PROLOGUE ==> Be The Guy In The Street
It wasn't the best part of town, not by a long shot, but at least it was human. Ray Arden wasn't allowed to turn away any goat-eaters that showed up unless they were actually breaching the club's entrance policy, but luckily hardly any of the gray-skinned freaks ever made an appearance. And if he was looking a little closer at the ones who did- well, he was the bouncer, and he could turf out anyone who wasn't up to spec. It was practically the entire job description.
Right now he was eying up the only troll in the line, which sadly wasn't the first of the night. He'd been forced to let a couple of them in earlier, although he'd been hoping to bar those two for fighting in the line. Unfortunately their arguing, mockery and dares hadn't escalated far enough before they got past him, and their IDs were all in order. He was left to pass them through into the pounding smoke and darkness of Rewind and hope that nobody inside got hurt when they kicked off.
The troll waiting now was different, though; he was all skin and bone, slick with red-tinted sweat, and it looked like the only thing keeping him upright was the equally skeletal human man he was leaning against. It would have been obvious to a rookie on his first day that the goat-eater was fried on something, and from the glazed look the dark-skinned man with him was sporting the troll wasn't the only one. Ray's face didn't move but inwardly he indulged a moment of satisfaction; druggies and drunks he was allowed to bar, and he was going to take great pleasure in telling that to this weirdo pervert and his alien fuckbuddy.
He gave the half-dozen or so people ahead of the pair the most cursory of glances before waving them in. When he reached the front, the dark-skinned human man made to keep walking as if he hadn't noticed the bouncer looming ahead of him.
"Hold up there, buddy," said Ray, lowering his arm and stepping in front of the door. "Not you two."
The human looked up at him with large, hooded eyes that seemed eerily flat and empty to the bouncer. Close to, Ray could see that the troll was in worse shape than he'd thought, shivering and gasping for breath in short, sharp pants against the man's shoulder. There was a faint red glow running over the alien's hands and head, a rippling layer of turbulent light that had to be psionic. It looked almost like flames on low gas, apart from the color. Ray fought the urge to step back; the little shit was probably flying high on Mind Honey, although he was awfully quiet for it. Every goat-eater Ray had ever seen on the stuff was bouncing off the walls, not looking about ready to keel over. It couldn't be sopor, though; that would shut down the psionics, not amplify them, and the way the troll's eyes were flickering about, wild as it was, said that the mind in there was still firing.
"We're going in," said the human, saying the words slowly as if he was considering the idea for the first time. If it wasn't for the troll, he would have been the most drugged-out guy Ray had seen all night, and in this shit-hole that was saying something.
"Not a chance," Ray told him, shifting his weight over his feet. He was proud of his physique; daily workouts plus a naturally bulky build made it easy for him to intimidate difficult customers without actually starting anything. Not that he had a problem in that area, but it was a matter of professional pride that he didn't lay hands on anyone he didn't have to. Especially when "anyone" these days might be sweating fucking koolaid.
The man just looked back at him, unruffled by Ray's patented air of you wanna make something of this, friend? If he hadn't been so clearly stoned beyond reason, it might even have been a little creepy just how calmly he was taking the whole business. "We gotta go in," he said, his voice holding in a weird monotone that still sounded more curious than pleading. "We're meeting his friend in there." He jerked his head towards the barely-conscious alien slumped against his shoulder. "He's got his medicine, man."
Great. Ray knew that there were dealers in the club- couldn't keep 'em out, not without some sort of strip-search door policy that even he had to admit wasn't viable for a competitive business- but did they really have to trail their strung-out clientele after them?
"Walk it off," he said, nodding towards the street behind them. Neon signs cut through the darkness, the best look for a neighborhood that was run-down by daylight. The man stared at him and Ray met his gaze levelly, not willing to budge on the issue. The line shifted uneasily, sensing the stalemate ahead.
