It’s Cassie who finds the number, faded pink graffiti painted across some back corner of Prague, next to the word ‘NEBRASKA’ and a yellow flower. Nick tries calling it from their hotel, and again from their layover in Toronto. His only answer is variations on an automated please hang up and try again, until the night they arrive in Lincoln.
“Hello,” says a woman’s voice.
“Hi, who is this?”
“Nick, this is Elizabeth Holmes. I’m your friend’s mother.”
Nick blinks. He blinks again. A gang of two dozen questions stampede to the forefront of his brain. The ring leader is, WAIT WHAT? in big capital letters and flashing lights. He opens his mouth, closes it. “Really?” he says, finally.
“Really. My daughter gave you a flower,” said Elizabeth Holmes, Watcher mastermind and apparently winner of phone privileges at Division prison, what, and- and Cassie’s mom.
He shoves the phone at Cassie.
A pause. “HANG ON, WHAT?” Cassie shouts into the receiver. And then, smaller, in a voice that makes Nick want to shut his eyes against the world: “Mom?”
The conversation is short. “There’s a Shadow we need to find,” Cassie says, flat, after she hangs up. “He’s already here.”
Nick begins to ask where Cassie’s mom called from, and how, but then Cassie’s dark expression turns distant and unfocused. He leaves her alone to draw what she sees.
The questions, when Nick finally gets a chance to ask them, are met with the kind of irritation only someone both fourteen and tired and extremely disappointed could manage. “It was a recording,” Cassie snaps. “She saw the conversation years and years ago, and recorded her end of it, okay? We’re supposed to talk to this Shadow.”
“I’m sorry,” Nick says quietly.
Cassie’s frown only deepens. “I know,” she says.
They arrive after the fire department has already left. The coroners are still around, though, packing bodies into the back of their black vans.
Cassie curses. Here is the Shadow her mom told them about, all right, and at the place Cassie had drawn in her book afterward. The fire’s not a surprise; Cassie soaked half a page in red and orange. But their Shadow is definitely not in the condition they wanted.
It’s a small department store, sandwiched between a post office and Starbucks, two stories tall and square. Ruined pieces of it are strewn around in front. Most of them are from the top left corner of the building, which looks like something big and on fire had taken a liberal bite out of a cookie, leaving raggedy black wood on the edges. Any windows not blown out are dusted with ash and black with smoke.
“Looks like a Starter’s handiwork to me,” says Nick. He’s never worked with any Starters before. Or been almost killed by one, for that matter. Not on his bucket list: either of those things.
Cassie scowls at the stretch of red tape surrounding the store. “He wasn’t supposed to die. Even if that place burns, he doesn’t. We talk to him right here.”
“Apparently we don’t. Someone must have changed their mind.”
Nick doesn’t ask if she’s sure that this was the place that barreled into her head. The vision that gave it to her had turned out to be all too-bright lights and sharp edges, one of the bad ones that left Cassie clutching at her head and Nick feeling useless. He hates them almost as much as Cassie does. Being wrong just adds insult to injury. Neither of them mention that it’s Elizabeth Holmes who might have got it wrong, although Nick’s pretty sure they have different reasons for leaving that one alone.
They skulk around the scene for a few minutes, Cassie poking at the wreckage while Nick casually chats up some of the witnesses. Mostly this turns out to mean that Nick nods seriously while a tut-tutting old lady says things like, “There was a fire! My goodness, it went up fast. Nothing and then everything! And all those people inside. I don’t understand how more of them didn’t get out in time. Gracious me, gracious me.”
The other old ladies bob their heads in agreement. There are at least four of them, and he thinks he can see a couple more hobbling down the street toward him. He’d approached the first one himself, true, but after that they just kept showing up. He’s tried smiling less, but the damage is already done.
Cassie drifts over. “I found another house on fire,” she says.
Five pairs of eyes, three bespectacled, turn on her. Cassie’s notebook is tucked under her arm, and she’s twirling a red marker between her fingers.
