It was probably a good thing that family dinner night meant I couldn’t run out right then to check out my new lead, because there was a decision I had to make. Mostly about whether I should go there as myself or in costume. I wasn’t sure which would be better. If I went as myself it would be more subtle and I could just look around a little bit before possibly going back later as Paintball.
On the other hand, if this place really was working with Ashton, going as myself might be dangerous, even if they were a shop of some kind. Or maybe they would somehow recognize me later from my height and build as the person who was just in there asking questions? I wasn’t sure. I was pretty much winging all of this.
So, I thought about it through all of the time leading up to dinner, and most of the way through that, before finally deciding to go with going as myself to start. Leaving the house, I summoned an Uber (that time it wasn’t Adrian, obviously) and had it drop me off a few blocks away from the address I’d found when I looked up this place online.
And now I was here. With my costume in my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, I stood in front of a three-story brick building nestled between an ice cream shop and a pet store. This place didn’t really look like anything, aside from a small wooden sign hanging just above the glass door reading, ‘Wren’s Nest.’
Well, this was definitely the place. Ashton had called these people right after he barely escaped being caught by Blackjack’s men. Now I just had to go in there and see if I could figure out why. Good luck to me, I guessed.
There was a bell above the door that dinged as I stepped through. The place definitely looked like a pawn shop, as far as I’d seen them on TV. It was a wide-open room about as large as the school gymnasium, only perfectly square. The ceiling was about fifteen feet up, with tall shelves lining every spot of wall aside from the door where I entered, and a pair of metal doors straight across on the far side of the room that looked like an elevator.
More shelves of varying sizes were scattered everywhere throughout the room with no apparent rhyme or reason. They were all different heights and angled randomly. Roughly a third of the room toward the middle was lower than the rest, sunken in several feet. There were several stairs leading down into this lower pit area that wrapped all the way around it. In the middle of that pit were four glass counters set in a rectangle, with a guy who looked like he was probably the salesman, or clerk, or whatever behind them, in the middle of the rectangle. He had a TV on the counter facing him, and he was arguing with some guy on the other side of the counter. The guy’s back was to me, but it definitely wasn’t Ashton. Not unless he’d turned black, lost his hair, and gained about a hundred pounds.
If either the customer or clerk had noticed me enter, neither gave any sign of it. They just continued arguing. So I started slowly walking through the room, letting my eyes pass over the shelves. It just looked like a random assortment of junk. There was no rhyme or reason to it. I saw action figures lumped in with tin cans, GameBoys or other handhelds, and kitchen utensils. I saw a microwave missing the door, with a clock stuck inside of it. On one shelf was a single spray bottle of what had been Formula 409, except someone had taped a piece of paper over the label and written a series of numbers on it. Below the numbers was a scribbled note reading, ‘Never ever use on tomato sauce. Ever.’ That last word was underlined three times.
On and on it went. Every shelf throughout this large room was like that, as far as I could see. Moving around one of them, I looked at another with a pile of small handheld vacuums stacked up on it. The vacuums all seemed to be labeled as well, with post-it notes that had a single letter followed by a single number scrawled on them.
The voice made me jump a bit, and I turned to see the clerk standing behind me. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of his customer leaving through the front door.
My eyes focused on the guy in front of me as I turned. He was about six feet tall, and maybe forty-five or fifty years old, with black greasy hair that was slicked back. He was mostly thin in the arms and legs, but had a pronounced potbelly. When he spoke, I could see teeth that were pretty yellowed from smoking, which explained the breath. “Just so you know, kid, you get any ideas about shoving anything into that bag of yours, and I’ll break your fingers. Then I’ll call the cops. You got it?”
His voice was familiar. It was the guy who answered the phone before. Of that I had no doubt. But why is he the guy that Ashton had been talking to? I wasn’t sure. And I couldn’t exactly ask him.
Instead, I gave the man a thumbs up. “No worries. I’m just looking around a little bit. Um.” Hesitating, I asked, “What kind of place is this? Like, a junk shop?”
The man sneered at me. “You in the habit of walking in places when you don’t even know what they are? And then calling it junk?”
“Sorry,” I murmured. “I wasn’t trying to be rude. I thought junk shop was the right word. This stuff all seems pretty random. People buy it?”
The man made a non-committal noise before turning to walk away with a muttered, “They buy what they need.”
I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and I hesitated briefly, unsure if I should follow him or look around a bit more. In the end, I did a bit of both, gradually making my way toward the counter that he was returning to, while also looking around a bit at more of the junk. Err, stuff.
As I stopped to look at what seemed to be a lawnmower with an actual motorcycle engine attached to it, a small brown box of sorts sitting next to the television on the glass counter made a chiming sound. The guy gave me one last glance before reaching out to hit a button on it. His voice was gruff. “Yeah?”
