David hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that the “situation” was nearby. It was literally just a couple of blocks down the road, not even a mile away.
None of us had the armor—or clothing, or costumes, or whatever the hell I was supposed to call it—that we would end up using. For the moment, we were faking it with what we had on hand. Derek was wearing his riot gear, with the transparent shield pulled down over his face. Elyssa and Tony had black balaclavas pulled down over their faces. Tawny went with a more basic approach, but it worked surprisingly well; with her hair down, some heavy makeup, and a pair of sunglasses, she was almost unrecognizable.
David and I, naturally, didn’t have any trouble with it. I wasn’t wearing my usual helmet—the snarling wolf’s mask was simply too recognizable when I was trying to keep people from realizing who I was—but I’d brought another helmet from home. It was fairly simple, not much more than a metal bucket with eyeholes, but it covered my face. David, on the other hand, had his full kit on hand. The clothing looked something like a wingsuit, with an intricate, vaguely feathery pattern in blues and greys. The mask, similarly, was vaguely suggestive of a bird, feathery patterns and a beak.
I found it amusing that the people who least needed to care about concealing their identities were the most capable of doing so. I didn’t want people to connect “Jonathan Keyes” to Winter Wolf, but that was more a matter of convenience than anything. If someone did draw the connection, it wasn’t like it was a serious problem. I didn’t exactly have much of a civilian life for them to target me through. I mean, if somebody was dumb enough to kidnap Aiko, they deserved what happened to them.
Similarly, while I didn’t know much about David, I was guessing he didn’t care that much about it. He was a Guard back when that actually meant something, and you didn’t get to that kind of position without being fairly invested in that life.
Once we were as ready as we were likely to get, and we’d gotten through some mild hysterics on the part of the newbies, we packed into the back of a van and started in the direction of the situation. It seemed a little like overkill to me—there wasn’t a whole lot of need to get a van to go a couple of blocks—but I supposed that it could be excused. I was working with humans again, after all, and while none of them was markedly out of shape, they weren’t exactly star athletes either.
As I understood it, the situation was fairly simple. Three gunmen had burst into a local grocery store, ranting and raving incoherently. Most of the people had managed to get away, but they’d taken one of the shoppers hostage, and they were threatening to kill her if their demands weren’t met. Precisely what those demands were was less than clear, but effective communication skills weren’t something you really expected from lunatics that launched armed assaults on grocery stores. Apparently the police weren’t going to be able to get there for several minutes, and even once they showed up there was no guarantee that they could do anything useful. Thus, it fell to us to deal with things.
I had my doubts about the whole thing, but I didn’t voice them. It wasn’t important right now.
Instead, as David drove towards the scene, I pulled my phone out and sent a text message to Selene. Hostage situation downtown. Establish perimeter at 400 ft, remain hidden, do not engage.
The reply was almost immediate. Confirmed. Kyi is en route with enough people to set up the perimeter. You are dealing with it?
Yes, with reservations. Not expecting trouble, but have them ready to step in if needed.
“What are you doing?” Tawny asked, leaning in to look.
“Not really your business, is it?” I asked, turning off the phone.
“We’re here anyway,” David said, before things could escalate any further. “Everybody remembers the plan?”
There was a chorus of affirmatives as I got out of the van. I didn’t bother saying anything; he knew that I remembered what to do, and I knew he knew it. There wasn’t much point in talking about it.
I was on point going in, for obvious reasons. Even without my armor, I was an order of magnitude tougher than anyone present with the possible exception of David. If anyone was going to walk around the corner and run right into the enemy, there was no question that it should be me.
I felt an odd thrill as I opened the front door of the occupied building. It had been ages since I deliberately went into a fight without my armor; the notion of actually being threatened by punks with guns was one that I had become unaccustomed to. Not that I was unprotected—the clothing I was wearing was still moderately reinforced—but I felt almost naked. It was an odd experience, especially with a bunch of virtual strangers at my back.
The supermarket wasn’t one that I could remember having been in before, but it was fairly typical of the breed. About half the lights were out, casting many of the aisles into shadow. It was almost completely silent, an echoing, cavernous sort of silence. It was eerie, the way silence in a place that should have been bustling with activity almost always was. The only break in the silence was a quiet, intermittent conversation from the back of the store.
