The Long Version by JDCorley

Category:Maximum Ride
Published:2006-08-14 19:45:48
Updated:2006-09-15 21:56:49
Packaged:2021-04-04 15:42:46
Summary:Grownups make the world worse. Or do they? An FBI agent tells his story. And a FDNY firefighter tells hers. Story complete! Reviews appreciated. Note: A LOT of cussing in this story.

Table of Contents

1. Narrow Place
2. Fire Escape Barefoot
3. Bravest
4. Blah Blah Blah
5. Into The Concrete
6. Closer Than It Appeared
7. The Obvious Plus The Snitch
8. It's Not Over

1. Narrow Place

"Jimmy, for Christ sakes!" she shrieked.

"Hi, Georgina." I said.

"You're fucking bleeding! What the fuck are you doing here bleeding on my fucking apartment door?"

I looked back behind me. I painfully slid my gun back into the holster under my arm. There wasn't anything in the stairwell to shoot. "You want the long version or the short version?"


A Maximum Ride Story

Narrow Place

Did I ever tell you about the roast beef?

About halfway between One Federal Plaza and the Central Precinct of the New York Police Department, there's a deli. Now as you might guess, with a solid two hundred FBI agents and a good thousand police officers covering the block, that deli is the most secure and well-protected of any in the whole of the Five Boroughs. The deli owner liked it, so there was a standing order for the kids working the counter to give an extra helping of meat to any FBI agent or cop that came in there. To keep them coming back, you know?

Well the third week I was at the Bureau, the shine still on the badge, there was a new kid at the counter, and when Special Agent Garrety came through the line he got this pussy little sandwich with just two slices of meat on it, and he didn't notice until he already paid, and then he had to get back in line, and of course the line was huge, so by the time he got back to the kid, he was flying off the handle. He said, "Look at this sandwich. It needs more meat." The kid said, "It's a dollar extra for more meat." and that just sent Garrety right off the fucking ledge. He got his credentials out and slammed them right in the kids' face. "FBI!" he yelled. "MORE ROAST BEEF!"

From then on whenever we showed our FBI badge to someone we said that we "roast beefed" the guy.

Garrety was wound tight, I mean real tight, so after 9-11, it was no big surprise to anyone when he put in for a transfer to counterintelligence and the last thing I heard of him he shoved a lightstick up some prisoner's ass at Gitmo and had been brought up on charges. Wash my hands of that guy. You take yourself seriously enough to flash your badge at some minimum wage high school kid over a couple of slices of roast beef, you're eventually going to do something stupid.

The ASAC called me into his office the day after Garrety transferred out and told me I was off Analysis and on Organized Crime which is where I've been ever since. Garrety didn't even take the files off his desk. It took me two weeks just to go through the lead list he had on some of these guys.

I was junior man on the Scarpetti task force, whose job it was to crawl so far up Joseph Scarpetti's nose that we'd leave shoe polish on his upper lip.

I liked working Organized Crime. It got me out of the office and I got used to not wearing wingtips and charcoal suits. You wore what you wanted, you wanted to blend in, you didn't want a stakeout to get blown because someone saw a bunch of suspicious guys in suits hanging around, so that's why I dress like I do, with a colorful shirt and a pair of khakis, when I needed my piece, I put on a shoulder holster and a coat.

Fuck, just...just bandage it up as best you can. It hurts like hell. Put some vodka or shit on it if you've got it. It would be just my luck to survive all this and end up killed by an infection before I can get to a hospital. Uh uh. Not yet.

My supervisor was Special Agent John Lennon. No, seriously, that's his name. "No relation to that Commie prick." he said, and he was probably jacking with us, but that was his kind of humor, you never quite knew. Special Agent Lennon had - has - silver hair in a permanent wave, a gorgeous head of hair and a voice like a car commercial. The guys on the squad said that he had put his wingtip shoe right down the throat of Joseph Colombo personally and what the hell was I going to say, no, bullshit, that never happened? I'm not going to say that never happened, I wasn't even there.

"The main danger of Organized Crime is boredom." is what Lennon said when we were halfway through my first week's surveillance transcripts. "Eventually you get to lose sight of the real goal of bugging these assholes' phones. You start to forget that every dollar that passes through their hands has blood on it, you start to talk like them, think like them, like it's no big thing. You get to be like them, where just killing a guy is no big deal. You have to keep someone out of the squad knowing what's going on so that they can tell us to pull the trigger. That's why the Bureau is a bureau and not just a bunch of guys with guns."

The important thing you need to know about my part in this is that Joseph Scarpetti had a button man called Skinny Mike, to differentiate him from Fat Mike, Mike the Kike, Icepick Mike, Shotgun Mike, Shithead Mike, Irish Mike, Kansas Mike and Roman Mike. Skinny Mike was married to Joseph Scarpetti's godfather's daughter's cousin and was fucking a Puerto Rican coke dealer who bought the biggest fake breasts she could buy at age 20 and had never worked a day in her life since. And they had a kid together, Ricardo. Now what the fuck do we care about Ricardo. Well, here's why we care about Ricardo. Ricardo is 13. Ricardo is a serial runaway, always in trouble with the NYPD. Ricardo knows Skinny Mike is his father, Skinny Mike knows Ricardo could blow him up with his wife and his other kids, Skinny Mike is between a rock and a hard place and Ricardo could be one of the keys. We want to turn Skinny Mike, or grab him, or push him, Ricardo could be a piece of the puzzle.

But like I say, Ricardo is always running away from home, and every time he runs away from home, fake tits mom calls Skinny Mike on his cellphone and rants and raves and cries and complains, blah blah blah, so Skinny Mike has to go pick him up somewhere, muscle the little punks around, and that means I have to follow him and take pictures and get sound if necessary. Now I am not complaining. Actually we got a list of solid assaults that we could have pinned on Skinny Mike as a result. You know, like Capone and income tax. We couldn't get him on murder but if we wanted to we could have put him away for a few years just on the kids he beat up and bribed with drugs to find Ricardo.

Last week, I'm fucking getting to that okay, yeah. He's dead, I'm just fucking getting to that.

Well, this time Ricardo had run away and he had stayed gone for a while. Skinny Mike himself was even starting to get a little worried when he came down to the Narrow Place. Now Narrow Place used to be the name of a street that went by an old aqueduct down at the ass end of Brooklyn but the street got torn up and there were supposed to be some projects built there but the money dried up and so now there's just frameworks, skeletons, big steel and concrete dinosaurs and about six hours ago, Skinny Mike pulled up to Narrow Place and I pulled up to the intersection behind. Now I could have just let him go in and get Ricardo and come out. That would have been okay with procedure, but frankly I was a bit fucking bored and a bit fucking stir-crazy, so I counted five and bopped on up to the other side of the building. There were fires burning in some of the rooms, runaways and homeless crawled in under the dark roofs, some weird parody of a hotel. It was easy to follow Skinny Mike, he was the only other one there with real shoes. I just listened.

He went up two floors, his shoes made clanging sounds on the metal staircase. Concrete never got poured there, it was just metal and plywood. It was dark in the staircase. It was easy for me to hide. He came into a room on the upper floor pissed off and a little unnerved. "Ricky. You little shit, where the hell have you b..."

"Dad, you didn't, you can't. You can't come in here, you can't be in here." Something in the way Ricardo's voice sounded actually made Skinny Mike stop talking for a minute. Maybe he was seeing something in the room. I was across the hall and behind a wall, pressed flat, listening. Recording, though god knows how much got through, it was all concrete and echoes.

"What the fuck is this?" Skinny Mike said in a tone that approached reverence by way of shock. "Wings?"

I thought to myself, did he just say wings? What the fuck?

"Dad, look, it's a long story, I just...I had to help her out, and..."

"Ricardo helped us." a girl's voice said. Early teens maybe. "He couldn't call, we've been..."

"I didn't ask you." said Skinny Mike.

A boy's voice, even younger, "We're in trouble." he said solemnly.

"Damn right y..." began Skinny Mike.

"He doesn't mean you." said the girl. "Erasers."

I thought to myself, did she just say erasers? What the fuck?

So I figured I should stop thinking what the fuck and try to find out what the fuck. I moved into the hall. Headed towards the door. I kept my footsteps as quiet as I could.

We were on the top floor. The roof had never been built so it was all plywood and tin roofing people had dragged up to lay across the girders and concrete. Approximately right above my head there was a CRASH, it made the metal reverberate, it made the plywood bend down, something heavy had hit the roof. Really heavy. And big, it must have been six foot long. And whatever it was made a noise, a noise I never heard anything like before. A snarl and a howl and almost a word. The thing must have been right above my head. I reached for my gun and...

WHAM WHAM WHAM. "Christ!" Georgina said, jumping to her feet and stumbling in surprise towards the door.

