A Second Generation Whateley Academy Story
Fire Over Phoenix
Astrodragon & Domoviye
Monday, November 14th, Phoenix Arizona, a very secret base.
Samantha Connor frowned as she walked into the room they used as an operations centre. It was a warm afternoon in Phoenix for this late in the year, and the air conditioning seemed to be having one of its 'me' days again. Still, given how much the FrankenCorp paid her for her talents, she could put up with a little warmth. She still made a mental node to go and shout at the maintenance people about it. If they couldn't keep a simple thing like the AirCon working properly, she was concerned about the smooth running of some of the more exotic pieces of machinery in the base.
Today the room had been laid out for the quarterly internal meeting, so she nodded to a few of the people sitting around before getting herself a coffee and joining them. These meetings were mundane, boring, and didn't actually tell anyone anything they didn't know, but Head Office, and in particular the HR department insisted on them. Claimed they built team spirit and loyalty to the company or some such rubbish. While the people who worked for the company were certainly loyal to it, the reasons and the methods used to ensure that had absolutely nothing to do with team meetings. So she made small talk with some of the others while waiting for their boss to arrive.-
Mr. Anderson wasn't what you would call a fan of these meetings himself, but as the head of the Phoenix office, he felt it necessary to show a good example and to be fair the meetings did make a break from the usual office routine. And it did give him a certain amount of internal amusement to see the expression on their faces when he rolled out the spreadsheet part of the presentation. He looked around, then tapped the lectern with the remote control, before putting up the first slide on the screen.
"Now, we have two new brochures for our customers, one for the use of the mutant body parts by the transplant group, the second for the foodies. As you can see, we have some new ideas as to what we can transplant from our mutant acquisitions, thanks to some advances in the medical area over the last year. The big problem is still the brain, of course, and while our trials have met with some progress, the fatality rate in our test subjects is still, I'm afraid, too high to offer the process for sale. However, our medical division thinks that a few new ideas will in time reduce that, at least to a fatality level that will be acceptable for the supply of powered minions. Of course, there is an issue there, as we need to make sure that any minion who receives mental powers isn't in a position to find out how low the success chances were, but that's just an issue for the logistics division. In the meantime, Head Office wants us to keep looking for suitable brains, even if the mutants aren't terribly useful for anything else, as they want to keep the research going ahead at full speed."
He nodded at the raised hand of one of the men. "Yes, Allen, I can guess what your question is. While it would be nice for the bottom line if we can use the rest of the body for upgrades, in this case, it isn't the main driver. I'm sure we can use a lot of them for the food program, after all even for the foodies there isn't much demand for brains after that issue with Kuru a few years ago, but the other organs and meat are always in demand. With the non-mental powers, the financial projections show we still make a lot more profit from the powers than the meat, even with the extra costs of the operations, so as we did last year we'll prioritise those unless we have a specific request. Which reminds me, the updated quarterly requests have arrived, and the database was updated this morning, please remember to take a look at them for when you are looking out for suitable candidates."
He looked around his audience. "Any questions?"
"One, Sir. I see the projected target for the next year is 10% up on last year. I think we can manage that, but we are starting to max out the live storage facility, and while we have ample refrigerated storage for body parts, many of the transplants are best done from the live subject, especially those with any degree of regeneration. Can we look at expanding the live storage while we still have some spare capacity?"
"That's a good point. Yes, I will talk with Head Office about funding, and I'll let you know."
"I'd like to raise the transportation issue. Since we were designated the Regional Centre, the number of shipments of body parts for food use has increased significantly, and I'm worried the volume of shipping will get noticed. I would like to look at diversifying the delivery vehicles to reduce the chance of anyone noticing the traffic."
"Thank you, Malcolm. I have actually raised that point, and Head Office is undertaking a review at the corporate level to analyse the traffic and risks, and modify our procedures accordingly. Since most of the body parts are shipped as prepared meat, they consider an interception a relatively low risk at present, but the issue is being addressed."
He looked around, but no one else seemed to have any pressing issues.
"Thank you, people. As usual, once you've gone through the company email, please let my secretary know if there are any issues you think we should be addressing. We also have copies of the new medical and food brochures that we will be showing to our clients - they are quite impressive, the PR department has outdone themselves in the presentation - as well as the confidential addendum describing the details we don't want to become public."
Anderson looked up as Samantha tapped on his office door.
"Ah, Samantha. Please come in, there were a few things I wanted to go over with you."
She slid into the chair in front of his desk, looking alert. "Of course Sir."
"Now, we've got a couple of specific requests for acquisition. I'm sure you remember Azar Lopez?"
She thought for a second then nodded. "Ah yes. 12-year-old female, parents appear to be some sort of meta. But not a mutant, at least the blood sample we acquired has no sign of the MGC gene, although it is unusual. From what our observation team has been able to discover, they think it most likely she is a supernatural of some sort, their best guess is a Djinn, based on some comparisons with their database, but they don't want to commit themselves yet. It seems reports on them are quite rare, so they're hedging their bets "
"Spot on, Samantha. We have a request for several body parts by a foodie group in Chicago, so I'm authorising an acquisition for her."
Samantha frowned. "They don't want delivery by Thanksgiving, do they Sir? I don't think we have time to arrange things and ship the cuts out in time."
He shook his head. "No, they want them for Xmas, so we have ample time. They're prepared to pay the premium for fresh meat, so we'll need to allocate storage space for her once we bring her in, but we have adequate space for that right now."
"Understood, Sir, I'll mark her up as acquire as soon as possible, get it sorted before the last-minute rush of requests for the various winter holidays."
Anderson nodded. "Good. Now the second request has only just come in, and it's a medical one. We need a male were, werewolf if possible."
She thought again, then spent a moment interrogating her pad. "We do have a possibility, Sir. Fifteen years old, male, our assessment team is pretty certain he's a were-canid. We've just identified him so far, but it sounds like he's just what the client needs."
"See about adding him to the current collectible list. It's not urgent, but the sooner we get him the sooner we get paid. One of the Black Labs near Denver wants a werewolf for vivisection, so you'll need to allocate live storage for him as well."
Samantha nodded, making some notes on her pad. "I'll get the process started, that way we'll be ready to collect him once any fuss over the girl has died down. I'd like to see if we can grab her next week, police response is always slower over Thanksgiving, and after we've sorted her out the teams can have a nice Thanksgiving with their families, I know they'd appreciate that."
"Excellent, Samantha. I'll leave it in your hands, let me know if there are any issues."
"Of course Sir."
Thursday, November 17th, Chandler, Phoenix Metropolitan Area, After School
Nibbling at her BBQ chicken pizza, Faiza forced back yet another yawn. She wished she had just gone home after school, so she could catch a short nap. She'd thought pizza with friends would wake her up, but it seemed she'd stayed up a bit too late the night before.
“What's up with you, Fai,” Mandy asked..
She shrugged. “Just didn't sleep well, my brother was being annoying and didn't want to sleep last night, so I didn't sleep either.” It was a lie, but they all had siblings and knew how annoying they could be.
“Ugh, little kids are so annoying,” Alexa said. “I found my sister trying on all my clothes the other day. She totally stretched out my new shirt.”
Mandy gasped. “Not the hot pink one?!”
“Yeah, that one. Mom yelled at her, but it's still ruined.”
Faiza made the right sympathetic words, but her heart wasn't in it. Sniffing the pizza, she wondered if it had always been so bland. Everything seemed so dull now. She wished she could just speed up time until it was late at night and the city really came to life. Or maybe she could find some way to be her true self all the time. It had only been a little over a month since she'd discovered her power, but it felt like so much longer.
They finished their pizza, Faiza keeping up just enough of her end of the conversation to seem normal, and then it was time to head out. Putting on her cute pink and purple bucket hat, she waved goodbye to her friends and headed off in the opposite direction, walking a block to a dance studio.
Her dance teacher, Mary, was directing some new belly dancing students. They were the usual mix of twenty-somethings wanting to learn to 'shake their booty', and older women wanting to lose weight. She took a moment to admire how smoothly one of the oldest students moved her hips and wondered if she'd had training in the past.
“You're late, Faiza,” Mary said, spotting her in the mirror.
“I still have five minutes before class starts,” she protested, her British accent becoming a bit more pronounced.
“And it will take you eight minutes to get ready.”
Sighing, she hurried to the change room. Stripping down, she put on a pair of black short shorts, a sports bra, and an older coin belt. Since she was just practicing she wasn't about to put on the proper bedlah, which was a colourful fitted sequined top, skirt, and a fitted hip coin waist scarf. Going to Mary's office, she let herself in and took her scimitar, which had a rounded blade so she wouldn't cut herself if it dropped and headed to the studio.
Looking at the clock, she saw she had made it just in time.
After stretching and a short warm-up, she was ready to begin. Putting in her earbuds, she started a traditional Moroccan folk song. Raising the sword above her head, she gently moved her hips back and forth, keeping her upper body still. Lowering the sword, she placed the back of the blade on her head and removed her hands, leaving it perfectly balanced.
With her arms at her side, her lower body began to sway, the coins clicking gently. The gentle movements moved upwards to her shoulders and breasts, moving in time with the music. She stopped swaying, and started gyrating her pelvis back and forth. Her head and the sword never moved.
Her hands and arms moved smoothly, twisting and turning, as she leaned forward, swaying her body, and taking long slow steps first to the left and then the right. The music sped up. Standing up straight, Faiza shook her hips more quickly, her torso and upper legs moving in tandem with her hips.
Leaning back, still keeping the heavy sword balanced, her shoulders began to move back and forth as well. Bending at the knees, she knelt down, still moving every part of her body, except for her head and feet.
Her knees touched the floor and she smiled at her accomplishment. But her timing was thrown off and her shoulders and hips no longer moved together. For a split second, she was unbalanced, and the sword fell, landing on her feet.
“Al'ama!” she swore in Arabic. Sitting down properly so she could cradle her bruised toes.
Mary came over, leaving her students to practice the basic hip lift and shimmy. “You OK?” she asked.
“Yeah. No toes broken,” Faiza said.
“So what did you do wrong?”
“I was so happy about getting to the ground, that I forgot to keep my rhythm.”
Mary nodded. “Good, you know where you messed up, you can start working on fixing it. Stop focusing on just one aspect of the dance, and think about the whole routine. Stay a bit later today and I'll help you go over the routine.”
“Wish I could,” she said, “but I have to get home for supper. I can come in for some extra hours on Saturday, OK?”
“All right. I want to see you here at nine, ready and willing to work your butt off. You're good, but you need to practice if you want to start doing some real competitions,” Mary told her.
“I know. I'll be here,” she assured her.
Helping her to her feet, Mary gave her shoulders a comforting squeeze. “Good. Keep practising, and remember don't get stuck in the moment.”
Picking up her sword, she reset her music and started again.
Running through the door Faiza breathed a little easier seeing she was just in time for supper. “Mama I'm here!” she called. Taking off her things, she walked quickly to the bathroom to wash up. She came out to see her brother and older sister setting the table, so she went to get the drinks.
“You were almost late, Faiza,” her Mama admonished her in Arabic while putting the finishing touches on the couscous and sardine meatballs.
“Sorry, Mama. I hurt my foot, and missed the first bus,” she said in the same language, pouring five cups of mint tea.
“Your foot seemed perfectly fine when you went running through the house.”
“I didn't want you to worry about me, so I pushed the pain away and made sure to be on time,” she replied.
That got a moment of silence, then her Mama conceded the point to her. “Get the tea to the table and then get your father.”
She hurriedly did as her Mama asked, then went upstairs and knocked on the door of her Babba's study. When there was no response, she softly opened the door and smiled at the sight of him sitting in his recliner with his nose stuck in a book. It looked like 'La Vida Es Sueño', his favourite Spanish play, that was written in 1636. He had read it to her when she was six, and it always put her to sleep. In fact it still put her to sleep even though she was thirteen.
“Babba,” she said, “time for supper.”
He jerked upright, almost losing his glasses. “Oh Fai, it's that late?” he said in flawless Spanish.
“Yes, Babba,” she said, also using Spanish, hers was much worse with a strong Moroccan accent.
“I'll be down in just a minute,” he said, putting his book aside.
Nodding, she headed downstairs where supper was waiting. Her older sister Layla, was discretely tapping away at her phone before their parents came, and Rachid, her younger brother, was staring hungrily at the food like a shark. Taking her seat, she was thankful she'd managed to finish her slice of pizza earlier, or she'd be ravenous.
Their parents came to the table, and as soon as they had filled their plates, Faiza and her siblings filled theirs. She listened as they talked, it was the usual type of conversation, Babba talked about one of his university students that had impressed him in his North African literature class. Then Mama mentioned a dress she was altering for a customer. Layla said her day had been fine, and didn't talk much, and Rachid told them a disjointed story about his school day, jumping around so often it was hard to keep up.
