Tag Archives: Dr. Jameson

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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You Can Choose Your Friends 1

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Waking up, David and I were thinking of all the things we needed to do, and it was a varied list. First, he rolled over onto his side and checked his phone.

He’d been just barely awake enough to let me send a quick text message to Mary and Raquel, letting them know that things hadn’t gone badly last night, and now we had replies. We had a series of messages from Mary. The first:

“Good work. Tuggey pissed & in trouble, boss angry about fuckup. No deaths. Men avoided cops, but had to abandon a couple cars.”

The next message had come hours later:

“Tuggey maybe demoted. I might be moving up.”

Finally, there was one more:

“I just got assigned to hunt you down 🙂 Will call later.”

I could sense David’s surprise as he laughed, and I marveled at the stroke of luck. It made some sense, though. Tuggey hadn’t done very well in dealing with us. Mary had been involved in two incidents with us, and both had ended with the bad guys’ apparent escape, despite some problems. We’d gotten away with Dustin at the end of one fight, granted, but that had started before she arrived. She’d been present at Dustin’s abduction and gotten away with that cleanly; problems had only cropped up later. Aside from that, she had some sort of work at BPSC, and we hadn’t disrupted their legitimate operations at all, so she might look pretty good compared to Tuggey at the moment.

We also had a message from Raquel. She apologized for missing our earlier requests for backup, promised to set her phone to ring louder at night, and said she’d be in touch after school unless we told her we had an emergency.

Once that was done, we rolled out of bed and cleaned up, then knocked on Lyle and Kaylee’s doors. They both answered pretty quickly, so either they’d been awake already or they were light sleepers, and in relatively short order we went out, picked up some food and coffee at a doughnut shop on Lyle’s dime, and came back, inviting them to come to our room and eat. David wrestled with whether or not to put on his mask, but I talked him into it, pointing out that Lyle owed us and vouched for us to Kaylee. We didn’t have anything to prove to either of them, and I was perfectly all right with them feeling awkward for the minute it took to get used to it.

They came in and started to eat, and both of them were clearly very hungry. I realized that I didn’t know when they’d last eaten, but since Lyle had been laying low and Kaylee had been driving much of the previous day it wasn’t surprising.

While they did that, David and I looked up Beauregard Raleigh, eager to see the results. The two visions we’d shared the previous night seemed like the most promising yet, in terms of finally getting some answers. We’d thought things over while getting breakfast, and reasoned that the visions were skipping around in terms of time rather than progressing forward in a purely linear fashion, but the name was still by far our most promising lead.

We combed through search results, but couldn’t find him. Beauregard Raleigh didn’t seem to be a current or previous Congressman from New York, although when we tried only his last name we managed to find references to a Raleigh in the state legislature and another, possibly related, who was a judge. Neither was named Beauregard, but it might be something.

After that, we did a quick search to see if there were any news stories about a businessman named Jimenez being murdered or abducted, and had similar results, discovering nothing useful.

David leaned back in his chair, trying to process what it all meant.

It’s the future, or a future, perhaps,” I suggested. “Seen through one pair of eyes. If not, the only thing that comes to mind is the phrase ‘alternate universe,’ but in the absence of any other evidence that such things even exist I’m a bit leery of leaping to that particular conclusion.

David absently grabbed a doughnut for himself and scarfed it down, glancing at Kaylee and Lyle. They were talking quietly in two chairs by the window, while we sat on the edge of the bed. For the moment, we weren’t inclined to disturb them; they seemed to be working through personal differences, and there was no rush to interrupt that, really. Today was a lost cause for anything other than dealing with the pair of them, as far as we were concerned.

I feel really weird about the idea of getting visions of the future,” David said. “You have some memory of our other powers, right? I mean, some instinctive sense of how to use them, and a sense that they’re yours. But you don’t remember getting visions, do you?

Yes to the first question and no to the second,” I replied. “But my impressions are imperfect, and if it is a power I always possessed, I might not have known how to use it. Or it might be triggered by some particular circumstance, or something.

David shook his head. “But only I saw the first one, for some reason, not you. That doesn’t make sense, really, if they’re a power of yours. I mean, I’m not sure how it makes sense any other way either, I guess.

Perhaps not,” I said. “Regardless, we know for certain that the visions do not correspond to our past or present. All that remains is the future or a separate timeline of some sort, unless something truly ridiculous is going on. Something like, say, an individual or group erasing all evidence of a congressman from the internet. That possibility is outlandish enough to discard, I think. If anyone has the power to affect memories and information storage media worldwide, then that person or group is essentially god, and they would have to do such a good job of concealing themselves that it would shatter my credulity anyway. So…what we’re seeing is either what will happen, or what may happen. The alternate universe possibility isn’t really worth considering either, since we have no way to affect anything in that case.

It didn’t look like a distant future,” David said thoughtfully. “I’m inclined to agree with what you’ve said, so let’s run with it. The cars, phones, the diner, the computers we saw…none of them were my main focus at any point, but they all looked pretty comparable to what actually exists now. I don’t know guns well, but I don’t think the ones we saw looked strange or unusual. Neither did the body armor. We saw smoke grenades, gas masks…it was all pretty standard stuff. So all of this, it can’t be too far ahead, technologically speaking. If it’s the future, it’s a future that isn’t too far down the road. That makes me think of the warning angle again, the idea that someone is trying to tell us to stop something. But if that’s true, who are we supposed to stop? Don’t get me wrong, the idea of supers forming squads and attacking people they don’t like is scary, but so is the idea of a shadowy group with a private army conducting vague research to counter people with powers. They pretty explicitly weren’t the government. If someone sat me down and showed me these visions as a film, I’d wonder why they were leaving out so much, and I’d wonder why we never find out what the actual research is. It all makes me feel sympathetic to the other David and the people on his side, but what if they’re experimenting on people like me? Or worse?

It’s possible,” I said, “but there were supers defending the place as well, and that could be meaningful.

It might,” David allowed. “Or they could be mercenaries, or traitors. The whole reason betrayals hurt is because they’re unexpected and hard to understand. Quisling and Benedict Arnold are loathed for cause.

True,” I acknowledged. “But it’s dangerous to read too much into the fact that we saw two supers there, as we’ve said before. We’re rehashing old ground again. I think it’s time to move on.

David agreed, and we looked over at our breakfast companions, grabbed another doughnut, and went to join them.

“So,” David said, “I hope you two feel better after getting some sleep?”

“Marginally,” Kaylee said. She drank some more coffee. “Thanks for getting food.”

“No problem,” David said. “Lyle paid, anyway. I just had to walk.”

She nodded, taking another sip. Lyle looked grateful.

“Ready to talk things over?” David asked.

“Yes,” Lyle sighed. “I suppose I am.”

“Great,” Kaylee said. “Start by explaining why we aren’t going to the police?”

“Because I think the people I was working for are paying off at least some of them,” Lyle said.

“Sure, in Berkeleyport,” Kaylee said. “But we’re not in Berkeleyport anymore. Besides, there are people with powers involved, right? Call the FBI. It’s their job to deal with that stuff.”

David winced, and I had to agree. It was the obviously correct thing to do, in some ways. In fact, I was wondering why the doctor hadn’t done it. It might have been difficult to convince them he wasn’t making a crank call, but once he did the FBI were the best people to contact, especially since he’d seemed afraid of me at first.

Lyle looked down at his feet. “Because I don’t want them to lock me up.”

Kaylee’s eyes narrowed angrily. “I see. So what you’re saying is you put my life in danger because you don’t want to face the consequences of your own actions like an adult, is that it?”

He didn’t answer. I prodded David, who was feeling uncomfortable, to stop this before things continued in their current direction.

“Actually, it may be a good thing that he did that,” David said. Kaylee shot us an incredulous look. “I know that sounds ridiculous, yes. But the fact of the matter is that the people Lyle was mixed up with are very dangerous, and if they were backed into a corner, I have reason to believe a lot of people would get hurt. I don’t think the FBI are stupid, but I don’t think they’ve dealt with anything like this before, either. A lot of the people Lyle dealt with may not have been fully in control of their own actions. There are several criminals with powers in the organization, and I know that at least one of them is affecting the minds of others.”

Kaylee blinked. “Well…why didn’t they do it to Lyle, then?”

Lyle cringed as we glanced at him. “I don’t know,” David said. “But if the police or even the FBI dealt with this the normal way, it’s likely that a lot of people could get hurt who don’t deserve it. I got involved because I’m trying to help someone in a similar situation to Lyle – someone else who’s being coerced.”

As David spoke, my thoughts returned to the conflicts of the previous night. We’d done our best to avoid inflicting any permanent harm on anyone, although both David and I knew that tasers weren’t perfectly safe. Reports on their effects were somewhat conflicting. Still, we’d kept from shocking anyone after they stopped fighting, and we hadn’t left anyone in a particularly dangerous position. None of the men we’d hurt should wake up with more than bruises, perhaps a sprain here or there, and a lot of discomfort. It was a lot better than the debacle the night we’d freed Dustin, which still weighed heavy on all of our minds, especially Raquel and Feral. David was a bit naïve about some things, I thought, including his failure to understand how harshly that night’s experience might be affecting them. I wasn’t certain what we could do about it, though, other than being willing to listen if and when they needed to talk.

I dragged my attention back to the moment. Kaylee was frowning uncertainly, and I couldn’t blame her. She was afraid to go home until Lyle’s illegal employers were off their tail, and that meant that the faster resolution would be more appealing to her, as would the idea of going to the government for help. Institutional power could be a comforting thing, when it was on your side. But while I was concerned about Mary’s secrets, I had to admit that she seemed to be genuinely on our side, and she felt strongly about the need to avoid open confrontation. We had some idea of the FBI’s capabilities, and while I’d found their people impressive, the fact remained that any situation which ended in a straight fight against Tuggey and all the men working for him was bound to be horrific, perhaps as bad as the Battle of Philadelphia in its own way given the involvement of mind control.

