Getting off the train, Ray Pryor hefted his substantial backpack over his shoulders, then headed for the exit, looking around as he went. The Brockton Bay train station was pretty run down, showing the signs of not having had enough money spent on it for a long time, which matched his information. However it also appeared to be better maintained than he'd have expected, with the visible equipment old but well cared for. He'd noticed as they'd approached the city that some of the track seemed to be new too, and a lot of the switchgear had clearly been worked on recently.
A few miles inland the main line diverted north, taking it away from the river that ultimately drained into the bay itself, while a spur line ran along the shore right into the former industrial heart of the city. He'd discreetly paid attention to what he could see of all that, noticing that the spur seemed to be even more up to date, with shiny rails interspersed with the older ones as far as he could see. Obviously someone had put quite a lot of time and effort into fixing it all up.
Every time he was able to see the water from the train, he tried comparing the sights he could make out with those from his briefing documents, finding quite a number of disparities. The lack of the wrecked tanker that had been so spectacularly removed by the Family member known as Kaiju a while back was expected. The sheer amount of smaller, and in a few cases, quite large, ships that seemed to be plying their way back and forth on the bay was not. The last few weeks while he'd been slowly and carefully making his way up the coast to this city had apparently changed things a lot more than seemed plausible.
Ray paused to look up at the signs hanging from the ceiling, then walked in the direction of the one indicating an exit onto Lord's Street, which his information had told him was the right way to find a cheap motel room. There were a number of transient boarding houses in that area, which had once mostly catered to crews of the ships that came and went from what at the time was a very busy port. Closer to the docks there were even more, but from what he'd found out a lot of those were either closed, converted into drugs dens, or too low end for him to feel comfortable in.
For his purposes he wanted something low key enough not to attract attention, but decent enough that it showed a man who wasn't desperate. And not having to sleep with a gun in his hand was probably a bonus.
He'd sleep with it under his pillow like any sane person would in this city.
It had taken him longer than he'd initially expected to get here, since he'd been very careful indeed to make sure that his true identity and mission was kept secret. Using every trick and technique he'd ever learned he'd moved back and forth for quite a while, building a backstory that in addition to his immaculately crafted new identity should prove impenetrable to anyone but a true expert with vast resources, or somewhat worryingly, some form of high end Thinker.
The existence of such people made the job of people like him far harder than he felt was fair, but that was life. There were methods that would help to some extent even against precogs and other Thinkers, all of which he knew and had also used.
With luck, there was nothing to connect Ray Pryor, New Jersey mechanic in search of a job in Brockton Bay, with Matt Smith, ATF Agent.
He certainly hoped that was the case. It could mean his life if he was wrong.
So he'd put a lot of effort into muddying his tracks on top of the effort his organization had used, and was as satisfied as he could be that no one would work out his true identity.
The state of affairs in this place had changed considerably even during his assignment, with the Merchants being entirely neutered as a force and only small remnants still existing, from what he'd found out by reading various news sites. He couldn't check with his own people, obviously, but he'd kept himself abreast of as much of that sort of information as he could manage through civilian channels.
He was still wondering what had really happened during that so-called 'chemical spill' incident a while back, since it seemed likely to him that the given explanation wasn't the correct one. Or at least, not the whole truth of it. He had a nose for that sort of thing and it didn't quite fit in his opinion. Perhaps it was something to do with Boss Hebert?
Ray couldn't work out how the Brockton Bay Boss would benefit from such a thing, but then the man was beyond brilliant and could well have an angle on it that no one would suspect until it was too late…
That certainly seemed to be the way he worked; slowly, patiently, and with great cunning. There was no way Ray was going to be able to figure it out just from the clues in the papers and on line, unless he got incredibly lucky or Hebert got sloppy, which didn't seem likely in the slightest. He had a certain unwilling level of respect for the amount of care and intelligence that informed his target's every move.
The man really was that good, from what he'd been able to find out. The sheer lack of any evidence of his true nature was telling to someone who knew what it really meant. If only he was working on the side of law and order, what could he achieve?
