Double Down

Interlude 11A – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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For years by this point, Austen Deleon had had one main goal in her life. There were other, smaller goals, of course. Primarily revolving around gaining more power and never being helpless again. But throughout all of that there had been one above all the others. That goal was to see her father, the man who had abandoned her mother and herself when she was a baby, dead. The same man who had eventually become Cuélebre, leader of the Oscuro Fell-gang. 

If he had been some normal man, Austen would have killed him already. It was his abandonment that had even led her mother to become mired and trapped in that evil cult of religious whack jobs. What her mother had become, what Austen herself had been put through before getting her powers, all of it, every bit of it, was because of him. She would see him dead no matter what that took. The fact that he was so powerful, both in himself and in the army that he controlled, didn’t matter. Not in the long run. It made things more difficult, but she would still kill him, someday. She just had to be smarter about it, more patient. 

Part of being patient meant playing her role not only as the leader of the Easy Eights gang in the form of Deicide, but also as a low-ranking young pickpocket member of Oscuro itself. As far as anyone there was concerned, Austen was just a teenager with no powers who hung around and contributed by stealing things here and there and occasionally providing information she heard. 

Some of that information was actually good, and had led to Oscuro hitting a couple decent scores. Nothing that would have stood out too much. Nothing that would have drawn the eye of her true father. She didn’t want to rock the boat, or make him pay attention to her until it was far too late. She simply provided just enough information that would make her an established and fairly trusted member of the gang’s lower levels. She fit in there. She was one of them, as far as they were concerned. 

They had no idea what her true intentions were. No idea that she spent night after night imagining the light finally leaving her father’s eyes as she paid him back for destroying her mother, leaving her the broken shell of a woman who barely acknowledged Austen’s existence now that she had literally killed the man Laia herself had seen as a god, as the God. 

Most of the time, Austen’s mother hated her now. There were a few times here and there when Laia would speak to her normally if the girl visited. But for the most part, she and the rest of her cultist… ‘friends’ saw Austen as what amounted to the antichrist, or something to that effect. They didn’t attack her or anything. They were too terrified of her to do that. Or, more to the point, afraid of the demon that protected her. 

Yeah. Austen’s mother and the others were convinced that it had been some kind of demon controlling those books and papers that had possessed Austen herself and killed their leader. None of them actually knew much about what was going on in the rest of the world. They didn’t know that anyone called Deicide even existed. They lived on their farm, hated outsiders, and waited for their true God to be reborn. 

It was really sad, and part of Austen still wanted to simply grab her mother and drag her out of there. She had hoped that with the death of that religious fuckjob, Laia would wake up. But she hadn’t. If anything, her mother and those around her had actually doubled down on their insane beliefs. That this was all a test, that there was no way the demon who had ‘possessed’ Austen could possibly have actually killed their leader for good. They believed he would be back, and that as long as they were faithful, ignored the outside world, and kept his home clean and prepared, they would be saved from his righteous vengeance when he finally appeared and struck down the unfaithful and yadda yadda.

Austen knew her mother was too far gone now. She knew that at best, the woman needed professional help. Help that Austen herself couldn’t hope to provide, or force on her. But she still hoped, somewhere deep in herself, that killing the man who had abandoned the two of them might somehow wake Laia up so she could be Austen’s mom again. 

She missed her mother. She loathed the men who had destroyed her. Both the man who had called himself ‘Jesus’ and the one who now called himself Cuélebre. One of them had paid the ultimate price already, and the other… the other would get what was coming to him.  

Toward that end, Austen had decided that it was time to put a plan in motion thanks to Cuélebre’s recent mistake. Specifically, his decision to team up with the Ninety-Niners in attacking La Casa while Blackjack was desperately trying to save his own daughter. Doing that, pushing the La Casa leader that far while he was focused on finding the vials that would save his child’s life, gave Austen the opening she’d always wanted. An opening to make an ally who could help her destroy Oscuro, and leave her father vulnerable. 

It was that immediate goal of turning Blackjack into the ally she needed to finally kill her father that had led Austen to where she currently was. Specifically, in an apartment next to a window overlooking an alley. The window was cracked open, allowing the girl to peek out through the darkness to see the white figure of her paper-formed armor far below. To outsiders, it would appear as though Deicide was standing in that alley. But the armor itself was almost completely empty, save for a camera positioned inside its ‘head’ that was transmitting its image to a monitor in the room, and its audio to a single earbud she wore. As she had many other times, Austen would control the empty ‘costume’ remotely, using her power to manipulate the paper armor and make it seem as though someone was actually inside it. There were also three other cameras set up nearby. One was inside the nearby dumpster and pointed behind the armor to see the mouth of the alley. Another was hidden in a higher window opposite the one where Austen hid, pointed down to get a bird’s-eye view of things. The last one was high up on a nearby taller building and pointed down to take in the roofs of the buildings on either side of the alley. All four cameras, counting the one inside the suit, sent their views to separate sections of the monitor that Austen was watching. Between those and her own in-person view from this window, she could keep track of everything that was happening. 

Movement in the camera watching the roofs drew her attention that way in time to see five figures moving closer. Three were simply ordinary Prev members of La Casa, armored and heavily armed non-Touched troops who took up a position at the edge of the roof. The other two were Cardsharp, the Touched who could alter the physical properties of herself or anything she touched, and Double Down, the guy who stored any kinetic force that hit him and turned it to his own use. 

None of the five approached any closer than the edge of the roof. They took up their positions and waited, clearly ready to jump in if something went wrong in the next few minutes. Austen considered for a moment, but decided to do nothing to indicate that she knew they were there. She did, however, make the armor that was supposed to be her shift its weight a bit, glancing around now and then to make it seem more realistic. Not that she was planning on doing anything untoward right now. This meeting was far too important. But she also didn’t want anyone to realize that she wasn’t necessarily always in the armor they were talking to. 

On the roof, Cardsharp waited a full minute before taking out her phone and saying something to it. As soon as she did, headlights appeared down the street, visible in the view of the camera hidden in the dumpster. A car that had been parked started up, pulling to the mouth of the alley. Austen turned the Deicide armor to look that way, just as a man stepped out of the backseat of that car. A man who wore a perfectly tailored suit of black slacks, a black shirt, dark bolo tie with a red gem at the collar, intensely polished black leather shoes, gold gloves, and a white duster coat. He also wore a black helmet with a gold mask, on which was the etched shape of a face. 

Blackjack. Leader of La Casa, and the man she was waiting for. He glanced briefly one way, then the other down the street before approaching a few steps. “Deicide,” the man greeted her simply, “a little bird informed me that you wanted to have a bit of a chat. And that it would be worth my while.” He paused briefly before adding pointedly, “Should I ask where your lieutenants are?” 