If someone shot Collector or one of his people, at least they would be able to go home knowing that they’d killed a criminal. If the FBI had a shootout with Tuggey, Michaels, and their bunch, there could be innocent people on both sides. It was a problem we’d faced once already, with terrible results, and I had scrupulously avoided suggesting that we learn more about the men who’d died in the fight to recover Dustin, but I wanted to know. I was afraid that Feral and Raquel might not recover if we learned that they were innocent men, though, and I doubted David would hide the information if we learned it.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” David said, “especially since you didn’t have a clear idea about any of it until last night. But lives are depending on us not handling this the wrong way. For now, the bad guys know Lyle got away, and we helped him. If they think they’re about to be discovered by the police, then they may get desperate and start taking more extreme actions. I’ve been working with a few people to learn everything we can about them, trying to move slowly and keep from scaring them. I only acted last night because your lives were in jeopardy. I hope neither of you will take this the wrong way, but if Lyle hadn’t run away on his own I wouldn’t have tried to help him yet, not unless I knew he was in immediate danger. Do you understand?”

“I understand just fine,” Kaylee said. She glared at Lyle. “But that doesn’t help me figure out what to do from here. So far, you’re just giving me lots of reasons not to do the sensible thing.”

I interjected, whispering some advice to David; he seemed like he was about to brush her off a bit.

“I understand it sounds like that,” David said. He paused to rethink his words and my advice. “Kaylee, I’m not saying we’ll never go to the police or the FBI. I’m saying that doing it right now is a huge risk, and I really believe it won’t go well. If nothing else, there’s never been a court case involving mind control. Even if everyone was safely taken into custody without violence somehow, there are more than two dozen men working for these people, and all of them might have been affected. If they all went to jail for crimes they never would have committed on their own, that wouldn’t really be just. That’s part of what we’re trying to avoid. But what we’re really afraid of is them dying in a shootout.”

She still wasn’t happy, but she seemed to appreciate the fact that we were addressing her concerns somewhat. “How long?”

David blinked. “How long what?”

“How long do you think it will take to fix all of this?” she said, waving a hand vaguely. “I don’t expect a date, but if you have a plan you must have a general idea, or at least a guess.”

“We haven’t really been approaching things that way,” David said. “The answer’s going to depend on a lot, including what I can learn from Lyle – I’m hoping that whatever he knows can let us round these people up. That’s the other reason I came to help him. I would have done it anyway, of course, but if he can tell me anything useful then it might let us wrap this all up faster.”

“I’ll tell you everything I can,” Lyle promised. “Most of it probably won’t help much. What I did was largely a matter treating minor injuries. I saw a lot of broken bones and the like. There were one or two gunshot wounds, some burns, and a few things like that, but I didn’t do anything too strange, really.”

“That’s all right, doc,” David said. “I’m not expecting you to hand me the answer on a silver platter. But if you can help us, we’d appreciate it, and it will help both of you get back to your lives sooner.”

Kaylee sighed. “I’m not entirely convinced, but if you’re both committed to this…are you really certain that contacting the FBI is such a risk?” she asked.

David shrugged. “There’s no way to know for certain, but look at it this way; if we tell them, it’s too late to take it back. Most of what the bad guys have done has been dangerous in a long-term way, as far as I know. They aren’t just slaughtering people in the streets, or anything like that. If they were, I promise you we wouldn’t be so patient about all this.”

“I’ll give you a chance, I suppose,” Kaylee said. “But I don’t intend to wait forever. I have a job and a life to get back to, and if everything you say about these people being controlled is true, then waiting too long might hurt them too.”

“It’s possible,” David said. “All I can promise is that we’re doing our best.” David was tempted to mention that we were friends of the Philly Five in an effort to solidify her trust, but I dissuaded him. Kaylee Jameson didn’t seem the type to hero-worship, not even those who had arguably earned it much more than us.

With that done, for now, David picked up a pad and pen we’d purchased while out, and we began to interview the doctor.

I tried not to imagine Kaylee calling the police as soon as she was alone, for the moment.

We took our time talking to Lyle, dutifully noting down everything he could remember, but I could tell that we learned less than David had hoped. Still, I was optimistic that it might amount to something when we got a chance to compare notes with Mary.

After that, we ended up hanging around for most of the day, talking to Kaylee and Lyle more and trying to make certain that they were willing and able to lay low. We got Lyle’s phone number. Kaylee called in to work and managed to get time off to take care of her brother, ostensibly because he was sick, which was lucky; if that hadn’t worked, I suspected she might have called the FBI regardless of what Lyle or David said. When we were sure she was willing to play along, we left the two of them, heading to the train station and riding it back. Lyle was kind enough to pay for our ticket, and we’d traded phone numbers, so now they could call us on the phone we’d gotten from Mary.

By the time we were on the train, it was getting dark, although the sun wasn’t down all the way yet. The ride back was short. David and I didn’t talk, for a change, instead staring out the window as trees and roads went by.

Raquel and Feral met us at the station and asked us about what had happened the previous night; telling the story ate up the better part of an hour, with David and I alternating as we explained. When it was over, Raquel looked impressed.

“Wow,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “It sounds like you guys were pretty sneaky.”

David shook his head. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “We got lucky more than once, too. I’m still not sure why they hadn’t grabbed Lyle before we even got there.”

I assume they wanted to catch Kaylee as well, not knowing how much he might have told her,” I said. “It seems to make the most sense. In any case, I agree that luck played a part, but we did do well, I think, given that last night was our first conflict alone. Humility may be a virtue, but we have good reason to be proud.

Yes,” Feral said, and Raquel nodded her agreement.

“Yeah,” David acknowledged, rolling his shoulders. “I guess we do. I do feel pretty good about it, overall, even if there are things I’d do differently.”

“So what now?” Raquel asked.

“Well, I have notes of everything Lyle told us, and I can always call him if we have follow-up questions or anything,” David said. “I figure we meet with Mary and see if we can figure out where the boss is, or at least Michaels. Talk strategy. Start nailing things down. Oh, I realized – those apartments Tuggey stopped at? I think those must be places where their men stay when they’re not on the clock. The ones who were out last night, or guarding the house where they held Dustin, I mean.”

“That makes sense,” Raquel said, nodding. “That’s probably it.”

David scratched his head. “I think I’m done for tonight, though, if you don’t mind? I got woken up in the middle of the night, and I’m still feeling kind of off, plus I had another one of those damn visions. I’m feeling pretty burned out. I just want to get home and sleep in my own bed, honestly.”

“Sure,” Raquel said. “I’ll let you go. Do you want to tell us about the visions?”

David hesitated for a second.

We probably should,” I said. “I hadn’t considered it before, but if these are some kind of warning of the future, we should make certain we aren’t the only ones who know, just in case something happens to us. I don’t mean telling everyone, but we can trust Raquel and Feral, at least.

Fine,” David said. “I guess you’re right. But you tell it, okay? I’m seriously exhausted.

I could feel the fatigue as well, but presumably it was worse for him. David and Raquel found benches and sat down. At least it wasn’t cold inside the train station.

By the time I finished going through the visions – all of them – in as much detail as I could, it was fully dark out, and artificial lights provided the only illumination. The sky was obscured, with low clouds hiding the stars as I finished the tale, and I wondered if it was going to rain. David had almost dozed off, leaning back against the wall, and I felt the lure of sleep pulling at me as well. I roused David and we said our goodbyes for the night.

As we walked outside, I heard Feral talking to me privately.

What is it like to sleep?” she asked wistfully.

Restful,” I said. “It’s one of those experiences beyond description, I think. As long as we aren’t interrupted by visions, it’s very pleasant. I was a bit frightened the first time, though. I didn’t realize what had happened until I woke up, and it was so unexpected I was afraid we’d been caught by Blitz or something. I still don’t know why it’s started, although I have been noticing some other changes. Physical sensations are a bit more immediate when David is in control, and it didn’t used to be like that. They were more removed, before, almost like the difference between reading a weather report and walking through the rain.

I envy you deeply,” Feral said. “Raquel has been afraid to let me out ever since what happened with Dustin. I’m trying to be patient, but those little tastes of life are…vibrant. I’ve no gift for waiting.

I’m sure time will restore her trust in you,” I said. “The experience was traumatic for her, that much is obvious. I remember how she reacted. Are you coping with it better, now that some time has passed?

I paused to give David a nudge; he’d nearly wandered into traffic in his fatigue, failing to notice when a light changed. A little prodding woke him up enough to be more aware of his surroundings.

I’m more concerned for her than myself,” Feral replied. “If I felt responsible, it might be another matter, but I know I wasn’t. I don’t think I can articulate how it felt – the rage from that night, I mean. I’ve never experienced anything like it, at least not that I can recall. It was incredible, like being swept downriver or caught in hurricane winds. I don’t want to sound callous. I regret the deaths and injuries, of course. But there’s a difference between regretting something and taking responsibility for it. Michaels killed those men when he tried to manipulate us, and as far as I’m concerned they’re another tragedy resulting from the abuse of his powers, something else he needs to be held accountable for.

It felt like her voice was growing a bit fainter, presumably because we were moving farther apart as Raquel and David walked home. I briefly envisioned a map of the city in my mind, placing the train station, and guessed that we wouldn’t move out of range yet. We were headed in roughly the same direction.

I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Undeserved guilt serves no purpose except to hurt people, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t believe you’re a murderer any more than David, Raquel, or myself. But if it does bother you, I hope you’ll tell me.

David walked down the street and I felt the air growing moist, but it still didn’t start to rain; I was certain it would soon, though.

There is something else,” Feral said. “Not about the fight. It’s…about Raquel and myself.

What is it?” I asked.

You can’t tell anyone, Leon,” Feral said.

I won’t,” I promised.

Not even David,” she said.

I can keep a secret, Feral,” I said.

She hesitated. “I don’t…I’ve been feeling trapped, lately. Sharing this body was fine at first, because it was just the only way I existed, but I don’t know if I can live like this forever. It’s not just because of the…trust issues we’ve been having recently. You know I could take over if I wanted to, though we’ve never discussed it much.

Yes, I know,” I said.

