“You know, you’re really lucky you don’t have any actual responsibilities,” my brother announced the next afternoon as the two of us stood on one of the balconies overlooking our massive grounds behind the house. The place was basically too big to even see all of from where we were standing. Our property extended off over the hill and down into a small forested area with a stream running through it. Let’s just say that when I had read the Harry Potter books, I basically pictured the grounds as my own backyard. Actually, the school itself wasn’t that far off from my house, come to think of it. Which probably gave me a somewhat different view of good old Harry’s upgrade from cupboard to castle than most people had.
Glancing sidelong toward Simon, I resisted the urge to punch him, though it was close. “I have responsibilities,” I informed him stiffly.
Like finding those stolen vials for Blackjack before his daughter dies and he takes his grief out on the entire city, I added silently.
Yeah, that new little responsibility had been weighing on me all night long, ever since the La Casa leader had his men drive me back into the city. I got them to let me out in the back lot of one of the public libraries, since that wouldn’t give them any indication of who I was. Then I’d spent a solid half hour making sure I wasn’t being followed and that there were no tracking devices on me (as far as I could tell). In the latter case, I didn’t actually trust my own ability to find any minute trackers that might have been placed on me, so I had gone as far as dunking my entire body in a fountain (after taking out my voice changer of course) to soak myself and hopefully drown any electronics that might have been placed before finally heading home (soaking wet and cold) to crash. It might not have been necessary, but I was paranoid.
Then I’d tossed and turned for hours before finally getting to sleep. It was a good thing today was Sunday.
Simon just chuckled at me. “Oh, of course, make sure you get to class on time, do some homework, such hard responsibilities. How do you ever manage to keep up with it all?”
There was so much I could have said to him right then that would have blown his mind. It almost felt like it would’ve been worth it. But I bit back the initial retort that came to mind, settling on just shrugging at him. “Everyone’s got their own stuff.”
Somehow, I was pretty sure that asking him if ordering people to be murdered and working out deals with the Easy Eight gangs were the extent of his responsibilities or if there were more I should know about wouldn’t go over that well. But it still would’ve been funny to see his face. For a few seconds anyway.
Giving me a little push with his elbow, Simon laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m just giving you shit, Booster. It’s good that you don’t have to deal with too much. You’re gonna have to worry about enough stuff when you get older. No reason to be in a rush. Be happy you’re still…”
He paused then, looking very briefly troubled, a short expression of uncertainty crossing his face. Even if I hadn’t known at least some of the truth, that would have stood out. He looked, maybe not sad, but at least… somewhat regretful? Maybe scared. Or lost. Or like someone who was in way over their head. Or all of the above. Either way, it flashed across his face for just a moment.
“Are you okay?” I found myself asking. Not that I actually expected him to open up with the truth, but I was curious about what he might actually say. Especially in that moment where he looked somewhat vulnerable.
He didn’t answer at first. Instead, Simon just turned to look out over the grounds. His lips pursed a bit and he reached out to set a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. And for just the slightest instant, I had the absurdly paranoid thought that he was going to shove me off the balcony. But of course, he just squeezed my shoulder and replied, “Sure, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? We live a charmed life, you know? Everything’s just fine and peachy keen.”
Hesitating slightly, I looked up to him. “Simon, you know if there’s something you want to talk about… we can—”
His fist hit my shoulder, just enough to sting. “Told you” he retorted, “it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t be such a little girl.”
“I could stand on stilts if you want me to stop being so little,” I offered. “But I kind of like the girl part, so you’re stuck with that.” Lowering my voice, I added as masculinely as possible, “I could pretend for a little bit if it makes you feel better.”
The saddest thing about all of this was that it was only with Simon that I could feel comfortable making these kind of jokes. Most of the time I was so busy making sure people knew I actually was a girl that I’d never say something like that.
Or maybe pretending to be a boy in costume was making me more comfortable with it too. Either way, I felt a brief wave of incredible depression at the thought that one of the only people in the world whom I felt comfortable with joking about looking like a boy with was only unaware that I was the one he had nearly had killed because he thought I was a boy. There was some kind of joke in there somewhere, but I didn’t feel like finding it. This just sucked.
Apparently it was my turn for something to show on my face, because Simon looked to me and frowned. “Are you okay? You look like someone just bought you a puppy and then strangled it in front of you.”
Grimacing, I shot a look at him. “Morbid. Too morbid.”