In response, Austen focused on making several books that had been sitting atop the nearby dumpster fly up to surround her ‘costume.’ The pages of the books flipped rapidly, landing on pages to highlight specific words or sentences, which were then spoken aloud in a feminine voice that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The books flipped fast enough that the words came with little pause between them, about as fast as a normal person talking (if punctuated by the sound of flipping pages). “Should I, in turn, ask where your own reinforcements are waiting? Or should we proceed with the reason for this meeting, absent further posturing or unimportant queries?”

For a moment, Blackjack didn’t respond. He seemed to be studying her, his gaze intent on the paper mask behind which lay the camera that Austen was using to watch him. Finally, he gave a very slight nod. “I am curious as to what you could possibly have called this meeting for, I must admit. Is this related to that favor I owe you, by any chance?” 

In response, Austen made the empty armor fold its arms, the books flipping rapidly to project her answer. “First, congratulations are in order for your successful retrieval of your property.” 

She couldn’t see his face (not the real one, anyway) behind the one etched onto the golden mask. But Austen could hear the smile in his voice even through the earbud. “It hasn’t escaped my notice that your organization was absent from any attempt to retrieve that property for yourselves,” he noted. “And as I said, I do still owe you for the return of that single vial. If this is about monetary compensation…” Even as he said it, his voice made it clear that he was very doubtful about that. 

“It is not about monetary compensation,” Austen confirmed. Of course the man knew that, but they still had to play the game, still had to do that little dance. “The favor I ask will actually be as helpful for you as it is for me. So it should not be a hard thing to agree with.” 

If Blackjack had any idea what she was going to ask, the man didn’t show it. He simply stood silent, watching and waiting for her to go on. He was as patient as a rock, apparently content to wait as long as it took. Nor did he do anything to acknowledge or note the presence of his people on the roof, who were waiting and watching as well. Austen had no doubt there were others her cameras had not yet picked up, probably keeping an eye out for her own troops. 

She continued. “Your true enemies now, the ones who fought so hard to keep you from your property or to steal it for themselves, are Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners. And they know that they are your biggest targets now. They have formed a pact to defend one another from any of your incursions. Either are very strong on their own. Together, they represent too much of a threat for you to exact the vengeance you deserve.” 

“And if I understand your intentions here,” Blackjack casually noted, “You believe that if our two organizations were to… ally as theirs have, we would be more of a match for them.” He paused pointedly, letting his moment of silence fill the air before continuing, “Some would say that I seem to come out entirely ahead in such an agreement, particularly considering I already owe you for the return of my property. Here you’re offering to ally your group with mine, allowing me to exact payment from those who have wronged me. Where, precisely, does what you get out of this potential alliance come in?” 

Obviously, Austen couldn’t and wouldn’t exactly tell the man that killing Cuélebre was all the payment she needed. Beyond not wanting to give that much of her own secrets away, the rest of the Easy Eights would never stand for it. They hated Oscuro and their leader as well and always had, ever since his power forced the eight separate, smaller gangs to band together for survival in the first place. But they also had their own goals, and wanted their own rewards. All of Austen’s troops (none of whom knew they actually worked for a sixteen-year-old girl) were ready to fight Oscuro, but only if they would actually get something out of it. She was their leader, but asking them to fight for nothing wouldn’t exactly turn out well. 

To that end, the girl replied through her books, “In exchange for assisting you in exacting your revenge upon the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro, my people will receive control of all the property and territory stolen from them when Cuélebre began expanding his gang, as well as half of the property our groups attain from the Ninety-Niners. In addition, you will pay all taxes to the Ministry that arise from this endeavor. And sign a Ministry-backed non-hostility agreement for two years.” 

That last bit was a separate service the Ministry provided. Groups or individuals who signed one of their non-hostility contracts were agreeing that neither of them would attack or do anything to hinder or hurt the other. If they did, the offending person or party would face punishment from the Ministry themselves that included both monetary sanctions as well as possible expulsion from the city. It had happened before. One did not make an agreement with the Ministry and then break that agreement. There was a reason they could enforce their taxes and still keep themselves so private. No one knew just how many Touched they employed, or what the limits of their influence over law enforcement was. But the answer to  both questions was simply, ‘enough.’ They had enough Touched and enough control over the cops, the judges, even the Star-Touched teams themselves, to make life incredibly difficult for anyone who crossed them. 

If it came down to it, the Ministry would invoke what they referred to as Plan Z, a powerful and mysterious Touched assassin who literally went by the name of Z. Her power apparently gave her the ability to not only become intangible, like a ghost, but also allowed her to delay the effects of everything she did while in that state. Anything this Plan Z did while intangible, from kicking a rock to shoving a door, to punching a person in the face, could have a physical effect at some later point. And she was somehow able to produce simple weapons in this state, like bows and blades.

This… Z could turn intangible, create a bow and arrow out of literally nothing, and shoot that same intangible, nearly invisible arrow through someone without any sign that anything had happened. After that, within a certain amount of time (no one knew how long, exactly), the assassin could choose to make the effect tangible, and the person she had shot (or stabbed if close enough), would suffer exactly as though they had truly been shot through with an arrow, or stabbed.

There was a reason the Ministry wasn’t challenged beyond their deep well of information and contacts within the law enforcement and Star-Touched side of things. That was one example of the forces they could put against someone who annoyed them and broke their rules too much. Which meant that breaking a non-hostility agreement after signing it would be tantamount to suicide. 

After she finished that proposal, Austen watched and waited. She didn’t expect it to be agreed to just that easily. And sure enough, Blackjack shook his head with a soft chuckle. “I owe you a favor,” he agreed, “and your aid would be appreciated. But neither extend quite that far, I’m afraid.” 

Letting that settle briefly, the man continued, “For your aid, keeping the property which previously belonged to your people is fair. And it only makes logical sense that we would sign a non-aggression pact before embarking on this sort of alliance. Those are both perfectly acceptable conditions. But as for the rest… we will share the Ministry taxes evenly. After all, this is a venture from both of our organizations. And my people will retain control of all property seized from the Ninety-Niners, as well as half of the remaining Oscuro property that was not previously owned by any gang now affiliated with the Easy Eights.” 

That was essentially the counter-proposal Austen had expected. Still, she couldn’t just agree to it. Instead, she made the paper armor lift its head as though considering that before responding through the books, “Even split of taxes, your group gets half the property taken from the Ninety-Niners, not all of it. Splitting half of the unclaimed Oscuro property is… acceptable.” 

“Half of everything, hmm?” Blackjack made a show of considering that as much as she had made a show of considering his previous offer. “Half of everything aside from the property that already belonged to your people before Oscuro’s drastic expansion.” He watched the armor, waiting until Austen made it give a single, silent nod before offering his hand. “Agreed. Your favor is paid back in allowing your people to take all of their previously stolen property. And the rest is a simple alliance. We eliminate our enemies together, with a contract to avoid any violence between our groups for two years.” 

They shook hands. Or at least, Blackjack shook hands with the empty paper armor, Austen’s power making it feel as sturdy as steel. Then they agreed to meet the next evening in order to sign a contract with the Ministry, who would remain neutral throughout the upcoming events, aside from upholding that contract. 

