"FedEx truck will be here in sixty seconds," Alley said from the front seat.
In the back of the truck's extended cab, Nate rubbed a forearm across his forehead. The heat made him sweat and his skin felt oily from the sunscreen. Though the sun promised to set soon, it was muggy and no one's temper had benefited while they were all trapped inside the truck.
"Do we have a way to stop it?" Jia asked. "Or are we just hoping we'll get lucky and it'll turn our way?"
"Have a little faith," Alley said, grinning back at the Chinese girl. Jia's glower, stirred up by the heat and the long wait, faded into amusement at the blonde's choice of words.
"Well, I suppose I can try sorting it," Finn said. The good-looking black man rubbed a hand over the black stubble that passed for his hair. "I'm a much better teke than tele, though, if you follow. Suppose I could try pulling the truck this way at least."
"Just how strong are you?" Jia asked, plainly surprised.
"Oh, not nearly strong enough to move a truck. A steering wheel, though, that's nothing. That's easy. We'll have to do something about the driver, though. Or are we going to dope him with that Vinnie stuff too?"
Alley sighed. "Vintax Synorde III. The usual nick name is the Snore, you know."
"Hey, that's clever," Finn said after a moment, grinning.
Nate's hesitant offer died before it began. Mostly because all three turned to face him. Was that what was going on? Were they just waiting for him to offer? Alley's plea still rang in his years. She'd make a great guild leader. The girl could make speeches like no one's business.
But this wasn't a raid, no matter what she called it. Screw up a raid and you wasted four hours. Screw up this and it was someone's life.
They kept looking at him. Nate swallowed, then looked past them towards the street. There was the FedEx truck! Their chance was slipping away right now and no one would even notice before it passed Bills Hill Road!
Fear left him. Nate took in a deep breath. Then he held up his hand towards the windshield.
The driver slowed his truck. Turn signal, there it was. Then the FedEx truck lumbered onto the dirt road until it drew up next to the truck.
"Blimey, did you do that?" Finn half jumped, only now noticing the truck had arrived.
"That's my boy, Ginger," Alley said with a grin.
More than a grin. Trust. He'd proven himself in her eyes just now. When Jia put a hand on his shoulder to show her support and gratitude, Nate almost blushed at the wash of commendation in the truck. After so many years on his own, surrounded by soldiers who'd shoot him if he even looked at them, his roommates were something else. Something wonderful.
One by one, the Lambert Acres crew climbed out of Alley's big Ford truck. Nate was the last to get out and he paused when he saw the other three staring mutely at the truck. The FedEx driver sat behind the wheel, hands on the steering, head bobbing slightly to a song on the radio.
"Got a delivery for us?" Finn asked the driver, grinning at the slightly surreal situation. The driver didn't even look his way.
"So, how do you want to do this?" Nate asked. "Like, one of us pose as the driver?"
"I'll know more when we're closer," Alley said. "Come on, let's get onboard. Save the Snore, Finn, the driver won't need it."
"Hey now, we had to forget tonight, why doesn't the driver?" Jia protested.
"Because Nate's going to tell him to forget it. Just as good."
There it was. Nate had already climbed aboard and moved into the back with the packages. He'd moved first so he didn't have to look at the faces of his roommates, his team, his friends as they started to realize who they roomed with.
"You mean you can just..." Jia's voice couldn't finish the sentence. "Like, anything?"
"Can? Yes. Will? No." Alley's strong voice gave Nate an unexpected boost. There was such certainty there. Like, she knew how much he hated his ability. "Nate, can you take us out?"
The driver put the FedEx truck into drive and soft-touched the gas pedal, moving the truck forward at the merest thought from Nate. If the road had been a bit bumpy in the Ford, it was even more so with this truck. Nate gripped a handrail and held on as the ride rocked them back and forth around the interior.
Professor Ava Stevens' home was near the end of Bills Hill. A long driveway tucked between trees led down a slight embankment rising around a spacious beach house a few hundred yards off the coastline. A few spotty islands peeking above the water added a beauty and visual contrast that had doubtlessly inspired painters.
They pulled up in back of the beach house and the driver put the truck in park before grabbing an electronic signature thing Nate knew nothing about. With a thought, the driver started tapping keys on the device before he got up and went into the back, grabbing a package at random. The other three Supers just gawked at how completely the driver ignored them all.
"Any limits?" Finn asked at last.
"Line of sight," Nate said. "I think. That's pretty much it. That's why-"
"We don't have time for this," Alley said. She reached under her seat and pulled out a slender black pistol. "Here's how we play it. We send the driver to the front door. He'll knock, she'll come out to see what she's getting. When she opens the door, Finn, you shoot her with this."
The black Brit looked uneasy as she passed the gun over to him. "You do know I've never-"
"With your telekinesis," Alley said with a sigh. "Levitate it up where she won't see it, then drop it down low and shoot her. It's loaded with Vintax Synorde III . She'll never see it coming."
"This is so illegal," Jia said, squirming next to Nate. "If we get caught, I'm blaming you for everything."
"We won't get caught," Alley said.
Nate saw her nod and willed the driver forward. He could feel the trickles of sweat running down his cheeks and the back of his neck now. It took such effort, focusing on a single thought at a time. Get out of the truck. Walk to the front door. Ring the bell.
