by Raven Blackmane
September 23, 1999 CR. Precinct 9 Headquarters, Central Division, MCPD.
"The captain will see you now."
Michael Perelli rose from his chair in the reception area and nervously straightened his tie for about the eleventh time. "Okay. Thanks," he said, forcing himself to smile at the receptionist.
She gave him a smile in return that seemed much more genuine and more than a little amused. "Right this way," she said, beckoning him into open doorway.
They went down the hall and around the corner, stopping at a door that was made mostly of frosted glass. The lettering on it read Captain Joseph G. Montgomery.
The receptionist knocked on the door and then opened it. "Michael Perelli, boss," she said.
"Send him in, Marcie," a gruff voice replied from within.
Brushing back a strand of dishwater-blond hair out of his eyes, Michael steeled himself and walked inside.
Sitting at the desk was a large wolverine morph dressed in the uniform of a police captain. He looked -- well, he looked grizzled, which made sense given his form, but also tall and obviously muscular. Michael knew the captain was in his early fifties, but just looking at him he would have found it impossible to guess his age.
The captain extended a black-furred hand, and Michael tried to ignore the prominent and wickedly sharp claws on those fingers. "Welcome to Metamor City, Michael," the captain said.
Michael took the proffered hand and shook it, nearly wincing as the captain squeezed his hand in return -- the man had a grip like a vise. "Thank you, sir," he said. "It's good to be here."
"That's what I like to hear," the captain smiled, baring an impressive set of teeth. "Go ahead, have a seat. How was your flight?"
Michael shrugged. "All right, I guess. Long, actually." He smiled. "Though the view as we made our way into the city was worth it."
"She's a hell of a town, isn't she?" the captain agreed, grinning. "No place like it on Earth."
"No, sir. Between the Citadel and all those floating skyways, it's just ... well, beautiful."
The wolverine chuckled. "It looks that way from up above, that's for sure. Stick around here, though, and you'll see the other side of things, I guarantee you. Metamor may look pretty on top, but she's got a dark and dirty underbelly just like any other city in the world. That's why we're here." He raised his eyebrows slightly. "That's why you're here, too, I should think. Unless someone neglected to tell you what 'Homicide Detective' means when you applied for the job."
Michael chuckled a little bit, feeling the tension begin to go out of his shoulders. "No, sir. I'm pretty sure I know what I'm getting into."
"We'll see about that." Montgomery pulled out Michael's file and opened it up. "Now, then, let's take care of this paperwork, and then we can get down to showing you just how deep in it you really are."
After putting Michael's papers in order, Captain Montgomery led him down to another part of the precinct house, pointing out the break room and the restrooms along the way. They came to a stop at another frosted-glass door labeled Magic Affairs Section.
"None of the folks in Homicide are here at the moment, but I've got the next best thing for you," the captain explained, knocking twice and then opening the door.
The room was relatively small, with two desks, one window and a bunch of file cabinets. A framed photograph of the Metamor Citadel hung on one wall.
One of the desks was unoccupied, but behind the other sat an attractive woman, late twenties, with auburn hair that fell around her shoulders and a fair complexion that leaned more toward gold than pink. She was typing away at her computer, but as they entered she looked up and gave them a lopsided grin.
"Hey, Cap, how ya doing?" she said warmly, her green eyes sparkling. She nodded toward Michael. "Is this our new boy in Homicide?"
"This is," Montgomery confirmed. "Kate, Corporal Michael Perelli. Michael, this is Lieutenant Kathryn Kitaen, Detective, Magic Affairs."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Michael said, stepping forward and putting out his hand.
The woman rose from her seat and give the hand one firm shake. Her grip was almost as tight as the captain's. "Back at ya," she said, nodding. "What can I do for you, Cap?"
"Marcie tells me that David isn't coming in today," the captain said.
"Yeah, he came down with something nasty over the weekend. He's hoping to be back tomorrow, though."
"Good. In the meantime, I need someone to show Michael the ropes, and everyone in Homicide is out on call or otherwise occupied."
