Well this night was suddenly potentially a lot worse. And why exactly did that surprise me anymore, after everything that had happened? How many times was I going to think my night out in the city was just about over without anything going too wrong, only to be blindsided?
Right, what did I know? At least Cavalcade wasn’t technically a villain all on her own. She was Sell-Touched. In other words, she worked for whoever was paying her. That could be good guys or bad guys. The last one I’d known she was working for was Deicide, who I still owed a favor to. But Cavalcade had said that her new employer wanted to talk to me. That wouldn’t be Deicide.
“Man,” the woman herself drawled with obvious amusement, “I wish I could see the look on your face right now, kid. I’ve been sitting over there on that building for the past twenty minutes watching your whole… thing here.” She gestured vaguely. “Gotta say, that didn’t go the way I expected it to. Makes you kinda intriguing, you know? Like, if I go find those kids you let go, would they have anything interesting to say about you?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t serious, just testing my reaction to all that. She was teasing me, pushing to see what I would do.
Somehow, I found my voice. “Well, you know, I was just super-busy and couldn’t take the time to turn them in. And hey, speaking of which, I hope this mysterious new employer of yours takes rain checks, cuz I really shouldn’t be stacking more onto my plate. So much to do, so little time.”
There was a low chuckle of what sounded like genuine amusement. “They’re not really the type to wait patiently for someone like you to fit them onto your dance card, sorry. Let’s go ahead and squeeze you in right now.” There was a brief pause before she added pointedly, “While this is all still nice and casual.” The implied threat behind her words was crystal clear. This wasn’t a choice. She wanted me to go with her, or this would turn into a fight as she forced the point.
Could I outrun her? I wasn’t sure. Her power allowed her to make rapidfire, short-term duplicates of herself. They only lasted a brief couple seconds, but she made them incredibly quickly, and used that to simulate superspeed by making hundreds or even thousands of duplicates really fast, each one slightly ahead of the other. Plus, she could choose to make one her real self, dismissing the previous body to disappear like the others. That allowed her to travel through the city while leaving a rapidly fading ‘train’ of duplicates behind her, simply always making the body at the head of the ‘train’ her real self. And the fact that the duplicates lasted a couple seconds allowed her to pull off tricks like going straight up the side of a building by having the duplicate behind give the one ahead a push before they vanished. So getting off the ground to the rooftops wasn’t a solution for getting away from her.
Plus, I couldn’t just use yellow paint to slow her down, because I was pretty sure it would only apply to the single duplicate I hit with it. And I couldn’t just keep hitting every single duplicate who showed up or something. As it turned out, her specific method of speed made my method of slowing her completely useless. Which was just fantastic, really.
Right, so running away was probably out of the question. What about fighting her? Again, huge problem. Because I wouldn’t just be fighting her, I’d be fighting every duplicate she could summon in a short time span. I’d seen Cavalcade fight people before. She made dozens of duplicates really quickly, surrounded the target, and hit them from every side. Her clones lasted just long enough to throw a punch or two, then vanished. And she could choose to make any of them her real body. So even fighting back was hard. The best way to pull it off was with area-effect attacks that could hit every version of her at the same time or in quick succession. I could maybe pull something like that off with a wide spray of the right paint, but did I have anything that would actually knock her out or whatever before she just made more duplicates who weren’t painted? I didn’t think so.
Yeah, this whole situation was really not conducive to anything I was ready to do. Fighting her was liable to end with me just exhausting myself without accomplishing anything. And I probably couldn’t escape by running. Again, at best I would wear myself out and she’d be just fine.
Fighting and running were both bad ideas. But that wasn’t the real question. The real question was whether those two options were worse than the third one. Which was to actually go with her. My options were fighting, running, or going to see this employer of hers. So which one of those was the least bad? Because if her employer was, say, Pencil, I’d definitely take my chances with fighting or running. But on the other hand, everything I knew about the woman (particularly the fact that she did occasionally work with Star-Touched) said that she wouldn’t play nice with the Scions. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Pencil and his ilk. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of bad options.
“Hey, kid,” Cavalcade interrupted my racing thoughts (that whole sequence had only taken a few seconds in my head, but still), “fun as it is to watch the smoke shooting out of your head from how hard you’re thinking about this, let me make it a little easier for you. My employer is Glitch, and she said to tell you that it’s worth your time to talk to her.”
Glitch. Leader of Braintrust. Her whole thing was about improving technology or temporarily breaking it. She could take other Tech-Touched designs and automatically understand how they could be improved, and she could also focus on any given piece of technology and force it to either not work at all temporarily, or instill random glitches (hence the name). She was also obsessed with recruiting every Tech-Touched she could get her hands on.
