“So, what exactly do they make here?”
Kathy looked up from her work at me, a little irritated. “From what I hear, it’s a variation on old-school meth.”
“Ah.” I nodded sagely as she went back to work on the lock. Really, it didn’t look like that complicated of one. If I’d had a set of tap keys, I could probably get it in three or four. She’d been working on it for over a minute now. But I realized I’d better not distract her. “Hey, John, what’s meth do?”
“It’s not a variation on meth,” he said from his position on the roof. “It’s basically three drugs mixed together. The first is a hallucinogen, a pretty trippy one. The closest comparison that many make is that it makes them talk to the gods of the universe on another plane of existence. Strange, self-transforming creatures that are so thrilled to see you in a world that makes fractals and magic eye books seem mundane.
“The second drug, I think, just delays the third from kicking in for about five minutes. That one makes you feel energized and euphoric, more able to focus. From the outside, if a person doesn’t talk about the hallucination, it could appear to be like meth, but it’s a bit different.
“Ess is pretty hard to make, though, and the producers are insanely tight-lipped about it. I have no idea how these guys pulled it off. It’s worth a ton on the market, though, so I don’t really blame them.”
“You know a lot about this stuff,” Emi said softly.
“Yeah,” John said quietly. “First showed up about, oh, five years ago. I did my research.”
“He did it twice that I saw,” Kathy said flatly.
“Like I said, research.” He sighed over the earpiece. “It’s interesting stuff, but nothing that I’d want to do a lot of. It’d be too easy to want it all the time. The hallucinations, they make you feel like you’re so close to opening something. That the creatures there are about to teach you some grand secret, but next time. And the high afterwards is pretty good, too. It’d be real easy to consume your life. I ran as fast and as hard as I could when I realized how easy it would be to drop into it completely.
“The good news, though, is that it’s hard to make and expensive. The way it’s made is a pretty closely guarded secret, too. That seriously limits how much is on the market and how much people can afford.”
I shook my head slowly. “I can’t imagine why people would want to throw away their lives like that.”
John sighed again. “Listen. There’s this old book that asked why people did drugs. Multiple choice answer. One said that it’s because of peer pressure, societal standards, and lack of deep personal connections. The other answer said that life really fucking sucks, and drugs make you feel a bit better.
“The thing is, both answers are true. For most folks, it’s a combination of the two. I don’t blame anyone for seriously taking them. On occasion, I like to take new stuff so that I know what’s going on, but my only drug of choice is nicotine.”
That was a lie. The caffeine from his tea and alcohol were also drugs, but I refrained from telling him that. It probably wouldn’t do any good.
“I’m also in,” came Brenda’s voice in my ear.
Kathy frowned as she stood and stepped away from the door. “I hate it when you do that. Let me at least speak first.”
“Sorry. I don’t think that there’s any more parahumans. My time range hasn’t increased, and my headache’s kicking up a bit.”
She was answering my question before I asked it, too, but I didn’t mind. “Do me a favor and run through the building as fast as you can,” I said quickly. 20 seconds wasn’t long, but if she took a different path in each simulation that her power provided, she’d still be able to get a good lay of the land.
“Mmm,” came her instant reply. “I should be fine here; the four of them are all in one room right near you. But let me know if anything weird happens and I’ll take off my blindfold. John, could you move around to watch my back, just in case?”
“You sure?” he asked hesitantly.
“Hey,” Kathy said softly. “Didn’t your power tell you that he was going to say that?”
“It did,” I said quickly. “But she was doing as you asked. Come on, let’s go.” The longer we dallied, the more my gut churned. Just because I was doing better about all of this didn’t mean that I was comfortable with it yet.
We strode in confidently — I always took point after making my helmet invisible. Without the rest of the new suit, it would only last for ten minutes or so, but that would hopefully be enough. My older armor was still enough to stop most bullets.
As I stepped confidently into the living room, halberd in hand, four individuals rose to their feet, guns in hand to point at me.
“Who the fuck are you?” one guy snapped. “Do you know how much shit you’re walking into?”
