Chapter Six

Chapter Six

359 Days Ago

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was past midnight when I finally woke up. My throat felt raw and dry, and when I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anything at first. It took me a moment to realize that the reason I couldn’t see was that there was a bag over my head. The tiny bit of air that I was getting was stale and tasted terrible.

In my surprise, I tried to jerk my hands, which were above my head, down. They barely moved, and I could feel coarse rope digging into them painfully.

“What–what…” I had time to stammer, letting all bear witness to my stunning coolness under pressure, before the bag was yanked away.

Now I could look at my captors, and I briefly wished for the return of the blissful blindness, because they did not look happy to see me.

Zeke and Dayle were both there, whichever was which. Also there was the guy I had knocked out in Ges’s house, and a man who looked so old he might have been George Washington’s grandpappy. There were more wrinkles lining the elderly codger’s face than I had ever seen on a single living person before.

We were in what appeared to be an unfinished basement somewhere. Over their shoulders I could see where half of the basement had been carpeted, had lights strung up, and was furnished with an ancient looking television that faced a musty old couch next to a coffee table.

The spot we were in, on the other hand, was nothing but blank cement and a couple of drains in the floor that were stained with stuff I didn’t even want to think about. Just above and to my right was a window that had been covered in metal bars, and about ten feet to my left, in the corner of the room, was a water heater. If I strained far enough to the left, I could just barely make out the edge of the stairs.

In addition to my arms being tied above my head, there was more rope binding my ankles together. You know, just in case I wasn’t helpless enough already. I was almost surprised that they hadn’t put one of those Hannibal Lector masks on me so I wouldn’t bite them. But, then again, the night was young.

It was the old man who had taken the bag off my head. I focused on him. “Where am I?” I asked, though I should probably be honest and admit that my tone was far more the confused child than the resistant and brave defender of the innocent I would have preferred in hindsight.

“Her?” The codger could not have sounded more doubtful if he had been questioning the authenticity of seven million dollar coin pulled from a child’s shattered piggy bank. “I don’t believe it.”

“It was her phone, Paps.” The blond man in the tweed suit announced. “We found it by the restaurant. And she was at the old man’s house. Plus we sorta saw her in there with the girl. I mean, I think it was her. It was real quick, you know, and–”

“Shut up, Dayle.” The geezer replied. “I wasn’t talking to you.”

Okay, so, I knew which one was Dayle and which one was Zeke. And this man was apparently Dayle’s grandfather? Or his great-grandfather. Or, given his apparent age, maybe a few more greats.

“Listen,” I started to say, “I don’t know who you are or what you want. But I’m really not important.”

Zeke, the tattooed hefty guy, smiled. “So no one’s gonna care when you never show up again?”

I gulped. Okay, this took the fear I had felt earlier to whole new levels of as-yet undiscovered terror. “Don’t–” My voice cracked. The single word was all I could say. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what?” The guy who had been in Ges’s house asked with a dangerous look in his eyes. “Don’t kill you? Don’t hurt you? Don’t pay you back for your stupid little stunt back there? You know what you took from us, little girl? You know how much we could hurt you for it?”

“That’s enough, Gerald.” The old man finally put a name to the last guy’s face for me, his tone remaining even. “All of you, be quiet. The child and I are going to have a chat.”

Some absurd part of me felt like pointing out that I wasn’t a child; I was only four months shy of my eighteenth birthday. I pushed that relatively suicidal part away and continued to stare at the old man without comment.

“Now then,” the man cleared his throat roughly and then continued, “your name is Savannah Crest. I am Dr. Kansas Trude, and these are my great grandsons: Zeke, Dayle, and Gerald.”

Great, so now I knew they were all related to this old fart. Excuse me, Dr. Fart.

“You must be proud.” I had no idea how that little remark slipped out of my mouth, but I regretted it instantly as his hand slapped my face hard enough to leave a mark. I hadn’t even seen him start to move.

“I did not ask you a question.” Kansas informed me, his tone remaining level. “Do refrain from speaking again unless in direct and honest reply to a question, Savannah.”

He continued to hold my gaze for a moment before going on. “The child you stole from us, did you return her to the police department or to her family?”

