SEVEN HOURS BEFORE…
I stood no against the ceramic cuffs, and wasn’t game to try. Any attempt to free myself meant game over for civilian life. And even if I managed to escape there were a slew of detectives ready to track me down.
There was still time for diplomacy. Ortega thought I was a kid, and responded with paternalistic condescension. Maybe if I cried I could milk him for sympathy. Crying came easy in that concrete tank.
Cold radiated from the walls and through the thin layer of my costume. The holographic material only protected me from nudity. Still I was glad they hadn’t taken it from me. Kaira Cade made for prison lunch meat, adept or not.
Captain Ortega entered the interrogation room with an aura of finality. He stood like a seven foot executioner ready to drop the switch. He didn’t so much as look at the guards when he gave the order for them to leave the room. His deliberate easing into the chair was like torture. I stewed in anticipation. He folded his hands, and frowned.
“I’m sorry that-”
“Don’t speak,” he said. “Listen.”
Resistance proved futile. I was the prisoner, and he was the gatekeeper. He and a few less sympathetic figures oversaw the path to my release. If they weren’t satisfied then I was be trapped.
“I need you to stage a breakout,” he said.
At first I couldn’t believe my ears. The isolation had broken me, even after a short time. No way in all the realms of whatever gods existed would I have imagined such a suggestion.
“Look, you got me,” I said. “I’m at your mercy. Tell me what you want, and I promise I’ll shelve the costume for good.”
Ortega leaned closer. “I am telling you what I want. You’re to stage a breakout from this facility, and you’re taking Punching Judy with you.”
Just when it couldn’t sound crazier…
“How well do you understand your powers?” he asked.
I blinked. “Um…”
“Did you know that, when activated, your body produces an electromagnetic wave? That wave is capable of shorting out electronic devices.”
I blinked again. Somebody had been doing their homework, and it wasn’t me.
Captain Ortega’s smile did nothing to reassure me. “We estimate with enough time you’d be able to knock out our generators for ten, twenty minutes. Combined with Punching Judy’s raw strength that should be ample time for you to make a move.”
Flying, lasers, then EMPs. The things I didn’t know how to do stacked up fast.
“I’m still stuck on the part where you want me to break out,” I said.
“It’s simple,” the Captain explained. “In situations such as this one might be tempted to cut a perp loose and follow them back to their base of operations. Adepts, however, being so high risk-”
“You’d never be able to justify it.”
“No,” he said, “but… if someone were to bust her out…”
Nothing feels so heroic as being a pawn – that’s sarcasm by the way. Then again it was a gift horse. What did they say about those?
“What if I do this and you fail to bring in the Carbon Man or the other guy?”
“Then you’re an accessory to another crime,” Ortega said. “But if we make this bust you’ll be exonerated. Not only that but you will have salvaged your reputation. Isn’t that a monkey you want off your back?”
It was a choice without choice.
“You’re not telling me something,” I said.
Captain Ortega huffed. “There’s a lot of things I don’t tell you, kid, and never will. Now, are you in, or are you out?”
* * * *
You might not know from a glance that the rows of the gentrified community were empty. For the past hour Milestone police moved residents through the backstreets. A keen eye might have spotted the tactical units crouched in the corners if they knew where to look. Who could have guessed that I was there with them.
A fleet of choppers surrounded the home. Blinding lights pierced the study windows. Captain Ortega broadcast the usual ultimatum; surrender or they would open fire. There were no innocent bystanders – not even an acquitted Waylon Dervish.
Punching Judy stammered. “I-I-I’m so sorry, Red! She must have followed me!”
Not that The Red Wraith cared. He hoisted his aged brother in his bare naked arms and aimed the barrel of a gun at his temple. “Our oppressors have found us at last,” he said. “Confederates of conformity, come to bind us in the name of a moral hypocrisy they worship but cannot meet!”
I stepped from the ledge, and he inched back. The Society of Sin parted around the exit. My eyes laid square on the leader. “You believe all that?”
Waylon struggled until his robe fell open. His sibling snatched it away for himself, leaving him in his pajamas. “You’ve got to help me,” he gasped. “I’m an innocent man!”
