“Great,” says Vince. “Four, if you would?”
I have no idea what he means, but apparently the Vince closest to me does, as he brings his pipe down across the backs of my calves, smashing my shins into the concrete. I scream and a lick of greenish flame spurts out of the end of the pipe, licking over Vince’s hand. He drops the pipe and kicks me in the ribs, and I collapse back to the ground.
“Looks like I was right,” two of the Vinces say together, while the one who just kicked me scowls, sucking on the burned edge of his hand. Gun Vince adds, “Show me how you did that.”
I am hopelessly behind in this conversation. I’ve just run several miles, been clubbed over the back of the head and beaten with bats. My best friend has been abducted and tied to a chair by evil triplets, and they want to know how I did it? I genuinely can’t figure out what he’s asking, so I fall back on an old standby: sarcasm.
“Did what, get kicked in the ribs?” I gasp. I mean for it to sound tough, but I’m drooling blood and having a hard time focusing, so who knows if I manage it. “Come over here and I’ll show you.”
“Clever, Dan,” says Gun Vince, and backhands Brian with his weapon. The chair rocks back on two legs and Brian cries out, his head snapping painfully backward, then lolling forward to his chest as the chair settles. Blood begins running from a gash along the side of his forehead as he slowly raises his head again.
“I don’t like clever. I like answers. Show me how you set things on fire.”
I’ve spent so much time worrying that good people would think I was some kind of monster if they found out what I could do. I never stopped to wonder what the monsters would think of me. I think being an object of horror to regular people is better than being an object of interest to monsters.
“It’s not a trick,” I slur. “It’s just a thing I can do. I don’t really think it can be taught.”
“You’d be surprised what I can learn,” all three Vinces say simultaneously, then look at each other with amusement. When they laugh, it’s perfectly in unison — not the sound of a group of people laughing, but the sound of one man’s laugh being played over surround sound speakers. The same noise at the same time, coming from three different directions at once.
“One hates you. Violently. It’s why we’re here,” Gun Vince continues conversationally. “Me, I don’t much care for you, and I’m happy to watch you suffer, but in the end you don’t really matter at all. If he were here, you’d be dead already, and we’d never learn anything about your little ability.
“So in short, the reason you’re alive is that there’s something we want to learn from you. It’s in your best interests, and the best interests of your friend here, that you show us. Because if you’re useless…” He points the gun at me and mimes shooting it, complete with making a little “pchoom” noise with his mouth.
I can’t see a way out of this. Basically, he’s right. If I want to keep living, I’ve got to stall for time, and the way to do that is to cooperate. “What do you want me to do?”
“Stand up. Slowly.”
I do so, not that I have any other way of standing up right now. My legs, back and sides are screaming at the beating I took, and as I change positions, the blood rushes to my head and makes it throb like it’s about to split open at the seams. I feel a trickle from my eyes, and I can’t tell if I’m crying or if my head really is bursting, and it’s blood. I really hope I’m crying.
“Show us on the bat,” he says, gesturing with his gun to the charred bat near my feet. The two Vinces near me have each taken a wary step backwards, and are watching me closely. “And if I feel so much as a warm breeze over here, I will put a bullet in your friend’s brain.”
I stare at the bat, and think of escalation. “Uuuuppp!” I whisper, raising my hand, and the entire bat bursts into white flames.
The nearest Vince laughs, a short, startled bark. “Did you just say ‘up’?” he asks, snickering.
Gun Vince smiles, too, but it’s humorless. “Now tell me how you did that.”
I struggle for words. “I, um…think of the bat, and then…intensify the idea of it, I guess? And yeah, I said ‘up.’ That and raising my hand helps to…I don’t know, focus it, maybe. I don’t think it’s really required, but it helps. It’s…it makes sense in my head.”
“What can you set on fire?”
“Anything. Everything burns.”
“Even people? One can’t work in living organics.”
“I wouldn’t set a person on fire!” My mind immediately flashes back to the robber burning in Vince’s car, screaming as his skin bubbles away, and I feel sick all over again.
“But could you? Four, Six?”