“So you did,” Nick says. “We... should go talk about that.” He sets off for their car.
“Laaadies,” drawls Cassie to their bemused audience, and follows.
Cassie tells him about her mom in pieces. A favourite colour here (orange, like that truly horrific motel carpet back in Hong Kong), books they read together there (Harry Potter, and what sounds like anything Dr Seuss ever put to paper).
Nick is also learning about Elizabeth Holmes through the continued unfolding of his life, which some days feels like it was crafted to come together and apart just so, by Elizabeth Holmes, a very long time ago. Sometimes this is comforting.
The rest of the time he feels very aware that Elizabeth Holmes, Watcher mastermind, puller of strings, was caught.
Cassie decides the next fire will be in Calgary, so they stock up on licorice and watery gas station coffee and go. They listen to bad radio pop songs for three hours, because Nick’s iPod was stolen back in Dublin, and Cassie’s in Krasnoyarsk, and neither have gotten around to replacing them. Cassie mutters that she hates this auto-tuned shit, except when Nick obnoxiously starts in on Katy Perry’s latest single, she’s singing along by the second verse and inexplicably knows all the words.
They’re too late to that fire, too, but not by much: there are three fire trucks surrounding the still-blazing duplex and at least a dozen visible firefighters struggling to put it out. A hysterical neighbour is telling news crews that both families were still inside when it went up in flames, just, woosh, out of nowhere. Cassie kicks at a tree in frustration.
Nick drags her to the diner down the block, because dealing with mass carnage deserves donuts with sprinkles. Cassie’s not impressed, but Nick is very firm on the subject. News coverage of their fire - and the three others that occurred in the last week - play on the TV behind the counter. Like the old ladies, the newscasters wonder: why didn’t anyone get out? A number of the victims are turning out to be high profile - stern-faced anchors are already stringing together unpopular names.
“So -- arsonist assassin for hire?” Nick suggests.
“Yup,” Cassie says. She writes it down in her book: Arsonist assassin for hire. She does that, sometimes, when she becomes particularly fond of a turn-of-phrase. It makes Nick feel weirdly warm and fuzzy.
“Doesn’t look like our Starter is with Division, though,” says Nick. “I’m thinking freelance.” Division isn’t interested in killing most of the people it hunts down. Oh, they don’t mind. Body trails are just more a by-product of their primary motivation, which is locking the extra special people up to use for lab rats and spare parts.
“For now,” Cassie says. “Specials making that much noise? It’s really only a matter of time.”
“So -- we track this guy,” says Nick. “Without getting found out and murdered by either side. We know Division’s gonna get in contact at some point, and once they do, we can follow the arsonist assassin back to Division’s nest.”
To Division’s nest and then to Cassie’s mom, is understood. So is the part where this project might be put on hold at any time in favour of a) their immediate survival or b) a new task from Elizabeth Holmes.
“How do you know Holmes didn’t get herself taken on purpose?” Kira asked him once, before she left. She was drunk. So was he, and bruised, and once again only almost not dead. “Maybe she meant for all this to happen.”
The fire after that, they’re not too late. In point of fact, they are early.
The two-story house-turned-restaurant bears a vague resemblance to Cassie’s most recent drawing, except it’s not actually on fire, and there are no screaming people in the windows.
Nick is full of a feeling that he identifies as mostly really, really not wanting to go in, but he and Cassie both march up to the door and push it open. A bell jingles cheerfully. They weave their way through mismatched tables, chatty small groups, and kitschy lamps, and then Cassie spots the stairs to the second floor and makes a beeline for them, already flipping open her notepad and fumbling in a pocket for a marker. “More donuts,” she calls over her shoulder.
By the time Nick makes his way up to the second floor, a carbon copy of the first, and finds her tucked away in a corner, Cassie has put down her markers.
