Tattletale took her sweet frigging time in catching up to us. There was enough time for a concerned citizen to start talking on their phone while looking warily at Chicken Little and the hooded ex-killer Snuff who had been chasing -following- after him, time for me to talk to them while Snuff kept an eye on Ratcatcher, a defusing of the situation with Chicken’s help, and then time for us to get slightly bored.
With a light whistle to get Chicken’s attention, she motioned to the hawks. “Release one to show goodwill?”
Chicken Little didn’t. He hung back, on the opposite side of the alley as Ratcatcher, with Snuff standing beside him, one hand at his shoulder. Ratcatcher had retreated into the building she’d been planning to escape into, mainly for warmth, and I stood at the doorway, keeping it just ajar enough I could keep an eye on her.
Not that she was going anywhere, with Chicken Little holding her pets.
“I’m not sure I can,” Chicken Little said.
Ratcatcher didn’t make a sound, but the bent nose of her mask flicked around in an alarmed way, her head craning to see Chicken Little through the cracked-open doorway.
“Why can’t you?” Tattletale asked.
“Because when you said I had to be nonlethal, that’s something I’ve never done before. It’s like I plant these flags and the birds go to the flag to do whatever it says on the flag. Attack, wait, watch out, patrol…”
“And I don’t have a ‘catch but don’t kill’ flag so I just stuck down an ‘attack’ and ‘wait’ flag in the same place and they’re kind of stuck between the two and getting stressed out. But it worked for them grabbing but not killing. I can’t really tell one to do one thing and the other to do another, and if I put down more flags they can’t follow because of contradicting orders then they’ll either snap and eat the rats or they’ll both go quiet and let the rats go.”
I put up a hand to ease Ratcatcher.
“Let them both go then,” Ratcatcher said. “I’ll cooperate.”
“No,” Tattletale said. “We’ll figure this out.”
“They’re my friendth. I trained them to use the litter boxth, and they bring me thnackth if I’m in bed and I don’t want to get up. Ratthputin is my betht helper and Templeton is a cuddler.”
“Maybe-” Chicken Little started.
“Don’t cave,” Tattletale warned him.
“Maybe he wasn’t going to cave,” I said. “If he has a suggestion let him think it through. It’s his power.”
“I was going to cave,” Chicken said.
Tattletale extended a hand, as if to say ‘see?’.
Well fine, then.
“I’d rather not hurt people’s pets, and I did this because you were rushing me and telling me I had to do it now, I had to learn to think on the fly, and so I did, but now I’m doubting myself.”
“Don’t,” Tattletale said. “You’re better than you think.”
Ratcatcher wrung her hands while Tattletale talked to her protege. Her head turned, as if she was considering an escape route, then turned my way, looking me up and down. As if she was considering an attack.
“Snuff?” I asked. “Can you watch Ratcatcher? I’ll help.”
Snuff left Chicken behind to take hold of the door. I backed away, into the alley, then flew up to where the two hawks roosted on a length of pipe.
This felt weird to do. I put my hands out, and I gingerly held the rat and the bird’s talon all together.
Feet like a fistful of knives, was that what Chicken Little had said? Beaks like a sharp, fast moving knife.
With the other hand, I held the rat but not the talon.
“I’ve secured one of the rats. Try releasing?” I asked.
“I think so.”
I felt the animals move beneath my hands. With one hand, I ensured a hawk didn’t let go or lose the rat. With the other, I pulled a rat away. I suspected they were as clean as any pet, but Ratcatcher was just far enough off the beaten path that I wasn’t ruling out fleas or other hygiene questions. I was glad for the gloves I wore.
“And secure. Back to what you were doing before.”
I backed off. One of the two roosting hawks had a rat pinned and gripped in talons. I carried the other down to Ratcatcher.
“Thank you,” Ratcatcher said. She lifted the rat up to her shoulder and adjusted her shirt collar so it served as a partial blanket.
Tattletale approached, and we entered the side door of the building, stepping into the hallway and letting the door close behind us. Snuff and Chicken Little were left to wait outside.
“Where are we?” Tattletale asked.
“Rude messages were sent to the boss while she was drunk. She doesn’t know if she sent them but it fits her prior behavior. The messages came from her phone. We hit a wall.”
“Phone and not computer? Smart phone?”
Ratcatcher reached down to her pyjama legs, hiked them up, and then pulled checkered knee-high socks down. The socks were pulled up around a phone, holding it snug to her calf.
“Why not use your pockets?” I asked.
“Running with thomething heavy in my pocketth is a good way to have my pantth fall down. More comfortable for lying around.”
The phone was the kind that served as a hybrid between a flip-phone and a smartphone, oval and hinged at the top, with up to three ‘windows’ fanning out from the hinge. Low resolution, and not much depth of color, which marked it as maybe ten years old. The panes were scratched and the hinge had what looked like a splinter of a shell from a sunflower seed stuck in it.