Kate smirked, but her eyes didn't look amused. "That's life in the big city for you," she said grimly.
"Think you can handle it for me?" Montgomery asked. "Show Michael here just what he's getting into?"
Kate looked back at Michael, scanning him up and down, and then smiled. "Yeah, sure," she said. "I'd be glad to."
"Good." The captain turned to Michael. "Kate was with Homicide for about four years, so she should be able to answer all of your questions," he explained.
"Except for any questions about the Homicide initiation ceremony," Kate added. "I'm sworn to secrecy."
Michael grinned. "I'm sure I'll find out about that soon enough."
"Come back to my office at four-thirty and we'll take you to dinner tonight," Montgomery said. "Until then I leave you in Kate's capable hands." He turned to go, then stopped and looked back. "Oh, and Kate? Go easy on him, all right?"
Kate folded her hands in front of her chest and smiled angelically. "Who, me?" she grinned.
The captain smirked, then shook his head and walked out.
"What did he mean by that?" Michael asked.
Kate just turned and gave him the same innocent look.
"... oh. Right. This is one of those things I'm going to have to figure out on my own."
The detective gave him a quick pat on the shoulder. "You catch on quick, kid," she said. "Come on, I'll show you around."
"So, what's your deal?" Kate asked as they walked through the halls of the precinct house.
"My deal?" Michael asked.
"Yeah, you know. Shapeshifting, magic, psi, that sort of thing."
"Oh. I can't do any of that," Michael said, feeling a little self-conscious.
"Really? Huh. How about Plane-touched? Any Fae or fiend or celestial in your family tree?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"Hmm." Kate looked at him carefully. "Well, you're too cute to have any lutin in you. What about Elf? Any Elf-blood?"
"Err, no." Michael felt his face flush a little at her off-hand compliment.
"Wow." Kate shook her head and continued walking down the hallway. It took Michael a few seconds to realize she'd moved on.
"Wait. What?" Michael asked, rushing to catch up.
"Nothing. I'm just a little surprised you're a total mundy. No offense."
"Mundane. Plain vanilla human, no extra features."
"It is in this town. This close to the ground, anyway." She gestured at the ceiling. "Most of the mundies live one or two levels up. Down here, near the Street, most folks gotta have a little something extra to really make it." She grinned and winked at him. "Guess you must be as good as they say you are, if you made the cut without any special bonuses."
"I do have a knack for putting things together," Michael admitted. "When I'm studying a crime scene, it's like I can see everything that happened playing out in my head. Other folks seem to have more trouble with it, but for me ... well, it just makes sense."
"Well, that's a pretty special feature in itself," Kate said. "Especially in this line of work." She winked. "I always thought 'mundane' wasn't quite the right word for you folks," she said. "Everybody's special in some way."
"I guess so." Michael paused, as a thought suddenly occurred to him. "So what's your deal?" he asked. "If you're not a mundane, what's your 'bonus feature'?"
Kate just grinned and patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, no," she said. "You're going to have to guess that one for yourself." She winked again. "Don't worry, though -- I'm sure you'll figure it out by the end of the day."
As they walked on, Michael couldn't help feeling a little worried at that.
Kate quickly led Michael on a tour of the facilities, pointing out the offices for the various sections, the jail, the interrogation rooms, and the Dispatch office. Finally she led him down a set of dimly-lit stairs into the basement, pointing out the records room in passing, and then stopping at a large steel door.
"And now, here's my favorite part of the tour," Kate said, pulling the door open. "Welcome to the morgue."
It was pretty similar to the morgue at the county hospital back home, except for the size -- this one was clearly designed for a much larger capacity. Stainless steel tables filled most of the floor space, and refrigerated storage units lined the walls. One of the tables had something lying on it -- presumably a body -- covered by a white sheet.
Michael frowned as another thought struck him. "Why isn't the morgue at a hospital?"