The question made me blink. Part of me wanted to refuse to answer, but it was just such a strange thing to ask. Plus I was too scared to try and lie. “I… I sent her to the police.” My mouth felt even dryer than it had when I woke up, and it was difficult to work up enough spit to swallow. “She’s with them now.”

“That’s a good girl.” Kansas praised me like a damn puppy. “That was a test, and you told the truth. See, no one had to be hurt. This can all be relatively painless if you keep being honest.”

His side glance at the men told me that was a lie, but I wasn’t exactly in a position to call him on it. He continued with his next question, “How did you manage to dispatch my Gerald at the house, hmmm?”

The honest answer would have been that I had no idea how I’d done it. The absolutely honest answer would have been that somehow I was borrowing skills from other people just by thinking about them. Something told me that saying either would have been the wrong choice. Call me crazy, but this didn’t seem like a perfectly rational group of people.

Instead, I lied. “H-how did I dispatch Gerald at the house? That wasn’t me.”

I saw the dangerous look in the old man’s eyes as his mouth opened. I didn’t know what he was planning to say, but it wouldn’t be anything good for me. Quickly, I amended. “I mean, I was there. But it wasn’t me. I mean, look at me. I’m not some black belt secret agent special ops ninja. I got a B minus in gym.”

Zeke interrupted scornfully, “How the hell do you get a B minus in gym?”

Absurdly, I shrugged as much as my bonds would allow. “They’re really strict about the whole dressing out every day thing. And I really didn’t like all the running. They really like to make you run.”

“Really?” Zeke frowned. “I remember lots of wrestling and that rope climbing stuff. I wonder if–”

Great Pappy Kansas’s voice cut in as his patience snapped. “Would you please shut up, you idiot?” He spoke through gritted teeth, his bony elbow jamming solidly into the tattooed man’s side. “We know you were there, little girl. You stole my Gerald’s car.”

“Yeah…” I was coming up with this explanation as I went. “I was there, but it wasn’t me that attacked him. It was this… girl.”

“What girl?” Kansas demanded, holding a hand up to stop the men from interrupting.

My brain raced for lies. Never before had I wished so much to have a better imagination. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know who she is. She’s sort of a…” I thought of Paragon, “sort of a superhero.”

That drew several snorts of derision. Kansas rolled his eyes. “A superhero, really? Which one?”

Oh boy. “She’s not one you’d know. She’s new.”

“What’s her name?” Gerald actually sounded curious, as if he really wanted to know which superheroine had knocked him out.

Of course, I had absolutely no idea. I needed a name for my fake superhero that would get these guys off my back and send them on a wild goose chase, without pointing them at anyone real.

“Her name? Her name is…” I trailed off, thinking of what had gotten me into all of this, my obsession with Paragon. If I could have just left him alone, none of this would have happened. But no, I’d been obsessed with him, fixated on the man.

“Fix… Fixation.” I finally said, straightening a little my arms cramped up from being pulled above my head. “Her name is Fixation.”

“Fixation?” Gerald sounded it out with a frown.

Zeke nudged him. “Dude, you didn’t just get taken out by a girl. You got taken out by a girl with a stupid ass name like that.”

I was offended on multiple levels, but I kept it to myself.

“And what does this Fixation girl look like, exactly?” Grandpa Kansas asked with a tone of disbelief.

“Yeah,” Dale in his tweed suit added, “is she hot?”

Zeke scoffed. “Of course she’s hot, you idiot. She’s one of those super types, isn’t she? So she’s gotta be smokin'”

I… honestly wasn’t sure if I was offended or not. Skeeved out, yes, but the logistics on whether I should be offended were a bit murky at the moment.

Luckily, I didn’t have time to dwell on that subject, as the loud buzzing of a doorbell filled the air.

“Oh for the love of–” Kansas sighed. “Dale, Zeke, come with me and see who the hell that is. Gerald, watch the girl.”

The three of them walked up the stairs, but I honestly didn’t feel any safer with just one guy keeping an eye on me than when all four of them had. With my arms tied up above my head, there still wasn’t a lot I could do. Especially not with Gerald standing well out of kicking distance, even if I could manage to hoist myself up that way with my ankles bound together.

