As soon as I saw the words appear on the screens, I knew I could rule out Charlie. The theatrics weren’t her style. That narrowed it down considerably.
Gabriel? I knew he was looking for Zoe. Was he the type to make a show out of it? Even if he was, he wouldn’t risk timing it when all three of us were here. He wasn’t interested in Sabrina or me. It didn’t make sense.
It had to be someone who wanted the three of us. That made it painfully obvious. The only two people I wanted to see less than Charlie. My chest ached just from the memory.
A series of explosions signalled the breaching of our outer defences. I knew Zoe had the place booby-trapped, had considered adding a few mechanisms of my own. Wouldn’t have made a difference. Within a minute, the building was swarmed with gang thugs, armed like soldiers. The Stars.
Sabrina changed in a heartbeat, her skin paling, her hair lightening, her body elongating and her nails growing. Zoe had tensed up, and I got the impression she was struggling to contain her rage. Her sanctuary had been violated. I could understand.
The gang-soldiers surrounded us, not looking nearly as afraid as they should have. Their faces were concealed, but their body language was confident, almost arrogant, every last one of them. They knew something I didn’t, that was the only explanation.
A wisp of smoke congealed in the centre of the room, quickly taking the form of a young woman. She solidified, a teenage girl dressed entirely in black, her neck and mouth concealed, a vicious looking knife held in her left hand. Her eyes settled on me, fear and anger and hatred all emerging in equal measure.
She vanished in another puff of smoke, appearing in front of me in the same second. Her hand wrapped around my throat, and before I could react, the world around me faded to black, and everything was silent.
The world snapped back into place with an almost physical impact, but it wasn’t the same. My eyes scanned around me, looking for any identifiable feature. It didn’t take long.
We were on the roof. She’d teleported us straight up. Why so close? Was her range that limited? Was that a weakness I could exploit?
To my surprise, she let go of me, taking a couple of steps back. She didn’t want to kill me? What else could it be? Was she just removing me from the fight? No, she’d have taken me further to do that, even if she had to do multiple hops. Besides, I was the least dangerous of the three of us, in that situation. Unprepared and exhausted? I was basically useless.
I knew she didn’t want to talk. Did she want to show me something? Was removing me just a demonstration of her power? I already knew she could blink, and letting me see it up close, experience it, all she was doing was giving me the tools to fight against it. Assuming I survived this fight, at least. Was she showing the other two?
Protecting me? No, there was no way. She had no love for me. Her partner had even less. If they weren’t trying to kill me, it was because they wanted something from me.
Miss Murder, as she was going by, reached into a concealed fold in her black top. I stood my ground, not entirely sure what to expect.
“Hello, Rachel,” a distorted voice said, coming from her general direction. It wasn’t her voice, though. I recognised it, even through the filter. It was him. The Celestial. Leader of the Stars, the most powerful gang in the city, especially now.
The man who was responsible for poisoning me.
“Why are you disguising your voice?” I asked, trying to read Miss Murder’s body language. She kept very deliberately still. “You know I know who you are.”
“But anyone who might be listening in doesn’t,” he replied.
“And what’s to stop me revealing your identity anyway?” I asked, and saw Miss Murder tense. So, her secret identity was important to her? Interesting.
“That would cut this conversation unfortunately short,” the Celestial replied, already sounding impatient. That was good. He was far less dangerous when he didn’t feel in control, and I knew exactly how to press his buttons.
“Not seeing a downside,” I said, wondering if he could see my smirk. He was almost certainly watching through some kind of video feed.
“I believe we can help each other, Rachel,” he said, in a perfect imitation of a supervillain. I wondered if that was how he saw himself. Or the dark saviour of the city? That seemed more his flavour.
So, he was trying to recruit me? Why would he ever think I would want to work for him? Or even with him? He’d need something incredible to even entice me.
“I have resources-” he began, but I cut him off.
“Don’t care.” Even as I spoke, I kept processing, the pieces falling together. I realised what it was he had. “Wait. No. That’s not what you mean. You have her.” My heart was pounding. I was livid. That wasn’t fair. “You have Haylie, and you’re stumped. So of course you’d come to me.”
