Illusions: part two — condensed

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Ashley Tanner

This is a post combines all 12 chapters into one post from part two.
Illusions is a novella written by Nicole Schroeder and Ashley Tanner, about a girl named Gemma who has the ability to see people’s true character at a single glance. Each post in the following blog series is one chapter of Illusions. 
Chapter 1
Was it possible for one to feel any worse than Gemma did right now? I highly doubt it, she thought bitterly, staring at the textured ceiling in her bedroom. She imagined jackhammers chipping away at her brain while her stomach roiled just a little too unpleasantly — and yet her hangover was the least of her worries.
Elijah had been playing her this whole time, molding her with his hands until she was doing exactly what he desired, exactly what he needed her to do so she would tell him… what? What was it he had been wanting to know so much about? Sure, he’d asked her about work and Irene and what life had been like since high school. But how much of it had been small talk, and what had he actually wanted to know? And then, the night before, he’d said those three words so honestly….
Suddenly, she leapt from the bed and headed for the bathroom. Once inside, she managed to spill the contents of her stomach into the toilet bowl, her head pounding even more while her stomach clenched into knots. She felt like crying, her mind spinning as she tried to process everything and calm nerves that were already shot. And to top it all off, those three words echoing since the moment she’d seen her name on that file….
Deceitful. Insubordinate. Devoted.
Elijah’s Label, reminding her that it all had been a game. When it had changed, she had briefly tried to determine which word was wrong, not knowing how he could be either insubordinate or deceitful. There was no doubt in her mind now, however: he had never been devoted to her. He didn’t care about her, other than for the things she had to offer him. But then….
“What does he want from me?” she asked, speaking her thoughts aloud. She had no money, no job of any importance. Irene was just a waitress at a local pub that sold greasy burgers and beer to suburban dads on Game Day. She had nothing she could give him. And yet the page she’d scoured last night — the page with her name on it — had frequently mentioned her assets, as if she wasn’t just some girl trying to get by after college like any other normal human being.
When her stomach had finally stopped tumbling, she stood slowly from the cold bathroom floor and headed out to the kitchen, hoping a glass of water and some Tylenol might at least make a dent in her head’s ceaseless throbbing. Thankfully, Irene had been too tipsy to try and come home and had opted to stay at a friend’s house instead, giving Gemma the whole of the apartment for the day while she nursed her hangover and her shattered heart. As such, she kept the lights off as she wandered from room to room for most of the day, avoiding the light outside and instead allowing herself to doze off whenever she wanted in between bouts of confusion and heartache over Elijah.
It was then as she lay on the couch later that afternoon, mulling her predicament, that she realized something. She sat up with a start, no longer fighting back drowsiness as her eyes widened in disbelief. She knew why Elijah had been so interested in her, what he’d wanted to know so much about that he’d had to follow her and get closer to her than anyone else.
It was the accident.
He’d only asked about it once, but once was all he needed to refresh his memory. The rest of it could’ve been found in the papers, and he’d only asked what he couldn’t have known without her telling him.
What had happened?
What did she remember?
Was she still doing okay?
Normal enough questions for someone to ask, yet also strangely detailed, especially for someone who’d been there so soon after it had all happened. That is, unless he had been trying to learn more about a specific aspect of the crash. Unless he’d been asking her as a way to research the incident. Unless he’d been trying to get her to slip up and tell a secret she’d been keeping since the night she’d woken up after her coma.
Elijah knew about what had happened that night, and he knew about the Labels.
And if that’s truly what she has seen in the file on his desk, he wasn’t the only one.
What do you think is going to happen with Gemma and Elijah? Leave Comments below, and be sure to keep reading to see what happens next.
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 2
“Leave a message after the beep,” Gemma’s sweet words stung his ears.
“Gemma, I am so sorry I hurt you. I can explain, you just have to give me a chance. I really do love you.”
His calls and texts over the past week had been useless, she wasn’t responding. He understood why she was ignoring him, but the fact that he did love her and she didn’t know that destroyed him.
Elijah was on his way to work, where he was going to have to talk to Wolfgang about Gemma. He knew that even though he had failed, Wolfgang wasn’t going to give up on his conquest.
Elijah stopped at the coffee shop he first saw Gemma at, hoping she would be there. He waited in line to order his coffee and when it was his turn, a short girl with short black hair greeted him.
“Hi, what can I get for you?” she said half cheery and half annoyed.
“I’ll take a grande with 3 sugars and 3 cremes.”
“That’ll be $2.20.”
As Elijah took out his wallet and fished for some change in his pockets, he noticed the barista had a beautiful smile, and a mysterious aura.
Elijah took his coffee, and scanned the shop one more time hoping to see Gemma. Not to his surprise, she was nowhere to be seen. He reluctantly walked out in pursuit of the law firm.
His walked seemed quicker than usual, as he was lost in thought about the conversation to come. Seeing the steps of the firm startled him when he realized how distracted he was.
Wolfgang was waiting to greet him at his cubicle, the seriousness on his face showed that he meant business.
“Hello, Elijah,” he said with a sly smile.
Elijah sat down at his desk and looked at Wolfgang, waiting for the punishment he knew was coming.
“Well, we have a situation on our hands. She knows that you have been spying on her, but the question is how much does she know?”
“I don’t know. I’ve left her a million voicemails and texted her more times than I can count. She definitely saw the files, but whether or not she read them, I have no idea.”
“Well, the only thing I know for sure is that you are off the undercover case. She will never trust you in time to continue with the current time line. But, you are still going to help gather intel. You know her better than anyone else, so you will be writing a personality profile on the intel you have gathered.
“I have hired someone to continue the research, but a little more low key this time. But our biggest concern is figuring out how much she knows.”
“Well, she left in a hurry, so I don’t imagine that she got very deep.”
