Tag Archives: Mary Wade

Who Pays the Piper? 3

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

“Flicker?” he said.

“Yes, doctor,” I said. “What’s up?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Flicker?” Lyle said.

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

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

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

“Sure,” Lyle said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely,” I agreed.

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

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

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

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

That would make sense,” Leon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dangerous how?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon, what do you think?” I asked.

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

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

“What happened?” she asked.

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

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

“Does the boss suspect you?” I asked.

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

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

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

The bad feeling in my gut got worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary nodded, and Leon silently agreed.

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Mary said.

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

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

Yes, we will,” Leon agreed.
 
 
 
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Who Pays the Piper? 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon, what do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was waiting right where I’d left her.

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

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

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

Raquel kept smiling. “Pretty much, yeah.”

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

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

Raquel shrugged. “I guess so, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Damn,” Raquel said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Mary asked.

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

“Yeah, why?” Mary asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” Mary said.

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

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

“What are you thinking?” I asked.

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

“I’m not sure about that,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, shit!” Menagerie exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure.”

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?” I prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, it was really nice to have him around.

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

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

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

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

“No problem,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” Mary said.

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

Menagerie leaned back, folding her arms across her chest, and I leaned on my elbows as we started to hash things out.
 
 
 
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You Can Choose Your Friends 2

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Raquel and I were bundled in our coats, trying to stay warm while we waited outside. It was after five o’clock, and that meant it was already dark out, this late in the year. My butt got cold after I sat down on the roof of the Nautical Museum, and I doubted Raquel was any more comfortable on the concrete steps. It had been a relatively convenient neutral place to meet before, so we used it again, and now we were regretting it. The wind had picked up, and it made standing or sitting in the open brutally cold.

Fortunately, Mary’s car pulled up on schedule. Feral walked over and confirmed that Mary was the only one in it, and I came down from the roof, joining Raquel. We walked over and climbed in. I took the front passenger seat, while Raquel sat in the back.

“Mary,” I said. It was about the best greeting I could manage. My nose was freezing, and I sniffled as I settled gratefully into the car. Raquel just settled into the backseat, letting Feral climb onto her lap. I took off my gloves and put my hands in front of the air vents, pleased to feel warm air coming out.

“Flicker, Menagerie,” Mary said. She spoke absently, her attention on the road and her mirrors as she pulled out and started driving.

“So, what did you learn?” Mary asked once we were settled in.

“Not as much as I hoped, but there were some useful tidbits,” I said. “Lyle didn’t do his illegal work in his office. They set up a place for him, and stored drugs and supplies at a storage facility – the same one we first saw him at, actually, Menagerie. Apparently the boss or someone working for him owns the place. They keep illegal stuff there, and the staff all know not to pay much attention, I guess. Some of the space is just rented to normal people, of course, but some of the storage space holds medical supplies, guns, and all the other things people need to commit crimes. He told me where his workspace was, too. They might have cleared out by now, but it’s worth taking a look, I think.”

“Probably, yeah,” Mary said. “After you guys found Michaels at his house, they ended up arranging for it to get sold, so they might have done that again. Either way, we might be able to find out who used to own it. If we’re lucky, that could give us an address for the boss. I still haven’t been able to figure out where he lives.”

“Have you seen him in person recently?” Menagerie asked.

“Yes,” Mary said. “He’s…angry, definitely, but I don’t know if he’s so worried anymore. It’s weird. I’d expect him to be more worried over Lyle getting away, but even though he’s pissed at Tuggey he just isn’t acting very concerned about anything. After you guys got Dustin away he was on edge, but it’s like something took the pressure off.”

I blinked. “That doesn’t sound good for us. Has anything else happened that you can think of? Anything that might explain him getting less worried?”

Mary shook her head, but kept her eyes ahead, watching the road. “No, nothing. I can’t explain it. But for now I’m glad, since it means he isn’t making things more difficult for me right now.”

Menagerie broke in. “About that – your new assignment, I mean – did he give you a deadline or anything? Do you have much to go on to find us, officially?”

“No, no deadline,” Mary said. “And he hasn’t given me much to work with, either. Basically, he said he’s sick of you guys getting away from us. He wants me to find you, somehow, and bring you down. He said he wants Flicker alive if I can get you, and Heavyweight, but he told me to kill Menagerie. Said you’re too much trouble. So if we get into any impromptu confrontations, and only one of you can escape, it should be Menagerie. If I capture Flicker or Heavyweight, well, you guys will have a chance to get away. If Menagerie gets caught, I’ll have to blow my cover to help her, unless I can manage to just look incompetent. Either way, it will probably mean that I’ll have less access to information, so try to lay low. I’ll warn you if any emergencies come up, but unless you have to do something it would be good if you guys just…lived your regular lives for a little while. I’m going to try asking the boss for help bringing you in. If we’re lucky, he’ll give me a better idea of just how much muscle he’s got available in terms of powers.”

“Any idea why he thinks I’m too dangerous?” Raquel asked.

Mary hesitated. “I’ve got a pretty clear idea, yeah. He brought in Michaels and the three of us were talking tactics, going over the times his people have gone up against you guys. Tuggey fought Flicker, before, and we all saw Heavyweight and Menagerie in action. Basically, the boss thinks that if we catch you, Flicker, we can hold you as long as we need to. Heavyweight is trickier, since he’s so strong, but Michaels said he didn’t think Heavyweight was immune to him like you two are; he didn’t really try to affect him at the house because things had already gone wrong when he tried to use his powers on Feral, but he said Feral and Flicker kind of felt the same. Heavyweight felt normal. Anyway, I think that’s why. The boss figures Michaels can flip Heavyweight, and we can hold Flicker if he wants to, but he doesn’t think he can hold you, Menagerie. So he wants you dead.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Menagerie cock her head.

Well, that’s a twisted sort of compliment, I suppose,” Feral commented. “It actually sounds like he’s afraid of us.

A compliment I’m happy to do without,” Leon said.

“I wish he sounded less on top of things,” I said.

“Sorry,” Mary said. “I know no one likes getting bad news. But better you know what the story is than not.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, so the boss – do you have a name for him yet, by the way? Something besides ‘the boss’ that we can call him?”

“Nope, sorry,” Mary said.

“Okay, whatever,” I said. “So the boss put you in charge of dealing with the three of us, which means capturing me and Heavyweight if possible and killing Menagerie. You’ve got men with tasers and guns, I’m assuming. How are you supposed to find us? And are any of the other people with powers working with you? Are Michaels and Tuggey in on this?”

“Tuggey is. And he doesn’t like doing what I tell him, which is the only fun part of this whole mess,” Mary said. “Michaels isn’t taking orders from me, exactly, but I’m kind of working with him, since I’m supposed to bring Heavyweight to him if I can catch him. That’s it for now. Like I said, I’m planning to ask for help. As far as supers go, I think he keeps Walker – the golf course guy – somewhere else, but I’m not sure where. I don’t know what he’s had him doing. He might send me Davis, the telekinetic I broke out of jail. I’m hoping he’ll send me someone I haven’t seen, and then we’ll learn what their powers are. If we’re really lucky, he’ll give me a choice, or at least let slip how many other supers he’s got.”

“What about finding us?” Menagerie asked.

“That’s the tricky part,” Mary said. “He doesn’t have a plan for that, as far as I can tell. I’m supposed to figure it out on my own. To be blunt, I have no idea what to do about that. I mean, whenever I try to think of a convincing plan that will make it look like I’m trying, I remember that I can call you up on the damn phone.” She snorted. “It makes it hard to think like a bad guy. And it’s especially tricky because I don’t want to come up with a plan that’s too good by accident, and then have it actually work. I feel like I’m trying to hit a really small bull’s-eye on this one, making it look good without winning or making a big splash that gets official police attention. Can you guys brainstorm? Come up with some ideas? Anything I can do that sounds good and looks good but won’t work, I’ll take.”

“Huh,” I said. “Okay, give us a minute to think.”

Leon gave me a gentle reminder.

“While we do that, do you know if the boss has an in with the police?” I asked. “Lyle said he was worried about that, that it was part of the reason he didn’t go to them for help. I’m not sure if it was true, really, since he also admitted that he didn’t call the FBI because he didn’t want to get put in prison for the shit he’s done.”

“As far as I know, he doesn’t, but I doubt he’d tell me,” Mary said. “That’s pretty vague, though. I mean, maybe he bribes someone for information, but doesn’t have any leverage or anything? There’s a lot of room between totally corrupt and completely honest. And he could always bribe some clerk without dealing with an actual cop, too.”

“Okay,” I said.

We rode in silence for a minute or two, thinking. Mary was taking us on a meandering route through the city, driving slowly. We weren’t actually trying to get anywhere.

“Here’s a thought,” I said. “We’ve showed up twice at places where Michaels’ was, and that’s got to look suspicious. If you assigned Tuggey to stay close to him and look for signs that he’s being followed, then that might get both of them out of your hair, at least temporarily. That could also make it more convincing when you ask for more muscle, if the two of them are already busy.”

“Nice,” Mary said, nodding. “I think I’ll try that. As long as you guys stay away from them, it will keep Tuggey busy without actually making any kind of difference, and if Michaels is laying low or running around playing bait then he shouldn’t be doing much damage. It’s a nice little time-waster.”

“I’m pretty happy with the idea,” I said. I chewed on my lip as I tried to put myself in the bad guys’ shoes. How would I organize a search for myself?

Leon, any ideas?” I asked.

Nothing useful, yet,” Leon said. “Given the lack of information they have about us, cornering us is difficult, and we don’t really want to change that. Because we’ve managed to maintain secrecy, the only real option is to lure us in, somehow, and hope we hear about it. Maybe Mary could find some way to leak information publicly…something that wouldn’t mean much to most people, but which we might recognize? That would allow her to set up a trap. We wouldn’t even need to show up, necessarily, if the point is just for her to look busy.

I passed that suggestion on, but I could tell that Mary wasn’t thrilled by it.

“It’s not a bad idea, but I just don’t think it’s going to cut it,” she said. “It’s worth a try, though. I’ll try to think of some reasonable bait. If you guys have any other suggestions, let me know. You never finished telling us what Lyle had to say, though – was there anything else useful?”

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “He was a bit hard to pin down at first. I had to play to his gratitude to really get him talking, although he was spooked enough that I don’t think he was holding back. Probably trying to paint himself as more of a victim and less of a co-conspirator than he really was, you know, but he wants the boss finished. Did you ever work with him or anything?”

“Not really,” Mary said. “I knew about him, but that was about it. Tuggey was mostly in charge of leaning on him, as far as I know.”

That reminded me of another question. “Do you have any idea why the boss didn’t have Michaels work on the doc? Or Tuggey, or you? I mean, I remember what you said before, that he maybe didn’t want Michaels to have influence over everyone. That makes sense. But it would have kept the doctor in line, and I can’t see any reason not to do it to him.”

Mary was taking a left turn, and she didn’t answer until it was done. “No idea,” she said.

I have a thought on that score, actually,” Leon said. “Aside from the concerns over giving Michaels too much power, I find myself wondering if Michael’s power might have side effects. All of those who he’s used it on have been people with little or no authority. What if too much control makes it more difficult for them to take initiative in other ways, as well as preventing them from rebelling?

Do you really think it could work that way?” I asked. “That seems like a pretty big weakness to me.

Consider what we’ve seen from the men that Tuggey and Michaels use as muscle,” Leon said. “They don’t seem stupid, precisely, but they aren’t particularly imaginative. When we retrieved Lyle, they were searching in an effective way, but it was also slow and plodding, relying on superior numbers. Having that many men mobilized was risky.

I didn’t think Benedetti or the others were dumb,” I said. “Searching has to be methodical. There’s only so much you can do to search better.

It is just an idea, but I find it telling that the only people we know haven’t been affected by Michaels are the boss himself, Mary, Tuggey, and the doctor. The doctor needed his complex skills intact, and he was controlled by greed and fear. Mary has said that she is similarly controlled by fear. Tuggey doesn’t seem to have a problem with his work, that we know of, though there’s no way to be certain, but Tuggey and Mary are both in possession of powers, making it risky to let Michaels control them, and both are in positions of authority over others. I don’t think that’s all a coincidence.

Maybe,” I said. “We do know that his power didn’t work like he meant it to against Feral and Menagerie, so it might be complicated in other ways too, I guess.

I shared the theory with the others. Mary seemed to think it might be right, but I was still skeptical.

“I think the boss is just using you all as checks and balances against each other,” I said. “I don’t think we should assume there’s more to it than that.”

“Maybe not,” Mary said. “Still, it’s worth keeping in mind. Anything else from Lyle?”

“Not really,” I said. “It seems like his work mostly came to him.”

Menagerie cleared her throat. “What about you, Mary? What else can you tell us? Any other places to look into? Anything else you’ve learned?”

“A few things, yeah,” Mary said. “I think I’ve got a pretty solid list, now, of the people at BPSC who know about the illegal stuff, and a pretty good idea of how much they all know. Not one hundred percent, but I’m pretty close. The money people definitely don’t know that much, like I thought. So there’s that. There are a few other businesses that I think are indirectly connected. I think the boss owns them, or other people own them for him. I found out about a pawn shop, a bar, a car wash, and one or two more, but they aren’t really important, I don’t think. Still, it could help later. If I play my cards right, I think I’ll be able to find him, and that’s the most important thing. If we could take down the boss and Michaels, I think we’d be past the two big obstacles.”

“Sounds good,” I said. “Let’s trade details, make sure we each have all of the information just in case something goes wrong. Then I think we should split. Don’t want to spend too much time together and get spotted.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mary said. “I mean, I’m not ignoring the chance, but I think we’ll be all right.”

“Cool,” I said. “Before we do that, though, there is one other thing on my mind.”

“What is it?” Mary said.

“After talking to Lyle, I got to thinking,” I said. “He only ran after the fight at the house, but he’s frankly a lot more afraid than you are, I think, or at least more controlled by his fear. You’ve said you’re afraid of the boss, but you don’t know what he can do. I think you’re pretty sharp. Smart enough that you could have made a run for it, like Lyle, and done a better job, even without his money. You could have just gotten on the train and never looked back. Starting over is tough, but I think you’re smart enough to find a way. So I have to ask: why haven’t you? If it’s really fear, what’s the boss got that has you scared?”

Mary hesitated long enough that I wondered if she was going to refuse to answer, but instead she pulled over, stopping the car. Once it was parked, she sighed.

“Got me all figured out, huh,” she said. “You think I’m that easy to read?”

“Not all figured out, no,” I said. “But you could have run. I think we need to know why you haven’t. Lyle didn’t go to the FBI because he’s a greedy ass. I’m guessing that’s not your reason, but you must have one.”

Feral was sitting up in Menagerie’s lap, and we all waited expectantly. I hadn’t really discussed this with Leon, but I could tell he agreed with my reasoning, and also wanted to know the answer to my question.

Mary scratched her head, hard. “Dammit,” she muttered. “You’re asking a lot from me. You know my face, you know I’m taking a huge risk. Do you really need to know this too?”

“We’ve been trusting you as much as you’ve been trusting us,” I said. “When you told me where to find Lyle, I went alone and got him out on your say-so. I trusted you then, and I still do. But I think this is important. You know why we do what we do, in a general sense at least. You know Menagerie cares about Dustin, and we don’t like the things Michaels has been doing, or the way Walker got grabbed. That’s why we’re in this. Why are you?”

