Brigandeers: Chapter 9: Eye of the Storm

 

“Where are we?” I demand of Rift.

He is smirking, satisfied, on the other side of the bars. “What did you do? Where is John? And Jacob, and the others?” I step forward and grasp the bars, shaking them, rattling them pointlessly.

“Oh, you needn’t worry about them,” says Rift, smiling exactly like the Cheshire cat. “My people will be picking them up right this second. They’ll be getting very familiar with bars very soon, pretty much like the ones you’re holding right now. Unfortunately for them, they’ll be staying in prison for quite a long while. Murder is a serious business. Very serious.”

“But Jacob is only a small boy! He didn’t murder anyone! He’s innocent!” says Janice urgently. “You can’t but him in jail. Kids don’t go to jail in this country!”

“No,” agrees Rift reluctantly. “They don’t. But we’re certain to find him a nice new home with some good military people once we’ve…ahh…reconditioned him.”

Brainwashed him!” says Ani in digust, while Janice collapses to the floor with a tiny moan in shock, and Rift gives a tiny, almost imperceptibly nod of acquiescence.

“You’re revolting,” says Ani, wrinkling her nose. “You should be ashamed!”

“However, you three, unlike them,” says Rift, a false, brassy tone in his voice as he changes the subject. “You three have choices. You have options. You have futures. It all depends on how well you behave, now you’re here at our Department Headquarters. And, of course, on how well you co-operate with what we have in store for you.”

“But how did we actually get here?” asks Ani, still in shock. We’re all still in shock. “And where are we? First we were at the hangar, and now we’re here. Not even seconds later. How did that happen?”

“You’re not the only one with Power here,” says Rift easily, squaring his shoulders and standing a little taller. “You’re at our Headquarters, in the main building for my Department – the Department for Unnatural Forces. In Wellington, that is. North island. You know.”

He taps a drumbeat against the bars subconsciously, and continues. “You see, when things went a bit…difficult…and you and your friends started causing trouble, I decided we’d skip the whole uncomfortable flight and airports and nonsense. So I brought you right here. I didn’t particularly want to reveal my..talent…right away, but it did save time and effort, and flight are so costly these days, you know.”

I don’t know what to say. But I’m starting to understand what Rift’s Power does, what he can do.

“But Nigel said that only women can have Power,” says Janice, confused. “How can you…be…what we are? How can you…how are you able to bring us here, like that? So fast?” She shakes her head. “I don’t understand. How did you do it?”

“Young Nigel is just an amateur,” says Rift, almost spitting in derision. “Young Nigel is an idiot. He knows next to nothing. Lives with Ani and Rose here for over two years, and still knows next to nothing about what they are, what they can do, what Power they have!”

He grips the bar firmly, his knuckles turning white. “Look how fast you ended up here. That’s how clever Nigel is! We’ve been watching you all a long while, and the moment we decided to bring you in, you were caught, as neatly as insects in a web. Young Nigel understands nothing. He’s ignorant.”

He gives a grin that might be meant to be fatherly, but seems malevolent against the steel bars and the white concrete of the brightly lit room. “Yes, your Power is for women only. Yes, it’s true that you Power is x-linked, on the x chromosome. But that doesn’t mean we can’t transfer your Power to others. Stem cell technology has been around for a long, long time.”

“So you stole it,” says Ani, a note of derision in her voice. “You couldn’t have Powers of your own, so you stole your Powers from someone else.”

“I prefer to think of it as ‘reassigned’,” says Rift, airily. “Of course, it wasn’t easy. And the transference technique was quite painful. Lengthy. It took several attempts before the transfer of cells was successful enough to ‘take” and adapt to my own body from the original host. I’m not quite the same person I was before the transference.”

“But yes, I have Power over Matter. I can shift Matter – physical Matter, physical things, living things, even people – from one place to another, across space. You might call it teleporting. It’s a rather useful talent.”

“Who is the original host?” asks Janice quietly.

“You mean who was,” says Rift. “It was my unborn child. So I was fully entitled to make use of it, and I did.”

He lets go of the bars, and paces back and forth behind them, on the other side from us, in freedom, a free man, reminiscing.”My ex-wife had Powers too… of a sort. She could teleport herself over short distances, nothing special, nothing useful. Just a meter or so. But some of the studies we did on her, some of the tests, were quite remarkable.”

He looks at us, almost as if confiding a secret he’s rarely shared. “They suggested that, should she become pregnant, the chances of a child having an extraordinarily strong version of that talent were quite high. Very high. I was curious. I was a scientist, working here at the Department. I’d studied such things, and I wanted to know. Here was my chance. How could I turn it down? I might never get the chance ever again! So naturally I impregnated her, aborted the child when it was well-developed, and used the stem cells upon myself, as a test subject for Power transference.”

He grins widely. “As you can see, it worked very well. A perfect result.”

I stare at him in horror, but attempt to cover the revulsion I’m feeling.

“And what happened to your ex-wife?” asks Janice softly, her face pale.

“Oh, nothing you need to know about,” says Rift brusquely. “She was of no use to us, or to the Department, and certainly of no relevance to any of you. She was collateral damage. Something that just had to go.”

He eyes us greedily. “But your Powers are on a completely different level. You’ll be very useful! Incredibly so. And our knowledge has advanced a great deal since that first test case upon myself. We know so much more now. As for her Powers…well,” He shrugs.  “I can barely call them “Powers” at all. But I am happy to say they were enough to lead us to the experiments that made me what I am today.”

“Why have you brought us here though?” I ask, the bile rising in my throat. “You know that nothing can hold us, and we’ll just get out.”

“Not out of here,” says Rift. “Never out of here. Here, your Powers are useless. You’re in an Ensell room, dear Rose.”

I obviously look confused because he continues. “Have you not heard of such a thing? I suppose not. It’s a world within the world. This whole wing is blocked solid, and safe from your Powers. There is absolutely no contact with the outside world in here for people with any kind of Power. Try calling plants, trees, anything you like, Rose. You’ll have no success. It’s the equivalent of a padded cell for people with Powers. You can’t use your gifts in here. In here, you’re ordinary human beings, I’m afraid.”

He laughs smugly, and I hate him more than ever. But I reach out with my mind, and I find he is right. It feels like I’m dampened down, restrained, enclosed.

“And you, Ani,” he says, with a smile that turns my insides to ice. “I’m afraid you’ll have no luck Calling any of your animal friends either. As I said, Ensell room. Encased in lead.”

He taps the steel bars in an annoying drum beat again. “We’ve been studying you for a long time. You might not realise is, but your Powers don’t work through lead. Just as must as these bars keep your body locked away, so too does the lead casing on this wing keep your mind safely locked away. The sting has been removed from your tail, my dear.”

I sense Ani trying to Call, and I can hear her in my mind. Her Power is working withing the walls, but although I can feel her Calling outwards, somehow I’m also aware that she too is having no luck beyond our cell.

And you, Janice,” says Rift, now grinning widely, an evil glint in his eye. “You’re perhaps the most interesting of the three of you. A hippie. Lord knows I hate hippies! They never do any prenatal testing. What a pest that is! I wish we knew the gender of that child you’re carrying. If it’s a female, it may be just as powerful, if not more so, than you yourself. But we’ll find out. It could be very useful, very useful…”

He paces the room outside our cell, and I can sense he is delighted, barely containing the thrill inside him. “But your unborn child aside, your own unique Power is fascinating. Fascinating!

He stares at Janice like a scientist observing an animal at the zoo, admiring her openly like she is some unintelligent thing over which he has complete control. “Geomagnetism. Who would have ever even thought such a thing is even possible? I have to say, the human genome continues to thrill our scientists. They are going to love testing you, and learning all about what makes you capable of such incredible feats. Doctor Papadopoulos and her team are going to love experimenting on you!”

“Your Doctor is dead,” I say coldly. For the first time in my life, I’m glad to have killed someone.

“Oh no!” he disagrees. “No, no, no! As soon as your amazing mangrove roots pulled her under, I teleported her back here. She’s a bit bruised up, and more than a bit…annoyed…with you, but she’ll be absolutely fine in a few days. Right as rain. She’s up in our hospital ward, getting treated.”

His phone beeps, breaking my shocked silence, and he answers it, reading a text that has just come in.

“Now, as I said, you have choice, you three lovely ladies,” he says, beaming around at all of us. “It’s entirely up to you, and your behaviour, how well your friends fare. I’ve just received word that the rest of your little…bastard squad…have just been rounded up by my people down in Dunedin.”

He grins. “Now, as our friend John said a little while ago, it truly is over. Play nice, and your friends may be a little more comfortable. Play nasty, and you can guarantee that you won’t ever see any of them again. Nor will anyone else. We have…places…for people to disappear.”

He looms in close to the bars of our cell, and leers at Janice. “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to that small boy of yours, would you?” he says menacingly. “Jacob, isn’t he? Such a nice, sweet kid. It’d be a shame if anything bad were to happen to him.” He chuckles gleefully.

Janice clutches her stomach, she looks like she’s about to fall over. I rush to her side, and hold her up so she doesn’t fall.

“Get out of here!” says Ani. “Leave us! Now!” And Rift, suddenly obedient and still, turns around almost robot-like and leaves without another word, marching out into the corridor and off.

“Janice sits down slowly in a corner of our empty cell, cradling her head in her lap, and moaning softly. “What are we going to do?

I sink down to the cold concrete floor next to her, and put an arm around her, trying to comfort her although I feel afraid myself too, and am worried about the others. What is happening to John? And Marika and Nigel? And little Jacob? I don’t know what to say, so I just hug her tighter.

“We’re going to get out of here,” I say, finally, after many minutes. “That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to get out of here, and find the others, and free them too. There’s no way we’re ever working for this evil, evil man, and we’re never going to let them do tests on us either. He might have incredible Power, but there’s three of us, and one of him. I don’t believe he can be more powerful than all the three of us if we join forces. He has to have a blind spot – something he’s missed, somehow.”

Ani is still tanding up, and she’s pacing the cell, backwards and forwards, thinking hard. Then I hear her in my mind, like I did back at the hangar.

“Rose, can you hear me?” Her voice is inside my mind, clearer than ever – clearer, somehow, than if she were talking to me.

“Yes,” I think back. “Yes, I can.”

“Janice?” I hear Ani’s mind again.

Janice sits up, raises her head. “Yes, I can hear your thoughts, Ani,” comes Janice’s reply, thinking back.

“His one mistake – our chance – is that he doesn’t yet know we can communicate like this. He thinks I’m just up to animals, and can’t talk to people. But somehow I can talk with you and Janice.”

“Maybe because we all have Powers, so we all share a connection?” I wonder.

“I don’t know,” thinks Ani. “But we need to move fast. I can’t use my Power outside this room – that’s true, he was right. But within the room, as long as we’re together, we can communicate like this. I can also control other people. You saw how he left the room when I forced him to. I also made him think it was his decision to do so. He’s going back to his office. He’ll think he’s been there for ages when he gets there.”

A slow smile spreads across my face. “I’m impressed,” I think back. “Sometimes I love you, Ani. He called us the ‘Bastard Squad’. It’s time to live up to the name. So what are you thinking?”

“Rift is our passport out of here. If I control him, he can get us out of here, and back to Dunedin. He probably even knows where the others are being kept. If he doesn’t know, he’ll almost certainly be able to find out. My plan is: we find him, control him, use him to get home, and then use him to find the others.”

“I can’t think of any other plan,” thinks Janice, her face white as a sheet. “But we’d better move fast. I think I just had a contraction.”

“Oh no, God, not now!” thinks Ani. “Now is NOT a great time!”

“I might have been mistaken,” thinks Janice, relaxing again. Ani groans in annoyance, and together we work out our way home. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the best we have, and it might work.

Maybe.

It’s the only plan we’ve got, so it’d better.

Ani senses someone coming down the corridor outside, and we all sit down in the corner, trying to look as innocent and unassuming as possible. Whoever it is can’t suspect anything. We want to appear useless, clueless, helpless: three young women stuck in a situation way out of our control.

The door to the room outside our cell opens.

They didn’t give us a lot of time. I’d have thought we’d be here for hours, or days even, not minutes. I figured they’d make us sweat. That’s what happens in all the movies. You know, the type of scene where we’re stuck in there for ages, and end up bouncing a ball against the wall, over and over and over. That’s what I thought would happen.

A young woman enters. Just like the doctor back at the hangar, she’s wearing a lab coat and her hair is pulled neatly back, but she’s wearing trousers and a shirt beneath the coat, and flat shoes.

She seems nice. Ordinary and normal. I imagine her going home at the end of the day to her partner, and maybe her kids. Sitting down in front of the TV, having a drink.

I wish people who are our enemies didn’t have to be so nice. I wish they had foreign accents or scary masks on or something.

“Hello Rose, Ani, Janice,” she says pleasantly, looking around at the three of us huddled in the corner of the cell. “I’m Cheryl Dodson. I’m here to take you up to the medical wing. Come with me, ladies.”

She unlocks the metal bar door to our cell, and I notice that no security guys have come with her. She doesn’t appear to have any weapon on her either. That meas these guys are either really, really certain we can’t escape, or they’re really really dumb.

I’m guessing they’re really really certain we can’t escape, and I wonder what the chances of our plan working actually are. Probably not good.

I get up with a sigh, and walk across to where Ms Dodson is standing waiting, just outside our cell. Janice and Ani follow me.

Ms Dodson leads us out of our cell and down a long, sterile, concrete-floored white corridor. There are doors with high metal-barred windows leading off at regular intervals, and I have the distinct feeling we’re not the only prisoners being held here. If this is the Department For Unnatural Forces, I can’t help wondering who else – or what else – is being held here against their will.

At the end of the corridor is a solid metal door. Ms Dodson taps in a security code to a panel on the side of the door, and with a beep the door opens.

We pass through into a huge wide room with a massive ceiling that must be at least three stories tall with huge wide metal beams crossing from one side of the room to the other, supporting the whole structure. There are no windows.

We’re seeing security staff again now, after a striking absence of them in the previous corridor and cells. On the other side of the door, on each side, there are two men in uniforms and berets with rifles, standing ready, and at regular intervals, maybe five meters apart, there are more soldiers, dressed the same – combat uniforms, berets, rifles ready – standing still and weapons raised. They’re dressed exactly the same as the guys we same at the hangar.

Ms Dodson nods to the guys at the door as we enter, and as she leads us across the floor to a door on the far side, two of the guys standing against the wall peel off from their positions and follow us. They’ve been expecting us, and are clearly going to be our escort.

I’m starting to feel like escape is even more unlikely than it ever was.

We’re marched through this huge, wide room into a smaller office at the far end.

Sitting down at the end of a very long, glossy black glass table surrounded by a dozen chairs, is Rift. There’s a huge, floor-to-ceiling window behind him that spans the width of the room. It’s the first window we’ve seen in the entire building, and I realize we’re high up, at least five stories, overlooking the Beehive, at the heart of Wellington.

Rift leans back in his chair, silhouetted by the view through the windows behind him, and surveys us thoughtfully.

“Thank you, Ms Dodson,” he says briskly. “You may leave.” She nods, turns sharply on her heel, and departs, shutting the door silently behind her. Our security guys take up their positions by the door, one on each side. The whole thing is way too familiar.

Haven’t we done this already? I think. Are these guys really that predictable?

Then I wonder just how predictable we are in our own habits, and I feel sick at the thought.

“Sit down, ladies,” says Rift. I almost expect him to pull out a cigar next and light it, but he doesn’t. He simply stares at us, across the distance of the table, his gaze boring deep into me. I feel pretty uncomfortable, but am not going to let him win, so I stare right back. His gaze drops first, and he chuckles. “Ever the fighter, Rose,” he says, laughing humorlessly.

I get the very strong impression he really doesn’t remember that we only saw each other minutes before. I wonder when he thinks we actually did last see each other, and in what circumstance, but I’m not able to focus on the present and ask Ani about that, so I let the question drop from my mind.

“What do you expect?” I say coldly. “You’re holding us here against our will. You haven’t actually charged us with anything. We’ve seen no lawyer, or legal representation. I’m guessing we’re not going to get any. So are you surprised that we’re not exactly joyful?”

“No,” he says frankly. “I’m not. But,” he adds. “You don’t really have a choice, do you – not unless you want to end up on death row for murders you absolutely did commit. So now we need to bargain.”

“We’re not bargaining,” says Janice flatly. “No chance. Not going to happen. So forget it.”

I hear Ani’s voice in my head: “Keep him talking…just keep him talking…”

Janice goes on. “From what we understand of you and your lot, you’d have no hesitation in doing…experimentation…on us. So why should we trust you? I have no plans to trust you. You’re about as evil as it gets.”

Janice looks him squarely in the eye. “There’s no way in hell we’re going to co-operate with you. And we’re certainly not going to let you do any experiments on us. So I don’t know what your idea of ‘bargaining’ is, but unless it involves letting us go and get back to our lives, we’re probably not going to be interested a whole lot of bargaining with you.”

Rift rises from his chair, menacing. “When I said ‘bargain’, I meant it,” he says, attempting to be mild but with an edge of steel in his voice. “I was intending to be pleasant. I was intending to be…humane. I was even intending to give you all some semblance of control over your futures.”

He begins to walk very slowly up the room, hands clasped behind his back, behind the rows of empty chairs, moving closer to us.

“Your futures here at the Department could be excellent. Quite excellent. We have a number of other… subjects… lined up and prepared, and we’d be very interested to see what happens when we blend your Powers with theirs.”

He’s even closer, and his voice is low. “You could have been Patriots. You could have assisted in a Program that would give New Zealand incredible military strength, with an army of amazing super soldiers unbeatable on the battlefield.”

“Is that what this is all about?” says Janice, shaking her head in disbelief. “Is this all about war?”

“Of course,” says Rift. “What else? You must know the world is gearing up for major confrontation. It’s only a matter of time, with resource scarcity being what it is.”

He’s getting louder, as the excitement increases in his voice. “We’re a small country. We can’t hope to hold our own in arms or military might in advanced technology. But a race of soldiers with the Power that you three have?”

He’s standing over us, looking down at us, and I’m really aware, for the first time, how much taller he is than me. “Think of it! You could control the battle from afar. In fact, battle would be unnecessary. No one could fight you! No one would dare try. Within a few short weeks, we’d control the entire planet, with no death necessary.”

He puts his hand on my shoulder, and I try not to flinch. “No battles, no civilian casualties. Just an end to things, and a new world order, with our country – our leaders, our government, our religions, our people – ruling the less…enlightened…in the world.”

He stops his pacing and turns to face us. “The three of you could create a world of peace. The first true peace this world has ever known.”

I listen to what he is saying, and I think about it. I imagine the conflict in the Middle East ended. I imagine no more terrorists. I imagine no more wars between India and Pakistan. I imagine refugees returning to their homes safely. I imagine all the skirmishes and wars of Africa at an end.

I imagine no more nuclear weapons, no more chemical weapons.

Then I think about my great-grandfather who fought in the second world war, and my great-uncle who fought in the Seige of Malta and who was a hero and had to live on rats to survive. He gave his rations to street children so they wouldn’t die.