“How observant of you, we better hope you’re right. We don’t have much on her, but the less she knows the better for us.”
Wolfgang reached out his hand, and shook Elijah’s; then he got up and walked away.
story by Ashley Tanner
 
Chapter 3
The girl sat outside in her car early that morning, munching on a piece of gum to keep herself from dozing off.  She wasn’t used to getting up this early — she found it hard to believe anyone could ever get used to a 4 AM alarm, and she yawned and rubbed her eyes, as if in emphasis of her ongoing inner argument.
“I better be getting a bonus for this,” she muttered under her breath, her accent lilting her words to sound less annoyed than the were meant. It was taking so long for that girl, Gemma, to get going, and she didn’t want to have to wait here much longer —
Ah, finally. The girl watched as Gemma headed out of her house for the day, hugging her jacket to her chest before heading off to work. She ducked her head lower as she walked, purposefully avoiding eye contact with everyone walking past her on the sidewalk. The girl in the car glanced down at the file in her hand and back up at the girl, comparing the photograph with the dark-haired girl disappearing around the corner. It was Gemma, all right, and with her roommate having left only a few minutes earlier, now was her cue. Grabbing the bag of tools from the passenger seat next to her, she got out of the car and headed up to the apartment building in front of her, up the stairs to the second floor and to the room number she had memorized the day before.
Once there, she jiggled the door handle once — as always, it was locked. With a sigh, she slung the bag off of her shoulder and grabbed her tools, picking the lock expertly after only a minute. “It would save me so much time if people weren’t so freakin’ cautious,” she said with a sigh, swinging the door open and heading inside.
This next part was much harder — she didn’t quite have much of an idea of what she was looking for, no thanks to Elijah. That being said, he had suggested she start in the girl’s room, so after a quick once-over the apartment, she headed into the farther of the two bedrooms, silently admiring the girl’s taste in fashion and design as she looked around.
Inside, it was a little easier to find things that might’ve been of use to those of them working the case. There were photos here and there of the girl and her family, a computer open to a draft of an email in her gmail account. As the girl spun around the room once more, however, it was the bed sheet that caught her eye. Something was sticking out from inside the mattress….
Crouching down, she tugged the item out easily from where it had been wedged, examining it carefully. “Well, what are the chances of that?” she asked in disbelief, chuckling slightly. It was Gemma’s diary, from the looks of it — a tired leather notebook with fraying edges and fading ink on the pages. The girl grinned, stuffing it into the bag along with her tools before straightening. She had enough, she decided, and she had already taken more time than she had thought she would need to find this. She glanced around, but determining the room to be fairly in order, she headed back out to her car. On her way out, she hit the first number in her phone, knowing it would only take a few rings for him to answer.
“Wolfgang? I think you’re going to like what I found.”

***

Gemma’s heart sunk deep into her stomach, an even worse feeling from when it had hammered in her chest a moment before. It wasn’t laying out; her journal was gone — entirely so. She glanced around her room, taking in the organized mess that was as she normally left it. Except…
No, her eyes weren’t deceiving her. The picture on her nightstand had definitely been moved, facing another direction from the angle it normally faced — toward her bed, so she could look at it every night before she slept. Now it faced outward, the thin line of disturbed dust on the table confirming what she’d already known. Someone had rifled through her things and taken her journal, and she knew who did.
Whipping out her cell phone, she punched numbers into the keypad shakily, trying three times before entering the right combination of digits. Holding the piece up to her ear, she waited impatiently, pacing the room and biting her nails subconsciously. Each ring echoed in her head, seeming to take all too long to fall silent once more. The tone sounded once, twice, three times —
“Gemma!”
“Elijah, give me back my things. I swear, I’m going to sue you! You had no right —“
“Wait, wait, what?” he stumbled over his words, obviously confused. Well, maybe. He could’ve been faking it, she considered. “Gemma, what are you talking about?”
“My journal. I’m giving you until five to bring it back until I’m calling the cops.” She hoped he believed her, though a part of her said she was bluffing.
“Look, I didn’t take your stupid journal, and I’m sorry for what you saw that night at the office, but you never gave me a chance to explain.”
She sighed and closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Then explain now.”
He paused, and she worried the line had gone dead. Finally, though, he spoke. “Not here, not over the phone. Meet me by that old bookstore tomorrow night. I’ll tell you everything then, but I have to go.”
Click.
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 4
His heart was still racing, the bitter sweet words Gemma spoke still ringing in his ears. He knew that in order for him to truly help Gemma, he had to have allies.
Most of the office worked for Wolfgang in more than one way; as a spy and as an office worker. They were all lawyers who were certainly willing to go against the law, each with their own reasoning.
Elijah stood up from his cubicle and walked to the copy machine, glancing over his shoulder to browse the room for potential allies as he did so without raising suspicion. He noticed a young, sweet girl with black hair; she might be a good option. Then again, he thought, she’s too nice to ask her to get involved in this mess. Or perhaps the fiery, bold girl from payroll — Natalie — though he knew she was in with Elijah even deeper than he was.
And then he saw James, a smart and daring redhead who has definitely shown an interest in taking Wolfgang down. If he had any chance of saving Gemma, it was James.
Elijah went back to his desk and began to scheme a way to gain James’ trust without giving away his intentions. Emailing him would leave a trace, and approaching him would raise too many eyebrows. The only way is to call him.
He pulled out a chart of office numbers, located James’ and dialed the number. On the third ring, he heard a confused ‘hello.’
“Hi James, it’s Elijah.”
“Hey, what’s up?” he said with a tone of curiosity.
“I need your help with an important case.”
“What’s the case about?”
Elijah paused for a moment, he had to be careful about how he worded it. He needed to make himself clear that it was to go up against Wolfgang, but he couldn’t come out and say it.
