The man’s skin was like coal dipped in midnight, his muscular body scarcely contained in his black suit. The lady across was the table was quite the opposite, a middle-aged woman of small stature with just a few grey hairs woven amongst her blonde ones. She, too, wore a black suit, though she had eschewed the tie in favor of a more casual appearance.
“Numbers,” said the woman, her tone measured and even. “What a surprise. You must join us for tea.”
“I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Tracking, but I’m afraid my time constraints are somewhat pressing,” Mr. Numbers declined. He took a seat at their table, suppressing his urge to marvel at the glorious scenery their penthouse suite afforded them. Japan was always such a lovely place; Mr. Numbers intended to come back for a proper visit one day, just as he had intended for the better part of a decade.
“So I gathered. Transport did little more than a pop and drop. Quite rude,” Mrs. Tracking commented.
“I’m afraid it will be much the same when he picks me up. We have a lot to talk about and little time to work in,” Mr. Numbers replied. He glanced at the man, who sat so still one might believe he was little more than an exquisitely lifelike carving.
“I suppose I’ll take the cue,” the man said in a low, powerful baritone. He touched the hands of both Mr. Numbers and Mrs. Tracking. The world around them slowed to a crawl, then ceased to move at all from what they could discern.
“Thank you, Mr. Stop,” Mr. Numbers said. “What I need to discuss with you is off the record, off the books, and will most likely label me as off the reservation.”
“Oooh, sounds exciting,” Mrs. Tracking said, a bubble of vivaciousness welling up in her. “I do enjoy the occasional black bag operation.”
“What do you need?” Mr. Stop asked, vastly more stoic than his partner.
“Just a location,” Mr. Numbers replied. “Two of our current charges have been taken and they’ve disabled all the methods we had to pinpoint them.”
“That is hardly off the books. You’re doing your job,” Mrs. Tracking said, her voice rich in disappointment.
“No,” Mr. Numbers admitted. “I was given a direct order not to pursue.”
“I see,” Mrs. Tracking said. “That does change things.”
“I’m aware,” Mr. Numbers agreed.
“I believe I can fulfill your request, Numbers. All that’s left to determine is the price.” Mrs. Tracking flashed a grin that had signaled the end of many a man. “Let us negotiate.”
* * *
Alice stepped into the common room wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She wished she had an outfit that better screamed “Warrior” but the only thing that came close was her Lander uniform. She didn’t want to face the coaches dressed like a student; something about that just felt wrong.
Vince was already waiting, his own outfit similar to hers. He glanced up at her as she entered, giving her a quick nod. If he was feeling anything like her then his stomach would be twisting in knots of worry.
“Mr. Transport went to pick up Mr. Numbers,” Vince told her. “He’ll be back in a second.”
“Okay,” Alice said, sitting down next to him.
“Nervous?” Vince asked.
“Good,” Vince said. “We’re taking on a near-impossible task. It’s going to be hard enough with just the three of us.”
“Two of us, Vince. Nick isn’t coming.”
“He’ll come,” Vince said.
“He won’t. It’s just two of us.”
“Three,” Vince corrected.
“Three,” Nick said, the door to the boys’ side whispering shut behind him. He was dressed in a pinstriped suit, a deep purple shirt left open at the collar. His shoes were black, well-fitted to the foot and competent for all forms of movement. His jacket was buttoned only on its top button, holding the shape together without pulling it taut to his frame.
“You’re coming?” Alice asked.
“Of course he’s coming,” Vince said, standing from the couch. “Though I’m not sure why he’s dressed like that.”
Nick shrugged. “Up until this year I’ve always dressed this way. When we do this thing I don’t want to be dressed like the ineffectual smart ass. I want to feel like the version of me that can get things done.”
“Whatever works,” Vince said, patting his friend on the back.
Nick stared at Vince for a moment. “You never waver, do you, Silver?”
“Why would I waver on the things I know?”
“Heaven save me from honest men and lunatics,” Nick replied. He looked at Alice who had risen to her feet and was staring him down.
“What changed your mind?”
“Honestly? I’m not sure,” Nick admitted. “Let’s just chalk it up to the fact that I haven’t gotten to really cut loose in a while and this seems like a good outlet.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Nope, which is why I didn’t bother with the truth. No sense in wasting it when you won’t trust anything I say,” Nick replied.
“She’ll trust you to help our friends,” Vince assured him.
Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers reappeared in the room, looking at the Melbrook residents.
“I have the place. Are you ready?”
The three looked at each other,
“Now or never,” Nick said.
“Then I pick now,” Alice said, forcing more courage than she felt into her voice.
“We’re ready,” Vince said. They gathered around Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers.
An instant later there was only an empty room, echoes of voices still gently reverberating off the walls.