WARNING: This series contains violence and graphic language. It may not be suitable for readers under the age of 16.
Noah was in the car again, parked just outside a small convenience store just a few blocks away from L'ouppole's place. It was dark now, the lights of the Ports District crisp against the dark North Atlantic night sky. Towards the north of the district, the lights of the First District cast a dull, humming glow against the large, glass dome that surrounded it. It stood out like a glossy bubble in the distance, huge and towering.
Noah grumbled and stretched his legs out in the passenger's seat of L'ouppole's car.
"You still griping about not getting to drive?" L'ouppole asked from the driver's seat.
Noah glared at him.
"I'm not griping."
"Looks like you're griping to me. I told you, you need to give that ankle a rest."
"I didn't even do very much on it," Noah pointed out, "And let's not forget to mention that my car could have done the driving for me! Then we'd at least have some sort of surveillance system helping us spot this guy."
"I am not getting into a machine with a mind of its own. Haven't you heard of the robot apocalypse? If science doesn't get its head out of its own ass---"
"---What? They'll take over the world?" Noah asked.
"You smile now, but I can't wait to see your face when you find out the cake's not coming."
Noah rewarded that comment with silence and a baffled look, but before he could ask about where L'ouppole was going with that argument, the older man pointed at the sidewalk outside the store.
"Ha, see? I told you my contact was good."
Noah followed the man's pointing finger and saw a young man walking down the sidewalk towards the convenience mart. He was a tall, scraggly man that looked much too thin for his baggy windbreaker. Walking with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his face down, he looked like an inconspicuous fellow. Noah pulled up Joseph Hersher's photo on the APD tablet he had taken and compared the mug shot to the man. In the dark, it was hard to be 100% sure, but he was sure enough.
"I can't believe this worked," Noah said as he watched the man enter the store. "He's supposed to be in hiding."
"You'd be surprised just how high an addiction will make you jump. Well, come on. Better go get him before the APD actually use their brains," the older man said and climbed out of the car with a groan.
Noah slid out of the car after him and together they walked across the street towards the small, common looking convenience store.
"So how do we do this?"
"What?" L'ouppole asked and paused on the curb outside the store.
"How do we talk to this guy without spooking him? I mean, he's in hiding and he's using a fake credit chip implant. If we go up to him and say, 'Hey there, Joseph, how's it hanging? Oh, and by the way, we wondering if you'd tell us how you're connected to our recently murdered rebel friend seeing as you two called each other so many times'. He'll probably think we're with the APD and split."
L'ouppole opened his mouth to reply, but stopped at the sound of someone flicking a lighter. They both looked to the doors of the store to see Joseph Hersher standing there, hands cupped around his lighter and the cigarette at his mouth as he tried to light up. Past the warm, dancing flame of the lighter, the thin man's eyes were large and frightened.
The three of them stood there in silence for a moment, staring at one another with stunned eyes.
"Uh…wait a second," Noah said with the same sort of tone one would adopt when talking to a particularly skittish animal, hands splayed out innocently.
Joseph bolted. His lighter fell to the concrete with a clack, closely followed by his mutely burning cigarette.
"Your tact never ceases to amaze me," L'ouppole said.
Noah started running.
Despite the other man's obvious lack of body weight, Joseph wasn't much of a runner. His long legs carried him quickly, but his lungs didn't last long at all. Even though Noah was a good inch shorter, his training made him more than enough of a match for Joseph's gait. While his ankle slowed him down, Noah didn't have too much trouble keeping up.
"Wait! I'm not going to hurt you!"
Joseph didn't listen. If anything, the song of Noah so close behind him just spiked his adrenaline and made him run just a little bit faster. Just as the agent was about to catch up with the man, Joseph sharply turned a corner and bolted down an alley. Noah had to cope by doing an even sharper turn, jarring his ankle slightly as he did so. He grimaced, but pushed through the burning flare of discomfort and started to regain the small amount of ground he had lost.
"Joseph, please! I'm one of Sandy's friends, I won't hurt you!"