Raquel’s recent reluctance to let me out that way is making it worse, but it’s not the problem,” Feral said. “I want my own life. I want my own body, my own existence. My own choices. The longer this lasts, the more I feel the need to exist separately. I’ve caught myself fantasizing about it at night. About just taking over and leaving, going to Europe or Asia, seeing the world. Doing something, anything, that’s just for myself. I don’t think I can be this…parasite forever. Certainly not for Raquel’s whole life. When we finish dealing with Michaels, Mary, their boss…all of this…will you help me find some way to separate from Raquel and survive? She needs me for now, and I can’t walk away from this situation, but I would rather die than live this way until she does. It’s torture, having all of those possibilities within reach but knowing that I can’t take them because the one avenue open to me is betrayal.

Of course I’ll try to help you,” I promised. “Bloodhound and his friend would probably be willing to help, you know. They may have been a bit heavy-handed, when we met her, but given what happened I think that is one problem we could trust them with. If you’re not comfortable with that, though, David would certainly help you, and so will I.

Thank you,” Feral said, “but don’t tell him about it for now. It’s just an unnecessary distraction, until the current problem is resolved. It’s good to say something, though. Being alone with the thoughts was…particularly difficult.

I’m always happy to listen,” I replied.

She said nothing.

Feral?

If there’s no way out, no way to exist on my own…will you help me die?” she asked.

That stopped me short. I had heard what she said only moments earlier, of course, but there was a great distance between saying she couldn’t live connected to Raquel her whole life and saying she wanted to die.

I didn’t feel so trapped. For whatever reason, perhaps my own nature, perhaps the nature of my connection to David, perhaps because his life was more interesting to me than Raquel’s was to Feral, I suddenly knew that our experiences differed far more than I’d ever realized before.

I hope I can talk you out of that,” I said. “But if you decide that it’s what you want, if there’s no other way to free you…yes.

Thank you,” Feral said.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 8

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“Look, I’m sorry,” Lyle said. “I was living on the streets, and I couldn’t think of anyone I could trust. I didn’t know who else to call.”

Kaylee shook her head and punched the dashboard. “God damn you, Lyle,” she said tiredly. “I drove half the night to get to you, then you have me wait, then you have me meet you somewhere new, and now I find out you’re a damn criminal. What happens if they follow us to my house? I don’t have anywhere else to go either!”

“I’ll make it up to you somehow, I promise,” Lyle said. He didn’t sound insincere – quite the opposite – but it was plain that he wasn’t very good at comforting people.

Or apologizing, for that matter,” Leon noted sourly. “He seems lacking in the ‘bedside manner’ department.

“Oh fuck you!” Kaylee said in an exasperated tone, apparently sharing our opinion. “You’re so full of shit. You didn’t even think twice before dragging me into your mess, did you? I’ve spent years fixing things for you but this is just the absolute tops.”

Lyle shrank away from her anger, and for a second I wondered if she would hit him.

It would be kind of ironic if he got beaten up by his sister after we spent all night protecting him,” Leon noted.

I stifled a tired chuckle, camouflaging it as an uncomfortable cough.

The quiet descended again, with Lyle looking out the side window and Kaylee’s head resting on her hands, and after a minute I decided that there was no point sitting on the side of the road wasting gas.

“Look, we’re all tired,” I said. “I doubt we’re going to get anywhere tonight. Let’s find someplace to hole up and then talk about what happened and what to do in the morning. Okay?”

Kaylee looked over her shoulder at me. “You talk a lot of sense for someone stupid enough to help my brother.” She shook her head, then looked at Lyle. “All right. We’ll talk about this in the morning. What do we do for now?”

“I have money,” Lyle said. “If we can just find a motel or something, I’ll pay for it.”

I grabbed his shoulder. “With a card, or cash?”

He blinked at me. “I was going to use a check. Even if they can track it somehow those take time to process. We’re only planning to stay one night, right? It won’t matter. But I have cash if we need it.”

“Al right,” I said.

It didn’t take us too long to find a place to stay, thankfully. If I hadn’t had such an insane night, I would have worried about missing school the next day, but there was just no point. I was too tired to stay awake through classes even if I attended.

I was a bit surprised that the doctor got us each separate rooms, but he didn’t think about it. I guess he wasn’t used to being on the run or conserving money. That made some sense, though. He didn’t seem like the best long-term planner. I wondered what his definition of ‘living on the streets’ had been like.

Regardless, I was happy enough to have a chance to sleep. I pretty much collapsed on the bed, and I was out almost at once.

When I felt the vision start, I was more irritated than anything else.

Did it have to happen tonight? Seriously?” I said. “Fuck this.

David, look!” Leon said.

I pushed my mental fatigue aside and started to pay attention, as he’d urged.

We were sitting in the conference room from before – the one where Charlotte and the other David had been talking to their people – with Charlotte next to us, though I could barely see her in our peripheral vision. Not being able to turn my head was annoying. Several other people were also in the room, sitting around the table, including a long-haired black woman in a wheelchair. She seemed to be the focus of everyone’s attention. Our body didn’t feel significantly different, so I assumed we were inhabiting the same person again – the other David. The room’s lights were dim.

“Watch closely, please,” the woman in the wheelchair instructed. She had a laptop on the table in front of her, and she did something on it. “This is the best we’re going to get, in terms of a debriefing.”

A video started to play on the screen. A man appeared, heavily bandaged and sitting up in a hospital bed. His features looked Hispanic, I thought.

“Take your time, Hector,” someone said off-screen. “Tell me what you can.” The picture wobbled as the voice – female, I guessed – spoke, and I assumed it belonged to the person holding the camera.

The man in the bed drew in a labored breath before speaking. “I don’t know for sure how they found us,” he said hoarsely. “They came after Jimenez, but I don’t know how much they knew. Three people that I saw, plus at least one with a rifle. There could have been more.” He paused to swallow, then coughed. The camera shook as the woman holding it reached over to grab a plastic cup of water and hold it up to let him drink.

Hector took a deep breath before speaking again. “They hit us quick, so they must have figured out our procedures, at least mostly. We were moving Jimenez to the airport – to his private jet. They ambushed us on the way through the city. One of them folded the streets and alleys up – I think it was a spacial effect, some kind of warping. It could have been telekinesis or gravity manipulation, though. Whoever it was, they just folded part of the road up, almost at a ninety degree angle. Caught us between two cross-streets and trapped us there.” He took another sip of water. “We hit the panic button right away. They jammed the phones somehow, but the backup should have destroyed the Jimenez vault by now, unless they raided it while they hit us. We couldn’t get help from the local police, either. Anyway, as soon as they had us trapped two of them came in to get us. One was bulletproof with sonic powers, the other one had regeneration. Whoever did the initial trap separated all three of our vehicles as soon as we stopped, and we started taking fire from above. I think there was more than one shooter, but I could be wrong. I was focusing on the supers. I saw them hit the rear car just as the barricade was going up. The bulletproof one just charged. He didn’t scream or anything – or not so I could hear, anyways – but I saw them cover their ears and blood coming out. The regenerator attacked with him, and then I got hit in the side while we lost sight of the other cars. I went down. Jimenez pulled me back into the car and got in the driver’s seat, and he went into the building – it had glass windows and stuff, so I guess he figured it was worth a shot to drive through it, but it didn’t work. Anyway, I heard the front car returning fire and I could see the enemies ducking. I grabbed Jimenez and we ran into one of the buildings. We got out a window on the other side, I hotwired a car, and we drove like hell. The alarm was going off, but we had bigger problems.”

At the prompting of the camerawoman, Hector took another gulp of water. “Thanks,” he said.

“Anyway, we figured it was too risky to go to the plane. If they knew our route, then they had to know where we were going. We were almost out of the city when they caught up. I don’t know how they tracked us, but they did catch up, and they had a brick too. She just…tore the roof off the car, grabbed Jimenez, and left. The regenerator came after me, but I shot him and he fell out of the car. I did my best to lose pursuit, accidentally totaled the car, then got as lost as I could for two days before I called in for pickup.”

He drank greedily again.

“Thanks, Hector,” the woman said. “Anything else to add?”

Hector nodded. “I didn’t get a good look. But I think the brick had a Waver tattoo. Can’t confirm it, though.”

“Okay,” she said, standing up. “I’ll-”

The video ended and the lights were turned back on. My attention returned to the room and the woman in the wheelchair.

“Hector was the only survivor from the protective detail we assigned to Jimenez,” she said, clasping her hands and leaning her forearms on the table. “The rest of them are confirmed dead. We have no information on the status of Jimenez himself.”

She let that point linger in the air for a moment.

“Some of you know Hector in passing, some of you never met him, and a few know him well. He recruited his team and trained them all – very well, if I may say so – but without supers supporting them, they didn’t have a chance.”

Charlotte, sitting next to me, raised a finger, and the woman turned her head in acknowledgment. “Yes?”

“Under the circumstances, Mrs. Murphy, may I ask what this has to do with us?” Charlotte said.

“You may,” Murphy said. “Raul Jimenez was a fictional identity that I helped to create about ten years ago, when the foundation was just getting started. We were already concerned about the Wave and other elements that seemed to be gathering power, and we wanted to find some sort of counterbalance, something that would even the odds between normal humans and supers. Mr. Jimenez was a friend who shared our convictions, but he had little to contribute in terms of resources. Instead, he agreed to serve as a middle-man, discreetly funneling money into the foundation. Those of us in possession of the kind of wealth required were already in the public eye; for them to do it could have attracted attention to the foundation. With Jimenez as a go-between, we could make the original source of the funds almost impossible to trace, and since no one cared about him he could keep a relatively low profile.”

Murphy took a breath and a sad expression flitted across her face, making a few wrinkles on her forehead stand out.

“We were already concerned that some supers might regard us as a threat to their supremacy and attempt to shut us down one way or another, so we did our best to lay a convincing trail. That was one of the reasons his protective detail was comprised solely of normal humans, in fact; if he had been able to afford mercenary supers, it would have attracted too much attention to him, and he might have run afoul of the US and Mexican governments. That could have exposed the false identity. If we’d recruited supers to guard him for ideological reasons, that could have drawn even more attention.”

Charlotte frowned. “I understand the logic, but I’m still not sure why we’re being briefed on this.”