“Yes,” I said with a grin. .45 caliber handguns, all fairly new from the looks of them. Nice. We’d be able to upgrade. Things would be easier if I only had to lug around one caliber of handgun ammunition. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
I made sure to use my most cheerful tone as I smiled broadly. “Hi, my name’s Jordan. No surname.”
“Bullshit,” said one man on the end. He was getting nervous, though, his eyes glancing to my halberd. The others were nervous as well, but it was odd. He seemed to be the most nervous, but he was the one challenging me. At the same time, they weren’t positioning themselves like he was the leader of the pack.
No matter. I moved to the side a little bit, and they kept their guns trained on me. This was a house, and for the region, a nice one. Very nice, honestly. I almost felt a little guilty as I flipped my weapon around in one hand, cutting off a rather large chunk of a chair like it was made of wet clay.
The reaction was immediate.
The man who spoke to me spun on his compatriots, pointing his gun at them. A woman did the same, only pointing at him. “Drop it, Jim.”
“Fuck you,” the man growled in an odd tone. “You drop it.”
“Not as long as you’re pointing a piece at us.”
What the crap was going on here?
“How about you all drop it?” Emi said, her pistol trained on them. “Then the big man doesn’t need to hurt ya to talk, huh?”
Her form was alright, for a beginner, but Kathy’s was better by far. I was glad to know that they had my back, but if it turned into a firefight, they could get hurt. They should have kept under cover.
Two of them lowered their guns to the ground, while the two who were trained on each other were more tense. Slowly, the woman lowered her pistol, but the man didn’t. Instead, he glanced to me, his eyes watering.
“I just had a daughter, man. Just… Just take whatever you want, do whatever you wanna do to us, and leave town. I’ll do whatever you want. Just… Just…”
I approached slowly, reaching out to put my hand on his gun. “Why don’t you give me this? I can’t relax if you’re holding that, alright? And if I can’t relax, we have to be in town longer.”
The man nodded and let go. Emi was instantly collecting the other guns.
“Jordan.” John’s voice whispered in my ear. “Take them into a side room. Talk to them. Find out everything that you can about the drugs.”
“There’s a bedroom upstairs,” Brenda said quickly. “Nothing in it but a bed and a dresser. Take them there.”
“Why don’t the five of us go upstairs,” I said with a friendly smile. “Is there a bedroom or something?”
“Yeah,” the woman said softly, clutching the neck of her shirt protectively. The way she gripped it, holding it closed… Strange. But I didn’t have time to think about it as the four of them began cautiously shuffling towards the stairwell, as if I might cut them down while their backs were turned.
John had warned me that responses to my presence might vary. Some might get hyper-aggressive, others might respond in terror. Knowing that it might happen was one thing, seeing it in person was another.
As we made our way upstairs, I heard Kathy over my headset. “Are you thinking of–”
“Stop transmitting,” John said quickly. “Let Jordan focus–” And then his own words died off. One by one, I heard people go silent. Someone was still transmitting, but I couldn’t tell who, or hear what was being said. It was just static.
So I was, effectively, on my own. John wanted me to focus… on these people? Did he want me to stall? Was this a test of some sort? I wasn’t sure, and it wasn’t like I could ask him in front of these four.
As soon as we entered the room, I shut the door behind us. “Sit on the bed, facing me.” As they complied, I shut the invisibility off on my helmet and pushed the faceplate up to the first setting, so that I could snap it back down without using my hands if the need arose.
“Okay,” I said slowly. I had to keep up like I knew exactly what I was doing. That was going to be hard. “Before we get into this, just for the sake of ease, I want your names.” I paused a tick. “Just first names will do.”
The four of them glanced at each other. One of the ones who hadn’t been in the conflict earlier was the first to speak. “Dave.”
“Aurora,” said the woman who had been in the Mexican standoff.
“Jim.” Yeah, I’d caught that name earlier.
“Okay,” I said with a nod. “And I’m Jordan. There. Now we’ve all met each other, exchanged some pleasantries. Now we’re friends.” I flashed them a smile. Smiling was appropriate, right? It worked with what we were doing, the way that we were trying to present me, right?