“Counts as a computer. Can I look?” Tattletale asked.
Ratcatcher touched the rat that clung to her neck and hid in her tangled hair without looking at it, then nodded, snapping the phone closed, opening it, pressing her thumb to the middle pane, and then handing it over.
“The messages line up to a time you got drunk?” I asked.
“Not thure, but wath it after five?”
“Yes,” Tattletale said. “I found the first one. Six p.m..”
“Then yeth. I wait until five to drink. They thay you’re thuppothed to wait until later in the day to drink. That way you’re not an alcoholic.”
“What time do you get up?” I asked.
“Three or four?” Ratcatcher asked, like she was unsure and wanted my verification.
“In the afternoon?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said, with enough affirm in the affirmative that it felt like she was very satisfied the question when she’d asked me the time had some resolution. “Thleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry, walk when I’m rethtleth. Annoy people when lonely. If I’m hired I work the hours I work, thober.”
“Usually sober,” Tattletale murmured.
Ratcatcher considered, then shrugged and nodded.
Tattletale didn’t look up from the phone. “Were you especially lonely a few weeks ago? We’re trying to figure out if this was you or something bigger.”
“I have company,” Ratcatcher said, touching the rat at her neck again.
“I’m hearing that as a yes, you were lonely.”
Ratcatcher considered, then nodded again. The body language was subtly different from the answer about whether she’d been sober. Less carefree.
“And did you have a prior working history with Countenance?” Tattletale asked.
“This ithn’t fun,” Ratcatcher commented.
“Sorry,” I said.
She shrugged. The rat stirred, moving around behind her neck to the other shoulder. “No. No hithtory. I had a little bit of a cruth. You know when you’re in a bad plathe and any boy with a nice voice and cute butt is nice to you, you get hopeth up?”
Not so much, I thought.
“And these messages, you thought about this sort of thing?” Tattletale asked.
“Doeth it matter?”
“We’re not sure you sent them,” I told her. “People are going around messing with people. Maybe something more insidious.”
Ratcatcher tilted her head to one side. The rat perked up, reaching up to her ear.
“Nothing in the data,” Tattletale murmured. “No weirdness in injections, outgoing data. No patterns in the static, basically. This stuff lines up with things you’ve thought before? Or did it feel off?”
Ratcatcher motioned, and Tattletale handed her back the phone. Ratcatcher slumped against the wall beside me, putting her rat in fairly close proximity to me. She held it up so I could see too.
“Yeth, yeth, maybe, yeth, yeth…”
“Clarify?” Tatteltale asked.
Ratcatcher was busy scrolling.
“Uhh,” I said, “Go back? Okay, so, opening prelude… rats mate more than once a minute, so even if he finishes quickly, he’d have a good thing going.”
“Pickup line,” Ratcatcher said. “Yeth, thoundth like me. There’th more.”
“Rat climaxes last five minutes-”
“-pretty thure it’th not true but thoundth good-”
“-which he might find fun, but if he doesn’t want to, ahem, take a rat to bed and attempt the physiologically impossible, he can take a girl instead.”
“Me. Thatht the pickup line. Thee? I rate mythelf an honest three out of five and thay I’ll do thith, becauthe even a bad one ith pretty good, and then no thtringth attached-”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I see.”
“And thith part, we’ll thkip thith part, if that’th okay? Personal.”
“Sure,” I said. I cupped a hand to block my view of the phone while she scrolled.
“It still reads like you?” Tattletale asked.
“Yeth. I don’t remember, but I thought about it a lot. Even wrote thome but never thent them. Until that night. He rethpondth here,” she said.
I read it. This is inappropriate, Ratcatcher. Drink some water and rest. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.
Pretty reasonable for a response to unsolicited texts in this vein at five in the morning.
“I apparently thent thome more, thith… leth me.”
I read the texts, flinched, and looked away, which meant I was looking at Tattletale, who smirked.
“I thought you liked mice and rats,” I said.
“I do! I wouldn’t do thomething like that, if you’ll reread it-”
“No thank you.”
“Thome guyth like thith thtuff. I offer an alternative. Rather than put a rat, thereth a potthibility of uthing a thnake inthtead. Theemth more practical, you can hold on to the end of the tail.”
“Thank you for the mental image,” I said, averting my gaze from everything, while I tried to avert my ears from everything at the same time.
“Leth me. Thnaketh are awful, they’re horrifying and they eat rodentth, but I don’t think I’d do that. And I don’t think I’d keep texthting him unleth I was very, very drunk.”
“Okay,” Tattletale said. “Good.”
“What do you think?” I asked her.
“I think I’m sixty percent certain this is weird.”
Only sixty percent? I thought, raising an eyebrow.