“It’s a peculiar — er — case,” he paused again, “A woman’s neighbor’s husky got out and bit her. She is trying to sue her neighbor for not keeping a better eye out on his dog.”
He hoped James would understand his very poor attempt at referencing Wolfgang as a husky.
Oh.” Elijah could almost hear a grin over the phone, he knew James had understood.
“Come by my cubicle after you get off? I don’t want to disrupt whatever case you are currently working on.”
“Yeah, sure.” Without another word, the two hung up.
***
Elijah was brought out of his deep concentration by the sounds of his co-workers pushing in their chairs, closing their laptops and saying their goodbyes. It wasn’t until then that he realized it was after 5 o’clock, and James would be coming to see him soon.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to talk for long, but he had to arrange a time for both of them to meet with Gemma.
“So,” James said as he walked up behind his cubicle,”What did you have in mind?”
“Don’t you want to know more?” Elijah replied, sounding very startled.
“I don’t need to know more. I’ve picked up enough from around the office. I’m in,” grinning cheekily.
story by Ashley Tanner
 
Chapter 5
Gemma’s heels clicked deliberately against the concrete, echoing in the night around her. She clutched her arms around her chest as she walked, both in an effort to block out the cold and to try and suppress her uneasiness. Still, this was a part of town she wasn’t used to visiting, especially not at this late hour. That, and this was the first time she would be facing him since that night.
She was finally going to get answers; of that she was certain. But the real question persisted at the back of her mind: did she really want them?
She wasn’t so sure, but as two figures came into view sitting on the steps of the Bookmark’d bookstore down the road, she realized it was too late to turn back either way. Mustering her courage and determination, she took the final few steps to the store, coming to stand in front of Elijah and his friend as she watched them scramble to their feet.
“Gemma,” Elijah said, his eyes meeting hers for a second. She tried to turn away in time, taking interest in the brickwork of the old building she stood next to, but she still wasn’t quick enough.
Deceitful. Insubordinate. Devoted.
The words flashed in her mind, slicing like paper cuts against her memories of the New Year’s Eve party. She sucked in a breath, and she saw Elijah reach out to comfort her from her periphery, only to draw his hand back hesitantly at second thought.
“I just want my journal. You had no right —“
“He didn’t take it, Gemma.” She looked up at the other man, having forgotten that he was there. She took the moment of silence among them to search his eyes, reading his Label without difficulty despite the nighttime haze that concealed most of his other features.
Eager. Intuitive. Cautious.
“Who might you be?” she practically spat the words, and she thought she saw Elijah cringe at her tone. She didn’t care … did she?
“I’m James. One of Elijah’s coworkers.”
“Gemma, this wasn’t me, I swear. I was taken off the case pretty much as soon as you left the party.”
“But that’s all it was to you, wasn’t it?” Her voice cracked and a lump formed in her throat. “I was a case. I was a freak of nature to be studied, dissected like a frog.”
Elijah’s face grew red. “I cared for you, Gemma. You know I did!” He paused, letting out a breath and softening a little. “Look, I have to tell you something, but I need you to understand something first. None of this,” he said, gesturing widely, “was meant to hurt you. At first, it was just another assignment, but then we started talking more and I got to know you better. I remembered how kind and funny you were, how smart …. None of it was fake, Gemma. I really do love you.”
She sighed, fighting back stray tears in her eyes. “Until I know what’s really going on, Elijah, I don’t think I can trust you.”
He ran a hand through his hair. “What you have to understand is that Wolfgang — Theo, as you know him — is very persuasive. He’s, well …”
“Powerful,” James finished. Elijah nodded.
“Exactly. So when he put me on your case, I couldn’t exactly say no.”
“But why are you even with him in the first place?” Gemma said, disgust lacing into her voice. “How could you work for him?”
“Well, it didn’t exactly start out like that,” Elijah said, and sighed. “See, I first met Wolfgang after one of my classes at Harvard. He was waiting one day outside the lecture hall, and asked if I had time to talk about an internship opportunity at his law firm. He asked me if I had a way to pay for Harvard, and of course I didn’t. My parents came from nothing, and barely rose above that. I had some scholarship money, but only enough to keep me afloat for the first year or so. The rest I had planned to pay for with student loans. Of course I said yes.
“At first it was the basic ‘making coffee, printing copies’ sort of deal. Then he began to take me under his wing; I was his protege. The coffee trips started turning into research for clients. Wolfgang would me to get dirt on his client’s enemies, and it began to get a little risky.
“I don’t remember how long it took, but I started to figure out that none of the information really made sense in any of his cases. In fact, I soon realized, he didn’t really have any clients; not really. He had an occasional one or two, very minor cases, but those were just to keep up the facade.
“After a while, I began to inspect the other lawyers in the office, to find out if they had any real clients. They were all real lawyers, too, but I noticed a common theme: they all had less than stellar track records in terms of the number of cases they handled, and they all rarely lost a case. That, and they were always busy.
“Anyway, after a few months of snooping around and trying to figure out what was going on, I decided the best way to be sure was to just ask him. He seemed to trust me enough, so hopefully he’d be willing to give me answers, right?
“Needless to say, it was the scariest thing I had ever done. I marched into his office and slammed all of the research I had found on everyone in the office onto his desk. He didn’t even look at it, he just started laughing.
“It had been a test the whole time. The only way to get ’in’ was to figure out the truth, and he’d been waiting for me this whole time to do just that. I’d even waited longer than the others — he’d been beginning to question if he’d chosen the right person to recruit.
“I was so confused, and even with what he told me about the job it still didn’t make any sense. It was beginning to feel like a James Bond movie, except I was playing the part of one of the clueless strangers he shoved out of the way and not anyone with an inside look at the operation.