“So, let’s get to business. First off, how much Ess are you all pushing?”
They said nothing for a moment, but Jim spoke up quickly. “We aren’t pushing any ourselves. Aurora knows someone who can distribute for us in other villages. But, uh… We’ve moved quite a bit.”
“Quite a bit,” I said, nodding to myself as I leaned back against the door. “Pretty vague there.”
“We don’t know the numbers offhand,” Dave said quickly.
“Our last shipment was our biggest, and it was a full wagon load.” Dave was really getting nervous now. “We’ve had six more shipments of various sizes.”
“And you aren’t keeping strict track of this? Seriously?” That seemed incomprehensible to me.
Michelle spoke up. “I am, but… I don’t remember numbers well. But it’s enough that we bought all of our houses, plus this one. Plus, we have probably a thousand in the basement safe.”
“What’s the combination?”
All four of them spoke up, a jumbling mass of voices speaking over each other. I actually had to work to catch it. “Twelve, six, twenty-three, six, eighteen, one?”
They all nodded. There was a click in my ear, then Kathy spoke up. “Got it.” Then she went dead again. Brilliant. I hoped that whatever they were talking about was worth it.
I offered the four in front of me a broad smile. “Good. See? We’re getting along. Friendly. So, let’s see here… Ess synthesis is a pretty closely guarded secret. I’m a little surprised that you all figured out how to make it.”
“We didn’t,” Aurora said.
“I worked as an enforcer in another village,” Michelle said. Funny, she didn’t look like the enforcer sort. Really, none of them were what I’d associate with people who made drugs. “It was a little gambling joint. A guy got in debt pretty bad debt, and I was sent to collect.”
“How?” I interrupted, curiosity getting the better of me.
“Uh… what?” I’m-I’m sorry, Mr. Jordan, sir, but… I don’t understand the question.”
“How did you go to collect?” I motioned with my hand to encourage her to answer.
“Oh.” She swallowed. “People usually play nice when they wake up in the middle of the night with a knife to their balls and a pistol against their head.”
That made sense. I couldn’t help but nod appreciatively. “Nice. I like that. I really do. Alright, so, you went to collect, and…”
“And he didn’t have the money, naturally. Usually this is where I’d convince him to sign up for a contract or the like, but he… He said that he had another way. It’d be worth wiping away the debt.”
“The recipe for Ess.”
She nodded. “Plus seeds for the plant that’s needed.”
“Where’d he get it?”
She swallowed hard. “He-he-he got it from… He works for Nexus.”
Nexus. Brilliant. “If I could figure out that you’re making Ess, then you’re damn lucky that Nexus hasn’t sent some of his people to shut this place down. And they wouldn’t be nearly as gentle as I am.”
Jim spoke quickly. “We’ve been really, really careful–”
“Again, I’m here, talking to you.” I sighed. “Obviously, you weren’t careful enough. Do the math on this one.”
They were getting more and more pale by the sentence. What little that I knew about Nexus is that there were two sides to him. The friendly side; if he liked you, you were taken very well care of. And the unfriendly side; those who gained his ire tended not to live for very long at all. Between these two sides, he’d built up a significant criminal empire, most of it based around drugs.
John had said that he’d been careful to avoid anything that was connected with Nexus. If he decided to focus his wrath on us, then it might be better for us to attack Warden HQ in New York Bet. Our deaths would be more gentle.
“Alright, Michelle. Let me see if I can guess it from here. You got a way for your boss to wipe away the debt, then hooked up with these guys and started up here. Am I right?”
“Where was this?”
“Halveston,” Aurora said quickly. “Halveston Tet.”
“Okay. Good.” I smiled warmly and looked at Jim. “Congratulations. Because you all are playing nice, your daughter isn’t going be hurt. Not by me or mine. She’s safe. The whole village is safe.”
The four of them relaxed visibly.
My tone turned casual. “The four of you are still in trouble.”
