Chapter 19

Submitted by Zombieman on Wed, 12/12/2018 - 01:19

When I woke the next morning, I couldn’t remember anything. There was just a hole after having a pineapple thrust into my hands by Cain until waking up this morning. I was nude, someone was in the bathroom of off of this suite, and I was not in my room. Next to me in the dim light lay an androgynous body woefully deprived of hair. The bed I was on was circular, and I saw Cain snoring softly, his feet near mine, body and an angle matching the curve of the bed. The bathroom door opened, and a stark naked Larken came back into the bedroom, her eyes caught mine before she switched off the light and plunged the room into shadows again. She padded across the room and poured herself gently into bed beside me. I rolled over to face her, and she giggled before saying softly, “You eat pussy like a champ.”

“Can I use you as a reference?”

Larken laughed again, “I’ve been with men and women, and I love them both. The interesting thing about women is they approach oral sex completely different from me. It makes sense really, I mean women know their own bodies and can presume to know what another woman would like. I was going to say you eat pussy like a girl, which would have been a compliment if you think about it, but I decided ‘champ’ would be better. Now, your friend Gary, on the other hand, didn’t rate your oral nearly as high. He gave you 10 stars for enthusiasm, but only 3 for technique. Eventually he…”

I had never considered that might happen. Charlene! My right arm flared in pain for a moment. Cut it out. Why did you do it?

“You okay, Billy?”

“Last night was…new for me.” I had to get Charlene out of my body. My arm burned again. Stop it, okay? The pain lessened, and I felt almost…euphoria. So that’s how we have to play it, you can read my thoughts, but I have to play twenty questions with you to get any answers?

“I’m glad I could be a part of it. I’m going to keep you close, Billy. Do you want a job as my security chief?”

“I can’t.” I told her.

She pouted, “Why not?”

“It’s…it’s Andro. I know he’s behind you and I don’t want the scrutiny that brings.”

“You don’t like Andro?”

“I have a very healthy respect for Andro. So healthy I try to avoid him when I can.”

“Well there’s nothing to worry about there, he fronted me some money to get this tour together, but the details of the contract are very specific, he gets 20% off the top. That’s it.”

“No clauses to safeguard his investment?”

“If I default on the tour dates he gets the rights to Unslaved.”

“Ouch.”

“The thing is, I have this nagging worry that I might not make all the tour dates.” She looked at me closely, “Don’t look so surprised. I researched him before I took his money. There’s also a clause that says I can work off any missed dates here at on the strip, so long as the shows are made up within 1 year of the last date I miss. I played last night to get one ‘in the bank’ so to speak.”

“That sounds pretty iron clad.”

“It is, but there’s no money in it for me. Residuals will sink through the floor by this time next year, and with 20 percent coming off the top I’m really only left with merchandising to make a profit. Margins are slim, and only a fool lets other people handle their money for them.”

“So you can’t afford me anyway.”

“You’d replace they guy Andro sent me. No offense, Billy, but I bet you work cheaper than him too. It’s a win-win. What do you say?”

“Could I go on retainer?”

Her brow furrowed, “That doesn’t save me any money, in fact, it probably costs me more.”

“Look, I have some things to clear up first, things related to what happened last week. I can’t take a job with you and then take two weeks off right away.” You, Saint Charlene, are one of the loose ends I’m going to take care of.

“Fair enough, I’ll give Andro’s man two-week notice and tell him you’re coming on board for the rest of the tour.”

“Now, wait a second here, I don’t know if I can start in two weeks exactly. That’s why I suggested the retainer.”

“I can’t believe you don’t want to work with her.” Came a sleepy voice from behind me. Gary rolled over and put his arm around me, resting his hand on Larken’s thigh. With his groin spooning me I felt…my walls tumble down as Charlene took over.

“It’s not that.” I heard myself say. “I really do have some business to take care of, and I don’t want to set up false expectations.”

“You’re frustrating. And horny.” Larken said.

Morning wood. I tried to say, Charlene said nothing. So I’m stuck in my head now? I thought about the pain she caused me and tried to send some her way, if she felt it, she didn’t give me the satisfaction of saying so. I heard her say to Larken, “I don’t mean to be, but I won’t commit when I might not be able to do the job. Do you understand?”

“I understand morning sex is the best.’ Larken purred.

Slowly my conscious faded to black, the nearest I can explain it, is that I fell asleep. I woke later as Gary was sitting on the bed pulling on his pants. Larken was gone, but Cain was propped up on one elbow looking at his phone.

“’Morning, mate.”

“Good morning. I’m not sure what happened last night.”

“You got wild. It was nice to see you unwind a little. I won’t hold it against you.”

“Neither will I.” Gary said reaching over to stroke my thigh. Pleasure radiated through my body, and I shuddered involuntarily. “I’m so glad you called me. Really, I owe you. I got to meet Larken Bircus and Cain! I nailed Compass! I have photographic proof.”

“Er…what?”

“Not like that, no, Larken said nudity was fine, but no sex acts and when the diva speaks her follower listens. Just a few selfies. You really don’t remember much do you?” Gary asked.

“It’s a bit of a blur.”

“Well, check your phone, I’m sure it will all come back to you when you look over the digitals there.” He pulled a stylish t-shirt on over his head and bent down to kiss me on the forehead, “Sorry to run, but a man’s gotta work.”

“Goodbye, Gary and thanks for being…discreet.”

“I was your first man.” I started to protest, but he held up a finger, “Honey, don’t deny it! Own it. Love it. Times are changing, what you couldn’t admit to ten years ago, doesn’t even make the gossip columns in the National Crier anymore. You can do your part to keep the movement going, to normalize things, do you understand. You need to be out, not hiding. I won’t out you right away, but after about three months I’m going to start losing my discretion, understand?”

Fucking Charlene, now the world will think I’m gay? What would my grandfather think? I nodded and asked him “Why?”

“Look, I think the news will be out anyway, I’m hardly the only man you kissed.” He looked pointedly at Cain, “I’m sure as hell, not the only one who was taking pictures last night. You’re either part of the change or part of the oppressors holding us back. It’s okay, Billy. I know your heart is good and you’ll do the right thing, you know this discrimination is wrong.”

“I’m not really sure what to do here.” I said. What happens when I suddenly stopped being gay? You can’t get that egg back in the shell.

“Just arrange an interview somewhere, it doesn’t have to be a confessional, just an assertion. I’m sure Cain or Larken have the pull to set it up…hell after last week I’m surprised you don’t have an agent yourself yet to handle your story and digital rights. I’ll treat you fair, but this thing we have, it’s bigger than you or me, and this is absolutely not blackmail. This is honesty. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to be who you are. Your friends and family will accept you. Mine accepted me. If they don’t, they weren’t worth having around anyway.”

I didn’t know what to say, and he kissed my forehead again and left without another word. Cain grunted when he left and said, “I wonder if coffee’s on?”

“That’s it, nothing to add? No advice?”

“I don’t recall you asking for any.”

“What would you do?”

“Do? Get coffee first. Thinking is much harder without caffeine.”

“Have you seen my pants?”

He gestured around the room, where clothing littered the floor, “Just grab any that you think will fit.”

I didn’t have to resort to that. I found my trousers and shirt on the dresser, not folded, exactly, but not tossed there without a care either. My underclothes were missing in action; I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for them. I joined up with Cain who was with Larken in the kitchen part of the suite, to my amazement the place wasn’t full of guests or leftover party garbage. Sure it could use a good vacuuming, but someone had already cleaned it up.

Larken pressed a large ceramic mug into my hand and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Cain tells me your boy Gary is going to out you.”

I shrugged. “Honestly, Larken, I can’t remember much from last night. I can tell you this; I never had any inkling about, uh, bisexuality before.” It was a lie, but a polite one. Thanks, Charlene.

