“Uncle Fred?” Wren sounded confused from behind me. “What do you mean, you made a deal? He wanted to break into a bank vault. We don’t help bank robbers, remember?”
Fred sighed, but kept his fancy looking gun pointed at me. I wasn’t sure what it did, so I didn’t trust my orange paint to protect me from it. I could try yanking it from his hands, but my paint wasn’t exactly instantaneous. He could fire before my paint managed to reach him and activate. Yeah, that was a bad idea. I had to wait for an opening.
“No,” the man was saying, “you don’t help bank robbers. Do you have any idea how much money he offered? Do you have any idea how many new tools and supplies we can get with that? You may be a genius at inventing stuff, kid, but you don’t know shit about the real world. So he was going to rob a bank, so what? All that shit is insured anyway, so who does it hurt?”
Taking that as my cue, I spoke up flatly. “It hurts the little girl whose medicine was in that bank before he stole it. That’s why he wanted to get into the bank in the first place. He stole her medicine and he’s going to let her die because he’s mad at her father.” That was kind of an oversimplification, yet at the same time, not. It was what mattered right now.
Fred squinted at me, shaking his head. “The hell are you talking about? Why would someone keep medicine in a bank vault? That doesn’t even make sense. You’re just making shit up for sympathy.”
Shaking my head at him, I retorted, “No, I’m not. Look, the medicine belongs to La Casa, okay? It was their bank, their medicine. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the little girl the medicine is for isn’t a part of that, and she is going to die unless you help me figure out where the guy went. Why did he call you yesterday? What did he want? Maybe you wanted or… or needed to make money, and okay, I understand that. But I know you didn’t want to let a little girl die. You take care of this girl.” I gestured over my shoulder without taking my eyes off of him. “Would you just let someone like her die if you could help it?”
I was really, really hoping the answer was no. Otherwise, I was still trying to think of what I could do. Shooting any paint anywhere would probably make him pull the trigger. Suddenly, I really wished I could make paint appear places besides myself without actively shooting at there. It would’ve been really useful.
“Are you stupid, kid?” the man snapped. “Maybe I’m just a little sick of just barely scraping by when the kid’s power could make us millionaires. Half the time, she won’t sell the shit she makes because it’s ‘too dangerous’, and when she does sell it, she puts the money into building more shit. So yeah, just once I saw the chance to make some real money by handing off something she’d never notice missing. You know what we got for it? Fifty thousand dollars. That’s right, fifty k. You know what I did with some of that money? I took care of my brother’s and his wife’s hospital and funeral bills that the sons of bitches wouldn’t stop hounding me about.”
Behind me, Wren’s voice was quiet. “I would have built something we could sell if you told me we were having problems paying Mom and Dad’s bill, Uncle Fred.”
“It’s more than that,” the man snapped. “Look at what you can do! Look at what you can build. We could be on the top of the world. But you’d rather live in this… place. I’ve got the rest of that money, and I’ve been looking into getting us a real lab, a real workshop where you can do real work. A place where we can get out of this… this worthless junk heap.”
Wren sounded even more hurt, her voice softer than before. “But this was Dad’s shop. We can’t leave, it’s… home.”
“It’s garbage!” he insisted. “You think your dad wanted you to live like this forever? He wanted you to have a better life, a better place. And you could get that anytime you wanted with what you can build. You’ve got everything right in the palm of your hand if you would just take it. You build and patent some of these things for us and we could be living like the goddamn Evans family!”
Hearing my family’s name made me start a little bit, flushing a little under the mask and helmet. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard people talk about my parents’ money like that. But in this kind of context… yeah, it made me uncomfortable.
Speaking up from behind me once more, Wren politely informed the man, “I don’t want to live like that. I like living like this. I like making whatever I want and not having to listen to what other people want me to make. I don’t want people to use what I make to hurt people. I won’t do that.” Her voice was plaintive. “Uncle Fred, if he’s right and some other kid dies because of something I made, I’ll never forgive you.”
A long, wild sigh escaped the man. “God damn it, kid. I’m telling you, he’s making shit up for sympathy. He—”
Before the man could continue, there was a loud chime from somewhere off behind me. Reflexively, I looked that way. It was coming from that security camera screen. On it, we could see the image of the front room of the shop downstairs. The door was standing open, and a line of figures were streaming in.
“Fucking hell,” Fred snapped, “why can’t we ever have this many customers when I’m not in the middle of something? Wait, I locked that. We’ve got customers breaking down the fucking door now?!”
“Those aren’t customers,” I informed the man. “Look at their jackets.” Clearly visible through the security footage, the men were wearing the colors and logos marking them as part of Oscuro, the Latino gang led by Cuélebre.
Staring at the screen, I couldn’t see any Touched. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t show up though, and regular old armed thugs were dangerous enough all on their own. But hey, at least the dragon-man himself wasn’t here. Not that his giant body would’ve fit through the door. Still, this was bad. Really bad.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl press something on her belt, and we could abruptly hear sound from the screen.
“Spread out,” a guy who had stayed by the door ordered. “Find anyone in the building and bring them here. We’ll find out what that guy was doing here yesterday if we have to take this place down to the foundation.”
