Ms. Maple, Chapter Three

By Garon Whited

Bronze was thirsty after running a locomotive.  She expanded the truck’s gas tank while we looked for a filling station.  She then drank the tank dry on a mere sixty-mile drive to Big Spring.  I filled it again before we parked.  I understood why she was thirsty.

We parked behind a diner so she could idle and rest.  The dog wasn’t in great shape, but I gave him some water while we were at the filling station and I promised him food.  He agreed he was too tired to go anywhere, but he licked my hand.

Melody and I went into the diner.  There were two other patrons in the pre-dawn hour, one waitress, and the cook.  All of them looked at us as we came in.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  I was still dressed for burglary and Melody was in silk pajamas, a quilted robe, and slip-on flats.  At least she had the sense not to grab anything with heels for our escape.  Melody could have used a hair brush.  I don’t show up in mirrors at night, so I couldn’t be sure about my own hair, but it was a safe bet we were both rumpled.

We snagged a corner booth and a tired-looking waitress came over, pulling a pad from her apron pocket.

“You’re early for the breakfast specials,” she said.  “You want to wait?”

“Not me.  Melody?”

“You’re buying?”

“Yep.”

“Give me a minute to look at the menu.”

“Take your time, honey.”  The waitress—nametag: Flora—ambled back behind the counter.  As she did, another uniformed lady came in, still yawning, obviously coming on-shift now or shortly.  The timing worked in my favor.  I felt the first warning tingles of sunrise.

“I’ll be in the bathroom for a bit,” I told Melody.  “Now, before I say anything you might regard as rude, would it be reasonable for me to ask you not to try and steal my truck?”

She pursed her lips and thought.

“All right, I agree.  I’m not sure it’s possible to steal it, anyway.”

“Considering the driver is wearing it, I have to admit I don’t see how you could.  I’m not sure I could.”

“And I want to talk to you about that, too.  Right now, I’m too hungry to run out on you.”

“That’s a reason I can understand.  If you’d be so kind, when Flora comes back, would you order me one of everything?”

“Everything what?”

“One orange juice, one milk, one water, one side of sausage, one side of bacon, one order of pancakes, one waffle… one of everything.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Maybe, but the dog needs to eat, too.”

“Uh… hmm.  Okay, I guess.  You’re not planning to stiff me for the check, just to get some sort of revenge, are you?”

“If I was after revenge, you’d still be on fire.”

“When was I on fire?”

“Never, but I could easily change that.  See?  I’m not after revenge.  But here’s some money to ease your mind.  If that won’t cover it, I’ve got more.”

“Thank you.”

I went to the men’s room and stayed there for a while.  I had a number of things to do, but most of them involved transformation byproducts and air filtration.  People half-expect a toilet to smell bad, but not this bad.  I was proactive about it to avoid anyone checking to see what died.  If they opened the door, they might let in enough sunlight to cause ignition, and I hate that.

While undergoing my morning transformation, I took my mind off it by concentrating on a couple of fairly simple spells.  Bronze eats a lot of things and fuel is only one.  For a balanced diet, she needs other sources of energy.  My spells would intercept some sunlight and convert it into energies Bronze could consume.

When I returned to the table, Melody had arranged everything quite carefully before she started on her own breakfast.

“They can’t fit everything on the table at once,” she told me.  “I’m told she’ll bring more when you make room.”

“I like this place.  Flora’s getting a huge tip.”

Now that it was daylight out and I was capable of eating human food again…

Hmm.  I don’t think I like the phrasing.  Human food?  Was the human the food, or was the food characteristic of what humans found acceptable?  Maybe I should say I was capable of eating food like a human?  No, the food could still be a human.  I could eat what mortals ate?  There we go.

…I dug in like a junkyard shredding machine.  Chomp, chomp, chomp.  It had been a busy night and I hadn’t had anything but an involuntary half pint of dog blood.  I absorbed it through my skin, thank goodness.  I don’t care for the taste.

Melody watched me eat while trying not to be obvious.  Other patrons trickled in with the morning light.  They were equally curious and less concerned with politeness.  Some of them openly stared.

Empty plates went away.  Full ones arrived.  Flora looked at me disbelievingly as she kept replacing dishes.  I don’t think she expected to ever see anyone work their way through the entire menu in one sitting, much less so quickly.

I’m not a bottomless hole, but I play one at night.  So does my cloak.  During the day, I have a maximum capacity and digestion I can’t even begin to explain.

