It was the longest walk he’d had down five flights of stairs.
‘Hop in the car,’ she told him. So he did. The smack of the door shut the world off to him while she stood outside, merrily shoving crap in her trunk, oblivious to everything headed her way.
“We are the worst people.”
He would’ve liked some silence to let it sink in. Instead he had Xander.
You countin’ Adolf? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure that guy was vegetarian.
“We’re leaving her to die.” Before the psycho got too giddy, Alex tacked on a flat, “Not literally.” But yes, literally, if they caught her. They would. The Agents were already this far. “Your suit said it was hunting a painter. This girl is one.” The dots weren’t hard to connect. It fit Xander’s theory, too: Agents didn’t breathe so much life into cover stories. She cared about her pictures. Someone lying couldn’t fake that. “I can’t help her, even if she is innocent. They sent sixty guys.”
Could whittle it to forty.
Alex shook his head.
“It’s not a physical ‘can’t’. We’re not getting involved.”
He ordered, riding shotgun.
“Just stay out of it,” he said. “Do what you’re here to do. If shit hits a fan, we’re gone and she’s on her own.”
Beth. The girl’s name was Beth. He rubbed a hand across his face, trying to stay awake long enough to remember. So maybe coffee wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t make going outside any less suicidal. The sidewalks looked empty, but only as far as he could tell, and not two seconds later came a thud that shot off behind him.
He nearly broke his neck whipping around to see. It sounded like something had hurled through the trunk, but the lid was still propped. Alex saw her puttering over it from the side-view mirror. False alarm.
Cut her brakes, crack her ankle. Gotcha.
“No, don’t –” Again, he rubbed his face. The little adrenaline spikes always left him worse off. “Don’t let it seem like we’re here to save her. That’s all. Throw her a few tips, point her in the right direction, but you already risked my life for someone once.” Peter. “Next time, it might be us smashed with a rock.”
As is, of course, the natural rock smashing cycle. Another thud. He caught a glimpse of the trunk bouncing back up. So it had been slammed. What was going on out there? I’m surprised you’re not swinging the other way on this. The chick has two separate teams allegedly juggling her case. It’s no nine year manhunt, but her powers aren’t active. That doesn’t interest you?
You fuckin’ suck, Alex.
“Stay out of it, I said.” He hadn’t noticed he’d switched to chewing his fingers until he bit too hard on the skin. So much for kicking his habit. “Take the hint from the Agents. They’re not recruiting her, just running her down.” Screw it. He kept chewing. “They think she’s dangerous.”
They think you’re dangerous.
“I have a voice in my brain telling me to kill people, who then gets bored and kills them for me anyway – a lot. Yes, I’m dangerous.” Third thud. Seriously. “They probably know something’s wrong about her, too.”
“I don’t know! But for starters, she lied about having a dog, because that’s the cleanest smelling apartment I’ve ever been to. And she lied about her ‘noisy showers’.” The look of panic when he asked if she heard the suit tipped him off. That bastard screamed the whole way down. Unless she’d had something blasting in her room since sunrise, the girl would’ve caught it. “I can’t tell what her game is, but if it’s worth two teams, she has to be incredibly…” More Xander-like than Xander. Alex shifted uncomfortably. “Maybe she can wipe out cities and they want to get to her before she holds one hostage.”
She is an artist. They’re usually a pack’f dicks that way. He said it like a fact. It is fact. You know who else painted? Hitler. Total crate of cocks. Also only had one nut, so his wurst-to-spatzle ratio skewed way towards pork.
“Well, that’s nice for Hitler.”
You think? The dude was literally mostly penis. Other than fucking with France through occupations and bike tours, what’s a uniball ever notably accomplished? Xander sighed. All that wasted potential. It’s like naming your kid ‘Roland’ – once you’re saddled with certain woeful marks, your life can only be a tale of douchebaggery.
Alex frowned at himself. His reflection didn’t look impressed.