Surprised, he looked around at the feminine shout and saw the barmaid, Mitzy, hanging half out of the front door of the club and even further out of her top. A few of the guys in the line whistled or gawped at the cleavage, but Ray's eyes were drawn to the loose strands of carrot-orange hair that had escaped and were dangling in front of her face, the rumpled creases of work in her clothes. There was a beery stain on her left sleeve; Ray thought his fellow employee had never looked more stunning.
"You gotta come quick!" Mitzy gasped. "It's those two you let in earlier! He's trying to get them out back now..."
Ray started moving before she had even finished talking, slinging the rope across the door and muscling his way into the crush inside. He was the big guy, coming through and pissed as hell because where did that asshole get off doing Ray's damn job when he was paid for the goddamn music?
Speaking of the music, even if he hadn't known the DJ was away from his tables he could have heard it the moment he stepped onto the dance floor. The guy might be a massive flaming douchebag but he knew his stuff, alright. Ray could swear he'd heard everything from Beethoven to African drumming to the My Little Pony theme song mixed into the club beats in the past, somehow fitting seamlessly into the flow. Right now the only thing playing was a solid but bland beat, and half the floor was dancing to it like it was the greatest composition ever created anyway.
The other half of the floor was a different sort of writhing mass, an expanding wave of individual clubbers trying to get away from a disturbance. Ray plowed on, knowing he wouldn't see anything in the dark and the smoke and the flashing neon lights until he was close enough to grab what he found. He was hoping that the DJ wasn't in there showboating like usual, but he knew from the start that his hopes were unfounded. It was no surprise when he stepped around a hovering clubber to see Strider holding one goat-eater in a headlock while fighting off the other alien one-handed. Almost instinctively, Ray's eyes slid over to the DJ booth, and he felt a twin shiver of fear and relief when he saw that eerie ventriloquist doll sitting over by the turntables. In Strider's chair, the creepy fuck.
When he'd first met the guy, he'd assumed the puppet was some kind of mascot or hipster prop. The idea had started to seem increasingly off the more he saw of the DJ, and Ray had finally been brutally parted from the idea that Li'l Cal was anything so wholesome as a poser's toy at the end of the first month. Nobody should be able to beat a guy into submission with a fucking ventriloquist doll. After that, he'd pretty much realized that Strider was the sort of lunatic best kept under observation from a safe distance and settled into keeping a cautious eye on him and trying to persuade Mitzy that the guy wasn't potential boyfriend material.
Unfortunately it was hard to keep a wary, professional distance when Strider was doing his goddamn job for him. Ray decided it was well past time to make a move and did so, wading in and grabbing the second goat-eater. She yelped and managed to get in a good swipe with her claws before being bodily lifted off the ground. He ignored the shallow bleeding and offered up a brief but fervent prayer of thanks that neither alien was too freakishly strong or a goddamn psychic. He congratulated himself for those extra defense courses, the ones with all that alien stuff in them. Knowing for a fact that his thrashing captive would have to to dislocate her own shoulders to escape when he had his arms hitched up under hers was deeply reassuring.
"Everyone clear a path!" he bellowed over the music, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Strider was grabbing his own captive the same way. Ray couldn't even tell if the second one was male or female, not that it mattered either way from what he heard. The two of them muscled through the crowd as the heavy pulse of the music shifted into a different electronic song. The music faded and the yells of their prisoners grew louder as they stepped into the black corridor that led to the bathrooms. A startled, half-dressed girl came lurching out of the ladies, then squeaked and pulled back into the guy behind her as they bulled past.
"Ma'am," said Strider, playing up that southern accent of his for all it was worth. Ray ground his teeth; the guy sounded polite, but then he usually did when he was mocking someone.
The fire door at the end of the corridor didn't close right. They usually locked it with a broom handle at the end of the night, but for health and safety reasons they couldn't do that when the club was full; Ray just kept an eye on the alley entrance while he was at the door. Now he opened it with a boot, letting in a burst of air that was cool and didn't stink of sweat and perfume. He dragged his kicking, screaming prisoner out into the alley and dumped her unceremoniously onto a pile of garbage bags next to the dumpster.
