Dad stepped back from the doorway, holding Josie by the shoulders. “You should be careful where you point those things, Sheppard.”
“I’m always careful, Agent,” Bill said as he stepped inside.
“Agent?” Josie said. She tried to turn, but her father had her tight by the shoulders, holding her in place in the line of fire.
The cowboy waved a weapon at her. “Come on now, surely you didn’t think that was your poppa?”
Josie wriggled against him, but her father held on tight. In fact, he pulled her to him in a hug, wrapping one arm around her shoulders until he squeezed her to the point of breathlessness. She strained to peer up at him above her shoulder.
Her father bore down on her with a look of utter disgust. “Pitiful child. So easy to fool.”
Only, it wasn’t her father’s voice. It was someone else’s voice. Someone she had heard earlier that day. Without warning, her father changed. His face shifted and broke apart while his body pulled this way and that. The image of her father melted into a cascade of broken pixels, slipping away in a tumble, and revealing a much harder man underneath.
He snorted as he squeezed her tighter. “So much for the wunderkind. You’re just a stupid little girl after all.”
Josie wiggled and writhed, but it was no good. He had a death grip on her. “Let me go!”
“You heard the young woman,” Bill said. “You best oughta set her free.” He nodded to his pistols. “Unless you want me to air out that fancy coat of yours with a couple of vent holes.”
“I don’t make deals with criminal scum,” Rankin snarled at the cowboy. He clutched Josie tighter and shouted back toward the dining room, “Bass! Get out here and help me!”
“About that,” Agent Bass said as he stepped into the foyer from the kitchen, with his hands raised.
A woman shoved Bass along with the barrel of a sleek, black gun, guiding him into the foyer. She stood about the same height as her prisoner, which put her a clear foot or so shorter than the cowboy. A thick belt hung from her waist, hosting a variety of dangerous looking weapons. She wore all black, from head to toe, with a single splash of color on her right upper arm. An arm band sporting a patch in the center. A picture of an orchid. There were so many strange and beautiful things about her, from her rich dark skin to her gathering of wild hair, but Josie only had a moment to gawk at her, before she spoke.
“Seems we have the upper hand,” she said. She paused and smiled, brilliant and perfect, then added, “Again.” Her voice carried a strange accent. It was foreign and familiar all at once. As if she were from any given coast of the United States, and also Japan, and England, and France. A melodic mix of them all.
Rankin sneered at her. “You have nothing of value.”
Bass gave a nervous laugh. “Rankin. Come on now. I am standing right here.”
The woman grabbed Bass by the collar and pressed the gun against his temple. “And I will kill him. Value or not.”
In a single, slick move, Rankin released Josie’s shoulder and managed to produce a switchblade. It unfolded with a practiced, crisp snick. Then the blade lay against Josie’s trembling throat.
“You are not the only one willing to spill blood,” Rankin said.
“Agent!” Bass gasped.
“Go ahead,” the woman said.
“Kate!” the cowboy scolded.
“Like I care if he kills some random kid,” she said.
“You care,” Bill said. He nodded to Josie. “She cares.”
“Let the child go, Agent,” Bass said, keeping his eyes on Rankin. “We aren’t here to hurt anyone. You let her go and Kate here will surely let me go. Won't you?”
Everyone fell quiet. The silence stretched into an uncomfortable couple of seconds. Long, awkward seconds.
“Kate?” Bill finally said. “You’ll let him go, won’t you?”
The woman let out a tired sigh and rolled her eyes. It was an epic, teenager level eye roll. It packed in equal amounts of disgust and disinterest while still showing a certain level of curiosity. Josie was impressed. It was the kind of eye roll she hoped to achieve some day.
“Fine,” she said. “Give us the brat and I’ll let this old man go.”
“Hey now,” Bass said. “I’m not that old.”
Rankin spat out an ugly laugh. “You don’t know who this girl is, do you?”
Kate narrowed her eyes.