Once it was over, La Casa’s leader moved to step back into his car, which pulled away and disappeared into the night without any further issues. Austen then watched the roof, as the Touched and Prev troops there silently withdrew as soon as their leader was safely away. 

Then it was done with. She’d made an alliance with a gang powerful enough to help her own gang deal with her father and his own alliance. The next step of her plan to finally see the man who had abandoned her and her mother was finally in motion. 

Soon, oh so very soon, Cuélebre would finally get everything that was coming to him. And Austen couldn’t wait to make sure he knew just who had made him pay for it.

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Showdown 7-06 (Summus Proelium)

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That saying ‘all hell broke loose’ didn’t apply here. Not because violence didn’t erupt, but because those words in that order utterly failed to really portray just how much violence erupted and just how quickly. Hell didn’t break loose, it was a meteor that suddenly and apocalyptically slammed into the Earth. Followed by several more meteors that came slamming in behind the first because they just couldn’t stand to miss all the fun.  

Honestly, the best analogy I had for it was one time when I had needed to ask Simon something a few years back. I’d gone into his room to find him lying on his bed with his headphones on. Next to the door was his wall-to-wall sound system, so I’d just reached out and hit a button with the headphone symbol on it. Pretty dumb, I know. It turned off the headphones, and suddenly the entire room had been flooded with screaming, earsplitting metal music. It had, with the touch of a button, shifted all that music from being pumped through his headphones to being pumped through the dozen different high-end speakers he had scattered throughout all of his rooms. My ears had practically been ringing for days after that little mistake. 

That’s what this was like. Not that it had been exactly peaceful before, but when the Ninety-Niner and Oscuro troops had surrounded Pack (and her pack), Eits, That-A-Way, Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, Carousel, and me, the violence had at least paused. Mostly because we really hadn’t stood the slightest ghost of a chance in that position, against those kind of numbers. But now that Blackjack and more of La Casa had, in turn, surrounded the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, everything just sort of exploded. Violently. 

For me, ‘violence exploded’ was pretty apt, considering basically the same instant everyone started fighting, just as I dropped my phone back in the pocket that hadn’t been cut open, something hit me. It was Cuélebre’s tail. I saw it coming from the corner of my eye, just in time to activate a bit of the orange within the image I’d painted across my costume. Even then, the tail still struck me with enough force that I was lifted clear off the ground and sent hurtling through the air with a belated scream. Flailing, I failed to actually right myself properly before colliding with a dumpster near the corner of the loading dock behind the store. The orange paint meant I didn’t end up with any broken bones (or worse), but I was still dazed, slumping to the asphalt with a low groan as my vision went a little blurry for a moment. 

The fighting, of course, didn’t stop for me. Gunshots and more filled the air, even as I groggily lifted my head to stare in that direction, trying to blink the daze away. Two Ninety-Niner thugs with shotguns were hoisted off their feet, slammed into one another, and hurled away in opposite directions by a couple of Whamline’s coils. Those same coils exploded in front of Coverfire, the concussive force knocking him away from That-A-Way while he was still trying to grab her. An instant later, there was a sharp whistling sound and a narrow distortion in the air slammed into Whamline. It was Silbón, a guy from Oscuro with a dark wide-brimmed hat over a dark gray face mask that left his mouth exposed and ragged clothes. 

Silbón was joined by a couple Oscuro thugs firing guns. They were set upon by Twinkletoes and Holiday. One of the Syndicates was on the ground. Another was shot at several times, but the bullets went through his semi-translucent body. The guy who shot at him was hit by one of those electric shopping carts directed by one of Eits’ mites (going faster than I thought those carts were capable of), just before one of the La Casa troops dove into him, both thugs rolling across the ground as they each fought for leverage against the other. 

Violence. Fighting. More than I could possibly hope to follow. Double Down, Blackjack, Cardsharp, and another member of La Casa named Hardway (a guy who manipulated inertia and motion of himself or things around him) were fighting Cuélebre and Sandon. The latter wore a modernized suit of armor with a lion’s pelt over the back, its fake ‘head’ functioning as her helmet and mask. They were all fighting in a jumble of motion and violence. Everyone was. It was all blurred movements, gunshots, powers flying off, the roar of animals and screams of both anger and pain. By the time I dragged myself off the ground, half the people there were down for one reason or another. Some would be down for much longer than others, but either way, the violence was taking its toll. This was too many people with too many powers and weapons in too close of quarters. Even as I took a step that way, my eyes caught sight of Pack and That-A-Way, bumping up against each other just as a figure loomed up behind them. It was another teenager, though definitely not part of the Minority. He wore the completely cliche ‘inmate’ outfit of a black and white striped prison suit with a black burglar mask and one of those prisoner numbers written across the front of the striped shirt. I had… no idea what his powers were. But before either That-A-Way or Pack could react, his hands grabbed each of them by the shoulders and all three disappeared. The ‘prisoner’ guy as well as both girls vanished. 

No! No, no, no! Where were they?! What– then I realized that Pack’s creatures must have been linked to her or something, because all of them disappeared a second later too. Hopefully, whatever prisoner boy had been doing, he hadn’t planned on that. 

But I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think about anything. Suddenly, just as I saw the group vanish in front of my eyes, a guy grabbed me from behind. It was just some random Ninety-Niner thug. I smelled awful alcohol breath as he yanked me off my feet with an arm around my waist, his other hand groping down my side toward the unruined pocket as he snarled, “Okay, kid, where’s the other vials, huh?! Where are they?!” 

That was what it took. Up to that point, since the moment Cuélebre’s tail had knocked me thirty feet into the dumpster, everything had taken on a bit of a dreamlike quality. My ears had been ringing, and I’d just sort of been staring at all this fighting in a daze for the past few seconds, as if I wasn’t really there. It was like I was watching all of this on television rather than interacting with it. But this guy grabbing me, that was enough to snap me out of all that and make me remember that I was actually involved.

As the guy groped over my leg looking for my pocket, I quickly turned that part of my pants blue and activated it, sending his hand snapping up and back. At the same time, I drove my helmeted head backward into his face. The combination of both made him drop me with a yelp, and I turned while landing, sending a shot of red paint into his chest while my left glove turned red as well. Activating both yanked him toward me, just as my other hand turned purple and decked the guy. He hit the ground and didn’t move. 

Another guy was coming for me, but I painted my legs green and my feet purple, using that to leap up and over him, twisting in the air before coming down right on top of his shoulders. He collapsed under my weight, and as we both fell to the ground, I snapped my hand to the side, shooting a spray of yellow paint at a group of bad guys who were going after Wobble and Carousel. They suddenly slowed dramatically, giving those two a chance to deal with them while I rolled forward off the guy I had just dropped onto. 