"You're out," he told her, as Strider tossed her growling partner down next to her. "Get lost, both of you."
"Fuck you!" the unidentified troll yelled, green eyes glinting from the shadows and Jesus Christ its voice was as androgynous as the rest of it. "We got every right to be in your shitty club!"
"Not if you break the 'no fighting' rule," Ray told it, staying ready for anything because you never could tell with the gray fuckers. "Now leave before I call the cops."
The other troll, the girl, looked like she was about to jump on him. Her partner grabbed her arm and dragged her back.
"Just fucking leave it," the green-eyed goat-eater said, disgust as plain as its accent. "Not worth it for that shit."
The two of them scrambled out of the alleyway; Ray watched them go, then turned back to look at Strider, leaning on the door frame.
"Shouldn't you be working?" he snapped.
"Shouldn't you?" Strider replied. His expression was impenetrable behind those ridiculous damn shades. "I'd say we both earned ourselves a breather for dealing with this bullshit." He shifted, wedging his foot into the opposite corner of the frame to help support him, and slotted his hands behind his head.
Ray’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he managed to slam it shut, turn on his heel, and start marching out of the alley back towards the main door. Fuck knows how Mitzy had been doing at screening the line…
There was a heavy, hot wind and a world-consuming noise that could only be described as WHOOMPH, and suddenly Ray was lying on his face.
Since this meant his nose was pressed into the alley, he was quick to move, and as soon as he twitched every inch of his body reported injury. Ray groaned, or thought he did; he could feel his vocal chords move, but all he could hear was a faint ringing and a steady whoosh-whoosh-thump that was reminiscent of being underwater.
He rolled his head over and saw someone else lying next to him; Strider lifted his head and for a moment Ray met a pair of brown eyes so light they looked orange. The DJ looked one hell of a lot different without his dumbass shades. His face was suddenly an open book, one with shock written all over it. Ray lay there for a few seconds as the guy hauled himself upright, idly wondering what the weird blue gel-capsule thing in Strider’s back pocket was. The other man’s mouth was moving but Ray couldn't hear a damn word the guy was saying so he ignored it. With another soundless grunt he took the DJ's hand and let himself be hauled upright, but as soon as he saw what was happening behind Strider, he wondered if he wouldn't have been better off staying down.
All around them were small fires, and from the other side of the fire door Ray could smell smoke. He started moving before Strider had even finished slapping his back- shit, had his shirt been on fire?- and grabbed the door to hold it open.
"THIS WAY!" he bellowed into the building, not hearing the echo of his own voice or caring so long as it felt loud. His mind was already racing. They did technically comply with fire safety codes, he knew that much, but he was pretty sure some money had changed hands to get that certificate and there were only two ways out of the building for the hundreds of people jammed inside. "Strider, go around the front and..."
He broke off and stared in disbelief as the other man darted past him, running back into the club towards the red-tinted glow coming from inside. Ray's hand stretched out but he stopped short of grabbing the DJ, letting the man vanish into Rewind's burning interior. He briefly wondered if he should follow him in, but then the first of the panicked clubbers stumbled out in a haze of smoke and tears and Ray was very abruptly busy directing people to the front of the building.
By the time the flood of people dried up, a couple of minutes later, his hearing had mostly recovered. He could hear the screams and the panic and the sirens coming from the street; the air was thick with smoke that stank of more than dry ice, and Ray took one last glance into a corridor that was pulsing with unnatural, dark red flames before letting the door fall and following the rescued patrons around into the street out front. It was full of confused, milling people, held behind a cordon of police as firefighters turned a useless hose onto the building. Coughing bitter ash as he joined them, Ray noted that the flames leaping freely from every door, window and vent of the place still had maroon-tinted edges.
