The 2nd Amendment’s crappy old beater of a sedan waits by the dirt road at the edge of Taylor Jade’s property. When they see us pull up, they drive a bit into the woods, off the road. We follow for a few hundred feet until they stop. Saw Off practically bursts from the passenger side, Mil-dot steps calmly out from the driver’s seat, and Lugs and Vaquero emerge from the back. Remise leaves our van running, and everyone but Drone gets out. A stiff breeze shakes the trees, and the forest dances like spirits move the bark and branches. The wind sighs and the leaves whisper. The woods are alive on the Jade estate, snickering at our approach.
Saw Off stretches and yawns. “God, you took forever, I was about to doze off. Can I go ahead and load up?”
“Yeah, it’s time,” Flashfire says.
She pulls a handful of shotgun shells from her pocket, tilts her head back, and swallows them, one after another. One, two, three, four, five. She cocks her head to the side, fiddles with her ear, and says, “All good.” Vaquero chuckles and shakes his head, still as non-plussed as ever.
“How in the world did you ever figure out that was your power?” I ask Saw Off.
“Well you know how kids swallow shit a lot, right?”
Saw Off reaches into her jacket and pulls her middle finger out of her pocket at me. When she does this, an old school grenade falls out of a hidden pouch.
“Is that…?” Flashfire asks.
“Tha’s a fookin’ grenade!” Remise says.
Saw Off holds her hands up. “It might come in handy! Lugs gave it to me for my birthday.”
I face palm. “Fine, fine, whatever. Don’t you dare use it inside the house, though.”
“Spoilsports.” Saw Off sticks her tongue out at all of us.
Drone sets her Hummingbirds free out of the passenger window. The little black cameras fly up above us, but one hangs around our group. “I’ll watch and record. Let me know when to make the call to EMS. Follow this one to the estate.”
“Run over the plan one more time,” Lugs says to Flashfire.
“Wait for the EMS. When they show up, throw the car. You guys distract the guards, we’ll take care of Pandahead and secure the kids.”
While the others make their last preparations, I check my phone. I’ve still got Bedevil’s contact info open. Or, rather, Ruby.
We’re going into something really dangerous. She said to call her if I need help. This morning humiliated me, but having a powerful telekinetic on our side would really even the odds. So, I decide to call her.
My stomach turns while the ring tone plays out, until the phone goes to an automated voicemail. The recorder beeps, I stammer a few syllables, and then close the phone.
Figures she wouldn’t answer. I’m relieved she didn’t, actually.
The 2nd Amendment piles into their car. Saw Off waves at us. “We’ll start the party when we see that EMS crew.”
“Stay on the comms, and wait for my signal,” Flashfire tells her.
Saw Off throws a peace sign and rolls up the window, and their little clunker bumps off into the woods to their position. Drone follows them with one of the Hummingbird cameras.
We hike it through the woods in silence. My brain is on a million different trains chugging out into unknown Gabe-land. Bedevil is on my mind, Maisa, Megajoule. I need to be clearheaded but my head is full of the dust of a thousand thoughts.
Drone’s Hummingbird guides us to the edge of the lawn, where we wait behind trees. The house sits on a slight slope up from the woods, the field behind the house is cleared of forest, and there’s no fence. The house puts Epione’s McMansion to shame, a legit rich person’s estate. Warm light radiates from the windows, a pool splashes, and laughter creeps over bushes obscuring the men laughing. I can’t see inside very well, but there are two armed guards on the balcony above the pool.
Saw Off’s voice comes in over the comms. “We’re where we’re supposed to be.”
“In position,” Mil-dot says. “I count about twenty something kids all over the place. I’ve got clean shots on the balcony men.”
Twenty kids. They’re the reason we’re here. I have to stay focused on that. Get them out.
“Hummingbirds ready,” Drone says.
“We’re ready, too,” Flashfire says.
My heart is pounding, my chest is squeezing me alive. Deep breaths.
“Making the call.” Drone’s voice drops off the comms. We wait in tense silence. My heart won’t settle down until a hand touches my back, and a calm fills my mind. Epione.
“Sorry, I could hear how stressed you were from here.”
