“You sure this is alright?” I asked quietly.
“Everything’s fine,” Kathy said quietly, a faint smile on her lips. “Your little squad said that your picture hasn’t been in the papers for a while, so people shouldn’t recognize you unless you draw attention to yourself. Just keep your head down, and everything should be fine.”
“Besides,” Brenda said, wrapping herself around my arm. “This is better than hiding in a room, right?”
I couldn’t argue with that. Fenix had some leads on targets for us the moment that we’d walked through the door, and within two days, we’d settled on a job. It was ironic, really — we were going after a couple of con artists and thieves. Fast cons against another con. It almost felt dirty.
Almost. We honestly did have a good thematic tie-in as to why we were hitting them. One of their cons had been an investment con that they’d run against New Fairfax involving materials for their Tinkers. They’d stolen a bunch of raw ores of the palladium group meant to go to the Dragon’s Teeth, gotten a bunch of Tinkers in New Fairfax to invest in their fake mining company, and then had been stringing them on with whatever else they could get their mitts on. They’d gotten enough out of New Fairfax to be able to retire through theft and making them believe that they had a small industry going.
After what went down, they’d gone to ground for a bit. However, during the winter, they’d started bragging about it to some circles, saying that what I’d done was the best thing that had ever happened to them, preventing the city from going after them when it all fell apart.
It said something that those same people that they bragged to were the reason why we knew about it. Tempting fate, John had called it. They figured that I might go on the warpath if I found out that people had profited over New Fairfax, so they’d quietly put the word out, asking that only these two be targeted. John had done some digging with his contacts, to three separate villages, to confirm what we’d learned.
And now, here we were in some town that I didn’t even know the name of, walking into the shadiest dive of a bar that I’d been to so far. Okay, so I’d been to three bars including Miss Tease’s, but still. About the only things that this place had going for it was the fact that it had electricity, that is was huge, and that music that blared far too loud for my liking.
I did as instructed, ducking my head a bit as we entered the bar. We weren’t playing up siblings or anything like that — I was Brenda’s husband. Kinda creepy, but I was going with it as best I could, despite the twisting in my stomach. It could be worse. They could try and make me Kathy’s husband. Neither one of us would stand for that, I didn’t think.
This place might have had good days once, but I doubted it. Cheap floor, cheap furniture, cheap tables, a huge, thick bar that looked like it could survive a grenade blast… I was pretty sure that the LED lights were the most expensive thing in there. At least Brenda and I could stay at whatever table we could nab while the other three tried to either find our targets or find out where they lived exactly.
As we ordered small beers to start out night off with, I got the distinct impression that once upon a time, I would have wanted to charge into here with my fists clenched. I caught the barest hints of conversations, and considering how often the C-word was thrown around, I was sure that I wanted to be out of here as soon as possible.
As I guided Brenda into a chair, she sightlessly turned her head this way and that, a rather enthusiastic smile on her face. I settled down myself and had a sip of my beer — my previous assessment about the value of this bar was reinforced by how the beer tasted. Bleh. I was starting to wonder if maybe staying in a room somewhere might be better. At least I could go through some katas or some sort of exercising there. Here, I was just going to be trapped with an incessant vibration.
Brenda said something, but I completely missed it. “Wha?” I asked as I leaned in.
“This music sucks!” she proclaimed in a cheerful tone. I couldn’t help but snort, and her smile grew just that much wider. She might be as much of a fan of this place as I was, but she was having some weird kind of fun. Good on her.
“So, uh… What do you usually do?” At least the music was drowning us out a bit. We could speak freely, but with some trouble hearing each other.
“While they do their thing?” she asked, and I nodded. “Listen. Enjoy whatever it is that I have to drink. Peek out on occasion.” She adjusted her headband. “We aren’t the only paras here. I didn’t count, but I’ll guess somewhere between 45 to a full minute.”
