Author Topic: Chapter 6  (Read 9594 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 6
« on: July 29, 2022, 05:37:35 AM »
I wasn't exactly sure what my plan was, later that night. Both the Howlands' van and the BA gang were supposed to show up here in the square in ten minutes or so.

Improvisation isn't my strong suit, and it never has been. Unfortunately, I didn't really have many other options. I'd made a few calls to Mexico earlier that day, which could even the odds a bit, and cause some chaos while I tried to escape with Kieran, but there was no telling if it would work. I couldn't even tell anyone what I was about to do.

For a moment hiding there on the north end of the town square, I felt an inkling of what Amanda must have been going through. To know such horrible things, and yet be unable to tell anyone for fear of retribution. She'd been right to fortify herself in that factory building and protect that footage. But she'd been wrong to not seek out people willing to use it. I would have wanted to help right from the start, even if my broadcast company wouldn't touch this story with a ten foot pole.

I resolved to quit after this was done, regardless of what happened.

Someone was coming. A dark green van rounded the corner in the nearby parking lot, and then drove right into the square. The Howlands were early. I had my pack, and pulled out my binoculars. The van pulled up next to the fountain and the side door opened. The fountain was dry of course- running it in a place as arid as El Paso was only done during business hours. Certainly not this late into the evening. The sun was already setting.

Come to think of it, I couldn't see any ordinary citizens around either. Maybe the square had been closed early. Did that mean the property manager and business owners were in on this grift, too? Or the mayor for that matter?

I shook my head and tried to stay focused. Hoping I was out of Sandra's empathic range, I kept my eye on the five of them just outside the van. Or four, actually. Kieran was still inside, in the front passenger seat, typing into his laptop with gloved hands.

Why had so many of those test subjects been brought into Kieran's room, back in Sage Grove? If they were trying to perfect time manipulation, why not keep it with one test subject? That would have been easier, I assumed. Unless... maybe Kieran's touch affected different people in different ways. I only had one case to study- my own- after all.

Then the splinter in the back of my mind, which had been bugging me for days now, suddenly grabbed my attention. Rick had super-speed, and super-reflexes, to be able to function at that velocity. I had wondered why the shooter back at the studio had even gotten off a shot, much less multiple ones. He'd even warned the Howlands before opening fire! Rick should have been able to speed over there and disarm him immediately, but he hadn't.

Memories clustered together in my mind. The whole family crowding around their son/prisoner just as the shooter fired. Rick only running out after that. Earlier, when Mary had done her duplicate trick, she'd grabbed her 'brother's' hand for encouragement first. And most telling, when I'd been outside the Howland home, Sandra hadn't picked up on Kieran's troubled emotions until after she'd kissed him goodnight.

They weren't supes at all! They got their powers from him!

My jaw dropped with the implications. They weren't just keeping him prisoner, they were using him to maintain their image! The perfect Christian nuclear family, with abilities to match. Were they even related to each other, or were they all playing a role? No wonder they had to keep him close. No wonder they had to keep him lying about his abilities to make sure no one else touched him.

This changed things dramatically. I was willing to bet James wasn't a supe either, which meant my job just got a lot easier. I wouldn't have to wait until the show got started and then try to sneak off with the kid. I could expose them all, right now. With a little help of course.

I pulled out my laptop, thankfully with the program I'd loaded back onto it, and focused the laser through the passenger window. I had to re-aim it several times to get Kieran's attention, but he finally noticed the little red dot and froze.

It's Ahab, I typed into the computer, and the laser began flashing repeatedly. Have they touched you yet?

From my own experience the effects didn't last more than a few hours. I was hoping it was the same for them. Kieran looked out the window fearfully, and then shook his head.

Good. Wait for my signal, then close and lock the door.

He nodded, the ghost of a smile touching his lips.

I packed up my stuff hurriedly, grabbing my camera from the rest. I was about to make my way down there when I caught sight of someone else coming up the side of the hill to the west. It was Gwen!

Fortunately she was approaching from the west, out of sight of the square itself. I moved towards her quickly and as quietly as I could manage. The BA gang would be here any minute! "What the hell are you doing here?" I ground out, not touching her but definitely getting in her path.

She held up the thumb drive. "I found routes and schedules in this info you gave me. It had a showdown here, tonight. I came to make sure you weren't going to do anything stupid and suicidal!"

I let out a hiss of frustration. Gwen was a big wrench thrown into a complicated machine here. "Look, I just figured out something big, but I don't have time to go into it. Trust me, I'm not trying to get myself killed or embarrass the station or anything. Just... stay here and out of sight. Please."

