I’d survived. Oh dear God, oh God, I was alive! I escaped. I went head to head (if running away from constantly could be called ‘going head to head’) with Cuélebre and lived to talk about it. Granted, he would’ve killed me without a second thought and with even less effort if Wren and her uncle hadn’t teleported me out of his grasp, but still! I was counting it. I was alive! I was alive!
Was it wrong that on top of laughing like a maniac and jumping up and down, I also kind of wanted to do a little dance right then?
Even as I caught my breath and came down from the … well, basically everything that I’d just gone through with the giant pissed off demonic-dragon man, Fred and Wren were staring at me. Feeling a little self-conscious, I cleared my throat. “Sorry. Um. Thanks for pulling me out of there. Seriously, you have amazing timing. But please tell me you have some kind of actual information for me about where Ashton went, after everything that just happened?”
Fred, of course, was already starting to hedge his bets. “Right, of course. But before we get into that, we should talk about our cut of the reward. If we can help-”
“Just tell him, Uncle Fred,” Wren insisted, folding her arms while giving her uncle a dirty look.
While the two exchanged glances, I had time to look around a bit more. We were in the far end of the parking lot of a grocery store. It was late enough that the lot itself was only about a quarter full, and I surreptitiously checked one of my phones for the time, only to find the screen had been smashed during that whole exchange. Whoops. At least it wasn’t the phone that Double Down had given me. That I had put away in a safe place for the time being.
Checking my actual phone revealed that it was almost nine o’clock. Not all that late yet, so that was one thing off my mind. Good thing neither of my parents really paid that much attention. As long as I was there in the morning and they didn’t have any reason to actively check on me in the middle of the night, I should be fine.
Finally, Fred exhaled hard, waving a hand. “Fine, whatever. I guess we did get out of there thanks to you.” He was squinting at me while continuing, “Look, the guy called demanding I give him some help finding a new place to hole up, and a safe way to contact the buyer for whatever he was selling. I started to tell him to take a hike, but he promised more money.”
“So you gave him a place to stay?” I pressed, starting to feel like this might work out.
Unfortunately, my hopes for that were immediately dashed as the man shook his head. “Not exactly,” he informed me with what was at least a regretful look. “I ahh, I sold him one of the vans.” He glanced toward his niece then, adding, “She fixed up a few vans to be like mini-campers or whatever. There’s a bed, stove, water, everything you could need in the back.”
With an eager nod, Wren quickly piped up, “You have to fill up the water tank once a day, but it runs off that. You can keep everything, the radio, the lights, the television, all of that running off a full tank of water. And the van itself too, though you have to fill up the water tank more often if you do a lot of driving.” She paused, looking thoughtful. “You know, maybe I should separate the two tanks, just so there’s always some left to drive if you run the television all night.”
Before the girl could go off on too much of a tangent about that (and looking like he was quite accustomed to her doing so), Fred hurriedly continued. “Anyway, he said something about camping out in parking lots or whatever. You know, places like this.” He gestured around the lot we were in, and I reflexively looked around on the one in a billion chance we had randomly ended up in the right one. We hadn’t, of course. There were no vans parked anywhere around the back of the lot that I could see. Not surprising, but still. I would’ve taken that particular lightning bolt of luck without arguing one bit.
Fred had been glancing around as well, obviously just as briefly hopeful as I had been that we would get that lucky. In the end, he sighed before pressing on. “He said the van was anonymous enough he’d just park it somewhere, sleep, and keep moving around. Not as good as his apartment, but, well, he expected to get a lot of money soon anyway.”
“Which is why he wanted a safe way to contact his buyer,” I murmured, wonder who said buyer was. I already knew that he had no intention of actually giving Blackjack the medicine, so who else would he be selling it to? Did he have someone else on the line, or was this just about calling the La Casa leader and making him think he was going to sell the stuff to him?
Fred was nodding. “Yeah, I gave him one of the phones the kid fixed up. They tap into the nearest cell network without actually needing to have an account or anything, and they’re supposed to be untraceable. Well, close enough, anyway.”
“Right,” I muttered. “So you gave him a van he can completely disappear with, and a phone he can’t be traced by. Anything else? Did you give him an invisibility cloak by chance, or maybe a giant robot mecha he can sic on anyone who comes after him?”
“If I had any of those,” the man shot back with a somewhat red-faced look, “that guy would’ve had to pay a hell of a lot more than he did for them, got it?”
Ignoring that, I pressed, “Do you have any way of tracking the phone or the van that you gave him? Anything that could help narrow it down more than ‘a van somewhere in a parking lot’?”