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, I’m open to suggestions if you have any?”

Cain and Larken shared a look, and she turned toward me and smiled, “I’m your friend, Compass.” I doubted that; we’d known each other for one night, I was a one-night stand. She must have seen the doubt in my eyes, “Poor, Compass! You think I’m insincere on account of us just banging one out. It might be a surprise, but I don’t bring just anyone to bed with me. Cain?”

“It’s true, I haven’t shagged her. Actually, she was more intent on watching our interactions with Gary than she was on getting your Johnson inside of her, mate.”

“Our interactions with Gary?” I asked. I felt a brief shot of pleasure. Goddamnit! This is like….like rape you bitch!

“He’s got that look in his eyes again!” Cain said.

“Bye-bye, Compass.” Larken said with an edge of sadness in her voice. I was vaguely aware of Cain grabbing my coffee mug out of my hand and Larken half controlling my fall to the carpeted floor.

When I woke again, I was on the couch, face up, staring into Larken and Cain’s worried faces.

“Hello? Back with us? You might want to get that looked at, mate.” Cain said, offering me a hand up.

“I don’t know what’s going on.” I admitted.

“Roll with it.” Larken said. “Billy, I have to go, I have to fly to Auroria for the first night of a 3-day gig there. Come with me now, not in two weeks. I’ll help you figure this out.”

Damnit again. I wanted to say yes, I needed to say yes. Instead, I shook my head slightly, “Where are you after that? I have unfinished business I have to attend to first. I can drive out and meet you wherever you’re playing after that.”

She and Cain laughed, “Sydney.” She said.

“You’ll have a hard time driving there. We leave on Tuesday.” Cain added.

“I will leave an open first class ticket at Auroria International Airport for you; it will fly you to wherever we are. Your name will be on the list at the venue, find us, travel with us.” Larken said.

“I’d love to; you have no idea how much. I just…” I said.

“Have unfinished business. I know. Finish it.”

“I plan to. Or it will finish me.”

“You say that like it’s real.” She chided, “No one believes in murder mysteries anymore, not in real life.”

“Trust me, I’m the real deal. Those guys behind Shiv, they weren’t caught. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Shiv?” She asked, unsure of who I was talking about.

“The goon who cut him limb from limb.” Cain said.

“I thought everything was over?” She gave me a questioning look.

I shook my head, “I’ve probably already said too much.”

“Seriously?” Larken rolled her eyes. “Play the man of mystery if you want, it makes us love you more.”

“Us.”

Cain nodded his head, “We’re like soul mates. Love at first sight.”

“We’re old enough to be her, well maybe not ‘father,' then at least older brother.” I said.

“Speak for yourself; I’m old enough to be her father. But she’s sleeping with you. And you’re sleeping with me.” Cain laughed. “Life is complicated, isn’t it?”

“No, it’s not. It’s simple. How can you two not see it?” Larken threw up her hands and stood up. “I have to pack and get to the plane. Compass, I will see you in two weeks, if not sooner. Can I tell you something else?”

“Shoot.”

“Lose the broad. She’s trouble.”

I stammered out something about Ruby, but Larken just held her phone up to one ear and disappeared into the bedroom. Leaving me and Cain alone.

“She has a head for these sorts of things. As you come to know her, you’ll trust her instincts too.”

“I usually make decisions based on evidence.”

Cain laughed again and toasted me with his mug, “In your line of work, I imagine that is so. However, I am sure you’ve played hunches. Just look at you! I bet you have a fedora and a trench coat, not only that, I bet you wear them sometimes!”

I nodded, “They never go out of style.”

“You’ll have to bring them around sometime to one of the parties, Larken would love the look. You want me to handle your outing?”

“What?”

“You actually did ask for advice, remember? Now I’ve had my coffee I can give you some. Look, I get more publicity than you, because of this tour. I could drop a line or two about ‘us’ and that would be that. I’m already as out as a rainbow. Bi, the red-headed step children of the LGBTIQ movement.”

“LGB…what the hell are you talking about?”

“Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transsexual, Intersexed, and Queer movement. It’s a mouthful, but I got caught using only the ‘LGBT’ acronym once, and the Intersexed and Queers were quick to react.”

“I…don’t even know the difference.”

“Well you better use your keen mind to learn about it, the last thing you want, trust me, is for a bunch of Intersexed and Queers to show up to protest you.”

“I don’t?”

“No.” Cain said with finality.

“Why are bi’s the redheaded step children of the movement?” I figured it was better than being gay if there was a ‘better’ here.

Cain laughed, “You got some homework to do, mate. Basically, the stereotype is they can’t love anyone, so they love everyone, there is no partner trust. Plus, they die of super-AIDS as they are all infected. Stereotypes, pah!” He sniffed and took a swig of his coffee. “Back to my suggestion, I can drop a few subtle hints to the flasheyes at a post or tween show interview, if you like.”

“I think this might be something I have to handle myself.”

He frowned and shook his head, “Billy.”

I thought about it and then nodded curtly. “Okay. Fine, do it. Honestly, I’m too much of a coward. I’d never get around to it.”

“You? A coward? I’d never say that to a man who had both legs and his arm cut off fighting a notorious killer. It is really dangerous, what you have left to do? It wasn’t macho bullshit?”

“Cain, I don’t really know. And because I don’t know; it is. I’m dealing with bad people, people who have killed other people before. If I can keep them from finding me, I might have a chance.”

“Er.”

“What?”

“Paper.” He pointed to the granite island in the kitchen.

I stood up, walked over to it and started flipping the pages, a cold feeling in my gut. “Is it in the entertainment section?”

“On a Wednesday? There is no entertainment section.” Cain flipped to the front page.

The headline was simple and included a photograph, “Larken enlists Compass to show Vegas a good time.” The picture was of her pulling me by the hand through the front doors of the lobby in the hotel.

“Oh no.” It was as bad as I thought it would be last night.

Cain slid his phone over to me. “The picture was picked up nationally.” He scrolled through several photos and the headlines of other news organizations; “Compass doing well,” “Rising above his station, Compass courts Larken,” “Larken slumming with washed up Hero.”

Slowly I started to shake, “What time is it?” His phone said read just after eleven in the morning. “Is this right?”

“Yeah.”

“I gotta get out of here.”

“Okay.” Cain said.

I reached in my pockets, my phone was in one, my wallet in the other, next to my wallet was my hotel key, a slim piece of plastic.

“Are you okay?”

“Ruby is in our rooms alone. They probably thought I would be there. I gotta go.” I made my way to the door barefoot, for a brief second, I contemplated finding my new shoes, which had probably cost what I normally bring in with a month of work. A good month of work. I left them. Out in the short hallway, I was met with a security guard at the elevator. He looked over my shoulder at Cain, giving him a questioning shrug.

“Have security send a man up to meet Compass at his room.” Cain called.

“No, that’s...okay, fine.” Extra firepower couldn’t hurt if something had happened. The elevator door opened immediately when the guard pressed the button. Another man was in the elevator already, and the guard on Larken’s floor instructed him to accompany me to my room and make sure everything was okay.

We rode down to my floor and got out in the private lobby that served the four suites that made up the entirety of the rooms available. I pointed at my door and pulled out my key. There was a ‘Do not disturb’ sign hanging from the handle. As I reached for the door, the man accompanying me pushed my hand away and drew a pistol from a hidden holster. He put a finger to his lips and pointed further down the door, beneath the lock. There was a bloody fingerprint on the door.

“We wait for help.” He said quietly, and he pressed a microphone on his collar. “Send a security detail to room 4901.”

“Wait if you want.” I slipped my key into the lock and shoved the door open.

