Hiatus

I hope everyone’s doing well. I just wanted to provide a brief update.

There’s been a lot going on in my life right now and things seem a bit all over the place. Because of this I am going to be taking a hiatus for the month of February. I apologize for the delay but the good news is that I feel a lot of you are playing catch up anyway and now you can actually do so. I hope you continue to enjoy our stories and we will return at the start of March. Thank you for your understanding.

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Rebel Rebel Vol. 2 Heroes of the City Part 3

The train ride’s bumpy and all four of them are thrilled when they finally reach the stop closest to Millennium Park. Climbing the filthy stairs to the street, Ryaan holds Lana’s hand tight while holding his backpack over his opposite shoulder. It’s filled with all the gear he couldn’t wear without giving himself away.

Reaching the street, they’re immediately swept up in a crowd heading toward the park. The streets are closed and people fill not only the sidewalks but the road as well. The three girls stay close to him. Looking through the crowd he notices that there’s almost nobody who looks like them here. Most of their neighborhood doesn’t seem to be on the same page as his dad.

Pushing beyond the downtown buildings, they’re forced toward the park where they have a great view of Lake Michigan. The place is packed full with vendors and stands all over the place. Near the entrance a man with dark glasses and a support cane’s trying to sell shirts with the Goggle Guys’ pictures on them. They seem to be going fast. When she sees them Mina cringes and pulls away.

Across the road from the park Ryaan sees a diverse crowd gathered holding signs protesting both the Vigilantes Making Us Safe Act but more specifically the Goggle Guys. He hopes he’ll recognize someone in the group but none of them look familiar. A cry goes up every few seconds, “No justice, no equality, vigilante law can’t bring us peace.” A few police officers are protecting the group but a ring of those celebrating the festival have gathered around and are trying to drown them out with cries of their own. One of the counter protesters throws a soda at the group which splashes them. A police officer escorts him away but lets him leave as soon as he exits the crowd.

Their attention’s pulled away when Lana sees a food cart selling carnival treats and rushes there yelling about wanting an elephant ear. The rest follow, desperate not to lose her in the crowd.

All four of them get a snack. Lana’s enjoying her elephant ear that’s bigger than her head. Mina grabbed a thing of donut holes on sticks. Nadia grabbed a grape snow cone while Ryaan went with a corn dog. They walk around enjoying the food while exploring.

The mayor went all out for this. Food vendors are everywhere and beer’s flowing from designated booths. Country music blares from a nearby stage and a huge crowd’s gathered around it dancing along. Ryaan doesn’t recognize the singer but a lot of people here are wearing shirts with his face on them. Ryaan starts to wonder whether the real attraction here is the Goggle Guys or the music.

The aquarium’s visible in the distance, standing watch over everything and keeping everyone focused on why they’re here. A path between the popular attraction and the park is lined with the families of the kids who were at the aquarium yesterday. Ryaan walks up to one of them in a baseball hat with a giant beard. “What’s going on with the line?”

With a look of suspicion, the man raises an eyebrow. “This is where the vigilantes are coming from when the ceremony starts. They’re going to honor them in a half hour. Why do you want to know?”

“No reason, just curious I guess.” Before the man can ask any further questions Ryaan slips into the crowd, pulling the girls after him. Nadia and Mina look uncomfortable though Lana seems to be having a great time. That is until she has to use a bathroom and finds the only options at the festival are port a potties. The rest of the group stand guard outside while she loudly complains about the smell.

Their next stop’s the stage. It’s a flat platform about five feet off the ground with some quickly erected metal stairs leading to it. Draped with a flag that goes all the way over and around the stage, he can’t figure out what its made of. A podium and microphone sit at the front while several giant American flag banners wave proudly above. One of them has a picture of a flag with eyeballs wearing aviator goggles. His stomach churns when he sees it and he’s not sure if it’s from the sight or the corn dog.

Pulling them closer, Lana wants to find a view near the stage. Mina puts a hand on her shoulder. “I think we’re close enough Lana. We can see from here.”

Stomping her feet, Lana throws her head back and lets out a mini howl. “I can’t. I’m shorter than you. Let’s go to the front.”

Ryaan’s about to jump in but before he can Nadia kneels down to get eye level with her younger sister. “I’m sure Ryaan will hold you up when things start. We don’t want to be rude and push people who were here before us out of the way.”

The park’s full of easily spotted security guards today but looking around the area, Ryaan notices there aren’t many near the stage. The area’s not that busy with the speeches still half an hour from starting but he can only make out one guard anywhere near the stage and they’re busy working crowd control.

People throughout the crowd are holding up flag banners of their own as well as signs proclaiming their love for the Goggle Guys. He doesn’t see anyone openly against them here which is probably a good thing. This crowd would descend on anyone who isn’t on their side.

Watching the group, Ryaan notices someone with dark black hair getting to their feet on the other side of the stage. Something about that seems wrong. He can’t make out where they came from and it’s possible they were laying in the grass, or maybe they leaned down to pick something up and Ryaan didn’t notice it. He doesn’t remember seeing them walk up to the stage though. Putting his hands in his pockets, they slowly makes their way away. Other than the hair he can’t make out much but they seems like one of the only people in the group who isn’t white.

He should let it go. He’s here to enjoy the festival with his family. Strange looks have followed them throughout the crowd but nobody’s been openly rude and carnival food and games make almost anything better. This isn’t his problem. He looks down at his sisters though and he knows that’s not the case. That could have been something serious. Probably nothing but he needs to make sure.

Leaning down to Mina and Nadia, he taps them both on the shoulder. “I need to run to the restroom, keep and eye on Lana. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Nadia nods but Mina continues to stare at him. Once Nadia stops paying attention he gives her a small nod to confirm something’s going on. She closes her eyes and grabs Lana by the shoulder but doesn’t say anything.

Changing in a place like this is going to be difficult. He searches for any privacy but the closest buildings are too far. He can’t reach them and get back for at least fifteen minutes and by then things will be getting ready to start. The solution presents itself but he isn’t happy about it. Those same portable toilets Lana used lock and he’s changed in one before so he knows he can manage it.

Climbing inside, this seems smaller than the last time he changed in a port a potty. The walls are closing in and the awful smells don’t help. He resists the urge to investigate what he’s smelling. He doesn’t want to know even if there’s a sort of morbid curiosity. Banging an elbow trying to get his shirt off causes a yelp and he hopes nobody thinks to investigate.

Knives slide into the various slots he’s carved out throughout his suit to hold them. His holster for his staff goes over his shoulder and the staff slides into place. Unwilling to leave his bag sitting here and knowing there’s nowhere else safe, Ryaan can only throw it over his shoulder and hope it doesn’t get in the way.

Emerging into air he can actually breathe, he expects to find even more eyes on him. Strangely, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Pushing through the crowd, nobody gives the masked man with knives the time of day. It probably helps that with his costume on not much of his skin’s visible. Someone would have to look closely at his hands to notice.

Even a few minutes closer to the Goggle Guys’ arrival, the stage is largely unguarded. One more guard did show up but they’re also on crowd control as the people in the front are being pressured to move up until they’re practically hanging on the stage. The guards are focused on keeping the walkway clear so the guests of honor will be able to get through.

Moving around the stage is easy but he doesn’t get too close. He’s not ready to draw attention to himself and he’s enjoying the anonymity. He scans the crowd for any sign of the girls but there’s too many tall people around. They don’t stand out wherever they are. Once he’s behind the stage he searches the area he saw the mysterious stranger emerge from but nothing gets his attention. Sneaking closer, he sees a few people in the crowd watching him but none of them seem that focused.

Reaching the stage, he doesn’t see any way up or anything interesting but the flag curtain that covers the entire thing reaches the ground. He kneels down and lifts to see underneath.

He freezes. Right under the center of the stage he sees a device with a clock on it. It’s ticking down and has twenty one minutes remaining. The device it’s attached to looks like some sort of metal box. He’s not an expert but that looks like a bomb to him. He starts to crawl through the grass to reach the device but stops himself. What’s he doing? He’s not a bomb expert and he can’t defuse the thing. He wouldn’t even dare to touch it.

Climbing out from under the stage and standing he sees the cheering crowd before him. Sweat’s pouring from his face under the mask, causing the cheap plastic to stick to him.

Every instinct he has says to run. He wants to find the girls and get them as far away from here as possible. Who knows how many people might get hurt though. Who knows if they can even get far enough away in time. He doesn’t know what this thing does. Should he get away and anyone notices then they’re Muslims seen running from a bombing site. That won’t end well.

Screaming and telling everyone to run doesn’t sound any better though. People will panic. They’ll be trampled underfoot. He needs to keep calm and make smart decisions. There’s over twenty minutes left. There’s still time to stop this if he keeps his head on straight. Searching the crowd for police officers doesn’t do much. The security guards seem busy but he notices they each have a radio on their hip. Maybe they can reach somebody in time.

He rounds the stage and comes up on one of the guards from behind. Tapping the man on the shoulder he almost jumps out of his clothes. Turning around red faced, the man puts a finger in Ryaan’s face and starts to speak but then notices the mask. “Who the hell are you? You aren’t supposed to be back here. Get back into the crowd.”

The man grabs for his shoulder but Ryaan pulls his arm back and puts it up. “I need to talk to you sir. Can we step away from the crowd for a moment?”

“I have a crowd of hundreds that’s growing by the second, I don’t have time to sneak off so you can tell me something. Nobody’s supposed to be behind me.”

Reaching for him again, Ryaan wants to shove him away but lets the hand land on his shoulder, hoping the man will listen if he gives him some control. Lying might help too. “Listen to me for one minute. That’s all I ask. I’m a registered vigilante and I discovered something. I don’t want to yell it out because I don’t want to panic the crowd. It’s serious though. Why don’t you follow me behind the stage.”

