“So, those are his friends?” Ms. Pips rarely looked up from the work on her desk, even after having Eliza called up to her office.
“They stand out too much. Have Florence tail them and use that blending ability of hers on the whole group. Nicholas will notice, but he won’t complain. You keep close as well, in case they need anything. With Gerry’s… with what’s happened today, Nicholas might not be up to his usual caliber, so I’m counting on you to keep things going smoothly. Any issues?”
“No, ma’am.” Eliza stood stock still, not even wavering until she was given permission to leave. One never quite knew when Ms. Pips was done doling out orders, and she did not enjoy being cut off.
“Good girl. You can go now. Fix your make-up on the way out. I know you miss him too, but we have an image to uphold,” Ms. Pips said. “And for what it’s worth, you should know he thought highly of you, and how far you’d come within the organization. Gerry was the one who wanted you and Jerome to get real degrees at Lander. He always saw potential in you.”
“Thank you.” Eliza didn’t hesitate this time; she turned and walked stiffly toward the door. It was a good thing her make-up already needed fixing, because she could feel the fresh wave of tears sliding down her face.
* * *
“Eat up, eat up. You look famished.” The bald man with the gentle smile, Gerry he’d called himself, sat across the booth from her, sliding over another hamburger. The diner was innocuous, just one of a dozen roadside attractions one might pass on a long drive. But the moment this man had walked in, everything had changed. The few customers besides her were hustled out, some given to-go orders, and the sign on the glass front door was flipped to “Closed”. He’d strolled right over to her booth, where she was snacking on a meager serving of fries bought with stolen cash, and proceeded to order like he was trying to feed a family of five before introducing himself.
Eliza accepted the food, though she kept a wary eye on him at all times. How he’d known who she was or where she’d be was a mystery, but this wasn’t the first time someone had found her. She chewed through the last bite of her first burger, accepted the second, and downed half a glass of cherry soda. “Did I take something from you, or are you here to try and make me work for you?”
His eyes twinkled as he motioned to the waitress for a refill. “Not your first time being approached I see. Good, that should make this go faster. To answer your question, you didn’t steal from us, Eliza, but you did rob some people who we know. Don’t worry about that though, the matter has already been settled. We keep eyes and ears out for people with your sort of potential, so once we heard what you could do I was sent to make you a job offer. Not to force you, however. I’m sure you’ve dealt with the rough and tumble type before who made all sorts of threats, maybe even captured you and made you work until you escaped. My people don’t work that way. We prefer loyalty in our employees, and that’s not the sort of thing you can get through force.”
She swallowed her bite of food harder than she’d meant to. “You know my name?”
“Of course. It’s my job. I know that you’re a Super with a rare duplication ability, a fifteen year old who has been on her own for most of her life, a surprisingly fearless and skilled criminal in your own right, and, most importantly, that you’re squandering your potential.” Gerry scooped up a small fry from his own plate and dunked it into the pile of ketchup he’d poured.
“I get by just fine,” Eliza snapped. She liked the food, but wasn’t a fan of being talked down to. What the fuck did this guy really know anyway? She’d been making it on her own, duplicating what she needed and stealing the rest.
“‘Getting by’ is exactly the way I would put it too,” Gerry agreed. “You survive, you endure, you soldier on, all of which is very impressive and part of why I’m sitting here today. But tell me, Eliza, wouldn’t you rather flourish? Instead of worrying about where your next meal is coming from, you could dedicate yourself to honing your craft, to excelling at any area you chose to pursue.”
“And your gang is making me that offer?”
He laughed and took another bite of his fry. “My gang? I don’t represent a gang, Eliza. You don’t get these sorts of resources; you can’t track a homeless fugitive across the nation to a diner and then clear it out with a moment’s notice using only a poorly assembled collection of petty criminals. What I am part of, and am offering you a place in, is something much bigger and grander than any mere gang. We have everything you could dream of. Lavish food for when you’re hungry, expensive beds when you’re tired, healing Supers when you’re injured, and most importantly of all: opportunity.”
Gerry leaned forward, meeting Eliza’s eyes over her hamburger. Curiously, she didn’t feel scared, even though he was getting close. Nothing about him seemed to indicate danger, even as she felt like he was staring right into her very soul.
“You are talented and determined, Eliza, that’s what put you on our radar. But more than that, you are hungry. Hungry in a way that has nothing to do with mere diner hamburgers. We’ve tracked your activities and your escalation; we’ve seen the ambition in your capers. I don’t come for every recruitment meeting, you know. They only trot me out for the special cases, the ones who can really go somewhere. Those with the hunger. We can help you with that. We can teach you, train you, bring you to a level it would take decades to reach on your own. It won’t be free, nothing in this world truly is, but the price will be fair. Loyalty and service, those are what we’ll demand in return.”
The stare broke as Gerry leaned back, downing one more fry before reaching into his wallet and pulling out a simple white card. He laid it onto the table near her, close enough for Eliza to see it was nothing but a phone number.
“Memorize that, cards are too easily lost to be trusted. Say it to yourself every morning to make sure you never forget it. Because sooner or later, you’ll realize I’m right. That what I’m offering and what you need line up perfectly. And when that day comes, all you have to do is find a phone and make a call. I’ll answer, and we can get your new life started.”
“You aren’t going to demand an answer right now?” Eliza pulled in on herself a little, this was too easy, she didn’t trust it.
“Certainly not, we both know you wouldn’t give one without thinking it over anyway.” Gerry closed his wallet and rose from the booth. “The bill is paid, and there are three more courses coming. Save a little room for the chocolate pie, it’s lovely here. I’m taking one to go.”
“Thanks for the food,” Eliza said. “But you just told me nothing was free.”
“Neither was this. I bribed you so you would listen to my offer.” Gerry tapped the card once with his finger. “Remember, memorize this. I’d hate for you to need us and not remember the number.”
Carefully, she took the card and looked at it before stowing it in her pocket. “What makes you so sure I’ll call?”
“I’m good at reading people, and you won’t let a chance like this slip away,” Gerry told her. “Take your time; take a year or so if you need. We’re patient, and we’ll be ready when you are. Until then, stay safe, Eliza.” With that, he walked out the diner’s front door, causing the dented old bell overhead to jingle softly.