My orange paint could stand up to a good bit of damage. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up to eight guys all shooting me at the same time. That seemed slightly out of its range. And I for sure didn’t want to chance it right now.
On the other hand, I also couldn’t let these guys take Ashton. If I did, it would basically be handing a death sentence to Blackjack’s daughter and probably him as well. Or giving the Ninety-Niners the ability to force La Casa to do anything they said in order to save her life. Either one was unacceptable.
To buy myself time to think, I did the only thing that came to mind. I snarked.
“Hey, guys! Good job following the scavenger hunt so far. But, you know, I kinda already claimed this ‘guy named Ashton’ so you’re kind of going to have to go find your own. I’m pretty sure there’s a country club like five blocks that way, and there should be like five of them there.”
The guy who had spoken before raised his pistol a bit to point at my head, making me gulp slightly. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you bounce on out of here and we take our prize?”
So much for buying time to think. I had to do something, and I had to do it right now. But what? How was I supposed to—
Without warning, two of the guys were suddenly yanked off the ground. They yelped, as a figure became partially visible behind them, holding both up by their necks. The thing holding them wasn’t easy to make out. It seemed to blend in pretty well with the area around it, like some kind of super camouflage. But from what I could see, it didn’t look human.
With a roar that pretty well cemented the not human bit, the strange figure hurled the two men in opposite directions to collide with either wall of the alley. They fell and didn’t get up again.
Meanwhile, the other six guys all rounded toward the almost invisible figure, their weapons going up. Before they could shoot, however, something dove out of the sky with a loud, terrifying screech. I barely caught a glimpse of the thing as it crashed into one of the men and yanked his gun away. It looked like some kind of lizard with feathered wings.
Then something rushed past me, I just had time to jerk aside reflexively, my eyes snapping down to see another terrifying shape. This one stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a sort of hairless, scaled cat. Or, more to the point, like a tiger with scales instead of fur.
The men were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the half invisible tall figure and the bird. So they were taken completely by surprise as the hairless cat thing leapt at them from behind, knocking the leader to the ground with a petrifying roar.
Then it all stopped. The six men who were still conscious were all clumped up in a circle, while the lizard-cat and the half-invisible thing remained on either side of them. The ‘bird’ was perched up on the end of a fire escape, giving a sharp screech while the thugs all looked in every direction in a panic, clearly unsure if they should start shooting or not.
“You know,” a voice drawled, as a figure (this one actually human) stepped into view from around the corner, “I think they want you to drop your weapons.” She stopped then, giving me a good look at the newcomer. She wore a leather jacket that was black at the bottom, gradually shifting into green toward the top. The jacket had a hood attached to it, which was up, covering her hair, while her face was hidden behind some kind of black full mask that left no apparent holes for her eyes or mouth, making me wonder how well she could see through it. The effect almost made it look like there was nothing but a black void within the hood. The sleeves of the jacket were almost entirely black with a tiny bit of green at the ends to go with the green gloves she wore. Beyond that, she wore black cargo pants and combat boots. A sawed-off shotgun was in her hands.
“I suggest you do what they want,” the masked and hooded girl informed the group while pointing that sawed-off at the men. “Before they get mad.”
As if to add emphasis to her words, a much larger figure suddenly loomed up behind her. It looked like… well, like a goddamn enormous grizzly bear. Only, just like the other creatures, it had scales instead of fur, and a sort-of… mohawk. Like an iguana, I realized. It looked like a bear crossed with an iguana. A Bearguana.
If the men hadn’t already been freaked out, seeing the enormous fuck-off grizzly lizard (Grizzlizard?) rising into view from behind the girl with the shotgun did the trick. There was a sudden clattering of weapons as they quickly put them down, hands rising into the air.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the new girl noted. I couldn’t see her expression through the dark void that was her blank black mask, but I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Tell you what, you start running and don’t stop until you’ve gone ten blocks, and my friends here won’t eat you. Riddles, keep ‘em honest.”
In response to her words, the bird-lizard thing leapt from its perch with a loud screech. That was echoed by a roar from the bear-lizard, which sent the men scrambling in a blind panic to pick up their unconscious companions before they fled out of the alley and down the street. In a second, they were out of sight, while the bird-lizard flew after them.
Slowly, I turned my gaze (and my own thankfully hidden open mouth) to the girl. She stood there, watching me before giving a wave as my eyes found her. “Hiya. Name’s Pack. That the guy?” She nodded past me, to where Ashton was still thankfully trapped by the stay-down cuffs.
