Cleansing the Altar
As Loni wiped the blood from her face, she regretted her decision not to wear a hat.
It was a logical decision. Today she was a package delivery driver, and the muddy brown uniform only carried one hat choice. She'd toyed with the hat, that morning in the mirror. Certainly for longer than she should have. The hat made her too noticeable. Made her eyes, and her employment designation—tattooed in reverse along the lower edge of her bottom lip--stand out too much in her face.
"Honeysuckle, are you in one piece?"
She looked down at the blood splatter over her pristine uniform and sighed. "I'm fine, Henry. This is all his."
"That's wonderful," Henry, her unhelpful handler/time-keeper/assistant, supplied through the radio hidden in her ear. "You have five minutes and twelve seconds for clean-up."
Loni—short for Lonicera, the Latin name for the Honeysuckle--grumbled, because she could, and pulled the cleaning-bombs from her thigh pocket. Each one was roughly the size of those bath bombs people were so crazy about. She thought they should be equally as brightly colored and wrapped, because then if someone perchance found one in her pocket then she just seemed like a strange enthusiast of premier bathing paraphernalia. Instead, they were yellow and orange hazard stripped with advanced warnings written on them in hieratic—the writing used by ancient Egyptian priests and religious scholars.
Everything was done in hieratic. Henry and many of the other command crew insisted this was because there were only about twenty people in the world who could read hieratic. Generally speaking people didn't even tend to recognize it as writing. She doubted the man she'd just eviscerated had known what that thing on her lip was, while he was staring at it.
She contended they used hieratic because Wilber had been a priest when they built the pyramids, no matter what he said about how that was a thousand or so years before him.
Loni placed the cleaners on different sides of the room, making sure they were the obligatory twenty-six degrees off angle from each other, and ensuring everything would bounce around the way it should. She double checked the settings. She wasn't fond of these jobs. She much preferred the subtle ones. The quiet shifts from one idea or from one set of people to another. Slitting a man's throat and then erasing all trace of his still corpse was distasteful.
Yes, she still thought that nearly ten years into this business.
She pulled on her gloves and stepped out of the door, closing it softly behind her. Loni counted to twenty, until the cleaning cycle was done, and then poked her head back in the door. Just to double check.
"Clean?" Henry asked.
She nodded, gaze sweeping through the room. Everything stood exactly where it belonged, clean and normal looking. The only sign something was wrong was a flutter of papers on the floor near the desk. Reverend Ezekiel Browning had knocked them to the floor when he stood up to let her in his office. Loni hadn't touched them, and she wouldn't touch them. In an hour, when the secretary got back, she'd find everything exactly in its place.
Except Reverend Browning. He'd never be in his place again.
Well, given the file, Loni actually rather thought his place was hell, and he'd likely be there a very long time. She hoped. Judgment wasn't her shtick, just clean-up. Other, higher members of the Orisk Council decided when the humans were doing a bad job of managing their own religion--religions, technically. They were a multi-national group--and needed a helping hand.
"One minute," Henry warned, as she crawled into the large brown vehicle and slid the door shut.
"I'm gone." Loni threw the truck in gear and started off down the street. Her delivery schedule wasn't even behind.
Wilber stood in the command center and stabbed his finger into the visual representation of Ezekiel Browning's eye. "Terminated" flashed in front of his face, in lime green hieratic. Wilbur stabbed him in the nostril, and then the eye again.
"The girl doesn't like the dirty ones, but she does good work," a crisp female voice said, stepping up behind him.
Wilber smiled slowly. "I notice you do not call her 'the girl' when she is here."
Morgan scoffed. "I like my internal organs exactly where they are." She tapped away at the electronic clipboard in her hand. Most of the tech people used a stylus, or something plastic. Morgan tapped the screen with one long, blood red fingernail.
"What's next?" she asked, looking up at the display. Her eyes were as inhuman as the rest of her, bright green—nearly the color of the text on the wall display—and overly large. Her muzzle was large and hooked, even for an Apuan, and she was taller than most of them. Wilber liked the Apuans—after the Egyptian name for Anubis—as a whole. While there was admittedly something unsettling about the jackal-like head and lower body, he actually tended to find the perfect human torso much more unsettling.
Discomfort aside, he'd always found the Apuan's one of the most useful races amongst the Orisk Council. Nothing quite convinced a standard human of your right to dogmatic interference as being presented with an ancient Egyptian god. The Egyptians had traversed those cultural boundaries so much more than any of the other religions.
Or perhaps they'd just gained a reputation for being so capricious and unsteady no one wanted to risk their displeasure.
"Nothing until next week." Wilber looked at his list, printed in bright blue—just because he liked the color. "Call her in."
"What about the others?"
He turned slowly. "What others?"
"The other teams?" Morgan frowned at him, looking up from her board.
"There aren't any other teams out," Wilber answered, enunciating slowly. There weren't. There were no more jobs until next week. There was no call for teams to be out.
"Hornbeam just left a moment ago. The paperwork came through for Vienna." Morgan cocked her head at him. "And Beech left this morning. Chicago."
Wilber swallowed, his throat suddenly and irredeemably dry. "Call them back."
"CALL THEM BACK!"
Morgan jumped, and reached instinctively for the phone nearest her, as the wail of the alarm blared into the room and the screen behind him flashed ominously. She froze, staring at the display, and Wilbur turned back slowly, already knowing what it would say.
Agent Compromised. No Life signs.
