chapter 4

I’ve been watching the grandlings all week. (Do not ask me why my website flipped this picture. I don’t know how to fix it, so you all will just have to turn your monitors upside down.) I love having family here, but I get nothing done. (I’m gonna have to change that now because chapter 5 is the chapter I’m rewriting. So it’s got to be more than gibberish by next week.) Here’s chapter 4, though.

An hour and a half later, Tori was in an upscale neighborhood in Potomac Maryland, laying flush against a roof, binoculars in hand. It was her turn to watch Senator Ethington’s house. It looked the same as it had from the time they’d arrived: A large brick colonial mansion with gabled windows and an old-fashioned porch.

A light shone in the downstairs living room. Upstairs, the bedroom curtains lay open enough to reveal a TV that played a cooking show. No other signs that anyone was home. Theo was parked somewhere nearby with a simulator. An occasional sneeze was the only indication that he hadn’t fallen asleep. Hopefully Jesse and Ryker were having more luck with their man.

Kody lay next to Tori, scanning the neighborhood with his binoculars. “Anything happening?” he asked.

“Nope. For an evil henchman, Senator Ethington lives a boring life.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll watch something interesting after the baking show.”

An alert chimed on Tori’s watch. Ten minutes had passed. Kody’s turn to stare at the house.

They switched targets, and she swept her gaze through the manicured grounds to the west, the section of road visible through the trees, then the large grassy field to the east. “I guess I shouldn’t complain, but after Overdrake attacked, I always imagined myself doing more than sitting on a roof wondering whose quiche will be fluffiest.”

“Oh, things will definitely get worse.” Kody’s upbeat tone didn’t match his words. “Sooner or later, Overdrake will bring a dragon around here.” He adjusted the zoom on his binoculars. “Who are you betting on for first death?”

During a practice last month, Ryker had gotten mad at Lilly for not paying attention and had predicted her gruesome and untimely death. She’d insisted she would outlive Ryker, and the argument had evolved into everyone making wagers on who would die first in battle. Bess was keeping the list of bets because she insisted she would outlive them all. And she might, considering her grandfather’s edict.

Tori turned her binoculars on the street, then to the front of the house. “I put my money on Overdrake dying first.”

Kody chuckled. “Wish I’d thought of that. I’ll have to put another ten on President Augustus.”

In Ethington’s bedroom, the TV showed contestants whipping eggs with more focused determination than Tori had ever given breakfast. “Who did you pick?” Tori asked.

Kody got along with all the Slayers and was perpetually optimistic about their chances. She couldn’t imagine him predicting any of their deaths.

“I voted for myself. Because once I get a hold of Overdrake or one of his dragons, ain’t no way I’m gonna retreat.”

Tori wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Should she criticize Kody for not valuing his life enough or applaud him for being so courageous? Finally Tori said, “You can’t die first. You’re too crucial to our success.”

The words weren’t just praise intended to make Kody feel special. With Bess stuck at her grandfather’s, Kody’s blasts were the Slayers only protection against armed men. Which is why, Tori suddenly realized, Jesse had insisted Kody come with her. If any gunmen were around, he wanted Kody to protect her.

A foolish sentiment, since she wasn’t likely to go anywhere tonight. Really, what were the chances Ethington would do any of his dirty work himself?

Kody leaned forward. “Well looky there.”

Tori turned her binoculars to see what had drawn his attention. The garage door opened and a gold Cadillac emerged onto the street. And Ethington wasn’t alone. His bodyguard was driving, a man that had so much height and muscle he almost looked cramped in the confines of the front seat.

Senator Ethington lounged in the back seat, head bent, his figure barely visible. Tori knew what he looked like well enough. He was a favorite of the media, always posturing at rallies and posing at homeless shelters with his too big smile and his hair so * thick it couldn’t have been real.

Tori tucked her binoculars into her jacket. “I guess we’ll have to find out how to perfect our quiche some other time.”

Kody lifted his watch to his lips to report in. “The senator is on the move. We’re heading out.”

Tori’s jacket had a hook harnessed to the back of and Kody had a loop harnessed to the front of his so they would both have their hands free while she carried him. He attached himself and she rose from the roof, hurrying to get high enough into the air that if anyone looked up, she wouldn’t easily be seen.