“I can’t leave here and I’m not following you anywhere. Whatever you have to say, you can whisper it to me but that’s it.”

With no alternative Ryaan puts his face inches from the man’s ear. “There’s something under the stage that I think is a bomb. It’s on a timer. We need to get the police here right away.”

The man’s eyes go wide. He marches around the stage without another word, Ryaan right in tow. Lifting the covering, he looks under it and the color drains from his face. Fumbling for his radio, he manages to press the button. “This is Davidson on stage duty, there’s something under the stage. We need to get the bomb squad in here now. Someone tell the mayor and the speakers to stay put. Over.”

Part 2

Part 4

The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 11

Hours go by before the cops clear Martina to leave. Paramedics take the injured worker away and pronounce the shooter dead at the scene. They want to take her to the hospital as well, especially when they see the blood and scratches on her face, but she insists she’s fine. Her shoulder hurts like hell but nothing appears to be broken. The edge of the desk cut her but that was easy enough to bandage.

Laney’s questioned at length but they eventually let her go, confident her story matches up with what everyone says happened here. The first cops on the scene keep looking Martina’s way. They all know who she is. Everyone always knows who she is thanks to her dad. His shadow hangs over everything she does even after quitting. One of the first cops to arrive apparently hadn’t heard she quit because they asked why she wasn’t securing the scene. Another officer whispered in his ear and he quickly apologized.

Of course her former partner Brandon Tate showed up, paired with a rookie she’s only met a few times and whose name she can’t remember. Their few interactions haven’t given her much confidence in the woman. She almost feels bad leaving him with such a trash partner until she remembers he sold her out.

Tate keeps glancing her way as she gets checked out and questioned but he doesn’t come up to her. After how many texts he’s sent her in the last week wanting to explain she’s surprised he isn’t using this opportunity. Maybe he doesn’t want the other cops to see though. Instead he glances.

When most of the cops have left and only a few remain, Tate makes his move. Telling his partner to go get the car, he walks up to Martina. “How you doing grandma? Got a minute to talk?”

“You don’t get to call me that anymore. And no, I don’t. Not for you.”

Taking his almost comically large hat off and throwing it on the ground, he gets right in her face. “Come on, you don’t get to play this game forever. We’re supposed to be friends.”

“Friends have each other’s backs. You didn’t. So we’re not friends anymore.” Remembering the sports peppers and onions she had for lunch, she takes his closeness as a chance to breathe in his face. He always hated her breath.

He cringes away and crinkles his nose. “We disagree on one thing and suddenly I don’t have your back? By the way, you need a mint. What’d you eat for lunch, a raw onion?”

“Two of them. You didn’t have to agree with me, you just needed to back me up. The captain still wasn’t going to change his mind but I wouldn’t have been alone in there. Maybe I wouldn’t have quit.”

They stare at each other for a minute before Martina can’t help but laugh. She’s still mad at the man but she’s always loved messing with him. She’s missed it. Tate turns serious. “Are you okay? You sure you aren’t hurt too bad?”

“I can handle myself. You know that better than anyone. How’d you end up over here anyway? This isn’t our route. Did they reassign you to go along with the shit new partner? Captain punishing you for me quitting?”

“I’m not being punished. I’m the senior officer now. I get to mentor a young officer who yes, has a few opportunities. I think she can be good though. I was a rookie when they assigned me to you. Was that a punishment?”

“Yes actually. Captain always loved punishing me. I was too awesome though and I managed to turn you into something useful. He never saw it coming. Seriously though, what are you doing over here?”

“I dunno, guess hearing on the radio that my anti-vigilante partner is suddenly a vigilante made me want to check it out. We’re not that far from our route. It took like ten minutes to get over here. What the hell are you doing?”

They stare back at each other for a moment. Both are smiling at least a little but this isn’t their normal. She can’t imagine they’ll ever get back to what was normal. “I have a kid to feed. I can have some principles but not too many. Nothing wrong with being a vigilante, the problem’s the cops not stopping the bad ones. I’m not a bad one.”

Retrieving his hat, Tate puts a hand on the back of his neck. “I hope not. Why don’t you come back to the force? Captain hasn’t submitted your paperwork yet. I think he’s hoping you’ll change your mind. Afraid your dad’s going to go to war over him making you quit.”

Sitting on the edge of one of the desks, Martina absent mindedly rubs her injured shoulder. “My dad doesn’t care enough about me to do that. He might care enough about Zoe but it won’t make a difference. I won’t come back unless something big changes and we both know that’s not about to happen.”

“Was it my fault you quit then?”

She takes a moment to think this over. “No, it wasn’t your fault. I might not have done it right then if you backed me up but it was going to be an issue eventually.”

Taking a seat on the desk next to her, Tate seems to be thinking. “So you’re looking for a job as a vigilante then?”

“That’s the general idea. I don’t exactly have a long list of qualifications to do anything but be a cop. Even security guards they want to be vigilantes now. That way they can carry a gun instead of some dinky stun gun. How else am I going to feed my kid?”

“I may know a guy.”

Her eyes snap open and she stands and faces him. “What kind of guy?”

“My brother has a friend who owns a warehouse storing electronics and stuff. People are always trying to rob it because they have high end stereos and stuff, easy to sell. He’s looking for a few vigilantes to work security. It’s not the safest job, they get robbed a lot, but you’d have backup instead of wandering the streets like a crazy person with a gun. The pay’s good and if I put a good word in for you he’ll almost definitely hire you.”

Breathing in Tate’s face again feels good. She’s paying him back in some way for not having her back. “Is their business legal? I’m not getting involved in gang stuff.”

“Completely above board, you can look into it yourself.”

“Is this your guilt talking?”

“Maybe. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a good opportunity. Is it your pride that’s making you consider turning it down?”

“Maybe.” Her hands go to her hips and she closes her eyes. “Fine, text me the details. I don’t like it but like I said, I have a kid who needs to eat; I don’t get to have too many principles.”

 Part 10

Part 12

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 5

Walking into the board room Zach feels all eyes on him. He’s surrounded by the group of men and women who’ve spent years making the choices for his multi billion dollar company. They’re all lingering around the long table where they meet. He knows many of them, though he hasn’t seen any since his parents’ funeral. There’s many others he doesn’t recognize and he’s certain he’s never seen. They all know who he is. They whisper as he walks by, flashing nervous smiles. They range in age from the fairly young to the very old. Age doesn’t have much to do with their reactions.

Is she here? Asking Linus feels impossible, like an admission of what he did. She wouldn’t necessarily be on the board, but he wouldn’t be surprised if she is either. She must hate him. He can’t undo what he did. Scanning the faces of every woman in the room, none of them look like her although how would he know after so long? What does she even look like now?

The new suit Linus recommended itches like crazy but he has to admit he looks great in it. It slims him in all the right places and makes him look twenty pounds lighter. He loved his reflection in the mirror this morning. Now he wishes he could stop fidgeting, or that his tie was a little looser so he could breathe.

An older man with a cane comes over and offers his hand. Seeing no polite way around the gesture Zach accepts while trying to remember where he knows this guy from. There’s a hint of recognition but he can’t come up with a name. He’s saved by Linus calling the meeting to order.

Everyone takes a seat. There’s an empty seat near Linus and the man waives him over. His shoulders slump. Why’d they have to put him right at the front of the room? This is his first meeting, somewhere in the back where he can observe without getting in the way would work a lot better. There’s no other free chairs though so he makes his way there and fidgets into his chair.

New business is brought up first and a variety of committee members stand to present new issues or new products they’d like to throw the company behind. Acquiring another company’s discussed but Zach finds the business side of that confusing. Other members of the group are concerned about the cost of buying a company in dire financial straits but the man proposing the purchase suggests at this price they don’t need the company to make money. Their patents alone will make the purchase a steal.

The vote on that one’s close but they pass. Too large a financial obligation. Zach abstains on the vote and can’t miss the eyes rolling around the table. He doesn’t waiver though; he doesn’t know enough to make an informed decision. He won’t contribute to messing this company up. The man who made the proposal seems upset but after a moment manages to calm himself down enough that he doesn’t storm out.

Next is an investment opportunity in VR. A short brunette woman in a long green dress gets up to discuss all the money they’ve been pouring into it and where they can go from here. She presents a program which can map your way around a city and take you on a virtual trip. It uses real time data from a satellite network to show what’s happening in the city in real time. This seems way more advanced than current GPS programs and Zach takes notice. He can see a hundred ways this could help him.

The claws emerge the second she finishes her presentation. They’ve spent too much on VR in the last few years with little to show for it. This could take years to show results. What are the practical applications?

The room goes quiet and Zach worries this isn’t going to pass. He needs a way to sway the room and he’s out of time. Linus notices his agitation and leans toward him. “Everything alright Zach? This all a bit much for your first day?”

“I’m good, thanks. I actually have a question about this last presentation. Do I raise my hand or something? Or just speak up?”

Linus frowns. “You’re the controlling owner, stand and speak and everyone in this room’s going to listen.”

Standing, Zach feels every eye in the room focus on him. His fight or flight instincts kick in and he wants nothing more than to escape and bury his head under a pillow. He breathes in and out a few times, trying to calm himself. There was a time he regularly had to appear confident when he wasn’t and he calls on his best fake smile. “I actually rather liked the presentation, the technology looks impressive. I wonder if we’ve considered what could be our best customer for this though.”

The woman who gave the presentation looks ready to grab any flotation device tossed her way. She can read the room. “What would that be? We’re certainly interested in ways we can get the most out of the technology.”

“How about first responders? Police, paramedics, fire fighters. They could all use a technology that helps them plot the best course around a city. That can shave valuable seconds which for emergency responders can be everything.”

A man sitting a few seats down climbs to his feet. “That’s great Mr. Thomas and I can see the application but usually those public agencies don’t pay all that well. If that’s our main market I question whether we would ever recoup our development cost.”

