Truth be told, Robert could’ve escaped at any time. Tricked out the monitors and disappeared, avoiding detection from authorities high and low for as long as necessary. But he’d waited until he heard the gunfire and screams outside his door.
He couldn’t just plug his ears and sit still. Not in a cramped studio apartment. A bullet could easily come through the door and bite him. He instead waited until his instincts told him it was safe to stand a couple of feet behind it. He then shifted his vision down the electromagnetic spectrum, into the range of x-rays. The door shimmered until it was as translucent as onionskin. There was nothing on the other side. And his ears told him the ruckus had moved several feet down the hall. He was out of danger, but others weren’t.
The police may’ve been on their way. It was always a coin toss in this neighborhood. But Robert knew a surefire way to get them there in a hurry, with a fed or two in tow.
He concentrated, bending the light around his body, making himself invisible to any normal man or woman. The shooter may’ve been down the hall, but he probably wouldn’t mind firing a bullet or two in the direction of a nosy neighbor.
Robert opened his door, making a gap just wide enough to stick his head out. He didn’t see anyone. He did see another open apartment door, two down on his left. Several objects were scattered on the floor outside it. An iron, a ripped peach-colored blouse, and three of its popped-off buttons. He adjusted his vision again and saw a few small spots of blood.
Robert knew the young woman who lived there. An attractive twenty-four-year-old Salvadorian who worked at the McDonald’s inside the nearest Wal-Mart. He also knew the types of vermin she ran around with.
He pieced together what had probably happened based on the sounds he’d heard. Her non-English-speaking boyfriend had somehow gotten into the building, determined to confront her about her alleged affairs. They were always arguing, and she was often in the hall on her cell complaining to her friends about it, loudly. Robert wasn’t fluent in the language, but from what he could tell, her boyfriend’s anger wasn’t based only on the fact she could speak some English but also on the fact she worked at a job that brought her into face-to-face contact with a wide variety of men, some with more than one type of hunger. The boyfriend couldn’t watch her 24-7, so he just knew she had to be screwing around on him. Robert figured she probably was. He’d seen plenty of young bucks going in and out of her apartment at all hours of the night. Today she’d refused to let her nearest and dearest inside. She’d opened the door for him, though, and they’d engaged in their latest-and-greatest argument in the doorway. The boyfriend may’ve tried to force his way into the apartment. She’d threatened him with the iron, maybe even thrown it before trying to get past him. He’d grabbed her by the blouse and probably smacked her up a bit. She had somehow gotten free and run down the hall as he’d pulled his gun and fired. He’d missed but chased after her.
And she wasn’t dead yet.
Robert could still hear the boyfriend yelling at her. Best guess: the girl must’ve taken refuge in a friend’s apartment in one of the adjoining halls.
Robert locked his door behind him. It was the first time in almost two weeks he’d been outside his apartment. He was still under house arrest—or “monitored suspension” as the chairman had called it—and he was supposed to be for another few days. Now that he’d stepped over the threshold, the ankle bracelets, wrist monitors, and collar would send a signal that’d have the badges there in a flash. But someone could get shot in even less time.
He didn’t really know the woman, had only said “hello” in passing to her, and had no real desire to get to know her at all—but he definitely didn’t want to see her killed. He also liked the neighbors with whom he bothered to make small talk. Most of them were young married couples with very young kids. If any of them were to get shot accidentally…
Robert turned a corner and saw the gunman. He was dressed as if he’d woken up naked in a ditch and had found his clothes lying in the middle of the Beltway after rush hour. He was holding a Glock. Model 19. A favorite among cops. And gangbangers. It was also one of many items envied and unowned by law-abiding citizens, who in this day and age constantly felt the urge and need to defend themselves and their families.
There was a small chance the asshole was affiliated with the MS-13, the vicious Salvadorian gang. Not that it mattered at the moment. Whether skilled in the art of killing or just a wannabe thug, the punk was alone today, yelling at a closed door. He’d already put a couple of bullet holes in it. Probably kicked it a few times, too. Robert could hear screaming and at least one child crying on the other side. He couldn’t see exactly who was in danger. And the thug couldn’t see the still-invisible Robert.
Robert took slow steps forward as he squinted at the hand holding the gun and concentrated. He’d had plenty of practice over the past couple of years, but it was still difficult using more than one parasite-given talent at once. He did his best to stay unseen as he directed a stream of infrared radiation at the guy’s hand, trying to heat up the skin till it felt like it was on fire. Robert was hoping he’d drop the gun, at least long enough for him to run and make a tackle.
No such luck.
The punk-ass must’ve been used to pain. Must’ve been a gangbanger after all, one who’d survived some serious hazing to get in good with his boys. He just yelled as he was being burned, got more pissed off, and fired twice more at the door.
There was screaming and pleading and crying from inside the apartment and a heated, determined, and armed thug outside it. And Robert—invisible, unarmed, and nothing close to bulletproof.
Shit. It was time to see if he could dodge bullets.
Robert knew appearing out of thin air may or may not scare the guy, and it would definitely increase his chances of getting shot at. But, one way or the other, he was going to have to give the thug something to shoot at, something besides the frightened folks behind door number one.
He concentrated again, pulling all visible light from within a reasonable reach of his intuitional strength and willpower into a tighter radius around his body.
