WARNING: This series contains violence and graphic language. It may not be suitable for readers under the age of 16.
Noah had the car park by the curb, just around the corner from where Joseph Hersher's GPS signal said he would be. Stiffly, he opened the car door and eased himself out onto the sidewalk. This was the edge of the Second District---and a more dangerous part of town. Despite that, it wasn't very crowded. A few people ambled by, but they all looked normal. Nothing that he needed to worry about.
Noah walked around the corner, briefly checking that his gun was safely tucked away in its holster, rolled up his left sleeve and then pressed a button on his watch. From the side of the watch that faced his forearm, a small holographic screen appeared, hovering just over top of his skin. The screen displayed the GPS map that was in the car and showed just how far away Noah was from Joseph's signal.
Evidently Joseph enjoyed hanging out in weird alleys.
Noah peeked around the corner of the building he was standing in front and checked out the ally beyond. As far as he could see, there was nothing. Just a lot of trash and a lot of unpleasant smells. Keeping his hand near the holster beneath his coat, he walked into the ally.
"Joseph?" He called out gently, "Joseph, you out here?"
"My name is Noah," he said, "I'm trying to find out what happened to my friend. I think you might've known her."
As Noah got closer to the end of the ally and the large, brick wall that ended it, something rustled behind the furthest away dumpster. He paused, hands up in a sign of peace.
"I just want to ask some questions."
Whoever was behind the dumpster stilled at the sound of his voice and Noah took that as his cue to step a little closer.
He was cut off as a blur darted out from behind the dumpster with a yowl. That was the only incentive he needed to draw his gun and take aim. The sudden movement made the small figure stop, hunched over before him with wide eyes. Very wide, green cat eyes.
After a small pause, Noah holstered his gun in frustration.
The cat just continued to stare at him, it's fur a little matted but still too fat to be feral. Around its neck was a thin leather collar, and from where Noah was standing, he could see the small silver tag that dangled from it. The tag, and the slightly bloody tracking chip taped to it. He checked the GPS signal on his screen one last time before accepting that this lead was a cold one.
"Sneaky bastard," he muttered before kneeling down and holding out a few fingers. When the cat didn't come towards him immediately, he starting making noises he hoped the cat might like. When the cat hesitantly began to near him, Noah smiled. "There we go."
"Freeze," called a voice from behind him, causing him to stiffen. He slowly looked over his should to see an APD officer behind him. Just one, the officer's partner was probably still in the car, wherever that may be. Unlike the corrupt officers he was used to dealing with, this one wasn't in tactical gear. This officer wore the APD uniform most civilians were used to seeing---blue uniform shirt, APD patch on the sleeve and a wind breaker. He had a gun holstered to his waist, but the officer didn't seem worried enough to reach for it. Noah narrowed his eyes, but didn't give the man a reason to need it. For now.
"Joseph Hersher, you've been caught outside of your parole boundaries. Put your hands on your head and we'll talk more about this at the station."
Noah slowly gathered the cat up into his arms and stood, back still to the officer.
"I was just chasing down my cat. He got loose," he said.
"You think I care?" The officer said.
Noah turned around to face him, instantly getting a suspicious glare from the other man. The officer motioned for Noah to remain where he was and turned away slightly, talking into the comm. system in his ear.
"This is Officer Farley requesting a mug shot of Joseph Hersher, Over."
"Right away, over."
When the officer pulled a small tablet computer, no bigger than the size of a small journalist's notepad, waiting for the photo to upload, Noah took his chance. With a quickly murmured 'sorry' to the cat, he tossed the mangy feline at the other man while he was distracted. The officer had just enough to throw up one elbow to block his face as the cat, legs splayed wildly as it flew, attached itself to the officer's chest with a panicked yowl.
Before the officer could raise a fist against the spitting cat, Noah reached into his pocket, slid on a set of light metal knuckles and socked the officer across the face.
The sound of the blow was loud and wet, even over top of the crazy cat noises the feline was emitting. The officer leaned back with the blow heavily and looked as though he was going to regain his feet for the fight before his eyes rolled back and he fell with a heavy thump. The moment the officer went down, the cat sprang free and bolted.