“You've been quiet, Fai,” Mama said. “Has anything interesting happened with you?”
“Mrs. Baker thinks I should start seriously competing in dance,” she said.
“And what do you think?” Babba asked.
She shrugged. “I'm not sure. I like dancing, but I don't know if I want to put that much effort into it.”
“Your grades are good enough, if you decide to do it, we'll support you,” Mama said, smiling a little proudly.
“I'll think about it,” she said.
Thursday, November 17th, Chandler, Phoenix Metropolitan Area, 11:30 pm
Faiza woke up, with her phone beeping incessantly under her pillow. She was tired, but she'd gone to bed early so she wasn't exhausted despite it being midnight.
She strained to hear in the darkness.
The house was silent, even Layla was asleep at this hour. She could just hear her father snoring in his room at the end of the hall. It was now or never.
Creeping out of bed, she stripped off her nightshirt and underwear. Closing her eyes, she mentally flipped a switch. Her body tingled, electricity and ice flowed through her, changing her. Where an average-sized thirteen-year-old girl had been, a petite were-fennec fox now stood.
The once dark room was lit up like a cloudy day, her enormous ears picked up every sound in the house, and her nose twitched as the world came alive with smells. She heard her brother breathing deeply through the wall, her mother shifted in her sleep, and her sister was tapping something onto her phone.
Double checking that her bedroom door was locked, Faiza padded on silent feet to her dresser taking out a black bathing suit that fit her now four-foot-four frame. It took her a minute to get her tail through the small hole she'd made in the back of the suit, and getting her fur comfortable took a little bit longer. Opening her bedroom window, she jumped down from the second-story window and ran off into the night.
It was time for Fanak to do her part to keep her neighbourhood safe.
Sticking to the shadows, she skulked away from her home. Her sensitive ears and nose helped her avoid being seen by the few people who were awake at this hour, and the black bathing suit hid the creamy white fur that covered her belly and chest. If anyone did see her, they'd see her reddish cream fur that covered her legs and arms, or her fox-like head and tail. The thick pads of her feet helped her keep from being noticed as well. They made her steps virtually silent and could even step on broken glass without any pain. She still wasn't used to running around barefoot in the city, but she couldn't think of anything that would fit her feet while letting her use her claws for running and climbing.
A few local websites had gotten blurry photos of her, and even taken pictures of her paw prints, but the general consensus was that she was a large coyote or a stray dog. Only a few people had gotten close to the truth.
Once she was far enough away from her house, she began loping down the street, not so worried about being seen. She made surprisingly good time despite her short legs, and it took almost no effort. In her human form, she would have been quickly left gasping for breath, she had to resist chirping with joy.
As she ran, her ears were hard at work, listening for sounds that shouldn't be there, It was a nice neighbourhood, but in the last two months, she'd stopped a house robbery, a few car thefts, vandals, and a nasty case of child abuse. That last one had been hard to deal with, but she'd recorded about a minute of it from the window before breaking in to put a stop to it. She'd run away as the cops came, and sent the video to the police anonymously the next day. So she hadn't had to actually show up and explain what she'd seen. They were still trying to figure out what had happened that night, having only a weird report of a monster breaking into the house. But the parents had been charged, and the kid was with a relative, that was her first big win.
She thought about going to her school where she'd seen the strange teen girl and her moving crew the other night. The floating boxes and the girls' weird coppery smell still bugged her. She'd spent most of the previous night trying to figure out what was going on, without success.
Shaking her head, Fanak decided not to waste her time. Unless she was willing to break into the building, there wasn't much she could do about the copper girl. At least not until the girl actually did something.
Since tonight seemed to be a peaceful one, she headed for the nearby Desert Breeze Park. It was almost always quiet there and she could spend an hour or two training before heading home. She had to be more careful to avoid people, so she stuck to backyards, and running along store roofs. It had surprised her at first how she could stand just a few meters away from someone and they wouldn't notice her, simply because they never looked up.
Reaching the park, with only a few shouts of surprise left in her wake, Fanak sniffed the air, trying to decipher the various smells and separate them into something manageable. There was the constant smell of exhaust and pollution from the city, many types of flowers and plants, animals, the fading scent of people, and many, many more. If she concentrated on it too much, it could easily become overwhelming. Kneeling on a clean spot of grass behind some bushes, she closed her eyes and tried to clear her mind.
Breathing deeply, she focused on her nose. A breeze was coming from the west, bringing the scent of water from the fountain, she could smell the flowers planted especially to attract hummingbirds, she didn't know the names of most of them, but easily pictured them in her mind, connecting them to their smells. There was a new scent, it was odd. Taking another deep breath, she tried to ignore the other smells.
As she filled her lungs, she began to fidget, feeling a rising heat in her stomach and pelvis.
Her eyes snapped open. “NOPE!” she exclaimed.
Now she could place the smell, it was a lot like the smell from her parents' room on mornings when they were both really relaxed, and what her sister sometimes smelled like when she was talking to her boyfriend on the phone. Whenever she'd smelled it at home it was only for a minute or two at most, and almost lost in the background, getting a big whiff of it was not something she was ready for.
“No more practice smelling tonight,” she said.
Taking off at a run, Fanak headed for the thickest part of the park. Part of her training was learning how to run silently through any terrain. Doing that in a city was pretty easy, but in trees and bushes, it was much harder. Being a city girl, first in Casablanca and now in Chandler, she had never spent much time in the wilderness and it showed as twigs snapped and her fur caught on the plants.
She came to a halt, her enormous ears moving to pinpoint the sound. She heard grunting, and what sounded like a car shaking. Sniffing the air, the smell of sex was even stronger, but now it was mixed with fear.
Bolting through the bushes, she headed for the noise, hearing a woman trying to talk as something covered her mouth. A fist hit flesh, there was a gasp of pain followed by sobbing.
Fanak came to a parking lot, deserted except for a single vehicle. Her claws clicked against the asphalt. Using her momentum, she rammed her fist through the rear drivers' side window, her body hit the door, rocking the car.
An oversized clawed hand grabbed the man by the back of his pants. She dragged him kicking and screaming out of the car, revealing a teenage girl curling up into a fetal position clutching her stomach.
Tossing the would-be rapist to the ground, she snarled. Despite her small size, she still looked like a werewolf, with the fangs and claws that went with it. She saw that he was a teenager as well, probably only seventeen.
He tried to kick her. She grabbed his foot and squeezed, not trying to break it, just making sure he knew he was completely and utterly outclassed. He began sobbing in pain and terror. Kneeling down, she put her knee on his chest. The fight was out of him, sheer panic held him frozen in place.
Spitting in his face, she used a claw to trace a meaningless symbol on his forehead. Her voice was guttural and snarling, as she spoke with a muzzle that wasn't meant for human language. “I cast a spell on you. You hurt a woman again, you try to rape a woman, you hit a woman, the hounds of hell will come for you.”
She spoke a few Berber words she had learned back home in Morocco, certain he wouldn't understand them, and spat on him again. Returning to English, she said, “The spell is cast. If you break this geas, your ass is mine.”
Putting her claws into the waistband of his jeans and underwear, she shredded them. Throwing the rags away, she stood up and kicked him. “Now run, before I get angry,” she said.
He got to his feet, confused, terrified, and humiliated. When he didn't start running, she lunged forwards, snapping her teeth. He got the message and took off screaming.
Going back to his pants, Fanak pulled out his wallet and phone. Dialing 911 she tried her best to sound normal. “Hello, I need an officer and an ambulance ASAP. There was an attempted rape, I'm not sure how hurt the girl is, but she's badly shaken. The rapist is running away half-naked.” Before the operator could ask any questions, she gave the location and hung up.
Looking in the car, the girl looked like she was in shock, huddled against the far side of the car staring at her with wide eyes. Her scent was full of terror, if she tried to calm the girl down it would probably only scare her more. Turning away she headed back into the park, getting out of sight briefly before circling back to keep an eye on things until the police showed up.
A few minutes later she had to cover her ears to protect them from the loud sirens. It wasn't unbearably loud, just a little painful. The girl got out of the car and pointed to where she'd seen Fanak run off, then in the direction of her, hopefully, ex-boyfriend.
Satisfied that she'd done enough good for the night, Fanak ran for home, she didn't want to have to deal with the police, they weren't exactly approving of teen vigilantes. Not that she really cared what they thought, she knew she was doing good, and that was all that mattered.
Four miles away, Iron Rain put away his binoculars, he'd seen enough. Snapping his fingers to cancel the warping effect bending the light to his eyes, he grinned with delight, dollar signs dancing in his eyes. His clients hadn't put in an order for a fox girl, they might not even know she existed. If he brought her in, he might get a finders fee, plus the bounty.
He had a good idea where she lived, he could collect her tomorrow night.
Friday, November 18th, Chandler, Phoenix Metropolitan Area, Dawn
“Ow, ow, ow. I thought I was tougher than this,” Faiza said, poking at her hand and arm.
When she'd gotten home last night, her hand hadn't looked bruised, and the scratches weren't that bad, with the bedroom light on and not being exhausted, it was a different matter. her swollen knuckles and long scratches on her arm were not only very visible, but painful. So punching through a car window WAS a bad idea.
Peeking her head out her bedroom door, she saw that everyone was still in bed, not quite ready to start the day. Going to the bathroom, she swallowed some painkillers, hoping they'd help deal with the swollen knuckles. Washing the cuts off, she rubbed some antiseptic cream into them. She'd done that last night, so she wasn't too worried about infection, but better safe than sorry. Band-aids went over the worst of the cuts.
“Looks like today is a long sleeve day,” she muttered.
Rushing through her regular morning routine, she made it back to her bedroom without being seen. Throwing on a brown, long sleeve tee with thumb holes solved the bruised knuckles problem, no worry about the sleeves slipping back. Looking out the window she saw grey clouds were covering the sky. It looked like today would have one of the rare November rains in Phoenix.
Pleated Chino pants were next, the wide-legged tan pants went well with her shirt and matched her mood. Topping it off, she wrapped a bronze and gold patterned head scarf loosely around her head, draping the ends over her shoulders. Her sandy brown hair, which had been a chestnut brown a few months ago, hung down her back, but the top of her head would be protected from any rain.
Ready to meet the day, it was time for breakfast. On the way to the kitchen she heard her brother praying in his room and smirked, he was so obviously worried about his upcoming math test and hoping for a bit of divine fortune. Leaving him be, Faiza went to the kitchen and got breakfast ready for everyone. It was a simple assortment of breads, jams, some olive oil, olives and goat cheese, with a kettle boiling for mint tea, easy enough for her to get out despite her sore hand.
Pouring herself a cup of orange juice, she sat down and began drizzling strawberry jam on a pita. Mama was the first to arrive, she gave Faiza a thankful smile at seeing breakfast was served and sat down to eat. The rest of the family trickled in, not saying much, since it was so early, and in her Babba's case he was reading something from work on his phone and her brother was looking over some notes that looked like math.
Her sister was the first to rush off, pausing just long enough to give Mama and Babba a kiss on the hand and say goodbye, before running out to meet her friends. Her brother and Babba were next, Faiza ruffled Rachid's hair wishing him luck on his test.
“Fai, I want you to be careful when you are outside,” Mama said when they were alone.
“I always am, Mama,” she replied.
“I know, but please be more careful.” She tapped her phone and a projection appeared, 'Monster Attacks Teens!'
In disbelief, Faiza read the article from one of the larger newspapers in Phoenix. While the police weren't releasing any official details, sources claimed that a werewolf-like creature had attacked two teens at Desert Breeze Park, there were pictures of the shattered car window, bloody fur, and clawed footprints that weren't quite human.
Hiding her clenched fists beneath the table, Faiza nearly turned into her other form, the need to vent her anger was almost too much to bear. She'd saved that girl, gotten hurt doing it, then called the police, and this was how she was repaid!
Mama went to her side, wrapping her arms around her. “Don't be scared. It mostly seems to come out at night, so just make sure to be careful and be home before it gets too late.”
Kissing her hand, Faiza got up. “I should get to the school bus, I don't want to be late.” She wanted to say something else, to convince her Mama that the 'monster' wasn't bad, but she really couldn't think properly with how angry she was feeling.
Slipping on her shoes, she hurried to the bus stop.
Chandler, Valley Middle School, Lunchtime
Faiza had just sat down at her usual table when her friends Mandy and Alexa came rushing over with their trays.
“Did you hear the latest about the Chandler Monster?” Alexa asked.
