The press conference went about like I expected. Governor Black thanked me for my part in apprehending the fugitive, I made the appropriate (pre-written) self-deprecating statement like I was supposed to and I never missed my cues. The only hiccup came when one of the Governor’s aids got some bad news partway through my own prepared speech. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it earned a concerned look from the Governor and seemed to cause a stir in the security personnel who all perked up around the room. I even spotted two fake reporters in the mix; SCaCU officers can’t hide themselves very well, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices that.
Black closed the conference by turning it over to his press secretary and ushering Ruby and me back into the mansion and his office. The head of the state police, Carl Kester, was there, I’d seen him on the television before, but didn’t know him myself. Ruby was expertly peeled off by Ethan in the hallway before we went into the office and there were three other guys, Feds by the look of them, waiting for us inside, along with one of Black’s staff members.
“Hans, get me a coffee, see what these two need to drink and then get out.” Black ordered.
“Yessir, do you need something to drink?” This was addressed to Kester and me; the Feds already had mugs of coffee.
“Black coffee for me.” I said when the chief gestured for me to go first.
“Same for me, Hans.” The chief said.
Hans just went to a buffet on the side of the room to pour us coffee. There were pastries and bagels set up on the buffet too. Some breakfast; in my book, if a meal didn’t include meat it was just a snack. While Hans saw to our drinks the FBI man in charge introduced himself as Alan Dermott, and his colleagues as Steve Nicolson and Thomas Baker. The Governor presented me and the chief, and by then we had coffee in our hands, so Hans left, closing the doors behind him.
I watched as Black moved to his desk and flipped up a small panel and pressed a button, “Okay we’re reasonably secure of our privacy now. Enjoy the show, Mister Greer?”
“I hope I didn’t miss my cues.”
“You did fine, very good indeed. I might have to take you on the road with me to drum up support. Are you active in politics?”
“I pay my taxes.” I said. Eliciting a small bark of a laugh from Kester.
“Well that’s good, it means you’re unattached; we’ll talk later.”
“What makes you so special, Billy?” Kester asked.
“Huh?” his tone was more aggressive than his previous demeanor could account for.
“Why would Slice come to you? You used to know each other, way back, but you haven’t been in touch with him for years.”
The Feds were watching intently, so I guess this was of interest to all of them.
“He never forgot me. I hadn’t forgotten him either.”
“You mean he got caught, and you got out of crime.” Kester said, “I’ve seen your juvenile sheet, and nearly every time you had an incident, his name is somewhere buried in the report too.”
“We were close at one time.”
“Yet you never visited him when he was in prison?”
“We grew apart.”
“I’m not sure what exactly happened, but here’s what I think happened. I got tired of tearing the world apart, and he still wanted to see everything burn. Like society owed us more than a dole check and a roof over our heads.”
“You haven’t been on the dole for more than a decade. He went off it around the same time as you.” Kester said.
“Yeah, he went to prison.”
“True, so why look you up as soon as he escaped?” Everyone leaned into me.
I took a sip of my coffee to buy a little time and wondered what answer I could give to make everyone happy. “He knew…he knew he was in too deep and he knew the Ramoses were going to kill him.”
“What was his angle with you?”
“He asked me to do what I do, for old time sake.”
Compass. I nodded my head, “Yeah.”
“Did you come to an agreement, Mister Greer?” This was from Dermott.
“We did.” I didn’t see the point in lying to them.
“And your magic worked?” Barked the Governor.
“It did, at the time. I’m a little off since I got back from the Abbey.”
“The Abbey. Yes, what happened up there?”
“Pain happened. It was not pleasant, but still, I have to thank you for making it happen. It means so much to me…”
“Can it. I’m not talking about that. You noticed I had a call when you were giving your little speech, good delivery, by the way, the Saint isn’t healing since you left.”
“What?” This was news, and my surprise was genuine. “What do you mean? What happened to that baby with cystic fibrosis?”
“Still has it. The kid will probably die from it, and I’ll have to go to the funeral as PR. So nothing happened in the middle of the night?”