“…In terms of the weirdness we’re investigating. If it is weirdness we’re investigating and this isn’t a regular incident, then it’s a fifty percent chance that Ratcatcher here sent the first messages, and they sent everything after he responded to tell her to quit it.”
Ratcatcher reacted to that, head pulling back a bit.
“Otherwise, they fabricated it all.”
“You think that thomeone else thent thethe methageth?”
“Yes,” Tattletale said. “There’s a very good chance that someone else sent these. Tell me what happened after.”
“I went, they thaid to clean out my locker. They were nithe about it. Very polite but very careful.”
“Careful?” I asked.
“By the bookth. Procedureth in plathe.”
“Has this sort of thing happened to you before?” I asked.
Ratcatcher shrugged, shook her head. The shake was forceful enough that the bent portion of her mask flipped over to be bent the other way. “But I’ve been in trouble before. I get how it goeth.”
“But they’ve had trouble before,” Tattletale said. “Countenance has. There’s a history there and this attack was built to attack that weak point.”
“You sound pretty definitive at this point. No percentages?”
Tattletale shook her head. “I’m pretty darn sure.”
I looked over at Ratcatcher. I tapped her phone at the hinge. “This wasn’t you.”
“Hm,” She made a sound. Her nose dropped. “I’m not thure that maketh me feel better.”
“I get it,” I said. “It’s invasive. Violating.”
“No,” she said. “I don’t care about that. That’th the game we play.”
“It shouldn’t be,” I said. “I prefer the good old days, when cape against cape fights wouldn’t dig any deeper than the surface level. Costume against costume, no wounds that went beyond cuts, scrapes and bruises, unless they upped the ante first.”
“That’s stupid,” Tattletale said. “Nothing’s surface level. Our powers are intertwined with us, and we’re bringing all of our shit to the table when we go toe to toe with someone. Pit your powers against their powers, and you’re digging into your own shit while they’re doing the same, going back to what used to be the worst day of your life, you’re flinging that shit. To win your fights you need to know your enemy, but to do that you can’t stop at the surface.”
“We used to be able to.”
“We used to keep up a charade.”
“And while we were doing that no kids were getting chopped up into wriggling pieces!”
That seemed to give Tattletale pause.
“Point,” she said.
“But I think your take is a romantic, fragile one. We can’t go back there.”
“Believe me, I’m coming to terms with that. All I’m saying is I miss those days, and I’m going to respect anyone who holds themselves to those standards. Holding back while doing what needs to be done.”
“I was never good at that,” Tattletale said. “Surface level. It’s a good way of putting it, but the tool I was handed is a backhoe.”
Her entire tone had changed, and… if I tracked backward in the conversation, it felt like it had turned around when I’d dropped the ‘wriggling pieces’ line. Like she respected me more because I’d turned to using a backhoe.
I wasn’t sure I liked that. That the only way to deal with her was to be an utter bitch. Where did that take me in the long run?
“Thpeaking of romantic thuff,” Ratcatcher said. She held up her phone, now all folded up. “Thtarting with rat factth and ending with putting thnakes up boy’th pooperth-”
“Yeah,” I said. “No. No. You need a friend to give you advice on crafting a better approach.”
“I had advithe from Rathtputin, Templeton, Duthty Rothe and Turnaround.”
“Rat, rat, mouse, and booze,” Tattletale clarified. Ratcatcher nodded vigorously.
“But you guyth thtarted arguing and the thing ith, I don’t care about that thtuff. I don’t do thecreth. What thuckth ith that I’ve alwayth thtayed thurfathe level, like you thaid, and that’th why until today, I didn’t think anybody hated me that much.”
Always playing nice, and then someone turns around and delivers a low blow.
I couldn’t say the situation lined up perfectly with my own experiences… or maybe it was better to say that I couldn’t say it lined up perfectly with me, but I felt like we’d -collectively, pre-Gold Morning- tried, and we’d been dealt a low blow.
Part of that dealing had come from someone with a backhoe.
“Sorry,” I said. “Hopefully our investigation will do something to clear your name.”
“We should go,” Tattletale said. “I’m thinking about things and I’m worried.”
“I’m free to go?” Ratcatcher asked.
“Be good, okay?” I told her. “Whatever you were running from us for-”
“Petty theft,” Tattletale said. “Grand theft. Vandalism. Criminal mischief. Bit of a backslide since the regular thinker work dried up.”
“…Don’t do that,” I said, a little exasperated, staring past the holes in the paper mask at the eyes behind, wet, large, and guileless.
“Doeth it matter? I wath being good and it didn’t help. I had a good thing going and they came for me, attacking my not-tho-thterling reputation.”
“It matters,” I said. “If not for yourself, do it for your pets. They need someone to look after them.”
