All was quiet as an armored convoy of sleek black SUVs rolled through the streets of Downtown Blackburn. Everyone kept their eyes to themselves, exchanging no more than a few curious or fearful words over the chorus of crunching gravel. What was Cerberus doing here? Were they on patrol? Were they looking for someone? Who was in the crosshairs of the Phantasm now?
In the passenger’s seat of the central vehicle was Rebecca, disquietly spinning her Cerberus ID card in her fingers. Jones had set up the meeting with the mayor, the city council and the police chief, her final attempt to save Blackburn without chaotic bloodshed. She replayed her pitch to the council over and over again in her mind, but ever present were the snorts and the giggles of people who saw her as a joke.
She frowned as she ran her thumb over her plastic photograph. For the most part she looked excellent for a woman of forty-six, but her eyes had remained unchanged since her youth – icy, cold and betraying the inferno beneath ready to melt through at any moment. Had she gotten nowhere after all these years, privatizing peace?
No, best not to think those thoughts. If Quinn was right about one thing, it was that the battle was never ending. They would all understand sooner or later. All she needed was a little patience.
She watched the streets go by: Pinecrest, Gadsden, Tokacha. People came and went over the years, but the city’s character was the same as always: apathetic, cowardly and stupid. Always needing a strong hand to set them straight. It still needed her. She clipped her ID card back onto her lanyard.
“Jones, pull over to the curb there.”
The SUV parked in front of two small stores. Between them was an alleyway, the arteries of the underworld, where three hoodlums huddled in the shade. The one in the rear wiggled a blue inhaler in the air.
“Don’t shake it, you heard the boss. You’re only supposed to take it out if you need it,” grumbled one of his buddies. “You want her to drop the hammer like she did on Ralph?”
Waving a hand, the thug conjured a miniscule ball of blue fire in his free hand. “I just wanna test it, y’know? It’s almost like she made it for me. ‘Sides, we’re deep in the middle of her turf, you think we’ll actually need to use it? Just one hit, you can’t tell the difference…”
“Nick, I swear to God, if you take that hit, I’m gonna report the shit out of you,” snapped the last member, a pudgy woman with thick glasses and a newsboy hat. “Even if Francis doesn’t work up the balls, I will, and you know it.”
“You know, a goddamn narc is what you are, Heather,” Nick lamented, putting the inhaler away.
“You.” Nick turned to see Rebecca standing at the end of the alley, pointing at him. Her stance was relaxed, but she knew they could see the frigid intensity in her eyes. “Toss me the inhaler, now.”
The man put his hand in the pouch on his ammo vest as if he were going to comply, then gave Rebecca the finger. “Sorry, toots, fresh out of samples. I got something else I can put in your mouth though.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. Men. “I don’t have time for this,” she hissed, whisking out her handgun and plugging a round in Ralph and Heather’s legs. “I said give me the fucking inhaler before I put one between your eyes, kid.”
Flinching in shock, Nick leapt to his feet. “Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Dammit, Nick, just give it to her!” Heather screamed at him, clutching her leg as tears of pain streamed down her face. The man fumbled with his vest, tossing the device at Rebecca without even bothering to check if it was an accurate throw. He was too busy tending to his bleeding comrades. Rebecca caught it deftly, examining it without taking her aim off Nick. The clear plexiglass container held a thick blue fog inside which tumbled around within as if it were a liquid. Whatever the drug was, it was clearly made by a professional, nothing like the mass-produced garbage she’d seen in Mexico or Afghanistan.
“This drug, it’s from Mouse, isn’t it? What’s it do?”
“F-fuck, man, you shot ‘em! What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“It makes anomalies stronger!” Heather supplied, punching Nick in the sternum.
“How much is on the streets already? Where’s it going? Why’d she wait until now to make a drug of this caliber?”
“You think Mouse tells us that crap? Right now it’s just a beta drug, she’s not sellin’ it to no one yet, but every anomaly in her employ has it. We don’t know why she made it, man. No one knows why she does half the shit she does. I guess she’s gearing up for something, fuck, I dunno!”
“Hmph.” Rebecca pocketed the inhaler then holstered her gun. “If I was you, I’d gear up for a move out of the city. Jones, call the cops. I had to do their job again…”
The lights in the main chamber of City Hall had been dimmed, so that you could scarcely see the high ceiling, save for the bright white lights that hung over the table in the middle of the room. At that long, ornate table sat the city council, quietly drilling one another on their list of demands and dabbing the sweat from their foreheads. On one end of the table sat Gilda, staring down at her folded hands. She was an older, short woman, with dark skin and a strong, stocky build. Her mass of dark hair was streaked with too much gray, tied back into a bushy ponytail. Her eyes were grim. She was dead silent, but her thoughts were racing. The chair on the other end of the table sat empty, waiting to receive Mayor Montana. Gilda’s eyes drifted up when the mayor came storming into the room, fidgeting with his tie, flanked by his assistant.
“Sir, the Russian and Chinese immigrants might be willing to brave this city for the real estate values, but investors are running scared. Our corporate tax base is falling apart. When the crime rate has hardly changed in sixty years, people start to think Blackburn is a lost cause.”
“Bah!” The mayor waved his hand as he ambled towards the table. “I’ve been hearing doomsday predictions about this town for as long as I’ve been alive, son. Economies change with the times. New Orleans has gotten by on tourism, so as long as we keep up the city’s image, folks will spend their money here. Besides, that’s what we’re here for, right? Olympic City is old news.” He snapped his fingers. “Fletcher! Tell my assistant here you’ve got things under control.”
