The interior of the car is cheap and tattered, false leather fraying at the edges and dirt on the floors. Penny’s on the back seat next to her rucksack; Bennet and Roberts are in front. The cop stays outside: Penny wonders if that’s normal procedure or the effect of some kind of suggestion.
It’s not the same car as last time. Perhaps there’s some kind of pool.
“I’m afraid your charmed life is at an end,” Bennet says, without turning around. His voice carries the hint of mockery, but Penny catches his expression in the rear-view mirror, and it’s completely neutral, though his eyes are fixed on hers. It feels like something drilling into her very being.
Roberts turns the ignition key and the engine rumbles to a start. Penny braces herself for unconsciousness, but it doesn’t come. She doesn’t know whether it’s carelessness or something else, but she’d better take advantage of the opportunity while it’s there. All she has to do is play for time…
“What do you want?” she asks after a moment, keeping her voice level. She doesn’t want to antagonise her captors, but she can’t be too cooperative or they’ll be gone before anyone can find her.
“Statute number six, section three, item four,” Roberts recites. “Immunity from prosecution under statute lasts only as long as an informant co-operates.”
“Helping two fugitives escape from justice is not co-operation,” Bennet adds. “So now, you’re our problem again.” He doesn’t sound entirely pleased by this.
The car lurches, starting to move slowly down the road, away from Penny’s school. Penny gazes out the window, at the passing uniform-clad teens and the family cars making drop-offs. Nobody pays any attention to the single car carrying her away. She breathes through tightly-clenched teeth, trying — with limited success — to stay calm.
“Don’t I have a right to a lawyer?” she asks, more out of something to say than anything else. She somehow manages to sound vaguely firm.
Roberts chuckles, unexpectedly warmly; he seems genuinely amused. “You watch too much television,” he says. “We aren’t the police.” It’s a distinction Penny finds herself particularly unappreciative of at this moment, but she’s smart enough not to say so.
Bennet clears his throat meaningfully and glances at Roberts, taking his gaze away from Penny for a few seconds. She takes the opportunity to ready her coin, hiding it carefully in the nook of her palm. Best to be ready when the shit hits the fan.
Bennet speaks. “You know how this works by now, I’m sure. You can answer our questions to the best of your knowledge, or…” He leaves the rest unsaid, patting his breast pocket meaningfully. Or we’ll make you, he means.
Penny gulps. Best to play along for now; she doesn’t fancy her chances against the both of them. “What do you want to know?” she asks, trying to sound co-operative.
Roberts turns a corner, bringing the car onto a small, lonely side street. Fewer witnesses, Penny notes. She hopes Diana can find her before she’s too far from safety.
“Jacob Prewitt and Angelo di Folletti,” Bennet says. “We need to know their locations.”
“I have no idea who those people are,” Penny replies. She’s telling the truth, at least on a technicality: neither of those names mean anything to her. She can only hope that her captors believe her.
“We think you do,” Bennet says, face as blank as ever.
The car takes a sudden right turn, and Penny finds herself thrown to the side by her own inertia. From her position splayed out on the back seat, she looks out of the window, realising a little late that she has no idea where she is. And, more ominously: that there’s nobody else around. She picks herself up cautiously, keeping a firm hold of the coin in her right hand.
“Jacob Prewitt, the vigilante,” Roberts says flatly, “and Angelo di Folletti, the fugitive.”
Penny’s suspicions are confirmed, and she decides to stop playing dumb. “You mean Diana and Angie.” It’s not quite a question, not quite a statement. She watches her captors carefully for any sort of response.
After a tense period of silence, Bennet nods. “We understand that they have used those pseudonyms,” he says, clearly choosing his words carefully. What a cold way to discuss someone’s name.
“I don’t know where they are,” Penny admits. “I don’t think they wanted to tell me, after what happened.”
The two Investigators exchange glances: this doesn’t seem to be the response they were expecting. “What do you mean by ‘what happened?’” Roberts asks, bringing the car to a halt. He taps impatiently on the steering wheel, looking questioningly at Penny’s eyes via the rear-view mirror.
Wait. So they don’t know? Penny laughs bitterly, the sudden mirth catching her captors off guard.
“What exactly is it you find so amusing?” asks Bennet, frustration veiled increasingly thinly. He turns in his seat to look directly at Penny — his captive — making ambiguously meaningful motions towards his breast pocket.
Penny chooses her next words very carefully, but speaks as casually as she can manage. “They haven’t told you? Yarn sent me to capture them. I kind of doubt they’re about to tell me their secrets, after that.”
A moment passes that bears neither word nor action. Roberts leans over and mutters something in Bennet’s ear; Bennet swears under his breath, shakes his head and returns his gaze to Penny with weary and beleaguered eyes. “You mean to tell us—” he says, but he’s interrupted by an almighty crash.
Somehow, a boot’s found its way to the windshield of the car, leaving cracks like spider-webs. The window itself shows no sign of breaking, but it’s rendered the car unusable. The boot is quickly joined by another in matching style — attached to the same pair of legs, no less — that stomps into the bonnet of the car before leaping off to the side with its mate.