“So…” Gerald stared at me consideringly. “You never answered. That girl that knocked me out, the chick that got lucky. Is she hot? Just, you know, compared to you. Higher, or ahhh, lower? I’d just like to know if I’d rather it be her or ahhh, you we picked up.”

Okay, now I was definitely beyond offended, and incredibly skeeved out.

“Man, you are one disgusting son of a bitch.”

Unless I had suddenly developed a particular knack for both disguising my voice and throwing it across the room (which I will admit is not entirely out of the question considering the random assortment of skills I had displayed thus far), that hadn’t been me.

Both I and Gerald looked toward the voice as a rather large figure emerged from the direction of the stairs. Gerald’s mouth opened, but before he could speak or shout or whatever he was planning on doing, a fist impacted the guy hard enough in the face to knock his head sideways.

Then Eric James had his arm wrapped tightly around Gerald’s throat, braced against his other arm as he forcefully choked the man into unconsciousness.

“Couldn’t you have just choked him out in the first place without getting his attention?” I felt the need to ask.

“Yeah,” Eric nodded, “But after that trash he was spewing, I wanted the excuse to hit him.”

In spite of myself, I felt a blush creep up that had nothing to do with the ridiculous position I was in. Hurriedly, I changed the subject. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, you know.” He gave me a look while taking a four inch hunting knife from its sheath at his belt. “I joined this intense scavenger hunt and the last thing on my list was ‘teenaged girl tied up in psychopath’s basement’. If we hurry, I think I can pull out a win.”

While he was mocking me, Eric used the knife to cut the rope that held my arms above my head, and then steadied me when my legs went weak. He cut the rope finding my hands together before pressing the handle of the knife into my hand. “Cut your legs free. I’m going to check on the ones upstairs.”

I crouched and sawed at the ropes around my ankles with the knife. They were thick knots, and it took a little time to cut through them. “How did you–” I started to ask how he had known where I was, and glanced up. Eric had one foot on the steps and was clearly listening to whatever was going on above. But that meant he was missing the fact that Gerald had sat up and brought small snub-nosed revolver toward him.

My eyes went wide, and I acted on instinct. The knife in my hand would have meant nothing to me. I was too far away to reach the other man, and if I had thrown it, I was more likely to hit Eric or myself (somehow) than the guy I was aiming for.

At least, that’s how it would have been if I had thrown it using my own skill. But Eric was right there. Eric James, the guy whose knife this actually was. With all of his training, he knew how to throw it properly. Without thinking or dwelling on it, I simply wished for Eric’s skill with the knife and then cocked my hand back and threw.

The blade flew in a perfect arc to drive itself directly into Gerald’s wrist a second before the gun went off. His aim was jerked off as he screamed over the sound of the gunshot (which was terrifyingly loud anyway in these close confines), and the gun itself flew from his hand to skid cross the floor.

Well, if the group upstairs hadn’t known something was going on before, they sure as hell knew now. From some distant part of the house, loud footsteps thundered as my abductors rushed back.

Eric whirled at the gunshot and took a quick step at the injured thug, bringing his booted foot up into Gerald’s face to put him down. Bad guy dealt with, he just stared at me for a second as his mind took in the scene and his expression briefly turned incredulous.

“Lucky try.” I offered before shoving the remains of the ropes away. “Lucky for both of us, I mean. Come on, come on, come on.” Then I paused. “Uhh, how do we get out of here?”

The question made him frown. “If it was just me, I could get past these losers. But you could get hurt.”

Glancing in the direction of the rushing footsteps, I rolled my eyes. “Don’t they teach you army guys to have an exit strategy?” I quickly darted toward the gun that Gerald had dropped when the knife hit him. Having no idea how to use a gun, I looked at it blankly for a moment.

Gerald did know how to use it. It was his gun after all.

The footsteps thundered down the stairs, voices shouting demands to know if Gerald had killed me. I guess the idea that I had actually overwhelmed the guy, taken his weapon, and shot him myself was entirely out of the realm of possibility to them.

Yeah, I didn’t blame them either.

Borrowing Gerald’s skill with his own gun, I brought the weapon up and hissed at my liberator. “Get back.”