"Hell, no," she objected harshly, and looked over at my bag before peering at me up and down. "You're obviously here to cause some kind of trouble. What, do you have a gun somewhere?"

I smiled, lifting my camera. "This can be a lot more dangerous than any gun, in the right circumstances. Look, you can come with me, but it'll be dangerous. You're safer up here."

"Duly noted," she said sarcastically, and when I started moving downhill, she was in step with me.

Well, she was here of her own choice. At least that little weight was off my mind. I was still nervous, though. I had the feeling that the next few minutes would determine the future of not just my life, but of hers and Kieran's as well.

-.-

"Mr. Howland?" I called out as we approached. Superpowered or not, sneaking up on people in the crime-fighting business wasn't a good idea. Even if they were just pretending it. "Sir?"

James stepped out from behind the van, wearing his work suit, followed by Rick. Specially designed by the Capes for Christ people, their 'uniforms' accentuated their shoulders and chests, just like Sandra's and Mary's de-emphasized theirs. He shook his head right away. "This square is closed, sir. Official Capes for Christ business. You can't be here. You'll both have to leave, right now."

"It's all right, sir," I said obsequiously, and stepped close to him. Looking to both sides and lowering my voice, I leaned towards his ear. "I'm with Vought," I lied quickly. "I know all about the schedule, and I know the BA gang won't be here for another few minutes. We'll both be gone by then. We don't want to be around when the fireworks start."

He'd been looking at us suspiciously, but that changed to relief as I leaned back. "Good. I thought we were in trouble there for a minute. What do you need?" He went on, suddenly all business.

I lifted my camera. "Just to take a few shots of you and the family near the van. The shooter who attacked you the other day also got into our computer system and corrupted a bunch of information. We've recovered most of it, but we need some splash images for the story going out tomorrow morning. I figured you'd want to have them before, rather than after."

He nodded sharply. "Ok, but make it quick. Do you need the whole family, or just me and Rick?"

I let out an internal sigh of relief. One of the most unfortunate parts of show business, or all business actually, was that if you pretend like you know what you're doing, most people will believe you do. They probably had all sorts of Vought shills swarming around them, and I fit in as just another peon who needed their attention. "All of you, please."

He moved Rick out in front, and then leaned back to look at the van. "Sandra, we need a quick photoshoot out here."

Out they came, one after another. First, Sandra, and then Mary, and then... nobody. "Get out here, Blake," James said sternly.

"Now, Kieran!" I called out, and then stepped back, moving Gwen with me as I did so. The van's door slammed shut, and I heard the click of a lock inside.

James' expression darkened as he turned back to me. "What the hell is this? You're not with Vought!"

I smiled, with maybe the first genuine happiness I'd felt in weeks. "Well you're not exactly being truthful yourself, are you?"

He growled and walked over to the passenger door. It was locked, too. Sandra tried the back while he went for the driver's door. Mary and Rick just stared at them, when they weren't glaring at me.

"Open this door right now, young man," James shouted into the car, and thudded on the doorframe with his fist. The last doubts in my mind vanished. James wasn't a supe either- he was no stronger than he looked. He took a breath and slammed his elbow into the glass, which didn't even shake.

"Maybe you shouldn't have made it so indestructible," I said from the side, and he glowered at me over the front of the car.

"You're in a lot of trouble, Blake! Don't make us come in there," Sandra said from behind the van.

"His name's Kieran," I corrected her coldly. "And you're the ones in a lot of trouble." In perfect timing, car lights appeared on the far side of the square, driving fast towards us. "Ah, the BA gang, right on schedule. You know, for drug dealers and human traffickers, they're very punctual."

"What the hell is going on?" Gwen asked insistently, and I took another step back.

"Long story short: Blake is actually Kieran, and his touch doesn't kill people but gives them superpowers. They're all just ordinary people, and have been holding him hostage. I'll give the long version later."

The nearest Barrios Azteca car skidded to a stop nearby, with three others close behind. Heavily armed men jumped out, lining up in front of the Howlands with assault rifles and semiautomatics aimed. Behind them, a heavily muscled man stepped forward menacingly. I recognized him as HC, from both the recordings and my own research after the fact. His haughty expression faltered for a moment, and I glanced back at James. His hand was moving quickly, at his side. A message of some kind.

That was the last piece of the puzzle. HC knew they didn't have any powers on their own. He knew they were vulnerable right now!

I was, too. I grabbed for a mask from my pocket and quickly put it on. It wasn't full PPE gear, but it should protect me from his airborne drug. At least for a while. Gwen put on one of her own, which wasn't that much of a surprise. Ever since HC had shown up, most El Paso residents had one at hand, in case he attacked an area near them.

