Chapter Ten

345 Days Ago

For the longest time, I simply stared at the other girl. My brain felt like it was caught in some kind of loop where I just kept replaying her last words over and over again.

“No.” I shook my head, feeling as though I might fall down. “No way. That’s impossible. That’s wrong.”

Gesmine’s voice was tender as she lowered her hand, with a note of what sounded a lot like pride. “It’s true, Sav. We just proved it was. You didn’t think about it, and you were running just like me. Just as fast, just as long.”

Still, my head shook. I was reeling. “That can’t… Are you sure?” I finally asked, rather lamely.

To that, Ges chuckled and raised her right shoulder in a shrug. “Easy way to find out.”

“There is?” I asked, before flushing from the duh. “Oh, right, I should still be able to run without touching you.”

“That’s right.” Gesmine put her hands behind her back demonstratively. “So go for it. Run to that field over there and then back again.” She indicated the weed-filled dirt lot that surrounded the back area of the truck stop, about a hundred yards away. “Just try not to overshoot too much and get lost somewhere in Canada. I can’t tell you how many times that happened to me.”

“A lot?” I asked, raising an eyebrow, not that she could see it.

“I just said I can’t tell you.” Her masked face tilted to the side as she replied dryly. “You’d laugh.”

“Me, laugh at you?” I asked, full of false innocence. “Why, I’m insulted that you think I could be so shallow.”

Gesmine’s response was to lift her gloved hands, settle them on my shoulders, and physically turn me around away from her before leaning in close. Her voice was a vaguely muffled whisper. “Run, then come back.”

“You’re changing the subject.” I informed her, while focusing on the weeds of the field across from us. Could I really do it? Could I possibly actually run that fast without Ges’s help? It was insane, wasn’t it?

“You changed it first.” She pointed out before giving me a light kick in the rear. “Go, Sav.”

I shrugged and started to jog. I took one step, then another. “Okay, fine, but I don’t think this–”

My voice cut off, because I was talking to myself. I was also standing by myself. I had stopped running in mid-sentence, only to look around and see nothing but dry, dead weeds and grass around me. In the distance to the left, there was the beginnings of a housing development. When I looked behind me, I could barely make out the distant shape of the trucks racing along the freeway. It was so far away that I had to strain to see anything.

“Oh… my… god…” I sat down abruptly and heavily, just sort of collapsing down into the dirt as I stared in shock back the way I had come. “How… how… how…” My brain was broken, it was all I could do to simply stare and not pass out. I honestly, truly had not expected it to work.

A blur of motion attracted my attention, and then Gesmine was in front of me. I could tell she was grinning even behind the mask. “See?!” She crowed and grabbed my hands to yank me back to my feet. “I told you that you could do it!”

I wobbled a little, needing Ges to hold me up. My mouth felt dry and my knees were shaking. I felt my stomach turn over and over a few times as a strange feeling bubbled up in my stomach. It was a feeling that I couldn’t quite explain or understand.

The feeling rose through my chest, making me duck my head a little while trying to stand on my own two feet. It continued upward, until it manifested in a tiny little giggle. The softest, lightest little laugh came, and I blinked.

It came again, another little giggle, and I realized that the feeling I had was something that I hadn’t really, truly felt since the death of Paragon. Even running with Ges, while amazing, hadn’t quite felt like this.

I felt happy. I felt free. But this was more than that. This was more like something I didn’t feel. There was something missing, something that had been weighing me down ever since I had seen the world’s most powerful hero cut down. For all this time, even when I had helped Kacey or escaped from Kansas Trude and his boys, or the thing possessing them or whatever, I had felt weak and vulnerable.

Now, in this moment, for the very first time since everything had gone wrong, that feeling had been crushed like it was the dust that was currently lightly blowing around my feet.

Because for the first time since Paragon had fallen, I didn’t feel helpless.

I felt so happy and free, in fact, that I took another quick run, crossing several more football fields in a handful of seconds.

Of course, immediately after that, I had a moment of intense guilt. The only reason that I had this ability at all was because Paragon had died in the first place. He’d died, so now I had his power. He hadn’t even known me. He hadn’t chosen to bequeath his power to me. I just happened to be standing there. Or rather, cowering there. How sick was that?

And yet, Gesmine wasn’t wrong. I hadn’t killed Paragon. The creature that was after him, this Drude thing, would have taken any opportunity. It wasn’t like Paragon had been a recluse. Waiting for him to save someone was a bit like riding a bike and waiting for someone to blare their horn. You couldn’t exactly set your watch by it, but it was bound to happen a couple times a day.

But in all honesty, it still wasn’t that knowledge and understanding that convinced me to at least try to let go of my guilt and accept this gift. It was the fact that I didn’t hold Gesmine responsible for what the Drude had made her do. She’d had no more control over the situation, no more defense against the Drude’s manipulation, than Paragon. She had been a victim as well, and couldn’t possibly have stopped it.

Which meant that I had to let go of that guilt. Because if I held onto it for myself, I was tangentially blaming Gesmine as well, and that wasn’t fair, or right.

I caught sight of a blur of motion out of the corner of my eye, and when I focused on it, everything slowed down again. Now I could see Gesmine coming toward me as though she was running at normal speed.

This was so indescribably awesome.

“Is this indescribably awesome or what?” Ges rocketed to a stop next to me, and I could tell she was grinning. Her head cocked to the side when I laughed. “What?”

My head shook as I continued to giggle. “Nothing, I was just thinking the exact same thing, that’s all.”

“Duh.” Ges smacked her hand off the side of her head to demonstrate the obviousness of my words. “We are best friends. We’re totally in synch. Plus, you know, maybe you’re borrowing my brain as well as my powers.”

“I hope not.” I shot back. “I can’t afford your English Lit grades.”

She leapt for me, and I spun to flee. It was just like when we were kids chasing each other around the backyard. Except in this case, the backyard was the entire state of Oregon. I ran for thirty seconds and crossed over a hundred miles into a wooded area. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the blur of Gesmine approaching, so I cut right and followed the treeline. Branches and bits of debris were flung either way in my wake.

Ten more seconds of running in that direction brought me back toward a residential area. Rather than continue, I leaned right again. A gopher of some kind poked his head up right in front of me, but the amazing reflexes I had acquired let me adjust course, speeding around the little creature in a rush of motion that actually yanked him out of his hole and made him tumble a few feet away.

“Sorry!” I called back to the dazed little gopher, though he was already miles away so it was a symbolic gesture at best.

Then I sensed motion to my left, but by the time I turned that way, Gesmine was there. She collided with me and we went tumbling end over end, rolling through the weeds and dirt. Both of us squealed, but I assure you that it was heroic, impressive girly squealing.

Falling onto my back with Gesmine perched atop me, I squinted at her through the mask lenses. “Best two out of three?”

She laughed, picking herself off me and extending her hand. “Next time. Right now, we should really talk to Kristof.”

I accepted the hand and let her pull me up. “Right, well, where are we going?”

“Back to the truck stop.” Ges was already jogging the way we had come from. “Follow me, if you can keep up.”

“If I can–” I rolled my eyes. “I have your powers, remember? The exact same powers.”

Her answer came in a slow, easy drawl that I’d heard her parents use, but Gesmine only spoke with when she was being exceedingly sarcastic or making a point. “Well yes, ma’am, but you ain’t Gesmine Montana, powers or no. That’s me, one and only.”

She picked up speed, and I chased after her. We blew across the land, terrifying that poor gopher one more time. Gesmine knew exactly where she was going, and I stayed behind her the whole way.

When we made it back to the lot behind the truck stop, I was a bit surprised to see Ges head up to the backdoor. Questions rose, but I bit them back and followed the other girl through the door and into heaven’s own kitchen.

It smelled that way, at least. Between the smells of sausage and bacon sizzling, warm and buttery pancakes, and frying eggs, I was somehow instantaneously and simultaneously content and starving. “Oh my god.”

“I know.” Ges chuckled. “Trust me, we’ll get food. Come on.” She led the way from the empty supply room and toward that smell.

“Uhh, Ges?” I hesitated. “Aren’t there people out there?”

She looked over her shoulder at me, expression hidden. “Like I said, trust me. This is why you’ve got the mask. And it’s not really so much people as, well, take a look.”

I did so, stepping past Ges and into the restaurant’s kitchen before stopping short at what I saw. My mouth fell open, and I’m fairly certain that a long, continuous ‘uhhh’ noise emanated from it for the next several moments.

On the bare surface, it looked like any busy diner kitchen. The industrial sinks taking up one side of the room were going full blast as plates were swept through, scrubbed, and deposited on the other side to dry. Papers with the scribbled instructions of people’s orders were brought in and attached in an orderly line to the board near the enormous stove, which itself looked like a particularly ill-disguised Transformer who couldn’t quite get the hang of not looking like a super advanced killer robot. The food frying or grilling all along the stove was swept up and arranged onto plates which were then deposited onto trays, and carried out the door toward the waiting diners.

Except, one thing separated this kitchen from every other one I’d ever seen. Everything that was happening was being done without the benefit of any human assistance. The plates washed themselves, the receipts floated into the room and attached themselves to the board of their own volition, the pancakes flipped over without help, and the trays full of food simply floated back out of the room.

Behind me, I could hear my companion giggling. Once I got my confusion under control, I looked over my shoulder. Sadly, the lenses in the mask I wore tempered the murdering power of my scowl. Actually, given what little I understood about the gifts I had inherited, that wasn’t so much a toss away joke as it was a wise investment idea. I really needed to find out if murder lasers were going to shoot out of my eyes at any point.

I suppose it would be a larger issue if I spent much time around anyone else with such power.

“You could’ve warned me.” I complained before turning back to stare at the automated kitchen once more.

“And miss this reaction?” Ges shook her head and stepped next to me. “Not on your life. Besides, how awesome is this?”

“Not quite as cool as crossing the entire continent in half an hour, but definitely right up at the top.” I took a cautious step further in. “Let me guess, Augurist works here? This is his like, Daily Planet or something?”

“First, you are such a geek.” Gesmine passed me and continued to a door marked ‘manager’. “And second, he doesn’t just work here, he owns the place.”