The suite had been trashed, there was blood in the foyer next to the door, but no bodies or body parts. Blood splatter left a trail heading toward the master bedroom, and I cautiously made my way there.

“Sir!” hissed the guard from behind me. “Compass! Get out of there!”

“They’re gone.” I said loudly. “You work for Ando, right?”

“What?” he said coming to the doorway, where he crouched down and eyed the inside of the suite.

“You work for Andro’s security company, correct?”

He nodded.

“Send a cleaner, not a security team. There're bodies to clean up.” I pointed to the main living area. Ava’s nude body, legs splayed, one eye wide, the other missing, was sitting ram-rod straight on the white leather couch. I’m not a forensics expert, but from the bruises on her body things had not gone well for her last few hours of life before someone had finished her off with a gunshot through her head. Behind the couch, a spray of blood littered the off white tile.

I followed the splatter to the master bedroom, where I found Carson in the tub. It hadn’t gone well for him either, both his legs and his right arm had been cut off. He was resting in the tub in a few centimeters of coagulated blood.

I knew I wouldn’t find her, but I checked the rest of the suite for Ruby. In the process, I noticed my gun was missing, but my original phone was lying conspicuously in the center of the freshly made king sized bed. The small flashing light on it indicated there was a message waiting for me.

Andro’s security team broke in at this point. Their leader was named Rebecca, and she was very vocal, yelling “Compass move out of the crime scene now.”

I moved up to her, purposely trotting in the blood along the hallway, when we were nose to nose I said, “There is no crime scene. Call Andro for instruction, get this cleaned up.”

“Compass…” she began.

“Call Andro first, yell at me after talking to him.”

Andro had a surprisingly fresh take on what needed to happen, and within twenty minutes a cleanup detail arrived with trash carts and some unusual cleaning supplies. He knew I was there; Rebecca told him. He never asked to speak to me.

“I’m going to gather my stuff.” They had taken my money, as well but left all the clothing I had bought the day before on Andro’s expense account. As I was packing my stuff up George sidled up to me. I ignored him and continued to pack.

“You know who did this?”

“Probably the Ramos Cartel.”

“Can you prove it?”

“No. They took Ruby.”

“Are you going after her?” George asked.

We were alone in the room, the cleaning crew was focusing on the living room and foyer at the moment. “Yes.”

“Do you need help?”

I looked at him. He was controlled and unreadable. “Did you call Gary last night?”

He nodded.

“On your own?”

He shook his head.

“Someone told you to?”

“Yes.”

“I can imagine who that was. I think I had better do this one alone, George. Please tell Andro thanks for the offer.” I told him.

“I liked Ava.” George said, “Carson grated on me, but he was young, so that was forgivable, neither of them deserved to die. They had families.”

“Most people do, George, most people do.”

He gritted his teeth and said nothing.

“I work better alone.” I told him.

“You hide better alone.” He pointed to the phone laying in the center of the bed, untouched, “Are you going to get that?”

“It has GPS on it. When I move it more than about 2 feet whoever put it, there will know. I’ll get it, but it’s the last thing I’ll do before I leave this room.”

“Andro wants this whole thing kept quiet.” George told me.

“I do too. I should never have come here.”

“You should work for him. We can protect you.”

I pointed into the bathroom at Carson. “Like you protected him and Ava?”

“That’s different, you’d be in charge of Larken’s security.”

“I couldn’t even keep Ruby from being kidnapped. Have they found anything on the security tapes?”

“They are looking now. The elevator down below had security on it last night too, with access to only the upper three floors of suites. Miss Bircus’s elevator can stop at every floor but is on an independent controller, so it is never summoned by other floors. That means the perpetrators took the other elevator. We’ll have pictures of them before we leave the building.”

“If there are pictures to get. They were shiners, count on it.”

George nodded. “Teleportation is a rare gift.”

“If it was that. Someone got to the door and left a fingerprint.”

“Our guard told us. We checked it. It was Carson’s.”

“I figured from the blood trail. Maybe he opened the door, and they cut him there before dragging him back to the tub?”

“Does it matter? Are you packing Ruby’s stuff?”

I shook my head. “Have Andro do it.”

“Okay.”

I finished packing and looked around for anything I had missed. My car keys were on the bedside table. I grabbed them, and George took my hand, “Let me, tough guy. I’ll have it checked first.”

I couldn’t think of a reason not to, so I nodded. “How long?”

“Half an hour.”

That was too long, but I figured the timer on Ruby wouldn’t start until I picked up my old phone. Ruby’s purse was on her side of the bed, and I carefully opened it and found her phone inside. Her new one was still connected to the charger by the side of the bed. I didn’t touch it either.

Waiting for Andro’s techs to check my car was agonizing. I wanted to be moving, not planning. I used the time to formulate a plan of action, with George interrupting me every once in a while, to relay messages to me about my car, like, “No explosives.” And “They took off three tracking devices, one from the Southern California State Police, one from the Feds and one of a type known to be used by the Ramos Cartel.”

“You can’t trust anyone these days. What kind of tracker did they put on for Andro?” George at least had the humility to look down for a second. “Don’t worry about it,” I told him, “I’m sort of in the family now.” Me, going to work for Andro, what was next, flying pigs?

I picked my phone up off of the bed, and my retina unlocked it to display a single missed call, a voicemail message and 2 text messages. I opted to open the voice message first; I’m old school, and talkies are preferred over texts. The voice was Ruby’s, she sounded out of it, shaken and coming down from a high.

“Billy, they killed ‘em. They made me watch. They said to tell you to bring this phone when you leave and to get out of the hotel now. They will contact you.” The message ended. I checked the missed call, and it was from Ruby’s new phone. The texts were simple. The first said, “Do not turn off your phone.” The second said, “Head to the dam.” There was only one dam around here of any repute; the Hoover.

“Hey, George. You know anything about phones?” I asked.

George looked at me, “What was the message?”

“Head to the dam.”

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

“I want to forward everything from my phone to Ruby’s. Can you do that? Calls and messages?”

He took his own phone out of his pocket, “Let me ask someone who knows about these things.” George spoke to someone on the other side for a few minutes and nodded for me to give him the phone. He spoke into the receiver softly giving them details about the make and model before pressing what looked like a random set of keys to me. A couple of minutes later he said, “Thanks,” and then handed my phone back to me.

“You should be set, want me to try it?”

“Yeah, we better test it, you have my number?” Stupid question, of course, he already had it.

The call forwarded after a delay of a single ring, text messages seemed to flow through it instantly. “Good enough.”

“What are you going to do, Compass?”

“I have a plan.”

“Did they say ‘come alone?’”

“Uh, now that you mention it, they didn’t. But I’m going alone.” I told him.

“Suit yourself.”

“No arguing? I expected a fight.”

“Ando will tell me what to do.”

“Did he ask you to ask me?”

“He did.”

“What were you going to do if I said yes?”

“He said you wouldn’t, but I would have come with you.” George said.

“Well, thanks for that, at least.”

He laughed, “For nothing? Sure, you’re welcome. Good luck, with whatever you’re doing.”

I shook his hand and we down to the elevator together. The concierge met me in the lobby and pressed a small bag into my hand.

“Mister Andro had your winnings from the casino cashed out; he assured me that was okay?” The man seemed nervous.

“Yes, quite alright, thank you.” Just like that, I was flush again; I guess I wouldn’t have to worry about gas money after all.

My car was at the curb, looking shoddy next to some of the others there, but well-guarded by a trio of suited men. I thought there were some of Ando’s goons, but as I grew closer to them, I recognized Federal Agent Dermott. He nodded to me and pointedly folded this morning’s paper over so that my picture was on the outside of it.

“This is discrete?” Alan Dermott asked.

“All part of my strategy of hiding in plain sight.” I said.