Tattletale opened the door, and Ratcatcher rocked back, at the cold air. Tattletale whistled and motioned.
Ratcatcher bent down to scoop up the rat that came bouncing along the floor, running up to her. It shivered, possibly from shock as much as cold.
Tattletale let the door shut. She leaned against the frame, arms in her coat pockets.
As Ratcatcher cupped her pet in her hands, I offered, “Do you want a hand? Your place is next door. But it’s cold, so I could fly you home, or-”
She was already shaking her head. She turned away, walking down the hallway into the dimly lit recesses of the building.
“There’s an underground passage connecting buildings,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
“It’s better she’s gone. I can fill you in. We shouldn’t waste too much time, because I do think she sent initial messages and she was being watched closely enough that the moment she passed out or put her phone down, they were ready to pick up. Which confirms that they’re watching you closely. Us. We.”
“Right,” I said.
“This was a multi-pronged attack, on Ratcatcher’s part, and I think yours would be too.”
“Ratcatcher isn’t the key target here,” Tattletale said.
I looked in the direction Ratcatcher went. I wanted to go grab her by the arm, tell her.
“No,” Tattletale said. “We’re better off if we keep this contained. It shapes what they do next, and the less messy this is, the easier it is to get a sense of who we’re fighting. I’ll be able to get a sense of them by how long it takes them to respond, how they move, where from.”
I felt uneasy at that, and it took me a second to articulate why.
“If you’re willing to keep her in the dark about particulars, are you doing the same thing to me?”
“As long as you stay more or less in my sight and avoid lying to me or giving me misinformation, I don’t need to. But if we don’t resolve this soon, we’re going to have to part ways, because you have things to look after and so do I… and from that point I’m going to bullshit you.”
“Best you’re going to get, hon.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Ratcatcher was vulnerable and on the fringes, she made a certain kind of target. But Countenance was the real focus, and he, I’m thinking, has a history of, how should I put it-”
“Rooftop liaisons?” I asked.
“No. Hooking up with coworkers. Maybe subordinates, maybe with messy end results, because any parahuman to parahuman interaction gets messy.”
“Some do,” I clarified. “Some. Maybe even most.”
“They all end in tears,” Tattletale said. “And these moves our enemy is making are aimed at pushing things to rushed conclusions on that front. They chip off anything that’s easy to chip at, and then they drive the chisel deep into the core elements. Countenance is stable, trusted, and acts as the heart of his team. This creates a seed of doubt.”
“And after this?”
“Sometime in the future, his past history with coworkers comes out. A girl that he’s dating breaks away, another teammate, Effervescent, feels slighted. She’s not the kind of person who would cheat on someone but she’ll be hurt she wasn’t even considered or flirted with. It’s a schism that disrupts the team.”
And on our end, it’s Jessica? Someone close to the Wardens?
“The fact we’re being watched means I want to keep a better eye on Chicken,” Tattletale said. “Any questions you want to ask that you can’t ask in front of him? Please tell me I don’t need to tell you what’s on and off the table.”
“I’m pretty sure I get it,” I said. “We protect people besides Chicken, you know.”
“Yes,” Tattletale said, and I had a hard time identifying if she was being sincere. “We’ll take steps.”
She pushed the door open. We stepped out into the alley, where Chicken Little, Snuff, about twenty pigeons and crows and two hawks were perched on every available surface.
“Got what we needed. That went exactly as planned, thank you, Chicken Little.”
Chicken Little hopped off his perch on a stack of construction materials and hurried to catch up as Tattletale headed straight for the neck of the alley.
So my guess was right. She’d plotted that far ahead. She’d looked to the future, but I didn’t have the sense now that she was focused on it now. Her head turned periodically, and her eyes scanned windows and rooftops.
“What’s next?” Chicken Little asked.
“Big Picture,” Tattletale said. “And while we’re on our way there, we’re shifting to a special kind of yellow alert. I need you to reach out to your team. They’re to contact the Undersiders, order an immediate blackout, phones off except for direct lines, no media, no radio, no internet, limit use of cameras, assume all systems are compromised and all outside information is untrustworthy. Imp passes the message on to the Heartbroken, then goes to your headquarters and protects your team. Foil and Parian pass it on to our intermediate contacts. If they’re up for it, they should guard your headquarters too. Once the message is sent, they blackout too. That includes Lookout.”
Chicken Little looked my way.
“Why?” Chicken Little asked.
“It’s a vector of attack. People can use those things to hurt any of us,” I told him.
“Antares, do I need to state-”
“I’m calling Breakthrough,” I said. I had my phone out already, and I started dialing as I finished the sentence.
We walked down the street, and with the flock of birds overhead, we were drawing some attention. Whatever. Past a certain point, I wasn’t sure it mattered. Our enemies didn’t seem like they fit into that territory where they were confident enough to pull this off but so incapable of tracking us that the birds made the difference.