Not really. You kinda got me all worked up about a Fourth Reich. Ask her how she feels about trout.
He tuned out. There’d been movement outside. The trunk had shut and the girl headed back. Alex snapped to sit less like he’d crawled inside to shank her, relieved that Nazi Bingo hadn’t distracted him enough to miss his cue. For her part, she didn’t look like she noticed. She just opened her door, sat, chucked a jacket at the back seat and flashed him a sheepish smile.
“Sorry. I know that took a while,” she said. “Usually I pile my art where you’re sitting, so it only hit me now how undersized my car is.”
Translation: I may’ve lied about the dog, but I’ve got – like, fifty sad cats at home.
Shut up, Xander.
You laughed. I heard it.
Which was why he had to shut up. Alex forced himself to ignore the bastard. He questioned her instead.
“Did it fit?”
“Ahhhh… I’m going to go with ‘eventually’?” She shrugged. “They’re in one piece and that’s what counts. The rest, I can describe as ‘flair’.”
“You can just do that?”
“Mm-hmm. The jerk buying ‘Pink Beauty’ doesn’t have a choice. As long as it seems like my real work, I can do anything.” The girl jingled her keys into the ignition. This was an old car, but she seemed to be jabbing harder than she had to. She only eased off when it finally speared in. “There we go.” Then she looked at him. “How much time do you have today?”
His rash burned.
“I was thinking outside about my schedule and wanted to run a plan by you.” Oh. “I know the idea was Pequods and that’s why I’m simply spit-balling, but there’s this little café beside the gallery – a gorgeous one – with hundreds of exotic, fair trade beans. It’s called ‘Roasters’.” The girl beamed. “The other artists go every week, and there are a dozen blogs screaming about how good it is: quiet, fantastic service…”
She stopped like it was just those two things.
Alex cleared his throat.
“You want to go there now?”
“After. And I’m spit-balling – spit-balling! It’s nothing against you – ah, Pequods,” the girl replied, “but – and bear with me – but… maybe we could try somewhere more local. Someplace I already know and… where I already know people if I need them – and who can totally make recommendations for you. Maybe… we could try Roasters.”
Something flashed in her eyes. Alex wasn’t sure on how to interpret it.
She lost me at ‘fair trade’. And, y’know, by not being Pequods.
The chill down his spine gave him other doubts. That suit said ‘latent abilities’ made the extra forces worth it. So, what? Activated, she destroyed cities, but from reflex, she smashed a couple blocks? He might survive, and he’d have a night of peace within his head if he followed his instinct to do the thing Xander had raged about for eight days. Blowing that kind of vacation to go somewhere the suit said was probably crawling with Agents, just to keep her happy on the off chance she might be a threat… It was a hard sell.
Still. Two teams. For a girl who drew magic ponies. Who wore overalls. Who had freckles. Whose wide-mouthed grin crinkled under a ridged nose.
She looked about as harmless as he did.
The relief on her face was instant. She – Beth – lit up and breathed, “Really?”
You’re kidding right now. You have to be.
“Roasters could be better.” Shit. He’d tried phrasing that as something to answer the girl and Xander, but the spike of fury at his neck said he missed the mark on one of them. Alex kept trying, really weighting it towards his imaginary friend. “I know so little about you, Beth. I’d really hate to bring you somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable.”
And then be trapped as she killed him and everybody else around.
“That’s specific,” she uttered, “but… okay! I’m happy.” The car’s engine caught and shuddered to life. “After I’m done at the gallery, we can run over there and come back. I’ll give you a peek at the exhibits.”
She kept sitting there and talking, but Alex didn’t hear. His ears were tuned to a different conversation.
You taint spice. That one was new. An hour ago, you were pissing yourself over whether the bitch was an Agent. Now you clear her on that and decide she’s a warhead? He felt his hand lock to his right knee. His nails dug into the meat. Get. Me. My. Latté. Not from fucking ‘Roasters’. Like Xander’d stuck a set of fangs in there. As I’ve emphatically requested, do it.