"What are you waiting for?" I called out to HC through the mask. "They're your mortal enemies, right? Order your men to shoot, or use your drug to take control of them! Do it!" I urged him, feeling a certain vindictive pleasure.

His own men looked a little confused at his hesitation, but James growled and spoke up. "They know that if they try to kill us, the bullets will bounce right off me. They know that Rick can break all their legs in the blink of an eye, that Sandra can get inside their heads at any moment, and that the real Mary is safe inside the van! They know that many of them will die if they open fire!"

"No they won't," I said confidently, trying to project my voice. "And that is the real Mary there. The Howlands have no real power on their own. Right now they're just people, and they're vulnerable."

"You're lying," one of the gang said to me, shifting his aim in my direction. I was very careful to stay perfectly still. "I felt it myself. She got into my head. She could tell what I was feeling!"

"At the time, yes. But they all get their power from another source, and they don't have it right now. I mean why haven't they attacked yet? This should be a full on fight by now, but neither the Howlands nor your boss have started anything! They haven't used their power yet, because they can't!"

Again a lot of them looked to HC, but he didn't say anything. "He knows this," I said loudly to everyone. "Your boss has a business relationship with the Howlands. That's why neither side has won yet. He tells them where to attack, and they don't destroy anything critical to your activities. Meanwhile they don't stop him from expanding operations in other places!"

"Why should we believe you?" The same one said to me again, but I could hear a tinge of suspicion in his voice.

I shrugged. "You don't have to take my word for it. Here. Take a look at the news coming from over the border." I fished out my phone and turned it on. Flipping through pages, I turned on the news. Then I tossed it in his direction, and he grabbed it out of the air with his free hand. He looked at it with distrust growing on his face.

The voice coming from my phone was too far away to hear clearly, but Gwen grabbed my arm. "What did you do?" Her face was turning white.

"You were right, in that our station would never broadcast it, Gwen. That's why I leaked the story to some friends of mine across the border. Vought has no obvious business holdings in Mexico, and no real reason to keep an eye on their news. The story is actually breaking right now."

The timing really was lucky for me- that the nightly news in Mexico coincided with this meeting in the square. A few of the other gang members got calls, probably from family or friends across the border. Most seemed curious for now, but a few of them looked increasingly horrified.

"Dios mío," one of them said, staring at his phone. "He's right! Everything is in here! They knew every drop, every hit. He planned it all," he looked over at HC, who to his credit, remained stone-faced despite all of it.

"How many of us have died?" Another said raggedly, turning to him as well. "How many of our own have you sacrificed, just to line your own pockets? How many more were going to die? What, were you just going to recruit more and kill them off, too?"

"Traitor! Coward! Rat!" Voices began to raise in the gang members. The Howlands were remaining perfectly still. They probably knew that if they ran, they'd get the attention and ire of the crowd.

I let out a sigh of relief. It was over. The BA gang would never trust HC again, and without him in charge, they'd have to be a lot more careful about where they committed crimes. The Howlands would be exposed, and Kieran freed. They'd probably go to jail, despite what Vought might want.

But HC closed his eyes, and there was a rush of wind emanating from him in every direction. His gas-drug! I was careful to breathe only shallowly, and I could see Gwen doing the same. As I watched, the Howlands seemed to relax, their eyes losing focus. They just stood there, no longer tense but in a sort of fugue state. Of course. They weren't supes, after all. They had no immunity to HC's influence.

HC gestured to the BA cars. "We're all leaving. Now."

"No we're not," the first gang member to speak to me said, and the others all nodded. Their guns were either lowered or pointed at HC now. "Your drug doesn't work on us anymore, remember? You don't call the shots now."

He stepped up to HC, who was showing his first signs of fear. In one smooth motion he pulled a handgun and shot HC in the head.

Blood sprayed onto the ground behind him and HC dropped like a stone, thudding to the pavement. That sound echoed through my mind just as much as the gunshot had, and I could only stare. In shock, I was dimly aware of a few of the gang smiling or cheering vindictively. The shooter spat on the ground next to HC's body. "That was for Nico," he said savagely.

Then he grabbed one of the semiautomatics from another man and aimed it at the van. A dozen others followed suit.

"Wait!" I shouted, but it was too late. The Howlands were still under the effects of the drug, and didn't stand a chance. Bullets sprayed into the side of the van, rocking it. All four of them died, probably before even hitting the ground.

This was horrific! I hadn't wanted any of this!

The gang's apparent new leader looked down at the bodies mercilessly. "Get the last one," he said, gesturing to the van. The others circled it, and four of them took aim at the passenger window. They started shooting, careful to avoid ricochets, while the others kept the rest of the van covered.

