As Jesse stared at Ryan, the back of his neck tingled with a warning. When Slayers’ powers were turned on, they picked up on the adrenaline levels of the people around them. Fear, anger, and aggression all transmitted as strongly as smells and sounds. Jesse hadn’t sensed any of those emotions at the party, but suddenly all three spiked from Ryan.
Not normal emotions. Not normal levels. The only times Jesse had felt that sort of hostility was when Overdrake’s men were attacking.
“Crap,” Bess muttered. She’d felt it too. The guy must be on Overdrake’s payroll and he’d recognized them.
Ryan reached into his jacket pocket. Was he going for a gun? “Shield,” Jesse hissed.
He’d barely finished saying the word before he figured out where she’d put the forcefield. A guy strolling away from the table smacked into it and fell backward. His drink splashed on a couple of girls who stood at the table. Both shrieked in annoyance.
Ryan kept his gaze on Jesse. When his hand lifted from his pocket, he held a phone, not gun.
He must be calling for backup. In the span of two seconds Jesse had analyzed his options. He could tell Bess to drop the shield, rush over, grab Ryan’s phone, and crush it. But he might not get to the phone fast enough to prevent a warning, and crushing a stranger’s phone would cause a scene. Leo especially wouldn’t understand that sort of thing.
Jesse could shoot Ryan with the tranquilizer dart. But he wouldn’t go unconscious for a minute—too long to prevent him from warning whoever was on the other end of the phone. Besides, once he started staggering around, Leo would worry about him and refuse to leave. He’d probably insist on staying until the paramedics arrived.
In fact, any sort of altercation with Ryan would only drive a wedge between Jesse and Leo.
Man, Jesse hated when the only option was fleeing.
“We’ve got to go,” he told Bess. Ryan hadn’t produced a weapon, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have one. He might just be refraining from using it among so many witnesses. “Keep your shield between us and him.”
Bess’s hands fisted at her side. “We can’t leave Leo.”
Leo probably wasn’t in danger. Still, Jesse didn’t like leaving him either—vulnerable and unaware that he was friends with the enemy. It felt like letting Overdrake win. “Leo,” Jesse called and waved to him. “Let’s go.”
Leo was still on their side of the shield. He’d momentarily stopped his march toward Ryan, distracted by the guy who’d fallen and the girls who were wiping angrily at their hair. He turned his attention back to Ryan and gestured behind him at Jesse and Bess. “Hey, I’m going to chill with some old friends for a while. Don’t leave without me, okay?”
Ryan plastered on a smile that did nothing to decrease his adrenaline levels and held the phone away from his mouth to talk to Leo “Have them stay. The party is just getting started.”
He wanted them to stay until more of Overdrake’s men got here. He probably didn’t realize that Jesse and Bess knew what he was.
“We’ll be back,” Leo said.
No, they wouldn’t. While Ryan and Leo spoke, Jesse tapped the side button on his watch, sending Dr. B his own distress message: Enemy nearby.
“You’ve gotta stay.” Ryan muttered something into the phone, then slipped it into his pocket. “I just told Amelia you were here and she’s on her way over to see you. If you leave now, she’ll think you ditched her.”
“Amelia?” Leo repeated, his resolve wavering.
“You know what would be fun?” Bess called to him. “We should go see Rosa.”
Jesse nodded. “She lives nearby.” He had no idea where she lived.
His watch lit up, Dr. B asking for more details and reporting that he would call the police. It would take law enforcement a few minutes to get here. Fortunately, it would most likely take Overdrake’s men even longer to arrive. He probably didn’t have men stationed nearby. Ryan was counting on Jesse and Bess staying for a while.
Leo ambled back to Jesse and Bess. “I’d love to go with you but I probably should stay. Amelia is a friend who has been having a hard time. I owe her.”
Amelia hadn’t been on the phone with Ryan unless she was also working for Overdrake.
Time for a new strategy. Jesse shrugged. “No problem. We can stay.”
Bess shot him a sharp look. Ryan eyed him suspiciously.
Jesse nodded toward the catwalk. “Let’s go where it’s quieter and we can catch up on old times while you wait for your friend.”
“Okay. Let me get some food first.” He marched past them to the food table. “I’m starving.”
Bess leaned over to Jesse and whispered, “This isn’t a good place for a shield. I’m already sliding it all over the place to avoid more accidents.”
Ryan shuffled over to them, pretending casualness. “So how do you guys know Leo?”
“We’re his age,” Bess said. “How do you know him?”