I so wanted to do some real testing with her power, get a better idea as to how parahumans actually altered how long she could see into the possible futures. There was also the issue of range, but I got the impression that it wasn’t as easy as a simple radius. It seemed like each para was both a transmitter and receiver, extending her range with their presence. Or something, I wasn’t perfectly sure.
The issue was finding a good target pool of paras that we could try with. Places like Twain and New Fairfax were always on the verge of collapsing into chaos due to all the paras in close proximity to each other, so finding a large enough pool to do proper Trump testing was difficult. We could do it at the Orphanage, but it wasn’t like I could ever go back there.
*Kids need heroes, Jordan.*
I paused, the glass maybe an inch from my lips. After a moment, I relaxed… Well, mostly relaxed. That discomfort in my gut had slowly worked its way lower, and while it wasn’t a real issue right now, I’d rather take care of it now rather than later. “I’ll be back,” I all but hollered into Brenda’s ear. “Bio.”
Once upon a time, none of them had understood what that meant. Now, she just flashed me a thumbs up as I rose from the table.
The deafening thrum of what I’d only generously call music blasted even worse near the bathroom door. At least this place even had a bathroom and not just some outhouses or an alley. Unfortunately, I tested the door only to find it locked. Now I was doubly happy that I decided to do this now instead of later.
It was almost five minutes before the wiry guy came out, letting out an awful stench with him. Brilliant. I didn’t hesitate to push myself into the tiny, graffiti-encrusted bathroom and locking the door, glad to have the music dampened a little. A rusty funnel had a sign next to it that proclaimed “Save Water –> Piss hole!” The toilet had a raised tank, and a hand pump next to it, with a sign demanding in every vulgarity possible that users refill the tank after each use. A quick peek told me the guy hadn’t.
Tank filled after far too many pumps, I dropped my breeches and opened my armor before settling down on the pot, trying to ignore the lingering odor. This was going to take a while.
Honestly, joining them was a better idea than being on my own. During the quiet moments, I kept thinking to our situation. There were only so many people that we could do this to without running afoul of heavy hitters. I’d been teaching everyone and they were learning well, but to be honest, there were a lot of people that I didn’t want to go up against out there. If we did, there was a big chance of one of them getting hurt pretty bad, and I was teaching them how to fight to avoid that.
What would we do when we reached that point? I wasn’t sure. The safest bet was for me to walk away, and I didn’t like that thought very much. I didn’t want to leave my friends behind. At the same time, though, it would let them do normal cons again. I liked to think that they liked helping people, ultimately doing good in the world, but that didn’t exactly pay like they were used to.
It didn’t help that they spent so much money. I glanced down at my watch; it didn’t look like much, but there was a teleportation suppressor in there, as well as a remote detonator. It was a thoughtful gift, useful in a tactical sense (though it messed with Emi’s teleportation, too), but a normal wind-up watch would have suited me much better. Then I wouldn’t have had to worry about the batteries.
If I did split off from them, where would I go? Nexus was one option, of course. He’d probably have a ton of work for me — he was always thrilled when I said that I needed a job. Working for him, though, opened up a whole list of problems the length of my arm. How could–
My thoughts were interrupted as a pink-hued longsword tore through one wall and imbedded itself in the opposite, the blade inches from my face.
“Occupied!” I yelled, hoping they could hear me over the music. “Occupied!”
I didn’t have to use the facilities any more.
After a frantic wipe with what felt like sandpaper and a tug on the chain to flush, I maneuvered myself under the sword, hurriedly got my armor and breeches back on, stepping out of the door.
In the maybe two minutes that I’d been in there, the bar had turned into a warzone. People were swinging with wild haymakers, some people were more experienced brawlers, but it was still unorganized chaos. It took me a second to figure out my people were.
Emi was on some hulk’s back, biting his ear. She was in good hands. Brenda was sitting on the far corner of the bar, headband off, grinning and giggling like a fool. She was fine. Kathy threw someone over the bar and then hopped it after them. Good thinking. John was modifying the boxer’s stance with basic brawler’s preparedness as he ducked and weaved one guy who was intent on him.
