“A petting zoo, seriously? Couldn’t this chick live somewhere that stinks less, like an outhouse?”
The complaint came from Pack just over three hours later, after we had followed all the leads that we could. Kayla Dugan’s list had had a few that crosswe ed over with the list we had gotten from Deicide, so we checked on those first. But in the end, it had taken every single hint we got from the original list as well as what Kayla and a few other people had been able to give us.
Not everyone was willing to talk to us, of course. Some slammed the door in our faces, or just claimed they didn’t know anything. Others we weren’t able to track down at all. But a few talked, and a few of those few had actual information. A lot of it was the same as others, but helpful nonetheless. For those few hours, we trekked back and forth across the city, tracking down every lead we could. It involved a lot of waiting, a lot of duplicated names, and a lot of talking.
But, in the end, we had what was supposed to be the address that Amanda Sanvers was currently living at. And yes, it was at a petting zoo. Or, to be precise, an apartment above a petting zoo. According to the information we’d managed to collect, she had been living there for about seven months or so. Honestly, as we sat in the van with the windows open, I couldn’t imagine how she’d lasted more than a week. The smell of the goats, sheep, ponies, pigs, rabbits, and more was just awful. They even had cows and a couple regular sized horses. Seriously, this girl must either have no sense of smell at all, or the apartment was really good at filtering out the scent.
Just as before, the rest of us were in the back of the van while Pack sat in the front, talking to us through the little window thing. When she made that comment, I replied, “I just hope she doesn’t think seeing all the cute little animals would make Pencil change his mind about doing terrible things. He really doesn’t strike me as the type to stop and coo over the cute little lamb.”
With a snort from her seat next to That-A-Way, Raindrop darkly pointed out, “Maybe she thinks he’ll be so distracted hurting and killing all the adorable animals, it’ll give her time to escape.”
“Ew,” Way managed, shaking her head. “Let’s not think about that right now, okay? Whatever her reasoning is, you guys just need to go in there and talk to this girl. Try to get her to open up, convince her to tell you what she knows. Rain and I will be listening the whole time, right?”
“Right,” I agreed, waving my Touched-business phone in one hand. “I’ll have this thing on and connected to your phone. You guys will be able to hear everything we do. You know, just in case something goes wrong. Which is clearly a ridiculously unlikely scenario.”
My words were greeted by a unified doubtful, ‘Uhhhh huh’ from literally everyone in the van. Even Alloy. If the lizards in their cage in the front seat had been capable of it, I was pretty sure they would have added to the chorus. I’m sure they were in spirit, anyway.
“Anyway,” Pack put in, “The three of us go in together. These two stay outside for backup. We get every bit of info this chick’s got, tell her she should probably lay low somewhere else until Pencil’s dealt with just in case he hears about us looking for her, and get out of there. Then we send that info to Deicide and let her handle it. And somewhere in there we find a way to cope with whatever extra problems pop up.” Her gaze turned to me, staring intently through the mask she had put back on. “You know, as ‘unlikely’ as those problems are.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I confirmed with a slightly exaggerated thumbs up before looking over at my new partner. “Ready to go see what this girl knows?”
“I’d feel a lot more comfortable if she was connected to one of the other bad guys in town instead of this one,” she informed me, squirming a bit with clear unease. Then she took a visible breath to steady herself, focusing on me. “But yeah. Yeah, I’m ready, I guess.”
“I’m ready, I guess,” I echoed with a firm nod. “Sounds like as good of a rallying cry as we’re gonna get for this. So let’s head over there.” Looking over to Way and Raindrop, I added, “Just be ready to jump in the second it sounds like something’s wrong, okay?” I may not have been accustomed to having actual backup from people who knew what was going on, but I was definitely going to take advantage when it was right here.