Fred started to shake his head, only for Wren to interrupt with, “Yes.” As both of our gazes snapped to her, she amended, “I mean, I can. I can make something that can find him.”
“And she’ll do it,” her uncle started, already seeing dollar signs. “In exchange for–”
“In exchange,” the girl interrupted, “for everything you’ve done already. And to help that other girl you were talking about. That was real, right?” She squinted at me. “There really is a girl?”
I nodded. “Yes, there is. And she’s going to die if we don’t get that medicine to her soon.” Pausing, I added, “Not to mention, her father is a very dangerous man, and if his daughter dies, he’s going to be really pissed off. I don’t think anyone wants to see him that angry and… grieving. The city would–umm–well let’s just say it wouldn’t be a nice time to live here.”
I wasn’t sure if Fred totally took my meaning, but his niece did. Swallowing, Wren met my gaze before nodding. “I have to get to my backup lab. And then work a few things out. But I’ll make something to track the other van, I promise. Um, here.” As she spoke, the girl moved a few fingers over the watch that she wore, before a tiny compartment on the front of the contraption that held her wings popped open and what looked like an incredibly thin metal arm about as wide around as a straw with a claw at the end came out. It was holding a card, which I took and glanced at. There was an address typed into the middle of it.
“Come there tomorrow morning–” Wren started. “Wait, you have school, right? School is a thing?” When I slowly nodded, she amended, “Come tomorrow afternoon. I’ll have it ready, I promise. I’ll have something for you to track that guy.” Her expression, previously firm and determined, softened a little. “I… I’m sorry that the stuff I built led to all this.”
For all his faults, Fred looked guilty at that, flinching as his niece clearly showed how bad she felt about all this. With a sigh, he glanced away before taking a breath. “Right, yeah, okay. We’ll get it built.” Looking back to me, he nodded once, a little more firmly. “We’ll get it done. I uhh…” He mumbled the last bit. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know it would end up like this. I just wanted a good payout and no one was supposed to get hurt. It was just stealing something out of a bank, for fuck’s sake.” His words were plaintive, and sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
The thought of waiting most of another day while Blackjack’s kid was out there still dying and all the gangs in the city went nuts trying to find Ashton didn’t exactly fill me with warm fuzzies. But on the other hand, I also didn’t have much of a choice. Biting back the impatience, I instead asked, “Are you sure this other lab of yours is safe?” Waving the card, I added, “I mean, are you sure none of those guys who went to the shop can find it? It’s not written down anywhere in there? Believe me, they’ll be thorough when they search the place, and if they find anything that could point them to your new place…”
“It’s okay,” Wren assured me, “there’s nothing written down about it.” She shrugged then, “It wouldn’t be much of a secret lab if we left the address lying around, would it?”
“I suppose not,” I murmured, looking to the address again. The ink on the card looked fresh enough that I was pretty sure she’d actually printed it up right then, inside her flight harness.
“I just hope they don’t hurt Dad’s shop too much,” the girl was muttering, looking at the asphalt under our feet with an unhappy frown at the thought of what those guys were probably doing back there. “I had everything the way I wanted it, and they’re probably–”
“We’ll clean it up,” Fred interrupted, putting a hand on her shoulder. He really did look guilty about what he’d done and where it had all led. “Get this taken care of so those shits back off, and we’ll go clean everything up. We’ll put it back the way it was. Only better.”
Leaving them to it, I promised to come by after school before heading off. Home. I was going home. There was nothing else I could do about this whole situation right now, as much as I might’ve wanted to. Besides, after being chased by Cuélebre and nearly pissing myself half a dozen times, all I really wanted to do was take a long, hot bath and get some sleep.
So, I did just that. Making my way home, I spent the rest of the night getting cleaned up, soaking for what was probably an absurdly long time in the bath attached to my room, then fell into my bed and slept. I was dead to the world until Jania woke me up the next morning with the vacuum once more.
Dad was actually there at breakfast. As I walked in, finding him and Simon engrossed in some private conversation that I never would have paid any attention to a week earlier, they both looked up and fell silent. An instant later, a smile broke across Dad’s face, and he gestured. “Hey there, punkin. Come on over here, let’s have some food together while we have the chance.”
“Oh,” I started after freezing up for a second, “I should just grab an orange or something. You know how Jefferson gets if we make him wait. Throws his whole schedule–”
“I sent Jefferson on ahead,” Dad interrupted, even as one of the cooks put a plate of pancakes, eggs, and bacon down in front of him. “I’ll be driving you today.” Offering me an easy, movie star-caliber smile, he tapped his fork lightly against the glass plate, making it ring. “Come, sit.”
