Authors: Nick Kelly
A man stepped quickly into the alcove. Either he was here for the job, or he planned to drive something in the neighborhood of an explosive projectile through the hitman’s chest. Cat merely held his glass before his mouth, watching from behind black shades. He raised an eyebrow. “Can I help you?”
“If you’re Catwalk, you can.”
The tall man had dark hair, graying slightly at his temples, and a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. He was thin but not unhealthy. He wore sensible clothes, the kind scholars wore, but not so upscale that he would draw unnecessary attention. He was, in a word, practical.
Cat could abide with practical. It beat the hell out of a partner with delusions of fortune and fame. He studied the man again. His eyes were obviously not natural. The way the light caught them at certain angles betrayed their artificial nature. His tone provided no hint of nervousness or fear. His body language was stable, especially for someone in a club vibrating at the mercy of the music. This man was focused and well prepared.
Cat tilted his head slightly and pushed one of the faux leather chairs toward the stranger. The man sat, comfortably folding his legs as he did so. Cat drew the pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket, offering one. The man waved a hand in denial.
“You mind?” The hitman asked as he pulled out a lighter.
“Not at all, though that tells me something of your nature when it comes to caring for your health. You will start me at a bit of a disadvantage if you’re going to be poisoning yourself regularly.”
Cat nodded and lit the cigarette anyway. The man’s simple statement revealed that he was here for the interview as Catwalk’s biological and technical consultant. It was an odd mix, but one that was growing tightly intertwined as mankind embraced machine in a symbiotic relationship.
“Touché. So, I read up on you, sounds like you ain’t no stranger to some a’ the seedier elements in town.”
“I have constructed my professional career in accordance with my goals. There were a few…mistakes amongst my acquaintances, to be certain. But, that is why we’re here, isn’t it? Each of us wants to ensure that this is not another mistake?”
“What do you know about cyber-surgery?” Cat replied.
The man brushed a bit of ash from his cleaned and pressed pant leg. “If you’ve read up on me, you know already.” He paused and then leaned forward. “I understand that your cybernetic enhancements are somewhat unique. I admit that I carry a professional fascination with unraveling the mysteries of your internal workings.”
“You think I’m a puzzle ta solve?”
“I think you’re an interesting case on the biological level, Mr. Catwalk. I have no delusions of being a psychiatric professional and no desire to provide you with such an analysis today, or ever.”
Cat downed a slug of the vodka, “Smart man.”
A silent nod was his only acknowledgement.
“You already know how I pay, then,” Cat continued. “There’s a commission on completed jobs, plus an ongoing rate for my maintenance. I can handle my own gear.”
“Are you saying I’m hired, then?”
Cat took a drag from the cigarette. “Don’t get ahead a’ yerself. There are a few more things that factor in. First of all, there’s a bit of a trial period. I’d love to hear how yer ‘professional fascination’ digests the in’s an’ out’s of my gear. Secondly, there’s a little matter a’ professional courtesy, meanin’ you disclose the right info to the wrong parties, an’ you get scrapped for parts. Third, I’m gonna need ta know what ta call you.”
The man smiled the faintest of grins. “For your first condition, I’m as enthusiastic about diagnosing you as you are to hearing my analysis, but you know that already. To address the second, I would not carry the longevity in my career working with your particular brand of professional if I did not respect that level of privileged information already. Third, I’ve used many handles in the past, though I’ve had to retire them due to conflict with a former client who is still seeking to partner my testicles with jumper cables. Hence, my need for employment.”
Cat nodded, downed another mouthful, then gestured, glass in hand, “Why the eyes?”
The question caught the tall, well-dressed man slightly off-guard. Cat noted the first time he had succeeded in doing so. “I overcame a rather debilitating disease which threatened many of my biological processes when I was young. It was the result of a misdiagnosis from a public servant medical practitioner. I nearly lost my eyesight, as well as my kidney and liver functions. My eyes never fully recovered, making me quite sensitive to bright light and flashes. When I was a teenager, I opted for full replacement over generic chemical enforcement. I’ve never, as they say, looked back.”
