“Do I really have to eat this?”
“Most children your age would eat the whole cake if left alone with it.”
“It’s so…” She smacked her tongue against the top of her mouth, pulling her lips back and wrinkling her nose.
“Sweet. The word you’re looking for is sweet.”
“I know what sweet is, Em.” The ten-year-old girl shoved the plate across the counter top with a scowl that didn’t quite fit on her round face. “Juice is sweet. This is…” She stuck the end of her fork into her mouth, gagged, and flung the fork away from her.
It landed prong first in the six-layer rainbow cake and stuck out at an angle.
“You get coffee. Why can’t I have coffee?”
“No one ever said you couldn’t. Though if you’re going to whine…”
“I’m not fu—”
“I’m not bleeping whining,” she said, crossing her arms with a pout. “I just don’t think Walter would approve of me eating this cake.”
Emerald thought for a moment then shrugged. “That might be true. I simply thought you might like to try your hand at something normal for a girl your age.”
“We are not normal. And what does being a girl have to do with anything?”
“Nothing at all. It’s just how I phrased it. And you’re right, Ruby. You’re right,” Emerald said with a small smile. She plucked the fork from the cake, set it on the side of the plate with the thin slice, and slid the plate back over to Ruby. “There. Consider it training.”
“Training?” Ruby slammed her hands down on the counter on either side of the plate. The fork hopped, slid to the side, and landed on the counter. “You’re going to make me eat this?”
“When we’re under cover, you will have to eat a lot of things. Some things you’ll like but have to eat with a frown or push aside completely. Other things you’ll hate but have to eat with a smile. So go on, eat as if you were a normal child invited to a friend’s birthday party.”
Ruby let out a long, guttural clicking in the back of her throat. The second it ended, she turned into a different person. She swept a hand through her red hair, doing little to calm it down. Even still, that little movement had it laying flatter on her head, making her look more like a little girl and less like an animal. Grabbing hold of her fork, she dove into the slice of cake, even making all the appropriate humming noises.
Anyone else who looked at her would certainly have thought she was enjoying herself.
Emerald simply smiled. “You’re a wealthy heiress, eating at an upscale charity event while seated at a table with other important peoples’ children.”
Ruby blinked. Her fork froze halfway to her mouth. She shifted once again. This time, she didn’t touch her hair, but her wide grin narrowed to a prim smile. The way she held the fork changed. Rather than hold it like a shovel in her right hand, she swapped her grip to a pencil-style.
Even her posture changed. Her back straightened and, though hidden beneath the counter, her knees came closer together. She made sure to swallow each bite before even starting on the next.
Nodding her head, Emerald said, “Now you’re a young suburban girl who doesn’t really like cake but is eating it anyway because her beautiful and wonderful elder sister went out of her way to buy it.”
Ruby’s eyes squeezed shut. The corner of her eyebrow started twitching. A muscle tensing in her upper arm was Emerald’s only warning to lean back.
A black combat knife swiped through the air where Emerald’s neck had been only moments ago.
Ruby spat a multi-colored mush onto the side of the counter. “You are not my sister,” she snarled as she swiped a second time.
Flesh smacked into flesh as Emerald caught the younger girl’s wrist. With a twist, the knife fell from Ruby’s grip. Faint smile still on her lips, Emerald caught the knife’s hilt before it could clatter to the tabletop and slammed it down through Ruby’s radius and ulna, pinning her wrist to the counter.
Aside from clenched teeth and tears in the corners of her eyes, Ruby didn’t react. She certainly didn’t scream. She simply reached to her hip and pulled up a gun.
Emerald found herself staring down the chambered barrel of a Glock 26.
Before Ruby could pull the trigger and before Emerald could demonstrate just why it was ill advised to point a gun in her direction, a chime in their apartment went off.
Emerald’s green eyes stared into Ruby’s red eyes for just a moment before she sighed. “You didn’t actually invite friends over for your birthday.”
“What friends? I don’t have friends.”
“I thought you were sweet on that little boy in the apartment down the hall.”
“Blake? Ugh. He’s so immature.”
“You remembered his name.”
An uncharacteristic heat found its way to Ruby’s cheeks.
Emerald’s smile turned to a grin. “Fix your arm and clean this up,” she said, pulling away. “I’ll see who is at the door.”
Stepping away from the counter as Ruby ripped the knife from her arm, Emerald checked down her green cardigan. No blood. She quickly rinsed her hands off as the doorbell rang a second time.
