Frowning, Ben said, “I know. It wasn’t smart, and I know that, but I couldn’t ignore it, and I knew I’d never get another chance.”
“It’s your life.” She glanced toward the windows. “As for mine, the Circle’s different now. It’s gathering power. When things come together, we’re going to dominate the magical scene. If ‘getting out’ doesn’t work, look us up. We might need a tech.”
He didn’t say anything.
“Think about it.”
* * *
He woke up on the couch. He couldn’t have slept anywhere else. It wasn’t as if he could use her bed, and the other rooms were full of magical accessories piled on top of each other or in boxes.
He didn’t like to think about what was in the boxes.
He sat up, picked his jacket off the floor, and pulled out a burner phone.
As he dialed, he had to agree. “Our Mutual Friend” was one of the odder codenames. He’d thought of it as OMF for years. It wasn’t human after all. It was an attempt at a difference engine from the late 1800’s that had somehow achieved sentience. He’d visited it once, and remembered the automatons loading coal into its bins, the hiss of steam, and the constant clacking of its gears. It filled a warehouse, and had for more than a century. While it had automatons to do its work in the world, it supported itself by acting as a bank, advisor, and connection between groups in the underworld.
He’d tried to connect when he was there. He couldn’t. It had no command line.
When it answered the phone. Its voice was little more than the whirring of gears, clicks, clacks, and whistles. He had no idea how it managed to be understandable, much less sound like it had a upperclass British accent.
A high whistle turned into words, sounding like a gasp for breath. “Sss-sorry, Ben. I had no choice. He threatened to burn down the warehouse, and I, as you know, have limited mobility. He destroyed most of my automatons and burned down the north shed with a flamethrower.”
Ben gripped the phone harder. “When was he there? How long do I have?”
“I don’t know, but wherever you are, run. He’s unstoppable. He found me through our client, the one who wanted you for this job. I don’t know if he’s still alive.”
Ben hung up, running toward the upstairs bedroom shouting.
Tiffany met him in pajamas–a red top with Spongebob Squarepants bottoms.
“What?” She stood in the bedroom’s doorway, hands clenched. “Is he here?”
“Yes. Er… No.” He looked down the stairway and out the window next to the front door. “I don’t know, but he’s coming. OMF told me. He sounded damaged.”
Her face tightened, mouth turning into a line. “He sold you out. What about the client? Are you still getting paid?”
Flickers of white light leapt from her fingers. “I’ll burn him.”
Ben didn’t know whether she meant OMF or the immortal. Before he could ask, something began to bark. It sounded like the neighbors’ schnauzer–if they had not one but one thousand dogs, and if the dogs’ barks were being distorted like an electric guitar.
Ben met Tiffany’s eyes and then they both ran down the stairs.
Ben’s awareness expanded to include cellphones, the neighbors game systems, all the tablets and laptops on neighbors’ wifi networks, and most importantly, everything he’d brought in his jacket and installed in his car.
For a moment when he got his powers he thought he might be able to create super-technology. As an adult, he knew where to buy it. He grabbed his jacket, pulled out his sunglasses, and started flipping through the streams of video from his car.
It looked like a normal winter morning in the suburbs–snow glistened under the sun, icicles dripped one drop at a time, and no one came outside. It was too cold. The kids were inside playing video games–or so Ben assumed.
Tiffany whispered, “What do you see?”
“Nothing.” Ben flipped through the car’s camera’s again. “You?”
“Nothing. They’re upset. That’s all I know.”
“Does it have to bark like that?”
“You chose the dog. I wanted something that could talk.”
Ben glared at her, and then he saw it. A man walked down the street. He did not fit anywhere except maybe on the cover of a fantasy novel that had been set further south. Around five feet tall, he had light brown skin, black hair, and wore brown and green clothes could have come from a renaissance fair, or the cover of a Green Arrow comic book. He didn’t have a bow though.
He carried two short swords.
Ben told the car to arm itself and then to track the man’s movement. Picture after picture updated, all of them now showing the man in the crosshairs of a sight.
His stomach flipped and he faked a grin. “I’ve got him.”
Tiffany stared out the window. He wasn’t visible. “Then take the shot. Don’t wait for me.”
.50 caliber fire burst out from a hole in the car’s trunk, one shot after another.
The man fell down, lying with his back on the sidewalk.
“I hadn’t thought it would be that easy.” He zoomed in on a picture the car’s camera’s took. The man didn’t seem to be moving.
Tiffany went to the front window. “Overrated,” she muttered, and continued, “Even if you did take him down, you still owe me for asking a favor from a demon.”
“Did I say I wasn’t paying?” He checked the camera feed again. The man still wasn’t up. He began to feel relief for the first time since yesterday morning.
“No, but you might have to find your own buyer now, and I insist on being paid.” She turned away from the window.
He shrugged. “Look, I’ve got the money for you even without the sale.”
He flipped between the car cameras again, realizing as did that the man’s body wasn’t on the sidewalk anymore. He was running across the snow covered lawns, and doing it even though one shot appeared to have taken a chuck out of his lower leg, opening it up down to the bones.