The driver's feet stirred up dust as they hit the dirt driveway. The Lambert Acres team followed suit. They walked along the back of the house until they reached a stairway leading to the wraparound deck facing the ocean. Nate lingered at the bottom, placing a hand on the slightly splintered red-varnished wood, worn and faded by years of unrelenting sunlight and storm. Then the driver reached the door.
The glass door slid open. Nate watched Professor Stevens walk out and stop just shy of a barbeque grill. Ava wore a bikini as well but favored a light robe for a bit more modesty. Just as well since she had unexpected guests. The slender willowy blonde looked surprised but unconcerned at the FedEx man at her door.
"Goodness, you surprised me!" Ava stared at him in rapt fascination. "How on earth did you manage that? Never mind. I've been waiting for that, can I sign?"
Then Finn shot her in the neck with a tranquilizer dart from the nearby pistol he'd made float.
Lots of things happened all at once. Ava's face darkened and she threw the driver clean off of the porch into a nearby sand dune. Stepping out, she lifted the barbeque in the air with a thought and sent it flying at them.
Alley slammed into him, knocking them both to the ground. Nate gasped, the air knocked out of him. Lying on his back, he gawked as the entire FedEx truck lifted off the ground...and then dropped on top of them. Only somehow Jia was there, moving hummingbird fast to get beneath the vehicle and catch it with both hands. Effortlessly, she held it above them even as Professor Stevens tried to crush them all with it.
Finn took a step forward and suddenly Ava threw up an arm to raise some kind of a shield against a sudden storm of sand he'd lifted off the beach and flung against her.
"Nate, stop her!" Alley yelled into his ear.
And just like that, he did.
"I still don't like this," Finn grumbled as Nate made Ava walk into her own house and sit down in a chair.
Outside, Jia had already helped the driver up and was in the process of pushing the vehicle back to where it'd been parked. Alley leapt inside the instant she could but she seemed to have a knack for finding switches, panels and all sorts of security things that she turned off as she went. That left the two boys with the helpless, motiveless blonde staring blankly at them.
"Professor Stevens, are you okay?" Nate asked.
"Am I okay?" she answered, her eyes slightly unfocused.
"Tell me you're okay."
Finn snickered. Then immediately covered his mouth. Nate ground his teeth with worry.
A minute later, Jia made her way inside and joined her team as they regarded the captured professor. Seconds later, Alley joined them as well. She gave the room one last once over and then walked right up to Ava. Gripping the professor's chin, Alley turned Ava's head from side to side as if inspecting her for defects.
"Good work everyone," Alley said at last. She smiled at them and Nate could actually feel a tangible portion of everyone's tension leave them at the sight of it. "I think our asses are covered. The sooner we get this over with, the less risk there is so let's get to it. Finn, are you getting a handle on her thoughts?"
"They're a bit muddled but she's coming through," Finn answered. "Mostly, she's just thinking about sitting down."
"Fine. Nate, I need you to ask her some things."
"You can ask me whatever you like, Alley," Ava said. The others watched her with a kind of nervous terror as she smiled dreamily at them.
"Tell me what the Ringmaster looks like, Ava."
"I don't know what the Ringmaster looks like."
Alley and Nate both frowned, if for different reasons. There was a telltale cadence in her words, amplified by his control. That wasn't a natural response. Programmed. First question and they'd hit the jackpot.
Nate opened his mouth to order her to tell them what she knew about the Ringmaster. He stopped when Alley put a hand over his arm and shook her head. "This isn't going to get us anywhere," the taller blonde said.
"We're already here," Finn said, clearly concentrating. "Though I'm not getting much."
"No, you won't. The Ringmaster's covered his tracks too well. It's the same block every other Super who ever tussled with him has. No one can remember him or talk about him. It's, like, his calling card. We should get out of here."
"Don't you want to ask her any other questions?" Jia said, looking between the two blondes in confusion.
"Nope. I already know what all her answers are. She doesn't know anything about the Ringmaster. He's wiped himself from her memory. The only thing she does know is that he's got plans for Ginger."
Nate swallowed hard as the words penetrated his concentration. Plans for him? The whole point of this exercise was to infiltrate West Private's Hero Certification Program to find the evidence on the Ringmaster Major Diaz suspected. Now the legendary Villain not only knew he was there but had plans for him?
For the briefest moment, Nate fervently wished he was back in solitary confinement under house arrest.
"Alright, time to get beer," Alley said. She grinned at them all, looking like the mission had been a resounding success. "Ava will wake up tomorrow with a bit of a headache, that's all. I've already covered our presence. Nate, I'll need you to make sure Ava goes to sleep and that the driver doesn't remember any of this. Finn, can you use that telekinesis of yours and straighten things up outside? You know, put the sand back where it was and wipe out our footprints? Now, let's get to it. I want dinner."
Once they'd cleaned up enough to get underway, they rode with the FedEx driver up to Alley's truck. Nate lingered only to make sure the driver didn't remember any of this. Then Alley drove them all back onto State Highway 5 and towards the promise of food. They'd need an epic story of getting lost to defray their roommates' suspicions but Nate had confidence in Alley's ability to bullshit. If not Alley, Finn at least.
On reflection, it was a good night's work. At least they'd confirmed the Ringmaster had been here. And Nate had proven he could use only a fraction of his power and get safe results.
Too bad he wouldn't remember any of it in the morning.