Before I could actually answer his question, however, the sliding glass door opened and we both looked back to see Mom stepping through. She smiled beautifully at us, a radiant expression that immediately made me feel loved and protected. Damn, she was good.
“I do enjoy seeing my children spending time together without being shamed into it,” Mom announced lightly, leaning in to give Simon a quick peck on the cheek before whispering something in his ear that took a few seconds to get through. She leaned back then, giving him a nod of what looked like encouragement before gesturing. “Before dinner, please.”
Giving me a brief glance, Simon nodded. “Yeah,” he grunted, “I’ll get right on that. He turned then, heading back into the house without saying anything else to me.
Even knowing that the best I would get was a lie, I turned to Mom and asked, “What does Simon have to do?” Despite the odds against getting a real answer, it probably would have been weird if I didn’t ask, after something like that.
Sure enough, Mom just shook her head at me. “Nothing for you to worry about, dear. Now come, let me look at my little Principessa.” She stepped closer, putting her hands on my shoulders while smiling down at me. Her gaze met mine and I felt like melting against her. She was my mom. I wanted to trust her so much. Everything in me was saying that I should just grab onto my mother and tell her everything. It was so hard not to. It took a physical effort to keep my face as blank as possible. It was hard. It was so damn hard.
Mom held me like that for a few long seconds before leaning in to kiss my forehead. She ruffled my hair and then stepped back. “Come, let’s take a walk in the garden and talk.”
“Talk?” I echoed despite myself.
She gave me an easy wink. “Never fear, whatever personal secrets you have are safe. You’re not in trouble. I only wish to speak with you about good things.”
Reminding myself to act like a normal teenager, I quickly put in, “Oh, you mean we’re talking about the car I’m getting when I pass Drivers Ed?”
Mom just chuckled softly at me. “That’s your father’s department, dear. Let’s go.” With that, she turned to walk back inside. I followed, as I was expected to. She didn’t even look back to see if I was, simply knowing that I would. That was the kind of power my mother held over everyone.
We walked through the house, down the stairs, and out into the back yard. Mom led me to one of several elaborate flower gardens we had out there, and we began a stroll between the dazzling display of colors from all the blossoms.
We had been walking in silence for a minute before my mother finally spoke up once more. “You are sixteen years old now, Cassidy. You are nearly an adult. And that comes with additional privileges as well as responsibilities.” She glanced toward me then with a half smile. “Some could be considered both privilege and responsibility.”
My throat felt dry, a lump forming in it. What was this about? Was she going to tell me about the real family business? Was I about to be inducted into their criminal empire? Was she actually going to tell me the truth? How was I supposed to react? What was I supposed to do? Why were we out here in the garden?
“The Reformation Ball,” Mom announced, yanking my attention back to her.
“Huh?” I blurted, blankly. “What about it?” The Reformation Ball was some big wig party that the leaders of the city had been throwing alongside the rich and powerful movers and shakers for the past couple decades, ever since things in Detroit started to be turned around by the emergence of Touched. It was a huge deal, which all the most important people in the city attended, including the Star-Touched teams. All of them sent at least a representative. But that didn’t have anything to do with me. I was too young to have anything to do with the— Wait a minute.
Mom must have seen the light bulb go on above my head, because she gave one nod. “Yes, you are sixteen. Your father and I believe you are old enough to participate and be seen. We would like you to attend. It is next Saturday and your father would like to make a present out of a dress for you. You will have to attend a fitting Tuesday evening. May I count on your attendance?”
My mind was reeling. I had just gone from thinking she might be opening up about all the bad things they were doing and how I should react to that, to being told that they thought I was adult enough to attend one of their most important dinner parties. How was I supposed to react? What was the appropriate level of excitement? Should I be excited? Should I be disappointed that I had to go to some party? I had completely lost all perspective or sense of balance.
In the end, I covered it as best as I could, after standing there in silence for a few seconds, by stepping over to tightly hug my mother. Maybe she would think my silence was because I was too choked up to say anything?
It seemed to work well enough, because Mom returned the embrace, brushing her hand up through my hair before holding my head against her chest as she murmured my name tenderly. That basically made me cry for real, and I clutched her tighter. God, why did this have to be so hard?
“I’ll be there,” I finally managed quietly. I would. I had to be. If they were starting to open up to me a little, maybe I could find out more about what my family was really up to and how they were involved in the Fell-Touched scene.
Also, I really wanted to know how they were going to pull off having both my father and Silversmith at this dinner.
