Part Six: Crossfire Safehouse
It’s cold and the sky is overcast, blocking out the stars and turning the moon into a blurred, hazy blotch of light in the sky. So hazy, CB notes, that he can’t even tell what phase it is. It was a detail he’d completely overlooked earlier, when he was focused on kidnapping a United States Senator. He suspects he’ll be too busy to think about it later, when he assaults the fortress of an organization of evil wizards. He has time to think about it now, so he does.
He leans against the handrail of an old, rickety fire escape set outside the safehouse’s second-floor bedroom window. He pulls out a wadded up pack of cigarettes—he forces himself to use his right arm, still tender but finally on the mend—and shakes the last two out. He lights one, takes a long drag, and watches the smoke as it rises into the cold night air.
Cold. Strange. He didn’t think it had been that long, but it’s hard to keep track of the passage of time when you’re doing everything on the sly. All the time they spent in his bunker in Farraday City before assaulting the base under the warehouse. All the time they spent on Thorpe’s floating island. Apparently it had been months rather than weeks. Not many months, but enough to have added up to… what? Four, five? Five months since Alex’s murder. Not a lot of time, in the grand scheme of things… but long enough to skip summer in New York City.
Cold. And dark. Hazy moonlight aside, the only light comes from a few windows and two streetlights that aren’t broken. One, at the end of the block, shines down on an intersection that leads to more populated parts of the city. One, about halfway down the street, is in the process of sputtering out.
The window behind him rattles. He turns just in time to see it open. Jenny sticks her head out and grins.
“Room for one more?”
CB waves her over. Jenny grunts as she awkwardly steps through the windowsill, then curses quietly as the fire escape shakes slightly from the added weight. He grins, glances over to her as she settles in on the rail beside him.
“What, no armor? I thought you’d never get out of that thing, once you put it on.”
Jenny grins. “Well, I had to use the bathroom, and I’m not quite ready for the built-in catheters just yet.”
CB stares at her. “You’re… joking?”
Her grin widens. “Nope. I always wonder how the Gladiator armor handled it. Now I know and wish I didn’t.”
“I’m going to wait till we move out before I put it on again, and make sure I take care of business beforehand.”
“Good plan,” CB says.
“You OK?” Jenny sounds nervous as she asks the question.
CB shrugs, takes another drag, and waves his hand dismissively. “Arm still hurts. I’ll be able to use it. I’m no Red Shift or Vigilante—well, nobody’s like Vigilante when it comes to healing—but I do OK, and I’m used to working hurt.”
“I guess everyone learns to do that, eventually,” Jenny says.
“Comes with the job,” CB agrees. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” She sounds defensive, and CB raises an eyebrow.
“Nervous,” Jenny adds reluctantly. “I mean, we’re going up against magic this time, right? And my uncle’s life is on the line, and I know it’s not exactly fair, but that makes this seem more important.”
“I get it,” CB says. “I don’t even like the guy, and I think the stakes are higher, too.”
“So why aren’t we off storming the castle, then?” Jenny asks. “I’ve never really had an opportunity to be proud of my uncle before. Not in recent memory. I’d kind of like the opportunity to tell him I am to his face, at least once.”
She does a real good job keeping her voice light, but he can tell it’s an act. There’s real anguish there, and worry, and he can’t blame her for that.
“We’re waiting for Agent Grant to get back,” CB says. “He’s telling his boss what’s about to happen. And… Sky Commando, I guess? Hopefully they’ll be able to keep the local LEOs from doing something stupid to make things worse.”
“You mean to go into the building to arrest us?” Jenny asks.
“Yeah,” CB says. “Something like that. This is going to get pretty messy, it’d be good to have a few allies on out the outside, doing what they can.”
He takes a last pull from his cigarette, then flicks it out over the rail. He watches the burning tip spiral as it arcs over the street, landing on the pothole-ridden street, bouncing once on the asphalt, a second time against the curb, and finally coming to a halt right next to a sewer grate. It still burns, fading slowly, the only point of light in that part of the street.
CB shivers, overcome with the sudden feeling that they’re being watched. Jenny’s aware of it, too—he can feel her tense beside him. And then, in a low voice, she says “the end of the street.”
