The team is seated in a small alcove at the Coffee House/Third Rail. A mug of half-finished beer sits by Ferrous's hand, the only one anyone has seen him drink all night.
He begins the discussion with little preamble. "Ladies and gentlemen, here is the situation as I see it.
"We have two forces ready to start a war. On one side there's the Second Syndicate; on the other, the U.S. government as represented by ICoMP. Neither one cares much about any incidental damage their tussle may cause. I aim to keep as many of the bystanders from getting hurt.
"As a result of the Blast, both sides are running with less than full steam. The local chapter of the Syndicate is cut off from the main group, and their current leader is trying to cut herself in as a full player, at least for now. The man in charge of ICoMP locally is already dealing with the legal hassles for his less-than-legal activities. Regardless, each still has enough push to wipe us out if we let ourselves be a target.
"Here is what I'm proposin'. We don't take 'em head on. Frankly, I don't think we need to. On one side, all we need to do is show the Syndicate that it would be too expensive to set up shop here in St. Louis. And for ICoMP, we need to make it clear to the Powers That Be that Stern doesn't deserve to be in the driver's seat.
"So we go the commando route. Gather intelligence, find weak points, apply pressure with quick hit 'n' run strikes designed to keep both sides off-balance.
"Walker, Burlesque, you both are best suited for ferreting out any useful info on the street. That doesn't mean you'll be the only ones keeping their eyes open, though. From what I understand, Koyotie, you have some sources of your own. Sidewinder, you may have some connections that could be useful. Even Ice and I can do our part. The point is, we need to find out as much as we can. It's the only way we can make sure we don't lose anyone.
"Once we have a lead, we case the situation, come up with a plan of attack, and execute it. It'd be great if we could be a closely-trained unit. But this is strictly a volunteer gig, so I don't see any way this'll work if I treat y'all like a bunch of draftees.
"You're all real good at what you do. The fact you're still here, still an independent, is proof of that. We just need to understand that for this to work, we've got to do it together. We don't need any prima donnas, so take a good look around. If you got any doubts about working with the people you see in this room, possibly even trusting them with your life, speak up now.
"That's my little speech. Anyone's got something to say, start yakking."
And with that, Ferrous lifts the mug and takes a healthy swig.
Black Ice lifted his mask just enough to reveal silver-white stubble on black skin. "I definitely agree with not taking the Syndicate on directly," he said after taking a swig from a frost-covered beer glass. "Ghost Walker and Burlesque and me, we've been cracking down on their drug network. I think if we turn up the heat on their drug-selling operations, they'll be seriously hurting.
"When I started out in the mask biz, it was just the Ghost and me. We brought down a lot of bad guys together. Then Burlesque joined us, and she's added a whole new dimension to our game. So yeah, working together is a good thing—I ain't got any problems on that score."
Picking up her iced tea in her left (as her right's in a sling), Koyotie takes a contemplative drink. "Ferrous, how close would you like to get to the Second Syndicate? Or ICoMP for that matter?" She swallows and then gestures in the general direction of the where the Blast had hit. "I dunno if I can get you in, but in a week I'll be attending a little party of theirs. Shiva invited me."
Burlesque has been half-listening up until now—tequila-with-a-sugarcube in one hand, absently tapping keys on her iPhone with the other—but perks up when Koyotie speaks.
"Party?" she asks. "What—the Syndicate making a recruiting pitch? Or holding out an olive branch, maybe? So what happens when you say 'no'? Or you agree, and all their operations start going FUBAR anyway? Or they assign you to come after one of us?"
Ferrous listened attentively to Burlesque's outburst, then calmly added, "I have to admit it's got me curious. Any idea what the occasion is?"
Koyotie waits for Burlesque to wind down before replying to Ferrous. ""Well, They're not having a cocktail party, that’s for sure." She takes another drink. “It's a pit-fight, pure and simple, and I’m betting a number of domestic and imported post-humans are going to be there."
Ferrous cocks an eyebrow. "Really? Were you invited as an onlooker? Or as a contestant?"
Koyotie motions to her injured arm. "Shiva liked my interview enough to offer me a job. But I'm not ready for the workfloor so I'm going to just watch this time."
Ferrous gestures at Koyotie's sling. "Didn't want to pry, but since you brought it up... What happened? Is it something you need a helping hand with?" Ferrous's question is voiced in a deceptively casual tone.
“I stopped all but one hit,” Koyotie shrugs. “She probably as strong as you are, so that’s all it took.” There’s another shrug then, “I was told armor and a weapon might be a good idea for next time.”