Cat grinned at the level of humor suddenly shown by the previously stiff conversationalist. “Gimme an address an’ I’ll meet you tomorrow for an initial scan.”
The man nodded, betraying his self-satisfaction slightly at having passed the initial interview. He slid a card across the small glass-topped table to Catwalk. Then, he stood, “Is 10am acceptable or should I make it later for you to fight off the effects of that vile drink?”
“Ten’s fine, doc,” Cat replied. As an afterthought, he slugged the remainder of the vodka. As he placed the emptied glass on the tabletop, he looked up at the stranger. “I’ll see you then, Delambre.”
The man raised an eyebrow then smiled his slight grin again. “Hmm, then à demain, Catwalk.”
He turned and exited, fading into the crowd of swirling bodies and pulsing lights. Cat watched him as he left. Without a word, he crushed his cigarette. He looked the man’s card over again. It offered a contact number with no name. Cat grinned, signaling the waitress for another drink. He stared at the card, filtering through the first interview, and weighing the abilities of his potential partner.
Midas slammed a golden fist through the glass coffee table. Shards filled the air, then dropped like glittering rain to the carpeted floor. A handful of yes-men and concubines scattered to the corners of the room. Hitch was dead. His body had been discovered burnt to a crisp inside his limo. The initial reports said he was trying to claw his way out as he was burned alive.
The only lead was the presence of some inhuman thing that had appeared out of nowhere, according to the eyewitness testimony of a drugged-out, underage streetwalker. Midas stood up, straightening his collar. Shards of glass fell as he brushed his silk dress shirt.
Long ago, Midas had undergone irreversible cyber-surgery, giving his skin a glowing hue, while his eyes become two imposing golden spheres. He’d converted masses with the simple message that “Everything he touched turned to gold”. Hitch had been no exception.
Midas provided the pathetic necrophiliac with all the attention and affection that Hitch’s broken psyche constantly craved. As a result, Hitch was an obedient, if flawed, dog.
Midas’ slightest gesture kept him in line for years, providing him an outlet for his inhuman sexual advances while leaving him a productive member in the trafficking of weapons and drugs through Midas’ empire. Hitch was a henchman, and despite his flaws, he provided Midas something he needed. Hitch had been the sales pitch to many of the drug runners in Nitro City. If a limping, disfigured scavenger could rise to the right hand of the Golden King, anyone could. Now, Midas would have to hide the disappearance of his Renfield before the same impressionable scum began pissing themselves over rumors of some vigilante.
The fool who had lashed out at Midas’ empire would have to suffer, if only to send a message to the competition. It wouldn’t be hard to find the chitbag who’d pulled the plug on his disfigured errand boy. Midas stared at the footage from the limo’s security camera. He lifted the golden goblet to his lips and took a long drink.
He beckoned with a finger to one of his guards. The armored man, large enough to fill most of the entrance to Midas’ quarters, stepped forward with programmed obedience. Midas gestured, and the screen froze. The scared face of the scrawny male prostitute filled the screen. “Put the word out. We have a new target.”
“Bring me the boy…alive.”
The H-S reluctantly cut to silence as Cat parked it on the top floor of the parking deck. He stole a quick glance around. The building wasn’t exactly upscale. There were no armored guards or wired fences, but it boasted reinforced concrete walls, and the doors were solid enough. If Delambre had put his lab here, he’d done so with a great deal of consideration ahead of time.
Cat armed the explosive theft-prevention alarm on the motorcycle and stepped off. The wind made his pony tailed hair feel ratty and had blown up one side of his collar. He ignored it. He left the shotgun and SMG’s under lock and key, opting for the baton and pistol as he entered what was supposed to be friendly territory. Punching in the key Delambre had provided, he was whisked downward by the elevators. He slipped the plain brown envelope from one hand to the other while he waited for the descent to end.
Several floors below ground, the doors opened to a room of artificial light with a pale blue glow that reminded Cat of hospitals, morgues, and his old PD. He recognized medical equipment in organized fashion along the walls, and the steady hum indicated more computers than were readily visible.
The figure that greeted him wasn’t Delambre. Instead, the click of heels and startling, warm tone of a voice caught him by surprise. “You must be Mr. Caliber.”
