Category Archives: Who Pays the Piper?

Who Pays the Piper? 3

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I was in class when Lyle called, so I couldn’t just answer; fortunately, my phone was set to vibrate, so nobody noticed. I excused myself as soon as I could, ostensibly to use the restroom, and called him back. I assumed it wasn’t an emergency; I’d told him to text if that was the case, since I could check a text message without anyone noticing regardless of where I was.

“Flicker?” he said.

“Yes, doctor,” I said. “What’s up?”

“Well, it’s not an emergency exactly, but I felt like I should warn you that Kaylee got some bad news. I talked her out of going to the police right away, though! She’s upset, but I convinced her to be patient, at least for now.”

I blinked in confusion, starting to worry. “You still haven’t told me what the actual problem is. What was the bad news she got?”

“Oh, right!” Lyle said. “She, well, she got fired. She was taking sick days, since we were afraid of the…of my former bosses finding her, you remember? So she couldn’t go back to work yet. I convinced her not to go to the police because it’s too late now, her boss probably wouldn’t give her job back anyway, the asshole. And I have enough money to take care of her rent and bills for a while, until we get this sorted out. But…well, she’s still really angry. I, um, don’t know if she’ll be willing to keep waiting too much longer.”

I closed my eyes, taking a deep breath. The possibility of something like this happening really should have occurred to us, but it hadn’t; we’d been worried about keeping everyone alive and safe, and leaving town to guard Lyle and Kaylee hadn’t really been an option. If I had gone, or Raquel had gone, it would have taken us away from Berkeleyport, where all the bad guys were, and left Mary without backup at a critical time. With Alena, Lindsay, and Doug now in town, and the new danger to Heavyweight, leaving town seemed like an even worse idea; of the four people in town who I could trust, including myself (but not Leon and Feral, since they couldn’t really move independently of Raquel and I), two were effectively under constant threat. Raquel and I had to be on call to help them if something happened, and that meant we had to be present.

There weren’t many of us, and we were outnumbered. We were basically depending on secrecy to keep us all safe, and we hadn’t had much choice other than to hide Lyle and Kaylee, as well, at least for now. I tried to think of some alternative option that we had failed to consider, but nothing came to mind. If we were the police, or trusted the police fully, Lyle might have been a candidate for the witness protection program or something similar. Maybe if we brought the Philly Five into things more, they would be willing to help us cover all of the bases, but they had their own problems; I’d gathered from something Bloodhound let slip the other night that they were still trying to pick up Collector’s trail, and that was pretty damn important too.

“Flicker?” Lyle said.

I blinked again, realizing that I’d spaced out. “Yeah, I hear you, sorry. Are you two going to be all right for now?”

“Probably?” Lyle said, his tone uncertain. “I just wanted to warn you. I don’t think Kaylee will do anything, but, well, the longer we’re stuck here the more likely it is. And, uh, she’ll probably be really angry the next time you talk to her.”

“Okay, thanks for the heads-up,” I said. “I’ll pass it on.”

“Sure,” Lyle said.

We hung up, and I put away my phone, stashing it in my pocket. It had felt weird, at first, to be carrying around two phones all the time, but I’d grown accustomed to it.

Once again, I feel blindsided by things going wrong in a mundane way instead of a dramatic way,” I noted.

We prioritized life-threatening problems over mundane ones,” Leon replied. “It’s a blind spot, but one that we developed from a sensible approach, at least.

Maybe, but I can’t help noting that doing what we decided – you, me, and Mary – cost someone her job. Heavyweight’s in danger, too. I’m starting to wonder if our methods are the right ones,” I said.

You’re not ‘starting’ to wonder anything,” Leon said. “We’ve been through this before. Something goes wrong, and we feel doubt, then try to make the best plan we can for the situation we have, rinse and repeat. This is unfortunate, but it’s not really significant in a broader sense. It doesn’t change the situation, and it shouldn’t change our approach. Now come on, let’s get to your next class.

I took a deep breath and shrugged off the doubts. Leon was right; they weren’t anything new. I’d been questioning everything since the day I met Raquel, especially after any setbacks.

Right,” I said. “Introspection later, education now.

That night, we had another vision; Leon and I noted that the pace seemed to be accelerating. We were both pleased; the two of us had certainly been eager for more after the end of the previous one. In any case, this one seemed to pick up where the last had left off. Murphy was leading Charlotte, Hector, and David along. They followed her through three heavy doors, each of which had a different security check. The first scanned Murphy’s retinal pattern, the second checked her palm print, and the third required her to enter a combination of letters and numbers into a keypad. After the last door, there were more people waiting inside; guards that I hadn’t seen before. There were five of them in the room, each armed with an automatic weapon, wearing body armor, and looking menacing. One had a dog on a leash. They held the group at gunpoint as the dog sniffed at each person in turn, and only when it was done were we allowed to advance.

This is like a professional course in paranoia,” Leon observed.

Definitely,” I agreed.

Eventually the security checks ended, and Murphy led us to meet someone new. Off of the hallways we passed through, I caught a few brief glimpses of computers and a few gadgets that I didn’t recognize, but which looked suitably high-tech; all together, it made me feel like I’d walked onto the set of a near-future sci-fi movie, where the director had just ordered the set designer to make it look expensive without worrying about the specifics. I lacked the background to make sense of what I was seeing beyond that. There were several multi-monitor setups on the desks that I saw, although none of them were displaying anything when we passed by, not even a desktop screen; the monitors were all turned off, at least in the rooms I could see into.

More security,” Leon guessed. “The three of them are cleared to be back here, but not to see everything, maybe? Good attention to detail, if so.

I didn’t reply, except to register a feeling of agreement. At the same time, there didn’t seem to be many people.

I guess they probably find it difficult to find qualified, trustworthy personnel who will agree not to leave,” I mused.

That would make sense,” Leon said.

It was a short walk, despite my fascination with the newly-revealed wing of the facility, and soon enough Murphy took us into a room where a man waited, sitting down at a table; I realized after a moment that it looked almost the same as the meeting room I’d seen in previous visions, albeit smaller. The chairs were the same type, too. They were probably cheaper in bulk.

“So, these are the new folks?” he said, standing up as we entered.

“Yes, they are,” Murphy said. She moved out of our way. “Hector, Charlotte, David – this is Geoff Worthington. Geoff, these three just got their security clearance upgraded, and they’ve volunteered to try out your teaching skills.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Geoff said. He stepped forward and shook hands with everyone, moving energetically. “I’m excited to have some new faces! We don’t have much opportunity to meet new people, as you can imagine. So, I take it you’ve already got a clear idea of what we do. Should we jump right into it?”

Murphy chuckled. “Breathe for a second, Geoff. It might not hurt to give them a little demonstration, first.”

“Of course, sure,” he said, his grin shrinking to a smile as he stepped back. “Why don’t you sit down, I’ll only need a minute to concentrate.”

We did so, and Geoff returned to his chair. Moments later, he cupped his hands and held them up, holding a small, bright white light in them.

“This was the first trick I learned,” he said, grinning again. “Not too impressive, I know, but a year ago I couldn’t do it.”

As he started to elaborate, I felt a powerful sense of déjà vu. His words were different, and his manner was different, but the explanation was very familiar, with a mix of certainty and uncertainty, an emphasis on danger, and a warning about trial and error.

We need to talk to Bloodhound again,” Leon said, and I agreed. Going by our recollections, the explanation Geoff gave was almost identical to the first lesson Raquel and I had gotten from Bloodhound, functionally speaking. We listened with rapt attention, trying to pick out any differences and see if Geoff had any more details than Bloodhound had offered us since we began learning from him, but he didn’t say much that was new or different. Nothing contradicted what we’d learned already.

When Geoff got around to testing the three of them, it felt like a foregone conclusion, based on what we’d seen before; Hector didn’t seem able to learn anything, but Charlotte and David both managed a flickering, unsteady light on their own after a while. It looked exactly the same as the first thing Bloodhound had taught us as a learning exercise, and I didn’t believe in massive coincidences.

The vision didn’t reveal anything else, but the connections were too numerous to ignore. We sent messages to Raquel and Bloodhound after we woke up, trying to arrange a meeting as soon as we could for a non-emergency situation.

It took a few days to get everyone together. Given how we’d interrupted the Philly Five recently, I didn’t begrudge Bloodhound the time. Leon and I were surprised that the visions didn’t continue before the meeting finally arrived, but it seemed we wouldn’t be getting our answers quite so quickly.

