At seven thirty, Tori followed Dr. B’s instructions and drove into a neighborhood that bordered Lake Accotink in Springfield, Virginia. She parked along the road, among little brick houses and tidy yards. Jesse’s beat-up Prius sat further down the street. He was here and would be part of the mission. Her heart did a little flip, which was totally unjustified. Jesse had broken up with her and her heart should have realized that by now.
She headed down a trail toward their meeting place at the lake. She would be casual, calm, and force her heart to stay where it belonged.
The trees along the way lifted their tangled branches, making the night sky look like it had cracks running across it. She tugged her scarf tighter and wished Dr. B was already here with the simulator. Once her powers turned on, she wouldn’t feel the chill anymore.
The landscape opened up, revealing a lake as dark as black ink. Moonlight rippled along its surface.
The Slayers hadn’t met at a lake since camp, a time that seemed longer than just five months ago. Camp was a time of sunshine, thick green canopies, and nights around glowing fires. So different from this cold lonely place.
A couple of empty picnic tables waited near the water. She spotted a figure leaning against a tree. Jesse. His silhouette was the same one she’d seen so many times at camp when the two of them snuck out for midnight rendezvouses.
He was gazing out at the water, hands in pockets, his brown hair hidden under a knit hat. If he’d been a regular guy, she could have paused and admired him for a moment, traced the lines of his face with her eyes. His looks deserved consideration, but Slayers had good senses, and even though he didn’t turn to her, she knew he’d already heard her coming. She wasn’t about to be caught oogling him.
She strolled over, unhurried. “I should have known you’d be the first one here.”
He finally turned to her, his lips lifting into a smile. “Because I’m punctual?”
Because his role as Slayer was all-important to him. She couldn’t imagine him without his perpetually stoic expression, as if he was responsible for the fate of humanity. “Yes, because you’re punctual. That and many other things.”
His eyebrow quirked up. “I probably shouldn’t ask what other qualities you think I have.”
Not long ago, he would have taken her hand, pulled her close, and teasingly demanded to know. Now everything between them was coated in restraint and regret.
Jesse looked away from her, scanning the trees and trail behind them, then checked his watch. Probably wondering why everyone else wasn’t punctual.
Maybe the regret was only on her part.
He turned back to her and his dark eyes rested on her with a look of…what? After dating him for months, she ought to be able to read those intense, penetrating looks.
“How has your dad taken all of this?” he asked.
Tori folded her arms and tucked her gloved hands close to her body. “I told him about Overdrake and the dragons.” She kicked at some loose stones on the ground, sending them skittering across the frozen ground. “I know we weren’t supposed to tell our parents anything, but my father is a senator. How could I not warn him?”
Instead of passing judgment, Jesse just said, “How did he react?”
About the way anyone would react when their teenage daughter told them dragons were causing power outages. “He probably thinks I’m insane.”
Jesse grinned and patted her arm. It was almost a playful gesture, a bit of the past resurfacing. “Don’t worry. I still think you’re sane.” He smirked. “At least, most of the time.”
She nudged his shoulder with hers. “Most of the time is all I can hope for.”
He laughed and she was struck all over again by that smile. Momentarily, the weight of responsibility lifted from his eyes and left them as they were meant to be: warm brown, full of possibility.
Tori wanted to say something else that would keep him smiling but couldn’t think of anything. On a day like today, joking around felt wrong. She looked out at the black depths of the lake. “Overdrake wasn’t planning on attacking until April. If we hadn’t destroyed the dragon eggs–”
Jesse didn’t let her finish. “This isn’t our fault.”
She didn’t argue, just kept staring at the lake. If Overdrake announced what she’d done the next time he went on TV, the people who’d lost all their technology might not hold her blameless.
Dirk certainly thought she was responsible for killing the eggs. Was he completely her enemy now? The thought made her stomach twist. Which was a stupid reaction. Would she have felt better about fighting him if the two of them were still on kissing terms?
Jesse took hold of her arm and turned her to face him. “Look, I know I’ve criticized you for a lot of things. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But, don’t ever think–”
Tori didn’t find out what she wasn’t supposed to ever think because just then Kody’s voice rang out. “Look who else is gonna break curfew.”
He jogged the last few steps to them. A gray ski jacket made his broad shoulders look even broader and his sandy blond hair was hidden under a hat with earflaps. Judging by his cheerful expression, he might have been on his way to something fun—but to be fair, he usually looked that way. Tori just hadn’t expected his cheer to hold out through the fall of democracy.