“So,” I said, somewhat muffled by butter, syrup, and waffle, “explain the problem.”

“You’re not going to believe—” she began, and stopped.  We traded looks.  I could tell she was remembering a demonic locomotive.  I understood her initial impulse.  If your story is utterly incredible and no one ever believes you, your standard opening is designed to manage expectations.

“I think I might,” I said, mildly.  “It’s only a question of whether or not I trust you to tell the truth.  Any level of weirdness won’t faze me at all.  Trust me.”

“You know, I think I believe you.  Okay.  It all comes down to my son.  He’s sick, and has been for a while.”  She picked at her eggs, no longer interested in eating.  “I’ve tried every hospital I can and nobody can do anything for him.  I’ve tried prayer.  I’ve tried faith healers.  I even tried a voodoo hoodoo whatever-it-is.  I’d take him to Lourdes if he was well enough to travel.  Since he can’t, I traveled, looking everywhere for anything, anything at all, that might be able to help him.”

“And that’s where Clyde comes in?”

“Yes.  Somehow, he’s got hold of a… I’m not sure what it is.  It looks like a heart made of rose quartz.  Inside it is a little thing, like a person with wings.  You hold the heart-thing in your hands and make a wish and the fairy inside grants the wish.”

“You’re sure it’s a fairy?”

“It says it is.”

“Fair enough.  Why didn’t you wish your son back to health the moment you had it in hand?”

“The fairy didn’t know who my son was.”

“It matters?”

“I didn’t make the rules,” she informed me.  “I asked how many wishes were left and it said there was only one.  I realized I would have to get it to my son and make the third wish.  I almost did, too, except the car I stole turned into a bucket of rust and loose bolts.”

“Turned into?” I prompted, still sucking up calories.

“It was a fast car when I stole it.  It went from glossy smooth to rusty crud in the time it took to go a hundred miles.  It didn’t start changing immediately,” she added.  “I got halfway to El Paso before it started to spoil like a hot banana.  I don’t know why.”

I chewed a muffin while I thought it over.  Fairy magic can’t actually affect iron, but it might be able to cloak it in a glamour.  You’re driving around town in a fantastic car, enjoying the drive, while the rubber of the wheels is forced to rotate, dragging the rest of the car with it.  It all looks good, sounds good, feels good, but it’s a clunker with a dead engine underneath it all.  I didn’t see a reason to doubt it could work that way.

If it did, why did the glamour wear off?  Too far away from the owner, maybe?  If he wished for his car to be a hotrod, did it slowly become Melody’s car after she stole it—possession being nine-tenths of mortal law, possibly more for the fae—and that broke the glamour?

“Okay,” I said, finally.  “I don’t know how he’s conned a fairy into doing his bidding, but no faerie creature I know of likes granting wishes.  It’s exhausting, at minimum, and sometimes actively bad for them.”

“All I want is one wish,” Melody replied.  “I’m not interested in wealth or power or any of that.  I’ve spent everything I have on him, and I’ll steal whatever I have to.  As it is, I’ll dodge creditors until my dying day and I won’t care a damn about it.  But my son has to survive.  Period, full stop, end of story.”

“I can work with that.  As long as your son is cured, do you have any objection to the fairy going free?”

“I don’t care one way or the other.”

“You’ve got one, and only one, priority.  I understand.  Okay.  My priority is freeing the fairy, with the proviso of getting your son healthy again.  Can we work together?”

“You’re willing to help me?  After all this?”

“Why not?  You did what you had to do.  It was inconvenient, but not harmful.  Given the stakes involved, I can sympathize.  Now I have an interest, too.”

“Freeing the fairy?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I get along with them.  I’d like to continue to get along with them.  One of them was a friend of mine.  If she was locked in a crystal heart and forced to grant wishes, I would hope someone would free her.”

“How do you plan to see my son cured if you’re going to free the one who can do it?”

“I have resources.”

“What sort of resources?”

“Have you met my truck?”

Melody was silent for a moment.  I gulped orange juice.

“Okay, you’ve made your point,” she said, finally.  “I still can’t… I have to know Roddy will be all right.  I can’t take your word for it when you say you’re in it to free the one being who can fix everything.”

“You have limited choices,” I pointed out.  “First, you can get up, walk away, and do whatever you can.  We’ll have a race to see who gets to the fairy first.

