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The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 9

Pulling into a parking lot in the western suburbs of Chicago, Martina sees a large brick wall surrounding what appears to mostly be an outdoor facility. A small indoor area sits in the center of the building but the outdoor area is huge in comparison. Only a few other cars are in the parking lot in the middle of a weekday so she hopes she won’t have much of an audience.

Taking her gun from it’s holster, she slips it into the glove box of her car. She was informed when signing up to take this test that only non lethal weapons are allowed. Now she has to hope a pistol firing rubber bullets is enough to take down a group of armed volunteers. It hardly seems fair but she knows several people who passed this test and if they’re anything to go on, it can’t be that hard.

She takes a moment to consider how important this is as she gets out of her nearly twenty year old four door sedan. There’s already a huge list of repairs due on it which she’s been declining every time she goes to the mechanic for an oil change. If this doesn’t work she doesn’t have a backup for her backup plan. She won’t be able to afford her parking spot, let alone keep this thing running.

Entering the front door, she finds herself in a poorly lit room with a couple of bathrooms off to one side and a tall front desk ahead. A couple of bored looking employees sit there staring into space. They barely seem to register she’s entered. She walks up to them and tries to appear happy. “I’m here to take the vigilante test. How do I get started?”

The young man sitting behind the counter doesn’t even take the time to remove his head from his hand. He just tilts his face up at her. “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes, for Martina Alvarez. Should be for one thirty. I might be a few minutes early. Traffic wasn’t as bad as expected.”

With a sigh the man stands and takes a look at his computer screen. It seems to take him a long time to find anything. “Martina you said?”

“That’s right. Is there an issue?”

“Nah, you’re here. Do you need to get changed or anything?”

“Figured I’d wear this.” Jeans and a tank top with a good pair of boots seemed appropriate. She’s got a leather jacket on over it but depending on what the course is like she can take it off.

“Whatever, your deal. Lot of people like armor or something. I’m sure you’ll be fine though. What weapons do you plan to use?”

“I can’t use a regular gun, correct?”

The man starts laughing at this. “Not a lot of volunteers would stick around long if we let you shoot at them. Sorry. Some of these guys could use it but that’s another issue. We have a gun that fires rubber bullets you can use after signing a waiver. Rubber bullets shouldn’t hurt too bad but it can still be dangerous up close.”

“I was a cop, I know the drill.”

His face comes to life with astonishment. “Then what the hell are you doing here?” She doesn’t have an answer ready for him. After a moment he shrugs. “Whatever. The test is pretty simple. You have thirty minutes to take down however many guys are in there. Or girls, could be girls. There’s going to be between six and ten and you’ll be notified by loudspeaker when the test ends. Take them all down. If you shoot them in a place that would likely put them down they’ll go down. If they shoot you in a place you’d likely go down, test’s over.”

Taking the pistol, she’s led into a small room with only what appears to be a garage door ahead of her. She’s left alone to sit and wait for whatever comes next. A few minutes go by before the door fights its way upward. A beautiful green field filled with massive trees sits ahead. Her gun’s already drawn and ready for anything. She turns left and tries to stay near the wall so they can’t sneak up on her.

Disappearing between the trees, she doesn’t see any sign of people. This place looks huge. From where she is the far wall can’t be seen and she starts to worry about how she’ll find anyone with so little time. She can’t hear anything except the sound of her own footsteps and tree branches flapping as a light breeze pushes them around.

Emerging from the wooded area, a few rows of buildings stand ahead. She slowly moves toward them. The first building she reaches works as cover and she glances around the corner for any sign of the volunteers. Still nobody. Moving from building to building, she looks inside each for any sign of people. In the last building of the first row she sees a woman sitting at a table through a broken window. Inside the lights reflect off the broken glass piled on the floor. The woman’s facing the door and doesn’t seem to notice her yet. She ducks down to keep things that way.

Creeping around the other side of the building, she looks for any other way inside. Nothing stands out. With the door being out as an option, she returns to the window. A doorway between them makes it a difficult shot but the only other option is rushing the front door and hoping to dodge the woman’s shot.

Lining her shot up and hoping this gun fires straight, she squeezes off three shots. The woman isn’t expecting them and is knocked back when the first connects. She looks back and forth for the shooter and when she sees Martina in the window she gives her a dirty look before laying on the ground.

A shout goes out in the distance as the sound of several people running reaches her. There’s no cover in sight so she starts moving away from the noise. Ducking around the corner, she waits for anyone to show up. A man runs past the gap between buildings ahead but doesn’t seem to notice her. There’s a rustling to her left and she turns in time to see another man turn a corner and raise his gun. Ducking back between the buildings, rubber bounces past her and falls in the dirt.

Running to the other side of the building, the first man she saw comes back around the corner. She lets off three shots and they bounce off the man. His momentum carries him for a few more steps before he can process what happened and drop. Martina keeps moving. The other guy has to be close and he’ll catch her if she stays still. There could be another seven just like them right behind.

Reloading the gun, she sees a staircase ahead of her leading to the roof. She races toward it and takes the stairs two at a time. Maybe from the roof she can find some sign of the other man. Her head rises over the side of the building.

Another man’s sitting there. He’s already turning to her when she manages to squeeze a couple of shots off to take him down. On the ground she can hear legs coming toward her and the man from before pops into view. His gun’s pointed up at her and he squeezes shot after shot off but his aim sucks and most of his shots bounce off the side of the building. One does connect with her left shoulder though and the pain’s fierce. No announcement comes on to end things though so she has to assume it isn’t lethal. Through gritted teeth Martina fires a few shots at him and he gives up and lays down.

Four down’s a good start but there could still be a lot left and she has no clue where the rest of the group are. The world around her is quiet and she assumes there’s no more in the immediate area. Catching her breath, she realizes she shot more people in the last ten minutes than she has in her entire career. That nobody’s seriously hurt helps but hopefully shooting people won’t be the only way she can protect people or use her registration to make a living.

Returning to the ground she checks the rest of the buildings here but there’s no sign of other volunteers. She reaches the far side of this area and looks back to the woods. The rest have to be out there. She rushes into the trees, hoping something will catch her attention.

At first she methodically darts from tree to tree but soon she realizes that’s taking too long. If she keeps this pace she won’t cover half the distance needed before her time runs out. She starts to run, her head darting from left to right, hoping to see any further attackers before they see her.