“You might not be as bad as your brother, but you’re a long way from innocent.”
The Red Wraith huffed. “As much as I’d like to continue this banter, I have some business to finish. Leon, Judy, Freddie, you know the drill. Level the block if you have to.”
Three ominous figures converged to cover his exit. Judy mashed one glove into the other. Dust and grit coalesced into a skin around the Carbon Man. The shirtless stranger summoned flames into his palms. I was ready to shoot through the roof when the Carbon Man placed a hand on the firebug’s chest.
“What?” he said.
“We’re in a tinderbox,” the Carbon Man told him. “Wait ‘til we’re outs-”
It was a bonehead play on their part, even I could see that. I wasn’t about to let it slip. In a flash I was across the room, and landed a sucker punch on Mr. Fahrenheit. His body into the hall.
By reflex he cast flame across the room and caught every flammable object in his path. I watched the destruction like dominoes collapsing. Searing plumes swelled and consumed the space, and sucked the air from it. Both Judy and the Carbon Man gasped for breath. I didn’t need oxygen in my holographic form.
Soot and dirt extinguished the fire. Before he had the chance to form an impenetrable skin I blasted the Carbon Man. The force drove him through the floorboards. He snapped lengthwise through a coffee table. I stole another tap to the nose for good measure. Blood stained my golden gloves. I was wild with adrenaline and high in fight mode. One down, and two to go.
Punching Judy dropped from the second floor like a ton of bricks, and wasted no time getting into a rematch. I ducked and weaved her blows like a firefly in the dark room. Any one of her strikes could put a dent in ten inch steel, just as she proved back at the holding cells.
“What, you think you’re smarter than me?” she chided. “Just because I got this body, you think I don’t got two brains in my head?” Her fists dropped through the couch like a wrecking ball. The home shook, and she punched a crater in the foundation. “I’m Punching Judy, damn it! I’m the joker in this deck!”
I dropped the lights. Falling from the visible spectrum left Judy swatting at ghosts, screaming and grunting.
“I’m sorry I tricked you, Judy,” I said. “It won’t happen again!”
The clown roared. “You’re damn right it won’t happen again! I’m not listening to another word that comes out of your stinkin’, lyin’ mouth, you little glow in the dark pipsqueak!” She crashed through a kitchen counter like a runaway train. The marble cracked like tissue paper. “When I catch you I’m gonna eat you! Hear me?”
My holographic heart beat like crazy. Last thing I needed was to be an early breakfast.
Mr. Fahrenheit barreled down the stairwell. His silhouette overlooked the remains of the living room. He flexed the shining muscles that rippled along shoulders.
“I’ll get her,” he said, and raised his arms to summon the elements.
Punching Judy wailed, but by then it was too late. A fresh inferno burst across the room, leaving her with time enough to throw herself on the Carbon Man’s body.
I dived into the fireplace. The heat didn’t bother me as much as the shock wave, but it struck like a sledgehammer. Somehow I managed to hold my holographic form and avoided the brunt of it. I was lucky. Judy’s back crackle and charred. I had to put Mr. Fahrenheit down, and fast.
A fast tackle turned the love seat over on Judy’s back. First I dropped a truck on her, then furniture to protect her. It was the right thing to do, even if it put me in Mr. Fahrenheit’s crosshairs.
“Got you now, Glimmer Girl!”
Torrents of flame strafed high and low with no means of passing. I was already in bad shape; no way could I risk a direct assault. Even with two down, could I survive a third? I needed a plan. Vantage after vantage collapsed into cinders as I ducked across the room. Soon there would be nowhere to run.
Through the flames I could hardly make out the object strewn across the floor. It was a thick Persian rug, as in the kind that didn’t burn. It would be nothing at all to take him off his feet, if only I had an opening.
Chairs and tables were fast on their way to becoming charred husks. Side tables crumbled to ash. The entertainment center was the final refuge. The smell of melting plastic filled my senses. Wires sparked as they fell away. It wouldn’t last much longer.
