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Izzy, of course, immediately turned to head for the archway leading to the stands surrounding the track. My hand quickly snapped out to catch her arm, mouth open to say something. But the moment I touched the other girl, she pivoted. Her arm twisted easily out of my grip, and she was suddenly facing me with the hand of that same arm tightly gripping my elbow to lock the joint while her other hand was raised defensively in front of herself. It all happened in an instant.
Whoa. Uh, yeah, this was a girl who was accustomed to being hit, and had the reflexes to show for it. But even more than that, she obviously knew how to take care of herself. Which just fed into the conclusion that one of her parents was a villain. It made sense that they’d get their daughter self-defense lessons. The way her hand was gripping my elbow to lock it in place wasn’t an accident. If I tried to bend it, a shot of pain would go through my arm. That had to be intentional. So her parents taught her to fight, and she was also jumpy as hell? That… right, yeah, that would make sense if she knew all the trouble and danger her parents could get into. But I’d also been operating under the assumption that Izzy had only just found out about her parents. Or parent. So, now I was even more confused. And I knew that there was one extremely simple answer to this whole thing that I was just missing. It felt incredibly obvious and like it was right on the tip of my tongue. I just couldn’t get that final little piece for this all to make sense. And I had a feeling that once I did know the truth, I was going to feel like a real idiot for not realizing earlier.
Already flushing with obvious embarrassment, Izzy quickly released my arm even before all of that had finished running through my mind. “Sorry,” she blurted, eyes darting toward Amber and Jae of all people. “I just umm… sorry.” She finished uncertainly, fidgeting back and forth on her feet while her hands interlocked behind her back as though to keep them away from me.
Dad was already chuckling. “Hey, no worries, huh? I’m pretty sure Cassie was just trying to stop you from heading off the wrong way. We’re over here.” He gestured to a green painted door with ‘no admittance, authorized personnel only beyond this point’ written on it, as well as an electric lock with a badge reader next to it. A guard beside the door stood silently, giving us a short nod of welcome. He knew our family. And I knew him. His name was… Pete, I was pretty sure.
Simon was already there, waving a plain white badge in front of the reader. There was a sharp click, and then he pulled the door open. “After you guys.” To Pete, he added slyly, “How’s Jim?”
Pete, in turn, smiled with obvious pride. “Made it to varsity soccer this semester.”
While they were talking, Izzy looked over her shoulder with confusion, then turned even more pink than before. “We’re not sitting in the regular stands, are we?” she mumbled quietly.
Right, of course she would assume that we were going to sit in one of those seats. With a small smile, I shook my head with a glance to the others. “Nope, Dad has a reserved box as one of the owners. We’re not here for every race, so he loans it out a lot to other important people. Come on.” I gestured to her and to the other two. “You still get a really good view of the race.”
The three girls followed me, as I slipped past Simon (doing my best not to tense up while that close to him) and Pete (waving to the latter) before leading the way up the carpeted stairs on the other side. There was, as always, soft music playing, with air that was noticeably cooler than the area outside. Behind me, Jae, Amber, and Izzy gradually climbed, remarking on the photographs of various racers that lined the walls. They started in black and white at the bottom with the earliest pictures, before gradually turning to first faded, then better and sharper color as the pictures got nearer to the present date.
Dad was talking from behind, explaining who each person or car was in the various photographs and why they were important. I mostly tuned him out, because I knew the whole story already. I knew all of their stories, considering I’d memorized them by the time I was about seven years old. I still remembered my father holding me on his shoulders as he walked up these same stairs, pointing to the photographs and answering all of my many, many questions.
It was a memory that almost made me stumble, my grip on the nearby railing tightening. I couldn’t look at those photographs now. I couldn’t think about those memories, of how safe I had felt on my father’s shoulder, how I had been absolutely certain he would never let anything bad happen to me. My father was my hero.
My father was a superhero.
My father was a supervillain.
A monster. He was a monster who controlled all the crime in this city, who let it happen. Who got rich off it happening. He was a man who had been willing to order the death of a teenager who had maybe seen too much. I couldn’t forget any of that. I wouldn’t forget it. Not now and not ever. My father wasn’t a good guy. He was a villain. But he was also my dad. And a superhero. He was… he was…
Fuck. Stop it, Cassidy. Now really wasn’t the time to get into all that. Especially now, of all times. With Izzy, Jae, and Amber right here? Yeah, this was absolutely the worst time to get myself trapped in those thoughts. I had to shove those away and focus on just getting through this day without arousing too much suspicion. Especially given the whole situation yesterday. The last thing I needed now was Dad focusing too much on anything suspicious I said or did.