Ryan laughed and shoved his hands into his pants pockets. Not enough room there for a gun. If he had one of those it would be in his jacket. “I’m only a year older than Leo,” Ryan said. “We went to the same high school. I’m trying to convince him to come to Georgetown.”
Ryan seemed older than a freshman. Had Overdrake discovered where Leo went to high school and hired someone to infiltrate the place or had Overdrake just convinced one of Leo’s friends to work for him? In the end, Jesse supposed it didn’t matter. The result was the same.
Ryan continued to stare at them, waiting for them to answer his question. No point in denying where they met. Overdrake already knew the information, and Leo would answer if Jesse didn’t.
“We went to camp together,” Jesse said matching Ryan’s casualness. “Every summer since junior high.”
Hopefully Ryan didn’t realize that he and Bess were onto him. Ditching him would be easier that way.
Leo finally finished filling his plate and returned to the group with his mouth full of potato chips. “Dragon camp,” he said. “Back when I was a nerd.”
“You were never a nerd,” Bess said. Her gaze only shot to Leo for a moment then was back to Ryan. Her shield must have been right in front of Jesse’s face. If Leo walked forward, he’d knock into it.
Leo put his hand on the side of his mouth as though letting Ryan in on a secret. “Bess’s dad ran the camp. She’s a little biased.”
Ryan forced a grin. “Dragon camp. Sounds interesting. What sort of thing did you do? Paint ceramic dragons?”
He was trying to keep them talking until his backup arrived. How long would Overdrake’s men take? A half an hour? Longer?
“We did normal camp stuff,” Leo said. “Archery, horseback riding, running around and nearly burning down the forest.”
They’d also leaped from tree branches and dodged fireballs. Did Leo remember any of that? Jesse would have to ask him later. Right now he needed to get rid of Ryan and take Leo someplace where he and Bess could explain the situation. If they showed him their powers, maybe they could convince him to leave with them. At the very least, they needed to warn him about Ryan. The guy was being paid to watch him.
While Leo was telling Ryan about all the jogging they’d had to do at camp, Jesse broke into the conversation. “We should let Ryan get back to his beer pong.” He took one of Leo’s potato chips and bit into it. “Nice meeting you.”
“I was done watching the game,” Ryan said. “I don’t mind hanging with you guys.”
Bess smile apologetically. “Sorry, but we need to talk to Leo privately. He can get back to you in a few minutes.” She hooked her hand through Leo’s arm. “Let’s go downstairs.”
“You can’t leave the party.” Sharpness bled into Ryan’s words. “The tenants don’t want strangers roaming around the building.”
“We won’t go far,” Bess said, already pulling Leo with her.
“Seriously,” Ryan said. “Don’t leave the rooftops.”
Leo glanced over his shoulder at Ryan. “Relax. I’ll be back soon.”
Not if Jesse could help it. He walked beside Bess as she towed Leo to the right side of the building. He hoped they’d find stairs there. Otherwise they’d have to use the main catwalk and it was crowded and in plain sight.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” Leo asked, keeping his pace slow.
“It’s hard to explain this without looking crazy,” Jesse said. “but we’re going to try. We want you to come back to the Slayers.”
“You mean camp?” Leo shook his head. “Wish I could, but I’ve got to work during the summer.”
Bess let out a huff. “Leo, you used to have superpowers and you need to get them back.”
Jesse smiled at her stiffly. “Remember how we weren’t going to look crazy?”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t have the patience for subtlety and I can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.”
The music was too loud to hear footsteps following them. Was it Jesse’s imagination, or did he sense them anyway? If Ryan had a gun, would he use it once they went around the side of the building? Even with silencers, gunshots were loud. Probably louder than the music. Might not be that kind of gun though. Shane had been hit with a tranquilizer gun. Those didn’t make a lot of noise.
“We need you,” Bess went on. “I’ve already fought two dragons. Me. One shielder. Do you have any idea how much we need your help?”
Leo pressed his lips together and then turned to Jesse. “What is she talking about?”
“And that’s another thing,” Bess said, waving her free hand at him. “You just forgot our entire mission. How could you think that wouldn’t matter? If it was just your life at stake, ok, then be an idiot if you want, but you knew it wasn’t just your life. It was all of our lives. And it was the lives of people across the nation. Why would you do this?”
Leo shot Jesse another look. “Does she need some medication or something?”
Bess narrowed her eyes at Leo. “I need you to remember who you are for two minutes.”
“Bess,” Jesse broke in, “this isn’t helping.”