I think about my Jewish relatives who suffered, and all the empty spaces in my family tree, where people just…disappeared. All those names and lives that were torn apart.

It could all end, if we decided to stop it.

I realise for the first time what true power is. I understand for the first time what a huge burden my Power – the ability to control green living things – is.

Then I think about Janice and her Power to control geomagnetism, and to stop people and animals even knowing where there are in the world.

Finally, I think on Ani’s Power, the Power to control and influence what people actually think and do – and I shudder at the thought of what it actually means.

Whole armies, at the whim of one person.

Whole countries, controlled by one person.

And the three of us at the centre of it all, like the eye of a storm. Calm, and quiet, yet the center of a maelstrom if we so choose.

And I know Rift’s plan for what it is.

I see it for what it is.

And I know the part we must play in it.

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Brigandeers: Chapter 8: Rift

 

“And Janice will,” says new, light voice coming from somewhere off-screen.

Something about the casual tone makes me shudder. “I’m sure she’ll do an amazing job for us, won’t you, Janice?”

Within less than a second, John pilots the drone up and out of danger, hovering three meters above Nigel and Janice and out of reach, so no matter what happens we can maintain contact.

From the higher view, we can see who is speaking: a tall, thin, bespectacled man, with light, wavy brown hair. There’s nothing at all memorable about him – and maybe that’s part of what makes me shudder – that, and his demeanour which is one of absolute calm and control.

He’s with a group of strangers, he’s challenging them, and there’s nothing stressed or worried about him at all. This is a man who has power, and who has no fear that he might be in danger.

I can’t see any car, or vehicle of any kind parked nearby. Maybe it’s out of range of the view of the drone, but the cameras are excellent and something in my head tells me he didn’t arrive here by car. It’s as if he has appeared from thin air.

I have no idea how he has managed to sneak up on Nigel and Janice, and there was absolutely nobody about around here a few minutes ago, but he has arrived here undetected somehow. Now the question is, how on earth will they lose him?

The man moves closer, apparently not worried in the slightest by Nigel and Janice’s stiff, straight bodies, all stress and worry and tension.

“It’s nice to actually meet you, Janice,” he says, in a relaxed voice that is somehow even more menacing because it is so genial. “You too, Nigel. I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re a clever young man. I’m certain you’ll be very useful to us.”

“To us? Who is ‘us’? Who the hell are you?” says Janice, her eyes narrowing, once her shock has passed. I can see the appearance of this man from nowhere has really thrown her. Her fear is palpable, even from our vantage point three meters above, hovering over the small group, watching from the drone. “What do you want with us?”

“What do I want with you?” asks the man, thrusting his hand into his pocket, pulling out a pristine white handkerchief, and then pulling off his glasses and – eyeing them delicately – beginning to clean them of imaginary dirt. “Do you honestly think that I’m here because I don’t know the amazing feats of which the lovely Janice here is capable?”

He puts his glasses back on and narrows his eyes, focusing on Nigel. “I’m not a fool, Nigel. Don’t assume I am one.”

He gazes up, directly into the lens of our drone, hovering overhead. “And yes, I know all about you too, Ani, and you, Rose.” I startle at the sound of my own name. He knows about us. How does he know about us? “We’re all fully aware of you both and your…unique...talents. Be absolutely certain that we will find you in very short order and, when we do, I’m convinced you’ll be very happy to join our team. Whether you want to or not.”

And he disappears. Like, bodily. He is there, then he’s gone. Just…simply…not there.

“What?” says Nigel, his hands reaching out to grasp thin air. “How? Huh?” He shakes his head, and starts to pace. “Where did he go? Where is he? Impossible! People don’t just disappear!

“I don’t get it,” says Janice, confused. “He was a hologram then? But he looked completely real.”

“I…I don’t know,” says Nigel. “I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I thought he was here…but then he wasn’t. I…” He shakes his head again, clearly completely at a loss. “I have no idea at all. I’m sorry. But we’ve got to get out of here. If he found us, we’re not safe.”

“But where did he go?” I ask Nigel, my voice booming from the drone’s speaker. “Was there actually a real guy there at all with you? He looked real from here, from what we could see.”

“He was real,” says Nigel. “Or if he wasn’t, that was the best damn hologram I’ve ever seen. Way better than anything I thought anyone was capable of creating. Not only that, the sound was coming from him. No, I have to believe he was here, and was a real person, and just disappeared, right in front of us. I don’t know how, but that’s what we all saw so that has to be what happened.”

“But that’s impossible, right?” says Marika, chipping in from behind me.

“It’s supposed to be,” says Nigel. “But then, so is Janice and what she can do. Maybe that guy has a Power too. Maybe he’s another Stealth? Odd, because from all the research I was doing it was looking like being a Stealth was definitely x-linked…”

“That’s what those guys in the flat said!” says Ani excitedly, and I wonder what ‘x-linked’ means. “That’s exactly the words they used – “x-linked”. I didn’t get what they meant. You know what they’re talking about?”

Okay, now I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t finish school, and is lost in this conversation.

“Yes, I know what they’re talking about” says Nigel. “But I’ll explain when we’re out of here. We’ve got to get going. If this guy can find us one time, he can find us again. We’ve got to lose him, lose his completely.”

“Where to then?” asks Janice, perplexed.

“Should we head back to Base 2?” says Nigel, addressing the drone, and us, via its onboard microphone.

“Do you think you can get here untracked?” asks John. “I mean, how did that guy find you up there at the Port? How on earth did he track you?”

” I don’t know,” says Nigel. “That’s what’s got me stumped. I have no idea how he found us. Or how he disappeared. I don’t get any of this at all.”

“If he tracked you once, maybe he can do it again,” says Ani logically. “Maybe you should find somewhere else to hunker down for the night?”

Her statement makes sense. I’m still feeling on edge from hearing the guy mention my name, and suggest that he knows what I can do. I’m used to running below the radar, and feeling secure in my anonymity.

What else do they know about me? About us? And how do they know it? How long have they been watching us? We thought we were safe, and below the radar, hidden away, doing our thing, all unnoticed by anyone.

Have we been wrong all this time? And if so, for how long? And if so, why are they making their move just now? Why not before?

“Good point, Ani,” says Nigel. “Okay, cancel Base 2. I know…Ani, remember that house where we went for that Christmas party two years ago? That freezing cold place?  The one where you got me drunk, and…”

“And you fell down the stairs and landed on that guy’s lap?” finishes Ani. “How could I forget? That was out in the woop woop…” A realization crosses her face. “You’re going there?”

“Check,” he says, nodding. “I’m pretty sure the house is empty, because of that leaking roof the landlord never fixed. God, that place was a dump. Janice and I will stay the night there then, if all is well, we’ll make our way to Base 2 some time in the next 48 hours if we’re certain there’s no chance we’re being followed.”

“And if we don’t hear from you by Monday?” says John, practical as usual.

“Stay put, sit tight, and hope they don’t come for you next,” says Nigel grimly.

*******

While the rest of us settle back in the Hangar with next to nothing to do (I wish we had more games!), John pilots the drone back to us, taking care to use a roundabout flight path that is anything but direct, skimming over the hills and avoiding the major population centers.

It arrives nearly an hour later, zooming in through the open awning window, and dropping down to the floor neatly. John switches his controlling handset off, then rises from his chair and walks over the turn the drone’s cameras and microphones off on the machine itself.

He checks the drone over for any signs of damage, pulls the batteries out to be loaded up to the recharge station for next time, then settles down with me for a game of chess.

I’ll win. I always win at chess.

It’s nearly a full two days later, Monday evening just after dinner (which was canned and cold and unpleasant), and lots of boredom in between, before we hear a key at the door of the hangar, and someone punching in the code to the combination lock.

Nigel and Janice are back with us, and they look exhausted. Nigel makes a beeline for the food supply, grabs two packets of tim tams, and tosses one of the packs to Janice, then opens his own and starts wolfing them down hungrily, while filling two glasses with water.

Jacob runs across the hangar to his mother, who hugs him so hard that I begin to worry for her baby. She’s pretty big, after all.

“Not much food where you were staying?” asks Ani drily.

“Nothing,” says Nigel, in between mouthfuls of chocolate biscuit. “It’s been bloody awful, in fact. Two whole days of nothing to eat, and sleeping on a musty old carpet with no blankets or bedding or anything. At least there was plenty of water, although I could do with a beer.”

“I’m glad it’s summer, or we’d have frozen. The place was empty all right. Stripped bare. Not even anything worth burning in the fireplace, had we needed to set a fire. But it was obviously unwatched and safe, and that’s got to count for something.”

“It does,” I agree. “It really does. So you were definitely NOT followed here? The last thing we need is to have you two tracked and all of us caught by these guys. We still haven’t figured out how that guy found you at the Port.”

“We definitely weren’t followed,” says Nigel securely. “The roads are really busy – we chose rush hour, figuring there would be less likelihood that anyone could follow us through the traffic – and there was nothing on the road behind us at various points.”

“Sure enough,” he continues. “We can’t be certain that we weren’t caught on camera at some point between the port and here, as some of the CCTV cameras are certainly functioning. But we took enough of the back roads to make sure that anyone following us on camera at any time would have had a really difficult time figuring out where we were going to. Even a drone would have had a rough time following us: the roads are in pretty bad shape, with a lot of trees overhanging them that really need lopping.”

He looks around. “It’s great to see you all. In person I mean. By the way, John, that was a stroke of genius to use the drone. Bloody brilliant.”

“Actually, it was Cam’s idea,” says John, giving a nod in Cam’s direction, while Cam, ignoring the conversation, is busy playing a computer game on one of the consoles.

“Oh. Okay. Well done Cam,” says Nigel, not skipping a beat. “But yeah, didn’t see anyone following us, so unless they’re damned clever, we’re safe.” He pulls up an empty chair, wheeling it across to join us in our little semi-circle we have left over from our dinner time, and motions for Janice to do likewise.

I watch him sit down painfully, wincing and obviously sore after sleeping rough a couple of nights. I think about how much I love our wheelie chairs, but after two days living in the hangar, I wish we’d made it more homelike.

The place could really do with a sofa or two. Sleeping bags and wheelie chairs are great in a pinch, but they’re not wonderful for living with day after day.

“So all good?” he asks. “Have you figured out who the guy is that visited us in hologram form? Because being out rough in an empty house, we haven’t been able to do anything.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I say. “We’re guessing the guy whose hologram you saw, if that was what it was, or who turned up and disappeared somehow – is this Torrance Rift we’ve been hearing about who is supposed to be down from Wellington and in charge of the operation regarding those agents I..um…offed.”

I swallow, and continue. “He wasn’t even supposed to be here until today. So he’s arrived here early, and that’s what threw us – we expected to b safe until today, and were sloppy and casual with our own safety and security. It’s our own damn fault, I guess.”

I go on. “But despite him being all high up and in charge of everything, we haven’t been able to find out a shred of information about him on the net – nothing beyond his name and title.”

I scratch my nose, pondering it all. “It’s like he didn’t even exist before a couple of years ago, and yet now he’s their top investigator, in charge of everything. That’s just so weird. I mean, everyone including their baby has an internet presence these days. I don’t get it.”

I chew my lip thoughtfully. “You said something about him being another Stealth maybe, didn’t you Nigel? Maybe his Power is appearing and disappearing? Is that even possible?” I’m frowning, contemplating my own suggestion. I don’t like the idea much – the thought of invisible people sneaking up on me behind my bad has all kinds of creepiness attached to it, and I just dont want to go there.

“He could be,” says Nigel, crunching away at his tim tams, then reaching for another chocolate biscuit – he’s already eaten most of the packet, and it didn’t take long. “But that’s what’s stumping me.”

He holds his next biscuit, considering, watching it melt between his thumb and forefinger. “I’ve been thinking about it, and while it’s the most likely option, I don’t see how it is possible. You see, everything I knew about your Powers up until now – everything I had figured out – was suggesting to me that it was x-linked, linked to the x-chromosome. So the possibility of a man having Powers was just incredibly unlikely. It’s just not going to happen.”

“I don’t get it,” I say. “Can you explain? I didn’t do that stuff at school. What does ‘x-linked’ mean?”

“Well,” begins Nigel, with the air one someone about to explain that the sky is blue to an upset child. “Women have two x chromosomes in their genetic makeup. Men only have one. Everything I’ve been studying about you an Ani suggests that Stealth Powers are a sex-linked characteristic – you need two x-chromosomes.”

He takes a bite of his rapidly melting tim tam, and chews away. “That is, you need to be a woman to be a Stealth. Men only have one x-chromosome. The other chromosome in their sex pair is what we call a ‘y-chromosome’ So while coming across another woman who is a Stealth was entirely possible – and we did, in Janice – the chances of finding a male Stealth were zero. Zip. Nada.”

“So women get a double dose of this chromosome thing, and that gives us the Powers we have?” says Janice.

“Kind of,” replies Nigel. “It doesn’t give you the powers you have, but the powers you have are on the x-chromosome, and you have to have a double dose to be a Stealth.”

He gulps down his biscuit. “And therefore Rift, being a male with only one x-chromosome, can’t be a Stealth. If he has Powers at all, and it’s not just advanced technology involved, enabling him to do what he dis, he must be something completely different. Either that, or what we saw really was a hologram. But I don’t think so. There’s something Stealth-like going on here. Which is why I’m so damn confused, and really frustrated by the fact I’ve been unable to do any research the past few days, holed up on the run in a grotty, empty house!”

“What worries me more than all this,” says Marika, speaking up in her soft, low voice. “Is why he wants to track us down. Now who he is or what he can do, but why he wants us.”

She looks around at all of us. “From what he said up on the hill overlooking the Port, he’s not really interested in what happened with those agents at all. He never mentioned them. That doesn’t seem to matter much, although it’s the premise under which he’s managed to wrangle a trip to come down here. What he mentioned at the Port – what he talked about exclusively – was who we are, what he knows about us, and what we can do.”

She ends with: “He wants to catch you for your Powers. He wants to use you somehow. I’m certain of it. And that terrifies me.”

She regards me and Ani seriously. My sister and I are sitting next to each other in our chairs. I have a terrible feeling that what Marika is saying is absolutely right. I don’t think this is about the agents I killed. I think this is about the three of us – Ani, Janice and me.

“Now I have no idea what he wants to use you for,” says Marika. “But my guess is it isn’t good. When the old superheroes were working, they were individuals. They did their own thing. They helped people, stopped crime, were their own bosses. Now the government didn’t like that very much and, to be honest, the police and the military fricking hated it.”

She looks at Janice, huge and heavy and pregnant, sitting in a chair with Jacob on her knee. “You know, they really hated all these independent, self-styled heroes. They hated that the superheroes were way more powerful than anything they themselves, the supposed authorities, could muster.”

Her voice has a chill in it. “They’d have done anything to control them. I’m sure of that too. I remember thinking at the time, even though I was just a kid, what the world would be like if the government could control the superheroes. And the thought was terrifying.”

She continues, and we listen, all of us with the same expression on our faces that I am sure is on mine. “And I always wondered who was behind some of the killings of some of them, when things went pear-shaped. I always suspected it might have been the authorities, desperate to regain control of their own little piece of turf. Because, with the super heroes running the world – and they really did run the world – the authorities never really appeared like they were the ones in control. Because they weren’t.”

“So I can’t help thinking,” she continues. “That if they figure that they have a chance to get hold of you, control you, subdue you, and make you work for them – willing or not – then they’ll be in an enviable position. There was no way any of the old superheroes would have worked for them, and taken orders. It was never going to happen. It was an unequal relationship of unequal power and strength. The authorities couldn’t compete.”

“But if they manage to trap you and control you – maybe with blackmail about hurting your loved ones, your children – ” she eyes Jacob carefully, and her expression is not lost on Janice. “-then they can get you do what they want. They’ll have their own little cadre of super soldiers. Their own Stealth Soldiers, more powerful than anything they’ve controlled before. Real weapons of mass destruction.”

Nigel rubs his nose, thinking. “She’s right,” he says slowly. “The three of you could be a real game-changer. Between you, you have the power to control everything on the planet that lives. Everything. I’m not kidding. I mean, we’ve only just begun to explore your Powers – Ani, Rose. And we only figured out what Janice’s Power is all about a couple of days ago. In fact, I’m still figuring it out: we did more testing up at the house these last couple of days, which I want to share with you.”

He takes a sip of water. “But the three of you,you’re all incredibly powerful.”

Ani chokes back a laugh. “I think you’re overestimating us, Nigel! I can control small furry animals. Big deal. And Rose is great with fungus. Colour me impressed.”

Nigel smiles placidly, and what he says shocks Ani. “You’re not thinking it all through, Ani. Haven’t you thought about where your Power is leading? Think about it: this time last year you were controllng insects. Now you’re managing sheep, cats and dogs. That’s a pretty big jump up.”

He puts the empty packet of tim tams down on the floor, all gone. “Your brain is still growing. You’ve still got another five years or so until your brain reaches full development. My guess is you’ll reach the ability to control the thoughts of other, less intelligent humans some time in the next six months. You’re that close. Really intelligent humans? Give it a year, tops. Your power could be horrific to those in charge.”

He stands up, stretches, and goes to refill his glass, and put the empty biscuit packet in the bin. The rest of us are completely silent, mulling it all over. I mean, I’m Ani’s sister and I can’t think of anything to say. I’ve laughed all my life about her controlling spiders and bugs and bees. I never really thought much about it when she moved up to rats, or even bigger, smarter animals. I never thought about it at all.

Nigel comes back from the sink, takes a sip of his water, sits down in his chair very slowly, and continues. “Imagine a world where you, Ani, are controlling what the President of the United States chooses to say when she’s on the Podium, making her speeches? Imagine you choosing her words for her. Imagine you deciding whether she will opt for peace. Or for war.”

The air suddenly feels cold around me. Ani breathes in sharply, but says nothing. I wish she would say something, but she doesn’t.

“And Rose,” he goes on. I sit still as can be, unable to move. I’m not sure I want to hear what he has to say about me, but in a way I want to hear everything. Everything. “Rose controls everything in the plant and bacterial kinkgdoms. She controls not just all the trees and plants and life beneath the earth, but bacteria. Disease. She renders chemical warfare practically useless. Who needs it,when one person can make a whole population sicken and die at will?

“I’d never, never do that!” I say forcefully, angrily. I feel violated, sickened.

“Of course you wouldn’t,” says John, supporting me immediately. “How can you even suggest such a thing? Nigel, you’re out of line!”

“I’m not suggesting she would ever do that at will,” says Nigel quickly, looking pressured. “But who knows what we’re capable of if we’re controlled by someone else? Or if we’re blackmailed and forced to do what we detest, under threats to people we love or care about?”

He reaches out to touch my hand, and I flinch, feeling ill. “I don’t know what these horrible, terrible people have in mind for you,” he says softly. “But I absolutely know that we don’t want you to get caught. I’m trying not to imagine they might want to experiment on you, dissect you.”

“NOT HELPING!” shouts Ani, shuddering. My stomach is churning.

“It’s a possibility,” says Nigel, quietly. “It helps if you know what could happen.”

“No, it really doesn’t!” says Ani angrily.

“And you’ve led me right to all of you,” says that friendly, cheerful voice that gives me chills.