Thankfully, watching the race would be an excellent distraction from all of that. It was something that I could throw my full attention at. To that end, I plastered a quick smile on my face once we reached the top of the stairs, where there was a very slightly curved hallway (following the curve of the track) with labeled doors at various intervals. The labels on the doors weren’t numbers, they were names. The names of the people or organizations who owned each of the boxes. How many of them had ordered people to be killed in the past month, I wondered. The answer probably wasn’t zero, even if you took out my family. But it also wasn’t something I should have been thinking about right then. Instead, I gestured while glancing back to Amber, Jae, and Izzy. “We’re down this way, straight across from the finish line and directly under the announcer’s stand. You wouldn’t believe the view you can get from in there. It’s amazing!” Trying to shove all those dark thoughts away, I might’ve overcompensated a little, flashing a broad, enthusiastic smile as we reached the room in question. Again, there was a badge reader, just like at the main door. That time, I was ready, already taking my own badge from my wallet (the same badge opened multiple similar places in other arenas, theaters, etc) and brushing it close to the reader. With a click, I tugged the door open and gestured for the others. “Trust me guys, you’re gonna love it.”
Sure enough, the other three went through the door before almost immediately stopping. Peeking through after them, I saw the trio staring around with obvious shock. Amber muttered a quiet curse under her breath as the three took in the room we would be watching the race from.
It was almost more like a hotel suite, honestly. Straight across from the entrance was a row of very comfortable leather recliners facing a sliding glass door overlooking the racetrack. Just before that sliding door was a step down, and through it was a balcony with another row of seats so that you could sit outside. Those ones weren’t leather recliners, but they were still incredibly comfortable, with space to put your feet up
And that was just the area where you’d sit and watch the race. Immediately to the right from the entrance was a pool table, with a fully stocked bar, snack fridge, and small kitchenette just beyond it. Slightly to the left of the pool table was a circular wrap-around couch surrounding a large screen television mounted to the wall with various game systems attached to the wall. On the opposite side of the couch, just behind the row of recliners, was an actual arcade-style racing simulator machine. It was an enclosed system shaped like half of a car. You got in, closed the door, and could go through dozens of what amounted to virtual reality racetracks.
Meanwhile, to the left from the entrance was a doorway into a stunningly spotless bathroom with a full shower, just in case.
Oh, and if you stepped out onto the balcony and moved to the left beyond the seats, you’d find a full hot tub to settle into so you could watch the race from there. Yeah, it was a whole thing. Our family had bathing suits and towels stored in the bathroom for any time that we wanted to do that. Someone came in after these events to clean everything, so our suits were always clean. Plus there were extras of various sizes. Was it weird to have laundry service attached to your luxury box seats at a racetrack? I felt like that was maybe a little weird.
Either way, I slipped past the other three while they were standing there gaping. Gesturing toward each area and explaining it, I ended by pivoting back to face them. “The race isn’t for another half an hour, so what do you guys wanna do?” I started to ask what Izzy wanted to do, but belatedly corrected to include Jae and Amber so they wouldn’t feel left out or anything.
Dad, meanwhile, was already standing in the corner of the room deep in conversation on his cell phone. And Simon had stepped out onto the balcony to look down at the track below.
Jae was actually the first one to find her voice, quiet as it was. “At least you don’t have your own personal full-sized track at home.” There was a very brief hesitation before a frown touched her face. “Do you ha–”
“Nope, haha, nope.” Quickly and maybe a little overenthusiastically, I shook my head. “No way, no personal racetrack at home. We couldn’t figure out a way to fit it in the backyard.” I paused, shifting uncomfortably from one foot to the other before mumbling a little softer, “Not with Mom’s gardens in the way.”