“What’s going on, Mister Greer? Where’s Ruby?”

“Sleeping the party off upstairs. Unfortunately, I have a few things I want to get done today so I couldn’t sleep in.”

“And you think she’ll be safe here?”

“Well, there’s only one way to be sure. Besides Andro is looking after her.”

He stepped back from me and looked me up and down, “You son of a bitch.” His voice wasn’t very loud, and he didn’t actually seem anger, “You declined our protection for his? I suspected you had history, but this puts you right in the middle of things, Billy.”

I let out a long sigh, “You don’t know how badly I wish I weren’t in the spot I’m in.”

“We could have protected you.”

“Maybe.”

He looked away at agents Nicolson and Baker, “C’mon fellas, we’re done here. See ya around, Billy. Good luck.” This last was said almost bitterly. I just can’t seem to keep any friends at the federal level.

I got behind the wheel of my vehicle and pulled out of the lot. I drove toward the dam, on the way into town I’d seen signs pointing the way to it, as well as for tours and hotels overlooking the lake. I’d been there before, so it’s not like I needed directions. I took the path I remembered and wondered if Dermott had planted a new bug on my vehicle in the short time he’d had with it. I figured he probably had.

Turning down the highway to the dam I pulled in at a tour place, where people were piling into small vans and buses to go see the dam up close and personal. I checked my wheel wells for magnetic bugs and got lucky; I spotted something attached to the frame of the car that looked not only out of place but was only stuck on by a powerful magnet. It could be from Andro’s guys, but I suspected it was from the feds; it looked hastily applied. I had to get down on my knees to reach in far enough to pull it off. It was a little bigger than my new cell phone, and I slipped it into my pocket before I dusted myself off.

I peeled a bill off my wad of cash and approached the teller to get a ticket on the next bus out.  The gift shop sold me a couple bottles of overpriced water and some salty snacks. I took my new phone out of the bag and turned it to silent before tucking it into the bag. The bus had plenty of seats and was a huge old affair with plenty of leg room and intense air conditioning. It also had overhead compartments for people to tuck their miscellaneous bags of stuff into. I put my bag in the luggage rack and shoved it back as far as I could, which was almost out of sight. I took my time finding a seat, which I occupied for about two minutes before I got up and left the bus. There were only a few other people on it at this point, and no one glanced at me twice as I left.

Once outside I circled around the front of the bus and headed to the driver side rear tire where I faked a stumble and used the bus to steady myself. I’m sure my acting wasn’t great, but I’m also sure no one saw me tuck the tracking device up into the wheel well of the vehicle, where the magnet attached without a hitch.

From there I made a beeline to the bathroom, and when I was done with my business there, I went back and got into my car.  I looked around to see if anyone was paying the least bit of attention to me, no one was. I started my car and left the tour outfit, heading north out of Vegas on the main highway. I had a man to see, and it was going to take me at least an hour to get there, with any luck the people holding Ruby wouldn’t call me much before then.

The phone rang as I was leaving Las Vegas. “Hello?”

“Why did you stop?”

Their tech must be old if they were just getting news of my position ten minutes ago. “I needed fuel and some water and coffee to clear my head. Put Ruby on.”

“No.”

“If Ruby is already dead there’s no point in coming to see you, is there? So put her on, or I’m turning around and going to the feds, who were waiting for me outside the hotel this morning.”

There was a shuffling sound as if someone had their hand over the microphone, hadn’t they ever used a mute button? A moment later Ruby’s voice said, “Billy? They say that’s you…” Her voice sounded strange.

“What have they done to you, Ruby? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. They gave me food, I wasn’t hungry. Are you coming to get me?”

Her voice was replaced with the man’s again, “She’s alive. No more stopping. When you get to the dam, park on the west side and go into the visitor’s center.”

“Will do.”

The phone disconnected on the other end, and I was listening to dead air. I pulled it away from my face and saw that it hadn’t hung up yet, “Who’s still on?”

No one answered, but the line went dead and my phone disconnected. Feds, Andro, some other player, I hate this shit. Things have gone so high-tech now that some kid with an ax to grind could destroy the work from his mom’s basement in Iowa and we wouldn’t know it until the ashes started falling down around us.

The next exit was mine, and I took it, following the road as it turned from paved to gravel and eventually stopping at a security fence with an intercom. I pressed the send key and said, “Woody? It’s Compass, I need to talk.”

No one answered for a minute and just as I was debating pressing the key again the gate clicked with a buzzing noise and slid open. I followed the road up into the foothills and at one point passed an empty security booth in the middle of nowhere. The road finally ended in a large circle before a huge log cabin style mansion. Who builds two story log cabin homes this big? Two garages with four doors each sat on either side of the house. The road had turned into concrete a half kilometer away, maybe the owners didn’t like dust blowing in on them from cars coming down the road. One of the single bays of the easternmost garage was open, and a tall, black man without a shirt was working on an off road bike. He glanced up at me as I drove up. Sweat was pouring off of him, and his eyes darted from me to the toolbox at his feet.

I parked close by and slowly got out of my car, keeping my hands in plain sight. The man stood up and wiped his hands with a well-stained rag. “Hi, I’m here to see Woody.”

The door of the cabin opened behind me, and I turned to see the object of my search emerge. He was wearing denim blue jeans, cowboy boots and a flannel shirt, with a white t-shirt showing beneath it. “I hate that name. Any of my staff who use it are sacked.”

“Woody!” I said with a grin as I walked quickly over to him and stuck my hand out.

“As I told you that last time we met, don’t call me that. Either call me Harold or, if you have to use a nom de guerre use ‘Sliver.' Shall I address you as Compass? Or William? What moniker are you using these days?” He ignored my outstretched hand.

“Why so cold? Harold?”

He ignored my question, looking instead to the muscle bound man at my back, “It’s okay, Jacob.” Looking in my eyes again he said, “Why don’t you come inside and we can catch up?”

What the hell was going on with him? I nodded and followed him inside. The place made ‘opulent’ look like a hotel room you rent by the hour. I stopped dead in my tracks I the foyer just to take it all in.

“What?” Harold asked.

“I think; in the three steps I’ve just taken I’ve passed by more wealth than I’ve made in my whole life.”

“Don’t be stupid, Billy. I’d say you only had to move in about half a meter to pass your life’s net worth.”

Ruby’s phone ringing in my pocket saved him from my stunning reply, “I can’t believe I have coverage out this far. Sorry, I gotta take this.”

“Billy…” Harold began before I held up my hand.

“Where are you, Mister Greer?”

“Do you think I didn’t come disguised? I am a professional. What now?”

“We don’t see you.

“Clue-clue.” I said in a sing-song voice, sounding not too much unlike a train, “Clu-clu-clu, you know what that is?”

“What? No? What are you talking about?”

“It’s the clue train pulling into the station just for you. Here’s a clue. Look for someone on their phone. Oops, too much information, I see you now.” I hung up and tucked the phone back in my pocket.

“What are you playing at, Billy? I’m not helping you. We’re done, you and I. Finished.”

“What are you talking about, Woody?” I stopped then because the air around me seemed to vibrate and a small piece of wood formed in front of my face, just a few centimeters from my eyes.

“I said, don’t call me that.”

“Is this where we’re at?”

“It’s where you left us.”

“God damn it, Woo…Harold. How was it supposed to end? I wasn’t gay, you know me! I am a product of my environment, the people who raised me had the fear of God, but not the acceptance of Jesus!”

“You were an asshole.”

“Some people say that’s my most endearing feature. Or enduring. One of those.” I sighed and slumped my shoulders. “For what it’s worth, well, I truly am sorry. I was immature, I was cruel.”

“You were a douche bag, but that is an insult to douche bags, which actually have a purpose and bring joy to many people,” said Harold.