They agreed, and I took a moment to call Way’s phone. We made sure there was a good connection and that those two could hear everything. Then it was time to stop stalling and go talk to this girl. No matter how crappy I felt at the thought of making her relive what that fucker had done to her family. God, seriously, how shitty was it going to be for us to show up at this girl’s doorstep asking her to risk her whole life just to tell us everything she knew about the psychopath who had tormented and tortured her family, and made her parents kill each other? I just… yeah. No wonder none of us were exactly eager to get down to business.
But, in the end, this was what we had agreed to do. And it was clearly the right thing. Pencil had to be stopped before he destroyed any more lives. At least this way we weren’t actually facing the man himself. So, Alloy and I slid out the back together before looking around. The petting zoo wasn’t actually in town. Instead, it was off a section of road about ten miles west, and fairly isolated. Probably because nobody wanted to be their neighbors.
The van was parked in a small area behind a few trees just a couple hundred yards from the fence that surrounded the place in question. And yes, the smell was bad from here. I was seriously considering asking Wren to add a scent filter into the helmet she had made.
Actually, come to think of it, having some kind of gas filter built into this thing was probably a good idea, smell or no smell. But Wren had a lot to deal with already, and after the lengths she’d already pushed herself to just so she could get that VR machine ready for helping Paige, I was going to back off a bit and let her work on other things for the time being. Still, it was something to keep in mind.
Pack joined us, and I immediately noticed that she was wearing a small green and black backpack just like one you’d take to school, which was in no way big enough to carry her lizards, or the cage that had been holding them back on the front seat of the van.
“Oh, you like it?” she asked, making a show of modeling for us by spinning in a circle. “Newest gift from the boss. The bag and that cage in there are linked. I reach in here, and I can grab one of my buddies from there. Makes it easier to run around and still have everybody I need.”
After exchanging a brief glance with Alloy, I replied, “Well, good to know he’s got spiffy rewards for you.”
“Employment benefits,” she slyly informed us. “Which, both of you could totally get if–”
She was abruptly interrupted by a knock on the back of the van from the inside. Then the door popped open and Way called through the crack, “Would you please stop trying to recruit heroes for your villain gang and get on with it!”
“Don’t worry, babe!” Pack called that way, “No need to be jealous, your offer is still the best one! I made sure to really talk you up when Blackjack went over all the different welcoming packets we could hand out.”
Snorting despite myself at that and Way’s sputtering reaction, I started to move. “Come on, both of you should probably focus a bit. This is supposed to be important.”
Through the bluetooth thing in my ear, I heard Way mutter a retort of, “Oh I’m focused, I’m totally focused. Just make her focus.” There was a brief pause before she added a little more quietly, “And be careful. Make sure you’re all careful.”
“We will,” I murmured, before turning to look at the other two. “Okay guys, I know this mission really stinks, but let’s try to get through it. Just remember, the worst isn’t the pigs and horses, it’s the goats and cows. You might say we’re walking into some real dairy air.”
I was met with two staring figures, Pack demanding, “Have you got all that out of your system now?”
Painting a broad smiley face across my helmet, I retorted, “Probably not, but I’ll be good for now.” Yeah, soon, when I got nervous I made jokes. It helped me focus. And right now, I was definitely very nervous. This whole situation was making me incredibly antsy. But I tried to shove all those feelings down, focusing on moving through the wooded area up toward the fence around the petting zoo. Neither the smell, nor my nerves, improved along the way.
Before long, we reached the fence and could see through it. Where we had come up (quite intentionally) was right near the actual main building, visible through cracks between the tall wooden boards. To the right a bit was a chicken coop, which was doing nothing to help the scent we were all dealing with. And further beyond that was the pen for the goats, and that was clearly giving the chicken coop a run for its money. Yeah, this whole place was farm animal central, and the pens were close enough to the main three-story house that my earlier assessment had to be right. Either the people who lived there really did have no sense of smell, or the building was set up with very good filters. No way could they sleep at night like this.
There were also a few people scattered around, a couple obvious employees helping take care of the animals, and what looked like two or three different families of tourists wandering around to see and pet anything they could. Not to mention getting pictures with them.
