“That’s our guy. He’s early.”
Corinna didn’t bother looking away from her visor, but she could hear the satisfaction in Peter’s voice; 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,” she said, rolling her neck against her shoulders.
“He doesn’t look like one of Langley’s boys,” said Peter.
“He isn’t,” said Corinna, shortly, “I talked to Robbie already.”
Peter was deftly checking over his firearms, but made a strange noise at the back of his throat.
“Never gets old when you call him that,” he said, “I know maybe ten people who are on first name terms with the old man, and only one who gives him a nickname.”
Corinna spared her companion a blank, unimpressed stare.
“That’s you, by the way,” said Peter, as if she had asked for an addendum.
Peter shrugged, but he was still smiling.
“I still think we could just tip off the police. We know his contacts and where they meet, for crying out loud.”
“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 to have this go to the press. I want to make an example of him. No one steals from my family. If Robert Langley can respect that, so can some no-name activist.”
“He doesn’t look like a Sixty-Fourther,” said Peter, tilting his head.
“Of course not,” she replied, “he’s wearing an Arden uniform right now.”
They both watched as the figure made its way down a pale green corridor, before swiping through two sets of security doors. It was one of the larger pharmacies on this level, and the deliveries had just been made in time for the next week. The figure hesitated in front of the last door, before leaning in for the iris scan.
Without another word they both left the car, striding quickly into the looming sliver of space between two buildings. They were wedged against each other on the street like crooked nicotine teeth, buried under the hooded lip of the criss-crossing motorways hanging above.
With a wave of her hand, the nearest street-light went out.
Corinna elbowed open the heavy steel door at the back of the pharmacy loading bay. Beside her, Peter slipped out of focus, disappearing from sight until all that was left was a bare shimmer, like heat above chrome train-rails.
There were a handful of ghosts in London. It was an aptitude that Corinna had never been able to master. Invisibility. Useful in a fight; if you could keep it up while being shot at, and if your opponent didn’t have eyewear.
They walked in tandem, soft shoes on glossy tiles, Corinna opening the doors with barely a pause for the scanners. As far as the records were concerned, she was a non-entity, and the cameras were blind to them. It was a little boring, but it didn’t dull the frisson of warmth: a set-up well-done. Things were easy when you owned the place.
In less than twenty seconds they had caught up with their thief.
Corinna could see him in her periphery of her visor: tablet in hand, a half filled pallet beside him. She flicked the visor screen off her face so that it crowned her hair, slicked back and white-blond against the dark grey of her suit jacket.
She nodded, once.
Peter slammed the door open, bursting into the room as a shift of air. There was an answering clatter, followed by a harsh curse. Peter went left and Corinna went right. She strode in on Peters invisible heels, elongating her stride to a sedate walk, ankles turned as if approaching a dance floor. There was a buzz between her palm and the glove.
A lady did not rush.
The man froze at the sight of her, half crouched where he had bent to retrieve his tablet. Behind him, sealing off the other exit, was a faint silhouette of refracted light. Peter.
Timothy Hersch hadn’t noticed. His eyes were fixed on Corinna, the whites of them dry with fear and undisguised disgust. He slowly straightened, gaze darting to the glowing exit sign.
“M-miss Arden,” said Hersch, “…can I help with anything?”
Corinna tilted her head. Perhaps it was just fear. It was hard to tell for sure, without her twin there to act as the world’s most accurate emotional barometer. But Javier would have wanted to do this ‘above board’, to leave it to the police, and it would have been a waste.
She had brought Peter instead.
“So you do know who I am.”
“…of course, Miss,” said Hersch, 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.
She tapped one gloved finger against the top most rack of vials, safely ensconced in their foam packaging.
“Then you’ll know why I’m here and we can get straight to the point,” she said.
His eyes were scattered all over her face, as if trying to find a point of reference for what was about to happen next, for a slip of emotion. Corinna wasn’t worried: Peter had always said she had the face of a shark.
Hersch licked his lips.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, trying and failing to smile, “I was just going through the deliveries…”
“I know,” said Corinna, inhaling the way the man’s breathing was becoming short and panicked, “for Erskin street, down on Level Twelve. Afterall, who is going to notice a few units going missing? But the — ah-ah!”
She raised a finger in warning as Hersch turned to make a run for it, only for Peter to swing him around by the shoulder and pull both his wrists tight behind his back. Hersch yelled as Peter wrenched his arms upwards, 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 shrieked, “where the hell did…you’ve got ghosts on the payroll now?”
“Boo,” said Peter, the flat tone at odds with the amusement in his eyes.
“I wasn’t finished,” said Corinna.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Hersch in a rush, “just doing my job, Miss Arden, I swear —”
“You seem to be under the impression that I’m here for some kind of…confession,” said Corinna, “you’d be wrong. I already know everything. You were hired because of your affiliations, 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.
“Don’t be rude,” he 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.
“Not the usual M.O. At first, I thought maybe you’d been working for the Syndicate instead. Someone organised. But smashing windows, blocking traffic…that’s more like you Sixty-Fourthers, mm?”
