Monday, October 12, 2009


Pocket, August 2009
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
ISBN: 9781416584124
Also available as an original e-book
ISBN: 9781416584261

Subject: Gabriel Bleak. Status: Civilian. Paranormal skills: Powerful. Able to manipulate AS energies and communicate with UBEs (e.g. "ghosts" and other entities). Psychological profile: Extremely independent, potentially dangerous. Caution is urged....

As far as Gabriel Bleak is concerned, talking to the dead is just another way of making a living. It gives him the competitive edge to survive as a bounty hunter, or "skip tracer," in the psychic minefield known as New York City. Unfortunately, his gift also makes him a prime target. A top-secret division of Homeland Security has been monitoring the recent emergence of human supernaturals, with Gabriel Bleak being the strongest on record. If they control Gabriel, they'll gain access to the Hidden -- the entity-based energy field that connects all life on Earth. But Gabriel's got other ideas. With a growing underground movement called the Shadow Community -- and an uneasy alliance of spirits, elementals, and other beings -- Gabriel's about to face the greatest demonic uprising since the Dark Ages. But this time, history is not going to repeat itself. This time, the future is Bleak. Gabriel Bleak.


"Shirley has a gift for storytelling that emphasizes both depth of character and immediacy of vision. Verdict: This gritty and fast-moving horror urban fantasy will appeal to readers who enjoy dark supernatural thrillers."-- Library Journal

"I could tell just from the blurb on the back that Bleak History by John Shirley was going to be one heck of a story. I certainly was not disappointed. This book was full of tension, suspense, and a wonderful touch of the paranormal. Throw in a little romance as well as a little self discovery and we get a thrilling story with enough adrenaline pumping action to get every heart pumping." -- A Journey of Books

"Fast-paced and action-packed, Bleak History reads like a movie. John Shirley carefully built up the alternate reality and the references to New York locations adds to the book's appeal. Gabriel Bleak and Agent Sarikosca are strong, sympathetic characters. Gabriel Bleak's strong sense of humanity is one of the best parts of the novel...Bleak History reminded me at times of the TV series Heroes and of the movie The Matrix.--StartingFresh

"Bleak History was definitely a surprising read for me. I was expecting an urban fantasy that is pretty similar to a lot that I've read recently but Shirley really kicks it up a notch with Gabriel Bleak and the ShadowComm members. It's really different than any urban fantasy that I've ever read. There is a lot of detail in the numerous characters and the story has a lot of depth. It isn't the usual puff piece that has every cliche in the genre. And the book has its own unique theories about the paranormal and spiritual afterlife...I really enjoyed the way Gabriel wasn't your average hero. He was just a guy trying to get through life with an amazing talent." -- ReadingWithMonie

"The world-building is challenging and different...Action scenes are frequent and varied ranging from the fascinating whenever paranormal powers are demonstrated to the horrific...Events are not without their moments of levity, especially scenes with Gabriel and ghosts he encounters....Bleak History is strongest on the action and it sometimes overwhelms the character development, but still delivers an energetic thriller that will satisfy readers with a craving for something a little different on the urban fantasy landscape." -- SciFiGuy

"[Shirley] is very good at describing the paranormal abilities of his characters, and it drew me in. This novel was action packed, and I'm hoping there will be a sequel, as I would love to know more about Gabriel Bleak and the Shadow Community." -- Falling Off the Shelf

"I very much enjoyed Bleak History because the concept is so unique.... Shirley has managed to make a distinctive and interesting world of his own within the genre....There is a lot of action in the book between getting chased, darker forces committing crimes, and seeking out the truth of what is happening. The book barely lags or takes a breath, but there are a few moments of quiet reflection for the characters." -- Morbid Romantic

"The action is fast here. The bad guys are everywhere Gabriel turns, and they aren't above using local law enforcement to assist in Gabriel's location and detention. So who can he trust? Guess you'll have to read and find out. I did like Bleak History, but I'm thinking I'd probably prefer a screen version--lots of explosions to ooh and aah at..." -- DreysLibrary

"Reads like a...summer blockbuster, loaded with action... Steeped in its own detailed mythology, Shirley's fast-paced romp through the occult is clever..." -- Publishers Weekly

"If you like to read about spirits, demons, etc. I think you should pick up this book." -- Readaholic



A humid New York summer day. And someone was following him.

