I’ll probably regret posting this so soon, as I don’t intend to publish the book until sometime in the new year, as I have only just released Heathens and don’t want to diminish it. SHAMELESS PROMO FOR THOSE IN THE CHEAP SEATS (Heathens is out now on Kindle and/or paperback if you want a horror/dark fantasy fix). But screw it, I’m very excited by the thought of getting this second instalment of Hourglass out there.
The second book follows on from the first (I mean, well, duh…), in that Clyde, Kev, Ace, and Rose and her ghoulish Army squad are operating out of New York’s HQ, the Madhouse. This time out they’re dealing with a Cairnwood plot to produce an assembly line of supernatural killers and enforcers (see book one’s epilogue), ostensibly for profit, but primarily just to tear Hourglass a new one.
But that’s just the barebones.
Expect a third party of complications in NYC’s elite criminal fraternity, some very troubling growing pains for Clyde and Kev, a couple of lethal paranormal killers, a few revelations about Erebus/The Null, those mysterious and horrifying badlands of the afterlife, and a new member for the team.
Well, here’s the ice cream to go with my waffle.
Clyde felt naked, and it wasn’t a bad dream. It was real. He carried a sound-suppressed semi-automatic rifle in his gloved hands, with two sound-suppressed pistols fastened to his body armour, and he even had a combat knife, a few frag grenades, and several flashbangs. Such armaments would have offered most people a modicum of ease under the circumstances, but he still felt underdressed for this party. Hardware aside, he was temporarily depowered for reasons yet unknown, and the atmosphere of this place, the very air itself, seemed to carry an odour of anxiety and expectant death. From the outside, it was just another warehouse in Queens, New York, but two facts made it stand out: first, it was the only property in the moribund area of Willets Point which had received some quiet, privately funded renovating; second, and most importantly, recent intel from one of Hourglass’ forensic accountants identified it as another dummy corporation for the Cairnwood Society. Bad news made worse since Clyde and his team were now on their shit list for sabotaging a very lucrative and morally despicable energy project of theirs a month ago. It entailed the capture and utilisation of fresh souls from the afterlife, or for those in the know, hell.
That’s all there was in the end. Hell. Or Erebus according to official agency documentation. Colloquially, Clyde and the shooters for the Hourglass department called it the Null.
Clyde slowly paced down the bare tunnel with beige-painted brick and yellow steel doors. The place resembled any other storage warehouse, albeit utterly devoid of life. His eyes darted about every locked steel door and brick recess. It was the lack of cameras that really had him spooked. It was either sheer arrogance on Cairnwood’s part — or rather Edward Talbot’s, the Society’s middle-man here in NYC — or there was a very good reason why cameras were not a necessity.
The stuff of nightmares.
‘Anything yet?’ Ace spoke into Clyde’s ear via comm-link.
Clyde flinched at the voice. Wound too tight. He stopped at the corner of the corridor, a quick peek-a-boo around the corner, not wanting to risk getting his head shot off by a waiting gunman. Gunman…he should be so lucky. The adjoining hallway was clear.
‘Nothing piled on nothing. But the thing’s here somewhere. I can feel it.’ Clyde felt the presence growing stronger, an uncomfortable sensation like that of a dozen cold dead hands pressing down on him, squeezing him. Suppressing him. Keeping Kev from entering the premises. Kev, his deceased best friend. The generator of their shared power. His teammate. His back-up. His responsibility.
Ace mumbled gruffly in agreement. He was the rough sort who frequently enjoyed long silences, interspersed with his ex-hockey player trash talk. ‘They wanted us divided for a reason.’
Clyde started down the next long corridor, making it to the end untroubled and finding a yellow steel door with a vertical slit of glass. ‘I got a stairwell going into a basement.’
‘Nothing bad ever happens in basements.’ A third voice, Rose’s.
‘Got a stairwell here at the west end too,’ Ace said.
‘We doing this?’ Clyde asked. Keeping his finger along the trigger guard. ‘Rose and I aren’t at full strength here, and we don’t know what’s down there.’
‘You pussying out?’ Typical Ace.
‘I’m playing it smart. Our intel didn’t mention there was some type of P.L.E. jammer on-site.’