Murphy planted her palms flat on the table. “Well, now we come to the heart of the matter. Mr. Jimenez was very professional, and did his best to learn as little as possible about the foundation. He had no security clearance, only perfunctory contact with anyone affiliated with us, and generally ensured that he couldn’t and didn’t know our most valuable secrets. For example, he literally can’t tell anyone the locations of our facilities or what we do at each one. He knows my name, but I’m already as far underground as I can get, so that’s irrelevant. But what he does know, that matters, is that he made campaign contributions to New York Congressman Beauregard Raleigh. Jimenez doesn’t know why, because he didn’t need to. Their aides handled the shady meetings, so he lacks any incriminating details, but he knows the name, and that means the Wave probably knows it by now as well. Mr. Raleigh’s office smoothed over some potential issues back when we were building our New York state facility in his district, and that, unfortunately, means that the Wave is a step away from finding our facility there.”

Murphy smiled wanly. “Technically what I’ve told you could get a lot of people in trouble, but given how much else you’ve been trusted with, this is fairly small potatoes. The reason you’re all being briefed is this: research materials from the New York facility are going to be moved here, soon. This facility is still secret, as far as we know, and we’re going to try to keep it that way. If we can’t, it’s more defensible than the New York site. You’ll all have assignments pertaining to the move. We’re clearing out the office and all of our personnel – some of them have been relocated already, in fact. The first shipment of cargo is already on the way here, but it won’t arrive until the day after tomorrow, so there is some time before then.”

“What about the research we’re doing here?” a well-dressed man to my left asked.

“It will continue,” Murphy answered. “We’ll have to share our facilities, and that’s going to be a pain, but the reports from New York are too promising to ignore. It shouldn’t be too bad, though. The work there wasn’t using up a lot of space, and we still have a bit of spare room left here.”

Someone else cleared her throat, and I looked over to see a tall, muscular blonde woman. Her right foot bounced nervously. “Are we getting any help securing this site?”

“Yes, miss Johansdottir, some of the New York security personnel will be coming here,” Murphy said. “It’s not clear yet whether that will be a permanent measure. We depend on secrecy first and foremost, and there are concerns that raising our profile here might defeat the purpose of any security measures we implement.”

Our body asked the next question. “What about the Congressman?”

“The Congressman has federal protection,” Murphy said. “That will have to cover it. His best defense is that he genuinely doesn’t know anything about the foundation, and we are not going to rob him of it. Regardless, that’s not a problem the people in this room are going to solve. Our only concern is keeping this facility secure.”

We nodded, as did several others around the room.

“What about Hector?” Charlotte asked.

“He’s in the most secure facility we can find for him,” Murphy said. “We’re trying to make certain that he wasn’t followed or tracked in any way, but given the security breach that occurred, it’s possible that he’ll need a new name for his everyday life. For now, no one should contact him via external means, but short personal messages can be sent securely, if you want.” She smiled tightly. “It might do his recovery some good. I’ll inform you when the situation changes.”

“Thank you,” Charlotte said.

“Not at all,” Murphy replied. “Now, we’re going to break up into groups. I’ll be discussing facility usage with the researchers. Security personnel will remain here for more specifics on what will be different in the coming days.”

The vision started to end, but instead of waking up I felt another one begin.

Leon, still there?

Yes,” he said. “Why can these things never be consistent?

In terms of length, timing, or anything else, you mean?” I said. “Good question.

When things returned to focus, I almost thought it was the same situation again, but only for a moment. Mrs. Murphy was in the room, but her face looked more lined. Charlotte was still sitting to our right, looking mostly the same at first glance, but Johansdottir was no longer to our left. Instead, her seat was filled by Hector. He looked mostly healed, but his arms were covered in scars and his face wasn’t in much better shape. The other seats were occupied as well, and there was tension in the room.

“Mrs. Murphy,” Hector said quietly, “I believe in our goals, here. But vague principles aren’t going to cut it anymore. We’re dying. We need to know what we’re dying for.”

“And if a telepath sifts it out of your brain while you’re at home, sleeping?” Murphy asked. “What then? Or what if they kidnap and torture you? Not knowing could keep you alive. Knowing definitely won’t make you safer, and it would compromise our security,” she said firmly. “The foundation is losing people and resources. We can’t afford to throw away our secrecy. It’s our greatest asset.”

“Hector’s right,” Charlotte said. “And you need to understand that this isn’t just us saying this. The grunts signed up for the job because of more than money, but we can’t just take your word for it forever. Not when we’ve lost this many people. We need to know that it’s worth it. Otherwise we won’t be able to do our jobs.”

Murphy sighed. “You know no one who knows everything gets to leave,” she said. “I haven’t been off this property in over a year and a half. It’s not because I love this place. I understand that it’s not fair, but you were all told the rules when you signed up, and you agreed.”

“We knew it would be dangerous,” our body said. “We didn’t know we were going to lose a dozen people in a single day.”

Murphy crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “It’s tough all over,” she said bluntly. “I’ve had plenty of friends die for this too, and I wasn’t able to tell many of them what they were dying to protect. Do you think I like that? I don’t. But the rules exist for a reason. No one who knows all our secrets can leave. Not me, not you, not any of your men and women. Not the supers we’ve recruited. Not the researchers, or the technicians, or the janitors. No one.  The risks are unacceptable.”

She doesn’t look like she’s budging,” Leon remarked.

“Not budging?” our body said. “Fine. See if you can find someone else to die for you.”

We started to stand, but Charlotte grabbed our arm and gave us a look, and we sat back down. Then she looked at Murphy.

“Look,” Charlotte said. “This isn’t a hissy fit. This is a morale issue. If you want us and our people to stand firm the next time there’s an attack, we have to know the reason matters. You talk a good game, but that’s not enough anymore. You have to meet us halfway, here.”

Murphy’s lip curled a bit, and she let out a sharp breath.

“The rule is not negotiable,” Murphy said. “If one of you wants to be able to vouch for the research being a good enough cause, I’m willing to brief you in, assuming I get the agreement of the head of research. But if that happens he or she will stay on the property at all times, just as I do. Any attempt to leave the property will result in that person being shot, and if that person tells anyone else what they know that individual will also be restricted to this base. You can think about it first, if you want.”

With that, she left the room.

The three of us sat back and looked at each other, along with the other handful of people in the room. Other squad leaders, possibly? Most had the same combat-ready look, so it seemed likely that they were security people, at least. I didn’t recognize them, although the me in the vision found them familiar.  They probably worked different schedules, if the facility were guarded around the clock.

Hector’s right hand rested on the table, and his fingers drummed on its surface, one at a time from his pinky to his index finger and then repeating. Tap-tap-tap-tap. The sound was distracting in the quiet room.

Charlotte turned in her chair, facing the rest of us. “So, what do you all think? Should one of us try it?”

Hector shook his head. “I don’t think that’s good enough, for one of us to say he saw. We need more than that.”

“Is any of you willing to be confined to this place?” I asked. “Be honest. I’m sure it’s not as bad as it sounds, since we would probably have clearance for one or two more areas, but a cage is a cage.”

“Would it really be that different?” Charlotte asked. “Let’s be straight about this. I haven’t been on vacation for months. Time at my apartment might sound like a good idea, but it’s mostly a hole I sleep in, now. It’s not actually home anymore.” She glanced at us. “Anyway, I want to know. I want to know if this is pie-in-the-sky stuff or if we have an actual chance of lasting long enough to make a difference.”

“I need to think about it,” our body said. “I don’t know. I’d want to at least spend one last weekend in my place, I think. But I’m not deciding either way until I have a chance to sleep on it.”

Hector stopped tapping to scratch his scarred chin. “I don’t want to be stuck in this place, but I think you’re right,” he said, looking at Charlotte. “Not knowing is making me crazy.”

Most of the others agreed, though a few argued. In the end, the group decided to make a decision the next day and the meeting broke up.

The vision lingered a bit longer, and I kept hoping I’d get a chance to see the date, but our body stubbornly refused to pull out a damn calendar.

We may not know when, but it has to be current or recent past,” Leon said, “and we can look up the Congressman, at least. That’s a real lead.

Agreed,” I said. “That might finally give us something concrete to nail all of this down. And we now know that at least some of this stuff is happening in New York, and what we’ve seen probably isn’t too far away. That can’t be coincidence. Proximity is probably at least part of why we’re seeing these visions, or whatever.

I hope you’re right,” Leon said. “If they decide to say yes, I just hope we get to see that conversation, as well.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 7

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Unfortunately for me, the three guys whose car I was stowing away in didn’t start revealing vital information. They didn’t talk to each other at all, in fact. I guess they’d already said whatever they needed to before they got in. Benedetti turned to head east. I asked Leon to do a slow count and let me know how much time was passing, and it was a bit after the four-minute mark that they finally spoke up again. The guy in the passenger seat was checking his phone.

Meanwhile, I was sitting behind the driver, trying to watch all three of them and keep track of where we went while I felt my power slowly being used up, a bit at a time. I only moved to breathe, which kept the drain to a trickle, but in the close confines I felt acutely aware of it. If I ran out of power I’d have to attack them, and that would probably make Benedetti crash the car.

“Left here, then right a block down,” the passenger said. “Then it’s time to get out and search again. The boss said he went into a building?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Benedetti answered. “He knew he was spotted, so he ran inside. But they don’t know if he’s still there. We’re surrounding the block, and we’ll work our way into the middle. He might have backup, too.”

“What kind of backup?” the guy next to me asked. Some perverse part of me was tempted to reveal myself right then, if only because it was such a good prompt, but I restrained it. Other than serving drama and my ego, there wasn’t really anything to gain.

“Not sure,” Benedetti said. “They think it’s the local super types. Probably Flicker, but we might have Heavyweight or Menagerie. Maybe even more than one. We’re only here for the doctor, though.”

The guy next to me shivered and shook his head. “Man, I don’t want to fight those three. I don’t know. Any chance we can get there too late or something?”

The passenger looked over his shoulder. “Quit bitching. They’re ‘good guys’, we’ll be fine.”

I was a little offended by the sarcasm in his voice. I might not be perfect, but I thought I’d been doing pretty well in light of the fact that I was making things up as I went along.

The guy to my right barked a laugh. “Oh yeah, real good guys, definite superheroes. Haven’t you heard about what happened before? They burned down a house with people in it and Feral ate someone’s throat. If I hear a ‘meow’ I’m running the hell away. I don’t care who makes fun of me, nothing’s worth dying.”