Wren. This had to be about Wren. She knew I’d worked with the girl and now she wanted to talk to me about something that, in her words, would be worth my time. Fabulist had already raised questions about where I was getting my tech from, back when I saved that Peyton girl. My guess was that they’d worked out more about the situation, maybe from talking to some of Cuélebre’s people, and now Glitch wanted to extend an offer to Wren, through me, to join her little gang. And I was equally confident that my saying no right now wouldn’t be the end of it. She might just end up trying to go straight at Wren by that point. And as much as the girl was working to keep herself and Fred safe, I wasn’t going to throw her into the deep end like that.
So, there wasn’t much choice about any of this. I had to at least attempt to talk to Glitch and get her to understand that Wren working for her just wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Which was bound to be fun, because I was super-sure she’d be totally reasonable about the whole thing.
With a sigh, I finally nodded. “Right, fine. I guess I’ll go with you. But can we do it without the cuffs this time? I’m just really not in the mood for that kind of thing right now.”
“Now why does it sound like there’s a really interesting story behind that comment? One that I’d love to hear more of.” With those curious words, the woman stared at me. I could see her red-tinted eyes through the goggles, and wondered if she saw the whole world like that. It felt like that would make things more difficult. But then, given how much money she brought in for her services, the goggles were almost certainly Tech-Touched stuff.
When I didn’t respond to her probing question, Cavalcade finally shrugged. “Well, maybe I’ll hear it later. Right now, I’m being paid by the task, not by the hour. So let’s get you over to have this little discussion.”
“Wait.” I blinked, suddenly remembering that I had another super power I hadn’t considered through all that. “She’s paying you to have me over there for a discussion, right? That’s it?”
There was a brief pause as the woman regarded me with renewed curiosity. When she answered, her voice was slow and thoughtful. “Yes, that’s right. It’s not some trick to shoot you in the back of the head in private or something. Mercenary’s honor, for what that’s worth. Probably not much, but hey. What’ve you got to lose? Okay, better question, what choice do you have?”
Thinking quickly, I came to a decision. “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you fulfill your task so you can get paid. But then I want to hire you.”
It was Cavalcade’s turn to sound surprised, her gaze snapping to me. “You want to hire me?”
I nodded once. “Yeah. I’ll hire you to make sure I get out of there again in one piece. Your job right now is to get me there. So get me there and get paid. Then get me out again and get paid again. I don’t know how much you charge, but I’ll give you five hundred dollars to get me out.”
There was a brief pause, before the woman chuckled. But she was clearly uncertain. “One, five hundred bucks isn’t much for my profession. Two, I’m just supposed to believe you’ve got that?”
“It’s a fair amount for doing nothing except making sure I walk out of there in one piece,” I pointed out. “It’s like five minutes of your time. And I’m good for the money. After all, it’s not like you’ll just let me walk away from you without paying up. If I could just take off, I wouldn’t be here right now.” After hesitating while my mind raced, I quickly added, “Besides, if you work with me now, there’ll be more where that comes from, because I’ll know I can trust you to take the money.” Belatedly, I shrugged. “Plus, if you’re telling the truth about how Glitch just wants to talk to me and that she’ll make it worth my time, you shouldn’t have any reason to object to being given five hundred dollars just to escort me back out again. Say it’s five minutes of work. That’s a hundred dollars a minute.”
Of course, I could have offered a lot more than that. Especially if I added the point of letting me collect money and give it to her later. Even then, I still had twice that amount on me, since I’d taken to keeping a little bit of cash on hand. But I felt like five hundred was safer to start with. I didn’t want the woman (or anyone else) to know just how well off I was. Besides, if she refused the initial offer, I needed something to raise it to.
The Sell-Touched seemed to consider that argument for a few seconds, regarding me. “Five hundred bucks, huh, kid?” Her squint hardened as she seemed to practically be staring through my soul. Finally, she straightened and gave a short nod. “Fine. Five hundred bucks and I’ll take you out of there. But you show it to me first. Right here, right now. Show me you’ve got it.” There was a mixture of doubt and genuine curiosity in her voice. She wanted to know if I was good for it before she took the risk of potentially annoying a steady employer. Which I supposed was fair.
So, I turned away from her, carefully unzipping my pocket while the woman watched silently. Collecting the five one hundred dollar bills, I turned back, holding them up for her to see. “Five. It’s supposed to be for paying my Tech-Touched. But they’ll get over it.” There, maybe a slight answer as to why I had that kind of money on me would help stop her from thinking too hard about it.
Another brief moment of consideration passed, before Cavalade gestured. “Right then. Put it away and let’s get out of here. You’ve got a deal. I’ll take you in, let you have your talk with Glitch, then walk you back out again. Ah, but one caveat.” She added the last bit while looking at me pointedly. “No starting a fight in there. If you get attacked, you can defend yourself. I’ll help. But you don’t start anything. And you don’t be insulting. You treat them respectfully as long as they treat you respectfully. You try to start some fight thinking I’ve got your back and you’re gonna be disappointed.”