Gabriel Bleak always knew when he was being followed. This time, he could feel the tracker about half a block back. He sensed it was a woman, blinking her eyes in the hot light searing off the windows of the high Manhattan buildings. She was hurrying through the crowd to keep him in sight. He couldn't read her mind -- but, as long as her attention was fixed on him for more than a few seconds, he could see what she saw. Attention itself had a psychic energy, a power he could feel, could connect to.

It was hot and humid, it was July in the city, and the corner of Broadway and Thirty-third was thronged with people, all hurrying along. Bleak sometimes felt as if the people were giving off the heat on a day like this. As if the summer heat rose from the body heat of the shifting, elbowing, insistent crowd; the humidity was a by-product of their sweat, their countless exhalations, their sticky, thronging thoughts.

Bleak figured that illusion troubled him because he could feel their lives around him.

He didn't feel any hostility from the woman following him, and none of that telltale psychic pulse that would indicate she was part of the Shadow Community. So he would take his time evading her.

Bleak stopped to wait for a double-decker tourist bus to pass in front of him. Japanese, French, German, Iowan faces looked down at him from the roofless top deck of the bus; the Statue of Liberty's face, painted hugely on the side, slid ponderously past, and it was as if she were looking at him too.

The bus passed, and Bleak pressed on through its cloud of exhaust, holding his breath. Dodging a taxi, he made it to the farther corner. Yankee Hank's Bar was up ahead. He'd slip in there, see what move she'd make when he cut the trail short.

The fingers of his right hand balled into a half-fist as he conjured a bullet of the Hidden's force; drawn from the energy field coating the world itself, the power pulsed down through his arm as raw energy flow, coalescing into a glimmering bullet shape within the forge of his fingers. He cupped the bullet in his right hand, close against his hip, so no one could see it. Bleak could see it though, if he looked. He felt it pulsing there, hot and volatile, a mindless compaction of life itself -- in this form, potentially destructive. He would throw it only if he had to. If he didn't use it against his enemy, he couldn't reabsorb it, he'd have to release it into the background field -- which would draw attention to him. It was bright outside, no one would see it in his hand, but in a dark room, the energy bullet would show up, as if he had a little ball of fireflies trapped in his fingers.

Bleak was aware, suddenly, that the woman following him had an apparatus of some kind in her right hand -- an electronic device. She would glance at it, then hide it in her palm, cupped against her side -- echoing the way he was hiding the energy bullet. He got a glimpse of the gadget from his flickering share of her point of view. Looked like some kind of handheld EM detection meter...only, it wasn't. What was it? A weapon?

He turned, used his left hand to open the bar's door -- his right still cupping the energy bullet -- and went into the suddenly cool air-conditioned room, a dark space shot through with the light of beer signs and a couple of red-shaded dangling overhead lamps the color of banked embers. Baseball souvenirs on the walls. ESPN baseball was a rectangle of bright greens and whites on the flat screen over the bar. The bartender, a man with short, curly red hair, long sideburns, was one Seamus Flaherty, who nodded at Bleak when he came in. Bleak was a familiar face here. He sometimes drank himself into a safe numbness in Yankee Hank's, when his sensitivity to the Hidden became too much to bear. He spent a good deal of mental energy separating out the material world and the Hidden; trying to stay focused, not get lost.

Bleak had learned to compartmentalize. This is me, in the world that ordinary people share; this is me taking part in the Hidden. That didn't always work. Then he turned to beer -- and a few shots to go with it.

Seamus didn't know about any of that -- couldn't see the bullet of energy glowing in Bleak's hand; it was below the level of the bar as Bleak walked by the three men on the middle stools. They were arguing about a game.

