The list of people I will do everything in my power to avoid pissing off is relatively short. Bill's mother is close to the top.
The gray-haired brickhouse of a woman is standing out front of the garage when I pull in. She's got a patchwork nightgown that looks like it devoured and digested several other dresses on its way to her closet.
"Jack," she says as I approach. "You getting my boy into trouble?"
"No ma'am," I tell her.
"You realize that the only reason I'm not shoving my boot up your ass is because you helped him a while back."
"But my gratitude's wearing awfully thin. Particularly when you keep stopping by here with stolen cars."
"Sorry, ma'am. I'll make sure to return it when I'm done."
"Alright. Go do whatever it is you gotta do. Just don't make a mess."
"Yes, ma'am." I step into the garage. Bill is waiting for me.
"There's only one guy in Vanguard that the forums figured would go after Nova," he says.
"Wait. Hold on one second." I lift my hand. "You posted this on your goddamn forums?"
"Well, yeah. I mean, it's important, right? Some of the people there--"
"Bill, Vanguard's members read your forums."
"I did it in a subforum where only administrators like me have access," Bill said.
I rub my temples. "Okay. Fine. Just--what do you got?"
"Jim Rico, aka Jimmy Blaze."
"Yeah. He got into Vanguard under the same circumstances that Nova did--more of a publicity stunt than anything. On top of that, she's been regularly outselling him since she became a member."
"You're thinking this is some sort of jealousy thing, or an attempt to regrab the spotlight?"
"That's... pretty thin, Bill."
"It's all we could come up with."
"Alright. We'll work with it." I scan the garage for things to use. "That model rocket--ever been used?"
"Huh? Oh, no. My dad and I were gonna put it together, back when I was a teenager. Never got around to it. Why--?"
I take the box off the upper shelf and put it on the bench. "You got an etch-a-sketch?"
Thirty minutes later and I'm putting the finishing touches on my latest creation. Three plastic water-bottles, each filled up with a chemical concoction of my own devising.
I'm just figuring out the fuses when Bill steps into the garage, looking sorrier than a dog who just pissed all over his Master's curtains.
"I didn't call her," he says. "She called me."
And then Cassidy steps in from behind him.
I've always had a thing for women who send out warning signs, and Cassidy transmits them clear enough to knock out satellites. Everything about her says 'Fuck-Off'--from the circles under her eyes to the piercings in her face. She's short and thick--the sort of build you'd expect from a biker chick. Fat curves and hard edges--all in the wrong places.
She takes one look at my science project and throws on a crooked grin. "You've been a bad boy, Jackie."
"Nothing to concern yourself about, Cassidy. This ain't one of those kind of jobs."
"Heard about your run-in with Jackal. Looks like you're back on the beat, huh?"
"How you figure that was me?"
She sniffs. "Some teenage punk takes him down all by herself? No. Anyone else, they'd have stuck around for the press, but whoever helped her didn't want the spotlight. And there's talk underground about a contract on her little ass. Sounds like your kind of gig."
I snort, but don't say anything. She circles me like a shark nosing her way through bloody water. "You sure you don't need a little extra help, Jack? You gotta admit, we make a pretty good team."
The fact is, we do. But Cassidy's dangerous. Not just because she rings all the right bells in my head, but because when she works, she's a perfect storm of violence--a destructive force of nature. And there's still some small part of me that loves it. The part that I've been trying to bury.
She's radioactive. And I'm Marie Curie.
"Appreciate the offer, but I'm good," I tell her. "If I do need your help, I've got your number."
She laughs. She's got a voice that's somewhere between a smoke-choked growl and the husky rumble of someone who's spent the past hour gargling hydrochloric acid. It's got a way of seizing you by the throat and throttling you against the nearest wall.
"Right, then. You change your mind, you give me a whistle." She glances at Billy. "You keep him out of trouble, hm?"
"Yes, ma'am," Billy says, then he swallows. She elbows past him, leaving us alone.
Billy lets out a breath. "Sometimes, that woman scares me."
"Yeah. She's a pretty scary character," I tell him, adjusting the fuses on one of the bottles.
"She isn't like, a supervillain or something, right?"
"No. She's one of the good guys. Kind of."
"Oh." Silence. Then: "So why don't you work with her, then?"
My phone rings. I pull it out and flip it open.
Nothing but a text. Someone's forwarded me an address, along with a message:
'NOVA - NEED HELP'
I grab the bottles and run.