"Call Loni," Wilber whispered.
Morgan clutched at her throat, large green eyes wide and horrified. "She's already coming in."
"I don't want her to come in," he said with terrible calm. "Beech needs back-up."
"Beech," Enzo whispered in his ear. "Something's wrong."
Beech stopped, and stepped through the throng of people into the alleyway, double checking to make sure it was clear before he answered. "What?"
"My video feed just cut."
He rubbed his forehead, trying to get rid of the headache he'd been nursing for the last day. Wilbur was right. He was getting too old for this job. He'd brushed it off, because there were three of them to cover the entire western hemisphere, and while he wasn't particularly fond of Hornbeam he liked Honeysuckle--Loni--well enough he didn't want to saddle her with an utterly crap job.
"I'm sure it'll come back in a minute." There was so much signal noise in a place like Chicago they occasionally had a little trouble keeping the lines straight.
"No." Enzo gupled. "I don't mean it went fuzzy, I mean it cut. I've got nothing." He faded for a second, and Beech could picture him swiveling around in his chair. "I'm actually surprised I've still got you."
Beech stepped back out into the throng of people, his instincts tingling. Stationary was a bad thing to be, in an emergency. And his instincts maybe didn't want him headed for St Catherine's Cathedral on 12th, but alone in a dark alley wasn't a better option. "Enzo, listen to me carefully."
"I'm going to reboot the system—"
"No, don’t bother." Beech caught the black robed figure in the reflection of the bookstore window, for a half a second before it dropped further back. "Turn off your equipment and get out."
"What about you?"
"I'll manage. Go find Henry. You're in the same complex. I doubt he's useless in an emergency."
"Now, Enzo," Beech ordered, and reached up to pull the ear-piece out. He crushed it under his foot as he took the stairs into the cathedral.
Sometimes, when all options were bad, you took the one the enemy was least likely to expect.
Beech genuflected appropriately. They were trained in the proper way to enter any religious temple in the world, trained to accord each religion the highest respect. If it occasionally intruded on him that he was according that respect shortly before he cleansed the alter, as they'd said as recruits, that was quickly pushed away in favor of all the good the Orisk Council supposedly did.
The door wouldn't open. No one would come in behind him. The Assassins in Black were better organized than that. As evidenced by the fact they'd clearly managed to send him false orders. This church didn't actually have a Father Donnivan for him to cleanse, according to the board by the entrance.
He moved to the front of the chapel, and sat easily on the end of a pew. Folded his hands in his lap and watched the sun feebly push through the old stained glass. "The others are already dead?" he asked softly.
The figure behind him stilled. "Yes."
Beech nodded, stalling, trying to decide how many of them they'd sent.
"Are you going to pray?" the assassin hissed.
"No." Beech looked up at the window. "I'm not Catholic. You know I won't go quietly."
There was a soft laugh. "We saved you for last for a reason."
He nearly turned, at the lie. No one would save him for last. In any list. Their last target had always been and would always be Wilber.
"Of the killers, in any case."
Beech nodded, and shifted his hold on the knife hidden in his sleeve. "I hope you have back-up, it'll be quite messy and hard to hide."
"We don't hide," the assassin whispered, before he lunged at Beech.
The first blow missed Beech's head by a millimeter, and shattered the top rail of the pew. Beech rolled to the side, kicking the assassin in the stomach. His foot connected with hard, well plated armor under the cassock.
"You didn't wear your collar when you came to kill me."
The hood was pulled low, somehow held in place, and the other man held up his sharp tipped staff, balancing it perfectly. "I am a monk, not a priest. What are you?" He attacked again, thrusting dangerously close to Beech's side.
"Just a man."
"You have no god!" He whirled the staff.
Beech caught the wooden handle against his jaw, and rocked back with the blow. Steadied himself against the pews and wiped the blood from his face. "If you want to be technical I have them all. Or serve them all."
"There is only one God!"
Beech feinted right, and grabbed the staff. Pulled the assassin in close and plunged his knife through the joints on the assassin's armor. He pushed the steadily bleeding man back off of him, and turned to narrowly avoid the other assassin's staff—there was always another one, waiting in case the first couldn't finish his job.
The first man's sharp staff-end sunk into his shoulder, and he struck out with his knife, slashing at the cassock, trying to find the assassin's neck. The one behind him yanked the blade out of his shoulder and if they stayed true to form it was going to sever his spine next, before they cut his head off.
He felt the displacement of air behind him, and braced for the blow.
A shocked scream rent the air, and he turned as the first assassin dropped next to him, blood leaking from his mouth and nose, a large bone-handled knife sticking out of his neck. The other raised his staff, screaming, as Loni pulled out a pearl handled pistol and shot him between the eyes.
"We're not supposed to use guns," Beech reminded, watching the dead assassin drop to the floor.
She rolled her eyes at him, retrieving her knife, and ripping a large chunk off the nearest assassin's robe. "You are unbelievable. And you're welcome." She crammed the material into the back of his jacket, against his injury. "Let's go. I already got the other two."
He winced, letting her pull him to his feet. "Of course you did."
Loni pulled him toward the back exit.
She shook her head, lips tight. The back door opened with a loud clang, and a yellow taxi idled in the alley, waiting.
"I have extra bombs, for clean-up, if you—"
"My only order was to get you out alive," Loni interrupted, voice softening as she shoved him in the back of the cab. "No clean-up this time, Bee."