He frowned. “The hell? I’m on your–”

There wasn’t time for arguments, but my eyes still rolled back into my skull. “No, idiot.” I waved with a free hand, motioning him to get out of sight behind the stairs. “Get back before they see you.”

Thankfully, he got what I meant before it was too late, and moved out of sight. That left me standing over the unconscious Gerald, holding his gun, when his two brothers or cousins or whatever they were and their great-grandfather arrived.

“Hey there.” I forced a note of casual admiration into my voice as they all halted at the sight of me holding a gun on them. I wanted their attention on me, not behind them. Being flippant was just the first thing that came to mind. Okay, I lied. Begging for my life was the first thing that came to mind. But they’d pissed me off, and I was already tired of being a victim. “Doc, you are really spry for someone with great grandkids. I bet you could make a fortune off your exercise and diet regimen. Come on, you can level with me. What’s your secret?”

“Ger!”

Zeke took a step my way with that cry, and I turned the gun on him to shout, “Hey!” I kept the gun leveled his way, trusting Gerald’s own skill to make up for my shattered nerves. “Are you just counting on that incredibly thick skull to save your life? Because if you are, I have to be honest, I’m kind of aiming at your balls.”

He halted, glaring daggers of pure hate. “What the fuck did you do to my cousin, you little bitch?”

“Yes, that is a very good question.” Great Grandpappy Kansas’s suspicious eyes moved from the knife that had pierced his great grandson’s hand, back to up to me. “What exactly did you do?”

“Oh, you know. We talked a bit. He was saying how he’d never actually need a girlfriend as long as he’s got that right hand of his. Then I guess his hand sort of panicked and committed some sort of ritual suicide at the idea.” I honestly had no idea where these words were coming from. It was as if, given the chance after this last week of depression and fear, my snark generator was going into overload.

“That’s it.” Dayle had apparently had enough of me. “You don’t even know how to use that. I’m gonna teach you some manners you fucking–”

“Good idea.” Eric finally spoke up, fading in from the shadows of the stairway like a ghost. He had another knife, which he placed against the tweed-suited man’s throat. “Let’s start the manners lesson with, ‘never talk to a woman like that’. Care to guess what your prize for passing the class might be?”

Dayle froze. His eyes were even wider now, as were Zeke’s. “What the fuck? Who are you?”

“I’m the man holding the knife really close to your throat.” Eric answered honestly. “Crazypants Lad and Grandpa Crazypants,” he said to Zeke and Kansas respectively. “Please step over to where you had the young woman tied up.”

Reluctantly, they acquiesced. Kansas looked from the gun that I was still holding on them, to the knife at his great grandson’s throat and chuckled.

I couldn’t help myself. “What’s so funny?”

His shoulder raised in a shrug as he shook his head. “Nothing. I just wonder if this boy thinks you’re actually worth this much trouble. Especially after what you did.”

That made me blink as my heart leapt to my throat. “I–I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He couldn’t have meant what I thought.

“Yes you do.” The man met my gaze, and then laughed once more. This time, however, his mouth remained closed. The laughter continued, but it wasn’t the old man.

Impossibly, the man’s shadow, cast from the overhead light, seemed to grow and contort. While I stared in confusion, the shadow rose and formed an inky black body that seemed to be composed of dark oil. It looked sort of like the villain from that old Fern Gully movie, only uglier. And, I was willing to bet it didn’t have Tim Curry’s singing voice.

The old man slumped, raising weary eyes toward me as he pleaded, “Run, child. It’s… strong…”

The thing that had been his shadow laughed some more before shoving the elderly man to the ground with a cry. Then it turned toward me directly. “You have what I have spent so much to gain. You will give it to me.”

“I… I don’t have anything.” I backed up, forgetting the gun for a moment in the wake of this insanity.

“You have the skill.” The shadow-oil creature took a step toward me. “The rest would come in time.”

Eric put himself between us. “Get the hell away from her.”

He reached for the creature, but his hand simply went through the oily substance. The thing chuckled once more and then lashed out with an arm. The blow sent Eric sidelong into the wall.

Then it was reaching that black, oil hand toward me. I remembered the pistol in my hand and brought it up in nearly a blind panic, pulling the trigger as many times as I could.