Mary tilted her head back, and I waited, letting her think.

“What do you think about the guys they recruit?” Mary finally said.

I blinked at the subject change, but assumed she had a reason to ask. “I think they’re getting royally shafted. They’re on the other side, but if Michaels is controlling them or just influencing them a lot, they need help.”

Mary punched the dashboard, and I was surprised to see her so emotional. I waited for a few tense seconds as she sat there, still wrestling with something.

“When some of them died at the house, I almost cut ties with you,” Mary said. “How do you think the boss found me?”

I blinked at the non sequitur. “I don’t know. I mean, Walker and Davis both used their powers pretty publicly, but Tuggey and Michaels didn’t, as far as I knew.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “I don’t know how he found Tuggey and Michaels, but he found me because of my father.”

I opened my mouth and Leon advised me to wait silently.

“He’d been out of prison for a few weeks when he started disappearing, hanging around people I wasn’t too fond of,” Mary said. She glanced at me, quickly looking away. “I never really used my powers, before. I just kept them to myself. They weren’t much good in my life, you know? I mean, I would try to use them to juggle stuff, for fun, or pick stuff up off the floor when I was alone, but that was it. Then I went looking for my father, and I found the boss waiting. I tried to fight him, and he had every base covered, like he knew what I was going to try. I thought he was a telepath, at first, but he never reacted when I was planning to run away or kill him or do anything. Anytime I actually did something, though, he was ahead of me. It felt like he let me try a few times, just so I’d learn. Then he disappeared my father and told me that as long as I did what he said, my dad would live and we’d both be comfortable.”

Mary stared ahead in silence. “So far he’s kept his word,” she said after a minute. “I was trying to find a way out, but I couldn’t figure out how to handle it on my own. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get rid of him without getting killed or getting my father killed ever since. I couldn’t go to the FBI. I tried that, once, and he caught me. When I ran into you guys, I thought it was worth a shot. I gave you my card, I’ve been as paranoid as I could manage this whole time, trying to take every precaution, but grabbing a kid was too much. I couldn’t do nothing about that. Taking Walker was bad enough, but if we end all this he’ll still be able to go home. Dustin’s a kid. Michaels could have destroyed his whole life. So after we took Dustin I grabbed the chance to work with you. He hasn’t found out, as far as I can tell, so it must be working. I don’t know why, though. It’s driving me nuts.”

We needed some time to absorb that, and Mary seemed content to sit in silence. She soon started the car again, in neutral, and I realized it had begun to get colder.

This explains a great deal,” Leon said.

“I’m sorry,” Menagerie said aloud.

Mary nodded, but didn’t speak.

I wondered whether she was offering sympathy or something else. When Mary saw men dead by Feral’s hands (some obnoxious part of my mind corrected the thought to “paws” and I cursed my pedantic brain and the way it noted irrelevant details), she was seeing men like her father, not just nameless unfortunates. I cared about them, of course, but it was mostly in an abstract way, the way one can feel empathy for a sweatshop worker on the other side of the world. That sort of empathy was always a vague thing for me, though, when thinking about anyone I’d never met. I’d tried to avoid hurting the men, but I guess, on some level, I’d still avoided considering the fact that they might be truly innocent of all the crimes they were committing now. It was too painful to think about that when we were taking the slow approach. I felt a sudden urge to deal with Michaels now, to find a way to free all of the men under his sway tonight, instead of putting it off.

It was a lot more personal for Mary. She probably felt that urgency every night, but she still had to go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and take orders from the asshole who was holding her father hostage, knowing that the men she was ordering around didn’t really have the ability to say no to her orders. She’d been doing that for weeks, somehow.

My skin crawled. I would have gone mad by now, in her position.

“We’ll help you get out of this,” I said. “Both of you. Thanks for the truth.”

She nodded again.

I wasn’t over it when I got back home, and eating dinner didn’t help either. It was strange to realize that even though I’d been fighting and evading and tracking men just like Mary’s father, I hadn’t wondered if they had families. I’d seen them as obstacles to avoid or overcome, mainly. The fact that I had really made an effort to avoid hurting them was the only thing that saved me from my conscience, which wanted to beat the crap out of me.

I have to remember this,” I said. “They’re people, connected to other people. Some of them must have wives, sons, daughters, cousins…those people probably don’t know what they do. They probably can’t tell them, maybe even if they wanted to. I have no way of knowing if they would be criminals or if they would have gone straight, on their own, without Michaels’ involvement.

It’s not as bleak as you’re thinking,” Leon said.

It kind of is, though,” I said. “Look, I know the world isn’t ending. It’s the same world I was in this morning. But I feel pretty fucked up about this. I mean, I really wasn’t thinking about what to do with all of these guys after we take out Michaels and the boss. They’re probably all going to need reprogramming, you know? Like Dustin did. That took two experienced telepaths working together. We have exactly zero experienced telepaths in town, and if we go to the FBI that might create some problems too, so what do we do? And if it takes hours to work on each one, what the hell do we do with them all while they’re waiting? And when it’s all over, then what? We just send them on their way and say ‘sorry you got your mind taken over, good luck?’”

When the time comes, I’m sure Stalker will be willing to help us,” Leon said. “The Philly Five are good people. If she can’t help these men alone, perhaps Uplink can assist her. If not, we’ll find another way. David, you can’t let yourself look at the whole task and expect to find a solution in one night. It will take time. It will be difficult, challenging, and complex. But we don’t have to solve everything now. Those men are alive. Mary and her father are alive. We have time. Our patience is for their good, not just our own. Give yourself, Mary, and Raquel some credit. Michaels killed a few of them, by accident, but we’ve taken great pains to avoid loss of life. Dustin is home. Lyle and Kaylee are alive, if unhappy for the moment, and right now we’re apparently the best available chance at setting things right.

Yeah,” I said. “Right. I don’t like being anyone’s best chance at anything, Leon. I don’t feel very competent as someone’s last hope. If I was my last hope, I’d ask if I was allowed to make a substitution.

We rarely get presented with the challenges we want or the problems we deserve,” Leon said. “You’re taking a detour into self-pity. Knock it off. We have the power to make things better, and we’re going to keep on doing it.

I sighed. “Yeah. I know. It’s just…this problem seems so goddamn big.

It was too early to go to bed, so I grabbed a book and tried to get some reading done, but my heart wasn’t in it. After trying to read it for most of an hour, I knew that I couldn’t give even a summary of what I’d just read, and that was after looking at every page at least three times before moving on to the next one.

I put it down and browsed the internet mindlessly, instead, just killing time while I waited for my body to get tired and my mind to slow down enough that I could sleep. I wasn’t going to get anything else done that night, and I needed the distraction.

I could feel the weight on my shoulders. Knowing that Mary was in a much worse position than I’d thought didn’t help, and I wondered if Feral and Raquel were feeling worse, like me, after what Mary had said. I picked up my phone, but decided not to bother them.

I noticed I had a message from Shawn, asking if I wanted to come to Thanksgiving at his uncle and aunt’s place in town tomorrow night. Liz was going, and apparently felt a bit worried at the prospect of getting grilled by his family with no one else there to distract them.

I couldn’t blame her for that, I supposed. As far as I knew, none of Shawn’s family had met her yet, so nerves were inevitable.

I stewed over it, wondering if I should just postpone the decision, but if I said yes then waiting would be rude. It was a last-minute invite, but that didn’t mean that his family wouldn’t want to know the answer as soon as possible.

Mary wasn’t expecting anything to happen, and had even suggested we lay low for a while, but what if something did happen? To this point I’d avoided any sudden, unexcused absences that were obviously linked to Flicker appearing somewhere, but if I were in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, got a call, and then ran off to bail Lyle out of trouble or something it would make it pretty obvious to everyone there who Flicker was.

That seemed so cliché, though. Actually, most of the big stuff I’d been involved in had been at night or over the weekends, largely because that was when I had free time. It was strange to realize that.

I waffled, going back and forth repeatedly, but finally decided to go ahead and say yes. Shawn wouldn’t have issued the invitation unless he had cleared it with the hosts first, I was sure. I didn’t really have a good reason not to go, and whatever Shawn’s aunt and uncle served was probably going to be better than dining hall food.

You realize you got far too hung up on that?” Leon said.

Oh, shut up,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for Incorporeal Life Lectures right now, okay?

It’s hard not to backseat drive sometimes,” Leon said. “Of course, it might be easier if you were smarter,” he joked.

I smiled. “You’re a dick sometimes, you know that? And I don’t know how someone without a body can be a body part. That’s just illogical.

I live to mock,” Leon said.

I laughed for both of us.

A nice Thanksgiving dinner was something to look forward to. It occurred to me that if I was going to keep accepting dinner invitations I really needed to figure out something nice to do for Shawn’s family and Raquel’s mother, Carmen.

Pleasant anticipation helped, but I still felt the weight on my shoulders, the shadow hanging over my thoughts. It was more than I’d ever carried before, higher stakes, and even as my muscles relaxed I felt a sense of pressure in my chest, weakened but still present. I’d been keyed up on adrenaline in the past, and I’d felt angry, fearful, and exhilarated, but the pressure, the doubt about the unknown future, was worse than other feelings that had kept me awake in the past.

It was a long night.
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 8

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“The way I figure it, our next move has to be gathering information,” Mary said. “The things I’m allowed to access are limited, but within those limits I can do a lot. I should be able to learn most of what there is to know about BPSC, for example. But there’s other stuff going on that I’m not part of, and I’m not even sure how big it is. If you guys are up for it, I was thinking I could feed you names, times, and places, and you can follow the people we know to the places we don’t. Start filling in some of those blanks. It’ll take time, but if we’re careful I’m hoping that between us we can learn what the boss is actually trying to accomplish and figure out just how big his resources are. Then we can put together a real plan for bringing him down.”

“That sounds smart,” I said. “But what about time? I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to say that surveillance takes time, and you said he’s acting more rushed lately.”

“Yeah,” Mary admitted, “but I have no idea why, so there’s not much we can do about it. At first I wondered if it might have to do with that group that came to town – the one you guys fought with the Philly Five. But he doesn’t seem to care about them, really. Our standing orders are to avoid them if they ever show up again, just like we’re supposed to avoid you, the Philly Five, and the cops. Without knowing what he’s trying to do, there’s no way to know what might make him feel pressured.”

“Okay,” I said. I took another glance around the theater; everyone was still watching the movie, as far as I could tell. Menagerie, next to me, was still except for the slight movement of breathing, but that blended in here. “So how is this going to work?”

“Well, BPSC is our biggest, most obvious lead,” Mary said. “I figure we can start out by trying to look at the employees, the money, and what happens to the extra gear. I told you the company buys more than it needs and the surplus is where most of his illegal muscle gets their guns, right? The thing to understand is that there are only a few people at the company who really know all the shady stuff it’s involved with. I have a pretty good idea, a couple higher-ups know, and there are a few others, like at least one tech guy, but I think most of the staff isn’t aware. The guys who came with me to protect Michaels? They were pretty much legitimately employed. That’s why they were in uniform that night. As far as they knew, a house we’re contracted to provide security for called for help, we went to provide it, and then there was a tussle with two supers. You guys are well-known enough and have a good enough public reputation that I know at least two of them are asking questions the bosses don’t like, and one of them quit outright after that night, but they either don’t have enough to talk to the cops or they’re afraid to do it, I think.”

I blinked. “It hadn’t occurred to me our reputations could have an impact like that.”

Mary shrugged. “Mostly her,” she said, pointing at Menagerie. “She’s been doing this for a while, after all.”

I nodded. “Right, makes sense. So the guys that night were official, BPSC employees. But the guys at the house weren’t.”

“Right,” Mary said.

“Okay, but what about the other guy, the one I hurt? With powers? He’s technically an employee, or what?”

“Officially, I think he’s an independent consultant,” Mary said. “It’s complicated. Since BPSC exists legally, there’s a lot of stuff that I honestly don’t understand that has to do with the corporate structure, and accounting stuff, and all of that. I’m not a business genius. But the gist of it is that he’s not technically an employee, so if he ever does get caught in something shady, the company can just say they had no idea and continue with business as usual, I think.”

I nodded. “What’s his name, anyway?”

“With BPSC, he goes by Jim Tuggey,” Mary said. “James, technically, but he has everyone call him Jim. No idea if that’s real or not.”

“All right,” I said. “If he’s involved on both sides of the law, and he’s somebody outside your authority, it seems like we should probably start with him. If you can point us at Michaels again, that would be great, too.”

The doctor,” Leon suggested.

“It might also be smart for us to look into the doctor,” I said. “He might know things, even without realizing it. And if he’s on the run from your boss, he may need help. What do you think?”

Mary hesitated. “Those all sound like good ideas, but Michaels and Tuggey are both more likely to spot you than most people, and if you find them too often it’s going to be obvious someone is feeding you info. If that happens I’m probably screwed. I’ll get you what I can on the doctor, to start with. I’ll try to find out what I can about both of them, but if I can come up with another good lead, I’d rather run that down first, if you ‘re willing.”

Menagerie, Feral, Leon? Opinions?

Yeah, that works for me,” Menagerie said.

She is right about the risks,” Feral agreed. “I would prefer to avoid Michaels for a while, at least.”

I agree as well,” Leon said. “As long as we are making progress, I see no benefit to rushing. The more we can learn before we need to act, the better.

“That’s fine with us,” I said. “We want this to go smoothly as much as you do.”

“Good,” she said. “If you’re willing to trust me, I’ll get us some cheap phones so we can communicate in a hurry if we need to. After what’s happened, I’m worried they might take a closer look at me, so I want to keep my computer as clean as I can from now on. And I don’t really want to use the same phone for talking to you guys and talking to them, either.”

I almost laughed.

“All right,” I said.

Menagerie started to give me a look.

We don’t have to use them for anything else,” I said. “Relax. Besides, she’s right. We only saw Mary’s message the other night out of luck; if you’d been too busy, we’d never have known she was on her way with more guys until they arrived. A dedicated phone just for dealing with her is smart, and I can’t afford to buy one.

Okay,” she acquiesced.

I’d been trying not to speak for her, since the little argument we’d had about it after that thing with the FBI, but this time I couldn’t see a real issue.

“It’s going to take me some time to get started,” Mary said. “I’ve been learning what I can on my own since the beginning, but it’s not quick. I have to be patient. I almost got caught once because I was gossiping with two of the guards at BPSC and one of them nearly went to the boss to say I’d been poking around where I shouldn’t.”

“That sounds pretty bad,” I said. “How did it work out?”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I’d been asking about what one guy in particular was doing, because he seemed to disappear a lot for a couple weeks. Turned out it wasn’t anything major, just that he was spending a lot of time with family after his brother got into a car accident.”

“I meant, how did you stay out of trouble,” I said.

“Oh,” Mary said. “I just pretended to have a crush on the guy, said I was worried about him. The guys I was talking to were his friends, so they ate it up. Gave me a hard time about it for a while, but that was all.”

I frowned. “Hey wait a minute. What is your official job at BPSC, anyway?”