She wanted to groan in disgust, it seemed like she'd been hearing about the 'monster' all morning. They lived in The Valley, they had huge supervillains running around like The Cannibal and The Hungry Ghost, who actually ate people. Her Babba had a student in his Spanish literature class who was dating The Mogollon Monster, an 8-foot-tall hairy mutant who was a member of the Phoenix Warriors. A petite, pretty, were-fox wasn't exactly big news, and hardly a monster.
“What now?” she asked.
“The police said that the Monster actually stopped an attack last night,” Mandy said, looking at her phone.
Ignoring her food, which wouldn't get worse from getting cold, Faiza got on her phone and went to Para-Watch, typing in Chandler Monster. Right at the top was a new release from the police. Scanning it, she saw that they were correcting the rumours from that morning, saying the 'Monster' had stopped an assault, and they wanted the person who they believed was a mutant to come in for a statement.
“Cool!” she said.
“Do you think we finally have a superhero?” Alexa asked.
“We're big enough, but we aren't exactly a dangerous place,” Mandy said. “There are plenty of other areas that could use a superhero, they'd get bored here dealing with robberies and vandalism.”
Alexa stabbed her meatloaf. “Don't bother me with facts, I want a superhero to call our own. Almost all the rest of The Valley has a superhero, Mesa even has the Elementals to call their own. Why can't we get a hero?”
“I think we need a supervillain first,” Faiza said. “Once we get a supervillain, the superhero will actually have someone to fight and turn into a nemesis.”
“OK, who would make a good supervillain? We hypnotize them, convince them they're a supervillain, and a superhero will come along to deal with them.”
“Mr. Hartshorn,” Mandy said, naming the hated vice-principal. “I can see him leading an army of brainwashed slaves.”
“OH NO! Gross!” Faiza exclaimed, covering her eyes. “I have a mental image of him in spandex. I need brain bleach!”
As her friends laughed, she desperately tried to think of anything else that didn't involve an overweight, balding, old man in a skin-tight suit.
Chandler, After School
Sitting in a coffee shop close to their school, Faiza sipped her tea, while her friends enjoyed their coffee. How they could like the bitter drink, she didn't know, sweet tea was good enough for her.
Mandy looked around, making sure no one was too close to their little corner table. “Can I trust you guys to keep a secret?” she asked.
“Yes, definitely,” Fanak said, followed a second later by Alexa's assurance.
“My brother's a mutant.”
Faiza's jaw dropped, at the news that her friend's twin brother was a mutant. “You're serious? Randy's a real mutant?”
Mandy nodded. “We thought something was weird all week, so my parents took him in for testing yesterday. He's a level 1 energizer, who can heat things with his hand. He can't boil water, just keep his hot chocolate hot, but he's got powers, how cool is that?”
“That's really cool,” she replied. She hid a smile, her power was a lot better than just having warm hands.
Alexa leaned in trying to keep her voice low. “That's neat. But if I was going to be a mutant, I'd want something really cool to make up for all the bad stuff.”
“It's not that bad,” Faiza said.
Her friend looked at her like she was nuts. “You've got a trigger happy MCO to deal with, H1, people who will freak out just hearing that you're a mutant, you-”
“You can't play in sports,” Mandy said. “Mom and dad pulled Randy off of his little league team this morning."
“OK, I stand corrected,” she said. While her friends talked some more, Faiza mentally kicked herself for forgetting about the sports issue. Reading about all the rules and laws for mutants after manifesting, it simply hadn't clicked that her dancing could be considered a sport. It wasn't like she had any special powers unless she changed into Fanak. Suddenly her decision of whether to start dancing competitively was decided for her.
Now that that was settled, she really wasn't that upset about it. If she was going to keep patrolling her neighbourhood with the eventual goal of becoming a superhero, she wouldn't have time for competitions. She'd barely have enough time for school, friends, family, and just dancing for fun and exercise.
“I wonder if I'll manifest.”
“What?” Faiza asked, having lost track of the conversation.
“Since Randy is a mutant, there's a good chance I could manifest too. I'm the right age for it,” Mandy said.
“You'd probably get some power like your brother. Maybe you could control fire,” Alexa said.
Faiza shook her head. “Siblings usually don't get similar powers, it's pretty random for some reason. You could be an exemplar or maybe a devisor. You're good at science already.”
“I'd like to be an exemplar,” Mandy said, striking a pose. “Being amazingly gorgeous would match perfectly with my natural charm.”
“If I got to choose a power,” Alexa said, “I'd want to be a gadgeteer. School would be a breeze and I could make a fortune inventing things. What about you Fai?”
Not wanting to risk hinting at her real power, Faiza pretended to give it some thought. “I'd want a power that lets me help people, like healing.”
“Shoulda guessed, the goody-two-shoes would choose something like that,” her friend said, smiling to take the sting out of it.
Mandy shook her head. “I'd hate being a healer, way too much stress and expectations. Now if I had a really strong power, I'd want to be a supervillain. Making my own rules, taking what I want, kicking ass, and taking names.”
Biting back a laugh, Faiza shook her head. She could not picture Mandy as a supervillain, the girl was too scrawny and friendly for that. She was the girl next door, who looked like she'd freak out at the sight of blood.
Alexa didn't bother to hide her amusement. “You as a supervillain? Never gonna happen, you can barely carry your book bag.”
“Hey, I could do it if I had the power and put some effort into it. That new villain, Forte, doesn't look very tough, but she took down Jackalope and an entire gang by herself. And she's only a few years older than us,” Mandy said.
“She also robbed a college for a backpack full of supplies,” Faiza pointed out. “That's not exactly the calling card of a successful supervillain.”
That just earned a shrug. “Gotta start somewhere. And she did get away with robbing two banks.”
Rolling her eyes, Faiza let her win the argument. They were both cape watchers, but while she was interested in the heroes, Mandy liked to watch the villains, vicariously living out her dark side through them. It was actually kind of funny, since the girl had never been in trouble, and would cower whenever the principal passed her in the hallway.
“What do you guys want to do this weekend?” Alexa asked, clearly bored of capes and cowls.
Saturday, November 19th, Chandler Phoenix
Stepping out of the change room, Faiza thought about how she'd tell her dance teacher that she wouldn't be dancing competitively. It wasn't a big deal for her, but she knew Mary had been hoping she would start. Not only did her teacher think she had the talent to dance professionally, but it would also be a big boost to the dance studio if she won.
She really didn't want to disappoint her teacher. The dance studio had been a blessing when she'd first arrived in the US. Dancing had helped her get away from her worries of being new to the country, the homesickness, and the culture shock. Unfortunately with her new goals, there wasn't time to put in the necessary hours. More importantly, once she got her MID and introduced Fanak to the world, she and the dance studio would be in a lot of trouble if she did compete.
Mary came up to her, smiling and looking ready to run a marathon. “Good morning, ready to get started?”
“Yes. But first, I should tell you that I don't want to dance competitively. I prefer doing this for fun,” she said.
The smile faded a little but didn't go away. “OK Fai, I understand. But if you change your mind let me know, you would be great at it. So this morning we're going to practice your sword dancing, by the end you'll be able to do the entire dance without cutting off your toes. Let's start with the stretches.”
Rolling her shoulders Faiza went to the middle of the studio and raised her arms.
“What happened to your arm?!” Mary demanded.
Cursing silently, she looked at her still swollen hand and cut-up arm. She'd gotten used to the dull ache of her knuckles, and totally forgotten the injury. “I hurt it the other day. It's not a big deal.”
Her teacher gently raised her hand to get a better look at it. “Did you punch a window?”
“I did something really stupid and hurt myself,” she admitted. “I'm not going to do it again.”
“Were you trying to hit someone?”
She shook her head, glad she could at least be honest with her answer. “I didn't fight anyone, I just didn't think before doing something embarrassing.”
“Come on to the office, you can't dance with your hand like that. I'll bandage it up, so you won't injure it while you practice.”
In the office, Faiza took a seat holding her arm out. This wasn't the first time she'd had to have something bandaged, usually it was for a strained muscle, not bruised knuckles, but it wasn't much different.
“Do you want to tell me the stupid thing you did?” Mary asked, wrapping a bandage around her hand.
“Do I have to?” she replied, while desperately thinking of a lie that would fit the injury.
Mary sighed. “Not if you don't want to. But you swear you did this yourself by accident?”
“I swear,” she replied. “No one was trying to hit me, no one saw me do it, and my family can be annoying sometimes but they've never done anything bad to me.”
Pinning the bandage in place, Mary patted her knee. “OK, that's good to know. Thanks for putting my mind at ease, I won't bug you about it again. Just next time, please think before you do something stupid.”
“All right, let's get started.”
Chandler, Phoenix, Afternoon
Staring at the rusted door, Faiza knew it was stupid to be there during the day in her regular form, but she couldn't help it. Her mind kept going back to the strange teenager and the floating boxes.
Why had she smelled like copper and chemicals? What was in the boxes? Why had she been moving at night?
Chandler was a pretty good place to live, with a lot less crime than most places in The Valley. Were the cartels pushing into the city? Was it a supervillain looking for a quiet place to set up shop? Or was the teen a devisor who didn't want to freak out her neighbours?
Discretely trying the door was futile, it was well locked.
Maybe she could knock on the door and see who answered.
No that would be idiotic, she had no reason to try that.
Frowning, she left the alley, she had to meet her friends.
Inside her workshop, the supervillain Forte watched the girl leave. “What the hell did she want?” she asked the empty room.
Rubbing her sore head, she looked at her table which was covered in tiny speakers, wires and cut up plastic. She didn't have time to deal with annoying kids, not with the big job coming up. Still, she couldn't risk someone finding her place. The security system was at least two decades old, even with the door well hidden, it wouldn't be hard to get past it.
Her eyes fell on the sleeper gun. It wasn't effective as a hand weapon, but as a close up trap, that could work. Music began to play in her mind. Grinning, she got to work.
Saturday, November 19th, Nighttime
Fanak ran along the street, feeling alive and full of energy.
She'd gotten a good night's sleep, and while she'd practised dancing all morning, she'd taken the afternoon and evening easy in preparation for the night. She was going to head for a busier part of the city and practice stalking some of the shadier people of the night. There probably wouldn't be any heroics, but that wasn't the point of the exercise, she wanted to learn how to follow someone without being seen. If she happened to stop a crime it would just be a pleasant bonus.
A car engine came to life, she jumped into a nearby palm tree, scrambling to the very top to conceal herself in the sparse leaves. In the darkness, she was just a dark patch that wouldn't be very noticeable from the street. And if she was seen, she could easily jump down and take off running in almost any direction. In a pinch, she could even jump onto the roof of the house, but that would make more noise than she would like.
The car drove past, completely oblivious to her presence. Jumping down, Fanak began running again.
Iron Rain watched the mutant jump out of the tree, she would make him a pretty penny. With a healthy body like hers, his current employers would have plenty of customers lined up once he brought her in. He'd been annoyed when she hadn't shown up the previous night, that was several hours he'd never get back. But problems like that were just the price of doing business, she was here now, that was the important thing.
He'd need to get closer to her to take a shot. It would be pointless to take her out now, only to have someone find her body while he drove five miles to get her. Motioning with his hand, he warped the light to his left eye, where he could keep track of her and started climbing down from his position on a convenient roof. Tracking her with one eye, while focusing on his immediate surroundings with his other eye was second nature to him.
Now that he had her in his sight, he wouldn't lose her.
Fanak crawled along a rooftop, listening to the late-night crowd made up mostly of twenty-somethings letting off stress from work or school, with a good number of older people looking to get drunk and either relive their youth or show off their money.
Peeking over the edge, the streetlights and outside lights of the bars and restaurants made the street as bright as a sunny day to her eyes. A heady mix of alcohol, perfume, sweat, food, car exhaust, and hormones filled the air, causing her to snort and give her head a shake to keep her brain clear. The dozens of different songs that were playing all along the street made her want to fold her ears down. It wasn't overwhelming, just very annoying. Ignoring the distractions, she focused on the crowd, no one looked like they wanted trouble, most were talking, smoking, cuddling, or waiting for a ride. That made her feel better since she didn't want to see anyone get hurt or robbed, but it also made training rather difficult.
Maybe she should just go home and get some sleep, it looked like the night would be a bust.
A soft thump from across the street caught her attention. A figure in a dark blue suit with white trim, and a swirling disk on his chest was standing on a roof looking at the crowd.
Fanak bit back a squeal at seeing the hero.
Port wasn't a hero who fought big-time supervillains, but in the four years of working in The Valley, he'd done a lot of good. Whenever there was a big emergency, like a fire or a bad crash, he'd show up using his teleporting power to rescue people and get the injured to the hospital in seconds. While he wasn't her favourite hero, she really respected him.
