24.1 The Search

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There was a problem.

The problem was that Ash had parked at the curb before chasing after me, but she could not remember shutting off the headlights and off is exactly what the headlights were. Without their glow to guide the way, there was only one thing to go by, and that was the moaning boy in the gutter. The louder he got, the closer we were. At least until we reached him. Then it became a matter of guessing where the van was in relation. Three times we struck out across the road, and three times we were forced to follow the moans back to their source and try again. On our fourth attempt, Bitchmaster's footrests thumped against something that turned out to be the van's back right tire.

"The battery can't be dead," said Ash. "It can't be."

It wasn't.

She opened the back door and the dome light flicked on, so bright in the dark it brought tears to my eyes.

"Thank God," she said, "oh thank God."

She didn't notice what was missing until she went around to start the engine. Even then she didn't look worried. Only confused.

"The keys are gone."

A beam of cold, concentrated light staked her back.

With my eyes, I followed the beam into the alley behind her. It reached past an overflowing dumpster to a gloved pink hand, where it stopped. The hand floated in the air, just a hand and nothing else, its fingers clasped around a flashlight.

"Joel," Ash said in a pinched voice.

At first I thought it must have been my face she was reacting to, but she was not looking at my face. She was looking past me. I turned my head. On the back of my wheelchair blazed a miniature full moon. It belonged to a second flashlight, which hovered above the sidewalk across the street—not five yards away from the kid in the gutter.

The hand in the alley floated closer, and behind it the darkness became solid. A bulky figure detached from the shadows and moved toward Ash. I heard the clomp of footsteps before I could see the shoes that made them. The man wore big white boots. Astronaut boots. They were stained pink like the rest of his Hazmat suit. A gun strap hung over his shoulder. His mask was one large visor, and it was fogged. His voice sounded like it was made of wasps.

"Stay where you are."

Ash shut the driver's door between herself and the man. She crawled across the emergency brake onto the passenger seat, then she pushed out and fell onto the road next to me. One hand disappeared into her coat.

"You have nowhere to go," came another voice, soft and fluttery as moths. I looked over my shoulder to discover a skyscraper of a man stepping into the gutter behind me.

"I know our appearance is a little frightening," Wasp said as he moved around the hood. He lifted his free hand. The keys to Ash's van dangled, glinting, between his thumb and forefinger. "That's why we took these. We didn't want you to run when you saw us." He slipped the keys into a black zippered pocket on his suit. From the same pocket he pulled a handkerchief, which he used to wipe off his visor. He was young. He had a child's face and a man's stubble. On his nose sat a pair of thick-framed glasses, also foggy, but from his breath. "You won't need them any more. We're here to take you somewhere safe."

Ash glanced at me, and for a fraction of a second I was onstage at the talent show, watching in her eyes what she was about to do a moment before she did it. Her hand left her pocket in a tight fist. Her head turned slowly to Wasp.

"No!" I shouted as she threw herself at him and . . .

. . . what?

Sobbing, Ash wrapped her arms around Wasp's right leg. "I've been so scared, it was horrible, I thought—I thought—"

Wasp had been reaching for his gun, but now he let his hand drop. "All right, young lady. All right."

Ash clung desperately to his ankle. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

"Okay. That's enough." He kicked her loose.

Ash landed on her butt, her palms flat to the asphalt. "Sorry. I'm sorry."

She didn't look sorry. She looked keyed up, revved, an engine waiting for the clutch to pop. She looked the way she had onstage, right before she released her final ear-shattering note into the microphone.

Moth approached.

"Check them," said Wasp.

My wheelchair rocked as the tall man knelt down over me. In his mask's cloudy pink visor, the only face I could see was mine.

"What is this?" He pointed at the pouch dangling from Bitchmaster's armrest by a few wet strings.

"A drumbeater."

"What is it for?"

"Beating drums."

"Why is it on you?"

"In case I run into any drums. You never know."

Moth loosened the pouch with clumsy fingers, removed my 'foot pedal' by its long willow handle, and then put it back. He didn't bother retightening the drawstring. Neither did I. Like I said, you never know.

His hands moved down my body next. After a pass around my crotch and inner thighs, he said, "Can you stand?"

"I have a wheelchair for the joy of it."

Moth gripped the back of my neck roughly. Then he bent me forward, pulling my head down between my knees, and patted my back pockets. Finished, he sat me upright again.

"You don't have to do all this," Ash said as Moth rose to his full, considerable height and turned to face her. "We don't have anything. Really."

"Have to be careful, young lady," said Wasp. "It's just procedure, nothing personal."

Moth curled a long pink finger. "Stand up."

Ash stood up.

"Face the van."

Ash faced the van.

Moth was quick but thorough. He paused only once, to pull something from her pocket. A Zippo. Well, that explained where Billy's smoking habit had gone. He hadn't run out of cigarettes to light. His light had run out on him.

Moth returned the Zippo and finished the search. He nodded at his partner, who nodded back. "Let's get walking."

"We're not driving?" said Ash. I detected, or thought I detected, a note of hopefulness in her voice.

"No. We came The Milky Way."

"The Milky Way?"

Wasp didn't answer, and perhaps it was only reflex, but my eyes lifted in search of the galaxy's bright pinwheel. It wasn't there. Nothing was. The sky was a pit, its clouds swallowed by their own darkness. From its deep black belly came a rumbling growl.

"Better hurry," said Moth.

"You lead." Wasp shut the van's passenger door. As he moved behind us, his flashlight's beam flittered across the ground. Something glimmered in the road where his right foot had been, where Ash had clutched onto him.

A pair of scissors.

____ ____

Author's Note:

Thank you for reading! If you're enjoying Poor Things, please consider hitting the vote button—it will help other readers find the story. Comments are always appreciated, too. Seriously, I love them.

Coming up next, Moth and Wasp escort Joel down the highway . . . and into the coming storm.

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