Chapter 7: Hold UpBy the time I got home, I was too exhausted from watching my back and jumping at shadows, not to mention the whole nearly-dying bit, to do anything besides collapse into bed. Adrenaline had worn off long ago, leaving me to sleep like-- well, not like a log, because logs don't wake up at three A.M. and panic about whether or not they set their alarms before going back to sleep. But I didn't notice when Uhjin stumbled in, dragging her suitcase and bumping into things in the dark, and I wouldn't have noticed if Welsh had sent goons over that very night to break in and kidnap me.
Thankfully, he didn't, and my alarm the next morning slid me back into my normal routine. Maybe I should've been more shaken up, but near-death experience or not, I had to work if I wanted to eat, let alone take on a superpowered murder. In fact, back in the everyday realm of sunshine and stocking yarn and embroidery thread, the memory of the previous night took on a surreal tone, as if the whole thing might've just been an especially realistic dream.
But I knew it hadn't been a dream, or even a nightmare. My broken violin strings told me that much. And it could easily happen again if I kept up the hunt.
Next time, I might not get away so easily.
I tried not to think about that fact, but it loomed in my mind anyway. It wasn't that the danger itself scared me, exactly. I'd had close calls before when I ran to interfere with a Death Song or happened upon some other crime. So, while I wasn't as cool and collected as a real superhero might be in the same situation, I didn't exactly turn to jelly either. But facing Welsh was something else entirely. Never had I been so defenseless as when I knelt on the pavement before him. With only a few words, he'd put me at his mercy, precious little of it he had. That scared as much as dying did, really.
I knew that if I kept on with my search, I ran the risk that I would have to face him again. Is it worth it? The question niggled in the back of my mind as I sorted yarn into wire bins and as I wearily explained the difference between a violin and a viola and a cello to an uninterested middle school kid and his parents and as I reheated chicken and rice for dinner and on through the night.
I didn't have an answer. The thought of facing Welsh's power again made my stomach twist and my throat tighten so I could barely breathe, let alone sing. But my parents didn't raise their kids to quit just because they were scared, and besides, how could I give up now, just when I had a hope of success?
So I shoved the question to the dustiest corner of my mind and got on with my life. Tuesday evening, as usual, found me at the cafe, tuning my guitar in preparation for my performance. The crowd wasn't huge, but it was better than I'd had the last few weeks. I wasn't complaining.
After the freedom of busking only a few days ago, the cafe setting felt stifling. Outside, people would accept a bit of magic; they could enjoy it even as they explained it away. Indoors, I had to be careful. Even the slightest step too far from the ordinary could make my audience ask questions. And now, with the knowledge that Welsh might have people watching for me, I couldn't take the risk that someone might connect me with anything out of the ordinary.
So I played original songs, and I played classics, and I played a few covers, and the whole time I played it safe as I could. I stayed far away from my favorites, most of which wound multiple other songs together in one, and I suppressed every shred of power in the tunes I did play, occasionally going so far as to slightly botch a note when I felt like things were about to get out of hand.
Naturally, something did anyway. But at least it wasn’t my fault.
I was nearly done with my set, strumming the chorus of “Time Tomorrow,” one of my own songs, when the three walked in: two guys and a girl, all three dressed in black and denim and leather, the guys unshaven, the girl scowling around the ball piercing in her lip, all walking like they wanted trouble. They strode up to the counter, shoulder-to-shoulder, while I focused on tamping down the effects of the melody of light woven into my song.
There must’ve been some kind of exchange between them and the counter girl. I don’t know; I didn’t hear it. But the next moment, the man in the middle of the three pulled a gun and pointed it at the counter girl’s head. He shouted over my music: “Everybody down! Everybody down or I shoot!”
Several people screamed. Chairs fell over as people scrambled to obey or, in a few cases, ran for the door. The gunman turned, trained his gun on the door. “I said everybody down! Not you, sweetheart,” he added over his shoulder. “You empty the cash register, and do it quick.”
I slid to the ground, carefully setting my guitar to the side, propping my upper body up on my forearms so I could see what was going on. I should do something. I should stop this. By now, even the runners had hit the floor. The only people still standing were the robbers and the counter girl.
The girl lifted her hands, looking the robber straight in the face. “You don’t have to do this. There are better options, you know.” She sounded calm, tired, even a bit exasperated. Not intimidated. Interesting.
“I didn’t ask you for your opinion, girl,” the lead robber growled, turning to face her again, “just your cooperation. Get the register open before I put a bullet through you.” To his female companion, he added, “Grab what you can from the customers. Be quick.”
The female robber nodded once and stalked towards the nearest table. She dumped out the lady’s purse; rifled through the contents until she found the wallet; moved on. The second man pulled out a gun to cover the room. Not that anyone was about to move. A few small children cried; others asked their parents in high-pitched voices what was going on and when the superheroes were going to show up. The adults all stayed frozen in place, many probably wondering the same thing as the kids.
Good question. I gripped the neck of my guitar. I didn’t like the odds of a regular super showing up, not in this part of town where no one really expected trouble. The counter probably had a panic button, and I guessed the counter girl had pressed it, seeing as she was still trying to talk the robbers down and stall for time, even as she fumbled open the register. But who knew how long it would take them to get here?
That left me. But could I risk it? This wasn’t a murder. Wasn’t a bank robbery. No one would die here, most likely, even if I stayed quiet. If I acted, if anyone noticed it was me acting, I’d be exposed. Whether or not Welsh was watching, that would be bad news.
But I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. It felt wrong. Maybe someone’s life wasn’t at stake, but someone’s livelihood might be. I just had to be careful, that was all. Careful and quiet. And— I glanced up; the counter girl was finally sliding money into the robbers’ bag, and the female robber was nearly a quarter of the way through the café— fast.
No more time for hesitation. Now was time to act.