“This is crazy,” Tony said in a whisper. Quieter than he needed to be, really, but I could understand it. The silence in here seemed to demand a matching hush from us, and I was certain he was feeling nervous, terrified of being discovered. “We just finished sparring. We’re already tired.”
“Get used to it,” I said calmly, scanning the store for any hint of motion. “People aren’t usually nice enough to let you rest before they try to kill you.” I didn’t see anything moving, no hint of someone watching, so I started forward towards one of the darker aisles. “Sounds like they’re in the back,” I said.
“Yep,” David agreed quietly. “Shrike, you’re in the lead. The rest of you stay behind him, watch for anything he doesn’t seem to be noticing. I’ll be above you.” He leapt off the ground without waiting for a response, easily landing on one of the shelves and balancing there.
I almost whistled in appreciation. No wonder he was wearing a wingsuit if he could jump like that. Hell, odds were good he could actually fly.
I felt a spike of jealousy at that, but dismissed it easily enough. I couldn’t fly, but I was close enough. And besides, there was work to do.
Creeping down the aisle, I could clearly feel it when Elyssa started working on me. It was easy to feel, but hard to define or explain. It was like the feeling I’d had sometimes, where I was so focused on some stimulus that the rest of the world seemed to disappear. Except that right now I was focused on everything to that degree. Everything, from keeping track of where the shadows were that I could hide in all the way down to the slightly too-tight fit of my left boot, was in almost painfully clear focus. It should have been distracting, trying to keep track of that many things in that degree of detail, but it wasn’t. That was the whole point of her magic, after all.
We weren’t silent. Not even close. I was pretty damn quiet, and David was utterly silent overhead. Even Elyssa was impressively quiet, probably because her mind was augmented even beyond what she was doing for me. The other three, though…well, after a minute or so I gave up on wincing when they made noise, because it was happening too frequently to keep up with.
I made it to the end of the aisle and crouched there, wrapping myself in a web of air and shadow. It would make me nearly invisible so long as I stayed in the shadows, and muffle any noise I made as well.
It was surprisingly challenging to maintain my shroud without the cloak. I’d gotten spoiled, having my toys all the time. In a way, it was probably good for me to do without. Which didn’t mean that I didn’t resent it.
At this point, the plan called for me to sneak in and get the hostage out, since I was actually the most sneaky of the group. Again, it wasn’t something I’d had much need to do in recent years. Most of my work had been blatant and highly visible for a long time now, and when I did need something done stealthily I’d mostly sent Kyi to take care of it.
I hadn’t completely lost my touch, though, and it turned out that being hyperaware of everything around me was a pretty considerable help when it came to moving quietly. I managed to slip up to the meat department, where it seemed like the conversation had been coming from, without screwing anything up.
Behind the counter, I eased through the door into the area where the butchers worked. It smelled like blood and fresh meat, reminding me with an uncomfortable intensity that I hadn’t eaten since before the sparring session started. I tried to put it out of my mind, but now my heightened awareness worked against me, making it pretty freaking hard to ignore. It was distracting, and distracted was a very bad state of mind to be in for something like this.
In the end, I picked up a shrinkwrapped package of steak that had been knocked to the floor, tore it open, and stuffed a chunk into my mouth. It felt embarrassingly unprofessional, and it was actually pretty freaking worrying that I needed to stop for some raw meat in the middle of sneaking up on the enemy, but it was better than being unable to function as well as I was supposed to because I was distracted by hunger.
The conversation was coming from the left, but now that I was closer I could also hear noise from the right, a sort of muffled banging and shouting. I went for that one, since conversation was much more likely to be the attackers.
The butcher shop was a cramped, brightly-lit maze of counters and boxes, with lots of sharp bits of metal gleaming in the fluorescent lights. I crouched low, making sure that I wasn’t visible above the counters.
I managed to track the muffled noise down to a supply closet on the edge of the room. It wasn’t hard to figure out where I was going; they’d thrown the contents carelessly out on the floor, various cleaning supplies pooling on the vinyl flooring. It smelled harsh, ammonia and rubbing alcohol blending together into a noxious mix that almost overpowered the scent of blood.
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to know how to open locks. I hadn’t actually asked about it, but given that we were supposed to be some kind of force of law and order, it didn’t take a genius that picking locks was a skill I probably shouldn’t advertise.