Unfortunately, that put me right at the feet of the Oscuro Touched with the wide-brimmed hat. Silbón. His power involved whistling, of course. Basically, any time he was whistling, he was almost entirely immune to damage. He would absorb that damage, and could then expel it through a whistle. When he did, his whistle would take on the same traits as the damage he had absorbed. He could whistle to absorb bullets, whistle again to absorb lightning, and whistle a third time to absorb fire. After that, he could, at any point, use the kinetic force of the bullets, the electricity from the lightning, or the heat from the fire in his whistles. Using a damage type spent the charge of absorbing it, but he tended to have absorbed a lot. 

Just as I ended up basically half-sprawled in front of the man, staring up at his black mask under that wide hat, he pursed his lips. Eyes widening, I slapped my hand against his foot and put black paint there. 

No sound came. I’d muted him. He had a moment to somehow look surprised despite me only being able to see his lips before I twisted around and drove my foot up between his legs with a bit of purple-paint boost. Then he wasn’t interested in trying to whistle anymore. But I still kicked him a couple more times just to be sure. 

Scrambling back to my feet, I snapped my gaze over to the fighting. It was… uhh… wow. Chaotic. Still. A couple random thugs were coming for me, but I blue-launched myself up and back, flipping in the air to land on the edge of the metal awning over the loading bay. Activating a bit more orange meant that the bullets they shot up at me just made me stagger a bit before I managed to yank their guns away with a shot of red. Before they could react to that, I took a few steps back out of their line of sight, tossing the pistols away to either side. And then I sort of… doubled over and tried not to hyperventilate while hugging myself. The shouting and screaming coming from everywhere, being shot at, nearly being hit by Silbón, all of it just… just… it was too much. It was too fucking much. And what about Pack and That-A-Way?! Were they okay? What was going on? Where were they? What could I do? What–

Nothing. I couldn’t do anything for them, not at the moment. I just had to hope they were okay, and focus on what was going on right here, right now. I could do this. I had to do this. I couldn’t abandon them down there. I had to help get that vial back. 

That settled, I took a deep breath before running forward, using a mixture of purple and blue paint to launch myself into the air. Between the two, I was sent really high and really far. Sailing over the battlefield, I helped out the best way I could. Namely, I first used yellow paint to slow my own descent, then used all the time I had while passing over the fighting to hit bad guys with more yellow paint and good guys with a mixture of green, purple, and orange. Mostly green and orange, as I couldn’t expect them to suddenly know that they were strong. But being faster and tougher would help regardless. As would their opponents suddenly being much slower. 

It helped so much that, by the time I landed on the far side of the lot, dropping into a roll, most of the random Ninety-Niner and Oscuro Prevs were down. Between the four Syndicates, Wobble, Whamline, and the La Casa people, they dealt with their unpowered opponents neatly. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve the issue of the guys who did have powers. Especially Sandon and Cuélebre. And that situation had gotten worse, as I saw Hardway off on the far side of the field trapped inside Ringside’s bubble. The two of them were fighting sans any powers as Ringside had apparently elected to remove Hardway’s at the expense of her own, and both were really good at that. They would be busy for awhile. 

Meanwhile, the remaining three La Casa people were fighting the leadership of the two rival gangs. Blackjack’s power wasn’t exactly suited to straight up and prolonged confrontation, but he had Double Down and Cardsharp for that. And they were definitely earning their keep. 

As far as Sandon went, the Ninety-Niners’ leader had been around long enough that her powers were pretty well known. They revolved around bones. Yeah. Basically, touching a bone gave her access to all of that person’s strength and general toughness. If they were a Touched with enhanced strength, it gave her a portion of that as well. Of course, touching bones from multiple different people gave her each of their strength together. And the inside of her suit was apparently completely lined with little pieces of bone. She was one of the straight-up strongest people in the city just because whenever someone with super strength showed up, she made a point of hunting them down and taking a piece of bone from them if possible. Which was eeeuuuggh.  

So yeah, between Sandon and Cuélebre, there was a lot of strength on the bad guy’s side. Double Down’s ability to absorb any kinetic force that hit him and Cardsharp’s power to alter her own physical properties to make herself tougher helped deal with that somewhat, but they couldn’t actually hurt the bastards enough to put them down. The best they could do was let Double Down absorb enough kinetic force to send right back at the Oscuro and Ninety-Niner leaders, while Blackjack used his own power to watch for the right moment and target. I kept seeing him randomly using a pistol to shoot at Cuélebre’s tail for some reason. Then I noticed that every time the tail was struck, a bit of electricity shot off of it. Like it was fizzling. 

Was Cuélebre’s tail how he summoned lightning? And was Blackjack shooting it to disrupt his attempts to do so every time? Was that why he hadn’t just fried everyone already? 

Well, that and the fact that he didn’t know where the other vials were, beyond the one in his hand. That was probably why he wasn’t just throwing lightning around everywhere, beyond Blackjack stopping him from using calculated strikes. Hell, maybe that was why Blackjack was able to stop him, because it took more time for him to carefully aim or something. Enough time for Blackjack to hit that spot of his tail. 

Whatever the answer, I was just glad we weren’t fried. Because we already had enough problems. As I crouched there, trying to present as small a target as possible while watching for an opening in the midst of their busy fight, I saw it. The vial was still in Cuélebre’s hand while he was fighting. It was right there. 

Unfortunately, just as I prepared myself to try and take it from him with a careful application of red paint, there was another interruption. This one came in the form of a figure who appeared in the middle of their fight. He was a tall guy in a dark red hood and cloak over a white bodysuit with a collar that extended up over the lower half of his face. Longhaul. That was Longhaul. 

The second he appeared, the man used his power to send Blackjack, Double Down, and Cardsharp to the far side of the parking lot, while looking at his leader. “They found the car that took off, it’s on the far side of Campus Martius Park. Still no driver.” 

Wren. She was remote driving the thing to get it out of here. 

Sandon was already looking to Cuélebre, who smiled. He was looking right at me. He read my body language. “The vials. That’s where they are.” 

Blackjack was coming. So were the others. But Cuélebre bellowed a deafening, “Do it!” At the same time, his wings came slamming down, as he launched himself upward. 

And then a woman’s voice called, “Ladies and gentlemen!” At that, my eyes, as well as basically all of those attached to anyone on our side in the immediate area, snapped over to see a woman in a sexified version of a ringmaster’s outfit sitting there on a motorcycle. Where had she come from? It was Grandstand, Cuélebre’s second-in-command. Even as everyone looked that way, she smiled. “Follow the leader.” Then the motorcycle kicked into motion, peeling out and swerving around before tearing out of the lot. 

After her. We had to go after her. Everyone else was already rushing that way, leaping into action to catch up with the woman. But just as I went to follow, intent on using green and red paint to catch up and maybe stop her, a hand grabbed my arm and yanked me back. It was Eits. He shook me violently, yelling something about Cuélebre at me. But who cared about Cuélebre when–wait. 

Grandstand’s power faded a second later as Eits shook me violently once more. I snapped out of it in time to see everyone else disappearing as they took off after her. After the distraction. 

