Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Science fiction
Doc struck another match.
Now, big fire, do as your little brother does.
He touched the flickering flame to the skin on his arm.
Harris saw the Bunsen burner on the table flare up in spontaneous combustion and saw Doc burn himself with the match. It made no sense.
But the flame from the burner bent as though it were hinged and struck one of the gunmen in the back, igniting his suit coat. The man yelled, spun around to confront his tormenter, and the wash of living fire struck him across his face; he screamed again as his hair and hat ignited.
It was a moment's distraction for the battery of men firing against Doc's associates; they glanced at their burning comrade, their faces angry, confused.
Doc popped up from behind his table and fired twice with that big pistol. One of the red-suited men jerked and fell, spraying more gunfire into the floor as he collapsed. Another staggered back, the deeper red of blood staining the arm of his coat. And all the while, the living fire reached out, hungrily straining to touch another of the red-suited men.
Harris spotted Alastair crouching beside one of the wall cabinets. The doctor had gotten it open; inside hung pistols, a sword that looked like an ornate fencing weapon, and a submachine gun much like the ones the red-suited men carried. Alastair, daring, reached up to grab the big gun. Bullets plowed into the case around him but he snatched the weapon down.
Jean-Pierre and Noriko were nowhere to be seen.
Then he saw the woman; on the far side of the attacking men, she popped up from behind a table like a lightning-fast jack-in-the-box. She held a sword in a two-handed grip, the blade back over her shoulder, and lunged at the nearest man, whose back was to her. She swung the blade at him, blindingly fast, but missed; she immediately ducked out of sight again.
miss. Harris saw a thin red line appear on the man's neck. The red-suited man fell over. Impossibly, horribly, his head separated from his body and the two parts seemed to fall in slow motion. Arterial spray from the neck hit the ceiling as if fired from a water-sprinkler, then tracked down the wall as the body hit the floor. The head hit, rolled a few yards, and fetched up against a stool.
Most of the men were fanning out and away from the aggressive burner flame but concentrating their fire on Doc, keeping him pinned down. Two were hosing down another, distant, toppled table, perhaps where Jean-Pierre was. But one, armed with a revolver instead of a submachine gun, seemed to be intent on an object he held in one hand; it looked like an old-fashioned volt-meter with a black plastic case. He waved it around, then pointed it more or less in Harris' direction . . . and looked straight at Harris. He smiled.
The man trotted toward him, ignoring the gunfire as though it were a light rain. Another gunman, this one carrying a submachine gun, followed.
Harris sank down and retreated, scooting on his stomach to slide back under the sofa he'd lain on a few minutes before.
Just in time. The two men skidded as they reached the television set. They opened fire on the space behind it before they even saw it. Harris saw bullets explode into the floor where he had crouched just a moment ago; he felt splinters tear at his face.
Harris bellowed his fear and anger. He heaved up on the sofa, shoved it at the two men, rising and uncoiling behind it. The heavy piece of furniture slammed into them, knocking the second man down and sending his submachine gun skidding away, driving the first man backwards an off-balance step. The sofa crashed down on the man who'd fallen.
Follow through. Throw combinations.
Harris drove forward at the man who still stood. The impact with the sofa had driven the man's gun hand up; the brassy-colored revolver was pointed at the ceiling but starting to come down again.
Harris grabbed the gunman's wrist with his left hand and struck him with his right, a palm strike that smashed his nose. Harris followed through, continuing to crowd the gunman, slipping his right arm over his enemy's gun arm and folding his elbow across the man's joint, pinning the limb; then he rotated the man's wrist down and back, bending the arm in a direction it wasn't meant to go.
The cracking noise surprised him; adrenaline must have given him strength he hadn't counted on. He watched the man's elbow break and felt the forearm freewheel, no longer supported by bone. The man's pistol fell to the floorboards. The gunman followed it down, unconscious from the pain.