“Yeah, Booster,” Simon put in while taking his own plate from the cook. “Have some food. Your scrawny little body could use something more substantial than an orange so you don’t blow away in the next stiff breeze.”
Well, what could I say to all that? Suppressing all my first, second, and third reactions to the idea of sitting next to both of them for any length of time, I slipped down into the seat, swallowing slightly as a full plate was set in front of me as well. My hand found the fork, and I took a bite.
“Right,” Dad started slowly, “well, the reason I wanted to take this morning with you…” He trailed off, head tilting thoughtfully. “I suppose I can’t really call you kids anymore, can I? What about guys? Can I say you guys?” He winked at me then. “Or is that not ‘woke’ enough? Is that the right–”
“Guys is fine,” I interrupted. “It’s kind of… encompassing anymore.”
Giving a slight nod of acknowledgment, Dad continued. “Okay then, you guys. The reason I wanted to spend the morning with you guys, is because your mother and I are going to be leaving for a few days.”
Well, that got my attention. Almost choking on the food in my mouth, I quickly looked over at him. “Leaving? Why–uhh, what are you leaving for?” Why would they go anywhere while the city was falling apart and they were still trying to make sure Blackjack didn’t burn it all down? If they wanted to take us with them, I might’ve thought they just wanted to give up on stopping it and get out of town until it was over. But they would’ve taken us with them at that point, wouldn’t they?
Dad was already explaining. “There’s some business I need to attend to, and your mother and I would like to spend some time together. We’ll only be a few days, back in plenty of time for the event this weekend.” Looking to me, he added, “Jefferson will be taking you to your dress fitting tomorrow, so don’t be late, understood?”
My head nodded slowly, the words coming automatically, “Yes, sir.” I was still reeling from the announcement, trying to figure out what was so important that my parents would actually leave the city while Ashton was still out there.
Then I knew. Ashton was the important thing. My parents weren’t leaving the city at all. They were just going to make it look like they were, so they could focus completely on finding him. They wanted to devote everything over the next few days to tracking the guy down. And it’s not like this would be the first time Dad had been on ‘business’ without actually leaving the city. I knew for a fact that Silversmith had appeared while my father was supposedly on another continent. This was all just a show for my parents to explain why they weren’t around the house and to cancel all their other appearances in the city. An emergency meeting somewhere far away? Dad would probably claim to be tied up and unreachable for the next few days, just so he could focus one hundred percent of his attention on finding Ashton.
“Cass?” In what sounded like not the first time he’d been trying to get my attention, Simon jabbed me with the end of his fork. “You alive?”
“Ow,” I yelped, rubbing my arm. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I was just thinking about the project I’m doing with Jae and Amber.”
“Jae Baek and Amber O’Connell?” Dad raised an eyebrow at me. “The girls you took with you to the club the other day?”
Oh God, the last thing I wanted was for my father to pay too much attention to those two. They were nice, I didn’t need him involving himself in their lives. Still, I managed a slight smile. “Uh huh. We’re just doing a History project together and that was a quiet place to work.”
For a moment, my father met my gaze, before abruptly breaking it as he took another bite of his food. “Good. They seem like a good influence.
“So long as you’re not hanging around with bad people.”
From there, I basically went through the motions at school, doing everything I could to make the time pass faster. Despite that, the whole day seemed to drag impossibly, as if the clocks were actually moving backwards now and then.
Finally, it was mercifully over. Cancelling my ride home with Jefferson once more, I found a private place to change before making my way, in costume, to the address on the card that Wren had given me.
It was a bookstore. Or, well, it had been a bookstore, before apparently closing quite some time ago, if the dust on the windows and the faded sign out front announcing the going out of business sale was anything to go by. And from the look of things, the rest of the strip mall the place was located in wasn’t doing much better. I was pretty sure a pet grooming place across the lot and a small pizza joint next to that were the only places that were still open. And they weren’t exactly doing a booming business. This whole shopping center had seen better days.
As I approached the door, there was a ding and it opened automatically. I froze briefly, squinting at it from behind my helmet before giving a shrug. Cautiously, I stepped through.
Wren’s voice came from a speaker right beside me as I entered, making me jump before she continued. “We’re downstairs. Through the door to your left. Come on down!”
Behind me, the door closed, the lock clicking. Glancing that way, I hesitated before heading through the door that had been indicated. Sure enough, a set of cement stairs was there, and I descended into a wide open unfinished basement room that seemed to take up the entire lot that the store was on. There was, just like the old place, junk piled up everywhere on dozens of tables. In the corner was a ratty old couch and a television, where Fred was watching Wheel of Fortune, apparently content to ignore my presence entirely.
