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10. Hunting

As was his routine, Bruce woke early and walked to the mess room for breakfast.  Not part of his morning routine was a Rain hunched over his laptop, coffee in hand.  The mug rings on the tabletop showed it wasn’t the first coffee as did the half drained coffee pot.  Rain could never be accused of being a morning person and it was often a race to see who between him and Algernon would get to breakfast last.  Usually Rain won.

“Why are you up so early?”  Bruce said as he made his way to the breakfast bain-marie.

“Huh?” Rain’s head shot up from what he was doing and fixed on Bruce in a blery way, “Is it that time?”

“So it’s ‘What are you doing up so late?’”

“Um…yeah, it seems.  I did some knife training in the gun range late last night…”

“You went training…?” Now Rain had Bruce’s attention has he brought his meal over to Rain’s table and sat down. In the months since the group joined the Estate Rain had not once shown interest in training other than practising his sleight of hand.

“Lightfeather’s speed bugged me.  He threw two daggers to my one.” Rain complained and sipped his now cold coffee. “Anyway, I was on  the way back when I got thinking about Algernon’s idea. I’ve been working on it ever since.”

“All night? Rain, you’re paying for today with tomorrow.  You have to look after yourself or you’ll be no use to us.”

Rain scowled and grumbled back uncharacteristically,

“I’ll be fine. Sleep and me have never been on good terms.”  He brushed aside Bruce’s concerns and topped up his coffee.

Bruce watched Rain, weighing his words and paid attention to his every movement.

“What is this idea of Algernon’s?” He asked, turning the computer screen to himself.  He didn’t make much sense of it, a diagram of the old copper telephone network throughout Seattle?  Rain quickly made it back to the seat, coffee in hand and turn the screen back.

“A great idea, it will cut down all our processing time to a fraction.  And all the surveillance footage we’re currently wading through manually, all done automatically.”  The speil came out smooth and polished. It was something Rain had been thinking on awhile, no doubt.

“You know, I can see straight through you.  Usually I have to pay attention, but this morning you’re hiding something as effectively as Algernon.”

Peggy made her way into the mess looking for coffee.  She was disappointed to see there was barely a cup. She took it, leaving the dregs and got herself some toast.

Rain slumped in his chair, seeming to lack the energy to continue arguing.

“Things have been going…okay.    Railsea was successful but we lost a simple way to Crows Hollow, nearly lost Peggy not to mention making an enemy of Lightfeather. ” He shivered and continued, “You guys are displaying amazing powers, and I’m no closer to understanding how. We found out about the Cowboy, but lost another person to the dust.  The drug trial went fine but it didn’t answer any of my questions…” He looked up at Bruce and it was clear that something weighed heavily on him. “I just need a victory.”
“You ride yourself too hard.”

“Life’s a gamble and we’re losing too often.  How long before it’s all taken away again?”

Last of all this morning, Algernon stumbled in and went straight for the coffee machine. Eyeing the dregs forlornly he poured them over cereal, piled on cold strips of bacon, scrambled egg and toast and put it all in the microwave to reheat.  

“I swear you’re up to something. I tell you, I can see straight through you.”  Bruce repeated as Algernon sat down and gave Rain an odd examining look.

“I can’t.”  

“As far as I know my father wasn’t a glassblower, “ Rain quipped before turning his attention to his partner in crime. “Come see what I’ve done.”

Algernon scanned silently through Rain’s work as he ate his breakfast.

“We need a safe connection.” he commented after a while through salty-coffee-egged-cereal.

“That’s why I’ve been looking at the old copper network.  It’s everywhere and some places still have it connected.”

“We don’t want it to connect to Estate though. We know the Cowboy knows something about technology.  He used a VoIP to mask who he was. Could be useful?”

“Yeah, but we’ve got to catch him first.”

After collecting her breakfast of coffee and toast, Peggy found Hertzfeld in his office and asked him for a matter converter.

“Ah, that’s a highly experimental piece of equipment.  Tell me, what use could you put such a thing?”

