Cowley, USA – Saturday, the 9th of June, 2012. 12:39 PM.
When she heard mention of another power boost, Kid began to make her way over to the Counselor and Mascot, treading through the forest with small, cautious steps. Noire and Overdrive followed the girl a few seconds later, making much more noise than she had.
“Oh, you found the knife!” Kid exclaimed happily. “Do you know the connection yet?”
“All I know is this knife carved the symbols in that trunk,” the Counselor repeated what he’d just told Mascot.
“And if that’s the last thing it did, why is it over here?“ Mascot asked with a swiveling finger motion to indicate the distance.
“That’s what I’m about to find out, I hope,” the Counselor replied.
“With symbols you mean those hieroglyphs I found?” Overdrive asked.
“We aren’t in Egypt, dumbass,” Noire scoffed.
“Those are Anasazi protection symbols,” The Counselor corrected patiently.
“Huh?” Overdrive stared at him blankly. “What the hell are Okanawsi protection symbols?”
Good question, Mascot thought.
This was a question for people who watched mystery shows or had a degree in parapsychology. She didn’t fit into either category, but the potential relevance these symbols had for their case intrigued her.
“Anasazi,” Counselor corrected. “The Indians who lived in the southwestern United States thousands of years before the United States was a country.”
“Oh, yeah,” Overdrive said. “I think I saw a book about that in the cabin.”
“Informants have told us that Chayton became very interested in Native American myths after his transition.”
“Because he thought they’d protect him from the boogeyman?” Mascot asked, trying to piece it all together.
The Counselor raised his shoulders in a shrug. “Those symbols are believed, by some, to ward off evil.”
“Why didn’t he just go underground?” Overdrive asked. “That’s what I would’ve done if I had his powers.”
“That’s a very good question,” the Counselor mused. “Kid, can you pick up anything now?”
The girl shook her head apologetically. “It was too long ago. Everything just feels fuzzy and foresty now.”
The Counselor removed the Mp3 player he’d been wearing about his neck and held it out to Kid. “How about you give this a try?” he suggested.
Kid raised her eyebrows, looking unsure.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Mascot asked him. “I mean, what if something goes wrong?”
“I wasn’t the only one cleared for a power boost,” the Counselor revealed. “Headquarters cleared Kid, too. They believe it’s safe. At least to give it a try and see what happens.”
Is there really no way to solve this without getting Kid involved? Mascot thought, somewhat angrily.
“Give it a try?” she echoed. “But aren’t these tracks designed for Visionaries like you? There could be, I don’t know. Side effects.”
“If it turns out they work for her, then great,” the Counselor said. “If not, no harm done.”
You better hope there’s no harm done, Mascot seethed silently. But she kept her mouth shut, knowing he wasn’t going to listen to her.
Kid accepted the player that was dangling from Counselor’s outstretched hand.
“Try tracks four and five,” he suggested. “See if they do anything for you.”
“Righty-o. I’m on it!” Kid accepted the player and chose a track. Then she slipped the earphones into her ears and waited.
Mascot looked on warily, but after a long moment of nothing really happening, she allowed herself to relax a bit.
Kid’s auburn eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t like this music,” she said. “It’s sad. Sounds like giraffes crying because their heads are stuck in the clouds and they can’t see anything.”
“That’s what it sounds like?” Overdrive chuckled.
“Crazy shit,” Noire agreed.
“You don’t have to like it,” the Counselor said. “But do you feel any change to your powers?”
“Nope,” Kid said.
“Then try the next one,” he suggested hopefully.
Kid skipped ahead to the next track and her face lit up in an instant. “This one’s kinda cool,” she said, bouncing along to music only she could hear. “It sounds like that laundry detergent commercial where everyone chases the dirty burglar.”
Mascot smirked. She knew that commercial; the burglar in question bore an uncanny resemblance to the Counselor.
“And . . . ?” the Counselor prompted. “Do you feel anything?”
Kid stopped smiling. Her small face contorted in concentration, instead. “Everything’s still a bit fuzzy, but it’s changed a bit, too,” she said after a while, “It’s hard to explain what it feels like. Maybe if I had something of his in my hand . . .”
He better not give her that huge knife, Mascot thought, ready to remove it from the scene if she had to.