The thug’s tone of voice shifted from anger to excited shock as the hallway got darker. The tone shifted again when he turned and saw where the light was gathering. He went silent as Robert translated himself from an invisible man into a faceless seven-foot-tall thing-on-fire. Bright-red and dark-blue fire. The flames weren’t real, but Robert damn sure hoped they were intimidating.
The retracted light left darkness in its place, making the illusory fire engulfing Robert all the more prominent as he quickened his pace and shouted, “Drop it!”
He figured most people, whatever their backgrounds, would either obey the command or turn and run if they saw a living, shouting pillar of fire approaching them. But this thug was just as hardened as Robert had feared. He raised his gun and fired.
Thank fortune Robert’s illusion-cloaked body appeared not only much taller than it really was but also much wider than his thirty-four-inch-waist frame. The three bullets went over and around him before the thug lost his nerve and turned to retreat. Robert broke into a sprint.
He leaped when close enough and tackled the shooter, shifting his weight and positioning his body so the thug would stay down and the arm with the gun remained flat and pointed forward.
The guy was muscular; he was also feeding off rage, which made him even stronger, harder to control. But three years of high school wrestling and three additional years of IAI training gave Robert the advantage. This bastard wasn’t going anywhere.
Others, unfortunately, just wouldn’t stay put.
Robert saw a door open on the right-hand side of the hall in front of them. Someone stepped halfway out.
“Get back inside—now!”
The old man wasn’t sure whether he wanted to follow Robert’s command. Maybe he didn’t speak English. Or maybe he didn’t see the gun. Or maybe he was just fascinated with the light show Robert was putting on as he wrestled with the guy under him.
The thug still had a firm grip on his Glock, and he could easily pull the trigger, accidentally or purposely hitting the old man. It could happen any second. Robert had to act.
He’d heard about a certain mind-to-mind trick from some of his fellow Watcher agents. He’d never thought to try it before, but now was as good a time as any.
He looked at the old man’s eyes and concentrated, imagining a human skull. A skull that talked. A skull that warned the man if he didn’t get back inside and away from the door, his soul might soon join the skull in Hell.
This was a much different way of manipulating light than Robert was used to. He rarely did anything with his eye but study objects or burn skin. He preferred to use his hands to cast images, but they were busy at the moment. And the parasites in his skin and blood were also in his eye; he didn’t need his fingers to exercise his abilities. With enough concentration, he could look and cast the intended image, not in front of the old man’s face but into one of his eyes, into his mind. Make it seem too real. The words were another matter. Without speaking them, Robert wasn’t sure how to transmit them, how to make it seem as if they were truly coming from the image. His fellow agents had told him all he needed to do was recite the words in his head, like a chant, while maintaining the visual link with his target. Mind reading he’d heard of; this was more like mind speaking. Robert thought it was all pretty much bullshit. He’d read up on the false science and low art of Mentalism as part of his training. He’d always thought it a waste of precious time.
But it worked.
Or maybe the old man got scared by something else. Or maybe his phone was ringing. Whatever, he retreated back into his apartment, behind a locked door. A success was a success. Robert would take whatever he could get.
He then heard another door open behind him. The door that had been putting a damper on the sounds of screaming and crying. Now the sounds were louder. The previous targets of the threats and gunfire were making themselves accessible.
Since they were behind him, Robert couldn’t try the same trick to coerce them back inside. He couldn’t even see them. Were they just peeping out around the door frame, or were they coming out into the hall? And if someone was coming, then who? The girlfriend? Was she armed? Was she alone, or did she have a kid with her? Would she—or they—try to attack the boyfriend now that he was (sort of) subdued? Would they try to take out Robert to get to him?
There were too many noises for Robert to try to sort and form a coherent picture. And he didn’t have time to mull possibilities and probabilities. He had time only to act, to make one big move to ensure his and everyone else’s safety.
He scrambled and positioned his body so that his hips and the distribution of most of his weight were on the small of the punk’s back. He jammed his left elbow into the guy’s right ear, forcing his eyes away from the gun in his right hand, and grabbed his wrist with both hands. Robert could’ve easily broken it, but he instead applied pressure, cutting off the blood flow as he ran an electromagnetic current through the guy’s skin, connecting with his ulnar nerve.
This was one trick he’d perfected long ago. In a matter of seconds, the punk would lose control of the hand. It would feel numb, then dead. There’d be no way for him to make a fist, let alone pull a trigger. There was a small chance of a spasm, but fortunately the trigger finger was outside the trigger guard. Robert was able to quickly get the hand off the gun and use the frozen limb to push it a few inches out of reach.
He thought about applying more pressure and breaking the wrist or maybe shifting his body and breaking the thug’s neck with his elbow. But, no, that wouldn’t help anyone.
Robert stopped the light show and appeared, not as a creature on fire, but mostly as himself: a twenty-year-old black guy in charcoal sneakers, blue jeans, and a black T-shirt. He continued to manipulate the light around his head in order to blur his facial features. No need for the people he heard behind him to recognize him as a neighbor.
He still couldn’t see them, but they were close. Probably close enough to lunge for him if, for some godforsaken reason, they actually sided with the gangbanger and saw Robert as the real aggressor. In a hostile situation, never stay put.
Robert scrambled off the guy and grabbed the gun. He came up to his feet and spun around.
He saw the girlfriend and another girl. But they were of little concern to him.
Robert’s attention immediately went to the two cops at the far end of the hall as they drew their weapons.
They didn’t even bother to say “freeze.”