Run away. The urge is strong. Zach’s legs shake but he stands his ground. “That may be true and I know we’re here to make money. There are other considerations though. Working with the police to help with this sort of technology could be huge for public relations. I’d also argue that if we get this working everywhere then every first responder in the world will want one. That may not be a huge amount per unit but the amount of units adds up.”

The crowd starts whispering and everyone seems to be considering his points. If there’s one thing the board likes more than money it’s public recognition. The vote starts soon after and while there are a few nail biting moments the proposal passes. Zach’s relieved to see Linus votes along with him.

Another hour goes by before the meeting ends and none of the other proposals interest him. He abstains from the remaining votes though none are close enough that he could have mattered. When everyone gets up to leave the woman who proposed the VR technology makes her way over to him and offers her hand. “Mr. Thomas, I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your support. If you hadn’t spoken up I don’t think we would have passed.”

She’s a little older but attractive and Zach starts to sweat as she comes close. “Glad I could help. Your proposal was fascinating.”

Her eyes narrow. “Thanks, I had considered the law enforcement angle but I guess the potential for pushing that hadn’t occurred to me. I think there are a lot of other applications as well but that could be great for the company’s image.”

“Ya, big help. Glad to do so…” Zach sticks his hands in his pockets. He realizes how weird he must seem but feeling awkward about his awkwardness just makes him more awkward. Finally he decides to end things. Removing his hand from his pocket he offers it to her. “I really want to see more of this when it’s done Ms…”

“Moore. Charley Moore. I’ll make sure you receive any updates Mr. Thomas.” She takes Zach’s hand and he’s suddenly very aware of how sweaty it is. She doesn’t seem to mind though and she smiles as she leaves.

Linus sneaks up behind him and slaps him on the back. “Great first meeting. I was surprised you stood up for a project but you made some excellent points.”

“I saw you voted for with me. Did you like the project too?”

Linus puts a hand to his head and rubs his temple. “Honestly? Not really. It’s okay and could be cool but I think the business applications are small and even if we can sell it to first responders, that’s years away. It’s not going to break us or anything though and I wanted to support a project you were passionate about. Everyone in this room understands you have pull now. The next time you speak up, they’re all going to listen.”

His skin crawls. Zach’s never liked getting ahead because of who he is and knowing that this only passed because he’s a Thomas hurts. He reminds himself his success wasn’t at stake here. Charley’s was. “If this thing doesn’t work out am I going to take the blame?”

“Not at all, don’t worry about that. Nobody hits them all out of the park. I’ve championed plenty of investments that bombed. Try to make more of your passion projects hit than not and you’ll be fine.” Linus pulls his phone out and starts scrolling through it. “By the way, I wanted to grab lunch with you tomorrow. We can go over the meeting, I can answer any questions you might have, then we can start looking at next steps.”

Every instinct in his body tells him that he doesn’t have time. Sami and Lorelei are in the hospital and he needs to track down the people responsible. He needs to keep Linus in the dark though. “Now definitely isn’t the right time. I have a lot going on with the business I’m investing in. Maybe in a couple weeks?”

Linus’ eyes narrow, not much but enough that Zach can tell he isn’t happy. “I know this all seems like a lot and maybe you don’t want to rush things. Today went great though and I want to keep the momentum going. Besides, it’s my treat. You have to eat.”

Fidgeting in place, Zach tries to think of another excuse. None come to mind. “Alright, we’ll make it work. Send Beth the details about where and I’ll be there. Try to pick somewhere that’s not super fancy though. I don’t want to dress up.”

Another slap on his back sees the smile return to Linus’ face. “You’ve got it. I have the perfect spot. Low key, secluded, not super busy. Fantastic Cuban food and you don’t have to wear anything fancy.”

“Sounds perfect.” The men shake hands and Zach calls his driver. His original plan was to take today for himself since he knew this meeting would be a lot to handle. If he’s going to make time for Linus tomorrow though, that means he needs to make more time today for hunting down these men.

Part 4

Part 6

Red Line: The Future Part 11

“How big is this place?” Melissa Chance hobbles through the underground bunker Project All American’s operating out of in the middle of Kansas. The place has a sterile feel which makes her skin crawl. A faint smell of lemon fills her nose. Her crutches squeak with every step she takes, as if the sores she’s getting under her arms from them weren’t bad enough. “I feel like this tour’s been going forever and if I’m not mistaken there’s still a lot of space down here.”

Stopping to take a breath, Captain Snow takes a long puff of his cigarette. A look of peace washes over his face as he exhales. “Big. Real big. We’ve got three floors here and this is just the bottom one. There’s two floors above us just as big. This one’s mostly for rest, relaxation, all that good stuff. Temporary dorms, we’re coming up on the kitchen. Don’t get too excited, right now we’ve mostly got basic stuff. If you like peanut butter or pizza rolls you’re in luck. The next floor up has our science wings where they’re working on the project. That’s where you’ll spend tomorrow. Above that we have detention areas and our armory. I think you’ll get a kick out of that. We have some cool stuff, very state of the art.”

A woman with bright pink hair, chewing bubble gum in a cutoff shirt and leather pants, comes strolling toward them. Snow waves her over and introduces her as Delilah. She shakes hands and smiles a lot before rushing down the hall. Both sisters watch her go with shock. Tara leans in close to Snow. “So did she get picked because of the hair? Is pink close enough to red?”

He snorts and has to pull the cigarette away from his face to avoid swallowing it. “Hell no, she got picked because she’s a female cadet with solid potential and whose DNA fit. She didn’t have the hair before, you think she got through basic with that? She showed up here with it, probably figured once we took the effort to bring her here we weren’t going to send her away. She’s right about that too. Things are more relaxed here, so enjoy if you want. Just don’t go that far. I can’t take two of those.”

The dining hall’s ahead and the sisters realize they haven’t eaten since breakfast. Even that was small due to their nerves. There’s not a lot of options but each grabs a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Melissa goes for strawberry while Tara tears into raspberry. The food selection isn’t great but there’s an impressive variety of jelly.

Melissa calls for a break and guides the three of them to a table. Snow disappears for a moment and returns with three bottles of water. Tara downs most of hers in one long gulp.

A tall black man with a fade walks in wearing green basketball shorts and a polo shirt. He slips into the kitchen and returns a minute later with an orange soda. Seeing them across the room, he waves and strides over. “Captain Wolf, good to see you sir. Wasn’t sure when you’d be back.”

A huge grin sits on Wolf’s face. “Just a few hours ago, had to go pick up our newest recruits. How many of the people we gave leave after the last tests are back?”

The man shrugs and pulls up a free chair. “A lot of them. Probably seventy five percent. The rest I’m sure will show up soon. Everyone’s excited. Care to introduce me to the beautiful young ladies you’ve brought us?”

Sighing, Wolf rolls his eyes. “Melissa, Tara, this is Lieutenant Kurt Vickers. He’s great in the field and has more experience than most of our crew but he’s also a huge flirt who I would recommend staying clear of outside of missions.”

Putting his hands over his heart, Vickers drops his jaw in shock. “That stings captain. I consider myself a perfect gentleman.” His face transforms into a grin. “I can assure you ladies I can keep myself under control. When needed. I hope we get to know each other.” He turns back to the captain. “Anyway, gotta go, Sandy’s waiting for me. Don’t want to keep her waiting.”

He stands and waves, leaving them alone in a dining room that seems far too large for three people. Tara’s eyes follow him the entire way out which isn’t lost on her sister. He pauses before walking out the door to flash a final smile. Melissa smirks at her sister but doesn’t bring it up. Instead she turns to the captain. “He seemed nice.”

Wolf shrugs. “He mostly is. I’ll let you in on a secret too. He’s almost definitely on the final team so if you want on, you’d better get used to working with him. He’s got issues but he checks so many boxes and his DNA matches so well that we almost have to pick him. Thinking he’ll be the blue. You girls are some of our final recruits, there’s only one other person for me to bring in. I’ll be flying out to pick them up tomorrow while you two are tested. Once they’re done, we’ll compare the numbers and have the team in a few days.”

Tara’s still staring at the door but manages to turn her attention back to the conversation. “So he mentioned a Sandy, is that the fourth woman you said you’d recruited?”

Nodding, Snow starts to stretch his legs under the table. “She’s good, but not likely to make the final cut. She’ll probably be in the field team. Her DNA’s not a bad fit but not quite as good as Kurt’s and well, the brass wants this team diverse but not too diverse. Good news for you two since they want a woman and that means that spot’s between you two and Delilah.”

The tour continues but they don’t run into many more people. Once in awhile a random person in the halls nods at them or is introduced but Snow explains there’s only about fifteen people on this floor and most are keeping to themselves. That’s something he intends to change once the project gets underway.

The science floors have a few people working but most of the labs they pass are empty. Snow guides them to the main lab where they’ll be reporting tomorrow morning. “There’s nobody to test today so a lot of the science nerds aren’t here. You’ll meet Stan Banks in the morning. He’s the one running the science side of the program. A little odd but as good as you could hope for in a lab.”

A short Asian woman in a lab coat goes running from one lab to another with her brown hair, very long for a military facility, flapping behind her. She freezes when she notices them all staring at her. “Sorry, didn’t realize anyone was down here. Nothing to worry about, just have to get some information to Charlie. Bye.” She’s gone before any of them can respond.

Shaking his head and muttering, Snow leads them back toward the elevators. “That’s Sook. She’s, well, she’s new. I’ve tried to tell her about running through here but she doesn’t stop. We’ve got about ten scientists here. Its too many for the moment but once we start giving people the serum we’ll need them.”

The armory on the next floor’s impressive. The guard, an older man who has his hat over his eyes when they arrive, nods and waves them in without a word. Snow starts shaking his head again. He seems relaxed for a captain but more and more Melissa gets the impression he wants this place to get serious.

