“That’s our guy. He’s early.”
Corinna didn’t bother looking away from her visor, but the satisfaction in Peter’s voice was glossy in the tinted car window. She adjusted her oil-smooth gloves, eyes fixed on the surveillance footage.
It was pissing rain.
“All this for water,” said Corinna, rolling her neck against her shoulders.
“He doesn’t look like one of Langley’s runners,” said Peter.
“He’s not,” said Corinna. “Robbo said so himself.”
Peter was deftly checking his firearms. He snorted. “If you were anyone else, that nickname might earn you an unpleasant visit from a few gents.”
Corinna spared her companion a blank, unimpressed stare. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
“You know, Robert Langley is turning a hundred next year,” said Peter, wiping down the dashboard of the cab, “think someone would have managed to poison him by now.”
“And what? You want me to send flowers?”
“I want you to be careful,” Peter said, “men like him don’t reach a hundred without…pruning risk. You’re not untouchable”
Corinna laughed. “I am his lifeline. He owes me.”
“Maybe. But we didn’t have to involve Langley at all: could have just tipped off the police and then the media. I’ve been watching these kids for months, we know all their stash houses and routes for god’s sake.”
“You’re really fucking chatty today,” said Corinna, eyes still on the screen, “I don’t trust Scotland Yard. It’s not in their interest for this to go public, and I want to make an example of him.” She adjusted her hair. “Even Mr Robert Langley knows better than to steal from my family. Better manners than these pathetic ‘activists’.”
On the surveillance, they watched a figure in Arden Pharma uniform swipe through two sets of security doors. The building in question was the largest stocking facility on this Level, and deliveries had just been made in time for the new week. The employee paused for the biometric scanner, before disappearing into the secure storage bay.
Wordlessly, Corinna and Peter left the car. They crossed the narrow street, stepping between two looming buildings wedged close like crooked nicotine teeth; all buried under the hooded lip of the criss-crossing motorways hanging above.
With a wave of her hand, the nearest street-light went out.
Beside Corinna, Peter slipped out of focus, disappearing from sight until all that was left was a bare shimmer; heat above chrome train-rails.
There were a handful of Ghosts in London. It was an alluring Aptitude, even if technology had rendered it cinematic only. There was something heady about invisibility. Useful in a fight, if your opponent didn’t have heat-mapping eyewear.
They walked quickly, soft shoes, no shadows; Corinna opening doors with no resistance. They were non-entities, blind to the cameras and security logs. After all, it wasn’t really breaking in when you owned the place.
They caught up with their thief in less than twenty seconds. Corinna could see him in her visor: tablet in hand, a half filled pallet beside him. She flicked the visor from her face, crowning her hair; slicked back and white-blonde against the dark grey of her suit jacket.
She nodded, once.
Peter kicked open the door, bursting into the room as a shift of air. There was an answering clatter, and their thief cursed. Peter went left and Corinna went right. She slowed her stride, ankles turned out as if approaching a dance floor. There was ozone between her palm and the glove.
A lady did not rush.
The man froze. Behind him, sealing off the other exit, was a faint silhouette of refracted light. Peter. Timothy Hersch didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on Corinna, the whites of them dry with fearful contempt.
Hersch straightened slowly, gaze darting behind Corinna to the doorway. “M-miss Arden,” he said, “sorry, you caught me by surprise.”
Corinna tilted her head. Was it fear or something else? It was hard to tell for certain, without her twin there to act as the world’s most accurate emotional barometer. But Javier was allergic to anything illegal, and would have insisted on leaving things to the police.
Corinna rarely tried to involve him in any fun these days. “So you do know who I am,” she said.
“Yes, Miss,” Hersch replied, expression pinched. He seemed to overcome his momentary indecision and snatched up the tablet. His knuckles were white, and his breathing transparently anxious.
Corinna took another step forwards, relishing the way Hersch flinched back when she lifted a hand. Corinna raised one eyebrow, and let her palm rest on the edge of the open crate. “Then you’ll know why I’m here and we can get straight to the point,” she said. She tapped one gloved finger against the top most rack of vials, safely ensconced in their foam packaging.
Hersch’s gaze was darting all over Corinna’s expression, as if trying to find a slip of emotion; a frame of reference for her next words.
Corinna wasn’t worried: Peter always said she had the face of a shark.
Hersch licked his lips. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said, trying and failing to smile, “I’m just checking through the deliveries for tomorrow.”
“Deliveries,” said Corinna, inhaling the way the man’s breathing was becoming short and panicked, “for Erskin street on Level Twelve, yeah? After all, who is going to notice a few units going missing? But th – ah-ah!”
Hersch had turned to make a run for it – only for an invisible force to swing him around by the shoulder, wrenching his arms up, tight behind his back. Hersch shrieked as Peter materialised, a shit-eating grin slowly re-appearing as he let the invisibility drop like water.