Bennet reaches for his pocket but Penny’s faster, grabbing his wrist with her left hand while spinning her coin with her right. She gazes into the pattern, weaving his hand into the fibres of the car seat as she thrusts a free leg out towards Roberts’ head, but Roberts dodges her kick swiftly, pulling out his dice and retaliating with a bright wave of energy. Penny screams, unable to adequately dodge in the cramped interior of the car. Her skin burns and blisters along her chest, leaving an odour of charcoal, tar and ash.
Rope batters the sides of the car, and the doors burst obediently open like kernels of popcorn. Two pairs of arms tear into the car, pulling the two Investigators out without ceremony and leaving Penny alone in the vehicle. Penny crawls out carefully, not daring to look up until the last possible moment.
Diana stands over Roberts, her boot — the same one that cracked the windshield — placed proudly on his chest. Michelle has Bennet in a headlock; she’s struggling to hold him still but Diana whips her rope at his head, causing him to go limp. Penny finds this sight somewhat cathartic.
“Penny!” Michelle cries, looking up from Bennet’s unconscious body. “Are you okay?”
Penny finds herself smiling, but only slightly. “I think so.”
Diana brings out a rope from somewhere — it looks softer than the one she uses as her focus, and has a slightly different colour — and gets to work. It takes about five minutes of messing about for the three girls to secure their prisoners, and two more minutes to get them into the back seats of the car where they’ll be less conspicuous. A further minute is spent finding a safe location to talk — Penny counts the seconds carefully, anxiety bubbling slowly up within her — and finally, Penny, Diana and Michelle are sat at a picnic table under an oak tree in someone’s unsecured garden. Kids’ toys are scattered across unkempt grass, and the flowerbeds have seen better days. But it’ll do for now.
Penny stares at the unvarnished wood of the table as her two friends carry on a hushed conversation without her. She zones back in to see them both staring at her with concern-filled eyes.
“I… kind of owe you an apology,” Diana says. Her voice carries a shame and defeat that Penny wasn’t at all expecting.
Several seconds of silence follow. “…An apology?” Penny echoes, confused. She’s a bit apologied out right now; she still feels like she’s the one who owes the apologies.
Diana nods solemnly, grimacing slightly. “I was so concerned about keeping Angie safe, I didn’t think enough about you. I mean, I didn’t expect they’d—” She cuts her sentence short and looks down at her hands, fists clenched white from strain. She opens her hands deliberately, flexing her fingers in the manner of buckling metal. “Not an excuse. Anyway. I’m sorry.”
Penny looks down at her own hands resting still on the wooden tabletop. “I get it,” she says quietly, though a large part of her wishes that she didn’t. A heavy silence follows, unbroken even by the summer breeze that rustles in the trees. Somehow, nature knows better than to intrude on this moment.
Michelle speaks, her voice hitching as she struggles through the words: “I— I think— Um. You need to get away.”
What? “Get… away?” Penny repeats, keeping her eyes on her fingertips as she speaks. Her heart’s sinking, and she’s desperately willing herself not to understand what Michelle’s saying. She looks up, slowly. “What do you mean?”
Michelle shoots a pleading look at Diana, who nods ruefully in response. “Go into hiding,” Diana explains. “Like Angie. We can help you out for a bit, but in the long run we’ll be better off if—“
Diana’s stopped talking. It takes Penny a moment to work out why: she blinks tears onto her cheeks, eyes down once more, struggling to look at either of her friends. This is a shitty sort of goodbye.
Michelle gets up and walks to the other side of the table, putting an arm around Penny’s shoulders. Her touch is warm, but Penny feels a little stifled by it, under the circumstances.
“We’ll still stay in touch,” she says unconvincingly. “And Diana’s going to teach me magic. It’ll be… it’ll be cool!” Her bright tones creak with the weight of white lies. If things go this way, Penny knows they’ll probably never see each other again.
Penny breathes as though her lungs were fire, struggling to maintain a train of thought. She has to do something, anything to stop her whole life from going up in smoke. Fuck the Lucerists, and fuck the Umbratists, too: this is her life and these are her friends, and she’s not about to give it all up. But… what can she do? She blinks another tear away, catching a glimpse of something in the corner of her eye.
Observe, Orient, Decide, Act: words that Penny’s had to rely on more often than she’d have liked over the past few months. She wants that to end more than anything else: the constant war she’s just so fucking tired of. But there has to be a way out. There’s always a way out. She breathes deeply again, forcing the air in and out of her like stagnant water through a sponge. A way out…
She speaks decisively, suddenly and a little loudly. “Yarn — ‘Jonathan’ — I don’t think he’s got the backing of the Department, or the Lucerists.” She swallows a mouthful of cold spit, taking a moment to bring her voice under control. She continues: “I think… I think he might be acting alone.” She clears her throat meaningfully, hoping that what she has to say doesn’t fall on deaf ears.
Diana’s look turns quizzical. “What do you mean?” Her tone is uncertain, confused. But explaining it to her isn’t the point.
“Those guys were just following orders,” Penny says. “It’s his responsibility: he wanted someone to control, to do his dirty work for him.” She pauses, as much for effect as it is for breathing room. “It’s not fair.” Her voice remains level, but Michelle’s embrace tightens anyway. It’s somehow more pleasant now.
“I don’t think you—” Diana begins, but Penny gives her a look filled with meaning. They communicate silently for a moment, and she seems to get the message.
“It’s okay,” Penny says, quietly and with the slightest of smiles. “I’ve got a plan.”