Wren, on the other hand, popped up from behind a table, tossing something my way. “Here!”
I fumbled, but caught the thing. It was a plastic thing, about the size of a TV remote, with a small screen at one end that had a blue pulsing dot in the middle. “Uhh, what is it?”
“Tracker,” she explained excitedly, before hesitating. “I… um, I couldn’t make something that would find that guy automatically. But this will track every time he uses that phone. It’ll start beeping and that dot’ll turn into an arrow, pointing the right way. The closer you get, the bigger the arrow will be. If he stops the call, it’ll still point to his last location, so as long as he doesn’t move too much afterward…”
“Oh. Oh!” Giving the thing another look, I found a smile before glancing to the girl. She was watching me anxiously, clearly torn between being upset that she hadn’t been able to make something that would automatically and instantly find Ashton, and being proud that she’d managed what she had.
“Thanks, Wren,” I replied firmly, wanting her to settle on the latter. “This is a big help, really.”
Her smile brightened the room. “Yeah? You really think you can find him with it?”
“I sure hope so,” I murmured, swallowing as I stared at the blinking dot. “And I hope he uses that phone soon.
“Otherwise, things are gonna get really bad around here.”
Hi guys! The following is the first ever Summus Proelium Patreon Snippet. Basically, people who pay $10 or more on Patreon each month get to pick 500 words toward any subject in my stories, or save up their words/combine them with others. Usually these snippets are posted all together as separate chapters, because they tend up toward 5-6 thousand words in length. But because this is the only one for Summus Proelium this time around, I’ve decided to just stick it onto the end of this chapter to avoid confusing things. Thanks again to the donator who chose this, and to all of you!
As Cassidy and Simon left the dinner table and went their separate ways following their latest family dinner, Sterling Evans took a sip of his wine. He watched his children go before glancing toward his wife with a small smile. “She’s getting too old too fast. Make her stop.”
With a soft, beautiful smile that still made his heart beat faster even after all these years, Elena shook her head. “I’m sorry, my love. Even we don’t have that kind of power. Nor should we wish for it. Cassidy is growing up, exactly as she should. That’s how these things work.” She raised an eyebrow then, pointedly adding, “Besides, you’re the one who allowed her to skip first grade. She’d still be a sophomore if you hadn’t done that.”
“Well, I still don’t like it,” Sterling murmured, thinking back to times that seemed like they were only the week before when his beautiful, amazing little girl barely came up to his knee. He remembered her toddling to him, begging to be picked up. It was a thought that brought a smile to his face, before he exhaled. “But if she is growing up, you know that time is coming.”
“Not yet,” Elena insisted. “We said we’d wait until she was seventeen. That’s ten months away. Simon was brought into the life too fast, too soon. Cassidy deserves to enjoy her childhood longer. Seventeen, no sooner.”
“Those ten months will fly past,” Sterling reminded his wife. “Just like the past sixteen years have. Before we know it, she’ll be ready for the conversation. And when that time comes, we will explain… everything to her. If she can accept it, how our lives work, she can begin her training.”
“And if she cannot…” Elena prompted, needing to hear her husband say it.
Sterling sighed. “If… she cannot, we will have her memory of the entire conversation erased. You will convince her to transfer to Danford Academy in the UK for the rest of her education, leading into university there and then whatever career she wishes to pursue. She will be able to visit as much as she wishes, but we will do everything possible to guide her to a life far from here.”
Elena, quiet for a moment as she studied the glass in her hands, finally spoke once more. “I can’t… bear even thinking about sending her away at all, not for two years, or six, or… forever.”
“It wouldn’t be forever,” her husband reminded her in a voice that showed just how much he hated the possibility as well. “It’s like I said, she can come back and visit. But if being a part of this life is not… something she could be okay with, she deserves to have as normal of one as possible. With all the opportunities she could possibly need.”
Reluctantly, Elena nodded. “Yes, of course. Cassidy deserves that.” She sighed. “No matter how painful it feels.” Setting the glass down, she found a smile for the man she adored beyond all reason. “We have time. Ten months. We should enjoy them. Though I am surprised to hear you mention potentially employing our friend to erase Cassidy’s memory so casually, after…” She trailed off pointedly.
Clearing his throat, Sterling straightened. “Yes, well, he was entirely too rough with her the first time. He knows he had better treat her delicately now. For his own sake.”
“Of course,” Elena graciously agreed, her smile brightening a bit. “And not only because of an overprotective father. I have a feeling our little girl herself would make him regret being so rough.
“After all, she’s not eleven years old this time.”