I was right about it being a long night. It took me another two and a half hours to actually check the next four places on the list I’d put together. Five of the six were as thoroughly searched as I could, and I still hadn’t managed to find Ashton. Not that it being hard to find this guy was that surprising. He’d managed to stay hidden from what amounted to an entire city searching for him.
But I had one more place to look. It was the smallest of the apartments I’d picked out, consisting of what amounted to large house separated into a few separate units. Part of me thought that might be too small and put him too close to nosy neighbors. But on the other hand, if he had developed a reputation for keeping to himself… it could work.
As small as the place was, it also meant there was no on-site manager’s office to check or anything. Which was another part of why I’d saved it for last. I was going to have to go peeping in all the windows to check for my quarry, which I had been really hoping to avoid. Oh well. Finding Ashton to stop the gang war and save a little girl, no matter whose daughter she might have been, was worth it. I’d just be quick and try not to… pay attention to anything private.
Repeating that silent mantra to myself as I stood by a dumpster in the alley beside the building in question, I took a few more deep breaths. Making sure I was all painted black aside from a bit of purple on my legs, I finally turned and stepped around the dumpster. Activating that bit of purple as well as the black that was on my shoes, I leapt up and over the tall wooden fence there. Landing silently, I crouched, watching the building. There were lights on in three of the four apartments, including the nearest one. That was the one I moved toward, staying low.
The building itself was a tall Victorian-style place. There were two apartments on the bottom floor, each taking up half of the level, and a matching two on the top floor. It was the lower-right apartment that I was heading for. The fence around the property kept me from being seen by passersby, so all I had to worry about was someone seeing me through one of the windows.
There were bushes lining the windows I was heading for, so I stayed low and carefully stepped around them. Knowing how bad this would look if I was seen, I kept going anyway. Very slowly inching through the back of the bushes, I leaned up to take a quick peek through the window.
It was a kitchen. There was an open pizza box there on the table, and I could see a television on through the open doorway. There was also the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch, but I couldn’t see a face.
Thankfully, I only had to wait a few seconds while racking my brain before the person sitting there stood up. They were a black guy. Definitely not the one I was looking for. Just as he turned to head for the kitchen (and probably that pizza), I quickly ducked out of sight.
One down, three to go. Debating about whether I should go straight up to the next one, or work my way around the building to check the other lower one (the far upper side was the one where the lights were off), I eventually decided on the former. The upper apartment was right there. So, renewing a bit of black silencing paint on my shoes to keep my costume nicely dark, I sent a bit of red up to a spot just under the window above this one, then let myself be yanked that way. The ten seconds that my red paint lasted would hopefully be enough to look for the inhabitant.
As it turned out, ten seconds was more than enough. Because the instant I hit the wall and peeked through that window, I saw the apartment’s occupant. And that was the end of my search.
It was him. It was Ashton. I knew that from the instant I saw him, in a side-on profile as the man was standing in front of the microwave. He’d dyed his hair and had cut the beard he used to have, but it was definitely him.
It was also a really good thing that I’d used the black paint to silence myself, because I actually gasped out loud, which probably would’ve given me away. As it was, something seemed to catch the guy’s attention, because he started to turn just as I ducked out of sight.
Him. It was him. He was right there. All this time and the guy was–
My paint ran out. Realizing that at the last second, I started to fall. There was only one thing I could do to avoid attention. I activated the rest of the black paint on my costume, as well as a bit of orange to protect myself. Silent and safe from damage, I crashed into the bush.
Yeah, that would’ve sucked without my paint. As it was, I still made a bit of noise. Or rather, the bush itself did. I snapped off a couple small branches and lay there, half-sprawled for a second before quickly scrambling off and ducking myself as low as possible under the shrubbery, just as I caught the sound of the window above me sliding open.
Pizza guy stood by the open window, just above me. I lay there, just a few feet under him, as the man leaned out the window and looked left, then right. The two of us stayed like that for a moment, me not even daring to breathe. My eyes were wide as I stared up at him while staying as still as possible. I willed myself to be smaller, trying to press down into the dirt.
Finally, the man grunted, withdrawing back into the room. I heard him slide the window shut, then walk away. Listening to the floor creak, I finally exhaled, closed my eyes, and let my head fall back into the dirt. Taking a couple deep breaths to steady myself, I finally opened my eyes once more.
Just in time to see Ashton leaning out the upper story window, staring right down at me.