“You’re afraid of cats now, Jeff?” the front passenger asked.

“Damn straight,” Jeff said. “You want me to deal with dogs, rats, or people, and I’m fine. You show me a cat and I’m gone. Supers are dangerous. I don’t want to fight ‘em.”

“Relax,” Benedetti said.  “The boss says Heavyweight is the only one who’s bulletproof, and nobody expects us to fight him. Flicker and Menagerie are tough, but not freaky super-tough. The boss says Menagerie’s normal, even if her cat is dangerous, and Flicker isn’t much tougher. Shoot him or zap him a few times and he should go down.”

My skin crawled a bit. It was hard to stay still and silent for this conversation. Fortunately, the car pulled to a stop, next to another. There was one man waiting next to the parked vehicle, and as I looked around I could see two more past him, at the next two street corners. The line seemed to extend in both directions; I assumed that at some point it would turn ninety degrees. From what I saw and heard, it seemed like the bad guys had figured out the doctor’s position and then decided to just surround the area and search inward. I wondered why Tuggey hadn’t done this before, back at the house, but I couldn’t think of a reason. I asked Leon.

Maybe they wanted to get his sister too?” Leon suggested. “They might have been worried that she’d disappear if he didn’t call her, or something. Maybe even file a missing person’s report. I don’t know if anyone has done that already, but it might be a problem for them in terms of keeping this whole mess quiet.

Could be,” I allowed.

Benedetti turned off the car and the three of them started to get out, and it was only then that I realized I might be stuck. Jeff closed his door behind himself immediately, and so did the other two. I couldn’t get out just yet without making my presence obvious.

There was nothing else for it, so I waited. They exchanged a few words that I couldn’t make out as they walked away, and I saw Benedetti pulling out his phone. I looked around again, as best as I could inside the car. Other than the line of men extending to the left and right, I didn’t think anyone was likely to spot me, even if I stood up, fully visible, and started to do jumping jacks. I’d overlooked it in my initial panic, but all of their attention was focused inward, on the square area they had surrounded. I let my invisibility lapse and sank to the floor of the car, waiting for Benedetti’s group to get farther away. After thirty seconds I got up, opened Jeff’s door, got out, and closed it behind me, invisible once again. When I closed it the guy to my right glanced over, but only for a second. I concluded that he had written the noise off as nothing and ran after Benedetti.

Do we have any way to find the doc first?” I asked Leon. “I can’t think of anything. We don’t even have the number for his phone.

No, we don’t,” Leon said. “We should have asked for it, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.

Feels like a rookie mistake,” I said. “Whatever, though. Time to move on.

I followed Benedetti, for starters, walking quickly to catch up. His group passed three more men and entered a building, and I hesitated outside before continuing, heading for the center of the area. If the doctor saw or heard the searchers coming, he’d try to move away from them. He might not realize he was surrounded. Regardless, the most likely gut reaction would be for him to retreat in a direction without people, and that meant the middle, the place that would be searched last.

I was only a few steps past the doorway when I heard a yell and stopped walking, then turned and ran into the building. It had been a corner store, probably selling a little bit of everything. There were remnants – discarded food wrappers, bottles of cleaning fluid, a few papers on the ground, and some empty cardboard boxes on the floor gave the sense that someone had been here recently, even if they were gone now. There was a rank smell coming from one corner. I followed the yells, moving through the shelves and into the back, where I found Benedetti holding a girl – probably a young teenager – by one shoulder while a younger boy crouched behind her, pressed against the wall. The two kids were filthy, wearing layers of torn clothes covered with worn jackets. It looked like they had a nest of sorts in the room, made of miscellaneous cloth and junk. Anything that would trap heat, I supposed.

“Did you see anybody around here? An old white guy in a blue jacket. You see him?” Benedetti demanded.

“C’mon, trash, we know you’d see him if he was here,” Jeff said. “Just tell us if you saw him.”

The girl shook her head, apparently unable or unwilling to speak.

“If we find someone else in this building, I’ll know you lied to me,” Benedetti said. “I don’t like liars. If you saw something, this is your last chance to change your mind without getting a beating, got it?”

The girl shook her head again, and finally spoke. “Nothing. Nobody. Just us.”

Benedetti pulled her to her feet, yanking on her arm to bring her face closer to his own. “You sure, little rat?”

She nodded frantically.

Jeff glared at the boy, and he burrowed into an orange blanket, hiding his face.

Calm down, David,” Leon cautioned. I realized that my fists were clenched, and I had almost lost control of my powers, letting my invisibility drop. I took a slow, deep breath, trying to follow the suggestion.

We’ll settle up with these gentlemen later,” Leon said. “And try to do something for the kids, if we can. But we can only do one thing at a time.

If they hit those kids, we’re taking them out,” I said.

Agreed.

Benedetti only held the girl for a few seconds longer before letting go, roughly dropping her back to the ground. I got out of the doorway and let the three men exit, contemplating how vulnerable they were with their backs turned to me. After a moment’s hesitation, I reached into my pocket and pulled the cash I had out of my wallet. As I followed the three men out I put it down on one of the shelves, weighted down by a few coins.

I still felt shitty for not doing more, but I was in the middle of something time-sensitive. Jeff left last and let the door swing shut behind him, and I managed to get outside after them without making much noise. He glanced back at the door as they left, and looked right through me. I was thankful that all of this was happening at night. I still hadn’t worked out how to compensate for the weird visual effect around my feet that prevented me from becoming perfectly invisible, but at night someone would have to know what they were looking for to see it, and Jeff wasn’t staring at the ground in any case.

They went back inside, re-entering the same building through a different entrance, and this time I stuck to my plan, heading past them toward the center of the area. I took the first good opportunity I got to climb up onto a nice flat roof, scanning in every direction to try to figure out if I was in the middle.

I seemed to have found the center of the area. There were spots of light in every direction, as men in small groups used their flashlights to search indoors and out, but that was the only illumination that I could see. Anyone who wasn’t carrying a light was almost invisible. I didn’t have high regard for the doctor’s ability to hide, though.

They’re still searching, so they obviously haven’t found the doc,” I noted. “Either he was never here, they passed him, or he’s going to get found any minute. I don’t think they’re incompetent enough to gather everyone in one place like this if they weren’t confident that he’s in the area.

I agree,” Leon said. “The doctor is probably close. And since we neither see nor hear commotion, I suggest we descend and search this building. Perhaps he is beneath us right now.

I tried the door that led to the interior of the building, but it was locked. Instead, Leon suggested walking around the rim of the roof and searching for a suitable window. When I got to the third side of the building, I found one that was half-open and half-broken beneath me, on the top floor. I climbed over the lip of the roof and hung by my hands, then used my power to try to reach the window sill with my feet.

I had to scramble a bit, but it worked, and soon enough I was inside. I let my powers rest and recharge again. I’d recharged a bit on the roof, and I let myself remain visible to keep it going. If the doctor was present I didn’t want to surprise him. Either way, I thought I’d need the juice more later than I needed to be hidden now.

I started to make my way through the building, checking each floor and then descending to the next. It was an old apartment building, but it was on the small side, with only four floors and a handful of apartments on each floor.

I found the doctor on the second floor. He ran right past me and I followed him to a window, where he looked down at his pursuers. His left hand rose to his head and he started scratching furiously, clearly panicking. It was only the light from the window that let me recognize his face. I wondered how he’d gotten this far, since he’d failed to notice my footsteps right behind him, but maybe I was getting better at sneaking around than I thought. I walked back to the door and knocked, letting myself become visible.

He jumped, literally, spinning in the air to face me.

“It’s all right, doctor,” I said. “It’s just me. Sorry it took me so long to catch up to you.”

“Oh thank god,” he whispered hoarsely. His right hand clutched at his chest, and he gasped for air, while his left rested on the wall, helping him regain his balance.

“Good to see you again too, doc,” I said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d manage to find you before they did.”

“Please don’t do that,” he said. “My nerves are frayed already.”

I smiled. “Sorry, but there’s no way to become visible that isn’t jarring. And besides, we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

He glanced out the window nervously. “No, I guess we don’t. I don’ suppose you can turn me invisible as well? I don’t know how else to get away from them. I tried to run, but they surrounded me.”

I patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I can’t turn you invisible, but I’m going to get you out of here.”

“I hope that means you do have a way to get me away from these people?” he said hopefully.

“I do,” I said. “All you’ll need to do is be quiet, hopefully. Wait here for a bit – I’ll be right back.”

I backtracked until I found Benedetti’s group. There was another trio right behind them, and others in every direction, but they hadn’t quite reached the center building where the doctor was hiding.

I went past Benedetti’s group, ignoring them and closing in on the trio behind them. There were others searching the other side of the block, and across the street, but none of the groups really seemed to be working that hard to communicate with each other. Despite what I’d overheard, they didn’t seem very concerned about me showing up.

I followed the trio indoors and waited to see if they would split up, but they didn’t. They stayed in sight of each other at all times, and made sure that at least one of them was watching the hallway that led to the entrance, so no one could get past them. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was a reasonable effort at thoroughness.

When do you think?” I asked Leon.

The deepest point into the building,” he suggested. “Not much time, so don’t wait for them to go upstairs. Just let them get away from the entrance.

I took his advice. As soon as the three men were deep enough in the building that I wasn’t worried about being heard, I attacked them. Their backs were all to me and the hallway was just wide enough to fit two people walking side-by-side, so the first man was alone while the other two were slightly ahead of him. I zapped the first guy with my stolen taser and then smacked his head against the wall and let him fall to the ground while I stepped over his body. The other two men were turning, but their reactions felt slow to me. I kicked the leg of the man on the left and he tripped and fell. The second guy, on my right, retreated. I took an extra-long step to catch up to him and zapped him.

Nothing happened. He must have felt the blow, even if the taser didn’t go off, and he reacted by kicking wildly. His foot hit my hip and I lost my balance. I let the taser fall from my hand and it became visible as it struck the ground, but that freed up my hand so I could get a grip on the wall and avoid falling. I leapt backward, shrinking the distance more than I’d meant to as I instinctively retreated, and there was a thump as my back hit the other wall behind me. The man who’d kicked me was freeing his own weapon, and the guy on the ground was reaching for something else.