The piece of wood hovering in front of my eyes disbursed and was swept away. Harold’s power revolved around wood, lumber, sawdust, the frames of houses, he could control the material. Hence the ‘Woody’ tag. I always thought splinter was better, but I guess Sliver worked just as well.

“This doesn’t mean I forgive you. But we can talk. For my sake, because I am curious when I get bored, you leave.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Was that a joke?”

I shook my head, Boy, someone is overly sensitive. My phone started ringing again. I answered it and said, “I can’t talk right now, call me back in 20 minutes.” And hung up. Stupid bastards, but the Ramos cartel goons weren’t well known for their mental gymnastics.

“Who is calling you?”

“Some of the Ramos guys. They kidnapped the closest thing to a girlfriend that I’ve ever had and think that they can use her to get me.”

“That’s cold, Billy. Who knows what they are doing to her right now?”

“I’ll tell you what, Harold, I didn’t come here to talk about my personal problems, but I’ll lay this one out for you if you promise not to lose interest. If I do you have to at least let me get to the real reason, I am here before you boot me out. Deal?”

“Okay. Coffee?”

“Yes.”

“Come on back.” He led the way to a kitchen, there was a Hispanic maid there, and he spoke to her in Spanish, whatever he said, she cleared out quickly. He started to make us coffee and gestured for me to sit at a black granite counter. I took a seat near the outside corner.

“Ramos and Ruby are involved in why I am here, but more as a tangent. They want to kill me, why? I don’t know. They’ve been gunning for shiners latterly, sprang Slice from the pokey to do a few jobs for them.”

Harold raised a hand, “I may live in the sticks, but I read the news. I know you saved the day and got fixed by Saint Charlene, I even heard a few sound bites from your speech at the governor’s office. You sounded pretty good but looked like shit. I heard you broke Charlene.”

My body suffered a spasm of pain, followed by a soothing relief as if to remind me that my hitchhiker was still there. What if I told him about you? About us? Pain hit me twice in rapid succession. Harold came around the counter and grabbed my elbow. He still cared, no matter what he said.

“Billy? What’s wrong?”

“Words hurt, Harold, just like your old nickname. I’m not over…whatever happened at Charlene’s place.”

“You feel guilty? You?” He looked me over and then shook his head, “I don’t believe you.”

“Look, she stopped working the night I was there. The point is they don’t know when she stopped working. My arm and legs work and seem okay...but I have these pains. The hospital didn’t find anything unusual. They told me to take it easy. So I grabbed Ruby, and we headed to Vegas to get away. I didn’t think we’d be tailed there and there was this party…her and I got separated, and by the time I got back to the room, they had taken her.”

“They should have just waited for you.”

“They probably did. I didn’t get home early.”

“What were you doing?”

I shook my head, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, remember? Anyway, these bozos wanted me to meet them at the Hoover, and I’d have been a damn fool to do that.”

Harold chuckled, “You still have your mind, even if your body is addled.” He moved back to the coffee and poured us a couple of cups, “Cream or sugar?”

I was shaking my head ‘no’ but said, “Cream please, maybe a teaspoon of sugar.”

Harold didn’t say anything about it, but Ruby, who had been serving me coffee for 4 years, would have laughed and brought it to me black. As Harold brought it as I asked and it seemed to make Charlene happy, judging by the warmth flooding my body.

“So, what would you have done, Harold? Gone to the dam? Been gunned down, knowing they were going to kill Ruby anyway?”

“I would have called some people who owe me and taken these guys out.”

“Yeah, I heard you’re Andro’s bitch these days.”

He was quiet for a second, “Who told you that, Billy?”

“A guy hears things. I know you went to him and he helped you out. Mind if I ask you something about that?”

“Anything except what I had to do to get his help.”

I frowned, “Well, that must be part of the price, though I would think someone would have spilled their guts about that by now.”

“No one will. It’s part of the deal. So you left Ruby to the Ramos thugs. I’m sure she’ll be fine. You must love her very much.”

“So I was supposed to go in guns blazing and save her? I haven’t handled a lot of kidnapping cases, but I’ve handled a few and dancing to the kidnapper’s tune has never worked out. Not once. You have the money and friends that probably would have protected you from this happening in the first place. As I said, that brings me to why I’m here in the first place, they are killing anyone with the shine. They killed Flying Hawk, they were responsible for Slice dying. They killed another shiner out in the suburbs, but I don’t know who he was. Slice killed Dog in Auroria at the Ramos’s command. So these guys don’t want to give Ruby back. They want me dead.”

“I read about Flying Hawk and Slice, Dog was mentioned too. I doubt they are gunning for me and if they are they had better be careful, I’m ready for trouble here. So why did you come to me?”

“I thought you should know what you’re up against.”

“Well thanks for the warning, if that’s all…?”

“I haven’t even told you anything yet. They have a teleporter. They have been making Shiners on the down low, they are making an army. They guys who show up here aren’t going to be people like you and me, they are going to be twenty-year old’s with steely eyes and hearts of ice.”

“So they won’t be like me, you mean? I have security here, Billy. No one is going to waltz in and put a bullet in my head.”

“What did Ando teach you? Or is that on the forbidden question list too?”

“It’s not. The more who know about it, the easier it is to come up with a way around my abilities, so I don’t think I’m going to put on a demonstration for you.”

We both sipped our coffee, I’ll give him this; it was damn fine coffee.

“Was it worth it?” I asked.

His eyes said no, but he nodded, “He has a way with breaking people down. Then he builds you back up again better than before.”

“And his price wasn’t cash?”

Harold shook his head ‘no’, “That would be pointless, wouldn’t it? I mean I was a trust fund baby, but he controls an empire. What possible use would more money be to him?”

“It would make you poor, that might be what he charges, pain, humiliation, that sort of thing.”

“At one point I’d have given it to him, to make him stop. Everything I had, everything I ever would have.” Harold stared off into space, looking out parallel to the ridge that ran behind his monstrosity of a house. “That’s now how he works, to have stopped with me incomplete would have left me broken, and I didn’t pay for him to break me.” His brow furrowed and he took a radio out of his front pocket, “Zachery, there’s something flying towards the cabin from the south, I can just make it out. Are they supposed to be there?”

“I’ll check sir.” A moment went by, and I looked south and saw nothing. “No sir, no scheduled flights this afternoon.”

“Go on alert, warn them off, check the west tower station there for a status report.”

A beep sounded from somewhere in the main room, it was low and steady.

“Do you have air defenses?” I asked.

Harold ignored me, listening to the radio, “No comeback from the tower, sir.”

“Full alert. Civilians to the shelters, arm up.”

“You don’t have air defenses.” I said.

“I am the air defense. Come with me if you want to see what Andro sold me.” Harold moved to the front door of the cabin, in order to get out he had to enter a pin beside the door. I couldn’t help but track his fingers and filed that away for possible use later. He led the way outside, and the garage door was opening on the opposite side from where the motorcycle sat. Inside wasn’t filled with cars, but with wood working equipment and lumber. A row of hexagons each about half a meter around were piled up on one side next to some lumber that had been cut and lathed into perfect round shapes and finely finished.

We moved toward that garage, and the hexagons flew toward Harold, I noticed then that the edges were wooden, but the centers were metal plates. The long tubes flowed out of the garage as well hovering in the air low to the ground. “Zak, have they acknowledged the message?”

“No response, sir. I have a ready team in the tunnels heading toward the tower. There appear to be two people there, from what audio is picking up.”

I could hear a helicopter now. It was flying in fast.

“Harold, uh Sliver, you better do what you’re going to do…these guys don’t play for marbles.”

He waved down my advice with one hand. “Any other contacts?”