To Seamus, rinsing a beer glass, Bleak was just a mediumheight, lanky, relatively young man with sandy hair who always seemed two weeks overdue for a haircut; brittle blue eyes; a man not quite thirty, in an old Army Rangers jacket, jeans, big black boots. Pretty much the same outfit most anytime, though Bleak changed the tees under the jacket. Bleak had a collection of fading rock-band T-shirts. Today he wore the Dictators.

The drinkers in the bar didn't take much notice. Yankee Hank's was decorated with New York Yankees paraphernalia -- dusty jerseys, fading autographed balls, curling baseball cards -- and if you were a Yankees fan, these days, you pretty much stayed drunk, either because they were doing great or doing badly, depending on what week it was. The drinkers were slurring drunk, not sodden drunk, but they didn't notice much except the little drama on the sports channel.

As Bleak walked by, Seamus called out, "Thinking of starting up our softball team, this summer, Gabe, you in?"

"Sure, man, if I can pitch!"

Seamus gave him an affirming wink and Bleak strode on to the back room, empty except for Yankees posters and neon beer signs, two large red-felt pool tables, and restroom entrances in the farther wall. He toyed with the idea of going into the men's restroom, waiting his tracker out. But if she was really hunting him, she wouldn't let the men's room sign stop her.

He walked over to the other side of a pool table, turned toward the door, hesitated there, trying to think it through. If she wasn't Shadow Community, who was she? She could be a fed. Maybe Central Containment.

Bleak decided he wanted to know whom she was working for. And what the instrument in her hand was.

He couldn't see her, now, because she'd lost sight of him. He only had sight of her, psychically, when she had him in sight. He waited.

The energy bullet had lost some of its power through the attrition of time, but it was still hot in his hand. Holding it there for that long, he might get a slight burn on his skin. Still, he pulsed a little more power into it, building it up to full strength.

Over the noise from a television ad for a men's perfume absolutely guaranteed to attract women, he heard Seamus ask someone what he could get for them. It was her. Bleak thought she said a glass of chardonnay, but he couldn't hear it clearly, then she asked a muffled question, and Seamus said, "The ladies' is back there, miss."

She was still tracking him. But whoever she was, she was staying undercover about it.

His grip tightened around the energy bullet, compressing its charge a little more. But he kept it out of sight below the edge of a pool table.

She walked in, then, a pale woman with bobbed raven hair; she wore a conservative dove-gray dress with a matching jacket, red pumps, matching red-leather purse over her left shoulder, nails the same color. An expression you'd expect on a prosecuting attorney added hardness to an otherwise appealing, heart-shaped face; pursed full lips. Her paleness wasn't unhealthy, it was like something he'd seen in Renaissance paintings. She was a head shorter than Bleak -- but there was no sense that she was intimidated. She stopped just inside the billiard room, standing there with her feet well apart. He noticed she had her purse open. He could just make out the top of a gun butt in there. In her right hand was what looked like one of those devices carpenters use to find metal studs hidden in the walls. Only it was more complicated looking, sleeker. And as she came closer, she held it low enough so that he could see its little LCD screen. Where a tiny red arrow was pointing right at Bleak.

The gun butt convinced Bleak there was no use in playing it cute. "It'd be better if you left that gun in your purse, miss," he warned, keeping his voice gentle but raising his hand, opening his fingers enough so she could see the energy bullet shifting through orange, red, purple, violet, incandescent blue, yellow; back to orange, red, purple. "And that other thing you have pointed at me -- mind telling me what it is? I mean, it's only fair." He smiled. Hoped it was a disarming smile. "If I had a creepy little device pointed at you, I'd tell you why."

She stared at the energy bullet cupped in his hand, fascinated, her eyes widening fractionally. Her voice surprisingly husky, she said, "Okay. You're the real thing. Gabriel Bleak, you are required to come with me -- and right now. The federal government requires your presence."