"That would be the big building next door," Kate pointed out. "The hospital and the precinct house are part of the same complex -- this 'basement' is actually about twelve storeys up from the Street, and both of them are sitting on top of the same warehouse. It's all pretty efficient this way, and with the number of bodies that come through here every week that's a good thing."
As they stepped inside, Michael noticed a set of three windows on the left wall. There were mini-blinds on the other side of the windows, and the warm glow behind them indicated that the lights were on in the other room. After a moment, Michael realized he could hear someone whistling. He didn't recognize the tune, but it sounded rather cheery.
"Someone's here," he said.
"Come on, I'll introduce you," Kate said.
There were three doors along the left side of the morgue; the first one led to the medical examiner's office, the room with the windows, but it was currently unoccupied. The next room was a laboratory, with microscopes, a ventilated hood, shelves full of chemical equipment and glassware, and other forensic essentials. Inside, a woman with a white lab coat sat in front of one of the microscopes, making an entry into a notebook.
"Hey, Morgan! You're up early," Kate said.
"Late, actually," the other woman said dryly, looking up at them. She was stunningly beautiful, with long jet-black hair, dark eyes and porcelain-white skin. "That fellow out on the table turned up a few hours ago at a cat-house on 128th. They thought he might be connected to the Vykel case, so they wanted me to check him out right away."
"Anything interesting?" Kate asked.
"Most definitely. There were hairs in the stomach and duodenum. I need some samples to compare to, but I'm fairly sure they're feline."
"Bastard," Kate observed.
"Agreed." The medical examiner looked over at Michael, and he suddenly felt his body go rigid. Those eyes ... dark, mysterious, almost hypnotic...
The woman's lips rose into a suggestive smile. "So. Who's your new friend, Kate?" she asked slowly, not taking her eyes off of Michael. "I didn't think younger men were your type. Though I can't fault your tastes in this case."
"This is Michael Perelli, the new kid in Homicide," Kate explained, ignoring the other woman's innuendo. "The captain asked me to show him around."
Morgan raised an eyebrow. "Fresh blood, eh? How delightful..." She beckoned to him, and Michael numbly walked forward, scarcely noticing anything but her eyes, until at last he stood directly before her. She extended a hand toward him, palm downward, which he clasped without thinking about it.
"My name is Morgan Drauling," she said. Her voice was as sweet as bird-song, yet rich and sultry, and it seemed to echo in his mind as she spoke. "I'm the chief medical examiner for this precinct. I'm sure that we'll be working together very closely." Reaching up with her free hand, she traced one finger lightly down the side of his face. Her touch felt electric against his blushing skin. "Would you like that, Michael?"
"I ... I-I ... oh, god, yes..." Michael murmured, entranced.
"Oh, for heaven's sake, Morgan, go easy on the kid," Kate said, sounding exasperated. "It's his first day, for crying out loud."
Rolling her eyes, Morgan released Michael's hand. "Oh, all right," she said. "Spoil-sport." As soon as she broke eye contact, Michael's body lurched -- and then he was in full command of his senses again. Looking down at Morgan, and realizing immediately that he could see down her blouse, he quickly backed away and returned to Kate's side, staring at the floor and blushing even more fiercely than before.
"I'm trying to protect you from yourself, girl," Kate said. "How long has it been since you've eaten, anyway?"
"About ten hours, and that was just a snack from the refrigerator," Morgan said, doing a good impression of forlorn. "They called me back here before I could find dinner."
Kate scoffed, shaking her head. "Geez, Morgan, are we gonna have to put a warning sign on the door every time you miss a meal?"
The other woman smiled. "Where would be the fun in that?"
"Oh, for ... just eat something, okay?"
"I was planning on it."
"From the fridge, I mean. Or order delivery or something. Geez..." Kate turned back to Michael. "Sorry about that. Anyway, that's Morgan. She'll be your best friend every time a body turns up, so be nice to her."
Michael looked up at the detective, eyes wide. "Nice?" he asked, carefully.
Kate rolled her eyes. "In the normal, courtesy-type sense," she clarified. "Y'know, treat her like a human being? You'd be surprised how many cops don't do that."
