Masks – Robert J. Crane

How many stories were there in New York City? Nadine Griffin didn’t know and didn’t really care, but until recently, she was pretty confident hers was one of the best. Born to privilege, Nadine had gone to the most elite prep schools, summered in the Hamptons, wintered wherever the skiing was good and her fellow children of privilege had been. She’d navigated her way through the complex web that was Manhattan’s social ecosystem. She’d lunched with bankers whose kids she’d gone to school with, had friendly dinners with traders whose attention she gained through family connections, and had known what she was going to do with her life by the age of ten. Nadine Griffin was going to be the Queen of Wall Street. She’d achieved that goal by the age of twenty-seven, opening her own brokerage firm with an office on the sacred street. She’d had six billion in assets under management two years after her start, been featured in the pages of every magazine on the planet as a person who was busting balls and breaking her way into the Good Old Boys club. She got wide-eyed attention from the men who envied her rate of return and her legs, and ugly looks of jealousy from the women who talked about her in hushed whispers behind her back. She didn’t care about any of it. Well, maybe some of the talk from the guys, if they were appropriately attractive and powerful, but her affairs were fleeting and well chosen, even the flings. She might be on the cover of magazines, but she’d never cultivated the wrong kind of attention. She said the right things, did the right things, and always blended in with the orthodoxy. Until the day the SEC had shut down her firm for insider trading, commingling of funds, and a host of other violations. Oh, she’d protested, of course. “All lies,” she said to her media contacts, voice hoarse from giving a thousand interviews over the course of days.

“There’s no case, and we’ll see it when my day in court comes.” The SEC didn’t really do days in court, though, and she knew it. She’d just been laying the groundwork so that when the FBI came in a few days later and arrested her, it all seemed like part of the same railroading. The Old Boys had struck back, that was what this was—or so she’d said in the next round of interviews. It was an easy line to spin, after all. There definitely was an Old Boys network, a connection between the powerful that her admirers beyond the Street would have understood because of analogs in their own fields—but it wasn’t the Old Boys who had gotten Nadine Griffin in the hellstorm she’d landed in. No, it was the fraud, the inside trading, improper use of and failure to segregate client funds—the entire FBI case against her. That had been her real downfall, and she damned well knew it, though she’d sooner have both her stunning legs chopped off than ever say so aloud, where an FBI wire might hear her. She looked down on her kingdom through the windows of her nearly empty offices, dawn breaking on the greatest street in the greatest city in the entire world while she just sat there, a little Macallan in her coffee, listening to the honking of horns in the distance and watching the business-suited traders head to their offices. To achieve what she had, she’d accustomed herself to the late-night parties that went until the wee hours and to the early morning wake-up to get everything ready for the day.

Now she was wide awake, but barred from trading pending the trial, and she’d done the math. Optimistically, she’d lose six million dollars this morning by being out of the game, her entire brokerage’s funds impounded by the damned feds, waiting to be carved up and returned to her clientele as best they could figure it out. And here she sat, out on bond, awaiting judgment for the same old story that had happened on this street a thousand times, about to be made an example of because she had the bad fortune to stick her head up and have long, lovely legs and wear suits that played on that fact when the Old Boys did none of those things. That was the real crime in her view, not the half billion in missing assets that the SEC had reported. Well, she’d worked hard for that money, hadn’t she? Selling people on her firm, on her decisions. She’d made them money, dammit. She’d helped them come out of the great recession with a profit, doing any damned thing she had to in order to show them a return. This was the thanks she’d gotten. Brought low by a system that ignored the same moves when a man made them. She’d seen others do pieces of what she’d done, here and there, and get away with it.