But the Counselor handed over Chayton’s house keys instead, along with a Polaroid photo from the small checkered briefcase he was carrying.
Kid stared at the photograph, holding it a few inches from her face with one hand. Her fingers wrapped around the key ring, loosening and tightening her grip absentmindedly. The way her fingers moved reminded Chris of the day Kid had delved into a dolphin’s identity to imitate its squeaking voice for her.
“Okay. Go,” Kid said after a few moments, her eyes still fixed on the photograph even though she was giving the a-okay to the Counselor.
So far so good, Mascot decided. But Kid’s next words sent a shiver down her spine. They were coming from the little girl’s mouth, but the voice wasn’t her own. It had deepened to a soft baritone that assumed an odd and very creepy mix of young girl and odd man.
“He was here,” Kid’s transformed voice said.
Noire and Overdrive, who had drifted off towards the edge of the clearing, turned their heads at the sound of the unfamiliar voice.
The Counselor didn’t seem flustered in the least. “Did Chayton Wallace draw those symbols because he felt threatened?” he asked.
“Yes. No. Maybe,” came the creepy voice from Kid’s mouth.
“The answer is all of those?” the Counselor pressed.
“Yes,” Kid confirmed.
She can still channel Chayton after all this time? Mascot thought with a shudder, considerably more disturbed than impressed. She watched on warily, ready to put a stop to this at the first indication that the girl was being upset by any of it.
And she wouldn’t care if the interference pissed off any of the higher-ups, either.
“Did he see something he considered evil? Supernatural?” The Counselor continued his questioning.
“Maybe evil, but definitely supernatural.”
“The thing Chayton Wallace saw, did it appear from underground?” The Counselor went on, watching Kid’s reaction as carefully as Mascot was.
Mascot recalled the photos she’d seen in the slide presentation. The scattering of clothes from three of the other disappeared, scattered around holes in the woods or on abandoned fields. That evidence suggested the assumption that something had pulled the victims underground.
“No,” Kid responded in the same strange voice.
So much for your menace from below theory, Sherlock, . But that was an idea to pursue later, when she had more information to take into account, and nothing to distract her from drawing her conclusions.
The Counselor’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “I can see it came from that direction,” he said, pointing off somewhere into the distance. “The North East, correct?”
“Yes,” Kid confirmed. “It was a long, long journey.”
Mascot perked up at that. The Counselor’s ability to sense the directional connection was rather impressive, and very helpful to their case if it turned out to be accurate.
“Was it a human form?”
“Was it a man?”
“Yes and no.”
The Counselor seemed surprised. “It was a man and a woman? Two people?” he clarified.
“No. One person.”
This isn’t working, Mascot thought, not as disappointed as she could have been. Hopefully that meant the authorities would just send Kid back home and bring in the Covenant like they should have done all along. And Mascot wouldn’t mind helping, if they asked.
Not that they’d ask. Not her.
The Counselor took a moment before moving on to the next question. “He was approached by someone who was both man and woman?”
What, like transgendered or something? Mascot wondered.
“Did Chayton Wallace know right away that the person was both man and woman?”
They didn’t seem to be getting anywhere.
The Counselor’s face took on a strange expression. He looked down at the knife, then his gaze darted off into the distance. Were some new connections forming in his mind’s eye?
“Did Chayton and this visitor have a conversation?” the Counselor asked.
“Yes,” Kid’s strange voice said as she toyed with the music player controls absently, staring into space.
Chayton must have wanted to talk to the person, or else he would have just entered mole mode and escaped, Chris deduced. But then what’s with the protection symbols? What did the person have to say that frightened him?
The Counselor must have been thinking along the same lines. “Did he carve the Anasazi symbols into the trunk after hearing the visitor speak?” he asked, tugging again at the invisible strings.
But why? Mascot wondered. Why would he carve the symbols after the greeting, or whatever came first?
She leaned in closer, waiting for the Counselor to ask the question. But he didn’t, and she made a mental note to ask him about it later.
She looked over at the tree trunk, beside which Overdrive was pacing with restless energy. He clearly didn’t enjoy being left on the sidelines of this investigation; it looked as if he couldn’t wait for a chance to mess with another radio somewhere. Or something bigger than a radio. In contrast, Noire just sat on the tree trunk, watching the insects that buzzed around her.