With nowhere else to hide I burst into the open and dodged the flame. My blasts were clumsy at best, but struck the ceiling above Mr. Fahrenheit. The supports fell on his head. He shield himself with his arms, and offering the one opening to pull the rug from under his feet.
He went down with a thud, and remained winded long enough to receive a knockout blow. The house was still burning, but the real threat was neutralized.
Thank the gods…
* * * *
I wandered through the front door and into a chorus of rifle clicks. The MCPD were on their toes, mere spectators to the indoor fireworks. It wouldn’t take long for the fire to spread, so there was no time for a confrontation.
“Punching Judy and the Carbon Man are inside,” I said. Mr. Fahrenheit dragged along the ground behind me.
There was a pause, like the calm before a storm. Was I still a perp, an escapee? Did Captain Ortega have the kind of pull to deliver on what he promised? After all, I’d delivered him three goons for the price of one.
He pushed past the line, and ordered officers to lower their weapons. A squad rushed around me, cuffed the pyro, then gagged and leashed him. Others raced inside, police and firefighters, to contain the rest. The flurry of human activity was too much to follow through the ringing in my ears.
In one night I’d gone from hero, to lock-up, to fugitive and to god knows what else. Most of all I was tired and wanted to go home. Gods, my parents were going to be worried sick. What did the news say? Tanya didn’t have to make excuses, but I knew she would, though she only had so many.
I found a clearing and sat. Once the adrenaline wore off the tiredness took its place. The agonizing day finally caught up with me.
Captain Ortega wandered to my side. “You did good.”
“Thanks. Can I go home now?”
“We’ve still got a lot of processing to do,” he said.
I cried, not silent tears, but sobbing. Of all the time for the dam to break. The shock started to settle. Why did it have to be in front of the big dog? All that time trying to prove myself, and them bam, waterworks.
“Rethinking this whole ‘hero’ business?” he said.
I shook my head. “No. This is what I need to be doing. I can make a difference, I know it. I just… I want to go home, and sleep.”
Captain Ortega lingered. Who knows, maybe his heart grew three times that day. Like a tired bear he conceded the battle and waved for me to go. “Don’t skip town,” he said. “I want to see you in my office for a debrief first thing in the AM. Clear?”
I smiled. “Yes, sir.”
Soon I was past the helicopters, and into the night sky. Flying was free again, and so was I.
* * * *
It wasn’t until the early hours of morning that the Cades called it a night. In the battle of sleep versus the alarm their tiredness won out, as did Tanya’s pleas to not call the police.
“Kaira’s a tough cookie,” she told them. “I’ve known her forever. She’s stronger than you think she is.” That much was true; the girl fought evil adepts, but were her new powers enough? For the sake of Kaira’s family Tanya decided that yes, she was.
Through it all Trix remained. What compelled them to stick through the world’s worst first date was anybody’s guess. Tanya’s head collapsed into their lap with a groan. Even if nothing came of it she needed Trix there and then.
“Never again,” Tanya said. “I can’t keep covering for her. I won’t.”
“Did she ask you?” Trix asked.
“She didn’t exactly leave me a choice. What am I supposed to do when her parents are knocking on our door?”
“Say you don’t know where she is.”
Tanya frowned. “If I did that then they’d call the cops, and believe me, there are a million reasons why that can’t happen.”
“I’m a green haired, grade A queerdo,” Trix said. “I know as much as you police aren’t friends.”
The red digits of the bedside alarm read 3:09. The new day was off to a rocky start, though Tanya wasn’t ready to let the old one pass. Her fist balled the leather of Trix’s jacket and held for the last fading moments of consciousness. The androgyne returned her affection by running fingers through her short hair.
“We should do this again,” Trix said. “But next time we’ll skip the red hoods and family drama, yeah?”
Tanya smiled and closed her eyes. She muttered something, but lost the thought.
* * * *
The rush of water was deafening, and more imposing in the pitch black. A chill wind rushed through the echoes of what felt like a deep, dark cavern. Waylon Dervish’s bare ankles sloshed through the shallow stream.
