Alec had worked at the Hotel San Carlos for more than seven years. That might not sound impressive, but ten years ago Phoenix had been classified as a Border city after Tucson fell into the Serpent’s grip. After that, there were a lot more people leaving the city than coming in and the hotel industry hadn’t fared well. The San Carlos was one of the few big ones left.
In that kind of environment, you had to really know your job if you wanted to keep it, much less move up. Alec had started as a bellboy, put himself through a course on hotel management, finished up online when Carrington lost its accreditation due to a lack of qualified staff. Now, he was a manager. Alec knew his job.
He watched a young man exit the elevator, Hispanic, wearing white and black, not showing any visible strain as he carried two oversized duffle bags out the front door. Moments later, he watched the same young man do it again, then again and again. Over the course of five minutes, several dozen trips were made out of the hotel, without a single trip back in.
Alec recognized the uniform, obviously. Operative Grave was something of a local celebrity. He simply assumed the Citadel member was teleporting, or something similar, between trips. Normally, Alec would have called a bellboy to help but he saw the focused look on the young operative’s face and the clear sense of purpose in his stride.
Alec knew his job well, and he knew when a guest would prefer not to be bothered.
Harry squinted as he unlocked the door. It was early; the sun was bright but no more than a little warm by local standards. Most other cities might think ninety was a bit much for a ‘little warm.’ regardless, he had prep work to do if Harry’s Bar and Grill was gonna be open in time for the lunch rush. He walked in and was halfway to the kitchen when he realized something was wrong. The door, he hadn’t heard it close behind him.
Harry turned and saw someone standing there, holding the door open. Without even thinking, his hand dipped into a pocket and came out with the blackjack he kept around for the rowdy drunks that made upa big part of his evening crowd.
The stranger -just a kid, now that Harry could see him better- stepped in, out of the sun’s morning glare. He eased the door shut, movements slow and careful. The way he moved did more to relax Harry than if he had shouted out “I’m not here to rob you.” People lied with their mouths as easy as they breathed. Doing it with your body, that was a lot tougher.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you.” the kid said.
Harry’s eyes finished adjusting and he finally got a good look at the guy. The first thing he noticed were the big-ass bags by the door. The second thing he noticed was the smoothmuscle the kid had, enough to let him move bags as heavy as those looked with casual ease. The third thing he noticed, the most important thing, was the uniform.
“Oh shit.” he blurted out. “Sir- I, uh, I…”
Harry put the blackjack away and ducked his head, embarrassed. “What can I do for you, sir?” he asked, as soon as he gotten a bit of his self control back.
“Well, it’s kind of the other way around.” the kid, no, the operative said.
“I- wha-?” There went that self control again. Harry had no idea what was going on here. “I mean, I don’t understand.”
The young operative reached down and tapped the sign Harry had stuck by the door a few days ago.
“You mean you want to…?”
The operative gave a friendly grin and nodded.
“Um, okay. I guess you’ve got a job then. I mean, another one, that is.”
There wasn’t much that Harry wouldn’t do for the Citadel, especially an operative. He owed them too much. Hell, the whole city did as far as he was concerned. Hiring a new cook without bothering to interview him first? That didn’t even scratch the surface.
Phoenix was not a good city to own an apartment complex in, not these days. Even if you ignored how easy it was to squat, property values were so low that anyone with a decent job could probably afford to buy their own home.
As for those without a decent job… well, the government paid an annual subsidy to anyone that lived in a Border city. It wasn’t a lot, not quite enough to live on by itself, but it was enough that even the barely employed should have been able to manage the more than affordable rates at the Gordian Glade.
Gladys Nott had long since found that financial ability aside, the barely employed made poor renters. Either they were consistently late with their payments or they tried to cram too many people into too small a unit. That inevitably led to enough noise complaints, or enough of a hassle with maintenance issues, that she just didn’t think it was worth the trouble.