“Coming!” she called out as she matted her hands against a towel hanging from the kitchen fridge.
The apartment wasn’t a large one. It was little more than a kitchen and combined living room and dining room. A short hall had two tiny rooms on either side and a small bathroom at the far end. The front and only door was just around the corner from the kitchen. A quick few steps away.
“Who is it?” Emerald said, raising her voice to be heard through the door as she leaned up to the apartment’s peephole.
There was nothing visible through the lens. Darkness and nothing more.
Emerald’s eyes widened and she threw herself into the tiny coat closet next to the door. A nine-millimeter bullet shattered the thin pane of glass. A dozen more ripped through the door, splintering the cheap wood and scattering sawdust down the entryway. The soft cracks indicated suppressors, but even with that, there was no way people in the other apartments hadn’t heard.
Ruby, being in the apartment, naturally heard.
“Friends of yours?” she called out.
“I don’t have friends,” Emerald shot back with a grin. Just as a heavy thump hit the door.
A battering ram. Right on the deadbolt. If the other tenants somehow missed the gunfire, they were sure to hear that.
“You ready for another training session?”
“You can’t be serious.”
Emerald reached above her in the closet, pulling down a G22 from the overhead shelf. She checked the magazine and chambered a round, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a small pocket watch. “You have ninety seconds from the time the door is breached,” she said as she twisted the stem. The black hands moved around the silver engraved face. “If I have to take care of any of them, there will be consequences.”
Emerald didn’t respond. A second hit with the battering ram threatened to rip the frame of the door apart. She placed her thumb over the button at the end of the winding stem and waited.
The third hit sent more splinters into the entryway as the door slammed open. Green lasers flickered in the dusty air as masked men aimed their guns.
Emerald’s thumb pressed down over her pocket watch’s button.
Stepping out from the now perfectly stiff coats in the closet, Emerald approached the unmoving men standing in the doorway.
There were two in the immediate opening. One in the middle of tossing a heavy police-style battering ram aside, the other stepping forward with…
A PP-2000? A Russian-made gun with a great deal of odd angles. Even with its distinctive design, it still took Emerald a moment to recognize simply because she had never seen one in person before. They weren’t exactly common in the United States. The guns were fully kitted out as well, with laser attachments, thick suppressors, and holographic sights.
Emerald sucked in her stomach and squeezed past the two men. They wouldn’t move even if she hit them, but it was always a bit unpleasant coming into contact with things stopped in time. As she squeezed past, she idly noted the armor and full face masks they wore. There were no insignias or patches indicating who they were or even what country they might have been from. Which made the highly distinctive submachine guns all the more curious.
Three more were outside the room. One was locked in place, stepping in front of the man with the battering ram to cover the other’s entrance. The others were along the walls, also getting ready to move forward. All of them were armed with the same gun.
A false flag? Emerald couldn’t remember upsetting any Russians recently. Then again, just about anyone who found out about the artifacts would be after them. Or Walter was up to something. Again.
Whatever the case, they had a problem to deal with. Or Ruby did. Emerald walked down to the end of the hall, slipped around the corner, and hit the button on her pocket watch.
A burst of suppressed cracks echoed up the hall. Probably bullets that had been intended for her. That was quickly followed by a series of very much unsuppressed reports from her sister’s G26. With their body armor, she would have to get a few lucky hits in or find alternate strategies for dispatching the five men.
Emerald wasn’t too concerned. She leaned back against the wall, listening to the gunfire while watching the seconds tick by on her watch.
Ninety seconds could be an utterly agonizing amount of time. It didn’t sound that long. Just a minute and a half. But when that time was filled with gunfire, shattering glass, and increasingly panicked screams, it made one wonder just what was going on around the corner.
But Emerald had promised ninety seconds. Ruby would get ninety seconds.
Ruby must have found the M4A1 hidden in the glassware cupboard. The much louder cracks of the armor piercing rounds started around the seventy second mark, making Emerald wince with every shot.
The gunfire continued right up until the second hand on her watch went around one and a half times. That did not bode well for poor Ruby. But training was training. Emerald depressed the button.
There was no sound. No rustling of clothes. No screaming.
Turning the corner, Emerald immediately put on a frown. Two of the five intruders were still in the hall, one of which was lying on the floor. Maybe not dead, but his gun wasn’t in his hands, so he probably counted as being out for the time being. The other, however, was upright with his back pressed up against the wall next to the doorway and a phone out in his hands, gun slung to the side.