Finding himself outside, Ray looked around with interest, but also careful observation, checking to see if anyone seemed to be paying undue attention to him. There were quite a lot of people wandering around, the whole area seeming fairly busy, with a substantial number of vehicles moving around in the street. Some of them were very expensive ones, while the bulk of them were just the normal sort of thing you'd expect to see in any city. A police car went past, cruising along with the two cops in it looking around alertly, but didn't even slow as it passed him. He kept watch on it out of the corner of his eye and relaxed a little when it turned down a side street and vanished.
'Hebert may have the BBPD on his payroll,' he mused uneasily. 'Can't be too careful.'
Turning in the opposite direction he slowly walked along the sidewalk, not in any hurry since that attracted attention, but not loitering as that attracted a different sort of attention. He didn't want either type. The whole point was just to blend in as a perfectly normal, and entirely forgettable, person.
'Need to find someplace to live for a while,' he thought as he walked without any specific destination in mind yet. 'I can't just head straight for the DWU right off the train. Hebert's people would pick up on that instantly. Need to establish myself here for a couple of weeks, spend time looking for work, and slowly and naturally end up there.'
Heading away from the water he wandered along, stopping occasionally to look into shop windows, and of course to check for anyone tailing him or otherwise paying to much attention. No one seemed to care, most people not even looking at him as he passed. It was much like walking around New York, the average passer-by having other things to do and not wanting to get involved.
Looking down alleys as he passed them he noticed a few gang signs, some that fitted the description of the Merchants having been painted over with different ones that were those of the local neo-Nazi group the Empire Eighty Eight. He'd read up on them and found them just as unpleasant as any other fascist gang, although rather more violent than many. Having so many Parahumans had apparently made them much more dangerous than their equivalents in other places. Luckily, Hebert's reptilian friends, or possibly employees, had made the group keep its head down for the last couple of months after Raptaur demolished their heaviest hitter with no effort at all.
Even so the paint smelled fresh in a couple of places so it was probable that some of the street thugs were still doing their thing, just more discreetly. He'd have to keep an eye out for them. He didn't like Nazis. Even wannabe Nazis. It was one of the more repellent ideologies and it baffled him why anyone would want to be associated with it, even criminals.
'Lizards did one good thing at least,' he thought with a slight smile. 'It was hilarious too.'
He still couldn't believe that there were giant lizards wandering around this city, but he'd read the dossiers on all of them and it seemed undeniable. The world was a weird place.
After fifteen minutes of more or less random travel, Ray was reasonably sure that no one was looking for him, and had bought a couple of local papers from a small 7-11 on the corner of two smaller streets. The guy behind the counter had looked up from his book, smiled a little, taken his cash, given him his change, and gone back to reading. Ray had noticed with a certain amount of disquiet that the book he was reading was a collection of Lovecraft Mythos stories.
The weird thing was that he'd seen three other people reading such works since he'd arrived, and two more on the train, who had appeared to be locals. He couldn't help wondering why Brockton Bay residents seemed so interested in Lovecraft. It was not to his taste at all.
On the way out of the shop he'd paused when he'd spotted a fairly large poster on the wall next to the door that showed a smiling armored reptilian girl holding a box of eggs and posing for the camera, the clerk behind the counter standing next to her grinning. Saurial looked like she was finding the whole thing amusing in the photo.
He'd shivered a little. Those teeth were… worrying. A glance back at the man showed he'd turned the page and kept reading, nodding a bit. Guy was clearly a mite strange in his opinion, Ray had thought.
Oh well. Didn't matter.
Now he was looking for some place to grab a bite to eat and also sit down to start his search for work, all of it cover for his true goal. He'd apply for a couple of small jobs, maybe get them, put in a few days, find some reason to leave, and with a modicum of luck and a lot of very careful effort end up at the DWU during their next recruitment day. His information was that this would happen fairly soon.
Ray stopped again as he noticed another poster, this one in the window of an electronics shop. Again, it was of Saurial, this time smiling at everyone while holding up a brand new phone with several shop employees standing around her. He examined it with a faint feeling of disbelief. The fucking Family seemed to get everywhere…
Walking on a few paces he saw yet another poster, this one of the even bigger lizard known as Metis, who was holding a laptop in one enormous hand and resting the other on the shoulder of a man who looked like he was probably the manager of the place. By comparison to the size of the guy, she was fucking huge. He'd known that from her dossier but this drove that home rather impressively.
