Brad Crawford didn't understand the meaning of "running late". There was no such thing as being late. He followed a clock in his head that dictated when things had to be done, and he did them at that time. He had stepped in Casey McAuliffe's office seventeen minutes and twelve seconds behind schedule that morning because he had known that was when the receptionist would be gone. That was his opening, not nine o' clock. He had been exactly on time. He had walked to the office from the Debutante because he knew that there would be an accident at eight forty-three that would back things up for hours. The news would guess it would stop traffic for one hour, but in all actuality, the roads would get moving again in just over two. He had walked and he had made it there just in time to give McAuliffe a boost out the window. The police would see the photos and it would be an open and shut case. There'd be questions about who gave the photos to the small man, but no one would bother to push for a homicide scenario. Casey McAuliffe was a nervous wreck and everyone knew it.
Crawford hadn't bothered to stick around the Debutante until the police showed up earlier that morning. He'd had enough time to finish his coffee between the time the manager of the place left chasing after his waitress and returned after calling the ambulance and police. He didn't have anything to worry about. Later the police would come looking for him, but two of theirs were working in the local precinct. Whenever a Talent was stationed somewhere, there were police sent along for covering up events like these. He knew MacDonald wouldn't be happy with him. What happened this morning didn't have to happen, but Crawford had let it happen anyway. Moreover, he'd caused it to happen by interfering, and the department wouldn't like having to clean up behind him. He didn't care. They were on the payroll for a reason. MacDonald could say anything he liked and Crawford would give him a few minutes of his time before hanging up on him.
Sam Douglas wouldn't want him near the Debutante anymore, but that didn't bother him. He was through here at last. His seven months' stint here in Atlanta was finished at last, and he would be on his way west to Seattle before the end of the day. His flight left at seven twenty-three. He would be through security by five-forty, he would arrive at the airport at five, he would leave here at three twenty-seven, the police would leave his place at eleven sixteen, they'd arrive at his apartment at ten thirty, and he would be back home at ten twenty-four to let them in. He knew exactly how everything was going to play out and knew it was going to happen exactly when he knew it would. It was a self-assurance that carried him through his days, a simple reassurance that he knew everything. Things happened for him; they always had and they always would. It was as certain as the sun coming up.
He considered this as he moved down the sidewalk away from McAuliffe's work building. He'd gone out the exit on the opposite side of the building so he wouldn't have to walk around the sidewalk mess and screaming people. The ambulance would have a hell of a time getting to what was left of the man's body with traffic backed up like this. It was already a hot morning and the air would be thick with the smell of blood and death by the time the medics could reach him. Crawford would be back at his apartment then, so it mattered not to him. He came to a stop at the curb when the crosswalk's red glow told him to and held his briefcase under his arm to pull his gloves free. They were folded neatly and slipped into a pocket, and he'd secured the grip on his briefcase just in time for the light to turn green.
His expression was serene as he walked and his gaze distant. He gave the impression of being someone important, dwelling on important things, and it was an accurate guess. What was running through his mind, however, had nothing to do with trade negotiations or stocks or other such mundane things. No. What he was thinking was much more important than that, and into his mental schedule of the day he planned a phone call to the office in Seattle. This wasn't something that could wait until he arrived at headquarters tonight.
Today Crawford had woken up forty-two minutes behind schedule.
Crawford had lived by the clock for the past nineteen of his twenty-seven years. A businessman, everyone guessed, but he was so much more. He was a Level I ranked employee for Rosenkreuz, one of their greatest assets, and easily worth in the tens of billions of dollars. He was a prescient, known and famed for his attention to detail. He saw how to make things happen; he knew who to push and when to pull, and where the right place at the right time was. He had visions of the future and he wound his entire life around them, treading neatly down the path to success. When he spoke to his subordinates, his word was law. When he advised the Council, they listened carefully. Known as the Snake to the worthless, cheap waitresses at the Debutante, his colleagues knew him by a much more appropriate name: Oracle.