Before Ges could open the door, I paused. “You know, it occurs to me that this whole concealing my identity thing might not be fair if I get to know his.”

With her hand on the door, Gesmine looked back at me. “Sure, it wouldn’t be fair. That is, if I hadn’t been sending him messages through the com in my mask to make sure that it’s okay.”

I blinked at that, glad that the mask hid my blush. “Oh, well okay then. In that case, can I ask him why the most powerful sorcerer in the world is–”

A deep, baritone voice continued my thought, “–shacked up in some rinky-dink roadside diner?” The door in front of us had opened, to reveal a tall, barrel chested man with a weathered face and long gray-brown hair. He looked old enough to be my grandfather, yet his green eyes were lively and sparked with amusement and power.

I stared up at the man, my voice failing me. Give me a break, it was only my second big hero meeting, and the first one hadn’t ended very well. Third, I suppose, counting Ges. But I had known her forever.

My friend kicked my foot and coughed. “Say something.”

“Something.” I blurted, and was immediately even more grateful for the blush-concealing mask than I had been before.

To his credit, the man didn’t laugh in my face. I don’t know if I could have resisted had it been the other way around. “Well, now that we know she can talk.” Those green eyes sparkled with amusement before he reached his hand out toward me, “My name is Kristof. What shall I call you?”

My mind went blank for a moment, while Ges simply waited patiently. Should I give him my real first name? Should I use a pseudonym and just come up with a random name, like… like… Oh god, I couldn’t remember any other names! That part of my brain that should have contained a whole expansive list of potential fake names was just showing white static.

Finally, I remembered what I had told Kansas Trude. “Fixation.” I said, drawing a clearly curious look from Gesmine. “Let’s just go with Fixation.”

The man’s eyebrow rose curiously. “Ah, is there some meaning behind your choice?”

“Yeah.” I answered the man simply, without going into details.

Once it became clear that I wasn’t going to say anything else about it, Kristof gave a nod of acceptance. “Well, Fixation, your friend tells me that you have had a rather interesting couple of weeks.”

I started to nod, then looked at the autonomously flying dishes all around us. “Is it safe to talk about this stuff? I mean, the dining room is right there, and you seem busy.”

Kristof waved a hand dismissively. “No one sees or hears anything within this building unless I wish them to. Our conversation is quite private, I assure you.”

Deciding that I was going to have to be satisfied with that, after all, the man was supposed to be the most powerful magic-user alive, I started to talk. I told him everything, repeating it for Gesmine. I told them about my stupid plan, which earned me a scowl from Ges. I talked about what had happened, what I’d seen, how I’d gone over to Ges’s house for answers and ended up using skills I shouldn’t have had to rescue Kacey. Then I went over my subsequent abduction and what had happened in the Trude’s basement with the Drude.

When I was done, I hesitated before looking at Kristof. “With all that information, and what you know about Ges, it wouldn’t be very hard for you to figure out who I am just by doing a little bit of research.”

A smile touched the older man’s worn face. “More effort than it would take to learn your identity using magic, dear.” His eyes twinkled with amusement as he shook his head. “I have promised that I will make no effort to learn who you are, until you wish me to. Whether the means be magic or mundane, my word stands.”

He went on after I nodded in satisfaction. “We will send people to this Kansas Trude’s house to learn what they know. You say they knew your name while possessed, but not once the creature had fled. Do you believe that the creature knows who you are, and that you possess what it wants?

“I…” I hesitated. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen it lurking around, haven’t seen anyone acting odd. Actually, I haven’t seen any sign of it at all.”

“That makes sense.” Kristof nodded. “From what little we know, it seems as if the monster must go into hybernation after exerting itself. Possessing Whiplash, then a handful of humans in short succession? I daresay it has exhausted itself for some time.”

“How long is it going to have to sleep for?” I held my gloved hands up with my fingers crossed. “Please say thirty seven centuries. Please say thirty seven centuries.”

A slight chuckle escaped the mage. “I can’t truly begin to say, but I would wager on a matter of weeks, or months.”

“Great.” I slumped a little, feeling the weight from the fear of that thing knowing my name and coming after me to get what it wanted.

Gesmine crossed to where I was, putting a hand on my arm. “We’ll teach you to defend yourself. And to use your power. Won’t we, Kristof?”

He nodded and extended a hand. A glass flew to him from the nearby counter, and he held it on his outstretched palm. “I wish to try something. You know of my power. Telekinesis, that is, moving objects–”

“Dude,” I interrupted, “I know what telekinesis is. It’s like, the most common power in movies and stuff because it’s so easy to fake. Plus Maiden used it before she retired. And when you were fighting Gallant, you used it to manipulate the giant suit of armor that he stole.”

Kristof looked toward Gesmine. “You clearly were not exaggerating your companion’s interest in our doings.”

Ges was giggling behind her mask. “You haven’t seen anything yet. Wait til she really gets going.”

“In any case,” Kristof said with a smile, “I want you to try to use my own power to move this glass. Telekinesis is the most simple, easy to use bits of magic that I know. Just focus on the glass and attempt to move it.”

After Ges gave me an encouraging nod, I focused on the glass. I imagined it flying up out of the wizard’s hand and coming to my own. I pictured Luke Skywalker getting his lightsaber on Hoth. I pictured it spinning around in the air. I focused on pushing it off of Kristof’s outstretched hand, wobbling and falling.

Nothing happened. For almost five minutes, I focused on that glass, and it didn’t react whatsoever.

“As I suspected.” Kristof gave the glass a toss and it floated carefully back to where it had been. “Though you, like Paragon, are capable of using the mundane skills of anyone you have personally met, powers are different. You must have a personal connection with the person whose powers you are attempting to use, and they must be willing. That would explain Paragon’s beginning.”

“His beginning?” I frowned. “But he just came out of nowhere and had all these powers.”

“Not precisely.” Kristof shook his head, and now even Gesmine seemed curious. “What do you remember of the boy called Kid Assist?”

That threw me. “Uh, he was a sidekick for the Society about twenty years ago. He just kind of hung around a lot and tried to help. He got in trouble sometimes when the bad guys came after him, and finally he just retired and disappeared. Some people thought he died.”

Kristof smiled faintly. “Yes and no. Kid Assist did retire from active duty because things had become too dangerous. But he remained in the Society Headquarters, because he was an orphan and had nowhere else to go. He stayed around the Society members for a decade after his retirement, before beginning to display the ability to use the powers of those he knew well.”

My eyes widened and I did a double-take. “Wait, you’re saying little Kid Assist is actually—I mean was actually Paragon?”

“Indeed.” Kristof nodded. “The years he spent around the Society allowed him to borrow the powers of any of us who were willing to let him. It needn’t even be open agreement. If the person whose powers were being borrowed would have been willing, even if nothing was outright stated or thought, he was able to use their abilities until or unless they consciously or unconsciously withdrew that permission.”

I was still reeling, and had to put a hand out to the counter to stop myself from stumbling. Gesmine came to my side and put an arm around me quickly. Her voice was worried, “Are you all right?”

“I-I’ll be fine.” I swallowed thickly and looked toward the old man. “How did I end up with this power?”

His head shook. “That I do not know. Perhaps Paragon wished you to have them and transferred the power before it could be stolen.”

“So… so now what do I do?” I asked, weakly.

“We will help in case the Drude returns for you.” Kristof answered, his voice soft and reassuring. “But in the meantime, you have a choice to make.”

“A choice?” I felt Ges tighten her hold on me. “What kind of choice?”

“You may simply hold those powers and return to your normal life, allowing us to do what we must to track down this Drude.” Kristof explained. “Or you may use the powers, the skills, to do the things that Paragon can no longer do.”

I stared in shock. “You want me to take his place?”

Kristof’s look was sad as he shook his head. “No, I do not believe that anyone could take Paragon’s place. But he is gone, and you are here. I will not lie and say that it will be easy, or that you won’t lose things that you care about. It will be dangerous, but it is your choice.”

My voice was small and weak. “I’m not a hero. I’m just a stupid little girl with a crush.”

Gesmine started to speak, but Kristof interrupted, his voice firm. “What you have been does not dictate what you may or may not become. Whether you remain a stupid little girl with a crush, or become something better is decided by your actions now and in the future, not the ones from the past. Your life is not guided like a train upon the rails, but by your every step. Forward or backward, wherever you go, it is your choice. If you were a stupid little girl, then so be it. Your act now must be to decide who you will be, not who you were.”

I almost shrank further beneath his gaze, but held my ground. I felt small and insignificant, but his words made me think, made me consider. “I… I want to help. I want to try. I want to be better.”

The man smiled, turning his attention to Ges. “Well then, I believe that means you have some training to do.”

“Yup.” Gesmine nodded, her attention on me. “You ready to become the thing you’ve always loved?”

I was scared, worried that I wouldn’t be good enough, that I would make a mockery of the chance I’d been given. But I lifted my hand to give her a thumbs up. “Where do we start?”

Advertisements

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine

345 Days Ago

“So… you’re Whiplash.” I said, rather unnecessarily as the two of us walked through that empty field. It was all I could think of to say after the several minutes of silence that had followed my decision to believe what she had said about not being in control of herself when Paragon had died.

Gesmine looked at the ground for another moment, watching as both sets of our feet picked their way through the weeds and overgrown grass. “Yeah,” she finally said. “That’s me.” There was another moment of silence, and then she shook her head. “Listen, I knew you’d want me to tell you, but–”

I interrupted, “For my own protection, villains going after the friends of the hero, yada yada, I know. I kinda went through all this in my head a while ago, in between all the freaking about… about Paragon.”

She winced, stooping to pick up a small rock which she chucked ahead of us. “I knew something was up. I thought you saw whoever killed him, and you were just afraid to tell anyone. When I saw you the other day and you were acting weird, I thought you’d come to talk to me about it but changed your mind. I didn’t know how to help you without revealing myself, if you didn’t already know about me. ”

“So you really don’t remember what happened?” I asked slowly. “Any of that?”