The voice that came through what was apparently an intercom there was basically the polar opposite of his. It sounded young and feminine, with a bright chirping tone. “Fred! I need three metal balls, four inches in diameter. Oh, and I need a wooden broom, six ziplock bags, four tin cans, twelve feet of CAT5 cable, two standard light bulbs, and one of those radio alarm clocks with the digital display on the front, please! Thank you!”
“Yeah, Wren,” the man grunted after hitting the button again. “I’ll bring that right up.”
As he released the button and stepped away, I piped up, “So there is a Wren.”
Giving me a look that clearly showed he’d forgotten I was even there, the man pointed to the door. “We’re closed. Come back another time.”
I was obviously super curious, but I wasn’t going to push things. Nodding to the man, I waved before heading out. I felt his eyes on me the whole time until I stepped through the door. As soon as it had closed behind me, I heard a loud electronic click. I was willing to bet that if I tried the door again, it wouldn’t open.
Right, there was an actual Wren, and she was clearly upstairs somewhere. If anyone was going to know why Ashton had called, it was probably her. Her name was on the building, after all.
Unfortunately, there was no way Fred, as his name apparently was, would ever let me talk to her. Nor would I be able to explain to either of them why some teenage girl wanted to find the guy.
So, I was going to have to go at this a different way. Namely by changing into the costume in my bag and sneaking in. I’d either find the information I needed, or talk to this Wren in person.
Either way, first I had to find a place to change. It ended up being an alley (I was getting to be quite the connoisseur of those) a couple streets over. Stashing my clothes in my bag and hiding it under a bit of machinery on a roof, I jumped over several buildings before making my way to the one closest to my target. It was the roof of the pet store, which was only two stories tall, so the roof of the place in question was another floor higher.
There were windows along the building, but they all looked barred. I wasn’t sure my purple paint could raise my strength enough to rip one of those bars out. Besides, that would take way too long. I needed to find a faster, easier way in.
Then I saw it. In the top left corner of the building was a window that was open. There were curtains there that were drifting slightly in the breeze. That was my entrance. I just had to be careful. Really careful.
Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I straightened up, extended my hand, and used a burst of red paint to yank myself over beside that window. On the way, I put a bit of black paint both on myself, and on the wall I was about to hit, to keep things silent.
Hitting the wall just under the open window soundlessly, I stopped there and listened. Music. I could hear James Brown singing about feeling ‘so good’ coming through the window. It sounded like it was coming from another room in this place, not the one this window was attached to. From the room itself, I couldn’t really hear anything.
Slowly and cautiously, I peeked up over the edge of the window and looked inside. It looked like a bathroom. There was a tub right below me, and a sink next to it. A blue robe hung on a hook on the open door, and through that opening, I could see a hallway. Sure enough, the music was coming from out there somewhere.
For a moment, I hesitated. This was technically breaking and entering. Or at least entering. I didn’t know that there was any kind of crime going on, or that these guys definitely had something to do with Ashton.
On the other hand, why else would he have called them right then? At the very least, they had to know something about him. And this was about saving a little girl. Not to mention stopping the rapidly building gang war from turning the streets bloody.
Mind made up, I carefully and quietly pulled myself through the window, dropping down into the tub before stopping once again to listen. Just the music. It had moved on to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Whoever this Wren was, I couldn’t really fault her taste in music.
Slipping out of the tub, I quietly made my way across the bathroom, crouching on the side of the open door before peering out. There was a hallway there. The place just looked like an ordinary house or an apartment or whatever. Clearly Wren lived here, on the third floor of the building.
The music was coming from down the hall on the left, so I peeked out to the right first and saw a couple closed doors. The floor of the hallway was carpeted in bright blue, while the walls were white. Or at least, they had been white. I could see random notes, some scrawled on post-its and others written on the wall itself. There were math equations, reminders about picking things up from the store, even what looked like a list of characters from old cartoons. Some of the random notes had arrows drawn to one another connecting them, though I couldn’t see how they were related. Like, there was a list of fruits, with a long squiggly arrow connecting it to some kind of math equation that made my head hurt just looking at it.
Taking a breath, I crept my way out of the bathroom and further down the hall to the left, where the music was coming from. Just ahead and to the right was a set of stairs leading down, and to the left was an open door leading into what looked like a storage room that was filled with just as random of stuff as the shelves downstairs.
Moving on, I found a huge bedroom that was basically packed with toys along every spare inch save for a spot right in the middle where a waterbed with Transformers sheets and blankets jumbled up on it. On the nightstand next to the bed sat several more action figures, posed atop a physics book.
