So now we were, sort of and tentatively, on the same page. Sort of. Okay, we were at least in the same book, which was something. Sure, Pack and Alloy didn’t know the whole story, but we’d made it clear that we were holding some stuff back. We didn’t lie to them about that. As for what would come later or how much they’d end up knowing before all this was done… I’d take that as it came. For now, at least they knew enough for us to all work together. Not only for finding a way to get into that secret base under the mall, but for checking out this Amanda chick too.
And yet, as much as I told myself that having more help was a good thing, a not-insubstantial part of me kept screaming that involving other people was a horrible idea. Not because I didn’t trust them, exactly, but because I didn’t trust what might happen. Ignoring the whole situation with my own family for the moment (as if I ever really could), we were trying to get answers that could potentially hurt Pencil. Yes, I wanted that to happen (oh boy did I ever want it to happen), but if he found out what we were doing, things could get really bad. If that fucking psycho decided he needed to focus on stopping us and really put his mind to it, I had no idea what could happen.
Yes, I knew I needed help with this. I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, and that having others with me wasn’t a bad thing. I knew it was their choice to be involved. But knowing that and being able to accept it and push away all emotions were two entirely different things. If anything happened to these guys because I brought them along, if Pencil or any of the other Scions got hold of them, I wouldn’t… I didn’t know what I’d do. The very thought of it was enough to make me freeze up. Oh, and practically dry heave from the way my stomach flipped itself over.
But I had to push all that aside, all those doubts and worries, everything that was turning my stomach in knots. I had to shove it away and focus, because Izzy, Amber, Alloy, and Pack were involved. They were going to help, so what I had to do was focus on making sure we all got through this without giving me anything to feel guilty over. That meant we all had to keep our eyes open and be ready for any problem. If the Scions happened to be keeping an eye on Amanda for whatever reason and saw us talk to her, things could get nasty pretty fast.
Which, of course, meant that step one of the plan had to be finding a way to sneak into the woman’s home without being seen by anyone. If we were going to avoid attracting the very wrong kind of attention, we had to talk to her without anyone else having any idea we were there. Either any of the Scions themselves, or any of her neighbors who might feel like reporting to him. Yes, we had no real evidence that they did that sort of thing, and no real reason to think he was spying on her to begin with, but as far as Pencil went, we weren’t taking anything for granted. A lot of people died when they did that. So, we were going with the sneaking in thing.
Or rather, Alloy, Pack, and I were going to be sneaking in. Raindrop and That-A-Way would wait in a safe place, ready to jump in to help if everything went utterly sideways. Our hope (and it was really the best we had) was that if the Scions did show up after all, they wouldn’t expect those two to be back-up. And if it came right down to it, Way would simply use her teleport power to get us all out of there. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to go to that, but it was best to have the option. Better than getting into that situation and ending up trapped, anyway.
Of course, before we could sneak into Amanda Sanvers’ place, we needed to find out exactly where that place was. Deicide hadn’t actually given us her address. All she had was a list of potential locations and people we could talk to who might know where Amanda was living. So, before we could stealthily talk to the girl herself, we had to stealthily talk to a bunch of others. Yeah, this whole thing could get unbelievably complicated and dangerous really fast. Even more so than it already was. We were going to try to try to get the information for Deicide without sticking our heads into a Scion hornets nest, but I had a lot of twisted feelings in my stomach about how it would actually play out when things really got going. That was okay, though, since my twisted, nervous feelings about this specific situation would probably fit in pretty well with my twisted, nervous feelings about my entire life in general.
All of which was what had brought us to the back of Pack’s van, staying out of sight while the girl herself drove up front. It was one of those vans with a divider between the front and back, so she could drive with her mask off and we wouldn’t see her face. We could, however, peek out through heavily tinted windows in the back to watch the houses passing by as the other girl drove toward the first house on the list. It was apparently a home in the same neighborhood where Amanda and her brother had lived when their family had been attacked by Pencil toward the very start of his career, long before he’d built the Scions as a group. No one even knew if Cup was around back then. Apparently he broke into this normal family’s house and made the mother and father kill each other to save Amanda and her brother. It was all on video.