Harris spun and went after the submachine gunner. The man was still down but already scrambling toward his weapon. Harris' kick took him in the solar plexus and folded him double. Harris dropped, following him down, and used his momentum and an open-palm blow to drive the man's head into the floorboards. There was a sharp crack and this gunman went limp, too.
Leaving Harris out in the open. He stayed down and scuttled sideways to get under another table.
But no one was paying him any attention. In fact, fewer men were firing. One was Alastair, opening up with short, carefully measured bursts of gunfire. The attackers who weren't already down had taken cover. Harris saw one of them pop up from behind a table to spray the room—then he stiffened as the point of Noriko's sword emerged from his chest. He looked stupidly at the blade as it retracted. Then he collapsed out of sight.
A dozen yards away, Jean-Pierre rose so that he was partially exposed; he held a long-barrelled revolver in his right hand and what looked like a carved crystal paperweight in his left hand. He heaved the paperweight behind another toppled table. As it hit, he shouted, "Stickbomb!"
The red-suited man behind the table didn't wait to see. He dove away from his cover. Jean-Pierre's shot took him in the side and he lay still. The crystal paperweight did not explode.
There was a brief lull in the gunfire. Doc, his tone dry, finished his statement: "— or my associates and I will be forced to defend ourselves."
No answer. Then one of the gunmen dropped his weapon over the side of his table and raised his hands in the air. A moment later two others did the same.
It was too late for the rest.
The shriek rang in Gaby's ears and she sat up, disoriented. In the dimness, nothing looked familiar, not the nightstand beside the bed, not the curtains on the windows; where were her bookshelves? And who screamed?
The door into the bedroom opened, spilling light over her, and Elaine hurried in, clutching her robe close. Blond, frowzy, busy Elaine; Gaby sighed her relief as she remembered where she was. Elaine's guest room, miles and state lines between her and all that craziness in the city.
Elaine sat on the bed beside her and brushed Gaby's bangs out of her eyes. "You okay, honey?"
"Yeah." Gaby shivered and tried to pull the blanket up around her shoulders. "I heard a noise. Like someone shouted."
, poor thing. You must have been dreaming. You were shouting something about they're coming, get out of there. You must have been remembering, you know,
. This evening."
"I suppose." Gaby frowned. The last faint tendrils of her dream were slipping away from her, but she didn't remember being fearful for herself. It was others she had worried about, others she couldn't remember now.
It must have been Harris. Concern for him ate at her again. "Has there been any word—"
"No, nothing. Still no answer at his apartment."
"Did you get anything figured out? Like why some old guy and his two creeps would . . . "
"Kidnap me? No. It doesn't make any sense." She lay back to stare up at Elaine's sympathetic, weary face. "I don't think they wanted to rape me. I think they wanted to find something out from me. God knows what. I don't
anything. Anything a program manager knows, they could hire a consultant to find out, right?"
"Well, you're safe here. We have a security system, Jim has his guns—"
"I want to learn to shoot."
Elaine looked startled. "You always hated guns."
"Still do. Guess what I hate more."
"Yeah. Okay, I'll tell Jim. He'll be glad to take you out to the range he uses."
Elaine hugged her, then rose and patted her hand. "You try to get some sleep. But if you can't, and you want to talk, knock on our door. Anytime. It's okay."
"I'll do that."
" 'Night, hon." Elaine left, shutting the door and closing out the hallway light, but Gaby was glad to see the faint glow around the edges of the door. Nice to know that light was only a few steps away, Elaine only a few steps beyond that.
But if she didn't get good news from the police soon, she'd have to leave all of it. Deep inside, she knew the old man and his two thugs, including the one she'd described as wearing a Halloween mask when she knew that wasn't the truth, would come looking for her again.
She knew because of the way the old man's face lit up when they caught her. Because of how happy he'd been to have her. He'd be back. She couldn't let Lainie and Jim get caught up in the old man's craziness. And she had to find Harris, make sure he was safe.
The thought kept her awake as she lay alone in the dark.
Twelve men had appeared to attack them. Three surrendered unhurt. Four, including Harris' attackers, were alive but seriously injured. Five more were dead.
