January 13th, 2020
In a modest, cozy office space in one of Midtown’s many apartment buildings, a woman was framing her college degree: Jessica Napier, Bachelor of Criminal Justice. When it hung on the wall just right, she took a step back, smiling. It was the final piece of Shadowed Eyes Investigation’s office, the project she’d been working on so hard for the last thirty months.
This was the first time she’d allowed herself to feel pride about the situation. She had no right to pride as she slugged through her classes, lying through her teeth to her classmates about the ‘superhero probation’ Quinn had placed her on after she came clean on… that incident. Her past never went away, whispering to her in lonely moments when all that accompanied her in the office was the sound of drafting air and haunting thoughts. But if she was ever going to be a better woman than her mother, her past needed to stay as such and let her move on.
Someone was ringing the doorbell already? Who, and why? Approaching the door, Jessica glanced at the small video screen to her right. A women was there, dressed like a hipster, with a flannel buttondown shirt over a metal band tee, a slouchy beanie, ripped up jeans, and a pair of scuffed converse. Probably Italian-American, going by her tanned skin and sharp features. She seemed familiar. What was her name again? Priscella? Marcella? It was a face she had seen in her classes, but the name was escaping her.
“Uh, hey. Ms. Napier? Can I, like, come in?” called the woman, meeting her gaze even though she was a couple feet back from the steel-reinforced door.
On the bottom-left of the video screen was a green button. Jessica pressed it with her thumb.
“That, like, depends on why you’re here,” she replied in a miming tone.
Clearly not expecting that, the woman hunched her shoulders slightly. “Uh… I was hoping I could learn some stuff from you? ‘Cause you’re a superhero and all?”
Learn something from her? Jessica frowned before she thumbed the screen again. “Don’t use that word around me. I’m no hero. If you want to talk to a real hero, go find Chiroptera.”
“But… you’re the one who saved the city during the Phoenix Incident. And we went to class together. And, like, I bet it’s hard to start a thing as big as a detective agency all by yourself. I can help!”
Jessica thought about shooing the woman away. But, she had a point. If she was going to be getting this much publicity due to her Shade persona, she could use an extra hand to sort out her cases.
“Fucking… You’ve got no felonies on your record, right?”
“And you don’t mind working pro bono?”
She snorted. “Yeah that’s cool with me. I’m not really concerned about cash. I just wanna learn from the best.”
Jessica pressed a second, red button. After a moment the screen beeped and flashed in warning.
“You’ve got metal objects on you, sweetheart. Let me see ‘em, for my safety.”
The woman fished out her keys, a necklace with several pendants and charms, a pendulum wrapped in silver wire, and a pocket watch. “That’s so cool…”
Jessica raised an eyebrow. “That’s so… weird. Are you into that Wicca shit?”
“I mean I wouldn’t call it ‘shit’, but yeah. I actually left most of my kit at home. Do you get a lotta people tryin’ to come into your place with knives or something?”
“Hey, I’m not judging, sister. All religion is equally bunk to me.” She opened the door and motioned her inside. “And no, not knives. Guns. Had a few gangbangers think they could fool me when I first moved in here.”
“Yikes. So does your door, like, shoot sleeping gas or taze people or anything?” inquired the woman, checking the inside of the doorframe over in mild awe.
“Tch. You remember the castle doctrine?” Jessica opened up a nearby closet. Inside, resting against the wall, was an AR-15. “I’ve got lead.” Staring in surprise and disbelief, the woman finally nodded.
“Right, okay. Remind me to be chill around you… So, like, do I get the job?”
“Yes, but don’t get too excited. Not until we start getting some cases.” She gestured towards a door in the right rear. “Don’t go in there, that’s my bedroom. It’s where I cry myself to sleep at night. You get this office, make it comfy. Just don’t like, put a hex on it or something.”
Laughing, the other woman nodded and gave herself a brief tour of the place. “No worries on that front, dude. I only hex people I don’t like.”
“Well I’m glad I haven’t driven someone off with my wry humor,” Jessica replied with a snort. Then, she folded her arms. “But I’m not sure you really like me. You haven’t even told me your name.”
“Huh? Oh, dang, I totally forgot. My bad. I’m Isabella. Isabella Fausti. But most of my friends call me Izzy.” She stuck out her hand with a big smile. “Super awesome to finally meet you for real, Ms. Napier. Like, seriously.”
Isabella didn’t seem so bad. A bit airheaded, but genial, and plenty patient enough to deal with her incessant sarcasm. She could live with this. Jessica returned the gesture before moving towards the door. “You can get set up now if you’d like. Computer’s new, no old porn on it or nothing. We can discuss hours after I come back from from Burger King.”