Of course, first there was a much more pressing problem I had to deal with. Namely, finding those vials. Which meant finding Ashton. There wasn’t much time, and I didn’t have much in the way of ideas. I had tracked the guy down once, but he was back in the wind. How was I supposed to find him again? Especially if, despite being driven from his first hideout, he still hadn’t been found by one of the many, many people out beating the bushes for him.
I had only one idea, and it involved going back to the place where I had found him in the first place. In my costume later that day, I found myself back in front of that building. Blackjack’s men had definitely given it a thorough search after the cops who had been called to the disturbance had left, but they hadn’t found anything as far as I knew. So what made me think I would have any better luck than they had?
Blind optimism, mostly.
I hopped over the fence once more and made my way around to the right window. Glancing around to make sure no one seemed to be watching, I used red paint to yank myself up to the window and slipped inside. There, I looked around the dining room. The place was a complete disaster area. Whatever the stun grenade thing hadn’t destroyed, Blackjack’s people (or maybe the cops) had finished off. Everything had been torn out of all the cupboards, the fridge, the drawers, all of it. Things were scattered everywhere in the kitchen, and moving beyond that, I saw that the rest of the place was no better. They had cut open chairs, ripped up the couch, slashed the mattress on both sides, all of it. They’d torn apart the whole place. It looked as though a small tornado had struck the apartment, thanks to the men who had been looking for those vials.
This was insane. How was I going to find anything in here that those guys had missed? But it was my only lead. It was the only chance I had, aside from just blindly wandering the streets while looking for this guy. And that didn’t seem to be working very well for anyone else. No, this was what I had, and I needed to do something with it. Hence my one idea.
Placing myself in the same position he had been standing in, I faced the spot where I had been before, when he triggered the blast. From there, I turned on one heel, pantomiming running to the door. There, I pulled it open and stepped into the hallway where the stairs were. Across the way was the door of the opposite apartment, and straight down the stairs I could see the front door. The door where he would have known Blackjack’s men were coming. Would he really have risked running down the stairs where he could have been intercepted by someone who knew who he was? Did that really sound like the exit strategy of the guy who had pulled all this off so far? I didn’t think so.
Instead of going down the stairs, I stepped over to the next apartment and knocked. Waiting a moment, I knocked again when there was no answer. Finally, the door was pulled open and I saw a short, heavyset and balding man peek out. He stopped when he saw me, the chain on the door keeping it mostly shut. “What are you supposed to be?”
“Paintball,” I answered simply before adding a blunt, “Is he still here?”
The man didn’t try to play dumb. He sighed, lowering his gaze for a moment before shutting the door to take the chain off. Opening it once more, he gestured for me to enter. “He left, pretty soon after those guys did. I— listen, we don’t want any part of this.” His voice was shaking a bit as he led me into the living room where a woman who was obviously his wife was sitting with a young girl, barely five at a guess, on her lap.
The man waved off his wife from asking questions, looking at me. “That guy came in here with a gun. He pointed it at my little girl, and he told us to be quiet. He told us to tell them that there was no one else here. So that’s what we did. That’s all we did. We kept quiet and we let him stay until those guys left. That’s it. We’re not involved in this.”
“I understand,” I assured him. “I’m not here to cause any trouble, I promise. But there’s another little girl who is going to die if we don’t find him. He’s put her life in danger too, so I have to find him. Do you know anything else? Did he say anything while he was here about where he might be going? Anything at all?”
The parents exchanged glances, before the woman looked to me, voice cracking. “He said if we told the police or the La Casa people anything, he’d come back and kill all of us.”
“I’m not the police,” I reminded them. “And I don’t work for La Casa. I just want to stop all of this and make sure no one else dies.”
They exchanged another look before the father reached out, picked up a phone from the hook, and tossed it to me. “He made a phone call. We didn’t hear what he said, but it was a long conversation. Sounded pretty intense. It was the third to last call on there.”
Catching the phone, I checked through the outgoing call section, finding the right number. Then I took my own cell phone, the cheap throwaway one I had picked up, and put the number into that before hitting send. I wasn’t going to make the call from their number again.
It took three rings before a gruff voice answered, “Wren’s Nest Pawn. Hello?”
Thinking quickly, I asked, “Yeah, could I get a large pepperoni with extra cheese and—”
“Dude,” the man on the other end interrupted, “electronics shop, not pizza. You’ve got the wrong number.” That was followed by a click as the man disconnected the call, hanging up on me.
Looking down at my phone, I smiled to myself behind the helmet. Wren’s Nest Pawn, huh?
I officially had another lead.