“Thanks a lot, keep the tip.” With those words, Irelyn Banners (dressed as a civilian rather than as her costumed identity of Flea) stepped back into the fairly cramped motel room with a box of piping hot pizza. Kicking the door shut behind her, the brunette woman with her hair kept in a loose ponytail held the treat up in one hand so her companion could see it. “Here we go, the real dinner of champions.”
From the other side of the room, Hazel Ruthers (better known to the public as Trivial) raised an eyebrow. Outside of her own costume, Hazel had straight black hair that fell only a couple inches above her shoulders, with fairly dark skin to indicate her mixed-race status. She had a two-liter bottle of soda in one hand and was using it to fill a couple of plastic cups provided by the motel. “Could we really be considered champions when ordering pizza is basically the height of what we’ve been able to accomplish the entire time we’ve been down here? I don’t want to say we’re bad at our jobs or anything, but we’ve been here for days and have nothing to show for it. At this point, after all the people we’ve talked to, I’m not convinced your sister even exists, let alone that she’s ever been here. Are you sure she wasn’t just the result of some manic and incredibly elaborate fever dream you had?”
Snorting at the question, Irelyn set the pizza down on the nearby bed (one of two in the room they were sharing) before grabbing a paper plate. “You do realize that you’ve met her before, right?” She was already loading up the plate with several pieces, which she handed over that way. “Multiple times, actually. We went and got lunch together a few months ago.”
“Maybe we were both having elaborate fever dreams,” Hazel retorted while taking the offered plate. She traded it by handing over a cup of soda before taking a seat on the end of her own bed. “I can’t rule that out. But come on, seriously, if your sister was anywhere around here, someone we talked to would have seen her. We’ve got nothing. I mean, nothing here anyway. Maybe she made that call and left immediately? Or maybe she found a way to bounce the signal. All you’ve got that says she was here is that phone call Bryson tracked down to this place, right? It could be faked.”
Heaving a sigh, Irelyn took the cup and sat down to get her own plate of pizza. “By that standard, the whole thing could have been faked. Even her being the one talking. God knows, Dad has pissed off enough powerful people. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to–but they don’t know what I am. She was clearly stopping me from exposing my identity to whoever was sitting there listening, and–” Cutting herself off, she blanched. “Yeah, maybe they were threatening her or something. I don’t know. I was hoping we’d get some easy answers just by tracking her down, but you’re right. She’s obviously not here. Unless she’s a lot better at hiding than I think she is, someone around here would’ve seen her.”
Scooting over to the edge of her bed, Hazel spoke gently. “Well, there is some good news about all that, you know?” She took a bite of the pizza, waiting for the other woman to look toward her expectantly before explaining. “If they went through all the trouble of making a phone call or whatever to send you down here, it means your family is probably still alive. I mean, if they were just gonna… umm, you know, just gonna kill them, they wouldn’t go through all that to distract you. They wanted you distracted and out of the way, and sending you all the way down here to Florida probably means it’s something elaborate and time-consuming. And the more time-consuming it is, the better chance your family is still okay.” Having said all that, she visibly grimaced. “I know that’s not exactly the best news in the universe, but–”
“But it’s something,” Irelyn agreed, her voice coming with another heavy sigh. “I know what you mean. Obviously they had a reason to distract me. There’s no point in sending me on a wild goose chase if they were just going to kill them and dump the bodies. There’s… something else going on. Something I don’t know anything about, that’s just–fuck. I don’t know.” She set the plate down before throwing up her hands helplessly. “If this really is a dead-end, then I’ve got nothing. At least with that phone call I had a lead. But if she’s not here, if my parents and sister aren’t–I mean… they could be anywhere.”
“Hey now.” Reaching out, Hazel put a hand on the other woman’s arm. “I don’t come bearing only problems, I’ve also got solutions.” Belatedly, she amended, “Okay, maybe not exactly solutions. But at least clues, or hints, or… another idea. I’ve got something we can check.”
Irelyn arched an eyebrow that way. “You’ve been looking into other things too, haven’t you?”
“Well, the same thing, your missing family,” Hazel pointed out. “Just different avenues for finding them. I mean–okay so I started looking into where your sister came from. You know, where your family adopted her from. I know, you think this is all about your dad pissing someone off, but I figured it might be a good idea to look at your sister’s past too, since you weren’t. Sorry if that was, like, overstepping or whatever. I just, you know, thought it was worth it.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Hazel,” Irelyn assured her. “I was laser-focused on it being some guy from my dad’s business. If that’s wrong–well then it’s wrong. But are you saying you actually found out something about Paige?” The very thought that this whole situation could have come from her adopted sister’s past instead of someone that their father had pissed off was enough to make her reel inwardly. But she wasn’t going to dismiss the prospect. Not now that they had already spent all this time looking for Paige here in Florida to no avail. She was ready to pursue any lead at all, as long as it actually led somewhere.