Looking to the right he sighed a little, seeing that there was another poster, this one showing an apparently empty cloak that was floating in mid-air, displaying a different phone in a clawed hand. 'Fuck me, they're everywhere,' he thought with mild shock. 'Some sort of protection racket? Marking the places they're claiming as their own? A little blatant, but maybe that's the point...'
Shaking his head he moved on, deciding that it was too suspicious to pay too much attention to the posters. Eventually he smelled grease and meat, which made his stomach rumble, and followed the delicious scent down another road back more or less in the direction of the bay to a burger joint that called itself 'Fugly Bob's' for some bizarre reason. It looked like the sort of place that was probably responsible for a noticeable percentage of the coronaries of this city, which right now was just what he was looking for.
Going inside he looked around, then went over to a table by the window that was currently empty. The place could seat perhaps fifty people but had less than half that present. The table he'd picked was some distance from the next occupied one, there being two other empty ones between him and it, and was placed next to a wall that had a number of photos on it.
Putting his pack down, since it was starting to get uncomfortable and he was far enough from the door that no one could grab it and run off before he could jump them, he went to the counter to order. Looking up at the colorful menu behind the counter he inspected all the offerings.
"New in town?"
He suppressed the twitch and looked to the side, to see a man approximately his own age wearing a pea coat and a baseball cap, who looked like he was connected with the sea somehow. After rapidly thinking for a second, he nodded. "Yeah, just got in from down state, wanted something to eat. This place any good?"
"No idea, it's my first time here too," the guy said with a small momentary grin. "Someone recommended this place to me, said it was the best place to get a decent sized burger." His new acquaintance shrugged. "I've only been in town for a few days myself. Not quite what I was expecting."
"Less crime, which is good, but there are a lot more Parahumans wandering around than even the stories I heard," the guy said with a nod. "And those lizards really are all over the place. Hell of a shock, coming out of a store and nearly bumping into something over seven feet tall and covered in scales that's just standing there talking to a cop."
Ray smiled a little weakly. "Yeah, I can see how that would be weird."
"Man, you haven't seen weird until you've watched a lizard girl drop off a four story building onto a Nazi," the other guy chuckled. "Screamed like a little girl and fainted. Fucking hilarious, but weird."
Holding out a hand, he added, "Andy Chibnall."
Ray shook it. "Ray Pryor."
Andy nodded. "Nice to meet you, Ray. What brings you to Brockton Bay?"
"Just at a loose end," Ray replied, wondering for a moment if this loquacious guy was some sort of agent of Hebert's. He resolved to be cautious, but on the other hand he could learn something useful. "Got made redundant six months ago, lost my apartment lease, said fuck it, and started moving around. I thought I'd combine some travel with looking for work, might find something interesting to do. And there were bad memories back home so getting out of there was a good idea."
All of this was part of his backstory and he had evidence to prove it if required, of course.
"Huh, sucks but I see what you mean." Andy nodded. "Not too far from my story, actually. Decided I needed a change, I've spent way too much time at sea in the last few years and had a hankering for some dry land for a while."
"Engineer on a freighter," Andy replied, smiling a little. "Spent a lot of time beating balky engines into working in storms, that sort of thing. Pays well but I'm getting too old for it. You never know when Leviathan might pop up either, which would ruin your whole day. You?"
"Mechanic, mostly cars and trucks, welding, stuff like that. Hopefully I can find work here. I heard that due to this port renewal thing they've got going on here there were jobs going."
"Yeah, it does seem to be picking up around here. I haven't found anything I like yet but I'm still looking. Got enough saved to keep me afloat for a few weeks so I'm not desperate."
"You two going to order, or just stand there flapping your jaws?" a slightly irritated voice from the other side of the counter said. Both men looked to see a fairly large and mildly disgruntled server glaring at them.
"Sorry, mate, didn't mean to hold things up," Andy said diplomatically.
"Well, either order or move out of the way," the server said.
"What's good?" Ray asked, going back to examining the menu board. He got a snort in reply.
"Everything." The other man looked at them, then up and back at his own menu. "We don't serve crap here. All one hundred percent beef, cooked the right way."
"What's that monstrosity?" Andy asked, pointing to one photo at the end of the menu on its own, which showed something that was an affront to any sense of decorum or gustatorial good taste. The 'burger,' if it could be called that, was preposterously large and probably contained enough calories to feed a family of four for a week, never mind the vast quantity of fries that apparently came with it.