The door to the hangar is open, and Rift is standing there, silhouetted against the setting sun. He hasn’t come alone – there are two more men behind him, their rifles raised, and I can see the outline of a military Jeep behind them, pulled up to the door, with a shadow inside it, sitting still, waiting.

“I really have to thank you for that, young Nigel.” He enters the hangar, his men behind him – I recognize the two men in berets from the cellar flat – and he saunters towards us, relaxed and friendly-looking, no rifle or even a pistol on him. He doesn’t need one, I guess, not with his minions behind him, guarding the door.

“For an incredibly smart young man, you can be very dumb sometimes. Very, very dumb.” He seems to delight in making Nigel feel incompetent, and I wonder just how long this guy has been watching us, since he knows which buttons to press to get a reaction, when it comes to Nigel at least.

“What? How?” Nigel stammers, going bright red with anger and confusion, as the two men behind the silhouetted man move into the hangar behind him, and take up their obviously pre-assigned positions on either side of the doorway, standing stock still, weapons at the ready.

We’re trapped – the only way out of the hangar, when the main warehouse door is shut, is through the door they’ve effectively barred. Apart from that, there’s only one exit, and that’s through the awning window we use for the drone – at the back of the hangar that leads directly out to the water, with nothing but a straight drop nearly ten meters down to the water.

“You still have your mobile phone in your pocket,” says Rift quietly, a smile playing across his lips. “It’s amazing how everyday devices can become so commonplace we forget they’re with us, isn’t it? Even though it is turned off, it’s still transmitting. A lovely little homing device, leading me straight to you every time. So easy, so simple, so straightforward.”

I reach down, and I feel in my own pocket for the bump that is my own phone, and wince. Nigel isn’t the only one who has been incredibly dumb. I look at my friends, to see several of them reaching down for their pockets too, as their faces express shame and humiliation.

“Oh fuck,” I hear Ani curse under her breath. I’d laugh, if I weren’t so horrified.

“Now my friends,” continues Rift. “I should probably introduce myself, although I’m already quite certain you know who I am. But, you know, manners are a lovely thing, a fading thing, and they’re something I think we all need to invest in if we’re all going to behave in a civilized manner, don’t you?”

He drifts into the hangar further, wanders over to the communications console, and leans against the long desk so casually.

“I’m Mr Torrence Rift, Head of Special Operations at the Department for Unnatural Forces. Which means, in essence, that I’m in charge of everything to do with you. Yes, you have a whole Department dedicated to studying you. You should feel honoured really. Think of me as your new boss, if you will from now on, and I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine in no time at all.”

He taps a few keys on the nearest computer aimlessly with one hand, and the computer screen explodes in a massively loud splash of fireworks and light, sparks flying outwards and upwards several feet. They bounce around him, and he seems undisturbed, almost bored, by the event.

All the other computer nearby go dead simultaneously, and he turns back to us, continuing his speech with a bored expression, as if nothing has just happened. A strong smell of melted plastic wafts over to us.

“I work out of Wellington, but saw fit to come down and meet you personally, when you finally became aware of each other and met up a couple of weeks ago.” He smiles at me sadly.

“Oh Rose,” he adds. “I’m sorry about your little mishap with our men back at Janice’s house. But no worries! We’ve cleaned that mess up, found a convenient scapegoat, and it’ll all be sorted in no time at all. The new culprit – a young man who has been in all manner of trouble since his late childhood, so convenient, yes – will be revealed on the early morning news. I’m sure the populace will jump to the conclusion that he is inevitably guilty, and he’ll be sentenced quickly and efficiently.”

He beams around at all of us. “I do like to see these things kept neatly and tidily, don’t you?”

“What!” I exclaim, forgetting myself for the moment. “You’re setting up an innocent man? You think that’s acceptable? How could you do such a thing?

“I’d hasten you to remember that you…ah…sentenced four innocent men without even thinking a few days ago. I might ask you, how could you do such a thing?”

He grins at me, a fatherly expression on his face that is somehow even more evil for its geniality. “Would you prefer to take the credit for your… er… actions?” he asks me mildly. I crumble, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “I’m sure none of us would want that now, would we?” he says gently. “Especially considering you had no choice. No choice at all.”

You put Rose in that position!” states John suddenly, realization spreading across his face. “You set us up! You put us all in that position!”

“Why, yes, I did, as a matter of fact,” he says, a playful grin on his face. “Of course I did. It was too magnificent an opportunity to pass up. I wanted to see what Rose here is capable of. And she performed remarkably.”

I want to throw up.

He leaves the console, and leers over me, looming like some giant nightmarish shadow. “You know, I hear that there’s been talk about bringing the death penalty back to New Zealand.” I can feel his breath on my face. “Hmmmm… now let’s see: four men, two of whom were ripped to pieces, hurled against a wall, their brains smashed in, their bodies beaten beyond recognition then hastily buried in a shallow grave. The other two men strangled, beaten and buried ten metres deep…And the reason? They were innocent government agents, checking on a small stash of marijuana reputed to be growing in a greenhouse out the back of the property.”

His eyes bore into mine. I don’t look away, but I feel my eyes watering, and his voice is deeper, evil, suddenly menacing and full of an unearthly hatred that seems to empty the room and suck the air from the hanger like a vacuum in dead space.

“I don’t think ordinary people would hesitate to give you a lethal injection, Rose,” he says quietly, intensely. “They might even cheer at your funeral. They’ll be glad to see the end of you, you piece of trash.”

Then he straightens up, leans back, all smiles again. ‘Ha ha, yes, well,” he says. “Of course, though, that won’t happen will it? Because you’re all going to come with me now, aren’t you? You know what’s best for you. Nobody wants trouble. Nobody wants anyone to come to any harm.”

He straightens up. “You all want to serve your country. What a fine thing to do! I’m sure you’ll be… compliant. If not, I’m sure we can make you compliant easily enough.”

Rift takes a phone out of his pocket, and dials a three digit number. Within seconds, we hear a car door slap outside, and a young woman with bright red hair tied up neatly in a bun enters the hangar. She’s clearly been waiting outside all this time in the Jeep, simply waiting for the command.

She’s holding a small transportable cold storage medical box, of the type you keep medical supplies in when on the move. She’s wearing a white lab coat, and her bright red heels click neatly across the concrete floor of the hangar as she walks across to us.

She places the cold storage box down on the communications bench, next to the exploded computers, and opens it.

Then I see what she takes out – a pack of disposable syringes, some needles, swabs, some alcohol wipes, and a small glass vial of pale amber liquid.

My blood runs cold.

As if responding to my reaction, the two men guarding the door – our only way out, our only escape – raise their weapons, and move towards us.

“This is my colleague, Doctor Papadopoulos,” says Rift cheerfully, indicating the lady in the white coat. She nods briefly in response, and then she carefully loads up the syringes from the vial, one clearly meant for each of us, tapping them gently to remove air bubbles, then switching to finer gauge needles, ready to go.

“She’s a well-respected member of our Department,” adds Rift. “You’re in good hands with her. A wonderful, wonderful researcher. Terrific at compliance. Head of our small but very capable Dissection Team too, by the way.”

I can feel my face draining of blood.

“She’s going to give you all a mild sedative now, to make you all more…compliant…then in no time we’ll all be back in Wellington, ready for some real testing to begin.”

Rift plays with the back of Ani’s wingback chair, rubbing his long fingers along the rear edge, clearly unnerving her as she sits there, stock still, her face pale; death-like.

“And yes, John,” he adds, seeing John opening his mouth in protest and pre-empting him. “Even though you, Nigel, Jacob and Marika have no…ah…special talents, you’ll all be coming with us too. I’m sure we’ll find a use for you up north, and we need your reminiscences on the development of the women over the past few years.”

John’s body language is tense, a coiled spring, ready to take action the moment there’s a chance. There’s no way John will come peacefully, and I wonder if Rift knows that. We don’t know what Rift is capable of, but we have no choice – it’s now or nothing. I shake my head at John slowly, trying not to be seen.

“And I wouldn’t try anything if I were you, John,” says Rift carelessly. “You’re no use to anyone with bullet holes in your head. My good men here have their rifles trained on you, as the most likely trouble-maker. One false move, and you’ll be Swiss cheese.”

For the first time in my life, I feel the lightest whisper of a voice in my head. Someone is inside my brain. In my mind. It’s Ani, I know it’s her, trying to speak to me, like she does to her animals. And it’s working. I feel violated and safe and secure and abused and controlled all at once.

Then I feel trust. I trust my sister.

I reach out with my mind, trying to sense what she intends. Nothing. I’m getting a blank, damp sponge of emptiness. I reach out again.

Distract him,” comes the quietest whisper of thought. “Distract Rift. And get ready…find something beneath us if you can. Attack the men, the woman.

I know I have to trust my sister, if we’re going to get out of this. I reach out with my own mind quicker and more forcefully than I ever have before, and sense immediately that there are massive, ancient roots from an old, long forgotten mangrove way below us, beneath the concrete, beneath our feet, dead a long, long time ago.

They’ll respond to my summons, as all plant matter will. I control all green, living things – and all green things that once lived. Age has no meaning to my Power, which I feel coursing through me, turning me into a goddess of the earth, connected to everything.

Before I call to them, I answer my sister’s need. Still high on my connection to the mangroves, I take a gamble, and push hard with my feet against the floor. Somehow – I don’t know how – my connection to my Power gives me extra strength and speed, sending my wheelie chair skidding across the concrete, towards the Doctor, where she carefully holds a syringe up to the light, distracted by her work.

My sudden movement takes her by surprise, and I knock the needle out of her grasp, sending it flying across the floor, the vial she was holding smashing into tiny pieces all over the ground.

“Oops!” I say, laughing. A manic fever has taken hold of me. I feel invulnerable, immense, bulletproof. If I’m going to get shot, I’d rather get shot defending my friends, and attempting to escape in a completely ridiculous manner. Then I kick out sharply as I leap out of the chair at lightning speed, catching the doctor with my foot and knocking her over, onto the floor.

The two goons guarding the door see what’s happening and, without further provocation, come running, their aim on John lost completely as they run to assist the Doctor.

I reach out with my mind again. Within seconds the aged roots, deep deep down under meters of concrete and pipes and dirt, force their way upwards with a strength only the earth itself can hold, and burst up and outwards through the concrete, right below Rift, sending chips of man-made stone and dirt and rock flying in all directions.

They grasp hold of the two men with rifles, and hurl them expertly, neat as threading a needle, out the door of the hangar and against the metal door of a warehouse across the road, as a spray of bullets from one of the men’s rifles hits the ceiling of the hangar, blowing out the lights. We hear the sickening crack of bones breaking against steel, then a thunk as the bodies of the men collapse onto the concrete pavement, broken.

Another tree root shoots up through the ground, grasps the Doctor around the legs, and drags her down into the depths of the earth, screaming. The noise ends abruptly, cut off swiftly, as the roots pull dirt back over themselves and re-bury themselves, taking their prey with them.

“I don’t suppose you could have taken the rifles away?” says Rift, casually. He’s as relaxed as if he he’s just been watching a tennis match, with the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips.

“It’s over, Rift,” says John. “Your men out there…” He waves with one hand. “…Are probably dead. Your doctor is gone, I don’t know how deep. You send more people, more people are going to get hurt. There is no way any of us will ever work for you.”

“I’m never going to be your little stooge,” says Janice, pushing Jacob off her lap, and standing up heavily and awkwardly. “Never. That is not in my future, and I’m guessing it’s not in Ani or Rose’s either.”

“Nup, not going to happen,” I agree. “Forget it. Just leave.”

“So why don’t you just take all your little minions with you back up to Wellington with you,” says John. “Take them all back, say it was clearly a case of double agents out at Janice’s house. Just like some of the papers suggested. Say they’ve left and gone to China. Or Belgium.”

He stifles a grin. “Or maybe Guatemala. I don’t know where Guatemala is, but it sounds far enough away that your problem will be solved.” He moves over in front of me, a protective gesture that I really don’t need – not at all, if anything it should be the other way around. But I appreciate it just the same. Then he waits for Rift to respond.

“It certainly does look like it’s over from your naive and narrow perspective, doesn’t it, young John?” says Rift, in a low voice. “But you’ve left one thing out of the equation.”

There’s a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know what he’s going to say.

“Me,” says Rift, simply. He frowns, his face transformed into a mass of wrinkles, deep in concentration.

Our whole world shifts and shakes, and is transformed. I hear John scream out “Rose!” I feel his hand reach out for me, and it is torn away from me, his fingers slipping out of mine, with nothing I can do to hold on to him. Everything blurs and shifts, and he is gone in a whirlwind of confusion.

It’s just me, and Ani, and Janice.

We’re somewhere else. We’re standing in a small, empty white room. There are bars on the windows, and one wall is iron bars, from floor to ceiling like the jails you’d see in old Western movies, stretching right across from one side to the other.

We’re in a cell.

Right outside of the cell, on the other side of the wall of metal bars, stands Rift, grinning at us.

Checkmate,” he says.

Brigandeers: Chapter 7: Cryptochrome

It’s nearly one o’clock by the time I crawl out of bed. So much for the eleven o’clock on the radio that I promised them.

I shuffle out to the kitchen to find the place empty, apart from Jacob. He is well set up on a bean bag, and playing some sort of shoot em up game on a tablet. He doesn’t even notice me, he’s so engrossed in his game.

Looks like we’ll be babysitting today. I don’t mind really, as Jacob isn’t a bad kid. It’s taken all of two weeks for him to fit right in here and learn to trust us all. He’s part of the family now, and it’s like he’s always been here.

As long as he’s fed and watered, and has plenty of books, toys and computer games to keep him happy, he’s generally no trouble at all. Occasionally his presence does mean we have to be careful about what movies we watch, but that’s not really a big deal.

To be honest, I don’t mind the kids cartoons he likes to watch – they’re better than most of the rubbish that’s on television these days.

As I fill the kettle and switch it on, I’m made dimly aware of loud, chainsaw-like snoring coming from John’s room. It sounds like he slept in even later than me.

Oh well. It’s Saturday morning . What else can they expect?, I muse. Further away and up over my head somewhere above, I can hear the muffled sound of a bedhead banging against a wall. I guess that means Ani and Cam are still here too. Some things never change about Ani.

I have no idea how everyone got out of the house as early as they did, especially considering that Marika was up as late as I was. She seemed to be in worse condition than me.

Maybe beer really is bad for you. Or maybe I just need to stop worrying and drink more of the stuff.

I make myself a cup of green tea, feeling virtuous. Then I turn on the stove top, and pop a skillet on and spray it.

A few minutes later, I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating my eggs and relaxing to the sounds of Jacob’s game. It’s nice to have nobody here except the kid and me. It’s nice to be able to eat my breakfast without interruptions. I’m feeling all relaxed now, and very mellow.

All I need now is some sunshine on my back instead of the dim interior of our cellar flat. But then, we couldn’t be stealthy superheroes if we lived in the sunshine, could we?

Yeah, I could get used to this.

A few minutes later, the snoring stops. I hear footsteps down the corridor, and the bathroom door slams. Then a few minutes later, the toilet flushes, and the sink runs.

John is out of bed. He appears, bleary-eyed, in the kitchen, hanging on the frame of the doorway. Even when he’s sleepy and his hair is all messed up he still looks hot. Heck, I’d even cope with the snoring. I take a deep breath and act naturally.

“Good morning, John,” I say, trying to act cool.

“G’morning,” he replies. “Is the kettle still hot? I don’t suppose you made a cuppa for me?”

“No, you’ll have to flick it on again. And no, you were still asleep, you lazy bugger.” I’m casual as fuck, and impressed with my acting.

“Any idea what time they’ll be back or where they actually went?” He lifts the lid on the kettle, peers in to check the water level, then fills it and switches it back on again.

“I have no idea. I only got up half an hour ago, and haven’t even turned on the radio to catch what they’re up to. I’m sure it’s all fine.”

“We should probably turn the radio on at least,” he says. “Just in case.”

“I guess so,” I say. “I’ve just been enjoying the peace and quiet. Plus I really needed that sleep in.” He stretches, hands overhead, and I smile. “Obviously you needed a sleep in too.”

“Guilty, as charged,” he says, with a grin. The kettle has boiled, he fills his coffee cup, pops in a couple of sugarfree tabs (ugh!), and stirs.

Then he saunters over to the communications center by the side of the stairs. He sits down on the sofa, reaching across to turn the short wave on.

There’s nothing but static. That’s odd. Frowning, John turns the dial, trying to tune in to our standard frequency we use. He calls out, checking to see if Marika responds. She’s usually quick, a matter of moments, but five minutes pass and we hear nothing in return. Just white noise.

He then checks multiple frequencies, the regulars we’ve used in the past, and still nothing.

“That’s strange,” he mutters. Jacob stops playing his game, brown eyes wide open and watching. Then he gets up from his bean bag, to come over and find out what’s going on.

Over the next five minutes, John checks again and again, going over frequencies and call signs.

Nothing. Then, with a jolt, I notice something. Something I should have picked up on before.

“John,” I say quietly.

“Yes?”

“We’re not hearing anything on any of our channels, are we?”

“No, not a damn thing. I don’t know what’s going on!”

“What about all the other channels?” I ask softly.

“I don’t get it either,” he says. “There should be all the regulars broadcasting this morning. Yet I’m not even getting the emergency services. There’s no-one. It’s complete silence.”

Except for us,” I say, a chill running up my spine.

“Except for us,” he repeats slowly, then: “Shit! No! Really?”

He slams the handset down, and turns the short wave off. He sits absolutely still. He’s breathing heavily, panicked all of a sudden.

“How long have we been broadcasting for?” he says breathlessly.

“Can’t have been more than fifteen minutes all up,” I say, guessing wildly, fear rising in me.

“Now what?” He’s looking at me, as if expecting me to know what to do.

I don’t know – I have no idea – but I know what this might mean.

“I don’t know,” I say. “But if we haven’t been quick enough, they could be on to us any moment. And Marika and Janice…” My voice trails away, and we stare at each other, both thinking the same thing.

They’ve been caught.

“They might now be, it could be…” John says slowly. “Maybe they realised what was going on, and are maintaining radio silence. Maybe…”

I shake my head. “How would they know? It’s only because they’re not answering us that we’ve even clued on!”

I swallow nervously, not knowing what to do or say next.

Jacob’s small voice breaks the silence. He says, “Is my mum safe? Is she coming home tonight?”

I’m at a loss for what to say to him.

“I don’t know if she’s coming home tonight,” I reply honestly. “But we’ll absolutely do our best to make sure she’s safe. Just as soon as we can. I promise.”

I turn to John. “Can you get Ani and Cam up out of bed? Like, right now?”

He nods, grimacing. “We’d better get out of here real fast, just in case.”

“Yep,” I say. “I don’t think they’ll be on to us that quickly. But I’d rather be safe.” I frown. “I just don’t know why this would have happened. The northerners aren’t due down until Monday, that much was clear.”

“Maybe they arrived early,” he replies, with a grim expression.