“For a The Strange battery.  I need currently unknown compounds that will be able to respond and withstand the chaos of The Strange.  The amorphous nature of The Strange requires elements and compounds of specific tolerances that are not found in current materials technology.”

She argued the  technicals with him until he had to admit that though there were a number of steps she was overlooking, her idea was exciting .

“Such work has been done by myself, but I could never get it  to work. I’d like to see where you get with it. Unfortunately I can’t justify highly expensive and highly experimental tools on such a premise.”

“You’ve worked on a similar idea?  May I see your notes?”

“By all means.” He pulled up his notes and for the morning the two of them arguing his theory all the way to midday.

While Bruce was working out and mulling over the revelations of the morning, Algernon and Rain continued with their plans to hack the NSA and gain access to time on the supercomputer.  Algernon spent the morning setting up a relay of cryptocurrencies starting with Bitcoin, purchasing Monero, converting through a number of other currencies until he had Ethereum that he could use safely to purchase on the Dark Web via a Tor browser.  

With his purchased 20 botnet servers in hand, he planned a  network configuration that never relayed the signal the same way twice making it even more difficult for whitehats to trace them back. 

Rain had spent the night hunting out information about the NSA and significant members. The search included a scan through HR records for The Estate. He was pleased to find a link, one Tanya Darwol who had been a NSA agent only twelve months ago who now worked with El McCain.  The file did not detail the reasons for her leaving, but a disagreement with a Director called Prashant Gohr was mentioned. Golden handshake? Seemed likely to Rain. The director was still on the Department of Defence payroll and what was more interesting to Rain, had worked a section that had recently been closed.  Sure that the sections infrastructure would still be in place. If reconnected, it would provide a base within the DoD from which to work.

With this knowledge in hand, he worked through the Estate and found Tanya Darwol.  

“Ms Darwol?  My name is Rain Bigby, I was part of the group that came back with El McCain.”

“Hey yeah, you found him out in that canibal wasteland.  Wild ride for a first time out.”

“I’m glad you said that.  I certainly felt out of my depth…to be honest I always feel that way.”

“Oh, well how can I help you?”

“I’m new. I’m just looking to experienced agents such as yourself for advice, examples from life.”

“I don’t know, did you go to any of the Estate’s training?”

A standard answer to get rid of the newbie, but he was ready for such a reply.

“Theory is all well and good, but I’m looking for the lived experience.  You’re a highly experienced agent, are there not examples from your past that would be worth knowing?”

She narrowed her eyes and took a moment to take in the unassuming man in front of her.  He looked genuine.

“Well… standing up for what you believe is right is a good start. If you believe something to be right, pursuit it. Another is getting good at finding patterns in the mundane was fundamental to my work.  People are creatures of habit and following the patterns often gives you information about their personality or just about where they will be at any given time.”

“Yes, I understand routine.”  Rain was finding Tanya hard to crack. Maybe she was suspicious, but he thought it more likely that she was just used to keeping things to herself.  He tried one of his precious nuggets of information to help open up the conversation. 

“Rowe Campbell was all about finding the good in routine, finding the gaps that one could be taken advantage of.”

“You know Rowe?”  She looked surprised, had he pushed his hand too hard?  Rowe had been the direct supervisor of the infamous Prashant and Chief on the now defunct section.

“You know, it’s amazing who you meet in this business.  She’s all for modernisation, but she had a chap working under her that was change for change sake.  That sort of thing has got to make it hard to focus on the patterns when everything is changing all around you.”  He knew Prashant had been the director that had got Tanya sacked and he could see how a character like that would get under the skin of the detail driven Ms Darwol.  If he could just get her to talk about him then he would have an in. He just wasn’t sure if she’d take the bait.

“Oh him!”  she replied and he let go of the breath he’d been holding the whole conversation. “Yeah, some people have no sense of priority.”

Rain sat back and silently noted everything she said about Prashant and his section.  She was careful to never mention names or details of specific operations but it was clear to both of them who she was referring to.  Her information was a year old, but amongst her diatribe on Gohr she dropped some tasty nuggets of information about the NSA’s inner workings.   After an hour Rain felt he had all he was going to get and offered his thanks to the busy agent.