She thought about going over to say hello. Meeting a hero one on one, with no one around, had to be better than seeing them at a busy publicity event or for a quick hello on the street. Shaking her head, she decided to stay right where she was. Explaining why she was running around at night in a bathing suit would be difficult.
There was also the little detail that she was breaking the law by running around at night stopping crime. It didn't matter how many good things she'd done, she wouldn't be considered a real hero until she was eighteen. While a hero probably wouldn't arrest her, they'd certainly tell her parents. That would be a total disaster, ending with her being grounded for life.
Sighing, she watched from her hiding spot until Port stepped through a faint shimmer in the air, vanishing from sight.
“This sucks,” she muttered. “I can't even join a superhero team as a sidekick, because it's too dangerous.”
Creeping back from the edge, Fanak got to her feet, her tail drooping down. She'd do a rooftop jog around the block and if nothing interesting happened, it would be time to go home.
A ball hit the ground right at her feet.
Instinct took over. While her brain tried to figure out what was going on, her body was jumping up and away. Despite her superhuman reflexes, she wasn't quite fast enough. The ball exploded, releasing a thick cloud of sweet-smelling gas.
Fanak breathed in a tiny bit of the mist. Her mind became cloudy, and her muscles felt like rubber. Instead of landing neatly at the far side of the roof, she hit the edge, stumbled, and fell to the sidewalk below.
Landing on her back, she gasped as the breath was knocked out of her. Breathing in a lungful of clean air, she rubbed her head. The fuzziness was leaving her brain, replaced by a dull ache. There were shouts and concerned voices all around her. Struggling to stand, she looked around for her attacker.
Something sharp hit her in the back.
Spinning around there were only drunken party goers, staring at her in surprise.
Reaching around, Fanak pulled a dart out of her shoulder. It looked like one she'd seen on TV for tranquilizing animals.
Another dart flew out of the sky, piercing her stomach.
Ripping it out, she ran for her life as the world began to spin.
From his position two blocks away, Iron Rain considered shooting the fox girl a third time. She was tougher than he'd thought, most people would have collapsed from a single breath of Cuckoo Channel's Knock-Out #5. Running away after getting shot with the devised tranquilizer darts was impressive as hell.
Watching her drunkenly run down the street, he holstered his pistol. Even though the darts were fairly safe, an overdose could still happen. If the product was injured or worse yet died, he could kiss his big payday goodbye.
Expanding his warp effect, he got a nice overhead view of the area. His prey was running away from any potential crowd, but she was quickly getting farther away from him. That wouldn't do at all.
Pulling a flash-bang from his belt, he squeezed his fingers together, creating a pathway through the air, shortening the distance between them. Pulling the pin, he threw the flash-bang as hard as he could into the air. It shrank rapidly, then disappeared from view.
Knowing exactly where it would land, Iron Rain narrowed his vision again and ran towards his target.
Fanak tried to fight the effects of whatever she'd been hit with. The world was spinning, her limbs felt like lead, and she wanted to throw up, but she was still running in something like a straight line and she wasn't getting any worse. That had to be a good sign.
But those were the only good things. She didn't actually know where she was running, and she didn't know where her attacker was, which only helped fuel her panicked flight.
Something came flying out of the sky right in front of her. It exploded two meters in front of her face.
She howled in pain. Her sensitive ears bled at the sudden, overpowering noise, while blinding light destroyed her vision. She hit the ground hard, curling into the fetal position as she rolled to a stop, clutching her ears, whimpering and vomiting. The world not only spun faster but began to heave like a ship in a hurricane.
Clawing at the pavement, she tried to crawl away. The movement made her now empty stomach heave.
Her ears were ringing so loudly they hurt. She could barely see. The explosion still echoed in her head.
“I don't want to die,” she whimpered.
Laying on the cool ground, Fanak forced herself to take deep, slow breaths. She didn't know where her attacker was, so running, even if it was possible, was pointless. All she could do was try to prepare herself for what was to come.
“I'm not going to die,” she told herself.
She stayed in the fetal position, concentrating on her breathing, struggling to fight off the drugs that were running through her blood and the effects of the explosion.
Her nose twitched. Someone smelling of sweat, steel, and happiness was coming close. Through the ringing of her ears, she heard heavy footsteps. Opening her eyes slightly, she saw the blurry outline of a man coming toward her.
The world was still spinning, but not as badly. Despite her body feeling like one huge bruise, she thought she could move. Very slowly she dug her claws into the pavement, praying the person wouldn't notice.
He raised his hand, pointing something shiny and black at her.
It was now or never.
Fanak erupted from the ground. Despite the ringing in her ears, she heard a click and the hum of electricity behind her. Ignoring it, she took two unsteady hops, then jumped up, driving her claws into the wall of the nearest building.
Resisting the urge to throw up again, she hopped onto the roof and ran for her life.
Dropping the taser, Iron Rain pulled out a pistol.
Twisting the light, he watched the fox girl run along the roof. He tried to judge her movements, so he could take a shot.
She tried to jump across the road and came up short, landing hard enough on her shoulder that even he winced in sympathy. That didn't do much to slow her down, rolling to her feet, she fled down an alley bouncing off the walls, stumbling and tripping over her own feet, scrambling along the ground on all fours, only to jump back to her feet and start running again.
The gas, drugs, and flash-bang turned her formerly smooth and graceful movements, which were so easy to track and lead, into an erratic mess. If he tried to shoot her, he'd almost certainly mess.
“Dammit!” he shouted.
The fox girl was going to be a harder target than he thought. Holstering his pistol, he headed for his car, the hunt was a total bust, he'd need to come back later with his team.
Sunday morning, November 20th
Faiza groaned at the sound of her door opening, waking her from a fitful sleep.
She was nauseous and the room wouldn't stop spinning. When the curtains were pulled back letting the sunshine in, she whimpered weakly. Pain lanced through her skull, making it pound. Rolling over, she gasped, her shoulder throbbed, spreading agony down her arm.
“What's wrong, Fai?” her Mama asked, bending down to look at her.
“Sick,” she whispered, flopping onto her back. Her stomach heaved, sending bile up her throat. Swallowing the burning, bitter liquid down, she tried to pull her blanket up over her head.
A cool hand touched her forehead. “No fever,” her Mama said. “You threw up last night?”
Wiping her mouth, Faiza realized she hadn't washed her face, dried vomit was plastered to her lips and chin. Trying to think, she realized that her last memory was running away, she'd landed on a road, and then nothing. How had she made it home? And when had she changed into her nightshirt?
“Think so. Don't remember much,” she muttered. All she wanted was to go back to sleep. She hadn't hurt then.
She heard her Mama leave, followed by the sound of water running. The world faded away, as blessed peace overcame her. Then something warm and wet was gently scrubbing her face. She let out a little moan of pleasure.
“You should have told me you were sick,” her Mama admonished her. “You don't have a fever, maybe it was something you ate. You'll stay in bed all day. If you get worse, I'll take you to the doctor.”
“OK,” she said, barely listening.
Faiza didn't resist while her head was propped up and a cup of water was put to her lips. She slowly but gratefully drank it all.
“Are you hungry?”
The thought of food almost made her puke up the water. “No.”
“I'm leaving a bottle of water beside you. If you need anything, call me. I don't want you doing anything but resting.”
“OK,” she said, already half asleep.
Someone came running in. “Is Fai up yet?!” Rachid shouted. “I want to show her my new game!”
Whimpering, she covered her ears, silently begging her little brother to shut up.
“Your sister is sick,” her Mama said. “You can show me your game in a minute, as long as you are quiet. Now go wait in the living room.”
“Get better soon, Fai,” he said, a lot more quietly.
There was a kiss on her forehead, the sound of her curtains being closed, followed by soft footsteps and the door being closed. In the blessedly silent room, peaceful sleep soon came.
Monday afternoon, November 21st
“You sure you don't want to come to the pizza place with us, Fai?” Mandy asked, at the bus stop outside their school.
Faiza's stomach gurgled unhappily at the thought of food. Whatever she'd been hit with on Saturday night had largely worked its way out of her system, but her stomach still wasn't happy with her. “Sorry, I've gotta look after my brother,” she said.
Her friends waved goodbye while she leaned against a wall, looking suitably bored. Once they were out of sight, she hopped onto a bus heading towards the light rail that would get her into Phoenix. Getting a seat, she kept her eyes and ears open for anything out of the ordinary.
The man who had attacked her on Saturday obviously wanted her alive. He could have shot her with a bullet at any time, killing or badly injuring her, instead, he'd used a gas, tranquillizer darts, some kind of flash bomb, and she was pretty sure he'd had a taser. Unless he was just going around trying to kidnap mutants at random, he had to have been tracking her, probably for a while.
So did he know what she looked like in her baseline form? Was he following her now?
There was no way of knowing. All she had was his scent, and she couldn't exactly follow her nose without turning into Fanak. Her mind had been pretty messed up by the time he'd gotten close enough for her to get a whiff of him, but the scent was locked firmly in her brain. So she had to find him where he couldn't ambush her very easily.
Unfortunately, the only way she could think of to draw him out was to give him some bait. So that's what she was going to do.
A not-so-quick bus ride followed by a light rail had her in Phoenix proper. Checking her phone, she sent a short message to her parents telling them that she'd safely made it to Mandy's house. She felt bad about lying to them, but it was the only way they'd let her stay out all evening.
Steeling herself for what she was about to do, Faiza headed for a kids' clothing store. Guessing at her size, she bought a pair of baggy jeans, a long sleeve shirt, shoes, a belt, and a jacket with an oversized hood. Leaving the store, she went down the street to Collier Center to use one of their public bathrooms. Locking the door, she took off her clothes, shoving them into her backpack. Then she turned into Fanak.
Quickly putting on the new outfit, she had to roll up the pant legs which were an inch too long. The belt was too big for her, forcing her to use a claw to make a new hole so it would fit around her waist. With her tail shoved awkwardly down her pants, she felt off balance and uncomfortable. Sitting was going to be a serious problem.
Pulling her hood up to cover her muzzle as best she could, Fanak nervously took her first steps into the light of day.
Keeping her head down, she was relieved when no one screamed at the sight of her. Taking a deep breath, she couldn't recognize any of the scents around her. That didn't necessarily mean she wasn't being followed, he could be downwind of her, or he could have partners.
The shopping center wasn't as busy as it would be in another hour or so when the after-work crowd would descend on the many restaurants in the building. So for the moment, it was perfect for her. Heading to the parking garage, she found an out-of-the-way spot.
Setting up her phone's camera to take multiple pictures, Fanak placed it on a car bumper. Jogging away, she pulled her hood back a bit revealing her muzzle, then casually walked in front of the phone as it snapped a series of pictures.
Pulling her hood forward, she went to look at her work. The pictures weren't great, she could see her muzzle clearly enough in most of them, but it was a weird angle. Her lips curled, the nearest she could come to smiling with her fox face, they were perfect.
Getting onto Para-Watch, she signed in under a new account made that morning for just this purpose. She uploaded two of the pictures, typing, 'I think I saw the Chandler Monster! Collier Center in Phoenix.' Reading it over, she was pretty sure she'd used the right keywords. If the man was tracking social media for her, it would get his attention.
Doing something like this would almost certainly get her suspended, the moderators took privacy pretty seriously, which was one reason she'd made the new account. Still, it would take several hours before the pictures were removed, and by then her enemy would take the bait or wouldn't. There wasn't much she could do now, but make herself somewhat obvious.
Getting back onto the street, Fanak wandered without any real idea where to go, just letting herself be seen. There were some gasps, she heard a few people discreetly take her picture, and plenty of people gave her a wide space when they passed her. Someone spit at her feet, forcing her to do a hurried skip to avoid stepping in it.
Shaking her head, she wondered what their problem was. It wasn't like she'd done anything except walk down the street. What made it worse was that she looked like a ten-year-old, that should have at least gotten her some sympathy.
Ignoring the idiots, she focused on her ears and nose. The street was noisy, making it difficult to make out any one conversation. Keeping her ears folded under the hood made it even worse. Still, she tried to catch anything that might be suspicious.
She hadn't walked far when a police siren wailed to life. Looking around, she saw a cop car race down the road as fast as it dared in the rush hour traffic. More sirens could be heard in the distance. It sounded like something big was going on. If her parents were there, they'd immediately head in the opposite direction, wanting to avoid trouble.
Fanak began running after the police car.
Soon enough she saw several police cars and a large crowd of people stopped on a street. She couldn't see what they were watching, but the scent of excitement and fear was almost overwhelming. Jogging closer, she was tempted to climb up a building to get a better look. The crowd was huge, and with her tiny body, there was no chance of getting a good view. She couldn't even hear what was going on over the sirens and talking.