Somewhere in the distance, Noah could hear the purr of L'ouppole's car over the harsh, raspy breaths of Joseph ahead of him. He had almost caught up again when Joseph jerked his head back to gauge Noah's proximity. The quick movement and change of perspective disoriented the man, turning his speed into momentum as he lost his footing and tumbled into some garbage cans. He managed to brace himself with his palms against the rough alley wall, helping him to regain his balance and start running again, but Noah wasn't so lucky. The cans came tumbling in front of him, leaving him with only one option if he wanted to avoid a messy fall: to jump.
The cans he needed to leap over were not large, making the hurtle a small one, but the heavy impact at the end of the jump was a sharp one. Noah hissed through his teeth as his ankle sent out another waving of protest and discomfort. It made his next few steps slow and off balance, effectively giving Joseph a better lead.
Just when the agent felt like he had his feet under him again, he stopped. At the other end of the alley, a car came screeching to a halt across it's exit, blocking Joseph. The man didn't have enough time to stop efficiently and slammed into the side of the car with a loud thump before tumbling to the alley floor.
Noah watched as L'ouppole got out of the car.
"You should think before you run, kid. Could have saved yourself a lot of effort."
The agent just silently mouthed L'ouppole's words back at him with a dissatisfied sneer before slowly making his way over to Joseph. Said man scrambled to his feet, eyes darting between Noah and L'ouppole who were sandwiching him into the alley.
"Don't kill me," Joseph said. The words barely held any volume to them as he tried to catch his breath. Noah cringed and held out his hands again in a gesture of good faith.
"We're not going to kill you and we didn't mean to scare you. We just have some questions," he said.
Joseph looked at Noah's empty palms with narrow, untrusting eyes.
"I don't trust you."
"We're not with the APD, if that's what you're thinking," L'ouppole said. The sudden sound of his voice made the young man whip around to face him.
"Then who are you?"
"I'm a friend of Sandy's. I worked with her," Noah said, "I'm from the same people."
Joseph turned back to face him.
"You know Sandy? Are you like her? You know…"
"A Runner?" Noah supplied helpfully.
Noah slowly turned his right hand over so that the back of it, and thus the large, ugly scar, was facing the man.
"Sandy had a scar like this too, didn't she?" he asked. He watched as Joseph narrowed his eyes, thinking back, before finally nodding. "All Runners do. It's like a rite of passage for us."
"A lot of people have burns."
Noah looked around before spotting an overturned trashcan to his side. It still had a small pool of rainwater in it from the storm the other day. Slowly, so as not to startle the man, he walked over to the lid and dipped his hand into the water.
The moment his skin touched the natural water, his heart nearly leapt into his throat and images of Sandy--skin mottled and burned, swaying listlessly in the tub--sprayed across his mind. For a heart pounding second, Noah worried that he would react. That the flesh of his hand would start burning at any second. But as time passed and nothing happened, his heart rate calmed. He pulled his hand out and held it before him to show Joseph that he was okay.
"See? I'm just like her," Noah said.
Joseph nodded and relaxed slightly.
"How did you find me?" He asked.
"Tracked you down with your digital credit chip," L'ouppole said.
At the mention of his chip, the man subconsciously rubbed a thumb over a puffy looking incision healing on the inside of his right wrist. He shook his head.
"Impossible. I had my old chip removed. I've been using an implanted fake ID and stolen credit chip."
"You had to pay for the implants, didn't you?" L'ouppole said, "Everything gets recorded in financial logs. Even if you paid a person instead of a business, it still shows up on the records."
"We just happened to know the guy you paid for the implants. He gave us your new ID tracking number. After that, we just had to see if your were making any purchases and where."
"I knew I shouldn't have trusted that son of a bitch!"
"Whoa, the only reason why he told us is because he knows us. He knows we're only trying to help."
"And how are you going to do that?"
"We here to make a deal. I'll take you back to the base, we'll remove the credit chip so no one can find you and we'll even provide the cigarettes that you clearly felt you need bad enough to blow your cover. All I need in return are answers," Noah said.
"You can't protect me forever at your base."
"And you can't find from the APD forever as you are. No, we can't keep you at the base but we can let you stay until we can create a more solid hiding spot for you. Give you more authentic ID and clean, untraceable credit chips with not stolen money to work with. It's a better shot than you have going now."