“Well, my official job title is ‘Special Security Consultant’ actually. They’re big into job titles that don’t mean much. Lots of vague language. What it really means is that I’m in charge of a few clients, like Michaels, and I’m not exactly part of the normal hierarchy. I’m kind of off to the side of it. So most of the time I’m not directly involved with the regular guys, but in special situations I’m in charge of them.”

I thought it over. “That sounds like a pretty good cover. You take orders from the boss, really, but I assume that’s unofficial, so who does everyone else think tells you what to do?”

“The same guy who orders the grunts around,” Mary said. “Of course, the top level is made up of money and business guys who actually own the company. I think most of them don’t have any idea that BPSC is shady, or at least don’t know details. Some of them might not want to know, but mostly I think they just don’t care enough to pay attention as long as the company stays profitable. The CEO is definitely in bed with my boss, and I think the head of accounting is too, otherwise I don’t see how they could get away with so much. Lower down, there’s me, Tuggey, and at least a couple more that I know about for sure. I mentioned that tech guy, he’s one. There’s also the guy in charge of the grunts, my official boss. His name is Alfred Fielding. Then there’s his second-in-command. I think that might actually be it. Around ten people, total. Most of the normal work for the company is just keeping an eye on rich people’s houses and stuff. A lot of them might be assholes, but they aren’t crooks.”

“Okay,” I said. “That sounds like a lot to work with, but if I’m honest with myself I’m not a detective. I’ve never tried to investigate anyone before, and I don’t know how well I’ll do when it comes to turning up anything you can’t give us to start with. I’m willing to try, though. And when it comes to tailing people, I think Menagerie and I have a bit of an edge for doing it discreetly, so that’s at least one thing on our side. How soon do you think we can start?”

I heard rustling and realized Mary was shifting in her seat before leaning forward again. My seat back was pushed forward slightly as she leaned on it.

“Well, I’ll try to get you anything I can about the doctor tomorrow,” she said. “I’m not sure how much that will be, since there’s no official relationship, but I’ll dig up what I can. I’m not sure if the boss thinks he’s dead or not, though. I mean, I thought so and Michaels can’t know, but it’s possible someone else has been assigned to look for him already. Maybe Tuggey, since he’s in town already and knows the guy, plus he has his powers. I don’t know. If we’re lucky, you’ll be the only ones looking for him at all, but I’m not sure how long he can stay hidden on his own. He wasn’t the brightest guy, or he wouldn’t have gotten caught in the first place.”

“We’ll do what we can,” I said. “If nothing else, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be trying to avoid you and your boss’s people. Does he know about BPSC?”

“No,” Mary said immediately. “No, he was only involved on the illegal side. I don’t think he was really looking around trying to get information, either. I think he was just afraid.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’ll get you what I can for a starting point tomorrow,” Mary promised. “The phones, too. I don’t want to try to meet again, but I can leave them somewhere, if that works.”

“Like where?” I asked.

“Um, I was thinking maybe a locker in the train station?” Mary said. She sounded a bit embarrassed.

“Works for me,” I said.

“Sounds fine,” Menagerie agreed.

“All right,” Mary said. “I’ll send you a message with the locker number when it’s all set. After that, we use the new phones. I’m not expecting any emergencies, but please keep them handy, okay? If I get caught looking into things I’m not supposed to, I might just need some backup.”

“I’ll be listening,” I promised.

“Thank you,” Mary said. “Now, if you guys want to leave, you can. I’m going to stick around until the movie’s over. I need a break.”

You guys want to get out of here?” I asked.

God, yes,” Menagerie said. “Please. I haven’t even been paying attention and I can tell this movie sucks.

I’m ready to leave,” Leon said.

Yeah, me too,” I agreed. I glanced around the theater one last time. “Let’s go.

Menagerie and I stood up simultaneously, I grabbed my coat, and we walked out of the theater. Once the door closed behind us, I glanced at Raquel standing next to me.

You all right?

Yeah,” she said. “Just a bit tense. I’m going to have Feral keep an eye on her until we’re gone.

Okay,” I said.

We walked out of the building. As my foot hit the sidewalk, I looked around, taking a deep breath, and pulled my coat closed, zipping it up.

“It’s chilly,” I commented. We walked to the bus stop together, waiting in silence. A man was there already, and two women came a minute later.

Raquel straightened abruptly. “She’s getting a phone call,” she muttered to me.

I waited, looking around again. I didn’t see anything that looked suspicious or unusual. Just normal traffic, both in vehicles and pedestrians. Berkeleyport was pretty quiet, but it wasn’t that late yet, and the theater was in the busier part of town at this hour, where the most restaurants and entertainment could be found.

My bus came, and I grimaced as I let it go. I couldn’t leave yet. At least another one should come pretty soon. The man who’d been at the stop before us boarded, and two people got off, a couple that looked like they were in high school or college.

“She’s done,” Raquel said after another minute.

“So what was it?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Not work, I think.”

“Okay,” I said. “Did they say anything more than ‘hello’, or what?”

Raquel shook her head. “Not much, really. I think it was some friend, or maybe family. Just asking what she was doing, I think. Nothing that matters for us.”

“Got it,” I said.

We waited in silence until her bus arrived, and I watched her board it. It started to drive away.

See ya,” I said silently.

Later,” she replied.

I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets to keep them warm while I waited for the next bus headed my way.

It took fifteen minutes. My nose and ears were cold, and I wondered why I’d forgotten my hat, but at least I felt better once I got on board. I sank into a seat and looked out the window.

So, what do you think?” I asked Leon.

About what?” he said.

Anything,” I answered. “Mary, Raquel and Feral, the next step we’re taking, whatever.

Well, in order, I think Mary is dangerous but on our side, Raquel and Feral are better but not perfect, and the idea of taking things slowly is a good one,” he said drily. “As for the ‘anything’ question, I think chocolate chocolate chip ice cream is probably my favorite, and I find political ads as irritating as everyone else. Would you like me to hypothesize about the meaning of life, too?

I smiled. “Thanks, I think I’ve got that covered.” I glanced around the bus again before leaning back and closing my eyes, letting out a sigh. “When I said anything, I guess I meant all this stuff we’re doing. Trying to sneak around, trying to help people and stop bad guys. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve been making it up as we go. I guess what I’m wondering is, if you weren’t involved, how do you think you’d rate our performance?

I don’t know, David,” Leon said. “I am involved, and that’s one reason, but the main one is that I just don’t know what to compare our performance to. We got thrown into the deep end pretty much immediately, as I recall. Blitz at least seemed like they didn’t have too much practice. Mary’s boss is another story. We’re not sure how many supers he has, how many goons he has, or how much money he has. He’s stayed under the radar, and we only found him with a little luck. Even then, we had to break the law, and we only had the opportunity because of more luck – with Turner’s powers and Raquel’s, plus the fact that they came into the open by grabbing Dustin, and Mason before him.

Well, if we’re the good guys we can’t really do anything until after someone does something wrong,” I said. “So I don’t feel too bad about that. I mean, we’re always going to start out at a disadvantage, that way. But I guess I’m wondering if Turner was right. Should we wait, and try to join the FBI? Or the police, at least?

Whatever decision we make, we’ll never know if it was the best one,” Leon said. “You know we never get to take both roads, never get to see both possibilities. In ten years, we might look back and think that in retrospect, it’s obvious we made a mistake, but there’s no way to be completely certain. We have to do the best we can with what we know. Knowing about Mary’s boss, about the level of organization he has, and knowing that we’re the ones who got Dustin home, not the FBI, what do you think?

I sighed. “I think we’re doing the right thing. Or a right thing, at least. I think I’m worried about how this is all going to end up, and I think I’m looking forward to a good night’s sleep.

Leon chuckled appreciatively. “I think I can agree with that.

Thanks,” I said.

Anytime,” he answered.

I tried to relax. “Why don’t we try the sleep experiment again tomorrow? I know nothing happened the first time, but I still think it was a good idea. We should give it another shot, see if you dream or anything.

I would like that,” Leon said gratefully. “I may be grasping at straws, but I can’t help thinking there are answers there. I’m not sure precisely what questions they’ll answer, but I think they will answer something.

We finished the ride back to campus and I hopped lightly off the bus, heading back to my room. I found Shawn there, hunched over his laptop on the desk in front of him.

“Hey,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” Shawn said, looking up. “You been at dinner?”

“Yeah,” I said, lying easily. Honestly, I just didn’t want to go to the effort of thinking up anything more elaborate. Besides, I was learning that the hardest part of lies was keeping them consistent. The best sort of lies, it seemed, were forgettable, everyday stuff. If someone asked me when I’d eaten dinner a week ago, I wouldn’t remember details, generally speaking. A week from now, that would apply to tonight.

“I’m tired, so I think I’m just going to clean up and go to bed,” I said. “I might read some, or something. Would you mind?”

Shawn shrugged. “I was going to put some music on to stay awake, but I’ve got headphones.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I sleep pretty soundly, so I’m not really worried. As long as you don’t start kicking me or something, I’m good. You know.”

Shawn snorted. “David, you almost slept through a fire drill. I’m not worried.”

I chuckled and got ready for bed, crawling under my blankets and making a mental note that I might want to switch to my heavier blanket soon. Things were cooling down, and while our dorm wasn’t bad, it wasn’t the warmest either.

I did try to do some reading for class, but to my surprise I started falling asleep quickly, so I put the book aside and turned off my light, rolling over onto my side and pulling the covers tighter.

My head was pounding, and the light was too bright in my eyes. I turned onto my other side, away from the wide window.

I’d forgotten to close the curtains. Dammit.

The other half of the bed was empty and cold. The thin sheets were tangled around my legs, and the pillow was barely still on the bed. I grabbed it and pulled it over my face, dulling the sharpness of the light in my eyes.

I stayed like that for a few seconds, then heard a loud banging.

“Fucking neighbors,” I grumbled. “Stupid fucking asshole neighbors.” I moved the pillow, trying to cover my eyes and ears at the same time.

More banging, and something that might have been a voice. I realized that it was all coming from the door, not the other side of the wall, and I climbed out of bed, stumbling in my fatigue; I had to grab the bed with one hand to steady myself. It was light out, but not bright, and I knew it had to be my day off. Otherwise I wouldn’t have drunk enough to get a hangover.

The apartment’s familiar clutter was a blur, vague but known to me. I pulled on a pair of shorts over my boxers and left the bedroom, heading toward the front door. I was wearing a t-shirt already, and my socks were still on from the night before, though I’d kicked off my shoes.

Something seemed strangely off, and when I reached the door I suddenly realized that I wasn’t me. I wasn’t David.

Not just then, at least.

It was another dream, like the one before.

I was still adjusting to that when something else happened.

David?

Leon?

Yes.

Huh.

This is different.”

Yes, it is,” Leon agreed.

We walked forward, opening the door.
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 7

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My wish seemed to come true the next day. I kept checking for word from Mary, Raquel, and Heavyweight, and I kept an eye on the news – both local and national – but nothing happened. I’d gotten a full night’s sleep, woken up rested enough that I didn’t need caffeine, ate like a normal college student, got through my classes, and generally indulged in the regularity of my life for a while. I even squeezed in a visit to the gym, which was starting to feel normal for me even though I’d never been much for exercise in the past. Knowing that I might really need to be able to pull myself up onto a roof to stay alive made a difference. I wasn’t lacking for motivation.

When I finished in there, I left and went on a little run, heading off-campus to the west. While I was technically within the city limits, it felt more like I was entering a suburb. After seeing Raquel’s neighborhood, the differences stood out. The homes were bigger, they were on bigger properties, and they were newer and more expensive looking, as were the cars outside of them. I saw a lot of sports cars and minivans in the driveways. There were pools in several backyards, nice-looking porches and walkways, and lots of pretty landscaping.

I’d grown up comfortable, but these places were nicer than my home. It did make for pleasant scenery, though. Most of the leaves had changed color, and if a lot of them had fallen there were still some left. I actually saw a few kids jumping into a pile of leaves at one point. I’d never actually done that, myself. Snow had always been more my thing.

After a while, I turned around and started heading back. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but the sun was setting and the light was fading, and I wanted to get back to campus. I felt tense. I wasn’t expecting anything in particular, but I had a sudden desire to be home and ready to go if I needed to get somewhere, and I didn’t want to exhaust myself in case something happened.

It was silly, really. I had my phone with me, and I had checked it a few times, slowing to a walk, both on the way out and on the return leg. I wasn’t any easier to reach on campus. At least, the people who I was worried about hearing from wouldn’t find it any easier to reach me.

I’d left a message for Mary, asking her to check in when she had a chance, but there wasn’t anything else I could do. For a second, I wondered if she could have gotten caught, but if so I wasn’t in a position to help. Besides, her arrival had been all that stopped Heavyweight from stranding Michaels by wrecking his car, and she’d stopped Feral, too. If anything, Michaels and the others who were there should be singing her praises to their boss.

Telling myself that didn’t help the anxiety. Leon tried to distract me for a bit, talking about power practice, but it wasn’t working and he soon gave up.

When I left the gym, I’d found myself laughing at how pleased I’d been when I first took my powers for a test run and clocked myself at five miles per hour. I wasn’t sure what my real limits were, but I knew that I was covering ground better now that I actually understood how my powers worked, and if I got into better shape I should be able to sustain some real speed, I hoped. I didn’t think I could outrace cars, necessarily, but then again cars couldn’t go up buildings or corner like I could.

That optimism wasn’t present as campus came back into sight. I’d lost track of time, forgetting when I left, so I couldn’t tell how quickly I’d gone, but I didn’t really care. I couldn’t think about numbers right then. Maybe it was the sun going down and the temperature dropping, but whatever the reason I could feel myself tensing up.

It’s the waiting,” Leon said.

I’ve done lots of waiting lately,” I pointed out.

But this time, we’re not sure what we’re waiting for,” he said. “We’re not waiting for something to happen so we can act. We don’t have a concrete plan. It’s bothering you, because it makes it feel like things could change at any time.

I stretched my neck, then found a patch of grass and started stretching the rest of me. “Maybe.

It’s getting to me, as well,” Leon said. “There’s nothing we can do, though, and tensing up won’t help. It’s best to just take it easy and enjoy the free time as much as possible, like last night. We gave similar advice to Raquel, as I recall – we need to follow it.

I frowned a bit at the way he spoke. “Voice of experience?

Leon hesitated before answering. “I think so. I’m not sure, but I think whatever my past was, I’ve had to wait for the other shoe before.

I kept stretching, trying to relax. There was an idea just out of sight, a thought that was almost occurring to me or a connection I was on the verge of making, and I didn’t want to forget it. It was tenuous, though, and I didn’t want to force it either.

Was it the bit about waiting calmly? Or something else?

Leon started to speak. “Do you think-”

Hang on,” I said, abruptly. “Let me think for a minute. There’s something on the tip of my tongue, I don’t want to lose it.

He fell silent.

What was it?

We’d been talking about why I was on edge. Was that it? No.

Something about Leon, then. His experience. Waiting without knowing what was going to come or when. Or maybe it was about Raquel, and the ‘advice’ we’d given? I was a little uneasy, there. It was hard to know how much to help. I was afraid that involving myself and Leon too much in her and Feral’s business would make things worse and irritate them to boot.

