Four Years Ago
With the steady sound of tires gliding across uneven pavement, a wheelchair rolled across the dark, empty parking lot toward the front of the member’s only warehouse store. Its occupant, Robert Parson, was incredibly tall when standing. At his full height, the dark-skinned man was a solidly built six feet, eight inches. Which meant that even seated as he was now, he cut quite an impressive figure, and his eye level remained higher than many even when they were standing.
The wheelchair wasn’t electric. Nor was it one of those Tech-Touched brain-operated models. No, it was an old-school, manual chair, propelled by Robert’s own heavily-muscled arms as he pushed the wheels to guide himself right up the ramp and to the front doors of the store.
Despite being automatic doors, they were locked and didn’t open. As he sat in that wheelchair, Robert considered those stubbornly motionless doors for a moment before slowly leaning up. His hand stretched out, and he gave three firm, loud knocks against the metal part of the door. The sound rang out around him and he could hear it within the store itself through the glass.
Instantly, the beam of a powerful flashlight appeared from inside, pointed right at his eyes. It came quickly enough that Robert had no doubt the person on the other side of it, hidden in the dark recesses just beyond the store’s entrance area, had been watching him the whole time, waiting for the man to announce himself like that. He also had no doubt that there was some kind of gun on the other side of that light as well, if he had tried to break in quietly.
For a moment, nothing else happened. There was silence, while that blinding light was shown directly into his eyes. Finally, the light dimmed slightly, and a figure appeared in front of it. The figure moved to stand in front of the door, staring at Robert. Then the seated man heard a quiet chuckle, before a hand reached out to touch a control on one side of the door. It finally slid open with a hiss, as the man within stepped aside with a grand gesture for the new arrival to enter.
With a single push against the wheels, Robert sent the chair into the store, then made the chair turn to face the figure who had let him in. Finally, he was able to look the other man in the face.
Well, sort of. The man wore a mask, a sackcloth bag of sorts that left his eyes and mouth exposed. Beyond that, he wore a brown tweed suit that didn’t fit properly, with black gloves. In one of those gloves, the man held a heavy-duty pistol. It was already pointed at Robert. “So you’re the guy they sent in, huh? Took you fucking long enough to get here,” he complained. “What’d they do, have the cash flown in from Chicago?
“You call yourself Pencil, right?” Robert prompted, ignoring both the complaint and the gun leveled right at his face. “That’s what people keep saying anyway. Pencil, the invincible. Or is it Pencil, the immune?”
The response from the other man was a snicker. “Tell you the truth, I prefer Pencil the humble and charming,” he drawled with obvious amusement before giving a vague wave of his free hand, the gun never wavering from its target, “but for now, we’ll go with the most important title: Pencil, the man in charge. And I’ve gotta say, when I told the Krights to send just one guy who wouldn’t make me nervous, I wasn’t expecting them to embrace the goal so much. I mean, a wheelchair? They send in a guy in a wheelchair? Now that is commitment to the cause.”
He trailed off, lifting his chin thoughtfully. “Course, if you weren’t in that chair, big guy like you might be a bit more of a concern. But I suppose I don’t have anything to worry about, long as you’re stuck there.” Pausing, he added in a curious tone, “So which is it? You trying to trick me, or do you really need that thing? Come on, you can tell me. We can be friends and sort this out.”
Robert spoke flatly, his words gruff as he watched the man’s reaction. “Spine injury. Paraplegic.” From everything he’d already heard, he was positive that this ‘Pencil’ wasn’t nearly as old as others thought he was. No, he wasn’t a man at all. Not in the sense of being an adult. He was a teenager. Robert was pegging him at somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, though he’d be more confident if that mask wasn’t there. Of course, a lot of things would be different without the mask, and the power that it symbolized.
“Shit, really?” Pencil shook his head. “That sucks, man. Unless–” His free hand snapped down, a small blade somehow appearing in his grip as he stabbed it into Robert’s thigh while pushing the pistol right up against his chin expectantly. “–you’re fucking lying!”
A brief pause followed, while he stared into Robert’s eyes, waiting for a reaction to the pain of the blade in his leg. When none came, he slowly chuckled, before straightening. The knife came free. “Well! Okay then, I guess we’re all good, huh? Glad to see we’re on the same page.”
With that, he pivoted and started to walk. His hand moved to grab a nearby roll of gauze, which he tossed over his shoulder to the seated man. “Might wanna wrap that up, big guy.”