Their Starter is working with a Timer. This explains why all those bodies in all those buildings are being found collapsed in hallways or doorways or stairways, crumpled on the floor like their strings had been cut, as though they started to panic and then got stuck in molasses and been forced to wait, fully cognizant, for the fire and smoke to find them and stop them for good.
Timers are super creepy.
“There’s one somewhere downstairs,” says Cassie.
She stuffs her notebook into her purse. Nick devotes a moment to looking horrified, and then they run for the stairs. Cassie’s already down the first two but over her shoulder Nick can see a gaggle of business men in black suits. They all disappear around the corner of the first landing, except for the last. The last one puts a hand on the wall, absently, to round the corner, and it- stays.
“Cassie,” Nick hisses.
She sees the hand too, and leans down for a better look. When she turns around, her eyes are wide. “Shit, ” she says.
They stumble back up the last few steps to the now empty second floor, and peer around the corner back down the stairs. Below, the hand inches along, painfully slow, almost stopped altogether. Emily Hu once told him that Timers can’t press pause completely, even the most powerful. Nick can’t decide which is more nightmarish: not being able to run, or not being able to run fast enough. (Nightmare fodder generally, that is, not Nick’s own. Nick’s bad dreams, when he has them, are about being very small and very quiet while he watches strangers murder people he cares about. Nick’s dreams are regretfully predictable and yet no less horrifying.)
Cassie already has her phone out as they race to the other end of the room, furthest away from the steps. While she barks out their address and instructions to send all the fire engines, Nick shoves open a window. It’s way too small, even Cassie is going to have a hell of a time squeezing through, but if he busts up the frame a little...
Behind them and below them, the Timer’s painting the restaurant in slow motion. Nick slams a chair into the floor, giving it a push and breaking it up into several pieces, then attacks the window frame, while Cassie begins to toss skittles down the stairs to see how far it’s gotten, calling the results over her shoulder: yellow lands at the bottom of the first landing just fine, but then green gets stuck in painfully slow free-fall about halfway down at the three minute mark. Orange is only four steps down at five minutes.
“How’s that window frame coming,” Cassie says in an admirably even voice. She’s still staring at orange, counting off another thirty seconds on her Hello Kitty wristwatch.
“Slowly,” Nick pants, using part of a chair leg to finally, finally, get some leverage and pry up the wood frame on the right side. “I really hope that’s not a comment on the awesomeness or lack thereof of my super special powers.” He resumes frantically beating at the frame to get it the rest of the way off, sticking all the force of his gift behind it. “This must --” SLAM “--be against --” SLAM “--fire safety code--”
“Pink’s stuck an inch above the second step and holding,” Cassie says, just as the frame splinters apart and a stiff, yellowing piece of paper flutters down from the wall where it was stuck beneath wood. Cassie scrambles over, abandoning the skittles, and carefully peels it open.
“It says ‘Duck, love Mom’,” she says. Nick immediately drops to the floor. For a moment there’s nothing but the harsh sound of their breathing; the floor below is ominously silent.
A foot above their heads, the wall shatters apart in a concussive explosion of wooden splinters and glass. “YOUR MOM IS AWESOME,” Nick yells into Cassie’s ear. When they pop their heads up and peek out the window, a portly gentleman is wrestling with a ladder, trying to prop it up against the outside wall.
They run. (Again.)
Elizabeth Holmes always comes for them. Well, not always. There was that time Nick got stabbed in the gut, or that time Cassie spent twelve hours crammed in a drain pipe. Nick can’t figure out where the line is, between omniscience and whatever Cassie’s mom is, but the thought that she knows most and sees most and tries to arrange all is both comforting and deeply creepy. Did she let his dad die, so that he would eventually end up here, now, with Cassie, working to get Elizabeth Holmes out of Division cells? He doesn’t know. He hasn’t gotten up the courage to ask Cassie yet.