They were staring at me. All three of them. Rubbing the back of my neck as my blush deepened, I quickly tried to change the subject. “Ahaha, ahh, let’s play a game. Who wants to play pool? Come on, I’ll rack them up.” Hurriedly, I moved to grab the triangle and arranged the balls in order, trying to ignore the looks they were giving me. It was like trying to distract them from my family’s obscene wealth by offering to play pool in our private luxury box at the racetrack wasn’t working very well or something.
Amber ended up volunteering to play me while Izzy and Jae checked out the video game selection. As the dark-haired girl took one of the pool cues off the rack and checked it over, she glanced to me before lowering her voice to a quiet whisper. “Hey, uhh, I heard about what happened in the library the other day. You punched Paige?”
I almost dropped my own cue, head snapping up as I coughed despite myself. My eyes glanced toward my father, but he was in the opposite corner of the room, near the hot tub and deep in conversation on his phone. He’d probably forgotten the rest of us were even here. “Wha–oh, oh. Um. Sort of? It was just dumb impulse. I was… I was lucky she didn’t tell that teacher what really happened.” Even saying it out loud now, I still felt the weirdness of that sentence.
Apparently, Amber thought it was weird too. “Why not?” she asked bluntly. “I mean, why wouldn’t she want to get you in trouble? You guys are–I mean you’ve never–I mean…”
“I know what you mean,” I confirmed before offering a weak shrug. “And I dunno. Maybe she thinks getting rid of me would make things boring. Or she’s afraid that the school would side with me to…” I hesitated, glancing toward my father before finishing in a soft voice, “… avoid any legal issues.” Yeah, legal issues like my father withdrawing funding.
Amber glanced over her shoulder at my father as well before looking back to me with a weak smile. “Um, at least you didn’t get in trouble. From what Owen said, she had it coming.”
“She usually does,” I murmured under my breath before giving a sharp shake of my head. Focus. I really couldn’t afford to drift into thinking about the entire Paige situation right then. Not that that was Amber’s fault. She didn’t know anything about that whole can of worms. Still, I really needed to change the subject. “Here, you break.” Taking the triangle away carefully, I stepped back to watch her line up a shot.
She broke, and we played the game. It was actually a lot of fun, especially once Izzy and Jae abandoned their own game and got involved. Jae was encouraging Amber while Izzy took my side. In the end, we just decided to form pairs. Those two took turns with their shots, and I split mine with Izzy. She was nervous about it at first, but I pointed out that it didn’t really matter who won. Then she settled into it and even seemed to relax a fair bit. Pretty soon, she was joking around with Amber like they’d known each other for months.
We played several games, mostly evenly, until it was time for the first race to start. Finally, Dad called us over. Not that he really needed to, given the sound of the announcer’s voice being piped through to let everyone know the racers were on their way to the start line. Between that and the loud revving of engines coming from below, yeah, pretty obvious that things were about to get underway.
We sat in the front row of seats, out on the balcony. Amber was on the right end, with me beside her, Izzy next to me on the other side, and Jae next to her. I wasn’t sure exactly why Amber didn’t sit next to Jae, but that was just how things ended up.
“You know it’s her birthday in a couple weeks,” she murmured to me while we were watching all the cars get into position.
Distractedly, I asked, “Whose birthday?” Was I forgetting someone?
“Paige,” Amber replied. “She’s been sending out invitations to the party.” There was a brief pause then, before she dryly added, “I’m guessing you didn’t get one.”
My eyes rolled despite myself. “Must’ve been lost in the mail.” Paige’s birthday, huh? I wondered if her imprisoned father was going to make another secret call from Breakwater for the occasion.
“My stepmother is making me go,” Jae put in from the seat next to Izzy. She didn’t sound happy about that fact, though I wasn’t sure if that was more the stepmother part, the Paige part, or the being forced to go to any given party in the first place part. Maybe all of the above.
“Yeah, Paige’s dad’s supposed to have a lot of pull with agents and Jae’s step-mom still thinks she’s an up-and-coming actress.” Amber’s voice was derisive, her head shaking before she added, “Why do you think she hates you so much anyway?”
“Wh–me?” I blinked that way, hesitating. A lot of possible answers flashed through my mind, but none would have been helpful toward keeping my own secrets. It was kind of funny to imagine the look on Amber’s face if she’d had any idea what I was thinking, though. “I dunno. She’s just hated me ever since we met in middle school.”