A sonic boom nearly knocked her flat.
Her ears rang painfully, at the unexpected assault. Whimpering a little, she pushed back the pain and began making her way through the now lessening crowd. Dodging into any open space as the more timid watchers moved away, squeezing her way past people who were too busy trying to get photos or messaging friends to notice her, and stomping on the occasional feet, she made it to the edge of the police cordon, and was able to watch her first superhero fight.
The grey clad Jackalope, a small-time hero of Phoenix, was fighting the newest supervillain Forte. He was expertly wielding a baton, lashing out at the armoured supervillain, who was attempting to block the hits on her small shield or forearm blade. She let out a cheer as the villain tripped over the curb, possibly thanks to Jackalope's luck manipulation or simply because she wasn't a good fighter.
The villain didn't let it slow her down though, her right arm glowed. Fanak covered her ears as tightly as she could, knowing what was going to come next. A sonic boom erupted from Forte's hand. Jackalope spun out of the way, letting the blast cave in the side of a police car.
Getting back to her feet, Forte launched herself at the hero. Her hands were razor-sharp claws, and what the villain lacked in skill she made up for in speed and determination. A wicked baton blow to her knee barely slowed her down and Jackalope had to throw himself to the side, rolling on the pavement to get away from her.
Fanak wanted to jump in and help. She was tough and fast, faster than Forte was. She could run in behind the villain and get her in a bear hug, then Jackalope could get her under control.
She forced herself to stay where she was. No one knew who she was, or what she might do. The police weren't shooting at Forte, because the girls' armour was bulletproof. If they saw Fanak run in, they might think she was helping the villain and shoot her. It would also distract Jackalope, and Forte was clearly not holding back. A hit by her cannon had crippled one man, and her claws looked capable of shredding through body armour, a second of distraction could get the hero killed.
Stomping her foot, she stayed put.
Another sonic boom hit the sidewalk uncomfortably close to the crowd, making more people back away.
Without the overwhelming smells of perfume, cologne, body odor, deodorant, and hormones, Fanak was able to smell something familiar.
“You've got to be kidding me,” she muttered. The supervillain smelled weirdly of copper and chemicals, exactly like the teen girl she'd seen moving into the building beside her school a few days before .
While she stood there in shock, a golden figure dropped out of the sky, her feet narrowly missing Forte. Sun Hawk, one of the youngest members of the Phoenix Warriors, had arrived. The crowd cheered at the sudden appearance, and Fanak cheered with them, the supervillain was going down now.
The two superheroes attacked Forte with batons. Neither one of the pair was known for being powerhouses, they couldn't get a knockout hit on someone in power armour, so they didn't try. They tag-teamed the villain, not letting her catch her balance, knocking her arm down when she tried to fire her sonic cannon, slowly wearing her out.
Fanak focused on their movements, trying to memorize how they moved, forcing Forte away from the crowd, creating openings for each other to take advantage of. It was like poetry in motion.
Then Jackalope tackled Forte to the ground, kneeling on top of her, using his weight and leverage to keep her down, he got a hold of her arms. Shouting for a pair of cuffs, it looked like the fight was over.
A discordant, painful noise, like a shrieking violin, too high pitched for anyone but Fanak to hear, came from Forte. The villain's leg kicked up and her knee bent the wrong way, letting her foot slam into the back of Jackalope's skull. He slowly fell to the side, lifelessly hitting the ground, a red stain slowly spreading on the grey material.
In disbelief, she watched the villain who had been practically defeated, tackle Sun Hawk and begin racking her clawed hands against the superhero's helmet.
“Need help! This girl's fucking nuts!” Sun Hawk yelled.
Fanak's mind shouted at her, telling her to move, to help, to do something. But her eyes were glued on Jackalope, who was being dragged away by two brave police officers. The bloody stain on his costume had gotten bigger. She couldn't tell if he was dead or not. If she got into this fight, the same thing could happen to her. The pain and nausea she had felt after getting attacked on Saturday came back to her, for a second the world spun.
Shaking her head, she pushed the feeling down. If she was going to be a hero, she had to do something. Tensing her muscles, she got ready to jump over the police car and tackle the villain.
Somehow Sun Hawk threw Forte to the ground, then in an impossibly quick move, she grabbed the villain from behind and flew into the sky.
Running away from the crowd, Fanak tried to follow the hero and still struggling villain. They weren't following the streets, so even with the relatively short buildings in Phoenix, it was hard to track them. Ignoring the watching crowd, she jumped onto one of the smaller buildings, digging her claws into the side, and quickly climbed to the roof.
Throwing her hood back she watched the pair flying away. It seemed like Forte had finally given up.
She winced as another sonic boom went off. In horror she watched the hero and villain fall from the sky. Sun Hawk fell lifelessly disappearing behind a building. Forte turned in the air, pointing her arm downwards. Fanak couldn't see what happened next, but there was another sonic boom, louder than any of the rest.
Running across the roof, she jumped to another rooftop, then across the street, making her way to where the villain had fallen.
It took her a few minutes to arrive at the street, roof hopping wasn't nearly as fast as flying, but she'd made it faster than anyone else could without flying. And there was no sign of the villain, just a small crater in the road, a shocked crowd and cars.
“Ya Ibn el Sharmouta!” she swore. Forte had gotten away, and had badly injured or killed two heroes in the process.
“Stupid coward!” she snarled. “I should have helped! I was right there and I froze. Coward! You want to call yourself a hero and you act like this! Chelb!”
Feeling miserable and a failure, Fanak ran to the edge of the building and jumped away, there was nothing else she could do. She'd probably lost any potential trackers, and there was no way she'd be able to find Forte. It was time to change back to Faiza before the MCO or some hero noticed her. Then she could head home, she was useless here.
Chandler, late evening
Faiza sat curled up on a comfy chair in her room, moving between tabs looking for news on Sun Hawk and Forte.
An hour ago she'd learned that Jackalope would recover. That was straight from a press release by The Phoenix Warriors. They hadn't said much else, just that while he was badly injured it wasn't life-threatening. They hadn't said anything about Sun Hawk.
A few pictures were going around online of the fallen hero lying on the pavement. They weren't even very good ones. The Mogollon Monster had shown up seconds after she'd hit the ground and told everyone who wasn't a medic to back off. When an enraged, eight-foot-tall guy who can juggle truck engines orders people to do something, everyone with an ounce of sense does it.
Worst of all Forte had vanished. There were some pictures of the supervillain after her fall, she'd barely been able to walk, but her sonic cannon still worked. That had allowed her to take a woman hostage and drive her away. When they found the car half an hour later, the woman had been asleep and didn't know what happened after she'd stopped in an alley. The police and seemingly every superhero in the city were looking for the supervillain.
“I know where she might be,” Faiza said. She could lead the police right to her hideout. Even if the villain wasn't there, they'd be able to lay an ambush for her, or at the very least get all of her weapons and equipment. That would cripple the devisor.
But how could she convince them she was telling the truth? Reporters said that hundreds of calls had already come in claiming they knew where Forte was. She'd just be lost in the noise.
“I could have stopped her.”
She'd been a coward. She'd been right there, almost from the very start. If she'd just done something, anything, she could have kept Forte from getting away. Maybe she couldn't have helped Jackalope, but she could have, should have done something to help Sun Hawk.
“Some hero I am.”
Someone knocked on the door.
“What?” she shouted.
“Can I come in?” her Babba asked.
She wanted to say no. Dealing with people was the last thing she wanted right now. “Fine.”
He came in and quietly shut the door behind him. Worry lines creased his thin face, so different from his usual cheerful and thoughtful look. He knelt next to her, reaching out to put an arm around her, paused, clearly not sure if she wanted the contact, then settled with placing his hand on her knee. “Want to tell me what's wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing's wrong,” she said.
“Your Mama and I have been talking. You've been tired, distracted, and getting upset more easily,” he said. “I know that you're getting older, and things are changing for you. I watched your sister go through some of the same things when she was around your age,” he said. “But this seems to be more sudden and bigger. Do you want to talk about it?”
He nodded. “All right. Would you like to talk to your Mama? She's worried about you too.”
“Holding it all in won't help. We are a family, if you have a problem, we all have a problem.”
Faiza wanted him to go away, she also wanted to tell him everything. Her emotions and thoughts were all twisted up. She said the first thing she thought of, “Why do people do bad things?”
Her Babba leaned back, looking more than a little surprised. “Have you done something bad?”
She shook her head.
“All right,” he said. He rubbed his thinning hair, thinking about what to say next. After a moment or two, he straightened his back and took on his lecturer's pose. “People do bad things for many reasons. Sometimes people think they don't have any other choice or are unwilling to do the right thing because it seems too hard or it's embarrassing. We can see the worst kind of this with people carrying on a feud because their great-grandfather was murdered by someone else's great-grandfather. So clearly for honour and justice, they must kill the great-grandson, forgiveness isn't possible without risking humiliation.
“Then you have hatred. Sometimes the hatred is justified, sometimes it isn't, but it clouds peoples judgment, leaving them open to committing evil acts. Shylock from The Merchant of Venice, was a victim of society, prejudice, and many other things, naturally and regrettably, he developed a hatred for his oppressors. Unfortunately, he took his hatred out on an innocent man who had done him no wrong. He saw a chance to get his revenge on someone who represented his oppressor and leapt at the chance, leading to his downfall.”
He paused, letting his words sink in. “For others, it's a way of life. A parent abuses a child, the child grows up and having never learned better, abuses their children. Or a child grows up in a family or community with no hope, where crime, abuse, and addiction are rampant, and they fall into the same pit.
“Others will do it for power. They want control, so they abuse others. They want money, so they steal it or worse. We see this with government, corrupt businesses, cartels, supervillains and many criminals. Why worry about being good when you have power?” he asked.
“The worst kind, in my opinion, are the ones who do it for the thrill. They think it's fun, not caring about who they hurt, only worrying about themselves and their pleasure. The Marquis de Sade was one such person, committing and encouraging the vilest behaviours of man, claiming it was liberty.”
Faiza watched in shock as he seemed ready to spit in disgust. She wasn't sure who the Marquis de Sade was, but her Babba clearly hated him.
“And finally, evil is easy,” he said. “Doing nothing as others commit evil, lying to get out of work or punishment, allowing others to fail so you can succeed, it is an easy thing to do.”
She nodded in understanding. Standing still, merely watching Forte fight had been easy. She'd let fear take control, keeping her from doing what was right, so evil had won.
Twisting in her seat, she hugged her Babba. “Thanks, I know what I need to do now,” she said.
“I'm happy to help. Just remember something, we're all here for you. If you have trouble, you can always ask for help.”
“I'll remember,” she promised. “Now I'm going to bed, I've had a long day.”
After he left, Faiza went to the window, looking out into the fading light. She'd failed, there was no excuse for it, it was a simple fact. But she didn't have to remain a failure. Learning from her mistakes was a part of life, and she could make amends starting tonight.
“I'm going to take you down Forte.”
Monday 21st November, Chandler Phoenix Near Midnight
Creeping along the alley leading to Forte's hideout, Fanak was on high alert, using all of her senses to avoid any potential traps. Her nose twitched at the coppery smell, it wasn't fresh but it was strong, meaning the supervillain had been up and down the alley several times in the last few days. She'd have preferred a fresh trail, preferably one mixed with blood, but confirming this was at least one of the entrances to the hideout was almost as good.
Pulling on the rusted door handle, she clicked her teeth in annoyance, it was locked. She could try to kick it down, but it was probably booby-trapped. Looking around there weren't any convenient windows to climb through. It looked like the roof was the best option. The old brick wall had plenty of cracks for her claws, making it an easy climb.
The rooftop door was unlocked, they didn't want people getting trapped on the roof. She looked around and found some old beer cans lying around, taking one she propped the door open in case she needed to make a quick retreat.
The stairwell was unlit. Fanak paused, looking into the inky blackness. She wasn't scared of the dark, still, the utter lack of sight made her shiver. Stepping into the darkness, she gingerly made her way downstairs, listening for any strange sound and constantly sniffing the air. Her hand was clamped tightly to the rail.
It took several minutes, which felt like hours, to make her way down the stairs to the first floor. An exit light gave off a dim red glow, allowing her to make out faint outlines. She hit the light switch not caring if it alerted someone, she needed light to see and the oppressive darkness was getting to her.
Fanak looked around the short hallway. Where would a door be? Nothing obvious popped out at her, that would be too easy.
