Human/Super #16: Hide and Seek

 

HUMAN/SUPER #16

HIDE AND SEEK

 

 

 

 

 

Caroline Shimura picked up the trail in front of the bookstore on level three. Cheap deodorant, applied approximately three hours ago, mixed with a vague hint of pot smoke.

Across the hall, the doors slid shut on a glass elevator. Her target was inside. Caucasian male, mid-teens, with blond hair and green eyes. He grinned at her as he dropped out of sight.

Caroline ran to the balcony overlooking the foyer and hopped over the railing. She swung down to the second-floor balcony and landed on all fours.

She was too late; the elevator continued its descent to the ground floor.

Caroline jumped again, landing on the counter of a coffee shop in the foyer. Her vision faded to shades of blue and yellow, and she spotted the boy hauling ass through the crowd toward the east entrance.

She grabbed her radio from her belt.

///

“He’s coming your way!”

Owen Crawley scanned the crowd and spotted the suspect making his way toward the exit. Owen positioned himself in front of the door and clenched his fists. His skin erupted into thick grey scales.

The boy looked up at Owen but kept on coming. When he was almost within arm’s reach, the kid dropped to the floor and slid between Owen’s legs.

Owen spun and lunged for the boy. He grabbed a handful of backpack and lifted the kid off his feet. The boy slipped out of the straps and hit the ground running.

Owen gave chase, but a bus pulled away just as he reached the curb, carrying the boy with it. When he turned back to the mall, Caroline was standing in the doorway. He smiled sheepishly as his scales receded back into the skin beneath.

“He got away,” Owen said. “Sorry.”

“Goddammit,” she growled.

She stared down the street at the bus as if she were thinking of chasing it down on foot.

“I got his bag, at least,” Owen said, looking inside. “A bunch of DVDs, a pair of jeans, a video game controller, pain meds, junk food. Kid really made his rounds.”

“He’ll be back,” she said, and turned sharply. “I’m going upstairs to check the cameras. Maybe we got some footage we can use.”

“I’ll see about returning all this stuff,” Owen said.

“Have fun with that,” she said, and marched back inside.

Owen sighed and followed her into the mall.

///

The surveillance room was a cramped office on the third floor with a bank of monitors embedded in the wall, displaying dozens of video feeds from around the building. The smell of stale coffee and nicotine gum lingered in the air.

“Please tell me you got that,” Caroline said, pulling up a chair beside Jenny Palmer, the dayshift surveillance operator.

“Oh, I got something, all right,” Jenny said.

She leaned forward and clicked her mouse. A video appeared on her desktop computer, showing Caroline running after the kid on the third floor. He slipped into the elevator and Caroline jumped over the nearby railing.

The view switched to her landing on level two, then level one. Finally, a shot of Owen blocking the door, followed by the kid sliding between his legs and escaping sans backpack.

“You mind if I throw this on YouTube?” Jenny asked. “‘Mallcop Parkour’ could totally go viral.”

“Tell you what,” Caroline said. “You find me a clear shot of that kid’s face, you can do whatever you want with the rest of the footage.”

“Way ahead of you,” Jenny replied, grinning.

She pressed a few keys and the printer behind her spat out several grainy images of the shoplifter. Caroline flipped through them and found two or three with enough detail to identify him.

“Perfect,” Caroline said. “I’ll make sure everyone has a copy. Next time this kid sets foot on the premises, he’s toast.”

“I look forward to the show,” Jenny said, and turned back to the screen. “So… what’s his story?”

On one of the video feeds, Owen came out of a store with the kid’s backpack in hand and headed down the hall.

“The new guy?” Caroline asked. “He’s just a meathead. Used to work as a bouncer at some club until he got fired because he couldn’t do his job right. And now we’re stuck with him.”

“He seems nice,” Jenny said.

“Well, ‘nice’ only gets you so far,” Caroline said. “He’s no use to me if I can’t count on him to back me up.”

“So you’d prefer someone who’s reliable but a total dick?” Jenny asked.

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Caroline replied.

Jenny chuckled and said, “Touché.”

Caroline’s eyes drifted back to the screen.

“What the hell’s he doing now?” she muttered.