CB looks up. There, at the intersection where the working streetlight sits, are two silhouettes. One is short and thin, one tall and fat. Both appear to be wearing hats.
“What’s with Laurel and Hardy?” Jenny asks, a dangerous edge in her voice.
“Good question,” CB says. He puts his last cigarette to his lips, lighting it with deliberate casualness. “I haven’t quite figured that out.”
“Enemies?” Jenny asks.
“Eventually,” CB says.
“You know who they are,” Jenny says.
CB starts to answer, and feels the words catch in his throat. He frowns.
“Complicated,” is all he can manage. “Uh, do me a favor. Tell Bernard. Tell him this falls into his range of expertise.”
“Should I tell anyone else?” Jenny asks.
“Sure,” CB says, “but make sure you tell him first.”
Jenny frowns, but turns back to the window. It takes her much less time to get through than it did before.
“OK,” CB mutters. “Let’s see how much this is going to hurt.”
He uses his sore arm as he vaults over the rail, stopping his fall as he dangles over the edge. It hurts like hell, but he can use it at full strength. That’s good. He lets go, dropping two stories. He stands, dusting off his trenchcoat, and walks slowly to the figures illuminated in the streetlight.
They don’t move. They just stand there, waiting patiently as CB draws near. For his part, he refuses to run, even though the distance between them seems to increase the more he walks.
Eventually he is close enough to recognize them: the short, thin, sharp-faced man and his huge, expressionless companion. The large man appears utterly uninterested in his surroundings, as always. The smaller man, however, grins broadly as CB nears. His eyes—glittering, hawkish eyes—lock onto CB’s every movement.
CB stops just beyond the reach of the streetlight. He pulls on his cigarette, making the cherry shine bright in the darkness. “You fellas are a long way from Georgia.”
The smaller man’s razor-sharp grin widens, and he doffs his hat, bowing low. “We are indeed, Oh Cat Who Observes Himself. We are strangers, wandering alone in this pale copy of paradise. But I find, to my eternal joy, that it seems we are alone no longer.”
“Business?” CB pushes his hands deep into his trenchcoat pockets, trying to look unconcerned. “Pleasure?”
The small man, still bowing, looks up, spreading his arms wide in a theatrical fashion. “We take great pleasure in our business. It is our calling, after all. We spoke on that, as I recall, during our very first meeting.”
“Right…” He pulls the empty, crumpled pack of cigarettes out of his pocket, tossing it carelessly into the street. “Control versus self-determination.”
The small man’s grin widens even further, contorting his face into a mass of jagged angles. He straightens, places his bowler hat on his head, then touches its brim with two fingers by way of salute. “Exactly the one! The struggle behind every struggle; the struggle that begins at life’s first gasp, and ends only in its final ragged breath.”
“The great struggle between good and evil,” CB says, “interrupted by the great struggle between everyone wanting to do things their way, which is a way incompatible with everyone else wanting to do things their way.”
The small man laughs, sharp and cutting, full of appreciation and devoid of any actual mirth. “You gloss, of course,” he chides, wagging his finger, “but you still hit upon the truth of it. A battle not just for what should be, but how it will be achieved. Politics and religion. You will recall, we spoke on that as well.”
“I remember,” CB says.“The guys we’re up against are a different… er… denomination, I guess. Right? They want what you want, in broad strokes at least, but they want to do things the wrong way. So you’re against them.”
The small man’s jagged grin fades into an apologetic smile. “Normally, yes… but I’m afraid we’re feeling rather more ecumenical today.”
CB has just enough time to frown before something hits him hard and he flies into a cinderblock wall. Before he even has time to bounce off the wall the large man is there, his thick, meaty hand wrapped like a vise around CB’s throat. The large man stares up at him—the first time, he thinks, that they’ve ever made eye contact—but there is no interest or reaction of any kind on his face. He looks distracted, if anything. As if he were merely going through the motions while thinking about something else.
CB grabs the large man’s arm, trying to pull the hand away from his throat. It doesn’t budge. It’s like trying to move a statue.
“I would have been content to reserve your inevitable end for another time,” the small man says. “It would have been more climactic, I think. But my partner is far older and wiser than I…”
He gestures to the large man, beaming with admiration.
“And he pointed out, quite correctly, that due to a sudden change in priorities, the reasons for our previous alliance were no longer valid.”
