Oh God, oh God. Okay, problems. Definite problems. There were bad guys here, and they were after Adrian for driving Josh out of the city. Worse, they already had Adrian somewhere else. Worse worse, his siblings were still inside the apartment with a guy who was apparently okay with hurting or killing them if Adrian didn’t cooperate, while his two buddies stood guard.
So yeah, problems. Tiny, innocent hostage-shaped problems. What… what was I supposed to do about that? If I fucked this up, those kids could get hurt. Or… or worse.
For a moment, I was left completely frozen from indecision and terror. People’s lives were on the line right now. Innocent people. Child people. What was I supposed to do? What… what…?
Who knows how long I might’ve sat there like that if the first man hadn’t spoken again, his next words penetrating the dense fog of panic I felt like arrow of cold terror. “Boss says this guy isn’t taking him seriously. Head in, tell Ted to break one of their arms and send the video. Maybe that’ll wake him up. Make it hurt, it’ll help if the kid screams good and loud.”
The second guy grumbled, cursing under his breath before heaving a sigh. I heard the door open as he went into the apartment before letting it close behind him.
Okay. I was out of time. Those kids were being hurt now. I had to do something. There wasn’t time to call the cops, there wasn’t time to get someone else there. As much as I might’ve wanted someone… better to deal with this, there wasn’t anyone. It was me or… or nothing. And if it was nothing, those kids were going to be hurt. Or worse, if this ‘boss’ guy didn’t believe that Adrian couldn’t tell him anything else.
I had to do something.
Shoving the fear and indecision away, I pushed myself up to my feet, took a breath, and stepped around the corner. Even as the man looked my way in obvious surprise, my hand was already snapping up to shoot a small glob of black paint that struck him in the chest. His mouth moved in a pantomime of a shout, but no sound came out. He recovered quickly enough from the surprise of that, turning toward the door to grab for the handle. Fortunately, I was ready, already shooting red paint at his back and at the opposite wall, to send him flying away from the door.
Even as he hit that wall, the man was scrambling to grab what was most likely a gun from inside his brown jacket. But I didn’t let him get that far. I was there, foot lashing out to kick the man in the knee while a purple tornado appeared on my leg, boosting my strength enough to leave the man a (silently, thanks to the still-active black paint) screaming heap on the floor.
Before the silencing paint could wear off, I kicked the man in the face with that same foot. His head snapped back, hitting the wall before he slumped with what looked like a weak moan.
Quickly, I reached down to check the man’s pockets and jacket. Sure enough, he had a gun, which I took away from him carefully. He also had the phone he’d been using to communicate with his boss, and I took that too, shoving the latter into my pocket while the gun I held gingerly.
Giving him one more shot of black paint to stop him from warning the guys inside for a few seconds, I moved to the door that he’d been about to open. Listening carefully, I heard nothing. Then I saw why I couldn’t hear anything. There was a small pen-shaped silver device attached to the doorframe. I knew what it was at a glance. The thing was called a Hushnow. It was another Touched-designed bit of tech that stopped sound from escaping the area it affected. This one looked a little more advanced and powerful than the ones I’d seen, but it was the same idea. That was why those guys weren’t afraid of the kids making too much noise, especially if they were going to break one of their arms. They had this thing stopping any sound in there from getting out. Which meant anything could be going on in there right now. Just because I didn’t hear screaming or crying didn’t mean it hadn’t already started. That was a fun realization.
I had to get in there now. But I also couldn’t let them use those kids as hostages. If one of them got shot because of me, I… No, I wouldn’t let that happen. I had to do this right. Which meant doing it fast and smooth, drawing their attention and disarming them before they hurt anyone.
Thinking quickly, I knocked several times quickly on the door, then ducked below the level of the peephole. My gaze was focused on the light coming through the bottom of the doorframe. I waited until there was a visible shadow of someone standing on the other side of the door. Then, with a purple arrow appearing on my leg, I pivoted, reared back, and kicked the door as hard as I could. It was torn off its hinges and went crashing into the guy that was standing there. I heard him yelp and curse, though it was muted by the sobbing and pleading I could hear coming from deeper in the apartment.
The guy who had been hit with the door had fallen onto his back with the door on top of him. I jumped, already painting a green smiley face across my back for added speed as I landed in the middle of the door as hard as possible before springing off of it. This front entrance was basically little more than a tiny hallway. Straight ahead I could see a dark bedroom, with a bathroom to the left and a larger room to the right. That was where the crying was coming from.
In a perfect world, I would’ve made sure the guy under the door was completely dealt with. But I didn’t have time. The remaining guy, whether it was Ted or the other one who had been outside, would already be reacting to hearing the door crash in. I had to keep moving. On the way, however, I took a half-second to toss the pistol I’d taken from the guy outside into the bathroom to get it out of the way for the moment.
