First up on the available-but-expensive side was… I had no idea. Seriously, it looked like gibberish letters and numbers. Apparently it was a model or serial number or something. I had to make Wren read each bit off to me as I looked at it just to make sure I didn’t misread part of her handwriting. Not that it was that bad (better than mine, actually), but with something like this I really didn’t want there to be any mistakes. Just to be on the safe side, I made her read it again while typing it in my phone. Then I read what I recorded back to her to triple-check.
So I had a bunch of names, model numbers, and some vague idea of where I might go. And then I had a question. The same question I’d had back at Wren’s place, actually. Should I go to these places as myself, or as Paintball? A new Touched flashing around a bunch of money to buy expensive, semi-niche things might grab certain people’s attention.
On the other hand, the daughter of Sterling Evans doing so would definitely get attention. So even if I didn’t actually go in full costume, I still couldn’t go as myself. It just came down to, ‘in costume’ or ‘in disguise.’ And the fact that there was a distinct difference between the two really helped to show just how weird my life had become in such a very short time.
So, I decided to go with a disguise. But if I was going to do that, I had to go all the way with it. Making a brief trip to the mall, I picked up a few things as quickly as I could. Baggy jeans, a chain with a wallet, basketball sneakers, a couple loose-fitting shirts, and a levi jacket to start. Then I went through the cosmetics and found myself some temporary blonde hair dye that would wash out. To cap the whole thing off, I took a pair of non-prescription glasses and a hat.
With all my bags in hand, I headed to the restrooms. There, I stopped short. Wait. Hold on. I was… Okay, so the point was that I needed to disguise myself (even more) as a boy. That way, if it came back that the things that had been bought by me ended up used by Paintball, I wouldn’t give away my secret. But there was a catch. I wanted to change into my ‘boy disguise’ here at the mall. So did I go into the women’s restroom, where I belonged, and come out as a boy? Or did I go into the men’s room, where I didn’t belong, and come out of there as a boy?
I’d never been to superhero school, but if I had, I was pretty sure this still wouldn’t have been covered.
In the end (after clearly overthinking it for too long), I decided to go with the male restroom. Mostly because I figured people already mistook me for a boy as I was, so when I came out looking even more like one, being in the male restroom was probably the way to go.
With all that in mind, I waited around, pretending to window shop and check out the nearby food court until I was pretty sure the restroom was empty. Then I quickly made my way in, went to the handicapped stall in the far corner, and set my bags down before hurriedly getting to work.
The stall was one of those with its own small sink, which was part of the plan. I used the sink, washing my hair quickly, then ran the hair dye into it before scrubbing it in thoroughly. The dye was meant to go with Halloween or cosplay outfits, so it would set in after about ten minutes, then wash out the next time I took a shower. Which I would be doing as soon as this was over.
Once my hair was colored and I was waiting for it to dry, I moved over to the next stall. It was a tighter fit, but I really didn’t want to take up the handicapped spot for ten minutes. Then I just… tried to pretend I was anywhere but there. I also prayed that no one would come in. It was a prayer that sadly went unanswered, though the second I heard the door open, I quickly took my headphones out, shoved them in, and turned my music up loud so I wouldn’t hear… anything.
Finally, the hair was done. I hurriedly ran a comb through it, then put on the new clothes including both layers of shirts and the levi jacket before slipping my feet into the new shoes and stepped out to the mirror. The glasses went on, and I tied my hair back into a loose ponytail, hoping that would look sufficiently ‘guy-like.’ That done, I threw on the hat and checked myself out.
Okay, I definitely looked like a boy. I looked like I belonged in one of those boy bands, actually. The kind that made little girls squeal. Wincing at how easy that had been, I grabbed my stuff and made my way out.
Aaaand immediately almost ran into Simon. Yeah. He was on his way into the restroom, looking back at one of his friends. Seeing him, my eyes went wide, like a deer in headlights. Instinct kicked in, and I slipped past him. In my hurry, I kind of brushed up against his shoulder, muttering an apology under my breath with as deep a voice as I could manage before hurrying off. I had to tell myself not to look back. I really didn’t want to know if he was looking.
Seriously, what were the odds that Simon would be right there right then? Sure, he spent a lot of time at the mall (or I’d thought he did before knowing he was basically employed as a goon for our parents), but still. Once I was far enough away, I sat down at one of the food court tables and took a second to glance back toward the bathrooms. Was he looking for me? The real me.
It didn’t look like it. A few of his friends that I recognized were there (were they part of our parents’ group too?) hanging around outside the restroom. A moment later, Simon and another of his friends emerged. He wasn’t looking around or anything, and he didn’t even glance toward the female restroom. Instead, the group briefly conferred, Simon checked his watch, and then he and a couple others walked off together, leaving the rest behind.