Burlesque glances at Koyotie, then back to Ferrous. "Pitfight? Smells more like an audition, if you ask me! Why hold it here, and now, with as much ICoMP heat as St. Louis is already getting? Particularly if they're casting the net as wide as you say? They could set it up anywhere—webcast it, handle the betting online, whatever. It's gotta be a show of force, flouting ICoMP's authority publicly, to let potential recruits know that the Syndicate still owns this town... ." Burlesque glances around the table. "Do we know if ICoMP has gotten wind of this, or the regular cops?"
Ferrous glances at Burlesque then brings his hands up to support his chin, elbows resting on the table. "So I take it there was some sort of qualifying round?"
Glancing between the two, Koyotie shakes her head. “You guys wanna take a number? Near as I can tell, they’re holding this near where the old Third Rail used to be. And since that... ‘terrorist’ nuke lowered property values and no one’s scrambling to clean up the mess—yet—they’re probably safe enough for now. And considering the sort of people who are probably going to be there... I doubt the cops are going to try all that hard to break it up.” She paused and sipped at her iced tea. “As for ICoMP, I’m willing to bet a few are going to there... but not to make any arrests.”
Putting her glass down, Koyotie turns to Ferrous, “And yes, there was a qualifying round. I had to start at the bottom. Me and about a dozen other UFC-wannabes. After I set several records for knockouts, I was sent over to see Shiva. And then she tried to do the same to me. Considering I didn’t have any of my regular gear, I figure I did okay.”
Burlesque looks puzzled. "Wait a minute—if ICoMP knows about it, why wouldn't they show up in force to raid the place? Why risk letting the Syndicate start networking with any of these goons? Or are you saying," she asks, "that somebody on ICoMP's payroll might be 'moonlighting' at this fight?"
Ferrous shakes his head.
"If they raid the fight, all they'll net is the little fish. My guess is they're biding their time, maybe even trying to slide in one of their own, in the hopes they can bring the whole house down.
"Not saying it's a smart plan. But it is the way the law 'n' order types think."
"And," Koyotie adds, "I do think some of ICoMP's operatives are there to simply to fight."
"That seems kinda reckless," Burlesque remarks. "Risk giving up a cushy government job, maybe even doing jail time, just for prizefighting? Not to mention the fact that the Syndicate could blackmail them later on over their participating in this throwdown... Is the purse for these fights really that big?"
"Come to think of it," Burlesque adds, "how would ICoMP infiltrate this fighting circuit in the first place, if it's by invitation only? Would they have some of their people creating alternate identities, trying to get noticed by the Syndicate as criminals or mercenaries?" She looks thoughtful for a moment. "If we found that out, maybe it'd be worthwhile getting more than one person on the inside for this thing...”
“Not as reckless as you’d think Burlesque.”ù Sidewinder’s modulated voice hissed in time with his breathing. He had been sitting quietly while the others had been going back and forth about the Syndicate’s pit-fighting scheme. Unlike the others, he had no drink in hand, instead he had sat back watching and listening intently with his arms folded over his chest.
“Remember, a healthy number of ICoMP’s stooges were all but forced into the job. They don’t want to be there in the first place, so they have no loyalty. They may be trying to ferret an operative or two in but most likely those that are going just wanna blow off some steam in the only way that they really can.”ù
Sidewinder shrugged his shoulders after a brief pause. “Not that I can blame them really. I figure that the way they are looking at it, they ain’t got nothin’ to lose anyway. If they fight and get caught, what is ICoMP gonna do? Kick them out? Put them on a tighter leash? If you ask me, it’s pretty hard to punish someone if they don’t give a damn in the first place.”ù
"Or maybe ICoMP wants to test some of their people without starting a
full-scale fight." Koyotie shrugs and then winces. "Honestly, I'm not sure
anyone from ICoMP will be there anyway."
Sidewinder's rebreather hissed softly before he replied "I find it difficult to believe that ICoMP would be there at all in the first place. They risk more by showing up, either as infiltrators or thrill-seekers, than anything else. If a mask from ICoMP shows up for any reason, that is asking for a fight in a major way... and I don't think ICoMP is that stupid. Don't get me wrong, they are pretty stupid... just not that stupid."
Ferrous makes a comment. "While I'm willing to admit the agency as a whole has been about as sharp as a sack of wet mice, I'd be hesitant to sell any of their agents short by themselves. Should keep that in mind as we deal with them."
Burlesque looks over to Koyotie. "So... the Syndicate invited you to attend the event anyway? Is the invitation just for you... ?" Burlesque begins to morph before the heroes' eyes. Suddenly, "she" has become a pudgy, 40-year-old man with curly, dark hair, dressed in a tuxedo. "Or is there room on the invite for a 'Plus One'? After all—Plus One's don't get anywhere on their own, that's why they're Plus Ones... ."