No trace of surprise on Miss Murder’s face, at least, the half of it I could see. She knew what the Celestial was offering. She knew I’d figure it out before he told me.
“You’ll never get another opportunity like this,” he said, still acting like he had control of the situation. He didn’t. He’d played his hand too early, and I was going to make him regret it.
“You’re an idiot. Do you have any idea what I could do, if I had access-” I stopped. Recomposed myself. “Of course you do. And you’re already prepared for it.”
He was shooting himself in the foot. The one thing he had to bargain with, the one thing I actually wanted, he knew he couldn’t actually give me. It was far too dangerous for him. Hell, it might have been dangerous for me.
“Her power is mine, needs to be mine,” he said evenly. “But you would see enough, learn enough to make it worth your while.”
How did he see this going? He needed my help, but anything I was able to help him with, I could weaponise, would use against him. It would be a desperate race to the end, him trying to get enough out of me to be useful before he killed me, or before I managed to turn the tables and use it against him.
I didn’t want to get stuck like that. Not that I wasn’t confident I could win, but I had my own agenda to work towards.
“Or, I could just kill you,” I said casually, but I still saw Miss Murder twitch. How hard was it for her to just stand there, completely still, nothing more than a glorified handset? How much did it gall her to be a puppet for him, after everything?
There was a surprising pause before he replied. When he did, it was with more reservation and humility than I was prepared for.
“As much as I deserve that,” he said, “you’d fail. You know you’d fail.”
Regret? No, just a ploy. Trying to cultivate a sense of trust and honesty, make me easier to manipulate.
He was right, though. I wouldn’t have a chance of killing him, not the way things were now. He was protected by more than just his gang, more than his supernatural sidekick. He had information, power, money, secrets. I had a few half-baked gadgets.
“Maybe now,” I conceded. “But I’ll keep building, keep preparing.”
“I’ll figure her out before then,” he told me, fully confident. He might have been right about that, too. I had no idea how close he was to being able to actually use her.
“I have allies,” I said, knowing I was reaching. Dammit, he had me on the back foot all of a sudden. How had that happened?
“Tenuous at best,” he said, calling my bluff. I growled. “Besides, they’re already dead.”
How long had we been speaking? A couple of minutes? More?
“You’re more arrogant than I thought. Your thugs don’t stand a chance against Zoe or-“
“You know me well enough to know that I had a plan,” he interrupted. “I know what they’re capable of.”
Frustratingly, I knew there had to be truth to that. Attacking Zoe in her base of operations was a stupid, reckless move, and he wouldn’t have done it if he wasn’t absolutely sure he’d be successful. There was a good chance Zoe and Sabrina really were already dead, or captured. What a terrifying notion.
“Well, even if you’re right, I won’t lose any sleep over it,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.
“You’re alone now,” he pushed, and I realised Miss Murder was enjoying this. I glared at her. “Or, do you trust Charlie more than me?” he continued. A chill ran down my spine. “Would you go back to her?”
He wasn’t just taunting me, he was threatening me. Threatening me using Charlie. The conversation was officially over.
“Here’s what I’m going to do,” I told him. “First, I’m going to kill your girlfriend, here. Then I’m going to check on my heavy-hitters. If they’re alive, you’re fucked. If they’re dead, I’m going to disappear, and I’m going to dedicate every waking hour to building the tools I need to destroy you. Then, you’re fucked.”
I smiled at the momentary panic on Miss Murder’s face when I said I was going to kill her. For all her confidence, she was wary of me. Good.
“You’re not a killer, Rachel,” the Celestial responded after a pause, trying and failing to call my bluff.
“Not usually,” I conceded. “But you? You, I could kill. Happily.”
“I’m disappointed, Rachel.”
“Cry me a river,” I snapped, letting adrenaline flood my system.
“I will own this city,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do about that.”
“Fucking watch me,” I snarled.
No hesitation this time. “Miss Murder? Kill her.”