“Second, you can work with me.  There’s a lot to sort out and some agreements to be reached, but then we’ll both get what we want.

“The second way requires a little trust.  I admit it.  I don’t fully trust you because you’re desperate, single-minded, and willing to ignore any harm you do for the sake of your child.  I know how dangerous that makes you.  Believe me.  But you don’t trust me completely, either.  I have powers you don’t understand, allies you cannot see, and resources you can’t even guess at.

“So,” I finished, as I cut up a stack of pancakes, “I’ll trust you as much as you’ll trust me.  If it’s enough, we’ll work together.  If not, you can walk away and I’ll pick up the check.”

Melody, reminded of her food, ate a few bites in silence.  Flora warmed up her coffee.

“I go off-shift in a few minutes, hon,” she told me.  “Christine will take over.”

“Thank you.”  I tipped her in advance.  “You’ve been great.  Do I call her ‘Christine’ or ‘Chrissy’?”

“She prefers ‘Chrissy’.”

“Got it.  Thank you.”

Flora went back to the counter.  Chrissy and another waitress were busy with their tables in the breakfast rush, but Chrissy smiled in my direction.  I nodded and turned back to Melody.

“Still thinking?”

“Yes.”

“Care to share?”

“I’m thinking I’m more likely to get the fairy if I have your help,” she said, slowly, “but the risk is you’ll break the cage and let it go.  But you say we can swing the deal and cure Roddy.  You admit you want to set it free, though.  Admitting it up front means you’re not lying about it and trying to trick me.”

“How do you figure?”

“If you were trying to use me to get the fairy freed, you wouldn’t admit it.  You’d claim to be on my side to cure Roddy, then, once we had the caged fairy, you’d break it out without warning me.  That’s why I think you’re being honest—but your goals and mine aren’t the same.”

“It is a pickle, isn’t it?  Look, I give you my word.  Roddy will be fine.  I don’t know about the fairy—that involves a lot of resistance.  If I have to do this with sheer brute force, I will.  With a little help, I might not have to.”

“Your word,” she sneered.  “That’s it?”

I put down my knife and fork.  I folded my hands on the edge of the table.  I looked at her.

“If you won’t take my word,” I said, softly, “why should I trust yours?  In fact,” I said, more briskly, “the more I think about it, the more I think I should handle this on my own.  You’re going to be a liability because you won’t be a partner.  You’ll be on your own, happy to let me do whatever I can to further your own agenda—not our agenda.  Since you won’t be a team player, you’ll betray me to Clyde or simply screw me over to get what you want, like any thief who stabs his accomplices in the back to claim the treasure for himself.

“Beat it, lady.  You’re worse than useless; you’re effectively working for Clyde whether you realize it or not.  Scram.”

I waved at Chrissy.  She nodded and kept writing down her latest customer’s order.

“You bastard,” Melody replied, teeth clenched.

“Technically?  I doubt it, but I can’t say for certain.  I understand your irritation, though—bitch.  Shall we degenerate into name-calling, making faces, and stamping our wittle feetsies before we part?  I have several languages’ worth of insults, if you like.”

Melody stood up and stalked out.  Chrissy came over with a concerned look on her face.

“Everything all right?”

“Not yet,” I told her.  “I’d like a to-go order of triple,” I checked them off on my fingers, “ham, sausage, bacon, and scrambled eggs, please.  Also, a tall to-go cup of water.  And the check.”  I fished out a roll of bills and thumbed through it, wondering what denominations I’d summoned.

“I’ll put your order right in.  Can I take some of these dishes?”

I came around the diner with a dog’s breakfast and saw Melody sitting beside Bronze.  Her eyes were red and one sleeve of her robe was wet.

Bronze informed me all was well.  She hadn’t even tried to get inside, just sat down on the running board on the shady side and cried.

I communicated to Bronze the reasons Melody was trying so hard.  Bronze could appreciate Melody’s motive.  If it had been us, running hell-for-leather across half the country to save Phoebe… yeah, well… okay.  Melody was provisionally forgiven.  Bronze still didn’t like her, but couldn’t hold a grudge once she understood.

It’s hard to hate someone when you empathize with them.

The dog, meanwhile, was still an unhappy dog.  The wound closed up and sealed, but the regeneration and blood production cost a lot of metabolic energy.  I fed it some of the meat.  While it struggled to eat, there in the bed of Bronze’s pickup, I borrowed a hubcap for a dog bowl.  The good boy lapped up a lot of water.  I helped him down and carried him to a runoff drain beside the parking area.