Luckily, those same government subsidies included quite a few tax incentives for anyone who ran a business on the Border. That the incentives scaled with the number of employees, and that the city’s lackluster municipal infrastructure meant no one put much effort into verifying employment claims, well, that simply meant she could afford to be discriminating in who she rented to.
“Good morning, ma’am.”
She looked up from her desk, startled by the unexpected voice. It was a young man, Hispanic and wearing a very recognizable uniform.
“Oh, good morning to you too.” she replied. Hm, she’d had a call the day before… “Operative… Hive?”
Good, she’d remembered it right. Operatives’ names might be distinctive, but, for some reason, she’d always had trouble remembering them.
“I’ve already got the paperwork ready for you. We can take care of that now, or would you prefer to wait until after I show you your unit?”
He gave a cheerful grin and shrugged. “I’m not in any hurry. Let’s do the walk through first.”
“Of course, just give me a moment to lock up and we can go.”
She made sure to keep her tone pleasant and a smile on her face. As far as Gladys was concerned, Citadel personnel were very much in the desirable renters category. This was due entirely to the standardized contract she had had with organization for the last fourteen years. That contract hadn’t been updated or altered in all that time and, in addition to being paid automatically and on time, its rental rates were quite a bit higher than the current ones she’d been forced to adopt.
“You can leave those here, if you want. They look quite heavy.” she offered, eyeing the pair of oversized bags he had with him.
“Nope, I leave them unattended for too long and they might turn into pumpkins or something.” he joked as she locked the door of the leasing office.
“Did you have any more questions about the complex?” she asked as they started out. He’d been very… thorough on the phone. So much so that she might not have rented to him if it weren’t for that special contract. Pushy renters were ranked only slightly higher than the barely employed in her private scale.
“well, I did have some modifications I’d like to make. I’ll be doing most of the work myself so I just wanted to make sure that was okay.”
“Modifications? You mean, to the unit, not the leasing agreement, right?” Her heart almost stopped at the thought of the second possibility.
Thank God. This was the first Citadel contract she’d had since Operative Grave showed up and the rest of Phoenix’s stationary operatives were pulled out, followed shortly afterwards by the support staff. Grave might be popular with the rest of the city, but he’d been nothing but trouble for her.
“Well, that would depend on just what you plan on doing. Little things, repainting the walls or getting new carpet in, that’s no trouble at all. If you’ve got something more elaborate in mind…” He nodded again and she gave a mental shrug. That contract had an excellent damage reimbursement clause. “I’m sure we can work something out. Anything for the Citadel.”
“There’s how many of you out there now?” Operative Grave asked.
“Roughly one per square mile. A little more in the denser parts of the city.” Hector told him, pleased to see an expression more akin to professional appreciation than the surprise that kind of statement usually got him.
“What kind of gear? I assume it’s uniform.”
Hector stood and set his equipment bags on the table. He opened the left one to show off the items in question as he answered.
“Pretty similar to a basic SWAT load. Pistol and assault rifle for range, I’ve got gel and standard slugs available. In close quarters I have a knife, laser sharpened not a mono-blade, and a stun baton. There’s a semiautomatic grenade launcher with various specialized munitions for control, basic vest and standard issue Citadel tac-helmet with its com protocols disabled for protection. A few other bits of miscellany as well, but that’s the meat of it.”
Operative Grave’s eyes came to rest on the other bag, the one with the small tags, red and blue, discreetly attached to the side.
“Ah, that one… I can’t talk about, not without clearance from Analysis.” He saw the smirk on his superior’s lips and answered before the question came. “And no, I can’t give clearance myself. They specified. All I’m allowed to say is that that one stays shut for anything short of a hard Class Two.”
Grave didn’t look disturbed at that, not quite, but it was a near thing. Hector figured he probably would have if his career had been anything like normal. Then again, Hector’s own career was barely begun and it didn’t look it would be any more like the standard.