Blinking, he slowly opened his eyes as his senses returned to him. Something was sweet and dusty. He felt exposed. Blood still lingered in his mouth. Bright room. Hair was in his face, and he ached all over.
He wiggled his fingers and his toes. Still there. Judging from the smell and the carpet, he wasn’t at headquarters. However, that didn’t rule out the possibility that he wasn’t at a Rift sanctioned facility. To no one’s fault but his own, he mainly kept Rift-related visits to headquarters.
Pushing himself into a sitting position, he noticed his wrists and ankles were bound. With Boss’ restraints already there, he wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for his attempt to stand. Theodore confirmed he was stripped down to his briefs, and that wasn’t good. He didn’t know how many had seen his face.
“What’s wit da scowl?” sneered a familiar voice.
Theodore looked to his left and noticed a woman with a snaggletooth and bright red hair and a shirtless male who was probably even skinnier than he was. He had an unlit cigarette between his lips, and a large ugly scar starting at his right hip and thinning and separating as it inched toward his jaw. A communicator was attached to his hip. She was dressed in a punk rock outfit with accents almost as obnoxious as her hair. They both had yellow paint on their bodies.
It was the woman who spoke.
She approached him with a confident stride and grabbed a fistful of his dirty-blonde hair. Being captured wasn’t his proudest moment, but he did have experience being in this situation.
“I should be da one scowlin’ since I dot I left ya dead,” she continued with her face inches away from his. “Not only did I find ya not a corpse, you wa wearin’ the White Rabbit mask. But yer just some kid. Who are ya, and how didja find out about da job?”
“I’m twenty-eight,” Theodore corrected her. It wasn’t the first time he was told he looked young for his age. Being only a few inches over five feet didn’t help his case, but he didn’t mind his youthful appearance. It helped him slip out of sticky situations more times than he could count. Maybe it would be to his benefit this time too.
The man chuckled and folded his arms. “He has some years over you, girlie.”
“Shut it, E.O,” she said as she narrowed her eyes at Theodore. Code names. So maybe a more experienced group? He didn’t recognize either of them, yet he couldn’t say he knew the faces of everyone in Rift. The woman tightened her hold, and Theodore winced.
“You intended to kill me, but I see you’ve changed your mind. Why the cold feet?” he asked, hoping to get a grip on the situation. Instead his head met carpet, and the woman roughly grounded his face into it. She was strong!
“I’m de one askin’ questions, rabbit. Even if yer not the White Rabbit, ya ain’t normal. It ain’t been a day, and yer ‘ready mostly healed.”
What? Theodore narrowed his eyes.
That’s right. He was on a job to eliminate some roaches. Boss had noticed some discrepancies in inventory and had sent him to find out who had been stealing from the company.
If it was one or two items, Boss wouldn’t have a problem, but the bottom line was noticeably affected. Theodore knew Boss could survive one operation going down.
Hell, he secretly wished for that to happen.
Sending him in to deal with the problem only meant it must’ve been personal…and dangerous. To prove the point, he was caught in an explosion and withstood a hail of bullets.
Craning his neck beneath her pin, Theodore looked up at her. Were they the ones behind it? The two men he killed may have been part of the same organization. The woman was too rough—and young—to be a cop.
“Our leader found it mighty suspicious that only one person among Rift’s entire membership had superhuman vitality,” said the man.
Theodore glanced at the man in the doorway. E.O removed the cigarette from his mouth, studied it, and tucked it behind his ear. “She feels obligated to free you or encourage more diversity in Rift’s ranks. She needs you alive to make her final decision.”
So that was their angle. From the girl’s reaction, he wasn’t meant to disclose that information. Theodore wasn’t keen on them investigating his werecat abilities either.
“You’re mistaken. I was hired to eliminate whoever was stealing from Rift,” he admitted to the floor.
What would be his next move? They already suspected him of something due to his quick recuperation. Were they on camera? If he partially transformed to take them down, who would be a witness?
“Dat was us.”
“O.E!” It was now the man’s turn to interject.
“We heard Rift was smugglin’ supplies we needed. Why mess wit da supplier when dey were prob’ly blackmailed and steal from de big guys instead?” The woman released him and backed off. Theodore stayed on the floor. “Our reputation woulda sky rocket. I woulda love to claim ‘dat we stole from Rift and lived to tell da tale, but that wouldn’ be true.
“Tis hard to believe dat Rift woulda asked a third-party to play bodyguard, so ye must be parta Rift too. At first, I dot ya were maybe a low-rankin’ member since ya have no tattoo showin’ yer affiliation wit’ Rift. Just ‘em circle patterns litterin’ yer back. Our cryptologists deemed ‘em unrelated ta Rift. But if yer the White Rabbit, ya must rank higher den bottom rung.”
While she prattled on, Theodore thought it safe to sit upright again. It was true that he couldn’t really be identified as a Rift member simply by inspection. That was partly because he refused any branding, and Boss didn’t enforce anything.
In fact, it was the lower ranking members who created a crest and color scheme to identify each other. Boss barely acknowledged it.
“So? Are ya White Rabbit?” the woman asked.
“I only put on the mask. Whoever wears it is White Rabbit,” Theodore answered gently.
E.O. shifted in the doorway and chimed in, “I can believe that. I’ve heard White Rabbit is a bigger dude. Probably the three of us combined equals one White Rabbit in the rumors.”