She doesn’t make an effort to look tough when nobody’s watching, Mascot mused.
“Did Chayton Wallace feel intimidated by the visitor?” The Counselor’s questioning continued.
“No,” Kid replied in that unnaturally deep voice. “He was just curious. Seeking answers.”
Then why those protection symbols, if he wasn’t intimidated? Mascot wondered.
After a dozen more questions to verify the timeframe and the lack of anyone else’s involvement, Mascot didn’t feel any closer to the truth.
The Counselor seemed to feel the same way, because he told Kid to switch off the player. She smiled as she handed it back to him.
About time, Mascot thought as she brushed a ladybug off her furry bear costume.
“Are we done here?” she asked the Counselor pointedly, stepping up to Kid’s side.
The girl was rubbing her face with both hands, as if trying to remember what it was like to be herself. If there are side effects, someone’s going to pay for this, Mascot decided.
“Yes,” the Counselor said, ignoring Mascot’s challenging tone.
“Are you okay?” Mascot asked Kid quietly.
“Yeah, totally,” Kid said with some feeble cheer in her voice. Hearing her speak in her own child’s voice instead of an oddly distorted male baritone was a great relief.
“And?” Peter asked, walking up to them with Noire by his side. “Did Kid save the day like I predicted?”
“We learned that Chayton Wallace considered the visitor an incarnation of a Native American spirit, but only after some initial shock. Still, I believe that his disappearance might have happened with his consent,” the Counselor explained.
Huh? We did? Mascot thought. She looked over at the Counselor, waiting for an explanation that didn’t come. He must have sensed more connections that he hadn’t shared with them.
“That’s twisted,” Noire said. “The guy must have been seriously depressed or something.”
“That isn’t the impression Kid got from the house,” Mascot said.
The Counselor nodded in affirmation. “I believe the visitor knew enough about Native American customs that Chayton Wallace developed a deep respect for this person over the course of their talk.
“So maybe he chose to heed the visitor’s guidance,” Mascot suggested, thinking out loud. “This could mean we’re looking for two individuals — Chayton and another person — instead of just one.”
“Exactly,” the Counselor said.
“But the fact that he left his knife behind suggests something different,” Noire argued. “The police didn’t find any of his clothes like they did with the later victims, right?“
“No,” the Counselor said. “But Chayton’s disappearance wasn’t reported immediately, and by the time the tracking dogs were brought in, the scent was already cold. I know the direction he went, and I believe his belongings may be somewhere out there, but I’m not sure we have the time to investigate further. I’ll pass our findings to the authorities. We may need to leave Chayton’s case to the police.”
“If the Indian guy didn’t get killed and is travelling with his new buddy, why can’t Queenie track him?” Overdrive asked. “Because they’re underground?”
“I can only guess that the reason they can’t be tracked has something to do with our serial killer’s powers,” the Counselor answered slowly.
“A bunch of people have managed to avoid her attention, so it wouldn’t be a first, right?” Kid piped up, looking at Overdrive brightly.
“Yeah, like O’s fancy European girlfriend,” Noire teased, drawing out the last word in her long, Southern drawl.
“Maybe our suspect affected Chayton in a way that allows both of them travel underground, undetected,” the Counselor speculated, ignoring the teen drama. “There have been multiple cases of Evolved who could employ a power-sharing effect.”
“Kinda like powerset piggybacking?” Kid ventured.
The Counselor inclined his head. “Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.”
“Maybe he had one of those creepy power surges,” Noire joked, narrowing her eyes and curling her fingers into pretend claws for additional effect.
“Thank goodness it doesn’t fit what we know about the surge pattern,” the Counselor said. ”Power surges only add abilities that are strictly in line with what the individual can already do.”
The Covenant wouldn’t have left this case to us if it involved power surges, Mascot thought. Those guys get really worked up about surges.
“Is it possible the killer is absorbing the powers of his victims?” Overdrive asked. ”Because that’s what happened in some superhero TV series. Creepy shit.”
“Of whoever he devours,” Mascot corrected, recalling the prophecy from the day before. “Which would explain why he’s only going after Evolved.”
“That possibility has been brought up before,” the Counselor said.
“Wait. So the boss-men already knew, and sent a bunch of amateurs after a power-absorbing serial killer without filling them in on all the details?” Noire asked, clearly irritated.