More rooms than they can count, full of equipment, are stored down here but they keep walking by them as they head to the far end of the floor. “I’m not a big fan of the save the best for last thing. I want to show you our pride and joy.”

At the end of the floor they come to a set of extremely large doors. A button with a keypad sits on the side and Snow punches in a code. The doors start grinding open. Inside they find themselves on the top level of this room. The hangar’s at least three floors tall and a steep metal staircase seems to be the only way down. Before them sits a massive jet surrounded by all kinds of vehicles ranging from sports cars to jeeps to police cars and ambulances.

Snow doesn’t bother to look at any of it. This is nothing new to him. Instead he watches the faces of his two recruits as their jaws drop. Tara starts to head for the stairs but stops and glances back at Melissa, her eyes running up and down her crutches. Guilt washes over Melissa. She’d love to go down there but those stairs have gaps in them and she’d worry about her crutches getting stuck. She doesn’t want to be the reason her sister misses out. “Go ahead, check it all out. I’ll wait here.”

Tara hesitates. “Are you sure? Melissa nods. Tara grabs her hand and squeezes before taking off down the stairs. She takes them two at a time.

Hesitating, Snow looks to her as her sister goes out of ear shot. “Sorry we don’t have an elevator in here. We should put an entrance in downstairs but this room doesn’t line up well with the rest of the facility and this needs the most security. I’ll be back soon.”

Leaning on the railing above the hangar, Melissa watches her sister and the captain tour the different vehicles and gear. They spend a long time inside the plane. Tara’s practically bouncing when they emerge. A couple of times Snow tries to yell something up about a vehicle they’re standing next to but Melissa puts her hand to her ear and shakes her head. He shrugs and moves on. She can hear what he’s saying, she just has a hard time getting excited from so far away. Pangs of jealousy wash over her. She feels bad feeling that after giving Tara permission but that doesn’t change how she feels.

Tara actually bounces up the stairs and throws her arm around Melissa. “You’re going to love this stuff so much. We have everything. There’s a huge area for gear in the back of the plane so we can get these vehicles anywhere. It’s awesome.”

Heading out of the hangar Melissa looks to Snow. “If you have that plane down there, why didn’t you come get us in it?”

He grins at her. “Landing a stealth military vehicle in a local Louisiana airport isn’t how you stay hidden. We also couldn’t show you everything until you were officially part of the project and you weren’t when we got on that plane. Besides, this thing’s really expensive to fly. Useful, but costs a fortune. We’ll still take private planes for some events. That’s more for missions.”

The rest of the floor doesn’t take long to explore. They have rooms full of guns, explosives, tactical gear, communications equipment. There’s even a room full of nothing but license plates for every state and even a number of other countries. Every new room gets Tara more excited and Melissa has to admit she likes a lot of what she sees. A room full of parachutes fills her with dread though. “Wait, we’re not going to have to use those are we?”

A sly smile spreads over Snow’s face. He removes his sunglasses to look at her with his icy blue eyes. “Well, that depends. That plane back there can’t always land where we need to go. There’s not always time to find the nearest airport and then drive wherever we’re going. We won’t use them on every mission but at some point there’s a good chance you’ll jump out of a plane. Whether you want a parachute on your back’s up to you.”

Tara’s already crouched next to one, examining it. She’s always talked about going sky diving and now it seems she’ll get her chance. Melissa’s always pointed out that she sees no reason to jump out of a perfectly good airplane but she may have to reevaluate her stance.

When they reach the elevator, Snow calls it but doesn’t make a move to get in. “You two go ahead and head back to your room, or explore the rec rooms if you want. I have some work to do so I’ll be going the other way. Probably won’t see you again until we announce the team but good luck with the tests tomorrow. Nothing to worry about, it’s just down to your DNA and either way you’re part of our team.”

Scrunching her face, Melissa realizes she hasn’t asked a question that’s been bugging her. “Captain, if only three of us are going to be on the final team, why did everyone’s DNA need to match? Couldn’t you have had us in for more advanced testing without revealing things and then recruited the rest of the team from the best instead of from those whose DNA was a match?”

Holding the elevator doors open, Snow puts his hand on his chin. “You two ask the best questions. I didn’t make that decision but if I’m being honest, redundancy. There’s no guarantee things go well for everyone we pick. We think this is safe but we can’t know for sure without human tests. We can’t do that without potentially creating enhanced individuals. If there’s an issue, we can easily swap someone out. If someone gets hurt in the line of duty, we can replace them. If you don’t get picked to be in the main group now, you may eventually end up in one of those spots. Be ready. Plus, well, these tests suck. We couldn’t ask people to do them without explaining why. You’ll see tomorrow.” Removing his hand, he turns to walk down the hall as the elevator slams shut.

Part 10

Part 12

Toxic Vol. 1 Susceptible States Part 22

Dr. Layla Kanish looks up at him, a huge grin pasted across her entire face. Tears well up in the corners of her eyes, magnified by the way her glasses have slipped down her face. “I should be really mad at you but I’m too happy you’re okay. I didn’t think I was going to see you again.”

DeMarcus smiles, squeezing her closer. “You need to learn to trust me. I told you I’d be alright.”

“People say a lot of things when they’re trying to be brave. Come on, you didn’t really think you could handle that did you?”

He shrugs, unsure how to answer. Did he think he could handle it? If it weren’t for a weird sort of luck he certainly couldn’t have but when he left her he didn’t know how bad things were. “Hard to say I guess. Wanted to.”

Looking him up and down, she fixes her glasses and looks again. “What are you wearing? This definitely isn’t something you’d pick out.”

He glances at the door, the sounds of Beast trying to get to them still clear. He hoped she’d invite him inside, maybe make some coffee. So far there’s no move in that direction. He looks down at his clothes. A pair of loose jeans and a hoodie. Not his normally sharp sense of dress but it isn’t that bad. “It’s what I could get cheap. I had to get by on what I had left over on my credit cards and it isn’t much. I was going to stop into the apartment and change but when I got there the lock was changed.”

She holds a finger up, looking down. “Don’t go there, at least not yet. That’s when I have to get mad at you and I don’t want to be mad yet. You can afford a lot better than this. We’re all getting good severance packages. Have you seen yours yet?” He shakes his head. “They’re good. You’ll be happy with it but it might take a few weeks to get.”

“Can I come inside? I’d love to sit and relax for a few.”

Her hand covers most of her face for a moment. She looks to be thinking. “If I say yes do you promise not to tell Jesse? I don’t want him to think I’m choosing sides.”

“I’m hoping after I get a chance to talk to him there won’t be sides. Things didn’t go down the way you probably think.”

Hearing the dog still yipping, she crosses her arms and says, “Alright, you can come in but you need to spill, sound good?”

“Fair.”

She pushes her way inside, calling Beast after her so he doesn’t mob DeMarcus. The place is a bit of a mess with several glasses on the coffee table and a bunch of empty fast food wrappers beside them. Blankets are thrown all over the couch and mail’s piled in a stack on the recliner. DeMarcus can’t remember ever seeing Layla’s apartment anything less than spotless. He doesn’t comment on it though, moving the mail out of her chair and sitting down. “I really appreciate it. If I leave I’m afraid I won’t come back.”

Layla walks into the kitchen and the sound of the fridge opening can be heard. “Want anything to drink? I don’t have a lot but I can do water, tea, or coffee if you give me a few minutes.”

“Coffee might be nice.”

The sound of a coffee pot being started brings a smile to his face. Walking back into the room, Layla’s carrying a cup of tea. She moves one of the blankets aside and collapses onto the couch. Beast chases behind right on her heels and jumps up to snuggle. Seeing DeMarcus he wags his tail and hops over onto his chair. His tail goes wild as he runs all over the man’s lap and chest. “Beast, go see her.” He points at Layla and after only a moment the dog does as he’s told.

“Sorry about him. He loves people.” She rubs Beast’s head furiously.

“I know. So where do you want me to start? There’s a lot to tell.”

Setting her tea on a coffee table after one last sip, she leans forward. “Well okay, from what I understand you ended up in the hospital after everything that happened, some weird injury or something they couldn’t talk about. You told Jesse you didn’t want to see him or talk to him until everything was over. Is that more or less right?”

He breathes deeply. Is telling her the right move? Nobody told him there would be an issue if he started talking but somehow when dealing with an unknown government group holding American citizens prisoner against their will that seems to go without saying. He leans forward. “I’m going to tell you the whole story, but it’s going to sound kind of crazy.”

A smirk spreads across her face. “Those are the best stories.”

“This is serious. I think it might even be dangerous so you need to keep it to yourself. Can you do that? I don’t want to get you in any sort of trouble.”

Her smirk’s gone now but she doesn’t look less interested. She takes her glasses off and inspects them. Realizing how dirty they are she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a package of cleaning wipes. “Sorry, haven’t had much need for these the last few weeks. I can keep stuff to myself. I want to know.”

“What do you know about KJC2800?”

Layla’s eyes go wide, though after a minute she seems to get them under control. She sets her cup back down after taking a sip and brushes her hair out of her face. “I think I should ask how you know about that but I’m guessing you ended up in one of the main labs.”

“That’s right.”

“I worked on it. Some, it wasn’t my project. It was Kriss’. I helped him refine it though.” She stops to think for a moment. “I signed non disclosure agreements on this stuff DeMarcus. I can’t risk my severance. Tell me what you know, I’ll let you know if it matches up with what I know.”

Leaning back in his chair, he closes his eyes. She’s going to make this hard. “It’s a mood alteration drug. Meant to put people in a certain state of mind and make them easily suggestible. Useful for interrogations and things like that. That sound more or less right?” He opens his eyes in time to see her nod, biting her lip. “Good news, it works better than you can possibly imagine.”