Her head shook. “Nothing. I mean, now that I think about it, it’s a blank but when I was thinking about it before, about where I was while he was dying, I just kept thinking that I was looking for him. I was looking for him and then he was dead.” Gesmine hesitated again, and when she finally spoke, her voice was wary. “I… I really killed him?”

“No.” I state flatly. I reached out and took my friend’s hand, squeezing firmly. “It wasn’t you. It was that thing, whatever it is. God, Ges, you have no idea how many questions I have.”

“Yeah, I’ve got a few too.” Ges responded dryly. “Starting with, how did you end up with Paragon’s power?”

“Well, it’s not all his power.” I quickly said. “I mean, I’m not flying around or anything. It’s just sort of… skills that other people know.” I explained what had happened with the knife, what the possessed her had said about Paragon’s power being hers, all of it. Actually, it felt like an enormous relief to actually be able to talk to someone else about all of this.

“He mentioned that.” Gesmine murmured. “That he could use other people’s skills, I mean. I wonder why you only got part of his power.”

“Really?” I raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m still kind of stuck on why I got any of it at all. But it’s good to know one of us has jumped ahead in the line of a thousand and one w t f’s.”

Her shoulders shrugged. “Well of course we have to figure that out too. But my point is, where did the rest of that power go?”

The question made me wince as I offered, “Maybe it went into that oil monster thing that was possessing you? What the hell is that thing?”

Ges let out a long sigh. “That’s kind of a long story. Come on, let’s walk and talk without all that tension between us.”

That reminded me. “I know why I was so nervous, but why were you acting all tense and strange if you didn’t have anything to do with Paragon’s death? You didn’t even remember being there. And why did you mouth that bit about how I was there if you didn’t remember it yourself?”

She turned to walk while answering. “I did remember being there. I mean, to my memory I just ran up and saw him falling. The… creature has a way of adjusting the memories of the people it was in. And I knew my mask was off, so I kind of put it together that you had seen me and that was why you were acting all jumpy and weird. That and I figured you knew something about Paragon and didn’t know who to tell.”

“Well you’ve got that right.” I muttered while falling into step beside her. “Who could I possibly talk to about this?”

Her hip bumped against mine. “You mean besides me?”

“Until you.” I corrected, bumping her back. “But what about your house?” I explained what had happened, that I had called the police and that both the old man and the bad guy had been gone when I got there, with no sign that the cops ever showed up.

Ges sighed a little. “Sorry about that. See, the Society monitors any emergency call involving a member’s home. A clean up team came to take care of things, but you were already gone, and so was that guy you knocked out.”

“And Mr. Vames?” I asked. “Why was he involved in what they were looking for in your house? And for that matter, what were they looking for?”

“I have no idea.” She shrugged. “And Potter Vames, his uhh, he’s sort of the one who introduced me to the Society of Light in the first place. His son was a member and no I’m not going to say which one. That’s his privacy. But he’s sort of an honorary friend of the Society. I guess someone else found out. He was still there when the clean-up team showed up, and he’s been moved now, to a safe place. With his granddaughter, of course.”

I nodded slowly, taking in the answers to things that had bothered me for so long. “Now tell me about this monster.”

Ges was quiet for a moment, until we reached the edge of the field and began to walk along the road that led up behind the mall. We walked in silence, watching a lone car until it had passed us and turned a corner. When she spoke, her voice was a little shaky. “No one knows where it came from. They call it a Drude.”

I blinked and looked at her. “A druid?”

“No.” Her head shook. “A Drude.” She spelled it. “It’s like a German nightmare spirit or something. That’s just what Augurist calls it.”

That time I couldn’t help but laugh incredulously. “You know, it’s gonna take a while to get used to you talking about people like the world’s most powerful wizard like they’re your friends.”

“They are.” She pointed out before going on. “Anyway, he calls it a Drude, so that’s what the rest of us call it.”

“Fair enough,” I decided before nodding. “Okay, so this ‘Drude’. What do you know about it?”

“Not a lot.” Gesmine admitted. “Augurist is really the one you want to talk to about the details. Mostly I can tell you that we don’t know where it came from. We think it started back when… well, you remember Critter?”

After blinking at the question, I gave a short nod. “Uh, of course. He’s the animal shapeshifter who went nuts a few months ago, pretty much right after he joined the Society of Light. Everyone said that he couldn’t handle the pressure. I don’t–” Then I got it. “Wait, you’re saying he was taken over by this Drude?”

Ges bowed her head and stopped walking. “His real name was Kyle. He wasn’t a bad person, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We think he somehow released the Drude from one of the artifacts that we keep in the Citadel.”

“How could that happen?” I had to ask. “I mean, if you guys, if they had some artifact with this horrible, evil spirit inside it…”

“They didn’t know.” She quickly explained. “They had no idea that the Drude was hiding in one of them, waiting for someone to touch it. And now it’s loose and somehow, it gains the powers of anyone it kills. That’s how Revver and Dynamo died.”

“That’s…” I swallowed. “That’s horrible. I didn’t know anything about that. I didn’t even… wait…” I frowned. “No, it was the knife.”

Ges blinked at that. “The knife? You mean the one that I–that it used…”

I nodded. “I heard you–I mean it–I mean, you-possessed-by-it, saying that the knife it was using was magic, that it would steal his power.”

Frowning thoughtfully, Gesmine finally let out a sigh. “Well maybe that’s what they were looking for in my house…” Her mouth twisted into a frown. “That just proves how little we actually know about it. The others are going to have to know about that. Maybe it’ll give someone an idea.”

“Either way, built in ability or magic blade, how did I end up with the powers instead of this Drude, then?” I had to put voice to the question that had bothered me for a long time now.

Her head shook. “I have no idea. We’re going to have to ask Kristof.” At my blank look, she winced. “I mean Augurist, sorry.”

I shrugged. “It’s okay. He looks like a Kristof.”

Gesmine nodded, a tiny smile playing across her face. “It’s the goatee.”

“Definitely the goatee.” I agreed. We both smiled, and it was one of those moments that seems to last forever. Or at least, that you never want to end.

Eventually, however, I had to speak, and break that brief spell. “I’m not sure I want to let this Kristof know who I am. Which, I know, pretty much redefines unfair since I just called him by his real name. But you know, I… after everything that happened, we still don’t know who we can trust.”

“You can trust Kristof.” Gesmine said before raising a hand. “But I get it, I understand. Believe it or not, we do know something about keeping secret identities. Sometimes even from each other.”

“I guess you do.” I admitted with a slight chuckle. “But you really think we can keep my identity private from someone who uses actual magic?”

Ges’s head shook immediately. “If he tried to learn it, absolutely not.” Her look softened, and she reached out to take my hand. “But he won’t. He won’t try to see past the mask if you ask him not to. You can trust that.”

I let her take my hand, smiling a little before blinking. “Wait, what mask?”

***********************************************************************

An hour later, I was staring at myself in the mirror at Gesmine’s house. “I can’t believe I let you talk me into putting this on.”

My friend rolled her eyes. “Oh, listen to this crap. Keep talking like you haven’t been waiting your whole life to put on an actual, real super costume. You forget, Savvy, I know you.”

Her words made me blush and I waved a hand vaguely. “That was… before. I was an idiot. I was stupid, and selfish, and because of me–”

Her hand came out and smacked my shoulder. “Savannah Crest, you knock that off right now. Yes, you made mistakes. Yes, you were obsessed. But what happened to Paragon was not your fault. It wasn’t. If he hadn’t been drawn away by you, something else would have pulled him away. Trust me; the bad guys are bad enough without you blaming yourself. If it wasn’t you, the Drude would have jumped on another opportunity.”

“But it was me.” I replied, my own voice soft. “Don’t hit me again. I know it wasn’t entirely my fault. I know it wasn’t my choice, and I know I’m not the one that killed him. But my choice or not, my action or not, I contributed to what happened, and that’s not something I can just forget about.”

“So don’t forget about it.” She told me, the quiet seriousness of her tone matching my own. “Use it. All of us have reasons that we use to inspire us to greater things, Savvy. Not just vigilantes, but everyone who puts it on the line to help people who don’t have as many advantages. Use it, but don’t let it use you. Don’t let your guilt take over your life.”

“Besides,” Ges added after a moment. “You look good.”

I looked at myself again. Gesmine had given me what she called one of her ‘old speed suits’. To begin with, it was a one piece body suit that zipped up in the back with a tiny, nearly invisible zipper. Once it was zipped all the way up, a second zipper, horizontal this time, wound from the left shoulder all way to the right, sealing the first zipper out of sight behind another piece of the suit and making it impossible to simply grab and rip down.

There was also a mask involved, just as Gesmine had promised. The back of the mask was literally attached to the back collar of the suit, so when it was off, it hung like a hoody. Then it could be pulled up and over the head, all the way down as a full face mask, which itself was secured with another tiny zipper in the front.

In all honesty, it was kind of a pain in the ass to put on correctly, but whoever had made it had definitely gone out of their way to make it difficult to simply have it taken away.

Color wise, the suit had a black and gold scheme going. The base of the suit and mask themselves was black. The mask then had these gold lines that each began on either side of the top of the head and circled down over the eyes before going back, like a C and a, well, backward C. Those lines continued down over the shoulders of the suit itself, one widening to flare out almost like a flickering flame on the right hand side so that the gold took up most of the lower right, with only specks of black in that area until it reached the legs of the suit, where black returned with only small dots of gold, as though the previously stated ‘flames’ were giving off sparks.

Meanwhile, the other gold line stayed thin and small, accenting the black on the opposite side until it reached the other leg, at which point it too flared out into a gold flame that took up most of the leg.

The suit had feet built in like those old kiddy footy pajamas, though standing in them felt as though I was wearing a good, comfortable pair of tennis shoes. They were also black like most of the suit, with gold highlights and soles.

“And you just happened to have this lying around.” I smirked a little, keeping the mask down in hoody form for the moment.

“Like I said,” Ges paced around me as though making certain that it was fitting properly. “I used it for training until it stopped fitting.”

That confused me. “It stopped fitting? Haven’t you been the same height since we were in like, eighth grade?” And yet, she was still taller than me. Gesmine had grown up quickly. She’d practically been a giant to the rest of us for a couple years there before she stopped growing and we caught up. Now we were both around average height, even if she did still have a couple of inches on me.