When we did meet, I was surprised to find that Bloodhound had brought someone else along; the friend who’d showed up before to vet Leon and Raquel, and guarantee that they weren’t suppressing us or vice versa.

She stayed back at first. Bloodhound didn’t give us a chance to ask why she had come along, instead explaining as soon as we were close enough to hear him.

“Given what you told me, I thought it would be better to bring her along to consult with us,” Bloodhound said. “Otherwise, I thought I would just end up calling her on the phone and forcing us all to wait for her to get here. If you two don’t want her around, she can leave, but she may know something helpful.”

I glanced at Menagerie, but she only shrugged. Feral was out, in her small form, walking a perimeter around us.

“It’s fine with us,” I said to Bloodhound. He half-turned and beckoned her, waving with one hand. “Is there something we can call her?”

“She doesn’t really have a call-sign the way we do,” Bloodhound said.

“I think I told you guys when we met, I prefer to stay away from the fighting,” she agreed.

I took a second look and tried to think back; we’d only met briefly, and I hadn’t seen her face, but I thought it was the same person Bloodhound had introduced as a friend before. Her voice sounded the same, at least.

“Okay,” I said. “Everyone feel free to grab a seat. I’ve been having some dreams that seem more like visions, or someone else’s memories. It’s a bit of a long story, but I was wondering if you’d experienced anything similar, or if you could help me make sense of what’s happening.”

I laid out everything about the visions: names, descriptions of the places I’d seen and what the people looked like, and any other detail I could think of that might matter. I described them in the order I’d seen them, noting that the events didn’t seem to be perfectly sequential but I wasn’t sure what it meant. By the time I was done explaining what Leon and I had seen and what our attempts to investigate had turned up, my throat was sore and my voice was starting to get a bit hoarse. At the end, I rubbed at my throat and wished I’d thought to bring some water to drink.

Menagerie had heard some of it before, and accordingly was the least surprised. Bloodhound’s friend looked curious, I thought, based on her posture. He seemed tense.

As the silence stretched out, I felt compelled to fill it.

“I don’t know what it means,” I said. “I’m not sure why I’m seeing it, I’m not sure where or when it could be, and basically every time I see a new vision I have new questions. If you can shed any light on this, please do. Other than that, I just wanted someone else to be aware of what’s happening, if only to be prepared in case something happens to me.”

“Sounds freaky,” Bloodhound’s friend commented. “You said the guy you’ve been seeing through has the same name as you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I hope you aren’t offended that I’m not telling you my name,”

“Nah, nothing like that,” she said, waving my concerns away with one hand. “I just feel like that can’t be a coincidence. Um…unless it is. I get that you don’t want to say what it is, but can you tell us if your name is common?”

I hesitated for a moment, deciding how to answer. “It’s pretty common, yes. I don’t know if it’s in the top ten, but it might be, and you probably know at least a few people with my name. So it’s not totally out of the question for that to be a coincidence.”

She shook her head slowly. “Still, though…doesn’t seem like good odds.” She scratched at her chin and her eyes flicked to Bloodhound for a moment before returning to me. “Can you describe how it feels when these visions start, again?”

I did. She drew in a breath to speak again, but Bloodhound preempted her.

“Your companion, Leon, tried to remember his past before, correct?” Bloodhound said. “But it just hurt him.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It hurt him too much to try again. Why?”

Bloodhound shook his head slowly. “Just trying to make sure I’ve got things straight.”

“I’ve heard of something that sounds similar, on the surface,” his friend said. “Someone I know has what I can only call visions. But her description of the experience isn’t quite like what you describe, and they impose a kind of mental strain that can be dangerous. I understand you don’t seem to have control, but you should be as careful as possible.”

“Dangerous how?” I asked.

“The kind of dangerous that renders people insane, or close enough that there’s no noticeable difference,” she said evenly. “I’m not saying you’re going to end up that way, but if I were you and I found a way to turn the visions off, I would probably do it for safety reasons.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said. Leon noted that her advice was as ominous as it was unhelpful. “What about the other aspect of it? The way they were taught was very familiar. I’m guessing you noticed the similarities.”

“It does seem a lot like how I taught both of you,” Bloodhound admitted. “I lifted most of the first few lessons from the way I was instructed, to be honest. Maybe my teacher was tied to what you saw somehow. Unfortunately, he’s no longer around, so we can’t ask him. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do to help you investigate all of this, but I can make a few calls, at least, if you’re willing to let me. There are one or two friends of mine who know a bit of magic, and it’s possible one of them has had a similar experience. I wouldn’t tell them anything about you, of course.”

“That’s fine with me,” I said. “Leon and I aren’t sure what to think, but the links popping up are a bit too much to discount, and I didn’t want to risk writing it off as nothing when there was a chance you might have heard of something similar.”

“I’m sorry I don’t have more helpful answers,” Bloodhound apologized. “I may be your teacher, but in some ways I’m still groping blindly as much as you are.”

We spent a while talking things over; they asked me questions, clarifying specifics of what I’d seen and heard, or probing in hopes of learning more, but there were so many questions that Leon and I couldn’t answer. We couldn’t explain why he hadn’t seen the first vision when I had, or what triggered them. In the end, it proved a lot more frustrating than I’d expected, since we ended up rehashing a lot of things that Leon and I had wondered ourselves, but for three other people, all of whom were justifiably curious. Feral barely spoke at all; I didn’t notice until Leon drew my attention to it after the fact, but she had seemed a bit withdrawn.

Eventually, there wasn’t anything more to say, and we went our separate ways. Menagerie and Feral went home, Bloodhound and his friend left, and I headed back to my dorm.

I was worried about getting more bad news, but nothing happened for a couple of days. Heavyweight eventually agreed to hear us out and try to work out a plan for dealing with the situation, and Mary managed to stall in the meantime, so things were looking up.

The next time Mary called and asked to meet us, I thought it was just to check in and update each other on what was happening, but I was disabused of that notion the second I got a look at her face. She looked like she was on the verge of crying; it was the first time I’d seen her look really upset. After the mess when we got Dustin, she’d been angry and worried, but now she just looked crushed.

I started to ask what was wrong, but she just shook her head and told me to wait until Menagerie arrived. She had said that she would be a bit late. I frowned, but let it pass, and we waited for a few minutes in silence. Heavyweight had been invited, but said he couldn’t make it unless it was an emergency.

Leon, what do you think?” I asked.

I see what you see, and we’re thinking the same thing,” Leon said. “I don’t know. I’m confident it’s going to be bad news, but that’s all.

When Menagerie finally got there a few minutes later, she walked in and apologized for keeping us waiting, then stopped suddenly as she noticed the atmosphere.

“What happened?” she asked.

Mary took a deep breath and drew herself up, standing with laborious effort. “We’ve been patient, and we’ve been trying to stretch things out until we can learn more,” she said. “I don’t think we can afford to wait any longer. We need to make our move.”

I was shocked, and immediately started imagining reasons for her change of opinion.

“Does the boss suspect you?” I asked.

Mary shook her head. “No. It’s…you know I was doing what I could to keep Tuggey and Michaels out of things, lying low and not causing trouble? I thought it was working, but it’s not anymore.”

“That’s it?” Menagerie asked, confused.

I realized that Mary was looking past us; we didn’t have her full attention. She was thinking about something.

The bad feeling in my gut got worse.

“Mary,” I said, “tell us what happened.”

She looked up and met my eyes, nodding almost absently. “Right…right. I got word about the two of them today. I thought I had a lid on things, but Tuggey was, he was,” she drew in a shuddering breath before finishing, “Tuggey was getting rid of a pair of bodies. I’m not sure who they were, but from what I heard, they weren’t involved in a big way, or anything. They just got in the way at some point.”

We were all silent. Leon didn’t say anything, but I could tell that we felt the same sense of weight pressing us down.

The quiet lasted for maybe a minute before Mary spoke again. “We can’t wait any more,” she whispered. “I think I can get the boss into the open, at least briefly. Enough to give us a shot at taking him down. I was hoping you guys could call the Philly Five, and ask them to help. Between them, you two, Heavyweight, and me, I think we have a good chance of ending things quickly, without letting it turn into a war in the streets. Maybe we can talk to the FBI too, I don’t know. If it’s the best way to stop the boss, then I think we have to.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said at Leon’s prompting. “You didn’t kill them.”