He looked closely at her. When she'd said, The federal government requires your presence, he'd sensed ambivalence. She was a strong woman, and she could make an arrest. But she didn't quite believe in the job. She wasn't completely one of them. She'd do her job. But he could hear the doubt in her voice; see it in her eyes. Too bad he had no time to persuade her to let him go. Other agents would be not far away. And they'd be here soon.

Bleak shook his head. "Like to help you out. But last time the government 'required' me, things kinda...didn't work out."

He tossed the energy bullet from his right hand to his left, as if one hand were playing catch with the other. The flaring, hissing passage of it startled her -- she took half a step back. He grinned.

"Easy with that thing," she snapped. "Just -- get rid of it. Trust us and it'll be all right. I can't guarantee your safety if you don't surrender."

"Mind telling me, for starts, what happens if I go with you?"

"I was just told to get a...a confirmation on you. Then I bring you in. I don't know any more than that."

She delivered the disclaimer believably. But Bleak could feel dishonesty the way someone else might feel a sudden cold breeze. She'd been honest right up to I don't know any more than that. He looked into her eyes -- and felt himself held there. An indefinable familiarity hummed between their interlocked gazes, in that long moment. As if he knew...not her face -- but something inside her.

She glanced over her shoulder, showing a flicker of irritation -- and not irritation with him.

He tossed the energy bullet back to his other hand. It made a sizzling sound passing through the air. "Expecting someone?"

She looked at the glow of power nestled in his hand. "Put that thing out and just...come along. We'll talk, Mr. Bleak. All right?"

"Love to have a drink with you, if you had a different profession, miss. I might even have gone with 'just come along.' But...just 'come along' with a government agent?" He shook his head. "I've got work to do, for one thing."

"You're a skip tracer, from what I've heard. You can do that anytime. We don't need to be in any kind of...of confrontation, here."

"Sure, okay, but -- come to think of it..." He tossed the energy bullet up so it hissed and spiraled, caught it in his right hand. "You haven't even shown me ID. They make up badges for your department yet?" He smiled. There was something about her...

She grimaced, glanced over her shoulder again.

"Someone slow to back you up?" Bleak added thoughtfully, "You're not NYPD or FBI. I'd have had their badges stuck in my face till I was that leaves CCA, right?"

She looked at him flatly, then tilted her purse so he could see the badge clipped to the inside flap: Homeland Security, Central Containment Authority. "CCA agent Loraine Sarikosca. So you know about CCA. Not many are aware it exists. Lot of you people know?"

"I think I read about it on the Internet somewhere." Truth was, all the ShadowComm knew. A few had escaped and told their stories. And the Hidden disclosed a good many secrets.

She gave a small shake of her head. "The Internet. I don't think so."

"Way it is now, anybody can be detained. So I guess I won't ask what authority you have. But" -- he tossed the energy bullet from his right hand to his left -- "what excuse do you have?"

"What?" She seemed startled. As if she'd been wondering herself.

"What rationale? What excuse? To just take people away."

Her eyes followed the energy bullet as it went back to his right hand. "There is a...a national security directive...having to do with extraordinary paranormal capabilities. The risk to the public...the possibility you could be of..." She broke off, licking her lips.

"What were you going to say -- about the possibility? That I could be useful?"

"We'll talk about it in the car."

"Will we?"

Bleak saw the uncertainty in her eyes -- and saw it locked away, a moment later. Her eyes going cold.

"Yes," she said, her voice flat. "Now...I'm going to ask you to make that little fireball of yours go away. Here -- I'll turn off the detector. Even steven." She clicked the device off with a flick of her thumb, put it in the purse as casually as a woman putting away a cell phone -- but her hand came out of the purse with the gun.

Bleak knew the gun was coming and was already releasing the bullet with a snapping motion -- like a man snapping a whip. The energy bullet sped from his hand like a spinning meteor, straight at her rising gun-hand, whistling faintly as it went. She shouted in surprise and pain as the packet of energy struck her snub-nosed .38 square in the cylinder, sent it flying from her singed fingers -- its metal glowing red-hot, trailing smoke.