Wait a minute. Wait. Yeah, maybe this was a bad idea. Okay, maybe it was a very stupid idea. But I might’ve just tripped over a way to find out… well, anything at all about my family’s situation. I just happened to be in disguise and almost tripped over Simon at the mall? Right, maybe he was just hanging out and not doing anything untoward. Maybe this was a waste of time, a waste that I really couldn’t afford given our time constraints. But if he was doing anything here…
I had to know. I wouldn’t take too long with it, but this was just too good of a chance to waste. Picking myself up from the table, I followed my brother and the friends who had joined him. I’d just take a few minutes to see what they were doing. If they were just doing ordinary shopping things, then there was no problem. I’d take off and focus on getting those supplies for Wren.
The mall was busy enough that it wasn’t that hard to trail Simon. I stayed back far enough that I wouldn’t stand out, stopping now and then to pretend to window shop while keeping half an eye on the trio. They didn’t really seem to be in a hurry, and I was quickly starting to think the whole thing had been a waste of time. Simon was just hanging out at the mall, not doing anything nefarious. It was time to leave him alone and focus on the whole reason I’d donned this disguise.
Then it happened. As I was pretending to study a turtleneck on a very confident-looking mannequin, I saw Simon look at his watch once more. He said something to one of his friends, then beckoned with a finger while moving to a nearby employee’s only door midway between two different shops. Producing a ring of keys, he unlocked the door and headed through. The guy he beckoned to followed, while the other guy simply turned around, put his back to the wall beside the door, and waited. A lookout, apparently.
Okay, now something was going on. Managing to stop staring before the guy by the door glanced my way, I straightened up and turned to meander that way, crossing the aisle to look at the opposite store. In reality, I was using the reflection in the window there to stare at that door. Approved Employees Only. That’s all it said. What were Simon and the other guy doing there? Why did they need someone to stand by the door and wait? And how could I get through it to find out?
Right, first, I needed to distract the guy by the door. I… thought his name was Derrick, but it could’ve been something like Devon or Darius. I was going to go with Derrick for the moment. Derrick was checking his phone, idly looking up now and then but mostly just focused on texting or whatever he was doing. My guess was that his sole job was just to make sure no one else went through the door, so he didn’t have to pay attention to much beyond that. And I needed to make him stop doing even that much. This would be interesting.
Thinking quickly, I looked down the mall to see a group of teen girls coming, arms loaded with bags. From the corner of my eye, I could see Derrick watching them too, with obvious approval at what he saw. Okay. Maybe I could use that. Yeah. Yeah, I could definitely use it.
Pointing at my feet, I checked to make sure no one was watching before shooting a small blotch of red paint there. Leaving it, I casually walked that way, toward the incoming girls. As I passed them, a few more tiny shots of red paint hit the bags they were carrying. Then I just kept walking, passing a cart full of teddy bears for sale in the middle of the corridor before using that for cover. Picking up a bear, I watched as the girls neared Derrick and the spot of paint I’d left. Just as they were about to pass it, I activated the paint both there and on their bags.
The result was immediate. The bags were ripped from the girls’ hands as they yelped in surprise. With a loud crash, they hit the floor, spilling their contents everywhere. The girls cried out, cursing even as Derrick jumped.
I stood there, holding the bear in my hands as I watched the girls quickly drop to start gathering things. Under my breath, I murmured, “Go for it, Hot Shot. Come on, they’re cute girls. Help them. Do it. Come on.”
“Dude.” A voice nearby cut in, and I blinked over to see the guy who was actually selling the bears staring at me. “Are you okay?”
Jumping a bit, I saw Derrick moving to help the girls. Quickly, I pushed a twenty dollar bill into the man’s hand. “Thanks,” I murmured, “my girl’ll love it.” Then I moved around the cart, glancing over my shoulder to see the guy shrug and turn his attention down the hall to ask a passing couple if they wanted one.
Derrick was still helping the girls pick up their things. His back was to the door, so I moved quickly past them. Giving one last quick look that way to make sure he wasn’t looking, I tried the door while praying silently. It was still unlocked. Breathing out, I quietly slipped through, closing it gently behind me before slowly looking around to see where it had led me.
I was in a narrow corridor, with a gray floor and puke green walls. Ahead were a few closed doors, with another one at the end that had a little window in it. I moved that way, listening.
Dumb, dumb. This was so dumb. What the hell was I doing? I was going to get caught. I was going to be in so much trouble. This was going to backfire. I needed to get the hell out of there, like right now before the whole thing completely blew up in my face. I had to leave.
I went forward, carefully checking the side doors. They were locked, and I was pretty sure no one was in them. Quickly and quietly moving to the end of the hall, I chanced a peek through the small window to see what was there. Stairs. It was a landing, with stairs leading down.
Biting my lip, I hesitated for a second before trying the door. Locked. And now I noticed the single white button beside the door. Was it a doorbell? A button to open the door? Something else? I didn’t know. I had no idea what might happen if I pushed the thing. The whole thing was seeming like more of a bad idea by the second.
This was all so confusing. What the hell was my brother doing down there? Why were there stairs leading down in the first place? What could possibly be there? And why was I stalling instead of trying harder to get down there to find out?