"Thanks," Noah said as it disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
With a hiss of pain, he pulled the metal knuckles off his abused hand and checked out the damage. The skin beneath was beginning to turn an angry, puffy pink but it didn't look like it would turn into another injury to worry about.
The tablet that the officer dropped let off a soft ping as the photo finished downloading. Noah picked it up and pocketed it as he gave the entrance of the ally a wary look. He quickly kneeled down next to the officer and put his watch next to the other man's head set. He pressed a small button and held it until finally the little screen floating on his forearm said "Frequency Saved".
He stood and looked around the alley. Each building on either side of him had an fire escape door, but of the two, only the left one was unlocked. As he slipped into the building, he could hear the sound of footsteps approaching from the ally's entrance. He quickly bolt locked the door behind him and started walking, confidently, into the small convenience mart.
Confidence was key. Looking nervous caught people's attention, made them wonder, but when people saw Noah walking in through the fire escape entrance like that was actually the front door, no one questioned it. They just turned back to their friends, their families, their purchases and their conversations.
"I can't believe they jacked up the price again," said a young woman holding a bottle of HsO, "It's not like we have an option on buying this stuff, how can they get away with making it even more expensive?"
The young man standing next to her had a grim expression as he lowered a pack of the supplement water into their cart.
"Exactly. We can't live without it and they know that. Of course they're going to make us start paying out the nose for it," he said.
"Yeah, well I bet those snobs in First District aren't worried, all protected in their glass freaking dome. This government makes me sick."
"Don't say that so loud," he hushed her. Noah didn't hear the rest as he walked past their isle and to the door. As he exited, he passed a small sign addressing the price change on HsO. When he walked outside he saw the APD vehicle parked just outside the ally, lights flashing.
However, Noah didn't stare or linger. He walked over to his car, got in and drove away.
When he parked again, it was outside of a small coffee shop about ten miles away from where he had thrown a cat at an APD officer. Not exactly the high point of his career, but it beat getting caught by an officer who didn't even have his gun out.
Noah grabbed the tablet he had snatched from the officer and pulled up the mug shot of Joseph. His target was a scraggly looking guy, too thin and hawkish to be called handsome, but he did look smart. The dark circles under the eyes and lack of body weight suggested he was the sort of guy who lived off cheap noodles and part time jobs.
"Set up a connection with the frequency I copied off of that APD officer, please," Noah said to his car.
"Of course, Agent Noah. Connecting now."
His watch momentarily began to glow as the connection was made between it and the car. It disappeared just as the car left off a soft ping.
Just after the car announced this, static burst through the stereo. The car automatically started to tune itself until finally the channel was clear and Noah could hear what was being said on the APD frequency.
"---got away, sir. I found my partner unconscious when I arrived on scene and whoever hit him really got him good. Metal knuckles, I think, judging the bruising. Hospital staff is setting his nose right now," said a male voice.
"He's your partner, why would you let him go get a target alone?" said another voice, colder than the last.
"It's just some Underground punk. We didn't think---"
"Correct, you didn't think. And now I have to explain to my superiors why a target that should have taken an mere minutes to apprehend is now still on the loose with potentially damaging information. Find him."
And just like that, the conversation was over. Noah leaned back in his car seat.
"New location. Drive to L'ouppole's place."
"Right away, driving to John M. L'ouppole's place of residency."
And with that, the car headed north into the heart of the Ports District.
L'ouppole's end of town was different than the rest of the Ports District. Noah was used to seeing rundown buildings filled with rundown people, but this part of town had a different sort of atmosphere. The buildings were still weathered and the people were still just a smidgen better off than poor, but they walked around with a fiery sort of tenacity. Mostly young people, kids that looked like they were fresh from college; the sort of people with heroic morals and ideals. The heart of the Ports District, and the heart of the Underground.
Noah never found out what came first, L'ouppole living here or the emergence of the Underground, but he always found it odd that such a gruff and antisocial man would want to live in a home surrounded by such lively people. He parked in one of the guest spaces outside of the older man's apartment building and walked inside.
