The morning saw Steve explaining to Mary and Ernal that he would no longer be able to work for them. The old woman hugged him with tears in her eyes and offered sage advice that didn’t really apply to his new career. What would she have said if she knew exactly the kind of work he would be doing?
His next errand was to pack up his apartment and arrange a moving service to bring some of it to the office. The rest would be taken to a donation centre. That was all done by noon, so he grabbed a bag and headed over to the office early.
Blaithe’s phone was busy, but thankfully Yew heard the buzzer and opened the door. The man was puzzled to see him so early, but was grateful for a hand completing the renovations. At three thirty Steve took his bag up to the third floor to select a room. All five were the same size rectangles, three on the northern side of the building and two on the southern side with the showers. After taking a look into them all Steve left his bag in the northwest room. It was also closest to the fire escape. He put his hand on the scanner beside the door but it just beeped at him and wouldn’t lock.
Four o’clock rolled around at the same time Blaithe did. Oak was driving his car again. Everyone went up to the meeting room on the second floor. A projector was produced, displaying images of the target and important information about the area. Folding chairs were passed around. Blaithe was a thorough man, and Yew and Oak were both clearly experienced as well. They asked sensible questions and examined the situation from multiple angles. Ghoul could easily flee as easily as he could fight. While he was not an exceptionally deadly combatant he was almost impossible to contain. How do you threaten a guy who you probably can’t inflict pain on, and who seems to have no real regard for the societal norm? How do you defend a person who is effectively immortal?
“So, I suppose I’m going to have to ask it since we’re working together. What are your guy’s skills? Any special talents, superpowers?” Steve asked.
“Good idea, why don’t you start.”
“Well, only physical stuff for me. A little extra strength, a little extra speed, some durability. It’s a good thing I’m so good looking because that’s really all I’ve got going for me. Some hand to hand experience, you’ve all probably heard about my career in the pits. Some experience with weaponry and gear I’ve learned from some soldiers I used to work with.”
Oak was next, “Fifteen years in the infantry, then another ten as a mechanic. I can drive anything with wheels, fix most of them too.”
“You have a power?” Steve asked.
“He makes the best barbecue chicken I’ve ever tasted.” Blaithe interjected. “Believe it or not, I used to be a security guard. A few years ago.”
“A few years? Hah, and this happened how many years before we were born?.” Yew laughed
“Don’t make me give you a time out, boy. Anyways, I’ve got about thirty years martial arts experience, fifteen years contracting with the Forest. Been to almost everywhere worth going, and done almost everything worth doing.”
“Some of us haven’t been around forever. Had some family connections so I joined Forest right out of highschool. Six years with them so far. Learned the whole package.” Yew shrugged and leaned back in his chair.
Steve didn’t fail to notice how they’d deflected his question about powers. Now probably was not the best time to push the issue, especially if it would just stir up shit right before a job.
Aside from all that, the main hurdle would be the circumstances of when and where they would find Ghoul. Blaithe’s sources were vague about most of the details, but apparently they could be accurate down to the second about when Ghoul could be intercepted.
“This is where it could get messy. At 18:35:04 Ghoul will cross under the Flynn street overpass. That is our best opportunity, we will have a thirty second window of opportunity to extract him. He must be removed from whatever vehicle he is in and transferred into one of ours. Almost guaranteed to be trackers. Escorts and armament are unknown, other than what will fit into a cargo van. The same as the one that Oak will be driving. I want you with him, Steve. Yew and myself will be taking the car. Mahogany has already been briefed, he will be in position on the overpass and ready to disable the vehicle.
“Disable how?” Steve asked.
“My information is that we cannot inflict too much damage without spoiling our chances of recruiting Ghoul. As such, our only real option is to stop the van in a nondestructive manner. Mahogany has opted for an unorthodox method which he believes will be sufficient to stop the vehicle. As the target passes under the overpass it will be snared. Oak will be ahead of the target, letting it come to him, Yew and myself will close in from behind to cut off any retreat.”
Steve wasn’t entirely sure how a moving vehicle could be ‘snared’, but now he wanted to see what they had in mind.