Her wish is granted. Ahead she sees two more men working their way between the trees. She takes cover and watches them move. They’re not that big and she starts to think of ways she could take them down without firing a shot. Thinking of Zoe gets that out of her head. She needs to pass this so she can start applying for jobs as a vigilante. She told her daughter things would be okay but in truth if she’s out of work for any significant amount of time they won’t be able to make rent.

They’re coming her way so she waits for them to reach her. When they pass the tree she’s standing behind, she jumps out. One of them must see her out of the corner of their eye because they turn and start firing. Martina’s already moving by that time though and she manages to get the second man between them. His partner shoots him right in the chest.

The shooter and his partner both have their mouths drop. They pause, seemingly unsure what to do. Martina doesn’t stop. Shooting, she hits the man who shot his partner. He goes down and tosses his gun. The man who was shot doesn’t seem to know what to do. The loud speakers do. “This vigilante test is over. Congratulations on taking down all volunteers. Please proceed to the entrance.”

The last man standing never bothers going to the ground. He kicks at the dirt as he walks away, clearly not liking the speakers’ verdict.

When she reaches the front of the facility, everyone seems to be smiling and clapping. She has to fill out a bit of paperwork but soon the same man who walked her through how the test works hands her a certificate telling her she’s a federally authorized vigilante. “You’ll get a permanent card in the mail in two to four weeks. For now, try to keep this on you. If needed the cops can look you up but its a lot more work.”

“I know, I was a cop.”

Blinking a few times, the man stares through her. “Why the hell are you doing this then?” She still doesn’t have an answer.

Part 8

Part 10

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Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 3

Nowak calls his driver Beth and she’s soon waiting outside. She gives him a nod as he climbs into the limo but doesn’t say anything else. Nowak’s already told her where to take him. They ride the entire way to the hospital in silence. He thanks her for the ride and asks her to stay close.

Crowds are everywhere as Zach pushes his way through the lobby. He feels them push in from every side and his first thought is escape. He’s not needed here. He can’t do anything for Sami or Lorelei. Retreating to a corner of the room, he wants to close his eyes and walk away. His head’s pounding. They aren’t going to want to see him. He messed up.

Pushed around the room, he fights to reach the reception desk. Knowing this isn’t going to get easier if he waits, he asks the receptionist for the room of Sami Sadik, mentioning that he’s related to Dr. Sadik. She doesn’t look it up when he mentions Lorelei’s name. She asks a young looking man in a white coat to guide him to Dr. Sadik. He nods and leads the way.

Zach follows at a distance, his hands white from how hard he’s squeezing them together. He’s led to a private room where Lorelei’s sitting on the edge of a bed, though her feet are hanging down. She’s in a hospital gown and wearing a wristband.

When Zach walks into the room a small smile spreads across her face. She tries to stand but thinks better of it. Instead she waves him closer. She motions for him to sit. “I’m glad you’re here. Didn’t know if you were going to come by tonight.”

Why is she in a bed? He tries to stay calm. The last thing she needs right now is more stress. “Figured I should. Where are Heather and Hammer?”

She lays back down. “They were here a little bit ago but Hammer had a meeting and he was Heather’s ride.”

“Didn’t expect to find you in a bed. Are you alright?”

With a wave of her hand she says, “I’m fine, they’re just being cautious because I was knocked out. They insist on running a few tests to make sure I’ll be okay. Nothing to worry about. I’ll be out of here tonight. Tomorrow at the latest. How’s your knee?”

She doesn’t have time for that right now. “I’m fine, don’t worry about it. How’s Sami?”

“We’ll get to that. Seriously though, how’s your knee? I didn’t spend months healing you to mess it up today.”

Rubbing his knee instinctively as he talks about it Zach says, “It’s okay. Hurts a fair amount, but no signs of damage. Just a bit red. I probably pushed a little too far too soon but it’s nothing to worry about.”

“Keep an eye on it. Tell me if the redness doesn’t go down in the next couple days. Until that happens I want you taking things easy too.”

“I will. Seriously though, how’s Sami?”

Her hands cover her face. “Bad. Really bad. He’s on life support now. There’s some brain activity but they don’t know if he’s going to come out of this.”

“Shit.”

Finding his way into a chair, Zach slumps and puts his head in his hands. He hates hospitals. He never wanted to be in one again. “I’m sorry. I should have let you shoot them. If I had…”

“Get over yourself.”

Looking up, surprised, Lorelei’s smile’s long gone. “What do you mean?”

“You aren’t my boss Zach. I thought you two could handle them so I let you. I made a choice, you didn’t make it for me. Do I wish you hadn’t let them grab that grenade? Sure. I also wish Sami hadn’t gone rushing off after them alone after I got knocked out. I wish I hadn’t gotten knocked out for that matter. There’s plenty of regret to go around. you don’t have a monopoly on it.”

Nodding, Zach wants to believe she’s right. That this isn’t all on him. That’s hard to accept though when he could have done more. The shame makes it hard for him to breathe. “Whatever he needs, any procedures or medicine or whatever, please let me help.”

She purses her lips. “Fine, but only because this is his life. Don’t get used to me taking money from you.”

“Can I see him?”

Pressing her call button, Lorelei summons an orderly to take Zach to see Sami. He’s laying in intensive care, looking incredibly frail with what feels like every tube in the world sticking out of him. His chest rises and falls but there’s no life to him. He looks broken.

Zach’s seen far too many people like this in his life. He watched a man who survived the sinking of his yacht slip away, unable to help him. He can’t go back and undo this. All the money in the world might not be able to bring Sami back to them. Unable to keep looking, he instead turns his attention to the monitor showing his heartbeat. As he watches the line on screen rise and fall, he vows to do for Sami what he could never do for his parents. He’s going to find the people responsible and make them pay.

Part 2

Part 4

Red Line: The Future Part 9

The car that comes to pick them up is a nondescript blue sedan with Louisiana plates. The driver dresses a lot like Captain Snow in a black suit with black glasses. He’s a man of few words. He doesn’t bother to introduce himself, only asking if they have everything they need. Once they’re situated in the car he speeds down the back roads near their house like he’s on the freeway. The sisters exchange nervous glances, though their nerves aren’t entirely due to his driving. A week ago they knew where their lives were going. Now they don’t even know where they’re being taken.