On the screen, Owen was kneeling in front of a small child on level one, no parents in sight. Caroline stood from her seat.

“I need you to rewind that feed,” she said.

///

Owen returned the stolen DVDs and rode the escalator down to the ground floor. He heard a faint sobbing coming from somewhere nearby and followed the sound into an empty stretch of hallway. A little girl with red hair, maybe three or four years old, sat on a bench, crying.

“Hey,” he said.

The girl looked up at him through bleary eyes and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.

“You lost?” he asked.

She didn’t reply, just stared.

“It’s okay to talk to me,” he said. “I work here.”

He tapped the “SECURITY” patch on his chest. Still nothing. He tried to think back to his own childhood, his interests at that age, things that would’ve gotten his attention.

“Do you… like dinosaurs?” he asked.

His scales grew back and he held his arms out in front of him. He gave a little roar. The girl crossed her arms.

“Dinosaurs have feathers,” she said.

He lowered his arms and glanced down.

“Really?” he asked.

She nodded.

“I have a book about it,” she said. “Mommy gave it to me.”

Owen kneeled in front of her.

“Is that who you came here with today?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Daddy’s girlfriend bought me,” she said.

“Ah,” Owen said. “And where is she now?”

The girl sniffled and said, “I don’t know.”

“Do you remember where you were when you last saw her?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Okay, how about her name?” he asked.

“A-Angela,” she replied.

“That’s a start,” he said. “And what’s your name?”

“Ruby,” she said.

“Makes sense,” he replied. “I’m Owen.”

He shook her hand and smiled.

“Now what do you say we go look for Angela?” he asked.

///

Caroline hurried to the department store at the north end of the mall, where a security camera had last seen the girl and her mother together. Picking up the scent of fear, Caroline weaved her way through the store to the toy section on the second floor.

“Ruby?” a woman called out, moving from aisle to aisle. “Where’d you go, sweetie?”

The woman was young, white, with short blonde hair and a blue pinstripe dress. She was trying to act casual, but Caroline could see the tension, the barely-restrained panic.

“Excuse me,” Caroline said.

The woman froze. Caroline half-expected her to bolt.

“Yes?” the woman said tentatively.

“Are you looking for a little girl?” Caroline asked.

The woman rushed up the aisle.

“You’ve found her?” she asked, her voice cracking.

“Follow me,” Caroline said.

She led the woman downstairs and out of the store. They walked briskly to the bench where she’d seen Owen with the girl. It was empty. Caroline sighed and grabbed her radio.

“Crawley, where are you?” she asked.

“Level two, northeast hallway,” he replied. “I’m helping a kid retrace her steps.”

“Don’t move,” Caroline said. “I’m bringing the mother to you now.”

“Oh, I’m not…” the woman started.

“Let’s go,” Caroline said.

They headed to the nearest escalator and up to the second floor. Owen was waiting near the upper entrance of the department store with the girl by his side.

“Ruby!” the woman cried, rushing forward.

She fell to her knees and hugged the girl.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “I should’ve been paying more attention.”

“It’s okay,” the girl replied. “Owen found me.”

The woman looked up at Owen and said, “Thank you.”

“Just doing my job, ma’am,” he replied with a smile.

“Come on,” the woman said, standing and taking the girl’s hand. “Let’s go get you some ice cream.”

They headed back up the hall together. The woman smiled at Caroline as they passed.

“Bye-bye!” the girl called out as she stepped onto the escalator.

Owen waved at her until she dropped out of sight. He smiled at Caroline, but she glared back.

“Why didn’t you just call it in?” she asked. “We could’ve paged the mother and sent her right to you.”

“Because that wasn’t the mother,” he replied. “It was the father’s girlfriend. I figure a woman in her position’s under enough scrutiny already; she doesn’t need her name called out across the entire building at a moment like this.”

Caroline glanced down the hall and said, “Okay, fair enough.”

The loudspeaker crackled overhead.

“Attention shoppers,” the PA announcer said. “The mall will be closing in thirty minutes. Please bring your final purchases to the nearest checkout counter and….”

“I have to go,” Caroline said.

She hurried upstairs and made photocopies of the shoplifter’s picture. She pinned a copy to the bulletin board in the break room and distributed the rest among various commonly-targeted stores around the mall.

