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The week had started out bad and was about to get worse. As Megan knocked on the condo door, she mentally braced herself for the confrontation to come.
Tiny needles dug into her left shoulder. “Ow! Bojan! Loosen up.”
The pinprick claws eased their grip. A dry chuckle tickled her ear.
Meg didn’t know if it was rare to have such a small daemon that it could perch on her shoulder. She tried not to look at other people’s daemons. One was enough for her.
Gore opened the door, his eyes already dark with disapproval. Meg ignored his glare as she walked past him through the shiny steel-and-granite condo and into the dining room.
She heard the veritable slam of the door and Gore’s heavy footsteps as he followed her. “Do you have any idea how much rent is here?” he said. Meg nodded to the three other subdued-looking individuals around the table. Fragile sheets of paper covered in pencil drawings lay flat on the table, their edges carefully matched. Weapon schematics. “Would it have killed you to put on some decent clothes? My neighbors are going to think I hired a cut-rate cleaning service.”
Meg resisted the urge to glance down at her secondhand jeans and her threadbare Rush concert tee. Bojan hissed on her shoulder. Are you going to let him talk to you like that?
“Maybe we could talk about the operation instead of my appearance?” Meg glanced at Gore over her shoulder. “Unless you think my attire is the reason we’re meeting today?”
Weak. You should have put him in his place.
Gore stomped around to the other side of the table. “Let’s get to it, then,” he grunted. Meg met his gaze evenly, though inside she shrank a bit. She’d never gotten used to Gore’s size. She was a tall woman used to looking people in the eye, but Gore stood almost ten inches taller than she did. His size plus his rough, squared-off features and scarred hands intimidated her more than she liked to admit.
“Our friends are preparing a trip to Chicago,” Meg said without preamble. She scanned the faces of her allies as she spoke. A year ago they had all been terrified and on the run, struggling to understand their new powers and to find their place in the world. Now a common purpose united them. “They believe they can find evidence of the government experiments that made us and that continue to suppress us.”
“Into the Madhouse?” Sharon, the newest and youngest member of the group, looked shocked.
Meg nodded. The Madhouse was one of the largest Rogue Reactions in the world. Dockside Chicago was a wild land of violence and chaos where people didn’t feel pain and magic flowed like cheap beer.
“Yes. They believe a government installation was abandoned there and they have a lead on how to find it and how to get into it. That’s why they’re going to need some extra firepower. We’ve agreed to provide them with custom weapons and some of our special ammunition. They need delivery in a week, so we’re charging them an extra fifty percent for the rush job.”
“We should be charging double.” Gore grimaced at the schematics spread out over the table. “I don’t trust these guys.”
“We’ve done business with them before,” Meg said. “I did the negotiations myself and, trust me, they couldn’t have paid any more.”
Sure they could have. You gave up too easily. Meg bit back a sigh and ignored Bojan’s jibe as best she could.
Gore was already echoing Bojan’s sentiments. “Trust you? You’re giving away product far too easily. We should meet these buyers with guns drawn and take care of the lot.”
“No!” Meg slammed one hand down on the table. “No killing. That’s all you want to do.”
“And all you want to do is recruit allies to your glorious cause.” Gore sneered at her. The others lowered their eyes and shuffled nervously. Sharon looked about to cry.
“Our cause is what unites us,” Meg snapped. “We know the government did this to us, and they won’t stop until they have us all in their clutches and force-feed us more crazy drugs. We need allies if we’re going to expose them.”
“You told me when I joined that we’d get to fight the government,” Gore said. He clenched and relaxed his fists rhythmically and the veins stood out on his neck. Over his left shoulder, Meg glimpsed the slitted eyes and curving black horns of Gore’s powerful—and goddam scary—daemon. “I see precious little fighting going on. I see us giving away weapons we could be using to take down our enemies directly.”
“We’re selling the weapons for a greater payoff.” Meg tried to keep focus on Gore’s eyes, not the creature lurking behind him. “What, you think we can just waltz into the Pentagon and start blowing people away? That won’t solve anything. It’ll just make them all the more determined to catch us, and maybe kill us.”
“You’re just afraid.”
He doesn’t believe in the cause!
Meg swept the schematics off the table and leaned forward, planting her palms firmly on the wooden surface. She glowered at Gore. “Maybe you’ve forgotten this, Gore, but I’m the one in charge here. I’m the one who recruited you all and if you don’t like the way I do things, you’re welcome to leave.”
She fixed her gaze on Sharon. “Sharon, you and Jon will come with me to the exchange. Carly, I want you in your car the next street over. I’ll text you if we need anything. Gore, you sit this one out.”
His voice lost its belligerent tone and dropped to a quiet, even volume that was somehow more frightening than his bellowing. “You can’t cut me out of this.”
“You are out of this. I don’t want you suddenly hulking out on our new friends. You’ll be in on the next one if you learn to keep your temper in your pants.”
