Blaithe looked around the room, Lucky was lounging on a couch while Steve and Kat were glaring at each other across the table.
“So, this is the plan.” He clicked the remote and the projector displayed an image of girl in her mid teens, pale white skin, messy dark black hair, wearing an oversized sweater and clutching a black packpack. She was stepping off a bus onto a littered sidewalk.
“This is Andree Nichell, age sixteen, she is to be considered extremely dangerous. Her exact capabilities are unknown. What is known is that approximately twenty five to thirty people have died in direct connection to her in the last few years. Our mission tonight is to intercept her outside the soup kitchen on 68th Street and Midland. Once we have her I would like to determine the nature of her ability, if she possesses one, and to offer her a spot on this team.
“Steve will be leading point on this one. What questions do you have?”
“Equipment. Lethal?” Steve asked
“Your discretion, but keep in mind that it might prompt a hostile reaction.”
“Okay. Communication? Preferably hands-free? If the girl has a special friend I don’t want to get blindsided by it.”
“I can get headsets for your phones, plug and play.”
Steve leaned back and pondered. What would happen if the girl attacked, or ran away, or transformed into a howling razorbeast?
“Suppose she runs? Do we follow?”
“If you think it’s wise. She’s been living on the streets, running might be her first instinct. You might have to chase her to even get a chance to talk.”
“If she attacks?”
“Keep yourselves alive. You’re not there to take her down, retreat if necessary. Now, rundown. Where do you want your people?”
Steve tapped his chin as he thought. Three people. Lucky was the obvious choice for point, she could probably only slow him down a bit, but two guys approaching might frighten the girl. Having Kat approach might work, Andree might be slightly more inclined to trust her. That would leave Lucky with the car.
“Lucky, can you drive?”
“Yes.” He said, after slightly too long of a pause.
“Nevermind. Okay, how about this. Kat and I will approach the girl, Lucky I want you off to the side flanking her. We can park the car, there’s not really much probability that we’ll need a car chase. This is purely a talking mission, we don’t need to fight her.” He couldn’t help glancing at Kat when he said it.”
“Don’t you look at me like that.” She glared at him and jabbed a finger at his face.
“I had a kink in my neck. Sorry. Any questions?”
“Can I have a taser?” Lucky perked up, looking hopeful.
“Are you going to use it on me?”
“…no?” He said with a complete failure to convince anyone.
“I’ll think about it. Also, I’m sorry for tasering you the other day. Please forgive me.” Steve clasped his hands and bowed. “Now, just so that everyone is on the same page, what will you be doing, Blaithe?”
“I will remain here, overseeing the team and monitoring the situation.”
“Okay, as soon as you have those headsets I’d like everyone to get familiar with them. Other than that, you guys are contractors now, that means masks. At the moment we just have generic balaclavas, in the future you can get something personalized. The key idea is that you are not you, you are a nameless, faceless contractor. If possible avoid the use of real names. I’m Knuckle. If anyone questions you, you refer them to me, and if necessary I will refer them to Blaithe. Anything you do directly reflects upon him, and this team as a whole. Do you guys want me to go over the rules with you?”
“I’ve read them.” Kat said, sitting back and crossing her arms.
After a moment with no response, eyes turned to Lucky.
“What about you, Lucky?”
“What?” The kid was lying on the couch, doing something with his phone. He glanced up.
“Contractor handbook? Want me to go over it with you?”
“Can I have a taser if I say yes?”
“No. Just follow along and you’ll be fine.” He looked around the room, “I think that’s everything.”
“That should be it.” Blaithe checked his watch, “I’ll get those headsets, and let’s meet back here in one hour. I want to be on site for seven.” He switched off the projector and left.
“Good meeting.” Lucky added, and then exited.
“Go team.” Steve called after the two of them.
“Steve?” Kat asked as she stood up from the table.
“I regret this already.” Then she left.
“I…uh. Go team.” Steve slumped forward, palming his face.
He spent a solid twenty minutes pondering if it would be worth just shooting Kat and burying her in the woods. In the end he figured it probably wouldn’t kill her, and then she’d be even more unbearable after clawing her way out of a shallow grave.