Hazel hesitated before giving a very slight nod. “Yes and no. I mean, I found out some stuff, including a lot of dead ends. Like, for example, the group your dad adopted her from doesn’t exist. They never existed.”
That made Irelyn do a quick double-take. “Wait, what do you mean they never existed?”
“I mean that group was never a real adoption agency,” Hazel informed her. “As far as I can tell, the agent your father worked with to secure the adoption isn’t real. Well, obviously he’s real, but the name is fake. The name of the group is fake, and even–” She grimaced while passing on the news. “Even the name of the doctor who supposedly delivered Paige as a baby is fake. It’s all fake, Irelyn. There is no such doctor who ever worked in that hospital. There was no adoption agency by that name, no doctor, no nothing. The agent never did any adoptions before that one. As far as I can tell, every single name on the official records about where Paige came from, aside from that one adoption agent, is completely made up. The rest of them aren’t real people. The judge, the lawyers, all of them. They don’t exist. Or at least, they used fake identities for this whole thing. Which itself is pretty fucked up, you know?”
By the time she finished all that, Irelyn was staring at her, having completely forgotten about the pizza. “You’re telling me that almost everyone behind my sister’s adoption and–and her entire life before we got her was completely made up? How is that even possible? I mean, why would–did my Dad–of course he knew.” Her head shook rapidly. “He had to know. Maybe he went through some illegal channels to adopt her. But why? Why would he need to do that? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly legal adoption services out there. I don’t–oh my God.” Her eyes had widened dramatically. “You think my father had Paige kidnapped from someone?” The very thought was enough to make her physically recoil. Irelyn had plenty of problems with her father, but she’d always seen him as generally a decent person, for what he was. And if not decent, at least not the type to have a child kidnapped like that. She had plenty of issues with the man, but he wasn’t that sort of person, was he? The fact that she had to seriously ask herself that made bile rise in her throat. She felt physically ill. “You think he had her kidnapped and… and got some schmuck adoption agent to make it look legitimate? But wait, why would he do that? If the rest of the identities are fake, what was the point of having a legitimate adoption agent?”
There was a brief pause before the other woman answered. “I don’t think this person was a legitimate adoption agent, Irelyn. Like I said, he never did any adoptions before that one, before Paige. He’s a real person, but there’s no record of him ever existing before Paige’s adoption. And the agency he was supposed to work for doesn’t exist, it never has. So this guy came out of nowhere, no background, no real history. I think he was mostly used to make the adoption look good for anyone your parents talked to. You know, so their friends or business people could see a real live person discussing the adoption with them.”
Irelyn was still visibly reeling from all that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “But… but would my parents really…”
“I don’t know,” Hazel hesitantly replied. “I don’t know enough to say what your father knew about the situation or–but I mean, obviously he had to know some of it. There’s no way he didn’t realize that a lot of this information was bogus. He’s not an idiot. He’s a lot of things, sure, but not that stupid. He had to know that the adoption agency wasn’t real. Maybe he thought there was a legitimate reason, or… I don’t know. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, Irelyn. We don’t know enough to say for sure. All we can say is that all that information is fake.”
Absorbing all of that, Irelyn shook her head. “So, basically, all we know is that we don’t know anything. We’re right back to where we started from. If none of that information is real, then… then we’ve got nothing to go off of. Which means if this is about Paige’s own history instead of something my dad did, they could be literally anywhere.”
Hazel offered a very slight smile while rubbing a hand over the back of her neck. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing, exactly. I umm, I might’ve asked Bryson to check for anything he could find about those names. You know, whether they ever popped up again in relation to adoptions or anything like that. Especially the agent, the only guy who actually existed, even if everything about him was fake.”
Irelyn’s gaze was intense as she stared that way. “Please tell me he actually found something useful.” She needed some actual good news.
Hazel, thankfully, gave her a nod. “Yeah, he found something. Turns out that guy, ahh Albert Elcott, he did two more adoptions that same year. It’s definitely the same guy too, not just the name. The signature matches the one on your paperwork. Both of the other adoptions were in Salt Lake City.”
Taking a moment to process that, Irelyn slowly replied, “Salt Lake City? Does that have any sort of relevance?”
“Not exactly,” came the response, “But get this. Those three adoptions, Paige and the other two, were the last–the only ones this guy ever did, before he retired… at age thirty-four.”
Irelyn gave a double-take at that, squinting. “He retired at thirty-four?”