Emerald walked up to the upright man, placed the barrel of her Glock just underneath the rim of his helmet, and pressed the button on her watch once again. Time started just long enough for her to pull the trigger. The second she felt the recoil, she stopped time once again.
Despite his brain stem being blown to smithereens, the interloper still stood fully upright.
Emerald knelt next to the man already on his back and pressed her gun up against the side of his neck. She pressed the button on her stop watch, pulled the trigger, and pressed the button again.
She wouldn’t count him against Ruby.
Sliding past the man who was just now falling from her first shot, Emerald entered the apartment. She stepped over the corpse of one man whose ballistic goggles had shattered. He didn’t have much of a face behind the lenses, so he was probably dead enough. Another body, slumped against the wall, had Ruby’s combat knife sticking out of his throat, just between his mask and the body armor he wore.
Unfortunately for Ruby, the last of the five men was still standing. He was frozen in the middle of reloading, taking cover around the side of the refrigerator while Ruby fired her assault rifle over the top of the counter.
Making sure that she was not in any immediate line of fire from Ruby’s weapon, Emerald stopped next to the man and, once again, started time with her gun already pressed underneath his chin. The bullet tore through him and the top of his helmet in the short time it took her to press the button.
Walking around the counter, Emerald’s frown deepened as she took in Ruby’s form. The young girl was not unharmed. Bullet holes riddled her black shirt. An eye was missing entirely, along with her temple and half her skull. One of her arms hung limp, forcing her to use the counter top as a rest for the barrel of a gun that was already far longer than a girl her age could reasonably use. She was even on her tippy toes to keep the gun level.
The red gemstone worn in the choker around her neck emitted a faint red light that had not been there earlier in the day.
With a sad shake of her head, Emerald moved behind her sister, held the gun to the back of her head, and pressed the button on her watch.
She did not pull the trigger.
Ruby whirled despite there having been absolutely no noise or motion to give away Emerald’s new position. Her sole remaining eye widened as she brought the rifle up to Emerald’s face.
She didn’t pull the trigger either. Instead, she snarled.
“I had him.”
“Maybe. And what about the one in the hall?”
Ruby sucked in a sharp breath. Was that surprise on her face?
“You didn’t realize that there was one more?” Emerald shook her head again. “He was a coward who let his comrades die while he hid, but still a combatant I was counting.”
Ruby did nothing but glare. Her missing eye and ruined skull slowly reformed, pulling themselves back together from bits and pieces strewn about the room. Even bits that had likely vaporized from the bullets returned, hale and hearty.
Once her face returned in full, the faint light from her choker faded entirely.
“We’re going to have to move again, aren’t we?” Ruby asked, finally lowering the assault rifle. She flicked the safety on before dropping it entirely.
“We were always going to move. Our mission finished days ago, so our time was limited. This simply forces us out a little early.” Emerald slid her Glock back into the pocket of her spotless green cardigan. “Perhaps we can convince the neighbors that this was just birthday fireworks and stay a while longer.”
“And birthday holes in the walls. And birthday bodies.”
Offering the dejected young girl a comforting pat on the shoulder, Emerald dropped down to her knee. “There will be more boys like Brian—”
“Blake,” Ruby said with a sudden scowl. “And I told you—”
“Yes, yes. You’re ten. You’ll find true love when you’re older.”
“I hate you so much. If I had my knife…”
“Go get it,” Emerald said, standing again. “And the rest of the weapons in the apartment. Toss them in the duffel bag—I’ll carry it, don’t worry—and then grab the clothes. I’m going to contact Walter, but we should leave before the birthday sirens get closer.”
Ruby shot a glare, but it didn’t carry any real heat. With a sigh, she nodded her head and shuffled past Emerald. She wrenched her knife out from the throat of one of the intruders, leaving his body to slide over to the side. When she bent and reached out for his gun, Emerald cut in.
“Leave their equipment. Just grab ours.”
After watching her carry on for a moment longer, Emerald slipped her hand into her pocket and pulled out her phone. Scrolling down to the final entry on her contacts list, she hit the call button.
The call connected on the third ring, though nobody on the other end said a word.
“Green dash two-two-eight-two,” Emerald said after consulting with her pocket watch for the exact time.
A deep voice responded. “White three-eight-seven.”