It was the system, and she’d worked within it, refined it, put it all together for maximum effectiveness. Because she was effective. She was a winner. She’d played the game with the big boys and shown them she was better than any ten of them put together. With great reluctance, she pulled herself away from the window, turning back to look at the empty bullpen, all the cubicles cleared out. Two weeks ago she’d had a sales force of stockbrokers yelling and squabbling from one end of the room to the other. It had been precious chaos, trades being closed, congratulations being yelled—slaps on the back, slaps on the ass, voices raised, high fives, whatever. It was energy, pure and simple, and it had run through her offices continuously—as had the reporters who’d dropped by constantly to write glowing features on her. There were no reporters now. No brokers.

No admins, no compliance officer … nothing. Just the silence of an empty office, and a cold cup of whiskey-infused coffee in her hand. Nadine took a sip. It burned on the way down. They’d taken everything from her, of course. The apartment in the tower in Midtown, the Maybach and the driver. She still had the house on Long Island, technically her primary residence, but she’d be damned if she’d just sit around there all day. Nearly all the dressings of success had been ripped away from her clutching fingers. She’d taken a cab in this morning, almost all her personal funds impounded. She took another sip of the coffee whiskey.

It was smooth. At least they hadn’t taken that from her. She settled in her padded desk chair with a sigh, smoothing her skirt as she did so. It was going to be a scorcher today, and she draped her jacket across the back of her seat, knowing that the damned FBI had nailed the thermostat at 80. There was nothing they hadn’t thought of in their ruthless pursuit of her dollars and reputation. She had lawyers working on this, and she had means that they didn’t know about, of course—money in accounts that the FBI would have a hard time reaching, but she needed to leave those alone for now. She’d surrendered her passport at the bail hearing; it was a condition of them letting her out. For now, she had to play broke, had to play down. The story needed to reflect her place as a helpless damsel, brought low by the stupid FBI and the stupid SEC who’d passed over bigger and badder men in order to pick on her. It wasn’t the story she wanted to tell, but it was the one she was stuck with, at least until the trial.

Maybe after that, she’d be able to get it all back, go on with life … but that was long days away. She had plans. She had aspirations. She had things still to accomplish, worlds left to conquer, and this … this was just a setback. A hill in her story that she needed to climb, a storm she had to weather on her path to success. And so she sat there, in her chair, already sweating a little, until the door swung open in the main office, and a man was standing there with a gun pointed at her. The look on his round face suggested that there was nothing in the way of mercy or decency in him. That, much like her cup of coffee, there was not even one little drop left. 2. Sienna The problem with hitting someone in the face with a sledgehammer is that if you do it properly, you don’t really get to do it again, because there’s no face left.

And with the type of asshole villains that I tend to run across, it seems like I’m always left wanting to do the old sledge-o-rama again, but can’t. Alas. Of course, after I left government service, I couldn’t really kill people anymore without a really, really good reason. I’d started moving away from hardcore slayage months before I even walked away from the agency, but every once in a while, someone came along that just … needed a hammer to the face. And I couldn’t give it to them anymore, because I was a civilian now. I missed the power much more than I missed the pension. But I was trying to be a hero now, walking the good line, resolving problems without violence, or with violence as a last resort. It was exhausting, because punching people in the face is so much easier than trying to reason with idiots whose understanding of English is trumped by their understanding of a fist to the nose. I spoke the latter much more fluently. I was like an interpreter from the civilized world to those who communicated in their native violence to knock that shit off.

I was sooooo good at it. But that was all right. I made my choices. I did what I had to do. And as it turned out, violence in the name of government service wasn’t the only thing I was good at. I was pretty good at violence outside government service as well. “I have movement in the front window at twelve o’clock,” I said into the wireless mic that was slipped into my ear. I was gliding slowly across a fog-draped, grassy embankment, an HK submachine gun in my hands, black tactical garb on as the sun was rising in the Minnesota sky. Summer was here, the dog days, and even though the August morning was still early, it held the promise of high temperatures to come. “Copy that,” Augustus Coleman said, a few steps behind me.

