When I abruptly told the Sell-Touched that I would go with her after all, she did a quick doubletake. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting that. For a second, the woman just looked in my direction, squinting through the goggles. “That right?” she finally settled on, before adding, “Just a quick little tip kid, if you think you can use this whole thing as a way to make a name for yourself by busting a bunch of people just having fun at this casino, I don’t know what kind of–”
“It’s neutral ground, I know,” I quickly assured her. “Starting shit at the casino is a good way of pissing off everyone in the city who isn’t government-aligned. And even some of them. When you’re at the casino, you play nice with everyone else that’s there, or you become a target.” That much had been made clear in the documentary about Detroit Touched that I’d watched awhile back. They didn’t actually get to go to the place (or any other couple designated neutral points), but there’d been enough details from interviews and the like to make that much clear.
After another brief moment of watching me, clearly trying to read exactly what I intended, Cavalcade gave a short nod. “Okay, kid. Let’s go to the casino. I’ll show you how independent Star-Touched like you are supposed to get there. But first…” She trailed off meaningfully.
“Money, right.” Giving a quick nod, I reached into my pocket, producing the five one hundred dollar bills that I’d already set aside before holding them out for her. “We’re good now, yeah?”
“Sure, kid, we’re good.” That answer came after Cavalcade had taken the money, examined it carefully as though to check for counterfeits or something, then tucked the five bills away. “We’re totally good. Now, let’s get to the games so I can be even better than good.”
Something told me Cavalcade and Pack could have a whole conversation about how much they liked getting paid, or just money in general. Maybe between the two of them they could eventually get a big pool full of cash and swim in it. Actually, Cavalcade was still a bit of a mystery, but I really wouldn’t put it past Pack to do exactly that if she had the chance.
In any case, the Sell-Touched led me back to her car, already explaining. “The way people like you get to the casino is a little different from people like me, or Fells. Don’t think of it as people not trusting you, but uhhh… actually yeah, yeah, think of it as people not trusting you. You’re a fine, upstanding citizen, a good guy. So you don’t get to know exactly where the casino is.”
As we drove, she explained that there was a building for Star-Touched like me to go to, a place nowhere near the actual casino. There would be a guard whom I would tell about wanting to visit the casino. He’d do whatever he needed to in order to make sure I was on the up-and-up, then send me in to the next step.
Cavalcade explained everything I needed to do, before pulling to a stop in front of an old three story office building across the street from a car dealership. “Here we go, kid. I don’t feel like going through all the rigamarole, so you have fun. Maybe I’ll see you in there. But just–one more time, don’t start shit just because you see a bad guy, okay? Save it for the streets.”
Giving her a thumbs up, I stepped out of the car and walked toward the building. It had occurred to me that I could insist that Pack meet me elsewhere to avoid going in a place like this. But she’d seemed insistent that she had to show me something. Plus, I was kind of curious to see how this casino thing worked. Hell, I had a suspicion it might actually be connected to my parents after all. Neutral ground that was somehow enforced for everyone? That sounded a lot like Ministry-related stuff to me.
So, taking a deep breath as I approached the doors, I focused on the man who was standing there. He looked like any ordinary guard, wearing a pair of brown pants and a white, ill-fitting shirt with a random security company name across the sewn-on badge. He was leaning against the doorway, straightening when I walked toward him. “Hey, there, Paintball!” His voice was cheerful, and when I got closer, I could see the smile stretched across his face. He was kind of a heavy-looking guy, with a bright, flushed face and lines that made it clear smiling was his default expression. He kind of looked like a young, brown-haired Santa Claus, to be honest. Only maybe a little more cheerful. He definitely did not look like a hardcore guard protecting a possible entrance to a place full of Fell-And-Sell-Touched, that was for sure. I was pretty sure he wasn’t even wearing a weapon aside from the heavy maglight that hung from his belt.
“Um, hi.” I hesitated before raising a hand. Cavalcade had said this was the right place. Plus, come to think of it, they obviously wouldn’t want someone who looked like a paramilitary badass standing out in the open. So, I pushed on with the phrase the woman had given me. “I’d like to play a ginny run up to the royal flush.” Apparently the passphrase changed every once in awhile and you had to be in good standing to get the new one. But it was always something like that.
“Well!” The man in front of me smiled even more, letting out a loud chuckle that filled the air around me. It actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation, taking some of the uncertain tension out of me. I felt like everything was going to be okay. “You’re not trying to get in there to fight or arrest anyone, are you?” His tone was light and teasing, as if I couldn’t possibly be doing anything like that. And in that moment, I knew I could trust him. He was a good guy, a friend. He was everything I’d been looking for in a confidant.