“Well, he asked me to sit down and began to explain to me the ‘business.’ It was an elaborate scheme, one that was so meticulous and cunning, it actually made sense. It wasn’t a law firm — it was a government program, designed to recruit ‘exceptionally gifted and talented characters’ who they deemed could be of use to them. He was the one in charge of finding them.
“You see, when he — Wolfgang, not Theo — was in college, he’d met this classmate of his. The man had had a strange perceptiveness, and was always very introverted. For the most part, he stuck to his camera and his work, and that was that. Out of courtesy, though, Wolfgang had started trying to get to know the guy, thinking he was just shy or too focused on school for his own good. But he soon came to realize the man wasn’t just perceptive. He could see things others couldn’t, about the future, about themselves. He found it hard to believe, obviously, but the more time he spent with the guy, the more unavoidable the truth became.
“The man was a clairvoyant, Gemma. Just like you.”
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 6
Elijah paused before continuing, waiting to see her reaction. A range of emotions was playing across Gemma’s face, but she wouldn’t make eye contact with him.
“Er — Wolfgang, of course, was intrigued. He started doing research, looking up unsolved cases and mysteries around the country. Finding what evidence he could and talking to anyone he came in contact with to try and figure out more about the man — and any others like him.
“What he found instead was the SAINTs — the Specialized Agency for the Intelligent and Neurologically Talented — a group that was much more advanced in their research than he was,” Elijah explained. “They were also very keen on the information Wolfgang had found. So, the sensible businessmen they were, of course, they offered a trade: his research for money — lots of it.”
Gemma opened her mouth as if she wanted to speak, but soon closed it. Elijah stopped talking, hoping she would say whatever she wanted to say; they both remained silent for a while.
“By that time, he was just out of law school and needed a way to pay bills, put food on the table, that sort of thing. He’d barely blinked before he’d accepted their offer, handing over his case files and using the cash to pay off a few of his student-,” Gemma cut him off.
“So, what you’re saying is,” Gemma said angrily, “that Theo — er — Wolfgang or whatever his name is, has been ruining people’s lives for money?” She was still avoiding Elijah’s gaze.
“Yes.”
“And you sold out as well?” Her voice was hoarse, anger bubbling up from her throat with each word she spat. All Elijah could do was nod, a shameful shadow crossing over his face. With shaky hands, he continued.
“Anyway, they came back a few days later to offer him a job. They’d apparently liked his research, and realized he had the resources to be an asset to the company,” Elijah growing more silent as he spoke. “It was simple, really — he’d find the people and turn them in, and they’d do the rest. It was always for some different reason — some they wanted for science, others for the government. He never knew why they are wanted, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was the money.”
By now, Gemma had begun to pace around with both hands brushing through her hair in exasperation. She looked as if she could explode, but she continued to listen, stewing in silence.
“That’s where we came in,” nodding towards James. “He was eventually had a big enough paycheck to hire the ‘lawfirm’ and cover more ground. One day, SAINTs asked for us to find you, and he knew we had gone to school together so he put me on the case…” Elijah uttered ashamedly.
That’s when she let loose, not caring who heard her.
“How could you do that to me? How could you do that to anyone? What possessed you and told you it was okay to do that to people? Especially me? I —” Her voice broke, her anger dissolving into hot tears. “I thought you cared about me.”
“I have no excuse, nor will I try to justify my actions. But, I will say that every word I said, everything I said I felt about you, was true,” Elijah said, taking a step towards Gemma. She shied away from him. “I may have walked into that coffee shop with the intentions of gathering information from you, but the moment I set my eyes on you I knew that it was for much more than the assignment.”
After a long silence, James spoke up.
“So now that you know everything Gemma, we need to talk about what comes next.”
Gemma’s back still facing them, she replied.
“I don’t know what you mean, but frankly I don’t care. I don’t want anything to do with you people.”
James sighed. “Even if we step away, Wolfgang won’t give up until he has what he wants. He’s already sending people to watch you, to break into your apartment and go through your things. If you want this to stop, we need to take Wolfgang down.”
Gemma hesitated and turned around. “I’m listening.”
“We need to gather as much intel as we can about other people SAINTs is looking for, to warn them. Tell them what’s going on, and not to trust the agent who is trying to gather information on them. We need to get them on our side, so that we can give them ideas on false information to feed to the agents.”
“What about Gemma?” Elijah glanced her way, meeting her surprised eyes for only a second before looking away again. He couldn’t stand leaving her out to dry like this.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a plan for that, too. Gemma, who else knows about your, er … gift, besides us?”
story by Ashley Tanner
 
Chapter 7
Everything seemed too loud. The faucet running in the apartment next door, the tree branches scratching against the window pane, the clock ticking on the wall across from where Gemma sat. As she listened, she tried to decide if the clamor of noise around her was helping to drown her thoughts out of her head or if it was simply irritating her even more.
She was waiting for Irene to get back home for the night, praying she had remembered her plea to duck out of work quickly yet secretly hoping she hadn’t. She certainly wasn’t looking forward to the coming conversation, nor to her best friend’s possible reaction.  Still, if it meant helping stop Wolfgang and ending her own nightmare, she was willing to take the risk.
Finally, after a few more minutes, footfalls sounded out in the hallway. Gemma listened to the sound of a key turning the lock on their apartment door, her knee jiggling uncontrollably in anticipation. Then, the door swung open, and Irene stepped inside. No escaping it now.
“Hey, Gem! Sorry I was a little later than we planned — I got stuck talking to that new hostess, Casey. She’s actually pretty cool!” She chuckled slightly to herself, putting her bags down at the table and taking her coat off. She tossed it over the back of the nearest chair and came over to where she was sitting, finding a spot on the edge of the armchair next to Gemma. “Anyway, you sounded pretty nervous this morning when you said you needed to talk. What’s up?”