I didn’t have a pooper-scooper with me.  It was the best I could do at the moment.

With his business concluded, I helped him back to the bed of the truck.  He lay down on the shady side and went right back to sleep.  Getting shot really takes it out of a guy.

Melody watched me the whole time.  She didn’t say a word.  I ignored her and opened the door of the cab.

“John?”

I stopped and looked back at her.  She stood up and brushed off the back of her robe.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“You’re in a tough spot,” I agreed, and climbed in.

“You don’t understand!” she said, moving to the window.  I rolled it down.

“Don’t I?”

“I don’t have much money, no car, and nobody around here I can call.”

“Well, I’m glad you’ve got at least some money,” I told her, stinging her with the knowledge it was the cash I gave her because she didn’t trust me to pay for breakfast.  I didn’t ask for it back, and she felt it.

“I suppose,” I went on, “your next move is to call Clyde and offer information in exchange for something.  More money, some goodwill, maybe a chance to get inside his house without being stuck there.  Then I’d really have problems—and all my problems come from being generous and stupid by helping you.  And you want me to repeat my blunder?”

“Maybe I deserve that,” she replied, stiffly.  “I’ve been thinking about it.  There’s something to what you said, even if you don’t understand it fully.  I can admit that.  But can you admit my son doesn’t deserve to die?”

“How old is Roddy?”

“Six.”

Internally, I called down the wrath of at least three dozen gods and used an awful lot of four-letter words in the process.

I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and looked out the windshield.  Melody kept her mouth shut, recognizing my brain hamster was sprinting in its thinking wheel.

“Fine.  I’ll take care of it.  Let me get you a few thousand dollars and you can make your way back to Roddy’s bedside.  I’ll be along directly to—”

“No!”

“No?”

“I mean, I can’t just go sit by his bed and wait!  I can’t!  I have to do something!”

I drummed my fingers some more.  She laid her hand on the arm I rested on the door.

“Listen?” she suggested.

Damn it.  Including her is going to limit me, I thought.

On the other hand, doing this the hard way… Can I do this in a way that should be entertaining, rather than brutal and practical?  When was the last time I did something just for the fun of it, instead of in the most efficient manner possible?

I didn’t like the fact I couldn’t say for sure.

“All right.  I’m listening.”

“I don’t know of any other way to cure my son.  None.  There isn’t another.  This magic, this wish, is the only thing I know of.  If I don’t do this, I don’t have a child.  So I am doing this.  I’m not going to… you know… betray you to Clyde or anything like that.  But I’m going into his estate again even if it takes dynamite.  You can either work with me or on your own.  Work on your own and we may screw each other up.  Work with me and maybe we can do something together we couldn’t do alone.  Is that good enough for you?”

I let my hamster do its thing.  It’s a pretty speedy little guy.

“I guess we’ll find out.  Climb in.”

She circled the truck and Bronze let her in.  Melody clicked her seat belt.

“What do we do now?”

“First, we find a clothes store.  We’ll discuss what sort of skills you have and what role you’ll play after we get you dressed for trouble.”

We made several stops.  Not only did she need regular clothes, she wanted things from the Army surplus store.  Even though I was paying, I didn’t argue.  I gave her money and she shopped.  I waited in the truck.  Bronze provided air conditioning, but I augmented this with a personal cooling spell—a requirement for me, especially in the Texas heat.  I also made use of a magic mirror.

Roddy wasn’t hard to find.  I already knew which hospital he was in, and I had his mother intermittently available for sympathetic magic.

His problem wasn’t something I’d seen before.  It was obviously a tumor, but, equally obviously, it was a slow-growing one.  Here in the 1950s, it wasn’t exactly inoperable, but there was no way they could get it all.  It grew upward, inside the spinal column, reminding me of fungal filaments.  I doubted Roddy was in any pain, but he obviously couldn’t move much, either.

Yeah, I could fix it.  I’ve been to worlds with advanced medical technology.  I also happen to be a better-than-fair wizard.  As a completely last-ditch option, I could drain the vital essence out of the cancerous cells and kill the tumor where it grew.  The problem, of course, was killing the tumor would only save his life.  Regenerating his spinal nerves would be a completely different phase of his cure.

Running a tissue sample through an analyzer would also be helpful.  Whatever bit of DNA made him susceptible to such a mutation in the first place needed to be addressed.  Remission is great, but immunity is better.