Reaching the nearest airport, Melissa’s mouth falls open. The plane before them’s a tiny private one and not at all what she expected. Tara flew back and forth from her single year of college but Melissa’s never been on a plane. She’s nervous about any plane but all the stories she’s heard about turbulence in small aircraft leave her shaking.

The stairs leading inside are narrow and there isn’t room for her crutches. At first she declines offers of help from her sister and the driver but realizing there’s no other choice she relents with a grunt. She wraps her arm around Tara’s shoulder and uses the support to slowly hop up.

Inside they find themselves in a small tube with red carpeting. There’s only four seats and Captain Snow’s sitting in one with a glass of wine. “Glad your trip went well ladies.” Noticing Melissa needing help up, he jumps up to offer a hand. “Sorry about the accommodations, this is the plane we had in the area though.” Tara and Melissa try to salute but he waves them off. “In our group we don’t hang on all the procedures, you can give that a rest if you want. Remember it for when the big wigs show up but day to day there’s no need. You ladies want a drink? I brought some excellent champagne for the flight. It’s going to be a couple hours.”

Looking at each other nervously, the sisters shake their heads. “Neither of us is old enough sir.”

Snow slaps his knee. “Shit, I know that. We’re not in a restaurant though and I don’t care. I’m not going to get you drunk or anything but these little planes can have a bit of a kick and a drink to take the edge off doesn’t hurt.”

Pointing out Melissa’s medicine can’t be mixed with alcohol, the sisters still decline. Tara wants a glass but she’ll feel guilty having one when her sister can’t. The driver of the car climbs into the plane and closes the door behind him. Once everything’s sealed he disappears into the cockpit. “Is he coming with us?” Melissa’s still standing and pointing at the cockpit.

Finishing his drink, Snow starts to pour another. “We kind of need him unless one of you knows how to fly a plane. Our little organization still has a pretty bare bones staff outside of the science nerds. Jay’s a master of many disciplines, not much of a people person but useful.”

Taking seats next to each other, the sisters clutch each other’s hands until their knuckles turn white during takeoff. Tara’s ears pop and suddenly hearing feels wrong. She experienced the same the last time she flew so she knows it isn’t abnormal but it feels worse than last time. When they level out the turbulence dies down but the plane never feels entirely stable. She really wishes she took Snow up on that drink.

When he feels the plane’s calm enough Snow gets up and stumbles to the back of the cabin where a briefcase sits. He opens it and pulls a few folders out. When he returns he hands one to each of them. Removing his sunglasses, he slips on a pair of reading glasses which Melissa finds hilarious. She can’t stop apologizing as he glares at her. “Ladies, we have a lot of paperwork to sign before you can enter our base or even know where it is. You’re basically agreeing that you’ll complete your term, that you understand how confidential this all is. Fairly standard stuff but we need it on paper.”

Skimming the fine print doesn’t provide any revelations so both of them scratch their name out again and again. When they’re done they look up to find Snow has already changed back into his sunglasses. The reading glasses are nowhere in sight yet he never stood up.

“Welcome to Project All American ladies. That’s our name if you were wondering. You get more details now. The All American Formula is something our government’s been working on since the forties. We’ve tried it many times but never felt it was ready for human testing. Too many risks. We think they’re all ironed out but only certain people’s genetics are compatible. When we arrive you’ll both go in for some much more in depth testing. We’ll announce our choices for the main team in a few days.” Melissa raises a hand. “You’re not in school Ms. Chance. If you have something to say, go ahead.”

“Sorry sir, I just wanted to ask how the team’s going to be chosen.”

“That’s an excellent question, no need to be sorry. It’s going to be based primarily on degree of compatibility. There’s a decent chance all twenty five of you can take it but the closer the fit, the better the odds are that there won’t be any negative side effects. We don’t expect any but we want to be cautious.”

“Can you give us more details about what this will do?” Tara listens to her sisters question and feels pride. She’s remembering to ask everything Tara would otherwise ask. Melissa needs this more so she’ll let her lead the way.

“I can give you some. Your muscles will strengthen to an extraordinary degree. That’s almost certain which means you won’t get tired. You’re going to be incredibly strong, incredibly fast. Probably run over a hundred miles an hour. Lift hundreds if not thousands of pounds. You’ll be nearly invulnerable. Your skin will be so strong bullets, guns, even explosions won’t be a threat. Except your eyes, they don’t seem effected for some reason. Your hearing, smell, sight, all that will improve. You’ll be able to jump really high and really far. That’s a start. Other effects can vary a lot by person but it’s going to do a lot.”

The sisters sit there with their jaws resting on their chests. The more specifics they hear, the more this sounds both exciting and terrifying. Melissa seems frozen so Tara decides to take over for now. “Where are we going anyway?”

“You’ll like this. We’re actually based in the middle of Kansas of all places. Non descript little place. Our job once we have the program running will be to handle major national security issues. Being based in the middle of the country makes us uniquely situated to respond to any location. Well, except Alaska or Hawaii but who’s going to have issues there?”

“Doesn’t a lot of stuff happen on the coasts? We haven’t had a lot of emergencies in Louisiana over the years.”

“A lot does but nowhere near all. Besides, which coast would we pick? If something happens on the opposite one we’d take forever to get there. This isn’t perfect but it’s the best choice we decided. When we arrive I’ll show you to our base of operations.”

The rest of the flight’s non eventful. Snow drinks wine and offers stories about his past, most of which he leaves crucial details out of. The sisters both read the books they’ve brought with them for awhile but they eventually abandon them. At one point they’re reduced to playing tic tac toe to pass the time. They’re all relieved when after nearly five hours Jay pokes his head out and announces they’re getting ready to descend.

The landing’s almost as terrifying as the flying but soon they’re thankful to be on the ground. Tara helps her sister slowly descend the plane’s stairs. A non descript car almost identical to the one they took in Louisiana’s waiting for them. The only difference she notices is the plates are now for Kansas.

Part 8

Part 10

Toxic Vol. 1 Susceptible States Part 20

There aren’t any other tests. For the next several days DeMarcus is left alone in his room. His gag only comes out when they feed him and the guards are openly pointing their guns at him while he does so. No more steak, now it’s mostly just sandwiches. What did he do that was so wrong? Was getting tired of this really a big surprise?

On the third day, Sean comes to his cell. He whispers something to the guards and all but one of them exit the wing, slamming the metal door down the hall on their way out.