Leon sent me an urgent nonverbal thought, indicating that the guy on the ground needed to be dealt with immediately. I reacted without thinking, jumping on top of him with both feet and then landing next to him. I kicked him in the face and then kicked his hands, and his cell phone fell on the ground. The other guy lunged at me, left arm sweeping blindly from side to side in an attempt to find me while his right hand held his taser. I stepped back and saw that the guy on the ground was clutching his face and moaning, giving me a moment to deal with his friend, then stepped past them both to get behind them. I kicked the standing guy in the back twice and he fell forward onto his friend. The guy on the ground rolled out of the way, but that took him away from his phone, still on the floor where it had fallen, and the second man’s taser fell from his hands as he tried futilely to catch himself by grabbing at the wall. I picked up the weapon and gave them each a jolt, then grabbed the phone to see if it had dialed.

It hadn’t. I turned it off and looked back at the two men, then stepped over them and left hurriedly. As soon as someone noticed they weren’t moving around anymore, I would be out of time, and I was depending on stealth yet again.

I ran out of the building and into the next one, looking for Benedetti’s group, but they weren’t there. I backtracked again, heading to the building the doctor was in, and found them about to enter it.

The doctor should be on the second floor, still; I decided it would be better to deal with the trio inside, where we were less likely to be seen or heard. When I made my move, they went down a lot easier than the last group; I went through their pockets until I found the car keys. Then I went for the doctor.

Searching for him, they have every advantage,” Leon said. “They have numbers, coordination, and time on their side. All we have is secrecy. We’ll need a distraction.

Not much I can do on that front,” I said.

They’ve left a lot of cars unattended – we must be able to do something with that.

Without keys?

I’m sure we can think of something,” Leon said. “It doesn’t need to do much, just be noticeable. How about it?

Okay, we’ll try,” I said.

I reached the doctor. “Hey, you ready to leave?”

“Are they downstairs?” he asked nervously.

“They didn’t call anyone,” I said. “They’re unconscious. Come on.”

He followed me quietly out the door. I went back the way Benedetti’s group had come. With the other group of three also knocked out, there didn’t seem to be any more men between us and the perimeter, where the cars were parked. I handed the doctor the keys when we got to the edge of the area.

“See that car? If you get a chance, go get in it. If not, wait for me here. I’m going to go cause a little ruckus somewhere else to distract them.”

He stared at me. “No offense, but splitting up didn’t go so well last time. Are you sure this is a good idea?”

I shook my head. “No, but we don’t have a lot of time. I’ll be right back.”

I ran this time, instead of walking quickly. It seemed to strain my invisibility more, and I was down to the last dregs of my power by now, but I didn’t see any other choice. Leon was describing his bare-bones plan as I moved. I ran until I reached the corner where their perimeter turned ninety degrees. Following Leon’s advice, I started slashing tires, heading down the line. The cars all looked used, and most of them weren’t very new models, either. Leon had been hoping we would find one with a nice, loud car alarm, but in the absence of that I just smashed a couple of windows, allowing the nearest thug to hear the noise, then come over and investigate.

Then I zapped him and left him twitching next to the vehicle, heading back the way I’d come. I managed to knock out two more guys before someone raised the alarm, and then they were all struggling to hold their phones, flashlights, and tasers at the same time.

Hey, why do you think they don’t have guns?” I wondered.

They probably don’t know how to use them well,” Leon responded. “Or perhaps their superiors don’t want people to turn up with gunshot wounds. I would think that would attract police attention quickly.

Soon a bunch of guys were coming from the center area to fill in the gap I’d created and figure out the damage. I passed them going the other way, and returned to the doctor. I passed him, heading to Benedetti’s car, and attacked the man standing nearest to it. He collapsed in a heap, and I moved up the line, doing the same thing to two more men, then went in the other direction and repeated my ambush. I felt a bit like the slasher from a horror film, except for the fact that no one was dying. Sneaking up on people in the dark was easier than I’d expected, and a small part of me wanted to hum the theme from Jaws while I crept around.

When I got back to the doctor, he was peering out, clearly weighing his odds.

“Time to go, doc,” I said, walking up to him. I was visible now. I could probably hide for another five minutes, if I didn’t move around, but there was no point anymore; everyone close by should be out cold.

The doctor and I went to Benedetti’s car. He climbed into the backseat while I sat behind the wheel, and I started to drive away. There were shouts, and I saw a man on a phone in the rearview mirror, but he was still raising it to his ear as I turned the corner and drove away. I headed northeast, toward the heart of the city.

“Call your sister,” I said. “Let’s meet up so you can get away from here.”

The drive was uneventful, and we managed to avoid any more run-ins with the bad guys long enough to ditch the borrowed car, meet the doctor’s sister Kaylee, and leave the city limits. Once we got that far, I started to relax.

Then all the adrenaline wore off and I wanted to sleep. It wasn’t light out, but I had a feeling it was going to be all too soon, and my body was feeling a powerful need to crash.

Don’t take it too easy,” Leon said. “Cordoning off that area and searching it would have taken a lot of men, especially on such short notice.

I know, but they can’t be everywhere. Now we just have to figure out how they knew where to go in the first place.

We were making a brief stop in a parking lot, just long enough to plan our next move. I was sitting in the back seat, while Lyle sat in the front next to Kaylee.

“Okay,” I said. “I realize you two may just want me to leave –”

“I’m not in a particular hurry for that to happen, actually,” the doctor said.

“I just want to know what the hell is going on, actually,” Kaylee cut in, her tone acid. “Lyle, I came because you sounded desperate, but that wild story you told me makes no sense! And I don’t think I even want to know why you’re running around with someone who covers his face all the time!”

“He probably saved my life tonight,” Lyle said. He turned to look at me over his shoulder. “Thank you for that, by the way.”

“Saved your life from what?” his sister demanded. “Why on earth would you be in any danger?”

“Ah, well…that is rather a long story,” Lyle said uncomfortably. He adjusted his collar and then began to fidget. “I didn’t know who I was getting involved with at the time, but I, ah, agreed to provide medical services to some people off the books, as it were. The kind of people who don’t want to go to hospitals or be asked questions.”

“You were…doctoring criminals?” she sounded incredulous. “Why in god’s name would you do something so stupid?”

Leon seemed to agree with her attitude.

Lyle scratched his neck. “Well, they paid very well, for one thing. It didn’t seem so bad at first, you know. I just cleaned and stitched up a few people, or made some antibiotic recommendations. And I didn’t have to pay taxes on it at all, and…” he sighed. “I don’t know why, in the end. I didn’t need the money, really. But it was such an opportunity, I couldn’t let it go.”

Kaylee shook her head. “You damned idiot,” she said resignedly. “So what happened? You saw something you weren’t supposed to?”

“Not exactly,” Lyle said. He hung his head. “It was a slow process, you know – took months. But I got more and more involved, until eventually it started to interfere with my normal business. I tried to cut back, but they didn’t like that, and I got stuck. Eventually they started having me watched all the time, never leaving me alone. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t find a chance until now, and then I was stuck in the city with no way to leave it. I knew they’d be watching my car, my house, and my office, and I thought they might keep an eye on the train station and the bus…I didn’t know what else to do, so I called you, Kaylee. If you hadn’t come, they might have caught me tonight.”

“You’re welcome,” Kaylee said sourly. “And are they going to follow me around, now? Am I going to be safe if I go home?”

“I…don’t know,” Lyle said.

“Well that’s just wonderful, isn’t it,” Kaylee said, angry again. “You’re out of the city, but now both of us are stuck with nowhere to go. I’m so glad we can have our lives ruined together, it’s just great! So wonderful to see you again, too, you asshole!”

She glared at him and he looked away. I waited a few seconds to see if either of them had anything else to say.

This is awkward,” Leon remarked.

Not helping,” I chided.

I was making an observation. What do we do now?

I scratched my head and tried to think, and the silence stretched on. The only bright spot my tired mind could pinpoint was the fact that Kaylee didn’t seem to be angry at me at the moment. It wasn’t much of a starting point.
 
 
 
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Slow and Steady 6

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Secrecy was great, but I was feeling the time pressure. I walked to the building next door, which was similar: three stories, probably another mix of residential and commercial space, possibly containing one or more dangerous, maybe-brainwashed guys in service to a super-powered criminal of unknown motives just waiting for me to come along and assault them.

When I looked at it in a sentence that way, it seemed strange.

There wasn’t time to dwell on the weirdness, though. I crept across the grass, invisible and moving as quietly as I could. This building was missing its front door, conveniently enough, so I just walked right in. The first room I found myself in was unoccupied, with a door ahead of me and another to my right. I went to the door on the right first, expecting it to be a dead end, and knelt next to it. I didn’t hear anyone inside, and there wasn’t any light coming from under the door. I hadn’t seen any signs of people through the windows, either.

I took my taser in one hand, yanked the door open, and stepped through, invisible, and then stepped to one side, clearing the doorway just in case.

Nothing. The room was as empty as I’d expected.

My heart was racing anyway. I turned around and left, going to the second door, and repeated the process.

More nothing. No movement, no sounds except when I moved, and no sign that anything other than a few bugs was in here. The stairs were ahead of me, and I walked up to them, looking up, but there were no lights on the higher floors, either.

Another time-related decision: should I check the upstairs to be thorough, or assume this building was clear and move on?

The doctor was almost late already. That might mean that Mary had given me the wrong time or place, that someone else had given her the wrong time or place, or that the doc was running late. Or it might mean that the doctor had already been caught somewhere else, or that he had been struck by lightning on the way here.

If not, though, he could arrive at any moment, and I had no idea how many men might be waiting for him beyond the six I’d already dealt with.

I looked up again, listened to the silence for a moment, and then turned around and left the building. It felt like a stupid risk, but Leon helpfully reminded me that every choice was a gamble of some kind. It was very comforting, and definitely not obnoxious.

Outside the building, I looked around again, trusting my powers to keep me unseen. I was right across the street from the address Mary had given me. I didn’t see any other buildings that looked like particularly good spots to ambush from, or any signs of occupancy.

Time to check around the back of the house,” Leon said.