I shake my head. “You’re right. I’m letting emotions get the better of me.”
Sirens pierce the sounds of the forest. An ambulance rips down the road through the property. It pulls up to the front of the mansion, out of my line of sight. Drone keeps us updated: “Paramedics are getting out, I told them someone was having a heart attack. They’re at the door. Someone’s answering. They’re shaking their heads? I think the guy’s turning them away.”
“Phase two, put that car in the lawn,” Flashfire says.
“On it,” Lugs says over the comms.
Drone laughs. That’s a very scary sound: I don’t think I’ve ever heard her laugh before. “Here it comes!”
Trees crunch and the paramedics scream.
“What the fuck, did you set it on fire?” Drone asks.
“Yep!” Saw Off says. “Thought it would get more attention.”
“Yeah, the EMTs are freaking out. One’s going to investigate,” Drone tells us. “The other is going back to the van.”
“We need to make sure they call the police,” I say.
“I can take out one of the guys on the balcony,” Mil-dot says. “The people inside are a little confused, everyone seems to have stopped moving. I think… wait, the armed guys are moving. Guys on balcony holding.”
“Take the shot,” Flashfire says.
A single clear shot rings out over the lawn.
Mil-dot hisses over the comms. “Fuck!” She takes another shot. “Got him. Missed that first one. The other one is retreating into the house.”
“Oh, that got them,” Drone says. “EMS scrambling back to their car. They’re shouting to call the police.”
“Fantastic,” I say. “What’s the situation inside?”
“Guys moving all around,” Mil-dot says. “They’re gathering in the middle of the building, looks like on some stairs. The kids… they’re moving them, herding them toward the second level, front of the building. Into one room. They’re turning off the lights in the house.”
“He’s turtling,” Flashfire says.
“Time to make our move,” I say. “We’ve got to get him out when the police arrive. They aren’t equipped to handle this kind of thing. We need to wrap him up with a neat bow before FIS gets here.”
“Let’s go then!” Remise charges forward, sprinting up the lawn. Flashfire runs after her.
“Epione, mount up!” I shout.
Epione piggy backs on my shoulders and I vault us forward out of the woods.
“They’re watching the back like hawks,” Mil-dot says.
“Your best way in is toward the front, there’s another balcony. Only one guard posted there now,” Drone says. “He’s watching for you.”
“One of the guards is coming out of the back balcony!” Mil-dot says.
Sure enough, one of the guards steps out of the house. We’re headed right into his range of fire.
Another sniper bullet pops his helmet open, and he crumbles to the ground before he can get a shot off. “He’s done,” Mil-dot says. “The kids are in the front right of the building. Pandahead is giving spare guns to some of the clients.”
He’s smart. He’s responding to an uncertain enemy by hunkering down in a strong position and arming as many bodies as he can. That’s good strategy.
“Jaysus,” Remise says. “Fookin’ bastard.”
“They’ll fold if we throw a flash grenade in there,” Flashfire says. “You said they’re on the second floor?”
“Two hanging out on the stairs, watching the back,” Mil-dot says. “If you go in that way, you’ve got two trained on you.”
“We’ll take their attention off you,” Lugs says. “Hang on!”
Metal groans and shrieks. Wood and glass crack, shatter, scream out of the lawn. “What the fuck!” Drone shouts. “He put the car through the dining room!”
“Well, those two guys aren’t watching the back anymore,” Mil-dot says.
The tell-tale sound of Saw Off’s shotgun sneeze blares over the comms. “We’ll keep them off you!” There’s another shotgun blast, deeper, and the pkew of a small revolver.
Mil-dot growls. “2nd Amendment’s distracted the guys in the front, you’ve got an opening. Pandahead’s wrapped himself with about six dudes up top, though, plus the clients. Using civilians. Disgusting.”
“We’ll go around the side,” I say. “Hold on, Epione!”
Epione wraps her arms around my neck and chest.
“If my girlfriend dies,” Flashfire says, “I’m killing you myself.”
No time for chuckles. I vault up using kinetic energy, kicking off the side of the mansion. The tip of the guard’s gun is pointed out over the balcony, he’s waiting for something to shoot at. I’ll give him something to shoot at, all right.