The revelation irked Mascot, too.
“Hey, who’re you calling an amateur?” Overdrive retorted, sounding offended.
Mascot’s mind was racing. “Wasn’t there a Teleporter among the victims? What if he decides to come after us?” she challenged the Counselor.
“Only a handful of people know where we are,” the Counselor replied, patting the air in a placating manner that wasn’t very placating. “And additionally, that Teleporter’s reach was very limited to just a few destinations in South America. So even if you were correct — and I’m not saying you are — we are safe up here, at least for the time being.”
“We’re not seriously sticking around here, are we?” Noire asked. “I mean, we’re out of leads and you don’t want to keep going after Chayton, so what’s the point?”
“That’s not quite true,” the Counselor said. “We do have one more lead, and it’s more important than locating Chayton’s belongings. Our target came from the North East. The far North East – most likely Canada.”
“But no one’s disappeared from up there,” Noire said. “Plenty of Canadians doing nobody knows what in those woods, but no missing Evolved.”
“There was the Historian,” Overdrive reminded them excitedly. “But he went missing a long time ago, right? Like a couple of years ago?”
The Counselor nodded in agreement. “Yes, that is correct. And I seem to recall that the Historian had an extensive library on Native American customs, too. It might explain how our suspect convinced Mr. Wallace to come with him. It’s as good a lead as any.”
Overdrive looked at Noire smugly and wiggled his eyebrows, clearly impressed with himself.
The Darkshaper just rolled her eyes.
“So we’re flying to Canada now?” Overdrive asked, clearly revitalized by his recent contribution to the investigation.
“Maybe you’ll get to hit on some frosty forest nymph,” Noire suggested in a tone that was dripping sarcasm as thick as molasses.
“The direction certainly fits with the connections I’m seeing,” the Counselor said, pulling his cell phone from his jacket. “But I’ll have to clear it with Mr. Turner.”
Mascot looked down at Kid. “Do you want to go to Canada?” she asked quietly. “Don’t let the grown ups tell you what to do.”
“No, I want to go,” the girl said, meeting her eyes. “I want to help. We gotta find the bogeyman.”
Mascot sighed, then nodded. Yeah, I guess we do, she decided. Especially now that it might be a power-devouring manipulator they were dealing with. And she certainly wasn’t about to let Kid handle it on her own.
Kid shouldn’t even be a member of the Wardens, Mascot thought. She should be going to school and leading a normal life.
It was almost enough to make Mascot want to run. Almost, but not quite. She looked over at Kid, whose eyes were now on a blue jay perched in an oak tree. The Counselor had his phone pressed to one ear and looked occupied with his call.
Seeing as the urge was becoming overwhelming, Mascot gave in and retrieved a cigarette packet from her bear costume, hoping Kid wouldn’t notice. She felt bad about it even after she’d walked a short distance into the forest, but she needed a smoke to think. The relaxing effect kicked in after the first few pulls, helping her get her thoughts in order.
She had no illusions about why the authorities wanted their little team to capture the killer. It certainly wasn’t because of Noire, who referred to herself as Monster Momma and somehow managed to scare almost everyone she came into contact with. And Overdrive was likely to blow something up by accident while trying to impress some girl, while Mascot herself was supposed to be following a strict therapy schedule.
No, the reason why the whole team had been pulled into this was Kid; she was popular and everyone loved her. America – and the tax payers who happened to fund the hero program – wanted to see her on TV. They wanted to celebrate her. And the authorities wanted to exploit that. The Wardens team needed a likeable figurehead to guarantee some base level of acceptance at the public level.
However, after everything they had learned about the serial killer, Mascot could very much agree that someone had to put an end to further Evolved disappearances. And if no one else was going to do it, she supposed the Wardens would be up for the task. They had come this far. Canada was only one step further, really.
The Counselor finished his call just as Mascot finished her smoke and was tucking the extinguished butt away in the packet. Their team leader gave her a stern glare, but no speech about her responsibility as a role model. She was grateful for that.
“Come on, guys. Grab your helmets,” he announced. “As soon as Canada gives the okay, we’re headed to Québec.”