"Though other senses of the word 'nice' are appreciated, too," Morgan added.
"That's between the two of you," Kate said. "Just not on duty, okay? And I'd suggest that you avoid making eye contact with her until you make up your mind for yourself."
Wordlessly, Michael nodded.
"Come on, I'll take you out and show you the neighborhood," Kate said, ushering him out of the room. As they reached the door, she stopped and looked back. "Say, Morgan, are we still on for Friday night?" she asked. Her demeanor had taken an abrupt shift from stern to chummy.
"You bet," Morgan said, smiling broadly. "I called Kal yesterday, and he said Joss is really looking forward to meeting you. Oh, and wait until you see my new dress -- it's to die for."
Kate winced and rested her head against the door frame. "Ouch," she groaned.
"Thank you," the other woman grinned. "You're going to have a great time, Kate, I guarantee it."
"All right, I trust you." Kate turned to leave, then stopped again and looked back. "But can you at least tell me if they have horns or something this time?" she asked plaintively.
Morgan laughed, wagging a finger at her. "Ah-ah-ah, I can't go spoiling the surprise," she said. "You'll just have to wait and see."
Kate made something like a soft whimpering noise and then walked out of the morgue. Michael followed close behind, not daring to look back again at the dark-haired beauty behind him.
"What was that all about?" Michael asked.
"Huh? Oh, just a little double-date Morgan's putting together for us. A blind date, in my case. She likes to surprise me with men she thinks are interesting."
"So ... you're friends?"
Kate smiled. "Yeah. We're friends." She paused. "She drives me crazy sometimes, but we're friends. I think that's true of every friendship, though."
"But she's ... she's not a mundy, is she." It was more a statement than a question.
"Nope," Kate agreed. "Not anymore," she added, under her breath.
"What is she?"
Kate threw him a look that was half-expectant and half-incredulous. "Come on, Michael. You're supposed to be good at putting things together. You tell me."
Michael thought about it, running the encounter over in his mind. He'd only caught maybe half of what had passed between the two women, but those eyes ... and something Kate had said about Morgan not having eaten...
It clicked. "Oh, god. She's a vampire, isn't she?"
Kate snorted and nodded once. "And the rookie picks up a spare," she said.
"So why is she working for the police? The cops back home always used to say that the vamps ran the mob in the big cities."
"That's true, but not all vamps are created equal," Kate explained. "Morgan was working here for two years before she was brought across. That's a long story in itself, but the punchline is that her sire got dusted after she managed to tip us off to what had happened. She's a free agent now -- the only one who could control her now is the Vampire Queen herself, and we're pretty sure she's not even aware that Morgan exists. Naturally, we want to keep it that way."
"Naturally," Michael agreed. "Still, I'm surprised that they let her keep working here."
"The brass didn't want to," Kate admitted. "But David and I and a few others fought hard to keep her here. There's nobody who can read a body like Morgan. The stuff she does -- well, let's just say that she's pulled convictions out of what I thought were dead-end cases. And to think that somebody wanted to throw away that kind of talent just 'cause she's dead now? That's just stupid." She shrugged. "Of course, she can't exactly come to the Sunday afternoon luncheons anymore, but hey."
Michael chuckled. "Yeah. I can see where it would complicate some things." He frowned. "But can they really get blood delivered around here? Like, in thirty minutes or the next pint is free?"
Kate laughed. "You'd be surprised at the things you can get in this city..."
Kate led Michael to the garage, where at least a dozen skimmers and twenty swoops were parked and waiting. The detective lovingly caressed one of the swoops as they passed.
"You ride at all?" she asked, patting the leather seat.
Michael's lip twisted. "Never learned how," he admitted. "Mom always thought it was too dangerous."
Kate chuckled. "Moms. You gotta love 'em." Leaving the swoop behind, she strode over to a nearby skimmer. "Well, since the Cap told me to go easy on you -- and seeing as you don't have a helmet -- we'll stick with a standard cruiser for today."
