“Hey, kid.” A foot nudged Wren Donovan’s leg as the nine-year-old lay on a wheeled creeper board underneath a sedan. With a flashlight in her mouth and tools in both hands, the girl hesitated. She really didn’t like to interrupt her work when she was on a roll. Especially when the person interrupting her was someone she wasn’t exactly super-happy with at the moment.
The nudge came again. “Come on, kid, I’ve got pizza inside. You’ve gotta eat.”
That did it. She might’ve been upset with Uncle Fred for giving that bad guy the stuff he needed to hurt that girl, but pizza was pizza. Besides, he didn’t mean for things to go that way. Pushing her feet down, she rolled herself out from under the car and blinked up at the man while spitting out the flashlight. “Pepperoni?”
“Extra pepperoni with more pepperoni on the side just in case they don’t get the message, just the way you like it,” Uncle Fred assured her, reaching down to offer both hands to the girl. She took them with her own grease-covered fingers, and he grimaced a little before pulling her up to her feet. They were standing in the back alley area behind the ‘bookstore’ that served as the entrance to her back-up lab. The rear door into the store itself was standing open, and she could already smell the promised pizza beyond. It was quickly making her mouth water.
“Uh uh,” Uncle Fred stopped her with a hand. “You go wash your hands first. Soap and water.”
“Yeaaaah yeah,” Wren grumbled a bit. Not because she actually wanted to taste oil and grease while she was eating, but for the principle of the thing. Heading off quickly, she thoroughly scrubbed her hands in the small restroom attached to the store before going back. Fred had taken the pizza downstairs to the lab by that point, and she followed her nose that way.
Once the girl had filled a plate with food, she made her way to the couch to watch cartoons, switching the channel away from whatever daytime courtroom drama had been playing as she settled in to scarf hungrily at the food. Watching Pearl, Amethyst, and the other Gems was much more interesting than people complaining about someone stealing their dog or breaking their window or whatever. She could see her uncle watching her from nearby, but waited until a commercial before she addressed him. “Are you mad at me, Uncle Fred?”
“Mad at–” The man sighed, moving around to sit on the nearby chair. “Kid, I was trying to figure out how angry you were at me. I mean, I did sort of really fu–screw things up back there.”
He was right. He had screwed things up, and a girl was in trouble because of Wren’s inventions. But… she supposed he hadn’t meant to make that happen. Thinking through all that as she silently munched her pizza, Wren finally swallowed and looked back to him. “Yes. I’m mad at you. You were a jerk and you did what I said not to just because you thought you knew better. A girl is really in trouble, Uncle Fred, cuz of my stuff.”
The man winced. “I… I know. I’m sorry, kid. You’re right. I didn’t think it–I didn’t think. That’s not an excuse. I royally screwed up.”
Meeting his gaze, Wren slowly nodded. “Everyone messes up sometimes.” Her brow furrowed, and she added pointedly, “But no more selling any of my stuff without telling me, okay? If my stuff gets someone killed, I couldn’t…” She stopped, biting her lip while staring at the food on her plate before finishing with an awkward, “Just tell me. And no means no. You’re the adult, but they’re my inventions.”
“You got it,” Fred promised, taking a slice of pizza for himself from the nearby table before asking, “You ahh, mind telling me what you’re planning to do with that car out there?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Wren admitted. “Mostly just trying to get it running again. Then I was thinking about making a Transformer.” She said that just to watch her uncle choke on his food, snickering to herself before amending, “Or maybe I’ll just make it go faster.”
While Uncle Fred was still trying to react to that, the phone rang. Dropping her plate next to herself on the couch, Wren dove for it, grabbing the receiver before hitting the button. “Mllohn?”
Right, food. Chewing her pizza hurriedly before swallowing, she tried again. “Hello?”
There was a brief pause, before she heard a by-now-familiar voice, “Wren, that you?”
“Hi, Paintball!” Grinning at the sound of the boy’s uncertain words, Wren found herself nodding pointlessly while hurriedly blurting, “Did you find that guy you were looking for? Did he have the things he stole? Oh, oh, did you save that girl? Is she okay? Did her dad say thank you? Is he still a bad guy? Are you gonna–”
A hand touched the back of her head, as Uncle Fred stood behind the couch. “Maybe let the kid answer one of the questions at a time, huh?” he suggested before taking a bite of his pizza.
“Oh, right.” Turning her attention back to the phone, Wren settled on a simple, “What’s up?”