It was a complete reversal from their relaxation. I could only imagine what was going on in their head. Depictions of torture or horrible deaths were probably dancing in their heads.
“What… What do you care?” Aurora asked. “I mean, n-no offense, but… You can do anything that you-you-you want. What do you care about some drug cookers?”
Crap. This could get ugly quickly. Not in the immediate, but in the long run. I hadn’t really thought through what I was going to say on this one, and my earpiece wasn’t kicking on with any advice. I’d have to wing it.
My stomach was already starting to do flops.
Technical truths. I chose my words carefully. “Fairfax was a huge mess. That’s all that you really need to know.” It was a complete lack of an answer, but that would have to do. John said that people would draw their own conclusions based off of snippets, and if people wanted to argue those conclusions, it would serve us well in the end.
Instead of letting them ask more questions, I quickly switched topics. “First off, we’re going to be pretty much stripping you guys dry. Your operation? It ends, and we’re making sure of it. At least, in the short term.”
Now John’s voice sprung to life in my ear. “Tell them that we want everything concerning it, too.” And then I heard the mic disconnect again.
Come on. This was getting annoying.
I put my hand to my helmet, as if activating a radio. “Will one of you down there please bring me some paper and pen? Something to write on, too?”
“There’s some in a desk in one of the other bedrooms,” Dave said helpfully.
I repeated the directions, even though I didn’t have to. Then I returned my attention to the group in front of me. “Here’s the thing. I want everything. The recipe.” I looked to Michelle. “The person that you got it from. Where you got it from. How you got it.
“When I say that I want everything, I mean it.”
Michelle chuckled nervously. “You aren’t planning on going up against Nexus, are you?”
“Not with this crew, no. And hopefully, I won’t have to start a witch hunt against him at all. It would slow me down.”
Aurora licked her lips. “If he finds out where you got that, he’ll come after us.”
Crap, that was a possibility. “Maybe, or maybe not.” I smiled at her. “He’s a businessman, and Ess is worth a lot of money to him. If someone handed out the recipe once, then there’s the possibility that they might do it again. If he does find out from me, I’ll make it perfectly clear that the situation with all of you–”
There was a knock at the door.
“–has been handled.”
I stepped away from the door and cracked it open just long enough for Emi to hand me a few pages of paper and a couple of pencils. She gave me a quick nod and mouthed the words “Keep it up” before hurrying off again. What were they doing out there?
Not that it mattered. I handed most of the paper to Michelle, but gave some to Jim as well. “You, everything that I need to know to either talk to the people making it, or to avoid them like the plague. You, the recipe. All the details.”
As an afterthought, I grabbed a couple of books from the dresser and handed them to the two; it would be hard to write otherwise.
“Now, do the four of you own this house?”
“Yeah,” Aurora said quickly. “We bought it outright. We don’t owe anything on it. Do… Do you want it?”
“Yes and no.” John and Kathy didn’t want to give me directions? Fine, I’d improvise as I saw fit. “We’ll use it as a safehouse. A place to lick our wounds when necessary, rest up, and lay low when we have to. But you four are going to use it as well.”
That made all four of them look up at me.
“How strong is New Brockton coin here?”
“Uh…” Dave glanced around.
It was Aurora who answered the question, though. “Really strong. Like, four hundred probably would buy this house. In New Brockton coin, I used to only make maybe 30 a month.”
I nodded, and disconnected my mic. Maybe it was spite on my part, but I also didn’t want to be advertising just how much money I had on me. Not even to my friends. “Good,” I muttered as I disconnected my pack, catching it before it hit the floor. “That’s very good news.”
I began to carefully, quietly rummage through it. “See. Money isn’t something that I have to worry too much about, and you four just helped me out a lot with that even more. But while money might not be an issue, there are things that I’m lacking in.”
I pulled out four coin loops, each having twenty $50 coins on them. Part of Chris’ gifts, and there was plenty more where that came from. Whereas the others were burning through their money, other than maintenance on my Tinker tech, I wasn’t actually spending all that much. The others kept buying my meals and paying for my rooms.