By the time she’d finished, her phone buzzed.

“Here,” a text read.

She wrapped up a few last-minute tasks and headed out to the parking lot, where her fiancée, Robin, waited in the car. Duncan, Robin’s ten-year-old son, was huddled in the back seat with a stack of comic books on his lap. Caroline gave Robin a kiss and glanced back over her shoulder.

“Hey, kid,” she said. “What’re you reading?”

He held up something with spaceships and aliens.

“Cool,” she said.

He nodded and went back to reading. Robin started the car and pulled out of the lot.

“So,” Robin said, “how do we feel about Italian tonight?”

///

Owen finished his patrols and headed upstairs to clock out for the night. He threw on his denim jacket and fished his cellphone out of the pocket. He dialled his stepmother’s number.

“Hey, kid,” she said. “What’s up?”

“Oh, not much,” he replied. “I was just thinking about you and thought I’d give you a call.”

He made small talk as he returned to the ground floor and stepped outside. The air was muggy, but there was a bit of a breeze to even it out.

“You should come over for dinner sometime,” she said. “It’s been too long.”

“I’d like that,” he replied. “I’ll take a look at my schedule and get back to you.”

“All right,” she said. “Love you.”

“Love you too,” he said. “Bye.”

He put his phone away and stepped up to the curb. Jenny, the cute brunette from the surveillance room, was sitting in her wheelchair by the bus stop, playing a video game on a handheld console. She looked up and smiled.

“Hell of a day, huh?” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I haven’t even had a chance to eat yet.”

“Me neither,” she said. “I’m just going to stop for Chinese on my way home. You’re… welcome to join me.”

He smiled and said, “Count me in.”

///

Caroline smelled tobacco. Faint, distant, wafting from somewhere downstairs. She followed the trail down to level one. The smell grew stronger in the southeast hallway, seeping out under the door marked “MEN”. She glanced down at the radio on her belt.

“Hey, uh, Crawley?” she said. “Mind giving me a hand with something?”

She gave her location and he showed up a few minutes later, looking a little the worse for wear.

“Long night?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, stifling a yawn. “What’ve we got?”

“Smokers,” she replied.

He cracked his knuckles and said, “I’m on it.”

///

Owen heard muffled voices when he stepped into the men’s room, spurts of laughter followed by shushing. The stall at the far end of the row was shut, two pairs of shoes peeking out the bottom.

“All right, come on out,” he said, banging on the door.

He heard more whispers, a faint splash, and a flush. The door opened and a man and a woman, both in their early twenties, stepped out of the stall.

“I’m going to have to ask the two of you to leave the building,” Owen said.

“Why?” the man said. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Well, for starters, you were smoking,” Owen said.

“You can’t prove that,” the man said.

“And second of all,” Owen said, turning to the woman, “this is the men’s room.”

“Can’t you just let this slide?” she asked. “We actually work here, so….”

“Which store?” Owen asked. “I don’t see uniforms.”

“Well, I’m—” the woman started, but the man nudged her with his elbow.

“Why do you need to know that?” he asked.

“I’ll have to speak with your bosses,” Owen replied.

The couple exchanged a quick glance, then bolted.

///

The door burst open and two figures rushed past Caroline. She spun and reached out, grabbing a handful of hoodie. The man wriggled free of his jacket and kept running.

The two of them reached the end of the hall and split off in opposite directions. Owen came out of the washroom and glanced down at the hoodie in her hand.

“Shut up,” she said. “What happened in there?”

“They’re employees,” he said. “When I tried to find out where they work, they ran.”

“That was stupid of them,” she said.

She held the hoodie up to her nose and sniffed it. Smoke, cologne, and sweat mingled to form a single distinct scent. She turned and headed up the hall.

“Find the girl,” she said as she turned the corner.

///

Owen took a deep breath and stepped into the surveillance room. Jenny glanced up at him and chuckled.

“You just can’t stay out of trouble, can you?” she said.

“I know, right?” he said. “There must be something in the air.”

“Nah,” she said. “Caroline would’ve sniffed it out by now.”

He laughed and said, “True, true.”