"The Syndicate didn't invite me, Shiva did. And that was after I sent three men out in stretchers and almost put her down with my bare hands." Koyotie shakes her head at Burlesque's appearance. "Look, I think she knew who I was and didn't care. Having a non-ICoMP operative in the ring might just be another selling point to them. A way to heighten interest and income.
"When I go, the first time, I'm going alone. Give me that much, will you?"
Burlesque shifts back to her "standard" appearance. "So much for teamwork," she mutters to no one in particular, before downing the last of her drink. She looks back to Ghost Walker and Black Ice—at least they'd still have plenty to do in the meantime... .
The black, polished helmet shifts towards Burlesque. "Sometimes there are jobs that can only be accomplished by one person. Any more than that, and they get in the way or run the risk of being discovered. I don't think that it's too much to ask that we let her go to this first outing alone. She already pointed out that she's not going to fight this time."
Ferrous nods. "No problem, Koyotie. This is your play, you run it how you want. Just keep your eyes and ears open for anything useful.
"Oh... and be careful out there."
She indicates her sling with a tilt of her head. “No kidding.”
"Agreed." Sidewinder hissed "I don't think it is wise to leave us out if you decide to actually jump into the ring. They may have some sort of code or set of rules that will protect you in the ring, but that may not apply when you are in the locker room, so to speak. There should be those on-hand ready to bail you out in a hurry if things turn ugly for whatever reason."
Burlesque's brow furrows for a moment. "Wait a minute," she says. "You say you THINK Shiva knew who you were? She approached you out of costume?"
"No, she had hers on." Koyotie grins. "Burlesque, let's be honest, I had to move as fast as I could to avoid getting hit, and she still tagged me. I also have a fairly unusual fighting style and I think she picked up on that."
Burlesque shakes her head. "What I mean is, if your civilian identity has been compromised... that doesn't bode well for you, or for anybody close to you if the Syndicate is looking for leverage. Something like that happens to me, I can always pick a new face. But you, you've just got the one. Unless," Burlesque adds, her features starting to shift again, "you'd like a little help in throwing them off the trail." By the time she finishes, Burlesque is a dead ringer for Koyotie.
Koyotie shudders slightly. "Wonderful. Just what the world needs, two of me."
"Well, SOMEbody sure thinks the arrangement has possibilities!" Burlesque replies, casting a sidelong glance at Sidewinder. With a smile and a wink, Burlesque shifts back to her normal form. "You naughty boy!"
There was a long sinister hiss from the perpetually grinning helmet. "Of course I do. Having a duplicate running around to make our opponents second-guess our real activity is always beneficial and has numerous uses. However, there are flaws to the tactic that could be dangerous." His tone dropped several degrees as he continued. "... but nowhere near as dangerous as poking around in my head."
"Whatever," Burlesque says dismissively as she flags Jade Gorgon down for a fresh round of drinks. When she returns, Burlesque raises her drink in a mock salute to Sidewinder, and the armored vigilante suddenly finds himself staring at a young Eddie Murphy. "The boss's dick has gotta stay limp," Burlesque-as-Murphy explains, "but I ain't on duty, so my dick can be hard!" He downs the drink in a single gulp.
"Why we ever sold you lot Manhattan I'll never know." Koyotie
pulls a fresh glass of iced tea closer. "And Burlesque, I think you've mistaken me for Raven Riley."
Burlesque's features shift again—now to a smartly-dressed man in his late 20's, but with familiar green eyes and auburn hair. He looks like he could be the "regular" Burlesque's fraternal twin. "No, Koyotie—that, I did not. That little trollop couldn't hold a candle to a real woman like yourself. Besides which," Burlesque adds, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at Sidewinder, "it was his fantasy, not mine."
Glancing at the armored figure, Koyotie grins. "Considering Sidewinder
here looks like Vader, how can you tell?"
Sidewinder ignores the Manhattan comment, though there was a fairly scathing retort. Instead, the dark, reflective visor focuses on Burlesque, now in a male form. "That is a damn good question. You don't know what I look like under here... nor do you know what my preferences are. Yeah, you could be guessin' but you could also be psychic or who-knows-what. Hell, I'm pretty sure that the guys who catalog this sort of thing haven't found every sort of power, ability or talent... but you know something? I don't give a damn.
Methinks the lady doth protest too much, Burlesque thinks to himself.