With a nod, Hazel explained, “Apparently he ‘inherited’ a small fortune from some dead great-aunt or something. Enough to buy a big house in some small town south of Salt Lake and live without working for the rest of his life. I mean, he’s not in some giant mansion or anything, but he’s comfortable. And it gets more interesting than that.”
“More interesting?” Irelyn shifted a bit on the bed. “I dunno, it’s already pretty up there.”
Smirking a bit, Hazel continued. “Those other two adoptions he did, the birth parents’ signatures are different names, but they’re all in the same handwriting. At least, according to the experts Bryson asked. Two different experts looked at the handwriting and they said all six signatures from all six different birth parents for the three kids were written by the same person. They were trying to disguise it, but these guys were pretty sure.”
That… was a lot. Irelyn had to take another minute to think her way through it. “Okay, so what we know is that the agency my parents worked with to adopt Paige was fake. The agent who worked with them obviously changed his identity before then, because there are no records of him anywhere before that. The doctors and nurses back at the hospital who originally delivered Paige as a baby don’t exist. Her birth parents don’t exist. And the one person in this entire situation, besides Paige, who does actually exist, the agent who facilitated the adoption, bought a house and retired that same year after two more adoptions. And all three of the adoptions were signed off by the same person posing as all six birth parents.”
“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Hazel confirmed. “It’s all pretty weird, huh?”
“Pretty weird…” Irelyn echoed a bit blankly, gazing off into the distance. “Yeah, I’d say so. But you know what we’re gonna do now?”
“Go see this guy in Utah?” Hazel guessed.
“Go see this guy in Utah,” Irelyn confirmed. “So what’s the name of this town he lives in, anyway?”
“Actually, it’s pronounced Tooele,” the friendly waiter who had been serving Hazel and Irelyn lunch politely informed them. “Too-ill-uh. Too-ill-uh, not tool or toollie. Yeah, I know how it looks, but here we are.”
“Damn,” Hazel lamented. “I guess neither of us wins that bet. Thanks though. And hey, this is a nice place.”
Beaming, the man thanked them for stopping by, gave the pair a last refill of iced tea, then stepped away to handle a couple newly arriving customers. Which left the two women to look at one another in silence for a moment.
Irelyn spoke first, keeping her voice low despite the fact there was no one nearby the back corner booth they had requested. “So, this town has about forty thousand people. You know how big Detroit is right now? Two point five million people.”
“I think it’s cozy,” Hazel noted, glancing around. “I mean, I’d get bored pretty quick, but it’d be a nice place to visit sometimes. I can see why our strange friend decided to retire here. That money he got probably wouldn’t give him a very nice life for long in a place like Detroit. It’s too expensive. But here?” She gestured around. “Cost of living can’t be that high. It’s quiet, peaceful, people probably leave him alone.”
“Something tells me it’s not just that,” Irelyn flatly replied. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” She took a final gulp of her iced tea before getting up to leave, tossing a twenty dollar bill on the table for a tip on the way out. It had been good food, and good service.
Once they were outside the so-named Chubby’s Cafe, the pair headed for their rented car. Irelyn drove, checking the GPS on her phone before heading for the house their target lived in. They had thought about showing the picture they’d taken off his (quite barren and ignored) Facebook page to the waiter in there, but given the size of the town, they didn’t want to accidentally tip the man off ahead of time. This seemed like the sort of place where a lot of people knew one another.
“So, what’s got you suspicious now?” Hazel asked. “I mean, besides this entire thing.”
“You know how this Albert Elcott guy bought a fair-sized house to retire?” Irelyn started. “Well, see, I took a look at the property records around him, and it turns out he owns the houses on either side too. They’re owned through a shell company, and he has people going in and out every year. Different renters, probably paid off to keep quiet about anything he’s doing. Or, you know, anything they hear.”
Giving a low whistle, Hazel shook her head. “So you think he’s up to something else after all, besides just living the good life.”
Irelyn confirmed, “Yeah, I definitely think there’s a reason he doesn’t want real neighbors who might snoop in on what he’s doing in that house. Owning those other two homes gives him a buffer to do whatever he wants without prying eyes. And there’s more than that. I found several deliveries of… pretty high tech stuff. He tried to split it up with different companies, months or even years apart, even having it delivered to one of those other two houses sometimes. But trust me, whatever he’s doing, it involves building something pretty advanced. And now I really want to know what it is.”
“So you wanna go in like this, or suit up?” Hazel’s question came as she glanced out the window at the houses around them. “You think this town even has any Touched?”