“No, there was an attendant there the whole night. All I know is that I still feel like I ran a marathon or someone kicked the..uh, heck out of me. Everyone told me I should feel refreshed and energized.”
Black nodded, “Yes, that’s what I’ve been told too. I’ll have to call the Cardinal and tell him what you said to me, he’ll probably want to talk to you directly too. We better get back to the hospital for some more tests, in case she didn’t finish the job before she left. I’ll have to tell the Cardinal to spin it that God brought her home to her final rest or something.”
I felt a well of anger rise up in me that I couldn’t explain, and I found myself rising to my feet abruptly, to cover it I stalked over to the buffet, “Is this for everyone?”
“Sure, help yourself.” Black said. I could tell my act wasn’t sitting well with them.
“I better eat if I have to spend the rest of the damned day getting poked and prodded, not to mention being questioned by a Cardinal.” Better. I helped myself to a plain bagel and smeared cream cheese on it.
“At least you won’t be a one-armed man.” Dermott said.
“There is that.” I nodded. “As I’m up who needs coffee?”
Agents Steve and Thomas raised their mugs, as did Carl. I grabbed the pot of coffee and made nice, even brought the agents cream and sugar when they asked.
“Better?” Black asked.
“Frustrated, but yeah.”
“So you’re really not feeling okay?”
“I got a headache, and I feel like I need a day of sleep.”
“All right, then we’ll keep this short and get you out of here.” Dermott cleared his throat and asked, “So your talent, though not working well, worked. I’ve looked you up, detective and you do have a good track record for resolving your cases, even if some of your customers are, well, less than stand up citizens.”
“I can’t control who walks in my door, and I’ve turned people away before.”
“Yes, we know. So what are you going to do about the deal you made with Mister Dalima?”
“I have a reputation to uphold. I need to solve his case.” I said. Besides, I had told people in the past that I could not work two ‘deals’ at once, so until I cleared up Slice’s case I wouldn’t be working much at all. This wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough. Now a couple weeks off…I could afford that, let the heat die down a little, maybe take Ruby up the coast to stay in some good hotels and live life large for a little while?
“Compass, could you not work this case? If we, I mean, the federal government, asked you not to?”
“For a while, yeah, but it would keep me up nights, it would grate on me, and I made a promise, I have no choice but to go after those responsible.” I shrugged, “What if I just took a few weeks off, let things calm down for a while?”
“I’d say you deserve that, at the very least.” Governor Black said. “Can we provide him with security that long?”
Carl shook his head, “SCaCU has better things to do than babysit against things that might not happen. Besides, there haven’t been any threats against you, Compass, have there?”
In my mind I remembered the last conversation with Slice; ‘I have a contract out on your life. I will give it up, renege on my deal in exchange for you finding me something. What’s your life worth?’ Shaking my head, I said, “No, unless you think Slice was there for more than just shooting the shit?”
“Oh he was; I don’t doubt that.” Carl said, “I also don’t doubt your spotty sense of honor isn’t allowing you to be completely forthcoming with us.” To the governor, he said, “I’ll keep him alive the next two days, unless the feds kick in to pay for it. I’ve already got two SCaCU members to bury, and another one who won’t be getting an arm back thanks to his ‘friend’ and St Charlene going AWOL.”
“We can give you federal protection, Mister Greer.” Agent Dermott said.
“Well, let’s get through the next couple of days and see if I need it.”
“The preliminary autopsy results on Leonard have come back too, he was using DA-KN355 or Darkness. So none of his shine should have been showing. We found traces of that in his system as well as another unknown drug, a drug we’ve run into before, but haven’t figured out yet. We’ve nicknamed it ‘Burnout’ it helps people shine a little brighter.”
“Huh. I thought he was in prison? How did he get that there? And how did he afford it?”
“I told you he’d know what ‘D’ was.” Carl said to Dermott. “And about burnout.”
Dermott ignored him and looked at me, “You don’t seem too surprised.”
“The man faded out in my office, totally went ‘ghost’ on me, I couldn’t touch him or hear him. That’s not an ability Slice ever had before.”
“Sometimes new abilities develop as a shiner ages.” Dermott said.