Melody came out to the truck with a loaded duffel bag.  Bronze took us to the nearest motel.  We needed a table for our planning.  I had a good look at the layout of the Weatherman estate, so I could sketch the outside, but Melody had been in the house and knew her way around.  She sketched what she knew of the place.

“He keeps it up here,” she said, pointing at a second-floor room.  “It’s on a pedestal.  There’s a brass cage bolted to the top.  It requires either keys or bolt cutters to get it open.”

“Any idea why the goons had barbed wire around the portable cage?”

“My only guess is they were worried about containment, in case the crystal cracked.  If they could get it in the cage at all… well, brass won’t harm it, but barbed wire is steel.  That might be enough to keep it from testing the bars.”

“Why not just carry it in a sack?”

“Because the crystal can be broken.  And if you’re carrying it, any wish you utter, it will try to grant.”

“Mmm.  I guess they need a carrying case of some sort.  I presume the room is guarded?”

“That whole half of the floor had only one door, and it was guarded.  Also, this room, here, is his bedroom, so you also have to go through it to get to the cage.”

“What’s through these three doors?”

“That one leads to the master bathroom.  That one is a walk-in closet.  On this side, this one leads to a private study.”

“I notice the cage room and the study don’t have windows.”

“Would you want a window in a vault?”

“No, I wouldn’t.  But would you want a window in your study?  The bedroom has one.”

“Maybe he doesn’t like the early-morning light.  The outer wall faces east.”

“Fair enough.  I’m puzzled as to why he has a room on the second floor for his treasure.  There’s an outer wall someone could go through.  There are interior walls—wait.  Do you know if the interior walls are reinforced?  Or are they just wooden framing with gypsum panels and wallpaper?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t plan on smashing my way in.”

“Let us assume they are more durable than is usual,” I suggested.  “Did he also think to reinforce the floor and the ceiling?  What’s stopping us from cutting a hole in the attic floor and dropping into his super-precious vault?  Or cutting a hole in the ground-floor ceiling and dropping his treasure straight out of his vault?”

“Nothing I know of.”

“I don’t like it.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s poor security.  Sure, he has walls and guards.  Sure, it’s unlikely anyone knows what he keeps there.  But having a vault there seems more vulnerable to me.  Shouldn’t it be down in the basement, behind six feet of concrete and a couple of steel doors?”

“I didn’t see a door to a basement.  He might not have one.”

“He should have included one in his wishing.  I guess a second-floor vault might be his only way to keep it off the ground floor.  But why not put it in the attic, where it would be even harder to get to?  He could put steel shutters inside the windows, or brick them up.”

“Maybe he wants to keep it close to himself?  Someplace convenient for him, in case he decides on a final wish?”

“Could be.”

“You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not.  I’m thinking about how I would do it.”

“And you’re good at designing vaults?”

I thought about the Vault, where I keep some souvenirs.

“I think so, yes.  I can get a little paranoid, once in a while.”

“Maybe he’s not as paranoid,” Melody offered.  “Or maybe he doesn’t trust anyone to design a secure location for him.  If you hire an architect for your pyramid, do you have to kill the architect to keep your traps a secret?  That could be a problem.  So he’s done what he can think of—and he’s not very good at it.”

“It’s possible.  No doubt we’ll run into unforeseen difficulties, but let us go with that thought for now.  You say there was one guard here?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s count on two.  And one here, in the living area.  I doubt he’ll have one in his bedroom or inside the vault.”

“I agree.  But he’s got a lot of people roaming the place, too.  Here, look at the ground floor.  I’ve been in every room of that.  Nobody has a fixed post, but there are always some armed men wandering around, ‘patrolling’ when they aren’t in the kitchen.”

“Not the most disciplined security in the world, but half a dozen guys with guns make a fairly effective force.  And more in the other buildings.  Most of them survived the midnight chase.”

We consulted our sketched maps and did tallies on the guards and patrols.  Then we doubled them.  No doubt recent events had Mr. Weatherman a trifle on edge.

As it turns out, Melody was not terribly skilled at being a thief, murderer, or terrorist.  She was in good physical condition and had enough motivation to move mountains, but she was in no sense a professional.  Even so, she refused to be left behind while I did all the work.

I think she had two reasons.  First, as she said, she had been on this job to save her child for long enough to make it impossible to quit.  Sitting and waiting was no longer something she could do.  I could respect that.