I blast in front of him and use heat to change direction mid-air. My stomach turns as I shift, Epione squeals, and the guard freaks. He gets a few rounds off but his gun’s aimed low. I sail past him, meaning to kick him, but he ducks out of the way.
Epione reaches out and grabs his head as we pass. He screams in agony.
“Remise! Look out!” Mil-dot shouts.
“That’s Beckett! Remise!” Drone says. “He’s got the napalm!”
“Ah got him! Keep goin’ Flash!”
“Kick his ass!” Drone cheers.
The guard in front of Epione and me reaches for his gun. I blast over and rip his helmet off. Epione grabs his cheek.
The guard, a gruff dude in his early thirties, the very epitome of military lumberjack man, shrieks at the top of his lungs. He screams, recoils from Epione, and performs a tactical retreat. By tactical retreat, I mean that he clambers over the balcony railing and jumps off into the bushes below.
Epione titters. I’ve never been on the receiving end of her power over agony, and I never want to be.
“Remind me never to cross you,” I say. Below us, the EMS wails its sirens, a desperate plea for help. I can hear police cars in the way distance. The balcony has two windows looking into dark rooms, and a single door in between them.
“The right room is clear,” Drone says. “The kids are in the left.”
I don’t want to go in through the room the kids are hiding in, and endanger them. “Come on. In through this window here.” I wait for another burst of gunfire downstairs, and I punch my arm through the window to the right room. My leather jacket guards my arm from the broken edges. I pull the latch.
“Remise!” Drone shouts. Remise screams in agony.
There’s more gunfire below us, and another one of Saw Off’s shotgun sneezes.
Shit. Stay on task. No plan survives contact with the enemy, so the only thing I can do right now is concentrate. Epione grips my arm. I open the window.
“Wait! Gabe!” Epione shouts.
A steel man rips through the window, slamming a metal fist into my chest. I absorb so much energy my hands glow through my gloves. Epione and I roll apart from the blow, and I slam into the other end of the balcony.
Man made of metal. Aspect. He’s missing a leg, replaced with a plastic prosthetic. He limps hard on that leg. The prosthetic is cheap and unbalances him. Advantage.
Epione is closer to him. He pulls a pistol and aims it at her head.
“No!” I splurge on kinetic energy and warp through the space between us. I reach out to put my hand in front of Epione’s head. I have no idea how to absorb a bullet’s kinetic energy. It’s different from heat.
Doc’s stupid physics book comes back to me. Kinetic energy isn’t different from heat. Heat is kinetic energy. They’re the same thing!
Take the heat!
Aspect pulls the trigger.
The bullet hits my hand. My fingers shine and the light shoots up into my arm.
I open my hand, and the bullet drops out of my palm, iced over. Aspect’s metallic eyes widen.
I don’t give him time to react. I kick him in the stomach with the energy he just gave me from the bullet. He tumbles back into the room with the open window, shredding through the busted wood and insulation, and I chase him in.
He’s not bad, he’s already on his feet again. He’s not a brawler like Krater, he’s a trained fighter. He jabs around my guard. His punches aren’t as fast as mine, nor does he use his legs and knees, but he’s hard to move and his hits are so strong it strains my ability to absorb the force from each blow.
“Fookin’ bastard!” Remise sounds like Joshua Beckett’s giving her trouble.
Time to use some old school judo on this fool. Hane Goshi. I grab his arm, hook my leg under his prosthetic, and hurl him back out onto the balcony.
A bullet clips my shoulder from behind. The guards inside the house are coming into the room. Shit! I blast out after Aspect. He raises his pistol to put a few in my chest. I repeat my heat absorption to take the bullets. They rip through my jacket, and I wince as I feel them sink into my skin. They don’t go through, they just stick like the bullet Vaquero took for me last night.
I knock the pistol out of his hand and grab his arm. I wonder what will happen if I throw a bunch of heat into him? I push all the heat into my hands. Well over three times what it takes to melt steel.