The fact that this Pencil, a freak who had started playing his psychotic games through the city a few months earlier, had had gauze ready and waiting, showed that he’d always been prepared to stab whoever came through that door. Probably as a way of making a point about who was in control of the situation. Robert considered that, adding it to what he knew about this kid while pressing the gauze pad against the wound in his leg. It auto-bonded, the sides sticking to his jeans while the middle part sealed itself to the actual wound. At least that meant he wouldn’t get blood all over the chair.
Once that was done, he gave a shove to the wheels to send himself after the waiting Pencil. “The kid,” he said flatly, “where is he?”
“See, here’s the thing,” Pencil retorted, “I’m pretty sure I demanded money in exchange for the kid. And call me crazy, but I’m just not seeing how you can keep a million dollars stashed in your pockets. What’re you doing, sitting on it? Please tell me you’re not sitting on it. Cuz this whole business venture here is just gonna seem like it’s not worth it if my money’s got your butt on it.”
In response, Robert held up one hand, then used two fingers to carefully reach into his pocket while the other man watched him intently. Slowly, he withdrew a leather bag and gave it a light toss that way. “There’s half.”
Catching the bag, Pencil curiously opened it, pouring out a handful of diamonds with a low whistle.
“That’s five hundred thousand worth right there,” Robert informed him. “There’s an identical bag in my other pocket. You get that after I get the boy. Then we all get out of here.”
“Well, well, how wonderfully shiny.” Shoving the bag of diamonds in his own pocket, Pencil gave a grand gesture. “In that case, let’s not dilly dally. I’m sure the Krights want their boy back.” Clicking his heels together, he started walking deeper into the store. “And what do I call you, for being such a fine, upstanding mediator in all this?”
“Just a man doing a favor,” Robert informed him simply, rolling after the psychotic superpowered killer. “You said no Stars, no Shields. I’m neither.”
Giving what was obviously an amused grin over his shoulder as they moved together through the store, Pencil cracked, “Yeah, I suppose I would’ve heard about the amazing paraplegic man if you were Touched, eh?” Snickering to himself, he finally put a hand out to stop Robert. “Right here’s good.” Raising his voice, Pencil called, “Hey kid! Step out into sight, would ya?!”
While Robert watched intently, a fourteen-year-old boy with brown hair hesitantly stepped out of one of the aisles ahead of them, maybe sixty feet away. He was gagged, and both of his wrists were handcuffed to a chain, which itself was wrapped around the thick metal pole holding up the shelves of that aisle.
“There’s the kid, just like I promised,” Pencil announced. “Owen Kright, ready and waiting to go right back to his precious mommy and daddy. And this,” he held up a key, “goes to those cuffs. I’ll trade you for that other bag of yours, then I’ll run on out of here while you go unlock the kid. Everyone ends up happy. And, more importantly, not dead.” An obvious grin stretched across his face, visible through the hole in the mask. “What do you say, pal?”
“What do I say…?” For a moment, Robert looked at the handcuffed, gagged boy. There was obvious terror in his eyes, even from this distance. The kid was scared shitless. It reminded Robert of another, younger child who had been frightened like that, just a year earlier. A kid who still meant an awful lot to him, even if he wasn’t her bodyguard anymore.
Finally, he looked back to the masked man and met those eyes, peering at him through the jagged holes. His voice was even as he replied, “I think you’ve been breaking the rules of this city for too long, and it’s about time that someone show you there are consequences to that.”
Pencil’s immediate reaction was a slightly lifted chin, his gaze regarding the other man with renewed interest. “Oooh, what city rules am I breaking? Is it the kidnapping? The ransom demand? Wait, no, shit, I’ve got it. It must be the eight store employees laying in pieces in the back room over there, isn’t it?” Adopting a chagrined tone, he lamented, “I always forget about the ‘don’t chop people up and strew their bodies over the back room’ rule.” A toothy smile appeared through the hole in the mask. “One of these days, that’s gonna get me in trouble.”
“One of these days,” Robert agreed in a dry voice, before adding, “And you broke the rules of the Ministry. That’s a bad idea.”
“The Ministry, the Ministry, all I keep hearing about every time I try to have a little fun is the Ministry.” Pencil’s head shook with annoyance. “What’s the point of being a bad guy if you follow all these little rules, hmm? Which one was this, no kidnapping teenagers after Labor Day? Wait, is Labor Day the one in the spring or the fall? Fuck, I always mix that one up with Memorial Day. Wait, Memorial Day is Maymorial Day. May. May, I was right the first time. No kidnapping after Labor Day?”