P.L.E. Post-Life Entities, or ghosts to be even more colloquial. Back-up teams of traditional agents surrounded the premises. No supernatural perks, only the best hardware and training a well-funded shadowy government agency could buy. The reconnaissance teams couldn’t identify, or even pinpoint the cause of the ghost jamming, but a nifty handheld radar toy had provided them a glimpse through the large storage depot. The radar permeated most building materials except metal. Aside from the various steel doors outside and within, it was a brick structure. The radar had shown no signs of movement. Not even a mouse. If there was a hostile presence here then it was certainly of a very limited size. The only vehicles on the premises were a pair of Harley Davidsons, and a few mid-range Hyundai and Fords. Clyde didn’t suspect Talbot or one of his cuff-link cohorts would be present, being the sort to only travel in a higher class of car or with a chauffeur.
‘Even if we find it down there, we don’t even know what it is, or if we can knock it out. And if this suspiciously empty place has anything to do with the assassins being sent after the agency, then we’re at a significant tactical disadvantage going in there without Kev and the ISU.’ The ISU, or Intensive Scare Unit, the newly minted but unofficial nickname for Rose’s grisly friends. As for the assassins, over the past several weeks Clyde and his strike team had endured several hair-raising encounters with supernaturally-enhanced psychopaths; courtesy of Cairnwood. They had managed to put each one down, but instead of waiting to play the next round of whack-a-monster, the agency had been striving to locate the source of this recruitment.
And worst of all, for all the enhanced killers sent to draw out Clyde’s team by way of raiding agency safe houses or opportunistically eliminating personnel, one killer in particular cast a much larger shadow on Clyde’s psyche. A boogieman operating under the sobriquet of the Hangman. Elusive and deadly beyond measure. It was he whose bloody actions had subsequently created the local job openings for Clyde and his crew.
‘The nerd makes a good point, Ace.’ Rose added.
‘It’s just a jammer, kids. If it’s a gizmo, we break it. If it’s a hex, we grab the conjuror and I’ll shove an icicle up his tail pipe. This is us getting paid.’
Clyde shook his head at Ace’s big-swinging-dick attitude but stayed silent. He thought about the reinforcement squads surrounding the site. A trickle of sweat slowly coursed down his spine, and he was sorely tempted to get Deputy-Director Meadows on the line and have him dispatch a few more guns to search the place with them. But Clyde and his team were the tip of the spear, even if he and Rose had been temporarily rendered as no more than another pair of gun-slinging agents. All they had to do is dismantle whatever was interfering with their skill-sets, and Clyde would feel a whole lot better.
He waited a full half-second before taking the plunge. ‘Okay, snowman. You convinced me.’ Clyde tried not to think about the Hangman hiding somewhere down there. ‘I’m moving into the stairwell. And Ace? If I die down here, I’ll find a way to come back and haunt your ass.’ To little surprise, he found the door unlocked.
‘Just another Monday, kid.’
‘Heading for a freight elevator,’ Rose said. ‘Don’t do nothing stupid without me.’
Clyde edged into the amber-lit concrete stairwell; the air welcomingly cool. Just by standing at the top of the stairs, he felt a noticeable surge in pressure running along the knot twining Kev’s soul thread to his. The jammer was definitely down there somewhere. Moving quietly, he counted six landings before finding a door, its small square window dirty but clear enough to provide a glimpse into a very large sub-basement, easily two stories high, awash in pools of eerie amber light, and with a ceiling snaking with shadowy pipes. Pressing down on the handle, the door opened quietly, the hinges oiled and well used. A corpse fell into his path, a burly security guard who had died making a run from something, blood-soaked with a look of complete horror etched onto his face, the lacklustre light turning his eyes into pools of shadow. Clyde recognised the logo of the guard’s company. CSS. Citadel Security Solutions. The same well-funded, morally misaligned assholes he had faced during his break-up of Cairnwood’s inaugural souls-for-profit gig. And just when he was starting to hope that any skeleton security staff would be composed of nothing more than rats and spiders.
Breathing slowly through his mouth, Clyde stepped over the body onto a metal walkway, rifle up and scanning the large bunker-sized room which opened up and stretched out to the right of his position. The internal pressure increased within him, its alien magnetism continuing to rebuff Kev’s entry. It was a violation. Frankly, it was now beginning to piss him off. He spotted a few more dead bodies, one lying in the middle of the floor, and another sat legs akimbo against a wall, near a circular security hub occupying the centre of the room. The hub was manned by a couple of bored-looking CSS, eyes glued to phone screens or a fascinating pipe jutting from a wall, untroubled by the corpses of their own men.
