I could hear the screams, far to the north. MC had called me three times, but I had ignored her every one.
This was a mistake.
But I had no choice. Turgay needed me.
“Thanks for patching me up,” the crow said. “I still don’t know how I got hurt.”
“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay responded tiredly. “Ling, we can only lay low for so long. Sooner or later, people will come looking for you.”
That was an understatement if there ever was one. Turgay had enlisted my help Sunday night, and it was now Tuesday morning. I had managed to delay inquiries simply going to class yesterday, but they had almost been caught twice in the process. There was no way I had the time for a screamer fight. But that meant the second it was over, everyone would be looking for me.
“We have maybe six hours,” I said decisively. Probably a little more, actually, but it’s best to be safe. “We need too have you back with Soaring Eagle before then.”
He licked his beak. “We’re no closer to finding her than we were Sunday. She was nomadic even before she got on the ‘sarians most wanted list.”
I suppressed my frustration as best I could. “You have to have some idea where she would be.”
He shook his head. “The only one I ever dealt with was Delia, one of her lieutenants. But she’s dead or in custody now, so she’s no help.”
I closed my eyes. “There has to be someone.”
The crow spoke up. “There’s Delia’s boy, that…Sharptalon guy.”
“Kevin,” Turgay said in the same tired tone as before. “Useless. He’s one of her warhawks.”
Pigeon frowned. “What does that have to do with—”
“All her warhawks were with her.”
“Shut up, Pig.”
The crow finally shut his beak.
I rubbed my forehead. This is what happens when you get involved in dinky little revolutions where no one has thought anything through. Everything starts going to hell in a hand basket the second a single thing goes wrong.
None of my friends would be of any use. Even if they didn’t turn us in—which was a pretty big if all on its own—Necessarius would find us very quickly. Aves stood out, and lugging the toy box around would only make it worse.
Couldn’t go to Matron, or anyone else at the orphanage. Even ignoring the fact that she was an avid supporter of Butler, she didn’t have any power. At least Derek and Laura would be able to negotiate; the Big Boss had nothing he wanted from a bunch of orphans.
I started paging through my address book. In all honesty, I should have probably throw my phone away, but the screamers should distract everyone from bothering to check my location with it. I may as well use it.
Not that it mattered. There were over a hundred names, and none of them would be of any help. Helena, Mitchel, Abigail, Harry, Thuron, Lily, Negi, Hayate, Adam, Akane, Derek, Laura, Lizzy—
Lizzy. She might work. Laura said she had contacts, right? She was a voice actress or something. She made a decent living, which meant she had a support network. Maybe a small one, but hopefully one that had no connection to Necessarius.
But would it work? She was actually stupider than me, and generally solved her problems by calling Laura. Was it worth the risk?
There was nothing else to do. I pressed the call button and put the phone to my ear. It rang three times, an eternity between each, before she picked up.
“Liga bak…hello? Who is this?”
“Lizzy? It’s Ling.”
“Ling?” There was a brief pause. “Oh! Ling! Tīng dào nǐ zhème hǎo! Nǐ shénme bù kāixīn?”
Right. That was the other reason I had been leery about this. “I don’t speak Chinese, Lizzy.”
“Mmm…forgot. Yes, right, no Chinese. You’re an otaku. Nani ga mondaina nodeshou ka? ”
“I don’t speak Japanese either,” I sighed. “Look…nevermind, it’s not important.”
She stopped me before I could hang up. “No, you woke me up, you have to explain why. Not like I can get back to sleep, with those screamers.”
Right. She also had a power. Didn’t know what it was, but she had one. “I’m in a bit of a bind. I need to find someone and deliver something to them.”
“O-kay…why not just call MC?”
“The thing I need delivered is not something she would like to know I have.”
There was a brief pause. “Wait one second. You stole something?”
“I didn’t, a friend of mine did.”
I scowled. “Yes, dammit, a friend. And he came to me for help. I need to get to Soaring Eagle, the ave Animal King, with two aves and a package about the size and shape of a coffin. Can you help?”
I shouldn’t have said that, but she was annoying me. I know the whole ‘my friend has this problem’ was an old cliché, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be true sometimes.
Turgay looked at me a little sideways. “Ling, are you sure—”
I shushed him and turned back to my phone. “Lizzy. Can you help?”
There was a long pause. “I’m still not quite sure what you expect me to do,” she said slowly. “I don’t exactly have very much experience with grand theft.”
I took a deep breath and counted to ten before speaking. “I just need you to find Soaring Eagle and arrange a meeting. You have contacts and everything, right?”
“Well…some. I mean, she’s a prominent member of the community, so I guess I could arrange something…”
“Okay, you just need to tell her we have the Pigeon.” From what Turgay had told me, the Animal King would remember the names of the men who had the toy box. Probably. “That should be enough.”
I could practically hear her nodding. “I can do that. Where are you now?”