Yeah, this just kept getting weirder. Shaking my head, I kept going, staying low, crouched, and quiet. I had to find this girl.
Before I could go any further, however, I heard that Fred guy’s voice, calling back something about ice cream from the far end of the hall. The door there started to open, so I quickly threw myself into the bedroom I had just been looking at.
Footsteps were approaching, and I slipped beside the open door, listening as the man walked past. I could hear the clomp of his feet going down the stairs a moment later. He was gone, for now at least. Which gave me a chance to see this Wren for myself.
Hurrying down the hall as quietly as I could, I moved straight to the door at the end that Fred had come through. The music was back, as Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell filled the corridor. The man had left the door open a little bit, so I could crouch there and peek through.
It looked like a garage, complete with a sedan in the middle of the cement floor, which raised all kinds of questions in my head. Starting with, how the hell did they get a car up here on the third floor?
It was more than a garage, I realized after peeking around a bit more. There was vehicle maintenance stuff in there, but there was also carpentry stuff, a table full of half-built computers, another one with medical supplies scattered around it. There was even a long table to one side with a full on train set complete with miniature town and landscape. The train was chugging away, going in circles. The centerpiece of the train set was a volcano, with a radio sitting half in it. That was the source of the music.
Right, there was a lot of stuff in here. But where was the girl I was looking for? Seeing nobody and no sign of her after looking around for a minute, I finally had no choice but to slowly step into the room. I kept glancing around, wary of some kind of ambush as I took a few steps into the large room. Fred had just come out of here. So where the hell was—
The loud, startling voice came from behind me as the music abruptly cut out, leaving the room silent save for that single word and my resulting yelp. I spun around, hands up defensively, only to find nothing there.
Then I looked up. There, hovering just above and in front of me, was a girl. At first, I thought she had dragonfly wings. Then I realized that the wings were just attached to the metal harness she was wearing. She also wore a tool belt laden with equipment, held a screwdriver in one hand and a wrench in the other, and had one of those miner helmets with the light on her head.
Oh, and she was a kid. Like, maybe nine years old at most. She had blonde hair that stuck out wildly in every direction, and her bright green eyes were wide with curiosity and innocence as she hovered there in the air, dragonfly-wings beating soundlessly to keep her in the air.
While I stood there and stared open-mouthed, the girl dropped to the floor. Her wings retracted back into the harness, and she dropped the tools into her belt before extending a hand. “I’m Wren,” she chirped. “What’s your name?”
“I… um… you’re Wren?” was all I could manage.
She blinked, head tilting as she looked at me. “You mean you came through my bathroom window and you didn’t even know what I looked like?”
That made me reel even more. “You knew I was there?”
In reply, the girl plucked a remote from her belt and pointed it to the side. She clicked it, and I saw part of the wall turn into a video screen that showed security camera footage of this whole place, including everywhere I had been. Oh.
“Don’t worry,” Wren assured me, “I didn’t tell Fred. He gets growly sometimes, and it’s fun to have a new person to talk to. So, what’s your name? Are you a superhero? Wait, are you a super villain?” She said the latter bit a little carefully, eyes squinting at me while taking a step back.
Quickly, I shook my head. “I’m not a villain. I’m… I’m Paintball. And I’m looking for a guy that I think you did some work for? He’s the bad guy.” It was more complicated than that, of course, but I wanted to keep it simple.
The girl’s head shook. “Nuh uh, I don’t do work for bad guys. See?” Her hand raised a point, and I turned to look at a banner that had been painted on the wall. Sure enough, it read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’
Well, I could hardly argue with a banner as straight and to the point as that. Clearing my throat, I looked back to the kid. “You probably didn’t know he was a bad guy. But he stole some medicine from a little girl and she’s going to die if we don’t get it back. His name is Ashton.” Quickly, I described the man, adding that he had to use some kind of stun grenade, and that he’d called this place right afterward to have an extended conversation.
When I was done, the girl snapped her fingers. “Ohhhhh, he’s the guy who came in a few weeks ago and wanted something to break through a bank vault.” Then she shook her head. “But we didn’t give him anything. I told him we don’t do that and he left.” Sounding thoughtful, the girl added, “He wasn’t very happy. He kept trying to pay more.” Her voice turned firm. “But we have standards. We don’t work for bad guys.”
She sounded pretty serious about it, and I hesitated before starting to ask, “Fred, you… is he… I mean—”
The girl blinked at me. “Is Fred what?”
“He’s asking,” the man himself announced from the doorway where he was standing with a heavy, complicated looking high-tech rifle pointed at me, “if I made a deal with the guy behind your back.
“Spoiler alert, I did.”