At least there was one good thing about the fact that these woods were crawling with guys who wanted to kill us. It meant that we had to keep quiet, so I didn’t have to actually talk to Paige. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d been expected to keep up a conversation with the girl who had spent so much time and effort attacking every aspect of my existence throughout the entire time I had known her.
We also had a bit of an advantage in that the people searching for us thought we were heading for the road or at least toward the city. They had no idea we were going for a boat instead. Still, that was something that could change in an instant, so we had to move carefully. Unlike our earlier headlong flight through the woods, this time we were more cautious. We both crept from bush to bush, keeping our eyes and ears open.
I used black paint sparingly here and there, just whenever we thought there might be someone vaguely within earshot. We could see their flashlight beams bouncing everywhere, but not all of them were using those, so we couldn’t count on that kind of warning constantly. Slow and steady, we just had to go slow and steady.
Except not that slow, because the sound of an approaching helicopter reminded me that we had that problem too. The chopper came in low and fast from the east, its spotlight beam shining down through the trees.
“Whatever you did to piss these guys off,” I whispered under my breath, “it doesn’t look like they’re giving up any time soon.”
I heard the girl audibly gulp beside me before she muttered, “They’re trying to stop me from getting to a computer. Because if they don’t, this whole thing is over and they can’t touch me anymore.”
That made me blink at her. Squinting in the darkness, I could barely make out the other girl’s face. Not that I ever really wanted to see much of Paige to begin with. “What do you mean? What happens if you get to a computer?”
She hesitated, before replying, “If I get to a computer, I can upload the files I stole to my cloud servers. Then, if anything happens to me, the files will go out everywhere. They know that. That’s why they’re so desperate to stop us right now, because if I can upload the files, they won’t dare touch me. Their secrets are too important.”
My head shook. “You’re saying you’ve got a bunch of their secrets on some kind of USB or something and they didn’t just take it from you?”
Even in the darkness, I could see her faint, humorless smile. “They didn’t find it. The point is, if we can get out of here and to a computer, you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I upload this information and set it to go out if anything happens. Then they’ll have no choice but to leave me alone.”
“You sure they will?” I asked, thinking about the way my family had been ready to kill me (without knowing it was me) to protect their secrets.
“Trust me,” came the response, “these people care way too much about themselves to risk losing everything. As long as I make it clear that I’m not releasing the information if they leave me alone, they’ll back off. For now, anyway. It’s a short term solution.”
“And in the long term?” I asked.
“In the long term, they’ll try to find a way to delete the files and take away my leverage,” Paige replied. “But I’m pretty good with computers. It’s how I got the files to begin with, when I was…” She trailed off, a brief look of what seemed like pain crossing her normally perfect face before she muttered, “Never mind. Just… help me get out of here and you can be done with this. Believe me, you don’t want to be any more involved than you already are.”
“You might be surprised,” I mumbled as it struck me that this was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with the girl where we didn’t insult and attack each other. I hadn’t even known that she was into computers and that stuff. Shaking it off, I looked to her. “If you’ve got this top secret information that could expose whoever these guys are, it sounds like you should go to the authorities.” That was, of course, a bad idea, at least here in Detroit. But I wanted to see how much she knew about that.
Sure enough, Paige shook her head quickly. “No, it’s too dangerous. The second I let go of my leverage and play scorched earth, it’s over. They’ll hit me with everything they’ve got and I’ll be dead within the hour. And so will my family and everyone I care about. I’m not doing that. Not yet. There’s…”
Again, she trailed off. It looked like she wanted to tell me something, but thought better of it. “Look, thank you for saving me. Seriously. I have no idea how you ended up out here to do it, but you’re amazing. You’re too amazing to get involved any deeper in this. I don’t want to do that to you. This isn’t stopping a purse snatching or catching some robbers. And I swear I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s just… this is more than anyone should have to deal with. I don’t want to deal with it, but they destroyed—” Catching herself in mid-sentence, Paige amended, “There’s things I need to do, things I need to find out, before I can take the next step. You don’t want to be involved in that.”
Resisting the urge to snap at the other girl, I took a breath before pointing out, “You do realize that they already know I’m involved, right? It’s kind of hard to mistake me for someone else.”
Paige gave a short nod. “We get my leverage uploaded and I’ll tell them to leave you alone, I swear. All of this… it doesn’t go away with the leverage, but it gives me time. The people behind this… they’re bad. Really bad. But they also really like their secrets. They’ll negotiate with me if I have the ability to expose them. Like I said, if anything happens to me after this stuff gets uploaded, all their secrets get blown out into the world. If it comes down to either leaving me alone or being exposed, they’ll leave me alone. And I’ll make them leave you alone. You’ll be part of the deal. After what you did for me, it’s the least I can do. We just have to get this stuff to a computer with an internet connection, that’s all.”