“Cuélebre!” Eits shouted at me. “He’s getting away, what do we do?!” 

“How did you–” Then I realized it was probably the fact that his focus had been split between his own mind and all of his mites. That had saved him from Grandstand’s power. And there wasn’t time to worry about it anyway. 

“Close your eyes,” I blurted, grabbing onto Eits. He had time to yelp before I launched both of us into the air through a combination of blue paint at our feet and a red paint yank at the nearby building. We went up and over the roof, while I informed the boy currently holding on for dear life, “There’s a demon trying to catch a car, and we’ve gotta catch him first.”

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Legwork 3-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I was too dazed to put up much of a fight. And there were too many of them anyway. Before I really understood what was happening, my hands were tied behind my back with some kind of cord, and the men basically frog marched me out of the building and into the back of a car.

Double Down got into the back of the car beside me, with one of the other man driving in the front. We pulled away from the curb with a squeal of tires as the sound of police sirens in the distance got closer.

Wincing at the sound of the tires, Double Down leaned forward a bit, putting a hand on the back of the driver’s seat. “Come on, man. We’re trying not to attract attention now.”

What a sigh, he leaned back once more and looked to me. “Good help, am I right?”

For a moment, I just stared at him. My voice was dull. “I wouldn’t know.”

The man cracked his knuckles and glanced out the window as we drove for a few seconds while my mind raced. Then he turned back to me. “First of all, relax a little bit. You’re not being taken to be tortured or killed or anything like that. The boss doesn’t go in for that stuff, even if he is kinda pissed and desperate right now. Especially since you’re a kid. I mean, not a kid but…” He gestured vaguely at me. “You’re not an adult, okay?”

“Two more minutes,” I said flatly.

His head tilted a little curiously as the man watched me. “Two minutes?”

I nodded once. “Two minutes. If you people had held off for two minutes, I could have given you the stuff from the bank. I was right there with him. You coming in distracted me and he set off that… whatever it was.”

“Stun grenade,” Double Down informed me. “And how much do you know about what that guy stole?” He was watching me somewhat suspiciously. Maybe he was thinking that my knowing too much about it could imply that I was working with Ashton or something. After all, they didn’t know what I had been doing in there. And I couldn’t exactly explain that I’d overheard my supervillain parents talking about it.

Taking a quick second to decide how to answer, I settled on, “I met the guy’s brother when some thugs were trying to beat information out of him. I found out Ashton was the one who stole the thing from the bank. I’ve been tracking him down so his brother could be safe again. When we were in the apartment back there, he told me why he stole the vials and what they were for.”

The best part about that story was that it was all true, for the most part anyway. And it didn’t require the bit about my parents to work, which had to make it worth extra points in the keeping secrets Olympics.

Wait, did they have those? Because this was excellent training for future medalling efforts.

Double Down seemed to take it well enough. At the very least, he focused on a different part. “He told you why he stole it, how much he wanted?”

Hesitating slightly, I started carefully, “He’s says he’s going to ask for money.”

“Money is not exactly an object in this case,” the man replied. “So that’s kind of a relief. If he’s willing to sell it, then he can be reasoned w—”

I quickly interrupted. “I don’t think he’s going to give them back. I don’t think he’s ever planning to give them back no matter how much you pay him.”

Staring at me, his brief good cheer gone, the man asked, “Do you want to explain that?”

So, I did. Carefully and simply, I laid out what Ashton had said about his friend who was killed and how he wanted Blackjack to feel the same helplessness he had. I also mentioned how he had reacted when I had guessed that was his plan.

Once I had finished, Double Down turned away. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck while staring out the window. I heard him mutter a soft curse. Then he turned back to me and held out a bag. “Okay, I’m going to need you to put this on. Like I said, you don’t have to worry about any torture or anything like that. You’re going to come in with us once we get where we’re going and talk to the boss. That’s it. Don’t start any trouble in there and you’ll be fine. You’ll be back out playing hero or whatever you want to do in no time.”

Staring at the bag and then add him, I retorted, “I’m really supposed to believe you people are just going to let me go?”

His response first was a shrug. “Like I said, the boss has rules. Think of it as our Geneva Convention. We don’t torture. We don’t try to kill civilians. It’s not unheard of or anything, but we don’t make a point of it. If something happens to you in the middle of a fight, well, that’s one thing. But we’re not in combat now. Not unless you start one. You’re a prisoner. You do what you’re told and we’ll let you go. We see you later in the middle of a fight situation, and that’ll be a different story. But right now, all we want is to have a conversation. We can be civilized like that, don’t you think? Especially considering you already know the stakes we’re dealing with.”

It took me another second, but finally I sighed and nodded, waiting as he put the bag on for me. It was just big enough to fit over the helmet. Pulling it on, I turned my head his way. “How do you know I don’t have some kind of power to see through this? I mean, I don’t. But you kind of have to take my word for that, don’t you?”

“Nanocircuits sewn into the bag,” he replied. “They detect any kind of vision power or anything like that being used and the bag will incinerate the contents.”

He held that just long enough for my brain to seize up before snorting. “Dude, I’m just fucking with you. There’s no nanocircuits. After you put the bag on, I pointed a gun at your face. If you would have reacted, we would’ve known you could see through it.”

“And if I’d have reacted violently!?” I demanded in a voice that squeaked even more through with the voice changer than it really needed to, in my opinion.

There was a brief pause before the man admitted, “Yeah, that might’ve gotten bad. But hey, it’s all good. Now just sit back and relax for a minute. We’ll be there before you know it.”

*******

Apparently ‘before I knew it’ was about ten more minutes of driving. I didn’t know if they were deliberately going further than they needed to in order to throw me off or what. It wasn’t like I could keep track of the turns or anything. I tried, but it got confusing too quickly. That also might’ve been purposeful.

Either way, eventually we stopped in what sounded like an underground parking garage, going by the echoes. I was helped out of the car, then escorted to what was obviously an elevator with the bag still on my head. We rode the elevator up, and partway through, Double Down pulled the bag off and cut the cords binding my hands. He passed them off to the other guy in the elevator with us (I thought it was the driver, but all the minor guys were wearing simple black masks so it was hard to be sure) before looking to me as I glanced around the elevator. It looked like any other elevator in any office building anywhere except for the fact that there was no array of buttons. There was just a single slot for a key, which was filled right now.

“Like I said,” Double Down reminded me, “play nice, answer questions, and we’ll let you go.”

Rather than bother responding verbally, I just gave him a thumbs up. How sarcastic that gesture actually was… well, I’d leave that up to him to interpret. I was busy trying to think of exactly what to say to the La Casa leader.

Blackjack. Nobody was exactly sure what his power was, aside from the fact that he seemed to be very lucky and good at guessing secrets. Which was… worrying, considering my own secrets. They said he wasn’t actually telepathic or anything (though there were some arguments about that). What everyone basically agreed on was that the man could pull information out of seemingly nowhere, and he always seemed to be several steps ahead of everyone else in a fight.