Crawford lived by the clock because he had to. Time was law. Time was when things happened. He had to know when; the where and how wasn't enough. Timing was everything. Timing let him get Casey McAuliffe alone; timing was what had killed the waitress. If he had come in on time and had interacted with her in an identical fashion, she would have run out into the alley and fought back a nervous breakdown while her manager tried to calm her down. Lack of sleep and a lot of gossip had sharpened her to the point where meeting him at last would be enough that she snapped, but even just thirty seconds earlier, that truck wouldn't have been in the alley in the right place to spread her all over the dirty ground.
MacDonald would want reasons, but Crawford didn't answer to MacDonald. He had killed the girl because he had woken up forty-two minutes late this morning, something he had never done before. He had started his shower late, gotten dressed late, left the house late. He'd missed the bus that would bring him from his apartment to the Debutante and had had to catch a different ride. He had walked through the front doors of the café sixteen minutes and thirty-one seconds late. Not a single moment of that had been planned; not a single moment had been guided by his gift. For a prescient of his ranking, such a thing was practically unheard of. Crawford liked control and his gift demanded it. He was supposed to be in charge of everything.
Crawford had killed the girl to show himself that his gift was still fully functional, to prove that waking up so late hadn't somehow thrown off the rest of the day. He didn't regret her death; he couldn't remember if he'd ever regretted being the cause of someone else's death. She was just a worthless little mouse. He was the Oracle.
Demoustier was not going to take the news well. A precognitive of his ranking wasn't supposed to have blips. Lower ranked prescients had them; they were carefully recorded and investigated. But the Oracle wasn't supposed to have such setbacks. It was unheard of, and as he made his way back to his apartment he systematically ran through every possible reason he could think of for waking up late. He went through the list three times before he made it back to his building, and as he pushed open the lobby door, he was forced to do something that he hadn't done in years: he admitted defeat.
Brad Crawford was not at all pleased.
Pierre Demoustier was in the car that picked Crawford up from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It had been several hours since Crawford had called him to brief the other man on the morning's events and it seemed the Frenchman hadn't calmed down a bit in the time since they'd spoken. He was propped against the car as Crawford approached, arms folded tightly over his chest, fingers dancing an agitated rhythm on his biceps. His expression was tight as he watched Rosenkreuz's Oracle and he offered a jerky nod in greeting before pushing himself away from the vehicle. He opened Crawford's door before going around to the driver's side, and he popped the trunk open with a latch beneath his seat before climbing in. Crawford set his suitcase in the trunk and closed it with an easy push. Demoustier waited to turn the key in the ignition until his American companion was buckled and the door was shut, and neither spoke until the car was on the freeway.
"MacDonald called," the other man said, flicking Crawford a sideways look.
Crawford didn't return the glance. He sat relaxed in his chair, hands folded neatly in his lap. His expression was serene as he gazed out the front window and his voice was smooth as he answered. "I thought he might," was all he said in response. "I suppose he was filing a complaint."
"Ch!" Demoustier said, easily weaving through the traffic. "He whines, he whines- it's all he ever does. Whine whine, you Americans."
"He's Scottish descent," Crawford corrected him easily.
"Pah! Even worse. Sheep rapist. I like mine without the cotton, thank you very much."
Crawford didn't answer, used to the ranting by now. Pierre Demoustier was an energetic man in his late thirties who had a grudge against the world. He didn't bother to discriminate but hated everyone equally, finding all possible reasons to disrespect and insult someone. He held a record somewhere for the number of complaints filed against him, mostly stemming from his confrontational attitude, but Rosenkreuz barely acknowledged the files. A Level I telekinetic who had retired from field work after he was diagnosed with cancer, he had spent the last several years in and out of treatment. The sickness had succeeded in making him more bitter, something everyone had thought impossible, and he had been relegated to an office job here in Seattle. Now he was an administrator, in charge of tracking and commanding thirty-four units throughout the United States. Crawford was one of three people the man deigned to be worth his time and energy to respect and he made a half-assed attempt to be civil to the prescient. They'd been working together for six years now, long enough to get used to each other's quirks, and had worked as a team on three occasions. They wouldn't hesitate to stab each other in the back if they thought it for the best, but until that day, they would cooperate with each other.