Second, she didn’t completely trust me not to crack open a faerie crystal the instant I saw it.  If our positions were reversed, I don’t know if I’d trust her.  Fair is fair.

We laid our plans accordingly.

I sent out for an additional outfit for her.  My explanation was “I have something in the trunk of my car that might fit you.”  I didn’t want to explain.

I could have called up a bunch of spiders and had them crawl all over her to weave a suit of arachnid fibers for her, but most people can’t sit still for that.  Phoebe had no problem with it, aside from the way they tickled, but she also understood the spiders were my spiders.  So I sent out for some tailored body armor.  Think of it like bulletproof Spandex, under her regular clothes.  I even got her socks, gloves, and a balaclava.

This is going to stop a bullet?” she asked, examining the fabric.

“This stuff will stop any small arms fire from this decade,” I assured her.  “Look at it this way.  Even if it only slows down a bullet, at least it’s not tearing through you as deep.  Better to have it.”

She agreed and went into the bathroom to change.  When she came out, I shot her.

I used a suppressor.  Nobody outside noticed.

Melody sat down on one of the beds, hand pressed to her side.

“That hurt!”

“Of course it did.  You were shot.”

“I thought you said this stuff would stop a bullet!”

“It did.  You’re bruised, not bleeding.”

“You didn’t have to shoot me!”

“Yes, I did.  You have to know what to expect.  Being shot is going to hurt.  It won’t kill you, but you’ll feel it.  You’re bulletproof, not invulnerable.  And now you won’t be overconfident.”

“I’m not sure I like you.”

“I’m not sure you should.  Sometimes I don’t.  Now, do you have any problems with killing a guard, murdering Clyde, or blowing holes in anyone else in your way?”

“Yes and no.”

I sat down on the cheap motel chair, carefully.  It held me.

“Okay.  I need to know what I’m working with.  Explain.”

“I’m sure I can shoot anyone I have to.  I’m not sure how desperately I have to before I can shoot.  Does that make any sense?”

“You know you can do it, but they’ll have to leave you no choice?”

“That’s right.”

“I can understand that.  People often have to be pushed, and pushed hard, before they accept the idea of killing someone else.  In this situation, you’re going to need to overcome it.”

“How?”

“My suggestion is to remember this:  Anyone in your way is preventing you from saving your child.  They are being paid to shoot you.  They are actively trying to let Roddy die a slow, painful death, and they don’t care who you are.  They will kill you—and therefore Roddy—if you do not kill them first.”

“That’s not how—”

Yes,” I interrupted.  “Yes, it is.  You have decided to do this because it’s the only way to save your son’s life.  They have decided to stop you.  If they stop you, they kill Roddy.  Now, take as long as you need to grasp that, and grasp it thoroughly.  If you’re doing this, you’re going to go in with everything you have.  If you half-ass this—if you faint at the sight of blood, or fail to kill someone because you’re a fainting flower female, or just because you’re too stupid to understand you’re about to be in a life-or-death battle—you are giving up on Roddy’s life.  It’s them or Roddy.  You have to pick one and you have to be willing to go all the way and back again.

“You can go to pieces afterward,” I added.  “You can have your breakdown in church and weep in a confessional.  You can walk into a rubber-wall hospital and collapse in the lobby.  But until your kid stands up on his own two feet, you have to be made of cold steel.”

Melody was a determined lady.  She’d obviously done things to get this far in her quest.  Whatever else she was, she wasn’t a killer.  I watched as she thought about what I’d said and fitted it all together with our situation.  She opened her mouth a couple of times to say something, then closed it again as she answered herself.

It’s not a pretty sight, watching someone let go of their moral qualms.  Something of light and beauty goes out of the world when a person decides to go down that road.  I hoped she would be able to find her way back to it.

“I understand,” she said, and this time I believed her.

“Good.  Let me get you a gun.”

I fetched her a weapon nicknamed a “Wheezy.”  It was, in essence, an advanced version of the De Lisle carbine.  The whole point of it was to be as quiet as possible, and the designers did an excellent job.  Combined with subsonic ammunition, it was no louder than a slap in the face—and much more lethal.  I went to the trouble of getting specialized fragmentation bullets, too.  Subsonic rounds don’t always mushroom properly, but a bullet that breaks into a half-dozen sharp little fragments, all spreading out from the point of impact and tumbling through flesh?  Ouch.

