There are very few things I expect from Saw Off besides shooting, cursing, and flirting. Among the things I never expected from her is a heartfelt, teary-eyed hug.
“Gabe Babe!” she cries, wrapping her arms around me in the middle of the Barrel of Fish gun shop. “I thought you had died or sumthin’! You never answered my texts.”
I rub the back of my neck. The rest of the 2nd Amendment watches on as I walk into the shop. “Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t in a very good place.”
“Lugs has talked about it non-stop,” Mil-dot says.
“Mil!” Lugs protests. Finally, he chuckles. “It was pretty amazing to see Cosmoworld go up in smoke. You could hear it for miles. And thanks to you, we’re here, and not behind bars.”
I shrug. “It was nothing.”
Saw Off slaps my back just above my ass, like that’s as close as she dared go. “Nothing my butt! You fucking stomped Houston’s Hero! It was fucking awesome.” She hops up onto the counter with a sly smile and says, “Lemme guess, Jason took it as well as my last boyfriend took a Dutch Oven.”
I can’t help but bark a laugh at that, which confirms Saw Off’s suspicions. She grins.
“What are you here for?” Mil-dot asks. “You paid your debt.”
“I know, but I thought you guys might be interested in one of my missions this time. Well, really, one of the Underground’s missions.” I wince, knowing that Saw Off would immediately say no.
“Fuck no,” Saw Off says. “I don’t want to work with a bunch of wet blankets.”
“Look, you can say no, but hear me out. You want Pandahead, yeah?”
The 2nd Amendment perks up at his name. Saw Off chews her lip. “You’ve got him?”
“I have his address. Parlor.”
“Parlor?” Saw Off jumps off the counter and rushes up to me. “You have Parlor.”
“Yeah. I’ve got Parlor. And you can have a piece if you want. But you have to work with the Underground, and you have to accept Flashfire’s leadership.” I cross my arms, trying to look like that will be my final offer.
Saw Off considers that. Finally, she says, “Nope.”
“Aw, come on!” Lugs breaks circle with Mil-dot and Vaquero. “We’ve been dying for this for a year, and I’d sooner jump in the Bayou than let the Underground bag our guy.”
“I refuse to work with Jason.” Saw Off shakes her head. “He can have Pandahead and good riddance at that. It’s no skin off my back if they get him.”
“I don’t think you’ll accept it,” I say. “I think you’ll regret it for years if he swoops in to take credit for all the work you’ve done.”
Saw Off faces away from me. She leans on the counter, supported by her hands, and looks like she carries the weight of the world on her shoulder. At last, she says, “Not a chance.”
Lugs groans. Mil-dot shrugs, Vaquero still looks bemused.
I’ve got one big card left to play. “You wanted to know if the face matched the muscles, right?”
Saw Off looks over her shoulder. “You’re gonna show me your face?”
“Now that’s somethin’ I’m very interested in,” Vaquero says. “You gonna show us who Home Run really is?”
“I will. If you show up to the old brunch spot Remise runs. You’ve been there before, right?” I ask.
“Yeah.” Saw Off turns around. She chews her lip some more, looks everywhere but my face, but finally settles on meeting my eyes. “Fine. I’ll think about it.”
“Okay. Think about it for an hour, because that’s when the brunch is.” I salute to them. “And if not, well, you can watch the news. See if it feels the same as doing it yourself.”
I step outside, where Maisa waits for me. “Why didn’t you want me to go in there?” she asks.
“Didn’t know if they’d shoot me or not.” I chuckle and offer her my back for another piggyback ride. “Ready?”
We bound through the city together as we did the first week Maisa lived at Epione’s McMansion. But instead of heading back to the brunch spot right away, I decide to stop off at my apartment for a moment, leave Maisa inside with Doc for a few minutes, and go up to my rooftop alone.
I call Bedevil.
The phone rings and rings, and finally she answers.
“H-hullo,” she says, clearly drunk.
Bedevil squeaks on the other end. “I… I didn’t look… who was calling… I didn’t… I didn’t drunk text you, did I?”
“No. I called you.”
Bedevil starts to weep on the other end. “I… I… What… What do you want?”