For a few long, very long, moments, Meg thought Gore wasn’t going to let this one go. She could practically see his thoughts as his eyes flicked over her, imagining himself strangling her or shooting her and taking over the group. Over his shoulder, Gore’s daemon stirred and whispered, its yellow eyes fixed on Meg.
Bojan’s claws dug into her shoulder again as the daemon tensed up, ready to fight.
And then it was over, like a strong wind blowing storm clouds away. Gore relaxed. “Fine. Call me the next time you need some muscle. But don’t come crying to me if this thing goes south.”
Meg gathered up the schematics and said, “Yeah. Yeah, I will.”
Gore headed for the kitchen. Meg took a deep breath and started going over the plan.
* * *
Meg drove past their target and pulled over two doors down. She put the pickup in park but didn’t turn the key. She twisted in her seat and threw one arm over the back. “Sharon?”
The younger girl sat scrunched up in the jump seat, twisting her overloaded charm bracelet. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Meg caught the flash of a mustard-yellow creature over Sharon’s left shoulder, its claws long and splintered, and she switched her gaze resolutely to Sharon’s face.
None of the members, except maybe Gore, were as powerful as Meg but they all had their specialties. Sharon twisted her charm bracelet over and over again, humming to herself. Meg waited patiently while Jon, in the passenger seat, checked his pistols. He had a few minor magical abilities but his real value to the team was his uncanny perception and dead-eye aim.
Minutes later, Sharon opened her eyes. Her brow creased. “I don’t think our friends mean to harm us.”
“You don’t think?” Meg asked.
“I…” Sharon rubbed her hands along her thighs. “I can’t be any surer. All I can tell is that they intend to go through with the deal. I feel very cloudy, though.”
Meg hesitated, wondering what exactly ‘cloudy’ signified. If Sharon said the buy would go through, then it would, but her uncertainty was worrying.
She met Jon’s eyes. He read the question in hers and shrugged. “You’re the boss.”
Rescheduling would be difficult and the group could use the money. “Let’s do it.”
They climbed out of the pickup and each pulled one of the heavy duffel bags out of the box. Bojan whispered instructions in her ear to be sharp, to be on her game, to do better this time. Meg had learned to deal with the daemon’s incessant nit-picking and demands, but in times of stress the daemon’s voice grew more irritating. Not for the first time Meg wondered if she was doing the right thing. Maybe the government wasn’t the enemy. Maybe they were right and Bojan was just a persistent hallucination, a mental aberration that would go away if she got the right care.
The hardest part about keeping true to her beliefs was wondering if she was actually completely insane.
She shook her head and hefted the duffel bag over her shoulder. No time to revisit that old argument now. They had a job to do.
They hurried down the sidewalk and up a cracked concrete walk. Meg rapped on the front door. Sharon pulled a four-inch tall vintage Troll doll out of her pocket and set it on the ground, its scarlet hair curling like a flame toward the sky.
A rail-thin but solidly muscled man opened the door, a mesh tank-top and skater shorts leaving most of his olive skin visible. She’d met him before; their negotiator, Hector. “Come on in,” Hector said, swinging the door wide.
Two of Hector’s friends stood just inside the door, guns drawn but pointed at the ground. They watched with stolid expressions as Meg, Sharon, and Jon entered the house. To Meg’s left she glimpsed a faded living room full of old furniture and tattered wall-to-wall carpeting. Hector locked the door behind them and pointed in the other direction, to a kitchen with peeling linoleum and avocado green appliances. “Let’s go downstairs,” he suggested.
They followed him through the kitchen and down some wooden stairs into a cool concrete basement. Meg relaxed into the chill, a welcome relief from the summer heat. A duffel bag similar to the ones they carried sat on a plastic folding table with a chipped corner.
“When are you heading to Chicago?” Meg asked as they deposited their own bags on the table.
“Tonight, if all goes well.” Hector gestured to the bags. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Meg unzipped the first bag and pulled out the modified assault rifle. Hector’s friends drew close as she explained the features of the gun, demonstrated how to switch clips and how best to aim with it.
Sharon and Jon stood against one wall, watching silently. Sharon toyed with her charm bracelet and kept looking uneasily toward the stairs.
As Meg put the gun back in the bag, Hector unzipped his duffel. The overhead bulb illuminated stacks of green bills. “Take your time counting it,” Hector offered.
“Thanks. I’m sure it’ll be—”
Sharon’s eyes rolled back in her head and her legs gave out. Jon caught her just before she hit the ground.
“They’re coming,” Sharon gasped, her voice thin and reedy as if coming from the other end of a long pipe.
An image of a scarlet-haired Troll doll flashed into Meg’s mind. Sharon must have seen something through the eyes of her spy. “Trouble!” Meg barked.
“Upstairs, now!” There was a mad grab for the guns in the bag and a rapid snapping of clips. Hector gestured to the stairs and his friends took off running.
