San Francisco, USA – Saturday, the 9th of June, 2012. 06:27 AM.
As promised, Chris’s new costume was completed in the early morning. She took the elevator to the outfitter’s office on the third floor while the others were busy getting ready upstairs. She hoped that the designer had made sure she’d still be able to move in it. Bonus points if the headpiece didn’t impair her vision as much as the old one had.
Chris pushed through the studio door and gingerly made her way through overflowing piles of partially completed Wardens merchandise in a multitude of colors. Her eyes immediately went to the mannequin that stood in the middle of the room, wearing her new costume. A dozen people including Mr. Turner were clustered around it, admiring their work or completing last-minute adjustments.
The designers hadn’t changed her Mascot theme. As Peter had so kindly pointed out, she supposed she was stuck with the family friendly bear look forever. But this design had been pared down to the essentials: a fur-trimmed, tight-fitting body suit and a matching helmet complete with furry round ears and dark lenses over the cartoonishly large eye holes.
Great. They’re turning me into a tailless raccoon. The thought of going on a serial killer chase in this outfit was almost a little amusing.
Mr. Turner separated himself from the group and extended a hand to Chris. “Perfect timing, Christina. Your new costume is nearly finished.”
Chris shook the outstretched hand reluctantly. “Mind if I take a closer look?” Chris asked, indicating towards the mannequin. She really wasn’t in the mood to make small talk with the man who’d been assigned as her supervisor.
“Go ahead,” Mr. Turner said.
As Chris stepped over to the costume, the cluster of workers quickly scattered. She ran her fingers over the material. The solid plates beneath the fuzzy fur let her know that kevlar plates had been incorporated into the chest and back. She tested the weight and was glad to note that the plating wasn’t as heavy as she’d expected, maybe a pound or two at most.
To her relief, the designers had ended the body suit just above the ankles, allowing her to wear the shoes of her choice. This way, she’d actually be able to run.
“Sweet, thanks. It looks great,” she told the workers without looking at them. Then she pulled the helmet off the mannequin head and tried it on.
Compared to her old costume, her peripheral vision was much improved. Actually, she could see almost as well as if she hadn’t been wearing a headpiece at all. The tinted lenses of the overly large eye holes would provide some protection from blinding effects, she noted, and the plating that reinforced the helmet might just stop a small-caliber bullet if she was lucky.
She turned the bear head helmet until she could make out Mr. Turner’s skinny figure through the tinted lenses. “Do I have to wear this all the time?” she asked.
“Outside of headquarters, yes,” he said. “It’s our policy that the rest of the population be able to identify you Wardens at all times.”
No surprise, there. Mr. Turner probably had a policy for everything, even when and where she could go to the bathroom. She assumed she’d get used to it eventually.
“Fine,” she said, lifting the helmet off her head. “Where do I get suited up? I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
When the five fully costumed Wardens arrived at the airport, a throng of people awaited them. There had to be hundreds spread across every possible age group, jostling each other in front of San Francisco International’s main terminal to catch a glimpse of the national hero team. A murmur went through the crowd as the Wardens got out of the car, followed by the Secretary of Evolved Affairs. Dozens of smartphones appeared, held at arm’s length up in the air to take photos and videos.
Chris experienced a feeling of déjà-vu as she spotted the ANBE news vehicle. She wasn’t a homeless rogue waking up on a park bench this time, but the sight of those guys still bugged her. She resisted the urge to give the news van the finger. Mr. Turner probably wouldn’t appreciate such an active effort to sabotage his PR stunt.
There were other news teams there as well, with film equipment hoisted on their shoulders as they gathered near the terminal’s main entrance. Waiting to bombard the Wardens with questions, no doubt.
Mascot could see any semblance of a legitimate criminal inquiry fly out the window. Maybe Mr. Turner should have cared less about our costumes and more about the fact that the killer might watch the news, she thought as she watched the crowd.
She shot the Counselor a look. His costume was a checkered black and white suit accompanied by a matching briefcase and a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat. As an experienced investigator, he should have been annoyed by all the hubbub, but his face revealed only cool professionalism.
“Couldn’t we just have used a military airport instead?” Mascot asked as she heaved her travel bag out of the car trunk with a strong tug.
“Can’t you just pretend to be friendly while the news crews are around?” Overdrive muttered before relieving her of her heavy bag with a gallant smile for the cameras.
Noire shot Mascot a judgmental glare from behind the eyeholes of her horned silver and purple mask. “Aw, too heavy?” she cooed, the ribbons attached to her waist and arms streaming in the wind.