They rounded the corner. A walkway wound across the building giving way to narrow metal stairs. A matching set lined the next building over.
They weren’t wide enough for two so Bess maneuvered Leo so that he was in front and propelled him forward. He went down a half dozen steps, nearly stumbled, then swatted Bess’s hand. “Stop pushing. You’re going to make me fall.”
“Hurry,” she told him. “We’ve got to get away from Ryan. He’s not who you think he is.”
Leo planted his feet and turned to face her. “What are you talking about?”
Bess didn’t keep pushing him. If she had, he might have toppled down the whole staircase.
“Ryan works for Overdrake,” Jesse said, glancing over his shoulder. The guy hadn’t rounded the corner yet, but he could be close.
“Who’s Overdrake?” Leo asked.
“A terrorist,” Jesse said.
“Right,” Leo said. “Is this some sort of joke?”
Bess glanced at Jesse. “Should I just carry him?”
Before Jesse had a chance to answer, the sound of clanging footsteps echoed below them on the first-floor staircase.
Ryan’s backup couldn’t be here already, could it? One glance confirmed Jesse’s fears. Three guys were on the bottom staircase, rushing upward. They looked college-age. No dark jackets like Overdrake’s men had worn before, but he couldn’t discount them as students who were in a hurry. His gut was telling him these were Overdrake’s people.
In a few minutes, he and Bess would have two fronts to contend with, more if they ran back to the terraces and the guys chasing them spread out. And these men would definitely have weapons.
Bess drew in a sharp breath. “We should go to the stairs at the main catwalk.” She took hold of Leo’s arm and turned that way.
The stairs there were their best bet to keep ahead of the men, but to reach them they’d have to get past Ryan. Still, better to face one combatant, than three.
Ryan’s voice came from the side of the building, sounding smug and self-assured. “I told you that you weren’t supposed to leave the party.”
He sauntered toward the stairs, hands behind his back. He wouldn’t have been so confident if he’d known they had powers that were turned on. He must have thought that they’d come to see Leo on a whim or had run into him accidentally.
Leo glanced at the men running up the stairs then at Ryan questioningly. “What are you doing? “
“I’m getting a bonus,” Ryan said. He swung his arm forward, pointing a gun in their direction. Jesse couldn’t tell whether it shot bullets or tranquilizers.
“Plow him,” Jesse told her.
Instead of keeping her shield stationary, separating the group from Ryan, Bess pushed it toward him fast and hard. It slammed into him, tossing him to the ground like a bowling pin. The gun clattered from his hand.
“To the catwalk?” she asked.
“Yes,” Jesse nodded at the staircase on the adjacent building, “but we’ll use those stairs. I’ll take Leo.”
Leo had frozen on the stairs, staring open-mouthed at Ryan. Bess jumped onto the railing and then leaped the ten feet separating the staircases. Leo’s mouth fell further open. “What the—”
Jesse hooked his arms underneath Leo’s and sprung into the air, half leaping, half flying across the gap. Leo let out a startled scream of protest. When they landed on the other staircase, Jesse released Leo. He nearly fell forward, not because he didn’t have footing, but because his knees had given out. He grabbed hold of the side of the building for support. “I can’t believe you jumped! Next time you want to risk your life, don’t drag me with you.”
Jesse, Bess, and Leo were at the next building, which meant they had a head start to the stairs at the main catwalk. But they wouldn’t keep that lead for long. Ryan had gotten to his knees and was crawling toward the gun. In a moment he would get to his feet and shoot at them again.
Bess bounded up this the remaining stairs, taking them two at a time.
Jesse didn’t have time to argue with Leo. Jesse could have left him there, but now that Overdrake’s men were closing in, now that Ryan had dropped his façade and had openly pulled a gun, Leo might not be safe. Maybe Overdrake’s men would think he’d seen too much.
Jesse grabbed Leo by the middle, flung him over his shoulder, and flew up the remaining stairs. When he reached the top, he put Leo down, but only so people wouldn’t think Jesse was kidnapping him. He took hold of Leo’s elbow and yanked him into a run. “Those men will start shooting at us soon, including your buddy Ryan. If you don’t want to be hit, move faster.”
Leo stumbled along next to him, glancing over his shoulder. “Why would he—what’s going on?”
Bess darted around a couple of people. “I should have mentioned that Ling Zhi makes you stronger. Bet you want some now.”
They were almost to the end of the terrace, almost to the catwalk. “We were trying to tell you before, now we don’t have time. You’ll just have to trust us.”