I’d had close friends, but there’s no one closer than a person who shares your thoughts. I had that with Leon, and Raquel had it with Feral. There was no way to discuss Leon without also talking about myself, and no way to tell someone about him without it getting personal for both of us. By the same token, I couldn’t talk to Feral or Raquel about the other without interfering, pushing my way into a relationship that was none of my business.

It didn’t sit right. No matter what I said or did, it felt like too much and not enough at the same time. She was younger than me, which made it easy to try to adopt a big brother attitude, but at the same time she had more experience with supers than I did. I didn’t think most of it had been so intense as what had happened lately, but the fact was that she had chosen to get out there and put herself in danger while I was still dithering and doubting myself into inaction. Condescending to her would be insulting and ridiculous.

I didn’t think that was it either. Whatever the thought was, I had lost it.

I sighed. Damn it. “Hey, sorry, what were you going to say?

I was going to ask if you’d be willing to try an experiment tonight,” Leon said.

What kind?

I want you to leave me in the driver’s seat when we go to sleep, just to see what happens.

I thought about it for a minute. “You want to see if you can sleep that way, and if I can sleep when I’m not in control? Interesting. I think I’m down, but I want to do it tomorrow.

Why postpone?” Leon asked.

So far you’ve slept one night, and I had a funky dream-vision thing,” I said. “I want to see if one or both of those things happens again tonight. Try to establish a pattern before we change the situation. Among other things, I’m wondering if I might have the same dream again or experience a different one.

Good enough for me, I guess,” Leon said.

Thanks. We can try your idea tomorrow, though, like I said. I’m curious to see what happens.

I thought the dream had to be important, but part of me hoped that nothing like it ever happened again. Even compared to my own experiences, it had been intense and frightening. What unsettled me about it wasn’t just what had happened, but how it had happened and how I’d felt as I experienced it. The four attacking supers reminded me of Blitz, for obvious reasons, but they’d been more practiced at working together, despite their eventual defeat. The defenders had been a mix of supers and normal, well-armed people who had worked together well. I wasn’t sure any group like that even existed yet. Of course, plenty of powers lent themselves to violence very well, and I was sure that some militaries and other groups were working to harness that power. But it hadn’t been that long since people stopped thinking that powers were a hoax.

Just over a decade ago, a guy in a cape claiming he could fly would have been regarded as obviously crazy or part of a publicity stunt. Now it was totally plausible. Was that enough time for what I’d seen to come into being?

There were too many unanswered questions. I needed more information.

I was still speculating fruitlessly when I finished cleaning up and went to the dining hall.

I didn’t dream again, and neither did Leon. The weekend went by with nothing special happening. Since the time I’d recruited the Philly Five to help ambush Raquel and make certain Feral wasn’t controlling her, we hadn’t met Bloodhound for another lesson, and I hadn’t gotten back in touch with him about it yet. Before Dustin went missing, I’d been planning to wait a while to let Raquel cool down, then bring it up once some time had passed. With everything going on, I’d forgotten. We’d only had one real lesson, so far. I resolved to talk to her about it soon, maybe try to convince her that we should ask Bloodhound to come meet us again. I thought he’d probably be willing.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday passed uneventfully. I was finding a balance between doing my schoolwork, training myself, and relaxing with friends. I wasn’t all the way there, but I was productive enough to feel good about myself and I relaxed enough that I could stay sane. After the weekend went by uninterrupted, I found my anxiety abating, and Raquel seemed to be feeling a bit better too.

The news that Dustin was back with his parents broke, and there was a media frenzy. The cynical part of me noted that his return received less attention than his disappearance had, despite the fact that his powers were public knowledge.

I traded messages with Raquel and Heavyweight, but there wasn’t much to say. Mary sent a brief message saying that she was all right and that she would be in touch when she could, but that was about it, and until we heard from her we were in a holding pattern. I wasn’t inclined to go try fighting normal crime in my spare time, and no disasters happened while I was around, so there wasn’t anything unusual to do. For a while, I was just David. Flicker was waiting in the wings, unneeded.

Thursday, I got word from Mary again.

She asked us to meet her at a movie theater, going to a particular showing. I thought the precautions she outlined were a bit theatrical, but she was taking a risk, so I wasn’t inclined to argue.

It was some romantic comedy that had been out for a while. No big name actors. I met Raquel outside, and we bought tickets and went in together. I grabbed some popcorn, more for the sake of appearances than anything else.

Less than half of the seats were full. We sat down together and started eating the popcorn; we were there a bit early, so the movie hadn’t started yet.

Feral was outside, watching for any sign of Michaels or anyone else uninvited, just in case. I didn’t think that was necessary either, but Raquel had seemed to dislike Mary from the start, so I wasn’t surprised. I was a bit hopeful, actually; her willingness to let Feral out of her sight for lookout duty suggested the two of them weren’t walking on eggshells quite so much anymore.

I still think we shouldn’t have met where she wanted,” Raquel said.

We’ve been through this already,” I said impatiently. “Yes, she could be planning to double-cross us somehow. That’s always possible. If you’re paranoid enough, everyone is a potential enemy. She dealt with us straight so far, pointed us right to Dustin. I’m okay with being cautious, but if Mary wants to meet, I believe it’s important.

Fine, but if it goes bad, remember I warned you,” Raquel said.

You told me so. I’ll remember.

We should cut her some slack,” Leon said privately. “She’s likely still feeling a bit leery of the unexpected at the moment.

Yeah, okay,” I said grudgingly. Raquel had been grating on my nerves a bit since the meeting came up. I was a bit on edge myself, but I didn’t really expect anything to go wrong.

I dropped some popcorn in my mouth.

I do wonder why she picked this for a meeting place,” I said.

Me too,” Raquel said. “I wish Heavyweight could have come as backup.

I shrugged. “It would be nice, but I’m not surprised. I don’t know how old he is, but he’s definitely out of school, probably by at least ten years if I had to guess.

I’m not sure how old he is either,” Raquel admitted. “I think he’s got a night job, though. Or at least, works night shifts sometimes.

I winced. “We shouldn’t speculate. If he doesn’t want us to know, that’s his choice.

Raquel turned toward me, eyebrows rising in surprise. “You don’t think we should all know each other? I mean, if something happens it’s nice to know you know where to find me, in case I need help. Or if something happens…well, you could tell my mom.

I felt a pit in my stomach. “I guess I can understand that, yes, but I really hope we never need help that urgently. As for the general idea, well, I can see it either way. I mean, if we know each other then we can help each other in an emergency. But if we don’t, we can’t tell anyone who shouldn’t know. You and I seem to be resistant, but there are telepaths running around, including one in Blitz. I really wouldn’t want him to be able to pick that out of my brain.

True, I guess,” she said.

I figure that’s the main reason the Philly Five are so obsessed with their secrets,” I said. “Anyway, if Heavyweight wants to keep his name to himself I guess I feel like that’s his call. I admit, it is nice to be able to talk to you about all this stuff when we’re not fighting, though.

I believe Mary has just arrived,” Feral said, interrupting our conversation. “She appears to be alone.

Raquel and I fell silent, waiting. I had to make an effort to keep from watching the repetitive crap on the big screen. It was all ads and trivia, the stuff they put up there as a placeholder before the trailers even start. It was annoying to realize that even when we were there for something important I had to work to keep my eyes away.

She’s got her ticket, and she’s going in now,” Feral reported.

Got it, thanks,” I said. “No one suspicious around?

Raquel gave me a look. “I thought you said I was being unnecessarily cautious?

I nodded. “I did. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. You’ll note I didn’t try to argue you out of taking precautions.

No, everyone appears to be acting normally,” Feral said. “I don’t see Michaels, or anyone else I recognize.

Thanks, Feral,” Raquel said.

It was a little thing, but their calm interaction really did take a load off my mind. I didn’t think everything was completely better, but at least they were talking to each other again and working together.

Mary walked into the theater, and we both stopped talking. I almost started staring at her reflexively, but managed to control myself.

She picked us out easily enough. It was a small crowd, and I was carrying a big thing of popcorn and wearing a baseball cap. When she looked at me I stood up and took off my coat slowly, and she started walking towards our section of the seats, sitting in the row behind us. We were near the back already, though not quite all the way there, and no one else was sitting near us. Personally, I thought that made the whole setup a bit silly; if anyone was paying attention, they’d notice that she sat right near two people when there was enough space for her to sit alone. I supposed that was inevitable, though. It was hard for people to meet without looking like they were meeting. Being able to hold silent conversations with Raquel, Leon, and Feral was spoiling me a bit, since it meant we could communicate just as stealthily in a crowd as we could in a closet, even if we were on opposite sides of the crowd.

Neither of us looked at her. We didn’t want her to get a good look at our faces, for one thing. She hadn’t seen them yet. Raquel’s hair was hiding her face well enough for now. As for me, Leon was trying something new.

I’d done some practicing the past few days, and Leon had done more. The result was that we’d managed to combine what Bloodhound taught us about making light and our innate ability to turn invisible. We were more certain than ever that that capability worked by bending light, because Leon had figured out how to mix the two and distort our image, instead of hiding it completely. It still wasn’t quite right for public use. Raquel had said I looked funny when we demonstrated, warning us that it seemed to hide some of my facial features, rather than making them look different, which was what we were going for. The net effect was like I was wearing a hood that cast deep shadows over my face.

It ate energy up pretty quickly, too.

For now, though, it meant I could stand up in the theater and be confident that Mary wouldn’t be able to make out my face for a few seconds. That was all we needed.

Once she sat down, it was hard not to look around, either at her or the other people in the room. Her desire to meet in a public place had us wondering whether she was afraid of being followed, which was a worrisome possibility.

We waited while the minutes stretched out, Raquel and I taking increasingly half-hearted turns whittling down the popcorn one handful at a time. I kept glancing at the entrances and emergency exits, or the people in the seats. Which ones should I be more concerned about? Lone individuals? The couples? The larger groups, maybe? There was one set of five teenage girls sitting together, talking loudly. Normally I’d consider them a non-threat, but powers changed things and Michaels’ brainwashing abilities changed them again. If he had enough time, it might not matter how little someone was inclined to violence, and he or his boss might consider it useful to control a few random people, unconnected to their illegal operations, just so they could run errands in public or spy on people inconspicuously.

Alternatively, maybe I should be watching Mary. She could have been caught in the aftermath of freeing Dustin, and turned on us to save herself.

The urge to turn around and keep an eye on her was growing stronger by the second. The only thing that kept me from actually doing it was the fact that Feral was sitting halfway under a seat just a few feet away from her.

Like I said, Raquel really didn’t trust Mary. I’d argued that it would be better to have Feral watching the outside, to see if anyone followed her, but Raquel had disagreed and I’d eventually given up.

Even knowing Feral was there, I felt like there was an itch between my shoulder blades. Mary was sitting right behind us, after all. It was the perfect spot to stab us in the back.

My paranoid side pointed out that she had asked us not to involve the authorities. It was possible that she would decide to get rid of us at some point, to eliminate the risk that we’d turn her in. If she’d been thinking about it, the debacle at the house might have persuaded her that we were too dangerous to keep dealing with.

I was startled when the lights cut out and the screen changed. I’d been so absorbed in my thoughts that it snuck up on me.

We sat through the trailers, still ignoring each other, then continued to wait as the movie started. After the first five minutes, I was getting impatient. After ten minutes, I was on the verge of turning around in my seat.

Fortunately, Mary didn’t make us wait much longer. She must have knelt behind our seats, I guess; she leaned forward and stuck her head between Raquel and I.

“What the hell happened?” she asked.

I couldn’t see Raquel’s face, but she straightened abruptly in her seat, starting to turn, and I grabbed her wrist.

Relax,” I said. “Hide your face, remember? I’ll do the talking.

Then I had Leon do his thing again, obscuring my features, and leaned sideways toward Mary.

“You’re asking about the house?” I said.

“Yes, I’m asking about the fucking house,” Mary said. “Seriously, what happened? I thought you were going to show restraint!”

“Keep your voice down, please,” I said. I glanced at the closest people in the theater. They were all looking at the screen; I didn’t think they would have heard her. She wasn’t whispering, but she was speaking in a low voice.

“What did Michaels say?” Raquel asked.

I winced. Part of me had hoped we could avoid that question somehow. I hoped I was right about the answer, but if not Raquel and Feral would probably fall apart again, and I really didn’t want that. I especially didn’t want it to happen at that particular moment.

There was a pause before Mary answered. Hesitation? I reminded myself that Feral was watching her.

If only we had someone else who could watch Feral.

“Michaels said he felt something,” Mary said, finally speaking. “Several people he didn’t know. One of them felt pretty normal. The last one he had trouble pinning down, for some reason. The first one, he said he just got a lot of anger. He tried to redirect it at the rest of you, and it didn’t work. He’s not sure why, but it scared the shit out of him. He’s never had his powers go wrong before. There are one or two people they haven’t worked on, like the boss, but when he tried that nothing happened at all.”

I tried to stifle my sigh of relief, but I did a crappy job. Fortunately, the movie got loud for a second, handling it for me.

“That’s about what it looked like from our side, too,” I said a second later. “Michaels tried his mojo, and instead of doing whatever he meant to, he just turned up the rage, hard. After that, we were all trying to contain it, but it didn’t work that well. Then Dustin set the house on fire and everything went to hell. You arrived not long after that.”

There was another silence; I assumed Mary was thinking over what I’d said.

“One of the guys we grabbed died in the van on the way out,” Mary said quietly. “One never came out of the house. Neither did the doctor guy. With the guy who bled out on the lawn, that’s four dead. They may not have been great people, but I came to you hoping to avoid blood.”

“Three, actually,” I said. “The doctor guy? He got out. After he thought everyone was gone.”

“Really?” she said.

“Really,” I said. “I saw him look around and make a break for it. No idea where he went after that, but he left before I did, so I’d say he probably got away clean as far as the police are concerned. What’s his story, anyway?”

We waited a few seconds as laughter in the movie made it hard to hear each other.

“I don’t know his name,” Mary said. “He’s a doctor. Has a legal practice, but I think the boss got some dirt on him or something. He does some work off the books. Patches us up after trouble. I’m not sure what he did, but he seems mostly decent. Just trapped.”

“Like you,” I said.

She didn’t reply.

“What about the other guys?” Raquel asked after a second. “Were they coerced too? Or…recruited by Michaels?”

“No,” Mary said. “Most of the normals are recruited the old fashioned way. That’s one reason for BPSC. Only a few of the people there are actually involved in anything illegal, but it’s an excuse for looking up some kinds of information, and it lets the boss scout out dangerous guys. Mostly just thugs, but there are a few ex-military, too. Plus the company can buy equipment, then ‘throw away’ old surplus after a while. Stuff like that.”

“So who were they?” Raquel asked.

I could hear a hitch in her voice. I didn’t look over. I didn’t want to draw Mary’s attention to it.

“Mostly convicts,” Mary said. “Hard for them to get work once they get out. Michaels might have given them a little nudge to accept the job, but it probably wasn’t to get past scruples. The ones there all knew who was in the house. He tries to use people with records for stuff that’s blatantly illegal, set it up so they look like they’re responsible if something goes wrong.”

Raquel slumped in her seat a bit, and I held in another sigh of relief. If she’d said that they were innocent men who’d been brainwashed I wasn’t sure what it would have done to Raquel, but I was relieved that we wouldn’t find out.