After a short break the group reconvened in the armoury, where they were each given uniforms and handheld tasers.
The uniforms were black and grey and came with thin black masks that covered everything except the eyes and mouth. Watches were double checked and synchronized.
The drive was filled with the old familiar tension. Oak talked almost nonstop as he drove. Grand tales of the glory of his younger years when working as a contractor was fresh and new. Back when putting on a mask was daring and the rules of the game were still being decided. Back when the world was still reeling from the discovery of superpowers.
The fake leather upholstery creaked as Steve gripped the seat. He breathed in the smell of stale sweat and old tobacco and thought about how many other people had sat on this seat and prepared for battle. How many of them had come back?
Shaking off the negative train of thought Steve rehearsed the plan in his mind. He imagined the screech of tires as Oak slammed on the brakes. Out the side door. Taser at the ready, approach the target. Open the door, grab the kid, drag him back to the van. Probably wouldn’t be that easy, but it would be nice for a change. With the way the world works there’d probably be a horde of Vikings in with the kid.
“We’re here.” Oak began gently slowing. Up ahead the overpass could be seen. Very few vehicles were on the road. Coincidence, or something else? Steve climbed back to look out the rear window. His watch showed 18:33:38. Once again he surveyed the vehicles nearby, blue minivan, black pickup, white sedan. None of the vehicles he could see behind him matched their intelligence. He looked in all directions for vehicles approaching from odd places. Was this bad intelligence?
18:35:01 they passed under the overpass, and no sign of a white van transporting Ghoul.
“See anything?” He asked Oak.
Before the old man could answer a body fell from above and smashed through the windshield. Glass splattered in all directions and all three men screamed. Oak and the new occupant flailed wildly, sending the van careening across the road. Steve scrambled forwards, but a sudden swerve sent him face first into the side window. Pain exploded in his nose. With one hand he grabbed the newcomer’s leg and hauled him into the back of the van. With the other hand he stabbed his taser into the man’s neck. A moment of uncontrollable seizing passed before the man slapped the taser away. Terrified blue stared at Steve, chunks of glass and a smear of blood sprinkled through blonde hair.
“Ghoul?” This is ridiculous, an informant can tell the exact second when Ghoul would be in this spot, but misses the fact that he’d come through the windshield.
“Who are you! What do you want!” The boy screamed and tried to crawl away.
“We’re here to rescue you from…why did you jump off the overpass?”
“Giant guy threw me. Pulled me right out of the car. Some other guys with masks were kidnapping me. Are you with them?”
“No.” I hope not, Steve thought. He pulled off the mask, wincing as it rubbed against his nose. “Are you okay? Hurt?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“That’s great, now one of you take the damned wheel before I bleed to death!” Oak yelled. Cuts covered his face and hands, bleeding liberally.
Switching seats in a moving vehicle is a tricky proposition, if there had been more traffic the van would have crashed into something as they swerved back and forth. Thankfully Steve got into the driver’s seat without dying in the process. Oak retreated to the passenger’s seat to bandage his wounds.
“Where are you taking me?” Ghoul asked.
“Our office. The boss wants to meet you, he has some information for you. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later they were pulling into the garage under the office. Blaithe and Yew had caught up to them and were directly behind.
Oak slid out of the van and Yew helped him over to the first aid kit.
“Thank you, Steve, I’ll take it from here. Ghoul and I have much to talk about.” The two of them disappeared up the stairs leaving Steve alone with the two contractors.
He waited a moment before turning to the two.
“What the fuck was that? Did you guys know that was going to happen?”
“Do I look like I knew it was going to happen? You think I get myself cut up for fun?” Oak snapped.
“Blaithe didn’t mention anything about it.” Yew added as he used tweezers to pick glass out of Oak’s face.
“Shit. I’m sorry.” Steve rubbed his nose carefully, it was on the way to healing but still hurt.
“Driver’s supposed to be the safe one…” Oak muttered, and winced. Yew tried to keep him still but the old man shook him off. “Let me see what happened to my van.” The windshield was smashed, the hood was dented, one of the wipers was sticking straight up. Glass littered the interior and blood splattered on the seat and dash. Oak moaned and closed his eyes, sounding as pained by the sight as by his cuts.