While John goes to wake up Ani and Cam, I help Jacob get dressed and ready. I’d never done this before he moved in, but already I’m a dab hand at it. At five, he’s capable of getting his clothes on, he just needs a bit of prompting and encouragement, and he can’t turn clothing back the right way when it’s inside out yet. But all in all, he’s pretty independent for a little guy.

Ten more minutes, and John locks the door behind us. We’re out of the main center of the city on the dirt bikes.

Ani and Cam are on one, and John, me and Jacob are on the other. Ours is a tight fit, as neither John nor I are small people, and Jacob is squished up in front of me, right up near the handlebars.

I’m reminded of the films I remember seeing in school of China back in the 1970s – whole families on one bicycle, with a pig slung over the back. Except this time it’s us, and John, pressing behind me, is the pig. I laugh quietly to myself at the thought of John with a curly piggy tail, as I ride through the streets, leaning into the corners.

We’re off to our hangar down in the warehouse district, down by the waterfront, where our drones are kept, plus our dingy and an assortment of other equipment. It’s our second base, our “Base 2”, fully equipped in case of emergency – in case of situations like this one when we might have to leave The Bastard real quickly and with no warning.

It was John’s idea, of course. Being a “prepper” and all, he’s planned for every emergency you could think of, starting with Avalanche and working right through the alphabet to Zombies. The hangar is equipped with sleeping bags and mats for all of us, a communications setup that we can contact everything from Russia to Antarctica with, and enough food to stock an army. Yeah, it’s sorted. All we have to do is reach it, and hope it’s never discovered. Because if Base 2 fails, we’re screwed.

Ani and Cam are following us via a different route two minutes later, to attract less attention and make being spotted less likely. Ani has a key as have both John and I, so even if they make it ahead of us – or even if we don’t make it – they can get in. The locks on the doors are deadlocks, with combinations as well as keys, and the CCTV cameras in this part of town are checked regularly by John to ensure they’re especially faulty. As long as we’re not followed, we should be absolutely safe once we arrive.

Right now, thinking about those cameras, I’m really thankful that we disconnected them throughout the streets of the city a long time ago, and that the city council, strapped for funds, has never bothered to fix them.

Without our concerted effort to break the cameras over the past couple of years, one after the other, especially in areas of interest to us, all our actions would have been fed back into central city computers, and from there on to the police or other authorities, depending on who requested the footage. As we zoom along the quiet city streets, John is keeping a look out to make certain we’re not followed.

We get to the hangar via several backtracks, loops and detours, with no problems at all. Ani and Cam are there already, ahead of us, helmets off and dismounted from their bike which they’ve already dragged inside.

They’ve opened up the hangar, and both are sitting at the communications bench in two of our fabulous wheeled chairs we scored from the auctioneers – they were leftovers from an office that went under a few years ago, and are super comfortable and great to shoot about in on the concrete floor of the old warehouse. Cam has already logged on to the computer.

“Is that wise to log on?” says John, a concerned expression on his face. “We’re already guessing that they’re monitoring the short waves, and I’m guessing they’re probably monitoring the citizen band widths as well.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s okay,” says Cam. “I think they’re probably just taking wild guesses at the moment, if they even really do know about us. I’m pretty certain that nobody knows about our computer accounts, or has any idea who any of us are. I’m not worried.”

“What about the CB channels?” I suggest. “You’ve checked the short wave, but nobody can wash out the CB channels. They’re too busy I’d think.”

John walks over to the main communications console, and switches on the CB, motioning to us to remain silent in the background. “I just want to check that it’s still the same, with nothing happening,” he says.

A wash of static hits the hangar, but no voices. Nothing. He flicks the dial, turning it around, checking channel after channel, and gets nothing.

“I guess that solves that question,” says Ani drily. “We’re still all alone.”

“Jesus H Christ!” says John, then adds a whole lot of extra, more colourful words. Then: “Crap. I didn’t think they’d be checking everything!”

He turns to face us all. “I just had a thought. Guys, don’t use your phones. If they’re watching the radio channels, they’re almost certainly monitoring the phone lines.”

“We already figured that out,” says Ani. “Waaaay ahead of you there, bro.”

“I guess we’re on our own,” I say. “And no way to contact the others.” I shake my head. “I can’t think of any way of getting in touch with them without using our phones, our radios, or the CB. Anyone got any other ideas? We could try Skype, but I’m figuring that they’re probably monitoring that too.”

I sit down on one of our wheelie chairs we use for monitoring the consoles, and rock it backwards and forward, fidgeting.

“Drones,” says Cam quietly.

“What?”

“The drones,” he repeats, pointing at Drone 1 and Drone 2, which are parked over in a corner of the hanger, still there from when we last used them a few weeks back. “We can fly the drones out across towards the Port. You know that’s where Nigel always goes for field testing – he likes to look at the big tourist liners that come in every so often, and kill two birds with one stone – he can check out the liners and do field testing at the same time.”

John sits down on a second wheelie chair next to me. “He’s such a geek! But that’s not a bad idea,” he says thoughtfully, a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Nobody can track the Drones, and they send back their data on a completely different channel to anything they’d be expecting. Plus, they’re not going to be monitoring us down here at the hangar – if they’re going to look for us, it’ll be back up at The Bastard Arms. It might just work.”

He turns the main console of the computer guidance system for the drones on. It responds immediately. Within a minute or two he’s logged in and into the Drone Management System (DNS), ready to pilot a new course out of the hangar, towards the oval up on the hilltop overlooking the Port where we’re hoping Nigel and Janice will be.

“I’ll put sound on this time too,” he says, and nods to me. “That way, with the microphone and speaker system on the drone, we’ll be able to have a conversation with Nigel and Janice, without using any of the standard channels that we think are being watched. It’s a neat little work-around.”

“Which one?” I ask. “Which drone do you want to use?” John is our main drone pilot, so there’s no much doubt in my mind that he’s going to be the one to fly the thing. Sure, Cam or Ani or I could fly the thing at a pinch. But we’d also run a much higher risk of running the thing into a brick wall, or the sea, or the ground. And those drone are pretty expensive and more delicate than you’d think.

“Try Drone 2,” he says. I go over to the small white machine, all wings and stabilisers and propellers and tiny cameras, and turn on the tiny microphones and speaker systems that are attached just under the main body of the machine – both are add-ons that didn’t come attached to the drone when we bought it, and that Nigel added, just in case we ever needed them.

Turned out we did, I guess.

Instantly I hear a low hum emanating from the thing, letting me know that the speakers are in action. There’s a flashing green light on the thing that indicates that the microphones are working too, but I bend down and breathe into the closest microphone on the side of the Drone near me as a check, just in case. I hear my own breath funneled back to me and amplified, from the other side of the hangar, from one of the speakers at the main console.

“Yikes, those microphones are sensitive!” I say, laughing, and John wheels his chair back in alarm as my voice booms out to him from the speakers at the console, fifty times louder than I said it.

John grins back at me. “You betcha!” he says. “We’ll be able to pick up anything Nigel says to the Drone, once we find him.”

He grabs a joystick, gets out of his chair, and goes over to the drone, which is still sitting quietly in the middle of the floor. “Nigel will be able to hear anything we need to say to him too. We’ll be able to carry on full conversations, completely under the radar of anyone monitoring standard communication channels. Plus full visuals. Got to love this technology. Nigel did a great job of souping it up. We should get great sound and visuals. Once we find him, that is…”

Then he switches the drone engines on, from a minute, almost invisible switch on its underside, and switches the joystick on in his hand. A tiny flashing light flicks on and off, on and off on the drone, matched by an identical tiny light on his joystick handset.

He presses a button on the handset, and the propellers on the drone begin to whir lightly, faster than my eye can see them right from the very start.

The drone begins to lift off from the floor, and hover a meter or so above John, spiraling around him in a crazy aerial ballet.

“There’s no time like now,” he says. “We could wait, and do a few tests, but I’d rather get to them as soon as possible and warn them, in case they’re being tracked and followed. Rose, can you let it out?”

I give a thumbs up sign, get out of my chair, and walk over to open the far high window at the back of the hangar. It’s a lever window that leads right out over the water, as our hangar is right at the water’s edge.

I feel secure, knowing that the only way it would ever be tracked back to us is if someone happens to be watching from the water itself, or from a small jetty dead opposite. Or watching us with high powered lenses from across the bay.

I figure we’re safe. As safe as we can be, anyway, whatever that means.

John pilots the drone up through the open window and out in to the open air. I watch it disappear like a tiny electronic bee, zipping across the sky. Within seconds I can no longer hear its characteristic high pitched whirring, nor can I see it. It’s on its way, off to go find Nigel and hopefully reconnect us all.

John plonks himself down in his wheelie chair in front of the communications console. I sit back down beside him in my own chair, bringing up the feedback information from the drone.

Within seconds we can see what it sees, but in black and white – a endless stretch of choppy water stirred by a light wind as it soars over the bay, just meters above the water, skimming lightly across the surface of the waves, barely high enough to avoid contact with foam and sea.

I lean back, breathing a sigh of relief. John is great at piloting the drone, and for the first time since we found the airwaves silent this morning I’m feeling safe again.

Ani’s phone beers suddenly. Alerted, she sits down beside me on her tall, studded leather wingback chair – trust her to have a wingback chair here, but she does! I think hers must have belonged to a crime boss in a former life, or a psycho organist who likes to wear capes and masks.

“What’s that beep for?” I ask, curious about the noise.

“There’s someone at The Bastard who shouldn’t be there,” she says simply and quietly. “The alarm system has been triggered.”

“Alarm? I didn’t know we had an alarm,” I say.

“No,” she says. “It’s just something Nigel and I set up a couple of years ago when I was going out with the dick Peter. You know, the stalker – the creepy guy?”

I nod, remembering. She turns on her own console, and begins tapping away, bringing up a view from a camera that is very familiar. It’s the kitchen in the cellar flat of The Bastard Arms.

“Huh?” I say. “How?”

“You didn’t think I don’t have hidden cameras of my own, did you?” she says smugly.

“What? When?” I stammer.

“I put them in about a year ago. Maybe more. Maybe more like eighteen months ago, actually,” she says, a slow smile spreading across her face. “When we began that drive to get rid of all the CCTV cameras in the city limits, it occurred to me that it would probably be a good idea if we did some monitoring of our own that wasn’t just from our rooftop.”

“But when?” I ask finally, feebly.

“This one went in around midwinter last year,” she says cheerily. “When you all went on that trip up to Auckland and it was just me and Nigel at home for a few days? Well, I put the first couple in, in our bedrooms and in the stairwell, and then this one followed a few days later, when I’d confirmed the first two were working well.”

She’s watching the camera feed intently, clearly not wanting to look at me. “You know that guy Peter? Yeah, well, when he started stalking me, I asked Nigel if he could help me put in a security system, so I could keep track of things if anyone ever broke in. Or if anything ever happened to me with someone inside the flat.”

She looks at me. “It wasn’t very difficult,” she adds airily. “You buy the whole kit online, and there are full instructions. The kits didn’t cost much either. Any nob can do it. It took me a couple of hours for the first one, then the others were about half an hour apiece. The most difficult thing…” Her eyes narrow. “Was hiding the cameras from you all. John especially, as he’s trained to look for all this sort of stuff.”

“You did pretty well,” says John, admitting he’s impressed. “I never knew they were there.”

“With this system, if someone breaks in, I get an alarm and so does Nigel,” she says. “And the sound starts recording, as well as the footage, with a feed back to here. That’s how I set it up. So we should be hearing things…”

Then, as we look on in horror, two men cross the screen. As they cross the room, the sound kicks in, and Ani takes a second to adjust the feed, so we can hear what they’re saying. We can’t hear anything yet, but Ani keeps fiddling about in the hopes we can hear the conversation soon. All five of us – even Jacob – are stock still, listening, watching.

Impressive, and freaky, to see strangers in our beloved cellar flat.

They’re both tall, and blond, and wearing combat fatigues and berets that might be blue. One of the men is tiny, weedy, maybe five feet five in his boots with horn rimmed glasses behind which piercing eyes take in everything, everything in our private home.

The second man is imposing, in height, the width of shoulders and in sheer mass. He’s huge, and I can see the camera lens shaking when he walks. As he turns to look at the communications console against the stairs, his eyes are caught in full frame by the hidden camera. They’re the eyes of a killer, pale and empty.

Neither man appears rushed or concerned – they take their time walking through our home, rifling through our belongings. The small man even reaches inside the fridge and grabs himself one of John’s beloved iced coffees. I hear John curse under his breath as he watches in suspense, next to me, as the guy down it in a few short gulps then toss the empty carton carelessly on the floor.

We can see the two men speaking, and John whispers to Ani, “Do we have ears on yet? Any luck?”

In response, she nods, then inputs a few more strokes into her keyboard. At that moment, the larger man’s voice comes over the speaker system at the hangar.

He’s surprisingly soft-spoken for his size. And American. I think I would have found his voice less chilling had it been big and booming, not soft and smooth and amiable-sounding.

They’re talking about us, and in agreement that we haven’t been long since we left The Bastard.

“Not more than a couple of hours, by the look of things,” says the little guy. “Do you think they got wind of the radio silence and that tipped them off?”

“Undoubtedly,” says the huge man, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “I’d have been disappointed if they hadn’t. And you have absolutely no idea where they’ve gone?”

“No sir,” says the little guy. “When Rift put the command for radio silence through, they did exactly what we thought they’d do, which is lead us here. Not too clever. I’m guessing they’re just kids.”

He looks around. “This is clearly their main base of communications, and has been so for quite some time. Now, that fat old barmaid up top says she doesn’t know them, and maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. Or maybe she knows them real well and is covering for them. Either way, we’ll figure it out. But they’ve only been gone here a short while so they can’t have gone far and must be in the vicinity. We’re watching the airport, and we don’t think they’d have access to private planes or boats.”

“So they’re here in town still,” says the big guy, moving closer to the communications console. Closer to our hidden camera. He’s flicking through computer games and DVDs now, checking labels, pulling them off the shelf, checking them one by one in case anything is hidden inside the plastic covers, tossing them casually aside when he finds they’re not hiding anything special.

“So they’re here in town still,” confirms the little guy, picking up the local paper which is strewn across the coffee table, and flicking through it, clearly searching for any of our papers that might have been lying underneath. “We will catch them. They’re too valuable to let this pass. Wellington thinks we’ve got another Rift on our hands. Or maybe something better. They could be very useful. And Rift wants them.”

“Another Rift?” says the big guy thoughtfully, pausing for a moment, barely a few centimeters away from our camera. “I’m not sure we want that! Wellington can barely control him as it is! Then again, some competition could keep him in check. He’s getting way too close in with the higher-ups.” He turns around, away from the lens. “Maybe we should make a greater effort to find these people.”

“It’s only the girls we’re interested in,” says the smaller man. “You know the deal…x-linked…makes it so much easier when we know our quarry…”

“Mmmmm, yes,” says the large man. “Shame about that. It’s always ugly to see a pretty girl get the Treatment. And Rift will never forgive them. He won’t make it pleasant.” They both chuckle at some in joke that I don’t understand. Then: “Come on. There’s nothing here. They’re long gone. Perhaps the other team down at the Port are having better luck.”

The Port!

“We’d better warn them!” I say to Ani, and we both turn back to John, who is still busy next to us, intently piloting the drone across the bay. “Are you catching any of this, John?” I motion to the monitor we’re watching, but the men are leaving the room, and it’s clear they’re finished at the cellar flat. I watch them disappear up the steairs of the flat, and they’re gone.

“Most of it,” he replies, trying not to be distracted, paying attention to his own task. “I’m doing what I can to get the drone to Nigel as fast as I can and warn him, but the drone can only go a certain speed. Beyond that, it just takes time. The drone will be there with Nigel in a few minutes. But I’m guessing that the authorities won’t get there any faster than we can. Which gives Nigel and Janice a little time at least, I hope.”

We watch the feed from the drone as it approaches the Port. There’s a huge cruise liner in town at the moment, and the tiny drone zooms right up close – within meters – of the liner, over the top of it, past the swimming pool and dual water slides that decorate the top most decks.

“Can’t help myself,” says John, grinning. “I’d love a closer look.”

“Not now,” I admonish him. “You and Nigel are a pair – you’re as bad as each other. But for now – Nigel and Janice, remember?”

The drone skirts past the liner and up over the hillside behind the Port, to a level paddock high up on the cliff top where we’ve known Nigel to do field tests before. It’s an out-of-the-way place, quiet and secluded, with only one road leading past it, and a view for miles in all directions. No chance to be caught unawares, and plenty of room to do any tests without being observed by anyone.

And he’s there. Nigel is there. And Janice. We can see the truck, pulled up and hidden mostly out of sight behind an old, dilapidated barn, certainly out of view from the road – you’d have to look carefully at exactly the right time to see the truck nestled there, hidden away.

As the drone flies in closer, Nigel and Janice become aware of its presence – Nigel looks up, and waves, a grin on his face. He’s pleased to see the drone. It’s clear that there’s been no trouble whatsoever, and the tests are going well.

John lands the drone carefully, only meters from where Nigel and Janice are standing, and Nigel walks over. He can see from the blinking light that tells him we can see and hear him, and says curiously: “Hey, what’s going on? Some reason why you couldn’t use the radio?”

John speaks into the built-in microphone in his handset, an urgent tone in his voice: “Don’t use the radios! We’re being monitored, and this guy called Rift and his cronies are trying to track us down. We’ve already had to abandon The Bastard, and we’re on the run. All safe for now, out at Base 2.”

It had always been agreed that, if we were any of us in trouble, we’d refer to the hangar as “Base 2”. Because “Base 2” could be, well, anywhere.

“Really bad, huh?” says Nigel, his head to one side, thinking. “We’ve seen nothing. But bad enough for this?”

“You’re not wrong,” I reply, over John’s shoulder. “We can’t figure out how exactly, but they must have tracked us down when we tried to contact you over the radios this morning. I don’t see how they could have found out where we were any other way. We’ve been really strict with our protocols, and Janice and Jacob have stayed put the whole time. So they can’t have been seen by anyone who could have recognized them from the “New Zealand’s Most Wanted” lists. We’ve never been discovered up until now, and nothing else has changed.”

“Ah, that may have been my fault,” says Nigel. “I was doing some tests on the radio last night, just signal strength tests and such, relaying back to Janice, checking from a few different points around the city.”

He stutters. “I…I thought there was something wrong with our communications equipment…it kept whiting out. Just static. I couldn’t figure out why. In the end, I packed it in, and headed back to The Bastard.” He scratches his head. “But I never gave our position or said anything about any of your Powers. Nothing that would have made anyone suspect anything out of the ordinary.”

“Yes you did,” says Janice slowly, speaking up. “I remember you wondering, when we couldn’t get clear reception from the top of Lookout Point, whether my Geomagnetic Powers were influencing the radios and their signal strength. You…you said we’d check it out in the morning.”

Nigel’s face is bright red. “Shit.”

“What?” says John. “So you actually used the term ‘geomagnetic powers'”?

“Shit,” says Nigel. “I think I may have. I’m really sorry.”

“So they’ve had all night to track us down?” I say incredulously. “You’re an idiot, Nigel. We’re damn lucky we haven’t been picked up by the authorities yet.”