Mary looked away. “I know,” she said. “But maybe if I hadn’t been so set on keeping things quiet, this would be over already.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe half of Berkeleyport would be on fire. Anyway, we all agreed, so even if you were right you wouldn’t be the only one responsible. Okay?”

She nodded, but she didn’t look comforted. I hesitated for a second, then stepped forward and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. She tensed up for a moment and then relaxed, head bowing.

“This isn’t on you,” I said. “The only people responsible for murder are the murderers. That’s all there is to it.”

The next time she breathed out, Mary seemed to stand a little straighter. I glanced at Menagerie to see how she was taking things, and found her kneeling and holding on to Feral, who was nuzzling her cheek.

I cleared my throat. “If we can come up with a decent plan, I’m willing to make our move,” I said. “But I don’t want to just get ourselves killed over this, too. It wouldn’t save anyone. You have to know that.”

Mary nodded, and Leon silently agreed.

I gave her shoulder another squeeze before letting go. “I’ll send the Philly Five a message and say that we want to meet. Important but not this second. Okay? We’ll pull in whatever help we can, call in the FBI once we have a handle on the situation, and then hit them fast. You might have to play it cool for a few more days. Can you do that?”

Mary didn’t answer at first, and as the seconds stretched on I wondered if she was considering her answer or if she was thinking about something else entirely.

“I’ll have to avoid Tuggey and Michaels,” she said finally. “I don’t think I can look at them without starting trouble right now. I’ll sit on Alena and the others as long as I can, but I can’t do nothing for much longer, okay? Tell the Philly Five we need to hurry.”

“I will,” I promised. “Just try to play the part a little longer, and then it will all be over. We’ll finish this.”

“Okay,” Mary said.

I drafted my message to the Philly Five on the way home, then spent the rest of the bus ride going over the powers and assets that Mary’s boss had at his disposal, thinking about what we were up against.

We’re going to need all the help we can get,” I said silently.

Yes, we will,” Leon agreed.
 
 
 
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Who Pays the Piper? 2

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Arranging for Mary and her new subordinates to find us under controlled circumstances was a tall order. The easiest option would be to troll Heavyweight in front of Alena as bait, or for Raquel or I to turn off the magic Bloodhound had showed us, which made us undetectable. The latter option would tell her a lot about us, though, and she might pass that information on, which we didn’t want. Plus, it would be suspicious if we then turned it back on to disappear again. We were trying to stay under the radar, not trying to get taken more seriously as a threat.

As for letting her find Heavyweight, that would only work if we got his agreement. Even then, we’d need to find a way to hide him afterward to avoid long-term problems, or possibly just get him out of town. If Alena flipped to our side, that wouldn’t be an issue; she could just say that he’d disappeared, and that she didn’t know how. But we didn’t know whether that outcome was even on the table, so banking on it was out of the question.

If we did nothing, though, there was a good chance she would eventually find him anyway. At that point, we’d have the same situation on our hands, except it wouldn’t be on our terms or with timing of our choice.

If only Heavyweight would see things that way, I thought, life might be much easier. Raquel and I had been talking to him for a while, explaining the situation and trying to convince him to play ball, but he just wasn’t listening.

“We need your help,” Raquel was saying. “We can’t draw them out without giving away where our powers come from, and-”

“Look, I said no,” Heavyweight repeated. “No. No. No. Can I say it more clearly? Do you need it in another language?”

“So you’d prefer to gamble that they won’t find you, despite the fact that they are in town explicitly to find us?” I asked. “You’re being stupid. I understand if you don’t want to fight, but you’re already involved in this, and sticking your head in the sand won’t protect you. If you work with us, we can decide when and where this happens. If you want to pretend that nothing is wrong, we can’t stop you, but we’re not going to follow you around twenty-four seven to play bodyguard, either. At least, I’m not. That means they’ll probably find you when you’re alone, or maybe at work or at home. Maybe you’ll be eating dinner. Maybe you’ll be asleep. Maybe you’ll be in the bathroom, for all I know. You want that instead?”

Heavyweight reached up to run a hand through his hair in frustration, but with his mask on it didn’t work. “So help me hide from her like you guys do!”

“We don’t know how, genius!” I said. “We already fucking told you that! What we’re hiding from her is something you don’t have in the first place! I can’t teach you, she can’t teach you, and even if we did it would not fucking help. Are you listening? IT. WOULD. NOT. HELP.”

Raquel put a hand on my shoulder, obviously urging me to calm down, but I was pissed off. We’d been patient. We’d explained the whole thing twice before Heavyweight gave us an answer, and now he’d been talking us in circles for what felt like an hour, even if it was probably less than half that. I was internally debating whether he was stupid or just unwilling to comprehend what we were telling him, which essentially qualified as a different flavor of stupid, at least as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t think of a third alternative.

“Bloodhound taught you guys, right?” Heavyweight said. “Get him. I want to talk to him. I bet he’ll teach me.”

I threw up my hands in frustration. “Fine! You want me to send a message to Bloodhound? I’ll send a fucking message to Bloodhound. But when he tells you the same damn thing we’ve been telling you this whole time, will you please, for the love of god, stop being a fucking moron?”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Raquel said, stepping in front of me. “Go send the message, and come back when you get an answer.”

I felt an irrational surge of anger and stalked away. I knew she wasn’t really taking sides, and I knew I hadn’t been acting in a particularly mature fashion, but damn it, Heavyweight was getting under my skin in a big way. I could sympathize with his fear, but we’d come to him trying to help solve a mutual problem. It wasn’t like we’d shown up, laughed in his face, and said he was screwed and we didn’t care. In fact, if we did nothing, he was the only one likely to be in danger! We were actively going out of our way to make him safer, for fuck’s sake!

“Fucking dimwitted moron,” I muttered, glancing over my shoulder. Raquel was talking to him calmly, which, admittedly, was probably a better approach than mine under the circumstances. Or most other circumstances. I didn’t think this qualified, though.

Any suggestions on dealing with unreasonable ass-clowns?” I asked Leon.

Unfortunately, no,” Leon said. “When someone is sufficiently invested in not hearing what you have to say, there isn’t much you can do about it. Being reasonable only works on reasonable people, after all, and Heavyweight doesn’t seem like he’s in the mood to be very reasonable.

So where does that leave us?” I asked.

I don’t know,” Leon admitted. “I really do think we need him to make this work intelligently. In theory, Dustin might be workable as bait, but I think we can all agree that involving him in this is a non-starter, both practically and morally.

I glanced back again as I pulled out my phone. “Damn right. Don’t suggest that in front of Raquel, even as a hypothetical.

Yes, I suspect she would react badly to that,” Leon agreed. “In any case, I’m not sure where to go from here either, if we can’t secure Heavyweight’s cooperation.

I hesitated before sharing my next thought, then realized he could probably tell what it was anyway. “Maybe one of the Philly Five? Other than Bloodhound, any of them should be able to play bait, right?

I’m not sure that’s appropriate,” Leon said. “It sounds like a good idea at first, but there’s still a lot they don’t know about the situation, and if they learned everything we have no guarantee they would agree with our way of handling things. If they thought a direct approach would be more appropriate, they might proceed regardless of our opinions, and we couldn’t really stop them.

That would be pretty high-handed of them, and I don’t get that vibe,” I said. “I’ll raise the idea with Mary and Raquel if Heavyweight won’t agree, I guess. No point rushing ahead.

I sent the message to Bloodhound and waited to see if I would get a prompt reply. In the meantime, Leon and I tried to imagine how we would fight the three new additions to the other side if we ended up facing off against them alone.

Lindsay seems straightforward enough,” Leon said. “If he keeps moving, the only question is whether we can catch him. If he stays still long enough, we should be able to strike him invisibly. As long as we deal with him decisively, that should be that.

Right,” I agreed. “Doug is a bit trickier. He’s supposed to be strong, fast…a little bit of everything. But we don’t know how much. Going after him without that information seems like a bad idea. Maybe the thing to do is for us – you and me, specifically – to bait him and disappear. That might get him to show off where we can watch.

And then we have Alena,” Leon said. “I noticed she wasn’t too specific about what she can defend herself against, either.