But nobody was watching right now, so I went ahead and twisted the lock open with a bit of hardened air and a slight effort of will. I’d gotten pretty quick at that trick over the years.
I pulled the door open, and as expected I found the hostage inside the closet, tied to a chair and gagged with what looked like a couple of socks. She was young, maybe twenty, and reasonably attractive. She looked like she’d been crying, her makeup smeared, and her expression when I opened the door was one of near-terror.
I started to move forward, planning to untie her, then hesitated. There was something odd about this.
After a second, I realized what it was. She didn’t smell afraid. I mean, I couldn’t actually smell emotions, but people who were terrified that they were about to die tended to have certain physical reactions. They sweated, and more often than they wanted to admit they pissed themselves or threw up. She didn’t smell like any of those things.
I might not have noticed it if I hadn’t already been suspicious, or if I hadn’t had some lingering degree of magical assistance—my awareness had started going back to normal once I put some physical distance between myself and Elyssa, but it wasn’t an instant process.
Once I caught on to that, though, I noticed some other small details. She was tied up with rope, but she didn’t have any rope burns, no abrasions. If someone was really tied up and struggling, they usually rubbed their skin raw and bleeding trying to get loose; she hadn’t. Similarly, the gag wasn’t pulled nearly as tight as it would have to be to really be effective. She hadn’t struggled with it, trying to get loose so she could really scream.
I paused, then it clicked into place with the suspicions I’d already had. I almost laughed, but managed to restrain myself. This wasn’t about me, not really, and it would have been the height of rudeness to ruin it for everyone else.
I was grinning as I cut the ropes off her wrists and ankles, but it shouldn’t matter; nobody could see my face anyway. The placement of the ropes was, once I thought about it, another tipoff. She could have unlocked the door, maybe even managed to untie herself from the chair completely if she were flexible and motivated enough. The fact that she hadn’t even tried was rather telling.
“We’re going to get you out of here,” I said quietly, playing along. “But I need you to be quiet. Can you do that for me?”
She nodded frantically, eyes wide and teary, flexing her hands and rubbing her wrists where they’d been tied. I untied the gag and pulled it off, and while she worked her jaw, she didn’t actually say anything.
“Okay,” I said. “Follow me, and stay quiet.” I opened the door and started out without waiting for a response.
The emergency exit was closest, but it wasn’t a good idea. The power hadn’t been cut, so the alarm was probably still active, and triggering the alarm would kind of negate the purpose of sneaking in in the first place. Furthermore, now that I was getting a better idea of what was going on, I thought I knew what was expected of me. I was supposed to go back the same way I’d come in, leading the girl past the waiting Guards. I could play the role I was assigned.
She followed me almost exactly, even crouching down in the same way I was. She was shaking, breathing hard, and crying silently. It wasn’t the smoothest exit I’d ever seen, but in a way that was probably a good thing. Her obvious emotional reaction would make my casual stoicism stand out, giving it more impact.
As expected, nobody challenged us on the way out. Outside, I hurried her into the aisle, well away from the gunmen, then sat her down and told her to wait. She nodded, still crying a little. She clutched at my hand a little when I went to leave, but I tugged free and went back without waiting. I did snag a can of beans off the shelf on the way, though.
Unsurprisingly, the others had noticed me leaving, and they’d already left their own positions and started for the meat department. I fell in with them and quietly said, “Turn left inside. Didn’t see them, but I could hear them talking over there.”
“Got it,” David said back, just as quietly. “Let’s do this.”
Inside, we turned left and made straight for the sounds of conversation. It cut off as soon as we were inside—there were reasons I’d come in alone when I wanted to be sneaky, after all.
There were three of them, as we’d heard, two with pistols and one carrying a shotgun. They were standing around in a stockroom arguing about something, but when they heard us they came out into the main area of the butcher shop, looking around. They weren’t as good as she was; there was a stiffness to their movements, a hesitation, that gave the game right away.
Not that it probably mattered. The rest of these people did not give the impression of being comfortable with people pointing guns at them. They were probably so freaked out that they wouldn’t have noticed if the gunmen were wearing frilly tutus.
It took them a second to really key on us, probably because of Elyssa. I didn’t think she could screw with somebody’s head enough to really make us invisible, but she could slow their reaction down a little, buying us that crucial second to act.