The lobby of the shabby building was the shame as the last time he had been here. The brick was still stained odd colors in some places and the carpet definitely wasn't the same color it had been when it was new, but the walls were still covered in art from local painters, which made it sort of beautiful.
None of the frames were the same and nothing was truly centered or chosen with any sort of pattern in mind, but everything still seemed to fit together. Even if there was a painting of wild flowers on one wall and a pastel piece of a fat guy jumping off a dock on the other.
He looked up to see the young woman who ran the lobby waving at him enthusiastically. She was a short, bouncy sort of girl who was still too young to know exactly who see was, but not so old as to stop dreaming about who she could be.
"You looking for L'oup?" She asked.
"Always," Noah said with his most charismatic smile.
"He is a quiet one. Needs someone to punch a little life into his day."
"Believe me, he's got plenty to punch up his life. Is he in?"
"He just got back from," she paused to wrinkle her nose in thought, "Something weird… Anyways, he should be up in his place. Want me to let him know you're heading up?"
"No, got to keep him on his toes."
"Just don't give the poor guy a heart attack."
She smiled and went back to whatever she had been doing behind the desk as Noah walked past her and to the stairs.
L'ouppole's apartment was the biggest out of all the residents in the building. It was a large studio apartment that spanned the entire top floor of the building. He had once told Noah that the only reason he tolerated all the colorful weirdness and people within it was because he had that apartment. So long as he didn't forget to pay rent, they didn't bother to ask about his job, his weird schedule or anything that he did.
However, the con to a top floor apartment was exactly that. it was on the top floor. The top floor of an eleventh story building. That was eleven flights of steps. That was just enough steps to be bothersome but not quite enough to give Noah a reason to shoot his friend in the face, and that was on a normal day.
But today was not a normal day. Today was a day in which Noah's ankle felt like it was trying to pulse its way out of its sock. By the time he reached the top floor, L'ouppole was lucky Noah's fist already ached from the brass knuckles earlier, because he was pretty sure he'd punch the man otherwise.
He knocked on the door with a little more mirth than he had at the bottom of all those steps, but all that mirth faded the moment his friend opened the door.
"Seriously? How the hell am I supposed to respect you when you've started running around in one of those lame A.R.C. University hoodies? …Seriously?" Noah said, jaw nearly slack in shock, "You're too old for that, man."
"Shut up, I'm wearing this for your dumb ass. You said put your feelers out, L'oup," he said, wiggling his fingers for emphasis, "So this is me putting out my freaking feelers. Now shut up and get inside."
L'ouppole's studio apartment looked like something from a museum. It was furnished with an old, tarnished leather lounge set, a ring stained coffee table and a futon in the corner. The kitchen was neat, complete with a bar side countertop and stools, and it overlooked the flat screen TV attached to his wall. Of the entire apartment, that TV was probably the newest piece of technology in it and it still didn't hold a candle flame to the wall screens back at the base.
If the studio was only furnished with those things, it could have almost been described as empty. However, all the rest of the space in L'ouppole's apartment was covered in papers, books, shelves and filing cabinets. In the far corner, Noah could almost point out a large wooden desk from underneath the mountainous pile of papers atop it. Whatever space on the walls that was not occupied by large windows overlooking the Ports District was also covered with maps, photos, newspaper clippings from over two decades ago and long, twisting red strings to connect them all with.
Noah looked down as his shoe crumpled a piece of paper he accidently stepped on.
"Aw, L'oup," he said fondly, "You didn't have to clean up the place for me."
"Shut your sarcastic trap. Do you want anything? Coffee? Water?" the other man said as he headed towards his kitchen, not bothering to avoid stepping on the clutter.
"Coffee would be appreciated."
Moments later Noah could hear the loud, obscene gurgle of L'ouppole's old coffee pot churning away. Once that was done, the older man grabbed a sweater from his drawers, pulled the old college hoodie off and threw it in the general direction of his bed with distaste.
"The things I do for you," he said as he pulled the nicer sweater on, "So, kid, was that you who punched out that APD goon on the other side of town?"
"How did you---?"
L'ouppole pointed to the old war radio he had set up by his desk, the frequency lights flashing brightly as it picked up APD conversations.