A confidant. That was it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could tell him everything I knew about the Ministry. I could tell him about my family, about the fact that I was really a girl, even about the whole situation with my memories, and about Pa–
“Paintball?” A familiar voice interrupted my rush of thoughts, making me jerk that way.
She wore a mask, a simple white cloth mask secured to her turtleneck. But I knew the voice immediately. It was the voice of a person whose name had, in that very moment, been in my mind. Paige. It was Paige Banners, in the flesh, standing a bit behind me with her arms folded. The simple, blank white mask with eye holes in it couldn’t disguise her voice. It was her, I knew for a fact. She was squinting curiously at me. “What’re you doing here?”
Blinking at the masked Paige, a rush of thoughts came over me. First of all, what the fuck?! Not her, this guy. I had been about to spill every possible secret I had to him if he’d asked. In that moment, I’d thought he was my best friend, someone I could trust with my life. How–what the fuck?
Power. He had to be Touched. That was the only explanation. He was Psy-Touched. That was the one that meant their power affected other people’s minds.
No wonder he was guarding this door. Not only did he look completely non-threatening, he had a power that made people confide in him. God, what if he’d asked something that made me spill something important?
“Tell.” Paige looked past me to the man in question, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You weren’t trying to get secrets out of my friend here, were you?”
The man looked abashed, waving a hand. “Shucks, Miss Kahn, I wasn’t actually gonna make him spill anything important. I know the rules, I was just checking to see if he was here for anything bad, you know? Gotta do my job and all, and it’s my job to make sure overzealous heroes and the like don’t find their way into the casino. Keeps everyone safe and all. I know how to ask safe questions.”
“Uh huh.” Paige (or Miss Kahn, according to the guard) didn’t sound convinced, but also didn’t push the issue. Instead, she looked at me. “You sure you wanna go in there, Paintball? It’s like the guy said, they don’t allow any funny business, and if you break up the truce, well… I’d hate to see you turn into target numero uno for everyone in the city with a grudge against heroes.”
For a second, I just stared at her. Seeing Paige like this was just… weird. She was wearing a mask like it was second nature, was interacting with the La Casa guard as if she’d done so dozens of times. And she was talking to me like a normal person, not as if she loathed my very existence.
Had it really been like this before? Had Paige, the girl who had done everything she could to insult, belittle, and demean me for every day that I remembered her, actually been my friend once upon a time? Had we really once been so close that, upon being found surrounded by dead bodies, she pleaded with the authorities to find me? Did she really just not remember, like I didn’t?
There were so many questions I wanted to ask. But I couldn’t. Especially not right then, in front of our onlooker. Instead, I snapped myself out of it just as my silence had dragged on almost too long, blurting, “I’ve just got somebody I need to talk to, no big deal. I’m not going to cause trouble.”
“There, see, Tell?” Paige gestured to the guard. “He’s not about to cause trouble. He’s with me anyway, I’ll take him.” She gave me a sidelong look, her voice pointed, “I’m sure he won’t make me look bad.”
Oh boy, were there a lot of things I almost wanted to say to that. But I bit my tongue and gave a quick nod. “No trouble here. Like I said, I just need to talk to someone–err, someone who will want to talk to me. This isn’t like a confrontation or anything.”
The guard, Tell, apparently, stepped out of the way while opening the door. “In that case, go ahead, Paintball. And it’s great to see you again, Miss Kahn. You both have a fun, safe time. And good luck at the games if you play any.”
Paige walked past me, grabbing my sleeve on the way past. With a quick glance toward Tell, who had turned his attention back to the road, I followed her into the small lobby. The place looked empty. Paige didn’t even glance at me on her way to the nearby elevator, where she hit the button to go up. The doors immediately opened, and she stepped through.
Right, if Cavalcade had been on the level about this, the elevator was actually connected through Touched-Tech to another building entirely somewhere else in town. It would deliver us to the casino. this way people who weren’t exactly trusted by La Casa could visit the place without actually knowing where it was physically located. There was also supposed to be jammers blocking any phone signal or other tracking devices. When you went to the casino, you had to go dark to the outside world.
So yeah, here was hoping I didn’t end up in some kind of trouble in there, or my parents didn’t suddenly have a panic attack about not being able to reach me. Cuz I was about to be out of contact for awhile.