If this was Chicken Little’s normal pattern, then it was better if he acted normal.
The phone rang three times before it picked up.
“Hey. I’m with Tattletale, and something’s come up. Any weirdness today?”
“Weirdness? No. Tristan’s coordinating with other big teams, Rain and I are in the middle of one of my control sessions. Ashley’s bored so she went for a walk to buy some books.”
In the background, Chicken Little was talking on the phone. He echoed my question about weirdness.
“Tattletale’s recommending a communications blackout. In-person only,” I said.
“Master-stranger?” Sveta asked.
You go, Sveta. You’ve been studying, woo! “Yes, and you get big points for that one. Avoid any electronic media or communications. Keep an eye out for trouble. Don’t trust anything that’s not face to face.”
“Should Tristan end his call?”
“As soon as is polite.”
“I’ll write him something,” Sveta said. “I can write him things, I know this situation is serious, but I’m psyched.”
She sounded happy.
“Me too,” I said. I was so glad she seemed happy and that just made me more worried.
“Fill us in soon,” Sveta said.
“Yeah. We hope to have answers before dinnertime?” I made it a question, looking at Tattletale. She nodded. “Before dinner. For now, just be safe.”
“What about Kenzie?”
“Chicken Little is calling her now.”
I hung up. Tattletale was studying me.
She shook her head.
“Do you think the responses on the other end were faked?” I asked.
“I don’t think anything yet,” she said. She glanced around. “Nobody’s spying on us by usual means. I’m wondering if it’s a machine.”
Snuff reached the car first. He pulled the door open for Tattletale, then for Chicken Little. Me last.
“It feels like these gears turn slowly. Inevitably. If I was a person and I was putting together something this big and this dramatic, and if I was keeping an eye on the key players, I’d be taking action now, trying to ensure I was maintaining control. I feel like a machine would be slower to process and adapt. More sure of itself, maybe.”
Snuff pulled us out of the parking spot, as we were still belting in.
“Yes, uh huh, yep,” Chicken Little said. He hung his head forward, as if he had no strength in his neck. “Yep. Got it. Can I talk to Darlene? You can make the calls.”
“Hi,” he said. “Look after her? Keep her busy? Maybe if she works in the workshop?”
“Thanks. You’re the best. Bye.”
He paused, then brought the phone down and found the button to hang up.
“Problem with Lookout?” I asked.
“Not a big thing,” he said. “Was worried she’d freak out without the ability to stay in contact with everyone, so Darlene’s going to keep her company and keep her busy.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “I know she has a few things she’s working on.”
“When I said I wanted to talk before, it’s kind of this. Um. If that’s okay?”
“Sure,” I said.
He reached up to his mask and undid clasps. He lowered the round mask to his lap. His face had bent bars molded to run along his face to his cheekbone and forehead, with parts jutting out where it connected to the mask. He looked just a bit older than I’d been imagining him, his forehead creased in worry. He folded his hands over his mask, and I shifted position to better face him, both of my hands at one of my knees.
Tattletale glanced back at the back seat of the car, noting the unmasking, but didn’t say anything.
“She’s a little… um, much,” Chicken Little said.
“She can be,” I said.
“And I say that when I hang out with the Heartbroken and a lot of them are much. Different kinds.”
“Yep,” I said.
“It’s like… when I’m on the phone, there’s never a chance to hang up. So I have to interrupt and hang up, and then I feel like the bad guy. Or I ask for Darlene and I worry I’m being a manipulative bad guy.”
“She doesn’t see you as the bad guy, if that helps.”
“I know. I mean, I know but I don’t feel, you know?”
“I feel you. Yeah, absolutely.”
“And if I want to spend a while doing my own thing then she’s there, looking over my shoulder or sending me a message or saying hi. And I like her but-”
“You resent her at the same time?”
“No,” Chicken Little said. “But I see where I might be starting to or I might, soon, when the fun of everything being new with our team wears off. And I don’t want to be that person who pushes her away too hard. I don’t want to be that kind of person.”
“Most people don’t think about who they want to be except in the broadest strokes until they’re a bit older,” I said. A teenager, but let’s not drive home how young you really are. “Before that, it’s… big goals like wanting to be a superhero, or wanting to be an athlete.”
“I’ve had people bugging me about who I want to be and how I want to act since years ago, when I got my power,” Chicken Little said. He rolled his eyes in an overdramatic way, before coming to a stop, looking at the back of Tattletale’s seat.
“Bugging you. I’m glad my hard work is appreciated,” Tattletale said. She was wearing sunglasses that lined up pretty well with the eyeholes of her mask.
“It is! But it was a lot. And can I talk to Antares like this?”
“Sure, sure,” Tattletale said. She reached up and put earbuds in. “Let’s not pretend you didn’t want me to hear that.”
