The bus hissed to a halt. I walked to its exit, alone.
The driver gave me a look that I recognized. It said: You're a pretty little girl about to step into a whole lotta trouble. Go home.
I gave him a smile and threw him a look of my own. Its rough translation: I can dodge bullets and throw cars. I think I'll be fine.
Dunno if he got the message. Probably not. I got off and stepped on the streets.
There was Downtown Metro, and then there was Downtown Metro--the part colloquially known as 'The Stix'. Named after Congressman Jerald Stixler--the man who had secured the funds to build it almost within the same breath he used to abandon it. It was six whole city blocks of Mind-Your-Own-Damn-Business, full of dilapidated slums and crumbling infrastructure. Sumerset told me that the police and capes would swoop in every so often--smash down a few doors, arrest some drug-dealers, come out looking like heroes--but otherwise, it was ignored.
Potholes deep enough to fall into lined the streets. The buildings were old and ugly--just heaps of brick stained with smoke, with boarded up windows and broken doors. What few shops dared operate in this part of the city did so with iron bars across the glass and shotguns under the counter.
"You can turn back any time you want," Sumerset said. His voice came through loud and clear from the tiny, nearly invisible ear-piece.
"No," I replied. I kept my voice soft--didn't want to convince everyone here I was prone to talking to myself. "I'm doing this."
"Just stick to what I told you."
I walked. People didn't pay attention to me--there wasn't any reason to. I was just another girl on the streets. Probably a runaway.
Sumerset had made me memorize the directions and repeat them six times without a mistake before he had let me go. Two blocks down, one block to the left. Seventh building on the right--vomit-green tile on the roof. It was a six-story apartment complex, the exterior on the verge of collapse; a fire had hollowed most of it out. The building must have been condemned--but no one cared enough to come in and finish the job.
Three men were outside, grinning and talking. When they saw me coming up with my hands in my pockets, they all got quiet.
"I came here about a job," I told them.
Sumerset had fought me tooth and nail when I suggested that I go in undercover.
"You aren't ready," he said. "Not even close."
"Is there any point when I will be?" I asked. "Look, we've spent two weeks on this. I've talked to her friends--you talked to her parents. We've compared notes with the other cases--it just makes sense."
"It isn't a question of whether it makes sense," he said. "It's a question of whether or not you're capable."
"I can do this."
"You aren't ready."
"The police can't do this. No one in the Stix will even talk to them," I said. "You told me that right at the beginning of this--people don't talk to badges or costumes. They talk to other people."
"You are not going into the Stix alone."
"Sumerset." I leaned forward. "I can heal broken bones in minutes and punch guys through walls. It's not me who's going to be in danger."
Inside, the walls were scorched and blackened; the air was heavy with the stench of mold. Two of the three men were taking me upstairs. To talk with their 'boss'.
"How many?" Sumerset said. "Cluck your tongue."
I clucked twice.
"Once means no, twice means yes. Does it look like they might have guns?"
One of the men looked at me and scowled at the noise; I smiled back.
"They'll hit you hard and fast. As soon as you step into the room," he said. "One'll probably hang back, the other will come in hard. Knife at your throat, maybe, or a blow to the back of the head. Don't let either of them behind you for long."
We went up the stairs. One of the men moved to a cracked and splintered door, opening it. The other stepped aside. They waited expectantly for me to go in.
One of them--to the left--shifted. I saw something glint in his palm.
I smiled and stepped into the room.
And instantly turned around.
I was surprised at just how easy it was--how quickly my muscle and bone moved, how swiftly my arm responded. I caught the man's extended wrist with my hand and gave a savage twist--he cried out as the knife clattered to the floor.
My knee met his stomach as I yanked him into the room. The air rushed out of him as he went down; I slammed the door shut, braced myself against it, and twisted the knob until I felt the rusty metal crinkle and snap. I heard the knob hit the floor on the other side.
I dropped the one on this side to the ground. I could hear the trapped man's friend behind the doorway, struggling to open it; meanwhile, I brought my foot down against my new prisoner's chest.
"Hi," I said, and then I exerted just a fraction of force.
He shuddered and groaned, grabbing my foot.
"Just so we're clear: If I kick you, my foot will go straight through your chest and grind your heart into a meaty paste on the floor," I told him. "If you'd rather not see that happen, all you have to do is answer two questions."
The door continued to rattle behind me. I heard the other man yelling, calling for help. I figured I had at least another good fifteen seconds.
"Who do you work for and where can I find them?"