"Get down!" he yelled, rushing around the pool table to tackle her, the two of them going heavily to the tiled floor. The gun clattered against the wall -- and exploded, as every bullet in the gun went off, detonated by the energy charge, bullets cracking into the ceiling and the floor, the room acrid with gun smoke. She tried to pull away...he thought he felt her heartbeat, for a moment...hoped she knew he was trying to save her life.

"What the fuck!" yelled Seamus from the next room.

Bleak had an impulse to see if Agent Sarikosca was okay -- he liked her nerviness, and he knew she was just doing her job -- but he made himself get up and dodge into the men's room instead.

"Come back here, dammit!" she yelled, behind him. So good. She was okay.

"Call nine-whuh-one!" one of the barflies yelled, in the background, as Bleak turned, slammed the door shut, then shot a burst of energy from his hand to melt the metal of the lock. Not enough to hold it forever, but it'd slow her down. A moment later the door creaked as someone on the other side slammed it with a shoulder. "Call nine-whuh-one!" shrieked the barfly again, muffled now.

Two booths on the right, urinals left, sink and window straight ahead. He shook his head, looking at the glazed-glass window over the sink. Painted shut, and anyway too small for him.

But he heard her out there, talking on a cell. "Yeah, just get in here -- he's blocked the door somehow -- " Then an aside to Seamus: "I'm sorry, sir, this is federal business, you're going to have to stay out of here.... No, sir, there's no fire, just a small explosion.... No, sir, I'm not hurt, now you're going to have to..."

Bleak walked over to the sink, examined the wall. Touched it with the palm of his hand. Maybe.

Thump! as someone slammed into the door. Grunted in pain. Slammed it again.

And there were more agents coming.

Bleak sighed. It seemed he'd used up this bar. Seamus wasn't going to be happy with him.

Nothing to lose. He put his hands on the wall above the sink, closed his eyes. Drew energy from the background field, channeled it through his arms...

He stopped, aware of a spiritual scrutiny. Deep contact with the background field exposed any disembodied entities handy; it revealed the Hidden. And someone was there.

Bleak opened his eyes and found he was staring at himself in slightly reflective window glass over the sink -- and saw that something...someone...was behind him, looking over his shoulder. A set of disembodied eyes. A face was filling in, around them. Looked like a teenage boy, maybe eighteen. Just old enough to get into a bar in New York. He could even make out the acne, because that was how the ghost thought of itself.

A drug OD, Bleak suspected. The ghost might have been here for years.

"You ought to let go, kid," Bleak said. "You're stuck here. You're dead, see."

The kid shook his head, at first like someone shaking their head "no," then faster and faster, till his face was a blur, as he receded, his denial becoming a retreat through space itself -- and Bleak closed his eyes again, focused the power he'd drawn, directed it into the wall above the sink, felt the plaster crack and shudder and give way. Something clanged noisily to the floor.

Bleak opened his eyes to see a rough oblong hole, a gap three feet high in the wall, the sink broken down on the tiles, water gushing from a pipe, wetting his boots.

He heard the door breaking down behind him --

He reached out, caught the still-hot edges of the wall, wincing at the contact, put his right foot on the pipe, and levered himself up and through, out partway into the alley behind the building. Running footsteps behind him; someone grabbed his left ankle but he twisted free, got to his feet in the alley. A car was just pulling in twenty-five yards to his left, one of the dark blue, compact natural-gas hybrids favored by the CCA. Bleak thought about invoking help from the disembodied, but he didn't want to incur debts if he didn't have to. He started to the right, looking for a way out -- but it was a dead end. Trash cans against a brick wall.

He turned back toward the car rolling slowly, inexorably toward him. Someone was hurrying up behind the car -- a blond man in a suit, an agent in wraparound mirror sunglasses, raising a pistol. Someone behind him yelled, "Keep your head down, Arnie!"

"You!" shouted "Arnie" from behind the car. "Hands up! You've assaulted a federal agent! I've got every right to take you down! Hands up, do it now!" He was aiming his pistol over the top of the car.

Bleak backed up, coalescing another energy bullet in his right hand.