She sighed, staring at her hands as she spoke. “I — look, I need to tell you something. It has to do with Elijah and some other stuff from a long time ago and just ….” She trailed off and shrugged.
What am I supposed to say — when I look in peoples’ eyes, I learn everything about them, about the kind of person they are and who they will be later on? She had no idea where to start, or how to even begin convincing Irene of her power. How do you show someone you know things about them that they don’t even know to be true themselves?
“Just tell me, Gemma,” Irene said, breaking the silent tension between them. “I won’t judge you.”
She scoffed inwardly, but nodded at her comforting words. “Alright. Do you remember that one guy — Trevor? He was in some band or something like that and hung out with us back in college.”
“Yeah, I remember him. He was in our history class, right?”
She nodded. “Do you remember back when we first met him, when you said he seemed like a jock and I argued that he was definitely a nerd?”
Irene nodded, a confused look wrinkling on her forehead. “What’s this about, Gem?”
“I didn’t just guess that he was a nerd, Irene. I knew.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Okay. Back in my freshman year, I was in that car accident with my family. My dad was driving us home after some trip — I don’t even remember what it was, honestly — and he hit a patch of black ice, making us swerve off the road and into a ravine. On the way down, I hit my head on the dashboard and knocked myself out — basically, I got a really bad concussion,” she explained.
“When they got me back to the hospital, they said my brain was swollen and put me into a medically-induced coma for three days to wait for the swelling to go down. When I woke up, they were really worried I had lost brain function or had regressed just because of how bad the injury was. But that’s not what happened. My brain activity increased.”
Irene cocked her head slightly. If she had been confused earlier, this was all-out bewilderment. “But how is that possible?”
“That’s just it. It isn’t.” Gemma pursed her lips, pausing to let it sink in. “I was an anomaly. They tested again and again, but they all came back the same. I was using more of my brain than I had before, and I was using it differently.
“See, after the accident and the coma, I couldn’t look at people the same way. When I looked at their eyes, I started seeing these strange colors, like glow-y filters, in my head. They were really faint at first, so I figured it was just pain meds or me freaking out over what had happened. But they didn’t go away. In fact, they got clearer, and soon I was associating them with different words.”
She stopped again, looking deep into Irene’s eyes for a second, until she shifted a little uncomfortably.
“With you, I see Lively, Friendly, and Introverted.”
Irene laughed. “Okay, freaky factor aside, that last one definitely isn’t true.”
“That’s just it. There’s always one Label that’s wrong, and I have no way of telling which one it is.”
Irene grinned for a moment, but her smile quickly faded away to a look of seriousness.
“Let’s say for a moment that I believe you, Gem, which I’m honestly trying to do here. What does any of that have to do with Elijah?”
Gemma’s heart thudded at his name, and she closed her eyes and rubbed at her temples a little before answering. She told her about the file, about her missing journal, about Theo. She told her about the SAINTs and about her plan to stop Wolfgang from finding any more “gifted” people, like her.
At the end of it all, Irene nodded, taking it in slowly. She could almost see her brain working, trying to fit pieces together and explain something entirely unexplainable. After a few moments of silence, however, she met Gemma’s eyes. Her voice rang out with determination, and Gemma knew her friend had never been more serious in her life.
“We need to stop this. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll do it. But first, I think I need to talk to Elijah.”
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 8
Elijah was pushing a grape tomato around with a fork in his salad bowl, completely zoned out. He was thinking about Gemma, as he often was these days. He missed being able to hold her hand, the smell of her hair, the way she blushed when he complimented her.
He suddenly felt a kick from under the table, he let out a startling grunt and looked up. James was glaring at him.
“Sorry.” Elijah looked down at his salad again.
“Look, I am only willing to help you if you will actually listen,” he said, a hint of irritation in his voice.
“Yeah, I know. And I really appreciate your help,” he lowered his voice. “I’ve just been — er — distracted.”
James rolled his eyes.
“Go on. What were you saying?”
“We need to find more dirt on ol’ Wolfie,” James said, letting out a slight chuckle. “We can’t take him down if we know nothing about him. We need to try and find correlations between the jobs he’s worked on, solid proof of his work with SAINT.”
“Are you sure that’s worth spending our time doing? We all have cases like Gemma’s — more than anything, we’ll look just as corrupt as he is.”
James looked cross. “Do you have any better ideas, Beckett?”
“Any better ideas about what?”
They both looked up to find Wolfgang sipping a cup of coffee from The Sprout, the same coffee shop where he’d met Gemma. Elijah froze, unsure of what to say and searching desperately for a way out.
“On where to take these twins I met at a bar last night for dinner. I scored a date with one of them, but of course she wants to bring her sister. So I asked Beckett if he wanted to come along,” James reached across the table and slapped Elijah on the shoulder. “I suggested we go to Charlie’s, but Elijah doesn’t think it’s nice enough.”
Elijah was surprised by how fast he responded, but went along with it. “It’s not, we need to take them somewhere with more class.”
“Oh, definitely. Charlie’s is second-date material. Take them to Regus, it’s not too expensive but they still know how to pick a great wine.” He winked and then walked away.
It took until his footsteps disappeared from down the hall for Elijah to let out the breath he’d been holding in. “That was impressive.”
“You don’t get a job working for Wolfgang without skill, and acting happens to be mine.”
Elijah nodded. “Obviously. So, what am I looking for in these files?”
“Take them apart. Look for the low-profile ones, the ones that are easy to bury under our bigger cases. Small lawsuits with big settlements, something that looks like a SAINTs check in disguise. Check for connections between them — if the same phrasing pops up, or the same neighborhood, stuff like that. Weird wording might be signs of the same ability — they’re going to be subtle about this stuff.” He paused momentarily and looked around. “I’ll check the online records for the same things. If you find anything, let me know.”
He got up, threw his trash away and left the room.