He clearly wasn’t perfect, though. Or Ashton never would have been able to steal the medicine or whatever it was from him.

Shaking that thought off as the elevator came to a stop, I watched the door slide open, revealing what looked like… well, it looked like a nuclear bunker or something. The hall ahead of us was made of thick cement with some kind of metal plates over part of it, leading to a single vault-like door that was standing open. Through it, I could see two guards in their black masks waiting. The room behind them seemed even more secure. Going by the size of the vault door, the walls were at least three feet thick.

“You seriously want me to walk in there?” I demanded, looking to my escort.

“We’re careful,” he informed me in a flat voice. “And thorough. I told you you’d be fine if you just answer questions, and that hasn’t changed. You’ll meet the boss in our secure room, answer some questions and make sure he’s satisfied that you’re telling the truth, then we’ll escort you out. So let’s go. Don’t start something now.”

As unsettling as it might have been to walk into a place as apparently escape-proof as this seemed to be, I didn’t have much of a choice. I could try to fight, but I was pretty sure there were a lot more guards around than I could see. To say nothing of any automated defenses in this place. And I didn’t have the key to use the elevator, nor did I know any other way to get out. Or where to go. Yeah, all of that sounded bad.

My only choice was to keep playing nice and hope that they were telling the truth about letting me go. Or, failing that, watching for a chance to escape when they lowered their guards.

All of which meant walking into that vault room was my best chance. So I did. With a soft sigh, I walked forward, through the small antechamber/hallway, and into the vault. The two guards waiting stepped aside as I approached, allowing me to pass with Double Down and the other unnamed guard right behind me.

The place clearly wasn’t exactly designed with comfort in mind. It was a simple, square room about seventy five feet across. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all that same hard cement with uniform metal plates spaced a foot or so apart. In the middle of the room was a table with a few leather chairs spaced around it. One man sat in the single chair on the opposite side of the table, facing me.

Blackjack. It was him. The man stared as I entered, watching me through that gold face mask he wore. His expression was, obviously, impossible for me to see. But judging from his body language, he was… tense, to say the least.

Behind me, the vault door groaned a bit as it closed with a final, definitive thud. Then I heard half a dozen bolts loudly clang into place. Whatever was going to happen next, I wasn’t going back through that door until they opened it.

I really hoped Double Down was telling the truth about letting me go after I talked to Blackjack. Because otherwise, I had no idea what I was going to do.

I was starting to think I was in a little bit over my head here.

“Mr… Paintball, was it?” As he spoke, Blackjack gestured to the seat straight across from him. “Please, join me. I trust my associate ensured you that you are in no danger here as long as you cooperate?”

For a moment, I just stood there. Then I sighed under my breath before following his instructions, stepping over to sit down. “Call me crazy,” I started, “but I’m pretty sure you already know he did because you were listening in on that entire conversation from the car all the way up through the elevator. Hell, you might’ve been telling him what to say. Something tells me you’re just that kind of person.”

The man inclined his head a little, as if appraising me. Then he simply announced, “Using a voice synthesizer. I assume that means you interact with people in costume who might recognize your voice otherwise.”

Trying to keep the surprise out of my voice, I took a quick second to swallow back every initial reaction I had. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple seconds, I replied, “I said something I figured out about you, so you said something you figured out about me?”

Rather than respond to that directly, Blackjack watched me in somewhat unnerving silence for a moment before speaking carefully. “I know what you said. But I’d like you to tell me all of it again, now, in person. From start to finish, explain how you found Ashton Austin and what happened while you were in his apartment. Any detail at all might help locate him.”

Here went nothing. Taking a deep breath, I explained everything about how I’d rescued Josh the other night and found out about Ashton being his brother. Then I went on to say that I’d been looking for Ashton so that Josh wouldn’t be in danger, and gave my reasoning for the apartments I’d checked, finally leading me to the right place. Then I told him everything about the conversation I’d had with the guy, adding in a tiny detail about him being the one to tell me that it was medicine and who it was intended for.

“Well,” Blackjack informed me, “you are certainly a very resourceful young man, I’ll tell you that much. You believe he had the vials on him?”

My head shook. “I checked him and they weren’t there. But I think they were close. I figure he hid them somewhere safe enough to grab and run for it. I mean, he was smart enough to set up that stun grenade, and probably other traps.”

Pushing himself up from the table, the man turned away. He walked over to the nearby wall, resting his hands against it while leaning over, as though lost in thought. Seeing him, how tense he was despite an obvious attempt to project himself as calm and collected, I would’ve known this was life and death for him even if I wasn’t already aware.

“I know,” the man finally broke the silence, “that you are leaving certain details out or rearranging them. I’m not exactly sure why, but I do… believe that you are simply protecting yourself or avoiding giving away information.” He turned his head, looking to me. “I do not believe that you are hiding details that could help me. But if I am wrong…”

“I’m not,” I quickly put in. “If I knew how to find the medicine, I’d tell you. I mean… you’re a bad guy, but your daughter isn’t. She doesn’t deserve to… she doesn’t deserve to lose her medicine just because you’re a Fell-Touched. Letting her die isn’t just punishment for you being… what you are. I promise, if I could help, I… I would.”

Blackjack’s voice was dark, as he informed me, “I will find this man. And when I do, he should hope with all of his soul that I make him pay for simply endangering my child, and not for…” He didn’t say the rest of the sentence. He didn’t need to. The fear underlying every word was enough.

Looking toward Double Down then, the man nodded. “Give it to him.”

At those words, his subordinate stepped up to me, handing a cheap flip phone over. “There’s one number programmed into it,” he informed me. “You find this guy again, you call the number.”

My hand took the phone, but I shook my head very slightly. “I’m not going to sic your men on him. I’ll get the medicine and then call your people after the cops have him.”

“Young man,” Blackjack spoke in a tired voice, “you say that as though I could not have men take him from any jail the local authorities put him in. I could have him killed or released to be brought to me.” He stepped back over to the table, pushing his chair in with one hand while remaining standing beside it. “But whatever makes you happy, as they say. I want the vials that were stolen from the bank. That’s it. If you return those, the bounty is yours.”

“I don’t care about the bounty,” I informed him quickly. “I care about your daughter getting her medicine. That’s it.”

“All the same,” he replied, “I will owe you.” His head tilted a little, as though something had just occurred to him. “Though if you are… set for funds, I’m sure there will be other ways of paying that debt. Given how you tracked down Mr. Austin to begin with, you would fit in quite well among my people.”

“Sorry,” I replied as airily as I could, “Paintball doesn’t really fit the whole gambling theme. And I just don’t know what I’d change it to. Also, I don’t want to be a bad guy.”

Besides, I added silently, even if I did, I’ve already got what you’d call an ‘in’ with a different group of murderous psychopaths.