“The front gate is down. I repeat the front gate is down. Expect incoming in two minutes.” This message came from the front door of the house, or rather a speaker there that I couldn’t see. I edged toward the woodshop.

“Want me to throw sawdust in the air or something?” I asked.

“Stay quiet. Stay out of my way. You brought these people here. This is your fault. For all, I know you led them here.”

“I didn’t.”

“Okay. Fine. Jump in if you think any of them have lost their cat.” Harold said.

“Will do.” I moved back into the garage more out of sight.

One of the pieces of round lumber flew up and away from the courtyard, a buzzing sounded off and then I heard a loud explosion. A helicopter tumbled into view, flying over and beyond the garage to make a hard landing in the prairie a hundred meters out. Harold turned to face it, there was white smoke pouring from the main body of the craft. The log he had tossed at it was embedded through the cockpit with only half a meter of the 5 showing out the front. Perhaps ‘land’ was too generous a word, it hit hard enough that several of the rotors hit the ground and snapped off. The stabilizer fuselage also broke and sagged to the ground, there was no open flame that I could see, just smoke.

Despite the extent of the wreckage, armed people jumped out and formed a perimeter around the downed bird. They started firing at Harold, who pulled the hexagons in front of him in overlapping sections. A piece of wood flew off the shelves and out towards the men on the ground, a machine gun also opened up from the other garage.

Several soft pops heralded the arrival of thick smoke, providing cover for the men at the helicopter before the smoke engulfed me I saw two vehicles coming up the long drive at breakneck speed. The front one was trailing smoke, so I guess not all the defenders had gone down without a fight.

Harold joined me in the shop. “Are you armed?”

“I left it in the car, I didn’t think it would be right to bring a piece into your house.”

“Your car is right over there!” Harold gestured with one arm. There was blood dripping off of his hand.

“Yeah, but they have machine guns. I doubt my revolver would be that intimidating.”

Harold looked out at the still hovering logs nearby, with a gesture, he tossed them all toward the now obscured helicopter. He was rewarded with a scream. I looked around and found a first aid kit fastened to the wall. The hexagons tumbled into the garage to form up a shield between Harold and the bullets again. “Closing the doors!” He said into his radio.

The garage doors silently and quickly shut. Bullets pinged off of them, a few pierced through them. I looked around for a way out.

“Over there.” Harold pointed to the back corner, there was no door or window that I could see. “It’s a tunnel, in the floor.”

I popped the first aid kit open and grabbed out some gauze and bandages, as an afterthought I took the peroxide too. I approached Harold behind his wall of hexagons and raised up my supplies.

“What’s that for?”

“You’re hit.”

“What?” He looked over his body and noticed the red running down his arm. “Oh shit.”

“Yeah, stay with me, cowboy!” He started to sway and fall over. With one hand I steadied him and got him to sit down. “Talk to me. Keep talking, tell me what you think is happening here. Harold?”

There was a gun battle raging outside now, bullets were puffing up dust from the wood all over the shelves around us, so far his shield was holding.

“I don’t think you brought them here. They aren’t gunning for you; they are gunning for me.”

“Well, I’d like to think they’ll take me out too.”

“Probably. If they know who you are. So they are serious about this, huh? The Ramos clan. Remember when they were just a bunch of petty drug dealers?”

“I do. Good times, eh Harold?” I had his shirt ripped open to reveal an ugly pass through wound in his upper arm. It was on the outside, but I couldn’t be sure his arm wasn’t broken or that he wasn’t bleeding out. Shock was the killer from what I remembered. What did you do for shock? I seemed to remember something about raising the feet and head and lots of blankets. Instead, I broke open one of the pads of gauze. I pressed it to one side of the wound, and it immediately became saturated with blood, covering my hand. I quickly pulled it away and applied another one.

“Shit.” I said.

“Is it bad?”

“It’s not good.” I admitted.

“Am I going to die?”

“What? What the hell are you talking about? Who dies from getting shot in the arm? Nobody that’s who. Can you do anything about those guys out there?”

“I have a security team…”

“You’re a goddamned shiner! Use your power and kick these guy’s asses back to Spain!” Racist, I know. The guys attacking us were probably of mixed descent. I’m a bastard.

“You’re right, of course, you’re right.” He tried to stand up, looked down at the pool of blood under his arm and fainted. His hexagons seemed to fall in on themselves, and the bullets rattled off of them, causing some to fall over now that Harold wasn’t actively concentrating on keeping them upright.

“You’ve got to kidding me.” A bullet knocked the top hex off, and I barely deflected the falling piece of wood from bashing Harold’s head in. I grabbed him under the armpits and pulled him toward the back corner of the garage. There was a hatch there, protected with another keypad. I punched in the code I had seen him use on the front door earlier. It didn’t work.

“Hey, Harold! Wake up! What’s the combo for this door?” I slapped him and repeated his name several times with no result. Finally, I held up his arm and poked my finger into his bullet wound, this elicited a moan from him, and I repeated my demand, “The number, Harold, the number for the tunnel in the garage.”

“Which garage?”

“The woodshop!”

“54678.”

I punched that in and the portal unlatched. A ladder. How the hell was, I supposed to get him down a ladder? “Woody you gotta plan your escape hatches better.”

He mumbled something that I didn’t quite catch. I pulled his feet around and slid them into the top of the tunnel, it looked like it was only a three-meter drop before it went sideways. Slowly I moved his hips into the hole, then I grabbed onto his hands and pushed his shoulder with one foot while keeping my other leg under me. I just knew a bullet was going to fly through and hit me at any second; they were pouring through in a pretty steady stream now.

Somehow his gravity shifted, and he started to disappear down the tunnel when just his arms and head were above the floor I stopped. The arm, where I had ripped his shirt away, wasn’t bleeding anymore. In fact, the skin had healed over completely, I didn’t even see a scar.

“How am I supposed to explain that to him, Charlene?”

My body pulsed in pain and pleasure, that was a new one. “At least he passed out first. Who knew he was so faint hearted. Wait! Why I didn’t heal him up when I first touched him!” A bullet ripped through the bottom of my shoe, through my foot and I felt a sharp, fiery pain up the front of my shin. “Son of a bitch!”

I dropped down the shaft onto Woody, there really wasn’t another option aside from getting shot more. I managed to catch the third rung of the ladder and pulled myself halfway around before I hit him. A fusillade of bullets peppered the lid, one struck the control panel, which fizzled and sparked for a moment before going dead.

“Of course they hit that. Better that than my head.” I muttered as I climbed the short distance back up the shaft to pull the hatch down anyway. Thankfully the tunnel was lit with some sort of glowing white light panels.

Harold was lying in a pile at the bottom of the ladder, he didn’t look any worse for the wear from my dropping him or on him either. After looking him over and I couldn’t decide what to do next.

“So probably flesh to flesh contact makes the healing happen?” I asked out loud. I received a blissful blast of happiness. “Great, I got it, happy feelings for yes, pain for no. You don’t have to disable me with that in the future, okay?” Happiness tingled within me.

“Awesome.” I muttered and received another small jolt of good feeling. The ladder from the garage actually went down slightly below the tunnel, there was a grate there too, not big enough to crawl into, but set at the bottom of the depression. Probably makes cleaning up the blood easier after a fight. I bent over and grabbed Harold’s arms and pulled him up into the tunnel after me.

After we were both in the side tunnel, I stopped and looked at my leg and foot. My pants had a damp hole in them just below the knee, where I assume the bullet had traveled. Pulling my pants up, I saw a smear of blood, but no cut and no bleeding.

“You can heal me?”

Good feeling followed by pain. Yes, no.

“You boosted my own self-healing?”

Yes, yes, pause, no. Great, not confusing at all.