“Tsk.” The woman jabbed a yellow painted finger toward Theodore. Now what? “Explain your healing factor then.”
“You knew that warehouse belonged to Rift. I assume you know Rift owned other properties. IAM Pharmaceuticals, for example?” The werecat took the look of realization as a positive response and continued without missing a beat, “I’ve been taking some experimental drugs from IAM and reporting their effects. Usually I can’t provide enough data since I tend to avoid being injured.” Theodore smirked. “I suppose ‘can successfully recover from a small explosion and an automatic’s full clip to the back within a day,’” he gasped dramatically, “will make its way into the report.”
When cold metal pressed against his forehead, he didn’t flinch.
“Ya gettin’ cocky again. What makes ya think I won’t change my mind n’ end ya here?” she hissed. He guessed the click was her releasing the safety.
“O.E. you can’t—”
“Somethin’ that powerful can’t have lastin’ effects. I’ll make sure dis one actually kills ya, ya pretty little shit.”
A boom suddenly rang from somewhere in the building, and the whole floor started to tilt. The man braced himself in the doorframe. The woman stumbled backwards. Theodore body checked her and wrestled the pistol from her hands. He had hoped to shoot off the shackles they placed on him, but the room rotated almost ninety degrees, and he found himself free falling in the air.
How high up were they? he thought in panic.
“O.E.O. Come in. O.E.O, do you copy?” cracked the walkie that was now in the man’s hands.
“E.O here. I copy. What happened, over?”
“They found us. I don’t know how, but they did. We’ve been sh—”
Another boom, but this time from directly above. The building was briefly suspended in the air before the siding gave way, and they were in freefall once more.
Theodore looked up to see the siding be discarded, and his eyes widened. They’ve been in the air the entire time?
The situation was new to him, but he’d recognize that airship anywhere. A harpoon whistled past his ear, and he grabbed onto the rope. Theodore held on tightly as he was reeled into the Rift airship.
The airship fired another missile.
Within the flames, Theodore thought he spotted a flicker of blue and ethereal wings unfolding as if to keep the ship airborne. The cloaking mechanism glitched out as O.E.O’s ship fell out the sky.
“What’s up buddy?” the gang member greeted as he helped Theodore aboard the airship. As the ship’s door slid closed, he noticed Rift send a few more missiles to incinerate the remainder of the enemy ship. Just before the door closed completely, he noticed somethingfly from the destroyed carrier.
“Did you have fun?” The man stunk. Jeremy Schowld had small blue eyes and curly black hair kept in line by a couple bobby pins. He always wore a black choker with fake pearls embedded in the fabric. It was a gift supposedly, and one of the few things that managed to not fall apart when he touched it.
“Can’t say I did.” Theodore turned around and offered the handgun to him.
“Oh?” Jeremy yanked Theo’s arms back and leaned in close to the werecat. “Maybe I should change that while you’re all tied up,” he purred, and an uncomfortable shudder ran down Theodore’s spine.
Theo whipped his head forward before slamming it back into Jeremy’s face. As the goon reeled in pain, Theodore turned up his nose.
“Expect a sexual harassment complaint on your desk before the day’s over. Now shoot the damn chains off before I throw you off this plane.”
“Okay. No flirting at work. Could’ve said that instead of turning my nose another degree,” Jeremy grumbled.
Theodore pressed his lips together and said, “I’m a little stressed out, sorry. I haven’t been in a crashing…airship before.”
“Right? I was surprised too. Didn’t think anyone else owned an airship. Theirs was smaller though. I guessed they flew so low because they assumed your ankle bracelets were of the criminal variety and wanted to stay in your radius. They wouldn’t want the police to immediately flag you down.
“We could’ve rescued you sooner, but we were busy tracing their communication signals.”
“You aren’t using the gun?” Theodore interrupted.
“You’ve been watching too many movies if you think this thing’ll free your chains,” Jeremy said as the lock about his wrists clicked open. He exchanged the handgun for the chains and dropped down to lock pick those around Theo’s ankles.
The stinkbug stared up at him. “You can’t be serious.”
Theodore felt his cheeks heat up and quickly averted his eyes.
“When I found out that wouldn’t work, I would have threatened them to give me the key,” the werecat said.
Jeremy freed Theo’s ankles and stood up. “Do you think that would’ve worked? Do you know who kidnapped you?”
“No idea, but they’re not complete amateurs,” Theodore responded as he shook his ankles. “They used codenames. I might’ve gleaned some info if you didn’t destroy their ship.”
“Heh. No worries. Once you get dressed, we can finish your job. Gotta kill the roaches in their nest, right?”
Theodore stared at him. He was practically naked, but the thing that worried him: “It’d feel odd to do it without my—”
“Mask?” Jeremy gestured for Theodore to follow him. They rounded the corner and a pair of black and white sweatpants and smiley-faced t-shirt greeted them on a hanger. Beside it was his mask, a bit singed at the edges and with a few bullet holes in the ears, but it was still in one piece.
Theodore lifted the mask off the wall. “I’m not wearing those.”
“Only thing we had on short notice. Your other clothes were unusable.”
Theodore stared at Jeremy for a moment then looked down at the mask. He’d have to find a replacement which was a shame since he grew attached to it. He placed the mask onto the wall. “Brief me on what we know and steps moving forward. Meanwhile, find me a proper suit. I try to keep the casual stuff for when I’m not on a job.”