That’s when Jesse’s attention was drawn to the end of the catwalk on the right. Two police officers had emerged from the elevators.
Jesse should have felt relieved. The police Dr. B had called were here. Overdrake’s men wouldn’t shoot into a crowd if police could return fire. But the relief didn’t come. Instead Jesse’s adrenaline ratcheted up a notch. It took a moment for him to realize what his senses were telling him. Something wasn’t right. One of the policemen was walking at a normal pace—looking at the students like a father who’d caught his children up past their bedtime. Disapproving, but not alarmed. The other was hurrying, trying to get around people.
The man’s aggression, fear, and adrenalin were spiking. He wasn’t here to help. He was on the hunt.
Did Overdrake have men in the police department as well? He’d known Dr. B had been a professor here, maybe he’d concentrated men here for that reason. Jesse didn’t like the other explanation that came to him—that Overdrake had this many men in all the cities surrounding DC.
Bess slowed. “Police on both sides of the catwalk. Where do I put my shield?”
As soon as she spoke, Jesse caught sight of the second pair of policemen making their way, calmly enough on the left side. Didn’t matter if those ones were legitimate cops, as long as one of them was crooked, Jesse and Bess were in trouble. Police were going to take the word of one of their own over a bunch of teenagers every time. The cop hurrying across the catwalk hadn’t pulled any weapons yet, still too many people blocking his path, but that wouldn’t last long. Students were moving out of his way as fast as they could.
“Put the shield behind us,” Jesse said. “We’re going straight.”
“Straight?” Leo repeated. He shook his head, took a step backward.
“I’ve got him,” Jesse told Bess. “Go.”
Leo kept shaking his head and moving backward. “You haven’t got me because if you jump off the roof you’ll break both our necks.”
Leo shouldn’t have worried so much. The roof below them wasn’t that far down.
Jesse took hold of Leo’s arm and ran forward, dragging Leo along. Bess streaked forward in front of them. People stumbled out of their way, hurling angry exclamations at them. More and more heads turned to watch them. As Bess hurdled over the catwalk railing and disappeared over the edge, a collective gasp went up from the crowd.
“No, no, no,” Leo said and kept saying the word as Jesse propelled him toward the catwalk. Two feet in front of the railing, he leaped into the air, hauling Leo with him. He glided down to the roof below and landed with a thunk. Leo pitched forward, almost fell. Jesse didn’t let go of him. They had two more roofs to run across before they hit the street.
A whooshing noise came from behind him, something spinning through the air. He turned to see two dark objects smack into Bess’s forcefield.
“Come on!” Bess called. She was at the end of the roof and ready to jump down to the next.
Jesse forced Leo forward. He wanted to fly, but at this point, a dozen students were probably videoing this event. It was better to pretend they were normal people or at least normal people with good leaping skills.
As they went over the next roof, Leo let out a gurgled moan, but he didn’t protest. He said nothing while they ran over the last roof. When they leaped from that one, Jesse moved his arm to take hold of Leo’s waist. On the street, they’d be close enough to the building to be shielded from view from of those on the top. It was safe to fly. He swooped through the air, catching up to Bess. As he went by her, he slowed and called her name. Without breaking stride, she jumped onto his back and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it was faster than running. Leo clutched Jesse’s arm. “How is this happening?” he demanded, and then almost immediately added, “Someone slipped something into my drink, didn’t they? None of this is real.”
Dr. B’s truck was in sight. He sat behind the wheel, motor running. “I’m dropping you off with Dr. B,” Jesse said. “He and Bess can explain things to you. I’ve got to get to my car.” The sooner they got away from here the better.
He hoped his keys hadn’t fallen out during all of his leapings. He patted his front pants pocket. Yep, still there. Pausing briefly in front of Dr. B’s van, he deposited Leo and Bess jumped from his back.
As Jesse turned to go to his car, Dr. B’s opened the side door for Bess and Leo to get in. “It’s good to see you again,” he said to Leo as though he was making a polite social visit. “Do get in the van. We’ve things to discuss.”
Half an hour later, Jesse was sitting with Dr. B, Bess, and Leo at a café in DC. Leo’s hands shook as he took sips of coffee. Dr. B had ordered sandwiches and fries for all of them, but most of it sat on the table untouched. Jesse wasn’t hungry. Bess was only fiddling with her fries.
Dr. B and Bess had explained everything to Leo on the drive here, but he seemed too stunned to take it in. So they had reiterated most of the information again while watching Leo drink coffee.