The gun bucked in my hand. I had the skill, borrowed though it was, but I was unused to the kick of the weapon. Still, at least three of the rounds pierced the shadow thing. Not that it did much good. The bullets flew right through it. One shattered the glass of the basement window.

It was through the now broken window that we could hear the sound of approaching sirens. That first gunshot must have been reported. The shadow thing hissed in frustration, looked at the window, then turned to me. “I will be seeing you soon, Savannah.” It promised, running an oily hand down my cheek.

Before I could throw up in disgust, the oil creature melted into darkness, and was gone.

“What’s going on?” Though the confusion fit, the voice wasn’t me. It was Zeke. He looked utterly baffled. “Who the hell are you? What–” Seeing Gerald with the knife in his hand, his eyes widened and he lunged that way. “What did you do?!”

“Gerald!” That was Dr. Kansas Trude, the old man, who looked as shocked as anyone else. “Call 911!” He said to the clearly also confused Dayle before focusing on me. “Do… I know you? Who are you people? What did… what happened?”

A hand caught my arm. I twisted to see Eric there. He gave me a tug. “They don’t know anything. Whatever happened, it was that thing that was possessing the old man. I don’t think any of them were in control of themselves.”

That much was apparent. They were still talking about calling an ambulance, demanding answers, and generally being completely clueless. I took a step back, not wanting to be caught here without any explanation. Yes, officer, the evil oil spirit did all of it. Plus, it would lead to Gesmine and I still wasn’t sure what I should do about that. Or who it would be safe to tell.

While Dayle called 911, I turned with Eric and fled up the stairs. The old man shouted even more demands to know who we were, but neither he nor the others made any move to stop us. I think they were too disoriented by whatever had been done to them.

As we reached the top of the stairs, the police sirens drew closer. I saw my phone sitting on a table next to the stairs, and reached out a hand to grab it just before Eric tugged me through the back door and into a dark yard.

Red and blue lights reflected off of the nearby houses as the cars drew to a stop on the road out front. Meanwhile, Eric and I ran through the backyard, hopped the fence at the back, and kept going.

Chapter Seven

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Chapter Five

Chapter Five

360 Days ago

After taking two more buses, I was regretting leaving the nice SUV behind. Not that our public transportation system isn’t an exciting adventure, but I generally prefer to leave those kinds of scent and danger-laden wild safaris to the Discovery Channel. At least the last time I’d taken the city bus, I’d been on my way to see my idol, so I barely noticed the actual trip. This time I wasn’t so distracted. Well, I was, just not pleasantly so. Thinking about one of your best friends being a psychopathic superhero-killing superhero/villain didn’t do a lot to hide depressing reality of public transit.

Finally leaving the last bus that I had to take to get back to Gesmine’s neighborhood, I stood on the sidewalk and hesitated. Was this actually a good idea, considering what I’d left back there? I’d left two unconscious men on the floor of Ges’s room, and called the cops. Surely the place was swarming with uniformed officers, not to mention the fact that Gesmine herself was bound to be home. My whole idea of searching her place without anyone, especially Ges, knowing, was completely shot. It was pretty much the exact opposite of private by now.

Or maybe it wasn’t. I peeked around the corner of the street to look toward Ges’s house, expecting to see the cop cars lining every available spot. But there was nothing. Everything looked pretty much like it had when I’d driven away in the kidnapper’s vehicle. It was just a normal, average street in the middle of the day. I half expected to see one of the Brady Bunch out mowing a lawn or throwing a Frisbee for whatever that dog’s name was.

Confused, I stood and stared for a moment. Had the police already come and left? Was it possible? I wasn’t exactly an expert in police procedures, but I really doubted the street should be this empty. Even if the majority had collected Mr. Vames and Mr. Thug and left, there should be someone left here. They would have called Gesmine’s father. The news might even have been there if the story about Mr. Vames’s granddaughter broke. That should have been a big enough deal to warrant the attention

So what, exactly, was going on?