A huddle of bikers sat in a far corner of the room, swilling beer, smoking, and playing cards at a round fold-out table. These details quickly became secondary to Clyde as he surveyed the back wall of the basement, his eyes scrolling up two tiers of what appeared to be prison cells, or as good as, sans iron bars. He counted sixteen in total, but only one of them had an occupant, a lithe woman he believed, her details obfuscated by distance, murky light, and her wild hair cascading down her face in dark tangles. Was she floating? Her body appeared to hang forwards from invisible wires at a near forty-five-degree angle, and all about her cell lay the remains of what could be another five security guards, though it would be hard to tell until all the severed bits and pieces were accounted for; one of them even appeared to have been splattered across the floor like a large spill of engine oil and red paint.
Soft motion caught the corner of Clyde’s eye. A large brute slipping through a door and looming at the top of a short flight of stairs opposite him, a hockey jersey pulled over his body armour, and his favourite 1980’s hockey goalie mask covering his face. It was always a comfort to know Ace was by your side. He didn’t bother with firearms. He did just fine without standard-issue agency hardware.
Neither of them spoke over the comm-link, even their whispers might travel in this tall narrow box of a room. They met in the middle of the walkway, and sharing a nod, Clyde started down the stairs, his rifle sight not wavering from the fed-up pair of guards: their movements seemed a little off, a little jerky, not to mention their apparent disinterest in their slaughtered pals, which was callous even for mercenaries. But Clyde’s interest in them was purely out of proximity. It was the three bikers who troubled him most, boozing and reading cards; their impersonal monosyllabism barely audible. In Clyde’s admittedly limited experience on the job, the bikers didn’t seem the sort to get hired by a wealthy group like Cairnwood, not for rank-and-file security work at least, that’s what they pay CSS for. Which meant they were likely more than they appeared. He cut a glance at the anti-gravity woman in stasis not too far from the bikers’ table. Looks like the agency intel was on the money. This was where Talbot had been storing his jacked-up lackeys.
Last week Clyde had helped eliminate a fire-breathing arsonist who had torched a temporary Hourglass post in Brooklyn. What shade of freak would the comatose woman and these bikers prove to be?
Clyde and Ace exchanged a weary glance as they approached the guard hub. Were they being intentionally ignored by the two guards? Ace’s fists turned glacial blue, and the drop in ambient temperature caused a chill to run through Clyde, cooling his nervous sweat. The cement wall to their left had a cage with some high-powered weaponry, but most of the equipment in there was for control rather than execution: cattle prods, flashbang grenades with launchers, a strange rifle Clyde had never seen before which ended not in a barrel but what looked like a tesla coil, various heavy-duty restraints and sedatives.
A few cautious steps later and Clyde understood why the hub guards were so utterly oblivious to the two intruders marching down on them. They were not bored. They were dead. Grey skinned and white-eyed, blood still dripping from the puddles in their seats. Their motions were even more erratic up close, repeating the same bland, poorly coordinated tasks on a fixed loop. They reminded Clyde of crappy fairground animatronics.
One of the bikers peered over another’s shoulder then, eyes pinning Clyde, and with an unheard comment the three of them dropped their cards and stood up. Cocksure and loose, they lined up before Clyde and Ace, cracking knuckles and rolling necks. The fact that they were empty-handed and dismissive of Clyde’s assault rifle or the fact that Ace’s hands were casually sculpting two large frozen gauntlets from thin air only confirmed Clyde’s estimation that they were not here to simply play blackjack and look intimidating.
‘Look at this, boys. A conjugal visit.’ The biker in the middle, the leader, was a man of gristle and sinew, long black hair and a teardrop tattoo running from one eye. His leather biker cut had PRESIDENT stitched over his name, ANSELMO. ‘Now if I had to guess, you’re the assholes who got us in this shit. But hey, I’m not complaining. Second chances and all.’
Clyde kept his rifle locked on the prez. ‘You more of Talbot’s lab rats?’
‘Talbot…Talbot? That the English faggot? I overheard the name, heard him talking once or twice, but can’t say I had any personal dealings with the guy.’