Not that this was okay, but at least it wasn’t even worse.

“I need to know if you’re going to keep killing people,” Mary said abruptly. “If you are, I don’t know if I want to work with you anymore.”

Raquel whirled on her angrily. “I never wanted-mmph!” She glared at me as I covered her mouth to stop her from shouting, but I gestured at the theater. After a few seconds, she turned away from both of us.

I turned back to Mary. “Don’t be a bitch,” I said quietly. “We’ve never tried to kill anybody. If anyone’s to blame, its Michaels, and I’d appreciate it if you’d lay off.”

It was hard to see, but I thought she was glaring at me. “I’m sorry if I don’t find it easy to shrug off three dead bodies.”

I tried to keep my cool. “I’m not asking you to apologize,” I said. “But we’re not taking this any better than you are, so if you could keep unfair accusations to a minimum, that would be fucking appreciated. Okay? We went on a rescue mission and I wound up fighting my way out of a burning house. And unless you’ve forgotten, it was Heavyweight who took the cat off the field to make sure it wouldn’t hurt anyone else. He bled for that, and it may have saved your life.”

Calmly, David,” Leon said.

“Not to mention that you’re the one who asked us to get involved with the guy who manipulates emotions, his boss, and their army of possibly-brainwashed thugs with guns,” I finished. I glanced around again. My volume had risen a bit, and I hadn’t noticed until I stopped speaking.

We were still clear, I thought. I turned back to Mary, speaking again as she started to open her mouth. “Now I’m not accusing you of anything, for the record. But that guy whose arm I totaled the night we met was very much present at the house, and not out of town like you said he would be. If I was a more suspicious man, that would make me wonder if I could trust you, especially since he’s the one who tipped Michaels off that we were there.”

She opened her mouth and closed it, twice, before speaking again. “I was wrong. I thought he’d be out of town for longer, getting the arm looked at. I don’t know how he got it fixed so fast.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s his deal? Is he ex-military? A con? What?”

Mary shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m tied into BPSC, and the boss has me helping Michaels, but he doesn’t tell me everything. I don’t know where he found that guy, or whether Michaels did anything to him or not.”

“All right,” I said.

The movie got loud again, car tires squealing on asphalt, forcing us to wait for a bit.

“So, are you going to keep working with us or not?” I said. “If you say no, there’s not much we can do about it. But I doubt we’ll ignore whatever happens next, although I can’t speak for Menagerie.”

“I…yeah, I’ll work with you guys,” she said. “I need your help. Someone’s help.”

I waited. Raquel’s face was still turned away from both of us, though I suspected she might be watching Mary through Feral’s eyes; she’d been still for a bit longer than was natural.

Mary took a deep breath. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen from here. The good news is that I think the boss is going to leave Dustin alone. I’m not even sure why he had us grab him in the first place, honestly. It’s weird. When I was recruited, everything was moving slowly. He recruited people, had jobs for us, but it was all patient, you know? It seemed like secrecy was the most important thing to him. Now he’s got us kidnapping people and even abducting a kid. I think there’s some kind of deadline coming up. I think the boss is scared.”

That got my attention, and I saw Raquel’s head twitch toward us. “Scared of what?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Mary said. “He’s never told me why he’s got us doing this stuff, or even what the end goal is, assuming there is one. But he’s acting a bit different. I never see much of him, you understand. But he’s short, now. The way he talks, I mean. Like something’s happening, and he’s rushing to get ready for it. For now, I think he’s going to try to keep things quiet here in Berkeleyport, at least. The bad news is, I think that means more stuff is going to be happening in other places, and it might be hard for me to find out about it.”

“All right,” I said. “So what’s our next move?”
 
 
 
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If At First You Don’t Succeed 2

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I could sense Leon communicating with someone – it had to be either Feral or Menagerie. I blocked it out. The heat washed over me in a wave, and for a few moments it was just about the only thing I noticed. My eyes were closed, and I checked on my reserves – they were a bit lower, and dropping as my body rapidly healed. I screamed for a few seconds, though I doubt anyone heard me. When the wave of heat had passed and I could feel the pain starting to recede I forced myself back to my feet, looking around.

Michaels and Dustin were walking toward the door together, trying to leave. All but one of the thugs was moving, now, trying to get out of the room, though they were all in bad shape.

Menagerie, we’re going to need firefighters to go with the police,” I said, stunned. Things had gone very wrong, very quickly. It took me a moment to start thinking again.

I got up and sprinted at Michaels’ back, jumping over the reaching hands of one goon, and tackled him to the ground. The kid stumbled and fell forward, turning to look at us fearfully, and Michaels kicked backward, hitting my face. I bit my tongue and tasted blood, but stood again.

Michaels and Dustin are heading downstairs. Almost everyone else is pretty messed up, and Michaels got to Dustin’s head,” I said.

I was about to follow them when I turned and looked back into the bedroom. The goons there were moving, but not in a reassuring way; if I left, they could burn to death.

“God dammit!” I yelled. I went back into the room.

I’ve got to keep these assholes from burning to death, Menagerie,” I said. “You guys will have to stop Michaels. Is Feral under control yet?

There was a brief pause. “Feral’s out of play for now,” Menagerie said. “Heavyweight and I will handle Michaels, then help you empty the house.

I walked into the room, helping one of the thugs stand; he looked at me in shock.

“Help him get out!” I yelled, pointing to one of the other guys. Then I moved to a second. There had been five thugs in the room, and I had shoved one out through the hole in the floor; that left four. The one I’d just helped looked like he was in the best shape, overall, despite being a bit dazed. The guy he was helping was hurt worse, but looked like he was thinking more clearly; together, the two of them should be all right. The remaining two were another story. One was the guy who’d been under the door, and his leg was bleeding badly; it had soaked part of the carpet by now, and he was pale. The other wasn’t moving at all. I ran to him first, trying to feel for a pulse; I couldn’t tell if he had one or not. He didn’t seem to be breathing. I slapped him a few times, hoping for some reaction, but he didn’t move.

I looked at the other guy. I couldn’t carry them both. I made a decision.

I went over to the man under the door – actually, he was out from under it now. He took a weak swing at me, and I caught his fist.

“Do you want to stay here or not?” I yelled, pointing at the fire.

He looked a little dazed. I couldn’t tell if it was blood loss, surprise at what had happened, or something else. I repeated myself, shaking him a bit, and his eyes seemed to focus a bit as he shook his head.

“Then let me help you!” I said.

He nodded, coughing.

I got an arm under his shoulders and we managed to get him hobbling on one foot, leaning on me for support. We got to the stairs and I could see that the other two guys I’d sent on ahead were at the bottom, moving toward the front door.

We started down.

Flicker, hurry,” Menagerie said. “Dustin is keeping Heavyweight back, and I can’t do much right now!

The first few steps were a bitch, but the guy clinging to me for dear life was motivated; we got into a rhythm. At least we were going down; he was partially dead weight, but I just had to make sure I wasn’t dropping him. While one of his legs was a bleeding mess, the other looked fine.

It was still hard. I was focusing on one step at a time, blocking out almost everything else, and I was actually surprised when we reached the bottom; it felt like it happened too fast given the pace we were moving at. A glance back showed me that the fire was spreading fast. The two guys who had been downed by Feral were no longer in the area by the front door, though they had left bloodstains and a partially crushed gun behind.

We shuffled out the front door, and I saw the situation. Heavyweight was standing in front of their car, in the driveway, refusing to let them leave. Dustin had a little patch of fire on the ground in front of him, with one hand held out, palm down, over it. Michaels was next to him, with a hand on his shoulder, two goons standing next to him with guns – I recognized one of them as the same guy who’d given me so much trouble before, and the bastard had his shotgun back again, or another like it. The rest of them were sprawled on the ground, but one guy was bandaging the others, at least. I couldn’t see Menagerie anywhere.

As we came out, Mr. Shotgun turned toward us. He started to raise his gun and then lowered it again, eyes narrowed in anger, but he kept it ready as I walked my rescuee away from the building.

Then two cars and a van pulled onto the street and headed our way, at least one burning rubber as they squealed to a stop.

The doors opened and Mary Wade got out of the car, with three more armed guys. Two of them had pistols, but the third had what I thought was a rifle. The other two vehicles stayed further back, and no one got out of them. Mary surveyed the situation. For a few seconds we were all eyeing each other uneasily, trying to figure out what to do. The police would be along at some point; when that happened, things would turn in our favor. At the same time, we had serious problems. Dragging this situation out, even as a standoff, could cause some of the goons to bleed out. Given what I’d seen from Dustin so far, I wasn’t prepared to write them all off as “bad guys, don’t feel guilty if they get hurt,” and even if I had been I didn’t want them to die. Leaving the one guy upstairs was bad enough, despite my confidence that he was dead already. I didn’t want more on my conscience.

Menagerie, where are you?” I asked.

Across the street, behind the new arrivals,” she said.

What’s Feral’s deal? Is she still flipping out?

I really don’t want to bring her back out right now,” Menagerie said.

Fuck. That was at least three different flavors of bad.

I set my rescuee down on the ground, bending down as if to help him, then vanished. I closed my left eye and checked my reserves – Leon was down to basically nothing, I was at about two-thirds. All that moving around while invisible had taken something out of me, and so had healing from the burns I’d taken, along with the shot to my leg.

Once I was invisible, I stepped back and to one side a few feet, then crouched. I tried to look at everyone at the same time.

Heavyweight seemed to take it as a signal, or maybe that was when he had his idea; in either case, he moved. He jumped up and back, over the car behind him – the one Michaels had used to get here. When he landed on the other side, he stepped forward and brought one fist down on the car’s hood in a crashing blow. I could see the metal dent inward. He hit it twice more like that, quickly, then leapt at Mary’s car.

I got it as he was moving; without the cars, they’d have a much harder time getting away from the police, who Menagerie had called. Even if he couldn’t get them all, they might have to leave some people behind. Plus, it would be easier for us to stall them. The wounded guys wouldn’t even want to run, if they were smart; without cars, being arrested was probably their best chance at prompt medical attention.

He stopped in midair, folding as if his stomach had hit something, and I noticed Mary; she was looking up at him, one hand outstretched. He hung there for a moment, then went flying back.

She’d said she couldn’t just let us win if it came down to it. Considering that she’d warned us she was coming, I was inclined to trust her. Still, she was the only one of them who could even slow Heavyweight down, except for Dustin; if I gave her a good enough excuse to “lose”, and I was right about her being on the level with us, then we’d have an advantage.

I stayed invisible and started walking toward her as quietly as I could, with her group on the street in front of me, the house behind me, and all the other bad guys plus Dustin to my left.

Mr. Shotgun spun towards me, his weapon coming up, and he pulled the trigger, at which point I remembered what Mary had said about his powers. I dove for the ground and felt another set of stings, this time on my left leg instead of my right, and I lost my focus. I became visible again, and he brought his gun up for another shot. Before he could do anything, Heavyweight came rushing in – Michaels shouted a warning, and he dived to the side, but Heavyweight grabbed him in both hands as he landed, ripping the shotgun away and then breaking it over his knee. The guy ran, and Dustin sent a stream of fire at Heavyweight, screaming incoherently with what could have been any emotion, or maybe just pure adrenaline.

Heavyweight retreated, and I looked up to see Michaels whispering in Dustin’s ear, still keeping a hand on his shoulder in an avuncular way that was profoundly disturbing under the circumstances.

Then an ear-splitting roar rang out. It sounded like Feral, but not quite. Everyone turned to look in that direction, and I shuffled out of the way as Dustin unintentionally sent his fire over a wider area in the process. One of the wounded goons was lying in the way; his jacket caught, and he ditched it immediately, crawling feebly away from the flames.

Menagerie ran across the street towards us all, but as she ran she dropped to all fours, her form distorting to look almost like Feral’s, and she sprang at Mary and her three guys. Before she could hit, she was struck in mid-air; she wasn’t stopped like Heavyweight had been, but she was launched up and over them. She spun and flipped in mid-air, landing on the wrecked car in the driveway on all fours, and I got a good look at her. She looked like Feral, now, but more solid somehow. Her front paws flexed and her claws lengthened, scoring gouges in the car’s roof and then tearing right through it.

She roared again and jumped at Michaels and Dustin.

Michaels fell backward and pulled Dustin down on top of himself, and a curtain of fire sprang up between them and the cat.

Menagerie, are you okay?” I said frantically. “What the hell is going on? Is that Feral or you?

There was no immediate reply, and Feral/Menagerie jumped to the side, running around the fire, then hit one of the guys with guns – three of them emptied their pistols into the charging form, but it didn’t slow as it tackled the middle guy to the ground. Claws slashed out at the guy on the left, and he stumbled backward, barely avoiding them. The cat bent over and the guy on the ground screamed for a second before he was cut off by a disgusting, wet sound. I couldn’t see him well, but he stopped moving almost immediately, and when the cat straightened it spat a mouthful of something on the ground.

Help me!” Menagerie screamed. It felt far away, muffled somehow.

She felt terrified, sick, and angry, all at once, but the anger was the strongest. For a second, the cat seemed to twitch and shudder, crouching low and shaking its head, but then it roared again and attacked.

It stopped cold, hitting one of Mary’s orbs, and I realized that she’d moved closer when I wasn’t watching. I was standing in the open like a gawking bystander, but everyone was so busy watching the cat that they didn’t give a shit.

Michaels got back to his feet, pulling Dustin with him, and they started backing toward Mary. The other guys were doing the same, whether they were armed or not. One of them stumbled and the cat’s head swiveled toward him. It took a single step forward, and he screamed in fear, a high-pitched wail, before emptying his gun. He stumbled again, falling to the ground, and crawled away from the cat, staring at the ground in front of himself. He was obviously too terrified to even look at it.

Shotgun Guy came at me, and I only noticed because of Leon’s timely warning. I ducked under a hook punch and got kneed in the stomach. He grabbed my collar and wrenched me down to the ground, pulling a knife from somewhere and stabbing down.

I shoved a hand in front of my face, letting him impale it, and then yanked the knife away and pulled it from my hand. He punched me in the stomach with one hand while trying to keep the knife down on the ground with the other, and I covered his eyes with my free hand, then gave him another flash of light right in the eyes.

“Fucking lights!” he grunted. “Fuck you!”

It gave me a second in which his grip was weaker. I used my free right hand to grab his, letting me bring the knife into play again; he dove away from me, rolling to the side. Unable to see, he didn’t have much choice. I kicked his leg, tripping him, and he landed on his stomach. I put the knife to his throat.

“Don’t move,” I said.

He stilled, and I looked up, trying to see what else had changed.

The cat – I was trying not to think about the fact that Menagerie was in there – continued to prowl back and forth as the bad guys retreated, taking Dustin with them toward the three vehicles. He was out, and Michaels was carrying him; the cat was staring at the kid and looking angrier every step he moved with Michaels. Mary stopped retreating, looking at me.

Heavyweight came back. He jumped into the center of the group of bad guys, knocking them down as he landed. Mary had been looking at me and hadn’t seen him in time to stop him, but when his fist lashed out toward her face it was stopped cold again, inches away. When she hit him again, Heavyweight grabbed for Dustin and missed – then latched onto Michaels instead, taking him along for the ride. Dustin fell on the ground, clearly unconscious; he didn’t look hurt.