Breathing deeply she tried to pinpoint where the scent was strongest. There was very little of the coppery smell on the stairs. Going to the door, she closed her eyes, holding her hands out in front of her, she took tiny steps, following the strongest scent trail, her hand brushed against the wall opposite the door.
There was probably a button or pad that needed to be pressed. With her nose less than an inch from the wall, she methodically searched for the scent. It wasn't a quick process, as she patiently moved up and down the wall, going to the side with each pass. Finally right in the corner at about chest height for a tall man she caught the overpowering smell of copper.
Opening her eyes the spot didn't look much different from the rest of the wall. There was a dusty smear almost like any other, maybe a bit darker. Standing off to the side, she pressed it.
Fanak woke up with a splitting headache, lying on a dirty floor. The wall hadn't changed at all.
“What happened?” she muttered, trying to make sense of everything.
Through the fog and pain that filled her head, she heard sirens. The door leading outside was popped open allowing red and blue lights to shine into the hallway. A car door slammed, and her sensitive ears heard shoes scraping against the pavement.
The police were here and she looked like a criminal. Lunging to her feet, she raced up the stairs. A male voice yelled at her to freeze. Ignoring him she began jumping up the stairs. Reaching the roof, she slammed open the door, thankful it hadn't closed. Running to the side of the building opposite the police car she jumped off the roof, hitting the road with a bone-jarring landing, and kept going.
The villain must have had a trap set up for anyone stupid enough to press the button, and it set off a security alarm. If she hadn't woken up in time, she'd have been under arrest, and no one would believe that it was a setup.
Cursing her stupidity, she headed for home. The night was a total bust, and the only good thing was the cop hadn't gotten a look at her.
Tuesday 22nd November, Phoenix, Offices of Frankencorps, 10am
Samantha Connor looked around at her team, happy that they were all paying attention for once. Even the accountants.
"Now, due to some recent events in the City, we have decided to make some changes to this week's planned workload. As most of you have probably seen on the news, the Phoenix Warriors were recently involved in a fight with a new supervillain. As a result, Sun Hawk was badly injured and is in hospital. This has weakened the team, and the serious nature of her injury has distracted them. As a result, we see a window of opportunity for new acquisitions this week, and so I want you to see if any of your ongoing programs can make use of it. Now I don't want anyone rushing things just to do it now, but if we can take advantage of her hospitalization we will do so.
She waited for them to absorb the news before Sebastian put a hand up. "Ma'am, my team has been investigating a non-human girl for some weeks now. She meets a number of the requests we have in the queue for powered acquisitions. She's only twelve, and we don't think she's a mutant, she seems to have some weak powers already."
Samantha thought through the company's request list, then nodded. "Ah yes, Azar Lopez, I'm familiar with the case. How soon were you planning to bring her in?"
"Well, our original plan was to do it over Thanksgiving, people and the police are usually distracted. However we have surveillance in place, we could grab her tonight and get her all neatly stashed away before the weekend."
"No problems about moving up the date that you'd need help with?"
"No, ma'am. We've been looking carefully at that anyway, there are some hints the parents are getting itchy. If one or both of them are not human, it's possible they could have spotted something, though we have been very careful. So collecting her now is probably a good thing. We have all our plans prepared, all we need is to set the time and have reception ready for her when we bring her in."
Samantha considered for a moment. It all seemed good, and Sebastian's team was competent.
"Very well, go ahead. I'll make sure reception is prepped to receive them; send them your provisional ideas on any powers you think she might have, and I'll leave the rest up to you. Oh, and one last thing - it's the company Thanksgiving Picnic on Saturday, don't forget to let us know if you and your family are coming so we can give catering the numbers."
Tuesday 22nd November, Phoenix, early evening.
Azar Lopez looked around at the area the fight had been in yesterday and sighed in disappointment. Given how dramatic the fight had been, she'd hoped that there would be at least some signs, but it looked like the authorities had cleared everything up fast and completely, there wasn't even any police tape left. Still, she carefully scanned it all with her phone, just in case. Maybe she could put it up as an 'after' picture to HeroWatch, although she'd secretly been hoping for some signs. The rumours were saying all sorts of things about Sunhawk - that she was actually dead and it was being covered up, that she was seriously hurt and in hospital, that she wasn't badly hurt and it was all being faked, and she'd had a sort of hope that maybe something here might have suggested which one was true. Being able to put up some information that would tie down one of the competing rumours would have given her serious bragging rights on the app. If only she'd been able to get here earlier, but it was a school-day. Busy with trying to spot signs of the fight, she had no idea that hidden eyes were watching her even more carefully than she was observing the cleared-up fight scene.
With a few quick taps on her phone, she sent her mother a quick text. 'Been chatting with friends, home in 30 for dinner'. Well, she had been chatting with her friends after school, just that none of them were interested enough to come with her to check out the fight scene again. Oh well, better luck next time. So she shouldered her bag and headed off for home. It wasn't that far away, and while it got dark fast in Phoenix, the streets were well-lit and she knew the way.
"Target's left the plaza; she just texted her parents she's on her way, and from the look of it she's heading home."
"Copy that. Take her down as planned, we don't want her getting too close to home just in case her family notices something."
Sebastian was comfortably ensconced on a rooftop. Because people never looked up, and even if someone did all they would see is a couple of people reading their pads and taking in the view over the city. Of course, most pads weren't used to show a map of the immediate area with people marked and a spotting trace of the target they were going to collect. It also marked the two vans they were using - one containing the distraction team, the other the snatch squad. While he still had no definitive data on the girl having powers, he had decided to play it safe. El Scorpio was in the second, larger, van, and his power armour could cope with any unexpected surprises. The girl hadn't shown any signs of powers while they'd been observing her, but that didn't necessarily mean much. He was a well-known villain whose suit was easy to recognise; given that their monitoring of the girls' social media indicated that, like so many teenagers, she was a cape-watcher, she'd probably freeze on seeing him and that would be all over for her.
His companion spoke up. His attention had all been on his pad, monitoring the visual feed from the pair of stealth drones they were using as a data feed. "Nearly in position. About a minute unless she stops."
He nodded, and spoke into his pads microphone, alerting the two teams, while keeping one eye on his own pad and the other on his companion. A minute later, just as expected, he got a nod and a thumbs-up and pressed the 'go' button.
Down on the street, it was a normal, quiet evening in Phoenix. Azar had been walking home, not paying any notice to her surroundings as she read messages on her phone. She'd been this way enough times she didn't need to pay attention, and there weren't many people around, the people leaving work had got home now, and it was too early for the going-out crowd.
A screech of brakes made her jerk up, looking around to see what had happened, and her eyes widened as a black van jerked to a stop about 50 feet away, close to a small store. The doors slammed open, and three men in masks jumped out, heading into the store, one carrying what looked like a shotgun! She gulped, and moved back, away from the robbery - this wasn't TV, and she knew better than to stay close, no matter how exciting it all looked.
Which was, of course, exactly what her abductors had been waiting for. She'd only moved a few feet back, when two men, also masked, lunged out of the alley she was now next to and yanked her back into it before she could do much more than squeak in surprise. One of the men clamped his hand over her mouth, as they bundled her through the short alley, a large van waiting. The back door of it opened, and when she saw what was standing in it, she wanted to scream. A large suit of power armour filled the front half of the van, shaped something like a human scorpion. The shell glinted with red highlights, and the two 'eyes' glowed yellow as they stared at her. She knew enough about the local villains to recognise El Scorpio, his armour was unmistakable. Her legs went weak as she remembered he wasn't just a villain, he was also a known psychopath. The two men holding her almost tossed her in, then she was pressed between El Scorpio and them as the door slammed shut and the van lurched into motion.
"You aren't going to give us any trouble, are you kid?"
She shook her head almost violently at the growling question from the armoured villain.
"Good. Stay quiet and you won't get hurt."
She couldn't see the sneers of the two abductors behind her at the obvious lie, all she could do was whimper in terror, feeling a wet warmth run down her leg before something was pressed against her neck. A few seconds later, everything went fuzzy before she slumped to the floor.
"We acquired the target, Code B."
Sebastian nodded, then tapped his tablet twice. Code B meant the snatch squad was headed back to base by an evasive route; even with encrypted comms it was best not to say too much. The two drones would head back to their retrieval point, and the fake robbery was almost done. It wasn't like the robbery of a small store would cause a massive police response anyway, and in any case, the van would be ditched and set on fire long before anyone would catch up with it. It was always nice when an acquisition went smoothly, he could already feel the bonus dropping into his bank account.
Tuesday 22nd November, Phoenix, early evening.
Fanak, once more dressed in kids' clothes, with a hood covering her face, walked around the scene of the superhero battle. She wasn't sure what she would find, but there might be some clue she could use to help her track Forte better, or maybe the supervillain had dropped something in the fight that would let her open up the secret lair.
This was also her continued attempt to flush out her attacker. While she hadn't made the paper yesterday, a few people had taken photos of her climbing the side of the building and posted them on para-watch. So there was a chance the guy might be in the area watching for her.
Her nose twitched, there was an odd smell in the breeze. Filling her lungs, it smelled almost like a sweet smoke. Keeping her head down, Fanak followed the scent. It wasn't easy the breeze wasn't steady, sometimes dying out completely, leaving her with nothing to follow. Still, her senses were good enough when the air stirred again she could capture the smell and use it to guide her way.
The crowd thinned out a bit as she left the plaza, making it easier not only to move more quickly but to follow her nose. The scent became stronger as did her curiosity. The smoky smell was intertwined with the regular scent of a female, not layered over top like perfume.
Up ahead, a girl, who looked to be around eleven or twelve, was looking at her phone. It seemed like she was the source of the scent. Fanak couldn't be sure of it without getting closer, which was really tempting. However, sniffing people she didn’t know wasn't polite.
“Must be a mutant,” she whispered to herself. Satisfied that at least one mystery was solved, she slowed down. There wasn't any point in following the girl, she was on a mission, not a meet and greet.
A black van screeched to a halt about a few hundred feet ahead of her. Three armed, masked men jumped out, running into a convenience store.
Fanak hesitated, her first instinct was to stop the criminals, but they were heavily armed and there were three of them. If she screwed up innocent people could get hurt. But if she didn't do anything, they'd get away. A solution came to her, she'd get close, take a picture of the license plate, and if the robbers looked like they were about to hurt anyone she'd stop them.
She was about to run towards the crime when the girl she'd been following yelped in fear as she was yanked down an alley.
This time Fanak knew exactly what to do. Racing towards the girl, she cursed her shoes. With her claws covered by the cheap shoes, she couldn't run as fast as usual, the traction and feel were all wrong. Reaching the alley, the girl was already thrown into the back of a white van.
Snarling, she was all ready to launch herself at the van when she saw El Scorpio. The power armoured supervillain was a murderer, he didn't just kill people and heroes as part of a job, but for sheer pleasure. There was no way she could fight him and survive.
The doors closed and the van sped away. She tried to make out the license plate but it was covered in mud, she could only see two of the numbers. Reaching for her phone, she realized they'd barely be able to understand her talking. Running down the alley, she jumped and climbed up the side of the building. At the top, she stripped out of her clothes, shifted back to her human shape, and ignoring her nakedness called 911.
Police Station, evening
Fully dressed, Faiza sat beside her Babba, looking defiantly at the officer across from her. “I told you, the girl was kidnapped, and the van was heading towards the Bank of America Tower on Washington East.”
“And El Scorpio was sitting in the back of it,” the officer said.
“Yes. The van's license plate was covered, but the first two numbers were eight and three.”
The officer nodded. “You've told us, repeatedly. And no one else witnessed this kidnapping.”
“There was an armed robbery going on just down the street. Everyone was watching them.”
“But you somehow saw the girl getting kidnapped.”
“She was close to me. I heard her yell. Why aren't you looking for her?” she demanded, her British accent becoming much thicker.
The officer's face darkened. “Police in the area have a description of the van, and we have people questioning anyone who might have seen it. It would help if you could provide a better description.”
“I didn't get a good look at her,” she said. She'd been so focused on her scent at first, and then El Scorpio, she really didn't know what the girl looked like. She couldn't exactly say the girl smelled smokey.
The officers' phone rang. He left the desk and walked away so they couldn't overhear him.
“Fai,” her Babba said, “are you sure you saw all of this?”
“Yes. I saw it with my own eyes,” she insisted.
“But why were you even there? It isn't like you to lie to us and go so far away.”
She looked away, not wanting to lie. “I wanted to see where Sun Hawk and Jackalope fought Forte. I know I shouldn't have, but I-” she wasn't sure what to say. “It was something I needed to do.”
The officer came back, he did not look happy. “Ms. Sabri, you said you ran after the girl and entered the alley where she was kidnapped, correct?”