Shit. Quickly, I moved to stand between the girl and the prone man. As I stepped that way, the bear-lizard growled. It was joined by another bipedal creature that seemed to come out of nowhere. Belatedly, I realized it was the thing that had been semi-cloaked before. This new creature looked more like a gorilla. One which, as with all the others, had been crossed with a lizard.
“I–I–thanks,” I somehow managed to stammer past all my confusion. “Thanks for chasing them off. But you still can’t take this guy. I…” Thinking quickly, I offered, “There’s a reward for him. I’ll let you have it if you help me get the stuff he stole back t–”
“To Blackjack?” Pack cut me off. “Dude, he’s my boss. I work for him.”
Of all the things she could have said right then (and given how utterly random and strange her sudden appearance had been to begin with, my bar was set pretty high), that was probably the most surprising. I stopped short, head tilting. “You… do? But Pack isn’t– err… wait, you mean Pack as in–”
“As in pack of cards,” she confirmed. “Or pack of animals. See how it works both ways? Seriously, do you? Because it was really hard to come up with a name that actually fit La Casa’s whole gambling term shtick, and I seriously hope it wasn’t too much of a stretch.”
“Hey, bitch,” Ashton called from where he was trapped, “anyone ever tell you your boss is a murdering bag of jizz?!”
Rather than respond to the man directly, Pack looked to me. “So yes, that is him.”
“How… how did you… I mean…” I was trying to come up with the right way to ask the most important question that sprang to mind.
“Find you?” she finished for me. “I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. We’ve been searching the city, and Blackjack said that if you looked like you were onto something, we should give you a hand. I saw you, ahh, jump over my head, so I tried to catch up. You’re really fast, you know.”
She nodded past me, to Ashton once more. “If that’s him, we need to get the guy to Blackjack.”
Unthinkingly, I blurted, “No!” Which was enough to make the tiger-lizard take a step toward me before Pack put a hand up to stop it. “Wait, Holiday.” To me, she spoke more carefully. “Excuse me? Hey, look, if this is about not sharing the reward–”
It was my turn to interrupt her. “It’s not about that,” I put in quickly. “It’s about…” Sighing, I lowered my voice a bit. “If Blackjack gets him, he’s going to kill him for endangering his daughter. I can’t do that. I can’t just sentence a man to death. Not even that guy. He’s trying to avenge his dead friend.” As she made a noise as though to object, I pushed on quickly. “I’m not saying Blackjack won’t get the medicine. But that’s all he’s getting. I told him that when we… when we spoke. He’ll get the medicine, but not the man.”
As the girl quietly considered that, another lizard poked his head out from where it had apparently been hiding inside her jacket. This one was a regular-looking gecko, head tilting curiously at me before scrambling up onto her shoulder with a quiet little chirp.
“You’re right, Tuesday,” Pack murmured before focusing on me. “You get the vials out of that cocksucker and you can mail him to Siberia for all we care. Not like the boss couldn’t get to him wherever he gets sent anyway.”
“That’s basically what he said,” I muttered under my breath before turning on my heel. Walking over, I picked up the first vial from where it had fallen. Turning the thing over in my hand to make sure it was intact, I stepped over to Ashton and checked through his pockets carefully. Nothing. Well, no vials. He had money, a wallet, a few keys, and some other assorted odds and ends. No more vials.
“Right,” I started, “you heard the nice lady. Where’s the rest of them? You know, if you want to go to the nice comfy jail cell instead of being taken by the guy whose daughter you put in danger.”
With a snarl, the guy retorted, “You mean the guy who’s gonna kill me anyway? Him or one of his lackeys. Her maybe, or one of the others. Nah, I’m not important enough to waste a Touched on. He’ll just tell one of his normal old thugs to put a bullet in me, just like they put a bullet in Carlos. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be just as dead as he is.”
“Dude,” I snapped, “I’m sorry about your friend. Seriously. But you can’t just let an innocent little girl die because you’re grieving. She didn’t do anything to you. You know what’s going to happen if you let her die? You’ll hurt Blackjack, yeah. But then he’ll take it out on the city, and a hell of a lot more people will die. Do you really want that? Come on. What happened to Carlos was a tragedy. It was. It’s horrible. Don’t make a bunch of other people die in some doomed attempt to settle some kind of vendetta. It won’t help. You won’t feel better. And all the people that die in the war you start will be worse.”
After saying all that, I crouched there by the man. “So come on. Let’s just be done with all this. You don’t want to let all those people die. You’re better than that. I’m sure Carlos would want you to be better than that. He wouldn’t want you to do this, Ashton. Let’s stop this war before it starts and before a lot of people die. What do you say?”
Swallowing visibly, the man met my gaze, softly echoing, “What do I say?” For a moment, he was quiet, before lifting his chin, gaze hardening.