The front door of the Ges’s house opened, and she walked out. Eyes widening, I ducked down to hide behind the waist high fence of the corner house whose sidewalk I had been watching from. Taking a breath, I slowly peeked around the fence in time to see my murderous friend start to glance in my direction. Jerking back out of sight, I flattened myself against the fence and tried to hope two things. First, that she hadn’t seen me. And second, that if I could manage to swallow my heart again, it would naturally find its way back to where it belonged.

After catching my breath, I very slowly peeked out one more time. The sidewalk was empty. I blinked, and leaned up a little. Nobody was there. I stood fully and looked around. There was absolutely no one in sight. Well it shouldn’t have surprised me. I knew she was one of the fastest people alive. But somehow, I had still expected–

“What are you doing?”

The voice came from behind me, and I let out a screech of surprise while twisting around. In the process, my leg smacked against the fence, which turned my already embarrassing screech into a pained squeal. Hobbled, eyes bleary from the sudden pain in my leg, I finally managed to turn fully toward the voice, expecting to find Gesmine demanding to know why I was spying on her. Or maybe even why I had broken into her house, knocked out a kidnapping thug, and then gone to rescue her neighbor’s granddaughter. Or even why I had watched her kill Paragon. In that brief moment, I was convinced that she knew everything and was ready to silence me.

It wasn’t Gesmine. It was Eric James, the former gangbanger who had straightened out after his brother’s death. He stood there, all six feet two inches of him. While Aldridge was almost a foot taller, no one would ever mistake him for athletic. Eric, on the other hand, was built like one of those MMA fighters. His skin was some mixture of Black and Asian.

He was also standing uncomfortably close, looming over me as he glared and repeated his question. “I said, what are you doing?” This time there was more menace to his question.

My voice had failed me for a moment. I was used to looking up at Aldridge to talk to him, and Eric was shorter than that by a considerable amount. But Aldridge had never glared at me like he was. And besides, I’d known Aldridge for most of my life. I’d never exchanged more than two words with Eric James. He was five years older than I was. We’d never even gone to the same school together.

His glare deepened, and some survival instinct buried deep inside made me blurt out a response. “Nothing!” My face reddened slightly under his intense gaze. “I mean, I’m not doing anything. Why, what are you doing?” Grace under scrutiny, that’s me.

“Nothing?” He looked as doubtful as my father had the day seven year old me tried to convince him that I hadn’t been the one that got into pancake batter while absolutely covered in the stuff. “Then why are you skulking around outside this place while they aren’t home?” He indicated the house whose fence I had been hiding behind.

“Skulking?” I blinked at the house, and then blanched. “No, I mean, I’m hiding from my friend. She lives–”

“Gesmine Montana.” Eric interrupted bluntly. “I know who she is. She lives down the street.” His eyes narrowed. This was a guy to whom suspicion came easily and had to be dragged out kicking and screaming. “Why are you hiding from her?”

As intense as his gaze was, I was half tempted to blurt out an honest response, about Ges and Paragon and the Vames’s granddaughter, all of it. Actually, it almost would have been funny to imagine what his reaction might have been.

Instead, I shrugged. “We’re having a fight. She said some things, I said some things, there were things said. The saying of things.”

Now his eyebrow rose. I was still not winning any kind of subtlety prizes. “The saying of things.”

“That’s right.” I straightened self-consciously and held my wrists out. “Gonna handcuff me for spying on my friend? Oh, right, not a cop.”

“I don’t have to be a cop to handcuff you.” He pointed out, and I swore the tiniest trace of a smirk played at his mouth before he stepped back. “But no, not this time.”

Breathing a little easier now that he and his muscles had gotten out of my personal space, I frowned at him. “Anyway, what are you doing around here? I thought your ahhh, what do you call it, your beat, your patrol maybe? Your–”

“Patrol is fine.” Eric looked away and a frown creased his forehead. I realized after a moment, with a bit of a start, that he was trying to calm himself. “I had something to do.” He almost stumbled on the words, his frown deepening.

Confused, I glanced the way that he was looking. Two streets down, the very edge of the large wrought iron fence that marked the corner of the cemetery loomed. But why was he looking at the cemetery–oh. His brother. He had been visiting his brother.

Now I really felt like a shit. “I’m sorry.” I tried to think of something better to say than that, but nothing came.

