Val’s luck had run out. That was ok though, her luck had run out before.
“I can’t see anything,” Marianne said. “There’s too much smoke. We’re going to die aren’t we?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question. The top floor of the brownstone Val and Marianne were in was on fire. There were at least four men with guns on the floor below them who were busy setting charges to bring down the rest of the building, and across the street there was a sniper of Val’s acquaintance named Olga who would with regret, but without hesitation, put a high caliber slug through Val’s brain if Val gave her a clear shot.
“Sorry, I’ve got a dance competition tonight and my partner will kill me if I show up for it dead,” Val said. “So, we‘re going to get out of here. Question is which exit are we going to use?”
They weren’t exactly overwhelmed with choices. Val had them both pressed as low to the floor as they could get in an attempt to keep away from the toxic gases that were the deadliest part of any building fire. From their low vantage point, and with the clouds of thick smoke that choked the brownstone’s top floor, Val could only see a single door out of the room they were in and that was wreathed in flames. There was also a window to consider but that lay in a direct line of fire with Olga’s perch.
“There’s only one set of stairs down,” Marianne said. “I saw them putting bombs on it though. Should we try that? I mean better to get blown up than burn alive right?”
“Yeah, burning sucks,” Val said, the old scars on her face a testament to the personal experience she was speaking from. “If they don’t blow us up though, they’re going to shoot us.”
“Won’t they leave soon though?” Marianne asked. “I mean they’re not going to stay in the building while it burns are they?”
“These guys are muscle for the Durmph Crime family,” Val said. “They’re going to stay as long as it takes to make sure we’re dead and this building is gone.”
“But it’s on fire!” Marianne said. “We can’t use anything in here as evidence against them anymore.”
“That’s true, but we’ve got the recording of their Don confessing to the whole inspection rigging scheme. We get out of here and live to testify and he’s going down hard,” Val said.
“All I wanted was a safe place to live,” Marianne choked out as the smoke filled the room to the floor.
“First we make sure you live,” Val said, closing her eyes and building a model of the room in her mind.
In the distance she heard the wailing of fire truck sirens. That was going to spook the guys with the guns and the bomb triggers. The fire department was arriving a lot sooner than anyone would normally have expected them to, thanks to a timely call from Val’s associates. That meant the goons would be scrambling to get out, and the second they cleared they blast range they’d trigger the charges on however many devices they’d managed to put in place. It might not be enough to knock the building flat but there wouldn’t be enough of a structure left to review the old inspection logs against in any meaningful sense.
It was time to move. If Val and Marianne flew down the stairs, Val knew she could catch the tail gunman, take him down and use him as a shield to deal with his friends. It would not be a pretty fight, but these guys were recruited for two qualities; being slabs of muscle and a willingness to inflict violence on innocent targets without question. That made them dangerous but far from truly skilled. Olga was the most troublesome one of the lot and she was a freelance contractor who would bail the moment police were on the scene.
Val was about to rise and drag Marianne into a harrowing brawl for their lives when all her plans went out the window.
Specifically the glass in the heavily barred window shattered outwards as the roof over the stairway down to the next level collapsed. The sound had no pure tones in it but still managed to peel like a death knell. There was no chance they could escape by the stairs anymore, and no other exits to use either.
“Ok, new plan,” Val said, conserving her remaining breath, as she tapped her earbud radio to open a channel to her support staff. “James, I’m going to need some extra muscle here, do you have my force multiplier online yet?”
“Yes, just as you requested.” It was always strangely calming to hear James Baughsley’s soft measured voice, speaking in his very properly accented English. “I have several dozen volunteers dialed into a spell matrix now, speak whatever invocation words you wish. I will see about contacting more volunteers if they are required to maintain the effect.”
“Thanks James,” Val said. “Should be able to take care of this in one punch though.”
Breaking bricks was a feat Val had performed many times before. Various martial arts studios she’d training in as a kid had placed breaking boards as a test of their students prowess, and she’d been quick to pass beyond the simple challenge of that and onto shattering more difficult materials. Being able to crush a stack of bricks in a controlled setting with a precise strike though was not the same as being able to smash a path to freedom through a burning building. At least not for people who could only rely on normal muscles.
“Bibbidy, bobbidy, boo,” Val said as she stood up.
From the outside of the building, onlookers heard what was the first of several explosions followed by a rain of pebbles and chalk that had once been sheetrock and the outer surface of the brownstone’s wall.
People thought they saw something move through the smoke that billowed out of the building but everyone was expecting things to fall from the opening, not leap from the top floor of the brownstone to the roof of the neighboring building.
“How did you do that?” Marianne asked as she drew in lungful of fresh, sweet air. They were on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the brownstone from where Olga was at that moment quietly packing away her sniper rifle and moving on with her business. Olga wasn’t going to get paid, but Olga also wasn’t going to get caught and that was good enough for her.