“– and sorry about the seatbelt on your side,” Beth finished.
“Mm-hmm.” She clicked hers together. “Remember to duck if a cop drives by.”
The car yanked from the curb, adding a full-body rub to each of the potholes it rammed its busted shocks across. Beth took them through a street off to the side of Friday’s early gridlock. The drive itself only took five minutes, but he counted them through rising shots of pain. They lurched into a parking lot sprawled at the foot of a gray manor. Except for a white coupe she pulled beside, he didn’t see any cars. Then again, the feeling of his leg as it tore apart might’ve been affecting his damn concentration.
“This is the gallery?”
“Uh-huh. It’s nice, isn’t it? You should come by at night,” she said.
He felt like he already had in his nightmares. The house almost resembled a church, what with the steeple over the entrance, but nothing gave him the sense that any less than eight people died here and got stuffed inside the walls.
His point exactly.
Its windows were covered by black roof-to-floor curtains. A yellowed clock stroked the wrong hour from its place above the peeling doors. Latched to them was a brown web of vines sagging under their own, moist weight. Worst was the heads hacked from a grinning, cold brick. Their dead eyes watched him through the windshield, following along as he moved.
“What do you think?”
You have ten minutes to put a latté in my hand ‘fore I rip one of those down and shove it up your ass.
“Love you, too,” Alex muttered.
“What was that?”
“My leg,” he explained, louder. Sure, Xander was gnawing at his limb and damn near scraping bone with his own thumb, but she didn’t know that. She wasn’t going to because he more evenly replied, “It’s cramping.” Slow and smooth. “I’m going to need a second, so… why don’t you go ahead…?”
With how hard he trailed off, a corpse would get the hint: get out. To her credit, she mumbled a ready, “Sure.” It didn’t sound sure, but whatever. It worked. “I’ll start unloading the canvasses.” She immediately did the opposite and stayed where she was. “Does your leg cramp a lot? Are you alright?”
“Fine.” He forced a smile. “I can handle a cramp. It’s the pain in my ass I get every hour that’s tough. Ha.” Based on how her eyebrows twitched – down – he guessed that didn’t sound as friendly as he’d had it in his mind. But if Xander said the same thing… “Yes. I’m alright. I do need a second, though.”
This time, she gave a long “Oookay” but hopped onto the asphalt. Alex waited until she’d gone to the trunk and flipped it back up. As soon as she had, he whipped his head to the mirror, ready to snarl at the glass.
Xander beat him to it.
You’ll kick her out’f her own car, but you can’t manage a simple, ‘Hey, let’s leave Roasters for the next adventure and go to Pequods the fuck today like we agreed’? Unbelievably, his grip tightened. Eight days.
“Keep this up, and it’ll be nine.” Alex scratched at his wrist, fuming, trying to peel the hand away. Xander didn’t budge. “I’m not going to die ‘cause you couldn’t wait and pissed her off.”
‘Pissed her off’? The guy howled with laughter. What do you think she’s gonna do that I can’t take care of? At best, she’s got no powers. At worst, they’re inactive.
“Mostly inactive,” he snapped. “The suit said –”
The suit is rotting in a dumpster where he belongs. Fucker couldn’t read an address. That’s the word you wanna pit against mine?
Yes. And at that, he felt Xander curdle in a mix of scorn and offence. It didn’t loosen the vise crushing his sinews, but the pressure quit where it was. Progress.
“The suit,” Alex pitted away, “said to manage my distance. If her powers trigger through physical contact, I can’t touch her.”
He’d shaken her hand but she might not have been… ‘triggered’ enough to do whatever it was she did. She had to have a way to get through life with some contact.
You’re a death ray. You don’t have to touch her.
“And what if she grabs me?”
Xander sneered, which was always impressive given his present lack of a mouth.
Use your imagination.