“One thousand a piece. That should keep you all living comfortably for a while.” I paused, looking at the key rings. “Thing is, I’m going to need you all to keep strict records for me. What you spend on yourselves, what you spend on other things.” I tossed them out, one by one. The criminals looked confused. That was fine.
Only then did I reconnect my mic. “Now, here’s the deal. You work for me now. I need information if I’m going to achieve my goals. I’m going to need this place stocked if I’m going to use it as a safehouse. And, most importantly, I’m going to need you to be prepared if I send others this way.”
“So what?” Jim asked in a confused tone. “We’re your agents now?”
“Jordan,” came Kathy’s voice over my helmet. “Can we talk out here, please?”
Sure, now they wanted to talk. I slipped my pack back on, locking it into place. “Yes, you are. Give me a moment, though. I need to inform the others.”
I didn’t give them the chance to argue, instead I went ahead and left the room, closing the door behind me. I went down the stairs, only to find the four of them waiting for me at the foot of them.
Kathy was frowning. “Jordan, are you sure about this?”
“What?” I whispered. “You all cut me out of the loop and weren’t providing any support. If I’m going to keep the reputation of being a cold-hearted killer, I need to have a reason for sparing them. This was the best that I could come up with.” My tone wasn’t angry or anything; I was desperate for guidance.
John nodded, frowning a little. “Are you sure that it doesn’t have something to do with how they reacted to you?”
I sighed softly. “Maybe? I don’t know. I’m just… blindly guessing here, alright? Without you all helping–”
“You’re doing fine,” Emi said, slapping my arm with a grin. “Besides, you’re right. Having a group of people willing to watch our backs? A place to settle down if we need somewhere to escape to? Yeah, I think this is a good idea.”
Kathy sighed softly. “You’re right. We shouldn’t have locked you out, but we didn’t want to be babbling in your ear while we were figuring out what all to take.”
“How’s the take looking?” I asked.
“A good chunk of change, plus whatever we pawn. We’ve got a good collection of stuff, but I’d like to do another pass and look more closely before I say that we’re done.”
“Alright.” I looked at John pointedly. “What else?”
“Okay, listen. Here’s the thing. Eventually, I’m going to make a mistake. Someone’s going to give me the wrong information, and we’re going to cross paths with someone who works with Nexus. Not only is he the big man in the drug trade, but he’s got his fingers in a lot of other pies as well.” Which fit his name nicely.
John shrugged a little. “I figure, knowing how they came across the recipe, showing Nexus the loose lips about it, we can secure a preemptive bit of good graces with him. Tell them that if we shake down people in his organization, it’s nothing personal, and purely accidental.”
“How powerful is he?” I asked cautiously. “I’m really only aware of the name and the fact that he deals primarily in drugs.”
“Quite a bit,” Kathy said with a nod. “But nobody’s really sure. We know that he’s got connections with damn near every group out there, except for Tattletale. Story is, they had a falling out at one point. But we do know that people who piss him off tend to meet… Well, bad ends. Sometimes the slammer, sometimes worse.
“But on the other hand, he also takes really good care of his own. Once you’re on his good side, so long as you don’t betray his trust, he’ll treat you right. But that also makes any betrayal twice as bad for you.”
Good to know. “Yeah, then we definitely want to make sure that he knows anything that we do to disrupt his business isn’t personal.” I took a deep breath. “So, you all aren’t finished looting.”
“Or destroying the drugs,” John said quickly. “We don’t want it getting into the water supply or anything, right?”
That made me breathe a sigh of relief. “Yeah, good thinking. Which means that I’m going to have to stall.” I shook my head slowly. “I’ve already played all of my cards. I’ve got nothing else that I can think of.”
“You’ve been doing great,” Emi said, patting my arm. “Trust me, I expected you to chuck a long time ago. Tell you what, I’ll come with you, and we’ll see what we can spin them up to.” She shot a glance to Kathy. “What should we have them going for? If they’re going to be an extra set of bloodhounds for us, we gotta give ’em a scent.”