Gesmine shifted her weight and looked a little embarrassed. “Yes, I stopped getting taller.”

“So what do you mean it stopped fitting?” I started to ask. “You’re just as thin as I am. I mean, in shape, and I guess I know why now, but you’re not…”

My friend gave me a meaningful stare. She was openly blushing now, and spoke through gritted. “You know, something else grew in the last couple years?”

“Something el–” I got it then, and my face grew red. “Oh.” I looked down at myself and groaned. “Ohhh. Right, so I’m wearing your pre-puberty suit. Now I feel great.”

Laughing, Ges shook her head. “You’re fine, Savvy. And you make that suit look better than I did.”

“What I don’t get,” I said in an attempt to change the subject. “Is why I even need to wear the whole thing. I mean, the mask I get, to hide who I am from Augurist so we can talk to him. But the rest of it?”

She shrugged. “Well, you kinda need the protection of the suit if we’re going to run there. Kristof lives across the country, so unless you want your clothes to turn into rags by the time we get there, you’re gonna have to wear something that’s going to be in one piece after we get up to the speed we need.”

That made me blink. “Wait, run there? I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re the only one of us with super speed powers. What, are you gonna carry me?”

Chuckling, Ges shook her head. “No, but if I hold your hand, I can pass my speed powers to you so that you can keep up. It’s like in those old shows or whatever where Superman could make someone fly next to him just by holding their hand.”

“So… I’ll be able to move as fast as you…” I tried to take that in. The idea was amazing, and made me realize just how many questions I had for her. “You know I have to ask how all this happened. How you got to be so fast, I mean. And all the rest of the stuff about you being a… a hero.”

Gesmine’s smile grew. “And I’ll answer your questions. All of them. But right now, let’s find out what Kristof knows.”

She led me into the backyard, and we passed the spot where we had carved the initials of our crushes into the wood. “So, MFH, one of these heroes you hang out with?”

She blushed once more. “That, right there, is one question I’m not answering now.”

“Ooh, now I’m even more curious.” I teased. It felt good.

Gesmine changed the subject. “We’re running. Here’s how this’ll work. We hold hands. I’m going to start at a jog, just a normal human jog, and then gradually work up. Eventually you’ll be going faster than any jet. It’s sort of like letting a frog boil. Just, with less horrible death involved. Trust me.”

This time, I didn’t hesitate. “I do.”

She pulled her own green and black mask up and on, securing it carefully, and then I did the same with the one she had loaned me. Rather than simple holes for the eyes, the mask had a couple of lenses, colored gold to go with the accompanying accent lines, which Ges had told me both amplified low light and dampened intense brightness.

We looked at each other for a moment like that, and I couldn’t help but remember the time we had both gone trick or treating as Ninja Turtles. Clearly, life had taken a turn into the absurd since then.

“Okay, Raph.” Gesmine said, clearly thinking of the same memory. “Let’s do this.” She held her hand up and I took it.

As promised, we started by trotting at an easy pace. I held my friend’s hand tightly, not wanting to lose my grip and end up plummeting back down to normal human pace once we got up into the kind of speeds Ges was capable of.

That trot slowly turned into a jog, then a run as we headed from Ges’s backyard into the alley behind her house, scaring a couple of stray cats on the way.

By the time we reached the road, the two of us were moving so fast, my legs pumping beneath me to keep up with the other girl’s, that we passed a car that was doing forty like it was standing still.

Actually, at that point, everything looked like it was standing still. I saw people start to turn as though to look at us, but we were going so quickly by then that it was as though they were moving in slow motion. We were there, then past them and gone by the time they started to react.

Faster, even faster, we kept moving. We were running so quickly that, as Gesmine hung a left and took us up onto a freeway, the two of us were able to run around and between the cars exactly as though they were standing still, in spite of the fact that most were nearing triple digit speed numbers.

And yet, our speed kept increasing. Within a minute of reaching the freeway, I saw a sign announcing that the exit for a town that was an hour’s drive in good traffic was coming up.

We blew past the exit and kept gaining speed. We ran around a traffic jam that had built up around an accident, Ges slowing just enough to assure herself that everything was in hand, then kicked it up another notch.

I could see a cup of soda that someone was tossing out of their car. It was clearly tumbling end over end and spraying liquid as it fell, but from my point of view, it looked like a frozen explosion of cola in midair. Somehow, I was both moving faster than anything possibly should have been able to, while still seeing and comprehending everything else as though they were actually moving slowly.

It was, singularly, the most amazing experience I had ever had up to that point, and, to this day, remains a highlight of my life.

When Ges finally signaled a slowdown, we stopped just behind an old truck stop. I bent over to grab my knees, panting. “That, that was amazing. That was… incredible. That was… that was awesome.” I managed to get out while panting. “Where are we?”

“Near Kristof’s house.” She answered. “You know, in Oregon.”

My eyes widened, and I sputtered, “Oregon?” Then I looked at the time that was displayed on the nearby freeway sign. It was… I took a moment to do the mental math. If we had started out in the Eastern time zone, and we were now on the Pacific time zone, it was… roughly an hour later. It had taken an hour to cross from one side of the country to the opposite side. I didn’t even know what kind of speed that was. That was something like two thousand miles an hour.

“That’s amazing!” I repeated my earlier statement, shouting it this time.

Gesmine laughed and covered my mouth through the mask with her hand. “Shh, yeah, you’re pretty damn awesome already.”

“Me?” I shook my head. “Sorry, Ges, that was all you. I was just along for the ride.”

My friend’s smile turned sly. “Nah, it really wasn’t.”

I frowned at that, confused. “What are you talking about?”

She shrugged. “I was kind of lying.”

“About… what?” I asked, uncertainly.

“I can’t really share my speed just by holding your hand, Savannah.” She said softly. “I just wanted you to think that I could so that you wouldn’t realize what you were you doing, so that you’d do it without overthinking it. You were borrowing my speed yourself, just like you do when you borrow someone’s skill. You were using my superpower.”

“You were wrong. You can use other people’s powers, just like Paragon.”

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight

345 Days Ago

I don’t think it’s too much for me to say I nearly peed myself. In fact, the nearly qualifier might be a vast overestimation of my coolness under pressure.

Yes, had my stupid, obsessive act not drawn Paragon into a private place so he could be killed, you might be reading another blog article about the several hundred people he saved this week. Instead, you’re hearing about my bladder control problems when confronted with his killer, the girl who I thought had been my friend, figuring out I had been there.

“Savvy?” Aldridge had clearly been saying my name a few times as I privately lost every single ounce of my mind. Was brainpower measured in ounces?

As my mind inexplicably drifted, he repeated himself, “I said, you hungry? We could go get some pizza or something. Or we could get a cheeseburger, if you feel carnivorous.”

I wasn’t looking at him. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Gesmine, who was still standing over there just staring at me. She said nothing, mouthed nothing else, but she had made it clear already. She knew. And the fact that she knew wasn’t going to go away, no matter how much I wished it would.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t known this confrontation was coming. I just hadn’t expected it to be this soon. I needed more time to plan out what I was going to say, how I was going to confront her. This was all wrong. And yet, she just kept standing there, clearly waiting.

And Aldridge still needed an answer.

“No.” I said, trying to stop the tremor in my voice. I couldn’t run off to get food with him, as much as a part of me wanted to keep Aldridge right next to me for the next three hundred and seventy meals, at least, just on the assumption that Gesmine wouldn’t try anything while I was with company.

But I couldn’t take that kind of risk. Whatever was going to happen now that she knew that I’d seen what she did, it had to be between her and me. No matter how terrified that made me.

You know what? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that being afraid that the person that should be one of your two best friends in the world is going to kill you or your family is one of the absolutely worst feelings that I will ever experience. Not that I haven’t felt some pretty bad stuff, but emotionally, that was something in a completely different league.

“I’ve got plans with Ges.” I said quietly. “We have… girl things to talk about.” Oh god, I hoped she wouldn’t kill me. Please let me survive the next few minutes.

Something in my voice made Aldridge frown. “Sav, you okay? Is something going on between you two?”

“No.” My voice broke and I had to cough. “No, it’s just personal stuff. Trust me; you don’t want to know about it. But I’ll catch you later.” I tried to sound confident about that. “Like I said, it’s girl stuff. Icky, icky girl stuff. Run, flee while you can before we mention things you don’t want to hear.”

“Uh huh. Okay then.” Aldridge finally shrugged. It was clear that he still thought something screwy was going on, but he backed off. “Give me a call, and try picking up your pudding once in a while so stuff like this doesn’t happen.” He tugged at the sleeve of the letter jacket. “You used up all of your luck for the next century getting this thing. Now you’re all out.”

If I hadn’t been so distracted, I might have made a remark about how clearly all of that had to be my fault. Then he would have said something else that made me laugh. Instead, I stayed quiet until he walked away, all while I stared at Gesmine and tried to force myself not to faint.

To this day, I have no idea how I did what came next. It was the most difficult, terrifying thing I had ever done up to that point. Going into that restaurant with those thugs and rescuing Kacey was cake compared to this.

I took a step forward. Then I took another, and then a third. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, closing the distance between the two of us. The physical distance, at least. The vast gulf that stood where the trust between us had once been might as well have been an impassable expanse.

Sooner than I expected, we were standing face to face. Her expression hadn’t changed. She still watched me with that calculating look, like there were things she still wasn’t sure about, even if a large question had been answered.

“Ges,” I started to speak with no idea of where the sentence was going to end, “we should talk.”

Rather than speak, her head dipped into a simple nod. Then Gesmine turned and began to walk away. She was heading for the field behind the school, the one we used to cut through to get to the mall more easily. We went all the time, a couple of months and a couple of lifetimes ago.

I stood still, a not insignificant part of me wanting nothing more than to run as far as I could in the opposite direction. Maybe never stop running. It would be easier than what I was about to do.

