I pulled up the location for Ruby’s meet-up address on my tablet. I took the time to memorize the directions, not wanting to split my focus as I walked. It was only an eight minute walk from the library to the address in the letter. While I walked, the living shadow played a melody in my mind. It pulled sounds from the city streets and turned them into instruments. The song didn’t feel like a distraction. I was still aware of my surroundings. Instead, the shadow song heightened my awareness of things growing closer and passing me by. Before I knew it I was standing outside a restaurant called Hamburger Mary’s. The exterior did little to prepare me for the blast of color of the interior. Hot pink and electric blue filled my vision as I took in the scene. Ruby was sitting in a booth facing the empty stage. Suspended televisions played music videos all around the restaurant.
I pointed at Ruby and the host nodded, letting me walk to the table without comment. She‘d already ordered something round and deep fried. Surprise lit her face when I stepped up to the table. I guess she didn’t expect me to show up. I still wasn’t certain that it was the right decision. She’d given me one hell of an offer with her care package. It was proof positive of what she had to offer me but I’d done nothing to prove my worth. She was taking it on faith that I could help her. If her perception of me was formed completely on that file she’d shown me, she could want me to kill someone for her. It had called me an assassin. While I’d killed Vincent and didn’t mind the idea of hurting the hunters that were coming after me, I didn’t want to think of myself as being that cold-blooded. If she wanted a killer she was looking at the wrong witch. I slid into my side of the booth. The waiter came to drop a margarita off to her.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” he asked me.
“Just a water,” I said.
“I’ll be right back with that.” He left us alone.
“Your idea of a safe meeting place is a drag queen themed dinner?” I asked Ruby.
“Would you have thought to look here for a rogue assassin or a valuable hacker?” she asked. When she put it like that I couldn’t fault her. Those descriptions made it sound like we belonged in the criminal underground. Someone would be looking for us back at that market before they checked a restaurant like this.
“I‘m not familiar enough with the area to know where to look.” Even if what I said was true, I could have agreed with her. I needed to know her better if I was going to agree to work with her. That didn’t mean reading a bunch of statistics about her. A life on the run isn’t easy. She had the possibility to make it more comfortable but that didn’t mean we wouldn’t face any adversity. I didn’t know if she’d be able to handle that?
“You’re the sort of person who likes to argue, aren’t you?” she asked.
“It depends on the topic,” I said with a smile.
“The waiter’s coming back. You should get something. It’s gotta be better than the fast food you grabbed on your way to the library,” she said.
“Are you two ready to order?” the waiter asked, setting my water down in front of me.
“I’ll have the ‘yolk’s on you’ burger. Medium well please with fries,” Ruby said.
“I’ll take the ‘black jack’ medium with fries,” I said.
“Great, I’ll have that out in a few,” the waiter said.
“How long have you been watching my movements?” I asked once the waiter was out of hearing range.
“Not long. It’s not hard for me to find things out if there’s any kind of electronic trail,” she said. I knew from other people’s reactions in the marketplace that she’d been here for long enough to gain respect. I didn’t even know I was coming to Orlando until I was running. Either she had very good timing or she had a touch of precognition in her wheelhouse.
“Why me? There have to be plenty of people here that you can work with,” I said.
“I’m not much of a fighter. There’s this guy who wants to recruit me,” she said.
“No. Someone much scarier than a government agent in over his head. Have you ever met a witch with the power of compulsion?” she asked. She dropped her voice a little and I saw the worry on her face. I might have scared her a little when I threatened her at our previous meeting but whoever she was talking about now terrified her.
“Yes. Temperance Alessandra. She leads the Coven,” I said.
“Right so you know better than most how to handle this shit,” she said. Compulsion was a rare gift, rarer still were witches who can do more than get out of parking tickets with it. If she was running from someone with even close to Temperance’s strength it was amazing she’d gotten away in the first place. I’d run without going back for any of my things because there was no escape once Coven Leader Alessandra got to you.
“There isn’t any handling it. There’s just running. You run or you die,” I said.
“Or you become a helpless meat puppet,” she added.
“Where is the witch you’re running from?” I asked.
“He’s based in Las Vegas.”
“Is he coming for you himself?”
“Not so far,” she said.
“So you thought you’d hire me to kill him for you?”
“No! I’d never send you anywhere near him. He’s dangerous enough on his own. I don’t want to think about what he would do with your power,” she said.
“Then what are you expecting from me?” I asked.
“I get that you’re not an assassin. But you are a fighter. With your skills for combat magic and my technomancy we could keep all of our enemies off our backs.”
“Why not go to the Coven with this? They’d shelter you. Whoever this guy is he doesn’t have the strength to take them on or he’d have tried by now,” I said. That or they’d send someone to deal with him.
“They’re not exactly warm and fuzzy either. I just want to be free to live my life. Going to them would mean giving up freedom in a different way.”
The waiter brought our burgers to the table. We politely declined his offer to get us anything else. Ruby’s situation was closer to my own than I’d imagined. Even if this witch wasn’t on the Coven’s level, he scared her enough to inspire horror when she talked about him. I couldn’t ignore that. Adding another powerful enemy to my list wasn’t the smartest idea. I didn’t know that I could leave Ruby to her fate and still consider myself a decent person though. Abandoning her now, was too cold. That’s probably the level of heartlessness Vincent wanted to cultivate in me. Maybe she was right and our combined skill sets would give us the freedom we both wanted. I couldn’t know that for sure. But I knew that she needed help. And I was lonely. Taking her with me didn’t feel like dooming her to a life of danger like it would have for anyone else. I knew before our waiter was back to the kitchen that Ruby and I were leaving this restaurant together.