It’s a surprise, they’ve never met anywhere but the dark room. He can make out details he never noticed before, such as how old the man really is. The lines around his eyes were hidden somewhat by the darkness but here they stand out. He’s at least eighty. He looks to be in good shape for his age but he’s thin to the point you start to wonder if he’s sick. He’s let into the cell by the one guard who waited; a guard who promptly locks the cell after they’re done before following the others out of the wing.

The man stands, waiting for DeMarcus to offer a seat. The only place to sit other than the floor is on his bed and he’s not really in the mood to share it at the moment. He’s sitting right in the middle and hasn’t budged.

“Feel like making room? Standing’s torture on my knees.”

He considers telling the old man to kick rocks but he can’t tell him anything and while he could flip a few gestures, fighting probably isn’t the best way to get back in their good graces and get home. He moves to one side of the bed.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.” He sits on the bed, trying to move himself against the wall. After a moment he groans and stands back up. “Forgot something.” He reaches around behind DeMarcus’ head and releases the clasp on the back of the gag. It slides free from his mouth. Gasping, he greedily sucks in air, happy not to have to fight for every breath.

When his head starts to feel better, he looks at Sean. “Guess you figured out that I’m not a threat at this point.”

Sean sits back on the bed, moving back against the wall. He puts his hands behind his head, trying to get comfortable. “Something like that. I want to talk to you anyway and I’m pretty sure you aren’t going to be an issue. I want to talk about that opportunity we discussed. I’d really like you to come work for us. If this goes well, it could even turn into a permanent thing. You need a job, SSC isn’t reopening anytime soon I can assure you. There’s massive media coverage about how the security wasn’t good enough. Personally I don’t think that’s fair but nobody’s asking me.”

Is he still having issues with oxygen? None of this makes any sense. “How can I work for you? My power’s are gone. That’s why I’m not wearing a gag right now.”

Laughing, Sean reaches up and takes off his glasses. His eyes are icy blue, startling on a man his age. Maybe that’s why he wears the glasses. “You’re not wrong, but we think we can change that. We’d reintroduce you to the chemicals. It wouldn’t be the same as last time where you breathe it for hours. We’d do it gradually. Now that your body’s used to it we think it’ll take to it easily. Shouldn’t even make you uncomfortable. We’ll keep the amounts low enough that it wears off easily. You can have a normal life, we’ll just get you going before missions.”

There’s a part of him that wants to consider the offer. Now that the powers are mostly gone he kind of misses them. He can think of a lot of ways they could be useful. That’s more power than any person needs though. He wouldn’t trust himself with them long term. As soon as he thinks about Jesse the decision gets easy. “I don’t want my life getting messed up worse than it already is. I have a good record. I figure I can get a job easily enough. Plus, you don’t know that stuff won’t kill me this time. I got lucky last time but no one should survive that level of those chemicals.”

“We really don’t think it’s all that dangerous. If I thought you’d likely end up dead I wouldn’t ask.”

“Thanks, but I have too much to go back to, not taking the risk.”

Sean sighs, stretching out more. “That’s pretty much what I figured but I had to try. You’re valuable. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve learned a lot from studying you and studying this stuff but there’s no guarantee someone else reacts the same way. We’re considering giving a couple of agents a chance to try it but that needs approval.”

“That’s your thing. Do you all agree I’m clean though?”

“Oh ya, no issues there. All the tests we’ve run have consistently shown the results trending downward and this last week we didn’t pick up anything. The higher ups wanted to keep you longer and see if they eventually came back but all our scientists think there’s very little chance. It hasn’t been bouncing up and down in effectiveness, it’s been a straight line down. You might have a tiny bit of persuasive ability left in you but nothing major.”

“When do I get out of here. Where even is here anyway?”

“You’re still in San Francisco. We have facilities all over the place. No reason to take you somewhere else. As for when you get out, today.” The man reaches up and pulls the ear plugs from his ears. “I appreciate you cooperating. I know you didn’t have a lot of choices but you really have helped your country just by going through the tests and letting us learn from you. If you ever change your mind on that job, get in touch. I’ll give you a card. It’s just a number to a burner phone but you can call it.”

He takes a set of keys out of his pocket and starts unlocking the handcuffs keeping his wrists together. He can’t believe for the first time in weeks there’s nothing locked to his body. He’s finally free to move as he sees fit.

“Thank you. I know there was probably pressure to hang onto me. I’m almost sorry I can’t help you with it. Almost.” He climbs to his feet but Sean’s still sitting. The older man glances at his feet and groans. He holds out a hand to ask for help and DeMarcus grabs it and pulls him up.

“Easy. Don’t pull my shoulder out of it’s socket. Otherwise someone else might make you stick around. Let me walk you out.”

He follows the man through hallway after hallway until they finally reach a front door. There’s a set of clothes that are surprisingly big enough to fit him laying there in a nice stack. His wallet and keys are stacked next to it with one of Sean’s cards sticking out of the wallet.

Sean smiles, and offers a handshake. “I’ll give you some privacy to get changed. Then you can see yourself out the door right there.” He points at a large metal door. “There’s a few hundred bucks in goodwill money in the wallet. There’s a cab waiting outside which can take you home. Tell Jesse I said hello. You can tell him whatever you want about this but if you do want to stick to the story, you’ve been in New York getting treatment for a head wound which is now healed. You couldn’t talk with the injury. Your call.” They shake hands and Sean walks out of the room.

He’s alone with only the entrance before him. He changes into the clothes. The tank top’s a strange fit but it’ll do. The shorts are a bit tight but he can make it work. There’s no shoes. Apparently he’s supposed to stick with the terrible ones he’s had for weeks. He can always change at home.

Stepping out the front door, his eyes almost can’t handle the sun. It shines incredibly brightly. It’s warm out. There’s even the sound of birds in the distance. He can see the cab sitting at the far end of the parking lot. Crossing through the lot, the wind blowing through his hair, he decides today’s going to be an awesome day.

Part 19

Part 21

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 4

Walking into the dimly lit bar, Jia can feel Carly pull closer to her, practically hanging off her arm. This isn’t her normal kind of bar and while she seemed up for it earlier, now that she’s sobered up some she seems nervous. Jia’s spent enough nights in bars like this to feel comfortable and the bartender nods at her. Nodding back, she realizes how weird that feels without hair.