‘That you?’ Clyde tilted his head back towards the fresh corpses locked in their pointless pursuits and wasn’t sure if their bored mimicry made him feel safer or more on edge. He could still feel the disruptive influence dampening his necromantic ability, only now it was thrumming like an overheating generator. It wasn’t a trinket or some conjuration jamming Kev’s presence, it was one of the three thugs assembled before him, and now more than ever he suspected that this would be the fight he didn’t walk away from. Right now, without Kev, he was only a man with a gun.
‘Those poor fucks? Not our doing.’ Anselmo pivoted at the waist and gave an amused smirk at the floating woman, as still as a department store dummy. ‘Pretty cool though, huh? The new girl doesn’t seem to be fitting in too well with the rest of us. She spends most her time giving the brick wall the stink eye, but something set her off — oh I don’t know,’ he consulted his cohorts, ‘a few hands ago?’ The other two gave gallows grins and nodded. ‘And she just put on the best show I’ve seen in years, killing all those dumb fucks. It was funny at first, watching them run around with their little zappers and needles and shit. Then it just got pathetic. Something’s calmed her down though, but I don’t know what. Now, not that this hasn’t been a welcome visit and all, ‘cause believe me when I tell you, we’ve gotten a little stir-crazy down here; especially since your people have been so busy mowing down our other poker buddies. And sadly, she’s not the poker type,’ he said of the floating witch. ‘Anyway, I’m hearing the whispers again,’ Anselmo’s fingers twirled about his temple, ‘so we have a new game. The warden’s tellin’ me we need to show you some creative violence.’
‘Fuckin’ right,’ said the huge bald enforcer to Anselmo’s right. His leather biker cut designated him as the club’s SGT AT ARMS, below which was the name GRIM.
‘Nothin’ personal, we just owe a favour. And you’re interrupting my beer.’ That got a few chuckles from Grim and his other crony,a tall man with a distinctly horrifying appearance: his whole anatomy stretched out as though he had been halfway pulled apart by horses, his limbs grossly elongated. However, it was his head that repulsed Clyde the most. Its deformation; the skull and features compressed and stretched tall into a crude shape. It reminded him of a steam whistle. Clyde had seen more than his fair share of eyesores in his short time as an Hourglass agent, but this guy — his tag: Enforcer, name: Road Rash — was a real contender for the top spot.
‘Before we do this,’ Ace brought his ice-slab fists up into a boxer’s stance. ‘Who are you assholes? Just so I know whose beer I’ll be drinking.’
Anselmo smirked, and give a smug little turn, just enough to show his back and the name of his biker crew. Dukes of Purgatory.
‘The only thing you’re gonna be drinking is my piss.’ Grim planted one big motorcycle boot forwards, the flesh of his bare muscular arms and smooth-shaven head-turning a dull grey hue before settling into a shimmering polished chrome finish, and his deep-set eyes shone like green traffic lights above a midnight road.
Road Rash, in all his vulgarity, started to angle his way towards Clyde, which was when Clyde noticed the biker’s forearms slowly altering themselves into fleshy exhaust pipes, the cylinders so large they’d likely roar like gas-guzzling lions. Anselmo coasted back to his table and grabbed his unfinished bottle of beer, content to let his men warm things up.
Clyde squeezed the trigger, and several bursts of scorched lead speeded towards Rash, who responded by belching a thick, noxious cloud of gas. It was like the discharge of a dozen city buses on a hot day. He then raised his bizarre body-horror exhaust pipe arms into a firing position. Clyde, squinting through the roiling toxic vapours, strafed and fired, moving clear of the gas while aiming for the figure obfuscated by the murk. Two deafening booms, like the loudest engines on Earth backfiring, shook the room. The exhaust pipes peeking out from the flesh holsters of Rash’s arms were actually some weird form of organic shotgun. Clyde was unmarked, using the drifting mass of dirty particulate to briefly mask his movement. Rash was dangerous, but it wasn’t due to his intelligence or strategizing, though he was certainly passionate in his wrath, his cannon barrels thundering, again and again, making him a human death machine. Clyde stayed low, seeking his target, burst after three-round burst honing in on the elongated stickman slowly taking shape within the dissipating smog. There was nothing in the way of adequate cover, making this a foolish and desperate shoot-out, but Clyde wasn’t about to turn and sprint for the cover of the guard hub thirty yards away, risking a spine shredding from Rash’s buckshot. He had to close the gap, get in close enough to knock aside those cannon-booming arms before they reduced him to puree. His movements were trained by repetition but guided by fear and instinct. Without Kev to round out his skill set and level the playing field, this was a fight he shouldn’t be engaging in. He stepped in with another rapid burst into Rash’s chest, emptying the mag. The biker-creep barely shuddered from the impacts. Clyde swung his rifle stock to bar the aim of Rash’s left arm, then cracked the heavy polymer stock into his opening jaw, keeping him from belching another fog of carbon monoxide. It bought Clyde a second or two, just long enough to pull his combat knife and slide it into the cylindrical temple of Rash’s head. The blade’s sharpness met little resistance and accomplished what the firepower hadn’t. Always go for the head.