Agent Sarikosca appeared at the alley's mouth, behind Arnie, her mouth open. She'd been running. She glared past the blond agent.

"Bleak! Put your hands on the wall, give it up! I promise you won't be harmed!"

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Bleak said, looking up toward a fire escape. No, out of reach.

The car was bearing down on him...and stopped, rocking on its shocks, about thirty feet away.

He thought he might be able to hit the sedan with a compacted energy bullet to make the engine explode, but if he did that, he'd probably kill the guys inside. And he didn't want to kill anyone if he didn't have to.

He knew what surrendering to the CCA could mean. Maybe the stories about its prisoners were just rumors, but he thought it wiser to believe them.

"I'm counting two and I'm opening fire!" Arnie yelled.

That made up Bleak's mind for him.

Heart thudding so loudly he seemed to hear it echo in the alley, Bleak snapped the energy bullet toward the agent -- aiming it so it'd whip close to the man's left ear. Scare him into screwing up his aim. The agent yelled, ducked aside from the meteoric energy bullet, fired his weapon as he stumbled. A bullet cracked past Bleak. He'd heard that sound often enough in his life to know what it was.

Still recoiling from Bleak's energy bullet, Arnie stumbled back --

Bleak ran straight for the car coming at him. As he went, he reached out to the planetary field, felt it concentrated between the narrow walls of the alley. A pretty strong water source must run under the pavement. That helped.

He stretched out his arms wide as he ran, caught the energy in his opened hands, compressed it with the extension of his senses, molding it into a shape formed by his mind.

The car's driver and passenger were opening their doors, getting out with guns in hand -- but Bleak was running up an invisible ramp in the air. Right over their car.

"Son of a bitch!" the driver shouted -- he was another set of sunglasses in a suit -- as Bleak ran through the air above the car, creating more of the invisible ramp ahead of him as he went. He waved the ramp away just as he passed the trunk of the car on the far side, and the support vanished from under him. He dropped down to a crouch behind the agents as one of them, the driver, got out of the car and turned, fired at him, the bullet cutting the air near his shoulder.

Then Arnie was there, right in front of him on the sidewalk, raising the gun. Bleak used more standard combat skills, Ranger hand-to-hand. He set himself and kicked out, connecting with Arnie's wrist. Arnie yelped in pain, grimacing, as the gun spun away. Agent Sarikosca came from behind her partner, tried to barricade Bleak, but he dodged past her, like a quarterback with the football, and kept going, leaving her and Arnie behind.

Running, Bleak sensed someone he knew on the sidewalk ahead. Wondered if it was coincidence. It was Pigeon Lady: an elderly woman no more than five feet tall, who seemed to live in a perpetual flurry of pigeons; a droppings-white watch cap pulled over her spray of gray hair; she wore layers of bird-spackled wool, whatever the weather, stuck with fallen pinfeathers. And she wore pigeons like more clothing, something like thirty of them whirring and cooing about her, sitting on her head, her shoulders, her arms, whether she was feeding them or not. Her seamed face turned toward him; her watery eyes took him in, running past. Nodded distantly to him, turning to see men with suits, sunglasses, and guns five strides behind him. Feds, aiming at Bleak's back.

The pigeons erupted from her in a volcanic cloud of flapping blue and gray, making whickering sounds in their flurrying, to fill the air just behind Bleak. They flew at the faces of the CCA men; flapping wildly, blocking all sight of the agents' quarry, for several long, precious moments.

Carried on the psychic wind of their wings, Bleak heard thoughts, other people's thoughts he could never ordinarily have heard. He was not usually telepathic -- not like that. Mostly he could only hear the minds of the dead.

Run, cross the street, Bleak, the Pigeon Lady thought. We'll keep them back.Someone else thinking, What the hell's up with these birds? It's like that Hitchcock movie...the damn things're too close to my eyes...the smell, the feathers --

Where's he gone?

There -- I've got a shot at him!