So yeah, it was pretty doubtful that the girl would be living anywhere near the house where all that had happened. But according to the information we’d gotten from Deicide, a woman who had been their babysitter when they were younger lived at this place, and had been in contact with Amanda before for sentimental reasons. We were hoping she still had an address. And, well, that she’d give that address to us, of course. That was another reason we were starting with this address. The woman here knew Amanda and her brother when they were little, so it was doubtful she was some kind of secret contact and spy for Pencil or the Scions.
“At the risk of sounding like an incredibly impatient ten-year-old on a road trip,” Way spoke up from where she was sitting in the corner while texting intently on her phone, “are we there yet?”
“Wouldn’t that just be a ten-year-old in general?” I pointed out while glancing that way. “I mean, come on, impatient ten-year-old? You might as well say, ‘wet rain’ or ‘buff football player.’”
“Or boring football game,” Alloy put in, before holding up both hands defensively when everyone looked at her. “What? It’s true and you know it.” Belatedly, she added in a mumble under her breath, “Soccer’s better anyway. Real football. Talk about running around all the time, not stopping every four freaking seconds to grope each other and make faces.”
Exchanging a glance with Way and Raindrop, I shrugged at them exaggeratedly. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t know mentioning football was gonna make her go off. I’ll make a note of it though.” That said, I looked back out the window as the van turned. “But yeah, I think we’re pretty close.”
Sure enough, we’d only gone another block before Pack slid open the little window that divided the front from the back. She’d stuck a piece of cardboard or something in the way to block our view of the space where she was sitting, but there was enough of a crack on the right-hand side to see the passenger seat where the cage full of lizards was sitting, and we could hear as the girl called, “Okay, this is the street! If your friendly neighborhood gang boss isn’t full of shit, it should be right up here on the left. Figured out what you’re doing yet? Because something tells me it’d probably be a bad idea if my friends and me went up and knocked on this lady’s door.”
Yeah, she probably had a point. If we wanted to convince this lady to tell us what she knew about Amanda, sending a known member of La Casa up there wasn’t the right way to go about it. Granted, they weren’t nearly as bad as the Scions. Not even remotely. But Fell-Touched were Fell-Touched as far as a lot of the general public were concerned. They were the bad guys. I knew that was the way I had thought for most of my life. Obviously, things were a bit more complicated than that. This lady hadn’t had the same kind of experiences though. We needed to put her mind at ease, not make her too paranoid to give us the info we needed.
“I’ll go in with Alloy,” I announced. “It looked like there was an alley just behind the house. Pull through there, let us out, and we’ll go in the back where the big cedar fence is. Better if it’s the two of us. If you guys,” I nodded toward That-A-Way and Raindrop, “come in with us and she does happen to rat us out to Pencil, he’ll know you’re involved.” With a shrug, I added, “I know, slim chances, but still. No reason to risk anything. Or, in this case, everything.”
The two Minority Touched didn’t exactly look incredibly happy with that, for obvious reasons. But they also couldn’t really argue against it. After giving each other a brief glance, they nodded. Way pointed at me. “Okay, but just be, you know, subtle? I mean, as subtle as you can be when dressed like that, with your reputation, going to talk to some lady about a girl she used to babysit who might have secret information about the leader of the Scio–look, just be careful.”
Snorting despite myself, I nodded while giving her a thumbs up. “We’ll keep that in mind.” Then my gaze turned toward my new partner. “You ready to go talk to a lady about a girl?” Pausing as those words worked their way through my own mind, I grimaced. “Yeah, that was supposed to sound all chill and reassuring, but I think I drifted all the way over into totally vague.”
Alloy, in turn, gave a slight snicker before choking on it. She was obviously (and understandably) nervous about this whole thing, and I had the feeling she was afraid that if she laughed at anything surrounding it, the universe would retaliate by making everything go to hell. I was very well-accustomed with that fear, because I kept pushing it down myself.