“So,” Jenny said, “you’re looking for the woman who ran off, I assume?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Think you can find her for me?”

Please,” she said. “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

Jenny leaned forward and clicked her mouse. On the monitor, the woman from the men’s room stopped in front of the jewelry store on level two, leaned against the wall for a moment to catch her breath, then stepped inside.

“Did she really think running would do her any good?” Jenny asked.

“I don’t think she was thinking much at all,” Owen replied. “And now she’s going to pay for it.”

“How does it feel?” Jenny asked. “Holding someone’s job in your hands?”

“I think I preferred bouncing drunks,” he replied.

She laughed, and he turned for the door. He hesitated.

“About last night,” he said.

“Yeah?” she said tentatively.

“Do you want to do it again sometime?” he asked.

Her expression became unreadable for a moment, then she grinned.

“Definitely,” she replied.

///

Caroline tracked her quarry to the third floor. He was standing behind the counter in an electronics store, finishing up with a customer. He opened his mouth to greet her as she entered, but froze before he could speak.

“Forget something?” she said, holding up his hoodie.

He backed away from the counter.

“You can’t do this,” he said. “I’ve already got two strikes against me. One more and I’m done. Please. I need this job.”

“Should’ve thought about that before you lit up,” she said.

His eyes darted left and right, then his whole body went limp. He gestured past her.

“My manager’s over there,” he said.

She glanced back as a middle-aged white man with a shaved head approached the counter and glared at the smoker.

“What did you do this time?” the manager asked.

The younger man sighed and turned to Caroline. She glanced from one man to the other, and forced a smile.

“He dropped his jacket downstairs,” she said, passing the hoodie across the counter. “I was just returning it.”

“Oh,” the manager said. “Okay.”

He eyed the two of them suspiciously for a moment, then went back to whatever he was doing. Caroline jabbed her index finger across the counter.

“Don’t waste this,” she said, and marched out of the store.

She grabbed her radio and took a deep breath.

“Hey Crawley,” she said. “I lost the trail.”

///

“Same here,” Owen said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she replied. “We’ll get them next time.”

“Yeah, we will,” he said.

He snapped his radio back onto his belt and looked up at the woman behind the jewelry counter. He smiled.

“Right?” he asked.

She swallowed hard and nodded.

“T-thanks,” she stammered.

“No problem,” he said, and headed back into the hall.

He looked up at the security camera in the corner and shrugged. He chuckled to himself and resumed his patrol.

///

Caroline poured herself some coffee and took a seat in the break room. She made it about halfway through her cup before Jenny rolled into the room and parked herself on the other side of the table.

“Why’d you do that?” Jenny asked.

“Do what?” Caroline replied.

“Let that guy go,” Jenny said. “You never let anybody go.”

Caroline shrugged.

“He was just smoking in the bathroom,” she said. “It didn’t seem worth getting him fired over.”

“See?” Jenny said, pointing across the table. “That’s what I’m talking about: mercy. It’s not like you.”

“Well, maybe you don’t know me as well as you thought you did,” Caroline said.

“Or maybe you just don’t want to admit that Owen’s rubbing off on you,” Jenny said.

Caroline chuckled.

“Is that what this is about?” she asked. “Look, if you want to ask him out, just go right ahead. You don’t need to get my approval.”

“Way ahead of you, as usual,” Jenny replied. “I’m only here as… a public service announcement. I think the two of you make a great team, and I just thought you should know.”

“I’ll take that into consideration,” Caroline said. “But for the record, you’re full of shit.”

“I know,” Jenny said, nodding. “I know.”

///

Owen’s radio crackled to life and a voice said, “We got flooding on level one. Looks like a burst water main. We could use some extra bodies for crowd control.”

He headed downstairs and joined a couple other guards who had already gathered in the northwest corridor. The water was an inch deep and rising, spewing from the floor. A ramp and a short set of steps isolated the hallway from the rest of the mall, but the flood still spilled over into several shops along the way.

A maintenance team rushed to the mall and shut off the water to the main. One of the workers, a middle-aged man with light brown skin and a greying black goatee, stood on the steps overlooking the flood and held his arms aloft like Moses. The water parted and the rest of the crew climbed down to work on the leak.