“Did you mention the Port at all?” asks John, a hint of anger in his otherwise usually placid voice.

“Shit,” says Nigel again. “Maybe. Maybe I have. Look, I’m sorry guys. I guess I haven’t been that smart.”

“Damn right you haven’t – ” I begin angrily.

John cuts me off. “It’s okay. We’re safe – for now. So have you had a chance to actually do any testing on Janice this morning? Because I’d suggest that if you haven’t done it by now, you get a move on real fast. The guys we saw in The Bastard were talking about a gang of their mates out at the Port, so they could be here any second.”

“Oh yes, yes!” says Nigel excitedly. “We have done some tests. They’ve been amazing. Smashing, yes! We’ve had some absolutely smashing results. She’s one incredibly powerful woman.”

He gets this huge, wide, almost insane smile on his face. “Geomagnetism – who’d have thought it? So incredibly interesting…so, so interesting! We started testing when we arrived here early this morning, before the sun was even up, and by the time a half an hour had passed, it was quite clear to me that we were on to something completely unique, something I’ve never seen before. I can’t wait to watch Janice as she learns how to harness and channel her full capabilities.”

“What can she do?” I ask, curious in spite of myself, and my awareness that we need them to move, fast.

“There’s a police car coming up from the Port real fast,” says Janice suddenly, interrupting. “Listen.” In the distance, I could hear a siren wailing.

“They wouldn’t use sirens if they were trying to sneak up on you and catch you,” says Ani sensibly, peering over my shoulder at the screen.

“Nigel, stand back so John can get the drone up in the air, just in case,” I say. “Then move behind the shed, and we’ll hover there.” Nigel does so, and John expertly pilots the drone up and behind the shed where it hovers, whirring away quietly, while Nigel and Janice move behind the shed and out of view from the road.

The police car hurtles past the barn, sirens on and horns blaring, then disappears up the hill, the noise fading away into the distance.

“Not us,” says Nigel, and John drops the drone to the ground again.

“What can she do?” I repeat.

“Well,” says Nigel, his geeky soul bursting with the thrill of it all, barely able to contain his excitement. “She can control the navigation of not just animals, but aircraft, planes, and even modern cars that have onboard navigation systems that rely on information about the earth’s magnetic field. Theoretically, she could probably control rockets, missiles, and various UAVs that rely on geomagnetic information.”

“So I can see why the military and the authorities in general might be interested in her!” says John, leaning forward, intrigued.

“Hell yes!” says Nigel. “But it gets better.”

“It does?” I ask, puzzled. How could it possibly get better for the military than the ability to control their own missiles? “Is she the same as us, with no distance issues? Like, is she able to control stuff, no matter how far away it is?”

“Pretty much, from what I can tell,” says Nigel, nodding. “But that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is what she can do to humans. To people.”

“What do you mean?” asks Ani. “What can she do to us? We don’t navigate using geomagnetism.”

“That’s just it,” says Nigel. “We do. We human animals – oh, how I love using that term, because it’s so completely appropriate – we  human animals have a kind of magnetoreceptor protein in our eyes. It’s called cryptochrome.”

He grins delightedly. “It’s fascinating stuff. These proteins help us navigate, they help keep ourselves upright, help us find to our way around, even help us do stuff as basic as put one foot in front of the other.”

He rubs his hands together, and continues. “In other words, we’re totally, completely dependent on the earth’s magnetic field when it comes to getting around. Just as dependent as homing pigeons, although we’re not nearly as good at it.”

He takes a deep breath. “When things go wrong – when these proteins are disrupted – we can’t navigate. We can’t even walk straight. We’re literally unable to move, fixed in one place. If we try to move, we stagger around like drunks, falling over if we try to take so much as a single step. It’s hilarious. You should have seen me in the tests this morning. And Janice here, she can control these forces, this magnetism, these proteins.”

He looks directly at the tiny camera lens on the drone, and it is as if he’s in the room with us, staring right at us. “Janice can control us all, every movement we make. If she learns to control her Power, she can move us about like puppets. She can pull the strings on any human in the world, at any time. You, Rose, can control the plants. And you, Ani, can control the animals but Janice here – she controls us.”

“She just needs time to learn how.”

 

Brigandeers: Chapter 6: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Two hours later, we’re checking out the top floor rooms of The Bastard Arms. The rooms are pretty grim, but hey, Janice is a bit of a hippie and doesn’t seem to mind a bit of dirt so they’ll probably suit her just fine.

I can be so mean sometimes.

The walls are bulging in places. There have been dozens of layers of wallpaper plastered down, one over the top of the next, then the next, until the walls themselves seem to buckle and sway so much and everything is so uneven that you’d swear you’re drunk when you’re not.

Maybe that’s part of the charm, but I don’t think it’s an intentional look. It’s just cheap and lazy – you see it all over this old town of ours in a lot of cheap, old houses – and these rooms reek of cheapness and laziness and lack of care.

Wherever I turn I can smell that unmistakeable, once-smelled-never-forgotten musty scent of mice. The stink is in the discoloured carpets, in the cupboards, permeating the walls themselves. It’s everywhere. I’m certain that whoever has been living up here, they’ve whiskers and tails, and they like cheese.

Ani would be able to confirm for me: she’s good with rodents. But I don’t really need to her to check. You can tell the place is mouse-infested by the dried piles of droppings in the corners.

If you know the smell of mice – and I know it really, really well – you know it when you smell it, even if you haven’t smelled it in years. It’s the kind of stink that sticks with you, hiding away in the back of your brain, ready to remind you when you come across it again.

“It’ll do,” says Janice thankfully, looking around the first of the rooms. It’s not impressive. Her son stands on tiptoe and peers through a dirty window down at the alleyway down below. Great view. We’ve chosen two rooms for her that are at the rear of the building, away from the main road, where the windows can’t be seen as they face outwards on to the alleyway and a blank brick wall.

Both rooms are furnished with ancient, leftover sticks of furniture that look like they may have once been found at a deceased auction. Knowing Bill, that’s probably where they were purchased. Knowing Bill, he might have killed the person they belonged to.

I muse once again over the possibility that the place is haunted, then brush off the idea as foolish. However, if Jacob proves to be a pain in the rear, I might make use of the idea, and drum up a few stories about random ghosts and zombies to keep him in control.

Janice should be able to have lights on and even windows open form time to time while still avoiding notice from passers-by, because of the position of the rooms. Both rooms are quite private, and there are even tatty old curtains to close at night – or in the day if she wants.

There’s also a bathroom down a short, dusty corridor that leads to the main staircase, and everything appears functional, although I suspect that the hot water won’t be brilliant, if ours is anything to compare by. I turn on a tap in the tiny bathroom, and the pipes begin hammering away, despite the pressure being good. A mucky sludge of water oozes out. I turn it off again hastily.

It is decided among us, now we’re discovered that the upstairs of The Bastard is more livable than we thought, that it won’t be only Janice and Jacob are moving up in the world.

Now that Marika owns the place and we can do what we want, as long as Carol has no objections, Ani and Cam are taking a room on the first floor, directly below Janice.

Nigel has also decided to move upstairs, taking the room that is below Jacob’s. We don’t see why Carol would have any objections, as she can’t even make it up the stairs, and hasn’t set foot above the bar in a long, long time. Anything that isn’t at ground level is ours for the taking. So we’re taking it.

From now on, it will be just Marika, John and me down in our original cellar flat. I’m trying not to show how ridiculously happy I am about the change in arrangements.

For starters, for the first time in my life I won’t be sharing a room with my sister and her various boyfriends, Cam being just the latest in a long, long line of them. Don’t get me wrong – I love my sister. I even get along with her sometimes. I just don’t want to live with her in the same room for the rest of my life. I need my space.

My second reason is one I like to keep to myself. John and I have…a thing. I’m not sure what it is yet or where it’s going, but a little more privacy and a few less people around us all the time might help make things happen…if they’re going to happen at all.

I’m surprised that Marika has decided to stay down in the cellar with John and me, but she has. She says that she’ll probably eventually find something separate to live in, away from The Bastard, once things settle, as she too has reservations about us all being in the one place. But for now, until all the paperwork is sorted, she’s staying put in her old room.

John has decided to stay downstairs for his own reasons. He likes the quick exit out of the old cellar doors up to the street, because for him it’s then a quick dash across the road and he’s at work.

He likes the fact that all his stuff is already down here and, now Nigel is gone, he can spread out and get really comfortable.

I also like to think he’s staying down in the cellar because I’m here. He doesn’t say that, but I hope it’s one of his reasons, maybe even the main one, for staying put.

For three people, the cellar flat is plenty of room, and is kind of an awesome place to live.

We’re all of us hoping that John and Nigel won’t be quite so much at each other’s throats, now they won’t be sharing a room any more and are separated by two flights of stairs, a busy pub, and a lot of dust.

They never should have shared in the first place, but the cost of living being what it is, it made sense for them to do so.

Now, finally, they can have a space of their own, they can keep away from each other a bit more, and they can damn well behave tolerably for the rest of us.

We spend the first half of the week cleaning the upstairs floors so they’re suitable for human habitation, and the second half of the week moving everyone in to their new digs, and making sure that the top floor – Janice and Jacob’s rooms – are hidden away extra carefully for safety.

John and I get our carpenter thing on. I’ve always been good with my hands, and together we rip the main stairwell out that leads up to the top floor, plastering over the ceiling. We tail the first Nigel’s floor off with a banister from the second storey demolished stairwell.

Once we’re done, it looks as though the Bastard is only two stories inside, when in reality it has three. It’s a clever trick, and one that will only be noticed if you’re paying close attention to it.

To replace the stairs up, we’ve installed a drop-down ladder in the rear of Nigel’s room, which can easily be hidden behind some junk.

It’s not going to be easy for Janice to get up and down, especially as she gets heavier in her third trimester, but it’s an easy decision to make – she needs a safe place where she can’t be found, and a little discomfort getting up and down is worth it, if it means her rooms are well hidden.

So now the whole top storey is hidden away with a secret entrance up, and if you didn’t know it was there by counting the floors from the outside, you’d never find it. I’m impressed with my own handiwork.

The whole carpentry process takes the best part of another week, so by the time we’re done making the changes to the layout and moving everyone upstairs, a week and a half has passed.

We’re all glad to have everything finalised, as it’s been a bit crowded with bedding all over the kitchen floor in the cellar flat.

I’m absolutely exhausted, as is John, because we’ve both been doing all the changes to The Bastard as well as holding down our regular jobs.

I’m better off than he is, because at least with working behind the bar Marika has been able to go it solo in the quieter times, whereas he’s just had to go to the garage, exhausted or not.

I’m glad it’s not my car he’s fixing this week.

You’d think it would be quick to move people in, but Nigel’s half of the room he shared with John looks more like a junkyard than a dorm, and moving all the wires and hardware and computers and dumb terminals and even 14 baud modems out from the dawn of time takes a fair while.

He insists it’s all vitally important and that nothing can go. We’re happy to agree with him, but nothing that wasn’t built this century is carried up by anyone other than him. If moving all this crap doesn’t put muscles on his weedy frame, I don’t know what will.

After all his junk is shoved in his room, we don’t see Nigel for days pretty much, as he spends hours and hours wiring all the machines back together, and trailing cables through the hotel from floor to floor and down to the cellar. We’re aware of him the moment he wakes each morning, pretty much, because minutes later the drill is going, as he bores holes into the old plaster walls, dropping cables through and re-wiring everything to suit the specifications that only he understands.

All I care about is that my games machines down in the basement continue to work, that we continue to get the best illegal cable TV in the city, and that our wifi continues to be brilliant. There are a few interruptions to our reception here and there, but to be fair to Nigel he does a damn good job and the breaks to our reception are few.

Janice and Jacob need belongings. They have absolutely nothing apart from a few clothes they hastily packed into one small bag, and a handful of toys.

So Ani, Marika and I make the rounds of the local charity shops, sourcing up more furniture, some linen and quilts for their beds, and some playthings for Jacob.

We’re just guessing on the toys, because of course Janice and Jacob have to stay at home while we hunt. We’re still not suspected for anything, but since the incident at Janice’s house, their names and faces have been plastered all over the media, with warnings that Janice may be armed and extremely dangerous.

Which just shows that whoever put the notices up doesn’t know Janice at all. The idea of her – or her son – being armed and extremely dangerous is laughable. It doesn’t cost us much to buy what we think they might need, and Marika pays for most of what we grab.

When we get back to The Bastard, Janice is thankful for all of it, even though everything we’ve bought is basic and not at all fancy. I feel embarrassed and ashamed by her politeness – it was, after all, my actions that trashed her home and that prevent her from ever returning.

We’re all sorted out by the end of the week, with everyone settled in to where they’re supposed to be. Janice and Jacob are hidden away in their secret apartment at the top of The Bastard, and Nigel is in his room, while Ani and Cam have a room of their own on the first floor next to Nigel. I’m guessing that Nigel is so engrossed in his geekery that the noise Ani and Cam make nonstop doesn’t bother him any. It would sure bother me.

The cellar is so quiet with just Marika, John and me down here much of the time. Nigel has become a recluse upstairs, up in his room most of the time, geeking away happily, surrounded by cables and electronic gadgets of his own devising. I don’t think John misses him much. Actually, I don’t think John misses him at all.

Ani and Cam are similarly reclusive, but for different reasons. There’s no forgetting their presence in The Bastard, however. No matter where we are inside the building, they make us very aware of how thin the walls in the pub are for hours at a time, and how much the floorboards rattle.

Every time I hear that metal headboard creak, and every time I hear groans and moans and the muffled ping of mattress springs under pressure, I’m reminded how much I just don’t miss sharing a room with my sister. Not one bit.

But the cellar is far enough away that, with the sound of the television going, or one of our monitors, or the ongoing endless banter on the police bands, or even the noise of us all talking when we have a break and turn on a games console, we don’t tend to hear much from upstairs.

The police bands are giving us much more interest at the moment than anything going on upstairs. They’re keep us all busy, so we’re taking shifts listening to what is going on and where the investigation is up to.

Their leads on the four agents I…um…disposed of have run dry. They’re also completely at a loss as to who might have killed the two bodies they found, and where the other two agents they can’t find might be.

Some of the higher ups in the police force and in the government at large suspect foul play. They suspect that there may have been double agents involved in the incident, with the dead men killed by their now-missing partners, who have since flown out to China.

Or Taiwan. Or the Phillipines. Or France. Or anywhere.

Yep, they literally have no idea. And two missing bodies are making foul play from within the agent ranks the most likely option. That doesn’t stop them calling out for Janice and Jacob on every media platform possible. But the truth is, that’s just a mask to cover their own uselessness at figuring things out.

We’d like to keep it that way, but we’d also like to keep Janice and Jacob safe.

So the big guns are being called in. Not content with how the investigation has been run – or not run – in Dunedin, Wellington is sending down the top brass to deal with the situation. And all their minions too – over a hundred of them.

The whole damn town is about to be crawling with agents, all intent on solving the unsolvable, and making a name for themselves in the process.

We can hardly wait.

Dunedin’s local guys are all being stood down off the case as of Monday. That’s when the Wellington crew fly down here and take over.

To be honest, it sounds like the whole thing has been a complete embarrassement to our local authorities. It’s not every day they have two agents murdered (and they can’t figure out how exactly), two disappear (and they can’t figure out how exactly), and nobody is called in and charged for it. They’ve found no suspect yet – no one, that is, more likely than a pregnant woman who has never been in trouble for anything more than a bit of weed possession, and her five year old son.

Even to my ears it sounds pathetic. To the critical masses hearing it all blow by blow on the media, it’s bring out the popcorn time.

We’ve been watching the endless news reports of the incident. The whole thing, once the shock of the event was over, has pretty much made Dunedin’s police force look like the laughing stock of New Zealand. They’ve been portrayed as incompetent in every way. They keystone cops of Aotearoa.

No suspects, no motive, no clue on how the two men were murdered (tree roots don’t leave fingerprints), and two missing men who were meant to be specialist agents in their field, although the media isn’t clear what exactly they were specialists in.

Of course, the news reporters also don’t know why the agents were at Janice’s house in the first place – they’re guessing a drugs bust, as Janice was known around the area as a bit of a hippie with a few “tomato houses” out the back of her property.

The authorities aren’t helping – they have not given the media any further details about what actually went on or why two agents were there, so the media has taken the events into their own hands and made it all up as they’ve gone along, with the goal not so much to tell the truth but to sell as many papers as possible along the way.

The more sensational the story the better, and if a few facts get lost it doesn’t matter.

The guy coming down from Wellington to be charge of the new investigation is not known to us at all, which is odd. He’s called Torrance Rift, and he has absolutely no history at all that Marika and Nigel can find from hacking into agency databases, that goes back any further than two years. Nothing. Not even an old, forgotten Facebook account.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a meteoric rise to the top. To me, that either means he’s top notch cream or absolute shit – because both cream and shit float to the surface, both can stink, and it’s just a matter of your luck which one you get when you open the can.

He’s arriving in Dunedin on Monday – it’s Friday now, and the new, Rift-led investigation will begin with his arrival. We’re hoping he’s just as incompetent as our local forces, and will be gone as fast as his arrival, his investigation over quickly, leaving us in peace to get on our work without further interruption.

Since we went out to Taieri we haven’t been able to do pretty much anything and have been effectively grounded, and the drug barons have been having a field day, no one harrassing them, their deals happening openly on the street now with nothing to prevent them. It’s gravy town in Dunedin for the Ice Cream Lords.

“I’m not happy about this new investigation,” says Marika, coming down the stairs into the cellar at the end of her bar shift, a half full bottle of cider in her hand, closing the door behind her.

It’s very early Saturday morning, in the wee sma’s after closing time at The Bastard, and we’re both exhausted from a crowd in the pub that just would not leave. But hey, they kept on buying drinks, and as long as they’re fronting up with money, Carol has a policy that as long as they’re buying, the bar stays open.

She flops down on the sofa beside me, where I’m flaked out, turning a blind eye to the half-empty beer in my hand that I’ve filched from upstairs. “The Rift guy? He sounds like a newb to me.”

I take a swig of my beer. “Probably someone’s darling son, fresh out of private school, shuffled to the top job before he’s even got his shoes dirty. Dunedin will make short work of him. He’ll be gone before we know it.”

I feel comfortable in my statement about the new guy and his legion of happy little fresh-faced minions he’ll undoubtedly bring with him. Investigators from the big cities up north are notoriously dainty, and I have great faith in my town’s ability to destroy fancy city folk. Dunedin has done so countless times before, and it will do so again and again. We’re tough as guts down here in the south.

“I don’t doubt for a minute that someone’s bought the position for him. Probably his mah-my.” I snicker derisively. “Nobody gets to the top that quickly, that unknown, without any long work experience behind them, without buying their way in.”

“Are we talking about this Rift guy?” says John, peering from round his bedroom door. He’s wearing an old t-shirt with the Highlanders emblazoned on the front – his favourite sleep shirt – and his hair is tousled.

I breathe deeply, trying not to stare. I thought he’d gone to sleep hours ago, but feel pleased by the possibility that maybe he’s stayed awake until we came back down from work.