“I’m going after Pandahead. Tonight. I don’t know if I’ll come back alive or not, so I wanted to talk to you. And I had a favor to ask, too.”
Bedevil sniffs on the other end. “Why do you think you’ll die?”
“If I get captured, I can’t see myself surviving very long.”
She chokes, unable to reply to that.
“But I want you to know that our rooftop dates were very nice, and they made me happy.”
“Gabe, you don’t have to… You don’t… You don’t deserve what I did.”
I really don’t have a reply to that. Instead, I ask. “Why did you tell me you love me?”
That question starts a new round of sobs from her end of the call. I let her cry without saying anything in reply. She takes a minute to compose herself, and says, “I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry. I only tried to get you to stay, and I said the first thing that popped into my head.”
So, it wasn’t true. It’s both a massive relief and a huge disappointment all at once. “Okay.”
“I shouldn’t have manipulated you with that. I was hurting. It’s… not an excuse.”
“It’s a reason,” I say. “A mitigating factor.”
“Yeah,” Bedevil replies. “That.”
“Could you do something for me?” I ask.
“Anything,” she says.
“Could you get me the phone number of Mr. Gold? Javier Aguellar?” I ask. He was there that night at the auction and I want to know if he’s in on the corruption. If I get in touch with him, maybe I can find out.
“Okay. And… Ruby? I’m sorry.”
Bedevil sniffles. “I am, too.”
There’s no reply to that except for quiet weeping.
I move the phone away from my ear and reach my thumb to hang up. Just as I do, I hear her say, “Goodbye, Gabe.”
I fetch Maisa, give Doc a big hug, and we make our way to the brunch spot.
The Underground, and thank fucking God, Iso, wait for us at Remise’s little hideout, already chowing down on some egg sandwiches. The most surprising thing is that Epione is here, too, and wearing her own mask, a solid black face-plate with neon-pink rings where her eyes are.
Iso stares at me as I enter like I’m diseased, but he settles down as I drop Maisa off and grab a sandwich of my own.
Drone’s little flying cameras hover around the room while she plays with her laptop. The feeds show up on her screen as they zoom around, and she gives me a thumbs up as I look over her shoulder. “Glad to have you back, dear husband.”
“So, when do I get my big scoop?” Iso asks.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to swear you to secrecy,” I say. “Which, I understand if you want to walk out now because of that, but I’m not going to back off on it.”
Flashfire pats Iso on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, though. You’re gonna be the one who breaks Pandahead’s true identity, instead.”
“You dirty liar,” Iso says. He frowns and glares at me. “You know how much property damage you did? How much Houston is hurting because of what happened? There are vigils for Krater, you know.”
“I know. I can’t take it back, but I wish I could. I’m trying to do something right, now.”
“Oh, really?” Iso asks. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t involve anything crazy.”
As if on cue, there’s a knock at the door. Remise answers and groans. “God, I was hoping you’d all say no.”
Saw Off and the 2nd Amendment pile into the room. “Howdy, bitches.”
“Oh my God,” Iso says. “You called terrorists.”
Flashfire dusts his hands of crumbs. “Trust me, I’m not that happy about it either, but they’re going to help us get those kids out, while Drone gets the footage you’ll use to bring Pandahead and his clients down.”
“And how are the 2nd Amendment going to help us?” Iso asks.
“With a big distraction. Does that sound like something you can do, Saw Off?” Flashfire asks.
Saw Off grins at her ex-boyfriend and winks. “You know it, Jason Bear.”
The sound coming from under Epione’s mask is a warning growl. The pink rings transform into an angry emoji face.
“That’s awesome,” I mutter. “Why don’t I have a mask like that?”
“Oh?” Drone asks. “I always thought you liked wandering around in a gimp mask?”
Well, that just cracks Saw Off’s ass up. “Oh my god, a gimp mask.”
“Laugh it up,” I growl.
Saw Off stops laughing and purrs at me. “You gonna growl like that tonight?”
“I believe you said you’d show us your face,” Vaquero says.
“Yes, your identity is something I’m very interested in, too,” Iso says. “Even though you’re swearing me to secrecy.”
“You all are.” I reach up for my mask. “What I’m about to show you does not leave this room.”