Her hands start to tremble so she puts them on her knees. “Were you exposed to it? Is that why you had to go away and couldn’t be around people? Kriss was getting close to human trials but we weren’t there yet. There were some weird results in the last round of animal testing.”

“That’s news to me. I don’t know about any trials or anything like that. I was exposed though. To a lot of it.”

“How much?”

“Three canisters of it were shot right as I locked the doors down. They filled the room. I was breathing the stuff for the better part of an hour before the room was blown open and it got into the facility.”

Turning white, Layla puts her head in her hands. “You’re lucky to be alive.”

“I know.”

Peeking over her hands, she quietly asks, “What did it do to you?”

Laughing, DeMarcus leans forward. “You aren’t going to believe me.”

“Try me.”

“Alright, I got powers. I would say things and people would have to do them. Like, I’d say drop your gun and they’d do it. I’d say tell me where your people are and they’d do it. That’s the only reason I got out of that place alive.”

She blinks a few times and stares at him. Grabbing her cup, she takes a long sip, draining the last of her tea. “You’re right. I don’t believe you. That’s insane.”

“That’s what I’m afraid Jesse’s going to say. They had me in an underground place downtown. None of the letters he got were from me. I mean, it’s only been a few weeks. How would multiple letters get here from me that fast?”

“They could have been overnighted.”

“Do I seem like the type of person who overnights things? Come on, really.” He throws his hands up and then buries his head in them.

Layla continues to stare at him. “You’re not joking are you?” He shakes his head. “Hell. That’s not even something we thought about. Why would we? None of the animals could talk to us or tell us to do things. None of them were ever exposed to that much either so maybe this only happens if you breathe in a ton of it.” She jumps backward on the couch. “Wait, you’re not doing it to me right now are you?”

“No.” He shakes his head before putting his hands on his forehead and groaning. “For one, it only seems to work if I’m direct. Asking questions, suggesting things, that doesn’t work. I have to be like, ‘Come here boy.’” He pats his leg as he says this and Beast runs to him, wagging his tail and trying to lick his face. “Down.” The dog sits a little calmer but he’s still practically shaking. “Besides, it wore off. They ran a bunch of tests and the effect kept getting weaker and weaker over time. At first it didn’t last quite as long, then the range got smaller, then it was a suggestion people could shake off if they didn’t really want to do it. It’s gone now. If it wasn’t they would never have let me go.”

“Jesse’s not going to believe you. He’s going to think you’re full of crap.”

“I know, I don’t know what to do.”

Standing, she walks into the kitchen and comes back with a notebook. She starts jotting down notes on a piece of paper before tearing it out and handing it to him. Looking it over, it has a lot of the details of the formula. “I can’t prove it effected you this way but I can confirm a lot of what you’re saying. Hopefully that helps. Did you just get out today?”

“Few days ago. They tried to get me to agree to take more of the stuff and see if it would reactivate but I figured I got lucky enough surviving the first time. Didn’t really care to press my luck.”

“Oh I wish you had. I’d love to know if this can be replicated that easily. There’s so many possibilities. Kind of surprised they didn’t pull me in though.”

“Think they want to keep this quiet.”

“Oh sure.” She tries to take a sip of her tea but the cup’s empty at this point. She gives it a surprised look. “Be right back.” She’s in the kitchen for no more than a minute before returning with another cup. She has a second cup with coffee for him. A little cream and a little sugar, just how he likes. “With Kriss gone though, there’s nobody else who knows more about that stuff. I could have helped. Do you know if they had his notes?”

“They didn’t share a lot with the prisoner.”

She looks down in her cup for a minute. “Fair. This isn’t working. Hang on.” She returns to the kitchen and comes back with a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses. “I need a drink.”

“It’s ten in the morning.”

“Is that a no for you then?”

Thinking for a minute, he shrugs. “Pour me one. I’m going to need all the courage I can get when Jesse gets home.” She pours the shot and hands it to him first without making her own. He downs it in seconds and wishes he had a lime. Without waiting for one though he hands the glass back to her. “Another please.”

Part 21

Part 23

Serenity Vol. 2 Going Under Part 6

The man looks her over, his eyes lingering on every inch of exposed flesh. Wearing a loose fitting tank top with a sports bra underneath, short cutoff shorts, her hair shaved so her scalp catches the light, there’s a lot for him to look at. She feels completely wrong like this but at least Jia Crawford looks the part of a tough lady who wants to join a street gang. The skinny man with a nose ring standing in front of her doesn’t look convinced.

“You’re saying this girl can help us Jillian? I mean, I think I could kick her ass and there’s a reason the boss hires all of you to do the fighting.”

Jia’s eyes narrow as she gets right in his face. She squares her shoulders and looks right into his eyes even though he probably has a foot on her. “You want to see if that’s true? I don’t think you’ll be able to handle me but I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

Eyes throughout the room go wide. An energy starts growing within the crowd. Most of them would love to see a fight. Jillian rushes forward from the group, her pink hair styled into spikes. “I give you my word. I know Candy and she’s tough as nails. We used to compete in tournaments all the time and she always beat me. You think you could kick my ass Tommy?”

Tommy puts a hand on his chin, his head nodding slightly. “No, I couldn’t. You’re tough Jillian but we can’t exactly have you prove that with a bun in the oven. Even I’m not going to ask a pregnant lady to get her ass kicked. We’ll have to see some sort of proof though. Maybe she could fight back then but that was years ago. I need to know she’s still tough if she’s going to take your place. You’ve got big shoes to fill and we need an enforcer if the plan’s going to work.”

This plan’s all Jillian will talk about while at the same time she’s not willing to talk about it at all. She brings up how dangerous it is and how desperately Jia needs to get herself out of San Fransisco because of it at every opportunity. When pressed though she won’t reveal any details. She says it’s too dangerous to know about. Even once Jia convinced her to provide an introduction to her gang and help her stop this plan from within, she refused to give anything up. She said it was better if Jia finds out after she’s initiated. She’ll need to look suitably surprised when the gang reveals it. If they figure out Jillian told her ahead of time, that would go badly for both of them.

Shaking her head, Jia puts her hands on her hips. She considers spitting on the ground for effect before deciding that’s going too far. “What do you have in mind? I’m willing to prove anything, any time. I kind of liked the plan about you trying to take me though.”

Unshaken to have a very aggressive woman in his face, Tommy laughs and walks back toward the group. “That wouldn’t prove anything. I can’t fight to save my life. I use this to handle myself,” he says while patting the very visible gun on his hip. “No, I want you to prove you can handle yourself against someone who isn’t going to show any mercy. Moonbeam, get out here.”

Gasps go up from the crowd. Jillian’s already rushing forward. “That’s not a fair fight and you know it. She’s not an enforcer, we don’t need to take on Moonbeam to be an enforcer. I couldn’t stop her.”

A pale woman with sparkling green eyes steps out of a door on the side of the room. She’s decked out in a long dress which is such a light shade of blue you’d almost think it was white. She has a huge smile on her face, silhouetted by shaggy blonde hair. There’s a cruelness in her eyes, despite her outwardly sunny disposition.

Pushing Jillian lightly away, Tommy walks toward the new arrival. “We need her to really prove herself, the boss isn’t playing around on this one. I need someone good. She doesn’t have to win. If she holds her own, I’ll call that good enough. Moon’s not going to go easy on her though.”

“Why is she even here?” Jillian’s practically stomping on the ground now. Why does she care so much? Jia had to beg her to try this plan but if she fails here Jillian’s not on the hook for anything. She’ll be in the same position she was before this trip to the city. The same position she previously resigned herself to. “She’s supposed to be with the boss.”

The woman steps forward, swaying her hips as she goes. Her dress hugs her tight. “I’m always where I’m supposed to be. The boss needed some privacy so I came to visit my buddy Tommy. Do you have a problem with that?”

Jillian sinks away from her. She looks to Jia with worry in her eyes. “That’s between you and the boss. I can’t imagine he’d want you endangering yourself though. Who’d protect him if you’re out of business?”

Moonbeam gets right in her face and shoves her backward. It’s a light push, but enough that Jillian stumbles. Jia can make out the anger in her eyes but she knows with the baby she isn’t going to respond. “Nobody’s going to put me out of business. I can handle this little girl you dragged in here.”

Starting to look frightened, Jillian rushes to Jia. “I bring you someone who can help out and you treat her like this. That’s some crap. She can leave if that’s how you want to play things.”

Putting a hand between them, Jia stops Jillian. “I have this.”

Jillian leans in, trying to be heard only by Jia. “You really don’t. This chick’s serious. She has some strange abilities and can really mess someone up. I wouldn’t be able to take her down.”

“What can she do?”

“Her eyes glow. Like hardcore glow, which wouldn’t be so bad except they cause burning on anyone she looks at. I don’t know how she does it, but it hurts bad really fast.”

Jia smiles, trying to assure Jillian she can handle it. “That’s not a big deal. I won’t let her get a good look at me. I’ll get in close and fight. She’s in a dress, I can’t imagine that’s going to end well for her.”

“It doesn’t work that way. She’s tough as nails in a fight too. She’s fast, she hits hard, and if she gets a little distance between you, you’re done.” Jia pushes her aside and starts walking toward Moonbeam. Jillian sighs. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’ll make sure your body gets back to your parents.”

Stopping ten feet from Moonbeam, Jia looks her up and down. “How are we doing this?”

Moonbeam steps forward and the rest of the crowd backs up. “I admire your courage if nothing else. One on one, no weapons. We’ll fight until somebody gives or Tommy’s happy with the results. Are you ready?”

A nod’s all it takes. The second the movement’s registered, Moonbeam’s eyes begin to glow with a bright light. Jia’s determined not to be caught in one place and starts rushing sideways, trying not to let her opponent get a good look at her. Wherever she runs, the crowds of gawking onlookers clear out of the way, not wanting to be caught in the gaze themselves.