“You too, Snuff?” I asked.
Chicken Little waited until Tattletale settled, listening to whatever it was she listened to. Snuff had his headphones on, now, worn over his hood. It made me nervous that I wasn’t sure how easily our driver could see or hear what was going on, but… better.
“I’ve been working with Darlene and Candy,” Chicken Little admitted. “We take turns if she’s overwhelming us. But Candy went to Aunt Rachel’s and it’s the two of us, and I dunno. Is that manipulative? Because I don’t want to be the manipulative kind of person either.”
“Does it come from a good place?” I asked. “Or a hostile, bad place?”
“Good, I think? But like, if she comes up to me and stands next to me then I feel like… no, stand a little further away? And that’s not so good a place.”
“You’re wanting more space.”
“I feel greedy because I want a lot. I’m a Master, right, you know how that works?”
“Yes,” I said, very seriously. “I know that.”
“And we get our powers mostly from being alone or cut off or losing people. And I lost everyone… and then I was taken in by Skitter way back in the day, and I barely remember those days, and I grew up with orphans, and we were total birds of a feather, you know? That’s what we joked, after I had my trigger.”
“And they left, and I got powers. And after that, I was messed up, and Gold Morning messed me up more, with everyone moving in different directions, and Regent died before that, and he was fun, Skitter died during Gold Morning, even though she was kinda important to everyone, and Aunt Rachel is living way out in the middle of nowhere again, and… I was messed up.”
“All of us were, but I get what you mean. Hit where it hurts?”
He nodded. His forehead creased. It reminded me a bit of Natalie. “I kind of found my way to getting less messed up, and I grew up fast. I’m a lot more mature than other boys my age. It’s why I can mostly manage the Heartbroken. That and experience.”
You’re not grown up all the way yet.
“Yeah. You’re uniquely equipped,” I told him. “You grew up with having them around.”
“Kind of. But the thing is, I got advice and we decided figuring myself out meant figuring out how to be okay on my own. Because if I couldn’t do that, then I’d always worry that I’d lose people and I’d be messed up again.”
“And you don’t feel like you can be okay on your own anymore?”
“It got backwards, and I feel like I can’t be alone to find my okay anymore. And that’s not to say it isn’t nice to have them around and hang out, but it’s like it… there’s never the middle ground of okay in the middle. Not with them, and especially not with Lookout.”
“It could be that you don’t find that tranquil sort of okay when you’re with people. Sometimes I need to go do my thing and read or sort through files, or research, to find my okay. Sometimes I can do that with people around, especially Tress or Swansong, sometimes I do it alone.”
“Tress or Swansong, but not Lookout?”
“No. I adore Lookout, I respect her, but… it’s a rare moment.”
“What do I do? Because she sends me like two hundred messages a day and she sends me messages last thing at night and first thing when she wakes up, and I feel like I could spend every minute of every day with her and she’d want more, and Darlene has told me she feels the same way, and-”
“I’ll talk to her.”
Chicken Little stopped.
He deflated, apparently in relief.
The car passed through a tunnel. Everything inside the vehicle went dark. When we emerged, Chicken Little was putting his mask back on.
Somehow, I thought. I have no idea how I’ll do this.
“She’s really cool,” he said.
“Yeah. She really is.”
“She’s really stylish, in a very different way from the Heartbroken, and really fun, and when she gets excited about something I get excited too.”
“I’m really glad she’s connected with you guys.”
“I am too, but I feel like if things keep going like this, after she connected, I’m going to be the one to unconnect. Or Darlene is, and I keep hearing about Darlene’s bad side but I’ve never seen it. Or Candy is, and I feel like Candy would treat the problem like she treats a lot of things, like she’d use her power and try to fix it in one big obvious move that doesn’t really work.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“She does this thing, you know, where she doesn’t smile when she’s happy.”
“Yeah,” I said, quiet.
“I had to tell Darlene that. And Darlene went from giving her hugs when she smiled because she wanted to share that happiness to giving her hugs when she smiled because she needed a hug.”
“Perfect,” I said.
“Except we’re not sure what to do, now, so she’s been hugging her less and I’ve been thinking about taking a day off… and I was glad to be on a mission like this to get away, if I’m being super honest.”
“I know all the Heartbroken have rules and weirdness about how they behave, but I can either figure them out or I can deal. But Kenz-Lookout is maybe the worst possible thing for my rules and weirdness, despite the fact I really like her a ton.”
I put a hand out, rubbing his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.”
“She talks about you guys a lot. She misses you. You, Ashley, and Chris.”
Tattletale cleared her throat. Forewarning for the fact she was pulling an earbud out. “We’re close.”
“Okay,” Chicken Little said. “Thank you.”