“To the best of our limited ability, yes,” said Gilda, leaving out the ugly details.
The doors to the hall were thrown open with great force, and Gilda turned to see Rebecca looming in front of the entrance, the outside sun stretching her shadow across the floor. In silence she made her way to her designated seat and pulled it out, but remained standing, arms folded as she looked at the mayor.
“Sorry I’m late sir, there was just a little mess I had to clean up,” she announced, shooting a caustic look at Gilda from the corner of her eye. “I’ll make my point brief: Blackburn is out of control. We have gangsters roaming the alleys like wild dogs, drugs are seeping through every orifice, and you have street racers flying down our streets at a hundred miles an hour. It’s rotting, and I’ve learned over the years that picking off maggots isn’t going to save it. It needs radical treatment that so-called ‘superheroes’ can’t provide.” She gestured towards Gilda, who bit her tongue. “And neither can the police – at the moment. Mister Montana, I run the largest private security firm on the planet, and it’s headquartered just a few city blocks from here. My men are highly trained and equipped with the best gear this country manufacturers. It eats away at me that I can’t give back to this city like I used to. Contract Cerberus to operate the BPD and I guarantee you people like Mouse-” she retrieved the drug inhaler for all to see. “Won’t be a problem anymore.”
“You’re proposing we hinge the security of Blackburn on a business venture?” Gilda said, shooting Rebecca a very skeptical look. “I know we’re in dire straits, people, but can we really in good conscience put the security of our citizens in the hands of a private interest?”
The mayor huffed, drumming his fingers against the table. “Ms. Napier, I’m sure you realize how unorthodox-”
“Most of my men are former military, sir, or former cops. I’m a Desert Storm vet myself. We’re not talking about foreign troops here.”
The mayor furrowed his brows. “How unorthodox this would appear to the public. I’m sure your men are well trained, but so are the Navy SEALs and you don’t see them patrolling American suburbs.”
“This city is unorthodox,” Rebecca countered, grinding her teeth between sentences. “Dire straits doesn’t even begin to describe it. This city is toxic to anyone except those too poor to leave or too rich to care. The middle class is shrinking, sir, and they won’t come back until they feel safe again.”
“To put our citizens at the mercy of a mercenary group would not just be unorthodox, it would also be unethical,” Gilda said, hardly believing her ears. “I can’t deny that Blackburn has a very serious crime problem, but frankly, I’m not convinced you’re interested in getting Cerberus involved for any reason other than personal gain.”
“This city’s well being is my personal gain. What would be unethical is you rejecting the silver bullet I’m offering. How would the people of Blackburn feel if, God forbid, there was another gang war, they lost their sons and daughters and found out you could’ve stopped it?”
“Napier, you know exactly what I meant by ‘personal gain,’ so don’t even try it.”
Rebecca slammed a fist on the table. A few of the newer council members jumped. “Don’t you dare lecture me, Fletcher!”
“Ms. Napier, that is enough,” boomed the mayor. “I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say I’m thankful for your long service to this city, but your proposal will be voted on without any further outbursts.” He pointed at both Rebecca and Gilda. “Ladies, please leave.”
The council members turned to one another and began to whisper. As Gilda got up from her seat, she noticed Rebecca’s fingers twitch before the mercenary left the way she came.
Gilda passed the time in an adjacent hallway, shooting texts Quinn’s way rapid fire. Even blind and forced to listen to them audibly, Quinn was responding with what Gilda swore was becoming a certifiable novel. Her sister was terrified of the council accepting Rebecca’s offer, and, now that she was alone with herself, Gilda had to admit the idea frightened her too. She technically wouldn’t lose her job if they did, but with that maniac arming, training and preaching to her officers, it would be tantamount to termination. And if her mind had slipped as much as she was suspecting it had, perhaps not just of her job.
No, no, she wasn’t supposed to be doing this to herself. Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure, Gilda… Sighing, she glanced at her phone again.
<Sis: they voted yet? she wig out on them?>
Gilda snorted as she tapped away.
<Unfortunately, not enough to cancel the vote. There’s no way they’d actually listen to her. Right?>
<Sis: oh god cut it out youre going to send me into cardiac arrest. im changing the subject. the kids are suprisingly receptive, even the little napier. relatively speaking. i dont trust her, but i dont dont trust her, ya know? cant quite put my fingr on it but going with my gut on this one.>
<Please, just don’t get shot, okay?>
<Sis: yeah, no promises>
Gilda hesitated before deciding to poke the elephant in the room.
<So… How are you holding up? I know it must be rough going back after you know what.>
<Sis: it hurts, but i keep telling myself its what scott would want. i hope hed be proud.>
<He would. They’re calling me back in, I’ll text you shortly.>
Gilda shuffled back into the meeting room, holding her breath. Rebecca stood like a stone at the end of the table, refusing to look anywhere in Gilda’s direction. The council members turned to the mayor, who stroked his chin for a few seconds.
“Ms. Napier, after careful consideration, the city council has rejected your offer by a vote of six to three.”
“We appreciate your concern for the safety of Blackburn, but having a PMC operate our police force is bad optics that we can’t afford with the current state of the economy. This meeting is dismissed.”
Rebecca deflated like a balloon. Her back drooped and her arms sunk several inches closer to the ground. All that fire, all that anger vanished like the expression on her face. Gilda braced herself for an outburst, but nothing ever came. Instead, Rebecca uttered a quick apology for the inconvenience and left quietly.