Saw Off crosses her fingers. “Please be hot, please be hot, please—”
The room goes silent as my mask comes off. Excepting the Underground and Maisa, every one of their jaws hits the floor. They each go through a different spectrum of emotions, but the general pattern seems to be a journey from shock to disbelief to awe.
Saw Off’s face lights up. “Gabe Babe.”
“You can’t be.” Iso shakes his head. “He’s dead. You’re dead.”
“Yeah, he is dead,” I say. “I’m not Megajoule, but I do have his face and about half his power.”
“How? How did this happen?” Lugs asks. “How do you have these things?”
“I’ll give you the cliff notes version. I’m a clone. They made me in a lab to take his place if he ever died, but one of the scientists there saved me and brought me to Houston, where I’ve lived ever since. I wasn’t the only one they made, but I am the only one left.” I sigh out. I try to forget that fact as much as possible, and it always hurts when it rears its ugly head. “That’s about it.”
“No wonder you creamed Krater,” Iso says. “Damn. And you can’t be a cape, can you?”
“No. I’d get taken back. Probably liquidated.”
“Well, they’ll take you back over my dead body,” Saw Off says. “What’s the plan for the panda?”
Flashfire slaps the table. “Everybody take a seat and a sandwich.”
He details our plan, but the gist of it is Drone captures footage and uses her Hummingbirds to give us up to date intel, the 2nd Amendment gives us the biggest distraction they can while we call EMS services, and the Underground takes down Pandahead’s guards, while Epione and I take Pandahead himself. Epione’s power could stop Pandahead’s power over fear so that he doesn’t disable me before I can beat him down. Maisa will guard Drone’s position with Mil-dot, who will also be providing sniper support.
Flashfire nods once everyone has the plan. “Okay, so that’s that, team. Gear up. We move out tonight.”
“Tonight?” Saw Off grins. “Fucking awesome.”
Flashfire ignores her and continues. “Once we have the footage, we’ll bring it to you, Iso, and you can leak it wherever the hell it will do the most damage. If regular police capture Pandahead and that video gets out, FIS has no choice but to assist in bringing him down. And if we can prove they’ve worked together, who knows what’ll happen?”
“Very good. Where will we meet up?” Iso asks.
“We could meet back here,” Flashfire says.
I have a different idea. “My apartment. In case we have injured people, Doc will help us.” It’s the only place no one in the Underground has ever been, for their own safety in case I got captured. It probably doesn’t make too much sense, but it’s just a precaution I’ve taken. “I’ll give you all Doc’s number in case we get separated.”
The meeting concludes and everyone heads out to suit up at our respective hideouts. While en route to the mansion, I notice that I’ve got a text from Bedevil with a phone number. “Maisa, can I use your burner phone?”
Maisa nods and hands it to me.
“I won’t be able to give it back this time,” I tell her.
Maisa shrugs. “I only have two numbers on there anyway.”
I dial up Mr. Gold.
He answers halfway through the first ring. “Hello?”
Mr. Gold pauses. He grunts and says, “Who the hell is this?”
Mr. Gold sounds like he can’t believe that. “Home Run.”
“Yeah. I just wanted you to know that I’m going to be taking care of Pandahead. If you’re really coddling him, then I expect to see you at Parlor tonight.”
“Home Run, I have no idea what Parlor is. What do you know about Pandahead?”
“That FIS wanted to use him. It ends tonight, Gold.”
“If you’re planning on attacking another civilian—”
“The only times you’ve ever seen me are fighting gangs that FIS wants gone. You can’t trust me that I’m on your side?”
Mr. Gold pauses. “Then come into an FIS center and turn yourself in, and tell me what you know.”
“How do I trust that? I can’t.”
“I can’t trust what you’re telling me either. You’re telling me my own agency is corrupted by this human trafficker. Did you think I was in on it?” he asks.
“If you are, I expect you’ll be at Parlor tonight.”
“As I said, I don’t know where that is. Why don’t you tell me?”
“How about you pay attention to your agency’s emergencies tonight, and see what they want to do about it?” I ask.
Mr. Gold doesn’t say anything to that, so I hang up.