It was dusk by the time the Wardens reached the small town of Grand Marronnier, Québec, about two hundred miles northwest of Québec City; too late to head to the cabin the Historian had called home. The near non-stop travelling had drained even Kid’s spirits. None of them were in the mood for any more serial killer tracking that day.
The Wardens drove straight to the bed and breakfast the authorities had booked for them. As they passed through the center of town, they agreed unanimously that Grand Marronnier looked pretty much like a typical small town in the U.S. The only French architecture they could identify in the twilight was a large gothic church complete with decorative adornments and pointed roofs.
Although the authorities had assured them that no other guests were booked in the quaint bed and breakfast that night, Mascot spotted an audience of maybe two dozen gawking townspeople — men, women, and children of various ages — clustered on the sidewalk opposite their lodgings.
News travels at hyperspeed in a small town, Mascot mused humorlessly.
Naturally, Overdrive waved at the crowd the instant he stepped out of the car, flashing poses that showed off all the lightning adornments on his kevlar-reinforced costume. Only two of the kids waved back.
The owner of the bed and breakfast was a tall stick of a man with a long greying ponytail. He met them in the parking lot and quickly ushered them inside to their rooms— one for each of them, seeing as there was plenty of room. Mascot couldn’t deny that she was looking forward to finally getting some alone time. It had been a long couple of days.
As soon as she was shown to her room, Mascot shut the door behind her and flopped down onto the queen-sized feather bed. From that vantage point, she surveyed her surroundings. The room looked pretty okay, clean and with an adjacent bathroom. The polka-dotted curtains and forest scenery paintings were a bit tasteless, but whatever.
She was about to take off her costume and catch a nap when someone knocked on her door. She contemplated pretending to be asleep, then changed her mind. What if Kid needed her?
“Yeah?” she called.
“Hey, it’s us,” came Overdrive’s voice through the door. “We’re going to grab a bite at that diner we passed. You wanna come?”
“Do I have to?” she called back. She didn’t dislike the others, she was just really craving some alone time.
“The boss isn’t with us,” Noire added. “He went off to do his own thing, whatever that is.”
As if that’ll convince me.
It actually did, a little.
“Um . . . I don’t know,” Mascot wavered. She was starting to feel a little peckish.
“Who’s gonna protect me from the crazy lumberjacks if you don’t come?” It was Kid’s voice this time.
You little rascal, Mascot thought, cracking a small grin in spite of herself. You know just how to manipulate me.
“Fine,” she reluctantly agreed.
“Woo hoo!” she heard Kid cheer.
With a groan, Mascot sat up in bed and grabbed her bear helmet from the bedside table. She would have preferred going civilian, but the authorities wanted them to wear their costumes in public and she didn’t want to risk breaking one of the rules that actually mattered. Not when they had more important trouble to deal with.
With the helmet under her arm, she stepped into the hallway to join the others. Noire gave her a thumbs up when she appeared.
That has to count for something.
During the ten-minute walk to the diner, they passed a laundromat, a gas station, and a whole bunch of slightly run-down homes with occupants staring at them through illuminated windows. Mascot felt a bunch of eyes following the Wardens’ meager hero procession as they passed.
Let’s just hope we don’t make big news headlines, Mascot thought, still concerned about alerting whoever it was they were tracking. Maybe that rule about always wearing costumes in public was just another asinine proclamation, after all.
Mascot couldn’t help but notice that the majority of the distrustful glances were directed at Noire in particular. The Darkshaper had her hands jammed in her pockets and refused to look at anything but the section of pavement directly ahead of her.
It didn’t take a genius to realize they weren’t welcome in Grand Marronnier.
As Mascot recalled it, Canada had experienced some of the worst luck in regards to superpowers. Liquidate had emerged in Ottawa with terrifying consequences, and Ashstorm went on a pissed-off rampage in Niagara Falls several months later. His powers hadn’t been lethal, but they had left people spooked. Especially about Darkshapers.
They arrived at Café Bistro Charles, which was deserted except for some local teens sitting at a table near the bar. The kids’ conversation stopped abruptly as soon as the Wardens entered, and a boy with a Montreal Canadians jersey stared at them with blatant wariness.
After an uncomfortable moment standing in the doorway, Mascot led the other Wardens to a cozy booth near the back of the wood-paneled diner, a good distance away from the locals.