The cat sprinted after them, and I figured Michaels was a dead man. I let Shotgun Guy go, sprinting after Heavyweight, and bent space hard. I shot through the middle of the bad guys in a step or two, catching a brief glimpse of surprise on Mary’s face.

Heavyweight saw or heard the cat coming; as it lunged at Michaels, lying on the ground groaning, he hit it with an uppercut under the jaw and it twisted, nearly falling on its back. He kicked it twice, his heavy booted foot making a dull sound as it hit, and the cat was knocked onto its side.

“Get her out of here!” I said.

Heavyweight glanced at me for a second before turning back. He charged the cat as it regained its feet, tackled it shoulder-first, and jumped away. I saw him throw the thing away from himself before he landed out of sight. It looked like one of its feet hit him before I lost sight of them. I could still hear them fighting, though.

I bent over and grabbed Michaels, lifting him up by his neck, and put my knife to his throat, turning to face Mary and the guys with her. At this point, two of them were still in the fight. The others were injured too badly, or caring for those who were. One was edging toward Dustin.

I started walking towards them, shoving Michaels ahead of me, and the two who were in good shape pointed their guns at me. I wanted to run off and help Menagerie and Feral – or at least try to – but I had a bad feeling that if we left without Dustin they might not calm down at all. Not to mention the fact that leaving the kid with these people for any longer was completely unacceptable.

Leon and I conferred for about two seconds.

Before they could do anything, I swept my hand sideways in front of Michaels’ throat and kicked him to the ground, then vanished.

It was dark, and the faint, dark red light I’d held in my hand must have sold the lie; they all reacted like they’d just seen me murder someone and vanish into thin air. Before Michaels could talk and spoil it, I sprinted straight into the group, scooped Dustin up in my arms, and ran. I closed my left eye for a second, gauging how much energy I had: it dropped below one-third.

They shouted behind me and I heard a gunshot, but when I finally turned to look back – halfway across the lawn of the next house – Mary was hurriedly rushing the guys into the cars, including Michaels. One of them stopped and ran back from the van with a container, and I quickly realized he was spreading something – maybe gasoline – over the lawn and the wrecked car. They took two or three unmoving bodies with them; I wasn’t sure if they were dead or just unconscious.

They drove away, leaving the burning house and bloody ground behind them. I was too exhausted to move, but I gratefully let my invisibility drop – I had just a sliver of energy left as I sank to my knees, putting Dustin down for a moment.

Maybe a half-minute after they were gone, a figure came running out of the burning house, and I wondered if it was the last guard – the one I’d left for dead.

When he turned to look back, I caught a better look and realized it was the balding guy who’d picked up the drugs at the storage place. The one we’d thought might be a doctor, or something.

I stood up, holding Dustin in my arms, and started to circle the property, steering clear of the fire and the light it cast, trying to work my way towards where I’d last seen Heavyweight fighting…the cat. The doctor, or whatever he was, turned and ran. He didn’t look like he was going anywhere except away, and I couldn’t blame him. He’d apparently been scared enough to hide in the burning house until it looked like everybody was gone, and given that he hadn’t tried to join the cars before they left, I didn’t think it was Feral that had scared him. Or not just Feral, at least.

I soon heard the sounds of fighting again, as I got farther from the fire. I closed in cautiously, afraid of what I would see.

What I found was Heavyweight smacking the cat with a piece of a fence like it was a baseball bat, hitting it on each side. It was obviously disoriented. The wood broke and he dropped it, laying into the cat with his fists and feet. The firelight was mostly blocked, so I couldn’t see too well; my eyes were adjusting to the decrease in lighting.

I thought a quick prayer. God didn’t owe me any favors, but it couldn’t hurt to ask. This qualified as a time of need.

“Dustin’s safe,” I said loudly.

They both jerked toward me in surprise.

“He’s not hurt,” I said. I meant physically, of course. I wasn’t a doctor, but he seemed fine. Mentally was another matter; I wasn’t sure whether Dustin or Raquel would be more messed up after tonight. Fortunately, I was too exhausted to think it through right then.

The cat looked at Dustin, then me, then growled again.

Feral, it’s over,” Leon said.

Raquel, the fighting is done,” I said. “It’s done. Dustin’s here. We can take him home. Take him back to his mother.

The big cat shook its head fiercely, then slashed at the ground.

A moment later it just dissolved away into nothing, and Raquel fell to the ground. After a few seconds she jerked her mask off and threw up, pushing herself to one side and falling next to the puddle of vomit. Lying there, she retched and sobbed. When nothing more came up, she caught her breath for a few seconds before shoving one hand, finger extended, into her mouth.

She threw up again, convulsively. When it was finally over, she stumbled to her feet and away from the spot, then fell again and kept sobbing, curling up into a ball.

I stared at her, then looked at Heavyweight. He looked back at me, frozen.

I walked up to him and held Dustin out, and he took the kid in his arms.

I grabbed Raquel’s mask, stuffing it in a pocket automatically. No sense leaving extra evidence. Hopefully the fire would destroy the evidence of us, along with the evidence of the bad guys. I walked over to Raquel, kneeling next to her, and put a hand on her shoulder gently.

She twitched violently, but not away from me. She just lay there, shuddering. I squeezed her shoulder. I couldn’t find the right words, assuming any existed. I wasn’t even sure if I could talk, let alone whether I should. I was exhausted.

Raquel’s shudders turned to shivers, then started to slow. After a minute or two, she turned toward me, but she couldn’t quite meet my eyes. It was too dark to see much, but her face was drawn. She tried to talk once, twice, then a third time.

Finally she just looked away.

I’m sorry,” she said silently. I could feel her disgust, a powerful wave of nausea and self-loathing like nothing I’d ever felt from someone else. Leon’s emotions had never been that intense, and Feral always seemed to be a bit aloof when we’d communicated. Raquel felt like she was at sea, clinging to a piece of wreckage and wondering whether she ought to let go.

It’s not your fault,” I said. I didn’t even know if it was true. I certainly didn’t believe she’d intended any of…that…to happen. My stomach was turning as I remembered, but I forced myself to focus on now, on helping Raquel. Everything else could wait.

We need to go,” I said. “The cops will be coming soon.

She didn’t react.

I squeezed her shoulder again. “Please,” I said. “I’ll take care of things, but I need you to get up. We need to move.

Raquel sat up, looking up at me, and this time she did meet my eyes.

I tasted his blood,” she said numbly. “I remember swallowing it.

I grabbed her gently by the armpits and lifted her up, looking her in the eye, then took my mask off so she could see my face.

We’re going to fix this,” I said. I gave it all the confidence and sincerity I could. More of the latter than the former. Leon backed me up.

Raquel closed her eyes, not saying anything else aloud or privately, but when I put an arm under her shoulders, she let me guide her as we walked.

We made it to the car before we heard the police sirens. It was a mostly abandoned part of town. Response times were slow. Besides, it hadn’t actually been that long.

There were towels in the trunk. I’d thought ahead a bit, and figured that we wouldn’t want to bleed on my rented car. I certainly didn’t want to answer any of the questions that would raise, or pay the fees. They went on top of the seats.

Heavyweight and Dustin went in the back. I eased Raquel into the front passenger seat, and the open doors triggered the car’s ceiling light, showing me her face.

She didn’t look hurt. She just looked horrified. Dustin was still out cold. In the dim light from the car, I finally noticed that my shirt was mostly gone, burned away by Dustin’s fire. I took off my mask, got into the driver’s seat, and got us away from that damned place, wondering what the body count was.

I’d have to ask Mary. I’d have to ask her a lot of things.

First things first, though. Get away from the crime scene. Help Dustin and Raquel.

Then I could try to figure out whether I was about to turn into a psychological wreck. I really didn’t want to answer that one yet. I wasn’t sure whether Heavyweight was calm, numb, or just locked up tight behind his mask.

We didn’t say a word as I drove away.

Raquel was still crying in the seat next to me, barely moving as tears dripped down her face.

Silence, for a few minutes. I got some distance, then parked the car when I thought we had privacy. I glanced at Raquel, and saw that her face was still wet. She wasn’t wiping the tears away, so I couldn’t say for certain whether she was still crying or not. I looked back at Heavyweight and Dustin. Heavyweight still wore his mask, and he had one hand holding Dustin upright in his seat.

I sighed.

“Okay,” I said. “Michaels probably got to Dustin. We need to figure out what to do about it.” I rubbed at my eyes absently as I thought. “I’m going to call the Philly Five, see if they can help.”

Raquel didn’t say a word.

Heavyweight cleared his throat. “We should hand the kid over to the police,” he said.

I looked back at him. I didn’t have my mask on, I realized, but it didn’t seem all that important at the time. He still wore his. “The police can’t help him with his brain, and the FBI is a maybe at best. If the Philly Five can’t help, then we can still go to them. If we take him to the FBI first, they might not be able to let the Philly Five try to help, even if they want to. It’s probably against the rules. Assuming they have rules that remotely cover this. If not, then one guy who wants to keep his job could screw him over,” I said, gesturing at Dustin.

He hesitated for a second before nodding. “All right.”

I pulled out my phone and put together a message to Bloodhound. Once it was sent, I looked at Raquel and Heavyweight.

I sighed. “I have no idea when they’ll see my message, or how long it will take them to get here,” I said. “If you guys need to go home, you can.”

Raquel didn’t react. Heavyweight looked at Dustin, then back at me. He didn’t speak, but I could see his answer plainly enough.

I played with my phone a bit, then saw that I’d gotten a message from Mary. Two, actually. One was from before, warning us that she was on her way. The second was more recent.

“Going to lay low for a few days, at least. Please don’t do anything else until we talk. Probably moving to new apartment, too; don’t try to reach me at old one.”

“Dustin okay?”

-MW

I sent back a quick reply.

“Got it. No noise for a bit.”

“Dustin not wounded.”

I showed Raquel the messages, hoping to give her something else to focus on, but she barely noticed.

Raquel, talk to me,” I said. “What are you thinking?

Nothing. I reached out with my right hand, gently taking hold of her left. Her head drooped forward, hiding her face from me, and I looked away.

She’d need to talk to someone, sooner or later. Heavyweight didn’t know as much about her as I did, and couldn’t relate to her connection with Feral the same way. Neither could her mother. As far as I knew, there was no one else who knew as much as I did about this part of her life, so I was nominated by circumstance.

So, should I try to talk to her now, or let it wait?

Hard to say. I generally preferred to be left to myself when I needed to think, or grapple with something tough, but that didn’t mean it was the healthiest choice for me, let alone for her. I didn’t really know that much about Raquel as a person, yet.

We could talk silently, but there was still a difference between conversing alone and talking with two people in the backseat. I decided to wait.

I didn’t let go of her hand, though. Hopefully, the human contact would help her stay sane for now.

It took more than an hour for Bloodhound to reply, but I was just grateful he had gotten to it that night. He said he was on the way with help. I had followed the rules we’d established previously, which meant I couldn’t describe the situation explicitly, but I’d managed to make it clear that we weren’t fighting anymore, and to hint pretty blatantly that the problem was mental tampering. I was hopeful.

“They’re on the way,” I said. “Shouldn’t be too long. I’m taking us to the meeting spot now.”

We went back to the familiar park spot, complete with remnants of a playground. We all sat in the car, waiting.

Bloodhound was as good as his word; they made the trip faster than I’d expected. Comet, Bloodhound, and a third person. Someone I didn’t recognize.

I got out to meet them, and Heavyweight joined me. Raquel stayed where she was. I offered her mask and helped her pull it on when she accepted.

“So, what’s the problem exactly?” Bloodhound asked.

I gestured back to the car. “The kid was kidnapped, held for days. One of the people who had him is supposed to be some kind of telepath or something. When we went to get him, things got messy and he attacked us. It was a pretty bad situation, but I think his head’s been messed with. Some kind of manipulation to make him more loyal, or something like that. We want to get him home, but if he’s just going to snap and start lighting everything on fire, there’s no point. Can you help?”

Bloodhound and Comet turned to look at the third figure. “Stalker?” Comet prompted.

Stalker was female, dressed mostly in black or something dark enough that I couldn’t tell the difference at the time, and shorter than Comet. That was about all I could determine, although I was distracted. Her whole body as concealed, and her outfit looked thickly padded enough that I couldn’t tell how much of her bulk was her body and how much was armor. Even her hair was hidden. It seemed to be a theme for the group, hiding as much as possible about themselves.

Her voice was a bit muffled, too. “Maybe,” she said. “I’ll need to take a look at him. Bring him out.”

The request was clearly directed at me. Heavyweight and I walked back to the car, pulled Dustin out, and brought him over. We set him down on a bench, lying on his back.

We were lucky he hadn’t woken up yet. I hadn’t even seen him fall unconscious. I wasn’t sure what had done it. I had checked his pulse and breathing, just in case, and he seemed fine.

Stalker stood over him, looking down, and didn’t move for a minute. Not wanting to disturb her, I walked over to Comet and Bloodhound.

“I get the feeling you won’t be specific, but does she have a power that might help?” I whispered.

“Yes,” Comet said.

Leon got my attention; he was thinking more clearly than me. When we’d gone up against Blitz, the Philly Five had said they had a telepathic defense, and that one of the group had set it off. At the time, the way they’d said it made me think of a device of some sort. Something one of them or an ally had built.

Now we had an alternative theory to explain it all: Stalker was a telepath. That might explain the odd, contradictory stories about her powers, the fact that she didn’t often reveal herself, and the reason they wouldn’t share a telepathic defense – they couldn’t. If Stalker protected them against other telepaths, presumably she had to be present to do it. Using her powers might not require her targets to see her, so anytime she was seen would be because it was unavoidable, and the rest of the time she would just hide. Why not? It was the smart thing to do. If I was a telepath trying to stop super powered bad guys, I’d just find the edge of my range and set up with a pair of binoculars or something.

We waited. I glanced at Raquel, sitting in the car, a few times. She stayed unmoving.

After a few minutes, Stalker sighed.

“I can help, but this is going to take a while,” she said. “Hours, at least.”

“Okay,” I said.

Raquel, Stalker says she can help but it’s going to take hours at a minimum. Do you want a ride home?” I asked silently.

She didn’t answer. I walked over to the car, opened the door, and leaned down. “Menagerie, do you want a ride home?”

This time she nodded.

I looked at Heavyweight. “You need a ride?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m good. But I have to go. Work tomorrow. Early.”

“Okay,” I said. I looked at Comet. “I’m going to give Menagerie a ride, if that’s okay, but I’ll be back afterward.”

“Sure,” Comet said.

“Any of you need some patching up?” Bloodhound asked.

I glanced at Menagerie, then back at him. “No,” I said. I’d checked before; she wasn’t hurt. Whatever had happened, she’d been protected while it lasted, at least. “I’ll see you shortly.”

“I wouldn’t mind a little patching up,” Heavyweight said quietly. He glanced at Menagerie. I didn’t think she heard him.

Heavyweight walked over to Bloodhound, and I got back into the driver’s seat, starting toward Raquel’s house. I hadn’t driven there before, of course. I knew enough to get to the general area, though, and I managed to get her to talk enough to direct me the rest of the way.

That had been Leon’s idea. A way to get her talking without thinking, if it went well. Distract her.