“As you wish,” Blackjack replied, sounding every bit the tired, stressed, horrified father rather than the supervillain he was supposed to be.  “Mr… Paintball,” he started slowly then. “I believe you may be just the outsider who can track down this man again. You did it once. Should you do so again, I do not particularly care if you call us, or the authorities first. Secure the medicine and return it to me, and I will owe you a favor with the worth of my… my daughter’s life.”

Holding up the phone, I promised, “If I find him, if I get the vials, they’re yours.” I resisted the urge to point out again how close I’d been to getting the vials to begin with before his men had interrupted. The guy felt bad enough as it was, despite how much he was trying to portray himself as calm and collected.

“One week.” The man’s voice cracked very slightly before he controlled it, looking straight at me from behind that golden mask. “My daughter has one week. Find the vials, and do it within that time. If you do not, I…. I will have no reason to hold back any more. If my daughter dies, I promise you, it will not be one man who pays for her death.

“It will be this entire city.”

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Legwork 3-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I was right about it being a long night. It took me another two and a half hours to actually check the next four places on the list I’d put together. Five of the six were as thoroughly searched as I could, and I still hadn’t managed to find Ashton. Not that it being hard to find this guy was that surprising. He’d managed to stay hidden from what amounted to an entire city searching for him.

But I had one more place to look. It was the smallest of the apartments I’d picked out, consisting of what amounted to large house separated into a few separate units. Part of me thought that might be too small and put him too close to nosy neighbors. But on the other hand, if he had developed a reputation for keeping to himself… it could work.

As small as the place was, it also meant there was no on-site manager’s office to check or anything. Which was another part of why I’d saved it for last. I was going to have to go peeping in all the windows to check for my quarry, which I had been really hoping to avoid. Oh well. Finding Ashton to stop the gang war and save a little girl, no matter whose daughter she might have been, was worth it. I’d just be quick and try not to… pay attention to anything private.

Repeating that silent mantra to myself as I stood by a dumpster in the alley beside the building in question, I took a few more deep breaths. Making sure I was all painted black aside from a bit of purple on my legs, I finally turned and stepped around the dumpster. Activating that bit of purple as well as the black that was on my shoes, I leapt up and over the tall wooden fence there. Landing silently, I crouched, watching the building. There were lights on in three of the four apartments, including the nearest one. That was the one I moved toward, staying low.

The building itself was a tall Victorian-style place. There were two apartments on the bottom floor, each taking up half of the level, and a matching two on the top floor. It was the lower-right apartment that I was heading for. The fence around the property kept me from being seen by passersby, so all I had to worry about was someone seeing me through one of the windows.

There were bushes lining the windows I was heading for, so I stayed low and carefully stepped around them. Knowing how bad this would look if I was seen, I kept going anyway. Very slowly inching through the back of the bushes, I leaned up to take a quick peek through the window.

It was a kitchen. There was an open pizza box there on the table, and I could see a television on through the open doorway. There was also the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch, but I couldn’t see a face.

Thankfully, I only had to wait a few seconds while racking my brain before the person sitting there stood up. They were a black guy. Definitely not the one I was looking for. Just as he turned to head for the kitchen (and probably that pizza), I quickly ducked out of sight.

One down, three to go. Debating about whether I should go straight up to the next one, or work my way around the building to check the other lower one (the far upper side was the one where the lights were off), I eventually decided on the former. The upper apartment was right there. So, renewing a bit of black silencing paint on my shoes to keep my costume nicely dark, I sent a bit of red up to a spot just under the window above this one, then let myself be yanked that way. The ten seconds that my red paint lasted would hopefully be enough to look for the inhabitant.

As it turned out, ten seconds was more than enough. Because the instant I hit the wall and peeked through that window, I saw the apartment’s occupant. And that was the end of my search.

It was him. It was Ashton. I knew that from the instant I saw him, in a side-on profile as the man was standing in front of the microwave. He’d dyed his hair and had cut the beard he used to have, but it was definitely him.

It was also a really good thing that I’d used the black paint to silence myself, because I actually gasped out loud, which probably would’ve given me away. As it was, something seemed to catch the guy’s attention, because he started to turn just as I ducked out of sight.

Him. It was him. He was right there. All this time and the guy was–

My paint ran out. Realizing that at the last second, I started to fall. There was only one thing I could do to avoid attention. I activated the rest of the black paint on my costume, as well as a bit of orange to protect myself. Silent and safe from damage, I crashed into the bush.

Yeah, that would’ve sucked without my paint. As it was, I still made a bit of noise. Or rather, the bush itself did. I snapped off a couple small branches and lay there, half-sprawled for a second before quickly scrambling off and ducking myself as low as possible under the shrubbery, just as I caught the sound of the window above me sliding open.

Pizza guy stood by the open window, just above me. I lay there, just a few feet under him, as the man leaned out the window and looked left, then right. The two of us stayed like that for a moment, me not even daring to breathe. My eyes were wide as I stared up at him while staying as still as possible. I willed myself to be smaller, trying to press down into the dirt.

Finally, the man grunted, withdrawing back into the room. I heard him slide the window shut, then walk away. Listening to the floor creak, I finally exhaled, closed my eyes, and let my head fall back into the dirt. Taking a couple deep breaths to steady myself, I finally opened my eyes once more.

Just in time to see Ashton leaning out the upper story window, staring right down at me.

The guy must’ve seen my head move or something, because he withdrew back into the apartment instantly. Cursing frantically under my breath, I quickly jerked my hand up and shot a wad of red paint up to the edge of the roof, above that window. Letting it yank me off the ground and up, I shifted my legs purple. Just as I reached the red spot, hand clapping against the wall, my other hand shot a short spray of black paint at the window to silence it. Then I drew my legs back and quickly kicked out while dismissing the red paint on my first hand. Kicking through that window with a spray of shattered (silent) glass, I landed in the kitchen on my knees.

Ashton was there. Right there. He had grabbed a pistol off the counter, and was turning back toward me. Just as he brought it up, I threw myself to the left, behind the table there. There was a quick series of soft whuff whuff whuff sounds from the clearly specially silenced weapon, as he shot three times, each bullet striking the windowsill right behind where I had been crouching.

Before he could recover and check his aim, both of my hands snapped up. I shot a bit of red paint at the man’s chest, while slapping my other palm onto the table to leave more red there. Activating both sent the table up into the air, as it flipped over to slam into the man with a crash.

His gun dropped to the floor with a clatter, as I sprang back to my feet. The table had already fallen, as the guy grabbed a nearby carving knife from the wooden holder and came after me with it. He swung wildly twice, both of which I quickly dodged before I snapped a hand up to intercept the third swing. My glove turned orange for protection, just as I caught the blade.

Ashton stared at me for an instant. Which was all the time I needed to shift one of my arms purple. Yanking the weapon from his grasp, I caught his arms and gave him a hard yank up and around. His feet left the floor, as I threw him backward against the far wall. He hit it hard, slumping down with a grown.