Sure enough, as soon as I jumped from the back of the fallen door to the room beyond the corridor (painting an orange bullseye on my chest just in case), I found myself in the living room where five other figures already were. Four were kids, two boys on the cusp of being teenagers and two tiny toddlers. The last one was a big guy with an impressively long beard and a full sleeve of tattoos on both of his exposed arms, his chest covered by a leather vest. To complete the ensemble, he wore ratty jeans and a pair of dark sunglasses.
They were all staring my way, the guy (Ted, I assumed), already shouting a demand about what the hell was going on. He had a fuck-off enormous revolver in his hand, which was snapping up toward me the instant I appeared. The barrel looked like a fucking cannon being aimed my way.
But my speed boost was still in effect. Even as the man’s finger tightened on the trigger, I snapped my hands up, shooting red paint at the ceiling while shifting both my gloves and shoes to match. I was yanked upward, flipping over in the air to land upside down against the ceiling while the man fired that massive gun through the air where I had been.
Yeah, I had my orange defensive paint up too, but getting shot still hurt. And being shot by something that huge would probably hurt even more. So given the choice, I would avoid it.
As huge as it was, the gun was surprisingly quiet as it fired. Not totally silent or anything, but not nearly what it should’ve been. Probably the result of another Touched-device or something. Either way, it may have been quiet, but the effects were anything but subtle. A huge part of the wall behind me was torn through by that single shot. Yeah, not getting hit by it felt like the right move.
To that end, I shifted my shoes and gloves back to their base white, dropping from the ceiling even as the guy adjusted his aim to shoot that way. He got off another shot that blew a two-foot wide hole through the ceiling, while I landed in a crouch on the floor with dust and bits of debris falling everywhere. All four kids were screaming, the two older ones covering the toddlers to shield them and to hold them down out of the way.
Before the man could adjust his aim yet again, I shot a wad of red paint at his gun. The shot that had hit the ceiling had blown away part of the paint I’d put there, but it left enough for the hand-cannon to be torn from his grip and sent flying up that way.
Straightening up as the man was reacting to his gun being yanked away, I raised my hand in an exaggerated thumbs up with a nod toward the hole in the ceiling. “Congratulations, chief, I think you solved the termite problem.”
Behind me, I heard the sound of the guy under the door pulling himself out from under it. Meanwhile, Ted was yanking a knife from his belt, snarling something about idiot kids as he lunged at me. Quickly, I dove backward into a roll, my hands snapping up to shoot two tiny globs of paint. These ones weren’t red. They were white, striking the man’s sunglasses.
His glasses covered by white paint, the man slowed, stumbling a little. His hand jerked up to take the shades off, but I was faster. Even as I rolled away from the man, a thought activated that white paint. Instantly, both globs flared to life with a brilliant white light that made the man yelp. Now he was really blinded, tripping over an end table with a curse.
Unfortunately, while that guy was distracted, the one who had just pulled himself out from under the door had mostly recovered. And he had a gun of his own. As I rolled over, I could see the man stumbling up, using one hand on the doorway to steady himself while lifting that pistol. It was smaller than the one Ted had been using, but I was pretty sure it would still get the job done. Worse, the way he was aiming it, with the barrel jerking wildly all over the place as he fought to balance himself, he was as likely to hit one of those kids as he was to hit me.
But he was standing on the very edge of that fallen door. So, from my prone position, I turned my glove red and shot more of the same at the door. It jerked under him as the paint was activated. There wasn’t room for the door to fly through the opening, but it did shift enough for the man to lose his balance, stumbling backward as he fired a shot into the ceiling.
Using that time to roll back to my feet, I shifted both arms to purple and caught hold of the same end table that Ted had stumbled into, leaving a red handprint-shaped bit of paint on it before flinging the thing hard at the guy in the doorway.
It connected, the small wooden table slamming full-speed into the man’s face. As he fell, I continued my pivot to carry myself all the way around back toward Ted. He had already managed to yank the sunglasses off his face and was fighting through the temporary blindness from the flare of white light I’d hit him with. It was clearly still affecting him, as he stumbled at me, blinking rapidly while swinging that knife.
I hit him again. Not with another bit of paint. Instead, I hit him with the same end table that I’d just thrown at his buddy. I had summoned it back the instant after it collided with that guy, by activating the red handprint I’d left on it and shifting my glove to match. It had flown right back into my hand while I’d spun to face Ted, and I swung it hard, slamming the thing right into his face. Given the fact that I was still being affected by the strength-enhancing purple paint, it snapped under the blow, breaking apart into a couple pieces, while Ted himself collapsed to the floor with a bellow of both anger and pain.
I still had a couple seconds of strength-boost left. So I used it, lunging across the room to where the guy in the doorway was. The end-table bouncing off his face had left the man slumped briefly against the wall next to the bathroom door. Before he could recover, I drove my fist hard into his stomach. The guy doubled over with a pained cry, falling to both knees while clutching his gut. Then he threw up, narrowly missing me.
Yeah, I was pretty sure he wasn’t about to jump back to the attack, the way he was laying there and groaning. His sounds basically matched the whimpers and curses of pain coming from the hallway where I had broken the first guy’s leg or knee or whatever.