Instead, I followed her. Maybe it was stupid, but in spite of everything, I wanted to see what she said. I had to hear it from her. And, to be honest, I didn’t see the benefit of running away from a girl who could break the sound barrier with a brisk jog. If she wanted me there, I was going. I’d rather just do it under my own power. Call it stupid pride.

For a few minutes, we walked in silence through the overgrown field. We were parallel, but not quite side by side. I deliberately left a couple of feet of space between us. Not that it would have mattered, considering Gesmine’s speed, but it made me feel marginally better.

Even standing that close to the girl who had been my friend for so long made me feel sick, betrayed, and angry. How could she have done this? How could she have become this person? Had she always been this sick and I was just too blind to notice?

It was she who finally spoke up, breaking the silence. “We have a lot to talk about.”

Bile twisting in my mouth, I took three quick steps ahead and pivoted to face her. “Is that right?” I was angry now, my worry and fear and disgust with her transforming into fury. “What would you like to talk about, Whiplash?”

She winced, just a little, but didn’t look away. Her gaze continued to meet my own. “We need to talk about what happened to you.” She kept her voice steady. “And about what you’ve done since then.”

“Or?” I couldn’t keep the slightly high pitched tone out of my voice. “Or what? Let me guess, I tell you everything you want to know, or you do to me what you did to him? No, wait, you still might need me. What, you’ll threaten my parents? Or Aldridge? Where’s the line, Ges? How low are you willing to go? How fucking twisted are you?”

After getting all of that out, I finally forced myself to look at her once more. I expected anger, or maybe amusement that she had upset me so much.

Instead, I saw confusion. Gesmine stared at me, her mouth open partway. “You… think I would hurt you?”

“I think you’d kill me!” My voice went up into a squeal, but I didn’t care. “Just like you killed him! Just like you killed Paragon for his power.”

She was still staring as if she had no idea what I was talking about. I couldn’t believe she was going to play it this way. I didn’t understand it. “Savannah,” she started.

I didn’t let her finish. “I saw you!” I stepped forward and, heedless of every possible risk, gave her a hard shove. All of the confusion I’d felt since I’d realized who was under that mask boiled up and I shoved her so hard she stumbled backward. “I saw you stab him! I saw you stab him over and over and over! I heard you talking about taking his power! I was there! I heard every sick word! You’re sick! How dare you!? And now you’re gonna what, gonna kill me to shut me up? We were friends! You just–You’re–” My hand lashed out to punch her, the anger completely overwhelming my common sense.

She could have avoided it. I knew that. I expected that. Avoided it, or blocked it, or punched me six times before my punch came near her. What happened was the one thing I did not expect: she took it. My punch knocked her head to the side, and I felt an immediate pain shoot through my fist. Turns out punching someone like that hurt, a lot. Especially when I’m not borrowing a master martial artist’s skills at the time.

There was a red mark on Gesmine’s face where I had punched her. Blood played over her split lip, and she continued to stare at the ground, face turned away from me from the force of the blow. She didn’t even bother to touch her lip, even though I knew it had to hurt. Maybe even hurt as much as my hand did.

“You believe that.” Her voice sounded hollow. “You believe that I would do that. You think I’m going to hurt you, that I… could hurt you.”

“What?” I rubbed my sore hand, unable to stop the tears that came forth unbidden. “I saw you do it, Ges! I saw it! You’re Whiplash, you killed Paragon!” Even in the empty field, I kept my accusation to a hissed stage-whisper.

The expression on Gesmine’s face when she turned back to me was not that of someone guilty at being caught. It was not even anger. It was despair. She looked completely broken that I believed that about her, as if my believing she had murdered Paragon was the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

“Savannah,” she spoke in a halting, pleading voice. “Listen to me. I know this is a lot to take in, I know. But you have to listen for just a second. There’s something out there, something that’s been infected people. It makes them act different, makes them do evil things and they don’t even remember doing them. I know, it’s… you don’t believe me. You can’t believe me, but–”

My throat caught. “The shadow thing.” I said, and her eyes rose to meet mine. “You mean the oil creature.”

“How do you–” Ges started to ask before she realized. “You’ve seen it. You know about it.”

My mouth opened and then shut. I closed my eyes before opening them. “You’re saying you were possessed. That it wasn’t you.” I had to blink away tears then, staring at the other girl. “How can I believe that? You could be lying. You could know all about the girl who saw that creature, if you’re working with it, and now you’re using it to make yourself look innocent.”

I wanted her to have an answer I could believe. I had never wanted anything more in my life, but I didn’t dare hope. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

For a long moment, Gesmine stood silently in front of me. I saw a torrent of emotions cross her face. There were words she wanted to say, pleas she wanted to make. When she finally spoke, it was in a low, quiet voice and she never broke my gaze. “You don’t. You don’t know, Savannah. I can tell you that I could never, ever hurt you. Not you. I could tell you that I… that you are incredibly important to me. I could tell you that I would rather die than have you look at me like you’re looking at me now. But I can’t prove it. I can do a lot of things, Savvy, but I can’t make you magically trust me again.”

“I can’t prove it. Some things you have to take on faith.”

We stared at one another, the silence that fell after her last words stretching out. Her eyes were locked onto mine, and she made no move, made no sound. She was waiting for my choice.

Paragon was never coming back. Superheroes or not, this wasn’t a comic book. Dead meant dead. But worse than the death of my hero, my obsession, had been the betrayal of my best friend. Not just a personal betrayal, but a betrayal of everything and everyone. She hadn’t hurt me, she had destroyed my faith in her and thus in everything. Yes, I had begun to move on, had even done some good. But the betrayal, the evil that I had seen in her and thus in everyone, had become a knot of depression deep in my soul. It had whispered to me at night for weeks now. If my best friend could do this, then what good was anyone else?

And now she’d asked me to choose whether I believed that what happened wasn’t really her. I had to choose to believe, or choose not to. There was really no way of testing, or of being certain. Ges was right, I had to act, had to choose, based on faith.

Then I realized that the choice wasn’t hard at all. Not when I thought about it, because this was one of two worlds. Either it was a world in which my best friend was still a person I could trust, or it was a world in which she had killed before and would kill me. One world I would have my friend back, and in the other, I would die.

But I only wanted to live in one of those worlds anyway.

My arms were around Gesmine before I knew what I was doing. A gasp of surprise escaped her, escaped my friend, and then she was hugging me in return. The sick feeling in my stomach that I’d been holding onto for so long dissolved and I clung tighter, closing my eyes against the tears.

I’d made my choice. Maybe it would be the wrong one. Maybe I would regret it. But it was the only choice I could possibly make and still be able to live with myself afterward. It was the choice that I had to make, the one that the real heroes make every time they put on their mask and go out to risk their lives just to help other people, just to make the world a tiny bit better in spite of everything. Because belief isn’t always a matter of measuring evidence. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of choosing between two possible outcomes.

I chose to believe my friend.

Chapter Nine

Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

345 Days Ago

I was in less trouble than I had thought I would be when I finally got home after all of that. It had been almost two in the morning by that point, and my parents were still up waiting for me. There were some tears and words about not knowing if I had run away after the way I’d been acting. I told them that I just needed to be alone for a while and then I promised not to disappear like that again.

Eric had wanted answers even more than my parents, which wasn’t surprising considering the parts that he did know. I brushed him off, claiming I didn’t know enough to tell him anything. It was really only half a lie. The things I did know wouldn’t have answered much for him, and he had already done enough to help me without getting involved in something this big.

For the next two weeks, I gradually started going back to school. I still wanted answers from Gesmine, but considering how my last attempt to get them had gone, I wanted to keep my distance for a little while. Eric had tried to talk to me a few times, and I had seen him watching both me and my house when he thought I didn’t know about it, but I didn’t know what I could say to him.

I had no idea what that shadow oil black… creature had been. And more importantly, I had absolutely no idea who I could ask about it. I had the feeling that if I showed my face around Kansas Trude’s house to find out if they knew anything about how they’d been possessed, the first thing they’d do would be call the police. No, there had to be a way to get answers without freaking them out even more. The problem was, I didn’t have a single clue what that could be.

I was also starting to practice this newfound ability I had developed. After those two weeks, I had a fair handle on how it worked. I could borrow the skills of anybody that I had met in person. So an Olympic gymnast that I had seen on television was out of bounds, but meeting a pro sports star would allow me to borrow their skill and become just as good as they were.

To be honest, it was really, really awesome. Not a fair trade for the damage I had helped to cause, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I practiced by myself, because even I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could suddenly start showing off all these new skills in school without people noticing something was different. Even then, it was all I could do not to borrow the knowledge of some of the brilliant kids to bring my grades up a bit. But tempting as it was, it felt like something Paragon never would have done.

I’d been thinking about Paragon a lot, of course. This newfound ability to borrow other people’s skills, it had to have something to do with him. I wasn’t stupid, I recognized the coincidence. He was the best at everything he did, and now I had the ability to use the skills developed by anyone that I had met.

That had to have been Paragon had done. That why he had been so good at everything. It hadn’t been his skill, it was everyone else’s.

Some part of me felt a little bit betrayed by that, like it hadn’t been him at all. But really, he’d used the skills he borrowed to do so much good, and was it really any different than someone using the power of flight they were born with to save people? He had an ability, and he’d used it to do good things. Did the semantics of it really matter? Was some alien who had special powers because of a physical reaction to our sun somehow more worthy than someone who had skills that were borrowed from others if both used them to do good?

And what was it that Gesmine had said? Killing him would give her his abilities. Yet somehow at least some of those abilities had come to me instead. I needed to find out how, and what exactly the extent of that was. And more importantly, what kind of target I had made myself into for things like that shadow creature.

None of those questions were nearly as pressing as the ongoing psychological torture I was putting myself through over what was wrong with Gesmine. I had mostly come to a peace with the minor fact that she hadn’t told me that she was Whiplash, considering I had no intention of telling Aldridge about what had happened to me. It kept him safer, and as soon as I came to that decision on my own, forgiving my other best friend for not telling me about her secret life was easier.

It was the murder that was a tiny bit harder to either forgive or understand. Why? Why had she done it? She hadn’t even sounded like herself. She had sounded like some kind of psychotic power-hungry maniac. How could I ever even stand to look at her again? And yet, did I dare let her even think that I knew something about her secret? Would she hesitate to handle me the way she had handled Paragon?