“Let’s try to get inside the house without being seen,” I murmured quietly. “If we’re really doing our best to make sure Pencil doesn’t find out about this, waltzing right in past a bunch of tourists with cameras seems like it might be a little bit counterproductive to that.”
“Yeah,” Pack snorted, “maybe just a little. So how exactly do you want to get in there if we’re not attracting attention?” There was a brief pause then before she amended, “You know, that sounded like I was being dismissive of the idea, and I’m definitely not. Not attracting attention that ends up getting all the way to the Scions is a very good thing in general. But still, how?”
Before I could respond, Alloy pointed a bit to our left. “Over there,” she whispered. “There’s a little gate hidden between some bushes. I think it leads down to a well or something near the stream. It’s next to the toolshed on the inside. The gate’s locked, but we can hop over.”
“Wow,” I remarked, “good eyes. How’d you see all th–wait, did you get actual information from your little marble buddies? Can they scout for you now? See, this is why this whole thing isn’t fair. You get marble buddies and she gets lizard buddies. Where’re my paint buddies?”
Clearly blushing a bit beneath the Sentai-like helmet she wore, Alloy shook her head. “No, I uhhh, I sort of came here with my mom a few months ago. She was on this kick about spending time together, and that’s cool and all, but I was trying to figure out if this girl liked me or not so I brought her with us. Then Mom was being all weird, so we snuck away to find a place to hide so we could talk. We found that gate and climbed over it. I sorta ripped my pants a little bit.” Waving off that memory, the girl added, “Anyway, we can probably get in right there. It’s hidden enough that if we watch until nobody’s looking, we can go right to the house.”
Exchanging a glance with Pack, I shrugged. “Good enough for me. Better plan than I could have come up with, that’s for sure. Come on, let’s get over there. Maybe it won’t smell as bad.”
“It’s like thirty feet away, Paintball,” Pack hissed as we started to move quietly and stealthily along the edge of the fence. “There’s being optimistic and then there’s just being delusional.”
Through my bluetooth earpiece, I heard Way murmur, “Told you we should’ve stopped long enough to get those scented lip balms to rub under your nose before we came all the way out here. See what happens when you’re in a rush?”
“You might’ve been right,” I whispered, waving a hand dismissively at the other two when they looked at me curiously. “Feel free to rub that in my face when we’re done with this. But while you’re at it, could you also rub a bouquet of flowers or something in my face too?”
By that point, we’d reached the little gate that Alloy had mentioned. Sure enough, it was easy to climb over. I used a quick shot of black paint to silence the gate so that it wouldn’t rattle as we did just that. Quickly, the three of us dropped into a crouch in the bushes next to the tool shed. To the right off in the distance, we could see people still walking around with the animals. But this area seemed to be for employees, and none of them were over here. At the moment, it was clear. Well, mostly clear. There was one young couple, maybe in their very early twenties, who were having a conversation and could have seen us if we darted across the space to the house.
Hoping that more people wouldn’t wander over, we crouched there and silently urged the two to hurry up and move on. But they just kept standing there. Finally, I whispered an idea to Alloy, and she nodded before sending her bronze marble flying low to the ground that way, keeping the thing out of sight. It went past the couple, into the nearby pig pen, and sort of… firmly poked one of the pigs there. It was enough to make the pig jerk around and oink loudly, which made the couple turn to see what was going on.
We immediately took advantage of that, darting quickly across the space to the house. There was a door there, but we didn’t use it. Instead, I shot red paint up toward the balcony of the third floor, where we knew Amanda’s apartment was supposed to be, and let it yank me that way. Behind me, Alloy turned two of her marbles into a flying platform to lift herself and Pack. We got all the way up, dropping down onto the balcony itself before anyone saw us. At least, I hoped we did. At the very least, nobody seemed to react, and a glance down showed everyone acting normal. We’d made it. We were here, right outside the girl’s apartment, without attracting attention. So far, so good. Now if only our luck would actually continue.