Dressed in torn jeans, a leather jacket and a shirt featuring her favorite band, Jia fits in. Her newly shaved head completes the look. Carly can’t stop staring at it. She oiled it after they finished shaving and it shines even under the low lights here. Jia feels lucky her head’s not a weird shape. She thinks she pulls the look off rather well.

Packed on a Saturday night, there’s no cute boys Carly wants to meet here. A few good looking stoner guys are in the back but they’re not her type. Most of the guys are older, bigger, with more tattoos than they have fingers. Heavy metal screeches off the jukebox and it plays so loud that conversations aren’t practical. The only noise that seems to fight through the music is the occasional breaking of balls on the pool table.

There aren’t any tables available so Jia leads the way to the bar. They find a couple open stools on the far side but a bartender isn’t quick to get to them. Carly gets right in Jia’s face so they can hear each other. “I hate you right now.”

Rolling her eyes Jia says, “Lighten up, it’s a new experience.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this was where you wanted to go? I stand out like crazy. Everyone’s staring at me. I could have dressed a little better if I knew.”

“Kind of figured you’d pick up on it from how I dressed. Look on the bright side, maybe one of the boys will ask for your number.”

“If they do you’d better kick their ass.”

The bartender stops by and Jia orders a whiskey. Carly orders a glass of wine but settles for a beer when the man stares at her like she’s made of fire. It’s too dark to see the back of the bar and Jia needs to find out if her target’s here. After the bartender drops their drinks off she pulls her friend close again. “I’m going to go see if I can find Jillian. Why don’t you stay here?”

“If you leave me alone in this place I’ll knife you and make you sleep on the street tonight.” With that decided, they grab their drinks and start worming through the crowds. Several times they bump into men neither would want to run into in a dark bar. They’re invariably stared at for a moment before the men wander away.

A lap of the place doesn’t yield results. There’s no sign of a pink mohawk which is the one thing about Jillian she’s confident would stand out. Jia tries to make out faces in case Jillian changed her hair but while it’s hard to be sure as dark as it is, nobody looks familiar. Carly’s already finished her drink so they return to the bar. Another beer’s quickly served up and Carly starts into it. “I wonder why nobody’s coming up to me. Do I look good?”

Jia eyes her friend up and down. She looks very good, if very out of place. A short pink dress, plenty of cleavage, great strappy shoes that make her three inches taller. “I already told you that you look awesome. You’re probably not their type. They don’t come here looking for blondes in pink mini dresses.”

“Maybe not, but some of them have to be into me, right?”

“I’m sure they are Carly, they probably think you’re with me.”

Carly’s mouth hangs open. “Wait, is this a gay bar?”

“What? No, do these guys look gay? Not to stereotype but a gay bar wouldn’t have this many bikers. I don’t think so anyway, I don’t go to a lot of gay bars. It’s San Francisco though. Plenty of gay people to go around.”

Calling the bartender over takes a few minutes since he just dropped a beer off for Carly but Jia’s finally able to order another whiskey. When it’s delivered she holds up a hundred dollar bill. “You able to answer a few questions?”

The man snatches the bill from her. “Depends what you want to know. I’ll listen to your questions for that.”

“That works to start. If you don’t answer you won’t get any more. I’m looking for a girl named Jillian. Pink hair, kicks some ass. You know her?”

He glances around the bar before answering. “I might have seen her around. She’s not here tonight though.”

“Where can I find her?”

“That’s going to cost you more.”

Jia reaches into her pocket and pulls out another hundred dollar bill. This time when he reaches for it she pulls it back. “Information first.”

“You’re in the wrong place to push your luck.”

“You’re talking to the wrong person to push yours with.”

He stares her down and for a moment Jia thinks they might fight. That’s the last thing she needs with Carly in tow. His eyes keep returning to the bill though and when she notices she knows she has him. “Fine, she’s not with them anyway. She’s been laying low the last few weeks since the cops picked her up. Bar fight, she started it. With how big her stomach’s getting I’m guessing she’s lucky the person she shoved had no clue how to handle themselves.”

“That’s nice to know but not what I asked?”

“I’m getting to it, cool your shit. She’s staying at an apartment over by the pier, I think a friend of hers lives there or something. No idea what apartment so don’t ask and no, I don’t know the friend’s name either. It’s above a place called Henry Fontana’s though. More laid back place. Very different vibe. A friend of mine said she’s been going in there a few times a week.”

Waiting to see if he’ll offer anything more, Jia extends the bill when she realizes he’s done. She drinks her whiskey and pays for their drinks. She doesn’t bother to leave a tip, what she paid him for information should be enough.

Grabbing Carly, she tries pulling her friend to the door. They’re almost separated by the crowd and she can see her friend’s eyes go wide. As she hails an Uber she tries to fill her in. It was so loud in there that Carly heard almost nothing they discussed. “We’ll stop in and see if she’s there. If she is, we’ll figure that out. If not we’ll head somewhere more your style.”

Their car pulls up and Jia goes to get in. Carly grabs her by the wrist though and signals to the driver that they need a minute. “Hold on, I did your thing with this place. What’s this next bar like?”

“No clue, we can look it up on the way.”

Carly gets a huge pout on her face. If she hadn’t accepted they were only friends years ago it might drive her crazy. “I don’t want to go to another place where I’m going to feel like a freak. Let’s go have fun somewhere. My kind of place. You know I pick good places. You can check that place out tomorrow night when I have to sleep. This is my one night and I need to have fun.”

She knows there’s no guarantee Jillian shows up any specific night, but she’ll feel stupid if she misses the woman. She also knows her friend needs this. She’s not doing well with the break up. She relents and agrees to let Carly pick the place. She gets a squeeze in response. She doesn’t hug her friend back.

Part 3

Part 5

The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 8

“How could you do this? This year of all years.” Zoe Alvarez throws anything she can get her hands on which won’t easily break around her room while her mother Martina Alvarez tries to think of ways to calm her. So far she hasn’t come up with anything. All she can do is try to catch the things that are a little more breakable than her daughter thinks.

“It’s going to be alright. I promise.” As she crosses the room Zoe throws a stuffed rabbit at her. She catches it and sets it on a shelf.

“How can you say that? You don’t have a job. We aren’t rich. How are you going to pay for my camp next month? I can’t be the only one who doesn’t get to go.”