Alastair set his submachine gun aside, clucked over the dead and did what he could to bandage the wounded; Jean-Pierre bound the hands of the living and took their weapons away.
Doc gestured at the writhing flame atop the burner as if communicating with it; he frowned, clearly displeased, and closed his fist, a dramatic gesture. The fire snuffed out; the burner beneath continued to hiss until Doc walked up to twist the knob at its base.
Harris dully looked over the scene of carnage.
He'd never seen dead men before. Four of them lay in strange poses, blood slowly spreading from chests, heads, limbs. One of them was burned black in places. The last of them, whose head lay four yards from the rest of him, was worst. Harris felt his stomach lurch. He returned to the safe haven of the television corner, restored the sofa to its wall position, and sprawled on it.
Noriko sat on the sofa opposite, serenely cleaning her blade with a cloth. Her expression was as calm as if she were a statue made of jade. Her weapon—she must have gone straight for it after Gabriela's warning—was a little like the Japanese swords he'd once seen, but much straighter; the sheath lay beside her on the sofa. The sword went from blood-smeared to silvery clean in a couple of minutes, and Harris could see the care Noriko took not to touch its blade. Then she returned it to its sheath and gave him a calm stare. He looked away.
"You did very well," she said.
"I want to throw up."
"Reasonable." She gestured at a small door in the corner. "That is the water closet."
But he didn't really feel the need, not quite yet.
Doc and Alastair came clattering in from the hallway. The doctor walked over to Harris and Noriko: "The room just downstairs, where they launched that device, is all clear. Smoke all over the room from the rocket. They sapped Leith in the elevator, but he'll recover."
"The thing that came through the floor was a rocket?" Harris asked.
"I fear so." Alastair looked disturbed. "Not an explosive one. But then, these floors have wards to protect us against explosive attacks from outside. They must have known that."
Doc knelt beside the spike in the floor, studying it without touching it, then moved off a few feet to examine what looked like streaks of black paint on the floor. He gave a whistle that sounded appreciative to Harris. "Very clever," he said. "Alastair, look at this."
The moon-faced doctor wandered over. Doc continued, "This projectile shoots paint out in all directions, very precisely. The paint is so carefully oriented that it forms a continuous circle."
Alastair looked up at him, startled. "A conjuring circle."
"Yes. See here, a few shunts sprayed other patches of paint in recognizable patterns. The required symbols of transference."
Alastair looked at the symbols, and Harris did, too. They appeared to be smeared blobs on the wood, meaningless paint-squiggles. Alastair said, "They're very sloppy, but correct in form. But you have all four floors warded against devisements of transference like that . . . "
Doc nodded, smiling, encouraging him to continue, and Alastair got it. "But they
fired the projectile through the wards
, got past them physically. I understand. Damned clever."
Doc's smile turned grim. "Which means
my wards are effectively useless. I wonder if they can adapt this device for longer-range attacks. Get through any set of wards. I'll have to prepare some new types. All of this means that whoever they are—I assume the Changeling—have a deviser working with them."
"Hey," said Harris. They all looked at him. "Don't you think it's about time you called the police?"
"The . . . police," Alastair echoed.
"You know. Whoever you call when people break into your house, try to kill you, and get killed. They come, they arrest people, there are trials . . . Police."
Doc nodded and stood. "I have a commission with the Novimagos Guard by special order of the King. By extension, so do my associates. So in a sense, we
the . . . police. Proper forms are being observed."
"That makes me feel
"Everyone, change for the street. Alastair, get Harris some appropriate clothes. We need to find the place where Harris arrived."
Alastair took Harris up two floors by back stairways to a small, bare bedroom. The room was dusty and had a fan mounted on a swivel bracket on the wall. The anonymity of the furnishings gave the place the feel of a hotel room. However, its closet was stuffed full of men's and women's garments in various sizes, and in a few minutes Alastair had found him an outfit to replace his torn, smoke-stained clothes.