I frowned. “Why is that important? You can just call once the meeting is set up.”
“That’s not quite how this works. You have to do most of it in person. It’s polite, and this crowd is big on that.”
I rubbed my forehead again. Whatever. She knew it all better than I did. “Fine. We’re in the basement of the dorms. In the farthest laundry room.”
“Really?” She seemed very surprised. Why should she be? There weren’t many other places we could hide. “Why aren’t—not important. I’ll be there in…half and hour.”
Wait, what? It was only six in the morning, and her first class wasn’t until noon. “Where are you?”
“About half an hour outside of campus,” she replied tersely. “I’ll see you soon. Sit tight.”
True to her word, she found us within thirty minutes. We were huddled in the corner, covering the aves and the toy box under as many towels as possible, while I pretended to be a maid. It was a laughable disguise, and any idiot could tell we were hiding something.
“It took me a little while to find you,” the bronze-skinned amazon said when we finally managed to wave her over. “It’s a good disguise. This your friend?”
Well, that was hardly getting things off to a good start, but it was a little too late to back out. “You have a meeting ready?” I gestured to the towel-covered box behind me. “And somewhere to stash this?”
She bit her lip in an almost ridiculously cute way. “Oh, right, you can’t just drag that along behind us, can you?” She looked around, as though hoping a closet would materialize out of thin air. “I guess…we need a truck?”
“That would be helpful,” I said with as much calm as I could. “And we probably need a doctor for the crow. He got hit by some shrapnel.”
Lizzy leaned over, looking at him. “It doesn’t look so bad.”
Odd reaction. It wasn’t life threatening or anything, but it looked bad. Blood was already oozing into the white bandages, despite the fact that I changed them an hour ago. It was beyond my expertise, anyway. “Can you call someone? You have doctors and drivers, right?”
She shifted her feet a little. “Well…I have people. But I’m not sure…”
“Anything is better than nothing,” I assured her. We were out of options, whatever she had was enough. The screamers were distracting enough without having to deal with her whining about helping.
She bit her lip again. “Okay, let me make a couple calls.” She shook her head violently, like a dog drying off. “Sorry, the screaming is distracting me.” She pulled out her phone and headed out of the laundry room. “One second.”
The second she was gone, Turgay turned to me, an uncertain look in his eye. “You sure about this, Ling? She’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. And what was that about the screaming?”
I sighed, and decided to simply deflect his uncomfortable question rather than try and find a decent lie. “She’s all we got. If you don’t like her, you shouldn’t have stolen the damn box.”
He shut his beak at that. He knew I had a point. How did he even get in this situation in the first place? He wasn’t a complete moron, he knew better than to screw with Necessarius.
Before I could think too much on that line, Lizzy came back, closing her phone with a satisfied snap.
“A truck is on the way,” she promised. “And the ave woman has been called. Everything is under control.”
The crow perked up. “Really? What’d she say?”
“Shut up, Pig,” Turgay grumbled. “She didn’t actually talk to her.”
“I’m not sure if we should be here for this,” I said slowly. I had seen allies who knew too much killed enough not to stick around. “I think this is an internal ave thing.”
Lizzy just shrugged. “If that’s what you want, we can leave them to it once my truck gets here.” She brightened. “Ooh, we can go for ice cream!”
Pigeon gave an ave grin. “That sounds great! Can we come?”
Turgay rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Pig.”
I sighed again and nodded to both birds. “There’s still that maintenance sign on the door, so you guys should be fine.” I turned back to Lizzy. “How long until the truck gets here?”
“No more than half an hour,” she promised. “Now, about that ice cream…”
I rolled my eyes. “Sure, fine. Let’s go.”
I’ll admit I felt bad about leaving them alone like that, but there shouldn’t have been any problems. And I really didn’t want to let Lizzy’s driver know my face. I’m sure she trusted them, but stuff like that tended to get spread around.
But as we walked out of the laundry room and up to ground level, a large white van pulled up. A man stepped out of the passenger side almost before it finished stopping.
He was tall and thin, dressed in an immaculate suit and tie. He was a demon with red skin and small, sharp horns, and I saw a tail flicker briefly behind his legs. I couldn’t tell precisely what subculture he was from, but that didn’t mean much. Lots of modders, especially demons, never bothered with specific subcultures.
The demon bowed deeply. “Mistress Greene, we are ready whenever you are.”
Lizzy raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. Were you waiting for my call?”
Her servant didn’t raise his head. “Yes, we were.” I noticed his tail thrash once. “That…is not a problem, is it?”
Lizzy grinned widely. “Far from it. I think I just remembered why I keep you around.” Her grin faded. “Is it just you and the driver?”
“Yes. Oleander is the driver, though.”
She nodded. “Good. The aves aren’t going to be much help, especially since one is injured. Get him inside first, then worry about the package.”