I started to say something else, but stopped because Dad and Simon sat down in the leather recliners behind us to watch the race. My father leaned forward a bit, put his hand on my shoulder, and just smiled when I glanced to him. I returned the smile, before he spoke. “Cass, could you make sure to be home for dinner next Friday? We’ll have a special guest.”
“A guest?” I echoed curiously.
He nodded. “You remember Lincoln Chambers from the LA Times? He’s going to be in town with his family and asked for another interview, so I invited him to dinner. He’ll be bringing his wife and their twins. A boy and a girl, I believe. So, I’d like our whole family to be there.”
My head bobbed quickly. “Oh, sure, Dad. I’ll be there.”
He offered me another smile of thanks before leaning back. I turned my attention back to the race, thinking about that reporter. Boy would he have a big story on his hands if he had the slightest idea of who my parents really were. Like, Pulitzer-winning material right there.
I might’ve stayed focused on that for longer. But as my gaze settled on the cars below, something else caught my eye immediately. It was a golden and black car, with the number 38 on the side. Beside that was the symbol of one horizontal line with three vertical lines coming out of either end and the middle. A diagonal line connected the tip of the left-most vertical line to the inside bottom of the right line, passing through the middle one. Or… I turned my head sideways.
The E with the line through it. It was the E with the line through it. Eyes widening, I pointed while snapping, “Hey, what’s that symbol?”
It was Simon who leaned forward behind my seat to look that way. “What? Oh, dude, that’s just one of the original logos for Ten Towers. You know, back when there were three of them. It’s supposed to be three skyscrapers all linked together, from ‘top to bottom.’ They use it for nostalgia or something, I dunno. I think it’s only allowed to be connected to people who were around back in those days.”
The Ten Towers–or rather, the Three Towers symbol. From back when the first three companies had formed up to protect themselves from Fell-Touched attacks. Tocher Pharmaceuticals, Saito Automotive, and Autry Media Technologies. That’s what the symbol meant. But even as I processed that, I remembered where I’d seen the symbol before. Those folders I’d put into alphabetical order when I’d been picking up the room in the Seraph headquarters. In addition to the names, they’d all had various symbols attached. I’d had no idea what the symbols meant, but the symbol on some of the folders was that one right there. Clearly, it meant that the folders with that symbol had some connection to Ten Towers. Like, patients who were part of them or something.
More importantly, the folders with those symbols were also labeled with a series of numbers. A series of five numbers. Just like the five numbers and symbol that were on those toys.
It wasn’t a code after all. Or rather, not the kind of code I’d been thinking of. It was a file number.
The thing I needed to find Bobby was a file in Seraph headquarters, a file about something connected to Ten Towers.
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Broadway and Pack
“You know what you have to do, right?” Broadway asked as she and Pack sat in the van shortly after leaving the parking garage they’d taken Paintball, Skip, and That-A-Way to. The pair of La Casa Fell-Touched were several blocks away, parked in a restaurant lot as they watched the lights from the somewhat slim freeway traffic off in the distance.
“What I have to do?” Pack glanced that way. “If you’re gonna say we need to tell Blackjack everything that just happened, I think–”
“Pshhh, no, dude!” Broadway gave her a look. She had taken off the helmet of her costume, allowing Dani to see the dubious expression on her pale face. “You’ve gotta come up with a better nickname for your girlfriend, cuz you said you called her Compass-Power back there, and that’s really weak.”
“Okay, one, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s an enemy. She wants to put me in prison,” Dani insisted. “And two… okay, yeah, that was weak. But it doesn’t matter, because see point one.”
“Uh huh. So you need a better nickname for her.” KD had clearly chosen to completely skip over Dani’s second point. “Let’s hear some ideas.”
“I’m not gonna–” Giving a long exhale, Dani squinted at the girl beside her. “Fine, umm… Directioneer, Travel-Girl, Carto-Chick, Navigirl, Map Mak–stop looking at me like that, these aren’t real suggestions, I’m just blurting out the dumb things until something good comes to mind.”
“Good,” KD advised, “because those are really bad.”
“Tuesday, bite her.” Dani ordered. The lizard, in turn, simply gave her a sleepy look before settling back onto her leg to nap some more. Exhaling, she continued. “Okay, okay. Serious suggestions. Degrees on a compass. Degrees. Debreeze, fuck, no I’m not calling her that, what the hell is wrong with me? Look, this is harder than it sounds. That-A-Way. Thatta? Way? No, everyone calls her Way.”