We drilled on how to use it and especially on how to reload in a hurry.  If she had to use it, I wanted her to know what she was doing.

“It never occurred to me what you might have in the trunk of your car,” she confessed.  “What else do you have in there?”

“You’d be surprised.  Now, I have to go make sure we’re not interrupted tonight.  I also have to get a decoy vehicle ready and make other preparations.  I suggest you get some sleep.”

“I’m not sleepy.”

“You’re anxious and tired.  If you lay down, you’ll be asleep in ten minutes.  I promise I’ll wake you when I bring back dinner.”

“Promise?”

“I promised already.  I didn’t go to all this trouble on your behalf just to get my face shot off in a daring daylight raid.  Have a nap.  I’ll bring back food and we’ll go be bad guys after dark.”

I did bring food.  I also got a lot done in preparation for the upcoming assault.

Assault?  Yes.

Why not a sneaky, stealthy mission to infiltrate the estate, sneak past the guards, pick all the locks, achieve the objective, and ninja our way out again, all undetected?  Because Melody wasn’t a professional.  Neither was I, for that matter, but I was a hell of a lot better at it than she was.  I couldn’t do it with her tagging along, so I planned around her limitations.

My job was to distract everyone—and I do mean everyone.  This would let Melody get into the house and, hopefully, close to the goal.  I doubted she would make it there without being spotted, but that’s why I drilled her on how to use a Wheezy.

Melody drove the BAT-9-mobile to her starting point.  Bronze moved her vehicle into position.  I drove the truck to mine.

The estate looked peaceful.  There were more guards roaming around than before, but we expected that.  There were also some pieces of heavy equipment by the fenceline.  They had begun the process of digging a ditch along the inside of the fence, heaping the spoil on the inside to form a sort of earthworks.  When they finished, it would be impossible to drive any regular car or truck through the fence and onto the property, except through the gate.  Not a bad idea, I thought.

Of course, they weren’t finished.  I doubt they got more than half a day’s work done.  Even if they had finished, it wouldn’t stop Melody, on foot, nor would it stop Bronze.

Bronze and I were parked on someone’s property, well outside the fence line.  A jeep did a slow patrol around the perimeter, but the headlights didn’t reach us, so the driver and his mate could only see what was in front of them.  We weren’t planning to enter along an earthworks section, but Melody did, on foot.  By staying low, she could cut through the bottom of the fence, worm through, and be in the ditch, hidden from the jeep.

Once she was ready, Bronze eased forward in her latest metal suit, getting ready to wake up everyone.

I, on the other hand, got a head start on the body count.

Under normal circumstances, a rifle causes noise in three ways.  First, there’s a bang of expanding gases.  This is what a suppressor—often mislabeled a “silencer”—is for.  It cushions the shock of expanding gases to reduce the noise.  Second, there’s the bullet.  If it’s traveling faster than the speed of sound, it creates a small shockwave—a supersonic boom sized for a bullet.  And third, when the bullet hits something, the impact causes noise.  Imagine shooting a church bell, or putting a bullet through a row of bottles.

I cheat.  With suitable spells, air molecules can be manipulated.  Each of the three major noise conditions must be addressed separately—not to mention the awkwardness of muzzle flashes at night!—but, given time to prepare, it’s not impossible, merely somewhat technical.

I’m a pretty good shot, if I do say so myself.  I’ve had a lot of practice.

The jeep was my first concern.  It was far enough out so a stoppage wouldn’t immediately raise an alarm, and it was most likely to respond to Bronze first.  The driver tried to catch my .50-caliber round with his head, but, sadly, was unable to hold on to it.  A moment later, his friend, highly alarmed, attempted the same thing with his chest, failing in a similar manner.  The jeep, uncontrolled, scraped along a section of fence before it reached a ditched section and half-rolled over.

Meanwhile, nearer the buildings, I targeted people who didn’t have a good line of sight on other people.  Quietly causing them to fall down and stop moving meant they wouldn’t be difficult later.

Four went down without anyone being the wiser.  The fifth, however, was under observation by a friend.  The screaming started then, as did the whistle-blowing.  I shot four more times, hitting twice, before every alarm in creation started clanging and whooping and wailing.

Bronze turned on her headlights and charged forward.

We started with a basic D9 bulldozer.  We added six more headlights, two machine guns, a lot of sheet-metal “armor” for appearances, and a coat of olive drab paint.