“Who am I?” Josie said.
“Shut up,” Rankin said.
“Who is she?” Bill said.
“You don’t know?” Rankin said. “Oh this is too good. You really don’t recognize her?”
There came a brief pause, after which Kate drew a second gun and raised it to Rankin. “Let the girl go.”
Rankin laughed again then tightened his grip on Josie. “Figured it out? You always were the quicker one.”
“Figured what out?” Bill said. “Kate? Who is she?”
“She isn’t anyone, yet,” Bass said. “Let her go, Agent. None of us belong here.”
“Of course we don’t belong here,” Rankin said. “It was their intrepid leader that brought us here. We followed them. Straight to her.”
“Who is her?” Bill said.
“The one we’ve been looking for,” Kate said.
Understanding swept across the cowboy’s face. Bill’s mouth gaped open a bit. He waved the guns at Josie. “Her? But she’s just a kid!”
“Yes, she is,” Kate said, eyeing Josie. An impish smiled played on the woman’s lips. She released her hold on Bass, placing both of her hands on the weapon instead, steadying it at Rankin.
“Right,” Bass said. “She’s just a kid, which means none of us should be here. We should all get out of here, right now.”
“Let me go,” Josie said.
Rankin yanked her back by the hair of her head. “Quiet, child. You don’t want to turn this abduction into a murder, do you?”
“Rankin,” Bass said, raising his hands and taking a few steps toward Rankin. “This isn’t right. We made a simple mistake. Let’s go and let time sort itself out. Okay?” He laid a hand on Rankin’s shoulder.
The taller agent sneered down at Bass. “She knows everything. She can take us where we need to go.”
“She’s twelve,” Bass said again. “She doesn’t even know she knows. She won’t be any good to us like this.”
“We can’t leave her to them,” Rankin said. There was an almost desperate whine in his voice.
Bass shook his head. “They don’t want her either. Not really. Hell, man, they didn’t even know who she was until you told them. What are they going to do with a twelve-year-old girl? Take her with them?”
Kate made an exasperated noise. “Take her with us? What would we want with a kid?”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “What are we gonna do with a little girl?”
“See?” Bass smiled wide.
Rankin smirked. It wasn’t as cold as his earlier grin, but it also didn’t quite reach his eyes the way Bass’s smile did. The two men laughed for a moment, a shared, strained chuckled. The taller agent relaxed, loosening his grip on Josie. She shifted away from him, sliding out from under his arm. After holstering his guns, Bill crouched and wiggled his fingers at her. She sprinted to him, letting the man enfold her in his long arms and turn her away. For a complete stranger, his hug was oddly comforting. Josie peered over the cowboy’s shoulder at her potential captors.
Bass kept a hand on his partner’s shoulder. He laid a finger behind the right side of his own jaw, just beneath his ear, and said, “Retrieval.”
Each man faded into a dull band of light, then vanished. One moment they were there. The next they were gone. Josie blinked at the empty space where the two men stood only seconds before. She pushed free from Bill’s arms.
“What just happened?” she said. She stepped forward, into the now empty space.
“We just kept that son of a gun from nappin’ you, kid,” Bill said.
“No,” Josie said. “I don’t mean that. I mean, where did they go?” She waved her hands about, making certain the men were really gone. “They were just here. Where did they go?”
“Back to their ship I would think,” Kate said. She holstered her weapon and began poking at the long band on her right wrist.
Josie wrinkled her nose at the woman. “Ship? What ship?”
“The Allegiance,” she said. A few beeps came from her wrist band. “There we are. The authorities have been alerted.” She continued to poke at her wrist band, and it continued to make noises at her. Almost casually, the woman added, “They should be along soon for your parental units.”
“My parents!” Josie shouted as she whipped around to face the woman. In all of the confusion, she had nearly forgotten about her mother and father. “Where are they? Are they okay?”