“Our officer looked at several nearby store security cameras that showed the sidewalk. None of them have you on film. Would you care to explain why this might be the case?” he demanded.
“I-I...” She wanted to cry. She'd been shifted, so of course, they wouldn't see her. If she showed them her Fanak form, they probably still wouldn't believe her, and she'd be in even more trouble because of her crime-fighting.
“Faiza,” her Babba snapped, something he almost never did, “what is the meaning of this?”
She couldn't hold the tears back, she started crying.
Sitting in her room, Faiza stared miserably out the window. They'd read her the riot act, threatened to charge her for lying to police, prank calling 911, and wasting their time, and she was grounded for the foreseeable future. Worst of all a girl was out there, kidnapped by a psychopath, and no one was looking for her.
She'd tried to do everything right and it had all blown up in her face.
She was a failure.
Turning off the light, she slipped into bed, wishing the world would just swallow her up.
Tuesday 22nd November, An apartment in Phoenix, mid-evening
Sophia Lopez was wringing her hands in agitation, voice raised and shrill as she demanded an answer from her husband.
"She's still not home! What's happened to her?!"
Hassan Lopez looked over to his wife as he put his phone down, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice in an attempt to calm his wife even as he wanted to scream in frustration himself. "Her friends said she was planning on taking a look at the place that big hero fight was at yesterday before coming home. Judging by when she phoned, she was leaving then. But it's not a long walk from here, she should have been home long ago."
He walked to the door, grabbing his coat. "I'm going to walk over there and see if anything happened along her route. Maybe it's all innocent and she's fine."
The look on his wife's face showed she knew he was lying, but right now she just needed some hope to hang onto. "Stay here, one of us needs to be here in case she gets home or someone calls us." Unspoken was the 'in case we get called by the hospital or the police'.
He had a feeling deep inside that he was just pushing the problem back for a short time by doing this, but there was always a chance he'd find out something. And he just couldn't face sitting down and doing nothing, not with the fear for his daughter eating at him.
One Hour later
His wife was sitting in a chair, looking at the phone on the table in front of her as if it would, somehow, tell her everything was OK when he entered their apartment again. She jumped to her feet as he came in, a look of mixed hope and fear on her face. When she saw his expression, the hope died.
He shook his head. "There's no sign of her, I walked there and back again. The only thing I noticed was a couple of policemen talking to someone about a store robbery, but there's no way she was involved in that. I asked the policeman just in case, and he told me there'd been no report of anything involving Azar."
His wife nodded, a tear running down her cheek. "We have to call the police and report it in."
He nodded. "Yes, maybe they have some information." He paused in dialling the number. "Remember...there is still the issue of my being here, we need to gloss over that."
"And if they ask?"
He shrugged. "It doesn't matter, what matters right now is Azar."
"So, Mr, Lopez, is there any other information that might help?"
The man spread his hands in a gesture of hopelessness. "Nothing, Sergeant. Two hours ago everything seemed normal, she was on her way home for dinner. Then she just vanished!"
The Sergeant nodded, making a few final notes. "Well, I've called her in as a missing person. But nothing seems to have been reported in this evening." He nodded to the photo the Lopezes had shown him, a thin twelve-year-old girl, looking vaguely Mexican he supposed, apart from her flaming red hair kept in a long ponytail." Is the hair colour natural?"
Her mother answered. "Yes, officer. She gets it from her father's side of the family."
He nodded, taking another look. He was familiar with Mexicans, but something about the girls' features made him think that wasn't her nationality, despite her fathers' name and explanation. Another small niggle that added to a few other facts that didn't quite line up as expected.
"OK, well we'll call you if anything comes in. However...." he gave both parents a searching look. "You're sure nothing happened that would have made her run away?"
Both of them looked shocked. "No, nothing!! She was happy, there's no way she'd just have run off like this!"
He left unsaid the fact that there might have been a reason neither of them knew about, if nothing had come in by the morning he'd have to talk to her school friends and see if there was anything she hadn't told her parents. If it wasn't something they themselves were hiding. While nothing incriminating had been said, his instinct told him there was something they weren't telling him, but then they also seemed genuine about their fear for their little girl. Odd that, he'd have to think about it for a while.
Wednesday 23rd November, Whateley, The Quad, late morning.
"It's a shame you can't come with us."
Thulia nodded. Morgana's tone was wistful, so she gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "It's only a few days, and you'll be having fun with Laura and her family. And looking after them."
"Yeah. Although we don't think anyone is after her right now, you know. It's more likely someone will come after me!"
"Which is why you'll be disguised, right?"
Morgana grimaced. "If I'm going to have to keep doing that, I should start learning how to do it with magic. I hate wearing those contact lenses."
Thulia patted Morgana on the shoulder. "Could be worse, poor Laura has to wear full makeup when she's off-campus. That can't feel comfortable."
"True. How long are you going to be home for anyway?"
Thulia looked thoughtful as she tried to make an estimate. "Well, I leave today, like all of you. Probably this afternoon, I want to go through some things. That way I can relax a bit before I have to go in and see the Order on Thursday, they want to check on how things are doing, my courses, all that sort of thing. I think it's to give them an idea for more placements. That will likely take most of a day, hopefully not all of it as I want to arrange to get some supplies I need. Then Friday I have to visit my family and fend off questions about how involved I'm getting with a human..."
Morgana returned Thulia's grin. "Oh dear, do they think I'm a bad influence on you?" She batted her eyes in a hopeless attempt at looking like a shy demure girl.
Thulia giggled, then slipped close to whisper. "I wish you were more of a bad influence, but... maybe when we can get away from all the people watching us here?"
Morgana nodded, one hand 'accidentally' finding a way to give her girlfriend's bottom a quick squeeze. "We will. Just have to be patient."
Thulia wriggled a bit in appreciation. "Yeah. Although I'm finding I'm not a huge fan of this patience thing! Anyway... next day I need to look at my supplies, there's stuff I need I wasn't able to bring with me, and I need some supplies for my own type of magic, stuff that's hard to get or expensive here." She left out telling Morgana about a few things she was intending to order while she was home, that would be a surprise for a later time.
"Are you coming back through Canada again?"
Thulia gave an overdramatic shiver straight out of the William Shatner school of acting. "I hope not! I mean, they're nice people, but they really need to do something about their weather! No, Grimes said I can use the school portal, so it will be a lot simpler, and no issues about getting searched at the border. So I will probably be back here Saturday morning."
Morgana nodded and drew her into a long, close goodbye hug. "Give Bruce my best, OK?"
"I will. And make sure you look after Laura, she's fragile."
Magic Department, Summoning Room
Thulia had completed the work on her portal home in a few minutes. It was a task she was quite familiar with, and the semi-permanent portals set up for Whateley's use made it easy to finish quickly. The final task was just to place a small drop of her blood on the relevant symbols, and she stood back to give it a final inspection.
"You've had practice with portals, Thulia?"
She nodded to Ms. Grime's semi-question. "We use them a lot, of course with more essence available they are less of an energy problem."
Ms. Grimes nodded. "Even so. I may have to think about you helping with a course on them in the Spring term."
Thulia blushed slightly at the complement. "If that is your wish, I'd be happy to help."
"I'll have to check a few things out, but it's a definite possibility. However, you need to be going."
Thulia gave a final look at the glowing portal and nodded in agreement. "Thank you, Ms. Grimes. I should be back on Saturday morning, I'll send you an email?"
Ms. Grimes nodded. "Of course Ms. Firedrake. Enjoy your break, but remember I need to check out anything you bring back, just in case. And if there is a problem using a portal back here..."
"If there is, I'll come in outside the school, rather than disturb your wards."
Ms. Grimes smiled. "Then have a good trip home and enjoy yourself."
Thulia nodded, then took a moment to calm and centre herself before she stepped through the portal. There was the usual sense of momentary disorientation, then she was in her familiar workshop again.
Wednesday 23rd November, an apartment in Phoenix, evening.
"It's been a whole day, and we've heard nothing! The police are useless!"
Hassan couldn't do anything other than nod at his wife's shrill accusation. What could he say, he agreed with her. Like most people who'd never dealt with them, he had a vague idea of the police being able to help straight away, which hope had been dashed by the lack of any response. "There's one thing left to try."
She looked at him, then her eyes widened. "But you said it was dangerous!"
He shrugged. "So what? Yes, there might be repercussions, but what do those matter besides our daughter. And no matter what they think of me, they'll help when they find out it's about a child."
He had to move some stuff to get to the back of the closet, where a small, ordinary-looking boxfile was hidden. He pulled it out, putting it down on the table before opening it. Inside was a small lockbox. He looked at it for a moment, licking his dry lips, then lifted it out and took it back into the kitchen where his wife was waiting.
"Is that it?"
He nodded to her - he'd never shown her the lockbox, although she knew about it. It was something neither of them had even really expected to need, especially when they'd settled down here with their daughter. Putting it on the kitchen table, he pushed the heavy table to one side to give him some clear floor space.
She kept watching as he took a sharp knife and pushed it into his fingertip, watching as a deep red drop of blood gathered on the small wound, then pressed it against a small plate set into the top of the box. It glistened there for a moment, then with a small click that surprised them both with its innocent mundanity, the lid of the box swung open, showing some papers and some sort of amulet.
Sofia looked into it, curious. While her husband had told her about this, many years ago, it had never been opened. He'd just told her it was a last resort if for some reason he needed to give up hiding and tell his home he wanted help.
"What does it do?"
He carefully took the contents out and laid them on the table. "It's just a communication spell. But it has to contact the Plane of Fire, and that's not something I can do on my own." His lips quirked. "One of the reasons I came here was that I wasn't a powerful Djinn, and I did poorly in the study of magic." He sighed bitterly. "If I'd paid more attention, I might have been able to do something to help now."
Sofia put her hand on his shoulder. "I knew all that. And if you had been skilled, you'd never have come here and met me. What's done is done. Now let us help Azar."
He nodded, pulling out the first paper, then picking up one of the chalks that had been in the box. "First the diagram..."
A little while later, a complex spell pattern had been chalked on the wooden floor, and he was finishing checking it very carefully against the diagram. Finally satisfied, he stood up and stretched his back.
"There." He took up the amulet, looking at it before giving his wife his best reassuring look. "It will be all right."
He barely hesitated, if this was to be done, best to do it quickly. He carefully placed the amulet in the centre of the spell circle, then sliced his finger again, this time allowing some of his blood to drip onto certain points, before standing straight. The words to be said were clear to follow, and as he spoke them he pushed some essence into the circle. A small amount, he didn't have much, but all he could manage. In any case, it was just needed to trigger the spell worked into the amulet.
For a minute, nothing seemed to happen, then his wife gasped as the amulet started to glow, and then the centre of the spell pattern glimmered with a soft crimson pulsing. Slowly a figure seemed to rise up from the glow, although it was clear from the slight transparency it was a projection, not a true evocation. He stood closer to Sofia, putting his arm around her to try and reassure her, as the figure finally opened his eyes to look at them.
Apart from the fire filling his eyes, the figure could have passed for a robed human, to Sofia's eyes his features showed a vague resemblance to those of her husband. He looked closely at them both, before addressing the man. "So, since you've just called on us, you presumably are in trouble. What is it that made you consider this?"
Hassan stood up straighter. "I fully understand the consequences. But this is because our daughter has gone missing, and we must find her!"
The figure's eyes widened. "Your daughter? I see. How old is she?"
Hassan gulped, then slumped to his knees in front of the man. "She's only twelve! Please, surely the Order wouldn't ignore a missing child?"
There was a long pause before the translucent figure nodded. "Tell me everything."
Thursday 24th November, The Plane of Fire, afternoon.
The Acolyte made some final notes on his pad, before nodding in satisfaction.
"So, Thulia, I think that's covered everything we needed to ask about. You've been most helpful."
Thulia smiled with relief. While the questioning had been informal and easy, she was glad to be finished with it. She understood the reasoning - the next children they wanted to place on Earth were younger, and while they were going to be placed with appropriate people rather than a boarding school, still their own families were worried, and she was happy to help to reassure them. While her experiences on Earth had at times not been the easiest, that had mainly been her own fault, and her time at Whateley had more than made up for that. The questions had been detailed, and there were a lot of them, including a few she'd had to admit to not knowing the answer to. And one or two which she'd been too embarrassed to answer honestly, she wondered if he'd noticed?
She was just getting up to pay her respects before leaving when the door opened to admit a harried-looking member of the Order of the Flame. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Acolyte, but we have a problem we need to refer to you."
Acolyte Grenstxaripotx looked concerned at the obvious look of worry on the man's face. "Very well, I've finished here." He turned to Thulia and smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry to finish so abruptly. Before you leave us, would you please visit Master Siveth? He wanted to go through some academic issues with you while you are here."