John wanders into the kitchen, grabs a pop pack of iced coffee from the fridge, and collapses on one end of the sofa next to me, bumping my beer, so I’m wedged in the middle, between him and Marika.

“It doesn’t look good, to my way of thinking,” he says quietly, poking a straw through the circular foil opening of his drink, then wiggling it down and taking a long sip.

“You’re kidding, right?” I say. “The guy is probably still wet behind the ears. Straight out of copper school. If I was going to guess, he’ll be 20 years old and some rich mumma’s darling. I’m amazed they’re letting him stray so far from home without a minder.”

“Did you even see the details on this guy that Nigel and I raked up?” asks Marika, annoyed. “We couldn’t find any background beyond a couple of years, but we did find his profile. He’s not exactly a kid. He’s probably nearer for forty, by the look of him, and he’s got more degrees than a Russian protractor to his name. I’d bet the guy’s no idiot, and I doubt he’s bought his way in.”

She takes a sip of her cider. “My guess is that this whole incident has really pissed the police off. And the agency. And the authorities. And the whole fricking government. All the way up the chain, to the very top. It’s got to them. They want blood, and they’re sending this guy down to make sure they get it.”

She looks worried. “I only hope that they’re not attaching the missing guys to anything more sinister…like the fact that they were checking out Janice, and it wasn’t for her weed plants in the greenhouse.”

I’m embarrassed that I haven’t looked at the info that Nigel and Marika have been busy digging up on this guy. But I’ve been busy. I have excuses. While they’ve been mucking around on the net, finding all this shit out, I’ve been busy getting Janice settled in, and fixing half-broken toys that I found at charity shops for a five year old boy who is only going to break them again anyway. I’ve been making their rooms inhabitable. It hasn’t been a small job. Yeah, she’s a hippie and all but I found out that even hippies have standards. Low ones, but standards.

“I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to read what you’ve found.” I say earnestly. “I’ve been flat out helping Janice and Jacob settle in. This week has been insane.”

I take another swig of my beer, and lick the foam off my lips, thoughtfully. “Do you think we’re actually at risk from this guy?”

“I don’t know,” says Marika. “I really hope not. But he’s coming down to find answers. And it’s a long way to come, and to send all those people with him. There are over a hundred specialists and regular forces people coming down. It’s a mass of them. We can’t just joke about and assume they won’t find anything. He’s not going to muck around. We’re going to have to be real careful.”

“They don’t have anything to go on, though,” I say, taking another sip of my beer, and pulling at the label, ripping the edges off. It’s a habit I can’t seem to stop – I’ve been doing it for years, ever since I had my first beer at the age of fourteen and fell in love with the stuff.

“Sure, everything happened at Janice’s house, but she and Jacob have disappeared from the face of the earth, as far as everyone is concerned. Even if they suspect her, they’ve nothing to go on. Nothing. They don’t know where she is. She could be in China, for all they know. Or France. Last I heard on the radio tonight, they were suspecting Belgium. So as long as they’re not spotted or associated with us, there’s no way any of this can be tracked back to us. To here. We should be safe.”

“We should be,” says John, slurping around the carton at the remnants of his milky drink. I’m amazed at how fast he can polish off an iced coffee. Horrible stuff, but he seems to like it. Different strokes and all, I suppose. “But we can’t guarantee anything. And until someone else is blamed for what went on, until someone else is blamed for the deaths – because you can be sure, if they can’t find us, they’re going to want to blame someone – we’re not safe. Janice and Jacob are stuck here with us, whether they like it or not. They’re prisoners at The Bastard, until this all blows over. Which could be a while. The police don’t like to be embarrassed, even though everyone else has enjoyed the show, thanks to the mass media.”

I laugh. “I can think of worse places to be holed up than a pub! And it has been really kind of amusing, watching the huge stuff up. But as long as they keep blaming the dead guys, and assuming that there were double agents over from China, or Belgium, or anywhere else, it’s all good with me.”

“So,” says John, dumping his empty ice coffee carton on the low table in front of him, and putting his feet up next to it, wriggling his hairy toes and making Marika roll her eyes. “What’s our plan? Ignore this guy, but tread carefully in the meanwhile, until it all dies down?”

I nod. “Pretty much. I was talking with Nigel today – and bloody hell, he’s only been in that upstairs room for two days, and already it’s a fire hazard. Stuff everywhere! And it stinks. But yeah, I was talking with him and as he pointed out, we’re still not really sure what Janice’s Powers actually are. We need to do some testing. Ideally field testing. We’ve got the weekend until this guy comes down from up north. Until then, things should be pretty quiet, because there’s no way the local guys are going to get off their asses and do serious hunting for us all now they’re off the case and it’s been shifted upwards. So he’s taking them field testing tomorrow, before the northerners are here. It’s risky, but far less risky than in a few days’ time, and it needs to be done. It can’t be done here.”

I finish off my beer, and place the bottle upright on the coffee table, next to John’s empty carton.

“So what Nigel was saying is, if we’re going to do some field testing, the next couple of days are the time to do it. Because after that, once Monday comes, the whole town is going to be crawling with Northern pigs and brass. They’ll be everywhere, all trying to impress their big boss. I don’t know if they’re planning any door-knocking, but we may as well plan for it. We could have them on our doorstep, asking questions, which won’t be fun. Janice and Jacob are well hidden away, up on the top floor, and it’s really unlikely they’d ever be found unless a search was tipped off, as The Bastard is well known to be empty on the top floors. But we can expect they might come down here, and ask us some questions. We probably need to have some answers, and they’d better be good ones. Just in case.”

I stand up. “I’m off to bed,” I say, yawning. “Nigel might be taking Janice out field testing in the morning, but tht doesn’t mean we all have to go. I’m buggered if I will. I have a very important date with a sleep in planned. I’m not sure I’d be awake enough to deal with it anyway. So I’m staying here and you lot can go. It’s not like I’m needed as well. And fewer people will attract less attention.”

“I might take a raincheck on it too,” says John, casually. “If it’s a choice between one of Nigel’s field tests and sleeping in, I think sleeping in might just come first. You’re not the only one who has had a busy week.”

“Oh great,” says Marika. “It’ll be me, Nigel, and the hippie. Because you can bet that Ani and Cam won’t come. Ever since they’ve got a room of their own, they’ve hardly left it. The bed springs would miss them if they actually got up. They’re not going to want to spend a day in the truck taking down readings for ‘Professor’ Nigel.”

“You’re not going to want them in the truck either, that’s for sure,” says John, stretching. “If we’ve got them here and you only have to put up with Nigel and Janice, we’re going to suffer a whole lot more than you. I think I need to invest in some ear plugs.”

Before I go to my room that evening, I leave a note on the kitchen table. It says: “Staying home Saturday. So is John. We’ll be listening on the radio for you by eleven in the morning. Don’t disturb us until then. Rose.”

I sleep pretty much like the dead that Friday night.

Early on the Saturday morning, somewhere around sunrise, I’m dimly aware of a clattering around in the kitchen, and the sound of many people moving around and getting ready to go out. Every so often I hear a “Shhhhh! You’ll wake them up!” followed by a spate of giggling.

I throw my quilt over my head, and dive down further under its soft pillowy warmth, trying to block out the sound. Eventually I hear a door shut, followed by silence.

I hate my friends sometimes.

Brigandeers: Chapter 5: Growth

 

I used to believe, as a kid, that when a girl lost her virginity she’d be changed, and there would be something about her that was visibly different.

Losing your virginity was a transformation of sorts. It was a big deal. A huge deal.

Before I lost my virginity, before any of my friends lost theirs, it was practically all we talked about. We all made up stories, we all lied to each other, my friends and I. We all pretended we’d lost it, every one of our “losing our virginity” stories bigger than the one before.

And we all knew we were liars, and we all knew everything we said was rubbish, but we told each other stories anyway.

Perhaps it was to hide the fear of actually having sex. Perhaps we were afraid. I don’t know.

When I finally did have sex, I thought that everyone would know, and I’d know inside too. Because I’d be different. From the cellular level on up, every single aspect of who I was would change, when that tiny little thing called virginity was lost.

I thought I’d feel different. I thought I’d be different.

I lost my virginity, in the front seat of my boyfriend’s car one night, when I was fifteen. It was unintentional and totally unplanned-for. It was also quick and unsexy and over before I really had a chance to grasp what was happening.

I wasn’t raped – I was a willing accomplice, you might say – but it happened before I was ready for it. And at the end of the evening my boyfriend drove me home, and kissed me goodnight, and that was that.

The next day I woke up, and I went to school, and he went to school too, and nothing was different. None of my friends noticed anything different about me. None of the teachers noticed anything different about me.

I think I’d expected a big neon sign hovering over my head screaming “THIS PERSON JUST LOST HER VIRGINITY!!!”

But the neon sign wasn’t there, and the screaming was a silent scream inside that nobody heard.

I was still the same person, I looked the same, sounded the same, was the same in every single way. My virginity was gone, but I was still me.

Killing a person is supposed to change you inside too. To utterly transform you.

That’s what you hear, what you read, what you’re told in countless movies over and over and over again: killing changes you.

You’re told a killer is someone different to the rest of us. They’re something different.

In form, in soul, in every respect.

They say that, when you kill a person, something inside you shifts, and warps, and you’ll never be the same again.

They say it warps your soul, and it is something that you can never come back from.

They say that, from the moment your victim’s heart ceases to beat, and their eyes become vacant and lifeless – they say from that point on your spirit is that of a murderer.

Forever onwards, for the rest of your existence, even beyond your own death.

They say there is nothing you can ever do to come back from killing. You’re cursed, it’s all over, there is no forgiveness or redemption. Not ever, no matter what you do to try to make things right again.

That’s what they say. That’s what I was told.

And that’s what I have always believed, even from when I was a child and Ani and I used to tell each other scary stories about murderers and zombies and ghouls on rainy nights when the rain and the thunder frightened us and kept us awake. I always believed it to be true.

I always believed it to be true. Except now.

Because now I’ve killed four men, and I don’t feel any different.

Nothing has changed inside me. Nothing at all. Just like when I lost my virginity, I don’t feel any different. I expected change, and no change happened. I was still me.

Does that make me a psychopath? I hope not, because I don’t want to be one. I’m a good person. I see myself as a good person.

Does that mean that maybe killing – murder – isn’t the huge crime we’ve always been taught that it is?

Does it mean that maybe murder is something you can come back from?

Is redemption easier than we’ve always been led to believe?

Or does it mean there is no redemption, and killing is something that just happens from time to time.

Maybe sometimes people just have to die. Maybe sometimes murder is necessary. Death is a fact of life, after all – we all have to die – and maybe murder is just another way to die.

Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Because, you know, it’s all very well for a person to say that they’d never kill, but have you ever noticed the people who say that are people who have never been in a life-threatening situation, when the lives that are being threatened are those of people they love.

I bet if they were, they’d change their line real quickly. Because – let’s be honest here – it’s easy to be moral when you’re comfortable and nobody is pointing a gun at you.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re not accountable for your morals. It’s easy to be judgmental when you’re not the one standing in the dock.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re comfortable, when life is easy, and when you’re not going to die yourself if you don’t force death on another.

It’s easy to be moral when you’re reading a book, or watching a movie, all comfortably distant from the action, tucked up in bed, or feet up in your favourite armchair.

I wasn’t comfortably distant from the action. These men were coming to kill people I love. They were coming to kill me. So I made a decision that their lives were worth less than ours, and I ended them.

I have no regrets. Call me a murderer, if you will, but I’m a murderer with a clear conscience. You can sit there in your comfortable chair now, reading this, and go right ahead.

Condemn me. Blame me. Say that I’m evil.

But if you’re ever in the position that I was in, maybe you’ll find yourself doing exactly what I did.

And maybe then you’ll think more kindly of me.

**********

The sun is shining low in the sky, red and gold through the open back doorway of the house, scattering dim light inside. it’s nearly the end of the day. I don’t know where the time has gone. I’m sure I’ve missed some hours, somewhere.

John and Nigel are back. Their hands are dirty, and I watch disinterestedly as, one after the other, they wash their hands with a bar of soap at the kitchen sink, scrubbing away at dirt and blood.

“The bikes are fine,” says John. “But I think we should take the agents’ car as well. It’s a nice big limo, and way too good to leave.”

“Won’t they come searching for us even harder if their vehicle is gone missing?” Janice says, dubiously.

John shakes his head. “Its virtually night time anyway now,” he says. “It’ll be dark within an hour. It’s a good time to move a car without us being seen. The airport 6:00 rush is about to start.”

He dries his hands on a tea towel that’s hanging on the handle to the oven. “There will be lots of cars on the road. Safety in numbers, and all that. I think we should chance it. All we have to do is get it back to the hangar. It’s not that far, and we’ll be going in the opposite direction to the traffic. The setting sun will work in our favour.”

“There’s another advantage to taking the car,” John adds. “We can strip it over the next day or so and get everything we want from it while lying low, then we can leave it behind when we head home in our own truck. It solves the problem of how to get Janice and Jacob out of here – we can’t carry all of us on the bikes – and it gets the vehicle off the road, which might buy us a little more time.”

“I’m not so sure about that last part,” says Nigel, butting in. “I suspect that, when the agents we’ve…er…disposed of don’t check in, the authorities will start from their last known whereabouts, which is here, and begin searching.”

“But it may give us some time. And it certainly enables us to strip the vehicle for anything useful.” Nigel chews his lip thoughtfully. “Actually, taking the car might give us another advantage,” he adds. “Once the authorities arrive here, if they can’t find the two men that Rose dragged down under the hedge, which is entirely possible, they may conclude they’ve got double agents on their hands, and start searching offshore for them, figuring they’ve left the country after committing double murder. It’s an obvious conclusion to reach, especially being this close to the airport, and it may take the heat off the search for us.”

He looks at me questioningly. “I hate to ask when it’s all still so…fresh, but just how far down under ground are the two agents under the hedge?” he asks me.

I chew my thumb nail, feeling awkward, wishing I could avoid the topic. Then I answer slowly, “They’re at least ten meters down. Under a one meter layer of bedrock that I moved aside then moved back into place. There’s no way they’ll be found without a massive excavation taking place.”

My voice is firm. “They’ll never be found, not unless someone is absolutely certain of where they are, and makes a huge effort to dig down deep in exactly the right place. No, they’ll never be found.”

I get up from my chair. “I don’t like the plan of taking the car,” I say. “But I can’t think of anything better.”

I raise an eyebrow hopefully at Janice. She holds her hands up, shrugging, as if to say, Don’t ask meI didn’t create this mess.

“Let’s get a move on then,” says John, picking up Janice’s carry bag for her. “I hope you’re ready to leave?” he asks her, and she nods. “We haven’t got a lot of time.”

The ride back to our base at the hangar is uneventful. I take the first of the dirt bikes, like I did when we headed out to Janice’s house earlier in the day, and John is riding the second bike, not too far behind me.

The agent car, which is a very nice deep blue Jaguar, deeply polished and glinting in the failing light of the evening, is being driven by Janice, with Nigel and Jacob as passengers. They all three of them look completely out of place in the flash limousine, and I’m glad that it has tinted windows. I hope nobody they drive past checks the passengers too carefully.

I’m insanely nervous, of course, mainly because if we get caught it is my butt on the line for murder, even though John and Nigel both assure me that if we ever get caught, they’d take the fall for me. That makes me feel a bit better, but I’m still jittery, as we leave the house and head back to our base of operations in a stolen car and two very visible dirt bikes.

Thankfully, nothing happens, nobody notices us, the drive is uneventful, and within half an hour we’re back safely within our hangar base, just as the sun sets.

Immediately we’ve shut the hangar doors behind us and get off the bikes, and Nigel and our new companions are out of the car, Nigel sets about stripping the radio and other electronics out of the stolen vehicle, while John begins making us all dinner. He’s not bad at camp food, but I’m really missing the better food of The Arms – we get spoiled living in a pub sometimes. Still, we’re out in the field, we have to take what we get.

I radio my sister Ani at the first opportunity, to tell her we’re all safe. She’s on the radio this evening, because Marika is upstairs in the pub working a late party booking.

I fill Ani in on everything that has happened. IT’s not easy talking about the men I’ve killed, but I’m surprisingly blunt and matter-of-fact about everything. I sound cold and hard even to my own ears, as I explain what happened, why and how.

I ask her to take notes so she can tell Marika what’s going on. She’s stunned, and concerned for all of us, especially me. I re-assure her that I’m fine, just a bit shaken, and she insists that we “deal with it” when we get back. I have no idea whether she’ll actually take notes for Marika, but I’m guessing probably not. Ani is great at some things, but following instructions and dealing with paperwork aren’t among her strong points.

She asks when we’ll be back, and I reply that we’ll almost certainly be stuck in the hangar for a few days. “Four to five days!” says John, overhearing the conversation between us, while he busily stirs a camp kettle over a hexi stove. I’m pretty happy about that – the last thing I need is Ani giving me grief. Being stuck here for that long will give her time to cool down.

We end up staying in the hangar for four days. It isn’t a pleasant experience, and I’m very glad I was well stocked for snacks. The other laughed at me when I packed them, but now they’re jealous as they see me chomping down on chocolate bars, popcorn, chips and lollies. We have plenty of foods in the form of our ration packs, of course, but they suck and are barely enough to keep you sane. A girl needs chocolate and chips, and my snacks are a life saver.

Nigel makes overtures of swapping all sorts of junk he owns for some lollies, but not a chance. This stuff is mine. Then I weaken and give him the black jelly babies. I don’t like the black ones anyway, but he is thankful.

It doesn’t take long before the disappearance of four agents becomes top national news, Ani and Marika inform us, keeping us up to date with life outside the hangar.

The whole area around us starts being scoured by the authorities, trying to find their missing agents and figure out what went on. We don’t need outside news to figure that out – we can hear the cars, the helicopters, the sirens.

Day after day, night after night, we hear all the vehicles going past in the distance and helicopters whizzing overhead – far more than you’d expect for normal airport traffic. Marika tells us we need to stay absolutely still, and not stick a nose out of the hangar. She really doesn’t need to tell us that! At present nobody has a clue we’re here, and we don’t want that to change. If anyone checks out this hangar, we’re toast.

It turns out that taking the agent’s car with us was an excellent idea – we can easily tune in to their communications and find out exactly what they’re doing, and where they’re up to in the investigation.

It’s not just from Marika that we learn it’s not at all safe for us to step foot outside our refuge: the case is being discussed on all the police bands, and on the agent bands as well. We’re trapped for now, stuck here until the furore dies down.

They find the bodies of the two men I despatched in the kitchen pretty much right away. Nigel and John hadn’t buried them deeply anyway – they’d just dumped them outside, in very shallow graves, not much more than half a metre below the surface, and they hadn’t made much of an effort to hide the bodies beyond that. The only reason they did as much as that was for fear that, when I came out of my shocked state, seeing the bodies of the men might send me off spiraling again.

Also, the bodies were in several pieces, putting it bluntly, and things were pretty messy. Apparently they’d buried the two of them not too far from the remnants of the back door, just around the rear corner of the house, so it was not difficult for them to be found.