I stopped the car on her street, before we got to her house, and reached out, putting one hand on her shoulder.

“We’re here,” I said. I took a deep breath before continuing. “When you want to talk about it, get in touch, okay?”

No reaction.

“Raquel,” I said, “promise me that you’ll tell me when you’re ready to talk about it. Please.”

She shook her head. “I don’t even want to think about it,” she said.

“But you are anyway,” I pointed out. “I have a feeling that’s not going to change if you try to just forget.”

“Maybe,” she said.

“Look, it doesn’t have to be me,” I said. “But you’re going to need to talk to someone about what happened. I probably am, too.”

More waiting.

“Don’t leave me alone with her,” Raquel whispered. “Please.”

Her? She didn’t mean her mother.

Oh. Of course.

She meant Feral.

Leon and I were the only ones who could even talk to Feral, besides her. There were others, presumably, but she didn’t know them personally. Bloodhound’s friend, whom we’d met before, might qualify. But she wasn’t around and Raquel didn’t trust her anyway.

Leon and I were silent for a moment, both thinking of what to say.

I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,” Feral said to all of us. “Raquel, I‘m sorry. You must know I didn’t mean it, that I didn’t wish for it.

Shut up!” Raquel screamed. Her hands went to her temples, as if she wanted to squeeze something out of her head. “You promised me. You promised that you would never do that to me, but you did. You locked me in my own mind!

Her eyes were tearing up again, though I don’t think she noticed, and her face was contorted with grief and anger.

You know I didn’t want to hurt them,” Feral said. “I’ve always tried to use restraint. Always.

Leon broke in gently, trying to head off the argument. “I think neither of you may have been wholly responsible,” he said. “You’ve both displayed self-control in the past. Remember what Michaels’ powers are? I think he may have done something to you.

That was a frightening possibility that I hadn’t considered.

Leon may be right,” I said quickly.

If he wasn’t, then we were trying to absolve them of responsibility for murder. I really wanted him to be right. Regardless, I thought Raquel and Feral would be a lot less dangerous to everyone if they didn’t have a breakdown.

I felt a stab of sadness as I realized I would be keeping a closer eye on both of them from now on, regardless of what happened from here on out. Maybe Raquel had lost control because of how much she cared about Dustin. Maybe Feral had lost control for some other reason. Maybe Michaels had pushed one or both of them. It didn’t matter, in a sense; they couldn’t be trusted as much as before, at least around Michaels. Someone needed to watch them. Leon and I were there.

Raquel, you were as angry as I was,” Feral said. “Both of us were blind with rage. Leon must be right.

Now I was second-guessing how quickly she seized on the idea. Dammit.

I squeezed Raquel’s shoulder again.

I know you both,” I said. “I believe in you both. You’re better than that. Michaels must have done something. Maybe it was part of trying to turn Dustin against us, or maybe his powers didn’t work right – he could have been planning something else entirely.

Maybe,” Raquel said. “I guess…maybe.

There was a spark of hope there. Now we just had to keep it alive long enough for her to bounce back.

I’m sorry I couldn’t help you both,” I said. “Maybe if we learn more, we can keep it from happening. But for now…you need to let it go. You guys set out to save someone – a kid. A lot went wrong tonight, but we still got him out. The Philly Five are helping him, and pretty soon he should be going home to his mother. That’s because of you guys. Without you, Heavyweight and I probably wouldn’t have gotten involved, and we wouldn’t have found Mary either. You’ve done some good work. Don’t beat yourselves up over things going wrong when you couldn’t have known they would.

A second later, I realized I was holding my breath and let it out slowly. I didn’t want Raquel and Feral to realize how nervous I was.

The truth was that I remembered what the thing they’d become had been like. It hadn’t looked that different from Feral’s form, but it had felt different, somehow, and when it had torn out a man’s throat it had made the act look natural. I wasn’t over that.

“Thanks,” Raquel said.

On instinct, I pulled her into a quick hug. “Come on. You need to rest. Let’s get you home, okay? Tomorrow can take care of itself until you’ve gotten some sleep. I promise I’ll be in touch first thing, to let you know how everything goes with Dustin.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

I drove up in front of her house and let her out, and both of them thanked us as they walked to the front door. I saw Raquel’s mother open it before she got there, letting her in and sweeping her into a hug.

I guess she’d been worried. Part of me wondered if I should tell her everything that had happened, but there was no way I’d betray Raquel like that. Still, maybe I could encourage her to tell Carmen more, if she didn’t do it on her own.

That wouldn’t be remotely hypocritical.

Sleepy sarcasm. I needed rest too.

Think they’re okay for now?” I asked Leon.

For now, yes,” he said. “What about you?

I snorted. “Right now I’m worried about Dustin, Raquel, and Feral. I’m in one piece and I don’t think I’m scarred for life. That’s good enough for now.” I rolled my shoulders, trying to release the tension I suddenly noticed there. “How about you?

All right, I think,” Leon answered. “Worried about them, like you. I guess we’ll see where things go from here.

Ready to head back?” I asked.

Yes, let’s,” he said.

Okay.

I turned the car around. Carmen gave me a little nod before she closed their door.
 
 
 
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Trust But Verify 7

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Raquel and I didn’t talk to each other out loud or in our heads as we walked. We left the little park and went back the way we’d come, past the bus stop and further down the street. We continued on past the BPSC building, across the street to our left, looking around for someplace discreet that we could wait.

I’m not seeing anything promising,” Leon said as we passed it. “These are mostly more business buildings, not public spaces.

There’s a coffee shop up ahead,” I noted. “But I don’t think we could see the front door or the parking lot from there. What about the other sides? Maybe there’s something next to the building, instead of across from it?

Let’s go to the coffee shop first,” Raquel said. “I could use some anyway, and there’s always a chance someone is looking at us. If I were running BPSC, I’d be paranoid – especially today.

Let’s try to find a spot first,” I said. “If we do, we can always get some coffee afterward. If we don’t, we can head there while we think. Even if they’re paranoid, they have no way to pick us out of a crowd unless we start acting suspicious.

Okay,” Raquel acquiesced.

It took us maybe ten minutes to explore the immediate area. We were walking slowly, trying to make sure we didn’t look like we were in a hurry. BPSC wasn’t a fortress, by any means, but it wasn’t exactly situated to make spying convenient, either. We’d started across the street from it, then walked in a broad circuit.  It was on a corner, so there wasn’t anything next to the building on two sides except the street. Across from it on those sides were a series of small businesses, on one side, and a larger, blocky office building on the other, between five and ten stories tall. I didn’t bother counting.

The bus stop, where we’d started, was on a fairly busy street. Moving past the BPSC building and away from the center of the heart of the city’s businesses, it was obvious at a glance that the roads were less crowded ahead of us than behind. After we passed the BPSC building, we could get a good look at what was next to it: a bank, then a clothing store, and finally a hair salon. We turned left, letting BPSC go out of sight, to see what else was on the block.

There wasn’t anything relevant on that side, so we kept going. The other two sides of the block were more of the same. Businesses, some local and some part of larger chains, but nothing helpful.

I’m not seeing a lot of options,” I said to Raquel. We detoured a bit to take us out of sight of the BPSC building for the last part of our circuit.

Me neither,” she agreed. “If we can’t be inconspicuous by just finding a bench, I’m not sure what our best option is.

I looked over at the smaller businesses across the street, where we’d started. “Rooftop again? Go around behind those buildings, find a way up, and see if there’s a good spot?

She agreed. We walked past the bus stop again, this time ending up almost where we’d started, then moved a bit further away from BPSC and behind the buildings across from it, into the parking lots. A brief search let us find one that was easy to climb, and up we went.

The rooftops weren’t all flat, but enough of them were that we had no trouble finding a comfortable perch. Once we were up there, we took a minute to get situated, and Raquel produced a small pair of binoculars.

I guess you figured this might happen?” I said.

Kind of, yeah,” she said. “I mostly grabbed them on instinct on the way out of the house, honestly. But I was thinking ahead on the way here. Feral, are you watching the back door?

Yes,” Feral said.

Raquel and I took turns watching the front door of the BPSC building through the binoculars. I’m not sure how long we were sitting up there on the roof, exactly, waiting to see if the woman who’d given me the business card would come out, but at least a few hours went by. At one point I hit the coffee shop we’d noticed earlier, getting us each some caffeine to keep us going. In the meantime, we barely talked; whoever was on watch needed to pay attention. When it wasn’t my turn, I was talking to Leon and trying to work on what Bloodhound had taught us. I didn’t make any light, since I didn’t want to draw attention to us or use up my energy – I’d learned that lesson after the previous night – but I tried to figure out if there was a way for me to keep track of how much energy I had left, so I wouldn’t need Leon to tell me.

Our amateur surveillance lasted well into the afternoon with no results other than making us bored and tired. I almost felt like I was travelling. There’s a weird, kind of lethargic feeling that you get sometimes when on a long car ride, on a train, or on a plane. It doesn’t make much sense, since you’re spending the time sitting on your ass, but it happens anyway. It felt a lot like that.

It wasn’t completely boring, of course; we saw a few people come and go from the building, confirming that at least something was happening there. We’d seen the cars in the parking lot, obviously, and been pretty sure, but we hadn’t dared approach the building closely enough to really look inside. While Raquel’s binoculars let us look at a few windows, the ones we could spot hadn’t given us any information. The light was wrong for us to see in.

She’s here,” Feral finally reported. I glanced at my phone and saw that it was almost four in the afternoon.

Is she alone? Heading for a car?” I asked.

It looks like that’s a ‘yes’ to both,” Raquel said. “Not sure which car is hers, though; I don’t see the one from last night.

A glance told me that Raquel’s eyes were closed, and the binoculars were lowered; presumably, she was looking through Feral’s eyes.

Feral, can you latch on?” I asked.

I think so – one moment,” she replied.

Raquel pulled out a piece of paper and a pen, and circled the car’s license plate. We’d written them all down earlier, not having anything better to do during the hours spent sitting there. We weren’t planning to go to the police, but it wasn’t out of the question, and we figured we might want to be able to identify the cars again ourselves either way.

Raquel opened her eyes a second later and looked at me. “She’s on. Looks like our friend is leaving.”

“Okay,” I said. “Not much we can do until we know where to go, then. Let’s hop down. You want to eat something? I’m starving.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” she admitted, “but I don’t really have cash.”

“It’s on me, then,” I said. “Don’t sweat it. I’m sure you’ll save my life one of these days to cancel it out.”

Raquel smiled. “Saving lives gets me free food? I wish I’d known that before.”

Getting back down from the roof wasn’t challenging; it was a short building. I used my power on us both, and the landing wasn’t hard enough to hurt. We’d looked down first, of course, to make sure there wasn’t anyone around to see us, and it seemed like we had good timing; only a few seconds after our feet hit the asphalt of the parking lot, a few people came out the back of the very same building we’d been on top of, walking to their cars. Rather than hiding, we just walked away as calmly as possible, figuring that they wouldn’t care about us unless we gave them a reason to.

We found a place nearby and got a couple slices of pizza each, figuring that we didn’t want to take too long; there was no way to know how soon we’d be able to move out again.

Can Feral tell us where they are at all?” I asked. One benefit of being able to talk to someone mind-to-mind is that you can do it with your mouth full.

She’s not sure exactly,” Raquel told me. “But kind of northeast-ish? More north than east.

Should we start following after when we finish?” I asked.

I think we can, yeah,” Raquel said.

Once our food was eaten, we took a second to check bus routes and then found the appropriate stop to head north. We weren’t waiting that long. On the bus, Raquel closed her eyes and leaned against the window, sharing Feral’s perceptions again. I listened to her describe where Feral was being taken.

A while later, Raquel and I arrived near Feral’s destination, going the rest of the distance on foot. The car had gone to an apartment building in a middle-class part of the city, not too close to the beach but not too far either. By the time we got there it was almost dark out, and getting chilly. Feral, Raquel told me, had seen the woman we were following park her car in the basement and get out of it, then head inside. She couldn’t follow her too closely without being seen, which we all agreed we wanted to avoid for now, but she was able to see that the woman had taken the elevator up to the third floor.

“So, what now?” Raquel said. “We could just head in and start knocking on doors on the third floor, but I’m not feeling that trusting. I don’t know about you.”

“Yeah, I’d rather not show her my face either,” I said. “She gave us a hint and didn’t want to fight, but that only takes you so far. I think we should leave her a message – invite her to meet us somewhere else, maybe? Feral could lead her, or something. That way if she tries to call someone on the way, we’ll know. Feral can probably figure out which place is hers by scent, right?”

We talked it over a bit longer, but the plan didn’t change much; it just got detailed. In less than an hour, Feral opened a door to let Raquel in. Raquel went up the stairs to the third floor, tied a note onto Feral, then opened the door to the hallway and left the building. Once Raquel was back with me, Feral went down the hall, sniffing at each door until she was confident that she had the right one. Then she grew a bit larger, knocked loudly, and quickly shrank back down to normal cat size.

“It’s 307,” Raquel said. “Which one is that?”

I glanced down at the list in my hand; we’d copied the names of all the third floor residents from the buzzer at the front door.

“Apartment 307…Mary Wade,” I said.

We waited.

“She’s answering the door,” Raquel told me. A second later, she smiled. “Ha, she didn’t expect that, I think. She’s looking around. She sees the note…huh. She’s talking to Feral. Asking if she can understand her.”

I wished I could see what was happening for myself, but this did seem like the best option. We’d toyed with the idea of having me – invisible – try to sneak into her apartment, thinking that it might be too good an opportunity to waste, but decided against it in the end.

“Okay, she’s getting her shoes and stuff,” Raquel said. “Looks like we’re on. We should get there.”

“Right,” I said.

We started walking. We’d taken a bit of extra time beforehand to look around, trying to find someplace where we could meet with the woman privately. Mostly, we wanted to be able to hide our faces from her without attracting attention from other people.

What we had found was a copse of trees on the side of a bicycle path. There was probably someplace better, but we didn’t want to introduce ourselves by making her walk too far and pissing her off.

Raquel and I were nearly at the path when Feral invited our guest, so it didn’t take long for us to get to the copse. We stepped between a few trees, and then we were out of sight. On one side was the bike path; on the other was a chain link fence. The bottom was bent, making it plain that kids or animals went under it with regularity, or had at some point, anyway. We weren’t sure what the building behind the fence was, but it didn’t really matter. Some kind of factory or warehouse, maybe. It seemed abandoned, or at least empty for the day.

We put on our masks and waited, standing next to each other.

After a few minutes, Feral walked into the little space behind the trees, closely followed by Mary Wade, and I finally got a look at her.

She was wearing jeans and a hoodie, but she lowered the hood when she saw us. She was a brunette, and wore her hair tied back, with bangs that covered most of her forehead. She had a sharp sort of face, with prominent cheekbones and a nose that was a bit big. I guessed that she was a bit older than me, enough to have graduated from college already. Her face was closed off – an obvious poker face – and her eyes rapidly assessed both of us, then scanned the area around us. She wasn’t shy about it; she looked us over blatantly, and she was just as plain about the way she looked around and behind us.