Corinna could appreciate the fine control. These things weren’t any fun without some theatrics.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Hersch shouted, eyes wild with fear baked into the hindbrain. “You’ve got ghosts on payroll now?”
“Boo,” said Peter, flat tone at odds with the amusement in his eyes.
“I wasn’t finished,” said Corinna.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hersch in a rush, “there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“You seem to be under the impression that I’m here for some kind of confession,” said Corinna, “I already know everything. You were hired because of your activism, not in spite of them.”
“I really don’t know what y—” Hersch’s voice cut off in a gurgle, courtesy of Peter’s elbow.
“Manners,” Peter said, “the lady’s talking.”
Corinna glanced at the digital read-out which was set into the chassis of every shelf. It read 23:45 in chemical green. Hersch usually spent half an hour on his last round, accounting and pilfering. That gave them just over six minutes left. Plenty of time.
“I’ve known about you skimming the stock for a few weeks now,” said Corinna, reaching into her jacket and pulling out a slim, flat case. She set it down on top of the case, unhurried. “You should have stuck to marching and breaking windows, like the rest of you Sixty-Fourthers.”
Hersch’s jaw worked, swallowing words too sharp for his throat. “What are you gonna do to me?” he said, after a long moment. He pulled against Peter’s firm grip. “I’ve got friends waiting. Someone’s gonna notice.”
Peter laughed, three huffs of breath. “Oh, we’re counting on it,” he said.
In the face of their composure, Hersch was rapidly losing his own. “You’re crazy,” he said, struggling harder, “just throw me to the police then, you heartless, greedy…people are dying because they don’t have water…”
“Mmhm,” said Corinna, tapping a syringe.
Hersch’s eyes tracked the movement with undisguised horror.
Corinna stepped in close, just so she could see the syringe reflected in his pupil. His breath was tepid with sugar and cola syrup, coming fast and shallow. She held up her free hand very close to his face, and ignited a small ball of fire so that it rolled like a coin above her gloved knuckles.
Corinna watched his pupils stutter and freeze, the movement of his throat. She let the flames grow until it was hovering above her palm, just next to Hersch’s eye.
“Jesus Christ—” he wheezed, “oh god, my god.”
Corinna snapped her fingers shut. The flames vanished into her fist. Three minutes. “Okay,” she said, “I’m bored now. Arm, please.”
“No, no, wait,” Hersch shouted, as Peter clamped a gloved hand around Hersch’s left wrist and offered the arm to Corinna. “You can’t do this. Shit, shit, wait…you—! I don’t want—”
Corinna slid the needle home, unhurried, pressing down on the syringe; her eyes never leaving Hersch’s face. It was a rictus of dread, an honest expression at last.
“Say ‘thank you’,” Peter hummed, “you know how much clear-cut Glass goes for these days? You’ll feel real good in a minute.”
“Fuck you…t-that’s too much—”
The drug was kicking in fast, and in moments it was already slurring his words.
Corinna placed the syringe back in its case and tucked it into Peter’s jacket pocket. She palmed his lapel. “Time’s up,” she said, “leave that with him in the car.”
Hersch was slumping, pupils blown as they skittered from Peter’s face to Corinna’s. “…What’r y-you gonna do to me?“
“We’re not going to do anything,” said Peter, pulling Hersch bodily towards the exit, “you, on the other hand, had a wee accident main-lining.”
Corinna dumped the pilfered CM15 vials into a disposable carrier, nondescript with an over-shoulder strap.
Hersch’s cheap sneakers were squeaking on the tiled floor, and it was getting on her nerves. “No…I’ve never…”
“Exactly,” said Peter, “newbie mistake. Glass is tricky to dose, but you wanted to try it; great dreams, they said. Happens to the best of us.”
Corinna flipped her visor back down, pulling up the pharmacy cameras. All clear. She opened the door for Peter. “Are you going to read him a bedtime story too?” she snapped, “remember to change his shirt, I don’t want a bad press photo.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Peter, grunting a little as he hauled an increasingly delirious Hersch from the mouth of the corridor and out the back door.
Corinna tapped on her ear piece.
It rang exactly three times before being picked up.
“…’Allo luv. Y’alright?”
The voice had a pinch of Cockney and a punch of tobacco.
Corinna’s lip curled, because here in the rain and rot, she did not have to hide her disdain. “This is a courtesy call,” said Corinna, not breaking her stride, “our friend had a bit too much. He’ll stop off on your side of the Thames. No one touches what’s in the car.”
“The lads know,” said Robert Langley, “I trust your dog can keep it clean.”
Corinna looked at Peter, ahead of her. And because she was confident but not a fool, Corinna said, “thanks for the car. I’ll bring top-ups, next time I see you.”
“Ah, just bring yourself,” said Langley, words like whiskey poured over ice with a shaky hand. “It’s been a long time since we’ve caught up in person, my boy talks about you all the time. Bring your body-double, for a drink and a game.”