“Calm down, little one,” Bill said. “Your folks are in that shed of yours out back. Safe and sound.”
“Thank goodness.” Josie counted to five. It was a trick her father taught her to calm herself whenever she got worked up about things. Mom and Dad were fine. They were in the garden shed. What were they doing in the garden shed? She bit her lip and looked up to Kate again. “But, they are okay?”
“They are alive,” Kate said, never raising her eyes. “At least they were the last time I looked.”
“What?” Josie said.
“She means they’re fine,” Bill said. He nudged Josie in the shoulder with his elbow. “That’s just the way Miss Kate talks. Her tongue is a bit sharp, but she’s got a good heart.” He smiled and touched a finger to his hat as he added, “A good heart and a beautiful face.”
“Shut up, Bill,” the woman said. She finally lowered her wrist and looked at Josie. The woman placed her hands on her hips, drew a deep breath, then blew it out in a quick huff. “Enough nattering, it’s time to go.”
“Right,” Bill said. “And, um, Kate? What are gonna do with, you know…” He jerked his head toward Josie.
Josie looked between the man and woman, not sure what Bill was getting at.
The whine of sirens rose in the distance, the police on their way.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Kate said. She slid a sleek silver weapon from one of the many hostlers along her hip.
“Um, well,” Bill said, rubbing at the back of his neck. “It is obvious, of course, because of how simple it all is. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that it wasn’t obvious to a feller like me. What would we be doin’ with her then? Exactly?”
“I thought I made that pretty clear.” Kate checked her unusual gun for ammunition while the sirens drew closer, then clicked the chamber back into place. She glanced to Bill. “She’s coming with us.”
“That’s what I figured,” Bill said.
“With you?” Josie said. A sickening pit of worry opened in her stomach, churning with a million ideas of what a kidnapper would want with her. What a kidnapper would do to her. Or maybe with what was left of her. “You just told those men you weren’t here for me.”
Kate shrugged. “I lied.”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “She does that quite a bit too. Ain’t she cute?”
“Cute,” Josie echoed. She took a tentative step toward the kitchen. “I should probably go and check on my mom and dad. You know, before we go.” She took another few steps, waiting for the chance to cut into an all out run.
“That’s a good idea, little filly,” Bill said. “You go on and say your goodbyes and we will wait right here for-”
Bill’s words were cut short by a muffled pop. Josie flinched and grabbed her left shoulder as something sharp bit into her skin. She felt around until her fingers brushed against cold metal. Something long and thin jutted out of her shoulder. A chill spread out from the foreign object, pulsing down her arm and her chest in heartbeat driven waves. She plucked the object free and brought it around to her eyes. Her vision doubled, then tripled. She couldn’t focus on the thing. Her breath started to come in ragged bursts.
“Waa?” Josie tried to say. Her words slurred. Her knees wavered under her and she slumped against the wall.
“Why’d ya tank her?” Bill said. “She was only going to see her mom and pop before we left.”
Kate holstered her weapon then crossed her arms as she eyed Josie. “Oh, Bill, you are such a fool.”
“Ah, I see,” Bill said. “She wasn’t going to check in on her folks, was she?”
“She was gonna run away, wasn’t she?”
Bill gave Josie an almost hurt look.
For some reason she couldn’t explain, Josie felt genuinely sorry to have disappointed him. She tried to speak, to apologize to him. Instead she slid down the wall in a slow collapse, coming to rest with a thump on the hardwood floor.
“Did you grab the book?” Bill said.
“I already sent it on,” Kate said.
“Rankin is looking bad, eh?”
“Yeah, I noticed that. It’s starting to take its toll.” She knelt, brushing a lock of dark hair from Josie’s tired face. “Don’t fight it, kid. It’ll only give you a headache later.”
“She’s right,” Bill said, crouching on the other side of Josie. “Miss Kate usually is.”
The pair smiled at her, both far too friendly for the situation. Josie heard one last word, before the lights went out and all went dark.