Mascot yanked her bag back and shot Overdrive a warning look. She wasn’t keen on playing the helpless damsel for any reason. She just wanted to deal with the psycho and keep an eye on the kid.
Overdrive just shrugged, then stepped to the front of the group to offer a wave in the direction of the camera teams. Some of the TV people waved back.
Looks like someone’s found their element, Mascot observed. She was just glad that he gave her some breathing space by drawing most of the attention. That crowd looked oppressive even from a distance.
“Don’t worry,” Kid assured her, taking her hand. “I’ll talk to them so you don’t have to!”
Mr. Turner, dressed in a bright white suit, must have overheard. “You’re under no obligation to speak to the press,” he told the Wardens. “In fact, we’d prefer if you didn’t. The Counselor and I will handle any questions.”
“Fine by me,” Noire muttered.
Chris recalled that the Noire had always been portrayed pretty harshly by the press because she accidentally hurt some people during her transition. Some media outlets had even continued calling for a renewed execution order on her. Mascot chalked it up to fear mongering, and for an instant she felt a twinge of sympathy for the Darkshaper.
She looked over at Noire, who cut an imposing figure with her arms crossed across her broad chest and ribbons flailing out behind her. Definitely more intimidating than a wide-eyed raccoon bear, Mascot decided, bemused.
“You guys are both so antisocial, you could be BFFs,” Overdrive jested.
In unison, both young women responded by raising a middle finger. Mascot felt her lips curl upwards into a small smile. Noire’s face broke into a grin at the same time. It was almost a bonding moment.
I hope someone caught that on camera, Mascot thought with a smirk.
Mr. Turner and Counselor spearheaded the group as they migrated over to the terminal building, and the crowd parted to allow them through. The camera teams stirred into action, prepping their equipment and readying fake smiles.
“Good morning, Wardens,” one of the TV reporters called. Several others chimed in with similarly polite openers, and then the barrage of questions started.
“What do you think your roll in this investigation will be, Kid? Do you think you’ll be able to sense the killer?”
“How are you getting along with your new teammate?”
“Can you tell us where you’re flying to today?”
“Do you think the Wardens will be taking on more cold cases in the future?”
Mascot wasn’t paying attention to any of it. Her attention was drawn to Saint, whom she spotted through the glass of the terminal’s main door. He strode towards the terminal entrance, his white linen toga fluttering with every stride. The costume made the bald-headed man easy to recognize.
He must have come in a back door, Mascot assumed.
Then her body was overtaken by an inexplicable sensation that put all thoughts out of her mind. Within milliseconds, every cell in her body was alight as some sort of overwhelming connection flared between them. It was something strangely familiar, almost magnetic.
In fact, the draw towards Saint was so strong that she probably would have been able to pick him out from the crowd even if he’d shown up in his civilian clothing. Considering that they’d never met before, the experience was both strange and fascinating.
Without a second thought, she separated herself from the others. Stepping past the TV crews and ignoring the questions they tossed her way, she made her way through the main entrance in a beeline towards the only other remaining Guardian on earth.
She just barely registered that Mr. Turner was calling her name somewhere behind her. Mascot didn’t even slow her steps. She knew she was going off-script, but she didn’t care. The pull of the other Guardian’s presence was irresistible.
She felt the electronic sliding doors close behind her and the din of the crowd disappear. The next thing she knew, she was looking up into Saint’s dark eyes. His brown-skinned face was glowing with anticipation, his bushy eyebrows perking up. Clearly, he felt the connection, too.
“You must be Mascot. So, we finally meet,” he said, his voice heavily accented with Portuguese.
When he extended his right hand, she caught a glimpse of the cross-shaped brand that had been burned into his palm. According to rumors, he’d done this to himself. She couldn’t imagine how painful that had been. No, she didn’t envy this guy at all.
“Saint,” Mascot murmured from inside her helmet.
When the hands of the two Guardians connected, the familiarity sensation coursing between them manifested as a nearly palpable jolt of energy. It took her breath away for a moment, and she was overcome with an intense sense of . . . what, exactly? It was like déjà vu — only much, much stronger. When it passed, she was left frustrated and confused. It seemed like she should have remembered something important, but she just couldn’t.
“Yes, we are the same,” Saint confirmed as he withdrew his grasp.
Mascot looked down at her hand. The sensation of their connection lingered; she wouldn’t have been surprised if Saint had somehow burned his cross right onto her own palm.
