Slinker pressed his back to the wall, shoved the photograph of himself into his pocket, and raised his fists. Instinctively, he chameleoned so the thugs wouldn't have any warning of his attack. He couldn't escape like he wanted to; the walls on either side were new, the mortar was firm and gave him no handholds at all.
The thugs paused in their advance towards where they had until recently seen Slinker, and the apparent leader produced what appeared to be binoculars attached to a pair of swimming goggles. Slinker stopped breathing. Heat seeing goggles. That's how they had managed to see him on the roof!
Slinker reacted. Quick as a snake, his foot impacted the goggles exactly as the thug put them on, driving the goggles into the man's eyes. He screamed, and fell backwards clutching his face. The other three men raised their fists, on guard for whatever Slinker would try.
There still wasn't an escape. Slinker crouched and sprung at one of the thugs, fists raised and intending to try and break free from the corral.
The thug raised his great arms, and Slinker bounced harmlessly off them, and collapsed back into the ring again. He rolled, and jumped back to his feet, slightly winded and wondering how he could have been blocked so easily despite the clear advantage of being invisible.
The ring contracted.
Slinker tried again, leaping at a different thug and this time ready for a block. The thug indeed raised his arms and protected his face from Slinker's knuckles.
Falling on his feet, he spun around. The fourth man had got back up and was joining the ring, two black eyes developing from the goggles being driven into his face. They were now only feet away from each other, in a ring perhaps two yards across and their arms were outstretched to stop any breaks for it.
Slinker suddenly had an idea. He jumped towards one of the thugs, but feinted and stopped short, his feet scrabbling softly on the paving slabs. The thug still raised his arms for the block, hearing what he perceived as an imminent attack.
That's how they were doing it. They weren't watching him, they were hearing him.
Slinker took a silent, steadying breath, and did the only thing he could. He stood still in the middle of the gradually closing ring, and waited with clenched fists and thumping heart.
The thugs were close now, barely a foot either side of him. He could hear their breathing. Silently, he raised his right fist, and aimed it at the bridge of the nose of the thug to his left. He didn't move his feet, didn't make a noise, and didn't let the thug know what hit him. Slinker launched a foot onto the toppling man's chest as he fell back clutching his nose, and pushed off even as the other three thugs moved to grab onto him. The ring was broken, and he shot through the opening like a hare.
The three men left standing began to run in the direction of Slinker's footsteps, but the leader immediately ordered them back. His goggles had broken from Slinker's kick, and now that he was free, he could pick them off one by one without breaking a sweat. In a huddle, the thugs picked up their fallen comrade, and made their way back where they came from.
Slinker ran several blocks at least before slowing down, confident the thugs weren't following him. He climbed quickly up a building, and sat on the roof waiting for his breathing and heart rate to decrease.
Whoever was behind this – the scientists – had obviously managed to hire a decent amount of muscle. And they could afford goggles and stuff to see him. That meant they had the advantage of power and influence. He had to work with his main advantages, namely invisibility and knowledge. But even those advantages were slim. They had goggles, he now knew, so his chameleon trick was pretty much countered. And as for knowledge, they seemed to have some of their own.
For one, how could they know he would be down that alley? It was obviously a plan, they had the alley blocked off at either end. But no-one had been following him since they tried to shoot him, no-one had seen him leave the old school, and no-one could have known where he was going.
Plus, now they had a photo of him. Now that they knew how he looked, and they had those goggles, they could pin him down camouflaged or not. That would severely hamper his freedoms if he couldn't pin down a way to escape pretty fast. But how did they get his photo? And how could they have even known he or Charleigh were here in the first place?
Slinker sighed. He needed answers, and he knew one place, and two men, where he could get them.
On the corner of 42nd and Newark, there were some wooden crates stacked into a makeshift stage. On those crates, two men would sit down, and play guitar for the people in the streets. Their appearance was regular as clockwork, every day nine to nine. They were a local institution, people could depend on them to be there every day without fail, and the two man made enough income from the passers-by to continue doing this for as long as they wanted.
The two men's names were Jethro Grew and Jacob Bailey.