They both climbed into the vehicle and fastened the restraints. Taking the control headset from where it rested on the dashboard, Kate put it on and powered up the skimmer. After a few seconds of warm-up time, Michael felt the cruiser rise up off the deck, and Kate eased them out the garage and into the open sunlight, the headset transmitting her mental commands to the machine with perfect precision.
The skyway was bustling with lunch-hour traffic, and they waited close to a minute for a gap that would allow Kate to pull out. Looking out the side window, Michael could see the lamppost-shaped mana generators that held up the metal-and-concrete skyway, spaced at regular intervals along its length. More disconcertingly, he could also see the ground -- over a hundred feet below him.
"Still not comfortable with it, eh?" Kate asked.
Michael swallowed back the lump in his throat and forced himself to look at the road directly in front of them. "Not really. Something about building a city like a layer cake just bothers me."
"Yeah, I get that," Kate said. "I came here from the 'burbs near Elentown, so this was pretty scary for me when I first showed up."
"I'm from Amberfield County," Michael said. "Flatlands province."
Kate winced. "Ouch. Talk about culture shock."
"Well, hey, don't worry. You'll get the swing of things in no time," Kate assured him. "Besides, the layer-cake setup makes it easy to figure out what part of town you're in. You've got four levels of skyways, right? Simple: Upper class, upper middle, middle-middle, and lower middle. Then there's the Street, which is your heavy industry, your warehouses, and all the folks who can't afford to live further up. Of course, the Citadel breaks all the rules, but you already knew that."
"Right. So, you're telling me that the Street is all bad news? There are no nice parts of town at ground level?"
"Not except for the Square, which is that big park that the Citadel sits in the middle of. There are some good shops and restaurants for maybe a block around there, but it peters out pretty fast much beyond that. There are some other parks on Street-level that are pretty nice, but you wouldn't want to be there after dark." She smiled. "That isn't to say there aren't nice people on the Street, though. I know a lot of them just in my own apartment building."
"You live on the Street?"
"Sort of. The building has entrances on the Street and the first level." She caught his expression and raised an eyebrow. "Hey, you weren't expecting big bucks in this job, were you? 'Cause I can tell you, you'll be disappointed."
"Anyway, there are good guys and bad guys everywhere. You just have to learn to keep your eyes open so you can tell which is which." She smirked. "And despite what you may have heard, horns and fluffy wings aren't dead giveaways."
Michael chuckled. "Gotcha."
"Good. Now, let's grab some lunch and then I'll take you for a spin around the neighborhood."
On Kate's suggestion, they went to the Square for lunch. After grabbing a couple of sandwiches from a local deli they sat down in the shade of a willow tree at the southern end of the park, near the large white fountain with the statue of Thomas V on horseback that was one of the classic "postcard images" of the city. In the background rose the towering edifice of the Citadel, which at a height of 1500 meters reduced the skyscrapers around it to mere dwarfs. Michael let his eyes wander over the titanic structure -- the broad, sloping base; the central spire, tapering up to a summit shaped like the hood of a cobra lily; and the two minarets to either side, their faceted domes glittering like two enormous diamonds. In the center of the "hood" at the top of the main spire was a huge elliptical half-dome of what looked like silvered glass, and it reflected the noonday sun in a dazzling contrast to the muted light grey stone that made up the rest of the building.
"She's really something, isn't she?" Kate said, joining Michael in admiring the view. "The only head of state you can see from orbit."
Michael turned to look at her. "Is that really true?" he asked. "About Majestrix Kyia being the Citadel, I mean."
Kate shrugged. "That's what they say. She looks human enough on TV, but she's been around for about as long as the Earth itself, so there's obviously something special about her. And she can certainly make the Citadel do whatever she wants. That --" she nodded toward the Citadel "-- used to be a mountain ridge with a little castle on top, according to the history books. Over time, though, the Citadel grew and changed until all of that was swallowed up."
