The suppression foam was thick as it was heavy, but not enough that I could gain traction. Whoever designed it was smart. There was no getting out on my own.
Tremors rocked the cells with the sound of fists. With all her superhuman might Punching Judy collided with the densest metal. It cracked the foundation and lifted from its hinges. It didn’t take long for the door to crash to the concrete.
Automatic gunfire rang through the hall at ear splitting volume. I continued to fight the gunk encasing my body. Judy drove like a linebacker through the guards, laughing like a mad woman. Thank the gods she was on my side.
Her weight clicked against the cell as she sang. “Mar-co!”
“Polo! Polo! Polo!” The suppression foam grew thicker with every kick. I couldn’t stop unless I wanted to drown.
The exit buckled under the force from the other side. It snapped under the pressure and hit with the ground. The muscle-bound harlequin lingered on the other side. She grinned from ear to ear, still in full costume, boxing gloves and all.
“I gotta hand it to you, glow stick. You really came through on this one!”
She reached into the goop and with no effort and pulled me free. Gods, it was embarrassing how simple she made it look.
Judy beamed. “How’s that saying go; ‘in the land of the blind the one eyed man is king’?”
I brushed the foam from my sleeves. “Huh?”
“Kid, you took out all the lights,” she said. “Snuffed the building like it was a candle! And now I’m the only one with a flashlight.”
My holographic form shone from head to toe. Judy all but yanked my arm from its socket, and like a one woman stampede she down the hallway. She charged into a gauntlet of anti-personnel weapons.
“Get ready for a fight,” she said.
Human shaped bodies of heat scrambled into formation. Punching Judy didn’t so much as flinch as a thousand hot deaths launched from their chambers. They pinged off her chest like rain.
I shot the barricade with laser uppercuts. Bones shattered with concussive force. For every guard to fall another was ready to take their place. A sea of war stood between us and freedom, but together we would make our escape. We had to!
* * * *
The moment the lights went out in Captain Ortega’s office was the moment dread plummeted into his gut. He knew the cause of the building’s groan. For the second time in a day his people were facing a nightmare scenario.
He charged like a bull toward the stairs. “On your feet! We’ve got a situation! Mobilize downstairs! I want teams covering all exits! Full suppression gear, shoot to stun!”
Half the floor were already racing to their mandated positions. No matter how many drills they ran nothing could prepare them for a firefight with an adept. Their earlier encounter with Mr. Fahrenheit made that evident.
Mayor Bainbridge fumbled in the dark. “Sal? Sal, what’s happening!”
Even after their showdown with Dr. Vortex she didn’t see the big picture. ‘We’re not prepared,’ he’d said. ‘We need more resources.’ No bureaucrat could justify that kind of spending over an ‘isolated incident’. The ground shook and still she wore the same dumbfounded expression.
Mayor Bainbridge leaned on her bodyguard. “Sal! Answer me, god damn it!”
“We’re sitting on an adept containment facility,” he said. “Do the damn math!”
The floor was clear, leaving the Mayor and her man in silence. Even the rumbling had ceased, but for how long? Her police experts told her that Dr. Vortex was a freak occurrence. They thought it unlikely another maniac adept would appear any time soon.
She turned toward the street where the lights still shone on the next block. Against the desks was the silhouette of a young man who waved to her in earnest.
“I made coffee,” Brandon said. “It’s still hot. Would you like some?”
* * * *
The elevator doors shredded like tissue paper. They revealed a vast, vertical tunnel with an end further than light could reach. Below was the elevator car wedged to a halt in the blackout, serving no purpose to anyone.
A sudden hum permeated the halls. Fluorescent lights flickered to life. Punching Judy peered back to the mobilizing force on her heels. Charging through gunfire in the dark was crazy enough. Facing concentrated fire was worse. There was only one path to follow, and it took a sharp turn.
“You with me, kid?”
Judy looked left and right, then up, and twirled. She found nothing but empty space and numbered walls.
She huffed. “Lousy, no good glow stick. Think you can bail out on-”
Bullets tore through the air like fiery rain, prompting the clown to leap. With all the grace of a drunken marmoset she clamored for grip. She reached for pillars, cables, beams, and holes in the foundation she bore with her fists.