I started walking that way. Crossing the street made me feel vulnerable, but at least it only took a few steps. Once on the other side, I decided to go ahead and walk right past the front of the house.

I frowned, thinking, as I reached it. “Leon, check me on this. If they want the doc, they’d be smart enough to search the house, right? His whole problem is that he’s alone. That’s why he called for help, I assume. So if you were the doctor, and you weren’t in the house, where would you be?

They might not have searched the house, David,” Leon disagreed. “I imagine Tuggey, like us, arrived here as soon as he could. Without knowing when the doctor plans to arrive, they would find it difficult to search the area without alerting him in time to leave, if he got here first. My guess is that Tuggey is doing what we’re doing and waiting for the doctor or his sister to show up. At that point, he’ll have to come out, if he’s here. The difference is that Tuggey can be confident that he has more than enough force to stop the doctor from escaping, whereas you and I know for a fact we’re too outnumbered to just sit and wait.

I blinked. “Tuggey doesn’t want to warn the doctor, but we do. Why not just go inside? As far as we can tell, those six men were the only ones watching the front of the house. If the doctor’s inside, we can talk to him and try to make a new plan. Maybe even avoid fighting entirely.

If there’s no one else watching the front door, then it’s a good idea,” Leon said, pleased with the notion. “The directness might catch them off guard, as well. But if anyone sees us go in, they’ll likely move on the house at once. If there’s a single spotter we missed…

If we let things play out, the doctor and his sister are pretty much guaranteed to be endangered,” I said. “We’ll have to either intervene immediately or wait, in which case they just might get executed. Let’s go inside.

I turned to the house. It looked old. The roof over the porch was supported by columns, there was a big window in what I assumed was the living room, and the siding was peeling. It was on a hill, with concrete steps leading up to the front door so that it was higher than street level. Before I walked up those steps, I took another look around, scanning the area. Across the street were the two buildings I’d entered. To one side was the larger commercial structure I’d climbed on top of and its parking lot. In the other direction were more houses. I didn’t see anyone. I hoped the houses on either side of the address I’d been given were empty, although it was possible the doctor – or people looking for him – were waiting in either of them, too. If this house was empty I’d search them next.

Before I could chicken out, I went up the steps and opened the front door as quietly as I could. There was space for a screen door, but it was missing. The main door was intact, but not locked. It looked like it couldn’t lock, in fact. The part of the mechanism that actually extended from the door into the wall was missing.

I managed not to make too much noise, but the wooden floor creaked when I set foot inside. I debated turning myself visible in the hopes of appearing less threatening to the doctor, since I would need to convince him to trust me, but decided against it. I still didn’t know whether he was in here; Tuggey’s men might be waiting for me instead. Granted, if I was the doctor I didn’t think I’d have come to the house, but I knew that people were hunting for him here and it was hard to forget that. He might not have any idea.

I moved around the house quietly. My eyes were adjusted to the dark, but even in this crappy, mostly-abandoned part of the city there were occasional street lights, so it took a bit for me to adapt to the dimmer conditions indoors. The living room was a bit brighter, with light coming in through the window; no one was there. The kitchen and dining room were empty, too, and so was the first-floor bathroom. I passed the stairs, heading both directions. There was one more ground floor room, but its door was closed. I took a deep breath and opened it, half-expecting to see the doctor crouching inside, desperately brandishing a knife.

I found someone, but he wasn’t cowering fearfully, teetering on the edge of a fight-or-flight response. Instead, he was snoring softly, legs stretched out on the ground as he leaned back against the wall. His head lolled to one side, half-supported by a wadded-up shirt or something on his shoulder. He had his hands stuck in his armpits inside his jacket, probably to keep them warm. The room was dimly lit by a lantern-style flashlight, and my eyes had to adjust again; the meager light seemed startlingly bright after all the creeping around I’d done. The flashlight was on the floor to one side. Next to it, I saw a paper shopping bag. I leaned over to peek and saw a half-eaten sandwich wrapped in paper and a flip phone on top of some other stuff, maybe clothes.

Well, I guess he doesn’t know anyone else is here,” Leon said. “Either he’s expecting a call when his ride arrives, or he fell asleep unintentionally.

We debated how to wake him up for a minute, trying to figure out the best way to avoid screaming, and eventually I gave up and knocked on the inside of the door.

He snored louder.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I said. “Isn’t this guy on the run and afraid for his life?

I knocked again, louder.

He cut off mid-snore, his head shifted a bit, and then he started again.

I shook my head in disbelief, stifled a laugh, reached down, grabbed his shoulder, and gave him a shake. I winced when his head banged against the wall. That was accidental.

That woke him up, finally. I let go of him at once, and he took a moment to get his bearings before he noticed me. When he did, he scrambled away, knocking over his bag and flashlight.

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m not here to hurt you or take you back.”

He stumbled and fell. I let him, figuring that coming closer would just scare him more, even if all I did was help him stand up.

“Listen to me, all right? I’m not one of the bad guys. I’m Flicker. If you keep up with local news, you know which side I’m on.”

He gained his feet, holding the flashlight in one hand and peering at me. “I saw Flicker before. Stay back!”

I sighed a bit. I wasn’t going to do anything to the guy, but did he really think he could stop me if I had wanted to? It wasn’t insulting so much as irritatingly stupid.

“I found you here asleep,” I pointed out. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead. If I wanted to capture you, you would have woken up in the back of a car or something, probably tied up. I’m here to help you. Or if you want more honesty, I’m here hoping we can help each other. Okay?”

The doctor licked his lips nervously, bringing his lantern up higher, and I got a better look at his face. He had a small, unkempt beard, and dark circles under his eyes. Presumably he got a better look at my mask.

“I don’t think I trust you,” he said. “How did you find me?”

“I’m not the only one looking for you,” I said. “Your…former employer got this address somehow. I don’t know how. I’ve been trying to learn more about the people you were working for, and I found the address through them. From what I heard, they’re expecting your sister to come and get you sometime soon, here. I’m assuming you wanted to get out of town. I don’t blame you for that. But it’s not safe here. There were some thugs waiting nearby – I knocked them out, but they could wake up, and there might be more. So I suggest you grab your stuff and we move someplace else. If you need to, you can call your ride. Okay?”

He hesitated again. “Show me your face!” he demanded shakily.

I sighed. “That’s not happening,” I said. “Even if I did, you don’t know what Flicker’s face looks like, so it wouldn’t prove anything. Now, I know you’re scared, and I know you just woke up, but try to think, man. I found you somehow. You know that for sure. You also know I’m not hurting you, and I don’t have a bunch of other guys here to grab you and take you away. All I’m trying to get you to do is go someplace else, where there aren’t people waiting to pick you up. All right? Me being here is proof that you’ve been found. The only way to prove that the bad guys found you too is to wait to get caught, and I don’t think you want that. Meet me halfway, here.”

Good,” Leon said. “He’s calming down already.

“Well…how do I know you aren’t trying to trick me?” the doctor asked.

“You don’t know for sure,” I said, “but as I already said, there’s absolutely no reason for me to. I found you without tricks. I don’t need to trick you. I need your cooperation, but only so I can save your ass. Now, can we please go?”

He blinked quickly. “I…all right, I guess. What do we do?”

Leon and I had given some thought to that question. We lacked long-term answers, but had a few short-term ones, at least. “First, call your sister. Tell her not to come here, that you had to go someplace else. How much does she know?”

“I told her that I got caught up in something bad, and people are chasing after me, and I told her that I needed help getting out of town,” he said. “I’m afraid to take a train, bus, or cab, and I know they must be watching my home. And I told her I was scared to call the police, because I think they get information from inside the department.”

I felt my eyes widen at that. “Is that true? How do you know?”

“I’m not sure,” the doctor admitted. “But I won’t risk it. You haven’t called them, have you?”

“No, I haven’t,” I promised. “I came here alone. The only person I told was Menagerie, and she couldn’t get here in time to help, it seems. No one else knows I’m here.”

“Good,” he said with relief. “Good. So…”

“Call your sister,” I reminded him. “I’m certain they’re waiting for her to get here. She seems to be running a bit late, but that’s good for us.”

“Okay,” he said. “Right.” He rubbed at his eyes, then looked around for a moment before he spotted his phone and picked it up. It looked brand new. I wondered if he’d gotten it after running away, perhaps afraid that his normal one could be traced somehow? He seemed like a nervous guy. But then again, he had good reasons to be afraid.

“I’m going to look out the windows and make sure no one’s coming,” I said. “As soon as you’re off the phone, we’re leaving.”

The phone was dialing when I got to the door and opened it. I took a quick glance back, having second thoughts about leaving the doctor alone. There weren’t any doors that led out of the building in that room, only the one I was leaving through. The windows were all closed, too, so if the doctor freaked out and tried to run from me, I should hear his ill-advised escape. I turned invisible whenever I was in front of a window, looking out, but I didn’t see any signs of movement around the house, and I didn’t hear anyone moving around except myself. When I looked out the front, toward the buildings I’d checked out earlier, I didn’t see any signs of light or people entering or leaving, so I was hopeful that the six men I’d dealt with were still out of action. I circled back to the doc, and he was hanging up.

“I don’t know where to meet her, now,” he said. “I told her I’d call again in a bit. Now what?”

I tried to project confidence. “Now we walk out the front door and leave. We’re heading generally south, and I’m going to get you away from here in one piece. If anything goes wrong, you’re going to run like hell while I deal with it. Cool?”

“But where do I go?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Where have you been staying?”

“The streets,” the doctor said, disgusted. “I kept feeling like they would spot me if I went to a hotel or something, or used a credit card. I got some money out of an ATM, but since then I’ve just been trying to avoid attention until my sister could come.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He grimaced. “It could be worse. I could have been caught.”

“True,” I agreed. I thought for a minute. “Leon, any ideas? I don’t know any place for this guy to hide, not if he’s avoiding the police and the bad guys.

We don’t have anything that qualifies as a safehouse,” Leon said. “One of many things to put on the wish list for what to buy if we ever become obscenely rich and don’t know what to do with all of our money, I suppose. In the meantime, I’d suggest picking a random landmark as a place to meet if we get separated. There’s that church just off campus, with the pretty windows. How about that?

It was better than nothing. The doctor agreed.