“I say fuck ‘em.”
His words made my mouth fall open, as I stared at him. “What… you can’t–”
“Holiday,” Pack started, “why don’t you bite his leg off. See what he thinks then.”
Immediately, the large lizard-cat thing stalked toward the man while giving a low growl. As it came, Ashton’s gaze shot back to me. “You see? That’s the kind of people he works with.”
“Dude,” I snapped, “you just said ‘fuck ‘em’ about both a little girl and an entire city full of innocent people. The moral high ground is pretty much Mount Everest to you right now.”
I did, however, hold up my hand to the nearby girl. “But wait, just wait a second, please.”
Her face was still entirely hidden, of course. There was nothing visible under that hood save for that black void. But she finally exhaled and spoke a single word of, “Wait.” At that, the lizard-cat stopped just a foot or so from the man, letting out a low, dangerous growl.
“We have one vial,” I started, once it was clear that Ashton wasn’t about to have his leg gnawed on just yet. “How many are left?”
“Five,” Pack replied. “There were six in that box. The girl needs all of them.”
“How long can she last with one of these?” I asked then while holding up the vial.
There was a brief pause before the girl slowly answered, “A month.” She was clearly looking straight at me. “You’re going to suggest we take the vial and use the month to convince Cheerful here to give up the other five.” Before I could say anything to that, she pointed out, “You know Blackjack could get it out of him a lot faster than you or the cops could.”
My head shook. “Could he, though? He hates your boss enough that knowing how much it hurts him, he could probably stand a lot.” And I don’t want to think about just what Blackjack would put him through in the process, I thought to myself silently, with a little shudder.
Flatly, Pack asked, “Do you have a better idea?” She was very clearly staring intently at me, even from behind that featureless mask. Not only that, but all her lizard-creature things were staring at me too, including Riddle, who had returned after making sure the other guys kept running.
Heaving a long sigh, I looked at the prone, captured man for a moment. “We have the first vial. That… that buys time. What we need is…” I paused before smiling. “What we need is something that can make him tell the truth.”
I could practically hear her raised eyebrow. “Do you have something like that?”
“No,” I replied, “but I know a certain inventor that might be able to whip something up, given a little time. And… I’m also pretty sure they can help me keep him contained for awhile.”
“You mean away from Blackjack,” the girl pointed out.
I sighed. “And away from the cops.” There was no choice. Not only did I have serious concerns about the actual state of the authorities themselves with my father posing as one of the biggest heroes in the city, but even if they weren’t compromised, I couldn’t see them just handing over that medicine to Blackjack without trying to get something out of him. Like, say, his surrender. As much as I hated to think it, I didn’t trust them not to play games with the girl’s life. Even if they thought it was for the greater good.
Shaking that off, I continued. “Like I said, he can have the first vial. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him to give me two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of this guy. Two weeks. That’s half the time this single vial buys us.” Looking over to Pack, I added, “I found the guy in just a couple days, and one of the vials. Your boss can give me two weeks with him to get the rest of them.”
She didn’t offer an opinion on that. Instead, the girl held a hand out. “I’ll take it to him.”
I started to hand it over, then stopped. “You know, I don’t actually have any proof that you really work for Blackjack, do I? Not to call you a liar or anything, but you’ve gotta admit, it would be pretty dumb of me to hand this over when I’ve never seen you do anything with La Casa. I’ve never even heard of you before.”
She coughed, offering a shrug and a muttered, “I’m pretty new.”
“All the same,” I replied, “I think I’ll give the vial to Blackjack myself, after we get this guy somewhere safe and out of the way.”
“Fine.” Pack took a step toward me, while both the big bear-lizard and gorilla-lizard things flanked her. With those two on either side of the girl and the predatory cat-thing in front of her, I really didn’t want to piss her off. She stopped there, looking my way while repeating, “Fine. But I’m going with you. I want to see this inventor so I can tell my boss myself that they can pull off this whole ‘getting the truth out of him’ thing. That’s the deal. I go with you, we see this inventor, and then we take that vial to Blackjack. Then I can tell my boss that I did my… you know, due diligence, or… whatever.”
I couldn’t really argue with that too much, so I instead offered a shrug. “They might have something to say about all that, but let’s find out.”
Wren had told me before I left her earlier that she wanted to do anything she could to help save that little girl, and that I should call the number she gave me if I needed anything. Praying that she really meant all that (while wondering just how bad this whole ‘illegal imprisonment’ thing was going to look if it got out), I took the phone from my pocket and hit the contact number on it. As it rang, I glanced over to Pack. “Oh, and uhhh… just for the record…
“It’s your turn to wear a bag over your head.”