“I’m with the Second Chance Club remember?” Val said. “So let’s just say that membership has its privileges.”
The Second Chance Club had no one specific headquarters. It’s founder, Charlene Potestates seemed to own any number of offices and estates which she moved their meetings and residence to on a semi-regular basis. Val guessed that most of the locations weren’t ones which Ms. Potestates owned herself but were instead gifts from friends or members the Club had helped at one time or another.
However the Club got access to the locations it used though, Val was not about to start complaining, not when the bathrooms were the size of her first apartment and came with their own hot tub to soak away the smokey stench of the fire that had seeped into her pores.
She was letting the water jets massage away the kinks in her upper back when the conference phone on the vanity chimed.
“Answer” she said, and heard the ting of a call connecting.
“Ah, Valentina, I wanted to congratulate on a job well done,” Charlene Potestates said over the phone. “JB has informed me that your assailants have been apprehended and with the evidence you and Ms. Duval were able to provide, they will be drawing up arrest warrants for all of the major players of the Durmph Syndicate.”
“Was JB able to find a place for Marianne?” Val asked. “She was kind of shaken up when we got back.”
“I’ll be lending her and her family one of my townhouses until they are ready to get settled in somewhere again,” Charlene said. “How about you? I never intended to send you into a situation as dangerous as that.”
“Can’t say I loved the fire,” Val said. At the time she’d felt cool and collected, but even though she’d washed the smell of it off her skin and out of her hair a half dozen times, the memory of the flames sang on her nerves like a bad tune that was horribly off key..
“There’s very little about an uncontrolled building fire to love,” Charlene said. “If some time off would help, please feel free to talk to Jimmy, he can arrange travel plans for anywhere you’d like to visit.”
“I don’t think I need a vacation,” Val said, running her left hand along the burn that stretched from below her left eye to just below the ridge of her chin. Fire wasn’t her friend. Not since the car accident that had left her in a coma for six months. “If you’ve got another job that’d be great in fact.”
“Are you sure you’re up for that?” Charlene asked.
“Putting a smile on someone else’s face makes it a lot easier to wear one on mine,” Val said. She felt old and wise saying it, despite the fact that she was the youngest full time member of the Club at 23. That didn’t matter though. The others all had their specialities but none of them could do what she did.
“In that case head down to the conference room in twenty minutes,” Charlene said. “I’ll have JB get the presentation setup.”
“Sure thing boss!” Val said, sinking down in the bath to let the jets beat the residual tension out of her shoulders.
The conference room in the Second Chance Club’s current office was on the interior of the building. No windows for privacy reasons, but also to allow the walls to be serve as larger viewing areas for the multi-projection monitors.
“We’re looking at farmland?” Val asked. “Why are we looking at farmland and cows?”
“We got a letter,” Le Li Tam said, taking the seat opposite Val’s on the long table at the center of the room.
Tam was still dressed in the sequined tuxedo and top hat which said she’d come to the meeting directly from one of her afternoon magic shows. Magicians were rare in the entertainment industry, female magicians even more so, and Vietnamese female magicians a singular enough breed that Tam enjoyed notoriety just for being who she was. That Tam needed none of that because her illusions and escapes rivaled the best effects any other magician could perform was something too many people overlooked for Val’s taste, especially since Tam used none of the Club’s “special resources” for her shows. The impossible feats she showed the crowds were all her own, and all purely the work of sleight of hand or clever gadgetry.
“We get many letters,” Anna Ilyina said, claiming the seat to Tam’s right. “What is it Charlene liked about this one?”
Anna’s Russian accent was an intentional affectation. Val had heard her speak a half dozen languages, including English, with flawless native accents. That the older Russian woman held onto a trace of her original accent under normal conditions was, Val suspected, as much to remind herself of who she was as to declare it to others.
“What you are looking at is the Green Bowl Harvest Consortium,” Charlene said.
She wasn’t present, which wasn’t at all unusual. In the background of the conference line there was a whooshing sound that Val guessed was a wind in the mountains. Charlene had said something about a trip the Andes, and if anyone could get cell coverage at the top of a barren and lonely peak, it was the founder of the Second Chance Club.
“They’re not affiliated with any of the major Aggro concerns,” Anna said, looking up from the financial papers she was reviewing. “And their profits look to be in order. Why do they need our help?”
“They’ve been doing fine business, but they’ve hit a bit of a snag,” Charlene said. “According to First Security who holds the majority of their debt, Green Bowl Harvest is twelve months in arrears, and is in forfeiture of their title to their lands and equipment.”
“That does not seem to be possible from what I see here,” Anna said.
“No, it’s not,” Charlene said. “Someone stole the farm from our friends at Green Bowl, so we’re going to get it back for them.”