Coughing the residual airborne filth from his lungs, Clyde reloaded his rifle but didn’t draw on the metal-skinned thug. For all of Grim’s threat and imposition, Ace was a much more skilled hand-to-hand combatant; Clyde knew first-hand, having been trained by him. Grim fought with determination and anger, a hostility which only grew with his impatience as Ace stayed in the pocket, slipping and bobbing the whooshing chrome-plated fists, returning his own frosty flurries to ribs and jaw. Grim all but roared in frustration, hurling haymaker after haymaker in an attempt to shatter Ace’s hockey mask, and most likely the skull beneath, but Ace grew tired of his game and lowered his hands as if in surrender. Grim’s green go-light eyes showed no surrender, and he swung again, surprised to find himself almost falling over. His boots had been frozen solid to the concrete.
‘Quit fuckin’ ‘round, shit heel. FIGHT!’ Grim was bending at the waist, hammering at the deep freeze trapping his shins.
‘We just did. You lost.’ Ace delivered an uppercut so powerful that it shattered his right gauntlet into powdered ice. Grim’s green beams shut off and he sagged forwards into Ace. Ace clapped his palm over Grim’s broken jaw which hung open like busted machinery and froze the air within his mouth and throat, a growing obstruction choking the would-be assassin. Grim struggled through semi-consciousness, slowly regaining his senses but was powerless to resist. It didn’t take long, the sub-zero temperature freezing his internals doing more damage than the choking.
Anselmo was sat with his boots on the card table, a cloud of cigarette smoke pouring from his nostrils. He crushed it out, finished his bottle, and dropped his legs. ‘That’s a pity. Rash was always an asshole but I considered Grim a true brother, even without the MC patch.’ He brushed aside the folds of his leather cut, revealing what looked like a motorcycle headlamp growing from between his pectorals. ‘But it’s cool. The highway to Hell is a never-ending ride.’
The headlamp shone brightly, blindingly so at first, and a wild chorus of growling engines and riotous whoops permeated the air, causing a deafening din made all the worse by the confines of brick. It was a disorienting effect and it took Clyde a few moments to comprehend what was happening. It was a phalanx of Anselmo’s crew, riding out of his chest lamp along a yellow road of light, the brethren he had lost in a lifetime of gang warfare, drug overdoses, and bloody police encounters. Clyde noticed Road Rash and Grim were already back amongst the posse, their swift return having surely kept their souls from sneaking a glimpse at the dystopic everafter that was the Null.
The mob left Anselmo’s road of despairing light and commenced speeding around Clyde and Ace, the path of their ghostly machines skirting partially through the walls without impediment. Anselmo wasn’t through with his party trick, the veins of his forearms beginning to glow with oil and brimstone. A spectral chopper materialised between his legs, its damned engine rumbling like the belly of some hungry mechanical stallion.
And as quickly as it began, it stopped.
The cycle of ghost thugs vanished into faintly glowing wisps, the roar of their engines leaving with them. Anselmo’s bike erased itself from the physical world, and a look of stunned confusion stole his attention. Clyde felt how the jammer’s effects had suddenly diminished. Anselmo was the jammer, a traffic controller for spirits. Kev would be on his way here very soon, as would the ISU, but it seemed as though the short battle was over.
Anselmo seemed to have forgotten all about Clyde and Ace, showing far more interest in the woman suspended in her cell above a pile of gore and limbs. Was she asleep?