"That is the famous Challenger," the man said with an evil grin. "Four pounds of prime beef, perfectly cooked, with everything on it. And I mean everything. Two pounds of fries and half a gallon of soda go with it. Finish it in one sitting and it's free."
He looked them up and down. "No offense, but neither one of you guys is going to do that." Tapping the side of his nose, he added, "You get a sense for it after a few years. Seen a lot of people try and fail."
"Has anyone ever managed to eat that goddam thing?" Ray asked in horror.
"Oh, sure, we put their picture up on the wall over there," the server smiled, pointing. Ray and Andy both looked at the end wall, near where Ray's chosen table was. He'd noticed the photos on the way to the counter but had paid them no mind, assuming they were the usual probably faked 'famous visitors' pictures this sort of place often displayed. There were about a dozen of them in all. "Not many compared to how many have tried to eat one. They usually fail horribly. That's why we put a bucket next to the table..."
He seemed very amused by this.
"Lung came in once, he did it." The man pointed at a photo on the top row. "Barely. Couple of cops managed it, that one is a guy from the DWU called Zephron, biggest man I've ever seen in my life other than Manpower, who's next to him. Both of them did it pretty easily."
Ray focused on the picture in the middle. It showed a much more reptilian face than the rest, which was grinning slyly at the camera. "That's Metis."
"Yeah, she ate the entire fucking thing in three bites, then got another one for take out," the server chuckled. "Raptaur eats them like you'd eat a cupcake. We don't let the Family get their photos up there after Metis, it's not fair on anyone else." He didn't seem upset about it. "But they're good customers, we've sold more Challengers to that lot than we have to everyone else combined in our history. They tip well."
Ray and Andy exchanged a glance.
Then they turned back to the man behind the counter, who shrugged. "This is Brockton Bay, you get used to anything here. What do you want to eat?"
Ray ended up ordering a half pound cheeseburger with fries and a coke, which was about as much as he felt he could handle. It turned out to be much better than he'd expected.
When he sat down it was a relief as he'd been walking for some time by this point. "Mind if I join you?" Andy said. Ray nodded the other side of the table, where the man sat, putting his tray down then picking up his coffee and draining half of it in one shot. "Thanks. So, you going to look for a job right away, or hang around for a while first?" he asked, replacing the coffee and picking up his bag of fries, then starting to slowly eat them.
Ray again wondered if this was someone on Hebert's payroll. He was certainly nosy enough. On the other hand Hebert wouldn't have people who were that obvious. After a moment, he uneasily thought, 'Maybe he would, since he'd know it was so obvious it couldn't really be true… Fuck, that man is good.'
Deciding that to avoid any contact or discussion would be more suspicious than just going along with it, he firmly told himself to be very, very careful about sticking precisely to his cover story, not let anything slip, and keep his eyes open for anything that the possibly-Boss-Hebert's man said. "Dunno yet," he replied after a couple of seconds, covering his pause with a sip of his coke. "Like I said, I only got here about an hour ago. I need to find someplace to stay for a while, then when I get used to this place I can start poking around."
"Trust me, you don't get used to Brockton Bay unless you were born here," Andy said seriously. He leaned closer, looking both ways for non-existent eavesdroppers, since the nearest people were twenty feet away. "These people are bizarre, man. I've seen shit on the street that in any other city I've ever been in would have made everyone run like fuck and all they do is pull their phones out and record it! I heard a bunch of them rating a cape fight the other day between some independent villain and the Protectorate on style!" Leaning back, he shook his head as Ray stared at him. "Honest, they're all fucking insane."
"Why come here of all places, then?" Ray queried, wondering if this was true, or some sort of test.
Andy shrugged with a slight smile. "It's a lot less boring than most places. And if that crazy renewal plan does take off, there's gonna be a lot more work here than most places. The Family seem to have made it a lot safer too from what I was told so it's probably no worse than New York or something now. I can handle that."
He took a bite from his burger and looked impressed. "Wow, that's good." Having swallowed, he added, "Why did you come here?"
"More or less the same idea, I guess," Ray admitted, still measuring his words and looking for any information the other man might have let slip. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Famous last words," Andy snickered. He looked over Ray's shoulder at the wall of photos. "I can't believe they let Lung in here."
