Authors: Robert J. Crane
Out of the Box, Book 4
Robert J. Crane
They say blood is thicker than water, and while this is literally true, it’s also really annoying. Take it from a girl who’s cleaned up way too much blood in her time. When you take this expression metaphorically, however, it’s actually even worse than laundering your clothes to get the red out, writing off that nice new pair of jeans because they’re sodden with—never mind. I’m getting off point here. What is the point? The actual point? That blood, the people you’re related to—the ties are thicker than with almost anyone else. Because the things you do for blood—for family—well, I think they cause most of us more problems than can be fairly called our share.
And the things you do for the people you call family who aren’t blood … some of them are even worse.
I was in the training room on the agency campus listening to Ariadne vent her spleen about another of our director’s aggravating decisions. It was an early Tuesday morning in the middle of June, and the heat of summer hadn’t settled on Minnesota quite yet. It was lovely outside, and I wanted to get out there, maybe take a flight, clear my head. But when Director Andrew Phillips—asshole extraordinaire—made a pain of himself on the administrative side of our agency, which Ariadne ran, I listened to her gripes. Because in return, when he landed on operations, my side of the agency, I got to yell and throw things in her presence. It was a fair trade, most of the time.
But on a nice day, when I was just trying to get through my training so I could take a flight? It didn’t feel fair.
Ariadne wasn’t blood, by the way. She was other kind of family, the found kind, which … well, even I have those people in my life that I’d probably choose over the ones I got born to. She was that to me, like a surrogate sister/mother/all-around useful person whose lover I kindasorta killed and have still living in my head.
Rivers of blood in my life.
That’s probably not a metaphor.
“If he could just …” Ariadne searched for words. Her pale face was inflamed, almost matching the color of her hair. Almost. I wasn’t positive she dyed it, but she had just enough lines on her face that if she didn’t,
Because that red hair of hers wasn’t losing an ounce of luster.
“Stop being an ass?” I was gently working over a heavy bag. By heavy, I mean about a thousand pounds of compressed sand hung from the ceiling by chains. It was specially made just for me and suspended from bolts fastened directly to the steel girders that made up the bottom level of the roof supports. The head of the construction company who built it laughingly assured me that it would hold up to anything I threw at it or my money back. As soon as it was finished I gave it about a quarter of my effort in his presence and he cut a check that afternoon. I never saw him on site again after that, even though the project went on for another month. Maybe he died of shame, I dunno.
“I don’t think Phillips will stop being an ass.” Ariadne was pacing, wandering back and forth in her navy suit, the V-neck of her cream-colored blouse revealing more mottled skin. She was clearly livid and had taken off her heels to walk over the uneven canvas mats that lined the floor. I paused, a little worried she might turn an ankle as she strode ten paces, turned, came back, and did it again for the nth time. “I just wish he could see this like we see it.”
“He’s not supposed to see it like we see it,” I said, giving the bag a jab. It was really pitiful how much I had to hold back on this thing. I felt like I was shadow boxing with a child, afraid to even let it have a tap. When I channeled the strength of the strongest soul I had within—a really nasty beast named Wolfe—I could hit hard enough to probably knock a train off its tracks. I hadn’t tried that yet, though I kept secretly hoping some grandiose ass would jack a BNSF freight engine just so I could find out. “He’s supposed to keep us quietly under the radar so that President Harmon can win re-election without having to answer for my various and sundry misdeeds.”
“And a fine job he’s doing of
lately.” Ariadne froze in place, mid-turn, and looked straight at me. I could see the regret pile up in her eyes as I watched. Her red skin flared brighter for a second and then drained. “I am so sorry, Sienna.”
I hit the bag and heard its industrial-grade, space-age material rip from the force of compression. Dammit. I hadn’t even channeled Wolfe or twisted when I punched. I just got a little rough with a straight-on shot from the hip and …
A mountain of sand spilled out of the bottom of the bag. I yelped like I was the wicked witch and it was water and flung myself into the air. I hung there, about four feet above it all as the bag emptied, sand spilling out, billowing around me under the fluorescent lights. Ariadne coughed and covered her mouth, taking an involuntary step back.
“Dammit,” I said once the contents were mostly emptied. I hovered, more disappointed in my failure of control than anything. The whole point of the bag, I had convinced myself, was to help me to control myself. If I really wanted to go out and just beat the hell out of something to show my strength, there was no shortage of trees in the Northwoods of Minnesota I could go smash. It helped toughen up my skin against future traumas, too. That was another quirk of Wolfe’s power that I could channel.
I looked at Ariadne, and she just looked so damned … guilty. “Sorry,” she said again.
“It’s okay.” I floated back to the ground, feeling the weight of gravity take over again, and landed on my feet far enough away from the mound of sand that I didn’t have to fear slipping. Not that I feared slipping much anyway. “It’s not your fault that every single person in the media seems to have a sudden, deep, insatiable yearning to cast me as the next …” I searched for an appropriate villain. “What’s the governmental equivalent of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined?”
“Uhh … I believe they were all government figures of some kind,” Ariadne said.
“Right,” I said. “I’m them, but with fewer atrocities, body counts and—oh, yeah, actual power to affect anything.”
“Well, you’re catching up fast on one of those,” came a voice from behind me. I turned my head to see my brother—half-brother—Reed Treston, standing at the entry to the training room, hair back in a ponytail and a rocking a full-on grey suit. He had a few months of beard going on, too, which was really different for him but had cleared up his babyface issue. I had a feeling he’d done it so that his (much) older girlfriend wouldn’t have to feel quite so aged in his presence.
Okay, I mostly hoped that last bit. Out of pettiness. (I still don’t like his girlfriend.)