In some ways Cassie’s mom is their invisible third, and maybe also their leader, except only ever coming at them in pieces. Her plans are bright points of light and, from here, a whole lot of blank spaces. They know to find this Shadow, and soon, but not why this person will be able to help them with the Starter-Time team-up of death, and they definitely don’t know what implications not getting to him before he died will have on their current goals. Nick doesn’t know whether the Shadow dying was in the plan. People wander into their lives to pay off some years-old favour, armed with shoulder-fired missiles and ladders, and then drift out again. Nick and Cassie have places they apparently need to be and people to meet, fixed targets on the Elizabeth’s mental map of the future, and in between all there is to do is run.
They hide out in the back of a used bookstore, hunched behind shelves of decades-old science fiction paperbacks. Cassie stares at the crumpled yellow paper in her hands, then says, slowly, “She gave me another number to call, after we met up with the Shadow. I don’t think she expected him to be dead.”
He stares at her. There’s no need to ask who she means. “Another number? Why didn’t you-”
Outside, past the rows of bookshelves, just visible from the window, a young woman trots up to the entrance. There’s a light dusting of ash covering her clothing. As Nick stares, Cassie turning and saying, “What --” the Starter reaches out to touch the door, fire coiled and ready at the tips of her fingers. Nick focuses on her, just as time is dragged down to its knees, and he pushes.
Time abruptly snaps back.
They dash out the front door of the shop, past the traumatized bookseller, past the body of the young woman lying sprawled on the pavement. Nick barely spares a glance -- eyes open, blood gathering in a pool and soaking her hair. Having fire pushed back at her hadn’t done anything at all; tripping backward and hitting her head on the pavement really, really had.
Somewhere nearby, someone is screaming. A name, the Starter’s name? A second woman, racing around from the alley, hands grey with ash just like the Starter. She’s still screaming when a large, black SUV pulls up, two men in suits leaping out, and Nick and Cassie are still going, going, gone.
The first task is get out of dodge. They are so good at this part.
“It was a pretty good team up,” Cassie says, while Nick hunts for a likely target. “One to start the fires, the other to control how fast they go.” She frowns. “Or how fast the people go, I guess. Or maybe both.”
Good mostly for killing lots of people, Nick thinks. He says so. Cassie shrugs.
Nick jimmies the lock on a old beater and they slam into it. He uses a screwdriver to start the engine; beside him, Cassie pulls off her shoes. Her socks are mismatched, blue and black, and the left has a hole. “That second number, Cassie,” Nick says. She sighs.
“This... I thought this was how we were going to find her,” she says. “Through the arsonist assassins. I’m not a good enough Watcher to see far enough ahead to actually get any closer to where she is. I already called the number. It’s just more people we’re supposed to look up. Probably for good reason, just not the one I want. What if she -- I’m not good enough, okay? Neither of us are.”
“Okay, so we’re not good enough by ourselves,” says Nick. They creep through traffic, aiming for a freeway out of the city. “That’s -- look. Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way. Maybe the whole point has been all the people your mom’s been sending our way, not the side adventures she keeps sending us on.”
“What do you mean?” Cassie asks, voice carefully flat.
“We’ve run into a lot of Specials,” Nick says. “Maybe it’s time to start contacting them for our own purposes.”
Cassie says, “Huh.”
Cassie hits the speaker button. The line rings once, twice, and then Elizabeth Holmes is on the other end. Sort of.
“Hello,” she says.
Nick speaks first. “We’re going to start gathering people like us. More of us could avoid Division in the first place if we had help. A network.”
“A web,” Cassie adds. She’d drawn one on a motel napkin yesterday, but if it’s the future, it’s not one she’s seen in a vision.
“We’ve got Hook and Emily in Hong Kong, and Kira’s still in South America. Who else should we start with?”
Ten years ago, Elizabeth Holmes hesitated. Nick imagines there was smile playing at her lips. “Here are some names,” she says.
Beside him, Cassie flips to a fresh page in her notebook, marker ready.