“Some of these rich people,” Robert informed him, “they pay what you’d call a special tax. Makes their kids safe from the Fells in the city. Because the Fells, like you, know that the second they break the rules and go after one of those protected kids, that’s when the Ministry steps in. You broke that rule. That kid over there, the Krights pay their taxes. He’s protected. You should’ve left him alone. Now, I’ve been asked to step in.”
Clapping his hands together once with a sound of put-on fear, Pencil replied in a terribly shaking voice. “Ohh no, Paraplegic Man is gonna punish me for not playing by some asinine rules. Whatever will I do?” Snickering to himself, he leaned over a bit while taunting, “Would it help you be more intimidating if I got a little closer to that chair you’re stuck in?”
It was Robert’s turn to offer a very faint, humorless smile. His voice was a quiet, barely audible murmur, “Now, who said I was stuck in it?”
The moment those words reached Pencil and he started to react, Robert’s hand lashed out as he rose from the seat. He grabbed the Fell-Touched by the collar of his suit and bodily yanked him over. Before he knew what was happening, Pencil was shoved into the wheelchair while a pair of heavy shackles were yanked from Robert’s pockets and latched over the psychopath’s wrists to trap him there. It happened so quickly and smoothly that Pencil was already seated and cuffed to the chair by the time he was actually able to react to the sudden motion. Belatedly, his foot lashed out to kick at the larger man, but Robert had already stepped backward. His movement was no more hindered from the old spinal injury (which had already been addressed by the finest medical experts and equipment that money could buy) than it was by the knife stab that he had intentionally shown no reaction to in order to carry on the ruse.
Jerking against the shackles, Pencil gave a loud laugh that sounded more annoyed than amused. “Oh, you think something like this is gonna hold me, big man?” Despite his words, the psychopath couldn’t move from that spot. The chair was suddenly much more rooted to the floor than it had been, and refused to budge.
“Nope,” Robert replied with a slight headshake. “Probably not for long. Not with all those Tech toys you’ve been stealing. I figure one of the first things you did was grab something that could get you out of a tight spot. Something to teleport away, something to phase out of those cuffs, probably both. And other bullshit tricks, more than I could shake a really big stick at. “But before you do anything drastic, tell me, you hear a click when you sat in that thing?”
The masked boy’s head slowly tilted, while he considered the question. “If you’re saying there’s a mine in this chair, we need to have a chat about how my power works.”
“Not a mine in the chair, no,” Robert agreed. “That wouldn’t accomplish shit. but you know how you bitched about how long it took me to get here? I could’ve made it sooner, but you see, something occurred to me before I ever came to this place. You’re not just in it for the ransom.”
Clearly still annoyed, yet curious about where the man was going with that (and confident beyond the point of arrogance that he couldn’t be hurt thanks to his power), Pencil managed to shift a bit until he was almost lounging in the wheelchair despite being cuffed to it. “I’m not?” Another toothy smile appeared. “This sounds like a fun theory you’ve cooked up. Do tell.” He obviously wasn’t worried about actually being trapped, given his prepared defenses against similar scenarios.
“See,” Robert informed him, “all that stuff I said a minute ago about the whole rules about not targeting rich people’s kids? You knew that already. You chose that kid over there for a reason. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t an accident. You chose that kid because you knew it would get the Ministry’s attention. Because you wanted that kid’s parents to run to the Ministry and get them involved. You like to play magician, Pencil. You like to play ‘look over here’ while your little assistant does the real trick behind the curtain.”
“And what assistant d–” Pencil started.
Robert interrupted with, “Seven-Three-Eight-Five Abalone Drive West. Suite Thirty-Six.”
For the first time, Pencil did a double-take of genuine surprise, blurting, “How do you–”
“You’ve been looking for those records for a long time, haven’t you?” Robert asked, shaking his head. “Two different kidnappings, a hostage crisis at a grocery store, and a bar brawl that escalated into mass murder, all in under two months. And during each and every one of those events, where you stayed longer than you had to, a different office that holds adoption records was broken into by a young woman who was just… so distracting. Four different offices. But they were all the wrong ones. They didn’t have the records the two of you were looking for, did they? They didn’t have the records of what happened to the baby that Collette and Shane Elbrecht gave away. Collette and Shane Elbrecht,” he added thoughtfully, “two of your first victims, from almost a year ago.”
