Inspector Garrote Guillotine

Interlude 12A – Pack (Summus Proelium)

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For those of you who only read Summus Proelium and may have missed the note posted at the start of the previous Heretical Edge chapter, there was a special commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium, focusing on Armistice, posted on Sunday. If you happened to miss that, you can see it by clicking here

“I’m sorry, what was that about school?” Dani Kalvers demanded while carrying her cage full of lizards through the La Casa homebase (The The House Homebase, heee, that never got old) alongside a man in his late twenties with skin as dark as hers, along with a stylish mustache and short hair. He looked like a young, very fit Lando Calrissian. In Touched life, he wore a black bodysuit with emerald green highlights, a dashing cape that was very dark, almost black green on the outside and a silky emerald on the inside, along with black gloves, boots, and a full head-covering black helmet that conformed tightly to his face, with a charmingly smiling expression etched into it in the same green as the inside of his cape. Right now, however, he was dressed much more simply, in dark jeans and a button-up red shirt. 

He was publicly known as Hardway, a Touched with the power to manipulate the inertia and motion of anything within six feet, including himself. To those who knew him in regular life, he was Isaiah Coleman, an insurance salesman with remarkable numbers (very remarkable, considering how often he left his actual job for Touched business), a wife, and a three-year-old son. 

Smirking a little at Dani’s reaction, the currently unmasked Fell-Touched glanced toward her. “What, you didn’t think you’d go forever without having some kind of schooling, did you? Come now, Blackjack wants productive, useful people. Your powers make you that to start with, but you need a real education to reach your actual potential. Not to mention,” he added pointedly, “if we’re going to put you into one of our La Casa businesses for your cover, you’ll need to have actually had the education to do that job. It’s not exactly hard to apply, but it has to look right to outsiders. You don’t want the feds working out exactly who all of us are just because they see a high school dropout managing a six figure salary with no apparent income, right?” 

For a moment, Dani stopped in the corridor to squint at him. She, like him, was currently in civilian clothes. “This feels like a trick question,” she announced, while easily holding the cage of lizards with one hand. The cage itself was a gift from Blackjack. It was Touched-tech, somehow much lighter than it should be even with all her lizards happily lazing around inside it. Made it easier to move around with her little friends, anyway. Apparently Blackjack was working on procuring something even better for her, though she wasn’t sure what that could be. 

“It’s not a trick question,” Isaiah assured her with a chuckle. “Believe me, you gotta play the game right if you don’t want a whole team of Fedstars breathing down your neck.” Fedstar, of course, was the (often used disparagingly) slang term for any government-aligned Star-Touched. “They look for stuff like that. You can be comfortable. Hell, they can even know that you’re probably connected to criminal stuff. But you need plausible deniability. You need a job, you need an education. La Casa’s gonna make sure you get both. Only thing you’ve got to do is put in the work for the education part.” 

“Because Blackjack wants smart people working for him, people who can do more than just hit things, yada yada, yeah, I get it.” Dani exhaled, trying not to think about everything Paintball had told her about how the whole Detroit Touched scene really worked. Blurting out a question about that probably wouldn’t end very well. At the very least, she’d be expected to explain how she knew any of that stuff. And that would be betraying Paintball, something that kid didn’t deserve.

Besides, she really wanted to find out for herself exactly how this worked, how much money was being taken away from her to pay these ‘Ministry’ people, and what she could do about it. 

Not that she was one hundred percent against the idea of something like the Ministry, but she didn’t appreciate it being a secret. And she didn’t appreciate not having a choice of how much of her money went to pad their coffers. Nor did she appreciate being the one out there taking risks while they apparently were content to just rake in the money that she earned. It was bullshit. If there was going to be something like this Ministry, things needed to be more fair and shit. 