"Not too fast." I said. "It's the middle of the night, you were in bed." I ducked into her closet.

Georgina put her eye to the eyepiece. "Who the fuck is it, it's the middle of the fucking night?"

I couldn't hear what the person on the other side of the door said in his calm, cool voice but I knew the cadence of it.

"...I don't know where the fuck you get your information from, asshole, but Jimmy and me broke up last fucking year. I haven't seen him since." Attagirl, Georgina.

Oh shit, I thought. I forgot. I bled on the fucking door. I might as well have painted a sign saying 'come and get me'.

I pushed open the closet door. The front door exploded inwards, the bolt shearing through the frame. Splinters and wood lancing through the air. Georgina was knocked back, skidded on her ass, her robe on the hardwood floor. I levelled my gun at the shapes in the door. "Get your keys, Georgina!" I yelled.

She was dazed. "My what?" she said, but she was already scrambling on her belly towards the kitchen.

Attagirl. I pulled the trigger four times.

2. Fire Escape Barefoot

WHAM WHAM WHAM. Someone was pounding on my door for the second time that night. "Christ!" I yelled, jumping to my feet. I stumbled over my own feet as I headed to the door.

"Not too fast." Jimmy said. "It's the middle of the night, you were in bed." My mind was whirling, Jimmy showing up bloody, starting in on one of his crazy stories, and now someone hammering on the door right in the middle of his story. Now he was ducking into my closet.

I put my eye to the eyepiece. It was a man in a black coat, his face was gaunt, pale. He had gloves on his hands. "Who the fuck is it, it's the middle of the fucking night?" I said. I was pissed off and confused and upset and tired and I sounded like it.

His voice was calm. Collected. Cool. "I am. Looking for. Special Agent. James Howell." It came in a rhythm. Da-da. Da-da. Da-da. Like a poem or a song. There were other people with him. They looked young, like teenagers, maybe, but they stood to the side of the door. I couldn't make them out.

I was still mad. "...I don't know where the fuck you get your information from, asshole, but Jimmy and me broke up last fucking year. I haven't seen him since. Now it's almost midnight and I got an early shift tomorrow so why don't you fuck off?"

"Oh." he said. "I see." He flicked his fingers forward and I saw one of the kids come streaking towards the door. I jerked my head back, surprised, and there was a CRASH, the door ripped right off and smacked into me and knocked me flat on my ass.

I looked up and saw Jimmy coming out of my closet with his gun out. He yelled something about my keys, I didn't hear it and said "What?" but I got the gist. I headed for the kitchen on my stomach. Jimmy's gun was louder than I expected. I never heard a gun go off so close before. BLAM. BLAM. BLAM. BLAM. Four shots. I got to my knees and grabbed my keys and a kitchen knife. It was more of a cleaver, really.

One of the kids came into the kitchen. His hands had vicious black hook claws at the end of them and his mouth was pulled back in an animal smile, feral, sharp-toothed, not like a real smile at all, his face was angular, deformed. He'd been shot, there was blood pouring out of him, but it didn't seem to bother him, his green T-shirt was black with it, it dripped on my floor, it dripped on my fucking floor, I was in shock, that was all I could think, he was dripping his blood on my fucking floor. "Jesus Christ!" I yelled.

"Stay back." he said. His voice was slurred like he was drunk.

"No problemo." I said. I shifted the cleaver in my hand. There was a CRASH from the living room behind him and he turned back for just a second, so I leapt at him. He moved so fast I didn't see it. He twisted around and so instead of hammering the cleaver into the back of his skull, it caught his arm and shoulder and ripped down into him. I left it stuck in him, he bellowed in pain. Jimmy knocked him down from behind. "I ain't stopping." he said, at a full run for the bedroom, his shoes kicking up behind him like a sprinter on a track. Behind him there were three more of those teenagers and the man in the black coat.

"Grab my pack!" I yelled at Jimmy. I slammed the bedroom door shut and kicked a chair underneath it. They'd shattered the front door, they'd shatter this one. Why the hell not. It was a shitty apartment anyway. Jimmy was already out on the fire escape. He had my pack in his hand and his gun in the other. I didn't even have time to put my shoes on. I hit the fire escape barefoot with my robe flapping and didn't stop. I heard the bedroom door shatter.

Fire Escape Barefoot

"Jesus Christ, Georgina, you're still driving a Daihatsu? Didn't this company die of being lame like ten years ago?" he started. Just like Jimmy.

"No, asshole, I still drive a fire truck. The Daihatsu just gets me around." I snapped back at him. I was yanking on my pants in the passenger seat. I always carry an extra set of clothes in the pack in case I got puke or poison on them. Of course the only shoes I had in there were my big clunky fire boots. At least they'd be there if I needed to stomp somebody. "What the fuck, Jimmy, what the hell's going on?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you." he said. "That's what I'm trying to say."

"So fucking say it instead of fucking telling me about Garrety and the roast beef!"

He kept looking in the rearview mirror. "Do you have any cigarettes in here?"

"Do you think for one second that I want to smell smoke at the end of the day after breathing it at work?"

He grinned. For Christ sakes. His grin was so cocky, like the way he used to grin when we were together and made my heart pound. He hadn't changed one bit.

"So tell me." I insisted.

"The thing that hit the roof of Narrow Place." he said. "That's where I was. It made this sound. This sound part howl and part scream, almost like it was trying to say something."

"'What the fuck?' said Skinny Mike. There seemed to be a lot of what the fuck going around. He came out of the room he was in. He had his gun in his hand and looked agitated. I figured it would be best to give it to him straight, so I roast beefed him. 'FBI.' I said. 'Your guess is good as mine, Mike.' He kept his gun out but kept it pointed away from me."

"'What the hell is that sound?' he said. We could hear these scrapings, like metal ripping on metal, tearing, and then it found a weak spot in some plywood and it started smashing, the splinters and sawdust flying everywhere. It was coming in. There was no way something that big, that strong, could be held back by a little bit of plywood. I moved over to the room and looked in. I had to look in twice. Because there was Ricardo, sure, with his tattoos and his spiky green hair. And this kid, she can't have been more than nine, ten years old, golden hair, curly, not crazy curly like yours, with wings, big white feathery wings, one of them bent back in under her as she tried to get up. She was being helped by another kid, he was probably thirteen or so, dark-eyed, dark hair. A teenaged girl seemed to be the one in charge. She looked at me with this sad look. Like something horrible was about to happen to me..."

"Wings?" I said, interrupting.

"You like claws better?" Jimmy pointed out. "Look at the hem of your robe."

I pulled it from between my legs where I had wadded it up. The lower hem was shredded like I'd gone after it with a knife. I hadn't even felt it, but those kids with the claws must have been only half a step behind me. "Christ." I said. Okay, claws. Why not wings.

He continued. "The girl and Ricardo were pulling this plywood off a window. Behind me, Skinny Mike said 'Shit!' I turned around. I know you've seen more roofs collapse than you can count, Georgie, but this was my first. Everything came sliding down and what little light came in from the street went black and there was this shape in the darkness, everyone was screaming and running and then the light came back and I saw it. Hell, I don't know what it was. Kids with claws, kids with wings? This was nothing I'd ever seen. Huge. Like a huge fucking wolf, or a bear, with red glowing eyes, but it moved, it moved fucking fast, right for me, I thought. But then no, it wasn't right for me, it was heading right for the girl, right for the girl with the broken wing."

"For god's sake." Jimmy said. "Ricardo was right in its way. And Skinny Mike moved to get in its way of getting Ricardo. Now you have to understand, Skinny Mike is best known for drowning the whole Lao family in their extra large jacuzzi during the Triad war a few years ago. He drowned the kids first so that the tub wouldn't fill up too quick. He is a cold hearted lizard motherfucker. I mean seriously bad. But he saw his kid stand up and he saw this thing coming after him and he didn't think about it, because if he had, he would have stepped back and let that monster rip Ricardo into four pieces and keep him from ever having to pay that Puerto Rican bitch another dollar in child support, but he did, he got right up in that thing's face and fired his piece point blank into it."

"And it fucking killed him. It tore him in half and kept coming. So much for paternal instinct." Jimmy kept looking in the rearview mirror. We'd made five turns and were still nowhere near anywhere.

"Where are we going?" I said.

"Nowhere yet. I need to make sure we're losing any tails." Jimmy said. "I need a fucking cigarette."

"I didn't have any the last time you asked, either." I smirked. I probably shouldn't have. He was on edge. The cocky grin was gone. He was thinking back to seeing the hitman get ripped in half protecting his bastard punk son.

