20 seconds into the future
and 2 degrees closer to hell…
A battered eighties Ford station wagon snaked out of a warehouse and onto the street. The setting sun, filtered through a layer of LA's trademark smog, gave its dented metallic paint a pinkish tint.
The car passed dingy tenement buildings with their own scars: smashed and boarded-up windows and intermingled graffiti that, taken as a whole, expressed hatred for all ethnic groups. It rolled over cracked and potholed streets, though intersections with broken traffic lights, and past parks showcasing wilting trees and brown grass.
Those people walking the streets were mainly heading home. Young mothers hurrying to get in by dark, kids checking their watches, workmen beat from a 10-hour factory shift. Those that inhabited these streets during the dark hours, the teenage hookers, petty thieves, and bewildered homeless, were yet to make an appearance – 7pm was way too early for them.
The drug dealers were out on their corners; theirs was a 24/7 operation.
Both young black men in the front of the Ford fitted in with the street corner crowd. The driver was tall and gangly, dressed in a red Starter warm-up jacket and baggy pants, with eyes that were dark and haunted. His offsider was bigger and harder, a mountain of muscle in black jeans, sweat-stained bandana and dirty red T-shirt. Even without seeing the red bandana's lightning bolt S, it was clear from the aggressiveness and attitude that these men were Slayers.
And nobody fucked with the Slayers.
The Ford's stereo was tuned to rap, playing Gonna go Rambo on Yo' Ass, Dub-Dub-Dub's latest number one.
"Turn that shit off," ordered Harris Miller, the car's third occupant. He sat in the back, a black vinyl briefcase resting on his knees, stark against his stylish herringbone suit. The only thing worse than a white rapper, Harris believed, was one who was more successful than the guys who invented the damn music.
Alan, the driver, quickly flicked the radio's dial.
Harris drummed his fingers on the briefcase. He was keyed up, but he wasn't worried. Not even a little bit.
Others might be. Hell, half his crew didn't want to do this run. Nobody liked dealing with Asian gangs, especially the Red Tong, which called itself a "community organization" but ran most of Chinatown's illegal trade. Harris had volunteered without hesitation; confident he could make the deal and come back with the goods and the glory.
He figured it was just a business transaction. He was a buyer, the Tong were sellers, they'd agreed on a price, so tonight was merely the exchange of merchandise. The same thing happened thousands of times a day at McDonalds around the world; but Harris was buying Mac-10s, not Big Macs.
This deal would cement Harris's place as one of the Slayers' fastest-rising lieutenants. From a teenage smack dealer to Large Jay's closest advisor in less than ten years. If tonight went off without a hitch.
Harris thumbed the number 1 speed dial on his disposable cloned phone.
His call was answered with a "yeah".
"How we lookin'?"
"Place is dead. Nothing in sight."
"See you in twenty." Harris clicked off. Alan and Rod could look tough, displaying the .45s jammed into their hoodlum pants' waistbands, but sometimes you had to count on the man upstairs.
"Ok, Alan," Harris cleared his throat, getting Al and Rod's attention, "we're on. Stick to the speed limit and don't run red lights."
"Trust me, I'm in control," muttered Al, signalling and turning onto the freeway. It was a fifteen minute drive to the harbor at this time of night – plenty of time to meet their deadline.
Alan eased the Ford down a dank alleyway, disturbing some water rats scrounging behind the warehouses. He brought the car to a stop outside a chain-link fence. This part of town was already run-down and wasn't exactly a tourist Mecca, so the entire alleyway was safe from the myriad cameras that made up the LAPD's CityNet surveillance system.
With the radio off and Harris's instructions not to chit-chat, the men could hear the sounds of the nearby dock: water lapping at the pier's supports, crunching gears on the big loading cranes, and occasional shouts from late shift longshoremen.
Harris looked at his Rolex's luminous dial. 7:28pm, just a couple of minutes before the scheduled time.
He adjusted his Nokia's Bluetooth and hit the speed-dial again.
"The nips have been circling for the last ten minutes;" whispered his contact, "coming up behind you in about thirty seconds. No sign of any spotters."
"Ok, stay tuned." Harris kept the line open.
Headlights soon washed over the Ford.
"Let's go, boys." Alan and Rod opened their doors and turned to face the van. They undid their jackets to display pistols jammed in their pants, but followed the instructions Harris had drilled into them at least five times that day, not making a move towards the weapons. This was a business deal, not the OK Corral.
Inside the Ford, Harris took a deep breath, held it for a second, and then released it. This was it.
He opened his door and slid into the alleyway, his scuffed Florsheims crunching on shards of broken glass. He held the briefcase loosely in his right hand.
Harris looked for his opposite numbers in the van. Lee, the contact who set up the deal, had been very precise – each side was to have only three men. Harris could see one Asian in the van's cab, but the back was screened off by a curtain.
The van door opened with a creak and the driver got out. He was short, dressed in a black suit, smoking a cigarette and casually pointing a Mac-10 machine pistol at Harris and his crew.