“Anything happening on your end?” Tori asked Jesse through her watch. Senator Ethington’s trip could be unrelated to the meeting with Voodoo.

“Eaves hasn’t gone anywhere yet,” he replied.

Maybe Ethington really was the one making contact then.

Below, the streets wound their way around darkened homes and yellow yards. Barren trees looked like brown smudges in the landscape. Tori trailed the Cadillac out of the neighborhood and onto River Road. “Edison,” she said, using Theo’s code name, “are you reading us?” He needed to track Tori in order to follow them with the simulator. If they got further than five miles away, their powers would wear off after half an hour.

“GPS is working,” Theo answered. “Wish I could say the same for the video feed.”

The Slayers knit hats had been equipped with cameras for this mission, but movement and low light never made for good reception. “I knew I should have gone with a higher ISO,” Theo went on. “Right now, my view is a blur of streets.”

That was all there was to see for the next fifteen minutes. Not many cars were on the road—maybe because curfew was nearing, or maybe people were worried about another EMP strike and wanted to keep their cars safe. The internet was already full of tutorials about turning your garage into a giant Faraday cage. Tori spotted Theo’s van trailing far enough behind the Cadillac that Senator Ethington couldn’t see him. Then the senator turned onto a one lane road heading towards the Potomac. No other cars were on the road. Nothing seemed to be around but barren trees, branches held up like pitchforks. So probably not some innocent errand.

Without light posts lining the road in helpful illumination, Tori had to fly lower to make sure she didn’t lose the car down some hidden turnoff.

“We’ve got a problem,” Theo reported. “A man pulled the entrance gate closed after Ethington went by.”

Tori hadn’t noticed a gate, but someone must have been expecting the senator and didn’t want anyone following him.

Dr. B’s voice came over the line. “Edison, pull off the road somewhere as close as you can. T-bird you’ll most likely fly out of range soon.”

Which meant she and Kody would only have their powers for another half an hour.

Tori glanced at her watch. “It’s nine twenty. Ethington has to be close to his contact.”

Or the senator was running late for his rendezvous. She couldn’t see any buildings. “Where does this road lead?”

Dr. B always had satellite photos of the mission areas and would be tracking her progress. “A parking lot by the river.”

A charming meeting spot at midnight in January.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” Dr. B said, then amended, “make that fourteen to give yourself some margin. After that, you’ll have to fly back into range. I don’t want you to fall or get stuck out in the dark.”

“We’ve got sixteen minutes,” Kody whispered. “We’re not out of range yet and margin is for sissies.”

“Fourteen,” Dr. B insisted. “Margin is for people who want to stay alive.”

Jesse’s voice joined the conversation. “Should we abandon Eaves and join you?”

“Not yet,” Dr. B said. “Eaves could still be our man. Keep an eye him until nine thirty.”

Tori flew on, checking the minutes as she trailed the car like a drifting shadow.  The woods grew thicker, wilder.

Five minutes passed. Then six. What if all of this had been some decoy, or worse, a trap? Could Ethington know the Slayers would follow him and so he was leading them away from safety?

The Cadillac reached a small parking lot not far from the river shore. An SUV waited there, headlights on.

Tori slowed. “I think we found the contact.”

Dr. B’s voice came over her earpiece. “Don’t let yourself be seen.”

The Senator’s car eased to a stop behind the SUV.

Tori flew to the largest tree she saw and dropped behind its trunk. Even though she and Kody were a good distance away, she landed softly, making sure her boots only made a slight thud on the ground. The place smelled of decaying leaves, of autumn’s last moments before winter took over. Quietly, Tori read off the SUV’s license plate number. Hopefully that would give them some information about the man.

“We need to be closer,” Kody whispered. “We won’t be able to hear them.”

“I will.” Tori had exceptional hearing. It was a part of being a dragon lord that she didn’t appreciate most of the time, but once in a while came in handy.

Senator Ethington climbed out of his car, his hat pulled low and a scarf wrapped around his chin. His bodyguard followed. The bulge in his jacket indicated he was toting a gun.

Four armed men emerged from SUV, three in ski masks. A little less subtle as disguises went. The fourth had a hooked nose and brown hair fringing from the bottom of his hat. Since his face wasn’t hidden, he was probably Voodoo, the one Ethington knew by sight.