“Wives tales. Usually, it’s the case that they had the ability all along and just figured it out later. I knew Slice had something new as soon as he demonstrated the ghosting ability.”
“Did he say where he got it? Who gave it to him and why?”
“Our conversation wasn’t that long. I assume it came from his new friends to make it easier to kill people.” I said.
“The drug we found was slightly different from what we’ve run into before, they all seem like similar strains, but this one was designed specifically for Leonard.”
“So how did it get made? How did it get into prison?”
“Mister…Leonard was due to be paroled in a couple of weeks, he had been transferred to a less secure facility. We’re going over the film there to see what we can find out about that. Any information…any names he might have passed on to you would help us greatly.”
I shook my head, “I can’t help you because he didn’t tell me anything. Wait, he said he felt ‘hollow’ inside or something like that. Does that sound like your drug?”
“Yes. It instigates the new powers in the individual, but it is also horribly addictive, physically addictive, without regular doses the user will probably die. It also, apparently, completely negates ‘D.'”
“Jesus. Why are you telling me this?”
Dermott opened his briefcase and took out three photos of lesser, but well-known Shiners from around the country. I knew of two of them and recognized the name of the third when he said it. People just above my weight regarding shine. “All of these people have been killed recently by their states SCaCU teams. Three different, medium weight shiners who developed new abilities and then turned into assassins and criminals before being cut down. They were law abiding citizens, worked with law enforcement. In the days before their deaths they killed prominent crime fighters in their area, mostly police officers, one was the head of the SCaCU unit in Fort Lauderdale. They used their inside knowledge of the officer’s schedules and abilities to take them out. 10 officers were murdered.”
“All three had traces of ‘Burnout’ in their blood, didn’t they?” I asked.
“It was detected in all of their systems. Most of them looked like they had been using for a few weeks, someone got them into it and pulled their strings. That’s how powerful the addiction is. Unfortunately, none of them were taken alive to give us any leads. So we are concerned about you Mr. Greer.”
“Why? I mean I know of these guys, but I’m not in the same league.”
“But you would be with a single dose of Burnout. And just think of what they would have you do for more of the drug?”
“What’s the delivery method? Food?” I eyed my half eaten bagel.
“Fortunately no, it’s injected.”
“You have some of it don’t you?”
“I cannot say. This is a national security issue, and I want you to consider what I’m about to say in that context when you answer my next question; Will you go into protective custody?”
“Live in cheap hotels in the armpits of the country on the government’s dime?”
“It’s not that bad.”
“What would I do? Just watch cable all day?”
“It would be temporary. Until this crisis can be resolved and we can put the criminals behind it away for good.”
“The Ramos clan has eyes and ears in every prison. Putting them away would hardly stop them.”
“They do have an extensive network, but it is only *almost* everywhere. They would be charged under federal law and imprisoned upon capture…on American territory, but not on the mainland.”
He couldn’t mean…he did mean it. “Oh boy, this is well above my pay grade. Do you know what would happen to me if word got out I even know somebody who knew about this? The Ramos’s don’t send cards expressing their disappointment! They don’t blurt out ‘You’ve been bad, and we’re disappointed!’ with a smiley face icon behind it. I would be dead. Holy cow, I’m probably dead already!”
“Your name would never come up.”
“Look around pal! We’ve got 6 people in the room here, 5 of whom aren’t me and therefore cannot be implicitly trusted. Two of whom are public figures who wouldn’t think twice about giving me up if it were politically expedient.”
The governor looked abashed at my outburst, but Kester, to his credit shrugged, nodded and said, “Probably true. The guy isn’t stupid, and if it came down to him or someone I cared about, it would be him.”
I think that’s when I started respecting Kester. I deal with enough daily bullshit from lying husbands and wives to dishonest employees and brutal honesty had a lot going for it in my book. I shook my head too and said, “I can’t take your offer. It’s better for all of us if I don’t.”
“Think about it at least.”
“I’ll think about it, but I doubt I’ll change my mind.”
“Maybe we can go three days with SCaCU bodyguards…” Kester said, looking me in the eyes.
