Chris grunted as he slow-walked over to the overstuffed mini fridge they kept in one of the front offices. His stiff legs burned, even a full day after their desperate, cross city run. Silence reigned over the shop, even with all four of them technically up and moving. I shouldn’t have pushed Amanda last night, he thought to himself as he grabbed a pop. We’re still in no shape to do much of anything. Even if we find something in all that paperwork and info we got, there’s not much we’ll be able to do with it in this state. I’ve got to make this right, though.
“Hey! Blondie, pass me one?” Chris fought back the urge to jump at the sudden sound of Ben’s voice. He looked over his shoulder just in time to spot Ben slouch against the door frame.
“Here,” said Chris, handing him a second can and keeping the surprise from his voice. The last few cans in the near empty fridge clattered as the door closed. If he doesn’t get a rise out of me, he’ll get bored and stop. “Blondie? Is that going to be my nickname?” he asked, tone even.
“Yeah, you’re blond. Easier to say,” answered Ben, a wide grin splitting his face. He cracked the top of the can, shying back a little as a bit of spray came out.
“Chris is one syllable.”
“You know what I mean.”
Chris folded his arms, setting his half finished drink on top of the fridge. Though garbled, he finally caught wind of a Baltimore accent in Ben’s rapid speech. “I’m not sure that I do. Besides, it’s too obvious for a nickname.”
“What? It’s quick, gets to the point. You knew exactly who I was talkin’ about.”
“I’m the only other person in this room. Come on, get clever with it at least.” Maybe he’ll be less annoying if he has something to chew on.
“Clever? Come on now, everythin’ about you is blond. Tall midwestern lookin’ white guy with blue eyes? I’d be shocked if you weren’t blonde. Even your scruffy-ass beard is blond.”
“Yeah, I know,” replied Chris, scratching at his cheek. “We don’t have any razors here.”
“Sorry, I forgot about that. I never really need that shit. I just get a little pedo ‘stache after a month.” Chris winced in sympathy. “I always wanted to grow one of those long bushy beards that go down your chest when I was a kid, you know?”
“Why?” asked Chris. Those things look like nightmares to keep clean.
“Cuz it’d be funny.”
Whatever you say, dude. Chris resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “We are starting to run low on everything, again. Do you think you can make another supply run?”
Ben chuckled. “I don’t got a car at the moment.”
“Walk. I’ll join and help you carry, if you want to risk someone recognizing me.”
Ben teleported over to the fridge, checking inside. “Fair enough, might take you up on that. Fuck, ‘liv’ eats a lot. Wanna check in on the chicks, see if they can think of anythin’ to pick up? Shit, think they need razors? Chicks shave their legs, right?”
Chris paused, considering him. You’ve never mentioned a girlfriend, have you? “You’re welcome to ask them.”
“Sure, I’m bored.” Ben pushed off the wall and teleported out.
Chris followed after him to the main shop. For all his confident talk, Ben walked with legs just as stiff as Chris’, relying far more on teleports than usual. Olivia poked her head around one of the makeshift walls they’d set up around their beds, in truth little more than a curtain held up with a metal rod they’d found and balanced between two stacks of boxes. Amanda hunched over what appeared to be half of an old, brick shaped flip phone, her workbenches now lining the wall directly next to the door. A giant magnifying glass clamped to the bench lit up the phone’s innards as she poked at something with a gloved finger.
“Hey, runnin’ down to the store. Need anythin’?” Ben announced to the two of them.
“You’re going out? Are we sure no one tracked us to this area? The Watch? Sanchez?” asked Amanda, looking up from her workbench.
“Olivia was up in the air the whole time back. If she couldn’t see or hear them, they weren’t there,” replied Chris. Olivia walked up to stand beside Ben, which translated to looming over him.
“Fuck that’s helpful. I wanna fly,” said Ben, elbowing Olivia in the hip with a grin. Forgot all about those razors, didn’t you?
“It’s fun,” she replied, cracking a small smile.
“So we’re using her as a spy drone now too, great,” muttered Amanda. She moved aside her magnifying glass and spun her chair, facing the rest of the group.
“What’s wrong?” Olivia asked her, head tilting to the side by an inch.
“I don’t know, I feel bad,” said Amanda with a shrug. You had a problem? Why didn’t you speak up?
“Why?” asked Olivia, beating Chris to the punch.
“We’re using you as a wrecking ball! You walked through a wall and mauled five armed men last night. What we just walked into would have been suicide if you hadn’t just bulldozed everything we pointed you at.” It wasn’t that bad. We pulled through.
“I was just trying to help,” murmured Olivia.
“The whole wall thing was kinda crazy. I loved it!” said Ben with a grin.
“It’s kind of scary, watching you go from you to a predator,” said Amanda, ignoring him. “I’m a little worried for you when you do that.”
“I’m not that scary,” whispered Olivia, more to herself than the others. “They’re way scarier.”
“Remember Michael?” explained Amanda. “You were making this low rumbling in your chest, I thought it was an engine outside somewhere.”