Martina holds her hands before her in surrender. “You won’t be. I promise. I will figure it all out. I already have a bunch of ideas.”

With her eyes tightening, Zoe stops throwing things. The picture frame in her hand threatens that this could be a temporary reprieve. “What sort of ideas? I want to hear them. Now.”

“You do know you aren’t the adult here, right?”

“Now.”

With a deep breath, Martina regrets saying anything to her daughter. She would have found out from her grandfather otherwise though. Better she hears it from her. “I’m going to register for the vigilante act.” Since the passing of the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act, anyone can register and start walking the streets protecting people. She doesn’t need to be a cop to keep her city safe. With how things are going on the police force she might do a better job as a vigilante.

The throwing doesn’t start up again but there’s no excitement on her daughter’s face. “How does that make you money? They don’t pay people to be vigilantes do they?”

Martina hesitates and her daughter’s hand starts to shake. “No, but there are ways to make money once you register. A lot of people are looking for security help or guards who are registered now. The money can be pretty good. With my experience, I’ll find something. I promise.”

Shaking her head, Zoe flops face first onto her bed. “I don’t believe you. That sounds like its going to pay terribly. What if it doesn’t work out? What then?”

With a deep sigh Martina starts pacing back and forth. “I don’t know, I’ll figure something out. I’m not going to let my kid end up on the street. If I have to I’ll go out on the corner and turn some tricks.” She laughs, hoping to lighten the mood.

Turning over to face her mother, Zoe looks her up and down. “I don’t know mom, I don’t think anyone will pay.”

She has to pay for that. Martina rushes the bed and tackles her daughter before tickling her stomach. The girl can’t help laugh. After a minute she relents, rolling over and laying next to her daughter. Zoe turns to her and still has a concerned look on her face. “I know you keep saying its going to be okay, but are you sure? Maybe you could still get your job back. You could talk to grandpa, he could put in a good word.”

Martina puts a hand on her daughter’s cheek, trying to look more confident than she feels. “Honey, do you really want me to go to a job every day I don’t believe in? To help people hurt other people?”

Zoe looks away. “Not really, but I do want to eat.”

“You don’t ever have to worry about that. I’m going to make sure this is okay, no matter what it takes.”

Part 7

Part 9

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 2

Climbing out of his car in the auto body shop he operates out of, Zach Thomas expects to be alone. Instead Mr. Nowak who builds all of his tech is working on some new piece of technology. He turns to smile at Zach. When he climbs out of the car and Nowak sees how soaked he is though he turns red. “Tell me you didn’t fall into water in that thing.”

“Ya, went right off the pier. So that was fun. You’re going to have your hands full fixing everything.”

“You think!” He snatches the helmet from Zach and looks it over. He tosses it on a work bench and puts his head in his hands. “I tried to waterproof but something like this is hard to waterproof from the inside. It can get rained on but you can’t soak it through. Do you have any idea how much you’re going to pay to fix all of this?”

“Good thing I’m a billionaire.” His eyes stay down. He’s usually not here this late and he wanted to be alone. He can’t look at anyone right now. He continues stripping out of his gear. When he pulls off the pants his knee’s bright red but there’s no bleeding or serious damage.

“Your money. You think it’s all money. That’s not the only problem though. Fixing something like this takes time. More than an hour or two. Time I spend on this is time I don’t get so spend on your new gear.”

“My current gear is fine except you need to figure something out with ventilation. I was dying in the heat today.”

Nowak takes a deep breath and closes his eyes before responding. “I can’t do anything about the weather but I’ll see what I can figure out. Hard to put cooling systems into a pair of pants but I’ll work on it once I the main suit’s back up and running. This was terrific work but I can do so much better. Your car still needs so many upgrades.”

Zach opens a locker in the corner where he stores a spare set of clothes and begins dressing. “Can you call Beth? I need a ride.”

“Not going home?” Zach usually would walk from the shop, it’s only a few minutes away and he likes the exercise. He’s been trying to get in better shape and while his activity should help in time, being off his feet for months put him behind.

“I need to go to the hospital.”

For the first time since Zach came in, Nowak stops working. “What’s going on? Is your knee okay? I can call Lorelei.”

“That’s not going to help considering she’s at the hospital. I’m fine. Her cousin got caught in the water when one of the electric grenades went off. One of the guys we were fighting got ahold of one and threw it in.”

Nowak goes quiet for a moment before saying, “Is he going to be okay?”

“Not sure. He’s in bad shape. I need to find out more though. Kind of my fault.”

Steadying himself on a table, Nowak takes a deep breath. ”Being a vigilante’s dangerous, he knew what he was doing. Don’t put this on yourself. Do you want me to come with you?”

“I have it. Just need a ride.”

Part 1

Part 3

Red Line: The Future Part 8

Not having an address handy, Snow tells them to follow him. It’s only about a twenty minute drive to the restaurant. The roads around the base are fairly bumpy and badly in need of resurfacing though and every time they hit a bump Melissa cringes. Their dad tries to stay slow to avoid causing more pain than necessary. She’s still on a fair amount of pain medication but she didn’t want to go too heavy today for fear of messing something up during their ceremony.

Pulling into the parking lot behind Snow’s silver sports car, they find he wasn’t kidding when he said this place was small. The sign for Agda’s is tiny and tucked between those for a law office and a travel agency. The entrance is behind the building and you have to walk along a narrow cement path to get there. Melissa’s crutches have a hard time with the path but she refuses her family’s offers of help. Even Frank, free from his game which their mother insisted he leave in the car tonight, offers to help. It takes some time but they make it to the door and enter a dimly lit restaurant with beautiful candles on every table providing most of the light.

There’s only ten tables in the restaurant and two of them on one end of the room are filled. Snow whispers something to the woman who comes to seat them and they’re shown to the opposite end. Something changes hands between them as they’re seated. Menus are dropped off and as they study them their dad’s eyes about pop out of his head. There’s nothing here under thirty dollars outside of a tiny kid’s menu in the corner. Sweat starts to pour down the man’s head.

A waiter brings a basket of bread and offers drinks. Snow orders a couple of bottles of wine for the table before realizing half of them aren’t old enough to drink. He still asks they bring the bottles. “They carry Crawford cabernet, new brand but some of the best you can find.” Melissa wants a lemonade and Tara takes a glass of water. Cola works for Frank and the waiter disappears to gather their drinks. He returns with the water in what looks like a wine bottle. He leaves what’s left of it behind and pours glass bottles of the other drinks into glasses.