With a deep sigh he slapped the table and went to take a shower. Might as well look presentable when the others got back. Kat was in the hallway outside the bedrooms, walking towards the stairs. When she saw him coming she turned around and went back into her room. At least she’d picked the one on the opposite side of the hall. Sharing a wall with her would have been too much. Suddenly he found himself really, desperately hoping that he’d slip in the shower and slowly drown. That’d be fun.
What was it about her, that she managed to get inside his head? Resolutely he marched over to her door.
“I know you can hear me. I’m going to grow a moustache and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. It’s going to be all patchy and make you neurotic and I’m never going to shave that one hair under my nose that vibrates when I breathe.”
She opened the door and glared at him.
“No you are not.”
“Yes I am. I’m not going to shave it until you talk to me.”
“You are such an idiot.” She shut the door in his face.
“Yeah, well…I can do what I want.”
Somehow she got the keys, probably from Blaithe, and she was sitting in the driver’s seat when the rest of them got to the garage. She didn’t say anything to him the entire drive.
Steve stared out the window, watching traffic. They passed a few other vehicles of masked people, exchanging wary glances. A few polite nods, a few rude gestures, such was the life. For the briefest of moments he met the eyes of a girl in a cheerleader outfit, wearing a stylized barbie mask, hugging a rocket launcher as she sat in the back of a bright red convertible mustang driven by a man in a gorilla suit. Then they were gone, and he was left to wonder if it was worth ditching the mission to catch up to her.
Kat drove past the soup kitchen, then circled back around to park half a block east.
“I’ll be monitoring your progress, Knuckle, Ghoul, Red. Keep me updated.” Blaithe said over the comms.
“Got your headsets working?” Steve asked.
“Let’s just get this done.” Kat got out of the car.
“I can hear you.” Lucky said.
“You’re a credit to the team. I like you best.” Steve got out and followed Kat as she started walking towards the soup line. It said something for their fortitude that the people there showed no real reaction to a group of folks with masks walking up to them. In short order, Steve spotted Andree towards the back of the line. Their eyes met. She took off running.
“What? She doesn’t want to talk to me either? Is this some kind of female conspiracy?”
Kat muttered something as she started the chase. It sounded unpleasant. Steve’s heart went out to that poor little girl, then he started running. He needed to get their before Kat got violent.
“Where’d she go?” Lucky asked.
“She’s running north!”
Andree was fast, and she knew the area, but she lacked stamina. Proper nutrition was likely hard to come by out here. She ducked under some broken boards in a fence and rabbited into an apartment building. Steve was feeling manly so he leaped over the fence. Kat smashed through the hole in the fence, tearing it all the way open. It made Steve feel decidedly less macho.
In all it took about five minutes to finally corner Andree in a derelict gas station. She was slumped over, breathing hard. A dark-skinned young man stood between her and the others. He was as shabby as the others, but resolute. Thick fog seeped out of his skin, rolling across the ground. Already it was knee high, and rapidly spreading.
“Go away!” He shouted.
Steve held back from the fog. Who knew what the guy could do with it. Especially if this guy was the one turning people into sliced cold cuts when they got too close to Andree.
“Gas station. She’s got a friend.” Steve said quietly for Lucky’s benefit, then continued a bit louder. “We’re just here to talk.”
“What do you want?” Andree asked. She sounded terrified. Steve knew that feeling.
“My boss is hiring, I’m here with a job offer.”
“For me?” She didn’t sound like she believed it.
“Or for your friend, if he’s the one who caused the commotion at the asylum.”
“He had nothing to do with that! Leave him out of this.”
“Don’t talk to them. Let’s just go.” The man tried to pull Andree towards the exit, but she shook him off.
“Why? Why me? What’s this job?”
“It’s good, solid pay. Decent place to live. The kind of contract to set you up for years. From what we’ve seen you’ve got potential, and we want you on the team.”
“I’d like to try. We can help you.”
“No!” Andree stumbled, grunting in pain. Steve looked at the fog guy, was he doing something? The guy looked as surprised as the rest of them, so probably not.