Clear him first, then use him as backup as I cleared the rest of the bar. Now I had a plan of attack, as someone got pounced right next to me. Either get all eyes on me, or blend in. I opted to quickly pull the sword free from the wall and carry it with me. Might be handy for intimidation.
I kept my hands close to my upper chest, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t defend myself. As I moved towards John, any time that someone got too close to me, they got a quick elbow that didn’t move more than one handspread away from me. Keep myself tight, close, and personal. If I extended my arms at all, I ran all sorts of new risks. Kicks were just plain out, too — with the liquids, wounded, and debris that were on the floor, that was a recipe for a fall, or kicking wrong and dislocating my hip.
I got halfway there before I felt something smash over my back. A barstool. I looked over my shoulder and half-saw a guy dropping both broken stool legs in a panic. “Shit! I’m–”
I kicked back with my foot, impacting soundly with his groin… with only a wince. He was wearing a cup. Cheating bastard!
I turned, grabbing his shirt with my free hand and pulling him in while he was still surprised by his balls not begging for a quick death, slamming my knee into his gut — about as far as I was willing to go into a kick. That got a reaction out of him, making him double over. I didn’t waste my chance, throwing him face-first into the bartop.
As an afterthought, I honestly kicked straight forward, the ball of my foot connecting with the bottom of the cup, driving it at an awkward angle. The noises he made told me that he’d be preoccupied for a bit, at least.
I made my way towards John again, just to see him take a solid strike to the face without moving. His lips moved, though his expression didn’t change; no doubt, he’d shifted his density down for that blow. He swung back, not the fastest, but it still impacted hard enough that it should have shattered ribs.
His opponent staggered back a step. Right, Brute, ranked three or higher.
I tossed the sword in my hand up, grabbing it by the blade in both hands as I dodged a stumbling brawler. I crossed the rest of the distance in two steps, raising my hands above my head, and bringing the hilt down on the Brute’s head as hard as I could. That got him to stagger again, shaking his head a bit. He turned to me…
And John’s fist connected with his face, sending him literally flying as the floorboards gave out under John’s foot. He stood there for a moment, one fist extended completely, his body in perfect boxer’s form. Despite the chaos around us, I couldn’t help but smile — he’d mastered the maneuver. Nicely done.
I was about to call out to him over the din of the brawl when two things happened almost simultaneously: First, the sword disappeared from my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see it appear in the hand of a fighter near the front. In his other hand, he had a long maul, effectively a brutish warhammer. Everything that hallmarked him for the next primary target.
At the same time, I heard Brenda call out “Boy, I wanna warn ya!” New primary target.
I spun around, and there was a guy almost on her already, bringing his arm up and back. With one large step, I made sure that the arm never extended. I snagged the crook of his arm and hauled, sending him spiraling onto the ground… Just in time for John’s foot to stomp into his gut.
John flashed me a grin as I began to move again. Back to the biggest threat in the room.
There were a lot fewer people on their feet as I moved for him. Few were unconscious — most people were either dazed or smart enough to know that they should probably be staying down at this point. As one guy moved towards me, I switched from striking for akido, merely using his momentum and attack against him to throw him to the floor. As the music cut out, I could hear John do another stomp.
I also heard, of all things, a familiar, almost chanted song.
As I approached the para with the maul, he pulled back, like if he was doing a haymaker. Rookie mistake. I lunged again, barely missing stumbling on a pieces of broken table on the floor, to get right up in his face, where a swing like that wouldn’t hurt. As his forearm bounced uselessly off my shoulder, both of my palms impacted with his ears, taking some of the fight out of him instantly.
I struck out with my elbow to his jaw, reversing it into a backfist almost instantly. That was enough of a distraction for me to wrap my arm around the one that held the maul, grip his bicep, and twist until he doubled over. That made it easy enough to dislocate the shoulder with a single elbow strike. I spent a moment to grab his hair so that I could drive his face into my knee and went to do the same to the other arm…
But I twisted too far and heard a loud crunching noise that seemed to echo through the bar. Fine, fuck it. I swung his body around, slamming it into the wall. Before he could fall, the toe of my boot connected with his kneecap, dislocating it and sending it up.