She’s fast but not as fast as someone turning their head. She starts to feel the burning on her skin. At first it feels more like an itch but it picks up intensity fast. It starts in her arm but moves toward her chest. Initial discomfort turns to pain so she leaps forward and pushes herself into a backflip. She turns mid air and starts running the other way. That broke the gaze for a moment and the pain’s gone.

Something’s said under Moonbeam’s breath but she can’t make it out. This time as she circles she starts closing the distance between them. She wants to get behind the woman but in a straight fight that’s not easy. Soon the pain returns, but she’s glad to realize it reset to the level it started at the first time. All she has to do is break the gaze and Moonbeam’s effectively starting over.

Jia starts trying to think of ways to break the gaze. She feels the pain in her chest so she knows around where the woman’s looking at the moment. Closing the distance fast with the pain increasing to levels where it’s going to be hard to continue, she hits the deck and falls forward. She tries to catch herself on her hands but misses and hits her face on the hard cement floor. Her nose hits hard and she feels it give slightly. Blood’s already starting to stream out. The pain in her chest’s gone though.

The downside of hitting the ground that hard’s she can’t get moving again right away. That gives her opponent time to reset and the pain time to start returning. It follows her back to her feet and by the time she’s moving again it’s already increasing.

Blood from her nose mixes with sweat dripping down her face. She’s running hard to try and stay ahead of the gaze but she’s not keeping up. She’s getting closer but as a result Moonbeam’s starting to circle as well. This isn’t working. By the time she reaches the woman she’s going to be exhausted.

Evasive maneuvers haven’t worked so she decides to try a more direct approach. Changing her strategy, Jia turns and runs straight at Moonbeam. She takes the woman off guard and she starts to back up. More importantly, the change in direction caused the gaze to break for a moment. The pain resets. It resumes within seconds but having reset, Jia can again handle it. That won’t last long though. She’s felt this pain reset a few times and it only takes ten to fifteen seconds to get back to full strength.

Closing in directly’s more effective but Moonbeam continues to circle and it continues to be difficult to get close. Ten feet away she feels the pain again reach near unbearable levels. This is the worst it’s been so far and she doesn’t know what to do except break that gaze. Most moves she can think to try would slow her down enough that the distance between them can grow again. Worse, the gaze is now right in her gut, allowing Moonbeam to better adapt to sudden changes in direction. Jia’s learning as they go but so is her opponent.

The only move she can think to try in the moment’s a forward somersault. Doing one while running worries her. She’s afraid she’ll snap her neck. She doesn’t know that she has a choice though. For all she knows the pain’s doing real damage to her body.

“You’re persistent, I’ll give you that. Maybe you’re not useless.” Jia hopes that acknowledgment from her opponent will be enough for Tommy but there’s no indication they should stop. Without other options, she tries the somersault. Diving forward, she tucks her neck, rolls through the motion and lands back on her feet. She seems to catch her opponent by surprise and the pain’s gone again.

Does this woman ever blink? She’s close now. Only a few feet away. Moonbeam changes her stance a little, preparing for them to actually fight. Jia winds a punch up and throws all of her might behind it. She goes right for Moonbeam’s head. The punch is avoided without issue, the woman’s head dipping to the side.

Off balance when her punch doesn’t land, Jia stumbles. A kick hits her in the leg and she goes down, crashing onto her shoulder. There’s pain but again her sudden change in direction seems to have caught Moonbeam off guard. The pain in her shoulder’s a lot better than what the gaze was doing.

Landing at the woman’s feet, Jia grabs for her legs and tries to tackle her as she gets up. It isn’t pretty but she’s not in a place to fight pretty. This is going bad and she needs to turn the tide fast. They go crashing to the ground, rolling, both trying to get on top of the other. Realizing she’s losing that battle, Jia rolls away, putting a few feet between them.

On her feet first, she doesn’t hesitate. Moonbeam’s getting her legs under her but she’s not ready yet. Instead of going for the attack, she slides past the other woman, getting behind her. Once there, she moves in and catches Moonbeam in a standing choke hold. She tightens it, burying her face in the side of Moonbeam’s head. She’s determined not to give her an angle to start that gaze back up.

Unable to breathe, Moonbeam thrashes about but Jia holds her with all her strength. She tries to get an arm on something but her angle makes that almost impossible. Suddenly the woman lets her left knee go limp and kicks backward and across her body into Jia’s knee. She buckles, not going down but slipping to the side enough that the woman can clutch her arm tight and flip her through the air and over her body.

They crash onto the hard floor. Jia lands hard on her back and spasms shoot though her but she feels lucky it wasn’t worse. She could have easily landed on her neck and that would have been the end of things with the cement floor. She tries to roll to her feet but Moonbeam turns to Tommy. “Enough. She’s pretty good. We’re better off with her on our side than against us. End this before I have to break her.”

Tommy comes forward awkwardly, clearly enjoying the fight. “Alright then ladies, if Moonbeam vouches for you that’s good enough for me. You fought pretty well against someone with her talent. You’re in. There’s an initiation to go through but that won’t be a big deal for someone with your ability.”

Jia’s heart sinks as she tries to climb to her feet. She remembers her brother Shin’s initiation with this group and doesn’t want any part of something like that. She wants to get Jillian free of them but she’s not prepared to hurt innocents in the process. Jillian moves forward to help support her. The more she moves, the more pain she’s in. That hit took a lot out of her. “What sort of initiation are we talking about? That fight wasn’t enough to prove I know what I’m doing?”

With a huge grin on his face, Tommy steps toward her. “Well, we have to know you’re loyal to the group so it’s a two part thing. The first part’s pretty standard while the second depends on what we need. Neither part’s terribly difficult. It isn’t about proving you’re some amazing fighter, we see that already or we wouldn’t even consider you. Now we need to see what you’ll do for us. Your friend can fill you in on the basics.”

Unable to think of anything else to say, she just nods. The crowd’s already starting to drift away, not interested in huddling around now that the fight’s over. “Is there anything else you need me to do or am I good to check the place out?”

Putting a hand in the air, Tommy laughs and jumps up and down a few times. “Neither. Sorry but you’re not allowed to hang around here until you’re fully part of the group. Mainly a security thing. Sure you understand. You can take a few minutes to shake off the fight but then you’ve gotta go. You can go back wherever you’re staying or Jillian can take you. Whatever. Tomorrow night once you’re part of the group you can check out the sweet digs.”

Shaking her head, Jillian slips Jia’s arm around her shoulders. “Sweet digs is overselling it. This place is a mess.” She turns her head to Jia. “You’ll see tomorrow night I guess. You’re not going to have any problem with the initiation if you held your own against Moonbeam. Come on, I’ll give you a ride back to my place where you can shake this off.”

They start to limp away but Moonbeam’s standing near the door. Her hair’s a mess and there’s a red line running across her neck from where Jia tried to choke her out. Her dress is torn at the hip. She doesn’t seem to mind as she’s got a ton of energy and comes rushing up to them as they get close. “Thanks for the fight. It’s so rare that I get to take on someone worth my time. You’re very good and you withstood my gaze better than anyone I can remember. I look forward to fighting by your side. I might even put in a good word with the boss, see if I can get you assigned near me when things go down. Just don’t mess up the initiation after I stuck my neck out for you.”

Jia nods and offers a handshake. With a laugh Moonbeam comes in and squeezes her in a tight hug which makes her cringe. The pain shooting through her back flares up again and Jia wonders whether that was intentional. Unable to prove it and not sure she’d want to anyway, they say their goodbyes and Jia and Jillian make there way out of the place.

Part 5

Part 7

Rebel Rebel Vol. 2 Heroes of the City Part 2

Over dinner Ryaan can’t stop staring at his sister. Should he tell her? Being the Rebel has been easy recently. This could be a massive change. Having someone to talk with would be nice though. Mina’s great but she isn’t here and they mostly text. The crush he’s been developing on her complicates what he wants to share as well. Because someone could easily find one of their phones they can’t write anything specific which further limits how much he can tell her. Beyond that, there are certain things he doesn’t want to tell anyone but maybe he should. How it feels when you snap someone’s head aside with a staff, or how his hand slipped and his knife went a few inches to the right last week. That wasn’t a problem but if it’d been a few inches to the left he may have killed a man. He compensated by scaling back how often he uses his knives but doing that at the wrong time could get him killed.

More than anything there’s the fear Mrs. Grant will come back into their lives. Nobody’s showed up to reveal to the world that he’s a vigilante and despite watching over their shoulders for the last month nobody has come after either him or Mina. He followed the advice of Officer Alvarez and sent her a note promising to reveal her if she came after him. She knows who they are though and until she’s out of the picture he’s going to worry.

Nadia’s chicken and biscuits are good. The biscuits are a little overcooked but the sauce does a nice job of softening them. Their dad ignores this and snaps into them as they are but everyone else seems to be enjoying them too. Finishing a story about her history class, Nadia turns to her brother and seems to notice him staring. “Everything okay?”

Shaking his head back and forth to snap himself out of it, Ryaan blinks a few times. “Sorry, kind of distracted tonight. Big day at school.”

Dad leans forward and stares at Ryaan. “Are you getting enough sleep?”

“Ya, I’m great dad. Long week but I’ve got all weekend to catch up.”

Leaning back, their dad’s head leans to one side as he seems to be processing something. “Get your test back yet? Its not uploaded to the web site.”

The web site he’s referring to is a place where teachers at his school upload their test scores and grades for parents to keep an eye on. A kid trying to hide their grades’ nightmare. Ryaan’s glad to hear they aren’t up yet. If they aren’t up now they likely won’t be until Monday. A stay of execution. “Not yet, maybe they’ll upload them over the weekend. If not we’ll probably get them back Monday.”