Once again, I was the first to respond, the quickest trigger finger. I chucked the can I was holding at the guy with the shotgun. I threw it hard, and I put a tailwind behind it, propelling it a little faster and keeping it on track.
Left to my own devices, I’d have thrown it at his head. But I’d killed people like that before, and I hadn’t forgotten that killing was Not Allowed. So this time I aimed at his abdomen instead, just in case I was wrong. It would hurt like a son of a bitch if it hit him, and it might still rupture things inside him, but he’d live long enough to get to the hospital, and they could probably fix him there.
As expected, though, he didn’t really have to worry about it. The can swerved ever so slightly off course as it flew, and smashed into the wall next to him. I glanced at David, and while I couldn’t see his face, his posture was a little stiff, and he was looking in that direction a little bit too intently. Enough confirmation for me.
Tony was only a little slower on the draw than I was, hurling a stream of fire at the shotgun-wielder. It hit, and singed him, but there wasn’t enough power behind it to really burn. A second or so later, Tawny poured out another packet of salt around herself—not actually reaching for anything yet, but getting ready to.
The gunmen ran, bolting for the emergency exit I’d noticed earlier. Tony and Derek both started to follow, but I caught Tony at about the same time David grabbed Derek’s sleeve. “Let them go,” I said. “The hostage is still here. Getting her to safety is the priority here.”
“Yeah,” David said. “The police can take it from here.”
Tony didn’t seem too thrilled, but he didn’t argue.
I didn’t miss that David gave me an almost appraising look on the way out.
Afterwards, we had a celebration of sorts at the base, in the living quarters. There was music involved, and alcohol, although I was reasonably confident that at least a couple of the younger Guards weren’t legally allowed to drink. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t care that much.
Instead, I found an opportunity to talk to David alone. The senior Guard was back in his civvies, standing on the periphery and sipping the same beer he’d been sipping for the past hour.
“So where’d you find the girl?” I asked, quietly enough to be masked by the pounding of the beat. It wasn’t hard. They were blasting the music loud enough to get noise complaints if we’d been in a residential neighborhood.
He glanced at me. “Excuse me?”
“The girl,” I said again. “She’s fantastic. Is she local, or did you bring in your own talent from out of town?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “And she’s local. Works with a theatre troupe out of Denver.”
“Damn,” I said. “I need to go to the theatre more, apparently. She was excellent. Easily one of the best actors I’ve ever seen.”
“What gave it away, then?”
I shrugged. “Critical thinking, mostly. I mean, come on. You just happened to get a call, right as we were wrapping up the sparring, for something that just happened to be right down the street? And wasn’t a real threat to us, but could maybe feel like one if you didn’t know better?” I snorted. “You aren’t that lucky. Then the actual scene wasn’t quite real enough. She’s a great actor, but it was still just an act. Then there was the way all of the gunmen just happened to run, thus ensuring nobody was in real danger and everybody got away clean. They were your guys, I’m guessing?”
“Mercenaries who work with the Guards sometimes,” he confirmed. “We could have hired actors for that too, but I don’t like trusting civilians with weapons.”
“Fair point,” I said. “It was a good game, by the way. Very nicely arranged.”
“We do something similar for all our new recruits who don’t have combat experience,” he said. “You have to ease people into it, you know?”
I nodded. “I get the idea, yeah. It’s not how I do things, but I’m a bit of an asshole. And I mostly only work with people who already have at least some grounding, so I guess there are different needs there.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Although even most of the people who already have some experience don’t catch on that it’s a sham. You’re a bit paranoid, aren’t you?”
I snorted. “More than just a bit.” I paused and pulled my phone out as I got another text message. I read it over, then sighed. “I have to go,” I said
“Let me put it this way,” I said dryly. “When I get urgent messages, it actually is a crisis. Right now, for example, some of your people are apparently down at my place trying to kill me, and my associates are having a hard time dealing with it on their own.”
He sighed. “All right,” he said. “Let me get my stuff, and I’ll come with you.”
I paused. “Why?”
“You’re one of us now,” he said. “At least a little bit. That means something for me. If you’re having trouble with ‘my people,’ I can at least make an effort to help you out with it.”
“Why am I having a hard time believing your motives are really that pure of heart?”
He snorted. “Because you’re more than just a bit paranoid, maybe?”
I had to laugh at that. “You might have a point,” I said. “All right, I’ll wait a minute for you. My ride will be here around then anyway.”