“You are protected by me now,” Saint said. “Now I must go to the others.”
She immediately understood. He’d extended his protective powers to her. Nobody could harm her now; anyone who attacked her would cause harm and pain to Saint instead. He was highly resistant to the damage, but not the pain.
A faint click and a flash of light announced that the media had caught up to them. Mascot ignored the reporters as they hurled questions her way and turned towards the door to watch the others file in. In the lead was Mr. Turner, his eyebrows scrunched up in disapproval. Behind him, however, Counselor was wearing a grin beneath his investigator’s cap.
Mascot gave him a small smile in return. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad working as part of the Wardens team, after all.
The flight to Ellendale, North Dakota, took about three hours. The Wardens were met on the tarmac by a heavyset Sheriff named Schmidt, who had been involved in the initial investigation of the Sioux man’s disappearance.
Fortunately, no one had informed any reporters of the Wardens’ destination, so at least they weren’t exposed to any questions or cameras. That made it easier to at least pretend that this whole thing was really about catching a serial killer.
They reached the hamlet of Cowley after a short drive past sparse landscape and impoverished roadside communities. Almost all of the houses were ramshackle shacks constructed from the most basic of materials. More than a few people lived in tent trailers.
Chayton Wallace’s former house was no exception. It was a cabin in the woods on the outer edge of the small town, constructed from plywood, mismatched windows, and a tin roof. The man had most likely built it himself, as evidenced by the leftover materials strewn behind the building.
“He lived alone,” Sheriff Schmidt said as the small group of Wardens and police drove up the unpaved driveway.
“Did he have some friends around here?” Kid piped up in a hopeful voice.
“Wasn’t the social type,” the sheriff answered gruffly as they made their way towards the shack’s front door. “Most of his family still lives on the reservation, but the way I heard it, they didn’t get along.”
“A loner, huh?” Mascot said quietly. She knew all about that.
“He was sometimes seen sitting outside here with his pipe.” The sheriff indicated towards a straight-backed wooden chair on the sunken front porch. “A calf pipe, as they call it.”
Mascot pulled her bear helmet off and tucked it beneath her arm to get a better view. So far, nothing hinted at a crime, let alone one involving powers. The scent of grass and flowers in the air reminded her of some of her happier days. The ones she’d spent outside during summer vacation, worrying about nothing and no one.
Back before Dylan. Back when Ryan was still her best friend, not her sister’s boyfriend.
She watched as Kid bent down to pick some wildflowers. Don’t let them take these days away from her, she silently wished. Let her stay a kid just a little bit longer.
The sheriff tore away the red police tape that had been sealing the door. Once it was out of the way, he dug around in his pocket for the key to unlock the cabin. The door swung open with an eerie creak.
“Alright, Wardens,” the Counselor said, clapping his hands together once. “Let’s look for items with connections.” He looked down at Kid, who had her nose buried in the small bouquet of flowers she’d collected. “See if you can get a feel for the atmosphere. But let me know if anything makes you uncomfortable, and take a break right if you need one.”
Get a feel for the atmosphere? Mascot didn’t know all that much about Kid’s powers yet, but apparently they involved absorbing the general environment even without a specific target involved.
“Okay!” Kid agreed cheerily. She pressed her bouquet into Sheriff Schmidt’s plump hand, then hopped over the doorstep into the house.
Mascot couldn’t help but grin at the big lawman’s perplexed expression.
The smell of tobacco was wafting from the open door. Mascot was overcome with the urge to light a smoke, but this wasn’t the time or place. Especially not with Kid around.
“I’ll let you take it from here,” the sheriff said, handing the keys to the Counselor. “You know the protocols.”
The Counselor gave him a nod. “Things are in good hands,” he assured.
If you say so, Mascot thought as she followed Kid’s lead and stepped into the cabin.
“Call me if anything comes up,” the sheriff called over his shoulder as he descended the stairs and headed for his patrol car. “I’ll send one of my guys to pick you up in a couple of hours.”
It took Mascot’s eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness, but when they did she found herself in a small living room filled with furniture that would have seemed at home in any lower-class American’s apartment: a threadbare armchair, an ancient-looking TV, and a small table flanked by two cheap folding chairs.
Overdrive stepped inside and immediately every light bulb in the small cabin came alight. “That’s better,” he muttered with satisfaction.
“Hey, careful, buddy,” Noire cautioned him, stepping through the door. “Try not to blow anything up.”
“You try not to scare anyone to death with your creepy shadow,” he retorted before wandering into one of the three adjoining rooms. Two seconds later, the muffled sound of radio static came through the closed door.