“Deal,” I agreed a bit distractedly, my mind racing about everything that was about to happen. “I’ll defend myself if they pull anything, but I won’t start a fight. I’ll listen to what she has to say, respond as… politely as reasonably expected, and leave with you.”
“Good.” Cavalcade gestured toward a sedan that was parked nearby. “Let’s take a little ride then.” Belatedly, she added, “It’s not as fast as I can be on my own, but a car stands out less to certain busybody Touched who have too much time on their hands.” Pausing, she added, “And that goes for Star or Fell. People don’t know how to mind their own business in general.”
Right, she worked both sides of the line, so Cavalcade would obviously be more aware of how both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys could be similar. For a moment, I thought of my family and how they played both sides, just in a different way. But then, was it so different? She did it for money, and they did it for money and power. Just on a whole different scale than her.
There were definite similarities. But I shoved those thoughts down before moving to get in the car she had indicated. A part of me wondered not only if I was going to regret this, but how much and how soon. Getting in this car to go see one of the city’s biggest Fell-Touched villains felt like a bad idea. But I didn’t have much choice if I didn’t want this whole thing to escalate even more.
Besides, I’d rather the Braintrust people try to talk to Wren through me rather than going straight at her. I was going to try to shield that kid from as much of this as I could for as long as possible. At least until she had enough defenses up to really protect herself and Fred.
Cavalcade joined me in the car, starting it up before pulling away. “You like Toni Kalla?” she asked while turning the radio on to fill the air with pounding rock music. “If not, plug your ears. Or go ahead and punch yourself in the face, cuz Toni’s the best Touched-Singer in the world.”
Yeah, some Touched didn’t go for hero, villain, or mercenary. They used their powers for normal, everyday activities. Toni Kalla, for example, was a singer who could literally weave what amounted to holographic illusions using her voice. She used that to create a show that went along with the music. There were other aspects to her power, but mostly it was the hologram thing.
Murmuring something noncommittal, I looked out the window. It probably wouldn’t do my secret identity much good for me to mention that I’d met Toni multiple times, had dinner with her both at restaurants and at our house, and that she’d already sent me a copy of the album that wouldn’t be out for another couple months. Maybe I was just crazy, but that felt like it might give a few too many hints about who I was.
So, instead of focusing on that, I changed the subject. “You gonna try to blindfold me or something? Or, you know, make me duck down so I don’t see where we’re going?”
The answer was a snort. “No,” she replied flatly. “They’re not having me take you anywhere near their base anyway, kid. We’re just going to a neutral meeting place. You wanna go scour it with a fine-toothed comb looking for clues and Scooby Snacks later, knock yourself out.”
Despite how casual she was being about the whole thing, I couldn’t exactly relax through the drive. A voice in the back of my head kept screaming about how stupid this was and that I should fight tooth and nail, make her drag my unconscious body to this meeting if she could manage it. I pushed that voice deep down, but could still hear it yelling at me.
To distract myself from the voice, I looked to my… sort-of captor(?) and asked, “How do you work with both good guys and bad guys?”
“Oh, kid, don’t start on moralizing,” came the groaned response. “We all have to make a living, and I have my own lines I don’t cross. Besides, you’d be surprised how many supposed good guys aren’t that good.”
Choosing not to debate that last point about how surprised I would or wouldn’t be, I instead corrected, “No, that’s not what I meant. I mean how do you get the good guys to let you work with them after you worked with villains like… the week before?”
“Ah.” There was a brief pause before Cavalcade answered. “Because I’m useful. I have a really good power, and that gives me some leeway. Long story short, I have what you might call a special deal with the city. If they catch me doing bad things and working with villains, they get to take me in. But if they extend a contract, if they hire me to do a job, them or any of the other goodie teams, I get a free pass while that contract is going on. It’s written into every contract. My lawyer draws them up. Any time one of the Star-Touched teams wants my help, they have to sign one of those contracts. Means they can’t come after me for anything they think I did in the past for the duration of whatever they’re hiring me for.”
“And they just… let you do that?” I managed, staring at her.
“Like I said,” she replied carelessly, “I’m really useful. Most Sell-Touched like me, the ones who work both sides, have something like that. But even then, bad guys tend to pay more.” She turned, winking at me through the goggles. “They have more disposable income and less whiny qualms about who they work with.”
“That’s surprising,” I muttered under my breath before catching myself. Shaking my head, I looked back to her. “Not to get all moralizing or anything, but the whole… switching sides all the time doesn’t bother you?”
“Nope,” came the flat answer. “Cuz I just plug my ears with all the money I make, and it makes it really hard to hear that annoying little voice like you’ve got in the back of your head telling you to be some paragon of virtue or whatever bullshit. People are selfish. They look out for themselves and the ones they care about. I’m just making a living.
“And speaking of making a living…” The car stopped. “Let’s go deal with this meeting and then get out of here.
“Cuz I want that five hundred bucks.”