Those Who Walk in Darkness
By John Ridley
Warner Books Copyright © 2003 Team Ridley Productions
All right reserved. ISBN: 044653093X
Chapter One Nightshift was the first. He showed up and overnight the world changed. I was young then. Younger. And all I cared about were rock bands and movie stars, and didn't give much thought to the significance of things like his arrival. Except that it was cool, he was cool. In time, that, like everything else, would change too.
In the first weeks after he hit the scene the papers and news shows were fat with rumors and half-truths and speculations by experts.
How were there going to be any experts when there'd never been anything like him, it, before?
It was his physiology, they said. It suggested that he may not be of this ... They said he was the by-product of government experiments which caused his body to become ... Mental superiority allowed him to project an aura which resulted in ...
On and on. All that anybody really knew was somewhere in San Francisco, night after night, he ... it. It was out there. Stopping a bank robbery, a gang drive-by, keeping a kid from getting flattened by a runaway truck ... whatever.
And then, just as quick as he appeared, Nightshift got mundane. Oh, he kept a jewelry store from getting ripped off again? Another car jacking busted up? Well, sure, I mean it's good, but ...
I got used to it. I got used to them. We all did. And we all went back to being concerned with other things ... rock bands and movie stars.
Like I said: That would change.
San Francisco. The dead. The EO that made them all outlaws.
We blame them. They deserve blame. But maybe it's our fault too. We never should've let them do our job for us. We never should've relied on them. We never should've slept while they stood guard; spectators at the foot of Mt. Olympus.
Hell no. What happened was their fault and theirs alone. And for what they did they're all going to pay the price.
EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM.
It was the thought pumping through Soledad's head. A phrase. A prayer. Something to chant over and over to keep her mind off what was coming.
What was coming was what she'd spent her whole life working toward. Her whole life: only twenty-six years, nine months. But most of that was spent at Northwestern studying, at the police academy and on the force training, working her way from beat cop through SPU up to MTac-prepping for this moment: her first call.
Jesus. F'n. Christ.
The others in the APC, the others riding with Soledad, they looked calm. Serene, kind of. Mostly they didn't look like cops racing through LA traffic, lights and sirens at full tilt. Except for their weapons and body armor-none of it worn to regulation. Bo and Soledad the only two who bothered with Fritz helmets, and Soledad was pretty sure Bo sported his just so she wouldn't come off like the only weak sister in the bunch-they looked like people out for a Sunday drive. Not one of them seemed to carry the thought odds were, end of the night, all of them would be dead. Maybe that was the key, Soledad considered, to getting through this: don't think, just do.
Soledad adjusted the strap of her breastplate where it cut into the flesh of her underarm. Probably designed by a man, it didn't particularly fit a woman.
"Don't bother." It was Yarborough-Yar-playing cocky, giving Soledad shit for concerning herself with things like body armor, things that might keep her alive. His bravado was his tender. He spent it easy: a lazy grin, a wink tossed for no reason. He spent it heavy in the body armor he didn't wear, same as if he were among the rare breed too cool to die. "Might as well take that shit off. Doesn't do any good."
Soledad looked to Reese. Didn't mean to. Had told herself no matter what, especially this first call, never in a moment of doubt look to Reese. Soledad thought it was a sign of weakness, like looking to your mom when the corner bully went calling you names. But the action was reflexive. Reese was the only other woman on the element, one of the few female MTacs. So Soledad looked to her, as if femininity equated fidelity.
Reese, deep in her own thoughts, just stared straight ahead paying no attention to Soledad or anyone else.
Bo, jumping into things: "Leave her." His voice had a drawl. Slight. Cowpoke slow. Soledad had seen Bo with a gun on the target range. His drawl was the only thing slow about him. "We're supposed to be wearing it."
"You're not wearing your armor," Yar tossed back.
The APC juked hard to one side to avoid a Toyota that cut across an intersection never-minding the lights and sirens of the MTac vehicle. Typical LA. Didn't matter what the emergency was, everybody thinks they've got someplace to be.
"I did first call. First call I would've driven a tank if I could've."
Yar laughed. Not like what Bo had said was funny, like what Bo had said was plain ridiculous; as if a tank would make any difference in the world when you were facing down a freak. Bo was senior lead officer of the element, the oldest. Soledad thought: hell of a career choice she'd made where forty was considered a long-timer. The same thought jerked her hand to the case resting next to her thigh.