Her servant finally straightened. “Aves? Then I am I to understand the package is…”
“The toy box, yes,” she answered in an annoyed tone. I was a bit surprised; I wouldn’t have thought anything could crack that cheerful shell of hers. But then she quickly smiled again. “I’ve already made arrangements with Soaring Eagle. Just take them to the meeting point, and it will be fine.”
The demon raised an eyebrow. “You are not coming with us, Mistress Greene?”
She grinned wider and grabbed my arm. “Of course not. I saved the day, that means I get ice cream!”
The demon smiled slightly and bowed again. “Of course. Now if you’ll excuse me…” he straightened and hurried past us, down to the laundry rooms. The driver got out as well, revealing himself as a giant—a Jotuun, if I was any judge.
Lizzy dragged me off by the arm, tugging me towards the eastern side of the campus, where the food court was.
It took me a minute to figure out where we were going, mostly because I was so surprised. “You like the school meals?”
“Only the ice cream,” she admitted. The Amazon had let go of my arm and was now dragging me by the hand. “It’s really good, and cheap too.”
“I believe you. Now can you let go of my hand?”
“There’s also a nice spot under the trees, but next to the air conditioner,” she said cheerfully, clearly not listening. “You get shade and warm air pumped out of the building shot at your feet. No one else seems to like it, which is perfect.”
I frowned. “I’m not sure I like the sound of it either.”
“The chef knows me,” she continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “He’ll make our ice cream himself. What kind would you like?”
“Uh…” she stared at me expectantly, waiting for an answer. “A sundae? I guess?”
“Good choice!” she chirped. “Me, I prefer just a simple cone, but I’ll get a sundae this time too.”
We found the table Lizzy had mentioned quickly enough. As she had said, it was unoccupied. I found the air conditioner a little too close for comfort, but didn’t say anything.
A small baseline man (except for some violet eyes) came up with a pad. “Hello again, Lizzy. The usual?”
“Actually, my friend would like an ice cream sundae,” the girl responded promptly and cheerfully. “And I’ll have the same.”
The waiter nodded. “A good choice. I always say that you should expand your horizons. I’m glad you’re finally doing so.”
Lizzy grinned at him, golden eyes glittering. “I think I’ve already tried enough, Mark. I know what I like.”
He wisely chose not to retort, just smiled, inclined his head, and went inside quickly.
“It will be a little while,” Lizzy explained. “Dessert is on the sixth floor.” She grinned again. “In the meantime, what’s going on with you? Other than helping kemo minorities commit grand theft, that is.”
This girl…I know she didn’t mean it, but she could be a little abrasive. “Ah…not much. Just soccer and school.”
It was a bit awkward. I mean, she knew about the screamers, obviously, but I couldn’t exactly tell her how involved I was in the whole thing. And other than that…what was I doing, really?
But she just nodded, not noticing my troubles. “Yeah, I’m about the same. School and voice acting.” She grinned. “And shopping. Lots of shopping.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure that’s loads of fun.”
“It is!” she insisted. “Hunting down the perfect item is quite satisfying. There’s a rush to it.”
“So…that’s it? That’s all you do?”
She chuckled. “Like you’re much better. What do you do in your free time? You must have some. College can’t be too time-consuming, I seem to be passing easily enough.”
Well, I hadn’t actually been doing anything recently other than sleep, since the screamers kept waking us up at weird hours, but there was always the old fallback. “Mostly, I watch anime and stuff.”
Lizzy nodded. “I think Laura mentioned that before. What kind?”
“Shounen, mostly. What about you? What’s your favorite anime?”
Her face scrunched up as she thought. “Welll…nothing specific. Just seinen in general, really. Though I’ll admit a lot of them have too much sex.”
I nodded in agreement. “I hear that.”
My phone buzzed. I reached down and turned it off without even considering answering it.
Lizzy blinked. “Shouldn’t you—”
“No,” I said firmly. “I should not.”
She winced. “Boyfriend troubles, I take it?”
Now it was my turn to blink in confusion. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Derek, I mean,” she elaborated, looking at me with those guileless golden eyes. “You two are dating, right?”
I was glad our food hadn’t come yet. I probably would have spit it all out over Lizzy.
Instead, I merely coughed. “No…ah, no. No, I’m not. We’re not, I mean. There is…no.”
“Oh, that’s a shame.” She leaned back, allowing the waiter who had suddenly appeared behind her to place our sundaes in front of us. “You’d make a cute couple.”
Thankfully, with the food in front of us, I had a good excuse for not answering, and by the time we were done eating, she had apparently completely forgotten. The next hour was much of the same, and passed in a pleasant and talkative blur.
Punctuated every five minutes by my phone ringing.
Behind the Scenes (scene 67)
This came out better than I expected. And as for Lizzy being able to get in touch with Soaring Eagle so quickly: Remember that until very recently, the King was considered an upstanding member of the community, with many friends. She still has most of those friends, even though they’re a little more wary now.