As weapons teleportation guy fell to the ground, I turned to look at the rest of the bar. “Who else wants some?!”
The few possible opponents who were still in fighting condition glanced around the room. John was cracking his knuckles and tilting his head back and forth. Emi was glancing around, slightly hunched over with a feral grin on her face. Her cheek was speckled with subcutaneous bleeding — she’d have a bitch of a bruise by the morning. Brenda was still sitting on the bar, happy as could be. Kathy… was probably still behind the bar.
They wisely backed off from each other, and us.
“Jordan,” came Kathy’s voice. “Come here!”
A couple of people’s posture changed at my voice. Let them quake in their boots. They probably did nothing to prevent the escalation of violence here. I stalked past Brenda, moving around the bar.
Kathy was sitting on a guy’s chest, a blood speckled and slightly dented pewter mug in her hand. Hell, I hoped that she didn’t hit him in the head with that hard enough to dent it. More important to me, though, was the bartender who was slouched on the floor, gripping his head. I moved over to him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
I heard someone whine weakly from the other side of the bar. “What is it with you and my balls?”
I had no idea what that was about, but I could recognize my own handiwork. “Sorry,” I called out sheepishly, before turning back to the barman. “You gonna be alright?”
“I’mma live,” he made out weakly. Good enough for me.
Seriously, who attacks the barkeep? That was just a dick move.
I moved on to Kathy, who smiled up at me. “This is one of our two. I took the chance to ask him a few questions, like where his stash and partner are.”
“4 Maplewood!” Brenda said as she was putting her headband back on. That just earned a glare from Kathy.
“We know where that is?” I asked.
Emi appeared on top of the bar. That seemed wrong somehow. “Yeah, I did some scouting of the town. I know where Maplewood is, at least. Figure that we can find it from there.”
“Tell John, then go get my gear.” I turned back to Kathy, pointing a finger at her. “You. I didn’t fill up the tank in the bathroom.”
The words hung in the air for a moment before she caught on that she was supposed to say something. “You want me to do it?”
“Consider it punishment for striking his head with a weapon.” There was a harshness in my voice, but I winked at her. “How many times do I have to tell you? I can’t interrogate people as well when they have a concussion. What’s the point in threatening to break someone’s legs when they can’t feel them?”
She grinned a little, but it was replaced with a worried look as she bounced up to her feet. “Right, Boss. Sorry, Boss. I’ll, uh, catch up when I’m done.”
I grumbled unintelligently as I grabbed the guy’s foot and began to drag him out from behind the bar. He wasn’t completely out of it, but he seemed to be aware enough that anything that he said or did could end up bad for him. By the time that I was at the front door, Emi was teleporting out ahead of us, and John was trailing behind. As Emi opened the door, though, there were a couple of guards on the other side.
“What in the blue blazes is going on here?”
I didn’t even so much as smile at them. “My name’s Jordan, no surname, and I’d appreciate it if you stayed out of my way for a little bit.” I paused a moment as both guards assessed me. Time to back it up. “Call a doctor. One parahuman has broken bones and multiple dislocations, another may be in bad shape. The barman might have a concussion, and I consider it poor form to leave a barkeep in that shape. Also, there’s a guy whining about his balls. It’d be cruel to leave him be like that, and I’d think that the three of us would rather keep the cruelty to a minimum today.”
One of the guards moved for the pistol at her hip, but the other guard stopped her. He looked at her for a long moment before nodding once. “Go get Daneeka to look over everyone.”
I didn’t wait to see the response, and just kept hauling our target out the door, glancing to John to see which direction we were going. For good or ill, we had a rep now. A rep that seemed to just get me into trouble. It was nice to have it get me out of it for a change.