Jimmy said, "Anyway. I couldn't move, the thing was that fast, I didn't have the reflexes to do anything about it. I couldn't fire into the room, the kids were right there. I only knew one of their names, so I yelled that. 'Ricky!' But the kid had just seen his father get ripped apart, he stood there like a statue. The thing knocked him aside with this half-swipe of its claws. He hit the concrete wall and slid down it. He was out, probably okay, but out. The teenaged girl and the boy grabbed the kid with the wings, she had her under the arms, he had her by the ankles, and they were moving for the window when the thing jumped. It hit the boy, he went flailing out the window like a puppet with the strings cut, the little girl's legs dropped and hit the thing on its back, it shrugged and these spines or fur or whatever it had tore into the little girl's legs and she woke up and screamed. The teenaged girl looked over at me with my gun pointed at the thing. Then she let the little girl go and said to the thing. 'It's me you want. It's me. Me you want. Me, come on. It's me.' And god dammit. She was one hundred percent right. That thing looked at her like she was a steak and it was hungry."

The car was silent for a second. "I had just watched this thing eviscerate a hundred fifty pound dude, knock out one kid and smash another right out a fourth story window. I had my gun out but what the fuck good was that? It was dripping this black oily blood where Skinny Mike had shot it and it didn't seem to really care that much. Plus I didn't have a clear shot. But that wasn't what the teenager cared about when she looked at me. She said, 'You take her.' And she bolted. Fast. The thing chased her and the little girl with the busted wing fell to the floor. I was alone in there with Ricardo passed out and the girl making these little pain noises. I heard the thing crashing through the rooms, heard its claws on the concrete. This girl just looked up at me with my gun in my hand."

"Christ." I said softly.

Jimmy's voice was relentless, he stared at the lights of the city without blinking. "I picked the kid up. She was light, like she didn't weigh a fucking thing." I wanted to put my hand on his arm, squeeze it. I did just that. What the hell. He downshifted and threw the Daihatsu onto an on-ramp suddenly, the engine roaring. "I tried to move towards the stairwell. She put her arms around my neck. 'No no no.' she was whispering. 'No no no.'"

"That's when I saw it. Another creature coming up the stairs. Could have been the twin of the other one. I froze. Moved back as slow and quiet as I could. But my foot stepped on a piece of busted plywood and it made a sound. It looked over at us almost casually. I backed up faster. It knew it was a thousand times faster than me, so it didn't even bother running. It just got closer and closer." Jimmy swallowed. "I tripped over a piece of rebar that was sticking out of a wall. And I fell off an open ledge into the night air."

I looked at him. "What?" I said. "You just said you were on the fourth floor."

"I was." he said. "But..."

My cellphone started ringing in my pack. "Shit. Hang on." I said. The number was blocked. I opened the phone.

On the other side came the voice of the man in the black coat. "Mizz Rojos."

I was instantly pissed off. Even more than I had been at Jimmy. "That's Firefighter Lieutenant Rojos to you, asshole." I said. "You're in huge fucking trouble. Breaking and entering, assault. Maybe even attempted rape. Huh? That get you off, asshole? You and your boppers gonna try a train on me? I cut your balls off, feed them to you, you better hope the police finds you first. You better hope."

He basically ignored everything I said. "Yes. Mizz Rojos. You must. Understand. Your position. A rogue. FBI agent. Violent deaths. Unauthorized. Hmm Activities." He said 'hmm' like it was another word. "And a story. Nobody would. Believe. Accessory after. The fact. The facts. The fact. You already. Know you. Cannot rely. On Special. Agent Howell."

"I'll take my chances with him over you, dickhead."

"If you. Change your. Mind it. Is a simple. Enough matter. To remedy. Just bring. Me the girl. The wounded. Girl."

"I thought you and your hounds wanted the teenager. Ain't you going to make up your mind, you fucking pervert? First me, now the little wounded girl, then maybe you'll ask for the teenager? You sicko."

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

"Are you there, you fucking asshole prick piece of shit?" I slipped into Spanish and started calling his mother horrible things.

He interrupted me finally. "You are. Merely speculating. Guessing. You cannot. Know about. That situation. With the. Flock."

"Jimmy knows a lot more about 'that situation' than you think, you asshole. You can bet right now the Bureau's pulling your tax records for the last fifty years and every kiddie porno site off your fucking Internet. You think it was just a coincidence a guy from the Bureau happened to show up with a gun right where he could pull this kid out from under your nose? You're a stupid fuck, you know that? And another thing..."

But he had hung up the phone somewhere in the middle of that. Jimmy was more or less staring at me. "What?" I said. "You called me a world class bullshitter when we broke up, you thought I got rusty? I keep in practice, Jimmy." And this time I had the cocky grin.

"No shit." he said. "We're here."

I looked up. "What the fuck? This is my house!" Ladder Company 24 Manhattan. Two blocks from Madison Square Garden. "Only you, Jimmy. Only Jimmy Howell could discover angels, get werewolves to wreck my apartment, and then take me to work afterwards."

"Night's not over yet." he said.

3. Bravest

Georgina gave me a cocky grin. "You called me a world class bullshitter when we broke up, you thought I got rusty? I keep in practice, Jimmy."

"No shit." I said. "We're here." I cranked her crappy little car around a corner, upshifted, it revved into neutral.

"What the fuck? This is my house!" Georgina said. She looked like she had bit into a lemon. "Only you, Jimmy. Only Jimmy Howell could discover angels, get werewolves to wreck my apartment, and then take me to work afterwards."

"Night's not over yet." I said. "Come on." I left her car parked under a construction balcony so it was hard to see. I threw her her keys. She was wearing plain sweats, her fire boots, and a blue T-shirt that said "Bravest" on the back. "Softball team." she said, putting her chin out at me as if daring me to make something of it.

I didn't. I said, "Side door, side door. I already bullshitted your chief once tonight, I'd rather not have to do it twice." She took her keys back, found the right one, opened the door. A concrete hallway with photographs of the three guys from the station that got killed at Ground Zero. There was the sound of laughter from the kitchen, dominos on the table.

"Through here." I said, easing open a door marked DECON. The place smelled like bleach, pungent, nasty.

"Jesus, what asshole left the chemical decontamination shower running, it smells like nine kinds of shit in here." Georgina said, turning off the valve. The dripping spigots in the wall stopped dripping.

I pointed at the door. She opened it. I heard Georgina's breath catch. The kid was still laying on the bedroll, in the dim lit niche off the decon room, brick walls all around, the girl with her golden curls and her crumpled white wings. Georgina crossed herself. She stepped into the room.


"It hurts." said the girl. "They won't fold up right."

"Shh, sweetie." Georgina said, kneeling at her side. "Turn over and let me see. What's your name?"

The child turned over relucantly. Distrustingly. Her voice was still calm though. "Angel. Where's Max?" Of course she was named Angel.

"Is Max your daddy?"

The child laughed despite her disorientation and distrust. "No...Max's a girl."


"No." said Angel. "Where is she?"

"I don't know, honey, you're at a fire station now. You were the only one that Jimmy could carry. What happened to your..." Wings. Georgina couldn't say 'wings'. "... back?"

"Me and Max and Fang were hiding out. One of our friends was going into the Institute to rescue somebody but they hadn't come back. Max had a new friend Ricky who was helping us. Ricky knew everyone. But they followed him. The man in the black coat. He was. Wrong, something wrong. With him. And he had these monsters. Big monsters. Erasers. Smelled like Erasers." I thought of that teenaged girl saying that word just before... "And one of them knocked me down and bit me on the back and I could feel something shooting into my back and I started to feel funny and my wings wouldn't fold in and I fell asleep..." She blearily lifted her head. Georgina was working on her back with a fixated expression that looked, from the side, a little like terror. I couldn't get a good view in the darkness of the niche of what she was doing but the first aid stuff in her pack was getting spread around pretty good.

It took me a minute to find something to say. I settled on, "Remember me?"

"Hi." she said. "You grabbed me when the monster..." Her voice trailed off. "Max...Did..."

"I didn't see anything." I said softly. "Remember?"

She looked right at me. There was no sound except for Georgina tearing off some bandages. Finally Angel spoke, "You hit you..."

"Knocked me right out the window."

"And Fang saved you."

"He saved you." I corrected. "I just happened to be the one hanging onto you."

She giggled, then her face made an 'o' of pain. "You're funny." she managed.

"I'm a riot." I said.

"Who is Fang?" asked Georgina.

"Kid with the long hair." I mentioned. "He had wings too. Me and this one were plummeting down towards the pavement when he came out of nowhere and grabbed my leg. His wings were yanking up and back, up and back, crazy, as hard as he could, I could see his shoulders twisting with the effort of it. Then he dropped us. But we were close enough to the ground that it just banged me up a little."

"And you didn't notice his wings before?" Georgina said.

"We normally can fold them up good and tight." explained Angel. "But mine...don't work. They're numb..." Georgina leapt back suddenly like she was bitten. The wings were moving, painedly, slowly, left and right. Angel collapsed back down on her stomach after making the effort.