“Fine, we’ll deal with that later, once we figure out some sort of morse code or something. Will laying my hands on Harold, on his head, snap him out of his shock?”

Yes. No.

“You’re not sure?”

No.

“Well here goes nothing.” I put my hands on his head, one on either side and said, “By the power of Christ I demand ye demons release this man from your chains.” My vision went black, and I vaguely remember falling sideways as pain wracked my body. Apparently, Charlene had no sense of humor. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m so gawd-damned sorry!” I screamed. Finally, the pain stopped, and when my vision cleared, I saw Harold looking at me through the slits of his eyes.

“Were you shot too?” He asked.

“No. You okay?”

“Who were you talking to?”

“You, Harold, I was trying to get you back, I can’t carry your ass, and I don’t know where I’m supposed to go in these tunnels.”

“It ends in the garage. So, right now, you only have one way to go.”

“Yeah, but now you’re conscious again, and I don’t have to carry you. How are you feeling?”

“Better.” He moved his arm and his eyes widened in surprise, “It doesn’t hurt at all!” He fumbled with his cut shirt and felt his arm with his other hand. Pulling his fingers off of it, he held them up in front of his face between us and gasped, “I’m healed. You….?” His mind was racing.

“Don’t say it!”

“You did this!”

“I said not to say it, keep your trap shut, okay? You owe me for your arm, and my price is your silence.” An explosion went off up above us in the garage, muffled by the closed latch and two meters of earth. I looked up nervously as dust fell down the shaft.

“Did you seal the hatch?” Harold asked. “There shouldn’t be any dust if you sealed it behind us.”

I shook my head “About that…the bullets were coming in fast and furious, one of them took out the control panel.”

The hatch opened up, and something was dropped into the shaft, I saw it pass by, and my mind yelled “Grenade!”, but I was too slow, it went off before I could fully hit the deck.

I was pelted with broken pieces of tile from the tunnel walls, but a quick check let me know I wasn’t seriously hurt. Harold was already bent over me, trying to pull me along the tunnel, “Come on, dammit!”

I guess he wasn’t in shock anymore. I picked myself up and ran after him, ahead of us the tunnel took a 30-degree bend and another explosion sounded behind us, followed by some rifle fire. At the bend, there was another section of floor about a meter wide that sunk sharply below the surrounding floor. Harold leaped this section, and I followed suit. Once we had a bit of a turn between us and them Harold called back, “What did you do with my radio?”

“Should be in your pocket.”

“Nope.”

Ah fuck, had he been holding it when he was shot? I couldn’t remember, but bullets firing at me tend to erode my capacity to pick up details.

“A hundred meters to the main tunnel. Don’t stop.”

“Think of me like as your tramp stamp.” I said.

We raced that distance in what I am certain was Olympic record setting time and stopped in front of another hatch. Harold entered a set of numbers into the pad, and it blinked red. “Fuck.”

Behind us, I heard more gunfire, and I saw several of the tiles back at the bend shatter.

“What?”

“I can’t remember the code.”

“Is it 54678?”

“No, but thanks!” He entered 54978, and the lock pinged green and clanked open.

We moved through quickly, and I slammed it shut behind us, “Lock it!” He told me.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to lock it, but figured turning the wheel on it would do the job. We both moved away from the door, which had a small, thick pane of glass embedded within it. The tunnel we had entered was much larger, it was nearly two meters wide with an arched ceiling that seemed to rise to almost three meters. The floor had black rubber tire marks on it in parallel lines. The tunnel to the garage intersected this one at a ‘T,' and I stared off into the distance but could not see anything coming one way. Down the other, the tunnel seemed to open into a small room another hundred meters down. Next to the locked door was a panel set flush into the wall, Harold opened it and pulled out two flashlights, handing me one, “Just in case” he said.

There was also a small video screen and a keyboard, which Harold pulled out, lowered and started typing on.

“Are they coming?”

“Er?” I cautiously peeped through the glass and saw figures cloaked in black pajamas and padding making their way toward me. The lead guy was quick and, crazy accurate; his bullets starred the pane of glass, making it hard to see into the tunnel. “Yeah, they are coming.”

Harold nodded and pressed some more buttons, in the tunnel, the man stopped coming toward me, and I saw him scrambling with something on his belt, he pulled up his face mask and to my shock I discovered ‘he’ was actually a ‘she.' A gas mask went over her face.

“They’re putting gas masks on.”

“That’s okay, it’s not that type of gas.” He hit another button, and the tunnel erupted in flames, obscuring the young woman and the others behind her from my sight, but not from my ears.

“Holy shit, Woody! You just…”

“Come on. I knew I should have put walkies down here. Let’s get back to the house. You heard my man, he said the watch tower was compromised, that means we could expect visitors coming down this way anytime and there isn’t another hatch between here and the house.”

“But to burn them alive…”

“They are trying to kill us, Compass. So fuck your morality. Anyone who tries to kill me in my own house gets what he gets.”

“She, it was a she.”

“Dumb bitch got what she deserved.”

“Jesus.”

“Stop being a…just come on!” Harold said turning and running down the tunnel.

We made it to the house without incident. The tunnel widened into a room just outside the basement of the house. The room was well lit and open to the tunnel behind us. Sitting side by side were two golf carts plugged into the wall. In a direct line of sight from where we entered was a solid looking portal big enough to drive the carts through, the rubber on the floor indicated that had been done in the past. Harold opened the door by pressing in yet more codes, and I found myself in a small room that looked like an airlock on a space station. At a ninety-degree angle from this door was another one of equal looking toughness. The space between them was perhaps three meters’ square, slightly longer than the carts.

“Both doors can never be opened at the time. Notice how the outer door isn’t visible down the tunnel? That’s to make it harder to take it out with a rocket grenade, I aim to make people work to kill me.” Harold said.

“Are you going to fill the tunnels with more gas and light them up?”

He shook his head, “Only the smaller tunnels can flame up. The main tunnel has automated defenses too, but the main goal is to slow intruders down until the security detail gets here.”

“How far do they have to come?”

“It will take ten minutes for them to get here, they should arrive anytime. Anyone making an attack like this on me would know that, so I expect the next few minutes are going to be…interesting.” The inner door opened, and we stepped into basement workshop. Tools of a more mechanical nature hung from the walls, a disassembled cart was up on a rack, and its battery was pulled out and sitting in a machine that looked purpose built to handle changing such things.

I followed Harold into the next room, and he went over to a bank of radios and plucked one off of it. “This is Harold, I lost my radio in the garage. Give me a status.”

“Thank God, boss! They are trying to breech the house defenses. They are for certain in the tunnels from all three outer towers and the road guardhouse, we have video, a total of twelve inbounds from those sections with two more waiting at each post, either as a withdraw team or to hold their backs. The men out front are still obscured in smoke, it’s laced with something that’s fucking up our other sight options. We can assume our radio security has been breached.”

Harold nodded and keyed back, “Jacob, we’re heading to level one now, can you hold your position?”

“Stay in place, let me do my job.”

“Negative, we’re coming up now.” Harold had unlocked a safe and handed me a cut-down rifle, a box of ammunition and two magazines. He also gestured at a box of sawdust on the floor of the safe, and it rose all around him to linger in the air like a bad fog. “C’mon, Compass.”

He took off at a run for the stairs, and I followed him, trying to load the first magazine, which was empty. We ended up in the kitchen on the ground floor just as an explosion rattle the house. The front window was pulled out, and Harold and I were sucked toward this implosion rather than being thrown back from it. The magazine flew from my outstretched fingers, but I managed to hang onto the box of ammo; the gun strap was wrapped around my shoulder, so I didn’t lose that.