Yeah,” I said. “So…she might be immune to just about anything. If all else fails, Feral might be able to cut through, but I think Menagerie will probably feel a bit skittish about trying that in a fight, after what happened before. Still, if she can cut Meteor and Heavyweight, I’d be surprised to find something she can’t handle. On the bright side, Alena didn’t mention anything offensive, and as far as we know she doesn’t have a teacher, either. So even if it’s hard to stop her, she probably can’t do anything to us that a normal person couldn’t. Even if we can’t beat her alone, you and I should be able to get away.

True,” Leon said.

I checked my phone. Still no reply from Bloodhound, unsurprisingly.

Now that you’ve calmed down, I hope you’ll hear me out,” Leon said after a minute.

I felt an urge to get defensive and tried to stifle it. “About Heavyweight?

Yes,” Leon said. “I know he’s being aggravating, but consider his perspective. He told us before that he wished to be less involved. He doesn’t trust Mary, or want to meet her. Yet now we approach him, asking him to take the biggest risks in a plan that involves trusting her a great deal.

I can break it down as easily as you can, Leon,” I said. “He’s still being dumb. His choice isn’t between facing this and not facing it. It’s between facing this intelligently and getting blindsided at an unknown future moment. That would probably be true even if he’d never met us before, too, given what we know about Alena.

That assumes you trust what Alena told Mary, and what Mary told you,” Leon pointed out. “He likely trusts neither.

I sighed. “I get that, yes. But if Mary’s telling the truth, it’s counterproductive for Alena to lie to her unless she’s on our side. If Mary isn’t telling the truth, then a lot of what has happened already makes no sense. I can’t think of a single plan her boss could have that would justify all the risks so far and letting us learn as much as we have. If he just wanted to capture or kill us, then a whole posse should have been waiting when you and I went to help the doc, and Mary could have just apologized afterward and said she hadn’t been told if we escaped. It’s not that hard, and I refuse to believe that I can come up with a better evil plan without trying than the actual bad guys can when they have plenty of time to prepare. I’m not stupid, but I’m not that smart. And if they were that dumb, then they probably would have been caught by the cops months ago, before Mary even met the boss.

I agree with everything you said, but you’ve had plenty of time to consider all this, remember,” Leon said. “We only approached Heavyweight just now, and he doesn’t seem like the deepest thinker. I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying you’re pushing too hard. Try to keep in mind that we don’t know his reasons for saying no, David. He may have a family he’s afraid for, or he could just be short on sleep and not thinking straight.

Neither of which would change the logic in any way,” I said. “But fine, I’ll try to be nicer. I reserve the right to think he’s an idiot in my own head, though.

Fair enough,” Leon said. “Just keep in mind how you’d take the news if someone said you might get attacked at any time.

I did get that news, remember?” I said. “And I took it better than him.

You also got help preventing it within hours, whereas he hasn’t been offered any such help or assurance,” Leon said. “Don’t be difficult.

Fine, fine,” I acquiesced.

I waited a little longer, and to my surprise I got an answer from Bloodhound.

I walked back to share the news.

“Hey, I said. “Heavyweight, I’m sorry for snapping before. It- well, I shouldn’t have. Sorry.” It wasn’t my most sincere apology, but it wasn’t forced, either. I hoped he would take it well.

“Thank you,” he said. He sounded a bit smug or maybe superior, like he thought he’d won something. It made me want to kick him.

“I heard back from Bloodhound,” I said instead. “I don’t think he’ll be able to help, but he’ll try.”

“Good,” Heavyweight said.

I glanced at Menagerie. The two of them had still been talking when I got back, and she looked a bit tired. Her shoulders were slumped, and I suspected he hadn’t been less difficult after I left.

Sorry,” I said to her. “Didn’t mean to flip out and leave you to clean up.

Aren’t older people supposed to be more reasonable than teenagers?” Menagerie asked sarcastically.

I nearly laughed out loud. “In theory, yes. In practice, it doesn’t seem to work that way. Less dramatic, usually, but all the petty stuff still happens.

Oh, joy, something to look forward to,” Menagerie commented. I heard her take a deep breath. “So, when can we meet?”

We managed to meet later that night. I hoped Bloodhound hadn’t been pulled away from anything vital, especially when he confirmed what we had already expected; namely, that he couldn’t help Heavyweight.

“I’ve never heard of someone who can find other supers,” Bloodhound said. “I have a hard time believing it, almost, especially if she’s like the two of you.” His head turned toward Menagerie and I momentarily, then back to Heavyweight. “I’m sorry I don’t have better news. The closest thing I’ve ever heard of is Collector, who certainly seemed to have a knack for finding people…but most of the supers he picked up seem to have given some sign of their existence beforehand. We retraced his steps, and some of them appeared in local news stories, or tabloids, or other places, if only briefly. Besides, I’m fairly certain it was people like me, or Menagerie and Flicker, that he was hunting. I have some idea how he tried to find us, too. But supers…I don’t know what this woman could even be looking for. I’m certainly willing to look into it, but I can’t promise that I’ll have results at all, let alone in any kind of helpful timeframe. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help.”

“You’re sure?” Heavyweight asked for the third time.

“Quite sure,” Bloodhound said.

Heavyweight sighed and turned to look at me. From his posture, I had a feeling he was glaring. “Well, say you told me so.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t want to be right.” I felt a flash of minor disapproval from Leon, but ignored it. “Look, we’ll try to help you whether you go for our idea or not, okay?” I turned to Bloodhound. “Thanks for coming out. Whenever we call you guys, I start wondering if I’m interrupting anything important. Either way, I hope the drive isn’t too miserable.”

“No drive this time,” Bloodhound said. “I flew Air Comet, since it seemed like it might be time-sensitive. Not very comfortable, but on the bright side I didn’t have to waste time going through airport security, and it saves on gas money quite a bit.”

“That sounds like a weird experience,” Menagerie said. “I can’t imagine what it’s like.”

“It really isn’t like anything,” Bloodhound said. He looked at all three of us. “Do you want our help with something else?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “If we do, you should get some warning in advance. Take care.”

“So long,” Bloodhound said. He left again, and I turned to look back at Heavyweight.

He was still standing there, unmoving, and I was a bit surprised by how hard he was taking the news.

“I need to sleep on this,” Heavyweight finally said. “I…yeah. Let me sleep on it. I’ll call you tomorrow, Menagerie.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “We don’t expect any trouble just yet, and we should get a heads-up before anything happens, but just in case, don’t forget to call for backup. We can’t camp outside your door, but if you need us we’ll come running, and we both run pretty fast, all right?”

“Yeah,” he said heavily. “Yeah, thanks.”

He left, presumably to head for home. Menagerie and I didn’t have much to say, so we did the same shortly afterward.

Leon and I went to sleep, and this time when another vision began we weren’t so disoriented. We’d been through the routine enough times, now, to get our bearings quickly. It helped that our communication was easier than it had been in the past, too. We could both tell that we weren’t in control of our body, and we could both grasp the other’s surface thoughts without effort. Instead of experiencing the strange and uncomfortable sensation of trying to use my eyes and turn my head to look around, and then wondering why I couldn’t, I slid into the observer’s role as soon as the vision began. Leon did the same. It was almost like we were sitting next to each other at a movie theater, whispering as we watched what was going on through borrowed eyes.

It was still weird, of course, but it was a familiar sort of weird, and we’d adjusted to it somewhat. Even the sensations of the other David walking around, his frame broader and heavier than mine, didn’t feel as subtly wrong as they had the first few times. It was like putting on familiar shoes that were a half-size too small, almost. Wrong in one way, but no longer strange or surprising.

We were entering a different room, one we hadn’t seen before. Charlotte and Hector walked in ahead of us. Murphy was waiting inside, behind a desk; she looked comfortable enough that I guessed it was her office. I tried to take in the paraphernalia, but most of the items in the room, particularly on the shelves behind her desk, were blurry and indistinct. I could tell there were a lot of books and files, but I couldn’t read their labels.

She gestured us to three chairs that were situated in front of her desk. They were folding chairs, clearly brought in for this meeting; a more comfortable chair had been pushed to one side to make room for the three of them to fit side by side.

We sat in the chair on the right. Charlotte took the center, while Hector took the left.

Murphy took a deep breath, looking us each over before speaking. “Well,” she said. “I hope your last weekend of freedom was enjoyable. If any of you wants to retain it, this is your last chance to say so.”