Menagerie – with our masks on, I started to think of her as Menagerie, not even noticing at the time – held a small orb of light in the palm of one hand. We didn’t want to intimidate Mary, but we’d agreed that it would be good if she was a bit confused about what we could do. Her actions the previous night hadn’t been hostile, but it was a weird situation. The light wasn’t threatening, but it was a clear statement that we had powers.

It also let us see each other, of course.

While she studied us, Feral walked over to Menagerie and affectionately rubbed against her legs, growing to a slightly larger size – not unbelievable for a domestic housecat, but on the big side. Then she curled up on the ground.

Mary looked at us questioningly for a second. I sat down, still facing her, and gestured with one hand for her to do the same. She hesitated, glancing at Menagerie, then did so. Menagerie sat down a second later, and let the light in her hand dim a bit.

“I’m Flicker,” I told her, breaking the silence. “You’re Mary Wade?”

She nodded, still not speaking.

“My friend is Menagerie,” I went on, gesturing to my side. “You’ve already met Feral.” Feral lifted her head for a moment at the sound of her name, looking at Mary, then put it back down, closing her eyes. “Normally, I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but this is a bit of a weird situation. Am I right in thinking that you gave me your card so we could find you?”

“Yeah,” she said with another nod. “Didn’t think you’d necessarily find me at home, though.”

“After last night, we didn’t think you’d appreciate it if we showed up at your job,” Menagerie said. “This is the first chance we’ve had to talk. Why did you give Flicker your card, Mary?”

“You two found Michaels at his house,” Mary said. “My best guess is that you’re looking for that kid, Dustin. I want you to find him.”

Menagerie straightened a bit, involuntarily, and I could hear Feral trying to soothe her, to keep her calm.

See what she’ll tell us for free first,” Leon said. “We can bring up the fact that she helped to kidnap him after.

“We are looking for Dustin,” I said. With a split second to decide, I chose to take Leon’s advice. “So, can you tell us where he is? And maybe who took him and why? We know Michaels was involved, but not much else.”

Mary hesitated for a second, but then seemed to gather her thoughts – and maybe her courage – to speak. “There’s a guy. I’ve only met him once, in person. He’s out of town, I think, but not that far away. Michaels and I both work for him, and he’s the one in charge. I don’t know where he is, where he’s from, or much else. He’s had a few supers grabbed, not just Dustin, and not all from Berkeleyport. Then Michaels…does his thing.” She sounded like there was a foul taste in her mouth. Before I could ask what she meant, she looked up at us. “He does something to your mind. I don’t know all the details, how it works or anything like that. But he can take someone who hates his guts, and make them think he’s their best friend and they owe him their lives. I don’t know if there’s any way to stop it or reverse it. It takes time, though. I’d say Dustin has a couple days before he’s mindfucked, but I’m not sure if it’s different on kids. As far as I know, Michaels has never tried it on anyone so young before.”

Again, I could hear the byplay of Menagerie’s anger and Feral trying to help restrain it. Menagerie was furious, and I think only the fact that we were getting answers helped her cool off.

“He mindfucks people, you said,” I responded. “Makes them…loyal to him, or something?”

“Basically, yeah,” Mary answered.

“Then how come you’re talking to us?” I asked. “I can’t see why he wouldn’t do it to you.”

Mary’s eyes narrowed in anger. “He would, but I don’t hang around him enough. You remember I said neither of us is in charge, right? The boss has me stay in town mostly to keep an eye on him, but that means occasional check-ins. If he ever does try to redecorate my brain, I have permission to kill him, and Michaels knows it. See, he doesn’t just twist people to make them loyal to him. He can make it work for other people too. In our case, that means the boss.”

“You said it takes time to work,” I noted. “How much? It must be a lot if Michaels isn’t done by now.”

“It’s complicated,” Mary said. “I don’t know everything, like I said. From what I’ve heard him say, he can work faster than this, but the results aren’t as good. They’re more brittle, more prone to breaking down. He does it slow so that the work will last, in the long-term. With Dustin, it might be harder or easier, like I said, but I know he’s not finished yet – he’s scheduled to go see the kid again. When he does finish, Dustin will get shipped out of town. That’s our deadline, if you want to help him, ‘cause I don’t know where he’ll be headed.”

“Where is he?” Menagerie demanded angrily.

Mary looked at her. “I don’t know, exactly. He-”

“Bullshit!” Menagerie interrupted. “You helped grab him in the first place. Don’t try to sell us some innocent act. Feral could fucking smell you, you bitch. We know it wasn’t just Michaels who grabbed him – it was both of you. So tell me where the fuck he is.” As she spoke, Feral raised her head and yawned wide, exposing her teeth.

“Don’t threaten me,” Mary said calmly. “I’m not afraid of Michaels, and I’m not going to be afraid of you. The only one I’m afraid of is our boss. When he gives me orders, I follow them, because I don’t want to die. Now, you can back down, and I’ll help you find the boy – which I was already going to do – or you can try to play games and scare me, and this conversation will be over. If you can’t keep your cool, then I won’t risk dealing with you.”

Menagerie bristled, and I put a hand on her arm. “She came to us, remember?” I said. “She gave me her card. She let us find her home. Chill out.”

Menagerie yanked her arm out from under my hand, but she cooled off, settling into a sullen silence, and Feral relaxed again. After waiting a second, I looked back at Mary. “Why come to us instead of the cops? The FBI has powered agents in town looking for this kid. I doubt we can protect you from your boss any better than they could.”

She hesitated for a second before answering, and Leon noticed that her left hand – which she had been leaning on before Menagerie’s little outburst – was near her back. She put it back on the ground, but I had the distinct sense that she had been thinking about reaching for something when threatened. A weapon? Feral hadn’t seen her grab it, if so.

“The boss is dangerous in more ways than one,” She said finally. “I can’t just run away from him – he can find me. And if I betray him, he will find me. So I need to find a way to help Dustin without anyone else learning that I did it. I imagine the FBI and the cops can keep secrets, but they also keep records…and when this is all over, I’d like to be able to get back to my life. Besides, they might try to go after the boss now. It’s too soon for that. I’m juggling a lot of problems. You guys keep secrets already, though. So I’m offering a simple deal. I help you get Dustin out, now, before it’s too late, and in return you help me find a way to get rid of Michaels and the boss and whoever else is helping him. I figure that will mean going to the FBI at some point, but I don’t want to do it yet. I don’t even know where the boss is right now. I don’t think Michaels does either.”

I drummed my fingers on one leg, considering. “Do you have a plan already?”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “After last night, Michaels’ schedule got a bit disrupted. I convinced the boss that he should lay low, and he could finish the work on Dustin after we’ve had time to make sure no one followed him. That bought us a little extra time. I can point you at Michaels, and he’ll lead you to Dustin. I can help stall him a little longer, too, by insisting that he lay low so you won’t find him, if you need me to. And I can try to make sure that he doesn’t have too much backup there. But you guys absolutely cannot get caught, or drop any hint that I helped. When this happens, the boss is going to be pissed. Michaels is a coward, and he’ll try to pin it on me. If the boss looks too closely at me, I may not be able to lie to him, and that will get me dead. You understand?”

“I think we do,” I said. “So we help Dustin first, and then we start working on Michaels and your boss afterward, then?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Okay with you?” I asked Menagerie.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said. She turned to Mary. “I don’t trust you, though. Even if you’re telling the truth now, you still helped kidnap him in the first place.”

Mary locked eyes with her, and for a few tense seconds neither of them said anything. Some suicidal part of me was tempted to make a joke about cat fights just to see the looks on their faces.

“Are we done?” Mary said finally, looking at me.

“Just about, I think,” I said. “Tell us what you can about Michaels so we can find Dustin, and then tell us how you want us to contact you afterward. I think that’s it.”

“What if I need to get in touch with you?” Mary asked.

“There isn’t a good way to do that right now, unfortunately,” I said.

It occurred to me that we could try getting in touch with her through our superstuff.com accounts, but I didn’t really want to risk it until I’d had time to think it through and talk to Menagerie first. We didn’t really have proof that she wanted to help us or Dustin yet, and I found myself thinking that if her boss really was collecting supers, and really did have a way of brainwashing them, he might want us, too. Learning who we were would make that a lot easier. Leon backed me up on my paranoia.

“Alright,” Mary said. She paused for a moment to think. “I’m not sure what the best way is for you guys to reach me, either. Right now, I’m confident that no one is watching me. But once things start to go wrong, there’s a chance the boss will get suspicious, and he knows I don’t like him. I’ve never given him a reason to spy on me before, but it wouldn’t  take a rocket scientist.”

“You have a balcony, right?” Menagerie said. “We can leave you message there without going through the building. Feral can just climb up.”

Mary winced. “That’s not the worst idea, but it’s a big risk – for me. If someone starts watching me, they could notice that.”

I was trying to brainstorm ideas when Leon broke in.

Consider your arrangement with Bloodhound,” he suggested. “An email account dedicated to the purpose could work, at least for things that aren’t time-sensitive.

I passed on the suggestion, and Mary seemed to like that idea.

“That works,” she said. “We can leave it at that, for now, if you guys want. But you won’t have any way to reach me in a hurry if something goes wrong with getting Dustin. Are you okay with that?”

“If something does go wrong, you won’t be able to help us anyway, will you?” I said. “From what you said before, I assumed you would be laying low at the time. If anything, Michaels will probably call you asking for help. The only thing you need to do is see if you can get stuck behind a red light.”

Mary laughed. “That would be convenient, yeah,” she said. She looked at me seriously. “If I make it there and you aren’t gone, I can’t throw the fight. Do you get that? Last night the boss was pissed at Michaels for getting noticed in the first place. When something happens twice he’ll be looking at both of us. I need to be able to look him in the eye and say that I did everything I could when I got the call, without lying, or he might kill me on the spot. I like living. I’m willing to take risks, but I’m not a martyr.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Just in case we do end up having to fight, though, why don’t you tell us how your powers work? It would make it a lot easier for us to win, and your boss wouldn’t have any way to know.”

She hesitated for a second, looking at me, then nodded slowly. “Okay. I can do that.”

She held up her hands, and two spheres – transparent, but still visible – formed above them. After a moment, one started floating around, seemingly at random, moving up, down, or laterally in front of her.

“I don’t know whether you’d call it telekinesis, technically,” Mary said. “It’s more like I can make force fields, but they can’t be big. Maybe large enough to cover my head, tops. I can make them move around some – actually pretty fast. I can use them to contain anything small enough. And I can’t maintain them too far away from me. I don’t know the exact range limit.”

They weren’t easy to see in the dark, but I could tell they were there. In effect, she made spherical projectiles. She’d used one to knock me down, and two to knock Feral off of herself. Thinking back, she might have used her power to protect herself when Feral hit her and knocked her to the ground.

“Are those tough enough to go through walls?” I asked. “I seem to recall someone punched holes in a jail wall and a police car not too long ago to break a super out. And someone tore up a certain golf course owner’s house when he disappeared. You?”

Leon noted that we might owe her some gratitude for pulling her punches. If she could put one of those spheres through a wall, then she probably could have put it through me, too.

She grimaced. “Yes. I broke the jailbird out on my own. Michaels was along for the other one, and he was supposed to keep it from turning into a fight. It didn’t work out that way. Unfortunately, Walker – the golf course guy – he transformed into something else. He was tough as hell, but once he changed he wasn’t smart enough to beat me. I tried to throw the fight, but it didn’t work.”

I got the sense that she was leaving something out, and Leon agreed, but we held back instead of prying further. “How many supers has this boss of yours collected? How many are in town?”

Mary shrugged. “I don’t know how many he has total. In town, only three that I know of: myself, Michaels, and one other – a guy who works at the same company as me. I think you destroyed his arm last night, actually, Flicker. The rest are somewhere else, even the ones from Berkeleyport.”

“What does he do?” I asked. Maybe he just hadn’t had a chance, but I hadn’t noticed the guy doing anything particularly super in our brief scuffle.

Mary shook her head. “I’m not sure, exactly. I don’t get told everything. I think he has some kind of improved senses, though. Probably smell or hearing, but it could be both, or a complete package. So if you do see him, try to stay downwind and quiet. He shouldn’t be out and about, though. You really did a number on his arm, and I think he’s leaving town to get it looked at, at least temporarily. So for a couple days, the only supers against you are Michaels and technically me…and Dustin, if we take too long or get really unlucky.”

“All right,” I said. “Good to know. Now, what can you tell us about finding Michaels and Dustin?”

“For starters, Michaels isn’t his real name,” Mary said. “The boss has us all use fake identities, just in case we screw up. I’m not sure how he sets them up to look real. Someone else handles that. Anyway, the point is that if you look for Michaels by name you won’t find him. After last night, he’s already shredded anything he had except for cash. The house he was living in is either going to end up in the hands of some bank or burn down in a random fire. I’m not in charge of that part, but I have a general idea what to expect. The boss is…paranoid. I’m not sure what he’s even after, but I get the sense that there’s something specific he’s trying to do, and someone specific he’s trying to avoid being noticed by.”

“Does that mean your name isn’t Mary Wade?” Menagerie asked.

“Yeah, it does,” she answered. “But you have to call me something, and that’s as good as anything else for now. You’ll note that I’m not asking for your real names, either.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “So, can you give us Michaels’ new address, or what?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Shit, I didn’t think to bring paper.” She hesitated for a second, then reached into her pocket and pulled out the note that we’d attached to Feral. “Never mind. One sec.”

She pulled out a pen and scribbled the address down, then handed it to me. As I took it, it seemed obvious that she was reluctant to let our fingers touch even for a second, but I couldn’t tell if she was afraid, nervous, cautious, or something else.

I glanced at the paper, then pocketed it. “Okay. You said Michaels will be laying low, but our only way to find Dustin is when he moves again. How long?”

“When’s a good time for you to follow him?” she asked. “I’m technically looking after him right now, keeping him out of trouble. I’ve got a little wiggle room.”

Menagerie, Feral, what do you guys think?” I asked. “Tomorrow night is Halloween, and I’d rather not do it then. Not sure when Michaels will head over, but there will be a lot of people out if it’s in the evening. Tuesday?

The sooner the better,” Menagerie said, but she didn’t argue with my reasoning.

“Can you convince him to lay low tomorrow, then make the trip, say, Tuesday evening? Or maybe Wednesday?” I asked Mary.

“Wednesday,” Mary said. “If I tell him to get back out there too soon, it’ll look weird. I don’t know where Dustin is, but I know he’s safe for now. He’s getting fed and stuff, and he’s not locked in some cell or anything. I’ll tell Michaels that he has to lay low until Thursday for security reasons. Then on Wednesday I’ll change my mind. If you want, we can set up those emails, actually – you can send me a message when you guys are ready, and I can call him then. He’ll want to get out of his bolthole and get to work so he can finish. I’m not sure, but I think his power weakens over time, if he’s not around to boost it every once in a while, at least before he’s finished. So he should react predictably.”

Menagerie, Feral, and Leon all agreed.

“We’ve got a deal, then,” I said.

The three of us stood up, and Mary and I worked out the last few details. Before we could leave, Menagerie spoke up again.

“Hey,” she said. “Mary, or whatever. If you fuck us over or if anything happens to Dustin I’m going to find you, got it? I don’t care how long it takes or where you run.”

Feral stood and yawned again.

“Yeah, I got it,” Mary said. She sounded unimpressed.

We went our separate ways.
 
 
 
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