He was vulnerable in only his pajamas, and at the mercy of the handgun pressed to the base of his spine. Every utterance beyond a grunt was met with a shove or a kick. That was nothing to the soggy cuffs of his ankles cramping his feet. Waylon was not a young man anymore.
Spray from the unseen waterfall collated between his wrinkles. It did not smell clean, but remained fresh. No doubt run-off from the streets trickling to the base of Milestone City.
After a tireless silence Waylon threw up his arms. “So what are we doing here?”
“Talking,” Roland said.
The elder brother scoffed. “Yeah? So why don’t you say something?”
“Because,” Roland said, “I prefer to think before I speak, and especially before I act. Unlike some people I’m acquainted with, brother. Think of how much easier life would be if people thought to stop before jumping to rash conclusions.”
Waylon trembled, not only from the cold, but for all the resentment he clung to. He’d sacrificed his childhood to his ‘poor, sweet’ younger brother. He struck out, and connected with nothing but the echo of his cries.
“You tried to kill me, you arrogant bastard!”
“Kill you?” Roland sounded puzzled.
“You knew I was in the building, and you set your firebug loose anyway!”
“Mr. Fahrenheit’s job was to contain the building’s occupants. It was not to kill anyone,” Roland explained. “A dead cop is even less desirable than a dead brother. As it stands we do not have the capital to deflect the backlash of such an action… yet.”
Waylon seethed. “What do you mean ‘yet’?”
“You were always safe,” Roland continued. His voice faded down the tunnel. “But you had to let your paranoia and your small imagination ruin it all. We could have been kings, Waylon! I would have shared! But now you’re in the way.”
It faded until it vanished, drowned by the cold and running water. Waylon stood alone. He screamed at the shadows with no way to determine an exit. Blind in the frigid labyrinth the former gangster began the race against death.
* * * *
Tanya was asleep when I returned to the dorm. I figured she would be. The room was a mess, and she was still clothed with the comforter pulled between her legs. I wasn’t the only one having a hard night.
I collapsed onto my half made bed still in costume, and rolled under the sheets. The pain and exhaustion flooded back at once, creaking in my joints and muscles. It called for a week of sleep, more, to recover.
A sock few across the room and smacked me in the face. At least it was clean.
“Call your Mom,” Tanya said.
I buried my face in the pillow. “No, it’s late.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she kind of said. “Call your Mom.”
My cell only had 5% battery life when I pulled it from the drawer. There were never any bars when I flew, and the last thing I wanted was to drop a vital clue to my secret identity.
The screen was flooded with messages going back to the previous afternoon. The most recent was in the last fifteen minutes, and read ‘please be okay.’ I was sort of okay, but I wasn’t going to say that. Lying to my Mom was the easiest thing I had to do all day.
* * * *
I slept through the news cycles and the college gossip that followed. I didn’t have to be awake to know Glimmer Girl was on everybody’s lips. What happened that night? Wasn’t she a hero; is she a bad guy now? There were so many questions, and anyone who knew anything had no comment.
There were moments when I wondered if the hero gig was worth it. I was about to start college, and class schedules would impugn on saving the world. Regardless I could still make a difference, and any sacrifice was worth it for a better tomorrow.
I held to that as I stepped up to the platform. On either side were important men and women, city figureheads. They ranged from the sanitation unit in charge of Midtown clean-up to the Mayor herself. And there I was, a tall gangly girl in a fluorescent outfit. Powers or not, did I have a place there?
Captain Ortega placed a hand on my shoulder. His mustache curled with one of those wide paternal smiles that seemed too warm for him. Maybe it was for show, or it was his way of saying he trusted me.
Mayor Bainbridge thanked the attendees and those on stage, me included. Her voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “We… the good people of Milestone City… are committed to justice… and the safety and integrity of our citizens! That is why we have proposed… in response to crises that plague us in these difficult times… to fund a new, state of the art police facility… equipped to handle whatever threats may come our way!”
The crowd cheered in approval, along with Captain Ortega. He applauded harder than was comfortable. I clapped too, but not hard enough. Was this all part of the plan?