By that point, Pack had found the alley. She told us to text when we needed a pick-up and that they would be close, but not too close. On her word as the van came to a stop, That-A-Way slid the side door open, letting Alloy and me hop out together. The second we were out, the van pulled away smoothly and continued down what turned out to be a slightly narrower alley than I’d expected. It was just wide enough for the van on one side and the two of us beside it with a few inches of clearance before we would run into the wooden fence that surrounded the backyard of the house in question.
Actually, all the houses here had tall fences surrounding the yards. It was one of the reasons I’d felt safe being let out here. People in this neighborhood valued their privacy. Also, I could hear at least three different lawnmowers from distant houses, plus a chainsaw somewhere.
It always felt strange to me to see houses that were so close together. Yes, I absolutely knew that was normal, the real way ninety-nine percent of people lived. Well, that and apartments of course. Which meant they were stacked even closer together. I was spoiled and given a completely abnormal childhood, growing up the way I had. Still, sometimes (like right now, standing here) I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this. What if my parents were just… middle to upper-middle class? What if we had a house like this, with a regular-sized backyard, neighbors on either side so close we could throw a ball into their property, a garage with two cars, and Dad did his own yardwork? What would that be like?
“Uh, Paintball?” Alloy spoke up, breaking me out of being lost in my own thoughts. “You okay? Are we going in there, or what?” She sounded equal parts confused and nervous, glancing around quickly. The marbles surrounding her head were also bouncing anxiously, looking like they were trying to see over fences to check for anyone who might’ve been spying on us.
Quickly, I shook off all those feelings and gave a quick nod. “Yeah, sorry. I was just–never mind.” It wasn’t like I could explain what I’d been thinking or why. So I just gestured to the fence. “Let’s get in there, and try not to scare the hell out of an innocent lady in the process.”
The gate was secured with a padlock, and we didn’t want to break anything. So Alloy just made one of her marbles form a small platform to slide under our feet and fly us up and over. On the way, I glanced around. There were people working in their yards, but no one was looking directly at us. Quickly, we hopped down into the backyard.
The woman we were heading in to see was named Kayla Dugan. According to what we’d been able to find out, she wasn’t married or anything, and lived alone here in the house she’d inherited from her deceased parents. Hopefully she wouldn’t have any guests today, or this could be even more awkward than it was already going to be.
After taking a second to make sure no one was crying out or drawing attention, Alloy and I jogged across the incredibly tiny backyard (seriously, you could barely play catch back here, let alone an actual ballgame), hopping over a small flower garden to reach the wooden patio. There, I gestured for the other girl to wait and stand back in plain sight before reaching out to knock on the sliding glass door. I could see a kitchen (also tiny) through the glass and hear a television from somewhere else in the house. I tried to knock loud enough to be heard, but without being intimidating or sounding like I was trying to break the door down. It was a pretty fine line to walk.
It must’ve been loud enough, considering a woman who matched the picture we’d seen poked her head around the side of the doorway. She was in her late twenties and had dark hair with just a hint of a red streak through it. Now, she was peering into the kitchen with a look of confusion. That expression turned to one of shock when she saw me standing there, and she jerked back reflexively. Then she poked her head back, this time with a phone in her hand as she stared, clearly ready to call 911.
Trying to look nonthreatening, I waved and called out, hoping to be heard through the door. “Hi! Sorry to bother you, can we talk for a minute? Everything’s okay, I promise!”
There was a moment of understandable hesitation as the woman clearly internally debated. She was holding her phone tightly. Finally, she called out, “Prove you’re really him!”