Analyzing his son’s face, the man lets it go. “What are you planning this weekend?”

“Dunno, was thinking of maybe getting a game in with the guys on the basketball team. Jesse’s been talking about putting together a weekly game so we can get better.”

“What about the big party downtown tomorrow?”

It takes a minute for Ryaan to realize what his father’s talking about. It comes over him and his jaw drops. “You know what that’s about, right?”

With her mouth still full of food, Lana goes wide eyes and looks to her dad. “I want to go to a party. Can we go dad?”

He nods before turning back to Ryaan. “It’s for those vigilantes who saved all the kids. They work around here, the neighborhood should go out to support them.”

“I don’t think so dad. You’ve heard about these guys, right? We’ve talked about them before. They harass a lot of families, they tried to make someone kiss their gun recently. Why would we want to support them?”

“I’ve told you before I don’t want to hear talk like that. People do the best they can. Maybe they aren’t perfect but why would they be risking their lives if they didn’t want to help? If they have problems with us, we need to show them why they’re wrong. How can they have problems with us when we’re there cheering them on?”

“Dad, I’m— not—”

Dad raises his hand in the air and the table goes quiet. “This isn’t open to further debate. You will take your sisters to the party and support these men. We are part of this community, never forget that.”

Screaming in his head, Ryaan wants to stand and let his father have it. He wants to jump up from the table and storm to his room. That’s sure to lead to another grounding though and if he’s grounded he can’t be the Rebel. He can’t protect his neighborhood from the people his dad’s demanding he honor. Instead he shuts his mouth and finishes his chicken. Making an excuse about having to finish his homework he excuses himself from the table and heads upstairs.

Shutting his door, he puts his headphones on and blasts the Rolling Stones as loud as they go. He throws himself face down on his bed. He feels his phone buzz and sees it’s an email. It gives him an idea. He almost sends a text but decides this is something he can’t ask in a text.

Mina picks up her phone on the third ring. “What’s up, are you going out tonight? You didn’t say anything earlier.”

She sounds out of breath and her nerves make him feel nervous. “No, think I’ll take tonight off. I actually have something to ask you though. Something I completely understand if you need to say no to but it’d be a huge help.”

All he can hear on the line is her breathing for a few seconds. “You’re kind of scaring me. What’s up?”

“Well, my dad’s making me take my sister’s to the festival at Millennium Park tomorrow. For you know who.”

“WHAT!” Ryaan pulls the phone away from his head but he’s not fast enough to avoid ringing in his ear. He can hear her in the background apologizing to her parents and telling them there’s nothing to worry about. When she returns to the phone she’s barely speaking above a whisper. “What? Why? Why would he possibly do that?”

“He thinks the community needs to support them. I know it’s crazy but he didn’t give me a choice. I can’t get grounded again so I’ll have to go.”

“You want me to go with you, don’t you?”

“Well, I mean, maybe…” He clutches his phone tightly, his knuckles turning white. “I know it’s a lot to ask and you hate them, but this place is going to be a target. So many people hate vigilantes. I might need to get involved but I can’t do that if I have to watch my sisters. I could really use your help.”

Her breathing’s heavy and Ryaan’s almost certain she’s going to say no. “We could just say we went and find something else to do. How are you getting there?”

“Train probably. I can’t do that though. Lana can’t keep a secret to save her life. She’ll tell my dad the second we get back about what we did. I have to go. You don’t though. I shouldn’t even ask but I could really use your help.”

“I guess I can’t tell my parents about what happened to me after all, at least not yet. They’d never let me go.”

He hesitates, not wanting to assume her answer. “Is that a yes then?”

“It’s a yes. You owe me so big.”

Part 1

Part 3

The Law Vol. 1 Serve or Protect Part 10

Martina should be at home with her daughter on a weekend but instead she’s going door to door downtown looking for work. She doesn’t know what she expected when she started applying for jobs as a vigilante but it wasn’t complete silence. She’s put in thirty applications online with no replies. The more she looks, the more she realizes how shady most of the jobs advertising for vigilantes are. Personal security, couriers, building security, places where apparently a former cop isn’t welcome. With how recently she left the police force, most probably think she’s undercover.

She can’t be picky. She badly wants to find the perfect job but more than a month out of work isn’t an option. She considered asking her dad for a loan but she’d rather be homeless. She even thought of going back to the station and begging the captain for her job back but that might actually be worse. Going door to door, she’s not searching for a job that requires a vigilante. She’s looking for anything paying more than minimum wage.

“Get back here.” Yelling from down the street grabs her attention. A kid’s sprinting toward her, splashing through puddles and making a mess of the sidewalks. An older man with a gut’s chasing the kid but he gives up two buildings down the road, bending over and putting his hands on his knees. The kid bounces off her shoulder and she yelps. The bruise from the rubber bullet still makes it tender.

Instinctively she wants to get involved. As a cop you stop someone in a spot like this. What do you do as a vigilante though? She’s supposed to keep people safe so that should mean stopping it. Does a kid shoplifting count as a danger? Hard to say. Before she can make a decision, the kid’s around a corner and out of sight.

Making her way up to the man who still hasn ‘t caught his breath, she bends down to get near his face. “You okay?”

“No I’m not okay, that kid took three games out of my shop. Almost two hundred dollars worth. So now I get to pay for them or I get fired. Why didn’t you stop them?”

“I didn’t know what was going on. Sorry. I’m going through the area looking for work. If I see any sign of her I’ll try to bring her in.”

Continuing her search, Martina goes from shop to shop. Nobody’s hiring and most places aren’t even taking applications. A few tell her she can put one in online. This all feels weird. She hasn’t gone looking for a job in years.

The whole time she’s searching she’s also looking for trouble in the back of her mind. There’s a part of her that wants to try out the vigilante thing. Maybe not on a kid but she wants to see what she can do without the rules which have guided her for so long.

Stopping off at one of the best hot dog places in town gets her a perfect Chicago dog. The sport peppers are the best part, bringing a great hint of sweetness that mixes with the onion and tomato to create one of her favorite meals. She can’t bring Zoe here, she’ll want to put ketchup on the dogs. That’s an order that might cause one of the kitchen staff to put a special ingredient of their own on the food.

Taking her cracked brown trey to the garbage to dispose of her wrappers, she sees people running by outside. There seems to be a commotion as more and more people are going the same direction. Martina shoves her way out the revolving door and finds herself swept up in the group. Attempts to figure out why they’re all pushing past each other are worthless. She can’t even tell if they’re going toward or away from whatever’s causing this. A gunshot answers the question. The crowd picks up their speed as they rush away from the noise.

Fighting past the hordes is a struggle. She keeps getting knocked aside. A large man’s shoulder hits her in the back and almost knocks her to the ground. A knee knocks against her own and she almost falls again. Staying on her feet is important. She’s not convinced anyone would stop if she fell.

Reaching the nearest corner, she ducks into the doorway of a spa so she can gain her bearings. The crowds are starting to thin as most people have gotten away from the area. Another shot helps her narrow her search. Whoever’s firing is to her right, no more than a few hundred feet away.

Leaving the safety of the doorway, she rushes in that direction. There’s only a few people still running now. No sirens yet. Someone must have called the cops but they’re far enough from the main downtown hub that there isn’t one on every corner. She knows their response time. It won’t be long but it might be too long.

Drawing her gun makes her feel powerful. She feels like a cop again. That’s all she ever wanted to be. Instead she’s part of the group that are going to put cops out of business.

There’s no sign of a shooter. The shots definitely came from this way but the street’s empty. A few people are glancing out from behind curtained windows but no one’s outside.

She kicks a pop bottle by mistake and it goes scuttling down the sidewalk with nothing to stop it. The sound every time it bounces echoes back at her. A gust of wind picks up and blows it into the street and blows her hair into her face. She takes her left hand off her gun long enough to brush it away. As she does so, the gunshots start again, far closer than before. They sound like they’re right next to her. Glancing around, she sees a flash through the store window next to her. Seeing no nearby cover and with the shooter already having her sighted, she dives into the bushes in front of the nearest store.

Branches dig into her face and arm but for the moment she’s out of the line of fire. She rolls out of the bush and lands hard on the pavement. Climbing to her feet, she readies her gun and gets ready to respond. She waits on any movement from the store in question. Nothing’s happening. From where she landed she can’t see inside so she has no clue what the guy’s doing. He could be escaping through another exit but most of these stores are back to back so there’s usually not many ways out.

Inching back toward the store, she puts her back to the wall and tries to stay away from the window. Seeing the car she was standing in front of when the bullets started flying, she realizes how lucky she got. There are four holes punched into the side of the bright yellow SUV. They can’t have been more than a few inches from where she was standing. Pure luck. This is where she really misses being a cop. As a cop she had a partner to watch her back. They wouldn’t have had a blind spot. If she did get shot they’d have called for an ambulance immediately. If she’d been shot here there’s no telling when help would arrive.

She wants to glance into the store but knows she could be looking down the barrel of a gun. She instead sticks the edge of her pistol out slightly, hoping to draw the shooter’s attention so they give their location away. Nothing happens. After trying this several times and realizing it isn’t working, she thinks of what else she can do. There are sirens in the distance now but they still sound a long way out. This guy could have hostages in there. Even if he doesn’t, he’s firing indiscriminately. Someone could get hurt. There’s not time to wait.

Turning to face the wall, Martina readies her gun before her. With it pointed forward, she shuffles sideways past the building. She expects bullets to fly past her any moment. None do. No one seems to be in the main part of this shop. A travel agency. She didn’t even realize those were still a thing. Reaching the far side of the building and going past it, there’s a sense of relief that she wasn’t shot and she didn’t have to shoot anyone. It’s outweighed by knowing the shooter’s likely still here somewhere.