Owen spent the rest of the morning shooing people away from the flooded area. As noon approached, he spotted a familiar figure in the foyer carrying shopping bags in both hands.

“Nancy?” he called out. “What’re you doing here?”

His stepmother turned toward him and smiled.

“It’s called shopping, honey,” she said. “It’s when you—”

“But you’ve always hated this place,” he said.

“Yeah, well, when you mentioned yesterday that you work here,” she said, “I thought I’d give it another chance. It’s… not so bad, really.”

“It does have its moments,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder. “Now’s not really one of them, though.”

“I guess you’re too busy to join me for lunch, then?” she said.

He smiled and said, “I think I can make time.”

///

Caroline caught a whiff of lavender shampoo and glanced around. Robin waved from the top of a nearby escalator and rode it downstairs with Duncan in tow.

“Hey,” Caroline said. “What’s going on?”

“I’m in a bit of a pickle, actually,” Robin said. “This was supposed to be my day off, but there’s an emergency at work and I’ve got to go in for a bit. I couldn’t get ahold of anyone to watch Duncan, so I was wondering… I mean, I know you’re working, too, but I just can’t—”

“It’s fine,” Caroline said, squeezing Robin’s shoulder. “Go to work. I’ve got this.”

“You’re too good to me,” Robin said.

“I know,” Caroline replied.

Robin kissed Caroline on the cheek and kneeled down in front of Duncan.

“You be good for Caroline, okay?” Robin said.

Duncan nodded.

“Thanks, honey,” Robin said, and hurried for the exit.

Caroline glanced down at the kid and smiled awkwardly.

“So,” she said. “Hungry?”

///

The food court was packed, but Owen found a free table near the balcony overlooking the foyer. He could see the flooded hallway from here, the maintenance team still working away.

They ordered wraps and settled in at the table. As he took his first bite, he spotted Caroline walking around with young boy and a tray of food, looking for a place to sit. Owen waved her over.

“Care to join us?” he asked.

She looked from Owen to Nancy and back as if she weren’t sure what she was seeing.

“This is my stepmother, Nancy,” he said. “Nancy, this is Caroline.”

Nancy extended her hand and Caroline shook it.

“This is Duncan,” Caroline said, glancing at the boy. “My… fiancée’s son.”

“Nice to meet you,” Nancy said.

Duncan stared at his shoes.

“Are you okay with sitting here?” Caroline asked.

The boy shrugged.

“Works for me,” she said.

She sat next to Nancy and set a burger and fries on the table beside Owen. Duncan took his seat and started eating. After a moment, Caroline chuckled.

“I bet Jenny’s loving this,” she said.

“Who’s Jenny?” Nancy asked.

“Girl who works surveillance,” Caroline replied. “She’s trying to turn the two of us into some kind of buddy cop duo. She gets bored easily so she likes to poke and prod her coworkers. Crawley knows a little something about that too, I hear.”

He choked on a mouthful of soda and suffered through a brief coughing fit.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, clearing his throat.

“Sure, sure,” she said. “But at some point, we’ll have to—”

She froze and sniffed the air.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

///

Caroline smelled smoke, and this time it wasn’t tobacco. She glanced around, her vision shifting to the infrared spectrum. Heat signatures appeared in front of her eyes; bodies, deep fryers, a few laptops. But one spot glowed brighter than all others.

“I’ll be right back,” Caroline said to Duncan, standing from her seat.

Weaving a path between tables, she hurried toward the fish and chips stall at the far end of the food court. The glow intensified, and expanded.

Flames erupted from the kitchen. The fire alarm wailed and the girl working the cash register clambered over the counter to get away. The sprinklers overhead came to life for a moment, sputtered a couple times, and died.

“We need to get these people out of here!” Owen said, tugging on Caroline’s arm.

“Where’s Duncan?” she asked.

“With Nancy,” Owen replied. “Come on, let’s go.”

“There’s someone in there,” she said, nodding at the flames.

“I’m on it,” Owen said.

He emptied his pockets and charged toward the blaze.

///

Owen shielded his eyes as he passed through the flames. He could feel the heat through his scales, like holding a pot with a fraying oven mitt. He didn’t have much time.