"No, Drake, hold your fire, you'll hit civilians!" Sarikosca shouted, as Bleak sprinted up Thirty-fifth toward Broadway, running full out, suddenly aware of the humid heat. As if he were running upstream through hot water. He drew his power from the living environment around him, but the process took something from him too -- had taken a great deal for that last little gag, running on the air -- and he was feeling it. And thinking, "Drake" she said? Drake Zweig from military intelligence? It would be a natural jump, from Army Intelligence to CCA. Maybe Zweig had ID'd him. He hoped it wasn't that particular prick.

Bleak saw the female agent at the corner, with Arnie just behind her. Trying to block him off. He took in a deep breath and cut to the right, dodging around a wheezing fat woman with runny eye makeup and a bearded man in a turban; ducked behind a disused mailbox, then cut between two parked taxis and ran into traffic, right in front of a bus. He sprinted past the front of a big city bus a whisker ahead of being run down, the bus blaring its horn -- then he turned to follow it through the intersection, running along beside it. Traffic was heavy and the bus was moving only as fast as he could run.

Bleak used the bus's bulk to hide behind as he crossed Broadway, aware that a round-mouthed little girl was ogling him from a window just beside his head, her pudgy fingers pressed to the glass. He waved at her and she waved back, then, wheezing, he angled off into the thick crowd on the sidewalk, cut into a department store...and lost them. For now.

"We lost him," said Drake Zweig, coming back to the car in the alley. "Dammit." Zweig was a short, middle-aged man in a gray suit tight over his barrel chest. He wore his gray hair in a kind of oily pompadour, to give him height; wide face, eyes set slightly too far apart, his mouth almost lipless. He had large hands -- there was a story he'd used those big thumbs on the eyes of detainees, back in Iraq, years ago, when he'd worked for the CIA at Abu Ghraib.

"What about the detector?" Arnie asked, ruefully rubbing his bruised wrist.

"Out of range -- he must've slipped off to a subway. Caught a lucky train."

Loraine Sarikosca was standing by the car, spraying her burn with analgesic, then winding a bandage around her hand. She wanted to tell Zweig he should have taken her advice, brought in four more cars for this guy. She just wondered why it'd taken so long for her backup to show, in the bar. Had General Forsythe told them to hold off -- see how she handled it alone? It was quite possible.

"I can confirm the ID, all right," Zweig went on. "Gabriel Bleak."

Arnie tilted his dark glasses back on the top of his blond head, revealing pale blue eyes. "Hot as hell out here. So, Drake -- how you know this Bleak?"

"Let's take it to the car," Loraine said. She knew Zweig didn't like her talking as if she had rank on him -- only, she did have rank on him, so he could stuff it. She didn't want them airing this on the street.

They all got in, Loraine in the back behind Zweig, Arnie beside her. Zweig's partner, riding shotgun, was Dorrick Johnson, an African-American agent who rarely contributed more than a cynical shake of his head to any conversation. But Dorrick had good judgment. Such as the good judgment to put on the airconditioning as soon as Zweig got the car fired up.

"How's your hand, Loraine?" Arnie asked.

"It's okay, just a little red." It hurt like a bastard but she didn't want to be taken off the job. "Your wrist?"

"Throbs. Doesn't seem broken. If I run into that guy again..."

"Keep a professional attitude, Arnie, okay? Forsythe wants them intact."

Zweig just then got around to answering Arnie's question, so it sounded like a non sequitur. "Bleak fucked with me on intel, of course, in Afghanistan." Zweig snorted. "He was Army Rangers. Supposed to be a tough bunch. But he was such an old lady about the civilians."

"Some 'old lady.' " Arnie said ruefully. "Almost blew off Loraine's hand. And he made us look like dicks."

"Used magic," Zweig snorted. "Didn't have the stones to use a gun. I don't really see the advantage of this weird-ass trick of his. Making a gun blow up."

"Think about it," Loraine said, gingerly touching the bandaged hand. She winced. "He shoots me, that's a real clear crime. He makes the gun explode with a power the court doesn't recognize as even existing, he just says, 'What, so your gun went blooey, why is that my fault?' No weapon, nothing the police can hold him on, really. No forensic evidence. He doesn't have to reload the thing -- seems to pull it right out of the air. It's always there, even when he seems disarmed. And then there's the psychological effect -- I was pretty startled, I got to admit."

