Now that I was looking, I could see what Anonymous meant about the soul broker and order. His suit was immaculate, without a single frayed thread or balled up bit of fuzz on its dark gray fabric. Three plastic buttons marched down from his belly to his waist, solid black circles with the thread out of sight behind them. His tie was black as well, a two-inch wide strip of cloth that disappeared into the suit where it was tucked underneath thick gray cloth. But there was much, much more than just neat clothes.
People were naturally symmetric, but there was always something that broke the pattern, an eyebrow that was a little too long, a crooked nose, a mole on one cheek. The soul broker’s body lacked any such flaw. Every oiled hair on his left side had a matching companion on the right, matching not just in placement, but in length. His fingernails were immaculate semicircles and the webbings between his thumb and index fingers were identical (most people had a thicker right webbing). It was creepy, almost too perfect. Like a piece of badly done CGI animation, or someone who had bought extensive plastic surgery to hide their essential humanity.
The soul broker’s gaze shifted to me, bright blue eyes that seemed to burn with an unnatural strength and vigor. I dropped my gaze after a moment and shifted my weight, suddenly conscious of how ugly I was compared to him. My burned arm was fused to my armor with a tumorous growth of wood, my hair hung over my forehead in sweaty clumps, and there were four fat kudzu vines wrapped around my other arm like snakes caught in the middle of an orgy.
The soul broker spoke in a quiet voice whose weight demanded immediate attention. “Anonymous, you’re here.”
“Yes, sir?” she said.
“Why did you presume to deviate from the plan?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Anonymous said, keeping her eyes downcast. A moment passed in silence. “Things happened quickly and I was out of options.”
“I was very clear,” he said. “You interrupted me while I was doing something that was important.”
Anonymous remained silent and after a few moments of scrutiny, the soul broker smiled slightly. “No matter. Kein operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus,” he said. “No plan survives contact with the enemy. But it is still important to have a plan, I should think.”
He lowered his voice, as if sharing a conspiratorial secret. “As for the Coalition, well, what can they really do? That’s one plan that did survive its contact with its enemy.”
His words were stilted, like a poem. He wasn’t rhyming them, but there was still a pattern to them, a beating flow.
The briefcase at his side pulled loose from his grasp and floated over to us, turning onto its side. Latches clicked and the cover popped oven, revealing crisp green dollar bills in three by three neat stacks. He was paying us?
“Eight thousand,” the soul broker said. “As it was agreed.”
“Sir?” I asked. He nodded in my direction and I continued. “What’s going to happen to the acid man?”
A tremor flickered through the soul broker’s jaw and he made a quick gesture with his fingers, as if he was counting off one, two, three. “Don’t speak like that to me,” he said.
What? I had addressed him the same way Anonymous had. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, trying to sound as though I meant it. He was like my dad, it didn’t matter whether I had done something wrong or not.
The soul broker nodded, seeming to accept my apology at face value, even though I still had no idea what I had done to offend him. “There are some people who are very interested in him and his rather unique condition.”
“To cure it?”
He laughed under his breath. “Powers aren’t something you can cure, no more than you can excise the Marker from your DNA that allowed you to get them in the first place. No, once the Source has its claws in you, it’s permanent.” He shrugged. “Although, I suppose it’s possible, in theory. The Elders probably could have done it easily, but... we’re children stumbling around in a dark room compared to them. A room filled with cliffs, pits, and sharp edges.
“The Coalition will study your acid man, examining him in the hopes of putting another brick in the edifice of science. And when they’re done, well, I suppose they will ‘cure’ him, with a bullet in the back of his head. In a manner of speaking -- I suspect bullets won’t hurt that one any more than they could hurt me.”
A coldness settled over me as I realized what he was saying. They were going to experiment on him and then throw him away when he was used up. The other stuff, sounded interesting but what mattered was that the acid man was their guinea pig, and I had brought him here, or at least helped.
Anonymous stepped forward before I could speak. “Sir?”
“What is it?”
“We would like to purchase healing, for Viridian’s arm.”
I stared at her, opening my mouth to refuse, and she jabbed me in the side with an elbow. My armor blocked it, but the message was clear: Shut up.
“Certainly, may I -- ”
The lights flickered and died, plunging the room into total darkness. Half a second passed, and then a brilliant flare of yellowish orange ignited above the soul broker’s hand. It looked like a miniature sun, about three inches across, complete with looping bands stretching out of its surface -- sun flares. The light illuminated the room in alternating bright bands and sharp shadows cast by the soul broker’s fingers.
“First the internet, and now the power?” the soul broker muttered. He seemed to have forgotten us. “Something’s wrong.”
He withdrew a flat black box from his pocket and spoke into it. “Tracy? You there?”
Silence for a moment, the a cultured voice came from the box’s speakers. “Well, well, well. It is truly a pleasure to speak with you at long last, Arigo Nieri.”
Arigo clenched the walkie talkie in his fist so hard I thought he would crush it, splintering the plastic and sending sparks popping as the electronics inside died. “How do you know my name?” he said. “Who are you?”
The voice’s laughter was high and cruel, the laugh of a sadistic boy who spends his spare time pulling wings off flies and feeding dogs firecrackers. “My name is Tombstone, and like you, I am a collector of powers. As for how I know your name, well, we all leave traces behind us, no matter how hard we attempt to efface them from existence.”
“You lie,” Arigo snarled. “We destroyed it all!”