Kathy sighed softly before looking to John. “What do you think? More drugs?”
He looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Possible, but I don’t think we should play that card again with them. I think we should go with the Tinker tech from New Fairfax again. The Tinker black market is kind of hard to break into, so that should keep them occupied for a while. Idle hands are the devil’s work, so let’s make sure they aren’t idle. Maybe give them a time limit or something.”
“Two months for some information. I like it.” Kathy looked to Emi. “Think you can spin that into something?”
She thought for a moment before looking to me. “Okay, so… There’s a bit of tech that we’re looking for. Something that you weren’t able to get your mitts on when you left New Fairfax, but that you desperately want. We won’t go into details.
“Actually, wait…” She ran her tongue back and forth along her bottom lip. “Alright. Alright, so. We go up, you tell them that I’ll give them their directions. I’ll ask you what, then you say the device. I’ll go into details. Watch them the entire time. Feel free and add something if you think you’ve gotta.
“Remember, you have to look like the boss. Be like you’re testing me, okay?”
I nodded. “Right. I’m making sure that you can delegate or something.”
“Awesome.” She flashed me a smile. “That works, yeah. After I finish my routine… Shit. We’ll probably need some more time.” She thought for another moment before snapping her fingers. “Right. You said that you wanted them to set this place up as a safehouse. You should tell them what they need.”
Which meant that I needed an idea as to what they’d need. I turned on my heel and went for the kitchen. The back door was still open from where Brenda had entered. The city had electricity, but the refrigerator was crap — one of the cheap jobs that probably didn’t cool things very well, and didn’t have a freezer. There were probably strict electricity limits, but I could ask my new employees about that.
“Whatcha thinkin’?” Kathy asked hesitantly.
“How big’s the basement?”
“Not tall enough to teleport out of,” Brenda said quickly. I glanced at her, and she still had her blindfold on. “But it’s big enough that you don’t have to duck to move around. This place doesn’t have AC, though.”
“Is there a freezer down there?”
“Dang.” I sighed softly, thinking. “Is it finished, or more of a cellar?”
“Cellar,” John said. “Why?”
“I’ll tell them to finish it, and to set up some cots down there. Medical supplies, painkillers, antibiotics, whatever they can. They’ll need a freezer down there, too. For up here…” I thought for a moment. “Real food, but also some field food, a change of clothes for all of us, ammunition, guns… The usual.
“We’ll make use of their safe for certain things, probably to hold spare weapons, just in case. What’s the cellar being used for right now? Is it where they’re cooking?”
John nodded. “Some of it, yeah, but they’ve got a setup in other rooms, too. Everything looks complicated. The basement probably isn’t the best place for that, though, since it reeks down there. They probably could use somewhere that has better venting, but whatever.
“I’d actually hoped to pawn the stuff that they were using to cook with, but it’s going to take more than one trip — even if I could carry it all, we don’t have enough bags.”
“That’s fine.” We hadn’t expected them to roll over this easy, anyway. “We can come back for multiple trips. They won’t turn us into the guards, I don’t think. We’ll have them mark off a place in the back yard so that we can come back for it. Tell them that if we teleport, it’s where we’ll always come in.”
John nodded, an appreciative grin on his face. “Smart.”
I looked to Emi. “Let’s make it sound like we’re honestly planning on using this house a lot. We’ll tell them that they have to at least drop by a few times a day.”
“We might just drop by now and then,” Kathy said thoughtfully. “We might run into scenarios where we can’t pawn everything that we get. We can turn this into a storehouse pretty easily.”
“I wouldn’t suggest spending the winter here,” John said with a frown. “Just because they aren’t using the Dragon’s Teeth or Wardens for protection, they have a decent police force from what I’ve seen. Heavily armed, too. I’d rather not spend a few months here at a time unless we have to.”
“Good thinking,” Kathy said with a nod. She turned her eyes to Emi and I. “Think you two can do this.”
Emi grinned up at me. “Congrats, Jordan. You’ve got grunts.”
Why did that sound so scary?