"We're feds. New rules, we can take him in, don't need 'evidence,' " Dorrick pointed out. Dorrick was new to CCA -- which was itself fairly new. Dorrick was a transfer from FBI. Not his choice.

Loraine nodded abstractedly. "We don't need evidence if we can get him without the police being involved -- not always possible, from what I hear." Her mind mostly on wondering if the agency had brought the other detectors into the area, as she'd requested. They were testers -- only a few prototypes existed. Bleak might still be close by.

She'd been standing so close to him -- why didn't she just tackle him? Would he really have used that energy bullet on her, directly? She wasn't sure. She suspected he probably wouldn't have. But she wasn't sure why she felt that way.

I won't ask what authority you have...but what excuse do you have?

The words haunted her. She'd asked herself the same thing, more than once, since signing on with CCA. And somehow he knew that.

There was an official rationale, of course. ShadowComm types were breaking a law that almost no one knew existed. Something you were told about once you were detained: a law against using paranormal abilities -- the real thing, ShadowComm abilities, not the usual fake psychics and pseudowitches. Specifically, it was forbidden to use ShadowComm powers except in a contained and controlled government context. Otherwise, the government claimed, you were doing the equivalent of experimenting with plutonium in your garage. Thought to be that dangerous. Especially since the phenomenon started popping up all over, during the last thirty years. And who knew what political orientation any ShadowComm had? Suppose they were anarchists -- or Jihadists? Too big a risk.

But still, the question bothered her. Could the "containment" be justified? They were officially at war -- always, always at war, with the Pan Jihad -- and detaining ShadowComm, till they could be retrained, was a bit like the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. But even so...

Her cell phone buzzed. She reached for it, and its vibrating corresponded unnervingly with the throbbing in her burned hand. "Sarikosca."

"Loraine, the police are at the bar." It was Dr. Helman, at CCA's Washington, D.C., office. His low voice almost like a man parodying an affectless monotone. He seemed to consider it a classy detachment. She pictured him, a chunky little man, perhaps forty-five, with slickedback, dark black hair and black eyes and old-fashioned, professorial suits, probably polishing his wire-rim glasses on his tie -- usually a broad silk tie with hand-painted lilies and mums on it -- as he spoke into a rather old-fashioned Bluetooth earpiece. She found him odious but he was her boss, and as expert as anyone in their most peculiar area of expertise. "We're sending people in to cover it for you, you won't have to go back in there."

"That's good." How would she have explained it to the cops? "We screwed up. I guess I screwed up. He got away. But...I got a good look at him."

"Oh, we have confirmed the ID. We know all about Mr. Gabriel Bleak. I was hoping you'd meet face-to-face. Did you...well. We'll discuss it later. I want a full report on your encounter with him. Everything -- every last thing."

We know all about Mr. Gabriel Bleak. She opened her mouth to ask if she was being sent on assignments without a full briefing. Then she closed it again. You never got full briefings, at CCA. Which was typical of intelligence services -- sometimes it had been like that when she'd worked at the DIA. But CCA struck her as particularly "Chinese boxes" oriented: every shut box always contained another. The agency's primary mission seemed to have another one tucked away inside it. Theoretically the CCA existed to prevent supernatural destabilization of the country -- and to use specially talented individuals to defl ect threats to the USA. Terrorists with WMDs were hard to detect -- but with the supernatural on your side, you might catch them.

Only, sometimes she thought there was another mission she hadn't been told about.

"How's the hand?" Helman asked.

"It's just a minor burn." Close enough to true.

"Good. Because you're going to be busy. Today, see if you can fi nd Bleak, pick up his trail. This is straight from General Forsythe -- Bleak's a priority."

"Why Bleak especially? There are a lot of other possibles out there."

"The general was adamant. We find him or we find another place to work."


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