A voice spoke in Harris's earpiece. "Rear door's opening. I count two gooks, both with Macs, out now."
Harris had followed the deal to the letter; he, Alan and Rod were the only Slayers in the alleyway itself. Fifty yards away an ex-Army sniper named Steveland Morris lay prone on a low warehouse roof, watching the situation unfold through his Remington's Starlight scope.
Lee walked into Harris's line of sight and gave a slight nod. The third Tong took up a position behind the van, covering the other end of the alley.
"No more Gooks. Back of the van is stacked with crates; looks legit," reported Morris.
"Mr Lee, how are you?" Harris smiled. "I assume you have what we're after?"
"Of course. But first, let us see your payment." Lee was old-school Chinese: impeccably dressed and polite, but also no-nonsense.
Harris slapped the side of the briefcase, trying to appear casual. He rested it on the station wagon roof, snapped the locks and lifted the lid. Inside were $100 notes in bank-wrapped bundles.
Lee stepped forward and looked into the case, still holding his machine pistol. He picked up one of the bundles and thumbed through it, but didn't count it. Everyone knew what happened to the last person who'd tried to double-cross the Red Tong – Harris valued his manhood too much be even one bill short tonight.
The faint grunt in his earpiece should have given Harris a hint, but he didn't notice anything wrong about Morris's call.
"Very well," said Lee, "come and collect your goods."
To Harris, the whole thing happened in slow motion.
Walking towards the van, he noticed the man by the vehicle's rear door clap a hand to his neck, like swatting an insect, then topple to the ground without making a sound.
A split second later, the man at the front of the van pitched forward, as if stabbed in the back.
Lee reacted quickly, stepping back from the briefcase and pointing the Mac-10 at Harris. "Wha' fuck you play at?" he hissed.
To their credit, Alan and Rod were quick to draw their pistols too, each wondering who their target should be: Lee, or whoever took out his men?
"Something's not right," Harris said. "This isn't us…"
The noise was ear-splitting, stunning Harris as much as the blinding burst of white that exploded from the Red Tong van.
The only sound Harris could hear was a piercing ring. Each blink triggered a brilliant blue afterimage against a blurry white background.
It was like his senses had left him with nothing but static to react to. Was this what it was like to die?
Just as he was about to panic, Harris's vision began to return. There was still a white haze, but it was just a cloud of smoke. He could see Lee, looking bewildered, and the corner of the van, but the rest of the alleyway was bathed in mist.
And then he appeared.
At first just a dark shape, a phantom movement against the white.
Then Harris could make out the silhouette of a person racing toward him.
He was dressed in six shades of black: full-face helmet, body armor, utility belt, gloves, boots; looking like a cross between a Navy SEAL and a ninja. The only color was a faint red glow from the helmet's visor.
And Christ, was he fast!
Before Lee could even begin to react, the dark shadow was on him. The apparition's right hand grabbed the Mac-10, twisting it out of Lee's grip. His left palm snapped up, with a measure of grace and efficiency, cracking under Lee's chin, sending him to the ground.
Harris felt movement at his side, realizing Rod had stepped forward, aiming his .45 at the figure.
Rod managed to fire one shot before the wraith got him. If the slug hit the dark shape, it didn't slow him for a second, and he didn't let Rod have a second attempt. The attacker grabbed Rod's gun arm, twisting it with a snap that sent a look of pain and terror over the Slayer's face.
The armored man planted two quick punches into Rod's side. Rod stumbled, when the figure swirled around, his steel-toed boot flying in a roundhouse strike that smashed Rod's jaw, sweeping blood and teeth into the air.
Rod had emerged victorious in many street fights against bigger men, simply because he was strong and a dirty fighter. Now he was down for the count.
Risking a backwards glance, Harris saw Alan retreating past the station wagon.
Harris wasn't sure if that made Alan a coward or very smart. Harris should probably have done the same thing but he was damned if he'd let some interloper fuck up his deal.
He scrambled over the hood of the Ford, wanting to put something between him and the man in black. Breathing space to plan his next move.
The move didn't even buy him a half-second. The dark figure launched itself onto the hood, took one step and then jumped down on Harris's side.
The shadow rose up to his full height, two inches more than Harris's six feet. He was an imposing sight: a fully-enclosed helmet with a red-tinted visor that betrayed nothing of the face beneath it, bulky Kevlar body armor from neck to crotch, elbow and knee pads over dark fatigues, down to evil-looking combat boots. But the weapons really gave Harris pause: the man leveled a dark 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun at him, wore a heavy automatic pistol on his right hip, had a wicked hunting knife sheathed to his boot, and were those nunchukas on his belt?
Fight or flight?
Running on adrenaline, Harris spun on the ball of his foot. If he could sprint down the alley he might get out of the dark knight's range.
Time seemed to slow down again. Harris heard the thunderous crash of the phantom's shotgun, saw the muzzle flash reflected off greasy alley walls, and then felt his body slammed to the ground, as the impact sent tendrils of pain through him.