On either side of me, I catch a glimpse of movement, and I tense up against the expected blow. Instead of punches, though, I hear fists slapping palms, and look around to see them staring intently at each other and, incongruously, playing rock-paper-scissors. After several rounds of identical throws, the one on my left throws paper to the other’s scissors, and with a grunt steps forward, rolling up his left sleeve. Once again, I have no idea what’s going on.
“Set my hand on fire,” he says reluctantly. “A small one!”
His left hand pistons out, rocking my head back and making me see stars. “Do it!”
I try to get my hands up to defend myself, but Vince clearly knows what he’s doing, and continues to pepper me with shots. In rapid succession, I catch one in the ear, one in the temple that makes my head swim even more, and two in the nose. I hear a crack after the second hit to the nose and my face flares with pain, and blindly I lash out with my fire. There’s an immediate scream and a thud.
“Don’t move a muscle,” says Gun Vince, a tremor in his voice, and I can see that he has the gun pointed at me. On the ground at my feet, the Vince who was punching me is rolling quickly side-to-side on his stomach, his left hand pinned beneath him. Wisps of smoke sneak out from underneath him, and he’s swearing almost continuously but already climbing back to his feet.
“You’re going to come with us,” says Gun Vince. “One might be able to learn what you do, and that’d be a pretty valuable trick to have. Kneel down.”
I stare at him, and he gestures with the gun. “Kneel down now, or I will shoot out one of your knees.”
As I start to sink to the ground, a walkie-talkie on his belt crackles. “Car pulling into the lot.”
All of the Vinces freeze, and the walkie-talkie continues, “Two cars. Cops getting out. Back exit is still clear. Move!”
“Looks like you won’t be coming with us after all,” says Gun Vince, and then a lot of things happen all together. I lock eyes with Brian, who makes a small tug at the tape holding him to the chair. Throwing both hands into the air, I fall to the ground as Brian’s tape all explodes into gouts of flame.
Vince fires his gun at me as Brian, screaming, bursts from the chair, fiery ropes of duct tape dripping from his arms and legs. He slams into Vince’s chin with a rising uppercut, knocking the gun away and sending Vince staggering backwards. The Vince to my right darts for the gun, but it glows cherry-red as he approaches it and he modifies his run to pass it by.
Brian has grabbed the chair and is running after Gun Vince, who’s yelling, “Out the back, go!” The Vince whose hand I burned kicks the still-burning bat at me as he runs by, and as I’m rolling away from the fiery baton, the front door slams open and someone yells, “Police, on the ground!”
I’m already there. For once, I’m finally ahead of the game.
Seconds later, a weight hits my back, pinning me to the cement and knocking the air out of me. “Don’t move!”
“Get your foot off of him!” says a familiar voice. Peterson. “Anyone else in here besides these two?”
“Group just took off from the back lot. Partial plate is CZ1,” comes a voice over a radio.
“Check it against stolen cars,” says Peterson. I feel a hand on my shoulder.
“Are you okay to move, Mr. Everton?”
I wheeze and nod, which is probably not the most convincing response, but Peterson helps me roll over and sit up anyway.
“I got your text,” he says, and I half-laugh.
“Yeah, well. It’s good to see you.”
“Mr. Everton, I can’t help but notice a number of things on fire here again.”
“Brian! Is he all right?” I try to stand up, but Peterson puts his hand on my shoulder again, this time pressing me down.
“We’ll get him to the hospital. I’m not a doctor, but his damage all looks superficial. You look worse.”
I’m glad to hear that, because I feel terrible, and if Brian looked worse I’d be seriously worried about him. Things are grating in my side when I shift positions, which I suspect is not good news for my ribs. Blood is still trickling down my neck from the initial hit, my legs and arms feel raw from the pummeling, and my nose is a star of pain in the middle of my face. I lick away some fresh blood and say, “Yeah? You should see the other guy.”
Peterson gives me a serious look. “We’ll need to get a statement from you as soon as you’re able.”
“I can tell you right now, it was Vince Amano.”
Peterson looks uncomfortable. “Mr. Everton — Vince Amano has been in police custody all day. There’s no way he was here.”
I take a deep breath, which is a terrible idea and hurts tremendously. “I…okay. Can we get to the hospital? I’ve got a lot I want to tell you.”