“At least five are packing,” Tori said into her watch.

“We’re on our way,” Jesse said. “Should take us about twenty minutes.” Unless this deal took a long time, he and Ryker would be too late.

Voodoo turned on a flashlight and the SUV cut its lights, leaving only a small beam to illuminate the area. Didn’t matter. Slayers had night vision. The color of the trees around them dimmed to shades of gray, but Tori could make out Ethington nod in greeting and stride to his trunk.

“Closer,” Kody urged. “It’s better if we can both hear them.”

Tori didn’t move. “I would listen to you about that sort of thing, but you plan on dying first.”

“The camera needs to be able to pick up their conversation.”

Might be all that the camera picked up, dark as it was.

Tori drifted to a tree that was a little closer. The tree was half the size of the last. Not great cover.

“This ain’t much better,” Kody protested.

She didn’t answer. Out in the forest, a fox screamed its eerie mating call. Tori jolted and had to force herself to relax again. Fox calls always sounded like some hapless woman was being assaulted.

Senator Ethington pulled a medium-sized suitcase from his trunk and wheeled it, clacking, toward the front of his car.

Voodoo sauntered over to him, his breaths making icy puffs in the night air. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

Senator Ethington mumbled something that Tori couldn’t make out, which meant that Kody was right, and they did need to get closer.

None of the men were looking into the woods right now. As long Tori didn’t make a noise to draw attention to herself, she’d be fine. She floated upward about twenty feet then glided over to a tree that was only a few yards away from the road. Its bare branches didn’t hide them, but under the cover of darkness, they’d be okay unless one of the men shined a flashlight in this direction. And if the men decided to look for interlopers, they most likely wouldn’t be scanning so high in the treetops. Although even at that, she wished she was wearing her helmet. The Morticia wig and hipster glasses didn’t offer much protection.

Ethington placed the suitcase on the ground and opened it. Voodoo jutted his chin at one of his men, gesturing for him to check it. The man approached the case with a penlight, and the beam of light landed on stacks of money.

Tori had never estimated money by the suitcase, but that had to be a lot of wealth going for a ride.

The senator straightened. “Now, if you’ll show me the items.”

Yes, the mysterious items.

Voodoo strolled to the back of the SUV and opened the hatch. The vehicle light revealed a cargo of long, thin plastic boxes. He pulled out one and lifted the lid. The content was hard to see from this angle, but Tori still knew what was inside.

“Guns,” Kody muttered.

Automatic rifles. And by the number of boxes in the back of the SUV, Ethington was buying a few dozens of them.

Voodoo handed Senator Ethington the box for inspection. “You can have them when we’re done counting the cash.”

Dr. B’s voice came over the earpiece. “You’re not going to steal those.” The Slayers already had guns. No point taking risks to get more, especially since at least five of the men down below them were armed. But that didn’t mean Tori was going to just let Senator Ethington have the weapons. Not when he had plans to sneak some of them onto Capitol Hill. Her father worked there.

As though Dr. B had read her mind, he added, “I don’t want you taking on five gunmen.”

“Seven,” Theo said, “Senator Ethington and Voodoo’s driver might be armed too.”

If Ethington wasn’t armed now, he would be soon.

Tori didn’t respond. She was too busy calculating the possibilities. She and Kody had two tranquilizers. Not enough. And even if Jesse and Ryker made it here before this deal closed, that only gave them two more tranquilizers. She had no way to fly off with that many boxes. She’d end up dropping them.

Could she and Kody overcome the driver, take the SUV, and drive off with it? Probably not without getting shot. The Slayers wore bulletproof clothing, but Voodoo’s men might be using armor-piercing bullets. Kody could protect the two of them from one gun, but not six.

Still, she couldn’t just stand here watching. Senator Ethington was probably going to arm people in Capitol Hill so when Overdrake attacked DC, his men could take out the nation’s leadership from within.

Perhaps because Tori hadn’t spoken, Dr. B repeated his instruction. “Don’t do anything dangerous. Let the transaction happen and we’ll alert police that Senator Ethington is carrying undocumented weapons in his car.”