Demoustier kept a pack of cigarettes in the cup holder between the two front seats and now he moved one hand from the wheel to fetch it. He devoted both hands to the task of actually getting a stick out and lit, using his telekinesis to control the steering wheel until he was ready to put his hands back on it. The window rolled down a crack for him to let the smoke out and he poked the cigarette Crawford's direction before sticking it between his lips, and long hands took the wheel again at last.
"Why you not tell me about the faggot, Crawford?" he wanted to know.
Crawford glanced his way, not understanding the question. "Pardon?"
"The girl, the boy, the thingy with the poof hair." He gave an elaborate wiggle with his cigarette hand to indicate the "poof hair" and sent Crawford a sharp look. Crawford returned it evenly, expression unchanging as his boss explained. "He showed up in my office this morning and said he was your new partner. Six years, Oracle; you could tell me that you were finally being assigned to a permanent team. Dropped off a file with me and walked out, said he'd be back later to pick you up and acquaint you with your next assignment."
Silence stretched between them; the only sound was the whistling of the wind through the crack in the window. Demoustier was watching the road through half-lidded eyes, taking a few irritated puffs off his cigarette. He was almost through when he realized that Crawford had not responded yet, and a glance that way showed that the American was still studying him in silence. Demoustier's hand paused halfway to his mouth as he stared back.
"Pull right," Crawford said.
The man didn't question but did it, glancing forward as he did so in time to see that that car in front of him was hitting his brakes. Demoustier threw his cigarette out of the window, yanking a little harder at the wheel. Horns blared behind him as he swerved into the next lane over and he screamed a jumble of French and English curses out the window as they zipped past the car. With a snarl he slammed the window closed again and settled for glowering at the road in front of him. A few minutes passed between them before he controlled his temper enough to speak again.
"Tell me you knew," he said.
"Where is the file?" Crawford asked instead.
"You think I bring that shit with me?" Demoustier demanded. "Do not make me laugh. This is my car, not Monsieur Crawford's filing cabinet. You are the know-all and end-all; I do not tote around your little papers for things you're supposed to already understand."
"Mm," was all the precognitive said, and they went quiet. Crawford considered the view out his window, watching as mile markers and exit signs zipped by in sporadic blurs of color. Demoustier's news was unwelcome. He wanted to tell himself that the telekinetic was just testing him based on this morning's slip, but the one thing Demoustier had learned long ago- and very well- was to not joke around with another Talent's gift. He was crass and rude but not stupid, and this sort of joke wasn't his style. Crawford would have preferred that it was, because he had no clue what the other man was talking about.
Rosenkreuz had decided long ago not to assign Crawford to a long-term team. He'd had a few jobs wherein he'd been given a partner to work with, but it was just a temporary contract. The higher-ups didn't want anyone coming in between Crawford and his visions and decided solitary work was the best way to go. It suited the American, considering what uneducated lowlifes he would have to deal with otherwise. Crawford trusted himself and no others; he relied on his gift alone. To be told that he was going to have a partner was unwelcome news, and the news was made worse because he hadn't seen it coming. There had been no vision, no hunch, nothing at all, to say that Rosenkreuz would decide to give him a partner. If Crawford had been anyone less or had even a fraction less of his infamous control, he would not have been able to hide just how much this news irked him. As it was, he continued to watch the scenery roll by with a placid expression on his face and a twist of irritation in his heart.
His gift was not allowed to fail on him. He would not allow it. These things did not happen to him. He was Brad Crawford, Level I prescient.
"Where will he meet me?" he wanted to know.
"You tell me," Demoustier said, and Crawford turned a calm look on him. The Frenchman glanced his way to see if the jibe had hit its mark and quickly turned his eyes back on the road under the weight of Crawford's silent stare. Even with six years of them working together, the older man had trouble looking Crawford in the eyes. Crawford didn't know what it was that everyone else saw. He used to stand in front of his mirror to consider himself, wondering what it was that made people flinch away. He saw nothing special there, just the cold gaze of someone who didn't give a damn. He supposed he could ask, but he didn't care enough to share such talk with another.
Demoustier sighed and gave a jerky little shrug of his shoulders. "He didn't say where," he muttered. "He just left your file and walked out, and I had the file sent to your room. I will guess he has your numbers."
"What Talent?" Crawford asked. "What Level?"