He was clad head to toe in the same tactical gear I was, with the webbed vest and a pistol on his hip, his submachine gun carried in the same professional way mine was, though I could sense he was feeling a little less confident with his than I was with mine. We were heading toward the front door of an old farmhouse ahead, and I’d spotted movement just inside. I altered my course accordingly, trying not to give the bad guys within a shot at my pretty face before I had a chance to breach and clear. I dodged behind a pine tree and held position there, trying to see the front window through about a million green pine needles. It smelled a little like one of those car wash air fresheners. “Nothing at the back,” Reed’s voice squawked in my ear. “Kat and I are moving up.” He hesitated, and when his voice came back, it was filled with jolly. “You know, I hate to be all Admiral Ackbar —” “Then don’t,” I said, drawing a snort of laughter from Augustus behind me. “Yeah, you say that one all the time.

” Kat Forrest’s voice came through in a low crackle. “‘It’s a trap! That’s a trap!’ Everything’s a damned trap to you.” “Not my fault we’re always walking into traps,” Reed said, sulky at being called out. My halfbrother was many things, but not so graceful at taking criticism. Must have gotten that from the other side of the family. Hah. “Augustus, do you see anything in that window?” I was peering through the tree like mad, but I’d yet to see the motion I’d caught before. “No,” Augustus said. I could practically feel him quivering behind me as he leaned out to look at the front window of the house. “But I saw it when you first caught it.

” I stared at the window again. There was a lacy white curtain in there, and maybe it was just an air draft that had moved it, but since we were all stalking up to this house, about to kick the doors in, it didn’t really behoove me to run with that explanation. No, Reed’s number one guess was probably right, again, and we were walking right into a situation where our enemy was ready and waiting. “Okay,” I said, “here’s how we’re going to do this—” “Bust through the door, kill everyone, and then go to a bar and talk about how great we are,” Kat said. I stared straight ahead, like I could see her grinning stupidly on the other side of the house. “No.” “Can we get on with this?” Augustus asked, and I heard him scratching himself through the Kevlar and tactical gear. “It’s gonna be a hot day, you know. Like, Atlanta hot.” “Hotlanta,” Reed said.

“You know, I think the heat in LA was a lot more manageable—” Kat started. “You are the worst SWAT team ever,” I said to all of them in a low hiss. “Augustus, we’re moving on the door. Kat, Reed—” “Yeah, yeah,” Reed said, “we’re at the back door, ready to breach.” “And you’re having a conversation right outside?” I asked, indignant. “Where they can hear you?” “We’re talking meta low here, Sienna,” he said, and the trill of a bird through their mics almost deafened me. This new radio system J.J. had procured for us was pretty good. “We are good to go.

” “Augustus, let’s do our part,” I said and ducked around to run for the front door of the house. There was no motion at the front window to indicate we’d been seen. I mounted the front porch at a run, using my flight power to stay about an inch above the wood planks. Augustus slowed as he came up, realizing what I was doing to quiet my approach and taking some care not to cause squeaks. He was light on his feet, that one. I dodged past the door and took up position to the right of it. Augustus went to the left, and now I went whisper quiet. “We are in position. Going in three. Two.

One—” I nodded at Augustus and caught his nod in return, then lifted my right leg without pulling my back off the wall. I gave a strong back kick in the inch or two I had to work with. If I were human, it would have maybe rattled the door a little. But I’m not human. Or at least, not just human. My metahuman strength sent the door ripping off its hinges, flying into the house. I heard a similar sound behind the house as Reed and Kat kicked in the back door. Augustus and I held in place, just standing there, and he stuck a mirror on a retractable baton around the corner, surveying the rooms behind us before we decided to go rushing in. I caught a glimpse as he spun it to my side, and none of it looked good. There were guys with guns everywhere.