"I told you, you can't beat the old stuff. It's not bugged, it's not complicated and it's reliable."
Noah waved his hand at the radio in frustration, gesturing to its many knobs, dials and buttons.
"How is that not complicated?"
The older man just dismissed him with the wave of a hand, then paused when he caught site of Noah's puffy right hand. He raised an eyebrow at it pointedly, making the younger man sheepishly pocket the abused knuckles.
"Alright, it was me. That GPS signal I was telling you about was a dead end. Stupid jerk taped the parole chip to his cat's collar."
L'ouppole let out a barking laugh.
"Hey, it's not funny! The APD are looking for this guy, too. We just happened to find the cat at the same time."
As the coffee pot fizzled to a loud, burbling end, the older man pulled down two mugs and started pouring.
"I haven't had much luck with the APD either. I fortunately didn't have any trouble with them back at Sandy's---dumb asses really believed I was just some loser who lost his phone---but I did run into a bit of trouble with them while I was chasing down some contacts," L'ouppole said and he gestured to the hoodie he had been wearing earlier, "If you want real political gossip, college campuses are the place to be. And in A.R.C., where there's talk of politics, there's whispers of the Underground. Just have to know who to talk to and how."
"Alright, I get it. You're cool. What did you find?"
"Found a few Underground members on a street corner passing out fliers. Talking about the price increases for HsO and how there's talk of another increase in a month or so," L'ouppole said as he pulled one of the folded up fliers from his pocket and handed it to Noah. "Those papers have information on how to send emails and anonymous letters to out sector heads to ban further unnecessary price increases, seeing how buying HsO isn't exactly a choice. It has no competition, after all."
"Monopoly's a bitch," Noah muttered.
"Too true. I started passing out some fliers and we got to talking just before the APD showed up and ran us off. Evidently, three members have gone missing---haven't been showing up for their rounds on street corners and the like. Your boy Hersher is one of them. Which means one of two things: either the APD got him first or he's in something so deep he doesn't even trust his fellow outcasts."
"Or the higher ups in the Underground are hiding him," Noah pointed out, "But he has to be here somewhere in the city. I wouldn't have been chasing down a cat with the APD on my tail if they already had him."
L'ouppole shrugged and handed the younger man his coffee.
"Alright, so let's find him," he said.
"You say that like he's a freaking corner away, L'oup. His tracker is a dead end, how are we supposed to find him?"
The older man gave him a blank look, one he was fiercely familiar with by now. It was his 'I'm-going-to-give-you-five-seconds-to-stop-being-dumb-before-I-lose-all-faith-in-humanity' look. And in Noah's experience, the man has lost his faith in humanity more times than the young agent would care to admit.
When Noah didn't suddenly come up with a better idea, L'ouppole turned away from him in a huff and stomped towards his computer.
"What're you doing?"
"Using my brain. I swear to God, technology has fatally crippled humanity."
L'ouppole picked up his phone---something that looked like it could also be used to bludgeon someone to death, it was so big and heavy---and dialed a number.
"Scott? I need a favor. Yeah. I need anything you can get me on Joseph Hersher. Any activity, any numbers, anything, as quickly as possible. Yeah. Yeah. Don't I always? Thanks," L'ouppole said and hung up. Then he walked back over to Noah and took a seat at the counter like nothing happened.
"…Going to fill me in any time soon?"
"I've got a guy whose got his fingers in a couple banks. He's keeping an eye out for Hersher's credit card and activity he might make. Ever since everything went digital, it's really rather hard to hide, now isn't it?"
Noah sat down beside L'ouppole.
"You do realize that's still a lead based off technology, right?"
"I didn't hear you thinking of it, kid."
"How long until we know?"
"However long it takes, now shut up and drink your coffee," he said.
The young man obliged, but as he took a cautious sip of the hot coffee, his face slowly fell into one of disgust. L'ouppole watched him from the side with a knowing grin.
"This coffee is black…" Noah said slowly, setting the mug down.
"It's black. Black like your soul."
L'ouppole gave him a hearty snicker in reply as the younger man started rooting through the cabinets for sugar, flavor, anything at all.
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011
"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011