Alex returned with his traditional scowl of, ‘Much obliged, dick’, before cutting to the chase and spelling out, “No physical contact. My ‘death ray’ requires me to physically make eye contact or else I can’t stun, can’t cause seizures, can’t put anyone in a coma and you can’t kill. Do you understand the problem yet?”
In the side-view mirror, he watched himself curl his lip at the dumbest asshole to walk the planet. Screw you, Xander. He knew what the guy was going to say: You’ve made me retarded. It didn’t change Alex’s mind.
“You can’t promise it’s not a risk.”
Uh, yes, I fucking can, ‘cause it isn’t. Sure as shit not by that logic.
“I’m not taking the chance.”
There is no chance to take. You don’t have a physically-based power, shithead, Xander spat. Fuck it – just get out’f the car. I don’t even have breath and I’m wasting it. Feeling came back to his right hand, along with free arthritis in every joint. Ten minutes. I want my goddamn drinks.
That left him nine minutes, because one went to detaching the Jaws of Life. Two knuckles cracked like they’d been drying in cement. As for his foot, the pain of blood re-flooding his toes made it pretty clear he’d be limping for a week. It was his survival instinct mostly, more hyperactive than most days, that pushed him to ask anything else.
Fucking dandy. Get out.
No ‘It’s fine’. He wasn’t even pretending now, and they were in enemy territory. Alex couldn’t wade through it alone. Any silent treatment might as well be an execution order.
“If you want,” he carefully ventured, “before I head home, I can go by that pond and throw rocks at the geese.”
Half an hour of harassing birds was a small price to know Xander wouldn’t screw him over because he was pissy.
Depends. The guy considered his bait. Alex could hear the gears grinding in there. Are you gonna act like you’re there to feed them but then drop the rocks on their stupid heads?
One time, four years ago, a goose hissed and chased him a little.
Then whatever. Sure.
Great. Now everyone was happy so long as they weren’t geese.
Alex opened the door, just to flinch when it swung out and nearly knocked over Beth on her walk back. She jumped away faster than he could, even while holding one of the unicorns.
“Whooooa – careful there! I haven’t sold this yet,” she said.
Beth grinned, tickled by something, and told him, “No, it’s alright. That hinge is a little wonky. I take it you’re feeling better?”
“Better enough.” There’d been five chips clawed out of his leg. At least if he had to run, they were Xander’s problem. “Thanks for waiting.”
“Oh, it was nothing. I had to do some last-second repairs. Here –” She lifted the picture higher. “Tell me what you think. In your professional opinion as an outside observer, does this seem intentional?”
It was the picture she’d shown him in her room, now with a massive tear under the dragon’s head and across the pony’s torso. She must’ve had a stapler ‘cause it looked like Frankenstein. The ‘stitches’ didn’t match up, either. They left a warped, open gap between the sides.
“Is it supposed to?”
“Yes! Sort of.” She shrugged. “It’s supposed to be a painting that I didn’t rip on a sharp bit of the trunk after I wedged it in, slammed the lid on its frame repeatedly and then yanked out. Which is what happened, obviously, but again, it shouldn’t seem like it.”
It did. The way she stared at him, though, painted it just as obvious that she had a very right answer in mind and a very wrong one. He played safe.
“I’ll take it.” And so she blossomed into a grin. “Whew! That is a relief. I was worried there. Here’s hoping Terry feels as open-minded.” The girl strode towards a pile of her other pictures leaning on the back bumper. “You’re still okay to carry stuff, right?”
“Awesome! You grab ‘Pink Beauty’ and I’ll bring this.” Beth swapped for the splattered paint thing. “So long as you don’t drop them into a million, splintered pieces, you can stack those however you want. They’re bulky, not heavy.”
Finished, apparently, she turned and headed to the manor’s pale stairs. Alex took longer, easing his weight onto his sore leg, but eventually he made the trip, grabbed the pile and followed after her.