I wanted to ask a lot more things, such as how they hadn’t taken her evidence away from her when they had her prisoner. Or how she had found something that important to begin with. Hell, I wanted to ask her specifics about what the evidence was. I wanted to grab the girl and shake her and ask what she knew about my family. But that might not exactly be subtle. No, I had to convince her to trust and confide in me even more. And she wasn’t going to do that until she felt secure. Which meant letting her upload that information as a safety net to make my parents and their people back off.
Was it really bad that I had the brief instinct to make her stop to protect the family? Even after everything I knew they had done, some part of me wanted to destroy that evidence. It wasn’t very loud, but the fact that it existed at all was… troublesome. It made me fall silent and really think for a minute about who I was. What the hell was wrong with me? My family was evil. They deserved to go to prison. They deserved to be stopped.
And yet… God damn it. Fuck emotions sometimes.
Thankfully, I was distracted from that bit of terrible introspection as we reached the edge of the woods. Ahead of us was a gravel covered beach area with a small cottage that looked like it hadn’t been inhabited in years. There was a rundown little dock, with a boat tied to it.
The area looked clear, but just as we were about to make our move, the sound of the helicopter got a lot louder. It was looping around and coming in fast, the spotlight playing out over the trees and beach. Quickly, I pulled Paige by the arm and dropped into a crouch with her. At the same time, I covered my entire body with black paint and wrapped myself around the bigger girl to shield her from the spotlight.
Yeah, of all the places I wanted to be in the world, ‘cuddling with Paige Fucking Banners’ was right around the very bottom, bottom, bottom of that list. Please move on, Mr. Helicopter. Move on really fucking quickly.
It did, thank God. The beam swept over us once quickly, but didn’t pause. The chopper kept going, making its way down the beach and out toward the far side of the woods. As soon as it did, I released Paige and quickly pushed back. Somehow, I avoided making a disgusted sound.
Paige didn’t seem to notice my disgust. Her attention was solely on the boat. “My friend Edwin keeps that boat here. He bought it, but he didn’t want his parents to know so he keeps it here at his dead uncle’s place. We go joyriding in it sometimes. It should have enough gas to get us out of here, but we’ll have to row first so they don’t hear the engine too soon.”
Yeah, I knew Edwin. And I was pretty sure that the main thing he used that boat for was to go out on the water and get high. But, whatever. Of all the reasons I had to dislike Paige, the fact that she hung out with people who smoked pot (and probably did herself) wasn’t one of them. Who gave a shit? I was pretty sure Simon did plenty of that himself, though never at home. Mom would have crucified him, maybe literally.
The two of us gave one last quick look around, then rose and sprinted, hunched over a bit, toward the boat. We would untie it, row further out into the water, then start the motor and be gone while these guys were still searching.
At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, just as we neared the boat, a figure stepped out from behind the house. It was Mr. Jackson, and he held the assault rifle I’d seen earlier pointed at Paige. “That is far enough,” the man announced flatly. “Paintball, I believe you call yourself? If I see you point your hand at either of us, I will open fire. Do you truly want to see if your paint is faster than a few dozen bullets?”
Fuck. He had a point. I could make the girl bulletproof, but not before he shot her. Not with him as ready as he was. If I made a move, Paige would be dead, and all three of us knew it.
On top of that, Mr. Jackson had some kind of power that apparently didn’t work on her. But it might work on me, and I had no idea what it was because I had stupidly not asked the girl during our trip through the woods.
I had to do something, but what? With that gun pointed at Paige and some kind of unknown superpower possibly in play, what the hell could I do? Think, Cassidy, think fast!
None of the paint I had right now would stop him from shooting her. Maybe the pink paint would have, but I still had no idea what it did.
Wait a second.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” I informed the man while trying to make my voice much calmer than I actually felt. “If you shoot her, I’ll get mad. And if I get mad, I’ll use the pink paint.”
As far as threats went, it obviously wasn’t much of one on the surface. Sure enough, Mr. Jackson didn’t look impressed. “The pink paint,” he echoed dully, his tone making it clear that it was more repeating my statement than an actual question.
Still, I raised my hands slowly above my head, turning the right glove pink so he could see. “You must know a lot about what I’ve been doing, the things I’ve been involved with already. But I’ve never used the pink paint. Why? Because most people don’t deserve something like that. But if you shoot that girl, trust me, you’ll deserve it.”
There was a moment of brief hesitation from the man before he slowly shook his head. “You expect me to believe that you have some kind of secret weapon that you haven’t—”
“Oh shit, ow!” I suddenly blurted, turning a bit to yank the pink glove off before throwing it to the side away from all of us with another yelp of pain. Fake pain, of course. I didn’t feel a thing.