I landed behind the leather couch and whipped the gun around and pulled the other magazine out. First things first, I chambered a round in the gun without the magazine being attached. At least I would have one shot in case I needed it. I checked the safety to make sure it was live, and I looked around for any allies before I spilled the bullets onto the marble floor and started cramming them home. Woody was laying between me and the shattered front window. Jacob, the man I had seen working on the motorcycle, had taken cover behind another massive leather chair, his face was covered with a wraparound helmet that had a skull motive going on, other than the helmet he wasn’t wearing body armor and he was carrying a carbine similar to the one I held. A heavy pistol was tucked into a weapon belt around his waist. He didn’t see me looking at him, his eyes glanced from Woody to the open window.

“Don’t!” I warned, knowing he was planning to dart out and drag Woody back behind cover.

He looked up at me, but still dove toward his befuddled boss. In a half-crouch he started to pull Harold back, gunshots rang out and mowed Jacob down, knocking his helmet flying. Harold seemed to gather himself together and rolled onto his hands and knees over his henchman’s body. I was still struggling to get bullets in my magazine, things were happening too fast. I wanted to run forward; I might be able to save Jacob if I could get to him.

Harold’s eyes met mine, and I realized something; Jacob wasn’t just his hired man. The pain and fury I saw in his eyes was startling, it was as if a bonfire had been lit and turned into a full-fledged fire tornado. Woody stood up, and the furniture flew apart, all the wood sucked to spin around him Bullets were deflected off pieces of wood, throwing sawdust into the air, all of which just kept spinning and obscuring Harold in a defensive circle. As he stepped through the window, the front wall of the house tore down behind him. The very real logs of his house became weapons to batter his enemies. I forgot about loading the weapon and made my way to Jacob, his throat was torn out, and he looked dead. I recoiled from putting my hands on the flayed flesh of his wounds and suffered a bout of pain for my reluctance. Looking up and outside I thrust my hands into Jacob’s throat. His body shuddered beneath my hands. I felt his first breath, I felt his throat come back together; it was like holding onto a pile of ants.

I couldn’t see anything outside, just a blur of wood swirling around a central, unseen point. A fire erupted and was quickly doused. A few explosions went off, but all of them were outside. No one seemed keen or able to get inside. I started looking around for some place to drag Jacob; I needn’t have bothered, the man’s hands grasped mine and squeezed them, indicating he was recovered.

“Mister, I don’t know who you are, but thank you. Thank you, for my life.”

“You can’t tell anyone!” I blurted out. “No one can know; do you understand?”

A puzzled look flashed across his face under the death’s mask. With one hand he pulled his gore-spattered helmet back onto his head, “No.”

“I’m…I just can’t let anyone know yet, okay? I’m not ready to have people lining up at my door to be healed.  I have to find out who is trying to kill Woody and me. This is an ace in the hole, a secret shine, it might help me beat these guys and if they know about it…”

“It’s one less weapon in the arsenal. Yeah, I get it. I’ll keep my mouth shut.”

“Okay, thanks. You said there were guys in the tunnels, are they going to get through the basement walls?”

“Let me check.” Jacob moved back to where he had been stationed when we arrived on the scene, he stayed low, and I followed his lead, even though there were no more gunshots. He found a small roll of paper and spread it out in front of him, it was a screen, a piece of technology I had never seen the likes of before. On it were shots of the tunnel gates, the air lock and golf carts specifically. There were no bad guys to be seen. He did something, and the views changed to other cameras. Eventually, he found the men, all retreating in groups of 2 or 3 down each of the tunnels he checked.

“They are running away?”

“Yes. They must have heard what happened up here. We held them off long enough, and they know the security team will be arriving soon. If they were professionals anyway. It’s what I would do. Training and paying guys like this is expensive.”

“I don’t suppose there is a chance to capture any of them alive?”

Jacob’s only answer was to shake his head. He pulled up three views into small buildings which were empty, the fourth showed two people watching outside, with an open hatch behind them and a body on the floor shoved half under a desk. “Look at ‘em, they are running toward the southwest post, two guys are providing cover, two are moving that way underground, the other shacks have been abandoned.”

“Mister Harrel. Mister Harold Harrel, are you okay?” This voice came through the radio speaker.

Jacob answered it, “Mister Harrel is in the courtyard, please use caution in your approach. Intruders are fleeing the outer towers, a group of twelve are proceeding underground to the southwest watch post. Be advised they have small arms, grenades and possibly anti-air capacity. Two men fled from each outer post, please check on the men there to establish their condition.”

“Roger, A-1. Let us know when we are cleared for landing at the main house.”

Jacob looked out the window, the smoke and debris had all stopped, just a few pieces of paper drifted around the central figure of Harold Harrel, who still looked pissed. He came stomping into the house, “Compass!!”

“Here!” I said, standing up from behind the chair.

“I ought to kill you. You destroyed my home, got my friend killed, and I loved him, do you understand? You owe me a…” Harold stopped, his anger drained as Jacob stood up beside me.

“You love me?”

Harold didn’t say anything, he just rushed forward and embraced his lover. I stood there awkwardly until they parted.

“Not a word to anyone. You hear me, Harold?” I said.

He just looked me over, trying to decide what to say. Jacob cleared his throat, “It’s best if no one knows, Harold. If you think about it, you’ll see why.”

Harold looked at Jacob and then at me, “You stole Charlene’s power, that’s why it stopped working. There hasn’t been a shiner who could do that in a long time…they are going to hunt you down and incarcerate you. I thought she was a miracle worker.”

“I didn’t, that’s not what happened.”

Harold looked at me for a long moment, “Compass…Billy, I’ve known you for a long time, and you don’t lie very often. You better not be lying about this.”

“I’m not. I don’t know what happened, but Slice was killed right on top of me, I was literally touching the man when he was gunned down, and I got nothing from him. If I had, I would have used it in this little bru-ha-ha.”

He seemed to think that over for a moment before nodding, “Yeah, you probably would have. You were never smart enough to back down from a fight even when you were outclassed.”

A group of security guys approached us, and all reflexively ducked back into cover. Jacob yelled, “Identify yourself!”

“Fargo Security! We are looking for Harold Harrel, is he present?”

“Security code!” Jacob yelled again.

The man spouted, “Casa Blanca Red Red Two. Counter?”

“Hightower Five Five Handaxe. We are secure.”

“We are secure.” The security team moved in and mostly fanned out around use, taking up positions to cover Woody and Jacob. I was not so fortunate, one of the guards focused on me, saw the gun, still hanging by its strap from my shoulder and shouted, “Down!”

Two others turned and pointed their guns at me as well. Jacob started to say something and the security team rushed him and Harold down the hall out of my sight over their protests. I slowly lowered myself to the ground. Once lying prone, with my hand over the back of my head they tried to kick the gun away from me, but the strap was still around my shoulder, which led to more aggressive measures.

“The strap! Damnit, stop the strap is around my shoulder.” I reached for it while propping myself up.

“Freeze! Do not move!” the muzzle of a gun bumped my head before being withdrawn a few centimeters to hover there. I stopped moving, and one of the others grabbed the gun and tried to pull it away, slashing downward with a knife at the strap.

The strap didn’t give in without a fight, and somehow, when the guy was pulling on my gun and cutting the strap, the gun went off.  The bullet narrowly missed the man playing tug-a-war with it, but struck another team member in the lower back, I saw this much before two of the security personnel fired on me. The explosion on the side of my head was dramatic, not painful so much as just shocking, it drowned out the bullets that went into my back.  Everything got a little strange at that point, my eyes seemed to be focused in different directions, and I saw Woody fight his way into the room, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. Jacob put a restraining hand on his shoulder and pointed at me, also saying something, then they were gone, rushed away by the security team. Slowly the world took on a red shade, starting at the edges of my refracted vision, this turned to black and I lost consciousness.