"Wow." Michael was impressed, but at the moment he wasn't looking at the Citadel. It was a bright and sunny day and unseasonably warm, and Kate had taken off her jacket to reveal a snug tank-top underneath. Michael had thought she was attractive before, but now that he had a better view of her body he was mentally revising that assessment up to "beautiful". Her obvious muscle tone and trim waist spoke of an athletic woman who took excellent care of her body, and her chest -- well, he thought, she didn't have anything to be ashamed of.
"They say that more than a million people live and work inside that thing," Kate said, turning to face him and in the process giving him a better view of her bosom. She paused for a moment, then continued speaking, making some odd, elaborate gestures with one hand as she did so. "Of course, nobody knows an exact number. There are so many apartments, businesses and government agencies in there that the count would change before you finished your census. The good news is that the Majestrix controls where all the hallways and elevators go, so you never have to worry about finding where you want to go."
"That's convenient," Michael said, eyes still fixated on the rising and falling of her chest. Then, all of a sudden, his vision went blurry for a second -- and there, staring back at him, were two large green eyes, one over each breast. The eyes blinked at him impassively.
"Aagh!" Michael screamed, falling backward off the bench to land on the plush green grass behind them.
"Michael?" Kate asked, sounding concerned.
Michael brushed the hair out of his eyes, looked up, and saw--
Nothing. Or, rather, the same, ordinary Kate he'd been with all morning, eyes firmly ensconced in her face where they belonged. He stared carefully at her for a long moment, but the other set of eyes did not return.
"What's the matter, Michael?" Kate asked, furrowing her brow. "You look like you just saw a ghost."
"...It's nothing," Michael said at last, turning to cast a suspicious look at the remains of his sandwich. "I just ... it's nothing."
Kate shrugged. "Suit yourself. Come on, eat up. We gotta make sure we get you through the rest of the tour before I have to take you back to the captain."
"Now here's a side of Metamor City you don't see in the tour books."
"Got that right, kid," Kate said soberly. "This is where you'll do most of your leg work. Welcome to the Street."
The first thing that struck Michael about the Street was how dark it was. With three-hundred meter skyscrapers hemming it in on all sides and four layers of roads overhead, even in early afternoon the ground level was wrapped in twilight and shadow. Street lamps helped illuminate the gloom, but they were sparse on most blocks and not always working. Dirt, grime and garbage were familiar decorative elements that were repeated often, accompanied by the smoke from the factories and exhaust from the big transport trucks that clogged the streets. Here and there trees grew up from little round holes in the sidewalk, but most of them were small because of the dim light. Teenage kids played ball in the alleys, and weary-looking mothers dusted the porches and tended the little gardens in front of countless narrow townhouses and apartments, each of which was part of the base of a building that might rise dozens or even hundreds of storeys into the sky. Here and there homeless people sat on the sidewalk, dressed in rags and old overcoats, accompanied by shopping carts piled high with garbage bags stuffed with their belongings.
"They look like they're just ... surviving," Michael said, feeling subdued. "This is supposed to be the promised land, the Jewel of the North -- but they come here and nothing changes."
"Or they come here, get on their feet for a while, and then something goes wrong and they end up where they started," Kate added. "Or they lose everything to drugs or booze or magic addiction. Or they get dumped by deadbeat husbands and can't afford anything better. And then there are the ones who are born in places like this, kids who never get a chance to climb their way out of here." She sighed. "This is why we're here, Michael. This is why we do what we do. This is the monster we fight every day. If we can help make life a little better for these folks -- if we can get rid of the bastards who are preying on them and using them, and just give them a fair shot to pull themselves out of this hell -- then we've done our job. We've fought the good fight."
"When you say preying on them ... you're not talking about vampires, right?"
"Only partly. There are plenty of vamps feeding down here, not to mention incubi, succubae and other things that don't even have names. But they're just a small piece of the problem. I'm talking about the drug-dealers, the pimps, the gang-bangers, and all the other lowlifes who make their living on other people's misery. It's nonstop war down here -- the gangs mark their territories and get in turf wars with each other, and a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process. They sell drugs and sex to desperate people and steal from the helpless to pay for their weapons and gents, and then they start the actual fighting and kids and mothers get caught in the crossfire. Eli help me, I'd wipe 'em all out if I could."