A lot of good that would do. The police weren’t going to listen to an anonymous source who accused a presidential candidate of doing something wildly illegal. But if Dr. B was able to send this video as well, that might warrant a search.

“Is the picture of this coming through?” Tori asked.

“Not really,” Theo answered. “I’m getting shadowy disguised figures looking at indistinct objects. All we’ll be able to prove from the footage is that the suitcase holds money or something that looks like it.”

Not good enough. They needed better proof that Ethington was committing a crime.

One of the men wearing ski-masks hefted the suitcase on top of the Cadillac hood.

Senator Ethington waved a gloved hand at him. “Don’t put that on my car. You’ll scratch it.”

Voodo’s man didn’t move the suitcase. Perhaps he didn’t speak English, or perhaps he would just rather scratch the hood than sit on the ground to count bills. Another of the men in ski-masks joined the first, and the two moved the stacks to the hood.

The exchange was going to take place and Tori was sitting here uselessly hanging in the air. This wasn’t what she’d trained for. This wasn’t what she’d risked sneaking out of her house for.

Dr. B’s voice came through her earpiece. “You have two minutes until you need to leave. You don’t want to walk back here.”

Tori didn’t move. “We’ve got to stop this.” She wanted permission and more importantly ideas. “What’s the point of having superpowers if we don’t use them?”

“I need your powers to fight dragons,” Dr. B said, “not to stop every illegal transaction that happens.”

Well, that might be true if Ethington wasn’t sneaking guns into the place her father worked. He could easily be a target.

Tori turned her head to speak to Kody. “Can you hit the money with a fireball?”

She was asking for his opinion, not issuing an instruction, but instead of answering, he lifted his arm and swung it forward. The night air rippled with the waver of heat and a flash of light scorched across the Cadillac’s hood. The stack of bills exploded into flames.

The men jumped backward with startled yells.

“Yep,” Kody said. “I can hit it.”

Voodoo whipped out his gun and dived for cover behind the SUV. The other men crouched behind the still flaming Cadillac. Some of the money fluttered like confetti in the air but the bulk curled and burned in the fire.

Over the earpiece, Theo swore. “Do you ever listen to us?”

Probably a rhetorical question. Tori didn’t answer.

The bodyguard peered around the side of the vehicle, gun drawn, looking for assailants. One of the ski-mask men edged around the back of the car, uncertain which direction to point his weapon.

As it turned out, Ethington did have a gun on him. He stood behind his car, visible through the windows as he scanned the road. Which meant he either had bulletproof glass or he didn’t understand the physics of gunshots.

Dr. B spoke in a deliberate whisper, as though afraid the men might hear him. “Be careful.”

It was only then that Tori realized her mistake. She and Kody had been hidden in the darkness, but the roadside was no longer dark. A small bonfire of money lit up the area. And Kody couldn’t protect them from seven guns.

Would movement draw attention and give them away? Maybe the men wouldn’t think to look up in the trees. The Slayer’s jeans and dark jackets might provide enough camouflage. Neither she or Kody spoke, didn’t dare make a noise. The only sound was the wind shifting through the bare branches.

Below them, the men’s heads still swiveled, searching for something to shoot.

“Was this some kind of trick?” one of the men barked to Ethington. “Were you trying to blow us up?”

Ethington shook his head in confusion. “Don’t be absurd.”

None of the men left the cover of the vehicles, but it was clear they weren’t buying the senator’s innocence. “You trying to kill us?” Voodoo called. “You thought you’d be out of here before your explosion went off?”

“Of course not,” Ethington snapped, more indignant this time.

Well, this was a fortunate turn of events. Yes, Tori silently told the men. Blame Ethington and stop searching the trees.

The money was still burning on the top of the Cadillac hood, smoke curling into the sky. Before long the flames would die down, taking the light with them. Then Tori and Kody could safely make an exit.

“This has nothing to do with me. Look—” Ethington pointed to the scorch marks that had left a trail across his hood. “Someone shot something at us. One of us must have been followed.”

It was hard to tell if the men in the ski masks knew enough about scorch marks to believe his story. Voodoo was easier to read. He stepped from the SUV, eyes narrowed. “We have the road blocked. No one followed us and no one followed you either.” He motioned to one of his men. “Put the merchandise away. No sale tonight.”