They all followed, Jon lugging Sharon up the stairs. The only problem with Sharon’s spy-doll trick was that it incapacitated her for a few minutes. Just as Hector and his friends reached the top of the stairs, an explosion rocked the upper level. Hector sprinted through the kitchen, his friends close behind. Meg looked over her shoulder and barked, “Keep down until I call you up!”
Then she closed her eyes, concentrated, and when she opened her eyes again she was in the living room.
Coming into the house she’d looked for defensible locations. She appeared behind a floral couch pressed into one corner. She crouched down, scanning the room. From her vantage point she could see the shattered front door, a bit of the kitchen, and the SWAT officer coming into the room. She ducked down.
Pistol fire popped from the kitchen. Hector and his friends seemed in no mood to surrender.
Tiny claws dug into her shoulder. Great job. If you’d listened to Sharon, none of this would be happening right now.
“Be quiet,” she whispered. Even through the din coming from the kitchen she could hear the officer’s footsteps thudding toward her hiding place. Meg waited until the last possible second before teleporting across the room. As the officer peered over the couch, his P-90 out in front, Meg catfooted it to the kitchen.
Hector and his friends had retreated into the rooms at the back of the house. A single officer stood in the center of the kitchen, talking into a radio.
Meg caught only a few words—“no eyes on”—when a pistol cracked from the open door leading down into the basement. Jon had gotten tired of waiting.
“No—” Meg started to shout but it was too late. The officer dropped to one knee and traded fire. The P-90 filled the air with its repetitive thrum.
She heard a cry of pain from Jon and Sharon’s high-pitched scream. The officer stopped firing. In the stillness, Meg heard the thump-thump of bodies tumbling down wooden stairs.
Meg turned, blinded by tears, and sprinted out the front door. She accidentally kicked over Sharon’s Troll doll and left it, its blind eyes staring up at the sky. Someone shouted behind her and footsteps pounded on linoleum. Across the lawn a woman leveled a pistol at her, shouting for surrender.
You’ll avenge them. You’ll expose all the government lackies here today and you’ll make sure the whole world knows about this.
“Yes,” she murmured. She stretched her arms out, feeling slowed-down and powerful. “I promise.”
Bojan hissed happily and a surge of power seemed to explode from Meg. The two threats were temporarily neutralized, clutching at their blinded eyes. Meg took off down the street.
“Hey you! Stop!”
She spun around and kept moving backwards, searching for the source of the imperative. A second agent, an African-American man in a nice suit with an ill-fitting vest over top. He had his gun out and pointed at her.
She stopped, preparing to blind him too, when a garbage can flew off the curb and smacked her in the face. Meg stumbled back, swearing vengeance under her breath. Bojan was urging her to fight back and she felt herself changing to match his form—larger, stronger, with fingernails like claws.
She teleported the agent three feet away and tilted him horizontally. He hit the ground with a whoof, struggling to figure out what had happened. She loped toward the prone agent, claws curled, ready to strike. Her body tingled with rage.
He lifted the gun and took a single shot. Meg swerved and the bullet pinged off the pavement. She almost lost her footing, teetering to one side as she changed her angle. Then she was off again, charging straight for the agent. The enemy.
He gestured at her and she found herself trying to run a foot up in the air. She circled her legs ridiculously for a second, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Then she hit the ground. Pain exploded in her hip as she rolled on the pavement but her powerful body shunted the feeling away. She’d deal with injury later. Right now she just wanted revenge.
Yes! Show them the power of your belief!
Anger and grief warred for equal attention in her mind. Meg struggled to focus, to remember what her purpose really was. The agent rolled over and reached one hand out toward her. Meg looked down at the road, breathing heavily.
Don’t give up now!
She breathed in and out, summoning her power one last time—
With a pop and a nauseating sense of displacement, she appeared in the passenger seat of Carly’s car. Carly gave a squeak of fear and dropped her phone. “Meg! What—”
“Drive, drive! We’re busted. There’s feds all over the place.”
“But Jon and—”
Cassidy started the car with shaking hands. Meg lay back in the seat, trembling. Bojan was hissing in her ear.
You left the battle! You should have punished them, exposed them for what they are!
“I will,” she whispered. “Not today, but I will. I promise.”
Meg wiped at her face with a grimy hand, struggling to hold back the tears.
And you’d better get all of them.
Bojan put a curious emphasis on the words. Meg looked out the rear window but didn’t see anyone following them.
“How did they know we were here?” Carly demanded. Her voice shook. “Sharon said Hector was going to honor the deal!”
“She also said things were cloudy,” Meg said. “Maybe one of Hector’s friends double-crossed them.” She pressed the heels of her hands against her temples, trying to forget Jon’s gurgling scream.
Or maybe one of ours did.
A shock ran up Meg’s spine. “You don’t think…”
Don’t I? What do you think?
Meg thought hard, about loyalty and causes and the lust for murder, as Carly drove them back into DC.