There was a pause, as Tattletale put her earbud back in, then to me, he repeated, “Thank you.”
“Sure thing, C.L., thanks for being cool to my friend.”
The street didn’t have any parking, which delayed us. The spot we did find was in an alley, without much room to maneuver.
While Chicken Little squeezed himself and his hawks out of the spot, Tattletale approached me, showing me her phone.
Messages with the address, and a follow up. After a back and forth to hammer out the particulars of the meeting, the response from Countenance was that Big Picture was inviting us to his office, apparently, and he wouldn’t be wearing his mask or gear.
Downside: we had a very limited time when he was free and willing to talk. If we wanted to talk to him later, we had to do it when he had free time around seven o’clock. Which was past Tattletale’s self-imposed deadline.
Despite the fact the building was tall, the ride on the rickety low-cost, fast-install elevator with the chain running through a column in the center was a short one. Up to the third floor, out of eight.
Big Picture’s studio was one without walls, barring the single closet and the entrance to the bathroom, which was disproportionately large and, as I passed it, riddled with bars, hangers, and clothes for both men and women.
Doubling as a change room, it seemed.
Big Picture was a photographer, and in his civilian guise, he was a tall, broad shouldered guy in a nice teal dress shirt, black slacks, and shined shoes. His beard stubble was intentional and trimmed, and his gaze penetrating.
Walls and floor were poured concrete, and the livability of the space, which doubled as his apartment, was limited to a third of the bathroom, a counter with some kitchen appliances and a single oven burner, and a bed that jutted out from the wall above the desk, supported by two concrete pillars. Each of the windows had three curtains, to allow varying levels of light.
That wasn’t really what caught my eye, so much. There were high-quality pictures on every surface, and the expansive, expensive apartment had lots of surfaces. All were large-scale, high resolution portraits, most of them full-body, some nude in the tasteful sense. One of the pictures was Brio’s, the very same stylized image that would have been hung on the wall of Foresight’s headquarters. This would be the guy who had taken those pictures for them to hang in their headquarters.
Roughly a quarter of the pictures were civilians or capes out of costume, a quarter were capes in costume, like Brio’s, and a full half of the people on the walls were case-fifty-threes.
“I know her,” Chicken Little said, pointing.
Chantilly. The young Case Fifty-Three with skin cut like lace, forming a fabric around her, the intricately cut holes in her skin revealing raw flesh beneath. She had been part of Faultline’s crew.
And I know of him, I thought, looking at Big Picture.
“I don’t have long, but if there’s information I can give, I’m happy to help,” he said. He extended a hand to shake, and Tattletale shook it. Chicken Little reached out to shake as well. “I’m fine if you want to skip pleasantries and cut right to the chase. You can call me L.J.”
I pretended not to notice the handshakes, and turned to look at the artwork, standing with my hands clasped behind my back, doing my best to deflect as innocently as I could without picking a fight or having to shake his hand. Skipping pleasantries, in a way.
My eye found the ‘L.J.M.’ embossed in the corner of each.
Big Picture was the guy who’d admitted to Foresight that he’d done what he was accused of, so the character assassination angle seemed like it had flopped or… had gone by a route even more subtle than mine or Ratcatcher’s.
“You were going to be recruited by Foresight,” Tattletale said.
“I was hired to help bring in Orchard. I posed as a would-be customer.”
The name drew my attention, turned my head.
“You know them?” he asked.
“Yes,” Tattletale said.
“Yeah,” I said. “They’ve come up in passing.”
“I don’t,” Chicken Little said, raising a hand. Tattletale put a hand on his shoulder, and he lowered the hand.
“They made an art of turning people into… people of another kind of aesthetic. Foresight and other teams are handling the remainder of the Orchard business,” he said.
“You posed as a customer, and… something went wrong?” Tattletale asked.
“I posed too well,” Big Picture said. “Because of my work as a civilian and rogue, internet circles I traveled in, I knew the language, I knew names, I knew the kinds of people they associate with or the kinds of people who would associate with them. It raised questions. I brushed it off as having to do with my power.”
“But it wasn’t,” I said. “You do associate with those people. The kind of people who really, really like Case Fifty-Threes.”
I was being polite because Chicken Little was in the room.
“I very much appreciate the beauty of Case Fifty-Threes, and other people with altered forms,” he said. “Unique shapes, appearances, traces of memories or accents from worlds we may never discover. But I want to stress that I think you’re putting me in the same category as people like Orchard’s customers, and that is not me.”
“But?” Tattletale asked.
No, not ‘but’, I thought. That was not the follow-up I would have used.
“But I’d researched Orchard on my own, for reasons having nothing to do with wanting to take away another individual’s choice. Because there was a period where I wanted to be one of them.”