You know what? Seeing one of your best friends as a murderer really, really sucks beyond the telling. I had to do something to find out exactly what was wrong with her. But my first attempt hadn’t exactly gone well, and I still wasn’t sure how the stooges and their great grandfather had avoided having the police alerted when I had personally called 911. Not that I was any more likely to get answers from them either, considering their brains had been subcontracted out by Mr. Oil Monster.

Basically, I had a ton of questions and absolutely no answers. And as far as I knew, every moment of every day there could have been a black goo creature waiting to jump into my body and start controlling me. That or one of my best friends might stick a knife in my back a hundred and forty three times before I noticed the pain.

What I’m saying is, I was not sleeping very well.

It must have been noticeable, because Aldridge came up to me while I was putting my books away in my locker after school a couple weeks after my little adventure. Putting one hand on top of the rows of lockers, he started off easily, “Okay, so, you know how my mom puts those nasty pudding cups in my lunch?”

The question was just out of the ordinary enough to make me blink as I closed my locker. “Nope, but I do know the delicious tapioca goodness that you always give to me because you have no taste, and are also potentially the devil. Satan would find ambrosia repulsive, right?”

“You’re mixing your mythologies again.” Aldridge replied. “And anyway, you mean you used to eat them. But now you keep running off before I can give it to you.”

I’d been excusing myself to practice with my newfound power.

He went on, “You know what I’ve been doing with those evil little bird droppings now?”

I paused to make a face. “Great, now I don’t want tapioca either. What?” I started to walk, putting my hands in the pockets of my jacket.

“Keeping them in my gym locker.” Aldridge tried to walk slowly, but I still had to break into a light jog to keep up with his long strides. I was used to it. “I thought you’d want them later, so I had nine of them just stacked up on the top shelf.”

“Okay, for future reference,” I had to put in, “I will never want to eat anything that has been in your gym locker for days. Actually, make that ever. Just a good rule to follow. If it’s been in the same small, enclosed area that you keep your jockstrap in, I do not want it.”

“Wuss.” He replied before opening the door. He held it, and I passed through while he continued to explain. “Anyway, I’ve been keeping those puddings in my gym locker, and today, they actually came in handy.”

“What,” I asked while walking across the grass of the yard behind the school, “did nine of your gym buddies suddenly get a really weird craving?”

“First of all,” Aldridge corrected me, “I don’t have nine gym buddies. Especially not after today.”

I closed my eyes and winced inwardly before turning around to walk backwards in front of him so that I could see his face. “Aldridge Ken, what did you do?”

His expression was an unconvincing mask of innocence. “Jeez, you’re like my mom, always so convinced I did something wrong. Where’s the faith? Where’s the trust? Where’s the bonding spirit of camaraderie and friendship that says ‘you know what, I believe in you’?”

“So, uhhh…” I replied, utterly unconvinced. “We’re talking three days worth of detention if you got caught?”

“Oh, four.” He admitted with a grin. “At least.”

“Uh huh.” I rolled my eyes, turning back away from him so he wouldn’t see the smile. I liked the idea of normalcy. “Okay, so what did you do?”

“Elk and his creeps were talking about Laine again.” He was referring to Walden Elkanroot, whom everyone had always called Elk for reasons of survival. He’d kill you if you called him Walden, and he was built like an Elk anyway. Okay, to be perfectly honest, he was built like a giant grizzly bear, but we worked with what his name gave us.

“Again?” I looked back at him and squinted. Laine Gavin was the track star that Aldridge had been crushing on forever, and as hot as she was, it was no surprise that she was the subject of locker room chat.

“Oh, that’s right.” Aldridge couldn’t keep all of the confusion and hurt for my flakiness out of his voice. “You haven’t been around for me to vent at. They wouldn’t shut up about her. You know the stupid, ridiculous crap that guys say in locker rooms.”

I shook my head. “I can safely and proudly say that I have absolutely no idea what guys say about girls in locker rooms. Nor–” I held up my hand to stop him. “–do I want to.”

He looked down at my hand, which was a good distance shy of reaching his mouth. Curse his absurd tallness. Still, he took pity on me. “Okay, okay. Suffice to say, not nice things. I wanted them to stop.”

“Why do I think that not a single part of this story includes you actually telling them to stop?” I asked, dryly.

“Like they would have listened.” He scoffed at my naivety. “No, you have to teach someone like that with negative reinforcement. Bad behavior is met with bad consequences. I read that in a book somewhere. Someone does something bad, so you smack them with a stick to make them equate the bad thing with the pain.”

“And what do you do when they do a good thing?” I asked while we passed the basketball court.

“Uh,” he paused for a moment before shrugging, “I’m not sure. I didn’t get that far. I was distracted by the idea of hitting Elk with a stick.”

“Of course you were.” I snorted to myself. “Okay, then what did you do instead?”

“Well, obviously you weren’t going to eat those puddings that were just sitting there doing nothing, going to waste. So I decided to give them purpose, give them meaning. I enlisted those puddings in the ongoing war against misogynistic riff raff.” His chest swelled slightly with pride as he worked overtime to make it sound better than it was. “I waited until Elk and his idiot posse were in the showers, then I opened each pudding cup and filled their towels with it, spread it around a little and covered it up with part of the towel. That way, when they picked up the towel and went to dry off…”

I covered my mouth as a snicker escaped. “No no no, tell me you didn’t do that. You made Elk and his cronies rub tapioca pudding over their hair?”

“Hair, face, neck, chest…” Aldridge started before pausing as he considered. “Come to think of it though, ‘hair’ really covers all those areas.”

“Eww eww eww.” I made a face. “Gah, Aldridge, I know I haven’t been the best friend lately, but please don’t make me think about that.” My pleading tone at least brought a smile to him before I looked up at the sound of voices. “Oh boy. Uh, speak of the giant, hormonal devil.”

Like most non-buildings, Elk was shorter than Aldridge. But he was built like a rhino whereas the first animal that came to mind when one looked at Aldridge was a flamingo, of the lawn ornament variety. A very tall lawn flamingo, don’t get me wrong. But still.

“I know it was you, Ken!” Elk stomped his way up to us and glowered from under his heavy caveman-like brow. “You think you’re real funny, don’t you?”

“Occasionally I’m sidesplittingly hilarious.” Aldridge replied with a perfectly straight face and monotone voice. “But you’ll have to be more specific. Which of my many, many uproarious jokes are you talking about?”

The glare that Elk shot my friend could have melted steel. “The vanilla pudding, you stupid shit!”

“It was tapioca.” Aldridge replied automatically. It took him a second to wince. “I ah, I mean, I don’t think vanilla would be as funny.”

Elk’s nostrils practically blew smoke as he moved to lunge at Aldridge, but I put myself between them. Yeah, you read that sentence correctly. Clearly my sense of self-preservation has yet to be resuscitated.

“Whoa, whoa!” I held up my hands. “I don’t think you want to start throwing punches, big guy. Not so soon after your last suspension. Besides, didn’t the police say they’d charge you the next time?”

He glared at me, but I held my ground. After facing the smoke monster and his possessed creep family, the local school thug didn’t exactly make me quiver as much as he used to. “Back off, Elk.” I said to him firmly. “You don’t want a fight right now.”

“What makes you think you have any idea what I want, little girl?” He asked, while glowering impressively. I had to give him that, he may not have much as far as people skills went, but he could glower with the best of them.

“I know you’ve got better things to do than worry about some stupid joke.”

Aldridge chose to interrupt. “Hey, I thought it was a pretty good–”

“Shut up, Aldridge.” I hissed while stepping hard on his foot.

“Ya know what…” Elk smiled as an idea clearly came to his mule brain. “I’ll make you a deal.” His head jerked back toward the basketball court. “You beat me at Horse, and your boyfriend’s off the hook.”

“Okay, one, he is not and never will be my boyfriend.” I cut in. “I mean, boy that is a friend, yes. Boyfriend, never. Not in a million years. Not if the entire species of the planet was down to just the two of us and the future of humanity depended on it. Not if–”

“Don’t mind me.” Aldridge muttered. “I’ll just be back here trying to duct tape the remains of my ego back together.”

I rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean. Not a boyfriend. And Horse, really? You want to play basketball to leave Aldridge alone? Do you have any idea how… stupid that sounds? I mean seriously, I watch a lot of bad movies with a lot of bad clichés, and I still think you’re reaching some kind of red alert trope limit here.”

“Aww,” the big thug stuck his lower lip out, “the poor little girl’s afraid she can’t beat me.” In the background, I could hear his cronies snickering, which only encouraged Elk to play up the mock pouting even more.

An annoyed sigh escaped me. “Fine, you know what, fine. But I beat you, then you leave Aldridge alone from now on, period.”

He laughed out loud. “Yeah whatever, babe. You beat me and I’ll leave the dork alone. Actually, you know what, I’ll do you one better. You beat me, and I’ll give him my team jacket.” His shoulders shrugged up and down, emphasizing his letterman jacket that all those jock types were so obsessed with.

“And the trashy movie essentials just keep rolling on. Fine.” I repeated, walking past him toward the court. “Let’s get this over with.”

Aldridge caught my arm. “I should do this, not you. Besides, did I miss the part where you even know which end of the basketball goes in the net?”

“It’s a ball, Aldridge.” I pulled my arm free. “By definition, it doesn’t really have an end. And I think we just defined exactly why I’m doing it and not you. It’ll be fine, trust me.”

I walked to the court with the boys, thinking as I walked. I needed someone who was good at basketball, and, unfortunately I’d never really paid that much attention.

“Mind if I take a couple of warm up shots?” I asked Elk as his other friends started to pass money back and forth. I was pretty sure they were betting on how much I was going to lose by, not whether I was going to win. But that was okay, I had an idea.

The big guy chuckled before tossing the ball to me. “Take all you want, won’t help you that much.”

I rolled the ball over in my hand and looked at the first of Elk’s fellow players. Kevin Rivera. He was a Hispanic kid that seemed pretty quick on his feet. Focusing on his basketball skill, I rose and took the shot from where I stood at the free throw line.