For a second, it looked like he was going to say something else. Instead, he shook his head and turned away. “Whatever, just stop skulking behind fences. It looks bad.”

“I’ll keep that in mind the next time I get the urge to skulk.” I watched him walk away, still confused by what had just happened.

My life had passed surreal some distance back and just kept trucking forward.

“Savvy?”

Yet again, the voice came from behind me. Despite it being the second time in as many minutes, I still Jack-In-The-Boxed my way a solid foot off the ground before twisting around in mid yelp.

A week ago, the fact that the voice had belonged to one of my two best friends in the world would have immediately calmed my newly racing heart. Unfortunately, this happened to be the one of those two that had recently murdered a worldwide icon of justice and heroism. At least, I hoped she was the only one of the two who had done that. If she wasn’t, I was going to retire from society entirely and join a convent or something.

She was there, right in front of me as I turned around. I hadn’t been this close to her since everything had happened, managing to avoid confronting my old friend. Gesmine Montana had always been taller than I was, and normally wore her own raven black hair in a braid rather than leaving it loose like I tended to do with my own lighter brown locks. Now I knew that it was probably because it helped keep the hair out of her face when she ran.

I’d never been intimidated by the other girl before. Then again, I’d never known she was a psychotic murderer before.

“G-geeze, Ges!” I blurted before even considering what was coming out of my mouth. “Don’t do that! Are you crazy?”

Yes, I did just ask the girl who killed Paragon if she was crazy. If a person exists whose survival instinct flat lines at more inopportune moments than myself, I have yet to meet them.

“Umm, Savannah,” Gesmine trailed off for a moment before continuing, “what are you doing here?”

Oh, so she wanted to know the same thing Eric had wanted to know. Somehow I doubted that she’d accept the same non-answer that he’d at least had the courtesy to pretend to accept.

“I was…” For a moment, I drew a blank. You might have thought that Eric asking me that would have made my brain start coming up with an answer to have at the ready. If you do, I direct you to the aforementioned survival instinct flat lining.

Just as I despaired of spitting out some nonsense word that might not even have been English, my brain came up with something coherent. “I was taking a walk. I guess I ended up coming this way. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going, but yeah, here I am. Am I in your neighborhood? Oh, yeah, guess so. Uhh, hi.”

Hey, I didn’t say that it was a smooth and casual response. But at least it was English and all the words were in the right order. Trust me, I felt like clapping for myself at the time, but I felt like that might have been even less subtle than the epic loads of unsubtle I was already achieving.

Gesmine met my gaze for a long moment, and I thought she knew everything. Then her straight face broke and she embraced me with a choked little gasp that I would have sworn was genuine. “Savvy, I tried to call you a few times after… after it happened. Your parents said you weren’t talking to anyone. Are you all right?”

Was I all right? I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry. I wanted to punch her. I wanted to hug her and beg her to explain everything. I wanted to scream as loud as I could, for as long as I could, until everything went back to the way it had been.

Instead, I continued with what had been normal for my life in the last week. I lied.

“Yeah, I mean, no but I’m getting there.” I said slowly while trying to work out what I should do with my hands as the girl I should have been able to lean on this whole time continued to hug me. After an awkward moment, I slid free and tried not to think about what I had seen Gesmine do. “I don’t think anyone’s okay right now.”

“I know you thought he was perfect.” Ges had the nerve to say with a straight face before amending herself. “I mean, I know you thought he was the only perfect guy out there. But he wasn’t…”

I didn’t look away. What was she about to say? Was she about to say something that only someone close to him could have known? God, was she about to tell me about being Whiplash? How else would she explain inside knowledge about him?

“Our heroes aren’t always what they seem to be.” Gesmine finally settled on. “And there’s someone else out there that actually knows you exist.”

I stared at Ges for a long moment. The resentment, anger, and disbelief that I had felt over the last week boiled up, and thanks to that statement, it had an outlet. “How can you say that?” I demanded, my voice going higher than I meant it to. “How can you say that?” I repeated, wanting to hit her. “He was the best… he was the most important… he was Paragon!” I fairly shrieked. “My having a crush on him has nothing to fucking do with it! There isn’t another person like him! There’s never going to be another person like him! He’s dead! He’s gone! And everyone who dies now, everyone he could have saved? That’s–” I very nearly said ‘your fault’, but stopped myself at the last possible second. “– their fault. Whoever killed him. It’s their fault. Every single death that he could have prevented. They didn’t just kill him. Those worthless pieces of garbage killed all of those people too!”