Finally, the Mayor forced a smile in my direction. “It is also with great pleasure… that I, Mayor Heather Bainbridge… by the powers appointed by the state… do hereby charge Glimmer Girl in an official capacity… as deputy to the Milestone City Police Department.”
There was applause. I waved and smiled back. It was a great moment. I was in with the good guys; I was without question a hero.
* * * *
Nobody knew what became of Waylon Dervish. There were no whispers, not even in the dark corners where bad men talk for the sake of talking. One moment his ritzy estate home was the stage for an adept showdown and the next an empty lot.
Police Captain Salvador Ortega called it ‘the most fantastic violation of parole (he’d) ever seen’. Given new cause they took the Dervish smuggling machine down in a matter of days. They seized contraband, and details of routes that would halt gun runners in their tracks.
Meanwhile, Waylon’s grizzled mug plastered every TV screen in five states, but no word came back. Some said he couldn’t have survived, and even if he did he had nowhere to return.
It was a dark time for the Milestone underworld, culminating in a meet far from the city, along the county border. On a long stretch of forgotten road running between the pines was a crumbling shack. The only landmark sat in the form of a rust covered gas station sign. From the East sat a circle of cars parked around a building, and on the West a ring of motorcycles facing them. With each vehicle was a man, two in the cars, poised for trouble to break.
Waylon Dervish had been their go-between. Neither the Russian mob or the Wandering Legion Motorcycle Club had reason to meet. With his absence went money and supplies in quantities neither could sacrifice.
Marcel Laurent pulled his leather vest tight and sauntered into the empty shack. From the time he was a boy in Sierra Leone he was no stranger to violence. He would not hesitate to end a representative from a most brutal crime organisation if it came to it. He stopped a few feet away from the mobste, and buried his thumbs in his belt.
“You have a great deal of our money, mon ami.”
The Russian, dressed down in an open shirt and slacks, took a long drag of his cigarette. “Our money,” he said, “which we received in exchange for what are now your guns. That your man failed to deliver is not our problem.”
“You might remember,” Marcel snarled, “that Monsieur Dervish approached us on your behalf.”
“But it is still he who failed you, yes?” The Russian dropped his cigarette to the dirt, and crushed it under his sneaker. “Regardless, we’re willing to continue in our arrangement, overlooking this… mishap.”
Marcel clicked his tongue. “You will have our continued patronage when, and only when, you deliver the product.”
It was a warm night thick with humidity made thicker between the impasse of two hard men. Their eyes shone like daggers in the night gloom. Hands flirted with weapons. Blood was inevitable.
A voice slithered from the dark. “Gentlemen!”
He was invisible at first, and it was only by choice that the crimson smoke coalesced into view. It snapped into solid form, and from it stepped a man in a suit with skin the color of blood. He needed no introduction; his name was all across the news.
Marcel twitched and took a step back. “Can we help you, monsieur?”
The strange smiled and removed a lighter from his pocket. “No, but I can help you.” He flipped the lid and lit the flame, turning it to the corner by the broken down refrigerators. There in plain sight was a stack of crates as conspicuous in their presence as the one who revealed them.
“All your guns are here,” The Red Wraith said. “Liberated from the hands of the Milestone City Police Department.”
Silence lingered. The animosity between the two ‘business men’ shifted to the new figure in the room. At no point did their hands fall from the reach of their weapons.
The Russian narrowed his eyes. “Do you intend to take your brother’s place?”
“With your permission,” he said. “My operation is more… underground, let’s say. But it is equally, perhaps even more efficient than the service offered by dear Waylon.”
“And what of Monsieur Waylon?” Marcel asked.
The Red Wraith shrugged. “Oh, I’m sure he’s somewhere, hidden in a corner where no-one will ever find him.” He smiled as wide as the shadows around him. “But enough reminiscing. Are you ready to strike the deal of a lifetime? The only losers will be those who stand in our way.”
It was a dark time for the Milestone underworld, and grew ever darker still.
Glimmer Girl will return in “The Reign of Cats and Dogs”