" 'Gents' ?" Michael asked.
"Yeah, reagents. Ingredients for spells and magic items -- y'know, eye of newt, thrice-blessed sage, all that stuff."
"Oh. Do the gangs use a lot of magic?"
"A lot of them do. Some gangs are made of all rogue mages, folks who got their leashes removed without getting licensed or joining a guild. I assume you know what a leash is, right?"
"Yeah, restraining band to suppress magical talents. Back home all of the kids get tested early for magery, and the ones with power have bands fitted until they join a guild. Not that everybody does."
"It's the same here. Some people get rejected by the guilds because they're too unstable, or can't afford classes, or they have attitude problems or whatever. And some of those rejects run off, join gangs and get their leashes removed, and then learn to do magic the ganger way, quick and dirty. They're a danger to themselves and others, and we bring 'em in when we can, but there are way too many to catch 'em all."
"Sounds like we have our work cut out for us."
Kate scoffed. "Hell, yeah," she said. "I haven't even told you about the spookies yet."
"Spookies? You mean, like, ghosts and monsters?"
"Nah, I told you about them already. I'm talking about psis -- mages call them spookies because they don't need to use gents or words or gestures to use their powers. You can handcuff a mage and duct-tape his mouth shut, and he's basically powerless, but all a spooky needs is his brain. If he's awake, he can hurt you."
"Yikes. Are they evil?"
"No more than anybody else. There are good psis and bad ones, just like anything. Plus the psis have this really tight community that stretches all over town, maybe all over the Empire. They look after each other, take care of their own. They also deal with their own garbage, and a spooky who starts hurting innocent people will be hunted down by his own kind -- but they can do a hell of a lot of damage before they're caught. They're the ones you really gotta watch out for."
"Thanks for the tip. I-- hey, what are they doing?" Michael's train of thought was interrupted as he spotted a group of four swoops parked in front of an alley, just on the opposite side of the intersection they were sitting at. The swoopies themselves had dismounted and were standing in a semicircle around a haggard, frightened-looking man with his back to the wall. They had their hands in the pockets of their black leather jackets, but the look on their faces spoke volumes.
"Looks like they want him to pay up," Kate said, taking off the headset and handing it to Michael. "Here, you drive, I'll take care of this."
Obediently, Michael put on the headset while Kate took out her gun. As soon as the set was in place, a heads-up display appeared before his eyes, along with a ball-shaped icon that he could mentally twist and turn to indicate which way the skimmer should move. The cruiser was larger than most skimmers and ground-cars he'd driven over the years, but the interface was the same.
"Hop us over this truck and come down behind that parked skimmer," Kate said, pointing at a vehicle that sat by the curb right next to the alley.
"No problem," Michael said, turning on the siren and urging the police cruiser higher into the air. He quickly darted over the truck that was waiting at the stoplight, flew over the cross-traffic at the intersection and pulled up in front of the alley, spinning the skimmer 90 degrees in the process so they were facing the swoopies head on.
As soon as they were in position, Kate opened her door and leaped out, going into a crouch behind the parked skimmer. Peeking up over the hood of the vehicle she trained her gun on the nearest ganger.
"Freeze! Police!" she shouted.
Rather than freeze, the swoopies turned as one and trained their own guns on Kate. One of them --apparently the leader -- had a submachine gun.
"Care to take your chances, copper?" he sneered.
"Damn," Kate muttered, pulling back one of her hands but keeping the gun pointed at the thugs with her other. Michael debated using the cruiser as a weapon, but the alley looked too narrow and he wasn't sure that the skimmer would stand up to that SMG.