Senator Ethington beat his glove against some charred bills at the edge of the hood. He probably meant to save them, but the motion fanned the flames, kicking up the fire. “Someone must have come another way and…” His sentence trailed off and then his head whipped upward, searching the sky. “Slayers.”

That answered the question of whether Ethington knew about them or not.

“What?” Voodoo asked.

Tori slowly drifted upward. Light or not, it was time to leave.

Senator Ethington’s gaze swung to the trees and his eyes landed on her. The flickering light from the fire showed his eyes transform into icy, insistent hatred. He raised his gun. “Up there!”

Tori dived backward, twisting to make herself a smaller target.

Gunfire split through the air with a noise that beat like thunder in her ears. Pieces of wood exploded around her, bit into her jeans. She had to get away, had to get Kody to safety.

She bulldozed through branches, hardly able to see where she went. Twigs crackled and broke. Her wig caught on a tree and ripped from her head.

“T-bird?” Jesse’s voice came over her earpiece.

She didn’t answer, couldn’t concentrate on anything but getting out of here.

More shots came, this time not as loud. It was hard to tell whether the bark hitting her was from branches she broke or from gunfire. She lifted above the treetops to go faster, needed get out of range.

“Are you okay?” Jesse’s voice again, worry infused into every word.

“I think so,” she said.

Kody’s body shook against her. Had he been shot? Was he having convulsions? She didn’t dare slow down to check.

Only when the firing stopped, did Tori check over her shoulder. “Were you hit?”

“Naw, I’m fine.” His voice was tinged with laughter. Laughter. That’s why he’d been shaking.

“What’s so funny?”

“Ethington. I’m not sure what worried him more, seeing all of that money go up in flames or the scorch marks on his Cady.”

Tori continued to speed in the direction of the main road. Cutting across the woods instead of following the road would save her some time. She needed to get back into range of the simulator.

“Hey Edison,” Kody said, “Did you get all that on camera?”

“Oh yeah. And I’m sure Dr. B will be able to use it the next time he’s giving a lesson about not following orders.”

Ok, so this mission hadn’t gone as planned, but it could still be salvaged. “We’ll get in our battle gear and return for the guns,” Tori said. Dr. B and Theo had equipment in their vans. Wouldn’t take her and Kody long to grab helmets, guns, and slip on bullet-proof pants.

“The men are armed,” Dr. B reminded her, “and they’ll be looking for you now. It’s best if we head home. I called the police, gave them an anonymous tip about a gun deal, and reported SUV’s license plate and location. Hopefully, they send officers to find them.”

That plan depended too much on hope. “You didn’t report Ethington’s license plate?”  Voodoo might have given him the guns and agreed to take payment later.

“If I had,” Dr. B answered,” the police would run that plate, see it was the senator’s, and assume I’m just a prank caller making trouble.”

In other words, if Ethington had the guns, he would get to keep them. That wasn’t acceptable. Not when her father could easily be a target.

“There’s only one road leading out the area,” Tori said. “If we’re fast, we can intercept them and find a way to take the guns.”

“I bet we could tip over their vehicles,” Kody put in.

“We’re nearly to Edison,” Jesse said. “We’ll handle Voodoo’s SUV, you take Ethington’s car.” For once Tori was glad that Jesse didn’t like backing away from a fight, but that didn’t mean she was going to let him go after the more dangerous vehicle.

“Kody and I should take the SUV,” she said. “It has more armed men.”

“That’s why Ryker and I will take it,” Jesse said.

Tori sighed, but she smiled while she did it. “You can’t keep taking the harder missions to protect me.”

“Right,” Ryker said. “And thanks for caring about my safety, bro.”

“Fine,” Dr. B said as though they’d all been asking for his permission. “You can stop the vehicles but once the vehicles are inoperable, we’ll let the police take over. If there are civilians around, avoid gunfire at all costs. None of you will do anything, and I do mean anything, until you’re suited up. I’m only agreeing because, after tonight, Senator Ethington won’t be of any use to us. He’ll realize we’ve had him under surveillance.”

Tori shut her eyes in frustration. She hadn’t considered that. Ethington would run sweeps for bugs now. They wouldn’t be able to get more information from him.

She and Kody had just made things harder for the Slayers.

 


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