Sometimes I’ve wondered what it would be like to be good.
I smirked. Such a strange time to be considering a paradigm shift. I stared at the selection of cake displayed in the window. Should I choose red or orange filling? One slice had been removed from each cake to reveal the moist, colorful fluff inside. All were sweet, but in a different way.
The sun eased below the horizon, lighting the edge of the stone walls afire. Lengthy shadows stretched and wavered with the effort it took to cover the megacity. Somewhere out there, in one of the Esteemed cities, my assassin was preparing to murder the Grand Counselor.
Instead of the pleasure that usually accompanied a plan well executed (pun intended), a big emptiness sat where an emotion should be. I frowned, absentmindedly tapping the window to the rhythm of my thoughts. Perhaps I should have brought one of my bodyguards along. At least I’d have had someone to congratulate me for my efforts.
Granted, they rarely replied unless I ordered them to, and a forced compliment was no compliment at all.
I yawned and watched the city behind me in the glass reflection. The cobbled streets were vacant, usual for this time of night. Families would be inside for the evening meal, and the more daring characters kept to the inside of the city, not near the walls.
Except for me, of course. I stretched. Solitude was nice. No bustle filled the market streets, no vendors babbled about their wares, no assassins from rival gangs—
A gentle but sharp chill gripped the back of my neck like the teeth of a mother cat carrying her young. I focused on the cakes. Someone stood behind me. An assassin? No, they couldn’t know I was here.
I dropped my shoulders. It probably was nothing. I straightened my jacket and waited for the person to join me in contemplating the pastries. Perhaps the newcomer was a fairy, or at least a troll. I would have enjoyed some polite dialogue right about—
The steel of a blaster touched the back of my head, and I stiffened. Blazing unicorns—
“I never wanted to kill you,” he whispered.
I adjusted my focus, studying his reflection. Black hair drooped sadly over his forehead, and a ring of dark circles shadowed his eyes like a mask. A sudden nausea that never plagued me when my bodyguards were nearby melted my insides into saturated mush.
“Uh … Cameron! It’s been a while!” I said. By the love of the mother of pearl, how did he discover I was here?
“You knew I’d come.”
I thought I dropped you off the edge of a building in New Aris. Or was that in New Renwire? I can’t remember. I blinked. I am a moron. I should have heard him approaching. Or felt his presence with whatever sixth sense evildoers supposedly possess that warns them the hero is near.
Cameron moved and fear spiked my bloodstream, setting me back on track. “Of course I did.” I cleared my throat. “I’d rather you leave me alone. I’m on break from being evil.” I raised my chin and motioned toward the cake. “What flavor, red or orange?”
“Green. Now, where is it?”
I frowned. I detested green. “Where’s what?” He was probably referring to something from work, but I prided myself in being a person who forgot about work once I left. I couldn’t constantly keep up with taking over the Seven Locales. I deserved to act normal occasionally, thank you very much.
I screwed up my face. “A containment unit? I could take you to one—”
Cameron grabbed the back of my collar and slammed me against the glass, crushing my face. Pain shot through my nose. All I could see from my vantage point was a considerably large, green cake.
Oh, that had to be purposeful.
Then he released me almost as quickly as he’d attacked. I fixed my collar and blinked a few times, willing the stinging sensation to depart.
“The … the Renwater Cell.” Cameron shifted, regaining control of himself. “I received intel that you were personally involved with this branch of the radical group.” His breath brushed the top of my ear. Not my whole ear, mind you. Cameron was a bit taller than me. My rivals always jeered at my shortness. Most of them lay at the bottom of Sheolas River.
I scowled. “This isn’t characteristic of you. Why so rude? I miss the traditional good guy, who had—”
Cameron tensed like he was going to knock me against the glass again, but he didn’t. “You’re making this harder than it has to be.”
“You should let the Task Force handle this.”
“They can’t stop you. You made it personal.”
“Correction, it was made personal. Note the passive voice I used to avoid responsibility. I didn’t make it personal, my boss did,” I said.
“You are your own boss.”
I tried to turn around, but Cameron pushed me against the glass. Though I struggled, he didn’t budge. All the unused exercise equipment sitting in my manor flashed before my eyes. “No, I left him at work.”
With more exertion than it should have required, I shoved him off and spun around. His blaster hovered an inch from my forehead like it lived there. I struggled to pull my sword from its home by my side. I should have enrolled in those classes on weaponry, but I had minions. Personal training had been unnecessary. Until now.
Cameron shook his head. “Stop.”