“I think I understand why McCain rates you so highly.”  he shook her hand and left to inform Algernon what he had found out.

Rain and Algernon were working on their plan during lunch.  The basics of the were in place, but a safe entry into the Internet was still required .  Bruce was there, eating lunch and trying to weedle out information about the project when Peggy stormed in.

She’d got no where with Hertzfeld that morning and he had not approved the expense and risk of the matter converter.  Now she fumed using his name in some unsavoury ways, means and locations. With a sheaf of notes tucked haphazardly under her arm she made no comment to the three of them but muttered to herself as she took a seat across from Rain’s laptop. 

Algernon, nervous around the scientist when she was in a mood, got up to leave, but was stopped when she glared a challenge at him.  He quickly sat down again.

“We’re going to need her in a better frame of mind for this afternoon.”  Bruce quietly said to Rain who took up a plate and piled it full of all the tastiest treats he knew she liked from previous meals.  He placed the plate beside her elbow looking over her shoulder at the notes she was checking and rechecking.

“Whatcha doin’?” he said casually letting the cockney in his usual standard London accent peak through.

Without a word she showed her working, pages of maths that only swam in the con man’s vision.

“Oh, batteries.”  Algernon looked over understanding the principles behind her workings instantly.

“Yes!”  Peggy leapt at the chance at another intelligent mind, “Tell me, where in my working out am I wrong?  Hertzfeld says I’m missing something but I just can’t see it.”

Staying where he was, Algernon looked over the notes she pushed across the table towards him.

“There’s no particular error in your reasoning, but the materials technology just can’t support it.  Have you thought about engineering a biological solution to the problem. Unlike dead materials, living flesh can change and adapt as needed.  At least that’s what we’d do.”

“Biological engineering?  What a thought.” Peggy mused sitting back for the first time that lunch and nibbling at the food on her plate.

“We’d do?  And who would that be?”  Bruce and Rain now looked interested.

“Yes Algernon, do tell.”

Algernon was once more looking uncomfortable.  Talking about the past for all of them seemed a touchy subject, but no one more than Algernon who until recently had known nothing else but a seemingly unpleasant  life in a laboratory. Fortunately for him he was saved this day by the most unlikely person.

“Forget about that for a moment.”  Peggy put aside her notes indicating that subject was now closed. “We have three recursion keys, what do you say try one?”

The three men glanced around the table.  They’d been talking all morning about the Cowboy, though no plans had been laid and Peggy and not been part of discussions.

“The Cowboy is only in town tonight, and we have to stakeout the block and plan how we’re going to take him.”  Bruce opened up the subject.

“Well, when does that start?”  Peggy folded her arms, put out that her idea had to be put aside.

“Now, really.”  Rain turned to his laptop and brought up a satellite view of the street corner in question.  He turned the screen so the group could see. “We have to plan what we’re going to do and get into place before the Cowboy turns up tonight.”

“So, what do we know?  We don’t have surveillance in the area, but he does works alone…”
“He is a very violent man, right Peggy?  You worked that out from Eldritch’s place.“  Rain asked Peggy as she reflected on the scene of murderous destruction she had processed when first investigating Spiral Dust.

“Yes, he was very angry and took it out on Eldritch.”  she agreed.

“And we want him alive.”  Algernon added, Rain nodded agreement. “Shame we don’t have our surveillance up yet.”

“Yes, the plan of yours.”  Bruce latched onto Algernon’s verbal musing.

“I told you all about Algernon’s plan.  Lots of computer work, very technical and tedious.”  Rain tried covering with little success.

“You’re going to tell us anyway, why not now?”  Bruce asked suspicious of the plan the two boys were keeping so tightly lipped about.

Rain looked at Algernon who looked scared at his own verbal gaff.

“Nah…”  Rain replied with a childish grin and turned back to the map on his laptop.