“We need to decide how to best protect your safety,” Dr. B said. “Even though Overdrake probably doesn’t see you as a threat, you’re still a potential liability to him. And now that you know of his existence, he might not be so willing to let you live in peace.”
“I don’t know of his existence,” Leo said with frustration. “I only know what you’ve told me and I’m not sure how much to believe about that. I’m just supposed to accept that my memories are wrong and things I don’t remember happened?”
Why was it so hard for him to accept? Jesse leaned forward over the table. “We showed our powers to you. I flew with you down on the street. You saw Bess’s shield knocked into Ryan. How can you doubt what we’re telling you?”
“Yeah,” Leo said. “I saw you do some weird stuff. But I’ve also seen magicians saw women in half and make people disappear. Just because I can’t explain it, doesn’t mean you’re telling me the truth.”
Bess folded her arms. “I can hit you with my shield again if you’d like.”
He glared at her. “Don’t do that anymore. It’s annoying.”
Again? Apparently Jesse had missed a few things while he drove here.
“You saw Ryan pull a gun on us,” Jesse said. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”
Leo picked up a fry and took a bite. “Maybe he was trying to protect me because the two of you were dragging me off somewhere. I know him a lot better than I know you. You’re completely different people than I thought.”
Best let out a long breath. “You do know us, Leo. We’ve been your friends for years.”
“According to you, the friends I knew from camp were different from the friends I actually remember. You want me to believe I had a completely different life that I don’t remember.” He finished the fry and took another. “How much food do you need to have in your stomach to dilute the effects of alcohol?”
“I don’t know,” Bess said, “but I think you’ve had enough coffee. You’re shaking.”
“The caffeine isn’t why I’m shaking.”
“We need to talk about your safety,” Dr. B said trying to gently turn the conversation back to his original topic.
Leo made a sound that was half grunt, half laugh. “You want me to trust you with my safety? You’re the ones that were running from the police and jumping off rooftops.” He leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. “Man, are they going to charge me with fleeing from the police?”
“I doubt it,” Jesse said. “There’s probably video to show that you weren’t acting on your own accord.”
Dr. B steepled his fingers on the table. “We can move your family and provide you with a new identity so that Overdrake won’t know how to find you. However, you’ll have to break ties with everyone you know. As we’ve seen from Ryan, some of them could be operatives for Overdrake.
Leo lifted his hands, protesting the idea. “You want me to give up my whole life?”
Pretty much, Jesse thought. That’s the cost. That’s what we’ve all had to do. But confirming this wouldn’t make Leo feel better.
“I want you to give up your life,” Dr. B said, “in order to protect it.”
“I can protect my life just fine.” Leo held his hand, palm upwards, to Dr. B. “Now if you give me my phone back, I’ll call for a ride home.”
Dr. B. reached into his pockets, took Leo’s phone from one and the battery from the other. He handed them both to Leo. “Once you’ve had some time to think about what we’ve told you, we’ll contact you again.”
“Right,” Leo pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “I’ll keep a lookout for the bat signal.”
Jesse rubbed his forehead. This had all gone so badly and now Leo was leaving, still unconvinced about everything they’d told him. How could he just ignore the facts?
Leo took three steps toward the door then thudded against Bess’s shield. He cursed and rubbed his nose. “Would you stop that?”
“At least buy some Ling Zhi and start taking it,” she said.
“Fine,” he said, still facing toward the door. “Just let me go.”
She took a sip of her water. “You know I can tell when you’re lying.”
“I’ll take them,” Leo said louder then marched forward, one hand lifted in front of him to check for shields.
Bess leaned toward her father and lowered her voice. “We can’t let him leave. Do something.”
Dr. B looked at Leo’s retreating back with the mournful expression. “He has a choice in the matter. I can’t make him choose us.”
“But his life is in danger,” she persisted. “Sometimes you have to kidnap someone for their own good.”
Dr. B shook his head. “If we forced him to come with us the FBI would investigate and we would put our whole operation at risk. And what for? Leo would hate us.” He let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll have some of our people keep an eye on him and help him if he’s in trouble. We can’t do more than that.”
Leo opened the café door and strode outside, phone in hand, without looking back at them.
He was gone and they might never see him again. Overdrake might make sure of that.
Bess opened her mouth to speak, then swallowed the words instead. She put her elbows on the table, buried her face in her hands, and began to cry. Jesse reached over and rubbed her back in consolation.
Even though they’d done their best, they’d failed. He hated that he couldn’t change that fact, and he hated that he could do nothing to make Bess feel better.