I rigged the guns with gas bottles.  When they ran out of ammunition, they could still simulate muzzle flashes.  It was easier than rigging up extended ammunition handling.  There were other gas bottles, here and there, for other special effects.

Bronze belched fire from the diesel exhaust and revved the engine to a roar.  She took her time, since the objective was to get their attention and keep it, rather than actually attack.  She headed straight for the fence, bellowing fit to wake the dead.

Since I was already awake, I took aim at the house.  She blasted away, shooting at anyone she could, and drew every eye.  I picked off people through windows, hoping they would be put down to “stray shots” from the assault vehicle.

Bronze clanked and rumbled forward.  It was a bulldozer, after all.  I have no doubt she could have got the thing up to thirty miles an hour, but it was only designed for about seven.  I think she was doing five.  As a diversion, she did splendidly.

I suspect the survivors of the train wreck weren’t believed.  Their credibility might be improving.

Bronze raised her plow blade as she approached the fence, bringing it down to crush.  Rather than drag a lot of chain link around, she rolled over it and kept coming.

Bullets sparked on her plow blade.  It was the smallest plow blade for the make and model.  I figured it was best since we wanted to give the guards more to shoot at.  They couldn’t hurt her, but they didn’t know that.  She clanked across the lawn like a juggernaut, occasionally jetting fire from the exhausts.

To keep gunners interested, she released small streams of gas where the headlights would illuminate the vapors.  Bullet holes in the cooling system?  She wouldn’t care, but it was important to give people hope.  If their morale broke, they might fall back to the main house, which might be unpleasant for Melody.

I, on the other hand, picked off anyone I could through windows.  When I ran out of targets, I stowed the rifle in the truck and ran in, myself.

At night, I move at the speed of dark.  In small spaces, I can bounce around like a ricochet inside a safe.  I’m not quite so fast in straight-line running, but, if I’m really determined, I’ll catch anything short of a high-end sports car.

I arrived at the house and slowed down by smashing in the front door.  This isn’t a comfortable way to stop, but I regenerate.  Besides, it attracted the attention of anyone still alive in the house.

After a quick tour of the ground floor, I found two men still alive and willing to shoot intruders.  I was delighted.  I hadn’t had a decent drink in a while.  I also cleaned up the bloodstains, but that’s unavoidable.  Fresh blood crawls to me as though on its own.  Usually, this is a good thing.

Upstairs, I found four dead men, all peppered with bullets from close range.  Good for her.  They weren’t all in the same spot.  She had encountered them one or two at a time as she worked inward.

I stared hard at the wall, looking for the glow of living beings.  I may not be able to read them clearly, but I can see the living spirit of a person shining right through obdurate matter.  There were two people in that half of the house.  One was crouching and, if I guessed right from his posture, was aiming at the door.  Two rooms away, a smaller figure was loading something into a bag.

It’s not always easy to tell what people are doing when all I can see is a glowing, slightly-fuzzy silhouette, but I had context clues to help.

I hurried downstairs again, not wanting Melody to catch me checking up on her.  I zipped out through the ruined door and sprinted into the garage.

Most of the gunfire sparking off Bronze came from the garage.  It stopped.

I came right back out a minute later, sprinting through the dark again.  I reached the pickup truck and paused to slow down to human speeds.  It does not do to try and drive with an altered perception of time.

Bronze clanked and rumbled to the nearest building, catching the edge of her blade against one wall and crunching along it, undercutting it as her tracks gouged up turf.  She had a grand time, shattering brick and tearing up lawn, clipping the corners of structures, and overturning vehicles.  She didn’t run anyone over, but she wasn’t trying to.  Besides, no one wanted to come anywhere near her.

The garage, full of fuel and munitions, didn’t exactly explode.  She ignited something inside and the flames spread extremely rapidly.  She may have helped it along by knocking more holes in walls to add to the ventilation.

Finally, with every building but the house on fire, she turned and clanked away from the light.  Gunmen, now on the ground and peeking around the corners of the house, fired at her for a little bit, but they were almost out of ammunition.  Nobody tried to pursue her.

I swung by in the truck, bumped into her blade, and she switched outfits.  The bulldozer continued to rumble slowly away while she drove us to our rendezvous with Melody.

Distantly, fire engines wailed in the night.  They had some trouble with the damaged highway, but at least their rear axles were intact.  The local police cars couldn’t say the same.

I like to plan ahead.

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