After a brief pause to judge the silent masked boy’s reaction, Robert continued. “But they weren’t random either, were they? You stole something out of their house. A box, one you want to get into pretty badly. But you didn’t realize it was DNA-locked until after you killed them. Can’t break into it without destroying whatever’s inside. And you can’t use a dead person to open it. You need a living relative to open that box. And you’re so desperate to get whatever’s inside, when you found out those two gave away a baby years back, you just had to get the files to find out where they ended up.”
Obviously taken aback by how much the strange man knew, Pencil managed, “You put a lot together on your way over here, old man.”
“Didn’t just put it together on my way over,” Robert informed him, reaching into his jacket pocket before withdrawing a manila folder with some papers, which he opened to show the masked figure a brief glimpse of. “I stopped at the office and grabbed the file before your girl could get there. Deleted the computer file too, just in case. Which makes this the only copy left.” He waved the folder idly. “I’d wager she’s still looking through all those boxes as we speak.”
Eyes zeroing in on the file, Pencil slowly announced, “You know what, heh. Good show. But you give me that file and I’ll let you walk out of here with the kid and the gems. All I want is that file. Hell, you hand it over and we could all be friends.”
“Friends, huh?” Robert appeared to consider that for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Nah.” With that, the man produced a lighter, holding it up to the folder. In seconds, the papers within were engulfed in flames.
“You fucking cocksucker!” The scream of rage tore its way out of Pencil’s throat, before he blurted an obvious command word for stolen Touched-Tech, “Sideslip!” For an instant, it worked. The masked figure was abruptly standing a few feet away from the wheelchair, no longer handcuffed. But in the next instant, he was engulfed in white flames, before abruptly disappearing entirely with a scream of surprise.
Turning on his heel while dropping the remnants of the file to the floor as they turned to ash, Robert walked to where Owen Kright was, reaching out to take the gag off the boy.
“Wha–what just–what’d you do?!” Owen blurted, eyes wide with shock.
“Didn’t give him diamonds, I’ll tell you that much,” Robert replied. “Serclin Stones, named after the guy who makes them. They… react volatilely to any kind of Travel powers. Even Tech-Touched-based ones. Makes them explode and screw with the Travel power that set them off. That guy could be anywhere in the state right now.”
“But,” the boy stammered, “what was the click when he sat in the chair? You said it wasn’t a mine, but… but what was it?”
“What, that?” Robert showed the boy a small smile. “Nothing. There was no click. But he wasn’t about to admit he didn’t hear it when I implied there was one, and it made him shut up trying to figure it out long enough for me to get through what I needed to do.
“Now come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ve got a guy named Kent who’d like to have a quick word with you before you go back to your parents.”
Two hours later, fifteen-year-old Amanda Sanvers, known to the public as Cup, sat in the back of a diner, watching a couple late night news talking heads blather on about the latest Collision Point. Apparently some idiots actually worshipped those Abyssal monsters.
She glanced over as her beloved brother made his way to the booth and slumped down in it. His voice was dark. “It was right there. We almost had it.”
“He read the file,” Amanda assured him gently, hand moving over to squeeze Nick’s arm. “We just need to get info out of him. We’ll find out where that kid was adopted off to, and open the box. We just gotta be a little patient.”
“What we need,” Nick informed her, “is some more help. This two person act thing isn’t cutting it. We need some more lackeys. We need partners. The Ministry, all these other gangs, even the heroes, they’ve all got gangs. We need a team. But not a boring one. We need a bunch of really fucked up people we can use for cannon fodder and entertainment, babe. But where are we gonna find people like that?”
Lifting her chin, Amanda nodded to the television. “How about right there?”
He looked that way, coughing once. “Typhon? Sweetness, I’m good, but I’m not ‘talk an Abyssal into doing our bidding’ good.”
It was Amanda’s turn to grin. “Not the Abyssal. All those dumbass fucks they’ve got lined up to worship him. Those stupid fucking Abyssal cults. They seem good for a laugh.”
For a moment, Nick didn’t respond. He watched the news going on about the people who were obsessed with the Abyssals in general, and the one called Typhon in particular. Finally, he chuckled low. “My sweet, sweet sister.
“Sometimes, you have the most amazing ideas.”