Then he noticed that Kate was doing something with her free hand. She reached into a small pouch on her belt, pulled out something powdery, and rubbed it between her fingers. She made a few quick but complicated gestures, and muttered something under her breath--
And then the air was filled with the sound of approaching sirens. In seconds, two more cruisers and a SWAT assault gunboat flew down from the skyways above and parked themselves in front of the alley. The gunboat trained its machine gun turrets on the swoopies, and an angry voice came over the loudspeaker: "Drop your weapons!"
They did -- and then fell over each other scrambling onto their swoops, and darted off in all directions.
While Michael parked the cruiser and got out, Kate retrieved the dropped guns and then offered a hand to the haggard man, who was lying on the ground with his hands clasped over his head. "You okay?" she asked.
"Y-yeah, thanks, lady," he said, upon realizing that he was not about to be riddled with bullets. He took her hand and rose to his feet. "Thanks, I owe you big time."
"What did those guys want?" she asked.
"Well, I ... last month they loaned me some money, see, just to get me through 'til payday," the man said, his pale blue eyes wide and brimming with tears. "But then I got fired, and I didn't have nothing to pay them back with, and they said ... oh, god, they said they'd--"
"Shh. It's all right," Kate soothed, putting her hand on his shoulder. "We're just going to take you back to base, ask you a few questions, and then I know a good shelter clear on the other side of town, way off their turf. They'll help get you back on your feet, find a job, get your life back. Nobody will hurt you there. Sound good?"
"Y-yeah. Yeah..." The man could say no more, as his words melted into incoherent sobbing. Kate held him close for a long moment, patting him on the back, whispering repeatedly, "It's okay. You're gonna make it." Finally, when the man had recovered his composure, they brought him back to their cruiser and put him in the back seat.
"That was a heck of a break," Michael said, gesturing up at the other police skimmers that still floated patiently above the street. "I can't believe all these other cops were so close."
"What other cops?" Kate asked, waving her hand in a small half-circle.
"The other--" Michael looked up, but the two police cruisers and the SWAT gunboat had vanished. He looked back down at Kate and raised his eyebrows.
"Let me guess. Illusionist, right?"
Kate just grinned and held out her hand. "Gimme the headset, rookie. Let's head back to base."
Filing the incident reports took quite a bit longer than the incident itself. For close to thirty minutes a uniformed cop bombarded the two detectives and the homeless man with questions about the swoopies' identities, appearance and behavior, hoping to clean some information about what gang they were with and how they might have gotten their hands on a submachine gun. The poor fellow wasn't much help -- he was still pretty rattled from the assault -- but Michael could tell he was doing his best to help out. Kate held his hand through the whole procedure, and then escorted him back to the skimmer for the trip to the shelter. Michael went with them as far as the garage.
"You'd better stay here, kid," Kate said as she opened the door of the cruiser for the man. "Your dinner with the Cap is coming up soon here. That's the last free meal you'll get around here for a while, so you don't want to miss it."
"I won't," Michael said, smiling. "Thanks for the tour. And hey, nice moves out there today."
"Thanks. You didn't do too bad yourself, for a rookie." Kate grinned. "Now, if we can just get you to remember that a girl's eyes are on her face, you'll fit right in around here."
Michael felt his face turn beet-red. "I'll remember," he said sheepishly.
"Right on." Kate got into the cruiser, buckled up, and put on the headset. The skimmer rose into the air, then turned and slid sideways until Kate's open window was in front of him. "Oh, and Michael?"
Kate pointed a finger at him. "You got something on your face."
As the cruiser drove off, Michael reached up and wiped his mouth and cheeks, but he didn't see anything come off on his hand. Going back inside to the men's restroom, he looked in the mirror -- and there, emblazoned across his forehead in bold, black, inverted letters, was the word "ROOKIE".
Michael grinned and walked out of the restroom, headed for Montgomery's office. He wasn't sure how long Kate's glamour would last, but as long as it did he would wear it like a badge of honor. In her own twisted fashion, Kate was recognizing him, acknowledging him as one of their own -- and practical jokes aside, he knew he'd made a friend today.
Now he could start figuring out how to get back at her with a joke of his own. Maybe the captain would have a few ideas...