“You’ve got a twenty foot wingspan too, you pretty much filled the room by yourself,” Chris pointed out. She’s not coming out of nowhere with this.
“You were starin’ at the bastard like you wanted to kill ‘em,” added Ben with a laugh. Olivia shrank back as each of them spoke, her posture seeming to collapse in on herself.
“Speaking of which, what was up with that?” asked Amanda. “What did he ever do to you?”
Olivia remained silent for a moment. Chris kicked Ben in the shin as he grinned and took in a breath. Let her think. “I don’t know.” Before Chris could offer a suggestion, she continued, “I sort of recognized him. His smell. Like he was a danger before.”
“Smell?” asked Amanda, a concerned frown on her face as she gazed up at Olivia.
“I know, I’m weird,” Olivia mumbled in response, head hanging. I didn’t know her nose was that sensitive. She said her hearing was good, too.
“Wait, what the hell? Come down here,” said Amanda, standing to meet Olivia halfway and motioning her down. Olivia hesitated for a moment before she figured out what she was asking. Amanda parted some of her brown hair. “Olivia, your hair is all matted. When’s the last time you cleaned this?”
“Um, I don’t know,” Olivia replied. Her eyes remained glued to the floor, even as Amanda released her hair and she stood upright once more.
“Does that mean never?”
“Maybe?” Olivia mumbled after a moment. “I did when I was in that cell.” Chris kept quiet, hair care being beyond his ken.
“What exactly did you do?” asked Amanda.
“I just bent down and let water run over it,” mumbled Olivia. Her wings rustled, pulling in tight behind her back.
“Wait, bent down?”
“Yeah,” broke in Chris. “Half the showerheads I come across come up to my face. It’s a pain in the ass.” He eyed Olivia for a moment. “And she’s got about six or seven inches on me.” Though it’s kind of hard to tell when she’s hunching over.
Amanda returned her attention to Olivia and exclaimed, “Your hair can’t be comfortable like that.”
Olivia shrugged. “I guess not.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” demanded Amanda.
“I didn’t want to get in the way or anything.”
“Who cares?” cut in Ben. “Just hair.” Why is everyone talking about hair today? This is the second conversation about it.
“There is something to be said for putting at least a little bit of care into your appearance,” replied Amanda, shooting him a look of scorn.
Ben leaned in and grinned. “What happened to don’t judge a book by its cover?” Chris frowned in thought. Ben had a sort of ruthless intelligence, selectively applied. Is he fucking with us intentionally to amuse himself, or is he just not bothering to think and genuinely asking?
“That’s for little children, not grown ass adults,” replied Chris.
“Y’all turn your noses up at me, were damn close to throwin’ ‘liv’ in a concrete coffin. Seems like grown ass adults ain’t on the right track here.”
Chris looked Ben dead in the eye and said, “It took us about two minutes to decide to make contact with Olivia instead of going in guns blazing. And when have I ever turned my nose up at you?” Ben pointed to Amanda without breaking eye contact. “Granted, but I am not her.”
Ben nudged Olivia again. “You should argue more. Ain’t had this much fun since me an’ my brothers split.” She just looked confused.
“Brothers?” asked Amanda.
“Oh god there’s three of you,” said Amanda with dawning horror as Ben cackled in amusement. “Your poor mother.”
Let’s get back on track. “So, Amanda,” said Chris, raising his voice to be heard over the cross talk. Everyone snapped to attention as his voice echoed through the shop. “Can you think of anything Ben can pick up from the store?”
Amanda snapped her ringers at Olivia. “Right. You, bathroom, I’ll get you cleaned up. You,” she said, snapping her fingers at Ben. “Grab a hairbrush while you’re out. And some deodorant. And a toothbrush.”
“Already grabbed a toothbrush for her,” said Chris in a normal voice.
Amanda considered Olivia for a moment. “Have you been using it?” she asked her.
“I think so?”
Amanda simply grunted in response, leading a befuddled Olivia out of the shops and to the bathrooms. Alright, I guess that’s taken care of.
“Need a hand?” Chris asked Ben.
“Nah, I’ll suck it up. Keep outta sight.” Ben grabbed a jacket and teleported out, leaving Chris alone in a cavernous empty shop. I wonder if I can install a shower in here. We’re not using half this space.
An hour later, Olivia walked back into the shop. Chris looked up from the website of a local hardware store and gave her a nod as he leaned back in his chair. What am I doing? This is never going to happen. I’m either getting back to normal with Alice or dying. He put away his phone as clawed feet approached.
Olivia handed him his forgotten and half finished pop, damp hair now somewhat organized and tied into a ponytail with a rubber band. She gnawed on what appeared to be the last of their beef jerky.
“Thanks,” he said, taking a polite sip of now lukewarm soda. “Feeling better?” he asked, gesturing to her hair.
“It’s not getting into my face anymore!” she said with a smile. “I didn’t think about it before. It’s so nice.”