“Don’t bother, I think I’m going to head out of state for a while, do some sight-seeing.”
“Don’t go to ground; these guys probably already know where you’re likely to go.” Dermott said.
“I solemnly promise not to go anywhere I’ve ever been before.”
“Or somewhere you’ve told your friends you wanted to go. Or posted on social media.”
“Social what? And my ‘friend list’ only had 3 names on it last week and this week it’s down to 1. I’ll bring her with me.”
Dermott gave me a look like someone had pissed on his cat. With a shake of his head, he said, “Fine. The only other thing I can do is arrest you.”
“I have 48 hours to come up with something, after that I have to release you.”
“Now hold on just a minute.” Governor Black said, “This won’t do at all! I just went out and praised this man’s moral character in front of the entire state of South California, if you arrest him that makes me out to be a fool.”
The look Dermott gave the governor was hardly better than the one he had given me moments before. “Just call it a misunderstanding with his weapons permit.”
I wanted to protest that I was 100% legal, that’d I had so many cops and bureaucrats riding my ass that somethimes I felt like a trolley car and thought about selling tickets. Instead, I quickly realized this was a power play, who would win the state or the federal government? I found myself sipping a cup of coffee and leaning back in my chair to watch things play out. I swear I saw Kester give me a slight nod as I took a backseat to the proceedings.
The two sides argued back and forth until finally, Kester interrupted them by asking, “Mister Greer, are you feeling okay?”
“Fatigued.” I said, “It’s not going away.”
“Gentlemen, might I suggest we get him to a hospital and continue our discussion over his fate without him?” It was a gesture I would not have expected from the head cop to me.
“By all means!” the Governor said.
“I’m not sure..” Dermott started.
I piped up, “My paperwork is in order, always has been. I pay my taxes, I don’t creep around junior high school looking for kids to pick up, hell I haven’t even had a traffic violation in over three years. There’s not much more I can add to the conversation. Just let me go, and I’ll do my best to stay alive.”
“Get him out of here.” Dermot said.
The chief escorted me to the door and tapped on my good friend James’ shoulder, “Please escort Mister Greer to Auroria General; they will be expecting him.”
Behind him, the Governor was still arguing with Agent Dermott. “Why?” I asked Kester.
“End of the day you’re a quasi-legal, mercenary, pain in the ass. However, you’re South California’s pain in the ass, not the Feds. Got me? This doesn’t change anything between us. I’ll still get to the bottom of what your plans are. Mark my words, Compass, at the end of this you’re going to be face down on the ground, and you’re going to look up and see me or one of my boys standing there over you.”
“It’s good to know you are watching my back.”
“If that’s how you want to interpret it, be my guest. Get him to AGH before he falls over.” Kester nodded at James and ducked back into the room.
James nodded and said, “I saw you on the digital. You did a good job out there.”
Beyond the thick wooden doors yelling voices could be heard, James tilted his head and gestured toward the main stairs. “Where’s Ruby?”
“She should be in the foyer.”
“Ruby. It’s good to see a friendly face.” Of course, her face wasn’t so friendly, but I ignored that and bulled on, “I gotta go to the hospital, they think I might die on them, and they wouldn’t want that.”
“I’ll come with you.” She said.
“Meet me there? I don’t wanna have to come back here to get your wheels.”
She nodded and said, “Auroria General?”
“Yeah, only the best for our city’s latest hero!” AGH was the default hospital for the poor and downtrodden of the city, which, at the moment, included me.”
“It’s also the official city of the governor and his staff.” James added.
“I thought that was just politics? He actually goes there?” It had been a campaign issued during the last election.
“He does. It has seen steady improvement in the last couple of years.”
“Huh, well I have yet to see them.”
We parted with Ruby, and I told her I would make sure she was listed as ‘family’ if they admitted me. The ride over was short and sweet, traffic at ten am on a work day is generally pretty light as the worker drones are all already ensconced in their offices.
James led me in and Ruby found us in the Emergency Room a few minutes later. A second after she arrived a Doctor Devlin came out with a wheelchair and brought me back to an exam room. She ordered full body scans and a living tissue continuous x-ray to see if the healing I’d gotten from Charlene was enough. Her examination of all my previously severed extremities was to her liking, but she wanted to double check everything.