Tombstone snickered. “All? Well, I must admit, you were quite thorough. And yet, there were always rumors, of people who bought their powers, of a man who sold them like Accenco selling fountain pens. I even met a few of them and ah, convinced, them to tell me what they knew. It was never much, only vague descriptions, but that was enough to convince me that you were real. Still, actually tracking you was like tracking the wind. Every time I thought I had you, you slipped through my fingers. You have no idea how frustrating it is to spend months in pursuit, only to arrive ten or five minutes too late. But no more, Arigo. There is nowhere to run this time.”
Arigo took a deep breath, seeming to draw reassurance from what Tombstone had said. “I have no quarrel with you.”
“Does the pig have a quarrel with its butcher?” Tombstone asked, a hint of mockery in his voice. “How many powers do you have, Arigo? Dozens? Hundreds?”
“I’m no pig,” Arigo said. “And I have
enough powers to kill you if you dare try eating my brain.”
“Haven’t you heard?” Tombstone said. “I’m immortal.”
Arigo laughed. “Bullshit. You’re not the only one who’s been keeping tabs on people. I know exactly what happens when you die. Even if you survive fighting me, your precious collection will be much diminished. Go away, Tombstone. Hunt Wardens, if you wish. I care nothing for their pitiful lives.”
Tombstone paused and I wondered if he was considered Arigo’s offer. When he spoke, his voice was calm and measured. “We all have our purpose, Arigo. Mine is to hunt and kill… and to collect. The hunger is irresistible and in truth, I enjoy the thrill more than anything else. To kill and feed and have power rush through you is the world’s greatest high, better than any -- ”
An metallic crash and tinkle of shattering glass sounded nearby. “Wardens!” someone else shouted.
Tombstone sighed. “I’m afraid this chat will have to wait, my dear Arigo,” Tombstone said. “There is something I must attend to.”
I heard distant shouts and explosions, the roar of gunfire and the (happy?) yells of a girl. The walkie talkie hissed and died, leaving us in silence. No, wait, that wasn’t quite right -- the battle’s noise was still there, muffled by the walls.
Arigo pointed to one of the doors and it unlocked with a metallic click. “Go. That way will lead you out the back, through the sewers. Smelly, but better than running into Tombstone’s evil monsters.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“Live to fight another day. I have my own escape routes. Now go!”
Medea conjured a globe of pure white light as we left the soul broker’s room. The hallway went down three flights of stairs and then opened into a damp, dank tunnel. The floor curved, bowing in the center where a stream of murky water ran downhill. Larger pieces of scummy algae, decayed leaves, and plastic garbage clustered at its edges, drifting and bumping into each other. The walls were bare gray concrete with the occasional drip pattern marking a small rusty pipe.
The door closed behind us with a hollow thunk and when I looked back, I couldn’t tell it had ever been there.
Anonymous let out a long breath. “Jesus. I never thought I’d be grateful for Cleaver showing up.”
“What did I say wrong?” I asked. “
“Everything,” Medea said. I winced at the disappointment in her tone. “Lucky for us that Tombstone arrived when he did, because I’m pretty sure we’d all be dead right now if you had kept questioning him.”
“He’s obsessed with numbers,” Anonymous said. “Two of them in particular, three and four.”
A stream ran out of the wall up ahead, crossing our tunnel before disappearing into the other wall. The conversation lapsed as we jumped over the little lake of sewage that had formed, then Meld picked it up again. “I don’t know the specifics, but three is good luck and four is bad luck. Something like that. By extension, multiples of three and four are good or bad. You must have said something that contained a multiple of four words.”
I stared at him. “You’re kidding.”
“But that’s crazy! How can he even count the words while talking?”
Anonymous shrugged. “No idea, it was all I could do to avoid the fours in what I was saying. I had to count the words in my head before speaking.”
“How did you figure it out?” I asked. “Did he tell you?”
“No,” Anonymous said. “One of my contacts online told me.”
The tunnel forked in two. “Which way?” Meld said.
“Eeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe,” Anonymous said. “Left.”
“Great,” Medea muttered. “You don’t know where we’re going, do you?”
I found myself agreeing with her. The prospect of being lost in the sewers, with only the rats and stinking garbage for company wasn’t a pleasant one. The tunnel had narrowed too, pushing us closer to the turbulent sewage stream in its center. Grilles were set into the wall at random intervals, most of them gushing brown water laden with twigs and leaves.
The tunnel had a slight curve, so it was impossible to look behind and see how far we had gone, but I thought it had to be at least a mile before we came to a ladder. Rust dripped and trailed down from where the steel rungs sank into the concrete. I looked up, expecting to see daylight, but there was nothing but darkness -- whatever had blacked out the city was still in effect.
My kudzu tentacles compensated for my injured arm as we climbed the ladder. Tempest slid his fingers into the manhole’s cover and slid it aside, metal grating on asphalt. We pulled ourselves out, or, in my case, had ourselves pulled out by vines.
The sky was gloomy, darkened by the dome that had appeared while we were fighting Baal. I now suspected it was some kind of Warden countermeasure deployed against Cleaver, but there was no way to know for sure. Snowflakes drifted down out of the sky and I shivered as I realized the temperature was dropping rapidly. Thin screams echoed in the distance, a more or less constant backdrop of noise. They sounded human, but I didn’t think they were -- the wails went on too long for an ordinary person to scream without drawing breath.
The city was under siege.