Snickering, Isabella circled the desk to look it over. “Not like I’d be able to find it. I barely know how to work these things. I don’t even have, like, a cell phone. You need me to write something down, though, I got you.”
That, she couldn’t live with.
“You’re buying a cell phone, then,” Jessica said, dead serious. “If I’m out and we get a good case, I need to know.”
“What, you don’t wanna do smoke signals?” With a little laugh, Isabella raised her hands in surrender. “I’ll talk to my uncle and see if he can get me something.” She ran her fingers over the surface of the desk for a moment before whipping her gaze up to Jessica, face going pale. “Oh dangit! I knew I was forgetting something! Hey, Miss Napier, I actually have a case already. Guy in my neighborhood got really messed up and his mom’s freakin’ out. Didn’t want the cops involved, so she wanted me to help her, but, like, I’m not gonna try and do that on my own. Who better to help out than the hero that saved Blackburn, right?”
Jessica let out a soft ‘hmph’, unsure whether to be annoyed at her forgetfulness or grateful for the case. “It’s just Jay, Izzy. Give me a name and location and let’s go,” she ordered, retrieving her ID lanyard and handgun from a desk drawer.
“Jada Wallace, son’s name is Carl. Umm… I don’t remember the address, but I can take you there. Or, guide you, I guess. I dunno how comfortable you are about heights.”
Heights? Jessica shot Isabella a confused glance as she slipped on her fleece jacket. “Uh, not particularly. Why?”
“‘Cause… well, I flew here. I guess I should sorta get that outta the way firsthand. I’m not an anomaly like Onyx or Prism, but I’ve got access to some, uh… kinda wild stuff. Magic.”
Jessica stopped pulling on her jacket. “You’re shitting me, Izzy. Stop shitting me.”
“I mean, not really… Umm, let’s see. Oh, I know. A dupe. You got anything around here you’re not afraid of maybe possibly getting turned into astral spaghetti?” Isabella patted herself down, frowning slightly.
“Uh huh.” Jessica tossed her a crumpled piece of paper, incredulous.
Chanting quietly under her breath, Isabella cupped the paper in both hands. The briefest sensation of static electricity washed through the apartment, and then she dumped six wads of paper out of her grasp. One had been fused into a mangled mess, but the others were exactly alike. “Whoops. Musta left out a syllable somewhere…”
Jessica’s hands dropped to her side. That was… unexpected. She cleared her throat and swallowed her skepticism. “I’m gonna have to hang up a crucifix in here, Izzy, goddamn.”
“Why?” Isabella gathered up the scraps of paper, smashing them together in her hands and muttering a couple more words. When she moved to tuck her hands into her pockets, the paper was gone. “Oh, oops. Did you need that?”
“I’m good,” she insisted, putting up her hands. “Let’s just go before you turn me into a toad or something.”
The South-East End was just a jog over the Crane Bridge away, parallel with Olympic City. The air grew danker as they drew near, and, as the slum came into view, the faster Jessica walked. If Olympic City was old news, then South-East was dead and buried. The area, and its predominately African-American community, had never recovered from the downward slide of urban decay that began with the race riots of the sixties. It was barely kept afloat by government assistance, and the public housing units were barely livable – if one was lucky. Some were simply left to rot until they could be declared unlivable and demolished.
“The good news for our client is, we stick out like a sore thumb. The bad news for us is, we stick out like a sore thumb,” Jessica remarked, making sure to keep on the cracked sidewalk as cars, blasting their music far louder than anyone had any business doing, zoomed by. “We almost there? If I knew we were going here, I would have grabbed my bulletproof vest…”
“Yup. It’s the third one in this row, second floor, unit 21B. Pretty choice spot, actually, right by the stairwell.” Tossing her an amused glance, Isabella chuckled. “You worried? This is a cool neighborhood. Tons of guys around here are cool to just chill and stuff. Cookouts. Community games of b-ball in the inner lots. I dig it here.”
Ah, an optimist. Seeing the best in everyone. A good quality if one wanted to keep sane in Blackburn, but perhaps not if someone wanted to keep safe.
“Hmph. That may be true, but unfortunately, the good guys are living in fear of guys that aren’t so chill.”
As they drew up to the door, Jessica’s eye caught a PIN box lying to the left.