The smoke was thick, visibility poor. He couldn’t hear anything other than the roar of the inferno and the beating of his own heart. What he wouldn’t give to have a few of Caroline’s senses right about now.

He fumbled around blindly, probing the floor with his hands. He found a young man lying prone in the far corner, unmoving. He threw the man over his shoulder and plunged back into the flames.

///

Caroline cleared the customers from the food court and turned toward the fire. The heat was so intense she couldn’t see past it, and she was beginning to fear the worst.

The flames parted and Owen came tumbling out, a little charred but otherwise unharmed. He put some distance between himself and the fire, and laid a young man on the floor. He leaned in close, his ear to the man’s face.

“He’s not breathing,” Owen said, glancing up at Caroline. “I… I can’t remember what I’m supposed to do. I haven’t ever had to, outside of a classroom.”

“Leave it to me,” she said, rushing over. “See if you can get someone on the phone with the fire department, find out what’s taking them so long.”

Owen backed away and grabbed his radio as Caroline knelt in front of the man. She tilted the man’s head backward, pinched his nostrils, and blew into his mouth. She listened for breathing: nothing yet. She repeated the process.

“Anyone have an ETA on the firefighters?” Owen asked.

“They’re about ten minutes away,” Jenny’s voice said over the radio. “You should get out of the food court before the fire spreads.”

“We’re kind of in the middle of something,” Owen said. “We’ll… wait, can you see us? You’re still upstairs, aren’t you?”

“Well, yeah,” Jenny said. “I didn’t want to miss the show.”

“Are you nuts?” he said. “Wait, don’t answer that. Just stay put. I’m on my way up to get you.”

Finally, the man coughed and opened his eyes. Caroline sat up and turned to Owen.

“I’ll go,” she said. “I need you to get this guy out of the building.”

“Okay,” he said into the radio, “Caroline’s going to—”

“Uh, guys?” Jenny said. “There’s something coming your way.”

///

Owen turned to the entrance as a miniature tidal wave rose from the foyer and spilled over the balcony. The maintenance guy from earlier rode the wave across the food court and landed on the tile floor in front of the inferno. The water kept going.

The flames hissed and sputtered. The man waved his arms around, directing more water into the fire. Eventually, the flames yielded. The water splashed to the floor, pooling in the blackened remains of the kitchen and spilling out into the food court.

The man leaned against a table and closed his eyes. After a moment, he nodded at Owen and hobbled back to the escalator.

“Uh, what was that?” Caroline muttered.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Owen replied.

The fire alarm finally stopped, and a team of firefighters and paramedics rushed into the food court.

“Are you okay?” one of them asked Owen, glancing at his singed clothing.

“I’m fine,” he replied, and nodded to the man sitting on the floor. “You should check on him.”

She kneeled beside the man, checking his vitals, while Caroline filled the firefighters in on what happened.

“I’m really sorry,” Owen said after Caroline was finished. “I choked. If you hadn’t been here, that guy would be—”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I’m going to go out and look for Duncan. You coming?”

“In a minute,” he said. “I want to pop upstairs first.”

Caroline rolled her eyes.

“Have fun,” she said, and strolled off.

He laughed and headed up to the surveillance room. Jenny was so focused on her monitors she didn’t even glance back as he entered.

“If you’re here to lecture me about my personal safety,” she said, “you can shove that second date right up your ass.”

“I wasn’t—,” he started.

“Because I know my limits,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with them all my life, and—”

He stepped forward and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“I understand,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“Of course I’m okay,” she said. “I’m not the one who set himself on fire.”

She poked her finger into a hole that had burned through his shirt. He chuckled.

“Fair enough,” he said.

She withdrew her hand and smiled.

“That was pretty badass, though,” she said. “Running in there without hesitating and pulling that guy out. Then the water came up like whoosh. So cool. I can’t wait to upload the video.”

“Better be careful,” he said. “Once the Internet sees how much of a hero I am, the ladies will be all over me.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve got footage of you picking your nose in public,” she said, “so don’t get cocky.”

“I’m pretty sure you just made that up,” he said.

“Maybe,” she said. “But do you want to risk it?”