Charlotte shifted in her seat, leaning forward, but no one replied.

“Very well,” Murphy continued after a momentary pause. “In that case, I’m going to tell you something very few people know. You know the foundation has been looking for ways to counter supers for years, and you’re aware that we’ve always pursued multiple avenues of research. Advancing technology may provide some countermeasures, but the core of the whole thing is the powers themselves. Despite years of research by governments and independent groups, ours included, no one understands where powers come from. We know that some seem to be passed down from parents to children, but others apparently are not. Based on the research we have done, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of skipping generations. Some powers just aren’t inherited. That suggests that even if there are genetic markers – and no one has found any – they wouldn’t provide a complete picture. All attempts to study powers themselves have been largely fruitless.”

Murphy stopped to take a sip of water from the glass on her desk, and Hector leaned to one side, resting his chin on one hand.

“Over the years, we’ve spent a lot of time trying to keep track of what powers exist, and even that has been a Herculean labor,” Murphy continued. “We don’t have a comprehensive list. Neither does the Wave, or the Chinese or American governments, or any other party you’d care to name with an interest. Some of them identify themselves freely, but many don’t, especially in recent years. We have managed to recruit a few, however. Some of them help us secure our facilities. A very small number have tried to infiltrate the Wave, without much success. A few have volunteered to help us with research. Of all of them, one had a power unlike anyone else we’ve ever seen. The fruits of her work were in the New York facility.”

We felt our eyes widen, and saw Charlotte perk up a bit, sitting taller as we got to the point.

“I don’t know how to describe what she could do,” Murphy admitted. “Frankly, even she was always a bit nervous about experimenting with her power. At first, we thought it was just an unusual form of teleportation.  She would instinctively bring things to herself when she needed them. She apparently discovered it when she was an adolescent. She was staying with a friend, and had forgotten her toothbrush; it appeared in her hand. Later, she said she mostly used it to find her car keys, or TV remote, or anything else she misplaced or forgot. Once, she got her wallet back after getting mugged, and everything that had been inside it. Suffice to say that we didn’t think it sounded very helpful, but one of the New York researchers had an instinct that there was more to it, and they worked together for a while.”

Leon and I were both listening eagerly. I could feel that some answers were coming, at last.

“Frankly, it’s a good thing that the foundation isn’t a for-profit company,” Murphy said with a tinge of amusement. “They didn’t produce any meaningful results for more than three years. Attempts to develop teleportation technology by studying her powers failed miserably. Her powers didn’t work on anything living, which was another dead end. The researchers got nowhere, and eventually most of them gave up and were moved to other projects. But I digress.”

Infuriatingly, she paused again to sip at her water.

“In the end one man – the one who’d been pushing her from the start – finally had a new idea. Instead of worrying about how her power worked, he wanted to see what it could retrieve. They tried something they’d never done before. Rather than having her bring a familiar object, or one that she’d seen before, he told her to try to find something totally new. She focused on an idea, the abstract rather than something concrete. She tried to bring something that could help them with their research into the lab, and the only caveat was that it be safe. And it worked.”

If I could have, I would have held my breath; the other David did it for me, and I could physically feel the sense of shared anticipation.

“What they found that first day, we still don’t know,” Murphy said. “It’s locked up downstairs. But attempts to determine its source were completely unsuccessful, even by psychometry. After months of other methods failing, the foundation eventually hired a discreet consultant with more skill to try again, and that failed, too. All he could tell us was that the object was very old – at least hundreds of thousands of years, old, in fact, based on his experience identifying historical objects. He once picked a single fake, manufactured by a forger, out of a whole room full of Van Gogh paintings. Even afterward, it took experts years to spot the inconsistencies in the art itself. To this day, we have no idea where the mystery box – that’s the nickname for it – comes from. But it did confirm our researcher’s hunch, and the two of them kept testing her power. She tried to focus on different things, hoping to bring us something that would let us understand powers, and finally tried to bring us something to fight them. And that brings us to this.”

Murphy opened her drawer and pulled out several photographs, then slid them across her desk. Hector grabbed them and started to examine them, passing each one to Charlotte as he finished; she passed them on to us in turn.

The photographs showed what looked like an obsidian sphere, so smooth and perfect it had to be artificial. I could feel our body frowning as we looked up at Murphy.

“That,” Murphy said slowly, “probably represents the single greatest stroke of luck the foundation has ever had. When the researcher touched it, he suddenly knew a way to teach people skills that could counter the powers we’ve seen, letting them fight on an equal footing. He was even able to manifest some rudimentary abilities of his own. You know that some supers can sense others; we had one working security, and brought him in. He picked a hydrokinetic, a telepath, and a brute out of a lineup, correctly identified six normal humans, and said that the researcher was a seventh. He didn’t register. If he had walked into a meeting of Wave sympathizers, he could have passed for normal.”

“Dios,” Hector whispered.

Murphy nodded. “There are a few who suspect as much, in fact. To get exactly what we’ve spent so much time looking for, at a moment in history when our need is growing rapidly…well, I’m not religious, but one colleague noted that divine intervention seems to be an explanation that fits the facts, as it were. The super who’d initially brought us the object tried to find more, or something that explained where it came from. She was killed before the work could progress, suffocated by someone who didn’t need to touch her to do the job. All of the research and information related to her was copied and spread to other facilities, and we’ve been looking for someone else with her powers ever since – in vain, I’m afraid. But the researcher did survive. He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by the same group that killed the woman. He’s been moving around ever since, trying to teach others as much as he can before they catch up with him. I don’t know if he’s still out there, but he did manage to find several people who could learn from him – unfortunately, not everyone can. There were a handful at the New York facility before we cleaned it out, and they’re here now. They’ve been making some limited progress.”

“How limited?” Charlotte asked. “I notice you haven’t had them fighting with us.”

“No, we haven’t,” Murphy said coolly. “They are more important than everyone else in this facility combined. You don’t risk a general to protect a private, as I’m sure you understand.”

Charlotte grimaced, but nodded her understanding.

Murphy sighed. “Besides, they haven’t been focused entirely on direct combat applications of their abilities. There are two things that are more important, which they’ve been doing their best to advance.”

“And those are?” Charlotte asked.

“Blocking telepathy, for one,” Murphy said. “They aren’t there, yet, but we’ve actually been making progress on that front. Two of our…students, for lack of a better word, have managed to resist an active telepathic intrusion. They couldn’t stop it, but they slowed it down. If we can perfect that, then we can spread the method to others, and in time there should be a whole segment of the population immune to mental abilities. If we get that far, then we may have a chance against groups like the Wave in the long-term. The idea of people without powers holding government office without fear of coercion will be back on the table. As much as I value your lives, and those of your people, there is nothing more important than the research we are protecting. That is why you and your men and women should be willing to fight. That is what people have died to protect. It’s possible that another facility has produced similar results, and we haven’t received word yet. It could be that a courier is on his way here right now, to tell us to pursue other research. But my current information doesn’t indicate that. As far as I know, this facility is the home of a project that could quite literally save the world.” Murphy looked us all in the eyes again, one at a time. “I hope that is a good enough answer for you.”

“Dios,” Hector murmured again. “You really mean it? It’s true?”

Murphy nodded. “It’s true.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Now, since you’ve been briefed in, would you like to see if you can learn anything?”

“Yes,” we said. It took me a moment to realize that the other David and Charlotte had spoken in unison.

Hector was still shaking his head in disbelief.
 
 
 
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Who Pays the Piper? 1

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“So, what do you think?” I asked, looking at Raquel.

She pursed her lips and her eyes became unfocused; at a glance, I would have thought she was looking over my shoulder, but I knew better. She was looking through an entirely different set of eyes. I sipped my coffee while I waited, glancing around to make sure no one else in the coffee shop was looking at us or listening to us.

“We feel it too, and see it,” Raquel said. “Whoever that woman is, she’s like us. She feels like you and me and Collector.” She paused. “Should Feral pull back? I know we’re supposed to be hidden, and I can’t sense you or anything, but we’re still pretty new at this. If we keep spying on them, she might notice.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. The only way to find out if she – they – can spot Feral is for it to happen. Besides, if she’s going to spot Feral she probably already has. In that case, we might as well learn all we can. If we’re lucky, she might give away how she did it. But for now, if she hasn’t noticed, I think we’re fine. What do they look like, anyway?”

