Day two, and Dave was already going stir-crazy. He’d thought he’d at least make it to the end of the week.
He, Moreen, Puebla, and Agent Attwater sat around the coffee table playing cards, while Agent Chung took his shift to sleep. They were playing Canasta, which needed two decks, and while the first was a regular set of cards, the second was superhero-themed. Each number showcased a different hero. The kings all showed the Crimson Phoenix, his photographs touched up from when they’d been taken back in the fifties. Victory’s image graced the queens, and White Knight was stuck on all four jacks. He was in different poses on each card: mid-run on one, and standing triumphantly with his hands on his hips in another, but he looked like a dope on all four. Nobody had confessed to owning the deck, and they were all acting like it had spontaneously appeared in the hotel room.
“So, how exactly do you get your image on a deck of cards?” Puebla asked as he set down the jack of diamonds. It showed Dave with his arms crossed, unsmiling. The photographer must have told him to look intimating.
“Bachelor’s degree in criminology, two years training at the Academy, and a lot of luck,” Dave answered.
“You’ll note he didn’t specify good luck,” Moreen added with a smirk.
“Must be nice, though.” Puebla set down another card, and Dave expected him to go on about money and fame, but he didn’t. “You have a platform of respect. People listen to you. You champion a cause, and that message gets out there.”
“They give me a script for most of my media appearances,” Dave said, though he was thinking that he didn’t have a cause.
“Keeping him from putting his foot in his mouth is a full-time job for a team of public relations people,” Moreen said.
Dave shot her a glare before looking back to Puebla. “You have a cause? Is that why you’re testifying against Mr. Lucifer?”
“No, I’m just stubborn.” Puebla discarded an eight. “Or maybe I’m standing up against dishonest advertising.”
“Here we go,” Attwater muttered.
“Stuff it, Attwater. I haven’t heard this.” Moreen picked up a card. “Go on, Dave.”
It took Dave a split second to remember she was talking to Puebla.
“I own a bookstore, right?” Puebla said. “Or owned one, anyway. I carried a little of every genre, but my focus was on the LGBT section, and I had a pretty good selection of sci-fi and fantasy, too. Only, well, I like to think it was more than just a bookstore. It was a part of the community, you know? Four weekly book clubs met there, and half a dozen monthly ones. I hosted a knitting group, did author signings—I tried to make a safe, fun space for my customers. So when a pair of scary men in suits asked me to pay protection money, I though the place was worth protecting.”
Moreen discarded after racking up a ton of points, and Attwater’s turn began. Dave was glad he didn’t have to focus on playing yet. If Puebla had been paying the Belmontes, then why had they burned down his store?
“But that was the problem,” Puebla went on. “It’s called ‘protection’ money, so I expect them to do a certain amount of protecting. But I was still getting a brick thrown through my window every month and people spray-painting nasty words on the front door. They weren’t doing their job properly.”
“You know,” Moreen said, “they generally just mean protection from themselves. That’s pretty much the definition of racketeering.”
“Then they should specify that.” Puebla set his cards face-down on the table so he could cross his arms. “I was paying a significant amount of money for a promised service, and that service wasn’t being delivered. So I registered a complaint.”
“To the scary men in suits?”
“Yes, and when they didn’t take me seriously, I stopped paying.”
Moreen let out a low whistle. “That takes guts.”
“I just wanted them to do what they advertised.” Puebla slumped as his righteous indignation seemed to leave him. “But now my store is a burnt husk, so I guess it was a stupid thing to do. I dunno. But someone has to be held responsible, and if I have to spend weeks stuck in a hotel for that to happen, then so be it.”
“Cheers.” Moreen raised her soda can and drank to him.
“Well, Puebla, you’re officially on the winning team.” Agent Attwater set down his last card. “I’m out.”
Moreen swore, and Dave could see why: the two of them obviously hadn’t racked up as many points as Attwater and Puebla. “You’re deadweight, White Knight. Next time, I’m on Puebla’s team.”
She stood and stretched. “It’s about 5 o’clock. They should have those cookies out in the lobby by now. Anyone want me to grab them anything?”
They gave her requests for coffee and cookies, and she walked out. Agent Attwater started separating the mixed decks, and Puebla yawned.
“So what’s the deal with you and Agent Lee?” Attwater asked.
Dave grabbed some cards and helped organize them. “We’ve known each other since college. She’s a good friend.”
Attwater gave him a knowing smile—or a smile that would have been knowing if he actually knew anything. “Nothing more?”
Dave clenched his jaw but didn’t say anything. That would just make Attwater try harder to persuade him.
After they finished cleaning up the cards, Puebla put on the TV, and Agent Attwater walked around to the windows, peering through the blinds in another periodic check outside. Moreen would do surveillance as she went down to the lobby, but there was no such thing as being too aware of your surroundings.
“Hey, White Knight.” Agent Attwater waved for Dave to come over, his voice so completely casual that Dave didn’t realize anything was wrong until he reached the window.
“What do you think about that guy?” Attwater asked.
Dave squinted through the gap in the blinds at a man in the parking lot. A designer suit dressed his burly frame, and he was studying the motel intently.