Joseph watched him for a long while, as if by staring he could gauge whether or not Noah was a man of his word. Finally, the man shrugged in defeat.
"What do you want to know?"
"Sandy went missing for three days. She didn't tell anyone in the Agency where she was or what she was doing. We found her in her apartment yesterday--dead. Her partner is currently missing. Her phone records say she talked to you during the time she was gone. I want to know why."
Joseph's eyes went wide and his pallor paled a few shades.
"I…Alright, I'll go with you. Once you get me somewhere safe, I'll tell you everything."
It took a while to get back to base. L'ouppole had to take them back to his apartment first so that Noah could take the Agency vehicle back to the base, and of course, L'ouppole couldn't exactly go with him. So Noah left his friend at the apartment with a promise to update him with new information as soon as he had it.
The car ride to the base was mostly silent. Maybe it was because Noah had to blindfold the man to ensure the safety of the base or maybe it was because Joseph was afraid of losing his value if he spoke too soon. Either way, Noah tried to stir up conversation by praising Joseph's cleverness with the cat and tracker trick, but it didn't liven the other man up. Conversation fell into an awkward silence once more.
Noah didn't ask any questions, although he was dying to. Answers to why Sandy went missing were sitting inches from him, but he did not want to press the man lest he worry that Noah was trying to cheat him out of their deal. Instead he waited.
Noah pulled a sports drink out of the fringe and curled his fingers around its cool frame happily. With a twist and a hiss, he opened the bottle and took a long drink. It was then that Curt decided to round the corner of the kitchen and rudely brush his shoulder against Noah's as he passed. Being broader and more muscular than Noah, the momentum of the slight blow cause his drink to slip and splash slightly down his front. He sighed, hands held out and looking down at the spill in aggravation.
"Seriously, Curt?" Noah said. He tried to brush it off with his hand before giving up and settling for giving the blonde man the stink eye.
The kitchen was the area that Agency members could go to unwind. It held the usual kitchen devices, plus it overlooked a small lounge. It held the essentials as well---couch, TV, coffee table---all of which were worn down and well loved. Curt sat down on the back of the couch, beefy arms crossed over his chest.
"Heard you brought home a friend," Curt said.
"Aw, jealous that I have some?" Noah asked. He walked over to the sink, wet a paper towel with the standard issue HsO water the Agency kept on tap for the safety of the rest of the crew, and tried to wipe out the stain.
Curt grunted at the comment, his face sour.
"You can't just bring people to the base. You're going to give us away," he said.
"As if I brought him without taking precautions. He was blindfolded the whole way over, the drive was long enough to be disorienting and let's not forget that this guy isn't just some Joe I picked up off the street. He has answers about Sandy. Bringing him here was necessary."
"For how long? We can't hide him. Helping him is a depletes our already low funds and then we're going to offer him protection? As if we have that sort of man power now that Sandy and Chase are gone? You should have called and checked in with the Commanders before deciding what was best for the whole Agency," Curt said.
Noah looked at him, eyebrows raised.
"Really thought this conversation through, huh?" Noah said. His smirk fell from his face shortly after. "Wait, what about Chase?"
"Vienna and Marcus found him, dead in his apartment. There was an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the coffee table next to the couch he died on. The APD called it a suicide, but there was no note and Chase had enough marks on his body for us to know he was forced. Murdered."
All of the sarcasm bled out of Noah's body language immediately.
"Russ and I got to the morgue easily enough, but the body wasn't there. No logs of her getting recorded into the city's database either. She's gone," Curt said.
The younger agent shifted uneasily, suddenly unsure how to react now that he couldn't go through his default, snarky moves with the other man.
"Hey, you tried---"
Curt pointed at him angrily, "Quit the bullshit, I don't want your pity."
"Can we track her down through her Agency phone implant like before?" he asked.
Curt shrugged, "Z's trying to now, but even if we manage to get a solid on her signal, doesn't mean it's safe to pursue her while she's in APD possession. Word is that Commander Carter is coming out of cover to talk with Commander Valentine about it."
The sound of heels clicking towards them drew their attention. In the hall, Vienna stood looking impatient.
"Noah, Dr.Miranda is done with that Hersher guy," Vienna said.