Slinker watched from his position on a nearby roof as they played a together on acoustic guitars, seemingly playing a well-rehearsed tune between themselves. Of course, they were actually improvising on the spot unlike other buskers who carefully practised every note and chord. That was half of the attraction of “Grew&Bails”, that one could walk by their corner every day for months and never hear the same tune twice.
He waited until the tune was seemingly about to finish, before leaping down from the roof and dechameleoning within the crowd; fortunately no-one noticed, or else assumed he had been there all along and they had only just noticed him. Slowly working his way through to the front, he arrived just as the duo were about to break into another tune.
Grew, the taller of the pair, saw Slinker at the front of the crowd, and had a whispered message with Bails. They stood up, and it was Grew who spoke in a voice as melodious as it was carrying.
“We're going to have a short break, we apologize for detaining you on your business!”
The passers-by chuckled at the jest, and as they started to file away, numerous coins were deposited into the two guitar cases on either side of the stage.
Grew gestured imperceptibly to Slinker, and he followed the pair a few paces to the alleyway the pair called both home and office. At the far end was a large, disused recycling bin on its side, which combined with a pair of sleeping bags and cardboard was as good as a tent.
Grew and Bails stood side by side, facing Slinker. Grew was about a head taller than Bails, his mop of dark brown hair and thin slender physique contrasting violently with Bails's short and spiky, reddy-brown, almost ginger hair and more stocky build. It was Bails who spoke now, and his voice was gruffer, not as obviously built for music but with a timbre that could shake bricks from walls.
“So, Slinky-boy, what can we help you with?”
Slinker rolled his eyes “Cut it out with the pet name, Bails.”
Grew piped up again in his completely contrasting voice. “Come on, Slinky, nothing wrong with it! We still don't know why you're called Slinker, anyway!”
Slinker chuckled lightly. Indeed, he hadn't told them much of anything. Not about his past, anyway. Maybe in time, he'd let them know.
“I need some information off of you guys.”
It was Bails who said “Sure, what you need?”
Slinker pulled out the photograph he'd grabbed off of the thug in the alleyway, and handed it to them. “Some people are out looking for me, and they're using this photo. Has anyone asked you about me, and what did they look like?”
Bails took the photo, and looked at it. Grew looked over his shoulder at the image. Slinker knew full well that Grew and Bails had a fantastic memory for inquirers. It helped, since if they returned they could greet them again, and hopefully get a bigger tip.
There was a pause as they both sorted their collective memories for relevant details.
“You know, there was that one guy...”
“The guy with the really short hair?”
“And the shades.”
“Did he have shades?”
“Yeah, pretty sure he did. Snappy clothes too.”
“Was this the guy with the accent?”
“He had an accent?”
“I think he did. Southern, by the tone of it.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I think he did!”
“Oh, was it him who asked about Slinky?”
“I think so. Not directly, if you recall.”
“Yeah, he asked about him in a round-about way, didn't he?”
“Yeah, and - ”
Slinker interrupted their conversation. He could barely follow who was talking, let alone what they were saying. “All right, guys! Who was it?”
Grew and Bails jumped slightly at the reminder that Slinker was actually still there. It was Grew who spoke this time.
“There was one person who asked about a boy who seemed to appear in the library at night, he showed us that photo.”
Slinker raised an eyebrow. “And what did you tell him?”
Bails jumped in, covering for Grew. “He said that he knew you. He certainly seemed to know what you call yourself, Slinker and all that. There wasn't any harm in acknowledging you were in the area.”
Slinker kept his eyebrow in its elevated position. “And that's all you told him?”
Grew spoke again. “Yep, that's all we told him.”
Bails added to this, “That's all we could tell him, we never know exactly where you are anyway!”
Grew hastily corrected “But even if we did know, we wouldn't have told him. There was a nasty look about that person.”
Slinker held up a hand. “Calm down, you two! I can't keep up when you interrupt each other like that. Now, what did he ask, and what did he look like?”
Bails said “That's all he asked, we didn't tell him anything he didn't already know, and he left.”
Grew continued. “He was about five-ten, short black hair in a crew cut, glasses...”
Slinker thought. “Did he tell you his name?”
It was almost a given that they'd ask for his name. Built a rapport with passers-by, made them feel appreciated, and therefore more generous.
“Yeah, his name's Timothy, apparently.”