How old are you? Is that a question I’m not supposed to ask? “Good to hear.” Amanda entered, hands damp and disgruntled look on her face unchanged. I should probably deal with that at some point. Angry teammates are a time bomb waiting to happen. She marched over to her workbench, drying off her hands with a paper towel. Later. Techies hate being interrupted too much.
“Are you OK?” asked Olivia, breaking his train of thought.
“Sorry, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”
“You seem worried.”
“I guess I am. I don’t want to mess this up. My girlfriend, Alice, she’s not really happy about all this. She sounded really mad, actually, when I talked with her yesterday. Sorry, I’m rambling.”
“Why are you apologizing?”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about me.”
“Why not?” He glanced to the side at her, seeing nothing but an earnest question.
“Because I’m supposed to be dependable.” He stared off into space, as if he would be judged for the admission. “She was nervous about me being a cop, you know? She made her peace with it because I’m not the kind of guy to go off and do something stupid and impulsive, like exactly what we’re doing now. It’s almost like I’m betraying that trust, you know?”
“But you’re trying to make it right. Right?”
“Yeah, there’s that. We’ll see.” He took a deep breath, feeling a weight off of his shoulders. “You’re speaking up more,” he said, changing the topic.
“Yeah,” she replied. Now it was her turn to avoid eye contact, reptilian eyes lost in the distance. “That other feral, he couldn’t talk.”
“Oh, the mantis one?” He’d caught a quick glimpse of it as they’d fled the Arena; a car sized feral covered in insect chitin plates.
“Yeah. He couldn’t talk, I don’t think. And with what you guys said earlier, I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to be a dumb thing sitting in a corner.”
Ben burst in through the back door, plastic bags rustling as he angled them through. “Hey, party people!” he called out into the shop. Goodbye, peace and quiet. It was nice having you for almost a full hour. Chris gave Olivia a reassuring pat on the elbow as he got up from his chair to help Ben.
They unpacked and gathered around Amanda’s desk, fresh food and activity breaking them out of their tired haze. Chris spread out the papers they’d stolen from the office in the Arena as Amanda set up three different sized spare monitors to display files and pictures. The three of them read through their own pile of documents, occasionally looking over each other’s shoulder for clarification or comparison. Olivia looked over shoulders, asking the occasional clarifying question but otherwise keeping out of the way.
“Hold up, hold up,” said Ben, smile gone for once. “I recognize that address.” He pointed to what appeared to be the picture of a medical record.
“What about it?” asked Chris.
“Been there. Kid was taken, tryin’ to track him down with ‘liv’.”
“What happened?” asked Amanda.
Chris squinted at the paper. “I’m no expert, but it looks like something to do with magic? Magical aptitude?”
“Kid was a mage?” said Ben.
“It looks like they just figured it out,” replied Chris, eyeing the date in the bottom right corner, in horrible doctor scribble.
“Sanchez had him grabbed, passed him off to Overlord.”
“He’s branched into human trafficking now? That’s new,” said Chris.
“Wait, we’re fucking with Overlord?” demanded Amanda, face pale.
“Yeah. Oh shit, never did compare notes, did we? Yeah, me an’ ‘liv’ found some Overlord guns for Sanchez. This checks out. Might’ve been payment, now that I think about it. Money’s easier to track than guns you keep hidden anyways.”
“Why not both?”
Ben shrugged. “Maybe.”
“OK, so Overlord is using Sanchez to acquire people, mages by the look of it,” said Amanda.
“Couldn’t do that himself?” asked Ben.
Chris looked at Amanda. You’re the techie. Overlord is your wheelhouse. She shook her head vigorously. “No idea. Techies don’t research Overlord himself unless they want a visit from him or a government black ops team. I’ll take a look at gear, but I’m staying as far away from him as possible.”
“Mages don’t exactly grow on trees. Magic frustrates almost any scientific explanation,” said Chris. Amanda nodded in agreement. “We can sit here and guess about Overlord’s motivations all day long, but that will get us nowhere. Let’s keep that in the back of our mind, but Sanchez is our current target. Who built that place we raided?”
Ben nodded and grinned in agreement. “You don’t build a giant fuck off cave like that with shovels.”
“Overlord?” asked Olivia. That’s a good point.
Amanda shrugged. “Maybe. He keeps a low profile, and he certainly has the resources and technical know-how to pull off something like that. Would he go through all that effort for Sanchez though?” Ben shook his head.
“Not what I meant. We’re focusing too much on the shady part. Who made the building topside?” asked Chris. “A legitimate business needs legitimate paperwork.”
Amanda frowned as she sifted through the files. “Here we go. This is an invoice from Lehman Construction. There’s a few more. And an engineering report. Yeah, these guys are all over it. Blood drained from Chris’s face. That name is familiar. “Weren’t they doing the renovations at MHU headquarters?” he asked. “The ones that are late and over budget?”
Thanks for the chapter
Oh glad to see this is still ongoing hope things are working out.
Thanks for the chapter
Whens the next chapter syphqx?