"How would they stop him?" Ray asked in a reasonable tone of voice, although he'd wondered the same thing.
"Yeah, fair point, I suppose. Still seems odd."
"I'm more interested that the Family eats here often enough to be regulars," Ray said with a grimace. "Something about that is just… strange."
"So are they." Andy shrugged. "Mind you, I doubt anyone would cause trouble somewhere they liked."
'Yeah, definitely a protection racket,' Ray mused. 'I wonder what they get out of it? Must be important if they come here that often...'
"Hey, if you need someplace to stay, try this place," Andy said after a few more bites of burger. He pulled out a wallet and extracted a card from it, sliding it across to Ray, who took it. "They're on West and Marine, about half a mile that way," he added, pointing out the window. "Guy I met said they're cheap but good. I'd already found a place by then but I kept the card."
"Thanks, I'll check it out," Ray replied, putting the card in his pocket and resolving to stay well away from the obvious trap.
They talked idly for another twenty minutes until both had finished eating, Ray spending the entire time trying to come to a definite conclusion as to whether Andy was Hebert's man or not. He still wasn't sure by the time they both got up. The fucking Boss was so good he could have infiltrated almost everywhere, especially considering how long he'd been at this game. Ray couldn't trust anyone, as his own superior had said. Even so, the man seemed friendly enough and a possibly-useful contact so he made sure not to burn any bridges.
Outside the burger place, Ray put his pack back on, then nodded to Andy. "Maybe I'll see you around. Good luck with the job search."
"You too, man. See you."
The sound of brakes screeching made both of them turn and look, to see a car that had stopped dead in the middle of traffic and was causing a certain amount of irritation to other road users. The driver of it had his head sticking out of the window and was staring up at the sky, completely ignoring the honking of the truck behind his car. Andy and Ray exchanged a look, then turned to peer in the direction the man was gaping.
Ray tried to control his breathing as he watched a fucking enormous black dragon with someone sitting on its back whooping like a lunatic glide overhead about three hundred feet up. The entire street fell silent, even the ever-present gulls shutting up, as everyone watched the creature flap lazily a few times, turn in a wide arc that took it behind the largest building in view, reappear on the other side, then head back the way it had come.
After it vanished, Ray lowered his eyes and looked around.
Every person in view had their phone out and was aiming it after the dragon.
"Wow!" one teenager a few feet away said with a level of cheerful awe that seemed implausible to him. "I love the new Family member! I wonder what her name is?"
"Didn't you see PHO yesterday, Beth?" another girl next to her said. "That's Breksta."
"Oh! Right, I didn't realize she was so big!" Beth nodded happily. "Cool. I wonder how many other dragons they have?"
The girls walked off chattering about the Family in tones of respect and interest. Slowly, the traffic resumed moving, the driver of the car that had initiated things waving apologetically to the truck driver behind him who merely waved back, apparently no longer annoyed.
Eventually Andy turned to Ray, who was looking around with confusion. "Like I said. Fucking bizarre, man." He shook his head. "See you." He headed off with a wave over his shoulder.
Ray watched him go, looked up for a few seconds, shivered, and went in the other direction to find some place to live that hopefully wasn't a Hebert trap.
This assignment was clearly going to be more of a challenge than he'd expected.
'Andy' glanced back as he turned the corner at the man he'd been talking, who was walking in the other direction he was going. He wondered yet again if Ray was one of Boss Hebert's men. His gut told him that it was unlikely, but his mind said he couldn't trust anyone in this crazy place. Still, the guy might prove a useful source of information if Andy was very careful not to slip, and to listen to everything as well as the subtext. Often more information was given away by what someone didn't say than what they did after all. Or how they said what they said. His training and much experience had taught him that very well.
'Well, so far so good,' he thought as he walked. 'Getting closer to the DWU, day by day. Got to make it look natural. They're way too good not to pick up on any slips, so I can't make any slips. Or I'm fucked.'
He was determined to succeed in his assignment. Boss Hebert had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes for literally decades, and even now hardly anyone knew the truth. But one way or another he was going to find the proof and bring down the most complex and secretive Mafia organization in US history.
Or his name wasn't Lieutenant Russell Gatiss. Which it wasn't, of course. He was Andy Chibnall and he had the paperwork to prove it...