“Joey Giordano,” Dave said, feeling like a fist had just tightened around his stomach. “Mr. Lucifer’s right-hand man.”
Attwater sighed. “I thought so, too. Was hoping you’d tell me I was wrong.”
“You call it in. I’ll wake up Chung.”
Dave moved quickly to the bedroom, cursing inwardly. How had the Belmontes found where they were hiding Puebla a second time? The DSA had a definite intelligence leak. But that wasn’t his job to worry about. He just had to keep Puebla safe.
And Moreen. She was out there alone and unprepared—no, that wasn’t fair. She’d be on alert, and her gun was in a holster under her suit jacket. It was her job to be prepared, but she was still alone. Dave hoped she’d spot Belmonte’s men before they saw her. Would they recognize her as a DSA agent? They’d see the telltale bulge of her gun under her jacket; they were trained to notice things like that. If she could make it back to the room and not get pinned down and cut off from backup….
He wanted to run after her and warn her, but that would be as good as shouting to Giordano on a megaphone that they were here. Belmonte’s men might not notice a woman in a business suit, but they couldn’t miss White Knight dashing down the halls. Besides, he had to stay with Puebla. Protecting the witness was the whole reason he was here.
He shook Chung awake and quickly explained the situation. When he went back to the living room, Attwater was on the phone, and Puebla was standing against the wall and wringing his hands.
“What do we do?” Puebla asked.
“Wait here for now.” Dave checked surreptitiously out the window again. Giordano was gone, and he didn’t see anyone else. “We don’t know how many there are or what powers they may have. We want to either keep you hidden or sneak you out.” Especially since there was no telling how many innocent bystanders would get hurt if things got violent.
“And if they find us?”
“I hold them off. Agent Attwater gets you to the car.”
Dave poured as much calm as he could into the words, but it didn’t stop Puebla’s gaze from darting all over the room like he expected one of Belmonte’s men to jump out from behind the couch at any moment.
“What about Agent Lee?”
“She can take care of herself, believe me,” Dave said, trying to reassure the both of them.
A tense wait followed. Attwater hung up the phone and told them backup was on the way, but Dave knew it would take them time to get here, and their arrival was no guarantee everything would work out okay. It would just provide more targets for the Belmontes and increase the chances that innocent bystanders would get caught in the crossfire. But Dave wasn’t in charge of the big picture. He had his orders: keep Puebla alive. That was the only thing he should be worried about.
Agent Chung walked from window to window, trying to see who Giordano had brought with him. Agent Attwater pulled cases of ammunition out of his suitcase and checked that his pistol was in working order. Puebla had closed his eyes, his chest rising and falling beneath his buttoned-up cardigan as he breathed slowly in and out. Dave forced himself to remain still and not pace. He wished he had super-hearing or telepathy or something that could tell him how many hostiles were here and how Moreen was doing. Sometimes, super-strength felt absolutely useless.
Had the Black Valentine come with Giordano? Dave silently prayed that she hadn’t. The situation was tough enough already.
A muffled shout from the hallway grabbed Dave’s attention. It was a man’s voice, loud and angry. A women’s voice responded pleadingly.
Agent Attwater went immediately to the door and looked through the peephole.
“No good.” He kept his voice low. “They’re too far down the hallway to see.”
“I think that’s one of the women from housekeeping,” Agent Chung said. “Miranda, I think?”
A bang made Puebla jump. “Was that a gun?”
“Door slamming,” Dave grunted.
There was a pause of about twenty seconds before another door slammed open. This time a scream followed, followed by the same man’s voice telling someone to shut up and stay still. A brief silence followed before another bang, this one closer.
“He’s searching all the rooms,” Agent Chung said.
Agent Attwater spat out a curse. “Housekeeping has keycards that open every door.”
Puebla squeezed shut his eyes and shuddered. The room fell silent, forced to face that hiding was no longer an option.
Dave strode up to the door and stopped in front of it, just far back enough that it wouldn’t hit him when it was flung open. “Down the staircase and to the car like we planned?”
Agent Attwater nodded. Agent Chung put a reassuring hand on Puebla’s shoulder.
They waited, the seconds stretching out. The sound of doors opening continued as steadily and unyielding as a funeral bell. Most of the rooms seemed to be empty, but the occasional scream revealed occupants and made Dave want to break down the door and charge out. But the man searching for Puebla didn’t shoot anyone. He just shouted at them to stay put and continued to the next room.
He’d come here to shoot just one person in particular, and Dave and the agents were all that stood between them.
When the man burst into the room next door, they could hear every detail: the door banging against the wall, his rummaging around the room. As stomping footsteps moved back to the door and out of the room, Dave’s stomach felt as if he was sky-diving. The man was coming here next.
The door swung open and hit the wall with a bang. A man in a button-down shirt and gold necklace stormed in then jerked back when he saw Dave.
“Hi there,” Dave greeted, and punched him in the face.
He didn’t put much force behind the swing, but it knocked the man off his feet. His gun dropped to the floor, and Dave stepped on it, squashing the metal like cardboard.
He looked up and down the hall and found it empty except for a cart of cleaning supplies. He turned back to Puebla and the agents.
Bit of a longer update today. The setup’s over now, so expect action for the next few weeks. 🙂