CB kicks out at the larger man’s stomach. His foot connects, sinks into soft flesh, but the larger man is unmoved.
“This celestial dance has, it appears, become more complicated.” The small man adjusts his bowler hat ever so slightly, tilting it just so. “While you and I find your enemy mutually abhorrent—for different reasons—it appears he has introduced a new, rather remarkable tool that is… how to best say it? Agnostic to process.”
CB tries to say something, but all he can do is choke. The pressure on his neck is immense. He can’t breathe. The corners of his vision darken, and the world around him begins to spin. All that time the large man keeps him pinned against the wall, face devoid of all feeling.
“A tool that they have offered to us. And it seems, oh Cat, that we want that tool more than we want a proper denouement with you.”
With what little strength CB has left, he hooks one leg around the large man’s arm and pushes with the other, the sole of his boot pressing against the large man’s face with everything he can muster. Nothing—the man doesn’t grunt, doesn’t stagger back, doesn’t so much as twitch. His strength, it seems, is limitless. CB’s is fading fast.
“There were some logistical issues to work around, of course,” the small man says, shrugging dismissively. “First, we needed to find you. You are not easy to locate, even in our own city, but my colleague found a way.”
The small man gestures again to his partner, who makes no sign of hearing or acknowledging his words.
“I won’t bore you with the details. They would mean little, though perhaps you would have been better served in life if you’d known what a threshold was.”
He tsks to himself and shakes his head. “The point, oh Cat, is that we found you. Which leads directly to our second logistical challenge… we had declared our neutrality.”
CB tries to push again against the large man’s face, but he can’t keep his strength up. He needs to breathe. He can’t breathe. How do you fight when you just can’t breathe?”
“Words,” the small man says, adopting the tone of a professor lecturing his class, “carry power. They mean things. So if we agree, with our words, to be neutral in the affairs of our enemy, that is our constraint. We cannot move for or against them. We must maintain the center. Which might lead you to suspect that this action, here, might be a violation of those words, and you would be right—they would be, in most circumstances. But once again, my esteemed colleague proves he is far wiser than I.”
In the blink of an eye the small man is by their side, peering up at CB’s limply struggling form. “We helped you, you see. True, it didn’t quite go as planned, but the intent was aid you against a mutual enemy. But now the landscape has changed, and our previous assistance on your behalf has… unbalanced things, somewhat. Of course, our reasons were sound, then. No one would have questioned our right to do it, then. But now… well. Now we find the world has shifted around us, and we have, inadvertently incurred some debt.”
The razor-sharp grin returns to the small man’s face.
“And we, oh Cat, take our debts very seriously.”
CB finally goes limp, his arms and legs dangling uselessly by his side. The darkness is almost complete. It’s getting harder to hear, or think. Where is Bernard? Jenny must have had enough time to contact him by now. There must have been enough time to—
“Do not wait for your friends to save you,” the small man says, voice almost gentle, almost kind. “They would, if they could. I am certain of that. Which is why we took such great pains to ensure that they will not.”
CB summons the last of his strength to try to spit on the small man. He fails, miserably, managing only to dribble saliva down his lip, onto the large man’s wrist. The small man smiles knowingly, and says… something. CB can’t understand his words. It’s all garbled, as if he were speaking underwater. The world dims further, and now he can’t even see the small man, just vague shapes, dark patterns on top of other dark patterns. He goes completely limp, and knows that, when he finally passes out, he will never wake up again.
With a final shudder, all struggles cease.
The world falls silent.
The large man continues to hold the motionless form of CB against the cinderblock wall, impassive, unrelenting. The small man looks on, nods once, then turns away, stepping into the light.
He hesitates before he takes his second step, then whirls, gazing down the length of the street, frowning.
“Is there—?” he begins to ask, but his words are cut off.
The world is surrounded by a great and mighty roar.
The world is surrounded a blinding light.
The world is surrounded by an impossible darkness.
Something rushes down the street, from the safehouse to the streetlight, a power that cracks asphalt and concrete in its wake. That something crashes into the large man, and CB, mostly blind though he is, has the satisfaction of seeing him widen his eyes in disbelief before it tears him away from his victim, throwing him into the small man, who barely has time to squawk before his partner knocks them both into the middle of the intersection. CB collapses to the ground and slumps over, clawing at his neck, trying to remember to breathe.