“Hard way,” I muttered and broke off to the left without waiting for him to answer. I knew he’d get it, and I had work to do. I rolled in flight a few inches off the ground, no planks squeaking for me, and ended up on my knees just outside the front window where I’d seen someone moving around. I was huddled down, ready to spring, staring right into the waiting window, all glassy and presenting itself as a beautiful alternative to entering through the open door where men were waiting to shoot me. I didn’t want to keep them waiting. “Front door has heavy coverage,” I said, for the benefit of Kat and Reed, “using alternate entry.” And then I sprang through the front window. Glass burst as I shot into a dining room. Time seemed to slow down as I fluttered between the white curtains. The room had a good half dozen guys in it, almost all of them to my left, lined up to protect the door I’d just kicked down—as well they should, because what kind of nutbag comes crashing through a plate glass window? I could see looks of surprise as heads started to turn.

I was sideways, flying through the air, a little blood trailing from where the glass had cut me up and I hadn’t healed yet. Wolfe, I said, but he was already on it. I fired, aiming at the closest target first. I saw a splatter as I pegged him in the upper chest three times, my HK chattering away with a shot for every pull of the trigger. I missed automatic weapons, but unfortunately that was another thing I’d had to leave behind when I’d passed out of government service. Now I had to do it the old-fashioned way, pulling the trigger once for each shot. I switched targets, ripping three quick shots at the next guy, then the next guy, dropping each of them before I slid too far behind the wall that partitioned the dining room from the main entry hall. I altered my trajectory in midair, thanks to my pal Gavrikov, and came up just behind the wall, in cover. I debated my next move for about two seconds, which was as long as it took for Augustus to make his entry through the window on the opposite side of the room. “Ow!” I heard him scream as glass probably tore into him.

I heard the pop of his weapon going off a few times, and I surged around the corner. I ignored the three guys I’d already downed, taking advantage of the momentary distraction to catch two more with double taps behind the ear while their heads were turned to watch Augustus’s ungainly entry into the fray. “Ow, shit, oh, gawd, my—damn!” He rolled behind the wall on the opposite side of the entry hall, into a living room of some sort, leaving me in the entry with three more guys with guns. “Hi,” I said, as two of them turned back. I drilled them each with perfect shots to the forehead, but the last was using his own guys as cover and they just weren’t falling fast enough. I saw him dodge away, and caught a flash of motion as he whipped his gun around to cover me. I heard the sound of return fire spattering against the wall beside my head, and something stung my face like a flick to the cheek as I retreated back into the dining room. “Kat is down just outside the back door!” Reed shouted into the mic. “We have tangos everywhere in the back of the house!” I put aside the bit about Kat for now, deciding my best course might be to start moving toward the back of the house to aid Reed, since there was only one guy left between Augustus and me, and he seemed to be keenly aware of us. “Augustus, SITREP,” I hissed.

“I’m sitting, all right,” Augustus muttered. “Got glass all up in my business. It just—ow!” I rolled my eyes as I listened for movement in the front hallway. I heard it, but it was closer to the living room where Augustus was huddled, and the guy didn’t seem to be coming my way. “Next time maybe use your fancy earth powers to bust the window first? What the hell is the point of controlling glass if you can’t move it out of your way, you know?” “Oh.” Augustus said, and then he faded, clearly in embarrassment. “That … that makes a lot of sense.” I lunged around the other entry into the dining room and found myself looking into a kitchen with battered cabinets and hideous old white linoleum streaked with brown, like it was trying to imitate tile and failing horribly. There was an island jutting out, and I saw movement behind it, a flash of black, and I trained my weapon on it. I could see a broken rear door just past the island, across the open space to my left that led into a family room, and that was about as far as my survey got me before someone opened up on me from that side and I had to dodge back around the wall.

“Did they just open fire on you?” Reed asked. “I’m behind the island in the kitchen.” “Yep,” I said, listening to the chatter of weapons. I heard a lot of fire smacking the hell out of the wall I’d just leaned out from. “That was me.” “Ungh,” Augustus said. “I’m—I’m kinda on my feet again. And—” I heard the hard pop of a shot behind me, from the living room, and felt a burst of panic. “Augustus?” I said tentatively through the mic. I waited a fraction of a second then spoke again, more strongly this time.

“Augustus?” There was no answer.

.

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