Elijah soon followed, throwing away his barely touched salad before heading back toward his cubicle and beginning his search.
The first intern he set his sights on was Dale. Dale had been working there for some time and he seemed to be flourishing. He was handsome, but not overly so. His dark hair was unkempt, but fit his style.
Getting up, he walked leisurely toward him, his hands in his pockets. “Hey, just a sec. I’m gonna need those files.”
“What do you need them for?”
Elijah was taken back by his question. “Wolf asked me to look at them. If you would like to take it up with him, by all means,” he offered, holding up his hands and stepping back to bring Theo’s office into view.
His threat worked like a charm. Without hesitation, the man sighed, handing over the small stack of manilla folders he held in his arms.
“Thanks. I’ll bring them back when I’m done.”
story by Ashley Tanner
 
Chapter 9
It was nearing the end of the lunch rush at Simon’s on Saturday afternoon as Gemma munched thoughtfully on her small plate of fries, scanning the crowd of people for her friend. Her table was almost uncomfortably quiet, at least in most opinions. For her, though, it was easy to enjoy the peaceful hush food brought to her and the rest of her group.
Of course, under any other circumstances, she would never even entertained the idea of spending a Saturday afternoon in Simon’s. Yet, with the plan Elijah, James and her were hatching, she’d found herself doing many things in the past week that were normally outside of her comfort zone. Now, glancing out at the rest of the restaurant from the back of their small corner booth, she was proud of the fact that she was almost able to ignore the barrage of Labels that flashed in her mind.
Almost.
“Hey, guys. Sorry I’m late. That last table took forever to leave.” Irene’s voice brought the three of them back to reality and made Gemma startle slightly. Irene simply chuckled at her friend, sliding in to the booth next to her. “Alright, so get me up to speed.”
“Okay. So basically at the moment, Elijah and I are just trying to trace this whole deal with Wolfgang back and see how far it goes,” he said, his voice low so as not to be overheard.
“We can’t just stop at him. We need to stop all of this, shut it down from the source. We need to go after the SAINTs.”
He nodded, his face falling a little with the gravity in Gemma’s words. “Right, which makes this whole situation even harder to trace. I’m James, by the way.”
Irene shook his outstretched hand politely. “Nice to meet you.” She nodded at Elijah, her face a little more terse than usual.
Only a true best friend…. Gemma couldn’t help but smirk a little at her roommate. Even if she’d mostly forgiven him, it was going to take a lot more convincing for Irene to like him again.
“We’ve not gotten too far yet,” James continued, bringing everyone’s attention back to the matter at hand. “Like we expected, he’s covered his tracks pretty well. All of them have.”
“There’s also the matter of getting everyone else in the office to spill the beans about the cases they’ve worked on,” Elijah pointed out. “Everyone is pretty tight-lipped about their clients, and we’re not exactly loved by the guys in the office.”
“Not to mention the fact that we don’t even really know what we’re looking for. Some of the guys don’t actually know when they’re working on one of these cases. Yours was … well, a bit easier to see.” James flushed as he tried to avoid the sensitive subject, and Gemma offered a reassuring smile as comfort. Still, the reminder stung, and she found her attention drift to a nearby table, where a short-haired girl laughed warmly with her friend who was struggling to put her sopping wet hair into a bun. She thought she overheard something about a band from the short-haired girl, but it was quickly drowned out in the sea of surrounding chatter and by her friend’s Label as she locked eyes with Gemma.
Supportive. Stereotypical. Comedic.
Well, easy to tell which one was false in that one, Gemma thought, averting her gaze quickly.
“Gemma? Hey, Gem, you still here?” Irene joked, waving her hand in front of her face. Gemma blinked, moving her attention back to her table mates.
“Sorry, I was distracted. What were you saying?”
Elijah smiled crookedly out of understanding. “I was asking if you knew anyone else with abilities. People you could warn about Wolfgang, or who might be able to get us in touch with someone who could help?”
Gemma sighed. “I wish I did. Until I heard about it from you guys, I thought I was the only one.”
“Wait a sec,” Irene said, perking up and peaking everyone’s interest. “I actually might know someone. She’s an old friend of my mom’s, and a little … out there. I mean, not out there per se, but let’s just say she’d definitely be willing to believe in this.” She gestured slightly to Gemma, who blushed a little at the three sets of eyes that turned to focus on her for a moment.
“Is there any way you could get in touch with her?” Elijah asked, turning back to Irene after sensing Gemma’s discomfort.
She nodded. “It shouldn’t be too hard.”
“Cool,” James said, clapping his hands together. “Sounds like a plan. Elijah and I will keep digging, and you’ll find your friend … whoever she is.”
“Trust me, she’ll be able to help.” She watched as the boys stood, following their lead as the four of them tossed a tip on the table before heading out. “She’ll have some extra motivation, too, when I tell her who we’re up against.”
Gemma frowned, walking quicker to keep pace with the rest of them. “What do you mean, exactly?”
Irene just smiled. “Her name’s Ava Sampson. She’s a P.I., and Theo Wolf once worked with her.”
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 10
Time had escaped Elijah’s mind as he worked on a pressing case. On the rare occasions that he got to work on a real case, he was excited and put in every effort he had. He was representing a woman who had been discriminated against. She considered herself latina because she was adopted into a latino family, and endured the hardships of latino life in America. Her college, however, did not consider her to be latina and chose another minority student over her, even though she was more qualified. It was the hardest and most interesting case of his career.
He glanced down at the clock on his monitor and realized he was running late for lunch with James. He began to save his files when he realized he hadn’t gathered any new information for their case against Wolfgang.