I put my hand on the back of Angel's head and she jerked away slightly. "No." she said.

"Okay. Just lay still, let Georgina finish up." I said. "She's got the magic touch."

Angel was silent and sullen. "Why didn't you help Fang? He helped you."

"Angel...I couldn't help him and carry you at the same time. And those...guys...jumped him, moving so fast, I didn't even have time to yell." I said. I felt like a heel even though it was stupid.

"He helped you." Angel said accusingly. "And you ran."

"I ran as hard as I could with you in my hands. I got in my car and got us the h...I got us out of there." I said.

"He's an FBI agent, sweetie." said Georgina. "If he could have helped Fang, he would have. You can count on that."

"What's an FBI?" asked Angel.

My phone rang. It echoed eerily in the decontamination shower outside. I snagged it before it rang again. "Scuse me." I said, and ducked out. I didn't need the civics lesson anyway.

It was Lennon. "Jesus, boss, I..."

"Shut up." he said. "The shitstorm down here has been getting so heavy that I'm barely keeping my head above it. I have orders for you. Right from the top. I just got off the phone with the ADIC. You are to stop, immediately, any investigation into any unusual youths or anyone who is looking for them."

"They just wrecked..."

"Your ex-girlfriend's apartment, I know." Lennon said. "You are not following my order to shut the hell up. Stop. Just stop. You are to have no further contact with this investigation. Got it? Say yes, I got it."

"Yes, I got it." I said. "There's a problem."

"I don't want to hear about your problem."

"What do you know about a place called the Institute?"

"I don't know anything except that if they're the ones you're crawling up the ass of, they have enough pull to get three Congressmen and a CIA liason to call up the ADIC and raise hell - even at two in the fucking morning. So stop it."

Georgina brushed past me. I leaned back to peer in. Angel was sitting up. She looked wan, but on her little, beautiful face was clear, hard determination. Runaways got faces like that before their time, I guessed. "All right." I said. "If it's over, it's over."

"It's over. Leave it alone from now on. And report back to me as soon as you can." Lennon said, and hung up.

What could I do? My job was on the line. "Angel...I'm going to have to take you to a place called Social Services. They'll help take care of you, okay?"

"I know where Max is. She told us where to meet if we got separated. Max is smart. She's smarter than all of them." Angel said.

"Probably." I said. "But..."

"We're going to find Max." Angel said.

"We're going to find Max." I said right back to her.

Georgina came back with a T-shirt, which she pulled down over Angel's head and wings, which were folded in as far as they'd go. "We're going where?" Georgina said.

"To find Max." Angel said.

"To find Max." Georgina said.

I swear to god, when we led that kid out of the decon room, she had a smug little smile on her face like she was the one that thought of the idea.

4. Blah Blah Blah

Jimmy's cellphone went off and I about went through the roof. "Scuse me." Jimmy said. He stepped out into the shower area. I finished working on Angel's back. Whatever venom she had been hit with was specific to whatever biology she had, because it was like nothing else I ever saw. I cleaned it up, prevented infection, and gave her some water. "You should drink lots of water and juice this week." I told her. She nodded slowly, forcing herself to sit up painfully.

"You like him, huh?" she said.

"Who, Jimmy? Yes, he's my friend." I said. "How many friends do you have?"

"Seven." she said, but her expression was cagey. This was a kid who had been on the run a long time and did not want to talk to anyone, even someone who had just patched her up and maybe saved her life.

"Can you move your wings now?"

She was able to partly fold them up, but still couldn't compress them down to her back. "Okay." I said. "I'll get you a shirt to cover them up. Just relax, okay?"

"Don't go." she said suddenly, with fear in her eyes.

"It'll be okay." I said, "I'll be right back. And Jimmy is right out that door talking to someone on the phone, he'll keep an eye on you."

"You like him." Angel said with a little smile. This was a topic important to her.

"Yeah, I like him." I said.

"How did you meet?"

Well, kiddo, he came to a crime scene where one mobster doused the other in kerosene and set him on fire, and the fire spread to the kitchen and I had to save the rest of the building, so I was covered in burned marinara sauce and black soot and under seven layers of protective clothing and wearing a mask and he still asked me out. The first words he said to me were 'I always heard firefighters were sexy, never really believed it until now.' There was no way he could have even known I was a woman at that point. His coat and pants were charcoal black. It was when he was still a junior agent and I was a worthless probie eating shit at Ladder 19. "We met at work. We both try to help people." is all I said.

"What's kerosene?" she said.

I got goosebumps. How did she... "It's dangerous. It can cause fires and people I'm going to get you your shirt, okay? A real fire department shirt." I said. I was getting out of there right then. I passed Jimmy, who was getting chewed out by someone or other. He made his hand into a little mouth going 'blah blah blah' as I passed. I rolled my eyes at him.

I changed into my shoes at my locker and snagged a spare shirt, the smallest we had. She'd still be swimming in it, half-folded wings and all. I fixed up my pack and brought it all back.

I helped Angel on with her shirt. She was still sucking in her breath in pain when she moved her arms around to get through the sleeves, but it would be cover her wings and be better than the crummy little blouse on she had. Jimmy was saying something about going somewhere, he had his cellphone loosely in his hand and was kneeling at Angel's side.

"We're going where?" I said.

"To find Max." Angel said.

"To find Max." I said. It seemed to make sense at the time.

Angel explained that Max was supposed to meet at Riverside Park at the "lady with the sword". That was Joan of Arc. "Okay." I said. "That's where we're going."

Blah Blah Blah

We were going back to the side door and everything was okay, but when Jimmy pushed open the door and we stepped out into the night, he suddenly stopped. Angel was grabbing onto my leg.

"Well." Jimmy said. That's when I saw my car had three of those kids on it. The teenagers with the faces like cougars and long black hooked claws. They were pressed against the windows, they were squirming around underneath, like trying to tell if we were inside. But when Jimmy spoke they all whirled around at once.

"Back inside, back inside." Jimmy said.

"But Max!" Angel cried.

I was pulling her back along with me. Those things moved fast. Way too fast. We got inside. Jimmy didn't. They hauled him back from the door and his gun dropped just inside. I slammed it shut, I heard the scrabbling of claws. I grabbed Jimmy's gun and shoved it in my pack. "Come on. Hurry." I told Angel.

The probationary firefighter assigned to our station was in the front hallway when I passed dragging Angel along. He was at the vending machine, the red light all around us. "Hey Lou." he said. All lieutenants are called Lou. "What are you doing here? You're off..." He trailed off, looking weirdly at Angel and her bulging back.

"Hey. Probie. Up here." I snapped. "You on a box tonight?"

"Yeah, the ambulance."

"Gimme the keys." I said.

"What?" he said.

"I don't have time to explain to you what keys are, retard. Just hand them over." He did. Thank god for probies.

"What if there's an alarm?"

"It's a problem solving test, asshole. Now get lost and don't tell anyone I was here." He got lost. "Ever ridden in an ambulance before, Angel?"

"I can't remember." she said with remarkable clarity for a child her age. We rushed down and I unlocked the door, lifted her up into the passenger's seat, buckled her in. I hit the door remote and we gunned it out into the night, I twisted the wheel and we punched it around to the back.

Jimmy was nowhere to be seen. My car was half torn apart, the tires shredded, the windows broken. There was no one there. I pressed down on the gas.

"Where is he?" Angel asked.

"I don't know, sweetie." I said. "But if he's anywhere, he's going to meet us at Riverside Park. With Max."

For the first time since she had brought Max up, Angel didn't seem exactly happy about the prospect of immediately going to meet her. I wasn't happy about it either.

The radio in the ambulance buzzed. "Mizz Rojo." Man In Black Coat. Holy shit, this guy had juice to take over dispatch for his own call?

I picked up the radio. "You better not have hurt him." I said, and immediately felt stupid for saying it. Hey, why not invite them to hurt him?

"I am. In possession. Of your. Associate." he said. "Special Agent. Howell."

"And you want to trade?" I said.

"I feel. We are. In a. Different hmm. Situation since. We last. Spoke do. You not. Agree?" he said. He sounded like a snake. My spine squirmed just thinking of him.

"One for one. Angel or Max." I said. "Not both."

"You only. Have Angel." he said.

Oh, that would not stand. He was not going to be so confident about this. "Yeah, I switched from a car that could carry three to an ambulance that can carry eight for no reason. I only have Angel."

The radio was silent for a long time. Angel was staring at me with utter confusion on her tiny face.

"I would. Prefer Maximum."

I looked at Angel, spoke away from the mike. "Her name is Maximum?" Angel nodded. "Her parents must have hated her." Angel looked like she would tear my head off. "Wait." I told her, then went back to the radio. "There's a parking structure just east of Riverside Park at 109th street. I'll bring Miss Maximum there."