She could hear Paintball chuckle just a little. “Hi, Wren. Yeah, um, we sort of–yeah, we have the guy and one of the medicine vials. But I was kind of wondering if we could bring him over there for awhile so we can figure out how to get the location of the rest of the stuff out of him. I know it’s a lot to ask, but your place is hidden and I don’t exactly have much in the way of options.”
As he finished saying that, another voice spoke up, saying something that Wren couldn’t catch. Then Paintball’s voice came back, “Yeah, I know your boss would take him off my hands. Call me crazy, I don’t really want to be responsible for sending this guy to be tortured and executed.”
“Uh,” Wren had to put in, “tortured and executed?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Uncle Fred do a double-take while silently echoing her last words. His face looked funny that way, and she had to restrain a giggle. Giggling after saying tortured and executed was probably bad.
“Sorry, sorry,” Paintball quickly replied. “That wasn’t–never mind. The point is, could we bring him over to your place until we figure this out? The um, one of… ahh, one of Blackjack’s people wants to come with to make sure he won’t get away and to see how we might get the truth out of him without her boss taking fingers and toes.”
The person with Paintball spoke again, and that time Wren clearly heard, “Ehh, mood he’s in, I’m pretty sure he’d start with a full hand and just work his way out from there.”
“Yeah, sure, bring him.” Wren said those words while giving her uncle a brief glance and an exaggerated thumbs up together with a wide smile to show him that it was all okay. “Wait, can you get him here?”
“That’s actually the other thing,” Paintball reluctantly replied. “Things could get pretty nuts out here if people see this guy, so I don’t exactly want to go walking down the street with him.”
Before the boy could continue, Wren brightly put in, “That’s okay, Uncle Fred can come get you.”
“He can?” The exact same words came from both Paintball over the phone and Fred himself from right beside the girl.
“Uh huh.” Wren covered the receiver and gave her uncle a sharp look. “Dead. Little. Girl.”
The man sighed, slumping a bit before waving his hand acceptingly. “Just tell me where to go.”
“Hey, Paintball? He’ll be there. Just tell us where you guys are.” Wren grinned. “See? You totally found the bad guy. I knew you would. Did the remote thing help a lot? Where was he? Did he fight you when you found him? Did you hit him really hard? Did he run away? Did you–”
The phone was plucked from her hand, as Uncle Fred spoke. “Where are you? Huh? Yeah, got it. Bring a what? And–is there room in the car for a cage? A cage of lizards, as in multiple lizards? What kind of–never mind. I’ll be there.” Disconnecting, the man dropped the phone and heaved a sigh while heading for the exit, grumbling, “Car full of lizards, gonna ruin the upholstery. Never gonna get the smell out. Could’ve moved to Florida, but nooo.”
As he left, Wren helpfully called, “I’m pretty sure they have lizards in Florida too, Uncle Fred!”
“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about your tech expert being a nine-year-old?” The girl who stood there in the main room of the upstairs bookstore, staring at Wren, wore a black and green leather jacket with a hood that covered her hair, her face hidden by a full black mask that didn’t even have any eye or mouth holes.
Wren wasn’t offended. She was pretty used to that kind of reaction from anyone who found out that she was the one who built things back at the shop. Instead, she focused on the cage in the girl’s hands, blurting, “Oh wow, you really do have lizards! They’re so cute!”
Head tilting, the lizard girl paused briefly before nodding. “Yeah, okay, I like her.” Setting the cage down, she extended a hand. “Name’s Pack. So you’re the genius, huh?”
“I just like building really cool things,” Wren informed her while accepting the hand with both of hers. She shook it excitedly before blurting, “How come you’re a bad guy?” That time, it was both Paintball and Uncle Fred who choked and gave her surprised looks. Which was silly. Why did adults act so weird about actually asking the important questions or just saying what they meant?
If she was offended or whatever, Pack didn’t act like it. She just shrugged. “Law never really did anything for me, so I don’t see why I should care that much about it. All the authorities have ever done is break up my family, take away my friends, repossess my stuff, throw us out in the street because we couldn’t pay rent, shit–I mean stuff like that. Not like I’m going around getting innocent little girls killed like some people.” With those words, she shot a look toward the handcuffed man nearby. “There’s levels of bad, y’know?”
Wren blinked twice, thinking that through for a moment. It sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure how to say it. Instead, the girl simply turned to Paintball with a grin. “You really found him!”
“Yeah, thanks to your thing,” the boy replied before gesturing to the man in question. “So first up, any idea where we can keep him for the time being?”
“You dumb shits know this is false imprisonment, right?” the man demanded. “Some heroes.”
“Some of us don’t claim to be heroes,” Pack pointed out. Her expression was hidden behind that full mask, but her voice was dangerous. “And some of us have a boss that would really rather we take you to him instead of leaving you here. If you’d prefer that, it can be arranged.”