By mid-afternoon, they sent me home. The kind and overly attentive Dr. Devlin gave me her personal number if I had so much as a twinge of pain. The hospital never asked for my insurance information, payment type or even a street address where I lived.
“I think you just need to rest. Everything the Saint did worked, you wouldn’t even be walking for months if we had reattached the limbs using traditional means. Go home, sleep for 24 hours and call me if the fatigue doesn’t go away.” Dr. Devlin said.
“I don’t think I’d be good for any more than that, Doc. Thank you for your help.”
She demurred and thanked me for my actions against Slice. That made me feel like a dirty fraud.
Once we hit the lobby, James stopped and asked, “What now?”
“I don’t know, James. Did the feds decide to let me go or am I going to be arrested?”
“Arrested?” Ruby asked, “For what?”
“I wouldn’t go into protective custody.”
“Isn’t it…isn’t it over?” Ruby questioned softly.
“We don’t know doll. They seem to think it’s not. Me? I think they’ll wait until things die down before they try again.”
“You’re not under arrest, Mr. Greer. SCaCU will be keeping a watchful eye on you the next few days. Want me to drive you home or do you want to ride with Miss Edwards?”
“Ruby, if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather bum a lift from ya and send James back to his real job.”
“Okay, well you heard the lady, you’re off the hook, James.” I put out my hand to shake his, but he only shook his head.
“Would you mind waiting while I bring the car around? Your things are boxed up and waiting.”
After he left Ruby said, “I’ll go get my car too, you wait here, alright?”
“No, don’t worry about it. I’m pretty sure I can make the walk out to your wheels.”
“Billy, just stay put, I’ll be around in a moment.”
There was no arguing with her when her mind was made up. I went to the front of the lobby to watch for either of them to pull up. This seemed like it would be a very good time to ambush me if I were a Ramos assassin, so I kept my eyes open. My diligence was all for nothing, as it turned out. James’s car arrived first, and I walked out to meet him.
“I was looking out for hit men.” I told him.
He nodded, “A good habit to get into if I were you.”
Opening the trunk, he went back and pulled out a familiar cardboard box. “Your firearm is in here.” He told me as he handed it over.
The box was heavier by far.
“The Chief sent these as well.” James reached into his jacket pocket and brought out an envelope and handed it to me.
It too was heavy, and it felt like there were bullets inside. “Ammo?”
“Sun Rounds. He wanted me to pass on to and I quote, ‘not to fuck around with whoever they send after you next.’”
“Nice guy, the Chief. I like him more with each passing minute. I don’t suppose this is just so you can arrest me later for having controlled munitions on me?”
James smiled, “I couldn’t say. However, if I’m involved, you needed worry about that.”
“Okay, good.” Sun Rounds were a mixture of a variety of different substances. Most Shiners were subject to certain, common weaknesses that the Sun munitions company exploited. Silver was a common weakness, but it made for a weak bullet, Lone Ranger be damned. However, silver could be mixed with other substances and be just as effective. “I won’t have to worry about radiation poisoning will I?”
He shook his head, “You planning on having kids?”
“Planning? Er, no.”
“Worried about dying from cancer?”
“Then don’t worry about it.” He smiled then, letting me know he was pulling my leg, tucking the envelope into the box for me, “What do you think these were made of? Seriously Billy, do you think we’d be spraying Sun bullets all over the city contaminating it every time we had to take down a shiner?”
I laughed, “Yeah, I supposed that would be bad.”
Ruby drove up behind us and got out of her car.
“What are you boys so happy about?” she asked.
“Aw doll, you’ll love this; we’re laughing about my stupidity.”
She smiled and lit up the shade under the canopy, “I do love that. Jimmy, it was good to meet you and thanks for taking care of my Billy here.”
My eyebrows raised as they shook hands, “Jimmy?”
“James.” He said firmly as he shook my hand.
“Thanks for the rides, James. I guess I’ll see you when I see you.”
“I’ll be around.” He confirmed.