Looking at the satellite view of the street corner it was clear it was near a carpark where the Cowboy would assumedly leave any vehicle. It gave good access to the road in both directions and was free of a building that could hide an operations like theirs.  On the other corners were a mechanics, a bodega (that Rain was informed was a grocery store, not a Spanish wine bar as he’d hoped) and an unknown building. A quick search of the building under Real Estate found that it was for lease and was listed as office space.

“That looks like the place for our stakeout.”  Rain pointed out the empty office block, “ A two storey building, street access, with a view of the whole intersection.  I’ll see if the Estate can lend me some Lockpicks.”

“Speaking of supplies, I’ll see Katherine about what the Estate can offer to help catch this guy. “  Bruce said and left.

At the mention of supplies Algernon too got up and visited the canteen.  He returned sometime later with a jug of hot coffee and a paper bag dark with fat.

“Supplies, for the stakeout.  Coffee and bacon.” That the canteen had no cooked bacon and had given him what they had out of the fridge didn’t seem to bother him.  Neither did the fact that the jug had no lid.

Bruce returned after discussions with his supervisor with a large crossbow-like gun and a box of cartridges.

“She offered some experienced hands to come along and help but I didn’t think it necessary.  She did recommend this thing and I thought Algernon may be able to use it.” He handed it to Algernon who  looked dubiously at the stocky cartridge placed in the flight grove instead of a streamline bolt. “It launches a net short range, there are a few cartridges so you can practise beforehand.”

“Okay,” Algernon nodded after a moment investigation of the weapon, “Could you run over there?”  He pointed at the far end of the mess. Bruce shook his head.

“No way.” he laughed and mood of the group shifted to one of silly banter.  “What else do we want to tackle this guy?”

“Taser in the nuts?”  Algernon suggested.

“No, we have that covered.” Rain replied gesturing to Peggy.

“What do you mean?”  Algernon asked unsure what horror the scientist may unleash.

“Peggy’s kick-arse boot!”  Rain answer, Peggy added much to his embarrassment.

“I kicked him in the nuts once.”  

This made Bruce roar with laughter.

“And I still helped killed a that spider.”  Rain announced not to be outdone.

“In the theatre!?”  Bruce was now gasping for breath between gaffors.

By the end of their planning each member had their part.  Algernon would sit up in the office building and shoot the net casting crossbow or levitate the the Cowboy if he tried any violence. Rain would distract the Cowboy pretending to be a potential client as Peggy and Bruce would be to be ordinary citizens out for a stroll.  Peggy would train her sense on The Strange so she could warn the group if he had a recursion key or cipher, she also had her gun. Bruce would come in with the physical stuff and was ready with his crowbar. The plan was…the plan, and what it didn’t have in subtly it made up with everyone knowing their part in it.

That afternoon as the group walked into the carpool, Algernon added one more item.  From a line of equally ungainly machines, Algernon pulled one of the Estate’s Honda CT110 motorbikes and put it in the boot of the car.

“You won’t need it.”  Bruce commented and Algernon got into the car balancing his coffee and bacon.

“Just in case.”

The car park was empty when they stopped opposite the office block later that afternoon.  Bruce made Algernon leave his coffee and bacon in the car as he walked the block checking out the neighbourhood. It was an area of  the city between workplaces and homes, the local area was quiet before quitting time at 5pm. He made it behind the office building without meeting a soul and found another door.   On a chance he tried the doorknob and it turned in his hand, the door swinging in on an empty storeroom. Silently he stepped in and close the door behind him.

 The other three went straight for the front door of the unoccupied building and Rain pulled out his newly acquired lockpicks. In truth he hadn’t had a lot of experience with door locks, but he wouldn’t have been able to call himself a student of Houdini if he’d failed in front of his friends.  All fears, however, were groundless as the lock clicked and the door swung open silently. 

“Go see where Algernon’s got to.” suggested Bruce as Rain stepped back and let him and Peggy in.  With a tip of an imaginary hat, Rain pulled out his phone and called Algernon’s number.