At this, Hersch’s eyes narrowed. His jaw worked, as if swallowing words too sharp for his throat.
“You gonna kill me?” he said, after a long moment. He turned, pulling against Peter who still had him in a firm grip, “I’ve got friends waiting. You shoot me; someone’s gonna notice.”
Peter laughed, three huffs of breath.
“Oh, we’re counting on it,” he said.
“What the hell,” said Hersch, struggling harder to look at his captor, “you’re just…you’re just gonna execute me, here? Is this how you deal with the shortage of…People are dying, they need these purifiers you heartless bitch —”
“Rude,” said Corinna, lifting the syringe from the case.
She tapped the side of it in a practiced shift of fingers, and Hersch’s eyes tracked the movement with undisguised horror.
Corinna stepped right up to Hersch, just so she could see the syringe reflected in his pupil. His breath was tepid with sugar and cola syrup, coming fast and shallow. Corinna 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. She watched his pupils stutter and freeze, the movement of his throat.
“And cute of you to assume I need a gun,” she said, letting the flames grow until it was hovering above her palm, just next to Hersch’s eye.
“Jesus, jesus —”
Corinna snapped her fingers shut, and the flames vanished into her fist.
“Alright,” she said, “bored now. Arm, please.”
“No, no, wait,” Hersch was pulling so hard against Peter that it looked as if he might dislocate his own shoulder. Peter just took Hersch’s left wrist in one firm grip and held it out at waist height, exposing the inner arm to Corinna. She pushed back the sleeve, unhurried.
“You can’t do this, shit, shit, wait please…you can’t, I don’t want it, I don’t want it —”
Corinna slid the needle home, then slowly pressed 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,” said Peter, “do you know how much clear cut Glass goes for these days? You’ll feel real good in a minute.”
“No…no, fuck you, you just…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 smoothed down 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 you…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, no, I’ve never —”
“Don’t feel bad. It’s common for newbies. Tricky to get the right dose; great high though. You wanted to dream a bit longer. Especially if you’ve just finished a fresh run, huh? 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 tell 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.
“Hey lovely. Y’alright?”
There was Cockney in that voice, and a lot of tobacco. Corinna’s lip curled, because here in the rain and rot, she did not have to hide her distaste.
“Robbie. This is a courtesy call,” said Corinna, not breaking her stride, “we’re going to drop the mark on your side of the Thames. No one touches what’s in the car.”
“I’ll make sure the lads know,” said Robert Langley, “you need me to arrange someone to tip the coppers?”
“No, it’s being handled,” she said, “nothing will get back to you and your’s.”
Then, because Corinna was confident but not a fool, she begrudgingly added:
“Thanks for the car. I’ll bring top-ups, next time I see you.”
“Ah, just bring yourself, doll,” said Langley, words like whiskey poured over ice with a shaky hand, “though it’s been a long while since we last caught up in person. Bring your body-double too, for a drink and a game.”
It was not a request.
“That’s not Javier’s scene, but I’ll speak with him,” she conceded, and hung up before the don could say anything else — and before Corinna was forced to thank him twice.
Once was enough for the week.
The car was where they had left it, just beyond the long dark alleyway. Corinna straightened the lapels of her jacket and followed Peter to the car. She 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 stilled, then glanced up towards the darkened windows of the office building that rose on the other side of the narrow street. Above that were apartments, a strip of railway shielding them from Straying eyes. Although Corinna was mostly blocked by the shoulder of the pharmacy, the road exposed them to the lower floors. It made the skin between her shoulders itch with paranoia.
Corinna frowned, eyes narrowed, silently cataloguing the facade of the building. Had that window been open when they had been out here before?
The rain was not helping the cameras. 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 towards the building, 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 was overly vivid, in a way she knew from experience came right before the crash, before everything tilted straight into painpainpain —
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. They walked through burning houses, set forests ablaze and halted or started wars 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. A firestarter wasn’t bullet-proof, especially a bullet fired from a gun that she did not see 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…go!” Corinna managed between her teeth, “take…m-my gloves, gun —”
“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,” she said, 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,” she choked.
“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, her earbuds, her remaining glove. Felt him take the knives in her boot, her pistols and their holsters at her thigh and shoulder, as if it was happening to someone else. She could finally taste the blood now, in her nose and in her throat, mixed with the rain.
“Did I get them?“ she coughed, “Peter, fifth window across, eight…nine up, maybe, fuck —”
“Stop talking, I’ll take care of the sniper —”
“…the alarm. Tripped it.”
“I’m a Ghost, not a fucking Healer, Corinna!” shouted Peter, “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 yanked it back with a yelp of pain, nose flaring at the smell of burned skin and cloth.
“Amateur,” she bit out, “I. Said. 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. Peter, grabbed her hands, slamming them palm-down on top of the plastic film. Corinna jerked with the pain of it, heels scraping against the concrete.
“Jav,” said Corinna.
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.
“Keep pressure on that. Ambulance will be here soon, just stay awake,” said Peter, expression hard, “I’ll call Javier.”
And then he was gone.
Corinna started to count. She didn’t remember stopping.
© Frances Wren 2019, all rights reserved.