“This definitely looks like the kind of place where crazy Canadian lumberjacks would hang out,” Overdrive muttered as he surveyed the cabin style décor.
The bistro was dimly lit with a series of vintage lamps hanging over the bar. The pine-clad walls had been decorated with a mix of historic photographs and old-fashioned logging equipment, and loud French pop songs were playing from speakers mounted by the door to the kitchen.
“Don’t piss your pants,” Noire scoffed at Overdrive as she tossed a handful of her long braids over one costumed shoulder. “You got three girl guards to protect you.”
“I think it’s you who should be scared,” Overdrive retorted. “Some of those locals look like they want to burn you at the stake.”
In between the banter, Kid settled down on the bench beside Mascot. “I want fries!” she exclaimed, almost a little too cheerfully. “The boss-man isn’t watching, so let’s order all the unhealthy stuff.”
“My mom never let me order unhealthy stuff growing up,” Overdrive complained, flashing a roguish smile that showed off a row of well-kept teeth.
Kid looked over at Mascot and raised an eyebrow. “You ever going to call your parents?” she asked out of the blue. Mascot immediately felt herself tense up beneath the costume. For once, she was glad for the cover it provided. She had been working hard not to think about her parents these last few days. She grabbed a menu off the table and opened it up to hide as much of her face as possible.
“Are all of you in touch with your families?” she asked, her eyes fixed to her menu.
“Yeah, of course,” Overdrive said. “They’re constantly worrying about me even when I’m not doing anything.”
Noire nodded in agreement. “Mr. Turner flies my mom in from New Orleans once a month. It’s the only thing that keeps her sane, I think. And Em’s dad was offered a job with the government in San Francisco, so she spends as much time at home as she does at HQ.”
Mascot looked over at Kid, who nodded eagerly. “Yeppers,” she said. “I love knowing they’re close.”
“And it’s the only reason her parents agreed to let her join us,” Overdrive added. “Her being a kid and all.”
Mascot crossed her arms over her costumed chest, not at all surprised that the authorities pulled some strings to get Kid on board.
God, I hope they don’t offer my parents some incentive to move to California, Mascot thought, alarmed by the idea. Although I doubt my parents want to be anywhere near me right now.
She settled back in the booth, trying to make sense of her feelings. There were some things she missed about home, sure. Some memories had been nice. Mostly ones from before Dylan.
“I don’t think they’re mad,” Kid whispered, slipping an arm around Mascot’s waist.
“Huh?” Mascot stammered, startled by the girl’s words. She really didn’t want to be talking about this right now.
“I was outside Mrs. Clarence’s office when she called your mom,” the girl elaborated, putting a finger to the bridge of her nose and squinting up at Mascot with a Little Miss Know-It-All expression.
“I can’t imagine not talking to my mom,” Noire declared, shaking her head.
“Besides, what’s a phone call when you’re chasing some superpowered serial killer?” Overdrive added.
Mascot sighed. “Will you all promise to get off my back if I call them when this is over?”
“We promise!” Kid exclaimed, clapping her hands happily.
“We should find her a boyfriend, too,” Overdrive suggested, wagging his eyebrows. “Maybe she’ll be less grumpy.”
All of a sudden Mascot was glad for the blaring Franco-pop music. At least it kept anyone from overhearing their conversation. “I’m not grumpy,” she said, trying to sway the conversation away from boyfriend talk.
“Yes, you are,” Kid countered. “Grumpyface Grumpkin.”
“Exactly,” Overdrive agreed. “That’s why she needs a boyfriend. Or at least a date.”
Somehow, the prospect of going on a date seemed almost as intimidating as tracking down a superpowered serial killer. “I’d rather the authorities just kill me now,” she joked lamely.
Unfortunately, no one laughed.
Mascot winced. I must’ve inherited Dad’s gene for lame jokes, she decided.
Kid and Overdrive exchanged an uncomfortable glance.
“What’s wrong?” Mascot asked.
“The Covenant nearly offed Nora when she transitioned,” Overdrive said after a moment of silence. “We assumed you knew.”
Mascot could have kicked herself. Of course she knew, her mind had just blanked out.
Noire snapped her head around, her long braids dropping from her shoulders. Her dark eyes flashed angrily at Overdrive. “Don’t cha bring that up. Especially not now.”