Clyde blew into his hands, still feeling the December chill of Ace’s earlier activity, and that’s when he noticed the reason for Anselmo’s confusion. A series of red shimmering threads were being drawn out from his spine and limbs. Bloody puppet strings.
‘What…the…fuck!’ Every word was a Herculean effort for the biker prez, his teeth clenched in agony, jaws locked as tight as his body.
The suspended woman twitched, a small movement akin to a muscle spasm, but it was the first of her awakening. Raising her arms up leisurely, she could have been either puppet or puppeteer. She lifted her head to the ceiling of her cell, and her wild black hair fell away to reveal a doll mask, ceramic or bone, it was hard to tell, but it was painted with an expression of almost sinister coyness. She stepped tentatively from thin air onto the concrete. Waving her arms in smooth circles, the motion made Clyde think of the old folks he’d sometimes see doing Tai Chi in the park. But this was no Tai Chi. The movements performed a much darker purpose. A group of stick-thin mannequins, ghastly in their motions, rose from the ground around Anselmo’s boots, wrenched up from some unknown hell by barely-glimpsed strings.
‘The elevator’s got no power.’ Clyde was so enrapt by the scene before him that Rose’s voice in his ear made him bounce on his toes. He had half a mind to tell Ace to haul ass back to the stairs before pulling the pins on his grenades and tossing them at the contorting female and Anselmo. But why was she attacking one of her own instead of them? Wasn’t she aware of who they are or why they were here?
What happened next happened very quickly. The chattering and clinking mannequins descended on Anselmo, tearing out his arteries and veins like a glistening scarlet wire mesh. The mess was almost as horrific as his howls of agony, which, mercifully, were short-lived. The blood-soaked puppets vanished back through the floor as though they had had their own strings clipped. The doll-maker didn’t waste time acknowledging the remains of Anselmo but shifted her blank mask to Clyde and Ace.
Clyde gripped his rifle a little tighter, then eased up as he watched her hands fly up to her face as she doubled over with a migraine.
A migraine shared with Clyde and Ace.
Behind the wall of throbbing pain, something moved inside Clyde’s mind. Gently at first, slow and meek, perhaps troubled by its situation. It was a presence both alien and curious. Clyde didn’t understand how he knew this, other than an innate sense of being scrutinised by something ancient and formidable. An image of chaos swirled in his mind, a ravaging storm of wind and light and dust, and as quickly as it arrived, the presence and the image departed.
The ragged-clothed puppeteer was not so lucky, shrieking in agony, she beat at her temples and took off for the sealed freight elevator near the cells. Things only got weirder: just when it seemed like she was about to run headlong into the steel grating, a giant semi-transparent form enveloped her slender, agile body, and crashed through the elevator door as though it was crepe paper. Clyde was about to put it down to his eyes being irritated by Rash’s lingering particle matter, but he could have sworn the large form was that of a giant stuffed gorilla. A monstrous green cuddly toy with a banana peel for a tie.
Ace lifted his mask up, wearing the frown of someone shaking off a hangover instead of a skull-splitting thought invasion. ‘Any thoughts on what just happened?’
‘Rose,’ Clyde said, ‘forget coming down here. Something’s on its way up to you.’
‘Hey, you took the jammer down? Sarge and the ISU are here.’
‘Good, you might need them.’
Another semi-transparent figure rocketed down through the ceiling, a young man, slightly bookish in appearance, with glasses and a husky body which had not been used to the rigours of exercise in his corporeal days, but whose expression was far from timid.
‘About damn time,’ Kev said. The natural bluish tint of his appearance was marred somewhat by the amber lighting, except for the bullet hole in his chest which remained a deep cobalt. He glanced about at the various inhuman corpses and the smashed open elevator door. ‘What did I miss?’
‘Discount Donkey Kong.’
Agent Rose Hadfield had been on her way back from the unpowered freight elevator when she heard a distant crash and the groan of tortured metal. The noise seemed to be coming from somewhere deeper in the building. The basement, sub-basement maybe. It was around this time that she felt her impressively sculpted shoulders and arms invigorate, the sensation spreading all through her trim solid core, and down her huge muscular thighs all the way to her calf muscles. Sure, she was an impressive physical specimen before all of this: a competitive power lifter who joined the Army, but after a near-death experience which blew her old squad to pieces during an ISIS skirmish in Syria, she discovered a strength fit for a demigoddess, the collective grief and anger of her demised war buddies fuelling her muscles like a paranormal performance enhancer. Her possession of such strength wasn’t dependent on geographic proximity to the ISU, but she liked their company. And right now, her muscles were telling her that the P.L.E. jammer was down, and her body was once again the barracks for the ISU.