"It's the little things—subtle cues," Burlesque fixes his gaze on Koyotie, though his words seem directed at Sidewinder. "The way a person holds his head just a little too still—like he thinks no one could guess he's staring at the same thing everyone else is." His eyes remain locked with Koyotie's. "A subtle shift in the breath—he thinks he's keeping it steady, but that's because he wasn't paying attention to how he was breathing before that moment. Slight adjustments in the stance." The corner of Burlesque's mouth curls up in a half-smile. "Most battlesuits aren't built to accommodate an erection—unless it's the carnage that the wearer gets off on…"
The silence around the table lasts for a beat, as if Sidewinder is deciding to respond in a way that doesn't sound like Burlesque struck a nerve. Burlesque smiles just a little bit wider at Koyotie. Finally, the armored mercenary breaks the silence, "If you can read minds, that's fine by me. If you are so good at deduction that you could teach Sherlock Holmes a thing or three, that's fine with me as well. In fact, I couldn't care less what powers or abilities you have or how you use them." The tone suddenly shifts as he continues. "But let me make one thing clear... stay out of my head. That is not a request. I am not asking you. I am telling you, under no uncertain terms, to stay out of my head or there will be consequences." Despite the modulated voice, the tone was cold and precise and belonged to someone who would not accept ‘No’ for an answer.
"Now," Sidewinder continues as he sits back, his tone returning almost immediately to something that was almost friendly. Or at least as friendly as a modulated and filtered voice could at any rate. "What are your plans after you get into the arena Koyotie? Obviously you are going in there to watch this match, but what then?"
There’s a long moment where Koyotie simply blinks in bemused surprise. “Does that armor come with the stick up the ass, or did you install that yourself?”
There was a sigh, well, rather it was a long, drawn out hiss as he exhaled and one could almost see the eye-roll. “I don’t like people messing with or in my head. Call it a pet peeve of mine. And I’m sorry if I come off as a little harsh, but when I’m wearing this armor, I’m working, and in my line of work, those who don’t take their job seriously usually end up with flow-through ventilation.”
A pale blue light fills the table and the last few words of the conversation begin to die out. Everyone turns to look at Ghost Walker, who is turning from whispering with Black Ice to address the group.
"Let's focus." Walker says with a dead-pan voice, "We're here to sow distrust and disaster to our enemies, not each other." The red glow from where his eye sockets blinks slowly. "Ferrous wanted to know where we lie with our activities regarding the Syndicate and ICoMP. Koyotie has an in with this pit-fighting. Let's let her handle it and report what she finds. It seems like there will be more of these fights, so if anything comes of it, there'll be another chance. It looks harmless to me, as long as it isn't a gladiatorial blood sport where they put humans against post-humans." He continues without breathing. "Black Ice and I have put feelers out into the community, and we think there's a new shipment of Psyclone coming in soon. Stopping that will be a good first step against the Syndicate. Burlesque? I think it would be advantageous for you to try to get some info out of ICoMP... maybe something snobbish at first. Like beating them to a Public Works project and getting it televised. I'd rather not start out violent with them." The glow around him begins to fade a bit, the warmth of the room creeping back in. "Let's not second guess each other's abilities—If someone says they can do something, then trust they can until proven otherwise."
Ferrous waits for everyone to stop talking before putting in a word.
"Well put, Walker. Burlesque, personally I don't give a tinker's dam how you choose to treat your acquaintances, but being part of this group means you respect each one of your teammates. Understand?
"Sidewinder, I understand you like keeping your cards close to your chest, fine, but threatening the people who may very well save your ass later is not what I'd call a constructive attitude. Keep that in mind.
"Fine. Now that we've got the pissing contest out of the way, can we get back to the business at hand?"
* * * * *
"Excuse me, I'd like a word with you, sir," said Black Ice to Ferrous as the group broke up. Black Ice had scarcely addressed anybody as "sir" since his military days, but something about Ferrous dragged the word out of him.
"I know Burlesque can be a flake sometimes, but when it comes to infiltrating an organization and uncovering its secrets, there's no one better.
"If we're going to win this war, we need to be pro-active with the Second Syndicate. We can't sit around and wait for them to do their thing. We need to hit them where they live.
"To do that, we need to find out where they live. We can get more information about that if Burlesque is in on this octagon gig.
"So I'm saying that maybe you could talk Koyotie and convince her to let Burlesque go along with her. They don't have to work close together or anything like that, but the octagon thing is a good route of entry for Burlesque."
Ferrous turns and gives his attention to Black Ice. He listens and nods.
"Agreed. To win this war, we'll need information.
"But from what Koyotie described, she's pretty much been made by the Syndicate, so anyone associated with her will be equally suspect.
"I, too, believe that Burlesque could successfully infiltrate the Syndicate enough to get us some decent intel. And perhaps using the pit-fights would be a good way to get her in."
Ferrous grinned. "Ironically, what I see is a reverse of what Burlesque was mentioning. Koyotie would be her front, her decoy, while she's the one sneaking in through the back door."
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