“They don’t look particularly tough, but we all know that doesn’t mean anything,” Raquel said. “None of them seems to be challenging Mary at all, or giving her any trouble. If you’re up for it, I think I found a spot where we can see them without being seen.”

“Well lead on, then,” I said, standing up. “Can Feral hear them?”

“No, she’s not close enough for that,” Raquel said, standing as her eyes refocused. “Come on.”

She picked up her own coffee and we walked out of the shop, and I followed, dropping a handful of spent sugar packets and my empty cup in the trash on my way out. Raquel led me down the street and between two buildings, then down a few alleys. The last one smelled like garbage, but it was faint, and I thanked the season; winter cold could be unpleasant, but it had some nice effects at times, and I was happy to enjoy this one.

Finally, she stopped. “We’re here. Unless you can help me hide, I don’t want to get much closer, but it doesn’t really matter since I can see them just fine already. They’re in the French place across the street. It’s got a flower on the awning, but they’re through the window next to that part, not under it.”

“Thanks,” I said. I took a deep breath before walking around the corner. As soon as I could see the French restaurant Raquel had described, I looked around for a convenient place to sit, but I couldn’t find one; instead, I just stayed as far back as I could, well out of sight from most foot traffic on the street, and pulled out my binoculars. By now it no longer felt silly to be using them to look into a restaurant window; I’d seen and done enough odd things that this was just par for the course. I was a bit worried about someone noticing me, but if they did I was sure I could talk my way out of it. For our targets to notice me, they would have to look in my direction and have some sort of enhanced vision.

The problem was that we still didn’t know what their powers were. Enhanced vision wasn’t out of the question. For that matter, one of them might be able to sense when someone looked at them, although that would be spectacularly bad luck.

Still, we were here to learn what they looked like, as well as to back up Mary in case one of them realized she was double-crossing their boss; that was the whole point. It only took me a moment to find them and get the binoculars’ focus adjusted. As promised, Mary was sitting with them, eating dinner. They were all dressed casually, but in a nice way; the two men had collared shirts on, although they weren’t fully buttoned and the men weren’t wearing ties. Mary was dressed similarly, while the last woman was wearing a simple blue dress. It looked like a business dinner, which, in a way, it was. The only difference was that three of the four people eating didn’t know the full agenda.

I focused on the woman first; she was the one Feral and Raquel had warned me about, and now that I had her in sight I could tell that she was the source of that familiar feeling I had. I’d only sensed it before from Raquel and Feral, or Collector. Combining personal experience with what Bloodhound and the Philly Five had told us, I figured the woman I was looking at was probably sharing her brain with someone, much like I was.

Speaking of which, it was time to check in with my better (or at least smarter) half.

Leon, what do you think?

I’m just as curious as you are, David,” Leon said. “We’re resistant to Michaels, so she probably is too, which raises the question…is she being coerced by other means, like Mary, or did she sign on for criminal doings? But from what Mary told us afterward, Michaels didn’t say that he recognized the way it felt when he used his power on us…

Which suggests that he didn’t know about her, or at least that he never tried to use his power on her,” I said, completing the thought. “Yeah, we’re on the same page. And of course, the million dollar question: how much does Mary’s boss know about her, and, by extension, us?

Yes,” Leon agreed. “That is an answer I want very badly.

I gave the woman one last look, memorizing her face and build as best as I could from the angle I had; she was sitting next to Mary, but Mary was behind her, so I had a decent view. The woman was blonde, and judging by her choice of clothing – the sleeveless dress during a cold December – I wondered if she might be the kind of person who ignores the elements.

You know, she could just be from Alaska or something, or her coat could be out of sight,” Leon pointed out. “Don’t read too much into things.

Yeah, I know,” I said. I paused for a moment, caught in a realization. “Hey wait. How did you know what I was thinking? I hadn’t said anything yet.

It just came through,” Leon said; I felt his surprise as he realized that I was correct. “Interesting.

Yeah, that’s a word,” I said. I suppressed a pang of concern; that could wait. We needed to stay on task.

I felt Leon’s agreement, and forced myself to relax and focus. We needed to take things one at a time.

I returned my attention to the woman; she had a tattoo on her right arm, which was the one facing me; I couldn’t tell if it was the only one or not, and seeing what it was from my current distance was out of the question, but if she went around without sleeves habitually it could help us pick her out.

With that done, I looked at the two men sitting opposite Mary. The one in the back was smaller, unfortunately, so I couldn’t really see him clearly. He was black, and had dark hair. So did the white guy in front of him, who was easily the bulkiest person at the table. He was built like a football player, and looked thick enough to support a roof.

I took a good long look and then turned around and returned to Raquel. Once I’d seen enough, sticking around could only increase our risks, and I was happy to be done.

She was waiting right where I’d left her.

“You said they didn’t look particularly tough,” I said. “That one guy looked like he was a whole defensive line.”

Raquel smiled. “Yeah, but so what? The strongest people we know are Heavyweight, Silhouette, Comet, and Meteor. Maybe Tin Man as an honorable mention. They’re all less muscular than that guy.”

I snorted. “By that standard, no one on the planet looks tough.”

Raquel kept smiling. “Pretty much, yeah.”

I pretended to glare at her for two seconds and then dropped it. In fairness, I should have known better than to ask her what they looked like right before seeing for myself.

“So what now?” I asked. “Just wait until they leave?”

Raquel shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”

I glanced up. “You want to try getting a bird’s-eye view when they’re on the way out? I didn’t see all of their faces that well, and it might help.

Raquel frowned. “I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like they noticed us, but I don’t want to push our luck.”

“It’s not like I suggested we go bump in to them,” I said. “But I want to be able to pick them out of a crowd if we need to. Come on.”

Nothing went wrong, and soon enough we were meeting Mary.

After leaving the dinner, she pulled her car up to a corner a couple of blocks away; we were waiting there by the time she arrived, and we piled in, drove to a nearby park – the same one where Raquel and Heavyweight had been attacked by Collector’s group the day I met her – and sat at a picnic table.

“You got a good look at them all?” Mary asked.

“Yeah, we did,” I said. “Any problems during the meeting?”

Mary shook her head. “No, they were all polite enough, at least in public. I have a feeling Lindsay – the big guy – is going to be annoying, but that’s not important.”

“Lindsay?” I asked. “Hell, if my parents had named me Lindsay I might have a chip on my shoulder.”

“Actually, that used to be just a guy’s name,” Mary said.

“Really?” I asked. “Huh. Anyway, what about the other two?”

Mary looked into the distance, remembering. “Lindsay, Doug, and Alena,” she said. “Doug has basic strength, speed, and agility. He played it up, but I have a feeling Heavyweight could down him in one punch; he seems pretty full of himself. It’s hard to tell without seeing him in action, though, and a restaurant isn’t exactly the right place for a demonstration. Lindsay is two for the price of one. He said he can outrun a car on the highway, and he has some sort of sound-based thing, too. He said it’s strong enough to burst eardrums, and it hurts like hell. I don’t think it’s much good for property destruction, though. Anyone who can shrug it off can probably beat him, if they can catch him. The one I’m really worried about is Alena. I listened to her explanation, but I’m still not clear on what she does or how.”

Raquel and I both leaned forward, interested to hear the rest. “What did she say?” I asked.

Mary scratched her head and sighed. “She was creeping me out, honestly, and I think the two guys, too. She said something about ‘vengeance’ under her breath, and I didn’t like the way she was looking at me.”

“I thought you said they were all polite?” I asked.

“Oh, she was talking politely,” Mary said. “She just looked at me like I was tracking dog shit on her carpets. Seriously, it was weird – and it started before I even introduced myself.” Mary shook her head. “Anyway, according to her, she can find people with powers – even if they don’t know they have them. That’s her main thing. She also said that she’s immune to telepaths, and that she can shield herself if someone attacks her physically. She’s good enough to stop bullets, at least. I don’t know how someone gets that many powers that have nothing to do with each other, but life is not fucking fair, I’ll say that. I only get one trick, and she’s got the whole kitchen sink.” She looked at us. “Actually, it reminded me of you, Flicker. Anyway, that’s the scoop. If they have anything else up their sleeves, they didn’t tell me about it. But I’m guessing that Alena was probably one of the first couple people the boss recruited. That could explain how he found all of the others, except for me. Seems like I just got unlucky.”