There came a noise of rapid scrabbling speeding its way up the elevator shaft, and with the building lacking a second floor, it was coming straight towards her. The metal door crumpled outward, tearing from the frame and taking a good portion of the surrounding brickwork with it. The swirling brick dust veiled the rampaging brute, but Rose could have sworn it was an 8×8 foot stuffed monkey. As the dust cleared there was no giant monkey. Just a woman in white — more grey, actually — a patient’s hospital gown? Her long dark hair fell away, showing Rose the painted mask hiding her face. The woman stared at Rose for a few moments, observing her, assessing the threat. Rose was only 5’5”, and despite not even tipping the scales at 130 pounds, her statuesque frame had a tendency to give others pause. Plus, she had a combat shotgun braced in her hands. They each stood and stared. The masked woman reached to her forehead, the reaction of a pounding headache.
Times like these made Rose grateful for dead allies. She felt Sergeant Connors and Privates Barros and Darcy surging through her again. But she also sensed their concerns, their internal chatter from within the interstitial Command Centre advising her that the woman was a hostile. Another devil-jazzed freak waiting for Talbot to unleash upon Hourglass.
But she wasn’t attacking them yet. And she hadn’t killed Ace or Clyde.
She lowered her shotgun an inch. ‘Are you okay?’
‘We can resolve this peacefully.’
Agency intel had posthumously revealed that the other assassins had been less than saints in their former lives, being career criminals — one of whom had been the subject of a three statewide manhunt before being apprehended by the FBI, only for him to be sprung from the US Marshals’ transport by a well-armed and highly organised group of unknowns — though they lacked any deeper knowledge on the creation of these exceptionally dangerous individuals, and the exact means of their recruitment. The other enforcers had been very clear and motivated in their intent to kill all things Hourglass, but this woman only seemed confused. Was Talbot also selecting innocent civilians?
‘We can get you help.’
The woman suddenly jolted to life, her runner’s build moving quickly, her body becoming armoured again, sealed tight within that bizarre holographic monkey thing. Rose brought the shotgun to bear, finger squeezing the trigger. Pale arms sprouted from nowhere, hands snatching at the gun barrel and spoiling her aim, the blast pulverising one of the rail lights and a chunk of cement in the ceiling, dropping her into a pool of darkness. The playful smile of the humongous monkey grew in size as it bounded forth, four paws pummelling the ground. Rose looked about in surprise as the pale wooden arms became pale wooden bodies, puppets climbing out of spaces within thin air to wrest Rose and hold her steady.
They didn’t have enough puppets for that.
Rose shrugged them off, picking one up to smash into another. But that was all she had time to do. Somewhere inside that giant goofy monkey, the doll-woman swung her left hand out in a backlash. Monkey see monkey do. The paw smashed into Rose like a speeding bus, sending her crashing through the brick wall into the empty lot outside the building. The tarmac was still warm from the day’s stifling heat. If Rose had been an ordinary woman they would have been scraping and jet washing her off the brick. Dazed but fighting-fit, Rose rolled over and jumped back to her feet. Hearing the ISU running through potential strategies, several of the mannequins crowded about the hole in the wall, peeking around the broken edges to observe Rose without faces. They backed away respectfully as their creator stepped into view, the monkey-suit vanishing once more.
Rose clenched her fists and had a sudden desire to pile-drive the toy-making skank into the asphalt. Contrarily, the doll queen stepped out into the warm night, bathed in yellow-orange floodlights, her white slippers leaving the ground as invisible wires carried her up, up and away, running and bounding through the air.
Rose watched her vanish over some adjacent warehouse rooftops, and was about to call it in to the perimeter teams keeping watch when she saw them already descending into lots of animated hand movements and order-relaying. They had aerial drones and a chopper in the area who should be able to track her. Feeling none too pleased with how that went down, she kicked a chunk of brick-like a soccer ball, watching it sail like a missile across twenty yards of open lot before disintegrating against a dumpster, but not before denting it. She fixed her platinum ponytail and waited for Clyde and the others to catch up.