He indicated with one hand, at where a print was mounted on the wall, of Gully, one of the west-coast Wards, if I was remembering right. Hunched back, overbite, and muscles that seemed to weigh her down until she could barely stand. In the art, she peered through dreadlocks with an eye that was framed to be bright and striking.
An old picture. Sveta had remarked that Gully wasn’t around anymore.
“But you didn’t,” Tattletale said.
“I couldn’t come to terms with the risks.”
“They brainwashed people. You were worried they’d brainwash you while you were at their mercy.”
“More or less,” he said, meeting Tattletale’s gaze with a level stare.
Fuck, this guy creeped me out.
“Foresight found out?” Tattletale asked.
“They were tipped off. They asked, and I was honest. There was a brief misunderstanding where I was taken as a photographer of an… adult sort. But that was never a focus.”
Sveta thinks you are, I thought. And so do I. I’ve seen pictures.
The only pictures that showed any excessive amount of skin were adults, both normal people and Case Fifty Threes, but I could see the darkness in Gully’s eye, and I could see the defensiveness in the lace-girl Chantilly’s picture. Arms folded, body turned partially away, neck rigid and chin set. It wasn’t a smiling picture. Not a lot of them were. There were a lot of dark, grainy backgrounds.
Gentle Giant was an adult, and the picture had him stand with his back to the camera, and by the look of it, he wasn’t standing tall, but bent forward, head ducked down slightly, his eye glancing over his shoulder in a wary or uncomfortable way. Mottled, mossy skin, with bare back, buttocks, and the backs of his thighs.
Or was I seeing those things only because Sveta hated him so much that I felt obligated to? Because the pictures, when they’d first come up on the scene and started popping up wherever Case Fifty-Threes were involved, were ones that Sveta had dissected while hanging out in the hospital room with me?
That Sveta had seen the feedback from people in her small, insular community, that they’d been paid handsomely for the photos, many of them desperately in need of that money, that the photographer hadn’t done anything wrong that they could put their finger on, and they’d still walked away uncomfortable and unhappy, then been unhappier still when the pictures started circulating in certain circles, and in some select cases, outraged when one picture in particular had taken off and saw the photographer indulging in his fifteen minutes of fame and his weeks of gallery showings. There had been campaigns and outreach to other Case Fifty-Threes to warn them off. But the money drew them in.
The discomfort and outrage had even extended to the way the tame, clothed images like Gully’s had been used. Chantilly’s image being on the wall suggested he’d carried on after getting set up again, because it looked too recent to be pre-Gold-Morning.
I was trying to be fair, to extend a benefit of a doubt. And I was groping beyond the point that there was a logical, empathetic, human rationale for what he did. I was reaching more into the territory that pegged him as stupid, incapable of understanding that he’d wronged people, because the wrong could be the sort that was hard to grasp.
When in doubt, assume circumstances beyond their control, assume context. When that failed, assume ignorance. And even there, seeing how he’d done well, how he didn’t seem stupid or incapable, I couldn’t apply that label. When that failed… I wasn’t sure.
He was exploitative. The fact he wasn’t acknowledging the truly scummy side of Orchard was bothering me more. Brainwashing? The victims hadn’t been willing.
“Who tipped them off, and how?” Tattletale asked.
“I assumed it came from within, from internal background checks,” Big Picture said. “It didn’t?”
“No. I don’t think so. You might have enemies,” Tattletale said.
“Oh, I definitely do. It’s a very dramatic world, art,” he said. He smiled, eyes crinkling a bit.
“If we go back to Foresight and ask, are you okay with them sharing?” I asked.
“I’m not bothered. I’m upfront about my art and where I come from. We parted amicably, as I saw it.”
“Great,” I said. My eyes scanned the pictures. Even the innocent ones with warm smiles -mostly civilians or capes out of costume- left me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I turned to Tattletale. “We should go.”
“Is there a rush?” she asked, with a tenor or vibe that made me feel like she was jabbing at my jugular because I’d exposed too much throat. Putting me on the spot.
I turned to Chicken Little, “Want to go wait outside?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Dirty move,” Tattletale said. But she didn’t stop Chicken.
Chicken Little paused before leaving. “Thank you for inviting us in. They’re really good pictures.”
“Thank you,” Big Picture said.
“They’re dark, though.”
“They can be,” Big Picture said, turning to look at Gully’s picture, her head, face, and dreads seeming to emerge from the picture, out of darkness and into light.
“Do you want that darkness, along with wanting to be them?” Tattletale asked.
I was spared the continuation of the conversation by the ringing of my phone. I put a hand on Chicken Little’s shoulder to guide him to the door of the studio as I put the phone to my ear.
“What happened to the communication blackout?” I asked.
“Emergency,” he said. “Weld came by to check in, I don’t even know what’s going on, but Tristan’s trying to handle it and he’s not having any luck, and now all hell is breaking loose.”