“The atrocities or the body count?” I asked, trying not to put too much care into it. Reed had been distant for months; we’d had a conversation in my room that had seemed to change the nature of our relationship. That had been in January, right after I’d destroyed half the campus while fending off a prison break/terrorist attack. We barely hung out anymore, talked pretty tersely when we had to work together, and had many moments of extremely awkward tension filled with a lot of passive-aggression. It was great, like being part of a real family. One with big, fat, honking issues.
Oh, right, I already said like being part of a real family.
“Matter of opinion,” he said tightly, then unfolded his arms to reveal a manila folder clutched in one hand.
“I’d be interested to hear which it is, in yours,” Ariadne said.
“No, you wouldn’t,” Reed and I both answered in unison, never breaking off from looking right at one another.
“Here to train?” I asked, gesturing to the heavy bag. He could, and did, use the bag without any problems. Well, until now. “Because I kinda had an accident.”
“At least it doesn’t require a change of pants,” he said, shrugging it off. “I’ve got something.”
“Kinda figured, since you’re here and talking,” I said, nodding at the folder. “What’s up?”
“Atlanta,” Reed said. “Atlanta is up. I got contacted by a police detective down there that I talked to a couple years ago about something they had going on, and I think they’ve got a meta problem.”
“It’s always meta problems and never meta solutions,” I said, making my way over to him cautiously.
“You’re supposed to be the solution,” Ariadne offered.
“Make a Final Solution joke and I’ll end
,” I said to Reed as I crossed over to read the file in his hand. He didn’t even show a flicker of humor. “See, it ties back to a whole Hitler, Stalin and Mao bit—”
“Yeah, that’s just bad taste,” Reed said, thrusting the folder at me. “A little over a year ago, Atlanta P.D. had an unexplained murder. A woman, Flora Romero, got shot. The guy who shot her, Joaquin Pollard, died seconds later from a bolt of lightning.” He kept a straight face the entire time. “This was while you were in England tracking down that slice-and-dice group that was cutting through old Omega.”
“I vaguely remember you mentioning something about this at the time, I think.” I stared at the photos, which had been color-printed on regular paper and had some really ugly line effects that did little to hide the stark grossness of the murder scene. “Why are you revisiting this now?” I felt dirty even though I hadn’t worked out hard enough to sweat and had dodged the outpouring of sand.
“The same detective that contacted me about it at the time called me again,” Reed said, flipping the file to another page. “He had a witness to the lightning incident. A six-year-old that swore some guy in a hooded sweatshirt shot lightning bolts out of his hands and killed Joaquin Pollard. The detective, Marcus Calderon, Atlanta P.D., had to let it go. No other leads, and the six-year-old didn’t get a look at the guy’s face.”
“Okay,” I said, waiting for him to tie it all together for me.
“Last night, Calderon gets called to two separate lightning strikes,” Reed said, going to the next page. “Roscoe Marion and Kennith Coy. Killed less than a mile from each other, within about fifteen minutes.”
“Was there a storm in Atlanta last night?” I asked, looking at the grainy printouts of the photos. They didn’t show much, but what they showed was gross.
“There was,” Reed said and snapped the file shut. “A summer storm. Thunder and lightning. Nice cover for a killing if someone wanted to get away with it—”
“And could shoot lightning out of their hands,” I agreed, folding my arms. “So, you want to go take a look, see if this is a real thing or just a coincidence? Lightning striking twice and all that?”
His face flickered, and I caught the first hint of uncertainty. “I can’t. I’m scheduled on vacation. I’m taking Isabella to—”
“Right,” I said. I’d already forgotten that Director Phillips had emailed me my brother’s vacation request already approved, without even consulting me. Of course, Reed could have run it by me, too, and he hadn’t, so …
Whatever. Fewer administrative headaches for me, right?
“You want me to go check it out?” I looked up at him as neutrally as I could manage. All this talk of lightning was making me wonder if I could hear thunder in the distance. Probably just my imagination.
“That’d be great,” Reed said. “If I hadn’t planned this trip with Isabella, I’d be there, you know that—”
“Absolutely,” I said, and snatched the folder right out of his hand so fast he didn’t even know it was gone until he looked down and saw empty fingers. That was the advantage of being faster, stronger and more dexterous. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Okay.” He turned, nodding, his broad, suit-covered shoulders turning away from me. “If it gets to be too much, call me. I’ll keep my phone on.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said as breezily as I could manage. “Enjoy your trip.”
He froze at the door, looked over his shoulder at me. He felt miles away already. “Thanks.”
I gave him a little half-hearted wave as he walked out and closed the door behind him. I just stood there, still, stewing, until he’d been gone a good thirty seconds and a voice rang out like thunder behind me.
“What the hell was
?” Ariadne asked.
“Me doing my job,” I said, holding the folder lightly between my fingers. I cast her a look. “What did you think it was?”
“The most tense, awkward sort of conversation I can possibly imagine between the two of you,” Ariadne said, sounding about two steps shy of horrified. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since the night you killed your first person,” I said, heading for the door. I may have thrown that out to mask the sting I was feeling. Actually, that was probably obvious.
“Sienna—” Ariadne said.
“Gotta go,” I said, and held up the folder in my hand. “Time and tide wait for no man, after all.” I paused. “Wait, isn’t there some cheesy cliché about lightning, too?”
“Trying to run from this conversation is the last thing you should be trying to do right now,” Ariadne said, still a little grey in the face. She looked as serious as I’d ever seen her, pallor settled in where anger from Phillips’s actions had been replaced by concern. For me. “Sienna, talk to me.”