“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.”
The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians.
Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.”
“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?”
“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle.
To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”
Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.”
“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.”
Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.”
“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–”
In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd.
“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised.
At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner.
“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?”
“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–”
Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her.
As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.”
“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.”
“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–”
“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.”
Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.”
“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.”
Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.”
Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?”
“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.”
“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?”
“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”
“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing.
“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.”
Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.”
Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?”
“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.”
Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.
“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.”
A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point.
Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!”
Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to.
“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.”
Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass.
“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”
With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.”
“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet.
“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?”
“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?”
“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.”
“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from.
After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.”
The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones.
Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.”
“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.”
“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.”
There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work.
As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.”
“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.”
“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation.
“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.”