“Don’t mess with other people’s stuff!” the Counselor’s voice rang from outside.
The radio fell silent. “Boring,” Overdrive commented as he returned to the living room and began pursuing the bookshelves. After a few moments, he sighed. “I wish we could actually do something,” he complained just loud enough for Mascot to hear. “I mean, it’s kind of pointless that we’re all here.”
I can’t argue with that, Mascot thought, but decided not to comment.
“It’s probably about government funding,” she said instead. “The Wardens have been doing squat for, like, a year, right? The Department of Evolved Affairs is probably just trying to demonstrate how useful the States’ hero team is.”
“Well, I just wish they’d picked something that I could actually help with,” Overdrive grumbled.
Mascot didn’t disagree. Watching Counselor and Kid examine every inch of the cabin made her feel pretty useless, too.
She watched as Kid slowly wandered through the room, then stopped in front of the big fieldstone fireplace. It was the showpiece of the entire cabin — and probably its only source of heat for the cool North Dakota nights. On the mantle was an oblong wooden tobacco box with an image of a calf carved onto the lid.
“Even I can smell how much that guy cared about his pipe,” Mascot joked, coming up beside Kid.
“He was happy here,” the girl said with a half-lidded gaze. “He didn’t mind being alone.”
“And he was really superstitious,” Overdrive added, leafing through one of the books he’d taken from the shelf. “There’s stuff about spirits, and charms, and rituals.”
“Are you allowed to be touching that?” Mascot asked skeptically.
“Well, the police’s done here and they don’t seem to care what we do, so I guess it doesn’t matter,“ she said in response to her own question.
Overdrive bent down and took a closer look at the collection of books. “Hey, there books are all about native groups and traditions. How many tribes are there, anyway?”
“Not a clue,” Mascot admitted. “A few hundred, something like that.”
They were interrupted by Noire’s voice booming from the back room. “We got our serial killer! Come look at this shit!”
Mascot whirled around and dashed into the other room before Noire finished talking. She hadn’t even realized she’d triggered her hyperspeed until she found herself standing right in front of the Darkshaper.
“Dude!” Noire gasped, startled. Then, reassembling her cool demeanor, she added, “Don’t be such an ass.”
By then the others had joined them in the room, which appeared to be some sort of workshop based on the wood shavings that littered the floor. A drying rack stood against the back wall, and a half dozen rabbit skins dangled from it. More furs were tacked on the walls or stacked on the table alongside woodworking tools, a needle box, and rolls of coarse thread.
“This is your evidence?” Mascot asked, bemused.
“Yeah. That’s a lotta dead rabbits,” Noire said with a grin.
“Funny,” Overdrive replied dryly. He put his hand on Kid’s shoulder and patted it soothingly.
“It’s okay,” the girl assured him. “They didn’t suffer. They all just kinda fell asleep.”
Mascot stepped back into the living room just as the Counselor walked in through the front door, evidently finished with his rounds around the building. He appeared to be in the midst of doing his thing; headphones and a small Mp3 player dangled over the front of his checkered suit jacket.
Let’s hope the power boosting works, Mascot thought. We’ll need all the help we can get.
She watched as their team leader moved through the room haphazardly, his eyes half closed and his hands hovering over various items. His fingers flexed incessantly as he moved between items of interest, as if he was plucking invisible strings and following them to the next target. Finally he came to a pause in front of an assortment of tools and knives that hung from a wooden bar near the front door.
“Something is missing from here,” he murmured, pondering the array in front of him. “A knife. It should be here, but it’s not. And it’s important.”
“The murder weapon?” Noire asked, unable to keep the curiosity from her voice.
“There was no blood, dumbass,” Overdrive replied.
Mascot studied the distant look on Counselor’s face. She didn’t know the details of how his Visionary power worked; he hadn’t bothered explaining them to her yet. She wondered whether he simply sensed the connections between items with his mind’s eye, or if he experienced actual visions about the last time Chayton had been at home.
But seeing as he was considered a miracle man who solved the FBI’s most difficult murder cases in minutes, she suspected there was more to his power than luminescent strings hanging in the air.
“Why’s the knife so important?” Mascot asked, raising her voice to be heard over the music that trickled from the Counselor’s headphones.
“It was his trapping knife. He never left without it,” the Counselor replied, his eyes distant. “He must have had it with him when he died.” His gaze suddenly snapped back to the present. “Follow me. I think we should go to the last place he was known to be; maybe we’ll find something new there.” With that, he strode out the back door.