“Hey, calm down,” Overdrive urged. “I just think she should know the truth if we’re going to be working together, that’s all.”
Noire fell into a sullen silence.
“Anyone want to share some fries?” Kid broke in, obviously trying to diffuse the situation. Nobody answered her.
“I think the Covenant kinda threatened to kill me, too, if I didn’t join your hero team,” Chris offered, trying to imitate Mrs. Clarence’s sympathetic tone. She probably wasn’t getting it right, but it was an improvement over Grumpyface Grumpkin.
“If you think that’s the same kind of shit, you’re wrong,” Noire said, shooting her an icy look.
Mascot wanted to hide her face behind a menu again. Just shut up already, Chris, she told herself. You’re obviously not helping matters.
Overdrive turned to face Noire. “How about you quit it with the intimidation?” he said in a mocking tone. “We all know you’re just doing it because you’re ‘sensitive and insecure’.” He stressed the last three words with air quotes.
“What about splitting some chicken wings instead?” Kid tried unsuccessfully to change the subject again.
Noire’s eyes narrowed. “I dare you to say that to me again,” she challenged Overdrive.
“See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Overdrive said, exasperated. “I’ve had a chat with Mrs. Clarence, you know. She asked me to keep an eye on you.”
“When the fuck was that?”
“Right after Nato.”
“That psycho bitch thinks I’m gonna smear myself across a wall?” Noire snorted. “Well, she’s wrong.”
Kid had given up on turning the conversation to food and had stuffed both her index fingers into her ears to block out the arguing. Her face wore an expression that actually portrayed pain.
She probably suffers more from our emotions than we do, Mascot realized.
She leaned over and settled a hand on the girl’s arm to comfort her. “I’ll make them stop really soon, promise,” she assured Kid, hoping the girl could hear her over the finger earplugs.
Overdrive looked across the table at Chris. “If you’re going to be on the team, you should probably know this stuff, too. The only reason they didn’t eliminate her was because they’d already accepted Nato onto the hero team, even though his powers were potentially more lethal and unpredictable than hers.”
It hadn’t been that long ago that Nato had been a member of the Wardens; Mascot remembered him well enough. He had been the darling son of a powerful Republican Senator. Fair-haired, blue eyes, star quarterback, that sort of thing.
And they were afraid that if they didn’t extend the same treatment to everybody, no matter what their skin color . . .
“They were scared of the racial shitstorm if they didn’t do the same for the black girl,” Noire supplied, as if reading Mascot’s mind.
“Well, it seems to have worked for the Chinese girl, too.” The dark joke was already out of her mouth before Mascot could stop herself.
To her surprise, Noire gave a small laugh. “And go figure — you’re on probation too.”
Mascot felt her face break into a grin. “Yeah, right.”
“Yeah, but Noire’s on the highest level of probation or something,” Overdrive told her. “If she harms anyone at all without orders, she’s in really deep shit.”
Having to wait for orders might really suck if shit gets real.
“You know who’s about to get in shit?” Noire asked, all anger gone from her voice. “Our waitress. Where is she? I’m hungry, and Kid wants fries.”
“And wings,” Kid piped up, clearly glad the tides of the conversation had changed.
Mascot leaned out of the booth to try to track down a server. Unfortunately, the first eye she caught belonged to one of the local teenagers, who was glaring at her with hatred written all over his face. The girl beside him was busy typing something into her smartphone.
Mascot quickly shifted her gaze to the cash register area, where a waitress in a green uniform and a white apron was cowering by the coffee machine.
“Hey, can we get some fries?” Mascot called over.
“And wings?” Kid added cheerily.
The waitress didn’t react, even though Mascot was sure she’d heard them. Mascot kept staring at her until the woman came over to take their order.
But before their food arrived, the bistro door swung open and more than a dozen youths poured into the diner. Their faces were all wearing identical expressions: a mix of defiance and anxiety. None of them carried any visible weapons, but some had their hands tucked into their pockets and there were some suspicious bulges in garments that should have been flat.
The group’s collective attention was immediately on the Wardens. A guy in his early twenties stepped forward to challenge them with his glare.
“We don’t like mutants in our town,” he said, his French accent apparent even through his clenched teeth. “Get the fuck out of here.”