"He did not say. I called him back, and he kept going. He turned his back on me, Crawford." Lips curled back over his mouth in a small sneer.
"You let him?" Crawford wanted to know.
Silence followed that statement; the other man didn't answer for several long minutes. For a while the only sound was of the cool air coming from the air conditioning vents on the dashboard, and then the soft clicking of the turn signal joined it as Demoustier turned off onto their exit. They stopped at the top of the exit ramp, waiting for a clear spot in traffic, and the telekinetic reached up to adjust the shade, trying to keep the glare of the setting sun out of his eyes. "I tried to stop him," the man said at last.
Crawford digested that for a few moments and glanced over at his boss, wondering at the meanings behind such words. "He shrugged you off?"
Demoustier's smile was small and grim. "It was like he wasn't there," he said. "Nothing to grab." Crawford thought this over carefully, trying to figure it out. Neither of them spoke the remaining ten minutes to the apartments Crawford occupied between jobs. Demoustier pulled up to the curb and popped the trunk. "You will be in my office tomorrow at seven a.m. Bring your Atlanta report with you, and the faggy thingy too."
"Of course." Crawford slid out and shut the door behind him, and Demoustier waited until he had fetched his suitcase and closed the trunk before pulling into the street. Crawford didn't wait to watch him go but rolled his suitcase up the path to the door. A keycard let him in and he was the only one waiting on the elevator. It had several stops before it made it down to the first door and several people swept past the tall American on their way out for an evening of wining and dining. Crawford stepped inside and pressed the button for his floor, and stood in the middle of the car as it slowly made its way up to the fourteenth floor. His reflection was blurry on the metal doors in front of him and he stared through it, trying to figure out what was going on. He had a lot to think about tonight and none of it was going to be pleasant. He reached up with one hand to pull his glasses off his face and he pressed his thumb and forefinger gently against his eyelids, seething quietly now that he was alone.
"I don't appreciate being called a faggot, you know," someone spoke up behind him.
Only severe control kept the precognitive from jumping; only the words kept him from drawing his gun. He went still, staring at his solitary reflection, and then slowly slid his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. He turned slowly to see where the voice had come from, and the sight that met his eyes was not what he expected.
There was another man in the elevator. He was perched somehow on the bars that lined the three walls, squatting ridiculously upon them. His back was to the corner and his shoes on the banisters, and he had his elbows propped on his knees as he considered Rosenkreuz's Oracle. Brilliant orange hair spilled into his face and down over his shoulders and he was dressed from head to toe all in black, a suit of shimmering silk. But the most striking thing about him, no questions about it, was his eyes. Staring back at the other man, Crawford finally saw what everyone else saw when they looked into his own eyes. He finally understood why it was that people were so quick to look away. The other's gaze was a brilliant blue, and they were so completely devoid of any life or warmth that the stare had a physical weight to it. There was danger in that gaze. Crawford had never felt threatened in his life but there was something about the way the man was looking at him that screamed power. He could feel it crawling over his skin like a little army of ants; the prickling of thousands of little legs ran over his arms and down his back. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end as they stared at each other, and he realized that he couldn't think of anything to say.
The elevator dinged quietly to announce Crawford's stop and the man straightened, balancing flawlessly on his tiny footholds, and stepped forward off the metal. He didn't make a sound when his shoes hit the carpeted floor. A wide mouth pulled into a slow smirk that was too deadly to be reassuring and blue eyes were half-lidded, almost glowing.
"After you," he said.
There was a brief flicker across the back of Crawford's thoughts- a wash of flames and a foul stench- but it was gone before he could register it. Common sense told him not to put the other at his back but he refused to listen to it- not because he was suicidal, but because he refused to appear afraid or cautious of this stranger. His expression was cool and unimpressed as he rolled his suitcase off the elevator, and the other man trailed after him soundlessly. "You are a teleporter, then," Crawford said.
"Is that what they told you?" the other man asked.
"They told me nothing."
"Then do not assume anything," the stranger advised. "You look smarter when you don't talk."