I crossed my arms and threw back my shoulders. I obviously couldn’t match Cameron physically. Or in any basic skill associated with self-defense. What now? “Look, all I want is some cake.”
Cameron’s gaze dropped like it was weighted. “And I want my intended back,” he mumbled.
I huffed. “That’s impossible. She’s dead.”
Cameron dipped his chin and his whole face darkened. Oh dear. Sensitive issue, especially since I’d sorta ordered her death. Cameron’s fists tightened as if he were imagining them around my neck.
“I think we need to calm down.” I raised my hands, palms outward.
“Tell me. Now.” Cameron thrust the blaster against my chest and I leaned back, pressing against the window. His eyes were focused, determined. I glanced down the empty road. When would the Task Force arrive? I gulped. I had no idea which cell he was after. At least seventeen Renwater groups inhabited the southern sector of the city alone.
“There are numerous radical groups in every city. One won’t help you win.”
“That’s what you say.”
Fine. Be hopelessly stubborn. “Um … I’ll describe where it is if you …” If he what? Handed me his blaster and closed his eyes? “Tell me my name.”
Cameron stilled. I grimaced. That was the best I could come up with? I could handle the multifaceted nature of the power struggle, but couldn’t save my own life? Of course Cameron knew my name! Inwardly I cursed my mother.
Cameron’s face flushed. “It’s … uh … your name doesn’t apply to this situation.”
“Ouch!” What kind of hero wouldn’t know the name of his arch-nemesis? “I’m human just like you. I deserve to have a name.” I relaxed a little. I was saved by the fact that no one cared about my name. Oooh, that did hurt. I frowned. “Come now, say my name and I’ll give you every cell location on your list.”
“You’re right. I only know half the locations.” Or a fourth. Or one. I waved the question away. “But that’s not important. Tell me my name.”
Cameron stepped closer. “Tell me where the cell is. I will kill you, though I’d rather not.”
I rolled my eyes, hoping he didn’t notice how my legs shook like a personal earthquake. “Of course you want to kill me. What’s my name?”
Cameron hesitated. “Jason.”
“Wrong. Try again.”
“This is pointless.”
“I’m deeply offended.” I pressed a hand to my heart. “I suppose you will never learn where the cell is.”
Cameron glared, probably wondering if I was serious. I slumped, pretending to look ready to die. Play the game. Don’t kill me. “If you really need the cell’s location, you could buy me cake.”
Cameron gawked at me.
“It’s easier to make war than peace, isn’t it?” I said. Cameron’s face might as well have been carved into the nearby wall. “You seek revenge. I want cake. It’s a win-win. We both get something unhealthy.”
Cameron remained silent, and I almost wondered if he’d lost his tongue. “Cameron?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Not revenge.” He tilted his head. “Why would you do this? All your plans …”
I heaved a sigh. “I’m tired of people attempting to kill me whenever I step out my door. Even villains need a vacation from … villainy.”
“I can’t let you go free after this.”
I rolled my eyes. You wish. Renwater will be waiting, my hero. “Stop being dramatic. Besides, what happened to forgive and forget?” I turned and opened the shop door, tensing, still painfully aware of the blaster pointed at my back.
Cameron followed me. “Can’t a criminal mastermind buy his own cake?”
I lifted my chin. “The name’s Jake. And I forgot my coins at home.”
Cameron wavered inside the door. I started down the aisle. “Are you coming?” I waltzed up to the baker and ordered. Cameron walked over and leaned on the counter, casually resting his blaster on his folded arms with the barrel aimed at me.
From the creases in his worn leather jacket to the five o’clock shadow tracing his jaw, he looked weary. He’d fought for too long. And for what? I would never understand some heroes. They struggled for ideals long lost.
What would it be like to work against myself and unravel my own schemes that extended far beyond a single cell? To do good like Cameron?
Cameron nudged my arm. “Swear you aren’t fooling with me.”
Who was I kidding? I craned my neck from side to side, popping it. This excursion would start and end like any other day. And this time Cameron wouldn’t be alive by nightfall. “Sure. It will be fun.” I smirked.
“Your definition of fun is different from mine.” Cameron shoved his blaster in his belt.
I shook my head, almost feeling sorry for him. Not remorse for what I’d done to him, of course. But he didn’t have the sense to quit. He’d survived and tracked me down. In vain.
But even I had to admit that his futile efforts seemed to satisfy him. I crossed my arms. The thought was unsettling to say the least. I believed I had everything, but Cameron had found something I’d missed.
With Cameron beside me, I no longer had to wonder what it was like to be good.