"Oh, thank God!" Mitzy barreled into Ray from the side, grabbing him into a tight hug. Taken aback, he returned the hug. "When I didn't see you out here I thought you must be inside!" the bartender said, before glancing back over her shoulder. Ray followed her look and his good mood immediately faded when he saw Strider hovering a couple of yards away, a slightly charred puppet slung over one shoulder.
“Did you seriously go back for that fucking thing?” he said, before his brain could intervene. Strider looked at him with those strange eyes and Ray could have sworn the DJ looked right through him like he wasn't even there.
“Sure, why not?” the DJ said, like he was explaining his decision to wear a different colored shirt today. It occurred to Ray that his first instinct had been right on the mark: the guy was a nut.
"He carried a girl out," Mitzy said, releasing Ray's waist and beaming at Strider. "It was so heroic!"
Ray glared at the DJ, fists itching. Strider raised his eyebrows, but before he could say anything their conversation was interrupted by a high-pitched screeching. Everyone's hands slammed over their ears and heads turned towards the main doors of the club. There, stumbling out onto the street, was a thin figure wreathed in deep red flames. Ray couldn't make out any features, but the silhouette in the center of the fire had the same horns as the drugged-up goat-eater he had turned away... right before leaving his post at the door.
"STAY WHERE YOU ARE!" shouted a voice, and a whole line of cops raised guns. "STOP THE PSIONICS AND GET ON THE GROUND!"
The head of the burning troll lifted, and a pair of eyes that blazed with solid, smoking red glared at the policemen. A mouth filled with the same eerie red light opened, and another unearthly screech filled the air. The flames around the figure grew brighter, and the tarmac under its feet began to bubble.
"THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING!" shouted the voice; Ray saw him, a plain-clothes cop in a leather jacket with long hair. "DROP THE PSIONICS AND GET ON THE GROUND OR WE WILL SHOOT TO KILL!"
A lash of fire snapped out, a blast of heat and red light that cracked across the front of the line of cops. Some jumped back or fell over, but others cried out and crumpled as the attack brushed past them. A core of light, so bright that it could no longer be called red at all, started to build in the air in front of the troll.
"HE'S GONNA BLOW!" someone shouted, and there was an ear-splitting crack as a shot rang out. The flame-wreathed silhouette froze, the fires flickering for a second, then light flared. Ray ducked, squeezing his eyes shut, and felt a hot wind rush past him with a second, quieter WHOOMPH.
When he opened his eyes, the night seemed very dark, and it took Ray several long seconds to see that the bright fires had died back and that there was a dark, still body lying in the street in front of the club. He looked over at Mitzy and felt anger flare when he saw that she was turned towards Strider.
"What the hell just happened?" he asked, talking to nobody in particular and not really expecting an answer.
"Good question," said a voice behind him, and Ray turned to see a man in a slightly rumpled suit. The man pulled out a police badge and flashed it, his eyes flickering across them in swift assessment. "Detective Francisco."
"Hey, Detective," said Strider, sounding more tired than Ray had ever heard him. To his amazement, the DJ actually looked slightly wary; without the shades he really was much easier to read. "How's the family?"
"Doing well," the man replied, in a tone of voice that suggested any further questions would probably not be advisable. "Please turn out your pockets."
Ray started slightly, but the Detective was still looking squarely at Strider. The DJ, if anything, seemed even more puzzled than the people around him.
"Why?" he asked, folding his arms. His eyes narrowed, which made him look older. It was strange, actually; with his face uncovered, Strider looked much younger than Ray had always pegged him as being.
"Because that little display back there was not an isolated incident," said a new voice, and they all turned again as a leather-jacketed cop as he strolled over. "Detective Sikes," he said to Ray and Mitzy as he passed, before stopping in front of Strider, too close, well within the other man's personal bubble. "Three cases in the last two weeks," he said quietly. "Psionics going into overdrive, melting down in public spaces so bad that shooting them was the only way to stop them from taking out a city block, and according to our tox reports every last one of them had traces of an unknown chemical in their system." He nodded towards the front of the club. "I'm willing to bet our parrotneck..."