"And Angel?"

"Hi, this is Firefighter Lieutnenant Rojos, and I don't have to tell you anything about Angel because she's not part of the deal. Please leave a message after the beep. Beeeeeeeeeeep."

There was no further response on the radio. "Idiot." I said, re-clipping the mike.

Angel screamed, "You're not going to hurt Max! I won't let you! I won't!" She was flailing around inside her seat belt and her shirt, wings ripping out the seams bit by bit.

"Angel, stop it!" I said, getting frantic although I didn't know what exactly inside me was getting scared of this angry little girl throwing a tantrum. "I'm not going to hurt anyone. I was just playing with the man. You don't want Jimmy to get hurt either, right? He saved you in that building."

She looked at me with tears in her eyes. "You...lied to him?"

"That's what I did. I told him a lie. Lying isn't good, but I really didn't want Jimmy to get hurt." I said, relief creeping over me.

" are we going to..."

"We are not going to do anything." I said. "You are going to find Max and get out of here. I am going to find Jimmy and figure out how to get him free."

"I want to help."

"You can help by finding Max." I said. "Right?"

"...right." she said. She had faith in this Max character, whoever she was. And hopefully Max had the brains to get her and Angel as far away from the showdown that was about to occur as possible.

At 110th street, a car came out of a side alley and slammed into the back wheel. We skidded left. Angel screamed. In that moment of stomach-clenching fear when the ambulance skidded and Angel screamed I knew the Man In the Black Coat had no intention of going through with the deal. He was going to get both Max and Angel, and kill Jimmy and I. That bastard.

I looked back. It wasn't a car.

5. Into The Concrete

We were going back to the side door and everything was okay. I pushed open the door and almost immediately knew we were fucked. Angel grabbed onto Georgina's leg.

"Well." I said. That was about as far as I got. Georgina's car had three teenagers with the black hooked claws all over it, rattling the doors, scraping at the windows, like they could smell us inside there. Like they could see her wadded up bathrobe with their blood on it on the passenger's side. Like they could smell it.

They turned when they heard the door. "Back inside, back inside." I said. I'd have said it a hundred more times if I could. I had my hand on the back of the kid's head, pushing her towards the door.

"But Max!" Angel cried, shaking her head against my hand. I pushed her. Pushed her towards the door, Georgina was pulling her, her feet moving, my feet moving, but those animal-teenager things, they were fast. Like their feet didn't even touch the ground. They leapt across a sixteen foot wide alleyway like they were stepping up onto the sidewalk. The light inside the firehouse spilled out into the street. I felt one of them hit me, glancing, not the square-on tackle they wanted. I stumbled forward, grabbed my gun out of the holster, but then one hit me square and I went down. The gun skidded inside the door. They were all over me. One had his claws in my hair, I felt blood running down my back where they cut my neck. He slammed my face into the concrete. I heard the door slam shut. I heard their claws scraping on it, wild, demented. He slammed my face into the concrete again. Everything went black.

Into The Concrete

I woke up cuffed to a chair in a parking garage. The light was terrible. I heard the black coat guy talking on the phone. "He really. Is from. The Bureau." he said. I couldn't see anyone else there. I couldn't move. I felt blood on my face. It was cool, dry. I'd been out for a while.

"I don't. Know." said the man. Then he said "I don't. Know." again. Then he said, "That may. Be difficult."

A pause. "I see." he said. Another pause. "I see." he said again. He was fond of that one.

One of the kids came in front of me and looked at me like a piece of meat. It was the first time I'd had a chance to look at one of them up close. His face was distorted, his mouth was a half-snout, layered with too many teeth, yellow and white. He couldn't get them quite closed, so it looked like he was constantly smirking. He was built slender, like a runner, but with thick wrists. I couldn't see his claws. It was too dark. He sniffed the air in front of me.

"Moving." he said. He couldn't pronounce it right. It sounded slurred. And also like he didn't understand it exactly.

"He's awake." said the man in the black coat. "Goodbye." The sound of a phone closing. He came over towards me, moved into my view.

"Agent Howell." he said. "Hello." There was something wrong with him too. His eyes didn't blink enough, and when they did, it came as slowly and artificially as his words.

"You're under arrest." I told him.

He blinked at me very, very slowly. It took a long time for his voice to come back. "That's funny." he said. "However I. Do not. Think you. Are in. A situation. Where you. Should be. Concerned with. Telling jokes. Do you. Not agree."

"I'd honestly rather be playing parcheesi. It's the royal game of India, I'm told." I said. "If you've got a board, you could unlock these cuffs and we could play a few rounds."

"Stop talking." he said and just like that, I did. My ears hurt, like he had shouted it instead of saying it. Like he had screamed it right in my ear. I stopped talking. It was natural.

"Tell me." he said. "Where Mizz. Rojos took. The girl."

"I don't know." I said. "She is probably halfway to Puerto Rico by now. She was always saying she wanted to go back to La Isla." He hit me in the face. The pain shot through me, I nearly blacked out again. I took a deep breath. "God dammit." I said.

"There is. Nothing you. Can do. Your agency. Has disavowed. Your actions. You must. Be made. To understand. Your situation. These persons. Are hybrids. Of people. And animals. They were. Grown in. A laboratory. They have. No more. Moral sense. Than an. Animal might. They obey. My Voice. Immediately and. Without hesitation." he said. "Allow me. To demonstrate." He looked at something behind me. "Bend his. Arm up. Until he. Screams hmm." I felt the claws digging into my arm, felt it bend up, I screamed right away, even before it hurt too much, flailed spastically, jerked my body left and right in the chair.

He leaned closer. "Tell me. And I. Will tell. Him to. Let go."

"All right." I said, slumping like I was beaten. "All right. Georgie and the kid were talking. And something the kid told her set her off, I don't know what, I was on the phone with my supervisor. Georgina's got a temper, you know. God, she's got a temper. She said something about going over to the Institute? Something about having a bunch of accelerant and being an expert on arson." I looked up at him. I waited for another smack, for a broken finger. There was no way he was going to buy it.

He bought it. He bought it like it was the last fucking Pink Floyd ticket on Earth.

He took out a phone from his pocket and moved away. "Yes I. Have obtained. Information regarding. A possible. Attack on. The Institute. Put me. What. What." He was escalating in volume. "No it's. Arson arson. Not a. Breakout that's. A trap. A trap. To pull. Away security. Forces bring. Them back. Now and. Get them. Searching the. Premises immediately. For devices. For devices. A professional. Device yes. Professional. Professional. The Angel. Used her. Voice on. A firefighter. Hurry hurry. Hurry. Do it. Right now." He hung up the phone and rushed back around in front of me.

"What do. You know. About the. Breakout hm?" he said.

"Just what that little kid told me. She said Max was behind it." I said. That was the truth. "It was weird. Like she had thought of the whole thing, and..."

He looked staggered, stepped back from me. What the hell kind of world did this asshole live in? I figured I should stop while I was ahead. "Sorry, I don't really know more. I was low man on the totem pole."

"Low man?" he said. God, he wanted to bite down again.

"You know. For the backchannel. The Institute takes money, you know. It's not like the money grows on trees."

He finally had heard too much. He said, "You're bluffing." But he wasn't sure.

"Good guess." I said, nodding. "Stick with that."

He moved out of my view a short distance, then returned with a metal chair like mine. I heard a car door slam. He put the chair down opposite me. "I cannot. Trust what. You say." he said. "I must. Torture you. Further I. Regret this. Eventuality yes. I very. Much do." His phone rang. It didn't have a ringtone, just a buzz. He looked blankly at it and opened it again. "Yes? Well, yes. Put me. Through to. Mizz Rojo's. Radio please." he said calmly. Dammit. They had found Georgina and probably Angel. "Mizz Rojo." he said.

I couldn't hear her reply. "I am. In possession. Of your. Associate." he said. "Special Agent. Howell."

I could hear the cadence of her voice on the phone but not the words. I missed her like I missed her every day since we broke up at that moment. He kept on. "I feel. We are. In a. Different hmm. Situation since. We last. Spoke do. You not. Agree?" he said. He had a smug look on his asshole face.

Whatever she said, though, it made that smug look freeze. "You only. Have Angel." he said, like he was trying to convince himself.

He covered the phone and looked at me after her reply came. "Max." he said to me.

"Min." I said to him. "I like this game." He looked sharply at the kid behind me and said, "Make his. Arm bleed." The kid seemed almost eager to rip into my sleeve and my shirt and my arm, I screamed.

"Do you. Have Max. In addition. To Angel."

"Christ." I said, swallowing. "Georgie gave Max up?"