With a deep breath, I stepped into the elevator, letting the doors close behind me. My voice cracked just a little. “So, come here often?”
Instead of answering immediately, Paige reached out to hit the door stop button. Which was weird, because the elevator wasn’t moving yet anyway. She held that button down, then hit four of the floor buttons in quick succession before looking to me. “Okay, we’ve got privacy now. Seriously, Paintball, I know you said you’re not going in there to make trouble, and I believe you, but do you know what you’re getting into?”
Whelp, there was a lot I wanted to say to that too. There was a lot I wanted to say to Paige in general. A part of me wanted to just take off the mask and ask her what the fuck happened all those years ago, if she remembered us being friends, if she thought I betrayed her or something, why she singled me out to hate so much. I just–damn it, I wanted answers. Every time I thought I was about to get some answers when it came to Paige, I just ended up with more questions. So yeah, part of me wanted to just get the whole thing over with, expose who I was and what I knew about our apparently shared past, and just… deal with it.
But as with everything else, that was a genie that I wouldn’t be able to put back in the bottle. The second Paige knew who I was, she’d stop treating me like Paintball and start treating me like Cassidy. And ever since I remembered knowing her, treating me like Cassidy meant bad things. Treating me like Cassidy meant I couldn’t trust her.
I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t expose my identity and secrets like that. Not to her. Especially not before I knew more about her whole situation and why she had started acting this way. The danger of what would happen, of what Paige could do if she reacted poorly to the whole thing was too dangerous.
So, I just kept things simple. “I need to talk to one of the La Casa Touched. Nothing bad or anything, just… need to tell them something I found out. We’re sort of… working on something. It’s mutually beneficial.” Yeah, something I found out, like the fact that Braintrust had their eyes on Wren and wanted her to start paying taxes. The paying part wasn’t even an issue, really. I’d work on that myself if it came down to it. But Wren deserved to know what was going on, and that Braintrust wanted either money, donations of tech, or consultation in exchange for leaving her alone.
If it was about me, I’d tell them to fuck off and take my chances. But Wren was just a kid, and she deserved the chance to be left alone to do her work without dealing with someone whose entire schtick involved, in part, making Touched-Tech temporarily not work right. I couldn’t be there to back her up all the time. Until–unless there was a better answer, a better way of making Glitch and the rest of Braintrust back off, keeping them happy by playing along was the best thing I could think of.
Paige was staring at me. “Mutually beneficial,” she echoed flatly.
Clearing my throat, I gestured. “Uhh, yeah, anyway, what about you? You look pretty comfortable wearing that mask, walking into a place like this.”
“Most people wear masks in the casino,” Paige informed me, stressing the word to make it abundantly clear. “Even the Prevs. You’d be surprised what kind of important people show up there that you’d never think would hang out in a place owned by supervillains.” I had a feeling she was smiling behind the cloth that covered everything but her eyes. “No one can attack each other, forced neutrality, full privacy, everything you could want. They even have pretty good food and entertainment. And no one bothers enforcing any kind of minimum age requirement. Not like they’re going to be raided by the cops, you know? Hell, a lot of the people in there are the cops. Dirty ones, anyway. Not that they’ll admit that. Another one of the rules is you can’t call people out on who they are if they’re trying to keep it hidden, no matter how obvious it is.”
“You sure know an awful lot about all this stuff,” I pointed out gently. And oh boy was that the understatement of the century. What the hell was her deal? What was–what was everything about Paige? Where had she come from, what happened to her memory, why was she connected to Anthony, who was her father, why did she hate me now, why had she been around those dead bodies, what was she doing?
At the moment, what she was doing was offering a shrug while glancing away with a thoughtful, “Point is, it’s a good place to have secret meetings.”
“You have a lot of secret meetings?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to violently shake her until she gave me real answers. It was a really close call.
In response to the question, the other girl reached out to hold the door closed button again, before pushing the nine button four times and the eight button three times. Which would’ve looked kind of odd in general, given this building only had two floors. Immediately, the elevator made a humming sound. It felt sort of like we were moving, but not really. It was a strange sensation that made my stomach just a little queasy for a moment.
Either way, while that was happening, Paige finally replied, “A girl’s gotta keep herself busy, you know? Believe me, I’m being careful. And hey–” She gave me a quick hug that left me sputtering. “–thanks for not being all pissed at me, dude. See you around, and good luck with your meeting with the lizard girl!”
Then the elevator opened to admit us to the casino, just before Paige was through the doors and gone.