Either way, the point was that she definitely wasn’t going to bring it up here and now. Not until she knew more and had actual leverage to pull. She cared about her teammates here in La Casa. Most of them seemed pretty cool, and she had no idea how much any given member knew about the Ministry. Maybe some of them would be just as annoyed about their income being taxed to shit. Hell, maybe all of this could be solved easily. But Dani wasn’t going to take any risks until she had some solid info, and firsthand knowledge of what the fuck was going on.

“Great, then we’re on the same page,” Isaiah announced, flashing her a quick, toothy grin that probably would’ve been charming if she’d had any interest in the male sex. He turned, starting to walk again. “Blackjack’s asked me to be your advisor for this thing. Which means getting you enrolled in a school where you can advance as much as we think you’re capable of. And believe me, we think you’re capable of a lot. We’ll fake your previous transcripts, that won’t be hard. You’ll just have to finish out this year as a junior, be a senior next year, and we’ll make sure you end up at a decent in-city university with a light schedule. You’ll have the remaining high school time to decide what you’d like your cover-career to be. Feel free to think outside the box. If you want, I’ll help you go over some possibilities.” 

“But the point right now,” Dani put in, “is that you want me to go back to high school. High school.” 

“Pshhh, just sign up for a private school,” Isaiah shot back easily. “You’d be amazed at the difference between that and the public cesspool. Go play at being a rich girl in some private academy with a bunch of naive spoiled kids and take them for all you can get. We’ll make up something about your dad being a reclusive rich designer or something. Or maybe it’s your grandparents and they live off in Europe or something. Whatever you want. We’ll go flip through some options as soon as you’re done with your session.” 

“My session,” Dani echoed, exhaling long and slow, with a slight grimace. “Right. Are you sure about this whole thing?” 

The answer was another grin. “You’ll be fine, trust me. All you’ve gotta do is hang out with the kid for a couple hours. She’s been asking about your lizards forever. Just let her see them, teach her their names, how to play with them or whatever. You’ll be great.” 

Yeah, Dani was supposed to sit with the boss’s kid and entertain her for awhile. Apparently the girl had actually specifically asked for her a few times. Which was… weird, wasn’t it? It seemed weird. Either way, part of Dani wondered if Blackjack was specifically trusting her with his daughter because she’d spent time with that Wren kid. 

Actually, come to think of it, how weird would it be for Wren and Melissa to get to know each other? Melissa had all kinds of trouble moving around very easily with her disease (which they were thankfully dealing with now that they had all the vials), and Wren was all about movement. Could she like, build the other kid an armored suit or something? Huh. 

Wait, was that why Blackjack was cool with her being around his daughter now? That opportunity-sense of his, did it… was he just… could it have told him that she could help with all that? And if she could, she would, right? Wren seemed like the kind of person who would absolutely help Melissa if it was possible. And Blackjack would definitely pay. But would that get her too involved in the Fell-Touched side of things? She’d been okay with helping to save Melissa’s life, how would she feel about making something for her? And how did Dani herself feel about it? Was she okay with getting that kid more deeply involved in stuff she might not want to? Even if she was good with helping Melissa, that might open the door to other things. If people found out she had supplied Blackjack with something, even if it was for his daughter, it might… people on either side of the line might react in different ways to that. It might force Wren to make different choices. It might… 

Well, fuck. Suddenly, this whole thing seemed a lot more complicated. And this time, it wasn’t even Paintball’s fault.  

********

An hour or so later, Dani sat on the floor of Melissa’s hospital-like room. The pale nine-year-old with light brown hair wore a pair of  loose drawstring white pants with dueling knights all over them, and a light blue tee shirt that had her name across the front in sparkly letters. She was, at the moment, holding one of the lizards gently in both hands, being very careful with him. “So this one is Mars Bar, and he’s a iguana who turns into a big, strong grizzly bear, right?” 

Dani watched Mars Bar with a small smile. “Yup. He’s not even full-grown yet. I’m gonna have to find another way to carry him around when he gets bigger. Your dad said he’s working on that.” 