Through it all, Gesmine didn’t break eye contact. She didn’t even have the courtesy to flinch. She continued to meet my gaze without comment or argument. When I was finished, she bowed her head and said quietly, “I know.” Then she looked up. “I didn’t mean that his death wasn’t a tragedy. But, Savvy, your parents are afraid that you’re shutting down. They’re afraid you don’t care about anything anymore.”

How did I tell her that it wasn’t only Paragon’s death that I was reeling from, but her betrayal as well? This was too complicated. It was too hard.

“Whatever.” I turned away so that she wouldn’t see the tears. I wanted so badly to demand answers from her. The week before, I could have said anything to Ges. Now, I knew the truth. I knew what kind of monster she was. I just couldn’t let her know that I knew, because as much as I had trusted her a week earlier, I did not trust her at all now. And that fact killed me even more than the actual death of my idol had.

But even if I couldn’t ask her, there was someone else I could talk to. I straightened and turned back. “I’m going to start heading home.” I lied to one of my best friends yet again. “I need to think.”

Ges looked like she wanted to argue for a moment, but backed down with a simple, “Kay.”

I left her there, despite so many urges to go back and talk. I couldn’t talk to her until I had some answers. And since she was out, I was going to have to get them from old Potter Vames, if he was home. Which, I realized belatedly as I turned the corner in order to double back through the back alley to get to the old man’s house out of Ges’s sight, he very well might not be. The odds were especially low if the cops had gotten enough of the story out of Kacey.

Even if they hadn’t, I doubted I would have very much time. The old man could be making a run for it, or hell, someone else could have come and grabbed both him and the guy I’d left knocked out on the floor.

That thought slowed me as I reached his back gate. It would explain why they hadn’t been there when I got back, but not why no cops had been around. I had called the police myself and told them where to find Vames and his attacker. That was the part that still perplexed me. What happened to the police?

In any case, even if Vames wasn’t home, I realized, there could be evidence inside. Maybe there would be a hint about what he and his thug escort had been looking for, the thing that his phone was supposed to beep for.

Oh, right, his phone. The phone that I’d held in my hand and called the police from before dropping it on the floor. The phone that probably would have answered some of my questions, considering it apparently had the ability to beep if the thing they were looking for was nearby. I’d had it, and I’d left it behind.

God I was dumb sometimes.

Unlatching the gate, I slipped into Vames’s backyard and made my way from there to his patio. I was hoping that, as much as he puttered around in his garden, the sliding glass door would be open.

I was both lucky and not. The glass door was unlocked, but the screen door behind it wasn’t. I could probably have just kicked out the screen, but that was liable to draw more attention than I wanted. Especially with Gesmine likely still next door. On that thought, I glanced toward her house, half expecting to see her standing in her backyard staring at me. Fortunately, the yard was empty.

Still, kicking the screen door down was a no. Maybe if I’d had a knife or something, I could have cut out enough of the screen to unlock it. As things stood, I was a bit flummoxed.

Yes, the girl who had seemingly effortlessly dispatched an armed thug before stealing his car in order to infiltrate an enemy stronghold and snatched the helpless kidnapped child right from the jaws of danger to safety was being stumped by a sliding screen door. I dearly hope those with potential heart conditions can cope with my thrilling escapades.

For once in the last twenty minutes, I actually heard the noise of someone moving behind me before they spoke. Glory be to my triumphant senses, yes.

Unfortunately, whipping around before the person could speak did nothing to help the surprise I felt at the sight of one of the thugs from the abandoned restaurant. It was the bald smoker I had trapped outside, either Dayle or Zeke, I still didn’t know which.

“Hey, Savannah.” Dayle or Zeke said before holding up my phone. “Drop something?”

With my eyes pulled to my phone with all of my contact information up on the screen, I never saw the punch coming that put me on the ground.

Chapter Six