Aspect’s arm sloughs and bends. He screams. The guards rushing toward us take a few shots, but I twist Aspect in front of me, using him as cover. I twist his melted arm and throw him into the mooks, back where they came from. I slam the door shut behind them, lock it, and freeze the knob over by taking all the heat I can.
A sniper rifle cracks. “Beckett’s down,” Mil-dot says.
“Thanks for tha’,” Remise says. “He got me good.”
“I’m in the house, but the fighting’s too thick to get close to the stairs,” Flashfire says. The guards shoot assault rifles, and I pick up Vaquero’s revolver going off.
“Are the kids okay?” I ask.
“Seem to be fine,” Mil-dot says. “They’re the next window down from you on the balcony.”
“Epione, come on.” I crawl over to the window.
Two bullets ping through the door. How the hell? Neither of us are hit, though. Maybe that was just random.
Epione and I make it to the kids’ window. Mil-dot was right. Twenty something kids are packed into this room like sardines in a tin can, cowering in the dark. Behind them a handful of Parlor clients press against the walls, staring at me in terror. Bastards. They’re older men. They look like politicians, high powered executives, the wealthy elite.
I can’t risk bashing this open, I might freak the kids and the clients, and alert Pandahead. Who knows what he’ll do if the kids are at risk.
“I can’t get close enough to throw a flash bang,” Flashfire says. “He’s got the clients watching the downstairs. I’ll let you know when I have an opening, and when I do, I’ll throw a flash bomb in. You get Pandahead.”
“How about this for an opening!” Saw Off shouts.
A huge blast goes off in the house. The kids screech, the men inside the house shout.
“Was tha’ the fookin’ birthday grenade?” Remise shouts.
“Now!” Saw Off screams. There’s a hail of bullets inside.
“Gabe, get ready, you can get Pandahead,” Flashfire says. “Three! Two! One!”
A bright light fills the house. Epione hops onto my back, and I open the door.
There’s two guards there, guns aimed right down the hall. They open fire. I blast out of the way, but one of the bullets nicks my arm. The ambush catches me by surprise, so I don’t absorb the energy.
“Saw Off’s been hit!” Lugs shouts.
I slam the door closed. “They were ready. I can’t get to him!”
“There’s somebody listenin’ in on us,” Remise says. She hisses in pain. “There’s another mic open.”
A chill runs down my spine. Through our comms I can hear sirens wailing and Remise’s pained gasps. I listen close, and there’s another sound. Someone breathing heavy through a voice modulator. “I want to speak to Home Run. I’m assuming one of you is him. This is Pandahead.”
Epione and I look at each other in disbelief. The gunfire halts, leaving the siren to wail by its lonesome.
“Hello? Are you there? The least you could do after interrupting my game is tell my why.”
“Er… this is Home Run,” I say. A game? What game? “Why what?”
“Why are you here? You’ve upset my stock, you interrupted my speed run, and you’ve probably cost me around two million in refunds.”
That is a hefty sentence to unpack. What the hell is a speed run? “I’m here to stop you.”
“Stop me from what? Completing the legendary campaign of Halo 2?”
I’ve got no clue what to say.
“Actually, I know why you’re here. Maybe a better question would be, what are you hoping to accomplish?”
“To save these kids.”
“Do you think that saving these kids will make a difference in the long run?”
“Oh, fuck you, we’re not doing this.” I’m not going to eat that shit, not for breakfast, not for dinner, not for any meal.
“Don’t be an asshole. I could have my men swarm the balcony, but I’m willing to talk to you for a moment.”
I shake my head. “You know I’ll beat them, that’s why you’re talking.”
His modulated laughter sounds like a car engine misfiring. “Fair point. But trying to force your way in will get you killed, you know that, too. So, perhaps we can talk our way around this impasse.”
The police are on their way. I look at Epione and tap my watch, make a twisting motion like I’m turning a dial. Epione nods. She twists some knobs and huddles away from me, whispering into her watch on another frequency to Drone. “Fine. I’ve got time. Let’s talk.”
“Less than you think,” he says.
“You’re counting on your friends from FIS?” I ask.