Cat raised his gaze to the hostess, his mind instantly in spin-cycle. Her features betrayed a heritage that was equally African, Latin, and American. Her skin was a light, mocha brown. Her straight, black hair was pulled up into a bun with ebony chopsticks keeping it in place. Her brown eyes were framed with black-rimmed glasses. She wore a white, clean lab coat over a black pair of pants and black shoes. Cat recognized that he was staring, but couldn’t stop until Delambre’s voice drew him away.
“It’s admirable that you found us, Catwalk, and early, too.”
Cat replied, still unable to take his eyes off of the surprising new person in the equation. “I always aim for a few minutes ahead a’ time. Gives me some leeway in the event of an undisclosed road closure.”
“Ah, and were there any today?”
“One. But I jumped it and left a few shells behind ta assist with rush hour.”
Delambre grinned. “Such a humanitarian.” His eyes trailed to Cat’s hands, “something in the envelope I should know about?”
Cat nodded, tossing the brown envelope to Delambre. “Sure. Passport and ID ta match up with yer cover here in Nitro. Might as well have you able ta shop an’ walk among the legit crowd if yer gonna be helpin’ me out.”
Without opening it, Delambre placed it on a table. “Passport and ID only? What about an Off-World credential? If I’m a legitimate scientist, I’ll need an Off-World registration. Scientists are in-demand in the colonies, after all.”
Cat’s smile stretched across his face. He reached into his jacket pocket and tossed the card into Delambre’s hands. “Nicely played.”
The geneticist’s smile mirrored the one he had displayed in the club. He was again grateful to have passed the hitman’s unspoken test.
Without a word, the woman who had been studying them both spun on a heel and left the room. Cat knew his eyes were on her figure as she left, but he didn’t bother to be discreet.
“’Ta’ assist with rush hour?” Delambre asked.
The geneticist squinted, studying Cat. “You said ‘ta’ assist. Hmm. I was curious last night if your definitive east coast accent was the product of alcohol, or if you always had it. I think I’ve had my question answered.”
Cat scowled. “You suddenly my vocal coach, too?”
Delambre shook his head, his eyes confirming the younger woman’s exit.
“You must forgive my daughter,” he said, thickly accenting the last two words. “She hasn’t learned the necessity or promise of dealing with someone in your less-than-legal profession.”
Cat chuckled, acknowledging the inflection of a concerned father. “I’ve been on the legal side, hombre. I like where I am now a shock-of-a-lot more.”
Their eyes met briefly, the geneticist and the killer. Delambre spoke first, gesturing to a clean, metal table before him. “Shall we begin, then?”
The scientist’s laugh crept in pitch and volume until it grew to a cackle bounding off the laboratory walls. He laughed until breathing became a chore. He nearly regained composure, but one more glance at the news feed sent him into another bout of uncontrollable laughter. When he finally regained composure, he wiped the tears from his eyes and stood upright. Reaching for a small airbrush, he painted a five-pointed star atop the forehead of a metallic skull resting on the workbench. He placed his hand under it, cupping it, and raising it until he was eye-to-vacant-eye with the inhuman face.
“We want to ask you some questions regarding the disappearance of a local resident.” He furrowed his brow and gave the severed skull a tone of authority.
Feigning surprise at the voice he’d given the skull, he replied, “I’m happy to assist, officer.”
“Have you ever seen or met this man? His name is Hitch.”
“Oh,” he mocked, almost spitting out a laugh. “I’m afraid we’ve never met, officer.”
He tilted the skull as if it was lost in contemplation. “His limo was found burned almost beyond recognition out at the old airfield. You know anything about that?”
“Oh, no, sir,” he swooned, “I’ve never even been there.”
“Anything else you’d like to add then?”
“Yes, officer, I believe you can rule out aneurism when determining cause of death.” The scientist fell on the floor, clutching his stomach as he laughed. The skull clattered to the floor, landing on its crown, facing him upside down like a disapproving metallic bat. It took almost a full minute for him to brace an arm against the workbench and rise to his feet. Even then, he doubled over, still breaking into fits of laughter.