“Are we going to be out past curfew?” Tori asked. She’d told her parents she was going over to her friend Melinda’s to study and they’d told her to be home by ten.
Kody clapped his gloved hands together, warming them. “Who all’s coming?”
Usually the Slayers waited for Dr. B to tell them mission details, but sometimes he consulted the team captains first. Jesse was the captain of Team Magnus.
He glanced around the trees and picnic tables to make sure no outsiders were around. “We’ll be out until at least nine-thirty and Ryker is coming too.” He was the Slayer’s other flyer and A-team’s captain. “That’s everybody.”
Kody nodded, clearly understanding the implications. “Mission can’t be too dangerous if Dr. B wants all the flyers for it.” Kody laughed and corrected himself. “Or it’s so dangerous, he needs the heavy hitters. Are guns involved?”
The Slayers had two ways to stop gunfire. Bess could throw a shield up that blocked bullets and Kody could send either freezing blasts or fireballs to make people drop their weapons. Bess was harder to get a hold of for missions now. Her grandfather had insisted she move in with him and threatened to cut the Slayers’ funding if she participated in anything dangerous.
“Guns might be involved,” Jesse said. “Senator Ethington is making a secret purchase from someone in the underworld tonight. The man’s code name is Voodoo. Whatever the purchase is, Senator Ethington is nervous about it.”
Jesse scanned the trees again, still on guard. “Overdrake thinks Ethington will be able to sneak whatever it is past security on Capitol Hill. If we’re lucky, it will be a computer file for some of Overdrake’s government contacts and we’ll find out who else is working for him. But it might be something completely different. Theo’s guessing it’ll be a USB drive with a computer virus.”
Theo was the Slayer’s twenty-something tech genius, a title he never let any of them forget. He created the Slayers tech gadgets, some of which were questionably legal.
“So, what’s our part?” Tori asked.
“We don’t know who Voodoo is,” Jesse said, “where the deal will take place, or who will actually pick up the item. We do, however, know the time they’re meeting: nine-thirty. I doubt Senator Ethington will risk being out so close to curfew, let alone get caught paying off criminals. He’ll probably send his top aide: A guy named Albert Eaves who knows about Overdrake. That way if Eaves gets caught, Ethington can claim he had no knowledge of anything.”
Kody huffed and his breath hung frozen on the air. “Sounds like a politician.” He cut a glance at Tori. “No offense.”
Yeah, her friends at school might be impressed that her dad was the Republican frontrunner for the next election, but the Slayers weren’t.
“Ryker and I will stake out Eaves’s home,” Jesse went on. “You two take Ethington’s. If he leaves the property, follow. Get as close as you can to him and get footage of the exchange. After the deal goes down, we’ll look for an opportunity to steal the item. That may involve breaking and entering.”
Great. An opportunity to land in jail. A mission wouldn’t be complete without a class three felony.
Jesse held up a hand, anticipating Tori’s protest. “We’ll try not to make you do anything that would result in embarrassing headlines.”
“Thanks.” She relaxed a bit. It was one thing for the rest of them to be arrested, it was quite different for Tori. She was always walking that fine line between helping keep the nation safe and ruining her father’s career.
Jesse slipped his hands into his pockets. “Since we don’t know where the deal will take place, we won’t wear our battle gear or take rifles.”
Probably for the best. They couldn’t inconspicuously follow someone down a street or through a mall in black bulletproof clothes and helmets. They’d look like they belonged to some emo biker gang.
“Until we know what the deal is about,” Jesse continued, “we’re just doing recon. Dr. B is bringing us disguises.”
This wasn’t necessarily good news. The last time he’d brought disguises, Tori had ended up in a Renaissance barmaid outfit.
“We’re going in unarmed?” Kody asked.
Jesse held up his wrist so that his Slayer watch peeked from his sleeve. “We’ll have to rely on our tranquilizers.” The Slayer watches had room for one small tranquilizer dart. Once shot, they could take down a person in sixty seconds. The problem was, an armed man could get off a lot of shots in a minute.
“Any hint yet that Ethington know about us?” Tori asked. The Slayers weren’t sure if he even knew about the dragons, let alone them. If he didn’t know, she would be able to spy on him easier. He wouldn’t look up in the sky for a tail. But that wasn’t the only reason that Tori occasionally asked this question. She didn’t like the thought of Ethington working in the same building as her father if he knew Tori was one of his enemies. That sort of knowledge might endanger her father.
Jesse shrugged. “Still no mention of us in his phone conversations.” Of course, that didn’t mean Overdrake hadn’t told the senator about the Slayers. It only meant Ethington hadn’t been talking to people about them.