The ball hit the rim and bounced off, as did the next one. Okay, so Kevin wasn’t much of a shooter. I scratched him off my mental list while the boys all chuckled, except for Aldridge, who just looked worried.

Next in line was Benny Hope. He was better than Kevin, getting one of the practice shots in, but something about his skill didn’t seem quite good enough.

Then I tried Gregg Wells. As soon as the ball left my hand on the first shot, I knew I’d found the right one. The ball dropped through the net, and I easily repeated the move with the next shot. Gregg was definitely the best shooter in their group.

“All right.” I tossed the ball to Elk. “You wanna start?”

You might wonder why I hadn’t just copied Elk’s skill to begin with. The problem with that was that I wanted to beat him, not tie him. If I wanted to shoot better than him, copying his exact skill was the wrong way to go.

“Right, the way Horse works is–” Elk started to explain, his tone making it sound like he was talking to a four year old.

“I know how it works.” I interrupted, injecting my tone with as much annoyance as I could, considering I’d barely had the basic gist before borrowing this basketball skill to get the full idea.

“Whatever.” He took a few steps back past the foul line and took a simple shot. Apparently he thought he wasn’t going to have to try very hard.

I disavowed him of that right away, making the same shot as well to a chorus of catcalls from the other boys.

Elk’s next shot was a bit more difficult, but I still managed it. Then he missed his third one when he tried to get too fancy with a one handed shot that was supposed to bounce the ball off the middle of the court, and then up into the net. That made it my turn to choose the shot.

Right, might as well go for the one I knew he missed. I picked my spot, judged the angle, then took the ball in one hand and hooked it up and over toward the ground. It bounced off the pavement, then up and off the rim before falling into the net.

The boys just stared at me in confusion. It was kind of wonderful. I smiled and stepped back, gesturing. “I think that’s your shot.”

He tried, he really did. One after another, each of his attempts to match that shot either bounced off the rim or the backboard, or missed entirely. The more he missed, the more frustrated he got. By the end, he threw the ball at the ground so hard it simply bounced off in a random direction and one of the other boys had to run and get it.

“How the hell did you do that?” Elk demanded, whirling on me. “I’ve never even seen you hold a ball before! That’s the cheating shit Gregg pulls off.”

I simply continued to smile and shrugged. “Lucky, I guess. But now you leave Aldridge alone. That’s the deal. Oh and…” I held my hand out and waited expectantly.

Glaring at me, Elk stripped out of his jacket. If looks could kill, I would have been dust on the ground. He thrust his jacket out to me, holding it so tightly that it took me a few pulls to take it from him.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I pulled the jacket on. At least I was until I turned around.

Standing next to Aldridge, watching all of this, was Gesmine. She met my gaze, having seen what I had just done. Her expression was that of someone who had just found the answer to something that had been bugging them for a very long time, of someone who had just had an important piece of a frustrating puzzle handed to them unexpectedly.

Everything seemed to go silent, as time itself stood still in my head. Gesmine lifted her chin, her gaze on mine, and she mouthed the words I had dreaded for so long.

“You were there.”

Chapter Eight

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

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

Chapter Four

Chapter Four

360 Days Ago

Two miles and five minutes later, and I still had no idea how in any hell known to man I was doing any of what I was doing. It should have been impossible. There was adrenaline, of course, but adrenaline couldn’t teach you things you didn’t know. Blind luck didn’t begin to cover it either. I hadn’t been guessing, I’d absolutely known what I was doing. I just didn’t know how I knew.

According to the GPS, I was getting close to where the vehicle had been spending most of its time. As I drove down a one-way street, I kept one eye on the display and the other watching the buildings along the street.

I should call the police. Stop in front of the building and call them. That would be good enough, wouldn’t it? I could make sure that whoever was in there with Potter’s granddaughter didn’t take her anywhere before the police could get there.

But what if whoever it was had orders to kill her if he didn’t report in? Or what if something else happened? Oh my god, what if another one of their people had been watching the house and saw me take off in the first guy’s ride? I hadn’t even thought about it until now, and when the possibility did occur to me, my heart almost stopped. The girl could be dead right now, just because I hadn’t thought it through all the way.

Then I saw what I was looking for. The GPS confirmed it. It was an old, boarded up building that had, a couple of years ago, been one of those family restaurants. There was a single, ancient pick-up truck sitting in the lot with what looked like a load of furniture in the back. Other than that, the place looked deserted.

This had to be it. I parked the SUV across the street and down about a block to stay out of sight. Then, for a couple minutes, I simply watched the building. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to indicate that anyone was there.

Was I wrong? Maybe the GPS was off. Or maybe the SUV had been here for a completely unrelated reason, or gone to one of the other buildings.

But the more I watched the boarded up restaurant, the more convinced I became that I wasn’t wrong. Someone was in there with Potter’s granddaughter, and if I didn’t do something, she was going to be killed.

After another moment of hesitation, I shut off the engine and got out of the vehicle. Closing the door after me, I started to make my way across the street. I took the long way, around the far back side of the lot, rather than approach the restaurant from the front. There was still a risk of being seen, of course, but at least it wasn’t quite as obvious.

Then again, I realized as I approached the rear service entrance of the restaurant, I still had no way of getting inside. The heavy metal door wasn’t going to budge just because I asked it nicely, let alone do so quietly enough that whoever was inside wouldn’t hear it.

Sure enough, the heavy door was locked. It probably didn’t open from the outside at all. As I ran my hands over the edge, I wondered if some super-special door opening skill was going to randomly appear in my brain the way driving the car, using the GPS, or fighting had.

Sadly, nothing jumped into my mind. “Right,” I whispered, “Open sesame.” Hey, it was worth a shot.

However many shots it was worth, my eyes still bulged out of their sockets and I nearly peed myself when the door began to open. I really did have magic door opening powers!

“Yeah yeah, whatever, I need a smoke!” A male voice, decidedly unfriendly, shouted from just on the other side of the door as it froze in mid swing.

Okay, so I didn’t have magic door opening powers. Someone was coming out. Caught between relief and disappointment, I hurriedly ducked aside so that the door would block and cover me when it opened the rest of the way.

From somewhere further back inside the restaurant, I could hear a muffled voice shout for whoever this was to at least remember to prop the door open, because he wasn’t coming out to let him in again.

I wondered which one of these guys was the Dayle that the guy back at the house had mentioned.

“Fuck you.” The man muttered as he emerged. I saw the side of his head as he ducked to grab a crate of bottles and pushed it in front of the door. Then there was the click of a lighter and a long exhale as the man began to enjoy his cigarette. If he’d turned his head any further to the right, he would have seen me cowering back there. Instead, he took a few steps away and muttered something about getting the hell out of this place.

At first, I barely dared breathe. This was so stupid, so very, very stupid. These guys were going to kill me.

And yet, if I did nothing, Mr. Vames’s granddaughter would die. I had done enough damage to the world already. If doing this tiny little bit to help meant risking my life, then I would.

Slowly, carefully, I took a single step out from behind the door. The smoker wasn’t tall, standing barely an inch over me, and was fairly hefty. He was also bald, his pale skin heavily covered in tattoos. He took another drag from the cigarette, oblivious to my presence only a couple of feet behind him. Eyes riveted to the back of the man’s head, I inched to the left. Gradually, I moved further and further until I was in front of the door opening. Risking a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw an empty supply room and a hallway further in. Great, one potential crisis averted, the guy’s partner wasn’t standing there in plain sight.

If I kicked the crate to make it stop blocking the door, the guy would hear it. Instead, I leaned down ever so slowly, heart hammering its paranoid drumbeat as I watched the man for any sign that he was about to turn around. Slowly, carefully, I put both hands on the crate and gave it the slightest, gentlest push I could while lifting it just a little so that it wouldn’t scrape as much on the ground. The crate moved, and the man continued to smoke. All I had to do was push it a little bit more, and then the door was free. I caught the door with my foot and carefully eased my way backward. I didn’t dare look away from the man while I was still potentially in his sight.

Once I was inside the store room, I stepped behind the doorway, using a hand to keep the door open. When I peeked one more time at the back of the smoker’s head, I saw him toss the cigarette on the ground and stub it out with his foot. It was now or never. Releasing the breath I had been holding, I took my hand off the door and ducked back. The door swung closed, and I heard the man shout a curse just as it clanked shut.

Great, now I was inside the building and one of the thugs was trapped outside, for now at least. I didn’t know if he’d go around and break in through one of the boarded up front doors or windows, or wait for his partner to let him in, but either way I needed to move quickly.

There was a muffled bang against the door, so for the moment at least, the guy seemed to be waiting for his partner. Good. Stay lazy, Mister Tattooed Thug. Stay lazy.

The store room led to a hallway with a broken tile floor and stained walls with the piping partially exposed. At the end of the hall I could see what was obviously the front dining area. Normally there would be a door to block the sight of the service hall, but it was missing. To the right was a pair of doorways, one of which led to a tiny closet, while the other was clearly a manager’s office of some kind.

There was another doorway to the left, this one midway between the other two. From the gleaming metal sink I could see from my position, it was clearly the kitchen. And if the sound of televised football was a clue, the other guy was somewhere in there.

Of course, the question now became, was the girl I was looking for in there? It made sense; they’d want to keep a constant eye on her, wouldn’t they? Unless they had her locked up somewhere else like a basement or something. Did restaurants have basements?

Biting my lip, I risked a quick peek around the corner of the doorway. As I’d already figured out, I was looking at the kitchen. Long metal counters, lots of sinks, stoves, the lot. Naturally, anything that wasn’t nailed down or too heavy to move had been taken out a long time ago.

The kitchen itself was empty, but there was an open doorway at the back. Two doorways, really, but the other just led to what looked like had been the bar in the front. It was the other doorway that interested me, because the television sounds were coming from there.

I’d barely taken three careful and paranoid steps into the kitchen when there was another loud bang from the back door. It sounded like Tattooed Maybe-Dayle had found something to hit it with other than his fist or foot. I jumped, but not nearly as much as I did when the voice from the direction of the television shouted, “Okay, okay, I’m fucking coming!”