"Pyrokinetic," Detective Francisco corrected.
"...fire psychic there has the same traces," Detective Sikes finished.
Ray's head was spinning with trying to process the information. A new drug? A way to weaponize psychics? Fuck, he knew it was a bad idea to just let all these goddamned aliens walk around with regular people!
Strider didn't seem nearly so fazed, tilting his head as he considered the information. "That seems like a reasonable conclusion," he said, saying his words slowly as if he was choosing each of them after careful thought. "But the fact that you're talking to me about it suggests that there's something else to this. Feel like sharing?"
"Actually, I was gonna ask you that, Strider," Detective Sikes said. "See, the interesting part is that we got here so fast on the strength of a tip-off. Someone gave us a call to say that the DJ at Rewind was selling some new drug to tr-Alternians. Know anything about that?"
Strider shook his head. "Nope. Sounds like a bad tip to me."
"Really?" The cop waved a hand towards the smoldering ruins of the club. "Because it's looking pretty solid from where I'm standing."
"Pockets, please," Detective Francisco added.
Strider looked between the two of them, eyes widening. "Are you fucking kidding me?" He took in their expressions and his eyebrows raised. "Shit, you really think I could do this, don't you?"
"Why the hell not?" Detective Sikes asked. "I've got five counts of endangering a minor that tell me exactly what kind of scumbag you are, and don't give me that insufficient evidence crap. We don't have to prove what you did to know you did it."
It was hard to tell in the dark, but Ray could have sworn that Strider turned a few shades paler, especially when he saw the stony glare Detective Francisco was giving him. "Turn out my pockets, huh?" he said. The cops nodded, and Strider dug his hands into his jeans pockets and started to pull things out. A lighter. A pocket-knife. A cellphone. Credit card. Loose change. Keys.
A memory struck Ray, a glimpse of something blue and gel-like. "Back pocket," he said, the words muffled by a cough when some ash caught in his dry throat. Both cops turned to look at him, and he coughed again to clear his voice. "Check his back pocket," he repeated, a little stronger. Strider gave him a strange look, like he'd gone nuts or something.
"Back pocket, Strider," said Detective Francisco.
"Sure," said Strider. reaching back. "Not like there's anything..." His voice trailed off, and for a moment Ray could see surprise cross the DJ's face. Then his hand came back around holding a tubular capsule of blue gel that shone with an almost luminescent light.
For a moment, no-one spoke, then Detective Francisco smiled without a trace of humor. "I wonder if we test that, will the results match the tox reports?" he asked, in a way that wasn't really a question.
Strider was staring at the capsule he was holding with an almost perfectly blank expression. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I said this wasn't mine and I had no idea how it got there?"
"Not really," Detective Sikes said, stepping forward and pulling out a pair of handcuffs. "You gonna come quietly?"
Strider's eyes narrowed and flickered around the street. Noting exits, Ray realized. He was considering making a break for it.
Detective Francisco clearly saw the same thing. "If you run, I will personally ensure that you never see Dave again," he said, conversationally. Strider froze, then stiffly gave a single nod and held out his arms.
"Cuff me," he said, voice rough. Mitzy let out a small squeak and pressed herself up against Ray; the bouncer took the opportunity to wrap a protective arm around her, but didn't take his eyes off Strider as the man tipped the blue capsule into an evidence bag that Detective Francisco held out and let Detective Sikes cuff him.
"Come on, let's go," Ray whispered, and Mitzy didn't stop him from turning her and guiding them both away from the scene. Behind him, he could just hear Detective Francisco reading Strider his Miranda rights.
"Dirk Strider, you are under arrest for the possession and suspected distribution of a dangerous substance. You have the right to remain silent; anything you do say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to consult with an attorney and have them present during questioning; if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you..."
After everything that had happened that evening it was perhaps the strangest thing of all to Ray that this was how he learned Strider's first name.