Thulia bowed politely. "Of course, Acolyte. If you need anything more, I'll be happy to help." She wondered what the problem was, but she was sure no one was going to tell her, so she'd just have to live without knowing.
While just as detailed as her previous one, the interview with Master Siveth was a lot less stressful, and she'd enjoyed going through the details of the workload that had been laid out for her. He had made a few suggestions for her to consider, and perhaps talk to her teachers about, but mainly he was curious as to what studies Ms. Grimes had considered helpful for her.
They were just finishing going over the details when there was a knock on the door, followed by the same member of the Order who'd interrupted her previous meeting. She frowned, wondering what it was with the man that he kept wanting to speak to people who were talking to her. Master Siveth looked up at him with a frown of annoyance at the interruption, which turned to one of curiosity.
"Is there a problem?"
She kept her smile secret at the undertones in his innocent-sounding remark. Order or not, she knew he hated to be interrupted unless for a good reason.
"I'm afraid there is, Master. I wonder if you could spare Thulia again, the Acolyte needs to talk to her about an urgent matter."
Siveths' frown deepened, as he flicked a glance at Thulia. "Is Thulia in some sort of trouble?" His tone left unsaid that if so he wanted to know what this was all about.
The man gestured in placation. "No, Master, not at all! It's a matter concerning Earth, and he hoped Thulia could be of help, given her recent experiences."
Siveth held his gaze for a minute, then nodded. "Thulia, I think we've finished here. Would you mind accompanying him?"
She stood up, bowing politely to her Master. "Not at all, Master, I'm here today to help, after all."
He smiled in a way that showed he knew very well her curiosity wouldn't let her ignore the request.
"Go ahead, then, and I expect to see you next time you visit, with a full report on what you've been learning."
Thulia sat quietly as she looked thoughtfully at Acolyte Grenstxaripotx, who seemed, despite his attempt at calmness, to be quite concerned about something. And since she'd been asked to meet with him again, it seemed likely it had something to do with her. Which was worrying, but everything had been going fine so far, so she quashed the feeling of worry inside her and tried to look impassive. After all, they would hardly have lied to Master Siveth about her not being in trouble, but the events of the last six months had honed her perception about such matters.
Finally, he looked at her directly. "Thulia. We have a problem, and it's possible you may be able to help us."
Well, that was interesting, and after a mostly boring day spent answering questions, interesting was good. So she perked up attentively and put her best 'wanting to be helpful' expression on. "Of course, Acolyte, how can I be of help?"
He exchanged glances with the subordinate who'd brought her here, then sat back in his chair, crossing her fingers in front of him as he examined her carefully again. She wasn't sure what he was looking for or expected to see, but after a moment he sighed heavily.
"Let me explain, you'll need the context for the problem or it won't make any sense to you. While there are some Fire Plane inhabitants already on Earth, there aren't that many. And most of these are people who've been living secretly there, for one reason or another, often for a considerable time. While what they are doing is technically illegal, we normally take no notice unless they do something highly noticeable, and in return, they help provide us with information. It's a mainly informal arrangement, but it works well - the number of actual agents we have on Earth is very limited. We've just been informed of a serious problem. A child - the daughter of a Djinn and his human wife - has vanished, and they believe she has been kidnapped."
Thulia blinked. That was interesting, but what did it have to do with her? "Acolyte, what about the human police? I understand they are fairly competent."
He gave another deep sigh. "Apparently they aren't taking it terribly seriously, they seem to think she might just have run off temporarily and will soon be back. The parents, even apart from their obvious and normal worry, think it's far more serious. They believe there were signs over the last few weeks that the girl was being followed, and while at the time they didn't really give that concern much weight, in retrospect it seems possible there was indeed something the matter. Of course, it doesn't help that they couldn't be honest with the police, her father has no legal presence on Earth, and their identity and origin are a secret."
He looked down at the pad in his hands. "Now of course it could just be coincidence or misinterpretation, and the human police might be correct. But we don't take chances with our children. Even though her father is not officially on Earth, he has begged us to help locate his child, and regardless of his personal circumstances, we will of course help."
By now Thulia was looking and feeling more than a bit lost. "I'm sorry, but I don't see how I can help with this? I'm not a detective."
"Well now. As I said, we have few agents on Earth, and while we are arranging for one to take this case on, it will take a few days before one can be made available. We were wondering if you'd be prepared to help, by visiting the family and gathering some information - that way when our agent arrives considerable time will have been saved, and he can then make a decision on whether or not to escalate the matter based on better information."
Thulia resisted the urge for her mouth to drop open in surprise. "Me! But Acolyte, I'm just a student!"
"We realise that, Thulia. We aren't expecting you to do more than help us find out the full situation and any facts that will help us. You aren't a trained agent, and we don't want you getting involved if this is in fact an abduction. However, you are familiar with that part of Earth, and shouldn't have any problems with blending in." He saw the surprise and confusion on her face, and added very quietly "The girl is only 12 years old."
She thought carefully about the request. This was something quite outside her experience, but if it would help a missing child... and one only twelve years old, who would kidnap such a young girl? And, if she was being honest with herself, it sounded exciting, as well as a chance to do something good. She'd never been part of an investigation, let alone worked for the Order. Getting some credit with them would be a bonus, just in case anything happened at Whateley. It would help with her family issues as well - her father was a big supporter of the Order, and he would approve of her helping them That would make some things easier in the future, she still hadn't worked up the nerve to introduce her family to Morgana. Her lip quirked - she already knew she was going to say yes, so she might as well admit it.
"Just where is this family, Acolyte?"
He consulted his pad again. "A city in America called Phoenix. Are you familiar with it?"
Without looking at a map, she had no idea where this Phoenix was, but it was presumably just another city. The mission was just to evaluate the situation, nothing more. After her experiences on Earth, she wasn't too worried about visiting a new city, she was sure she could cope with that.
"Of course, I'll do anything I can to help, just tell me what I have to do. I'm not familiar with this Phoenix, but my phone has Google Maps on it to handle that." She left out the fact that she actually didn't have that much experience with human cities, but as long as she kept herself disguised she didn't foresee any real problems, and she now knew how to use her phone to full advantage. She'd managed quite competently in Britain while rescuing Morgana, after all, admittedly with Bruce's help.
He gave her a nod of appreciation. "I'll arrange it all this evening, can you be ready to leave in the morning?"
"Of course, Acolyte. I'll get prepared and be at your call tomorrow."
"So they want you to be a trouble-shooter? They must be getting desperate!"
She grinned at Bruce's sarcastic comment. "I'm just going to find out what happened, talk to the girls' parents, that sort of thing. Not to get into any sort of trouble. Or shoot it."
Bruce's silence to her response spoke volumes. She turned to look at him. "Really, Bruce. I'm not planning to get into any trouble."
This time at least she got a deep sigh. "And when that trouble happens anyway? As it always seems to when you visit Earth?"
"Hey, it doesn't always happen!"
Bruce was even less impressed. "Oh? Name one time? And if it's all so harmless, why are you checking out your gear?"
She sniffed and returned to sorting out the items on her workbench. "I didn't sort out my spell kit properly before going to Whateley, things were so busy and I let it slip. But it won't hurt to have it properly stored away, I was going to do it before I left in any case. Besides, I may as well do something useful while I wait." She picked up some small vials, and carefully slipped them into the padded receptacle in the small chest she was busy checking and filling. "I know I can get most of this stuff at Whateley, but you never know when you might need something in a hurry, and some of the items are hard to get on Earth."
"I'm still not convinced, you know."
"Oh come on, I'm just visiting and asking the girls' parents a few questions. What could possibly go wrong?"
She could just feel the weight of Bruce's silence on the back of her neck as she carried on carefully checking and packing items.
Friday 25th November, Plane of Fire, Early afternoon.
Thulia did a final check of her equipment. She probably wouldn't need it, but then she hadn't expected any trouble when she arrived in Canada, and look at how that had ended up. She hadn't had the chance to talk through the sorts of hazards a girl like her was likely to meet while travelling with Morgana and her friends, but she figured keeping a low profile and being prepared just in case would be the sensible strategy. Given the lower level of essence on Earth, she'd collected her essence storage bracelets, just in case. They sat on her wrists looking like simple jewellery, the deep red crystals glinting in the light. She was getting more used to using her magic on Earth, but power storage was never a thing to ignore. Her staff of course was already fully charged, but it didn't hurt to be prepared; she might find a need to use her chameleon spell, and in a city, it could be quite an essence sink. The rest of her gear was packed in a dimensional pocket, ready to be spell-summoned if needed. She moved her fingers in a spell pattern, and her outfit shimmered for a moment before being replaced by the casual human outfit she'd worn on arrival, as she assumed her 'human' form. She gave a quick check of her purse - Morgana had been insistent she should always have her Canadian MID card and passport with her - nodded in satisfaction and snapped it shut and put it in her backpack. Taking a deep breath, she re-settled her backpack and nodded to the mage standing by the gate."I'm ready."
The woman standing by the portal nodded to her and made some gracefully sweeping gestures with the crystal wand in her hand. Thulia watched in appreciation at the expert way she opened the gate, the centre of which was already shimmering with a flickering curtain of fire essence. It was always nice to travel first class. She lowered her wand and nodded to Thulia, who took a few steps forward and through the gate. There was a momentary flicker of heat, and then she was standing looking at a bare semi-desert landscape. She smiled to herself in appreciation - so much more appealing than the snow that seemed to cover Canada. She looked around to make sure she was alone, and then dug her phone out to see where she was and where she had to go.
Google informed her she was in the Tonto National Forest, close to a place called Tortilla Flat. A quick look around didn't show much in the way of trees, but what did she know about human naming conventions. Maybe Tonto meant 'forest without trees'? Anyway, it looked like she had a short hike to make, the nearest road on the map seemed to be Highway 87, about 10 miles to the west of her. That would take her to something called a trailhead, where she expected to be able to sort out transportation. It was a shame she hadn't arrived at night, it would have been so much simpler to fly herself in, but even in the brief time she'd been attending Whateley she'd been told, quite emphatically, that mutants - and dragons - needed to keep a low profile. So she readjusted her backpack for comfort and started to head west.
She'd been loping along for a couple of hours now, and apart from a small group of hikers in the distance, hadn't seen a single person. She reckoned she was about 2/3 of the way to this trailhead and was beginning to wonder just how empty this place was; it reminded her more of home than the parts of earth she'd experienced so far. True, there would probably be a lot more people in Phoenix, but the desert seemed to mainly house the occasional small animal and a lot of dust. Stopping for a moment to get her bearings, she took a good look around. Deserted again, and she had to push down the impulse to just go airborne and get where she needed. Just because she couldn't see anyone didn't mean someone couldn't see her, after all. Still, it was a pity, it was a lovely day to fly.
After another hour of jogging across the rough terrain - again she wondered about human naming conventions, it wasn't what she would have called flat - she finally saw the road she was aiming at in the distance. She frowned at her phone as she guided herself to this trailhead. She'd expected it, well, to consist of more than some scattered boxes and rubbish. Stopping at the edge of the road, she looked around again. Surely she couldn't have missed it? A look up and down the road confirmed the deserted nature of the place, no traffic at all. She gave a disappointed sigh, trying to decide if it would be quicker to call for a cab or just carry on into Phoenix. Her growing hunger decided on the cab - as soon as she found a hotel, she could go and find somewhere to eat. Which didn't look feasible here unless she wanted a rodent of some sort, never her first choice even on a proper camping trip. Not to mention the problem that the few timid creatures she'd spotted had taken one look at her and instantly dived for cover, they recognised an apex predator when they saw one. The only one that had looked interesting was a bunny-like creature with an impressive set of horns for its size, but she didn't see the need to hunt when she was close to a civilised source of food.
"So, miss, been out walking?"
The cabbie had given her an odd look when he'd arrived to collect her, but she couldn't work out why. It hadn't occurred to her that while her casual outfit wasn't outrageously out of place, it wasn't the sort of thing you'd wear for serious hiking.
"Yes, it's been a lovely day, but I need to get into Phoenix now."
He nodded and started back down the road. "Where do you need to go?"
She worked her phone for a minute. It seemed that the parents lived in an area of the city called Gilbert, so...
"I'm looking for a hotel in the Gilbert area. Can you take me to one?"
He played with the satnav on his dash for a bit, then nodded. "Sure, shouldn't be a problem. There's a Marriot Hotel near the Banner Medical Centre, will that work for you?"
"That sounds fine." She sat back in her seat, finding the hotel on the map and then working out where the best place to eat was. All that walking had worked up an appetite.