Punching Judy remained a clear target along her climb. She scaled half the length of a football field before they decided it was too great a risk to knock her. They muttered something about ‘the boys topside.’ One more bout was all she’d come to expect from the Milestone Police Department.
After a short eternity the clown reached the next set of doors and stopped. Even a behemoth such as herself needed to stop to catch her breath. How much more punishment could she stand? She knew it was more than they could dish out, and she would wear it with a smile.
“You’re a long way from the improv circuit,” she told herself. “I tell you, Jude, if those audiences were half as generous as these goombas we’d still be drinking Mai Tais on Santa Monica!” Bursting into the air Punching Judy turned an old phrase on its head. “Comedy is hard, and so is dying if you’re bulletproof!”
The ground level was deserted. There were no alarms, and only a few nervous guards. They snapped into position. Like a pack of rhinos the enormous painted woman tore through the elevator. They stood no chance as she plodded toward them with fists flying. “Poor suckers won’t remember their own mothers after this.”
With the street lights still out Judy made her big break. She sprinted across the block, behind cars and into a blind alley. From there she followed the cracks in the world. Only the Red Wraith seemed to know about them, and it kept them off the radar.
She paused to make sure she wasn’t followed. No cops, and no glow stick. Judy was alone.
“Have a nice life, kid.”
* * * *
The incident was over in minutes. Power returned to the alarms. The pitiful response of department forces was inexcusable. The incident had the media in a frenzy. Heads would roll, and careers would come to an end.
Mayor Heather Bainbridge marched across the yard wielding the proverbial ax. More than a failure of the department, Punching Judy’s escape cast her leadership in a negative light. She once ran on a platform of innovation and equity, free from the ravages of crime. Only in the face of crisis did she become an agent for law and order.
She sighted her colleague stationed at a makeshift checkpoint and centered her glare. Of all the names on the chopping block his sat on top of the list.
“I hope you enjoy your retirement pension, Captain. It’s all you have going for you.”
Captain Ortega tightened his lip. “I told you, Mayor, we didn’t have the resources,” he said. “When they ask I’m going to tell them the city did not invest in its police force or the safety of its citizens.”
“Are you trying to strong-arm the Mayor’s office, Sal?”
“I’m telling you what I always have, Heather, except this time I won’t be saying it behind closed doors.”
The Mayor surveyed the surrounding activity. She sighted squads by the dozens, armored convoys and helicopters. Much of it was army surplus. Still it wasn’t enough. Once upon a time it would have spurned her to limit ‘frivolous’ spending. Her rage bubbled. “How in the hell did you let a monster like Punching Judy escape?”
“Glimmer Girl,” Ortega said. “She shorted the power.”
“I… didn’t know she could do that.”
Ortega furrowed his mustache. “There’s a lot of things we don’t know about her, Ms. Mayor.”
Mayor Bainbridge paused. Of all the possible outcomes she expected this least. She doubled her resolve. “Do whatever you can to fix this,” she said. “No excuses, Ortega. Your head is still on the block. I need this done tonight!”
With a city in chaos orders were the one thing Heather Bainbridge had. Without a team that could execute them they were nothing. The fact would reflect on her come the next election, or sooner yet the following news cycle. She straightened herself and turned to the company car. The first step toward being in control was appearing in control, and on that front the Mayor never wavered.
* * * *
For as long as she’d known them Tanya could never make sense of Alan and Elizabeth Cade. They were the sensible, professional couple who’d saved a nest egg and bought a home before having a child. By then they were in their thirties. There were times at PTA meetings they’d been mistaken as Kaira’s grandparents; they had that way about them. Despite planning their pregnancy they never quite grasped parenthood. The whole transgender thing only made things weirder.
Yet to see them sitting on their daughter’s dorm room bed there was no doubt that they cared. A series of missed calls sent them into a frenzy. They even drove across town in the middle of the night and waited for her to come home. Some might have called it over-reacting, but not Tanya.
Alan pulled his arm from around his wife. The conversation had long since died, as had the ambient sounds from the hall. He checked his watch as he did twice in the last thirty seconds.
“We should call the police,” he said.