Yeah, that was fair. Holding my hand up so she could see, I put my palm against the door and created an instant image there. There was a lawn of green paint, a black mailbox with a red flag thing, a house made of yellow and white, with as many details on the siding and door as I could manage, a black roof with a red chimney (including tiny bits of white lines to outline the bricks), and a giant green dragon with red eyes perched on top of that roof. With a thought, I made the red and orange fire emerge from the dragon’s mouth, before making that disappear, then the dragon itself disappeared, replaced by a man standing where it had been, wearing a green suit. Then I made the man jump down from the roof in a very crude stop-motion thing where I kept making his image disappear, reappear an inch or so away, then repeated that until he was down on the white sidewalk in front of the house. Three more stop-motion bits made the man wave, before he turned to the door of the house and disappeared.
Finally, I made the whole image vanish. And that was clearly good enough to convince Kayla, because she quickly moved across the kitchen, setting the phone down. She was wearing an aerobics outfit, and between that and the fact that there was visible muscle to her stature, I was reminded that her day job apparently involved being a fitness instructor. Also, she had a towel around her neck. It looked like we had interrupted morning exercise.
There was a momentary hesitation as she started to reach for the door, before she seemed to give herself a short nod of encouragement. Then she flipped the lock and pulled the sliding door open, stepping back. “Uhh, you–you’re Paintball. You–uhm, what?” Seeing Alloy, her eyes widened even more. “Oh my God.”
“Oh sure,” I quipped, “I just get ‘oh, you’re Paintball’ and my new buddy here gets ‘oh my God?’” Painting a winking face on the front of my helmet, I gestured. “This is Alloy. Say hi, Alloy.”
“Hi,” came the response before the other girl stepped up beside me to add, “We’re really sorry to bother you, ma’am.”
Kayla shook her head, seemingly reflexively. “No, it’s okay. I mean, I think it’s okay. I mean, is it okay? What’s going on? Why–what–huh?” Belatedly, she stepped back. “Come in, come in. Wait, you’re not like, being chased by that big demon guy again, are you?”
“Trust me, he’s not polite enough to wait to see if you let us in,” I assured her before stepping through the door. “I promise, no one is after us. I mean, obviously there’s some bad guys out there that aren’t too happy, but they’re not here or anywhere close, as far as I know. I’m just gonna shut up about that and move on now.”
“This is going super-well,” Alloy noted, giving me a double-thumbs up before focusing on the woman. “Don’t worry, Miss Dugan. What he’s trying to say is that we’re not here about anything bad happening right now. It’s more about someone you used to know.”
“Someone I used to know?” It took Kayla a moment before her eyes widened. “Wait, you don’t mean–”
Sending silent thanks that way for the assist, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry. It’s about Amanda Sanvers. And technically her brother, though we heard he’s working in Alaska. So mostly it’s about Amanda.”
“You’re here about–” Kayla abruptly lowered her voice to a whisper, clearly instinctively avoiding saying the name loudly, “–Pencil. You’re here about that sick fuck, aren’t you?” As soon as she realized that, the woman shook her head. “You need to leave that alone. You both need to go stop a car thief or a murderer or something. Stay away from that monster.”
“Don’t worry,” I tried to reassure her, “We’re not here to go after him ourselves. We’re just collecting information for people who are a lot better qualified.” Sure, I was leaving out that we were collecting it for another villain, but we didn’t really need to get into those details.
So, I simply tried to carefully explain what we’re doing without mentioning that much. I told her that we needed to find Amanda so she could give us information that might help other people deal with him.
When I was done, Kayla exhaled, slumping back against the counter. “That–what happened back then, it messed Amanda up. Both her and her brother. Neither of them were the same after that. It was just–they never recovered.”
“Pencil has that effect on people,” I muttered before looking to her. “That’s why we’re gonna send people who can stop him, Miss Dugan. I promise. We just need to find Amanda. We heard she’s been in contact with you a few times.”
“I don’t… know exactly where she is,” the woman tentatively replied. “But umm… but maybe I can give you some ideas to check up on that could help. Just… promise you won’t let that son of a bitch anywhere near her again.”
“Absolutely,” I confirmed as firmly as possible. “You have our word.
“We’re going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure Amanda never even sees Pencil again.”