"Whatcha got?" Yarborough asked, using his chin to point at the case. It was small, hardcover-book-sized, zippered, made from synthetics.
Soledad wondered to herself why Yar was paying her so much attention. She hadn't been on Central long, but they'd all trained together, put in hours together. All that time Yar hardly looked in her direction. Here they were rolling on an M-norm, and all he could do was razz her every couple of-
"Whatcha got in the case? Bring a couple of books so you won't get bored?"
The APC stopped. Not even. It slowed some, but that was signal enough: time to move. Bo was first out, the door barely open. Yarborough, Reese just a step behind. Soledad, affixing the case to her back, was right with them hesitating not a second, not any amount of time anyone could say she froze, she was scared, she wasn't ready. Even if she was all that, no way she'd let anyone think it.
As she moved, Soledad's eyes worked the scene, took in information and processed it on the fly. Downtown LA. Rail yards. A warehouse, boarded windows showing fire. Police cordoning off the area, keeping a good distance back.
A safe distance.
Inside the perimeter: a couple of burned-out fire trucks and squads, the reek of their molten metal, plastic and fabric strong enough to choke on deep breaths.
Outside the perimeter: Lookie-lous gathered. The good citizens of Los Angeles. They stared. They pointed. A couple had camcorders ready to do some taping, hoping a cop got offed in some spectacular manner so they could sell the footage to CNN.
Bo wove his way to the officer in charge. Soledad got the name on the sergeant's badge: Yost.
Bo, direct: "Whatcha got?"
"Pyrokinetic." Yost was sweaty from more than the heat of the fires. He was wet with fear.
Soledad felt herself starting to share the dampness.
"Firestarter?" Bo's eyes swept the warehouse.
Yarborough swept it with IR goggles.
"If it was a firestarter, you think any of us would still be here?" Yost answered. "Flamethrower, but it can toss 'em about thirty or forty feet. That's what happened to the vehicles."
Reese worked the action of her piece. It was like she wasn't even listening to the back-and-forth between Bo and Yost. It was like all she cared about was putting a bullet in something.
Yost: "The freak won't let the bucket boys put out the fire."
Yarborough kept moving his goggles across the warehouse.
"Probably started it just to get them down here, work up a body count. Fucking freak."
"That's good," Bo said. "Keep calling it names. That'll get us home early."
Yost mumbled something audible about MTacs being arrogant motherfu-
Yarborough: "Got him. Third floor, southeast corner."
"One?" Reese asked.
"That's all I'm reading. Hard to be sure with the fire."
"Thank God it ain't one of those mind readers." Yost was getting sweatier by the second.
Soledad: "Maybe it is." She hoped she sounded like she was just voicing a consideration and not bitch scared.
"Couldn't pay me to go in there, I'll tell you that." Yost said it, then said it again. "You couldn't pay me nothing to go in there."
Bo said: "Throw some light up top, make a little noise for cover. You'd take pay for that, right?" To his element: "Mike check. One."
Bo started to move, started for the warehouse. Soledad was ready to move with him. Something on her arm. Fear made every sensation feel like fire, like maybe she'd caught a little of what slagged those vehicles. A quick look: Reese giving a squeeze; reassuring. Saying stay close without saying a word.
Soledad eyed Reese's shoulder, her tattoo; the words etched there. Tough words. Downright BAMF words that told it like it was, like it should be. Soledad kept close to Reese as the four went for the warehouse.
As they did, behind them, Yost managed to get his act together enough to put spotlights on the building. Third floor.
Bo had point. He carried a Colt .45 government model: more stopping power than the 9mms beat cops carried. A precision kill weapon. Reese and Yarborough toted HK MP5s, excellent for chopping freaks. Light, fast, and at full auto it could spray, baby, spray. Soledad had the Benelli, a semiauto shotgun loaded with one-ounce slugs. She was the fail-safe. If nothing else could stop what they were going after, the Benelli could put a hole in anything. Usually. All the weapons were Synthtech series, manufactured-like everything else they carried and wore-from synthetics and composite materials.
The first thing they got hit with was the smell, the odor of perpetually burning flesh. And something else. The hint of another aroma that Soledad could just barely distinguish. The stink of smoked crack.
Oh, that's good, she thought. Not just a flamethrower. A hopped-up flamethrower. And this was her first call.
Stairway. Narrow. Not a good place to get caught. All four MTacs could go up like kindling. But it was the only approach.
Up the stairs.