The other two men I’d hung with the hedge are unable to be located by the search. I’m not surprised – I’d taken them deep, deep into the earth, many meters down, buried under bedrock, and although they might technically be able to find the bodies with earth movers, it is very unlikely, simply because it would be unfathomable for them to imagine someone burying a body that deep, that quickly. It looks like I’ve left the authorities with a real unsolved mystery, as I hoped.

This is excellent from my point of view, because if I ever get caught, I’ll be charged with two murders, not four. Maybe it won’t make that much difference. The authorities aren’t known for their generosity of spirit when it comes to dealing out what they define as justice. Especially when its regarding the death of one of their own. But if there’s a chance it will help me out, I’m all for it.

The four days we spend in the hangar are nervous ones. Jacob gets sick of being in an enclosed space very quickly, and all I can say is, thank goodness for the game consoles that Nigel happened to have in the back of the truck, or we’d have gone crazy.

As it is, Jacob finds it hard going, but the geek games keep him out of mischief most of the time. Within two days he’s mastered most of the games we have on deck, and by the third game we’re so sick of him challenging us all for online “duels” that some of us, me included, are wishing we’d left another, smaller, body at the house with those of the four agents.

I’m only half-joking.

As for me, during the days stuck in the hangar I read. I read a lot. There’s not much else to do.

I also get to know Janice. She’s not a bad sort, but very quiet, and a bit of a full blown hippie. She’s into astrology, crystals, reiki, homeopathy, tarot, and yes, she really believes there are fairies at the bottom of peoples’ gardens. When I’m not reading my own books, I’m being an unwilling guinea pig for her to practice her mystical powers on.

Within a few hours she’s picked me as a Pisces born in the year of the Dragon, both of which are completely wrong, but I let her think she’s right because it’s such fun to lead her on.

Oh, and according to my Tarot reading I’m going to enjoy a new relationship with a tall redheaded man. Which is obviously wrong, as there’s no way Nigel and I are ever getting together, and John is shortish and blond.

I get the impression that she doesn’t really want to be here with us, and who can blame her? She also seems dubious about her Powers, which I find kind of unbelievable. I mean, considering all the other shit she believes in I’d have thought super powers would be a shoe in.

But Nigel is in no doubt at all about Janice, and keeps looking at her when she’s not noticing, with an odd, greedy gleam in his eye like he’s discovered some amazing protege. There’s no way we can do any testing on her while we’re on the run and being hunted down, in case we get noticed. Testing is going to have to wait. I just know he’ll be itching to take her out in the field the moment he gets half a chance, to find out what exactly she is and what she’s capable of.

I have to admit, despite all the hippie crap, I’m kind of interested too.

Janice and I get on okay, but it isn’t the same as having Ani here, or even Marika. It’s not just the overpowering smell of incense that seems to waft around her that does my brain in. It’s the fact that Janice is about ten years older than I am, and it feels like it. She feels more like a mother than a friend (or a sidekick, which is what I’d like ideally – after all, isn’t every superhero meant to have a sidekick?), and I really notice the age difference in the way she looks at me. Especially when I’m goofing off, which is quite a lot over these few days when we’re all getting cabin fever and going crazy. She gets this awwww, isn’t the little kid cute look, and it irks me.

Yeah, I like to muck about, but I don’t like it when other people point out my childishness. Screw that.

I feel nervous the entire time we’re in the hangar. Apart from the fact that I can’t sleep much because of the rats (they’re everywhere, in spite of us removing that dead lamb and John clearing the place out), I’m stressed every time we hear a vehicle drive anywhere near close to us.

We keep a watch on the whole time, taking it in shifts of six hours apiece, and I really loathe it whenever it is my turn to keep a look out. Especially at night. It means none of us ever feel truly rested, and we’re all at one other’s throats the whole time, because we’re so tired.

While we’re stuck in the hangar, Marika and Ani – and even Cam from time to time – fill us in on what is happening outside, over the radio.

As time goes by, the search for us gradually drops away, and after four days of us being stuck in here, the group of us plus Janice decided things have settled enough for us to risk moving.

It helps that a couple of members of the Royal family are in town, so the authorities have better things to do than search for us – they’ve got to manage crowd control, and generally suck up to the blue bloods at various photo opportunities.

Janice would have like to stop by her house and get some more things for Jacob, but despite the royal distractions, there’s no way in hell that can happen – her home is off-bounds, probably forever. We don’t dare show our noses anywhere near what is now a major crime scene.

Again and again, as we begin to debate how we’re going to get out of here and back to the flat in Dunedin without getting noticed, I’m reminded how this is all my fault. I’m reminded how it is because I killed those guys that we’ve been stuck here, hiding out in a stinky old hangar, waiting until it is safe to return home.

I’m reminded how its my fault that Janice and Jacob had to leave their home, and my fault that they can’t go back. I know the others keep saying I had no choice, and trying to make me feel better, but I somehow can’t help suspecting that maybe I did.

Maybe a chance – a choice – was there and I just didn’t take it. I just didn’t see it.

Maybe all this was actually avoidable, and if I’d made different decisions those men would all still be alive.

Then again, maybe no matter what I did it all would have played out the same. After all, when four men with four weapons held to the ready turn up at a family home, you have to assume that, no matter what, someone was going to get hurt.

Maybe I’m just glad it wasn’t any of us.

On the fifth day, Marika informs us that the search has died down enough for us to risk leaving the hangar and heading back into Dunedin. Plus, the Royals are doing a walkabout in Mosgiel, on a baby kissing spree for the public to delight over. It’s exactly the kind of diversion we need. It’s not soon enough. I’ve seen enough of the interior of this aircraft hangar to last me forever.

I’ve also seen quite enough of rats.

We’re leaving the stolen Jaguar in the hangar, covered over by a pile of old netting and tarpaulins. It has been completely stripped of everything useful – John and Nigel have taken out the radios, the antennas, the GPS, and even removed the four tyres plus the spare which, John claims, he’ll be able to on-sell for a small profit elsewhere. That’s John for you – he’s the King of scavengers, and he knows how to make a fast buck on anything and everything he finds.

All communications equipment and hi tech gear, including some walkie-talkies and handheld dyson transmitters, plus an assortment of bugging tools and toys, is gone from the vehicle.

John has also grabbed an excellent toolkit he found in the boot, and Nigel is very pleased with his own handiwork – he’s mounted the comms system from the Jaguar into our truck, and assures me that now we’ll be able to keep track of absolutely anything the authorities do via their very own systems, while we’re on the move. It’s a real win.

We put Jacob in charge of the job of hiding the gutted car inside the hangar. He does it gleefully, thoroughly enjoying the chance to do something physical after being stuck doing little more than gaming for nearly five days straight.

He gets dusty and dirty and smelly and covered in cobwebs, but by the time he is done, the car is completely hidden, a mound of rubbish in the far corner of the hangar. Hopefully it will be months before it is discovered. Assuming we make a clean getaway, that is.

I’m still not so sure we’ll succeed. Maybe it’s just me being paranoid though, as all I’ve done the last few days is imagine what will happen to me if we’re caught. Sometimes I wish my imagination weren’t as good as it is. John says I’m overthinking the situation, which won’t do any good, and he’s right, but I can’t seem to stop thinking of the worst.

We pack everything into the truck, barely managing to squeeze it all in. Once again I’m thankful for the size of our truck, and for the generosity of the size of the vehicles sold from Army Surplus. The Army never did go for size small when it comes to vehicles!

Even so, once all our gear is in and the two dirt bikes loaded on the back, it is very, very friendly inside with the two extra passengers.

We’re pretty certain that while Nigel, John and myself are still unknown to the authorities, Janice and Jacob are probably on a suspect list by now. It was their home at which four agents disappeared after all, and they’ve not been seen at all since then. The police aren’t that bright, but that’s suspicious to even the dumbest of the dumb.

Upon asking Ani and Marika, they confirm that they have heard Janice and Jacob mentioned by name and described on the waves, and that, yes, they’re both fugitives wanted for questioning.

I don’t even want to think about how horrible a “questioning” might be for a five year old boy like Jacob – I’m simply glad that we have them both safe with us, for now.

We seat Janice in the middle of the back seat of the truck, with Nigel on one side and me on the other, and put Jacob in the front seat next to John. By breaking Janice and her son up visually, we hope that anyone spotting us or pulling us over won’t be automatically inclined to see them as that same wanted mother and son pairing that is all over the news.

It’s amazing how often people don’t see what is right in front of them. To further the confusion, we tie a pink hair tie of mine in Jacob’s hair, and put him in one of his mother’s floral shirts, belted to look like a dress. Now Jacob is a little girl to any casual observer. He protests, but we ignore him. He’s young enough that we might just get away with this simple subterfuge.

“Remember to call him Rosie!” I say to Janice, and she laughs. Jacob scowls.

Early in the morning on that fifth day, we’re all ready to go, sitting in the truck, Jacob in his “dress”, engine on, waiting. John slowly winches the hangar doors open, before jumping back into the driver’s seat and driving the truck on through.

I get out again, once we’re through the hangar doors, shutting and locking them behind us. There’s no sense in our hideout being discovered any earlier than it needs to be. Hopefully it will be several months before the authorities figure out where we were holed up, and by then the trail will be cold.

Better yet, I hope our hideout is eventually discovered by someone who has no love for the authorities – someone in need of a windfall – someone who sees the agent car as a free gift, and who passes it on through the thriving Dunedin black market in stolen cars before the shit hits the fan and any connection to the four agents can ever be established.

The drive back to Dunedin is the longest, most stressful drive I’ve ever done. It takes less than an hour in reality, but the whole way back into town I’m on edge, absolutely certain we’ll be caught, captured, and it will be the end of us.

At one point, just outside East Taieri, we’re slowed by a police blockade and John is breathalysed, and I remember with a shock that it is race weekend as well as being the weekend of the royal visit – as well as royal watchers, the roads will be full of people heading in to the racecourse to watch the horses for Melbourne Cup.

A double diversion, both completely unplanned by us. We’ve been incredibly lucky with our timing.

The murder of four agents will be the last thing on these cops’ minds right now. All they’regoing to be interested in is booking people for drinking, jaywalking and speeding five kilometers over the speed limit. They just want a quick commission from their speed cameras and booze busts, and to then head home at the end of the day with money in their pockets for their higher ups. The last thing they want is to catch people who are real criminals, like us.

I’m amazed how quickly I’ve lost track of the days. I realize that we left Dunedin last Thursday, it’s Monday – race day – already, and we’ve been five days on this short field trip that wasn’t meant to take more than one night at most.

We’re all tense as John counts slowly as directed into the alcohol meter the police officer holds in front of him, and I try to smile innocently, as I’m sitting right behind John, in full view of the policewoman. It comes across as more of a grimace. Then John is given the all-clear and he is waved on. Everyone in the truck breathes a collective sigh of relief.

We arrive back at The Bastard Arms just as the rush of work traffic is beginning for the day. John drives the truck down the side alley of The Arms, then down the ramp to the car park behind the hotel, to the rear of the main bar, to one of several private car spaces which are set aside for the owner of the establishment.

The owner is Bill of course, not us, but as Bill is a bit of an absentee landlord, we use the parks and he’s never complained as he’s never here to see it.

Minutes later, John has parked the truck, and Nigel is shepherding an exhausted Janice and Jacob inside via the cellar door access. I unload the truck as quickly as possible with John.

It always amazes me how fast unpacking is as opposed to packing, and we have the whole truck clear within 10 minutes. The dirt bikes are off and unloaded and safely back in their parking space, and John is rolling the tyres we stole from the Jaguar away into an empty corner park, where he piles them up before covering them over with a tarpaulin and a few odds and ends of junk.

I know John well, and what I know of him tells me that the tyres will be gone within a couple of days if not sooner, sold for ready cash through one of his black market connections in the city.

I’m not sure whether I love that about him or loathe it. Probably a bit of both.

Once we’re done putting everything away, and the truck is all emptied, John and I enter The Bastard Arms and make our way downstairs to the flat, to find Janice and Jacob sitting in the main kitchen area with Marika.

Ani is there too, sitting quietly on the sofa with Cam, their lips glued to each other, making horrible suction sounds. I try not to feel nauseous, and go to the kitchen sink to make myself a cup of tea, then I come to sit down at the kitchen table with John, who pulls up seats for both of us.

“It’s about time something went right,” Marika is saying. I wonder what the conversation is about that we’ve walked in on. She has a shocked expression on her face, and some sixth sense gives me the impression that nothing she’s talking about has anything to do with the mess we’ve created over the last few days out near the airport.

“What’s going on?” I ask, curious.

Janice points to the table. Next to a plate of home made cupcakes that I’m guessing Ani has made, there’s an unfolded letter, sitting on an envelope that has been opened neatly with Marika’s letter opener. I don’t have to read who it was addressed to to know that the letter was for Marika, and it was she that opened it. Anyone else in the house would have ripped a letter open messily and, besides, she’s the only one of us who actually even owns a letter opener.

“Bill is dead,” says Marika. “I got a letter from his lawyer. Died yesterday morning. Heart attack.”

“Bill – your grandfather?” She nods slowly. “Oh,” I say. “I’m sorry to hear that.” I don’t really know what else to say. I’m not good at condolences.

“Don’t be sorry,” she says. “He was a right asshole. A smug,self-opinionated prick. I loathed him. Everyone hated him.”

“Oh,” I say again, adding lamely, “Oh. Okay then. Not sorry.”

There’s silence for a bit, as we all digest this latest news. Bill is Marika’s grandfather, although she’s never seen him much since he headed up north to Auckland a few years ago for business purposes.

He owns The Bastard Arms, and a whole lot of property in Dunedin besides that.

Filthy rich. Marika always said that he cared far more about his money than he did about her, or anyone else. But Marika always expected that he’d leave the hotel to her Dad, who ran off and left her and her mum alone years ago.

She doesn’t even know where her dad is. She has the vague suspicion he might be over in Aussie, but that’s about all she knows, which isn’t much.

“Does the letter say anything else?” asks Ani, curiously. She’s asking what we all want to know. Which is, What happens to The Bastard? Are we about to be all kicked out? Do we need to find somewhere else to live? Are we homeless now?

“He’s left The Bastard Arms to me,” says Marika quietly. She exhales slowly, as if relieved of a huge weight. “To me and mum, actually. Not just The Bastard. Forty seven other properties in and around Dunedin. Total value is unknown right now, according to the lawyer, but it’s in the hundreds of millions.”

“Phew!” says Nigel, starting to grin like an idiot. “We always wanted a millionaire benefactor. I guess we have one now.”

“I thought stuff like that happened to other people. Not to anyone I actually know,” says Janice excitedly. “I really must draw up your astrological chart!”

“It’ll take a while for all the paperwork to be signed across,” says Marika. “A few months at least. But once it’s done, I’ll own everything. Dad doesn’t get anything. I don’t know why. He must have pissed off Bill somehow, in some way I don’t know about.”

She picks the letter up, and runs her fingers along the folds, her brow furrowed. “I’m kind of surprised. You know, I always thought he would…I always thought Dad would get everything, and I’d get nothing. I never expected this. Bill hated me. He hated all women, actually. I don’t understand it.”

“I guess old Bill had a change of heart,” says Ani. “So you own The Bastard like, as from right now?”

“I guess so,” says Marika. “Yes, I’m pretty sure of it.”

“Well…in that case,” says Ani thoughtfully. “In that case…I’m buggered if I’m going to share a room with Rose for a single minute longer than I bloody well have to!”

“Gee thanks, sis,” I say snarkily. “I love you too. Is that all you can think about?”

“If you own The Bastard,” says John. “That changes everything. We’re not broke any more. No more fricking cup noodles! That is, assuming you still want to hang out with your loser friends and not go cavorting off with the caviar set up the street at the casino.”

Marika throws a cupcake at him. It hits him squarely on the forehead then bounces off on to the table. Not skipping a beat, he picks it up, dusts it off, and takes a bite.

“Be honest, Rose,” says Ani, ignoring my snark, John’s remarks, and the cupcake attack. “It’s cramped down here in this grotty old cellar. I hate sharing with you. You hate sharing with me. We need our own space.” I say nothing. “And John and Nigel are together too.”

“Oh I never knew that,” says Janice, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

“Not together together,” says Nigel awkwardly.

“Oh fuck no,” says John, choking on his cake and looking at Nigel with obvious distaste. I try not to spit up in my cup at the unwanted visuals that are forming in my disgusting mind.

“Just sharing a room,” adds Nigel. “That’s it. Absolutely platonic. It’s not the nicest. John snores. A lot.”

“No I don’t,” says John. “You fricking snore. You snore more. You and that enormous nose of yours. You sound like Darth Vader.”

“Darth Vader is cool,” says Nigel.

“Not when he fucking snores,” says John. “There’s a reason he’s single.”

“He’s not single. He married Padme.”

“Yeah, and look what happened to her!”

“Oh for fucks sake!” says Marika wearily. “Look: there are going to be more of us now Janice is here. There’s not a lot we can do about that. But at least once the paperwork comes through we can shift Janice and Jacob off to one of the properties I now apparently own.”

“What about upstairs?” says Ani suddenly, coming up for air again from her boyfriend’s face again, with a sound like a plunger cleaning a blocked sink.

Marika frowns. “What do you mean?”

Ani shrugs. “There’s plenty of room upstairs. Half of the rooms are lying empty. Bill never rented them out. He couldn’t be bothered. This IS a hotel, remember? We haz roomz!”

Marika stares at her, as if she’s gone crazy. “Do you have any idea how long it is since anyone’s even been up there? I have no idea how revolting it might be upstairs. I don’t remember the rooms ever being rented out, not even, not even when I was tiny. There’ll be dust a foot deep up there, and probably vermin.”

“There could be dead bodies up there,” says Jacob, speaking up. “It could be haunted!”

“It’s not haunted,” says Marika patiently. “There’s no such thing as haunted. But it will be dirty. And there will probably be mice. Or rats. Or both.”

“No problem for Ani,” I can’t help saying, with a grin. “She’ll feel right at home.”

Ani throws a cushion at me, then looks around at us. “Really? You really think its such a crazy idea? I don’t.”

“Think about it,” she continues. “We can either spread ourselves around the city, making it harder to communicate and keep in touch, or we can at least be all in one place, in one building, where we can establish a proper base and have everything to hand. Plus all the beer we need to drink. Which for some of us – ” she says, eyeballing me, “- is a lot. There’s two whole floors in this place, full of rooms, ready to be kitted out, because Bill couldn’t ever be bothered renting them out and dealing with the aggro of tenants. I reckon if Janice and Jacob took a room up there, and they were quiet about it, nobody would even notice they were there. The perfect hideout. probably the safest place in town. I can’t imagine anywhere better.”

“She’s got a point,” says Cam, stroking Ani’s hair. I try not to throw up.

“You would say that!” I say to Cam, annoyed. “Look – it’s not like I hate the idea. It’s not a bad one. And it’s not exactly lovely down here, sharing a room with you, Ani…and more than occasionally, the both of you.”

I look at the pair of them – but not too closely – hands all over each other. It’s pretty nauseating. Especially when I’m not getting any. “It’s not like I get off listening to the pair of you. It’s a bit foul, to be honest. But I’m nervous about us all staying in one place, in one building. If we go down here – if we get caught – we all go down. Maybe we should spread out across a few buildings. To be safer.”