The rough asphalt and smashed glass tore Harris's face. The flesh on his back felt numb as he rolled over, unable to take his eyes off the dark warrior towering over him.
It should have been easier for Alan. He had a head start, ran four miles every day and knew the attacker still had to get past Rod and Harris. He wondered what had happened to Morris; had their secret weapon been the dark soldier's first victim?
Ultimately, Alan didn't care. He'd worry about saving his own butt, then think about how to help the others.
Holy Christ, was that a shotgun? As the retort echoed through the alley, Alan gave up trying for the next street. He darted towards an old fire escape on a building just ahead. The bottom of the ladder was rusted away, one rung hung at 45 degrees, but Alan was tall enough to reach the platform with a running jump.
He ignored the shower of rust fragments, clambering hand-over-hand until he finally scrambled onto the platform. It rattled, threatening to detach from the wall, but he didn't plan on being there long. He kept moving, racing up the next ladder and onto the warehouse roof, jacket flapping in the wind.
Then he ran, trying to gain some distance on the shadowy attacker, but taking it slow enough to check his footing – the last thing he wanted was to step on a rotted support and crash to the concrete floor two stories below.
Alan was panting and out of breath when he reached the other end of the building. He looked back.
The coast was clear. The stranger must have given up. Or maybe Harris had resisted enough to buy some time.
Taking it slower, letting his breath return, Alan found the northern fire escape and began to climb down.
He had to come up with a strategy. His cell phone was still in the Ford's glove box but it shouldn't be hard to find a landline. He'd call in the cavalry, getting a dozen hard-assed motherfuckers to descend on this place. It didn't matter how tough the man in black was, how many weapons he had or what fancy martial arts moves he knew: nobody messed with the Slayers.
Reaching the ground, he had it all planned out: find a phone, call in the heavy artillery and…
The pain was incredible.
It was a straight jab to the left of his head, studded leather knuckles slicing Alan's ear as the impact smacked his neck to one side. The following hook cracked his nose, whip-lashing his neck backwards.
Alan fell to the ground, barely comprehending how the man in black could have outraced him and concealed himself on the building's opposite side.
The dark figure stood over him, solid and imposing. Alan's vision was blurring, but he could see himself reflected in the helmet's red visor.
Alan blinked, clearing his eyes enough to see the dark shape reach behind his back and draw a weapon. It looked like a pistol, but was bulkier than the two .45s on the stranger's hips.
As Alan tried to rise, the figure touched the Taser's prongs to his chest and triggered the weapon. Lightning lashed Alan's body, causing him to spasm, bite his tongue, and flood his pants with a hot stream of urine.
Harris struggled but couldn't loosen the plastic cuffs securing him to the Ford's doorframe. Each move sent a shiver of pain through his back, but at least he wasn't bleeding – near as he could tell, the dark figure's shotgun had fired a rubber bullet or bean-bag slug.
Just how crazy was this guy to take on a bunch of heavily armed gangbangers and use non-lethal weapons?
Crazy or not, the bastard had got them all. Pretty damned easily.
Harris had regained his senses early enough to see the shadowy soldier dragging Alan down the alley, unconscious. All of the Slayers were now cuffed to the Ford, including Morris, who was drowsy and moaning – Harris figured he must have been zapped with one of the tranquilizer darts the attacker had used on the first two Tongs.
The three Asians were all tied to the van. Lee was alert, spouting insults and obscenities in at least three languages, but the other two were out to it.
Harris looked around, trying to get his bearings. Where was the crazy motherfucker who'd ambushed them?
Heavy footsteps crunched over pebbles and shattered glass behind Harris. He swung his head around, sharp pain making him regret the sudden move, and saw him.
If anything, the armored man was more intimidating now than when he'd first appeared in a flash of light and smoke. Then, he was just some guy in a Darth Vader costume: spooky, but an unknown quantity. Now, he was a dark warrior who'd bested seven tough guys in both armed and unarmed combat.
For a moment, the shadowy wraith just stood there, head turning from side to side, observing his victims.
Then it spoke.
"You have preyed on the people of Los Angeles for too long." The shape's voice was distorted by an electronic rasp, betraying neither age, race nor gender. The effect chilled Harris to the bone. "You're no longer welcome. Tell your bosses: tonight was a warning. I will find them. I will destroy them."
"Who the fuck are you?" spat Lee.
It was hard to tell under the electronic distortion, but Harris almost heard pleasure in the response, as though the masked man was dying to be asked that question.
"Call me Blue Prime."
The dark figure flicked something to the ground. There was another flash of light and smoke, and when it cleared he had vanished into the night.
Along, Harris couldn't help but notice, with the briefcase.
As the ringing of the explosion faded it was replaced by another unwelcome noise: police sirens.
Harris contemplated the consequences of being found with a load of illegal weapons, but he couldn't get one thought out of his head:
What kind of stupid name was Blue Prime?
To be continued in Blue Prime -– an e-book thriller with a tech edge – coming 12-12-12