First landing ... nothing.
Second landing ... more nothing, except the smells were strong and there was a voice. Strange, distorted like it was trying to make itself heard through the roar of a blast furnace.
All four MTacs had their weapons gripped hard and ready to do work. All four did a crab walk, step by step, inching upward for the third floor.
Bo's voice whispered into their earpieces: "Hold."
The air was hotter, thinner, some of its [O.sub.2] gone. The thing was burning it off. Her uniform was suffocating her. All that, anxiety; they didn't help Soledad's breathing any. Her chest rose and fell in a rapid pace. Her hand pushed sweat off her forehead. It was rolling from her now. Rolling in sheets. Chestplate crushing her. Felt like it was. Should've listened to Yar; ditched the body armor. Should've ...
In her mind her own voice repeating: This is it this is it this is it. Stay cool. This is it this is it ...
More of the blast furnace rant. Clearer now.
"Muthafuckas! Ya want sum? Huh? C'mon, bitches! Come taste summa dis!"
All Soledad could think was that he ... it sounded like a crazy waving a Saturday night special around a liquor store. Everything they can do, all their abilities, but get down to it, end of the day, they're just street punks. Nothing more. Nothing better.
Bo peeked up to the third floor. A lot of space broken up by vertical supports.
In Soledad's earpiece, Bo clipped and to the point: "Sixty feet. Back to us. Me, Yarborough left. Reese, Soledad right."
That was all the more instruction they got. All they needed. Bo moved out low and quick with Yarborough right behind him. Reese and Soledad moved opposite, Soledad's heart slamming away inside her chest. They eased across the floor using the vertical supports, thankfully many of them, for cover.
The smells were thicker: the never-ending stench of roasting carcass swallowed with every breath to form a nauseating mixture in the stomach.
From hiding, Soledad peeked around a vertical. She could see the freak engulfed in its own flames. She had never seen one this close-a pyrokinetic or any other kind of M-norm. Its body shimmered with heat and fire but refused to burn itself. The flames just crackled and danced continually, feeding on the flesh of its host: an endless human wick.
This is it this is it this ...
Soledad couldn't take deep breaths, couldn't get her breathing to slow down.
"Muthafuckas!" it screamed at the cops down on the street. "Think you got sumthin'? Bitches, come up here an' show me sumthin'!" It thrust its arm out a window. It shot a tendril of flame, the fire howling as it scorched the air it rode on.
Outside, three stories down, Soledad heard the wail of men. Maybe burning. Maybe dying.
"Muthafuckas! Better recognize!"
Bo, in the earpieces: "Ready?"
Down the line:
This is ... "Ready."
Bo twisted from behind the vertical.
Soledad's heart clutched, then double-pumped.
Bo spoke, yelled with pure authority. "This is the police! You are in violation of an Executive Ord-"
That was all Bo got out, all the thing would let him get out before it turned from the window and sent a finger of flame burning in Bo's direction.
Bo sprang back, tumbled. Moved on instinct. Thought would've taken too long. Thought would've left him standing where fire now cooked the floor. He would have been dead.
"Bitches come ta play?" the pyro shrieked over the crackle of the burning wood. The thing shot fire again. From its skin, from its flesh, from itself it generated fire.
Instinct wasn't fast enough. Not this time. This time Bo got sent sailing, ridden into the dark of the warehouse along a river of flame. "Show me sumthin', bitch! Whatcha got ta show me?"
Yarborough, Reese and Soledad up and out and shooting. A continual chant of 9mm fire interrupted by the low boom of Soledad's shells.
Why didn't, she wondered as her finger jerked the trigger, they just do this first off? You got a thing that can spit fire from its body, fuck warnings and police procedure. Kill 'em! They all deserved to die anywa-
Bullets no good. Lead turned to slag from the aura of heat around the freak before the shells could even touch it.
"What da fuck?" the thing snapped. "Was you 'bout ta shoot my ass?" A hand arched before it. Just like that, empty space burned hot. A wave of flame ran for Yarborough, Reese and Soledad in a violent ripple.
Soledad moved, tried to dodge the flames. Too slow. They picked her up, kicked her back. They slammed her down hard on the wood floor. She had sense enough to roll with the landing. Kept her from getting hurt. Badly hurt. The bits of pain that came with lightly singed flesh let her know she'd survived the assault.
Excerpted from Those Who Walk in Darkness by John Ridley Copyright © 2003 by Team Ridley Productions
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.