He looked at me calmly. The poor bastard never had a chance, between Georgina and me. Then he returned to the phone. "I would. Prefer Maximum." A reply, then, "And Angel?" Whatever Georgina said then finally pissed him off enough to hang up on her. He got to his feet, he had completely forgotten about torturing me.

"Get the. Hounds ready. She is. In an. Ambulance marked. Twenty-four. C one."

"Hey." I said. "What about the torture? Don't you..."

He didn't answer me, just wrapped a bandanna around my mouth and gagged me up tight. I heard the kids get into the car - no, it was a van, and a big commercial sized one, plain, unmarked, white, I got a glimpse of it as it pulled away down the ramp of the parking garage. He wasn't going to make any kind of trade. He was going to go kill Georgina and Angel and maybe the other kids too, and then probably come back and off me. The bastard.

I felt someone pulling off my bandanna gag. "Thanks." I said.

"You're welcome." came a new voice, thankfully normal after the screwed-up voice of black coat and the teens. It sounded familiar.

He came around in front of me. It was the kid from the Narrow Place, the dark-haired one with long hair. He looked at me like I was an idiot. I was feeling a little like an idiot because Angel had told me his name and I'd forgotten what it was.

"I'm Fang." he said.

"I'm cuffed to a chair." I said. "I'm pretty sure they're my cuffs, which means my keys are in my right hand coat pocket. No, no. MY right."

"Got it." he said, fishing them out. "Where's Angel?"

"With a friend of mine, about to get ambushed and killed." I said. "You and Max and whoever else better just get to the rendezvous in Riverside Park and get moving."

"We're not leaving Angel behind." Fang said.

"Oh, you won't be." I said. "You'll be leaving a small pile of ripped flesh and broken bones behind. But you'll be alive. You don't have a gun, do you?"

"No." he said. "Guns don't really work on these people. They must have made them with a hybrid of something that was resistant to damage."

"Like a slug." I said, painedly standing up. My injuries hurt but they seemed superficial, nothing was broken. I was a bit dizzy and nauseous but I could walk. "I could see the resemblance. How did you find me?"

"We were scoping out the area near the park from the air to make sure nobody was watching or around. I saw the van come tearing out of here. I figured they must have been doing something in here, so I came to check it out."

"Well, thanks for saving me again, that's a good habit to have, saving me, I appreciate that you're developing it." I said. "Now Fang, look. What do you know about this black coat guy?"

"The last time we were here, hurt. We didn't mean to hurt him, but..." Fang's voice was soft and almost sensitive. "Anyway, the Institute must have put some sort of implant in him, put him back together. His voice is different now. It was normal before."

"Why did you come back?"

"There are kids in the Institute. Like us. We have to try to save them."

"I'm guessing going to the police didn't work."

"We've never tried it." he said. "They would just send us back."

I didn't argue. This Institute had a lot of pull.

"Did you see where the van was going?" He pointed.

"All right," I said. "Meet me at the intersection of 111th and Goldwater." He looked at me blankly. "Big red building on the left. I'll be there. Try to see if you can pick them up again."

"Oh." he said. "The red building. Okay...I have to talk to Max first."

"Right. All roads lead to Max. Go." I said, and headed for the stairwell.

At the bottom I came out and went into a phone booth. When Lennon picked up the phone, he said, "I was considering saying 'no' to collect calls from you. Where the hell are you?"

"A parking garage in the Bronx. Look." I said. "They attacked me. They're not letting up. I don't even have the kid they want anymore. I'm not clear. I can't get clear. I need backup."

"I can't give you backup." Lennon said. "They're still on you?"

"I got clear for a few minutes but I'm hurt and I don't have my phone or my gun - I'm sure they'll be able to pick me right back up if they want to."

"God dammit." Lennon said. "Worst fucking coverup I've ever heard of."

"I can't talk long." I said. "They're after Georgina."

"What are you going to do, use harsh language on them?"

"Probably." I said. "It's been working so far."

"I'll see what I can do." Lennon said. "Don't do anything stupid."

"Why didn't I think of that?" I said.

He hung up on me. I still had my picks, so I broke into a car and stole it. People should know better than to park on the street in this neighborhood anyway.

6. Closer Than It Appeared

When I was Angel's age, my papa and brothers were always working on the 1974 Charger that we had on blocks in the back yard. He would put me up in the driver's seat with my little hands barely reaching the top of the wheel. I couldn't see out, so I would yank the wheel back and forth - it wasn't even hooked to the steering column - and make noises with my mouth, I imagined I was a race car driver on a stunt track with jumps and crashes all around me, but nothing could touch me, nothing was fast as me in that busted down Charger.

I hit the gas on the ambulance harder. The thing in the side mirror was closer than it appeared. It was bigger than it looked. My eyes were so open they were going dry. Angel was screaming but everything sounded like it was underwater, I could barely hear her. The thing hit the side of the ambulance again.

Closer Than It Appeared

A FDNY ambulance is heavy, handles like shit, and the only thing going for it is a powerful, highly-tuned engine, and the best damn tires money can buy. The thing chasing us was huge, bigger than a man, bear-sized, I guess, I never saw a bear, but its eyes were huge and red, its mouth was full of drool and teeth like glistening white daggers, it was keeping pace with us without any effort at all. It just kept coming and coming. It hammered into us again, right at the rear wheel well. I jerked the wheel towards it, gunned the engine again, but the thing slid out of the way like it was on ice. It was faster than me, faster than the ambulance.

And it had a friend. Movement drew my eye up to a construction scaffolding on a building I was passing. There was another one up there, scrabbling along canvas and plywood, crashing through loose pipes and knocking over empty buckets. It ran like a wolf, was muscled like a bear and had spikes, or spiky fur, or something. And it was like nothing I ever saw. It leaped off the side of the building, over the sidewalk, over the other lane, right over the ambulance and it landed on the roof so neatly that it was hard to believe it made such a deafeaning crash.

"Hold your knees up to your chest, honey." I told Angel. Crash positions, kiddo. I kept looking back. I kept looking back. Up ahead there was a big blank concrete wall covered with rave flyers and graffiti. It angled left. I steered right. Sure enough the thing chasing me steered right. I oversteered right, the thing on the roof skidded left, its claws digging in. It was able to tear right through the steel of the roof, right through the reinforced box.

I hammered the wheel left. The thing chasing us slammed into the wheelwell. The ambulance tipped up, the back end came screeching around. We tipped over, slammed down on the side. I felt like someone had kicked me in the chest. The thing was still dug into the roof when the roof slammed against the concrete wall. The thing was, I remember the whole thing. I never blacked out, I never passed out. Like the fear was just too strong. Like the fear kept me awake. I couldn't move. My whole body hurt, every muscle was sore. The thing that had been chasing us was half under the ambulance but I could still hear it moving. The thing on the roof was chunky dip salsa, crushed between the ambulance and the concrete wall we had skidded along. I looked to the right and saw Angel hanging in the shoulder strap. Sure enough she still had her legs up to her head. Jimmy would say 'attagirl' if he were here. She couldn't move either, couldn't even cry.

I unbuckled my belt. "Hold still. It's okay, Angel. Hold still." I slipped into Spanish. Somehow I knew she still understood. My hands shook when they touched her arms, her legs. She seemed all right, bruised and battered but okay. We were both okay. "Stay right here." I said. I slowly, painfully crawled into the back of the ambulance. Sideways it seemed like an insane funhouse, cabinets open, the floor covered with tubing and bandages. I reached for my pack. It had tumbled over and over and was under a fallen neck board. I slowly pried it up.

The back door of the ambulance exploded. The door hit me hard in the face, I fell back. The thing from underneath was there, black fluid - was it blood? - splattering from a gash on its face, it screeched like a needle on a record, its claws prying the back of the ambulance open like a milk carton, the howl of steel tearing, the crack of plastic breaking, it was coming in. It was coming in. My hand scattered down among the debris on the floor. The beast lunged in but could only get one shoulder in, it backed out to thrash some more. "Nooo!" screamed Angel.

My hand closed around some needles, I brought them to my mouth and bit off the caps, moved further back. It shrieked and charged again and I buried the needles in its snout and jammed down the plungers.

In three and a half seconds the thing dropped as fucking dead as anything on Earth ever got.

Epinephrine will do that.

"Let's go." I said to Angel. "Can you move your legs? Stretch them straight out." She was good, obedient. She shook when I took her in my arms. I put my pack over my other shoulder. I slowly, painfully, crawled out the back over the thing's body. We were more than two blocks from Riverside Park still. We sat on the curb, I checked her and me out thoroughly, taped my ankle, taped her elbow.

"It doesn't hurt." she said.

"It will." I said. "You're too scared to feel it right now, your body is too excited, hold your hand out...see how we are both shaking? It's okay. We're just a little scared and shaken up. But we're going to go see Max..."