Wren turned a reproachful look to her uncle. “That guy was here yesterday?”
Fred grimaced, waving his free hand while muttering, “He just needed—look never mind. I’ll go deal with this.”
He started to turn, and the second he did, I shot a bit of red paint at his gun while turning my glove red too. It was yanked from his hand and over to mine as I snapped, “You’ll get yourself killed.”
As soon as I caught the gun, a polite female voice immediately announced, “You are not authorized. Please put me down, or I will have to take measures. Five, four–”
Quickly, Wren reached past me and took the weapon from my grip, and the gun stopped counting down. Her voice was sheepish. “If an unauthorized person holds it for too long or tries to fire it, it’ll fall apart. And then melt into goo. It’s a, umm, a safety feature.”
Coughing, I replied, “Good to know.” On the screen, some of the guys were clearly trying to figure out how to get through the doors, while others had spread out throughout the large shop, looking through things, tossing stuff off of shelves, and generally making a mess. I didn’t know if they were just trying to attract attention, actually looking for something, or expressing frustration. Probably all three.
“Yeah,” Fred snapped in a terse voice without taking his eyes off the screen, “it’s great. Now give me that damn thing and I’ll go down and get rid of these assholes.”
Wren shook her head and pointed to me. “He’s right, Uncle Fred. They’ll kill you. And I don’t want you to die, even if you are being kind of a jerk right now. But…” She stomped her foot then, staring at the screen. “They’re wrecking Dad’s shop!”
“What the hell are they even doing here?” Fred demanded. “What the hell does this have to do with Oscuro?”
“Could have to do with the reward,” I murmured. “Or they’re just–”
The man’s gaze snapped to me. “Reward? Why the hell didn’t you say so? If it’s the kind of reward that’s got these guys out in arms, then it’s worth it. You get us out of here and I’ll tell you anything you need to know to track that jackass down. But we get a cut of the reward.”
Before I could respond to that, another alarm beeped. The screen split, showing what we had already been watching on half. On the other half, it showed several men using an extension ladder to climb up toward the same window I had come in through. They were about halfway up, and coming fast. It looked like they had some kind of submachine guns or something slung over their shoulders.
“Huh,” Wren murmured, “I guess I should’ve started putting in those defenses I had ideas for.”
Quickly looking to the girl, I asked, “Will those doors hold down there? And where do those stairs go? I don’t see them on the screen.”
“There’s an elevator and stairs through those doors,” she replied. “And they’ll hold for a minute, I think.”
“Can we get out of here?” I asked. “I know you don’t want to, but that’s a lot of guys and–”
Her head was bobbing up and down quickly. “Uh huh, but umm, we need the remote that’s in the room those guys are coming in.” She pointed to the screen, switching to a view of the bathroom. “It’s on the sink.”
Wincing, I swallowed before making myself speak again past the sudden rush of fear. “I’ll… do something about the guys at the window and get the remote. You be ready to get out of here.”
I heard her start to object, but I was already moving, going right past Fred and through the door. A glance over my shoulder at the security screen on the way out showed that the men were almost to the top of the ladder.
What the hell was I thinking? What was I doing? I was acting like I actually had the slightest clue how to handle this. Those guys had guns. I’d seen them on the screen. And yeah, I’d dealt with men with guns already. A distressingly large number of times in the past week, to be honest. But still, I could die. I could seriously die. Even as I move through the doorway and into the hall as though I knew exactly what I was doing, my heart was beating its way out of my chest, and I could barely contain the whimper.
But I shoved all that down and focused on the place that I already knew those guys would be coming through. The bathroom. I could still picture it in my head, and I could actually hear the men climbing through that window into the tub as I got nearer. They were trying to be quiet, but not that much. No, these guys were clearly planning on hitting fast and hard. Just outside the door, I heard them checking their guns and whispering about going on three.
Okay, that was it. Scared or not, I had to do this. Those guys were not going to listen if we tried to reason with them. They would hurt Wren and her uncle, maybe even kill them to get what they wanted. Oscuro wasn’t like La Casa. They had no rule against harming children. And to get those vials and have leverage over Blackjack, I had no doubt that they would do whatever they thought it took.
I was going to shove my fear into a box, lock it away into a deep, dark hole, and deal with this.
Thinking quickly, I sprayed down a wide swath of blue paint on the floor with one hand. It almost matched the blue carpet that was already there. Enough that it might not stand out immediately. At the same time, I used my other hand to shoot a thin line of red at the ceiling. Hearing the men coming for the door, I quickly slipped into the nearby storage room that I had checked earlier. Waiting there, I listened as the man came into the hall. Through the crack that I left in the door after pulling it shut, I caught a glimpse of them moving forward. Holding my breath, I waited until the guy in the lead (a big man with a full beard and shaved head) was almost to the end of the blue paint I had laid down. Hoping that all the men were on it by that point, I triggered the paint.
The results were immediate. With a collection of screams, the trio were sent flying hard up into the ceiling. As they fell back down, I shoved the door open and focused on the guns. Two of them had dropped their weapons while the big guy still had his. I shot red paint at all three before activating both it and the paint on the ceiling.