On that note, she tapped the floor next to another lizard, before reaching up to scratch under his chin. “So who’s this one?” She flattened her hand, letting the creature in question crawl up her arm to meet one of his companions who was already on her shoulder. 

Melissa, in turn, pointed first to the one Dani had indicated, then the other. “That’s Tuesday the gecko, and that’s Riddles the bearded dragon. They’re a monkey and an eagle. And the chameleon over there is Twinkletoes, he can turn into a gorilla. And…” She looked around for a moment, squinting thoughtfully. “Oh! There she is. Holiday’s a skink, and she turns into a panther.” She carefully set Mars Bar down while gently petting along his side, clearly enthralled. 

“You’ve met my friends,” Dani pointed out before gesturing to the two stuffed animals who sat nearby. One was a stuffed bear with a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, holding a magnifying glass, while the other was a smaller pink crocodile on a cloth skateboard. “Who’re yours?” 

Quickly, the younger girl picked up the pair, one in each hand. “This is Inspector Guillotine the detective. He’s trying to be a better person cuz of Cassidy.” She pointed to the crocodile. “That’s her. She was a witness so he has to protect her, but she keeps getting in trouble so Inspector Guillotine helps her. And she helps him care about people. Which is hard for him, because his archenemy, Paws Lynch, killed his own sister. She was the inspector’s wife! So he got really sad for a long time, but Cassidy helped him feel better.” 

“Huh.” Carefully, Dani took Cassidy the crocodile, turning her over curiously. “Paws Lynch and Inspector Guillotine? Those are awesome names. And Cassidy Crocodile? That’s a pretty cool one too.” 

“Aunt Ellen came up with it,” the kid informed her. “She said it was a good name for a daredevil.” 

“Good name, huh?” Dani blinked up then. “Is that like… the name of a daredevil or something? Something Cassidy or Cassidy something?” 

Melissa shrugged, clearly uncertain. “I dunno, but it’s still a good name.” Changing the subject, she eagerly asked, “How many lizards can you use your power on? Could you make like… a whole army of lizard-animals?”  

“I’m not sure,” Dani admitted with a shrug. She watched the assorted creatures for a moment. “I mean, definitely not an army. I just… I feel like there’s a limit. I’m not sure exactly how it works yet, and I don’t know how I know that. It’s just like… instinct, I guess?” She grimaced a little. “I should experiment some more. Been a little busy.” 

Leaning in a little conspiratorially, Melissa whispered, “You wanna experiment right now?” 

The question made Dani blink uncertainly, squinting at the younger kid. “Experiment right now? Sorry, I don’t have any spare lizards to work with and my power can only give any lizard one alternate form. All these guys have their other forms. So, you know, I can’t use it on them.” 

To her surprise, Melissa nodded. “I know.  But you could use it if you had another lizard, right?” Slyly, she got up and moved over to the far side of her bed. Dani had already noticed that the girl always moved very slowly and carefully. She stepped gingerly, clearly afraid of how easily her bones could break if too much pressure was put on them. The medicine she’d been taking was supposed to fix her, and it was working. But it would take time to repair the damage that the disease had done. And even after that, it would take longer for the girl to get over the psychological pressure of what her body had been put through for literally years. 

It was bullshit, and if Blackjack hadn’t been a criminal mastermind Fell-Touched, he never would have been able to save his daughter. Rot Bone was a horrific, fucked up disease, and this totally innocent kid would’ve died in one of the worst ways Dani could possibly imagine if her father wasn’t a criminal who could pull up the kind of resources it took to help her. 

That was what Dani wanted. She wanted to never have to worry about money again. Not just for herself, but for any future family and friends she had. She wanted to create a legacy, the kind the real rich and powerful had. She wanted to have the kind of power that people like the Evans or the Banners had. They had so fucking much power even without being Touched, just because they were rich. All her life, Dani had been looked down on, for being black, for being a girl, for being gay, for being poor, for having a mother who didn’t really care what happened to her and a dad who had died when she was still a kid, even younger than Melissa. She was just the poor little black girl who liked girls. 