Algernon adjusted his eyes to the storeroom.  There wasn’t much to see, a few empty boxes shelving and the pervasive feeling of neglect.  He sniffed the air searching for the smells of human habitation, cooking, aftershave or cigarettes.  All he got was the musk of rats and mould. To his left an opening lead to stairs going up to the first floor, straight ahead another door that he assumed must lead to the front of the building.  Silently he trod the risers , climbing up the stairs when his phone started playing the Mission Impossible theme tune. Scrabbling to silence the thing, he saw the call was from Rain and answered it.

“Shhhh!”  he hissed into the receiver and Rain hung up only to send a text message asking where he was.  

On the ground floor Bruce heard the phone ring.  Crowbar drawn, he followed the sound to the back room, finding the door and stairs going to the first floor.  Again he heard the phone, this time bugle call for charge and confronted Algernon texting back to Rain. Shhhhh!

 Bruce rolled his eyes and pulled out his own phone calling Rain.

“He’s in here.  You might as well come in yourself.”

The first floor was one room, carpeted a grubby industrial green. It was furnitureless but lined with sashed windows overlooking the intersection.  While Algernon set up his stakeout spot which included: his supplies, a constant video feed of the street and the crossbow, Peggy pulled out her handgun and loaded it.

“I brought this in case this turns into a knife fight.” She said and loaded a round in the chamber.

“The right side of the equation to be on.”  Rain acknowledged wary of her new found fascination with guns and headed across the road to the Bodega.

Again disappointed that the shop owner was not Spanish or sold wine, he did chat pleasantly with him about about the area.

“I’m thinking of renting the office space across the street and I’m wondering what this place is like a night?”

“Pretty quiet.  There’s a rave a block or two down the street that gets some attention.  Then there’s this dodgy guy in a cowboy hat hangs around sometimes. Doesn’t do any harm though so I say live and let live.”

“Wise words.”  Rain toasted the shop owner with a can of Cola and returned to the office block to await the arrival of the Cowboy.

It was 7pm and fully dark by the time a large pickup  drove into the carpark and stopped. It was clear this was the guy when he climbed out of the driver’s side in full cowboy hat and jacket.  Algernon quickly snapped a few photos of the Cowboy and the car with his phone and sent the images to the rest of the group. The Cowboy, confidently strolled out to his favourite spot on the corner and waited or his business to come to him.  It was time to act.

“Let’s just go out there and get him, no theatrics.  Just walk up casual, Algernon fires the net and we grab him.”  Bruce said as everyone got into place. Rain thought , but said nothing, just nodded and started out into the road.  When they were half way across, he waved to gain the Cowboy’s attention before…

Whizz crack! 

The canister containing the net flew overhead and crashed into the brick wall of the mechanics behind the Cowboy’s head.  The shot had failed and now the Cowboy knew something was up.

“Quick, before he…” But the warning remained unfinished as the Cowboy reached into his pocket and disappeared.  Another instantaneous translation and their quarry was gone, who knew where.

Rain slumped to the asphalt in the middle of the road, sure they’d just screwed up their best chance at getting the Cowboy.

If I had gone up to him as discussed I would have been closer when the canister failed, I could have grabbed him, I could have.  He thought bitterly, but said instead, ”His car is there.”  

Picking himself up, Rain followed Bruce who was already heading for the truck. Both started when the door open of its own accord.

“The bastard’s invisible!  Get him!”

Bruce forgot his crowbar and pulled out his revolver readying a shot.  Seeing the change in tactics, Rain’s deck of cards were suddenly in his hand.  He fanned them out spraying them in a cone at the open door of the pick up as Bruce trained his gun on the spot where the cards bounced off something not there.

Bruce shot went wild and he swore as the Dodge’s engine turned over.  The cowboy aimed the car at Bruce and Rain and stomped on the pedal. Bruce dodged aside, but Rain rolled up the bonnet and window of the pickup, caught hold of the passenger door frame and swung in feet first.