She held onto me and buried her face in my arm.

It was three in the morning and there was nobody on the street but us, no cars, nothing, and so when I heard the van coming I immediately thought - this is bad. I took Angel's hand, got unsteadily to my feet and started heading down that long blank concrete wall, past graffiti, past busted newspaper dispensers, past empty gutters, I kept my face forward, I was still shaking with the shock of the crash, Angel was too. "I don't feel good." she said, like she was about to throw up.

A white van pulled up beside us. Then in front of us, angled up on the sidewalk. The man in the black coat was driving and the back doors opened and those feral teenagers hopped out. Just like that all our running was for nothing. I put down my pack and hefted the fire axe. "Get ready to run, Angel."

"I can't." she whined. "My legs don't feel right." Shock. She was in shock.

"This is. Futile you. Must see. That hmm?" said the man in the black coat. There was an expression on his face that I couldn't read. "You have. Destroyed valuable. Property of. The Institute. Extremely. Valuable. Both specimens? Both specimens. Crushed. Poisoned. And the. Lie about. The arson? You are. In over. Your head."

"Where's Jimmy?" I said through gritted teeth. (I still don't quite get what he meant by 'the arson'.)

"Cuffed to. A chair. In a. Safe place. Where is. Max?"

"No idea." I said. "I was fucking with you."

"Bad idea." he said. He lifted his hand and his minions made a leap for me. I swung the axe but I might has well have been swinging at a Carl Hubbell screwball. They were on me, they dug in, I screamed, Angel stumbled back, she shrieked.

And somehow right across the top of all of it, I heard a voice, a teenaged girl, yelling from the girders of a construction site high above. "Hey!"

Everything froze. Who the hell was this?

Angel answered the question, screaming, "Max!" and lifting up her arms. Under her jacket her useless wings twitched and jerked.

The teenagers relaxed their grip on me just a bit. "Hold her." the man said. "Down on. The sidewalk." They obeyed so eagerly that they slammed me into the ground. The man's voice seemed to carry in the night. "Maximum you. Must understand. Your position. If you. Do not. Come down. And surrender. This nice. Person who. Helped Angel. Who helped. You will. Be painfully. Mur dered." He made it two words.

It was strange laying down flat on my back with my arms held down by razor-fingered knife-mouthed teenagers, looking high up at a thirteen year old girl with huge angel wings who held my life in her hands - a stranger, who the hell was I? Why would she lift a finger to help me? When I go running into a two-alarm with a halligan or an axe or a hose, that's for a paycheck, the people of the City of New York pay me to do that. She's a runaway, she doesn't know me from Adam.

She moved fast, lifted up those wings and dived. Was she going after me? Just going to snag Angel by her little arms and run? Give herself up? The teenagers relaxed their hands, preparing to leap.

That's when I heard Jimmy's voice. "You can't park there. That's not a reasonable place to park." The man in the black coat turned. Jimmy hit him with a tire iron.

Anyone can hit a guy with a tire iron. For it to be a classic Jimmy Howell move, though? It was probably someone else's tire iron.

7. The Obvious Plus The Snitch

The first time I saw Georgina Rojos, I was standing at the third line at Fat Frankie Dellacava's assassination. Basically when you get down to it, Fat Frankie was fucking Sal Manucci's girl, so Sal Manucci, well known as a maniac even among mob circles, got himself a can, went to the corner market, filled it with gasoline, then went to Mama's Italian Pizzeria on the Upper West Side, kicked Fat Frankie in the chest, did it again, did it again, did it until something broke, then dumped the gasoline all over him and his eggplant parmigiana and the seat and the table and set it on fire. I was out there watching the Bravest do their job, with hoses and axes, and those weird shaped crowbar tools.

My friend Eddie from the NYPD was leaning on the barricade. "See that one there?" he said. I looked at the name on the back hem of the coat. In yellow tape on black it said ROJOS.

"Yeah, what about him?" I asked.

"It's a she. And when that gear's off, she's got curves that would knock you flat on your bony Irish ass."

"Yeah?" I said.

When they let us in to the scene I went right up to her and asked her out. She asked me later how I knew she was even a woman, let alone how I knew she was so smoking fierce sexy that I would want to ask her out. I let her think I was Sherlock Holmes, that I guessed her bra size from how big her boots were and estimated the curve of her ass from the way she climbed upstairs with a hose on her shoulder.

The fact of it is, there is no Sherlock Holmes, there is no shortcut, I knew she was a knockout because my pal Eddie Velasco told me. That's the way you find out shit. The obvious plus the snitch equals the answer. So when Fang took off and left me, and I had to figure out what to do next, I thought back to all the obvious shit that I'd seen. If Black Coat Man wanted to ambush an ambulance, he had just the monsters to do it, those wolf bear spike things with the red eyes. I found a cellphone under the seat of my stolen car and called 911. I gave the nice lady my badge number and asked for animal complaints in the neighborhood. She didn't even stutter, just called it right up and read it off. "Attagirl." I said.

There were two reports of white vultures. That would be our winged kids. And there would be time to think about them later, much later.

The Obvious Plus The Snitch

Two reports of "big dogs" running wild three intersections over. If they were on Georgina's tail they would be moving fast. I needed to run a grid, find some trail. I still couldn't figure out how Black Coat Man could control those things. Or the creepy feral teenagers for that matter. Time to think about that later. I started running the grid. Look left, look right, gun the engine around the corner, look left, look right, go, in the early morning blackness where streetlights was the only light. Look left, look right, go.

I heard a crash. Oh shit. Look left. I saw the flashing red and blue lights silhouette a chainlink fence. Go. Go. I pulled in an alleyway and popped the trunk. Someone's tire iron was in there. I grabbed it and moved in as quietly as I could. Hell, I might as well have been yelling and wearing a clown suit for all that anyone cared if I was there. I saw the ambulance laying on its side and my stomach dropped. Was she hurt? Dead?

No. I saw her being held down by those feral teenagers. The Black Coat Man had moved his white van up on the sidewalk in front of the ambulance. One of the wolf monsters lay on its side, dead. Angel was at her side, terrified, her blonde curls twisted and sweaty.

The weird part was everyone was looking straight up in the sky like they were waiting for a UFO or something. It was like God wanted me to hit this guy with a tire iron. What the hell was I going to do, argue with God?

I moved in as fast as I could. My wingtips hit a chunk of gravel. One of the feral teenagers turned but it was too late. I lifted up the tire iron and said, "You can't park here. This is not a reasonable place to park." I hit him as hard as I could right in the belly and he folded like a house of cards. I heard Angel scream, "MAX!" I didn't look around. I hit him again. Something with white wings rushed over me. I never saw her. I never even saw her.

I hit him again. The teenager was in front of me with his dark eyes crazy with fear and anger, so I hit him too. He just grunted. Those claws tore right into my suit for the fourth time that night. This suit was going to be ruined. I got thrown against the van, I felt something crack in my ribs and pain went through me like a spear through my side. He lifted up his claws and Georgina put her axe through his head and half his neck. He fell over twitching. Then the two that had been diving after Angel and Max dove for her again and there was no way she...she had my gun in her bag, I saw the grip sticking out. I dove for it, rolled, god damn if I didn't grab it just like in a movie.

"STOP." said the Black Coat Man. He'd gotten his voice back. It chewed into my head. I stopped. Georgina stopped. The teenagers stopped. "You've ruined. Everything. EVERYTHING." he screamed. He grabbed my lapels. I could feel blood leaking out my ears, I collapsed, he crawled atop me, hands around my neck, I couldn't struggle, couldn't move, couldn't breathe, he kept hitting my head on the sidewalk. The gun fell out of my unmoving fingers.

He gulped for air between each breath, his eyes bulging wildly, staring, unblinking. And his voice started to come faster and faster, screaming, howling at the night in pure rage. "You FOOL. You have. No understanding. Of what. You have done. Here tonight. You don't know. You spread lies. And your whore, you've. Destroyed years of work. We had them. We had them and you helped them get away for no reason. For no reason at all. The implants they've put inside me. The Voice, yes. The one that's telling you to STOP STOP STOP, the one that's ripping your brain apart from the inside. The ones that make us immune to bullets, resistant to damage. They should have been more than enough. But every time I turn around you are there with another bullshit story. Another bullshit story - another pack of lies. About arson, there was no arson, but we had to pull security off the chase, letting the Flock get away because you couldn't do what you were told. Your whore runs over twenty million dollars in biological engineering and that's not enough, she has to pump its twin full of enough epinephrine to kill an elephant. And why? WHY? For a criminal who was your enemy? For a creature that looked like a child? Now you're both going to die, and I'm going to take my time with it because that's all I have left, that's ALL THERE IS, everything else is wrecked, everything else is gone, you're disavowed, she's missing presumed dead, nobody will ever mourn you, Howell, NOBODY will ever care that you are gone, and eventually everything you did here tonight will be for nothing. All your lies, you thought they'd be a match for us? You thought you could stop us just by talking shit? Fuck you! Fuck you, Howell, we WILL catch them and..."