“Right, and you want the name to be something special for your special girl,” KD agreed, ducking closer to the steering wheel as Dani swatted a hand her way.
Squinting at her partner warningly, Dani muttered a few more not-really-good name possibilities under her breath. Nothing sounded right. Everything was just dumb.
“What about a real name that’s twisted to fit her whole… compass power thing?” KD finally suggested. “You know, like…. Rose? Compass Rose. Or Sue… Sue South- Sue-outh? Ew, gross. West.. Westerly? But that doesn’t— Wow, you’re right, this is hard.”
“Told ya,” Pack sniffed before pausing. Her head tilted. “But a real name that plays off her Touched name… there’s Waverly. Or Way…. verly. Wayverly.”
“Well, it’s better than Carto-Chick,” KD agreed.
“It’s better than Sue-outh too,” the other girl retorted with a gesture. “Come on, start this puppy up so we can go home. I’ll think some more on the way.
“Cuz right now, it’s pretty late, and if we don’t get us and my little friends here some real food soon, I’m gonna start coming up with fun little nicknames for you instead. Like Lizardchow.”
“That’s a terrible name too,” KD breezily replied while pulling the van out of the lot. “Besides, your cute little babies would never eat me.”
“I guess you’re right,” Dani admitted.
“They’re not supposed to get that much sugar.”
“Anything else to report?”
Boy was that ever a loaded question, Amber thought. She stood, still in costume, in the Minority headquarters shortly after leaving Paintball, Skip, and the Fell-Touched girls. In front of her was Brumal, leader of the state-level Star-Touched team known as the Spartans (as opposed to the Federal team known as the Conservators, led by Silversmith).
Brumal wore what amounted to a dark blue and white army camo uniform, with a matching tactical helmet that left her face covered by a thick interwoven mesh and eyes hidden behind bright blue lenses.
“Anything else?” the teenage girl found herself echoing. In the back of her mind, she thought about what Paintball had said. Traitors. Liars. Villains. Monsters. Some of the people on the supposed good guys side were actually working for that stupid… Ministry. Paintball had specifically said not to trust any of the leaders. He had named Brumal, Caishen, and Silversmith as people not to be trusted. Hell, he’d outright said especially not Silversmith. But did that mean he knew for a fact that ‘Smith was a traitor or a… a…
Brumal interrupted her thoughts. “You went off patrol route to help Skip, from Ten Towers, trace a potential lead to some small-time drug pushers that might be trying to turn big-time, and nothing else happened?”
Right, that was the story she and Skip had come up with earlier to explain why That-A-Way wasn’t on her assigned route. Meeting the gaze of the older woman while wondering if she too was on the take and getting rich off letting bad guys hurt people in the city, Amber gave a short nod. “She thinks they might’ve seen one of us earlier and got cold feet. But if she gets another lead, she wanted to know if I could help her again. I mean, that’s okay, right? Nothing wrong with helping Ten Towers. We’re all on the same side.”
“Of course not,” Brumal confirmed. “Just make sure you keep the people back here advised about where you’re going and who you’re with. We are responsible for what happens if something goes wrong.”
Right, but just how responsible were they for things ‘going wrong’? Amber very narrowly avoided actually asking that, biting her cheek before forcing herself to nod. “Yes, ma’am. Um, do you mind if I get out of here? I’ve got homework to do and–”
“Of course,” Brumal quickly agreed, gesturing. “Sorry to keep you. Go ahead, I’ll file your report back here. And Way? Good job today. You’re right, working alongside Ten Towers is important. I’d like you to join the Spartans once you’re of-age, of course. But the Towers are good people too.”
Oh, how much easier would that statement have been to agree with before Paintball had dumped all this information on her. Still managing to keep a straight face, Amber nodded absently, murmuring her gratitude and agreement before turning to leave the base.
She had to get out of here. She had to think. She had to… had to figure out how she felt about all this. Some of the good guys were really bad guys? Or were helping bad guys in exchange for money. Or were just… just… God damn it, Amber wanted to scream. But that might attract just a few questions from Brumal. So she would wait until she was safely away from all this.
Then she would scream as long and loud as she wanted to.