“You don’t have to do that. She’s probably out for coffee with friends,” Tanya said. Knowing how cops treated girls like Kaira only fueled her reservation.
Tanya flashed back to middle school. She always waited when Kaira was late getting home. Liz or Alan were polite enough to ask her inside, but had trouble talking to a tween. Tanya gave up trying and waited on the sidewalk. It only went downhill from there.
Elizabeth pulled her wrinkles flat. The wait left the group fatigued, but her most of all. She’d been running on panic for hours.
“You know it’s hard having a child like ours,” she said. “You know how vulnerable he is-”
“She,” Tanya said. The response was automatic.
Liz nodded. “She,” she echoed. “And then you find out that your son wants to be a girl, and knowing what people are like… after all he- I mean she’s been through with school and bullies and anxiety…”
Knowledge churned in Tanya’s stomach. How would Kaira’s parents react if they knew she was a superhero?
Alan tightened his lips. “Are you sure she doesn’t have a girlfriend, or a boyfriend?”
Tanya leaned toward her green haired date, who beyond all obligation was still by her side. They squeezed her hand and made the silent promise to see the night to the end.
“Maybe she met someone,” Trix said. “You know how kids are. Rash, impulsive. She could be staying the night.”
Kaira’s parents didn’t so much as smirk.
“We’ll give her fifteen minutes,” Tanya said, same as she’d said an hour before, two. The night crossed into early morning. She couldn’t hold the fort much longer.
* * * *
Punching Judy giggled. “You wanna hear a joke? Here’s a good one; the Milestone City Police Department!”
The long arm of the law was in disarray. Even a muscular clown could walk the side streets without drawing attention! Punching Judy waltzed past the empty storefronts. The air was thick with alarm. Windows locked, curtains pulled, lights dimmed. Eyes stayed out of view. There was a mad woman on the streets. Peace had become but a memory. The clown smiled. She had made a difference in the world!
She clunked the seventeen blocks from Midtown to West End without anyone the wiser. Not even the all-terrain police tanks with mounted flood lights could spot her. No comms, no coordination, only blind fools running into each other.
Judy crossed the park and under the cover of oak trees and looked to the sky. The city’s sheen washed out the stars most nights, except for one in human form that shone at all hours. Yet there was no sign of Glimmer Girl. As soon as they hit topside the kid cut and run.
‘Maybe it’s for the best,’ Judy figured; ‘A kid’s got no business fighting crime. Bad enough they fight in our wars.’
Following the shadows on the lawn she made her way to the footbridge on the northernmost end of the park. There she was to rendezvous with another of The Red Wraith’s underlings. Judy did exactly as instructed, and bowed behind a manicured shrub.
She giggled again; she couldn’t help herself. Oh, the things she did for fortune, if not fame. Sometimes she wished for the good old days when cameras followed her everywhere. If they could see what she had become she could make them laugh again.
“Judy?” His voice was gravel like the rest of him. She searched the dark for a silhouette and landed on a bald shape moving against the lamp light.
“Leon,” she said. “What’s the plan?”
The shadow clasped her forearm. “I was worried about you.”
“Who, me? Oh, please. They ain’t broken me yet!”
“We got instructions to meet the boss up at Northshore,” he said. “It’s happening tonight. You ready to throw down?”
A grin snaked across her lips. Northshore was territory for fat, bourgeois cats in three level hilltop homes. Once upon a time she had a home like theirs, and it was miserable.
“Let’s go cut some tall poppies,” she said.
* * * *
Northshore was a half hour drive from Milestone Heights and west of the Docklands. It was a place where money went to start a family, far from starvation and student loan debt. Mansions and villas lined the hills following the river. It stretched for miles, all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake McIntyre.
Once upon a time it was the American dream, but with rising prices so too did the iron gates dividing the classes. Yet the gentrified nirvana was also home to snakes. The most odious was a shipping magnate whose stink smeared the headlines.
Waylon Dervish paced the length of his study and over the black bag laid on the floor. He delivered a kick to its side. The moist lump under the canvas shifted with the force and rolled back into place.
“What were you thinking bringing him here?”