The guy must’ve seen my head move or something, because he withdrew back into the apartment instantly. Cursing frantically under my breath, I quickly jerked my hand up and shot a wad of red paint up to the edge of the roof, above that window. Letting it yank me off the ground and up, I shifted my legs purple. Just as I reached the red spot, hand clapping against the wall, my other hand shot a short spray of black paint at the window to silence it. Then I drew my legs back and quickly kicked out while dismissing the red paint on my first hand. Kicking through that window with a spray of shattered (silent) glass, I landed in the kitchen on my knees.
Ashton was there. Right there. He had grabbed a pistol off the counter, and was turning back toward me. Just as he brought it up, I threw myself to the left, behind the table there. There was a quick series of soft whuff whuff whuff sounds from the clearly specially silenced weapon, as he shot three times, each bullet striking the windowsill right behind where I had been crouching.
Before he could recover and check his aim, both of my hands snapped up. I shot a bit of red paint at the man’s chest, while slapping my other palm onto the table to leave more red there. Activating both sent the table up into the air, as it flipped over to slam into the man with a crash.
His gun dropped to the floor with a clatter, as I sprang back to my feet. The table had already fallen, as the guy grabbed a nearby carving knife from the wooden holder and came after me with it. He swung wildly twice, both of which I quickly dodged before I snapped a hand up to intercept the third swing. My glove turned orange for protection, just as I caught the blade.
Ashton stared at me for an instant. Which was all the time I needed to shift one of my arms purple. Yanking the weapon from his grasp, I caught his arms and gave him a hard yank up and around. His feet left the floor, as I threw him backward against the far wall. He hit it hard, slumping down with a grown.
Below us, pizza guy banged on his ceiling a few times, clearly annoyed by the noise. Which was probably good. If he felt safe enough to bang instead of calling the cops, he must not have thought anything too bad was going on.
Maybe it was stupid to not want the cops to show up, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be quick to give whatever vial Ashton had stolen straight to Blackjack. And bad guy or not, I wasn’t going to condemn his daughter to death for what he did. The cops could have Ashton after I got what he stole.
Dazed as he might’ve been, Ashton didn’t stay down. His hand grabbed a loose plate from floor, which he chucked at me like a frisbee. Seeing his motion, I’d already painted a green image of a stick figure running onto my chest, using it to speed myself up. My hand snapped out to catch the plate in midair, and I tossed it to the side while blurting, “Stop that, asshole!”
Instead of stopping, the man dove for his gun. With a sigh, I shot a bit of red at it, yanking the weapon from the floor to my grasp before he could get it. Then I set it on the counter behind me, snapping, “Are you done now? Knock it–”
In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by the man scrambling off the floor to throw himself at me. My green paint had worn off by then, but he came at me so wildly, it was easy to sidestep him. Catching his arm and back, I put purple around myself once more before turning to hurl him again. He went crashing face-first into the fridge. And that time, he stayed down, groaning.
“Okay,” I announced, “now you’re done.” Grumbling to myself, I sent a bit of red paint to the man’s foot, and another to the floor somewhat near me. I wasn’t going to step over there and risk him somehow taking me by surprise. So I just used the paint to yank him out into the open where I could see him better.
He lay there, dazed, while I quickly checked the man for more weapons or anything else. I was ready for him to make a move, but he just stayed still (aside from the occasional groan), while I ran my hands over his pants, up across his chest, then under to check his back. He was clear. Which was both good, bad, and good again. Good because he didn’t have any weapons. Bad because the vials weren’t on him. And good again because that meant they weren’t broken from that whole little thing where I kept throwing the guy around or tossing tables into him.
That done, before he could recover too much, I hesitated. Part of me wanted to use a pair of those cuffs Flea had given me on him. But I hadn’t actually brought them with me. They were still in the box that I’d hidden at the half-finished skating place where I’d been training because I’d forgotten to grab them before coming out here to do all this.
So I didn’t have any way to cuff him. I did however, yank the cord out of a nearby blender and the attached wall socket. Kneeling down, I tied the man’s hands behind his back as quickly and tightly as I could before quickly stepping back. By that time, he seemed to have settled a bit, rolling over to stare up at me. “So who sent you, kid?” he demanded. “Blackjack? You tell that–”
“He didn’t send me,” I interrupted. “Nobody did. And I’m not after you for the reward. Tell me where the vials you took are.”