From his window position above, Algernon could do nothing.  He couldn’t see the Cowboy to levitate him and there was nothing he could do to support his friends. In frustration he threw the useless net launcher aside and started climbing out the window.  Bruce and Peggy both shot the pickup’s tyres, Bruce’s ricocheting off the road. Peggy’s hit, bringing the truck down on its rims on one side. It was at that moment that Rain grabbed the steering wheel out of the invisible Cowboy’s hands and yanked it  around hard. 

There was a moment’s realisation as the front wheel rim turned and bit into the road surface. Then chaos as the truck flipped and rolled in a scream of twisting metal and shattering glass.  

“Rain!”  Bruce yelled and ran for the truck as it settled on it roof in the middle of the intersection. Algernon soared out his window and levitated to the ground near their car and Peggy ran towards the truck.  No sound came from the truck. A distance away, Police sirens wailed.

Inside, Rain was dazed from the battering he’d just receive when the truck rolled.  There were no clever words and only one thought whirling around in his addle brain. Get the Cowboy.  As the driver’s door groaned open he pounced, fingers like claws for the man he knew must be there. The struggle was perfunctory and the Cowboy finally went limp as Bruce grabbed him and dragged both him and Rain out of the truck.

“Please keep struggling.  I’m told I need more biological material.”  Peggy trained her gun on the invisible man.

“Anything Strange, Peggy?” Bruce grunted getting a firm grip on nothing.

“That he’s invisible is pretty strange wouldn’t you say?”  She felt for the Strange but felt nothing. Whatever it was had been spent. ‘Turn off the invisibility.”

“I can’t, “ The Cowboy groaned, “It lasts ten minutes.”

“Peggy!  Keys!” Algernon called from the car holding his hands up to catch the keys.  Instead, Peggy put away her gun and walked over to the car.

“You’ve got this.” she said over her shoulder.

The sirens were getting louder, it was time to go.  

Bruce now had control of the Cowboy and hauled him bodily to the car as Peggy drove along side the overturned pickup. Algernon crawled into the cab of the pick up, rummaging through the glove compartment.  

“We don’t have time, we’ve got to go now!”  Bruce yelled as Rain stumbled back to the office building clutching his head.

“You go, we’ll catch up.”  he called keeping the door open for Algernon who now had a set of keys in his hand and pulled a duffle bag from under the pickup’s tray. “Algernon, you can make it.”

As swiftly as he could with the heavy duffle, Algeron ran through the door and Rain locked it shut. The car carrying Peggy, Bruce and the Cowboy sped away.  The siren wail grew louder, only blocks away as both Algernon and Rain stumbled upstairs and watched the police arrive from the windows. They were trapped in the building, no way to cross to another and even the back door was currently not safe from the keen eyes of the police.  

One officer went to the Bodego, locked up for the night, another walked up to the front door of the building and knocked.

Rain gestured, he’d go down and talk.  Algernon nodded and started breaking down the net launcher.  He stuffed the pieces in the duffle bag noting the contents as he did.  Camping equipment: tent, cooking utensils, and a sleeping bag.

Raking his fingers shakily through his bloodied hair Rain did the best he could to make himself presentable before unlocking the door to the officer on the other side.

“Good evening officer, is there a problem?”  he asked meekly, projecting an aura of unthreatening-average-citizen.

“The shopkeeper across the way called a few moments ago about gunshots.  Has there been some sort of accident here tonight, sir?” She gestured to the Dodge standing silent on its roof in the middle of the street.

“Goodness!”  Rain starred surprised at the truck as blood trickled down his neck and into his shirt collar. “I heard something, I thought it was firecrackers.  I’m afraid I was working in the back of the building.”

The police officer sighed,

“Your name sir?”

“Gygax, Libor Gygax.”  The new persona rolled off his tongue as did his statement to the officer.  When the officer was finished she walked over to the Dodge and radioed in the license plate.  Rain didn’t wait. Quietly he relocked the door and, with Algernon and the duffle, they snuck out the back door while the police were occupied. 

Another knock at the door, but there was no one left to answer it.

Published by Miztres

I'd just like to say a few words... nee phtang! fribble

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