I hit two of the guns, one that was falling and the one in the big guy’s hand. The third I missed, and it bounced off the floor while the first two were yanked up to the ceiling and held there.
Trying to keep shaking terror out of my voice, I blurted, “Geeze, I heard the Mormon missionaries were getting pretty gung-ho, but come on.”
My distraction worked, and the trio looked to me instead of diving for the gun on the floor. The big one growled while lunging for me, his heavily muscled arm lashing out. It was like a tattooed freight train coming my way.
Painting a green lightning bolt over my chest and activating it to speed myself up, I ducked under the much slower man’s outstretched arm. Both of my fists turned purple as I drove one into his side, hearing a couple cracks from his ribs and a cry of pain from the man. My other hand caught his outstretched arm, and I yanked him forward into the wall.
I was already continuing my pivot to face the other two, both of whom were going for the gun on the floor, as the paint on the ceiling had not yet faded. Thinking quickly, I shot green paint at both of them, speeding the men up so that they collided with one another in their rush to grab the weapon.
Suddenly, I was grabbed from behind, as the big guy recovered enough to let out a loud string of curses while hauling me off the ground. At the same time, the ceiling paint disappeared and the guns up there were dropped to the floor almost right next to the recovering pair.
Right, this is going well.
“Stupid son of a bitch,” the guy holding me from behind growled while crushing me against his chest with my feet dangling. “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but—”
“Paintball,” I interrupted, forcing the words out through the pain in my ribs and lungs. “You should really know about me by now.”
My arms were pinned to my sides. But that was fine, because I wanted to point down anyway. With those words, I sprayed a puddle of blue paint at the man’s feet and activated it.
Once more, he was launched up toward the ceiling with a loud curse. This time, I was yanked with him. But he was taller than me, so he hit the ceiling first, losing his grip. I collided with the ceiling too, but hey, helmet. Which, just to be on the safe side, I had already painted orange.
I had to be running low on paint. Time to deal with this, before things got a lot worse.
Luckily, the second trip up into the ceiling seemed to have affected the man more than the first. Probably thanks to the other injuries he’d already taken. He was down on one knee, shaking his head slowly back-and-forth as though trying to clear it.
Unfortunately, that still left the other two guys, who had collected the guns from the floor and were already bringing them up to face me. My hands came up to shoot paint at them, aaaaand nothing happened. Sure enough, I’d used too much in the past few seconds. The men, however, jerked back reflexively, giving me a second to throw myself through the open doorway back into the storage room where I hit the floor just as they started firing.
Oh God, oh God, oh fuck! I didn’t have any paint. I was just a little kid, cowering on the floor while bullets blew through the wall and door around me. All the stuff on the shelves was shattering and blowing apart. I might’ve screamed, but I wasn’t sure.
The shooting finally stopped, and I heard one of the guys tell the other to check it, followed by the sound of him continuing down the hallway.
The kid. Wren. Hell, even her uncle. Forcing my blinding terror down, I rolled onto my back and opened my eyes. I had to do this. Looking at my hand, I focused and prayed that my paint had recovered.
A couple seconds later, the man kicked the remains of the door open and stepped through with his gun pointed right where I had just been.
But I wasn’t there anymore. I was beside the door, and as the man came through, my purple glove snatched the gun from his hand, partly crushing it as I tossed the weapon aside. The man’s gaze snapped to me and he swung a fist. But I caught it with my other purple hand, hearing a cry of pain as his bones cracked.
With a grunt, I hauled the man into the room and slammed his head into one of the shelves hard enough to daze him. Before he could recover, I had one of the metal cuffs that Flea had given me latched around both of his wrists. Leaving him there as the cuffs turned blue, I went for the open doorway.
The big guy there was starting to pick himself up. But I used the remaining time on my purple gloves to put a fist in his stomach, doubling him over once more before cuffing him as well.
From there, I started to head for the main workshop, breaking into a run. But before I took more than a few steps, Fred and Wren came through. The guy who had gotten away from me was facing them. But he didn’t have time to actually do anything, because Wren had given Fred the big gun back. He fired it. As he did so, an orange-gold beam shot from the weapon, hitting the man in the chest. Then the beam sort of… wrapped around him. Crackling with power, the beam lifted the man off the ground and threw him backward into the wall with enough force that he collapsed.
“What–what did that…” I started.
“Most of the stuff I build is about moving things,” Wren informed me brightly. “The gun moves things that don’t want to move. Sometimes really roughly. And repeatedly.”
“They’re coming,” Fred snapped at me while I was digesting that. “They’re cutting through the doors down there. We need to get the fuck out of here, right now.”
“Got it,” I replied, jogging back past the downed guys to grab the remote that Wren had pointed out. As I turned, the other two were there, and I held the remote out. “We’re good now?”
“Uh huh,” she confirmed, taking the remote. “But more problems.” She held out a small pocket computer, showing me the screen. On it, I could see a security feed of outside of the building. Three vans had pulled up and more Oscuro troops were getting out.
And Touched. There were obvious Touched with them.
This situation had suddenly gone from bad but manageable, to a whole lot worse.