There were footsteps, and I had half a second to react. The fact that I practically fainted in that moment was almost a boon, because it helped me duck behind the long metal counter in the middle of the kitchen quicker.

I heard the man stomp through the room, and I quickly crawled around to the opposite side of the island. Turning over to crabwalk backwards so that I could see the other door, I watched as the blond man, who was several inches taller and noticeably thinner than his tattooed partner and wore a brown tweed suit, moved into the hallway, cursing the whole way.

Now, I had to move now. Scrambling to my feet, I ran through the doorway the guy had come through.

This had quite clearly been a staff room of some kind. There were two ugly wooden tables in the middle, a chalkboard that still had a few notes about time off and safety written on it, and a row of lockers to the side. On one of the tables was an old television that was the source of the noise.

And sitting on the floor in the corner was a little girl, maybe seven years old, who had been handcuffed to one of the exposed pipes. There was also some kind of ball in her mouth, held in place by a few strips of duct tape.

As soon as she saw me, the girl’s eyes widened and she started to try to talk. Quickly, I held a finger to my lips, glancing over my shoulder. I heard the big metal door squeak open, followed by loud arguing. Good, keep bitching at each other.

My eyes swept over the tables. Key, key, please have the key here and not in one of your pockets, guys. I could see candy wrappers, a fast food bag, a couple of half empty soda cups, as well as the television, but no key. At least I was able to flip the TV off. It’s harder to think about escaping these situations with loud mouthed announcers rambling about sweaty guys hitting each other. And the arguing voices were drawing closer as the men approached. In near panic (to be honest, I submit the fact that it was not complete and total screaming panic as evidence of my growing insanity), I glanced at the side of the room and saw a large metal filing cabinet a few feet back from the door. Would it work? The louder voices reminded me that I didn’t really have time to think it through.

Quickly, I moved to the doorway. The two men stopped in mid argument to stare at me for a second as if they had no idea what they were seeing. To be fair, in the course of Kidnapping Thug 101, evading wannabe Nancy Drew was probably an oft-overlooked elective.

Before they could recover, I slammed the door shut and twisted the lock. A second later there was a heavy thud as the men slammed into it and began to scream at me to open the door before they yada yada lots of threats that made me want to pee myself, but really did nothing to convince me that I’d be better off with the door open.

Moving to the filing cabinet, I tested it. Yeah, I didn’t know what was in it, but it was definitely heavy. Taking a breath, I shoved against it once, then again, and the big metal thing tipped over. It fell toward the door with a terrible crash as the drawers fell open and scattered several folders and other random junk over the floor. It worked though. The cabinet wedged itself against it about halfway down to act as a brace.

And now I had successfully trapped myself inside a small room with a terrified little girl and no way out, while two furious men kicked and slammed at the door. Yay me.

The girl was sobbing and, to be honest, I felt like joining her. Sure the men were trapped outside, but that wouldn’t last forever. I needed a better plan, or at least one that didn’t involve getting killed and coming back as a vengeful ghost. We’d keep that one as Plan Z.

Plan A had to be… my phone! Quickly, I reached for it in my pocket. I could call the police, and then try to wait these guys out. Sure I’d have a lot of explaining to do, but it’d still be better than what those guys would do.

Except when I felt for my phone, it wasn’t there. Shit. Shit, I must’ve dropped it. Just perfect.

Without much else I could do, I hurried over to crouch in front of the girl and carefully undid the gag, wincing as the girl yelped from the tape yanking her hair. Finally, I took the ball from her mouth. “Are you all right?”

The kid looked at me, looked at the door, then looked back at me and shook her head. “I’m scared.”

“That makes two of us.” I informed her before looking around the room one more time, as if something would magically present itself.

“You’re scared?” The girl whispered. “But you’re rescuing me.”

“I guess that’s what I’m trying to do,” I admitted, “but it doesn’t mean I’m not scared. Sorry, kid, you got the girl who has no idea what she’s doing.”

“What about the window?” The girl lifted her free hand to point in the top left corner.

My eyes followed her finger and I stared for a moment at the glass opening. It was high, but with the help of one of the tables, we should be able to reach it. And, small as it was, we could probably both squeeze through.

“Hey, good eyes, kid.” I praised. “You know where the key is for these?”

When her head bobbed, I was almost ready to fist pump before she said, “In Zeke’s pocket.”

“Zeke’s one of those guys, isn’t he?” I waited for her nod and then sighed. “Okay, well, I doubt they’ll trade us for the rest of that bag of M&M’s over there.”

There was another loud crash as the men slammed into the door, and I flinched. We didn’t have time to waste. I needed to get this kid out. Again I scanned the room. Something glinted on the floor by the door, under the cabinet. Frowning, I crawled that way and looked down.

At first I was disappointed. It was just a couple quarters, a few bent pieces of metal, several employee name badges, and three small bobby pins.

Well those would be obscenely useful, if I had any idea of how to use them. As it was I might as well have found a stealth bomber parked in the corner for all the actual good they did me.

Another thud against the door reminded me that I had to do something. Frowning, I picked up one of the pins and looked at it.

Back at the house, I had taken care of that guy without breaking much of a sweat, despite never having thrown a punch in my life. I had just known what to do. Then there had been the GPS, and driving the manual. Maybe I could have given the fight over to luck, but not the rest. No, I had known exactly what to do.

And yet, staring at this pin and then at the handcuffs, nothing sprang to mind. I needed to unlock them. “Come on,” I said to myself, “learn how to do it. Spontaneous knowledge, ho. Activate knowledge download. Upload? Cypher? Wait, crap, he was a traitor. Go away, Cypher.”

“Ummmm….” If it was possible, the girl’s voice was even more scared now that she knew she was trapped in the room with a gibbering psychopath. “Who are you talking to?”

“Nobody.” I shook my head. “Never mind, I’ve got this.” But did I? As impossible as it had sounded that I could just suddenly learn things, I was just as confused by why it wasn’t working now. What was I doing differently? Every time it had happened before, I hadn’t done anything different.

Or had I? What had I been doing when the fight happened? I had thought about Eric James and the fights he would get into. After that I had thought about Aldridge with the GPS, and then my dad with the manual transmission.

Okay the very thought was insane. How? How was that even possible?

Bang went the door, and the filing cabinet slid a little. Okay, never mind my doubts. I had absolutely no other option except to believe in the unbelievable. Giving the corner one last glance in case that stealth bomber had ever shown up, I focused on the bobby pin again.

I did know one person who knew how to pick locks. Gesmine. She had shown me that she could do it back when we had gone to summer camp together a few years earlier. She’d offered to teach me, but I had asked when I’d ever need to know that stuff.

“Real smooth, Savvy.” I muttered to myself with a sigh before returning my focus to thinking about Gesmine picking those handcuffs back in the cabin, under the flashlight.

My eyes opened, and I bent the bobby pin into the right shape and took the plastic tip off before moving to where the girl was. “Hold still.” I told her and gently took her hand. Carefully, I slid the pin halfway in and did the work to bend it into the proper shape. A little more work and the handcuffs clicked open.

“Wow!” The girl gushed, rubbing her wrist. “How’d you do that?”

“I wish I knew.” I informed her before moving to slide the table over to the window. “Come on, let’s go.”

Climbing up on the table, I reached down and picked the little girl up with me. She was a little heavy for such a little thing (or maybe I just wasn’t used to picking up anything that weighed more than my backpack), but I doubted asking her to go on a diet would have an appreciable effect in the next thirty seconds.

“Okay,” I told her, “Let me get the window open.” It was a narrow window that simply pushed up and out. Or it should have. I had to strain and pry and push and shove, all while the filing cabinet inched with every few blows. Any second it was going to fall entirely and that would be the end of our great escape. Finally, I managed to shove hard enough that the window pushed up and open.

“Come on, kid.” I boosted the little girl up and gave her a push through the window. I heard a thump on the ground outside, followed by a yelp.

The door banged again, and this time the filing cabinet did crash. They began to shove the door open, even as I pulled myself up to the window. Now their shouts were inside the room, and I was halfway through the window and into the sunlight when one of them grabbed my leg. Desperately, I kicked out hard. My foot hit something fleshy, and I was released to fall the rest of the way through the window.

Now we both yelped, because I had fallen half on the cement and half on the girl I was saving. Okay, so this wasn’t the most graceful of rescues, but at least we were still alive.

And, in the interest of keeping that record going, I scrambled to my feet. “Come on!” I yanked the girl up and started to run.

We crossed the street, all the while expecting bullets to start chewing up the ground around us. Or I was at least. I wasn’t sure what the kid was thinking about. Ponies, maybe.

Fortunately, we reached the SUV without being shot, or suffering any heart attacks. We also didn’t see any ponies, so, you know, win some and lose some. “Great,” I said to myself before boosting the girl inside, “now let’s get out of here.”

Grumbling, I got in and started it up. We could see both of the men down the road, clearly looking for us. They could go right on looking, however. I had the girl and I was getting the hell out with her. When the traffic was clear, I pulled onto the road and U-Turned to drive away.

Ten minutes later, we parked in front of the police building. “Okay, what’s your name?” I asked the girl.

“Kacey.” She informed me. “Are we going to see the police now?”

“You are.” I told her, while using my shirt to wipe off the steering wheel, the GPS unit, and anything else that I thought I’d touched. I couldn’t explain what was happening to me, but I knew I didn’t want to suddenly be in the news. Not until I knew what the hell was going on with both myself, and with Gesmine.

I pointed out the window. “See that building there? That’s where the police are. You run right in there and tell them what happened to you.”

“You’re not coming?” She sounded even more scared at that prospect.

Swallowing, I shook my head. “I have to… I have to do something else. You go.”

She gave me one last doubtful look, and then bolted for the police station. The second she was gone, I slid out the other side and began to walk away from the SUV.

I had gone to Gesmine’s house for answers, and ended up getting a lot more questions instead. One thing I did know for certain though, as I glanced over my shoulder to see the little girl running into the arms of a policeman that had just stepped out.

I had done at least one good thing today.

Chapter Five