Elijah made his way toward to lunch room, readying himself for whatever new information James had gathered. He seemed to be much better at spotting these kinds of cases than he was, he noted with some surprise as he began his search for his companion. Elijah made eye contact with a co-worker, Natalie. She had long, flowing blonde hair, and a beautifully sweet smile. He nodded at her, and she nodded back. He continued to look for James, but didn’t see him anywhere.
He pulled out his phone and brought the LCD screen to life, checking for a text from James. Nothing. With a shrug, he sat down at their usual table. Perhaps he was running late, too. Elijah opened his bag and pulled out his garden salad, pouring the dressing absentmindedly as his mind wandered. He ate his salad in silence, all the while searching for his friend and feeling his weariness increase with each passing moment.
Where was James?
He pulled his phone out again and texted James, in hopes of finding him.
After a moment, Elijah put the lid back on and stored it away, unable to finish. He had a bad feeling about James’ absence and was no longer hungry. As casually as he could, he exited the break room and went back to his desk. He hesitated as he sat down, thinking of what to do. Quickly, he printed off the first document he saw on his computer screen and walked to the printer, making sure to pass near James’ desk on his way.
His jacket was draped over his chair, but his computer was turned off, never even having booted up for the morning. It didn’t even seem like James had been here, save for his jacket resting on the back of his chair.
A short, flamboyant girl was collecting her papers when he walked up. After she left, Elijah picked up the paper he had printed, and without even looking at it, threw it away. He couldn’t figure out where James was. He mindlessly walked back to his desk, sat down and attempted to continue his work. Still, all of his thoughts brought him back to James.
There hadn’t really been any new leads for the past few weeks, and he knew both of them were growing restless in their search. So, too, were the girls, who couldn’t do much more until they had gathered enough evidence against Wolfgang and the SAINTs.
Gemma. Elijah pulled out his phone and texted her, his fingers flashing over the keys.
Have you talked to James today?
No. Why?
He isn’t at work.
Oh.
His fears escalated. Nothing good could come from James’ mysterious absence. He glanced around the office, hoping to see his red hair pop up somewhere. He checked his messages and email for a third time. Still radio silence.
His eyes searched over the edge of the cubicle, looking for any sign before starting a new text to Gemma.
Still no sign of —
Suddenly, Wolfgang appeared, startling him. He accidentally pressed send, and quickly turned his phone off to hide her name from his boss’ prying eyes.
Before Elijah could say anything, Theo spoke. His eyes flashed with anger, revealing the truth behind his calm composure.
“We need to talk. In my office. Now.”
story by Ashley Tanner
 
Chapter 11
Gemma let out a sigh and frowned into her plate of pasta, pushing a stray noodle around with her fork. After Elijah had sent the cryptic texts about James, he’d stopped responding. She’d heard nothing from him since then, a fact that worried her more deeply than she cared to admit.
“Hey,” Irene said, placing a hand on hers comfortingly. “It’ll be okay. There’s a whole slew of things that could’ve happened to keep him from responding. Maybe he’s just away from his phone, or it died or something —“
She shrugged. “I guess that’s true.” She knew it wasn’t, though — that just wasn’t like him. He was attached at the hip to his phone, and even if it had died, he would’ve gotten a replacement before the day was over.
“I mean,” Irene said, her brow furrowing as she thought, “how long exactly has he been off the grid, anyway?”
“Thirty — no, 31 hours now. His last text — the weird one that wasn’t finished — was at 1:00 yesterday.”
Irene visibly swallowed, and for a moment, Gemma saw fear flash in her eyes. That moment was enough, though, and her heart hammered in her chest at the realization.
Elijah had been missing for 31 hours. Something was wrong.
“C’mon, Irene. We know something’s happened. Whatever it is, whether it deals with Wolfgang or not, it’s bad.” For the first time that night, her friend glanced at her food and nodded. Gemma opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. “What do we do?” she finally asked, her voice suddenly feeble and soft.
Irene remained silent for a moment, studying her plate. Finally, she looked up at her friend. “I have no idea,” she said, painful honesty piercing each word. “But I know someone who might. I’m going to go make some calls.”
With a newfound determination, she stood up from the table, grabbing her phone from the nearby countertop as she headed back toward her bedroom. Gemma stayed behind and resumed pushing the food around on her plate. She felt numb inside. She didn’t want to think about what had happened, or the fact that she had most likely caused all of this. Whatever had happened to them, if anything had happened to them, it would be her fault, and she knew it. Besides, what else could’ve happened to both James and Elijah except Wolfgang?
It was a few minutes later when Irene returned, her eyes bright with determination and a twinge of excitement Gemma recognized instantly. She walked past the table and took the keys from their hook on the door. “Grab your jacket,” she said, her voice almost commanding. “We’re meeting someone at Elijah’s office.”
***
They pulled up to the office only 10 minutes later, and in spite of her fears for the boys, Gemma was slightly thankful their hadn’t been many other people on the roads with the way Irene had driven to get there. As they pulled up into one of the parking spots outside of the law firm, it only took a moment for Gemma to spot the small black car across the way.
A woman was getting out of the driver’s side, her curly blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. She carried with her a backpack slung over one shoulder and a stack of papers in her arms. A plain ballpoint pen was tucked behind one year, and a wisp of hair hung just beside her right eye. She seemed, to Gemma, like the person who’s disorderly chaos somehow managed to make perfect sense when you got to know her.
Irene waved to the woman in an attempt to catch her attention, although it was apparent she had already seen them. Gemma followed her friend hesitantly, trying as much as she could to stay in the shadows and out of direct view of the other woman. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Irene in her decision, but she was weary, and with a situation as unique as her own, she figured it would be better for her to do the majority of the talking.
“Irene,” the woman said as the two groups finally met. “It’s so nice to finally see you again.”
“It’s nice to see you, too, Ava.” Irene held her hand out warmly, greeting the PI as an old friend. For all Gemma knew, she was.