It didn’t even seem to slow him down.
In desperation, Ben considered setting the car to fire whenever it had a shot, but that was stupid. A few shots might pass without notice, even as loud as these had been, simply because people here didn’t expect to hear gunfire. Lots of shots, and they’d call the police.
He flipped through the cameras’ streams, trying to find him. He’d be willing to risk another shot if was a good headshot. Even magical creatures generally did worse without brains.
He saw flash of metal, and then the car stopped sending pictures. Ben pulled off the sunglasses only to see the man standing on top of the car. Every light on the car had been broken, taking out the cameras. Even as he watched a two handed sword appeared in the man’s hands and he chopped into the trunk, cutting it in half along with the back axle.
The car’s rear end fell to the ground. As it hit, the dogs’ barking increased to cacophonous levels and shadowy forms began to appear on Tiffany’s front lawn. All of them stopping at the curb–the exact limit of what she legally owned.
Faces began to appear at the windows of the two story house across the street. Ben could already sense phone calls beginning. He shut them down. Even if it didn’t normally have a command line available to users, he knew how to find it.
He started with the phones, and went from there to the computers and game consoles. He should have started the moment the dogs started barking the first time. Trying to calm down, he reminded himself that most of the people hadn’t noticed anything until now. Chances are they’d be fine if they ran soon, or if Tiffany called the Circle.
He didn’t want to owe them, but if it meant not going to jail, he could handle it.
In front, the immortal stared at the lawn. In a voice loud enough to hear inside, the man said, “Demonic schnauzers. It figures.” He shook his head.
Then he said a word. Guttural, and harsh, simply hearing it made Ben want to run. Tiffany’s face showed all the fear Ben felt, but she ran to the window shouting, “No, I forbid you to listen to him. I bound you and I bind you again–“
Then she said the word herself.
The schnauzers tilted their heads, some looking at her, some at the man.
The man smiled, and the two handed sword appeared in his hands again. He drew it back above his head, and before Ben could activate any of the devices in his jacket, the blade came down where the lawn met the curb, taking out a chunk of the concrete.
A sound not unlike an electrical short filled the air. The lawn and even the house vibrated. The dogs disappeared, exploding into bits of black soot.
Tiffany screamed and fell to the floor unconscious.
Then the man ran directly toward the front window shattering it with the blade of his sword. This time Ben activated the jacket, feeling the heat as the lasers hidden in the arms burned, hitting the man, blackening his flesh, and doing no good at all.
The sword disappeared at some point after breaking the window, and Ben felt a fist hit his midsection. He couldn’t breathe. As he gasped, the man knocked him over on his back, pulled his hands together, and sprayed some kind of glue on them before Ben could muster any resistance.
“Hey there,” the man said. He’d changed form. In this one he appeared to be a hulking, brush cut man in army fatigues.
“You can call me Gunther now.” He smiled. It was a little too wide to be human. “I see you recognize the name. Excellent. You steal data. You copied data from Syndicate L’s servers onto something, a thumb drive, probably. Did you read the data?”
“No.” He coughed the word out.
Gunther shook his head. “You’re lying.”
Ben felt like his heart had stopped. He didn’t say anything.
Gunther’s lip twitched into a hint of a smile. “So, both of them I’m guessing. That’s unfortunate. What about her?”
“She doesn’t know anything.” It came out as a loud whisper. Ben was surprised at how vehement he sounded.
Gunther raised an eyebrow. “The truth, finally. That’s good news. That means I don’t have to kill her. As for you… Well, let me tell you a story. A long, long time ago in a land far, far away, a man was raised to kill things, and he liked it. His family liked it too, and they thought they’d use him to destroy anything that might be a threat. He enjoyed that, but after a time it began to wear on him. He began to wonder how threatening the beings he’d killed really were. When he asked about it, no one had a good answer, and after a time he left.”
Ben nodded. He wasn’t dead yet, and the man was talking. If the man kept talking, maybe he’d survive this. This thing used the name Gunther when he worked with heroes. He couldn’t afford the bad press.
Gunther continued. “The man wandered for a time, but eventually he decided that what he needed to do was stop his family from doing what they did. He made a plan, and by following that plan he’d rid the world of his family and their followers. You know what’s funny? He wasn’t then and isn’t now a good man, but he likes good people, and if he can make the world better for them, he’ll do it.”
Gunther looked into his eyes. “I think you understand this a little. I’ve heard that you admire the Rocket. Me too. I know both of them, the original and his successor, and neither would kill you if they knew what you know.
“Unfortunately, I’m not them. The dog and the girl are almost here, and the police are on their way. I don’t see any way that what you know won’t leak, so I’m going to kill you now.”
Ben’s eyes widened and he said, “Wait,” as swords appeared in Gunther’s hands. Gunther raised one sword to swing as if he hadn’t heard anything.
Ben’s life didn’t flash before his eyes. He was still trying to connect to his devices when the sword hit.
Fortunately, his death was quick, and he barely screamed at all.