“Just got hit by five guys carrying PP-2000s. Red took care of them. No damage to us or our artifacts and the recovered artifact is still secure,” she said, peeking into the bedroom to find the steel case still sitting under the dresser. “It wasn’t quiet, however.”
“Is your cover compromised?”
After picking up the steel case, Emerald moved back to the torn up entryway, frowning at the many, many bullet holes. “You could say that,” she said.
“Understood. Relocate to alpha-3.”
“The sewage plant?” Emerald said with a groan.
“You aren’t supposed to say it out loud, Green.”
Emerald grinned at the slight exasperation in his tone. Getting a rise was always worth a little punishment. “Like anyone is actually listening in,” she said after schooling her features. It wouldn’t do to have her smile heard.
“Doesn’t matter,” Walter snapped. “Relocate to sigma-11.”
Emerald didn’t get a chance to say anything in response before the connection went dead. Still, she put on her grin again. The alley behind The Coffee Machine, a local coffee shop here in Los Angeles, was certainly more appealing than the sewage outlets on the outskirts of the city. And would allow her to buy Ruby a nice blend rather than the instant garbage they kept around the apartment.
The call finished much sooner than expected. Walter hadn’t sounded surprised over the phone. Emerald would have expected at least a few more questions. She doubted he would have planned this. Planned for it, maybe. Or perhaps he had simply heard that such people were in the area.
If so, a little warning would have been nice.
Even though the call had only lasted a minute, Ruby managed to collect everything. It helped that they kept things mostly ready to go, save for the few guns they had hidden about in case of emergencies. The young girl dragged the weapon bag across the floor, struggling to move it even with her whole body working toward it. The two smaller packs she carried on her back probably didn’t help.
Emerald waited until Ruby stopped right in front of her. She couldn’t help her smile as Ruby leaned against the counter, panting and sweating far more than she had been minutes ago when her body had been riddled with bullet holes.
“What?” Ruby said through grit teeth.
“Nothing,” Emerald said, bending and picking up the duffel bag with one hand. The straps and seams all had to be reinforced to keep it from splitting open under the weight of three shotguns, three rifles, a few submachine guns, and a dozen pistols. After slinging it over her shoulder, she looked down at the backpacks. “One of those has my clothing, right?”
“No.” Ruby drew out the word with a roll of her eyes. “They’re both mine.”
Emerald dug her knuckles into her sister’s skull, ignoring the pain-filled yelp. “I hope not. Or I’m going to have to think up a second punishment.”
“Have you forgotten already?” Emerald said, stepping over a body as they left their apartment. “Ninety seconds.”
Ruby grinding her teeth together was audible over the rustling of the two backpacks as they rubbed against each other. Neither girl’s footsteps made even the slightest noise.
The hall outside their apartment was empty. Naturally. What kind of lunatic would come out when it had been less than five minutes since automatic gunfire had echoed through the building. Hopefully nobody had been hurt by a stray bullet penetrating the thin walls.
“Police cars outside,” Ruby said as they reached the windows in the stairwell.
“I saw. Admirable response time, but it is just two cars. I doubt they’ll rush in before getting backup.”
“There might be more on the other side of the building. They’ll be a pain to slip past.”
“Ah!” Emerald held up a finger. “Perfect.”
“No. No, no, no.”
“Yes. Slip past them. That is your punishment.”
“No killing them either. Slip past without being spotted and I’ll give you one free get-out-of-punishment coupon.”
Ruby looked up with suspicion riddling her face. “Really?”
“I don’t lie. You should know that by now.” Emerald pulled out her pocket watch and started winding the stem. “Meet me at sigma-11. And Ruby… I’ll know if you were seen.”
Little red eyes glowered, but she eventually ducked her gaze. “I know.”
“Good. And you’re still in charge of the clothes. Lose mine and you’ll wish you could sneak past a few policemen as penance.”
Not giving her any time for a response, Emerald hit the button on her watch.
Ruby froze with a particularly indignant look on her face.
Not for the first time, Emerald wished she could take a picture during stopped time. Unfortunately, while she could carry her phone with her and it still worked, it wouldn’t take a picture of anything but blackness. Emerald didn’t understand why she could see, breathe, and even move through the air while everything else failed to so much as budge, but that was just the way the Clockmaster’s Timepiece worked for her.
With a tuneless hum on her lips, Emerald turned and descended down the stairs.