It was not a request.
“That’s not Javier’s scene, but I’ll speak with him,” Corinna conceded and hung up before she was forced to thank him twice.
The car was where they had left it, just beyond the long dark alleyway. Corinna could hear the distant zip of plastic on metal as Peter shoved Hersch into the front seat.
There was flicker of movement in the corner of her vision – no, her visor.
Corinna glanced up at the office building overlooking the street, cataloguing its facade. Although she and Peter were mostly blocked from view thanks to an overhead railway, they were visible to a few floors of glass.
The skin between her shoulders itched with paranoia. Had that window been open when they had been out here before?
The rain was not helping. She reached up to change the settings on her visor, pushing her senses outwards: she could feel the presence of the running car engine, the heavy thrum of the gridded electromagnetic rails above them. She took a step across the street, tugging off one glove so she could feel the lattice of energy better through her palm.
Something hit Corinna hard between the ribs.
Then the pain slammed into her the same time the ground did–she bit back a scream, head cracking against concrete as the impact took her clean off her feet.
She’d been shot.
Someone had fucking shot her.
“Rina!” Peter shouted.
Corinna threw out her hand towards the direction of the sniper, adrenaline blowing her senses wide open: she could feel the burn of her own heart, the heat of two living bodies a few meters away, each of the street lamps that still ran on old bulbs, the echo of a gas tank in the building behind her. Everything dripped with vivid colour, the way one’s vision sharpened right before the crash, before everything tilted straight into pain, pain, pain—
The thing was, most people thought firestarters were immune to fire, to firearms, to anything that sparked. Centuries of popular myth and cinema had painted a very flattering picture: firestarters walked through burning houses; set forests ablaze; started or halted war with upraised palms.
But in truth, firestarters were not immune to fire any more than the next flesh and blooded thing; they just controlled it well enough not to turn to ash. For the most part, it was instinctive; reflexive. And nobody ever talked about the sheer fallibility of human reflex.
Because it did not matter that Corinna had an Aptitude grading that went off the charts. Firestarters weren’t bullet-proof, especially against a bullet she did not feel coming.
The second bullet though: that she did anticipate.
Corinna felt the tell-tale flare of combustion, and yanked as hard as she could. There was an answering burst of orange-yellow in the pupil of one window: a barely-there stutter crack followed by a resounding bang.
A rifle, imploding mid-shot.
Satisfied, Corinna let her hand drop to her chest, trying to breathe through the pain that was wiping her vision white. She couldn’t see anything except the rain in her eyes, her visor cracked. It was slowly soaking her hair. She could make out the dark shape of the car, and she coughed. Funny: she couldn’t taste any blood.
She couldn’t taste anything.
“Fuck,” a hand ripping at her shirt, slapping her face, “stay awake!”
An alarm began to wail faintly.
“Sniper,” Corinna managed between her teeth, “m-my gloves—”
“I’m calling the hospital, St Ophie’s is minutes away,” said Peter, one hand still a lead-press weight against the goddamn hole in her chest.
Breathing was like sinking slowly into a bed of razor wire.
“No. Not…not one of ours,” Corinna choked, spitting out blood. The ground was cold against her cheek, “they’ll ask ques—” She heaved, or tried to: there was too much air in her chest. “Get Jav.”
“You’re not going to make it,” Peter shouted, “something might have nicked the—yes, I need an ambulance, 27 year old female Aptee, gunshot wound to the chest. What? Firestarter. Corner of Hay Street, thirty fourth, on Nineteenth. It’s down the fucking road, get here!”
She felt Peter removing her visor, earbuds and remaining glove, as if it was happening to someone else.
Corinna could finally taste the blood now, in her nose and in her throat, mixed with the rain. “Did I get them?“ she coughed, “Peter. The window—”
“Stop talking, I’ll take care of the sniper—”
“…Medivest. Shut the alarm up.”
“I’m a Ghost, not a fucking Healer, Corinna!” Peter shouted. “Do you know what your brother is going to do to me if I let you bleed out?”
With the last of her adrenaline, Corinna grabbed Peter’s wrist. He hissed with pain, nose flaring at the smell of burned skin and leather.
“Amateur,” she hissed. “Go!”
Peter stared at her for a split moment, then he slapped something onto her chest wound. It stuck to the blood on her skin, slick and viscous. He placed her own palms down on top of the plastic first-aid film. “Fine. Hold this in palce,” he said.
Corinna jerked with the pain of it, heels scraping against the concrete. “Jav,” she said. Her vowels were swollen with blood, but she was mostly irritated at the hole in her lung that was impeding her speech. Peter had better not leave any blood prints in that car, she thought.
Peter’s face was very pale. “Keep pressure on that. Ambulance will be here soon, just stay awake,” he said, getting to his feet. “I’ll call Javier.”
Corinna started to count. She didn’t remember stopping.
© Frances Wren 2020, all rights reserved.
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