“Damn,” Raquel said.

“One last thing,” Mary said. “I got a message from the boss before the meeting. He told me that if anything goes wrong, I should make sure Alena gets out of it okay – even if the other two get hurt in the process. So whether I guessed right or not, he considers her more valuable than both of them put together, and maybe me too.”

“It’s not hard to see why,” I said. “As long as he hangs on to her and Michaels, he can keep picking people up. It might take time, but still, that’s a hell of an advantage.”

“She didn’t notice us, though,” Raquel said. “Right? She didn’t say anything during dinner, did she?”

“No, she didn’t,” Mary said. “I was relieved, believe me. But I don’t think she was lying, because if she was then why would the boss even send her? I don’t know. I was thinking maybe it’s something she has to turn on and off, and she can’t do it all the time. I kept waiting for her to say something the whole damn meal, but she never did.”

Raquel and I looked at each other. “Or, it might be because our powers aren’t exactly like yours,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Mary asked.

I hesitated, then settled on a partial truth; I didn’t want to get into a long, convoluted explanation. “It’s tricky to explain. The short version is that there seem to be at least two kinds of powers, and Menagerie and I fall into a different category from people like you or Comet, among others. It’s what helped us resist Michaels, when we ran into him before. We seem to be protected from some things. Menagerie and I were able to recognize each other even when we hadn’t met because of it. We’re both hiding the signs now, at least enough that I’m not surprised Alena didn’t spot us, but we could tell just by looking that her powers are like ours. You said she muttered under her breath?”

“Yeah, why?” Mary asked.

“Did it seem like she was talking to someone else? Other than the three of you?” I asked.

“Sort of, I guess,” Mary said. “Maybe.”

I glanced at Raquel and she gave me a nod to go ahead. Maybe it was time for that long explanation after all. “Our powers come with some strings attached. They aren’t bad, but they’re complicated. This might take a little while to cover, so get comfortable.”

We didn’t give Mary every last detail of our powers, but we explained a lot, including the existence of Leon and the fact that Raquel and I were sharing our lives with Feral and Leon, respectively.

At first, she looked confused. When I elaborated, she looked sick.

“I’m sorry, but that just sounds really fucking creepy,” Mary said. “They’re just…there, all the time? Watching and listening to everything you do and say? How can you live like that?”

I was a bit taken aback. It was strange to realize how normal it seemed to me, now, to have Leon around all the time. “It’s not like that,” I said after I’d had a moment to think. “It’s not as if there’s someone following me around and spying on me. It’s more like having a close friend who’s stuck to you. You can’t split up, but the company’s good enough that you don’t mind much. Besides, neither of us chose the other, exactly. We’re both satisfied with the current arrangement, though. It’s worked out pretty well for each of us, in some ways. In fact, my invisible friend is part of the reason I’ve survived up to now, and not just because he came with the powers. He’s a smart guy.

Mary rubbed at her eyes. “You’re just screwing with me, right? This is part of a weird, elaborate practical joke and I’m the only one you two can play it on?”

I laughed, and Leon did too. “No, we’re totally serious,” I said. “And when you talk to the two of us, you really are talking to the four of us.” I felt Leon give me a mental nudge, and let him take over for a second; he had something to say.

“It is only speculation, but I think that the nature of our minds – the fact that we share them – may be why we are resistant to Michaels and others with similar powers,” Leon said.

Mary shook her head. “How is this any different from what Michaels does?”

Leon let me slide back into control. “Because my invisible friend is more like a permanent houseguest than a burglar or a squatter. Or like a friend crashing on my couch, maybe. I can kick him out anytime I want to, and I choose not to. I don’t know for certain that it’s like that for everyone, but Leon and Feral stay because we want them around.”

Mary shook her head again, but it seemed like she was accepting what we had explained at last. “Huh. So, does Leon turn into a lion, or something?”

“No,” I said. “He doesn’t manifest physically. Menagerie and Feral can talk to him, but unless you’re like us, there isn’t much evidence he’s even present. Which brings us back to the reason I mentioned all of this in the first place: Alena. You said she talked to herself, but Leon and I think otherwise.”

“Right,” Mary said. “So…if she’s like you, then she’s not one person, she’s two people. But I’m not sure how that makes a difference.”

“If she’s two people, then the first question is whether they are working together and which one is in charge,” I said. “The second question is why they are working for your boss. It can’t be because of Michaels, so either they’re loyal – whether for money, or perks, or something else – or, maybe, they are being coerced just like you. If they are, then the fact that they’re immune to telepathy makes recruiting them a very attractive idea.”

“No way,” Mary said, shaking her head. “Did you forget what I said? She was looking at us all funny, and she hated me on sight.”

“She did cover that,” Menagerie noted. She cocked her head, clearly wondering where I was going with my idea.

“I remember just fine,” I said. “But if the boss sent you to a new city and told you to take orders from another person with powers, what would your first thought be? You said she was looking at the two guys the same way as you. You were pretending to be a loyal little henchwoman, right? What if that is the reason she doesn’t like you?”

Mary scratched her head again, brushing hair away from one ear. “It’s too risky.”

I held up a hand. “I’m not saying we should go knock on her door right now and spill the beans,” I said. “But I think we should try to study her – all three of them, really, but especially her – and figure out if any of them might be looking for a way out. Sooner or later, there’s probably going to be a fight. If we can flip any of them to our side before that happens, I think it would improve our odds a lot. It could keep a lot of people from getting hurt, Mary. Think about it.”

“Maybe,” she allowed. “But we can’t, absolutely cannot, tell them about this until we’re sure. My life is on the line here, and my father’s too. Promise me you won’t approach any of them without talking to me first, no matter what we learn.”

“Done,” I said. “I’m not trying to find new risks to take, I swear. I’m just saying that we’ve got an opportunity, here. Doug, Lindsay, or Alena might be like you. Even if they’re not, they might be like the doctor, just waiting for a chance to jump ship. I just want to keep an open mind. Okay?”

“Okay,” Mary said.

“So, what now?” Menagerie asked. “Tracking them? Following them? If we’re going to learn about the three of them, we’ll have to stay close, and that’s pretty risky since they’re in town specifically to look for us. Not to mention the fact that we don’t know for certain that Alena won’t find us. I think she probably can’t, too,” Raquel said, glancing at me and anticipating my argument, “but it’s still a guess. We don’t actually know.”

“Well, the whole point of having them in town is for them to look for you,” Mary said. “They don’t have to find you, but if you’re up for it…maybe we should let them.”

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

“I’m thinking of what you just said, and how we met,” Mary said, looking back and forth between us. “Remember? If one of them is looking for a way out, looking for help, then what they want most right now is probably to find one of you successfully…but in private. Just like I did. If you guys are right about Alena, then she has the least to worry about. And if any of them is like me, then a chance to ask for your help getting out might be all it takes. In fact, if I were in their position, getting this assignment would be a godsend. It’s a perfect chance to meet the kind of person they need to contact without drawing suspicion and getting the boss breathing down their necks.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I said.

“No, she’s right,” Menagerie broke in. “Think about it. It’s a good way to test the three of them, and it should help Mary keep her cover. If it seems like she’s close, the boss might even reward her. We might be able to give her a partial victory. That could be the break we need to find him, even if none of these three is good guy material.”

I’m inclined to agree,” Leon said. “The how must be plotted carefully, of course, but the basic idea is sound.

Yes,” I heard Feral add. “We are the bait the enemy wants, and the ally that they will seek if innocent. It is a good plan. We can let them find us, lead them on a merry chase, and then get ‘cornered’ by one alone. In private, they’ll show their true colors.

“Well, if all of you think it’s a good idea, maybe,” I said. “But if we’re doing this, I want some contingency plans for beating them in a fight, just in case we have to.”

“Of course,” Mary said. “For one thing, I want to designate a few places we can meet up in emergencies. If I get burned and need backup in a hurry, I won’t be able to sit still and wait for help, probably. I doubt I’ll have time for long conversations either. The same goes for you guys if you’re wrong about Alena’s power. We should pick a few spots around the city where we can rendezvous and help each other out at any time of day.”

“Sure,” I said. “I was thinking a bit differently – when I said ‘contingency plans,’ I meant that I want to talk tactics. If we get into a fight with these three, we should have some ideas for how to take them out or escape them.”

“Oh, shit!” Menagerie exclaimed.