Kody brushed snow from the picnic table and sat down. “Does Ethington know which cities are gonna be attacked next? Because I wouldn’t say no to a kidnapping if that’s the case.”
Interrogating Ethington could be a great idea… or another opportunity for jail and a life of regrets. A tough call.
Jesse shook his head, dismissing the idea. “He doesn’t know. Last we heard, he argued with Overdrake for unleashing EMP without telling him first. Ethington said if the revolution fails, it will be Overdrake’s fault for starting early.”
If only making the revolution fail could be that easy. So far, Overdrake had done pretty well for himself. Six cities. No resistance. Panicked people.
Jesse checked the time. “Dr. B and Theo will be here with our stuff soon. And Ryker is…” He cocked his head and spoke louder. “Testing my patience.”
Jesse stepped sideways just as Ryker dropped from the sky and landed almost exactly where he’d stood.
Having Ryker plow into you wouldn’t have been a small thing. He was 6’4, lean, and muscular. In the dim light, his blue eyes looked as dark as his black hair. He smiled brightly at Jesse. “I almost had you that time.”
“Bro,” Jesse said. “I’ll always know when you’re coming.”
Ryker pointed a finger at him, not conceding the point. “But this time, you didn’t move until the last second.” Ryker was Jesse’s counterpart, so sneaking up on him was almost impossible. When counterparts were close, they could detect each other’s locations.
Kody strolled over to a fist bump Ryker. “Where’s Dr. B?” Ryker and his cousin Willow both lived with Dr. B’s family, so it was odd for them not to arrive together.
“He’ll be here soon.” Ryker did a quick scan of the area. “I wanted to fly the rest of the way so I could keep Jesse on his toes. Besides, you never know when you’ll need to launch yourself out the window of a vehicle doing sixty-five. Had to practice it at least once.”
Tori shook her head. “I hope no one saw you.”
Ryker turned to Tori for the first time, considering her like she was a riddle. Then he glanced at Jesse for the solution. Which was another thing about counterparts—they could sense each other’s emotions. Since Tori and Jesse had broken up, Ryker was always gauging Jesse’s reaction to being with Tori. If they fought, he knew, and he always took Jesse’s side.
No tension of that sort tonight.
“Good,” Ryker said, then added, “I mean, it’s good we all could make it.”
The night suddenly grew brighter, the air warmer, and energy pulsed through Tori with a sort of pent up restlessness. Her Slayer powers had turned on, a sign that either a simulator or a dragon had come within five miles. Almost certainly the simulator, this time. She stretched her shoulders, adjusting to her added energy.
Jesse motioned for the others to follow him. “Let’s head to the parking lot to meet up with Dr. B.”
The group moved along the water’s edge until they reached an empty parking lot next to more picnic benches. All deserted. A nearby carousel, closed for the winter, sat motionless, creaking a sigh in the wind.
Before long, a large gray van pulled into the parking lot and Dr. B stepped out. His thick gray hair was in a disarray; it’s usual state. Underneath his coat, he wore medical scrubs. Probably so that if he was pulled over while driving the Slayers around, he could claim he was a medical professional. The disguise wasn’t convincing. His own arm was in a sling—the result of being shot during the last mission. His wire-rim glasses perched on his nose and a scarf hung forgotten around his neck. Probably something his wife Shirley had insisted he wear.
“Oh good,” he said when he saw the group. “You’re all here.”
He waved for them to come over, then opened the side door where a pile of supplies was waiting for them: wigs, glasses, hats, scarves, and jackets. The jackets, at least, were bulletproof. That would give them some protection.
Kody picked up a scraggly brown wig and grinned. “A mullet. I’m gonna need a selfie with this.”
“Absolutely not,” Dr. B said.
Tori picked up the only long wig with less enthusiasm. Straight black hair, reminiscent of Morticia from the Adam’s family. “No one had better take a picture of me in this.”
Theo climbed out of the passenger side. A gray beanie hid most of his curly brown hair and an oversized puffy jacket made his thin legs look even thinner. His pale skin was flushed, his large nose, red. He took a tissue from a coat pocket and blew his nose. “I should be home in bed with chicken soup and hot tea. I’d say: I hope you appreciate my sacrifice, but you never do.”
Jesse gave him a stiff smile. “Good to see you too. I just finished telling Kody and Tori about the mission.”
Ryker peeled off his coat and grabbed one of the jackets. “And thus begins the opening games of dragon Armageddon. So far, the score is Dragon Lord six, Slayers zero.”
Kody kicked picked up a jacket of his own. “Let’s even out that score.”