Wren was pretty sure the guy didn’t want that, considering how quick he stopped talking. She looked back to Paintball, pointing to the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you! There’s a room. I was setting it up for another lab, a uhh, soundproof one for little explosions and stuff. But it’ll work. Wait, he doesn’t have any powers, does he?”
“Other than being a giant pain in the ass to track down?” the boy replied before shaking his head. “Nope. Not as far as we know, anyway. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve used them by now if he had anything. We searched him pretty thoroughly. No more weapons or tools. And no phones besides the one I was tracking.”
“Don’t forget, also no vials,” the man pointed out with a tiny sneer. “And you’re not getting them.”
Ignoring him, Wren led the group, with Uncle Fred bringing up the rear, down the stairs to the private area, then to a mostly-hidden door in the back. She fumbled in her pockets briefly, managing to bring out a small remote, which she pointed at the door. There was a beep as she pressed a button on it, and the door slid open.
“It worked!” Wren blurted despite herself. Oh boy, that was perfect timing. The thing had been sticking for the past–The girl stopped, blinking over her shoulder at the assembled group. “I mean… he can go inside there.” She pointed into the room, which was basically a twenty-foot by twenty-foot square with blank walls, since she hadn’t moved anything in there yet. “We can get a mattress and a blanket or something for him, and some books. Oh, and we have pizza, and–”
Paintball guided the man past Wren into the room, looking around for himself before pointing. “Just stay put, Ashton. Like she said, we’ll get you some stuff to take care of you. And you know, you could make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier if you just told us where the vials are. Do that, and I think I could probably talk Blackjack into letting you walk away from all this.” He paused, looking over to Wren and the others before turning back to amend, “Or at least give you a head start.”
Paintball closed the door before giving the man a chance to reply, letting out an audible breath before looking over to Wren. “Thanks for helping take care of that guy. And um, I really hate to impose even more, but–”
“You want something that can make him tell you where the stuff is, right?” Wren blurted, unable to keep quiet any longer. “I can’t make a telepathy thing. I mean, I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve never really tried, but I thought about it for awhile and I couldn’t think of anything. Usually it’s really easy to think of things. So I don’t think I can do mind reading stuff.”
Setting the cage with her lizards down, Pack asked, “Can you do something to make sure that whatever he says is the truth?”
“Like a Poliwag?” Wren started before frowning to herself. “Wait, that’s not right. That’s–polygraph!” She blurted that while raising a hand in triumph. “Nailed it! Polygraph. I… maybe can make a polygraph? I think. Wait, hold on. Gimme a second.” She spun on her heel to start away, stopping in mid-step to look back over her shoulder. “I mean, gimme a sec to plan something, not to actually make the thing. I’m not that fast. Okay, just a sec.”
With that, Wren sprinted over to one of her tables of junk, dumping out a box before frantically moving parts and tools around. “Uncle Fred!” she called, “where’s Linus?”
The man didn’t need to be told any more than that. He simply stepped over to one of the other tables, dug around in a box until he had a tiny screwdriver with tape over the handle and a happy face drawn on that tape, and handed it to her.
“Hi, Linus!” Wren held the tool up so she could see the bright smile she had drawn on it. “We’re gonna figure out how to make somethin’, okay?”
She set to work then, mumbling to herself as she moved parts around, undoing pieces of equipment with the help of Linus, Charlie, and Marcie. The latter two were her favorite wrench and pliers, respectively.
It took about fifteen minutes. From the corner of her eye, she could see Paintball and Pack sit down to watch the TV, while Uncle Fred went to get that mattress, a blanket, and a few other things. Once that stuff was in the room with the prisoner guy, Paintball stepped in and came out a minute later with the cuffs that had been on him before returning to his seat.
Through it all, Wren kept working. She didn’t want to tell them she knew what to make until it was definitely clear that she could do it. Grabbing a sheet of blueprint paper and a pencil, she scrawled on it for a few minutes, crossing things out and erasing until she had the right idea. It was a bit of a mess, but she’d clean it up later.
Finally, she had enough. Checking her calculations one last time, Wren grinned excitedly while pumping her fist. “Gardyloo!”
“Gardy-what?” Pack, jumping from her seat at the sound, stared at her.
“Um, gardyloo,” Wren hesitantly explained while blushing a little. “It’s um, it’s something they used to say a long time ago in Scotland when they were throwing the, umm, slop from the windows out to the street. I just think it’s a funny word, so when I figure things out, I say it instead of eureka. Everyone says eureka. Nobody says gardyloo.”