“Gee,” I said loud enough for both of them to hear, “it’s almost like you shouldn’t go around terrorizing and torturing little kids. Karma’s a bitch.” Though my words were dismissive, I made a mental note to call an ambulance for these guys. And the cops, of course.
Speaking of these guys, Ted was still there. He had just started to pick himself off the floor where he’d fallen when I broke the end table across his face. There was a dark bruise all along his cheek and up under his eye, and his nose was clearly broken. Also clear: the fact that he was incredibly pissed off. Bully for him.
Before he could actually do anything about being pissed off, I grabbed his knife from the floor before dropping myself onto his chest to make him fall onto his back once more. The guy cursed, but went very still as I put the knife right against him.
“Hey!” I spoke up, looking over to where the kids were huddled. One of them looked at me, the other three still cowering. “You guys have any rope or anything?”
They did, and with the help of the oldest boy (his name was Leon and he was almost twelve), I tied all three guys up, hauling the one by the entranceway and outside the apartment into the main room with Ted. They were all thoroughly trussed up (and gagged, to make sure they didn’t scare these guys even more) by the time I straightened, breathing hard.
“Wh-wh-who are you?” The other non-toddler kid, a boy named Cristiano who was apparently ten months younger than Leon, spoke up tentatively. He was kneeling next to his two younger brothers, Arturo and Tomas, who were three and two, respectively.
“Are you a superhero?” That was Leon, who was staring at me with wide eyes. He was clearly just as scared as his siblings, but trying not to show it as much.
“I–I’m trying,” I managed a bit weakly. “I’m still working on the superhero thing.”
“Adrian!” Arturo blurted, clinging to his older brother’s arm. “I want Adrian!” Tears were welling up in his eyes, while Tomas was just openly bawling.
“They took him, Mister,” Cristiano informed me in a shaky voice. “Those gu-guys came and took him this morning while we were eating breakfast.”
“Don’t call him Mister,” Leon corrected. “He’s only like a couple years older than me. You don’t call me Mister.”
“You can’t do that stuff,” Cristiano pointed out, his hands gesturing to the tied-up bad guys. “He can be Mister if he wants to.”
“It’s okay,” I quickly assured them. “Just call me…” Think fast, Cassidy! “Paintball. Call me Paintball.” I had been torn between that and several others, but… well, Paintball sounded silly and fun, which was the image I wanted to project, considering I was trying to be different from my family. “And I’m gonna find your brother, I promise. I just–”
My words were interrupted by a chime coming from the phone I’d taken off the first guy. Digging into my pocket, I carefully pulled it out. He had a new message from someone labeled in his contact list as ‘Denny.’ It read, ‘Where’s vid of kid? Bosses getting annoyed.’
Shit, right. Ummm… I thought for a second before quickly looking through the earlier bits of their conversation just to make sure I wasn’t about to text in a completely different way than this guy tended to. It looked about normal, so I sent back, ‘Snoopy landlord came up. Couldn’t go back in apt. Pretended looking for new place. Getting tour. Will cut short asap.’
Holding my breath then, I watched the screen as the dots indicating the other party was typing came up. When the message that came through was a simple, ‘k – hrry’, I let out that breath.
There, that gave an excuse for why they hadn’t sent that video yet. I’d have a few minutes before they got too suspicious, hopefully.
“Mr. Paintball, sir?” Cristiano piped up. “Adrian, I think they took him to some place called Three’s Paradise.”
“It’s a strip club,” Leon added. “And motel. One of those motels. The ones that’re pay by the hour?” This almost twelve-year-old kid gave me a knowing look.
“Three’s Paradise motel and strip club, got it.” Grimacing behind the mask and helmet, I gave them a thumbs up before gesturing. “Come on. I’m not leaving you guys here with these… assholes.”
Each of the two older boys picked up one of their younger brothers, and we hurried out of the apartment. There already people in the hall, looking around to see what the hell was going on. Blurting a warning about bad guys in the apartment, I looked for the nearest somewhat friendly face, pulling the boys with me.
“Can you call 911?” I blurted to the neighbor, an older black woman in a robe and nightgown who held a pistol in one hand and a phone in the other. “Take these guys inside with you and call 911. Tell them there’s three men in that apartment. They’re tied up right now, but they need to hurry.”
The woman agreed, and I promised the boys that I would find their brother. Then I took off, running back for the stairs to the roof while the rest of the neighbors blurted questions at me. I heard the kids telling them what my name was, even as I took the stairs several at a time. There wasn’t time to chat, there wasn’t time to do anything except run. And there definitely wasn’t time to stop and think about just how insane everything that just happened was. I’d gotten into a fight with three guys! And won!
But I couldn’t just start patting myself on the back now. I had to get to the place where they were holding Adrian. Because if I didn’t make it there before they either found out or realized that the guys here had been caught, they’d probably cut their losses.
And in this case, I was pretty sure that meant cutting Adrian’s throat.