“Sure, whatever, let’s hunt some knife,” Noire muttered, following their team leader outside.
Kid shifted her attention from the carved bear figurine she’d been examining and met Mascot’s eyes. She shrugged her shoulders and headed through the back door, too, then hopped down from the back step.
She seems cheery enough, Mascot noted with relief as she followed the girl. She figured that the boogeyman’s aura was long gone, if it had ever been there at all.
Overdrive came trudging along behind them, his heavy steps sending a lizard scurrying for cover. Still bummed that he couldn’t do anything heroic to help solve the case, probably.
Or that there weren’t any pretty teenage girls to cheer him on.
“Come on,” the Counselor told them once they were all outside. “I think we need to be just over that rise.” He indicated a point somewhere a ways across the sparse landscape.
“Geeze, I wish we were all Speedy Gonzalez,” Kid joked with a grin.
Mascot returned a smile. The Wardens set off as a group, carrying their helmets under their arms.
After a twenty minute walk, Counselor stopped them in the middle of a nondescript wooded area far from the town of Cowley. It was peaceful. Insects buzzed in the air, and the birds made way more noise than Mascot was used to. She could understand how someone who wanted to be left alone might find happiness here.
Happiness, maybe. But no knife. Nothing but wilderness, actually.
“So how do you know this was one of the last places Chayton was?” Mascot asked.
The Counselor nodded. “The dogs lost his scent somewhere around here, but it was an old scent they were following. He lived alone, so the police wasn’t informed he was missing right away.”
“Shame they couldn’t put power boosting headphones on the dogs,” Noire commented wryly.
Overdrive snorted a half-choked laugh and quickly stifled it with the back of a hand. Mascot caught herself smirking a little in turn, but the Counselor’s expression remained deadpan. He just squatted in the middle of the clearing.
Overdrive kicked at a rock and a cloud of dust rose up. “Well, I don’t see anything here but dirt,” he said, sounding bored.
The Counselor straightened abruptly. “Let’s try . . . over here,” he said, strumming the invisible chords again. He started walking without waiting for an answer.
Five minutes later, they reached a small clearing with a toppled tree trunk and an empty rabbit trap.
Chayton used the missing knife for trapping rabbits, Mascot recalled.
“Was this place part of the original investigation?” she asked the Counselor.
He shook his head, his eyes fixated on the fallen tree trunk. “Nope. I’ve never been here before. I must’ve . . . missed it somehow,” he said before wandering off.
That must be some powerful boost to his abilities, Mascot concluded. She glanced to the small music player that dangled over the Counselor’s checkered jacket. The fact that music, infused by another Evolved’s powers, could make such a difference in their investigation was kind of awesome.
Kid peered up at a squirrel on a branch. “Oh, look!” she exclaimed, shielding her eyes from a streak of golden sunlight that pierced the canopy above.
The unintended juxtaposition of were-kitten versus wild rodent was unintentionally amusing.
“Cute,” Mascot replied. Then, quietly, she asked, “How are you doing?”
“Oh, fine. It’s been so long since anyone was here, I don’t really sense anything.”
“Nothing at all?” Mascot asked.
Kid shrugged her skinny shoulders. “Except in the house, because he was in there so much. But nothing bad.”
“Hey, look!” Overdrive’s voice cut through the quiet forest. He was bent over the fallen tree trunk, running his fingers along a series of circles and stick figures that had been carved into the bark. He looked up, his expression one of intense self-satisfaction.
“I think the Counselor already saw those,” Mascot told him quietly, remembering how their leader’s attention had been drawn there when they’d first arrived. “Sorry.”
Overdrive’s face fell. “He did?”
They both looked across the small field at Counselor, who had just stopped to bend down beside a patch of shrubbery.
He’s found something, Mascot thought.
She used a quick burst of hyperspeed to catch up with their team leader when she saw what he was holding: a hunting knife with an elaborately carved grip.
The Counselor didn’t even look at her. His brows furrowed as he weighed the knife in his hand. His eyes were glued to Kid, who was still standing beside the fallen tree with Overdrive.
“Do you sense anything now?” he called over to the girl.
Kid shook her head, clearly disappointed that she couldn’t be of help.
The Counselor’s eyes flicked to Mascot. “We need to give Kid a power boost,” he said in a flat voice that didn’t bode well.
She was taken aback. “What? Why?”
“Because the last thing this knife did was carve those Anasazi protection symbols into that tree trunk. And we need to know why.”