Crawford unlocked his door and pushed it open, bringing his suitcase in after him, and the other Talent invited himself in. He didn't bother to close the door behind himself but moved straight past Crawford to the window. Crawford ignored him for the moment, setting his suitcase neatly aside and moving to shut the door and get the lights. His uninvited guest had pulled the curtains aside to check the view and let the curtains fall from his fingers, unimpressed. A blue gaze swept over the room, taking in the simple place. It didn't have to be elaborate considering how few days of the year Crawford was actually in residence; it was just a simple bedroom and bath place with a tiny kitchen. The shelves and drawers were bare save for the file Demoustier had had delivered. Everything Crawford owned fit into the one suitcase he'd brought to and from Atlanta; he was worth billions of dollars to Rosenkreuz and his entire life fit into six pockets and some leather.
"You don't seem very happy to see me," the stranger decided as Crawford picked up the file.
"I work better alone," Crawford answered. "I would have your name, Talent."
"Which one shall I give you?" the man asked, moving to stand in the middle of the room. He slid his hands into his pockets, head tilted to one side as he considered the dark-haired American. They were complete opposites standing there: one with fiery hair, dressed in black; the other with dark hair and an impeccable cream suit. Crawford didn't answer but turned to face his new partner, the file held in one arm. His guest's smile widened and it was a chilling expression. "Abaddon, Apollyon, Lucifer… I have so many; how terrible it is that I must choose one for myself."
"Pick one and be done with the matter," Crawford said, "and tell me for what purpose Rosenkreuz assigned you to me."
The man threw back his head and laughed. "Rosenkreuz had nothing to do with this. You specifically asked for me," he informed Crawford. "But then, I suppose you do not remember it anymore. I wonder why that might be…" He seemed highly amused by this and he started across the room towards Crawford. The prescient had the distinct feeling that he was being stalked and he didn't like it one bit. His expression was stony as he stood his ground, and the bright-haired man stopped right in front of him. One hand reached up to Crawford's face and Crawford pushed it away. He had just brushed it to one side when the man's hand snapped around, and fingers dug into Crawford's hands hard enough that the nails broke through the skin. Blue eyes were slits now and Crawford was pretty sure that they were glowing, but that was a ridiculous thought. His gun was out; he didn't really remember pulling it out but the barrel was pushed into his partner's throat. His partner didn't look amused anymore; lips were parted slightly and slowly the tip of his tongue slid out to wet them.
"Don't push me aside, Oracle," the man murmured. "I am not someone to brush off."
"You will let go of me," Crawford said. "I have no time for your petty games. Explain your business here and then leave. I am sure Rosenkreuz gave you quarters to stay at."
"Do not," the man said, speaking slower now, "push me aside. I am here because you requested me to be here. I am here to do you that favor when I could have just destroyed you and kept going. You will not brush me off as if I am nothing."
"I did not ask for a partner."
"You did." That smile was back, lazy and slow. It was a dangerous expression. "You just don't remember anymore. "
"Why wouldn't I remember?" Crawford wanted to know.
"It makes things more interesting if one can't remember the details of such an important agreement," the man said, and his lips curled back to show his teeth through his smile. Crawford could feel the man's breath on his face, they were standing so close. It was colder than ice and smelled of blood and death. Fingers let go of Crawford's hand and he lifted his fingers up between them, considering the blood that dotted his fingertips. Crawford realized he was lowering the gun without meaning to. A mental command to lift his arm again was ignored, and the weapon fell from limp fingertips to clatter harmlessly to the floor. "Don't worry. If you're such a bright boy, I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out eventually." This seemed to amuse him, and he tilted his fingers towards his mouth to suck the dots of blood free.
Fire and darkness; blood and laughter. A voice whispering at his ear.
Crawford felt cold when he realized who he was staring at. "It's a lie," he said.
That got laughter, and the air shimmered behind the man. Dark wings faded into view, arching up out of his back. The ends were jagged and shorn- in his mind Crawford could see them burning. A hand lifted to Crawford's face and fingers curled around the man's chin, and the man pulled Crawford's face down to meet his gaze. A pulse of black swirled through his gaze and Crawford could smell charred flesh. He felt his stomach turn and a cold hand squeezed at the heart so many people said had vanished long ago.
"Schuldig," the devil decided. "I've decided that this time 'round, I will have you call me Schuldig."
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