"Yeah, thanks," Noah said distractedly as he looked at the long, puffy gash spanning across Vienna's eyebrow. "What happened?"
"I'll tell you on the way," Vienna said and motioned for him to follow her.
He nodded and grabbed his drink, but paused before leaving.
"Look, Curt, I know you and I aren't exactly friends but… About what happened to Sandy, I know you two were a thing," he paused, unsure of himself. "I just. I'm sorry---"
"Shut up, you're shit with sympathy. Go walk your scrawny ass to the med wing before I hurl on your shoes," he said. Curt then leaned back over the couch and flopped down onto it with a thump.
Noah watched him for a moment before turning to follow Vienna out. When they were a good distance away from the grouchy man, he relaxed.
"That was kind of you," Vienna said.
Vienna shrugged. Her expression didn't give away any hint of emotion, but Noah could see she was trying to get somewhere with this.
"I said, that was kind. I didn't expect you to do that."
"Why, because I'm a jerk or something?" Noah asked.
"Because usually interactions between you and Curt lead to your nose getting broken. I just didn't expect you to console him like that."
The man shrugged.
"Didn't look like what I said did much consoling. Sandy's death hit us all hard, but I can't imagine what he's going through. It makes you wonder…"
"If things would have gone down differently if Commander Valentine had allowed Curt to become Sandy's bodyguard instead of Chase. Not that Chase was a bad guard, it's just something to think about."
"How are you doing?" Vienna asked.
"You and Sandy trained together. You were friends, too. How are you holding up?"
Noah turned his thoughts inward, trying to find that ache in his heart that he knew was mourning the loss of his friend, but the moment his mind touched it, images of the bathroom and the tub splashed across his vision. His pallor turned a tinge green as he remembered her pale, tattered fingers peeking out at him from beneath her sleeves. He managed to swallow the memory down before it could bring him to his knees again.
Noah shrugged in response before looking at Vienna. He noticed the angry gash across her brow again and pointed at it.
"My turn to ask questions. What happened to your head?"
Vienna gently pressed a few finger tips to the stitched up gash, but her expression didn't suggest she was in any pain. By the time Noah asked his question, they were already outside the medical wing of the base, so they stopped for a moment.
"When we went to Chase's apartment, we didn't go in it for obvious reasons. We didn't want to spring the same trap you fell into."
Noah tried to ignore the sting of embarrassment at her statement and motioned for her to continue.
"Fortunately, the apartment parallel to Chase's room in the next building over was vacant. We broke in and used binoculars to inspect the condition of his apartment. One of his neighbors must have called the APD, because they were already setting up their fake investigation and zipping up the body bag around Chase's body when we looked. One of them saw us, someone not in uniform," Vienna trailed off, eyes unfocused. "He seemed strange. Familiar."
Noah waved his hand in front of her dazed face, worried about the suddenly change in the normally straight faced woman. She snapped out of it, peeved by his hand.
"He shot at us. The bullet didn't hit Marcus or myself, but it did make a mess of the glass window, and thus," she said and gestured at her head, "this happened."
"Doc did a good job patching you up, it looks like," he said.
"I always do," said the doctor. Noah whipped around to see Dr. Miranda Smith waiting for him, arms crossed. She smiled at him expectantly. "I see you're keeping most of your weight on your left side, Noah. You didn't put more stress on your ankle by any chance, did you?"
"Of course not, doctor! Why would you think that?" He asked, weakly trying to assure her that he was a good and obedient patient.
"He had a slight limp most of the way here," she said. She ignored Noah's betrayed face when he turned to her. Dr. Miranda stared at Noah with a mother's disappointed stare, making him squirm before finally ending his misery and breaking the silence.
"Slight limping is to be expected," she said. Noah let out a visible breath of relief. "Come on in, Noah. Joseph is waiting for you."
With that said, the doctor slipped back into the medical wing, leaving the two agents alone in the hall. Noah glared at Vienna as he followed the doctor.
"I've got my eye on you, turncoat," he said, gesturing between his eyes and her several times as he left. Vienna merely rolled her eyes and walked away.
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"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011
"ARC" © Kaitlyn Whitehead, 2011