring the pale skin of his stomach. He knew the image he presented. It was deliberate.
"-- just saying I told you he would be an ass, Black. You're gonna have to keep a close eye on him so he doesn't go ballistic."
Black. What an hilariously appropriate name for his new source of interest.
The two men who, unlike the rest who had gathered in the dingy apartment upstairs, were dressed in civilian clothes, stepped into the light overhanging the front door of the walkup. The taller man was beefy with muscle. He had light brown hair cut short on the sides, and light-colored eyes that Calyx hadn't really noticed enough to determine their color. A good-looking man, though not one to look at twice.
Unlike his companion.
"Hello, Darkness," Calyx said again when the two men's heads swung his way.
His interest frowned. "The name is Black. You will address me by that or 'sir' if we are on a mission."
"Ah, yes. Mission. Capt. Dick mentioned something about that." Calyx took a drag on the cigarette, knowing the brief flare of light would highlight his cheekbones in the dark. "Seems I'm being passed to you like a bad cold. What is it I'm being required to call you 'sir' for?" He smiled slyly. "Though if that's what gets you off, I'll do it anytime you like. Sir."
The man called Black didn't react, simply turned to his large friend and said, "Give us a moment. I'll meet you at the bike."
Calyx grinned at the glare of warning sent his way by the bigger man. Overprotective teammate? Or lover?
"C'mon, Aines. Let's get some fresh air."
Calyx's watchdog was all too eager to scamper away. Left alone, the empath allowed his eyes to drink their fill of the other man. Dark, yes. This man had registered on his brain like a shadow in a white room. The second he had stepped into the apartment, Calyx's senses had been overwhelmed with darkness -- grief, guilt, anger. A heady cocktail made all the more intriguing by the iron will that tried to dampen it all.
"You've lost someone, haven't you?" Calyx asked, blowing a ring of smoke.
No flinch from those gorgeous brown eyes. Chocolate sin, Calyx thought with an inward sigh.
"Two of my teammates," Black replied, shoving his hands into his leather jacket. He didn't look defensive, merely stood there. "They were part of JC2. My team. Ever hear of it?"
Calyx couldn't help his laughter. Of course he'd heard of it. He lived on the streets, didn't he? Or least, he had. JC2 was like the bogeyman. Get sloppy, screw up a deal and JC2 might get you. Kill the wrong person, don't watch your back and JC2 will be there. Calyx was well aware that the so-called 'special team' was backed by private citizens and did not answer to Juxtapose City's police department, despite its outward claims to the contrary. JC2 was a rogue outfit as quiet and deadly as a knife in the dark. How appropriate that its leader was the very embodiment of shadow.
Ash tumbled from the end of Calyx's cigarette as he studied the dark-haired man. Was it normal for a man in Black's position to be as young as he appeared to be? Calyx had only been 'working' with JCPD for a few months, but he knew this had to be an oddity.
"I'm being asked to join you?" 'Asked' was a loose term. Calyx knew he either joined JC2 or Capt. Dick would slap him around some and then force him to, anyway. "I'm flattered."
"Don't be," Black replied curtly. "You're more likely to be killed joining us than if you continued with what you're doing now. I'm giving you the option to back out now."
Calyx arched an elegant eyebrow. "Capt. Dick didn't mention anything about having a choice in the matter."
Black frowned. Calyx wished for a second that he hadn't taken the Bliss. He would love to know what was putting that look of consternation on the other man's face. "It's my team, so it's my call. In or out, Starr?"
Yes, Black was definitely younger than any ranking officer Calyx had seen, but he also realized why. He didn't act young. He acted painfully mature, so much so that the empath doubted whether the other agents even realized how young Black was. In that gorgeous, lithe body was a control that made Calyx's jaw ache. Intimidating really. Except that Calyx had seen what the others hadn't. He'd seen underneath.
"If I join your team," Calyx began, dropping the cigarette and letting it smolder on the pavement, "will I be your plaything instead of Capt. Dick's?"
A muscle jumped in Black's jaw. Oh, so he didn't like the mention of his captain's indiscretions, did he? Again, Calyx regretted the psychic deadening effects of the Bliss.
Calyx straightened away from the wall and stepped into the circle of light that held the other man.
"Not even if I want to be?" He was only an inch or two taller than Black, but the boots gave him an added advantage. He looked down at the younger man and ran a hand up the black leather jacket. "I think I wouldn't mind being your plaything. You strike me as the kinky type. You could cuff me to your bed, if you wanted." When Black didn't respond, he cooed, "Or I could cuff you, if you prefer that instead. Would you like me to take control, sweetheart? Sometimes all of that fearsome responsibility can be a bit too much to handle. What do you say? Want to be my plaything?"
Nothing. Calyx might have sighed in disappointment if it hadn't been for that brief glimpse into the man upstairs. Outwardly, Black was good. He gave nothing away. But no one could hide from an empath. No one could hide from Calyx Starr.
His body stirring with the challenge, he took a step back. "Very well. I'll join you, Black. I get the feeling it may be fun working with you and your boys."
"This isn't about fun," Black told him, eyes narrowing.
Calyx smiled, amused by his stubbornness."Ah, but maybe it should be. I'll see what I can do for you, sweetheart."
No response, but that didn't upset Calyx in the slightest. He had the advantage here in every way possible. All that was left now was to prove it. He had a feeling working with Black and the boys of JC2 might be more fun than he'd had in a long, long time.