“Are you hurt? Is there anything I can do? Something I can get you?”
“Just go. Please just go.” Andree tried to stand up, but fell to the floor again.
“I brought a phone for you. It has my number programmed into it already. If there’s anything I can do for you. Just let me know, okay?” Steve took the phone out of his pocket, and the fog guy immediately started screaming for him to drop it. He obviously had no idea what was going on.
“Anything at all, doesn’t matter if it seems weird. Used to work with a guy who needed to do yoga or he’d turn into a statue. Even if you just want to talk.” Steve put the phone on a shelf.
That was when Lucky walked in from the other door.
“Is she dead?”
The fog guy yelled, and a solid wall of fog rushed out in all directions. In a second the room was filled, and visibility was reduced to inches. Someone screamed from the far side of the room, and Steve stumbled as someone punched him in the side of the head. The only person over there was Kat. Barely a second of reduced visibility and she hits him with a cheap shot? Really?
“You bitch!” He dived at her murky form and crashed into the shelf. She was nowhere to be found. He flailed around, snagging a leg and dragging her down to the ground.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” She shouted as she elbowed him.
“You hit me.”
“Because you grabbed me, you spaz.”
“Daniel stop it!” Andree shouted. A moment later the fog began to fade. Three sets of eyes turned to watch Steve and Kat thrash around and slap each other on the ground.
“What are you doing?” Lucky asked.
“You guys got some issues.” The fog guy, Daniel, said as he stared at them.
Feeling self conscious, Steve stood up and brushed himself off. Kat stalked away, rubbing the side of her head.
Andree was standing up again, looking amazed. “This is better than cable. So, about this job. Is it going to be like this? What would you want me to do?
“Well, you’d be working with us on whatever jobs the boss picks. Working security, some investigations. Maybe some fights.”
“You must be the good guys, right? Because I’ve seen the bad guys, and their shit is a lot more together.”
“Uh, yeah. We’re the good guys.” Steve shrugged.
“Sorry for hitting you when you were in the fog. I panicked.” Daniel was now looking very uncomfortable. On closer inspection he looked younger than at first glance, probably the same age as Andree or maybe a year older, but with a scruffy brown beard that made him look older.
“That was you?” Steve froze, then glanced after Kat. He swore quietly, and motioned for Lucky to follow her. After a moment he turned back to Andree,
“Okay. Our boss is interested in talking to you, if you would like we can drive you to the office to meet him.”
The girl glanced to the side, and then over at Daniel.
“It okay if I bring a friend?”
“That’s fine.” Blaithe said over the comms, and Steve echoed it.
The drive back to the office was extremely tense. One glare from Kat was enough for Steve to let Lucky take the passenger seat. Andree ended up sitting in the middle with Steve and Daniel on either side.
“You know who I am, so who are you?” Andree asked.
“Knuckle.” The two teens shared a glance, failing to hide smirks. “Yeah, I know. It seemed cool when I was eighteen.”
“So do I get to pick my own costume name?”
“Sure. You don’t have to, but there are many benefits to not using your real name.”
“Cool. I was thinking something epic sounding like ‘Lady Phantasmo’ or something.” She winced, and then muttered “Or not.”
Steve glanced over, had Daniel just jabbed her or had it been something else? Carefully he looked around, maybe there was some credibility to the whole imaginary friend theory. He couldn’t see any signs of someone invisible inside the car, not that there was any space for them unless they could pass through solid matter. Slowly he glanced up towards the roof of the car. Was some sort of murderous ghost perched up there, riding them back to the office? That thought was almost as pleasant as the conversation he was going to have with Kat later on, regarding his massive overreaction earlier.
Blaithe was waiting for them in the parking garage.
“Good evening, my name is Blaithe Baggwell.” They did introductions and shook hands. Kat walked away and pulled off her mask as she was headed up the stairs. Lucky lingered near Andree, eying her up in a very unsubtle fashion whenever he thought Daniel wasn’t looking at him.
“I should probably go after her, are you guys okay here?”
“Yes, I do believe we can handle it from here.” Blaithe gave him a look indicating that he knew exactly what this was about.