“Shit. You got the code, Izzy?” Isabella shrugged unhelpfully. “Goddammit…”
As luck would have it though, a group of older men were hanging out a few yards nearby. The one leaning against the air conditioning unit was eyeing her between sips of beer. Jessica flashed a smile.
“Hey there gentlemen, could any of you help a lady out? It’s super secret hero stuff.”
The man looking at her laughed. “I dunno, beautiful. You plannin’ on arresting me?”
“Only if I have to.”
“It’s 3-0-2. And if I do something bad, well, you won’t be there to see it. Isn’t that a darn shame?”
“That’s right.” She punched in the code, gave a wave, and walked inside. The stairwell was cold and claustrophobic, blue paint peeling and rusting away. The only sounds were of a faint argument on the top floor. They had to step over a man passed out stone drunk to get to room 21B. Jessica rapped her knuckles on the door.
“Missus Wallace, it’s Detective Napier. I’ve been told you’d like to speak with me.”
The door cracked open, revealing a haggard woman in a dimly lit apartment. “Oh, thank heaven you made it. I was so worried Izzy wouldn’t find you in time… Come in, come in, lemme just unlock this dang chain.” She closed the door, removed the chain lock from its housing, and then allowed the two access. “My boy is over there in his room. Please help him, Miss Napier.”
Jessica slunk into the room. As soon as she did, she had to pinch her nose. Carl’s room was a mess, with dirty clothes and knick knacks strewn about haphazardly. He lay on his bed, skin ashy and sunken, staring at them with a listless expression. Every so often, he gave a wet cough that failed to clear up, no matter how violent it was. She narrowed her eyes at the boy. He barely returned the gesture.
“Your mother’s very worried about you Carl. Care to tell me what happened?”
“Food poisoning…” he grumbled.
Jessica felt his forehead with the back of his hand. Slightly warm. Carl recoiled, but with not nearly enough force to shake her off.
“Don’t touch me, man!” He coughed again, and she took a step back.
“Hmph. What’s he eaten lately, ma’am?”
His mother wrung her hands. “Almost nothin’. He’s been sick for four days now and I can hardly feed him anything. Some soup here, a little gatorade there. Anything too solid and it comes right back up.”
“Momma, I don’t need no damn superwhore up in my business,” Carl insisted. He attempted to lean up and shoot Jessica a dirty glance, but fell back down halfway up. “It was that old pizza, promise.”
“You shut your mouth, Carl! I am worried half to death about you and don’t you tell me it was no damn pizza! We haven’t had pizza in weeks!” The woman’s sharp tone cowed him immediately. “You were out with Thomas and Murphy again, weren’t you? You know I always told you those boys are bad influences! What’d they give you, huh?”
The stomach issues did match the symptoms of food poisoning, as did his temperature, but a length of four days was rare. And his skin? That was no bad pizza alright. Bad behavior… Perhaps it was drugs, then? Most drugs that caused adverse reactions were more likely to give him a bad trip, or kill him outright, but it was an angle worth pursuing.
“These boys, where does he hang out with them? Are you keeping eye on him in the neighborhood, or does he slip into back alleys, away from sight?”
“I don’t know where Murphy lives, but I know that Thomas likes to spend his days over on the corner of 12th and 13th Street, hustlin’ people out of their money so he can play his lotto. I also know that no good waste of a man has been told to get the hell out of our building for trying to pawn off that poison he and his friends like to put in themselves.” The mother glared at Carl pointedly, tilting her chin up as he looked away in shame.
Jessica, who had now retrieved her notepad and began jotting these facts down, nodded along. So the drugs idea wasn’t so farfetched. Now she just needed to know what was being sold in the area.
“Do you know where else Thomas spends his days since his eviction?”
She shook her head, but Isabella tapped her chin. “I might. Thomas, he’s the tall guy with the silver tooth and scar?” The mother confirmed it with a nod. “Yeah, he spends time up in Midtown with some scary guys. I don’t remember exactly where, though…”
Midtown? As a residential area in a high-crime city, there was always some drug dealing going on there, but nothing one couldn’t find in more abundance in South-East. Why would low-level hooligans make the trek across the bridge to get drugs there?
“That’s… odd. I’ll see if I can’t ascertain what’s being sold there. The sooner I find a likely culprit for your son’s ailment, the sooner I can get treatment. I know a guy.” She folded her notebook closed and tucked it into her jacket pocket. “If he gets suddenly worse, call 9-1-1. Otherwise, keep him hydrated and limit physical activity.”
“Yes, ma’am. And thank you. Thank you so much…” The woman escorted them out of the apartment, insisting they take some freshly baked banana bread with them for their troubles.