As soon as the three of us were convinced nobody had seen us get up there, we turned our attention to the sliding door. Or, more accurately, through the door. I was ready to quickly try to reassure Amanda that we weren’t a threat if the woman was standing right there, but there was no sign of her. We were looking into a small, cluttered living room that looked like it hadn’t been picked up in months. There were no food containers or anything gross like that, it was just… cluttered. There were blankets and pillows everywhere, a TV tray stand with a bunch of toys scattered across it, random flashlights and other electronics, books, and a few bottles of various types of glue, a bunch of boxes with who-knew-what in them (I could see a stack of magazines practically spilling out of one), and more. It was a mess, with a narrow path leading to the very comfortable-looking armchair seated in front of a fairly decent television.
“This chick definitely doesn’t care about keeping her place tidy,” Pack murmured. She leaned forward and looked down before coughing. “But she does care about her security.”
Following her gaze, I saw what she was talking about. There was a very elaborate and advanced-looking alarm attached to the door. If we slid it open, it would go off. And since that was there, I was pretty sure the glass itself was probably alarmed too. To say nothing of the windows and every other entrance. This was going to be complicated. Not that I could blame her at all. If I had gone through what she did, I’d make sure every inch of my home was protected from invasion too. Honestly, I’d be surprised if she didn’t have some Touched-Tech that she’d bought added into the mix. Not to mention guns. Or even Touched-Tech guns. Good ones were expensive as hell, especially to have someone come out and maintain them, but something told me this Amanda girl would see having the extra protection as worth it.
“What if she’s not home?” Alloy whispered, reminding me of an option we really hadn’t put too much consideration to, somehow. “How long do we sit here waiting for her? Because I’m pretty sure those guys will eventually look up. And the three of us? We don’t really blend in.”
Yeah, she had a point. Grimacing to myself for a moment while thinking intently, I finally shrugged. “I guess the best we can do is knock and see if she responds,” I whispered back.
So, that was what we did. While the other two kept an eye below just in case, I reached up and gave a light knock against the sliding door. When that prompted no response, I knocked a little louder. Again, there was nothing. So, I knocked one more time, even louder, though hopefully not enough to attract attention from below. It was a hard balance to strike. We wanted the woman inside (if she was there) to hear, but not the people below.
I was about to suggest that we think of somewhere safer to wait for the woman, such as the roof, when movement from inside caught my attention. I looked that way in time to see the girl in question standing in the doorway between the living room and some other place, staring at us. She was just like the pictures I’d seen in a few of the houses of the people we’d visited, a girl around eighteen or nineteen, with long dark hair and features that most probably would have called gorgeous. Brilliant blue eyes with a sort-of smoldering look, a figure that would’ve made any guy turn his head, all that sort of thing. All the stuff I wasn’t.
But then again, I hadn’t had my entire family destroyed and torn apart by a psychotic monster.
I could see the surprise on the girl’s face. She looked visibly taken aback, standing there with her mouth open. So, I reached out to touch the glass and made words appear there, reversed on our side so she could read them.
‘It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt you. Please, can we come in? It’s safe, we promise.’
See her lips move as she read those words. For a moment, her head tilted, as though considering them. There was a momentary strange expression on her face. It almost looked like amusement before she shook it off. Probably just didn’t know how to react to something like three Touched showing up on her balcony asking to come in.
Finally, the woman moved over by the door. She opened a little pad there and hit a few buttons, before unlocking the door and sliding it open. She looked at us crouched there, quietly asking, “This is about that psycho, isn’t it? You’re here about… him.” The girl shuddered visibly, her gaze a bit haunted.
I nodded quickly. “We’re really sorry to bother you. We just… we have to ask you a few things. We were careful, we made sure no one saw us come in.”
“You’re sure?” she pressed. “You’re absolutely positive that nobody else knows you’re here?”
My head bobbed. “Yeah. It’s safe.”
“Safe…” she echoed the word, biting her lip before stepping back. “Okay then.
“Come on in.”