Chapter 23

The girls sighed with relaxation, almost in harmony, as they rested in the just-warm-enough room. Each had been scrubbed, rubbed, and hot-tubbed to the point of pure decadence. Many of the ladies had been resistant to Alice’s spa idea at first: Violet and Stella didn’t see themselves as girly-girls and Camille was ill at ease being massaged by a stranger, but as they simmered in their state of saturated relaxation, there was no regret in the room at electing to attend.

“This is the first time all week I haven’t had my teeth clenched in stress,” Violet commented offhandedly.

“Amen,” Selena agreed. “I didn’t realize how badly my body needed to get away from that world.”

“I did,” Alice said. “I really freaking did.”

“Yeah, good call,” Stella complimented. “I wonder how the boys are burning off their stress.”

“Depends on if Nick manage to finagle control of their outing or not,” Alice pointed out.

“Thomas said he had already made plans,” Camille informed them.

“They’re fine then,” Violet concluded. “Thomas is ridiculously responsible and proper. He even asked permission to kiss me at the end of our first date. I bet he takes them to a crafts workshop or some crap.”

“I hope they have a little more fun than that,” Mary volunteered. “It would hardly be fair if we get this and they only get instructions on woodworking.”

“Nothing to be done for it,” Selena said. “Our boys are, for the most part, just the habitually responsible types.”

*    *    *

The blood arced through the air, sailing past the metal wires of the cage and landing on the cold concrete of the bare floor. It pooled there, joining its brethren of spittle and sloshed beer where it would linger until an unfortunate and underpaid worker took a rag soaked in cleaning solution to it some hours later. For now, the blood lingered, slowly spreading into a stain only a few yards away from Alex’s feet.

“Holy shit!” Nick yelled as the blonde fighter dropped to his knee and then all the way to the floor. That last punch had sent his head rocking like he was at a mid-eighties metal concert and pushed his brain straight into dreamland. Or, more likely in this poor soul’s case, into nightmare château.

The fighter sporting a multicolored mohawk tossed his arms skyward in victory, and the crowd screamed their approval through hoarse throats and increasingly drunken hazes.

“The other guy really should have bobbed to the side,” Alex pointed out.

“Wouldn’t have helped,” Thomas replied. “His opponent was ready for that and had his leg positioned to sweep him to the ground.” Over a year of experience in combat had honed his battle perceptions nicely, allowing him to appreciate the mixed martial arts match on a more detailed level than the average spectator. Of course, what he appreciated the most was that for once he was watching someone else get knocked around instead of filling that role himself.

“This is amazing,” Vince said, his voice still somewhat awestruck. “I never knew that people had made this kind of fighting into a sport. All I’ve ever seen was boxing.”

“Yeah, mixed martial arts has really come into its own over the last decade or so,” Alex informed him. “Though I had no idea that a crew was going to be in town.”

“It was good fortune,” Thomas said. In truth it was because one of his sparring partners from back home was in the organization and had given Thomas both free tickets and a heads’ up, but if one looked at networking as a type of luck then good fortune it was.

“I wonder if they accept challengers,” Hershel mused thoughtfully. "I've got a hip flask and Roy probably deserves to have a little fun, too."

“Even if they do, it won't be ones like him,” Nick replied. “You know the rules: our type has to go to the SAA. Which might be a good career move for Roy if this whole college thing doesn’t pan out.”

“They actually recruit heavily from HCP washouts,” Alex said. “I got a call over the summer from a local scout who assumed I hadn’t made sophomore year.”

“For a scout he can’t judge talent very well, then,” Thomas told him. He’d grown fond of the leaner brown-haired boy, and after last year’s midterm had acquired a healthy respect for his ability.

The next fighters began walking down the runway to the ring, a myriad of boos, coos, and yahoos greeting them as they descended. The crowd ratcheted up its intensity by several degrees as the combatants actually entered the ring, the bloodlust almost palpable as the spectacle drew nearer to starting.

“Thank goodness the chicks wanted their own night,” Nick said. “This kicks the crap out of anything they might have wanted to do.”

*    *    *

Carl Fletcher sat in the small apartment Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport had at the back of Melbrook, sipping on his fifth cocktail and feeling pretty good about life. The boys had recovered significantly since he saw them on the beach, bouncing back with the kind of vigor and determination that had led him to recruit them in the first place.

“Been a long time since we all sat together and drank,” Carl noted casually. It really had been. He’d retired over five years ago, and communication with those still active wasn’t exactly smiled upon. “How are Stop and Tracking holding up?”

“Resplendent as always,” Mr. Numbers replied. “They’re assigned to protect some diplomat’s child between situations, so they’re staying at an ultra-posh hotel in New York.”

“Tracking always did have a way of finagling the best assignments,” Carl remembered. “That girl could collect favors like they were bottle caps.”

“She has an exceptionally useful ability,” Mr. Transport said. “That calls for her services to be needed in unofficial capacities quite often.”

“Meanwhile, Mr. Transport and I get hopped around the globe frequently since relocation is easy for us,” Mr. Numbers said, a rasp of bitterness detectable in his voice. “This is the longest we’ve managed to stay in one place since we started.”

“Chin up, Numbers, they did the same thing to me and I wasn’t even paired with a teleporter,” Carl said. “On to happier topics. How’s that girl of yours? Still keeping tabs I assume?”

Mr. Numbers smiled; not a grin or a smirk or a sneer or a calculated pull of his lips to show teeth, but a genuine smile. “She’s doing really well. Just got her doctorate in molecular biology.”

“At her age? That’s pretty impressive,” Carl said.

“That’s my niece,” Mr. Numbers said simply, his intense blue eyes shifting out of focus as they looked beyond the physical realm of the room and into his memory.

“What about you, Transport? Still flying solo?”

“You know the job,” Mr. Transport said simply.

“Yeah. Yeah, I know the job.” Carl took a deep draw from his drink and let the line of questioning die out. There wasn’t more to say, nor more that needed to be said. Carl already understood; after all, Carl had his nice home on his nice beach which was nice and quiet with no spouses talking or grandkids visiting.

Carl knew the job, all right.