But Mr. Jackson didn’t know that. His gaze instinctively turned to follow the pink glove as it flew away from me, which took his gun very slightly off of Paige. And that was all I needed. Painting green along my sleeves for speed, I sent a shot of red toward his gun and a bit of blue at his feet. The rifle was torn from his grasp an instant after the man realized he’d made a mistake. Then he was launched into the air with a shout. As he started to fall, I hit him with black paint and yellow, to both silence him so he couldn’t call anyone, and to slow his fall so it would take him longer to reach the ground.
My hand grabbed Paige, and I covered her hand in green paint as well while blurting, “Run!”
The two of us sprinted. I used a shot of red to grab my glove back, refusing to leave that behind for them to analyze.
Mr. Jackson hit the ground, but before he could do anything, I shot a bit of red at him and another at the tree in the distance. He was yanked off his feet and flung that way, while the two of us made it to the boat.
“No time for subtle,” I snapped. “Use the motor now, go!”
She didn’t argue, quickly starting the engine as I grabbed the rope tying the boat to the dock. Using a bit of purple paint, I ripped the rope free, and the boat took off. Both of us nearly fell out, before dropping down into the seats. We were sent, engine screaming, along the waves of the river.
But that helicopter was still in the sky, and it was starting to circle around. Obviously, Mr. Jackson had managed to call in the instant that black paint wore off. The chopper was heading for the river, heading for us.
I had another idea, looking toward the engine while pointing my hand that way, I shot a bit of green paint at it. Suddenly, the propellers were spinning much faster than they had been, and the boat was practically flying over the water.
Over the next thirty seconds, I used the green paint a couple more times. We were far ahead of where the helicopter expected us to be, and the river was too dark for it to easily find us. So dark, in fact, that we could barely see each other. But it worked. The chopper was much further back, sweeping its spotlight over the water as it searched for us in the wrong place.
Still, I didn’t want to push things too much. It would spread out it’s search pattern soon enough. So, as soon as we were away from the wooded area, I looked over to the other girl. All I could see was her vague shape through the darkness. “You better take us back to land. And for the record, what exactly are that guy’s powers? Cuz that would’ve been useful information back there. And why didn’t he try to use them?”
“He screws up people’s memories,” the other girl informed me. “He can erase them, implant them, change them, anything like that. But he can only do it through physical contact.”
“And he didn’t just do that to you in the first place because…?”
Her answer was a flat, “Because it doesn’t work on me.” And that was all that Paige would say about it, as she brought the boat back to solid ground. It was just a random part of beach, and the two of us scrambled out of the boat, leaving it there without a word. Edwin would have to find it later.
We were back to the city proper. The streets were busy even at this time of night, and Mr. Jackson had no idea where we ended up. But the only way to make sure that Paige was safe was to get her to a computer.
Yet again, that small voice in the back of my head asked if I really wanted Paige Banners to have leverage over my family. Pointedly ignoring it, I grabbed her by the arm. “Come on, I know where an internet cafe is. They’ll be all over your neighborhood, no way you’re getting to your house.”
With that, I put an arm around the girl and used a shot of red to yank us to the nearest roof. Paige yelped, grabbing me tightly as we shot up toward that building. But she didn’t protest or curse me out. Nor did she complain when we had to do it again to get to the next roof.
From there, we made our way several blocks, before eventually reaching the cafe. Landing in the parking lot, I gestured. “Do your thing, then we can talk about how much I need to know. I’ll keep an eye out.”
Once again, she hugged me. Paige Banners hugged me twice in one night. What the fuck was even my life right now? “Thanks, I’d be dead without you.”
Then the girl went inside, and I watched the street. There were a few people paying attention, a couple of whom came up and asked for actual autographs. This was weird. I indulged them as much as I could, before glancing over my shoulder toward the window where I had seen Paige move to a computer.
She wasn’t there. Quickly, I excused myself and went right to the building. The girl behind the desk started to absently tell me the price, before looking up and staring at me in surprise. I slipped past her with a murmured apology, moving through the store. Paige wasn’t anywhere in sight. But I could see a rear exit. Goddamnit, what the hell?
On the screen of the computer she had been using, Paige had left a message written in the notepad program. It read, ‘Thanks for everything Paintball. I have my leverage now, so they’ll leave me alone. But you shouldn’t be any more involved in this. I know you’ll probably be mad about me ditching you, but it really is for the best. You don’t deserve this. Good luck with your superheroing. – Paige. P.S. You’re still pretty awesome. <3’
For a moment, I just stared at the screen. Dammit, she got her leverage and split. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to confide in me. She wasn’t going to tell Paintball the secret she knew about my family, because she thought she was protecting ‘him.’ And she sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Cassidy. Somehow, I had to convince her to let me help. I had to get her to let me in on the secrets she had.
But how in the hell was I supposed to do that?