Snow waves him over. “I’m ready to order, can everyone else manage?” Uncomfortable glances are shared but he doesn’t pause. “I’m going to have the combination platter. Everything they make here’s so good that I want all of it. How does that sound to the rest of you? Six combinations?”

Everyone else’s jaws drop. That’s seventy dollars each. Frank looks at it and shakes his head. “Can I get the burger off the kids menu?”

Technically Frank’s a year too old for the kids menu but the waiter isn’t carding. He nods and writes it down. Snow looks to the rest of the group. “Five combinations then? That work for everyone?” Nobody else objects and the order goes in.

The bread’s heavenly. Soft and luscious with a crunchy exterior. A beautiful lemon and olive oil blend to dip it in takes Tara’s breath away. This has to be the best bread she’s ever eaten. She’s glad she won’t be stationed here much longer. Now that she knows how close this is she’d be in here all the time. She’d weight two hundred pounds before long.

They run out of bread but the waiter soon replaces the empty basket with a fresh one. Around the time they finish a second loaf Snow leans in. “Alright, so I understand you ladies want to know more about our program. Understand what I’m going to tell you tonight is classified. It was already classified, but this is super classified. If that’s not okay, say something now and we’ll finish our meals and call it a night.”

Everyone at the table stares at each other and then they all stare at Frank. He puts his hands up. “What, I can keep a secret. I won’t say anything.”

Snow makes a finger gun at him. “Alright young man, I’m taking you at your word. I informed the girls that we have a program we want to put together. We’re creating a team of three people. We’re tentatively planning on calling it team Red, White and Blue. I’m sure you can guess which one Melissa here’ll be if we pick her.”

Almost instinctively Melissa brushes her hair from her face. “That’s cool but I can’t be much good on a team with a messed up knee.”

“You’re right about that but if you join us, we’re going to get a fantastic surgeon to fix that knee of yours. I’m sure Georgia will get you a good surgeon too but we have access to some of the best. You’ll learn more about our organization if you join but we’re top secret to say the least. We need about twenty people. Three will be the crew, about five will be field support and the other dozen will fill out our base. No matter what we’ll figure something out for you to do.”

Tara’s been listening with a look of confusion on her face. “That sounds interesting and all but why us? We had good numbers in training but we weren’t at the top of our group or anything.”

Looking back and forth between Mr. and Mrs. Chance, Snow gets a big grin on his face. “I love your daughter, she’s crazy smart.” Returning his attention to Tara, he leans toward her. “I’ll be honest. Your numbers helped but had very little to do with picking you. You both signed up for this program so we were able to go in and run some tests on your DNA. To make these three leaders of the group work, we need people compatible with the enhancement formula and preliminary tests suggest you both are. Plus, again, being honest, there’s a lot of pressure from up high to have a woman on the team. We didn’t get a ton of female volunteers and even less who looked like they’d be compatible. We have four and all four are being invited. If I didn’t think you could handle this though, I’d have left you out.”

Their food arrives and they all settle back as massive plates of meat are placed before them. They each have tomato braised sausage, chicken with a dill tzatziki sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, steak skewers and lamb chops. Tara has no idea how she’ll get through it. Their dad doesn’t seem concerned as he immediately digs in.

Conversation takes a back seat as they focus on their food. Soon their dad decides he has to ask a question with a mouth full of food. “You mentioned something about a formula. Enhancement or something? What’s that about?”

Snow’s shoulders drop as he has to put his fork down. He finishes chewing his bite of lamb before continuing. “That’s something I can only talk so much about. In short though, it’s going to provide powers. Some of the same ones that the vigilantes back in the day had. Theoretically it’ll make someone strong, fast, provide high endurance. There’s a few other potential things in there too. It has to be a fit though. If you get there and aren’t down for it by the way, that’s not an issue. You can still turn it down. Once you agree to be part of the program though, you can’t back out until your service term is up. You can choose to be in our field crew instead of taking the enhancement but not to leave. Too much risk. It’s your call ladies but I need an answer tonight.”

They finish their meal and Snow offers dessert. Everyone’s far too full except for Frank who wants a piece of chocolate cake. The giant piece they set in front of him feels like it could feed a family and their mom steals a bite. He gives her a dirty look but doesn’t object.

Once he pays the check in cash Snow turns to the group. “This is where we say goodbye one way or the other. The only thing left is to decide if we’re saying goodbye for now or for good. That’s entirely up to you ladies but I need to know.”

They look at each other and Tara tries to read her sister’s face. Melissa’s looking at her with wide eyes and a hint of a smile. Her face is twisted oddly though. She considers the danger but also considers what this could mean for her sister. The best surgeons give her the best chance to get back to top form. Snow said something about the formula possibly helping her knee too. Her sister’s only here because she wanted to join the military and didn’t want to do it alone. “I’ll do it if my sister will.”

Melissa’s hint of a smile turns into a full on grin. “I’m totally in if you are.”

Slapping his hands together, Snow offers each of the girls a hand shake and then shakes everyone else at the table’s hand. “Glad to hear this dinner wasn’t for nothing. That’s fantastic ladies. I can’t wait to get you in the program and get to work.”

Unsure where they go from there, Tara interrupts the celebration. “What do we do next?”

“You are always straight to the point. We need more of that in our crew. Everyone’s gonna love you. Probably not at first, but they’ll get there. You go home with your family in the morning and enjoy your leave. It’s probably going to be at least six months before you get another. From there, you obviously won’t be reporting to Georgia. I’ll take care of the paperwork. I’ll send a car for you a week from Tuesday. They’ll take you to the nearest airport and get you where you’re going. I’m not at liberty to let you know where that is yet but you’ll find out soon enough.”

With a final salute Snow excuses himself, promising to see them in a little over a week.

Part 7

Part 9

Toxic Vol 1 Susceptible States Part 19

“Have them stand on one leg again.” The same instructions they give him every time. Every time they take him into the bright room with those same five individuals and every time things are more or less the same. They want him to have them stand on one leg, to cover their eyes. New steps are added each time. Have them dance. Have them hug each other. Any step that’s added becomes part of the routine which means every time they come in here takes longer than the time before.