“Not on the record they don’t,” Irelyn replied. “The nearest Touched teams are up in Salt Lake, thirty miles north. And they’re mostly still dealing with the fallout from that Collision Point between Hollow and Grote. Pretty sure they wouldn’t be down here. Which is another reason this place is probably good for whatever that Elcott guy’s working on.” She paused to consider then before adding, “Let’s suit up. It’s a little risky, but I don’t want to take the chance of letting this guy get away just because we couldn’t go all out to catch him.”
So, the two of them parked the car in an alley they found near the neighborhood in question, changing into their costumes before driving the rest of the way. It was barely afternoon in the middle of the week, so they didn’t expect many people to be around. Still, rather than park in front of the house, they stopped a few doors down. The neighborhood itself looked like any suburban street, with perfectly maintained green lawns, lush bushes and trees, everything neatly arranged and quiet. The place felt eerie and strange to Irelyn, for all its complete bland normality.
Still, there was nothing else to do beyond walk up to the door and get some answers. So, that was what they did. The two stepped out, glanced around once more, and then strode that way. There was no one in sight, but they wanted to get into that house before someone happened to glance outside and raise questions.
“We just gonna knock on the door?” Hazel (or Trivial when in costume) asked, her eyes scanning carefully for any threats.
Irelyn considered, even as they got to the chain link fence surrounding the property. “You know, I think we’ll go right inside, and–” Abruptly, she stopped talking, as the door of the house opened. They saw a brief glimpse of the man that they were after, a short and wiry figure with stringy black hair and a ruddy complexion. But as soon as he saw them, the man’s eyes widened dramatically and he abruptly jumped back inside and slammed the door.
“Hard way it is, then!” Flea snapped, hopping right over the fence and all the way to the porch in a single motion. Her foot reared back before kicking the door off its hinges. It was reinforced, but that didn’t matter when it came to her leg-strength. The door snapped open and fell to the floor with a loud clatter in the small entranceway. She heard footsteps running down some stairs to her left, and sprinted that way, passing through the short corridor to find an open door to the basement.
With Trivial right behind her, Flea pursued their quarry, calling out, “Albert, stop! We need to talk to you! We’re not here to–”
She cut herself off, as they had reached the bottom of the stairs. The basement was unfinished, a simple cement floor and walls, totally open save for a complicated-looking machine in the middle. It was about ten feet wide, reaching almost to the ceiling, consisting of a wild assortment of pipes, sheets of metal, glowing lights, tubes with various liquids in them, spinning wheels, and more.
“What… the hell?” Trivial managed, her gaze moving from the weird machine to the man himself. “Hey! We need to talk to you!”
“No, no, no, no, you can’t be here. It was ready, it was finally ready, why are you here?!” Albert demanded. He was standing in front of the machine, head shaking violently. “I did everything he said. I did everything right. How did you–why would you–no, no! You can’t be here!”
“Albert, hang on.” Irelyn held a hand up cautiously. “Who are you talking about? We’re not here to hurt you. Do you know who we are?”
The man wrapped his arms around himself with a slightly crazed giggle. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do. I was always Plan B. Just Plan B. But then I was Plan A. I was supposed to have more time, and then I didn’t, but I still fixed it. I followed all his instructions and I made it work! It needs more tests. I was supposed to test it. One more month. One more month to perfect it, just to make sure. But you had to come. You had to fuck it all up and come! So oh well, no more tests. No more perfection. We have to do it now.”
“Albert, get away from that–” Irelyn started. But before she could say more, the man abruptly snapped his hand out, smacking a button on the side of the machine. She and Trivial both launched themselves that way, but their vision was overtaken by a blinding flash of light even as a sense of weightlessness filled them. It felt like they were floating for a few seconds, before the light faded and the ground rushed up under them. They both fell onto dirt, grass, and pebbles.
With a grunt, Irelyn looked up just in time to see that Albert guy vanish through the trees. Trees? Yes, there was a forest around them. They had… teleported? Frowning, she lunged to her feet.
Trivial was right behind her, blurting, “Where the hell are we?”
“I dunno, but he does,” Flea replied. She was already rushing toward the trees where Albert had disappeared. Only to stop short a few seconds later, as she came through them and found herself on the edge of a cliff. There was no sign of Albert, but far below was a rocky beach next to a tumultuous ocean. On that beach was an assortment of people all gathered around several fires, apparently cooking food. Some had very obvious physical changes, such as visible spikes, horns, one who looked like an eight foot tall living tree, and another who was more like an anthropomorphic caterpillar.
“Wait, are those… are those Touched down there?” Trivial demanded, staring that way.
“Yes,” Flea confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. “I know where we are. Trivial, we… we’re both dressed up as well-known Star-Touched.
“And we’re standing on Breakwater.”