As the two exchanged courtesies, she shifted on her feet, wishing slightly that it had been brighter so she could’ve seen her eyes. For once, Gemma felt blind without her power and nervous without insight into the woman’s intentions.
“You’re looking for my eyes, aren’t you?” the woman asked, suddenly turning to Gemma.
She jumped at the accusation, stammering as she tried to think of an excuse.
“It’s okay,” Ava said, a smile spreading across her lips. “Irene told me about your gift. People say eyes are windows to the soul, but it seems you know that more than the rest of us.” She paused and stepped under a nearby street lamp, illuminating her face for Gemma to see.
Uninspired. Imaginative. Maternalistic.
Gemma sighed with relief. The woman’s appearance made it more than obvious which of her Labels was false — the woman seemed anything but uninspired.
“So, now that we have that out of the way,” she said with a grin, “should we hit the road? I’ve done some research, and I think I know where we can find your friends.”
Gemma smiled. Ava Sampson sure loved her idioms. “Lead the way,” she said, waving in front of her.
Without another word, the three of them began their walk of determined silence toward Ava’s car, their steps a little lighter than before. No, they didn’t yet know where Elijah and James could be, or what could’ve happened to them. But at least now they had somewhere to start, and that was enough to fill the girls with hope.
story by Nicole Schroeder
 
Chapter 12
Ava, Irene and Gemma entered the building and headed straight for Elijah’s desk.
It was like it always was, files strewn across the wooden surface, protein bar wrappers huddled in a pile in the corner of his desk and a Camelback half-filled next to his keyboard.
Gemma approached his desk slowly, fearing the worst. His phone was to the right of his mouse. She picked it up and swallowed back the fear that was bubbling to the surface.
“Where is he? What’s happened to him?” Irene wrapped her arms around Gemma and embraced her, not knowing what to say.
“It’s already been long enough, we gotta get moving,” Ava said quietly.
They left the offices and piled into Ava’s car. They first stopped at James’ house to see if he had gone home, but the lights were off. Irene knocked on the door, and it crept open. Glancing around, it wasn’t hard to spot the deep gouges in the exposed wood near the door lock. Someone had forced their way in.  
They all wearily entered the dark house, but soon found out it was empty. Other than the door being open, nothing else seemed out of place. His car keys were lying on the kitchen counter, and his phone was blinking with notifications.
Ava picked it up and unlocked it. There were many missed calls from Elijah, a few texts from Gemma and some work emails. Ava noticed James had a draft text message to Elijah, ‘they’re comin-’ he never had time to complete it.
Gemma had to use every ounce of strength she had to keep her composure. No matter how much she wished she didn’t, she cared for him greatly.
“It’s probably a lost cause, but let’s head to Elijah’s house. Maybe we can find some clues there.”
The ride to Elijah’s place was silent. Their hope of finding the boys was diminishing by the second, leaving only worry in the empty space between them.
They arrived at Elijah’s. Unlike James’ house, his door was locked and no one appeared to be home. Gemma and Irene slowly walked back to the car, unsure of anything else they could do. Before they got back in, Ava seemed to be listening to the radio intently.
“I decided to check the police scanner, to see if they had detected any suspicious activity,” Ava blurted out before they could ask her anything.
The vacant warehouse on birch street,” The police dispatcher said. “Seems to have one too many cars in it’s lot, car 404 go and check it out.”
Ava immediately turned on the ignition and sped off towards birch street.
“I know this warehouse, it’s been vacant for years. It was built after World War II when the industries began to pick up again. It started off making housewares, but ended up being a toy factory. It closed down in the late 90s, and has been shut down ever since.”
The rest of their short trip to the warehouse was in silence. None of them knew what to expect. James and Elijah could be dead, or badly injured. They could be walking into a battle zone. It could be nothing.
The giant warehouse soon came into view, it was gloomy, as to be expected. But it had a sinister edge. Gemma knew the odds of this turning out alright were slim, no matter how much she hoped.
They and got out of the car slowly. Ava silently pointed towards the grouping of cars near a small entrance, and then put her finger to her lips. The best chance they had at rescuing Elijah and James was the element of surprise.
As they approached the entrance, Irene noticed the police weren’t there yet, making this horrible situation seem even more eerie.
Ava slowly pushed open the rusted door, and looked around. The only thing she could see from the dimly lit entryway was a long, narrow hallway with rusted lockers on both sides of the walls. It seemed as safe as this situation could allow, so she signaled the other two to follow her in. They could hear faint yells coming from deep within the warehouse.
They made their way, slowly, down the corridor. They began passing other hallways that branched off of the main one, but continued straight. The further they went, the louder the yelling got.
Gemma’s stomach was in a knot, she was happy she had found them, but wasn’t sure what condition she would see them in.
They came near to the main room, and the shouting was louder than ever. Wolfgang was giving them demands to tell him what they know. He was threatening their lives, and the lives of their loved ones.
It was almost unbearable for Gemma, Elijah was here because of her, because of her gift. She was going to get him killed.
Ava waved her hand to get their attention, she crouched low and pointed towards some small crates. They crouched and followed her. From behind the crates, they could see everything. Elijah and James were strapped to metal folding chairs, they were beaten and bruised. She could also see Wolfgang, wearing his usual black suit, but his jacket was on the floor and his sleeves were rolled up. Standing near him were two others, most likely his henchmen. Each of them wore jackets emblazoned with a strange logo on the back, the word SAINT scrawled underneath.
Gemma looked back at Elijah, but in that moment his eyes already locked onto hers. His Label flashed in her mind and she grimaced, trying to think of a way out of the situation. All she could focus on, though, was the three men surrounding them and the pleading look in Elijah’s eyes. Gemma braced herself for the worst.
Things were about to get ugly.
story by Ashley Tanner
Read part one, here. Read part three, here.