The only consistent thing DeMarcus has noticed, which he’s quick to point out, is that every time his powers get weaker. It starts with people being able to show annoyance while they do the things they’re doing. With muscles that quake in resistance. Over time it grows into more. They listen but they don’t have to do so for long. One of them stands on one leg but then stops after only a few seconds, having completed the letter of the command but ignoring the spirit of it.

The asian woman’s the first to outright defy a command. He tells her one day to hug the man next to her and she refuses. He can see the amount of strength it takes. Her arms start to rise, her body moves into his, but there’s no hug. When he finally tells her to stop he can see sweat dripping down her forehead. Despite that she has a proud smile of defiance on her face. She was able to fight. Seeing this seems to inspire the rest. Soon commands are ignored left and right.

Today they’ve been doing almost nothing he’s told them. He said to stand on one foot and only one of the five did and even then only for a moment. He told them to break-dance which two weeks ago they all did without issue, despite the fact that none of them apparently know how to do so. Instead of dancing, today he only receives laughter. Only one of them even looks at the floor.

Whoever’s administering this test, the frustration in their voice rises every session. This research may still help them with future subjects. Maybe they can find a way to use this chemical for their own good. It won’t involve DeMarcus though. After a session last week they actually asked if they could dose him again. If his mouth were free he would have screamed no at them. At least they asked and didn’t pump it into his room in his sleep.

“DeMarcus, I want to try something new. You’re going to try giving the commands in an angry manner. We want to see if your aggression has any effect. We’re also going to try giving commands from closer and further away. Go ahead and shout at them to stand on one leg.” Yelling doesn’t seem to have any effect. They stay put. “Get closer to them, say it right into their ears.

He moves up to the Asian woman and gets right next to her ear. She doesn’t react. Her eyes stay pointed forward. “Stand on one foot.” No response. He starts walking back toward the glass, raising his eyes. “This isn’t going to work. My powers have no effect on them. They’re still free to do whatever they want.” Whispers make their way onto the speaker but they’re so low that he can’t make out the words. “If you’re going to talk about me, maybe you should talk to me.”

The voice rises. “We’re still not confident in this. We’re going to keep pushing you for more tests until we’re confident the powers are gone.”

His fist clenches and squeezes tight. Are they ever going to let him out of here? He hears gun safety’s being released behind him. “Come on, I’m entitled to get a little annoyed after weeks of this. I have people I care about out there. I need to get back to my life. I was told when these powers were at least mostly gone I could go. That’s where we are.”

“We’ll decide when that’s the case.”

The guards move to take him back to his room. He rolls his eyes and thinks about resisting but knows with those ear plugs he won’t be able to do a thing. Even without them he’d likely be helpless at this point. The guards get the handcuffs out, the first time they’ve been pulled on him in almost two weeks. Apparently clenching his fist is all it takes to get those back on. “You know you don’t need to keep me here anymore. You know it.”

Part 18

Part 20

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 3

Screaming as she throws her door open, Carly wraps Jia in a hug. “I missed you so much. Get in here.” They walk inside and Jia’s jaw drops. “What do you think?”

This is quite possibly the fanciest apartment she’s ever seen. A crystal chandelier hangs from the vaulted ceiling. All the furniture looks incredibly fashionable and incredibly uncomfortable to sit on. The kitchen’s done in earth tones which look great with the stainless steel appliances which look brand new. There’s a seventy inch TV built into one of the walls. Another wall’s entirely made of glass which provides an amazing view of the city. “How much are they paying you?”

With a giant grin Carly leans in close. “A whole hell of a lot. They actually provide this place though, I don’t even have to pay for it. It’s an awesome place but you know I’d never pick out that chandelier.”

“I feel like I can’t touch anything.”

Carly practically skips into the kitchen. “Touch away, I’m not paying for it and I’m not even responsible if it gets damaged. The company handles all of it.”

“I should have been an analyst.” Jia follows her friend.

“Tried to tell you that five years ago. I didn’t expect it to go this well though. Let’s have a drink to celebrate.”

“What does Hank think of all this?”

Carly goes quiet and her smile slips away. “We can talk about that too if you want but then I really need a drink.”

Opening a bottle of Cabernet, Carly grabs two oversized glasses and splits the bottle between them. She takes a long swig of her wine and then smiles back at her friend. “Me and Hank broke up.”

Immediately rushing forward to offer a hug, Carly doesn’t hug her back. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know, I was hoping to talk about it later.” Carly’s eyes close and her hand tightens around her wine glass.

“When did it happen?”

Finishing her wine, Carly pulls up a bar stool and sits down. She leans on the counter and puts her head in her hands. “A week ago. I knew it was coming when I decided to move out here though. We talked about it. He decided he didn’t want to be so far from work. We were going to try long distance but last week he decided that doesn’t work for him so I guess that’s that.”

Trying to restore their excited mood, Jia smiles and puts an arm around her friend. “Let’s go out tonight and party. I have a credit card burning a hole in my pocket. We’ll get drinks, you’ll meet cute boys, we’ll stay out late. It’ll be like the old days.”

“Will your girlfriend like you hanging out at bars picking people up?”

Giggling, Jia squeezes Carly tighter. “I’m not going to pick anyone up at a straight bar, I think she’ll be okay. I have a bar I need to check out anyway. It’ll be great.”

With a deep breath Carly gets to her feet. Her legs seem unsteady under her and for a moment Jia fears she’ll fall. She moves to catch her friend but Carly grabs the counter and steadies herself. “Okay, let’s do it. I’m willing if you are. Do you want to go now?”

Glancing at her phone, Jia frowns. “It’s two in the afternoon, we’ll seem pretty sad if we show up at a bar this time of day. We’ll go tonight. For now let’s drink some more wine and I’ll get settled in. Before we go there is one thing I want you to do for me though.” Before Jia can finish Carly lets go of the counter and tries to walk away. She slips and falls, landing hard on her side. She starts laughing almost immediately. Jia offers a hand to help her up. “That wasn’t the first glass of wine you’ve had today was it?”

“Not quite. I didn’t have to work today or tomorrow and I figured I should enjoy myself.” She takes the hand and once she’s on her feet she walks back into the kitchen.

“That’s fine tonight but drinking alone is sad. That’s something I’d do and even I’m not doing it now. No more until we go out. I need you to do something for me and you’re sure as hell not doing it drunk. I assume you have a coffee pot around here?”

Part 2

Part 4