“Huh.” Shrugging, the lizard girl gave her a thumbs up. “Well gardyloo to you too. You figured out what to do, then?”
Head bobbing quickly, Wren explained, “Uh huh. I can totally make something that’ll work. See?” She held up the sketch she had made of an armored suit.
“What am I looking at?” Paintball asked, stepping that way to squint at the drawing of the armor. “You… uhh, you want us to build a suit that can beat the information out of him? Because that’s not exactly the way I was hoping we’d go.”
In response, Wren grinned at him, tapping the paper. “Nah, silly. The suit is for him.”
Paintball stared at her. “Okay, um, I think you might’ve been confused on the goal here. The point is to get him to tell us where he hid the vials, not give him a suit of armor.”
Giggling, Wren glanced toward the snickering Pack before shaking her head. “The suit isn’t about protecting him, it’s about making him move around. See, the helmet there plugs into his neck and his head. If he’s wearing the suit and you make him start thinking about where the vials are, the helmet will translate his thoughts into movement, and make him go that way. All you have to do is follow.” She was grinning brightly. “See, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant. He doesn’t have to tell you where the medicine is. Just make him think about where it is and his body’ll go there. He can’t stop it.”
“Oh. That…” Paintball trailed off. “That’s really cool, Wren. Yeah, you know, I think that just might work. And hey, you made it fit into that whole ‘movement’ theme.”
Blushing, Wren kicked at the floor and shrugged self-consciously. “It makes things a lot easier to build if I design them around that. But it’ll take me about a week to make it. And I’ll need some special supplies. I’m not sure what yet, but… definitely things I don’t have here.”
“I’ll take care of anything you need,” Paintball quickly assured her. “And a week… should be okay, right?” He looked over at Pack.
She, in turn, shrugged. “Dunno. I’m gonna have to call the boss and clear all this just to be sure. We’ve got the one vial, so that should keep the kid okay for a month, but he’s not gonna wait that long.”
“Two weeks,” Paintball replied. “Like I said before, just tell him we need two weeks to get the truth out of Ashton. If Wren can build something to make him talk, we can get the rest of the medicine before she’s ever in danger again.”
Once more, Pack shrugged. “Like I said, gotta call the boss. He’s the final say on all this.”
“Use this phone.” Standing beside her, Fred offered the girl one. “It can’t be tracked, so they won’t know where you’re calling from. Just like you don’t know where you are.”
“Gotcha.” Taking the phone, the girl stepped away, stopping by the cage to take one of her lizards out, setting him on her shoulder. Then she dialed the phone and moved to a corner of the room, murmuring quietly. After a minute of that, she turned and held the phone out to Paintball. “Boss wants to talk to you.”
As the boy took the phone and had his own conversation, Pack returned to stand by Wren. “A week, huh?”
“I can do it,” she assured the older girl.
“If they come to a… an agreement on this,” Pack informed her, “it sounds like the boss is gonna want me to stick around here and keep an eye on that jacka–that guy. You mind if my little friends and me crash in the corner?”
Brightening, Wren shook her head. “Nope, that sounds fun! It can be like a sleepover. I haven’t had any of those in a long time.”
“Huh. A sleepover, huh?” Pack considered before shrugging. “Yeah, aight.”
Apparently finished with his call, Paintball disconnected. “Okay,” he announced, “ten days. Blackjack wouldn’t agree to two weeks. He said ten days. We’ve got that long to build this thing and get the rest of the vials out of Ashton. Then we ca–” There was a chime from the boy’s costume, and he dug around inside before coming out with a phone. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but his eyes very clearly widened as he blurted, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta go.”
“Go?” Pack echoed, the frown evident in her voice.
“Yeah, I’m gonna be late getting my dr…” Trailing off, Paintball coughed. “Late getting my drums.”
Dryly, Pack gave him a thumbs up. “Smooth, totally saved it.”
Looking awkward and fidgety, Paintball cleared his throat. “I–uh, whatever, I’m gonna be late. Call your boss back and tell him to send a car with someone he trusts completely to the public library on Woodward. I’ll give them the vial there. But they better be there quick.”
With that, he was gone, hurrying up the stairs and leaving the building like his pants were on fire.
Watching the boy go, Wren asked, “Uncle Fred, could you go to the store and get some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers? We’re gonna make s’mores! And then we’ll tell ghost stories, and watch silly movies, and play music, and truth or dare, and, and, and–”
Her excited rambling was interrupted once more by Pack. “Y’know, I’ve thought a lot about how my first official mission as part of La Casa would go.
“Gotta say, I did not see this coming.”