Because the last couple times I’d found my brother doing criminal things hadn’t gone too well, that’s why. The first time I’d seen two people get viciously executed, and the second time I’d found out that my dad was both a villain and my favorite superhero. So yeah, maybe I was a little hesitant to go through that door and see what new revelation popped up this time.
Either fortunately or unfortunately, the decision about finding a way through the door was taken out of my hands then, as the sound of feet on the stairs made me look through that little window. People. My brother and some other guy, different from the one he’d gone in with. I could see the back of their heads as they came up the stairs toward the landing right before they would turn to come up the last set right to this door.
Grimacing, I pivoted and looked around quickly. I couldn’t go out the door I’d come in. Derrick had to be right there by now. Instead, I moved to one of the side doors, the ones that were locked. Making my arm purple and activating the paint, I murmured a quiet prayer before shoving at the knob.
It worked. The door popped open, and I quickly slipped through, giving a quick glance around to find myself in what looked like an old supply closet full of cleaning stuff that seemed like it hadn’t been touched in months, at least. There was a lot of dust, anyway. Hearing those footsteps reach the top of the stairs beyond the other door, I quickly and quietly closed the one for this room most of the way, leaving just a crack to see through. Then I paused, frowning. Hadn’t I been in a very similar situation just recently? When I went to save Ashton’s brother, I’d gone in a short hallway full of doors, then had to hide as one of the guys came back through the one at the end. Yeah, definite deja vu.
I was really hoping this one wouldn’t end with me in a fight.
Holding the door so that it stayed mostly closed, I listened as the one that had been locked beeped. There was a weird sound of rushing air from the other side as it opened before the footsteps came through, then the sound of air stopped as the door was closed. That was followed by a definitive sounding beep, then a metallic thunk that probably meant the door was fully locked again.
As soon as that was done, I heard my brother’s voice. “I don’t have time for this, man. You know the rules. Ten percent of the take from any job you do in the city just for permission to operate here. You’re operating here, that’s ten. You asked for the patrol schedules of the Spartans and Conservators for that day. That’s another twenty. Thirty percent. We know exactly how much you took and what it was worth. Thirty percent is forty-six thousand. Just be glad you didn’t ask for our direct intervention. That’s even more. Stop acting like this is some kind of surprise.”
While I was taking that in, Simon and the other guy came into view. The latter was a tall, heavy-set guy with bulging muscles, a leather vest, and copious tattoos along his exposed arms. He looked like a biker.
“It’s bullshit, man,” the guy was complaining as he stopped walking to look to my brother. “Why am I even talking to some punk bitch like you anyway?” He made a dismissive snorting sound, reaching up to catch him on the shoulder. “Spoiled fucking rich kid. You ever even been in a fight, huh? You ain’t Touched, that’s for sure.”
I saw my brother stiffen a bit at that. He went completely still, then pushed the man’s hand off his arm, voice turning a bit cold. “Tell you what. Hit me.”
“Excuse you?” The man was staring at him. So was I, to be fair.
“Hit me,” Simon repeated. “Just once. You hit me once, and I’ll call the entire debt clear.”
“Bullshit you will,” his companion spat.
Simon smiled, shrugging. “What’ve you got to lose? I mean, haven’t you wanted to hit me for awhile now? It’s kind of your best chance.” He spread his arms, taking a step back from the man that put him almost out of my sight. Then he closed his eyes and stood there, arms apart, eyes shut. “You’ll never get a better shot.”
The man hesitated just for a second, then took a step that way and threw a vicious haymaker at my brother’s face. I very nearly blurted out a warning reflexively, but it died in my throat as Simon’s head turned just a little. The punch whiffed through the air. The guy threw another punch, and Simon did the same thing, his head snapping the other way.
Frustrated by that point, the other man lashed out in a wild roundhouse swing, followed by a hard kick. Simon’s entire body tipped backward first, letting the punch sail just above his head. In the same motion, he pivoted and side-stepped a bit, allowing the kick to pass through the air where he had just been standing. It threw the man off balance, and he stumbled forward. With a roar of frustration, he produced a knife and spun to drive it toward Simon’s face before I even knew what was happening. But Simon just jerked his head backward out of the way, seeming to know that the blade had been brought into play.
The man swiped with the blade twice more. Each time, Simon avoided it by stepping backward. His opponent was getting frustrated, and it showed, as he lunged at my brother with a shout, driving the knife toward his stomach.
Pivoting away from the incoming knife, Simon’s hand snapped out to catch the man’s arm just as the blade slid past his chest. Gripping the man’s arm, he kicked out to knock his legs out from under him, then let the man fall while stripping the knife from his hand.
Tossing the knife aside with a clatter, Simon breathed out. Only then did he open his eyes, having kept them closed through all of that. He stared down at the man on the ground, a long moment of tense silence passing before my brother eventually spoke. His voice was calm. “Looks to me like you have something in common with super powers.” He turned on his heel then, heading for the exit.
“I haven’t been touched by either of you.”