Chapter 35

The streets of Chicago's business district were very nearly empty. They always emptied out sooner or later as the people – he liked to think of them as tourists – went back to their home lives, their houses or apartments or hotels. There was always a time, even in the city, when the last car rumbled off down the road.

Others came through from time to time, of course; people were never far away, but sometimes you could pretend that they weren't.

Miles did not have a house or a hotel room, or even a car. He liked to say that the entire city was his home. It was not until all the noisy guests left that he really began to enjoy it. Nights like tonight, when the streets emptied early and the lights all stayed on just for him, it was almost magical.

Tonight, people had a reason to stay off the streets. The weather had turned for the worse, clouds slouching in to block out the stars. Snow swirled down around him as he walked through his kingdom. But that was not all.

There were rumors, rumors of strange things in the night, and talk of demons too. His buddy Jeffrey claimed to have seen something the day before, something too big to be a bug and too weird to be a bird, winging its way down Lakeview Drive. Jeffrey said it was big and leathery, with two sets of giant eyes. And that was Jeffrey sober.

If that's all it took to shake people up, then maybe the populous needed some sort of scare every once in a while. He let out a phlegmy gurgle, a wet laugh. Hell, O'Reily could top that any day of the week, especially when he went off his meds. Miles laughed again to himself, enjoying how the sound bounced of the network of his urban canyons.

Wait. He stopped abruptly and it took a while for the echoes to die away. He heard footsteps, with their own sharp echo, coming up the street. Miles drew himself back into the shadow on an alley. It wasn't a cop, they didn't come through here on foot these days. Still, he liked to watch who came through, and he preferred to do so unobserved himself.

The steps belonged to a woman, bundled up in a long dark coat. A thick fur collar shone in the lamplight and the designer tag still dangled from the end of one sleeve.

She swept past the alley where Miles hid without a second glance. If she was not in a hurry, she moved quickly anyway, and thought she did it subtly, she was staring around much like a tourist might. This woman did not look like any other tourist Miles had ever seen, there was something almost predatory about the way she moved.

One, two, three… Miles counted to twenty and poked his head out. She was already a block away. This woman made him wonder. He kept to the shadows and alleys when he could, and he followed her through his lamplit streets.

The strange woman meandered, wandering with no discernible pattern in mind. Her hands were thrust deep into her pockets and the rich fur collar was turned up to keep her warm. She looked at everything, on a windmill tour, pausing here and there to read things through grilled storefronts, picking the next street on the basis of whether or not she wanted to see something down it.

Miles followed her at a good distance, wary that she would make him if he drew too near. He knew the streets better than anyone, regardless of what old Jim said; Jim was a liar. If she went one way, Miles could cut down a side street and head her off. He flitted after her and emerged in front, waiting again for her to pass him to make his next move. In the rare chance that he lost her in the darkness, her footsteps showed him the way. She took her time, but he had nothing better to do. This was new, this was fun.

Eventually he emerged to find her paused, midway down a block.

She was staring at one of the storefront across from her, face a stony mask. He edged a little further out to see which street she was on. He could see Finn Tower from her so that meant… ah, she was across from one of the C.I. Foundation Clinics. The clinics were open twenty-four hours He knew folk who stayed there some nights, when the frost was cold enough to claim more than the old if they stayed out.

Was this woman hurt then? She didn't look it, and she certainly had not walked like it. It could be she was just confused and this was the only place open they'd come to so far. The pale glow from the windows washed out into the street and dim shadows of shapes inside slipped around on the pavement.

A cheap bell tinkled and the door was pushed open. For a brief moment sounds of life poured out onto the still street and then it was cut off again. The strange woman drew back into the shadows of a recessed doorway.

It was just two kids, the girl maybe fourteen, the boy no older than eight. The girl had a red cap pulled down on her head and wore a long coat, a little lighter than her dark skin, but it was clearly meant for someone larger, perhaps a parent.

The boy was most likely her brother. He had no hat, only jeans and a blue coat so puffy that it made him almost round. The white tip of a cast could be seen, sticking out of his right sleeve. The girl glanced around the empty block with her arm around the kid, before leading him off down the middle of the snowy street.

All was silence in the city as the two of them grew smaller and finally turned away. All of Mile's attention snapped back to the woman in the fur.

She was still back against the brick wall opposite him, a scowl on her face as she surveyed the scene. Her fingers dug into the skin of the building, crushing out the mortar and fighting to free a brick. Miles might not have noticed her work, if the failing stone had not made a keen grating sound lowly in the night.

Without looking she weighed the crusty brick in one hand. Miles didn't move. He thought she might throw the brick; he was right. She fooled him the first time, swinging her arm without letting go, faking him out like an over eager dog with a ball.

She had meant to throw it, he was certain. The woman dropped her head back into the wall, with another grinding crack. The light played on her face as she watched the people moving around inside. Her eyes slid up the façade of the clinic, stopping above the large window.

With a coil and release that he missed until he heard the impact, the woman suddenly loosed her makeshift projectile. Miles heard the sound of shattering glass and a light went dark.

Whatever else it was, the crash was loud, and almost immediately the shadows lumped together on the street as the people inside crowded around the windows to see what the cause was. But the woman was gone. This time Miles could not believe his eyes. He had not heard her go and yet she was nowhere to be seen on the street. He incautiously poked his head out from his own alley to look better. She was nowhere to be found.

The clinic was mostly intact, and he had a better view now. The sign however was another story. A large red neon cross flashed on the wall still, next to a dark gap and the word 'LINIC' The 'CERUS IND C' had been decimated and a small crater in the wall stood as the only sign something had been there. Shattered glass lay below, the remnants of the old neon sign. The brick was nowhere to be seen and Miles had a sneaking suspicion it had disintegrated on impact.