“Doesn’t your mother use the upstairs to store stock?” asks Nigel. “I thought those rooms were full of supplies for the bar.”

“No,” says Marika, shaking her head. “Mum can’t be bothered going up and down the stairs all the time. She says it’s too hard on her knees. All the stock is just out in the back room, behind the bar. It’s easier to lock, and she doesn’t have to deal with moving kegs up and down. The rooms are empty, as far as I know. But they won’t be in a good state. Nobody has rented them out for years, not since Bill went up north and stopped giving a shit about this place. If he ever did.”

“What about your mum, though?” I say. “Even if we do move Janice and Jacob up there, Carol is sure to notice. She’s not stupid. She doesn’t know them from a bar of soap, but she might start asking questions if a new woman who is pregnant turns up with her child and starts hanging out with us all, yet we’ve never even mentioned her until now. I would.”

“Carol is actually pretty thick,” says Nigel, bluntly. “Not the brightest bulb in the box, that one. But she’d probably notice someone living in the hotel eventually. And then she’d start asking questions. Awkward questions maybe. Maybe she’d remember all the stuff on television about a woman and a kid being wanted in relation to four missing agents. And then the shit would hit the fan. For all of us, not just Janice.”

Marika ignores him. “You’re so kind, Nigel. You truly belong with us at The Bastard Arms. And yes, Mum would notice,” she says. “Of course she would. But maybe I can do a work-around. If I tell her Janice is an exchange student, from China, here to learn English for a few months, that will keep Mum away.”

“But I don’t speak Chinese,” says Janice, confused.

I facepalm.

“That’s okay,” says Marika. “Neither does my mum. But she’s as racist as anything. She sees someone who looks even vaguely Chinese, she won’t want anything to do with them. I’ll tell her I’m collecting the rent from you, and I’ll fiddle the books somehow so it looks like the cash is getting dumped into the register along with everything else. Mums good with the figures, despite not being particularly clever, but I’m sure I can work it all in.”

I sigh. I’m feeling more nervous than ever, and am absolutely certain we’re going to get into trouble. But it seems I’m outvoted. For now. Dammit.

“So…the upstairs rooms?” asks Janice.

“The upstairs rooms,” confirms Marika.

Brigandeers: Chapter 4: Roots

 

Janice stands up, her face red, scraping her chair on the linoleum kitchen floor as she does so.

She bumps her young son with her chair, and he scarpers off down the corridor to the front of the house, clearly not wanting to be present during any heated discussions between adults in the house. I get the impression there’s been trouble before, and he knows the signs.

“I’ve heard enough!” she says fiercely. “I don’t believe any of this. I want you all out of my house – now!

Nigel is stunned, caught by surprise. I can’t say I am at all. While Nigel is great at manipulation and mental mind games, he’s not so great at empathy.

“Look,” I say, trying desperately to rescue the situation, and having the very strong feeling I’m about to make things much, much worse. “Nigel might be wrong. He’s been wrong before, plenty of times. It could be…something else.”

I place my hand on Janice’s, feeling her shaking beneath the warmth of her skin. I’m desperately trying to make a human connection with her.

I wish she was some sort of fungus, which is a weird thing to think I know, but I’m good with fungus. Not so good with people.

Then, briefly, I wish Ani were here. She’s great with people. Just seems to have a way with them, and with getting them to behave the way she needs them to behave. For the tiniest moment an odd, terrifying suspicion about my sister flickers through my mind. Then it is gone, disappeared to nothing again, as I focus again on right here, right now. “It could be all a mistake, Janice. Don’t take what Nigel says too seriously.”

Janice pauses, her face flushed and angry. “I’m not a killer. I don’t kill innocent animals. That’s not something I would ever do. I like animals!”

“I’m not saying you’re a killer. I’m not saying you did anything. Nobody is. Please…just give us – give me – a chance to explain. I know you never would have done anything awful.”

Which is not quite true, but what else am I supposed to say?

“Janice,” I say gently. “Can I show you something?”

She looks questioningly at me, not prepared to give me a chance. I try again.

“Look, Janice,” I say. “Please give me a go. Please trust me. I need to show you something. Trust me, just for a couple of minutes. Then, if you decide to boot us, we won’t cause any trouble. And you’ll never see us again, I promise.”

John shakes his head, warning me to stop, but I’m not going to distress this poor woman any further. If she is what we think she is, then she needs to know. We can’t be cruel about it. I wouldn’t want to be cruel about it. I need to show her. This – us – this thing we’re here for – isn’t something we can talk through. She needs to be shown to believe.

Janice looks at me thoughtfully, weighing up whether to give me a chance or not then, after noting the obvious earnestness in my face, slowly nods in agreement. “Ok. What?”

I sigh in relief. It’s only step one of what we need to do, but at least it’s a step. “Please come over to the kitchen window. I want you to see something I can do. Something you need to see to believe.”

I push my chair away, stand up next to her, and together the two of us go over to the back door of the kitchen, the upper half of which is a glass panel with a view out to the paddocks behind the house.

Through the window, we can see what I’ve already sensed from before I even entered the house – there’s a spindly hedge of overgrown pittosporum, two or three meters high, only arms reach from the back door.

The hedge was clearly planted a long time ago as a wind break for anyone taking a smoke outside the back door, or leaving the house this way to go hang out the washing at the nearby clothesline.

It’s also a perfect opportunity for me, exactly what I need for a demostration.

“That hedge by the clothesline,” I say, indicating the scraggly plants to Janice. She frowns, nodding. Curious.

“Watch it!” I say.

I concentrate, focusing my mind on the loose, thin branches of the hedge plants. Their waxy leaves immediately begin to shake and rustle, despite there being absolutely no wind at all. It’s an eerie sight – a wind in the trees when there’s no wind at all.

Janice gasps in amazement, while carefully, thoughtfully, I bend two of the uppermost branches, tall and overgrown, light and springy. They loop around each other slowly, gently in a dance, following my directions, as if some unseen hand had hold of them and is weaving them like yarn. Which is almost exactly what is happening. The branches form a knot together – over and under, then under and over – which I pull tight, little by little, like the noose on a hangman’s rope, until it is completely closed.

“How? What?” Janice exclaims. Then: “Did you do that?” after a long silence. She won’t face me, but is still standing looking out at the hedge of trees and my work. I can almost sense her racing heartbeat through the still, warm air.

“I have control over trees,” I say simply. “I have Power over them. They hear my Call. They do what I want them to do.” I turn to face her, and wait as she slowly turns to look at me, cowering a little, her expression one of fear mixed with awe. “We think you may have a similar Power. We think you may be able to Call animals.”

“Not exactly,” says Nigel, from over at the table. He’s still sitting there, but listening to everything. Of course. “I actually think you may have control over magnetic forces, which is something completely different. Your control isn’t over animals, but over the navigation systems they use to find their way about.”

“Like homing pigeons?” she asks quietly, confused.

“Yes,” he replies. “That’s one example of an animal that uses magnetic forces in navigation. But we found you because your Power is affecting the flight patterns of birds…and of local aircraft.” He laughs quietly. “You weren’t difficult to track down, to be honest.”

“You’re not from the Triple Nine, are you?” says Janice, her eyes narrowing.

“Not exactly, no,” says Nigel apologetically. “I’m afraid we may have lied to you. Just a little.”

“And those other men? You don’t know them? Not at all?”

“No, we don’t,” says Nigel. “But we know who they are. They’re agents, from the Authorities. They’ve almost certainly been aware of you for a while now, and if they confirm what you are and what you can do, your future will not be…ah…pleasant.”

He coughs. “Let’s just say that you’ll be a lab rat, and they’ll be studying every single aspect of you – what you are, where your Power came from, what you can do – for the rest of your life.” He chews his lower lip. “Your son too. And your unborn child. You’re all three of you in terrible danger.”

“You must trust us,” I say again, the urgency rising in my voice. “We want to keep you safe.”

“So who the hell are they?” demands Janice. “And if they’re the bad guys, are you the good guys? Are you here to help me? Why are you here?”

“We’re hoping you’ll join us,” I say. “We want to find out what you can do, what your Powers are, and how they can be used for good. To help people.” I put my hand on her forearm. “Also, if they confirm that you exist, they’ll have even more suspicion that we exist.”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“At the moment, they suspect we exist, but they do not know,” says Nigel. “Once they capture you, they know. Then they’ll start looking for more like you. They’ll start searching for us. And they’ll find us.”

“But what exactly are you?” she asks, puzzled. “What am I?”

“You’re the next generation of hero. You’re Stealth. You have Power. You can choose to wield it for good or evil, but we hope you’ll join us and wield it for good. The world needs you.”

She begins to laugh. “You’re super heroes?”

“No. We’re Stealth,” I repeat. “We’re trying to do our work without being noticed. It’s much safer that way.”

Janice looks thoughtful. “Do I get a choice in this?” she says finally, after a long deliberation.

“Yes,” I confirm. “There’s always a choice. We’d never make you do anything you didn’t want to do. They would. But we never will. If you want to be free, you only have one choice.”

“I like to think I always have more than one choice,” says Janice, stubbornly, fearfully.

“You have to believe that we’re on your side, Janice,” I say. “We want to help. Your choices will always come first. If you join us, and decide to help, you’d always get to decide what you want to do. We’re not drones for some huge organisation, or agents acting for someone else. We belong to ourselves.”

Jacob comes hurtling back into the kitchen interrupting me. “Mum! Mum!” he says urgently, his small voice high pitched and edgy.

“Not now, Jake,” says Janice wearily. She turns to me. “I’m not sure I’m ready to make a choice. I have a lot on my plate at the moment. The baby is due in two months. I have a young son to care for. I’m nowhere near ready for anything, even if it turns out to be true and I can do…amazing things. I need time to think, to plan. To decide.” She shakes her head. “I’ll be too busy when the baby comes to be any sort of a superhero.”

“Mum!” repeats Jacob, reaching up to her and pulling at her t-shirt hem. “Those men that were here before.”

“What about them?” says John sharply, rising to his feet like lightning.

“They’re back. Here. Outside. Right now.”

***********************************

“They weren’t supposed to come back until tomorrow,” says Janice, perplexed. John is already gone, up the corridor, in the front living room, peering past the curtains. He’s back in the kitchen again in seconds. “They’re surrounding the house,” he says. “They know we’re here. We’ve got to get out of here now.”

“How could they know we’re here?” I say. “We only just arrived. We’ve been here less than an hour.”

John’s eyes narrow for a split second, considering, then he raises an index finger to his lips, and makes a “Shhhh!” motion.

I understand. The house has been bugged. We’re being listened to. Or watched. The agents have been here all along, in digital form, hearing everything we say.

Now what?

Our dirt bikes are lying in the front yard. I’m cursing myself, thinking we should have been more cautious. We should have put them around the side of the house so that they couldn’t be seen should anyone else arrive here.

I should have been smarter. Too late for that now.

There’s a sharp knock – three times – on the front door. Janice walks slowly and almost casually down the corridor, stalling for time, her son Jacob close behind her.

John touches my shoulder to grab my attention. He motions for me to head quietly to the back door together with Nigel, who is gathering up the paperwork Janice showed us, and stuffing it inside his jacket pocket as he moves. We might just stand a chance of escape if we’re quick. We might escape.

Or that’s what I think, until I see two men creeping past the side window of the kitchen that overlooks the driveway, darting between the trees, heading furtively towards the back door, cutting off our escape route. Two men in suits, both armed with pistols.

We’ve lost our chance. We can’t get out.

Nigel, John and I back away from the door, and I hear the front door open, then voices in the main corridor of the house behind us. More men are inside. Janice has let them in. She didn’t have a choice, I guess. We’re trapped between the pairs of men, one at the front of the house and one at the back. I hear the pair in the corridor talking with Janice, and am aware of a panicked note in her voice. There’s something about “imposters” and “danger” and “vitally important”. I hear Janice’s voice rise in fear, arguing, delaying, and Jacob begins to cry.

“We’ve got to get out of here! We cannot be identified!” John’s voice is a hoarse whisper by my side.

He’s right. One photo of us – of who we are, of our faces – one snap into the face recognition database and it’s all over for us. Our entire safety depends on not being known, not being placed, not being Googled or tagged or noticed in any way.

The authorities don’t know us. If that changes, we’re history. Rats in cages, forever and ever.

And just like rat in a cage, I realise I have no choice. We’re cornered. There’s no way out. I must do what I must do. As the men round the rear corner of the house, I reach out with my mind through the back door to the pittosporum, to the hedge, Calling the thin, whip-like branches to my bidding.

The old, wooden door blasts apart in an explosion of wood shards, glass splinters and brass fittings.

The branches of the hedge uncurl swiftly, following my directions. They begin untwisting from the tangled mass of greenery. Within a split second, they whip through the air, faster than the eye can see, winding snaky tendrils around the waists and necks of the two men standing on the back doorstep, before the men even register what is happening to them.

A quick twist and yank, and the men are thrown backwards into the waiting hedge. I indicate that it is safe for my companions, and I note coldly the final stages of my efforts: the earth is opening up a huge, mouth-like well that didn’t exist moments earlier, devouring the men whole, swallowing them into the ground, erasing their existence.

A few scattered leaves, some dust settling, and there is nothing to be seen, nor any sound. It is silent, apart from the fall of the leaves, and the creak of the hedge.

There were no cries, no pain, no struggle. It is over, so quickly and inhumanely and completely. No human can stand against the Power of the earth when it is Called.

I feel sick, alien, immortal, strong. The Power is coursing through me like a drug, making me dizzy.

“Come on!” says John, snapping me out of it, and trying not to feel shocked at what I’ve done. It’s the first time I’ve used my Power to kill. “Let’s get back to the bikes, if we can. We need to leave.”

“What about Janice?” asks Nigel. “We need her. We can’t leave without her. She’s the whole reason for us being here.”

“Can you deal with the other two, Rose?” asks John.

“I – I think so,” I stutter, still dazed, still doped. Then: “Yes, I can. I have to.”

I hear heavy steps behind me in the kitchen, and spin around to see Janice is facing two strangers, her hands raised in a defensive pose as she backs into the kitchen, while her small son cowers behind her. Both the men are holding weapons, and they’re pointed at Janice and Nigel.

I feel my blood beginning to seethe inside me, bubbling up with power. Unthinkingly, my mind reaches out again. Two massive eucalyptus roots explode up through the kitchen floor in a hail of dirt and rock and floorboards, ripping the kitchen apart, enormous tendrils of power and life.

One curls around the first of the men and he exhales with a light, almost inaudible sigh as the breath is forced out of him, then in one swift movement the tip of the root squeezes and shatters his ribs like toothpicks, and he is hurled against the wall, his chest crushed, a lifeless doll.

The second man barely has time to register what is happening before he too is embraced by the root of the eucalypt, and crushed to death. My work is quick, merciless.

There is no escape. There can be no escape.

It is over in a matter of seconds, the dust still clouding in the air long after the body of the second man hits what is left of the floor, hi carcass slumped against the kitchen wall, next to the refrigerator, blood smearing down the wallpaper.

The room is destroyed, and our enemies are dead. We are safe, for the moment.

I have done this. I have killed them all, all four of them.

And I’m in shock. It takes a few minutes for me to come down from the “high” of connecting with the earth. I need to re-establish my own, mortal boundaries within my own body, and separate from the earth and my Power. I need to force it back into that part of my mind again, and control it. It needs to go home.

When I come back into myself, I find that I’m shaking and cold, my whole body trembling from what has happened.

No – from what I have made happen.

From what I have done. Killing four men.

I collapse on the floor, as it all hits me, and everything becomes mercifully dark for a while.

****************

“Rose…ROSE!” John is shaking me, then cradling me, his arms around me. I’m disoriented by what has happened. I don’t know how much time has passed, but I get the feeling that several minutes have gone by, and I’ve been totally out of it all the while.

The bodies of the two men have gone…somewhere. Someone has moved them. The kitchen is almost completely destroyed, the floor smashed to pieces, raw earth showing through a deep,  dark hole in the floor that spans almost the entire space of the room. The kitchen table is gone. Floorboards have been thrown upwards and outwards, and there are bloodstains dripping down one of the walls…

I try not to look.

“We’ve got to go. It won’t be long until…until the agents are missed,” John says gently.

I hold him tighter. I’m coming back now. I don’t want him to let go of me, not ever. “It’s not safe here,” he says.

“I’m so, so sorry,” I choke.

“We know,” says Janice quietly. She’s sitting on a chair salvaged from the wreckage I’ve made in her home. Jacob is on her lap, clinging tightly to her.

There’s a carry bag down at her feet, half-stuffed with a mix of adult and children’s clothing. A teddy bear sits in the top, ready to be stuffed inside before the bag is zipped shut. They’re packed to leave with us.

I’m suddenly aware of how tiny Jacob is, and how we’ve come crashing into these peoples’ lives, destroying everything in a few short hours.

“I didn’t mean to do this,” I say, fighting more tears. I sniffle, and try to gather myself and be strong again. I want to be strong. I’m not succeeding. “I really didn’t.”

“I understand,” says Janice. “When you collapsed, Nigel explained what would have happened if you hadn’t acted. You had no choice, Rose.”

She pushes the teddy bear down, zips the carry bag up.”We found the bugs – the agents had wired the whole house. Every room. I can’t believe I was so foolish. I thought they were here to help my son.”

She begins to choke up. “They were going to take me away. Jacob too. And from the moment you arrived here, you too. From the moment you walked in the door this afternoon, there were only two ways this could end. One was like this, with the agents gone. The other was…”

“Was with all of us dead…” finishes John somberly. He tilts my chin and looks into my eyes. I find it hard to look back. My throat is raw and tight. “You saved us all, Rose. You had to do what you did. Nobody blames you. But we have to leave now, before the agents are missed. Before anyone else comes for us. It won’t be long.”

He lets go of me. I’m unsteady, and he pulls another chair upright, sitting me down, and holding my shoulders. “Stay here and take it easy,” he says. “Have a glass of water, if you think you can. I’m going to go check on the dirt bikes with Nigel. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Together, the men step gingerly through the remnants of the back door, most of which has been destroyed, only a few shattered pieces of painted wood still clinging to the door frame.

Janice regards me carefully. “Are you okay?” she asks cautiously. I watch her search for a glass in one of the kitchen cabinets, then fill it half full of tap water, and pass it to me. I thank her and begin to sip slowly. Immediately I feel my head clear and my blood pressure starts returning to normal.

“I’ll be fine,” I reply, in between sips. “I will. I need time, that’s all.”

Janice is silent, as I drink, then, awkwardly: “Your Powers. Have you always had them?”

I shook my head. “It’s kind of fuzzy,” I say. “But I think so. Ever since I was little, that’s for sure. I remember playing with branches as a little girl but…I’d rather not talk about it right now, if that’s okay.”

Janice holds her son closer to her on her lap, and he buries his face in her chest, so that only a tuft of his dark hair can be seen betwen her arms. She hugs him, and continues, staring at me in a calculating kind of way. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

I shrug, not knowing what to think. We wait.