He stared at her for a long moment, then said, “No, ma’am.”

“Then we’re going to get along just fine,” she said.

///

Caroline hurried outside and scanned the crowd amassed in the parking lot. In her pocket, a pack of wolves started howling. She answered the phone.

“What’s this I’m hearing about a fire?” Robin asked.

“It was just a little one,” Caroline replied, “and it’s out now.”

“Is Duncan okay?” Robin said. “Are you okay?”

“We’re both fine,” Caroline said. “I’m on my way to him now.”

“You left him alone?” Robin snapped.

“No, of course not,” Caroline said. “I left him with… um, an old lady I just met. I swear it’s not as bad as it sounds.”

“I should hope not,” Robin said. “If the ex gets wind of this, I’ll be in real hot water.”

“I know, I know,” Caroline said. “I’m really sorry.”

Robin sighed and said, “No, I’m sorry. I put you in a difficult position and you’re doing the best you can. I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you.”

“It’s okay,” Caroline said. “I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to marry you.”

“True,” Robin said, chuckling. “Okay, I’ll let you go. I trust you implicitly.”

“I love you,” Caroline said.

“Love you too,” Robin said. “Bye.”

Caroline hung up and put the phone away. She caught the powdery scent of the old woman’s shampoo and followed it across the lot, where Duncan and Nancy stood waiting.

“Where’s Owen?” Nancy asked, stepping forward.

“He’s on his way,” Caroline replied. “He just had to make a stop.”

Nancy sighed with relief, and smiled.

“He didn’t do anything stupid in there, did he?” she asked.

“Nothing I wouldn’t have done,” Caroline replied.

“From what Duncan’s been telling me about you,” Nancy said, “that’s not very reassuring.”

Caroline raised an eyebrow and glanced down at the boy. He stared at the pavement.

“And what exactly has he been saying?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing too incriminating,” Nancy replied with a wink. “Actually, I quite like what I’m hearing. I’m glad Owen has someone like you watching his back.”

Caroline smiled and said, “We make a good team.”

///

The mall reopened the next morning, but the smell of smoke persisted for days. A little over a week after the fire, Owen spotted a shock of red hair disappearing around a corner while patrolling level two.

“Boo!” Ruby shouted, jumping out as he reached the end of the hall.

“Hey, kid,” he said. “You’re not lost again, are you?”

She shook her head and said, “No.”

“Really?” he asked, glancing around. “Who are you here with today, then?”

“Daddy,” she said.

“And where is your daddy?” he asked.

She bit her lip and swayed on the tips of her toes.

“Um…” she said.

Owen sighed and grabbed his radio.

“Ruby!” a man’s voice called out. “There you are!”

Owen glanced back as a guy about his age with red hair and a mustache came running up the hall.

“I’m so sorry,” the man said, stopping to catch his breath. “She’s always running off.”

“It’s okay,” Owen replied. “Ruby and I go way back.”

“Oh, you must be the one Angela mentioned,” the man said. “I really appreciate what you folks did. She’s been having a rough time with all this, and this kid can be quite the handful, as you’ve seen.”

He ruffled the girl’s hair, and she giggled.

“I’m glad I could help,” Owen said.

The man crouched down and gathered Ruby into his arms.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go pick out Angela’s ring.”

He nodded and turned away. Ruby waved at Owen over her father’s shoulder until the two of them disappeared into the jewelry store down the hall.

Owen smiled and continued on his patrol. He spotted Caroline up ahead, leaning against the railing overlooking the foyer. He headed her way.

///

Caroline had been standing on the balcony for almost half an hour now, just watching customers come and go through the foyer. The past few days had been quiet and it was starting to make her edgy.

“What’s up?” Owen asked, leaning against the railing beside her.

She shrugged.

“Nothing,” she said, “but I can’t shake the feeling that….”

Drifting up from the mass of bodies below, she picked up a familiar scent: cheap deodorant and marijuana. She surveyed the crowd and spotted him: blond hair, green eyes, new backpack.

“Is that…?” Owen said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Should we…?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she replied.

Owen nodded and headed for the escalator, his skin turning to scales along the way. Caroline gripped the railing in front of her, reared back, and jumped.

 

 

 

END