The figure across the room conveyed no discomfort, or any emotion at all. Rather they stood, unblinking. Their hands began to sign. To their side a man in black with a soft spoken voice translated on their behalf.
“The rendezvous was compromised, as were your warehouses,” he said. “The job was to bring you The Red Wraith’s body, not to hold it for your convenience.”
For the prices he paid they owed him convenience! But sudden renegotiation with a professional was never looked upon in good favor. Discretionary tasks were often refused if one conducted business in bad faith.
He looked over the androgynous child. They weren’t old enough to shave. Who would have guessed behind soft cheeks beat the heart of a killer? It took a particular brand of resolve to remain steady in Waylon’s presence. He was gun runner, smuggler, and cold-hearted pragmatist. Yet the youth appeared comfortable with their surroundings.
“You know the situation this puts me in,” he said. “A dead body in my home violates the terms of my parole!”
Mute signed again. Their go-between translated. “If you would like to dispose of the body I have any number of cleaners to recommend.”
“I’ve got cleaners of my own,” he said. “Thank you!”
They continued to sign. “When can I expect the rest of my payment?”
Waylon pressed his head to the wall. The weight of the world rested on his shoulders again. No relief was coming. He groaned. “Once Ronnie is no longer a problem, then you get your money.”
The translator turned to Mute and signed the gangster’s sentiments to them.
“I don’t think he’s going to pay you,” the body bag said.
Waylon jumped out of his skin. The assassin didn’t so much as flinch when the canvas sat to ninety degrees. Crimson mist seeped through the zipper. Plumes came together as a whole body, naked as the day it was born, with skin the color of blood. The Red Wraith cracked his neck. He scoffed at death the first time, so why not try a second?
“Hello, brother,” he said.
The gangster fumbled toward the window. It was the only exit unobscured by a supernatural being. It was also a three story drop onto a grassy hillside, and held the promise of broken limbs.
He flailed at Mute. “Shoot him!”
The assassin took no action. Rather they narrowed their grimace. No matter how many hundreds of thousands Waylon threw at them it made no difference.
Roland closed the distance between his brother and the window. He choked him with unnatural strength and pressed his torso over the sill. “You always had such narrow vision, big brother. All you have to offer is money, but there is so much more out there to have, to experience. There’s a whole world of sin out there. That’s what Mute worships, like the rest of us.”
The Red Wraith threw his brother to the floor next by the hardwood double doors. Waylon jumped as they flew open. A familiar set of faces appeared. Among them stood a mustachioed man, a thug with a shaved head, and a painted woman sporting boxing gloves. They were never so intimidating as they were when standing over him.
“Now that we’re all here…”
“You’re out of your mind.” Waylon crawled to his hands and knees. “Is that what this ‘Society of Sin’ crap is about? You’re serious? This isn’t you, Ronnie. Your powers have driven you mad!”
The Red Wraith bent to his side. “You’ve heard the adage, ‘madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.’ That, dear sibling, is the definition of our society at large. We make these rules, expecting things to work out, but only when we break the mold-”
“Cut the hippy-voodoo-new-wave crap,” Waylon said. “Do what you’re going to do and let me rest in peace.”
That’s when I arrived.
“I hear a prison cell doesn’t make for a good night’s sleep.” Classic line.
Who would have expected that a holographic heroine was standing in their midst? I stood on the windowsill over the gathering of humans and adepts. Faces twisted with shock, horror, and confusion. In Mute’s case there was no change at all.
Waylon crawled to my feet, but his brother pulled him back. He didn’t even manage a cry for help before the assassin handed him a gun.
“It’s an ensemble cast!” Roland declared. “Glimmer Girl, I am such a huge fan! I’m the Red Wraith, and I’ll be your nemesis for-”
“Save it,” I said. “Not everyone is here yet.”
His eyes darted from one end of the room to the other. “What? Who…?”
I signaled out the window and to the approaching sirens. They came from land, sea, and air. The Milestone City police Department had assembled and were closing on our location.
“Friends of yours?”
A smile betrayed my shrug. “We have an understanding.”
The Red Wraith cocked the hammer of his weapon and pressed it deeper to his brother’s temple. Both were sweating. “Then we haven’t much time. Let’s get this party started!”
To be concluded…