We both looked at her. “What?” I asked.

“Heavyweight,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight isn’t like us. Alena could find him anytime. If her power works the way we think, she could stumble right over him. I need to give him a call, warn him what’s going on.”

“We really don’t want him caught,” Mary said. “Go ahead.”

“I’ll be right back,” Menagerie said. She stood up and walked away from us, pulling out her phone. I looked back at Mary.

“How are you holding up?” I asked. “I know this must be pretty…stressful, to say the least.”

“You could say that, yeah,” Mary said. She leaned back. “I thought I’d feel better, now that I’m in a better position, but it’s just making me more paranoid. I’m not sure if the boss has decided he can trust me now, or if he’s spying on me and testing me. Speaking of which, I shouldn’t stay much longer. I tried to make sure no one was tailing me before I came, but I could be wrong.”

“Relax,” I said. “Menagerie had Feral watching for you. If she’d spotted anyone following you, she would have told us by now, and Feral isn’t easy to sneak by. She’s sharp.”

“Still,” Mary said. “I’m getting antsy.”

“We’ve got your back,” I said. “Don’t let it get to you too much.”

She looked at me, cocking her head to one side. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

Mary looked at me for a few seconds. “You still don’t trust me, though.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The mask, obviously,” she elaborated. “You still both wear masks to meet me, or hide your faces somehow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not offended. But it’s a pretty clear sign that you don’t trust me.”

I glanced over at Menagerie, then looked back at Mary. “Would you prefer this?” I asked, taking off my mask and reaching for my powers.

“You don’t have to-” She stopped midsentence, blinking. “Whoa, freaky. How are you doing that?”

I chuckled. “If you can turn your whole body invisible, doing just the face isn’t too hard.”

“I can see through your head,” Mary said flatly. “That’s just…wrong. Really, really wrong.”

“I was thinking I could be the Headless Horseman next Halloween, maybe,” I said.

Mary laughed. “Oh man, you could make some kid scream so loud. Ten bucks says you could make someone faint, with just a little work on good presentation.”

“No bet,” I replied. “I don’t throw away money.”

I glanced over at Menagerie again; she was still on the phone, talking animatedly; her voice rose a bit, and I looked back at Mary.

“So, feel any better?” I asked. “For what it’s worth, I do trust you. It just feels like it would be stupid and careless not to hedge my bets a little.”

“No, I get it,” Mary said. “Really, I do. I mean, I still haven’t told you guys my real name. When we get right down to it, I don’t actually want to know how to ID you. If I do get caught somehow, I’ll probably end up spilling everything I know, sooner or later. If I don’t know who you are, I can’t tell the boss, and you’d still have a chance to take him down.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” I promised.

Mary looked straight at me, invisible face or no. “We don’t know the future, Flicker. I’m planning to survive this in one piece, and get my dad out too. But if I go down, I’d rather do it knowing that Michaels, the boss, and all the rest will get what they deserve. As long as you and Menagerie know what’s up, we haven’t lost even if I get caught.”

“I agree with you,” I said. “So does Leon. But Plan A is to keep that unnecessary.  We’ll solve this without escalating things, if possible. With a little luck, the only violence will be a few raids where we pick off the boss, Michaels, and the others one at a time, preferably while they’re asleep. I don’t see any reason to fight at all if we don’t have to.”

“That does sound ideal,” Mary agreed.  She breathed deeply, then let it out. “I’ve been thinking about what to do long-term too, actually. Cleaning up this whole mess afterward is going to be tricky, even if we win and nobody dies.”

“Yeah?” I prompted.

“Well, I know Michaels is bad, and the boss is bad,” Mary said. “Tuggey seems like he probably is, but I won’t pretend I’m totally certain. It’s like that for most of the others, too. They seem like bad guys, but they might be like me. And all the guys the boss uses as goons, I know they don’t deserve to be used this way. We’re going to have to find a way to help them. After you guys rescued Dustin, you said that you got some help deprogramming him. We’ll probably have to do that for a lot of people. Dozens of them. That’s going to take time.”

“Yeah, it would,” I said. “I’m no telepath, but it seemed like it was difficult. There are two or three people I can think of who might be able to help, but I don’t know if any of them can do the job alone, and I don’t know how much they’d be willing to do, either.”

“Right,” Mary said. “Here’s the thing. If we just get rid of the boss, the people who work for him could scatter. I mean, they might try to hide, or just run out of the city. They might run to the cops, which could be a problem for me, but I wouldn’t try to stop them from getting help. But if they just leave, we’d never be able to find them again, probably. Like, what if we’d taken down the boss and Dustin had run to Canada? What are the chances we could find him and help him put his brain back together?”

“Not very good,” I said. “Where are you going with this?”

Mary scratched her head again, a bit nervously. “I was trying to figure out what our best-case scenario is. I think, to make things turn out happily ever after, we’d need to take out the boss secretly. Then we could take out Michaels, and take our time sorting through everyone else. Figure out who’s a bad guy and who didn’t have a choice without having to rush the job. I think…I think it’s the only way we could help everybody.”

I blinked. “That’s…a pretty ambitious plan.”

Mary sighed. “I know. And I know it sounds kind of suspicious, too. But I just can’t think of any better way we could handle this. I understand if you’d rather just to the FBI, but if that happens I’m pretty sure my dad will end up back in jail, and I can’t do that. To him or anyone else in the same boat. Even if it was just temporary, it could take years for the authorities to sort everything out, and find some standard of proof that he wasn’t guilty, and that’s assuming we could afford a good lawyer, which we probably can’t. He’s old enough that he could die in jail. I won’t risk it on purpose.”

I thought about it, looking at her, weighing and judging. I’d always tried to think of myself as a rational person, one who considered the information and then made a logical call, but here the evidence fit both possibilities too well; if she was telling the truth, then it all made sense. If she was lying, then she might want to use Raquel and I to supplant the boss, in theory. That would be a huge risk, though. In fact, as plans went, it seemed prohibitively complicated.

Agreed,” Leon said. “There is an easy way to cover our bases, though.

I smiled at his idea. I tried to pretend I was rational even when I relied on gut feeling, but Leon was just a better planner.

Sometimes, it was really nice to have him around.

“I think you’re right,” I said. “If we could end things that way, we’d have the best chance to help the most people. But just in case things go bad and we all get cement shoes or the equivalent, I’m going to leave a little package to be delivered in the event of my death. Insurance. That way, if the boss catches us, someone else will have all the information I had, and they won’t have to start from scratch. Make sense?”

“Yeah,” Mary said, looking relieved. “Yeah, that would be good. If we buy it, I’d like to go down knowing the bastards won’t last much longer, at least.”

“Good,” I said. “Just in case Menagerie and I go down and you survive, though, would you mind if I included what I know about you in the package?”

Mary hesitated for a moment. “I…guess. Just be careful to make sure no one can find it early, okay? It’s my life on the line.”

“No problem,” I said.

“Should I ask who you had in mind to receive this package?” Mary asked.

In my head, Leon and I were already hashing out the specifics. We’d leave a just-in-case present for Bloodhound. They already knew some pieces of what was going on, and they were tough and experienced. As a bonus, I was confident that they would be willing to hand everything to the authorities if they deemed it appropriate, and I figured we’d have to ask them for help with the deprogramming end of things anyway.

“I was thinking of the Philly Five,” I said.

Mary looked a little impressed. “That’s good backup, yeah. I mean, I knew you know them, but damn.”

If Mary double-crossed us, they would know where to find her. Conversely, if she was dealing honestly and got left alone again, they could provide her with some much-needed help, and ensure that the boss wasn’t free to operate again, and I didn’t need to violate Mary’s trust in either case. It wasn’t airtight, but it was as close as I could conceive.

I was still working out the last details when Menagerie walked back over.

“Well, Heavyweight wasn’t happy,” she said, rejoining Mary and I. “He felt like I was trying to drag him in, or something. I warned him about Alena, though, and I said he can call if anything happens, so at least that’s taken care of.”

“Good,” Mary said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Menagerie, we need to catch you up on what we were talking about. After that, I still want to talk tactics a bit before we go our separate ways, just in case we find a fight on our hands before we’ve had time to plan things out…like, for example, if Alena does find Heavyweight and he calls for backup.”

Menagerie leaned back, folding her arms across her chest, and I leaned on my elbows as we started to hash things out.
 
 
 
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