Fuck that. Dani wanted more out of life. She was going to own penthouses, convertibles, go on vacations to islands. She wanted every fucking thing that those cocksuckers always told her she couldn’t have for one reason or another. She didn’t just want to be comfortable. She wanted ‘fuck you money.’ She wanted to have so much cash people couldn’t dismiss her anymore.  

Pulled out of her thoughts by the sight of the small cage that Melissa pulled out, Dani leaned over to squint at the tiny, yet incredibly beautiful lizard inside. “Whoa.” 

“It’s a neon day gecko!” Melissa exclaimed, moving back over carefully before setting the small glass cage down between them. The creature inside was only about three inches long, but had been named incredibly well. The head was a bright green, while most of the body and tail was a metallic neon blue. the legs were slightly darker blue, and there was a long black stripe running down either side of the creature. 

“Holy crap, dude.” Dani leaned in closer, staring at the creature. “I’ve heard of these guys, but I’ve never seen one up close. He’s gorgeous.” 

“She,” Melissa corrected. “And yeah, she’s amazing, huh? I umm, I don’t really use my allowance for much, so I asked my dad if we could get you a new lizard since you umm… you know, helped get my medicine. I wanted to say thanks.” 

Swallowing hard, Dani glanced to her. This was the real reason she’d been asked to come and ‘babysit’ for awhile, she realized. It was because Melissa had wanted to give her this present. Which… yeah, she really didn’t know what to say for a moment, before eventually settling on, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” 

There was a brief moment of discomfort before Melissa hurriedly offered, “Why don’t you take her out? They’re really friendly and fun, the lizard guy Dad brought in said so. And… maybe you can decide what kind of new animal to make?” She was blushing a bit, clearly embarrassed. “I kinda… sorta… wanna see?” 

Snorting, Dani nodded in agreement while opening up the cage to let the colorful lizard out into her palm. “Sure, it’s the least I can do. Let’s see. First, she needs a name. Can’t have powers without a name. What do you think?” 

Blinking at her, Melissa stammered, “But your lizards all have awesome names. I can’t think up a good name like you.” 

“You came up with Inspector Guillotine and Paws Lynch,” Dani reminded the girl. “You can definitely help with this one.” 

The two went back and forth on several possibilities, before both of them agreed on one that Melissa had come up with. Holding up the tiny, colorful lizard in one hand, Dani stared at her. “That’s right, your name is Scatters.” She looked to the rest of her lizards, all of whom had gathered to watch the newcomer. “See, Scatters? This is your family. Guys, this is Scatters. She’s gonna be our new friend. And what kind of friend…” She squinted curiously at the tiny, colorful creature. “I bet you’d like to be bigger, huh? Big enough to… hmm… Oooh, I’ve got an idea.” 

For ten minutes or so, she sat there, focusing her power on the tiny lizard. It took that long to make the full connection, to establish the creature’s alternate form. Partway through, she had to set the gradually growing neon gecko down and step back with Melissa, most of her attention still taken up with making her power work. 

Then it was done. Dani, Melissa, and the other lizards were suddenly sharing the room with a much larger figure. Where once had been a three-inch-long neon day gecko now stood a full-sized reindeer, albeit one with very reptilian features. The neon blue, scale-covered body remained, somehow even brighter and more striking in this form. The head was the same sharp green, as were the antlers. That black stripe ran down the animal’s side, and her legs were a darker blue, right down to the even slightly darker hooves. 

“Now that,” Dani announced while resting an arm gently over Melissa’s shoulders, “is what I’ve been needing. Someone I can ride on.

“So how hard do you think it’ll be to get a saddle that’s the right size, with little carrying pouches for the rest of these guys?”

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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