Moments later, David Bernard steps out of a crack in the world, surrounded by a nimbus of white light and purple-black flame. He places himself between CB and the two men.
“No.” It is the only word David speaks. As he says it, the shadow of a predator bird settles on his left shoulder.
CB gags, lungs burning.
David takes a step closer to the men. The large one is sitting up, blinking slowly, a look of confusion on his face. The small one jumps to his feet, picks his bowler hat off the ground, and cocks his head at David, regarding him with interest.
“Another new thing,” the small man muses.
David doesn’t reply. He extends his arms, and the nimbus of light and dark fire spreads out from his hands, encircling the two men completely.
The large man gets to his feet, turning slowly as he takes in the ring of fire. Somewhere in the back of CB’s oxygen-deprived mind he thinks it’s the most he’s ever seen the strange man move.
The small man appears not to notice the fire at all. He stares at David intently… curiously. Almost eagerly. Finally he grins, eyes sparkling, and doffs his hat.
“A good opening. A fine opening. Well played, oh yes! Well played!”
A look of uncertainty briefly crosses over David’s face, but he sets his jaw.
“A trifle undisciplined,” the small man continues, “though that is only to expected, when one is so young. Indeed, you show far more control than I would expect.”
The large man falls into place behind his partner, his expression once again distant and uninterested. The small man’s expression grows somehow even more gleeful, his eyes wild with excitement.
“If this were to be a proper battle,” the small man says, “I think you would find us more than a match. It would be a fine exchange, I believe, at least for a while… but you are so young. And we are so very, very old…”
He snaps his fingers, and when he does the flames of white and purple-black sputter out. David gasps as if struck.
“But.” The small man raises a finger. “However. Our debt is for that one only.” The finger points past David, centering on CB, whose gasping is starting to even out as his lungs remember how they work. “Engaging you would surely violate our terms, and we cannot have that. So, I say again. Well played!”
The small man applauds, beaming. He removes his hat, bows low once more, and the streetlight above them explodes. Somewhere between the sudden surge of light and the seconds it takes for their eyes to adjust to the new darkness, the small man and his companion are gone, leaving David and CB alone on the street.
David immediately turns and crouches in front of CB. “Are you all right?”
CB has stopped gagging and has graduated to long, raspy breaths. He nods, waving David away in order to get a little more room. David steps back.
“Took you… long enough.” CB’s voice sounds like dry paper being torn into strips.
“Sorry,” David says. “Right after Jenny told me they were here, they did something… strange. With time, I think. I don’t understand it.”
CB nods again. He tries to struggle to his feet, and settles for getting to his knees.
“Who are they?” David asks.
“Bad guys,” CB says.
“Yeah, OK.” David looks abashed. “You shouldn’t be talking right now, so I should shut up more.”
CB shakes his head, clears his throat a few times, and his next attempt at speech is a little steadier. “It’s a fair question. I just don’t think I can tell you much.”
David looks back over at the spot where the two had disappeared. “Right. Magic.”
“Right,” CB says. “Magic. I’ll probably be able to tell you eventually. It’ll just take a little time…”
“Well,” David says, extending his hand, “we need to get you inside so you can rest.”
“Nope.” CB takes David’s hand and gets to his feet, wobbling slightly. “We need to get this thing started. Right now.”
“Are you kidding me?” David shakes his head. “I don’t think you’re ready to—”
“I’ll be ready,” CB says. “A walk will do me good. But you know how you were saying they wouldn’t be able to use your block to trace us, because they wouldn’t really know what it was? Well, I’m pretty sure they know what those assholes were. And I’m guessing they just made a pretty big boom.”
David frowns thoughtfully. “You’re right about that.”
“Then we need to go,” CB says. “I want to bring the fight to them before they have a chance to figure out where we are. We’ve still got a Senator back there, and there’s no point trying to save him from black magic if they figure out where he is so they can just up and shoot him.”
“Right,” David says. “When you put it that way, the suicide frontal assault makes a lot more sense.”
CB laughs, leaning on David as they make their way back to the safehouse. “Don’t be so negative. I have a really good track record with bad ideas.”