Glaring my way, he shook his head. “I dunno who you think you are, kid. But you–”
He grunted in surprise as I shot a small ball of red paint at his chest. It didn’t hurt, but seeing the blob fly from my hand to hit him made him jerk a bit.
“Paintball,” I informed him. “That’s who I am. And I want to know where the vials are. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen if Blackjack doesn’t get them back?”
“Yeah,” he snapped, “I do. Which means I know that bastard has all the motivation he needs to pay me for them. Give it another day or so and he’ll write me a blank check.”
For a moment, I just stared at the man. “What the hell are you– you’re endangering a girl’s life!”
“Yeah?” Ashton echoed, his words a snarl. “What about the life of my friend?! That fight between La Casa and Oscuro last year? One of the La Casa fucks took a few shots and missed. But they hit my best friend. His name was Carlos, and he’s dead. He died because of them. He wasn’t even involved. He was just walking by when the La Casa bastards started shooting. He’s dead, and no one gives a shit! So yeah, I’m gonna fuck Blackjack over. I got nothing against his kid, and I’ll give the vials over if he pays me. But if he doesn’t and worse comes to worst, that’s on him.”
Swallowing, my head shook. “I’m sorry about your friend. I am. But you can’t just use a tragedy as an excuse to be an evil asshole. That kid, she… she didn’t do anything to you.” Softening my voice (and hoping the voice changer itself was good enough to pick that up), I added, “I didn’t know your friend, but do you really think he would’ve wanted you to put some innocent kid’s life in danger just to get a payday out of Blackjack? Which, for the record, doesn’t sound much like justice to me. You’re not trying to stop him, you’re not trying to bring him to justice. You’re just threatening his kid to get money out of him. That’s selfish. You’re using your friend’s death for your own profit.”
“I’m using it as motivation!” he snapped right back at me, glare blazing hotly. “Carlos is dead because of that cocksucker. I’m gonna need money to get out of this town and make a new life. The one Carlos and I always said we were gonna live. And doing it with Blackjack’s money, that’s just fucking poetic justice.”
“No it’s not,” I murmured. “It’s an excuse.”
“I don’t care!” he all-but thundered, pushing himself into a sitting position with his hands still tied. “That son of a bitch is going to feel afraid! He’s gonna feel the same thing I felt when I heard Carlos was shot! He’s gonna be scared of losing someone he cares about, and then he’s going pay out the ass to stop it! And then–”
He stopped, but my head snapped to him, as I finished his words. “And then he’ll lose her anyway. That’s right, isn’t it? You were lying before. You aren’t going to give the vials back. You have no intention of giving them over. Even if he pays, you want him to lose her. You want to take his daughter away from him, just like he helped take Carlos away from you.”
Now he was really glaring. Sitting there, staring at me as if I was the one who killed his friend, his mouth opened to say something. But that was when the sudden creak of a gate outside caught my attention. Turning, I glanced out the broken window.
Touched. There were Touched there. Two La Casa Touched, and several of their non-Touched minions. They were coming through the gate, pointing up at the building, at this apartment. How had they–
A sound made me spin back the other way in time to see Ashton pull something from one of the drawers, fumbling with it with his hands behind his back. Before I could react, he pressed something on whatever he’d grabbed, and the world exploded.
Or at least, it seemed to. There was a sudden deafening and blinding… explosion of sorts. A flashbang with a shockwave that knocked me to the ground. The table and chairs went flying, glasses shattered, and I was left lying there, completely out of it. My vision went in and out, I heard a loud buzzing sound, and it was all I could do not to throw up. I couldn’t move, couldn’t focus, couldn’t… couldn’t make myself… do anything but… close my eyes.
“–not here, damn it!”
The voice snapped me awake, and I saw men in the room. They were the same ones I’d seen before, the ones from La Casa. Staring up through bleary, barely conscious vision, I saw one of the Fell-Touched standing over me. His name was Double Down, and he wore black chainmail-like armor over his lower half, and a black leather bomber jacket with two face cards, a king and an ace of spades, printed across the front. The top half of his face was covered by a form-fitting white mask, leaving his mouth and short blond hair exposed.
“If he’s not here, our new friend here knows something about where he went,” Double Down was saying to someone I couldn’t make my eyes focus on. “Grab him and let’s get out of here before company shows.
“Blackjack is gonna want to talk to this kid.”