Below us, pizza guy banged on his ceiling a few times, clearly annoyed by the noise. Which was probably good. If he felt safe enough to bang instead of calling the cops, he must not have thought anything too bad was going on.

Maybe it was stupid to not want the cops to show up, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be quick to give whatever vial Ashton had stolen straight to Blackjack. And bad guy or not, I wasn’t going to condemn his daughter to death for what he did. The cops could have Ashton after I got what he stole.

Dazed as he might’ve been, Ashton didn’t stay down. His hand grabbed a loose plate from floor, which he chucked at me like a frisbee. Seeing his motion, I’d already painted a green image of a stick figure running onto my chest, using it to speed myself up. My hand snapped out to catch the plate in midair, and I tossed it to the side while blurting, “Stop that, asshole!”

Instead of stopping, the man dove for his gun. With a sigh, I shot a bit of red at it, yanking the weapon from the floor to my grasp before he could get it. Then I set it on the counter behind me, snapping, “Are you done now? Knock it–”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by the man scrambling off the floor to throw himself at me. My green paint had worn off by then, but he came at me so wildly, it was easy to sidestep him. Catching his arm and back, I put purple around myself once more before turning to hurl him again. He went crashing face-first into the fridge. And that time, he stayed down, groaning.

“Okay,” I announced, “now you’re done.” Grumbling to myself, I sent a bit of red paint to the man’s foot, and another to the floor somewhat near me. I wasn’t going to step over there and risk him somehow taking me by surprise. So I just used the paint to yank him out into the open where I could see him better.

He lay there, dazed, while I quickly checked the man for more weapons or anything else. I was ready for him to make a move, but he just stayed still (aside from the occasional groan), while I ran my hands over his pants, up across his chest, then under to check his back. He was clear. Which was both good, bad, and good again. Good because he didn’t have any weapons. Bad because the vials weren’t on him. And good again because that meant they weren’t broken from that whole little thing where I kept throwing the guy around or tossing tables into him.

That done, before he could recover too much, I hesitated. Part of me wanted to use a pair of those cuffs Flea had given me on him. But I hadn’t actually brought them with me. They were still in the box that I’d hidden at the half-finished skating place where I’d been training because I’d forgotten to grab them before coming out here to do all this.

So I didn’t have any way to cuff him. I did however, yank the cord out of a nearby blender and the attached wall socket. Kneeling down, I tied the man’s hands behind his back as quickly and tightly as I could before quickly stepping back. By that time, he seemed to have settled a bit, rolling over to stare up at me. “So who sent you, kid?” he demanded. “Blackjack? You tell that–”

“He didn’t send me,” I interrupted. “Nobody did. And I’m not after you for the reward. Tell me where the vials you took are.”

Glaring my way, he shook his head. “I dunno who you think you are, kid. But you–”

He grunted in surprise as I shot a small ball of red paint at his chest. It didn’t hurt, but seeing the blob fly from my hand to hit him made him jerk a bit.

“Paintball,” I informed him. “That’s who I am. And I want to know where the vials are. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen if Blackjack doesn’t get them back?”

“Yeah,” he snapped, “I do. Which means I know that bastard has all the motivation he needs to pay me for them. Give it another day or so and he’ll write me a blank check.”

For a moment, I just stared at the man. “What the hell are you– you’re endangering a girl’s life!”

“Yeah?” Ashton echoed, his words a snarl. “What about the life of my friend?! That fight between La Casa and Oscuro last year? One of the La Casa fucks took a few shots and missed. But they hit my best friend. His name was Carlos, and he’s dead. He died because of them. He wasn’t even involved. He was just walking by when the La Casa bastards started shooting. He’s dead, and no one gives a shit! So yeah, I’m gonna fuck Blackjack over. I got nothing against his kid, and I’ll give the vials over if he pays me. But if he doesn’t and worse comes to worst, that’s on him.”

Swallowing, my head shook. “I’m sorry about your friend. I am. But you can’t just use a tragedy as an excuse to be an evil asshole. That kid, she… she didn’t do anything to you.” Softening my voice (and hoping the voice changer itself was good enough to pick that up), I added, “I didn’t know your friend, but do you really think he would’ve wanted you to put some innocent kid’s life in danger just to get a payday out of Blackjack? Which, for the record, doesn’t sound much like justice to me. You’re not trying to stop him, you’re not trying to bring him to justice. You’re just threatening his kid to get money out of him. That’s selfish. You’re using your friend’s death for your own profit.”

“I’m using it as motivation!” he snapped right back at me, glare blazing hotly. “Carlos is dead because of that cocksucker. I’m gonna need money to get out of this town and make a new life. The one Carlos and I always said we were gonna live. And doing it with Blackjack’s money, that’s just fucking poetic justice.”

“No it’s not,” I murmured. “It’s an excuse.”

I don’t care!” he all-but thundered, pushing himself into a sitting position with his hands still tied. “That son of a bitch is going to feel afraid! He’s gonna feel the same thing I felt when I heard Carlos was shot! He’s gonna be scared of losing someone he cares about, and then he’s going pay out the ass to stop it! And then–”

He stopped, but my head snapped to him, as I finished his words. “And then he’ll lose her anyway. That’s right, isn’t it? You were lying before. You aren’t going to give the vials back. You have no intention of giving them over. Even if he pays, you want him to lose her. You want to take his daughter away from him, just like he helped take Carlos away from you.”

Now he was really glaring. Sitting there, staring at me as if I was the one who killed his friend, his mouth opened to say something. But that was when the sudden creak of a gate outside caught my attention. Turning, I glanced out the broken window.

Touched. There were Touched there. Two La Casa Touched, and several of their non-Touched minions. They were coming through the gate, pointing up at the building, at this apartment. How had they–

A sound made me spin back the other way in time to see Ashton pull something from one of the drawers, fumbling with it with his hands behind his back. Before I could react, he pressed something on whatever he’d grabbed, and the world exploded.

Or at least, it seemed to. There was a sudden deafening and blinding… explosion of sorts. A flashbang with a shockwave that knocked me to the ground. The table and chairs went flying, glasses shattered, and I was left lying there, completely out of it. My vision went in and out, I heard a loud buzzing sound, and it was all I could do not to throw up. I couldn’t move, couldn’t focus, couldn’t… couldn’t make myself… do anything but… close my eyes.

“–not here, damn it!”

The voice snapped me awake, and I saw men in the room. They were the same ones I’d seen before, the ones from La Casa. Staring up through bleary, barely conscious vision, I saw one of the Fell-Touched standing over me. His name was Double Down, and he wore black chainmail-like armor over his lower half, and a black leather bomber jacket with two face cards, a king and an ace of spades, printed across the front. The top half of his face was covered by a form-fitting white mask, leaving his mouth and short blond hair exposed.

“If he’s not here, our new friend here knows something about where he went,” Double Down was saying to someone I couldn’t make my eyes focus on. “Grab him and let’s get out of here before company shows.

“Blackjack is gonna want to talk to this kid.”

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