She dares to look inside and spend a moment paying attention. Four desks sit tightly packed into a rather small looking room. There’s a door leading somewhere in the back. To an office most likely. Did the shooter go back there? Where are the employees? Examining the room even closer, she notices a foot sticking out from behind one of the desks. Could it be the shooter or is it a victim?

Her hand slowly grasps the handle of the front door. She tries to pull it open slowly. The hinges squeak lightly but she tells herself she’s only noticing because she’s right here. Wherever the shooter is, surely they can’t hear it.

Instinctively she wants to announce herself, to give the shooter the chance to give himself up. That’s what a cop should do. She keeps reminding herself that she’s not a cop anymore. Her first duty’s to the community and her other duty’s to herself and her daughter. To make sure she gets home to her tonight.

Slipping inside she finds the office is just as sad when you aren’t looking at it through dirty glass. There’s a flower pot on one desk with half dead looking flowers. Another desk has a calendar sitting on it from last year. The sign on the door said open but they don’t look it. She jumps and spins when she hears a creak to her left but she finds its the desk with the foot behind it. The chair moved slightly.

Moving behind the desk, she finds a man with a bullet wound in his leg laying there trying not to move. He’s got a napkin in his mouth to help him not scream. Martina ducks down next to him and is relieved to find he mostly looks okay. He’ll need an ambulance but he seems lucid. “Where’d the shooter go?” She tries to keep her voice down but the man still makes a shushing gesture before pointing at the door to the back room.

Sirens are closing in and backup will be here soon. If this doesn’t go well, at least an ambulance should be here fast. She inches to the back door and reaches to grab the well worn brass door knob. Slowly starting to turn it, she feels the door suddenly shoved toward her with extreme force. She’s knocked backward and falls, her shoulder bouncing off the nearest desk. Pain shoots through it and her hand digs into her pistol, knowing she can’t lose it.

There’s a man in the doorway but he doesn’t stop to worry about her. He pushes through the door and heads for the exit. Rolling onto her side, she gets to her knees and points her gun at the man’s exposed back. “Stop or I will shoot you.”

Pausing, the man stands completely still. She wants to believe he’s listening to reason and giving himself up. Then he turns, his arm raising, the pistol in his hand reflecting the sun and nearly blinding her. She fires three shots. Blood splatters and she’s close enough that some lands on her coat and her face. There’s a scream and then he’s on the ground.

Racing to the man’s side, she notices the gun still in his hand. His eyes are wide and he doesn’t seem to know where he is, let alone what he’s holding. She forces it away from him and sets it on the nearest desk. She’s shaking. In all her years as a cop she only had to fire her gun a handful of times. She only ever shot one person and they ended up okay. The sirens are on top of them now and an ambulance should be right behind but somehow she doesn’t believe this man will be okay.

The man behind the desk seems to have taken the napkin from his mouth because she hears him moaning. She moves back to his side. “Are you okay?”

His eyes are closed and he’s clutching at his leg. “Not really, that guy shot me. I need an ambulance.”

“They’re coming.”

“Great. How’s Laney?”

Scanning the office she doesn’t see a sign of anyone else. “Who’s Laney? I think we’re the only ones here.”

“That’s her boyfriend you shot. Or ex, I don’t know. They break up every week. He came to shoot her, dragged her in the back room.”

Leaving him with a promise to return soon, Martina returns to the door leading to the back. She expects the worst as she looks over the small room which seems to be a break area. There’s a couch, a table with a few chairs and a coffee maker on it, a small fridge and a microwave. Perched between the fridge and a coffee maker is a tall red haired woman, crouched in the fetal position with her head against her knees. She’s shaking but sits silently.

Martina ducks down and puts a hand on the woman’s leg. She shudders away. “Are you okay? Was that your boyfriend? Did he hurt you?”

Looking at Martina with tears still running down her face and mascara smeared everywhere the woman manages to shake her head no.

“What did he want? Did he say anything?” At this the woman shakes her head yes but stays silent. “Can you tell me? He didn’t say much to me.”

She stares Martina in the eyes, wiping tears from her face. Barely above a whisper she says, “He wanted to kill himself in front of me. He wanted me to watch him die. I asked him not to, told him he had so much to live for. He said if he couldn’t be with me he had no reason to live.” A cry escapes her throat and Martina squeezes her knee in response. “Is this my fault? Did he kill himself because of me?”

Grabbing the woman by both shoulders Martina shakes her lightly. Pain shakes through her shoulder but this is important enough to be worth it. When the woman looks her in the eye Martina points from her own eyes to the other woman’s. “Look at me. Hear what I’m about to say to you. This is not your fault. He was obviously troubled. You can’t be responsible for his actions. I hope he lives and gets help but you need to remember that either way, he made his choices. You didn’t.” Standing up, Martina looks toward the door. “I’m going to check on your coworker, he got shot but I think he’ll be okay. Stay back here until the police come. I don’t think you want to see what’s up front.” The woman nods and Martina walks back to the front of the business.

Part 9

Part 11

Hitbox Vol. 2 Commitment Shock Part 4

Storming into the auto body shop he operates out of, Zach Thomas looks for any sign of his partner. “Nowak! Get out here.”

There’s noise coming from the basement and he hears something fall. A shout goes out. He considers investigating but he still hears movement so everything’s probably fine. After a minute Nowak struggles up the stairs with his arms full of equipment. Zach’s helmet, his stun gun and the top half of his costume are all stacked on top of each other.

Tossing all of this on his work bench Nowak comes at Zach finger first. “Do you have any idea how much work you’ve stuck me with? I’m trying to get your costume working like you want but this helmet’s going to take at least a couple more days. It’s a complete mess.”

“Sorry about that. Is it working at all?”

With a sigh Nowak lowers his hand. His shoulders slump. “Not as more than an actual helmet. The gear’s shot. I can get the one way glass working so you can see out but that’s the best I can do.”

“That’ll do. You can get back to fixing it soon but first I need you looking into the guys we took on at the arena. I need to know who they are, where they operate from, how I can take them down.”

Zach starts to turn away but Nowak grabs his shoulder. “Don’t do that. It isn’t your job to fix everything. Solve new problems, don’t get caught up in the old ones. You’ll keep digging forever. I could give you evil people I dealt with thirty years ago to go after. That wouldn’t solve our current problems. There’s always more evil in the world. These guys weren’t any worse than the rest.”

Pulling away, Zach walks toward the locker he keeps in the back. “We’re finding them. That’s not up for debate.”

Shaking his head, Nowak walks to a computer terminal. “Then what can you tell me about them? I need every detail you remember.”

Zach thinks, surprised how easily Nowak gave in. Pacing back and forth, he tries to clear his head and remember everything from the pier. That’s hard when he spent the entire time he was there working to stay alive and focusing on how close he was to the water. “There were two of them, they got away on a boat. They’re probably trying to sell a bunch of incredibly expensive wedding dresses. That’s something to start with.”

“That’s actually not a lot to go on. What do they look like?”

Zach opens his mouth but nothing comes out. Thinking back, he realizes he has almost no clue what they look like. “They’re both guys; one’s kind of tall with long hair. The other’s a little shorter with short hair.”

“Your descriptions are stunning in their elegance and detail.”

Glaring at Nowak, Zach says, “I was a little busy trying to stop them from killing me. Sorry I couldn’t remember if they have a mole on their cheek.”

“Did they have a mole on their cheek?”

“I have no clue. I don’t think so. I was just being sarcastic.”

Nowak coughs a few times as he searches a few classified sites for wedding dresses. “You’re not good at it. Can you tell me anything else? Any little detail might be the hint I need.”

“Can’t you just check into wedding dresses on the black market?”

Nowak almost chokes and covers his mouth to suppress his hacking. “The black market? What do you think this is? I’m going to be searching online auction sites and classified ads. Hopefully I’ll stumble onto something but the more I know, the better we’ll do.”

Hitting the table in front of him, Zach readies himself to storm out of the shop. As if the hit jarred something loose though one detail pops into his head. He reaches into his pocket in the same jeans he’s been wearing since yesterday. He pulls out a small strip of cloth streaked with a few beautiful beads. “Will this help?”

“What the hell is it? An old handkerchief”

“Me and Lorelei found it in a door when we were rushing after the first guy. It’s a piece of one of the dresses which tore off.”

Nowak snatches the cloth from his hand and turns it over. He rubs the cloth back and forth between his fingers before heading for a microscope. “This is good news. Most people selling online will try and be detailed so a rip, even a small one, is probably going to be listed. I didn’t even need the fabric, just knowing it ripped is helpful. Having the actual material’s even better.”

Leaving the shop, Zach wants to get back on the street and go after another set of bad guys. Plenty of other people are causing problems in New York. Without his gear working though that’s not an option. If an emergency comes up he can try using it but a lot of people out on the streets are more than capable of killing him without his full set of gear. Instead he calls his driver Beth and asks her to come get him.

While he waits he notices a text from Linus Setterberg, the CEO of his company Thomas Computing. They’re in the process of introducing him back into the business.

 

Hey Zach, just checking in. The next board meeting’s tomorrow and I have things ready for you. I know you weren’t feeling up to the last few with your knee so just want to make sure you’ll be there. LS.

 

Considering his options, Zach almost deletes the text and pretends he never got it. That’d be the easy thing to do. Taking his money back is one thing but being at the company, the place where he hasn’t spent serious time since the death of his parents, is another. He told Linus he’d show up though and if he doesn’t show up, there’s going to be trouble. He’s living in the company’s apartment, using the company’s driver, and running his life using the company’s money. Holding up his end of the bargain isn’t optional anymore. He’s already canceled multiple meetings because he hadn’t healed yet.

He texts back that he’ll be there. When Beth shows up he tells her to take him home so he can get ready. A woman of few words, her shrug tells him that works for her.

Part 3

Part 5