"Wait- stop! Please!" I shouted to the leader over the noise of the shots. "Please. He was the Howlands' prisoner- I swear. They forced him to help them. He never hurt any of you!"

"Stop," he called out, reluctantly from what I could tell. I don't know how the others could hear him over that racket, but they slowly did as ordered.

My hands spread, I took another step closer to him. "Please don't hurt him. He's just a kid."

The man's eyes flicked to his left. To the bodies next to the van, which included two kids. After a moment, he nodded. "But if I ever see him again-"

"-you won't." I assured him quickly. "I'll make sure of it. Vought might send another supe to mess with your business, but it won't be him. I swear it."

He held my gaze for another few seconds, before raising a hand to the gang and beckoning. They funneled past us towards their car. All except one. "Do we just leave them here?" He asked his leader, eyeing Gwen and me suspiciously.

Thankfully our guy nodded again. "If it weren't for them, we might never have known about HC or the Howlands. Besides," he gestured at the bullet-riddled van and the bodies. "This should make a good news story, don't you think?"

Feeling utterly drained, I could only stare at the carnage, as the gang left. They didn't even bother taking HC's body. Some small part of me decided that made sense. They weren't loyal to traitors after all. And with the subtle reorganization of law enforcement in this area, the cops wouldn't be showing up here for a while, I realized.

Gwen was still white with fear, staring at all the bodies. She jumped when I touched her arm.

"Come on," I said softly. "The kid's probably terrified in there."

"How do you think I feel?" She protested, but followed me over anyway.

I thought better of opening this side door. Even if it still functioned after all the shooting, I didn't want him to see the bodies. Going around the van, I knocked on the other door. "Kieran? Its Ahab. You're all right now. It's all over."

Hesitantly, the door unlocked from the inside and slid open. Kieran stared out for a moment, and then stepped down onto the pavement. Not knowing how to feel at first, I leaned down next to him. "It's good to finally meet you in person," I said respectfully and extended a hand. With his own gloved hand, he shook it.

He looked over his shoulder with fear in his eyes. "Are they-"

"They're gone," I clarified quickly. "Both your captors and the gang. You don't have to worry about them anymore." Granted, it had happened in the worst possible way, but it had happened. Kieran was free now.

"This is Gwen," I gestured to my right, and he shook her hand too. "She's a friend. And she's probably a little upset with me." I straightened up and peered over the engine at the mess on the other side.

"More than a little," she said from behind me, and another gunshot rang out.

I didn't even feel it at first. I just felt a strange pulling sensation in my gut. I turned back in surprise, looking at the pistol in her hand. She must have had it right from the start.

Then the pain hit. It was like cracks spreading out from a broken window, sending little tendrils of agony through my abdomen and up into my chest. I felt warm blood seeping down my side, which was strange, given how cold I suddenly felt.

"Ahab!" Kieran called out. He tried to run to me, but Gwen held onto his hand firmly, still keeping her gun pointed at me. My legs felt numb, and I stumbled to the ground, sliding with my back to the van's wheel.

"You ruined everything!" Gwen shouted down at me, still white-faced, but apparently with rage and not fear. "The Howlands were just actors, and we can always get more of them, but HC was irreplaceable! Do you have any idea how lucky we were to get a Latino superhero with drug-based powers? He was perfect for this role! Now because of you, he's dead!"

I still couldn't quite believe this was happening. Through the pain, I tried to focus on her words. "You're... with Vought?"

She scoffed. "You didn't really think they'd set up two supes in town without making sure they had people in the news media who could make sure they were covered right, did you? I tried to talk you out of this, Ahab, I really did. But you just had to be so damn stubborn. And you, young man, should never have reached out to him," she said viciously down at Kieran. "This is all your fault, too. You had a good thing going here. All you had to do was play your part, and you could live comfortably. Safely. All while doing an important job in your society!"

"A captive performer is still a captive," I managed, gasping with the pain.

Kieran finally broke away from her grasp, leaving his glove behind in her hand. He grabbed ahold of my arm with his bare skin, but Gwen only laughed. "You can't help him. Even giving him time manipulation powers won't save him now. I'd say he has a few minutes left. Come on." She reached down and grabbed him again. He struggled, but she pulled him away.

I couldn't move. I could barely feel it as I slid to the side, falling to the ground. I thought about the bodies just behind me. That was my fault, beyond question. My last thought before passing out was simple: I may deserve this, but Kieran doesn't. Good luck, kid. Maybe you can get out of this.
« Last Edit: July 29, 2022, 05:39:09 AM by Daen »