“Just so we’re clear,” I said. “I’m hoping you’ll tell me what you can about these people once we’re away, but I’ll help you regardless. Now, I’m going to go outside first. Give me half a minute. If nothing happens, follow me. If something happens, go in the opposite direction from trouble and then head south to the church. Got it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Thank you…Flicker.”

I smiled. “You’re welcome, doc. Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”

“It’s Jameson,” he said. “Doctor Lyle Jameson.”

“Well, good luck,” I said. “See you shortly.”

I opened the front door again and went outside. This time I let myself be visible. It was a risk, but I was pretty confident that no one was in a position to shoot me. And if they were, I really needed to know now, before the not-regenerating doctor came into the line of fire with me. The only thing I really feared was a headshot, and that was a pretty far-out possibility. I wasn’t an expert, but I knew enough to know that professionals rarely shoot for the head, and amateurs are unlikely to hit it.

You know, escort missions are widely regarded as the worst,” Leon said.

I stifled a laugh. “Really not a great time to distract me, Leon. Even if you’re completely right. Besides, I think the doctor is smart enough that he won’t get hung up on a wall or forget to run away if someone shoots at him.

No, we’re the only ones dumb enough for that tonight,” he agreed.

I was in the middle of the street, at that point, looking around.

The doctor was punctual. I had just about counted to thirty when he followed me outside. I waved one hand for him to follow me and started walking south. I could see three parallel streets running north-south from there. I picked the smallest one and we left the intersection. I took a brief side-trip to peek into the building where I’d left six men unconscious earlier, and they were all still there.

When we got a block away, I let myself start to feel good about how the night was going. I’d found the doctor, avoided the ambush, dealt with six guys on my own, kept his sister from driving into the trap blind, and now we were getting away and my powers were recharging steadily. All in all, the night was a big success so far.

I didn’t hear the sound of a car starting up until a few seconds later.

I looked around to spot the source of the noise, and saw the headlights shining out of an alley we’d just passed, behind us and to the right. I turned to the doctor. “Run. I’ll catch up with you.”

He started to answer, but I ignored it. I was busy sprinting toward the car and turning invisible. They’d clearly seen us walk past them, but they couldn’t see me at that moment.

The car pulled out of the alley, turning onto the street. I reached it just as it finished the turn, and pulled out the knife I’d confiscated earlier. I’d kept it in its sheath and put that in my pocket, and it seemed like the right tool for this job. I took a long step forward and stabbed the front right-side tire on the car, pulling the blade free, then took another step and slashed the rear one too. I heard the hiss of escaping air for a second, and the tires deflated quickly – I’d cut long slashes, so there wasn’t much chance for them to hold together. The right side of the car dropped, scraping the street, and it only took a few seconds for the people inside to notice and react.

Speaking of the people inside, I stepped back and tried to get a good look at them. The lighting wasn’t great for that, and I had to walk forward quickly to catch up to the car as it slid forward a bit before stopping. The car’s headlights had shined right into my eyes only seconds before, and I was squinting as I looked in. I glanced back the way I’d come and saw the doctor’s retreating back leave the area illuminated by the headlights, and returned my full attention to the vehicle.

There were three people inside the car: two in front, and one in the back. The one in the back was talking on a cell phone, and all three of them were looking around, probably trying to spot me. The guy in the passenger seat was cursing, while the one next to him told him to shut up. Leon noted that all three of them were apparently white, but I ignored that for now.

I didn’t want them regrouping, but they were mostly doing what I wanted, i.e. not pursuing the doctor, so I wasn’t sure what to do.

The front passenger started to open his door, and I guessed he would continue the chase on foot. I waited for him to start climbing out and kicked the door hard, slamming it on his shin. He yelled, clutching at the leg instinctively, and I did it again, this time smacking his forehead with the window and knocking him back onto the driver, getting them tangled in each other’s limbs – it looked like the driver had been unbuckling his seat belt, making the tangle worse, which was nice for me. I turned my attention to the man in the backseat and used the handle of my new knife to smash in the window, sending shards of glass all over the backseat. The guy with the phone recoiled, scrambling to the other end of the car and babbling incoherently into the phone.

I thought fast and ran around to the other side of the car, slashing the other two tires to make sure it wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. I looked around and found a brick on the ground, ran up and threw it into the windshield. It didn’t shatter but cracks spread across it quickly; no one could drive with that kind of hampered visibility.

I turned and ran, using my powers to speed up again. This car was out of it, and the three guys inside were scared, but they had seen which way we were going. I figured the man on the cell phone must have called his bosses, and if that was true then more cars were probably on the way. I needed to catch up to the doctor.

I was tempted to climb up to the rooftops so I could look down on the streets and alleys from above, but the buildings in the area were too irregular in height, and too far apart in some places. I’d end up climbing up and down repeatedly, and I’d lose time, so the vantage point wouldn’t be worth it. Instead, I just jogged after the doctor, hoping he was still going in the right direction. I let my invisibility lapse as soon as I was away from the car I’d ambushed, to save energy for later.

After three blocks, I figured something had gone wrong. The doctor had a head start, but not that much of one. Either I’d gone past him, or he’d lost his way, or something. It occurred to me that with only a flip-phone, he might not even be able to access a map if he got lost – a stupid oversight on my part.

Recriminations waste time,” Leon said. “Focus. What’s the next move?

I turned in a circle, looking and listening, but there were no signs of movement.

With no better ideas, I ran to the tallest building nearby. The door was locked, but there was a fire escape around the side. Reaching the ladder despite the fact that it was up was no problem. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could, only realizing as I went that I couldn’t remember using my power on stairs before – might it work differently than on flat surfaces somehow?

Apparently not. I took each flight in only a few steps, and soon I was at the top of the building. I’d tried to pick one that would give me visibility in every direction and be about in the middle of the southward path the doctor and I had been following, so if he only veered a little off course I would see him. Or so I hoped.

I looked around frantically for a minute, but I didn’t see anything useful. When I tried to look back at the car I’d dealt with, pulling out my binoculars for a better look, I couldn’t get a good angle, though I thought I spotted the headlights.

I’m stuck,” I said. “Do we pick a direction and go, or what?

Check your phone, just in case we have a chance at reinforcements.

I did, but there was nothing.

No go. Raquel and Feral must be sound asleep.

Leon and I hesitated.

He sighed. “We’re just putting off the potential mistake. Time to bite the bullet and pick a direction.

Okay,” I said. “Last we saw, he was running from the car. We were on the right side of the road, and he looked like he was going to the left. Let’s figure he probably kept going that way.

We re-oriented, looking south and east, then climbed down quickly. A straight shot east seemed like the way to start, so I went that way, crossing streets. After going over two streets, I climbed again, looking around for second time.

I didn’t see anything to the north, west, or east. I turned south.

Is that something?” I asked Leon, reaching for my binoculars again.

Maybe,” he said.

I was looking at a patch of light; as I watched it started moving, splitting into three. With my binoculars, I got a better look.

Looks like three men with flashlights, looking for something,” Leon said. “I think that’s more hunters. Do we meet them, or keep looking for the prey?

I felt like the whole night had been nothing but a procession of choices, all made with incomplete information and the knowledge that lives might be at stake. It was starting to wear on me. I didn’t answer Leon at first, instead looking around for any other signs of movement and life.

I gave up after a minute, heading toward the place where I knew the enemy was. It took me a few minutes to catch up to them. The trio was searching buildings one at a time, with one person staying outside to watch the entrance while the other two went in.

What about the back door?” Leon asked. “Some of these places must have back doors.

Either they’re ignoring it, or there’s a fourth guy around back,” I said. “It’s not like they can watch every window at once anyway. My guess is that they’re trying to spook him into running more than anything else.

Could be,” Leon acknowledged.

Two of the men went into the next building, the third keeping watch. I went around them and headed to their car.

It definitely wasn’t a new vehicle. I’d been too busy to notice much about the car the last trio had been driving except for where its tires were, but now I had the luxury of time and I felt able to observe and think. The car wasn’t rusty, but it had some dents and dings, and the paint was peeling in a few places. The windows and windshield weren’t clean, but they were intact, and they didn’t look like they would make it a lot harder to see. Overall, the vehicle looked used but fully functional. I had to turn on my flashlight to see whether or not the doors were locked.

The two front doors were, but one of the back doors was not, and I thanked my luck for other people’s laziness. I quickly searched the car for anything useful, checking the seats, the floor, the glove compartment, and the trunk. I didn’t find anything that mattered, though: just a used gum wrapper and a pack of cigarettes. With that done, I went back to the three men. They were just moving on to the next building when I caught up to them.

I was tempted to try to take them out, but that wouldn’t get me anything. If I was lucky, though, leaving them alone could help me.

I followed them as they searched three more buildings, and started to wonder if I should just head for the church. If the doctor had gotten away cleanly, he might be waiting for me there, and in that case I could actually be putting him in danger and wasting time.

Or he might have met up with his sister and simply left,” Leon said. “Although that would be a partial victory, at least.

I kept following them, staying back and staying quiet. One advantage of the approach was that my powers were recharging, since I wasn’t using them at all. The three guys weren’t looking behind themselves, and I gambled on their laziness to help me hide. So far it was working.

Finally, they got a call. I was frustrated that I couldn’t hear the other end, but I got close enough to hear the door guard talking.

“Yeah, Benedetti.”

“Where to?”

“Okay boss. We’ll be back to the car in a minute.”

I turned and sprinted to the car. Benedetti would need a minute to gather his two friends. I was thinking my options through as I ran. Should I slash the tires and go? Ambush them when they got into the car? There was definitely a window of vulnerability there. But that would only deal with this group, not the overall problem.

When they got back to the car, Benedetti unlocked the doors, and I held my breath to see if my idea would work. The three of them walked to their doors: two guys to the front and one to the back door on the right side.

I couldn’t help smiling. The guy who sat in the back had told me which seat he used by leaving his door unlocked, and not one of them noticed that the fourth seat in their car was occupied by an invisible passenger.

Benedetti started the car and pulled out of the alley, and I waited, invisible and breathing quietly, to find out where we were going. I just had to hope the guy next to me didn’t decide to stretch out his legs.
 
 
 
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