“Ah, I see. You’re privy to how this works, then. Then, may I ask, what makes you think you can stop it? You’re one man. Well, a small group. You get rid of me, someone else takes my place, and they won’t be friendly to the UWC. Worse things happen to Houston. More gang crime, more drug and human trafficking. So, I ask again, why do you think this will make a difference?”
Make a difference, Maisa said. It has to. It doesn’t matter if there are millions, trillions of starfish. I’ll make a difference here and now, to these kids. “You’re not going to talk me down.”
“Augh, bleeding hearts are the worst,” Pandahead moans. “You’ve done more damage than good. You know that, right?”
“Shut up. You’re talking out your ass.”
“On the contrary. I know exactly what I’m talking about. You found out where I am, you know a lot about Parlor, FIS, and me, it seems. So, you know that I perform a necessary service to this city. I want to emphasize this again: if I go down, others take my place. People will always pay for sin. It doesn’t matter if I profit off of it, so long as I minimize the risk to this city. To the UWC itself.”
“You can rationalize this all you want, but I’m looking at a room full of children you’ve pimped out to rich assholes. Dress it up however you want, I’m going to stop you from ever doing it again.”
“Tell you what. If it means that much to you to rescue them, I will let you take five of my stock, five of your choice. Walk in, point them out, and then get the fuck out. My men will not fire, you will not attack me. Everyone wins.”
Stock. He means the kids. “You want to give me five children.” My vision is slowly shifting into red. Pure, blood, rage inducing, red.
“It’s not like I have to worry about losing them. They do keep making more. Don’t take the ones from China, though, they cost one of my suppliers an arm and a leg.”
Epione puts a hand on mine. The rage I should feel slips out of me like helium out of a balloon. I can think again. “I’m not going to do that.”
The police cars pull into sight down the lane. They’re here. Finally. We just have to keep Pandahead here long enough for them to make their arrests.
I can’t help my smile. “I don’t have to, anyway. The police are almost here. Your clients, the men in here, you and your guards, you’re all getting exposed.”
“If you think I’m going to be done in by Conroe PD, you are mistaken. My friends will take care of them.”
I really want to say some things, but not until he’s safely cuffed, or until we have the kids. Epione’s taps on the window, trying to coax one of them into opening the latch from the inside, but they slink back from us. There are older men cowering behind the children, hunkering against the wall.
“Do you have an appetite for experiences?” Pandahead asks.
I look at Epione. She tilts her head, gives me a confused look. “Not the kind you like.”
“What do you think I like?”
I grit my teeth. “Molesting kids.”
The grating giggle comes back over our comms. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that. That’s a taste I simply don’t understand.”
“But you’re willing to cater to it.”
“Of course. It makes money. No, by experiences, I mean jumping out of a plane with a parachute, I mean running down the side of a mountain buck fucking naked. Taking LSD, or making love to a world class model on a boat off the coast of Italy. I mean… I mean strapping yourself to the top of a rocket and hitting orbit. Experiences. Things that change your whole life. Things that pull you out of the monotony of a nine to five existence. Things that fucking underage girls or drugs can’t touch.”
Police sirens wail down the lane. They’re so close. Just a little longer.
“A fight to the death,” Pandahead continues.
I get a bad feeling. I tap Epione, cover my watch comm. “I have to get in there, but he’s surrounded by his goons. We have to stop him before he uses his power.”
Something in the air shifts, like gravity lurches inward toward the house as if I’m on the edge of a cliff, leaning over into the abyss. A hint of sulfur accompanies the twisting feeling. A finger scratches the back of my head. I look over my shoulder, but nothing’s there.
“Scratch that,” I say. “We have to stop him from continuing to use it, because I think he just did.”
Epione nods. “I felt that, too.”
Screams inside the house. Throaty, deep, men. Not children, not yet.
Pandahead’s voice seems to come from the very air around us. “Actually, you know what. How about you stay right there, and I’ll come meet you on the balcony.”
Remise shrieks over the comms. “We have to get out!”
“What the fuck is that?” Mil-dot shouts. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, please, oh god, what is that?”
The screaming inside reaches a crescendo, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. There’s gunfire inside. “The clients and the guards…” Drone says. “They’re shooting each other!”
An aircraft roars over the trees, FIS enameled in white on the side of the cockpit.