“Where did Blaithe get that intel anyways?” Steve asked.
“Looking Glass and Timekeeper. At least that’s what he said.”
The two had been operating together for many years now. Separately they weren’t very major, Looking Glass could send his consciousness through space, to see and hear things without physically being there. Timekeeper had some ability to warp time around him to a minor degree to change how time behaved. When the two worked together they synergized to create a potent effect, looking through time. However the more time they distorted the more vague things got, certain details could be missed. After a while it was less seeing the future than it was making an educated guess. Nevertheless they charged a premium for their services. In a feat of amazing customer service, they could even predict when a client would contact them, and sometimes even pre-empt the occurrence by contacting the client first. That raised an interesting paradox, since they were viewing an event that only happened because they knew it would happen.
“Makes sense. They aren’t perfect. Have you heard from Mahogany? I’m interested to learn how he knew to throw Ghoul from the overpass at that exact time?”
“I…don’t think he knew. More likely Looking Glass was able to see how Mahogany would react if in the right place at the right time.” Yew looked decidedly uncomfortable with the subject.
“What about during the briefing? You guys dodged the issue of powers, why?”
“Nothing to talk about. Don’t have any.” Yew shrugged.
“Oh.” Now Steve just felt like an asshole for pressing the issue.
“It’s okay. After all it wouldn’t be fair if we were this good looking and had powers on top of that.”
“Right. Well I’m going to go take a shower.” Steve shook his head and trudged up the stairs. He was going to need to talk to Blaithe.
Steam from the shower almost entirely obscured his reflection in the mirror. His nose was a rainbow of pain, red and yellow deepening to purple and blue bruising. He stared at it for a minute, thinking that he wasn’t really in any position to be angry at Blaithe for hiding information. He stuck a bandaid on it and got dressed. Time to go see if the kid was sticking around.
When he got down to the main floor Blaithe was at the stove, frying ground beef. Yew at at the counter chopping a tomato. Oak was on the couch with a bottle of beer pressed to his face. Ghoul was nowhere to be seen.
Blaithe glanced over, “Making tacos, you want one?”
“Sure. How’d it go with the kid?”
“About as well as could be expected. No matter what you tell yourself, hearing it from someone else never hurts any less.”
“So he’s gone?”
“Up in his room. He decided to stay for the time being.”
“This was the easy part.”
“That’s usually how it goes. Is he coming down to eat?”
“I was thinking you could bring a taco up to him. Give you a chance to get to know each other.”
“Ok. Oh, I just remembered, are the handscanners working?”
“Yes, we can get you set up on them after dinner.”
Steve carried two plates of tacos up the stairs. He found Ghoul in the southwest room. The room was still unfinished, raw drywall and bare of furnature.The kid was sitting in the corner looking at a small picture from his wallet.
“Knock knock. Room service.”
“I wanted to introduce myself, properly this time, I’m Steve.”
“Lucky. Or at least that’s what she called me.”
Steve set the plates down and then took a seat. “Who’s that?”
“My mom. Well, not my real mom. But she raised me, you know? At least she used to.”
“Yeah. Is she…?”
“Dead. She got shot by the guys who took me.” He didn’t sound very upset about it.
“Shit. I’m sorry.” This kid was all kinds of messed up.
“It’s okay. I’m used to it. It’s what I do, adapt. Not the first time it’s happened anyways.”
“You mean the Chinese family? I heard you learned to speak Chinese in like three days.”
“Sixteen hours. Took me forty one hours to learn English.”
“That’s pretty impressive.”
“Was impressive, can’t do it anymore. Seem to have outgrown it.”
“Huh. So what did Blaithe tell you about the group here?”
“Chosen ones, save the world.”
“Did you see the other rooms? The one beside mine has a bed at least.”
“I saw it.” He glanced around the room. Walls not painted, dust from the drywall sprinkled on the floor. “This is all I need.”
“Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“Find the people who shot my mom.”