THUNK. What the hell was that? Black Coat Man looked up. His face slowly fell into an expression of disbelief.

"Why don't we all just take a deep breath?" said a voice. I'd never been so happy to hear it.

"Who the. Hell are. You?" said the Black Coat Man.

"John Lennon." said the voice. "FBI. No relation to that Commie prick. Sorry I had to break your headlight. You looked pretty excited and weren't really paying attention. Let my man breathe and get your phone out. You need to make a call to your boss at the Institute."

"I don't have anything to say to him." said the Black Coat Man, slowly getting up. I still couldn't move.

"I do." said Lennon. "Now let my man get up. He'll behave."

"No." said Black Coat Man.

"Suit yourself. Let's see that phone."

Black Coat Man stood a long time and then slowly got his phone out. He pressed a speed dial button. "Yes. Yes I. Yes he." He looked up where Lennon was. "He's here."

"Put them on speakerphone. Everyone needs to hear this so everyone knows where they stand. That little phone's got a speaker, right?"

Black Coat Man said nothing, just pressed a button and held the phone out in his pale white hand.

"You hearing me okay?" Lennon said.

"I hear you." The voice was electronically distorted.

"Here's the news." Lennon said. "You may have pull, you may be able to get my man off the case, but you have to back off him so he can get out."

"He had possession of property that belonged to us."

"Property? Bullshit, her name was Angel!" cried Georgina.

"Ms. Rojos, you are in serious trouble." Lennon said. "I advise you to keep your mouth shut." He turned back to the phone. "Let me tell you what's going to happen. This is not a negotiation. This is what's going to happen. Your man is going to let Ms. Rojos and Special Agent Howell go. He will be suspended for disobeying my order to get off the case. There will be no further discipline. He will not proceed any further against your Institute, or your man. He does not have possession of any of your property at this time. He does not have any information regarding the location of your property at this time. We will part ways here. The Bureau will handle cleaning up the ambulance wreck and the crime scenes. Your man can haul away the corpses of the...uh...wolf things."

"WHAT?" said the voice on the phone. "The hunter units are deceased?"

"Dead as disco. Let's get back to the subject." said Lennon. "Now, you may think that the fact that Special Agent Howell and Ms. Rojos no longer have the child or the information means that they have no leverage and you can take them out with impunity. Permit me to disabuse you of that potential notion. Sir, can you please turn your phone around and take a picture of this?"

Lennon held it over my face where I could see it. A plastic evidence bag with a white feather in it. A long white slender feather. Black Coat Man looked dazed, trapped. He did what he was told. "This feather," Lennon said, "was recovered at the scene of the death of Michael C. 'Skinny Mike' McRay, a known organized crime figure under the surveillance of my unit in the Organized Crime Division. The FBI medical examiner will report that Skinny Mike died accidentally. There are still wild dogs in New York City. He may have been overcome by fumes from drug use and unable to resist when the dogs attacked. There would be no need for us to process this feather. However, in accordance with regulations, we would keep this feather in an evidence locker, in case new evidence surfaced showing that Skinny Mike's death was not an accident. That someone directed those dogs. Or that they weren't dogs. What form would such evidence take? Well, if someone attempted to kill Special Agent Howell, who was the surveillance officer assigned to Skinny Mike. If someone attempted to kidnap, intimidate or harass his ex-girlfriend Ms. Rojos, for the purposes of obtaining leverage over him. Then Skinny Mike's death would be back on the table, and we would have to process this piece of evidence. Naturally we would send it to a geneticist to have it gene-typed. And if they discovered anything unusual about it, they would have to prepare a report. Testify in open court about it. Discuss it with their colleagues. Now, I don't know if there's anything about this feather that you don't want the world to know, DNA wise. I'm no scientist. I'm just telling you that if you don't want the feather to be tested...and the blood at Ms. Rojos's apartment...and the collected from the bite marks on Skinny Mike's body...then you should go to church this Sunday and every Sunday and pray that Special Agent Howell and Ms. Rojos live long, happy, healthy, and quiet lives."

Black Coat Man was almost quivering when Lennon was done.

"I appreciate your offer..." said the voice on the phone.

"It's not an offer, it's a done deal. It's done." Lennon said. "We're done here except for you giving your man the order to cooperate."

"Do you believe that Special Agent Howell will cooperate with you?"

"It's a done deal." said Lennon. "He sees how it is just as much as you do. This deal only works if the two of you stay away from each other. You wanted the Bureau off your back. Well we want you off ours. Let's make it mutual."

"And Ms. Rojos?"

"Ms. Rojos is already facing far more serious career problems - stealing an ambulance, wrecking it, lying to her superior officers...she'll cooperate just to get us to cover it up."

"Very well. Open the phone and let me talk privately."

The Black Coat Man obeyed. Before I knew it, I could move. The monsters were hauled up off the street into the back of the van. Black Coat Man was giving me a dirty look. The two remaining feral teenagers were getting shaking with uncontrolled adrenaline and hate. The van's headlights bounced when it came down off the curb. Georgina flipped him off as he drove for the Park.

"It's over?" she said. "Just like that?"

"What the fuck's wrong with you, are you stupid?" Lennon said. "Of course it's not over."

8. It's Not Over

I hadn't heard much after Jimmy's boss started talking about how much trouble I was in. That was definitely true. Wrecking an ambulance would land you in a desk job downtown at best. But then they started to let me up. The asshole in black glared at me as he and his two remaining thugs drove off. I flipped him off, although I was still shaken up, and sore, and Angel was gone, and the van was headed for Riverside Park, which is where the kids were supposed to be hiding. "It's over?" I said. "Just like that?"

"What the fuck's wrong with you, are you stupid?" Lennon said. "Of course it's not over."

It's Not Over

Jimmy was looking at me like I was a little crazy too. "Okay, okay." I said. "Is someone going to let me in on the fucking secret?"

Lennon was talking into his two way. "Unit one, do you have visual?" He moved away from us.

Jimmy said, "Look, Lennon is just being a dick. But the basic rule is, you say whatever you need to say to defuse the situation and rescue the hostage. The Bureau will be collecting all this shit as evidence."

Lennon came back. "The van's in the park. They don't seem to know what part to head to."

I blinked. "Joan of Arc. Angel said they'd meet at Joan of Arc." I said. "Come on!" I grabbed my pack.

The three of us climbed a rusted-out fire escape. Lennon was puffing when he got up to the top. "I'm an old man." he said.

"You just busted a bad guy's headlight and kicked his ass, literally, with a feather." Jimmy pointed out. I had my binoculars out. I searched, searched...there she was. Joan of Arc, with her sword lifted up in the early morning dawn. My breath caught.

"Oh my god." I said. I passed the binoculars to Jimmy. "Holy shit." he said. He passed the binoculars to Lennon. Lennon didn't say shit.

Through the binoculars I could see a half dozen of them. Angel was the youngest but there were eight year olds, ten year olds, boys, girls, all with huge, white feathered wings, beating at the morning air, heaving, wild, zooming upwards impossibly fast, arcing up over the island like a cannon shot, headed east into the dawn, over the ocean. Nobody would follow them in a van there, that was for certain.

Lennon leaned on the railing. "Okay. Listen. Howell. Rojos." he said. "Part of what I said to that asshole was true. We are going to bury a lot of this. We can't touch these Institute guys, not right away. We are going to have to get some wiretaps started. Trace some money. Follow some people. Dig up some dirt and roll up some snitches. Amass evidence. Build a case. They fucked with the Bureau and that can't be permitted. But we can't do anything right away. It goes too high."

"My apartment's wrecked." I said suddenly, I had no idea why.

"You can stay at my place." Jimmy said. I gave him a look that must have spooked him, he said, "You can sleep on the couch."

"I'll tell you where I'm going to sleep when I'm good and ready, Jimmy." I said.

"The evidence guys are already at your place. The Bureau will replace everything." Lennon said, studiously ignoring us. "Christ. Kids with wings. You want to tell me what the hell happened, Howell?"

Jimmy had his arm around my waist and I didn't much mind. We all three looked east as hard as we could, and didn't see anything. Jimmy said, "You want the long version or the short version?" he said.

"The short version." Lennon said. "I'm an old man, I don't have time for your long bullshit stories."

"Some men made some kids with wings, and they wanted to keep them as property. The kids got away and the men sent other things to chase them. Then, they all came to New York." Jimmy said.

Lennon looked over as if to say 'that's it?'

Jimmy said, "What? You think this could have happened in another city?"

None of us did.